Category Archives: ANT

Designers develop hybrid systems

Reading Verbeek’s What Things Do, I’m reminded of Latour’s handy term “hybrid”, an entity that is neither purely subjective nor purely objective, but a fusion of both.

In Latour’s eye, the distinction between nature and society, or subject and object, which has seemed so self-evident since the Enlightenment, needs to be seen as a product of modernity that has far exceeded its expiration date. No other society makes this distinction in such a radical manner, and in ours it is more and more painfully obvious how poorly it allows us to comprehend what is happening in the world. The project of modernity, according to La tour, consists of the attempt to purify objects and subjects — we set objects on one side, subjects on the other, and draw a line between them. What is on the one side of the line is then material for scientists to investigate, with what is on the other side for the social scientists. … This purification and separation of subjects and objects, according to Latour, is coming to be less and less believable. Ever more entities arise that cannot be comfortably placed in this dichotomy. Latour calls these entities “hybrids.” The irony is that these hybrids thrive thanks to the modem purification: precisely because they don’t fit within the subject-object schema, we cannot recognize them and therefore they can proliferate at an astounding rate without anyone trying to stop or change them. But now, as their numbers become ever greater, it becomes more and more difficult to deny their existence. We are flooded with entities that straddle the boundary between humans and nonhumans…

Humans and nonhumans are just as bound up together in our culture as they are in others; therefore, Latour concludes, we need to study our technological culture similarly to the ways that anthropologists study other cultures. This means studying how the networks of relations between humans and nonhumans develop and unravel. In order to understand our culture, we must trace out both the process of purification and that of hybridization; we must understand how hybrids arise and why they are not seen as hybrids. In order to understand phenomena, they should be approached as black boxes that, when opened, will appear to contain myriad relations and activity.

If we grasp and internalize this understanding of hybrids, it becomes possible to compactly differentiate how designers approach their problems versus how engineers approach theirs — and why they so often marginalize designers and accidentally prevent designers from working in the way designers believe is best. Here it goes:

Designers develop hybrid systems. Engineers develop objective systems.

*

I’ve written two elaborations of this idea, material to supply the understanding that makes grokking the compact definition above possible. I’ll post both, because there’s no time this morning to combine them.

Version 1

An engineering perspective treats design as a sub-discipline of engineering. Design adds an aesthetic (and among more enlightened engineers) and usable “presentation layer” to a functional objective system.

A design perspective ought to treat engineering as a sub-discipline of design. Once a hybrid subjective-objective system is developed through a design approach, objective sub-systems can be defined within the larger context of the hybrid system and built according to engineering methods. According to a design mindset, an engineered system is always and necessarily a subsystem belonging to a larger hybrid system that gives it its purpose and value.

The reason so few people see the obvious truth of the latter design perspective is that their vision is obstructed by a philosophical blockage. The hybrid system concept does not play nice with the modern subject-object schema. Designers learn, through the practical activity of design, to view problems in a new way that is incommensurable with modernity’s default philosophy (as described by Latour).

But designers are rarely philosophical, so the methods rarely progress to the point of praxis. Design language is all bound up with humans and the trappings of subjectivity (emotions, opinions, habits, etc.) on the side of who the design is for and the trappings of romanticism on the side of who does the designing (insight, inspiration, creativity, passion, etc.) Design practice is a jumble of “recipes” — procedures, jargon, styles and theater — a subterfuge to make design fit the preconceptions of folks who don’t quite get what designers are really up to. So design submits to modernist schema and goes to modernism’s special territory for people people, romanticism.

Version 2

Designers consciously work on developing hybrid systems where subjective and objective elements relate and interact. In design, people and things are thought of together as a single system. And things are not only material objects; they can be ideas, habits, vocabularies, etc. Whatever makes a design work or not work, including the engineered elements, as well as all business, cultural, environmental considerations are part of a design problem. When a designer opens a black box of their own making, they will see subjects interacting with objects and subjects, and objects interacting with other objects and subjects.

Engineering, on the other hand, works inside the subject-object dichotomy, and works on problems of objective systems. As a matter of method, engineering purifies objects and arranges them in systems. When an engineer opens a black box of their own making they see objective components interacting and working as a system.

From the view of engineers, the interior of the black boxes they make are their concern, and the surface layer of the box — the point where subjectivity encounters engineering, is the concern of designers. Engineers build the black box; designers paint and sculpt it to make it appealing to people.

An autobibliobiography

Well, I tried to write about my books and how I want to prune my library, and ended up writing a history of my interests. I know there are loose ends, but I am tired of writing, so blat, here it is:

I used to have strict criteria for book purchases. To earn a place on my shelf (singular) a book had to be either a reference or a landmark. In other words, I had to see it as persistently valuable in my future, or it had to be valuable in my past as something that influenced me. My library was personal.

Somewhere along the way my library became more general. References grew to include whatever I imagined to be the basic texts of whatever subject I cared about. Landmarks expanded to include any book that housed some striking quote that I wanted to bottle up and keep. How did this happen?

When Susan met me, I owned one book, Chaos, by James Gleick. This book is the landmark of landmarks. Reading it was a major life event for me. It introduced me to two of the most crucial concepts in my repertoire. 1) nonlinear processes, and 2) Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions. I loved the philosophical fairytale of Benoit Mandelbrot discovering a radical new way of thinking, and then skipping from discipline to disciple, tossing out elegantly simple solutions to their their thorniest, nastiest, most intractable problems, simply by glancing at them through his magic intellectual lens. He’d give them the spoiler (“look at it like this, and you’ll probably discover this…”) and then leave the experts to do the tedious work of figuring out that he was exactly right. And I loved it that the simplest algorithmic processes can, if ouroborosed into a feedback loop, can produce utterly unpredictable outcomes. We can know the dynamic perfectly, and we can know the inputs feeding into the dynamic perfectly — but we are locked out of the outputs until the process is complete. And then factor in the truth that numbers, however precise, are only approximate templates overlaid upon phenomena! Nothing outside of a mathematician’s imagination is a rational quantity. And in nonlinear systems, every approximation, however minute, rapidly amplifies into total difference. I’d go into ecstasies intuiting a world of irrational quantities interacting in the most rational, orderly ways, producing infinite overlapping interfering butterfly effects, intimating a simultaneously knowable-in-principle, pristinely inaccessible-in-fact reality separated by a sheer membrane of truth-reality noncorrespondance. I used to sit with girls and spin out this vision of truth for them, serene in the belief I was seducing them. Because if this can’t make a girl fall in love, what can? I still hold it against womenkind that so few girls ever lost their minds over one of my rhapsodies. They were into other stuff, like being mistaken for a person capable of losing her mind over the beauty of a thought, or being someone who enchants nerds and compels them to rhapsodize seductively. There’s a reason for all of this, and it might be the most important reason in the world, though I must admit, it remains pristinely inaccessible to me and an inexhaustible source of dread-saturated fascination. (If you think this is misogyny, you don’t understand my religion. “Supposing truth is a woman — what then…?”)

After I got married, my book collection expanded, reflecting some new interests and enthusiasms: Buddhism, Borges, and stuff related to personality theory, which became my central obsession. Somewhere around 2001 or 2002 I also became a fan of Christopher Alexander’s psychology of architecture, and I had my first inklings of the importance of design. Incidentally, one of the books I acquired in this period was a bio of Alexander, characterizing his approach to architecture as a paradigm shift. This was my second brush with Kuhn.) Until 2003 my book collection still fit on a single shelf.

In the winter of 2003 in Toronto, Nietzsche happened to me. Reading him, fighting with him, and being destroyed by him, I experienced intellectual events that had properties of thought, but which could not be spoken about directly. It wasn’t like an ineffable emotion or something that couldn’t quite be captured in words. These were huge, simple but entirely unsayable truths. I needed concrete anchors — concepts, language, parables, myths, images, exemplars — anything that could collect, formalize, stabilize, contain or convey what I “knew”. This is when books became life-and-death emergencies for me, and sources of extreme pleasure. I couldn’t believe you could buy a copy of Chuang Tzu’s sayings for less than the cost of a new car. From 2003 to 2006 my shelf grew into a library. I accumulated any book that helped reinforced my intense but disturbingly incommunicable sense of truth — what I eventually realized was a faith.

But then the question of this inexplicable state of mind and its contents became a problem to me. What exactly is known? How is it known? Why think of it in terms of knowledge? If it cannot even be said, then how can it be called knowledge? And the isolation was unbearable. I was in a state I called “solitary confinement in plain sight” with in an overwhelming feeling of having something of infinite importance to get across, but I couldn’t get anyone to understand what was going on or to consider it important enough to look into. I got lots of excuses, arguments, rebuffs, cuttings-down-to-size, ridicule and promises to listen in some infinitely receding later, but I could not find any real company at all, anywhere. This was a problem I desperately needed to solve.

Richard J. Bernstein’s hermeneutic Pragmatism is what hoisted me out of this void and gave me back a habitable inhabited world, with his lauded but still-underrated classic Beyond Objectivism and Relativism. Equipped with the language of pragmatism, hermeneutics, phenomenology and post-empiricism (Kuhn, again) I could account for my own experiences and link them to other people’s analogous experiences. Not only that — he began my reconnection with design, which had become a meaningless but necessary source of rent, food and book money. I was able to reengage practical life. But Bernstein’s method was intensely interpersonal, an almost talmudic commentary on commentaries ringing a missing central common text.

Richard J. Bernstein’s bibliography, however, was the flashpoint for my out-of-control library. Each author became a new collection. Kuhn, Feyerabend, Lakatos, and then eventually Latour, and then Harman and now Morton… etc. Geertz seeded an anthropology and sociology shelf, which is now a near-bursting book case. Hanna Arendt is a whole shelf, and spawned my collection of political books and my “CDC vault” of toxic ideologies. Gadamer and Heidegger were another space-consuming branch. Dewey, James and Peirce fill about three shelves. And Bernstein’s line of thinking led me directly to Buber, who also breathed fire into my interest in the research side of Human Centered Design (another half a case of books) and sparked a long process of conversion to Judaism (yet another half-case, and growing).

A bunch of these threads, or maybe all of them together drove me into Bruno Latour’s philosophy. Latour inflicted upon me a painful (and expensive) insight: Everything Is Important. Statistics, accounting, technologies, laws, bacteria, materials, roads. Therefore I must get books on everything, apparently. With this we finally ran out of room in my bookcases, them my library room, then our house. We had to get a storage space to cycle my out-of-season books into and out of again when I realize I must read that book right now. Susan just got a second space. I have books stacked up everywhere. I am a hoarder.

I am considering putting all these books back under review, and keeping only the books that fit those two original criteria. Is it a landmark for me? Is it a reference that I know I will use?

I cannot be everything, and I need to stop trying. I need things that help me stay me, and I need to shed the rest. Good design demands economy, tradeoffs, clarity of intent. I have a bad case of intellectual scope-creep. It is time to decide what is essential, and to prune away nonessentials so the rest can grow in a fuller way.

I have another half-written post I think I’ll finish now.

Hyperobjective spew

I’ve gotten sucked into Tim Morton’s Hyperobjects. I was reading Kaufmann’s book on Hegel, but after sampling few pages of this book on the recommendation of a friend Morton’s book felt “next”.

A few random notes:

This territory, settled first by Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and developed further by Speculative Realism, truly feels like where the philosophical action is. It is pro-science but anti-scientism, which matters quite a lot, given the left’s metastasis into an aggressively intensifying and spreading scientistic fundamentalism. It is built on the Pragmatist platform, as all good contemporary thinking is. It addresses our basic moral impulses along with our conceptions, and who cares about whatever doesn’t? This movement is for thinking folks beyond the academy. I have come to loathe the odor of papers meant to goose an academic’s scorecard. Back in the day I designed the interface for a system for capturing academic accomplishments for evaluation, so I know what drives ambitious edu professionals. Whoever let the MBAs into the dean’s office deserves to be shot.

This book definitely fits in the Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) genre. As a genre, OOO seems not only influenced by, but highly derivative of ANT, and especially Latour, in its delight in dizzyingly heterogeneous lists designed to inflict ontological whiplash, and its ironic oscillations between light whimsy and the heaviest dread. I am writing this post from Paris, and I have to wonder if this literary texture doesn’t have something to do with Latour’s Frenchness. If there is one thing the French are not, it is streamlined. OOO is an unstreamlined genre. OOO profuses.

I’m struggling for a style for my 4-page pamphlet, so I’m a little genre-sensitized right now. I crave severe streamlining, to the point of geometry. The reason for is that I want to provide a minimal skeleton or scaffolding for thoughts, not the thoughts themselves. Now, that I’m writing this, maybe my genre is the genre of design brief. This is consistent with one of my core themes, that philosophy is a species of design. If this is true, and I am no longer inclined to doubt this background faith or its implications, wouldn’t this kind of design, like all others, benefit from a design brief? Design is directed by an intuited problem. Normally a problem is implicitly and instinctually felt by isolated individuals (as inspiration), or no problem is felt (as feeling uninspired). If framed explicitly as a brief, inspiration is socialized and made available to groups of collaborators. Briefs themselves are designed things, and my favorite kind of design is brief design. (By the way, a couple of months ago I developed a simple method for co-designing briefs that feels extremely promising, and I need to write about that. Note to self.) I think this pamphlet might be a universal design brief for designing design briefs. Yeah, you know I’ll stack me some metas. This insight may be a breakthrough, or a yerba mate overdose, or both.

Another thing I’m noticing that I like about OOO is their metaphysical surveying work seems right on. The property lines they’ve drawn between being and alterity, knowledge and reality are very close to my own. The only conception of religion that has ever made sense to me is the cultivation of relationship between knowing self and the barely-known reality of which self is part. Speculative Realism seems built on this well-surveyed property, each herm in its proper place.

And if I am not mistaken, according to this survey, transcendental and transcendent are diametric opposites. In understanding, the transcendental is what we bring to the table of knowledge, and the transcendent is what not-we brings.

Ancestors and siblings of process thought

While I’m scanning passages from C. Robert Mesle’s Process-Relational Philosophy, here are two more that inspired me.

The first passage appeals to my designer consciousness:

Descartes was wrong in his basic dualism. The world is not composed of substances or of two kinds of substances. There is, however, what David Ray Griffin calls an “organizational duality.” Descartes was correct that rocks and chairs and other large physical objects do not have minds, while humans do. In Whiteheadian terms, rocks are simply not organized to produce any level of experience above that of the molecules that form them. In living organisms, however, there can be varying degrees to which the organism is structured to give rise to a single series of feelings that can function to direct the organism as a whole. We can see fairly clearly that at least higher animals like chimps and dogs have a psyche (mind or soul) chat is in many ways like our own. This psyche draws experience from the whole body (with varying degrees of directness and clarity), often crossing a threshold into some degree of consciousness, and is able in turn to use that awareness to direct the organism toward actions that help it to survive and achieve some enjoyment of life. The self, or soul, then is not something separate from the body. It arises out of the life of the body, especially the brain.

The mind/soul/psyche is the flow of the body’s experience. Yet your body produces a unique mind that is also able to have experiences reaching beyond those derived directly from the body. We can think about philosophy, love, mathematics, or death in abstract conceptual ways that are not merely physical perceptions. Without the body, there would be no such flow of experience, but with a properly organized body, there can be a flow of experience that moves beyond purely bodily sensation. Furthermore, your mind can clearly interact with your body so that you can move, play, eat, hug, and work. There is a kind of dualism here in that the mind is not only the body but it is, in Griffin’s phrase, a hierarchical dualism rather than a metaphysical one. There are not two kinds of substances — minds and bodies. There is one kind of reality — experience. But experience has both its physical and mental aspects.

To my ears, this is a beautiful dovetail joint waiting to be fitted to extended cognition. “Rocks are simply not organized to produce any level of experience above that of the molecules that form them” but if a human organizes those rocks in particular ways, for instance drilling and shaping them into abacus beads, or melting them down to manufacture silicon chips, those rocks can be channeled into extended cognitive systems which in a very real way become extensions of our individual and collective minds. It is ironic to me that even at this exact instance, in typing out this sentence, a thought is forming before my eyes with the help of rocks reorganized as silicon chips which are participating in the “having” of this very thought. And if anyone is reading this and understanding it, my thought, multi-encoded, transmitted, decoded and interpreted by your own intelligence — rocks have helped organize this event of understanding! Humans help organize more and more of the “inanimate” world into participants of experience.

And now we are wading out into the territory developed by Actor-Network Theory, which asks, expecting intricately branching detailed answers: How do humans and non-humans assemble themselves into societies? I think the commonality within these harmoniously similar thought programs is their common rootedness in Pragmatism. It is no accident that Richard J. Bernstein saw pragmatism as a constructive way out of  the unbridled skeptical deconstruction of post-modernism, and that Whitehead, who acknowledged a debt to Pragmatism, is said to offer a constructive postmodernism.

The second passage appeals to my newly Jewish hermeneutic consciousness. This is a quote by Whitehead:

The true method of discovery is like the flight of an aeroplane. It starts from the ground of particular observation; it makes a flight in the thin air of imaginative generalization; and it again lands for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation.

This, of course, is a description of the hermeneutic circle, the concept that we understand parts in terms of the concepts by which we understand them, but that our concepts are often modified (or replaced) in the effort to subsume recalcitrant parts. We tack between focusing on the details and (to the degree we are reflective) revisiting how we are conceptualizing those details. These are the two altitudes Whitehead mentions: an on-the-ground investigation of detail and a sky-view survey of how all those details fit together.

This is an ancient analogy. The Egyptians made the ibis, an animal with a head like a snake (the lowest animal) and the body of a bird (the highest animal) the animal of Thoth, their god of writing, the Egyptian analogue to Hermes. Nietzsche also used this image in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and that is where I first encountered it.

An eagle soared through the sky in wide circles, and on him there hung a serpent, not like prey but like a friend: for she kept herself wound around his neck. “These are my animals,” said Zarathustra and was happy in his heart. “The proudest animal under the sun and the wisest animal under the sun — they have gone out on a search. They want to determine whether Zarathustra is still alive. Verily, do I still live? I found life more dangerous among men than among animals; on dangerous paths walks Zarathustra. May my animals lead me!” When Zarathustra had said this he recalled the words of the saint in the forest, sighed, and spoke thus to his heart: “That I might be wiser! That I might be wise through and through like my serpent! But there I ask the impossible: so I ask my pride that it always go along with my wisdom. And when my wisdom leaves me one day — alas, it loves to fly away — let my pride then fly with my folly.”

And I have seen the Star of David as an image of the synthesis of atomistic ground-up and holistic sky-down understandings. And this is one reason I chose Nachshon (“snakebird”) as my Hebrew name when I converted to Judaism.

*

(Eventually, I’ll have to try to connect process thought with my extremely simplistic and possibly distorted understanding of chaos theory. Eventually.)

Luria-Latour

The book I have been reading for the last thirty or so mornings has been Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. I am currently reading the chapter on Isaac Luria, and it is sparking insights and connections with other things I’ve read, in particular with Bruno Latour’s philosophy of irreductionism.

Before I start quoting passages, I confess that I am doing what I always do: connecting mystical intuition of beyondness with mundane experiences of alterity (otherness) –including the experience of scientific inquiry on its outer edges — that region Thomas Kuhn famously labeled “crisis”, the phase of inquiry where the material, the symbolic, the logical/mathematical, the sociological, the psychological, the factual and the intuitive domains we ordinarily keep carefully compartmentalized blend together and interact unnervingly and chaotically. Boundaries redraw themselves and the terrain itself shifts with the lines. Smooth, solid ground of certainty becomes turbulent water which threatens to swallow and drown. New kinds of reality leap out of nowhere, revealing the fact that nothingness was concealing very real realities which had been staring directly into our eyes as we stared through them at objects we preferred seeing because we knew how to know them.

But I’ll let you judge for yourself whether I am abusing mysticism by shoehorning mystical answers into philosophical (philosophy of science) questions. Rather than pick through Scholem’s scholarly exposition in an attempt to summarize it all, I will instead quote from the overview of Luria’s life from Daniel Matt’s Essential Kabbalah:

…Luria wrote hardly anything. When asked by one of his disciples why he did not compose a book, Luria is reported to have said: “It is impossible, because all things are interrelated. I can hardly open my mouth to speak without feeling as though the sea burst its dams and overflowed. How then shall I express what my soul has received? How can I set it down in a book?” We know of Luria’s teachings from his disciples’ writings, especially those of Hayyim Vital.

Luria pondered the question of beginnings. How did the process of emanation start? If Ein Sof [Divine Infinite] pervaded all space, how was there room for anything other than God to come into being? Elaborating on earlier formulations, Luria taught that the first divine act was not emanation, but withdrawal. Ein Sof withdrew its presence “from itself to itself,” withdrawing in all directions away from one point at the center of its infinity, as it were, thereby creating a vacuum. This vacuum served as the site of creation. According to some versions of Luria’s teaching, the purpose of the withdrawal was cathartic: to make room for the elimination of harsh judgment from Ein Sof.

Into the vacuum Ein Sof emanated a ray of light, channeled through vessels. At first, everything went smoothly; but as the emanation proceeded, some of the vessels could not withstand the power of the light, and they shattered. Most of the light returned to its infinite source, but the rest fell as sparks, along with the shards of the vessels. Eventually, these sparks became trapped in material existence. The human task is to liberate, or raise, these sparks, to restore them to divinity. This process of tikkun (repair or mending) is accomplished through living a life of holiness. All human actions either promote or impede tikkun, thus hastening or delaying the arrival of the Messiah. In a sense, the Messiah is fashioned by our ethical and spiritual activity. Luria’s teaching resonates with one of Franz Kafka’s paradoxical sayings: “The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary; he will come only on the day after his arrival.”

In particular I see a profound connecting between idea of divine sparks distributed throughout the world and the notion of forces and forms of resistance described in this gorgeous passage from Bruno Latour’s one purely philosophical work, Irreductions, included as an appendix to his sociological classic The Pasteurization of France.

…We should not decide apriori what the state of forces will be beforehand or what will count as a force. If the word “force” appears too mechanical or too bellicose, then we can talk of weakness. It is because we ignore what will resist and what will not resist that we have to touch and crumble, grope, caress, and bend, without knowing when what we touch will yield, strengthen, weaken, or uncoil like a spring. But since we all play with different fields of force and weakness, we do not know the state of force, and this ignorance may be the only thing we have in common.

One person, for instance, likes to play with wounds. He excels in following lacerations to the point where they resist and uses catgut under the microscope with all the skill at his command to sew the edges together. Another person likes the ordeal of battle. He never knows beforehand if the front will weaken or give way. He likes to reinforce it at a stroke by dispatching fresh troops. He likes to see his troops melt away before the guns and then see how they regroup in the shelter of a ditch to change their weakness into strength and turn the enemy column into a scattering rabble. This woman likes to study the feelings that she sees on the faces of the children whom she treats. She likes to use a word to soothe worries, a cuddle to settle fears that have gripped a mind. Sometimes the fear is so great that it overwhelms her and sets her pulse racing. She does not know whether she will get angry or hit the child. Then she says a few words that dispel the anguish and turn it into fits of laughter. This is how she gives sense to the words “resist” or “give way.” This is the material from which she learns the meaning of the word “reality.” Someone else might like to manipulate sentences: mounting words, assembling them, holding them together, watching them acquire meaning from their order or lose meaning because of a misplaced word. This is the material to which she attaches herself, and she likes nothing more than when the words start to knit themselves together so that it is no longer possible to add a word without resistance from all the others. Are words forces? Are they capable of fighting, revolting, betraying, playing, or killing? Yes indeed, like all materials, they may resist or give way. It is materials that divide us, not what we do with them. If you tell me what you feel when you wrestle with them, I will recognize you as an alter ego even if your interests are totally foreign to me.

One person, for example, likes white sauce in the way that the other loves sentences. He likes to watch the mixture of flour and butter changing as milk is carefully added to it. A satisfyingly smooth paste results, which flows in strips and can be poured onto grated cheese to make a sauce. He loves the excitement of judging whether the quantities are just right, whether the time of cooking is correct, whether the gas is properly adjusted. These forces are just as slippery, risky, and important as any others. The next person does not like cooking, which he finds uninteresting. More than anything else he loves to watch the resistance and the fate of cells in Agar gels. He likes the rapid movement when he sows invisible traces with a pipette in the Petri dishes. All his emotions are invested in the future of his colonies of cells. Will they grow? Will they perish? Everything depends on dishes 35 and 12, and his whole career is attached to the few mutants able to resist the dreadful ordeal to which they have been subjected. For him this is “matter,” this is where Jacob wrestles with the Angel. Everything else is unreal, since he sees others manipulate matter that he does not feel himself. Another researcher feels happy only when he can transform a perfect machine that seems immutable to everyone else into a disorderly association of forces with which he can play around. The wing of the aircraft is always in front of the aileron, but he renegotiates the obvious and moves the wing to the back. He spends years testing the solidity of the alliances that make his dreams impossible, dissociating allies from each other, one by one, in patience or anger. Another person enjoys only the gentle fear of trying to seduce a woman, the passionate instant between losing face, being slapped, finding himself trapped, or succeeding. He may waste weeks mapping the contours of a way to attain each woman. He prefers not to know what will happen, whether he will come unstuck, climb gently, fall back in good order, or reach the temple of his wishes.

So we do not value the same materials, but we like to do the same things with them — that is, to learn the meaning of strong and weak, real and unreal, associated or dissociated. We argue constantly with one another about the relative importance of these materials, their significance and their order of precedence, but we forget that they are the same size and that nothing is more complex, multiple, real, palpable, or interesting than anything else. This materialism will cause the pretty materialisms of the past to fade. With their layers of homogeneous matter and force, those past materialisms were so pure that they became almost immaterial.

No, we do not know what forces there are, nor their balance. We do not want to reduce anything to anything else. …

This text follows one path, however bizarre the consequences and contrary to custom. What happens when nothing is reduced to anything else? What happens when we suspend our knowledge of what a force is? What happens when we do not know how their way of relating to one another is changing? What happens when we give up this burden, this passion, this indignation, this obsession, this flame, this fury, this dazzling aim, this excess, this insane desire to reduce everything?

When I view religion in this light, I start feeling incredibly pious and my theological doubts evaporate into panentheistic certainty, or at least a blessed doubt-failure.

The Republic of Reality

represent |repri-zent|
verb [with obj.]

  1.  be entitled or appointed to act or speak for (someone), especially in an official capacity.
  2. constitute; amount to.
  3. depict (a particular subject) in a picture or other work of art
  4. formal state or point out (something) clearly

“Now that we are no longer fooled by these maneuvers, we see spokesmen, whoever they may be, speaking on behalf of other actors, whatever they may be. We see them throwing their ranks of allies, some reluctant, some bellicose, into battle one after the other.” – Bruno Latour


If knowledge is representative, this sense of representation (4) should not be too closely equated with (3) depicting or (2) constituting. It is better to emphasize its affinity with (1) acting or speaking on behalf of a reality.

Knowledge represents reality by being its spokesman in deliberation, conveying the considerations relevant to that reality, and negotiating for where that reality will figure into whatever is being discussed. If a representative speaks well for a reality, the reality will cooperate and reinforce his claim of representing his constituency. If he misrepresents a reality, the reality will undermine and discredit his representation by refusing to cooperate as the representative promised it would.

Again: our knowledge does not depict reality or make little idea-models that correspond to a reality — with our knowledge we politically represent a reality and conveys what it does and will do with respect to a problem. We are standing in for a reality and representing it in its absence.

Of course, it pays to confer with any reality we are seeking to represent, and be good students of that reality so we can represent it ever more faithfully. When we are representing people we may have conversations with them. Or we may immerse in their lives, interact and participate so we can get first-hand first-person knowledge of what is going on. If we are representing non-human things we might have to watch, form hypotheses, interact, experiment, revise — again, so we can be taught by the reality how to represent it.

And, as Latour never tires of pointing out, every social situation is a heterogeneous collection of human and non-human actors.

Since design is nearly always intervening in some social situation in order to change it, what design researchers really do in the field is confer with the full social reality in order to understand it and fully represent it. And once hypothetical solutions are found, design researchers return to the social situation to confer with it about how it might react to them. Good designers are like good politicians — always shaking hands, knocking on doors, staying in touch, winning support.

 

Wordworlds

Nothing is improved when we replace worldviews with wordworlds.

To paraphrase Bernadette from the Jerk, “It’s not [the meanings] I’ll miss. It’s the stuff!”

Our problem is not metaphysics. It is metaphysical reductionism. And specifically metaphysical reductionisms that allow us to be individually solipsistic with our eyes, or collectively solipsistic with our ears. If we get our hands involved and through interacting with the myriad beings around us, permit a fluid and indeterminately multidimensional metaphysic to stand beyond our capacity to conceptualize — one whose essence is to occasionally shock us — we’ll be better able to live in a real world.

I really cannot read more minds-in-vats. ANT has ruined me.

The medium of action

Had Hannah Arendt lived to read Shapin and Schaffer’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump: she would never have written this:

With the term vita activa, I propose to designate three fundamental human activities: labor, work, and action. They are fundamental because each corresponds to one of the basic conditions under which life on earth has been given to man.

Labor is the activity which corresponds to the biological process of the human body, whose spontaneous growth, metabolism, and eventual decay are bound to the vital necessities produced and fed into the life process by labor. The human condition of labor is life itself.

Work is the activity which corresponds to the unnaturalness of human existence, which is not imbedded in, and whose mortality is not compensated by, the species’ ever-recurring life cycle. Work provides an “artificial” world of things, distinctly different from all natural surroundings. Within its borders each individual life is housed, while this world itself is meant to outlast and transcend them all. The human condition of work is worldliness.

Action, the only activity that goes on directly between men without the intermediary of things or matter, corresponds to the human condition of plurality, to the fact that men, not Man, live on the earth and inhabit the world.

This last sentence is perfectly, elegantly wrong, and overcoming this belief is at the very heart of Design Thinking.

Circuits

Intersubjectivity is conducted through the medium of things.

*

I and You runs a circuit through It.

Are things otherwise?: I is short-circuiting, again.

An indicator of a closed circuit: intense heat.

*

Circuit – ORIGIN late Middle English: via Old French from Latin circuitus, from circuire, variant of circumire ‘go around,’ from circum ‘around’ + ire ‘go.’

(It is interesting to think of the circuit as primarily the movement, not the substance that enables the movement.)

*

Laurie Anderson’s “Closed Circuit”

 

Universal respect

To disrespect the “mundane” obstacles that confront us in our attempts to meet our goals – to indignantly declare that some obstacles have no right to exist – to believe it is degrading to wrangle with them – such attitude are not only unhelpful practically for navigate these obstacles, they’re also unhelpful morally.

To believe one is too great to bother with  lowly things is a sure route to manifest pettiness. (Perhaps the only surer route to pettiness is obedience to lowly things.)

Holding obstacles in high regard elevates us and assists our progress. We are not degraded by humble obstacles when they compel us to afford them the respect they deserve.

This is not a vision of humility. It is the opposite of that.

Miller/Latour: What religion does

I need to make friends with some fellow-nerds whose heads combust when they read stuff like this:

Religion corrects for our farsightedness. It addresses the invisibility of objects that are commonly too familiar, too available, too immanent to be seen. To this end, it intentionally cultivates nearsightedness. Religion practices myopia in order to bring both work and suffering into focus as grace. Redemption turns on this revelation.

The principle of irreduction guarantees resistant availability and bans any slick metaphysics. Absent the singular transcendence of a traditional God, grace isn’t dissolved but distributed. An object-oriented grace is fomented by a restless multitude of cross-fertilizing transcendences, resistances, and availabilities. Here, grace is the double-bind of resistant availability that both gives objects to themselves and gives them away to others. Or, better, grace is what gives objects to themselves by giving them away to others. There is no grace if the resistant is not also available and there is no grace if the available is not also resistant. Double-bound, grace has two faces. On the one hand, grace presents as the ceaseless work required by the multitude’s resistance. On the other hand, grace presents as the unavoidable suffering imposed by our passibility. Work is grace seen from the perspective of resistance. Suffering is grace seen from the perspective of availability. Hell is when the grace of either slips from view. Work and suffering are the two faces of grace.

On this account, sin is a refusal of grace. It is a refusal of this double-bind. It is a desire to go away, to be done once and for all with the necessity of negotiation, to be finally free from the imposing demands of others. Sin denies both the graciousness of resistance and the graciousness of availability. It can see neither work nor suffering as the gifts that jointly constitute the object that it is. Sin does not want to be dependent on a grace it cannot control and it does not want to be impinged on by a grace it did not request. Sin wants the given to be something other than given.

The business of religion is “to disappoint, first, to disappoint” (Latour, “Thou Shalt Not Freeze-Frame”). Religion aims to intentionally, relentlessly, and systematically disappoint this desire to go away by bringing our attention back to the most obvious features of the most ordinary objects. Its work is to bring us up short by revealing our desire to be done with the double-bind of grace. To disappoint this drive, “to divert it, break it, subvert it, to render it impossible, is just what religious talk is after” (Latour, “Thou Shalt Not Freeze-Frame”). Habitually, we smooth over the rough edges, downplay the incompatible lines, and fantasize that the relative availability of a black box depends on something other than the unruly mobs packed-away inside. Sin is the dream of an empty black box, of a black box that is absolute rather than relative, permanent rather than provisional. Sin repurposes the obscurity imposed by a black box for the sake of obscuring grace. In this way, sin is as natural as the habits upon which substances rely. But in religious practices, “incredible pain has been taken to break the habitual gaze of the viewer” (Latour, “Thou Shalt Not Freeze-Frame”). Great effort is expended to show work and suffering as something other than regrettable. “Religion, in this tradition, does everything to constantly redirect attention by systematically breaking the will to go away, to ignore, to be indifferent, blasé, bored” (Latour, “Thou Shalt Not Freeze-Frame”).

Mark this definition: religion is what breaks our will to go away.

The trick, as Latour puts it, is “to paint the disappointment of the visible without simply painting another world of the invisible” (Latour, “Thou Shalt Not Freeze-Frame”). Something obscure does need to be revealed, but the obscurity in question is not the kind proper to what is distant, resistant, or transcendent. Rather, religion aims for a revelation of the obvious as otherwise than we’d assumed. In religion, “what is hidden is not a message beneath the first one, an esoteric message, but a tone, an injunction for you, the viewer, to redirect your attention and to turn it away from the dead and back to the living” (Latour, “Thou Shalt Not Freeze-Frame”). Life and redemption depend on this revelation of a novel tone.

(This passage is from Adam Miller’s Speculative Grace. Highly recommended, if you are one of those rare freaks who actually digs theology.)

Consolations of gnosis

I finished “Irreductions” from The Pasteurization of France.

To me, Latour looks like the most rigorous and radical fusion of Nietzschean and Pragmatist I’ve read.

*

Superficially, Actor-Network Theory looks almost amoral, but Latour always inserts a moral at the end of his fables.

ANT neutralizes the twin delusions of omnipotence in knowledge and helplessness in practice that prevents visionaries from taking an honest shot at actualizing their ideals. The consolation of knowledge has seduced the most imaginative intellects of the world to build paltry private kingdoms in their minds — each a place of its own — leaving uncontested the domination of the public world to whoever will dominate it.

ANT closes off all antipolitical paths. Those who wish to gain power have exactly one option: build alliances.

Latour’s novel insight is that those alliances occur not only between people but between people and things, and strength is nothing more or less than the cooperation lent by each participant in the alliance.

*

Some quotes from Heraclitus seem compatible with this line of thought:

“The waking have one world in common, whereas each sleeper turns away to a private world of his own. ”

“Men who love wisdom should acquaint themselves with a great many particulars.”

“We should let ourselves be guided by what is common to all. Yet, although the Logos is common to all, most men live as if each of them had a private intelligence of his own. ”

 

Where politics has no rights

A hint at Latour’s ethic:

We would like to be able to escape from politics. We would like there to be, somewhere, a way of knowing and convincing which differs from compromise and tinkering: a way of knowing that does not depend upon a gathering of chance, impulse, and habit. We would like to be able to get away from the trials of strength and the chains of weakness. We would like to be able to read the original texts rather than translations, to see more clearly, and to listen to words less ambiguous than those of the Sibyl.

In the old days we imagined a world of gods where the harsh rules of compromise were not obeyed. But now this very world is seen as obscurantist and confused, contrasted with the exact and efficient world of the experts. “We are,” we say, “immersed in the habits of the past by our parents, our priests, and our politicians. Yet there is a way of knowing and acting which escapes from this confusion, absolutely by its principles and progressively by its results: this is a method, a single method, that of ‘science.’ ”

This is the way we have talked since Descartes, and there are few educated people on earth today who have not become Cartesian through having learned geometry, economics, accountancy, or thermodynamics. Everywhere we direct our best brains toward the extension of “science.” It is with them that we lodge our greatest, indeed often our only, hopes. Nowhere more than in the evocation of this kingdom of knowledge do we create the impression that there is another transcendental world. It is only here that there is sanctuary. Politics has no rights here, and the laws that rule the other worlds are suspended. This extraterritorial status, available only to the “sciences,” makes it possible for believers to dream, like the monks of Cluny, about reconquering the barbarians. “Why not rebuild this chaotic, badly organized world of compromise in accordance with the laws of our world?”

So what is this difference which, like Romulus and his plough, makes it possible to draw the limes that divide the scientific from other ways of knowing and convincing? A furrow, to be sure, an act of appropriation, an enclosure in the middle of nowhere, which follows up no “natural” frontier, an act of violence. Yes, it is another trial of strength which divides the forces putting might on one side and right on the other.

But surely this difference must represent something real since it is so radical, so total, and so absolute? Admittedly the credo of this religion is poor. All that it offers is a tautology. “To know” scientifically is to know “scientifically.” Epistemology is nothing but the untiring affirmation of this tautology. Abandon everything; believe in nothing except this: there is a scientific way of knowing, and other ways, such as the “natural,” the “social,” or the “magical.” All the failings of epistemology — its scorn of history, its rejection of empirical analysis, its pharisaic fear of impurity — are its only qualities, the qualities that are sought for in a frontier guard. Yes, in epistemology belief is reduced to its simplest expression, but this very simplicity brings success because it can spread easily, aided by neither priest nor seminary.

Of course, I am exaggerating. The faith has some kind of content. Technically, it is the negation of the paragraph with which I started this precis . Since the gods were destroyed, this faith has become the main obstacle that stands in the way of understanding the principle of irreduction. Its only function is passionately to deny that there are only trials of strength. “Be instant in season, out of season,” to say that “there is something in addition, there is also reason.” This cry of the faithful conceals the violence that it perpetrates, the violence of forcing this division.

All of which is to say that this precis, which prepares the way for the analysis of science and technology, is not epistemology, not at all.

Irreductions

From the introduction to Latour’s Irreductions:

…We should not decide apriori what the state of forces will be beforehand or what will count as a force. If the word “force” appears too mechanical or too bellicose, then we can talk of weakness. It is because we ignore what will resist and what will not resist that we have to touch and crumble, grope, caress, and bend, without knowing when what we touch will yield, strengthen, weaken, or uncoil like a spring. But since we all play with different fields of force and weakness, we do not know the state of force, and this ignorance may be the only thing we have in common.

One person, for instance, likes to play with wounds. He excels in following lacerations to the point where they resist and uses catgut under the microscope with all the skill at his command to sew the edges together. Another person likes the ordeal of battle. He never knows beforehand if the front will weaken or give way. He likes to reinforce it at a stroke by dispatching fresh troops. He likes to see his troops melt away before the guns and then see how they regroup in the shelter of a ditch to change their weakness into strength and turn the enemy column into a scattering rabble. This woman likes to study the feelings that she sees on the faces of the children whom she treats. She likes to use a word to soothe worries, a cuddle to settle fears that have gripped a mind. Sometimes the fear is so great that it overwhelms her and sets her pulse racing. She does not know whether she will get angry or hit the child. Then she says a few words that dispel the anguish and turn it into fits of laughter. This is how she gives sense to the words “resist” or “give way.” This is the material from which she learns the meaning of the word “reality.” Someone else might like to manipulate sentences: mounting words, assembling them, holding them together, watching them acquire meaning from their order or lose meaning because of a misplaced word. This is the material to which she attaches herself, and she likes nothing more than when the words start to knit themselves together so that it is no longer possible to add a word without resistance from all the others. Are words forces? Are they capable of fighting, revolting, betraying, playing, or killing? Yes indeed, like all materials, they may resist or give way. It is materials that divide us, not what we do with them. If you tell me what you feel when you wrestle with them, I will recognize you as an alter ego even if your interests are totally foreign to me.

One person, for example, likes white sauce in the way that the other loves sentences. He likes to watch the mixture of flour and butter changing as milk is carefully added to it. A satisfyingly smooth paste results, which flows in strips and can be poured onto grated cheese to make a sauce. He loves the excitement of judging whether the quantities are just right, whether the time of cooking is correct, whether the gas is properly adjusted. These forces are just as slippery, risky, and important as any others. The next person does not like cooking, which he finds uninteresting. More than anything else he loves to watch the resistance and the fate of cells in Agar gels. He likes the rapid movement when he sows invisible traces with a pipette in the Petri dishes. All his emotions are invested in the future of his colonies of cells. Will they grow? Will they perish? Everything depends on dishes 35 and 12, and his whole career is attached to the few mutants able to resist the dreadful ordeal to which they have been subjected. For him this is “matter,” this is where Jacob wrestles with the Angel. Everything else is unreal, since he sees others manipulate matter that he does not feel himself. Another researcher feels happy only when he can transform a perfect machine that seems immutable to everyone else into a disorderly association of forces with which he can play around. The wing of the aircraft is always in front of the aileron, but he renegotiates the obvious and moves the wing to the back. He spends years testing the solidity of the alliances that make his dreams impossible, dissociating allies from each other, one by one, in patience or anger. Another person enjoys only the gentle fear of trying to seduce a woman, the passionate instant between losing face, being slapped, finding himself trapped, or succeeding. He may waste weeks mapping the contours of a way to attain each woman. He prefers not to know what will happen, whether he will come unstuck, climb gently, fall back in good order, or reach the temple of his wishes.

So we do not value the same materials, but we like to do the same things with them — that is, to learn the meaning of strong and weak, real and unreal, associated or dissociated. We argue constantly with one another about the relative importance of these materials, their significance and their order of precedence, but we forget that they are the same size and that nothing is more complex, multiple, real, palpable, or interesting than anything else. This materialism will cause the pretty materialisms of the past to fade. With their layers of homogeneous matter and force, those past materialisms were so pure that they became almost immaterial.

No, we do not know what forces there are, nor their balance. We do not want to reduce anything to anything else. …

This text follows one path, however bizarre the consequences and contrary to custom. What happens when nothing is reduced to anything else? What happens when we suspend our knowledge of what a force is? What happens when we do not know how their way of relating to one another is changing? What happens when we give up this burden, this passion, this indignation, this obsession, this flame, this fury, this dazzling aim, this excess, this insane desire to reduce everything?

Supposing truth converses…?

More attempts to internalize the ANTsy moves:

Today, physicists never discuss a matter without allowing the matter to participate in the discussion.

Physicist’s experiments always ask leading questions. The questions have a clear, coaxing thrust, and the matter in question cooperates or frustrates the hopes implicit in the line of questioning.

Much of physics is hammered out through competition between conflicting leading questions. Physicists approach a matter a make conflicting propositions. They compete for the right to speak for the matter. The matter rewards the one who understands the best with a fickle faithfulness.

Interview with a quark

If a physicist could talk directly with a quark to get hints from it that would help the physicist invent new productive theories and experiments, most physicists would get to work scheduling interviews with any quark willing to talk with them.

Unfortunately, this is impossible, so physicists must rely solely on quantitative methods.

*

So far physicists have found the material world to be composed of entities that can be taken as identical, so that what is learned from one example of a type can be applied to all other entities of the same type. Entities recognized by physics do not harbor dissenters. Or maybe dissenters exist, but are rare, uninfluential and reducible to noise.

*

When we say the entities of physics are identical, do we know what it means? In respect to the interactions we have with these entities — experiments — they behave predictably.

*

The periodic table is a segmentation of substances.

A book describing each element is a sort of catalog of personas.

*

(This has been an attempt to dance the ANT.)

On Justification

Two reasons I am glad to have read Luc Boltanski’s On Justification:

  1. I have been looking for something like Boltanski’s Framework for Analyzing the Common Worlds for two years: basically a structure for describing a lifeworld/worldview.
  2. Boltanski’s descriptions of the different political worlds in pure and hybrid form have provided me with a much finer schema for understanding political affinities and differences.

My immediate use for it is in business, in understanding political conflicts and in establishing cohesive hybrid solutions that can serve as a foundation for inside-out brand differentiation.

To me, this system is very similar to Jung’s personality theory of functions and types.

OPP

Obligatory Passage Point (OPP) is going to be a useful concept. From Wikipedia:

Obligatory passage points are a feature of actor-networks, usually associated with the initial (problematization) phase of a translation process. An OPP can be thought of as the narrow end of a funnel, that forces the actors to converge on a certain topic, purpose or question. The OPP thereby becomes a necessary element for the formation of a network and an action program. The OPP thereby mediates all interactions between actors in a network and defines the action program. Obligatory passage points allow for local networks to set up negotiation spaces that allow them a degree of autonomy from the global network of involved actors.

To put it in Jamesian language, the “cash value” of all ideas involved in a social situation transacts at the OPP — for a social scientist, at least, who is interested in accounting for the transpiring of events. Is there any perspective deeper than that? (I’ll leave that question open.)