Urbanities, the annex


Here, in the media

by craigepplin

Rereading Justin’s really excellent last post, I remembered an article by Ursula Heise (titled “Unnatural Ecologies”) about the use of the ecological metaphor in media studies. She draws out two general trends, which seemingly contradict one another. On the one hand, there is a sense of media ecology, identified above all with Marshall McLuhan, where “ecology is associated with a mode of thinking that emphasizes multiple connections between simultaneously occurring phenomena and leads to a perception of cultural and social processes as a unified totality” (Heise 154). The image of a holistic system or “unified totality,” in this strand of media theory, would seem to nullify individual action, as the logic and properties of the system itself operate autonomously.

The perceived uselessness of human agency in this picture of things is likely what spawns the opposite mobilization of the ecological metaphor, this time emphasizing “the local implantations, changeability, and social logic of technologies”—in other words, the concrete ways that humans use and manipulate technologies for their own aims (161). This deployment of “ecology” seeks out small-scale, personal interventions, not hulking, deterministic systems.

Besides laying out this interesting juxtaposition of two very different uses of the same word, Heise advocates, in her article’s conclusion, for a move away from the idea of “system” and toward the territorially embedded nature of all media technologies. She asks that we envision “media as environments among others in an overarching ecology of spatial and quasi-spatial experiences” (167). Media ecology, in these terms, is not a matter of systematic inevitabilities or of willful deployments; rather, it is a matter of a rough terrain, a media-rich environment in which I am here in my apartment gazing out my window at the house across the street, and just as verifiably here in front of my computer screen gazing into the strange lands and lives made visible through it. Neither of these places is more real than the other; each is made available to my eyes through specific technologies and modes of performing here-ness. There’s a quasi-presence to it all that seems like an adequate way of theorizing sensation.

There are consequences to this view that I haven’t fully thought out. I’m sure of that. What I’ll say here is just that this (fundamentally anti-paranoid) way of understanding our place in and with media allows us to think about experience of here-ness as a highly complex, layered phenomenon. We don’t inhabit any one ecosystem–or even one category of ecosystem (sonic, atmospheric, solar, urban, etc.). This has always been the case, but the long arm of contemporary media makes it apparent.


by imageflood

I’ve been very much enjoying Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound over the past week or so. Not a perfect book, and not for the faint of heart if you are unaccustomed to philosophical discourse. On the latter count, I must say that I greatly admire Brassier’s utter willingness to delve into the technical jargon of the philosophers he discusses (e.g., Adorno/Horkheimer, Meillassoux, Badiou, Laruelle, Heidegger, Deleuze). Rather than apologizing for their discourse, Brassier works through the distinct conceptual vocabularies of each with impressive precision. More than unapologetic hardcore philosophy, Brassier is providing us an object-lesson: that thought does not proceed by appropriating other thoughts from other thinkers and “making them one’s own”; rather, philosophical discourse itself, as what Deleuze would have called an “intensity,” demands to be thought in a certain way. The first case (“making one’s own”) is what I would term “extractive”: “I” produces “knowledge” through the extraction and recomposition of “other knowledge.” If I understand him correctly, Brassier properly recognizes knowledge production as “intractable” rather than extractive: “I” must work through “other knowledge” (philosophical discourse) in order to uncover what that discourse thinks about “me” and thus what I can know of the world.

This particular form of intractability as I’ve defined it here is a small subset of the nihilistic ontology Brassier develops. Countering all phenomenology as we know it, Brassier is arguing, I believe, for a fundamental asymmetry between thought and reality. He wants to shatter the image humans create of themselves as subjects capable of “intending” objects through thought. Rather, I would say that the object “impresses” its objectivity on any perceptive thinking subject (human or otherwise) who happens upon it. Object occasions subject, we might say, and in so doing “thinks” the subject non-subjectively. Non-subjective thinking to my mind would be something like this: in order to be known, an object demands to be known in a particular way, and subjectivity (such that it is) accretes around this particular demand.

This view is either rational or paranoid. Given that critical theory since post-structuralism has been fundamentally paranoid, let’s start with the latter option. What I call here “intractable” is for post-structuralism another word for “oppression.” We as subjects do not produce knowledge so much as the discourses of knowledge produce us. The object is not therefore “real” until powerful discourses (and hence, discourses of power) authorize us to know the object in a particular way. Or even better, no object is real until we invent the history of our relation to it after-the-fact — isn’t this what is meant by “differánce” or “objet a” or, gadzooks!, “Dasein“? But we never truly invent history, now do we. The language of history already pre-supposes any subject’s writing of it. In this sense, epistemology always precedes ontology for the post-structuralist: “Sum” only because the “cogito” is always already a word written in Latin, and hence subject to the language of the Imperial conquerors.

Nihilism according to Brassier inverts the order of the paranoid view: ontology always precedes epistemology. Following Meillassoux, objects propose reality whether or not subjects are there to know it. And more, the proposition of reality is thoroughly contingent, never determinate. The object is that which “happens to be the case,” not the truth of that which, pace Wittgenstein, “must be the case.” And when said object happens upon me, it structures the way I will bring it to mind — but again, there is nothing but contingency in such a mindful arrangement. Epistemology does not necessarily determine my knowledge of it; more precisely, the object suggests through happenstance my epistemological relation to the object being-there. It is not my Dasein that determines the object; if I’m lucky, I might think of a way for my being-here to accord with how the object got-there.  So let us destroy the notion that the Word came before the world. The world arranges itself through repetition, and since they are in the world too, our words and minds arrange themselves and their relation to the rest of the world through repetition.

To my mind, such notions help me think through two facts of utmost importance. First, you cannot listen to music until you feel its pulse, the repetition of voices in relation to one another. “Pulse” or “beat” is just another term for the reiterative arrangement of discrete elements. Thus, music need not be heard only as mere phenomenal illusion of human perception. Galaxies pulse: a galaxy is an intensive pulsation of stars and planets with respect to one another. Hence, Ornette Coleman’s bands also pulse. We might think of pulse as genotype — of which music, life, and gravity are reiterative and recombinatory phenotypes.

Second, once human knowledge comes into accord with non-human reality, knowledge can become part of that reality. This is not necessarily true, but contingently possible: the episteme is not a phenotypical expression of the ontological genotype, there is no such facile analogy between world/knowledge and genotype/phenotype. Rather, I would prefer to frame human thought as epi-genotypical: human knowledge happens to feed-back into the pulse of the universe from which it repeats as simulacra. The contingent pulse of this universe has it, for instance, that we know how to balance physical forces to build skyscrapers and cities. We think of skyscrapers only if they are physically possible, and then we build them as concrete manifestations of human thought. We inscribe the landscape with our cities, at which point the city becomes the landscape of human thought. Even though the landscape as such existed prior to human thought, and even though the universe will expire well after humans are extinct. Or in more precise technical jargon, human thought extinguishes itself thus: ontology precedes epistemology, so that epistemology might become ontological.

A city and its architecture situate themselves into the world as part of the “pulse” of the landscape without necessarily identifying with it… and that’s The Shape of Jazz to Come.


by craigepplin

I’ll have to let Justin’s last post stew a bit before writing something more substantial, but I can’t help but mention something that I see toward the end: the idea that genotype and phenotype engage in a constant, back-and-forth translation. It’s a great image, and it reminds me of another of Deleuze’s famous formulations, which is the relation between the virtual and the actual. The first encircles the second, moves in its direction, but never fully becomes it. Pure actuals do not exist–I don’t have the exact quote here, but he writes something roughly equivalent to that.

What if we place this formulation into a hall of mirrors, this time with genotype and phenotype both as virtual approximations of themselves. Neither ever becomes fully manifest, since there is constant movement between them. If that’s the case, then all existence takes place in flux between these two ideal states. (Latour once wrote something along these lines about structure and agency, that everything is both at once, never one or the other.)

Simulacrum as Material

by imageflood

I think this recent spate of conversation on this Annex is finally pushing Urbanities to the elaboration of its purpose: namely, to uncover the underlying structure of the “soft architecture” called “global ecology.” Craig might disagree with me on this point, and the following as well: that this underlying soft-architectural structure is not form, but genotype. And if I understand Craig’s last long post to the Annex (Deleuze with Darío), the material relation genotype/phenotype is not formal. It’s simulacral. 

His post gave me pause to re-read Deleuze’s “Plato and the Simulacrum,” such a beautiful little article. Like most everything he wrote, Deleuze seeks to throw everything essential out the window, i.e., anything that can be said to have an essence, and yes I deliberately threw a particular reference out the window in reference to Deleuze, who essentially owned the metaphor absolutely at the end of his life. But this is fodder for another post. As Craig excellently notes, Deleuze rejects the notion of “copy” in the sense of it being traceable back to an original essence; the simulacrum is purely appearance, surface, “image without resemblance.” Copies are secondary to the [imputed] original, but at least they retain a moral, and therefore superior, relation to a “true” reality of essences, or what I would more rightly call a “reality of absolute truths and falsities”:

The catechism, so fully inspired by Platonism, has familiarized us with this notion. God made man in His own image and to resemble Him, but through sin, man lost the resemblance while retaining the image. Having lost a moral existence in order to enter into an aesthetic one, we have become simulacra.

Deleuze’s more immediate target, however, is not the soul, but language and the sign. Once the sign is known to be arbitrary, it makes no sense to think of the sign as a copy of the thing, or the thing a copy of the Word. Deconstruction 101. Or as Deleuze would have it, language is a series of arbitrary signs in which “only differences are alike,” rather than “only that which is alike differs.” He continues:

Here are two readings of the world in that one bids us to think of difference in terms of similarity, or a previous identity, while on the contrary the other invites us to think of similarity or even identity as the product of a basic disparity. The first one [“only that which is alike differs”] is an exact definition of the world as icon. The second [“only differences are alike”], against the first, defines the world of simulacra. It posits the world itself as phantasm.

The phantasmic-simulacral definition of the world is nowhere more apparent than Darío’s “Yo persigo una forma,” in more ways than even Craig lets on in his brief reading of the poem. Darío laments through his sonnet that he will never be able to live in and through the “pure” forms he has so relentlessly pursued as a modern poet. His words are his poems are his life, but these are “only differences [that] are alike.” The lament culminates in a verse that Craig did not cite:

y el cuello del gran cisne que me interroga.
[and the neck of the great swan that interrogates me.]

The great swan should be a symbol of purity, the divine phallus, God-the-Father [Zeus], all that is good and logos… one could extend the list of metaphorical differences that hide in the neck of the swan as pseudo-metonymical likenesses. But here the swan’s neck doubles back down upon the poet – literally. We don’t get the whole swan, just the neck that rises up and curves back down. And the poet leaves this image open in radical questioning, again literally. The swan does not interrogate the poet through words, since obviously swans – even symbolic ones – don’t speak. But the swan nonetheless leaves the question open in language, written language, as a marca de interrogación. The question mark, that written symbol that conveys gesture, indicates a rise in intonation, but that itself does not raise its voice. The question mark, a symbol not of symbols per se, but a punctuation symbol, infinitely reproducible in any common newspaper or blog post. Or book of poetry. The neck of the swan is a question mark, the physical form of an interrogation, differences in tone that are alike in shape.

But this leaves us with another set of simulacra altogether. Darío’s modernismo is worldly, not other-wordly, given how  perilously close it resides to the simbolisme of the French poètes maudits enshrined by his beloved Verlaine. Is modernismo thus a mere secondary copy of some more original, more formal, and hence more morally legitimate simbolismo? The reader can only answer affirmatively by inserting his or her own cultural hierarchies, by which a wandering Nicaraguan poet will always arrive to a Parisian dinner-party late (and poorly dressed). Except that Verlaine is no original, just a simulacrum of Baudelaire, who is a simulacrum of something else, which is just as likely a simulacrum of Darío, once we relinquish the hierarchies implicit in the form-content, original-copy relation. What all of these poets share – simultaneously – is their modernity, and what makes them modern is the recognition that all existence is really superficial existence, aesthetic experience. What makes them modern is superficiality and something else: a desire to experience an aesthetic order (“form” or “symbol”) that would “re-connect” differences as likenesses, “re-connect” simulacra to some original.

Deleuze helps us frame the impassibility of the modernist endeavor, therefore. At the center of modern/ist experience there is a void, because simulacra have no originals and therefore cannot be re-connected to them. Poets have long recognized this to be the case, but perhaps it was not until the 19th century that the impassible became impossible. By comparison, Sor Juana always had a void in the center of her aesthetic, which she filled with God. Darío filled the center of his aesthetic with a question mark, ineffable punctuation that only serves to lead us to some subsequent rejoinder. Silence, too, is a rejoinder.

Darío, in spite of his own overt intentions, only leads us back to the world order of the simulacrum based in the impossibility of origin. This means there can be no “Third World” so ordered based on the originality of the “First.” Or in the terminology of Darío’s day, there is no “progress,” and hence no “order” based on “progress.” (Either way, such kinds of international hierarchy only lead to bad policy in the best of circumstances, and can only be maintained by violence in the majority of circumstances.) More to the point of the present conversation, perhaps Darío would have been happier had he not pursued a form. Perhaps the real relation between poet and poem is genotype and phenotype. In the geno/pheno-typical relation, there is no similarity or difference, no before or after, no origin or copy. The phenotype is not a representation of the genotype. Genotype and phenotype certainly do not resemble one another, but are no different for lacking resemblance. There is just translation.

That is, the genotype holds information and the phenotype metabolizes this information, and the metabolic translation at times re-encodes information into the genotype. Such re-encoding is often called “evolution,” but the information nonetheless maintains consistency in movement between genotype and phenotype. Or better still, information subtends the relation between genotype and phenotype, and this information is clearly historical. Information inheres in the genotype and it is inheritable through the phenotype. Yet information itself is no origin and has no origin: perhaps informational origins have yet other origins before them, but such speculations are insignificant to the fact that translation between genotype and phenotype continues unabated.

The genotype/phenotype relation is not formed in time and space or formed by space-time. The genotype-phenotype relation informs the ontological translation of place and history into the material environment.

A link, no more no less

by craigepplin

I posted some notes on a couple videos over on my own blog that, I think, bear some relationship to the geno/pheno discussion.

Enjoy the holiday, US-based readers.

Deleuze with Darío

by craigepplin

The general equivalence Justin draws between formalism and metaphysics reminds me of Gilles Deleuze’s essay “Plato and the Simulacrum.” Deleuze claims that the “great manifest duality” in Plato’s thought—between “the Idea and the image”—exists only “to guarantee the latent distinction between… two types of images”: the copy and the simulacrum. The latter represents, for Deleuze, not merely an exaggeration of the former. That is, the simulacrum is something other than “a copy of a copy, an endlessly degraded icon, an infinitely slackened resemblance.” Rather, there is a simple but fundamental difference between the two: “The copy is an image endowed with resemblance, the simulacrum is an image without resemblance.” Hence the copy’s relative virtue and the simulacrum’s “daemonic” character. Establishing and maintaining this difference is the entire point of insisting on the distinction between the world of forms and the world of appearances. This dualism works to tame the threatening proliferation not of copies, but of simulacra.

That proliferation is threatening precisely because the simulacrum deceives. It is strategic. It does not seek resemblance as an end, only as a means. As Brian Massumi wrote, in a gloss on Deleuze’s essay,

An insect that mimics a leaf does so not to meld with the vegetable state of its surrounding milieu, but to reenter the higher realm of predatory animal warfare on a new footing.

The effect of simulation is superficial. We only believe in it because we get lost in the depths of the deception. “The simulacrum,” Deleuze writes, “implies great dimensions, depths, and distances which the observer cannot dominate.” The ultimate threat of these depths is that we will go mad: “folded within the simulacrum there is a process of going mad, a process of limitlessness.” Platonism, we read, works like an antidote to this madness.

That madness is what we find in the poem Justin mentions, Rubén Darío’s “Yo persigo una forma,” a sonnet that centers on the poet’s impossible quest for form. Adequate inspiration (“la visión de la Diosa,” no less) abounds; what is lacking is the form in which to express it in human terms. But everywhere he looks, the poet finds only matter in motion, not the hypostasis of form:

Y no hallo sino la palabra que huye,
la iniciación melódica que de la flauta fluye
y la barca del sueño que en el espacio boga;

What surrounds him, then, is all the lush, living, raw materials of poetry, the displacements of matter that he’d like to capture and put into verse. Of course, by the end of the poem, he’s already done so—he’s written a sonnet—but we must believe that this form is inadequate to the demands of reality. That’s one of the points of Darío’s modernista experiment: to wrestle with this inadequacy, to write poems that lay it bare, creating the ironic, distancing effect of a poem commenting on its own incapacity to arrive at what it aims to be.

And it works just as long as we accept the temporal succession of form and content. The content of the poem Darío doesn’t and can’t write won’t really appear without the necessary form. But we don’t need to accept this temporality, just as we don’t have to accept the police line between good copies and bad simulacra. Form and content overlay one another. They produce each other incessantly. Darío’s word that flees, the melody of his flute, his ship of dreams that’s making its way through space: none of them are raw materials awaiting proper enunciation. They are, rather, form and content meshed together, a duration of matter that doesn’t need this distinction.

In an essay I’m teaching tomorrow, César Aira puts it well: the dialectic of form and content is precisely what the avant-garde sought to recast with its renewed emphasis on procedure. And, though Aira doesn’t say this, procedure is the world of simulacra. It is a world of “creative chaos” (Deleuze), where a messy, contaminated doing takes the place of deliberation and formal designs.


by imageflood

Re: Craig’s last post to the Annex, positing the possibility of “digital genetics.” The underlying (genetic!) problem is, I believe, the extent to which we accept the possibility of design beyond the human realm, i.e., non-human design. Most systems of order known to us seem to depend upon a distinction of form/content. “Known to us” refers to our capacity as humans, first, to divide the universe into systems designed by humans (what we call “culture”) and systems not designed by humans (“nature”). Architecture, mechanics, computation, cities, etc., while they may lead to disorder or lack of control, are nonetheless designed for and by human intelligence. Nature, too, is said to have a “design” on some level; most of Euro-Occidental philosophy has been oriented to determining whether this design is “intelligent” or not.  In either case, though, “design” can be discerned through forms of relations that yield material contents. The form-content paradigm is so ingrained after centuries of use that it almost seems impossible — indeed it is merely extremely difficult, but not impossible — to think outside of a metaphysics. That is, in order to think one is (almost) compelled to accept the metaphysics of formal laws governing any material content. “Metaphysics” to my mind is just another word for “formalism,” and “freedom” is just another word for “nothing left to lose.”

That last clause might be “Me and My Bobby McGee,” but I digress…

I would speculate that one could avail of a “genotype/phenotype” paradigm as a way of avoiding the pitfalls and pratfalls of a compulsory metaphysics. In one sense, geno/pheno might help us think past the divide between culture and nature, especially as concerns the biopoliticization of the genome and the related mechanization of genetics (instrumentalization of life).  In another sense, geno/pheno avoids the temporization inherent to form/content. Form must exist prior to content (even in the idea of “emergent form” I suspect), whether one is talking in terms of geometry, biology, poetry, psychoanalysis, politics. If time has a content, for instance, there must be a “time before time” for time to be as such, and this “time before time” is nothing less than “Pure Being,” “God,” take your pick, it’s all metaphysics. In an alarming number of cases, the form is only present as unspeakable absence for which humans scramble maniacally to capture and control. Just read “Yo persigo una forma…” by Rubén Darío to see what I mean. Any langue first requires parole as empty signifier. Lacan’s subject requires lack in order for subjectivation to occur. “The sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception,” quoth Carl Schmitt, where the “exception” is the absence, the “pure violence,” the “natural force” that the law struggles to capture under its own legality.

The genotype and the phenotype, by contrast, are coterminous and cohabitant. You read these words on the screen and you don’t read the code by which these words are projected on the screen, and yet these are the same. Global order has many phenotypical manifestations (“globalization”; “neoliberalism”; “Anthropocene”); but global order is (also) defined by the economization of the genotype, extending oikonomia to the genome.

As concerns the “soft architecture” with which this discussion began, I would say that we need to see past the phenomenon of design, phenomenal design, and deliver ways to think through the genomenon.

Urbanities [n. pl.]:

by imageflood

UrbanitiesAnnex || UrbanityXanax

Digital genetics

by craigepplin

One thing Justin mentioned in his last post was the genotype-phenotype distinction when discussing architectural amalgamations of steel and glass and information. Doing some reading for a class I teach, I came across a related formulation. It’s in an old text by Loss Pequeño Glazier, called “Poetics of Dynamic Text.” He lays out three conceptions of dynamism: the dynamics of reader reception, the dynamics of reader manipulation, and the dynamics of the text that itself remains unstable. He thinks the last of these is the most relevant one for understanding digital textuality. Here’s the key quote:

When the artistic work is forced away from fixed form, one must look deeper for a sense of meaning. This means looking to the concept, mechanism, or operation that underlies the work, querying the core stability underlying the work, that which remains constant beneath its litigious, shifting illusion of the surface.

I think it is relevant for some of the discussions we’re having at Urbanities because it asks us, also, to look for the stability underlying the unstable text (one example of which might be Glazier’s own Luz). It seems not too far-fetched to extrapolate from this idea, looking for the affective, “genetic” (digital) flows that underlie the (again, digital) “phenotype” of contemporary urban experience. Screens are the outward expression; software and the movements it makes possible are the foundation.