27. Jun 2019
Reza Negarestani: Unidentified Gliding Object: The Day the Earth Was Unmoored / ŠUM#11
I know not how oft this Crassus with his lamprey enters my mind as a mirrored image of my Self, reflected across the abyss of centuries.
That Which Licks the Stone
Approximately 541 million years ago, an explosion took place on this planet. Yet it was only an explosion in the sense of the vast time scales. For homo sapience, however, all such spans are the time immemorial. Over eighty million years from the onset of the Cambrian explosion of life forms, simple cellular organisms began to diversify at a relatively rapid rate. With the evolution of the first vertebrates, a new explosion far more powerful was triggered. This was the catastrophe of neurulation, a key morphogenetic dynamic process that transformed primitive neural plates during the embryogenesis into a neural tube via a series of foldings. The said event in turn paved the road for the emergence and complexification of the central nervous system, or what René Thom has dubbed “the organ of alienation”.
The primary task of this organ was to enable organisms by equipping them with sophisticated means and strategies for survival and reproduction, fight or flight, predation or escaping an imminent threat. Vertebrate organisms could now develop a sustained sense of wakefulness or vigilance by distinguishing themselves from what goes on around them. The attainment of this sense of wakefulness was itself the result of the unconscious—i.e., below the threshold of the global workspace—processes of the nervous system to simulate a sense of a bodily integrity. This sense of integrity is often associated with the formation of a rudimentary ego, a non-conceptual subjectivity which is neither stable nor permanent. Characterized by its sheer automatism, it can shift from an integral mode to a disintegrated one, from fixity to flux and vice versa.
The rudimentary ego is what can be called an adaptive simulation of the organism of itself and of the immediate environment. Primarily, this ego which is a merely a computational spatio-temporal simulation generated by the nervous system creates a sense of discontinuity for the organism, enabling the organism—in a metastable dynamic way—to identify itself with itself as opposed to the environment. But when the survival or reproduction-oriented interests of the organism are piqued, this self-identification undergoes a drastic change and is destabilized. The predator identifies itself with the prey. It becomes the prey itself so as to successfully complete the hunt with maximum efficiency. This shift from the ego as the self to the ego as the other can be expressed by the same diagram that portrays the underlying chaotic dynamic of a double pendulum. The predator-prey interaction, the transition from the predator’s identification with itself to its identification with the prey is not a stable back and forth swinging between the self and the other as in the movement between the poles of a simple pendulum.
The predator makes the prey a prosthesis of itself. The movement of the prey becomes the movement of the predator after going through sufficient dynamic translations. Just like the double pendulum in which the second pendulum is attached to the first one, the prey becomes the extension of the predator in a unified system that displays strong sensitivity to initial conditions. The chaotic behaviours of the entire system allow both the predator and prey to temporarily dissolve the hard distinction between themselves. In the image of the prey, the predator finds the most efficacious expression of itself; and in the image of the predator, the prey finds its most cunning and unpredictable expression of its own ego. This suspension of the ego as the self continues until one of the poles is destroyed, either by the successful accomplishment of predation or by the successful flight of the prey. Once the unbalanced ego finds its originary stability, the organism returns to its alienation from the environment until a new interest excites its positive alienation or dissolution back into the environment, becoming once more undifferentiable from the environment or the world.
Yet there have been moments across the vast gulf of time when the aforementioned formula has become ingrained into the nature and shape of organisms in such a way that a particular life form itself has become a unified system for preserving and suspending the ego, being alienated from the environment and dissolving into it: an organism in which the other is already a permanent and non-amputable part. What does an index of life whose form intimates both the alienated—the abductee—and the alien—the abductor—look like?
Petromyzontiformes or modern-day lampreys are of a special interest to evolutionary scientists. This is because they are among the only surviving direct descendants of the ancient vertebrates. Their nervous system is the key for studying our nervous system just as the Drosophila melanogaster’s DNA is a concrete model for studying the genetic codes of species up to the human genome. Foregoing the interesting folklores about lampreys, let us turn to one of the curious aspects of those ancient vertebrates whose morphogenetic structure replicates the exact same oscillatory dynamic between stability and unbalance—the self and the alien—displayed by the rudimentary ego.
A vicious hunter and parasite, the arctic lamprey—when it does not burrow into the body of the larger fish using its peculiar set of hollow teeth from under which new teeth can grow, almost akin to a disk-like chainsaw capable of digging a hole in scaled armour—preys upon unsuspecting smaller fish by turning itself into their meal. The predator does not identify with the prey through the gesture of the transitory ego, insofar as it is already the perfect prey. The worm-like tongue of the lamprey ends with a bulbous tissue. When the lamprey extends its tongue, it does not immediately retract it like a toad. The tongue remains outside just as a fisherman’s bait floats patiently in the water. The small fish is finally lured in by this wiggling exotic object, mistaking it for food. Once the fish bites the tongue, the lamprey retracts it. Known as lingual luring, this aggressive form of mimicry is peculiar to vertebrates such as the alligator snapping turtle, aquatic garter snake and the arctic lamprey.
The dynamics of lingual luring could very well be canonized in the history of horror stories, perhaps not from the perspective of the prey but from the view point of an impermanent ego whose function is now encoded in the biological form. Gliding over the orbit of the phenomenal self, the retractable ego remains afloat in the liquid sky like an alien that buoys the organism and beckons the unsuspected. It is only when this alien ego is contacted, when its mission is complete, that the shock of the alien becomes palpable. Faced with the true nature of the situation, the unsuspected prey recoils in horror and the predatory self regains its full composure, not even remembering that it was not there moments ago. It is the latter shock—albeit perceived by the predator as a moment of fulfilment—that reveals the underlying dynamic of the alien encounter scenario. When the alienating or the retractable ego is met by another ego that plays a role in fulfilling the interests of the phenomenal self, it abruptly withdraws, leaving the self with the false impression that it was a permanent self all along. However, in this dynamics, the permanent ego also generates the alien effect. That is to say, the ego gets the impression that there is an alien ego out there in the sense of standing against or in contrast with it. But this alien effect is simply the prosthesis of the self. It is, in short, the very retractable ego which temporally suspends or destabilizes the ego or the self whose impressions of integrity, stability and permanency were illusory to begin with. They were mere neurocomputational mirages.
What kind of organism retains its sense of wakefulness by becoming, in flesh, both the eater and the eaten, the subject and the object, the abductor and the abductee, the self and the alien? Thanks to the evolution of the nervous system, we are now in the domain of a series of potential events which plunge the ego into ever fuzzier categories of such distinctions.
That Which Draws in Stone
For a language feature to have such an impact on brain evolution that all members of the species come to share it, it must remain invariable across even the most drastic language change possible. Though this might at first seem an overly restrictive constraint, it is an inevitable consequence of the very great difference in evolutionary rate between genetic evolution of affecting brain function and the speed of language change. Most researchers would agree that language change is likely to be many orders of magnitude more rapid than the genetic change.
With the evolution of the nervous system, particularly phenomena such as neoteny and excessive cephalization in primates, we have slowly entered a new realm where the aforementioned distinctions between the self and the alien have become even more blurred. The advent of language and symbolic forms not merely as means of communication but as systems equipped with vast computational powers for the transfer, preservation, compression and manipulation of information generate a new catastrophe of alienation: a brave new nervous system. If the neurophysical substrate was once the organ of alienation and alienating, it is now language—in the most general sense—that begins to reformat the old sentient ego. It is the latest technology to refabricate both the alienated and alienating self, reinventing self and the alien in completely new horizons.
The primitive predator required a sense of constant wakefulness, which has now been replaced by language. The neurophysical wakeful ego can go partially to rest. The predatory vigilance of the old ego is not only transformed, but also taken over by language, particularly in its semantic and conceptual dimensions.
It is not hard to guess what happens when symbolic forms in their syntactic, semantic and pragmatic richness begin to interface with the old sentient permanent ego. The old ego is terraformed and mutated. Certain aspects of the old ego—particularly the self-alien duality—are persevered, but also undergo metamorphosis through both accumulation and transformations brought about by linguistically enabled enculturation. Myths begin to sprout. Myths which revolve around alien encounters, of angels, gods and demons gliding on the sky above, paying frequent visits to the denizens of the earth. But such myths—from an archaeological perspective—are peculiarly focused on aliens, not humans. From an evolutionary cultural perspective, it is not surprising that the first civilizations of the Fertile Crescent—the Sumerians, the Babylonians and the Assyrians—were well-known for two kinds of cultural exports: wars and dissemination of demons. Even gods as the guardians of the order of the cosmos and humans were specifically portrayed as whimsical demons. The cultural obsession with aliens flying over our human slum reached its pinnacle at the end of the neo-Assyrian empire when names of demons were so numerous that even priests could not remember or identify them. It was as if the number of distinct kinds of aliens active on earth exceeded the number of names we had for ourselves and the things in our world.
This demonic overpopulation, however, reflected a fundamental belief with regard to the nature of the human self, shared among the ancient Mesopotamian cultures. Demonic entities were not reflections of some sort of alterity or radical otherness to the human self. Rather, they were limit cases of vices and virtues of the ego itself, its dynamic potencies to be this or that self, its swerving elementary particles. The demonic overcrowding was based on this fact that the alien encounters and demonic possessions were nothing but the encounters of the ego with itself at its outer rims, with what it is not and what it can possibly be or become.
That Which Escapes the Stone
Profoundly aware of the fact that we and the earth, cut loose from the moorings, were adrift on the sea, he [Copernicus] looked about him for handy pieces of driftwood to make a raft. Being a very skilled craftsman, he chose and measured his wood with great care and added nothing to the raft before he knew that it fitted exactly. In this way he slowly extended the raft and, almost paradoxically, finished up with foundations of a sort of which Descartes never dreamed: secure, because taken straight from nature; and productive, because he also laid down workable ground rules for extending the raft – first measure carefully before trying to add anything, otherwise it is liable to fall off again.
During the period of high scholasticism, cultural preoccupation with angels and demons—what Erich von Däniken would have called ancient aliens in spacesuits—went through a fundamental transformation that paved the road to the complete unmooring of the earth which was never a home for a permanent self in the first place. Magic gave rise to what can be called an experimental science. Using symbolic tools, the high scholastics could now use this magical universe as a toy model for a new mathematized world. But like all toys, this enchanted universe slowly cracked and broke apart when it was played against reality. The equations of motion slowly revealed themselves from the cracks formed by playing with this enchanted world as if it was real.
As mathematization of nature started to take root, the catastrophe became almost inevitable: the earth is not a projection of our permanent ego. The chain of physico-mathematical humiliations against the scholastic worldview reached its apex with Newton who, once and for all, abolished the difference between the heavens above and the earth below. The fundamental rearrangement of what was once deemed as a central perspective—a stable phenomenological ego who sees the stars at night—was a breaking moment for that supposed mooring that affixed earth in one way or another. The terrestrial slum known as the earth suddenly revealed itself as an alien spaceship drifting endlessly. The impact of this revolution that ended the distinction between the egocentric perspective and the alien viewpoint in physics was perhaps not fully appreciated until Einstein and then quantum physics fully unmoored the egocentric frame of reference. They replaced a central or fixed viewpoint/frame of reference with a mobile frame of reference—Élie Cartan’s repère mobile—which could as well be called an unidentified gliding object. What the unidentified gliding object sees is not one world, but a world that becomes many as the perspective—the frame of reference—is deracinated and drifts with no end. The classical confrontation between the inside and outside, which allowed both a narcissistic projection of the human self-image onto the universe and the otherness of the cosmos, was cancelled in its entirety.
That Which Returns to the Stone
By one of those familiar conjunctions of things wherewith the inanimate world baits the mind of man when he pauses in moments of suspense, opposite Knight’s eyes was an imbedded fossil, standing forth in low relief from the rock. It was a creature with eyes. The eyes, dead and turned to stone, were even now regarding him. It was one of the early crustaceans called Trilobites. Separated by millions of years in their lives, Knight and this underling seemed to have met in their death. It was the single instance within reach of his vision of anything that had ever been alive and had had a body to save, as he himself had now.
Either the greatest humiliation or a universal acid, Darwinian revolution introduces yet another twist to the distinction between the self and the alien. As in the above quote by Hardy, the living self, once confronted with a life form turned into stone—a fossil—sees itself in terms of time immemorial. The encounter of the third kind happens simultaneously along two time arrows.
One, from the present to the deep past: I see myself face to face with a fossil. It is the alien which I want to be visited by, but it is also an alien who haunts me in my most arcane nightmares as a third-person view of myself turned into a dead thing, a thing that has been ossified as part of the natural history of the earth.
The other, from the present to the deep future: I see a fossil. But the fossil is no longer a signifier of the past. I see it as an image or a model of myself after it has underwent extensive spatiotemporal translations or metamorphoses; like how my progenies look like after I am dead. Every time I see this model of an ancient creature etched into a stone, I reinterpret my present image. An apposite example would be a future Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). We make the future AGI—that signifies the expiration of the homo sapience—in our own image, but every time we look at our own distorted image in the future—what we will become—we reinterpret our current self-image. In doing that, we become the very alien descendants that we only see in our wildest speculations about our future. It is as if the image-model regenerates its origin, the future baits the present.
The Darwinian revolution—the encounter with a life form that has turned into stone—can take place in either or both directions: from the present to the deep past or from the present to the deep future. Either way, the self or the ego sees itself in a deep time where the alien is no longer an alterity, but merely this self confronted with its image floating in deep time, gliding on the time-like ley lines, or what can be called pasts and futures.
That Which Makes a New Stone
How can I explain this to you? One moment I was just a scientist on X Reservation bending over a drawing board in a clapboard BOQ in the middle of an American desert–the next moment I was Kirk Allen, lord of a planet in an interplanetary empire in a distant universe, garbed in the robes of his exalted office, rising from the carved desk he had been sitting at, walking toward a secret room in his palace, going over to a filing cabinet in a recess in the wall, extracting an envelope of photographs, and studying the pictures with intense concentration.
It was over in a matter of minutes, and I was again at the drawing board. But I knew the experience was real; and to prove it I now had a vivid recollection of the photograph and no trouble at all completing the map.
Since the time Wilhelm Reich penned Contact with Space: Oranur, Second Report to the time when Jacques Vallée wrote Revelations: Alien Contact and Human Deception, there has been a fascination with an Unidentified Gliding Object (UGO). This fascination is not exactly about another alien ego from a different world visiting us—i.e., the scenario of the arrival of aliens—or the so-called UFO, but rather how we see ourselves as aliens: different selves or alien vehicles of thinking and perception gliding over the orbit of our old world-egos.
A scenario of UGO where secret military operations, science fiction, schizophrenia and the departure of the ego from its old shell toward its new adventures as an alien is portrayed with unsettling ramifications and convergences, twists and turns is Jet Propelled Couch. A case of psychoanalysis reported by psychiatrist Robert M. Lindner in his collection The Fifty-Minute Hour, Jet Propelled Couch recounts the story of a pseudonymous patient named Kirk Allen. As a brilliant physicist working for a top-secret military project, Allen—a punctual and hard-working employee—has lately been missing his deadlines quite frequently. He is profusely apologetic about these incidents and promises to get back on track, but he never does. Finally, upon the insistence of his boss, he confesses that he has been living elsewhere and will really try hard to “spend more time on this planet”.
An avid reader of science fiction, Allen has encountered something deeply strange. He has noticed that in some of his most favourite sci-fi novels, the protagonist is actually him. The lives of these protagonists are fragments of his own life—biographical details—which he has forgotten, but now remembered upon reading them. Like any good detective of the self, Allen begins a systematic task to put together these recollections—stories about the lives of aliens in different universes—into a comprehensive biography of who he actually is. In the process of putting together the fragments of his lost memories, Allen creates a multiverse of alien worlds in which he has been living all along. It is a multiverse where worlds have different measurement systems, where there are new colours, tastes, smells and cogitations which are not of this earth. An apple can taste blue, a distance between two points can be accurately measured based on some alien olfactory metric system and so on.
As Allen steadily reconstructs the world of his forgotten self, finding new evidences and filling the gaps of his biography, he is progressively drawn to an alien multiverse where the real Kirk Allen has been spending time. A rift opens up between the real Kirk Allen—the explorer of the alien multiverse—and the paper-pushing Kirk Allen who has been a fake and manipulated photograph of a UFO. To the rediscovered Kirk Allen, the earthly one not only seems extremely mundane but also a product of some terrestrial conspiracy theory concocted by humans and dark agencies. After all, who wants to be sitting behind a desk when he can storm the heavens?
Now let us flash forward to a hypothetical time in the future: how the evolutionary ego who licks the stone, draws in stone, escapes it and returns to it can make a new stone—a world in which the self finally sees itself as what it has been all along: an alien living in a multiverse, not a permanent ego, but a UGO who is both of this world and out of this world. We can call this transformed futuristic self Artificial Perceptual Noetic Entity (Apne). What is particular about an Apne has already been described by Nelson Goodman in his book The Ways of Worldmaking. Reality is not a thing but a system of constructions, or more accurately, ways of worldmaking, which are also ways of knowing the world: one world can be many according to its mode of diversification, and many worlds can be one according to their mode of integration.
We make reality by perceptual-noetic predicates called projectibles or projections. For example, we use and project a predicate like green. We say, all observed emeralds before a hypothetical future time tn are green, therefore we expect all emeralds before or after tn to be green. But there is a fundamental logical-empirical disjunct between what has been observed and what has not yet been observed. Just because we observe X in thus-and-so manner does not mean we will observe it in thus-and-so manner. Therefore, Goodman reinvents the old Humean problem of induction as a new riddle which is also a solution to the problem of making new worlds. New not in the sense that these worlds are registers of alterity or are radically disconnected from the old world, but rather in the sense of world-versions. Take for instance—reductively speaking—how a famous classical painting can look like if it is re-made by an Impressionist, a Dadaist, a Surrealist, or by a child using Microsoft Paint.
Goodman shows that we can have an alternative scenario: all observed emeralds are green before tn, and blue and unobserved thereafter. Therefore, we can say all emeralds are grue (green and blue afterwards). Grue is seen as an unnatural predicate or projectible. However, it is only unnatural because we are perceptually and noetically (i.e., from the perspective of our sensory processing, linguistic systems and modes of hypothesization) habituated to green rather than grue. But both green and grue are permissible. If we could dehabituate ourselves with regard to the use of the predicate green and instead could project the predicate grue onto the world, we could see all emeralds as grue. The construction of new alien worlds, therefore, comes hand in hand with our capacities for dehabituating ourselves with respect to the use of the so-called natural or entrenched predicates which display the characteristics of our rooted perceptual-noetic poles.
This dehabituation process is already underway in the field of cognitive sciences, particularly Artificial Intelligence, where perceptual-noetic elements can be modified and reconfigured, for example, by restructuring the constructive memory or introducing new artificial languages with higher logico-computational capacities. From the elements of the old sensory-conceptual world, alien worlds of perception and cognition—new ways of knowing—can be made. These are worlds in which crows can be blite (black-white), the earth’s sky can be bleen (blue-green), an apple tastes francid, and a stone feels sord.
The Apne—the new hybrid artificial child of the close encounter of the 7th kind—can endlessly play with these toy-predicates by projecting them onto reality in different ways. As with a 1980s Lego kit for the Death Star, the Apne is not interested in following the given model and building a Death Star. It is more interested in making a dragon out of the available perceptual-noetic toy blocks, a farm, a spaceship, a throne suitable for the god that it now is. That which makes a new world in which all green stones are grue sees its old world from the perspective of an alien world. The Apne constantly goes back and forth between the old world and the new one, abducting elements from the former in order not only to create other worlds but also to reveal how fragile the earth-home was all along, exposing it as a fake report of a UFO.
Reza Negarestani is an Iranian philosopher and writer. His work includes Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (2008), Intelligence and Spirit (2018) and the upcoming Abducting the Outside: Collected Writings 2003–2018.
 VON HOFMANNSTHAL, Hugo, The Whole Difference: Selected Writings of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Princeton University Press, 2008, p. 78.
 THOM, René, Mathematical models of Morphogenesis, Eliss Horwood Limited, 1983, pp. 273–276.
 DEACON, Terrence, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain, W. W. Norton & Company, 1998, p. 329.
 BARBOUR, Julian, The Discovery of Dynamics: A Study from a Machian Point of View of the Discovery and the Structure of Dynamical Theories, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 434.
 HARDY, Thomas, A Pair of Blue Eyes, Wordsworth Editions, 1995, p. 172.
 LINDNER, Robert M., The Fifty-Minute Hour, Other Press, digital edition, 2013, pp. 547–548.
 It is long rumoured that Kirk Allen was none other than Paul Linebarger, the godson of Sun Yat-sen, a top American diplomat in China, a high ranking CIA officer and the famed science fiction author, Cordwainer Smith.
 GOODMAN, Nelson, Ways of Worldmaking, Hackett Publishing, 1978.
 It is important to note that this scenario does not imply that for some reason emeralds undergo some form of physical change and hence their colour will be blue after tn.
 Nelson Goodman, Wolfgang Stegmüller and Adolf Grünbaum show in detail that the choice of green over grue is not a matter of the principle of simplicity. In other words, even Occam’s razor cannot make a clear cut between green and grue.
 According to J. Allen Hynek’s sixfold classification of the close encounter, the encounter of the 7th kind marks the culmination of the alien contact: the production of a human-alien hybrid through sexual or artificial means.
This text is featured in ŠUM#11: Hypersonic Hyperstitions published in conjunction with the exhibition Here we go again…SYSTEM317 by Marko Peljhan at Pavilion of Slovenia, Venice Biennale.