Against Theory, For Machines

I wrote this yesterday:

Rather than come up with an overall "theory" of this clip, I just want to draw your attention to some elements. I've been working on a theory of criticism lately, of various narrative arts, that instead of trying to apply an overall "theorem" to the piece or genre or form, instead finds various machinations of how any such theory will work. I'll go into this later when I have my ideas more solidified, but for now, let's leave at this: if you were to approach a complicated machine like a car, you might not try and explain "how the car works", but instead pick out some unique and emblematic parts of the car, and explain how those work. You might explain a wheel and axle, or a disc brake, or a 4-stroke combustion engine. These are all parts of how the car works, but do not attempt to explain it in totality, which would necessitate various economic theories of production, design theory, raw materials processing, social forces in transportation, and on and on. Nothing works independently of anything else. But to learn anything, we have to start taking things apart. And you start taking apart most things by unscrewing some bolts, and unplugging a few wires, looking carefully while you do so.

I was reminded of this again when I started to pick apart Kazys Varnelis' essay on history, temporality, and modernism.

I have this pet peeve about cultural studies (not that the essay is cultural studies, but you'll see where I'm going). I appreciate the work of cultural studies, of not throwing away anything in the pursuit of evidence about what exactly we, as a culture, might be up to, philosophically, historically, anthropologically, and so on. But it leads to a all too common problem; the theorist, in the effort to present as much evidence as possible and still tie it all together, is forced to wash over certain pieces, or many pieces, in the effort not to spiral out into a Arcades Project style work. Rather than, say, returning to the car example, "let's start by talking about how a combustion engine works"--starting with a particular instance of the material--they begin with a general conclusion: "a car works by burning fossil fuels and creating CO2." Which is true, of course, and important. But while it is culturally important information about a car, the statement is not promoting any understanding about how a car works, or more importantly, how we might fix the negative effect described.

Back in my (more) headstrong youth, I had an unfortunate run-in with a cultural studies professor, in which I said that her work, which collected examples from pop culture that "caused young women to have a poor body image" was obvious, and superfluous. Clearly some women have a poor body image, and naturally, some elements of pop culture are related. But the research said nothing about the link, the mechanism, or which women might be affected, and to what degree. It presented the same statement about the car and CO2. It presented a generalized conclusion about media and body image, by merely identifying some evidence that were probably the cause, and some evidence that were probably the effect.

Although I feel badly about acting like such a jerk about it, I still think the criticism is relevant. It is really easy for a reader already harboring the preconceived idea of A -> B to fall into the trap of spending time reading theory that is essentially tautological, or at the very least, generalizes conclusions rather than studying the mechanism. The mechanics of our theory is the basis of being about to do anything about it. Anything else is pure mythos, a nice story that makes us feel better about the way things are without intentionally affecting them. Successful theory, or stories for that matter, change the way we think about things, at the very least presenting an angle for cross-reference of our experience and perceptions. Rather than simply be a jerk (which like generalizing, is more than easy enough) I now hope to draw out at least a few mechanisms when I encounter something perhaps leaning towards the urge to generalize. Show someone how to change the oil filter maybe, or point out a coolant leak. Have a few beers and discuss the pros and cons of alternate fuel sources. That sort of thing.

I actually don't know a lot about all the details of cars. But I know a little bit about metaphysics, and psychoanalysis, so this is where my explanations of epistemological mechanisms often comes from. (One day, I'll write a metaphysical Chilton's guide to the unconscious. The Ego and the Id, but with better diagrams updated for the current models.)

Everything that I'd want to add, as diagrams of metaphysical mechanisms, to Varnelis' essays, I've actually already written, in a long drawn-out annotation of Heidegger's Section 73 of Being and Time: "The Vulgar Understanding of History and the Occurence of Dasein." Which you should dig through by all means, if you are some kind of meta-structural engineer with a taste for blog writing.

But what I really want to get at is the metaphysical distinction between temporality in Heidegger's notion of the "world-historical", and temporality in his notion as the "temporality of being". In one sense (I know what I just said about generalizing, but this is a blog post first of all, and I can feel your attention waning, and I'm trying to meet those unacquainted with Heidegger halfway) this is the difference between the past and the present. The element of the past in things is its connection to a world of the past, a certain time that is not this time. Whereas, our sense of "now", our connectedness between our consciousness and the things we are conscious of, is part of Dasein, or authentic being. Heidegger is so firm on separating these two notions of temporality that he calls the former "secondary historicity" and the latter "primary historicity", a clear privilege of being over objects.

The reason I'm so interested in psychoanalysis, is that despite anything you may feel about the pros and cons of the clinical method, it is one of the most compelling attempts at theorizing the mechanics of the brain, from a metaphysical perspective. In other words, while neuroscience is the best at theorizing the mechanics of the brain from a chemical perspective, psychoanalysis excels at finding the roots of philosophical issues in our heads. Where does the notion of space and time exist in the function of the brain? Well, there are areas of the brain that affect our conception of time and space. But what is the metaphysical relationship between time and space, such as existing inside the chemistry of the brain? What, in other words, is time, and what is space, such as they exist in the brain? It is a phenomenal reduction: a reduction of metaphysics to the metaphysical, that which can be affected and studied in the means through which we perceive it. Neuroscience is a chemical reduction: a reduction of consciousness to what can be affected and studied by chemistry. Very few studies have taken place that combine these two. What would happen if we asked a renowned metaphysician to review his/her theories while certain areas of his brain were stimulated with electricity? Drug users are probably the closest to this concept, ironically. By taking unscientific risks, and by describing the world in humanistic generalities (read: new agey hippie nonsense) they are re-theorizing the world as they re-organize their brain chemistry. Maybe the Third Eye is more philosophically and scientifically relevant than the credit we give it. But that's another tangent, another part of the car.

But as far as temporality goes, what Heidegger distinguishes as "primary historicity" or Being, in my opinion, deserves no more authenticity than "secondary historicity", or world-history. Being, our conscious knowledge of the present, and "nowness", is no different than our appreciation of the historical value of objects.

The best example is a historical artifact. An electron tube is an artifact--no longer current technology, it has since been replaced by newer objects. But it still acts as an electrical component, despite its apparent "age". An even better example is an arrowhead. When I was a kid, I found any number of rocks, which I was sure were "actually arrowheads". When does the rock stop being a rock, and become an arrowhead? In my six-year old mind. We ascribe value to objects, label them with significance, based on a large network of semiotic structures in our mind. The "age" of the object is actually, not relevant. It exists only simultaneously with its current presence, and its current significance.

But there is an lingering element of "authenticity", Heidegger's privilege, given to certain objects within their semiotic language. An amplifier built with tubes is more "authentic". This is the meaning of its "age" to us. My arrowheads were more important than other rocks because of what my six-year old mind believed them to be. The authentic form of temporality Heidegger identified is no more than the most significant signifier in our language of time--Being, the present. The zero of the number line, point from which duration stretches, the ego as the surface of the consciousness, the Signifier, the body without organs, a unified monad, to which everything else must attach itself if it is to be meaningful.

The concepts I just referenced as the authentic point of signification all share a characteristic: they don't really exist. They are formed from their sub-infrastructural elements. They are the architecture, the perceived significant art, the "pure" expanse of color formed via the absorption of visible radiation, the "blank" wall, made from conglomerated minerals. They are the simplification, the generalization, the "I" in the ecology of consciousness, The "Mother Nature" in the chemical dynamics of biology. The vast field of significations of time and temporality only seem to come to a head in our sense of "now", when really the writing stretches all across and through the wall, and on any visible surface, and in any perceivable sound, in the outlines of any recognizable shape, and it the infinite extensions of any cognizable dimension.

Which is a lot of different places, both "real" and "not". It's a whole lot to make sense of, and a lot to form into any unified theory of consciousness, time, space, epistemology, philosophy, physics, or for goodness sakes, the Internet. But this is a place to start.

A car was not built from the driver's seat.

But luckily, we don't need to build a car to be able to drive one. What I want to say about Varnelis' essay is that there seems to be a bit of confusion, some back and forth between epochs of the "world-historical" and implementations of "temporal being". Even Heidegger seemed a bit confused by the distinction, and naturally so: in the modernist age, it would have been very difficult for anyone to reject the overwhelming authority of the "I", of the deep-rooted primary temporality of consciousness. Lacan capitalized the Signifier with reason. Back then, you better believe it was a proper noun.

But here's the thing about temporality, and accordingly, atemporality--the lack of importance of the primary historicity in current society is, actually, its own proof that it was never really so primary. How does a word get purged from a langauge? Everyone simply stops using it, without realizing that they don't use it anymore. The tip of an iceberg may not tell you anything about the shape of the ice underneath, but if you don't see the tip of an iceberg, then there's nothing underneath.

We are becoming predominantly fluid in our conception of the world-historical. Network culture, etc. Meanwhile, we are relying on temporal-Being less and less to define the world-historical. Have you noticed that April Fool's jokes thrive on the Internet? It's because Reality, the plane upon which a joke rests, is all warped on the Internet already. April Fool's jokes are proliferating, because our concept of world-history is now based on Wikipedia. Irony, trickery, double-meaning, and the good old nudge of the elbow are insinuating themselves into our concept of Truth. We roll with the punches, and nod along with the joke, because not even the serious is serious anymore. And yet, we still get things done.

So, the legacy of "ends of history" are not really important anymore. Any theory needing to call itself post-____ is not really relevant, either as a positive or negative example, because it is still naming itself "I" based on an authority of a temporal relationship. We don't need this evidence of increasing meaninglessness of historical narratives. We get the sense that we've already seen this episode, or at least maybe the episode this is a remake of. You don't need to be able to read a watch to know that it is stopped. You can hear the absence of ticking.

I always thought the the first sign of the end of grand narratives is that we'd look up and say, "Narratives? what are those? Is that like a riddle? Or a song?" When we say, "timeline? You mean like Twitter posts? Or youtube comments?" Then we'll know that causality is really over. Time will not be over just by theoretically "wanting" it, it will be over when you lost your watch, and you forgot to care.

This doesn't mean that there is nothing to do, or that we shouldn't bother talking about it until it's already happened. Because we are doing it, and we are talking about it. Just some of us more than others. We just need to stop theorizing connections, and just connect, which theory does, to a large extent. But where it really connects is not where it attempts to generalize about theory as a whole (though we are all guilty of this, either to a small or a large extent). It connects with Tab A going into Slot B, with the material production of new significations that replace the old connections. Let's go out there and find the atemporality. Let's find it in Marx, let's find it Galileo, let's find it in Irigaray, let's find it in cave paintings. Let's find it in places that aren't books, or the Internet. Let's bring these tools, these working parts back to the garage, set 'em up, and start actually using 'em to make stuff, not just put them on the shelf. Share 'em, too. Metaphysical tool library. When we are finding little parts of the "I" in all these supposedly "historical" things, and when we are using and moving back and forth across different epochs of time as easily as we perceive and express ourselves, then we will already be there.

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