Monday, August 26, 2013

Drone Theory and Goldfish Crap

Generally I like the idea of dividing academic labor up so I can read the theory I like and apply it to things I don’t (“symptoms” of a damaged world). But these days, that division is breaking down, and some of the hip “new” theories are creeping disconcertingly into the symptomatic realm. In particular, some recent work on “object oriented ontology” and new materialism leaves me trying to figure out why those whose critical commitments I share might find them interesting or useful. 

The problem is not so much how to work out the theory, but to make sense of its uptake. The more I engage with this work – and, I’m not sure how much more time I really want to spend on it – the more it looks to me like a close relative of the enthusiasm over data mining and the forms of “knowledge” it generates. The logics align with one another – post-narratival, post-subjective, post-human – even though the sensibilities are ostensibly opposed. The following is a bit of a rant that emerged as a by-product of an offer to collaborate on a review of Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, a symptomatic book if ever there was one. The invitation meant having to read the book, which I found largely a frustrating endeavor, as evidenced by the following observations (all citations are from the book, which I read on Kindle without pagination):

Ian Bogost’s paean to the pleasures of the great outdoors – the “grassy meadows of the material world” casts poor old Immanuel Kant in the role of the stereotypical video gamer tethered to the tube.  It is hard not to hear in Bogost’s call to flee the “rot of Kant” seeping from the “dank halls of the mind’s prison” the all-too-familiar admonition to video game geeks to “get out of the house.” Perhaps this is a call Bogost has heard so frequently that he has internalized it sufficiently to wield it against others: the call of the great outdoors is a recurring refrain in his celebration of the mysteries of the object world – primarily and paradoxically incarnated for him in the form of high-tech electronics: digital cameras, computer games, and cathode ray tubes. “Let’s go outside and dig in the dirt” he enjoins us, but only metaphorically, really. 

In a sense, the entire book is a rejoinder to the call to get out of the house:  “I’m already outside -- that’s where I’ve been all along.” Bogost’s interpretation of what, following Messailloux he calls “correlationism” (which he equates with seeing things through the lens of how they impact humans) pits him firmly against any attempt at developing an analysis that “still serves the interest of human politics” (a charge he levels at Latour for not being anti-correlationalist enough).  But this opposition runs headlong into the repeated theme of his urgent (though largely unexplained) claim that “to proceed as a philosopher today demands the rejection of correlationalism”: we need to get outside and romp in the “grassy meadows” so we can collect the “iridescent shells” of realism and so on. If we chose to do so because it turned out to be good for us, of course, we would have succumbed to the trap of correlationism. Even animal studies is too anthropocentric for Bogost’s tastes because, “we find a focus on creatures from the vantage point of human intersubjectivity, rather than from the weird, murky, mists of the really real” – what we might otherwise describe as “the view from nowhere.” Much the same goes for Michael Pollan’s attempt at a “plant’s eye view of the world” – for “he too seeks to valorize the apple or the potato only to mobilize them in critiques of the human practices of horticulture, nutrition, and industrialism.” 

We get the message: any perspective that is in any way articulated to a human interest is ruled out in advance.  There is something disconcertingly incoherent about the Bogost two-step: step one is the unquestioned assumption that we might “wish to understand a microcomputer or a mountain range or a radio astronomy observatory or a thermonuclear weapon or a capsaicinoid [he apparently loves peppers] on its own terms.” Step two rules out the appeal to a subject who might wish to do something like this. He writes off science studies, for example, for retaining “some human agent at the center of the analysis.” OK, we get the point, Bogost wants to think about really thingy things and not those other things called human scientists or engineers.  But it’s pretty clear that what’s driving the whole show is the desire on the part of humans to experience things as things (other than human things) – even if this desire is anthropomorphically projected upon (non-human) things.

And so we are left with the thorny question of why such a perspective might be interesting. The philosopher Theodor Adorno neatly described the dialectic of autonomy: a fantasy of independence combined with the utterly irrational form this had taken. For Adorno, the autonomous artwork rehearsed capitalism’s crazy (aestheticized) embrace of production for production’s sake. What is left but to read Bogost’s injunction along the same lines: theory for the sake of everything and thus for nothing. It is a pure position, perhaps too pure, insofar as it does little to interrogate the goal of purity itself. The result is that the argument’s normative framing takes the form of recurring and somewhat mysterious demands on the reader: “the heroin spoon demands as much intrigue as the institutional dysfunctions that intersect it.” Why? To whom? These are questions that go unanswered – or perhaps such demands are only available to those who hear them, which poses a challenge for any attempt to impose them on the rest of us. 

In the book’s conclusion, Bogost briefly nods towards Levi Bryant’s claim that Object Oriented Ontology envisions “a new sort of humanism” in which “humans will be liberated from the crushing correlational system.” But after the wholesale dismissal of any attempt to frame his approach in terms that serve human interests, it’s difficult to buy into this meta-correlational gesture: the claim that we should surpass the attempt to relate knowledge to human interests, because it might be in our interest to do so (!?). Bogost slips this in so close to the final downhill run toward the blissful prospect of his argument’s end, that the reader’s tendency is to just coast though it rather than to give it the double-take it deserves. He follows with an explanation that sounds a bit more like the one that characterizes his own affinity for the extra-human – the “bored consumer” rationale: “Just as eating only oysters becomes gastronomically monotonous, so talking only about human behavior becomes intellectually monotonous.” This is not a particularly rare claim in some circles of the humanities, although one wonders just how widely distributed is the subject position that would take it as the most compelling reason to embrace a shiny new, if somewhat nonsensical perspective: a kind of intellectual ennui in search of the next big thing. Such a stance is surely associated with the somewhat sheltered subject position of gastronomic satiety, or surfeit. There is a certain luxury or self-anesthesis associated with the charge that thinking about humans and their problems is just a tad dreary. (“Why is it that one’s disregard for laundry, blogs, or elliptical trainers entails only metaphorical negligence,” Bogost asks, “while one’s neglect of cats, vagrants, or herb gardens is allowed the full burden of general disregard?”).

It is telling that Bogost’s ostensibly random lists of beings in the object world so often emphasize interesting sounding objects and words, both technical and natural. He lures the reader with bright, shiny, and mysteriously magical objects: “the obsidian fragment, the gypsum crystal, and the propane flame” (these are a few of his favorite things: musket buckshot,  gypsum, and space shuttles, redwoods, lichen and salamanders, Erlenmeyer flasks, rubber tired Metro rolling stock, the unicorn and the combine harvester, the color red and methyl alcohol, mountain summits and gypsum beds, chile roasters and buckshot, microprocessors, Harry Potter, keynote speeches, single-malt scotch, Land Rovers, lychee fruit, love affairs, asphalt sealcoat, and appletinis). We don’t hear much about toxic waste or shit stains. The object world is by definition an intricately rich and edifying one compared to that nasty, dank world of our own mind – an object still, to be sure, but not so salubrious or interesting  as the grassy meadows, iridescent shores and scoria cones. If “everything exists equally” for Bogost, some things clearly exist more equally than others.

Conspicuously absent from Bogost’s account is any explanation as to why being a philosopher today demands the rejection of what he terms correlationism. From what position is this demand made? Surely, given his round denunciation of “correlationalist” tendencies it cannot be made on the basis of anything having to do with us humans (despite the supposed benefits of escaping the dank prison of our minds). Such a perspective is ruled out in advance by the hubris-slaying, egotism-deflating thrust of anti-correlationalism.  Is the demand, then, made from the perspective of truth, based on the claim that this way of thinking accurately reflects the way things are for everything, everywhere, forever and therefore we must  adjust our own way of thinking to match the world (damn you, correlationism! Back again!). Well, why? What claim does reality have on us in Bogost’s universe?  Perhaps the claim is less a normative one (we should adopt the stance of anti-correlationalism) than a descriptive one: inevitably we will come to think this way thanks to the predictable and inexorable flow of certain types of entities called thoughts (and the claim exerted upon them by other beings). Such a perspective would embrace not a “new” materialism but the very oldest. The use of the word “must” would imply not an injunction but an inevitability: we must embrace object oriented ontology the way a stone in the earth’s gravitational field must, absent any obstruction, fall to the ground.  Such a formulation would certainly obviate the need for any kind of manifesto – (“a specter is haunting the object world: the specter of gravity!”).      

After ditching this book several times for failing to pass the basic coherence-of-thought test, I came to the realization that it is modeled much like the things it describes: unable to truly interact with other beings (like me), it simply recedes infinitely into itself. How else to understand statements like, “The construction and behavior of a computer system might interest engineers who wish to optimize or improve it, but rarely for the sake of understanding the machine itself, as if it were a buttercup or a soufflé.” He seems to be making an aesthetic point (along the lines of Kant, that dankest of thinkers): that his proposed way of understanding a buttercup is different from figuring out how a computer works because it is an apparently disinterested understanding – and emphatically not one that reflects what Kant described (realizing a certain logical necessity) as a disinterested interest. Once again, any sign of interest on our part runs the risk of channeling us back into a retrograde correlationism.

It is not surprising that one of the paradigmatic examples of the wonders of “the list” world invoked by Bogost is that of Roland Barthes’s like and dislikes, taken from his auto-biography. Ontography, Bogost style, takes the form of the database, and what is more characteristic of the database in its current market-driven configuration than the preference list?  Facebookers with their endless “likes” rehearse this list-building activity, as do databases of purchases, search terms and so on. IBM tells us that various digital sensors of all kinds gather the equivalent of 4,000 Libraries of Congress worth of data a day. But these are not books, poems, maps, plays, biographies, etc. Rather the data comes in the form of list-like collections in which the human and nonhuman mingle with the promiscuous abandon celebrated by Bogost:  credit card purchases, airline seating preferences, underground tremors, EZ Pass records, atmospheric pressure, geo-locational data, levels of particulate matter, stock market fluctuations, and so on. Such data collection rehearses the “virtue” espoused by Bogost: “the abandonment of anthropocentric narrative coherence in favor of worldly detail.” And, of course, experiencing this data flow becomes, necessarily, the job of various kinds of high-tech objects. Perhaps this is the appeal of Bogost’s theory in the digital era: the celebration of the very forms of post-human experience that characterize automated data collection (and the simultaneous de-valuation of narrowly human experiential and narrative alternatives).  

Suggestive in this regard is Bogost’s explicit rejection of the pursuit of knowledge as “metaphysically undesirable” because it violates the adherence to “A fundamental separation between objects…the irreconcilable separation between all objects, chasms we have no desire or hope of bridging – not by way of philosophy, not through theism, not thanks to science.” With a tweak to include information about things as well as humans, this formulation readily recalls Chris Anderson’s manifesto on “the end of theory” in the big database era: “Out with every theory of human behavior, from linguistics to sociology. Forget taxonomy, ontology, and psychology. Who knows why people [and things] do what they do? The point is they do it, and we can track and measure it with unprecedented fidelity.” 

Of course, “we” are not really doing the tracking here but are offloading it onto machines who do the work for us, offering up their experience of the endless litanies of information captured by a proliferating array of sensors. We might describe this reliance on the prosthetic extension of sensing, combined with its offloading onto the sensor array as a process of dronification: we oversee seemingly endless databases of information collected by remote sensing devices about everything from the online activity of consumers, to tweets, volcanic activity, carbon monoxide levels, ocean currents, subway locations, factory emissions, sales records, and on and on. The experience of our sensors can be summed up in terms of Bogost’s broadened definition: “The experience of things can be characterized only by tracing the exhaust of their effects on the surrounding world.” Such a formulation has been explicitly embraced by the data mining world in the term “data exhaust” – which does the added work of treating data as something cast off, an almost passive byproduct (but something that can be captured and recycled by those with the resources). 

Bogost goes on to suggest that the tracings of thing-exhaust can serve as the basis for speculation, “about the coupling between that black noise and the experiences internal to an object.” This is the part that is lopped off by Anderson’s formulation, which in its fascination with instrumental efficacy has little interest in such speculations. Rather the interest in capturing all available data embraces what Bogost describes as “a general inscriptive strategy, one that uncovers the repleteness of units and their interobjectivity.” He calls this process one of ontography: the writing of being, which “involves the revelation of object relationships without necessarily offering clarifying description of any kind.” Isn’t this the logic of big data mining, which unearths patterns of relationship without explanation?  

Clearly, Bogost would differentiate his goal of pure philosophical reflection from those of data mining, insofar as the latter (as outlined by Anderson) are crassly correlationist since the generated patterns are only of interest to the extent that they serve human interests (epidemiology, earthquake modeling, threat detection, marketing, etc.). And yet, the form of “knowledge” on offer, reduced to an object-agnostic tracing of the impact of objects “on the surrounding ether” models the “knowledge” generated by the database. Indeed, if we could imagine a data mining operation devoted to simply generating patterns independent of their utility to humans, we would come quite close to the process of ontography described by Bogost. He calls it alien experience, but given the ongoing development of new forms of object sensors (which preoccupy Bogost in his discussion of digital photography), we might call it simply drone experience.    

One of the more baffling – and perhaps telling – moments in the book is Bogost’s diatribe against academic writing. In tone, his critique takes the familiar form of charges against pedantry, obscure writing, and, predictably, a cloistered reluctance to pry one’s head out of the books and “visit the great outdoors” (that again!). Academics, he tells us, are relentlessly crappy writers who, even in public, insist on, “reading esoteric and inscrutable prose aloud before an audience struggling to follow, heads in hands.” He implicitly embraces the ready rejoinder that such critiques rehearse a familiar and fatigued set of clichés with the observation that, “Clichés also bear truth, after all.” Fair enough, but not ones that are interesting enough to warrant a multi-page chapter introduction.

Things start to get a bit dicier when he proposes his alternative: we need to start relating to the world not only through language, but through the things that we make, through our practice in the world (as if language, writing, etc. are not really real practices): “If a physician is someone who practices medicine, perhaps a metaphysician ought to be someone who practices ontology.” Academics he suggests in a distant echo of Thesis Eleven, spend too much time writing, and not enough time doing. He notes in passing that it seems “ironic” to even suggest such a thing in a book (rather than simply doing it, perhaps). We might take this as a call for diversity – let’s not limit ourselves to just one mode of object production (books); rather let’s make other kinds of objects (computer programs, motorcycles, maybe even some sturdy walnut shelves for all those books).

But the argument does not stop at the call for diversity – it actively disparages writing (as a form of doing that doesn’t quite count as one) by comparison with other forms of doing. At this point a somewhat confounding binarism slips into the argument. Why might it be “ironic” to advocate the making of things in a book? Isn’t making a book just as much a form of doing as other forms of doing? For Bogost, a book (or at least its ideational content – as opposed to, say, its binding) turns out not to be really a thing in the way that other things (tables, motorcycles, computer programs, unicorns?) are. Why not? According to Bogost, “carpentry” (by which he apparently means making something out of anything other than words), “might offer a more rigorous kind of philosophical creativity, precisely because it rejects the correlationist agenda by definition, refusing to address only the human reader’s ability to pass eyeballs over words and intellect over notions they contain.”

Unlike really thingy things, moreover, “philosophical works generally do not perpetrate their philosophical positions through their forms as books” (that is, their more material attributes: page texture, shape, binding glue, etc. For a book to really perpetrate its position this way, you’d have to be literally struck by it). By contrast the maker of material things (like software?), “must contend with the material resistance of his or her chosen form, making the object itself become the philosophy.” We might describe this set of oppositions as “the separate but equal” clause of Bogost’s book. He puts it this way, “all things exist equally exist, yet they do not exist equally,” by which he means, from what I can gather, that although things do not exist in precisely the same way, one group cannot be privileged over another – or, more specifically, human beings ought not to be privileged over other entities from a philosophical perspective, and vice versa.

And yet, why are those beings called books less “philosophical” in their construction than objects (like bookshelves and computer applications) crafted by philosophical “carpenters”? What makes the “immaterial” object less philosophical than the material? It is hard to extract any answer from Bogost’s argument other than that ideas are less philosophical than things precisely because their significance emerges through their relationship to humans (whereas material things relate not just to humans but to other things as well). In other words, humans are less equal than other things from a philosophical perspective, because their form of relating (as opposed to that between, say a stone and a stream) invokes a particular relation in which the mental capacity of humans is involved.

Perhaps the thrust of the argument here is corrective: we spend too much time thinking of beings for humans and not enough of beings of all kinds for one another. But the substance outstrips the tone of the argument, suggesting that as soon as humans enter the equation in their ideational (as opposed to material) form of relating, a relationship becomes necessarily less philosophical. Software (Bogost’s chosen form of “carpentry”) escapes the fate of writing because it is more “material” – that is, there is apparently more resistance in the symbolic substrate of machine language than that of human language. As in the case of, say, truing a bike wheel, or building a bridge, it is harder to make things work at a basic level when writing code than when writing theory. And yet, Bogost’s own book provides a compelling example of how, even in the realm of ideas (as in that of more material things), “simply getting something to work at the most basic level is nearly impossible.” It turns out that arguments and words can be just as recalcitrant as more material things.
If human cognitive experience gets devalued vis-à-vis that associated with the objects of “carpentry” – philosophers’ products come in for a healthy degree of scorn: “For too long, philosophers have spun waste like a goldfish’s sphincter, rather than spinning yarn like a charka.” 

Crap, it turns out, is less equal than yarn in the court of flat ontology, although this valuation reeks of an allegedly surpassed anthropocentrism: by what measure other than some presumably surpassed correlationism is yarn more desirable as a product than goldfish waste? What does that comparison even mean from the viewpoint of flat ontology – is there a ready-made imperative that differentiates spinning yarn from spouting crap? If Bogost imagines he’s doing the latter when he writes books it would have helped to warn the reader at the outset. 

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