Monday, July 22, 2024

Labor and Monopoly Capital, Chapter 16

Summary of Chapter 16: Service Occupations and Retail Trade

The giant mass of workers who are relatively homogeneous as to lack of developed skill, low pay, and interchangeability of person and function (although­ heterogeneous in such particulars as the site and nature of the work they perform) is not limited to offices and factories. Another huge concentra­tion is to be found in the so-called service occupations and in retail trade. (248)

The reasons for the growth of the service sector have already been discussed in chapter 13; they fill in for functions previously played by communities, etc.:

the completion by capital of the conquest of goods-producing activities; the displacement of labor from those industries, corresponding to the accumulation of capital in them, and the juncture of these reserves of labor and capital on the ground of new industries; and the inexorable growth of service needs as the new shape of society destroys the older forms of social, community, and family cooperation and self-aid.

B quotes Marx to the effect that a “service” is “nothing more than the useful effect of a use-value.” However, unlike directly productive labor creating objects, in this case no object is created:

The useful effects of labor, in such cases, do not serve to make up a vendible object which then carries its useful effects with it as part of its existence as a commodity. Instead, the useful effects of labor themselves become the commodity. When the worker does not offer this labor directly to the user of its effects, but instead sells it to a capitalist, who re-sells it on the commodity market, then we have the capitalist form of production in the field of services.

B notes that the census, etc., are much more lax in their definition of “service work” than his “scientific” definition, including, for example, restaurant cooks, etc. who produce tangible objects, as “service workers.” Part of this is the same old obfuscatory counting which gives the illusion of a shift from production to “service” work. A note on transportation:

Workers in transportation are often regarded as workers in a “service” industry, but if the location of a commodity is taken as an important physical characteristic, transportation is a part of the process of production. And if we do not take this view we fall into insuperable difficulties, because we are forced to extend the distinction between “making” and “moving” back into the factory, where many workers do not play a role in fashioning the object with their own hands but merely move it through the plant, or through the process. The distinction so applied becomes meaningless and even ridiculous. (149)

Management in fact recognizes this when they do time and motion studies on their “service” workers such as chambermaids [cf. In-N-Out!].

All this really just illustrates that capitalism does not care about the “determinate form” of labor, but its social form:

They merely illustrate the principle that for capitalism, what is important is not the determinate form of labor but its social form, its capacity to produce, as wage labor, a profit for the capitalist. The capitalist is indifferent to the particular form of labor; he does not care, in the last analysis, whether he hires workers to produce automobiles, wash them, repair them, repaint them, fill them with gasoline and oil, rent them by the day, drive them for hire, park them, or convert them into scrap metal. His concern is the difference between the price he pays for an aggregate of labor and other commodities, and the price he receives for the commodities—whether goods or “services”—produced or rendered. (250)

Thus, capitalists do not care about the “determinate form” of the labor, (whether something tangible or intangible is produced), but of the social form, that is, whether this sort of work, which has always been done, has been transformed into wage work from which a profit is extracted. “And this began on a large scale only with the era of monopoly capitalism which created the universal marketplace and transformed into a commodity every form of the activity of human­kind including what had heretofore been the many things that people did for themselves or for each other.”

B discusses Adam Smith’s misunderstanding of service labor as merely wasteful, because in his day it was something capitalists spent their own income on, rather than something they invested in for further profit. B adds that it has been an error among economists of every age to always assume that the most prevalent or growing form of labor of their own time is the most important; it becomes increasingly clear with monopoly capitalism and the universal market that in the end, they are all the same and interchangeable from a capitalist perspective.

He turns to the effects of mechanization and industrial processes in deskilling even this sector, for instance restaurants relying on frozen foods, so they don’t need skilled cooks, they need “thawer-outers” (256). He talks about supermarkets and checkout clerks, describing the beginning of checkout scanners in his day, speeding up and eroding the skill and knowledge needed by grocery checkout clerks who now just wave the produce over the scanner [although it is easily seen how much faster even these “deskilled” clerks of today are compared to the customers in the self-check out line; at my local store they will see you searching for your produce on the screen, walk over, and rapidly push several buttons to get you on your way; so it is notable that even in “deskilled” operations workers still develop situational knowledges and skills, basically out of whatever is available to them in that setting. This is not to argue against B’s point but rather to suggest that human creativity and – whatever the word would be, ability to create situational knowledge and skill? – is unlimited and undefeatable.]

In sum, much of the new service work sector is poorly paid, dead-end work, and it is primarily women who are stuck in it; this puts the lie to the breathless spoutings of “enthusiastic publicists and press agents of capitalism (with or without advanced degrees in sociology and econom­ics)” (258), of Braverman’s day, who touted the supposed societal benefits of the increasing service sector.

Friday, July 19, 2024

Smooth City, Chapter 1


René Boer (2023), Smooth City: Against Urban Perfection, Towards Collective Alternatives. Valiz, Amsterdam.

Summary of Chapter 1: Welcome to the Smooth City

In this brief introduction, Boer illustrates the “smooth city” with the example of Amsterdam’s Reestraat. He sets up a by now very familiar opposition between the homogenized, “perfect” and “safe” city produced by the process of “smoothening” which he will discuss, and the more interesting and diverse cities which the smooth city replaces, erases, or displaces – he cites several of the earlier authors in this discourse (Jacobs, Sennett, Debord, etc.). I say it is a familiar discourse (cf. the Hollow City, the Soft City, etc.), but this does not mean it is not still timely and relevant, and in need of a clear articulation of the current state and processes involved, and means of fighting back, which this book promises to discuss, in terms of queering and commoning. Boer invokes Benjamin and Lacis’s concept of porosity as a potential counterpoint to the smooth city; he also spends some time clarifying the difference between his concept of smoothness, and the “smooth space” discussed by Deleuze and Guattari.

Wednesday, July 17, 2024

The Revolution of Everyday Life, Chapter 4

Summary of Chapter 4: Suffering

V’s summary:

Suffering caused by natural alienation gave way to suffering caused by social alienation, while remedies became justifications (1). Where there was no justification, exorcism took place (2). But from now on no subterfuge can hide the existence of an organisation of suffering, stemming from a social organisation based on the distribution of constraints (3). Consciousness reduced to the consciousness of constraints is the ante­chamber of death. The despair of consciousness makes murderers for Order; the consciousness of despair makes murderers for Disorder (4). (44)

The chapter begins with a description of the “sonorous architecture” of the urban soundscape, “which overlays the outline of streets and buildings, reinforcing or counteracting the attractive or repulsive tone of a district” (44), a nice reminder of the intersection between situationalist urbanism, and rhythmanalysis. This quickly segues, however, into a chorus of voices, as The They or the generalized other, repeating slogans of resignation and powerlessness, which we absorb. The subject becomes the acceptance of suffering and its “rites of exorcism” which simply lead to more suffering, in an endless cycle.

V tells a little just-so-story about the original “natural alienation” of prehistoric humans facing a hostile environment; as indicated by his previous invocation of “non-adaptation” (meaning cultural adaptation), humans develop the social as a protection against natural alienation, but this results in alienation becoming social, social alienation. He jumps forward to religion, particularly Christianity, as a sort of [protection racket], seeking to rid us of our alienation by imposing alienation anew: “protect yourself against mutilation by mutilating yourself!” (45).

He ends this first section with a very dense paragraph, starting off with the liberal bourgeois ideology that replaces religion with its own metaphysics and illusions of “human nature,” treated in turn by social responses which lead to further alienation. Revolutions provide the example of a possible alternative social order “from which the pain of living would be excluded” (46), but the state socialist societies of the 20th century just repeat the same old bullshit. Lower-case “history,” made by the people through struggle, must fight against official state “History.”

Beyond fetishised history, suffering is revealed as stemming from hierarchical social organization. And when the will to put an end to hierarchical power has sufficiently tickled people’s consciousness, everyone will have to admit that armed freedom and the weight of constraints have nothing metaphysical about them.

“Technological civilization” celebrates “happiness and freedom” meaning also the ideology of happiness and freedom [which presumably means something like modern consumerism, and/or the need to all pretend like we are happy]. The promise of bourgeois thought, and of the bourgeois revolutions, have the benefit that they show that the suffering we have all been asked to accept as inevitable, is not actually inevitable. “That is why bourgeois thought fails when it tries to provide consolation for suffering; none of its justifica­tions are as powerful as the hope which was born from its initial bet on technology and well-being” (46-7).

People try to find ways to escape suffering, from self-flagellation to the media spectacle of other people’s sufferings, However, “The only real joy is revolutionary.” V ends this section discussing the joy of pain and grief as an outlet for all this pent-up suffering: “I sometimes feel such a diffuse suffering dispersed through me that I find relief in the chance misfortune that concretises and justifies it, offering it a legitimate outlet.” Mourning loss, crying, etc., all allow us to release our pent-up suffering for an acceptable pretext [but he seems to be leading to the same kind of argument he has made before, that this grief (like smashing bottles, murder, etc. in earlier chapters) betrays a pent-up revolutionary potential that stands in opposition to the drab living death of current society].

Suppose that a tyrant took pleasure in throwing prisoners, who had been flayed alive, in a small cell; suppose that to hear their screams and see them scramble each time they brushed against one another amused him no end, and caused him to meditate on human nature and the curious behaviour of human beings. Suppose that at the same time and in the same country there were philoso­phers and wise men who explained to the worlds of science and art that suffering had to do with the collective life of men, the inevitable presence of Others, society as such – wouldn't we be right to consider these men the tyrant's watchdogs? By proclaiming such theses, existentialism has exemplified not only the collusion of left intellectuals with power, but also the crude trick by which an inhuman social organisation attributes the responsibility for its cruelties to its victims themselves. (48)

Thus V castigates existentialism and other modern philosophies as just new versions of the same old fatalism that discourages resistance against injustice and oppression: “Witness Sartre’s hell-is-other-people, Freud’s death instinct, Mao’s historical necessity. After all, what distinguishes these doctrines from the stupid ‘it’s just human nature’?”

V admits the potential criticism that his writing on this risks “fostering a new fatalism;” “but I certainly intend in writing it that nobody should limit himself to reading it.”

V next attacks altruism in equally hostile terms, as the flipside of “hell-is-other people:”

What binds me to others must grow out of what binds me to the most exuberant and demanding part of my will to live – not the other way round. It is always myself that I am looking for in other people; my enrichment, my realisation. … The freedom of one will be the freedom of all. A community which is not built on individual demands and their dialectic can only reinforce the oppressive violence of power. (49)

“Altruism” reduces people to things, and the love of things; “solidarity” in turn is just the left equivalent, an appeal to a mystical and mystified “equality” that is set up against the individual as an other, rather than to real, liberatory equality:

For myself, I recognise no equality except that which my will to live according to my desires recognises in the will to live of others. Revolutionary equality will be indivisibly individual and collective.

Power tries to make you like itself, with its same castration and living death. “Suffering results from constraint. A portion of pure delight, no matter how tiny, will hold it at bay. To work for delight and authentic festivity is barely distinguishable from preparing for a general insurrection” (50-1).

Monday, July 15, 2024

On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects, Part 2, Chapter 2


Summary of Part 2, Chapter 2: The Regulative Function of Culture in the Relation between Man and the World of Technical Objects. Current Problems.

In this chapter Simondon makes his case for mechanology as a corrective to the historical and cultural failure to properly make sense of the relationship between humans and machines. He starts back again with the Encyclopedists: they did not understand machines as fully automata; instead, they still thought of them as assemblages of devices, in other words, at the level of the element. This led to a false sense of, and belief in, continuous progress (because it is possible to see such continuous progress in the saturation/concretization of elements; if they had been thinking at the level of individuals or ensembles (I think he would say), progress would not only appear “serrated” in S’s terminology, it would also not be misunderstood as some mystical process that happens by itself).

In any event, it is the way change happens at the level of the element in the 18th century, which characterizes that period’s mix of euphoria and anxiety regarding technology. Euphoria arises from the experience of continuous improvement ongoing during that time; anxiety in this period regards “those transformations that provoke a break within the rhythms of everyday life, making the old habitual gestures useless” (130). S delineates an interesting distinction between tools and instruments, “if by tool one understands the technical object enabling one to prolong and arm the body in order to accomplish a gesture, and by instrument the technical object that enables one to prolong and adapt the body in order to achieve better perception.” He gives an interesting discussion on how many tools will be both tool and instrument, for instance a hammer also gives feedback to the user on the resistance and movement of the nail being driven; his point is though that in this case the hammer is still primarily a tool, since its quality as an instrument is subordinate to its use as a tool; he holds that this is still the case even when a mason uses a hammer to tap a wall to get a sense of its composition. In contrast, telescopes, microscopes, etc. are instruments, pure and simple.

With the advent of “complete technical individuals” in the 19th century, the previous anxiety with technological change becomes much more acute, as there are now machines which replace humans.

It is not necessarily through its size that the factory distinguishes itself from the craftsman’s workshop, but through the change in relation between the technical object and the human being: the factory is a technical ensemble that is comprised of auto­matic machines, whose activity is parallel to that of human activity; the factory uses true technical individuals, whereas, in the workshop, it is man who lends his individuality to the accomplishment of technical actions. (131)

The progress of the nineteenth century can no longer be experienced by the individual, because it is no longer centralized with the individual as the center of command and perception in the adapted action. (132)

The notion of progress thus “splits in two,” as humans lose their earlier “kinesthetic” contact with technology, and alongside the sense of progress exists a growing anxiety due to the disconnection with technology and its growing incomprehensibility of scale.

Progress is henceforth thought of as cosmic, at the level of its overall results. It is thought abstractly, intellectually, in a doctrinal manner. Progress is no longer thought by craftsmen, but by mathematicians, who conceive of progress as man taking possession of nature.

“The individual who thinks progress is not the same individual as the one who works,” S argues – note that, in contrast to, e.g., Braverman, or Bookchin, who made the same historical observation, S attributes this differentiation between the thinker and the worker to the effects of the societal experience of this stage of technological development (viz., of the technical individual), rather than to the social or economic order per se. For all S’s disavowal of having any dialectic going on in his account of history, his model does feel like it has the somewhat dissociated clockwork effect of an idealist dialectic, in which stages just somehow follow each other (his invocation of context, experience, etc. being too a priori to be properly termed materialist, imho).

S in fact goes on to argue that his account provides a deeper understanding of alienation than that of the Marxist concept, which is, in S’s view, superficial, merely “juridical and economic”:

Beneath this juridical and economic relation exists an even more profound relation, that of the continuity between the human individual and the technical individual, or of the discontinuity between these two beings. … The alienation of man in relation to the machine does not only have a socio-economic sense; it also has a physio-psychological sense; the machine no longer prolongs the corporeal schema, neither for workers, nor for those who possess the machines. (133)

He goes on to state that bankers, etc., are just as alienated as anyone else, despite not being exploited for their labor – and quickly dismisses Hegel’s master-slave dialectic as an explanation for this – his ultimate point being, basically, that everyone is alienated and has only a partial understanding of contemporary technology and its relation to the human. It could be quite easily demonstrated that Simondon is not accurately representing or engaging with the full elaboration of the process of alienation in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (and the first kind, alienation from nature, would pretty much cover the “machinic alienation” or whatever you might call it, that he is trying to outline; he could also be said to be describing what Marx would see as the role of automation as an aspect of real subsumption). But his agenda is actually, once again, to explain away any given subject-position within society as partial and alienated, thus showing the need for a new mechanological perspective.

The perspectives of both labor and capital are “late” (presumably meaning “outdated”) with regard to the modern technical individual; and the “dialogue” or struggle between the two is “false because it is of the past” (134). [To the extent that there is a validity to the stages of technical development and awareness that S elaborates, his error is the presentist one, in supposing that each stage completely displaces or supplants the previous stages, instead of layering over and interacting with the previous stages complexly]. [And this is an aspect of how his account reads like an old-fashioned, simplistic idealist dialectic (like, say, Stirner’s (sorry, Max!)) instead of, say, more nuanced Bakhtinian dialogism).]

S concludes this discussion with a much clearer exposition of his concept of finality (which I confess I was a bit confused by in the previous chapter). It is, basically, instrumentalism, and it shapes and limits the perspectives of both the worker and the capitalist. They understand machines, thus, in terms of the purpose for which they are put to work; this [external condition?] prevents them from understanding the “internal coherence” of the machine, and thus its true nature. The development of which understanding will, of course, be the goal of the mechanologist.

He goes on to discuss the ideal form of coupling between human and machine as equals, in other words with the human “not merely as a being who directs or utilizes it through the incorporation of ensembles, or as a being who serves it by supplying matter and elements. … There is an inter-individual coupling between man and machine when the same self-regulating functions are better and more subtly accomplished by the man-machine couple than by man or machine alone” (135).

To illustrate this, he posits a difference between how the memories of machines and humans work, and how they can work together combining their distinct strengths. Machines can only record; their memory does not even strictly speaking contain forms (because this would require an awareness of these forms), “but merely a translation of forms, by means of an encoding in a spatial or temporal distribution” (136). Humans are required to perceive the forms recorded in machine memory. This indifference to form is a strength of machine memory, in that it allows it to record “elements without order;” human memory, in contrast, requires a sense of order in order to remember. Also, though machine memory has a certain plasticity, this is the plasticity of being able to be written and erased. Human memory, less reliably “monomorphic” and reliable than machine memory, nevertheless also has the ability to infer and interpret, aka the “plasticity of integration” (137), and thus is able to draw on experience and memory to make predictions and fill in gaps in its knowledge. Thus, the proper context for the “coupling” of human and machine memory is those complex procedures in which both are needed.

This leads to a reiteration of S’s insistence that “Despite appearances, it is, on the contrary, the truly automatic machine that least replaces man” (139); this is still true a priori, because (in previous chapters) he has defined automata as lacking any “margin of indeterminacy” or openness (and machines which do have such a margin of indeterminacy are not “automata”); human interlocutors are thus necessary in any operation more complex than pushing a button to start and end an automatic process.

It becomes a reasonable question as to whether the development of machine learning has led this aspect of Simondon’s thought to become outdated, with potential consequences for his entire model of ideal human-machine interaction. Surely, Simondon is aware that automata can involve sensors and actuators, and thus be open to outside information; it is just that they are limited in their ability to respond. Thus, an air-conditioner can turn on and off in response to ambient temperatures, but it cannot turn itself off because the water-drain line is backing up – unless such a capacity has been built into the machine. A human observer, in contrast, needs no previous specific programming to go “oh shit, the water is backing up” and take some action in response. [Though it still seems to me, that the difference between closed/automatic system and open/ad hoc system should be a continuum, not a binary as S treats it.]

Briefly reviewing a few recent articles which discuss machine learning in a theoretical context informed by Simondon, we can see Rantala and Muilu (2023: 8) asserting that machine learning does have a “margin of indeterminacy” but that learning machines are still limited by their programming in terms of their ability to respond. Haworth (2020), discussing the “possibility of independently creative machines,” argues that the very idea of these machines as “independently creative” is based on the “fantasy of absolute autonomy” whereby we imagine ourselves as sovereign subjects instead of as parts of complex human-machine ensembles (and then, in a nightmarish vision, transfer this autonomy to the uncanny action of machines, instead of recognizing that they, as well, are more accurately understood as also embedded in such ensembles). Haworth thus seems to follow the Simondonian line of dismissing “the Robot” as a nonsensical figment, instead of addressing the question directly as to whether machine learning can or could render learning machines independent of any need for human interaction.

In any case, machines need humans as servants, technicians, or organizers; the self-regulation of automata is not enough for the machine to comprehend “the whole of the milieu,” for which both human and machine are required (139-40).

S criticizes the “autocratic philosophy” of the technocrats, who seek to use machines as slaves; the human should be at the same level as the machine, not an inferior, nor a superior. He embarks on a discussion of the limitations of 19th century understanding of machines; “The nineteenth century could produce only a technological techno­cratic philosophy because it discovered engines and not regulations” (i.e., feedback/information theory). He discusses examples of 19th century technology in which there is no distinction between the energy channel, and the information channel; understanding the different needs of these, and developing distinct channels, is the key aspect of progress in 20th century technics; this changes even the concept of efficiency, which is different for the flow of information than it is for energy used in production, motive force, etc.

This leads him into an interesting discussion of information, which requires that its channel of transmisson be capable of variability – consistent order, always the same, cannot transmit new information. Thus, information bears a resemblance to chance, yet it must, ultimately, be distinguishable from both order/form and pure chance, as a sort of intermediate entity (150). The distinction between form and information is linked to that between the machine and the human:

There is, in effect, an important gap between the living thing and the machine, and consequently between man and machine, which comes from the fact that the living thing needs information, while the machine essentially uses forms, and is so to speak con­stituted with forms. …

The human individual thus appears as having to convert the forms deposited into machines into information; the operating of machines does not give rise to information, but is simply an assemblage and a modification of forms; the functioning of a machine has no sense, and cannot give rise to true information signals for another machine; a living being is required as mediator in order to interpret a given functioning in terms of information, and in order to convert it into the forms for another machine.

[Returning us again to the question as to whether this stark opposition is still valid, and/or whether this is a useful way to define “automata.”]

He goes now into reiterating the difference between his view and that of the cyberneticians, based on the progress of his discussion to this point. “The machine is a deposited fixed human gesture that has become a stereotypy and the power to restart” (151). The cyberneticists overemphasize the analogy between machines and living organisms, but the truth is that the former “neither nourishes itself , nor perceives, nor rests,” like an actual living organism. He continues for several pages with a discussion of the distinction (from Bergson with some amendments) between open and closed machines, the former allowing for some margin of indeterminacy, and the latter are true automata, per his definition.

He returns to the key concept of transduction, with the example of a continuous relay that converts (transduces) potential into actual energy; information is also linked to this moment of transduction: “It is during the course of this passage from potential to actual that information comes into play; information is the condition of actualization” (155). The concept of transducer is expanded to “a regulative function in all machines having a certain margin of localized indeterminacy in their func­tioning;” in turn, humans, and all living creatures, are also transducers, as convertors/modulators of potential into actual energy. This capacity as transducer is part of what ensures a particular role for humans in the human/machine assemblage:

It is in fact very easy to construct machines that ensure a much greater accumulation of energy compared to that which man can accumulate in his body; it is equally possible to use artificial systems that constitute effectors that are supe­rior to those of the human body. But it is very difficult to construct transducers comparable to the living thing. (156)

In fact the “transducers” found in machines are not actually fully “transducers,” according to Simondon’s definition [arguably, this is a result of his practice of constructing definitions from presumed essences; cf. my earlier criticisms of his definition of “automata”], because of the role of information; machines must be given information, while living things can give themselves information [this seems to be relevant to the example I gave above with the air conditioner]. Machines can only approach problems according to the way they have been programmed; they cannot “solve” problems because this involves that extra, human, step of inference/transduction:

To solve a problem is to be able to step over it, to be capable of recasting the forms that are given within the problem and in which it consists. The solution of real problems is a vital function presupposing a recurrent mode of action that cannot exist in the machine: the recurrence of the future with respect to the present, of the virtual with respect to the actual. There is no true virtuality in a machine; the machine cannot reform its forms in order to solve a problem.

Machines can generate information but they cannot understand it unless it is presented or “given” to them, and this requires the human as a “witness,” transducing this information and representing the machines to each other (157). S concludes this section with a discussion of culture’s current inability to think correctly about the human-machine relation; “culture is unjust toward the machine” (158), and this is illustrated by comparison to cultural stereotypes of foreigners, etc., which are the product of limited familiarity and experience; with greater familiarity and experience these stereotypes can be unlearned, and a better understanding achieved.

Finally S turns to his main point, which is the conditions giving rise to an improved cultural understanding of the relationship between humans and machines, a la mechanology:

The advent of the conditions allowing man to see the technical relation functioning in an objective way is the prime condition for the incorporation of the knowledge of technical reality and of the values implied by its existence into culture. Now, these conditions are realized in the technical ensembles employing machines that have a sufficient degree of indeterminacy. For man, the action of having to inter­vene as a mediator in this relation between machines grants him a situation of independence in which he can acquire a cultural vision of technical realities. … Only a situation in which there is a concrete link with machines and a responsibility toward them, but which is liberated vis-à-vis each one taken individually, can provide this serenity of having technical awareness. (159)

This perspective will not be achieved from a practical use of machines (governed by an instrumental “finality”), nor from the partial perspectives from below (viz., the workers) or above (owners, overseers, etc.):

It is rather difficult for a worker to know technicity through the aspects and modalities of his daily work on a machine. It is also difficult for a man who is the owner of machines and who considers them productive capital to know their essential technicity. It is the mediator of the rela­tion between machines alone who can discover this particular form of wisdom. (160)

However, there is not yet a “social place” or role corresponding to this mediating perspective; it would be that of the production planning engineer, except that this role is also, like those of the owners and workers, governed by the limitations of “finality.” So what is needed is—surprise!--a “psychologist” or “sociologist” of machines, “what we might call a mechanologist.”

He ends with a discussion of the relation of this mechanology to its precursor, cybernetics. Cybernetics is clearly a first step, full of promise, but hampered by several limitations, which is why it needs to be transcended. In passing, S criticizes Wiener’s simplistic opposition of information to noise [S having, in this chapter, identified information as being, rather, intermediate between form and chance] and for his faith in homeostasis [as opposed to S’s serrated evolution]. More importantly, S takes issue with Wiener’s pessimism, as W has mistakenly, and unsuccessfully, been trying to get cybernetic understanding into the minds of the powerful. S sagely advises:

For it is difficult to make philosophers kings and kings philosophers. It often hap­pens that philosophers who have become kings cease to be philosophers. The true mediation between technics and power cannot be individual. It can be realized only through the mediation of culture. For there is something that allows man to govern: the culture he has received; it is this culture that gives him significations and values; it is culture that governs man, even if this man in turn governs other men and machines. (161)

The power of culture comes from the “great mass” of the governed; power in this model flows upward, not downward from the elites. [This may sound at first like an almost anarchist or democratic sentiment, but it is rather that of the enlightened elite, who recognize the source of their power; cf. Ruskin.]

In a time when the development of technics was poor, the elaboration of culture by governed men was enough for the government to think the problems of the group as a whole: because it went from human group to human group via the government, the recurrence of causality and information was complete and accom­plished. But this is no longer true: the basis of culture is still exclusively human; it is elaborated by the group of men; however, having gone through government, it returns and applies itself to the human group on the one hand and to machines on the other: machines are ruled by a culture that has not been elaborated according to them, and from which they are absent; this culture is inadequate for them and does not represent them. (162)

So culture, as the source of power and of understanding, fails to prepare us for the technical reality of our age because it has not caught up. Machines have yet to be properly “represented” in culture the way humans are (e.g., in literature, as S discusses). Thus, the task of the mechanologist is to transform culture by means of this more accurate representation, and to do this they need to understand the essence of technicity, not via “inductive study” [which led the cyberneticists astray] but by “a direct examination of technicity according to a genetic method that must be attempted, by employing a philosophical method” (163).

Haworth, Michael, (2020) “Automating Art: Gilbert Simondon and the Possibility of Independently Creative Machines.” Journal of Aesthetics and Phenomenology, 7:1, 17-32.

Rantala, Juho; and Mirka Muilu, (2023) “Simondon, Control, and the Digital Domain.” Theory, Culture & Society.

Friday, June 21, 2024

Writing And Identity, Chapter 2


Summary of Chapter 2: Discourse and Identity

In this brief chapter, Ivanič discusses how her terminology and analysis derives from, and aligns with, several key influences, viz., Halliday, Fairclough, Bakhtin, and Vygotsky (by way of Wertsch). She starts off the chapter by delineating her usage of the terms “discourse,” “language,” and “text.” She uses the first two largely interchangeably to refer to “language-in-its-social-context,” the first because it emphasizes this social context, and the second because it emphasizes the linguistic-per-se, which might otherwise get forgotten in sociological discussion of context; at the same time she emphasizes that she does not want the two terms to be seen as somehow opposed or demarcating specific fields which could be somehow disentangled and studied separately (37). By “text” she will refer to “the physical manifestations of discourse... the marks on the page,” to foreground “the role of form in discoursal/linguistic processes and practices as a whole” (38).

She derives three lessons from the work of MAK Halliday:

1) “language is only one of many sign systems which convey meaning” (39) and needs to be analyzed within this broader context.

2) “language is integrally bound up with meaning, and all linguistic choices can be linked to the meaning they convey”.

3) As indicated by the term “social-semiotic,” meaning is dependent on two kinds of context, which Halliday calls the context of situation and the context of culture. [This sounds reminiscent of Goffman’s “loose coupling” of the interaction and social orders.]

Halliday further proposes three “macro-functions” of meaning (40):

1) conveying ideational meaning (ideas, content, etc.);

2) conveying interpersonal meaning (status, relationships, etc); and

3) the textual function, whereby the physical text makes “the meanings hang together.”

Ivanič will add to Halliday’s account with a more sustained focus on the role of identity; she lists three “dimensions” of social identity which relate directly to H’s three macro-functions:

1) “a person’s set of values and beliefs about reality,” conveyed through ideational meaning;

2) “a person’s sense of their relative status in relation to others,” linked to interpersonal meaning; and

3) “a person’s orientation to language use,” which affects how they construct texts.

Turning to Fairclough, she reproduces (41) a diagram from Language and Power showing the linked “layers” of text, interaction (with process of production and process of interpretation), and context (with social conditions of production, and of interpretation). She uses Fairclough’s work to extend and deepen the focus on social interaction and context, out of Halliday’s framework; then, in turn, adds in Bakhtin’s richer metaphor and discussions of the “taste” of words, ventriloquation, double-voicing, etc., to extend Fairclough. Finally she brings in Vygotsky, mediated through James Wertsch’s Voices of the Mind, which pulls together Vygotsky and Bakhtin.

She discusses the roles of “genre” and “discourse,” emphasizing Fairclough’s distinction between two kinds of intertextuality: manifest intertextuality and interdiscursivity (47-8). Manifest intertextuality is the explicit quotation, and referencing of another text; Ivanič prefers to call it actual intertextuality, because it is not necessarily all that “manifest.” Interdiscursivity, in contrast, refers to abstract text types, conventions; it is the relating of this text to others through the level of genres, etc. [The distinction between these two kinds of intertextuality brings to mind my most recent round of paper grading, much of which involved pointing out to students who had used generative AI that their citations, quotes, statistics, etc. were hallucinations – because chatgpt (or whichever they are using) is totally stuck at the “abstract” level of interdiscursivity, which it imitates; it is quite able to generate a sentence which might plausibly appear in a given text, but has much more difficulty providing an actual sentence which appeared in that text. Thus, it can reproduce interdiscursivity, but not actual intertextuality, most likely because it cannot tell the difference between them.] She notes that Bakhtin often “blurs” the distinction between interdiscursivity and actual intertextuality, “sometimes usefully, sometimes annoyingly” (51).

Via Wertsch, Ivanič notes that one of Vygotsky’s key contributions is the argument that “higher mental functioning in the individual derives from social life.” Though drawing on Vygotsky, Ivanič is not so interested in the “unilinear development” which his work focuses on, but instead on a non-hierarchical multiplicity of potential paths of development undertaken by individuals as they explore ways of developing their own identities through writing. Instead of assuming that students need to develop their thinking and writing in some particular direction, she is more interested in how they play out their identities in relation with the more or less privileged or privileging discourses, genres, styles, etc., available to them (and she discusses how these terms, derived from Wertsch, provide a more active and agentive account of the relative status of different discourses and genres, than the more static term dominant). She is interested in how writers develop a “toolkit,” per Wertsch (54), or “building materials” (apparently from Fairclough) (47), to construct their own identity and its performance through writing. [The objection springs to mind, raised by, for example, Merleau-Ponty, against such a portrayal of a subject confronting the world somehow abstractly and then pulling out all this kit of mental resources, tools, etc., not unlike the linguists of Laputa carrying around their bags; though I suppose M-P was objecting to the empiricists, etc., who try to understand perception and sensation this way; the metaphor is arguably more reasonable when discussing writing, which can even involve drawing upon literal examples of such resources, I mean I have right here a thesaurus and a bookshelf of books to pull out and reference... so I guess I, ahem, withdraw the objection...]

She concludes with a nice positioning worthy of Sextus Empiricus, to the effect that when she writes of language-users “selecting,” or “choosing” from “options,” she does not mean this as the necessarily conscious agency of some perfectly free will. To the contrary, such “choice” is constrained, situated, and often unconscious. Thus, she asks readers to accept wording like “choice” in this context as “a simplying metaphor for what are in fact fleeting, subtle, complex, subconscious processes which are socially constrained and not under the full control of the individual” (54). [Quite fair, and is not the very “self” or “subject” not also just such a “simplifying metaphor,” an edifice built, to paraphrase Nkee, on running water]. She ends with noting how, in the midst of this situated constraint, etc. writers develop something which “is often simplistically called the writer’s ‘own voice’” (55). Ivanič will instead call this the writer’s owned voice, “the writer’s choices, from among many competing socially available discourses, of ones s/he is willing to be identified with.”

Tuesday, June 4, 2024

A Thousand Plateaus, Chapter 10

Summary of Chapter 10: 1730: Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible …

This chapter, not surprisingly, focuses on their idea of becoming-, which could perhaps be best glossed as becoming-minor (because there is no becoming-major or becoming-molar). A related theme is the opposition between series and structure. The images are from Etruscan pottery depicting “wolfman” creatures (cf. Elliott 1995). The date links to a statement (in quotation marks) on page 237: “From 1730 to 1735, all we hear about are vampires;” no source is given for this quote, which, like several others in this chapter, is probably not a quote at all but a way of playing with voice and heteroglossia; at any rate no one on the internet seems able to find a source, though there are some attempts to substantiate the claim (e.g. Franks 2021).

The chapter is structured as a series of “Memories of a...” of varying lengths. The opening Memories of a Moviegoer uses the B movie “Willard” to introduce the concept of becoming-animal. The second, Memories of a Naturalist, introduces the important distinction between series and structure; D&G kindly provide an endnote at the end of this section (237n5) directing us to specific pages in The Savage Mind which are the basis of much of their thinking here, and also happen to give a much clearer introduction to the distinction, including a handy diagram in which L-S’s “system of totemism” corresponds to what D&G refer to as “structure,” and the “system of sacrifice” illustrates a “series” (Levi-Strauss 1966: 225). D&G trace this opposition back through western science to debates between Cuvier and Lamarck, etc.; in the 20th century structuralism “solves” this by privileging structure over series, while at the same time deriving the structure from two aligned series.

In Memories of a Bergsonian they discuss why this is not satisfactory:

We believe in the existence of very special becomings-animal traversing human beings and sweeping them away, affecting the animal no less than the human. ‘From 1730 to 1735, all we hear about are vampires.’ Structuralism clearly does not account for these becomings, since it is designed precisely to deny or at least denigrate their existence: a correspondence of relations does not add up to a becoming. (237)

“Becoming-woman,” “becoming-animal,” etc., are not matters of imitating or taking on the qualities of the entity that one is becoming (cf. the entry for “Becoming-Woman” in Bonta and Protevi). That would be following the pattern of structure a la totemism in L-S, and ultimately more of a trap than a becoming-minor (or “becoming-minoritarian” as they eventually put it). They will explain later why there is no “becoming-man;” here they introduce the idea of a “block of becoming,” [which brings to mind the Taoist idea of pu or the “uncarved block,” linking also to their concept of originary Chaos/the BwO]. This “block of becoming” seems more important than the entity or category that is becoming-, because that is really the minor term in an opposition, and the point is to destabilize the major term in relation to which that is subordinated.

Memories of a Sorcerer. Back in the previous section they invoked the “sorcerer” as a “more secret, more subterranean” alternative to the models of sacrifice and series (237). In this section they further explore “becoming-animal,” linking back to the concept of pack from the early chapters. They introduce the concept of “unnatural participation” (240) which is the link involved in becoming- (rather than similarity or imitation). They introduce three kinds of animals: Oedipal pets, the classicatory terms of the natural history of the State, and “demonic” animals of multiplicity, the pack or the swarm: “that is our way, fellow sorcerers” (241). They link these becomings to the war machine. The succeeding two Memories of a Sorcerer explore the concept in relation to themes such as the Unique, the Outsider, and bordering. Memories of a Theologian link to theological discourse, in particular Nicole Oresme, the Malleus Maleficarum, and Duns Scotus, originator of the concept of haecceity. Oresme is the originator of their terminology of varying “speeds,” “slownesses,” “latitude” and “longitude,” etc. The discussion of these concepts are linked to Spinoza, Nietzsche, and others through the three ensuing Memories of a Spinozist.

Memories of a Haecceity explores this concept deriving from Duns Scotus, the absolute thisness or uniqueness of a thing, or per D&G, of a becoming. For them this is important because haecceity is “a mode of individuation very different from that of a person, subject, thing, or substance” (261). Haeccieties do not form some background like substance: “it is the entire assemblage in its individuated aggregate that is a haecceity” (262). They return to some of their linguistic concepts, such as the idea that “a proper name does not indicate a subject” [because it indicates a haecceity] (264), indefinite articles, and they derive an argument from Blanchot against Benveniste’s theory of shifters; acc Blanchot, the third person indefinite (one, they) “ties the statement to a collective assemblage [which is a haecceity]... rather than to a subject of the enunciation” (265). Here as in other parts of the chapter, the story of Little Hans, one of Freud’s case studies, is used to show how psychoanalysis never understands becoming, because it is always trying to limit or contain becoming within its explanatory narrative.

In Memories of a Plan(e) Maker they distinguish two types of planes, or ways of thinking about planes. First, the plan(e) of organization or development, a “hidden structure” which “always concerns the development of forms and the formation of subjects.” Second, is the familiar plane of consistency.

You can see the difference between the following two types of propositions: (1) forms develop and subjects form as a function of a plan(e) that can only be inferred (the plan(e) of organization-development); (2) there are only speeds and slownesses between unformed elements, and affects between nonsubjectified powers, as a function of a plane that is necessarily given at the same time as that to which it gives rise (the plane of consistency or composition). (267-8)

In a footnote (542n48) they trace the concept of two planes, one of which is “denounced as the source of all illusions,” to Artaud’s writing on the peyote dance (which text also has plenty of stratification imagery; though Artaud seems not to have actually witnessed any such dance, and was experiencing the effects, not of peyote, but of withdrawal from heroin) (Artaud 1988: 379ff; Krutak 2014; Su 2013). This concept of two planes is, clearly, a typical shift in their terminology, away from any impression that the concepts of “plane” and “stratification” are opposing forces or tendencies:

The plane of organization or development effectively covers what we have called stratification: Forms and subjects, organs and functions, are “strata” or relations between strata. The plane of consistency or immanence, on the other hand, implies a destratification of all of Nature, by even the most artificial of means. (269-70)

Memories of a Molecule explores becoming-molecular; “all becomings are molecular” (as opposed to molar) (275). This is why there is no “becoming-man,” and even “becoming-woman” refers to not to the becoming of the molar entity “woman,” though they recognize this has a certain place in feminist struggle. They are not trying to deny that kind of [molar identity] politics (276), but rather to focus on a way of thinking that reverses the priority of the major and minor terms of the binaries that legitimate hierarchy. So, by focusing on “becoming-woman,”

We do not mean to say that a creation of this kind is the prerogative of the man, but on the contrary that the woman as a molar entity has to become-woman in order that the man also becomes- or can become-woman. (275-6)

This is about a derailing of the molar hierarchy at its core. They have in this section their famous reference to Robert De Niro “becoming-crab” in Taxi Driver (274) as an illustration of their distinction of becoming from “imitation” (which would be the structuralist/totemist thinking they are avoiding): “it is not a question of his imitating a crab; it is a question of making something that has to do with the crab enter into composition with the image, with the speed of the image.” They revisit the concept of “block of becoming” with that of the “girl,” “the becoming-woman of each sex” (277), part of their critique of psychoanalysis, and go on to discuss movement, the unconscious, etc.

Memories of the Secret covers secrets, paranoia, etc. Memories and Becomings, Points and Blocks goes into more detail on the reasons why there is no becoming-majoritarian, or “becoming-man.” Although, as a form of deterritorialization, becoming- can be and is marshalled for the molar order, their interest involves its role in deterritorializing said molar entities; “the subject in a becoming is always "man," but only when he enters a becoming-minoritarian that rends him from his major identity” (which they illustrate with the Miller novel Focus) (291). Becoming-minoritarian (as deterritorialization) is distinct from the status of being a minority, which is a molar reterritorialization that is used to uphold the majoritarian state; becoming-, rather, is about the breaking away from the molar or privileged term, such that becoming-woman, -child, -black, animal, etc. undermine the status of man, adult, white, human, and so on (both for those who hold that status, and for those who are defined against it (or more precisely, against whom, as Other, it is defined)). They define Memory as a sort of apparatus of capture [or recuperation], distinct from becoming, and discuss lines and points in their idea of a “punctual system,” as opposed to “multilineal systems;” this is explored through ideas of music derived in part from Pierre Boulez, who is the source of some of their terminology (“blocks,” “diagonals,” etc.).

Becoming-Music, the last section, explores their theory of music, which, along with art, has been a theme throughout the chapter. In particular, they illuminate the concept of becoming in relation to modern art’s relation to, and attempt to escape the domination of, faciality (discussed previously), and modern music’s attempt to get beyond the refrain (the subject of the next chapter). Naturally, “escape” and “get beyond” are a bit simplistic here, as D&G will of course articulate a much more complex relation. They end by appending four new “theorems” to their list of four from Chapter 7 (repeated here for convenience:

1. “One never deterritorializes alone,” there must be at least two terms, “hand-use object, mouth-breast, face-landscape ...” (174). This of course makes sense with all that we learned about deterritorialization in past chapters.

2. Deterritorialization has to do with intensity, not speed.

3. “the least deterritorialized reterritorializes on the most deterritorialized.”

4. “The abstract machine is therefore effectuated not only in the faces that produce it but also to varying degrees in body parts, clothes, and objects that it facializes...” (175).

The four new theorems:

5. “deterritorialization is always double, because it implies the coexistence of a major variable and a minor variable in simultaneous becoming” [e.g., man, woman; human, animal, etc.] (306).

6. “in non-symmetrical double deterritorialization it is possible to assign a deterritorializing force and a deterritorialized force, even if the same force switches from one value to the other depending on the “moment” or aspect considered; furthermore, it is the least deterritorialized element that always triggers the deterritorialization of the most deterritorializing element, which then reacts back upon it in full force” (306-7). (cf. theorem 3)

7. “the deterritorializing element has the relative role of expression, and the deterritorialized element the relative role of content (as evident in the arts); but not only does the content have nothing to do with an external subject or object, since it forms an asymmetrical block with the expression, but the deterritorialization carries the expression and the content to a proximity where the distinction between them ceases to be relevant, or where the deterritorialization creates their indiscernibility (example: the sound diagonal as the musical form of expression, and becomings-woman, -child, -animal as the contents proper to music, as refrains)” (307).

8. “one assemblage does not have the same forces or even speeds of deterritorialization as another; in each instance, the indices and coefficients must be calculated according to the block of becoming under consideration, and in relation to the mutations of an abstract machine”.

Artaud, Antonin (1988) Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Elliot, John (1995) “The Etruscan Wolfman in Myth and Ritual.” Etruscan Studies. 2(1):17-33.

Franks, Angela (2021) “Modernity's Feasting on Fluid Bodies and Empty Selves.” Church Life Journal. September 15, 2021.

Krutak, Lars (2014) “(Sur)real or Unreal? Antonin Artaud in the Sierra Tarahumara of Mexico” Journal of Surrealism and the Americas 8:1 (2014), 28-50.

Levi-Strauss, Claude (1966) The Savage Mind. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Su, Tsu-Chung (2013) “Artaud's Journey to Mexico and His Portrayals of the Land.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 14(5).

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

a ghost held my hand

        she was warmer than blood

                she was nothing like dust,

        she was fire –

or no, not fire, like

        the sun on red evenings

                she leaned on my shoulder

        and moaned


like the slamming of doors in the wind.

            Cyclone, Cyclone, ripping

                            through the vineyard...”