In response to my last post, dmf and Michael make some interesting remarks. Dmf asks,
do/can I interact with an insurance company or rather with a particular salesrep, webpage, lawyer, or an answering-machine, etc.
Michael builds on this, remarking
What DMF is alluding to is that fact that insurance companies are sets rather than units. Whereas all objects are assemblages ontologically speaking there are different types of assemblages. Some assemblages are materially/structural continuous or extensively bounded (e.g., lawyers, sales reps, etc) and rightly considered ‘objects’, while others are primarily aggregate and extensively adjacent (corporations, social groups, etc), best described as ‘aggregates’ – no matter how operationally coupled they may seem. Attributing ‘thinghood’, then, becomes a tricky game of avoiding the polar tendencies of either over-exaggerating extensive connection and/or under-appreciating the intensity of cohesion and operational efficacy. Football teams and nation-states are not ‘objects’ but assemblages.
Coding this ‘delicate balance’ in relation to actual ecologies and the possibilities they afford is the task of ontography/onto-cartography proper, and has always been at the core of my discomfort with object-oriented rhetoric generally. Levi’s turn to “machines” goes a long way navigating these conceptual challenges.
What I want to argue, and I’ve been arguing it for a long time, is that entities like corporations, government agencies, institutions, and organized groups like, say, Greenpeace, are alien intelligences, minds, or animals that cannot be reduced to us. In other words, we don’t need to look beyond our planet to answer the question “is there intelligent life beyond us?” I believe that intelligent life other than humans is right here on the planet earth, it just takes the form of entities like corporations, government agencies, institutions and all the rest. And just as alien intelligences are often depicted as terrifying in films such as War of the Worlds, these aliens are intelligences quite different from our own, with aims quite different from ours. They are often every bit as terrifying as the aliens in a film like Independence Day.
These aliens have nervous systems, modes of communication, brains, and forms of receptivity or sensibility just as any other animal does. Cats are able to hear and smell things that human cannot, and are able to map the entire geography of rooms through their whiskers which detect subtle breezes moving about furniture, plants, and walls as they move about. This is part of the “transcendental” receptivity, aesthetic, or structure of sensibility that cats possess. It is their way of being open to an environment. Similarly, corporations have their “transcendental aesthetic” or structure of sensibility; their way of being open to the world. Take the example of an insurance company. As far as I can tell, insurance companies are only open to forms or paperwork, events such as deaths, accidents, and natural disasters, and fluctuations in the economy. This is what they can perceive of their environment.
It is commonly believed that we’re communicating with animals like insurance companies when we talk to an insurance agent, but that communication between ourselves and the agent is outside communication with insurance companies. It’s something taking place between humans, not between a human and the insurance company. Rather, insurance companies only communicate through paperwork. Just as humans communicate through the medium of sound-waves and writing, dolphins and whales through sonar, octopi and other cephalopods through changing color patterns on their skin, insurance companies communicate through forms. Forms are both the medium of their communication and the units communicated. This is why communication with a person that works at an insurance company can often be so frustrating. It feels as if we’re talking to another person, yet somehow nothing seems to get through. Insurance companies just don’t communicate or engage in reasoning in the medium of speech.
Of course, we might point out that insurance companies can’t exist without people. That’s true. Likewise, bodies and brains can’t exist without cells which are themselves independent single celled organisms. Functionally, the people that work for an insurance company are neurons in a brain. A neuron alone is not the brain. Rather you need a system of neurons to form a brain. That system as a totality or organization has principles of functioning that can’t be found in any single individual neuron or person (in the case of insurance companies). Ecological relations have a dual character in these systems. On the one hand there is the internal ecology of the system or how the elements relate to and influence one another. Neurologists like Edelman argue, for example, that individual neurons have ecological relations to other neurons in the brain and that these relations play a key role in how those individual neurons behave and what type of neurons they become. Such is the point of stem cells as well. Stem cells are pluripotent, which is to say that they are capable of becoming any other type of cell. The sort of cell they become (muscle, nerve, bone, liver, etc) is a function of the other cells that exist in their neighborhood. Likewise for people that work at an insurance company. There is an internal ecology of relations between people that takes on a life of its own. On the other hand, there is the external ecology of the animal or system. These are the other entities the system or animal is coupled with and interacts with. In the case of insurance companies, this external ecology will consist of relations to other insurance companies, other businesses, governments, natural events, people, and so on.
No one has gone further, I think, than Kafka (and Niklas Luhmann!) in thinking these alien intelligences or these large intelligent animals among us. In novels like The Trial and The Castle, Kafka depicts the legal system and the castle as intelligences that have their own inscrutable reason, aims, and ways of sensing the world over and above the people that function as neurons in these monads. So when asked whether I believe in intelligent life or aliens, my answer is a resolute “yes!” I just happen to think these alien intelligences are right here on earth and that we need not visit another star system to encounter them. Indeed, we deal with these intelligences daily.