Thursday, December 22, 2011

Landscapes of Radio Silence


[The National Radio Quiet Zone is a 13,000 square mile rectangle straddling the Virginia-West Virginia border; if you’ve ever driven through this area and tried to make a phone call you noticed that it becomes increasingly impossible towards the center; this is not only because you are in “the sticks/styx”, though you are, it is also because you are in the center of the federally controlled National Radio Quiet Zone]

The National Radio Quiet Zone was created in 1958 by the United States Federal Communications Commission to shelter the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, WV and the radio receiving facilities for the United States Navy in nearby Sugar Grove, WV.  The location of the zone was chosen because the rugged Alleghany Mountains offer terrain shielding that blocks the electromagnetic hum encircling most of the globe thanks to the proliferation of electronic gizmo landscapes in the last century. 

The zone is an historical anomaly, enabled by a preponderance of contiguous federal land, the geology of the Alleghany Mountains, and a particular moment in the political economy of West Virginia.  (Other NRAO stations in Socorro, New Mexico and the Atacama Desert in Chile have their own advantages, but neither is a NRQZ.)  It is tempting to claim that the Zone came about because of these preconditions, that it was somehow a material manifestation of these inherent qualities.  But this denies the agency of the telescope technology which brought together such disparate artifacts as Alleghany topography, the George Washington National Forest tract, and the political maneuvering of former West Virginia Senator Robert C. Byrd.  More important, it assumes that since those preconditions manifested this material condition- the landscape of silence with its telescopes- then they will continue in perpetuity as long as the preconditions remain.  This is, of course, not true.  The NRQZ as a zone free of electromagnetic interference is constantly being torn apart and reconstructed- electro gadgets are hunted down and eliminated, permits for cell phone towers are denied, a tourist with an unusually strong ham radio leaves Snowshoe Ski Resort.

[An AT&T tropospheric scatter relay station situated on top of a mountain in Buckingham, VA near the NRQZ; this obsolete piece of Cold War infrastructure is one of the progenitors of the myriad devices that consistently work to tear apart the radio silence of the NRQZ; image source]

The integrity of the zone is maintained not only by the terrain shield of the mountains, but also by the actions of different workers and the specific instruments used- at the NRAO scientists drive a fleet of diesel ’69 Checker Cabs and ‘70s Dodge trucks.  The on-site labs are designed to ensure that no radiation generated in the architecture escapes the building envelope.  Most famously, they employ a grizzled ex-midshipman/electro-junky/hillbilly genius to rove the Quiet Zone extinguishing offending electronic heating pads or broadcasting towers. 

This vast tract is an example of that particularly interesting landscape typology where absence of something is the defining characteristic.  All of the different parts- the Alleghany Mountains, visitors to Snowshoe Ski Resort, the Cass Railroad, the Green Bank Telescope, soy beans growing in the Shenandoah Valley- come into and extend beyond the limits of the NRQZ.  Yet inside the Quiet Zone they are but parts- objects relating to each other within a landscape of radio silence.  Following Michel Serres, Kazys Varnelis and Bruno Latour, an actor-network reading of the Quiet Zone shows this landscape to be a network of specific geologies, political actions, technological operations, and behaviors of locals and tourists, all held together and determined by the desires of a telescope!  In his essay “Bruno Latour, King of Networks” Graham Harman notes:

What we find always and everywhere are simply networks of actors.  The actor is not quite an object and not quite a subject; or rather, it can behave like both of these, depending on how view it. Following Serres, Latour makes use of the term “quasi-object” to refer to the precarious status of entities.  On the one hand they are contextualized by the objects with which they are fused; on the other, they have retreated into their own dark inner natures and are never fully measured by the networks in which they are involved at any given moment.

[Central Park in 1860, while under construction the landscape was already what we know as Central Park; though its shape and form differed radically, the boundaries and uses offered by the park were already in place]

[painting by Maurice Pendergast at the turn of the 20th century; the form had changed but many of the uses were similar and Central Park was still Central Park]

And so we might imagine that the telescope is one of these quasi-objects, a precarious entity contextualized by the surrounding mountains, hillbilly enclaves, and scientific projects while also inflecting their shape and formal materialization.  Given the precarious and contingent nature of this quasi-object and its prominence in determining the landscape of radio silence, the concept of fixity is particularly beguiling.  In a landscape there is always some notion of fixity engaged in an intense tango with the precariousness of quasi-objects.  The NRQZ and the 1988 collapse of the Green Bank Telescope provide an ideal case-study.

In 1988 the Green Bank Telescope collapsed due to the failure of a gusset plate in the box girder assembly that formed the main antenna support.  Suddenly the reason for maintaining the Quiet Zone was gone.  What followed seems fairly logical, but provides some interesting insight into the question of fixity and contingency in landscapes.  Instead of dissolution of the Quiet Zone landscape, a new telescope was built- the integrity of the landscape was maintained despite the destruction of one of the primary parts.  If we can imagine this particular landscape as a network in a given terrain defined by quasi-objects and their relations that is continually constructed by all sorts of actors, then the question of fixity is really a topological one (as opposed to a hermeneutical one).  In the future, given the rise of computation and the relevance of Latour’s ideas, we imagine that landscape architects might take more cues from the mathematician in Moebius.

[Photo of the original 300 foot Green Bank Telescope on November 15, 1988 before its collapse; image source]



[the original telescope on November 16, 1988]

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Field Guide to Occupation

The Occupy movement has heated up precipitously since we last posted here.  Last weekend saw a coordinated authoritarian crackdown on the occupation with fallout and confrontation continuing throughout the week.  That this coordinated effort occurred is not a surprise.  The writings of historians such as Fernand Braudel or JC VanLeur demonstrate how closely knit and mutually reinforcing the institutions of the market and state militancy tend to be in modern political economy, where any perceived threat to the market is usually confronted by the power of the state (see the Opium Wars).
[the Opium Wars in China were an instance of direct state-authored military intervention in the interests of the national market institution]

The root of confrontation might be seen in the peaceful but assertive act of occupation, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "the act of taking or maintaining possession of a country, building, land, etc especially by force.  The fact that protesters are choosing to claim a public space and make their argument through an assertion of physical presence should not be watered down.  The state and the market both offer institutionalized and accepted modes of protest, including permitted gatherings, legal challenge, and ostensibly the choice to shop or work elsewhere.  Of course, their mechanisms for sublimating the authentic grievances voiced through these channels are so sophisticated as to render impotent accepted forms of protest.  The genius of the Occupy movement its ability to set new terms of engagement including the occupation of symbolically important public spaces- Wall Street, City Hall, campus quads, public parks, and the like- and the tactics employed to carry out those strategies- tent cities, kitchens, day marches, drumming, blogging, and internet broadcasting. 

Confronted with these new terms, the state has deployed a raft of tactics and strategies that look eerily similar to crowd control strategies for a heated soccer match between hated South American rivals.  These include border fencing, chemical and electrical weapons, mass arrests, and massed units of armed foot patrols dressed like storm trooper automotons.  While the Occupiers are interested in assertively stoking a conversation and forcing those they vilify to confront the fact that life is , in fact, nasty, brutish, and short, the state decides that this must not be.  And so they escalate the tensions in the interest of protecting the targets of the Occupy protests, deciding that if some heads are going to be cracked, or if some people are just going to be inconvenienced, better it be a host of protesters than those that keep quiet and go to work.

Brett Milligan at Free Association Design documented the material and spatial qualities of Occupy Portland before it was removed from Lawnsdale and Chapman Square in Portland.  The Atlantic has provided incredible coverage, including Alexis Madrigal’s typically insightful piece analyzing the roots of this systematic state violence against citizens.
[referees are escorted from the stadium during the 1964 soccer riots in Lima, Peru; In a game between Peru and Argentina a critical goal was disallowed; spectators rushed the field in protest and were subsequently gassed by the police, as they tried to escape they found the exits to the stadium were locked; hundreds died, crushed or asphyxiated]

We were compelled to offer a quick analysis of some of the equipments and tactics in use in the hopes of enabling an understanding of these landscapes of occupation.  The analysis is broken down in to three sections that aim to capture a variety of instruments in operations.  The hope is that while the analysis is far from exhaustive, it might offer a framework understanding the instrumental aspects of these tactics and equipments, and allow for a mapping of how to negotiate these contested landscapes.

Borders
Borders are a fundamental element of any landscape.  They not only establish the shape and size of a place, they also mediate the exchange between adjacent entities and spaces.  Borders in the Occupy movement are typically the pre-existing curbs of roads, the steps and exterior walls of adjacent buildings, or densely planted areas.  These intensify and mediate activity, becoming places of certain types of conversation:  proselytizing of passersby, or confrontation with bankers or politicians going to work.  The benign and commonplace characteristic of these borders tends to inflect these relations, limiting them to passive and verbal exchanges. 
["Police fences reproducing" by AppellateSquawk; these are used to enlarge a perimeter of state control in public space]

[the importance of enlarging and transgressing an aggressively established border become paramount for the most aggressive people on either side of the demonstration in Times Square, New York City; image courtesy of the National Journal]

The introduction by police of modular steel barrier fencing and their reinforcement by armed patrol units greatly amplifies the nature of these exchanges.  They become zones of heated confrontation and violence, drawing to it the most active members of both sides and provoking them.  Each side sees the border as an affront- for the protesters its mere presence is unfair, for the police the fact that they don’t get to put it where they decide it should go is an attack.  The use of human bodies as a border similarly works to escalate actions, creating terms that establish and sense of immediacy and demand there must be a victor and the vanquished in that moment.  The cops that are in contact with politicians, media, each other, and are able to make strategic decisions are clustered back from the border whereas the foot soldier reduced to helmeted actants reacting to their immediate surroundings are clustered along the lines.  Much the same occurs with the protesters, with those interested to turn their anger towards a faceless symbol through shouting or incessantly snapping photos or taking video move toward the line.  The border thus serves to reorganize a relatively flat and homogeneous field of actors along lines that radiate back from the borders in a gradient. 


Tents
The widespread use and destruction of tents has been the iconic strategy employed by protesters and police.  By employing camping equipment- sleeping bags, tents, tarps, stoves- which is procured from nearby, dispersed locations (homes and stores) the protesters are able to greatly extend the ability of their bodies to occupy an outdoor public space while still conveying the image of a tenuous and negotiated existence in that place.  A large scale bourgeoisie yacht-occupation of the marinas along Manhattan’s Hudson River side would hardly have the same effect. These dwellings require inputs of food, replacement materials, and waste disposal that extend the network out to local houses and business that have the needed supplies.  The landscape that is created- including the homes and stores supplying the equipment a
[the array of domestic equipments in Occupy Portland as documented by Brett Milligan before its destruction November 12th]

[a landscape where resistance goes to become anonymous; the landfill in Kearny, NJ may be a final resting home for many of the tents, bags, pans, and tarps that sustained Occupy Wall Street through the fall]

By confiscating and destroying this equipment and enforcing rules initially intended to criminalize the homeless and youth (no sleeping on park benches, no biking, drumming, or cooking) the state is able to dismantle the landscape and dissolve the immediate capacity of those people to continue occupation.  In this operation (after the people are dispersed) trucks are brought in from municipal yards capable of hauling everything away at once, and in a disorderly fashion.  The final resting places are other municipal yards- landfills- designated for the disposal of society’s undesirable material wastes.  This equipment is of course designed to be disassembled, stored, and reused.  The fact that the police employ large-scale and violent methods of disassembly and disposal is a symbolic act.  The landscape that is generated is one of large centralized municipal yards and dispersed local homes and businesses.  Materials flow from the homes and businesses and coagulate for a time in strategic sites, forming a sort of heterogeneous and horizontal settlement- a larger entity. This entity is then deconstructed wholesale and disposed of alongside restaurant waste and construction and demolition debris in a city landfill, where it will be mixed, covered over, and symbolically forgotten in the future.

Media
The instruments of media create an extensive landscape in the Occupy movement.  The images and audio they record engage a huge slice of the population.  The field devices including police intercoms, bullhorns, ipads, cameras, and video recorders can immediately distill the effects and extend the reach of the actions of each person nearby.  These instruments access a regional network of server centers which then offer the content to every person who access the internet.  That the Occupy organizers use these same networks to coordinate marches, disseminate tools and information, and establish principles is not surprise (and is detailed here by Alexis once again). However, these instruments are most powerful because of the potentiality they embody.  Because they are media devices they are both objects in their own right and can affect other objects.  They can be used antagonistically (coordinating police crackdowns, photographing officers incessantly) or defensively (the possibility of being caught can limit the irrational anger of authorities and protesters). 
[Image from a video tour Google put together of its server containers, screen capture by Stephen Shankland/CNET, image via Mammoth's "Preliminary Atlas of the Gizmo Landscape"]

[both bystanders and police use media recording devices as some occupy San Diego protesters are removed from Civic Center Plaza on Oct 14th; image courtesy of the National Journal]

In their immediate vicinity (whether on the ground or through digital space) these instruments produce desire effects, urging police patrols into action, enabling satellite occupations, or emboldening protesters to confront authorities or each other.  The effects can destabilize to chains of command as well as coordinate novel or reinforcing ground actions.  Insidiously, they also offer a level of removal from embodied events; police officers get an order from their telephones and execute it through the chain of command, protesters turn in to bystanders as people are brutalized with batons or doused with poison chemicals.

[The analysis is rather hastily assembled and we would love any additional information, insight, or correction to what we offer here.]

Saturday, November 5, 2011

On Landscape Ontology: An Interview with Levi Bryant

These days the term "landscape" is included frequently as part of several growing and exciting fields of inquiry interested in human settlement and occupation- landscape urbanism, landscape ecology, landscape archeology, and landscape architecture, among others.  Despite this, an ontological definition of exactly what a landscape is or might be remains problematic and ambiguous.

Levi Bryant is a professor of philosophy and the author of the recently released Democracy of Objects, as well as co-editor of O-Zone, a new journal of object-oriented studies.  As an object-oriented philosopher Dr. Bryant works to develop a philosophy that pushes beyond the boundaries of human subjectivity to grapple with reality in all of its nasty splendor.  In recent years the work of Dr. Bryant and others such as Jane Bennett, Timothy Morton, Graham Harman, and Ian Bogost is opening up new, actionable ways of thinking and working in the world.

Recently we had the chance to discuss intersections between his work and ideas of wilderness, landscape, control mechanisms and the ambivalence of utopian fictions in affecting public space.
[ectomycorrhizae are fungi that form symbiotic associations with plant roots, taking in the carbon provided by the photosynthetic capabilities of the plant; this symbiotic relation allows plants to access minerals and water in the soil that would otherwise be inaccessible to their larger cell structures]

Dr. Bryant, you've mentioned before many of the thinkers you are indebted to.  I'm interested if there were specific experiences or places which also pushed you to make the connections that you are developing in your form of object oriented ontology?

Brian, thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.  It’s always difficult to determine what experiences might have made you fascinated with the things that fascinate you, and this above all because experience, as the analytic philosophers like to say, is so theory laden.  At the heart of all experience is something of a self-reflexive paradox.  Does something fascinate you because of experiences you have had?  Or do you have the experiences you’ve had because something fascinates you?  There’s an undecidability here.

Nonetheless, two experiences come to mind.  As a child I loved building things.  We would scavenge the local building sites to gather scrap wood and nails and build forts, tree houses, and a friend and I even built a beautiful bridge across the creek in the park.  We drove pilings deep into the creek bottom and constructed the bridge out of artfully arranged 2x4s.  It had a feel akin to a Japanese wooden walking path, which probably wasn’t much of a surprise as the interior design of the houses I grew up in had so many Asian influences.  In working with wood and landscapes in the way we did—especially with irregularly shaped bits of scrap wood –you really discover the agency of matter.  On the one hand, you can’t make materials do whatever you want them to do.  There’s a very real sense in which you have to submit to the exigencies, the singularities, the idiosyncrasies of your medium to do anything with that medium.  This was above all the case with scrap wood which, due to its various sizes and how it had been cut functioned in a way not unlike the manner in which the constraints on writing a haiku or in iambic pentameter lead to surprising inventions of language.  In short, there’s a poetry of matter, or perhaps a poetry of working with matter, that entails that any fabrication or construction is always a mutual result of the craftsperson, the artisan, and the material.  These are things that every artist, engineer, artisan, and cook, I believe, knows; though philosophers, in their commerce with ideas and texts often seem to miss this dimension of the world.  I think that these early experiences working with physical and natural objects gave me a healthy respect for the autonomy and agency of entities that would later render me receptive and sympathetic to object-oriented thought.

The other experience that comes to mind is a bit darker and less idyllic.  As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I went through a difficult time in high school and my family kicked me out of the home for a while.  Insofar as I worked at a restaurant that paid very little, I was directly thrown into poverty and was naked and vulnerable before the world.  Paraphrasing Heidegger with a Marxist twist, when you live in poverty everything is a broken hammer.  Here it will be recalled that Heidegger argued that in the midst of use tools are rendered invisible because they become, as it were, immediate extensions of our body and projects.  In working with a tool we are directed at the project, the goal in which we’re engaged, not the tool that we’re using.  However, when our tool breaks, we suddenly become aware of both the tool itself and the set of relations between tools that this particular tool belonged to.  The tool and the network become present to us where before they were unconscious and invisible (and here I won’t say “withdrawn”, but the invisibility I’m talking about here is different than the withdrawal Harman is getting at, I think). 

Well this is how it is with poverty and homelessness.  Everything becomes a broken hammer and the objects of the world and the networks to which they belong become visible everywhere.  They become visible precisely because they are no longer operative in the world of the impoverished person.  This is also how it is for excluded groups.  Suddenly the world becomes a menacing problematic place.  To eat and to live you must go to your job.  To go to your job your uniform needs to be clean.  For your uniform to be clean you must go to the laundry mat.  To go to the laundry mat you need transportation and money to buy soap and pay for the washers and dryers.  But to have money you have to go to a job.  Where, in ordinary day-to-day life, the objects that sustain our social relations and ways of living become all but invisible because they are functioning in the way they’re supposed to function, in a state like poverty and homelessness all of those objects become obtrusive and present precisely because they are absent. 

This experience, I believe, cultivated in me a strong sensitivity to the nonhuman objects that sustain our existence and social relations.  In my view, a good deal of philosophy and cultural theory is blind to this dimension of existence for the very reason that the material infrastructure—to use Shannon Mattern’s term –upon which our existence is sustained is invisible by virtue of functioning properly.  This leads to a systematic distortion of philosophical problems insofar as representation, signs, language, thought, ideas, and text come to be privileged.  What we miss is that not all problems are necessarily a matter of, for lack of a better word, the ideational or beliefs, but that the networks of objects that sustain us might very well account for much of the reason patterns of living continue in the way they do.  In this respect, design, at the material level, can be revolutionary even where it doesn’t involve any change in beliefs. 
[a painting in the limestone caves under southern Paris; note the prehistoric dinosaur bird, the canoe, the mycorrhizae-like wave crests, as well as the soda bottles and tea lights in the foreground]

The cover of Democracyof Objects features a series of fantistical objects of similar scale and spacing strung on a piece of something like barbed wire.  The book The Speculative Turn that you edited with Graham Harman and Nick Srnicek features a pair of pruning shears.  Barbed wire was a revolutionary technology that fundamentally shifted settlement patterns across the North American midwest; pruners are the ideal general purpose tool for maintenance and propagation of vegetation.  Can you talk a little bit about the choice of those images?

To be quite honest I had no role in choosing the images for either of my books, though I couldn’t be more pleased with the choices of the editors.  I’m particularly fond of Tammy Lu’s cover for The Democracy of Objects as I believe it very much captures the spirit of my thought.  Seen from afar it looks like flowers intertwined along threads of ivy.  This very much captures my conception of objects as something that “bloom” or unfold, just as the Greeks conceived phusis as a blooming or unfolding.  However, as you look more closely you suddenly see a hint of menace (the barb wire and fishing tackle), as well as a universe that somehow manages to beautifully interweave natural entities, computer memory storage devices, barb wire, fishing tackle and so on.  Tammy Lu’s work captures the sense of a flat ontology where nature, culture, and technology are not distinct ontological realms but rather where all entities are intermingled on a single flat plain of immanence and where there is no supplementary space that contains them but only the relations they forge with one another generating a network space.  It is a world of great beauty as well as lurking menace.

The cover of The Speculative Turn is a bit more masculine and difficult for me to decipher.  No doubt pruning sheers were dimly chosen to convey the sense of something of the tradition—the Kantian correlationist legacy –being pruned away.  This would be the aggressive, warlike dimension that seems especially popular among those speculative realists that fall in the nihilistic eliminativist camp and that seem to revel in death and destruction.  Indeed, perhaps a major fault-line in speculative realism is between that camp that emphasizes construction and building (though without a anthropocentric reference for these terms) found among the object-oriented ontologists and the process-relationists, and that side that seems delighted by tearing down, destroying, and death found among the nihilistic eliminativists.  A more generous reading of the pruning sheers, however, would be to comprehend them along the lines of the bonsai tree, as the collaborative process that takes place between humans and nonhumans in the cultivation of collectives.

You refer to your particular object-oriented ontology as onticology, which rests on the eponymous ontic principle meaning that beings or entities consist in producing difference.  Two concepts of onticology which you have established as important are wilderness and potentiality.  In fields concerned with an idea of landscape- geography, ecology, archeology, landscape architecture, art history, forestry, etc.- variants of these concepts of figure prominently.  Does onticology offer a definition for landscape?

I am suspicious of concepts like landscape and environment because, in the popular imagination, they seem to imply fixed containers that are already there and that entities must adapt to.  These concepts, I believe, point in the right direction, but don’t quite go far enough.  For this reason, I have tried to replace the concepts of landscape and environment with the concept of “regimes of attraction”.  In my view, landscapes and environments are not something other than objects, but are rather networks or assemblages of objects.  In other words, within the framework of onticology there is nothing but objects and relations between objects; though I insist that objects can be severed from their relations and that not every object is related to every other object.  A regime of attraction is a set of relations among objects.  I refer to these relations as “regimes of attraction” because these relations evoke or activate potentials within the objects related, leading them to actualize themselves in particular ways.  For example, right now it’s very cold in my house because the temperature has dropped and my heat isn’t currently working.  This is a regime of attraction involving my home, the position of the planet, weather patterns, my body, etc.  This regime of attraction leads my body to actualize itself in various ways.  For example, the skin about my fingers is tight and it is now hard to type as I write this.  These relations between entities generate a particular actuality or local manifestation in my body.  A key point here is that landscapes are not fixed and static, but, because the objects involved in the regime of attraction are acting and reacting to one another, are perpetually unfolding and changing.  They can’t be pinned down once and for all.  For example, my body nonetheless emits heat, vying with the coolness of the room.

I would thus refer to a landscape as a regime of attraction defined by a field of relations among a variety of different objects that presides over the local manifestations of the objects within this regime of attraction.  In short, landscapes are networks or assemblages.  They investigate what I call “cartographies” of entities and their relations in network time-space.  I do not wish to step on the toes of landscape theorists as I have more to learn from them than they have to learn from me, but I’m inclined to suggest that landscape thought can be divided into two domains:  landscape analytics and landscape activism.  Landscape analytics might be thought as the cartography of the space-time of these relations between entities or objects, investigating both how they interact to produce various local manifestations, but also to compose a “virtual map” of the potentialities or tendencies that reside within these regimes of attraction; the paths along which change in these landscapes is unfolding and possible.

Landscape activism, by contrast, is not merely a cartography of space-time assemblages of objects, but rather is the attempt to intervene in landscapes or regimes of attraction so as to form them in ways to produce particular desired local manifestations.  This work of design can range from the trivial to the profound.  It might consist of something as simple as interior design that strives to produce particular types of affects in people that occupy a room, to revolutionary transformations of social relations that through the artful arrangement of objects open vectors where humans and nonhumans become able to relate in entirely new ways, escaping claustrophobic and oppressive regimes of attraction that both quelled the possibility of these relations and generated misery for those occupying these regimes of attraction.
[a 47.3 foot diameter tunnel boring machine emerges near Niagara falls after tunneling 6.3 miles at depths of 500 feet under the Niagara escarpment as part of the Ontario Power Generation project]

Onticology seeks to reconcile the critical, discursive aspects of Kantian critique with an insistence that objects of the world have their own irreducible alterity by providing an affirmative definition of difference.  You've characterized this as a refusal to reduce objects to their cultural representations without remainder.  What do mechanisms of control- wire fences, cell membranes, code language- play in this process of differencing?

It seems to me that there is only a metaphorical relations between cell membranes and entities like control-wire fences and code languages, though I’ll have to think about this some more.  Every object necessarily has a membrane of some sort or another that regulates its relationship to other entities in the world.  This is part of what it means to say—in the framework of onticology –that objects are withdrawn from one another.  Objects never directly encounter one another, but rather encounter other through the distorting lenses of their membranes.  Put differently, every object metabolizes the other entities of the world through its membrane.  Membranes, of course, need not be films like a skin, but can just as easily be the structure of the object or linguistic and conceptual codes.

By contrast, when we talk about something like a control-wire fence it seems that we’re talking about something a bit more complex than a membrane.  Entities like control-wire fences are not membranes, so much as objects that function as intermediaries between one or more object and one or more other objects.  In the case of a control-wire fence you have an entity bound by one membrane (the entities on one side of the fence) related to an entity bounded by another membrane (the control-wire fence) relating to entities with yet another membrane (the entities on the other side of the fence).  There is thus a transmission of affect that is translated from one entity to another with the fence serving as an intermediary such that the affect can be transformed and modified quite a bit as we all experience when dealing with “red tape” and bureaucracies.  In this regard, the control-wire fence is what Marshall McLuhan refers to as a “medium”.  It is both an object in its own right and an object that transports and transforms the other objects for which it serves as an intermediary.  There are all sorts of significant implications that follow from entities that function in this way, some positive, others horrific.   

Your philosophy emphatically deals with reality, not just our access to it; in this way it seems related to John Dewey's instrumental theory of knowledge, especially with the notion that the activities of thinking and knowing occur when an "organism experiences conflict within a specific situation".  In his philosophy, metaphysics is concerned with ideas that open up new lines of action within a contingent and material reality.  As a result, the object of knowledge is the future, not a rationalization of the past.  Is it fair to suggest there are similarities here with your approach?

Dewey is a figure that I seldom mention, but is nonetheless someone who is everywhere present in my thought.  I first discovered Dewey through Experience and Nature in high school, where he articulated precisely the sort of relation between thought and being that I believed I was striving after.  Later, through an encounter with the sadly departed Hans Seigfried, I discovered Dewey again through Logic:  A Theory of Inquiry.  During that time I devoured Dewey’s writings on learning, inquiry, education, and aesthetics.  In my view, Dewey’s instrumentalist conception of knowledge and inquiry is the only theory of knowledge consistent with onticology.  Hints of this can be found all over the place in my treatment of Bhaskar’s philosophy of science in the first chapter of The Democracy of Objects.  I think Dewey’s instrumentalist theory of knowledge has the added virtue of being the only true theory of knowledge.  Dewey refused the idealist trend in philosophy inaugurated in Socrates’s disdainful treatment of the servant boy in Meno.
[Utopian Cartographies- Ortelius' 1595 representation of Thomas More's Utopia]

There seems to be a lot similarity in your philosophy, and speculative realism more broadly, and the tradition of the utopian project within design practice.  In design practice these are typically fictions where the objective is to suggest new relations and possible futures, a practice that stretches back to the Utopian works of Plato.  In this design practice representation is always at issue.  How is representation considered in object-oriented ontology, and how is it related to the agency of the medium of representation?

Within the framework of onticology fictions are themselves real entities.  In my own work I am always trying to emphasize the materiality of texts and identities, the fact that they are entities in their own right that circulate throughout the world and that affect other entities and objects.  Now clearly Josoph K. in Kafka’s work is not a real person that breaths, eats, is murdered, and so on, but nonetheless The Trial and The Castle are real entities that circulate throughout the world and that affect people in a variety of ways.  We can elect to live as Joseph K, seeing our place of employment or our country or our circumstances as the Castle or the Court; and in this way we can be led to interact with the world about us in ways that we otherwise might not do.  Two lovers can read Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past or watch The Secretary or Punch Drunk Love and discovering new ways of loving, living their love, and feeling.  Did these affects already exist in them, or did the work cultivate these affects?  I lean in the direction that fabricators of fictions invent affects rather than finding them ready made, and that in doing so they invent the possibility of new collectives and forms of living and feeling.  This is why the domain of fiction is a site of both micro- and macro-politics, for it is both a site where both the imagining of alternative forms of collectivity are rendered available and the site where oppressive collectivities are maintained through the construction of dark affects.  This, I believe, is much of what John Protevi is getting at in his work Political Affect.

Popular conceptions of public space often reference a mythologized past of luscious recreation parks of the 19th century, Italian Renaissance piazzas, and ancient Greek agoras.  Most of the time these have nothing to do with actual public spaces today- contested zones of exclusion, power, spectacle, and insipid banality.  What are the implications for an object-oriented ontology approach in the practice of construing and constructing public space?

It’s difficult to respond in a single way to this question.  First, one of the ways in which we construct our present is through fictionalized conceptions of the past.  Yet these conceptions of the past can certainly be a double edged sword.  Take the examples of how conservatives often talk about the 1950s.  They talk about the 50s as a time that was idyllic, where children were innocent and polite, where there was civility everywhere, and where there was generalized prosperity.  This myth of the 50s takes on a teleological function in the present, both suggesting that contemporary society has fallen, and that we must return to this lost form of life.  Yet the reality of the 50s was quite different.  Domestic abuse and child abuse, no doubt exacerbated by war trauma from both World War II and the Korean War, was rampant, substance abuse was at all time highs among the white middle class, women lived under oppressive conditions lacking in freedom and autonomy, there was profound racial division, and so on.  The fiction of the 50s functions to mask and repress the very real social conditions that necessitated the cultural revolutions of the 60s.

On the other hand, utopian fictions have often served as a vital component of revolutionary change.  Here we might recall the role that Greco-Roman thought played in the Enlightenment.  There was an idealized conception of Greek and early Roman cultural, political, and speculative life that was integral to the invention of new forms of life, knowledge, and collectivity during the Enlightenment period.  The Enlightenment thinkers needed to, as it were, leap over Christianity and the Middle Ages to envision the possibility of a new life and a world.  It matters little whether Greece and Rome were actually like this.  They weren’t.  The simulacrum of Greece and Rome rendered an alternative world available for collective action.  This is the value of the reality of ficitons. 

***
Readers interested in a further introduction to Levi Bryant's work can check out his excellent blog Larval Subjects, which has made several appearances here at FASLANYC.  

He is also the author of several books including Difference and Givenness:  Deleuze's Transcendental Empiricism and the Ontology of Immanence.

Lastly, interested readers might consider submitting material this coming spring for the first edition of O-Zone, which has put together an excellent cast of editors and an exciting statement-of-intent which can be seen here.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Landscape Delicatessen

Our southern correspondent H Willis Montcrief reports on a fascinating project that has popped up in Central Virginia.  Known as the Foam Dome Home, the project is an experiment in living- part Heideggerian hut, part space ship, part modernist utopia.  It’s like the first house, but from the future.

[the foam dome home faces Hurricane Irene while the Blue Ridge Mountains look on from the West]

The project is the home of University of Virginia landscape architecture graduate student Seth Denizen and is wonderfully documented here.  It is a technical and ad-hoc amalgamation of expanded polystyrene, bamboo skewers, salvaged pallet racks, an old wood stove, heat-formed plexiglass, and a “fabric reinforced elastomeric system used to recover aged and deteriorated metal roofs.”  On the blog you can follow the project through the materials collection process, fabrication, construction, and the recent confrontations with hurricanes and earthquakes, all rendered with lots of detail in a delightfully acerbic tone.

Now, dome homes made of foam are not a particularly novel idea, having been around at least since the 60’s when hippyism and the Space Race combined to create an unparalleled utopian stew.  Their applications range from hippie enclaves to mass produced hobbit homes spread across the Japanese landscape like ticky-tack mushrooms.  But there is much to like about this particular foam dome home- the beauty, the resourcefulness, the conceptual rigor and sophistication, the lack thereof regarding architectural detailing, and the willingness to live in one’s own experiment.  The applied technologies run the gamut from cow fencing found in central Virginia applied as transverse bracing to a three axis Onsrud router with a “50 square foot milling bed divided into two independently controlled vacuum tables.”  The foundation for the dome is a platform made of pallet racks and reminiscent of the modernist pilotis ideal but springing from a pragmatic concern- making a side entrance into a dome is hard, but entering from the bottom is easy.


But the aspect we love best about the project is the way it creates a sort of landscape delicatessen- the bringing together of all sorts idiosyncratic characters (the Onsrud router, cow fencing, a central Virginia hill, refuse foam from a Worcester construction project) and setting them into new and surprising relations to one another, all within a specific place.  This suggests a materialist definition for landscape that gets beyond picturesque scenery, green infrastructures, snazzy noun urbanisms, or dynamic flows (all of which we tend to rely on).  This project suggests that the concept of landscape might be understood as a set of objects and their relations set within a bounded, larger context.

[foam dome homes in Japan]

[foam dome home is like the Douglas House by Richard Meier, except the total opposite; image from Dwell]

[a foam dome-type landscape, from the movie Delicatessen]

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Frontier Mappings


Frederick Jackson Turner’s characterization of the frontier was fundamental to understanding its importance in shaping American societies.  His frontier thesis stated that the continual presence and progression of the frontier westward across the continent was critical to shaping the American people and institutions, and that its disappearance in the late 19th century signaled a cultural crisis for the United States of America.

[an approximation of the American frontier in 1775 as characterized by historian Frederick Jackson Turner; this schematic has fundamentally shaped the popular mythology of the United States- from creeds and federal policy (westward expansion and manifest destiny) to popular culture and landscape design (Toby Keith anthems and Olmsted's design for the 1893 Chicago World's Fair).  And rightfully so]
The thesis was brilliant- for the first time someone recognized that the rules of the European frontier did not apply here in the Americas.  Of course, being the one to take the first major pass, there were some areas that needed more work.  Historian Walter Prescott Webb more precisely described the frontier, noting that in the Americas a frontier was “not a line to stop at, but an area inviting entrance. Instead of having one dimension, length, as in Europe, the American frontier has two dimensions, length and breadth.”   Another historian of the American West, Herbert Eugene Bolton, argued that the American frontier can't be understood in terms of an inexorable, Anglo-centric march west.  For Bolton, the American frontier was a hemispheric condition of contested terrains; while the Anglo-Americans marched west, the French moved south, the Spanish moved north, the Russians moved east, the British controlled Canada, and the Portuguese expanded in all directions.  Purging Turner's Anglophilia from the Frontier Thesis (it was a common affliction at that time) and combining Webb's representation of the frontier concept with Bolton's, we start to render a more interesting and appropriate approximation of the American frontier.

Wider Horizons of the American Landscape
[an approximation of the actual American frontier in 1775; French territory is green, Spanish is dark blue, Portugese is yellow, Dutch is orange, British is red, Russian is pink, areas contested between the British and French are light blue, indigenous nations are mapped with white labels; borders are fuzzy and territories are not homogeneous blocks, but rather heterogeneous zones of conflict and potential]


A certain philosopher asserts that a space is something that has been made room for, something that is cleared and free, namely within a boundary.  A boundary is not that at which something stops, but that from which something begins its presencing.” [paraphrased]
- William T. Vollman, Imperial
Combining the work of these frontier historians with that of geographers and landscape architects such as Richard Campanella, Elizabeth Meyer, and Peter Jacobson, it is possible to understand the American frontier as a landscape condition:  a constructed environment consisting of autonomous objects in relation to one another within a larger context.  The American landscape is a hemispheric condition with overlapping and contingent jurisdictions over expansive territories characterized by bigness and smashing.  The rivers are bigger, the mountains are higher, the deserts drier, the forests taller, and the horizons wider.
The frontier is non-directional.  It is not a thick band of open, receding land at the edge of society but rather a heterogeneous and uneven agglomeration of difficult and contested territories where myriad indigenous and colonizing interests are smashing into one another over and over.  The frontier in the American landscape is not Turner’s blank space or Webb’s thick zone at the settled edge.  It is defined by overlapping and ambiguous administrative jurisdictions at different scales.  It is not always clear who is in charge, and that creates a unique set of problems and possibilities- control is ambiguous, there are real and perceived dangers, and there is latent potential.  This contingency and potentiality generates the frontier conditions which the Scottish recognized in the Darien Gap, the United States recognized in the Southwest, and the French saw in the Mississippi Valley.  As a landscape condition, the frontier is endemic to the American landscape; marked by difficult terrain, massive government investments, a tantalizing mix of potential commercial success and imminent disaster.