Ontologies of Work (capitalism) and Play (panpsychism)

Now that the Pluralism Wars have died down, each camp having dug itself in for the winter, maybe its time to change the subject. Let’s talk about David Graeber’s recent article in The Baffler “What’s the Point if We Can’t Have Fun?” He makes the radical (or not so radical?) move of taking play seriously, not only in economics, but in biology and cosmology. What happens when we take play seriously? It becomes apparent that the economy is not composed of rational actors/intelligent designers competing with one another in a brutal state of nature for raw materials. That the biosphere is not just “red tooth and claw” but endosymbiotic: all living things share their bodies with others. We live in and on one other. We eat each other. “Life is robbery,” as Whitehead put it. But why all the carnage if our sensitive existence as living organisms wasn’t somehow worth the pain? Natural selection plays a role in evolution (=death as the judge of which mutations are beneficial and which are not), but so does sexual selection (=eros as the feeling for which mutations will be beautiful and which not). We coexist together today because of the ways we have enjoyed coexisting yesterday. Evolution is not a miserly profit calculator; nature is exuberant and wasteful in its transactions (as Bataille taught us). Graeber is asking us to assume for a moment that Blake was right and Newton was wrong: the energy of the universe is not blind matter but “Eternal Delight.”

Steven Shaviro (author of Without Criteria: Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics) had nothing but approval for Graeber’s playful proposal of a “principal of ludic freedom.” Shaviro is himself a panpsychist of sorts, though he credits Graeber with helping him zero in on the problem he has with information theories of panpsychism (e.g., Tononi and Chalmers):

I think that “cognition” and “information” have become way overrated in recent discourse, and that sentience needs to be seen first of all as affective (or as involving “feeling” in Whitehead’s sense) before it is seen as cognitive or informational. Affect or feeling both precedes and exceeds cognition or information, in the same way that play, in Graeber’s formulation, precedes and exceeds utility maximalization. What clicks for me especially in Graeber’s formulation is the way that “the free exercise of an entity’s most complex powers or capacities” necessarily involves energetics as well as informatics. Sentience as a power or capacity must thus also be understood in energetic terms rather than only informatic ones (and this is for me precisely where the panpsychist leanings of Chalmers and Tononi need to be supplemented).

Speaking of panpsychist energetics, I posed a related question a few weeks ago about “thermopolitics.” It seems to me that some form of panpsychist ontology is not only true, but that the process theology it entails (here is a Bible-friendly variant) is also perhaps the the most practical and psychologically effective way to motivate modern civilization to ecologize before it’s too late.

Compare the panpsychist theory/practice of a ludic universe with the machine-world of Neil Savage’s blog article “Artificial Emotions”. Savage suggests that human-like robots capable of feeling and emoting are right around the corner. In order to make such a bold technological claim, Savage first has to scientistically reduce the human psyche to a computer program:

Special and indecipherable, except by us—our whims and fancies are what makes us human. But we may be wrong in our thinking. Far from being some inexplicable, ethereal quality of humanity, emotions may be nothing more than an autonomic response to changes in our environment, software programmed into our biological hardware by evolution as a survival response.

What, pray, is an “environmental change” if not a feeling in some living organism’s experiential field? What is an “environment” in the first place, if not other responsible (i.e., experiential) organisms? Savage’s “software/hardware” trope just re-inscribes the same old Cartesian dualism between mind or cognition and dead extended matter. It seems to me that this sort of eliminativist theory of human consciousness, aside from being ontologically false, functions politically as an apology for capitalist social relations. It asks us to believe that life is brutal and that we are all just cogs in the machine toiling to get a little extra before we rot, that life on earth has always been about competition in the marketplace where the only quasi-justice available comes in the form of a mythical invisible hand/natural selector deciding who wins and who loses. Fortuna is the Goddess of capitalism.

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3 Replies to “Ontologies of Work (capitalism) and Play (panpsychism)”

  1. Emotions and feelings are an integral part of cognition. There is no duality there: cognition vs emotions. And if we want to understand emotions, we have to have models of emotions. The experiential side of natural living actors has to be understood in terms of the action. Our experience is about our action. We are machines, not the type of machines we built, but natural machines. The questions are: how did natural machine evolved, what kind of natural principles are at work. Natural selection is part of the answer but this is far from being a full explanation. Natural selection could be reformulate in terms of maximization of growth. The genetic aspects is only a very small part of how biological forms get stabilized. And the strategy for maximazing growth are operating at all scales of the ecosystem.

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