Tools for Critical Epistemology: Part 2

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

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

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

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

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


Tools for Critical Epistemology: Part 1

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

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

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

Virilio and Vision of the Self-Projectile

[This is an extract from a lecture on “Pics or it didn’t happen”.]

For Virilio dromoscopy is the art of the dashboard, which “displays inanimate objects as if they were animated by a violent movement” (105) and becomes “in some ways a video game of speed” (111). (Here is a translation of one of Virilio’s ‘dromoscopy’ essays. That essay is similar, but different to the text I am referencing below which is the dromoscopy chapter of Virilio’s translated book Negative Horizons.)

Virilio uses the literal and metaphorical concept of a dashboard to think about how 20th century technologies of movement have changed relations of visibility. Central to this is the emergence of a privileged actor — the voyeur-voyager. The voyeur-voyager ceases to be transported or the subject of displacement and instead becomes the locus of arrival. The pure projection of the voyeur-voyager inverts the passivity of the cinematic apparatus to become the pure immobilization of ‘polar inertia’. Virilio writes:

“In the speed of the movement the voyeur-voyager finds himself in a situation that is contrary to the of the film viewer in the cinema, it is he who is projected, playing the role of both actor and spectator of the drama of the projection in the moment of the trajectory, his own end” (106).

The voyeur-voyager is enabled by the technology of the dashboard; the dashboard both frames the screen and provides an immediate array of informational content. What is the sensory and semantic information allowed through the constraint of the screen (passenger window)? It is a “stage [scéne] where the signs of the places travelled through move past in the mise en scene of changes in the scenery from the change in the rate of speed” (107). Speed and its maintenance throttles the arrival of sign-places upon the screen. The speed of the voyeur-voyager dissolves the distance to the horizon or destination (108-109, 111) and modifies the regulation of appearances (114-117). Virilio discusses both of these in a negative sense; the relations of perception to the outside are diminished by speed. What matter or is counted are the opportunities for insertion — the ‘entranceways’:

“With the excess of speed, vision [la vue] becomes progressively the way [la voie], the entranceways [la voie d’acces], to the point that daily life seems to have become an ‘optical watch’ where vision [la vue] replaces life [la vie], as if, in waiting in front of the audiovisual device, hoping that the dromovisual device will attain in its turn the instantaneity of ubiquity…” (116)

I want to push this fertile concept of the voyeur-voyager in a slightly different direction, one that retains Virilio’s preoccupation with violence and thinking about the self-directed voyeur-voyager but in the context of the project of the self in a networked context. We use multiple dashboards not only to track what is happening in the world through various feeds, but we also use them so as to mount a campaign of the self. Following Virilio’s logic, this project of the self becomes a self-projectile. There are at least two consequences of this.

The first consequence of this is that the play of appearance and disappearance is premised on the speed of insertion in the complex media ecologies of multiple dashboard-enabled perception-feeds. The art of the dashboard shifts from making inanimate objects appear as if they are animated by a violent movement to an example of what Virilio calls chronologistics. Chronologistics is the orchestrated logistical effort of producing and participating in a “montage of dromoscopic sequences” (119, 118). The presentation of the online self is a logistical art of not only display, but also timing. For those who have worked as social media communicators where you post and participate in a corporate or institutional ‘voice’ (posting for a brand or service, for example), you will know the art of tracking engagement and posting at various times during the day to maximise engagement.

The second consequence of the project of the self thought as self-projectile is that for the voyeur-voyagers there is no singular destination as such, but multiple loci of activity. Virilio prefigures this in what he calls the accident of dromoscopy: the “catastrophe of collision [telescopage] arises from the fact that the arrival seems to counter more and more frequently the departure” (114). Or put another way “the departure for the meeting has come to an end, it is replaced by the arrival of images on the screen” (115). The passive relation to this is the “wait for the coming of what abides: the trees file past on the screen of the windshield, the images that rise up on the television” (115). But there is an active relation, one that Virilio does not discuss; playing the role of actor and spectator, but instead of the the end (or telos) is replaced by the target (or skopos). To follow Virilio’s preoccupation with military metaphors, the dashboard becomes a targeting apparatus of the scope.


Drones in the Cloud: Attending to Snapchat

I don’t know enough about you
To be kind, to be kind to you
Don’t you even think about me
Cymbals, “The Natural World”

The Cymbals’ electro-pop lament of unrequited attention (‘love’) has the same furtively repetitive energetics of yearning through ‘refresh’. Refresh the inbox, refresh the stream, refresh the wall. Repeat. Has the person responded? “Here is my attention; take it.” The “I” of the song is a single contact in a series of contacts presented as the natural world (or ‘milieu’) belong to the song’s second-person “you”.[1. As this reviewer on Pitchfork described the track, it is a “witty, sweat-salty pop song about the peculiarities of media-drenched modern life”.]

The expectation of being attended to is held by the “you” but it is also shared by the “I”. Obviously, the expectation is not held in the same way. Two perspectives on the same expectation indicates a certain kind of power relation. Teachers and students are meant to share expectations of what will happen in a classroom, but they will have radically different perspectives. The flip-side to the alleged passivity of narcissism consists of the capacity to excite or agitate the world. ‘Agitate’ not in the sense of arguing — there is that too, however — but more in the sense of an ‘agitator’ sometimes used as part of the viticulture process in great wine baths to ensure that the elements in solution continue mixing (and fermenting and so on). What does this mean?

There is a labour of sharing that requires an intensive strategic infrastructure to distribute collective expectations in asymmetric relations of attending and being attended to. The technology is part of this; ‘living with notifications’ in the same way you’d say living with some potentially painful but treatable condition. Snapchat operates purely in this realm. It is not what is shared so much as the anticipation of sharing. The just-in-time sociality of online relations often encourages a temporality not unlike the rhythm of waves, in the silent way the tide draws out the body of water — gathering in the potentiality of repetitive anticipation. Like the way a comedian waits for the audience to ‘get it’ (hoping beyond hope that their gag is, indeed, gettable).[2. I often feel very awkward around people when it is apparent they are not ‘getting it’, but that is something else…]

You decide what you want from me
We can hear the passing of time
And the sound that is in your mind
— Cymbals, “The Natural World”

The second-person “you” has a spectral composition, distributed across her agitations. (Obviously I am using ‘her’ when it very well might be a ‘him’; I know I present such a persona online sometimes.[4. EDIT a few hours later: For ironic emphasis I posted this image to Instagram and to Snapchat today with different text components. Not sure if anyone got the irony in the context of this blog post. A few people got extra annoyed at me thinking I was sexting them. I guess an ironic sext (not that it is a sext as such), is still a sext.]) Being attended to can therefore be experienced as endured, where the causal relation begins elsewhere; essentially, a passive relation to the actions of others. This is an abdication of responsibility, however. Participation in the anticipatory economy of sharing attentions is at the same time an impersonal cultivation of personal relations. This is a kind of existential wriggle. Impersonal because “you” engage with the cloud, which is nevertheless populated by (im)personal intentionalities.

Does the cloud have a face? What is the faciality of the cloud? I am tempted to suggest it is the drone: a being of pure intentionality — always a mission, always a target, its cybernetic perspective is pure HUD, baby — but one that is remote-controlled. Control is displaced across space for drone pilots; for the Cymbals’ “you” it is displaced across time in the anticipatory economy of sharing. The moral crisis of drone warfare is repeated online in the ethics of being attended to. The question of agency is therefore very tricky in such a scenario as it implies a degree of responsibility. What happens when the drones come home to roost? Can you be seduced by a drone?


A further, more pressing question presents itself: What if, instead of two people, the Cymbals’ track describes a process belonging to a single person?

That is, the agitations in question do not belong to some other (online) realm or ‘world’, but constitute that through which one’s subjectivity is individuated. I don’t know enough about myself to know if my own remote-controlled agitations are returning, repeating their anticipations. This would be the McLuhanist point (the way media technology “massages” the “human”): am I drone of my own affectations, a being of pure HUD intentionality, perpetually remote-controlled by a future version of myself (assembled by expectation and gathered through anticipation)?[4. Is this a mechanism to produce the absence of immediacy, most acutely experienced as the immediacy of personal responsibility?]


ebooks: or the

Appending ebooks to something is a practice belonging to subcultures on twitter and derived from the meme surrounding the horse_ebooks twitter account. Here are some notes on the cultural meaning of ‘_ebooks’.


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Various ‘_ebooks’ accounts have been created. What they all have in common is the algorithmic act of sampling source material and turning it into a tweet. On the process behind horse_ebooks:

The algorithm that produces the horse_ebooks stream, like most spammic algorithms, relies on user interaction to grow more effectual. It interprets text as data, and determines which keywords might best promote an outcome like the sale of Cialis or Horse Medical Records. Just as with many of our more popular and less insidious internet applications, the more interaction the algorithm gets, the smarter it becomes. The growing popularity of horse_ebooks has reciprocally allowed it to become better at generating tweets like “The Fear Of lowlife criminals With Environmental Protection” (October 30, 2011; 49 retweets).


While it is true that the algorithm publishes tweets that were, at some point, somehow, written, it is non-author in the sense that it defies the binary border between ebook and reader. It imagines non-authorship in a way that even social media, with its dissolution of anonymity, can enable.

Sure. There is something else going on when _ebooks is appended to non-_ebooks; that is, something that is ostensibly not the algorithmic poetics actioned in the event-space between discourse and code. Something has been extracted from the _ebooks phenomena and has now been folded back into the social practices on social media.

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What has been extracted? (Or what makes ‘_ebooks’ singular?) It is something that, firstly, plays with the relation between sense and nonsense. horse_ebooks enthusiasts are sometimes criticised for anthropomorphising the algorithm-based expressions. The non-discursive semantic sampling of source material is an algorithmic variation of the creative/aesthetic practice of producing and exploding disjunction. Contra the critics, this does not foreclose the possibility of meaning, only that the discursive dimension of the sample has also been parsed by the algorithm. What is this discursive dimension? The incorporeal materialism of all language. [1. See Foucault’s “Discourse on Language” on ‘incorporeal materialism’:  “If discourses are to be treated first as discursive events, what status does this notion of event have? Of course, an event is neither substance, nor  accident, nor quality nor process; events are not corporeal. And yet, an event is certainly not immaterial; it takes effect, becomes effect, on the level of materiality. Events consist in relation to, coexistence with, dispersion of, the cross-checking accumulation and the selection of material elements; it occurs as an effect of, and in, material disperion.”]

So a little nugget of sense emerging from non-sense. From the perspective of information theory, this is clearly irrational, because signals do not simply emerge from what is ostensibly noise, noise impinges on signals and so on. The meaning produced by _ebooks twitter accounts is (unintentionally?) meaningful but in a quasi-random manner. ‘Random’ because it is derived from the sampling algorithm, ‘quasi’ because it relies on coded text that otherwise belongs to the logical systems of language. That is, the _ebooks are never quite ‘noise’ because they are, at a minimum, sensible as nonsense.

The _ebooks tweets exist not just as a ‘text’, however. They are better understood as an event. Techniques and technologies of representation (language, media, etc.), like all kinds of communication, are forms of transport. [2. Raymond Williams was very clear about this in his ‘Communication’ entry in the iconic Keywords — where it can mean ‘transmit’ or ‘share’.] Representation brings a time and place into contact with another time and place. The singular quality of this contact is the event of sense. Practices on twitter materially enact this process of representational transport. Retweets are ambiguous, ‘favourites’ are less so.

The practical dimension of ‘retweets’ and ‘favouriting’ modifies the relations of visibility and the relations of valorisation inherent in all acts of communication. The normative content of a tweet does not have to be the content that is valorised; rather, more sophistcated twitter users often retweet in an ironic fashion. Twitter users can choose to participate in these processes of transportation by retweeting, this is obvious; less obvious is the purpose of retweeting ostensibly nonsensical tweets. In the passage of the retweet — the ‘journey’ of the communicational transport — what is gained or lost?


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One of Tim Lampe’s Horse E-Posters:

For a long time subcultural groups have created entire languages of meaning that appear to be nonsensical to outsiders. This is in part happening here as ‘_ebooks’ is a syntactic morpheme belonging to denotational practices of twitter-based subcultures. Retweeting can be understood as a practice of citation; think of that bloke everyone went to school with who knew every single line from the Simpsons. Citing the Simpsons produced a measure of cultural cache as a performance of cultural taste.

Retweeting does something similar, but with an additional dynamic dimension. The political economy of belonging in online networks not only means ‘following’ the right ‘people’ (or emitters of becoming-sensical content), but also of participating in the passage of meaning as meaning itself is enacted. Not only is the content shared, as per Raymond Williams’ definition of communication, but the becoming-sensical of the content is also shared.

Think of a joke that develops over the course of an evening. The release of tension signalled by the smile (weak) or laughter (strong) is triggered by a disjunction that produces the affective tension present in all humour. [3. “A horse_ebooks walks into a bar.” “The barmen says, “.] Such jokes cascade, but they are also repeated other nights, just as the possibility of such a joke developing is repeated. The algorithmic disjunction of sample text of the original ‘_ebooks’ twitter accounts is pregnant with a similar potentiality.


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What does ‘_ebooks’ represent?

What happens when ‘_ebooks’ is appended to something?

It is an ironic signifier. Instead of signifying the becoming-sensical of the original algorithmic ‘_ebooks’ twitter acounts, it is signifying the (allegeded) becoming-nonsensical of an actual person’s expression.