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The Machine Starts: Computers as Collaborators in Writing

Author: joe

Thursday, 28 April, 2011 - 23:33

Earlier this week I presented a paper at the Narrative Research Group Symposium on 'Nonhuman Narratives', at Bournemouth Unversity. It was a day filled with very interesting papers ranging through the posthuman and nonhuman, the monstrous and inhuman, and the nonhuman animal. The text of my paper is copied below, but I wanted to make a few remarks about the paper and the symposium first.

As usual, I found it incredibly difficult to compress the things I wanted to discuss into a 20 minute talk. I'd have liked to have talked more about the practice-led side of the ideas that provoked the paper, discussed a wider range of 'flat ontologists' (e.g. Jane Bennet, as Anat Pick suggested in the Q&A following my talk), and I'd have liked to have gone on to explore both playful and serious consequences of machine agency, from Ted Nelson's Computer Lib / Dream Machines to Kevin Kelly's arguments for The Technium.

The huge depth of subjects from the day make it impossible to sum up or do justice to the ideas, but I want to pick out a couple of insights from the day that really got me thinking.

David Herman talked about understanding (and writing, in graphic form) animal narratives, which was derived from a post-Cartesian approach to mind influenced by Uexküll's idea of an animal's 'Umwelt'. This hinged on a conception of mind as distributed in the environment, rather than sealed inside a thinking being (reminding me, incidentally, of the work of my colleague Dr Paul Stevens), thus permitting questions such as 'what's it like' to be a dog, mollusc, even doorknob. In particular I was intrigued by a remark in the Q&A following David's talk in which he suggested that because mind is a phenomenon distributed through body, environment and institution, we therefore do have access to it. Access to mind! - literally mind-blowing.

Anat Pick's talk, which examined Robert Bresson's portrayal of the donkey Balthazar, offered a way of thinking about determinism and agency that I'm not familiar with, but that I found really intriguing. The tension here is less determinism 'vs' agency, and more determinism 'and' grace; grace in the face of the necessity of the world which involves a form of assent, but is neither mere acceptance, nor does it preclude the resistance of persecution. In the Q&A she cited a Spinozan approach to understanding the necessities inherent in a deterministic universe, which then enables an agent to act within those necessities. I will have to learn Spinoza...

Finally an interesting phenomenon on the day was the frequent dismantling of binary oppositions. In the summary, it was noted that many tensions were explored in the day - human and nonhuman, humane and inhuman, normal and other, known and unknown - but that the categories kept breaking down. In the case of my talk for example, taking a relatively uncontroversial interpretation of nonhuman and following the logical paths such notions suggested, ended in dissolving the distinctions entirely. Human and nonhuman writers are indistinguishable; human and nonhuman texts are too...

I think of this as the inevitable consequence of any dialectic: the definition of a category depends on the splitting off of that category from it's other; it is as though we halve an apple, and are then surprised that the one half is very much the same as the other half... To define good, we create the not-good in the image of the good. Arbitrary categories are susceptible to and dissolve under systematic analysis. The difficulty (even impossibility) is in finding non-arbitrary distinctions. Humans are animals, humans make machines in their own image, monstrous killers are humans; the challenge thrown up by the dissolution of firm distinctions are all ethical: why might eating animals be morally different to cannibalism? what happens when you recognise nonhumans as 'persons'? does dehumanising serial killers absolve the social realms in which they occur from any blame? There may well be a boundary between human and nonhuman, but it is not necessarily where we conventionally think it is.

So I'm grateful to Bronwen Thomas and Julia Round for organising the day, Einar Thorsen for live-blogging it, and to the other speakers and participants for their ideas and openness. I am however, sad that no-one seemed to recognise the opening slide I used. While I was preparing the presentation, I woke in the middle of the night, unable to get back to sleep, going over and over in my mind the ideas I had for the contents of this paper; my mind had been possessed by a parasite, and as its host I was powerless to resist it. I lay there and remembered an album cover from 1981: The Police, 'Ghost in the machine'. I was barely 10 when I acquired the vinyl LP, and it fascinated me - the songs' lyrics about spirits in the material world, the ethereal synthesisers, the images of circuit boards on the inner sleeve. So I got up at 5 in the morning and went downstairs and pulled out my 30-year-old record, amazingly still unscratched, and played it, and felt a strange mixture of sadness and pleasure that none of my machine collaborators were scrobbling it to last.fm...

The Machine Starts: Computers as Collaborators in Writing

While I was preparing this paper, the 11-year-old I live with asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was preparing a presentation about how great machines are at telling stories. "How can machines tell stories?" he asked incredulously. I realised that should have been my title! I originally chose to reference E. M Forster's short story, 'The Machine Stops' in my title because I think it is necessary to invoke at once the dystopian vision that the idea of storytelling machines conjures. The idea of sentient machines - which surely they must be to compose tales - is popularly horrific, alienating, and dangerous. Intelligent machines always turn out to be evil. Often popular adaptations of this trope present clear lines between human and nonhuman 'intelligences', thereby permitting a war between them in which the happy outcome is the one in which the unfeeling machines are vanquished.

Forster's story is dystopian and has the contours of such an ethical boundary, but is more subtle, exploring the way in which the humans who inhabit the machine world are shaped by its demands and imperatives. A transgressing wanderer reaches close to the surface of the subterranean world of the machines, and later reports:

"There was a ladder, made of some primӕval metal. The light from the railway fell upon its lowest rungs, and I saw that it led straight upwards out of the rubble at the bottom of the shaft. Perhaps our ancestors ran up and down it a dozen times daily, in their building. As I climbed, the rough edges cut through my gloves so that my hands bled. The light helped me for a little, and then came darkness and, worse still, silence which pierced my ears like a sword. The Machine hums! Did you know that? Its hum penetrates our blood, and may even guide our thoughts. Who knows! I was getting beyond its power. Then I thought: "This silence means that I am doing wrong." But I heard voices in the silence, and again they strengthened me." He laughed. "I had need of them. The next moment I cracked my head against something."
 
The Machine Stops, (Forster, 1909)

I love the idea that the all-pervasive rumble of the machine is so constitutive of life that it withdraws from consciousness even as it guides our thoughts, and I'm going to return to the idea that how we think is shaped by the machines we live with. First though, I'm going to quickly talk about some work I've been doing with the digital writer, Tim Wright. In a project called 'Hauntology', we've been exploring how we can create interactive and participatory narratives using a combination of poetry, software, antique objects and digital sensors and circuits - and increasingly now - walking. In one piece, a chest of drawers was 'haunted' by the spirits of its previous owners. A user could access snippets of their lives by interacting with the chest of drawers and objects on and in it, as well as eventually 'haunting' it themselves with the sounds they left behind for the next users to hear.

We're currently exploring how we can use an old wooden box, wired up with an audio device and some sensors, to act as the focal device for a walking, talking, poetic experience based on the poetry of Thomas Hardy and the geography of the outskirts of Dorchester. In this we are trying to compose a narrative experience which is absorbing, authentic, haunting and provocative - out of antique bric-a-brac, digital sensors and media, physical space, sounds, smells, scenes, embodied and interpersonal interactions, and both reading and writing poetry. To this end I've been experimenting with wiring electronic devices into old wooden boxes.

One of the things I've noticed about the process is the feeling that the electronic systems and circuits, and the antique wooden boxes and drawers, are all exerting their own influence on the proceedings. They only allow certain sorts of behaviours and affordances to get the go-ahead. At first I thought this is an artefact of my own imprecision and inexperience. The further I get, though, the more I'm sure that the objects I work with have intentions of their own. Just as a sculptor seeks to find the form already within the matter at hand, as if discovering the spirit in the material, so I am collaborating with the devices I coerce and adapt to perform as they want to, as though I am obeying a ghost in their machine.

I'm now afraid that I'm sounding crazy, so I want to run through a quick and very partial history of writers collaborating with devices, to see if I'm alone in my craziness. I'm thinking here about the production of textual artefacts through the action of some sort of device - something I'm therefore going to call a device-oriented narrative - produced by some sort of rule or algorithm or heuristic process. I think this is a fairly good, low-level definition of a 'writing machine' - an apparatus or assemblage which performs some sort of function on the raw materials of textual production.

Here's an example of an electronically produced poem:

"Sentences begins.
money must
Sentences
Parsing
Sentences
Sentences
Sentences for love forsaken."
 
Sentences, (Hartman and Kenner, 1995)

Nick Montfort explains the provenance of this piece of text, taken from a book by Hartman and Kenner, "Sentences":

"To write Sentences, Hartman and Kenner took 457 19th-century "Sentences for Analysis and Parsing, Thayer Street Grammar School" and providentially generated an intermediate text, using Claude Shannon's Markov chain technique as implemented in TRAVESTY by Hugh Kenner and Joseph O'Rourke. The resulting text was corrected and used as input to Hartman's program DIASTEXT, which carried out diastic selection as developed by Jackson Mac Low."
 
Sentences in 1k, Grand Text Auto, (Montfort, 2008)

I don't want to dwell on the detail of the particular processes that were used to produce these texts - just to note that Montfort's description illustrates very clearly the notion that a non-trivial operation has been performed to produce the work: the raw input is worked on in some way to produce a text at the end. In this case at least two sets of iterative actions were performed on the input to produce strangely evocative words. This therefore is a machine text.

I want to draw a distinction here from what Espen Aarseth has refered to as a 'cybertext' - a text which requires work on the part of the reader to traverse it. I want to think of texts which require some act of delegation by the writer to a machine to produce them. We could get horribly metaphysical about what constitutes mechanism, machinism and what does not. Is a pen a machine? A typewriter? While it is tempting to say that in the term 'machine' I exclude devices which merely reproduce mechanical extensions of the writer's actions, this may become a moot point as we proceed. Katherine Hayles in How We Became Posthuman in 1999, deals with the difference, for example, between a typewriter and a computer by noting the non-linear disruption that occurs when dematerialisation is introduced into the machinic action. I want to avoid this distinction, as there are perfectly good examples of writerly delegation that can occur within entirely material parameters.

I'm going to go with Richard Sennet's understanding of the machine in 'The Craftsman' of 2008, which I read as an intermediary device between the hand of the craftsman and the work itself, which effects some non-trivial transformation. This allows me to include devices such as horoscopes and Tarot cards, runes and tea-leaves, dice and difference engines, as well as electronic circuits, random algorithms, neural networks and artificial intelligences.

As the inclusion of Tarot hints, divination or possession by a deus ex machina seems to have a provenance in machine thinking. The 'I-Ching' was not only a repository of confucian wisdom, but a device for answering questions. Aarseth describes it thus:

"The I Ching is made up of sixty-four symbols, or hexagrams, which are the binary combinations of six whole or broken ("changing") lines [...] A hexagram [...] contains a main text and six small ones, one for each line. By manipulating three coins or forty-nine yarrow stalks according to a randomizing principle, the texts of two hexagrams are combined, producing one out of 4,096 possible texts. This contains the answer to a question the user has written down in advance (e.g., "How much rice should I plant this year?")."
 
Cybertext, (Aarseth, 1997)

From a European, humanist point of view, there is no particularly significant difference between a blind algorithm and the pronouncements of oracles and fortune-tellers - both are equally meaningless, and in the post-Enlightenment mind it is difficult to think otherwise. Educated people are supposed to scorn horoscopes and prophecies. Yet this adoption of a rational, materialistic ontology doesn't extend to our celebration of the transcendence of human agency and intelligence, with which we persevere in cherishing against the blind heuristic principle of automatons.

The automative principle of composition is evident in the work of Raymond Roussel, such as in Locus Solus from 1914. Although after his death he inspired the OuLiPo writers and the nouveau roman, during his lifetime, after some initial popularity amongst the surrealists, he was largely ridiculed and certainly critically panned. His works are very unusual, as can be gleaned from this account of his composition technique from John Ashbery:

"Sometimes he would take a phrase containing two words, each of which had a double meaning, and use the least likely ones as the nucleus of a story. Thus the phrase 'maison á espagnolettes' ("house with window latches") served as the basis for an episode in Impressions of Africa about a house (a royal family or house) descended from a pair of Spanish twin girls. [...]
 
"Just as the mechanical task of finding a rhyme sometimes inspires a poet to write a great line, [...] "rhymes for events" helped him to utilise his unconscious mind. "
 
'Introduction' to Raymond Roussel, How I Wrote Certain of My Books, (Ashbery, 1995 [1962])

The French surrealist writer Michel Leiris suggested that Roussel is tapping into an ancient tradition of eliciting myths from words, seeking out the 'disease of language', which is the source of mythology or collective unconscious." (ibid) Here, though Leiris is still perhaps seeking to legitimise the text for its inner human truth, its interpretation of the human unconscious. The text may be unconventionally produced, but its defender still seeks to recuperate it into the realm of human desires, motives and meanings, against the criticism that the work is a joke of no obvious inherent merit.

Similar recuperations might be made of other device-oriented narratives. In the 1920s the Dadaist Tristan Tzara, cited by Burroughs and Gysin later as an inspiration for their employment of the composition algorithm called 'the cut-up', apparently started a riot by pulling a poem out of a hat. In his dada manifesto, his wrote:

"TO MAKE A DADAIST POEM
 
Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are - an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.
 
dada manifesto on feeble love and bitter love, (Tristan Tzara, 1920)

It is difficult not to see the dada movement and Burroughs' later adoption of the cut-up as much a political gesture as one of literary exploration - though this was certainly an ingredient in Burroughs' extensive use of it throughout novels like The Soft Machine, Cities of the Red Night and others. Burroughs describes it in 1961:

"The cut-up method brings to writers the collage, which has been used by painters for fifty years. And used by the moving and , still camera. In fact all street shots from movie or still cameras are by the unpredictable factors of passersby and juxtaposition cut-ups. And photographers will tell you that often their best shots are accidents . . . writers will tell you the same. The best writing seems to be done almost by accident [...]
 
Take any poet or writer you fancy. Here, say, or poems you have read over many times. The words have lost meaning and life through years of repetition. Now take the poem and type out selected passages. Fill a page with excerpts. Now cut the page. You have a new poem. As many poems as you like."
 
The cut-up method of Brion Gysin, (Burroughs, 1961)

The casual abundance of poetry produced this way directly challenges the idea that a specially gifted and inspired writer is the essential ingredient in the writing - all that is necessary is a heuristic device and some raw materials on which to act. The results are often extremely powerful, as any reading from Burroughs' work will attest:

"Pan God of Panic piping blue notes through empty streets as the berserk time machine twisted a tornado of years and centuries - Wind through dusty offices and archives - Board Books scattered to rubbish heaps of the earth - Symbol books of the all-powerful board that had controlled thought feeling and movement of a planet from birth to death with iron claws of pain and pleasure - The whole structure of reality went up in silent explosions - Paper moon and muslin trees and in the black silver sky great rents as the cover of the world rained down - Biologic film went up.. . "raining dinosaurs" "It sometimes happens. . .just an old showman" Death takes over the game so many actors buildings and stars laid flat pieces of finance over the golf course summer afternoons bare feet waiting for rain smell of sickness in the room Switzerland Panama machine guns in Bagdad rising from the typewriter pieces of finance on the evening wind tin shares Buenos Aires Mr. Martin smiles old names waiting sad old tune haunted the last human attic."
 
The Soft Machine, (Burroughs, 1961)

The production of literary texts through machinic devices seems to proliferate in the middle of the 20th century. Writers like Barthelme, Beckett, Pynchon, Vonnegut, Robbe-Grillet, Perec and Calvino all produce texts which can be said to have been written with the aid of a heuristic device in the tradition of Roussel and Tzara. Often they are consciously political - David Porush in his work on cybernetic texts named after Burrough's novel, The Soft Machine, argues that such fiction:

"...far from being representative of a class of fiction in its decadence, is the most meaningful and hopeful sort of fiction. It cannot as a body be understood without constant reference to its source in a highly technologised society. For that very reason, however, it has the power to invent a new way of seeing, it offers a new language, and along the way it tells a fine, often amusing, often grim story about how far along we are."
 
The Soft Machine, (David Porush, 1985)

This odd combination of decadence and Brechtian self-reference and estrangement is also reminiscent of the flâneur and the psychogeographic movement: Benjamin's flâneur walked, either to revel in decadence, or to ambiguate the scopic regimes of the city's imperative to consume. No doubt, as in the situationist dérive and later psychogeographic texts and actions, there is an important emancipatory element: situationists walked to resist a 'world moving away in to representation'. The algorithmic obedience of tracing out a route that is arbitrarily pre/pro-scribed, but through the elective and playful devices of our own choosing, is actually, (ironically), a way to reassert the agency of the human and the individual against a machinic world of capital and convention.

However I'd like to go much further than Porush goes. He argues that one of the tropes of cybernetic fiction is that of self-dismantling. This is a deconstructive move, and resonates with the late 20th century concerns of continental philosophy, which seeks to dislodge the layers of meaning that stratify human existence in order to bring to notice the complex shifting network of linguistic and textual currents which inform our lives and institutions. However, I'd like to go further than seeing cybernetic texts and device-oriented narratives as merely deconstructive.

Consider that, even though we accept the premise of the intentional fallacy, we still privilege human intentionality as both qualitatively different from and somehow better than the nonhuman world of relations. So, even though we accept the notion that a text might be a device which can surrender novel meanings and effects which the author didn't intentionally encode there, we still find it hard to accept that an algorithmically generated text could offer anything of equal value: note that we still conventionally attribute the richness of a text, and its capacity for renewed interpretation, to the skill of its author - to have written something that 'transcends' the finitude of its human creator.

As I've suggested, we have tended to think of automatically produced texts as somehow lesser than those originated by acts of human imagination alone. It is with this tendency that we also consider the possibility of artificial intelligence as a watershed: the achievement of machine consciousness will be equivalent to lifting those machines up to some lofty, hard-to-reach transcendental threshold which makes them finally equal to humans. I'd prefer to see the problem from the other side, and wonder what it is we think is so different about human agency that separates us from the rest of the universe. This is not to reduce humans to mindlessness; Zizek puts it:

"It is here that the "reductionist" project goes wrong: the problem is not how to reduce mind to neuronal "material" processes [...] but, rather, to grasp how mind can emerge only through being embedded in the network of social relations and material supplements. In other words, the true problem is not "How, if at all, could machines IMITATE the human mind?," but, "How does the very identity of human mind rely on external mechanical supplements? How does it incorporate machines?"
 
Organs Without Bodies - Gilles Deleuze, (Zizek, 2008)

This is not just deconstruction (in which a philosophy of consciousness gives way to a philosophy of linguistics and signification), but a shift towards "placing humans and nonhumans on an equal footing". To go further then, we have to re-equate humans with the menagerie of other things in the world, the nonhuman - what object-oriented ontologists have called a flat ontology.

Levi Bryant has outlined a book-project called The Domestication of Humans in which he considers the way that plants and microbes have transformed human beings:

"The whole point of such a project, of course, is to develop enhanced techniques for thinking in terms of flat ontology. When posing questions in the humanities our tendency is to think in terms of unilateral determination. We talk about humans structuring reality through their perceptions, concepts, and signs, treating the process of structuration as proceeding from the human towards a sort of gooey chaos that then gets structured by the human. Flat ontology calls for bilateral determination, where determination doesn't simply run from human to world, but where all sorts of other entities structure humans and societies as well."
 
The Domestication of Humans, (Bryant, 2010)

Bryant derives this notion of a flat ontology alongside Graham Harman, who in turn cites Latour's Irreductions as a breakthrough in terms of escaping the realm of the human. Adrift on a sea of other agents and irreducible entities, Harman argues that we should start to rethink the bustling nature of the world of objects, amongst whom the human object is a mere one among many:

"Even as the philosophy of language and its supposedly reactionary opponents both declare victory, the arena of the world is packed with diverse objects, their forces unleashed and mostly unloved. Red billiard ball smacks green billiard ball. Snowflakes glitter in the light that cruelly annihilates them, while damaged submarines rust along the ocean floor. As flour emerges from mills and blocks of limestone are compressed by earthquakes, gigantic mushrooms spread in the Michigan forest. While human philosophers bludgeon each other over the very possibility of "access" to the world, sharks bludgeon tuna fish and icebergs smash into coastlines.
 
"All of these entities roam across the cosmos, inflicting blessings and punishments on everything they touch, perishing without a trace or spreading their powers further, as if a million animals had broken free from a zoo in some Tibetan cosmology."
 
Object Oriented Philosophy, (Harman, 1999)

Andrew Pickering considers the consequences of putting human and nonhuman agency on the same footing. His work The Mangle of Practice from 1995 looks at the way that scientific work proceeds in practice, and argues that far from being the logical, deductive unfolding of evidential knowledge, this picture is a retrospective portrait imposed on a messy sequence of stumbling events in which human goals have strived and struggled with the material agency of machinic experimentation. Work of this kind (and I argue that there is a direct parallel here to the way that writers write and texts are produced) is the product of a mangling of ideas and forces, machines and hunches, objects and products. This is a dance of agency between the human and nonhuman, in which such apparently crucial phenomena as human intentionality emerge from the interplay of possibilities and events, "brought to heel by the cultures in which they are situated":

"Scientists do not simply fix their goals once and for all and stick to them, come what may. In the struggles with material agency that I call tuning, plans and goals are at stake and liable to revision. And thus the intentional character of human agency has a further aspect of temporal emergence, being reconfigured itself in the real time of practice, as well as a further aspect of intertwining with material agency, being reciprocally redefined with the contours of material agency in tuning."
 
The Mangle of Practice, (Pickering, 1995)

So I want to conclude by suggesting that I was right to feel that my machines are trying to have their own way. Me and my machines are, to use Pickering's terms, tuning each other to our own 'agenda'. We are both devices which perform machinic captures of input material and transform them into artefacts which, in Tzara's phrase, resemble ourselves. So the computers, circuits, dice, algorithms, typewriters, pens - and even the words themselves - are cybernetic machines with which we are forced into collaboration and partnership, rather than mastery.

Italo Calvino confirms this from his own experience of writing:

"Literature as I knew it was a constant series of attempts to make one word stay put after another by following certain definite rules; or more often, rules that were neither definite nor definable, but that might be extracted from a series of examples, or rules made up for the occasion - that is to say, derived from the rules followed by other writers. [...] The "I" of the author is dissolved in the writing. [...] Writers, as they have always been up to now, are already writing machines; or at least they are when things are going well. [...] And so the author vanishes - that spoiled child of ignorance - to give place to a more thoughtful person, a person who will know that the author is a machine, and will know how this machine works."
 
Cybernetics and Ghosts, (Calvino, 1967)

Bibliography

Forster, E. M., 1909, The Machine Stops [Online: http://archive.ncsa.illinois.edu/prajlich/forster.html]

Hartman, C. O. & Kenner, H., Sentences, Sun and Moon Press, New American Poetry Series: 18, 1995

Montfort, N., 2008, 'Sentences in 1k', Grand Text Auto [Online: http://grandtextauto.org/2008/12/31/sentences-in-1k/]

Aarseth, E., 1997, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, Baltimore: JHUP

Hayles, N. K., 1999. How We Became Posthuman, Chicago: UCP

Sennett, R., 2008, The Craftsman, London: Allen Lane

Roussel, R., 1914, Locus Solus, [Online: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/19149/19149-h/19149-h.htm]

Ashbery, J., 1995 [1962], 'Introduction' in Roussel, R., 1995, How I Wrote Certain of My Books, Cambridge, MA: Exact Change

Leiris, M., 1987, Roussel l'ingénue, Paris: Fata Morgana

Tzara, T., 1920, dada manifesto on feeble love and bitter love, [Online: http://www.391.org/manifestos/19201212tristantzara_dmonflabl.htm]

Burroughs, W. S., 1961, 'The cut-up method of Brion Gysin' in The Third Mind, New York: The Viking Press

Burroughs, W. S., 1966 [1961], The Soft Machine, Paris: Olympia Press

Porush, D., 1985, The Soft Machine, New York: Methuen

Zizek, S., 2008, Organs Without Bodies - Gilles Deleuze [Online: http://www.lacan.com/zizsalsation.html]

Bryant, L., 2010, 'The Domestication of Humans', Larval Subjects [Online: http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2010/12/15/the-domestication-of-humans/]

Harman, G., 2010, 'Object-Oriented Philosophy' in Towards Speculative Realism, Ropley: Zero Books

Pickering, A., 1995, The Mangle of Practice, London: Duke

Calvino, I., 1997 [1967], 'Cybernetics & Ghosts', in The Literature Machine, London: Vintage

Tim Wright, digital writer / cross-platform produce [Online: http://timwright.typepad.com

Categories: machine, writing, digital, text, paper, academic, cybertext, device-oriented, narrative, research, Forster, Hartman, Kenner, Montfort, Aarseth, Hayles, Roussel, Ashbery, Leiris, Tzara, Burroughs, Porush, Zizek, Bryant, Harman, Pickering, Calvino,
Comments: 2

Objects, knowledge and ethics

Author: joe

Monday, 06 December, 2010 - 22:08

It's been a fascinating few days watching the SR / OOO and the Metaphysics and Things conferences unfold online in the last few days - Bogost, Bryant, Morton, Harman, Haraway, Stengers, Shaviro and others on objects and units, processes and procedures, rhetoric and semiotics. It's very stimulating to see ideas open up and develop nuance as they get pulled in different directions by new combinations of cast members. I'm looking forward to getting my teeth into the detail soon - particularly what strikes me as a very Latourian atmosphere clinging to some of the outcomes, (by which I mean, a healthy and indiscriminate abundance of agents together translating and transforming the world). In the meantime, I want to return to the stubborn subject of withdrawn objects.

A few days ago Graham Harman called out a certain approach to making philosophical arguments, naming it trumpery - "the triumphalistic one-upping of positions that are defined as naive/traditionalistic" - particularly with reference to arguments which want to "denounce hidden unities behind the plurality of surface-effects . . . It's time to recover these bemoaned hidden unities lying behind appearance, rather than trumping them with easy avant garde positions that are now much too banal to be avant garde."

I don't know whether this was specifically in reference to a post of mine Graham linked to earlier; in that post I said, "I just want to dispel hidden realities which betray their appearances, or illusory facades which belie some more authentic realm" - which is pretty close to the position Graham dislikes.

I should point out that I think my position is more a form of specious dilettantism than avant garde trumpery. I'm an autodidact when it comes to philosophy, and have no real interest in making deep ontological commitments one way or the other; I am deeply interested, though, in how philosophies make me feel - their affect and the aesthetic experiences they evoke. So far as I am a professional academic / researcher (which is not very far), I'd say I'm in the phenomenological camp which denies that we can speak of things lying outside our experience without chasing ghosts and hallucinations. One of the things I love most about engaging with philosophy is the sense that I'm entering a world of abysses, ghouls, hauntings and the supernatural...

This position is often written off as a sort of postmodern cop-out: it flies in the face of common sense (because spades are spades and arche-fossils are arche-fossils); it insults scientific progress whose methods, its proponents constantly remind us, are the only valid means of investigating the world; it always escapes affirmation and, cowardly, never risks itself in defence of a particular worldview or outlook; it disappears (often accompanied by obscurantism) into surfaces, play, simulacra, language, representation - or, inevitably, up its own arse.

However, there is something about this position (which I prefer to call anti-foundationalist than postmodern), which seems to me to be crucial. Rorty describes it in Consequences of Pragmatism:

Suppose that Socrates was wrong, that we have not once seen the Truth, and so will not, intuitively, recognise it when we see it again. This means that when the secret police come, when the torturers violate the innocent, there is nothing to be said to them of the form "There is something within you which you are betraying. Though you embody the practices of a totalitarian society which will endure forever, there is something beyond those practices which condemns you." This thought is hard to live with, as is Sartre's remark:
 
"Tomorrow, after my death, certain people may decide to establish fascism, and the others may be cowardly or miserable enough to let them get away with it. At that moment, fascism will be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us. In reality, things will be as much as man has decided they are."
 
This hard saying brings out what ties Dewey and Foucault, James and Nietzsche, together - the sense that there is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves, no criterion that we have not created in the course of creating a practice, no standard of rationality that is not an appeal to such a criterion, no rigorous argumentation that is not obedience to our own conventions.
 
Consequences of Pragmatism by Richard Rorty

If there is no universal truth to which we can appeal when the secret police come to the door, then all we can do is decide what we want to defend, and defend it as best we can. If there is no fallback position, no 'criterion' outside of human dealings to appeal to, no God, or universal morality, or even genetic imperative, all that is open to us is to make our case - the last thing we can be is complacent. It is, no doubt, undergraduate philosophy 101, but I see no way to go about epistemology, ontology, metaphysics or practical philosophy of any sort, without first taking up an ethical position.

Attendant to this position, for me, there must also be two further consequences: a suspicion of anything that might claim to be a more "authentic" or "foundational" realm than the surfaces amongst which we live our effervescent, sensual lives; and also a recognition that a world without foundations is one where the irresistible force can be resisted, the unstoppable object can be stopped, the impassable obstacle can be passed, and the hard kernel of things can be cracked.

That was all a long, round-about way of saying that I'm not so much a trumper as a dilettante, and not so much a dilettante as a double agent. I also don't want to imply that objects that withdraw are the harbingers of enslavement. Just that I want to understand the meaning of hidden realities. What is it that is hiding? Does it hide from everything? And why is it hiding from me?

Categories: Graham Harman, objects, withdrawal, Richard Rorty, pragmatism, ethics,
Comments: 2

Inextinguishable

Author: joe

Thursday, 02 December, 2010 - 23:52

- on lines from Rilke

Gouge out my eyes:
I still see you.
Burst my eardrums:
I still hear your voice.
Hack off my hands:
I still feel you.
Pluck out my tongue:
It still probes your mouth.
Chop off my genitals:
I still have carnal knowledge of you.
Bleed me to death:
I am still hot for you.
Cut out my heart:
It still beats for you.
Dash out my brains:
You are in my bones.
Cremate me:
You are in my ashes.
Scatter them:
You are in every particle.
 
Variations On A Theme Of Rilke by Patrick O'Shaughnessy

Patrick O'Shaughnessy is my grandfather. This poem has always been one of my favourites. I was reminded of it last night, while watching Graham Harman's fantastic lecture on Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology at the "Hello Everything" conference. He uses an analogy about cotton and fire to illustrate the withdrawn dimensions of reality that can never be accessed by any kind of relation. Knowledge can never exhaust the objects it encounters: even fire does not exhaust the cotton it encounters.

I imagine a sudden spark catch hold of the cotton, triggering a whooomff of flames engulfing the soft cotton. The fibres glow and crackle, but quickly start to blacken into sooty embers, and disintegrate. As they sliver and spread, there are specks and motes of pitchy, carbonised cellulose dispersing in the air, jetting upwards on the crest of fiery waves or drifting sideways and earthward. Somewhere in that conflagration the cotton is destroyed - the object that was some cotton is now a crowd of particles dispersing in the air, a de-condensing collection of new, smaller objects. Exactly where it is, in the process of that disassembling, that the cotton's destruction occurs - at which point the cotton is translated into its disaggregate particulate components - is ambiguous: is it the instant the fire first catches the flammable edges of the white plant fluff, or when each last part of coherent fibre is finally desiccated and splintered? Is there a gradient of dispersal, or a quantum jump - is "being" on a spectrum or is it a lump?

Michael at Archive Fire uses the example of a horse eating an apple:

An apple is partially 'withdrawn' from a horse who holds it in its teeth because the teeth of the horse are only in contact with the skin of the apple, leaving the inner non-skin parts of the apple "hidden" and temporarily in excess of the horses bite. So the horse can be said to be in direct contact with the real apple, however not in its entirety. There are aspects of the apple that are partially withdrawn. But when the horse bites into the apple a 'deeper' kind of access is granted, the apple's individuality has been compromised, and when the horse subsequently begins to digest the apple the very distinction between the apple and the horse begins to break down. In this example the interaction between apple and horse goes from partial contact and withdrawnness to deeper disclosure and eventually to absorption in such a manner that completely obviates the need to posit any sort of unbridgeable 'gap' between either the two objects in themselves', or between the horse's encounter with the apple and its experience of it. In an intimately enmeshed and complicated cosmos these things often touch, mix and mingle in ways that are specific to what they in fact are.
 
The Depth of Things - Part 1: Conjuring the Gap by michael of Archive Fire

Here's what I feel, even if I don't really know it - my intuition: my identity is not hermetically sealed from the world - rather my consciousness is ecologically entwined with the environment in which it moves; my body is not a finitely bounded unity, but a breathing, drinking, leaking density plugged into the material world. Perhaps less intuitively - my mind is not an encapsulated mirage hovering around my brain, nor a mere emergent epiphenomenon which is the effect of a billion grey cells, but something more difficult to understand, such that it feels more like magic. In any case it's just as hard for me to think of my individuality as absolute, as it would be for a believer to let go of the essential existence of the soul. Merleau-Ponty says:

I discover within myself a kind of internal weakness, standing in the way of my being totally individualised: a weakness which exposes me to the gaze of others as a man among men, or at least a consciousness among consciousnesses . . .

My grandfather's poem pictures an indestructible essence, in the guise of the obsessive lover. The subject who loves can never be exterminated by any action of his object; but at the same time the loved one can never extract themselves from the grasp of the lover. I know you, even though you emasculate me. But the essence does in fact de-individualise, and the lover is no longer himself alone - his object is absorbed into his bones and his blood; into every particle. Each last speck still remains the "I" of the lover, and yet completely mingles with "you" of the loved. You and I, inextricably intermixed.

Categories: Patrick Shaughnessy, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Graham Harman, objects, withdrawal, love, poetry, essence, knowledge, relation,
Comments: 0

Surface

Author: joe

Wednesday, 24 November, 2010 - 23:51

- on the excess in the image-world.

... there is an absolute gulf between Heidegger's readiness-to-hand and presence-at-hand. No real passage between them is possible, since the tool as a brutal subterranean energy and as a shining, tangible surface are utterly incommensurable ... it should be clear that every entity is ready-to-hand ... in the primary sense of "in the act of being", of unleashing itself upon the environment ... All of reality ... lies in a state of "metabolism" between the unchecked fury of tool-beings and the alluring facades through which we alone encounter them. (The Theory of Objects in Heidegger and Whitehead)
 
I always find myself deployed amidst a specific geography of objects, each of them withdrawing from view into a dark primal integrity that neither our theories nor our practices can ever exhaust. (A Fresh Look at Zuhandenheit)
 
If an object is always a vast surplus beyond its relations of the moment, it has to be asked how those as-yet unexpressed qualities are stored up for the future ... I am convinced that objects far exceed their interactions with other objects, and the question is what this excess is, and where it is. (The Revival of Metaphysics in Continental Philosophy)
 
Towards Speculative Realism by Graham Harman

I'm not attempting (or competent, not being a philosopher) to address the what and where of the excess of Harman's objects. I'm initially interested in Harman's way of characterising the presence of objects, and how different it is to Heidegger's attitude to Vorhandenheit. Where the latter denigrates the coming-to-presence of things in the world (as Harman notes, through the insistent epithet, 'mere'), the latter is always keen to celebrate it. Surfaces shine, sparkle and glitter; they are volatile, luminous, phosphorescent, radiant, resonant, dazzling; with faces, haloes, auras. This is not to say that he is less complimentary towards the withdrawing, strife-filled unleashing of the ready-to-hand, volcanic, turbulent, violent, primal tool-beings as they surge and thrust into the world.

Indeed this rich and exuberant world-surface constantly coming into action and awareness - the sensuous menagerie of the equally-footed animate and inanimate entities that jostle and strew the ground of the universe - seems to me to be just as excess-bearing as the long withdrawing surplus borne by the irreducible and unreachable inner core of real objects. That image world is right there, burning incessantly, coming about its business, hurtling out of the future rather than left over from the inertia of the past.

So I wonder then, what if we took the same steps with Harman's take on the "Heideggerian drama of revealed and concealed" as we took with Goffman's front and back personae: what the revealed hides is not a concealed substance, but its absence. Can we remove the 'effects' part of 'surface-effects', since there is now no causal agent hidden from view? Can the performance of the image be what facilitates the existence of the executant reality?

I realise of course that I'm veering away from Harman's specific arguments here, toward either Husserl's magical intentional objects which bleed sensual qualities without decohering, or toward re-instating a Kantian a priori apparatus which provides the form for the world's inhabitants to take up. But I'm not equipped to argue these points. Rather I just want to dispel hidden realities which betray their appearances, or illusory facades which belie some more authentic realm. Perhaps it is the same impulse which makes me recoil from the psychoanalytical requirement of a furniture of the mind - an unconscious which structures the conscious without permitting access to it. I don't want to bridge the abyss: I want to obviate the need for the bridge by unconjuring the abyss - closing the gap.

Thus I'm willing to concede I'm master of nothing, just as long as I can also say that friends who may turn out to be backstabbing machinators and sophists made themselves so not out of an inevitable and inscrutable essence, but because of the actions and interactions that they and I perform and enact - hence leaving the door open for such outcomes to be inverted: should we present alternative images, then we should unfold alternative executions in the world.

Categories: Graham Harman, Martin Heidegger, vorhandenheit, zuhandenheit, presence-at-hand, readiness-to-hand, surface, image, executant, world, being, gap,
Comments: 5

Making ghosts

Author: joe

Wednesday, 27 October, 2010 - 22:42

- on the abyss inside everything.

Ortega holds that the inwardness of things is a depth that can absolutely never be fathomed, insofar as it is not interchangeable with any sum of its attributes ... The growth of knowledge is a process of digging away at this inwardness of things and attempting the ultimately hopeless task of bringing it to light. "This," says Ortega, "is the task of language, but language merely alludes to inwardness - it never shows it." In more melancholic terms, "a narrative makes everything a ghost of itself, placing it a distance, pushing it beyond the horizon of the here and now." The fate of language, as of perception and ... of all relation, is forever to translate the dark and inward into the tangible and outward, a task at which it always comes up short given the infinite depth of things.
 
Guerilla Metaphysics by Graham Harman

Hopeless, melancholic, ghost. As Romanyshyn's mourning wells within the gap between saying and being, so Harman's lonely doom for the split object, sundered between the sensuous and the real - what is revealed and what always withdraws.

I like Ortega y Gasset's distinction between executant and image - the former grasping towards the fullness of being, the latter faltering short of adequacy. I'm reminded of Arnold's verdict on Shelley - "a beautiful but ineffectual angel". I especially enjoy the irony of the connection of execution to being - how close the ending of life is to the presence of life; how narrow is that gap. Are there no fleeting moments when it closes? When the inward representation of experience and the uncompromising nowness of being fuse? Harman says:

To observe something, no matter how closely, is not to be it; to look at a thing is not the same thing as to stand in its place and undergo its fate, even if what we are observing is our own psychic lives.

... so there is no closing the gap here. But still I wonder if there might be? Transcendental meditation? Praxis? Being 'in the moment'? Laughter? Thoughtlessness when lost in smiling eyes? Dialogue? In the sincerity of experience?

Categories: Graham Harman, split, object, Ortega y Gasset, being, Zuhandenheit, Vorhandenheit, presence-at-hand, readiness-to-hand, knowledge,
Comments: 0

Systems and Units, Trees and Rhizomes

Author: joe

Thursday, 05 February, 2009 - 21:56

So I'm writing up the final lecture on narratives which revolves around the post-structuralist 'decentring' - the advocation, that is, of thinking of rhizomatic rather than arborescent structures.

A couple of weeks ago I was using the idea with some first years, and thinking of the idea in terms of genre: genre is not a 'container' into which you place texts which then 'become' vampire road movies or rom-coms. As soon as you think in terms of genre being a particular instantiation of intertextuality, you've seen the contingent, mutable, anti-foundational, endlessly defered nature of the post-structuralist vision, and the impoverished kind of simplistic absolutism it dismissed in systems-level, structuralist thinking.

Today I found another useful way of thinking about the subject (perhaps because I'm currently seeing it everywhere!) in Ian Bogost's book, Unit Operations, in which he explores Badiou's articulation of 'count as one' and 'the situation', analogous in some ways to 'extensional' and 'intensional' sets; the latter, intensional, from Frege and Russell's top-down, analytic philosophy in which objects are collected by definition (like the container model of the genre); the former, extensional, is instead a conception of a 'multiplicity' whose collection together is a bottom-up operation (like the formation of generic convention through intertextual echoes): the properties of the collection are observed and articulated, rather than defined and imposed. Properties and behaviours observed through induction, rather than calculated through deduction.

Of course, this idea of the 'extensional' set is convenient for me precisely because it emphasises the emergent nature of spontaneous assemblage (a word I will certainly be exploring more very soon, a la Latour, Graham Harman, etc), rather than the authoritarian nature of systematic organisation. Think of it, in cinema terms, as the difference between coming up with an 'outlier' indie box office hit which is ground-breaking and innovative, and the follow-up derivatives that a corporate industry will produce in order to capitalise on the newly defined market. Or think of it as an autonomously organised grouping of common-interest bloggers who speak to each other in ways that outsiders can understand and join in with, and launching a peer-reviewed journal on the same common-interest which renders the intellectual endeavour exclusive and impenetrable.

On a sideways-related note, I mean to take Graham Harman's advice and write more in order to write more. Actually, I already have, in terms of writing a good fifteen thousand words last week producing the lecture notes for lectures three, four and five of the first year undergraduate Narratives strand which I've just finished teaching. Hence the final, rhizomatic essay I have to squeeze out as soon as it'll pass through my constricted ability to talk about Bocaccio, Icarus and digital Messiahs in the same piece of long-form writing.

My colleague Kip Jones also sent me a copy of a recent conversation between himself and Mary Gergen about communicating social science research through performative and artistic forms, which in turn, represents an undermining of the authoritative, arborescent academic expert who deals in objective knowledge, and the collaborative, rhizomatic, ambiguous nature of dialogue and interpretation. It's interesting, and, more importantly, NOT hidden behind a paywall, an Athens-only login, or a institutional-subscription model journal. Find it here, thanks Kip.

Categories: system, structure, structuralism, post-structuralism, rhizome, genre, intertextuality, intensional, extensional, set, Badiou, Harman, Frege, Russell, Bogost, Latour,
Comments: 1