What kind of apocalypse announces itself in the prospect of the so-called “post-humanity” opened up by a direct link between our brain and a digital machine, popularly called “neuralink” and in the New Age obscurantist-speak —Singularity, the god-like global space of shared awareness? One should resist the temptation to proclaim the prospect of a wired brain an illusion, something that we are still far from and that cannot really be actualized. Such a view is itself an escape from the threat, from the fact that something New and unheard-of is effectively emerging. So, our question should be: what will our entry into Singularity be? The beginning of a new and higher (post-human) realm, or just the disappearance of humanity the way we know it? Or, in some sense (but in what sense?) both at the same time?
I will propose a risky hypothesis here: what if Singularity is not (or, rather, will not be) immersion into collective space but an extremely solipsistic state where each Self (reduced to its selflessness, no longer a self as opposed to others in an intersubjective space) will function in a way similar to what Beckett renders in The Unnameable? To do so, I read Beckett with Jacques-Alain Miller who, in his seminar of 2006-2007, describes the effort of Lacan’s last years at delineating the contours of One alone before the Other, of a hallucination before symbolic reality, of meaningless lapses prior to any signifying articulation.[i]
Lacan opposes two axes. One is the axis of the symbolic Unconscious where, in transference, the subject relates to an Other, where symptoms have a (supposed) meaning and, as such, wait to be historicized, integrated into a symbolic narrative. The other is the axis of the real Unconscious where the subject (or, rather, the subjectless Self) is all alone:
“Who is this self? – this self that knows that it has neither tail nor head, neither meaning nor interpretation. We have here an it that is not, as Lacan was able to play with it, the one of the unconscious, but an it that is a self.”[ii] “The pivot is that here, one considers the One-all-alone. At least two allusions from Lacan, in this text, find a way to be ordered from this all-alone. He says: ‘There is no friendship there, in that space that supports this unconscious.’ No friendship that can be the support of the unconscious.”[iii]
“Friendship” stands here for the link from the one to the other, between subjects but also between signifiers. Signification arises only through such “friendship,” where one signifier interprets the other. With the subjectless Self that is all alone, there is also speech, but this speech functions as a pre-symbolic erratic hallucination, a hallucination without law: “The hallucination does not obey the laws of language, either those of connection or of substitution, and it appears as being independent of the intersubjective game.”[iv] So, again, on the one side, we have the intersubjective game of transference through which symptoms are decoded in their meaning and thus historicized, integrated into the subject’s life story, and, on the other side,
“we have a real cut off from speech, a real which ‘expects nothing from speech,’ and which ‘chatters all alone’ (cause tout seul). We know now to give its value to this all alone, which signals that we are not in history, in hysteria, in the one and the other, but, on the contrary, on the side of the solitary. Lacan even adds /that/ the real appears as a ‘noise in which one can hear anything and everything’.”[v]
This difference between speech as a symptom pointing towards meaning, and speech as “chatter all alone,” composed of sinthoms, knots which condense jouissance, does not overlap with the opposition between hysteria and psychosis; it rather divides the space of psychosis itself into paranoia (in which the signifying mechanisms of retroaction are still operative) and schizophrenia in which “the symbolic ceases making sense, making history, where the symbolic is at the level of the noise in which one can hear anything whatever. It is a collapse of the two dimensions: the symbolic flounders on the real.”[vi] This is also why we are here in the domain of hallucinations: when the symbolic “flounders on the real,” reality (by definition sustained by a gap that separates he symbolic from the real) disintegrates and the subject suffers a “loss of reality (Realitaetsverlust).”
Can we imagine what such “chatter” looks or sounds like? Here we should turn to The Unnameable as Beckett’s Cartesian meditation.[vii] The contrast with Descartes immediately strikes the eye: in Descartes, the reduction to “I think,” to a pure flow of immanent thoughts, is a starting point of rational insight which immediately brings us to god and to the well-ordered structure of reality. But it is as if Beckett remains stuck at cogito as One, at its zero-level, and persists in it without the Other who would guarantee the rational order of the universe. This is why, in The Unnameable, we never pass to a fully constituted reality: the universe in which the narrator dwells is, precisely, that of erratic hallucinations. Andrew Cutrofello[viii] suggested that Hamlet’s stance of procrastination can also be formulated in Bartleby’s terms: “I would prefer not to… revenge my father.” Could The Unnamable’s stance also not be put in the same terms? “I would prefer not to… be or think.”
This link to Descartes is not just an external interpretation: Beckett’s knowledge of Descartes is well known, and a number of critics have already remarked that the unnameable is Cartesian cogito, if a highly unusual and unstable one, a sentient being who finds himself in the black box of his own consciousness, and its problem is: “how does the unnameable escape being, the pain commensurate with being, how does he exit the labyrinth of language he finds himself in?” Things get complicated, because Beckett does not only stage cogito; through this staging, he simultaneously (as a good Hegelian) brings out its inner distinctions and tensions, which we may use as astute indications of what awaits us in Singularity.
To begin with, Beckett immediately notices that this unnameable cogito is not happily floating in its hallucinations but is radically divided: it is not speaking; speech itself is imposed on it from outside. It is spoken (as Lacan would have put it), dominated by an external Other, Beckett’s version of Descartes’s génie malin, which manipulates my hallucinations – or, as Deleuze put it apropos Beckett and his use of language: “it is always an Other who speaks, since words have not expected/waited for me and there is no language other than the foreign.”[ix] In short, the unnameable “supposes that language comes to him purely from the other, that it passes through him and does not belong to him.”[x] So how does The Unnameable try to find its way in this mess?
Beckett proposes his dialectics of speech and silence: there is no chance for the unnameable to appropriate speech, to make it its own and fully express itself in it. All the unnameable can hope for is “to be able to escape the torment of talking interminably by stating (through sheer chance) something which is required to be stated to end that torment.”[xi] But this moment never arrives, and it always ends with the claim that it must go on. So “the question remains in suspension, we are unable to think language as either finite or infinite,” and the reality remains that of an endless erratic hallucination of (external, not my own) voices:
“It must not be forgotten, sometimes I forget, that all is a question of voices. I say what I am told to say, in the hope that someday they will weary of talking of me… Do they believe I believe it is I who am speaking? That’s theirs too. To make me believe I have an ego all my own, and can speak of it, as they of theirs.”[xii]
Again, our hypothesis is that such a tension may characterize our immersion into a Singularity. If we leave aside the further redoubling of the unnameable into Mahood and Worm (a redoubling which echoes the gap that separates speech from silence), another dilemma arises: is speech a violent act that disturbs the peace of violence, or is the worst violence peace itself? The silence the unnameable desires is not just any silence: “For it is all very fine to keep silence, but one has also to consider the kind of silence one keeps.”[xiii] The silence the unnameable desires is the seemingly irretrievable silence that is the silence before speech, before the possibility of violence: “silence once broken will never again be whole”[xiv]. Here, however, Beckett himself misses the point in his often-quoted statement: “Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.” What Beckett doesn’t get is that when a stain appears as unnecessary, superfluous, it remains unavoidable – it creates retroactively the silence it stains/disturbs. Yes, words are by definition inadequate, but they retroactively create the very standard with regard to which they appear as inadequate.
The Unnameable has traditionally been read as a narrative from beyond death: insofar as Beckett’s three novels Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnameable comprise a trilogy, The Unnameable follows Malone Dies. But it is important to note that the beyond-death is not beyond; it involves language and consciousness; it is tied to being and lived experience. So, it would be more adequate to locate the unnameable in the domain between the two deaths, the domain of the living dead or the undead. Just as the unnameable comes between silence and language, the same and the other, the inside and the outside, so it comes between life and death:
“perhaps that’s what I feel, an outside and an inside and me in the middle, perhaps that’s what I am, the thing that divides the world in two, on the one side the outside, on the other the inside, that can be as thin as foil, I’m neither one side nor the other, I’m in the middle, I’m the partition, I’ve two surfaces and no thickness, perhaps that’s what I feel, myself vibrating, I’m the tympanum, on the one hand the mind, on the other the world, I don’t belong to either.”[xv]
The final deadlock is thus the ontological one: Beckett “leads us through a maze of language and allude to a threshold, but it cannot be crossed because there is nothing with which to cross, nothing to cross.” We are taken “to the edge of the universe but there is no spear to throw, no hand to stretch through the surface of heaven which encloses the unnameable like a wall, no way of telling if we are facing a void or its opposite,” or, to quote Beckett himself:
“may not this screen which my eyes probe in vain, and see as denser air, in reality be the enclosure wall, as compact as lead? To elucidate this point, I would need a stick or pole, and the means of plying it. /…/ Then I would dart it, like a javelin, straight before me and know, by the sound made, whether that which hems me round, and blots out my world, is the old void, or a plenum.”[xvi]
But what has all this to do with Singularity? Let’s make a detour through the passage from silent to talking movies, asking: what was the effect of adding the soundtrack to the silent film? It was the exact opposite of the expected “naturalization”, i.e., of an even more “realistic” imitation of reality. What took place from the very beginning of the sound film was an uncanny voice baptized by Michel Chion “acousmatique”[xvii]: a voice that is neither attached to an object (a person) within diegetic reality nor simply the voice of an external commentator, but a spectral voice which floats freely in a mysterious intermediate domain and thereby acquires the horrifying dimension of omnipresence and omnipotence, the voice of an invisible Master – from Fritz Lang’s Testament des Dr. Mabuse to the “mother’s voice” in Hitchcock’s Psycho.
Those who resisted talking movies – from the Russian vanguard up to Charlie Chaplin — perceived much more clearly this uncanny dimensions of what was going on. For almost 10 years Chaplin resisted making a full sound movie. In City Lights, his first film with a soundtrack, there are only music and some noises of objects, no speech. Then, in Modern Times, there is speech, but only when it is reproduced by a machine (radio, loudspeaker) shown on screen. Only with The Great Dictator do we get speaking actors – but who are they? The main agent of speech is Hynkel (Hitler) with this wild violent shouting, first heard through loudspeakers… Chaplin was thus well aware of voice’s threatening and destabilizing dimension, which functions as a kind of spectral living dead, while the idiotic proponents of sound cinema perceived the situation in simple realist terms (“Fine, now that we have also sound, we can reproduce reality in a more realist convincing way.”), ignoring the gap that appeared with sound.
And something similar is going on with the prospect of Singularity: against Kurzweil and other proponents of Singularity as harmonious floating in divine bliss, we should discern in it a radical split – which split? A brief return to Beckett might be of some help: the unnamable is split into two (probably virtual, hallucinated) entities, Mahood and Worm:
“The stories of Mahood and Worm might be said to loosely describe two philosophical poles: Idealism and Materialism. The story of Mahood in his jar might be read as a parable following the ideas of Beckett’s compatriot Bishop Berkeley. Beckett was later to use Berkeley’s most famous premise esse est percipi as a point of departure for his screenplay Film. To be is to be perceived: once Mahood feels himself no longer perceived he disappears (a state of matter is reduced to a state of mind). But this disappearance suggests that Mahood has no self-perception, that the state of mind of this same is not his own state of mind but that of others; Mahood stops existing because ‘they’ no longer believe in him, not because he no longer believes in himself. To this extent he is like Worm: ‘Worm is, since we conceive him, as if there could be no being but being conceived’. Neither the Idealism nor the Materialism is pure, then, but the opposition seems clear enough. At an opposite pole to Mahood, Worm is a materialist being. His is a state of mind reduced to a state of matter, he is pre-conscious being, a thing, a creature that sleeps, pure matter without mind, pure matter which has mind brutally branded upon it. Worm begins life as ‘pupil Mahood’, a blank slate ‘they’ attempt to inscribe with language.“[xviii]
Therefore, if we accept that a minimal form of subjectivity survives immersion into Singularity, we can surmise that a subject in Singularity will also be divided into “Mahood” (a solipsist floating in the communal space of shared thoughts) and “Worm” (thoughtless reality). It will never just float there: insofar as it survives as subject, it will remain aware of itself as (also) an inert worm-like object, part of digital-neuronal machinery. This radical gap between pure immanence (I am Mahood, a flow of selfless thoughts) and full objectivization (I am Worm, part of the neuronal machine) is not just “objective”; it is immanent to the subject: through this objectivization (and being aware of it), the subject as “empty” $ persists in its minimal distance from Singularity. We should return, in this respect, to Soviet techno-gnosticism, which, in an exact parallel to the duality of Mahood and Worm, saw in the new post-human entity a combination of trans-personal awareness and “objective” distance towards one’s own body. Trans-personal unity is accompanied there by the radical gap between me and my embodied existence: I may be part of the same trans-personal awareness, but the price I pay is that I lose my personal unity and relate to my body as an object in the world.
At this point, we can even reach back from Beckett to the beginnings of the Western tradition, to a unique text in which the contours of post-human subjectivity are for the first clearly outlined: Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus. Insofar as our emergence (“birth”) as symbolic subjects occurs by acquiring distance towards reality, our immersion into Singularity will equal the undoing of our birth. In this way, we’ll achieve what is, as the Chorus says in Oedipus at Colonus, our best fate:
“Not to be born at all
Is best, far best that can befall,
Next best, when born, with least delay
To trace the backward way.
For when youth passes with its giddy train,
Troubles on troubles follow, toils on toils,
Pain, pain forever pain;
And none escapes life’s coils.
Envy, sedition, strife,
Carnage and war, make up the tale of life.”[xix]
(Incidentally, one should not abstain here from engaging in a bit of a bad-taste humor: could these famous chorus lines about how the greatest luck is not being born at all not be actualized today as the best argument for abortion? “Do you worry about the kind of world your child will live in? We can secure its greatest luck by aborting it…”)
If the best thing that can happen to us is not being born in the first place, then our being born is already a kind of failure, the failure of being born, a failure to achieve the optimal state of not being born at all. It is not lack of being which is a failed being; it is our being itself which is our failure to achieve non-being.[xx] In other words, our being is immanently measured by the counterfactual hypothesis of non-being. One should not be afraid to draw radical ontological consequences from this reversal. According to the standard ontological configuration, entities strive for perfection, so that their goal is to actualize their potential, to become fully what they are, and the lack of being signals the failure of a thing to fully realize its potentials. This configuration has to be turned around: being as such (in the sense of being a determinate entity) signals a failure, everything that is (as a particular entity) is marked by a failure, and the only way to achieve perfection is to immerse oneself in the void of non-being.
What we have to consider is the fact (as well as one of the great topics in Beckett) that one can also live as not-yet-fully-born or, to put it in more philosophical terms, as failing to achieve one’s full identity, to become what one effectively is. The alternative that confronts us is: how does the couple born/not-fully-born relate to the couple of human and post-human? Are we, humans, in some sense not yet fully born, a fuzzy and inconsistent intermediary state between animality and post-humanity (as the predominant ideology of Singularity implies)? Or, are we, as humans, in some sense fully human, and will the passage into post-human Singularity involve some kind of regression into a state of not-being-fully-born as human individuals? Our reference to Beckett’s Unnameable points in this direction: will subjectivity that is immersed in Singularity not function as a version of the Cartesian cogito which remains stuck in solipsist hallucinations and fails to pass over into a Self that relates to a constituted objective reality? However, the opposite version holds as well: we exist as humans, embedded in our reality, precisely, as unborn, ontologically incomplete, i.e., insofar as our human existence is marked by a constitutive failure. And in post-humanity we get stuck in a limbo of not-yet-being born, precisely insofar as we achieve our identity in being immersed in the shared space of Singularity.
[i] English translations of the three key lectures of this seminar are available in lacanian ink 50 (New York 2017).
[ii] Jacques-Alain Miller, quoted from lacanian ink 50, p. 29.
[iii] Miller, op.cit., p. 31.
[iv] Miller, op.cit., p. 120.
[v] Op.cit., p. 121.
[vi] Op.cit., p. 125.
[vii] I rely here on Anthony Uhlmann, “The same and the other: Beckett’s The Unnameable, Derrida and Levinas”, Law Text Culture 3/1997, pp. 127-147. Available online at http://ro.uow.edu.au/ltc/vol3/iss1/9.
[viii] In a private conversation.
[ix] Gilles Deleuze, “The Exhausted”, in Substance: A Review o/Theory and Literary Criticism 78 (Vol. 24 No. 3), 1995, p. 7.
[x] Uhlmann, op.cit.
[xii] The Beckett Trilogy, London: Picador 1979, p. 317.
[xiii] Op.cit., p. 283.
[xiv] Op.cit., p. 336.
[xv] Op.cit., p. 352.
[xvi] Op.cit., p. 275.
[xvii] See Michel Chion, La voix au cinema, Paris: Cahiers du Cinema 1982.
[xviii] Uhlmann, op.cit.
[xix] Quoted from http://classics.mit.edu/Sophocles/colonus.html.
[xx] See Mladen Dolar, “Oedipus at Colonus,” in Ojdip v Kolonu (in Slovene), Ljubljana: Analecta 2018.