July 2010

Marshall and Eric McLuhann manage, I believe, to sum up everything Ian Bogost and I are trying to accomplish with our own object-oriented media work. In the opening pages of Laws of Media, McLuhan writes,

It makes no difference whatever whether one considers as artefacts or as media things of a tangible ‘hardware’ nature such as bowls and clubs or forks and spoons, or tools and devices and engines, railways, spacecraft, radios, computers, and so on; or things of a ‘software’ nature such as theories or laws of science, philosophical systems, remedies or even the diseases in medicine, forms or styles in painting or poetry or drama or music, and so on. All are equally artefacts, all equally human, all equally susceptible to analysis, all equally verbal in structure. (3)

The first thing to note is just how weird McLuhan’s concept of media is. Ordinarily when we think of media– or, at least, when I think of media –we think of artifacts that are transmitted through various devices such as film, television, books, and radio. McLuhan thoroughly explodes the myopia of this conception of media. McLuhan’s famous thesis is that media are “extensions of man”. Anything that extends man is, according to McLuhan, a medium. Already we sense that what constitutes media is not whether a medium transmits content, but whether or not it extends man in some way or another.

Four additional observations follow from this first pass. First, media are objects thought in relations of exteriority. An object becomes media when it extends another object in some manner or other. Put differently, a medium is an object coupled to another medium. This coupling creates new phenomena, new effects, that would not otherwise come into being. Second, McLuhan’s conception of media is thoroughly ecological and directed at what Morton calls “the mesh“. McLuhan wishes to draw our attention to what I call “exo-relations” or relations of exteriority that come into existence when objects are coupled with one another. He asks, as I did in my earlier work on onticology, what difference does this object make when it is coupled with other objects?

Third, and perhaps most importantly, despite McLuhan’s thesis that media are extensions of man, his concept of media thoroughly contests the primacy of the human or even what the human is. On the one hand, insofar as couplings of the human and various mediums produce something new, there is no longer any single index to what the human is. At best we can speak of local manifestations of the human produced as a result of these couplings and the practices they render possible. Moreover, the “causality” here is not one way. It is not simply that media extend man, but rather humans often extend media. Take the example of lawn grass. Does grass extend the human? Certainly we see children playing in the grass, laying in the grass, having picnics in the grass, etc. However, isn’t it equally true that grass uses humans to extend itself? From a Darwinian perspective– and especially from the perspective of sexual selection in the Origin of Species –isn’t it true that grass has seduced humans so as to get itself reproduced? Isn’t the softness of grass, its rich verdant color, its pleasant earthy smell, the satisfaction it provides when being mowed, etc., a sexual strategy to get itself reproduced? Is it at least not partially true that contemporary Western civilization is an effect of grass’s drive to get itself reproduced? Has not grass carefully cultivated local manifestations among humans (primarily male humans) that take pleasure in neat lines on their lawn, the sound of a lawn mower, the luster of a thick lawn, and so on? Have we not been engineered by grass? Moreover, we could even say that in its race to domesticate man, grass generates an antagonistic war against not only weeds, but rather different varieties of grass, all using humans as queer sexual organs to get itself reproduced and to get achieve the hegemony of its particular species or variant.

This leads to a fourth observation. If there’s some plausibility to the analysis in point three– and I confess there’s hyperbole here –there is no reason to suppose that media are extensions of man. Rather than being extensions of man media are extensions of any other object. What McLuhan thus offers is not a technique or method for analyzing media in the restricted sense, but a general ontology of translation or what takes place when objects couple with one another. Mediology, to use Vitale’s term, is the analysis of queer couplings and the effects they produce, regardless of whether or not humans are involved.

This leads to my second main observation: McLuhan’s conception of media displays both a flat ontology and a deep ontological promiscuity. Note the manner in which McLuhan places both “hardware” and “software” on equal footing, treating them promiscuously as objects on equal footing. For McLuhan, semiotic entities like theories and styles– and dare I say, signs and fictions? –are no less actors than entities such as writing, telegraphs, and rivers. What we get here is a highly complicated ecology that allows us to think extensions of objects in a non-linear fashion radiating in all directions like rhizomes. Indeed, we even get the strange mereology of objects that simultaneously belong to entirely different objects by extending these objects in entirely different ways.

Contemporary critical theory is divided, in broad strokes, between two schools of thought and practice. On the one hand, we have those variants of theory focused on content and the analysis of the semiotic. On the other hand, we have that school of theory that focuses on historico-material conditions such as the role played by new communications technologies, by writing, by the factory, etc. What McLuhan’s weird, promiscuous, conception of media offers is a way of thinking the ecology of these objects together. And here, above all, we encounter Bogost’s concept of the unit, where it becomes possible to think these media not simply as couplings of different objects, but as genuinely productive of new units or objects. For in the interplay of these queer couplings what we get are the emergence of new objects such that semiotic actors rebound back on the technologies that engender them, producing new units and pushing these units to overturn themselves becoming something else, and technologies and nonhuman actors generating unheard of social and semiotic units in the form of new forms of thought, new theory, new signs, new styles, new collective, and so on. Chinese rice production generates an entirely new form of human collective, as does Final Fantasy. This promiscuous and weird ecological ontology of weird couplings thus provides us with a new critical theory directed at composition rather than critique.

Tim Morton and I are currently forging together our respective positions. Where this will lead, I don’t know and I think Tim provides structural reasons as to why I can’t know in advance where it will lead. Right now I’m tentatively thinking of my own position as something akin to an eco-Marxism. Eco-Marxism wouldn’t simply be a Marxism that takes into account “the environment”, but rather would significantly expand the domain of Marxist thought. On the one hand, eco-Marxism would include nonhuman actors such as animal, mineral, and quantum beings within its scope. Put differently, the index wouldn’t simply be to human emancipation. I’m still thinking through this. On the other hand, drawing on Morton’s concept of the mesh, such a Marxism would focus on the imbrication of humans with all sorts of other media (in McLuhan’s sense) generating local manifestations that prevent us from strictly dividing the human from the nonhuman (think of Latour’s and Stengers’ networks or Deleuze and Guattari’s machinic assemblages). While this aspect of eco-Marxism would be thoroughly relational in character, it would emphasize that relations are always relations of exteriority. In other words, no entity can be reduced to its relations and the local manifestations it produces, but rather every entity harbors within it a withdrawn being in excess of its local manifestations (this approaches the diachronic dimension of Tim’s thought). This withdrawn dimension is the promise of forming collectives otherwise. Where an internalism of relations tends to lead to the conclusion that we’re stuck because all terms are caught in reciprocal relations with one another, the exteriority of relations gives us the resources for thinking change. Here the focus is not so much on critique, but rather, as Latour puts it, composition. That is, the work of politics and ethics is the composition of new collectives of humans and nonhumans opening the possibility of new ways of living. That’s just where my thought is leading. Tim might very well be on a different page.

At any rate, Tim has some great discussions of his mesh up over at youtube. I reproduce them here for those who are interested.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about objects in the function of what I call “daimons”. In Greek mythology a daimon was an intermediary between the gods and humans that often influenced human affairs in subtle and invisible ways. One need only think of all the mischief caused by Cupid, for example. Within the framework of onticology, a daimon is not a supernatural entity, nor is it any different than other objects. Rather, what makes a daimon a daimon is the role it plays with respect to other objects.

Daimons are objects that bring other objects together, while themselves more or less withdrawing from view in the relation between other objects that has been brought into existence. When Cupid shoots Apollo with his arrow for insulting him about playing with bows and arrows, Apollo falls passionately in love with Daphne. Cupid shoots Daphne with another arrow, causing her to fall passionately in love with hunting. Cupid or Cupids arrows play the role of daimon, bringing Apollo and Daphne together in this paradoxical relation where he perpetually pursues her and she perpetually flees. The important point, however, is that it is very likely that Apollo and Daphne know nothing of the daimon that has brought them together in this way. All they know is their relationship to one another. Cupid’s role in the whole affair (sic.) withdraws from view.

Daimon’s are all over the place, though generally, because of the manner in which they withdraw, they are very difficult to discern or notice. As a rule, they aren’t noticed at all until things stop working. In their role as withdrawn intermediaries between objects, daimons play two crucial roles. First, daimons both afford possibilities of relation within a structural coupling and constrain possibilities of relation. Second, daimon’s play a key role in the genesis or production of new objects by bringing objects together in a structural coupling that gradually takes on the status of operational closure or systematicity such that this new object builds a distinction between itself and its environment and becomes capable of producing information-events of its own in relation to that environment.

read on!

Now that I’m finished with the second draft of The Democracy of Object I have the opportunity to return to McLuhan’s Laws of Media for the book Bogost and I are writing on media. In my view, McLuhan is a privileged figure for developing an object-oriented theory of social, political, and cultural studies because he’s rather on the fringe of Continental theory, places all entities on equal footing (technologies, natural objects, theories, texts, etc., are all media for him), and is himself something of an object-oriented philosopher. McLuhan, I believe, will thus provide us with the means of unifying both the expressive dimension of cultural formations (contents, representations, signs, meanings, theories, etc) and the role of nonhuman entities such as technologies, nonhuman animate and inanimate actors, and so on.

McLuhan’s famous thesis is that media are “extensions of man”. Ian and I, no doubt, will quibble with this this thesis, questioning its focus on man while not excluding the human, but I suspect we both embrace the basic idea. Here, I believe, media must be understood in relative terms. Every media is an object. However, a media is the manner in which one object extends another object. This is the relativity of media. An object becomes media when it extends another object in a particular way. In this regard, every media also simultaneously withdraws because the manner in which one object “uses” it to extend itself is such that it only plays on certain powers embodied in the object, “ignoring” the rest. McLuhan’s four laws of media help to illustrate this thesis. Each medium 1) enhances some aspect of an object, 2) displaces, obsolesces or diminishes other powers, 3) retrieves other modes of relation from the past, and 4) reverses into its opposite when taken to the limit. Taking up the first two of these laws, take the example of the telescope. The telescope obviously enhances the power of vision, while diminishing the role of touch and sound. Touch and sound fall into the background, while vision is foregrounded.

The relation between foreground and background is tremendously important in McLuhan’s thought. One gets the sense that for McLuhan the background always rumbles with hidden potentials that threaten the integrity of forms that appear in the foreground. In this connection, McLuhan’s analysis of the genesis of geometrical space is particular interesting. McLuhan’s striking thesis is that geometrical space came into existence with the rise of phonetic writing. Where acoustic and tactile space are always characterized by foreground/background relations where the background rumbles with hidden potentials, the visual space of phonetic writing tended to abolish background altogether as a result of transforming sounds into fixed units (phonemes) that were divorced from meaning and that could be repeated again and again as the same. Indeed, with writing we can always return to what has been written once again as identical, whereas speech disappears or falls away.

McLuhan’s thesis– and I’m not nearly doing him justice here –is that these features of written language were the ground for a conception of geometrical space as featureless, static, unchanging, infinite, a container, and identical. This space, in its turn, is deeply wedded to the sense of vision as writing is closely connected to vision and vision is that one modality of sense that detaches and isolates their figures from their background (just as a written sentence is detached from all background). McLuhan argues that the development of this concept of space is also deeply connected to the rise of philosophical discourses of Being that tended to treat objects and beings as static figures.

McLuhan’s analysis of the origins of visual, geometrical space and the relation between this type of space and writing, are, I believe, of great significance for object-oriented ontology. The conception of objects that arises based on this unconscious conception of space is that of objects as fixed and self-identical entities that are fully present. In other words, geometric space leads to a conception of being where withdrawal is erased. For example, for the geometer all points on an infinite line are fully present, simultaneous, and actual even if we can’t directly perceive this line. Visual spatialized thought thereby “objectivizes” entities in the bad sense of erasing their withdrawal.

However, what makes McLuhan’s critique of visual spatialized thought so interesting is not that it repeats, in many respects, something akin to Bergson’s critique of spatialization or Whitehead’s critique of misplaced concreteness and simple location, but rather that it attaches this way of thinking to text and phoneme. The really interesting implication of such an analysis is that those who work primarily with the medium of texts– e.g., scholars –will be susceptible to a whole host of “transcendental illusions” arising from the primacy of vision and the manner in which vision detaches figure from foreground generating an abstract conception of space as a continuum. These illusions would extend throughout one’s ontology at all levels, generating a host of errors that have little relation to the real. McLuhan, for example, goes so far as to argue that logic itself is based on a metaphor that derives from geometrical space, e.g., connection between propositions is really a metaphorical expression of containment, a relation of which is only possible in non-dynamic geometrical spaces. And indeed, wouldn’t claims about ideal norms governing all else be transcendental illusions produced by the iterability of texts or propositions that we can return to on a piece of paper? Moreover, the focus on content, propositions, and meanings to the detriment of practices and involvements with various matters would arise from the manner in which texts detach persons from doings. However, above all, the spatialization that arises as a result of phonetic writing would erase all withdrawal as a consequence of generating the illusion that all is present and simultaneous.

The first volume of Isabelle Stengers’ Cosmopolitics is now available in translation. This is an exciting moment, especially since my own epistemology is more or less embodied in her work and Latour’s. You’ll have to read The Democracy of Objects to discover the difference between epistemological realism and ontological realism and why my advocacy of the latter lets me reject the former. Moreover, to get Latour’s epistemology you have to read something other than Irreductions, such as Science in Action and especially Pandora’s Hope. With any luck, her book on Whitehead will be available in the next year or so as well. It looks like the realist hordes are upon us! For a nice write up on Stengers’ philosophy of science check out Shaviro’s blog here.

The Democracy of Objects is now finished, coming in at around 107k words or about 330 pages. There’s lots of new stuff here, and with any luck it is a nice contribution to OOO and realist thought. Now it’s on to copy editing. At any rate, party time!

Hat tip to Gratton for drawing attention to Mark Taylor’s New York Times piece on abolishing tenure. Apparently Taylor, a philosopher of religion, believes that universities and colleges should be run like corporations and that we should fire older professors because they’ve been around too long and are therefore too expensive. As Taylor writes:

Tenure is financially unsustainable and intellectually indefensible. The fundamental problem is liquidity – both financial and intellectual.

If you take the current average salary of an associate professor and assume this tenured faculty member remains an associate professor for five years and then becomes a full professor for 30 years, the total cost of salary and benefits alone is $12,198,578 at a private institution and $9,992,888 at a public institution. To fund these expenses would require a current endowment of $3,959,743 and $3,524,426 respectively and $28,721,197 and $23,583,423 at the end of the person’s career. Tenure decisions render illiquid a significant percentage of endowments at the precise moment more flexibility is required.

If I’m following Taylor’s calculations correctly, he’s saying that professors at private schools receive a yearly average salary and set of benefits of $406,619 and that public school professors annually receive salaries and benefits amounting to $333,096. Who knew academia was so lucrative!

I really have no dog in this fight as I neither have tenure nor the opportunity to get tenure. I work on contract and can have my position terminated at any time without any reason even having to be provided. I work in what is known as a “Right to Work State“, which is basically Orwell speak for a set of laws that cede all power to employers and that prevent employees, under threat of law, from organizing or going on strike. This is what some conservatives call “freedom”. After all, it’s the employers money right? Therefore the employer should be able to fire you at any time and for any reason. And, after all, the employee can always find work elsewhere so she’s free. Ah how I love the American concept of freedom. Never mind that the employers enjoy disproportionate power, access, and representation within our government due to their money and that they also benefit disproportionately from the various services our government provides in the form of infrastructure, law enforcement, and military. Remember, those employers are self-made Randian super-heroes that have never relied on anyone else to get where they are. Like the moment of creation when God brought the universe into existence from the void, these self-made capitalists did not benefit in any way from family connections, excellent school, stable and flourishing living environments, or greater governmental access.

Nope, they’re self-made damn it! Therefore they are entitled to everything they’ve made and are having their freedom violated by having limitations placed on when and how they can terminate positions, whether they should pay more in taxes, whether they should provide benefits, stable pensions, etc., etc., etc. Oh, and let’s not forget that for every five dollars that employer pays out to any employee they get a return with profit. The capitalist might argue that they put up the money for the implements used to produce their goods and so therefore they’re justified in skimming surplus-value off the top of the workers production of value. However, isn’t there a point at which the worker creates enough surplus-value or profit to pay for that equipment? And didn’t Locke– a hero of liberal conservative economists –say something about property being formed or coming into existence as a result of human labor giving form to matter? Hmmmm? Hmmmm? I sense an inconsistency here.

But I digress. The outcome of Taylor’s proposal is pretty predictable. As in all other cases where the business model is adopted, you get declining wages, unreliable pensions, and tremendous job insecurity. Indeed, if we follow Taylor’s proposals we can look forward to a future where the halls of institutions of higher learning are populated with adjunct professors living in terror of whether or not they’ll be called back the next semester and trying to make due on a pittance of a wage. Nice.

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