Apocalypse & Universal Epistemology
The apocalypse now occurring around the world is a continuation of yet another iteration of recursive colonialism. Apocalypse is about the end of the world. It is the liminal space warded off by the self-determining subject of Western history. Invoking the threat of uncertainty that can never become real, the end of the world is feared but never allowed. Instead, violent acts of pre-emption perpetuate the threat of an apocalypse that is constantly denied. The more the fear becomes real, the more violent reactions spread everywhere. The apocalyptic scenarios have been actualized in the planetary pandemic of 2020. The new world order, under the COVID-19 pandemic, has seen the backlash of white supremacy and anti-Black violence, the entitlement of brutal practices of policing that have re-programmed the liminal space of apocalypse.
Our concern here is with how the liminal space is always the point at which the recursive logic of colonialism returns to re-gain ground to remind us of the onto-epistemological auto-immunity of Universal Man (i.e., the European conception of the subject, discussed further below). As we have seen throughout history, the horizon of the apocalypse comes first in the messianic Judeo-Christian image of total destruction through which slavery becomes justified as a mean of salvation of the Prometheus Man. The apocalypse finds in techno-scientific progress a universal model of civilization rooted in the mathematics of divide-and-conquer, where space becomes subsumed by the nexus of whiteness, patriarchy, and capitalist logics, which constantly anticipate the end by constantly reproducing its unconditional violence. Then this space moves from a disciplinary modification of the flesh (i.e., a constant self-checking; a discourse on risk and resilience) to strategies of control acting to fully preclude the future through the socio-techniques of prediction and its emergentist actions. As theorized throughout the literature, the constitution of whiteness necessitates the fabrication of Blackness; masculinity necessitates the creation of femininity; heterosexuality needs the construction of homosexuality; and ability will not exist without the formation of disability. While the double-edged sword of capital oscillates between these polarities and keeps the apocalypse as the placeholder of the full self-annihilation of the Western subject, on the other hand, in Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower and Xenogenesis we see that “the end of the world as we know it” has already happened and the possibility to keep on living on this planet includes a becoming-alien and the abolition of all forms of enslavement to allow the thought, the image of trans-collective “difference without separability.”
The recursivity of colonialism is materially and discursively shaping the apocalypse, as illustrated in Chinua Achebe’s classic colonial studies fictional work Things Fall Apart, which was a response to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where the dread of the unknown at the core of humanity coincides with Blackness—and returns yet again to depict madness as a symptom of post-war American empire shocked by the alien war machine of Vietnam in Francis Ford Coppola’s movie Apocalypse Now. Each of these works portrays different variations of the colonial matrix of divide-and-conquer, re-constituting its interiority at the liminal space of apocalyptic self-destruction.
A frequent theme in Judeo-Christian theology, the apocalypse demarcates the place where the problem of the finitude of White Man requires the establishment of a scientific method that enables the transduction of the liminal space of the unknown into postulates of logic or mathematical reason. With computational feedback systems, however, the liminal space is no longer formal but becomes rather self-regulated through the encounter with contingencies. The liminal space of the apocalypse becomes actualized at the liminal space of the computational halting problem.
Recursivity is about reflecting on, self-regulation of, self-adaptation to, and self-regeneration of the interiority of a system. The monologic universalism in the epistemic response to the emergence of contingency creates the apocalyptic scenario where the end of capital is also the end of the human and of freedom. If, as Mark Fisher reminds us, the end of the world is easier to imagine than the end of capitalism, the state of emergency of the pandemic reminds humans that they cannot let colonial capital die. Indeed, like COVID-19, the colonial is aerial and it’s aerosolized: it takes on the very chance of breathing. The pandemic has intensified Western methods of enslavement and technology, even enslavement as technology and the technological displacement of the enslaved subject, toward the protecting and maintaining of capital accumulation. The reparative pattern of enslavement and the epistemological ground of enslavement are one and the same: accumulation strategies of capital. Recursive technologies are modes and systems of thinking, a technological episteme that enables the changing same of universal epistemology.
The planetary world of automated incarceration (i.e., a total dependence on technosocial systems) has arrived as the only response to the pandemic, instituting apocalyptic scenarios through the recursivity of colonial epistemology. What could not have been anticipated is how the pandemic would actualize the apocalypse globally and unleash the imperceptible pressures of, according to Gilles Deleuze’s characterization of control, a process of becoming. The recursivity of self-modulation coincides with the microdiffusion of policing, the transparency of which directs the behavior of the users across technosocial systems. But the pandemic is also a technopolitical acceleration of the destruction of white institutions. In concert with multiple other forces—including neoliberalism, patriarchy, and anti-Black violence—the pandemic arrival of the planetary apocalypse has met the repetitive brutality of Black killing that has suddenly accelerated the unconditional demand for the destruction of the institution of the state and of state violence by the Black Lives Matter movement. The planetary becoming of recursive systems has been supervened by the global uprising for the abolition of all forms of colonialism at all scales.
Recursion is a concept that has long been a part of theories of cybernetics. In its basic form, recursion refers to the feedback loops from the outputs to the inputs of systems. It can also be described as one of the steps or functions within a procedure calling back the procedure. Recursion is conceptualized in computational systems (e.g., the Turing Machine and artificial neural networks), in biological and cognitive systems (Maturana and Varela), and ecological and cultural systems (Gregory Bateson). The process of the past becoming reconfigured in the present, a mythopoetics that shapes the collective cultural ways of knowing, is what Bateson called a “recursive epistemology.” For Bateson, recursion or continuous looping is a departure from the linear progress of modernity and the Cartesian subject.
Bateson’s conceptualization of recursive epistemology, especially his explanations of the influence of mythopoetics, was taken up by Sylvia Wynter in her articulation of the autopoetic turn/overturn. For Wynter, the flesh inherits Western histories of Man that enter the constitution of new assemblages in a system of sociopolitical relations. An idea first named by Franz Fanon, the sociogenic principle is a concept that Wynter further developed as a way to account for how the sociopolitical becomes flesh. For Wynter, the sociogenic principle is an ontological account of how the sociopolitical assemblages of Man and the logic of symbolic “difference” become programmed in the body through the ontogenic formation of identity that brands the flesh. This sociopolitical assemblage of Man, what Wynter also calls Western Man, entails a process of auto-determinations based on the cosmogonies of human origin. She argues that the current iteration of cosmogony corresponds to a biohumanist homo oeconomicus, as informed by the economic theories of Adam Smith. Here the correlation between biological and economic survival, through the forces of selection and optimization of survival, defines the epistemological explanation of who is and who is not successful as a species. It is this correlation that consolidates the formation of the sociogenic code and ensures the reproduction of the racialization of the world. This also corresponds to what could be called the sociopolitical constitution of Man, as a fictive (and yet dominant) genealogy that tells the story of being human, for Wynter understands the reproduction of racialization in terms of autopoetic and self-regulatory practices that are imprinted within the flesh and as such enable the ontogenic self-replication of this originary myth. By drawing from neurobiology, Wynter explains how symbolic “difference” materializes as ontologies via neurochemical processes that produce a racialized e/affect, making the materiality of “difference” seem natural and thus granting a monological explanation of the human. However, it is important to suggest that the autopoetic institution of the sociogenic code permeates not just human ontologies but also more-than-human ontologies including the sociotechnical assemblages of data and algorithms. The sociogenic coding of the other as the negative marker, it is argued, is necessary to the recursive loops of the colonial enterprise, whereby the naturalization of the dyadic structure of equivalence between Man and the world ensures that all remains the same under the Western sun.
However, a dynamic view of computation suggests that temporal processing in artificial intelligence systems can radically challenge the reproduction of the sociogenic principle in technosocial systems. According to Yuk Hui, Gilbert Simondon refuses Descartes’s rationalism by demonstrating that the cybernetic principle of feedback adds a new temporal structure to thinking that is described in terms of a spiral. As Hui further explains, according to Simondon, cybernetics replaces the telos of thought with a self-regulatory process. In particular, insofar as the recursivity of feedback makes the cybernetic system possible, it also impedes the system to become systematic, complete, and a reproductive whole. However, since human relations are abstracted and re-integrated into the temporality of machines, which constitute the engine of artificial intelligence, the question of temporality—and thus of recursive temporality in nonorganic machines—still needs to be further explored. For Hui, margins of indeterminacy not only describe the recursive temporalities of machines, but more importantly also describe a recursive thinking in machines. This argument suggests that the technical machine is not simply a mirror of the normative apparatus of knowledge reproduction. Computation instead can include both contingency and chance within itself because the temporality of the technical object or cybernetic machines precisely admits that errors, incident, and failure are part of the causal process of system’s learning.
Recursion, however, does not coincide with representation as the repetition of the given set of symbolic concepts of a self-determining subject. It is not that machines extend the Kantian transcendental schema rooted in universal intuitions of space and time. Instead, recursion entails a temporal or processual model of dominance entangled to contingency. Within the discourse of race, recursive colonialism is not limited to representational categories but, in fact, enables processual and imminent modes of racialization. In short, recursivity proceeds with the movement of a spiral that embraces spatio-temporal vectors of alien alternatives and even transformative potentialities. The overdetermined mono-technologism of recursive colonialism is breakable. The “germ” of the Other cannot be pre-incorporated by the same self-determining subject without change. The horizon of the apocalypse is incomplete because it always needs the Other, in word and matter, to exist. The horizon is a parasite: fundamentally capital can do nothing without the subjection of the Other.
There have been many apocalypses. Each of which enfolds within itself the incompleteness of the system in order to restore the unifying interiority of the human. Every time there is an apocalypse there is an expansion of enslavement, and each iteration brings an even more intensified form of enslavement. Apocalypse, in other words, is the sign of the limit and incompleteness of recursive knowledge, of science, technology, and governance.
Since recursivity exposes the incompleteness of self-regulating systems adapting to contingencies, it also discloses the incompleteness of the modern epistemological order of truth founded on the universal model of technology. It is in the name of the axiomatics of modern science that technology became the measure of progress against which the global world became measured. The self-posited universality of Western technology resides in the epistemologies of racial capitalism founded on principles of causal efficiency where knowledge becomes equivalent to automated tasks that carry out other tasks in a mindless chain of effects. Echoing Cedric Robison, Lisa Lowe argues that “the organization,expansion, and ideology of capitalist society was expressed through race, racial subjection, and racial differences.” Similarly, the global order of racial capitalism was technologically actualized through the standardization of knowledge. The recursive adaptability of racial capital subsumed techno-cultural diversity under the efficient causality of industrial automation. Its operative mode of subsumption involved the inclusion/exclusion dyad, where unknowns (of non-Western techno-cultures) were used to sustain the Western epistemology of progress. From this standpoint, how to take the limit of recursivity as the moment at which universal colonial epistemology can be turned into the epistemological proliferation of cosmotechnics? How can one open recursivity to many different and thus transversal epistemologies?
In particular, it seems crucial to push the incompleteness of self-regulatory systems towards the account of epistemologies that transform (and have radically transformed) the standardization of knowledge as carried out by technologies, digital media, computation, algorithms, data. But how to do so, without following the claims of the ontological turn against universal epistemologies (such as Stacy Alaimo, Rosi Braidotti, Karen Barad, Jane Bennett, Elizabeth Grosz, and Vicky Kirby among others)? If the “ontological turn” argues against the Western opposition between nature and culture, it is because the suppression of different philosophies of nature and thus of ontologies, such as for instance the culture of animism, also involves the debunking of the universal model of technology. However, instead of accounting for a time before modernity, before racial capitalism in order to uncover different epistemologies of different cultures, how to engage with the question of technology as involving a techno-colonialism without eliminating difference?
However, it seems that arguments about the incompleteness of recursive epistemology cannot be exhausted by the proposition of and for techno-diversity, whereby minor knowledges and representations are granted a particular access to (and under) the universal system of knowledge. In contrast to a multicultural techno-diversity that demands non-Western techno-cultures conform to the Promethean metaphysics of progress, Yuk Hui’s theorization of cosmotechnics, we claim, offers instead a radical insight into how to turn the incompleteness of systems into multi-logical and transversal epistemologies. According to Yuk Hui, technodiversity does not describe how different technocultures follow the same techno-epistemology. Instead, it must account for a multiplicity of “cosmotechnics that differ from each other in terms of values, epistemologies, and forms of existence.” But what exactly is cosmotechnics? In contrast to the Kantian thesis of technology as anthropologically universal, in Hui’s view technology “is enabled and constrained by particular cosmologies, which go beyond mere functionality or utility …there is no one single technology, but rather multiple cosmotechnics.”
Cosmotechnics demand that we account for a technical mediation between metaphysics and cultures that do not conform to the universal standardization of knowledge. However, cosmotechnics also asks for a specific engagement with the way that, today, computation or cosmo-computations can enable modes of experimentations that can push the incompleteness of recursive colonialism to go beyond itself. What would it mean today to experiment with computation in order to expand the cognitive paradigm of technology by starting from the auto-imaging of multiple ontologies, and multiple metaphysics?
When addressing these questions, however, we should be cautious not to neglect the way that the cognitive paradigms of colonial epistemology have changed through and with machine intelligence. Similarly, it is crucial to consider whether computation could already transform the axiomatics of racial capital and challenge the continuous surrogacy of humanity. Computational logic has shown how the self-determining subject is constituted by and throughout the enslaving of matter within the equation of value that incorporates the n-1 dimensions of Blackness, sexes, and desires. The tension between recursive colonialism and the artificial intelligence systems of today therefore demands that the universal epistemology of computation is radically defied by multiple cosmo-computations for which the continuous chain of algorithmic efficiency is, each and every time, overwritten by the indeterminate conditions of computation that allow for systems to become more than one. Instead of a universal master algorithm that surveils all through the constant addition of axioms by axioms and continuous updating of the system, the so-called age of planetary automation must be submerged by the plethora of trans-infinite axioms that account for trans-infinite worlds that inundate the system, deliver the system to its incompleteness, and make the system become more than one. For cosmo-computational epistemologies entail not only a limitless opening to different techno-cultural forms, but the transformation of the condition of computation such that the universal cannot slip back in as the mediator of particularities.
Computation Without Separability
We argue that the recursive self-adaptability of a universal epistemology must be challenged by and through the account of multiple cosmo-computations. As an instance of the cosmo-technical formation of contemporary information systems, cosmo-computation must account for how algorithmic functions, binary digits, data, probabilities and predictions, and iterations and randomness enter the cultural languages or cultural logics of metaphysics. Instead of a Universal Turing Machine, cosmo-computation must turn toward the computational multi-logics that afford cultures the possibility of transforming their relations to the metaphysical conditions of the human, entailing not simply the abolition of Western metaphysics but the abolition of all systems of knowledge based on the mirroring effect of the universal and the particular. Whereas the modern model of efficiency of universal technology is said to be a mere extension of Western metaphysics, the call for multiple cosmo-computations instead follows Hui’s reflection upon multiple metaphysical spaces (spaces of indeterminacies or unknowns) that are culturally mediated through and with technics. From this standpoint, computation is at the center of a planetary negotiation with unknowns, which are represented under the rules of computational recursivity as the latter extends the strategies of preservation of the self-determining subject. Recursivity in computation is a computer programming technique of divide-and-conquer in order to solve problems by breaking down generalities into particularities. This colonialist language and logic in computation is not random nor by happenstance. To echo Lisa Lowe’s analysis of the colonial empire: recursivity was already part of the computational metaphysics of racial capital. Drawing on Cedric Robinson’s articulation of racial capital, Lowe reminds us that “racial capitalism suggests that capitalism expands not through rendering all labor, resources, and markets across the world identical, but by precisely seizing upon colonial divisions, identifying particular regions for production and others for neglect, certain populations for exploitation and still others for disposal” (149). In order to overturn the metaphysical recursivity of racial capital in and through computational recursivity, it seems necessary to argue that computation as the contemporary universal techno-system must be radically transformed first in itself so that it can become open to non-Western cosmologies.
For instance, a heretic study of the post-Turing paradigm can contribute to a radical transformation of the matrix of computational logic by turning the axiomatic protocols of the included/excluded through which the system constantly updates into a speculative computation of “differences without separation.” With the post-Turing paradigm, the irresolvability of the halting problem opened up a field of possibilities for computation to become an immanent process of interaction between algorithmic parts that could not be synthesized back into a complete procedure. Since Turing’s halting problem had pointed out that it was no longer possible to know beforehand when particular computations would stop, the break in the universal model of technology had already happened in the late 1930s. The reliance on a continuous efficiency of tasks could not be granted without the external addition of recursive axioms that would allow the system to continue to divide and conquer, constantly preserving universal epistemology. With post-Turing intelligence systems, however, indeterminacy in computation enters the field of speculation—or in other words, futurity. What this means for computation is that algorithmic predictive modeling must include indeterminacy in the interactive procedure between and across intelligent systems.
Within the framework of recursive axiomatics, incomputables demarcate the constant limit of the operations of dividing and conquering; a limit that must be replaced with another adaptable axiom that secures the operations of inclusion/exclusion. Thus, speculative computation breaks with recursivity. The interaction between data sets, contexts, and algorithmic rules entails not a recursive learning, but a trans-ductive learning. This entails namely a transformation of the conditions of interaction across systems that stems from the indeterminacies at each level of the interaction. It is possible therefore to re-elaborate the limits of knowledge from the standpoint of what cannot be measured. This is a computational fabulation entailing a cross-interaction (or asymmetric and not mutual) relation between hypothesis and indeterminacy. As much as a hypothesis coincides with a logic of unknowns, so too indeterminacy defines the condition for this logic. We suggest that the contemporary articulations of cosmo-computations not only refuse the universality of the Turing machine, but also the recursive logic of divide-and-conquer, sequentiality, and determinacy.
While addressing the reactions about the influx of refugees entering the Mediterranean to access Europe, Denise Ferreira da Silva talks about a “racial grammar” of modernity based on the rules of “separability, determinacy, and sequentiality” that have supported the epistemological program of modern philosophy. In addition, Da Silva asks us to reflect on the way that the content of modern epistemologies in explaining differences has shifted from physical forms to mental, moral, and intellectual differences, as, for instance, in the work of cultural anthropology. This shift from the biological to the cultural explanation of differences according to Da Silva importantly echoes the work in classical physics, relativity, and quantum mechanics, which changed the study and approaches to economic, social, and juridical issues in the same way as Michel Foucault’s analysis of micropower was crucially understood in terms of quantum physics. For Da Silva, these critical methods, inspired by major transformations in epistemological explanation of difference, have not yet been allowed to constitute the image of human “difference without separability.” Rather, developments in physics have been used to reify the idea of culture and mental content as mirroring the separation between cultures through the matrix of identity, nationality, and ethnicity. Da Silva insists that the fundamental explanation (and thus scientifico-philosophical explanation) of cultural difference still relies on “the principle of separability”. The latter considers the social whole as constituted by separate parts that enfold different conceptions of humanity measured in relation to the universal standard of “white European collectives.”
Da Silva proposes to invert the pillars of modern epistemology from within the scientific explanations that defy the concepts of separability, sequentiality, and determinacy. In particular, she takes the principle of non-locality in quantum physics to argue that the epistemological explanation of difference can be defined in the fundamental terms of an “elementary entanglement” for which difference coincides with “singular expressions of each and every other existant as well as of the entangled whole in as which they exist….”
From this standpoint, we suggest that what could be called “quantum-technics” is yet another contribution to the current efforts to rethink how the incompleteness of systems becomes central to the articulation of cosmo-technical onto-epistemologies that are needed to defy the recursive re-ordering of universal technology. In particular, with cosmo-computation we ask, how can technological universality be refused and transformed through practices of difference with inseparability?
We know that the computational techno-mentalities based on recursivity have already been counter-articulated by many attempts to argue for incomputability and indeterminacy as the conditions of computational processing, where spatio-temporal interactions step beyond the pillars of sequentiality, dividing, conquering, and determinacy. Recent efforts to challenge these pillars can be found in ludic logic that explains the computational search for proof in terms of interaction between the syntax and semantic dimensions of learning algorithms. Starting from the geometrical complexity of loci, that is, places that interact, the interaction is defined not in terms of points representing fixed space-time, but are rather understood in terms of actions and assemblages of actions.
In particular, loci are neither discrete points in space-time nor formal axioms. In ludics, the indeterminacy of computation is not to be compressed, but is constitutive of the nexus of local actualities that enable the interaction of rules and the asymmetric relation between syntax and semantics. Actualities are defined not by positions but by action and therefore by intra-activities that generate epistemologies that expand the non-linear relation between the technics and meaning, culture, and machines. Cosmo-computations, therefore, will admit not one changing system for all, but mainly a praxis and poetics of knowledging together, as humans and more-than-humans perform different actions inseparably because the computational correspondence between syntax and semantics can run in more than one direction and admit more than one elaboration of meaning.
Coda on Post-Apocalyptic Abolitionism
Our inquiry into recursive colonialism breaks from the metaphysics of the apocalypse because it shows that the foregrounding of incompleteness at the core of the colonial system of knowledge has broken open the immunity of the self-determining program of Man. As much as this technology extends the universal pillars of knowledge based on dividing, conquering, determination, separation, and iteration, it also exposes the system to its constitutive indeterminations because no whole can contain all of its parts, and no law of equivalence can account for what remains incalculable.
Our inquiry starts in post-apocalyptic times, because it argues that this has been our everyday condition since modernity, when the war machine of colonial empires everywhere activated violent strategies of preemption against abolition, total war on difference in order to stop the full abolition of White Man and its white magic machine. In particular, the long-term process of abolition has started with the refusal of the recursive forms of colonial epistemologies that maintain raciality in the symbols, institutions, and codes of white supremacy. From praxis of refusal to the poetics of fugitivity, the critical work of abolition has hit the core of the logic of computation. The concretization of mathematical formalism in machines exposed incompleteness in the universalism of logic, which in turn precipitated the apocalyptic end of Man and opened the recursive order of colonialism to contingencies. The post-apocalyptic world is emptied out of universal humanity and promisingly, as in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, it is forced to undergo un-determinable phases of change that turn the universal into a plethora of cosmo-technical assemblages of logics, machines, realities. However, when the universalism of computation returns with the colonial acceleration of separation and divisibility mapped through the planetary response to the COVID-19 pandemic, what is forced to change is precisely the projected immunitas of White Man. Not only has the virus (whether man-made or not) refused to maintain the pace of global business as usual, but it has also intensified the reactions of racial capitalism, extending the universal response of total incarceration for everybody (e.g., self-quarantining). However, the regime of incarceration has a long history reflected in the perpetuation of racial violence and is not equivalent to the enforcing code of stay-at-home resulting from the planetary governance response to the COVID-19 pandemics. Indeed, this concentrated condition of incarceration has exacerbated the intolerable demand of being resilient and accept the continuous gratuitous violence against black people. But the refusal to re-become pre-incorporated into the recursive epistemologies of the empires has this time taken on a life of its own, searching for alliances beyond identity, demanding a re-origination of thinking, learning, knowing, and living beyond the programs that ensure accessibility, diversity, and delegated representation. The refusal to be under the recursive program of technological universalism, however, also requires that computation as we know it must change. The indeterminate dimension of interactive rules points to the possibility of re-articulating computational logic away from one universal language insofar as in ludic logic (Girard, Girard, Jean-Yves (2001) Locus Solum: From the Rules of Logic to the Logic of Rules. Mathematical Structures in Computer Science 11(3): 301-506) for instance the syntactical links between places are not static points but are assemblages of actions that elaborate meanings in an immanent fashion. As these action/algorithms without programming prevent form from shaping matter, they also open computation to a multi-vocality of logics, to the plethora of parallel cosmo-computations, where there is no pre-modern past because all of the past is in front of us demanding to be debugged from the virus of fear, the fear of change that sustains recursive colonialism’s illusion that the apocalypse has yet to come.
Cover image: Jean-David Nkot, PO.BOX.Ghost of firstname.lastname@example.org, 2019
Indian ink, acrylic, silkscreen printing and posca on canvas, 105 x 100cm