August 2009


Brain_600Hat tip to Mel. These two articles (here and here) do a nice job articulating claims about extended cognition or the manner in which technologies change the nature of thought. From the first article:

As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought.

In discussions with cultural and literary theorists I sometimes get the sense that work investigating online modes of communication, ARGs (alternate reality games), video games, television, etc., is somehow a sort of trick. That is, the subtext seems to be that academics should be engaged in serious work(tm), analyzing high literature and art, and that those that work on film, modes of internet discourse, ARGs, video games, television, and so on are folks that have managed to game the academy so as to find a way of meshing their cheeto eating tendencies (pop-cultural fluff) with their academic work. Although there is certainly a lot of fluff out there in the ever growing body of pop-culture research (just as there is in literary studies), I think this severely misses the point.

If these things are worthy of investigation, then it is not on the premise that somehow all cultural production should be approached in an egalitarian fashion that treats them all as having equal merit (an aesthetic judgment), but because these things have become dominant modes of communication that pervade our entire lifeworld and which constitute the dominant mode of symbolic activity for humans. Although I have myself engaged in quite a bit of semiotic analysis of pop-cultural entities like films and television shows, what really interests me is not so much the content and meaning of these things, as the technologies themselves. As always, the work of Walter Ong and Friedrich Kittler are invaluable here. What they both investigate, in their own way, is the manner in which writing technologies transform the very nature of our cognition. Thus, for example, differential calculus is literally unthinkable prior to the advent of writing. Where the primary mode of cultural transmission is oral in character, the use of equations divested of narrative and rhythmic content simply cannot get a foothold in the world due to how our minds are put together. With the advent of writing it becomes possible to think the world and relate to one another in an entirely different way. As Vernant notes in his ethnography of the Greeks, the inscription of laws on public buildings in the market place changed the nature of the law by transforming something that could shift from speech act to speech act across time, into an enduring persistence standing there as something literally written in stone.

This is the significance media studies. Not only is there the issue of how the Gutenberg printing press transformed the nature of the world, but in our own historical context, there is the issue of how different forms of computer programming, telephone communication, satellite communication, internet communication, visual and auditory forms of communication such as we see on television and in film, structure the nature of social relations and cognition in very different ways.

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The mysterious Philosophy in a Time of Terror weighs in on the whole OOO and humanism discussion.

Recent discussion surrounding trolls, minotaurs, gray vampires and the whole growing bestiary have gotten me thinking about a post I wrote my first year blogging entitled “In Praise of Irritation” later published in Reconstruction. In that post I was making a play on words, seeking to capture the resonance of both being irritated by someone and the sense of dynamic systems theory where a system requires a perturbation, stimuli, or irritant in order to produce new system states. As I wrote in that post,

I find Acephalous very irritating, and for this reason I had a very fine discussion with him that was generative of concepts for me (here and here). I suspect that Acephalous and I understood little of what the other was saying, but it was productive for me as it led me to develop thoughts I would not have otherwise developed– these days I’m becoming more and more sympathetic to his position based on my aleatory materialism –and he wrote about it further. Jodi Dean irritates the hell out of me because she seldom responds to my posts on her site, which I find terrifically rude (no doubt my tone comes off as insulting as I tend to write “dissertations” like I’m lecturing or teaching), but this irritation leads me to write even more with the vain fantasy that she’ll someday respond. As such, her silence generates ongoing communicative events. My friend Melanie irritates me to no end, as she’s always challenging psychoanalysis and attacking my latest theoretical fetish, leading me to throw up my hands in exasperation and heatedly defend what I was claiming, thereby generating ongoing autopoiesis between the two of us. My friend Noah, in graduate school, was extremely condescending, mocking, and abrasive, while brilliantly astute theoretically in a way that diverged sharply from my own views, leading me to constantly spar with him and pushing my thought to develop in ways that it never would have otherwise. My dear friend Robert irritates me to no end, as he constantly misinterprets my claims and pushes them in directions I don’t like, leading me to try to demolish him theoretically, while never really wanting to so that we might continue irritating one another. Yusef drives me up the wall with his playful writing style and rhetorical excesses, and therefore drives me to become even more rationalistic despite the fact that I sympathize with many of his positions, just to spite him.

The thesis behind this praise of irritants was as follows:

Theoretically, of course, it’s odd that I would look for an interlocutor that I could really work with. As a Lacanian I advocate the principle that “all communication is miscommunication.” In my analytic practice I see everyday how my interventions are taken in surprising directions by my analysands, and understood in ways I could have never anticipated. The systems theorist in me adopts the thesis that “all miscommunication is communication.” In some respects, I think the latter thesis is more interesting. If systems are dynamic, this entails that they must reproduce themselves from moment to moment by generating further system-forming events. Systems are composed of events, not objects or things. A social system must generate additional communication on the basis of every event of communication, so as to endure in time. Agreement and consensus tend to diminish further operations or the production of ongoing communicative events as there’s no necessity of continuing communications where there’s agreement, whereas conflict and difference tend to promote ongoing autopoiesis of communication. Irritation (in its system-theoretical sense) generates ongoing communication.

Ultimately I do think there is something to the category of the troll and the minotaur, though it should always be remembered that trolling and minotauring are verbs rather than nouns. It cannot be said that one is a troll or minotaur. Rather one behaves rhetorically as a troll or minotaur in particular communicative situations. The troll is like the protesters at the town hall meetings surrounding the healthcare debates here in the United States. They are not interested in participating in discussion, but in insuring that no discussion takes place. Of course, it’s important to recall that they might not know that they’re doing this. The minotaur is similar. Drawing again on the analogy to health care reform, the minotaur is someone that participates in such a way that that no reform takes place, but rather tries to trace everything back to the infrastructural bureaucracy and legalisms upon which the system is based. The minotaur is the person that traces everything back to some master-thinker, forgetting that there is an issue being discussed. Or they treat every discussion as an issue of misinterpretation, rather than genuine disagreement, implicitly holding that if one simply understood they would advocate the position. Rather than formulating a new, interesting, whizbang version of Kant or Heidegger, for example, they attempt to show that Kant and Heidegger have already addressed such and such an issue in some obscure text. But again, these are verbs, not nouns. They are not essences, but ways of comporting towards others.

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bladerunner-origami-unicornIn response to my post on speculative realism and the alethetics of discourse, Asher Kay writes:

What strikes me after reading this post (and the one on the Alethetics of Rhetoric) is that what is revealed in an ontology might be more powerful by far than a moral theory, by providing a vista for self-realization rather than a didactic formula.

I’m hoping to deal with these issues in greater detail in the future. Zer0 Books has asked me if I’d be interested in pulling together a book after I finish The Democracy of Objects. Right now I’m vacillating between either developing an object-oriented politics and normative theory, or devoting that book to an object-oriented account of signs along the lines I’ve been discussing recently. I’m leaning towards the latter project because I think it’s important to show that object-oriented ontology in its realism is not making a call for a scientistic naturalism, but still leaves a lot of room, in suitably re-constructed form, for a number of the sorts of social and cultural analyses the world of theory has come to hold so dear.

At any rate Bruno Latour’s Politics of Nature goes a long way, I believe, towards resituating these questions. There he revises the fact/value distinction and develops something like an object-oriented normative theory. Where, very crudely put, traditional normative theory might look for a set of norms or prescriptions that allow us to decide moral, ethical, and political issues, Latour sees the issue very differently. Under the traditional account of normativity we are to avoid ever conflating the “is” and the “ought”. What ought to be the case, the story goes, holds regardless of what the facts may be. In other words, the ought or domain of normativity is treated as impervious to the realm of facts.

Latour, by contrast, sees both the factual and the domain of values as a sort of process that ranges from what he calls “perplexity” to “institution”. Very roughly, Latour contends that discussions about value are really discussions about matters of concern where the appearance of new actors, human or nonhuman, generate perplexity. Additionally, Latour contends that normative discussions erupt when something appears that is not counted that nonetheless “co(m)-plicates” an established organization. The term “co(m)-plication” is not a term that will be found in Latour, but I think it nicely gets at what he’s striving to draw our attention to. “Co(m)-plication” is a word filled with a number of different attractor states, simultaneously evoking resonances of complication, co-implication, and co-plication in the sense of actors being “folded together” or “folded into one another”.

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image004Responding to Paul Ennis’ Blogpost on Humanism, Asher Kay of Spoonerized Alliteration remarks that,

My first reaction was, “Well, we *caused* the technological debasement and ecological catastrophe! We could use a little slapdown as far as our importance in the universe is concerned.”

But I think that OOO doesn’t really amount to a slapdown. It’s more of a change in perspective.

If we accept that our thoughts, concepts, drives, etc. are inextricably embedded and embodied in the world; if we accept that our mathematics and formal systems are based on how the body and mind work, and have no separate existence or special, “pure” access to the way things really are; then we start to develop a perspective that lets us solve problems like technological debasement and ecological catastrophe.

Quite right. While all of those working within the framework of speculative realist thought would certain argue that they are not simply attempting to shift perspectives but are making genuine ontological claims, it is nonetheless the case that speculative realism will have done a service to philosophy if it manages to draw attention to dimensions of the world largely ignored by contemporary philosophy. Speculative realism can be usefully articulated in terms of Lacanian discourse theory. Depending on what it is engaging, speculative realist thought occupies each of Lacan’s four discourses. When speculative realism critiques correlationism or philosophies of access, it occupies the discourse of the hysteric, occupying the position of a split subject declaring that the emperor has no clothes. When it formulates an ontology it occupies the discourse of the master, introducing new signifiers that organize the buzzing confusion of the world. When research is undertaken employing these concepts, it occupies the discourse of the university, situating the unknown in terms of these categories and concepts.

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Paul Ennis has a terrific post up asking us to imagine the following:

Let us engage in a thought experiment. Imagine in twenty years time someone has written the magnum opus in speculative realism. It is called something like ‘Being and Being’. That would not be a bad title. I’d buy that book. Either that or its the worst book title in the world. The point is that ‘Being and Being’ is such an important book that people don’t care about the title. Like how we still read things called ‘The Phenomenology of Spirit’ or ‘The Critique of Pure Reason’.

Then imagine that a disciple in another country had written a similar book influenced by ‘Being and Being’ called ‘Non-Being and Non-Being.’ The writer of the latter complains that the author of ‘Being and Being’ has erased the human from the picture.

This is truly problematic because we are entering an utterly bleak stage in history with lots of technological debasement, ecological catastrophe and so on. What madness is this book ‘Being and Being’ with its endless discussions of objects interacting with one another.

More and more I feel that this is the question people want answered with regard to speculative realism.

What I cannot understand is why people think speculative realism is out to debase the subject. Or why it is an anti-humanism. ‘Being and Being’ would be a book populated with humans and other objects. The human would be treated as an especially interesting object among others. In fact maybe ‘Being and Being’ contains its own existential analytic dedicated to this object which is so complex that we spend an awful lot of time dealing with it. Maybe it loves the subject-object object so much it lavishes 200 pages to a description of how consciousness is an emergent property popping up inside the physical structure of a human body etc. This would be a beautifully apt convergence with the insights of neuroscience.

I’m kicking myself for not thinking of this title first! Setting that aside, I think an additional point worth making is that today we simply cannot talk about the human without talking about objects. As Latour tirelessly argues, the great sin of modernity was to try and produce a schism between the world of nature entirely independent of humans and the world of the cultural entirely independent of nature. The problem is that the world in which we live is a world in which we’re constantly enmeshed in imbroglios with objects of all sorts. To understand ourselves is, in part, to understand these imbroglios with objects. Yet what do we in fact find in so much cultural and critical theory? We find a bracketing of objects so as to get at that which is specifically human– norms, cultural significations, ethics, politics, and so on. Technology studies, media studies, material history, science studies, and all the rest get shunted to the side, treated as rarefied sub-disciplines that the high cultural theorist is free to ignore or investigate as they see fit.

In my view, the most vital questions we seek to answer are hopelessly distorted so long as we ignore this dimension of our “amonst-ness” with objects. Nor can these objects be treated as simple “vehicles” of cultural significations or human intentions as in the case of Baudrilliard. Rather, they must be approached in all their uncanniness, their strangeness, as both the most familiar of the familiar and that which exceeds anything like human familiarity and comfort.

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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