Uncertainty, Hypothesis, Interface

Patricia Reed

Enmeshed in a world of complex entanglement, our navigation of it or the ways in which we co-inhabit its biosphere, seems at a political impasse. As the world becomes increasingly driven by techno-scientific systems at the scale of the planetary, and we, complicit with it, any Romantic persistence on experiential primacy, the promise of an ‘aesthetic compass’ to guide life and reasoning, can no longer deliver on its once emancipatory potency. There is little use for the ‘free-play of the senses’ when confronted with ‘average-objects’—objects like the climate whose residues, such as weather, can be felt, but whose existence is one of an abstract mean, being pluri-local, multi-systemic and (at least anthropocentrically) generational in temporality. And yet—in refuting this highly subjective model, the temptation to lean on the ‘stability’ of science as an objective, steering force also runs into an incentivizing deadlock on two accounts: firstly, the dissemination of pure information does not lead directly to behavioural changes in activity (the non-self-evident correlation between knowing and doing); and second, treating the hard sciences as if they yield stable facts at all (in uniform, enduring consensus), when the only fact is that the very design of the scientific enterprise is based on revisionism. As Wendy Chun points out, the ongoing debates about climate change, for example, persist not because of scientific disagreement, but because of the false popular notion that scientific issues can attain a state of absolute certainty—and that to properly evaluate an issue, requires this certainty. 1 Chun further notes the strategic instrumentalization of uncertainty by the right to fuel public doubt and inaction on the issue (in a perverse deployment of critical reasoning), as if there will ever be a total and final resolution. The argument Chun puts forth is precisely the need to tackle the stagnating correlation between uncertainty and inaction, asserting the urgency in learning how to transform uncertainty and risk into drivers for activity. 2 Central to her argument is the role of belief—not in a theological ‘leap of faith sense’, but in the inferentialist sense since such ‘risky’ average-objects prohibit the connection between knowledge and experience, as in ‘learning from experience’ (or as she calls them, learning from sense-impressions). Ultimately what this politicization of risk entails is a new formulation of the relationship between abstract theory and material practice, inference and action; wherein abstract modeling and hypothetical reasoning need to gain social and libidinal force as steering techniques towards a futural horizon that can serve the many.

As we see a (welcome) bend in theoretical discourses towards perspectives of ‘totality’, or scalar multi-systems analyses, 3 as a response to the limitations of the biases from post-modernism that privilege fragments, particulars, and locals; this move ought not to take shape as an utter dismissal of those legacies, but (in part) mobilized for integration. If thinking ‘totality’ is to face-up to the violence of it’s historical cousin of Enlightenment universalism, a synthesis (and not collapsing) of localization or difference is of utmost importance. Local or uniquely particular perspectives on their own, are not sufficient to the interwoven planetary demands we confront today, but this acknowledgement resists being parsed as an either/or dichotomy—of pitting one perspective over the other. Framing scalar cognitive ambitions as a dichotomy is antithetical to those very pursuits, and risks repeating the inscription of a particular perspective at a massively inflated, and therefore colonising scale. ‘Totality’ does not mean localization can be ignored—on the contrary, it is constitutive of ‘totality’; thinking totality requires departure and ramification from a local perspective, 4 so the profound demand of ‘totality’ lies not in formulating (yet again) an impossibly omniscient model, but in understanding the bidirectional movement between the local and the global, the particular and the universal, and grasping how those transitions operate. Thinking totality today that structurally refutes the flattening effects of top-down schemata, must ultimately be committed to a mereological project, 5 of thinking part to whole and part-to-part relations within a whole. Such a demand, requires a synthetic methodology qua totality, since synthesis impedes the collapsing of distinctions into a unified whole, but instantiates a cartography of relations without a fixed foundation of departure (no false stability/certainty locking down a particular perspective). The synthetic ethos is composed of a triadic movement between mediation, integration and iteration—it is part analysis, and part assembly; part dissection and part gluing operation as a movement of integration. This ‘gluing’ function of synthesis—a concept partially derived from the mathematician Alexander Grothendiecks’ work on Sheaf logic and partially from Charles Peirce’s work on continuum’s—is a promising cognitive tool if we are to begin stitching together piece by piece a picture of totality as a non-absolute construction, an implicit, dynamic yet integrated system. 6

If we are to collectively pursue some sort of political agency within multi-scalar complexity today, our ‘synthetic’ challenges can be succinctly diagrammed through the concept of stereoscopy on two levels. Firstly, in our ability to create concepts that can articulate a mereological, or synthetic perspective between the particular and the planetary, between the site and field condition, towards a more robust model of systemic understanding, 7 giving us a more accurate space for the imagination of political leveraging. And secondly, in moving beyond the hijacking of scientific uncertainty as a justification for non-action (the fact that large-scale systems can never be fully grasped, directed, or known with absolute certainty), the need for constructing a causal incentive between uncertain knowing (or probability-knowledge) and doing, between non-absolute thought and gesture—in order for the epistemic gains we do make (in both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ scientific variants, not to mention other practices of ‘knowing’ reality), to propel our collective becoming other. The premise of ‘Scientific Romance’ echoes these stereoscopic demands—putting to work the tension between scientific reality (which today cannot be reduced to empiricism—since simulation itself increasingly underpins experimental methodologies), 8 and the speculative ideality of inexistence (that which is not directly before us but exists as an anticipation of what could be). Furthermore, the ‘romance’ angle more generally, outside of the history of the Romantic paradigm, addresses a libidinal need to be seduced by concepts, to not just know of them, but to be grasped, and impelled into action by them.

Endemic to a project of Romantic/Scientific stereoscopy is the necessity to instrumentalize an interface between “conceptual ideality and physical reality,” 9 in order to forge new perspectives on the planet, our position within it, and how we may intervene in it justly. As a thinker of stereoscopy, Wilfrid Sellars insisted on the constitutive parity between, what he called the Manifest Image (how we see ourselves as human subjects in the world), and the Scientific Image (how we know ourselves as physical objects in the world, and indeed the physical world itself) 10—looking at how these modes of knowing enter into dynamic feedback. By constructing an interfacial stereoscopy between these two modes, we open up mental and material spaces for fruitful contamination, where a mutated self-understanding opens up new territories for collective investigation and instrument-building, which feed forward into novel self-understanding, and so on. Such feedback between ideality and reality functions not because ‘science’ produces authoritative, final truths that guide our naive self-conceptions, but because we are creatures who can grasp and be grasped by concepts bidirectionally: we can use them as cognitive prostheses, beyond our limited sensory apparatuses, while they can remodel us. 11

The great richness of real and general possibilities far exceeds the ‘existent’ realm and forms a ‘true’ continuum, on which the existent must be seen as a type of discontinuity. 12

This bidirectional movement sets up a generative interplay between metanoia and pronoia. Metanoia describes a moment of conceptual self-transformation (a transformation of the Manifest image);13 it describes that moment where you encounter an idea from which your world-perspective is dramatically othered. Whereas pronoia, in meaning both foresight and care, describes the ramification of that transformation, it is the novel diagrammatic horizon made possible because of a perspectival shift. 14 Scientific Romance is a framework within which these forces come into contact with one another, a speculative progeny of the kind of romantic science explored by Novalis and his project of ‘Encyclopedistics’, sketched out in the Allgemeine Brouillon. 15 Encyclopedistics differed from the ‘totalizing’ efforts of French encyclopedic approaches of that time, which were attempts to catalogue, sequence and alphabetize the breadth of human knowledge; Novalis’ Encyclopedistics, rather, was an attempt to construct a continuum across the arts and sciences as a kind of universal science, foregrounding the interplay between idealism and realism. 16 With Novalis, we see cues towards a stereoscopic tendency: an insistence on the productive engagement with both the conceptual and the material world at once (demanding we find ways to translate back and forth along this axis); and the insufficiency in approaching ‘totality’ through a collection of ‘parts’, but rather through the articulation of common threads and field conditions that allow them to cohere into a whole. Such an early romantic-scientific pursuit is instructive—not because we need a ‘Magical Idealism’ today, seeking to transform nature through pure will and imagination, as was Novalis’ wager, but through the ways in which thought from diverse fields of knowledge were abstracted, mingled and rearticulated upon other domains in an effort to potentialize their force generically. 17

The mobilization of stereoscopy, the bidirectional movement between concepts and reality is a crucial site of transit for politicization; it is buttressed by a potential power predicated on our capacity for perspectival self-transformation and the ramification of such idealisms through experimentally pragmatic means. Our planetary-scaled computational era is not just a techno-material reality ‘out there’ to be engineered; it is infused with our biases, perspectival assumptions and embedded epistemes (the preceding condition of possibility for certain knowledges to even exist and be thought), directing its possible use-value and trajectories of innovation. It is because ideality and reality (especially the plastic reality created by and for us humans) is deeply intertwined, that a call for a ‘Scientific Romance’—is, despite the more elaborate outline above, also quite immediately modest, asserting the need to bring the soft and hard sciences into stronger, mutually contaminating substantial relationship (‘sciences’ here, in the broadest possible sense of the term, not limited to Global North hegemonies of sanctioned knowledge institutions).

As Wendy Chun has stressed in her analysis of the segregating effects of current online network structures, rather than the early utopian promise of a boundless cyberspace, we now find ourselves trapped in echo chambers, where a frightening parochialism is ramified. Buttressing this effect, are the ‘soft’ sociological assumptions baked into network structures known as ‘homophily’—the logic that ‘birds of a feather flock together’, creating a space of affordance privileging sameness over difference, where like breeds like ad infinitum. 18 The re-structuring of these networks demand intervention from the humanities, in a critical move to denaturalize homophily, and deracinate this condition from the exclusive domain of techno-scientific engineering. These network structures that increasingly delimit a terrain of possible interactions in the on/offline world are a materialisation of our biases, meaning there is already a constitutive parity between the hard and soft sciences. This ‘equality’, however, between domains of knowledge, does not mean that they factor equally, socially or politically. Much like argument Jacques Rancière puts forth in Disagreement, where he states that the only way there is order in society is because there are those who give commands, and those who obey those commands; but crucially in order for this structure of dominance to perpetuate, one needs to understand the command and understand that one must obey it—and this, he asserts, is the necessarily contingent ‘equality’ at the root of inequality. 19 Politics, as such, is when this contingency of equality is claimed and made actionable—where politicization is commensurate to the very demonstration of parity. Although Rancière’s argument concerns itself with exclusively human subjects, the concept remains applicable to the politicization of knowledge domains as well. It seems increasingly pressing for the humanities to affirm this already existing, constitutive equality in order for a robust democratization 20 of the techno-sciences to bend towards horizons of justice and service for the many. An alien, xenophillic justice that must today, not only confront the profound and deeply entrenched discrimination/inequality amongst humans, but also contend with our planetary-scaled condition, wherein our generic ‘position’ as humans symmetrically requires an intensive decentering.

Both the Anthropocene and our techno-material condition forces us humans to integrate a Copernican trauma on our generic self-image, where our position within a complex multi-system account of reality can no longer be conceived as the ‘radiant centre’ of activity 21 (moreover, a condition where the human can no longer claim a monopoly on the faculty of intelligence either, as Artificial General Intelligence stands to diversify what ‘intelligence’ even means and what it can do). How will this new alien self-image (risky and uncertain as it is) generate new perspectival affordances for being and intervening in the world otherwise? How will it create novel cartographies of ‘we-ness’? How will it be inscribed in the material and social world, where it become increasingly clear that politics bound to principles of anthropocentric chauvinism are no longer sufficient to the abstract, planetary-scaled demands we face? Now more than ever, as we see an increasing disavowal of our complex, interwoven condition, manifesting as a doubling down anachronistic ‘ideals’ of nationalism, our definitively risky and uncertain plight can no longer be used as a justification or stalling tactic for non-action. How we learn to conceptually model and incorporate these idealisms into pragmatic substantiations is precisely why politics today must mobilize on this synthetic level, recalling that synthesis is the back-and-forth movement across mediation, integration and iteration. Imagined as a pragmatics, what this ‘synthesis’ describes is the generic functioning of an interface—where the interface not only reduces complexity in a non-trivial way to foster interactive accessibility, that not only arbitrates translations of signals bidirectionally across disparate domains, but most importantly, where the interface “fixes and limits” navigational possibility, “narrativizing” the meaning of those very possibilities. 22

Because the politics of the interface operate in both directions (and there is a power here, not to be undervalued), we cannot loose sight of the force of narrative to embed itself into the diagramming of those very navigational limits. This, of course, is not to advocate for an impotent triviality where we can simply re-narrativize a ‘better world’ as if the stakes are purely imaginary and plastic, utterly susceptible to fictional procedures. Reality is simultaneously shaped by us, indifferent to us, and invariant to us—and our subsequent narratives for reverse uptake, need mobilize these constraints. For narrative forces to politically and substantially engage in the reciprocal dynamics of the interface, they too must entangle themselves in the reciprocal dynamics between ideality and reality, not as a space of fantastical whimsy (even though reality itself can be incredibly weird), but in ramifying the hypothetical. That is, not just presenting or narrating what new knowledge is, but in speculating on the consequences such a novel epistemic transition affords. The hypothetical, as a mobile concept is always uncertain, never without risk, but always potential. To be sure, this potential is volatile; susceptible to both utopian and dystopian promises and the condition of ‘limits that get fixed’, which is why the uncertainty endemic to all knowing can no longer remain an excuse for action-based stagnation. The future will only ever be hypothetical; to resign ourselves from its moulding otherwise, simply because we cannot guarantee its outcome is a mode of laissez-faire violence; a conceptual and material violence in disavowing the mutability of the given, a conceptual calcification that certainly does hold tight to one guarantee: that of tragedy.


  1. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “On Hypo-Real Models or Global Climate Change: A Challenge for the Humanities” in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 41, No. 3 (Spring 2015), (Chicago: Chicago University Press), 675-703. 

  2. Ibid. 

  3. See Benjamin H. Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015); Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, (New York: Verso, 2015); Laboria Cuboniks, Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation, 2015 http://laboriacuboniks.net

  4. Guerino Mazzola and Reza Negarestani interviewed by Glass Bead, MoMA's AV Recording Studios, New York, 2014. Audio Recording here: http://www.glass-bead.org/audio-research/guerino-mazzola-and-reza-negarestani/?lang=enview

  5. Grateful to Anke Hennig for having introduced this term into my vernacular during a conversation on “xenoism”, soon to be published in a volume on ‘xeno-architecture’ by Sternberg Press (2017). 

  6. Fernando Zalamea, Synthetic Philosophy of Contemporary Mathematics, trans. Zachary Luke Fraser, (Falmouth: Urbanomic/Sequence Press, 2012). 

  7. I have called this elsewhere, a ‘geometric omission’, insofar as points or particularities never exist in isolation; they do not exist in a vacuum space where they can simply be dissected to generate a proper picture of the object in question. So although it’s of incredibly important work to know and address the local situation and the differences that entails, it is of equal importance to take on board that these points exist in a milieu, they exist in a field and it is this context that constitutes it’s generic neighbourhood. The geometrical omission, as it were in much post-structuralist thought is to treat the points as if they can be adequately conceived outside of that genericity. 

  8. Margaret Morrison, Reconstructing Reality: Models, Mathematics and Simulations, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). In this book, Morrison argues (via the experimental conditions for the experimental proving of the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider), that distinctions between experiment and simulation in the sciences requires rethinking, insofar as simulation itself is a required methodology to attain any experimental results in many scientific pursuits today. 

  9. Ray Brassier, “The View from Nowhere”, in Identities: Journal of Politics, Gender and Culture Vol. 8, No. 2, Summer 2011, 6–23. 

  10. Ibid., 8. 

  11. Ibid., 9. 

  12. Fernando Zalamea, Peirce’s Continuum: A Methodological and Mathematical Approach, (Bogota: University of Bogota, 2001), 15. http://uberty.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/Zalamea-Peirces-Continuum.pdf

  13. Armen Avanessian and Anke Hennig, Introduction to Metanoia oder: Wie Lesen die Welt verändert (Berlin: Merve Verlag, 2013). 

  14. Kenneth J. Knoespel, "Diagrams as Piloting Devices in the Philosophy of Gilles Deleuze" in Deleuze chantier, (Saint-Denis: Presses Universitaires de Vincennes, 2001), No.19, 145-165. 

  15. Novalis. Notes for a Romantic Encyclopaedia: Das Allgemeine Brouillon, trans. David W Wood, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007). 

  16. David W. Wood, ‘Introduction’, in Notes for a Romantic Encyclopaedia: Das Allgemeine Brouillon, trans. David W Wood, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2007) ix-xxx. 

  17. The legacy of what we could call a promiscuous type of indisciplinarity from Novalis, can be found in the contemporary work of the mathematician and philosopher, Fernando Zalamea. See: Fernando Zalamea, Synthetic Philosophy of Contemporary Mathematics, trans. Zachary Luke Fraser, (Falmouth: Urbanomic/Sequence Press, 2012). 

  18. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “The Middle to Come”, Panel discussion, transmediale: ever elusive, Berlin, February 5, 2017. 

  19. Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999) 16. 

  20. To be clear, I use the term ‘democratization’ in the Rancièrian sense, wherein democracy cannot be conflated with an institutional structure, but a movement of the people (demos). In his theorization, democracy=politics=the assertion of contingent equality. 

  21. Benjamin H. Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015). 

  22. Benjamin H. Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2015), 219. 

Patricia Reed is a writer, artist and designer based in Berlin. She is a member of the xenofeminist collective Laboria Cuboniks and a board member of the New Centre for Research & Practice.