Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Some thoughts on rocks and glass

This text was commissioned for the catalogue for the Ireland Glass Biennial 2017

The rock is the gray particular of man’s life,
The stone from which he rises, up -- and -- ho,
The step to the bleaker depths of his descents ...

The rock is the stern particular of the air,
The mirror of the planets, one by one,
But through man's eye, their silent rhapsodist,
Wallace Stevens, [from] Night’s Hymn of the Rock





In a little book, Seven Clues to the Origin of Life, which is as amusing and entertaining as it is audacious and astonishing Graham Cairns-Smith uses the form of a detective story to present his claim that life begins with clay. But rather than a mystical or religious account of how we’ve been fashioned from the earth he offers a modern origin myth based in chemistry and biology. His argument is that the foundations for organic forms of life lie in the reproduction of the inorganic structures of minerals. Crystals, in particular, replicate their structures in a way that offers a clue to how living things might also reproduce and survive. So, the miniature crystals that squirmed within primordial clay were not merely inert, dumb stuff but instead vital, unconscious actors in the still evolving story of life, humans and whatever is coming next. As he puts it: “We have, as it were, identified the organisation responsible for that ‘crime against common-sense’, the origin of life. And it is true that the proposition that our ultimate ancestors were mineral crystals was not widely anticipated.”

This argument is audacious because it is essentially claiming that genetic inheritance is not unique to living organisms but is rather a process that might be shared between all sorts of different materials some of which are often considered to be alive (organisms) and those that are not (minerals.) As Cairns-Smith puts it: “Clay crystals growing [within a piece of sandstone]… have, often, distinctive and elaborate forms - such as the grooved kaolinite vermiforms that were evolving by direct action… and it is not too difficult to imagine circumstances in which simply the shapes and sizes of crystals could have a bearing on their ability to grow quickly, or break up in the right way, or stay in the right place, or survive difficult conditions- or otherwise be a success… just the same as the way in which the parts of plants and animals become optimised through natural selection. The practical difference here between crystal genes and, say, trees or giraffes would be that for crystal genes shapes and sizes are so much more directly specified by the genetic information.”

And it is astonishing because it gives a tentative answer to one of the knottiest problems that scientists and philosophers (along with all the other story-tellers) have spent the history of humanity trying to answer. That is, how is life on earth even possible; what is it; and when did it begin? These questions, of course, come interlaced with what philosophers call “the hard problem of consciousness” whose down-beat name somewhat understates the magnitude and gravity of the problem in question and makes it sound like a tricky weekend crossword puzzle. The question at stake requires the perhaps impossible task of describing and explaining the nature of conscious experience.

Cairns-Smith’s claims have had a mixed reception over the past few decades in part because of the endemic difficulties in working in the gaps between different scientific disciplines (in this case biology and chemistry.) It is also extremely difficult to observe the micro-movements of clay and establish whether it really is self-organising in a way that means it could be considered proto-biological.

However, it is the ambition and challenge of his theory that is more important than any of its specific claims and it’s what I’m interested in here. The aspiration is to explain how the material substrate of the world can give rise to things that can live and reproduce; that is, to explain how stuff can do stuff. It is a way thinking about how disinterested the material world is in the humans that skate about on its surface. It still operates according to its own occult operations. But it also reminds us of the perhaps horrific and monstrous thought that lying buried at the core of all our humanity there is something inhuman, inorganic, indifferent over which we have no control.

The reason that this would be important is because nested within metaphors for describing the relationships of humans with objects are metaphors for thinking about what those humans are. Or to put this another way: a way of thinking about things is also a way of thinking about ourselves.
For example, it is becoming increasingly obvious that in contemporary life objects and people are losing their autonomy. Everything now is seemingly interconnected in networks of communication and control. In what Manuel Castells calls The Network Society which began to appear in the last 3rd of the 20th Century the prevalence of systems of telecommunication, computing, transport, and so on mean that humanity is connected across the globe at burgeoning speed. Think about the Internet of Things in which devices communicate with one another and are controlled over networks. Given this it’s easy to believe that just as objects are not autonomous so too we humans are also losing our independence. We are also being subsumed by new technologies, social media and countless other things that we only barely understand but which make almost infinite demands on our attention.
But maybe thinking not only about but also through materials like clay, or glass, gives us another way of thinking about both objects and ourselves. Glass, for instance, might remind us of a world now lived through interfaces and windows; through the pads and screens we constantly interact with. It resonates with a life lived through surface and touch where we swipe right. Or left.

But glass is also a material with its own qualities and its own private secrets. Glass is not the same as clay. Rather than comprised of mineral crystals in fluid,  glass is a super-cooled liquid that is in the constant flux of flow and formation. Through these processes it exhibits its own material and alien agency. Beneath its surfaces small universes roil away at their own glacial pace. In it we might find a way of thinking, once again, about who we are. In its awkward autonomy we might rediscover what it means to be human in these dark, dark times.



Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Strange Fascination: Bowie and Apophenia

If the ambition of Cracked-Actor-Network-Theory is to use Bowie to explore the conditions of subjectivity in late capitalism, then it must necessarily risk apophenia in its tone and spirit and appear somewhat manic; preposterous even. 

Bowie’s very fluidity in his use of mediums and identities lends itself to being connected to everything that was around him. As he said of himself in the Russell Harty interview (1973): “I find that I’m a person that can take on the guises of different people that I meet. I can switch accents in seconds of meeting somebody—I can adopt their accent. I’ve always found that I collect. I’m a collector. And I’ve always just seemed to collect personalities, ideas.

Or, a few years later: "Bowie was never meant to be. He's like a Lego kit. I'm convinced I wouldn't like him, because he's too vacuous and undisciplined. There is no definitive David Bowie." (David Bowie on David Bowie, 1976)

So it should come as no surprise to find the Network Society reflected back in him.

Or, in other words, Bowie’s own eclecticism, opportunism and promiscuity will be reflected in a theory that is itself is eclectic, opportunistic and promiscuous. And that both Bowie and our theory capture something of the nature of subjectivity in late capitalism.

Apophenia is the inclination to find patterns and connections in all phenomena regardless of whether they are related or not (what Tyler Viglen calls Spurious Correlations or, when more developed, Conspiracy Theory). 

The ability to observe and create connections is a profoundly human act; consciousness is drawn both to and from pattern. After all, as the phenomenological commonplace observes: consciousness is always consciousness of something. This can be both banal - such as finding faces in clouds or prophecies in tea-leaves – and sublime - such as Stephen Hawking’s description of the universe as a Grand Design in which: “There must be a complete set of laws that, given the state of the universe at a specific time, would specify how the universe would develop from that time forward. These laws should hold everywhere and at all times; otherwise they wouldn’t be laws. There could be no exceptions or miracles. Gods or demons couldn’t intervene in the running of the universe.” (The Grand Design, pg. 137)


Perception rests on observing figure/ ground relationships, and the use of narrative is fundamental for cognition through establishing connections and causes between events. Working between artificial intelligence and psychology, Schankand Abelson claim that narrative systems and “structures called scripts” are essential for the production of “knowledge systems.” Such pattern finding has emerged from an evolutionary wager in which in survival situations the recognition of patterns paid dividends. Better, for example, to assume that a rustle in a patch of grass is a tiger and act accordingly than ignore it and be eaten.

As this project develops further patterns and connections within the Cracked-Actor-Network will be suggested. No doubt some will be spurious.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Cracked-Actor Network Theory: David, Diana and Donald












We'll explore the connection between these three in later posts. In the meantime here is an excerpt from

Simon Reynolds: Shock and Awe (Faber, 2017)

I play to people’s fantasies,” Trump wrote in The Art of The Deal, explaining the role of bravado in his business dealings. “People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular.”

He and co-writer Tony Schwarz coined the concept “truthful hyperbole.” That sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it cuts to the essence of how hype works: by making people believe in something that doesn’t exist yet, it magically turns a lie into a reality. As the American saying goes, fake it ‘til you make it.

Bowie’s manager Tony Defries used this technique to break the singer in America: travelling everywhere in a limo, surrounded by bodyguards he didn’t need, Bowie looked like the star he wasn’t yet, until the public and the media started to take the illusion for reality…. Early in his career, Trump grasped that – like a pop star – he was selling an image, a brand.

Bowie and The Network Society

Bowie: The Network Society and Opening Themes (Death; Sex/ Gender; Economics; Love; Medium/ Form; The Future)

The key claim of the Cracked-Actor Network Theory is that Bowie exemplifies the conditions of post-war western society. This was named by Manuel Castells as The Network Society by which he meant those social orders that emerged more or less during Bowie’s adult life. It is characterised by the historical and cultural impact of electronic technologies including the New Media of telecommunication and computation systems and the subsequent primacy of information as a metaphor for communication and organisation.

In this sense Network Society describes the conditions and cultures of late capitalism. Frederic Jameson argues that these conditions are synonymous with both postmodernity and the emergence of “the world system” in which the power of nation states is effaced by global networks of capital and communication where information becomes the primary unit of capitalist exchange. In such cultures power no longer operates according to a disciplinary logic (as Foucault observed of modernity) but rather control where power is distributed across networks (as Deleuze claimed in his famous “postscript” essay).

Subjectivity is similarly understood to be both distributed across different communicative networks and also mediated by them; in other words human identity does not exist a-priori but is in fact constituted by those different networks within which it is situated (such as social media.) Hence, the conditions of the Network Society present radical challenges to the account of autonomous and rational humanity that emerges in the European Enlightenment. As in other accounts of the conditions of subjectivity in late capitalism, such as Posthumanism humans are identified as enmeshed within and reliant upon existing economic, technological and ecological networks that are beyond their control.

Taking this as a starting point we can consider how Bowie’s own persona as “more than one, less than many” mimicked these effects of late capitalism and the Network Society. His multiple identities were also, performatively, contingent upon those conditions he found himself in.

In doing so we can use the following themes to think about both Bowie and human subjectivity in the age of “the world system”:

DEATH; SEX/ GENDER; ECONOMICS; LOVE; MEDIUM (STUDIO); THE FUTURE

[These ideas were first explored in an MA Seminar for Art in the Contemporary World lead by Francis Halsall and Vaari Claffey]

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Bowie: More than one, but less than many. The beginning of a Cracked Actor-Network Theory

Bowie: More than one, but less than many. The beginning of a Cracked Actor-Network Theory

David Bowie once claimed that: “But anything that Western culture has to offer – I’ve put myself through it.” What happens, then, if we take Bowie at his word? What if the cracked-actor can be used as a mechanism to consider a general account of the cultural logic of late capitalism?

In Aircraft Stories, John Law, the Sociologist and pioneer of Actor-Network Theory gives an account of the development of a British military aircraft, the TSR2. However, this is not a mere account of military technology. Instead, Law argues, the aircraft is used to frame a more general description of the social system of the “Euro-American world” in the 2nd half of the 20thCentury. His project is to use the TSR2 to think: “about modernism and its child, postmodernism – and about how we might think past the limits that these set to our ways of thinking.”

Law describes his method of Actor-Network Theory in the following terms:

“Actor-network theory is a disparate family of material-semiotic tools, sensibilities and methods of analysis that treat everything in the social and natural worlds as a continuously generated effect of the webs of relations within which they are located. It assumes that nothing has reality or form outside the enactment of those relations. Its studies explore and characterise the webs and the practices that carry them. Like other material-semiotic approaches, the actor-network approach thus describes the enactment of materially and discursively heterogeneous relations that produce and reshuffle all kinds of actors including objects, subjects, human beings, machines, animals, ‘nature’, ideas, organisations, inequalities, scale and sizes, and geographical arrangements.”

Conceived in these terms, the TSR2 is an object that can be understood as positioned within a complex set of networks and relations. It is “a fractionally coherent subject or object is one that balances between plurality and singularity. It is more than one, but less than many.”

The proposal, then, is to consider David Bowie in similar terms; that is, as similarly fractionally coherent and more than one, but less than many.” In doing so an account of the social systems of late capitalism might emerge as the medium and context within which the identity of David Bowie was framed and constituted.

[These ideas will be explored in an MA Seminar for Art in the Contemporary World lead by Francis Halsall and Vaari Claffey]

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

5 Years, that's all we've got

In 1971 David Bowie was still a young man of 24 when he invented Ziggy Stardust the messianic alien rock star who came to earth. By the end of the album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Ziggy is dead in a ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’, having been torn apart by, apparently, his appetites and fans. As we know, Bowie himself was perpetually in a moment being lived twice – Bowie being the alter-ego of the more prosaically named David Jones. A mere 45 years later Bowie was, like Ziggy, also gone; his death having been similarly, meticulously choreographed in the beautiful, unprecedented and almost unbearable work of art of the album Blackstar and its accompanying videos.

The Ziggy album opens with the song ‘5 Years’. As is so often the case with the best pop music it is reflection on human finitude amidst the fleeting contingencies of the world. And the potential for love and art (and, surely in pop we can be allowed to think of them as being the same thing) to sweetly resist the disorder and collapse that we must all, inevitably, submit to.

The story of the song narrated by the singing protagonist begins with him:

“Pushing through the market square, so many mothers sighing
News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in
News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying.”

It appears that humans and their world are facing extinction.

In the list that follows you can hear our character collecting up the appearances of the furniture of a world that is about to no longer exist. As he walks around the dying environment he becomes a kind of pop phenomenologist grasping at the thick textures of phenomena. He’s gathering up some of those things that will, all too soon, be gone for ever:

“I heard telephones, opera house, favourite melodies,
I saw boys, toys, electric irons and tvs.
My brain hurt like a warehouse it had no room to spare,
I had to cram so many things to store everything in there.”

The key moment of the song comes with the following line:

“I think I saw you in an ice-cream parlour,
drinking milk shakes cold and long.
Smiling and waving and looking so fine,
don’t think you knew you were in this song.”

At this moment there comes a beautiful merging of worlds. It’s signalled by Bowie singing in a higher register. The worlds of our protagonist’s memory and the song we listen to become indistinguishable. The address “don’t think you knew you were in this song” seems to be directed within the song, to the milkshake drinker whilst also, simultaneously, pointing outwards to the listener. We’re in the song too. At this moment, the moment of the planet’s doom becomes a moment to be lived twice over. It is lived in the memory of the protagonist; and lived again in the song.

The song becomes a stand-in for all works of art which are like little warehouses crammed full of those things that are about to be lost; those things that, in 5 years will be gone. 


There’s the rub. 5 years. That all any of us have; more or less; give or take the odd year here and there. In a few mere years we will all be gone. And in the face of this finitude the only thing that offers any salvation is beauty.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Spaceship Earth Does Not Move

The movements of the stars have become clearer; but to the mass of the people the movements of their masters are still incalculable.
Bertolt Brecht, The Life of Galileo

Spaceship Earth is not Static

Stand up and look down at your feet.

I’m going to assume that you’re not travelling, which is increasingly likely these days. But in any event it doesn’t change the main point. The ground beneath your feet is not moving; at least not in relation to your body. The sky above, outside, is not so fixed.  The sun and moon and all that other stuff up there travel above us on their daily and annual and other cycles within the cosmic system. But the ground is different. It’s a fixed base. This fixity is important both literally as it’s where your feet are planted, and metaphorically too, as it’s a foundation for our experience. Experience begins with and on the earth.

Yet squaring this experience with what we know creates something of a snag. It’s not what’s happening in reality. Spaceship Earth is not static. Scientific observation tells us that the motionless planet of experience is actually hurtling through space; spinning not only around its axis but also around the sun. Freud recognised the trauma that this scientific knowledge potentially causes and spoke about the two outrages to humanity that modern science provided; a third being presented by his own psychoanalysis:

Humanity, in the course of time, has had to endure from the hands of science two great outrages against its naive self-love. The first was when humanity discovered that our earth was not the center of the universe, but only a tiny speck in a world-system hardly conceivable in its magnitude. This is associated in our minds with the name “Copernicus,” although Alexandrian science had taught much the same thing. The second occurred when biological research robbed man of his apparent superiority under special creation, and rebuked him with his descent from the animal kingdom, and his ineradicable animal nature. This re-valuation, under the influence of Charles Darwin, Wallace and their predecessors, was not accomplished without the most violent opposition of their contemporaries. But the third and most irritating insult is flung at the human mania of greatness by present-day psychological research, which wants to prove to the “I” that it is not even master in its own home, but is dependent upon the most scanty information concerning all that goes on unconsciously in its psychic life.”

Crucially, the scientific Copernican Revolution of modernity not only involves the astronomical modelling of the cosmos but also a shift in world-view. What emerges is a theoretical awareness, developed also by Galileo and Descartes, that fundamental features of nature can be described as a system; mathematically. Hence the world, by virtue of its capacity to be modelled mathematically, is understood to be separate from human consciousness and is independent of thought.

Copernican Revolutions

Actually, the so-called Copernican Revolution has two meanings. There is its literal sense in the emergence of a modern, scientific and heliocentric world view. And there is a metaphorical use in philosophy. In this second sense it is often used to name the so-called transcendental turn taken by philosophy from Immanuel Kant in the late 18th century onwards and which the philosopher Quentin Meillassoux has recently named Correlationism. This Correlationism (of which Meillassoux is critical) claims that any thought about the world independent of that thought is impossible. That is, we can never know what the world is like in-itself. This philosophical use of the Copernican revolution as a metaphor originated from a comment in the second preface to The Critique of Pure Reason (1787) where Kant proposes to do for metaphysics what Copernicus had done for cosmology, namely effect a sudden revolution leading to a paradigm shift in thought itself. In On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543) Copernicus proposed a heliocentric system that reversed the commonly accepted Ptolemaic geocentric model of the universe. Kant states that whereas previously it had been assumed that knowledge conforms to its objects he will develop a metaphysics that begins from the supposition that objects conform to knowledge. From this emerges the transcendental turn that modifies metaphysical questions directed toward things in-themselves, which is claimed to be impossible, into questions of how knowledge of the world is possible.

However, this is the violent contradiction that leads to these ‘outrages’ of modernity. So, whilst science allows for the possibility of a mind independent of reality, philosophy insists that thought about that reality in-itself is impossible. The metaphor itself is paradoxical as it positions humans at the centre of their philosophical systems yet at the edge of their scientific ones.

And yet, to not accept this and to deny scientific revolutions positions one as a crank, crackpot or conspiracy theorist. The snag is going to be, then, how to reconcile those two domains: knowledge and experience. And there, perhaps, we have a model of what work the artwork can do.
[From an essay on Niamh McCann's work]