Organization


go-3women-534x716Responding to my post on the Game of Life and Emergence, John Doyle, over at Ktismatics, speculates about the ontological status of the patterns that emerge in the game. Doyle first outlines five helpful criteria for emergence drawn from Jaegwon Kim:

1. Systems with a higher level of complexity emerge from the coming together of lower-level entities in new structural configurations.
2. Higher-level systems exhibit higher-level emergent properties arising from the lower-level properties and relations of its constituent parts.
3. Emergent properties are not predictable from information about lower-level conditions.
4. Emergent properties are not explainable or reducible to the lower-level conditions.
5. Emergent properties have novel causal powers of their own.

I am largely in agreement with these five criteria of emergent phenomena so long as number four isn’t taken to entail anything spooky or magical like a sudden magical leap, but rather is a thesis about scale dependent properties that couldn’t have strictly been predicted from the lower level rules. I’ll have more to say about this in a moment. For those interested in actually playing the Game of Life, Ian Bogost has been kind enough to provide a link here.

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brainvatIn email today an old friend of mine asks,

Currently I’m having a bit of a spat with other graphic designers over in another pocket of the Internet. My question is: can design be understood to have an ontology, can there be an ‘ontology of design’? Does this make philosophical sense?

I’m wondering if the assemblage that is my discourse, field, discipline, community, etc. can be understood as a thing? I like the notion of tracing it through all of those lenses and coming to a networked definition. A flat ontology perhaps? Does this make sense?

Hopefully he won’t object to me posting his question here as I think it’s an extremely interesting question that goes straight to the heart of what I’ve been working on with regard to cultural and social theory. Within the framework of my onticology, the criteria by which something is real lies in making a difference. As I put it with my ontic principle, “there is no difference that does not make a difference”. Thus, to be real is to make a difference. More recently I have described the ontic principle as a deflationary move. I’ve stolen the idea of “deflationary moves” from my buddy Nate over at the terrific blog What in the Hell. Nate praises Badiou for the deflationary move of placing ontology in the domain of mathematics. Where philosophy has been obsessed with the question “what is being?” or “what is the meaning of being?”, “Badiou’s” ontology is deflationary in the sense that it says “this question has already been answered and if you would like to know that answer go study mathematics.” As a consequence, Badiou is able to set aside the question of being, dethrone it from center stage, and instead focus philosophy on the question of truth. Deflating the ontological question allows the object of philosophical inquiry to be shifted elsewhere.

Unlike Badiou (and Heidegger), I do not think the central question of philosophy has been “what is being?” or “what is the meaning of being?” Rather, following Zubiri, I think the central question of philosophy is “what is reality?” However, like Badiou, I try to effect a deflationary move with respect to the question of reality. Since roughly the 17th century, philosophy has been obsessed with the question of how we might come to know reality. As such, reality has been treated as a transcendent beyond that must be reached, and which is to be distinguished from something else that is not reality. What this thing that is other than reality, I do not know. It seems to be mind, culture, language, power, and a host of other things relating to the human. The problem is that situated in these terms the question of how we can know reality is hopeless. Why? Because one of the central lines of thought we inherit from the 17th century is the thesis that we only have access to our representations. Well, if we only have access to our representations then we can only ever scan our representations to find the marks of reality, but since these marks are themselves representations we have no criteria for determining whether they are marks or simulacra: Descartes with his mind in a vat.

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mapofitalyI sometimes get the sense that when I make remarks about flat ontology and collectives of human and nonhuman actors the points I’m making are so simple, so vulgar, so obvious that others are often confused as to what I might even be referring to. Ghost, for example, remarks,

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s grateful for all the time you’ve spent explaining this stuff. I’m beginning to get a handle on it, but as you describe the differences between a flat ontology analysis and something Zizek might do, for instance, I realise I need to see this ontology in action. A detailed flat ontology analysis might dissipate the feeling for me that the old nature/binary is still there, but now together in a new container.

No doubt I’ve exacerbated the problem because I’ve developed a somewhat abstract vocabulary with mysterious expressions like “there are no differences that do not make a difference”, “there is no transportation without translation”, and “nothing is either reducible or irreducible to anything else”, all situated in terms like “objectiles”, “actors”, “exo-relations”, “endo-relations”, “attractors”, “phase spaces”, “endo-consistency”, and so on. Faced with this infantry of terms and expressions, it’s difficult to determine what I might be getting at. A good deal of this has been my fault as I seldom give very elaborate examples to develop my claims. Hopefully I can rectify some of this today through the question “how did Caesar cross the Rubicon?”

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wild-things-for-webWhen the term “realism” is evoked it often leads to associations with the distinction between nature and culture, the natural and the social, objects and language, the objective and the subjective, world and mind. Under this two-world model, reality is placed on the side of nature, the natural, objects, the objective, and world, whereas meaning, representation, values, and significations are placed on the side of the cultural, the social, language, the subjective, and mind. The natural, it is said, is the domain of the is, whereas the cultural is the domain of the ought. Such is the modernist constitution, so beautifully analyzed by Latour in We Have Never Been Modern, Pandora’s Hope, and The Politics of Nature. Based on this modernist constitution, a matrix of philosophical possibilities emerges. The obvious question, of course, is that of how mind is able to relate to world. If these two houses are so fundamentally different, one containing meaning and normativity, the other composed of senseless objects and causal relations, how do the two come together? Predictably, we get those who strive to reduce the one house to the other. Thus we get the naturalists or vulgar realists who attempt to show how all cultural phenomena are really natural phenomena (think sociobiology), while on the other hand we get the vulgar idealists who attempt to reduce everything to the second house or the world of meaning, intentionality, mind, the social, signification, normativity, and all the rest. And, of course, we get a million variants of intermediary positions that, like Epicurean wisdom, want a little natural indulgence here, a little cultural indulgence there.

When the object-oriented ontologist proudly adopts the term “realism”, it is immediately concluded that she is placing everything in the basket of nature, excluding the domain of culture, mind, signification, meaning, and all the rest. Hence charges of “naive realism”. To make matters worse, it is concluded that insofar as it is nature that the onticologist and ontographer are siding with, the human is being excluded, foreclosed, or disavowed in the name of natural phenomena. However, what this reading misses is that onticology is a flat ontology. What the onticologist asserts is not that there are two worlds, the real natural world and the ideal mental world of meaning, but that there is only one level: reality. Onticology thus draws a transversal line across the distinction between mind and world, culture and nature. Culture is not other than reality or the real, but is an element of the real. Since onticology begins with the hypothesis, wishing to know where it will go, that there is no difference that does not make a difference, it proves impossible to exclude the human. Why? Because humans make a difference. What onticology objects to is not the thesis that humans are elements in the real, but the thesis that every relation is a human-world relation.

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nz317Responding to a rather lengthy and rambling post I wrote over at his blog, Bogost has a terrific post up on the relationship of his research and thought to object-oriented ontology. Ian writes:

As a former Lacanian psychoanalyst familiar with cultural studies, Levi makes the following primary observation in his comment:

My sense is that “cultural studies” has been far too dominated by what I generically refer to as “semiotic” approaches. That is, we get a lot of emphasis on interpretation and analysis of signs and cultural phenomena, and the rest falls by the wayside.

This seems generally right to me, given an important provision. There are humanists who consider the materiality of creativity, but when they do so they usually do it from an historical perspective (e.g., the history of the book, itself a rare and possibly ostracised practice in literary scholarship), or from a Marxist perspective (i.e., with respect to the human experience of the material production of artifacts and systems). In both of these cases, the primary—perhaps the only—reason to consider the material underpinnings of human creativity is to understand or explain the human phenomena of creation and interpretation. Clearly there has been a conflation of realism and materialism in cultural studies for decades now, such that it’s very easy to do the latter without the former.

In Unit Operations, I was focused on comparative criticism, particularly criticism that would be able to treat very different sorts of media, like literature and videogames, in tandem. As someone with experience both experiencing and creating computational work, it was always clear to me that the material underpinnings of such systems were both important for anyone who wants to understand them with any depth, and yet also frequently ignored. For example, one topic I discuss in Unit Operations is the relationship between the shared hardware of different videogames, and how such relations cannot be sufficiently explained through cultural theoretical notions like intertextuality or the anxiety of influence. This is an approach that would come back as a primary method in my work with Nick Montfort on platform studies, discussed below.

Read the rest of the post as it is really rich. Like the famous scene from When Harry Met Sally, yet without faking it, I cannot but say “yes! yes! yes!” in response to Bogost’s post.

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285321130_2c4c7d3ebb_mI have really enjoyed the appearance of media and technology studies folk, psychologists, sociologists, ecologists, critical animal studies theorists, anthropologists, rhetoricians, and all the rest as discussions surrounding Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology have intensified online in the last few months. I think this suggests that there is something highly productive in Object-Oriented approaches for these other lines of inquiry. Given that I think one of the roles of philosophy is to think the present or to provide conceptual tools that help us to better think the present and comprehend our time, I find this to be a heartening sign. Responding to remarks I made in another post, Scu of the blog criticalanimalstudies writes:

It seems to me this rejection of anthropocentrism is also the starting point for critical animal studies (And I should add I find Bryant’s formulation elegant. Philosophy can always use more elegant formulations.), even if (most) CAS heads in some very different directions than (most) SR after this rejection of anthropocentric ontology. I think one of the ways to understand this difference is by examining another common opposition that Bryant posits for SR:

On the other hand, I think all of those in the speculative realist camp are deeply exhausted by styles of philosophy that begin from the standpoint of critique (in the Kantian sense), the phenomenological analysis of experience, hermeneutics, and textual analysis. There’s a sense that these approaches to philosophy, as powerful and valuable as they are, have exhausted their possibilities and are standing in the way of engaging with the sorts of questions demanded by our contemporary moment. For example, its difficult to imagine something less relevant than phenomenology, hermeneutics, semiotics, or deconstructive textual analysis to the sorts of issues posed by the ecological crisis. Ecology just requires a very different set of conceptual tools. Moreover, we are living in the midst of one of the most remarkable periods in scientific and mathematical development and invention, yet we have a group of philosophers continuing to pretend that the Greeks said it all and that philosophy largely ended at the beginning of the 19th century. It is also simply bizarre to think that these developments are adequately thematized through the resources of textual analysis or semiotics. We need to become a bit more pre-critical again, I think, to adequately discuss these sorts of issues.

I am, in many ways, very sympathetic to this argument. In many ways also in strong agreement (this odd obsession with Greek as origin, and origin as the authentic and true seems relatively useless to me). But if we replace ecology with the systematic exploitation of animals (and of course, recognizing that the exploitation there is deeply implicated in the present ecological crisis), I doubt highly that “phenomenology, hermeneutics, semiotics, or deconstructive textual analysis” have exhausted themselves in changing the status of the animal. Not only have phenomenological moments with nonhuman animals been crucial for many people changing their views regarding animal exploitation, but it seems that humanism and speciesism are strongly powerful in maintaining the systematic exploitation of animals. If we are to change things, I feel that confronting how this humanism and speciesism is maintained from their roots to their present formulation is a necessary move, which means critique is a necessary tool for CAS. This critical element needs to be centered not just on political and philosophical texts, but also on present media and scientific texts. At the same time, I agree we need to pay more attention to some of the present movements in current scientific discourses. Indeed, CAS is also interesting as a philosophical movement because of its strong interest in things like current evolutionary discourses, primatology, cognitive ethology, etc. (And indeed, one of the few major continental philosophers that seemed to be particularly interested in these things was Derrida).

One of the criticisms I have often heard of SR is that it is a vulgar positivism and scientism. At least, this is the sort of criticism others are telling me in email that they’re hearing from their professors and colleagues. “Why,” the criticism runs, “would you want to bother with that naive and vulgar positivism?” No doubt this impression arises from the term “realism” itself, which is so often assumed to denote a world independent of all social and mental “contamination”. Given how hard thinkers have struggled for the last two hundred years to reveal the role that cognition, language, signs, power, and the social play in structuring reality, realism, as understood in this way, cannot but appear to be a sort of regression.

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The always intrepid Ian Bogost responds to yesterday’s Speculative Realism Roundup, remarking that,

Just for kicks, a possible objection to my own claim that the digital comfort of SR is an accident of timing more than a property of its positions:

As this very post illustrates, one of the demands of effective networked discourse is speed; online exchanges happen quickly or they disappear, lost in the noise of novelty. Another is tentativeness. One must be comfortable putting forward thoughts in gestation, in transition, knowing that they will shift and revise over time.

One might say that both speed and tentativeness are unappealing demands for both the analytic and continental traditions, the former thanks to its affinity for the precision of logic and mathematics, the latter thanks to its affinity for of discourse and language. Both efforts strive for a sort of perfect rendering of things, whether as friction-free Wittgensteinian proof or an exquisitely baroque Derridean lyric.

Is it possible that among SR advocates, whatever inner sense finds a rejection of correlationism appealing also makes no qualms about the rapid, experimental outpouring of possible notions given form in logic and language? Writing is still serious business for the speculative realist, to be sure, but so is the tea that steeps, the trousers that wrinkle, or — for that matter — the keyboard keys that depress while such writing takes place.

I really don’t have much to say in response to Ian’s thought here beyond free associations. One of the things I’ve noticed among many of my colleagues in recent years is a sort of outright hostility to the internet, text messaging, etc. The lament always has the form “these kids today…” and spirals into a diatribe about how they are unable to read, how they lack a knowledge of history, science, and are unable to write etc., etc., etc. I am always a bit shocked when I hear these diatribes, while nonetheless sympathizing with them on the writing end (grading these essays can be a miserable experience), because these diatribes are coming from the same folks that are intimately familiar with Plato’s Phaedrus. In other words, they sounds remarkably like Plato’s critique of the evils of writing. Thinkers like Walter Ong with his Orality and Literacy and Friedrich Kittler with his Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, have, of course, introduced us to the thesis that communications technologies are not simply tools that leave the content of communication unaffected, but rather have a morphogenetic effect on the nature of that communication as well as cognitive structure. McLuhan makes similar observations in The Gutenburg Galaxy, and thinkers such as Simondon and more recently Stiegler in Time and Technics call into question the notion of τέχνη simply taking on form from human beings. Indeed, Marx had already observed the manner in which the factory had a morphogenetic effect on human bodies, generating a new type of subjectivity.

Simply put, the thesis would run that the person individuated within an oral culture thinks and experiences the world differently than a person individuated within a textual culture. Here there would be different structures of embodiment, cognition, affectivity, and so on. Likewise, it takes no great leap to conclude that perhaps similar differences emerge with respect to digital cultures. In this respect, it wouldn’t be that students are “stupid”, but rather that given this milieu of individuation, they have a different sort of cognitive, affective, and embodied relationship to the world. While this different structure makes reading Spinoza’s Ethics with them tough going as the Ethics requires a very different sort of cognitive temporality than the affective temporality prominent in our current visual and digital culture which is more rhizomatic and associative than deductive, it does not entail that these new forms of subjectivity are somehow less skilled or intelligent. Indeed, it is possible that the sort of affective-temporal structures of text-based structure are actually an impediment to thriving in visual-digital culture as they require a “keeping time” that simply is not available in the zipping technological space Ian alludes to. Rather than the mathematician or the scholar pouring over a text or problem for years or decades, the model of visual-digital culture is something closer to Jackie Chan who, like Charlie Chaplin, is able to make use of whatever environment he is thrown into at the time.

The new technologies thus pose all sorts of questions about the nature of contemporary discourse, thought, dialogue, affectivity, subjectivity, and interpersonal relations. Will we reach a point where we find reading a book every bit as difficult as reciting all of Homer’s Illiad? Yet here again, I think we find a case where correlationism comes up woefully short in providing us with the sorts of conceptual tools to explain the sort of world we live in. In its focus on the mind-world correlate, in its focus on how mind actively gives form to the world, it has a very difficult time theorizing how these sorts of milieus give form to various forms of embodiment, affectivity, temporality, subjectivity, and all the rest. Similarly, it is not clear that correlationist approaches have much of significance to say with respect to technology beyond reactionary, luddite platitudes about how it is corrupting us (perhaps, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s here). As Stiegler and Simondon argue, technology has taken on a sort of autonomy of its own, evolving and developing at its own pace and with respect to its own internal logic, in a way that can no longer be properly theorized in terms of human aims and intentions. In the absence of a clear understanding of that autonomy and its dynamics it’s very difficult to develop strategies for responding to this new world.

Herding CatsThere have been a number of interesting posts surrounding Speculative Realism lately. Over at Immanence Adrian reflects on the significance of speculative realist thought for ecology. As Adrian writes,

I’ve been intrigued by the SR crowd for a while now because they seem to speak a language that resonates with the kinds of complex-network/biocultural-systems/discursive-materialist thinkers I’ve drawn on in my theorizing of socio-natural relations — folks like Bruno Latour, John Law, and the actor-network theorists, technoscience feminists (Donna Haraway, Karen Barad, Elizabeth Grosz, et al), Spinozian-Deleuzian political theorists (William Connolly and post-Marxists like J.K. Gibson-Graham), ‘social nature’ and post-representationalist geographers (Bruce Braun, Noel Castree, Sarah Whatmore, Nigel Thrift, Steve Hinchliffe, and their ‘social spatialization’ and eco-Marxist and Lefebvrian relatives), Batesonians and biosemioticists, socio-nature and post-Gibsonian anthropologists (Ingold, Descola, Palsson), embodied/enactive cognitivists (Varela, Thompson) and developmental psychologists (Oyama), eco-world-system theorists (Alf Hornborg, Jason Moore, Sing Chew, Yrjo Haila), political ecologists and postcolonial materialists (like Arturo Escobar, who fits into several of the above categories), et al. It seems that in SR we may be finding a current within mainstream philosophy — as opposed to its fringes and sub-sub-niches (see my post on the interaction between continental and environmental philosophies) — with which to closely ally. That alone is a cause for celebration.

This post is rich in connections so read the rest here.

Paul Ennis of anotherheideggerblog speculates that SR may very well be the first web based or truly digital philosophical movement. As Paul writes,

I’ve been taking something of an interest in the so-called Speculative Realist school associated with thinkers such as Ray Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harman , and Quentin Meillassoux. At least part of my interest lies in the fact that the SR may represent the first truly digital or technological philosophical movement. It is transmitted by a central blog, personal blogs such as those of Harman and Levi (Harman’s in particular is a good introduction to SR).

The Latourian in me is fascinated with this issue. Latour is all about tracing networks. In his more empirically oriented studies he’s always focused on questions of how certain relations among actors were formed, how the gained strength, how they shifted from being loose assemblages to black boxes, what tools were used, etc. Latour wants us to open black boxes and see how they’re put together. In this respect, it is interesting to observe interactions among actors as they attempt to form a ramshackle assemblage or network amongst one another.

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In my post “Individuals and Scale” I outlined a nested model of individuals, following the work of Harman and DeLanda. Under this model we would have individuals within individuals at different levels of scale, with individuals at a higher level of scale often regulating or constraining those individuals of which they are composed. Like Russian dolls we would have individuals within individuals, with the important difference that the individuals at a lower level of scale are a condition for the individuals or objects at a higher level of scale and that the individual at a higher level of scale constrains or regulates the individuals at a lower level of scale. However, this is a strange sort of dependency, for the elements or individuals that make up an individual or an object at a larger level of scale can pass in and out of existence, and can leave the network or the object at a higher level of scale, without the object at the higher level of scale ceasing to exist or losing its essence. A body continuously loses and gains new cells, but nonetheless remains that body. A society or social individual loses or gains individuals of which it is composed, but still remains that network.

Indeed, in the case of both cells in the body and human individuals in a society, it is not even necessary that the cells or the human individuals perfectly execute a plan or a rule in order for the larger level individual to maintain its existence. In this respect, we have a strange nesting of objects within objects where the objects at a smaller level of scale enjoy a degree of freedom or autonomy that isn’t rigidly determined or constrained by the individual or object at the larger level of scale. No doubt it is this that led Luhmann to claim that individuals belong to the environment of social systems, or that social systems are not composed of individuals. If Luhmann is led to this claim in his marvelous Social Systems, then this is because social systems persist and endure independent of the individuals that compose them. The smaller scale individuals that compose a larger scale individual are a condition for the larger scale individual, but they do not make the larger scale individual the object that it is. Likewise, it is no doubt this observation that led the structuralists to their anti-humanism. Insofar as a social system has attractor states of its own, it has an autonomous dynamic stability that is in many respects impervious to the acts of smaller scale individuals. Indeed, in most instances the dissident actions of smaller scale individuals actually function as fodder to reinforce the internal organization of the larger scale individual or object.

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04121501_01In response to my post on Darwin’s Copernican revolution, Joe writes:

Is that to say that the individual is prior to the species then? I just wonder how easily this could pair itself with some liberal-capitalist bootstrapism with a human face, as with any number of naturalized consumerist gimmicks: from straight-up greenwashing that gets done in the name of LEED certification to hip inner-city farmers’ markets and their localist brand-campaigns, to sociobiology and its adaptationist apology for our historical misery. When you say that for Darwin there are only individual differences, my mind jumps to those little boxes you sometimes see at the cash-register that tell you that you can really make a difference by donating your change.

At the outset, I think it’s worth noting that it’s a mistake to let one’s politics dictate ones ontology. This is a bit like suggesting that we should reject the thesis that atoms are composed of electrons because we find something in this thesis politically objectionable. Nonetheless, I do sympathize with Joe’s concerns about liberal-capitalist political orientations. It is indeed true that Darwin adopts, for lack of a better word, a sort of “metaphysical nominalism” where only individual differences exist, and in which there is no difference in kind between individuals and species. However, it’s a mistake, I think, to leap from this thesis to the thesis of liberal-capitalist politics where we can reduce the social to atomistic individuals.

In my view, there are individuals at a variety of individuals at different levels of scale, and there are individuals embedded in or nested in other individuals. This is significant because it entails that you can have emergent systems (individuals at a larger level of scale) that exercise downward causality and constraint on individuals at a smaller level of scale. Take the example of a body. A body is composed of cells. Each of these cells is an individual in its own right. However, the body is itself an individual as well. Here we have individuals (cells) nested in another individual (the body). The body has system-specific powers and capacities that differ from those of an individual cell. Take one muscle cell, for example, and you don’t get much in the way of expressivity or strength. Network a bunch of muscle cells together and suddenly you get a face capable of making all sorts of different expressions and an am with the power to lift all sorts of objects.

However, it is not simply that we get emergent powers or affects from networks of individual cells, it is also that these networks exercise a constraining force on the individuals that compose it. In the example of cells, initially cells, in the course of development, begin as pluripotent. This is to say that early on cells have the capacity to be a variety of different types of cells such as nerve cells, bone cells, muscle cells, and tissue cells. How, then, do cells shift from this pluripotency to being irreversibly differentiated into particular type of cells? Cell differentiation occurs in networks of cells where cells chemically signal to one another turning the individual cells off and on in particular ways that lead to differentiation into muscle, nerve, tissue, and bone cells. In other words, the network takes on a constraining role with respect to the individual cells that compose it. Here we have a relationship between two individuals: the network of cells and an individual cells, where the organization of the former individual exercises downward causality on the individuals that compose it.

The problem with liberal-capitalist political theory lies not in the ontological category of the individual, but rather in the manner in which it restricts the ontological category of the individual to human subjects, ignoring and failing to recognize individuals at different levels of scale and the relationship between these different levels of scale. For this reason, it ends up being blind to network specific forms of organization that play a constraining role with respect to individual human subjects, or the manner in which individuals at a higher level of scale play a regulating role with respect to their elements through processes of negative feedback. It thus turns out that questions of scale and emergence are key issues for any object-oriented philosophy.

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