25 May 2012

The Uses of Object-Oriented Ontology



Object-oriented ontologists (SR/OOO) argue that we must no longer make the correlationist error of privileging the being of humans within ontology, instead moving to a ‘democracy of objects’ (see Bryant 2011). In this, they follow the other speculative realists in attempting to develop a notion of ‘flat ontology’. This flat ontology is one in which hierarchy is banished and therefore bears a striking resemblance to the universe described by science, albeit differing in not seeking reductionist explanations in terms of causation, etc. Nonetheless, there seems to be no World, in the Heideggerian sense, for the speculative realist, who, observing the relative position of philosophy vis a vis science within human culture, endeavors to replicate or supplement scientific inquiry without human culture, by providing a speculative and philosophical description of the universe through the notion of withdrawn or partially visible objects – Morton calls this ekphrasis or "ultra-vivid description" (Morton 2011: 170). That is, to refute the presumed correlationism of scientific practice. In most varieties of SR/OOO, therefore, I think they are actually undertaking object-oriented onticology – and it is important to note that Graham Harman considers himself to be writing object orient philosophy (formerly OOP but increasingly Harman uses OOO), previously distinct from object oriented ontology (OOO, which was coined by Levi Bryant) and other branches of speculative realism (SR). That is, a position more interested in beings, rather than Being, something I discuss further below. For example, Ian Bogost (2012a) outlines a system of thought in which no object has precedence or hierarchy over another, and yet all share a commonality which, following Heidegger, Bogost calls being and we might understand as ‘objectness’ or ‘being an object’.[1] This suggests a revealing paradox raised by trying to place a general case (being) as equivalent to the particular (beings) within this flat ontology, and which is justified by virtue of the singularity of what he calls a ‘tiny ontology’ (Bogost 2012a: 22).

So, what is at stake in the project of object-oriented ontology – a philosophy whose readers consists of humans who are actively solicited? Indeed, as part of this project, object-oriented ontology seeks to convince the reader of her own experiential equality in relation to the quantitative variety of experiences of different beings within the universe, human and non-human (see Charlesworth 2012). This, of course, has political implications. Here, I want to explore how and why this group of self-defined ‘anti-correlationists’ work so hard at a rhetorical attempt to convince its readers as to the importance of the object-oriented ontology (SR/OOO) project. We might also note that the term object-oriented philosophy has knowingly borrowed its label from object-oriented programming, a method of structured computer software design and programming. I suspect that there is an underlying and unconscious use of the assumptions of an ontotheology of computationality  (or glitch ontology) underlying "object-oriented ontology", something I intend to return to more explicitly in a later article (but see Bogost 2009b for a related discussion of this; also Berry 2011).

Again, I think it is useful to turn to Ian Bogost’s work as he clearly outlines object-oriented ontology in Alien Phenomenology: or What It’s Like To Be A Thing.  This book is written to be widely read and Bogost has acknowledged as much on different fora. More so, its intended readership is clearly and unmistakably human.

We ought to think in public. We ought to be expanding our spheres of influence and inspiration with every page we write. We ought to be trying to influence the world, not just the blinkered group that goes to our favorite conference. And that principle ought to hold no matter your topic of interest, be it Proust or videogames or human factors engineering or the medieval chanson de geste. No matter your field, it can be done, and people do it all the time. They're called "good books."… And I've tried very hard as an author to learn how to write better and better books, books that speak to a broader audience without compromising my scholarly connections, books that really ought to exist as books (Bogost 2011; see also Bogost 2012: 88-91).

So, rather than asking what it is like to be a thing, I want to explore what is the use of knowing what it is to be a thing. In other words, we might ask what are the uses of object-oriented ontology? What are the practices of object-oriented ontologists, and how do they reflect upon their own, mostly discursive practices, and their relationships with ‘objects’?

Object-oriented ontology can be understood as a descriptive project for philosophy, which Bogost, following Harman, christens Ontography (Bogost 2012a: 36), a “name for a general inscriptive strategy, one that uncovers the repleteness of units [Bogost’s term for objects] and their interoperability” (Bogost 2012a: 38).[2] For Bogost, this project involves the creation of lists or litanies [5], a “group of items loosely joined not by logic or power or use but by the gentle knot of the comma”, he explains, “Ontography is an aesthetic set theory, in which a particular configuration is celebrated merely on the basis of its existence” (Bogost 2012a: 38).[3] Here we see why Bogost is keen to draw out the similarities to the creation of aesthetic collections in the New Aesthetic (see Berry 2012, Bogost 2012b). Drawing on Harman, Bogost describes why the “rhetoric of lists” is useful to a philosophical project:

Some readers may… dismiss them as an “incantation” or “poetics” of objects. But most readers will not soon grow tired, since the rhetorical power of these rosters of beings stems from their direct opposition to the flaws of current mainstream philosophy… The best stylistic antidote to this grim deadlock is a repeated sorcerer’s chant of the multitude of things that resist any unified empire (Harman quoted in Bogost 2012a: 39)

Whilst the claims of a “grim deadlock” or “current mainstream philosophy” remain undefined and unexamined, for Bogost making lists “hones a virtue: the abandonment of anthropocentric narrative coherence in favor of worldly detail” (Bogost 2012a: 42). An attempt, we might say, to get closer to the buzzing variety of the ‘real’. Further he explains, “Lists of objects without explication can do the philosophical work of drawing our attention towards them with greater attentiveness” (Bogost 2012a: 45). An ontograph, he claims, is a “crowd” (Bogost 2012a: 59). They are also, we might note in passing, extremely partial lists, reflecting the rhetorical intentions of the litany reciter and only a description in the weakest sense of the term (see appendix I below).[4]

Bogost attempts to circumvent this problem by the application of a method he calls carpentry, after Harman and Lingis who use the term to refer to the way in which “things fashion one another and the world at large” (Bogost 2012a: 93). Bogost introduces philosophical software carpentry to implement the creation of what he calls “ontographic tools to characterize the diversity of being” (Bogost 2012a: 94). Whilst I consider this a brilliant move by Bogost, I hesitate to label it as philosophy. One of these tools he calls the Latour Litanizer, which generates “random” litanies based on randomized selections of Wikipedia pages (although it doesn’t appear to have been used within Alien Phenomenology itself, which has a constant refrain in the choice of items in the litanies, see Appendix, below). Whilst an interesting example of software litany creation, it is hardly divorced from its programmer (see Berry 2011). This is further demonstrated in the example of the “image toy” that selected random photographs from the Flickr website, and occasionally therefore showed images of women, one of which was in a playboy bunny suit. In response to some criticism, Bogost was required to hand-code a specific query that prevented the operation of certain aspects of philosophical software carpentry, namely no women in bunny suits, defined in the code as:

Options.Tags = “(object OR thing OR stuff) AND NOT (sexy OR woman OR girl)”

I am working through Ian Bogost’s (2012) work as a representative example of object-oriented ontology and allow it to stand in for the varieties of speculative realism. Whilst acknowledging some significant differences in the content of their philosophical systems, the general form of their argument seems to me to remain fairly consistent, claiming that philosophy made a catastrophic error following Kant into correlationism – the mistaken belief in the importance of the human as a co-constructor of knowledge and understanding. I want to challenge this claim on two grounds, one a performative contradiction in relation to the selection of intended readers capable of being influenced by the persuasive discourse of object-oriented ontology. Secondly, on the basis of what I perceive to be an unexamined formalism which is implicit in the construction of the speculative realist philosophical system. Both of these I believe are highly damaging to the claims of the speculative realist position, but the second criticism points towards a potential political conservatism at work within the project of speculative realism more generally. These are not the only weaknesses in the object-oriented ontology position, but I think they are significant enough to warrant discussion.

One striking aspect to the project outlined within Alien Phenomenology, is the aim towards a phenomenological practice. Bogost writes, “As philosophers, our job is to amplify… the noise of objects… Our job is to write the speculative fictions of their processes, of their… operations… Our job is to get our hands dirty…” (Bogost 2012a: 34). In contrast to Marx’s dictum that philosophers have hitherto tried to understand the world, and that philosophers should therefore aim to change it, Bogost proposes that we should describe it or create other actors to describe it for us, by making philosophical software (see Bogost 2012a: 110). As Bogost himself notes,

“Why do we give the Civil War soldier, the guilty Manhattan project physicist, the oval-headed alien anthropomorph, and the intelligent celestial race so much more credence than the scoria cone, the obsidian fragment, the gypsum crystal, the capsicum pepper, and the propane flame? When we welcome these things into scholarship, poetry, science, and business, it is only to ask how they relate to human productivity, culture, and politics. We’ve been living in a tiny prison of our own devising, one in which all the stuff that concerns us are the fleshy beings that are our kindred and the stuffs with which we stuff ourselves” (Bogost 2012a: 3, emphasis added).

Putting to one side the somewhat doubtful claim that the former litany is given more credence by anyone except, perhaps, humanities scholars, here we see a claim to a collective ‘we’ that Bogost wishes to speak for and to. Further, he adds, “Let me be clear: we need not discount human beings to adopt an object-oriented position – after all, we ourselves are of the world as much as musket buckshot and gypsum and space shuttles. But we can no longer claim that our existence is special as existence” (Bogost 2012a: 8).

Indeed, if we were to take this claim seriously then one would be driven to wonder why Bogost is writing his book at all, but of course, “musket buckshot and gypsum and space shuttles” cannot be the addressees of this text as patently they do not read. So object-oriented ontology (OOO) is trying to do two things here, on the one hand deny the specialness of humans’ existence in relation to other objects, whilst simultaneously having to write for them and to make arguments supporting their claims – thereby acknowledging the very special existence that humans possess, namely qualities of understanding, taking a stand on their own being, etc. This is a classic performative contradiction. Whilst it would be perfectly legitimate to outline a formalist theory or methodological position that, for the sake of the approach, limits the requirement to treat human actors as particular or special in relation to others (this is the methodological innovation within Actor-Network Theory), it is quite another to then extend this claim into a philosophical system which is part of a special order of discourse particular to human beings, that is, philosophy. This so-called philosophical non-human turn, is interesting for its nihilistic and conservative implications, something we now turn to in detail.

For his part, Bogost (2012a) rejects that nihilism is present in his work, remarking,

[object-oriented ontology] “allows for the possibility of a new sort of humanism,” in which, as Harman adds, “humans will be liberated from the crushing correlational system.” For his part, Nick Srnicek offers opprobrium in place of optimism… “Do we need another analysis of how a cultural representation does symbolic violence to a marginal group? This is not to say that this work has been useless, just that it’s become repetitive” (Bogost 2012a: 132).

In this ‘liberation’ therefore, we are saved from the ‘crushing’ problem of repetitive accounts of marginal inequality and suffering. This is achieved by a new ‘humanism’ that rejects the human as having any special case, such that the marginal problems of women, LGBT, immigrants, asylum seekers, and the poor are replaced with the problem of a litany of objects such as “quarks, Elizabeth Bennet, single-malt scotch, Ford Mustang fastbacks, lychee fruit, love affairs, dereferenced pointers, Care Bears, sirocco winds, the Tri-City Mall, tort law, the Airbus A330, the five-hundred drachma note” (Bogost 2012a: 133).

He notes, “If we take seriously the idea that all objects recede interminably into themselves, then human perception becomes just one among many ways that objects might relate. To put things at the centre of a new metaphysics also requires us to admit that they do not exist just for us” (Bogost 2012a: 9). Leaving aside the question as to why we would want to apply that idea in the first place when it stands as hypothesis rather than expressing any form of evidence or proof, one might wonder how one is to judge between the different forms of perception in order to (re)present the litanies, let alone recognize them. This is a constant and unexamined problem within the domain of object-oriented philosophy (OOP) and is hardly dealt with by Harman’s notion of ‘metaphor’ or ‘alluding’ to things (Harman 2009b).

Bogost too wants to move away from the tricky epistemological problem of "access", and instead he concentrates on metaphor as a means of understanding the way in which objects, within this system, interact. This, oddly, avoids the very real problem of mediation in object-oriented ontology and moves the focus onto a form of information transfer about objects, rather than the practice of making those objects and object-orient ontologists' claims about them.  In effect, "metaphor" describes an operation whereby the properties of an object are ‘represented’ within another object in order to facilitate some form of interaction (which might be vicarious). Bogost writes,

Ontology is the philosophical study of existence. Object-oriented ontology ("OOO" for short) puts things at the center of this study. Its proponents contend that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally--plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, and sandstone, for example. In contemporary thought, things are usually taken either as the aggregation of ever smaller bits (scientific naturalism) or as constructions of human behavior and society (social relativism). OOO steers a path between the two, drawing attention to things at all scales (from atoms to alpacas, bits to blinis), and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much with ourselves (Bogost 2009, see also Bogost 2012: 6).

This definition is helpful in a number of ways, firstly it demonstrates in the move towards a flat ontology the attention has shifted from ontology (being) to things/objects (beings). The definition of everything as a single thing, in this case an object/unit – is precisely the danger that Heidegger identified for philosophy. The ‘Being’ that explains everything, the ‘Good’ for Plato, “Substance” for Spinoza, and “Object” for object-oriented ontologists. As Bryant remarks, “there is only one type of being: objects. As a consequence, humans are not excluded, but are rather objects among the various types of objects that exist or populate the world, each with their own specific powers and capacities” (Bryant 2011: 20, original emphasis). This is a problem, as "correctness" in identifying objects as beings does not, for me, make a sufficient ontology, as Heidegger argues

What is essential is not what we presumably establish with exactness by means of instruments and gadgets; what is essential is the view in advance which opens up the field for anything to be established (Heidegger 1995: 60).

Bogost’s work is exemplary and highly suggestive for the work of software studies and platforms studies, however, his descriptive work is an example of object-oriented onticology, rather than ontology as such. For me, this is worthy and important work, we do need to map certain kinds of objects and their interrelations, however, we also need to be aware of the consequences of certain ways of seeing and categorizing the world. The problem seems to be that object-oriented ontology has no notion of an exemplar, no special case, no shining examples. As such, it quickly descends into endless lists and litanies. As Heidegger observes,

So it happens that we, lost as we usually are in the activities of observing and establishing, believe we “see” many things and yet do not see what really is (Heidegger 1995: 60).

To draw back to the original question: what are the uses of object-oriented ontology? It seems to me that object-oriented ontology and speculative realism together reflect a worrying spirit of conservatism within philosophy. They discount the work of human activity and place it alongside a soporific litany of naturalised objects – a method that points less at the interconnected nature of things, and gestures more towards the infinity of sameness, the gigantic of objects, the relentless distanceless of a total confusion of beings (see Harman 2009a for a discussion of things and objects). In short, experience as passive, disoriented and overwhelming, what Heidegger described as the “terror” of pure unmitigated flatness. And with that, philosophy becomes ‘cold’ philosophy, instead of understanding, we have lists and litanies of objects. Not so much philosophy as philosography, where rather than understanding the world, there is an attempt to describe it, and a worrying tendency towards the administration of things through a cataloguing operation.

These litanies – cascades and tumbling threads of polythetic classification – are linked merely by sequence, in which each item has no need to bear any resemblance to the ones before or after. They posit no relationships, and offers no narrative connections, and are therefore “essentially uncontrollable: at the limit so indeterminable that anything can be connected with anything” (Anderson 2012). But of course there is a connection, a link, a thread, performed by the philosographer who chooses consciously or unconsciously the elements that make up the chain, and which are inscribed in books and articles. The use of object-oriented ontology, then, is bound up in its apparent conservatism which rallies at the temerity of human-beings to believe in themselves, their politics, and their specialness. Instead of World, object-oriented ontology posits universe, its founding principle is the Gigantic. As Heidegger explained:
1. The gigantism of the slowing down of history (from the staying away of essential decisions all the way to lack of history) in the semblance of speed and steer ability of "historical" [historisch] development and its anticipation.
2. The gigantism of the publicness as summation of everything homogeneous in favour of concealing the destruction and undermining of any passion for essential gathering.
3. The gigantism of the claim to naturalness in the semblance of what is self-evident and "logical"; the question-worthiness of being is placed totally outside questioning.
4. The gigantism of the diminution of beings in the whole in favour of the semblance of boundless extending of the same by virtue of unconditioned controllability. The single thing that is impossible is the word and representation of "impossible" (Heidegger 1999: 311).
To see what "shows up" to the philosographer one is unsurprised to see lists that are often contaminated by the products of neoliberal capitalism, objects which could not just appear of themselves, but required actual concrete labour of human beings to mediate their existence. For some reason, object-oriented ontology is attracted to the ephemerality of certain objects, as if by listing them they doubly affirm their commitment to realism, or that the longer the list the more ‘real’ it is. There is also the tendency to attempt to shock the reader by the juxtaposition of objects that would normally be thought to be categorically different – see Bogost (2009) for a discussion of whether including Harry Potter, blinis, and humans in a list was a striking enough example. These rhetorical strategies are interesting in thermselves, but I do not see them as replacements for philosophy. This demonstrates that the speculative realists have not escaped the so-called ‘correlationist circle’ (Harman 2009b), nor provided a model for thinking about the anti-correlationist paradox which remains present in their own work.  

We should therefore ask object-oriented ontologist to move beyond merely staring at the objects they see around them and catch sight of what is being listed in their descriptive litanies.  That is, examining the lists they produce, we can see what kind of objects they see as near, and which they see as far, and therefore question their claims to see objects all the way down (see Bogost 2012: 83-84). Yet as we examine these lists there appears to be a profound forgetting of Being, as it were, as they write both for and as subjects of Late Capitalism – a fact which remains hidden from them – and a seemingly major aporia in their work.





Appendix I - A Litany of Litanies[5]: Bogost’s (2012) Alien Phenomenology Litanies [6]

Page 3: “the Civil War soldier, the guilty Manhattan project physicist, the oval-headed alien anthropomorph, and the intelligent celestial race so much more credence than the scoria cone, the obsidian fragment, the gypsum crystal, the capsicum pepper, and the propane flame”
Page 5: “sea urchins, kudzu, enchiladas, quasars, and Tesla coils”, “harmonicas or tacos”
Page 6: “hammer, haiku, and hotdogs”, “quarks or neurons”, “plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, and sandstone”, “atoms to alpacas, bits to blinis”
Page 7: “scoria cone and the green chile”, “plate tectonics, enchiladas, tourism, or digestion”, “kudzu and grizzly bears”
Page 8: “Subways flood; pipes cool and crack; insects and weather slowly devour the wood frames of homes; the steel columns of bridges and skyscrapers corrode and buckle”, “plastic and lumber and steel”, “dogs, pigs, birds, and so forth”
Page 9: “plants, fungi, protists, bacteria, etc.”, “the potato and the cannabis [sic]”, “the dog or the raven”, “musket buckshot and gypsum and space shuttles”
Page 10: “molded plastic keys and controllers, motor-driven disc drives, silicon wafers, plastic ribbons, and bits of data”, “Subroutines and middleware libraries compiled into byte code or etched onto silicon, cathode ray tubes or LCD displays mated to be insulated, conductive cabling, and microprocessors executing machine instructions that enter and exit address buses”, “African elephant or the Acropora coral”, “computer or a microprocessor, or a ribbon cable”
Page 11: “The unicorn and the combine harvester, the color red and methyl alcohol, quarks and corrugated iron, Amelia Earhart and dyspepsia”
Page 12: “quarks, Harry Potter, keynote speeches, single-malt scotch, Land Rovers, lychee fruit, love affairs, dereferenced pointers, Mike ‘The Situation’ Sorrentino, bozons, horticulturalists, Mozambique, Super Mario Bros.”
Page 22: “yoghurt or tonsils or Winnie the Pooh”, “the cargo holds, the shipping containers, the hydraulic rams, the ballast water, the twist locks, the lashing rods, the crew, their sweaters, and the yarn out of which those garments are knit.”
Page 23: “cinder blocks and bendy straws and iron filings”
Page 25: “tailgate of a red pickup truck, the drum, handle, tailgate, asphalt, pepper, metal, and propane”, “pepper and iron, tailgate and Levi’s 501s, asphalt and pickup”, “brewing tea, shedding skin, photosynthesizing sugar, igniting compressed fuel.”
Page 26: “extraction, homogenization, distillation, refrigeration, etc.”
Page 27: “a mango, a willow tree, or a flat smooth stone”, “the cell… the revolving feeder… philology of the fictional Languages of Arda...”
Page 34: “Mountain summits and gypsum beds, chile roasters and buckshot, microprocessors and ROM chips”, “grease, juice, gunpowder and gypsum”
Page 39: “lighthouse, dragonfly, lawnmower, and barley”
Page 47: “Mullahs, and monsters, cushioned skyscrapers bent back on themselves”
Page 48: “black lampposts… the Snake River… a young girl…”
Page 49: “floodlight, screen print, Mastercard, rubber, asphalt, taco, Karmann Ghia, waste bin, oil stain”
Page 50: “tire an chassis, the ice milk and cup, the buckshot and soil”
Page 56: “puella, puellae, puellae (sic), puellam, puella
Page 58: “Dictionaries, grocery stores, Rio de Janeiro, La Brea, and Beverly”
Page 59: “doors, toasters and computers”
Page 61: “Smoke… dog teeth of a collar…. Chicken neck…”, “the taste of the honey-sweet ma’sal heated under the charcoal in the hookah’s bowl, or the sensation of foot on clutch as the collar of the synchro obtains a friction catch on the gear, or the smooth, thin appearance of broth as it separates from fat and bone in the soup pot”
Page 65: “Smoke and mouth, collar and gear, cartilage and water, bat and branch, roaster and green chile, button and input bus”
Page 74: “British men…, women, Congalese (sic), horses, and redwoods”, “fried chicken buckets, Pontiac Firebirds, and plastic picnicware”
Page 76: “the snowblower, the persimmon, the asphalt”
Page 109: “volcanoes, hookahs, muskets, gearshifts, gypsum, and soups”
Page 110: “painter, the seaman, the tightrope walker, or the banker”
Page 111: “people or toothbrushes or siroccos”, “words and ink and paper, a painting of pigments and canvas and medium, a philosophy of maxims and arguments and evidence, a house of studs and sheetrock and pipes”
Page 114: “Midgrade dealer D’Angelo Barksdale, detective James McNulty, kingpin Avon Barksdale, police lieutenant Cedric Daniels, stevedore Frank Sobotka, mayoral hopeful Tommy Carcetti, newspaper editor Gus Haynes”, “the Maryland Transit Authority bus that trundles through the Broadway East neighborhood; the synthetic morphine derivative diacetylmorphine hydrochloride, which forms the type of heroin power addicts freebase; Colt .45 (the firearm), and Colt 45 (the malt liquor)”, “dealers, cops, longshoreman, city councilmen, middle-school students, and journalists”
Page 115: “the compression heat of a diesel engine combustion chamber, or the manner by which corn or sugar additives increase the alcoholic content of malt, or the dissolution of heroin in water atop the concave surface of a spoon”
Page 117: “Clinker-built oak planks and fondant, keel, hull, and sponge cake, white-topped waves and spread frosting, oar stay and cookie”
Page 119: “the Kitchen-Aid 5 Quart Stand Mixer, the preheated oven, the mixing bowl, and the awaiting gullet”
Page 124: “religion, science, philosophy, custom, or opinion”, “flour granule, firearm, civil justice system, longship, fondant”, “cinder-blocks, Chicken McNuggets, freighter ships, and graffiti”
Page 133: “quarks, Elizabeth Bennet, single-malt scotch, Ford Mustang fastbacks, lychee fruit, love affairs, dereferenced pointers, Care Bears, sirocco winds, the Tri-City Mall, tort law, the Airbus A330, the five-hundred drachma note”



Notes

[1] I am grateful to Ian Bogost for arranging for a new copy of Alien Phenomenology to be sent to me after I received a curiously corrupted first copy.
[2] There is a striking computational construction to this statement and bares a deep affinity with the conceptualization within object-oriented programming.
[3] Elsewhere (Berry 2012) I have remarked on the computational nature of lists, more generally conceived as ‘collections’. Many programming languages were created to computationally manipulate lists, often called list-programming languages, such as LISP and PROLOG. The similarity with object-oriented ontology is extremely suggestive.
[4] Whether by accident or design Bogost compiles lists of seemingly masculine items of interest: gears, machinery, Mexican food, digestive issues, and computer technology. It is also notable that certain items repeat and certain themes are easy to discern. This may be an ironic move, but it also reveals the partiality of the list-making method.
[5] A litany is also what would be called in computer programming an array. The similarities to the use of arrays in computer programming which enables heterogeneous lists to be compiled and the use in OOP and OOO is suggestive. 
[5] This litany would not have been compiled without the kind invitation of Jill Rettberg and Scott Rettberg to present a paper on the New Aesthetic at the University of Bergen, 21/05/2012. On the return journey I opted to take the mountain train back to Oslo, which, lasting over six hours, gave me the time and distraction-free environment in which I could compile this list. I also learned that compiling litanies of litanies is at best painful and at worst something akin to mental torture. No objects were knowingly harmed in the compiling of this litany. 


Bibliography

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Berry, D. M. (2011) The Philosophy of Software: Code and Mediation in the Digital Age, London: Palgrave.

Berry, D. M. (2012) What is the New Aesthetic?, Stunlaw, accessed 22/05/2012, http://stunlaw.blogspot.com/2012/04/what-is-new-aesthetic.html

Bogost, I. (2009) What is Object-Oriented Ontology? A Definition For Ordinary Folk, accessed 20/05/2012, http://www.bogost.com/blog/what_is_objectoriented_ontolog.shtml

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21 May 2012

Glitch Ontology

The digital (or computational) presents us with a number of theoretical and empirical challenges which we can understand within this commonly used set of binaries:
  • Linearity vs Hypertextuality
  • Narrative vs Database
  • Permanent vs Ephemeral
  • Bound vs Unbound
  • Individual vs Social
  • Deep vs Shallow
  • Focused vs Distracted
  • Close Read vs Distant Read
  • Fixed vs Processual
  • Digital (virtual) vs Real (physical)

Understanding the interaction between the digital and physical is part of the heuristic value that these binaries bring to the research activity. However, in relation to the interplay between the digital and the cultural, examples, such as Marquese Scott's Glitch inspired Dubstep dancing (below), raise important questions about how these binaries interact and are represented in culture more generally (e.g. as notions of The New Aesthetic). 

Glitch inspired Dubstep Dancing (Dancer: Marquese Scott)

Here, I am not interested in critiquing the use of binaries per se (but which of course remains pertinent – and modulations might be a better way to think of digital irruptions), rather I think they are interesting for the indicative light they cast on drawing analytical distinctions between categories and collections related to the digital itself. We can see them as lightweight theories, and as Moretti (2007) argues:

Theories are nets, and we should evaluate them, not as ends in themselves, but for how they concretely change the way we work: for how they allow us to enlarge the… field, and re-design it in a better way, replacing the old, useless distinctions… with new temporal, special, and morphological distinctions (Moretti 2007: 91, original emphasis). 
These binaries can be useful means of thinking through many of the positions and debates that take place within both theoretical and empirical work on mapping the digital.

  1. Linear versus Hypertextuality: The notion of a linear text, usually fixed within a paper form, is one that has been taken for granted within the humanities. Computational systems, however, have challenged this model of reading because of the ease by which linked data can be incorporated into digital text. This has meant that experimentation with textual form and the way in which a reader might negotiate a text can be explored. Of course, the primary model for hypertextual systems is today strongly associated with the worldwide web and HTML, although other systems have been developed.
  2. Narrative versus Database: The importance of narrative as an epistemological frame for understanding has been hugely important in the humanities. Whether as a starting point for beginning an analysis, or through attempts to undermine of problematize narratives within texts, humanities scholars have usually sought to use narrative as an explanatory means of exploring both the literary and history. Computer technology, however, has offered scholars an alternative way of understanding how knowledge might be structured through the notion of the database. This approach personified in the work of Lev Manovich (2001) has been argued to represent an important aspect to digital media, and more importantly the remediation of old media forms in digital systems.
  3. Permanent versus Ephemeral: One of the hallmarks of much ‘traditional’ or ‘basic’ humanities scholarship has been concerned with objects and artifacts that have been relatively stable in relation to digital works. This especially in disciplines that have internalized the medium specificity of a form, for example the book in English Literature, which shifts attention to the content of the medium. In contrast, digital works are notoriously ephemeral in their form, both in the materiality of the substrates (e.g. computer memory chips, magnetic tape/disks, plastic disks, etc.) but also in the plasticity of the form.  This also bears upon the lack of an original from which derivative copies are made, indeed it could be argued that in the digital world there is only the copy (although recent moves in Cloud computing and digital rights management are partial attempts to re-institute the original through technical means).
  4. Bound versus Unbound: A notable feature of digital artifacts is that they tend to be unbound in character. Unlike books, which have clear boundary points marked by the cardboard that makes up the covers, digital objects boundaries are drawn by the file format in which they are encoded. This makes it an extremely permeable border, and one that is made of the same digital code that marks the content. Additionally, digital objects are easily networked and aggregated, processed and transcoded into other forms further problematizing a boundary point.  In terms of reading practices, it can be seen that the permeability of boundaries can radically change the reading experience.
  5. Individual versus Social: traditional humanities has focused strongly on approaches to texts that is broadly individualistic inasmuch as the reader is understood to undertake certain bodily practices (e.g. sitting in a chair, book on knees, concentration on the linear flow of text). Digital technologies, particularly when networked, open these practices up to a much more social experience of reading, with e-readers like the Amazon Kindle encouraging the sharing of highlighted passages, and Tumblr-type blogs and Twitter enabling discussion around and within the digital text.
  6. Deep versus Shallow: Deep reading is the presumed mode of understanding that requires time and attention to develop a hermeneutic reading of a text, this form requires humanistic reading skills to be carefully learned and applied. In contrast a shallow mode is a skimming or surface reading of a text, more akin to gathering a general overview or précis of the text.
  7. Focused versus Distracted: Relatedly, the notion of focused reading is also implicitly understood as an important aspect of humanities scholarship. This is the focus on a particular text, set of texts or canon, and the space and time to give full attention to them. By contrast, in a world of real-time information and multiple windows on computer screens, reading practices are increasingly distracted, partial and fragmented (hyperattention).
  8. Close Reading versus Distant Reading: Distant reading is the application of technologies to enable a great number of texts to be incorporated into an analysis through the ability of computers to process large quantities of text relatively quickly. Moretti (2007) has argued that this approach allows us to see social and cultural forces at work through collective cultural systems.
  9. Fixed versus Processual: The digital medium facilitates new ways of presenting media that are highly computational, this raises new challenges for scholarship into new media and the methods for approaching these mediums. It also raises questions for older humanities that are increasingly accessing their research object through the mediation of processural computational systems, and more particularly through software and computer code.
  10. Real (physical) versus Digital (virtual): This is a common dichotomy that draws some form of dividing line between the so-called real and the so-called digital. 
The New Aesthetic 'pixel' fashion 
I am outlining these binaries because I think they are useful for helping us to draw the contours of what I call elsewhere 'computationality', and for its relationship to the New Aesthetic. In order to move beyond a ‘technological sublime’, we should begin the theoretical and empirical projects through the development of ‘cognitive maps’ (Jameson 1990). Additionally, as the digital increasingly structures the contemporary world, curiously, it also withdraws, and becomes harder and harder for us to focus on as it is embedded, hidden, off-shored or merely forgotten about. Part of the challenge is to bring the digital (code/software) back into visibility for research and critique.

The New Aesthetic is a means for showing how the digital surfaces in a number of different places and contexts.  It is not purely digital production or output, it can also be the concepts and frameworks of digital that are represented (e.g. Voxels). Although New Aesthetic has tended to highlight 8-bit visuals and ‘sensor-vernacular’ or ‘seeing like a machine’ (e.g. Bridle/Sterling) I believe there is more to be explored in terms of ‘computationality’. When identified as such the ‘New Aesthetic’ is a useful concept, in relation to being able to think through and about the visual representation of computationality. Or better, to re-present the computational more generally and its relationship to a particular way-of-being in the world and its mediation through technical media (here specifically concerned with computational media).




Preen Spring/Summer 2012 | Source: Style.com
Previously I argued that this New Aesthetic is a form of 'abduction aesthetic' linked to the emergence of computationality as an ontotheology. Computationality is here understood as a specific historical epoch defined by a certain set of computational knowledges, practices, methods and categories. Abductive aesthetic (or pattern aesthetic) is linked by a notion of computational patterns and pattern recognition as a means of cultural expression. I argue that we should think about software/code through a notion of computationality as an ontotheology. Computationality (as an ontotheology) creates a new ontological ‘epoch’ as a new historical constellation of intelligibility. In other words, code/software is the paradigmatic case of computationality, and presents us with a research object which is located at all major junctures of modern society and is therefore unique in enabling us to understand the present situation – as a collection, network, or assemblage of 'coded objects' or 'code objects'.

Computationality is distinct from the 'challenging-forth' of technicity as Heidegger described it – in contrast computationality has a mode of revealing that is a 'streaming-forth'. One aspect of this is that streaming-forth generates second-order information and data to maintain a world which is itself seen and understood as flow but drawn from a universe which is increasingly understood as object-oriented and discrete. Collected information is processed, feedback is part of the ecology of computationality. Computational devices not only withdraw – indeed mechanical devices such as car engines clearly also withdraw – computational devices both withdraw and are constantly pressing to be present-at-hand in alternation. This I call a form of glitch ontology.



Technicity
(modern technology)
Computationality (postmodern technology)
Mode of Revealing
Challenging-forth (Gestell)

Streaming-forth
Paradigmatic Equipment
Technical devices, machines.
Computational devices, computers, processors.

Goals (projects)
1. Unlocking, transforming, storing, distributing, and switching about Standing Reserve (Bestand).
2. Efficiency.

1. Trajectories,  Processing information, Algorithmic transformation (aggregation, reduction, calculation), as data reserve (Cloudscape).
2. Computability.
Identities (roles)
Ordering-beings

Streaming-beings
Paradigmatic Epistemology
Engineer: Engineering is exploiting basic mechanical principles to develop useful tools and objects. For example using: Time-motion studies, Methods-Time Measurement (MTM), instrumental rationality.

- Subtractive Logic (processed materials from world yield resources)
Design: Design is the construction of an object or a system but not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works and the experience it generates. For example using: Information theory, graph theory,  data visualisation, communicative rationality, real-time streams

- Additive Logic (processed data is supplement to world)
Table 1: Technicity vs Computationality


Computational devices appear to oscillate rapidly between Vorhandenheit/Zuhandenheit (present-at-hand/ready-to-hand) – a glitch ontology. Or perhaps better, constantly becoming ready-to-hand/unready-to-hand in quick alternation. And by quick this can be happening in microseconds, milliseconds, or seconds, repeatedly in quick succession. This aspect of breakdown has been acknowledged as an issue within human-computer design and is seen as one of pressing concern to be ‘fixed’ or made invisible to the computational device user (Winograd and Flores 1987).

The oscillation creates the 'glitch' that is a specific feature of computation as opposed to other technical forms (Berry 2011). This is the glitch that creates the conspicuousness that breaks the everyday experience of things, and more importantly breaks the flow of things being comfortably at hand. This is a form that Heidegger called Unreadyness-to-hand (Unzuhandenheit). Heidegger defines three forms of unreadyness-to-hand: Obtrusiveness (Aufdringlichkeit), Obstinacy (Aufsässigkeit), and Conspicuousness (Auffälligkeit), where the first two are non-functioning equipment and the latter is equipment that is not functioning at its best (see Heidegger 1978, fn 1). In other words, if equipment breaks you have to think about it.

It is important to note that conspicuousness is not completely broken-down equipment. Conspicuousness, then, ‘presents the available equipment as in a certain unavailableness’ (Heidegger 1978: 102–3), so that as Dreyfus (2001: 71) explains, we are momentarily startled, and then shift to a new way of coping, but which, if help is given quickly or the situation is resolved, then ‘transparent circumspective behaviour can be so quickly and easily restored that no new stance on the part of Dasein is required’ (Dreyfus 2001: 72). As Heidegger puts it, it requires ‘a more precise kind of circumspection, such as “inspecting”, checking up on what has been attained, [etc.]’ (Dreyfus 2001: 70).

In other words computation, due to its glitch ontology, continually forces a contextual slowing-down at the level of the mode of being of the user, thus the continuity of flow or practice is interrupted by minute pauses and breaks (these may beyond conscious perception, as such). This is not to say that analogue technologies do not break down, the difference is the conspicuousness of digital technologies in their everyday working, in contrast to the obstinacy or obtrusiveness of analogue technologies, which tend to work or not. I am also drawing attention to the discrete granularity of the conspicuousness of digital technologies, which can be measured technically as seconds, milliseconds, or even microseconds. This glitch ontology raises interesting questions in relation to basic questions about our experiences of computational systems.

My interest in the specificity of the New Aesthetic is because of its implicit recognition of the extent to which digital media has permeated our everyday lives. We could perhaps say that the New Aesthetic is a form of 'breakdown' art linked to the conspicuousness of digital technologies. Not just the use of digital tools, of course, but also a language of new media (as Manovich would say), the frameworks, structures, concepts and processes represented by computation. That is both the presentation of computation and its representational modes. It is also to the extent both that it represents computation, but also draws attention to this glitch ontology, for example through the representation of the conspicuousness of glitches and other digital artefacts (also see Menkman 2010, for a notion of critical media aesthetics and the idea of glitch studies).

Other researchers (Beaulieu et al 2012) have referred to ‘Network Realism’ to draw attention to some of these visual practices. Particularly the way of producing these networked visualisation. However, the New Aesthetic is interesting in remaining focussed on the aesthetic in the first instance (rather than the sociological, etc.). This is useful in order to examine the emerging visual culture, but also to try to discern aesthetic forms instantiated within it.

As I argued previously, the New Aesthetic is perhaps the beginning of a new kind of Archive, an Archive in Motion – what Bernard Stiegler (n.d.) called the Anamnesis (the embodied act of memory as recollection or remembrance) combined with Hypomnesis (the making-technical of memory through writing, photography, machines, etc.). Thus, particularly in relation to the affordances given by the networked and social media within which it circulates, combined with a set of nascent practices of collection, archive and display, the New Aesthetic is distinctive in a number of ways.

Firstly, it gives a description and a way of representing and mediating the world in and through the digital, that is understandable as an infinite archive (or collection). Secondly, it alternately highlights that something digital is a happening in culture – and which we have only barely been conscious of – and the way in which culture is happening to the digital. Lastly, the New Aesthetic points the direction of travel for the possibility of a Work of Art in the digital age – something Heidegger thought impossible under the conditions of technicity, but remains open, perhaps under computationality.

In this, the New Aesthetic is, however, a pharmakon, in that it is both potentially poison and cure for an age of pattern matching and pattern recognition. If the archive was the set of rules governing the range of expression following Foucault, and the database the grounding cultural logic of software cultures following Manovich, we might conclude that the New Aesthetic is the cultural eruption of the grammatisation of software logics into everyday life. The New Aesthetic under a symptomology, can be seen surfacing computational patterns, and in doing so articulates and re-presents the unseen and little understood logic of computation, which lies like plasma under, over, and in the interstices between the modular elements of an increasingly computational society. 




Bibliography

Beaulieu, A. and de Rijcke, S. (2012) Network Realism, accessed 20/05/2012, http://networkrealism.wordpress.com/

Dreyfus, H. (2001) Being-in-the-world: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I. USA: MIT Press.

Heidegger, M. (1978) Being and Time. London: Wiley–Blackwell.

Jameson, F. (2006) Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, in Kellner, D. Durham, M. G. (eds.) Media and Cultural Studies Keyworks, London: Blackwell.

Manovich, L. (2001) The Language of New Media. London: MIT Press.

Menkman, R. (2010) Glitch Studies Manifesto, accessed 20/5/2012, http://rosa-menkman.blogspot.com/2010/02/glitch-studies-manifesto.html

Moretti, F. (2007) Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History, London, Verso.

Stiegler, B. (n.d.)  Anamnesis and Hypomnesis, accessed 06/05/2012, http://arsindustrialis.org/anamnesis-and-hypomnesis

Winograd, T. and Flores, F. (1987) Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design, London: Addison Wesley.

06 May 2012

Taking Care of the New Aesthetic

Strangely, and somewhat unexpectedly, James Bridle unilaterally closed the New Aesthetic Tumblr blog today, 6 May 2012, announcing 'The New Aesthetic tumblr is now closed', with some particular and general thanks and very little information about future plans. Perhaps this was always Bridle's intention as a private project, but one can't help wonder if the large amount of attention, the move to a public and contested concept, and the loss of control that this entailed may have encouraged a re-assertion of control. If so, this is a great pity and perhaps even an act of vandalism.

Harpa, Iceland  (Berry 2011)
This, then, is a critical turning point, or krisis,[1] for the nascent New Aesthetic movement, and, for me, the blog closure heralds an interesting struggle over what is the New Aesthetic? Who owns or controls it? And in what directions it can now move.? Certainly, I am of the opinion that to have closed the blog in this way insinuates a certain proprietary attitude to the New Aesthetic. Considering that the Tumblr blog has largely been a crowd-sourced project, giving no explanation, allowing no debate, discussion over the closure, etc. makes it look rather like it harvested peoples' submissions on what could have been a potentially participatory project. Whichever way it is cast, James Bridle looks rather high-handed in light of the many generous and interesting discussions that the New Aesthetic has thrown up across a variety of media.

One of the key questions will be the extent to which this blog was a central locus of, or collection for representing, the New Aesthetic more generally. Personally I found myself less interested in the Tumblr blog that became increasingly irrelevant in light of the high level of discussion found upon Imperica, The Creators Project, The Atlantic, Crumb and elsewhere. But there is clearly a need for something beyond the mere writing and rewriting of the New Aesthetic that many of the essays around the topic represented. Indeed, there is a need for an inscription or articulation of the New Aesthetic through multiple forms, both visual and written (not to mention using the sensorium more generally). I hope that we will see a thousand New Aesthetic Pinterest, Tumblr, and PinIt sites bloom across the web.

Urban Cursor is a GPS enabled object (Sebastian Campion 2009)
Nonetheless, it is disappointing to see the number of twitter commentators who have tweeted the equivalent of 'well, that was that', as if the single action of an individual is decisive in stifling a new and exciting way of articulating a way of being in the world. Indeed, this blog closure highlights the importance of taking care of the New Aesthetic, especially in its formative stages of development. Whilst there have been a number of dismissive and critical commentaries written about the New Aesthetic, I feel that there is a kernel of something radical and interesting happening and which still remains to be fully articulated, expressed, and made manifest in and through various mediums of expression.

The New Aesthetic blog might be dead, but the New Aesthetic as a way of conceptualising the changes in our everyday life that are made possible in and through digital technology is still unfolding. For me the New Aesthetic was not so much a collection of things as the beginning of a new kind of Archive, an Archive in Motion, which combined what Bernard Stiegler called the Anamnesis (the embodied act of memory as recollection or remembrance) and Hypomnesis (the making-technical of memory through writing, photography, machines, etc.). Stiegler writes,
We have all had the experience of misplacing a memory bearing object – a slip of paper, an annotated book, an agenda, relic or fetish, etc. We discover then that a part of ourselves (like our memory) is outside of us. This material memory, that Hegel named objective, is partial. But it constitutes the most precious part of human memory: therein, the totality of the works of spirit, in all guises and aspects, takes shape (Stiegler n.d.).
Thus, particularly in relation to the affordances given by the networked and social media within which it circulated, combined with a set of nascent practices of collection, archive and display, the New Aesthetic is distinctive in a number of ways. Firstly, it gives a description and a way of representing and mediating the world in and through the digital, that is understandable as an infinite archive (or collection). Secondly, it alternately highlights that something digital is happening in culture – and which we have only barely been conscious of – and the way in which culture is happening to the digital.  Lastly, the New Aesthetic points the direction of travel for the possibility of a Work of Art in the digital age.

In this, the New Aesthetic is something of a pharmakon, in that it is both potentially poison and cure for an age of pattern matching and pattern recognition. In as much as the archive was the set of rules governing the range of what can be verbally, audio-visually or alphanumerically expressed at all, and the database is the grounding cultural logic of software cultures, the New Aesthetic is the cultural eruption of the grammatisation of software logics into everyday life. That is, the New Aesthetic is a deictic moment which sheds light on changes in our lives that imperil things, practices, and engaging human relations, and the desire to make room for such relations, particularly when they are struggling to assert themselves against the dominance of neoliberal governance, bureaucratic structures and market logics.[2]

The New Aesthetic, in other words, brings these patterns to the surface, and in doing so articulates the unseen and little understood logic of computational society and the anxieties that this introduces.





Notes

[1] krisis: a separating, power of distinguishing, decision , choice, election, judgment, dispute.


[2] A deictic explanation is here understood as one which articulates a thing or event in its uniqueness. 




Bibliography

Stiegler, B. (n.d.)  Anamnesis and Hypomnesis, accessed 06/05/2012, http://arsindustrialis.org/anamnesis-and-hypomnesis




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