In response to my talk on flat ethics, noir realism raises some interesting questionsabout my defense of the existence of incorporeal machines.  As noir realism writes:

The only question I have is in your division of incorporeal/corporeal.  I guess I have a conflict with this dualistic approach of incorporeal/corporeal… i don’t see any separation between these two types of entity. The reason I say that is simple, even as I write this sentence I’m interacting with physical material objects that then through math and logic are manipulated through physical hardware and transformed into binary code that is translated into bits that are trasnported to the servers on the web from my own machine conveying the very material thoughts that I’m now about to publish. Are these incorporeal or corporeal? Is there a difference? What makes something incorporeal or corporeal? Is it a kind of object? Why not admit that all objects are material and have effect/affects within the physical? I think we have divided things because of their types, and through some need of linguistic habit rather than admiting the logical truth that thoughts are material as well, which means math is productive of material activation, language too.

I confess that I am myself surprised by my recent defense of incorporeal machines.  As those who have followed my blog and work, I have been a pretty staunch defender of strict materialism, arguing that only material entities exist.  In the past, this has led to some pretty heated debates throughout the blogosphere.  To be honest, although incorporeal machines figure heavily in the book I’m now writing, Onto-Cartography, my commitment to them is still soft and I’m still working through just what they might be.  Here I hasten to add that I am not the first materialist that has affirmed the existence of incorporeals:  Marx occasionally talks about incorporeals, and certainly incorporeals are a key concept in Deleuze and Guattari.  So what set of considerations motivates my recent defense of incorporeal machines given that I was so staunchly opposed to them in the past?

read on!

When I speak of incorporeal machines, I am not referring to ghostly entities that float around without bodies.  At present– and I emphasize again that I’m still working through all of this, so I’m deeply interested in what others who have worked through these things more deeply in Deleuze and Guattari have to say on these matters –I’m committed to the thesis that incorporeal machines always have to have a corporeal body.  Consequently, there is for me no incorporeal machine that is not embodied.  No embodiment, no incorporeality.  I realize this sounds paradoxical and contradictory.  If there are no incorporeal machines that aren’t embodied, why don’t I just get it over with and say that these machines are corporeal and cut incorporeals out of my ontology altogether?

There are two considerations that lead me to resist the move of reducing incorporeal machines to corporeal machines:  Iterability and identity.  Unlike corporeal machines that are singular and always exist at a particular time and place (while also having a duration), incorporeal machines have the curious feature of being iterable, while remaining identical.  As an incorporeal machine, a novel, scientific theory, mathematical equation, grammatical rule, recipe, political ideology, perhaps genetic codes, etc., can exist in countless corporeal machines (books, newspapers, magazines, symphony performances, brains, computer data banks, conversations, etc.), while nonetheless remaining that incorporeal machine.  Every copy or iteration of Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the paper of a book or in a computer program is still Hamlet, just as every execution of the operation of the Pythagorean theorem is still the Pythagorean theorem, and every performance of Beethoven’s Ninth is Beethoven’s Ninth.

In the case of fully corporeal machines, the entity can only exist at a particular point in time, at a particular place, and for a particular duration.  Were we to say that the examples of incorporeal machines I just listed are, in fact, entirely corporeal, would would be forced to conclude that two instances of proving the Pythogorean theorem in a geometry class or two performances of Beethoven’s Ninth are entirely different entities.  Not only would this be disastrous for mathematics (two instances of adding 1 + 1 by different people at different times would no longer be the same), but it would lead to a number of strange consequences in other domains pertaining to incorporeals as well.

If, then, it is true that there are incorporeals, they have very interesting features.  For starters, where corporeal entities are finite in the sense that they exist in a time and place and for a duration such that once destroyed they can never be recovered, incorporeal entities possess a potential eternity.  Why potential rather than actual?  Their eternity is only potential because, as I said, incorporeal machines can only exist with corporeal bodies.  If an incorporeal being loses its corporeal body (inscription in paper, smoke, brain neurons, computer data banks, sound-waves, sand, etc.), it ceases to exist.  It is lost.  Consequently, the condition for the possibility of the eternal is iteration and inscription in some medium.  The incorporeal must be repeated through activities of inscription in order to continue to exist.  It is the activity of iterating or repeating that counts here, not the inscription or trace.  Note, however, that an activity of iteration leaves a trace and that trace, in its turn, can lie in wait as a dormant or sleeping incorporeal entities as in the case of a lost proof to a theorem gathering dust in an old monastery, or the Dead Sea Scrolls in a forgotten cave.

This idea of dormant incorporeal machines leads me to a second point.  Those corporeal machines that lack life, cognition, and the capacity for intentionality or goal directedness are governed by simple causality:

E1 –> E2 –> E3 –> E4….En

With rigid corporeal machines, local manifestations (effects of preceding causes) are the result of the preceding cause.  Event 1 (E1) produces or causes local manifestation E2.  E1 cannot cause E3 because by the time we reach E3, E1 is lost in the mists of time (Deleuze’s “chronos”).  Only E2 can cause E3.  However, because of the eternity inhabiting incorporeal machines as a result of their iterability, we get a strange situation in which remotely past events can affect present events.  Put formally, we get a situation in which E1 affects events at E4 in ways that both disrupts the effects of E3 and that leaps over events E2 and E3.  In short, we get Bergson’s cone of memory.  Here the immediately preceding historical events do not fully determine the present event because the remote past wells up and contributes effects of its own.

This can be seen in the case of biological development where what is mistakenly referred to as “Junk DNA” that served some function for ancestors, but not for current species, is suddenly awakened leading the organism to develop and respond to current circumstances in very unexpected ways.  It can also be seen, above all, in the case of culture, where incorporeal machines from the remote past well up and disrupt social conditioning in the present.  A young woman raised and home schooled in a fundamentalist family, for example, happens to encounter a tattered copy of Voltaire’s Candide in the attic of her grandparents, reads it, and gradually her subjectivization becomes unraveled as a result of an encounter with a past that is no longer present and that was inscribed hundreds of years ago.  This, incidentally, is one reason we should be cautious with social explanations conducted within the framework of historical materialism and new historicism.  They miss the manner in which time functions for machines that relate to incorporeal machines, treating biological and cognitive corporeal machines as if they were rigid machines determined solely by contemporaneous events and discourses, missing the manner in which incorporeal machines from the the remote past can suddenly well up in the present disrupting the contemporary.  In any event, incorporeal machines are one of the ways in which matter becomes creative, by virtue of a synthesis of the remote past with the contemporary.

One of the things I have not abandoned with my grudging acceptance of incorporeals (they’re causing me all sorts of headaches) is the thesis that things must materially travel in order to produce effects.  While it is true, I think, that one and the same incorporeal machine can exist in many times and places at once, it must nonetheless travel through electro-magnetic waves, bits of paper, sound-waves, horseback, smoke signals, etc, to reach those places.  No incorporeal machines exists in all places at once.  This is why questions of material infrastructure and communications technologies are so important for questions of political change.  If a revolutionary thought falls in the woods and no one hears it or its style is too turgid for anyone but the most adept of scholars to understand it, it doesn’t produce effects.  A culture is not just a thought, but is also a material body that must be communicated and maintained in order to exist.

Returning to noir realism’s remarks, one of the questions that most interests me is that of how incorporeal bodies interact with their corporeal bodies as well as with corporeal bodies in general.  In other words, “how does the medium affect the message?”  Often an incorporeal machine requires the right sort of body to exist.  You can’t do, as far as I know, differential calculus in Roman numerals, hieroglyphs, or cuneiform.  You need the right sort of medium for these types of incorporeal machines.  As a consequence, corporeal media have the capacity to generate new incorporeal machines.  The corporeal machines used always contribute something.  Mathematics done with computers is different than maths done with pencil and paper.  The possibility of new theorems is opened.  Likewise, as A Clockwork Orange suggests, Beethoven’s Ninth becomes something different when played on synthesizers rather than classical instruments.  Somehow, while continuing to possess something of its eternal, iterative identity, it also becomes something other than itself and new in these different mediums.  This would be one reason to be suspicious of the futurist, trans-humanists.  Material media contribute something and no medium can be exhausted or replicated salva varitate by a series of zeroes and ones.  There’s something unfathomable and infinite in matter.

One of the questions of greatest interest to me, then, is that of how incorporeals and corporeals interact with one another and affect one another.  As we grow and develop, for example, our bodies are written upon by signifiers.  Here we have the incorporeal machines of culture interacting with the incorporeal machines of our genetics interacting with the corporeal machines of our organic bodies interacting with the incorporeal flows of the material world that pass through us such as the food that we eat, the air we breath, the light we’re exposed to, etc.  We need a theoretical framework strong enough to think about these interactions bilaterally rather than unilaterally.  Where a unilateral approach would have either culture or genetics determining the machine that we become, a bilateral approach would be attentive to the interaction of all these machines, how they modify one another, and how, in modifying one another, they produce something new and unexpected.  How are we to simultaneously think these machinic interactions together?