Yesterday I had the pleasure of doing an interview with Heather Duncan and Alex Reid concerning digital humanities, blogging, twitter, and to a lesser degree object-oriented ontology. With any luck it will be posted, alongside a host of other interviews (including one by Eileen Joy), in the Fall. During the course of our discussion, Heather raised questions about OOO and politics, remarking that initially she worried that OOO has no place for politics. Given that everything always comes back to politics for me, I was eager to know what gave her this impression. As she explained, when she first started reading OOO she was unable to see how issues such as race and gender could fit into this framework. As I outline in the introduction of The Democracy of Objects, this is exactly the sort of thing I want to avoid. I want a framework that’s broad enough to both integrate work like Butler’s performative theory of gender, or Foucault’s analysis of discursive fields with respect to the human science in The Order of Things, with a realist ontology of beings that is able to account for the differences they contribute to social fields. What I’m angling for is thus something like what Latour describes in the first chapter of We Have Never Been Modern.

The ozone hole is too social and too narrated to be truly natural; the strategy of industrial firms and heads of state is too full of chemical reactions to be reduced to power and interest; the discourse of the ecosphere is too real and too social to boil down to meaning effects. Is it our fault if the networks are simultaneously real, like nature, narrated, like discourse, and collective, like society? (6)

What Latour wants is a framework that is simultaneously able to think the real of the ozone hole, the power and interests surroundings discourses about the ozone hole, and the manner in which the ozone hole is narrated or signified. Rather than choosing one or the other of these options as the true one of which the others are an illusion– “narration is just an ‘effect’ of power and interest”, “power and interest are just ‘effects’ of discourse or narration”, “power, interest, and discourse are just epiphenomena surrounding the real of the ozone hole” –Latour wants to think the interplay between these three things. This is what I want as well and is what I try to theorize in chapter 4 of The Democracy of Objects. There I try to show how one object, say a scientific discourse, draws on flows from another object, structuring and forming that other object in a variety of ways. In this way, I’m able to both retain the reality of the object drawn on while also capturing the constructivist dimension of what takes place as it reworks these flows. The manner in which a medical discourse codes or forms the mad is not different in kind from what a cell does to the nutrients that pass through it. In short, we are able to retain the discoveries of the social constructivists while also maintaining a realism that acknowledges the reality of things such as the ozone hole.

What Latour articulates is thus a sort of Borromean knot, organized around the real, power and interest, and the discursive. In Lacan’s final teaching everything changes. Where before the symbolic held pride of place, subordinating the real and imaginary to its structurations, now the three orders (real, symbolic, imaginary) are on equal footing without one dominating the others. The key to the borromean knot is that the three rings of string are tied in such a way that no ring is directly tied to the other. If one ring is severed, the other two slip away because they aren’t directly attached to one another like a chain. Each order thus has its own autonomy.

I won’t get into the details of the borromean clinic here (follow the link above for a bit on that), but the more I’ve reflected on the borromean knot that more I’ve come to think that it is a helpful diagram for thinking the being of objects or what I’m now calling machines (more on machines in a moment). The dimension of the real would be the manner in which an entity irreducibly exists as a being in its own right. For example, it would mark the manner in which a bat is irreducible to what it is for another entity such as a hawk or the manner in which we classify it in a scientific taxonomy. The imaginary would be the manner in which that entity grasps, perceives, or relates to other entities. This would be the domain of what Harman has called “sensual objects” (which are objects that only exist on the interior of a real object). Thus, for example, the bat does not encounter the insect as the insect is, but as a sonic signature, a sonic wave that has a particular meaning for it.

The domain of the imaginary is the domain of what Bogost has called “alien phenomenology”, what Jakob von Uexkull called “ethology”, and what I have called “transcendental empiricism”. Alien phenomenology explores the phenomenological worlds of other entities, or what Morton has called “strange strangers”. In contrast to traditional phenomenology, it is not a phenomenology of these entities, but a phenomenology of how these entities encounter the world about them. It is not a phenomenology of how things are given to us— though all of that is retained –but a phenomenology of how the world is given to these beings. It is what Luhmann, Maturana, and Varela called “second-order observations”; an observation not of a thing, but of how that being observes. Alien phenomenology thus suspends the unquestioned totalizing tendency of the way in which we encounter the world.

There is a way in which Atari’s, mantis shrimp, bats, rocks, trees, men, women, people of various ethnicities and economic brackets, the media system, corporations, militaries, etc., encounter the world. Givenness is different in each instance for the entity in question. The drawing to the right taken from von Uexkull’s Foray into the Worlds of Animal and Humans gives us a nice example of alien phenomenology. The top drawing depicts how a field of flowers is given to us, while the lower drawing depicts how a field of flowers might be given to a fly. While we can never know what it is like to be a fly because we lack the appropriate organization, we can learn all sorts of things about how worlds are given to flies through the examination of how they’re put together, the observation of their behavior, etc.

It is clear that alien phenomenology is of tremendous significance. Lacan famously said that “all communication is miscommunication.” Part of this arises from an unaware totalization of our own way of encountering the world to all other beings. A woman’s boyfriend screams at and beats his girlfriend’s infant child on the premise that the infant is able to understand the disciplinary significance of these acts (one of the depressing things about working in children’s units in the hospital is that you encounter beaten infant after beaten infant, often to the point of causing severe brain damage). Fiscal conservatives are able to say that they got where they’re at simply through “hard work” and “having the right values”, denouncing the poor and disadvantaged as “lazy” and “lacking in morals”, all the while ignoring the circumstances in which the poor and disadvantaged live and all the while ignoring the ways in which they have benefited. We refer to the mentally disabled as disabled, treating a certain form of givenness as “normal”, rather than approaching the “disabled” as people to whom the world is given in a particular way. Cary Wolfe is particularly good on this point in his discussion of Temple Grandin in What is Poststructuralism. Political activists target the CEO of a corporation treating them as the entity that accounts for the actions of the corporation, ignoring the fact that a CEO is but an organ in a larger-scale entity, the corporation, to which the world is given in a particular way. This thereby generates the wrong sorts of strategies for dealing with these lethal animals that populate our world. Fisherman conclude that humboldt squid are intrinsically violent, failing to look at how their own actions in their habitat might bring on this sort of aggression.

Alien phenomenology– which has been practiced under other names for a long time, though not nearly as much as it should be –provides us with a set of techniques for better encountering strange strangers and for developing better responding to them and developing better strategies for responding to hostile strange strangers such as corporations. It is able to integrate practices such as what people in the 60s referred to as “consciousness raising”. It is able to integrate the sorts of phenomenologies of the subaltern practiced by theorists such as Sarah Ahmed. It integrates nicely with the work of queer and disability theorists who help us to explore the worlds of other bodies and how they encounter the world. It meshes smoothly with the work of the critical animal theorists, helping us to enter the worlds of animals and how the world is given to them, thereby allowing us to better attend to them. There is not phenomenology, but phenomenologies.

The domain of the symbolic becomes the domain of the ecological. The ecological is a field of structural couplings between withdrawn or operationally closed entities. In “Of the Refrain”, Deleuze and Guattari talk about how entities form territories that exist in contrapuntal relationships with one another. In Euclidean or Newtonian space, two entities– say a bird of paradise and a snake –might inhabit the same space, while nonetheless existing in very different territories. The ground that the bird of paradise clears, the leaves that it turns over, are a stage upon which it dances for females, while for the snake it is a field of hiddenness upon which it slithers in pursuit of its prey. These two territories signal back and forth to one another, but the signals produce entirely different meanings in each territory. I walk towards the wild ape smiling, a sign of friendliness in my territory. In the apes territory the smile and eye contact are a sign of aggression.

Maturana and Varela called this “structural coupling” (depicted in the diagram to the left above). For Maturana and Varela, machines are operationally closed, while structurally open. Structural openness means that the machine is open to stimuli from the outside. Operational closure means that they integrate this stimuli according to their own internal organization. Structural coupling is a relation in which two systems signal back and forth to one another and co-evolve or develop as a result, with the stimuli playing very different functional roles in the inner world of the two respective entities. In Capital, for example, Marx masterfully analyzed a relation of structural coupling in the relation between the worker and the capitalist. The worker follows the logic or process of C-M-C, while the capitalist follows the logic of M-C-M. Under the worker’s logic of C-M-C, the worker sells a commodity (C), his labor, in return for money or a wage (M), so that he might buy commodities (C) such as food, shelter, means of transportation, etc. Under the logic of the capitalist, money is placed in circulation (M), to buy a commodity (C) labor, so that more money might be made (M). Marx is able to show the manner in which these two logics encounter the world in entirely different ways and how they are at odds with one another– the capitalist will always seek to reduce cost in buying labor, while the worker will always seek to increase wages and benefits in the sale of his labor –despite the fact that the two systems are structurally coupled with one another. In recognizing that these are two heterogeneous territories, two heterogeneous universes, Marx is able to show that there is no harmony in this ecology– thereby undermining neoliberal fantasies pertaining to such an ecology benefiting all –but rather that it is riddled with contradiction. I could go on, discussing similar structural couplings between animals and humans or between various technologies, but I’ll content myself with this example for now.

Recently my good friend Jerry– we often dine and drink together (though not nearly often enough) and we have taught together —has criticized my replacement of the term “object” with “machine” on the grounds that the only real machines are what he calls “proper machines” such as automobiles, cell phones, coffee makers, etc. However, in the theoretical background I come from, this isn’t true. In the autopoeitic theory of Maturana and Varela, machine is a key term and the world is populated by machines of all sorts, some rigid like automobiles, others dynamic and plastic without designers such as flowers and cells. Machine is also, of course, a key concept in Deleuze and Guattari, where there are incorporeal machines like laws and procedures, rigid machines like cars, living machines like mantis shrimp, artistic machines, social machines, institutional machines, etc. As I remarked in my original post on machine-oriented ontology, we need an entire zoology of machines, a mechanology, that captures their differences and natures. Thankfully a lot of this work has already been done by others.

Although I already spoke about machines and engines in chapter 4 of The Democracy of Objects, there are a few reasons I’ve chosen to foreground them more in my recent work. First, I’ve increasingly found that there’s an ineluctable tendency for people to think of objects as things that 1) stand before a subject or are posited by a subject, and 2) that are inert clods that lack any dynamism. Since my objects are dynamic processes, since they are activities, and since even subjects are types of objects for me, I’ve been keen to emphasize this but language keeps getting in the way. The term “machine” avoids this problem (while generating problems of its own, to be sure), and has the benefit of emphasizing functioning. Second, I think the concept of machine helps to avoid vitalist and organicist tendencies of thought. Third, we live in the age of machines. Machinic language reminds us of this, drawing attention to the fraught relationship we share with these new strange strangers, so nicely depicted in “The Stoker” depicted in Kafka’s Amerika.

But finally and above all, I think pan-machinism helps us to ask the right sorts of questions in investigating the world around us. Machines function and produce. They need not function or produce for any purpose or aim– teleology is secondary or accidental to the being of a machine –but they do function. Pan-machinism encourages us to ask six interrelated questions: 1) What flow does a machine draw from to function? All machines require flows of some sort to function. A spinning wheel needs flows of foot energy and wool to function. Flowers need flows of sunshine, water, minerals, and carbon dioxide to function. A school needs flows of human bodies, etc. What are the flows? A machine detached from flows is a sleeping machine or a dormant machine. 2) What machines is the machine coupled to? Flows always come from other machines and are themselves machines. The flower, for example, is attached to the sun-machine from which it draws flows of light. 3) How does the machine transform these flows and how do the flows transform the machine? This is the dimension of trans-corporeality described so beautifully by Stacey Alaimo in Bodily Natures. Machines don’t leave the flows that pass through them unchanged, but rather– as Deleuze and Guattari put it –code or structure them in a new way. The flower-machine transforms sunlight into sugars. Boot camp transforms people into soldiers. Labor in capitalism transforms matters into commodities. Commercials territorialize desires onto commodities and create desires that weren’t originally there. 4) But as Alaimo notes through her concept of trans-corporeality, the flows that pass throughout a machine also transform the machine. There’s the obvious fact that machines suffer wear and tear from the flows that pass through them; especially in the case of rigid machines like the lathe. However, the flows that pass through a machine also modify the nature of the machine. The light that passes through my eye-machines is not simply coded into a perception, but rather that perception changes the nature of my perception. An artwork, for example, can lead me to see in an entirely new way. The food that I eat modifies the chemical composition of my body and what I am and am not capable of. Here we might think of Jane Bennett’s example of the impact of omega-three fatty acids on moods and behavior. The students of a college are not simply docile bodies formed into subjects of knowledge, but also modify the nature of that discourse through the entropy they introduce into it. 5) How is the machine organized, what are its parts, how does it function, what are its processes? Pan-machinism encourages us to look at all the gears and mechanisms, the functioning and processes at work in, for example, a revolutionary group-machine or a tree-machine. Finally, 6), what flows does the machine produce? What sort of flows is, for example, a university-machine producing? The degreed students are the flow produced by that machine, but what sort of flow are they and for what other machines? Are they autopoietic machines in the sense that the students themselves become scholars reproducing the academic-machine? Are they “good” nationalists? Are they workers? What sorts of machines are they and what other machines are they for? Pan-machinism, I think, leads us to focus on these sorts of questions. Enough for now. I’ll talk about the fourth ring– the event –on another day.