Category Archives: critical code

New Book: Life in Code and Software: Mediated life in a complex computational ecology

Life in Code and Software (cover image by Michael Najjar)

New book out in 2012 on Open Humanities PressLife in Code and Software: Mediated life in a complex computational ecology. 

 

This book explores the relationship between living, code and software. Technologies of code and software increasingly make up an important part of our urban environment. Indeed, their reach stretches to even quite remote areas of the world. Life in Code and Software introduces and explores the way in which code and software are becoming the conditions of possibility for human living, crucially forming a computational ecology, made up of disparate software ecologies, that we inhabit. As such we need to take account of this new computational envornment and think about how today we live in a highly mediated, code-based world. That is, we live in a world where computational concepts and ideas are foundational, or ontological, which I call computationality, and within which, code and software become the paradigmatic forms of knowing and doing. Such that other candidates for this role, such as: air, the economy, evolution, the environment, satellites, etc., are understood and explained through computational concepts and categories.

 

 

 

The New Bifurcation? Object-Oriented Ontology and Computation

Alan Turing

There are now some interesting challenges emerging to the philosophical systems described in object-oriented ontology, such as Alex Galloway’s recent piece, ‘A response to Graham Harman’s “Marginalia on Radical Thinking”’ and Christian Thorne’s, ‘To The Political Ontologists‘, as well as my own contribution, ‘The Uses of Object-Oriented Ontology‘.

Here, I want to tentatively explore the links between my own notion of computationality as ontotheology and how object-oriented ontology unconsciously reproduces some of these structural features that I think are apparent in its ontological and theological moments. In order to do this, I want to begin outlining some of the ways one might expect the ‘ontological moment’, as it were, to be dominated by computational categories and ideas which seem to hold greater explanatory power. In this regard I think this recent tweet by Robert Jackson is extremely revealing,

Robert Jackson (@Recursive_idiot)

04/06/2012 13:34

I think this Galloway / OOO issue can be resolved with computability theory. Objects / units need not be compatible with the state.

Revealing, too, are the recent discussions by members of object-oriented ontology and the importance of the computational medium for facilitating its reproduction – see Levi Bryant’s post ‘The Materiality of SR/OOO: Why Has It Proliferated?‘, and Graham Harman’s post ‘on philosophical movements that develop on the internet‘.

It is interesting to note that these philosophers do not take account of the possibility that the computational medium itself may have transformed the way in which they understand the ontological dimension of their projects. Indeed, the taken-for-granted materiality of digital media is clearly being referred to in relation to a form of communication theory – as if the internet were merely a transparent transmission channel – rather than seeing the affordances of the medium encouraging, shaping, or creating certain ways of thinking about things, as such.

Of course, they might respond, clearly the speed and publishing affordances allow them to get their messages out quicker, correct them, and create faster feedback and feedforward loops. However, I would argue that the computational layers (software, applications, blogs, tweets, etc.) also discipline the user/writer/philosopher to think within and through particular computational categories. I think it is not a coincidence that what is perhaps the first internet or born-digital philosophy has certain overdetermined characteristics that reflect the medium within which they have emerged. I am not alone in making this observation, indeed, Alexander Galloway has started to examine the same question, writing,

[T]he French philosopher Catherine Malabou asks: “What should we do so that consciousness of the brain does not purely and simply coincide with the spirit of capitalism?”….Malabou’s query resonates far and wide because it cuts to the heart of what is wrong with some philosophical thinking appearing these days. The basic grievance is this: why, within the current renaissance of research in continental philosophy, is there a coincidence between the structure of ontological systems and the structure of the most highly-evolved technologies of postfordist capitalism? I am speaking, on the one hand, of computer networks in general, and object-oriented computer languages (such as Java or C++) in particular, and on the other hand, of certain realist philosophers such as Bruno Latour, but also more pointedly Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman, and their associated school known as “speculative realism.” Why do these philosophers, when holding up a mirror to nature, see the mode of production reflected back at them? Why, in short, a coincidence between today’s ontologies and the software of big business? (Galloway, forthcoming, original emphasis)

He further argues:

Philosophy and computer science are not unconnected. In fact they share an intimate connection, and have for some time. For example, set theory, topology, graph theory, cybernetics and general system theory are part of the intellectual lineage of both object-oriented computer languages, which inherit the principles of these scientific fields with great fidelity, and for recent continental philosophy including figures like Deleuze, Badiou, Luhmann, or Latour. Where does Deleuze’s “control society” come from if not from Norbert Wiener’s definition of cybernetics? Where do Latour’s “actants” come from if not from systems theory? Where does Levi Bryant’s “difference that makes a difference” come from if not from Gregory Bateson’s theory of information? (Galloway, forthcoming).

Ian Bogost’s (2012) Alien Phenomenology is perhaps the most obvious case where the links between his computational approach and his philosophical system are deeply entwined, objects, units, collections, lists, software philosophy, carpentry (as programming) etc. Indeed, Robert Jackson also discusses some of the links with computation, making connections between the notion of interfaces and encapsulation, and so forth, in object-oriented programming in relation to forms of object-orient ontology’s notion of withdrawal, etc. He writes,

Encapsulation is the notion that objects have both public and private logics inherent to their components. But we should be careful not to regard the notion that private information is deliberately hidden from view, it is rather the unconditional indifference of objects qua objects. Certain aspects of the object are made public and others are occluded by blocking off layers of data. The encapsulated data can still be related to, even if the object itself fails to reveal it (Jackson 2011).

This, he argues, serves as a paradigmatic example of the object-oriented ontologists’ speculations about objects as objects. Therefore, a research project around object-oriented computational systems would, presumably, allow us to cast light on wider questions about other kinds of objects, after all, objects are objects, in the flat ontology of object-oriented ontology. In contrast, I would argue that it is no surprise that object-oriented ontology and object-oriented programming have these deep similarities as they are drawing from the same computational imaginary, or foundational ideas, about what things are or how they are categorised in the world, in other words a computational ontotheology – computationality.

The next move is the step that Alex Galloway makes, to link this to the wider capitalist order, postfordist or informational capitalism (what I would call Late Capitalism). He then explores how this ideological superstructure is imposed onto a capitalist mode of production, both to legitimate and to explain its naturalness or inevitability. Galloway argues,

(1) If recent realist philosophy mimics the infrastructure of contemporary capitalism, should we not show it the door based on this fact alone, the assumption being that any mere repackaging of contemporary ideology is, by definition, anti-scientific and therefore suspect on epistemological grounds? And (2) even if one overlooks the epistemological shortcomings, should we not critique it on purely political grounds, the argument being that any philosophical project that seeks to ventriloquize the current industrial arrangement is, for this very reason, politically retrograde? (Galloway, forthcoming).

He further writes,

Granted, merely identifying a formal congruity is not damning in itself. There are any number of structures that “look like” other structures. And we must be vigilant not to fetishize form as some kind of divination–just as numerology fetishizes number. Nevertheless are we not obligated to interrogate such a congruity? Is such a mimetic relationship cause for concern? Meillassoux and others have recently mounted powerful critiques of “correlationism,” so why a blindness toward this more elemental correlation?… What should we do so that our understanding of the world does not purely and simply coincide with the spirit of capitalism? (Galloway, forthcoming, original emphasis).

Galloway concludes his article by making the important distinction between materialism and realism, pointing out that materialism must be historical and critical whereas realism tends towards an ahistoricism. By historicising object-oriented ontology, we are able to discern the links between the underlying computational capitalism and its theoretical and philosophical manifestations.

Chales Darwin

More work needs to be done here to trace the trajectories that are hinted at, particularly the computationality I see implicit in object-oriented ontology and speculative realism more generally. But I also want to tentatively gesture towards object-oriented ontology as one discourse contributing to a new bifurcation (as Whitehead referred to the nature/culture split). In this case, not between nature and culture, which today have begun to reconnect as dual hybridised sites of political contestation – for example, climate change – but rather as computation versus nature-culture.

Where nature-culture becomes a site of difference, disagreement, political relativism and a kind of ‘secondary’ quality, in other words ‘values’ and ‘felicity conditions’. Computationality, or some related ontological form, becomes the site of primary qualities or ‘facts’, the site of objectivity, and is foundational, ahistorical, unchanging and a replacement for nature in modernity as the site of agreement upon which a polity is made possible – a computational society.

Here, the abstract nature of objects within object-oriented programming, formal objects which inter-relate to each other and interact (or not), and yet remain deeply computational, mathematical and discrete is more than suggestive of the flat ontology that object-oriented ontology covets. The purification process of object-oriented design/programming is also illustrative of the gradual emptying of the universe of ‘non-objects’ by object-oriented ontology, which then serves to create ontological weight, and the possibility of shared consensus within this new bifurcated world. This creates a united foundation, understood as ontological, a site of objectivity, facts, and with a strict border control to prevent this pure realm being affected by the newly excised nature-culture. Within this new bifurcation, we see pure objects placed in the bifurcated object-space and subjects are located in the nature-culture space – this is demonstrated by the empty litanies that object-oriented ontologists share and which describe abstract objects, not concrete entities. This is clearly ironic in a philosophical movement that claims to be wholly realist and displays again the anti-correlationist paradox of object-oriented ontology.

This ontological directive also points thought towards the cartography of pure objects, propositions on the nature of ‘angels’, ‘Popeye’ and ‘unicorns’, and commentary on commentary in a scholastic vortex through textual attempts to capture and describe this abstract sphere – without ever venturing into the ‘great outdoors’ that object-oriented ontologists claim to respect. What could be closer to the experience of contemporary capitalist experience than the digital mazes that are set up by the likes of Facebook and Google, to trap the user into promises of entertainment and fulfilment by moving deeper and deeper around the social ontologies represented in capitalist social networks, and which ultimately resolve in watching advertisements to fuel computational capitalism?

Galloway rightly shows us how to break this spell, reflected also in the object-oriented ontologists refusal to historicise, through a concrete analysis of the historical and material conditions of production, he writes:

One might therefore label this the postfordist response to philosophical realism in general and Meillassoux in particular: after software has entered history, math cannot and should not be understood ahistorically… math itself, as algorithm, has become a historical actor. (Galloway, forthcoming, original emphasis).

Bibliography

Bogost, I. (2012a) Alien Phenomenology: or What It’s Like To Be A Thing, Minnesota University Press.

Galloway, A. R. (forthcoming) The Poverty of Philosophy: Realism and Postfordism, copy supplied by the author.

Jackson, R. (2011) Why we should be Discrete in Public – Encapsulation and the Private lives of Objects, accessed 04/06/2012, http://robertjackson.info/index/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Aarhus-presentation.pdf

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The Uses of Object-Oriented Ontology

Object-oriented ontologists 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 object-oriented ontology, therefore, I think that they are actually undertaking object-oriented onticology. 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 (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, 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 ontology 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: Bogost’s (2012) Alien Phenomenology Litanies [5]

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 ‘male’ 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] 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

Anderson, P. (2012) The Force of the Anomaly, The London Review of Books, April 26th 2012.

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

Bogost, I. (2009b) Object-Oriented P*, accessed 23/05/2012, http://www.bogost.com/blog/objectoriented_p.shtml

Bogost, I. (2011) Writing Book People Want To Read: Or How To Stake Vampire Publishing, accessed 23/05/2012, http://www.bogost.com/blog/writing_books_people_want_to_r.shtml

Bogost, I. (2012a) Alien Phenomenology: or What It’s Like To Be A Thing, Minnesota University Press.

Bogost, I. (2012b) The New Aesthetic Needs to Get Weirder, The Atlantic, accessed 18/04/2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/04/the-new-aesthetic-needs-to-get-weirder/255838/

Bryant, L. (2011) The Democracy of Objects, Open Humanities Press.

 

Charlesworth, J. J. (2012) We are the droids we’re looking for: the New Aesthetic and its friendly critics, accessed 25/05/2012, http://blog.jjcharlesworth.com/2012/05/07/we-are-the-droids-were-looking-for-the-new-aesthetic-and-its-friendly-critics/

Harman, G. (2009a) Technology, objects and things in Heidegger, Cambridge Journal of Economics, accessed 18/04/2012, http://cje.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2009/05/29/cje.bep021.full?ijkey=oxf1js0onhVC73f&keytype=ref

Harman, G. (2009b) what correlationism reminds me of, accessed 23/05/2012, http://doctorzamalek2.wordpress.com/2009/11/08/what-correlationism-reminds-me-of/

Heidegger, M. (1995) Basic Questions of Philosophy: Selected Problems of Logic, Indiana University Press.

Heidegger, M. (1999) Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning), Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Morton, T. (2011) Here Comes Everything: The Promise of Object-Oriented Ontology, Qui Parle, accessed 25/05/2012, http://ucdavis.academia.edu/TimMorton/Papers/971122/Here_Comes_Everything_The_Promise_of_Object-Oriented_Ontology

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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.

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.

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.

What Is the “New Aesthetic”?

The New Aesthetic is now subject to discussion and critique on a number of forums, blogs, twitter threads, and so forth (for a list, see bibliography on Berry 2012a, but also Bridle 2012, Kaganskiy 2012, Sterling 2012). Many of these discussions have a particular existential flavour, questioning the existence and longevity of the New Aesthetic, for example, or beginning to draw the boundaries of what is ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the domain of New Aesthetic things (See Twitter 2012).[1] Grusin (2012), for example, claims: ‘[t]he “new aesthetic” is just the latest name for remediation, all dressed up with nowhere to go’. At such an early stage there is understandably some scepticism and, being mediated via Twitter, some sarcasm and dismissal, rather than substantive engagements with the questions raised by a moment presaged by the eruption of the digital into the everyday lifeworld, but also some partial support (for example see, Berry 2012b, Crumb 2012, Exinfoam 2012, Fernandez 2012, Owens 2012). Nonetheless, it is good to see so much discussion and excitement around the concept, however defined.

 

In order to pursue the New Aesthetic further I want to move away from these existential questions and look in more detail at some of the claims advanced by spokespeople for object-oriented ontology (OOO), or what is sometimes called speculative realism (Bogost 2008, 2012; Borenstein 2012; Jackson 2012). More specifically, I want to explore the attempt to critique the New Aesthetic in terms of what they call a misplaced focus on the merely computational. Instead, I want to question the way in which they propose an extension of method (or movement) that takes in, well, everything in the universe. In other words, what one might call a co-option of the New Aesthetic into the arms of object-oriented ontology. The intention here is to address what is at stake in accepting the claims of the object-oriented ontologists and what are the implications both theoretically and empirically for the New Aesthetic more generally. First it is worth exploring what the OOO are claiming, for example Borenstein,

I believe that Sterling is wrong. I believe that the New Aesthetic is actually striving towards a fundamentally new way of imagining the relations between things in the world. To convince you of this, I’ll make a case that the New Aesthetic strongly resonates with a recent movement in philosophy called Object-Oriented Ontology and that establishing a closer alliance with OOO might be a way to increase the precision of the New Aesthetic vocabulary and enrich its process by pointing towards new modes of imagining its objects of fascination (Borenstein 2012).

Here, Borenstein is arguing that the New Aesthetic has an OOO predilection or ‘resonates’ with the claims and descriptions of the OOO. In other words, the claim is that the New Aesthetics is merely a subset of OOO, and as Bogost further argues,

It’s true that computers are a particularly important and influential kind of thing in the world, and indeed I myself have spent most of my career pondering how to use, make, and understand them. But they are just one thing among so many more: airports, sandstone, koalas, climate, toaster pastries, kudzu, the International 505 racing dinghy, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the brand name ‘TaB.’ Why should a new aesthetic interested only in the relationship between humans and computers, when so many other relationships exist just as much? Why stop with the computer, like Marinetti foolishly did with the race car? (Bogost 2012).

Pixel Pour (2008) 

We might counter immediately that this suggestion confuses aesthetics and ontology where aesthetics is primarily concerned with the nature and appreciation of ‘beauty’ (or a post-Kantian ‘disinterestedness’),[2] however defined, and ontology, is concerned with the nature of being, or the fundamental metaphysical stuff out there in the universe. Bogost also claims that the New Aesthetic is about the ‘relationship between humans and computers’ and he argues that instead it should be concerned with ontology, in this case the object-oriented relationships between lots of different kinds of objects. For now we will put aside the slippage between ‘computers’ and what are clearly representations for, or of, the ‘digital’ (see Berry 2012a, 2012b) and the fact that many of these New Aesthetic objects may have been created as artworks without the mediation of digital technology at all, for example NYC Street Art Pixel Pour and Pixel Pour 2.0 (photographed by Benjamin Norman).

 

Pixel Pour (2011) (photo: Benjamin Norman)

This representation of the digital is, of course, an interesting feature of the New Aesthetic as much as (1) there may be the mediation of digital technology in the creation of aesthetic objects or (2) the affordances of digital vision that creates certain kinds of recognisable digital artefacts (see Ellis 2011, Sloan 2011). This I called ‘an element of “down-sampled” representation of a kind of digital past, or perhaps digital passing, in that the kinds of digital glitches, modes, and forms that are chosen, are very much located historically’ (Berry 2012a). We might think of these alternative formulations or threads within the New Aesthetic as (i) representations of the digital, (ii) mediation by digital processes, and (iii) digital/computer vision. In any case, it is clear that it is the aesthetic output that is being addressed here and although I think a lot could be added to this with consideration to the non-visual computational processes involved in mediating this output, such as code and software (see Berry 2011), so far the main focus of the New Aesthetic has been visual. Additionally, Jackson identifies, although he also in my mind mistakenly rejects, the importance of ‘disorientation’ for the New Aesthetic,

The really interesting element of the new aesthetic is that it presents genuinely interesting stuff, but Bridle’s delivery strategy is set to ‘gushing disorientation’. At present, it’s the victim of the compulsive insular network it feeds off from. It presents little engagement with the works themselves instead favouring bombardment and distraction. Under these terms, aesthetics only leads to a banal drudgery, where everything melts together into a depthless disco. Any depth to the works themselves are forgotten… Memes require instant satisfaction. Art requires depth” (Jackson 2012).

Whilst I think the claim that ‘Art requires depth’ is a somewhat conservative notion of what art is or should be, it seems to me that disorientation, or what I would call, following Heidegger, frantic disorientation, is an important marker of the specificity of the New Aesthetic. Something that requires careful consideration in relation to the claims of ‘depthlessness’ that attended the rise of postmodernism (see Jameson 2006).

 

So in what way would an extension of the New Aesthetic to an OOO help with this project? The general claim seems to be that by learning more about the relationships between different objects without the mediation of human beings, we can think in a non-anthropomorphic way, without what Harman calls the ‘idea of human access’ (Shaviro 2011). As Bogost argues,

Our job is to amplify the black noise of objects to make the resonant frequencies of the stuffs inside them hum in credibly satisfying ways. Our job is to write the speculative fictions of these processes, of their unit operations. Our job is to get our hands dirty with grease, juice, gunpowder, and gypsum. Our job is to go where everyone has gone before, but where few have bothered to linger (Bogost, quoted in Borenstein 2012).

This is, to follow from the work of Quentin Meillassoux (2009) who argued in After Finitude:

Such considerations reveal the extent to which the central notion of modern philosophy since Kant seems to be that of the correlation. By ‘correlation’ we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other. We will henceforth call correlationism any current of thought which maintains the unsurpassable character of correlation so defined. Consequently, it becomes possible to say that every philosophy which disavows naive realism has become a variant of correlationism (Meillassoux 2009: 5, original emphasis).

Further,

For it could be that contemporary philosophers have lost the great outdoors, the absolute outside of pre-critical thinkers: that outside which was not relative to us, and which was given as indifferent to its own givenness to be what it is, existing in itself regardless of whether we are thinking it or not; that outside which thought could explore with the legitimate feeling of being on foreign territory – of being entirely elsewhere (Meillassoux 2009: 7, original emphasis)

Meillassoux, in particular, is interested in the production of claims about reality that are extra-human, either ancestral, that is, any reality anterior to the emergence of the human species, or shown as arche-fossil, particularly through materials indicating the existence of an ancestral reality, the material support such as an isotope whose rate of radioactive decay enables the dating of things (Meillassoux 2009: 10). How then can we make claims about things that are not only non-human, but which temporally predate the very existence of humans at all. Whilst Meillassoux was careful to delimit his philosophical investigations to those that pre-date humans, and thus the problematic of a correlationist claim in relation to it, and here there isn’t time to explore the problematic nature of the formulation of a realist science which underpins his claims, it does open the door for speculative work on the nature of the universe per se. Indeed, this is where object-oriented ontology comes into play, particularly with the work of Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman (2011) – and here we should note that Meillassoux rejects the labels of both object-oriented ontology and speculative realism. Bryant et al claim,

[In] ‘The Speculative Turn’, one can detect the hints of something new. By contrast with the repetitive continental focus on texts, discourses, social practices, and human finitude, the new breed of thinkers is turning once more towards reality itself. While it is difficult to find explicit positions common to all the thinkers… all have certainly rejected the traditional focus on textual critique… all of them, in one way or another, have begun speculating once more about the nature of reality independently of thought and of humans more generally (Bryant, Srnicek and Harman 2011: 3).

Whilst there are significant difference between the various ‘speculative realism’ positions, this attempt to develop a strong anti-correlationist approach seems both significant and interesting philosophically, and something, I should add, that I am broadly sympathetic to. To my mind, however, there remains a significant problem of theorising non-human relations whilst simultaneously being constrained within the categories and limitations of human thought, what we might call the anti-correlationist paradox, even when mediated through mathematics, physics, or technical apparatus that gives the appearance of objectivity or non-human thought (and here I am thinking particularly in terms of the gigantic, see Berry [2011b]).

 

However, here we must return to the particular claims of Bogost (2012) and his notion of developing a speculative philosophy to think through the relations between objects, as he writes:

If ontology is the philosophical study of existence, then object-oriented ontology puts things at the center of being. We humans are elements, but not the sole elements of philosophical interest. OOO contends that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally–plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, and sandstone, for example. OOO steers a path between scientific naturalism and social relativism, drawing attention to things at all scales and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much as ourselves… My version of object-oriented ontology, outlined in my new book Alien Phenomenology, or What it’s Like to Be a Thing, concerns the experience of objects. What is it like to be a bonobo or a satellite or a pixel? (Bogost 2012).

Nihilistic Pixels

Putting aside the unlikelihood of discerning ‘what it is like to be’ something like a pixel – indeed, the very question seems to me to be confusing the fundamental quality of human beings (as dasein) able to raise the question of their own being with that of a pixel, which prime facie does not (Heidegger 1978). Instead, we should concentrate on whether this ‘alien phenomenology’ can assist in understanding or explaining the New Aesthetic (see Bogost 2008). Bogost again,

But the true alien might be unrecognizable; it might not have an intelligence akin to our intelligence, or even one we could recognize as intelligence. Rather than wondering if alien beings exist in the cosmos, let’s assume that they are all around us, everywhere, at all scales. Everything is an alien to everything else. It is ultimately impossible for one thing to understand the experience of another, but we can speculate about the withdrawn, inner experience of things based on a combination of evidence–the exhaust they leave behind–and poetics–the speculative work we do to characterize that experience (Bogost 2012).

Here, we have moved (too quickly in my mind) from the possibility of human beings being able to know what it is to ‘be’ an alien object, to a notion of an ‘intelligence’ that we could ‘recognize as intelligence’, and then to the ‘experience’ of said alien object. Further, we are told that it is ‘ultimately impossible for one thing to understand the experience of another’ but we can ‘speculate’ about it. Here is the crucial point of weakness in this position. We are no longer involved in realism, but have moved to speculative philosophy, one that has moved towards a kind of idealism that doesn’t recognise itself as such. I think that this is partially due to the soporific quality of litanies that the OOO are so keen to list at every opportunity, as if the mere act of listing has reaffirmed their realism. For example, Bogost uses the litany of ‘airports, sandstone, koalas, climate, toaster pastries, kudzu, the International 505 racing dinghy, and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner’ (Bogost 2012).

 

Again, the anti-correlationist paradox raises it head in the use of human categories such as ‘being’, ‘intelligence’, ‘experience’, wielded to describe ‘alien’ objects’ interiority without any recourse to evidence beyond mere speculation. Not that this method is wholly unproductive, indeed, Bogost’s claims that it is ‘weird’ points to his attempt to do something unexpected or different – my point is that it probably won’t be weird enough, limited as it remains, within the boundary of human thought. Indeed, OOO rapidly continues the use of human categories even as it is articulating what it considers to be a non-anthropomorophic mode. For example, Borenstein argues,

[New Aesthetic] want[s] to know what CCTV means for social networks, what book scanning means for iOS apps, and what face detection means for fashion. And again these objects are not just interesting to each other as a set of constraints and affordances for the objects’ human makers but for the hidden inner lives of the objects themselves throughout their existence (Borenstein 2012).

Does the idea of ‘inner lives’ even make any sense for iOS apps, CCTV or pixels? Following Heidegger (1978), I would even argue that it doesn’t make much sense for humans, let alone SunChips and Doritos. Nonetheless, Bogost moves to his attempt to link OOO and New Aesthetics by a notion of ‘Alien Aesthetics’,

[T]his Alien Aesthetics would not try to satisfy our human drive for art and design, but to fashion design fictions that speculate about the aesthetic judgments of objects. If computers write manifestos, if Sun Chips make art for Doritos, if bamboo mocks the bad taste of other grasses–what do these things look like? Or for that matter, when toaster pastries convene conferences or write essays about aesthetics, what do they say, and how do they say it? (Bogost, quoted in Jackson 2012)

Again we see the anti-correlationist paradox inasmuch as object are now considered to make ‘aesthetic judgments’ of other objects. Patently, ‘pastries’ do not ‘write essays about aesthetics’ nor about anything else. Indeed, in trying so hard to avoid anthropomorphism ontologically, Bogost appears to allow it in the backdoor through metaphor. Here we might nod towards Heidegger who emphasised the importance of practices in understanding being at all (for Dasein), so the writing of essays is crucial to the understanding of being a student, for example, not to being a pastry (Heidegger 1978). We are thus left with speculative fictional statements akin to vignettes about objects whose ‘truth’ or ‘correctness’ Bogost considers irrelevant and therefore begins to bear too many similarities to relativism.

 

So where should we look for help in understanding the New Aesthetic?

 

Previously, I have proposed a notion of computationality (Berry 2011a, Berry 2012a, Berry 2012b), and others have also suggested ‘remediation’ as a useful way of exploring it (Grusin 2012). Certainly, there are many exciting avenues to explore, including possible alternative formulations of OOO, but I would just like to consider three.

 

The first is an approach broadly covered by the term software studies (see Berry 2011a; Manovich 2001, 2008; Manovich and Douglas 2009), and its sister field, critical code studies (Marino 2006), both of which already have an orientation towards the aesthetic and experiential, as well as the material (Kittler 1997, 1999). It seems to me that an understanding of the underlying structural and sub-structural level of code/software may give important insights into the aesthetic eruptions or surface representations that are in evidence within the New Aesthetic.[3]

 

The second approach would be what we might call a Heideggerian Aesthetics, which explores ‘an artwork that already embodies the transition between this age and the next and which is thus capable of helping to inaugurate that future age, here and now’ (Thomson 2011). Indeed, as Iain Thomson explains,

Heidegger’s defining hope for art, in other words, is that works of art could manifest and thereby help usher in a new understanding of the being of entities, a literally “post-modern” understanding of what it means for an entity to be, a postmodern ontology which would no longer understand entities either as modern objects to be controlled or as late-modern resources to be optimised (Thomson 2011).

The third approach is broadly known as media archaeology, with its strong orientation to both the historical and aesthetic, position it very favourably in being able to provide important theoretical interventions for the New Aesthetic and new ‘ways of seeing’ (see Parikka 2010, Parikka and Huhtamo 2011). Media archaeology attempts to read the new against the grain of the past, and its focus on neglected, forgotten or suppressed media seems extremely relevant to the New Aesthetic’s presentation of what seems to be a ‘false digital’ or certainly ‘historical digital’ digital.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Notes

 

[1] This is an updating Twitter Stream, some examples include: (1) “NArt Bot @NArtBot RT @timdenee: I really have to fight the urge to write it off as a bunch of twee pretentious bullshit. #newaesthetic”, “RT @CreatorsProject: A tight circle of net artists just reinvented the wheel: bit.ly/Jb80po #NewAesthetic”, “NArt Bot @NArtBot RT @flourides: tell me what i gotta do to get kicked out of the #NewAesthetic i’ll do whatever”, “Johannes Kleske @jkleske “Memes require instant satisfaction. Art requires depth.” How full of yourself can you be? #newaesthetic j.mp/Ii56y7”, “Marcus • Leis Allion @_MLA Isn’t it only those critical of the #NewAesthetic that refer to it as something it is not, i.e., art/art movement in 20thC sense?”.

[2] Many thanks to Michael Dieter for the post-Kantian suggestion.

[3] There are a lot of areas of interest for researchers in the Digital Humanities in terms of understanding and exploring cultural works, there are also exciting opportunities to explore both the close and distant reading implications of the New Aesthetic (Berry 2012c, Gold 2012). Additionally Platform Studies (Bogost and Montfort 2009) and Expressive Processing (Wardrip-Fruin 2009) are both very interesting approaches with a focus on the materiality of the computer.

 

Bibliography

 

 

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

 

Berry, D. M. (2011b) The Gigantic, Stunlaw, http://stunlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/gigantic-inc.html

 

Berry, D. M. (2012a) Abduction Aesthetic: Computationality and the New Aesthetic, Stunlaw, accessed 18/04/2012, http://stunlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/abduction-aesthetic-computationality.html

 

Berry, D. M. (2012b) Computationality and the New Aesthetic, Imperica, accessed 18/04/2012. http://www.imperica.com/viewsreviews/david-m-berry-computationality-and-the-new-aesthetic

 

Berry, D. M. (2012c) Understanding Digital Humanities, London: Palgrave.

 

Bogost, I. (2008) The Phenomenology of Videogames, in Günzel, S., Liebe, M., and Mersch D., (eds.) Conference Proceedings of the Philosophy of Computer Games 2008, Potsdam: University Press, pp 22-43, accessed 18/04/2012, http://pub.ub.uni-potsdam.de/volltexte/2008/2454/

 

Bogost, I. (2012) The New Aesthetic Needs to Get Weirder, The Atlantic, accessed 18/04/2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/04/the-new-aesthetic-needs-to-get-weirder/255838/

 

Bogost, I. and Montfort, N. (2009) Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, MIT Press.

 

Borenstein, G. (2012) What’s it like to be a 21C Thing?, Creators Project, accessed 18/04/2012, http://thecreatorsproject.com/blog/in-response-to-bruce-sterlings-essay-on-the-new-aesthetic#4

 

Bridle, J. (2012a) The New Aesthetic, accessed 05/04/2012, http://new-aesthetic.tumblr.com/

 

Bryant, L., Srnicek, N., and Harman, G. (2011) The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, Melbourne: Re:Press.

 

Crumb (2012) Crumb: Curating digital art mailing list, April 2012, accessed 18/03/2012, http://www.crumbweb.org

 

Ellis, E. (2011) The New Aesthetic, accessed 05/04/2012, http://www.warrenellis.com/?p=12811

 

Exinfoam (2012) Hello, QR, accessed 18/04/2012, http://exinfoam.wordpress.com/2012/04/13/hello-qr/

 

Fernandez, P. (2012) The New Aesthetic: A Response, accessed 18/04/2012, http://plummerfernandez.tumblr.com/post/21026026010/new-aesthetic

 

 

Gold, M. K. (2012) Debates in the Digital Humanities, University of Minnesota Press.

 

Grusin, R. (2012) The “new aesthetic” is just the latest name for remediation, all dressed up with nowhere to go, accessed 18/04/2012, https://twitter.com/#!/rgrusin/status/192622844860047361

 

Heidegger, H. (1978) Being and Time, London: Wiley-Blackwell.

 

Jackson, R. (2012) The Banality of The New Aesthetic, Furtherfield, accessed 18/04/2012, http://www.furtherfield.org/features/banality-new-aesthetic

 

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.

 

Kaganskiy, J. (2012) In Response To Bruce Sterling’s “Essay On The New Aesthetic”, Creators Project, accessed 07/04/2012, http://www.thecreatorsproject.com/blog/in-response-to-bruce-sterlings-essay-on-the-new-aesthetic

 

Kittler, F. (1997) Literature, Media, Information Systems. Amsterdam: OAP.

 

Kittler, F. (1999) Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford, CA: Stanford University

Press.

 

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

 

Manovich, L. (2008) Software takes Command, retrieved 03/05/2010 from http://lab.softwarestudies.com/2008/11/softbook.html

 

Manovich, L. and Douglas, J. (2009) Visualizing Temporal Patterns In Visual Media: Computer Graphics as a Research Method, retrieved 10/10/09 from http://softwarestudies.com/cultural_analytics/visualizing_temporal_patterns.pdf

 

Marino, M. C. (2006) Critical Code Studies, Electronic Book Review, accessed 16 Sept 2011, http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/codology

 

Meillassoux, Q (2009) After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, London: Continuum.

 

Owens, T. (2012) The New Aesthetic and the Artifactual Digital Object, accessed 18/04/2012, http://www.trevorowens.org/2012/04/the-new-aesthetic-and-the-artifactual-digital-object/

 

Parikka, J. (2010) Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology, University of Minnesota Press

 

Parikka, J. and Huhtamo, E. (2011) Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications, University of California Press

 

Shaviro, S. (2011) The Actual Volcano: Whitehead, Harman and the Problem of Relations, in Bryant, L., Srnicek, N., and Harman, G. (eds.) The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, Melbourne: Re:Press.

 

Sloan, R. (2011) The New Aesthetic, accessed 05/04/2012, http://snarkmarket.com/2011/6913

 

Sterling, B. (2012) An Essay on the New Aesthetic , Wired, accessed 05/04/2012, http://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2012/04/an-essay-on-the-new-aesthetic/

 

Thomson, I. (2011) Heidegger’s Aesthetics, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, accessed 05/04/2012, http://stanford.library.usyd.edu.au/archives/sum2011/entries/heidegger-aesthetics/

 

Twitter (2012) Search “newaesthetic”, Twitter, accessed 18/04/2012, self-updating, https://twitter.com/#!/search/newaesthetic

 

Wardrip-Fruin, N. (2009) Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies, MIT Press.

The Commodity-Mechanism Form of Software/Code

This post is part of a paper I gave at Unlike Us conference, Amsterdam 2012. The recording of the lecture is available online


Software presents a translucent interface relative to the common ‘world’ and so enables engagement with a ‘world’, this we call its interface. It is tempting, when trying to understand software/code to provide analysis at the level of this surface level, however software also possesses an opaque machinery that mediates engagement that is not experienced directly nor through social mediations. Without an attentiveness to the layers of software beneath this surface interface we are in danger of ‘screen essentialism’.  In terms of this analytic approach, one of the key aspects is that the surface can remain relatively stable whilst the machinery layer(s) can undergo frenetic and disorienting amounts of change (Berry 2012). This frantic disorientation at the machinery layer is therefore insulated from the user, who is provided with a surface which can be familiar, skeuomorphic (from the Greek, skeuos – vessel or tool, morphe – shape), representational, metonymic, figurative or extremely simplistic and domestic. It is important to note that the surface/interface need not be visual, indeed it may be presented as an application programming interface (API) which hides the underlying machinery behind this relatively benign interface.

The software we use is part of a wider constellation of software ecologies made possible by a plethora of computational devices that facilitate the colonisation of code into the lifeworld. In other words, software enables access to certain forms of mediated engagement with the world, this is achieved via the translucent surface interface and enables a machinery to be engaged which computationally interoperates with the world. These engagements are enabled by processes we might call compactants (computational actants) which can be understood through a dual surface/machinery structure. Compactants are often constructed in such a way that they can be understood as having a dichotomous modality of data-collection/visualisation, each of which is a specific mode of operation. Again this may not necessarily be a visual component of the compactant, which may merely re-present data through computational analysis to a visual packager or visualisation device/software system. This modal setting may be accessible to the user, or it may be a hidden function accessible only to certain people/coder/other compactants, etc.

Compactants are designed to passive-aggressively record data.  With the notion of compactants I want to particularly draw attention to this passive-aggressive feature of computational agents that are collecting information. Both in terms of their passive quality – under the surface, relatively benign and silent – but also the fact that they are aggressive in their hoarding of data – monitoring behavioural signals, social signals, streams of affectivity and so forth.  The word compact also has useful overtones of having all the necessary components or functions neatly fitted into a small package, and compact as in conciseness in expression. The etymology from the Latin compact for closely put together, or joined together, also nearly expresses the sense of what web-bugs and related technologies are. The term compactants is also evocative in terms of the notion of ‘companion actants’ (see Harraway 2003).

Analytically, therefore, software can be said to have two faces:

Commodity: accessible via the interface/surface and providing or procuring a commodity/service/function. Provides a relative stability for the consumption of ends.

Mechanism: accessible via textual source code, which contains the mechanisms and functions ‘hidden’ in the software (means).  This can be thought of as the substructure for the overlay of commodities and consumption.

The materiality of software requires a form of reading/writing of these depths through attentiveness to codes affordances. By attending to the ontological dimension of software, that is it structure and construction, we gather an insight into the substructure and machinery of software. Software is used/enjoyed without the encumbrance or engagement with its context due to this commodity form.

One of the striking things about using this analytical model for thinking about software is that it draws attention to a source of stability in computational society. That is, the commodity layer, the interface, may stay relatively stable vis a vis the user, whilst underneath at the level of the machinery there can be rapid change in terms of both hardware and software. In a usual case, the user is unlikely to notice much difference in the usability of the device, however the interface’s constant allows for a de-freneticness or at least a looser coupling between rapid technical change and the user experience of technology. We should expect that when interfaces achieve a certain retinal quality, making them indistinguishable from other representational forms, such as high definition images or photography, then further developments will begin to be made in terms of the skeuomorphic/figurative/metonymic. Indeed, to some extent this is already starting to happen within user interface design with the move to ‘simple’ or ‘obvious’ design principles (see Beecher 2010).

Bibliography

Beecher, F. (2010) UI Guidelines for Skeuomorphic Multi-Touch Interfaces , accessed 29/03/2012, http://userexperience.evantageconsulting.com/2010/11/ui-guidelines-for-skeuomorphic-multi-touch-interfaces/

Berry, D. M. (2012) Thinking Software: Realtime Streams and Knowledge in the Digital Age, UnlikeUs 2012, accessed 29/03/2012, http://vimeo.com/39256099

Harraway, D. (2003) The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness, Prickly Paradigm Press.

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Code, Foucault and Neoliberal Governmentality

For Foucault, Neoliberal governmentality is a particular form of post-welfare state politics in which the state essentially outsources the responsibility for ensuring the ‘well-being’ of the population. The primary recipient of this responsibility is derived from a strengthened notion of the subject, as a rational individual. Indeed, these new subjectivities are expected to ‘look after themselves’. This form of governmentality has an extremely diffuse form of rule whereby strategies and imperatives of control are distributed through a variety of media but are implicated in even the most mundane practice of everyday life. As Schecter writes,

 

Foucault regards the exercise of power and the formalisation of knowledge to be intimately bound up with the constitution of living individuals as subjects of knowledge, that is, as citizens and populations about whom knowledge is systematically constructed… Subjects are not born subjects so much as they become them. In the course of becoming subjects they are classified in innumerable ways which contribute to their social integration, even if they are simultaneously marginalised in many cases (Schecter 2010: 171).

 

So for example, the state promotes an ethic of self-care which is justified in terms of a wider social responsibility and which is celebrated through the examples given in specific moments represented as individual acts of consumption that contribute to a notion of good citizenship. So using recycling bins, caring for one’s teeth, stopping smoking, and so forth are all actively invested by the state as both detrimental to individual and collective care, but most importantly they are the responsibility of the citizen to abide by.

 

Neoliberal governmentality also gestures towards the subordination of state power to the requirements of the marketplace, the implication being that ‘political problems’ are re-presented or cast in market terms. Within this framework citizens are promised new levels of freedom, consumerism, customisation, interactivity and control over their life and possessions. In other words, they are promised an unfulfilled expectation as to the extent to which they are able to exert their individual agency.

 

In order to facilitate this governmental platform certain infrastructural systems need to be put in place, bureaucratic structures, computational agencies and so forth. For example, it has become increasingly clear that providing information to citizens is not sufficient for controlling and influencing behaviour. Indeed, people’s ability to understand and manipulate raw data or information has been found to be profoundly limited in many contexts with a heavy reliance on habit understood as part of the human condition.

 

It is here that the notion of compactants (computational actants) allows us to understand the way in which computationality has increasingly become constitutive of the understanding of important categories in late capitalism, like privacy and self-care. Here we could say that we are interested in a transition from the juridicification, through the medicalisation, to the ‘computationalisation’ of reason. Hence, following Foucault, we are interested in studying the formation of discrete powers rather than power in general. That is, Foucault is interesting ‘in the processes through which subjects become subjects, the truth becomes truth, and then changing conditions under which this happens, which in the first instance is the discrepancy between the visible and the readable’ (Schecter 2010: 173). Or as Foucault himself writes:

 

What is at stake in all this research about madness, illness, delinquency, and sexuality, as well as everything else I have been talking about today, is to show how the coupling of a series of practices with a truth regime forms an operative knowledge-power system (dispotif) which effectively inscribes in the real something that does not exist, and which subjects the real to a series of criteria stipulating what is true and what is false, whereby these criteria are taken to be legitimate. It is that moment which does not exist as real and which is not generally considered relevant to the legitimacy of a regime of true and false, it is that moment in things that engages me at the moment. It marks the birth of the asymmetrical bi-polarity of politics and economics, that is, of that politics and economics which are neither things that exist nor are errors, illusions or ideologies. It has to do with something which does not exist and which is nonetheless inscribed within the real, and which has great relevance for a truth regime which makes distinctions between truth and falsity (Foucault, The Birth of Bio-Politics, quoted in Schecter 2010: 173).

 

Indeed the way in which compactants generate certain notion of truth and falsity is a topic requiring close investigation, both in terms of the surface interface generating a ‘visible’ truth, and the notion of a computational, or cloud, truth that is delivered from the truth-machines that lie somewhere on the networks of power and knowledge.

Foucault suggests that if there is a ‘system’ or ensemble of systems, the task is somehow to think systemic functioning outside of the the perspective of the subject dominated by or in charge of the so-called system. Critical thinking can deconstruct the visible harmony between casual seeing and instrumental reason… in contrast with monolithic appearances, surfaces are characterised by strata and folds that can inflect power to create new truths, desires and forms of experience (Schecter 2010: 175).

Here we can make the link between sight and power, and of course sight itself is deployed such that the ‘visible’ is not transparent nor hidden. Compactants certainly contribute to the deployment of the visible, through the generation of certain forms of geometric and photographic truths manifested in painted screens and surfaces.

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Schecter, D. (2010) The Critique of Instrumental Reason from Weber to Habermas, New York: Continuum.

The World of Computationality: Flickering Objects and Streaming-beings

Accepting that the Worldhood of the World allows us to encounter anything at all (Heidegger 1977). What would be the structural features of a world of computationality understood as an alternative mode of revealing in contrast to the challenging-forth of technicity? For Heidegger electricity was the paradigmatic metaphor for technicity, both in terms of its generation through the challenging-forth of nature, through coal, oil, hydropower, etc. and in terms of the switching systems that were required to route both production, distribution and consumption of the electricity itself. He saw this switiching capacity as a process of ordering by ‘ordering beings’ where:

Everywhere everything is ordered to standby, to be immediately on hand, indeed, to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering (Heidegger 1977).

Here I want to suggest that technicity isn’t sufficient to describe the contemporary mode of revealing through computationality. Indeed, challenging forth is better understood, as indeed Heidegger concedes, as a modern technology, and indeed I would argue not necessarily applicable to the kinds of postmodern technologies, such as the computer, that increasingly permeate our everyday life. In computationality, then, the paradigmatic metaphor I want to use is real-time streaming technologies and the data flows, processual stream-based engines and media interfaces that embody them. This is to stop thinking about the digital as something static and object-like and instead consider its ‘trajectories’. Here I am thinking about the way in which scripts function to create loops and branching, albeit highly complex forms, and create a stable ‘representation’, which we often think of as an digital ‘object’. Under the screen surface, however, there is a constant stream of processing, a movement and trajectory, a series of lines that are being followed and computed. Something like Twitter suggests the kind of real-time experiential technology that I am thinking about and the difficulty of studying something unfolding in this manner, let alone archiving or researching, without an eye on its processual nature encourages serious category errors.[1] The aim of this article is to begin to develop some of the ideas outlined in The Philosophy of Software through a phenomenology of computation (Berry 2011). In the following table, for example, I want to explore how we might think about this different mode of existence of a highly softwarized streaming 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.

2. Computability.

Identities (roles)

Ordering-beings

Streaming-beings

Paradigmatic Epistemology

Engineer, Time-motion studies, Methods-Time Measurement (MTM), instrumental rationality


Design, Information theory, graph theory,  data visualisation, communicative rationality

Within Gestell every subject/object is a story of challenging-forth. This is related to a structural map, or ground-plan, which describes a priori what the essences of particular beings are, however this is not innate, rather drawn from the grounding of intelligibility. As Heidegger explains:

As a destining, it banishes man into that kind of revealing that is an ordering. Where this ordering holds sway, it drives out every other possibility of revealing (Heidegger 1977).

Thus challenging-forth turns everything into resources, creating a world of objects and equipment on standby ready to be used in larger aggregates. For Heidegger there is a totalizing character of challenging-forth which forces it to attempt to apply the principle of efficiency to other marginal practices, and hence with it the danger of becoming the last possible mode of revealing.

The coming to presence of technology threatens revealing, threatens it within the possibility that all revealing will be consumed in ordering and that everything will present itself only in the unconcealedness of standing reserve (Heidegger 1977).

In contrast, I want to suggest that computationality is distinct from challenging-forth as technicity, inasmuch as it is a streaming-forth. One aspect of this is that streaming-forth generates second-order information and data from the world which is itself seen increasingly as flow. This collected information is then subject to further processing and algorithmic transformation, feedback thus becomes part of the ecology of computationality. Additionally, computational devices not only withdraw – indeed mechanical devices such as car engines clearly also withdraw – rather that computational devices both withdraw and are constantly pressing to be present-at-hand in alternation. They are in a curious middle state, this I call ‘unready-to-hand’ drawing on Heidegger’s notion of conspicuousness. Breakdowns, such as these, serve an extremely important cognitive function revealing to us the nature of our practices and equipment by bringing them ‘present-at-hand’ to our attention. However, the present-at-hand in computationality is of extremely limited duration, but also repeated in random ways, we could think of this as a stream of unreadiness-to-hand, specific to this mode of revealing. It is only when a breakdown occurs that we become aware of the fact that ‘things’ in our world exist not as the result of individual acts of cognition but through out active participation in a domain of discourse and mutual concern. We can think of this specific computational breakdown in two different ways:

  1. Something intrinsic to the computational means that computational devices (and entities that contain computational devices) are constantly moving in and out of this unready-to-hand state.
  2. Perhaps due to the loose coupling between interface and underlying code, this causes the pseudo-state of unreadyness-to-hand.

Anyway, it is clear from the history of computing that computers do not, nor have ever, been able to run themselves. They are constantly suffering from breakdowns, bugs, errors and crashes. Well-engineered physical machines do not suffer this constant breakdown. You could think of it as an oscillation, perhaps due to the underlying fragility of the nature of code, that means it is always on the constant verge of breakdown (again car engines do not act like this, once they are working they are working, generally speaking). Software and code is thus always calling to us from a position of unreadiness-to-hand. Software programmers have a lovely term for what I am getting at when they say that code throws an exception, which causes the machine to pause and wait for further instruction or execute an alternative method, or if no such instruction is available or forthcoming, it is said that code is unable to catch the exception and it crashes in someway (sometimes gracefully and at other times catastrophically).

Therefore it is not that computational equipment is different from equipment in other modes of revealing. Nor that there are special forms of computational equipment that have a ‘third mode’ or somehow stand middle between presence and absence. Rather, computational devices appear to have the rather novel feature/bug of oscillating rapidly between Vorhandenheit/Zuhandenheit. 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). Although in previous accounts attention has not been paid to the rapidity of the oscillations that I am drawing attention to here.

Hence within computationality absence and presence are being experienced in this very specific and very curious way enabled by computational devices. This quantitative micro/milli/second oscillations between modes translate into an odd mediated pseudo-mode which is, perhaps, qualitatively experienced as ‘uncanny’ and which might analytically be referred to as ‘radically unready-to-hand’ or ‘flickering objects’.[2] This is part of the specificity of the phenomenological experience that I am gesturing towards in computationality as a mode of revealing in contrast to technicity.

We used to think that this feature/bug of computational systems was due to the immaturity of the disciplines and methods, but after 40 years of writing code/software we still suffer from the same problems (indeed called the software crisis in the 1960s). Code is now bigger than a single human being can understand. Thus, in a running system, and in escaping our comprehension, it inevitably has aporia and liminal areas that mean we cannot truly control or even understand its operation.

We might expect that the kinds of things that show up as equipment, goals, and identities would be specific to computationality. Firstly, the equipment would be more autonomous of human control and have delegated agency within its software/code structures. This might mean that in a similar way to the principle of physis which governed the Greek world, things might ‘whoosh’ up unexpectedly in a manner which was a bursting bringing-forth (Dreyfus 2004). Of course, in this sense they are computationally bringing themselves forth with hidden potential, but the surface effect is interestingly comparable. These new kinds of enchanted objects would both bring to present-at-hand themselves, but also bring forth other objects. This would have the interesting effect of causing the user to think about the object creating this kind of ‘flickering object’, which passed between readiness-to-hand and present-at-hand. Secondly, the kinds of goals and projects that people have would be expressed within a computational structure, perhaps real-time streams that are procedural, algorithmic, modular, and quantitatively expressed. Thirdly, the identities or roles that people would have would enable them to take a stand on themselves that would be computational. Self-tracking, life-hacking type monitoring might therefore be turned into a continuous self-reflexive lifestream.

What is the style of the computational world?

It is deeply algorithmic in nature, surface driven, haptic, and information-centric. The use of conversational interfaces, such as Apple Siri,  is a useful harbinger of this computational future. Here, the user must be disciplined not to be conversational, but rather to be computationally conversational. Many millions of dollars of research money have been spent in an attempt to get computers to understand users’ conversational language, this has mostly been a failure. However, it is clear that with a certain limited grammatical and syntactical model of the world, combined with a certain amount of ‘personality’ the conversational interface can present a good enough working interface. This is good enough in as much as it can capture a limited conversational plane, but also teach the user how to talk to these enchanted objects in a particular style. Where here ‘style’ is taken to refer to the set of practices considered skilful within a particular mode of revealing.

This style is imperative, based around particular notions of quasi-subjects and quasi-objects, not in a ‘real’ everyday sense, but rather as entities that have various kinds of relational and contextual properties. For example, a particular contact in an address book has a series of properties by virtue of being in the address book, namely they become tagged as quasi-subjective having mobility and locative properties. Also they perform within a web of relations between objects and other quasi-subjects, for example having relationships (e.g. wife, spouse, child, daughter) with other quasi-subjects, location (e.g. home, work), and a face (e.g. through photo recognition). One might say that quasi-subjects and quasi-objects are formed within relational networks that are now modelled in graph theory and performed computationally. Thus the modernist subject of technicity becomes a postmodernist quasi-subject of computationality. A mode of revealing as a set of real-time computational data points producing this computational quasi-subject: the streaming-being.

Notes

[1] The archiving of software and code and digital media more generally is currently being actively engaged with in fields such as software studies, critical code studies, digital humanities and new media. There is often a temptation to think of the software as a discrete ‘object’ or package, forgetting that software and code are extremely networked and cannot function when taken away from this software ecology. Here, I am thinking of the platform that supports the software/code, such as the particular hardware, software, operating system, network connections, etc. It is certainly clear that currently emulated environments leave a lot to be desired when interacting with previous software and code. Unlike books which are relatively self-contained objects (Foucault notwithstanding) software/code is not readable in the same manner. Merely storing the software, and here I am thinking particularly about the executable binary, will not be enough to access, read, execute and explore the package. But neither is storing the source-code, which requires particular compilers, platforms and processes to reanimate it. In some instances one can imagine that the entire totality of technical society would need to be stored to adequately reanimate software/code – for example highly networked software, like zombie botnets, cascading database systems, networked gaming systems, massively parallel virtual worlds, etc. which runs through and across the internet might be an example of this. Perhaps in the future we will have to be content with accepting that the only way to archive some software systems will be to leave them running in a domesticated virtual scene captured temporally and looped in eternity. The longer the loop of code/ecology, the better the ability for future historians to explore and understand their use and meaning.

[2]  I have also referred to these previously as ‘fractured objects’.

Bibliography

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

Dreyfus, H. (2004) Being and Power: Heidegger and Foucault, accessed 29/10/11, http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~hdreyfus/html/paper_being.html

Heidegger, M. (1977) The Question Concerning Technology and other Essays, London: Harper & Row.

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