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.”

The Map is the Territory

Mel has a very interesting work in progress paper up on her blog on “The territory of the post-professional“. We sometimes share very similar research interests. I’ve also looked at questions of territory and technological assemblages in my Communications Technologies & Change unit this semester.

In one week we looked at the relation between predictive algorithms and the individuation of subjectivity. Here is the entry for that week:

Buying Stuff Online and How Your Credit Card is You

Transformations of economy, emergence of global market. Globalisation. Function of credit cards as technology of communication/identity. eBay, Steam and online commerce. and the algorithmic production of surplus value.

Required reading Merskin, D. (1998). “The Show   for Those Who Owe: Normalization of Credit on Lifetime’s Debt.” Journal of   Communication Inquiry, 22(1), 10-26. [Particularly the section “A brief   history of credit”.]Merskin offers a critical reading of the reality TV show called Debt and the ways credit card and personal debt have become ‘normalised’ in US society. Read the section “A brief history of credit” (pages 11-16) for a quasi-genealogical account of the development of the credit card. What is the ‘credit card’ assemblage?
Recommended reading de Vries, K. (2010).   “Identity, profiling algorithms and a world of ambient   intelligence.” Ethics and Information Technology 12(1):   71-85.This is another tough reading, but useful for thinking about the way the everyday technological assemblages of communication contribute to or produce our identity. ‘Identity’ here is meant in a cultural sense. The classic example that de Vries explores to some length is the use of algorithms to predict consumer behaviour on shopping websites and suggest commodities we might be interested in purchasing through   online shop fronts like The relevant section is “Identity in a world of   profiling algorithms and ambient intelligence” (pages 76-79), but it is   worth exploring at length to gain a critical understanding of the ways   complex internet-based commercial interactions can affect the production (and   prediction) of identity.

In the lecture I did a kind of archaeology of the credit card in terms of the shifting composition of socio-technological relations across the long histories of some of the elements that constitute the ‘credit card assemblage’. The required research for this, so as to do the lecture, was a bit crazy. I learnt a great deal! Then I shifted gears a bit to talk about the function of predictive algorithms that are part of online shopping platforms. The de Vries reading is very good on this (and also pretty tough for third year undergraduates). In the context of predictive algorithms and algorithmic-based platforms (that aren’t necessarily ‘predictive’) there are two points I want to make with regards to Mel’s paper, specifically the paragraph introducing ‘algorithmic living’.

Firstly, unlike previous forms of self-knowledge in familiar ‘quantifications of the self’ (Weight Watchers, etc.) determined by a medium/average (statistical sense) of rough (molar) demographic categories, algorithmic indicators are far more mobile and the level of quantification is determined by the ‘resolution’ of the algorithm. ‘Resolution’ in this sense pertains to the ‘machinic affects’ of the ‘counting assemblage’; what are the forms of machinic visbility afforded by the technological assemblage of which the algorithm is but one (protocol) level? What are the ‘actions’ or ‘gestures’ being indeed by the algorithm?

Secondly, the (algorithmic) map (of aggregate molecular ‘actions’ of user-mulitiplicities) has become the (existential) territory (for the individuating assemblage of an ‘app’ or ‘platform’ user). Yes, the map is the territory (I’m phrasing it like that just to fuck with the old school semioticians a little bit:). The classic examples of this are or Google. Amazon indexes various ‘actions’ by users and users this for the ‘suggestions’ section. The capacity to index such actions are one of the affordances (action possibilities) of the platform or what I would call the machinic affects of the algorithm. The machinic affects are determined by the resolution of the algorithm. What actual action does the algorithm index? Visits? Location of mouse pointer or scrolling behaviour? Maybe. Definitely (in the case of Amazon): purchases, wishlist contents, ‘Kindle’ sharing behaviour, and so on. The aggregate map is produced by a multiplicity of such actions, this map then serves as part of the ‘territory’ by which other users of the same platform are individuated (as ‘dividuals’, cf. Deleuze). ‘Territory’ in this context is derived from the later work of Guattari.

What is interesting about Mel’s focus on ‘time’ and its management as a mode of self-governance is that by taking into account the above process of individuating there are two versions of temporality are in play: intensive and extensive. Management of time is traditionally ‘time’ as extension; there is  a range, which is divisible into ‘units’ of time. The individuation of a subject is an intensive process and operates at the level of ‘anticipation’ (relations of futurity) and ‘retention’ (relations of pastness). The ‘past’ in this context is literally and practically active; a multiplicity of ‘pasts’ from a multiplicity of users indexed according to their actions ‘feed’ (‘feed’ in the sense of both ‘appetite’ or ‘appetition’ (Whitehead) and ‘user feeds’ ie who you follow) into the pure present of algorithmic mapping and serve as a dynamic/selective virtual architecture that scaffolds the embodied process of the individuating subject who is actively anticipating his or her ‘next’ action. The ‘next’ action is the subject of such operations; this ‘next’ is an intensive temporal relation.

Management of time is only traditionally premised on the extensive dimension, as contemporary ‘social’ platform-based apps also include a valorising function which tempers time with a qualitiative experiential dimension. If you had a good time, then you’ll ‘like’ the shared photo. If you ‘like’ the book and ‘rate’ it on Amazon, then you bestow the assumed extensive time taken to read the book with a valorised experiential quality.


Most reviews of Up In the Air work hard to locate it in a romantic comedy framework, such as David Cox’s review at The Guardian. It is not a romantic comedy. Similar in some ways to Punch-Drunk Love, Up In the Air uses a constellation of romantic comedy tropes as a critical tool. Instead of romance and isolationist social relations like in Punch-Drunk Love, Up In the Air uses the romantic comedy tropes to problematise ‘loyalty’ in our privileged late-capitalist and post-everything cultural landscape.

Loyalty is no longer something built on trust or expectations of trust forged through shared experience. The function of expectation in this traditional sense of loyalty is important, because it introduces a temporal logic whereby one’s trust is demonstrated now by proffering one’s future trustworthiness. Within capitalist relations of exchange loyalty was therefore experienced as the goodwill developed from already demonstrated positive service experiences and the expectation of continued good service.

What Up In the Air explores is the inversion of the burden of loyalty. A capitalist enterprise does not produce loyalty in its customers or in its workers in a traditional sense of goodwill through positive social relations and the expectation of positive social relations. Instead, enterprises now produce ‘loyalty’ as the accumulation of the debt of good service that the company owes a customer (or worker). The company wants to owe its customers ‘reward points’; it is in the customer’s debt: hence, the production of an expectation and a formalisation of process and time itself. This is naturalised as a ‘reward’ for the customer’s ‘loyal’ patronage.

There are a number of relations of actual (dis)loyalty in Up In the Air:

1) Between businesses and their workers, who for the most part of the film are about to be fired.
2) Between various romantic couplings.
3) Between enterprises and their consumer patrons.

The virtual relations of loyalty — what I described in a previous post as “the virtual feedforward loops that cultivate and then harness anticipation as an affective or ‘felt tendency’ for guiding consumer behaviour” — are structurated by conventions of expectations. Beyond consumption is a mobile diffuse logic of expectation determined by capital, that exploits the affective conditions of trust that underpins loyalty.

Relations of actual loyalty have an inherent temporal dimension because loyalty is only ever actualised as a field of social possibility premised on assumed distributions of trust. I am loyal, because I trust, therefore my loyalty is trusted. The expectation emerges from affective relations of shared experiences as the world is endured together.

But we are increasingly atomised. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) is absolutely solitary. He wants to inhabit a frictionless world; points of disjuncture are merely fulcra to propel himself further into the flow. He is the limit case of a process through which we are forced out into the world and alienated from solidarity only so we scrabble to consume formalised, ritualised cultural events together. Sport, the nation, the family. A spectator does not experience sport; ‘sport’ is the shared experience of another’s affective implication in the potentiality of an entirely contrived contigency (shared with yet another’s affective implication…). The poverty of the formal dimension of these experiences breeds the need to push beyond the surface affectivity. Violence, hatred, hooliganism produce real contingencies in the world that must be endured together. The economy of respect in masculinist sporting cultures is an index of trust and its distribution. Other peripheral cultures have the same generative capacity. The limit case is perfectly described by Paul Corrigan in his short piece ‘Doing Nothing’ about the way working class youth in 1970s Britain used the street as a space of potentiality.

In capitalist enterprises there is absolutely no trust. Instead of a distribution of trust, there is a distribution of naked expectation. A perverse and obscene expectation of the worst. And at worst it is the expectation of a ruthless ambition to satisfy self-interest. The profit motive is a shared belief that gives discursive form to this expectation. Workers (anyone who labours under the expectations of others) are continually at war with the received infrastructure of alienated expectations by using humour and the potentiality of the workplace itself to generate shared experiences. Such bonding is tolerated by those that impose their expectations as a necessary condition of lived labour. The expecters have their own weapons, by making expectation mobile, by controlling the expectation of expectation through distributions of risk. Risk introduces contingency into the workplace. This is what the workers fired in Up in the Air failed to recognise. Their fellow workers may have endured the world of the workplace together with them and felt like family, or they may have even worked extremely hard to assume and inculcate the imposed expectations of management into their daily experience of the workplace, but this is not loyalty. The expectation of expectations can not be trusted. Workers have to be at war with expectation and exploit the mechanism of imposition (reception, inculcation, expression).

Book Project: I am recruiting

My current reading material leads me to believe that most of academic philosophy is careerist shit. There are a few worthy exceptions to this wide-ranging criticism, but not many. The mistake that all these authors make is that they assume their readers are in the same position as them.

So instead of simply getting onto my blog and having a whinge about it I decided a while ago to take other steps. One of the two books I am working on was meant to be a book of applied philosophy with the working title of ‘Event Mechanics’. However, instead of me writing the book on my own I want to write it with other critically-minded young-ish intellectual types. So I am recruiting co-authors for each of the chapters. After dinner with a friend on Thursday who has undergone a transformation from someone who was not really happy about the world to someone who has embraced this uneasy dimension and has reconstructed her life around this affirmation of uneasiness, I realised that there are others in the world like me and any sort of book on the subject should be a collective work that includes others. I don’t know if this will work or not! Could end in tears! So be it! Anyway, I have called this group of people the Uneasy.

So far I should have co-authors for one chapter and I am after more. Here is a list of chapter ideas from my original book with a brief description of what I imagined each of the chapters was going to be about. All of them already have content largely derived from my blog posts on the respective subjects, so long time readers will probably be familiar with the basic themes and ideas. I am open to modifying the chapters to better work with the co-author’s perspective and ideas, and certainly encourage anyone interested .

Let’s Get Down and Dirty
The introductory chapter that outlines what is forthcoming in the rest of the book and the rationale behind a book of applied philosophy.

1) War on Stupidity — need co-author(s), would love someone who works in government
This chapter is fun 🙂 The conservatives have their wars on everything, so why not have a progressive war? Stupidity is defined in terms of the structural constraints that transform very intelligent people into infantalised idiots. Case study here was going to be economics and governance. The chapter answers the question of how smart people do incredibly stupid shit on a grand scale.

2) Pedagogy as Practice –- should have co-authors for this already (my medical doctor friends!)
Current management practice has two focuses. 1) Extracting surplus value from workers by inciting workers to be enthusiastic about their jobs. This has a number of ramifications including the disolution of work time from other times and meaningless competition. 2) A punitive appreciation of error. Thinking of error as bad is stupid (see above). From a management perspective error should be a resource for improvement. The case study here is medical error. Gross negligence should be dealt with, but error is part of a learning process that should lead to better ‘outcomes’.

3) Uncolonise the Future — need co-author(s), someone from marketing would be fantastic
Our respective futures are colonised in two ways. Debt has long been a focus of critical philosophers and on a large scale debt is the model by which we suffer from a compulsion for a certain future. On a much smaller scale our attention is colonised by external expectations. We look because we expect to see. These expectations are acquired and are best understood as a form of affective programming produced by selling us a ‘world’ within which we desire to inhabit. There are two philosophical tools to be learnt here: How to slow down our perception to see and experience the world anew and how to depotentialise the false excitement of capitalist imperatives.

4) Fight for the Write — need co-author(s), not sure who would be best here
Language is a vehicle of oppression when used in the service of stupidity. How to free language and reclaim it. Kind of self-explanatory.

5) Romance as Truce — need co-author(s), maybe I should write this with an ex. That would be epic lols.
I have already written about this extensively (unsurprisingly, considering my abject failures!!). Fuck true love. Love is certainly a durable connection whereby individuals reconcile their individual perspectives of the world in which they live. For the Uneasy it is about becoming Uneasy together and facing the world, including the ‘world’ of each respective partner. Although I am a hetero kind of guy, I have been in too many weird relationship scenarios to restrict this to the classical hetronormative coupling.

6) Generations of Care — need co-authors, maybe I should write this with my parents? Not sure.
How to engage with older generations when they seem to own everything, be in all the positions of power, and have lived lives when aspirations were relatively innocent. This chapter is about the ethics of being worthy of the aging population.

Summer days

It is hot in Perth, but in my parents’ house it is cool due to insulation in the roof. I haven’t been doing much since I’ve been back.

Much of my time has been spent discussing with my folks my plans to buy some sort of housing. They would very much like to help me out with some money towards a deposit as a result of the sale of my grandmother’s house. They can’t sell it at the moment, however. They can’t sell for the main reason I should buy due to the housing slump. There are currently two or three parts of this unit/studio buying business that occupy my mind.

The first immediate problem is to raise capital for a deposit. I have some limted savings. The bulk of my money will come from the sale of one of my cars (or parts of it at least), which has been in storage over here since I’ve been in Sydney. I also have a few matters with the Tax Man that I need to resolve, about 5 years worth of matters. Not that I owe money to anyone, rather, they owe me money.

The second problem is a complex mixture of two problems. Do I buy a tiny studio in my beloved inner-west of Sydney? I really do love Glebe. Quite simply, it is where I have been the happiest in my life. Or do I move out closer to work in Silverwater (anywhere between Burwood and Auburn)? Do I want a tiny studio or at most a modest one bedroom place or similar? I have little qualms about moving out to say Auburn to be within walking distance of work. Staying in the inner-west would require a greater finiancial strain and definitely a studio-style apartment that would be less modest abd more humble.

In all the advertisements I mull over they are described as ‘perfect investment opportunity/first home buyers’. Hopefully, the investment property buyers will have a dimished capacity to take part in the property game due to the financial crisis (I am not sure that, with all the hand wringing going on, if people in ‘power’ do not realise how happy this crisis makes some people!?! Pure glee!). I am certainly of the view that I am in fact both investing and first home buying. I don’t really regard any place I have lived so far as a home. A home is more complex that simply buying or inhabiting a place. I feel more at home in suburbs than I do in my actual place. The loose networks of casual connections between familiar faces and shop keepers makes me feel more at home than any brick and motar has so far in my life.

The investing and first home buying scenario complicates my options. If I was buying my home I would wait and save up enough of a deposit to afford a place in Glebe, which with my current finances would take about 5 or 6 years. I am not buying a home. My chief priority is to avoid paying rent as much as possible. I have a stable job now and have the means to buy a very very small place. I find the idea of building on that stability an attractive one, even if that means assuming the shackles of debt. My enthusiasm for properties on the humble end of the modest sprectrum is in part born of a desire to retain some mobility. I am hopefully earning the least amount of money I shall ever earn as an adult. I should be able to pay off the home debt quite comfortably.