Monday, 24 October 2011

Event this week

[might be relevant to the systems seminar]

Second Nature at the Lab, Foley Street
October 26th 1830-2030
to book a place: email

This series of presentations provides a public overview and incite into some of the issues engaged by the show Quantified SelfQuantified Self brings together a number of artists working across media and performance with Shimmer Research, developers of wearable sensors with multivariate applications to kinematic, biometric and context-aware data. Forming part of the remit of Innovation Dublin, artists were invited to collaborate with Shimmer technicians to speculatively engage the capabilities of the wireless platform.

Second Nature is a response to the show, and features a number of short presentations from experts in areas such as artificial intelligence, embodied cognition, philosophy, anthropology, art and computer science. This will include Kieran Daly from Shimmer Research Labs, Dr John Kelleher (DIT) speaking on the embodied turn in Cognitive Science, Tim Stott (DIT) who will provide an overview of Foucault’s theory of Biopower, Dr. Cathal Gurrin from DCU’s lifelogging research lab, Musician Mark Linnane, and Quantified Self artists Michelle Browne and Saoirse Higgins, among others.

With the proliferation of intelligent systems for the monitoring and aggregation of human-generated content, including psychographic, geographic and biometric data, we are faced with a number of interrelated issues. How have bodies across history influenced not only cognitive processes but the ongoing design of sentient systems? What new forms of self-knowledge might emerge through networked and pervasive media? As life itself is integrated with artificial systems concerned with storage of information, processing and decision making, what might the future implications be for human cognition?

Kieran Daly – Dr Kieran Daly is VP of Shimmer, developers of a wireless sensor platform that records and transmits physiological, kinetic and context-aware data in real-time. These technologies were used in the QS show.
John Kelleher – Dr. John Kelleher is a Lecturer in the school of computing in DIT, with a focus in Artificial Intelligence and Computational Linguistics. Research interests include embodied cognition, and human computer interaction.
Saoirse Higgins – Saoirse Higgins is a Media artist currently based between Dublin and Manchester where she leads a BA in creative multimedia at MMU. Her background is in product design with a Masters in Interactive Media from the Royal College of Art, London and an MSc in Media Arts and Sciences from MIT Media Lab, Boston. Saoirse is interested in revealing some of the connections between our visions of the world we live in, our expectations for the future and the technology we use to help us with this. She explores the contested spaces of public-private, man-machine, man-nature.
Tim Stott – Tim Stott is a writer, and art critic based in Dublin. He’s currently an assistant Lecturer in the history of art in DIT, and an associate researcher in the Graduate School of Creative Arts and Media, close to completing a PhD on the politics of play and participation.
Cathal Gurrin – Dr Cathal Gurrin is a lecturer in the school of computing in DCU, director of the human media archives group and a collaborating investigator in the Clarity centre for sensor web technologies. This space has facilitated his ongoing research into lifelogging.
Michelle Browne –Michelle Browne is an artist and curator living in Dublin, currently on residence in the Leitrim Sculpture centre. She is the founder of Out of Site, a public and live art festival in Dublin.
Owen Drumm – Is a technologist, designer and all round guru. He has worked at the interface of audio and technology. As well as designing state-of-the-art digital mixing desks and audio processing software he has collaborated with many major recording artists such as Def Leppard and Enya.  Owen founded and runs Rapt Audio and Owen Drumm Designs.
Mark Linnane – Mark Linnane is a video artist, creative technologist and researcher. His work focuses on the relationship between physical gesture, embodied cognition and perception and is realized using image processing and audio synthesis tools. Currently a lecturer in the MSc in music and media technologies in Trinity College Dublin, Mark is completing a PHD in embodied Music Cognition and Sonic Interaction design.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Next Systems Session: The Prince and the Wolf

After a shorter first meeting the Systems seminar group will begin in earnest on Nov. 2nd (2011) at the Gradcam building, (just off Thomas St.) and the next sessions this calendar year are Nov. 23rd, Dec 14th. Sessions begin at 5:15pm.

The general starting point of the seminar was “systems” thought of in connection with phenomenology, technology and the body. This has now expanded to include debates related to Speculative Realism/ Object Orientated Philosophy.

Specifically: as agreed, the key text this year will be the Harman and Latour debate in The Prince and the Wolf.

We’ll begin discussing this text at the next session and take things from there.

Further information and discussion will be channeled through this blog.
 I’d be most grateful if you could pass this on to anyone who may be interested – all are welcome.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Non Compliance?

Just last week in London, I had a strange and jarring experience. I was waiting for someone in Trafalgar Square and decided to sit on a wall just below the “fourth plinth” (where the Yinka Shonibare piece ‘Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle’ was on show.) After a few minutes I was approached by two men in semi-official looking jumpers and peaked hats. They asked me, politely, if I would mind getting down from where I was sitting.
“Yes I would mind”
I said.

They asked again politely; and again I, also politely, declined. I gave my reasons: that I was doing nothing illegal, or in any way offensive and that I didn’t want to move. I then asked them who they were and was told that they were employed by “GLA.” (I later found out that this was the Greater London Authority who had contracted the private company Chubb Security Personnel Limited.)
“So, you’re not police, you can’t arrest me then.” I said.
“Well you see sir, it’s a health and safety issue. We’re just doing our job.”

This back and forth went on for a little bit longer, during which time they remained calm, polite yet insistent whilst I became increasingly upset, irrational and incoherent. It ended with me getting down and shouting swear words at them as they laughed and walked off. My miniature protest and attempt at non-compliance had been utterly inconsequential. It had been a pointless, petulant bluster of inchoate impoliteness that had no effect whatsoever.

A few moments later I saw them chatting with some adults and taking photographs for them of their kids clambering over the lions down in the square.

I had found the intervention of these “Heritage Wardens” threatening and troubling and had been unsettled by the whole experience. (I'm not the only one and you can see one of the guys who approached me at work here.)

The claim that it was a health and safety issue seems to point to what’s at stake; because it’s in the regulation of the body, specifically, to which the concerns of health and safety are directed.

It was my body that was precariously balanced on the classical balustrades; and it was that which was being challenged. I think this is what I was hinting towards in the last post when I suggested that bodies can migrate between and disrupt different (and closed) social systems.

Husserl puts this as the body being involved in a thingly nexus:
We have seen that in all experience of spatio-thingly Objects, the body ‘is involved’ as the perceptual organ of the experiencing subject.” (Ideas II, § 36)

There are at least three implications to this involvement in a thingly nexus.

First we might think about how a nexus of things might be conceived of in terms of systems – a system of objects perhaps (although with qualifications to Baudrillard’s account.)

Second, when demands are made of me, or infringements, then they are enacted both within this system of objects and on the surface of my body. (The body is the inscribed surface of events (traced by language and dissolved by ideas), the locus of a dissociated self (adopting the illusion of a substantial unity), and a volume in perpetual disintegration.(Foucault, Nietzsche, Genealogy, History)

And third the body is also transcendent, or at least quasi-transcendent. Clearly this is Merleau-Ponty’s well known insight in The Phenomenology of Perception (especially part 1). But, crucially, this is also what Husserl means when he says that that the body is constituted in a “double way”, as physical matter and as “sense”. This doubling means it can resist. It is coiled up with a potential to disrupt the easy flow of capital and information within social systems. And hence, it forms the origin of a politics. This would mean, then, a politics that is grounded in what Husserl calls the “physical-aesthesiological unity” of the body. He says of this unity:

In the abstract, I can separate the physical and aesthesiological strata but can do so precisely only in the abstract. In the concrete perception, the Body is there as a new sort of unity of apprehension. It is constituted as an Objectivity in its own right, which fits under the formal-universal concept of reality, as a thing that preserves its identical properties over and against changing external circumstances.” (Ideas II, § 40)

To make a leap – it is a critique of politics that are abstract which forms the basis of Zizek’s critique of the “lost causes” of liberal politics. In this section his focus is Simon Critchley:

The lesson here is that the truly subversive thing is not to insist on ‘infinite’ demands we know those in power cannot fulfil (since they also know it that we know it, such an ‘infinitely demanding’ attitude is easily acceptable for those in power: "so wonderful that, with your critical demands, you remind us what kind of world we would all like to live in ~ unfortunately, however, we live in the real world, where we are just honestly doing what is possible"), but, on the contrary, to bombard those
in power with strategically well-selected precise, finite demands which
cannot allow for the same excuse.” (Zizek, In Defense of Lost Causes, pg. 349-50)

Which when I read it recently (he is particularly critical of Critchley’s defence of humour as an ethical and political strategy of desublimation) immediately reminded me of that great exchange in Manhattan:
“Man: ‘I heard you quit your job?’

Isaac: ‘Yeah, a real self-destructive impulse. You know, I want
to write a book, so I, so I ... Has anybody read that
nazis are going to march in New Jersey, you know? I
read this in the newspaper, we should go down there, get
some guys together, you know, get some bricks and
baseball bats and really explain things to them.’

Man: ‘There was this devastating satirical piece on that on the op-ed
page of the Times. It is devastating.’

Isaac: ‘Well, well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but
bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the

Woman: ‘Oh, but really biting satire is always better than physical

Isaac: ‘No, physical force is always better with Nazis. Cos
it's hard to satirize a guy with shiny boots.’
(Woody Allen – Manhattan)

It’s hard to satirize a guy in shiny boots. And ones in a jumpers and peaked hats too. We need to think about what forms of non-compliance are most appropriate. And it’s my guess that swearing and sculptures are equally inconsequential.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

That is the Living

Just recently I found a young guy’s passport on the street and thought that the most sensible thing to do was contact the embassy of his country directly, explain that it had been found, and then send it to them. All of which I did and then thought nothing more if it.

A few days later the following email arrived (I’d left my card in the package) which I've cut and pasted directly here:

“Hi Dr Francis,

How is the life?

I am really happy for your kindness. I really appreciate that! I'd like to thank personally and give a little gift to you. Would I might meet up you next week where you work (National College)? Let me kow when is possible, ok?

I wanna see you. I was going to see my girlfriend in London, on the way to the airport the passaport fell down from my jacket, fortunately you found it but my girlfriend didnt believe that and we just broke up. That is the living! In addition, I'm very glad because my mother will arrive next week and we are going to travel for 15 days. Probably, if you havent found it, the trip couldnt be possible!

I dont know you yet but I am sure you are a woderful person.


(If you like brazilian stuffs, my mother will arrive on friday, then we can meet that day) :)”(sic)

I turned down the chance to meet by making some excuse and the last I heard from him was a follow up message.

“Hello Dr Francis,
  One more time, THANKS A LOT. I wish all the positive energy in your life. Have a good work!
  All the best for your!

I’ve been thinking about this since and as to why I found the whole experience so touching and revealing.

The email itself is a micro-masterpiece of empathy and compact storytelling -  “my girlfriend didnt believe that and we just broke up. That is the living!

And it’s astounding how much it revealed. One could quickly work out his age, hair and eye colour, how long he was going to stay in the country (from an attached student visa) and so on from the passport, but the note tells a much deeper story. It seems to disclose an entire system of relations that exist, for the most part, outside of my own network. This is a system that has an almost completely different rhythm to mine, yet one that can touch me. We can, through this fragment, glimpse another intentional horizon as it, briefly, interpenetrates our own. And from this one can move outwards to imagine a whole world populated with other such little epiphanies and minor narratives.

Luhmann describes this in his characteristically dry and wry way as Interpenetration, that is:

“Interpenetration exists when [penetration] occurs reciprocally, that is when both systems enable each other by introducing their already-constituted complexity into each other. In penetration one can observe how the behaviour of the penetrating system is co-dertermined by the receiving system (and eventually proceeds aimlessly and eratically outside this system, just like ants that have lost their ant hill.) In interpenetration, the receiving system also reacts to the structural formation of the penetrating system, and it does so in a twofold way, internally and externally.”
[Art as a Social System, trans. Bednarz jr/ Baecker, pg. 213]

In Luhmann’s model consciousness is a psychic system and thus like every other system. That is, it is operatively closed to its environment and other systems. What it does is observe, or be irritated by, other systems. His description of communication is that it doesn’t happen between systems, but inside them. Communication is an occurrence, specific to a particular system, that generates meaning within that system from the unity of a message as well as its communication and reception. In other words, it is not passed over like a parcel (or a passport) but rather generated by the internal operations of each system.

Now, of course, I know next to nothing about this guy. I had a look at his passport photograph, but have since forgotten what he looked like along with his date of birth and even his full name. So it seems that Luhmann is somewhat right. I can only observe and reconstruct this external horizon from within the perspective of my own.

It would be all too easy to read the incident as an exemplar of the forms of contemporary communication which are all mediated at a distance (all the transactions took place by phone, courier and email) and through the abstracted circuits of information exchange, commerce and control.

Yet I still have a nagging feeling that this doesn’t quite capture what happened. I wasn’t only an observer here, but an actor in a network. I didn’t just observe, I was touched too.

At the very least it seems that when systems collide the aftershocks of those interpenetrations crackle, flash and fizz through the circuits long after the moment when they kissed off one another. Perhaps this is what Roy Ascott meant when he said that there is "Love in the Telematic Embrace".

I think the key to this lies in the passport. This was not just an ephemeral instance of communication that emerged internally within different systems but a physical thing that was passed between systems. A gift, perhaps, exchanged without commercial value. Or an object, whose stuff-ness passed between different systems, and existed in both. Disrupting their hygiene.

This is only the beginning of this thought, but my hunch is that bodies are the same. They too migrate between Luhmann’s different and closed systems whilst also disrupting their hygiene. Like sand in Vaseline.