Arrational Machines: Beyond Speculation

"Wheras postmodernism toys with history via an increased skepticism in truly ‘knowing’ the past, hauntology posits that notions of the future have in some way failed, causing a disruption of time as an orderly sequence of past, present and future."
Grafton Tanner, Babbling Corpse
In recent weeks I’ve become troubled by notions of ‘futurity’ and ‘speculation.’ On one hand this trouble stems from a well-trodden criticism of speculation and future-thinking as complacent in the face of the overwhelming horror of the lived experience of the everyday. In the words of political pundit Jon Lovett ‘There’s like, just so much going on.’ The cheapness and ease of media production, from rolling news and blogs to film and music, makes the world look like an ever-repeating, skittering present. Massive film franchises dragging out their brand in endless sequels, album re-releases, remixes and remasters and bitter political battles over confederate history aren’t quite the heinous sin of nostalgia but they indicate a culture retreading the same territory over and over again looking to recreate an idealised past (‘Make America Great Again.’) Simultaneously, we use technology as an argument for future boosterism - that things will get better with enough data, the right algorithm or this breakthrough gadget. Meanwhile we tread water on the fifth Michael Jackson posthumous remaster album.

On another hand it’s more glacial concerns - a litany of evidences that point to a break with progressive liberalism and a nihilism about the future from whole generations who believe that things can only get worse. For so many the future is riddled with uncertainty, fear and anxiety, so throwing in more horrifying cautionary tales meant to provoke debate feels like an act of further destabilisation of cultural narratives in a western culture in which the word ‘divided’ is becoming synonymous with ‘democracy.’ Simultaneously, I’ve been querying where my intense fascination with a) the [occult] (square brackets because I use the occult as a stand-in word for any outsider knowledge framework but could also include things like ‘pataphysics) and b) rendering software comes from. I wrote something recently (yet to be published) which took the form of a speculation on a speculation - what if the future didn’t exist even as a site for speculation, and critical practice needed somewhere else from which to prod and poke at the present?

I’m not going to repeat what I wrote there because that would be cheap pandering, but I settled on the idea that the [occult] provides us an alternative framework for thinking through the world to western rationalism founded on science and Christianity. Rendering software (and, expertise allowing, code) allows us an alternative way to simulate the world, or, more romantically to dream the world; to fantasise new physics, textures and shapes. From these positions we might start to challenge the story of the present.

So why the fascination? Fundamentally, the occult and rendering both allow us to defy rationality - the guiding North Star of western hegemony, founded in western science and Christianity. Rendering (lit. to ‘make real’ - as opposed to ‘image’ - rooted in the word ‘imitate’) gives us an opportunity to build worlds where the rules are broken and the [occult] allows us to antagonise beliefs held to be true. But for most folk who are neither renderers nor [occultists] a machine of rationality has infected the way we perceive the universe; we think as if we are industrial machines, with input, outputs and processes in a linear order, proceeding into and simultaneously producing a ‘better’ future of progress. We impress this order on the universe and everything around us, seeing the universe as an industrial machine of cause and effect. This rational mind-machine is at the root of our struggle to comprehend the new machines that are shaping the universe and our perception of it.

The new machines aren’t rational or irrational. They have no notion of truth-ness. They don’t respect linear time or fixed space. They are not binary, on or off, here or there, on or off. They are ubiquitous and eternal beyond human comprehension and cognition and consequently, beyond all notions of legibility or rationality. In short - they are arrational; totally ambivalent to any fixed state. In order to properly comprehend, critique and design the world we too need to become arrational in the present.

At the end of the book Dream Machines Steven Connor writes of his hesitance as being misread as a technology critic. The point, he writes, of an entire book about the infection of human imagination with machines, is not to critique the roles and relationships that humans have established with technology but that it is simply impossible to talk about anything within the sphere of human comprehension without the use of ‘...techno, technique, or technesis.’
“There is no way of framing ethical, political, and philosophical questions that would not also have to be a matter of techne, technique, or technesis, and so would not have to be imagined mechanically.”
Steven Connor, Dream Machines
Throughout the book he highlights how we dream through and as machines, and have mechanised our experience of the world. We dream of faster travel, invisibility, greater sexual prowess, efficiency, speed and power all of which are mechanical qualities. It is almost impossible to separate mechanical aspirations - things we build machines in order to achieve - from our own. He doesn’t go so far as to suggest that where was a point at which we didn’t dream of mechanical or machine things, however he highlights how the social/technological deterministic loop reaches down to the very perception of an individual in the universe. The logic of the linear, rational machine structures even the way we can imagine, determining the limits and overarching ideology of speculation.

But the rationalist machine is a dated and innacurate representation of the contemporary technological landscape. The problem with this way of thinking and dreaming the world through machines is that it is splitting from the material experience and technical sensory apparatus of the world which no longer resemble modernistic machines of linear production (input one end, process happens, output comes out the other end) but a hauntological de-spatialised and de-chronified machine that defies expectations of linear time and space.

Why is the industrial machine such a problematic tool for imagining/dreaming/speculating through, in, and with? Well, the machine is embodied rationality. Limited by tested constraints to perform distinct and legible processes with regulated inputs and outputs. It’s media for existence are time and space: It is here and it does this and this in such and such an order - stage one leads to stage two, which leads to output and in doing so it fulfils the rational model of the universe of cause and effect, progress, production and growth impressed on us by thousands of years of western rationality.

This model of the machines, which we think through, dream through and impress on the universe is nostalgic and out of date. New machines are networked, often with imperceptible inputs and outputs let alone the black-boxing of their processes, such that they increasingly resemble illegible grey boxes of mystical purpose and agency. The proliferation of mystical grey boxes began with the PC and became the de-facto model of the hauntological machine - a box of no fixed purpose, with no fixed inputs or outputs that with the correct ritual can summon any process. I’ve written and spoken about this extensively; about how the mystical grey boxes turned marketing speak into techno-occultism and how the famous Latourian black box needs to be modified to account for its imperceptible inputs and outputs.

But further than that, we shouldn’t even be considering machines as boxes; discrete, perceivable objects that we can stand outside and observe. The new machines exist across multiple times and spaces at once while seemingly embodied in your pocket or hand. Search engines, smart phones, platforms, supply chains and all their ilk can hardly be classified as singular black boxes. These machines eclipse notions of time and space that the rational mind-machine relies on. This creates a problem; the machine that we increasingly sense the universe through (smartphone, search engine etc.) no longer resembles the machine we think the universe through (industrial production, linear processing etc.)

How can we reconcile a de-spatialised, de-chronified machine like a smartphone, a search engine, austerity politics, global surveillance, climate change (which I think for the purposes of this argument can all be said to be human-made machines) when our mental model of the universe is stuck in the rationalist-mechanical, where inputs flow linearly into the left, pass through time and then come out on the right-hand side?
“As with sounds, so with colours. At each end of the solar spectrum the chemist can detect the presence of what are known as 'actinic' rays. They represent colours — integral colours in the composition of light — which we are unable to discern. 
The human eye is an imperfect instrument; its range is but a few octaves of the real 'chromatic scale.' 
I am not mad; there are colours that we cannot see.  

And, God help me! the Damned Thing is of such a colour!”
Ambrose Bierce, The Damned Thing
The imperceptibility of the monstrous is a recurring theme in gothic horror, from Lovecraft and Bierce to more contemporary writers like China Mieville. As with Edgar Allen Poe and his rationalist critique of ‘supernatural’ technology, these writers recognise the folly of the industrialised rational-machine mind to reconcile reality with expectation. Within this rational mechanical knowledge structure we cannot conceive the monsters, can’t see them, can’t comprehend them and can only describe them apophatically as they fall outside the rationalist-machine. We express our outrage, indignation and shock by how the the return of fascism, normalised sexual assault, apathetic political responses to climate change, systemised social inequality and ‘irrational’ violence fall outside the rational machine of our expectations.

Plato, in his fear of irrationalism infecting the rational mind, ejected the poets from the state. Bifo Berardi embraces poetry as a challenge to high finance but perhaps there is a reconciliation in arrationalism; the collapse of any division between the two.

To begin the process of reconciling the lived experience of the everyday and an accelerating future with the ‘messy’ (lit: a word popular among social scientists) present we increasingly lean on speculation. Future speculation is ubiquitous in everything from enormously popular blockbuster science fiction cinema to advertising, from media art to design thinking methods that utilise speculative design in policy making. Speculation is a tested strategy for reconciling outrage and shock; it may help us broaden our expectations, stretch the imagination, widen the debate, broaden the dialogue but this is still fixed within the constraints of fixed space, linear time and the ceaseless thirst for ‘rational’ progress. Speculation more often than not takes the form of cautionary tales designed at steering our future towards the most progressive (in a fixed interpretation) future. Worse still, by the mere act of ‘what-if’-ing about the future, speculation delineates the past and present from the future. This addiction to linear time cripples the ability of speculation to properly arrationalise a world increasingly distant from modernist notions of time and space.

The monsters haunting us are precisely monsters because they are arrational and hence appear irrational. Like Jack Torrance in Kubrick’s The Shining they teleport seamlessly from time to time, place to place, breaking through Marshall McLuhan’s famous media ‘walls’ by existing in higher and lower dimensions than human or institutional perception. They act without ‘rational’ purpose, defying the model of the machine-mind and its possible inputs, outputs and processes. To see them and comprehend the monsters properly we must become tactically arrational. The occult, the extreme, the reactionary, the vapid are treated as irrational, not within the remit of the rationalist machine imagination and yet they are governing strictures of the lived experience of the arrational world.

Everything is true and dreams of all things. Instead of steadfastly gripping notions of futirity and progress, and of rational improvement even when that’s practiced through radical speculation we must learn to vacillate between knowledge structures and dimensions: To move jaggedly through time and space as machines and monsters do.