March 2011

A lot of exciting discussions have been unfolding around the blogosphere of late. In his usual role as the Dark Horse, Pirate, Philip K. Dick theorist of digital humanities (i.e., the theorist that critically resists the sometimes effusive optimism found in digital humanities), Ian Bogost has an outstanding post up raising questions about the limitations of blogging and how we should conceive philosophy in a digital world. Alex Reid has a terrific follow up expanding on these questions, as does Adam Robberts. Morton has a nice post up providing a primer for OOO (though I’m miffed he didn’t list “The Ontic Principle” in The Speculative Turn… It’s free online yanno!).

Graham has a nice post up on his differences from Heidegger as well as what he owes Heidegger, that also discusses Badiou. He also weighs in on the blogging discussion. Over at Algorithm and Contingency, Robert Jackson also jumps in on the blogging discussion. Paul Ennis’s book What is Speculative Realism? has now been released. I eagerly look forward to reading it. Steven Shaviro’s interview is now up over at New Apps. There is also Eileen Joy’s talk where she argues that texts are sentient objects. Finally, elsewhere, Craig of Dark Chemistry has written some wonderful posts on Luhmann, riffing on some of my recent posts and Ian Bogost’s unit operations.

Faced with all these vibrant (and verdant?) discussions– and I’m sure I’m missing a lot –the cybernetician in me is inclined to say that it’s thinking. If you want to get a sense of what this might mean, read this post and the books it references. Graham has spawned a monster and it’s alive!

Eileen Joy’s talk for the “Animal, Mineral, Vegetable” conference is now posted. I haven’t gotten a chance to read it yet (hopefully this weekend if my Little Bean, Lizzie the four year-old, permits), but I’m especially intrigued by her concept of “texts as sentient objects”. Here it seems that she goes one further than me. Where I argue that texts aren’t simply about something, but also are something (and are therefore objects), Joy argues that they’re sentient objects. You had me at hello! As an aside, why are animals, minerals, and vegetables suddenly all the rage in Medieval studies? Eleanor Kaufman has recently been doing all sorts of fascinating stuff with Medieval thought as well and at the last talk I heard by her (the UCLA “Hello Everything!” symposium) she spoke a great deal about these things as well.

H/T to Melanie Doherty for turning me on to this book (her judgment never steers me wrong). If you haven’t come across it already, go out and get yourself a copy of John Johnston’s Allure of Machinic Life: Cybernetics, Artificial Life, and the New AI immediately. This is quite simply the most exciting book I’ve read in recent memory and one I wish I’d come across when I was writing The Democracy of Objects (certain aspects of Johnston’s book are what I wish I’d written). I consider my version of object-oriented ontology “cybernetic-OOO”. That is, I conceive my objects as cybernetic machines in a continuous interplay with their environment. For those of you not familiar with cybernetics– and I’m always amazed that people aren’t screaming cybernetics from rooftops everywhere –wikipedia gives a somewhat accurate definition of what it’s all about:

The term cybernetics stems from the Greek κυβερνήτης (kybernētēs, steersman, governor, pilot, or rudder — the same root as government). Cybernetics is a broad field of study, but the essential goal of cybernetics is to understand and define the functions and processes of systems that have goals and that participate in circular, causal chains that move from action to sensing to comparison with desired goal, and again to action. Studies in cybernetics provide a means for examining the design and function of any system, including social systems such as business management and organizational learning, including for the purpose of making them more efficient and effective.

Cybernetics was defined by Norbert Wiener, in his book of that title, as the study of control and communication in the animal and the machine. Stafford Beer called it the science of effective organization and Gordon Pask extended it to include information flows “in all media” from stars to brains. It includes the study of feedback, black boxes and derived concepts such as communication and control in living organisms, machines and organizations including self-organization. Its focus is how anything (digital, mechanical or biological) processes information, reacts to information, and changes or can be changed to better accomplish the first two tasks. A more philosophical definition, suggested in 1956 by Louis Couffignal, one of the pioneers of cybernetics, characterizes cybernetics as “the art of ensuring the efficacy of action”. The most recent definition has been proposed by Louis Kauffman, President of the American Society for Cybernetics, “Cybernetics is the study of systems and processes that interact with themselves and produce themselves from themselves”.

Concepts studied by cyberneticists (or, as some prefer, cyberneticians) include, but are not limited to: learning, cognition, adaption, social control, emergence, communication, efficiency, efficacy and interconnectivity. These concepts are studied by other subjects such as engineering and biology, but in cybernetics these are removed from the context of the individual organism or device.

Other fields of study which have influenced or been influenced by cybernetics include game theory; system theory (a mathematical counterpart to cybernetics); psychology, especially neuropsychology, behavioral psychology and cognitive psychology; philosophy; anthropology; and even theology, telematic art, and architecture.

There’s a lot more to the wiki, so read the rest of the article here if you’re curious. Principia Cybernetica Web is also an excellent resource.

John Johnston’s rich and beautifully written book gives an excellent discussion of the basic concepts of cybernetics, it’s history, the basic concepts of information theory, and an analysis of how these concepts have evolved in fields like artificial life, artificial intelligence, as well as their importance for social and political theory, as well as psychoanalysis. Along the way he has amazing discussions of Lacanian psychoanalysis and the machinic life of Deleuze and Guattari. From the back of the book:

In The Allure of Machinic Life, John Johnston examines new forms of nascent life that emerge through technical interactions within human-constructed environments—”machinic life”—in the sciences of cybernetics, artificial life, and artificial intelligence. With the development of such research initiatives as the evolution of digital organisms, computer immune systems, artificial protocells, evolutionary robotics, and swarm systems, Johnston argues, machinic life has achieved a complexity and autonomy worthy of study in its own right.

Drawing on the publications of scientists as well as a range of work in contemporary philosophy and cultural theory, but always with the primary focus on the “objects at hand”—the machines, programs, and processes that constitute machinic life—Johnston shows how they come about, how they operate, and how they are already changing. This understanding is a necessary first step, he further argues, that must precede speculation about the meaning and cultural implications of these new forms of life.

Developing the concept of the “computational assemblage” (a machine and its associated discourse) as a framework to identify both resemblances and differences in form and function, Johnston offers a conceptual history of each of the three sciences. He considers the new theory of machines proposed by cybernetics from several perspectives, including Lacanian psychoanalysis and “machinic philosophy.” He examines the history of the new science of artificial life and its relation to theories of evolution, emergence, and complex adaptive systems (as illustrated by a series of experiments carried out on various software platforms). He describes the history of artificial intelligence as a series of unfolding conceptual conflicts—decodings and recodings—leading to a “new AI” that is strongly influenced by artificial life. Finally, in examining the role played by neuroscience in several contemporary research initiatives, he shows how further success in the building of intelligent machines will most likely result from progress in our understanding of how the human brain actually works.

The book, however, is so much more than what this blurb suggests. I would also recommend reading this alongside Andrew Pickering’s The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future. I am not ordinarily one to gush, but as someone whose thought has been deeply influenced by cybernetics and systems theory for over ten years I genuinely believe that it is no exaggeration to say that cybernetics and systems theory changes your understanding of just about everything. Johnston’s book is a tremendous contribution to this tradition and deserves wide readership and discussion.

Graham has a disturbing statistic up, stating that The top 400 families control as much wealth as the bottom 60%. Here are a few other disturbing statistics:

The wealthiest 5% of Americans control 72% of America’s financial wealth.  The bottom 80% control only 7% of the nation’s financial wealth.  The richest 400 Americans have more combined wealth than the poorer HALF of all Americans.  That means 400 people have more wealth than 150,000,000 people combined.  American corporations saw record profits in 2010.  Nearly 80% of all economic gains made in the past thirty years have gone to the richest 1%.  In the 1970s, the average CEO made 30 times what an hourly worker made.  Today, a CEO makes 300 times what an hourly worker makes.

Knowledge Ecology has written a post following up on my post, Graham’s, and Tim’s. In his post, Tim asks an interesting question:

This nice post on Knowledge Ecology distinguishes well between blogging and publishing as separate distinct environments. Yes.

But then we do have to ask, why the threat? Why the need to put blogging down?

First, for me there’s no way that blogging can replace academic publications. There are things that I can do in an academic publication that I just can’t do on a blog. The Democracy of Objects for example, develops a sustained argument over about three hundred pages. It went through a substantial editing process, is well referenced, and develops its argument in a concentrated manner. Blogs work very differently. On the one hand, blog posts are far shorter and are more scattered. Where a book or an article develops a sustained argument or analysis of concepts, the arguments of a blog shift from day to day, hour to hour, bouncing around all over the place. On the other hand, published work is a statement of an author’s, theorist’s, or thinker’s position up to that point, whereas blog posts are far more experimental and probing. Clearly there can be no hard and fast distinction here, but I tend to think of my work here as a sort of “working through” where I am developing concepts and lines of argument and submitting them to public critique and discussion, whereas I think of my published work as something like “reports” on the claims that I’m willing to stand by and that have been polished as a result of this dialogical process.

read on!

From a student:


A public school teacher was arrested today at John F. Kennedy
International Airport as he attempted to board a flight while
in possession of a ruler, a protractor, a compass, a slide-rule and a
calculator. At a morning press conference, the Attorney General said he
believes the man is a member of the notorious Al-Gebra movement. He did not
identify the man, who has been charged by the FBI with carrying weapons of
math instruction.

‘Al-Gebra is a problem for us’, the Attorney General said. ‘They derive
solutions by means and extremes, and sometimes go off on tangents in search
of absolute values.’ They use secret code names like ‘X’ and ‘Y’ and refer
to themselves as ‘unknowns’, but we have determined that they belong to a
common denominator of the axis of medieval with coordinates in every country.

As the Greek philanderer Isosceles used to say, ‘There are 3 sides to every triangle’.

When asked to comment on the arrest, President Obama said, ‘If God had
wanted us to have better weapons of math instruction, he would have given us
more fingers and toes.’ White House aides told reporters they could not
recall a more intelligent or profound statement by the President;
It is believed that another Nobel Prize will follow—-

ARobberts has a nice post up discussing media ecology and blogging. Here’s a taste:

Perhaps because I am part of a younger generation that grew up with the internet (I first logged on when I was 10 or 11), I find this question to be uninteresting. It is of course valuable to consider the greater trajectory of academic discourse in terms of its quality and depth of insight (not to mention its overall applicability), but to compare a blogging medium with the written medium of academic publishing is like asking whether an alpine meadow is better than a grassland savannah. They are different environments, each with different ecological effects on the human sensorium. For the media ecologists conscious experience is in part always rearranged by our engagements with different media which, depending on the format, emphasize different sensory modalities, a different coordination of brain activity and a variety of different infrastructural modes of organization

Read the rest here. Media ecology, I think, is sometimes something difficult to grasp from the standpoint of the traditional humanities and especially philosophy. The traditional humanities tend to focus on the content of a cultural artifact. They ask “what does it mean?”, “what does it signify?”, “does it contain hidden ideological content?”, “is it true?”, “does it correspond to reality?”, “is it logically consistent?”, etc.

Media ecology is rather different. It is not that media ecology ignores these sorts of questions, but that it notices the existence and role of something else in addition to content: the medium. Traditional humanities has a tendency to look through the medium to the content, treating the medium as if were unimportant or a mere vehicle for content. Traditional humanities looks at “Budweiser” written in neon lights and says “the sign is about “Budweiser”, ignoring entirely the role of the neon lights in this message. As a result, it arrives at a philosophical anthropology and sociology where it is content alone that explains why people think as they do, why they relate as they do, etc., etc., etc..

For media ecology, by contrast, the fact that “Budweiser” is written in neon lights is not unimportant. The medium is not merely a vehicle, but also deeply influences content. Moreover, the media ecologist argues that media affect content in ways that are independent of content or representation. For the media ecologist, what is of interest is the manner in which different mediums affect the way we think, the nature of our affectivity, and the nature of our social relationships. The most famous example here, of course, is writing. There are features intrinsic to the topology of writing that substantially modify the nature of our though, affectivity, and social relations. To see this, it is necessary to do a differential or comparative analysis of writing, contrasting it with speech. Certain forms of thought, affectivity, and social relation only become possible with writing. Without writing we would have no higher order mathematics or philosophy. Likewise, in the transition from oral cultures to written cultures, the very nature of law changes. Where law previously had to be negotiated anew in speech on each occasion, the invention of law allows it to abide in a way not possible prior to writing. Finally, the nature of social relations change with writing insofar as these social relations are no longer bound to face to face encounters in speech, but can now surmount absence, time, and distance through text that allows contact between those who never have any face to face encounters and who never have secondary face to face encounters through hearsay.

For the media ecologist the point is twofold: On the one hand, these features of thought, affectivity, and social relations cannot be accounted for through content alone, but also involve properties of the media itself. The aim, in part, is to determine the manner in which the medium affects the content and social relations. On the other hand, each medium contains its own blind spots, prejudices, and biases foreclosing other domains of reality to it due to the properties of the medium itself. Media ecological critique helps us to see these blind spots and the assumptions that they propagate throughout thought.

A righteous rant:

For some time now I’ve been tormented by G. Spencer-Brown’s theory of distinctions. Anyone who has attempted to read his Laws of Form will know what I’m talking about. Spencer-Brown’s thesis is that in order to indicate anything we must first draw a distinction (depicted to the right above). The bar that cleaves the space is the distinction. The unity of marked and unmarked space with respect to a distinction is what Spencer-Brown calls a distinction. What falls under the bar is what can be indicated once the distinction is drawn. Insofar as every distinction cleaves a space (whether conceptual or otherwise), the unmarked space of the distinction is what becomes invisible when the distinction is drawn. Every distinction thus has two blind spots. On the one hand, every distinction contains the unmarked space that disappears when the distinction is drawn. With a distinction, a boundary is drawn, but that which lies on the other side of the boundary disappears. However, on the other hand, the distinction itself disappears when drawing a distinction. When a distinction is drawn what comes to the fore is the marked space or what is indicated, not the distinction itself. The distinction, as it were, withdraws into the background.

In light of the foregoing, we can thus call distinction the transcendental and what is indicated under a distinction the empirical. If distinction is the transcendental, then this is because no indication can be made without a prior distinction. Distinction is the condition under which indication is possible. Indication, of course, can be anything. It can be what we refer to in the world, how we sort things, what we choose to investigate, etc. In order to indicate or refer to any of these things, I must first draw a distinction. As a consequence, the distinction is prior to whatever happens to be indicated. For example, if I wish to investigate the pathological, I must cleave a space (conceptual or otherwise) that brings the pathological into the marked space of the distinction. It is only on the basis of this distinction that I will be able to indicate the pathological. Part of what is interesting in all of this is that the marked space of the distinction– and recall it’s always withdrawn from any and every indication such that it’s invisible –is like a Mobius strip, attached to its unmarked space in much the same way that the front of a page implies its back. The pathological never innocently indicates the pathological, but rather presupposes an unmarked space of the “normal” that structures and organizes the pathological. In other words, the conditions under which any observations are possible are those of a prior distinction.

read on!

I’m front-paging this comment without further commentary as it so beautifully encapsulates so many issues. I’m particularly taken by Joy’s comments about the privative language we use to talk about objects. Can we imagine a language beyond privation? In terms of my own meditations on ontology and sexuation, isn’t the privative orientation of this language something that finds its orientation on the masculine side of graph, where the objet a is conceived as a residue or remainder that evades and undermines mastery? Instead, could this excess not be seen as a strange attraction with a strange stranger that is in excess of all mastery?

I am copying here, with some emendations, a longish comment I also left over at Ecology Without Nature on Timothy’s “Queer Objects” post:

So, I am sitting in my study on a beautiful sunny morning in Saint Louis and editing the sound-files from the “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: Ethics and Objects in the Early Modern and Medieval Periods” conference that was hosted at George Washington University’s Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute this past weekend [organized by Jeffrey Cohen and Jonathan Gil Harris], and at which conference Jane Bennett gave a keynote talk on “the powers of the hoard: notes toward a material agency,” and she mentioned a few things that relate to this discussion here and also over at Ecology Without Nature. First, it should be noted that Bennett described herself as a “humble word-worker” who seeks, not to “capture” things in her descriptions of the sensuous (yet resistant) emanations of things (which are always “otherwise” to representation), but rather to “tune” her own sense perceptions toward the “frequencies” of things, which Bennett believes are “vibrating” and even “calling.” This will also entail making new words, NOT to nail things down, but to render the self “more susceptible” to the “non-linguistic communicability” between vibrant materials. [Does this not sound an awful lot like the “feminine”/queer (non)-relational ethics you sketches out here and that Timothy gestures toward in The Ecological Thought?]

Now, more in relation to our discussions about “withdrawing,” Bennett also pointed out some of the obstacles to her “tuning” project–for example, that in most philosophical discourses on “thing-power,” many of the descriptors are “privative”:

1. the “complex intractibility” of living organisms [Stephen Jay Gould]

2. “incalculability” & “withdrawing from representation” but still “calling on us” [Heidegger with further, important elaborations within OOO circles]

3. “non-identity” and “non-coincidence” [Adorno]

She summed up the caution of the intractable incalculable non-identical withdrawing-ness of objects with this quote from Deleuze [from “Difference and Repetition”]:

“Here, as elsewhere, becoming conscious counts for little.”

[laughter ensued]

But why stop there, Bennett asked? Why not ignore Zarathustra’s dwarf sitting on our shoulders and wanting to pour lead in our ears, and hazard some speculative terms for the “expressive or calling capacity of bodies”? She then turned to Foucault’s “History of Sexuality” and his project to name a strange, new “power” that he “vaguely discerned around him”:

“a productive power that did not operate by repressing or by refusal, blockage, and invalidation” [Bennett talking about Foucault].

So Bennett wants to extend Foucault’s method and keep her “eye” trained on the “productive power” of things and their “expressivity.” Yes, Bennett agrees, actants are, to a certain extent, intractable and incalculable [and always “withdrawing” ALTHOUGH Eileen would like to step into this parenthetical aside and ask if maybe we need a term, like Timothy’s crossed-out animism, that would be “withdrawing” with a line also drawn through it?], but can we thicken our descriptions of them a bit more, nevertheless?

Of course, I think that is what Harman, Timothy, you, and many others are mightily engaged in at present, but I guess I am still wanting to put pressure on the idea & geo-temporal spatiality of the *movement* [and it is a movement] of withdrawing. I want to hold it in place and also draw a line through it. I want to also see if we can turn it inside-out [or reverse its direction or give it curvature] and say that the reason there is a “certain something” [residue, excresence, reserve, secret interior, essence, potenitality/future, open-ended becoming] to every object [including persons] that is never capturable in words, ideographs, morphologies, images, systems of description, “our” philosophy, etc., then maybe that is also an *extensible* something that is always, not withdrawn, but just always just ahead of us, or in a “somewhere else” that is not interior, but always radically exterior, while also always being “here” which is the place we’re all “in” all the time. Like sub-atomic particles that are always wrapped up together while being far apart.

Being more attuned to our radical implicate enfoldment while also taking [ethical] account of our different “calls” across and within this fold–always “inside” and “outside” simultaneously?

Obviously, maintaining a site of ultimate unknowability/impenetrability/recalcitrance allows for the safeguarding of the “open” as well as the “private,” allowing each thing “its own thing,” which might be a form of radical love to “let things be” while never really letting them be [alone]. But this safeguarding of the secret interior, or essence, when inflected in certain directions, also leads to ideas of the kinds of “precious” differences that, in my mind, lead directly to violence and war.

Well, those are my thoughts on this brilliant, beautiful day.

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