April 2011


Between Lovecraft and Kafka we get two very different sci-fi, horror genres of withdrawn objects. Mel likes to joke that Lovecrafts stories and novels always involve men going in arctic mountains. Lovecraftian horror is not simply weird, but rather is a form of horror that depicts an encounter with absolute alterity. The Lovecraftian monster is a monster that is such a strange stranger (in Morton’s terminology) that it elides all possibility of being a neighbor. For this reason this form of horror deserves to be called, drawing on Jaques-Alain Miller’s term, extimate horror. Extimate horror spells the ruin of Kantian synthesis. The madness experienced in Lovecraft’s arctic escapades results from an encounter so foreign, so thorough, so extimate that it cannot be synthesized by any categories, meanings, signifiers, codes, etc. Lovecraft’s monsters are thoroughly other, non-related, beyond domestication, and thoroughly unheimlich. These monsters are beyond any sort of relation or synthesis. It is, no doubt, here that we encounter the link between Lovecraft’s sci-fi/horror and his deep xenophobia.

In Kafka we encounter a very different sort of sci-fi/horror and its accompanying withdrawal, born not of extimacy, but rather of intimacy. Where Lovecraft’s monsters are thoroughly other, the horror of Kafka’s monsters lies in their claustrophobic proximity. This proximity is strange because the characters are simultaneously entangled in it while the monster is nonetheless withdrawn. While there is an absolute separation and distance in the relation between Lovecraft’s monsters and the adventurous scientists, the horror of Kafka is that distance and separation is not possible. Lovecraft’s monsters are the “Great Old Ones”. Kafka’s monsters, by contrast, are purely anonymous entities that have names like “Law” and “Castle” that we nonetheless inhabit somewhat like a members of a Borg collective without techno-telepathic communication. Like an insect in a spider web, Joseph K. is entangled in these monsters, yet the threads of these monsters are terrifying in that they are simultaneously intimate, pervading every and all aspects of interiority or psychic life, bodily life, and social life, yet are thoroughly invisible and withdrawn. The presence of these monsters is suffocating and oppressive because traces of them are everywhere ubiquitous, yet these monsters are perpetually withdrawn and impossible to capture. Here we have a very different failure of synthesis. Such is the lesson of the parable of the law in The Trial.

The excruciatingly painful horror of Kafka’s monsters is that we are part of them, that we are entangled within them, yet in such a way that we are simultaneously independent and forever unable to determine what, precisely, it is that we are entangled in. This is one of the reasons that Kafka’s sci-fi/horror has evoked so many poor theological readings. One might suggest that Kafka’s literature is a humanist literature due to the manner in which novels like The Trial and The Castle revolve around the figure of Joseph K. Yet as we read these novels we sense that we’ve entered an atmosphere very different than the one breached by Montaigne and Descartes.

In Kafka’s universe we encounter all sorts of figures, apparently human, that are gears and cogs in a machine rather than persons in their own right. This comes out with special clarity in the open of Amerika with the figure of the stoker. We encounter institutions and entities that are agencies in their own right like the Law and the Castle that aren’t remotely human in their organization, functioning, or experience. No doubt Kafka, in his profession and his peculiar historical moment, was particularly positioned to discern the existence of entities or autopoietic machines that could no longer be comprehended as mere accretions of human intentions and meanings. We also encounter endless explorations of machines and animals throughout his work. In Kafka what we encounter is the story of a human entangled in a posthumanist universe. And if Kafka’s horror is deeply terrifying, then it is precisely because some of these machines draw on humans as sources of energy to perpetuate themselves without us ever being able to determine the precise nature of the vampiric machine (yet another theme in Kafka’s early letters) that devours us.

For anyone who’s interested, there’s a free .pdf of Heinz von Foester’s Understanding Understanding: Essays on Cybernetics and Cognition here. This is a great find as it is both a seminal text in second wave cybernetics and a very expensive text (ordinarily costing $129).

Next Fall I’d like to organize my intro to philosophy course around cybernetic and ecophilosophical process-relational themes. Does anyone have suggestions for accessible books for first year students? Morton’s Ecological Thought would probably be a good choice. Wiener’s Human Use of Human Beings is a possibility. I’m toying with Johnston’s Allure of Machinic life. Whitehead’s Science and the Modern World might be a possibility. Any other suggestions?

In an amusing facebook post Creston Davis remarks that “ideology is closer than our underwear”. In light of the demoralizing discussion I’ve been having with Ross in comments (not because of Ross, but just because of the situation), this got me wondering whether the left wouldn’t do better to produce ideology rather than critique ideology. Ross writes,

The only realistic path to fundamentally transform society lies in reconstituting a strong international Leftist (Marxist) current in the most advanced capitalist countries (i.e., Europe, North America).

I don’t know if I agree with the restriction of such a project to the most advanced capitalist countries, but I largely agree with his sentiment overall. The question is one of how, precisely, it is possible to do this. Insofar as, following Creston, ideology is closer than our underwear, how precisely do we go about creating a strong leftist current? The right worked for decades to create strong rightwing consensus. They accomplished this success by capturing a number of media outlets, forming think tanks, and seeding the world of social communication with all sorts of memes that became unconscious common sense or “obvious” throughout the world.

There’s a way in which the critique of ideology, while having an important place, is doomed to be reactive, such that ground is perpetually ceded to the right. The right proposes, the left disposes. As a consequence, the left perpetually follows behind the right because it must await the “proposals” of the right before it can dispose. Meanwhile, in the ever receding logic of objet a or a game of “hunt the snipe”, the right is always elsewhere once critique has done its work. As a consequence, the terrain of battle becomes perpetually defined by the right. The right ends up defining the contours or parameters of discussion such that we get a rightwing sensus communis structuring the social field.

As both later Sartre and Badiou recognized, the only way to produce change is through the production of collectives or subject-groups capable of lifting us out of seriality. Yet the only way to produce collectives is through the formation of a sensus communis. This means that questions of the distribution of meanings, of ideological sequences, is crucial to any leftist project. It means that questions of “the sense of the world”, to quote Nancy’s term, are central to leftist political engagement. A recognition of this, I believe, is why thinkers like Badiou and Zizek have, of late, been so interested in the figure of Saint Paul. Yet such questions of distribution cannot simply focus on what senses are distributed, but must also focus on strategies of distribution. Enough for now.

The other day I found myself amused to discover that a friend who had attended a conference heard grad students remark that I have a privileged Ivory Tower existence and a plush academic position as an established scholar. Few things could be further from the truth. You see, I teach at a junior or community college, have five courses a semester, and generally have 150 students a semester. In addition to this, I only teach intro level courses and there is no major in philosophy. There is no tenure here, but rather we work on contract. For the first three years we have yearly contracts, then after three years you jump up to three year contracts. Those contracts stipulate that your position can be terminated at any time, with or without reason. We are all expected to do a significant amount of college service, so over the years I have racked up quite a bit of committee work. We have a fairly generous travel stipend, especially for a community college, though that is likely to disappear as a result of education cuts our State Senate and Governor are currently pursuing.

Such is the reality of my existence. Don’t get me wrong. Collin is an extraordinary institution, especially for a community college. We have talented, accomplished, and smart faculty. We have wonderful students. The administration is supportive of academic research and conceives of itself as a two year university (the first community college in the United States to define itself in those terms). I earn a fairly decent wage, my job is, for the moment, stable, and I like Dallas and my colleagues. Nonetheless, I am exhausted. I am exhausted by a combination of teaching, my insane research commitments, and all of my speaking commitments. At some point, I suspect, something will have to change. Perhaps I will give up research, writing, and just live and work. After all, why do I kill myself in this way? My research contributes, in no way, to my job here. I wear myself out doing it. I often take on debt as a result of attending conferences. And I get rewarded with snarky hecklers that suggest either that I’m just a careerist, that I hate human beings, and a number of other ugly things. My generation seems to believe that mean-spirited snark is the height of wit and charm and that there’s some sort of virtue in dehumanizing others and cutting them down when they’ve scarcely ever done anything to you.

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Here’s an interesting review of Jane McGonical’s Reality is Broken somewhat in line with my earlier post on gamification. Please note that I’m not opposed to gamification in principle. It will be recalled that for Foucault power is productive. It can generate oppression. It can generate new and emancipatory possibilities. Power is always ambiguous. However, I do think that there isn’t nearly enough critique in digital humanities. Often we hear a great deal about the utopian and emancipatory possibilities of the new technologies without examining the new forms of oppression that come with these technologies.

I remember, with great intensity, when I got my first pair of glasses. It must have been right around the second or third grade. I had been doing poorly in school, especially math, so my teacher suggested that perhaps I had vision problems and was unable to see the board. After a trip to the optometrist and a week long wait I finally went to pick up my plastic rimmed, tortoise shell specs. That drive home was unforgettable.

Suffering from a slight bit of nausea and a raging headache, coupled with deep shock and amazement, an entire world had appeared that I hadn’t imagined existed. Lines were crisp, colors were vivid. I could see blades of grass as we raced down the highway. It was a disturbing and exhilarating experience. I hadn’t the faintest clue that this way of experiencing the world was possible. I had no idea that such a world was available. Such is the nature of von Uexküll’s concept of umwelts and Harman’s concept of objects withdrawn from one another. In the image to the left, von Uexküll depicts the difference between the umwelt of humans perceiving a field of flowers (top) and the umwelt of the bee perceiving one and the same field (bottom). When I got my first pair of glasses, I had made a similar transition from one umwelt to another. Without my glasses, my umwelt consisted of wavy, vibrating, fuzzy lines, indistinct shapes, and blocks of flat color. With my glasses, distinct lines, lively colors, and delineated shapes burst into existence. The world came to be organized in a very different way.

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In an interesting tweet, Kathleen Sulli remarks that the student readers of Bogost’s Newsgames say, “don’t just explain how to play the game– explain the underlying issues.”. The question would be that of how to get at the underlying issues. How do you determine what questions to ask? What to analyze? And how to analyze it? To answer these questions you need concepts and a theory. Concepts and theory are not so much representations of reality as they are ways of organizing empirical research and posing questions. Here my post has to be brief as I’m heading out the door soon, but I would like to suggest that my previous post on double articulation is just such a model.

It will be recalled that the first articulation of double articulation deducts and forms matters, turning them into organized substances. Here we’re talking about the plane of content that pertains to assemblages of material bodies. The question is one of how these machines form bodies in new ways, generating new assemblages and bodies. A piece of software or a game is just such a machine that deducts matters and forms them in a particular way. But here we must ask, what are the materials being deducted and formed by a game, and what new formed substances are they producing? Here the matters being formed would be of four primary sorts: the human body, human modes of perception, social relationships, and cognition. For any game we can ask how the software and hardware used changes the nature of our perception, cognition, affectivity, use of body, and influences our social relationships. In what way does it form these matters into particular sort of substances? This was, I believe, precisely what Bogost sought to determine with Cowclicker and social games. More needs to be said here but it’s time to run. It’s also important to analyze the plane of expression but more on that anon.

As I argued in my post entitled “Towards a Theory of the Self-Organization of Objects“, the fact that objects are composed of other objects entails that every object is the result of a genesis. Objects can be simultaneously viewed as substances and as assemblages. As a substance objects are unities that have, within certain limits, conquered entropy for a time. They are organized and structured. As assemblages, objects are composed of other objects that are themselves independent substances that have, for a time, conquered entropy. How, then, do we get from these smaller scale objects to the larger scale object composed of these objects? What are the processes by which this genesis of a new object takes place?

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