Regular visitors here may have been puzzled or concerned about this site’s recent silence. Matters on the domestic and poetic fronts have been more pressing of late, and the recent unfolding of the myth of things seen in the sky hasn’t been very inspiring. Luis Elizondo, Chris Mellon, & Co. continue to embarass themselves with their wince-inducing ignorance of UFO history, and the recent kerfuffle around the Calvine photograph raises the same old dust, nor does Jeffrey Kripal’s newest book touch any nerves of mine (though that may change on closer scrutiny…).
But, then, as chance would have it, a perennially-irritating confusion comes again into view. Greg Bishop, the admin for the Radio Misterioso FB page, shared an article from The Guardian via George Knapp, “Talking to whales: can AI bridge the chasm between our consciousness and other animals?”, with the comment “If this group is successful in achieving communication with whales, it may be wonderful, or frightening, or both. It may also teach us how to look for signatures of nonhuman life by using insights to an alien species that shares the same planet with us.”
It’s that second sentence that caught my attention. At first, even the grammar had me flummoxed. I take Bishop to mean that the work of the groups mentioned in The Guardian article “may also teach us how to look for signatures of nonhuman life by applying its insights to an alien species that shares the same planet with us.” And there’s the rub: the thinking seemingly at work here about “nonhuman life” and that “alien species that shares the same planet with us.”
That alien species is, I surmise (given George Knapp’s being in on the conversation), the one that pilots what today are termed Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP). These are almost invariably humanoid, not just morphologically, but, to some extent, culturally (and arguably socially), being technological, even if that technology transcends our present understanding. Even if UAP and alien-encounter events are staged (a la Vallée), that staging is still imagined to be carried out technologically. My point here is that this putative alien species (Mac Tonnies’ Crytpoterrestrials?) is only marginally nonhuman. Not only its form but its “form of life” (a la Wittgenstein: ‘a background common to humankind, “shared human behavior” which is “the system of reference by means of which we interpret an unknown language”’) are human, all-too-human.
One might justifiably ask by what warrant I venture to propose that these crypoterrestials might share a background of shared behaviour, a form of life close enough to that of some Homo Sapiens that would underwrite our more readily understanding these Others than those other, exoteric nonhuman species with which we cohabit the earth. What’s at work I argue in imagining that these terrestrial, alien species are both radically Other and technological is a conceptualization of technology that abstracts it from the social conditions of its actual coming-to-be. This impoverished notion of technology enables both its conflation with tool-use (so that even sharpened stones are “technology”) and its inflation to a kind of telos (essential goal) of intelligence that inspires fantasies about nonhuman, extraterrestrial, technologically-advanced civilizations, a hobby-horse (if not a bugbear) here at the Skunkworks. As I have explained (however cursorily) in an earlier post: “science and technology…are woven from the fabric of the society within which they appear and operate; they are cultural phenomena through and through.” Technology, thought concretely, is bound up with a form of life, such that, any other parahuman, technological species would already be close enough to technological Homo Sapiens that attempting to understand them would be more akin to that which occurs between different human groups than that between humans and other animals.
What’s at stake in these reflections is not so much the reality of these crypoterrestrial Others (attentive readers will have noticed nothing I have written denies outright their possible being) but how we understand and relate to those unquestionably real, nonhuman Others with whom we cohabit the earth. In seeing the promise for communicating with imagined creatures who mirror us in research into interspecies communication one oversells the strangeness of these putative Others and undersells the undeniable Otherness of really-existing animal (and plant) life. That more concerned parties are not struck by how much more alien actually-existing nonhuman life forms on earth are, compared to those “alien” beings that inhabit the ufological universe increasingly puzzles and saddens me. The fascination with crypto- or extraterrestrials betrays a narcissistic longing to encounter some version of ourselves instead of the unquestionable Otherness of our plant and animal kin whose profound difference provides a broader and deeper insight into the abyssal mystery of our creature-being.
12 thoughts on “Human, all-too-human, nonhuman species…”
You write “In seeing the promise for communicating with imagined creatures who mirror us in research into interspecies communication one oversells the strangeness of these putative Others and undersells the undeniable Otherness of really-existing animal (and plant) life.” I think this is EXACTLY correct. I find myself orbiting the same point (I was entering into this space of thought in my review of “Nope” several weeks back).
But while I appreciate and tend to agree with the historical-existential conditioning you argue for (you write: “As I have explained (however cursorily) in an earlier post: ‘science and technology…are woven from the fabric of the society within which they appear and operate; they are cultural phenomena through and through.’ Technology, thought concretely, is bound up with a form of life, such that, any other parahuman, technological species would already be close enough to technological Homo Sapiens that attempting to understand them would be more akin to that which occurs between different human groups than that between humans and other animals.”), we must be careful, I think, not to *oversell* this conditioning.
Flipping the idea of historical-existential conditioning on its head: we can’t forget the universal within the particular, within the (historically, culturally, materially) specific. There is always a dimension of universality despite the particular cultural, historical and existential form a technology may take, since a technology is, essentially, a manner in which nature is made to disclose itself. There is, that is, a *non-conditioned* element to technology as well. But it’s found amidst its conditioned form, and may only be perceivable as such (as conditioned). In his elaboration of Heideggerian themes in the philosophy of technology, Albert Borgmann shows that rather than technology being conditioned by a human historical-cultural situation, it is rather that the human historical-cultural situation is itself conditioned by the technology: human social life (and thus a particular way of our being-in-the-world) got changed rather drastically (touching off an epochal shift) as societies moved from organizing life around a hearth as opposed to a thermostat. The manner in which our being-in-the-world must alter itself to accommodate a technology we may in fact have ourselves originated, indicates the structure of its ontological universality — that “objective” element which is unconditioned and un-historical.
On one hand, I would distinguish ‘determinant’ from ’cause’ or ‘ground’ (though that territory calls for more careful surveying, surely). On another, with Heidegger (at least), I’ll surely grant the hermeneutic situation of thinking about technology, i.e., there’s no outside the technological from which to grasp it in the Otherness characteristic of an object; we are always already technological. That being said, I would resist the thesis that there is anything _absolute_ (unconditioned) about technology or about anything human (I take Heidegger’s analyses of the finitude of Dasein very seriously, here). All _that_ being said, the point I would like to drive home is that technology is both determined by and determines in turn a _form of life_, both an _ethos_ (a way of life) and, here, a species, Homo Sapiens, such that any nonhuman species possessed of (possessing and possessed by) technology in this human, all-too-human sense (and technology is I would argue _inescapably_ human) would not pose a challenge to communication as that posed by, e.g., Wittgenstein’s lion. Of course, I’m tempted to push the argument even further, that the very idea of a nonhuman, technological species is in the end merely a projection of the human (ooh, that ‘of’ even does at least double duty, eh), such that the ETH hangs by a very thin thread, indeed…
“If a lion could speak, we could not understand it”(Wittgenstein). Still, if you need to eat, you must have a mouth. The prospect of communication may be more nuanced than we assume.
AJ, I’m uncertain if I quite understand your laconic comment. The post you comment on argues against precisely assumptions about any Other with which we might “communicate” (and even that concept calls for scrutiny). I guess (…) your observing that lions and Homo Sapiens share a number of characteristics as living organisms suggests a commonality that might bridge the gulf in not sharing a “form of life”. There is a sense where an animal trainer might be said to”communicate” with their trainees on exactly these grounds, e.g., rewarding the desired behaviour with treats, prompting behaviour with gestures, etc. Ironically, however, the Otherness of the animal and plant life with which we in fact share the planet is repressed in imaging other “intelligent” life forms, which, as I argue here and elsewhere, are all too much like us, even if they are giant, seven-footed space squids (!). It’s this arguably ontotheological, anthropocentric sense of “intelligent life” that is consistently my target here.
Sorry, I always manage to click the wrong “reply” button. I’ve answered, but accidentally started a separate thread.
I’m especially given to laconic comments when, typing on my phone, I am “all thumbs.” I’ve retrieved my laptop from its charging station.
If you remain sensitive to possible commonalities in “ways of life,” at least due to the commonalities of biological existence, then, to that extent, my comment was misplaced.
Giant squids would probably need very different controls for their spaceships (although surely they would have mastered the control of matter through sheer thought). But if they got here in spaceships at all, they might share our fixation with physicalism. Who knows where to draw the line? It’s tempting to be over-dismissive of the prospects of communication with other species based on these ill-defined differences in “ways of life.” I’m a big fan of Wittgenstein, but I suspect his observation was for rhetorical effect, as he made his case for the nature of language. We might well have something to say to lions, or whales, to the extent that we can understand them. (I once toyed with this in a short fable called The Lion and the Mirror.)
Our conversation is drifting a little from my main lines of argument here at Skunkworks. N.b. I direct my critique at impoverished imaginings of Others who are less Other than the linden tree outside my study window. Along the same lines, the more I study the concrete history of technoscience, the less amenable I am to seriously considering extraterrestrial, technologically-advanced civilizations (e.g., them Heptapods in the recent film “Arrival”). I’m surely in no position to deny their existence a priori (I’ve read my Kant!), but I find the fantasy de facto both anthropocentric and downright ideological (in a Marxian sense), positing a cultural inflection of one population on earth as somehow paradigmatic of “intelligent” life as such, universally. My critique of this mythology (discourse) is intended, in part, to draw our attention to those other forms of life with whom we in fact live and with whom we do interact (if not “communicate” as imagined in a recent Apple+ TV series) and on whom our own existence and flourishing depend.
Maybe it is time to get that cat, as my much better half insists…
Thanks for the corrective; I re-read your post with that in mind.
Bishop’s comment about “insights to an alien species that share the same planet with us” doesn’t seem to be about little green men from Mars (as we used to call them), but about whales. I’d say he’s in agreement with you about overcoming the limits of anthropomorphic thinking as we look for signatures of nonhuman life here on Earth. Perhaps you’re saying that George Knapp understood something else, such as Lizard People, by “alien species that share the same planet with us,” and that in general his expectations, and those of many intrigued by the UAP phenomenon, are coloured by anthropomorphisms.
That would indeed be unfortunate; but though you make a good point , it doesn’t seem to apply against the Guardian article or Greg Bishop. For all I know, even George Knapp is serving here as a straw man, which is a shame because I’m sure ample evidence for your thesis can be found in modern science fiction. The Star Trek franchises come to mind. Arrival at least attempted to suggest a more serious alienness of being (which made its optimistic storyline of inter-species communication a little ridiculous, in my opinion).
If extraterrestrials do drop in on purpose (as opposed to arriving as spores on a meteor, or some such), it’s a safe bet that they’ll be relatable in terms of certain dimensions: technology, exploration, curiosity, either philanthropy (so to speak) or colonial conquest, as well as the basic needs that characterize life, such as food and safety. Ironically, this might put us closer to them than to many species native to our planet. I agree that this is tragic, and that a thoughtless anthropomorphism can blind us to the possibilities for understanding our own Earth.
AJ–Real conversations (“dialogue”) wander where there will, tracking their topic. My observation (re “drifting) was intended more metacommunicatively, to ensure as much mutual understanding as possible.
That being said, I would disagree with your understandings of Bishop et al. They ARE thinking of NonHuman _anthropomorphic_ Intelligences. You’re right, not necessarily LGM, but more along the lines of Crypto- or Ultraterrestrials, some version of the Fae or Sidhe or Little People, cryptids (e.g., Sasquatch), etc. or so my acquaintance with their interests suggests.
And, boy, are you on the nose with your nod to “popular” science fiction! The field of SF is VAST, though. I remember one short story about a new species of shellfish or somesuch that washed up on the shores of the world, which turned out to be delicious… and humanity’s first contact with ETI. There are some canny speculative fiction writers imagining scenarios and plot lines that explode our ontotheological (“Man is made in God’s own image”) notions of “intelligence”, but they don’t make the splash they should, in my mind. And of course, Star Trek and even (especially!) “Arrival” aren’t about astrobiology, but something else. The most robust reading I have arrived at (…) concerning the latter is that its central theme is amor fati…
As to your last proposal, (“it’s a safe bet that [ETI]’ll be relatable in terms of certain dimensions: technology, exploration, curiosity…), the more I reflect on it, the less persuaded I am of that proposal, and the more impoverished the speculation seems to me. Of course, that proposal is underwritten by its own assumption, that ET arrives on purpose, i.e., by means of technology driven by purposes of exploration, colonization, etc. On the one hand, the statistical argument (“The cosmos are so spatiotemporally vast…) seems overwhelmingly persuasive, that in “the plurality of worlds” all possibilities _must_ come to fruition, at least to someone who failed his first statistics course in his undergraduate years; physicist UAP researchers have marshalled this argument in a recent conversation. _On the other hand_, the philosopher in me is more skeptical, and the critical theorist, with his increasingly ecosocialist inclinations, even more critical. Until such time as that Flying Saucer lands on the White House lawn–and even then!–the very idea of a techologically advanced extraterrestrial civilization is ideological, in its functioning to reify, prop up and reproduce a certain social formation. Not that _that_ thesis doesn’t demand endless research and reflection on “intelligence” and into the history and philosophy of technoscience, plant and animal cognition, etc.
Have you read Justin E Smith’s “Against Intelligence”? Google it: it’s a pertinent read, and a pleasant one.
Hope I’m not getting too dogmatic in my own way, here, let alone curmudgeonly…
Thanks for recommending “Against Intelligence.” I enjoyed it. I also took some time to follow some of the linked posts above, and their comment threads, and now I understand your approach to be more or less a Frankfurt-school critique of our culture’s interest in UFOs. The question of understanding “alien” life forms, terrestrial or otherwise, intersected with my own interests, and so I started off in that direction. For you, the interest was in the question’s cultural baggage.
You’re also concerned with “how we understand and relate to those unquestionably real, nonhuman Others with whom we cohabit the earth.” You’re not alone these days. I’ve taken an interest in this as a cultural phenomenon.
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