Itineration: Cross-Disciplinary Studies in Rhetoric, Media, and Culture has published my review of Writing Urban Space which you can read here.
Levi Bryant has posted some reflections on the deployment, evolution, and potential shortcomings of the term “correlationism.” It’s an interesting read that covers some of the more baffling developments and associations that have become attached to this oft-quoted term, and the post has me reflecting on the impact that correlationism — and its adjacent speculative realist movement — has had on my own thinking. Now, I don’t use the term correlationism very much, almost never actually, and I don’t really consider myself to be a “speculative realist,” whatever that might mean, but I have been involved in my fair share of discussions surrounding both so it’s not like I’m divorced from these terms either.
In the first place correlationism is, for me, a problem that I have to get into rather than one I have to get out of. This has to do with the fact that my two largest intellectual influences — the sciences of ecology and speculative philosophy — both start off from a radically different position than those for whom correlationism is a problem, and for whom the critique of it is an innovation. That’s not to say that correlationism doesn’t usefully describe a particular set of philosophies, or that the responses the concept has generated are simple, unnecessary, or unhelpful. Rather, I’m trying to emphasize that correlationism is a concept that has emerged historically within the context of a very specific set of discursive circumstances, and that there are other discourse communities, other ecologies of thought and ideas, for which correlationism wasn’t the problem or tradition of thinking that needed to be challenged or overcome. I just happen to belong to one of those traditions within which correlationism might never have emerged as a topic of consequence.
But if correlationism is not a term I readily use, and not a problem I was trying to solve, what has correlationism done for the work I am doing? The answer is that it has made possible a greater variety of discussions with a greater variety of people. The concept of correlationism has redistributed discursive relations amongst philosophers. In my case it has increased my ability to dialogue with people working within continental philosophy, and made it possible for me to engage these traditions in a much more complex way than was previously possible. However, even here the contribution of correlationism has to be thought within a larger ecology of knowledges, and within a movement towards speculative philosophy emerging in continental circles more generally. This movement seems to have had something of a slow build over the past few decades, but surely we can point to a kind of Deleuzian moment with an epicenter radiating out somewhere around the publication of Difference and Repetition in 1968 (and even earlier with his recovery of Henri Bergson in Bergsonism). Surely a more robust genealogy would reveal an even more distributed build through time.
The situation today is quite different. Indeed, we can now name a whole litany of new speculative texts in addition to those directly associated with speculative realism. Here we can mention Isabelle Stengers’ book Thinking With Whitehead, which has clearly had a huge impact on the way Whitehead is read in France and elsewhere, as well as Steven Shaviro’s book Without Criteria, which as had a very profound effect on my understanding of Kant, Deleuze, and Whitehead, and has opened up new avenues of discussion between continental and speculative philosophy. We’ve also seen works like Nature and Logos, which draws connections between Whitehead’s speculative philosophy and Merleau-Ponty’s later philosophical research. There’s also been a renewed interested in older texts like Gabrial Tarde’s Monadology and Sociology. And There’s still much more on the horizon — the english translation of Bruno Latour’s An Inquiry into Modes of Existence for instance. There are countless more examples we could list.
All of these works point to an interesting shift, not just in continental theory, but in the ecosystems of thought that are now capable of interacting and mutating with one another in general. A new phase of parasitism and symbiosis has begun, and I think that the truly interesting syntheses of these disparate figures still lay ahead of us. Within this broader shift towards speculation correlationism has acted as a kind of rallying point in otherwise loose ecological zones. Here the object “correlationism” must be thought of as a conceptual actor with the agency to produce different kinds of discursive effects structurally coupled with different kinds of media. So even if it’s not a concept I hang my hat on every night it is one that has directly impacted the ecologies of knowledge in which I participate. At the end of the day it’s the increase in dialogue with a more diverse group of thinkers, a dialogue that I can attribute to this word “correlationism,” that I think has had the most impact on my work, rather than the problems to which the concept itself refers.
Newly published research indicates that the sky above our heads is filled with complex living ecologies that contribute to global weather dynamics. In the words of one researcher, this “contributes significantly to the hypothesis that the atmosphere is alive . . . The possibility of microbes being metabolically active in the atmosphere transforms our understanding of global processes.” We’ve seen reports like this before, but freshly published research always brings these exciting ideas back to mind.
The report also reminds me of one of the arguments from my article in Thinking Nature (forthcoming . . . soon?). In that paper I suggest we need a new conception of media ecology expanded to include all organisms, and not just human ones. From this perspective the sky is not a given backdrop upon which evolutionary dynamics unfold, but a recursively active media ecology that is constructed by a series of entangled organisms. Organisms are media ecologists enveloped by the media ecologies of other organisms, and aerobiology is just one exotic example that highlights this point.
What I think is so interesting about this perspective is that it implies that the Earth itself is not just a ground, but also a medium that constrains and conditions the semio-energetic cascade of organismic and ecosystemic development. By re-thinking the Earth as a kind of media my hope is twofold. First, I think the idea can open up the possibility of a more porous and participatory encounter with the Earth as a malleable but constitutive entity that frames the possibility of all human activity. Second, media ecology can highlight the important role played by the material distribution of constructed environments in terms of the enactment of an organism’s worldspace.
The latter point has consequences for how we think about cognitive ethology too. If we think of the Earth as a media ecology, or a series of media ecologies, then we have to think of the enacted worldspace of each organism from a distributed and extended perspective. In other words, if we think of media ecologies as constructed zones that tamper with the sensory ratios and affective sensibilities of organisms, then we are obliged to conclude that each organism’s “ecology of mind” is extended beyond the sensory apparatus of the physical organism. It’s a sort of strange but striking image: The Earth fluoresces with the distributed cognition of billions of organisms and the flashing perceptual zones of a diverse anarchy of media ecologies of mind.
[Image: Richard Hardy]
Recently I have been reaching out to various academic communities to gather sources on what a media ecology of the city would like in the twenty-first century.
While most of my posts on Knowledge Ecology have to do with various branches of continental and speculative philosophy I am not at all ignorant of the fact much of the important work in this area is coming from sociologists, anthropologists, geographers, and political or urban ecologists; for this reason I have tried to reach out to them in particular (much thanks is due to the EANTH listserv, which I highly recommend to interested readers).
Thinking the city is necessarily a transdisciplinary endeavor and I would love to hear what folks in other disciplines or branches of philosophy have to say about centering the city as an object of investigation (are analytic philosophers working on new frameworks for exploring human-city dynamics from an ecological perspective? — truth be told I have no idea but would love to find out).
I have a short list of important texts that have been recommended to me from the social science community which I am posting as an online PDF incase anyone else is interested in following along HERE.
Additions and further suggestions are welcome.
[Photo: Stephanie Jung]
I am increasingly convinced that one of the primary objects of human inquiry for the next several centuries will be the city. We need new theories, models, and works of art about cities. Physicist Geoffrey West tackles the question of the “physics of cities” HERE (h/t Dirk Felleman).
Having reviewed the various positions that have emerged in part one of this essay, in this section I offer an answer to the question: Are ideas, thoughts, and concepts “things”? My answer comes along two primary avenues. First, I will give a general description of my take on the ontology of ideas. Second, I will suggest why I believe an ecological approach to the question is the most approriate. In conclusion I offer some short comments regarding why I think this dialogue, and the approach I am advocating, is so important. I am heartened by the level of engagement this discussion has inspired in me, and I am particularly thanful to Michael of Archive Fire for encouraging this conversation. Here we go.
Are ideas, thoughts, and concepts “things”? Or are they simply epiphenomena produced by the cognitive functions of embodied actors?
A number of short essays on the question have cropped up in different corners of the Internet recently. Some of these have been written in response to essay excerpts that I have posted here on Knowledge Ecology. In what follows I briefly review some of these responses, and then offer some remarks that extend my original position. In summary, my position is that we can (and should) treat ideas, thoughts, and concepts, as full-blown and independent ecological actors (in Bruno Latour’s sense) and can even consider them real objects (in Graham Harman’s sense). I will offer a more detailed account of my position in part two of this series. To set up this account, here is a brief overview of the discussion so far.
[Photo: Ward Roberts]
The city takes us over. More than an environment it penetrates us; more than a fixed enclosure it shifts with our every behavior. The city, like a giant octopus swimming in the deep, swallows us whole and begins to shape us along its grooves and edges. It swims through the surrounding boundaries thrashing into rock, water, and sand. So much steel and glass metabolizes in our minds and shades the contours of our perceptions. It assigns to us new notions of speed, velocity, and distance; we expand along its metallic curves moving upwards into the condensing droplets of clouds. Its infrastructure percolates with the flow of oil, gas, and concrete; its hum sounds like cancer; its electronic lights glow like a million terrestrial stars. The city is vast, but it rests on the edge of continents like a small nebula floating in deep space.
We breathe the city air and its chemical refuse becomes our own. We inhale its chemistry; its molecules become us as our organic fibers trail through its rusty corridors; a wandering carnival of automobiles and spent fuel spill into the street. What is city and what is human is not clear—the threshold between parasite and symbiont is crossed ten thousand times a day, both recklessly and intentionally. But it’s not just the human that is affected by cities, even though it was humans who built them. The city is enmeshed in larger ecologies—perhaps extending like the barnacles on some fertile archipelago or small rocky island. But the city is itself an ecology; an ecology of communication systems, power grids, bridges, terminals, data, and screens. All of these are part of the human ecology of perception and material well-being. To be sure, the city is also a multispecies ecology of organisms that inhabit its causeways and hide within its industrial undergrowth.
Lewis Mumford tells us, “The city is a fact in nature, like a cave, a run of mackerel or an ant-heap. But it is also a conscious work of art, and it holds within its communal framework many simpler and more personal forms of art. Mind takes form in the city; and in turn, urban forms condition mind” (CoC p. 5). Surely, the city emerges from the molten core of that rumbling blue diamond we call earth; cities are geological facts. But it’s a troublesome statement: the city is a fact of nature. Troubling because cities are centers of violence and exploitation, of excommunicated laborers and strung out addicts. Surely things can be otherwise. In the awareness of other possible worlds, there is nothing inevitable about the city’s social strata. Here the idea of nature is a specter that is, “getting in the way of properly ecological forms of culture, philosophy, politics, and art” (EWN p. 1). Nature is an indefinable emptiness, everything and nothing all at once.
A city is haunted by its comparison with this indefinable nature. Within the idea of nature the city is caught in never ending battles between the sacred and the profane. Either the city is the city on the hill—a beacon of a utopian future that turns a blind eye to its oppression and pollution—or, conversely, the city is the city of the damned—something out of balance with the surrounding landscapes of trees, oceans, and hills. In both of these senses “nature hovers over things like a ghost” (EWN p. 14) and prevents a more radically ecological vision from coming through. To Mumford we might then say that, yes, the city is a fact, but it is a fact of the earth and not a fact of nature, and we must learn to love the city’s most forgotten strata, its most unnatural temperaments, in order to understand what ecology means for the human mind.
“Is the city (or a system of cities) merely a passive site (or pre-existing network) — the place of appearance — where deeper currents of political struggle are expressed? On the surface it might seem so. Yet it is also clear that certain urban environmental characteristics are more conducive to rebellious protests than others — such as the centrality of squares like Tahrir, Tiananmen, and Syntagma, the more easily barricaded streets of Paris compared to London or Los Angeles, or El Alto’s position commanding the main supply routes into La Paz.
Political power therefore often seeks to reorganize urban infrastructures and urban life with an eye to the control of restive populations. This was most famously the case with Haussmann’s boulevards in Paris, which were viewed even at the time as a means of military control of rebellious citizens. This case is not unique. The re-engineering of inner cities in the United States in the wake of the urban uprisings of the 1960s just happened to create major physical highway barriers-moats, in effect between the citadels of high-value downtown property and impoverished inner-city neighborhoods. [...]
The urban obviously functions, then, as an important site of political action and revolt. The actual site characteristics are important, and the physical and social re-engineering and territorial organization of these sites is a weapon in political struggles.”
– David Harvey, Rebel Cities (pp. 117-18)
I just came across a fantastic article on Whitehead and Media Ecology by Andrew Murphie (hat tip, @khaoid). My forthcoming essay in Thinking Nature Vol 2 reads the intersection in much the same way, and it’s nice to see others drawing on the interesting connections between Whitehead and McLuhan. Here is a particularly relavent excerpt:
Whitehead presents a little remarked upon but comprehensive ‘‘media theory’’ that resituates media in the world (that is, media events are not ‘‘bifurcated’’ from the rest of the world, in for example a ‘‘signal [medium] versus noise [world]’’ configuration). More dramatically, Whitehead writes of the entire ‘‘world as medium.’’ Whitehead’s philosophy here pre-empts significant aspects of McLuhan’s media theory. The medium is the message indeed, but the medium is also the world. So the very complex signal mixing that is world is the message. In Whitehead’s media philosophy, there is no ‘‘bifurcation’’ between different types of signal (technical or natural, for example). It is all world(s) as medium (p. 4)
It’s a great insight into the little explored terrain connecting Whitehead to McLuhan. My emphasis is less on the ways in which “It is all world(s) as medium” and more on the ways in which different kinds of entities extend themselves through different media ecologies. I retrieve the concept of “world” by placing it within the ecology of minds (my work suggests three ecologies: matter, media, and mind). The implications of this kind of theory are far-reaching and I’m excited to see what comes out of these expanded approaches to ecological thinking.
An interesting take on the role different media have played in the production of DJ music. It’s worth thinking about from a media ecology perspective, and there’s some good music to listen to while doing it. Perfect.
I have just recently been made aware of Issuu, an online publishing service for magazines, websites, books, and journals. Having only briefly used the site this afternoon I cannot give a full review of the services yet, but so far things look promising.
In addition to offering users an intuitive interface with which to publish their work, the site also has a number of features that may be appealing to academics, freelancers, and writers who are interested in open-access or self-publishing models of content distribution. For example, the bottom border of the page contains options for sharing and embedding articles through email and social media sites directly.
One of the features that I find particularly compelling is that the software allows the publisher to generate live links within the article itself. The essay I tested the service with, for example, contains a link in the byline that takes the reader straight to my email. Similarly, one of the sources I cite in the essay is posted online, and if someone wants to click the link the original source shows up instantly in a new window.
As scholars continue to publish work online more frequently, I can see this kind of sharing, embedding, and linking becoming a standard citation practice that connects the article to the larger network of information from which it emerges. I have embedded a test essay below (it’s my first attempt at an object-oriented ecology that has been sitting on this site for some time now).
If you have a moment, it would be great to hear any feedback or thoughts you might have about the presentation, interface, and overall usability of the format. Feel free to leave comments below. Cheers.
NINTH INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON TECHNOLOGY, KNOWLEDGE, AND SOCIETY CONFERENCE
University of British Columbia – Robson Square
13-14 January 2013
The Technology Conference is interdisciplinary in scope, and is unique in its focus on the relationships between technology, knowledge, and society.
Given its role in the recent global events, the special theme for 2013: Organize, Challenge, Re-Imagine: New Media and Social Movements
Other topics are welcome, and should focus on the use of technology in areas such as, but not limited to:
- Access to Information and Proprietary Rights
- New Learning Methods and Knowledge Distribution
- Virtual Communities and Cyber-Identity
- Global Networking and Development
The 2013 Conference is very proud to include Jesse Drew, Associate Professor of Cinema and Technocultural Studies at the University of California, Davis, as a plenary speaker.
Presenters will have the option to submit to be published in the refereed ‘International Journal of Technology, Knowledge, and Society.’
Proposals must be in English, include a title, a 20-30 word “Short Description” (thesis statement), a 200-300 word “Long Description” (abstract), and can be submitted electronically through our website: http://techandsoc.com/conference-2013/call-for-papers/
Virtual Proposals/Registrations, as well as Non-Presenter Registrations are encouraged.
Upcoming Deadline: 12 June 2012. (Subsequent Deadlines will be announced on our website)
We look forward to seeing you in Vancouver in 2013.
On behalf of the Technology Conference
Eric McLuhan discusses coining the term “media ecology,” a phrase I believed was attributable to Neil Postman. As recently as yesterday I stated that Neil Postman created the term, but this seems incorrect as he can only be credited for popularizing it. There is also a great discussion on why the McLuhans’ tetrad can only be applied to humans, a position I still don’t understand. In my own work I’ve expanded media ecology (and by extension elements of the tetrad) to apply to all organisms (and, like Graham Harman, to all entities; though my work in ecology tends to have me emphasizing living critters more often than not). If you haven’t checked out the Figure/Ground series yet, I highly recommend spending some time exploring the excellent work Laureano Ralon has put together over there.
[Update: A note from Laureano Ralon:
Thanks for posting this! Figure/Ground Communication is competing at Canada’s West Coast Social Media Awards. We need your support to continue growing. Casting your vote takes 5 seconds and no personal information is needed from you. Simply click on each of the links below and select Figure/Ground Communication.
You can vote once a day until May 13th.
Your support is greatly appreciated!
I encourage interested readers to head on over and give your support!]
Yesterday’s talk was a great success. The full panel ran for about 90 minutes with a great question and answer session at the end. I’m posting my portion of the panel lecture below.
I can’t rightly tell you what it’s about, nor can I really tell you where it’s going. But the New Aesthetic seems worthy of a mention here. Part of me is interested because it puts what media ecologists do into a new light, one perhaps more native to young cultural creatives. Another part of me is interested because a connection with object-oriented ontology has already been made, and the comparison seems apt. Most of me is interested, however, because it’s trying to describe a phenomenon that I see unfolding in San Francisco on a regular basis. Actually, it would probably be more fair to say that the people involved in the New Aesthetic are in the business of creating and manipulating new media ecologies than with studying them from an academic point of view. I think this is worthy of some attention.
The New Aesthetic seems to have its roots in London (with a tumblr as its homebase HERE) and is only making waves in the states after a showing at SXSW — the annual music, art, and technology event held in Austin, Texas every year. Bruce Sterling seems to have written the touchstone essay on the topic HERE with a range of response essays already online HERE and some further comments and criticisms HERE. In his essay, Sterling writes, “The “New Aesthetic” is a native product of modern network culture. It’s from London, but it was born digital, on the Internet. The New Aesthetic is a ‘theory object’ and a ‘shareable concept’” and that,
This is one of those moments when the art world slides over toward a visual technology and tries to get all metaphysical. This is the attempted imposition on the public of a new way of perceiving reality. These things occur. They often take a while to blossom. Sometimes they’re as big and loud as Cubism, sometimes they perish like desert roses mostly unseen. But they always happen for good and sufficient reasons. Our own day has those good and sufficient reasons.
The New Aesthetic concerns itself with “an eruption of the digital into the physical.” That eruption was inevitable. It’s been going on for a generation. It should be much better acculturated than it is. There are ways to make that stark, lava-covered ground artistically fertile and productive. Lush, humanistic, exotic crops will grow from that smoking, ashy techno-rubble of ours, someday. I live to think so. I’m all for that prospect. It’s exhilarating to see such things attempted, especially in a small auditorium before the straights catch on.
There’s a sense that this movement (if one can even call it that) is part of a larger effort to understand and create media in new ways. In San Francisco I find myself elbow to elbow with a technology-driven, mobile workforce. At coffee shops the city over these kids (some of them younger than me) are creating start-ups, working for tech companies, building apps, designing websites and largely designing the infrastructure that the rest of the world calls the internet. Surely this all has to do with the proximity of Google, Twitter, Apple, and the rest of silicon valley (all within an hour’s radius of each other) and so the corporate structure still casts a long shadow over the whole city.
But many of these kids are plugged into something else. It’s not just that San Francisco’s designers and programers are into technology; they’re also obsessed with retro, nostalgia, veganism, localism, camp, and low-fi photography made on HD cameras. I think there is something about this brand of urban localism (as pretentious as it can be) that’s forging an interesting connection between the DIY movement and the tech movement. It took me awhile to link my interest in media ecology with what was happening in cafés in the Mission district, but then it finally hit me — these kids are in the business of making things. I didn’t see it as such because where I see colored lines of code on a computer screen, these techies see objects and things; real entities about to be unleashed in the world.
To be sure, most of these new things are probably irrelevant pieces of cultural detritus, more junk polluting the mental atmosphere; but some of these creations will go on to implicate themselves in everything from national revolutions to philosophy movements. Ian Bogost’s programming background and his new book Alien Phenomenology: Or What It’s Like to be a Thing makes a lot more sense in this context. One commentator has already made the connection with the New Aesthetic:
The New Aesthetic is a visible eruption of the mutual empathy between us and a class of new objects that are native to the 21st century. It consists of visual artifacts we make to help us imagine the inner lives of our digital objects and also of the visual representations produced by our digital objects as a kind of pigeon language between their inaccessible inner lives and ours. It’s the trace of interaction designers, surveillance drones, gesture recognition systems, fashion designers, image compression techniques, artists, CCTV networks, and filmmakers all “wondering about one another without getting confirmation.”
That last line is a quote from Bogost’s book, an exciting new addition to the OOO canon. Object-Oriented Ontology is, like the New Aesthetic, something substantially rooted in, but certainly not limited to, the internet and I don’t think anyone quite understands what these new mediums are doing to thought just yet. We have no McLuhan of the global theory object. In the end maybe we’re not dealing with a singular movement based in London (it’s hard to suggest what “based in” even means in this context) so much as a postnational attempt to grapple with the new media ecologies we find ourselves, for better or worse, immersed in.
If you crossed Donna Haraway with a software developer building apps for smart phones (what a weird thought!) you might end up with something like THIS. A noteworthy excerpt towards the end of the interview contains this rather insightful commentary on cyborg anthropology:
Can you explain what a cyborg anthropologist is?
Case: You take technology and humanity and you understand how they interact with each other. For a long time, it really didn’t matter if a user interface was easy to use, because it was either for the military or the government and people just dealt with bad user interfaces. But as more and more people used technology, everything has completely changed. And it’s going very quickly. So what a cyborg anthropologist does is looks at the relationships between humans and technology and how it affects us and objectively sees what the heck we’re turning into because we’re this species of human plus machine where we’re symbiotically evolving each other. We choose to buy something and it continues to live and it evolves. Or we choose not to buy something and it goes away. So we’re seeing this species of phone and this species of electronics evolve alongside us and augment our brains. And it’s fascinating to look at. We also have a lot of future shock. You can look away for two years and the whole landscape has changed.
I like the autonomy afforded to different species of technology in the interview even as I continue to struggle with the fact that we have no idea what effects the kinds of beings we are releasing onto the Earth will have.