Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Uncanniest of the Uncanny

Over at Larval Subjects, Levi has created a well-developed and nuanced ontology of objects he has affectionately called, Onticology. In short, his idea of an object-oriented-ontology is one of differences, but more importantly, it is about objects. His thoughts go something like, anything that makes a difference is – that is objects are a difference that make a difference. Without going into detail about how objects actually do this (in all honesty I don't think I understand all of it myself), suffice it to say, Onticology along with other forms of object-oriented thinking wish ultimately to dethrone humanity from its pedestal of Being to show that humans are themselves objects in a complex network of object-object relationships.

Have we become so narcissistic and self-righteous that we see ourselves as lords over Being? It would appear so. How did we get this way? And by asking these questions am I simply feeding the beast that is the human project, or do I need to ignore or bracket the human before I get a better understanding of object-ness and how objects work?

In my study of the un-canny, I've been especially drawn to Heidegger. Not because he specifically discusses the uncanny as a state of mind in Being and Time (a state of mind that along with anxiety leaves us open to the call to conscience), but more importantly because in Introduction to Metaphysics he recognizes the un-canniness of humanity and its relationship to the world. After giving us a selection from Antigone, Heidegger reads humanity as deinon – un-canny. He writes, "The human being is to deinotaton, the uncanniest of the uncanny" (159). However, we should realize that what Heidegger has in mind when he talks about deinon as uncanny is different than the common definition of the uncanny as unhomely, strange, or out of place, but it is also slightly different than his previous definition of the uncanny as a feeling we have "in" anxiety and "in-the-world" (Being and Time 233).

In Introduction to Metaphysics, Heidegger splits deinon (the uncanny) into two parts: 1) the overwhelming and 2) violence-doing. He states:

On the one hand, deinon names the terrible, but it does not apply to petty terrors and does not have the degenerate, childish, and useless meaning that we give the word today when we call something "terribly cute." The deinon is the terrible in the sense of the overwhelming sway, which induces panicked fear, true anxiety, as well as collected, inwardly reverberating, reticent awe. The violent, the overwhelming is the essential character of the sway itself. When the sway breaks in, it can keep its overwhelming power to itself. But this does not make it more harmless but only more terrible and distant.

But on the other hand, deinon means the violent in the sense of one who needs to use violence – and does not just have violence at his disposal but is violence-doing, insofar as using violence is the basic trait not just of his doing but of his Dasein. […]

Being as a whole, as the sway, is the overwhelming, deinon in the first sense. But humanity is deinon, first, inasmuch as it remains exposed to this overwhelming sway, because it essentially belongs to Being. However, humanity is also deinon because it is violence-doing in the sense we have indicated [It gathers what holds sway and lets it enter into an openness.] Humanity is violence doing not in addition to and aside from other qualities but solely in the sense that from the ground up and in its doing violence, it uses violence against the over-whelming. Because it is doubly deinon in an originally united sense, it is to deinontaton, the most violent: violence-doing in the midst of the overwhelming. (160).

In other words, Heidegger finds the uncanny as consisting of two sides, both making up humanity and its approach to the world. First we have Being as a whole, as an overwhelming sway which collects everything. Being, a flat (not flattening) Being, is the set of every object including humans. For Heidegger, "the deinon as the overwhelming is manifested in the fundamental Greek word dike. We translate this word as fittingness <Fug>" (171). Dike, as the Being of beings, is fittingness or enjoining in that it requires objects to fit-in, in compliance. All objects are. Every object (including humans), then, belongs to this overwhelming sway of dike.

Yet, since Heidegger continuously finds humanity to be to deinontaton, or uncanniest of the uncanny, there is also a doubling of this Being, manifested in our need to do violence against dike, or Being itself. For this violence-doing, Heidegger substitutes the Greek word techne, stating that, "techne means neither art nor skill, and it means nothing like technology in the modern sense. We translate techne as "knowing" (169). And this type of knowing found in techne as violence-doing is "the ability to set Being [dike] into work as something that in each case is in such and such a way" (170). To clarify, techne as "putting-to-work" is more than a creation, a making, or an artwork; but is a presentation of Being (dike) so that everything in a work of art can be seen, studied, and understood "as a being, or else as an unbeing" (170). If we paint a bowl of fruit, for example, we have put Being, as dike or the overwhelming sway, to work in the bowl of fruit. We have used the object to open up what it means to "be" an object. We attempt to know, to understand through our constant attempts at techne, at putting Being to work in beings. And it is this knowing that Heidegger finds humanity at its most violent. For, "in the reciprocal relation between them [between dike and techne] is the happening of uncanniness" (176).

It would seem then, that if it were our goal to stop the violence against Being, a violence that repeatedly puts Being to work in objects and consequently puts humanity on the ontological throne, then more than a mere theory of objects would be needed. We would, instead, somehow need to undo the violence we've already done, or at least attempt to do no further violence. But how do we do this, if (especially in Heidegger's point of view) this violence is part of our double-uncannines, of who we are as a group of beings? Do we stop working in the sense of techne? Should we all become lazy, and through our laziness let the object be? Or should we attempt to find our place (our home, if you will) in this overwhelming sway of Being, of dike? But in doing so, can we quell the need to put Being to work for us? Isn't any ontology, in the end, for us?

I am reminded here by something Derrida said in his reading of Potacka in The Gift of Death, where he states "Force has become the modern figure of being. Being has allowed itself to be determined as a calculable force, and man, instead of relating to the being that is hidden under this figure of force, represents himself as quantifiable power" (37). We have stopped trying to relate to Being and stopped trying to find our home in the world, and instead have decided Being is for-us. Don't get me wrong, object-oriented thought seems to be moving us in the right direction, but on some level I can't help but feel unsatisfied. What is needed, still, I feel, is a relational ontology that doesn't place humanity at the center of it (where everything else revolves around human), but that attempts to find a place for humanity within the overwhelming sway of objects – a sort of real estate ontology. But such an ontology also requires a techne that is self-aware, and in its self-awareness takes responsibility for uncovering Being, including human un-canniness. For an ontology of the Being of beings is at the same time a call for ethical treatment of objects, so that we never again do violence toward them.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Death Set

We could easily argue that a closed set is only closed by way of an other. Or to put this another way, we must have something which does not belong to the set in order have a set. A good example of this would be any of the cliques in an American high school. For the "jocks" to exist as a set, you must have a person or group of people who do not belong to the group – so you have the Goths, the Nerds, etc. Each group can be defined by what it is not, but more importantly, each group only exists if something escapes it. Perhaps we could best understand this by way of Fink:

For what could it possibly mean to speak of the set of all signifiers? As soon as we attempt to designate such a set, we add a new signifier to the list: the "Other" (with a capital "O"). That signifier is not yet included within the set of all signifiers (figure 3.1).

Other ( )

Let us include that new signifier within the set. We change the set in so doing and can now justifiably rename it, as it no longer escapes the same set. Suppose we call it the "complete Other" (figure 3.2).

Complete Other (Other)

This new name, however, is not yet part of the set. To include it would involve changing the set, and once again call for a new name (figure 3.3).

Complete Other 2 ( Complete Other )

The process can be repeated endlessly, proving that the supposed set of all signifiers can never be complete."

In other words, there can be no set that contains all other sets. Something must escape. But what about a set where before nothing escapes? What about death?

Creation, in John W. Lango's account of Whitehead's Ontology, is opposite eternality. Or, to put this another way, "An entity is created if an only if it is not eternal" (77). For Lango, we can read Whitehead's ontology as having to do with objects interacting with other objects – a process Lango terms synonty. Being, as Lango puts it, "is, more appropriately, a relation between entities…Thus [Whitehead's] types of entity are defined by the principle that entities have being for one another (i.e., are synontic)" (1). But there is a primal difference between beings that are created and beings that are eternal. For Lango, "An entity is eternal if and only if it is synontic to every other entity and every other entity is synontic to it. An entity is created if and only if it is not synontic to some other entity or some other entity is not synontic to it" (77). Finitude can be read, then, as being a closed set of created objects; but only if we have an eternal object, only if we have something outside the closed set.

Immortality or the eternal object is usually given to the gods. In the animal world death is a natural process that eventually overtakes most living tissue – or so I believed. I had heard of amoebas cheating death by replication but was not sure if this was the same thing as an eternal object, because in this process of replication there exists a time (t) where amoeba A is physically separate from amoeba B, even though they both share identical biological makeup. But recently I came across the hydra – a freshwater animal in the class Hydrozoa. What's interesting about the hydra is its ability to regenerate at the cellular level, making it seemingly immortal. According to Daniel E. Martinez in his article found here:

Escaping senescence, however, might be restricted to animals with simpler, dynamic bodies that can be constantly renewed from populations of stem cells. Given the tissue dynamics of hydra, over a period of four years somatic epithelial cells have divided on average 300 times and the whole hydra body may have been fully replaced at least 60 times. The evolution of more complex bodies with tissues and organs with a higher degree of specialization might have resulted in, or perhaps required, a loss of the capacity of renewal and thus permitted the evolution senescence. (224)

What I find incredibly interesting about this passage is Martinez's claim that senescence (or natural aging) is evolutionary – and via this claim, that death too is a creation of our evolutionary process. The hydra, in other words, makes death as a closed set possible. It is that eternal entity which has synonty with all other entities through its being immortal. The following graph from Martinez's article best sums up anything I left to say:

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ontology of the Living Dead

Admittedly my first formulation of the zombie was slightly vague, and given the responses (both positive and negative) over at Larval Subjects, Ian Bogost, and Hyper tiling, it seemed to be confusing, as well. So I hope this second post clarifies a few points, but I can make no promises.

Given that my discussion of the zombie started with a notion that it was opposite the cute object, I would like to bring up a similar object to use for comparison and contrast: the ugly object. In The Abyss of Freedom, Zizek makes the following remarks about ugliness and the ugly object:

The ugly object is an object that is in the wrong place, that "shouldn't be there." This does not mean that the ugly object is no longer ugly the moment we relocate it to its proper place; rather, an ugly object is "in itself" out of place, on account of the distorted balance between its 'representation' (the symbolic features we perceive) and 'existence' – being ugly, out-of-place, is the excess of existence over representation. Ugliness is thus a topological category; it designates an object and the space it occupies, or – to make the same point in a different way – between the outside (surface) of an object (captured by its representation) and its inside (formless stuff). In the case of beauty, we have in both cases a perfect isomorphism, while in the case of ugliness, the inside of an object somehow is (appears) larger than the outside of its surface representation (like the uncanny buildings in Kafka's novels that, once we enter them, appear much more voluminous than they seemed from the outside). (21-22)

If we consider the zombie opposite the cute object, then we wouldn't have to stretch our imaginations too far to think of it equivocal to the ugly object. Like the ugly object, then, the zombie shouldn't be there, it is out-of-place – a return of the dead. As my last post hinted at, cute objects (and objects of beauty) are absorbed by us, taken for granted, or easily passed on by. Zizek reinforces this claim when he notes that “in beauty we have in both cases [i.e., in representation and existence] a perfect isomorphism” or a one-to-one correspondence or similarity (representation = existence). Ugly objects, on the other hand, have more to them in their existence than their outward representations (representation < existence). They disturb us because we at times see the hidden, excessive elements that unsettle our sense of sameness and beauty. So, initially we can read the zombie as an ugly object.

Yet, as I previously stated, “zombies are all the same. A zombie biker is no more or less threatening than a zombie baker or zombie dog.” In other words, a zombie is a zombie is a zombie, regardless of race, class, gender, or species. So, ontologically speaking, zombies are beautiful objects, perfect balances between representation and existence, for without the ability to signify their existence there is nothing else to the zombie beyond its desire. But isn't this a contradiction? It doesn't have to be. I would argue that zombies (as well as other objects) can be both beautiful and ugly.

What I hope comes from this discussion is to show how as of now, there seems to be a single understanding of objects. For both OOP and OOO, all objects are ugly. All objects have something hidden or secret which does not make itself known upon immediate exposure in an encounter either with humans or other objects. Representation and existence are in no way equal.

Yet, oddly, in their approach to the zombie, both OOP and OOO find the zombie as a physical (and perhaps mental/psychological) threat – that humanity is more than the zombie, and how dare you say otherwise. But in doing so, they are only recognizing the beauty of the zombie, or that the zombie somehow reduces humanity to an isomorphic blob. Or to put this another way, they are only recognizing the similarity between all zombies, that a zombie is a zombie is a zombie.

Out of all the objects, they haven't found the zombie ugly, as itself consisting of a subterranean existence that is a lot larger than its initial representation. For let us not forget that what makes the zombie more frightening than, say the android, is that the zombie is/was human. And this hint of humanity, the larger part of the zombie's existence, is at times both beautiful and ugly, but perhaps this is why we find the zombie at the bottom of the Uncanny Valley -between the object and the human.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Zombies Ate My Ontology

For Postmodernism the cyborg seemed to represent a lot of what was being discussed. One of the reasons was that the cyborg, according to Donna Haraway, broke through crucial boundaries that had seemingly separated humanity from its world. The cyborg fused human, animal, organism, and machine into one being. It purposefully blurred boundaries and made murky the waters of pure humanism. Postmodernisms dealings with the cyborg allowed them to break free from dualisms and move beyond humanity – thus was born post-humanism.

But recent philosophical trends, mine included, have moved away from the transcendence of post-humanism to a philosophy that wishes to elevate all objects to the human level (or to lower the human to the level of all other objects). Because of this need to place all things on an equal playing field, Object-Oriented philosophy and ontology (hereto referred to as OOP/OOO) is forced to deal with its own creature.

Given the recent surge of game theory and technical talk seen on Larval Subject’s blog, and his recent post on the uncanny (YAY!!), I’ve been tempted again and again to draw attention to aesthetics, but especially to the Uncanny Valley. Developed by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, the idea of the Uncanny Valley can best be summed up with help from his graph:

Seen here, before any form of technology, robotic or not, reaches an exact duplication of human speech, behavior, or physical appearance, it must cross the Uncanny Valley. For Mori, this valley represents the repulsion humanity has toward something that is like a human but is not, and the closer the object resembles a human, the stronger the feeling of disgust. It would seem, then, that as far as aesthetics are concerned, humanity prefers objects that keep their distance, that look different, that act different, that are different.

We could, however, interpret the pinnacle of this first peak in the graph (that peak level to the healthy human being) to be the place of human preference. And in the “still” graph (the solid line) we find a great example of such a preferential object – the stuffed animal. For the stuffed animal presents no threat to humanity, no need to differentiate it and any real animal.

And we could only assume, then, that the humanoid robot that the moving graph (the dotted line) suggests approaches the top of its peak might look something like ASIMO from Honda or the original NES R.O.B. which played Nintendo games with you. In essence these robots are far from being anything “human”, but like the stuffed animal, are simply cute.

But what makes an object “cute?” In a recent post on his blog, Ian Bogost references Graham Harman’s definition, so that “The labors of such agents become "cute" when they are slightly underequipped for their task…” For Bogost, though, Japanese cuteness has taken over from this behavioral “underequipped” cuteness – and is instead a cuteness which relies heavily on appearance. Take for example the difference between the Nintendo Wii’s characters and most of the characters that the Xbox and the Playstation3 pride themselves on – characters which look almost-human. Or to put this another way, while the PS3 and Xbox deal with how real they can make their graphics look, the Wii is content in providing its users with slightly miniature, often large-headed, but almost always cute characters. We have to ask ourselves, why? Why are we less threatened when we create a bobble-headed avatar than when we face a character from Madden 2010 or Halo 3?

The answer lies in the Uncanny Valley. Our Wii avatars are cute, they are in the words of Harman, objects that “are either lovely, or else they are delightfully absorbed in some technique that we ourselves take for granted.” Cute objects allow for forgetfulness, or at least the opportunity to be passed by – “Oh, that’s cute.” For cuteness can never be stared at for too long. Otherwise we progress into the Uncanny Valley. As an example, my daughter has a baby doll she likes to play with. The doll is simply a shaped plastic form with a clothes and pacifier. In the context of my daughter’s play, the doll is cute for it plays the part of a baby but is underequipped to be a real baby. Yet, as Freud noticed (with the help of Jentsch and E.T.A. Hoffman) dolls can become creepy. A “Good Guy Doll” becomes Chucky in Child’s Play, small wooden marionettes become killers in Puppetmaster, and a collection of porcelain playthings become evil monsters in Dolls. Cute has the possibility to become terrifying.

As non-human objects take on human characteristics, they become creepy or horrific. Yet, looked at from the opposite end, as humanity is stripped away of language and of the ability to create and fantasize, it too becomes horrendous. In this way, I feel that OOP/OOO must deal with the creature that presents the true meeting of object and human – the zombie.

From the essential film, Night of the Living Dead (1968) to perhaps the finest in literary achievement in recent decades, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, zombies have become more than mythical creatures. Like Dracula, they have taken their rightful place in popular culture as horrific creatures of the undead. Yet, unlike Dracula or any vampire for that fact, zombies are mindless – acting only on instinct or drive. Instead of blood, zombies feed on brains. Instead of needing to develop relationships with nubile necks, zombies tear and rip into any and all humans. Zombies are equal opportunity monsters. And instead of a singular vampire, the zombie attacks in hordes and large lumbering groups.

Zombies are the uncanny kernel of the Real, they are not the object which leaves a remainder, they ARE the remainder. Zombies are Das Ding, the Thing, human qua object. And because of this, OOP/OOO must deal with the zombie much in the same way Postmodernism (especially in Haraway and Lyotard) had to deal with the cyborg. However, instead of talking about how humanity will have become, OOP/OOO will have to talk about in what ways humanity is not unique – how we are all zombies. They must take up the zombie as a human representative since only in the zombie do we find the human as it “really” exists, without any obfuscation.

First, the zombie IS – of this there can be no mistake. The zombie is just as real as the computer in front of me. For OOP/OOO all objects are as real as all other objects. Second, the zombie exists as pure desire, it moves with a single purpose and without known agency. And finally, every zombie is the same. A zombie biker is no more or less threatening than a zombie baker or zombie dog. But essentially the zombie is an empty desire, an object with no name except pure existence. Why do they hunger for brains? Who knows. Will they ever stop looking for brains? No. And in a world where all objects are on the same level playing field, stripped away of our agency as subjects, we find ourselves in an awkward position, as non-human humans alive in a world of networks and alliances. We are all zombies. And the only question that remains in a this philosophy that deals with fidelity and allegiance is, “Who will survive and what will be left of them?”