Mark Hansen, Feed-Forward: On the Future of Twenty-First-Century Media, 2015.
Eadweard [Edward] Muybridge, Boys playing leapfrog, 1887
Feed-Forward is a project to use Whiteheadian philosophy for a philosophy of ‘new’ media. Its central conceit is the notion of 21st century media: media that not only ‘augments’ or otherwise modifies our sensory experience of the world, but undercuts and bypasses humans in its ability to sense the world.
Feed-Forward – and, by extension, this summary – does its best to introduce Whitehead clearly and without presuming prior intimacy. I also clearly differentiate between Whitehead’s philosophy (as introduced by Hansen), and Hansen’s explicit derivations and modifications. That said, I try to focus on Hansen’s arguments vis-a-vis contemporary media, rather than the long history of interpretations (of Whitehead, of phenomenology…) that he must necessarily address.
Whitehead: “the metaphysical structure of reality has to remain de jure inaccessible to direct experience”. (ix) The speculative is separate from the experiential.
Hansen’s correlate: 21st century media is the objective engineering of the conditions of phenomenal experience which entirely bypasses, occurs prior to, and in sensory regions inaccessible by, the human subject. (37) It therefore operates at the level of worldly sensibility – a domain which human experience has no direct access to. (5) “They challenge us to construct a relationship with them” – they cannot simply be assimilated or used. (37)
For instance, we do not ‘record’ experienced perception and time anymore, as we primarily used to do; now record bits at microtemporal levels that were never experienced in the first place. We archive, but the automated vastness creates Wolfgang Ernst’s ‘anarchives’: a dynamic, permanent, real-time archiving bypassing the human ability to account for it. (40-1) Things too small, short, etc. to experience are now our bread and butter, thanks to the “radical exteriority of the technical supplement” that is 21cm. (53)
Intermission: here we find a puzzle. Could you not say that every form of media has involved such a subtending of human experience? A vast, practically infinite library of printed books (that is, Borges’ Library of Babel) would also be an archive that exceeds our grasp. Hansen’s distinction works best for the kind of data that humans simply cannot collect; for instance, nascent self-tracking technologies that track galvanic skin response as a measure of nervousness are observing the environment at a level where we simply cannot go. Nevertheless, it would be a pity to take this distinction as a singular, grand-historical shift from human media to a kind of post-human media. More usefully, we might consider how the boundaries of what humans recognise as their own experience, and what they consider to be ‘raw and objective’ data, shift across different technological milieus.
Accordingly, human experience of the 21cm world is “the coexistence of multiple experiential presents” – being out of sync or in overlap with different sensory synchronies. (45) Where classical phenomenology reintegrated various different experiential units into the work of consciousness, today phenomenology must account for the re-atomisation and dispersion of sensation, producing, as Eugen Fink says, a de-presenced (Entgegenwärtigung) phenomenology. (47)
The smartphone and other devices are perfect examples of how causal efficacy, the processes of becoming that engineer our worldly sensibility, are black-boxed. (49)
Whitehead: actual occasions (the real things at the basis of all experience) are speculative and beyond direct access; they are created through concrescence, that is, a process of prehensions – both positive and negative (in-relief). Concrescence is an incessant force of creative becoming, one which is always guided by some subjective aim that results in specific things. Once attained, an actuality ‘perishes’ into staticity, losing creativity until taken up by a future concrescence. (12-3)
Hansen’s modification: concrescence is specific for creative becoming in the speculative domain. It should be joined to a wider set of processes to admit the experiential domain. Prehension becomes the extra-experiential process that produces an environmental agency / causal efficacy. (61) It explicates 21cm as an autonomous, objective becoming. (62)
Stiegler’s (Derrida’s) pharmakon: media gives what it takes away. 21cm adds a twist – what it gives is an ability to “perform operations to which they have absolutely no direct access whatsoever and that correlate to no already existent human faculty”. (4-5)
Hansen’s 21cm users find themselves “as supervisors and modulators of material and temporal processes to which they lack direct access” – the Kafkean bureaucrat. (30) Each pharmacological technicity is thus a modulation of what is produced as sensibility (data) and then what of it is made available in what ways to human consciousness. (52)
One difficulty with Facebook, etc. is that the pharmakon becomes a tightly knit package: you don’t choose which bits in the package, and the black-boxing via 21cm means it’s harder to tell what you’re being sold. (71) In such a situation it becomes literally obsolete to critique media solely from the vantage-point of the body or consciousness (50), or to speak of resistance solely on the level of the act or of deliberation. (59) After all, the real stuff has happened before and beneath.
Thus the political task is to correct such pharmacological imbalances, a negotiation. (74-5) That means the subject is a manager in another sense: data-mining is the technology for producing a surplus of data, a surplus both qualitatively (beyond human access) and quantitatively (beyond human grasp). (66) The question is who plunders this surplus and how. (70)
One key problem is that whereas 21cm gather data at a decidedly non-human temporality, for it to be used and understood by humans, it needs to somehow enter into the temporality we experience. Such intersections can be found in, say, speed runs and twitch gaming. A well prepared gamer setting out to beat a time record does not “see” an enemy or a curve, “evaluate” the situation, and then “act” to shoot or steer. Such a neat, linear process seems eminently sensible, but is far, far too slow. Instead, the gamer has prepared for this through innumerable practice runs beforehand. This allows a frenetically automated exercise, filled with barely managed responsivities. Caught in a Csikszentmihalyian flow, the gamer is not in full conscious charge of his/her individual actions at all. You don’t pull the trigger because you have seen the target; you pull almost before your eyes register movement. In DARPA operational neuroscience, experts are made to ‘perceive’ ten images per second. There, it is not their judgment that matters: he/she has no time to vocalise, or even deliberatively process, every image. Rather, it is their neural reactivity that is directly extracted and recorded. (56-7)
Here, we find that the human individual’s own lived experience is also changed: one lives not in the present per se, but lives out, enacts, other temporalities. Imagine a corporate negotiation situation. Instead of watching your interlocutor for visible signs (sweat, fidgeting…), devices recording skin galvanic responses signal you that their anxiety levels are rising. You can do it to yourself, too: the media informs you of your increased heart rate before you are aware of it experientially. In such a situation, nobody in the room is responding anymore to what they experience in real time; everybody is making frantic adjustments according to data-driven expectations and assessments.
Étienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotography, derived from human motion.
Whitehead emphasises consciousness still as the seat of experience, even as the speculative is elevated to the actual creativity. SR/Posthumanist emphases on the object join this separation. Galloway & Thacker’s ‘elemental’ designates the levels of being other than experience and consciousness – the ‘ambient’ and ‘environmental’ aspect of networks. (1)
Hansen’s rebuttal: a neutral view of media/experience is required, one which speaks of environmental agency (3) This means speaking of Whitehead’s nonsensuous perception (or: perception in the mode of causal efficacy) as an extra-human sensibility. (19)
This is also a way of achieving a neutral phenomenology, developing late Husserlian time-consciousness and late Merleau-Ponty’s flesh. Following Jan Patočka, phenomenology becomes redefined not by humanity but worldly manifestation. (67) What they are is recipients / receivers of appearance or manifestation. (68)
Whitehead: “consciousness itself is nothing other than the host of other entities that act through it” (x) – thus “we know ourselves as a function of unification of a plurality of things which are other than ourselves.” (Science and the Modern World 150-1) The superject-rather-than-subject is thus an objectified result of becoming, an attained actuality that then ‘perishes’ into staticity until called upon again for future prehensions. This results in the speculative ban: one cannot directly invoke actual entities to explain what occurs on the order of experience. (86)
Hansen’s correlate: the subject is the superject, the effect of pre-subjective engineering of potentiality as a result of which we are in a position to ‘experience’. Contra Whiteheadian staticity, Hansen restores a ‘seeping’, bleeding agency to the superject, a subjective agentic power that is solely due to its worldly existence. (85) This is the “dispersed, environmental, non-subject-centered subjectivity” of environmental agency. (87)
This extends to a nuance on the speculative ban. Actualities in attainment are indeed speculative and separate, but attained actualities do exercise agency over experiential domains. (86) Superjects / AA are experiential parallels of actual entities / AIAs; where the latter engage in speculative becoming (concrescence), the former engage in experiential, subjective agency. (94, 100-1)
Whitehead’s intensity is developed in Judith Jones as the “ultimate causally efficacious ground for all experience”, and “the product of material contrasts generated by superjects”. (103)
This intensity spells out the continuing subjective power of superjects beyond the point of actualisation. This is Hansen’s ‘claim for inversion’, where Whitehead’s priorities are inverted and speculative processes are made to work for the experiential. (105) Some of this is there in Whitehead: the speculative is not some other dimension, but the bedrock of experience.
The payoff is the dynamicisation of facticity: experience does not work upon the static ‘given’. “Every new event of experience … constitutes an accomplishment of novelty” that is emergent, i.e. “not fully explicable in terms of its gathering of experiential elements”. (109)
Intensity becomes stronger and narrower in more directly experiential levels, i.e. as we draw closer to ‘perception in the presentational immediacy’ and even ‘symbolic reference’ – that is, the conscious synthesis of what-is-present. But it is never fully narrow, and retains an indirection; that is, the nonhuman/neutral agency of worldly things affects the ground of our experience because their causal efficacy is not fully exhausted by their own attainment. (113) This is the relationship between non-perceptual sensation (= WS) and experience that 21cm directly intervenes in, “shaping the very production of intensity at the infraperceptual level.” (118)
Whitehead: societies are sets of AAs (or sets of other societies) “united through the sharing of a common form and causal history.” (119) That is, a shared intensity. Actual entities, as the speculative building blocks of becoming, are absolutely inexperiencable (a la Harman), but this is precisely what allows their product, attained actualities, to “participate in multiple processes of intensity at multiple scales at the same time” – an ‘operational overlap’. (120) Hence societies are what allow speculative processes to produce experiential, specific things.
If 21cm directly accesses and manipulates non-perceptual sensibility in real time, this is an ‘operational present’ that we can never access. (4) Experience always comes late; and it only comes together, becomes perceptually sensible, as an effect. Worldly sensibility is not just “a preperceptual causal basis for perception”; perception is itself “an effect of worldly sensibility.” (145)
When “I see a stone”, that very experience is a symbolic interpretation of a presensorial causality (at the order of nonsensuous perception). There is no pure ‘seeing greyness’ (a la Hume); there is always an objective infrastructure for perceptual machines that precedes it. (158) 21cm brazenly enters into not only the gear-shifting machine from speculative to experiential, but directly manipulates the speculative becoming without recourse or revelation to experience. What happens behind the scenes of experience vastly outweighs what is available to our perception (153); it is the world of machines in the night, humming with life, accessing a life we cannot, while we come half-seconds too late and pick up what we may.
We never really live in the now (25), but a little bit in the future; “each actual occasion experiences its own immortality.” (Whitehead PR in 137) 21cm engages in feed-forward: experience comes together only as they “converg[e] around a just-to-come future moment.” (140)
This builds on intensity’s promiscuous, overlapping character. Already existent actual entities always feature some contrast, some disjuncture, and indeed, every attained actuality is not dead, static, at peace, but ‘vibrating’, excessive to itself, possessing some force of movement. The human subject too is like so, such that my experience of being is not limited to my present but always pulled forward a little into potentiality in a proto-movement of new prehensions. (165-6) Debaise: feelings “are animated by virtual subjectivities that orient them toward something that however does not yet exist as such” (in 167) – what Brian Massumi elsewhere calls loomings.
Whitehead’s data “provide the basic elements out of which experience is constituted”, and do so in a material and causal way. (147) Data thus exercise superjective(ng?) agency. Every 21cm act of measurement, that is, “accessing the data of sensibility”, is a productive act, yielding new objects of sensation. (142) Hence, Hansen speaks not of sense perception but sense reception – the taking-in of data as objective actuality. (156) A pre-sensorial reactivity to objective causes in the order of nonperceptual sensibility produces the subject as effect. (157)
Hansen now speaks of data potentiality – not simply the ‘potential characteristics’ latent in actual entities, but their disjunctive vibrations, their superjective agency. (167) Such potentiality is, as Whitehead says, “ontologically more fundamental than actuality”. It is not virtuality, for it operates within actuality. (28) 21cm work at this level. They are able to access this potentiality in unprecedentedly expansive and direct ways – though a total access is not possible, at least not yet. (169)
What was never actualised exercises causal power over our experience in the same way that on the speculative side prehension can be both positive and negative. Negative prehension is not erasure, but holding ‘in relief’. Every actual entity is a product of everything that came before it, but actualizing means selecting which parts are properly prehended (positive) and which are marked out as absent (negative). (175) It is in the same way that environmental agency mobilises potentiality for becoming. (179) The future must remain non-actualised in order for it to perform this job; it “is felt in the present” only because it remains in the realm of potentiality. (204)
Person of Interest.
Whitehead: Kant addressed subjective data that makes appear the objective world; Whitehead’s Process and Reality is the objective data that undergirds subjective experience. (185)
Hansen: Feed-forward, like Libet’s half-second, reveals the gear-shift in that relation that is ordinarily suppressed for human experience. (190) Once this has been revealed, technology is no longer prosthesis, but “an enveloping of virtualities offered to the body”; from now, the body has never stood alone. (Eric Sadin, in 199) As a manager, “we are modulating a present we literally cannot live in order to engineer experience to come in the future”. (224)
But there is a political problem: this expansion is occurring in ways that the experiencer is denied “the power to shape our own experience”. (198) As in Chapter 1 (p66, 70) – how to handle the surplus of sensibility? Thrift’s worlding: the active mediological engineering of spaces according to 21cm principle.
Google/CIA venture-funded Recorded Future produces a ‘third generation’ search engine, one which examines implicit links – that is, how content online might refer to the same entity or event. It temporalizes those references, and ranks them algorithmically, yielding a predictive analytics of what present knowledge appears to be predicting. (206-7) This is the production not even of Stieglerian ‘collective secondary memories’, but a Husserlian protention that bypasses the human. (208-9)
Yet there is also scope for augmenting the human in various ways. The human as the manager of this distributed agency and leveraging machinic access expands his/her actionability in the world. Person of Interest thus has the human not negotiate, digest and interpret the knowledge of the machine, but simply take it, go into action, and then deal with the knowledge from experience as a separate thing. (213) The program also shows the brutal schedule of the Machine: there is barely (‘just enough’) time to know just enough to act, a window that is always long enough for viscerality but not long enough for contemplation, to exercise good old human agency where it still isn’t too late and where it still makes a difference (i.e. shoot them in the head).