Rough Notes on the Techno-Aesthetics of Cattle

Other permutations of the title of this post could have been techno-aesthetics of ‘living standards’ or techno-aesthetics of ‘the future’.

Mike Konczal’s piece in The New Inquiry on the work of ‘standardization’ in processes of ‘financialization’ was shared across my social networks the other day. In it he suggests that financial markets have in part attempted to solve a thousands of years old philosophical problem:

Are there only particular, individual, material things out there, with generic names arising only from social conventions? Or are there ideal Platonic universal entities, which exist separately from individual iterations of them? The financial system that has evolved in the past 150 years alongside capitalism in part attempts to resolve this question.


Konscal tells an interesting story of the process through which the phenomena of standardising previously non-standardised goods meant that these goods could be traded on financial markets.  Does the process of standardising a good therefore lead to the material embodiment of a Platonic ideal? No, of course not.

Konscal’s argument is more sophisticated than this because it is concerned with relations between the present and the future. The Platonic ideal of standardised cattle does not exist in the present but on the edge of the present in the traded-future.

Let’s look at the Chicago Mercentile Exchange’s rulebook for a Live Cattle Future, specifically the legal content for what qualifies as a “deliverable” cattle. First off, “No individual animal weighing less than 1,050 pounds or more than 1,500 pounds” shall be deliverable as a cattle. “Unmerchantable” cattle, such as those that are “crippled, sick, obviously damaged or bruised,” are not acceptable. Graders are on standby to ensure that these judgments are satisfactorily made.

Pick any other commodity, and you’ll find the contract that similarly marks what the ideal form of it should be. […]

The system of standardization in futures contracts resolved the particular into the general and came to be heralded as a major financial innovation. The name of the thing produced the thing, rather than the thing producing the name: nominalism vs. realism solved.

‘Ideal form’ in the sense of a Platonic ideal form? Nope.

Nietzsche’s “On Truth and Falsity” takes aim with this problem, of the relation between the infinite variability of actual materiality and the anthropomorphic drive for ‘truth’ in speech and ‘ideas’ or what in this context Konscal calls a ‘standard’. Ideas do not originate from an ideal, but through a process of equating the unequal:

Every word becomes at once an idea not by having, as one might presume, to serve as a reminder for the original experience happening but once and absolutely individualised, to which experience such word owes its origin, no, but by having simultaneously to fit innumerable, more or less similar (which really means never equal, therefore altogether unequal) cases. Every idea originates through equating the unequal. […]

The disregarding of the individual and real furnishes us with the idea, as it like-wise also gives us the form ; whereas nature knows of no forms and ideas, and therefore knows no species but only an x, to us inaccessible and indefinable. For our antithesis of individual and species is anthropomorphic too and does not come from the essence ‘ of things, although on the other hand we do not dare to say that it does not correspond to it ; for that would be a dogmatic assertion and as such just as undemonstrable as its contrary. […]

His procedure is to apply man as the measure of all things, whereby he starts from the error of believing that he has these things immediately before him as pure objects. He therefore forgets that the original metaphors of perception are metaphors, and takes them for the things themselves.

Most interpretations of Nietzsche have focused on what is called the implicit ‘perspectivism’ of his position on truth. I am interested in the non-anthropomorphic “original experience happening but once and absolutely individualised” and how this relates to what Duns Scotus called a ‘haecceity’ and Gilbert Simondon called a process of individuation. One aspect of individuation often forgotten is that it describes not just an ‘individual’ (a person, a cow, anything) but also the ‘environment’ or context within which the individual is individuated. One way to interpret this is through what Simondon called an analysis of the relation between an individual and environment techno-aesthetics.

Techno-aesthetics attends not to the aesthetics of forms (ideal or otherwise) but the regularity of singular points through which the individual-environment relation is composed and the individual individuated. In related work Simondon explored the very long historical shifts that led to the emergence of technology and religion from a “primitive magical unity” as the the human being’s first mode of being. Primitive Magical Unity is characterised by an immobile connection of singular way-points, embodied in mountains and the like, whereby the mountain serves as a conduit to an extra-human realm. Religion produces a new ground, while Technology mobilises the singular-relation itself and Technicity is a kind of embodied relational index of this process.

The techno-aesthetics of cattle futures is not concerned with the ideal form of cattle as discursively embodied in legal rules but with, firstly, the existing (past) process of individuation through which cattle are individuated and, secondly, the way in which ‘futures’ serve as a connection between this existing (past) process of individuation and another future process of individuation. Experience-based knowledges are implicit here, so for example an expect ‘cattle reader’ can read the process of individuation off a given herd of cattle

What is the second process of individuation? It is the deployment of the cattle as socio-technology to individuate a set of relations that we call a ‘market’. Traders of cattle futures do not want ‘ideal cattle’ they want an instrument that allows them to pursue the individuation of a second market that will ‘consume’ the cattle (in reality, they are merely just the next linkage in a series of Latour’s mediators). Inherent to all this is a legally sanctioned form of trust, which Nietzsche suggested underpins the evolution of ‘truth’. Massumi describes the affective dimension of this connection between two processes of individuation an ‘operational linkage’. Consumers are caught up in this process too, as the flipside of the individuated market. The consumers’ affective relation is talked about in economics as ‘confidence’. 

I am being an aleatory materialist here. There is no ‘ideal’ anything. 

Konscal of course recognises this, in particular when he turns his attention to the failed attempt to ‘financialise’ toxic home loans:

Not only were these contracts designed to make the bad-mortgage future, they were also ill-prepared for the contingencies they pretended to tame and master. When the housing market collapsed, the creators of these contracts lacked the thorough knowledge of the mortgage contracts within them—highly individualized relations between lenders and borrowers, each with their own nuances—that would have been necessary to recover some of their value.

In this context the risk/opportunity nexus serves as the operational-linkage between (at least) two processes of individuation. What Konscal has isolated is not the apparent attempt of bankers to ‘solve’ a many thousands year old problem of ideational ontology, but the specific failure of bankers to, firstly, appreciate the process of individuation by which ‘risks’ (and, by extension ‘opportunities’) are created, and secondly, even if they did appreciate this, they lacked the operational “knowledge of the […] highly individualized relations between lenders and borrowers, each with their own nuances”. Or as Konscal puts it more bluntly: “They proved to be farmers who couldn’t tell cows from cow shit.”

Valorising Research, Teaching and the Research Hole

My (recently) ex-colleague Jason Wilson has published an insightful piece on self-funded research. We’ve had a number of chats about this over the last year. The examples I raised of ‘self-funded’ research were of cultural studies scholars in the 1980s who did not receive ‘funds’ for research and even included those (for example, like Meaghan Morris) who worked on the fringes of academia as journalists and in the media industry.

Jason makes a number of key points. Firstly, you need to be relatively privileged so as to be able to afford to this in terms of time and money. Secondly, he did not plan for this to be self-funded and the circumstances emerged because the funding application did not work out. This has some implications that Jason notes and that I want to expand on below. Third, he notes it is incredibly mobile, or it is as mobile as Jason is, and the project goes wherever he does, so there is no need for complicated ‘handover’ processes. Lastly, he notes that this experience has made him realise that ‘funding’ and ‘research’ are separate and that receiving ‘funding’ does not necessarily valorise ‘research’ (even though we are encouraged to think in this way). I want to add two points.

First, I want to speculate on the valorising relationship between ‘funding’ and ‘research’. I’ve just finished Graeme Turner’s What’s Become of Cultural Studies (2012) and the below passage resonated with a weird exchange I had with a colleague from another university late last year at a conference. She told me she had never taught at university and I was dumb struck. My first thought was how the hell do you test your ideas from your research to see if they work? Another colleague with a research-focused career suggested that it was the ARC and the various mechanisms which judged the first colleague’s research as worthy. ‘Worthy’ in this context means that it aligns with the government-prescribed ‘national interest’. Maybe the first colleague would not think of themselves in cultural studies, the second colleague certainly would. Here is what Turner says about this phenomena:

I routinely find, when I present talks on research applications and professional development in general, that most of those who attend these seminars take the view that they are entitled to entertain ambitions of a fulltime research career. […] [It] is hard not to feel that it is important for them to recognize that a research-only career remains an unrealistic ambition for 90 per cent of the academics working in cultural studies in Australia. In my own case, for example, the past 10 years of research-only employment have only come after decades of fulltime teaching.

It is the pragmatics of the situation that worry me most, then. And I wonder how these ambitions are being fed. Just what kinds of expectations are being sold to completing doctoral students and to junior staff members by their supervisors or by their university’s research office? Successful ARC applications result in significant funding benefits to the university, and so it is in the interests of Australian universities to encourage their staff to apply; the fact that so few will succeed ultimately does not bother the university much. It should bother us. It raises the possibility that we are going to be filling our teaching programmes with disappointed researchers who regard a conventional teaching appointment as the consolation prize. And it increases the possibility that those who are currently teaching cultural studies in our universities do not believe that the satisfaction teaching generates will play a fundamental role in sustaining them, personally or professionally. (emphasis added, pp 74-75)

I was very happy last year when I finally got to teach an upper-undergraduate unit that aligned with my research interests. My greatest challenge in doing research is not in producing new knowledge or thinking new ideas but in communicating them in a way that is sensible and which non-specialists can understand. I am not sure how teaching fits with others.

Relatedly, over the last year or so I’ve been experimenting with ‘modules’ within units in preparation of an exciting new unit ‘Newsroom’ in the Journalism program here at UC. ‘Newsroom’ is entirely based on research I’ve carried out over the last year on teaching methods for preparing students for the current industry context for media and journalism. It is based on my experience working in the magazine industry and working to adapt (or at least try to adapt) to a post-print industry, but extended beyond this. At its core is working with students to develop the capacity for producing their own expertise in industry contexts that we can’t even imagine. This production of professional expertise derived from the experience of testing out new practices and being confident in engaging with the world actually has more in common with the development of cultural studies in the 1970s and 1980s then it does with the conservative forms of ‘journalism’ education from the 1980s through to the early 2000s. I am hoping those familiar with the so-called ‘media wars’ of the late 1990s and early 2000s can appreciate the irony of all this. Turner as well as Grossberg in his recent book on cultural studies both locate the capacity of one’s student to produce knowledge as a central aim of cultural studies and this has little to do with particular methodologies except in the most abstract (and concrete! Oh, Deleuzian puns). This is a modification of the Kuhnian science-based model of scholarship where instead of the research problems being created on the edge of the scholarly field, and scholarship in part being a performative power struggle between proponents of competing ideas, the edge of the scholarly field (at least in cultural studies) is reoriented so it coincides with the edge of our students’ understanding. ‘Student’ in this context does not necessarily mean undergraduate students at university as it includes anyone we are trying to educate with new forms of knowledge.

Lastly, I want to extend Jason’s point regarding the relationship between research and funding. There is a parallel to the transformation to what we regard as ‘news’ in the journalism industry. By transforming the structural conditions through which ‘research’ is produced, academics are compelled to produce funding applications year in and year out, regardless of whether or not they have a funding-worthy research project. Note ‘funding-worthy research project’ is not determined necessarily by the individual academic or even the institution where he or she is employed but by the constraints of the funding guidelines. Ironically, one of the major expenses for humanities scholars factored into research funding applications, besides for research-only positions, is teaching buyout, so another academic can be paid to cover their teaching. The character of ‘news’ was transformed in the early 20th century so instead of journalists finding news they produced news. News had to be produced because of the ‘news hole’ created by advertising schedules; something had to be put in the hole produced on the page between pre-sold advertising space. Similarly but not exactly the same, research has to be put in the hole produced by the current funding regime. Knowledge is not produced for its own sake, but as a consequence of the imperative to seek research funding. Separating the mechanisms by which research is valorised from the mechanisms by which funding is valorised will mean that knowledge production can be valorised for other reasons.

Here is useful test I might experiment with this year. Does my research help me with my teaching? Both ‘research’ and ‘teaching’ broadly understood.


CSAA Conference Final Plenary Panel

My ‘mobile phone’ notes on the final plenary panel session of the 2012 CSAA conference All panelists addressed the question: What matters for cultural studies?


Few would describe it as a discipline.

Training in a disciplinarity

Teaching downgraded.
Conduct in everyday life.
Don’t believe surrendering the space to solving problems of business.
Critical pedagogic in everyday life.
Creative industries, narcissism of small differences.
Thin notion of cultural value in creative industries.
Lack of an economics suitable to their circumstances
Neomarxist political economy needs updating
Cultural economics is languishing in FOR Codes
Core values?
Studied Bruno Latour’s recent book
“Idealism of materialism”
Matter understood in its particularism not its potential universalism.
Beyond nature culture divide. Ecologize rather than modernize.
Human is not a special mode of existence.
Materialism between reproduction & reference.
Myths & poetry exist in real worlds.
Core values should be concerned with truth & beauty.
The nature of its mattering has changed over time.
Cultural Studies loose association of interests in how cultural operates, with an intellectual commitment to change.
Teaching category and ARC funding category serve as conditions of possibility/existence.
In UK took form of an ideological politics, then in pedagogy, practical areas of engagement — these no longer linked to policy debates(?)
Does it matter? Yes it does. Meeting place for heterogeneous modes of engagement.
These different approaches are often incubated somewhere else, Cultural Studies now catching up.
Other kinds of challenges, rise of business & management studies.
Not focusing on intellectual content challenges, the context of these challenges more important.
1. Should be embracing in a serious ways, of deep cultural way, diversity. Broader question of the humanities? Cosmopolitan engagement missing, focus on materiality, means abandoning difference?
2. The bureaucracy of it all. Cultural studies an FOR code. ARC assessed based on this code.
What is relation to other disciplines, they’ve had ‘cultural turns’.
3. Being assessed as an FOR code? Danger of being assessed in conservative purely academic ways.
Perceptible shift at this conference, things that wouldnt normally be talked about. Plus all the elders of CS all appeared in one place.
Papers that move outward new topics (extensive), papers that move inward to discuss methodology (intensive).
CS discipline traditionally moved outwards (extensive), stepped into areas where it hasn’t been welcome.
Inherent parasitism has been a weakness.
What is the coherent, focused body of knowledge being shaped?
Marked by the radical character of pedagogy, students know as much about the topics as teachers.
Many things matter for CS.
CS mutated in new ways.
Focus on the present, history of the present, needs a sense of history.
CS pursues things that don’t quite fit.
1. Fracture. Two books on future of CS. Institutional shift towards practical education, ‘how to do’ rather than ‘what to know’.
2. ERA requires a CS readership previously imagined as a political orientation, but now think of as negotiating between different knowledges.
3. Ian Hunter academy of humanities, intellectual history, social epistemology
Exhilaration and energy required to do all these things, this is what matters in CS.
My goal is show people that are freer than they feel.
D&G’s notion of the diagonal (transversal) where they are not meant to be.
“The geezer’s panel.” In Maclaurin Room, all men on the walls.
Vivid reminder how much work has been done.
Exhilaration required to keep going.
Ross Chambers calls room to manoeuvre.
CS peculiar for being formed in an era almost wholly dominated by neoliberalism.
Beyond bitterness and critique?
My question: Graeme’s focus on the future, Tom’s point about epistemology, Meaghan’s point about energy, all in the context of the general point about pedagogy and a tension with the category of the economic: do we need to reclaim for our students a critical sense of the ‘aspirational’?
MM: Radiate back a positive sense of what is good in students’ work. They need to develop their own critical sense of the future. More interested in TOR “what to do”.
GT: Cultural Studies 101, set of hard readings, teacher performed exegesis, wrote essay. But CS originally about generating agency, aspirational comes from that.
JF: Re neoliberalism, CS takes a differentiated approach to the economy.

Sent from my iPhone

Working paper seminar series

Below is the title and abstract of a paper I shall be presenting this Friday as part of our working papers seminar series. It is based on about the first third/half of a paper I am trying to finish about the garage-assemblage. Actual paper does not really engage with Summernats.

Title: “Show us your tits”: Summernats, Gender and Simondon’s Techno-Aesthetics

Abstract: A genealogy of the Summernats street machining festival must include the mid-1980s historical turning point of where it shifts from the Street Machine Nationals run “By street machiners for street machiners” to the 1987 spectacular Summernats event. The Street Machine Nationals was organised around the display and appreciation of the street machine projects understood as the outcome of the creative labour of enthusiasts. The Summernats event shifted the composition of relations where the elite street machines (still appreciated as above) were used to individuate a much larger market of the interested public. This spectacular mode of car enthusiast festival was pitched as a “party”. A constant critique of this party-like event is its explicit masculine character best captured by the misogynist demand: “Show us your tits”. “Show us your tits” is a demand for visibility and invitation for females to ‘belong’ to the hyper-masculine experience of the event.

In a 1982 letter to Jacques Derrida, philosopher of technology Gilbert Simondon outlines what he describes as “techno-aesthetics” and explores technology and the technical from the point of view of aesthetics. Early in his letter Simondon includes a comment from the architect Eupaulinos (in Paul Valéry’s version of Socrates’ dialogue with Phaedrus): “Whereas passersby merely see an elegant chapel, I see the exact proportions of a girl from Corinth whom I happily loved.”

The seemingly incongruous relation between Simondon’s techno-aesthetics and the misogynist cultural practices of Summernats I shall stake out in this paper involves thinking about the way men heteronormatively aestheticise technology through gendered anthropomorphisation. I shall argue that the libidinal-affective intensities of the female form are mapped onto the non-human intensities of (pre-digital) technology. Later gendered relations to technology map the intensities of war to the non-human intensities of computers, particularly in gaming cultures. I shall read Simondon’s theory of the individuation of environment-subjects in terms of Felix Guattari’s theories of the multi-dimensional subject. The pre-individual field of the subject co-individuated with technology at an intensive level (such as found in the homosocial spaces of enthusiast car culture) transversally connects different experiences from any given subject’s development (‘individuation’). The point I shall make is that in the case of Summernats, the misogynist domination of women is a consequence of the reproduction of heteronormative and intimate relations with technology (and other men) that ward off the anxiety of wayward libidinal-affective desire.

Make the Most of Career Opportunity!

What does it mean to have a tactical relation to opportunity? What is an ‘opportunity’? What are the affects of ‘opportunity’?

Mel Gregg has an excellent post In Praise of Strategic Complacency over at Home Cooked Theory. In it she is critiquing of the neoliberal discourse through which most academics are encouraged to understand their careers. A key term in this neoliberal discourse is ‘opportunity’. Mel writes:

It’s not enough to have gotten the job. No, landing the job is just the first step in a constant process of planning, assessing and maximizing “opportunities”. From now on, there will be little if any time to sit back and acknowledge your achievements, and yet part of what I want to suggest today is that you must fight for this time. And beware of people offering “opportunities”!
The model of worker that is rewarded today is that which is endlessly, limitlessly productive. The university will take everything from you if you let it. There are minimum performance levels but you’ll note that there are no maximums.

Mel warns that “there is no temporal or spatial limit to the networked information economy that employs you”. Rather than the entrepreneurial grind of ‘maximising opportunity’ she challenges us to rethink academic practice on a number of levels. See her post for the details.

I’ve previously written about the ontology of opportunity. The discourse of ‘opportunity’ belongs to the master narrative of neoliberalism. From a structural perspective, the role of government, business and social institutions is to ensure that subjects have access to ‘opportunities’. The discourse of opportunity is couched in the language of self-actualisation (bordering on ‘self-help’) and entrepreneurialism. Capitalising on an opportunity requires a strategic view that locates the present in the context of a particular set of future outcomes. ‘Opportunity’ is a process, a practice and an event. More useful for thinking through the ontology of opportunity is the example of workplace relations (based on a previous post discussing Scale, Events and Object Oriented Philosophy).

‘Opportunity’ as a Mode of Neoliberal Governance

One of the central problems with the neoliberal discourse of ‘opportunity’ is that it presents an ontology of an ‘open’ future encouraging self-governance that smuggles in micro-teleologies. A useful way to think about this ‘open’ future of opportunity is in terms of a ‘contingency’. There is a ‘pay-off’ horizon where our tacit knowledge/appreciation of a given situation allows us to know what the ‘return’ (as in return on investment ROI) will be for a given opportunity. We are encouraged to seek out opportunities that push these boundaries.

Sometimes that ‘opportunity’ is one we are presented with (as Mel notes!). There is a continuum of opportunity that is differentiated by relations of futurity made possible by the character of contingency around which opportunity is organised.

1) If opportunity is presented by those in power (such as a manager/mentor to a worker/junior colleague), then the contingency is often disciplined in accordance with the outcomes of productivity demanded by the managers (or embodied institutional ‘outcomes’ by the mentor so they can be inherited via apprenticeship) and the way surplus value is extracted from the worker’s labour. This inherits the strategic relation to opportunity as reproduced by existing power relations between managers and workers, etc.

2) If opportunity presents ‘itself’, then it is because the contingency of labour relations and relations between worker productivity and the market have not been actualised. A new relation to the market can be actualised. This often happens for academics when shooting the breeze at conferences, through social media/blogging, and the like.

3) If a worker creates ‘opportunity’, then it is because he or she has critically appreciated the mechanics of labour relations and relations between worker productivity and the market in its virtuality (an example of what Deleuze called the ‘fourth-person singular’ and the practice of counter-effectuation); that is, the worker does not perceive the situation though the identity and horizon of experience of a ‘worker’ per se. The worker actively differentiates a new set of relations that can only be apprehended through action. This is a tactical relation to opportunity.

To enfranchise workers in the emergent entrepreneurial mode of workplaces organised by neoliberal discourses means equipping them with the capacity to appreciate the dynamics of managerial techniques and apprehend new conditions between labour and the market through the praxis of their own labour. It is not a matter of grasping the relations between specific individuals or objects (big or little) but of appreciating how the relations between individuals are actualised and differentially repeated in the actual conditions of experience.

Affects of ‘Opportunity’, Failure and Success: Between

I originally wrote about the event mechanics of opportunity in terms of parenting, but a similar paternalistic relationship can exist between mentors and junior colleagues. The disappointment of failing to ‘live up to expectation’ is evidence of an ‘opportunity failure’. The opportunity in these circumstances may have been produced for one person (say, a junior colleague) by others (mentor). Mentors are disappointed because the relations of futurity in part produced by them for their junior colleagues are not actualised in the way they expected. The mentors know the future in the sense they can draw on experience to produce their own expectations. If a junior colleague is talented and does not follow the relations of futurity produced by their mentors in a way that the mentors expect, then according to the mentors’ respective expectations, an opportunity is lost. Expectation here works to discipline relations of future; an expectation is a colonisation of futurity.

Beyond this paternalistic relation is more of a symbiotic or even quasi-parasitical relation between colleagues in a single workplace or distributed across the virtual ‘office’ (virtual in both Deleuzian and popular ‘online’ senses). I’ve focused mostly on the unknown dimensions of ‘opportunity’ and how these are transformed through practice into ‘outcomes’. An experienced-based knowledge of the topology of ‘opportunity’ is therefore produced through this experience. The striving required on behalf of a subject to actualise opportunities in practical ways has an explicitly affective dimension. Mel discusses this in terms of having a baby: “We have amnesia about how painful it is, because the end product is so amazing. To push the analogy: try to remember the pain, and that it can be very hard to make happen by force!”

There are multiple ‘activation contours’ which the subject of opportunity is mobilised by and passes through complex co-assemblies of affect. Here is a list of related affects-as-poetics; a beginning:

1. Hope. The wandering (Spinozist) joy of possible futures combined with a pragmatic investment of desire to realise these ideals.

2. Manic waiting. When you feel like you’re overwhelmed by a desparate unactionable urgency to act. Nervous, anxious, but forthright and awake at 3am.

3. Impassage. Portmanteau derived from Lyotard’s analysis of Kant’s ‘enthusiasm’. There is an impasse that serves as a passage; the impasse is at the dawn of Rumfield’s unknown unknowns. (I can’t go on, I’ll go on. The two I’s straddle the impasse; they are differential repetitions, etc.) Affirmation; joy, but in the trenches.

4. Grind. The end is in sight. Warding off hope, but allowing it to inhere or subsist just beyond the horizon of apprehension (the possibility of possibility, actualised as a virtuality). Steady as it goes, this is a hug from a modernist sculpture suffering from angles.