Thursday 8 June 2023

Discussion on The End of Art, Again: Systems and the Aesthetics of Dispersion

The End of Art, Again: Systems and the Aesthetics of Dispersion

A discussion between Francis Halsall and Rachel O’Dwyer

Friday 16th June, 6pm, Temple Bar Gallery and Studios, Dublin

To mark the publication of Contemporary Art, Systems and the Aesthetics of Dispersion (Routledge, 2023) please join us for a conversation and refreshments with the author and Rachel O’Dwyer.


This book considers five artists who exemplify contemporary art practice:

Seth Price; Liam Gillick; Martin Creed; Hito Steyerl; and Theaster Gates.

Given the diversity of materials used in art today, once-traditional artistic mediums and practices have become obsolete in describing what artists do today. Instead of stable mediums practitioners now be use whatever systems of distribution and display are available to them. The two central arguments are: any understanding of what art is will always be underwritten by a related view of what a human being is; and that these both have a particular character in late capitalism or, as is named here, The Age of Dispersion.

Rachel O’Dwyer is a lecturer in Digital Cultures in the National College of Art and Design, Dublin. She is the author of Tokens, (Forthcoming Verso October 2023). She was formerly a research fellow in Connect, the Centre for Future Networks and Communications in Trinity College Dublin and a Fulbright scholar in collaboration with the Future of Money project in University of California, Irvine. Her research focuses on the intersection of cultural and digital economies and has published widely on this and other topics. 

Friday 24 April 2020

The Inhuman Excess

There is a biological and materiality inhumanity within which human thought is stranded.  The essence of human consciousness lies buried within a mass of materials and flows which far exceed it. In The Inhuman the French philosopher JF Lyotard speculates on this condition of humanity as stranded within the Inhuman:

what if human beings, in humanism’s sense, were in the process of, constrained into, becoming inhuman (that's the first part)? And (the second part), what if what is ‘proper’ to humankind were to be inhabited by the inhuman?”[1]

In doing so Lyotard raises the spectre of what inhuman might lurk within human experience. The Inhuman begins with the essay which asks: “Can thought go on without a body?” My speculative answer to his challenge is no. Thought without a body can never be possible but this claim comes with two qualifiers.
First there is an inhuman redundancy to every thinking body that thought is nested within but which exceeds it. Those dead things that we slough off, like fingernails and hair don’t think, but then neither do the molecules like carbon that we share with the rest of the world. All of thought needs a body, but not all of a body is doing the thinking. Parts of it are shitting, wheezing, growing and dying.
Second those bodies that think don’t necessarily have to be human; and other bodies will suggest different possibilities for thinking and experience.

To rephrase Lyotard’s question: What if Intentionality is not specific to Human thought? What if other entities exhibit an intentional relationship to the world? Further, what would it mean to say that intentionality is not even specific to biological life but, instead, emerges from instances of systemic complexity?

The horizon for this question is the attempt to consider the phenomenological notion of intentionality in relation to complex systems. My claim is that intentionality is not a feature specific to humans but a feature of all complex systems. Or, intentionality is not a feature unique to consciousness but rather one that consciousness shares with other systems.

At stake in this is the recognition that if phenomenology is the study of phenomena as they appear in experience, then this requires an expanded understanding of what experience means that extends its horizon beyond human consciousness. This would provide an account of intentionality in systems-theoretical terms that recasts phenomena in terms of terminology specific to complex systems. That is: observation, recursion and self-reference.

[1] Lyotard, JF (1991) [trans. Bennington/ Bowlby], The Inhuman, Cambridge: Polity Press pg. 2

Wednesday 21 November 2018

And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual systems.

This idea of humanism cannot continue. Who would seriously and deliberately want to maintain that society could be formed on the model of a human being, that is, with a head at the top and so on? Niklas Luhman

You can’t understand an ant colony by looking at a single ant any more than staring at a Euro coin helps you understand the economy. Knowing how the gears on a bike work doesn’t explain the Tour de France; and human consciousness is not reducible to mere synapses snapping in the soft-machine of the brain. Each of these are complex entities that are better described when considered as systems. Systems thinking and systems theories see the world through the prism of systems. Systems are understood through the combinations of their component parts, operations and behaviour. Their whole is greater than the sum of their parts, as the old cliché runs. Systems thinking is a way of thinking about the world in terms of these wholes, rather than their constituent parts. It considers outputs and behaviours and emergent properties.

Systems reduce the complexity of their environments and by doing so become, somewhat, distinct from them. The ant colony, just like the bike race, is not reducible to its surroundings. They each have separate identities even if the physical borders are hard to discern. Likewise an economic system reduces all of the messy complication of the world into the abstractions of financial transactions. To understand a system means to understand what it does. Systems have functions which are particular to themselves. The trick is in working out what, exactly, those functions might be. But underlying everything else, systems have a primary function: all systems operate in order to survive. Councils are also systems. They are comprised of multiple elements: buildings, people, equipment and so on. They perform various functions.  And they will also operate in order to survive.

A common use of the word “technology” is as a technique, methodology or knowledge. If so then systems are a type of technology. They are a way of taking the world, thinking about it, manipulating it and doing things in it. It has been common throughout history for humans to understand who and what they are in relation to prevailing technology. In early Greek and Christian societies humans were clay infused with spirit. In the 3rd Century BCE humans related themselves to hydraulic engineering; now the human was understood as the site of canals and pipes for liquids such as the four “humours.” In the 16th Century humans became machines; that is, automata of cogs, gears and springs whilst in the following centuries metaphors of chemistry, steam power and then electricity were used. The model of the human as a computer subsequently emerged as the dominant metaphor for cognition and behaviour with the establishment of the so-called Von Neumann architecture which provides the conceptual model of more or less all existing computers. This understands the body as a piece of organic hardware that processes information about the world. Thought, then, is a sort of software that decodes or represents the world through its own processes of simulation. Each of these technologies and metaphors for humanity come with their own potentials and restrictions. They each place humans within a particular worldview with a particular horizon. Each world will have its own limit.

Systems give us another technique for thinking about who we are. This requires understanding that our individuality is positioned within a complex set of environmental coordinates. Humanity is positioned within systems such as history, culture, language, architecture, economics, chemistry, physics and so on. The human body is just one, biological, system amongst many others. Some of these are necessary for our existence; others are oblivious.

In an interview with Women’s Own magazine in 1987 Margaret Thatcher made one of her most contentious and notorious claims:

They are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.”

I think she couldn’t be more wrong. All people are is their relations. All of us get our identities from the systems we inhabit. And this is no cause for alarm; but rather a thrilling opportunity to rethink who, what and why we are

Tuesday 31 October 2017

Some thoughts on rocks and glass

This text was commissioned for the catalogue for the Ireland Glass Biennial 2017

The rock is the gray particular of man’s life,
The stone from which he rises, up -- and -- ho,
The step to the bleaker depths of his descents ...

The rock is the stern particular of the air,
The mirror of the planets, one by one,
But through man's eye, their silent rhapsodist,
Wallace Stevens, [from] Night’s Hymn of the Rock

In a little book, Seven Clues to the Origin of Life, which is as amusing and entertaining as it is audacious and astonishing Graham Cairns-Smith uses the form of a detective story to present his claim that life begins with clay. But rather than a mystical or religious account of how we’ve been fashioned from the earth he offers a modern origin myth based in chemistry and biology. His argument is that the foundations for organic forms of life lie in the reproduction of the inorganic structures of minerals. Crystals, in particular, replicate their structures in a way that offers a clue to how living things might also reproduce and survive. So, the miniature crystals that squirmed within primordial clay were not merely inert, dumb stuff but instead vital, unconscious actors in the still evolving story of life, humans and whatever is coming next. As he puts it: “We have, as it were, identified the organisation responsible for that ‘crime against common-sense’, the origin of life. And it is true that the proposition that our ultimate ancestors were mineral crystals was not widely anticipated.”

This argument is audacious because it is essentially claiming that genetic inheritance is not unique to living organisms but is rather a process that might be shared between all sorts of different materials some of which are often considered to be alive (organisms) and those that are not (minerals.) As Cairns-Smith puts it: “Clay crystals growing [within a piece of sandstone]… have, often, distinctive and elaborate forms - such as the grooved kaolinite vermiforms that were evolving by direct action… and it is not too difficult to imagine circumstances in which simply the shapes and sizes of crystals could have a bearing on their ability to grow quickly, or break up in the right way, or stay in the right place, or survive difficult conditions- or otherwise be a success… just the same as the way in which the parts of plants and animals become optimised through natural selection. The practical difference here between crystal genes and, say, trees or giraffes would be that for crystal genes shapes and sizes are so much more directly specified by the genetic information.”

And it is astonishing because it gives a tentative answer to one of the knottiest problems that scientists and philosophers (along with all the other story-tellers) have spent the history of humanity trying to answer. That is, how is life on earth even possible; what is it; and when did it begin? These questions, of course, come interlaced with what philosophers call “the hard problem of consciousness” whose down-beat name somewhat understates the magnitude and gravity of the problem in question and makes it sound like a tricky weekend crossword puzzle. The question at stake requires the perhaps impossible task of describing and explaining the nature of conscious experience.

Cairns-Smith’s claims have had a mixed reception over the past few decades in part because of the endemic difficulties in working in the gaps between different scientific disciplines (in this case biology and chemistry.) It is also extremely difficult to observe the micro-movements of clay and establish whether it really is self-organising in a way that means it could be considered proto-biological.

However, it is the ambition and challenge of his theory that is more important than any of its specific claims and it’s what I’m interested in here. The aspiration is to explain how the material substrate of the world can give rise to things that can live and reproduce; that is, to explain how stuff can do stuff. It is a way thinking about how disinterested the material world is in the humans that skate about on its surface. It still operates according to its own occult operations. But it also reminds us of the perhaps horrific and monstrous thought that lying buried at the core of all our humanity there is something inhuman, inorganic, indifferent over which we have no control.

The reason that this would be important is because nested within metaphors for describing the relationships of humans with objects are metaphors for thinking about what those humans are. Or to put this another way: a way of thinking about things is also a way of thinking about ourselves.
For example, it is becoming increasingly obvious that in contemporary life objects and people are losing their autonomy. Everything now is seemingly interconnected in networks of communication and control. In what Manuel Castells calls The Network Society which began to appear in the last 3rd of the 20th Century the prevalence of systems of telecommunication, computing, transport, and so on mean that humanity is connected across the globe at burgeoning speed. Think about the Internet of Things in which devices communicate with one another and are controlled over networks. Given this it’s easy to believe that just as objects are not autonomous so too we humans are also losing our independence. We are also being subsumed by new technologies, social media and countless other things that we only barely understand but which make almost infinite demands on our attention.
But maybe thinking not only about but also through materials like clay, or glass, gives us another way of thinking about both objects and ourselves. Glass, for instance, might remind us of a world now lived through interfaces and windows; through the pads and screens we constantly interact with. It resonates with a life lived through surface and touch where we swipe right. Or left.

But glass is also a material with its own qualities and its own private secrets. Glass is not the same as clay. Rather than comprised of mineral crystals in fluid,  glass is a super-cooled liquid that is in the constant flux of flow and formation. Through these processes it exhibits its own material and alien agency. Beneath its surfaces small universes roil away at their own glacial pace. In it we might find a way of thinking, once again, about who we are. In its awkward autonomy we might rediscover what it means to be human in these dark, dark times.

Wednesday 26 July 2017

Strange Fascination: Bowie and Apophenia

If the ambition of Cracked-Actor-Network-Theory is to use Bowie to explore the conditions of subjectivity in late capitalism, then it must necessarily risk apophenia in its tone and spirit and appear somewhat manic; preposterous even. 

Bowie’s very fluidity in his use of mediums and identities lends itself to being connected to everything that was around him. As he said of himself in the Russell Harty interview (1973): “I find that I’m a person that can take on the guises of different people that I meet. I can switch accents in seconds of meeting somebody—I can adopt their accent. I’ve always found that I collect. I’m a collector. And I’ve always just seemed to collect personalities, ideas.

Or, a few years later: "Bowie was never meant to be. He's like a Lego kit. I'm convinced I wouldn't like him, because he's too vacuous and undisciplined. There is no definitive David Bowie." (David Bowie on David Bowie, 1976)

So it should come as no surprise to find the Network Society reflected back in him.

Or, in other words, Bowie’s own eclecticism, opportunism and promiscuity will be reflected in a theory that is itself is eclectic, opportunistic and promiscuous. And that both Bowie and our theory capture something of the nature of subjectivity in late capitalism.

Apophenia is the inclination to find patterns and connections in all phenomena regardless of whether they are related or not (what Tyler Viglen calls Spurious Correlations or, when more developed, Conspiracy Theory). 

The ability to observe and create connections is a profoundly human act; consciousness is drawn both to and from pattern. After all, as the phenomenological commonplace observes: consciousness is always consciousness of something. This can be both banal - such as finding faces in clouds or prophecies in tea-leaves – and sublime - such as Stephen Hawking’s description of the universe as a Grand Design in which: “There must be a complete set of laws that, given the state of the universe at a specific time, would specify how the universe would develop from that time forward. These laws should hold everywhere and at all times; otherwise they wouldn’t be laws. There could be no exceptions or miracles. Gods or demons couldn’t intervene in the running of the universe.” (The Grand Design, pg. 137)

Perception rests on observing figure/ ground relationships, and the use of narrative is fundamental for cognition through establishing connections and causes between events. Working between artificial intelligence and psychology, Schankand Abelson claim that narrative systems and “structures called scripts” are essential for the production of “knowledge systems.” Such pattern finding has emerged from an evolutionary wager in which in survival situations the recognition of patterns paid dividends. Better, for example, to assume that a rustle in a patch of grass is a tiger and act accordingly than ignore it and be eaten.

As this project develops further patterns and connections within the Cracked-Actor-Network will be suggested. No doubt some will be spurious.

Monday 24 July 2017

Cracked-Actor Network Theory: David, Diana and Donald

We'll explore the connection between these three in later posts. In the meantime here is an excerpt from

Simon Reynolds: Shock and Awe (Faber, 2017)

I play to people’s fantasies,” Trump wrote in The Art of The Deal, explaining the role of bravado in his business dealings. “People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.”

He and co-writer Tony Schwarz coined the concept “truthful hyperbole.” That sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it cuts to the essence of how hype works: by making people believe in something that doesn’t exist yet, it magically turns a lie into a reality. As the American saying goes, fake it ‘til you make it.

Bowie’s manager Tony Defries used this technique to break the singer in America: travelling everywhere in a limo, surrounded by bodyguards he didn’t need, Bowie looked like the star he wasn’t yet, until the public and the media started to take the illusion for reality…. Early in his career, Trump grasped that – like a pop star – he was selling an image, a brand.

Bowie and The Network Society

Bowie: The Network Society and Opening Themes (Death; Sex/ Gender; Economics; Love; Medium/ Form; The Future)

The key claim of the Cracked-Actor Network Theory is that Bowie exemplifies the conditions of post-war western society. This was named by Manuel Castells as The Network Society by which he meant those social orders that emerged more or less during Bowie’s adult life. It is characterised by the historical and cultural impact of electronic technologies including the New Media of telecommunication and computation systems and the subsequent primacy of information as a metaphor for communication and organisation.

In this sense Network Society describes the conditions and cultures of late capitalism. Frederic Jameson argues that these conditions are synonymous with both postmodernity and the emergence of “the world system” in which the power of nation states is effaced by global networks of capital and communication where information becomes the primary unit of capitalist exchange. In such cultures power no longer operates according to a disciplinary logic (as Foucault observed of modernity) but rather control where power is distributed across networks (as Deleuze claimed in his famous “postscript” essay).

Subjectivity is similarly understood to be both distributed across different communicative networks and also mediated by them; in other words human identity does not exist a-priori but is in fact constituted by those different networks within which it is situated (such as social media.) Hence, the conditions of the Network Society present radical challenges to the account of autonomous and rational humanity that emerges in the European Enlightenment. As in other accounts of the conditions of subjectivity in late capitalism, such as Posthumanism humans are identified as enmeshed within and reliant upon existing economic, technological and ecological networks that are beyond their control.

Taking this as a starting point we can consider how Bowie’s own persona as “more than one, less than many” mimicked these effects of late capitalism and the Network Society. His multiple identities were also, performatively, contingent upon those conditions he found himself in.

In doing so we can use the following themes to think about both Bowie and human subjectivity in the age of “the world system”:


[These ideas were first explored in an MA Seminar for Art in the Contemporary World lead by Francis Halsall and Vaari Claffey]