Monday, October 22, 2012

Bryant Watch: Philosophy meets the Borg

Bryant’s recent post, Ethico-Politico Weariness, has been getting raves. I can see why. Yet it’s oh so very personal: “I find myself . . . I reflect . . . I grow so tired . . . I’m divided . . .” So forget yourself and walk away already. Get outa the damn bottle! Just do it.

All this talk is just a way of flying around in the bottle and showing off your latest moves. Still, after milking this cri de cœur for all he can, Bryant does get down to business:
One wonders who these things are all for as they never seem to enter the broader social world and it is rare to encounter an academic who has a real political engagement beyond attending the occasional protest or writing the occasional open letter. In these dark and cynical moments, I find myself thinking that politics is what came to fill the void opened by the collapse of theology. Where the humanities used to be organized around theology and knowledge of God and advancement of his glory, the humanities encountered a void in the movement towards secularization.
Maybe Bryant should continue exploring that territory rather than making up a metaphysics that won’t fly, which alas, is my real topic for this post.

What do you mean “alas”?

Well, I keep asking myself why I bother to critique his thinking. Why don’t I just let him alone—‘cause he’s certainly not going to pay any attention to me—and go on about my business.

Good questions, what about it?

Well, I’ve been thinking on that, every time I post one of these. And I’m beginning to see why I do it. And it’s not primarily in the vain hope that I’ll have some influence on Bryant. He’s going to do what he’s going to do and that’s that. But someone’s got to point out that His Imperial Majesty is dancing around on the head of a pin without any clothes, nor any angels either.

Opening Up the Space

This critical work is the flip side of working out my own philosophical position, something I hadn’t planned on doing when I started down this path last year. Object-oriented ontology presents itself to the world as a single posture in the current array of philosophical postures. Bryant, Harman, Bogost, and Morton have different variations on the stance, but they have more in common with one another than anyone of them has with any of the other available positions.

That’s the claim.

But I don’t see OOO as a single thing (with, of course, variants) at all. I see it as a collection of ideas, attitudes, and dispositions held together as much by wish and external pressure as by any deep internal logic. I find myself splitting that discourse apart and building on one aspect of it, which I’m taking from Harman—his two core ideas, plus indirect causation—while rejecting other aspects of it, which I find in Bryant’s work.

My explicit critique of Bryant is part of the process of working out my own position within the broader play of available ideas, attitudes, and dispositions. If I were to rest content with building on Harman, people might think that, by default, I’m taking him as a proxy for OOO as a whole—he is, after all, the figure head—and fail to appreciate that I’m also rejecting quite a bit.

Bryant exemplifies what I’m rejecting. For all his talk of being a builder, his own work is so scattered that nothing could possibly be built on it. Any attempt would just get caught in the tendrils and become absorbed into the swamp.

Turing Machines and Other Abstractions

Some of the longish establishing remarks in his recent paper, Questions for Flat Ethics (PDF), are a case in point. In order to get around to addressing flat ethics, Bryant feels the need to further articulate his concept of the machine. Thus, p. 3:
A machine, I argue, is a being that engages in operations upon some sort of input, performing transformations upon those inputs that produce various types of outputs.
When I first read that I flashed on “Turing machine!” Bryant’s specification is that general, but not, alas, that precise.

A Turing machine, as we know, is an abstract computational device, one Turing crafted to explicate, exactly, just what computation is. A large discipline has grown up around that conception, none of which is evident in Bryant’s thinking. And yet I find it hard to imagine that he’d be articulating the above general conception if many contemporary discourses, including the flotsam and jetsam of popular culture, had not been saturated with the discourse of computation.

Having given us his general definition of a machine, Bryant goes on to call for a new discipline (p. 4):
There are, of course, many different types of machines and it is important to be attentive to these differences and the variety of different powers that these machines possess. I even believe that we need a discipline called “mechanology”, not unlike zoology or botony (sic), that classifies different machines according to their powers, capacities, or what they can do.
And that’s one aspect of automata theory, the abstract theory of computation: to classify “different machines according to their powers, capacities, or what they can do.”

What’s so curious about Bryant’s statement is that he seems to see this mechanology as being on a footing with zoology or botany, as though this philosophical discipline, mechanology, were also one of the specialized disciplines, like zoology or botany. Where’s the distinction between metaphysics as a general study of Being, and the various specialized disciplines devoted to understanding different kinds of beings?

Bryant does the Borg

There isn’t one. And so Bryant’s discipline sprawls its hapless way to trying to become a Theory of Everything, an aspiration Bryant then articulates (pp. 5-6):
In any case, the questions I’m angling for with respect to the concept of machines are 1) what are the powers of which it is capable regardless of whether it exercises them or not?, 2) what operations does the machine engage in?, 3) what inputs flow through the machine?, 4) how does it transform these inputs?, 5) how is the machines composed or structured?, 6) what outputs in the form of qualities, materials, and activities does the machine produce in the course of its operations?, and 7) how, if at all, are the capacities of a machine transformed by either operations that take place within it or the flows that pass through it?
Is there anything one could possibly want to know that doesn’t fall within the scope of one or more of those seven magical rubrics?

Now, I can imagine that, when confronted with the observation that he IS articulating a Theory of Everything, crafting the Key to all Mythologies, Bryant would deny it, that he’s not doing anything so foolish and hopeless. But, to invoke a move of Harman’s, there’s nothing in his theory that prevents him from wandering into every office and laboratory in the academy and telling the occupants that he’s going to work it all out.

But, of course, he isn’t. He’s just going to assimilate everything to his brand of homegrown jargon. Bryant has become the Borg, those Star Trekian machines out to assimilate all of the civilizations in the cosmos. Borg Bryant is going to assimilate us all. He cannot resist.

We, of course, can. It’s easy. Just walk away.


  1. Mechanology was discussed in an interview with Gilbert Simondon conducted in 1968. A summary in English can be found on my blog in five parts beginning here:

  2. That's interesting, Terry. I don't know Simondon's work so I couldn't possibly have caught that. But Bryant does reference him, so I assume he actually knows his work. Does he know about mechanology? I don't know. Did he just forget to make the citation, a casual reference would have done the trick ("... as Simondon said back in ..."), or is he deliberately suppressing his source? While this is the blogosphere, I was quoting from a paper prepared for formal presentation, so one would assume full academic apparatus.

    A couple of months ago Bryant had a post that was all about the need for the Dawkins meme conception, except that there was no mention of Dawkins or memes anywhere. Taking the post at face value, Bryant was presenting his own original conception, hot off the press. Except that I know very well he knows about Dawkins and memes because he took me to task for dismissing the idea. During that little confab it became clear to me that he didn't know the memetics literature at all. See, for example, comments to this post where I'm commenting as kubla:

    Sloppy over-enthusiasm is no way to do philosophy.

  3. IMHO he sounds deeply lonely. May tenderness reach and connect where intellect cannot be expected to wear a thinking proof no matter what the colors of the chameleon.

    1. He may very well be lonely, Sally. Lots of intellectuals are. But that's one thing. His intellectual work is another. He doesn't seem to have the discipline needed to keep his intellectual work separate from his personal life.