France bookshelf

widgetWhile in France a few weeks ago I had the chance to peruse the local bookstores and noticed some curious turns in French theory. One thing I wouldn't have predicted is an exhumation of the Greek primordial divinities. Meillassoux rediscovered Chaos a few years ago. And now Latour is worshiping Gaia. Stengers has joined the fun as well. In addition to Stengers and Latour, Laruelle also has a new book out in French addressing global warming / climate stuff.

I saw lots of new Badiou books of various shapes and sizes, from short interview books to larger volumes. And I gather he is currently working on part 3 of Being and Event. Achille Mbembe has a relatively new book called Critique de la raison nègre, which I would be eager to see translated. I also noticed a few stores displaying Fréderic Neyrat's Homo labyrinthus, which is on posthumanism and looks quite interesting.

In sad news, La Hune, long a Left Bank institution, closed its doors only to reopen as a soulless purveyor of expensive coffee table books. Other favorite shops are still in business though, including the venerable Vrin. I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that the Gibert Joseph on Boulevard Saint-Michel has a huge selection of philosophy books. And the tiny Librairie Le Point du Jour tucked behind the ENS has probably the best selection of Marxist books I've ever seen (hat tip to David M!), all piled up like a hoarder's apartment in that way that French used bookstores like to do.

Anti-determinism

Anti-determinism is a common position today, in both popular and academic conversations alike. Redemptive narratives in social and political theory are usually centered around things like contingency or play, or other mechanisms for eluding determination such as escape or accident. Many associate life itself with anti-determinism, suggesting that the very vitality of a living creature is due to its ability to escape the determinations of natural law. Unlike the stone, the living creature need not roll down hill, but rather, against gravity, may peregrinate near and far, beyond the limits of natural law.

In the past I've posted about why I'm a vulgar determinist and tried to elaborate the idea along more philosophical lines. But anti-determinism is also a common position in discussions of technology. At a recent academic conference, someone expressed this sentiment in regard to tools: technologies are neutral, not determining; it's how one uses one's tools that matters. I was particularly struck by this claim, since, in materialist media theory at least, such a position is more or less untenable and has been for some time. Indeed the opposite position tends to hold sway among the authors and colleagues that I find most interesting. (I'll ignore on grounds of irrelevance those old conjurations of a totalitarian techno-state in which all freedom and hope are lost; to suggest that “technological determinism” is invalid because it inaccurately assumes a world that is techno-fascist misunderstands both technology and fascism.) Nevertheless it might be useful to revisit the main points of the argument and add a few details of my own. Continue reading

The Computational Decision

As various forms of computationalism continue to influence contemporary writing in theory and philosophy, it seems appropriate to reexamine some of the fundamental assumptions and principles of computation, so that we may identify them more readily. In an earlier, characteristically modernist, phase, media theorists like Lev Manovich and others sought to identify and itemize the unique characteristics of the medium by pursuing the query "what is new media?

I'll add my own contribution here, by returning to some of the basic observations about data and machines. Still, the label “computational decision” is meant to indicate several positive actions undertaken in order to create and sustain computation in the world. Such actions are not always taken consciously, nevertheless they are taken and must be taken for computation to exist. The notion of a “decision” is meant to highlight the constructed nature of such events. Further, I suspect that anyone promulgating such decisions might also wish to provide sufficient rationale for their naturalization, least risk being accused of dogmatism.

The three basic moments in the computational decision are:

  1. “there are data,” or the decision to pursue symbolic representation
  2. “there is information,” or the decision to grant a macro structure to data
  3. “there are functions,” or the decision to distinguish between two kinds of information, functions and (mere) data

Continue reading

Talks in London and Paris

Please join me for some talks in London and Paris

Historical Materialism conference, Friday, November 6, 4:15pm
I'll be on a panel, speaking about the work of Fredric Jameson.

Cambridge, Monday, November 9, 5:30pm
I'll be speaking in the Modern French Research Seminar. Email me for details if you'd like to attend.

Kingston/LGS, Tuesday, November 10, 6pm
"What Can We Do With Non-Philosophy?" -- with Ian James and John Ó Maoilearca, a discussion on the work of François Laruelle. Location: Swedenborg Hall.

King's College London, Wednesday, November 11, 6pm
A lecture on "Crystalline Media: Algorithmic Aesthetics in Late Modernity"

Paris 8, November 16-20
I'll also be speaking on "Crystalline Media" at the conference "Le Sujet Digital 2015: Codes."

Deleuze, the analogical philosopher par excellence

From the early 1980s to his death in 1995, the late Deleuze is a period of sustained creativity and refined thinking. I find myself often returning to the late Deleuze. I said before we must forget Deleuze, but the late work is different. We should forget the anti-Oedipus and forget the desiring machines. But Deleuze's intervention in the “Postscript on Control Societies” or his subtle, often touching, exploration of painting in Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation represents a thinker at the height of his powers and with a deep sense of his position in the world.

The crux of the “Postscript” has to do with technology. Here is one of those rare moments in which Deleuze comments on actually existing contemporary technology, specifically computers. Control societies, he writes, “function with a third generation of machines, with information technology and computers” (180). Admittedly Deleuze does not delve too deeply into the specificities of computing. But he does say a few brief words about the pairing that most interests us here, the analog and the digital. Continue reading

Flusseriana

2015_-_publikation_-_flusseriana_-_002_0A lovely item arrived in the mail today, the Flusseriana, a large and engrossing volume that explores the intellectual landscape of the late, great media philosopher Vilém Flusser. Structured roughly like an encyclopedia, the compendium contains a few hundred entries, from "abstraction" to "zero-dimensionality," by way of "Buber, Martin," "Hypertext," and of course, "Vampyroteuthis Infernalis." Many contributing authors helped produce this volume, which was edited by Siegfried Zielinski and Peter Weibel, with Daniel Irrgang, and published by the good folks over at Univocal in a tri-lingual English-German-Portuguese edition. (Flusser knew Portuguese, along with several other languages, and lived in Brazil for many years.) Continue reading

From Data to Information

In recent months I've been spending time learning Swift. As such, I've been thinking a lot about data structures. Swift has a nice spectrum of possible data structures to pick from -- something that I'll have to discuss another day -- but what interests me here is the question of data itself. Scholars often treat etymology as a special kind of divination. (And philosophers like Heidegger made a career of it.) But I find the etymology of the word “data” to be particularly elegant and revealing.

Data comes from the Latin dare, meaning to give. But it's the form that's most interesting. First of all, it's in the neuter plural, so it refers to “things.” Second, data is a participle in the perfect passive form. Thus the word means literally “the things having been given.” Or, for short, I like to think of data as “the givens.” French preserves this double meaning nicely by calling data the données. (The French also use the word “data,” although *I believe* this is technically an anglicism imported from technical vocabulary, despite French being much closer to Latin than English.) Continue reading

Assessing the Legacy of That Thing That Happened After Poststructuralism

Now that the SR/OOO wave has crested, crashed, and receded, we can start to evaluate it with the advantage of perspective. I won't attempt to offer an autopsy here, but I do want to address a few points and then offer a prediction for the future. I'll refer to some details about SR/OOO, but I also want to consider it more broadly as symptomatic of the new ontological turn or “that thing that happened after poststructuralism.” In other words, while some of the specific issues within SR/OOO are important, I think that the advent of SR/OOO is most useful for marking an historical boundary, even if it can't explain the larger state of theory and philosophy today.

The first general point, one that I already made a few years ago, is that what began as realism has ended as materialism. We've seen this happen with the “new ontology”: what began with an interest in philosophical realism by post-Deleuzians like Manuel Delanda, has reorganized itself into a distinctly materialist discourse. Jane Bennett's 2009 book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things was instrumental in galvanizing this broad trend. But one might also cite any number of other contributions from the likes of Elizabeth Grosz, Karen Barad, Rosi Braidotti, or Arjun Appadurai. Continue reading