Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Posthuman Religion from the End of Art

We like to think that our distant descendants represent an ideal we should strive to achieve, because collectively we’re bound to progress. But even if this social progress were to make sense and to happen, we should ask: progress for whom? If progress entails an honourable alignment with profound truths, we should strive, as Nietzsche said, to become posthuman, to grow out of the delusions that are normal for mammals with our brain type. So our distant descendants may be cosmically advanced, rather than just technologically more powerful than us, but their way of life might seem hellish from our naïve and vain perspective. I believe we’re provided an inkling of the posthuman outlook by the evolution of Western art that’s led to the end of art’s story in what’s been called a postmodern malaise. What seems like apathy and cynicism in response to art’s apparent descent into meaninglessness and irrelevance may instead be growing pains.

A Non-Design Argument for Pantheism

To catch a hint of how posthumans might think, consider William Paley’s watchmaker analogy. If you saw a watch lying on the beach, you wouldn’t think the watch had always lain there, since the evident contrivance of its parts would indicate that the watch was designed, which would imply the existence of a watchmaker. By contrast, if you found a stone lying on the beach, you would be more inclined to think that for all you know the stone had always been there and needn’t have originated from an intelligent designer. Then again, says Paley, “Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature.” Therefore, Paley concludes, the universe must have an intelligent designer. As you can tell, the argument is self-contradictory, since Paley both contrasts and equates the watch and the stone. Paley needs the watch to stand out as evidently designed, but he also needs the stone to have the same contrivance of its parts as the watch. So the argument dismisses itself, but it must be dismissed also for various other reasons, both logical and ethical. The notion of a supernatural person is incoherent, so positing God says nothing. Also, the notion of God stems from a vain anthropocentric bias and thus speaks poorly of the theist’s character. If we wish to retain our dignity and our chance of heroically facing the cosmic truth, we must decline to naively anthropomorphize the great unknown. Even if God exists, atheism would establish the skeptic’s ethical superiority to the average theist, given the state of the evidence.

Nevertheless, Paley’s argument can be modified for a less embarrassing purpose than that of promoting theism. Suppose, once again, you come upon both a stone and a watch lying on a beach. You’re struck now not by the naïve, self-serving, and self-contradictory theistic analogy, but by your knowledge that both the stone and the watch are created, and that because theism is absurd for independent reasons, only the watch, not the stone, is designed. Specifically, the stone is created by a vast intergalactic process of forming stars from collapsing nebular dust and gas, planets from the outer parts of the nebular cloud’s disk, and stones from climatic and weather cycles—all over a period of hundreds of millions of years. That’s how you make a stone with no intelligence: the natural universe does it for you. The universe is mindlessly creating every part of itself and it’s doing this out in the open, so there is still a basis for comparing the creators of the stone and the watch. Between the two, only the watch is designed for an intended purpose, but both are produced by elaborate processes. The stone’s creator is just impersonal causality, the watch’s is a person whose existential role is to oppose nature.

Thus, the stone’s maker, which is roughly the universe as a whole, has a different character than that of the watch. Intelligent design makes sense to sentient creatures, since we’re familiar with ourselves and with what we do, but impersonal creation is mysterious, however sophisticated may be our scientific understanding of the causes involved. Intelligent, artificial creation is comforting since it signifies that we’re putting our stamp on the universe to help eclipse precisely the other kind of creation, namely the natural kind which horrifies us enough to drive us to invent gods to feel more at home in the world. Nature creates with no end in view and with no regard for the creatures born and caught up in its arrangements. Nature thus creates wastefully and absurdly, since there’s no deeper reason for the universe’s origin or for its formations other than the calculation of cause and effect. The ultimate purpose of intelligent designs is the same as the epic hero’s, which is to smite the dragon whose very existence is blasphemous. To understand what the proverbial monster is is to drive you mad, and the same is true for the philosopher who realizes that far from being of ultimate significance on the cosmic scale, intelligent design is less than an afterthought, metaphysically speaking.   

Pantheism and Aesthetic Ontology

This comparison of the stone and the watch hints at an ontological and ethical vision which I presume is destined to define the experience of posthumans. Everything is created by some process, whether the process is monstrously impersonal causality or intelligent and indignant (anti-natural) design. Strictly speaking, art pertains only to some of the latter products, but if we wish to preserve any sense of value and purpose after science’s disenchantment of nature and its elimination of much of our pre-reflective self-image, we should embrace a wider view of art which equates art with any creation whatsoever. In that case, aesthetic values of originality and inspiration will reign.

Luckily, the history of art offers up this posthuman conclusion on a platter. Briefly, most of the earliest arts were crafts (adornments on tools), status signifiers (bead necklaces or face paint), or forms of political or religious propaganda (temples or carvings of gods and rulers). An exception is the Stone Age cave painting which likely explores psychedelic experiences for shamanic purposes or which uses representations of animals to magically improve the hunt. In any case, art objects had these or other narrow, specific functions. Then came the Axial Age, which introduced a spiritual, self-reflective dimension to art, as is apparent from the Hindu and Buddhist mandalas, for example. The mandala represents the natural order in microcosm, and Tibetan Buddhists will create these mandalas with coloured sand and then ritualistically wipe it all away when the intricate work is accomplished. Still, spiritual or mystical art only modifies the earlier religious art which was used to venerate the gods and—indirectly—the human rulers. A more radical break occurred after the Renaissance in Europe, when modern artists took individual creative genius as their ideal and began exploring the potential of the art media themselves. Artists turned inward to rediscover the human potential for progress.

Then the modern metanarratives of progress collapsed and we entered a postmodern stage of cynicism and ennui until it became commonplace to scorn art as a fraud, since it seems that anything now can count as art, even scribbles or gibberish which anyone—and even many animals—could accidentally produce. The philosopher Arthur Danto, who praised the quality of some late modern art nevertheless argued that art had in some sense ended roughly with Duchamp’s urinal or Andy Warhol’s Brillo boxes. As he explains in After the End of Art, Western art began with an “era of imitation, followed by an era of ideology, followed by our post-historical era in which, with qualification, anything goes...In our narrative, at first only mimesis was art, then several things were art but each tried to extinguish its competitors, and then, finally, it became apparent that there were no stylistic or philosophical constraints. There is no special way works of art have to be. And that is the present and, I should say, the final moment in the master narrative. It is the end of the story.” For Danto, the history of art ended with the rise of conceptual art, because at that point anything whatsoever could be considered art.

Less charitably, though, the conviction is now widespread that millions of dollars are often handed over to some lucky “artist” whose works might as well mean nothing because they appear not to result from any conscious deliberation or intelligent design—despite the fact that conceptualization is supposed to be the hallmark of modern art. When something might as well have been created while the artist was asleep, for all the work that appears to have been put into it, that artwork is meaningless in that there’s no constraint on interpretations of its meaning or value. This is the trouble with purely conceptual, nonrepresentational art: there’s no right or wrong works of imagination if they needn’t be about anything real. So a solipsistic work which might be guided only by the artist’s whim is in one sense pure meaning, because the conceptual art object—a scribble, a used tissue, a painted grain of sand, the substrate or work itself being inconsequential—is intrinsically worthless and all that matters is the artist’s alleged intention or the viewer’s interpretation. But in another sense, this kind of art is meaningless, because there’s no limit on the imagination, anything goes, and so this art ends up being disposable—at least outside of the self-absorbed upper classes.

As you hopefully have gathered from the last part of that simplified story of art, the so-called death of art in our late modern age may be a blessing in disguise. The history ends with the discovery that anything can be art, that the material or mode of production doesn’t matter, and that what matters is only that the thing be interpretable from an aesthetic perspective. This means that art history is telling us something profound: what looks like merely the self-destruction of an elitist fraud, which was facilitated by postmodern incredulity towards all myths of legitimation, carries a pantheistic lesson which is that if the material or mode of production is irrelevant to artistic status, we can just as easily remove ourselves from the artistic process and collapse the distinction between nature and artwork. The universe is full of art, because if Brillo boxes or used tissues can be interpreted from an aesthetic posture of disinterest in practical value, any creation can be regarded as art. Indeed, natural products, from molecules to stones to stars are more readily judged as artworks in that broad respect precisely because they have no intelligent designer, so it’s easy to bracket the question of their function or utility and to focus only on their surface qualities or on how they resonate somehow (that is, anyhow) with the viewer.

Why do I say that this revelation, this aesthetic ontology is fit for posthumans? Because we’re attached to our child-like self-image which philosophical naturalism subverts. As Nietzsche suggested, along with the death of God we can look forward to the twilight of the idols, to the loss of faith in our other self-centered myths, including the myths that there are moral laws deriving from nature or from society, that the average human is a rational and autonomous person, and that liberal democracy or secularism is socially progressive. The more we look at ourselves as natural creatures, the narrower our range becomes for respectable ideals. It’s not that we shouldn’t strive to depart from natural courses, but that we should understand the existential stakes involved. When we submit to cultural delusions that don’t have the general welfare in view but are more or less as Marx said—rationalizations for class inequalities, that is, noble lies to preserve the only real godhood there has ever been, the human oligarch’s glorified and unleashed psychopathy—we turn ourselves into functionaries, into components of the societal megamachine.

snowflake under electron microscope
But Nietzsche saw that the Scientific Revolution has rendered the old theocratic rationalizations of our dominance hierarchies untenable, and that the modern substitutes (liberalism and rational morality and progress) are unlikely to work for long. The current crossroads faced by democracies around the world indicate that this late modern alienation is still with us. If we’ll rise from the ashes of a new wave of dunderheaded global fascism, to start a sustainable, noble way of life as opposed to reverting to savagery and having to begin again, we’ll likely rise as posthumans. What this means is that we’ll grow out of what the philosopher Wilfrid Sellars called the “manifest image,” which is the way we appear to ourselves before we start thinking too hard, and we’ll find our meaning and value only in the aesthetic ontology that’s consistent with naturalism. The values that survive scientific reduction and philosophical skepticism are those perceived from a type of objective detachment. This detachment isn’t precisely the scientific kind that separates scientific work from individual biases while retaining the instrumentalist one of our species, as the Frankfurt School points out. Instead, posthuman detachment will have to be from instrumentalism itself, from an atheistic refuge for anthropocentrism that delays our cosmicist reckoning. When we perceive the indifference of natural creativity, by attending to the aesthetic dimension of nature, we’re face to face with our monstrous god; we become dark, non-sentimental pantheists whose religion is to worship natural art by creating antinatural art.   

mineral syenite under electron microscope
This posthuman religion of art owes something to the Romantic ideal of the creative genius whose inspirations take precedence over social conventions. Indeed, eighteenth century Romanticism seemed already to portend Danto’s end of art’s story, long before Warhol’s or Duchamp’s conceptual art. But to the extent that Romanticism retains the dualism of the Sturm und Drang movement, it will oppose emotion to reason whereas I’m suggesting that aesthetic values fall out of rational explorations of nature. Unless they’re under enlightened self-control, emotions and intuitions are so many tools of genetic or demagogic manipulation. For his or her artistic vision to be meritorious or sustainable, then, the creative genius must be fortified with a pantheistic outlook. This genius who sees the world only as so much ever-changing and otherwise pointless art will understand that in so far as emotions and intuitions further mindless sexual reproduction or contribute to grotesque social inequalities, these inspirations won’t be sacred. Instead of worshipping nature properly, by allowing the world to replace itself via the artifacts streaming from our creative sentience, the irrationalist may be duped by higher powers into being preoccupied with some other art installation, such as the biological or warped cultural imperative. What will be sacred for the enlightened posthuman who has no trace of delusion is the whole of existence perceived for what it is: a monstrously divine, evolving art museum. Nature’s artworks come and go, and they’re appreciated from the aesthetic stance of personal and collective detachment. The religious/existential imperative, then, will be to appreciate the monstrosity of nature’s art—the fact that it’s creator, the art itself, is mindless—by overwriting the natural order with novel patterns as far as we’re able, or at least by understanding that this horror of nature’s holiness is the gravity of our existential situation.  


  1. I think you may be interested in the experimental group Death Grips. Their output as a whole reminds me a lot of what you talk about here. Maybe I'm just projecting though. Either way, I'd be curious to hear what you think. Below, I'll link their most recent project and the lyrics (as the lead vocalist has a very abrasive and at times incomprehensible vocal style).


    1. I've looked through those lyrics. On the first pass, they do seem philosophical and even existentialist, but they're also quite poetic and so they seem open to many interpretations, which is a polite way of saying they're sometimes a little obscure. But that's how art should be. You don't want your music to be too didactic.

      Some cool images here:

      "Nothing matters anymore
      You can’t see the kraken
      Climbing out the bullshit that exists from the mouth
      You can’t get out of debt
      Just learn to keep on stabbing
      In the heart with a fucking knife
      You drop it before you can catch it
      Do you see what's taxing?
      All life's a moment before the grave
      You're only optimally the passenger, a slave
      From the middle finger
      Open up the sewers before you, drop this ring, reave
      The culture hiding behind this life, kill the pain"

      If I were writing it, I'd make it a little clearer, but that's just me and I'm no musician.

      So far I've written raps on atheism and religion. Here's the chorus to the one on religion:

      "What are the odds you’ve met my gods?
      The Lord conceived a black hole
      His name’s up the church flagpole
      Suspend your doubt in my religion’s story
      Next era they’ll read it in the lavatory"

      Here's some from the one on atheism:

      "He’s a new atheist prize fighter
      A six feet tall ankle biter
      Beacon of Light, Master debater
      Laugh him off, you’ll thank me later

      "The four horsemen bow and ride off
      Leaving their fans stuffed in the trough
      Their part played in the media’s fable
      Fun for a while, but what else is on cable?
      Just have faith in the stand-in myth:
      No God so new heroes forthwith!
      We all worship idols so their case is moot
      Can you hear in the distance Azathoth’s flute?
      They gawk at Mother Nature and call her pretty
      Clever fellows but their taste in women’s a pity
      Build God with tech reaching to the skies
      The herd of Wall-E slobs never dies
      And an artless wasteland for their prize"

  2. Also of note is their track "The Powers That B" which seems to reference the creative potential of your concept of the "undead god." The music video also seems to hint at finding creative potential in the mundane.

    1. Those are indeed intriguing lyrics of "The Powers that B." It's hard to find good pantheistic music, since I assume most will be New Age schmaltz.

      Then again, as I read these lyrics, they strike me more as social Darwinian or neo-Daoist than anti-natural or grounded in an existential awakening to our obligation to oppose horrific nature. On the contrary, that songs celebrates natural horror that flows through the person in acts of domination.

      "Can't fuck with the physical world
      "Cause I comply with the powers that B"

      That's a straight-up celebration of natural power, whereas my kind of pantheism is more about an ironic, quasi miraculous overpowering of nature by the creative power Mother Nature gave us.

      "Hook me, catch me, squeal me in
      Gut me, hack me, crop your grin
      Pack me, sell me, claim we're friends
      See me on the street, drop your grin
      Squint your beady eyes and flinch
      Like a sniveling shiesty snitch
      Don't fret, I know you're just a bitch
      I get paid by the universe
      Morbidly blasé when I'm not on display
      Turn up my mic, your hair turn white
      I get paid by the universe
      I'm on salary
      You get no fucks from me
      I run the company
      On the powers that B
      I get paid by the universe"

      There we see the will to power that's traditional and sometimes cliched in rap culture. What's cool about "The Powers that B" is that its pantheism makes for an original take on the social Darwinism of gangster rap culture.

      I've actually wrote a few philosophical rap songs and I think it would be cool to set them to beats and self-produce a record. It's on my list of projects. Currently, I'm working on an Adam Curtis style documentary on the meaning of life, which I'll put out on YouTube.

    2. I suspect Death Grips may see things through a more occult/mystical lens than you as references to various occult miscellanea are sprinkled throughout their work, unless it's all just very clever metaphor. Though they have said they are very inspired by the occult and believe in "unseen forces." Either way, I look forward to any creative endeavors you embark on going forward, especially the completion of your Necronomicon. I think you may also find the short film they released in anticipation of their last record to be of interest as well:

    3. Sorry to keep going on and on, but as one last thing, these tracks of theirs remind a lot of your articles on sex and love: