Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Geology and Flat Ontology: Bryant and De Landa

The first of the new systems seminars at Gradcam began last week with a fascinating discussion on De Landa’ s ‘Immanence and Transcendence in the Genesis of Form’ [South Atlantic Quarterly, 96:3]and parts of Bryant's The Democarcy of Objects.

Alan has already posted some initial thoughts here which I'm responding to..

There were 2 elements I found particularly exciting about the reading and discussion; both of which are helpful in thinking through the idea of system as an absolute metaphor; that is a basic form of organization.

1 – Metaphor. De Landa gives the following description of his use of ‘Strata’ and ‘Meshworks’ as forms of organization: “This raises the question of whether some (or most) applications of these terms are purely metaphoric. There is undoubtedly some element of metaphor in such applications, but, the appearance of linguistic analogy notwithstanding, I believe that a deep, objective isomorphism underlies the different instantiations of strata and meshworks.” He invokes a “deeper, objective level” at which isomorphic connections occur.

Alan’s question in regard to this is a pertinent one – does this lead to a circularity of thought in which a deep structure is presupposed in advance of its revelation; ‘can De Landa move from metaphor to real isomorphic systems without too much concern?’ I’m not sure. It seems telling that he claims to ‘believe’ in the deep, objective isomorphisms yet without moving toward providing proof.

The move from metaphor to (ultimately un-provable) isomorphism reminds me of Blumenberg’s talk of Absolute Metaphor (something I’ve mentioned a few times here already) as ‘unable to satisfy the requirement that truth, by definition, be the result of a methodologically secure proceedure of verification.’ (Paradigms for a Metaphorology)  This is also how Don Ihde reads Heidegger’s account of technology (“Technology is therefore no mere means. Technology is a way of revealing” – The Question Concerning Technology):
“I have called what Heidegger sometimes calls ‘Epochs of Being’ civilizational givens. These are something like deeply held, dynamic but enduring traditions, historical but nor more easily thrown over than one’s own deepest character or personality.” [Don Ihde, Technis and Praxis, pg. 104ff.]

2 – Geological Organisation. De Landa’s discussion proposes forms of organization which can on the one hand accommodate non-linear, non-predictable complexity and on the other transfer across different orders (psychic, social, “natural”) without relying on (i) consciousness/ volition or (ii) ‘life’ as organizing principles.

As Alan mentions the model of Hierarchies and Networks seems them as organizational forms which emerge from geological processes. This proposal for a geological mode of organization suggests a 3rd alternative to the 2 classical modes:

(i) Social/ Intentional. From this volition/ will emerges as consciousness in the humanist tradition. The best example of this is forms of communicative rationality as theorized by Habermas and intersubjectivity as an intentional horizon in the phenomenological tradition. This is an anthropomorphic model of organization. It is, arguably, unsatisfactory in that it anthropomorphizes organizational process (as volitional, intentional etc.).

(ii) Biological/ Life. From this organization is attributed to an animating life-force. This is what Habermas recognized in Luhmann’s systems theory (which emerges in his later work and comes from Maturana/ Varela et al)– namely that it is meta-biological in its attribution of forms of auto-poetic organization to an animating (and irrational) life force. This is a biological model of organization. It is, arguably, unsatisfactory in that it makes organizational process “alive.”

Both Norbert Weiner (from a Cybernetic perspective) and, more recently, Ray Brassier (from a eliminative materialist perspective) have warned against such neo-vitalism as a first principle:
Weiner: “It will not do to state categorically that the processes of reproduction in the machine and in the living being have nothing in common.” [Norbert Weiner: God and Golem Inc. pg. 47]

Brassier:  I’m not interested in proposing a philosophy of life or anti-life, but in querying the inflation of “life” into a master-category in contemporary philosophy, not just by overt vitalists, but also by phenomenologists, critical theorists, and enactivists.” [Interview at After Nature blog]


(iii) Geological – whereby complexity is understood through the organization of “unformed and unstructured matter-energy flows.” (pg. 510). The attractiveness of the organization of  matter-energy flows as an isomorphic process is that (unlike Luhmann) it offers a model of non-linear complexity, organization and emergence which is both compatible with material and which doesn’t prioritize either consciousness or forms of life. In other words, this gives us what Bryant calls a ‘flat ontology.’ It allows us to talk about lava flows, storm clouds, oil prices, rioting crowds, ants, ice-floes, viruses and nervous-systems in exactly the same terms.

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