December 2010


Bogost has a FASCINATING POST up discussing the withdrawn object of cities. Between conversations with Ian and offhand remarks he’s made on his blog and elsewhere, I sometimes wonder if the doesn’t have a book somewhere on cities in him. At any rate, Ian writes,

All that said, the main problem with West’s approach can be found in the implication of Lehrer’s title—”A Physicist Solves the City.” For indeed, nothing is being solved, at all. Rather, West is deploying techniques to capture and measure the radiation of a city, the concepts and effects that emerge from it like heat rising from asphalt. The city itself is not its components nor its history, but a thing rising above its constituents and its flow through time, existing independently from them. West’s attempts at characterizing the hidden, inner mechanisms that drive cities offers one example of the principle of withdrawal in object-oriented ontology. A unit like a city doesn’t just experience growth, renewal, and decay, but also withholds something in reserve.

What a gorgeous turn of phrase: “techniques to capture and measure the radiation of a city”. Bogost bases his observations on an article in The New York Times that I can’t recommend enough.

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Lizzie got to play hooky from school today, spending a nice day home with me. In part we read portions of Graham’s newly released Circus Philosophicus. Graham opens the book by asking us to imagine a metaphysical ferris wheel that passes beneath the ground to a series of winding caverns below. The cars of the wheel carry all sorts of different objects, while there are other objects on the ground and in the caverns. As Graham remarks,

This image of a revolving wheel is a picture of our world. In it, the dramatic interplay of object and network becomes visible. Countless entities circle into and out of our lives, some of them threatening and others ludicrous. The objects in the cars and those on the ground or in the chambers affect one another, coupling and uncoupling from countless relations– seducing, ignoring, ruining, or liberating each other. This process is anything but a game: in it, our happiness and even physical safety are at stake. It would be easy to follow tradition and speak of a Wheel of Fortune. But in keeping with the metaphysical nature of this book, it is better to call it the Wheel of Events, the Wheel of Contexts, or the Wheel of Relations. As the ferris wheel circles, new and surprising events are summoned into existence. (4 – 5)

The ferris wheel is thus a sort of allegory for– among other things –how objects pass in and out of relations with one another. Lizzie was particularly taken with a passage about a celebration (she’s a big fan of parties). Graham writes,

Let’s develop an earlier example, and say that one of the underground chambers houses a union of steelworkers. As they await the appearance of their familiar grey flag with its black crescents and diamonds, the workers and the flag are two utterly separate realities. But once the banner moves into view, the room erupts in raucous celebration. Now, we cannot agree with the classical theory which holds that the piece of cloth is a substance and each of the workers also a substance but the celebration itself just an accidental intersection of two entities. For the celebration is no mere aggregate: instead, it is every bit as real as the physical piece of cloth or the human workers themselves. We admit that the celebration is unlikely to last for more than a few hours, while the flag and the workers may endure for decades to come. But this familiar criterion of durability is irrelevant to the metaphysical question of what can be regarded as a substance. [My emphasis] For as everyone knows who has taken part in especially intense gatherings, a celebration is a force to be reckoned with: a new entity to be taken into account by many other things. The workers may find themselves carried away by the mood of the party– a mood that exists somewhere beyond each of the individuals as a reservoir of surplus energy. Riot police may be summoned should the atmosphere deteriorate, and the celebration might resist police efforts to control it. Even the union flag that triggered the party will be affected by the celebration-entity of which it is a key component. For it may gain historic value from being the very flag that triggered this particular riot; it could become outlawed, and thereby attain wide popularity as a symbol of resistance. In addition, the flag can be physically altered by the smoky fumes or spray of champagne that the party unleashes. In short, the party seems to have all the features of a genuine entity. We cannot use physical duration as a standard of what is real and what is accidental. Chemists are aware of this fact, and feel no shame in using the same periodic table both for the artificial heavy elements that last for fractions of a second and for the hydrogen and helium that have endured since nearly the dawn of time. The difference between substance and accident is not decided by stopwatch or calandar. If we provisionally accept that reality equals resistance (an idea I reject for other reasons) then the steel-workers’ celebration is very much a substantial reality, as any riot officer will testify. (5 – 6)

I apologize for such a lengthy quotation, but this passage is just too lush and arresting to pass up. As I read Graham’s discussion of the celebration as an entity in its own right I’m forcefully brought home to the realization of just how far we have yet to go in thinking through the implications of OOO. Graham often speaks of the virtues of “weird realism”, and in the sheer pluralistic intoxication of Graham’s ontology we certainly encounter the strangest of realisms. This is a virtue, not a vice. We often speak of the subject and the object, yet paraphrasing James Bond, this world is not enough. Here the subject generally refers to the domain of humans, whereas the object refers to the domain of physical things.

Graham’s universe is a universe in which entities defy any neat categorization into the domains of “the subject” and “the object”. Rather, we get an entirely different understanding of objects, where objects can no longer be neatly reduced to physical things (where’s the solid clod that is a “celebration”) and where objects can no longer be treated as what is opposed to or stands opposite to a subject. Indeed, we’re no longer quite sure what constitutes a subject. Where before we thought we knew quite clearly what a subject is, now we find that we’re a bit puzzled. And if we are puzzled, then this is because relations are generative of a new, higher level, object.

If this is the case, then we are forced to substantially rethink, for starters, our ethical and political concepts. Hitherto, in the domain of ethics, we thought we knew what we were talking about when we talked about the good life, praise and blame, and ethical principles. We we thought we knew that we were talking about the actions of an individual person. Yet if Graham’s thesis is right, if it is true that relations are generative of higher level objects, we can no longer be quite sure. This entity composed of Levi+Computer is one entity. Levi apart from the computer is another entity. Levi with a gun or a knife is yet another entity. A couple is yet another entity. A girl and her dog or hawk is yet another entity. There are a plurality of ethical actors that differ from one another and that substantially change the nature of the ethical and political questions we ask. I’m not even sure where to begin in thinking these things, but I’m certainly very excited.

Earlier I discussed the possibility of technical fields as hyperobjects. Later in the first chapter of Technics and Time, Stiegler discusses the non-anthropomorphic dimension of technology as outlined by Simondon. Once again, my aim here is not so much to outline the nature of technology, but to unfold the nature of hyperobjects. As Stiegler writes,

In the explanation of technical evolution by the coupling of the human to matter, cut across by the technical tendency, an essential part of this tendency, coming from the ethnic interior milieu as intentions, remains anthropologically determined. Simondon has this interior milieu becoming diluted. The tendency no longer has an anthropological source. Technical evolution stemps completely from its own technical object. The human is no longer the intentional actor in this dynamic. It is its operator. (65 – 66)

Stiegler here contrasts the theories of technology proposed by Leroi-Gourhan and Simondon. Lou-Gourhan had argued that there are “technical tendencies” that, it seems, are shared by the entire human race. The concept of technical tendencies is deployed to account for how very similar technologies and techniques can appear in cultures that have no contact with one another.

“There are general tendencies that can give rise to identical techniques without being materially linked,” that is, without contact between the people where they occur, “and [there are] the facts that, whatever degree of geographical proximity they may have, are individual and unique” (Leroi-Gourhan 1943, 14). The technical objects that the fact consist in are diverse, even though they may belong to the same tendency. (47)

Technology unfolds in a sort of dialectic between these universal tendencies and an exterior milieu that particularlizes technology in a specific cultural form. Here, presumably, it is humans that are the carriers of these tendencies. Leroi-Gourhan distinguishes between exterior and interior milieus. As Stiegler articulates it,

With this concept of exterior milieu “is first apprehended everything materially surrounding the human: the geographical, climactic, animal, and vegetable milieu. The definition must be… extended to the material signs and ideas which may come from other groups” (Leroi-Gourhan 1945, 333). With the concept of interior milieu “is apprehended not what is proper to naked humans at birth, but, at each moment in time, in a (most often incomplete) circumscribed human mass, that which constitutes its intellectual capital, that is, an extremely complex pool of mental traditions” (334). The interior mileu is social memory, the shared past, that which is called “culture.” It is a nongenetic memory, which is exterior to the living organism qua individual, supported by the nonzoological collective organization of objects, but which functions and evolves as a quasi-biological milieu whose analysis reveals “used products, reserves, internal secretions, hormones issuing from other cells of the same organism, vitamins of external origin” (334). The exterior milieu is the natural, inert milieu, but also the one carrying “the objects and the ideas of different groups.” (57)

It is the interplay of these two milieus that generates what might be called technical specificity. In a number of passages, Stiegler will go on to speak of the geographical nature of the exterior milieu in terms that sound remarkably like Jared Diamond’s basic theory of why cultures take on the form they take.

read on!
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Mortan has a post up riffing on my post on Uexküll. Check it out!

Today we have a post from Zen Dochterman, a student pursuing his PhD in Comparative Literature from UCLA. Zen’s thoughts arose in response to my UCLA paper a couple of weeks ago.

I am going to try to pull together some of the threads about the relation between Marxism and object oriented ontology that you’ve outlined in your recent posts (here and here) to see if there might not be even more uncanny linkages between these two systems.

It seems that the talk of class as a hyperobject is on target — namely that class is something that exists outside of human subjectivity and therefore does not depend upon any recognition of it. Class should be thought of as a distribution of interactions between humans and objects — a constellation of machines, bodies, spaces, tools, money etc…Class, at the level of objects appears as a set of limitations on the possible combinations and interactions of objects — who can deal with them, how and why.

read on!
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Now that I have all my final grades in I can relax for the rest of the break. I only have a few things to finish off:

* Put the finishing touches on The Democracy of Objects

* Write an article on Deleuze’s transcendental aesthetics and empiricism for the Deleuze edition of MonoKL.

* Write article for the Blackwell anthology on Dungeons & Dragons and Philosophy.

* Put finishing touches on co-authored article with Morton on food for Collapse.

* Write article on McLuhan with Ian Bogost for Enculturation.

* Write conference paper for the Association of American Geographers conference.

Max’n and relaxin!

Recently I’ve had the pleasure of picking up A Foray Into the World of Animals and Humans by Jakob von Uexküll. At the moment I’m rather exhausted from grading until late last night, so I don’t have a whole lot to say about the details of Uexküll’s animal ethology beyond saying that I can’t recommend this book enough. Many will be familiar with the animal ethology of Uexküll through Heidegger’s Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics and Deleuze and Guattari’s “Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible” in A Thousand Plateaus. For those not familiar with Uexküll’s thought, he was a great cartographer of the inner world of animals. Uexküll approached animals such as ticks, flies, bees, birds, sea urchins, etc. as subjects rather than mechanisms. Through a careful analysis of their physiology, observations of their behavior, and behavioral experiments, Uexküll would make deductions about what the experience of the animal is like or how that particular animal experiences the world or what he calls its “umwelt“. Thus, for example, in the picture to the right above, we see a comparison between the umwelt of humans (top) and the umwelt of bees. Uexküll is able to infer the bee world from, among other things, the structure of their eyes and their behaviors. As will be noted, the world of the human and the world of the bee are entirely different. If Uexküll’s analyses are so arresting, then this is because they break of the unity of a world, introducing us to a plurality of incommensurable yet strangely overlapping worlds.

From an object-oriented perspective, Uexküll’s animal ethology is a striking example of withdrawal. In many respects, the objects of object-oriented ontology can be said to be Janus-faced. On the one hand, there are local manifestations of objects, the surface features of objects, that arise or appear as a result of the object’s interactions with the world about it; while on the other hand there is the withdrawn interior of objects. When I speak of the “interior” of objects care must be taken not to confuse this interior with the spatial inside of objects. If you cut open an orange, for example, you don’t get at the interior of the orange, but only the inside of the orange. The interior of the orange is forever withdrawn from all other objects and could be described as the way in which an object “lives” itself and its world. Here Harman’s distinction between sensual and real objects is helpful. For Harman, real objects are independent and exist in their own right. By contrast, sensual objects are objects that exist only in the interior of another real object. As Graham writes, “[i]nstead of saying that the sensual tree has ‘intentional inexistance’ in human consciousness, we should say that both the sensual tree and the real me ‘inexist’ on the interior of the object composed of the real me and the real tree” (Prince of Networks, 211).

read on!
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