Category Archives: Academic Work

What is ‘theory’?

Steven Muecke provides a description of what theory is in his review of Morton’s Hyperobjects:

What he does is “theory,” which is what high-flying professors of English write when they are not training people to read literature. Those who read Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory in college will be familiar with the genre. It comprises difficult material made a little more accessible, and even enjoyable, via rhetorical flourishes, brilliant and breathtaking connections (Marx, God, Wordsworth, and cornflakes might appear in the same sentence), and sometimes it includes combat sports, as rival critical theories are pummelled into the ground.

Theory is not an academic discipline. Philosophers reading Hyperobjects might groan and protest (see Nathan Brown’s review of Morton’s recent Realist Magic), but Morton is not doing philosophy, he is sampling it. Likewise with the most recent advances in theoretical physics, appearing in this book in spades, along with some writing about avant-garde arts and music. It’s a strange mash-up, this theory stuff. You don’t read theory to advance the discipline you might belong to — you read it for stimulation…

Talking about world views

In the latest Partially Examined Life podcast on Thomas Kuhn’s notion of scientific progress Mark refers to the previous Deleuze and Guattari What is Philosophy? podcast and makes a connection between Kuhn’s notion of ‘paradigm’ with Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of a ‘plane of immanence’. Below are some rough notes on this connection to push it a bit further into some of Deleuze and Guattari’s other works and so as to connect Mark’s reference to ‘planes of immanence’ in the context of Kuhnian paradigms with Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of ‘collective assemblages of enunciation’.

I have roughly transcribed the section from the podcast below (between the time code references):

[1:02:10]

[Discussing how the term 'paradigm' has entered into non-technical discourse to refer to what could be called a 'world view'. 'Technical' in this context means following Kuhn's definition.]

Wes: Most people use it as synonymous with ‘world view’, which… there’s an argument for that, but really it’s more like ‘exemplar’; it’s an ‘example’.

Mark: I would just like some more systematic language — some philosophy — to tell me how to talk more intelligently about ‘world views’ in this nebulous way that we actually want to talk about it. There perhaps a modern [inaudible] evolution of this idea in the Deleuze [and Guattari] book that we read, When he’s talking about ‘planes of immanence’ there’s a certain commonality — granted he’s talking about ‘planes of immanence’ as what defines a ‘philosophy’ and what defines a ‘philosophy’ is defined by the concepts and once you have the ‘concepts’ established maybe you could see that as providing a paradigm for science, which remember [Mark shifts to his wise-cracking smart-ass voice] he sees as just providing ‘functions’ its just mapping one value onto another as if you’ve got the mapping rule already stored in your paradigm there and your plane of immanence…  and so science on that model is just what Kuhn is describing normal science as — is just filling in the details, is finding out what each question maps to in your set-up. [But] the plane of immanence that we had so much trouble with… maybe its just my desire to make some sense out of the Deleuze retrospectively, [Wes: Well..] but maybe paradigm is a good start for that…

Wes: That sounds like more a conceptual scheme which I think is different to a paradigm. [Mark: Hmmm] A conceptual scheme includes — yeah — a set of concepts for talking about the world and certain assumptions, but a paradigm I think as an example gets at some of the more less conceptual stuff, some of the tacit knowledge, some of the ways… maybe it’s more like — what’s Wittgenstein’s phrase?

Mark: Mode of life?

Wes: Yeah, and part of it’s about what’s relevant to people, so its not just about what concepts they’re deploying, but what’s about what’s interesting and relevant.

[1:04:07]

I have taught Kuhn’s work to first year undergraduates in a large introductory ‘research methods’ unit that is taught to every incoming student to our faculty of arts and design. The purpose of the unit is to introduce students to ‘research methods’ in the humanities. I draw on Kuhn’s work so as to illustrate how the practice and meaning of the word ‘research’ in a contemporary Australian university context is largely determined by scientific discourse. I indicate the connection between our university’s policies on research to the federal government’s policies to the guidelines provided by OECD’s Frascati Manual in the way that ‘research’ is defined.

The contemporary Frascati Manual is an interesting document as it attempts to bridge the gap between the ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ research of the sciences (p. 30) with a non-scientific research of the humanities. At stake is the distinction between the practice of what could be described as ‘routine work’ and the practice of ‘research’. ‘Research’ in this context is any practice that is worthy of non-routine investment funding. Why is this important for the OECD? Because research in the humanities can have productivity outcomes. “For the social sciences and humanities,” the manual suggests, “an appreciable element of novelty or a resolution of scientific/technological uncertainty is again useful criterion for defining the boundary between R&D and related (routine) scientific activities” (p. 48).

When introducing this to to my first year students I use it to talk about what this ‘resolution of scientific/technological uncertainty’. I frame this discussion in terms of matching certain kinds of research practice with certain kinds of epistemological uncertainty. The students already do research to address a certain kind of uncertainty. What films are showing at the cinema this weekend? What gift should I give to someone dear to me? This work of everyday research relates to the kinds of tacit knowledge that I think Wes was referring to. I introduce the notion of ‘research’ in this manner so as to help students realise that the epistemological process of working to resolve uncertainty is not some special thing that academics do, but is something we are all familiar with as part of everyday life.

The next manoeuvre is to posit undergraduate research as part of a process of becoming familiar with another set of professional practices for identifying the ‘uncertainties’ that belong to a given scholarly or research-centred field. I teach Kuhn’s notion of paradigm in terms of being one way to describe (make ‘sense’ of) an epistemological process for the resolution of uncertainty. The ‘paradigm’ is the set of agreed upon practices and assumptions for reproducing the conditions by which such uncertainties are identified as such (‘certain uncertainties’ to riff off Rumsfeld). From my lecture notes, I note that ‘paradigms’ are compositions of relations that:

Create avenues of inquiry.
Formulate questions.
Select methods with which to examine questions.
Define areas of relevance.

I define ‘expert researcher’ for my students as someone who knows exactly what they do not know and who belongs to a ‘scholarly field’ that has specific methods for defining what is not known in terms of what is known. (One reason for this is to try to shunt students out of the debilitating circuitous logic of gaming education for grades and resurrect a sense of wonder about the world.)

The ‘reproduction’ part in defining paradigms is therefore important as Kuhn also identified the so-called political aspect of scientific paradigms: they are not simply sustained by the quality of the knowledge produced by research, but the professional conditions by which that knowledge and producers of that knowledge are judged worthy as belonging. This has been a roundabout way of getting to the substance of this post, which is Mark’s reference to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of a ‘plane of immanence’. Rather than a ‘plane of immanence’, I think perhaps a better connection is to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of a ‘collective assemblage of enunciation’. 

A ‘plane of immanence’ is the ‘quasi-causal’ grounds by which thought is possible. (That is an esoteric post-Kantian pun.)  ’Quasi-cause’ comes from Deleuze’s work The Logic of Sense. It is an attempt to address the problem of how ‘sense’ (the logic of meaning) arises from what is basically the cosmological nonsense of the universe. I won’t pursue this too much, but the way humans make sense of the world normally implies some kind of realism. This ‘realism’ is in itself not natural, and can be described as a collective system of reference.

In What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari characterise ‘science’ as the creation of what they call ‘functives’; a ‘functive’ is the basic element of a function and it describes some aspect of the way the universe works. What makes thought possible is the complex individuation of a thought through the body of a sentient being. Cognitive science is doing its best to resolve this problem. Individuation in this context follows a causally normative path of individuation. This leads to that. The process of cognition.

What makes thought sensible is a philosophical problem. The seemingly counter-intuitive movement of thought in the context of the expression of thought, whereby the future affects the present. That is lead by this. In Difference & Repetition Deleuze draws on Nietzsche’s notion of the ‘dark precursor’ to describe this movement. On the surface, non-linear causality seems like a radical idea. In practice, we do this work everyday. Instead of creating momentous existential crises most of the time we delegate these causally circular movements of thought to metaphysical placeholders. We collectively describe these as ‘assumptions’.

Indeed, Deleuze separates the cosmos into bodies and the passions of bodies (causes) and expressions and the sense of expressions (effects) and associates two orders of causality. (Or ‘two floors’ in the existential architecture of reality in The Fold.) One which belongs to the world and is shared by every single thing (body) in the world. One which only can be inferred by implication in any expression of sense. Deleuze’s concept of the event is an conceptual attempt to group together the dynamic quasi-causal expression of ‘sense’, which is why the ‘event’ is central to The Logic of Sense. 

Language and culture imply a shared sense of quasi-causality for those thinking beings who belong to that culture and use that language. Cultural expression can therefore be understood as an elaborate method for the dissemination of assumptions. Interesting to think about in this context is ‘poetics’ as a research practice  – that is, poetics as a method for identifying or discovering new assumptions. For those who work in the creative industries perhaps it is worth thinking about what assumptions are you helping to disseminate.

The detour through ‘quasi-cause’ was necessary to explain the notion of a collective assemblage of enunciation and why it is difficult to explain how a new paradigm emerges from an old paradigm. The notes to PEL podcast on Kuhn describe this as an ‘evolutionary version of Kantianism’. But the problem with this is that the new paradigm does not emerge from the old paradigm; the point of the notion of the paradigm is that it describes practices that ward off the development of new paradigms. Hence the non-scientific problem with the concept of the paradigm: the difficulty of describing how a new paradigm emerges from the new paradigm before that ‘new’ paradigm exists in actuality.

In A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guattari develop the concept of ‘agencement’, which is translated by Massumi as ‘assemblage’. There are two sides to every assemblage: a machinic assemblage of bodies and a collective assemblage of enunciation. There are two orders of causality to every assemblage. The linear movement of causal relations belonging to bodies and the ‘quasi-causal’ relations of thought. Each fold of ‘thought’ in this context is the process of transversal distribution of sense in the world. Sense is distributed from the future; it is the superposition of one moment upon the next. One way to think about this is that every paradigm (as a concrescence of singular points) already exists quasi-causally.

A ‘world view’ therefore has two ontological levels: the world and the view. Language is important because each singular expression implies a monadological view that can be inferred. More important is that even though sentience can be defined by the existential capacity to make assumptions. As Nietzsche was at pains to point out, it is a seemingly unique human trait to delegate this capacity for making assumptions (or what he called ‘truths’) to our culture. Nietzsche was worried about the manifestation of ignorance as the acceptance of such assumptions as well as admiring the near-suicidal pursuit to overcome such assumption-producing cultural mechanisms. 

Which leads to the question, in what ways are humans not sentient? Is your world view making you non-sentient? If non-sentient life is defined as the delegation of the capacity for making assumptions to genetics, then what are the assumptions we have delegated to our biology or through our biology (by way of evolutionary ‘fitness’) to our environment? 

I have purchased but not yet read Isabelle Stengers Thinking with Whitehead. I suspect it shall address, at least peripherally, some of these issues.

Tools for Critical Epistemology: Part 3

Deleuze and Guattari explain minor sciences are “itinerant, ambulant sciences that consist in following a flow in a vectorial field across which singularities are scattered like so many ‘accidents’ (problems)” (372). Bonta and Protevi explore the concept of a minor science in this way in their book Deleuze and Geophilosophy. They write “Deleuzean problematics of ‘minor science’ establishes the existence and distribution of singularities in a manifold, thus laying out the complex structure of multiplicity” (26). Closer to Foucault’s approach of engaging with the archive – what he called eventalization. It involved a number of methodological steps. First, mapping the distribution of ‘statements’ – utterances that characterised a field within which a given utterance had a certain truth value. Second, examining the institutional context or changes in the institutional context within which the truth of these statements had authority and the character of this authority.

Or in Deleuze’s philosophical, as outlined in Difference & Repetition, to isolate a problematic field and treat with the distribution of singular points condensed as a ‘concept’. Deleuze is actually scathing of anyone who misrecognises ordinary points for being singular points, an activity which he terms ‘stupidity’. The ‘idiot’ is a friend of philosophy as he or she treats another philosophy in a naïve or ironic fashion to approach it in terms of its singular coordinates rather than attempt to reproduce it as an image of thought.

So the problem that I would like to present is regarding how to think the relation between these two epistemological methodologies and the way I am framing this problem today is with regardless to the location of the necessary aesthetic dimension required when attending to singularities and correlative phase-spaces. Thinking about the singular points and becomings and so on of aesthetics is relatively familiar, what I am trying to get at is the functional art of technical knowledge

Tools for Critical Epistemology: Part 2

In the fragments from his estate’s papers translated and published as Technical Mentality Simondon focuses on the event of human invention, how it was unified with the artisan, but then becomes dispersed in the industrial age. He describes this in terms of the distribution of information and the distribution of energy, where they do not overlap. He suggests, “industrial modality appears when the source of information and the source of energy separate, namely when the Human Being is merely the source of information, and Nature is required to furnish the energy”. He continues a little later, “Unfortunately, the entry of information that comes into the work is no longer unique in the way it is with the artisanal gesture: it happens through several moments and at several levels.”

Simondon describes four moments of the entry of information 1) Invention, 2) construction, 3) learning to use and 4) operation. I’d like to add a fifth, repair. Simondon should be celebrated for focusing squarely on the role of the technical object in the constitution of the technical reality. He writes:

“Technical thinking has by nature the vocation to represent the point-of-view of the element; it adheres to the elementary function. Once technicity is admitted into a domain it breaks it up and starts a chain of successive and elementary mediations governed by the unity of the domain and subordinated to it. Technical thinking conceives the operation of an ensemble as a chain of elementary processes working point by point and step by step; it localises and multiplies the schemas of mediation, always remaining lesser than the unity.” (421)

Different subjectivities are distributed through this chain in many ways and for Simondon this is unfortunate. The separation of subjectivities arranged through this chain of mediations of the technical reality of a singular object is manifest in the character of socio-technical discourse through which each of the subjectivities apprehends the technical reality. In most circumstances the operation, maintenance and repair of a technical system demands participation in this technical reality for the human that is actually divorced from the abstracted scientific theory and the pure automatic incorporation of Ellul’s ‘technique’. The ‘technical reality’ is like ‘technique’ in that describes a reconfiguration of subjectivity appropriate for functioning at an appropriate moment between thresholds in the chain of the technical reality. This is similar to the actor-network theory of ‘black boxing’ but at each moment in the entire mediative chain of technical reality for a given socio-technical object. Simondon argues there is no organic totality or unity between the mediations.

For the thinker of ontogenetic accounts of the individual clearly there must be an organic dimension at each moment in the chain of mediation whereby the correlative subject is co-individuated with the ensemble of the socio-technical reality. Simondon also briefly discusses the way consumers of socio-technical objects, such as consumers of the automobile, are kind of suspended between the symbolic dimensions of the object and its functional aspects. The point being that are alienated from the actual technical discourse through which they could be individuated as a technical subject able to participate at other moments in the mediation. The solution to this problem is to not regard knowledge as ever totalising but as a partial development determined by the process of individuation. This partial, situated knowledge is better understood in terms of singular points, phase spaces and thresholds of understanding, or what Deleuze and Guattari called a ‘minor science’.

 

Tools for Critical Epistemology: Part 1

The emergence of the ‘policy recommendation’ as an appropriate research output for humanities scholars and academics appears to be a relatively recent phenomena of the last three decades or so. ‘Appropriate’ in this context means judged worthy by funding bodies, politicians and bellicose media commentators. In some cases the recommendations are based on research that mirrors the extent of research belonging to the relevant scholarly field or even exceeds it. For example,  the (in)famous case of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s work for the Canadian government on the ‘condition of knowledge’ was on the leading edge of late-1970s post-structuralist accounts of epistemology. Or, closer to home, the Arts and Creative Industries (2011) report produced by Justin O’Connor is similarly on the leading edge of research exploring the relation between the culture and economics of the arts and the creative industries.

Another trend I’ve noticed however is regarding the way specialist or technical appreciations of a given policy problem are reduced to be suitable for ‘report’ form. There seems to be an over-reliance on the presentation of information as ‘facts’ within a very weak analytical framework. The sector I’ve noticed this in relates to cultural practices using communication technologies and I am not sure if it pertains to other areas. The distribution of understanding across multiple stakeholders creates an uneven effect. I’ve been in presentations that consisted of information I already knew combined with information that could be easily searched for online. This is not that much of a problem, except that the questions being asked that framed the presentation were also overly simplistic.

The simplistic research presentation was a problem, but it is not the main problem. If those making policy decisions know less about a given area than those making policy recommendations, then a different relation to knowledge is required than one which is ‘functional’ or ‘sufficient’. Or, to reframe this in a slightly different way, what is needed is an appreciation of knowledge not blinkered by one’s own lack of appreciation of the conditions of knowing. As much as we develop appreciations of knowledge, these appreciations are developed along with situated relations of epistemological myopia. Gilbert Simondon, the thinker of individuation and ‘technics’, described this mode of appreciation a ‘technical reality’.