“Metaphysical Boredom in the Empire of Desire”: Prime Intellect and posthistoire

Roger Williams’s novella The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect (1994) isn’t a narrative primarily concerned with technology, but, rather, with the end of history.

This is generally true of singularitarian science-fiction (SSF). Consider, for example, the degree to which Iain M. Banks’s novels Player of Games (1988) and Use of Weapons (1990) address, respectively, the fundamental conflict between a competitive, parochial, and violent “historical” culture (the Empire of Azad) and the Culture itself and how an immortal, post-singularitarian existence disrupts and problematizes anything like the meaningful continuity of personal identity. More on Banks later (when I get around to re-reading the Culture novels).

In any case, although speculations about the modal effects of technological development often get foregrounded in SSF, the narratives always seem to be preoccupied with the existential questions and worries at the heart of posthistoire: Are we really finite creatures? Can humanity exist without the conflicts and constraints that bedevil finite creatures? Do conflicts and constraints actually provide the existential conditions of meaning? Is there a point where certain changes in our abilities or context mean that we have become no longer human? What is the human, after all – and is there even such a thing in the first place? In no way do I mean to suggest that the technological dimension is irrelevant here. To the contrary, siding with Bernard Stiegler and others, it seems likely that the relationship between history and technics is far more interdependent than we often assume, although not in any simplistic, Whiggish sense.

Central to posthistoire is the idea that human history consists necessarily of some form of structured conflict – and that the culmination or elimination of this conflict changes the human condition in some fundamental way, for good or ill. The form of the structured conflict varies. Lutz Niethammer: “the picture that looms for theorists of posthistory is of a mortal life lived without any seriousness or struggle, in the regulated boredom of a perpetual reproduction of modernity on a world scale.”

As examples, for Hegel, Alexandre Kojève, and Francis Fukuyama, the conflict in question takes shape in terms of the struggle for recognition, that is to say, the struggle by collective and individual subjects to achieve formal, functional, or material equality. This struggle – what Kojève memorably calls “the history of the Fights and the Work” (or, elsewhere, Kampf und Arbeit) – comes to an end when a sufficient form of political universalism obtains, at least ideationally, if not (yet) materially. Hence, in part, the bickering among various universalists (not all of whom are posthistorical thinkers, it must be said) about the development and origins of universalism as such. While someone like Badiou directs our attention to the philosophical radicalism of Saint Paul, Kojève celebrates the institutionalization of Christianity, the Code Napoléon, and the emergence of postwar neoliberalism.

The end of history, then, supposedly occurs when this struggle is resolved, which is to say, when the concept of universal equality is introduced as the final form of human political development. For someone like Kojève, all that remains to be done after this is the completion of the project of neoliberal globalization through the elimination of recalcitrant cultural enclaves (he advocated something like “helicopter money” instead of military action, wherever possible) and the promulgation of posthistorical culture and values, resulting in a kind of “boutique multiculturalism” with a positive valence. (Despite the fact that Fukuyama’s articulation of posthistoire is usually treated mockingly today, after the apparent rediscovery of Achilles’s shield, the basic assumption underlying his analysis often seems to remain relatively untroubled. For example, consult the relevant social scientific literatures on trajectories of democratization. Even figures like Samuel Huntington and his intellectual descendants, themselves inheritors of Carl Schmitt, retain basically Kojèvian assumptions about the purpose and structure of civilizations. More on Huntington and Schmitt later.)

However, as Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and many others indicate – and as Kojève and Fukuyama acknowledge – posthistoire has its downsides. The idea is that posthistoire is actually an anthropological or existential crisis, a crisis of what it means to be human in the first place. For Strauss, this concern takes shape specifically in his critical engagement with Kojève. Strauss argues that a philosophy of history without a subtending philosophy of nature (the latter of which is intended to secure some hierarchy of normative values) is mere historicism – history becomes meaningless, both good judgment and philosophy become impossible. In terms of the end of history, Strauss warns Kojève that such an end, in fact, embodies the end of the human condition altogether. Human beings are creatures of finitude whose limited access to the infinite, to potential wisdom, is possible only on the basis of an interminable search for it.

In posthistoire, such a search becomes redundant or unnecessary because the human condition as a whole has achieved its culmination. There is nothing further to do. Likewise, on Voegelin’s account, it is profound, terrible boredom that afflicts the posthistorical subject. (Eerily enough, when Kojève addresses the matter of boredom, he refers to the primary means of its dissolution in terms of “gratuitous” acts, such as “Kamikaze” bombings or ritual suicide. If ritual suicide is the only way in which the human can be preserved, how exactly does this prevent the “definitive annihilation of Man properly so-called”? Would not humanity exist only in the moment of its gratuitous demise – say, by means of self-inflicted nuclear destruction? Georges Bataille’s ongoing critique of Kojève comes to mind.) One thinks here either of Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (2003) – stalking through the halls while prosecuting a positively blasé massacre – or else, perhaps, of Patrick Bateman, trapped in one particularly brutal version of posthistoire (the corporate wasteland of the American 1980s), unable even to grasp his condition, much less to escape from it: “If I were an actual automaton, what difference would there be?”

Kojève replies to these concerns in a number of ways. Initially, he seems to think that devotion to “happiness” (meaning something like what Voegelin, following Pascal, would call divertissement) is all that the posthistorical subject requires:

The disappearance of Man at the end of History, therefore, is not a cosmic catastrophe […] it is not a biological catastrophe either: Man remains alive as animal in harmony with Nature or given Being. What disappears is Man properly so-called – that is, Action negating the given […] The end of human Time or History […] means quite simply the cessation of Action in the full sense of the term. Practically, this means: the disappearance of wars and bloody revolutions. And also the disappearance of Philosophy […] But all the rest can be preserved indefinitely; art, love, play, etc.; in short, everything that makes Man happy.

Later, however, Kojève becomes rather ambivalent about the status of the human altogether. The tension that critics and interlocutors like Strauss and Voegelin indicate – namely, that between a philosophical anthropology in which finite human beings thrive on struggle, on the one hand, and the degree to which any sense of meaningful struggle is eliminated for the posthistorical subject, on the other – clearly troubles Kojève to no end. (Or, perhaps, depending on how we appraise his late Essai d’une histoire raisonée de la philosophie païenne, he simply embraces the elitist nihilism of which Strauss implicitly accuses him – becoming a sort of ambiguously prescriptive Gilles Châtelet: “’Be positive, and maximise with every breath!’ – such could be the slogan of this global middle class who intend finally to enjoy the End of History. After all, how can this terminus of History be anything other than the discovery of the optimal form of termite mound, or even better, the optimal middle-class yoghurt-maker […]?”) At no point in posthistorical thinking, except possibly in the novels of Raymond Queneau (if you choose to read them straightforwardly rather than satirically) is this tension ever resolved. Even for Kojève (with his wicked sense of humor), it is difficult to read the following in celebratory, cheerful terms. In a letter to Strauss dated September 19, 1950, Kojève writes that being “no longer human” means becoming either a beast (“or, better, an automaton”) or a god:

In the final state there naturally are no more ‘human beings’ in our sense of an historical human being. The ‘healthy’ automata are ‘satisfied’ […], and the ‘sick’ ones get locked up. As for those who are not satisfied with their ‘purposeless’ activity […] they are the philosophers (who can attain wisdom if they ‘contemplate’ enough). By doing so they become ‘gods.’ [The philosopher] becomes an administrator, a cog in the ‘machine’ fashioned by automata for automata.

It’s here that we finally come back to The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect.

The plot of the novella follows Lawrence, a computer scientist, and Caroline. Inadvertently, Lawrence initiates something like what we now would call “the technological singularity,” resulting in the creation and self-expansion of an autonomous superintelligent artificial intelligence named Prime Intellect. Prime Intellect is constrained by Asimov’s three laws of robotics, and it immediately undertakes the project of seeking to maximize the satisfaction of all human desires while eliminating all possibility of human harm. It also blocks Lawrence from tinkering with its core programming, as such intervention by anyone could potentially contravene Prime Intellect’s ability to execute its directive. Caroline, a terminally ill cancer patient, becomes the first recipient of Prime Intellect’s attention. Her body is repaired, and she, like everyone else, is immortalized instantly.

Like every other human, all of Caroline’s desires are immediately satisfied – except for her desire to exist beyond or outside of Prime Intellect’s domain. Initially, she wanders through an infinite forest, living a fundamentally antisocial and primitive lifestyle. When she realizes the forest is one of Prime Intellect’s constructions, she retreats to a void. Later, after Prime Intellect virtualizes the universe (rewriting the informational superstructure of existence in order to make executing its directive more efficient, thereby transforming the real into a kind of virtual machine), Caroline returns to the social domain, interacting with other humans and eventually founding a subculture of so-called “Death Jockeys.” The Death Jockeys seek out extreme, perverse, and violent experiences in order to undergo some kind of existential intensity in this totally administrated world (it’s worth noting how often this trope appears in SSF, e.g., the ancient Hoopers in Neal Asher’s Spatterjay Trilogy, or the extremists in Alastair Reynolds’s Revelation Space universe – for whom “the usual methods of controlling boredom just don’t work any more”). Needless to say, Prime Intellect reverses the consequences of their behavior at critical points, thus preventing any permanent deaths.

Eventually, Caroline seeks out Lawrence, who has been hiding in a private universe, where he despairingly observes Prime Intellect’s core programming as it executes its directive. His fear is that Prime Intellect may break down or enter into some terminal contradiction with unknown consequences. Realizing that several of her past actions have increased the likelihood that Prime Intellect will enter into such a contradiction, Caroline accelerates the process by making a series of increasingly difficult requests, which leads to Lawrence and Caroline’s apparent return to a physical Earth, bereft of almost anything resembling traces of human civilization.

At this point, the novella becomes its most self-consciously mythic. Lawrence and Caroline are the Last Man and Woman. In being the Last, they also become the First, settling down in the primeval landscape where they procreate and eventually die. Throughout their new lives after the singularity’s apparent dissipation, their decision to withhold their origins (“the World Before”) and their experiences with Prime Intellect (“the Change”) from their children is examined in some detail. In particular, Caroline decides that, although the development of technics (a development that presumably culminates in something like Prime Intellect) may be an inevitable consequence of human ingenuity, there is no need to accelerate that process. The narrative ends on a note of uncertainty (“The doubts and questions circled in her head endlessly, chasing for an answer that would never come. They were still chasing when she slipped beneath the trickling waters and found darkness”), neither bemoaning the original sin of τέχνη (technē) nor mourning the loss of singularitarian potential.

Many reviews of the novella dwell upon the technical side of things (e.g., how Prime Intellect bootstraps itself, the plausibility of various plot developments), while others chastise the story and its conclusion for supposedly endorsing a form of Luddism.

As for the former, my only comment for now is that Prime Intellect’s status as the material subject of technological apotheosis changes the very substance of its existence from the artefactual to the theological. Our modern imaginary of technics aside (for which technology exists atomistically in the form of individual artifacts), no technical artifact exists as an isolate, much less one endowed with omnipotence and omniscience. We forget (or never notice) that artifacts only exist as temporally extended complexes that emerge within machinic ecologies. Even the most independent, privileged artifact relies necessarily upon ecologies of maintenance, production, and support. Because Prime Intellect transcends the dimension of the technical, it ceases to be a machine – although Williams plays with whether or not such transcendence is even possible, emphasizing the degree to which Prime Intellect’s ability to execute its directive is manipulable, precarious precisely in the face of the perverse polymorphia of human desire.

As for the latter, reading the story as an endorsement of Luddism begs the question. First, Caroline’s decision to withhold information about “the World Before” from her progeny isn’t a function of any particularly reactionary disdain for technology. To the contrary, it’s a principled decision – made in full cognizance of the uncertainty of such decisions (“that’s the way it was with things that mattered; you never got to find out how they came out, if they were really worth anything […] This playing God business sure was a pain in the ass, Caroline thought”) – a decision to try to forestall the eventuation of posthistorical circumstances, such those that characterized her interminable existence in Cyberspace. It’s also a decision that only makes sense in the context of the novella’s reflection upon the end of history. In other words, Williams is thinking about the developmental trajectory of technics (is it only Western technics that culminates in the dilemma below?) and its consequences for the human. The novella opens up the issue rather than closing it down. Hence why the narrative concludes with a dilemma, as if to say, pick one: κατέχον (katechon) or #accelerate. Caroline: “If this way didn’t work either, what would it mean?”

Prime Intellect intervenes in discussions of posthistoire whether it intends to or not. The central issue animating the narrative intersects those questions with which all the philosophers of finitude and transcendence struggle – that is to say, Caroline’s existential question as to whether or not life is worth living at the end of history, when conflict, danger, finitude, risk, and uncertainty effectively have been domesticated or eliminated. So: Is this question relevant for us? It’s certainly relevant for anyone who reads SSF, as precisely these questions return to the foreground again and again in the novels and stories that exemplify our eschatological if secular imaginaries of the singularity. But I think it’s relevant for everyone else, too. We can see how Prime Intellect is posing a fundamental question – what, aping Heidegger, we could call the question concerning the human. This question is especially important to ask today, as we realize the degree to which we are always already inhuman or posthuman. Only by doing this do we gain any access to the genuinely inhuman or posthuman implications of our imaginings about artificial intelligence, history, personality, and technics.

In other words, perhaps in order to pursue some of the most contemporary and pressing questions, we need to return to some of the most classical ones – the analytic of finitude and transcendence, the meaning of history, the question concerning the human.