Do objects work?

A recent exchange with Ian Bogost on twitter has got me thinking about possible productive engagements with OOO again.

Context: Basically I’ve been working on questions of ‘know how’ and the way we (humans) mobilise to engage with given challenges, enthusiasm at the centre of this process. Traditionally, enthusiasm has been expunged from epistemology as an affected or religious irrationalism. I read Polanyi’s work on the role of passion and belief in the production of knowledge as useful in rethinking enthusiasm as productive and so on. The connection to OOO is that when enthusiats produce ‘know how’ they more often than not do so from an assumed functionalism of whatever it is they are mobilising to engage with. ‘Functionalism’ here does not mean something akin to Ellul’s “technique” or the subsumption of the human by technology, it is more of an always partial appreciation of the way socio-technical systems work. Not actual objects, but abstract systems that are understood according to their virtual singularities, actualised in ‘this’ socio-technical system. The other reason why Polanyi is useful is due to his discussion of ‘tacit’ or embodied knowledge, which provides an epistemological excess of what is ‘explicitly’ known of this partial appreciation. All this got me thinking about Heidegger’s notion of work and in the context of the Empyre discussion the invocation of Harman’s creative reading of Heidegger in terms of tool-being (readiness-to-hand vs presence etc).

It is not apparent to me that Harman uses Heidegger’s notion of work at all. Of course, I am a Heidegger novice, so this may just be ignorance on my part, or perhaps in the theory work of OOO Harman calls it something else. But I went through Harman’s book Tool-Being again, reading for any engagement with Heidegger’s notion of work, and couldn’t find any. Maybe Harman discusses it elsewhere? I haven’t been able to find such a discussion. Why is this important? One of the qualifications from Heidegger and the ‘withdrawal’ of the object is that this happens in work, and by ‘work’ I think Heidegger means something like an existential functioning. In Harman’s inversion or ‘democratisation’ of tool-being to all objects, this determination of withdrawal through work gets discarded. Instead withdrawal is assumed. (Unless ‘work’ is an object, but, well, I don’t understand that at all.) Here is the passage from Heidegger that got me thinking about all this.

On twitter I was attempting to articulate what I saw as a possible productive engagement with OOO, or at least a middle ground (a bit like that magic tunnel between universes in Fringe), in terms of link between the ‘work’ of Heideggarian/OOO ‘objects’ and Simondon’s concept of ‘transduction’. Reading Stiegler’s work on Heidegger and Simondon is instructive at least as a starting point. Stiegler emphasises how for Heidegger there is a ‘they’ (hence, resonates for me the assumed ‘alien’ character of OOO objects) while for Simondon there is a ‘we’. The ‘we’ in this context means that ‘we’ are forever collectively individuated. It is relative simple for me to imagine a D&G reading of Simondon and indeed there are a number of such investigations already, of assemblages and so on. If Stiegler’s thesis of technics is taken seriously, the enthusiasts I study do not work on socio-technical systems, rather they are attempting to repair or modify a quality/character of the technics through which they in part exist, involving the nonhuman ‘affects’ (affects in Spinozist sense) of tertiary retentions. Tim Morton’s Derridean version of OOO may have other connections to Stiegler’s work.

Do ‘objects’ work? What happens to the Heideggarian concept of ‘work’? I don’t mean that humans are the only ones with agency and they do ‘work’. Nonhumans ‘work’ all the time. A certain Whiteheadian reading/intervention may be possible here; the work of prehending prehensions etc. It seems that through the democratisation of tool-being Harman makes ‘work’ equivalent to being (or whatever the opposite of withdrawal is, ereignis maybe, I am not sure if there is an opposite in OOO) in that it is now radically and absolutely diffuse along with every opposite-of-withdrawal.

Why all this is fascinating (for me at least) is that if there is an OOO version of ‘work’, then to imagine if ‘transduction’ is possible from the POV of a Heideggarian OOO appreciation of ‘objects’. It is not a problem from an event-based ontology premised on the actualisation of virtual singular-multiplicities, but it does at least indicate a way around the problem of an infinite regress of tool-being for OOOers.

Two articles on ‘know how’

I am currently in Perth and I’ve taken the opportunity to finish a couple of pieces of writing that were (over)due. Both are on the topic of ‘know how’. One lays out the mostly philosophial dimensions and the other is a shorter and more accessible application of the concept engaging with early examples of Make magazine. This is the second paragraph of the longer piece, and it basically outlines what the article is about:

In this article I shall endeavour to explore the relation between experience and ‘know how’ as a ‘tacit’ form of knowledge, the role of enthusiasm in the production of ‘know how’, and engage with the problem of the transmission of ‘know how’. Why is the transmission of ‘know how’ a problem? If ‘know how’ is a tacit form of knowledge, then there are difficulties imagining how it is transmitted through the media without becoming an ‘explicit’ form of knowledge. I shall turn my attention to the humble ‘how to’ article, as its primary purpose is the transmission of ‘know how’. My solution to this problem is to tease out the way ‘know how’ is developed through experience and then to suggest that instead of transmitting ‘know how’ itself, the ‘how to’ article presents the conditions of experience through which a reader or viewer can develop ‘know how’. I shall draw on relatively complicated conceptions of experience derived primarily from Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy of transcendental empiricism (Deleuze, 1991; 1994: 180; Deleuze & Guattari, 1994: 48). There is an affinity between Deleuze’s conceptualisation of the ‘disjunctive synthesis’ in the dramatization of thought and the situational art of ‘know how’ (Seigworth, 2006; Widder, 2012: 35-52; Williams, 2005: 15-24). This ‘high theory’ will be somewhat alienating for those unfamiliar with Deleuze’s philosophy, but I hope by drawing on relatively familiar examples such stylistic complexity will be less sharp.

Francois Zourabichvili and Deleuze

I am looking forward to the forthcoming publication in English of two of Francois Zourabichvili’s works in a single volume Deleuze: a Philosophy of the Event: Together with the Vocabulary of Deleuze. To be honest I had not really heard of Zourabichvili’s work until some online discussion alerted me to the presentation at the Deleuze 2012 conference by the forthcoming volume’s translator Keiren Aarons. Here is Aarons’ abstract for his Deleuze 2012 presentation:

There is no ‘ontology of Deleuze’ —Involuntarism and the Critique of Truth in the Work of François Zourabichvili
In what direction does the future of Deleuze’s philosophy of the event lie? From the publication of his Deleuze: Une philosophie de l’événement (P.U.F. 1994) until his untimely death in 2006, Francois Zourabichvili was one of the most important new voices in contemporary philosophy in France, and arguably the most important inheritor of Deleuzian philosophy. A brilliant, polemical, and original reader, Zourabichvili’s reading of Deleuze consistently challenged the received wisdom regarding the project, scope, and meaning of the Deleuzian project. Nowhere is this more evident than in his 2004 claim that “there is no ‘ontology of Deleuze’ ”. Deleuzians, even his closest allies (e.g. Boundas) either criticized or dismissed the claim, and for obvious reasons: the discourse of Deleuze as an ‘ontologist’ has become the normalized, conventional understanding of this thinker. In this paper, I offer a philosophical defense of Zourabichvili’s claim, which I suggest offers a third way beyond the distinction “end of metaphysics” / “return to metaphysics”.
The 2012 Deleuze Studies conference will also coincide almost exactly with the longawaited English language publication of Zourabichvili’s book-length studies of Deleuze, of which I am the translator.
In this paper I argue that this third way, which locates in Deleuze an immanent destruction of the discourse of ontology – as distinct from an external rejection of it – can only be understood in light of a prior distinction: to be an irrationalist (objective knowledge is undermined) does not mean that one is an illogicist (thought discovers a new objectivity in the logic of force). Parsing these two claims, and their importance for the relation that thought subsequently maintains with necessity, is a precondition for the comprehension of the object of Deleuzian philosophy: rather than having as its goal a murkily-defined “knowledge of being” as with the tradition of fundamental ontology, the object of Deleuzian critique, for Zourabichvili, lies elsewhere: it is experience, conceived of as the sign of the body, where this sign is a sign of a  force that affects the body, and where the evental synthesis of force demands that thought respond with a conceptual symptomology, not an ontology. A rigorous “order of reasons” is at work here.
If this logical order is overlooked, Zourabichvili’s claim that “there is no ontology of Deleuze” can seem at first glance either to be splitting hairs (e.g. by distinguishing between events versus being, and belief versus knowledge), or else simply incoherent (since the problematic of experience does not at first glance seem to be sufficiently distinct from that of phenomenological ontology).
This paper will provide a conceptual defense of Zourabichvili’s break with the ontological readings of Deleuze, and his attempt to carve out a new trajectory for critical philosophy.

I searched online for any available texts by Zourabichvili translated into English. Here is what I found:
1. Relating to the title of Aarons’ presentation is this brief interview with Multitudes translated by Diarmuid Hester on the differences between Negri and Deleuze in light of the then recently published Empire. Zourabichvili discusses Negri’s volutarism and what he argues is Deleuze’s involuntarism.
2. Translations by Taylor Atkins of two entries from Zourabichvili’s latter Vocabulary of Deleuze book. The two entries are “Pre-Individual Singularities” and “Univocity of Being”. The brief “Pre-Individual Singularities” is a useful counterpoint to Levi’s recent post that reads Deleuze’s philosophy in terms compatible with object-oriented ontology.
3. A chapter in the Gilles Deleuze A Blackwell Critical Reader, “Six Notes on the Percept (On the Relation between the Critical and the Clinical)”.
From this chapter is the question of the necessity of ‘creating’ (pgs 201-202):

One question grows increasingly urgent: is there, independently of art and philosophy (which creates concepts) a vital creation close to life, a creation of life itself? At this level, it would be true but inadequate to recall that art and philosophy are also manifestations of life, and not disciplines adjacent to life. The question is, is this possoble, without recourse to signs which are not those of lived experience itself, but a refraction life in some material? Or can we attain this Health, neither physical or mental, yet nonetheless real for all that, without creating? The Deleuzian response, it seems, is no.

Which leads to a forceful provocation in the endnotes (pg 215, fn 19):

We see no reason on this point to warn of an elitist ethic, on the pretext that we may not ourselves by capable of this. Not only because ressentiment is not an argument, and because the idea of social justice happily does not depend on this, but because such an ethic is genuinely addressed to everyone(perhaps the only one that is), to the extent that it implies the immanent condition that one cannot know in advance who commands favourable circumstances and the raising of obstacles, social and familial in the first instance. In fact, what sense do we give to social injustice, if not knowing too well in advance who will’pull through’ and who will not ‘pull through’, as long as, and with the result that, many are separated from what they can do, and even, in consequence, from their ability to rebel? What sense do we give to the Idea of democracy, if not that destinies may be played out over and again, entirely within, and not beside or above, existence itself (Immanence), according to the laws, customs, and milieus that extend beyond and territorialise it? In a general way, Deleuzianism is in fact an elitism, if this is understood to mean that all ways of existing and thinking are not of equal value, and that the selective evaluation of possibilities for existence is the immanent activity if life and thought. Other than this, Deleuze asks only that little humility necessary in order to perceive the extraordinary health gained by a few great creators and to marvel at them; perhaps also to gain something from them, even though we may not feel equal to claiming this.

Fairfax Media and Newspaper Next

My colleague Jason Wilson has attacked the Finkelstein Independent Media Inquiry report in the context of the Fairfax restructure announced today. Jason writes:

The Independent Media Inquiry bent over backwards to demonstrate the peristence of media power in order to build a case for regulating it further. But the real story is that traditional media are in a death spiral. These have been major social institutions. Despite what many see as their poor performance in recent years, it’s not clear what exists to replace them in that role.

The Independent Media Inquiry investigated whether or not governmental regulation and/or support would be appropriate in the context of the shifting composition of an industry sector. All major media companies in Australia made submissions that suggested that government support would be unwarranted. The report references a number of submissions and introduces and then quotes from the Fairfax submission thus:

Notably none of the established newspapers felt there was a need for government support. The submission by Fairfax Media states:

No one can deny that the traditional media business models have been severely challenged by the growth of the Internet. That said Fairfax does not support the proposition that independent journalism needs assistance by way of Government subsidy or tax breaks as have been suggested by some submissions … Media organisations need to transform themselves to account for the changing needs of audiences as the digital and online platforms continue to evolve. Existing revenue streams need to grow and new revenue sources need to be found and sustained.

It seems that is precisely what Fairfax are doing at present.

Two other points are worth making in the context of the analysis by the Independent Media Inquiry Report. Firstly, the report analyses the democratic function of the news media (what Jason refers to in terms of them having been ‘major social institutions’) from the government’s perspective, not the perspective of individual journalists or companies. I do not agree with Jason that the Independent Media Inquiry was tasked or even should have been tasked with providing an industry with strategic solutions to their commercial problems. Chapter 12 of the report engages with the problem of ensuring industry-wide ‘journalistic capacity’ to produce ‘quality journalism’, which is slightly unconventional for a media analysis. Most media analyses fall into the political economy perspective or correlating ownership or the identity of news producers in general with a normative sense of ‘diversity’. ‘Diversity’ was mentioned in the terms of reference, but this was developed into ‘journalistic capacity’ in the report. Nor does the report explore even a single example of a specific news outlet or business model. Clearly, this would have been inappropriate. Imagine the furore unleashed by the culture warriors at The Australian if the report made forthright suggestions regarding how businesses should operate!?!


Is this a ‘desperate’ move by Fairfax?

Here is a brief extract from a discussion I had with Jason and Jonathon on Twitter.

Clearly, they both believe, as does Jonathon Green, that Fairfax’s move to be ‘desperate’. Is it?


The Long View

The second point to be made about the Independent Media Inquiry is regarding the absence of the kind of suggestions (as noted by Jason) and if they are not in the report, then where such information can be found. A fantastic starting point for anyone interested in how this may (or may not) play out is the Newspaper Next experiment from the the American Press Institute. Proper historical research is required to analyse the last two decades of of shifting business models, as a way to ward off the boosterism of an always future leaning opinion makers. Less ‘this is what you should do’ (or in the case of Fairfax the schadenfreude of the inverse boosterist ‘this is what you should have done 10 years ago’) and more ‘this is what has and has not worked in this context’. The chronic boosterism of ‘internet evangelists’ manifest in the rush to be ‘in front’ of every other voice in the marketplace of opinion means that existing experiments such as Newspaper Next are often forgotten.   

Two major reports were released as part of the experiment, and a third smaller report. One from 2006 announcing the project, another two years later reporting on those media companies following through with the Newspaper Next experiment and a third on using ‘Interactive Databases’ (I’ve uploaded the first two reports to Scribd, because it seems that the API has removed Newspaper Next from its site). I’ve got an academic article in the works that analyses both major reports in terms of the way they discuss ‘opportunity’; it is a curious example of thinking ‘opportunity’ as the necessary restructure of markets (by way of attempting to forge new stabilising social neworks that reproduce markets and therefore stability of revenue streams, etc).

The first report presents some of the conceptual background in thinking about the changes to the US newspaper industry based on notions of ‘disruptive innovation’ and the main points are capture in above diagram (page 19). Some rightly criticised the experiment and the report specifically for being ‘all talk’. Indeed, it does have a certain boosterist tone about it. There is some good ideas amongst all the enthusiasm however.

The second report presents 24 case studies of new products and seven examples of how newspaper companies organized and financed innovation. The most relevant example in the report is The Chicago Tribune. Unfortunately, even at this stage of the experiment it was clear that no newspapers would be willing to ‘make the leap’. As Rick Edmonds at Poynter reported at the time:

However, many of the experiments have stuck too closely to traditional core competencies, making money, for instance, by reverse publishing online material into print, still the comfort zone for the ad sales force. The result: the pace of change is unprecedented but not quick enough; most projects are too small and too slow to develop revenue on the scale needed. So the report urges newspapers companies to “make the leap” beyond news or even news and information.

Then check out this post by Steve Buttry, one of those involved in the Newspaper Next experiment. He was also apparently behind the third report on using interactive databases as a new kind of journalistic product. Steve’s point is that none of the news companies that engaged him or others to make presentations wanted to impliment the Newspaper Next blueprint.

The results were pretty much the same as the response to N2: Executives praised the ideas generally, but lacked the vision, courage and/or freedom to make such dramatic changes in their declining companies. Either N2 or C3 could have led the newspaper industry to a more prosperous future if companies had truly followed them. Instead the business has followed a defensive course of slashing costs, throwing up paywalls and waiting for a miracle.

My point is a very simple one: there has been a huge amount of work carried out in other local, national and international markets on what has worked and what has not worked in attempts to restructure individual companies. It is clear that Fairfax has to undergo a transition to a new business model. It is far from clear what transition model works best.

Maybe I am the only person (at least in my Twitter stream) who thinks that amongst all the commentary about the ‘desperation’ of Fairfax that they actually did something right in holding off from undergoing this transition? Does anyone have any figures on how much money has been wasted at other media organisations on ‘restructures’? obviously some changes should have been made sooner (such as the ‘digital first’ strategy and the integrated newsroom). However, if they had attempted to lock themselves into a new business model even a few years ago would they have the information they have now about what works, what doesn’t and the various different contexts and range of outcomes in between? Business leaders are inherently conservative, they are not going to invest in a company restructure that requires a market restructure at the same time. Not unless they have the ‘killer app’ anyway, but there is no ‘iPod’ solution to the challenges faced by the news industry.

but the work

“Handiness is not grasped theoretically at all, nor is it itself initially a theme for circumspection. What is peculiar to what is initially at hand is that it withdraws, so to speak, in its character of handiness in order to be really handy. What everyday association is initially busy with is not tools themselves, but the work. What is to be produced in each case is what is primarily taken care of and is thus also what is at hand. The work bears the totality of references in which useful things are encountered.” (Heidegger, Being and Time, 65)