Units, objects, mediation

“The thing imposes itself not as true for every intellect, but as real for every subject who is standing where I am” (Mearleau-Ponty, 17).

I’m really interested in the way that Graham Harman takes up the phenomenological interest in “the thing” as the basis for reality defined through human experience and seeks to move beyond what we might consider to be a long tradition of “subject-oriented philosophy” (could this encompass nearly all of Western philosophy?) in order to invest “things”–or “objects”–with a kind of “philosophical dignity” (21) in and of themselves without “reducing all of reality to the terms of human access to it” (15). It seems like Harman is asking us to strip our bodies of what Bergson considers to be–as we relate to them–their position as “privileged objects.” This is a really provocative and fascinating move, but I guess I’m not sure yet what exactly this might allow us to do in the field of Digital Media Studies (or, more humbly, not being yet very familiar with “the field” as such, in this class)? From my limited vantage point, questions of “mediation” seem to be intrinsically tied to questions of human interaction with technology and the material world more generally. It’s very difficult, so far, for me to imagine how we might think outside of that. While I’m not sure I entirely understand it [“count as one” (11)?], it seems that Ian Bogost’s suggestion of meaning-making through “unit operations” might be leading us in a direction where I can begin to imagine how this interest in objects or units and their interaction (beyond human perception / interpretation / thought) might play out. Central to the thread that ties all of this together–and something that seems fundamental to being able to begin to approach our thinking in this way–is the question of “the thingness of things” (apologies…I no longer remember exactly where I read that phrase…) and the way in which we decide how and where to draw boundaries around multiplicity and define “objects” or “units” as such. More than what an object/unit is, I’m interested in the question of what an object/unit isn’t or can’t be…

“In essence, a unit is a material element, a thing. It can be constitutive or contingent, like a building block that makes up a system, or it can be autonomous, like a system itself…When thought of in this way, units not only define people, network routers, genes, and electrical appliances, but also emotions, cultural symbols, business processes, and subjective experiences” (Bogost 5).

I found Erin’s question of what could not be considered a “thing,” or an object, or a unit, for that matter, provocative in that I can’t think of anything (see? there’s that word right there).  Ian Bogost’s definition of a unit is broad enough to include systems that function as a part of other systems or say, an atom. It seems that the only contingency is a unit must perform some kind of function/procedure in relation to the to the system – though it carries out this function/procedure not at the behest of the “rules of the system” but rather the system exists as a thing generated by units. So, I wonder if a “non-unit” would be one of Graham Harman’s “objects that exist in utter isolation from all others, packed into secluded private vacuums,” (1) if it never communicated, related to or interacted with any other object. But I’m not sure we can even talk about such objects, as they might be completely hypothetical (and even as hypothetical objects, they are perceived as hypothetical objects and become part of that system of perception and thus, are things?)  So, it seems that talking about units, or an object oriented philosophy, gives us a lot of freedom to talk about a myriad of generative relations between things, which should be helpful as we proceed to talk about Digital Media Theory. I guess I find myself wondering if it’s too much freedom.  Bogost took a left turn when he started talking about the Spielberg/Tom Hanks vehicle, The Terminal, and its basic unit of uncorroborated waiting. Through his chapter, I had been thinking of units as building blocks for a system. In this case the system would be the “movie” but traditionally I would have thought of the units as scenes, rather than a repeated theme. I’m not against reading texts in your own way, but I thought his analysis of modes of waiting seemed a little arbitrary, and wasn’t convinced how this could add up to making The Terminal into a “complex meditation on modes of waiting” rather than schmaltzy Oscar-bait. I guess, as a wannabe writer, with the reader/critic given so much leeway to make their own connections of units, I wonder where this leaves “the author.” And on a fundamental level, with so many people describing their own units/connections how do we if we’re ever talking about the same thing?

“Communication in literature is not the simple appeal on the part of the writer to meanings which would be part of an a priori of the mind; rather, communication arouses these meanings in the mind through enticement and a kind of oblique action. The writer’s thought does not control his language from without; the writer is himself a new kind of idiom, constructing itself, inventing ways of expression, and diversifying itself according to its own meaning.” (Merleau-Ponty 8-9.)

As a fellow hopeful writer, I definitely find Steve’s choice of quote interesting.  (As well as our inclination to put an adjective before “writer,” as the noun alone seems a bit intimidating.)  The writer is himself a new kind of idiom…  The words that get transmitted from the mind of the writer to the page, via a system of symbols and constructed meanings, is the creation of a thought.  The “verbal chain” (Merleau-Ponty, 8 ) becomes language, and this language becomes a thought.  Merleau-Ponty further extends upon this by suggesting that “all civilizations belong to the same universe of thought, since the least use of language implies an idea of truth” (10).  So from language comes both thought and truth.  I’m struggling to understand how language implies truth?  Because language exists, so does truth?  Is this what Merleau-Ponty is saying?  Also, what language is truth versus what language is not truth?  Obviously, defining “truth” is a task that goes deeper than this blog post can cover… But it is this connection between the actual construct of language and the “idea of truth” that intrigues me.  Further, I automatically draw associations to the topic of digital media.  Coming from a journalistic perspective, I have a greater trust in printed materials when it comes to “fact”/”truth.”  What I see on the printed page of a publication holds more weight… Yes, this weight translates to the screen when it is the same publication in digital form.  (e.g. A New York Times piece on nytimes.com is the same to me as the one which appears in the print version.)  But this is only because it’s credibility has come from it’s history in print.  What doesn’t make it into the print edition (“online exclusive”) is translated to me as “not as important.”  “Online magazines” don’t carry the same credibility, for me, as one that is actually printed on physical paper… where space is limited and precisely planned for each valuable inch. I suppose it is my “priori of the mind” that puts up these road blocks for accepting new media as “truth.”

“Complex networks are open, adjudicated by the nonsimple interaction of a variety of constantly changing constituents.  The Internet, the brain, human genetics, and social fads are examples of complex, unit-driven networks.  The systems that unit operations transition away from are not these complex systems.  The movement away from systems thinking is really a movement away from the simple, orderly, static categorization of things.”  (Bogost, 8 )

Bogost juxtaposes “complex networks,” based on and constituted by “unit operations,” to “system operations” that are “totalizing structures that seek to explicate phenomenon, behavior, or state in its entirety” (6), but I am left wondering to what extent we can think of “systems of units” as completely different from (or “superior” to?) “systems as such” (2). Bogost goes to great lengths to argue that the “the former derive meaning from the interrelations of their components, whereas the latter regulate meaning for their constituents” (2). The notion that it is the interrelations and connections between units constitute the meaning of a system/ network not the other way around seems like a useful idea in the context of, for example, inquiries into the ontology of the social. However, it seems that even Bogost would have to admit that, for example, structuralists with their totalizing systems (I’m thinking of you, Levi-Strauss! Oh, the nightmares you have given me!) had a clearer idea of the scope of the systems they attempted to theorize, as well as “character” of the units of their analysis. When Bogost emphasizes that “units not only define people, network routers, genes, and electric appliances, but also emotions, cultural symbols, business processes, and subjective experiences” (5), I am left wondering, like Erin and Steve, about what does not count as a unit and, consequently, what counts and does not count as a system in the context of the social. (And how is Bogost’s “unit” different from Dawkin’s “meme”?)
While considering correlation (or potential causality?) between “units” and “systems of units,” I was struck by Lingis-inspired-Graham’s notion of style. He writes that “[w]hat unifies a cafe or a city or the life of a philosopher is not a list of facts or a total whole of meaning, but rather a style that defines the proper level of activity in question, and which exceeds any current set of particulars” (66; emphasis in original). “Style is a reality exceeding all of the particular facts of any given situation,” Graham continues, “and just as individuals have a style that exceeds our grasp, so too does any given level” (66-7). Even if slightly flamboyant, whimsical and not much explored in Graham’s text, the notion of style as a metaphysical “glue” between the “thinghood of things” (69) and the larger “levels” (67) or, in Bogost’s terms, “units” and “complex networks,” seems to offer a potentially intriguing perspective on the relationship between the individual subject or object and the larger scheme within which it is located.



~ by aveitre on September 19, 2010.