octopusWhenever the concept of memes comes up it seems that people get really incensed. I’m baffled by this reaction. What is it about this concept that gets folks so worked up? I certainly understand the point that meme theory is underdeveloped, but this is a call for theoretical elaboration and development, not outright rejection. I get the sense that memes get some worked up for one of two reasons. On the one hand, I sometimes sense that hostility to the concept of memes is really driven by disciplinary territory disputes. Here you have the upstarts like Dawkins and Dennett come along, spout the word “memes”, and suddenly everyone yahoo that knows nothing about social theory or the broad and deep discipline of semiotics gets all excited. I wonder whether there isn’t a little of resentment and envy at work here. On the other hand, I get the sense that some associate memes with socio- and psychobiology (more on this in a moment).

From the standpoint of object-oriented ontology, I find meme theory extremely attractive precisely because meme theory treats memes as real objects or actors in the world. Here, more specifically, are the reasons that I find memes attractive:

praying-mantis-cannabilism-eating-mate1) Far from falling into vulgar socio- and psychobiology, meme theory allows us to tell a far more complex story about human beings and behavior. The central thesis of meme theory is that at some point in human biological history a new type of replicator emerged in contrast to gene replicators. Genes are replicators in the sense that they are units of some sort that get copied or replicated through reproduction. Under Dawkin’s formulation, at least, the “aim” of genes is not the advantage of the organism, but to get themselves copied through reproduction. In this respect, genes construct vehicles (bodies, organisms) as strategies for getting themselves replicated.

Just as we do not act primarily for the welfare of our cars but use cars for our own aims, genes aren’t primarily “interested” in the welfare of bodies or organisms. This comes out with special clarity in the case of the preying mantis, but also my favorite animal, the octopus. In the case of the preying mantis, of course, the female devours the male preying mantis’s head after mating with him. In contributing half his genes the male has done his work. His sole value after mating consists in contributing nutrients to the impregnated preying mantis. Moreover, were the male to go his happy way after mating he might mate with other females, generating dangerous competitors to the offspring of his first mate. Cruel world. The case is similar with the octopus. After the female octopus is impregnated she finds a well protected cave or pipe and lays her eggs around the mouth of the cave opening. For the next few weeks after laying her eggs she never again leaves the cave, but rather spends all of her time jetting water over the egg sacks hanging from the cave opening and cleaning the eggs with her tentacles. Once the eggs hatch the female octopus is free to leave the cave, but at this point she is so weakened from lack of food (she hasn’t hunted during this whole time) and is very quickly, and somewhat ironically, devoured by the fish and crabs that she previously feasted upon. Once again, the genes of the female octopus were not acting on her behalf, but rather she was a vehicle or strategy for getting her genes replicated. When that replication is complete her job is done. Cruel world.

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image003In response to my post on individuals, Ian Bogost writes:

Perhaps I’m being naive, but I’m not sure the concept of the replicator is even necessary? Can’t the relations between type and instance, or instance and instance remain, or not, and still be explained via the same approach to relation that one would adopt for relations between yogurt tub and spoon, or alligator and television camera? It seems that there is a strong philosophical (as well as rhetorical) reason to avoid special cases.

An object like “soccer mom” is an object produced through what we might call “memesis” rather than “mimesis.” But once extent in a particular context, can’t its existence can remain flat without trouble? Again, perhaps I’m being dense here.

Incidentally, one of the reasons I use the word “unit” is because it avoids this whole business of explaining away the difference between real and incorporeal objects.

In a similar vein, Asher Kay writes:

LS – I understand now, but I’m not sure I agree. Mathematically, an identity could be viewed as referring to the same individual, so that saying “A=A” would be the same thing as saying “Bruno Latour = Bruno Latour”. This practice introduces some conceptual difficulties, but the formal systems still work fine.

On the other hand, the entities being identified could be seen as conceptual generalizations of the same sort as “soccer mom”. When I say “1″ mathematically, I could be referring only to a property that has no object attached to it. Cognitively, our minds are built to subtract out aspects of things just like we add things when we stick a horn on a horse to make a unicorn.

This is the area of OOO’s realism that is most difficult for me to grasp. Mathematics is a conceptual domain – meaning that it is restricted to certain obscure and dark corners of the material world. OOO seems to speak of concepts (including mathematical ones) as having the same sort of reality as what we’d call “physical objects”. I agree with this, but really only insofar as concepts are physical objects that happen to be very confusing to perceive.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t see how mathematics is any more special ontologically than soccer moms.

I’m still working through these issues myself, so I don’t have any hard and fast position as of yet. I suppose one way of articulating what I’m trying to get at is by contrasting the position I’m experimenting with with that of Plato’s. In Plato, when speaking of things like numbers it’s necessary to distinguish three things. On the one hand there is the number itself. For example, there is the number “2″. On the other hand, there are inscriptions or signs standing for the number itself such as an inscription of the number 2 on a piece of paper, in the sand, on a neon sign, in a computer, in a speech-act, or in someone’s thought while doing mathematics. Finally there are things that are counted by the number itself. For example, I have two cats. Someone can eat two french fries. A group can celebrate two days a year. And so on. Drawing on Peirce’s triadic notion of the sign, we can thus distinguish between the sign-vehicle or number as inscribed on a piece of paper or as spoken in speech, the “interpretant” of the sign which is roughly analogous to Saussure’s signified and which in this case would be the number 2 itself, and finally the semiotic-object which is roughly analogous to the referent of the sign and which, in this case, would be the counted.

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soccer_momIn developing onticology or object-oriented ontology, one of the things I’ve been aiming at is what I call, following DeLanda, though developed in a different way, a flat ontology. A flat ontology is, to use a term my good friend Jerry the Anthropologist recently shared with me, a lumpy ontology. In referring to such an ontology as “lumpy”, I intend an ontology that is composed of a heterogeneity of different entities. As such, heterogenesis is one of the central questions of onticology. Heterogenesis is the question of how the disparate, the heterogeneous, enters into relations or imbroglios with one another to form a collective and a common. These imbroglios or collectives can be thought as logoi. Rather than a single logos for the world, we instead get islands of logoi where the organization governing these imbroglios are emergent results of ongoing heterogenesis.

The idea of a flat ontology can be fruitfully understood in contrast to materialisms. Where materialism posits a single type of entity– whatever that type might be –out of which all other entities are composed, a flat ontology is pluralistic, positing an infinite variety of different types of entities. Flat ontology does not reject the existence of material entities like quarks, atoms, and trees, but merely asserts that these aren’t the only types of entities that exist. Consequently, when onticology claims that “to be is to be an object”, this thesis is not equivalent to claiming that “to be is to be material”. A city is an object. Indeed, it is an object that contains a variety of other objects and that depends on a variety of other objects both in terms of its own endo-relational structure and its exo-relations to things outside its membrane. Nonetheless, were we to take an inventory of all the material objects included in the city we would not have the “city-ness of the city”. For all intents and purposes, nearly all the matter composing New Orleans remained after Hurricane Katrina, but it was a very different city after this event and its continued existence still remains in doubt.

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Lately I have been rereading Stuart Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe as my bedtime reading which perhaps accounts for why I have been unable to sleep and am nearly psychotically tired as it is a rich book full of all sorts of fascinating ideas that keep me tossing and turning as my mind spins. Dealing specifically with issues of self-organization, Kauffman’s work strives to theorize the conditions under which we get self-sustaining and organized matter such as we see in the case of living systems. A number of his claims are generalizable to a wide variety of phenomena beyond cells and organisms. Similar principles, for example, would apply to ecosystems, economy, social systems, brain organization and so on. And indeed, Kauffman approaches organization at a high level of abstraction, focusing on self-sustaining or autocatalytic chemical processes while also providing a wealth of formalizations that refer to no specific material substrate in particular. I have made no secret of the fact that I am generally hostile to relational ontologies that reduce objects to their relations. While objects certainly enter into relations, onticology begins from the premise that objects are independent of their relations and can pass out of and enter into new relations. Thus, for example, while being sympathetic to the Saussurean conception of language as a system, onticology nonetheless refuses the thesis that anything is its relations. In short, onticology begins with the hypothesis that being is atomistic or composed of discrete, autonomous, and independent objects that can pass in and out of relations. Yes, there are systems or forms of organization, but these forms of organization are assemblages of objects that enter into certain relationships with one another.

The consequence of this thesis is that one of the central issues for onticology becomes the problem of entropy. Roughly, entropy is a tendency of systems to move from states of higher organization to states of lower degrees of organization, or, alternatively, to move from states of non-equilibrium to equilibrium. The video below illustrates this idea nicely:

At the beginning, the system is in a state of non-equilibrium in the sense that all of the particles are concentrated in a particular region of the chamber. With the passage of time– a mere ten seconds –the particles wander throughout the chamber such that you have an equal probability of finding particles in any particular region of the chamber. The big question for onticology then becomes if being is composed of discrete and autonomous objects, then how is it that certain objects form assemblages that resist this increase in entropy, instead maintaining an organized state across time? A while back I suggested that this is how we should pose questions about the nature of society. There the question was that of how it is that humans bodies just don’t fly off in entropic ways, but instead enter into organized relations that sustain themselves across time. Of course, in order for any system to maintain itself in an organized way work is required. No system maintains itself without work. So the real issue lies in discovering the sort of work through which this organization is re-produced across time. This really gets to one of the central problems with French inflected structuralism and Luhmannian systems theory. Both identify the organization of a social system, how it is put together and how its elements are related, but they remain at the level of social physiology, giving only the skeleton of social systems or how the “bones are put together”. What they don’t give us is the work by which this physiology is maintained. They tell us that these systems somehow resist entropy, but not how. Given that many of us are interested, above all, in the question of how change is possible, the issue of how a social system resists entropy becomes a crucial strategic issue for political engagement. However, even if one is not interested in these political questions of change, the question remains fascinating on its own terms.

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For the last few days I’ve been a bit remiss in responding to comments and email due to being swamped with other things. I apologize for this. Today, in response to my post on Orientalism, Jerry the Anthropologist writes:

Allow me to wonder how this post might look to someone reading it at Universitas Kebangsaan Malayu or at Gadjah Mada or at San Carlos. Its not that I don’t appreciate (or that they might not appreciate) the elegance of the argument.

Put another way, somewhat over 50 years ago, after having examined somewhat over 300 definitions of culture, A. L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn wondered whether its not so important what culture is as what culture does.

Hopefully my friend Jerry will say a bit more about his distinction between “culture being” and “culture doing”. For my own part, I have become suspicious of concepts like “society”, “culture”, “economy”, “language”, etc., because I think all too often these concepts tend to hypostatize phenomena that are really complex networks of interactions. South Park recently had an uncharacteristically good episode on precisely this issue with respect to the economy that is well worth watching. We treat the economy as if it itself were doing something, as if it were an entity– the episode is all about how we have “angered” the economy and must repent –when, in fact, the economy is us. The thesis of this post is that we tend to hypostatize things like “culture” and “society”, turning them into entities when, in fact, they’re processes. In developing this line of thought, I am not denying phenomena like orientalism, but raising ontological questions about the conditions under which it is possible.

This, I think, is part of the importance of the concept of “assemblage” or “network”, as opposed to that of “system” or “structure”. By system or structure I understand a form of organization where the elements are inseparable from one another such that their being is purely a function of their relations within that organization. For example, in structural linguistics the phoneme p is nothing apart its differential relation to the phoneme b. Indeed, according to this account we already speak poorly by referring to “b” and “p” as phonemes as there is only b-p or the differential relation defining the two terms. This sort of concept then gets applied to social phenomena as well, such that no element in the social exists apart from the other elements, or rather, all of the elements are what they are by virtue of belonging to the organization. From a system theoretical perspective, the analogy is generally to biology where all the elements are understood to have a functional role and set of interdependencies within the social system. From the structural perspective the analogy is to structural linguistics where the elements are inseparable and only take on identity differentially.

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fn3ontoOne of the most attractive, problematic, and astonishing features of Badiou’s ontology is his strictly extensional understanding of sets or multiplicities. A set is not defined by its members sharing a common predicate or quality, nor by the relations among members of the set. Rather, a set is defined strictly by its extension or the members that belong to that set. From the standpoint of 20th Century French and German Continental philosophy, this thesis cannot but be a heresy, for the predominant trend in Continental thought has been a relational conception of entities. Whether we are speaking of language as a diacritical set of negative oppositions as defended by the structuralists and the post-structuralists, or Heidegger’s being-in-the-world where entities, the ready-to-hand, are defined by the relational networks to which they belong, the predominant trend has been to treat beings as bundles of relations such that the entity is nothing apart from its relations. In a spirit similar to Deleuze’s declaration that relations are always external to their terms, Badiou will have none of this. For Badiou entities are not defined by their relations and there are no intrinsic or internal relations that define the being of the entity. Rather, they are simply defined by their relations.

From the standpoint of both Heidegger’s being-in-the-world where each entity is thought as a “being-in” belonging to the worldhood of the world defined by an ensemble of relations defining meaning, or from the standpoint of structuralist and post-structuralist thought where the entity is an ensemble of internal relations from which it cannot be detached, or from the standpoint of Hegelianism where, as Hegel painstakingly shows in the Doctrine of Essence in the Science of Logic, where the entity simply is its relations or mediations, this move cannot but appear stunning. For what this extensionalist conception of sets authorizes is combinations of subsets in whatever order we might like. This, in short, is what the axiom of union tells us. What the axiom of union allows– if I understand it correctly (I’m sure Dominic will educate me if I don’t, thankfully) –is the construction of whatever sets we might like based on those elements belonging to our initial set. Thus, if I have a set composed of an umbrella, an apple, and the moon ({umbrella, apple, moon}), I certainly have a set composed of the apple and the moon ({apple, moon}), or a set composed simply of the apple ({apple}).

equalizer_category_theoryNow all of this sounds silly and unremarkable so long as we don’t contrast Badiou’s extensional notion of sets with the relational ontologies that have predominated during the 19th and the 20th century. If to be an entity is to be a bundle of internal relations, it follows that entities cannot be grouped in any way we might like. Rather, a model of the world based on internal relations dictates that each entity necessarily has a place within an Order and that the entity is nothing apart from this order. Thus the phoneme {c} is nothing apart from other phonemes such as {p}, {b}, {f}, etc., by virtue of the differentiality that allows it produce different senses at the level of the signifier: cat, pat, bat, fat. Insofar as these phonemes take on their value (in the linguistic sense of “value”) differentially in relation to one another, they are nothing independent of their relations to one another. This is what it means to say that each entity takes on a place within an Order. The Order is the totality of internal relations defining a system or structure, whereas the places are locations within that Order relative to the other terms. Because the relations are internal to the various beings in the Order, there is thus a Law that governs these beings and exhausts their being, legislating how they can and cannot act.

In proposing that sets are defined purely by their extension or their membership, Badiou undermines the thesis that to be is to be a bundle of internal relations. At the level of ontology, there is thus no intrinsic Order that defines entities. Rather, in their stark independence, the elements that make up a set not only can be decomposed into infinite subsets (through a recursive process of taking the power set of each power set), but the elements of each set can be related in a variety of different was or simply taken as singletons, thereby abolishing the notion of intrinsic or internal relations as in the case of Hegel’s logic of essence.

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stephen_king_-_the_mist_mglaDeveloping a comment I made in “The Antinomy of Objects”, NrG asks,

ALL ob-ject-als are assemblages, but NOT ALL assemblages are ob-ject-als. (And I’m sorry you had to repeat yourself, but it does help.)

I like the example of the desk parts that are not yet a desk but (and perhaps I read this wrong) are you saying that every aggregate has the availability (and I like this word instead of potentiality because potential carries with it a notion of motive or purpose – but, as I see it, if no one put together the desk, that purpose or potential would never come to fruition) to become an assemblage? If so, this means that in order for an aggregate to become an ob-ject-al, what is needed is the inter-action with an actor that responds directly to this availability. Or, to put it another way,those desk parts (ob-ject-als and assemblages in their own right, as you pointed out) which now form an aggregate are available for forming an assemblage that is an ob-ject-al (a desk); however, what is needed is an actor (in this case someone who can put together the parts of the desk) who responds directly to this availability.

This is a crucial issue for my ontology and one that I am still working through, so it is worthwhile to comment on it further. The desk example is probably not the best example because, as you point out, it requires a maker to pass from being an aggregate to an assemblage. While this is certainly a common way for aggregates to become assemblages, I don’t think we want to presuppose this for all aggregate to assemblage processes.

cry_of_the_masses_www-vachal-czTake, for example, the process of group formation. You have all of these people that are themselves individual assemblages. These individual assemblages or persons might themselves have network relations of various sorts among one another forming larger-scale assemblages. For example, there might be friends and lovers among this population. The question then becomes that of how we pass from a mere aggregate of people and assemblages to a global assemblage composed of all the people in the population.

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Our Carl gives a nice analysis of the mechanisms of textual identification with respect to the issues I raised on style over at Dead Voles. There Carl writes:

At one level there’s absolutely nothing remarkable about this dynamic of text identification except the fact that all these smart people seem to think it’s remarkable. Every text from Dr. Seuss on up, difficult or not, has the charismatic potential to generate reverent reading communities that might be described as ‘priesthoods’. My own experience is with Antonio Gramsci, an Italian theorist who wrote about complex things quite clearly, all in all. There are a lot of pages of Gramsci, most of them in prison notebooks that he never had a chance to edit into a linear text, many of them on topics that very few people could care less about. This of course creates the opportunity for a mystery cult for those few who have virtuously read through all of it, sort of like the Kabbalah or the Hadith. Here are instances where the reading community in effect ADDS difficulty to the sacred text by digging out and canonizing every little detail, aside, and tangent. The characteristic assertion is that the plainish meanings of the core writings must be supplemented or even amended in light of these exclusive arcana. (Translation fetishists from the Qur’an to Weber and Foucault work the same way. Translations are not just workably second-best but unacceptable in comparison to the sacred revelation of the original.)

People choose these texts and these reading strategies for all the usual reasons they choose religions (and reject other religions). They may be born into them, or disposed toward them by cultural marking of the text. They may be seeking identity and collective effervescence in a community. The text may be culturally marked as normative or transgressive, enabling the effervescence of dominant or rebellious subculture identification. There may accordingly be a component of acceptance and/or rejection of authority, be it the father’s or the group’s. These are choices within structured fields of options and decision strategies. All of this falls under the sociology of what Weber called elective affinity and Bourdieu elaborated as the schemes of the habitus.

For some reason this makes me think of Virno’s discussion of fear in A Grammar of the Multitude. In the third chapter of A Grammar of the Multitude Virno argues that anguish/anxiety is one of the predominant affects of our time. I hope to write more on this later when I am not inundated with grading at the end of the semester and thoroughly exhausted. At any rate, as Marx and Deleuze and Guattari argued, one of the marks of capitalism is the manner in which it decodes all social relations and codes through processes of deterritorialization. By “decoding” Deleuze and Guattari do not mean the activity of finding the meaning behind some coded fragment of speech as intelligence officers and cryptographers do. Rather decoding is the process by which social codes are undone and destroyed.



N.Pepperell of Rough Theory has been kind enough to plug my recent post “Social Assemblages and Agency“. A while back I wrote a rather whimsical post entitled “Of Cooking, Mixtures, and Milieus“. While the post might have been whimsical in tone– drawing on anecdotes from cooking and examples from Seinfeld –the point I was trying to make was a serious one about the nature of causality in relation to social formation. That is, there seems to be a tendency to adopt top-down models of causality when thinking about social phenomena, such that we are led to think one cause hegemonically dominating the social space. Whether we posit signifiers as determining social relations, the sovereign as determining social relations (a recent turn I find particularly irritating as, following Spinoza and Hegel, there is no such thing as a sovereign that doesn’t draw his power from the consent of the multitudes), language, structure, or more recently the biological, we posit a unilateral causality where one term serves as the explanation for the rest. This, of course, is the essence of metaphysics: to treat a part of the whole as explaining the whole.

Casting about for metaphors to interrupt this pattern of thought, I seized on cooking and chemistry:

If cooking is instructive for the social theorist, then this is because cooking teaches us to think in terms of mixtures, processes, intensive transformations, intensities, and irreversible processes. Tomato, garlic, cumin, and olive oil are not the same after they are mixed and heated. Rather, a qualitative transformation takes place… A transformation that is irreversible. Cooking is chemistry, rather than physics. Where, in classical physics we are enjoined to think atoms impacting one another in relations of force such that the atoms nonetheless retains its identity, changing only in velocity, chemistry leads us to think mixtures, temperatures, pressures, etc., that lead to qualitative transformations of the elements involved. The garlic is not the same after it is cooked and mixed. Nor can I return the garlic to its previous uncooked state. Rather, it has undergoing a qualitative transformation that now has different potentialities. For instance, if I roast garlic in tinfoil and olive oil in the oven, I can now spread it on a nice loaf of sour dough bread like butter, whereas before this would not have been possible. Under these conditions, the flavor becomes sweet, where before it was pungent.

Cooking, chemistry, requires us to think a milieu of individuation where a milieu of individuation is to be understood as the relation something entertains to other things in the world such that it would not be that thing without these other things. If you enjoy wine then you know that where the wine comes from and the year the wine was made make a tremendous difference as to what the wine is. Wine, wine grapes, always emerge in a milieu of individuation defined by the weather, the soil conditions, other plants, animals, and insects in the region and so on. Wine from one and the same vinyard can be radically different from one year to the next. The same is the case with cheese. Each individual entity is itself attached to a world, a local morphogenetic field, through which it produces itself as an ongoing process by interacting with that world.

In cooking or chemistry there is no one thing that causes the rest. Rather, we instead have to think relations of feedback and interaction where all the elements or ingredients interact. This entails that there will not be a “one size fits all” sort of explanation for social phenomena. Rather, following Freud, we might instead talk of “overdetermination”. Of course, this approach to thinking the social and political will cause some to recoil as the complexity of our object is vastly complicated. Social and political philosophers strike me as liking simple answers and schematizations of their objects (I think actual social scientists often fare much better and are much less reductive). On the other hand, an approach that emphasizes interaction at multiple levels, multiple levels of non-linear causation, and complexity might also undermine some of the pessimism (that sometimes seems almost celebratory in tone) that sometimes seems to haunt social and political philosophy (the all or nothing attitude that asks empty questions like “how do we overcome capitalism” and then finds itself impotent when it comes to doing anything at all). That is, such a view might allow us to diagnose false problems that result from overly schematic and simplified conceptions of the social. At any rate, N.Pepperell has recently written a couple of very nice posts on Diane Elson’s work, who appears to be thinking in a similar groove (here and here). Well worth the read!


Increasingly I am coming to feel that Continental social and political theory– especially in its French inflection coming out of the Althusserian, Foucaultian, Lacanian, and structuralist schools –woefully simplifies the social and therefore is led to ask the wrong sorts of questions where questions of political change is concerned. The problem here is that these theories are often so abstract, in the Hegelian sense, that they end up with overly simplistic schema that then make any change seem like it is either an all or nothing proposition, or in the worst cases impossible and hopeless altogether. This point can be made clearly with reference to Althusser’s famous essay “Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatus“. In reading Althusser’s essay, we get the impression that the individual, the social subject, is completely formed by the ideological state apparatus to such a degree that his thoughts, beliefs, bodily attitudes, and so on are simply iterations of that social structure. As Althusser writes,

Ideas have disappeared as such (insofar as they are endowed with an ideal or spiritual existence), to the precise extent that it has emerged that their existence is inscribed in the actions of practices governed by rituals defined in the last instance by an ideological apparatus. It therefore appears that the subject acts insofar as he is acted by the following system (set out in the order of its real determination): ideology existing in a material ideological apparatus, describing material practices governed by a material ritual, which practices exist in the material actions of a subject acting in all consciousness according to his belief.

Although their theoretical positions are very different, similar observations could be made about Foucault’s conceptions of power and subjectivization, Bourdieu’s conceptions of power and habitus, and even Lacan’s conception of the agency of the signifier (during his middle period, at any rate). It is clear that if we accept this thesis, issues of social and political change become extremely problematic and we immediately find ourselves in a nearly impossible situation. On the one hand, if change takes place, it takes place through agents. On the other hand, agents themselves, according to Althusser, are simply products or iterations of social formations or the ISA’s. As a result, any change that a group of agents attempts to produce is itself already predelineated by the social structure such that it is no real change at all. The consequence of this conception of how agents are individuated and social formations is that we have to engage in all sorts of theoretical contortions to explain how change might be possible. No doubt it is for this reason that the Lacanian conception of the subject as a sort of void or lack in the symbolic chain has become so attractive, or that thinkers like Badiou have had to imagine an event, a rupture, to explain how any sort of change takes place.

Read on!

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