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Simulation, Contraction, Contemplation, Abstraction

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Thought this article would work well with the reading for this week:

 http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2012/12/12/physicists-universe-simulation-test-university-of-washington-matrix_n_2282745.html?utm_hp_ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false

And though seemingly thoughtful professionals at a prestigious university are carrying out this research, I think it highlights some of my own reservations about their and DeLanda’s approach. After all if the greatest conclusion simulation can draw is that we ourselves exist merely in mere simulation, then I’m afraid it would be difficult for it escape just accusations of ideology and tautology. Indeed, if the results of such experiments are such it would seem to prove little more than simulation can simulate things. Draw whatever conclusion you like. The poverty of critical ontology and phenomenology in thought here is evident, and precisely that which Whitehead critiques. For no matter the extent to which one might be convinced that in the end human existence and our universe is mere simulation, what answers or deeper questions would be provided from this resignation? Not to mention that the experiment’s own results would at best tell us “it’s possible” that existence is simulation, which doesn’t really move beyond post-Matrix pop philosophy.

Anyway, the early chapters of the second half interested me in distinguishing animal non-symbolic representation from human language. Animals and humans his simulation claims are capable of conditioning. The emergence of associations between coupled objects or qualities, say a green light and a nut fits within DeLanda’s simulation, but what he fails to account for is exactly how. Yes animals are capable of habituation, but how exactly? The question is not how complex syntheses emerge from the successive recombinations of less complex material, the question is how does an animal or human understand delay? How for that matter does a simulation understand delay? This is where I think DeLanda fundamentally departs from Deleuze. For Deleuze repetition is capable of synthesis, of contraction., and contraction might be understood already as a sort of contemplation. It is ontological in a way and yet precedes human being, and human being especially the human present relies already upon another contraction that is abstraction. DeLanda emphasis on scientific or mechanistic simulation diverges widely from this contemplation and abstraction. His understanding of repetition and simulation proceed only in probabilistic recombination, which seems to run contrary to Deleuze.

Institutional brains and literary simulation (or simulated literature?)

In the spirit of DeLanda and the emergence of greater orders of complexity from lesser ones, here are a few reactions to the first half of Philosophy and Simulation, presented in a somewhat jumbled non-sequence. This sort of thing always happens near the end of the semester, when prep for seminar papers leads to interesting textual combinations. In this case, my reading of DeLanda is taking place concurrently with those of additional texts by DeLanda, Deleuze, Deleuze & Guattari, Franco Moretti, and a bunch of stuff about Nazis and Genghis Khan.

(Here’s hoping a greater degree of complexity/order emerges in subsequent writing.)

  • In the first chapter, DeLanda introduces the concept of gradients as “the capacity of intensive differences to act as energy storage devices” (9). Deleuzian influence seems clear here – beyond the discussions of channels/conduits and energy in A Thousand Plateaus, there seems additional resonance with Deleuze’s discussion of memory in Difference and Repetition, which we’re reading in Prof. Copjec’s seminar. I wonder – can we put Deleuze’s discussion of memory in that text in dialogue with the sort of discussion of memory gates (in simple computer programming) that DeLanda engages in subsequently?
  • Language, literature, texts & contexts as (autonomous) energy storage devices. A sexy idea! Maybe it could mean something?
  • There is a lot of interesting overlap between what I have read, thus far, in Philosophy and Simulation and DeLanda’s (first, I believe?) book, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines. His discussion of war games, in particular, is intriguing – in particular, I am thinking of DeLanda’s discussion of the development of war games by the Prussian (and, later, German) general staff in the late 19th and early-20th centuries. He characterizes the general staff as a sort of emergent institutional brain (we have these brains to thank for much of the 20th century). Deleuze would place such an emergent entity in opposition to a ‘war machine’ – indeed, the war machine and the state and it’s military apparatus are defined in antithetical terms in the formulation of Deleuze and Guattari. I wonder, however, if DeLanda would agree here?
  • More speculation: the academy/humanities/texts & discourse – a sort of institutional brain. Does the humanities have a general staff? (MLA as GHQ?) I get the sense that most lit scholar would prefer – if they even think about such matters at all – to think of the humanities as more akin to a war machine, antithetical to state apparatuses of control. (I certainly would). But this doesn’t seem to be the case.
  • It would be pretty awesome to see a sort of Game of Life simulation pertaining to the development and circulation – the evolution and “life” – of literary texts, genres, and paradigms. Literary discourse as a material phenomenon, with physically discernible effects. A Franco Moretti-esque sort of distant reading – a simulated reading (or reading simulation?)
  • Reading DeLanda makes me want to check out some of Ian Bogost’s earlier work – particularly his texts that deal more directly with games and simulation. It seems like DeLanda and Bogost would make nice complements to each other in this regard.

Less Metaphorical?

Less Metaphorical

The question of metaphor has impressed itself upon me during the course of reading a number of our texts this semester. And while I can’t claim to understand DeLanda fully, I’d like to consider some of the implications of his Philosophy and Simulation.

Twice, early on in the text, DeLanda uses the phrase “less metaphorical”:

page 15:

15

page 18:

18

Is the distinction between metaphorical and literal one of degrees? If something is “less metaphorical,” can we also assume, by inverse relationship, that it is “more literal.” This may seem a needlessly picky observation in such a complex text, but the concept of metaphor and realism seems central to DeLanda’s philosophical project.

DeLanda sets out the following projects as the province of realist philosophers: to “create a ontology free of deified generalities within which the concept of emergence can be correctly deployed,” to “do justice to the creative powers of matter and energy,” and to specify the “space of possibilities.” Central to these projects is the concept of simulation, of which DeLanda writes, “Simulations are partly responsible for the restoration of the legitimacy of the concept of emergence because they can stage interactions between virtual entities from which properties, tendencies, and capacities actually emerge.” Simulation, as DeLanda indicates is reproduction and representation, which suggests that metaphor is at the core of his philosophy.

Consider the following artist’s statement on “plastic,” which Christian Bök claims allows us to  “simulate, then supplant, every facet of reality, converting all the varied elements of the planet into one common emulsion.” DeLanda’s simulations are presented to us both instead of reality (reproduce, represent) and coevolutionary, if not coextensive, with reality itself. In the sense that computer models are given equal ontological status with the reality it purports to simulate, I wonder if we can regard DeLanda’s “Theory of Everything” (as Pickering puts it on the back cover) in terms of what Kittler has called a total media link: “a total connection of all media on a digital base erases the notion of the medium itself. Instead of hooking up technologies to people, absolute knowledge can run as an endless loop.”

DeLanda vis a vis Whitehead

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DeLanda’s Philosophy and Simulation provides a very detailed investigation of emergence modeled as mathematic combinations so as to elucidate how counter the “‘emergentist’ philosophers” (2), one might explain emergence with reason. This book seems to trace emergence in the vein of the “chemical causality” (1) he describes in the Introduction.  His dialogue or advancement of Deleuze is apparent at times, but he seems to have completely rejected Whiteheads views of science which were so influential to Deleuze. When he speaks of mathematically or computer modeled or simulated emergence that is based on statistical combination and probability, he is speaking of a science that is primarily mathematic, the same science that Whitehead criticizes in Science and the Modern World.  DeLanda seems to have no problem committing the fallacy of “misplaced concreteness” and isolating systems as in traditional scientific experimentation and computer programming. At the same time, it would seem that process theory would have a lot to contribute to DeLanda’s more mechanistic understanding of science, however the problem of the emergence of process might be the primary problem DeLanda is trying to solve.

            DeLanda’s systematic look at the different sheets or layers of emergence added to one another does convey a complex and perhaps useful format for thinking emergence from the more simple water and temperature into storm to the more complex emergence of RNA from molecules. What seems to interest DeLanda most is that these models, though very different in the complexity of the variables and topology involved, share similar structures of singularities that are more or less indifferent to external perturbances (their symmetrical nature). I do not know exactly how Whitehead would respond to these simulated singularities, other than to insist that despite the computer simulation’s formation of the anvil and column (of the thunderstorm), that it is the height of abstraction, and that in a more concrete science the singularity would not exist statically or as a single point, but only and always in relation, so that it cannot be abstracted from the rotation of the earth or the movement of one of its component H2O molecules. Anyway, I wonder exactly how Whitehead would think these emergent indifferent singularities within the simulation. For in the end the increasing complexity of these simulations only becomes useful if they more closely approximate the concrete, or that which is specifically not simulated and which cannot be isolated. The end of a simulation is always the end of simulation.

HELP!!!!

So I am about 4 chapters into Philosophy and Simulation and I quite frankly have little to no idea what DeLanda is attempting to prove, but I think this is because of how little I understood from chapter 2. While Delanda’s section on “Game of Life” made for a comical conversation between Martin and I in the hallway yesterday (yes, it would seem that he was NOT referring to the board game…disappointing; here I was thinking I would have a firm grasp on a philosophical analogy), even after looking up Game of Life, cellular automata, lattice-gas automata, and with only cursory knowledge Turing machines, I have no idea how this proves that simulation can account for emergence. I follow that this was a justification for simulation, and I have really enjoyed some of the directions he is going (mainly the topic of thermodynamics and the prebiotic soup), but I don’t understand why he feels the need to go into vast detail about 6th grade science but offers little to no explanation about the far more complicated simulation programs he is offering up. I fear that without a firm grasp on this second chapter, the rest of the work will have little to no meaning for me, so if anyone can explain this in simple, techno-ignorant terms for me, I will be very grateful.

Having said that, I’m not sure how much trust I can place in the idea of gradients. If he is trying to account for emergence, which I am still inclined to believe took place in a state of completely unordered chaos that preceded time, space, rules of physics, etc., then how can he make the claim that “in the material world nothing interesting happens if we start a process from a maximally disordered state” (33), but wouldn’t a mechanism independent component be one of maximum disorder, with no attachment to the general machinery of physics and such? Again, have I missed the point?

I am really at a loss with this text, and I REALLY want to understand it. The topic of thermodynamics, pre-evolution, and simulation are all wildly interesting to me, and based on the chapter titles, I have a particular interest in the topics he will address later (mainly, early economics), but to be honest, I really have no idea why this is even considered philosophy so far, it strikes me more as a science book with a terrible case of ADHD: it is just throwing topics at me without ever really saying why they are even part of the discussion, or for that matter, what discussion is he even having??? I haven’t seen anything that accounts for a purpose of writing this book (what is he trying to prove??? I just don’t see it). Again, if he wants to prove the validity of simulation, I follow, I just don’t get how anything he has presented thus far really does that (minus the scraps that allowed me to piece together that certain programs he mentioned can produce results not originally accounted for in the programing). What is at stake here? What is he adding to OOO and SR?

Latourian Subjectivity: Latour avec Lacan

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Upon finishing Reassembling the Social, I’m pretty enthused about what I just read. Latour repeated his same basic points about the shortcomings of critical sociology on nearly every page, but I didn’t care. I think ANT is timely, sincere, and a step in the right direction for Western intellectuals.

I was particularly interested in the section of the book (Part 2, Second Move) when Latour finally addressed human subjectivity. It was indeed fascinating, but left me unsatisfied in an otherwise satisfyingly unsatisfying work. I think that Latour’s account of subjectivity leaves too much of what it means to possess human agency out of his picture.

For Latour, to be a subject is to be a “fully artificial and fully traceable gathering” (208). Basically, human subjectivity seems to come down to nothing more than the sum total of one’s associations with networks. The more associations, the more subjectivity you have. (I know I harped a lot about the false subject / object dichotomy in SR and OOO a lot earlier in the semester, but in the slightly edited words of Ralphy from A Christmas Story, “In the jungles of theory, the mind shifts gears quickly”.) Anyway I think Latourian subjectivity does serve some good purposes. As he says on 212-13, it allows one to view shadowy social forces not as limitations but as ineluctable constituents of one’s ever-so-precious identity. It also contributes to the (laudable, in my view) postmodern project of ‘de-centering the subject’ and questioning the coherence of any fixed notion of personal identity. But I think viewing human subjectivity as the sum total of associations, not essentially any different from “a body, an institution, … [or] an historical event” (218) misses the mark. It would seem to me that there is something essentially different in a human subject from an ‘institution’ or a brick or whatever. Also, Latourian subjectivity smacks somewhat of a masculine fantasy of mastery: “If you look at Supermarkets in this way, a bewildering array of devices is underlined, each having the capacity to provide you with the possibility of carrying out calculations somewhat more competently” (210). Look at me! Look at the astonishing competence with which I can perform the necessary calculations to pick only the most exquisitely select veggies at Wegman’s! Super Dad!

Joking aside, I think the clue to where Latour misses the mark comes in Part 3, on p. 236: “And yet, as one sees in religion, if you are listening to what people are saying, they will explain at length how and why they are deeply attached, moved, affected by the work of art which ‘makes them’ feel things. Impossible! Forbidden! To be affected is supposed to be mere affectation.” I think Latour needs to heed his own chiding here. Where is affect in his own account of subjectivity? Can a construction site or an institution be affected? But then, can affect really be said to be what sets human subjectivity apart from everything else and makes it special? One may have a hard time arguing that. I think at this point I can turn to Lacan to find an account of subjectivity that could augment Latour’s. Bruce Fink’s book The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance reads like a philosophical detective story, a thrilling chase after where exactly Lacan ‘rescues’, so to speak, human agency in the wake of the onslaught of post-structuralism and the death of the author and all that. And Lacan finds it precisely between language and jouissance. The essence of human subjectivity is in between stimulus and affect. I admit that I do not grasp the full implications of this idea (I’d have to reread the book) but it would seem to say that that true human agency resides in the flash between stimulus and reaction. We can’t control our stimuli, we can’t control our reactions, but nonetheless, there we are, stuck in the middle, aware of them and able to choose how we buy in or opt out.

So what does this do for Latour? I think it can restore a conspicuously absent validation of human agency in the onslaught unleashed by the bursting of the nature / society levies. Perhaps this is another example of a prospective OOP?

Actor-Network-Theory-Theory (deconstructing everything)

As Latour writes, in the fictional professor-student dialogue that forms the interlude between parts I and II of Reassembling the Social, Actor-Network-Theory is not a framework, not something that can be unproblematically applied to the study of something such as an organization, institution, “society,” etc. I appreciate this, no less so for the fact that what follows is a speculation on an application of ANT – as a framework, some might say – to the examination of the institution/category/genre/primordial-Deleuzian ooze of capital-T theory, such as it is, may be, etc.

[The temptation to fall into theory jargon’s theoretical abuse of equivocation and punctuation will be difficult to avoid here, but I’ll do my best. Of course, I am already deploying brackets, and referring to their use as ‘deploying,’ so this might be a lost cause. (See what I’m doing here? Besides filling space, I am – supposedly, I hope – proving a point about the generic consistency of theory, at least as it is understood in the humanities and literary studies, as both a particular genre, or area, of study, and as a way of filling space, killing time, by writing theoretically.)]

In much the same way that Latour describes the conflicted/contradictory uses of the term ‘social’ – social as a descriptive term for a type of material, like wool, steel, plutonium, or Jell-O; or social as describing a particular realm, or area, as in the social or society – I have been thinking through the presence of similar type of bifurcation with regards to the treatment of the term ‘theory’ in the humanities, and literary studies in particular. Theory is something one does, a type of writing/prosaic material; and, likewise, theory is treated as a particular realm, a genre/area of study, distinct and semi-autonomous in much the same way as Victorian literature, the picaresque, or science fiction.

In much the same way that society, in Latour’s formulation, is expected to “do two jobs at once” (162), theory is apparently subjected to an equally conflicting set of expectations – it is expected to sit there, and be theory, and to actively theorize. I am intrigued, as I continue working my way into the second half of Reassembling the Social, of the applicability (blasphemy!) of the practices of ANT to the study of theory, and its particular short-lived moment in the humanities, social sciences, and arts – beginning, if one is to periodize, sometime in the wake of the second World War and culminating, in the United States at least, sometime in the nineties, when we briefly assumed that universities everywhere would have departments devoted to the study of theory (or criticism, which often seems to be employed as a synonymous term, although there does seem to be some room for debate here).

Further things I want to think about:
**Theory – a reactionary event, moment, or turn in the history of the humanities? I have heard it described as such, convincingly, on a number of occasions.
**Accounting for the moment, or the event – how does ANT fare here? I have been thinking about this after a similar question was raised in my Deleuze seminar (there some theory for you, eh?) pertaining to Deleuze’s ontology in Difference and Repetition.
**Speculative realism on theory – Graham Harman mentions it briefly in the Quadruple Object, as one of the sixteen possible tensions between objects, and I know Levi Bryant has written about it on his blog.

Latour and Hyperlocal Structures

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I wonder how exactly Latour’s ANT differs from how he describes the kind of Deleuzian sociology he describes in his “conversation” with a student: “you describe actors who are rendering virtualities actual […] and which require very specific protocols to work – I guess this is what you would call ‘critical edge’ and ‘political relevance” (155). For it seems that ANT at its best does go about creating something like a hyperlocal structure, so local in fact that individual actors become kind of placeholders of their own place, unique places. The structure changes whenever anyone is replaced, and in fact the structure could change moment to moment. It would be as if the actors participated in the development of both their own virtuality and their own actuality. The virtual or potential that is always at least partially actual is partially created by each individual actor in each hyperlocal structure and their specific interactions. This schema seems perhaps too close to Lehman’s autopoiesis, but I would counter that instead this structure would value withdrawal less and interaction more. So that in this Deleuzian/autopoietic synthesis there is still interaction and no social substance as such, merely hyperlocal actors and structures that interact so that neither completely defines the other. It seems that ANT depends upon this incompleteness, that neither the structure nor the actors can fully designate each other. While he does not claim recourse to a metalanguage, or a truth, he does seem to think that knowledge is producible, and in this fashion ANT might be more structurally similar to structuralisms with lack than he admits.

It furthermore seems that Latour’s ANT might best be equally well practiced in in some sort of corporate environment than an academic one. Some kind of ANT consulting doesn’t seem unlikely. His emphasis on specific locations, interactions, and the unique actors could without too much of a stretch justify firing or hiring certain people within a given corporation, expanding into or contracting from certain markets, etc.

Synechdoche

In honor of Roger Ebert’s passing, I thought I’d offer a cinematic reference point for understanding Part II of Latour’s Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory.

 

I was particularly intrigued by Latour’s discussion of the interplay, the maddening, vertiginous exchange between “local” and “Context.” Continuing his redefinition of sociology, Latour says, “when inquirers begin to look away from local sites because obviously the key of the interactions is not to be found there—which is true enough—they believe they have to turn their attention toward the ‘framework’ inside of which interactions are supposed to be nested.” Yet, once the attention turns from local to big C “Context,” one discovers that the Context is much to abstract to actually do anything.

So “inquirers” turn back to the local, which again redirects them to the Context.

In place of this unproductive loop, Latour proposes Actor-Network Theory, which begins from the realization that “local and context are not to be reached—either because they don’t exist at all or because they exist but cannot be reached with the vehicle offered by sociology.” The synecdoche breaks down.

Reading the above account, I recalled the film Synecdoche, New York, Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut. The film recounts an aging theater actor-director named Caden Cotard as he attempts to stage a play about his life featuring a life-sized replica of New York City inside a warehouse, inside New York City. Immediately, Borges comes to mind with his story about “A map of the empire whose size was that of the empire.” But what is useful for our discussion of Latour is the relationship between the local events and the constructed Context in which they take place.

In his review of Synechdoche, New York, Ebert writes, “Here is how life is supposed to work. We come out of ourselves and unfold into the world. We try to realize our desires. We fold back into ourselves, and then we die.” This is essentially the plot of the film, except for the complication that the “Context” is a “fictional” New York inside a “real” warehouse inside the “real” New York (sorry about all the scare quotes). This is a Baudrillardian nightmare. Or may be Disney World. What becomes clear throughout the film, though, is the instability, even inadequacy, of any context to “contain” (there I go again) the local interactions in Cotard’s life. In addition, the reality, or the discreteness, of these local interactions breaks down as contexts blend together. I think a more sustained treatment of this film in relation to ANT might be warranted, especially considering auspicious fact that Synecdoche, New York is about an actual actor. 

Circular Question

First of all, two strong, aesthetic gripes: Latour, after condemning low quality, monotonous, droning writing spends roughly the first 180 pages of his book incessantly repeating the same two or three points. 180 pages stating sociology can’t start from the bottom up or the top down? That it is not a substance? And then he has the audacity to say, “What is often called a powerful and convincing account, because it is made of a few global causes generating a mass of effects, ANT will take as a weak and powerless account that simply repeats and tries to transport and already composed social force without reopening what it is made of without finding the extra vehicles necessary to extend it further” (131): sounds a lot like the first 200 pages of your work there, buddy. He didn’t even attempt to offer a solution until the last 1/3 of his work and still felt comfortable saying this?

While I follow the uncertainties, and they all seem reasonable enough, this could have been summarized in one chapter, rather than babbling on with these ridiculous lists that add ABSOLUTELY NOTHING other than brief analogies to points he has already explained. Which brings me to my second gripe: the “Latour Litanies”: they are not cute, clever, nor do they add depth to any of this!!! It just convolutes his points by placing these huge gaps of inane and often completely unrelated chatter midway through otherwise interesting thoughts (they are unrelated by design, I know, but it doesn’t make them valuable at all) and creates massive gaps that had me constantly looking two pages back after he aimlessly wandered off for several pages. I just find it ironic that someone who condemns superfluous writing seems to demonstrate it more than anything I have read in quite some time, and then he claims that it is the failure of OTHER disciplines!? I quite frankly find his hubris at least as delusional and misguided as a search for a social fluid, which I didn’t realize anyone was taking seriously to begin with, so why spend so much time ripping it apart?

All that aside, I really do like what he is doing here (I just HATE how he is doing it). While at times he seems far more concerned with bashing social criticism and sociology as it is today than he is with doing anything particularly constructive, the “pool of actors” as things stand in sociology is laughably shallow, and his inclusion of non-human actors as a novel idea was shocking for me, but not because of any failure of Latour’s. For all of Latour’s condemnation of critical sociology, I thought the role of material interactions (though loaded with the political, still considers human-object relations, even if only in economic and political terms) was firmly established in Marx, though I suppose for Marx it was considered strictly in the “body politic.” In denouncing the very concept of the event, it seems to me that Marx would be in agreement with Latour’s statement, “the body politic was supposed, by construction, to be virtual, total, and always already there” (162). Latour explicitly agrees with such a stance here:

“There is nothing wrong with this since it had to solve the impossible problem of political representation, fusing the many into one and making the one obeyed by the many. Only political action is able to trace, by a continuous circular movement, this virtual and total assembly that is always in danger of disappearing all together” (162).

So Latour, why go out of your way to denounce an accomplished supporter? Am I wrong in thinking Marx would be down with this?

This quote stopped me on another level as well: can a political movement ever truly disappear? In vast chains of actors all partaking in “net-work” (maybe that’s where that second hyphen was meant to be), it would seem impossible for any political mode to “disappear altogether.” Mercantilism has largely disappeared in practice, but the Western European nations that gained strength in its practice persist. For that matter, the texts still exist, import tariffs are still in discussion, Adam Smith still had to denounce something, Marx still had to denounce Adam Smith, and hence, it continues if only as an omission or an actor who walked off stage long ago but the remaining characters still mention him. If anything, rather than being the profoundly fragile and always dying thing that Latour presents it as, political ideologies seem to have a lifespan greater than that of major religions (democracy has after all been around longer than Christianity and managed to survive about 1500 hundred years of not being practiced/near illegality), the nation states that practice them, etc. Power is fragile and constantly dying, not political representation, not even political action as the death of a power structure is still entwined in opposite political action, which still finds reference in the original political action. Political ideology is not power, as power structures arise in near identical forms regardless of the ideology of the state, practitioners, or what have you. Ideological influence may wane, but maybe that is better said in Latour’s terms as “political action” may wane, and thus, so too does the “continuous circular movement.” But we all know ideology can exist without any practitioners (anyone out there still worshiping Dionysus? Horace? Sacrifice anything to Helios lately?). This is probably just back to that infinite regress issue, but I can’t think of any political system that is truly dead and gone. I don’t see how we can ever completely divide “assembling the body politic and assembling the collective” (161), as it seems the former entirely depends on the latter, and I’m not sure if I think they can be divided.