Friday, September 27, 2019

Commodity fetishism revised

The commodity-form, a hundred and fifty years ago, could be described as "the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things"*

Today however, in the context of social media, the frontline of the real subsumption of consumption under capital, this condition has been reversed. Today, the relation between things assumes the fantastic form of social relations.

*Capital volume 1, part 1, chapter 1, section 4 'The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret; page 165 in the Penguin/NLR translation.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Truth (preliminary note)


1) is a practice.
The Eternal Wisdom has truth a great crystal to which we might ascend. Science, pop science at least, has it something to be approached asymptotically, better with each generation.
Truth is not a construct but the work of constructing, on one side the increasing elegance of its logic, on the other how persuasively it describes the tohu va bohu of the world. The most fascinating practices do both.

2) as legal category
The oxymoron 'formal agreement' is therefore a contradiction: a dialogue (can dialogue ever be exhausted?) that 'ends' in a formal (and performative) statement (guilty/not guilty). Motive (soft) and occasion (hard), testimony (soft) and evidence (hard) assimilated into a single unambiguous verdict.
Query: can ambiguity ever be true? Are some occurrences truly ambiguous.

3) factish, truthiness, post-truth
2018: truth is not to be disdained, even if it means defending institutions we have always criticised (media, intelligence services, judiciary). Is common sense – which is so easily identifiable with ideology – in crisis, eradicating the common in favour of embattled tribes? Or do a) clichés and truisms b) embodied knowledge, habit, know-how and c) 'truths widely acknowledged' still have currency, as common, as commons.

4) hypothesis, proposition, surmise etcetera.
There are subjunctive modes of truth to place alongside ambiguity, the former a trajectory, the latter a condition, not far removed from confusion and proximates like controversy. (Distinguish an ill-formed question that cannot be answered unambiguously or uncontroversially from a well-formed one that is too difficult or whose answer is too complicated. We expect truth to be simple. Is it?)

Reservations: Mathematical (Badiou) and quantum (Barad) ontologies do not much deal in truth in senses 1,2 and 3: concepts of void, multiplicity, intra-action and topology - of the foam of being/becoming – are not crystalline, though persuasively descriptive.
Response: this (descriptive) ontology clashes with (elegant) administration to produce the historical (persuasion, work) as performance of truth in hypothesis testing, verdicts to be picked over.

First diagram on truths

and their contraries.

[annotation: 'Belief' here describes phenomena like pensée sauvage, theology, the hidden hand of the market, certain forms of environmentalism: - a systematisable certainty that x is the case which provides the axiom(s) for a cathedral of thinking. 'Evidence' might perhaps better be expressed as 'Testimony']

a) Truth is a practice and therefore requires media through which it can be practiced: instruments for capturing evidence, means of storing and ordering arguments and beliefs, modes of transmission, persuasion, establishing.
b) therefore truth has a history. As a practice, truth therefore has a media history. The first diagram allows for histories of modes of proof and typologies of data, for example.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Saturday, July 7, 2018

After Santayana

Those who do not consider digital media are condemned to serve them.

I thought I had better look up the source of the Santayana quote I was rewriting. It appears in a paragraph headed "Continuity necessary to progress". The context is quite shocking a hundred and ten years later. This is how it reads:

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
(George Santayana, The Life of Reason: Reason in Common Sense. Scribner’s, 1905: 284).

The pretence that oral cultures do not 'retain' is simply silly: that is why we use the term 'traditional cultures' – because they have tradition, which overdeveloped societies lack. Though it is true, as Liam Cole Young argues in his excellent book List Cultures, that the argument that writing stuff down ensures the loss of memory is at least as old as Socrates, far riskier is our delegation of remembering to databases, especially to commercial platforms from diary apps to 'Your memories on Facebook'.

Risky because, as Young says in his intro, there is "a general trend in media studies to conflate layers of form, content, technique, practice, and habit under totalizing categories like 'media' or 'network'" – and not just in media studies. The human and non-human work of remembering the past, which today is inevitably embroiled in the digital, means that a great deal of remembering is undertaken by machines which are decreasingly repetitive. Functioning AIs like Google Translate, for all their limitations (no semantic function, just vocabulary and grammar; constrained by initial design parameters) evolve quasi-autonomously from humans.

Haraway's bon mot, that 'Our machines are disturbingly lively & we ourselves frighteningly inert' requires a different response in the social media era than it did in 1991 before the launch of the first mass browsers. Our machines remember more and more stuff. We have then the job of remembering that they are machineries of remembrance.

To consider is to think through the multiple operations and factors in play in the thing we are considering, including the many historical paths that lead to this one unique encounter with a unique situation. Not only are the devices concrete aggregations of ancestral 'dead labour'; we are increasingly acting like ancestors. Their skills have been assimilated into machines: our knowledge is uploaded daily into vast databases whose operations we mostly fail to observe, let alone understand.

This is why it is so important to restore history: not, or not only, as remembrance, but as process. By and large we no longer believe in progress as Santayana did: as buzzword, 'sustainable' indicates only the modest desire to survive economic, political and environmental catastrophe. The more we act like people who are already dead, uploading our memories at the point of generation to WhatsApp and Instagram, the more urgent it becomes both to understand how databases might operate otherwise than as profit engines, and to engage in making history – not under conditions we would have chosen, but nonetheless making it; and simultaneously, because that is the condition we haven't chosen that is most propitious for making history, making the new 'we' beyond the limits of exclusively human society

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Anthropos in the Anthropocene

Talk recorded yesterday for A Clockwork Green: Ecomedia in the Anthropocene Nearly Carbon Neutral Symposium, Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) and the University of California, Santa Barbara June 2018

Conference details and videos will be hosted are at The Environmental Humanities Center at UCSB

This video runs 24 minutes. It contains bird calls and rural machinery sounds.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018


is untrue because the A on the left is in a different place: it appears elsewhere (being-there) and for those of us who read left to right the second A appears later. There is a relation of equivalence, not of identity

The crucial part of the statement is then '='. The equivalence of two appearances states that they stem from the one being. To ascribe Being is to ascribe equivalence so that the sender and the receiver can be fixed in their different places, the '=' thus referring to the equivalence of the perfect message leaving the left A and arriving in the same form at the right A.

"you can never step into the same river twice", but the river at the left A is still equivalent to its later appearing as the river at the right-hand A, except that the equivalence is under erasure. The '≠' thus indicates not only non-equivalence, but the oblique stroke of noise: a fourth party in the formula. The glitch in the equivalence emphasises the time the transmission from left to right takes, so emphasising becoming over being.

A=A is a necessary upshot of the transition from mediation to communication. Communication, which must divide the flux to secure survival, distinguishes sender from receiver (prior to subject/object, human/natural, male/female, colonist/colonised etcetera since all those distinctions require communication in order to be stated and enforced).

A=A imagines communication as perfect: left and right equal one another in the sense that they are equally informed, in this case minimally informed by the relation each enters into with the other. The content of the message '=' transmitted between the two 'A's is "the term on the left is equal to the term on the right".

'A≠A' imagines the communication as imperfect. The content of '≠' is not simply that the terms are unequal but that the message concerning their equality has been interrupted. Nonetheless, it transmits a message that connects the terms, whose content therefore is 'there is a relation between the two terms, but it is not a relation of equivalence'. (This is not startling to Lacanians, for whom the statement 'I think therefore I am' concerns two distinct and non-equivalent uses of the word 'I').

Translating '≠' as the statement of a relation other than equivalence can also be read as the statement 'the two terms are unequal'. It is impossible to tell, however, as in the master-slave dialectic, which of the two is the lesser. This is because the terms themselves are products of the initial non-identity that arises from the difference in relative location constructed by the sign of communication that divides them. This in turn is because the inequality is not inherent in either but rather in the oblique stroke which, in striking through the sign of communication between equivalents, achieves eminence over them both.

Three possible solutions:
i) the '=' is not the sign of communication but, taken in isolation, the sign of mediation, denoting the primacy of interconnection. It only becomes the sign of communication when it is placed between and divides terms. The noise of the oblique stroke that undoes the equivalence of being would then be the mark of repressed primal mediation re-asserting the pre-eminence of mediation over communication. This form of noise has environmental origins like sunspots, cosmic radiation or electrical storms. It belongs to the Real.

ii) the oblique stroke arises as an affordance of the communicative, and denotes in its most primitive form Gödel's theorem: the statement 'A=A' is either incomplete or incoherent. In this case the source of the noise is the technique of mathematics. It arises from the functioning of the Symbolic and is systemic.

iii) The diagram of 'A=A' runs left to right. A second axiom is required to complete the feedback loop ('If A=B then it is also the case that B=A'). This secondary axiom however removes the temporal distinction of the original statement ('If A then A=A'), where the word 'then' or its synonyms ('it follows', for example) indicate a direction in time. If 'A≠A' reads only as 'there is a relation (other than equivalence) between left and right terms', there is no time involved. This would indicate that solution (i) is correct, and that the repressed primality of timeless flux has erased the temporality implicit in logic. It is also the case that the secondary axiom permits its own reversal, that is 'If A=A then A'. This reversal can then itself be reversed, so that the feedback mechanism introduced by the secondary axiom enters into endless recurrence. This repetition of the same then marks not the erasure of time but its measure in terms of repetitions of the same. This is abstract or clock time. Placing the '=' under erasure, by admitting the possibility that the two A's are not equal, makes it impossible to reverse the formula A≠A since one or other of these A's, we do not know which, is the greater. This inequality would could not arise from the return of the primal '=' without terms, since the terms remain, and remain distinct from one another (that is, the expression 'A≠A may be translated as ~ A=~ A, not-A equals not-A, in which case the modes of not-being-A on either side of the sign of communication might be entirely unlike one another). A≠A is then a double negation, undoing both the perfect communication of equivalence with its tendency to infinite repetition, and the timelessness of the '=' sign when it appears without terms. True, the '≠' might still be a technical glitch in the infinitely repetitive measure of time in feedback loops. However, this glitch must itself occur within the logic of time, that is as a historical event of interruption. Thus the third solution would be that what strikes obliquely through both primal flux and infinite measure is an event. Neither the perpetual motion of primal mediation nor the infinite recurrence of feedback permit events. Therefore a third mode of time emerges in the sign '≠'. This third mode of time, the time that permits events to occur, we call history.

The third solution belongs to the Imaginary: it is structured by the division of the self into the one that thinks and the one that is; by the experience of the mirror stage where the child misrecognises its ideal image in its reflection, more potent and coherent than it feels itself to be; and which enables the child to identify with other bodies beyond itself, the first building blocks of socialisation. History belongs to the social rather than the perpetual flux of the Real or the administered repetitions of the Symbolic. Non-equivalence, non-identity belong to events, and thence to the possibility of becoming, the possibility of changing the world, to potential and therefore to action.

(note added 16.10.18): syntagmatic/paradigmatic structures in logic: that 2+2=4 and 4=2+2 are not identical, though equivalent; that 4=3+1 indicates the identity of 4 with the previous statement but non-identical partition into a different set of components; thus too 4=4+0 and 4=5-1. The mediation matters.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

For Val Plumwood

God had already loaded the dice in Eden, first by giving Adam dominion over the beasts, and then by demonstrating his own dominion through the interdiction against eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge. It was not only that God established Adam as regent over the animals, or that he placed Eve in the subordinate role, but that Adam had the power to name the animals, while she was the one who could speak to them. The fall from primal paradise was already assured by the design of paradise itself.