In Onto-Cartography I propose a machine-oriented ontology. “Machine” is a synonym for “entity”, “thing”, “object”, or “being”. Machine-oriented ontology– or more simply, “machinism” –is the thesis that all of being is composed of machines. I make the argument for this thesis in the first chapter of The Democracy of Objects; though there I use the term “object”. Clearly the term “machine” is here used in a sense quite a bit broader than it’s used in ordinary language. In natural language we thing of a machine, above all, as something that is built by humans. Such a view implicitly holds that there are three broad categories of entities: natural beings such as trees and stars, tools such as forks and ice pics, and machines. We can then ask what it is that distinguishes a machine from a tool insofar as both machines and tools have humans (and other similar entities) as their condition of existence. If, however, I make the claim that all of being is composed of machines, it is clear that I have distorted the use of this term as it occurs in natural language. Clearly stars, planets, tardigrades and trees are not produced by humans (allowing that farming is a different form of cultivation than designing and building a car). And clearly, trees are very different types of entities than blenders, computers, and garage door openers. Certainly a work of art is a different type of entity than a garbage disposal. A machinic ontology would have to be sensitive to these differences, articulate what they are, and develop a machinology (akin to a zoology) of the different types of machines that exist and what their distinguishing features are. Just as reptiles are different types of animals than mammals, but both are nonetheless animals, automobiles, hammers, stars, buildings, and butterflies are all different types of machines, belonging to different genuses, but are nonetheless machines.
The choice of “machine” for “entity” is certainly a rhetorical choice. What matters is the concept behind the signifier, not so much the signifier that’s chosen to nominate that concept. If the term doesn’t appeal, you’re welcome to choose others. There are few debates as irritating, worthless, and superficial as those over terminological choices. What then, if any, is the rhetorical payoff of referring to entities as “machines”, beyond perhaps irritating vitalists and luddites? If I’ve chosen the term “machine” rather than “thing”, “entity”, “object”, “event”, or “process”, then this is because I think “machine” comes closest to drawing our attention to how things operate and what they do. “Process” comes close, though still doesn’t do as good a job, I think, as the term “machine”. Machinism is an essentially operational perspective on being. It asks not what things are, but what they do. In this regard, machinism is an analytic framework similar to the manner in which phenomenology is an analytic framework. It is a framework of concepts designed to analyze beings in a particular way.
Machinism can best be understood by contrasting it with what might be called a “substantialist” approach. A substantialist approach asks what a thing is. Here before me I have a marker. The substantialist asks “what is a marker?” He then proceeds to describe the marker. “It is long and cylindrical. It is made of plastic. It has blue along its body and cap, spelling the word ‘Expo’. It has a felt tip. It is used for writing. Etc.” The substantialist might ask “what constitutes the essence— if there is one –of markers?” The concept of essence has a bad reputation, but really all one is asking when inquiring after essence is “what set of features determine that that entity is a member of a kind?” Or alternatively, “what distinguishes this type of entity from all other types of entities?’ For example, “what makes a marker a marker rather than a pencil or a pen?” It’s difficult to see why this question is so objectionable. What’s objectionable are misattributions of essence, or the claim that some type of thing has an essence when it really does not, e.g., claiming there’s an essence to “American” beyond being a citizen of a particular country (“Americans are like…”).
Without discounting substantialist analysis– there are circumstances where it’s entirely appropriate –machinism asks a different question. Rather than asking “what is it?”, machinism asks “what does it do?” Now one might suppose that this question was already covered under substantialism. After all, when analyzing the marker, we said markers are used for writing. However, writing is something we and other apes do with markers, it is not what markers do. A machinic orientation asks what the marker does, how it acts and operates on other things? For example, we might ask how writing instruments operate on us? Does years of using writing instruments change a person’s bone and muscle structure in their hands? Are the hands of writers different than those of non-writers? Do writing utensils change our neurological structure?
Perhaps writing utensils aren’t the most interesting examples (though I think they’re pretty interesting). What about writing systems? What sort of machines are writing systems? There are alphabetic systems such as our own. There are hieroglyphs such as those used by the Mayans and the Egyptians. There are systems of writing such as Chinese. All of these are different types of machines. How do these systems operate on us? Do they influence how we think and what we can think? McCluhan argues that alphabetic writing generates Euclidean and Newtonian models of space. Alphabetic writers, he claims, are led to conceive in space in Euclidean and Newtonian terms because of how this form of writing operates on us. Is this true? The most famous examples come from mathematics. Certain things are unthinkable within Roman numeral systems. The Machine of Roman numeration seems to render division, multiplication, algebra, calculus, etc., all but impossible due to how its numerals operate.
Everywhere the question is how things operate, what they do. What would it mean to think of a tree as a machine? Rather than asking what it is and what distinguishes it from all other types of plants and animals, we’d instead investigate what trees do, how they operate, what they operate on, and so on. We’d see trees as machines that transform flows of water, soil nutrients, carbon dioxide, and gas into cells, fruit, oxygen, and that transform the very nature of the soil and the atmosphere. Trees produce themselves through their operations (their cells and how cells are configured), and also transform the soil around them through how their roots wind through the ground and how their leaf droppings chemically transform the ground as they decompose. Trees make other things (those soil nutrients, water, sunlight, carbon dioxide, etc) into something different. Through its operations bring other new types of machines into existence.
Machinic analysis reveals that institutions such as schools and universities are highly analogous to machines such as trees. If we ask what an institution does, how it operates, on what it operates, etc., rather than what it is and what it’s mission is, we get a very different set of answers. Like trees that operate on flows of water, light, carbon dioxide, and fluid nutrients, educational institutions act on flows of humans. Like trees that transform those flows– which are themselves machines –into other machines such as different types of cells, oxygen, different types of soil, etc., educational institutions produce particular types of human machines. As Foucault observed in Discipline & Punish, affectively, biologically, and cognitively, the body that passes through an educational machine is different from one that doesn’t pass through an educational machine. It has become something else with different types of dispositions. In evaluating that machine, we ought to ask ourselves what sorts of body-minds this machine is producing and what the consequences of this are. Certainly there are different educational machines. All of them claim to be in the service of “education” (and concepts of education are themselves machines), but is this really what’s at stake with a particular educational machine? That is the critical question. When, for example, we look at a Continental Philosophy PhD program heavily focused on the history of philosophy and textual analysis, we can ask what sort of machine this pedagogical theory is, what it is producing, and what sort of body-minds it is constructing.
Everywhere the question is “what is it producing?”, “what are its operations?”, “what is it acting on?”, and “what is its output?” What sort of machine is a novel or a painting or a photograph or a building or a river or a star? What sorts of machines are a diet or a particular theory or a school of thought or a norm or a particular concept? What do all of these things do? What flows do they act on? How do they transform that upon which they act? Such is the analytic framework of machinism.