Iain Hamilton Grant and his crypto-humanism

In a recent appearance, Iain Hamilton Grant deals (see the video lecture below) with the problematic or paradox of the third astronaut with respect to the origin of the universe viewed from a scientific conception of the earliest traces of the birth of the cosmos. In his discussion he mentioned the very problematic of modelling the origin of the cosmos from the most advanced deep image of the earliest universe known to humankind using the most technologically powerful telescope scouring through the vast expanse of the universe – a void by any definition. The third astronaut is used as metaphor for an effect of de-distancing – I’m using my interpretive sense of Grant’s focus in his lecture – in trying to narrow the epistemological gap between knowledge of the universal and the particular frame out of which this knowledge stakes a claim to what amounts to a false sufficiency of the existence of a unity or whole pertaining to the cosmos. This he argues by building on Plato’s notion of the non-equivalency intrinsic to the principle of non-contradiction in which any notion of unity is simply an ‘addition’ to what is out there but does not claim an equivalency in the sense of an ontological relationship.

The non-equivalency or non-sufficient relation, say, between the universal and particular is premised on a medium or context specific frame from which the universal is projected, which rather makes it plain and obvious that the particular, to use another concept of Plato (in the Timaeus), is an orphan word, a mute speech. In other words, it lacks sufficiency which explains why it is always in need of (universal) foundation. When Grant builds on this Platonic notion of non-equivalency and non-sufficiency, his Platonism throws his own interpretation of the third astronaut into sharp relief which signifies the necessity of a third kind of observer (a certain attributable role of a unifier but which in the final analysis cannot claim an absolute function of observation, an external, unbiased gaze). This necessity in fact is not new to philosophy, at least, since Plato. Recall here his argument for the necessity of the third being in Timaeus in addition to the two more familiar forms of being, namely, being (of being) and (being of) becoming. Plato describes this third kind as ‘chora’ – neither being nor becoming.

Those who are familiar with Timaeus must also be familiar with the figure of the chora – one of the chief important insights of this Platonic dialogue, rare for its lesser emphasis upon the figure of Socrates. Plato describes the chora as the third kind or the third being (‘being’ is used for lack of a better term to represent what exceeds and precedes it). The notion of the third is an inevitable trajectory in the Timaeus who, as the main character in the dialogue, cannot occupy, under all circumstances, an external, unbiased position with respect to interpreting the birth and origin of the cosmos his knowledge of which he learned from others. These ‘others’ have given away their third interpretations, otherwise contingent affirmations of the necessity to assume a relative position of transcendence with respect to knowledge, that is to say, transcendent to a specific epistemic frame expressed in situ, as an embedded thought. This notion of ideas in situ is a familiar argument of Schelling. In relation to Grant’s problematization of the third astronaut, this means that the third observer is in a place in space that claims to occupy a position extrinsic to it. And yet, any addition (or rather an interpretation that breaks a path in the familiar terrain of knowledge) to what is ‘there’ already cannot exceed its non-equivalency to ‘what is’, granting that ‘what is’ regardless of the limitation of human cognition to gain access to it is there already. Quite an unchangeable given but the notion of the given is not given in advance, ala Kant’s conceptual Schematism, but rather is borne by a force greater than necessity traditionally conceived as a limit to knowing.

In Kant, necessity would amount to a principle of regulation which somehow approaches the same level of conceptualization of necessity dealt with by Plato (in the Timaeus), that is to say, as an errant cause which, inspite of its errancy, is sufficient to supervise the direction of knowledge. But since necessity in the Platonic concept is errancy in the sense that it exceeds and precedes analytic and speculative reason at the same time, Kant’s Schematism departs from the Platonic by virtue of the exclusive necessity of practical (moral) reason. In a reversal of Plato, moral reason exceeds and precedes even the necessity of a third (errant) kind, the chora. Note that this is the favorite Kantian argument of Zizek who takes up a similar position, the position of the parallax, by virtue of the intrinsic limits of knowledge. Taken in this light, the parallax serves the interest of time or motion vis-à-vis the human gaze, albeit, in a fantastical way by virtue of the necessity of the parallactic condition of knowledge to remain relatively at rest (one must in fact force it to stand still) for something to be observed. And yet because one is always already inside knowledge, the knowing agent is left to imagine an outside, a fantasy gaze (which also affords the gaze a perverted sense of motor cognition – one example is the Copernican revolution), in the guise of a quasi-ontological support to one’s epistemic claim about the Real. All told, this psychoanalytic element of fantasy is simply a new ‘addition’ to what is there already. In other words, there is an outside, whether we like it or not, but whose determination is concurrently as errant as that which exceeds and precedes interpretation in a non-sufficient way. It may be well to emphasize that the outside is our non-sufficient relation to what we may otherwise claim as ‘external’ to thought.  Kant did not give much thought about this notion of the outside except to encapsulate it in the realm of moral freedom in which the outside is re-absorbed as sufficiency – sufficient to the realization of the kingdom of ends, needless to say, in a fantastical (obliviously sufficient) way.

When Kant says that everything should be subordinated to freedom, the function of necessity in critical reason acquires a profoundly different sense from that of Plato’s errancy. Plato did not attribute ‘teleology’ to necessity (nor did he award freedom to the future which, as an effect of freedom, remains a noumenal postulate for Kant, which means to say it is serviceable to Schematism) but insisted rather on the need to trace (anamnesis) the layers of errancy intrinsic to the contingent nature of the force that unites, in a non-equivalent way, being and becoming, present and future. Precisely as an errant causality, Plato’s notion of necessity speaks of the impossible futurity of the past that holds everything in the present, but hold it does in a non-sufficient way. This makes the ‘present’ a non-sufficient temporal horizon, let alone the knowing agent who stands on an unstable ground the overall effect of which would be something like a non-sufficient principle of the Real

What deeply interests me in Grant’s lecture is his supposedly crypto-humanist, or neo-humanist position (in Rosi Braidotti’s description; see Braidotti’s video lecture below), or rather a philosophical position that holds a monistic conception of the cosmos and reality (taking into account his Schellingian influence) on condition that what passes for as his humanist brand is non-sufficient, or to use Plato’s concept, an errant causality the sheer idealist connotation of which is tempered by Schelling’s speculative materialist notion of embedded thought. For the time being, I wish to avoid discussing the huge political cost that Grant’s monism may have to bear in relation to the political demands of critical theory (in her lecture, Braidotti has outlined this enormous cost in terms of its concrete manifestation in the way capitalism, for instance, valorises the human as the central figure of progress, history, etc.), in favor of, for lack of a better term, a deconstructive approach to the Platonic method of anamnesis. In matters of historical hermeneutics, this will lead us to Aristotle’s appropriative critique of Plato’s Timaeus which I think started the tradition of philosophical privileging (instrumentalization) of the human-category.

In the Timaeus the chora is the outcome of the failure of being and becoming (in general, the limitation of ontology) to account for the origin of the cosmos. On the one hand, being is too fixed and permanent to account for motion; on the other hand, becoming is too unwieldy for something like the being of the cosmos to be originated which presupposes of a necessary interruption of becoming, the Heraclitean flux. Whereas being refers to knowledge of what is or what exists, becoming subverts that knowledge by dissolving it. Either way the birth of the cosmos is improbable. As an important aside, this I think is where Grant’s Schellingian influence commands a philosophical strength – through the argument of the third astronaut Grants situates a non-sufficient human standpoint in a contingent, medium-specific topological context of the gaze vis-à-vis NASA’s deep image of space in its earliest known emergence after the Big Bang. He puts to question the notion of deep image as if it is uniquely separated from the image-category behind which the figure of the human lies for whom that image matters.

Comparatively, the third astronaut establishes its position as transcendent to the rhetorical first astronaut and the second astronaut which, for purposes of our discussion, is the same principle that subtends between being and becoming. Arguably, the third astronaut approximates Plato’s concept of the chora. Its image connotation is all the more proximate to it – chora is neither thing nor concept, rather an errant cause, or, in Plato’s other description, a “wanderer.” At the same time however, the third astronaut is an important context of the gaze vis-à-vis the known universe, and yet its importance is restricted to virtuality (the image is virtual, needless to say). In reply to an audience, Grant also emphasized that although technically the Third Astronaut is an unmanned telescope floating in space, its capability to send back a photo-image of the earliest universe precisely reveals the human category behind the camera. (In a related discussion of Laruelle, for instance, the photo is always a fictional category, determined in the last instance as that image of the thing that is always rhetorically sought by the photo but which nonetheless is foreclosed to the human gaze. And as it is with Laruelle, the errant human of Grant is the human determined in the last instance by Man but only because there is no getting around the thing itself except in the way of conscious admission that what one seeks in the image the image gives back in some other kind, a third kind, namely, a content. (This is quite a deviant if not a perverse approach to Laruelle vis-à-vis the notion of the Real as foreclosed, meaning it does not give back to human cognition. I would like to think here that what is sent back to the human gaze is not entirely hallucinatory, but this is another matter. As many readers of Laruelle, I am still struggling with his English translations).

To cap the discussion, the Platonic chora is an outcome of storytelling. If Plato is right, storytelling is immanently transcendent to ontology whose function is to take over, not without its patent delirium, the task of accounting for the origin of the cosmos, that is, when reason failed to demonstrate. This is of course unacceptable to Aristotle who in due course reduced the chora to the test of reason, to the illumination of the logos, the logos apophantikos, claiming instead that the delirium of the chora is what one sees if the search is not radically extended. One does not see as deeply as one should which requires a sufficient amount of light (which in turn necessitates a technological intervention) that one accommodates to supervise the search. In relation to the image of deep space, it is only under the light of the human category that the camera, the human proxy, can penetrate deeply.

Here, I would like to suggest that Grant is a crypto-humanist whose connotation however I would like to distance from Braidotti’s damning critique of all forms of humanism, quite appallingly the be all or end all argument, no matter how one puts it. Grant’s crypto-humanism in a sense overlaps with the allusion of Plato’s chora, or the bastard type, as Plato also puts in another description. But would this amount to an anachronistic argument in light of recent trends in critical theory proposing a turn to the posthuman? I don’t think so. What I think remains under-theorized is the fact that what we call human is as errant as the object (including posthumanism as an object-category of knowledge) to which it lays claim. In contrast, there’s much evidence post-humanist critical theory is deeply anachronistic in proportion to its oblivious absorption of Aristotelianism, specifically its technological conception of the logos.  

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