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Isabel Millar and the Patipolitical Century
The politics of life and death, pleasure and pain, is so 20th century...
This article is inspired by Isabel Millar’s presentation in her contribution to the Seminars for the Écrits, a series in promotion of the fourth Philosophy Portal course on Lacan’s Écrits, which starts September 3rd.
I still remember the first time I read about the technological singularity. I was about 19 years old, heading into the first year of an undergraduate degree in anthropology, and thinking a lot about the evolution of humanity. Over the summer, I purchased a few books about science and evolution, to explore speculative ideas before my first official courses started. One of them was Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.
Kurzweil’s book totally transformed my conception of humanity and our future. He outlined a triad of three interconnected “GNR” revolutions: genetics (G), nanotechnology (N), and robotics (R). He claimed that over the next few decades, in-between 2005 and 2029, and in-between 2029 and 2045, the GNR revolutions would transform the way we thought about and actualised the human body (genetics), human manufacturing and production (nanotechnology), as well as the human mind (robotics/artificial intelligence).
From these revolutions, he claimed, the human being would be freed from the oscillating historical drama of life and death, into immortality.
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His speculations were not based on faith-claims or supernatural beliefs, although it was hard not to see him as a type of prophetic figure internal to the scientific universe. His speculations were rather based on extrapolations of hard data collected in Silicon Valley about the development of computing technology, and built into a cosmic-scale theory of evolution, from the origin of the universe to the emergence of post-human technological life.
While relatively convinced by his data, his reasoning and his theory, I was left with big questions about what all this meant for my life and human society in general. After all, if his timeline was somewhat accurate, I would be alive to experience the completion or result of what he called the GNR revolutions. I started to think about questions of anthropology through the lens of the possibility of a technological singularity. What would be the future of our institutions? Our romantic relationships? Our politics? Our religion? Our art, philosophy and science?
While I did not find a home for these speculations in my anthropology department at university, I worked on these speculations in my spare time, eventually starting a blog about them. By the time I had completed my masters degree in anthropology, I found a doctorate program that gave me the space to more fully develop the connection between evolutionary anthropology and the technological singularity. The result was my doctoral thesis: Global Brain Singularity.1
Throughout my doctoral training, I had started to find utility and insight from approaching questions of technological singularity with the lens of continental philosophy and psychoanalysis. I felt that these lenses allowed us to not only ask anthropological questions about society and our species-being, but also about the way phenomena appear to our species-being, and about the unconscious mind of our species being, both dimensions that I thought would prove invaluable.
In this context, I was thrilled to encounter the work of Isabel Millar, who had herself just completed a doctoral thesis: The Psychoanalysis of Artificial Intelligence.2 Her thesis opened up questions inspired by psychoanalysis, not only about the disturbing aspect of pleasure/pain in the technological singularity (like for example the possibility of endless pain, a total nightmare), but the types of minds that were leading its actualisation. She reflects on desire within technological singularity communities for transcendence, immortality and a beyond of the biological human condition.
What is driving human beings dreams of technological transcendence? How can we think a sociopolitical paradigm that helps us think a world which is no longer concerned with governance of life or death, but its beyond? This brings us to her next project, as well as her involvement in the upcoming Philosophy Portal course on Lacan’s Écrits.
Millar is focusing on what she calls patipolitics.3 “Pati” is derived from the Latin, to suffer. She situates patipolitics itself within a lineage of political analysis, which oscillates between bio-politics, or governance of life and its pleasures, and necro-politics, or governance of death and the end of our pleasures. Patipolitics refers to a beyond of both life and death, for what we might call the “undead” drive. The undead drive is neither alive nor dead but what continues to repeat.4 The undead drive is where we find a strange enjoyment (often referred to as jouissance) beyond pleasure itself, a type of pleasure in a form of suffering at the extremes of pleasure.5
In short: when we think about approaching technological singularity, we are asked to think about a sociopolitical form of repetition which privileges extremes of pleasure and pain (jouissance) which are not reducible to the oscillations of life and death (immortality).
First, we have to describe a bit the history of this concept of the drive.
The undead/immortal drive is a concept that grows out of the Freudo-Lacanian tradition in psychoanalysis.6 To be specific, it is situated in the location where Freud theorised limits to the notion of the pleasure principle, which had been previously thought to regulate the repetitions of our mental activity.7 What worked against the pleasure principle, for Freud, was what came to be known as the death drive, or a traumatic, decidedly unpleasurable repetition, which disrupted the pleasure principle from within, i.e. a dimension where the human being repeated suffering.
This dimension of the human mind, far from being epiphenomenal, has come to be theorised as the indestructible inhuman core of our unconscious psyche, most notably by thinkers like Jacques Lacan. Unlike Freud, who thought the death drive was a will to pure destruction and an inanimate tensionless state of being before life, Lacan situated this drive within life in relation to the opposite of death: immortality. For Lacan, the death drive is more paradoxically related to something highly creative or generative of novelty in destruction itself, and also something where the suffering or negativity experienced by the ego, reveals a strange type of enjoyment.
Perhaps this dimension is, by definition, quite alien to most human beings impulse to pleasure. But at the same time, this dimension may be something quite familiar to those on the creative edges of life, where novelty is often sourced through a more arduous self-struggle and counter-intuitive labour beyond pleasure.
Back to Millar.
For Millar, the patipolitical is what helps us approach the real dimension of what is active and driving our current centuries technology-obsessed, Silicon Valley driven world, where governments of life and death are no longer exhausting the stakes. Rather we are being driven by a dimension beyond both life and death, a dimension which is revealing our connection to, or our quest for, immortality.8
This dimension opens us to the real of the aforementioned GNR revolutions, where we are presented with imminent questions about the administration of the capacities of the human body (not to mention capacities of our mind and production). What does it mean to live in a world where people can augment the limits of the human body and mind beyond anything that previous human beings thought possible?
Millar is highlighting this dimension because, within the technological singularity community itself, there is a remarkable unreflective aspect of the culture. Oftentimes this community is situated totally within the domain of the pleasure principle, where it is thought that all of these new technological possibilities can only be conceived positively, or as bringing our species being closer to utopia.9
However, in psychoanalysis, structured as it is by the relation between the ego and the subject of the unconscious (which are not the same thing), the realisation of a dream is often thought to present the possibility of its opposite: a nightmare. In other words, the patipolitical questions the unreflexive aspect of enlightenment rationality (certainly unconsciously nested within the pleasure principle), which verifies the onward march of scientific progress as, for the most part, unproblematic.10 The patipolitical rather invites us to think about the ambiguities and ambivalent dimensions of technological progress, the way in which technological progress often presents to us a double-edged sword, most actual, not in the realisation of a pleasurable utopia, but in the deepening of contradiction.11
Consider a topic that is very active in Millar’s work: the Baudrillardian emphasis on the obscenity of our current access to information. While many would think about our current access to information in purely positive terms (i.e. how great is it that we the whole of world knowledge at our finger tips, etc.), Millar is quick to point out that this very access has made knowledge has made it impossible to hide, for privacy, to protect a space of secrecy and even decency.
Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, she puts two thinkers often thought to be at odds with each other, Baudrillard and Badiou, together, towards asking questions of the truth of knowledge in an age of infinite access to knowledge. In the 20th century, Badiou claims we are dealing with the truth of war, and the way knowledge was mobilised for paradigmatic supremacy at the tension point between capitalism and communism. However, in the age of Silicon Valley, of technology-driven desire for transcendence, the war is not so much between capitalism and communism, or even between different nation states, but at the level of our body and its jouissance, or the way we portion our libido. Millar here links the enlightenment drive for complete rational knowledge as the equivalent of the pornographic desire for extreme close-ups of bodily penetration.
Perhaps we should double down on our affirmation to keep the enlightenment gap as gap, rather than the obscene and unreflexive desire to close it up as if we didn’t see anything terrifying there that requires deeper thinking.
What we find if we stay with the gap, is a site of bodily war that is only going to intensify, and to which the patipolitical offers a paradigmatic support. For Millar, the “trans-question” is one of the questions or symptoms of this time as the body as site of war, not simply of a cultural dimension, but also as a historical technological dimension. She emphasises that it is only going to get more difficult to understand the trans-question as we get more efficient at changing our bodies, allowing sexuality to morph into different configurations.
The relation here between transgender ideology and transhuman technology could explode the coordinates of our contemporary identities.
In short, and as mentioned, while many in technological singularity communities have developed utopian conceptions of the future of technology, governed by the pleasure principle, Millar is asking us to prepare for the beginning of an intensification of culture wars operating at the site of the body. These culture wars will be decidedly unpleasurable, taking place at a locus of unpleasure/suffering, where the stakes are not life and death, but immortality and jouissance.
She finally leaves us with a reminder about the dialectics of enlightenment (following Adorno). The dialectics of enlightenment would not have us close any gaps that are opened by the enlightenment, but rather work the gaps: as in the gap where we find potentialities of the most extreme sort. Millar will use the example that was most alive for Baudrillard: cloned beings as the types of beings that have to deal with not knowing death. In Baudrillard’s work we find “people of the future” as immortal clones who seek after the luxury of mortality, and pay for death.
She emphasises that it is good to keep in mind these extreme potentialities, and then come back to the Lacanian questions about non-relation and the impossibilities which constitutes the field of our libidinal relations.12 For example:
Isabel Millar will be teaching in the fourth Philosophy Portal course focused on Lacan’s Écrits, which starts September 3rd. To find out more, or to register, visit: Philosophy Portal.
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Last, C. 2020. Global Brain Singularity: Universal History, Future Evolution, and Humanity’s Dialectical Horizon. Springer. (link).
Pronounced: pat-i-politics (not pati-e-politics).
Eppur si muove.
To be fair, the origin of what is now often called the death drive is now widely recognised to be found in the work of psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein, see: Destruction as the Cause of Coming into Being. In: Journal of Analytic Psychology, 1994 (1910), 39: 155-186. (link)
See also: Cave, S. 2012. Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilisation. Skyhorse Publishing.
See, for example: Pearce, D. & Vinding, M. 2017. Can Biotechnology Abolish Suffering? The Neuroethics Foundation. (link)
As opposed to constitutively structured by nightmarish ruptures, see: World War I, II, etc.
The deepening of these contradictions is most evident in what I have framed as the commons gap, see: Last, C. 2017. Global Commons in the Global Brain. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 114: 48-64. DOI: 10.1016/j.techfore.2016.06.013. (link)
Here we should be wary of how relational ontologies of many varieties tend to operate as obfuscations of the non-relation.