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Sleep of Reason: An Atlas of the Philosophical Imaginary

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, ' Universal Language: The Author dreaming' , 1797. Black chalk, pencil, iron gall ink on laid paper. © Photographic Archive, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Francisco Goya, Sacred Cave of Kamukuwaká, Dorothea Tanning, Marguerite Humeau, Morehshin Allahyari, Julian Charrière, Larissa Sansour and Søren Lind

Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, ‘ Universal Language: The Author dreaming’ , 1797. Black chalk, pencil, iron gall ink on laid paper. © Photographic Archive, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

. . . after all the will has some say in any decision of whether an individual is to remain independent or become only an integral part of a common personality. It’s hard to imagine what basic objection there could be to a marriage à quatre. But when the state tries to keep even unsuccessful trial marriages together by force, then, in so doing, it impedes the possibility of marriage itself, which might be helped by means of new and possibly more successful experiments.
Athenaeum Fragments01

Echoing a time two hundred years ago, humans have once again taken shelter to protect themselves from particles spreading across the globe. In the past, the contaminated air erupted from a volcano in Indonesia that resulted in a global shift in weather. During this period, a group of four writers communing together indoors explored imaginary scenarios – the most popular we know of today as Frankenstein (1816–18) by Mary Shelley. Such thinking, in an interior space and away from the sublime, indulges new types of imagination, giving rise to forms of thought that are monstrous.

Moments when humans have been forced into domestic spaces can be identified as long ago as prehistoric times when humans found protection in caves. With a temporary boundary established against the unknown – both the darkness outside and the underworld – our ancestors created rituals and art that attempted to make sense of the world and generate solidarity in their community. In a world rapidly changing and increasingly unknowable – as though experienced from a cave, under siege, in quarantine – a sense of the mental protection from the outside world triggers the imagination. In altered states, we hallucinate and dream ever more of monstrous beasts and places – black swans that don’t fit within a clearly established order.

Instead of writing individual literary fictions, the four authors of the following text have attempted the beginning of an atlas of the monstrous throughout philosophical history. Here, we turn to a rhetorical style of the same period that brings together art and philosophy as favourited by the Jena Romantics (c. 1795–1802). While today science fiction (with its stock footage of creatures) is the lingua franca of contemporary critique, we look to a past of critical thinking. In particular, our collaboration à quatre has produced the following text in the spirit of the collectively written Jena Romantic journal Athenaeum. The result is a reading against the grain of philosophy, with an eye on its imaginary places, inhabited by imaginary creatures, and arguments that might or might not apply to alternative worlds, other clearings in the woods, other caves, other rivers, other islands.

What happens when an island or otherwise isolated ecological niche becomes inhabited by a very small population of creatures who go on to proliferate and mutate, such as in the Galapagos? Does it then become the only place in the world where that particular varietal can exist? Is philosophy not full of turtles, bats, cats, demons and particular species whose survival depends on the rationale of a very narrow philosophical niche? What justifies the assumption that a creature, or a stone dreamed by a philosopher – one which obeys its own peculiar laws, has its own special implications and its own conditions of possibility – exists anywhere else in the universe?

To read philosophy through these imaginary creatures and places – as a collection – whose existence is uncontested only in their radical particularity is to read philosophy upside down. For in philosophy particular imaginaries are always offered as exemplars, illustrations, or applications of some general if not universal rule. But if we take them to have an existence of their own that does not rest on their universalisability, then we find ourselves living in a very strange world indeed. What we offer as a claim is that, in fact, these imaginaries are real and we do live among them regardless of whether they hold philosophical water. If we allow ourselves to inhabit and explore them, and read them as images, rather than as derivatives or additions to philosophy, they might disclose their own implications and secretions.

Francisco Goya’s famous print contends that ‘the sleep of reason produces monsters’. The implication, of course, is that such an outcome must be avoided. One surmises that André Breton’s question ‘When will we have sleeping philosophers?’ sought the opposite. Though separated by a century and their respective artistic programma, both men are bedfellows in their belief that slumber demonstrates a rift in being. This idea has an ancient lineage, running back to Ionia: ‘One ought not to act and speak like people asleep’, according to Heraclitus. For the awake have ‘one common world, but when asleep each person turns to a private one’. 02 What Peter Sloterdijk calls the ‘pathos-filled equation of waking and thinking’ is at issue here. The ones who are awake find little rest. On the other hand, those who do not awaken to the realm of the shared (koinon) ‘remain in their private world, their dream idiocy, as if they had some special knowledge (idían phrónesin)’. 03 Thus, sleep puts the stupor in stupidity and, moreover, the idios (the private) in idiocy. But there is more: though living, the sleeper ‘touches the dead’. 04With this turn of the screw, the zombie, contemporary monster du jour, is more readily understood.

‘A fragment, like a miniature work of art, has to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself like a hedgehog’ reads a cryptic Athenaeum Fragment. 05 Follow the hedgehog in its wanderings and the fragment becomes a puzzle piece: in one moment, immersed in the world, in another, a world unto itself. As it moves across its larger environment, relaxed, spines pointed outward in every direction, it bristles with references and associations. But when startled, it lies down and curls itself inwards, becoming self-contained, inscrutable. Philosophy is littered with such miniature works of art, images embedded in texts, which, when poked and prodded, withdraw into themselves to safety. Some contain entire Gesamtkunstwerken, universes that threaten to swallow up the arguments that they were devised to illustrate. Isolation, for the fragment, as for the hedgehog, remains a problematic ideal. Drawn together for warmth yet repelled by the prick of their quills, the hedgehog becomes a parable of group psychology for Arthur Schopenhauer, and later, for Sigmund Freud, who kept a sculpture of one on his desk.

‘O God,’ quoth the Great Dane, ‘I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.’ 06 Nut dreaming is not inherently bad. Indeed, according to philosopher of science Gaston Bachelard, it has a special quality. Such oneirism goes ‘into the walnut’s every wrinkle’. There is a kind of exquisite, expanding pleasure to be found within such reverie, ‘becoming familiar with the oiliness of its two halves’, and endless detail to be savoured. The sovereignty of this becoming familiar may even incorporate ‘the masochism of the interior prickles on the shell’s underside’. 07 Kafka supplies the example: enclosure in a nut can be dreamt well.

‘The owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the onset of dusk.’ 08 Both Minerva, protector of philosophers and poets, and her owl, with its special sight, see more than most – deeper into obscurity. Historical thought, born in the rear-view mirror, only unfolds as the light wanes. As Hegel has been taken to claim, a way of life is sufficiently mature to contemplate its own passing. But the night is an image, too, and – more to the point – so is twilight. The latter cannot be taken as a throwaway token, for it equips Hegel’s successors (including Hölderlin and Nietzsche) with a dramatic frame. 09 The twilight owl of Elements of the Philosophy of Right is, according to George Shapiro, one of ‘a few striking figurative passages’ that the late Hegel would paint as extrinsic ‘to the central structures of his major texts’. But its lyrical force indicates otherwise. Indeed, it appears that the mature philosopher ‘may never have peacefully aufgehoben the young man who believed in 1796 that philosophy, in order to resume its original role as educator of mankind, must become aesthetic, mythological, and poetic’.10

There is an aviary in the mind of each man – Socrates informs the credulous Theatetus – that contains a great variety of birds. Some flock together in groups, others fly solo, ‘anywhere and everywhere’. These birds are kinds of knowledge. When we were children the aviary was empty. To have learned or discovered is to have ‘detained’ the thing that is the subject of knowledge, rendering it unto this enclosure. However, Theatetus is warned, ‘possession of knowledge is not the same as having or using it’. Sometimes, when a man wishes to ‘capture a certain sort of knowledge out of the general store’ (a number, for example) he mistakenly grabs the wrong one. Which is to say, ‘when he thought eleven to be twelve, he got hold of the ring-dove which he had in his mind, when he wanted the pigeon’. 11

In The Conference of Birds, the twelfth-century Persian Sufi poet-philosopher Farid ud-Din Attar, recounts a flock in search of a transcendental leader. 12Gathered together, they chose the legendary Simorgh, a bird beyond birds, enlightened, other worldly, with expansive wings and an intellectual mind. Convinced by their decision, the birds set off on a journey in search of their future, elusive leader. They travel through seven valleys, and at each valley shed a different vice. Faced with difficult challenges (internally and externally), one by one many of the birds drop out, unable to complete the difficult journey. Eventually only thirty birds reach the land of Simorgh, but instead of finding their mythical leader, all they see is their own reflection in the lake. At that moment, they realise a metamorphosis has occurred; it becomes evident that the leader they sought to find is the evolution of their own consciousness, a misrecognition that Simorgh is an external entity rather than emergent from within. Si literally translates to ‘thirty’ and Morgh to ‘bird’. They were always Simorgh, awakened by a journey that bound them as a collective, becoming an intelligent swarm. Arriving at the destination of self-awareness – and most importantly, doing so as a collective body – allows for the interpolation of a kind of joint spirit and expands on the contemporary notion of a post-human and artificial intelligence as a network. Specifically, this intelligence is an emergent condition of multifarious bodies. Avoiding the typical poetic strategy of creating a mythical chimera as a symbolic creature, Attar’s Simorgh never exists, but functions more as a philosophical imaginary among animals.

We do not primarily perceive the world by way of sonar, or echolocation, though we know this is how bats do it. So, what is it like to be a bat? In lieu of an answer, Thomas Nagel observes that the question itself requires the essential belief ‘that there is something that it is like to be a bat’. Moreover, as his subsequent argument famously maintains, there is no good reason ‘to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine’. In the bone-dry tone of analytic philosophy, this ‘creates difficulties for the notion of what it is like to be a bat’. 13 The implications of this problem are wide. It points to the idea that consciousness is based on embodiment, and that not only is it impossible to know what it is like to be a bat, but that the same goes for a cat, or an angel, an alien or an AI… or even, to some extent, another human as each person senses and processes the world differently through their body.

‘In an attempt at least to update the bestiary, I have introduced the platypus as the hero of my book […] The platypus accompanied me step by step even where I don’t mention it, and I took the trouble to supply it with philosophical credentials by immediately finding it a relation with the unicorn, which, like bachelors, can never be absent from any reflections on language […]. I explain why the platypus is not horrible, but prodigious and providential, if we are to put a theory of knowledge to the test. By the way, given the platypus’s very early appearance in the development of the species, I insinuate that it was not made from the pieces of other animals, but that the other animals were made from pieces of the platypus. 14

As we descend into the darkness of the deep ocean, we also descend into an unknown region we know less about than our solar system. Stories abound of sea monsters lurking at the ends of the earth, on the blank spots on maps and 20,000 leagues beneath our breath. Taking different forms, one creature perennially appears in philosophers’ thought as an Other: the cephalopod. A taxonomic class collecting octopus, squid, cuttlefish and nautilus, cephalopods share a shapeshifting potential that not only provides them with camouflage and sophisticated signalling in the wild, but also provides us with a malleable monster for our phobias and phantasies. Contemporary philosopher of science Peter Godfrey-Smith has instrumentalised the octopus as a foil for human consciousness in order to determine the baseline for self-awareness. In examining the octopus, one of homo sapiens’s evolutionary kin, with a comparably large optical nervous system, Godfrey-Smith fleshes out the levels of feedback loops that distinguish consciousness from self-consciousness. 15 Previously, in the twentieth century, phenomenologist Vilém Flusser imaginatively wrote about an elusive species of cephalopod: the Vampyroteuthis Infernalis (at the time of this writing the existence of the species was suspect and almost considered mythological). For Flusser the intention was less about sketching out a realistic description of a biological creature and more about the creation of a monster that disrupted taxonomies and disciplinary boundaries. In an early example of philosophical writing that wove science and fiction together, he imagined expeditions to the depths of the sea to explore the relations between the human and non-human, scientists and artists: ‘Whether manned by psychologists, cultural critics, geneticists, molecular biologists, or neurophysiologists, each of these differently equipped vessels will begin to encounter one another soon after they have submerged below the surface. Down below, all superficial categories converge and intertwine to the extent that it seems pointless to insist upon clear disciplinary boundaries.’ 16 More recently, feminist and multispecies philosopher Donna J. Haraway has cycled from cyborg to dog to Cthulhu in finding interlocutors for her theories. For Haraway, Cthulhu, an ancient, alien octopus-like monster from H.P. Lovecraft’s American Gothic science fiction, functions as antagonist to our human-centric era often referred to as the Anthropocene. Rather than suggesting a critical take that focuses on the human, a Cthulhucene, in Haraway’s terms decentres the human and creates a multispecies network of relations: ‘the chthonic ones are not confined to a Vanished past. They are a buzzing, stinging, sucking swarm now, and human beings are not in a separate compost pile. We are humus, not Homo, not anthropos; we are compost, not posthuman.’ 17 Poly-perverse cephalopods with their orgies, drag performances and psychedelic dreaming have fascinated philosophers in the past and will continue to tempt them as rising waters encroach our shores.

In an inverted twist à la lettre a postmodern Hegel, Thomas Hobbes poetically named his social contract masterpiece Leviathan (1651). An ancient Hebrew monster from the deep sea, the name etymologically deracinates into ‘connect’ and ‘serpent’, possibly to describe its vast size and shifting form. Originally, in its mythological and religious context, the monster metaphorically represented chaos and evil forces to be overcome, but within Hobbes’ revolutionary political theory, Leviathan came to represent the social body made up of individual citizens united together under an absolute sovereign that collectively possesses an insurmountable power to overcome the original state of nature: ‘the war of all against all’. 18

‘Seventeenth-century epistemology aspired to the viewpoint of angels; nineteenth-century objectivity aspired to the self-discipline of saints.’ 19 Mapping the development of objectivity that guided mid-nineteenth-century sciences, Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison argue that while Kant sought knowledge valid for angels in their incorporeal existence, thinkers of later periods attempted to define epistemology as rigorously embodied. Walter Benjamin, famously inspired by artist Paul Klee at the start of World War II, expressed the modern melancholy of a transcendental view outside of historical causation as the viewpoint of an angel without agency:

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