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.

read on!

If I find myself so frustrated in discussions about mind, for example, that think we can adequately analyze the structure of mind without discussing neurology, then this is because such approaches treat the brain as a mere delivery device that is irrelevant to the actual nature of thought, concepts, structures, etc. Ian makes a similar point in the context of technology:

It is also a sentiment that agrees strongly with another of Levi’s observations:

The idea seems to be that the medium is irrelevant—functioning only as a carrier (vehicle) of signs—and contributes nothing of its own.

One of the clearest disagreements I remember having along these lines was with well-known media scholar (and friend) Henry Jenkins. In his very successful book Convergence Culture, Jenkins is so determined to correct the misperception that convergence is a technological phenomenon (the single media device, or what he calls the black box fallacy), that he throws the baby out with the bathwater, treating all media as mere delivery systems. In my review of the book, I noted that something is washed away prematurely in this rush to open the cultural floodgates:

Technologies—particular ones, like computer microprocessors, mobile devices, telegraphs, books, and smoke signals—have properties. They have affordances and constraints. Different technologies may expose or close down particular modes of expression.

As I have thought about these topics more, I am coming to realize that the issues I was facing in game studies were really just extremely amplified versions of a sickness that faces cultural studies more broadly: a disinterest and distrust of explanations of the real. Chalk it up to C.P. Snow’s two cultures problem if you’d like, but it’s undeniable that few successful humanities scholars possess both experience with and an interest in matters of science and technology—practical matters that would allow them to theorize smartly about such topics. Even in Science and Technology Studies (STS), it is common to hold the actual science and technology somewhat at arms length in order to focus on the human aspects of its use, and the “policing” of that practice.

In my experience of attempting to raise these issues here at Larval Subjects I have often found myself wanting to pull my hair out in despair, as what I call “semiotic” approaches seem so deeply sedimented in the Continental milieu that others seem unable to even recognize the issue. Bogost’s use of the terms “affordance” and “constraint” are gorgeous, as they get right at the core of the issue. Technologies, bodies, goods, and environments are not simply “delivery devices” or passive media in which significations inhere, but are rather affordances and constraints, both rendering certain forms of human relations possible and significantly diminish other types of human relation and social organization. Talk of correlation and access of human mind to world is of little assistance in understanding what McLuhan is getting at when he talks about media.

If the two fundamental pillars of my ontology are the ontic principle and the principle of translation, then this is precisely to open up a space where the analysis of these sorts of constraints and affordances might become possible. The ontic principle states that there is no difference that does not make a difference, while the principle of translation states that there is no transportation (of a difference) that does not involve translation. All too often theory reduces the objects of our world to vehicles of signs, cultural significations, social values, etc., ignoring the non-signifying role that these other types of objects play in social life… Roles irreducible to a pole in a correlation between mind and world. When, for example, we shift from analog coding to digital coding, all sorts of new affordances become available, creating very different social relations and significations. Similarly in the case from telephonic technology to internet technology. New systems of constraint and affordance come into the world that generate new potentials and nightmares.

I am tempted to claim that the object-oriented perspective is, above all, an engineering perspective. When I evoke the concept of engineering, I am not referring to something fearsome like “social engineering”, but rather suggesting that those that gravitate towards the object-oriented approach are particularly sensitive to how things are built, formed, come together, etc. Ian speaks of his work as a programmer and the sorts of resistances he encounters as he tries to shift from the smooth domain of thought or a program idea to the constrained world of programming and hardware. Psychoanalysis looks entirely different when you have actually practiced and discovered that, at best, psychoanalytic concepts and theories are indicators for how to proceed, not models of what you actually encounter. Manuel DeLanda is perpetually talking about the intensive properties of matters as it enters into different combinations. Always there is this attentiveness to assemblages of objects and actors in object-oriented ontology, generating aleatory results that can’t be localized as the result of any one agency. Cooking is a better metaphor or analogy for how the world works than correlation, for in cooking you have an assemblage of cook, ingredients, and intensive differences where no one element plays the central formative role.

Philosophers and theorists have a loathing of engineering that goes all the way back to Socrates questioning the slave boy in Meno. Engineering is treated as something that is beneath philosophical thought, lower than theoria, and of little interest. We can imagine Zizek saying “don’t bother me with the details of how a film is put together, just let me interpret the signifiers!” In certain respects, this attitude seems to reflect, as Freud observed, an obsessional desire for omnipotence. The engineer or bricoleur is perpetually encountering affordances, constraints, and resistances that limit the omnipotence of his aims, whereas the world of texts, signifiers, signs, and concepts is an absolutely smooth space that presents little or no resistance. Is it any wonder that Heidegger denegrated science and technology so? The problem is that this foreclosure of engineering– and I use the term “foreclosure” in a strict psychoanalytic sense –generates all sorts of problems for theory. This is especially the case for social and political theory, where the division of the world into the natural and the cultural, the objective and the subjective, the objective and the signifying, leads to pie in the sky political theories that have little to offer in the way of actual engineering or how we might genuinely get from point A to point B. In the absence of this attentiveness to material affordances and constraints, political theory becomes little more than a narcissistic exercise of guaranteeing the theorists superiority to the ideologically blinded masses (again everything pitched at the level of the signifier), allowing the theorist to scoff in much the same way that Meno and Socrates mocked the slave. Adorno dismissing the crassness of jazz. Philosophers and social and political theorists everywhere would be well served spending a few hours playing SimCity and observing what a difference in subsequent social organization the placement of a single road can make.