- Discognition by Steven Shaviro
Steven Shaviro's book Discognition is published by Repeater Books, a still-new UK-based press distributed in the US by Random House. As a scholarly book on a trade imprint, Discognition should draw the enthusiastic attention of two audiences: one scholarly, another more popular, both interested in how sf thinks about the mind. I imagine the popular audience as the type who reads sf and might buy a Ray Kurzweil book, or a ________ and Philosophy title once [End Page 505] in a while. That reader will find thoughtful, rewarding and generally accessible discussions that put sf into conversation with other kinds of knowledge. A scholarly reader will likewise find an inventive and exploratory study with some exciting new directions for putting sf together with neuroscience, analytic philosophy and more.
The introduction proposes to look at cognition from a series of new perspectives, opened up by gaps between what Shaviro describes as sentience–the realm of things like environment awareness and embodied reaction– and cognition. We settle for discognition, the neologism that for Shaviro denotes 'something that disrupts cognition, exceeds the limits of cognition, but also subtends cognition'. What aspects of our and non-humans' sentience, Shaviro asks, can help us to get a better handle on the place of cognition? Not least because, as Shaviro claims, sentience is 'arguably a matter of generating (or being able to generate) fictions and fabulations', Discognition sees sf as a kind of discourse that has much to offer analytic philosophy, neuroscience and other approaches to cognition (10). As Shaviro describes them, 'science fiction narratives can help us step beyond the overly limited cognitivist assumptions of recent research both in the philosophy of mind and in the science of neurobiology. This is because narrative fictions nearly always extend beyond cognition' (15).
The main text is organised around different case studies, most of which come from sf and which imagine different kinds of thinking: Thinking Like a Computer, Thinking Like a Killer, Thinking Like an Alien and so on. The first comes from analytic philosophy (the hypothetical scenario of Mary, who has never seen colour), and the last from biology (Shaviro's own telling of the slime mould's problem-solving capabilities), while the chapters in the middle take up sf novels and short stories. Probably the best-known among these is Ted Chiang's novella, 'The Lifecycle of Software Objects' (2010); the others–Maureen McHugh's 'The Kingdom of the Blind' (2011), Scott Bakker's Neuropath (2008), Michael Swanwick's 'Wild Minds' (1998) and Peter Watts's Blindsight (2006)–represent various fresh avenues for sf scholarship. One major strength of this volume, especially as one with popular appeal, is its choice of these less-discussed texts, whose considerations about the mind open up truly original possibilities for discussion. There is no chapter on Philip K. Dick or Richard Powers here, and none of the sf films or television shows about the mind that we might expect to see, excepting a brief mention of The Matrix (Wachowskis siblings US 1999). Speaking of film and television, visual media are curiously absent from the text altogether. Despite the book's convincing claims about the similarities between analytic philosophy's and sf's narrative forms, the book might have benefited by drawing on a growing [End Page 506] body of parallel work in film phenomenology that attends to some of the same non-cognitive dimensions of experience that Shaviro highlights here.
The opening chapter starts things out in analytic philosophy, with an in-depth tour through the speculative narrative in Frank Jackson's 'Epiphenomenal Qualia' (1986) and the many responses and objections to Jackson's now-canonical hypothetical situation that differentiates factual knowledge from lived experience. Here, Shaviro demonstrates the importance of often science-fictional-sounding narratives to the discipline of analytic philosophy, which includes brains in vats, philosophical zombies and, in this chapter's focus, a woman who knows everything one can know about the colour red, but who has never actually seen colour. Shaviro's intervention in the philosophical conversation is...