MachineMachine /stream - search for serres en-us LifePress <![CDATA[Kipple and Things II: The Subject of Digital Detritus]]>

This text is a work in progress; a segment ripped from my thesis. To better ingest some of the ideas I throw around here, you might want to read these texts first: - Kipple and Things: How to Hoard and Why Not To Mean - Digital Autonomy

Captured in celluloid under the title Blade Runner, (Scott 1982) Philip K. Dick’s vision of kipple abounds in a world where mankind lives alongside shimmering, partly superior, artificial humans. The limited lifespan built into the Nexus 6 replicants  [i] is echoed in the human character J.F. Sebastian,[ii]whose own degenerative disorder lends his body a kipple-like quality, even if the mind it enables sparkles so finely. This association with replication and its apparent failure chimes for both the commodity fetish and an appeal to digitisation. In Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, mechanisation and mass production begin at the ‘original’, and work to distance the commodity from the form captured by each iteration. Not only does the aura of the original stay intact as copies of it are reproduced on the production line, that aura is actually heightened in the system of commoditisation. As Frederic Jameson has noted, Dick’s work ‘renders our present historical by turning it into the past of a fantasized future’ (Jameson 2005, 345). Kipple piles up at the periphery of our culture, as if Dick is teasing us to look upon our own time from a future anterior in which commodity reification will have been: It hadn’t upset him that much, seeing the half-abandoned gardens and fully abandoned equipment, the great heaps of rotting supplies. He knew from the edu-tapes that the frontier was always like that, even on Earth. (Dick 2011, 143) Kipple figures the era of the commodity as an Empire, its borders slowly expanding away from the subjects yearning for Biltong replicas, seeded with mistakes. Kipple is a death of subjects, haunted by objects, but kipple is also a renewal, a rebirth. The future anterior is a frontier, one from which it might just be possible to look back upon the human without nostalgia. Qualify the human subject with the android built in its image; the object with the entropic degradation that it must endure if its form is to be perpetuated, and you necessarily approach an ontology of garbage, junk and detritus: a glimmer of hope for the remnants of decay to assert their own identity. Commodities operate through the binary logic of fetishisation and obsolescence, in which the subject’s desire to obtain the shiny new object promotes the propagation of its form through an endless cycle of kippleisation. Kipple is an entropy of forms, ideals long since removed from their Platonic realm by the march of mimesis, and kippleisation an endless, unstoppable encounter between subjectness and thingness. Eschewing Martin Heidegger’s definition of a thing, in which objects are brought out of the background of existence through human use, (Bogost 2012, 24) Bill Brown marks the emergence of things through the encounter: As they circulate through our lives… we look through objects because there are codes by which our interpretive attention makes them meaningful, because there is a discourse of objectivity that allows us to use them as facts. A thing, in contrast, can hardly function as a window. We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us… (Brown 2001, 4) This confrontation with the ‘being’ of the object occurs by chance when, as Brown describes, a patch of dirt on the surface of the window captures us for a moment, ‘when the drill breaks, when the car stalls… when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily’. (Brown 2001, 4) We no longer see through the window-object (literally or metaphorically), but are brought into conflict with its own particular discrete being by the encounter with its filthy surface. A being previously submersed in the continuous background of world as experience, need not necessarily be untangled by an act of human-centric use. The encounter carries the effect of a mirror, for as experience stutters at the being of a thing, so the entity invested in that experience is made aware of their own quality as a thing – if only for a fleeting moment. Brown’s fascination with ‘how inanimate objects constitute human subjects’ (Brown 2001, 7) appears to instate the subject as the centre of worldly relations. But Bill Brown has spun a realist [iii] web in which to ensnare us. The object is not phenomenal, because its being exists independent of any culpability we may wish to claim. Instead a capture of object and human, of thing qua thing, occurs in mutual encounter, bringing us closer to a flat ontology ‘where humans are no longer monarchs of being but are instead among beings, entangled in beings, and implicated in other beings.’ (Bryant 2011, 40)

Brown’s appraisal of things flirts with the splendour of kipple. Think of the landfill, an engorged river of kipple, or the salvage yard, a veritable shrine to thingness. Tattered edges and featureless forms leak into one another in unsavoury shades of tea-stain brown and cobweb grey splashed from the horizon to your toes. Masses of broken, unremarkable remnants in plastic, glass and cardboard brimming over the edge of every shiny suburban enclave. The most astonishing thing about the turmoil of these places is how any order can be perceived in them at all. But thing aphasia does diminish, and it does so almost immediately. As the essential human instinct for order kicks in, things come to resemble objects. Classes of use, representation and resemblance neatly arising to cut through the pudding; to make the continuous universe discrete once again. You note a tricycle wheel there, underneath what looks like the shattered circumference of an Edwardian lamp. You almost trip over a bin bag full of carrot tops and potato peel before becoming transfixed by a pile of soap-opera magazines. Things, in Brown’s definition, are unreachable by human caprice. Things cannot be grasped, because their thingnessslips back into recognition as soon as it is encountered: When such a being is named, then, it is also changed. It is assimilated into the terms of the human subject at the same time that it is opposed to it as object, an opposition that is indeed necessary for the subject’s separation and definition. (Schwenger 2004, 137) The city of Hull, the phrase ‘I will’, the surface of an ice cube and an image compression algorithm are entities each sustained by the same nominative disclosure: a paradox of things that seem to flow into one another with liquid potential, but things, nonetheless limited by their constant, necessary re-iteration in language. There is no thing more contradictory in this regard than the human subject itself, a figure Roland Barthes’ tried to paradoxically side-step in his playful autobiography. Replenishing each worn-out piece of its glimmering hull, one by one, the day arrives when the entire ship of Argo has been displaced – each of its parts now distinct from those of the ‘original’ vessel. For Barthes, this myth exposes two modest activities: - Substitution (one part replaces another, as in a paradigm) – Nomination (the name is in no way linked to the stability of the parts) (Barthes 1994, 46) Like the ship of Argo, human experience has exchangeable parts, but at its core, such was Barthes’ intention, ‘the subject, unreconciled, demands that language represent the continuity of desire.’ (Eakin 1992, 16) In order that the subject remain continuous, it is the messy world that we must isolate into classes and taxonomies. We collate, aggregate and collect not merely because we desire, but because without these nominative acts the pivot of desire – the illusionary subject – could not be sustained. If the powerful stance produced in Dick’s future anterior is to be sustained, the distinction between subjects aggregating objects, and objects coagulating the subject, needs flattening. [iv] Bill Brown’s appeal to the ‘flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition’ (Brown 2001, 4) partially echoes Dick’s concern with the purity of the thing. Although Dick’s Biltong were probably more of a comment on the Xerox machine than the computer, the problem of the distribution of form, as it relates to commodity fetishism, enables ‘printing’ as a neat paradigm of the contemporary network-based economy. Digital things, seeming to proliferate independent from the sinuous optical cables and super-cooled server banks that disseminate them, are absolutelyreliant on the process of copying. Copying is a fundamental component of the digital network where, unlike the material commodity, things are not passed along. The digital thing is always a copy, is always copied, and is always copying: Copying the product (mechanical reproduction technologies of modernity) evolves into copying the instructions for manufacturing (computer programs as such recipes of production). In other words, not only copying copies, but more fundamentally copying copying itself. (Parikka 2008, 72) Abstracted from its material context, copying is ‘a universal principle’ (Parikka 2008, 72) of digital things, less flowing ‘within the circuits’ (Brown 2001, 4) as being that circuitry flow in and of itself. The entire network is a ship of Argo, capable, perhaps for the first time, [v]to Substitute and Nominate its own parts, or, as the character J.F. Isidore exclaims upon showing an android around his kippleised apartment: When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. [my emphasis] (Dick 1968, 53) Kipple is not garbage, nor litter, for both these forms are decided upon by humans. In a recent pamphlet distributed to businesses throughout the UK, the Keep Britain Tidy Campaign made a useful distinction: Litter can be as small as a sweet wrapper, as large as a bag of rubbish, or it can mean lots of items scattered about. ENCAMS describes litter as “Waste in the wrong place caused by human agency”. In other words, it is only people that make litter. (Keep Britain Tidy Campaign, 3) Garbage is a decisive, collaborative form, humans choose to destroy or discard. A notion of detritus that enhances the autonomy, the supposed mastery of the subject in its network. Digital networks feature their own litter in the form of copied data packets that have served their purpose, or been deemed erroneous by algorithms designed to seed out errors. These processes, according to W. Daniel Hillis, define, ‘the essence of digital technology, which restores signal to near perfection at every stage’. (Hillis 1999, 18) Maintenance of the network and the routines of error management are of primary economic and ontological concern: control the networks and the immaterial products will manage themselves; control the tendency of errors to reproduce, and we maintain a vision of ourselves as masters over, what Michel Serres has termed, ‘the abundance of the Creation’. (Serres 2007, 47) Seeming to sever their dependency on the physical processes that underlie them, digital technologies, ‘incorporate hyper-redundant error-checking routines that serve to sustain an illusion of immateriality by detecting error and correcting it’. (Kirschenbaum 2008, 12) The alleviation of error and noise, is then, an implicit feature of digital materiality. Expressed at the status of the digital image it is the visual glitch, the coding artifact, [vi]that signifies the potential of the digital object to loosen its shackles; to assert its own being. In a parody of Arthur C. Clarke’s infamous utopian appraisal of technology, another science fiction author, Bruce Sterling, delivers a neat sound bite for the digital civilisation, so that: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic (Clarke 1977, 36) …becomes… Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from [its] garbage. (Sterling 2012)  

Footnotes [i] A label appropriated by Ridley Scott for the film Blade Runner, and not by Philip K. Dick in the original novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, who preferred the more archaic, general term, android. Throughout the novel characters refer to the artificial humans as ‘andys,’ portraying a casual ease with which to shrug off these shimmering subjects as mere objects. [ii] A translated version of the character, J.F. Isidore, from the original novel. [iii] Recent attempts to disable appeals to the subject, attempts by writers such as Graham Harman, Levi R. Bryant, Bill Brown and Ian Bogost, have sought to devise, in line with Bruno Latour, an ontology in which ‘Nothing can be reduced to anything else, nothing can be deduced from anything else, everything may be allied to everything else;’ (Latour 1993, 163) one in which a discussion of the being of a chilli pepper or a wrist watch may rank alongside a similar debate about the being of a human or a dolphin. An object-oriented, flat ontology (Bryant 2011) premised on the niggling sentiment that ‘all things equally exist, yet they do not exist equally.’ (Bogost 2012, 19) Unlike Graham Harman, who uses the terms interchangeably, (Bogost 2012, 24) Bill Brown’s Thing Theory approaches the problem by strongly asserting a difference between objects and things. [iv] I have carefully avoided using the term ‘posthuman,’ but I hope its resonance remains. [v] The resonance here with a biological imperative is intentional, although it is perhaps in this work alone that I wish to completely avoid such digital/biological metonyms. Boris Groys’ text From Image to Image File – And Back: Art in the Age of Digitisation, functions neatly to bridge this work with previous ones when he states: The biological metaphor says it all: not only life, which is notorious in this respect, but also technology, which supposedly opposes nature, has become the medium of non-identical reproduction.

[vi] I have very consciously chosen to spell ‘artifact’ with an ‘i’, widely known as the American spelling of the term. This spelling of the word aligns it with computer/programming terminology (i.e.’compression artifact’), leaving the ‘e’ spelling free to echo its archaeological heritage. In any case, multiple meanings for the word can be read in each instance.

Bibliography Barthes, Roland. 1994. Roland Barthes. University of California Press. Bogost, Ian. 2012. Alien Phenomenology, Or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. University of Minnesota Press. Brown, Bill. 2001. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry 28 (1) (October 1): 1–22. Bryant, Levi R. 2011. The Democracy of Objects. Clarke, Arthur C. 1977. “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination.” In Profiles of the future?: an inquiry into the limits of the possible. New York: Popular Library. Dick, Philip K. 1968. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Random House Publishing Group, 2008. ———. 2011. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Eakin, Paul John. 1992. Touching the World: Reference in Autobiography. Princeton University Press. Hillis, W. 1999. The Pattern on the Stone?: the Simple Ideas That Make Computers Work. 1st paperback ed. New York: Basic Books. Jameson, Fredric. 2005. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. Verso. Keep Britain Tidy Campaign, Environmental Campaigns (ENCAMS). YOUR RUBBISH AND THE LAW a Guide for Businesses. Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. 2008. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. MIT Press. Latour, Bruno. 1993. The Pasteurization of France. Harvard University Press. Parikka, Jussi. 2008. “Copy.” In Software Studies?: a Lexicon, ed. Matthew Fuller, 70–78. Cambridge  Mass.: MIT Press. Schwenger, Peter. 2004. “Words and the Murder of the Thing.” In Things, 135 – 150. University of Chicago Press Journals. Scott, Ridley. 1982. Blade Runner. Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller. Serres, Michel. 2007. The Parasite. 1st University of Minnesota Press ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Sterling, Bruce. 2012. “Design Fiction: Sascha Pohflepp & Daisy Ginsberg, ‘Growth Assembly’.” Wired Magazine: Beyond The Beyond.

Sat, 25 Aug 2012 10:00:00 -0700
<![CDATA[The Birth of Physics (Philosophy of science) by Michel Serres]]>

Clinamen Press Ltd (2000), Hardcover, 256 pages

Thu, 08 Dec 2011 07:31:28 -0800
<![CDATA[Genesis (Studies in Literature & Science) by Michel Serres]]>

The University of Michigan Press (1997), Edition: New edition, Paperback, 152 pages

Thu, 08 Dec 2011 07:31:26 -0800
<![CDATA["What is an enemy, who is he to us, and how must we deal with him? Another way to put it, for..."]]>

“What is an enemy, who is he to us, and how must we deal with him? Another way to put it, for example, is: What is cancer? - a growing collection of malignant cells that we must at all costs expel, excise, reject? Or something like a parasite, with which we must negotiate a contract of symbiosis? I lean toward the second solution, as life itself does. l’m even willing to bet that in the future the best treatment for cancer will switch from eliminating it to a method that will profit from its dynamism.

Why? Because, objectively, we have to continue living with cancers, with germs, with evil and even violence. It’s better to find a symbiotic equilibrium, even fairly primitive, than to reopen a war that is always lost because we and the enemy find renewed force in the relationship. If we were to implacably dean up ail the germs, as Puritanism would have us do, they would soon become resistant to our techniques of elimination and require new armaments. Instead, why not culture them in curdled milk, which sometimes results in delicious cheeses?” - Quote source: Michel Serres, Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time Inspiration for posting: Re-engineering human cells to attack cancer

Wed, 14 Sep 2011 05:01:00 -0700
<![CDATA[Michel Serres, The Natural Contract]]>

“Suppose two speakers, determined to contradict each other. As violent as their confrontation may be, as long as they are willing to continue the discussion they must speak a common language in order for the dialogue to take place. There can’t be an argument between two people if one speaks a language the other can’t understand. […] Can an individual actor, lost in these gigantic masses, still say ‘I’ when the old collectivities, themselves so lightweight, have already been reduced to uttering a paltry and outmoded ‘we’?” - Michel Serres, The Natural Contract

Tue, 09 Aug 2011 05:36:00 -0700
<![CDATA[Kipple and Things: How to Hoard and Why Not To Mean]]>

This is paper (more of an essay, really) was originally delivered at the Birkbeck/London Consortium ‘Rubbish Symposium‘, 30th July 2011 Living at the very limit of his means, Philip K. Dick, a two-bit, pulp sci-fi author, was having a hard time maintaining his livelihood. It was the 1950s and Dick was living with his second wife, Kleo, in a run-down apartment in Berkley, California, surrounded by library books Dick later claimed, “They could not afford to pay the fines on.” In 1956, Dick had a short story published in a brand new pulp magazine: Satellite Science Fiction. Entitled, Pay for the Printer, the story contained a whole host of themes that would come to dominate his work On an Earth gripped by nuclear winter, humankind has all but forgotten the skills of invention and craft. An alien, blob-like, species known as the Biltong co-habit Earth with the humans. They have an innate ability to ‘print’ things, popping out copies of any object they are shown from their formless bellies. The humans are enslaved not simply because everything is replicated for them, but, in a twist Dick was to use again and again in his later works, as the Biltong grow old and tired, each copied object resembles the original less and less. Eventually everything emerges as an indistinct, black mush. The short story ends with the Biltong themselves decaying, leaving humankind on a planet full of collapsed houses, cars with no doors, and bottles of whiskey that taste like anti-freeze. In his 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Dick gave a name to this crumbling, ceaseless, disorder of objects: Kipple. A vision of a pudding-like universe, in which obsolescent objects merge, featureless and identical, flooding every apartment complex from here to the pock-marked surface of Mars. “No one can win against kipple,” Dick wrote: “It’s a universal principle operating throughout the universe; the entire universe is moving toward a final state of total, absolute kippleization.” In kipple, Dick captured the process of entropy, and put it to work to describe the contradictions of mass-production and utility. Saved from the wreckage of the nuclear apocalypse, a host of original items – lawn mowers, woollen sweaters, cups of coffee – are in short supply. Nothing ‘new’ has been made for centuries. The Biltong must produce copies from copies made of copies – each replica seeded with errors will eventually resemble kipple. Objects; things, are mortal; transient. The wrist-watch functions to mark the passing of time, until it finally runs down and becomes a memory of a wrist-watch: a skeleton, an icon, a piece of kipple. The butterfly emerges from its pupae in order to pass on its genes to another generation of caterpillar. Its demise – its kipple-isation – is programmed into its genetic code. An inevitable consequence of the cosmic lottery of biological inheritance. Both the wrist-watch and the butterfly have fulfilled their functions: I utilised the wrist-watch to mark time: the ‘genetic lottery’ utilised the butterfly to extend its lineage. Entropy is absolutely certain, and pure utility will always produce it. In his book Genesis, Michel Serres, argues that objects are specific to the human lineage. Specific, not because of their utility, but because they indicate our drive to classify, categorise and order: “The object, for us, makes history slow.” Before things become kipple, they stand distinct from one another. Nature seems to us defined in a similar way, between a tiger and a zebra there appears a broad gap, indicated in the creatures’ inability to mate with one another; indicated by the claws of the tiger and the hooves of the zebra. But this gap is an illusion, as Michel Foucault neatly points out in The Order of Things: “…all nature forms one great fabric in which beings resemble one another from one to the next…” The dividing lines indicating categories of difference are always unreal, removed as they are from the ‘great fabric’ of nature, and understood through human categories isolated in language. Humans themselves are constituted by this great fabric: our culture and language lie on the same fabric. Our apparent mastery over creation comes from one simple quirk of our being: the tendency we exhibit to categorise, to cleave through the fabric of creation. For Philip K. Dick, this act is what separates us from the alien Biltong. They can merely copy, a repeated play of resemblance that will always degrade to kipple. Humans, on the other hand, can do more than copy. They can take kipple and distinguish it from itself, endlessly, through categorisation and classification. Far from using things until they run down, humans build new relations, new meanings, carefully and slowly from the mush. New categories produce new things, produce newness. At least, that’s what Dick – a Platonic idealist – believed. At the end of Pay for the Printer, a disparate group camp in the kipple-ised, sagging pudding of a formless city. One of the settlers has with him a crude wooden cup he has apparently cleaved himself with an even cruder, hand-made knife: “You made this knife?” Fergesson asked, dazed. “I can’t believe it. Where do you start? You have to have tools to make this. It’s a paradox!” In his essay, The System of Collecting, Jean Baudrillard makes a case for the profound subjectivity produced in this apparent production of newness. Once things are divested of their function and placed into a collection, they: “…constitute themselves as a system, on the basis of which the subject seeks to piece together [their] world, [their] personal microcosm.” The use-value of objects gives way to the passion of systematization, of order, sequence and the projected perfection of the complete set. In the collection, function is replaced by exemplification. The limits of the collection dictate a paradigm of finality; of perfection. Each object – whether wrist-watch or butterfly – exists to define new orders. Once the blue butterfly is added to the collection it stands, alone, as an example of the class of blue butterflies to which the collection dictates it belongs. Placed alongside the yellow and green butterflies, the blue butterfly exists to constitute all three as a series. The entire series itself then becomes the example of all butterflies. A complete collection: a perfect catalogue. Perhaps, like Borges’ Library of Babel, or Plato’s ideal realm of forms, there exists a room somewhere with a catalogue of everything. An ocean of examples. Cosmic disorder re-constituted and classified as a finite catalogue, arranged for the grand cosmic collector’s singular pleasure. The problem with catalogues is that absolutely anything can be collected and arranged. The zebra and the tiger may sit side-by-side if the collector is particularly interested in collecting mammals, striped quadrupeds or – a particularly broad collection – things that smell funny. Too much classification, too many cleaves in the fabric of creation, and order once again dissolves into kipple. Disorder arises when too many conditions of order have been imposed. William H. Gass reminds us of the linguistic conjunction ‘AND’ an absolute necessity in the cleaving of kipple into things: “[W]e must think of chaos not as a helter-skelter of worn-out and broken or halfheartedly realised things, like a junkyard or potter’s midden, but as a fluid mishmash of thinglessness in every lack of direction as if a blender had run amok. ‘AND’ is that sunderer. It stands between. It divides light from darkness.” Collectors gather things about them in order to excerpt a mastery over the apparent disorder of creation. The collector attains true mastery over their microcosm. The narcissism of the individual extends to the precise limits of the catalogue he or she has arranged about them. Without AND language would function as nothing but pudding, each clause, condition or acting verb leaking into its partner, in an endless series. But the problem with AND, with classes, categories and order is that they can be cleaved anywhere. Jorge Luis Borges exemplified this perfectly in a series of fictional lists he produced throughout his career. The most infamous list, Michel Foucault claimed influenced him to write The Order of Things, refers to a “certain Chinese encyclopaedia” in which: Animals are divided into

belonging to the Emporer, embalmed, tame, sucking pigs, sirens, fabulous, stray dogs, included in the present classification, frenzied, innumerable, drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, et cetera, having just broken the water pitcher, that from a long way off look like flies…

In writing about his short story The Aleph, Borges also remarked: “My chief problem in writing the story lay in… setting down of a limited catalog of endless things. The task, as is evident, is impossible, for such a chaotic enumeration can only be simulated, and every apparently haphazard element has to be linked to its neighbour either by secret association or by contrast.” No class of things, no collection, no cleaving of kipple into nonkipple can escape the functions of either “association OR contrast…” The lists Borges compiled are worthy of note because they remind us of the binary contradiction classification always comes back to:

Firstly, that all collections are arbitrary and Secondly, that a perfect collection of things is impossible, because, in the final instance there is only pudding “…in every lack of direction…”

Human narcissism – our apparent mastery over kipple – is an illusion. Collect too many things together, and you re-produce the conditions of chaos you tried so hard to avoid. When the act of collecting comes to take precedence over the microcosm of the collection, when the differentiation of things begins to break down: collectors cease being collectors and become hoarders. The hoard exemplifies chaos: the very thing the collector builds their catalogues in opposition to. To tease apart what distinguishes the hoarder, from the collector, I’d like to introduce two new characters into this arbitrary list I have arranged about myself. Some of you may have heard of them, indeed, they are the brothers whom the syndrome of compulsive hoarding is named after.

Brothers, Homer and Langley Collyer lived in a mansion at 2078, Fifth Avenue, Manhattan. Sons of wealthy parents – their father was a respected gynaecologist, their mother a renowned opera singer – the brothers both attended Columbia University, where Homer studied law and Langley engineering. In 1933 Homer suffered a stroke which left him blind and unable to work at his law firm. As Langley began to devote his time entirely to looking after his helpless brother, both men became locked inside the mansion their family’s wealth and prestige had delivered. Over the following decade or so Langley would leave the house only at night. Wandering the streets of Manhattan, collecting water and provisions to sustain his needy brother, Langley’s routines became obsessive, giving his life a meaning above and beyond the streets of Harlem that were fast becoming run-down and decrepid. But the clutter only went one way: into the house, and, as the interest from the New York newspaper media shows, the Collyer brothers and their crumbling mansion became something of a legend in a fast changing city. On March 21st 1947 the New York Police Department received an anonymous tip-off that there was a dead body in the Collyer mansion. Attempting to gain entry, police smashed down the front-door, only to be confronted with a solid wall of newspapers (which, Langley had claimed to reporter’s years earlier his brother “would read once his eyesight was restored”.) Finally, after climbing in through an upstairs window, a patrolman found the body of Homer – now 65 years old – slumped dead in his kippleised armchair. In the weeks that followed, police removed one hundred and thirty tons of rubbish from the house. Langley’s body was eventually discovered crushed and decomposing under an enormous mound of junk, lying only a few feet from where Homer had starved to death. Crawling through the detritus to reach his ailing brother, Langley had triggered one of his own booby traps, set in place to catch any robbers who attempted to steal the brother’s clutter. The list of objects pulled from the brother’s house reads like a Borges original. From Wikipedia: Items removed from the house included baby carriages, a doll carriage, rusted bicycles, old food, potato peelers, a collection of guns, glass chandeliers, bowling balls, camera equipment, the folding top of a horse-drawn carriage, a sawhorse, three dressmaking dummies, painted portraits, pinup girl photos, plaster busts, Mrs. Collyer’s hope chests, rusty bed springs, a kerosene stove, a child’s chair, more than 25,000 books (including thousands about medicine and engineering and more than 2,500 on law), human organs pickled in jars, eight live cats, the chassis of an old Model T Ford, tapestries, hundreds of yards of unused silks and fabric, clocks, 14 pianos (both grand and upright), a clavichord, two organs, banjos, violins, bugles, accordions, a gramophone and records, and countless bundles of newspapers and magazines. Finally: There was also a great deal of rubbish. A Time Magazine obituary from April 1947 said of the Collyer brothers: “They were shy men, and showed little inclination to brave the noisy world.” In a final ironic twist of kippleisation, the brothers themselves became mere examples within the system of clutter they had amassed. Langley especially had hoarded himself to death. His body, gnawed by rats, was hardly distinguishable from the kipple that fell on top of it. The noisy world had been replaced by the noise of the hoard: a collection so impossible to conceive, to cleave, to order, that it had dissolved once more to pure, featureless kipple. Many hoarders achieve a similar fate to the Collyer brothers: their clutter eventually wiping them out in one final collapse of systemic disorder. To finish, I want to return briefly to Philip K. Dick. In the 1960s, fuelled by amphetamines and a debilitating paranoia, Dick wrote 24 novels, and hundreds of short stories, the duds and the classics mashed together into an indistinguishable hoard. UBIK, published in 1966, tells of a world which is itself degrading. Objects regress to previous forms, 3D televisions turn into black and white tube-sets, then stuttering reel-to-reel projections; credit cards slowly change into handfuls of rusted coins, impressed with the faces of Presidents long since deceased. Turning his back for a few minutes a character’s hover vehicle has degraded to become a bi-propeller airplane. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, a stand-out novel from 1965, begins with this memo, “dictated by Leo Bulero immediately on his return from Mars”: “I mean, after all; you have to consider we’re only made out of dust. That’s admittedly not much to go on and we shouldn’t forget that. But even considering, I mean it’s a sort of bad beginning, we’re not doing too bad. So I personally have faith that even in this lousy situation we’re faced with we can make it. You get me?”

Sun, 31 Jul 2011 10:28:32 -0700
<![CDATA[The Neolithic Age is over!]]>

Michel Serres: We are in the middle of an extraordinary human and environmental transformation, without really being aware of it, one that can only perhaps be compared with the Renaissance, the fifth century BC, and even the Neolithic age. For example, if there are no more peasants today, when did peasantry ­begin? In the Neolithic age. We can now say that in the year 2000, the Neolithic age is over. But who announced this in the news­papers? We didn’t read in any paper that “the Neolithic age is over”!

And we are equipped in our thinking for this change?

No. What we see are many turning points – physical, environmental, agricul­tural, medical, demographic, etc. All these events are profoundly significant; they touch human life and human behavior, the space around us. In 1800, eight per cent of the population lived in cities, meaning that prior to that, the number was even smaller. Today, 50 to 70 percent of the population is urban. 

Tue, 12 Jul 2011 01:36:11 -0700
<![CDATA[Michel Serres, The Birth of Physics]]>

“Nothing new under the reign of the same and under the same reign, preserved. Nothing new and nothing to be born, no nature. This is death, eternally. Nature put to death, its birth unwanted. The science of this is nothing. It is calculably nothing. Stable, immutable, redundant. It recopies the same writings, with the same atom-letters. The law is the plague. Reason is the fall. The reiterated cause is death. Repetition is redundancy. And identity is death. Every­thing falls to zero: the nullity of information, the emptiness of knowledge, non-existence. The same is Non-Being.” - The Birth of Physics by Michel Serres

Thu, 07 Jul 2011 12:03:00 -0700
<![CDATA["If living beings disturb the order of the world, then this literally means that living beings are primarily turbulence." - Michel Serres]]> ]]> Thu, 07 Jul 2011 07:08:06 -0700 <![CDATA[Michel Serres on the word 'human']]>

Son of a barge man, Michel Serres joined the Ecole Navale in 1949 and the Ecole Normale supérieure in 1952 where he obtained the aggregation of philosophy in 1955. From 1956 to 1958, he served as an officer of the navy: squadron of the Atlantic, reopening of the Suez Canal, Algeria, and squadron of the Mediterranean Sea.   Michel Serres defended his thesis in 1968 and taught philosophy in Clermont-Ferrand, Vincennes (Paris I) and at Standford University. In his books, he focuses, among other themes, on the history of sciences (“Hermes”, 1969-1980). His philosophy, concerning as much sensibility as conceptual intelligence, searches for the possible junctions between exact sciences and social sciences.    He has been appointed to the Académie Française in 1990 and became commandeur of the Légion d’honneur.   Rigorous epistemologist, he is also concerned by education and diffusion of knowledge. 

Wed, 06 Jul 2011 15:15:38 -0700
<![CDATA[Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time: Michel Serres Interviewed by Bruno Latour (Studies in Literature &… by Michel Serres]]>

The University of Michigan Press (1995), Paperback, 216 pages

Mon, 16 Aug 2010 03:44:01 -0700
<![CDATA[Parasite (PostHumanities) by Michel Serres]]>

University of Minnesota Press (2007), Edition: 1st University of Minnesota Press Ed, Paperback, 288 pages

Mon, 16 Aug 2010 03:34:19 -0700
<![CDATA[The Opposition Paradigm (Together Again for the First Time)]]>

figure i : he stands opposite his rivals

Clegg, Cameron, Brown : Brown's Last Prime Minister's Questions

You are the only one who can never see yourself apart from your image. In the reflection of a mirror, or the pigment of the photograph you entertain yourself. Every gaze you cast is mediated by a looking apparatus, by an image you must stand alongside. The gaze welcomes itself as a guest. The eye orders you to sit at its table, to share in the feast of one's own image. The image stands beside the real, all the while eating at its table, stealing morsels from the feast it enables. The image is not reality, but the image is the only gesture you have in the direction of reality.

From the Greek pará-noos, he who suffers from paranoia has a mind beside itself. He is convinced that his partner conspires against him: a belief in turn organised by a conspiring mentality. I am confident that you are reading my mind: a position founded by my supposed reading of yours. The paranoid stand beside themselves; a part beside itself as part, conspiring against the whole. Paranoia is a kind of paradox, from the Greek pará-doxon, it stands beside the orthodox.

figure ii : he is beside himself

Clegg, Cameron, Brown : The First Ever UK Election Television Debate

From the Greek pará-sītos, the parasite is a figure who feeds beside, an uninvited guest who eats at the host's table nonetheless. I display my feast openly, in order that my status be established to the community I consider myself a part. The world outside never ceases at its attempt to gain access to my table. Here I consider to offer them a seat, to share my feast. Here I cast a hand skyward, signalling my absolute negation of their status as a guest. The boundary between my feast and theirs is drawn. As the host I set the conditions under which my body stands beside. My body is entire, but it is also part. I stand beside my community, a conglomerate of bodies, each themselves parts of a greater whole.

The parasite inhabits the host, breaching the boundary of the body in order to organise a new ecosystem around their own, distinct, metabolism. The parasite feeds on the body of its host. Some parasites alter their host's body chemistry, perhaps affecting a biological shift from male to female, from alpha to drone, so that the parasite's offspring have a better chance at survival. In order that the parasite enter the next stage in its life-cycle, it is often unimportant that the host survives.

figure iii : his faithful companion is always at his side

Clegg, Cameron : A New Politics?Brown : Resigns Himself

From the Greek pará-digme, the paradigm is literally "what shows itself beside". Parasite, paranoid, paradox constitute a class of forms, standing beside one another, each in relation to the whole. They constitute a paradigm that organises the manner of their know-ability. To overturn the paradigm, one must stand beside it, constituting a reordering of knowing from the outside in.

These are the figures set beside each other: the host and the guest; the mind and its image; the belief as its own antithesis. But these are also a series of relations, figured by a paradigm. It may well seem natural to consider the host and the guest, the mind and its image – indeed the words come in pairs, set side by side on the printed page, or expressed as isolated figures of breath by the speaking subject. Once a relation is figured it becomes difficult to consider the isolated, the individual in opposition. After all, biological evolution has shown countless times, again and again, that an uninvited guest can become an accomplice; that a parasitic burden can become a treasured constituent of one's own body. Parasitism is often indistinguishable from symbiosis. Buddhism teaches that the greatest oneness can only come when the division between mind and self-image has been obliterated. To defuse one's paranoia, it is necessary to stand outside oneself, to places one's state of mind beside itself as paradox, to break the condition of division.

Welcoming the parasite to your table requires you to see your body as their body. At the feast we coalesce, my guest and I. Overturning our differences through the manner of their know-ability. True symbiosis stands beside invitation. True symbiosis is a politics aware of its own difference; a paradigm shown beside itself (together again for the first time).

figure iv : some of the things read (side by side)

by Daniel Rourke
Sun, 16 May 2010 21:15:00 -0700
<![CDATA[Communicating the Body \ Interpreting the Code]]>
by Daniel Rourke

Pharaoh Khufu intends to secure his riches beyond the grave, and into the afterlife. He captures the greatest architect known in his kingdom, and forces him – through a threat to his entire people – to build him an impenetrable tomb: a Pyramid no thief can plunder. The architect sets to work, knowing that upon completion of the tomb he himself will be sealed inside with the dead Pharaoh. How is it possible to build the most secret catacomb, a labyrinth impossible to breach, without passing on its secret through the workers who build it?

Frame from 'Land of the Pharaohs'In the classic Hollywood film, Land of the Pharaohs, such a conundrum is posed. The architect needs a team of workers that Khufu can trust, to construct the mechanism by which the tomb will close itself off to eternity. The Pharaoh has the solution: the workers he gives the architect have had their tongues cut out. In exchange for their devotion the slaves will accompany the architect and Khufu to the afterlife. No secret will pass their lips.

How do we pass on a message in a world with impenetrable borders? And in turn, how do we determine its secure transmission? The codes we devise become useless at certain horizons: if the slave cannot speak, he cannot exchange; if a being from another land does not know our language, it cannot understand us; if a message is encrypted, one must also pass on the method to crack it.

Sometimes the codes we devise to enslave, become apparatus in their own demise...

The tongue-less slave is still a liability in a literate society; in turn, a literate slave is a still liability in a digitised society. At every stage in the development of communication technologies human subjects have been relinquished power of one kind, only for a power of another kind to evolve and liberate them once again. The human body is the central locality for all information exchange. Even today, with our writing technologies, our radios, computers and nano-particles, it is the human form that dictates all particulars of scale and substance. What matters now is not the tongue – an organ reduced of its power by hieroglyphics and alphabets – yet in order to silence, corrupt regimes and over-zealous governments still effectively mutilate their subjects. In the West, information monoliths such as Google and Wikipedia help us mediate the space between discrete, complex reams of data. It is as if, in the modern age, to spite its people all China needed to do was cut off the equivalent of their tongue, building up around them a labyrinthine firewall that determines their silence; that reduces their identities to the status of tongueless slaves.

Sometimes to properly conceal something, one must devise a better way to encode it...

Page Du Bois, in her book, Torture and Truth, posits the human body as the primary node of information exchange. She recounts a tale in Herodotus' Histories. Histiaeus shaves the head of his most trusted slave and tattoos on his scalp a message urging his alley to revolt. Once the slave's hair grows back he is sent on his mission. If captured he is incapable of betraying his master: he does not know the message, nor could he understand it if he saw it. He merely knows to tell the receiver to shave his head upon arrival, a fact that would be hidden from any third party who attempted to intercept the message. This one extra layer of protection is an act of encoding; a slight of hand in the trick of communication. The slave is the medium of transmission: his knowledge is the code necessary to decrypt the message, rather than the message itself.

During the time of Histiaeus the human body was the focal point of most human action. We hunted, or worked the land by man power. We conversed, exchanged, delineated and deranged our culture with the hand, the tongue, the eye – all within the small horizon of the single human form. We worked in man-power before horse-power, steam-power before nuclear-power – each shift delineating a phase transition in information states – there can be no Chief without a Chiefdom; no King without a Kingdom. If I was the master of the tattooed slave (let's not believe for too long that this is my wish) I would extend Histiaeus' coding trick even further: sending the message on the scalp of a slave whose whole body has been tattooed, allowing the hair to grow over the part of his body where the true message lies. In any system of exchange, noise has the greatest power to conceal - whether intentionally or not. Making full use of the medium of transmission is the mark of a truly uncrackable system.

But as the distribution of our information systems grows wider – from the tongue, through the quill, to the printing press, and the internet – the importance of the body as a foundation for action remains. What method of distribution would we use to communicate with an intelligence completely alien to our own? Waggling your tongue at them may express a desire to communicate, but it would not transmit your message. Handing them a printed and bound book, perhaps replete with pictures, photographs and diagrams, might spark their interest for a moment, but no deep understanding between you would emerge. At present, organisations like SETI rely on very simple repeated patterns in their broadcasts to the stars. But a sequence of well timed dots and dashes can only express the existence of an intelligence - it is incapable of delivering a particular message. SETI broadcast these simple sequences because if any alien race were to intercept our messages they would, by definition, be incapable of interpreting the message from the code, or the code from the background noise inherent in our transmission. How do you determine what a tongue is trying to express if you don't even know what a tongue is?

Sometimes the method chosen to encode something, determines the impossibility of its comprehension...

In 1972 NASA launched the Pioneer 10 probe into space. Its objective was to study “the interplanetary and planetary magnetic fields... the atmosphere of Jupiter and some of its satellites,” subjects that required a distant communication hub – a device cast further from the human body than any before it.

After plotting its proposed trajectory through our solar system NASA researchers noted that in a matter of a few decades Pioneer 10 would become the first man-made object to pass the orbit of Pluto. It was decided that to make symbolic use of this opportunity the probe should be fitted with a message: a way for an extra terrestrial civilisation to retrace Pioneer's steps if ever one were to come across it. The resulting golden plaque, now streaming through the outer Oort Cloud of our solar system, is one of the most anthropocentric objects ever created. As art historian Ernst Gombrich noted a few years after its launch, the multiple scales and symbolic indicators etched onto the plaque would be almost impossible for a true 'alien' intelligence to decode. Alien minds encased in alien bodies wouldn't even be able to separate the code from the message:

Pioneer 10 plaque (Ernst Gombrich)“Reading an image, like the reception of any other message, is dependent on prior knowledge of possibilities; we can only recognise what we know. Even the sight of the awkward naked figures in the illustration cannot be separated in our mind from our knowledge. We know that feet are for standing and eyes are for looking and we project this knowledge onto these configurations, which would look 'like nothing on earth' without this prior information. It is this information alone that enables us to separate the code from the message; we see which of the lines are intended as contours and which are intended as conventional modelling. Our 'scientifically educated' fellow creatures in space might be forgiven if they saw the figures as wire constructs with loose bits and pieces hovering weightlessly in between. Even if they deciphered this aspect of the code, what would they make of the woman's right arm that tapers off like a flamingo's neck and beak? The creatures are 'drawn to scale against the outline of the spacecraft,' but if the recipients are supposed to understand foreshortening, they might also expect to see perspective and conceive the craft as being further back, which would make the scale of the manikins minute. As for the fact that 'the man has his right hand raised in greeting' (the female of the species presumably being less outgoing), not even an earthly Chinese or Indian would be able to correctly interpret this gesture from his own repertory.”

Ernst Gombrich, Art and Illusion

In communication terms sharing the same kind of body is identical to living the same kind of code. Communication needs at least two parties, it needs a message, and more likely than not it needs a medium of transmission. At all points on this schema there is the potential for corruption, for noise to seep into the system. But lest we forget that without the same binary matrix, no computer would be able to interpret any other. The body too is a coding matrix. It represents a shared scale, it is composed of the same states of matter and bound within each of its cells one will find very similar coiled structures of DNA, encoding the sequences that determine each body's shape, status and character. On Earth the bodies that result from these codes are incredibly similar, whether what results is a fruit fly, a horse or a human. We are slaves to these codes. And everything we intend to say, everything we fail to say, everything that our masters try to restrict us from saying, exists as a consequence of the bodies that compose us.

Sometimes the message only lasts as long as the system it upholds...

The architect and the silenced slaves make their way to the centre of the Great Pyramid, carrying the body of Pharaoh Khufu as they descend. As the labyrinth clamps shut behind them – a code designed to wipe out all evidence of itself as the catacombs collapse – one question looms large: what exactly were the riches the architect and his companions worked so hard to protect?

"At the extreme limits of empiricism meaning is totally plunged into noise, the space of communication is granular, dialogue is condemned to cacophony: the transmission of communication is chronic transformation."

Michel Serres, Hermes: Literature, Science and Philosophy

by Daniel Rourke
Sun, 18 Apr 2010 21:21:00 -0700
<![CDATA[System of Enthalpy]]>

Rooted in our language is a bias. It’s a bias that we can hardly be blamed for, based as it is in our conception of ourselves as distinct entities whose existence can be felt, from one moment to the next, through time. Nature appears to move ‘forwards’, the ice-cube melts if left unattended, the scream in the night dissipates into silence. For very similar reasons we see society as a progressive entity. The 19th Century, Positivist appeal to a human reality that moves towards an ultimate goal still lingers in our rational arguments, in our science, in our humanist rhetoric. Again, we see technology as endlessly progressive. The tractor is fundamentally better than the plough, the internet trounces the telephone; the mailed envelope; the scream in the dark night. But forwards is not the only way that things can move. Most days I head to the British Library and pick up my pile of books from the counter. At the moment half of them are about ‘play’, about the systems of rules that mediate human games and what the order of games can tell us about human social activity. The other half of my book pile is made up of works of philosophy written in the last 30 years. Works by Deleuze, Serres, Agamben and Foucault. Their work speaks to me in a non-progressive way. Deleuze and Serres especially expound systems of thinking that grow like a supernovae or a colony of slime mould. From one perspective the supernovae is a system destined to implode, its central core rebounding the slew of material manufactured in the star’s long lifetime, out and into the wider cosmos. A slime mould, similarly, appears to be a system destined to grow, procreate and expand its genetic impact on the world. Both of these systems though can be better understood if we take them out of their human perceived, progressive contexts. To really grasp the supernovae one must understand the laws that govern its cycle of energy ebb and bloom. The same laws that govern the life cycle of the slime-mould. Thermo dynamics and the transitional principles that underlie physical systems – as seeming chaos bifurcates into autopoietic order. How these principles underlie the philosophy of Deleuze and Serres is difficult to summarise here, and also dangerous. I am still a novice when it comes to their theoretical paradigms. What can be said though is that their principles are non-progressive, non-positivistic. The order they see in social systems, in cultural artefacts and metaphysical constructions is better understood as order determined by thresholds rather than historical movements, by the flow of information between systems, rather than the inevitable consequences of scientific and social orders. At present I am working through the vague notion that our systems of symbolic communication would be better understood through their non-linear logics. That sacrifice and sacrament, scribe and inscription, digital code and malleable media are each a series of complexity thresholds in a grand order of semiotics that has been growing and blooming, shrinking and decaying in time with the ebb and flow of human culture and technology. I write this here as an annotation on things to come (on my website). It is not a delineated path of enquiry. It is merely a structure I intend to topographically identify, map and encourage. Here’s to Gilles Deleuze and Michel Serres, as well as some other names I will label their accomplices, such as Giorgio Agamben, Manuel de Landa, Lev Manovich and a whole heap more.

Fri, 26 Mar 2010 09:46:47 -0700
<![CDATA[De-constructing 'code' (picking apart its assumptions)]]>

De-constructing 'code': I am looking for philosophical (from W. Benjamin through to post-structuralism and beyond) examinations of 'code'. That both includes the assumptions contained in the word 'code' and any actual objects or subjects that code is connected to - including, but not limited to: computer programming, cyphers, linguistics, genetics etc. I am looking to question the assumptions of 'code'. Perhaps a specific example of a theorist de-constructing the term.

I am currently knee deep in an examination of certain practices and assumptions that have arisen from digital media/medium and digital practice (art and making in the era of data packets and compression-artefacts for example). Through my analysis I wish to investigate the paradigms of text and writing practice (the making of textual arts).

A simple analogy to this process would be looking at dialectic cultures (speech based) from the perspective/hindsight of a grapholectic culture (writing/print based). In a similar way, I want to examine writing, film and their making with the hindsight of digital paradigms.

I am aware of the works of Deleuze, Derrida, Barthes, Genette, Ong, Serres, Agamben etc. but any of their works that deal specifically with 'code' would be very very useful.

I look forward to any pointers you can give me

Tue, 02 Feb 2010 06:35:00 -0800
<![CDATA[The Movement of The Middle]]>
Words, bread, and wine are between us, beings or relations. We appear to exchange them between us though we are connected at the same table or with the same language. They are breast-fed by the same mother. Parasitic exchange, crossed between the logical and the material, can now be explained... Do we ever eat anything else together than the flesh of the word?
Mediations, relations - one can make believe one is lost in this fractal cascade... Everything has changed; nothing is constant; the chain has been mutilated beyond all possible recognition of the message. Victory is in the hands of the powers of noise... History in general as it is written or told is a network of bifurcations where parasites move about.

Michel Serres, The Parasite (1982)

The middle is a fold, an anchor, a point of departure. The middle signifies the tipping point between absence and presence, between stability and chaos. But the middle is also an incidence of movement, where objects and concepts are transformed or moved beyond, where a page is being turned or an eye follows its horizon.

Pairs of virtual particles bubble up from space-time at every point. A particle and its antithesis emerge, meet and cancel each other out. The event horizon of the black-hole acts as a middle point between particle and anti-particle, between virtual and absolute. One particle teeters over the precipice, and descends into the deep swell of the black-hole. The other, sitting just as precariously on the brink of space, bounds outwards to escape as baryonic matter.

The middle relates the one to the other, pivoting knowledge around its object, folding theory into practice. We do not move in a straight line from cause to effect, from language to meaning, rather we always sit on an imaginary horizon, which itself moves through a network of possible middles. Language does not relate directly to the world of subjects and objects, instead it lies between them, feeding half the world of one into half the world of the other. The middle is not a barrier/a border between: the middle moves, casting real music on a virtual breeze.

Tue, 30 Jun 2009 09:05:00 -0700
<![CDATA[Michel Serres's Milieux]]>

Mediation means that which stands, comes or moves between things otherwise separated or opposed. Serres’s work has never ceased to meditate upon mediation in every possible sense: as arbitration; moderation; mediocrity; passage; communication; combination; exchange; translation; transformation; substitution; surrogacy. Serres is fond of representing himself as a cross-over, an intermediary between worlds: a ‘middler’, to awaken from its sleep for a second a sixteenth-century word. More than a compendium or encyclopaedia of such forms, his work can be regarded as a kind of self-inventing machine for mediating between mediations.

Tue, 23 Jun 2009 14:38:00 -0700
<![CDATA[The Next Great Discontinuity: The Data Deluge]]>

Speed is the elegance of thought, which mocks stupidity, heavy and slow. Intelligence thinks and says the unexpected; it moves with the fly, with its flight. A fool is defined by predictability… But if life is brief, luckily, thought travels as fast as the speed of light. In earlier times philosophers used the metaphor of light to express the clarity of thought; I would like to use it to express not only brilliance and purity but also speed. In this sense we are inventing right now a new Age of Enlightenment… A lot of… incomprehension… comes simply from this speed. I am fairly glad to be living in the information age, since in it speed becomes once again a fundamental category of intelligence. Michel Serres, Conversations on Science, Culture and Time

(Originally published at 3quarksdaily · Link to Part One) Human beings are often described as the great imitators: We perceive the ant and the termite as part of nature. Their nests and mounds grow out of the Earth. Their actions are indicative of a hidden pattern being woven by natural forces from which we are separated. The termite mound is natural, and we, the eternal outsiders, sitting in our cottages, our apartments and our skyscrapers, are somehow not. Through religion, poetry, or the swift skill of the craftsman smearing pigment onto canvas, humans aim to encapsulate that quality of existence that defies simple description. The best art, or so it is said, brings us closer to attaining a higher truth about the world that remains elusive from language, that perhaps the termite itself embodies as part of its nature. Termite mounds are beautiful, but were built without a concept of beauty. Termite mounds are mathematically precise, yet crawling through their intricate catacombs cannot be found one termite in comprehension of even the simplest mathematical constituent. In short, humans imitate and termites merely are. This extraordinary idea is partly responsible for what I referred to in Part One of this article as The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness. It leads us to consider not only the human organism as distinct from its surroundings, but it also forces us to separate human nature from its material artefacts. We understand the termite mound as integral to termite nature, but are quick to distinguish the axe, the wheel, the book, the skyscraper and the computer network from the human nature that bore them. When we act, through art, religion or with the rational structures of science, to interface with the world our imitative (mimetic) capacity has both subjective and objective consequence. Our revelations, our ideas, stories and models have life only insofar as they have a material to become invested through. The religion of the dance, the stone circle and the summer solstice is mimetically different to the religion of the sermon and the scripture because the way it interfaces with the world is different. Likewise, it is only with the consistency of written and printed language that the technical arts could become science, and through which our ‘modern’ era could be built. Dances and stone circles relayed mythic thinking structures, singular, imminent and ethereal in their explanatory capacities. The truth revealed by the stone circle was present at the interface between participant, ceremony and summer solstice: a synchronic truth of absolute presence in the moment. Anyone reading this will find truth and meaning through grapholectic interface. Our thinking is linear, reductive and bound to the page. It is reliant on a diachronic temporality that the pen, the page and the book hold in stasis for us. Imitation alters the material world, which in turn affects the texture of further imitation. If we remove the process from its material interface we lose our objectivity. In doing so we isolate the single termite from its mound and, after much careful study, announce that we have reduced termite nature to its simplest constituent. The reason for the tantalizing involutions here is obviously that intelligence is relentlessly reflexive, so that even the external tools that it uses to implement its workings become ‘internalized’, that is, part of its own reflexive process… To say writing is artificial is not to condemn it but to praise it. Like other artificial creations and indeed more than any other, it is utterly invaluable and indeed essential for the realisation of fuller, interior, human potentials. Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word. Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy

Anyone reading this article cannot fail but be aware of the changing interface between eye and text that has taken place over the past two decades or so. New Media – everything from the internet database to the Blackberry – has fundamentally changed the way we connect with each other, but it has also altered the way we connect with information itself. The linear, diachronic substance of the page and the book have given way to a dynamic textuality blurring the divide between authorship and readership, expert testament and the simple accumulation of experience. The main difference between traditional text-based systems and newer, data-driven ones is quite simple: it is the interface. Eyes and fingers manipulate the book, turning over pages in a linear sequence in order to access the information stored in its printed figures. For New Media, for the digital archive and the computer storage network, the same information is stored sequentially in databases which are themselves hidden to the eye. To access them one must commit a search or otherwise run an algorithm that mediates the stored data for us. The most important distinction should be made at the level of the interface, because, although the database as a form has changed little over the past 50 years of computing, the Human Control Interfaces (HCI) we access and manipulate that data through are always passing from one iteration to another. Stone circles interfacing the seasons stayed the same, perhaps being used in similar rituals over the course of a thousand years of human cultural accumulation. Books, interfacing text, language and thought, stay the same in themselves from one print edition to the next, but as a format, books have changed very little in the few hundred years since the printing press. The computer HCI is most different from the book in that change is integral to it structure. To touch a database through a computer terminal, through a Blackberry or iPhone, is to play with data at incredible speed: Sixty years ago, digital computers made information readable. Twenty years ago, the Internet made it reachable. Ten years ago, the first search engine crawlers made it a single database. Now Google and like-minded companies are sifting through the most measured age in history, treating this massive corpus as a laboratory of the human condition… Kilobytes were stored on floppy disks. Megabytes were stored on hard disks. Terabytes were stored in disk arrays. Petabytes are stored in the cloud. As we moved along that progression, we went from the folder analogy to the file cabinet analogy to the library analogy to — well, at petabytes we ran out of organizational analogies. At the petabyte scale, information is not a matter of simple three- and four-dimensional taxonomy and order but of dimensionally agnostic statistics… This is a world where massive amounts of data and applied mathematics replace every other tool that might be brought to bear. Out with every theory of human behavior, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity. With enough data, the numbers speak for themselves. Wired Magazine, The End of Theory, June 2008

And as the amount of data has expanded exponentially, so have the interfaces we use to access that data and the models we build to understand that data. On the day that Senator John McCain announced his Vice Presidential Candidate the best place to go for an accurate profile of Sarah Palin was not the traditional media: it was Wikipedia. In an age of instant, global news, no newspaper could keep up with the knowledge of the cloud. The Wikipedia interface allowed knowledge about Sarah Palin from all levels of society to be filtered quickly and efficiently in real-time. Wikipedia acted as if it was encyclopaedia, as newspaper as discussion group and expert all at the same time and it did so completely democratically and at the absence of a traditional management pyramid. The interface itself became the thinking mechanism of the day, as if the notes every reader scribbled in the margins had been instantly cross-checked and added to the content. In only a handful of years the human has gone from merely dipping into the database to becoming an active component in a human-cloud of data. The interface has begun to reflect back upon us, turning each of us into a node in a vast database bigger than any previous material object. Gone are the days when clusters of galaxies had to a catalogued by an expert and entered into a linear taxonomy. Now, the same job is done by the crowd and the interface, allowing a million galaxies to be catalogued by amateurs in the same time it would have taken a team of experts to classify a tiny percentage of the same amount. This method of data mining is called ‘crowdsourcing’ and it represents one of the dominant ways in which raw data will be turned into information (and then knowledge) over the coming decades. Here the cloud serves as more than a metaphor for the group-driven interface, becoming a telling analogy for the trans-grapholectic culture we now find ourselves in. To grasp the topological shift in our thought patterns it pays to move beyond the interface and look at a few of the linear, grapholectic models that have undergone change as a consequence of the information age. One of these models is evolution, a biological theory the significance of which we are still in the process of discerning:

If anyone now thinks that biology is sorted, they are going to be proved wrong too. The more that genomics, bioinformatics and many other newer disciplines reveal about life, the more obvious it becomes that our present understanding is not up to the job. We now gaze on a biological world of mind-boggling complexity that exposes the shortcomings of familiar, tidy concepts such as species, gene and organism. A particularly pertinent example [was recently provided in New Scientist] - the uprooting of the tree of life which Darwin used as an organising principle and which has been a central tenet of biology ever since. Most biologists now accept that the tree is not a fact of nature - it is something we impose on nature in an attempt to make the task of understanding it more tractable. Other important bits of biology - notably development, ageing and sex - are similarly turning out to be much more involved than we ever imagined. As evolutionary biologist Michael Rose at the University of California, Irvine, told us: “The complexity of biology is comparable to quantum mechanics.” New Scientist, Editorial, January 2009

As our technologies became capable of gathering more data than we were capable of comprehending, a new topology of thought, reminiscent of the computer network, began to emerge. For the mindset of the page and the book science could afford to be linear and diachronic. In the era of The Data Deluge science has become more cloud-like, as theories for everything from genetics to neuroscience, particle physics to cosmology have shed their linear constraints. Instead of seeing life as a branching tree, biologists are now speaking of webs of life, where lineages can intersect and interact, where entire species are ecological systems in themselves. As well as seeing the mind as an emergent property of the material brain, neuroscience and philosophy have started to consider the mind as manifest in our extended, material environment. Science has exploded, and picking up the pieces will do no good. Through the topology of the network we have begun to perceive what Michel Serres calls ‘The World Object’, an ecology of interconnections and interactions that transcends and subsumes the causal links propounded by grapholectic culture. At the limits of science a new methodology is emerging at the level of the interface, where masses of data are mined and modelled by systems and/or crowds which themselves require no individual understanding to function efficiently. Where once we studied events and ideas in isolation we now devise ever more complex, multi-dimensional ways for those events and ideas to interconnect; for data sources to swap inputs and output; for outsiders to become insiders. Our interfaces are in constant motion, on trajectories that curve around to meet themselves, diverge and cross-pollinate. Thought has finally been freed from temporal constraint, allowing us to see the physical world, life, language and culture as multi-dimensional, fractal patterns, winding the great yarn of (human) reality: The advantage that results from it is a new organisation of knowledge; the whole landscape is changed. In philosophy, in which elements are even more distanced from one another, this method at first appears strange, for it brings together the most disparate things. People quickly crit[cize] me for this… But these critics and I no longer have the same landscape in view, the same overview of proximities and distances. With each profound transformation of knowledge come these upheavals in perception. Michel Serres, Conversations on Science, Culture and Time

Tue, 05 May 2009 07:35:00 -0700
<![CDATA[The Next Great Discontinuity: Part One]]>

Grapholectic Thought and The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness (Originally published at 3quarksdaily · Link to Part Two) “There are things,” Christoph Martin Wieland… contended, “which by their very nature are so dependent upon human caprice that they either exist or do not exist as soon as we desire that they should or should not exist.”…We are, at the very least, reminded that seeing is a talent that needs to be cultivated, as John Berger saliently argued in his popular Ways of Seeing (1972) “…perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world.” John A. Mccarthy, Remapping Reality

From the Greco-Roman period onwards humans have perceived themselves at the centre of a grand circle:

The circle is physical: a heliocentric vision of the cosmos, where the Earth travels around the sun. The circle is biological: an order of nature, perhaps orchestrated by a benign creator, where the animals and plants exist to satisfy the needs of mankind. And according to Sigmund Freud, in his Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, the circle is psychological: where a central engine of reason rules over the chaos of passion and emotion.

The history of science maintains that progress – should one be comfortable in using such a term – contracted these perceptual loops. Indeed it was Freud himself, (the modest pivot of his own solar-system) who suggested that through the Copernican, Darwinian and Freudian “revolutions” mankind had transcended these “three great discontinuities” of thought and, “[uttered a] call to introspection”. If one were to speculate on the “great discontinuities” that followed, one might consider Albert Einstein’s relativistic model of space-time, or perhaps the work carried out by many “introspective” minds on quantum theory. Our position at the centre of the cosmos was offset by Copernicus; our position as a special kind of creature was demolished by Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. From Freud we inherited the capacity to see beneath the freedom of the individual; from Einstein and quantum theory we learnt to mistrust the mechanistic clock of space and time. From all we learnt, as John Berger so succinctly put it, that “…perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world.” Of course my mini-history of scientific revolution should not be taken itself as a “truth”. I draw it as a parable of progress, as one silken thread leading back through time’s circular labyrinth to my very own Ariadne. What I do maintain though, is that all great moves in human thought have come at the expense of a perceptual circle. That, if science, sociology, economics - or any modern system of knowledge - is to move beyond the constraints of its circle it must first decentre the “single eye”.

Scientific rational inquiry has revelled in the overturning of these “great discontinuities”, positioning each of them as a plotted point on the graph we understand as “progress”. We maintain, without any hint of irony, that we exist at the pinnacle of this irreversible line of diachronic time, that the further up the line we climb, the closer to “truth” we ascend. “…Reason is statistically distributed everywhere; no one can claim exclusive rights to it. [A] division… is [thus] echoed in the image, in the imaginary picture that one makes of time. Instead of condemning or excluding, one consigns a certain thing to antiquity, to archaism. One no longer says “false” but, rather, “out of date,” or “obsolete.” In earlier times people dreamed; now we think. Once people sang poetry; today we experiment efficiently. History is thus the projection of this very real exclusion into an imaginary, even imperialistic time. The temporal rupture is the equivalent of a dogmatic expulsion.” Michel Serres, Conversations on Science, Culture and Time

According to Michel Serres “time” is the common misconception that pollutes all our models. In the scientific tradition knowledge is located at the present: a summation of all inquiry that has lead up to this point. This notion is extraordinarily powerful in its reasoning power, bringing all previous data together in one great cataclysm of meaning. It has spawned its own species of cliché, the type where science ‘landed us on the moon’ or ‘was responsible for the extinction of smallpox’ or ‘increased the life expectancy of the third world’. These types of truths are necessary – you will not find me arguing against that – but they are also only one notion of what “truth” amounts to. And it is here perhaps where the circumference of yet another perceptual circle materialises from out of the mist. Progress and diachronic time are symbiotically united: the one being incapable of meaningful existence without the other. Our modern notion of “truth” denies all wisdom that cannot be plotted on a graph; that cannot be traced backwards through the recorded evidence or textual archive. Our modern conceptions are, what Walter J. Ong calls, the consequence of a ‘grapholectic’ culture – that is, one reliant on the technologies of writing and/or print. Science, as we understand it, could not have arisen without a system of memorisation and retrieval that extended beyond the limits of an oral culture. In turn, modern religious practices are as much a consequence of ‘the written word’ as they are ‘the word of God’. The “truth” of science is similar in kind to the ”truth” of modern religion. It is the “truth” of the page; of a diachronic, grapholectic culture – a difficult ”truth” to swallow for those who maintain that ’dogma’ is only a religous vice. Dialectic cultures – ones which are based in oral traditions – do not consider history and time in the same way as grapholectic cultures. To the dialectic, meaning is reliant on what one can personally or culturally remember, rather than on what the extended memory of the page can hold in storage. Thus the attribution of meaning emerges from the present, synchronic situation, rather than being reliant on the consequences of past observation: “Some decades ago among the Tiv people of Nigeria the genealogies actually used orally in settling court disputes have been found to diverge considerably from the genealogies carefully recorded in writing by the British forty years earlier (because of the importance then, too, in court disputes). The later Tiv have maintained that they were using the same genealogies as forty years earlier and that the earlier written record was wrong. What had happened was that the later genealogies had been adjusted to the changed social relations among the Tiv: they were the same in that they functioned in the same way to regulate the real world. The integrity of the past was subordinate to the integrity of the present.” Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy

In the oral culture “truth” must be rooted in systems that are not time-reliant. As Karen Armstrong has oft noted, “a myth was an event which in some sense had happened once, but which also happened all the time.” Before the written tradition was used to brand Religious inclinations onto the page the flavour of myth was understood as its most valuable “truth”, rather than its ingredients. The transcendence of Buddha, of Brahmā or Jesus is a parable of existence, and not a true fact garnered from evidence and passed down in the pages of a book. Meaning is not to be found in final “truths”, but in the questioning of contexts; in the deliberation of what constitutes the circle. If we forget this then we commit, what A. N. Whitehead called, the fallacy of misplaced concreteness: “This… consists in mistaking the abstract for the concrete. More specifically it involves setting up distinctions which disregard the genuine interconnections of things…. [The] fallacy occurs when one assumes that in expressing the space and time relations of a bit of matter it is unnecessary to say more than that it is present in a specific position in space at a specific time. It is Whitehead’s contention that it is absolutely essential to refer to other regions of space and other durations of time… [Another] general illustration of the fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness is… the notion that each real entity is absolutely separate and distinct from every other real entity, and that the qualities of each have no essential relation to the qualities of others.” A. H. Johnson, Whitehead’s Theory of Reality

Our error is to mistake grapholectic thought - thought maintained by writing and print - as the only kind of thought we are capable of. I predict that the next “great discontinuity” to be uncovered, the one that historians will look back upon as “the biggest shift in our understanding since Einstein”, will emerge not from the traditional laboratory, or from notions computed through the hazy-filters of written memory, but from our very notion of what it is for “events” to become “data” and for that data to become “knowledge”. The circle we now sit at the centre of, is one enclosed by the grapholectic perceptions we rely on to consider the circle in the first place. In order to shift it we will need a new method of transposing events that occur ‘outside’ the circle, into types of knowledge that have value ‘within’ the circle. This may sound crazy, even impossible in scope, but we may have already begun devising new ways for this kind of knowledge to reach us. Continued in… Part Two: The Data Deluge

Mon, 04 May 2009 07:17:00 -0700