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.

read on!

kiwiThe number itself, the inscription of the number, and the counted, under this Platonic model, differ from one another. For the Platonist, there is only one number 2 in the entire universe and this number 2 is eternal and unchanging. Suppose all countable objects, whether physical or imagined, ceased to exist. The number 2 itself would still exist exactly as it is. Moreover, even if there were no one to inscribe the number 2 on a piece of paper or think about the number two, the number 2 would still be the number two. In short, the number 2 is neither what it counts, nor is the number 2 identical to its inscription. On the one hand, the number two differs from what it counts in that the things that the number two counts differ from one another. I can count two kiwis or two knives. The two kiwis differ from one another, just as the two knives differ from one another. Moreover, the kiwis and knives differ from one another. Were the number two identical to what it counts, then the number two would cease to be identical to itself and would therefore cease to be the number two. On the other hand, if the number two differs from its inscription, then this is because no two inscriptions of the number two are alike and, moreover, we can write the number two as “2”, “II”, “ii”, “zwei”, and so on while still remaining the same number two.

While one need not be a Platonist about signs or numbers, signs are nonetheless generally treated as having this threefold character. The “interpretant” of a sign is treated as a type like “the number 2 itself”, that is distinguished from the sign-vehicle or “representamen” through which the sign is thought, conveyed in writing or speech or zeros and ones, and finally we have the semiotic-object which is roughly the referent of the sign.

In experimenting with the idea of treating signs as replicators, I am basically pushing signs in the direction of a reduction to sign-vehicles and semiotic-objects, getting rid of the interpretant that treats the signs as a type over and above instances of the sign. I am having a great deal of difficulty articulating this hypothesis, so hopefully others will bear with me as I try to pin down what I have in mind. Reference to evolutionary theory helps to give a sense of just what I’m trying to get at. Despite the fact that evolutionary theory is a theory of speciation, it paradoxically does away with the category of species. Where prior to evolutionary theory– and I’m generalizing here –the species was treated as a type analogous to the number 2 discussed above, with evolutionary theory types of this sort disappear and are instead replaced by replicators.

What we have after evolutionary theory is instead organisms that have the capacity to replicate themselves individually either asexually or sexually, producing other individuals. Each replication differs slightly from the organisms of which it is a replicant. There is no eternal species or type standing above and indifferent to the individual organisms. Rather, what modern biologists call a “species” is, 1) a set of statistical similarities between individual organisms, and 2) a population located geographically in time and space. This second point, especially, is a substantial departure from the prior way of understanding the relationship between individual organisms and species. Under the prior model the species was outside of time and space and independent of the world and organisms. Under the post-evolutionary thought, species names a population composed of heterogeneous individuals that are more or less similar to one another and which is geographically located in time and space. When Gould refers to species as individuals, his thesis is entirely different from that of Plato. It is not that the species is always identical to itself in the way that the 2 itself is always identical to itself, rather it is that there is a real population composed of heterogeneous individuals there in the world. Gould’s point is that selection takes place not only at the level of individual organisms or at the level of genes, but that selection can take place at the level of species as well. For example, there can be a natural disaster that wipes out a species. Under the Platonic model, this sort of selection is not possible. Even if all individual organisms of a species cease to exist, under the Platonic model the species itself continues to exist just as the number 2 itself continues to exist regardless of whether anyone is about to think it and regardless of whether or not there are any physical entities to be counted.

When I propose to treat signs as replicators and individuals, it is something akin to this evolutionary model that I have in mind. First, what I am suggesting is that there is no type over and above instances of a sign in the world. Just as there is no species over and above individual organisms, but just individual organisms, there would here only be individual signs. Second, just as organisms replicate themselves by producing other organisms either asexually or sexually, signs proliferate through the world by being replicated or copied. Signs under this model would be closer to descendants of a lineage more or less resembling instances that came before, than tokens of a type. Just as organisms are one type of object, signs would be another sort of object.

time-goya-paintingAt this point my brain fizzles out and I’m not sure where to go. To be quite honest, I find this way of thinking about signs, concepts, etc., rather horrifying and monstrous, but nonetheless I think it hits on something important with respect to questions of ethics as well as social and political thought. Because we often think of signs as types that stand for something else, we are content with establishing the truth of some proposition or grounding some ethical or political order. But if signs are like organisms in the sense that they must be replicated and in the sense that they are situated in time and space, then this is not nearly enough. It is not enough simply to have the right ideas or sound ethical principles. The rubber really hits the road with respect to the question of how signs, like organisms, replicate themselves or get themselves copied. Why is it that some signs circulate far and wide like viruses that suddenly appear everywhere? Why is it that other signs, while being really great ideas, are as rare as highly adapted underwater cave organisms that exist only in the underground systems beneath Death Valley?

AirPumpWhen these questions are raised, the focus of inquiry shifts. It is no longer simply an issue of establishing the truth of a proposition or the rightness of an ethical judgment, though this activity certainly isn’t excluded. But now the question shifts to the dynamics of replication, how it takes place, what mechanisms increase the likelihood of replication, and what strategies can be devised both to diminish the replication of certain sign-complexes and introduce the replication of other sign-complexes. Badiou seems to understand this point well. When Badiou speaks of truth-procedures and subjects of truth, what he appears to have in mind are subjects that seed the social world with certain sign-complexes, gradually undermining the existing structure of signs and introducing a new semiotic regime or organization. Surprisingly, given Badiou’s hostility to sociologists of all sorts, Latour seems to understand this point as well. When Latour analyzes the new rhetoric invented by the scientist Boyle and the way in which he turned nonhuman objects into actors through his air pump, the emphasis is not so much on the experiment itself and how it allegedly demonstrated that space is a void, but rather on the replication of the experiment through the testimony of “respected gentlemen” and the repetition of the experiment as a sort of party game throughout Europe. The truth of the experimental findings is not enough, but rather it must be replicated throughout the world, creating an army of allies that testify to his observations.

bruno-barbier-painting-of-people-harvesting-in-rice-fields-neka-museum-ubud-island-of-bali-indonesiaThis sort of replication takes place in every social assemblage from moment to moment and with the birth of every new child that must become a carrier for certain sign-relations. It is also among the mechanisms through which social assemblages are made to change. Finally, these strange objects enter into assemblages with all sorts of non-semiotic objects that both influence the success of certain sign-complexes and which influence these non-semiotic objects. For example, it is likely that the common appearance of sign-complexes surrounding vegetarianism in India and certain Asian countries has a lot to do with the manner in which much of the land was used for the production of rice. Rice, by virtue of its ability to yield multiple harvests a year and the ability to feed many more people than wheat. Additionally, as a result of aquatic farming techniques that constantly brought water in to fertilize the soil, there was far less need to cultivate the highlands and the mountains with livestock to produce manure for fertilizer. Where rice functioned as the staple food, the likelihood of sign-complexes surrounding vegetarianism rises. The point here is not that rice determines the presence of this sign-complex, but rather that non-semiotic objects like rice exist in an assemblage or imbroglio with certain semiotic complexes that increases the likelihood of the appearance of certain sign-complexes.