In my graduate seminar we've recently been thinking a bit about machines. Given that our focus has been on the 19th Century, attention has been directed toward ergodic machines (from the root ergon meaning work). Ergodic machines are machines that run on heat and energy. Such machines are essentially mechanical in nature. They deal with basic physical mechanics like levers and pulleys, and questions of mass, weight, and counter-balance. Ergodic machines adhere to the laws of motion and inertia, the conservation of energy, and the laws of thermodynamics governing heat, pressure, and energy.
I've often struggled to pinpoint the difference between a tool and a machine; it's not simply a question of scale or complexity. Still, the tool and the machine constitute two different branches in the philosophy of technology. For instance Heidegger wrote about tools but had much less to say about machines. Deleuze, for his part, was obsessed with machines, leaving tools by the wayside. Overall, ergodic machines are interesting from a philosophical point of view, given how philosophy tends to privilege presence and being. Categories like energy, heat, power, change, motion, evolution, or process tend to get second billing in philosophy, if they're addressed at all. To promote them to primary billing, as Foucault did, or Whitehead, or Nietzsche, is something of a radical gesture. Continue reading →
Following in the spirit of book reviews written about books that do not exist, I offer here -- no doubt at my own peril -- a series of observations in anticipation of Alain Badiou’s forthcoming Being and Event 3: The Immanence of Truths, a book that does not yet exist but will exist at some point in the future.
1. Alain Badiou has been interested in poetry and literature throughout his long career. Yet in recent years he seems to be turning more closely to poetry. Such a turn presents something of a problem for Badiou, a Platonist, given Plato’s skepticism toward poetry and concomitant preference for mathematics. But what is poetry? And what is math? For Badiou poetry is a marker for the event, for life, for the real, for what Jacques Lacan called “the impossible.” By contrast, mathematics is the space of the precise letter, of argument, of proof, of learning and training (after the original Greek meaning of mathēsis), of formal abstraction in its most rigorous articulation. Already notorious for his defense of mathematics as ontology, Badiou has become a bit more evenhanded on the question of the matheme versus the poem, preferring instead to describe philosophy as poised “between” poetry and mathematics, not simply privileging the latter.
2. In its essence, poetry is an attempt to touch the real continuum of life. And, as Badiou argues, there is no poem that does not in some basic way describe an event. While at the same time mathematics is an attempt to abstract away from the real continuum into the realm of consistency, name, rule, and identity. Still, the contrast is perhaps overstated. Poetry is impossible to define in its totality without reference to rule and rhythm, figuration and abstraction. Likewise mathematics spans both domains. There has existed since the ancients a mathematics of the real continuum as well as a mathematics of the proper name and rule. The former is a mathematics of pure difference while the latter a mathematics of pure identity; the former a math of time -- indeed directly in time -- while the latter formalizes time to a sufficient degree as to be able to purge it entirely, replacing time with space.
What would it mean to provide a theory of media? In contemporary discourse, terms like mass media, social media, visual media, or digital media are used quite freely. Commentators like to claim that we live in a media age, an observation whose very banality too often undercuts its potential utility. It will be worth while to pause for a moment and review the three most common ways of thinking about media, media as substance, media as structure, and media as logic.
The first answer to the question of media is found in the concept of substance. Under the Substance Model of media, the word “media” means medium or carrier. Here we find the great discussions around technology, around things like paper, paperwork, copper wire, signals, artifacts, archives, nodes, devices, what in Plato are called the hypomnemata (ὑπομνήματα), the so-called memory extenders, or the “extensions” of man. The Substance Model typically categorizes media in terms of artifacts or objects. Indeed, a number of contemporary media scholars describe themselves as archeologists, as performing media archeology. Here “middle” is understood in a strictly physical and material sense, as means, go-between, intermediary, the actual materiality of the thing being mediated. The Substance Model focuses on the gut, the meat, the flesh, the body,bodies as such. The Substance Model thingifies the world, turning everything into genetic elements and carrier channels. Something of a pre-Socratic view resurfaces here. Medium thinkers ask questions like “what is the elemental substance?” Pre-Socratic, this approach is Aristotelian as well. Recall Aristotle, great thinker of the mean (the midway, the middle), that great cataloger of matter into classifiable things. Even seemingly immaterial topics like politics or ontology were relevant to Aristotle because he found a way to itemize and articulate them as things, just like the animals of the field or the clouds in the sky. Continue reading →
This is an excerpt from a forthcoming essay on "The Golden Age of Analog."
What does the analog mean today? A hard question indeed. For the digital, many will simply make reference to things like Twitter, Playstation, or computers in general. Here one might be correct, but only coincidentally, for the basic order of digitality (the digitality of digitality) has not yet been demonstrated through mere denotation. The question of the analog is harder still, with responses often also consisting of mere denotations of things: sound waves, the phonograph needle, magnetic tape, a sundial, the wheel. At least denotation itself is analogical. But still what's the answer? Shall we flip a coin? Or, better yet, roll the coin down the hall and let it land where it will.
The analog, what is it? A number of contemporary authors have taken up the question directly. Consider Kaja Silverman's most recent work, where now in twoconsecutive volumes she has turned her attention away from difference and toward its putative antonym, analogy. Or recall how the first great Deleuzean in North America, Brian Massumi, once wrote an essay called “On the Superiority of the Analog.” I shudder to think how badly he would be trolled online if he were to pen such an essay today. Even at the height of the first Internet bubble, Massumi stayed true to his principles. He knew that to be a Deleuzian obligated one to embrace the analog fully, to become an analog philosopher.
I've said it before and I'll say it again. We've reached peak Deleuze. The wise move, I suspect, would be to institute a five year moratorium for anyone working in media and cultural theory. This goes for the Deleuzian "deep catalog" as well including Simondon and Spinoza. It's just getting out of hand.
The straw that broke the camel's back for me was reading Elizabeth Grosz's latest book and teaching it in seminar. A few months ago I cited Grosz in the context of The Swervers, a school of thought -- some of them Deleuzeans but not all -- who promote ethics and aesthetics as first philosophy and who gravitate toward analog themes such assemblage, affect, sensation, process, becoming, chaos, and accident. And I recently posted some longer reflections on Grosz's methodological profile. I certainly don't intend the current post as a kind of character assassination aimed at Grosz, who is unquestionably one of the most interesting and innovative thinkers working today. Her 2007 lecture at the Feminist Theory Workshop is but one example of how clearly she understood the state of the field at the time, and how much she had thought about where it should go in the future. (And looking back now ten years later she was essentially correct.) I see her work as indicative of a larger trend, and it's this larger trend that interests me.
My seminar recently read Elizabeth Grosz's latest book, The Incorporeal: Ontology, Ethics, and the Limits of Materialism. Grosz is an insightful reader of philosophical history and she has assembled here the Deleuzean songbook with chapters on the Stoics, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Simondon, along with the lesser known French philosopher of biology Raymond Ruyer plus a chapter on Deleuze himself. The book follows a few themes that recur in multiple chapters, specifically the theme of ethics and how to live, as well as the notion of immanence and what it might mean to have a non-reductive or "flat" ontology. The provocative premise of the book however is something a bit different. In The Incorporeal Grosz continues her exploration of materialism, only now counterintuitively through materialism's putative opposite, that is, through the idea and the way in which the ideal always inheres in any material milieu.
I find it interesting how a number of theorists have recently embraced some of the very things that they might have avoided at a younger age: Kaja Silverman shifting away from difference and towards analogy; Donna Haraway coming out in favor of discipline (for dogs); and now Grosz, she a pioneer in what we today call New Materialism, writing a book on idealism, that hoary rival of all good materialists. I don't see any of these developments as conservative or reactionary per se. This is the mature work of mature thinkers who understand that every aspect of life ought to get its due, even those aspects that one might have formerly shunned out of a political or ethical commitment. And anyhow, why shouldn't a materialist be able to give a decent account of mind or form? Continue reading →
I arrived home yesterday to a pleasant surprise. My first book, Protocol, has been translated and published in Japanese by Jimbun Shoin in Kyoto. This was arranged behind the scenes by the publisher, and I wasn't aware of the progress. So a surprising but welcome sight indeed! I look forward to greater contact with colleagues and students in Japan going forward.