JUNE 30, 2015
ACADEMIC TEXTS in the humanities and social sciences are increasingly interested in the concrete. Rather than simply focus on Society or Literature, they urge us to think seriously about “mountains, fruit, atmospheric effects, nuclear warheads, sandwiches, automobiles, historical events, [and] relics.” The standard-bearers for this onslaught of Things have grouped together with their allies under a range of names: “Vital Materialists” and “New Naturalists” rub elbows with “Object Oriented Ontologists” and “Speculative Realists.” The catchiest, most capacious name for this type of thought, however, seems to be “New Materialism.”
While many of those arrayed under these banners have been working on materialism in some form or another for a long time, Levi Bryant’s entry into the debate is somewhat less expected. His early work was firmly “discursivist,” engaged wholeheartedly in debates about language, subjectivity, and signification. The work of post-structuralist thinkers like “Zizek, Lacan, [and] Derrida” were more important sources of inspiration for Bryant than materialists like Lucretius, Spinoza, or than contemporary systems biology. Indeed, he admits that his current interest in materialism is animated by the “fervor of the converted,” a commitment to hard-nosed investigation of the concrete bases of reality born out of a growing dissatisfaction with the politically and intellectually stifling atmosphere of post-structuralism.
Echoing the feelings of many of his fellow new believers, Bryant’s conversion was a reaction to what he viewed as the overwhelming dominance of social constructivist thought within the humanities and social sciences. The New Materialists generally characterize social constructivism as either the strong claim that human thought itself has the ability to shape being to fit within its categories, or the somewhat weaker claim that reality is only knowable through the filters of language, ideology, or power.
Although the New Materialist thinkers I am lumping together here have a nuanced range of responses to each of these claims, all are united in arguing for the ontological and political primacy and importance of real “stuff,” “things,” “matter,” or “objects.” Whatever filters or nets of human meaning we have thrown upon the world outside of our minds, the argument runs, the really exciting work of philosophy and politics should be, paradoxically, trying to act and think beyond those boundaries — to encounter the real in its fullness and self-sufficient potential, and ultimately to understand human thought and activity as nothing but one of many forms of material organization or expression.
In moving beyond constructivism, however, the New Materialists are not calling for a return to the materialism of old — or at least, not to materialism as it is commonly understood. They are keen to reject both a historical materialism that has, in their view, become irredeemably sullied by constructivism and an “old” materialism that thinks of the material world as a clock-work mechanism. In this latter view, espoused by such giants as Laplace, Hobbes, and Newton, the world is essentially the result of predictable, mechanistic interactions. Although rejecting the dualism of thinkers like Descartes, this philosophical tradition introduced no new vital principle into matter that might account for its unpredictable interactions, and certainly did not understand matter to have anything like “agency.” They held more or less unanimously that the universe could be wound backward or forward any number of times and matter would unfold itself in exactly the same fashion.
It should be noted that the “old” materialism and contemporary social constructivism, when viewed in this light, should not be seen as antagonistic to one another. Instead, they can be seen as two sides of a Mobius strip. Both understand the stuff that the universe is made of as essentially inert, or nonproductive; as either mutely going about the business of mechanistic unfolding, or as only inchoate grist for the mill of human thought. And for these reasons, say the New Materialists, both old materialism and social constructivism have got to go.
Against this tradition, the New Materialist project aims to revive a subterranean lineage of materialists aware of the “vibrant,” “creative,” “self-organizing” powers immanent within matter. In the work of Spinoza, Diderot, Bergson, Darwin, and Nietzsche, the young Turks of New Materialism find the ground for their rejection of all forms of both mechanism and dualism.
Though diverse in their actual understandings of what matter is, fundamentally speaking, the various camps of New Materialists do share some broad commitments about what that matter might be like. First and foremost, these thinkers argue that matter needs to be understood as “lively,” “creative,” “self-organizing,” or at the very least self-sufficient. Every thing, from the most primitive elementary particles up to more complex objects like spoons, kidneys, hurricanes, or electrical grids need to be understood as possessed of certain powers, reliant only upon their own immanent being for those powers, and more or less unpredictable in their interactions with people and other objects.
Although these claims might sound radical or even absurd, the New Materialists are not the first to propose them. Rather, they are responses to recent developments in complex-systems thinking issuing from mathematics, physics, and biology. Indeed, in developing theories up to the task of describing such a world of objects or matter, many of the New Materialists have renewed calls for a rapprochement between the natural and social sciences with a surprising vigor, evincing a hard-nosed, almost positivist commitment to our ability to produce knowledge about the world around us. This faith in the practice of science and reason has been paired with a perhaps surprising commitment to a post-human view of that world: one in which human cognition, language, and subjectivity are not unique, but instead represent evolutionary explorations of a space potentially open to all life, and, indeed, matter.
Levi Bryant’s latest book, Onto-Cartography, is a particularly valuable contribution to this growing field of inquiry. It directly addresses many of the objections that might already be creeping into the skeptical reader’s mind: if everything is just “stuff,” how does one explain the power of immaterial forces like ideology or culture to shape human activity? In what sense can we really say that a spoon, to pick an example, is “lively” and “creative”? In what way is an artifact like that spoon the same as an organism like my golden retriever? How can we sensibly talk about both human thought and the merely physical world at the same time? Rather than relying (primarily) on philosophical arguments against either constructivism or mechanism, Onto-Cartography attempts to introduce a substantive explanation for the powers held by things and a sophisticated analysis of how things actually function and interact with one another.
In so doing, Onto-Cartography also hopes to articulate a new form of politics — or at least to provide fertile ground for future political thought. Although the bulk of the book is taken up with elaborating his ontology, Bryant’s aims are primarily “political and ethical in nature.” His break with post-structuralism ultimately issues from the following realization:
[D]iscursivist … social and political theory could not explain how things like turnstiles in subways, mountain ranges, and ocean currents also organize social relations and perpetuate forms of domination because they had already decided that things are only vehicles or carriers of social signification and relations. Because things had been erased, it became nearly impossible to investigate the efficacy of things in contributing to the form social relations take. An entire domain of power became invisible, and as a result we lost all sorts of opportunities for strategic intervention in producing emancipatory change.
Bryant’s framework offers us no “particular ethical or political paradigm,” instead, it understands itself as an intervention into the very ground of political and ethical thought. It is apparent from the very first pages however, that Bryant is a committed leftist or anarchist, and views the work of onto-cartography as logically producing political judgments and actions designed to increase our capabilities for action and decrease oppressive responses to that action. The argument seems to be that if we get our ontology right, a nimbler and more robust leftist politics might be the outcome.
For Levi Bryant, the world is made up of machines. Your dog is a machine, a water molecule is a machine, a computer is a machine, and a tree is a machine. Machines are made out of other machines: I am a machine, but so are the cells, protein molecules, and electrical impulses that make up my body. These machines are never either wholly artificial or wholly natural: they have all been “jerry-rigged by the anonymous MacGyvers of nature and culture.” Technological machines, like a bow and arrow, must be understood as the result of both the intentionality of their creators and the enabling constraints imposed by the physical nature of materials like wood. Even organisms, for their part, emerge through the complex interactions of environmental forces, genetic material, and behavior, rather than being static reflections of “natural,” invariable species-types.
This evolutionary understanding of machines is deeply indebted to the systems theory of Maturana and Varela, as well as the work of Niklas Luhmann, although it takes their insights in somewhat unorthodox directions. To use the technical language of systems theory: machines emerge from their environment. They are the result of a certain threshold of complexity being crossed in certain arrangements of things such that they begin to be capable of holding themselves together over time. In this sense, machines are both definite things, discrete from other machines, but also ongoing processes. As such, they are characterized by what Maturana and Varela call operational closure and structural openness vis-à-vis their environment. Structural openness means that machines are capable of receiving certain forms of inputs from their environment. Operational closure, however, means that those inputs are shaped to fit specific forms dictated by the machine — other forms of inputs are completely ignored. Machines perform systematic operations on the inputs they receive and produce outputs as a result. In Bryant’s language, that means that we can know a machine by its powers: by what it is capable of doing.
In this sense, both a human person and a bureaucracy are machines, albeit structurally open to the other machines that make up their environment in very different ways, and possessed of very different powers. Any given human is open to the world through a range of sensory organs, like eyes for example. Human eyes allow a certain segment of the electromagnetic spectrum to pass across the system’s barrier, where it is operated upon by a machine we call the brain, ultimately being incorporated within mental processes that shape how the human acts in the world. “The flows to which bureaucracy-machines are open,” however, are very different. Rather than sensory input, bureaucratic systems are structurally open to “forms”:
To communicate with a bureaucracy we must fill out paperwork or a form and submit it to the institution. A form is itself a machine that operates on certain inputs — most generally, circumstances of our life revolving around taxes, medical matters, permits for building … and so on — transforming these inputs into certain structured media of communication. In other words, the form is the machinic-mediator between us and the bureaucracy.
The form acts as the media through which the bureaucracy can know about us, in the same way that photons vibrating at certain frequencies are one of the media through which humans orient themselves in space. This mediation means that systems only ever operate with partial information about their environments: the mediation of our interaction with bureaucracies by forms, for example, means that the bureaucracy never interacts with what we might think of as our “whole” being; it can only interact with those aspects that can be registered by the machine of the form, which is why “our experience of bureaucratic-machines is often so acutely painful and frustrating.”
Despite the difference in the media to which humans and bureaucracy are open, however, they are ultimately ontologically equivalent. Both are relatively stable islands of organization that have emerged from the activities and collocation of other machines, which relate to their environment in particular ways, taking in information through media such as electromagnetic radiation or forms, performing internal functions on that media in a systematic way, and ultimately enacting operations upon other machines as a result.
On some level, I think this fundamental ontological parity has become intuitive for a lot of us. Systems thinking has percolated far enough through the public sphere from its origins in cybernetics and biology that we can grasp what he’s talking about here without too many mental gymnastics: corporations, humans, and bulldozers are easy to lump together as what Levi Bryant names corporeal machines.
There exists another type of machine altogether, however, that does not rely upon its material substrate for its existence in quite the same way as these objects, which he refers to as “incorporeal.” Bryant’s analysis of incorporeal machines is the source of a great deal of the dynamism in his thought, and ultimately a critical component of his politics. As he puts it:
[A] corporeal machine is any machine that is made of matter, that occupies a discrete time and place, and that exists for a duration. Subatomic particles, rocks, grass, human bodies, institutions, and refrigerators are all corporeal machines. Incorporeal machines, by contrast, are defined by their iterability, potential eternity, and the capacity to manifest themselves in a variety of different spatial and temporal locations at once while retaining their identity. Recipes, scores of music, numbers, equations, scientific and philosophical theories, cultural identities, novels, and so on are all examples of incorporeal machines. In discussing incorporeal machines, we must take care lest we fall into a sort of Platonic dualism where we treat these entities as subsisting ideally in some other real. All incorporeal machines require a corporeal body in order to exist in the world. Numbers, for example, must occur in brains, computer data banks, graphite, chalk, etc. in order to exist in the world.
Incorporeal machines remain distinct from the corporeal machines in their systematic coherence as identical machines across multiple instantiations in other corporeal machines. An algebraic equation, for example, has the same forms of structural openness, operational closure, and internal systematic organization whether materialized in my brain, on scratch paper, or in a graphing calculator.
For me, this is perhaps Bryant’s most trenchant insight, and his most important contribution to contemporary thought about materialism. It vastly expands notions of causality, sociality, and relation well beyond the occasionally parochial, primarily natural-scientific understandings of these terms operative in much New Materialist thought. On the one hand, it lets us better integrate material things into our descriptions of “intellectual” processes, providing an ontological basis for ongoing discussions in cognitive science about the role that stuff like chalkboards, books, and rulers play in our cognitive operations. On the other, and more exciting to me, it gives a more coherent philosophical explanation for how things like “dietary codes, recipes, educational curriculums, [and] parenting advice” articulate with actual material practices. Following Butler, Bryant argues that “even our sexuality results, in part, from the agency of incorporeal machines acting upon our bodies …. Our sexuality is not something that is biologically given, but rather is something that forms in an interaction of incorporeal social machines and biological corporeal things.” One would be hard pressed to find an aspect of contemporary social life that can unequivocally said to be the result of only either incorporeal or corporeal machines.
The relations of incorporeal and corporeal machines, then, together weave the fabric of what Bryant calls “worlds.” A world is simply a “loosely coupled assemblage of machines interacting with one another through the mediation of other machines in an ecology.” Over time, these machines’ actions and interactions build more or less durable pathways. These pathways are literally geographic in only a trivial sense; much more important are their topological structure. That is to say, it is much more important to know how closely one machine is related to one another — what sorts of access a given machine has to the outputs of another machine, or between which machines pathways do not exist — than to know their physical distribution in space. A factory worker producing components for a smartphone in Malaysia, for example, is topologically speaking much further from the finished product and the networks that it gives access to than the person who purchases that same phone in Canada, although they may be geographically much closer to its source.
The tangle of pathways that make up a world, for Bryant, is the product of complex evolutionary forces, not of any fixed, overarching hierarchy or structure. Against the grand theorists of “capital” or “empire,” Bryant goes to great pains to argue for the importance of a nominalist focus on the actual machines that social scientists and others have been too quick to lump together under the umbrella of what he understands as an essentially analytic structure like “capitalism” or “imperialism.” Of course, it is not as if he thinks that there is no power at work structuring these pathways. Indeed, Bryant is acutely aware that certain machines are able to exercise an inordinate amount of “gravitational” influence over other machines.
The difference between his and large-scale social theorizing, however, is that an onto-cartographical approach to understanding that influence would not begin at the level of ideology, or even ready-made conceptual wholes like nations, but would try to map the actual relationships between the incorporeal and corporeal machines that have produced a particular ecological structure or process. To simplify a great deal, rather than looking first at “capitalism” and attendant notions of “alienation” for an explanation of the relationship between the factory worker and her product, we might instead look at the pathways between the energetic machines of petrochemical extraction underlying our global transport system, the incorporeal machines of finance and debt, and the concrete technical machines that form the substrate for the global telecommunications network in order to understand how and why certain persons come to occupy certain topological spaces within our current ecology of production.
The urgency of this project, and that of New Materialism generally, for contemporary thought should be clear. Given the inescapable intrusion of everything from climate change, to new developments in genetic technology, to rapidly changing communicative infrastructures into our daily lives, the time has come for a critical, theoretical approach to the material world. Where so many of his contemporaries have given in to the revolutionary fervor to destroy the old in favor of the new, however, Bryant sensitively and thoughtfully recuperates many of the insights of social constructivism within a more sophisticated ontological framework than, as a movement, it was able to provide for itself. In the area of politics, however, I am not entirely convinced that Bryant is able to live up to the standards that he has set for himself.
Bryant explicitly argues that onto-cartography should not be understood as primarily descriptive, but as forming the basis for a new type of politics. If the revolutionary analyses of the contemporary left have been predicated upon a “semiotic politics,” trafficking in meaning and focused on the critique of ideology, then the time has come for a change in strategy. Onto-cartography would form the analytic basis for a “thermodynamic” politics:
Thermodynamic politics is a form of political engagement that targets a machine’s sources of energy and capacity for work. … Most machines require work and energy to sustain themselves across time. In the case of a corporate-machine, the energy required consists of the resources that the machine draws upon to produce and distribute its goods — natural resources, electricity, water, fossil fuels, capital to invest in production, and so on — as well as the labor that allows the machine to engage in its operations of production and distribution. These are the flows to which a corporate-machine is structurally open. Thermodynamic politics targets these flows of energy and work, effectively speaking the ‘language’ of the machine’s operational closure, thereby creating leverage conducive to change.
By understanding the ecological relationships of a given corporation to its environment, for example, organized opposition to the activities of that corporation could better maneuver to interrupt its necessary flows. Doing so would affect the corporation more directly than by attempting to use signs and communication to change the corporation’s ideology. By mapping the pathways that lead people and countries, again for example, to get caught in the gravitational well of a machine like debt, perhaps we could learn how to build alternative financial machines that would provide lines of flight and allow them to escape. Indeed, Bryant’s book is full of examples of people already engaged in this type of political work.
I find much of his analysis here sympathetic. If direct action against corporations and the building of concrete alternatives are not exactly new pages for the activist’s playbook (which he himself admits), he does a great deal to provide a sophisticated mode of analysis for those who might be keen to work up more inventive strategies. What I find lacking in Bryant’s analysis, however, is any reason to assume that the political activities of those engaged in onto-cartography would be necessarily palatable to either him or his readers, despite his repeated assurances that his analysis is on the side of emancipation. To put it more generally, I am skeptical that something like politics can ever flow directly from an ontology.
As mentioned earlier, Bryant espouses no concrete political platform, but rather hopes that
… a variety of political preoccupations — Marxist critiques of capitalism, anarchist critiques of authority and power, feminist critiques of patriarchy … queer theory critiques of heteronormativity … post-colonial critiques of racism, and so on … can be fruitfully ported into the framework of onto-cartography …. The aim of onto-cartography is not to close off styles of inquiry, but to expand our possibilities for intervening in the world to produce change so as to better understand how power functions and devise strategies so as to overcome various forms of oppression.
I admire his commitment to making the world a less terrible place, and share fellow feeling with many of the movements that he lists here. However, it seems to me that his form of politics and understanding of how worlds work equally recommends itself to those who would maximize their own power at the expense of others as to those who would oppose that power. If all that is at work in the world of politics is the brute clash of force against force, of ontologically equivalent entities maneuvering to achieve their own aims and live by their own standards, what grounds are there to say with Bryant that an onto-cartographical analysis of the oppressed’s own capabilities and aims would in any way necessarily result in compassion for them on the part of the oppressor? One can easily imagine an ethnographically-savvy conquistador.
If onto-cartography allows for a sophisticated set of tactics designed to actively reshape the ecological relationships between machines, but no guiding set of principles for when those relationships are healthy and when they are destructive, what is to prevent the emergence of a consultancy that teaches corporations how to use them to liquidate opposition groups? In short, by reducing the world of politics to an interplay of material forces, he may well have unintentionally evacuated it of all notions of right. Ironically, his thermodynamic political position here seems to require a great deal of semiotic commitments to be “ported in” if it is to function as emancipatory.
My hesitations about his politics aside, Bryant’s ecological focus on the crucial interaction of the corporeal and incorporeal makes his contribution extremely important. It is a refreshing corrective to the tendency of New Materialism to present matter as somehow the finally-ascendant underdog, always “upsetting,” “overturning,” or “escaping from” the ideological or the cultural, and offers us a concrete way out of the false binary opposition between the two. In that sense, it is the sober-minded, problem-oriented thought of a truly mature thinker, whatever disagreements we may have with it.
Bryant himself is a philosopher, not an empirical researcher, and so he in large part leaves it up to others to take up his framework and begin cracking open real world problems. However, we can already see tantalizing glimpses of what a machinic social science or humanities might look like from the illustrative examples he uses in his own book. By placing corporeal and incorporeal machines on the same ecological plane, his analyses of assemblages like cities, insurance companies, and contemporary mediascapes are both novel and convincing, if ultimately somewhat shallow. What makes them valuable, despite this shallowness, is their demonstration of a mode of thought focused on understanding the material dynamics of complex systems, while remaining acutely aware of the powers and functions of incorporeal machines. His work represents to my mind the sturdiest bridge yet built between post-structuralism and the vibrant new research being conducted under the auspices of a return to materialist thought.