Of gap-sense: On Morton’s Of Planet-Sense

Tim Morton gave a talk at NIEA, Sydney, August 25, 2012 “Of planet-sense”. He offers a reading of the film Avatar as the successful completion of modernity, rather than its (hippie, environmental, etc.) reversal. All quotes below are to his talk, apologies in advance for any errors of transcription. The planet of Pandora with its ‘organic internet’ allows for the seamless movement of consciousness. Morton is concerned with exploring this seamlessness and arguing the case for ‘gaps’.

Modernity for Morton is the emergence of the Anthropocene (the direct human internvetion into geological time, by way of the depositing of a layer of carbon on the Earth’s crust) and the emergence of Kantian philosophy with its critique of human reason. Anthropocene is the “ironic name for a moment at which the nonhuman is discerned to be inextricable from the human”.

On the one hand is a (neo-)Heideggarian engagement with the film. Common reading of Heidegger is that humans are embedded in a ‘world’. Being and Time advocates an ‘awareness’ that is “frequently avoided at all costs”. A bit later Morton describes how humans are unable to access global warming directly, and resultant to how it takes the measure of us: “a tsunami assess the fragility of a Japanese town, an earthquoke probes the ability to resist the liquification of the Earth’s crust, a heatwave scans us with ultra-violet rays”. These harmful measurements direct out attention to human co-existence with other lifeforms inside a gigantic object. “What undermines [or underlines? underlies?] this sense of planet is a planet-sense, experienced by humans as physical in measurement”. This is not the political affect of Avatar.

On the other hand is a Spinozist logic of health and pathology, a continuity between mind and body, represented by the Navii and the planet “with no ontological gaps”. Morton argues that from this Spinozist reading “there is no evil, only inadequately expressed conatus — the will to exist that takes joy in imposing itself on the rest of the planet’s substance”. (It is unclear if Morton means the Spinozist sense of Joy as positive affection of the soul, that increases one’s capacity to act based on the agitations of reaching or yearning for a higher rationality, or if he means ‘joy’ in the sense of a narcissistic sadism. The use of ‘takes’ indicates a transcendental subject experiences their own sadism as joyful, hence Morton meant it in the second sense. In the first sense, Joy is the experience, and concurrent agitation of the soul; it is not ‘experienced’ as such, and that which is experienced certainly does not have to be ‘joyful’ in any subjective sense. [And listening further along in the talk, just after 33min, Morton does indeed invoke this notion of sadism.])

“There is no nothing, no nothingness in a reality that contains no ontological gaps”. For instance the gap between brain and mind, cinematic representation in Pandora as sentient world. For Spinozist the entity nothing is oukontic; “that is, not even nothing, sbstance everywhere without lack”. Morton goes on to describe another nothingness opened up since the time of Kant and the Anthropocene, a meontic nothingness. From theological philosopher Tillich:

  • Me On: (Greek) “Me on is the ‘nothing’ which has a dialectical relation to being.”
  • Ouk On: (Greek) “Ouk on is the ‘nothing’ which has no relation at all to being.”

(Also, see Morton’s brief remarks from a different context on oukontic and meontic nothingness.) Hegel’s nothingness was a reaction against Kant’s critique of reason that had discerned a threatening gap in the real “predicated on a reason that I cannot directly access”. Reason as an abyss. Morton asks the question, does not the planet Pandora invoke this meontic defintion and not the oukontic?

Jake Sully experiences that Kantian sublime atop of his reptilian winged beast. Sublime of science, plunging into the abyss of reason. Avatar of reason can be known, but it is severed from the real thing. Noumenal transcends the phenomenal. The thrill ride threatens the Spinozism continuum between mind-body. Or a materialism, Deleuze, Bergson, Whitehead “to paper over the crack with a spattle of matter”. Appeal of Spinozism in modernity, it allows for a pantheism not unlike an athesism.  Sully as a slippage between binaries. An excess of thinking [really? Part of the plot was Sully’s mind was ’empty’.]

[I enjoyed Morton’s rant against causality.] Science’s statistical appreciation of reality just is. There is no causality. Causal arguments are reductive in the sense that they are all equally premised on a correlation between statistics and reason; hence the hyper rationality of the fascist (of Creationists, of tobacco companies, of ecological denialists, etc.).

Modern philosophy is a reaction against nothingness, meontic angst; “what is required for thinking is not wish away the ocean [abyss of reason, from an earlier extended metaphor] that provides the reason for the problems identified in Hume, as if we could unthink the fact we are three dimensional beings [Morton here is referring to the ocean of Reason being like another dimension in a world of stick people]”. According to Morton, “Heidegger correctly saw that the task was a voyage beneath nihilism, not to take flight above it or to circumvent it. The ocean of reason seaps through the cracks of pre-packaged facts.” Kant argues that the human-world correlate is what gave reality to things.

OOO etc extending this relation to all things, a “riot of anxiety, we I confront the full uncanniness of all things”. There is a “Pandora’s Box full of gaps”. [Another account of this.] To summarise Morton’s argument for the next 10-15min or so: the concept of ‘world’ is backformed from the Kantian gap, and therefore it is insufficient as a conceptual apparatus for accounting for all the worlds that belong to all the different objects. Not only is there a gap for each and every object there is also an abyss of reason (but not reason, because ‘reason’ is human-centric) for each of these objects. Objects withdraw into this abyss; objects withdraw from themselves. Agriculture is a prototype for a certain engagement with Earth because agriculture turns it into an aesthetic product; a “full world of distances and horizons” this aestheticisation gathers speed in the Anthropocene. This is the meontic world glimpsed by environmentalism; “a pair of cats eyes, ‘Tiger, tiger, burning bright’.”

Some thoughts in response:

After hearing this talk, I’d like to see Morton engage with Deleuze’s Logic of Sense. Why?

Morton is very good at laying everything out, not only in the sense of his actual presentation of the talk (and the beat poet-like presentation), but in the presentation of certain arrangments of non-relations. Arranging specific non-relations between objects and themselves, the non relation between objects and their worlds, and the non-relation between the infinite multiplicity of object-worlds. In as much as this is an ontological flattening (or, to be inspired by Morton’s use of puns, perhaps ‘flattering’ for objects), Morton indicates our world is actually a non-world of a multiplicity of distances and horizons. For Morton these horizons are all horizons of being to presence and presence to being. Yet, there is another gap, between Harman’s Object and Morton’s Hyper-Objects, that has a non-spatialised temporal dimension.

A non-spatial gap is what Massumi calls a non-local linkage (between assemblies of experience) or what I’d call, largely derived from Deleuze’s LoS in an attempt to move away from familiar Aristotlean conceptions, a problematic contiguity (the ‘between’ or ‘middle’ of events). This is a shift from a concern with a non-temporal is. I am assuming that objects withdraw in non-relations in different ways; that is, no two withdrawals (and correlative presence) even of the ‘same’ object are equivalent. The gap here is intensive; the differentiation serves as the ontology of the event. This is only the first part of the gap between Harman’s object and that of Morton’s hyper-object (based on Morton’s talk); its non-spatial (and non-extensive) location. It is temporal in the sense that a difference is differenciated, and therefore if spatialised can be counted (in the mathmatical sense), and because it produces a rhythm in the world (another ‘count’).

The other part of this non-spatial gap is very similar to the way Morton describes the kind of invasion of aliens. The non-human scale of Morton’s hyper-objects is in some ways no different to a sympathetic reading of Harman’s argument for objects. The big advance that Morton provides for OOO is to finally escape from the human-centric version of objects (and I mean in a really stupid, knee-jerk sort of imagining what is an object). Similarly, the ontology of events is indicated by the ‘holely space’ of temporal architecture distributed, as Morton notes in his talk, according to statistical regularities, but they are not premised on them. To think events on a non-human scale is to admit that the distribution of distributions is necessarily incomplete. The ‘thisness’ of an event is characterised by a diverse array of differentiations but all of these differentations can never be known as such. That is why there is a difference between the first-person subjectivity that perceives the object as an event (as determined by perception and discourse) and the fourth-person singularity that takes the entire chaosmos as its ‘world’: in between is a concrescence of impersonalities. These impersonalities do not have a correlative ‘personality’ (ie an ‘object’ in OOO sense) in any normative sense. (See my notes on Esposito’s reading of haecceity for a thoroughly Deleuzian appreciation of part of this problem.)


Haecceity as intervention

In the recently published translation of Roberto Esposito’s The Third Person is this remarkable passage (148-149) found in the section on The Event (it is a large extract below that ends with the block quote from ATP):


The individuation of life, of a life, is not the same as the individuation of a personal subject. The category of ‘haecceity’ intervenes between the two. It, too, designates something – individuating it – that is very particular, but not necessarily a person, a thing, or a substance. A season or a time of day, for example, are haecceities that are just as determinate as individuals as such; but they are not coextensive with them – just like a shower of rain, a gust of wind, or a ray of moonlight. What these connote, besides their movement due to the combination of their molecules, is a capacity to be composed with other forces, due to which they undergo an effect (or an affect), thereby being transformed and transforming the others into more complex individualities, themselves subject to the possibility of further metamorphoses. A degree of temperature can be combined with a certain intensity of whiteness, just as this may combine with a surface to the point of being identified with it. What changes with respect to the plane of the subjects, besides a certain spatiality that is irreducible to predefined boundaries, is a temporality that does not have the stable form of presence, but rather the form of the event, extending between past and future. Haecceity never has an origin or an end – it is not a point: it is a line of slippage and assemblage [concatenamento]. It is made up not of people and things, but of speeds, affects, and transitions; just as semiotics is composed of proper nouns, verbs in the infinitive, and indefinite pronouns. Haecceity is composed of third persons, traversed and liberated by the power of the impersonal:

The HE does not represent a subject but rather makes a diagram of an assemblage. It does not overcode statements, it does not transcend them as do the first two persons; on the contrary, it prevents them from falling under the tyranny of subjective or signifying constellations, under the regime of empty redundancies. [ATP, 265]


Esposito isolates something very interesting here, regarding the category of ‘haecceity’ and its intervention between the individuation of life and the individuation of a personal subject.

In Empire, Negri and Hardt argue that the ‘possible’ resides in the passage from the virtual to the actual, and that the art of politics is to operate upon the possible to create and affirm a new politics and a different passage.

Esposito is capturing a different relation here, where ‘haecceity’ is a dimension of all assemblages. Properly I’d call ‘haecceity’ the being of event, and what Esposito is describing in the above passage is the part of Deleuze and Guattari’s work that conceptualised a sense of events that cannot be easily, if at all, reconciled to “a person, a thing, or a substance”.

Deleuze and Guattari’s ATP can be read as a masterful exploration of ‘scale’ in both extensive and intensive, and they basically furnish readers with a conceptual vocabulary to assist in this. Esposito is highlighting the importance of the concept of ‘haecceity’ for thinking about the concrescence (to borrow a term from Whitehead, but using it in a different way) of different impersonalities. The impersonal of the season or time of day is expressed (through assemblages, as elements of assemblages) with the impersonal dimension of a life, which in a normative sense belongs to a person.

The question of scale here is important, but very difficult to sufficiently discuss, as language conspires discussion to be locked into ‘objects’ and ‘things’. Esposito is indicating a certain combination across both intensive and extensive scales that does not belong to subjects or to objects, and it is not the pure fourth-person singular of the event of the chaosmos; it is somewhere in between. This is very important when trying to think events, as it is too easy to be trapped in a reduction (back-formed from language) that reduces events to things or objects, with the most recent form of this found in most variants of OOO. A more nuanced account of events is required for a number of reasons, least of which is for an adequate grasp of ontology. Haecceity as concrescence of different impersonalities is a move towards such an account.

Ethics and the Misanthropic Supernatural of Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf

For those tired of the hoopla around the Twilight franchise — perhaps tired because it is another in the series of franchises designed to produce an excitable audience who CAN’T MISS IT and so traffic in your excitement and not a media text — worthy antidotes are Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf (2011) and Talulla Rising (2012). Here is what Steven Poole said in the Guardian making a similar point:

The Last Werewolf is like an updated version of Dracula, only for werewolves, and as rewritten by Bret Easton Ellis. As though in reproof of the plague of twee paranormal romances aimed at “young adults”, Duncan effectively says: here we go, this is a story about monsters, so let’s see how much sex and violence you can take.

I think it is more like Twilight written by Ballard in Crash mode. In Crash, all the assemblages of a middle class lifestyle become libidinal surfaces that can be penetrated. Seduction as a function of the accident, rather than any romatic ideal. The libidinal topology of the werewolf’s world in The Last Werewolf is similar except as well as sex, transformed werewolves eat that which they love. The signature refrain of the werewolf is fuckkilleat, it organises their world. Humans are sex objects and food. Vampires make a cursory appearance in the first book. Unlike werewolves, vampire (males) cannot have sex. It is not made clear in either book if female vampires have sex. Vampires see themselves as superior however as they retain the capacity for communication while the wulf does not.

The main character of the first book, Jake Marlowe, is the last werewolf. Werewolves have been hunted to near extinction by World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena (WOCOP) and blocked from reproducing because of a virus that kills anyone bitten. Jake is 200 years old and basically over it. IT being everything. He is in the thralls of a terminal mis(lyc)anthropy. Like all proper (supernatural) misanthropes he doesn’t hate himself or humans, he is just exhausted, tired, over it. He doesn’t want to fight anymore. He is ready to lie down and accept that at the next full moon he will turn into the beast and have his head chopped off. (Agents of WOCOP do not want to kill him as a human, out of some sense of honour, they want to kill the nine-foot wolf.) Justin Cronin in the New York Times:

Marlowe’s quandary boils down to a bad case of existential exhaustion. The tale begins in well-fed languor. “Two nights ago I’d eaten a 43-year-old hedge fund specialist,” Marlowe offers with trademark insouciance. “I’ve been in a phase of taking the ones no one wants.”

The relation between the wer and the wulf is explored by Duncan throughout both books. There are many situations in both books where characters critically analyse each others’ motives in terms of the their actions being the product of two or more types of actor. Here I mean actor in the general sense, a form of agency or character that acts. Action is mostly the resolution of tension between these different actor tropes (good-girl::dirty-girl, ahistorical::grounded-in-the-present, heteronormative-werewolf::homosexual-werewolf, etc.). For example, the wulf is going to win out at least once per month, the werewolf has no choice, such is the curse. The werewolf doesn’t even have a choice of to fuckkilleat or not. Jake lasted four months of not killing before ripping his own skin off (that is not a metaphor). When the transformation happens it is a relief for the werewolf. All the literal skin crawling and joint-aching tension of the moon’s cycle the wulf escapes; it is a resolution.

The actions of the human (and, to a certain extent, vampire) characters are contrasted with the wulf-compulsion. The dramatic tension of the inevitable werewolf transformation contrasted with the relative freedom of action of the human (and vampire) characters presents two orders of ethical action. The wulf is often presented as an alien force encroaching on the wer; it is a supernatural socio-biological imperative. ‘Compulsions’ for the humans, however, are primarily premised on belief (religious, morality), ideology and the imaginary of social relations (family, friendship, companionship). How the werewolf functions to incorporate the inevitable is an ethical question. There is a certain distribution of contingency used as a scaffold for the passage of action. This is not about making ‘choices’, as the werewolf does not have a choice, but whether or not the wer is worthy of the burden of the wulf-event. Drew Toal for NPR writes (about the sequel Talulla Rising):

The compulsions of the curse don’t allow for moral dietary restrictions, so innocent joggers and retirees are also at risk. It’s difficult to judge Talulla too harshly. She does her best to limit the damage, if only out of a sense of self-preservation.

Toal kind of misses the point here a bit. It are not the actions of the werewolf we judge, but the actions of those who have a greater degree of freedom in choosing the burdens for which they are either worthy or not. The true monsters (and heroes), like in all good horror fiction and particularly the sequel, are the humans. The sequel presents a comparison to a greater number of werewolves and the ways they differently accept and work to incorporate the burden of the wulf while wer. I think this point is made most clearly in the first book however, when Jake shifts from having no reason to go on with the burden of the wulf. Jake has been alive so long that there is no dialectical movement for Jake’s synthesis of action, no contingency that has not already been accounted for. He is presented with a reason to live when there is a redistribution of contingencies.

Simondon and Techno-Aesthetics

“If Léger managed to get the roar of the factory, the squeal of a drill press, and the screech of the unoiled gear, into his paintings, it was an achievement I, at least, do not much appreciate.” Review of Léger exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (O’Connor 1998)

In the latest issue of Parrhesia is a translation of a 1982 letter from Gilbert Simondon to Jacques Derrida where Simondon discusses what he calls “techno-aesthetics”. There has always been a tension, if not a latent snobbery, running between the high aesthetics of the art world — that practicing artists and other professionals approach with a keen sense of technique — and the high technics of the machinic phylum — that practicing engineers, scientists and others approach with a keen sense of aesthetics. The publication of this translation is timely for my own work (currently in the process of being reviewed for publication) that has tried to think about the character of technê using concepts of ‘experience’ and the ‘event’ from contemporary philosophy work on aesthetics (Massumi, Manning, etc.).

Simondon begins by reflecting on the character of visibility in techno-aesthetics, what he calls phanero-technics. (Phaneros, visible; from phainein, to cause to appear.) He has two examples, that of the Eiffel Tower and the architectural practice of Le Corbusier. He emphasises slightly different points in his two examples. In the case of Le Corbusier it is a case of rendering visible what is normally hidden. This exposure is a kind of consecration or valorisation of the technics of function and the technics of design. The frame, such as embodied in the magazine front cover, is a valorising-machine designed to function as an apparatus of capture on the newsagency stand. The frame of exposed-technics is abductive, rather than premised on a shared reading-technics of emphasis, and it dissolves in the solution of experience. Le Corbusier’s “phanero-technical attitude” may render visible the pipes and cables conventionally hidden but the non-normative frame of the exposed-technical relies on the repetition of aesthetic experience and contraction of memory to appreciate the difference of exposure and therefore of the valorisation.

Simondon suggests that the Eiffel Tower didn’t have a function, beyond that being “merely an elevated vista point”, but it became the “best emission antenna in France”. If we agree with Jonathan Crary’s point that the spectacle (as in Debord’s Marxist critique of the image-commodity) is more an architecture for fixing spectators in a certain relational point in space than a semiosis for the communication and indoctrination of an ideological meaning, then the elevated vista point of the Eiffel Tower gains a different resonance. The Eiffel Tower contributes to the technics of what John Urry has called the “tourist gaze”.

The “tourist gaze” is a concept Urry develops from a certain reading of Foucault’s work on the clinic and the “medical gaze”. Urry maps a quasi-genealogical account of contemporary tourism in terms of the way there is an economy of image-perspectives that tourists are encouraged to inhabit. Although not necessarily the sole reason for travelling tourists come to occupy specific “vista points” and the layering of tourist-subjectivities is captured in the work of Swiss-French artist Corinne Vionnet and her project Photo Opportunities. What is interesting about the Eiffel Tower is that the Tower itself becomes the site/sight captured by tourists rather than being the location from which vista-points are constituted; Simondon argues that phanero-technics “is itself already aesthetic: the Eiffel Tower (the tower of the World’s Fair) and the Garabit viaduct on the Truyère river have an undeniable aesthetic power”. Noting the same connection between Vionnet’s work and Urry’s in a brief note on the art project, Madeline Yale suggests that “its distorted visual referent functions as a device for memory transport by funneling many experiences into one familiar locale”.

Photo Opportunities (2005-2012) — Corinne Vionnet

Vionnet’s work is interesting in the context of what has been described as the “New Aesthetic” in the sense that David Berry describes NA as a “form of abduction aesthetic linked to the emergence of computationality as an ontotheology”. The ‘fuzziness’ of the Eiffel Tower above, not unlike the blurred edges of the pirated video-camera filmed of a 3D film at the cinema, is in part the layering of tourist vista-points captured by a camera, but it is also the outcome of Vionnet’s online activity to use everyday Internet search engines to find appropriate images and the design-work of image processing software. The images map an interplay between two series of events: the collective experience of implication in the discursive-architecture of the tourist spectacle and the ‘historical discontinuity’ of shifting from the photo album (or slideshow sceening) to the Internet and social network-enabled sharing of photos — vernacular mnemotechnics and practices of photography from ‘Kodak moment’ to ‘Facebook moment’.

Simondon then shifts to a discussion of the contemplation and handling tools. Using the example of a double-ended wrench specifically designed for cyclists. The two heads of the wrench have four diameters and having a head on each end makes the tool easy to grip in a fist. This tool “answers very well to what it is required to do” and “gives aesthetic pleasure when one contemplates it”. It reminds me of a trivial event from my teenage years. Discussing cars with a father of one of my friends (the father had just bought a Corvette), I was consuming a mint. The father exclaimed to the simplicity of the design of the mint’s container that would release a single mint when squeezed. On investigation the container did not have any moving parts, rather the flexing of the plastic ejected a mint by modulating a series of three chambers. One to extract a mint from the holding chamber, and then a third to release the mint from the extraction chamber. It was an elegant design and a I remember my friend’s father being very excited by this.

This is still contemplation, however, and Simondon goes on to note that “contemplation is not techno-aesthetics’ primary category. It’s in usage, in action, that it becomes something orgasmic, a tactile means and motor of stimulation”. This is a “very particular pleasure of sensation”. Between the ‘consumer’ of the work of art and the sensations of the artist can also be thought of in terms of the pleasures of sensation. One of the more important insights in the brief letter is that Simondon argues there is a “continuous spectrum that connects aesthetics o technics”. Simondon’s example here has a direct connection to my previous research (on enthusiasm in car culture). He discusses the interplay of technics and aesthetics in the context of the Jaguar EV 12 from the perspective of functionality. The body of the Jaguar is designed to be aerodynamic, however the undercarriage is less so. In a later passage Simondon returns to discussing the Jaguar’s engine in a rough comparison to that of the Citreon 2CV. The engine fo the 2CV is “that of car at degree zero”, which for Simondon means that the technical elements have been arranged for function, ease of access and so on. The engine of the Jaguar, on the other hand, has been designed to be an exaggerated technical object that has been araanged for the purposes of a techno-aesthetics incorporating the long hood of the engine and the positioning of the radiator. The exaggerated ‘spoilers’ of modified-car culture are a more extreme example of the point Simondon is making here. Modified cars fitted with ‘body kits’ use a technical aesthetics in subcultural ways. This is a material semiotics of force and function noted by Gene Balsey in the very first critical work on modified car culture “The Hot Rod Culture” (1950); what he called the “competition aesthetic” of post-war hot rodders drawing on the aesthetics of the slat-lake racers.

Similarly, aesthetic objects lend themselves to technical analysis, with Simondon referencing the reception of the Mona Lisa’s technical analysis. This entire paragraph of Simondon’s is remarkable. He is contemplating the Mona Lisa’s smile-event (in Deleuze’s sense of the event, pun intended;), here is the relevant section:

On the very same canvas, one encounters the beginning and the end of a smile–but not the exhaustion of a smile, the entelechy of the smile. […] The smile that begins, and the smile that ends so as to return to the face’s mask of seriousness, are the extreme terms of this temporal thickness: the smile will unfold itself, and at the same time it will also already be disappearing. The only thing that exists and is materialized are the outer limits of the moment of exhaustion, of full realization. But the entelechy is not figured as part of the painting. Are there not in this unique image two superimposed techniques, as is the case with palimpsests? Aren’t there two messages to decode, in order to infer the source-message (the master-message), which is lacking? It’s the original reality that remains mute, non-present, but past and to come in a quasi-immediate but nevertheless mysterious way. What is of central importance is the mystery itself of what is not-figured.

‘Entelechy’ comes from Aristotlean philosophy and refers to when an object is completely actual and fully present. The smile-event exists between two movements — a ‘becoming’ — one where it is exhausted and the face returns to seriousness and the other when the smile is fully realised. These ends in the double-movement of the smile are fully real but virtual. In the same way Vionnet’s work captures this double-movement, but is complicated by a transversal movement across the two (double) series of the vista-point of the tourist gaze and the algorithmic return of a keyword search of photos proffered for ‘sharing’ and their doubles in the mnemotechnical iterations of these two series across generational differences (both of human collective memory and technics).

In the realm of consumption techno-aesthetics intervenes in what Simondon describes as the  “conditioning (in the commercial sense of the word)” of commodities.  Simondon describes an example of food and the way it is received across cultural differences vary in reception in a given region. Perhaps most interesting of all for those into Object-Oriented Ontology is Simondon’s example of electricity: “Industrial aesthetics can be, first of all, the aesthetic of produced objects. But not everything is an object. Electricity is not an object. It can only be detected and manipulated through objects and possibly also through natural environments: lightning passes through and structures itself through corridors of air that have already been ionized.” Simondon’s example is from nature but his point is that techno-aesthetics deals with action, or ‘function’, not objects.

I’m currently about half way finished writing an article about the garage as an assemblage that has certain gendered and affective affordances for the passage of action. One of the critical remarks I want to make about Simondon’s brief note is ‘functionality’ is always already present in the forms of action either in practice or designed ‘into’ a technical system. I’ve been thinking about how enthusiasm is often a constituent element in vernacular epistemologies of a techno-aesthetic disposition. What is at stake for these amateur tinkerers and what not is that they do not appreciate ‘function’ in the same way as an expert or professional. ‘Functionality’ is backformed from the experience of engaging with “what works” not “the way it works”.

Although Simondon acknowledges that assumes that we engage with technologies according to “the way it works” but technologies do not work the same for everyone even though they may be designed as such. The enthusiast’s knowledge is born of experience and involves an intimate appreciation of ‘function’  immanent and congruent to practice. Without this immanent sense of function and correlative co-determination of the subject and object arrayed by the function, a techno-aesthetics can easily lapse into a neo-Modernist technologism (or critical appreciation of the dialectical opposite, ala Ellul’s technique). Function is a consequence of design for Simondon, while I am suggesting it is immanent to ‘work’. In other words, I am arguing for a techno-aesthetics belonging primarily to technê and not episteme (and ‘truth’); or a techno-aesthetics on the technê end of the spectrum on knowledge and experience.

Like the smile discussed above, functionality is an event, a double-movement between what works and what doesn’t. Something that is malfunctioning is still functioning albeit poorly from the perspective of Simondon’s assumed entelechial functionality. Enhusiasts are often suspended, in action, between two relative compositions of a technical assemblage characterised by different states of functionality. There is a terrific moment in Hugh Howey’s novel Wool (spoiler-free introduction on Geek Dad blog) that captures this movement. The novel is set in a ‘silo’ and its inhabitants are survivors of some kind of apocalyptic event. I want to talk about an event where a character, Juliette, repairs a generator, but I won’t give too much away because it is a very good book.

The generator is a huge industrial machine that generates electricity for the whole silo, which is enough for hundreds of people to live. For as long as Juliette has been alive, the generator has been an incredibly loud machine the vibrations of which can be felt throughout the lower levels of the silo. Juliette convinces the administrative superiors in the silo that preventative maintenance is necessary to ward off catastrophic failure. Juliette carries out the repairs and when the generator is started she needs to be signalled by another person close to the generator that it is operating and that the first character needs to stop pressing the ‘starter’ button.  The generator’s rotating assembly is now so finely balanced there is no vibration and very little noise. The repairs carried out might as well have been improvements because the repair/design of the generator was born of experience and involves an intimate appreciation of its working functionality.  Juliette is operating in a context where there is a constant struggle between all the parts of a machine working together in functional harmony and the constant pressure of entropic decline (used as a metonym in the novel for the functioning of the silo).