03umeaSo much of the challenge of doing critical theory in the humanities today is that we just don’t know what’s going on and it’s difficult to find out as we seldom talk to the people who are doing these things.  When I visit design studios, talk with architects, and talk with to people doing serious IT, I’m astonished by what I see and hear.  They’re making things that I certainly would have never imagined; sometimes very beautiful and emancipatory, at others disturbing.  As a friend of mine, theorist of technology Heather Wiltse, recently said, we still treat Heidegger’s hammer as the paradigm of technology (a hyperbole, but one that’s not far off mark).  Yet all of these things are more or less invisible even though they affect every aspect of our lives.

These technologies are so well integrated in our lives, so seamless and there, that we don’t even notice them.  They are persuasive objects.  I suppose the investigation of persuasive objects was what I was angling after in Onto-Cartography.  Perhaps there’s a rhetoric to these entities, but it’s not the sort of rhetoric we encounter in language where, among other things, a speech-act can lead us to share a belief or develop an identification.  Rather, persuasive objects persuade by gently directing our action in particular directions without us noticing it or really attending to it.  They exercise what I have elsewhere called “gravity”, my name for power exercised at the level of signs, objects, and features of physical objects.

070513_d9480600724ec1945773696b2e5db3e9_oA group of us had occasion to encounter a persuasive object one bright evening in Umeå, Sweden.  We were walking to a restaurant downtown.  To get there we had to walk along a trail in a beautiful park.  The road we needed to reach was directly ahead of us, yet the trail curled away in the opposite direction taking us away from the road we needed to get to.  One member of our group complained bitterly, expressing frustration at how this path takes you away from your destination.  The path was a sort of persuasive object.  We could have climbed down a steep hill to get to the path we wished to take, but that would have been difficult, especially since one of us had a bike.  Instead we were carried along by the path as the direction of least possible resistance, condemned to the fate– I say this tongue in cheek –of a leisurely stroll through the park.  It’s as if the path demanded that we slow down and refuse the purposiveness of our business, requiring us to enjoy the beauty of the park.  It didn’t do this by instilling a discursive content or belief in our minds, but simply by creating a groove along which we moved.  We still exercise our freedom– there is no technological determinism here –but nonetheless amble along the path before us.

That’s how it is with gravity in the specific sense that I use the term.  We don’t notice these persuasive objects because we simply move along them.  We can stop.  We can go back.  We can climb down the hill.  Yet still, there they are, nudging us in a particular direction.  These machines, these persuasive objects, are all about us.  The path is a machine encouraging enjoyment of the park despite our own aims (to reach our destination by a direct path).  There are all sorts of techno-semiotic machines like this as well.  When I do a Google search, for example, the list of links I see is different than the one you will see for exactly the same search.  That list is compiled by some sort of algorithm based on my geographical location as well as my past search history.  Those links, in their turn, direct me along a particular path.  I indeed choose the links, but as Zizek would say, the range of choices is already chosen for me.  It’s hard to see the persuasive objects because we dwell so intimately among them and seldom experience alternative configurations of space-time landscapes, yet there they are directing us in all sorts of subtle and gentle ways that reinforce various social patterns.  Without a knowledge of emerging technologies how can we hope to understand what is going on?  And more importantly, to what degree can we imagine a politics that not only persuades and deconstructs meanings, but that also builds emancipatory environments for life, becoming, and movement?

The video of my Umea talk.

For anyone who’s interested, here’s the text of my talk for Umeå universitet on Wednesday the 27th (pdfbryantswedeninteractivism2015).

Mug_and_Torus_morphThe difficulty is that it is the form or structure, not the content, that must be transformed to produce genuine psychodynamic or political transformation.  One might believe that they’ve produced a radical transformation by switching from donuts to coffee, but both are still toruses.  The structure remains the same.  This was the criticism of Soviet style socialism.  At the level of content it had changed the nature of distribution, but structurally, in its reliance on the Fordist factory model, it still had the same structure or form of alienation.  Similarly, one does not undermine patriarchy simply by putting a woman in charge.  Patriarchy is not defined by its content– a particular gender occupying the position of power –but by its structure:  an autarch at the top structuring social relations.  It’s that structure that has to be addressed, not the organ of a person that occupies a particular point in a topology.  In this regard, it is not unusual to encounter atheists that were once religious fundamentalists that still have exactly the same structure of thought they had when they were religious fundamentalists.  The content of their thought has changed, yet they still have the same structure of thought:  dogmatism, evangelicism (their message of atheism and science must be shared with everyone as it’s the Truth), belief in a being that holds a privileged position (man replaces God), and inflexibility when encountering things that don’t fit their dogma, a curious lack of open mindedness, etc.  The question is that of how it’s possible to produce a structural transformation that is not simply a variation of the same, that’s not one more iteration of the coffee cup that is a donut.

borromeantheoryOver on Facebook, my friend Carl Sachs expresses sympathy for social epistemologies and wonders whether it’s possible to be both a social constructivist and a realist.  As it turns out, this is an issue I’ve struggled with a great deal as well.  As I remark in the introduction to The Democracy of Objects, what I want is not a rejection of social constructivist positions, but rather a framework that is sophisticated enough to make room for both correlationist frames of thought and realism.  In subsequent work, I’ve referred to this with the rather inelegant term “borromean critical theory”.  Drawing on the resources of Lacan’s borromean knot along with the Venn diagram in logic, I’ve tried to think the intersections and divergences between nature, signs, and phenomenological experience.  I realize the danger of evoking the term “nature”, so carefully critiqued by Latour and others, yet I’ve been unable to find any better term to refer to things like atomic elements, stars, storms, diseases, etc.  Please think of the diagram to the right as an imperfect heuristic rather than as a set of hard and fast categories.  Roughly speaking and with important qualifications, the category of nature corresponds to Lacan’s Real, the category of signs (culture) refers to Lacan’s Symbolic, and the category of phenomenological experience refers to Lacan’s Imaginary. venn_8_regionsI’m interested in how these three orders intertwine, modify, and diverge from one another.  I can’t explain all the intricacies of Venn diagrams here– though they’re very simple and you can learn how to use them in an hour or so –but the nice thing about these diagrams is that they allow us to visualize relations between different categories and discern possibilities of relation we might otherwise miss or overlook.  Venn diagrams allow us to discern how categories overlap and diverge through a set of visual relations.  Not that a three circle Venn diagram is composed of 7 regions (right).  If something is in region number 1 in category S, then it is outside of categories P and M.  This would be a nice way of representing Laruelle’s Real that is completely unrelated. If something is in region 2, it shares a relation between S and P; there is an overlap between these two domains.  In the sciences, string theory would below here.  We have a mathematics of string theory (symbolic) that potentially explains certain things about nature (it remains a hypothesis), but the n-dimensional spaces of string theory have no correlate in phenomenological experience because we can neither imagine (produce an image of), nor experience 11 dimensions.  If something appears in region number 5, there is an overlap between categories S, P, and M.  This might be the case with a disorder like depression.  Depression, of course, has all sorts of phenomenological correlates or is a structure of lived experience.  It could be that certain symbolic systems (culture) have neurological effects (nature) that in turn produce the lived experience of depression (or vice versa). read on! (more…)

strange_architecture_640_19If architecture is a privileged site for thought, then this is because it enacts an intersection of matter, nature, meaning, economics, ecology, bio-materiality, aesthetics, subjectivity, politics, and affect in its exploration of the possibilities of materiality in inventing voids.  It is not merely a cipher of culture, something to be interpreted and deciphered, but is itself a formation of culture; a series of machines forming subjectivities (as Foucault observed, though the disturbing example of the panopticon), relations between people, animals, plants, sky, earth, and the broader world, activities of life, and so on.  Architecture does not merely express in the sense that those calling themselves historical materialists treat cultural artifacts as crystalized or coagulated expressions of their time; no, architecture forms and invents forms of life in its exploration of matter and the void.

bringsbigArchitecture is, in and of itself, an enactment of the borromean knot.  Architecture is borromean.  Here, of course, I take some liberties with the borromean knot, adapting it to the needs of machine-oriented ontology.  It is a way of tying the borromean knot in actuality, in the enactment of a world.  The tying of the knot is the formation of a world and a polis.  In the order of the real, it is an exploration of the powers of matter, of the pluralism of matter, of ways of folding, twisting, bending, stacking, and weaving matter to form unheard of voids.  Wood, clay, stone, steal, glass, aluminum, thatch, rubber, plaster, unheard of materials yet to be imagined, even living beings as in the case of trees grown together, intertwining with one another, to form a new void.  The architects, no less than chemists, physicists, and biologists, are great explorers of the possibilities of matter and what it can do.  Enclosures generative of the void must stand and abide.  For that to take place there must be a discovery of the powers of matter, but that discovery is a discovery made only through working with matter.  Accompanying this discovery is a discovery of the forces of the cosmos– gravity, wind, light, pressure, heat, cold, etc –for these are that with which the enclosure must contend.

Architecture in the real creates and forms voids and these voids, in their turn, channel bodies, defining sites of activity, relation, movement, and becoming.  There is, however, an architecture of the real, an absolute architecture, that brackets any thought of what might transpire in the void that the edifice creates, and that suspends any question of meaning or affect.  This architecture deterritorializes the edifice from meaning and function; exploring the powers of matter and void for their own sake, seeking to determine what they can do, what can exist.

At the level of the symbolic, architecture is a machine that produces meanings.  In 1286 William Durandus will write of how every element of the Gothic cathedral signifies.  The windows are the scripture, the lattice the prophets, the door is Christ, the piers the bishops and doctors, etc.  Everywhere the matter in the real is made to signify in the symbolic, producing a series of meanings in the void; a text or writing in the void.  Meaning comes to pervade the enclosure and it presents itself as a text to be read.  Yet these texts do not merely ask to be read, the are machines that make meaning and that are formative of subjectivities.  The symbolic is then woven with the real and the imaginary, forming systems of affect, action, perception, and the rest.  More to come.

The following is an excerpt from an interview with St. John’s Humanities Review:

Graham Harman has claimed that the major division between his version of object-oriented ontology and your ‘onticology‘ lies in your dismissal of vicarious (or indirect) causation, your position that real objects do not have qualities, and your avoidance of any distinction between sensual objects and sensual qualities. Do you agree with Harman’s distinctions and/or where do you position your ‘onticology‘ in relation to Harman’s OOO?

Harman was an encounter for me, leading me to attend to an entire world, the world of things, and the differences that make, and also giving me the courage to attempt philosophical work of my own rather than remaining at the level of interminable commentary on other thinkers. I have never been able to determine whether our philosophical differences are genuine, or whether they are merely the result of different linguistic articulations. As Deleuze somewhere says, philosophers always misunderstand one another.

Harman argues that real objects never touch nor relate to one another, but rather are “vacuum sealed” and forever behind firewalls. I confess that this is not a thesis I really understand. He seems to argue that real objects never touch one another, yet only encounter one another in the interior of their sensual objects. However, it seems to me that this amounts to saying that they relate without relating, in which case I’m led to think that they do relate. His argument seems driven by the argument that one real object never encounters the entirety of another object. Yet I have difficulty understanding why this is relevant to the issue of causation and relation. Suppose we take the following diagram:


Triangles ACD and BCE are distinct entities, yet nonetheless relate at point C. Clearly they are not relating directly at all points, but why should that lead us to conclude that there’s no real relation between them or that they don’t touch? This is something I don’t understand.

read on!



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