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Ontography and war machines

by on March 15, 2013

I have been mulling over ideas for a research project for this course over break, and over the course of my (re)reading of Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology. While reading Bogost’s second chapter, “Ontography,” I found myself, appropriately enough for an ontology that embraces messiness and chaos, drawn to  a variation of the meanwhile mentioned by Bogost — a “powerful ontographical tool,” (50) —  in the form of digressions into two separate and related texts: the first, a post from Levi Bryant’s Blog, “War Machines and Military Logistics“; the second, a book that I have been looking into for my research, Manuel DeLanda’s War in the Age of Intelligent Machines.

I am interested here, in the spirit of the messiness of OOO and SR, in looking into — to borrow Bogost’s turn of phrase in Alien Phenomenology — the somehwat oozy “couplings of and chasms between” these three texts and, more specifically, what they suggest about the potential for object-oriented inquiry into mechanisms and institutions of power and control. I am thinking here of a sort of applied, or directed, ontography — a notion that seems not at all dissimilar from Bogost’s characterization of the manner in which the “practice of ontography – and it is a practice, not merely a theory – describes the many processes of accounting for the various units that strew themselves throughout the universe,” and draws “attention to the couplings of and chasms between” these units (50).

[I am not certain whether or not I should interpret Bogost’s description of ontography, in the above quoted passage, as being “not merely a theory” as suggesting that Bogost would draw a distinction between theory and praxis. With regards to ontograpghy, of course, he indicates that this is not the case. I am still unclear, however, if Bogost intends to refute any distinction between theory and praxis altogether — as I am inclined to do — or if he is speaking here of a the specific case of ontography]

Ontography, in Bogost’s thought, refers to a “general inscriptive strategy…that uncovers the repleteness of units and their interobjectivity,” revealing “object relationships without necessarily offering clarification or description of any kind” (38). Ontography describes a practice analogous to mapping, as its name suggests — it designates a logistical activity and concern. This brings me to the first of the two texts mentioned above, the post from Levi Bryant’s blog. In the entry, Bryant addresses, quite pointedly, the persistent attacks directed by critics at the (lack of an) ideological stance in Bryant’s onticology (and in SR/OOO in general). Below, an excerpt from Bryant’s entry — lengthy, but worth it — directed, specifically, to Galloway’s attack on OOO:

Let’s take Alexander Galloway’s political aims.  I presume that he thinks there are many things wrong with our social world and that he wants to change them.  This is a view I share.  Indeed, I share just about all his political commitments.  Now I ask Alex this: if we want to change the social world, don’t we need to know how it’s put together, how it functions, and what causes societies to persist in their oppressive structure?  These are all questions of social ontology:  what is a society?  What causes social relations to persist or endure in the way they do?  What types of beings compose a society?  Is it just people?  Are institutions real beings?  Are nonhumans like natural resources, technologies, and infrastructure causal factors?  Or is it only ideologies that lead people to live under such intolerable conditions?

Military logistics asks two questions:  first, it asks what things the opposing force, the opposing war machine captured by the state apparatus, relies on in order to deploy its war machine: supply lines, communications networks, people willing to fight, propaganda or ideology, people believing in the cause, etc.  Military logistics maps all of these things.  Second, military logistics asks how to best deploy its own resources in fighting that state war machine.  In what way should we deploy our war machine to defeat war machines like racism, sexism, capitalism, neoliberalism, etc?  What are the things upon which these state based war machines are based, what are the privileged nodes within these state based war machines that allows them to function?  These nodes are the things upon which we want our nomadic war machines to intervene.  If we are to be effective in producing change we better know what the supply lines are so that we might make them our target.

Bryant’s Deleuzian credentials are definitely on display here (this notion of “war machines” seems to have quite a bit in common with its deployment in A Thousand Plateaus) — which I quite like. Most valuable — and, it seems clear,  most relevant to Bogost’s notion of ontography — is his description of the  logistical utility of onticology when deployed against the networks of resources, conditions, powers of such “war machines” as racism, fascism, misogyny, and so on.

Humanistic critique has done — and continues to do — a fine job of elucidating exactly what is wrong with the world, and why certain ideologies, institutions, etc should be attacked. And yet, in spite of all this explicative and interpretative work on the part of humanistic critique, what has been the result? Certainly not a victory — however one cares to define “victory,” the consensus seems to be that the humanities are in a state of crisis (as trendy articles in the Chronicle and a myriad of other publications indicate). As far as strategies go, humanistic critique is not sufficient to the preservation of the humanistic discplines, much less attacks on such forces as neoliberal capitalism.

Bryant’s war machines discussion brings me to the second of the texts I mentioned above, DeLanda’s War in the Age of Intelligent Machines — an interesting blend of history/cybernetics/Deleuzian thought that, although written shortly after the first Gulf War, resonates even more so with present-day conditions, as semi-autonomous Hellfire-armed drones patrol the sky. DeLanda opens the book with the description of a hypothetical “robot historian,” looking back and charting/mapping the history of the “machinic phylum.” DeLanda writes, in a passage I found particularly striking:

The robot historian of course would hardly be bothered by the fact that it was a human who put the first motor together: for the role of humans would be seen as little more than that of industrious insects pollinating an independent species of machine-flowers that simply did not possess its own reproductive organs during a segment of its evolution. Similarly, when this robot historian turned its attentions to the evolution of armies in order to trace the history of its own weaponry, it would see humans as no more than pieces of a larger military-industrial machine: a war machine. (3)

I am interested in examining here the resonance between the logistical concerns of Bryant and DeLanda (by way of a shared interest in Deleuze), and the potential for such logistical practices in examining institutions of power and control. Furthermore, I would be interested in looking further into the implications of the work of both Bogost and DeLanda regarding the emergence of artificial intelligence — an object/event/thing/unit/etc. that will,  certainly, bear little resemblance to any anthropocentric (or immediately anthropomorphic) notions of consciousness and intelligence.

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From → Quadruple Object

4 Comments
  1. jmdaven permalink

    It’s interesting that DeLanda seems to destroy all possibility of machine perspectival difference or individuation. Though machines are as much as humans are, or even more so, DeLanda does not seem to think that they can disagree or have differing views. Granted this is based solely ont he above block quote, but if that is the case, then what would indicate that most machines are completely replaceable– one would do just as well in a certain position as another. This reduction would save him from serious investigation into the being of specific objects, but at the risk of leaving all objects as undifferentiated, secondary beings. It is odd to me that a machine would be interested in something like self-preservation or history, indeed it seems purely anthropocentric to imagine such an object’s will.

    • I’m not certain I’m following your line of argument on (the lack of) perspectival difference and individuation. There doesn’t seem to be quite so clear-cut of a distinction drawn between machine and human in what I have read thus far – admittedly, I am only in the first chapter.

      DeLanda certainly acknowledges that his ‘robot historian’ is purely anthropocentric speculation. He seems to use it – in the introduction, at least – mostly as analogous device for illustrating his premises on a broader machinic ontology. Being a big fan of SF, I particularly enjoyed it, especially in the context of Bogost’s concerns with computers, etc.

      Sidenote: There is a section in Jane Bennet’s Vibrant Matter, where she discusses anthropomorphism as a stance that has the potential for undermining anthropocentrism, via the illumination of isometries between human and non-human entities. The passage involves a discussion of Darwin and his (kind of weirdly obsessive) study of worms. Seems relevant to the issues raised above, and should make for interesting conversation when we discuss Bennet in the coming weeks.

  2. Martin, you might be interested in Andy Clark’s work on intelligence. Of course, you might want to go back to A Thousand Plateaus as well, particularly the “Treatise on Nomadology,” which is the plateau that deals most thoroughly with the concept of the nomadic war machine. While I’m given you reading assignments, I might as well throw in Massumi’s User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia, which I think focuses particularly on political tactics coming out of Deleuze and Guattari’s work.

    • Thank you! Just got a hold of the Massumi. Andy Clark does look interesting, judging from the titles of his books alone — would you recommend any in particular as a starting point?

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