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):


[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.


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.

Nihilist Pop Culture: Consumed by the Insignificant

What I am now going to relate is the history of the next two centuries. I shall describe what will happen, what must necessarily happen: the triumph of Nihilism. (Friedrich Nietzsche, Will to Power)

One of my goals for the course is to render students incapable of watching TV and film in the passive, mildly vegetative state to which they are accustomed. […] The inability of people to be affected by things like that, a general apathy with regard to things happening outside their immediate frame of reference, is terrifying. This class is about a society consumed by the insignificant. (Thomas Hibbs, Shows About Nothing: Nihilism in Popular Culture from ‘The Exorcist’ to ‘Seinfeld’.)

We need more nihilist popular culture

Writing in Havard’s undergraduate student newspaper about the film Se7en, David H. Goldbrenner, argues that nihilistic popular culture is damaging:

This is why nihilistic pop culture and art are so detrimental.  They help perpetuate the most damaging and destructive attitude that a free and democratic society can hold:  that life is not worth living and that all our efforts will eventually lead to pain and disappointment.  The most frustrating aspect of this is that often such thought is not expressed genuinely but rather because it will shock and entertain and earn a profit.

This is born of common (and often religious) interpretation of nihilism; that it is a state of social being without transcendental values; transcendental values include ‘objectivity’, ‘morality’ and various political manifestations. I suggest everyone reads Nietzsche’s Will to Power, in particular the first sections on nihilism, for two reasons. Firstly, for critics of nihilism, Nietzsche is clearly the primary enemy. Secondly, ‘nihilism’ is not some fantastical apprehension of existential meaninglessness; or it is, but this observation has become banal. We cannot escape from nihilism. Therefore, it is necessary to go to war or fall in love, at least in an existential sense.

To help contemporary audiences when reading Neitzsche, I suggest that you imagine you are reading a blog of someone who you suspect to be mildly insane.

For Nietzsche, as he writes in the preface, nihilism is a historical passage of development through which future societies shall necessarily pass. This is not like Marx’s historical determinism; Nietzsche is instead suggesting it shall be born of its own advent. That is, there shall be an intuitive or qualitative leap whereby the European Nihilist (aka Nietzsche) “has already outlived the Nihilism in his own soul — who has outgrown, overcome, and dismissed it.” Neitzsche’s Will to Power should therefore be read as a guide: How To Survive Nihilism.

The species of nihilism that Neitzsche wrote about in the late-nineteenth now has siblings. To think nihilism as an event (of society, of social relations, of the mind and in bodies) is to appreciate how it can be repeated in different ways. I want to explore the contemporary nihilism evident in popular culture and the culture of the popular. I want to think through both meanings of the phrase “society consumed by the insignificant”: a preoccupation with the trivial and the consumption of society itself.

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The Birth of Expectation

To appreciate the repetition of nihilism means to aske the question, from where does nihilism emerge? Before nihilism, there are only transcendental values. Transcendental values serve as an antidote against practical and theoretical nihilism. In Nietzsche’s era these were primarily Christian values of morality (WtP, pages 8-9). I don’t think this is the case anymore.

Now it is a more complex question, worthy of our developments in the sciences and arts, of predictive extrapolations from the present (algorithmic or otherwise)[1. Witness the 2012 US Presidential election and the battle of data-driven expectations between the two major parties. One was governed by providing the correct answers and the other by asking the correct answers. In both cases the future was furnished with a certain kind of expectation that governed the present.] and governed by expectation:

  1. Transcendental values bestow an intrinsic value upon the world, including the values of humans and anything else. Liberal humanism is a derivation of this.[2. It is what Helen Razer is writing against, in part, in her piece about feminism.] It means you only have to believe and not do any work in appreciating structures of valorisation that everday life enters into as a kind of ritualised gladitorial combat. Everyday our values slay the meaninglessness of its own battle first and then every other violence posed by the question.
  2. There is an unthinking simplicity to the perfection produced by transcendental values. The perfection here is of a particular order. It is not the perfection of neoplatonic forms.[3. For example, there is no such thing as ’roundness’ or a ‘curve’. A circle is a series of points equidistant from another point. There is no ‘circle’ to represent the perfection of ’roundness’.] The purest expression of this in the contemporary state of affairs is the utter stupidity of justification via expectation: “What else do you expect?” This is ironically lampooning of the use of ‘shock’ in journalistic headlines: “Politician in Lying Shock” or “Celebrity in Sex Scandal Shock”. None of these are actual shocks. I’d be shocked to find someone shocked by them. The superposition of expectation introduces the same teleological inevitability once granted solely to Good and Evil. Beyond the Expected and Unexpected!
  3. The persecution of reality by transcendental values approaches its apogee through knowledge that ‘everyone’ knows. Everyone does not know it, but ‘everyone’ does. Here, expectation of something expectedly shared annihilates difference; that is, the differentials of culture that actually produce meaning. Entire fields of knowledge are organised around bestowing an adequate perception of these most important things, whatever they are, to the everyday innovators of expectation (through Ideas Worth Spreading). Everyone has the ‘right’ to participate in the glorious pursuit over expectation, where we truly value your ‘voice’ because it ‘matters’.[4. An excellent test to carry out before you say or write anything is what difference is being made (if any) or what difference are you attempting to reproduce by governing the future.]
  4. Neitzsche argued that the transcendental values of Morality were a measure of self-preservation, to prevent ‘man’ from despising ‘himself’ as ‘man’. Knowledge, he argued, could drive a ‘man’ to despair. Indeed. After the death of God, what possible hope is there? Well, hope itself; hope in hope. Hope is the handmaiden of expectation. Hope bestows expectation with a robustness that only a nihilist would seek to liquidate. Hope prepares humanity to attend the future; both to be present and to worry over it. A future governed by expectation. If the transcendental values of Christian Morality confected the righteous in Nietzsche’s era, then it is now hope itself that fills ‘man’ up when self-awareness empties ‘him’. The awesome power of contemporary predictive algorithms to ‘recommend’ a given passage of action (this book/food/elected official is an appropriate choice) is built over the heads of ‘men’ as though they were the will of ‘himself’ and, at best, a hope of a world to come. Hence, the future itself has become the operative outside of expectation.[5. It is the future that serves as the ‘authority’ of expectation, to use Nietzsche’s terms, this authority “would know how to speak unconditionally, and could point to goals and missions” (WtP, pages 19-20). For Nietzsche these goals and missions are simulacrum populated by Christian Morality, I am suggesting the constellation of relations represented by ‘expectation’ is captured by the ‘point’ action itself.]

In the contemporary era, expectation is a mobile constellation of relations, unburdened by the tradition of tradition.[6. Except, of course, when tradition is inverted, like a demonic cruxifiction, to project a field of possible futures. Witness the way all people enduring a healthy sense of the ethical grind their teeth when having to live in countries with inhospitable policies of migration. The ‘nation’ is hoisted like wet laundry upon a clothes line in the backyard of banal expectations: not in my backyard. ‘My’ and ‘mine’ is an ‘adequate perception’ of ‘ours’ backformed from a possible future governed by the ‘nation’.] Like Nietzsche’s Christian Morality (WtP, page 9), this mobile constellation of relations are fuelled by the despair of ever freeing ourselves from them. Hence, we crawl out of the slums of our expectedly shared telos, grappling with the zombie bodies and minds of the otherwise disaffected who can’t go on, but nevertheless go on. This is the stage of the transvaluation of all values.

Neitzsche only had to contend with the differential repetition of one set of transcendental values, but now the constellation of relations between elements in the present, but also through relations to the past and future, that manifest this teleology of expectation broken from its traditional transcendental mooring; it has become Mad Max surveying the wasteland of tomorrow — an immanent mobile force forever pursuing the fuel that will propel it on, on, on. Hope. Are you a student of opportunity?

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Anchors of Affect

There is an aesthetics of nihilism. (Are you excited? What are you excited about? I am very excited… but I don’t know why.) The comically stupid interpretations of nihilistic culture appreciate a nihilistic aesthetic to be one of violence, sex, depravity and so on; essentially, anything resonant with a moral wasteland that expresses the loss of transcendental values (such as Christian Morality).


An aesthetics of nihilism is one that appreciates the “long waste of strength, the pain of ‘futility’, uncertainty, the lack of opportunity to recover in some way, or to attain to a state of peace concerning anything — shame in one’s own presence, as if one had cheated oneself too long…” (WtP, page 12). The goal of all expectation is that something be attained: what is the return on investment? Are you excited? What are you excited about? The nihilistic appreciates that even with a return, nothing is attained. Pure waste, but of degrees.

Like a future threat governing the present through technics and an apparatus of ‘risk’ [7. See Brian Massumi’s Future Birth of the Affective Fact], the relations of the present to the future pass through various systems of expectation. The future is anchored in the present through affect. How we feel about the future. ‘Hype’ does not simply bestow meaning upon some expected innovation, but on the innovators of expectations, and an entire apparatus of valorisation (‘optics’, targeting entire populations targeting ‘achievements’; now crowdsourced ‘likes’) through the felt-tendency expectedly shared through expectation with others. Are you excited? What are you excited about? You are already targeting the present under remote control from the future: celebrate the autoaffection of drones!

Measuring the “worth of the world according to categories that can only be applied to a purely fictitious world” (WtP, 15) produces an inevitable revulsion. Life itself is vulgarised (WtP, page 23). Coke does not sell us a drink, but a world within which the drink exists. [8. See Maurizio Lazzarato’s Struggle, Event, Media: The corporation does not generate the object (the commodity), but rather the world in which the object exists. Nor does it generate the subject (worker and consumer), but rather the world in which the subject exists.] We consume entire worlds. Quench your thirst and your appetite heralds entire worlds. You command this power to connect with entire systems of existential midwifery. Are you excited? What are you excited about? Was Nietzsche wrong to suggest that nihilism is premised on recognising there is no truth? Satisfaction terminates in the purpose of your appetite; this is the belief and truth of expectation.

Appetite here is of the body, but it is animated with the banal majesty of the future-present of meeting expectations. “Does what it says on the box.” “As advertised.” The consumer is entirely disenfranchised of dignity when following this trivial proscriptions. Hence, the manifest disgust when you begin wallowing in the consumption of this world projected by the futurity of “desiderata” (WtP, page 17). Alone with your excitement and the promise of world to come. I am very excited …but I don’t know why. “Give me a target!” demands the drone of futurity.

Is your excitement active or passive? Or, to ask this question another way, did you inherit your excitement? What were the conditions by which this excitement circulated? What are the vectors of its propagation? If you didn’t inherit this excitement, then how was it manifest? Is it part of a burning fury? Did your excitement bubble up through you? Nietzsche proposes two kinds of nihilism (WtP, page 21):

1. Nihilism as a sign of enhanced spiritual strength: active nihilism.

2. Nihilism as a sign of the collapse and decline of siritual strength: passive nihilism.

The nihilist’s capacity to act is increased (what Nietzsche calls “spiritual vigour”) when the goals or missions that once directed you are no longer suitable; the nihilist begins as an existential exploration: discover your own challenges. If you go on even when you cannot go on and subsume you own challenges according to the proscriptions of expectation, then your randomised playlist soundtrack will always and forever play cynicism. This is a passive nihilism, and the cynic’s capacity to act is diminished, like a fast food patron holding up the drive-thru line paralysed by indecision when choosing from the menu. Exhaustion should be welcomed as the inability to possibilise a future and transient zero-degree of nihilism.

If there is no truth, then first there cannot be appetite. The nihilist does not believe his or her own appetite[9. This is what Nietzsche calls the philosophical nihilist, one who “supposes theat the sight of such a desolate, useless Being is unsatisfying (…) and fills ‘him’ with desolation and despair” (WtP, page 30).]; hence, truth as the satisfaction in the termination of appetite fails to manifest. You feel it in your body; you reject entire worlds. Rather than grappling with the existential dimension of the abject, this is the abject on an existential level.

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Cultures of Nihilism

There are varieties of self-stupefaction manifest as attempts to escape nihilism. I think this is where most critics of nihilist popular culture fall short. They think they are critiquing nihilism, when they are actually critiquing the attempts to escape nihilism (not unlike the scene from Jurassic Park where the intrepid humans wonder at the grace of the stampeding herd and, just before they are almost wiped-out by the excited herd mentality, enters a species of monstrous hunter: ‘Nihilism’). Nietzsche isolates a few examples of such stupefaction:

  1. Rising above the malaise through emotional intoxification: this includes popular culture (‘music’), in scandal (‘cruelty of tragic joy of ruin of the noblest’), in blind enthusiasms (‘hatreds’).
  2. Escape by falling into an oppressive regime of documenting small joys. This includes attempts “to work blindly, like a scientific instrument” (WtP, page 24) or, as I suggest, a drone.
  3. Another form of stupefaction has developed in the ‘so-called’ networked society (the use of ‘so-called’ should signal that I am using a derivative of an ‘expectation’ that governs a certain discourse; the sheer fact that every who reads this knows to that which I am referring is proof). This is the stupefaction of belonging.

Imagine there is a global media culture. There isn’t a global media culture.

There is a global logistical network for the distribution of a limited number of cultural products that audiences imagine belong to a ‘global culture’. There is no outside point of reference for these audiences to gauge whether the cultural products are global or merely appear as global. This is not unlike the way a larger neighbour will dominate the everyday media culture of its smaller neighbour, but this presence is not reciprocated (US to Australia, Australia to New Zealand, and so on). The presumption of participatory relevance is premised on the material conditions for the distribution of culture and the speed with which audiences access these cultural products (such as a mass-synchronised ‘opening’ or ‘release’ that seduce audiences into believing they share the text, which they do not; they simply belong without possibly knowing what it is they belong to).

Of course, irrelevant participation does not preclude localised audience-based interpretations that produce the meaning of the cultural products — that is, the ‘text’ of the cultural product — that blossoms into a deep existential meaning for the audience. It is just such deep existential meaning is utterly irrelevant beyond a limited cloister of like-minded aficionados. The feeling of belonging to a mass cultural event, such as a mass-synchronised ‘opening’, is more of an expression of global culture than any normatively-considered, audience-produced meaning of the ‘text’. [10. There is a paradox here of rendering the audience irrelevant just as media companies mistakenly attempt to resuscitate their businesses by focusing on the audience; not unlike a lifeguard rescuing a drowning victim, while they are actually still drowning on barely remembered past success milked as they fellate their own decaying corporate bodies.]

Besides shared irrelevance, all that is left is a shared disdain. To produce belonging therefore requires a constant involution of immanent modes of belonging.  Shared disdain is another modality of the pessimism that heralds nihilism. Nihilism as the autoaffection of pessimism.


Simondon and Techno-Aesthetics

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Opportunities (2005-2012) — Corinne Vionnet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

but the work

“Handiness is not grasped theoretically at all, nor is it itself initially a theme for circumspection. What is peculiar to what is initially at hand is that it withdraws, so to speak, in its character of handiness in order to be really handy. What everyday association is initially busy with is not tools themselves, but the work. What is to be produced in each case is what is primarily taken care of and is thus also what is at hand. The work bears the totality of references in which useful things are encountered.” (Heidegger, Being and Time, 65)

The Alien and Its Media

When I teach journalism students how to do SEO (and the tensions around it etc) I begin with Google’s Adwords Keywords tool so they get a sense of how the ‘Google algorithm’ indexes (‘experiences’/’perceives’?) the language we use in keyword searches. I want the students to understand that when a journalist uses SEO they are basically making allowances for how a machine will ‘read’ their text. Of course, the ‘reading habits’ of the Google algorithm are assembled from aggregated user data, etc. so ‘read’ is the wrong word here, but it is a necessary word to bridge different comprehensions of how human text is perceived. As a sidenote, much of the research in contemporary newsrooms has found that most practicing journalists experience this as an unwelcome intervention in their journalistic practice. Experiencing the intervention of ‘Google’ as ‘alien’ (or similar to what I believe you call the ‘strange stranger’). [A good example of this is the SEO friendly insistence on the removal of ‘stop words’, which can radically change the meaning of a title or headline.]

Tim Morton left a few clarifying comments to my post about Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology. Part of my response is above and it got me thinking about previous engagements between the ‘alien’ and media studies. It reminded me of the Autonomedia volume Media Archive and the short essay The Alien and Its Media by Adilkno. From Charlie Gere’s brief MetaMute review of Media Archive:

ADILKNO, an English rendering of the Dutch acronym BILWET, denotes the ‘Stichting ter Bevordering van de Illegale Wetenschap’, or ‘Foundation for the Advancement of Illegal Knowledge’, a group of ‘non-academic theorists’ who came together out of the Dutch squatter and autonomous movements of the early 1980s.

I have the print version of Media Archive and it is a fantastic collection of polemical essays. The Alien and Its Media is a very brief essay and I want to suggest that the ‘alien’ of Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology is very similar to (if not the same as) Adilkno’s ‘alien’ albeit with different nuances. Adilkno’s ‘alien’ is derived from McLuhan’s early work on the ‘extension’ of the human into media as an alienation of the human (see the relevant sections in this essay on The Dialectical Methods of Marshall McLuhan, Marxism, and Critical Theory). The ‘alien’ as it figures in The Alien and Its Media is a rearticulation of this processual relation of alienation, but where the ‘alien’ has its own agency.

Media as Hybrid of Alien and Human Being

The opening section of the essay characterises media as a “battle for significance” between and “unholy hybrid… sum” of “alien and human being”. The essay opens by identifying three strategies for the neutralisation of this battle, which I’ve summarised below with some quick examples:

1. Media is civilised. This is basically a kind of ‘(ex)communicative rationality’ response. It is a form of censorship whereby the alien is exiled, but returns with a catastrophic vengeance as a kind of Virilioian ‘integral accident’ (i.e. glitches, crashes), such as the fantastically imagined as the ‘millenium bug’. See Adilkno’s essay from Media Archive on Communication Catastrophe.

2. Defect to the alien. This is the OOO/’new aesthetic’ response. It is a “demand on modern media to become appallingly strange”. Or, as Bogost puts it in th context of the ‘new aesthetic’, it needs to get ‘weirder’. This is a kind of celebratory mode of engagement. “The sublimation of evil into the sublime intends to confine the alien’s dangerous unpredictability to the aesthetic experience of the uncodable, to be consumed within an institutional framework.”

3. Symbiotic/parasitic banalization of the alien into everyday life. This is the everyperson’s ‘coping mechanism’ response; I suspect this is what Morton was working to disrupt with his Nonhuman Turn plenary performance/paper. What Adilkno’s calls the “alien high” (experiences of ‘speed’ or the ‘void’ produced at the level of the ‘machinic’) is “treated as a spiritual initiation”. Think about the first time someone showed you how torrents worked. I’d suggest that the character of the banalization is situated in a specific cultural context. There is a whole genre of person-out-of-time/space films that works to explore this problematic. For example, the Back to the Future series of films are based on the premise of the main characters negotiating between the constraints of competing banalities. On banality see Greg Seigworth’s excellent essay (written as a response to Meaghan Morris’s warning to cultural studies)

Media as ‘Alienation’

“The new media launched by the alien will absorb so much enthusiasm that the bizarre alienating effects of the previous media’s terminal phase are promptly forgotten.”

Adilkno develops a quasi-Marxist/McLuhanist engagement with media, which is entirely absent from Bogost’s book and therefore it would not be fair to compare the two. Closer to Adilkno’s discussion of alienation is the work of Beller. There are various combinations of relations that produce viewership for coordinating the labor of looking. Beller on alienation (bold added):

Though today it may appear that images are the cause of “man’s intellectual confusion,” the alienation of our senses; they are really its consequence. Such is the reason, for example, that Americans do not know or did not see or did not feel the deaths of all those Iraqis, do not dwell on the poverty and prostitution of Asia, do not rise up to help ameliorate the disease and famine imposed upon Africa, do not reckon the consequences of their intervention in Latin America. Images are the alienated, objectified sensuality of humanity becoming conscious for itself through the organization of consciousness and sense. They are an intensification of separation, capital’s consciousness, that is, human consciousness (accumulated subjective practices) that now belongs to capital. Because our senses don’t belong to us, images are not conscious for us. Or rather, they are conscious “for us” in another sense, that is, they are conscious in place of us. As the prosthetic consciousness of the world system, these new sites of sensuous production serve someone or something else. […]
Thus, cinema is an alienation effect, a result of the increasing quantity of historically sedimented labor creating a shift in the quality of capital itself. Mediations which formerly appeared as ontological (seeing, desiring) now appear as technological (viewing, producing).

The Adilkno essay argues that the hybrid character of media is elided for as long as the focus is on the “human factor”. Similar to OOOers, the point is that they are emphasising the ontological dimension of what Beller is calling the ‘technological’.

Media Genealogy

“Media genealogy is to be interpreted as the chronicle of the coming-out of the alien.”

The neo-McLuhanist approach of Adilkno is fully apparent in their account of the manifestation of the ‘alien’ as a historical signature of media development. Awareness by producers and users of the hybridity of media prompts the development of new media. Aliens “arrive everyday at the push of button” and they “steer humanity toward new media techniques”. The media archaeology movement has a very thorough appreciation of this manifestation of the alien-as-agency that subsumes and coordinates human sensory apparatus. Traces of the alien are found in nineteenth century literature as the experience of a foreign body within the body: the “poetic mechanism is a vehicle for ‘outside powers’.” The alien taps into the human subconscious in the form of images of the supernatural. At stake is the erasure of the distance between the image and the experience, or the experience of the ‘image’ itself. “The alien follows its own trajectory.” This account of media archaeology is preoccupied with the alienation of human experience that transforms media into a conduit of dissassociated ‘(im)personal’ charisma. Manifestation of celebrity worship is not the dialectical subsumption of desire into the ego via the image, but the condition of possibility for belonging itself.