This afternoon my friend Michael or Archive Fire and I got in a lengthy discussion about our respect ontological positions on Twitter. Before proceeding, I should remark that Michael is one of my most valued interlocutors. While we got off to a rocky start years ago, our friendship, I think, has grown and he’s been a powerful influence on my thought. If you’re not reading his blog, you should be. He is an incisive critic, a generous and thoughtful reader, and a highly imaginative thinker.
As I’ve remarked for some time now, it’s not really objects or machines that interest me, so much as what happens, how objects become and develop, when they enter into relations with other objects or machines. It is this relational becoming that fascinates me and that is the topic of my forthcoming book Onto-Cartography. The concept of machine is thus only a starting point for me. Objects in isolation, divorced from context, are, I think, rather uninteresting. What’s interesting is what happens when they enter into relations with other entities. For example, after a couple of years of living in Texas I’ve discovered that I now get cold much more easily. Why is this? There was a shift in context or relations from Chicago and the north more generally– before Chicago I lived in Ohio –to Texas. It’s not simply that I got used to the heat of Texas making me more susceptible to cold than I was before. Rather, this shift in relations produced real material and physical changes in my body. As a result of Texas’s warm environment my blood literally thinned, rendering me more susceptible to the effects of drops in temperatures.
My body changed as a result of a change in environment. I became differently than I did up North and thereby developed a different system of “local manifestations”. This is the sort of thing that fascinates me. How does a machine change as a result of the relations it enters into with flows from other machines? These changes can be of two sorts: becomings and local manifestations. A local manifestation is the event of a quality in an entity as a result of the relations it enters into with flows from other machines. When you get goosebumps your skin is undergoing a local manifestation as a result of cold, fear, or arousal. A local manifestation is not, in my view, a genuine becoming because the powers or capacities of the machine or entity remain largely the same as they were before. A becoming, by contrast, occurs when a machine or entity gains or loses powers. When I moved to Texas I also underwent a becoming because the powers of my body upon which local manifestations are based changed.
The following video clip provides a nice intuitive example of local manifestations:
The powers of this machine consist in the transformations it is capable of undergoing as a result of inputs. The inputs are provided by another machine– the hand –that activates these powers, leading the machine to carry out operations. As a result of these operations, the machine undergoes different local manifestations. Its shape changes, its color changes. In other words, the local manifestations are events that take place within the object or machine. Yet these are not yet, in my view, genuine becomings. In order for there to be a genuine becoming the powers of the machine itself would have to change as a result of encounters with flows from other machines and how these flows transform the operations of which the machine is capable. For example, the machine would have to become capable of undergoing entirely new local manifestations such as the production of new colors that it was not before capable of or new shapes that it was not before capable of.
If I am so insistent on the separability of machines, then this is not because I don’t want to think about how machines relate to their environments or other machines, but precisely because I want to think about the impact of environments on machines. In my view, machines are perpetually undergoing variations in both their becomings and local manifestations because environments are constantly changing. This, I think, is only thinkable if we begin from the premise that relations are external to their terms. It is only thinkable if we begin from the premise of relations perpetually being severed and new relations being formed. This is what I want to think about.
There are ethical and political reasons that I wish to begin from the separability and variable of relations. In our Twitter discussion, Michael wrote “I think there’s more to gain from thinking (and working with) the absolute openness between things, their co-manifestation.” As the example of the stress ball above shows, I am thinking about the co-manifestation of things. A complete analysis of this happening would also investigate how flows from the ball affect the hand-machine and person manipulating the ball. However, I take it that when Michael talks about the “absolute openness between things”, he’s talking about how things are always-already entangled with one another in contexts or an environment (a view I more or less share). While sharing many of Michael’s aims, I, however, begin from the opposite end of the question: I begin from the premise not that things are always-already related, but from the premise that relations between things are fragile and transitory. Why?
At the political level, I begin from this premise because I believe that it cultivates emancipatory hope. If relations are fragile, then there’s hope in breaking the despotism of oppressive and despotic social relations. These relations aren’t fixed once and for all, but can be broken and new ones can be formed. If, by contrast, I begin from the thesis that everything is always-already related, I see no way in which any social contexts can ever be changed or overturned. Here we would have to resign ourselves to accepting this relational field as no other would be possible. It’s only where machines can break with relations to one set of flows that it is possible to enter into another set of flows.
At the ethical level, I begin from the premise of the fragility of relations because I believe it cultivates ecological awareness and sensibility. I understand why eco-theorists have spent so much time cultivating awareness of how living machines are related to one another in ecosystems. I have never denied that they are related in this way. But it seems to me that the most important insight of ecological thought is not that things are interrelated in relations of dependency and feedback with one another, but that these relations are fragile. What ecologists perpetually show us is that changes in these relational fields such as the extinction of a particular animal have effects on the becoming and local manifestations of all the other things in these networks. These changes are possible because machines are not intrinsically related. Their relations can be broken. Understanding this leads us, I believe, to take greater care in how we deal with the machines that make up this fabric. It can be broken and is being broken. While the extinction of frogs might seem like a minor thing when we think abstractly, it has repercussions for everything else.