Posts Tagged ‘Harman’

thought probe

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

Marshal McLuhan is a 100 year old media entity today. 100 years of ditching the academes to delve into writing and thinking without restraint, on the one channel, and yet allowing his own odd blend of Catholic conservatism to orient his thought probes into deep media, on the other. I took McLuhan’s advice on reading Understanding Media—I only ever read every second page. His ideas are prescient. The “global village” is a contradiction in terms understandable only through its elucidation of the time-compressing effects of not only electronic media, but the on-demand supply chains of delivery and just-in-time capitalism. The global village is the effect of electronic media coupled with advanced transportation— shifting what I would call the technics of perception from the identity of the “individual” to that of “tribal man.”

McLuhan’s concept of  tribal collectivity informs  the work of Michel Maffesoli, for example, and to this day continues to provide a lens through which to view the “LIKE” attributes of social media, where everyone wants to know what everyone else is already thinking before they think it through themselves. As I’ve commented elsewhere, the effect of social media’s advanced filtration and aggregating of like-content is that of an echo chamber, a smothering, collective identification of all-alike.

Yet listening to today’s broadcast of Ideas on CBC had me on pause. First, because I hadn’t realised that Paul Kennedy had abandoned a PhD in History under McLuhan at the University of Toronto precisely because the History department didn’t consider McLuhan worthy enough back in the late 1970s. “What would they think in the hinterlands?” asked his History advisor, if he had McLuhan as supervisor? Even after—or perhaps because of—this:

So in 1977 Paul walked across Queen’s Park to the CBC to produce an Ideas documentary on Harold Innis and his seminal work on the fur trade in Canada, in which he analyzed space-and-time compression through the socioeconomic colonization of Canada through, yep, beaver pelts.Kennedy’s The Fur Trade Revisited “took him on a 1,600 kilometer journey paddling down the Mackenzie River from Great Slave Lake to the Arctic Ocean.”

Hats off to Paul Kennedy. That should be worthy of an honourary PhD in itself.

Second reason why McLuhan is unavoidable: because I wouldn’t be undertaking my own field of study without him. My  PhD is through the two departments of Communication Studies and Philosophy at McGill. When I undertook the professional seminar in Communication Studies around 2003, we traced a lineage from the pioneering work of Harold Innis and George Grant—on the relations and effects between technologies and sociocultural, economic and political formations—to Marshall McLuhan’s work on the environmental or atmospheric effects of media.

Insofar as there is a distinctly “Canadian” Communication Studies, it is to be found in the nexus between the technology and media philosophy of Innis, Grant and McLuhan and the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, imported when Adorno and Horkheimer fled to the United States shortly before World War II.

Today, what is called “German media theory” defines a distinct branch of Communication Studies. The irony is that its chief proponent, Friedrich Kittler, cites McLuhan as a significant influence. As usual, it takes a Canadian to leave this country, be interpreted elsewhere, and return to us in translation before s/he is given the gravitas he or she deserves….

Which is to say that McLuhan has always resonated outside of the academy—and perhaps with greater force than within. Several years ago I DJ’ed with DJ Spooky at SAT in Montréal, where Paul played a McLuhan video during his talk—I recall he had just acquired access to the television archives. He expected all us Canucks to be enthusiastic or perhaps to show him some kudos for his resampling of Canadian culture… but for us McLuhan is a strange figure. He is there, but like the media he studied, a background effect or an atmosphere, a shadow in the great Canadian wilderness of minds. We’re not  taught that much about him; sometimes it feels like he’s a heretic that has to be dealt with because he made some noises down South. Heck, Woody Allen liked him, right?

And though I had always been aware of the influence of McLuhan on Jean Baudrillard, more recently Graham Harman has noted his debt to McLuhan.

So, it is time for a little song in honour of McLuhan’s ghost, and his atmospheric persistence—some might say his disturbance. McLuhan would’ve liked this one. Clap along, now. From my favourite Canadian comedy crew ever:

Once upon a time there was a town
A town where chaos reigned
Lawlessness was everywhere
And there was no cohesive theory existing which properly explained the mass media and their impact on society and man’s thinking
And then one day a stranger came riding into town
And all the townsfolk gathered ’round and asked him his name…
Well, he tipped his hat and he said:
Marshal. Marshal McLuhan

Marshal McLuhan, you’re such a groovy thinker…

Radio Free Vestibule, “The Ballad of Marshal McLuhan” (1994)

 

for now, for us—yes (perhaps)

Thursday, July 7th, 2011

Levinas on top.

So here you have it: something of the reading program I will be ploughing through shortly. I’ve been through Levinas before, but not yet an extended engagement. As for Harman, I am indeed looking forward to Circus Philosophicus, in the hopes it will provide more varied discussion of the hidden world of objects than the rote repetition of thought that makes up Tool-Being. I find him at turns infuriating and liberating, which means I will certainly grow to like him.

I picked up Paul J. Ennis’ Continental Realism yesterday on Kindle, but it is unfortunately nor formatted properly—no hyperlinked endnotes. I did contact Ennis and the publisher, so hopefully they are able to fix this formatting error and re-upload it to Amazon (Amazon removed it; sorry Paul!).

I’ve got Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude on my bookshelf but I’ve only skimmed it. I found Meillassoux oddly authoritarian—since when must philosophers answer questions of the type “does X exist?”  yes or no? Especially under conditions when scientists and laypeople do not? If this is the new form of philosophy, it is an authoritarian one that rests disturbingly assured upon the principle of non-contradiction. I find this disturbing—kind of a philosophy as authoritarian interrogation. But I’ll get to it soon enough.

I’ll turn to it before I finish Ennis, as I have too many questions that remain quite unanswered, so far, in Ennis’ exposition. For starters, scientists are granted the privilege of answering to questions of the type “is X scientific fact true, yes or no?”, YES, but with the following provision:

These statements will not be considered complete or unrevisable. Falsification is always possible for the physicist, but until a better theory is put forward the scientist will claim that it is sensible to accept the statement as true. (Ennis 2011)

Sure, this is the scientific method, which is entirely contingent: for now, this statement is true, given it has not been falsified. This for now is necessarily open; otherwise the scientific method would resort to the hypostasis of dogmatism. And an anthropologist, as well as a physicist of general relativity and quantum mechanics will add, in various ways, the “for us” as well as the for now. So first off, it is not only philosophers who add this “for us,” but science itself. Second, this “for us” is more complex than simply designating a human observer. Third, I don’t believe that all of science operates upon the assumption that the “for us” threatens “realism”—on the contrary, the “for us” conditions it—that such positions that negate/ignore/forget the “for us” are somehow better than taking into account the complexities of the observer (including the technics of perception), the info-technical apparatus used in experimentation (the very parameters of measurement are subject to change, the technologies of experimentation, and so on), and overall, temporality in its basic open-ended form, insofar as all of these variables may change (even, in certain conditions, the speed of light).

Point being, the for now of the scientist holds the same structural  position as the for us of the philosopher; both are a fundamental position taken in regards to the open-ended futurity of temporality that recognizes the contingency of the observer. And, this observer includes the entire technical apparatus of measurement (the laboratory, the technologies involved, etc., right down to the technics of the theorem and mathemes). So there is a difference here, unthought, between the for now and the for us which is privileged: whereas scientists are granted the for now, philosophers are not granted the for us, despite that, when taken as structural positions of contingency in regards to temporality, both perform the same effect.

This can be explained in both philosophy and science. In general relativity, the position of the observer shapes time. In Derrida, différance is precisely timing-spacing for a reason: time-and-space are variables whose structural positions are contingent and relative. In sort, Meillassoux denies the contingency of timing-spacing and privileges a simple time (of future possibility) over the complex time of its positioning (spacing). Simpler again: Meillassoux privileges time over space. He does so against the grain of all 20th century science and philosophy. Why?

In any case, philosophers are not, apparently, granted the same contingency as the scientific method and of scientists themselves to include pauses or provisions in their replies. Instead, Meillassoux demands they answer like this, kind of like the Spanish Inquisition of philosophy:

“Did the accretion of the earth happen [i.e. the historical record of the Earth based upon carbon-dating], yes or no?” (After Finitude, 16)

Yes, of course it did, I would answer, and just like the scientist: for now, for us. That carbon-dating is based upon a method which was “perfected” in the early 20th century does not preclude changes in measurement or technologies of dating that might occur; it does not preclude warped theories of time travel that might change this record (hey, if Stephen Hawking can go there, why can’t I?); it does not preclude, in short, any possible temporal shift in all manner of technics which would fundamentally alter the trace of différance. To think otherwise would be to trap science (and all observations and truth-statements) into a far worse hell than that of supposed “correlationism:” absolute dogmatism.

So let’s pretend it’s the late 19th century and phrenology is accepted as a science. And someone like Meillassoux comes along and says: “So, are Negroes born criminals, yes or no?” See the problem here?

The temporality of the scientific method cannot simply be collapsed for the sake of securing some kind of fundamental assurance in things. Indeed Meillassoux seems to think that any questioning of temporality, technics of measurement, and so forth, amounts to some kind of “anti-realist” stance (known, apparently, as “correlationism”). I find the entire framework of his thesis unconvincing in terms of the discourse of science itself, which I think is where Meillassoux et. al. are on weak ground. In short, I don’t think there is a fundamental problem with contingency—nor does science. It appears that Meillassoux et. al. think this is some sort of grave error we all desperately need to be rescued from by removing the complexities of contingency and accepting an unconditional YES: it’s ALL Real! This would, it seem, merely repeat all the errors of the pre-scientific method past: dogmatism, refusal to accept change, the Inquisition, etc.

As for the for us, I have yet to read, either in Harman or Meillassoux (and I am not done yet), a questioning of the “us”, which so far, assumes that the “us” is a simplex of the human individual. The error here is not that taking into account the position of the observer, or the technics of perception of the human, is somehow a mistake—on the contrary it allows us to account for this positioning rather than simply ignoring it through the blind belief in our technologies of measurement or theorems of science as providing access to direct truth—it’s mistaking the “for us” as reducible only to the human observer in the Kantian sense.

So let’s grant Harman’s observation that all things are beings—it was already made by Deleuze, Derrida, etc. years ago anyway—and reiterate: all things are observers; general relativity applies to all. So does indeterminacy and contingency. In short, arguments of Meillassoux’s type are more anthropomorphic than they realise: they naively assume that “for us” equates to the human (and that we know what this human is, inside and out), when the more complex understandings of the “for us,” long past Kant now, take into consideration a quasi-transcendental logic, or alter-logic, which deconstructs not only the human-being, but all beings (as becoming, etc.).Sure, the 20th century was occupied with the (human) subject. I’m glad that we’re going to talk about other things now. But is branding all talk of the contingencies of the decentred subject “antirealist” at all helpful or correct? Easy answer: no, not really.

This is the same kind of argument I have so far with Harman, who also limits language to merely something among humans. If language is the trace of alterity, is alien, and is generative of the effect of consciousness (Derrida), then it cannot be said to be properly human, either. In the language of Heidegger, the things speak—and I grant to Harman that we all—dust to quirks and quarks—be things (which is to say, beings).

So far, both Meillassoux and Harman need to severely constrict their readings to rather straightforward Kantian transcendentalism or linguistic analyses which already presume language as a human construct; neither have yet dealt with the likes of Deleuze (who directly engages science throughout), Lacan (whose mathemes of the subject provide the kind of numerical basis Meillassoux champions) or Derrida (whose thinking of arkhe-writing and the quasi– provide a much more difficult challenge to a simple realism/antirealism diatribe). (I remain to read the rest of their work, so this is a provisional statement; however, so far this thesis has held for a few hundred pages now—we’ll see if there are any surprises.)

What I find particularly odd is that Meillassoux claims to be setting out to somehow defend science, and yet in doing so throws out the baby with the bathwater, trapping science in a simplism of yes/no thinking which is not how science operates (we haven’t even yet begun to discuss chaos theory). Moreover, it ignores utterly the more interesting thought from quantum physics and general relativity, which, by the way, have yet to be “unified.” Just about a century later, these two observable theories of physics have yet to find their common—how does Meillassoux handle this intractable paradox of both the yes and the no, within science?

So a proposed title of an essay, a position which is a position for philosophy itself—For Now, For Us, Yes (perhaps). Ooooh, how Derridean. Indeed: the hard Derrida deserves his return right about now. The difficult, early, very well-read, incredibly thorough, and not-so-generous Derrida. Derrida with the scalpel.

If philosophy now means, under speculative realism or OOO or whatever, being forced to answer yes/no, then all this means to me is that philosophy has been handed over to the police. I’d rather not police thought.

in hiding (from language)

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

05 july 2011

To return to Los Angeles [following the Rodney King beatings in 1991], some people have demanded that henceforth all police activity be monitored by video, that everything be filmed, in order to submit police surveillance itself to surveillance. There would thus be “black boxes” recording the police, their movements, their actions and gestures, a constant recording and an immediate archiving of police activity, which itself consists in attempting a panoptikon of civic space—of the political, and of political space itself. If all this in turn is under surveillance by satellite, we would then see the determination of an optimal optification of what could be called the ontopolitological: the totality of what binds the political to the topological and politics to space in the present (on, ontos) would be gathered together in the present, devoid of any shadow, beneath the gaze, exposed to an all-powerful photographic apparatus: no more secret, no more private life, instantaneous totalization: the totalitarian itself, etc. —Jacques Derrida (Copy, Archive, Signature 47)

Had I know of this quote, excerpted from a short interview conducted in 1991, I would’ve included it, and a discussion of its terms, in “No More Pirate Islands! Media Ecology and Autonomy” (Interculture 6:1, 2009). At the time, I viewed the earth-orbiting eye as the ascendance of an ecotechnics, an entire surveillance apparatus, and mark the dates of Sputnik (4th October 1957) as well as Google Earth (February 8th, 2005—Derrida did not live to see the watched watch the watchers, into infinite regress, filtered and selected, ad infinitum).

Even with the possibility of totalization of the eye, from above, I retain the following possibility of the gap or glitch between map and territory, the delay or deferral between the point of the image and its taking-place, also the inherent possibilities of subterfuge, camouflage, encryption, withdrawal, exodus, hiding, etc.,  as I would, I think, Derrida—that “the TAZ [Temporary Autonomous Zone] is an event born among technics that undermines if not counters the eschatology of collapse for it demonstrates the possibilility of heterotopic autonomy within a technical worlding” (62).

Whomsoever suggests that Derrida was only concerned with “language” in the narrow sense (I’m looking at you, Harman, and your strange avoidance in tackling the hard problematic of arkhe-writing in Tool-Being) has evidently never (a) read carefully his thetic assertions concerning the autonomy, alterity, and “expansion” of writing-in-general nor (b) taken seriously the thetic possibilities put forward by the undertaking of deconstruction as applicable everywhere, as an analysis of the technics of différance, which is to say, its effects and force(s).

We can no longer oppose perception and technics; there is no perception before the possibility of prosthetic iterability; and this mere possibility marks, in advance, both perception and phenomenology of perception. In perception there are already operations of selection, of exposure time, of filtering, of development; the psychic apparatus functions also like, or as, an apparatus of inscription and of the photographic archive. —Derrida (Copy, Archive, Signature 15)

—Which is Derrida reiterating much of his work on Freud’s Wunderblock, the “mystic writing pad.” But this is not only about human perception, and the alter-logic of arkhe-writing, the trace of différance, extends beyond the human per se. In fact, as Derrida writes in Of Grammatology, consciousness is but an effect of différance (166). Indeed, language is alien. The consequences of this alterity to language in relation to Harman’s narrow insistence that language is irrevocably human will have to be dealt with improperly, insofar as it complicates Harman’s negation of all differences marked in Heidegger, and the reduction of difference itself, to the opposition between Vorhandenheit and Zuhandenheit. Insofar as the trace does not exist (OG 167), it suggests something other than the totality of Being that Harman adheres to, wherein Zuhanden/Vorhanden is taken as a difference between two modes of being.

The hard argument from Derrida is, in part, this: that language, taken as arkhe-writing, as the technics of the trace, is precisely that which articulates cucumbers, dust, and blades of grass, in which all Things speak. The nature of this articulation is that of “prosthetic iterability,” or “supplementarity as structure” (OG 167). Harman’s  desire to elevate the primacy of one difference above all others—objects and tools as first philosophy—needs to be critiqued for the dogmatic return it is to precisely the logic of a transcendental signified (“we cannot know Zuhandenheit; thus it is First, to which everything else is Second”) he elsewhere wishes to subject to an intriguing, refreshing and stimulating speculative realism. In short, Harman’s conception of the radical difference of Zuhandenheit is impoverished, and it is strange indeed that he draws so much from Levinas—who requires God to hold steady—and not Derrida, who delves much farther into the “infinite regress” to which Harman admits to (in his passage on Rorty in TB), yet with much more interesting result, namely, the thesis of supplementarity at the origin and the origin as the effect of prosthetic iterability. (Yet perhaps not so strange that Harman prefers Levinas, insofar as, in Tool-Being, Harman retains the pyramid of power in which some binary needs to occupy the top spot.)

So the second thetic effect of Derrida’s hard argument is this: language-objects-tools-etc. constitute a string of substitutions, not a hierarchy of precedence in which all differences ought to be submitted to the authoritarian pair of Tool Beings. Will Harman be able to contend with the hard arguments from Derrida, and not just the soft “linguistic turn” he posits, in the narrow sense of a consideration of language only as equivalent to human speech? Can Harman handle the trace and how its inexistence nonetheless generates “real effects,” which is to say, the objects Harman loves to offer in nice, contrasting lists, but so far in Tool-Being, has nothing to say of? (I will grant him this chance in his later work.)

If the thought of différance can be introduced into speculative realism, it offers a fascinating bridge between the media ecology of technics, and media studies in general, and that of object-oriented philosophy. Why? Because différance, as in my essay above and Derrida’s work on photography, has offered an interesting way to take apart and rethink all kinds of fields, from photography to art, physics to architecture, politics and the political to gender; it has proven incredibly fruitful, not to introduce “language” in some narrow sense but to focus on the technical specificity of substituting difference—which is where Kittler and media theory comes in, as well as Latour, for that matter (I have yet to pick up Harman’s earlier essay and newish book on Latour).

A philosophically robust concept of timing-spacing-difference—différance—also offers a bridge between physics and other sciences of time, space, the universe, and so on. But if Harman rejects différance as “language”, then he also tosses out the very interesting correlative work between this thinking of spacing-timing and that of Einstein’s general relativity and Bohr’s quantum physics (as writ explicitly by Arkady Plotnitsky in Complementarity). I need also mention the immense work done by Deleuze and the entire field of studies surrounding Deleuze and Guattari to think science and philosophy here. But perhaps Harman’s speculative realism has no interest in correlative work between science and object-oriented philosophy whatsoever? Is such science—the thinking of numerical logic and probabilities, constants of light and relatives of timing-spacing, for example—”merely” all Vorhandenheit? Indeed, how convenient that would be, being able to leave reality behind entirely, so that philosophy can once again ensure its complete seclusion from the world. A true philosophy of the Zuhanden! I would hope this is not the real effect of speculative realism.