CALL FOR PROPOSALS: THE UNDERCOMMONS AND DESTITUENT POWER

CALL FOR PROPOSALS: THE UNDERCOMMONS AND DESTITUENT POWER
 
March 26-28th, 2020, Indiana University in Bloomington.
Organizers: Micol Seigel, Bella Bravo, Kieran Aarons, Mia Beach, Ross Gay, Rosie Stockton, J. Cameron Karter
Confirmed Speakers: Fred Moten, Frederic Neyrat, Laura Harris, Mikkel Bolt-Rasmussen, Adam Kotsko, Dylan Rodriquez, Mauvaise Troupe Collective, Jaime Alves, Daniel Nemser, Jackie Wang
Deadline for Proposals: February 1, 2020
 
We are pleased to invite submissions for the international conference, “The Undercommons and Destituent Power,”  to be held in Bloomington, IN, March 26th-28th, 2020. Amidst an unprecedented wave of global unrest, this international and interdisciplinary conference aims to (re)launch critical debate and exchange around the means, methods, and imagination of revolutionary community in the 21st century.
Responding to our tumultuous times, “The Undercommons and Destituent Power” draws inspiration from two renegade currents in North American and European thought that seek to dismantle and refashion the central categories of Western politics. In Moten and Harney’s call for a joyfully indocile social life that evades the capture of classical politics, in Agamben’s call to rethink emancipatory violence through the growth of a ‘destituent power’ that cancels relations of domination without replacing them, we see convergent eorts to exit the disastrous course of modernity. Is it not in undercommons, i.e. in the interstices  of an imperfect captivity, in the festivity of fugitivity and exile that our shared power first comes to be felt? Is it not through our de-stituent capacity to desert and refuse the identities and vocations oered to us that we gain contact with our true collective capacities, that community becomes thinkable beyond any subjective ‘standpoint’?
We are interested in “destituent power” and the “undercommons” not only for their power as analytic tools through which to think, perceive, and critique our present, but as ethical and political orientations in practice. We envision this conference as a hybrid space of encounter, an opportunity for the stowaways in and outside the University to conspire and explore forms of collective life that evade the political constraints of citizenship, sovereignty, and governance. Proposals should engage with the two traditions, the undercommons and destituent power—preferably both, but at least one. We urge participants to read both core texts, available on our conference website. Below are some questions we hope might inform your proposals:
  • How do Agamben’s call to think a ‘destituent power’  and the unconquered sociality of Moten and Harney’s ‘undercommons’ allow us to dismantle the ruling fictions of our time? What convergences and divergences exist between them? What do categories such as ‘use’, ‘inoperativity’, ‘desertion’, ‘exile’, ‘fugitivity’, ‘planning’, and ‘hapticality’ allow us to rethink?
  • How can we dismantle sovereignty without paving the way for its reconstitution in new forms? What sort of thinking and acting cancels and deactivates juridical and social norms and roles without seeking to replace them with ‘better’ ones?
  • What does it do to the notion of the “undercommons” to look at it from the vantage point of European autonomous thinking?  What does it do to the notion of “destituent power” to approach from the Americas-centered Black radical tradition? Does destituent power take race sufficiently into account?  Does the undercommons do enough to imagine revolution?
  • How can we leap over the ingrained truism according to which governance forms the unassailable destiny of all social organization? Can we imagine a revolutionary movement developing in the absence of either a historical subject or a guiding program or ideology? How, beginning from a heterogeneity of singular and divergent perspectives and experiences, can a common strategic sensibility emerge, without cancelling the generative dierences within it?
  • How do we identify the apparatuses that govern and suspend our lived contact with the world, detaching us from the relations that everywhere constitute our existence? How can we overcome our habit of living as if we did not belong to this world, as if we were not party to our situation?
  • How can we think a sociality that both precedes and exceeds the institutions of economic and governmental administration? How can we articulate the relationship to ourselves, to one another, and to the world in ways that do not proceed from, nor measure themselves against, a law, origin, or foundation? How does our commitment to social life in common require us to do war with the idea of society itself? If bare lives turn out to be bare only insofar as no attention is paid to them, which forms of collective attention and care making us unfit for subjection?
  • How can we reactivate the memory of the refugees, fugitives, renegades and castaways that have always ensured that the West remained an ‘unsafe neighborhood’ for our oppressors? If “knowledge of freedom is the invention of escape,” how can we push beyond the critiques of the present disaster toward the creative procedures that unravel and deactivate it?
  • Can we think a process of collective self-organization and struggle that would not have recourse to what Jackie Wang and Frank Wilderson have identified as the logics of ‘innocence’ or ‘Humanity’, i.e., the impulse to lay claim to a right deduced from a qualitative ‘humanity’ grounded in reason and deserving of expression? Can we think a form of political agency that neither deduces itself from, nor creates a new title to, a basis, ground, or inner legitimacy conferring authority upon itself?
  • How can we search out the vanishing point between Blackness’ refusal of standpoint and the desertions of Humanism from within its own ranks? What art of distance and proximity, what forms of political and poetic resonance allows the dierent lines of flight to coalesce?
  • What would it mean to rethink the social and the political problem through the figure of the refugee, the fugitive, the renegade, the castaway? What if groundlessness, inoperativity, and exile were seen not merely as privations, but as the very paradigms allowing us to rethink political action, the theory of the subject, and the nature of the revolutionary voyage?
Abstracts, proposals, or full papers may be submitted by email to: destituentcommons@gmail.com

For additional information on the conference, please visit our website: destituentcommons.com.

“Understanding the Philosophy of Movement” An Interview with Thomas Nail

 

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Kinetic Revolution: Understanding the Transversal Reality of the “Philosophy of Movement”

Dario Giovanni Ali interviews Thomas Nail, Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Denver on his theory of “kinopolitics.” Translated into Italian and published in Visitors, K-Pocket Guide (Italy, Kabul Press, 2020), 52-61.

Download here in English and Italian.

Dario: In The Figure of Migrant (Stanford University Press, 2015), you claim that the migrant has become the political figure of our time. Human migration is increasingly common in all nations of the world, more today than ever before. With your words: “The migrant is the political figure who is socially expelled or dispossessed as a result, or as the cause, of their mobility. The migrant is the collective name for all the political figures in history who have been territorially, politically, juridically, and economically displaced as a condition of the social expansion of power” (Hostis Journal, 30 June 2015). So what is the social impact of this recognition of the migrant as the main political figure of our time?

Thomas: If migration is understood to be, as I believe it is and has been, a major constitutive social force throughout history, my hope is for at least two consequences: First, I hope it means that migrant voices and agency will be included in the social processes they themselves help to build and reproduce. Those who contribute socially and are affected socially should have the right to determine how they are affected socially. Currently, we are living in a global apartheid in which millions of migrants who form the backbones of so many social and economic systems are treated as if they are nothing or as if they were “illegal.” 

Second, and relatedly, there is an important historical consequence: Western civilization was founded on the dispossession and colonization of migrants (nomads, barbarians, vagabonds, and the proletariat). Western culture has also made it a strategic point to destroy and marginalize migrant histories. My hope in showing migration to be a much longer and larger historical structure is that we will try and recover these erased histories to supplement and even overthrow the currently dominant and exclusionary ones. 

D) Speaking in an interview with CriticalTheory.com in 2015, you claimed that “societies themselves are not, as they are often treated, static entities of fixed members but continuous circulations of metastable social flows.” Historically societies are actually the result of a mixture of different people and cultures.

In The Figure of the Migrant, three words are essential to understand the “kinopolitics”: “flows,” “junctions” and “circulation.” What is the exact meaning of these words, and how are they interlinked? How can a word such as “citizenship” take on new meanings and implications in the politics of movement?

T: A flow is a continuous movement of matter. Societies are produced and reproduced by accumulating a continual flow of materials such as water, wood, air, stone, metals, money, people, and so on. Instead of just letting rivers flow, trees grow, and people move, societies try and harness these flows by continually capturing them and iterating them again and again in a social “junction” or “cycle.” These cycles are what allow matters to become metastable, like eddies or whirlpools in a river. Each cycle siphons off a material flow, cycles it, and discards the waste. There are no perfect circles—only leaky entropic ones—so the quest of continual extraction continues. Once enough of these flows have been sustained in relatively stable cycles, the cycles can be ordered into much larger fields of social circulation. Some cycles are larger, more central, contain more sub-cycles, and so on—and at the limit of these large orders is where you find the emergence of what we call “borders.” Borders are the main operators that expel social waste, dispossess people outside, and fortify the final social junction so that the whole process of social circulation is secured and defended. 

Citizenship is an extremely heterogenous idea with widely diverging historical meanings. Conceptually, I am not sure that the risk of salvaging this term is worth all the dangers and misunderstandings that are likely to come with it. Can there be citizenship without exclusion? I am not sure. I have not written a lot about “citizenship” but rather about “migrant cosmopolitanism,” which is defined not by any universal category such as “cosmopolitan citizenship” but by the singularity of the struggles and demands of concrete migrant groups. There is no final social system or universal subject of politics for me. The figure of the migrant is not a universal ahistorical social figure but a historical one primary to our present moment that demands our ethical and philosophical attention. The challenge, then, is to respond to new figures as they emerge. The migrant happens to be the figure of our time. For example, the refugees and allies now struggling to enter the United States through Mexico are not universal; they are concrete and historical, and we should not presume to know their demands and needs before hearing them out.             

D) Movement is a specific feature of social life. Historically, however, the emergence of sedentary cultures has developed a sort of suspicion toward movement because it cannot be contained, framed and therefore ruled. If, on the one hand, fixity is historically linked to authoritarianism, to control, and to forms of governance, on the other side movement expresses an unrestricted sense of freedom. The jester is one of the most significant figures that had embodied the essence of movement during the Middle Ages. Considering that he was never part of the traditional social orders of Middle Ages (oratores, bellatores, and laboratores), he was harshly condemned  by the Catholic church as an evil and dangerous figure. Some of the contemporary figures you identified are those of the nomad, the barbarian, the vagabond, and the proletariat. Can you talk a little more about that?

T: Movement, for me, is neither good nor bad. It’s not a normative idea. There is, physically speaking, no such thing as stasis in the entire universe as we currently know it. Given this, it makes sense to me to start from where we are at historically and think of how movement is distributed or arranged in patterns of circulation. It is amazing, however, that so much of Western history has been so obsessed with achieving stasis and explaining motion by something else (eternity, forces, time, etc). The migrant, for me, is not a figure of freedom or constraint, but a figure defined by the expansion and expulsion of social circulation and bordering. The migrant is the one who is continually expelled by territorial, political, juridical, and economic dispossession in order to expand a certain regime of social motion (agriculture, cities, kingdoms, and capitalism). The nomad, barbarian, vagabond, and proletariat are the historical names given to a similar historical process of migration. Each name characterizes the territorial, political, juridical, and economic nature of their social expulsion.   

D) In Being and Motion (Oxford University Press, 2018), you further develop the theory expressed in The Figure of the Migrant, and you present the basis of what has been called a “philosophy of motion.” You claim that “the old paradigm of a static cosmos, linear causality, fundamental particles, and classical space-time no longer fits the twenty-first-century reality of cosmic acceleration, turbulence, and continuously vibrating fields.” Your theoretical proposal refers to sociology, economy, law, and politics, embracing even cosmology: It includes a real reformulation of all aspects of human and nonhuman life, and in this respect it sounds revolutionary. What are the political, economic, scientific and aesthetic consequences of a new kinetic paradigm based on motion?

T: The philosophy of movement is a six-volume project with new and exciting implications for politics, ontology, art, science, and nature. Here is a complete list of the volumes, half of which are still forthcoming: The Figure of the Migrant, Theory of the Border, Being and Motion, Theory of the Image, Theory of the Object, and Theory of the Earth. I will not try and summarize each one, but in general all the books try to show that in each of these major fields, movement has been marginalized and explained by something else—and that this has caused some serious errors in our thinking and in our histories. The aim of this project is to invert this situation and offer a new, movement-oriented framework.  

Each of the volumes follows a similar tripartite structure as The Figure of the Migrant: Part I is conceptual, Part II is historical, and Part III describes the implications for contemporary life. Each book follows a similar “historical ontological” method by beginning with a contemporary problem (migration, borders, digital media, quantum theory, and climate change) and then does a deep, historical immanent critique of this problem that ends up completely inverting the way we think about the past and the present. 

I do not imagine this project as a new metaphysical system of philosophy like Kant, Hegel, or even an anti-system like Deleuze—but rather a strictly historical and new materialist project animated by and situated in a particular present. I have no opinion about the “nature of reality in itself” or whether it is being or becoming or vitalist or otherwise. I hope that it is clear in Being and Motion that the philosophy of movement is distinctly different than what we typically call “process philosophy” in a number of important ways described in Chapter 3 of Being and Motion.      

D) I have a question about another one of your research areas. In Lucretius I. An Ontology of Motion (Edinburgh University Press) you reference the Latin philosopher and poet Lucretius—responsible for the reintroduction of Greek atomism into Latin and Western thought—as an important historical figure in relation to movement and new materialism. How can a literary work such as De rerum natura be considered still contemporary in order to promote a new philosophy of motion and a real “kinetic revolution”—as you defined it?

T: Lucretius, I argue, was the first philosopher to put movement and motion first in his philosophy. I spent a lot of time going through the history of the philosophy of motion and was really quite shocked to find that only a few philosophers affirmed motion without trying to explain it by some other kind of substance, force, law, logic, or principle. Who in the history of philosophy thought that nature and matter moved stochastically without mechanism, vitalism, or other exterior explanation? Based on my research, my current conclusion, for reasons I cannot go in to here, is that only Lucretius, Karl Marx, and possibly later Henri Bergson fit this description. Marx and Bergson both wrote their first books on Lucretius, so there is a direct connection.  

With the aim of tracing the historical precursors of the philosophy of movement in the Western tradition I am writing a series of books on a number of figures, not all philosophers, who have been important precursors to this maligned idea of movement. 

To the point, Lucretius is important because he is the first materialist to do away with all residues of stasis. Even the atomists still held onto the idea that atoms were eternal, unchanging units. In Lucretius, however, you will find that he never uses the word “atom” or any Latin cognate for this term. It’s a major misunderstanding with huge consequences for the Western tradition. Lucretius, I think, is really a pre-Western thinker whose most important influences come from pre-Greek Minoan and Homeric oral cultures—and not primarily from Epicurean rationalism. Instead of atoms, Lucretius writes about flows, folds, weavings, strings, vibrations, textures, and pedetic movements without origin or end. Lucretius rejects all origins, all teleologies, all stasis, all gods, and all metaphysics. In the end, for Lucretius, every thing is a kinetic, performative, and meta-stable process that emerges from indeterminate matter in motion. 

This is roughly where physics is at with what is now called “quantum gravity theory” in physics. In quantum gravity theory, space and time and all the laws of nature are not, as Einstein thought, a priori features of nature. They are emergent, metastable processes of indeterminate quantum fluctuations of energy. This is an extremely radical and relatively recent idea to which Lucretius is a precursor, in my mind. Physicists do not have an agreed-upon and experimentally supported unified theory of quantum gravity yet, but it’s where most of the work is being done in theoretical physics and quantum cosmology today. I think Lucretius was an important precursor to this new worldview and thus strikingly contemporary and prescient. 

The Climate-Migration-Industrial Complex

I just published a short piece at the New School’s Public Seminar magazine on migration and climate change. A further development of the idea that climate migration is a form of primitive accumulation.

Read online here, download here.

Thirty years ago there were fifteen border walls around the world. Now there are seventy walls and over one billion national and international migrants. International migrants alone may even double in the next forty years due to global warming. It is not surprising that over the past two decades, we have also seen the rise of an increasingly powerful global climate-security market designed to profit from (and help sustain) these crises. The construction of walls and fences to block rising sea levels and incoming people has become one of the world’s fastest growing industries, alongside the detention and deportation of migrants, and is projected to reach $742 billion by 2023. I believe we are witnessing the emergence of what we might call a “climate-migration-industrial complex.”

This complex is composed of private companies who profit by securitizing nation-states from the effects of climate-related events, including migration. This includes private detention centers, border construction companies, surveillance technology consultants and developers, deportation and transportation contractors, and a growing army of other subcontractors profiting from insecurity more broadly. Every feature of this crisis complex is an opportunity for profit. For example, even when security measures “fail” and migrants cross borders illegally, or remain beyond their visas to live without status as “criminals,” there is an entire wing of private companies paid to hunt them down, detain them, and deport them just across the border, where they can return and begin the market cycle all over again. Each step in the “crimmigration” process now has its own cottage industry and dedicated army of lobbyists to perpetuate the laws that support it.

Here is the incredible double paradox that forms the backbone of the climate-migration-industrial complex: right-wing nationalists and their politicians claim they want to deport all undocumented migrants, but if they did, they would destroy their own economy. Capitalists, on the other hand, want to grow the economy with migrant labor (any honest economist will tell you that immigration almost always leads to growth in GDP), but if that labor is too expensive, then it’s not nearly as profitable.

Trump is the Janus-faced embodiment of this anti-immigrant, pro-economy dilemma and the solution to it — not that he necessarily knows it. With one hand, migrant labor is strategically criminalized and devalorized by a xenophobic state, and with the other, it is securitized and hyper-exploited by the economy. It is a win-win situation for right-wing capitalists but a crucial element is still missing: what will continue to compel migrants to leave their homes and work as exploited criminals in an increasingly xenophobic country?

This is where the figure of the climate migrant comes in. What we call “climate migrants” or “climate refugees” are not the victims of merely “natural disasters,” because climate change is not a strictly natural process — it is also highly political. The causes of climate-related migration are disproportionately produced by rich Western countries and the effects are disproportionately suffered by poorer countries. The circumstances that determine who is forced to migrate are also influenced by the history of colonialism, global inequality, and the same conditions that have propelled economic migration for decades. In short, the fact that climate change benefits the perpetrators of climate destruction by producing an increasing supply of desperate, criminalized, physically and economically displaced laborers is no coincidence. In fact, it is the key to the Trump “solution.”

Another key is the use of climate change to acquire new land. When people are forced to migrate out of a territory, or when frozen territories thaw, new lands, waters, and forests become open to extractive industries like mining, drilling, fishing, and logging. Trump’s recent (and ridiculous) bid to buy the thawing territory of Greenland for its oil and gas reserves is one example of this. Climate-stricken urban areas open up new real estate markets, as the gentrification of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina illustrated. In other words, climate change might not mean the end of capitalism, but rather could actually signal its resurgence from current falling rates of ecological profit. During colonialism, everything and everyone that could be easily appropriated (oil, slaves, old-growth forests, etc.), was gobbled up. The workers who are left today under post-colonialism demand more money and more rights. The minerals left are more expensive to extract. This is why capitalists have increasingly retreated to financial speculation, and now to monetizing their own crises.

If only there were new ways, the capitalist dreams, to kick start the economy and cheaply dislodge huge numbers of people from their land, devalorize their labor, and then appropriate that labor extremely cheaply. In other words, if climate change did not exist, capitalism would have to create it. Luckily for the capitalists, it does exist, because they did create it. Climate migrants now form what we might call a “disposable climate labor army,” conscripted out of a standing reserve of global poverty from wherever the next climate-related disaster strikes, and deployed wherever capitalism demands precarious, securitized, and criminalized labor to be exploited.

We need to rethink the whole framing of the climate migration “crisis.” Among other things, we need a more movement-oriented political theory to grapple better with the highly mobile events of our time — what I call a “kinopolitics.” The advent of the Capitalocene/Kinocene makes possible today the insight that nature, humans, and society have always been in motion. Humans are and have always been fundamentally migratory, just as the climate and the earth are. These twin insights might sound obvious today, but if taken seriously, they offer a complete inversion of the dominant interpretive paradigms of the climate and migration crises.

Humans and Earth have always been in motion, but not all patterns of motion are the same. There is no natural, normal, or default state of the earth or of human society. Therefore, we have to study the patterns of circulation that make possible these metastable states and not take them as given. This is what I have tried to work out in The Figure of the Migrant (2015) and Theory of the Border (2016). Unfortunately, the dominant framework for thinking about the climate and migrant crises is currently upside down. It starts from the perspective of a triple stasis: 1) that the earth and human society are in some sense separable and static, or at least stable, structures; 2) that the future should continue to be stable as well; and 3) that if there is not stability, then there is a “crisis.” Mobility, then, is a crisis only if we assume that there was or should be stasis in the first place. For example, migrants are said to destabilize society, and climate change is said to destabilize the earth.

From a kinopolitical perspective, we can see that the opposite is, in fact, true: Humans were first migratory, and only later settled into more metastable patterns of social-circulation (made historically possible by the social expulsion and dispossession of others). Migrants are not outside society but have played a productive and reproductive role throughout history. Migrant movements are constitutive and even transformative elements of society, rather than exceptional or marginal phenomena. The real question is how we ever came to act and think as if societies were not processes of social circulation that relied on migration as their conditions of reproduction. The earth, too, was first migratory, and only later did it settle into metastable patterns of geological and atmospheric circulation (e.g. the Holocene). Why did we ever think of the earth as a stable surface, immune from human activity in the first place?

The problem with the prevailing interpretation of climate change and migration is that the flawed paradigm that has defined the “crisis,” the notion of stasis, is also proposed as the solution “Let’s just get things back to normal stability again.” In short, I think a new paradigm is needed that does not use the same tools that generated the “crisis” to solve it — i.e. capitalism, colonialism, and the nation-state.

Today’s migrant “crisis” is a product of the paradox at the heart of the capitalist, territorial nation-state form, just as the climate crisis is an expression of the paradox at the heart of anthropocentrism. The solutions, therefore, will not come from the forms in crisis but only from the birth of new forms-in-motion that begin with the theoretical primacy of the very characteristic that is dissolving the old forms: the inherent mobility of the migrant climate and the climate migrant.

Thomas Nail is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Denver, working on a series of books on the philosophy of movement. His most recent book is Theory of the Image (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Favorite Writing Music of 2019

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These were my favorite albums to write to that came out in 2019. When I write I listen to only instrumental music and find that it helps me focus. I hope they help you too. Happy New New Year!

 

1) William Ryan Fritch, Deceptive Cadence: Music for Film, Vol 1 and II

2) Oliver Patrice Weder, O P W

3) Lambert, True

4) Windows 96, Enchanted Instrumentals and Whispers



5) Slow Meadow, Happy Occident



6) Jefre Cantu-Ledesma, Tracing Back the Radiance

7) Sebastion Plano, Verve

8) Benoit Pioulard, Persona

9) Antov Belov, Piano Works II

10) Richard Luke, Glass Island 

 

What is Generative Art?

Art by Gwendal Tsang

We live in the age of the digital image not only because of its powerful hybridity and power to order material reality but also because of its powerful pedesis, interactivity, and power to disorder reality—to create new kinesthetic processes. The beauty of contemporary generative art lies not in its “random” number generators and the sublime affirmation of chaos against the orderliness of contemporary reality. Rather, it is in its capacity to create new kinesthetic processes that play in the complex region between highly ordered and highly disordered images. It gives a high degree of kinetic agency to the matters at work.

The primary question for contemporary generative art is thus how to harness a degree of pedesis in whatever way it can, enter it into an interactive feedback loop, and see where it goes. Humans are just along for the ride. In contemporary generative art, the kinesthetic process itself becomes primary. Subject and object, input and output are folded back over them- selves in an interactive feedback loop to be modulated as a whole, continuous process. This has always been the case in all art to varying degrees, even though most arts have tried to block it and confine it. Today pedesis and interactivity have become a primary and dominant focus of the most cutting-edge aesthetic experiments.

Generative Visual Arts 

In the visual arts, pedetic computer algorithms can be used to produce thousands of iterations with numerous parameters, like color, line length, width, thickness, rotation, texture, distortion, noise, brushstroke, and so on. The artist selects parameters, type of algorithm, and degree or type of pedesis—Perlin noise, loops, iterative variance, and so on. Pedesis can be introduced from the input, process, or output. An incredible variety of stochastic naturalistic processes can be animated, with different results each time. 

In a rapid series of such animations, Maxime Causeret’s Order From Chaos (2016) shows the pedetic patterns of raindrops hitting a surface and spreading, pedetic branching patterns of plants, swarming behaviors of insects, soap-bubble patterns, cellular bifurcations, coral meandering patterns, and more. The images generated are not meant to be copies of natural products but, rather, their own visual expressions of how stochastic algorithms can produce ordered patterns just like nature can, but this time with new resulting organisms. 

More disordered still is Maurizio Bolognini’s Programmed Machines (1988–), composed of enclosed computers generating flows of continuously iterated pedetic images. In the 1990s, Bolognini programmed hundreds of these computers and left them to run ad infinitum. Most of them are still working today. Of these works he says, 

I do not consider myself an artist who creates certain images, and I am not merely a conceptual artist. I am one whose machines have actually traced more lines than anyone else, covering boundless surfaces. I am not interested in the quality of the images produced by my installations but rather in their flow, their limitlessness in space and time, and the possibility of creating parallel universes of information made up of kilometers of images and infinite trajectories. My installations serve to generate out-of-control infinities.12 

In another work, Collective Intelligence (2000), Bolognini used similar machines to project random lines of light onto public surfaces and allowed mobile telephones to interact with them, changing the patterns in real time and creating “generative, interactive and public art.”13 Bolognini thus introduces pedesis and feedback at every level of the aesthetic process. The input is interactive and collective from the population, and the computer processing then randomizes the input, resulting in a highly pedetic and interactive output. 

Radicalizing this idea even further, Scott Draves’s Electric Sheep (1999–) is a computer screensaver that runs iterative fractal flame patterns with a number of different animated parameters. The screensaver is what your computer dreams of while it is asleep, a reference to Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Users can interact with the process by liking or disliking various iterations. This input then reprograms the genetic algorithm as the process mutates to become more interesting to the viewers. Users can also program and upload their own fractal processes whereby they “breed” or mix with the others to produce more iterations. There are currently about 500,000 active users a month.14 Again, pedesis and feedback are incorporated at every level with the aim of finding the most beautiful middle ground of complexity between too much order and too much disorder in the image. 

Generative Literary Arts 

Contemporary generative literary works go beyond the cut-up and fold-in methods of the Dadaists to produce much more pedetic and interactive works than previously possible. Philip M. Parker, originally an affiliate of the Fluxus group, used a mathematical algorithm named “Eve” to produce digital poetry based on graphic theoretical relations between words in the dictionary. He has produced over 1.3 million poems in this manner. He has even used similar algorithms to produce entire books—200,000 of them.15 

More recently, Jason Nelson has used generative methods to create digital and interactive hyperpoetry. His famous “Game, Game, Game And Again Game” (2007) uses flash media to create an audiovisual mashup of text fragments, sounds, and video in an interactive video game format. “I made this. You play this. We are Enemies” (2009) develops the same idea. His “Uncontrollable Semantics” (2006) creates a series of words on the four corners of the screen, each with its own sound and image. As one clicks on the different words, new word–image combinations are created. Poetry becomes a series of continually modulated feedback loops. A similar feed- back loop of interactive options occurs in Neil Hennessy’s “JABBER: The Jabberwocky Engine” (2000), in which randomly floating letters are connected to form new combinations of neologisms that produce pro- nounceable English words, but with no dictionary definition. These are then incorporated into poetic works. 

Jean-Pierre Balpe has even produced stochastic and interactive novels such as Trajectoires (2000) and Fictions d’Issy (2005) by using algorithmic and interactive methods. The stories are continuously generated sentence by sentence, and readers can shape the outcome by using their phone’s keypad. Balpe’s work and many others are contained in the first volume of the Electronic Literature Collection (2006) and they represent an amazing diversity of generative literary works.16 All these give the materiality of words a maximum of pedesis and interactivity by tying them to the kinetics of the digital process. 

Generative Plastic Arts 

With the advent of 3D printing, generative algorithms can now be modeled directly into plastic media. Although the technology is still in its in- fancy, some of the initial creations are incredible. Among the most amazing examples are the sculptures and architectural columns made by Michael Hansmeyer (figure 16.4). Hansmeyer is an architect and programmer who uses algorithms and computation to generate unique architectural forms using a simple feedback algorithm of topological folding. Hansmeyer begins his designs with a single cube and then begins to stretch and bend the cube, applying his folding algorithm to different parameters such as depth, curve, and line. The results are incredible—forms so complex that the “artist” could not possibly have “an idea” of them. The whole matter-form distinction collapses onto itself as matter becomes morphogenetic and semi- autonomous. According to Hansmeyer, 99 percent of the algorithms end up producing noise. Only those with certain modulated parameters produce the most complex forms. In addition to the Doric, ionic, Corinthian, and undulating orders of columns, Hansmeyer has produced an entirely new architectural order: the generative order.  

 

Figure 16.4 Michael Hansmeyer, Columns (2010)
Source: From artist’s website, © Michael Hansmeyer, http://www.michael-hansmeyer.com/projects/columns. html?screenSize=1&color=1#1. 

Nervous System, a generative design studio, uses algorithmic and stochastic code to create unique sculpture, jewelry, light fixtures, and even clothing using 3D printing. Their Floraform sculptures are similar to the biomechanics of growing leaves and blooming flowers. Their Xylem (2D) and Hyphae (3D) sculptures use algorithms that produce structures similar to those found in the veins of leaves. These patterns are used to generate jewelry, lamps, sculpture, and even architecture. Their Kinematics sculptures add a fourth dimension to 3D printing by creating a design system of hinged panels with a simulation strategy of folding and compression to produce customized designs that can be fabricated efficiently by 3D printing. The structure is printed as one part, but has thousands of interconnected pieces that require no assembly. The result is kinetic dresses, lampshades, jewelry, and more. 

Additionally, their website includes interactive software that allows an- yone to design his or her own sculptures and print them. Nervous System’s designs thus use hybridity to physically transcode binary code into 3D and 4D sculptures. They use pedesis in their stochastic algorithms, and they use interactivity in the user interface which is sensitive to its initial and continuous conditions. The purpose is not simply to maximize noise or feedback or to copy natural patterns but also to produce new patterns through the modulated use of noise and feedback. The purpose it to give the electromagnetic field its maximal kinetic and material generative agency. 

Generative Sonic Arts 

It was Brian Eno in the 1970s who first coined the term “generative music,” but the scene has expanded dramatically since then. Today, generative music has vastly outstripped Mozart’s dice throws, futurist noise music, and even the later modernist aleatory music of Cage, Feldman, Boulez, and others. These earlier works relied on comparatively simple pedetic parameters and limited feedback systems, and they remain but modest precursors to the much more hybrid, pedetic, and interactive works of generative music today. 

Some of the first works to introduce a higher degree of pedesis and feedback were Stockhausen’s Kontakte (1958–1960), Terry Riley’s The Gift (1963), Brian Eno and Robert Fripp’s No Pussyfooting (1973), and Eno’s Discreet Music (1975), the latter which used a new tape-loop feedback system combined with an echo unit and a continuously modulated graphic equalizer to change the timbre of the sounds. This allowed sound to turn back over itself in an ever-expanding and interactive modulated feedback pattern of sonic images. Similar modulated tape-loop feedback systems continue to be used today by various ambient music artists, such as Ous Mal, Taylor Dupree, Tape Loop Orchestra, and William Basinski. For con- temporary musicians, the tape-loop process also introduces a new focus on the pedetic sound of the tape noise itself. 

Although present in Eno and Riley’s early work, and emphasized in works like Steve Reich’s amazing Pendulum Music (1968), which swings microphones over speakers generating patterned yet chaotic feedback, contemporary artists have turned increasingly toward the stochastic noise, feedback echo, and hiss of the tape itself—amplifying it, looping it, and dramatizing the noise of the electromagnetic field. This is part of a much wider trend by contemporary generative musicians to seek out pedetic sounds like tape hiss, noise, vinyl-record crackle, CD skipping sounds, microphone feedback, FM radio static, and other irregular, pedetic and traditionally undesirable musical sounds created by the pedesis of the EM field. The aim is not simply to reproduce these sound images but also to work with them and use their stochastic patterns as the basis of new feedback loops and patterns of their own. 

In The Caretaker’s An Empty Bliss Beyond this World (2011), for ex- ample, vinyl crackle is amplified and echoed to the point where it equals the volume of the looped vinyl melodies. In a slightly different vein, Burial’s Burial (2006) uses the static crackles and pops reminiscent of those that occur in maxed-out speakers and loose or old audio cables, or the static electricity pops from the audio mixing equipment and microphone itself. These crackles become the sonic milieu of his hyperdub loops. Glitch albums like Oval’s OvalDNA (2011) combine various melodic audio feedback tones with CD skipping noises, as if one had taken a knife to a CD’s surface and then stuck the CD back in the player. The use of FM static in Olli Aarni’s Pohjoisen Kesä (2012), or his use of field recordings of underwater insects in Vesiä (2017), or Mileece’s interactive bioelectrical feedback sounds gathered from plants all accomplish the similar aim of introducing pedesis into the audio feedback loops for sonic modulation—to give noise “a life of its own,” to paraphrase Pollock.

Even more dramatic, however, is the use of numerous types of digital pedals, oscillators, tone generators, and computer software to produce highly diverse and numerous loops of sound that can all be modulated in medias res and with more technical precision than any tape-loop audio noise. The famous Japanese noise musician Masami Akita “Merzbow” has produced particularly pedetic and abrasive albums such as Pulse Vegan (2014), using both granular synthesis software and numerous digital sound boxes or pedals. In his most recent work, the software transforms his sounds into “clouds” or flows of micro sounds that can then be modulated continuously and generatively as a whole, according to a number of different parameters and computer algorithms. 

Curtis Roads, a media arts professor and composer of Point Line Cloud (2005), describes the process in fluid dynamic terms: 

Beneath the level of the note lies the realm of sound particles. Each particle is a pinpoint of sound. Recent advances let us probe and manipulate this micro acous- tical world. Sound particles dissolve the rigid bricks of musical composition— the notes and their intervals—into more fluid and supple materials. The sensations of point, pulse (series of points), line (tone), and surface (texture) emerge as the density of particles increases. Sparse emissions produce rhythmic figures. By lining up the particles in rapid succession, one can induce an illusion of tone continuity or pitch. As the particles meander, they flow into liquid-like streams and rivulets. Dense agglomerations of particles form clouds of sound whose shapes evolve over time.17 

Granular or pulse software thus introduces into music a new fluid dynamics of flows to the sonic image, letting it pedetically meander into periodic densities or folds that are then woven into a larger sonic texture like a fabric. However, the term “grains” of sound is misleading because each micro 1- 50ms sound sample or “grain” is buffered by an amplitude modulation or “envelope” that connects the grains in a sonic continuum. Wave-scanning techniques can also eliminate the need for the envelopes by having the grain boundaries always meet at the zero-crossing point of the respective signals. The resulting composition is thus sonically continuous and has a highly fluid character to it like the sound of rushing water, crashing waves, or a turbulent dripping faucet. Barry Truax’s Riverrun (1986), for example, is a direct statement on the fluid dynamic nature of micro-sonic generative image composition. 

“From the smallest rivulet to the fullest force of its mass, a river is formed from a collection of countless droplets and sources. So, too, with the sound in this composition which bases itself on the smallest possible ‘unit’ of sound in order to create larger textures and masses. The title is the first word in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake.”18

Such modulation was impossible with the instruments and techniques available before the late twentieth century. For the first time ever, it is possible to modulate noise-pitch-rhythm as the complete sonic continuum that it is, at the smallest possible audible levels of the waveform, thus introducing an incredible new range of pedesis. Recent works integrating granular synthesis also include Ian William Craig’s Centres (2016), Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s Ears (2016), and Multicast Dynamics’s Scandinavia (2016). Mixing various higher degrees of pedesis into the digital input, pro- cess, and output produces numerous genres and subgenres of electronic, electroacoustic, and experimental music: glitch, drone, ambient, postclassical, noise, tape music, field recordings, found music, circuit bending, sound sculpture, vaporwave, chopped and screwed hip hop, and many more. 

Additionally, contemporary generative music introduces a new level of hybridity and feedback never before possible in music. Brian Eno’s latest album Reflection (2017), for example, is a brilliant mixture of pedesis, hybridity, and feedback. The album uses stochastic algorithms to determine the parameters of the sounds.

Because everything in the pieces is probabilistic and because the probabilities pile up it can take a very long time to get an idea of all the variations that might occur in the piece. One rule might say “raise 1 out of every 100 notes by 5 semitones” and another might say “raise one out of every 50 notes by 7 semitones.” If those two instructions are operating on the same data stream, sometimes—very rarely—they will both operate on the same note . . . so some- thing like 1 in every 5000 notes will be raised by 12 semitones. You won’t know which of those 5000 notes it’s going to be. Since there are a lot of these types of operations going on together, on different but parallel data streams, the end result is a complex and unpredictable web.19

Second, the album uses an interactive process of modulation as Eno “tweaks” the parameters during playback over and over again.

Pieces like this have another name: they’re GENERATIVE. By that I mean they make themselves. My job as a composer is to set in place a group of sounds and phrases, and then some rules which decide what happens to them. I then set the whole system playing and see what it does, adjusting the sounds and the phrases and the rules until I get something I’m happy with. Because those rules are probabilistic (—often taking the form “perform operation x, y percent of the time”) the piece unfolds differently every time it is activated. What you have here is a recording of one of those unfoldings.

Third, the album uses a hybrid transcoding of the music into an audio-visual- haptic software application that allows users to touch a colored screen and modulate the endlessly looped stochastic patterns for themselves.

REFLECTION is the most recent of my Ambient experiments and represents the most sophisticated of them so far. My original intention with Ambient music was to make endless music, music that would be there as long as you wanted it to be. I wanted also that this music would unfold differently all the time— “like sitting by a river”: it’s always the same river, but it’s always changing. But recordings—whether vinyl, cassette or CD—are limited in length, and replay identically each time you listen to them. So in the past I was limited to making the systems which make the music, but then recording 30 minutes or an hour and releasing that. REFLECTION in its album form—on vinyl or CD—is like this. But the app by which REFLECTION is produced is not restricted: it creates an endless and endlessly changing version of the piece of music.21 

Reflection is thus an attempt at mimesis of neither natural products nor natural processes but, rather, a way of becoming what it is: matter in motion—pedetic, hybrid, and interactive. Just as the flow of matter has no beginning and no end, neither does Reflection. The three creative stages Eno describes for this work match up directly with the kinetic ones laid out in this book: (1) pedetic material flows intersect at a constellation, (2) fold into a distribution of affective loops, and (3) are continuously modulated as a whole woven field of sound. Eno writes,

The creation of a piece of music like this falls into three stages: the first is the selection of sonic materials and a musical mode—a constellation of musical relationships. These are then patterned and explored by a system of algorithms which vary and permutate the initial elements I feed into them, resulting in a constantly morphing stream (or river) of music. The third stage is listening. Once I have the system up and running I spend a long time—many days and weeks in fact—seeing what it does and fine-tuning the materials and sets of rules that run the algorithms. It’s a lot like gardening: you plant the seeds and then you keep tending to them until you get a garden you like.22

Numerous other efforts to increase the interactivity and hybridity of music abound. Media artist Scott Snibbe, for example, has created a number of such interactive music album applications, like Bjork’s Biophilia (2011) and Metric’s Synthetica (2013). Snibbe’s app Motionphone (2012) integrates sound, kinetic motion, and visual animation. As users move their fingers across the screen, their movement is animated and looped. These can then be shared and interact with other users’ kinetic sculptures online.

Read more from Theory of the Image

Sigurds Vīdzirkste: A Little-Known Contributor to Cybernetics in New York

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While I was giving a talk in New York the other week I had the chance to see a preview of this incredible exhibit on Latvian migrant exile artists working in New York in the 1960s (thanks to Andra Silapetere). I was really struck by the mysterious work of one artists in particular: Sigurds Vīdzirkste. The patterns are clearly not random and yet no one knows the cipher for them. Oddly enough looking at his work one feels that something is being communicated at an almost unconscious level—just based on the material pattern and shape of the burnt lumps of metal bulging from the canvas. There is clearly a visual language of some kind but in the absence of representation it becomes irrelevant and one just feels the brute order and material pattern in its immanence. Looking at his work is like being able to look at one’s own language as if it had no representational meaning. So strange. That is, as a material, graphic, sculptural, textual, process. If you are in New York check out this exhibit at the CUNY gallery.


Sigurds Vīdzirkste: A Little-Known Contributor to Cybernetics in New York

The painter Sigurds Vīdzirkste is another example of an artist in exile responding to the environment of the New York City art world by developing ideas outside of it, while nonetheless participating within it. Vīdzirkste constructed his artistic language by reacting to the rising interest in technology at that time, and through that, bringing artistic production to a new level. After his studies at the Art Students League, he developed a unique style of painting that he called “cyber-painting,” in which he synthesized his interests in mathematics, chemistry, and music. He first exhibited this work in 1964, in a solo show in his studio at 148 Liberty Street, where, next to abstract compositions of circles and stripes, he displayed canvas with dot-like reliefs, callous clots, and metallic-powder compressions organized in different rhythms.8 This show was followed in 1968 by a solo show entitled Cybernetic Canvases, which, held at the Kips Bay gallery at 613 Second Avenue, was the first time Vīdzirkste publicly used the term “cybernetics” in relation to his work.9 All of the exhibited canvases were composed of relief dots on monochrome ochre or grey backgrounds, and they were untitled, undated, and unsigned; only a number was assigned to each work.

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Sigurds Vīdzirkste in New York, late 1950s. Photo: unknown photographer. Private collection

After Vīdzirkstes’s death in his studio in New York, different pots with metallic powder and toluene were found, and after his paintings were brought to Latvia, a chemical analysis of one of his works revealed a mixture of pigments—metal particles soaked in a chemical substance and mixed with resin and resin lacquer.10Such combinations and experiments with pigments were most likely stimulated by his chemistry studies at the Riga State Secondary School before his emigration in 1944.

It is hard to trace a definite theory behind Vīdzirkstes’s dot paintings as he did not expand on his ideas in writing; but from sources available, we know that each work was created as an information system similar to that of punched cards for early digital computers.11 With each new painting, the artist organized dots in different rhythms and sizes and, as Voldemārs Avens (born 1924), another member of the Hell’s Kitchen group, remembers, he used precise calculations to create each system.12 As part of his process, he layered dot drawings done on transparent plastic sheets to create variations of patterns that could later be transferred onto canvas. This brings us back to his 1964 show, in which he also exhibited three drawings, which according to Vīdzirkstes’s letter written to his parents, formed the base of his information systems. Unfortunately, only one of them can be found in his archive, making it impossible to break his code.

With the development of technology after World War II, the use of cybernetics in art was prevalent in Europe,13 whereas in the United States, this was not the case. Even though one can map out early experiments linking art and technology, cybernetic and computational thinking in artistic production did not become widespread until the 1970s.14 Given this, Vīdzirkstes’s works developed in the 1960s, which demonstrate a unique and alternative system of visual signs bridging computing technologies and art, can be interpreted as a pioneering praxis that introduced the idea of programming to painting as a way to reconsider artistic production of the time.

 

Reposted from: https://post.at.moma.org/content_items/1271-baltic-exile-and-emigrant-communities-hell-s-kitchen-collective-in-new-york

 

What is New Materialism?

What is New Materialism?

Christopher N. Gamble, Joshua S. Hanan & Thomas Nail (2019) WHAT IS NEW MATERIALISM?, Angelaki, 24:6, 111-134, DOI: 10.1080/0969725X.2019.1684704

The increasing prominence of “new materialism” signals a growing cross-disciplinary effort to challenge longstanding assumptions about humans and the non- or other-than- human material world. This paper argues that there is currently no single definition of new materialism but at least three distinct and partly incompatible trajectories.1 All three of these trajectories share at least one common theoretical commitment: to problematize the anthropocentric and constructivist orientations of most twentieth-century theory in a way that encourages closer attention to the sciences by the humanities.

The common motivation for this “materialist turn” is a perceived neglect or diminishment of matter in the dominant Euro-Western tradition as a passive substance intrinsically devoid of meaning. In what has become a kind of de facto motto, new materialists routinely emphasize how matter is “alive,” “lively,” “vibrant,” “dynamic,” “agentive,” and thus active. As we will argue, however, while new materialist scholars tend to use them interchangeably,2 such terms nevertheless take on sharply divergent meanings across the three approaches we identify. Likewise, as we examine below, this same divergence also underlies new materialist efforts to problematize anthropocentric binaries (e.g., “meaning and matter,” “culture and nature,” and “gender and sex”).

Alongside the rise of new materialism, there have also been numerous critiques. For example, new materialism has been criticized for exaggerating the extent of earlier feminist scholarship’s “biophobia” or neglect of matter;3 for rejecting Marxism and cultural materialism on mistaken grounds;4 for uncritically embracing and conflating the scientific study of matter with matter itself;5 and for overstating its alleged “newness.”6 Unfortunately, however, these critiques have largely placed all new materialists under the same umbrella and thus have often misidentified their target. At least, this is what we hope to demonstrate.

This paper emerges from our desire to offer a response to such criticisms but not in order to defend new materialism in general. Instead, we hope to help redirect each arrow of critique toward its proper target, and on this basis to advocate for the approach we call “performative” or “pedetic” new materialism. We think this approach has the greatest value and potential for future development but has unfortunately been badly misunderstood and wrongly conflated with the other two types of emerging new materialism. We therefore aim to illuminate how “negative new materialism,” “vital new materialism,” and “performative” or “pedetic” new materialism are simply not compatible.7 Even if their motivations are similar, their basic guiding premises are not.

More specifically, although each of the three types of materialism seeks to critique anthropocentrism’s presumption of matter as inherently passive and devoid of meaning, we argue that only the performative new materialist approach radically undermines a discrete separation between humans and matter. In distinct ways, both negative and vital new materialism continue to foreclose an appreciation of the truly performative movements of matter. On one hand, negative new materialism embraces either a radical division between human thought and inorganic matter or a “withdrawn” essence, both of which we think persist due to its uncritical embrace of an external, human-observer perspective.8 On the other hand, while vital materialism explicitly rejects any form of essentialism, we think it nevertheless manages to sneak back in through a metaphysics of life projected onto inorganic matter.9 In these crucial ways, as we elaborate below, non-performative new materialist theories continue to implicate certain objectivist, non-relational and, thus, idealist assumptions or residuals.10

The performative approach to new materialism, however, successfully eschews discrete separation by refusing any presumption of something external to matter – including human meaning – that guides, structures or grants meaning to its behaviors. In such a view, matter simply “is […] a doing,” as Karen Barad puts it.11 Matter is what it does or “how it moves,” as Thomas Nail puts it.12 And since the performances of humans are not external to those of the rest of the material world, this view also leads, importantly, to a performative understanding of science in which every act of observing also constitutes, at once, a transformation of what is being observed. Such a view enables the following responses to the criticisms of new materialist work we mentioned above:

(1) The neglect of matter. While we agree that some new materialism work does unwittingly reinforce the binaries it seeks to problematize,13 we believe this criticism does not apply to the performative approach. For example, when the latter speak of a prior “neglect” of matter they do not mean that previous theorists did not talk about matter but rather that those theorists neglected or discounted matter as inherently dynamic and meaningful (precisely due to the anthropocentric presumption that meaning, and whatever else might make humans exceptional, is immaterial).14

(2) Science envy. While we also agree that some new materialists have embraced science uncritically in ways that conflate its findings with matter as such, in a performative account scientific practices and discourses are just as productive of the very world they describe as is any other action, human or otherwise. Such an account therefore agrees with poststructuralism and science-and-technology studies that all human discourses are constitutive. The novel argument, however (at least within the dominant Euro-Western tradition), is that those discourses are themselves also – and only – particular configurations or performances of matter.

(3) The fetish of novelty. Although we fully embrace historically oriented work questioning the alleged newness of new materialism, we again do not agree that this critique applies to the performative approach. Matter always has been in motion. We have shown elsewhere how the creativity of this movement has been erased or excluded in the Western tradition.15 Furthermore, arguably the most important historical Euro-Western precursor to performative materialism is the ancient Roman poet Lucretius, whose philosophical poem, in many ways, is connected to a performative materialist understanding of Homer.16 In addition, we also find a great deal of merit to the recent call for greater recognition of and sustained engagement with the affinities (and differences) between a performative “new” materialism such as Barad’s “agential realism” and the many and varied agent ontologies discussed in indigenous studies literature, which in some cases can be traced back many millennia.17 We thus understand performative materialism as a recovery in novel form of older subterranean or largely disparaged or disregarded materialisms and certainly not as an ex nihilo appearance.

The aim of this paper is to clarify what distinguishes a performative or pedetic approach to materialism by illuminating its differences with both older materialisms and other new ones. The general aim of Part 1 is to develop the former distinction.

Read on!