Snuff Memories: A Reading and Panel Discussion on David Roden’s New Book
I would like to start my intervention by thanking Sepideh and David for the—to my mind, incredibly undeserved—invitation. Since I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m an incompetent reader of this text, what I’m going to share with you today is a rather personal and very succinct itinerary from my first encounter with speculative posthumanism to my first encounter with Snuff Memories (with just one stop in between), because I think this trajectory reveals how poorly prepared I was and how poorly prepared I still am to understand David’s project, which should have never been understood solely in terms of its contributions to philosophy. I think what he’s doing is just a different creature and that creature was already looming, already lurking in Posthuman Life.
So, very briefly, I remember emailing David 5-6 years ago posing indigestible questions about what I used to call the “ethical aporia” [inherent in speculative posthumanism]; I’d pose questions about the alleged contradiction between posthumanism’s futuristic orientation and its commitment to dark phenomenology or naturalized phenomenology, among many other truly insufferable inquiries. And David, with his impossible kindness, took the time to answer each and every single question, while also noting that these were indeed complex, somehow ambivalent issues peculiar to SP that perhaps should have remained and should still remain ambivalent.
Fast forward to the publication of Intelligence & Spirit in 2018 and to Reza’s public rejoinder to David. I hear Reza say in the context of a classroom, and in regard to Posthuman Life in particular, that: “Speculation without epistemology and without dialectics is simply a vagary. Today, we call it whimsicality […] If the future is uncertain, what kind of uncertainty are we talking about? Is it an uncertainty that can be epistemologically grasped or is the shape of that uncertainty outside of the purview of our current epistemological frameworks?”
Then and there, Reza goes on to say that if we think the posthuman may be outside of the purview of our current epistemological equipment and frameworks, then there’s nothing we can say about it; and if it is indeed within our grasp, then David is “forced” to provide an explication and a robust epistemological toolkit to argue how we can get from this state of the art of techno-sciences to the actual emergence of posthumanity.
Needless to say that, in face of Reza’s provocations, David behaved elegantly and remained mostly silent. To my mind, there were two possible strategies at that point:
1) To devote an entire book to debunk Reza’s rather ill-intended reading of Posthuman Life, and to try to provide a robust epistemological toolkit that would allow us to somehow grasp the shape of the future (which, in a way, would be contradictory with the counter-intuitiveness of and the unbounded openness to astonishment that characterizes speculative posthumanism).
2) To take PL’s own daring proposal to its final consequences, pushing the boundaries of what could be thought, sensed, and written within the framework of speculative posthumanism, now understood not as a narrowly philosophical enterprise but as a radical, rogue, feral adventure in language and in thought. (This would imply refusing to adapt to the demands of neorationalism, which has its own way of conceiving and of doing epistemology.)
I think Snuff Memories is, among other things, David’s way of saying: “I am not forced to provide an explication;” or, at least, “I’m not forced not to explain nor to express myself in terms that would be palatable to neorationalist stylistics.”
And I personally welcome the kind of refusal to adaptation and the radical adventure that is Snuff Memories because it really changes the terms of the discussion; or better yet, it turns the situation into more (or into something other) than a discussion, since not everything that is epistemologically relevant and interesting happens within the propositional constraints and the preferred discursive genres of the space of reasons: not everything that can be linguistically grasped (and intriguingly so) is bound to the rules of the game of giving and asking for reasons.
I also think Snuff Memories is particularly relevant because it expands not only the limits of what we call speculative posthumanism—again: now not narrowly understood as a philosophical current or undercurrent—, but also the boundaries of what we understand as (science?) fiction. Of course, Lovecraft and Ligotti are explicitly mentioned in the text, and their stylistic and thematic influences are evident, but Snuff Memories is a weird creature in its own right. It really forces us, us who do literary studies at least, to adjust and to widen our narratological assumptions, conceptions, and categories.
The centuries-old formulation: “We don’t know what a body can do” had already become a refreshing question with the publication of Posthuman Life, and it becomes a refreshing conundrum again after the publication of Snuff Memories. This novella invites (or lures) us to reassess our narratological assumptions regarding what is a character, how is the body of a character feasibly constituted and how it may change, what does it mean for X or Y kind of body or state of the art of a body to feel pain, to feel pleasure? (And here the age-old question of the quality and the feasible intransferability of one’s own pain becomes refreshing as well: pain becomes a particularly elusive and equivocal concept+affect). What kind of verisimilitude corresponds to a text like this, what can happen and what cannot happen within the constraints of this fictional (un/anti)-world, which happens to engulf many other preexisting narrative universes or multiverses? How is the narrative space of Snuff Memories populated, can all modes of existence inhabiting this space survive the constant whip or whiplash of affect, can affect survive incarnation? What/who comes not after the subject, as Nancy would put it, but after the body or after a body?
Questions like: “What can the passions do after bodies?” ought to be taken literally here, at face value—these questions make themselves suddenly available and pertinent narratologically, gnosilogically, and aesthetically. They demand our attention not only because of how “cool” or how beautifully sounding they are, and they are, but because they really make us think again, read again, ask ourselves again what kinds of assumptions about character traits, agency, intentionality, and feasibility we bring with us as baggage every time we open a book. I think Snuff Memories is really a game changer in that regard. I do hope it does not go unnoticed, and I certainly hope it doesn’t get reduced to the roundness of a concept, the wit of an interpretation, or the calcification of a philosophical paradigm.
All this to say: cheers to the challenge that is this book, and cheers to disturbance. Cheers to being a perennially incompetent reader of Snuff Memories. Cheers to enthusiastically trying and enthusiastically failing to grasp what this book is about time and time again. Cheers to perhaps abandoning the question of aboutness once and for all. And cheers to weird creatures—please keep them coming.