Tag Archives: philosophy

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without human culture, by providing a speculative and philosophical description of the universe through the notion of withdrawn or partially visible objects – Morton calls this ekphrasis or “ultra-vivid description” (Morton 2011: 170).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/

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

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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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The Gigantic

We now live in a world where the very size of the real-time stream begins to exceed capacities to understand or make any sense of the sheer flow of data, and Twitter which currently handles 250 million tweets per day, or 1.25 billion per week, is a great example of this (Totsis 2011). Ways of thinking about the real-time stream as a totality are needed to help think through the implications of this data rich world and provide a contribution towards a cognitive map. For this reason I think that Heidegger’s notion of the concept of the ‘gigantic’ that he introduces in Contributions to Philosophy (From Enowning) might prove to be useful. For Heidegger, the gigantic represents a new moment whereby the very impossibility of understanding the extremeness of small and large sizes as calculability becomes itself a change in quality. As he argues in ‘The Age of the World Picture’:

A sign of this event is that everywhere and in the most varied forms and disguises the gigantic is making its appearance. In so doing, it evidences itself simultaneously in the tendency toward the increasingly small. We have only to think of numbers in atomic physics. The gigantic presses forward in a form that actually seems to make it disappear – in the annihilation of great distances by the airplane, in the setting before us of foreign and remote worlds in their everydayness, which is produced at random through radio by a flick of the hand. Yet we think too superficially if we suppose that the gigantic is only the endlessly extended emptiness of the purely quantitative. We think too little if we find that the gigantic, in the form of continual not-ever-having-been-here-yet, originates only in a blind mania for exaggerating and excelling (Appendix 12) (Heidegger 1977: 135).

And as Livingston (2003) further explains:

At first, the ‘gigantic’ simply means the unlimited processes of quantification and assumptions of quantifiability that make possible modern technological means of expression and control. But when understood in a broader historical perspective, the ground of the ‘gigantic’ is not just the absence of limits on the process of quantification, but a fundamental aspect or feature of quantity itself (Livingston 2003: 332-333).

Here the gigantic is understood as the very possibility of quality being derivational from quantity itself. Thus the kinds of quantitative possibilities for human existence are measured, calculated, listed, captured, pure data itself as being:

But as soon as machination is in turn grasped being-historically, the gigantic reveals itself as ‘something’ else. It is no longer the re-presentable objectness of an unlimited quantification but rather quantity as quality. Quality is meant here as the basic character of the quale, of the what, of the ownmost, of be-ing itself (Heidegger 1999: 94).

The gigantic then becomes the mark of the age of the real-time stream inasmuch as the gigantic becomes the ‘greatness’ of this moment. We therefore increasingly use this notion of gigantism as a means of assessing the very importance of things within our everyday experience, not, that is, that the specific value itself has any particular or important meaning, but rather that the sheer impossibility of conceiving of the number (whether large or small) becomes a kind of sublime of unrepresentability. A mere mood or feeling that is associated with the gigantic then becomes something that we routinely consider to be a way to understand meaningful difference.

The gigantic is rather that through which the quantitative becomes a special quality and thus a remarkable kind of greatness. Each historical age is not only great in a distinctive way in contrast to others; it also has, in each instance, its own concept of greatness. But as soon as the gigantic in planning and calculating and adjusting and making secure shifts over out of the quantitative and becomes a special quality, then what is gigantic, and what can seemingly always be calculated completely, becomes, precisely through this, incalculable. This becoming incalculable remains the invisible shadow that is cast around all things everywhere when man has been transformed into subiectum and the world into picture (Appendix 13) (Heidegger 1977: 135).

Heidegger helpfully lists the forms of the gigantic:

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).

Thus that we live in a flow of real-time information that exceeds our capacities to understand or follow it – for example when we have followed enough people such that our stream in Twitter is too fast to parse – is the kind of affect that I think the notion of the gigantic points towards. This is not a feeling of being overwhelmed or being in a situation of losing control, rather it is a feeling of pure will-to-power, as it were, experiencing the gigantic as a manifestation of yourself. Equally, the flows of data both into and out of your life then become a marker of your gigantism, the subjectivity of the stream is constituted by the flow of data through which a moment of curation take place, but a curation of gigantism, not a reduction as such, but a wholeness or comprehensiveness of coverage. Each of us then becomes our own gigantic in as much as we increasingly generate data flows into and out of the networks of social life mediated through software and code.

In the culture of the modern subject who would master the world according to the logic of representation and through the technologies grounded in such a logic, which seem to overcome the very limits of space and time, the mystery of transcendence can indeed seem to “appear” only through its sheer absence.  Such a culture, then, would appear to be a culture of absolute immanence or even “total presence,” a culture de-mystified by a subject who, most notably in the technologies of all-consuming light and image, seems to comprehend all (Carlson 2003).

This is a total presence in the real-time stream, presented through such real-time streaming technologies as Twitter, Facebook (especially through their Ticker), the Jawbone Up, and the concept of frictionless sharing that Facebook has advocated (MacMannus 2011). This is a world in which the sheer gigantic incalculability of the calculable becomes an experience beyond the mere technical process or possibility of data collection, transmission, and transformation. Indeed, it becomes the very moment when one is caught within the mystery of the sheer unrepresentability, or perhaps better, comprehensibility of our own streams of data generated and flowing through these new forms of social network. Made manifest, perhaps though digital technology, but also pointing towards the other unencoded that remains outside of these networks, as plasma or the region, and from which this data is drawn.

But Heidegger offers the suggestion that within the gigantic there is opened a shadow in the form of a moment of possible transcendentalism, perhaps even a new form of sacred, that points to the possible reconfiguration of previous marginal practices or a reconfiguration of things. This, I want to suggest, opens up new possibilities for a human subjectivity that can undertake the practices of listening and harkening to that which lies behind the rushing sound of the real-time streams and their shadows.

By means of this shadow the modern world extends itself out into a space withdrawn from representation, and so lends to the incalculable the determinateness peculiar to it, as well as a historical uniqueness. This shadow, however, points to something else, which it is denied to us of today to know. But man will never be able to experience and ponder this that is denied so long as he dawdles about in the mere negating of the age. The flight into tradition, out of a combination of humility and presumption, can bring about nothing in itself other than self-deception and blindness in relation to the historical moment… Man will know, i.e., carefully safeguard into its truth, that which is incalculable, only in creative questioning and shaping out of the power of genuine reflection. Reflection transports the man of the future into that “between” in which he belongs to Being but remains a stranger amid that which is (Heidegger 1977: 136).

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Carlson, T. (2003) Locating the Mystical Subject, in Kessler, M. and Sheppard, C. (eds.) Mystics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, accessed 02/12/2011, http://www.soc.ucsb.edu/projects/ct3/docs/LocatingtheMysticalSubject.doc.

 

Heidegger, M. (1977 [1938]) The Age of the World Picture, in The Question Concerning Technology and other Essays, New York: Harper Perennial, pp115-154.

 

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

 

Livingston, P. (2003) Thinking and Being: Heidegger and Wittgenstein on Machination and Lived-Experience, Inquiry, 46, 324–345.

 

MacManus, R. (2011) The Pros & Cons of Frictionless Sharing, ReadWriteWeb, accessed 02/12/2011, http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/frictionless_sharing_pros_cons.php

 

Totsis, A. (2011) Twitter Is At 250 Million Tweets Per Day, iOS 5 Integration Made Signups Increase 3x, TechCrunch, accessed 02/12/2011, http://techcrunch.com/2011/10/17/twitter-is-at-250-million-tweets-per-day/

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