Apocalypse and Discovery at #Scientiae2018

Just back from the Scientiae conference, held this year in Minneapolis. As always, I learned a lot at this conference, from many interconnected quadrants of early-modern intellectual history. But with special reference to my own interests in sixteenth-century millenarianism, and the invention of discovery,  here are just three points I am glad to have mapped.

First, from Ralph Bauer‘s paper on “The Alchemy of Conquest.” This was a concise but exceedingly rich account of what motivated Christopher Columbus to sail across the Atlantic in 1492. Zeal for new horizons? Ambition? Greed? A teleological anticipation of modernity? Nope: the apocalyptic visions of Joachim of Fiore (ca. 1135-1202), as parsed through 14th-century pseudo-Joachimite alchemical traditions. For Columbus “the Christ-bearer” (Christo-ferens), the Spanish throne was destined to provide a Last World Emperor who would defeat the Turks and reconquer Jerusalem, ushering in the Second Coming. Columbus’s own role, as he saw it, was to provide a shortcut to the “Indian” wealth that would finance the Apocalypse. And out of this profound and paranoid millenarianism emerged the historical phenomenon that we call the New World.

Betcha never saw that on the Discovery Channel.

Next, Vincent Masse on Guillaume Postel (1510-81): the “docte et fol” (learned and crazy) humanist and philosopher who became a cabbalist and self-appointed prophet. Vincent’s survey of Postel’s writings, including those still in MS, has the potential to make this bizarre yet characteristic figure of the sixteenth century newly and broadly accessible to scholars in both French and English. But one point of Vincent’s discussion, in particular, struck me. As scholars of medieval cartography and cosmography know, in High Medieval Europe the sphere that we call the Earth was actually thought to be doubled: a larger sphere of water, and a smaller one of land, the latter floating in the former “like an apple in a bucket”–as David Wootton has put it (and this I learned from him). Among other things, the “two-spheres” model made sailing to longitudinal antipodes of the land-sphere literally impossible, since they would be underwater, and pretty much ruled out the existence of any land masses anywhere on the globe not connected to the single, known world-island (Eurasia and Africa). Now, according to Wootton, this conceptual scheme was immediately and completely destroyed by Columbus’s landfall–the countervailing fact of the New World. But here’s the thing: the very idea of conceptual schemes is that they are highly resistant to destruction by countervailing facts. And it turns out that Postel, himself a two-spheres cosmographer, was impressed, as Vincent showed in his paper, by the troubling evidence of the New World discoveries. But he didn’t conclude that the two-spheres model was over. Rather, he concluded that the world was. If the shape of the world no longer made sense, that simply served as evidence that the world was soon to be dissolved. Perhaps Wootton needs to reconsider the very idea of overcoming conceptual schemes!

Finally, Erin Webster on sacred and universal time in the New Atlantis of Sir Francis Bacon (1560-1626). Among many other wonderful things, Erin pointed out that the discovery-narrative of this late Baconian work precisely is not directed toward the New World of the preceding century. Oh, the Americas certainly get talked about in the NA–but only as a place of such divine disfavour that it can hold no interest for natural philosophers or enlightened travellers. On the other hand, Bensalem, the intellectual utopia actually discovered by Bacon’s fictional seafarers,  is little more than an imagined, perfected, Baconian Europe–already Christianized long before the travelers get there, and already Baconian long before that! A traditional narrative (Wootton again) holds that Bacon’s project for reforming natural philosophy (science) was based on the transatlantic discoveries of the late fifteenth centuries. This is about as true as supposing that Marx’s project for re-envisioning macroeconomics was based on the Boston Tea Party. In other words, it is quite seriously not true at all. (I do not suggest that Erin would agree with that analogy; but it is something that her paper made me think about.)

Next year in Belfast!


How I stopped worrying and learned to be bored by AI discourse

I’m thinking about maps and artificial intelligence.

Not the way you think. I’m not talking about augmented reality or the return of Google Glass or geek fantasies of robot drone guides.

I’m talking about a good old-fashioned paper map.

Suppose you are lost in a strange city. An experience that ranges from disorienting to terrifying. (If you’ve had it, you know.) You are completely at the mercy of your surroundings.

Then somebody hands you a map. Let it be as crude as possible–small, detail-poor, torn. Nonetheless, you can suddenly orient yourself. Act like you know this place, to some extent. Find your way around.

What has happened here? Clearly, an encounter with information technology. An encounter, that is, with information as technology–that tool, that object, which you have attached to your being. The tool becomes, for the moment, the very vector of your being. Person-with-map is a cyborg. But that’s precisely how s/he attains the requisite functionality as a person.

And more than that. By acquiring the map, and starting to use it, you have acquired analytic abilities that were not yours before. You know where that street leads. Which way to the hospital. How to find a hotel. And so on. Mapless people, also lost in this city, can cling to you.

You have become smarter. Artificially.

Two points. One, the phenomenon of information is only ever encountered technologically–however creased, crude, or basic the tool in the encounter may be. “Information technology,” I guess, is itself becoming an old-fashioned phrase, and good riddance. It’s redundant. Technology is not all informational. But all information is technological.

And two: information technology is always artificial intelligence–again, no matter how simple or ungeeky the informational tool. This is why, I think, the horizon of the Singularity keeps receding. It’s not a transformation in our relationship to information. It is our relationship to information.

But it is we, not the map, who become AI.

Das Fahren des Anderen

I have a neighbor who always drives much too quickly down the lane behind my house. Where kids play, people walk, etc.

I think he’s an asshole.

Now, I’ve just been reading the special report in this week’s Economist about Autonomous Vehicles (AVs). Basically, the report says: they’re near, they steer, get used to it. One claim that the E pushes very hard on this file is the utilitarian one. AVs are predicted to be, overall, much safer than cars. (Driven by humans. For short, cars.) For AVs will be programmed, we are told, *not to be able to do* the stupid things so many of us prefer when we get behind the wheel.

My question: my Ahole neighbor likes to drive too fast down the lane.

He has paid very good money for a sweet German SUV to do this in.

Is he really going to be satisfied, renting or owning, with a transportation package that does *not* support the function “faster down the lane”?

On the other hand: If the AV packages supposedly coming down the pipe will actually support this function–what’s the fucking point?


No, robots will never win the World Cup

A tidy little BBC reiteration of the AI/robotics first-step fallacy, identified as such by the late Hubert Dreyfus in *1972*. And he was able to call it then, as I have argued in The Mirror of Information, because it was already old news at that time–going back to the very origins of modern computing! No, geeks, having taken the first step does not mean that the rest will, or even can, follow! Otherwise, as Dreyfus put it, the first person to climb a tree could claim to have made tangible progress toward reaching the moon!

The continuity and consistency of this fantasy technological discourse, since the early 1950s, are absolutely astonishing. Revealing, of course, a phenomenological commitment; having nothing directly to do with technological boundary-conditions at all.

Yeah except I do, so

I was reminded today of what Fredric Jameson finally, finally, finally says, in The Political Unconscious, in response to the putative question “what if you don’t believe in Marxism?”

He says, with an oleaginous sneer: “Well, then I guess you don’t believe in *history*.” And high-fives all around.


We’re all aware of the current hysteria around “AI” (which resolutely continues to fail to exist), robotics, etc. Along those lines, I’ve just been reading a serious discussion about how to make education “robot-proof.” It involves an interlocking set of supposedly “new” skills, having to do with peer interaction, data-analysis, etc., all adding up to something called “humanics” (yes, really)–which, as far as I can tell, is pretty much ideally designed to be mastered by robots.

The thing is: We already know what kind of learning is robot-proof. It is, as Gadamer would say, seeing what is questionable–or perhaps, in a more literal translation of fragwürdig, question-worthy, worthy of becoming an occasion for posing a question. Broaden this hermeneutic insight just slightly, and you get the utterly ordinary and yet totally profound challenge of (a) noticing what’s interesting and (b) trying to say why it’s interesting.

This is what I do, in the literary classroom, all the way down to the first-year level. In fact, especially there. I give my 200 or so 18-yr-olds, their heads buzzing with Civ 6 and XBox N, their mouths full of clichés about machine learning and Big Dayda, a poem. And I tell them to tell me something interesting about it.

THEY HATE THIS. But they kind of like it too. And for good reason, on both scores.

On the territory of their own hermeneutic consciousness, there neither are, have been, nor ever will be, any robots.

Works and Weeks

I have wanted for a long time to understand Paracelsus better. Finally getting the opportunity in developing a paper on Bacon, Timothy Bright (1551-1615) and the anonymous iatrochemical tract Philiatros (1615) for the upcoming Scientiae conference. Anyway, having read some of Pagel and Debus, high-water mark for me has up to this point been Charles Webster’s Paracelsus: Medicine, Magic and Mission at the End of Time (Yale 2008). I found this book fantastically informative, if somewhat plodding and shapeless. But now, in the course of a more systematic review of the literature, I have finally come upon Andrew Weeks’s Paracelsus: Speculative Theory and the Crisis of the Early Reformation (Albany 1997) and it is absolutely brilliant! So clear, so thesis-driven, so beautifully written and illuminating! Looking back at Webster, I find that he cites Weeks, once, dismissively, yet not substantively, and then calls him “Geoffrey Weeks” in the index! WTF, mensch?