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.

Hogwash.

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.”

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.

Appification of Fitness and Technics of the Body

I modified my recent Code2K12 paper while at was at the conference to introduce a TEDx or ‘Virilio’ moment. By this I mean speculating on the future scenario of present tendencies. I wanted to isolate a tendency in the ways various functions of the magazine are not only repeated in different ways online now (my previous paper), but also in the ways they could be repeated in different ways through annotated or augmented reality technologies. My focus are those events of experience that I tie closely to the circulation of affects that we might call ‘enthusiasm’.

Everyday media technologies have been constitutive in the collective individuation of subjects for a long time. The ‘Kodak moment’ is a classic example of photography becoming part of the everyday experience of ‘family’ and the individuation of ‘parent’ and ‘child’. What I am specifically interested in are not only technologies of representation that insert relations of representational valorisation into social relations but specifically vernacular or affective epistemologies. Taking a photo of a child’s birthday party may involve the modification of setting and composition to capture the ‘perfect moment’, but this does not necessarily generate or develop new ways of knowing either explicitly or tacitly any aspect of the event captured and modulated through technologies of representation.

One of the functions of specialist magazines has been to circulate ‘know how’. ‘Know how’ is an experience-based practical knowledge. Magazines represent the conditions of experience through which (tacit, embodied) knowledge is developed rather than the (explicit) knowledge itself. There is a continuum between tacit and explicit forms of knowledge, including ‘rules of thumb’ that combine both. I’ve developed an account of the ‘How to’ article that follows this line of thinking, which should be published early next year. To help think through this relation between media representations and experience in the development of vernacular epistemologies I have called the events of experience that mobilise enthusiast bodies ‘challenges’. A ‘challenge’ isn’t something that makes enthusiasts all excited in the stereotypical delirium of the enthusiast; often they are rather daunting and can often end in utter failure. The key element of a ‘challenge’ is that like a problem they beg some kind of resolution to a contingent element or state of affairs (‘meet the challenge’), while at the same time they encourage an engagement of affirmation through which one’s capacity to act is increased through positive affects (‘rise to the challenge’). (I also delve into the virtual architecture of challenges, drawing on Deleuze’s philosophy of ‘problems’ and a Deleuzian reading of Kant’s ‘enthusiasm’.)

There has been a tendential shift from enthusiast discourse operating to shape bodies into enthusiasts suitable for a given market of certain challenges in the print era, to enthusiast discourse organised around enthusiast-produced accounts of their own challenges, to what I suggest is currently unfolding which is enthusiast discourse directly intervening into the challenge itself through the specific affordances of AR technologies. The future-oriented historical process I described in my conference presentation involved the suggestion that AR technologies will directly intervene in specific events of experience. In this situation the locus around which the subject, the technology and the media content is organised is ‘this’ singular event of experience through which ‘this’ subject is individuated. All of these involve modulations of challenges, but there is an accelerated relation of temporality now and a more granular relation between the specific conditions of experience through which vernacular knowledges are developed and the ‘How to’ steps that must be followed.

To a certain extent this is playing out already in the world of consumer-level health and fitness enthusiasms. I just spent a stupid amount of money on a set of Withings weighing scales that are equipped with a wireless internet connection so it can sync up with various ‘fitness’ applications on my iPhone. It is a good example of the next iteration of machinic metrology that combines technologies of measurement with algorithm-based modelling of my personal fitness project. The knowledge produced here is of my performance for the day or week. Have I been working hard enough? Have I been disciplined enough? My physical activity still requires me to manually input data (type, time, work, etc.) because I only use gym equipment. If I was running or cycling then one of my apps (Runkeeper) would automatically calculate how much ‘work’ (energy/time) I had performed.

Such knowledges have circulated within specialist media for a long time. I used to subscribe to Men’s Health magazine (or I had a free subscription because of one of my utility providers), and I sometimes still buy it. The relations of valorisation that drive the algorithms of my iPhone apps are discursively embodied in photographic and text-based form in Men’s Health. It was very useful for gaining an appreciation of different modes and levels of mobilisation in terms of the levels of work required for different kinds of challenges. Now my apps have the capacity to modulate the events through which I mobilise as I am mobilising based on my singular conditions of mobilisation (my specific weight, age and type of activity).

These algorithmic technics of coaching embodied in such fitness apps are only a very simple example. I imagine scenarios where knowledges that circulate are far more complex and closer to the mechanical, scientific and design knowledges of different kinds of enthusiasms (modified-car enthusiasts, fishing or gardening enthusiasts, and so on). The ‘googlefication’ of knowledge so it can be parsed and indexed for the purposes of ease of machine-assisted searching renders knowledge incredibly granular, as many people have noted. Some critics have lamented this as a dire turn of events for the state of knowledge. The granulated forms of knowledge will now be able to be delivered to specific subjects through emerging AR technologies within specific events of experience as the event is unfolding at the rate and level of expertise suitable for the subject.

The event of experience is still pre-personal and able to be co-individuated and transduced into other contexts, but the relation between media representations and experience will be far more complicated in the specific sense complicating something involving many more folds (‘pli’) in the relation. I am describing how media content will be delivered tailored on ‘this’ experience (fitness project) for ‘this’ subject (Glen) rather than working to produce enthusiast cohorts for the purposes of individuating markets (print-era model of specialist media). My technology consumption is infrastructural of a given lifestyle, it enables me to act or perform in certain ways, but these are different to the identity-building ways we used to speak about media and consumer technologies.

Socio-technical systems and the asymmetrical determination of ‘know-how’

I’m about two thirds of the way through restructuring and rewriting an article on ‘know-how’. This is the first proper publication to come out of my PhD dissertation that I finished in 2007. My goal is to lay the theoretical groundwork to eventually carry out a ‘media archaeology’ of ‘know-how’. It is largely based on Deleuze’s reworking of Kantian metaphysics, but I am using such philosophical concepts in a very applied way.

I define ‘know-how’ as experience-based practical knowledge. ‘Know-how’ is developed in the body through some kind of practice. ‘Developed’ has two meanings here. Firstly, like a polaroid photograph, ‘know-how’ develops as a consequence of exposure to the conditions of experience. Secondly, the differential repetition of experience develops ‘know-how’. Experience does not accummulate, so for example, it would be incorrect to describe someone as ‘more experienced’. Rather, experience is differentiated as the synthesis of memory is founded on the synthesis of habit. Someone only ever has a experience that through its differential repetition becomes ‘keener’ (or ‘duller’). 

The episodic character of differentially repeated experience through which ‘know-how’ is developed I am calling a ‘challenge’. I define three characteristics of ‘challenges’. First, its problematic contiguity, which I won’t go into in this post. Secondly, there is a material ‘kicking-a-rock’ dimension of challenges and, thirdly, there is also an incorporeal or virtual dimension to them. ‘Challenges’ are similar to problems (in the non-Deleuzian sense) because they beg some kind of resolution or solution. But unlike problems, a ‘challenge’ also demands some kind of mobilisation to ‘rise to the challenge’. Hence, the affective disposition of the subject of ‘know-how’ is of crucial importance.

In terms of affect, there are three ways to respond to a ‘challenge’, depending on its character. To be ‘beat’ by the challenge means to be over-awed (or under-awed) and assume a diminutive relation of the ‘passive affections’ of the ‘challenge’. One’s capacity to act is diminished. On the other hand, to ‘rise to the challenge’ and mobilise to engage with an increased capacity to act determined by the active affections of the challenge. In between is a complex relation of active affections in all dimensions of the mobilisation bar one, and that is the capacity to delineate or intuit the ‘challenge’ itself. By inheriting the ‘challenges’ of others, one’s co-assembly of active affects — what I am calling ‘enthusiasm’ — becomes harnessed by whatever agency is positing and valorising these inherited ‘challenges’ as worthy of mobilisation. For example, this is how ‘enthusiasm’ belonging to subcultures becomes harnessed as a resource by the creative industries.

In this article I am primarily concerned with the way ‘know-how’ can be transmitted. The core problem is that experience itself cannot be communicated. My solution to this problem is to engage with the ways the condition of experience (i.e. ‘challenges’) can be transmitted. When a subject of ‘know-how’ begins to develop ‘know-how’ he or she is exposed to what I am calling the ‘visibilities’ (following Deleuze’s reading of Foucault) and ‘tactilities’. ‘Tactilities’ captures a sense of the qualitative capacity to and practice of getting one’s ‘hands dirty’. This is a non-cognitive tactile appreciation of the material qualities of the ‘challenge’, where habits of practise are synthesised in the body as ‘tacit knowledge’.

The best example of the the transmission of ‘know-how’ is the much neglected ‘how to’ article. The ‘how to’ article walks a subject of ‘know-how’ through a ‘challenge’. The subject develops new ways of ‘seeing’ the elements of the ‘challenge’, new ways of manipulating and engaging with the material elements (‘tactilities’), and mobilises through a co-assembly of active affects (i.e. implicit ‘encouragement’). Because of my unique work background I have countless informal examples of how ‘know-how’ is developed, but rather than extensive (and probably boring) examples of how ‘know-how’ is developed (in my dissertation most of a 12k word chapter was spent going through the example of how I fixed a broken fan belt on my car!) I use the actor-network theory concept of ‘black-boxing’ as a way to think through the way subjects of ‘know-how’ engage with socio-technical systems.

Bogost’s Philosophical Carpentry of what?

During my trip last weekend back to Perth for an old school friend’s wedding, I woke up at about 3am in the midst of a jet lag and impending lecture writing anxiety, and couldn’t get back to sleep. I thought this was an appropriate time to read the ‘Carpentry’ chapter of Ian Bogost’s recent book Alien Phenomenology. The forthcoming ‘Nonhuman Turn’ conference is streaming its plenaries, and Bogost is delivering a talk about “The Aesthetics of Philosophical Carpentry”, so I am looking forward to seeing how Bogost develops his thinking about ‘carpentry’ into the aesthetic realm.

Bogost had tweeted that he’d received a 1-star negative review on Amazon.com so I had a look and noticed another reviewer (5-stars) suggested that the book was worth reading just for the Carpentry chapter. The OOOer’s world is full of (post)grad student fanbois who dis/like certain OOOing so I’d take any user-generated review, be it positive or negative, with a healthy dose of skepticism. Unless, of course, it is backed up with a thorough analysis that at least demonstrates that the reviewer has read the book. I was intrigued that this reviewer singled out a chapter as worth the ‘price of admission’ so I decided to return to Bogost’s book.

Yes, ‘return’. I read the first chapter and filed the Kindle ebook away under ‘when I have more time’. The first chapter largely rehearses the OOO ‘origin story’ without any substantial development (something Goldsmiths, something Meillassoux, etc.). I like the rhetorical move of announcing that ‘speculative realism’ is an event and discussing it as such; it is an example of the sort of thing I would do (what I would call ‘event mechanics’, OOO-as-event presents a very straight-forward analysis). Bogost does a bit of discourse analysis, historical analysis, media archaeology and so on.

For example, ‘correlationism’ could happily be defined is a Foucaultian style ‘statement’ configuring the field of OOO discourse. Yeah? Organising compositions of power relations and so on. How? Enter Bogost: “to proceed as a philosopher today demands the rejection of correlationism”. The scholarly field becomes happily organised for OOOers into those who reject ‘correlationism’ and therefore can be regarded as ‘doing philosophy’, versus those who do not, for whatever reason, perhaps because they think the ‘problem’ of correlationism isn’t one. Bogost references Alain Badiou’s ‘decisionist’ conception of the event. (‘Decisionist’ moniker comes from Badiou’s reading of Spinoza, see that Pli essay on it.) I’d argue it is far closer to what Foucault called a ‘discourse event’, a kind of ‘order of objects’. Philosophy itself is transformed through the articulation/enunciation (or denunciation) of ‘correlationism’. What does this incorporeal transformation of philosophy herald? Bogost is clear, “it names a moment when the epistemological tide ebbed, revealing the iridescent shells of realism they had so long occluded.”

That first egg was named “Thought”. Tathagata Buddha, the Father Buddha, said, “With our thoughts, we make the World”. Elemental forces caused the egg to hatch. From it then came a stone monkey. The nature of Monkey was irrepressible!

Anyway, it is a pity that no one (at least that I am aware of, even from the regular OOO blogs) has carried out an OOO analysis of the OOO ‘origin story’. I would find this fascinating. Mainly because it would force the OOOer fanbois to forego the cult of personality surrounding key OOO figures… unless these figures are ‘objects’ but that would be a waste of an analysis surely, why detour through ‘objects’ at all? Or maybe we’d end up with a kind of analysis of OOO following Alliez’s Signature of the World (following Deleuze and Guattari) where the concept of the ‘object’ has its own autonomy? Or maybe Bogost wasn’t doing philosophy yet, so early into the book. This would be a curious response, in the sense that an OOO analysis of OOO should be possible, considering that OOO is meant to celebrate “stuffs [as enjoying] equal being no matter their size, scale, or order” (Bogost). Maybe OOO needs a non-OOO introduction so as to be sensible to first timers? (A bit like the birth of Monkey born from an egg on a mountain top.) Hmmm. I don’t think my ‘off hand’ point regarding the non-OOO presentation of OOO is inconsequential, however. (As opposed to the ‘ready-to-hand’ critique of ‘correlationism’ bandied about by those who don’t seem to follow or even have read Meillassoux’s argument.) Does irony exist for objects? (Less ‘molar’, Deleuzian: What is machinic irony?) Regardless, this is clearly a case of ‘theory’ irony.

Oh, and the Carpentry chapter. Bogost launches into a critique of writing, in particular scholarly writing, and then develops what he names “carpentry” as the “practice of constructing artifacts as a philosophical practice” which “entails making things that explain how things make their world”. I am currently researching ‘know-how’ as an experience-based form of practical knowledge and in particular the ‘how to’ article as a key text in discourses of ‘know-how’, so Bogost’s invocation of carpentry was at least interesting.

Of course, my PhD was on enthusiasm, the creative industries and modified-car culure, plus having come out of an ‘aspirational’ working class context I actually built a few cars in my late teens and early twenties. That and I worked on a mine site to pay for the cars. I’ve always approached philosophy as a kind of ‘mechanics’, not in the classical physics sense, but an in-the-garage-under-the-hood sort of way. Hence, the title of this blog. I spend a week in my first year foundation unit discussing what these ‘tacit knowledges’ are required for the practice of research. I’ve discussed this a number of times on this blog drawing primarily on Michael Polanyi and then go from there. To be clear, I don’t think Bogost is advocating this kind of ‘tacit knowledge’ approach, even though this is the approach of Matthew B. Crawford in his book Shop Class as Soulcraft, who Bogost cites. Well, I didn’t think Bogost was advocating this kind of approach until I got to the concluding section of this chapter (see below). On the other hand, Crawford is clearly arguing this, i.e. “real knowledge arises through confrontation with real things”. For more on Crawford’s book, see my review from a number of years ago. My position is very similar except I’m interested in a more sophisticated appreciation of experience, and a better understanding of how ‘know-how’ is circulated through media, etc.

It is unclear exactly what Bogost is arguing. Bogost: “The carpenter […] must contend with the material resistance of his or her chosen form, making the object itself become the philosophy.” Ok, kind of Polanyi-Crawford-ish here. And then when he introduces his first two examples of “philosophical software carpentry” he describes them as “ontographical tools meant to characterize the diversity of being”. When discussing the unintended (‘sexist’) consequences of one of these tools, he suggests changing it would lead to it losing its “ontographical power”. What is its philosophical accomplishment? Bogost:

[It’s] philosphical accomplishment comes from the question it poses about the challenge flat ontology and feminism pose to one another. On the one hand, being is unconcerned with issues of gender, performance, and its associated human politics; indeed, tiny ontology invites all beings to partake of the same ontological status, precisely the same fundamental position as many theorists would take ob matters of identity politics. But on the other hand, the baggage of wordly stuff still exerts a political challenge on human experience that cannot be satisfactorily dismissed with the simple mantra of tiny ontology. The [accidently sexist ontographic tool] hardly attempts to answer these questions, but it does pose them in a unique way thanks to carpentry.

Hmmm. The univocity of being is indeed irrelevant for most real world situations. I can’t help but feel Bogost is ignoring the bits of Crawford that don’t fit within the anti-correlationist party line. Take Crawford’s axiomatic statement that “real knowledge arises through confrontation with real things”. Ok, what are the ‘real things’ in the accidently sexist ontagraphic tool example? An image of a Playboy bunny randomly selected from Flickr? The OOO event website with sexist image as viewed by two female scholars? The code of the website? All of them? What is the ‘real knowledge’ produced then? Does a flat ontology privilege the reality of some things over others? No, of course not! That would be entirely against the point of the concept. Yet, there is a clear contradiction here. Crawford’s “real things” are only ‘real’ because of their relationality and implication in the production of “real knowledge” as part of the experience of being a mechanic/carpenter/whatever. This is precisely the kind of position disavowed by OOO as ‘correlationist’.

The experiences of things can be characterized only by tracing the exhaust of their effects on the surrounding world and speculating about the coupling between that black noise and the experiences internal to an object. […]
The phenomenologist who performs carpentry creates a machine that tries to replicate the unit operation of another’s experience. Like a space probe sent out to record, process, and report information, the alien phenomenologist’s carpentry seeks to capture and characterize an experience it can never fully understand, offering a rendering satisfactory enough to allow the artifact’s operator to gain some insight into an alien thing’s experience.

How did the accidently sexist ontagraphic tool gain any insight of an alien thing’s experience? Or is ‘woman’ not sufficiently ‘alien’ for ‘man’? Or is it a case of the ‘alien’ experience of those specific women and the haecceitty of an unfortunately sexist OOO event website? Has OOO somehow managed to overcome relations of alterity? These aren’t fair questions, perhaps, as it would be ridiculous to suggest an OOO version of the differend, as this would make Bogost’s entire project untenable. But what does this ‘carpentry’ do?

Bogost’s I am TIA project sounds pretty cool. Through a metaphorical lens it characterizes (Bogost prefers ‘characterizes’, it seems, as compared to ‘represents’) the experience of a ‘television interface adaptor’ of an Atari VCS. Cool! Now what?

The Tableau Machine example illustrates how a ‘machinic’ perspective of a home “helps deliver the home’s residents out of anthropocentricism” (Bogost, citing Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter 120). Good! So what? Can we infer that Bogost (or maybe Benett) is implying that the residents are transformed akin to Felix Guattari’s introduction of ‘transversal’ practices into the psychiatric institution of La Borde and his hopes for the reconstitution of subjectivity etc?

The concluding section of Bogost’s chapter is titled “A New Radicalism”. He says that “real radicals […] make things” and challenges OOO to “become craftsmanship, challenging us to learn a trade”. Maybe Bogost is not aware of the whole “philosophy as toolbox, concepts as tools” notion from an interview between Foucault and Deleuze, or the development of Serres’s work on the invention of physics into what Deleuze and Guattari called a ‘minor science’ in A Thousand Plateaus. The purpose of mentioning Polanyi above was that he goes to great lengths to indicate how all abstract (‘explicit’) knowledges are premised on ‘tacit knowledges’. Or even Harman has noted that Heidegger discussed the extraction of ‘theory’ as part of a scholastic disposition from experience (in one of Heidegger’s very early lectures).

Bogost then returns to Crawford (his colleague Hugh or Soulcraft’s Matthew B.? I think it is meant to be Matthew B.) in the concluding passage to this chapter:

When people or toothbrushes or siroccos make sense of encountered objects, they do so through metaphor. As Whitehead and Latour suggest, this process requires creative effort, challenging OOO to become craftsmanship, challenging us to learn a trade. We tend to think of creativity as construction, the assembly of something new out of known parts. A novel is made of words and ink and paper, a painting of pigments and canvas and medium, a philosophy of maxims and arguments and evidence, a house of studs and sheetrock and pipes. Perhaps in the future, following Crawford’s example, radical philosophers will raise not their fists but their hammers.

Now I am really confused. Bogost seems to be collapsing two kinds of experience. One that is developed in humans, following Crawford’s axiom “real knowledge arises through confrontation with real things”, and the experience that objects have of whatever (the other objects that constitute their ‘environment’ in the ecological/systems sense?). That is not the confusing thing however. Confusing is, firstly, the suggestion that any objects whatsoever “make sense of encountered objects” as Bogost has not discussed ‘sense’ at all, at least not in any way that correlates with philosophies of sense that I am familiar with (vaguely Frege or Deleuze), and secondly that this sense making is carried out through “metaphor”. Hmmm… Bogost has described how human philosophers have created artifacts that offer a metaphorical representation of machinic experience, not how those actual objects have used metaphor (or some kind of machinic equivalent…?) to “make sense”. I can understand a multiplicity of experiences (this experience is as singular as that experience), but the simple projection of anthropomorphic concepts like ‘sense’ or ‘metaphor’ from the OOO philosophical domain and using them to ‘characterise’ the existence of objects is contradictory (and that is putting it mildly) of what would seem to be the basic tenets of OOOism. What is all this gruff talk about ‘taking objects seriously’ if objects are reduced to being mere vehicles of philosophical metaphor?