Inauguration of c:o/re
The opening ceremony of the Käte Hamburger Kolleg: Cultures of Research (c:o/re) will take place on Monday, 4th July 2022 at 5 pm at the Aachen Town Hall. In the festive venue of the historical Coronation Hall, we will be celebrating the launch of the International Center for Advanced Studies in Philosophy, Sociology, and History of Science and Technology at RWTH Aachen University one year ago. The program is dedicated to one of the key topics of the Center: the transformations of research cultures in the digital age.
The keynote lecture will be delivered by Professor Karin Knorr Cetina (University of Chicago) on the topic of “From loving the data to loving automation: epistemic shifts in the digital age” (abstract). The lecture will be followed by a discussion on the present and future transformations of research cultures. We are honored to welcome as panelists Prof. Karin Knorr Cetina (University of Chicago, Department of Sociology and Anthropology), Prof. Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (Emeritus Scientific Member of the MPI for the History of Science), Prof. Lars Blank (RWTH Aachen, Chair of Applied Microbiology) and Prof. Matthias Wessling (RWTH Aachen, Vice-Rector for Research and Structure), and as moderator the science journalist Dr. Jan-Martin Wiarda.
Attendance by invitation only. If you have questions, please contact inauguration[at]khk.rwth-aachen.de
An-Archaeology and Spectral Realism with Hilan Bensusan at c:o/re (June 14)
As an introduction to this week’s workshop on Art’s Realism, organized by Amanda Boetzkes at c:o/re, on June 14th at 17:00 Professor Hilan Bensusan gave a lecture on An-archaeology and spectral realism. The manuscript of the talk can be found here.
Hilan Bensusan is Professor of Contemporary Philosophy at the University of Brasilia. He is the author of Indexicalism: Realism and the Metaphysics of Paradox (Edinburgh University Press, 2021) and Being Up for Grabs: On Speculative Anarcheology (Open Humanities Press, 2016). He also published Portuguese: A diáspora da agência – Ensaio sobre o horizonte das monadologias (The diaspora of agency – Essay on the horizon of monadologies) (EdUFBA, 2018), Linhas de animismo futuro (Lines of future animism) (Mil Saberes, 2017), Heráclito – Exercícios de Anarqueologia (Heraclitus – Exercises in anarcheology) (Ideias e Letras, 2012) and Excessos e Exceções (Excesses and exceptions) (Ideias e Letras, 2008).
On May 30th – June 1st, c:o/re hosted the workshop The Use of Networks in the Humanities and Social Sciences, part of the Engineering Practices series and organized by Professor Ana Bazzan together with Phillip H. Roth and Alin Olteanu.
The aim of the workshop was to chart the use of networks in the humanities and social sciences and the consequences of the use of such epistemic tools for the way we understand science, society and the world. As such, the event gathered a variety of perspectives on networks and applications of network analysis, from the mathematics of networks to media analysis, historical research and to tackling questions on technology.
A point of convergence among these varied approaches is that, as models, networks have become a central epistemological tool in many sciences as well as vernacularly, not least because of the mainstreaming of social media and their role in networking communities and academic disciplines across previously established boundaries. A particularly interesting takeaway point of this workshop is that, as models and as representations, networks have become a common analytical tool in many fields of research, thus allowing for multi-perspective discussions on methodology.
Sara Bédard-Goulet published a thorough and insightful review of c:o/re fellow Amanda Boetkes‘ (2019) Plastic Capitalism Contemporary Art and the Drive to Waste in the journal Social Semiotics. The review, titled Art in the Petrotimes: An aesthetics of waste, is here.
Part of the Philosophy of AI: Optimistic and Pessimistic View lecture series, on 25.05.2022 Jakub Szymanik gave a lecture at c:o/re on Reverse–engineering the language of thought, problematising thought and computation by exploring the cognitive scientific notion of language of thought (“mentalese”). This concept, positing that humans think through logical predicates combined through logical operators, originates in Jerry A. Fodor’s celebrated book (1975), explicitly titled Language of thought. In effort to reverse-engineer the language of thought, Jakub Szymanik considered some recent computation theories, such as inspired from Jerome Feldman and neural networks in a fresh manner.
Jakub Szymanik explained that the notion of language of thought is not easy to avoid: it is often the engine underpinning theories of cognitive models, via notions of complexity and simplicity. The investigation leads to a broad variety of theoretical implications and empirical insights, among which there can be many contradictions. However, apparently divergent approaches at play here, such as, for example, symbolism and enactivism are not necessarily and entirely irreconcilable. The way forward is through pragmatically pursuing the epistemological unification of such theories, as guided by empirical insight.
We had a book launch at c:o/re, as Ulrik Langen and Frederik Stjernfelt‘s book The World’s First Full Press Freedom: The Radical Experiment of Denmark-Norway 1770-1773 is being published this week. Frederik Stjernfelt gave a thorough presentation of the book on 25.05.2022. This was a particularly appropriate date for a discussion on press freedom as, on the same day, in Aachen, there took place the ceremony of conferring the International Charlemagne Prize to the leading Belarusian political activists Maria Kalesnikava, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Veronica Tsepkalo, who lead the fight for democracy in Belarus.
This is an adaptation for international audiences of their previous book written in Danish, also together with Henrik Horstbøll, comprising two volumes, Grov Konfækt. Tre vilde år med trykkefrihed, 1770-73. To address an international audience, Ulrik Lange and Frederik Stjernfelt both reduced the size of the initial text and, also, approached some new topics, to do with the international reactions to the episode of the history of Denmark-Norway (The Oldenburg Monarchy) that the book discusses.
The book offers a historical investigation of the interesting episode in the history of Denmark-Norway when Press Freedom was introduced by the German Radical Enlightener J.F. Struensee, who was hired in 1768 to take care of the mental health of King Christian VII. Struensee became the King’s favourite and achieved political power, backed also by a small group of reform-oriented top officers. This allowed Struensee, for a brief 16-months period, to effectively be dictator of Denmark-Norway and, as such, to introduce close to 2000 pieces of new legislation, many of them with Radical Enlightenment inspirations.
In this context, the book zooms in on the implications of and reactions to the law of 14 September 1770 that stated that censorship is abolished in order to facilitate the ”Impartial Investigation of Truth”, to go against ”Fallacies and Prejudices of earlier Times”, and to ”attack Abuse and reveal Prejudices”. This was an Enlightenment ideal. Struensee could not have foreseen, probably, the many types of social implications of absolute press freedom. He was, eventually, ousted and executed by coup-makers in the middle of the Press Freedom period.
Showing simultaneously how press freedom is crucial for democracy and human rights and how it is also dangerous, the exploration of this historically first case of full press freedom is highly relevant for contemporary debates on freedom of expression online and post-truth attitudes. The detailed investigation that the book offers relies on an impressive categorisation of about 1000 pamphlets published during this press freedom period.
As the first book on the matter, in Danish, covers in great detail the events in Denmark-Norway of this historical episode, the new English adaptation also compares the Copenhagen pamphlet storm of 1770 with the pamphlet storms that took place in Vienna in 1781 and in Paris in 1788.
The authors explain that, in all three cases, Enlighteners introducing Press Freedom were disappointed with the result. The population hardly became more moral and enlightened, but rather used freedom to split into warring factions, to print and buy cheap entertainment, libel and obscenities. Also, in all three cases, an immediate explosion of prints waned over a number of years, finally to be restricted again by different means, such as post-print censorship, prohibition of anonymity, signal cases, taxation, licensing requirements, among others. However, very importantly, all three cases made clear the modern consequences of Press Freedom as it would spread in Western democratic constitutions through the 19th Century.
The book draws many relevant conclusions on freedom of speech in general. As particularly relevant for contemporary issues, the book argues that press freedom is not natural, nor automatic. There is always a pretext to curtail it, and every government may find reasons to do so.
Press freedom is unpredictable and cna involve many types of of drawbacks, such as libel, threats, calls for sedition, fake news. To this day, (full) press freedom is contested: there is no agreement about its limits. Press freedom creates a public sphere, drawing people to consider political options and to conceive themselves as political subjects.
Summarising, the book highlights the importance of accepting conflict as part and parcel of the democratic process and the pursuit of human rights. Press freedom is instrumental in this regard, as it connects to a conflictual view of society: there are and always will be different social strata, different political positions, different interest groups, different power centers and their conflict is better waged in the open.
At his talk, part of the Philosophy of AI: Optimistic and Pessimistic Views, Professor Kim Guldstrand Larsen reflected on how far (or near) are we from developing fully autonomous cars. This is a priority challenge for explainable and verifiable machine learning. The question is not easy to answer directly. One certainty, though, is that the answer lies in the cooperation, or lack thereof, between academia and political agents (municipalities). The mediating agent, which, none of these two seem to favour, stems from industry: what can commercial companies deliver to improve traffic? Companies seem to speak both the language of research and of politics. How much will we smartify traffic in the next, say, 10 years? The question translates, as Professor Ana Bazzan asked simply, “What will companies do”?
What companies do, in this regard, will impact not only policy but also academia. Success in delivering smart solutions for traffic is expected to guide curriculum development in computer science programs. For example, the commerical solutions will focus teaching on either neural networks, Bayesian networks or automata based models.
Getting the Measure of Humanity: or, Taking ‘Life is a Work of Art’ Literally
What it means to be ‘human’ and whether the human must be the measure of all minds inevitably returns us to Kant. Kant himself was drawn to the concept of ‘judgement’, which he interpreted in terms of the then-emerging science of ‘aesthetics’. Aesthetics positioned the human as a being called to integrate diverse and often contradictory sensory inputs into a coherent whole in the name of ‘autonomy’, which is in turn exercised through judgement, which of course is also informed by reason. What modern philosophy calls ‘epistemology’ and ‘ethics’ reflects Kant’s view that human judgement forms two rather different but coexistent wholes as part of its ‘worldview’, another term from the aesthetic lexicon. The trajectory out of Kant to the German idealists, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche was largely about trying to achieve a higher, more synthetic aesthetic vision of the world, which typically involved what Nietzsche called a ‘transvaluation’ of the way we see the world from either a strictly epistemological or ethical standpoint.
Nietzsche’s somewhat ironic conclusion, already intimated in Kant, is that such a transvaluation would supplant the human with some other kind of being, which we nowadays might call ‘transhuman’ or ‘posthuman’. In effect, the sense of ‘judgement’ that defines the human for Nietzsche is not focused externally on the ultimate cosmic order but internally on the endless, perhaps even Sisyphean task of managing – if not reconciling – what we know and what we want. In this respect, Nietzsche continues to secularize Kant’s original theologically inspired vision of humans as fallen creatures. From this standpoint, the act of passing judgement on another’s humanity – as in the Turing Test – poses a challenge. It is outward looking but it treats the larger world – or more precisely, a candidate alien being – as a canvas on which to project the human; yet the human remains itself a bundle of contradictions, not a template that can simply be imposed.
Recent aesthetic theory offers an interesting angle on this dilemma. Nelson Goodman famously proposed that art may be divided into those works that can be forged (because they constitute a unique completed object) and those that cannot be forged (because they can be completed in many ways). He had in mind the distinction between a painting or sculpture, on the one hand, and a musical score or dramatic script, on the other. Against this intuition, Arthur Danto proposed imagining that two artists generate paintings that appear the same to the observer but one used Rembrandt’s method and the other Jackson Pollock’s. Goodman might claim that subtle differences between the two paintings could always be found, based on which one painting might be judged superior and the other perhaps a forgery. However, Danto argues that Goodman’s judgement would probably be based on suspecting that the two paintings had been produced at different times and by different means. For Danto, if you like one, you should like the other. If anything, knowing that they were produced differently should enhance not detract from your aesthetic experience. The Pollock might even be valued more, given the prior improbability of its result.
Danto’s point was designed to undermine the idea of forgery. For him, unlike Goodman, an aesthetic judgement involves treating not only the future but also the past of a candidate work ‘performatively’. Just as we potentially learn something new about music or drama with each new performance, the same applies to our unlearning ideas about the ‘unique craftsmanship’ of a painting or sculpture upon realizing that it can be (and could have been) brought about differently. This sense of temporal symmetry dissolves Goodman’s original distinction. Of course, aesthetic judgement then gets more squarely placed on the shoulders of the judge – and in that sense, becomes more ‘subjective’. Indeed, Danto’s championing of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Box as art led many critics to claim that Danto dissolves the concept of art altogether.
Now applying Danto to Turing, does entertaining a comparably free — ‘morphologically free’, if you will — conception of the human undermine the very concept of humanity? Nietzsche believed that it might but remained agnostic about the consequences – and he was thinking only about how Homo sapiens might be transformed in the future. But why could we not also, á la Danto, discover ‘humans’ who never were Homo sapiens? Moreover, a practical question is attached to the idea of a morphologically free ‘human’. Is a more open conception of what passes as human sustainable in a world with finite resources in many different senses? Kant’s ideal of ‘cosmopolitanism’ suggested an indefinitely expanding circle of humanity, which he associated with collective self-improvement through sustained interaction with ‘alien’ others. Without denying the attractiveness of this ideal, its realizability remains an empirically open question, as non-stereotypically candidate ‘humans’ come forward for recognition.
Danto, A. (1974). ‘The Transfiguration of the Commonplace’. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 33(2): 139-148.
Featured Image: Le Penseur by Rodin, CC BY SA.
Proposed citation: Fuller, Steve. 2022. Getting the Measure of Humanity: Or, Taking ‘Life is a Work of Art’ Literally, https://khk.rwth-aachen.de/2022/05/10/3243/3243/
Last semester in our Lecture Series, our Fellow Joffrey Becker gave a talk on Humans, Machines, and Anthropology of Cybernetic Pracitces where he also screened parts of a visual ethnography study that he conducted at a dairy farm. At the upcoming conference “Anthropology, AI and the Future of Human Society”, organized by the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Joffrey will dive deeper into the routines of a robotic dairy farm from an anthropological point of view. Tune in to this virtual event on June, 6th to 10th, 2022 if you want to learn more about what Anthropologists think about the Future of Human-Machine interactions.