Design-Space


Over at CineMadeson Dan Sullivan has a brief yet INTERESTING POST up on the significance of Object-Oriented Ontology for film theory. Dan writes:

As I’ve mentioned here before, I think the recent work of Bryant and Graham Harman contains the seeds for a conceptual framework capable of engaging with the non-human aspects of cinema, something that I think film theory will have to address sooner rather than later. So check the posts out (Bryant is an excellent and very lucid writer, so they’re hardly tough-sledding); they inspired me to scribble the following in my notebook after a brief bout of meditation on my fire escape:

“All of the elements of a shot’s mise en scène, all of the non-relational objects within the film frame, are figures of a sort. The figure is the likeness of a material object, whether that likeness is by-design or purely accidental. A shot is a cluster of cinematic figures, an entanglement. Actors and props are by no means the only kinds of cinematic figures—the space that they occupy and navigate is itself a figure. The cinematic figure isn’t just an image of the human body, a translation of the body’s form from spatio-temporal materiality to the ambiguous cinematic mode of being: the cinematic figure is, in Bryant’s terms, a local manifestation of an object situated among other local manifestations of other objects within the film frame. The relations between the figures situated in the frame are also objects in their own right, but these objects aren’t themselves figures. The figure—cinematic or otherwise—is nothing uniquely human; a breast framed in close-up is no less figurative than a cherry red Alfa Romeo Spider framed in long shot. Furthermore, no representation is necessary for figuration—a process that always precedes the presentation of a shot—to take place.”

While I very much appreciate what Dan here proposes, I think it still remains too closely wedded to the domain of what Deleuze and Guattari call the plane of expression. Dan’s references all pertain to what takes place within the frame, the scene, and the shot. That is, the analysis is dominated by what takes place on the screen.

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octopusWhenever the concept of memes comes up it seems that people get really incensed. I’m baffled by this reaction. What is it about this concept that gets folks so worked up? I certainly understand the point that meme theory is underdeveloped, but this is a call for theoretical elaboration and development, not outright rejection. I get the sense that memes get some worked up for one of two reasons. On the one hand, I sometimes sense that hostility to the concept of memes is really driven by disciplinary territory disputes. Here you have the upstarts like Dawkins and Dennett come along, spout the word “memes”, and suddenly everyone yahoo that knows nothing about social theory or the broad and deep discipline of semiotics gets all excited. I wonder whether there isn’t a little of resentment and envy at work here. On the other hand, I get the sense that some associate memes with socio- and psychobiology (more on this in a moment).

From the standpoint of object-oriented ontology, I find meme theory extremely attractive precisely because meme theory treats memes as real objects or actors in the world. Here, more specifically, are the reasons that I find memes attractive:

praying-mantis-cannabilism-eating-mate1) Far from falling into vulgar socio- and psychobiology, meme theory allows us to tell a far more complex story about human beings and behavior. The central thesis of meme theory is that at some point in human biological history a new type of replicator emerged in contrast to gene replicators. Genes are replicators in the sense that they are units of some sort that get copied or replicated through reproduction. Under Dawkin’s formulation, at least, the “aim” of genes is not the advantage of the organism, but to get themselves copied through reproduction. In this respect, genes construct vehicles (bodies, organisms) as strategies for getting themselves replicated.

Just as we do not act primarily for the welfare of our cars but use cars for our own aims, genes aren’t primarily “interested” in the welfare of bodies or organisms. This comes out with special clarity in the case of the preying mantis, but also my favorite animal, the octopus. In the case of the preying mantis, of course, the female devours the male preying mantis’s head after mating with him. In contributing half his genes the male has done his work. His sole value after mating consists in contributing nutrients to the impregnated preying mantis. Moreover, were the male to go his happy way after mating he might mate with other females, generating dangerous competitors to the offspring of his first mate. Cruel world. The case is similar with the octopus. After the female octopus is impregnated she finds a well protected cave or pipe and lays her eggs around the mouth of the cave opening. For the next few weeks after laying her eggs she never again leaves the cave, but rather spends all of her time jetting water over the egg sacks hanging from the cave opening and cleaning the eggs with her tentacles. Once the eggs hatch the female octopus is free to leave the cave, but at this point she is so weakened from lack of food (she hasn’t hunted during this whole time) and is very quickly, and somewhat ironically, devoured by the fish and crabs that she previously feasted upon. Once again, the genes of the female octopus were not acting on her behalf, but rather she was a vehicle or strategy for getting her genes replicated. When that replication is complete her job is done. Cruel world.

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origin1Over at Speculative Heresy, Nick has a really interesting post up about the possibility of interesting intersections between Marxist thought and Actor-Network Theory. Much of the discussion has revolved around the conflict between actor-network theory and Marxist thought on the issue of totalization. ANT theorists are notorious for making claims like “society does not exist” and “capitalism does not exist”. Of course, such a claim is intolerable from a Marxist perspective insofar as Marxist requires that the social field is totalized by certain modes of production at a particular point in time. A charitable interpretation of these claims made by ANT theorists is that they are rhetorical exhortations to examine the relations among actors in networks. In other words, the ANT worry is that we treat concepts like “society” or “capitalism” as themselves being entities that do things, thereby becoming blind to how societies and modes of production like capitalism are put together. In other words, where these terms should be shorthand referring to complex networks of actors, we instead make claims like “society does”, etc. This reverses the order of explanation insofar as society and capitalism are not what explains but what is to be explained. An appeal to “social forces” in the explanation of a phenomena is a bit like appealing to the somnolent properties of wine as an explanation of why wine makes us sleep. In this respect, Marx is an outstanding ANT theorist. When Marx seeks to explain some phenomenon, he never appeals to “social factors” or “capitalism”, but rather he examines complex networks of actors such as the rise of factories and how they transform bodies and cognition– as Aleatorist informed me last night, Ford spent his time thinking about the most efficient forms of bodily movement on the assembly line –the role of clocks in temporalizing bodies and subjectivity, the conditions under which bodies become partitioned into workers and owners, the formation of trade routes and how they preside over the emergence of particular forms of production, distribution, and exchange in such and such a historical period, the role of memes in negentropically maintaining certain structure and order, and so on. Just look at Marx’s famous analysis of value. Marx refuses a psychological or “social” explanation of value, instead looking at the complex network through which something takes on value and, additionally, takes on the value of representing the value of something else (money). In every instance, we are referred back to the roles of human and non-human actors forming networks.

Unfortunately the issue is not clear-cut where ANT is concerned. If it were simply a matter of a rhetorical exhortation, we could easily forgive, even admire, actor-network-theory, readily agreeing that we should avoid the sorts of explanations so rightly derided by Molière. The problem is that Latour is often less than charitable to certain modes of analysis doing something very similar to what ANT calls for. Thus, it is not unusual to read him deriding Marxist thought. While I would agree that there is a lot of Marxist thought that should be derided because it turns capitalism into something like somnolent qualities or Zeus, there is a lot of really good work out there that avoids this sort of puerile simplification.

Depending on how it is theorized, it seems to me that the Marxists are clearly correct when they talk about totalization. The problem with ANT is that although it places “network” between “actor” and “theory”, somehow networks seem to get short shrift and all the emphasis gets placed on the side of actors. What is missed is the emergence of self-sustaining negentropic networks in which the actors in the network become dependent on one another in the replication or reproduction of the network. Just as Latour would like, these networks are composed of heterogeneous and autonomous actors, but insofar as the relations they enter into are characterized by negentropy, the network comes to organize subsequent adventures of actors in the network. In other words, the network functions like an ecology setting constraints for the actors within the network.

All of this makes me think of the rise of the eukaryotes about two billion years ago. There is a very real sense in which eukaryotes were a totalization of the biosphere, fundamentally transforming the ecology of the Earth. If the rise of the eukaryotes was so significant, then this was because it gradually transformed our atmosphere from one consisting of all sorts of inhospitable gases, to an atmosphere where oxygen came to predominate. Moreover, eukaryotes introduced complex cells enclosed in membranes. The formation of an oxygen rich atmosphere opened up all sorts of new environmental niches, creating new fields for speciation to take place. Similarly, the invention of complex cells with membranes opens a milieu of experimentation, allowing for the emergence of all sorts of multi-cellular critters. If eukaryotes totalized the biosphere, this is not because everything became the same, but because they transformed the very framework of the game of life. What we got was a very different sort of networked system. So too in the case of capitalism.

Lately I have been rereading Stuart Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe as my bedtime reading which perhaps accounts for why I have been unable to sleep and am nearly psychotically tired as it is a rich book full of all sorts of fascinating ideas that keep me tossing and turning as my mind spins. Dealing specifically with issues of self-organization, Kauffman’s work strives to theorize the conditions under which we get self-sustaining and organized matter such as we see in the case of living systems. A number of his claims are generalizable to a wide variety of phenomena beyond cells and organisms. Similar principles, for example, would apply to ecosystems, economy, social systems, brain organization and so on. And indeed, Kauffman approaches organization at a high level of abstraction, focusing on self-sustaining or autocatalytic chemical processes while also providing a wealth of formalizations that refer to no specific material substrate in particular. I have made no secret of the fact that I am generally hostile to relational ontologies that reduce objects to their relations. While objects certainly enter into relations, onticology begins from the premise that objects are independent of their relations and can pass out of and enter into new relations. Thus, for example, while being sympathetic to the Saussurean conception of language as a system, onticology nonetheless refuses the thesis that anything is its relations. In short, onticology begins with the hypothesis that being is atomistic or composed of discrete, autonomous, and independent objects that can pass in and out of relations. Yes, there are systems or forms of organization, but these forms of organization are assemblages of objects that enter into certain relationships with one another.

The consequence of this thesis is that one of the central issues for onticology becomes the problem of entropy. Roughly, entropy is a tendency of systems to move from states of higher organization to states of lower degrees of organization, or, alternatively, to move from states of non-equilibrium to equilibrium. The video below illustrates this idea nicely:

At the beginning, the system is in a state of non-equilibrium in the sense that all of the particles are concentrated in a particular region of the chamber. With the passage of time– a mere ten seconds –the particles wander throughout the chamber such that you have an equal probability of finding particles in any particular region of the chamber. The big question for onticology then becomes if being is composed of discrete and autonomous objects, then how is it that certain objects form assemblages that resist this increase in entropy, instead maintaining an organized state across time? A while back I suggested that this is how we should pose questions about the nature of society. There the question was that of how it is that humans bodies just don’t fly off in entropic ways, but instead enter into organized relations that sustain themselves across time. Of course, in order for any system to maintain itself in an organized way work is required. No system maintains itself without work. So the real issue lies in discovering the sort of work through which this organization is re-produced across time. This really gets to one of the central problems with French inflected structuralism and Luhmannian systems theory. Both identify the organization of a social system, how it is put together and how its elements are related, but they remain at the level of social physiology, giving only the skeleton of social systems or how the “bones are put together”. What they don’t give us is the work by which this physiology is maintained. They tell us that these systems somehow resist entropy, but not how. Given that many of us are interested, above all, in the question of how change is possible, the issue of how a social system resists entropy becomes a crucial strategic issue for political engagement. However, even if one is not interested in these political questions of change, the question remains fascinating on its own terms.

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go-3women-534x716Responding to my post on the Game of Life and Emergence, John Doyle, over at Ktismatics, speculates about the ontological status of the patterns that emerge in the game. Doyle first outlines five helpful criteria for emergence drawn from Jaegwon Kim:

1. Systems with a higher level of complexity emerge from the coming together of lower-level entities in new structural configurations.
2. Higher-level systems exhibit higher-level emergent properties arising from the lower-level properties and relations of its constituent parts.
3. Emergent properties are not predictable from information about lower-level conditions.
4. Emergent properties are not explainable or reducible to the lower-level conditions.
5. Emergent properties have novel causal powers of their own.

I am largely in agreement with these five criteria of emergent phenomena so long as number four isn’t taken to entail anything spooky or magical like a sudden magical leap, but rather is a thesis about scale dependent properties that couldn’t have strictly been predicted from the lower level rules. I’ll have more to say about this in a moment. For those interested in actually playing the Game of Life, Ian Bogost has been kind enough to provide a link here.

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I came across the game of life in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and decided to research it a little further. Designed by John Horton Conway, the game of life is interesting because it is a universe based on two very simple rules that generates surprising organized complexity. Here’s a short video illustrating these properties:

All of this reminds me of a discussion Dominic and I had a year or so ago in another context. In that context, Dominic was objecting to my use of the term emergence. My memory of the actual discussion is a bit fuzzy now, but if I recall correctly Dominic’s concern was with those ideas of emergence that posit some sort of gap between simple rules or principles governing a system and properties of the emergent system. This sort of emergence is akin to magic, in the sense that it asserts the irreducibility of the system to its rules or principles. Emergent properties thus become something “ontologically spooky”.

The game of life perhaps provides the possibility of a more rigorous conception of emergence. The properties that emerge within the system are all made possible based on the rules, constraints, or principles governing the system but are not strictly predictable within these constraints. As Dennett articulates this sort of emergence, “…the properties [are]… unpredictable in principle from the mere analysis of the micro-properties of the [system]” (415). There is nothing magical here, as these properties are products of the constraints underlying the system. Perhaps a clearer way of putting the issue is that the results of the system are not themselves programmed, but rather are rendered possible by the constraints on the system. This seems to be similar to what biologist Stuart Kauffman is getting at in books like The Origins of Order: Self-Organization and Selection in Evolution. What he draws attention to are certain physical constraints in matter that give rise to persistent organization under specific conditions. It is unfortunate that he’s chosen to dress up this thesis in the trappings of a sort of spiritualism in books like At Home in the Universe. Ah well, no accounting for taste.

brainvatIn email today an old friend of mine asks,

Currently I’m having a bit of a spat with other graphic designers over in another pocket of the Internet. My question is: can design be understood to have an ontology, can there be an ‘ontology of design’? Does this make philosophical sense?

I’m wondering if the assemblage that is my discourse, field, discipline, community, etc. can be understood as a thing? I like the notion of tracing it through all of those lenses and coming to a networked definition. A flat ontology perhaps? Does this make sense?

Hopefully he won’t object to me posting his question here as I think it’s an extremely interesting question that goes straight to the heart of what I’ve been working on with regard to cultural and social theory. Within the framework of my onticology, the criteria by which something is real lies in making a difference. As I put it with my ontic principle, “there is no difference that does not make a difference”. Thus, to be real is to make a difference. More recently I have described the ontic principle as a deflationary move. I’ve stolen the idea of “deflationary moves” from my buddy Nate over at the terrific blog What in the Hell. Nate praises Badiou for the deflationary move of placing ontology in the domain of mathematics. Where philosophy has been obsessed with the question “what is being?” or “what is the meaning of being?”, “Badiou’s” ontology is deflationary in the sense that it says “this question has already been answered and if you would like to know that answer go study mathematics.” As a consequence, Badiou is able to set aside the question of being, dethrone it from center stage, and instead focus philosophy on the question of truth. Deflating the ontological question allows the object of philosophical inquiry to be shifted elsewhere.

Unlike Badiou (and Heidegger), I do not think the central question of philosophy has been “what is being?” or “what is the meaning of being?” Rather, following Zubiri, I think the central question of philosophy is “what is reality?” However, like Badiou, I try to effect a deflationary move with respect to the question of reality. Since roughly the 17th century, philosophy has been obsessed with the question of how we might come to know reality. As such, reality has been treated as a transcendent beyond that must be reached, and which is to be distinguished from something else that is not reality. What this thing that is other than reality, I do not know. It seems to be mind, culture, language, power, and a host of other things relating to the human. The problem is that situated in these terms the question of how we can know reality is hopeless. Why? Because one of the central lines of thought we inherit from the 17th century is the thesis that we only have access to our representations. Well, if we only have access to our representations then we can only ever scan our representations to find the marks of reality, but since these marks are themselves representations we have no criteria for determining whether they are marks or simulacra: Descartes with his mind in a vat.

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