I’ve discussed this point in great detail elsewhere (here’s a good place to start if readers are interested; and you can wait for Onto-Cartography to come out if you want), so I’ll only say two things about this hypothesis here: First, “machine” is an operational term within a certain theoretical discourse– I draw it from Maturana and Varela’s meditations on the being of the living, as well as Deleuze and Guattari and then build on it –so I’m thoroughly uninterested in those who criticize this thesis by drawing on the connotations of ordinary language and who equate machines with industrial machines like cars, lathes, and computers. Learn what the concept denotes as stipulated and learn something of the discourse from which the concept arises. Second, needless to say, there are many different types of machines. Some are designed and created by other machines like computers which are created by collectives of computer designers. Others are rather uninteresting (from a certain point of view) machines like atoms, quarks, rocks, and crystals. Others are alive, like trees, aardvarks (have to include them because they’re funny), people, corporations, universities, revolutionary groups, political parties, and red-ass orangutangs. Other machines are incorporeal— though they always have a corporeal bodies –like scores of music, recipes, mathematical theorems, and the like. Many machines, like Greenpeace, for example, are a combination of incorporeal and corporeal machines. Some machines are self-reflexive or have a self, like dogs, people, corporations, dolphins, and so on. These machines have the capacity to learn or change their responses to inputs– they are what von Foerster called “nontrivial machines” –rendering them unpredictable. This is in contrast to other machines such as rigid machines like cars and rocks, that have no capacity (yet, in the case of cars) to change their response to an input, thereby invariably producing the same output (unless, through entropy, they change and fall apart). Nontrivial machines are able to change their response to inputs, producing surprising outputs.
2. All machines are physical or coporeal, even incorporeal machines.
It’s only a prejudice of perception that leads us to think that rocks are physical, material, or corporeal (synonyms), whereas corporations are non-physical. A physicist will tell you that the elements that compose a rock are mostly empty space, that there are constant events taking place within the rock even if it seems to be very still and unchanging, that it is not solid at all, and that relations between the molecules that compose it (and the atoms that compose those molecules) require material interactions between those elements for the rock to continue to exist as a rock. Were we of a microscopic race of people known as “Atomonians” that existed at the same scale as subatomic particles, rocks would seem as ethereal and cloud-like as corporations. We can imagine Atomonian philosophers chastising their students not to confuse rocks with “real things” like subatomic particles that are “truly solid”. Corporeal doesn’t mean “solid”, nor does it mean “enduring unchanged”. If not the latter, then this is because everything is constantly disintegrating. In a lot of cases it’s just happening too slowly or at scales that are too small for us to discern. At any rate, corporations can’t exist without material interactions between their elements such as communications to continue their existence. Just as a rock ceases to exist when the material interactions between its elements can no longer maintain themselves, a group or institution ceases to exist when it’s no longer maintained by communications. Communications always require material mediums such as sound-waves (can’t have those in the void of outer space!), messages written on paper, electric pulses over phone cables, light traveling through the void, and so on. Never forget that light is something (it can even power sails in outer space!).
3. Most machines are composed of other machines.
I say “most” because it might turn out that there are ultimate units of existence that aren’t composed of anything else. At any rate, molecules are composed of atoms and atoms of smaller particles. Your body has a huge swarm of machines such as your cells, your heart, your brain, your liver, and so on. Often these machines have their own idea of what they’d like to do as in the case of cancer. In many instances the machines that compose a machine aren’t “team players”.
I’ve written a lot about this over the years (you can start here if you’re interested), so I won’t say too much about it here. Anyway, this point basically amounts to the claim that no machine “can rest on its laurels”. Metaphorically speaking, just when a machine thinks that it’s established itself as an enduring entity, chaos or randomness begins to set in and the machine find that it must engage in new operations to continue existing. Everything’s always falling apart.
5. Every machine we know of is related to another set of machines, though it’s ontologically possible that there are machines that are completely unrelated to anything else.
If we know about the existence of another machine, then minimally we know that this machine is related to something else (us, the knower). If there is a machine that is completely unrelated to anything else, we’ll never know anything about it, because if we did then it would be related to us and therefore wouldn’t be completely unrelated. All we can say is that it is ontologically possible that there are completely unrelated machines. All the machines we do know of exist in rich ecosystems of relations to other machines. This is not correlationism because it is not the claim that we can say nothing of these machines or what they’re like apart from their relation to us.
Here I add that I’m using the term “relation” in a very specific sense: material relation. “Pete is taller than Paul” is not a material relation between Peter and Paul because it affects neither in and of itself. Likewise, the statement that “Planet Beta Prime is 4000 light years from Earth” is also not a material relation. Material relations only occur when two entities directly affect one another as in the case of a cat scratching a couch (and therefore affecting it, much to my dismay!) or when some sort of third material term passing between two material entities as in the case of the sun sending photons of light to the planet earth. There has to be a physical interaction of some kind for an interaction and relation to occur. If “Planet Beta Prime is 4000 light years from Earth” is not a real or material relation, then this is because what is happening on Beta Prime now is not affecting Earth now. This will change in 4000 years if Earth is still here, because the light from Beta Prime (and gravity and everything else) will have had the time to travel here). Of course, by this time, Beta Prime might have been destroyed by Klingons and might not even exist anymore. This makes no difference because it wasn’t Beta Prime that was affecting Earth, but what Beta Prime emitted before being destroyed.
6. Nonetheless, no machine is related to ever related to every other machine.
Sometimes letters don’t arrive. At other times you don’t get the message at all because you don’t have the proper receiver (e.g., you don’t have cable so you couldn’t catch a particular episode of Mad Men). At yet other times, you didn’t attend a particular conference so you didn’t get to hear a particular discussion, talk, or meet a particular set of people. And again, at yet other times, you live in a portion of the globe where there’s a drought and therefore no food. It’s the same with everything. To be sure, things are related in all sorts of hypercomplex ways, but this is quite different than claiming that everything is related to everything else. Failure to understand this constitutes a failure to understand ecologies, why certain things happen in ecosystems, as well as a number of political problems we struggle with. Claiming that everything is related to everything else is spiritually comforting, but it just ain’t true.
7. And that reminds me, everything’s an ecosystem, even society and culture.
No further comment, because I’m getting tired.
8. While all the machines we know of exist in networks of relations, every machine is simultaneously out of place or not quite at home in its relations.
Quoting Hegel, Zizek says that “the mysteries of the Egyptians were mysteries to the Eygptians”. Here Zizek pithily rejects a certain conception of culturalism that talks of “incommensurable worlds” that only members of that culture can understand because they were formed in that ecology. Basically he’s marking the difference between subject and ego. “Subject” is that which never finds a place or name for itself in the symbolic order or with respect to the Other. In part– and only in part! –it’s the fact that we’re never quite sure of who we are. “Ego”– in part, and only in part! –names the phantasmatic screen we throw over this traumatic discomfort at not knowing what it means, for example, to be an “American”. Zizek’s point is that the rules and identities that govern a particular culture are every bit as mysterious to members of that culture as they are to outsiders. There is something about subject (“the nonplace of place or nonidentity of identity”) that is always in excess of any identifications subject might have (ego). “Did I get it right? Am I really behaving like a white man, an American, a woman, a lesbian, a professor, etc? What are these things anyway?” This is why insurrection is always possible. Ideological interpellation (Althusser) is never fully successful, there’s always a remainder, our identities are always a bit like clothes that are too big to quite fit right and we’re never quite sure what the scripts are. This minimal gap– subject –is what renders critique possible. We can also see identification (attempts to say “I am this!”) as attempts to manage the anxiety produced by the ineluctable non-identity of subject.
Well what Lacan-Zizek says of subject is true of all machines. No machine ever quite fits with its network of relations. Put differently, every machine contains a bit of excess within it that can’t be reduced to its material interactions. It’s for this reason that machines can break with their current regimes of relations, can be subtracted from certain ecologies of relations, and enter into new ones. They have a minimal ontological autonomy from their interactions with other entities that allows them to enter into new sets of relations. Might that mean the destruction of the machine? Sure. If a bunch of devious gnomes build a giant catapult and shoot a cane toad into outer space, it’ll die due to lack of oxygen (and necessary temperature and pressure conditions for its conditioned existence in a particular form). But how is this any different than a person being killed because they happened to violate some symbolic norm of which they were unaware? This doesn’t somehow mean that that person really had an identity that could have named them in the symbolic order or for the Other. At any rate, it’s not so much relations that ecologists investigate, as what happens when surprising potentials in entities are actualized in networks of interactions between entities, or what happens when entities such as bees are subtracted from certain ecosystems, or when certain entities like cane toads are added to ecosystems like Northern Australia where they didn’t exist before. Ecological thought only makes sense where entities can break from their relations and where they harbor hidden potentials that were before unactualized.
9. Every entity is out of phase with itself.
In a lot of ways the identity of a machine is its nonidentity. This is a point I tried to capture a few years ago with my thesis that “there is no difference that doesn’t make a difference” in my article “The Ontic Principle“. We must remember that being is a verb or that every being is be-ing. While I don’t continue to endorse that thesis as I stated it there, this much, at least, I still endorse. There is no entity that is not perpetually becoming something else and that isn’t perpetually changing. Machines aren’t identical to themselves as if there were some underlying blueprint that always abides with them and that never changes, but rather their identity is a dynamic identity, an identity at a “far from equilibrium” state, that is perpetually becoming others than it was, that perpetually fails to disintegrate, and that is perpetually actualizing qualities that weren’t present in it before. The continued existence and identity of every entity takes place precisely by being out of phase with itself. I think that’s marvelous, though I barely know how to say it.