Issue 10.3 | Summer 2012 / Guest edited by Jonathan Beller

In the Aporia of Ontology and Epistemology: Toward a Politics of Measure

There is no ontology that does not legislate for its own empowerment technologically in the sense of prescribing the means for its own enablement and … there is no technology that is not an expression of ontology, of presumptions concerning the fundaments of existence said to enable technology to be technological.
—Michael Dillon[1]

The concerns expressed in the CFP for Feminist Media Theory: Iterations of Social Difference led me to think again about what I have conceptualized elsewhere as an aporia between ontology and epistemology produced in relationship to developments in media technology, especially what I described then as teletechnology[2] and what now I would simply refer to as ubiquitous digital media technology. I did not mean to say then, nor do I now, that there is no relationship between ontology and epistemology, but rather that the effects of media technological developments are often distributed differently across conceptualizations and experiences of space and time; history and geography; realities and knowledges, including subjugated ones; as well as attendant subject formations, bodily matters, identities, and identifications. Or to put it another way, media technological developments often (and perhaps necessarily) put the transformation of being and the transformation of knowing out of sync with one another such that the transformation of one may receive more thoughtful attention than the other—at least at first.

Recently we have seen this syncopation in attention in the shift from the epistemological concerns that dominated philosophy and critical theory over the last part of the twentieth century to the elaboration of ontological perspectives in the early-twenty-first century under the headings of speculative realism and object-oriented ontologies.[3] There has been a shift from the questions of knowledge production, representation, identity, and difference raised with the epistemological perspectives of the late-twentieth century to the metaphysical and ontological questions raised at the opening of the twenty-first century about human and nonhuman agencies, organic and nonorganic life, and structures and assemblages. This is due, I would argue, in no small part to developments in digital media technology, and its attendant social, political, and economic formations, bringing us to what Steven Shaviro has called “the post cinematic,” and extending what Jonathan Beller has called “the cinematic mode of production” to what Beller more recently describes as the precarious labor of “waging our very being in the pursuit of life.”[4] If epistemological concerns of the late twentieth century have both registered and formulated a reconceptualization of labor from the cinematic mode of production to the affective mode, and if culture has become inconceivable (if it should ever have been so conceived) in terms of what Timothy Murray describes as “the colossal projection of cinema as a guarantor of a culturally uniform memory,”[5] then the recent shift in attention to object-oriented ontologies, and the debates these ontologies have incited might be understood in terms of a call for a philosophical reset of terms for changing perspectives on media, bodily matter, networks, processes, objects, subjects, identity, difference, relations, and relata. That is, a call to rethink the ontological grounds of knowing and representation in the wake of deprivileging or decentering human perception and cognition, and alternatively putting sensation, affect, or matter/energy generally into theoretical relief. While the history and geopolitics of social difference are implicated in this shift to ontology, they are also affected by it; the force of the aporia between being and knowing comes into play as digital media technologies push a philosophical reformulation of what we have taken as being and of the ways of knowing and representation that this reformulation instigates.

In other words, while debate around speculative realism just has begun to heat up, it is already clear that digital media technology is being redefined in terms of a subtraction of human perception as the presumed center of being and feeling. Steve Goodman, writing on sound technologies and leaning toward the philosophies of Gilles Deleuze and Alfred North Whitehead, argues, “If we subtract human perception, everything moves […] At the molecular or quantum level, everything is in motion, is vibrating.” For subjectivity and objectivity all that is required is that an entity can be felt by another entity. “All entities are potential media that can feel or whose vibrations can be felt by other entities.”[6] Here media are understood in terms of nonanthropocentric affect; where “affects are transitions, gateways, and passages between dimensions,” as Jussi Parikka has put it.[7] In terms of affect, media are more broadly described as “contractions of forces of the world into specific resonating milieus,” such that mediation is contingent and immanent.[8] Mediation (if it should even be called that) is less about connecting two or more entities—although by the above definition of entities, they are media and they do connect other entities. Still, it would be better put to describe mediation as modulation; intensifying or deintensifying rhythmicities and forces, below and above human perception.[9]

Not only are a whole host of media technologies (including all biotechnologies and nanotechnologies) implicated in modulating vibrations below and above human perception, but human perception is also changed, as it is no longer on one or another side of mediation. Rather, it is only part of what Karen Barad has described as an assemblage of measuring that is irreducible to human agency or human agency alone, and therefore is productive of “non-conscious phenomena.”[10] Here, Barad has begun to point the way to an epistemology that befits the quantum ontology of affect, sensation, and matter/energy; it is an epistemology put in terms of a measuring that affects as it renders effects. Or to put it more boldly, it is a measuring that affects and thereby produces effects that are themselves affective.

Needless to say, Barad’s displacement of human knowing as central to epistemology in her take on measure leans toward the human-machine assemblage, or what Donna Haraway has referred to as “material-semiotic entities.”[11] But the recent debates around ontology push beyond the human-machine assemblage and material-semiotic entities to a recasting of materialism in terms of a speculative realism. As speculative realism puts into question what Quentin Meillassoux has labeled “correlationism”—that is, the presumed impossibility of a world without human knowing or without a primordial rapport between human and world—it instead supports a speculative grasp of what exists outside human knowing, or what Eugene Thacker has tagged “a world-without-us;” “a nebulous zone that is at once impersonal and horrific,” and that is beyond “the world-in-itself,’ which is finally always for us.[12] Recognizing a world-without-us, speculative realism also challenges the status of representation that enfolds human knowing. Instead it opens up to speculation beyond human knowing, to the world-without-us; making use of poetic, affective, rhythmic processes of resonance. We might take the recent critical engagement with aesthetics—the post-Kantian aesthetics of both process philosophies and object-oriented ontologies—as more than a means to elevate aesthetics to the first philosophy with affect as its terminology. It might also be taken as a support for rethinking performance and presentation in the arts, the humanities, and the sciences; including rethinking media technologies as technologies of measure.[13]

In this sense, we might take note that there is another rethinking of measure—a more speculative one that moves beyond even Barad’s reconfiguration of measuring in terms of a non-conscious phenomenology. It does so by deferring a phenomenological approach altogether in order to focus instead on the digital while deprivileging the analog (meaning, identity, identification) which, in contrast to the digital, is often thought to be simultaneously exact and reductive. There is a refusal of a linguisitic imperialism that ignores those expressions of potential as vibrating surfaces or oscillators. I turn again to Goodman, who suggests that we rethink the digital in terms of the “numerical dimensions of the virtual;” “the rhythmic oscillations that vibrate the microsonic, and the molecular turbulence these generate,” so as to come to appreciate “an affective calculus of quantum rhythm” and “the potential for mutation immanent to the numerical code itself.”[14]

This—a sensual mathematics, Parisi suggests—would add “vague or incomplete quantities at the limit of 0s and 1s” to the calculus of probabilities. These indeterminacies “transform the logic of binary states, yes and no, into the fuzzy states of maybes and perhaps.”[15] Parisi adds that these indeterminacies “are not merely qualitative renderings of a digital binarism,” but are to be understood in terms of new processes of quantification that recognize “the full densely packed zones of information that are the intensive surrounds of zero and one;” zones defined by “an intrinsic numerical variability which remains computationally open.”[16] It may also be that what becomes of media—their capacities and incapacities to sustain communication; to arouse affective connection; to isolate and surveil; or to control our very being and beyond our being, the world-in-itself, the world-for-us with regulative governing force, while informing speculation about the world-without-us—rest on this development of new processes of quantification and the social, political, and economic formation of which they are a part. It is in the use of these processes that media will be able to further intensify or support a refusal of an unequal distribution of vitalizing information.

The question of knowing, then, has been moved away from the interpellation and determination of the subject or a politics of identity and difference to a matter of the (human and nonhuman) capacity to experience entities without qualities of phenomena—consciously or non-consciously; a politics of capacities that crosses every scale of matter/energy. This would suggest that the relatively recent turn to affect as a way to register the experiences of bodies (human and nonhuman) without human consciousness and perception is only the beginning of making it possible to recognize matter/energy at various speeds and for these to become a matter of experience (and not only human experience) through quantitative processes that are computationally open. This experiencing points to a different function for measure than the one Barad focuses on, in that it does not claim that measure constitutes an entity, although it may—indeed will—modulate it. Rather, there is recognition of the given-ness of entities before measure or where measure can never be complete because all entities are self-measuring.

While there is much debate about precisely how to engage with self-measuring entities or with entities as media, the recent debate about ontology across speculative realism and process philosophies would nonetheless seem to meet a shift in thought about subject formation and ideological interpellation away from their operation in disciplinary societies toward thinking about populations that are not reducible to subjects and, as such, are better fitting the biopolitics of control societies.[17] As Tiziana Terranova has argued, the population of control societies is not “a collection of subjects of right—constituted by the partial alienation of their natural rights to the sovereign—but a dynamic quasi-subject constituted by a great number of variables” pertaining to the environmental (or resonating) milieu of which it is a part. The population is not a collection of subjects, each to be controlled, because the population only reveals “probabilistic regularities once considered at the mass level.”[18] While for Terranova, it is probability that brings regularity and control; I would argue that it is the development of the quantitative processes that Parisi points to that will be at issue in politics where modulation and mutation are operative in relations of power, both in terms of capital and governance. It is the open processes of computation that are becoming resources for culture, politics, and economy.

And if, under conditions of control beyond probability, the centrality of subject positions in the construction of meaning are further undermined, opinion will nonetheless displace meaning and circulate in ways befitting an affective economy of labor and life. Terranova, following Foucault, points to what he has called “publics,” where “publics are addresses of communicated affective states,” rather than subjects of discourse about and argumentation over narrative knowledge with truth claims.[19] For Terranova, then, publics are engaged at the level of affect and sensation, being drawn into images and commentary that are full of passions and prejudices in order that affective states might take on a facticity without imploring a logic of evidence. Constituted on the same ontological plane as populations, publics are a matter of vitalizing information. They come and go in time and as such, they “express a mobility of the socius that further deterritorializes the relation between individuals and collectivities.”[20] Terranova argues that there is no relationship of belonging-ness that characterizes the individual elements that constitute publics. Arguing instead that belonging-ness or relationality is itself an effect of the mediated modulation of affect, Terranova concludes that digitized technologies have been fundamental to the deterritorialization of the relationship between individual and collectivity, or the constitution of what she refers to as publics. These technologies are able not only to bring all sorts of populations to calculation, but they are also able to produce publics through the provisional capture and dissemination of affect.[21]

While biopolitics is a matter of distributing affective capacities unevenly across populations—usually with dire effects involving racial, gender, and other social differences—these distributions, however, are volatile. Since affective capacities are vectors of potential or capacity (perhaps becoming even more open or multitudinous as new quantitative processes become operative), the distribution of affect reshapes sociality, changes its character, and requires different approaches to ideological analysis other than or along with the effort to restore discursive argumentation over narrative and its truth claims. What is needed is an analysis of ideology in terms of what Amit Rai has called “ecologies of sensation.”[22] Drawing on a more recent study of the effects of the expansion of cell phone use in India on women, Rai points to ecologies of sensation as media assemblages with emergent properties that impel new tendencies, new forms of attention, intention, distraction, habit, and practice.[23] Bodies—human bodies—are part of these ecologies; but for Rai, it is the intensive qualities of bodies without names or identities that are central to present-day media assemblages. This is because unlike the racialized or gendered bodies that already are extended and named, the intensive qualities of bodies (human and nonhuman) are a matter of potentiality, of sensation or affective capacity. From this perspective, what might be easily overdetermined as identity and difference is less the focus than what is yet emergent and is only activated in a specific ecology for as long as it remains.

Timing becomes central to a politics of intervention as a matter of entering in the middle in order to modulate. A similar method for criticism is required, one which Rai describes as a “counter-actualization,” using Deleuze’s term. This means moving down from the extended, back to the intensive or potentiality. This is not merely a deconstructive practice but an ontologically oriented one, a performative intervention bringing a change of speed, rhythm, and vibration—experimenting with duration, sensation, resonance, and affect. Goodman calls it a “politics of vibration.” But a politics of measure might do as well. Here again, the politics and aesthetics are speculative realist ones in that there is an incitement to develop practices of speculation about encountering the realities of entities that are constituted through other-than-human perception, cognition, or consciousness; against a horizon of a world-without-us.

If I am suggesting that a theory of media needs to recognize the syncopation between our ability to render and deploy the ontological and epistemological implications of media technological developments, such that there is an aporia between matters of being and existence on one hand, and knowing and representation on the other; I am also suggesting that we extend our critical engagement with social difference in terms of identity, identification, knowing, and representation among human subjects to a critical engagement with the manipulation of affect and the distribution of capacities differentially across populations, across all scales of matter/energy—a matter of critically engaging measure. It is in this sense that I would argue that while ethnographies or case studies that show the interimplication of social difference with the developments of media technology and media theory are essential to our critical understanding of politics, culture, economy, and governance, an additional focus on affect and ecologies of sensation is necessary. With the additional focus on affect and ecologies of sensation, the importance of these case studies will be recast as one element of an assemblage, giving criticism specificity and width. We will also have to come back from identity and difference—which these case studies and ethnographies most likely will elaborate—back (down) to sensation and affect. In this we will participate in changing the meanings assumed in discourses of social difference. We will take (or take up) an experimental attitude to social difference; both multiplying its expressions wildly in order to differ from binarisms, as well as opening up every calculation that has violently reduced or is reducing multiplicities in the constitution of extensive bodies of race, gender, class, ethnicity, and nation. While critical theorists have been concerned with affect, resonances, and rhythm, we now have to elaborate a methodology for studying these in relation to a politics of measure and media technologies.

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  1. Michael Dillon, “Virtual Security: A Life Science of (Dis)order,” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 32 (2003): 531-558. [Return to text]
  2. Patricia Clough, Autoaffection: Unconscious Thought in the Age of Teletechnology (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000). [Return to text]
  3. Levi Bryan, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman, eds., The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism (Melbourne: re.Press, 2011). [Return to text]
  4. Steven Shaviro, Post Cinematic Affect (Washington: Zero Books, 2010); Jonathan Beller, The Cinematic Mode of Production: Attention Economy and the Society of the Spectacle (Dartmouth: Dartmouth UP, 2006); Jonathan Beller, unpublished remarks, 2011. [Return to text]
  5. Timothy Murray, Digital Baroque, New Media Art and Cinematic Folds (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2008) 225. [Return to text]
  6. Steve Goodman, Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect and the Ecology of Fear Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009) 83. [Return to text]
  7. Jussi Parikka, Insect Media, An Archaeology of Animals and Technology (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2010) xxvi. [Return to text]
  8. Parikka xiv. [Return to text]
  9. My discussion of the ontologies of both process philosophers and object-oriented philosophers is not meant to be a fully developed presentation or comparison of the two approaches. I only mean to point to the ongoing debate focused on ontology and often put forth in relationship to quantum, affect, and affective labor and ahumanism. While Barad certainly addresses measure and quantum, as does Haraway, neither draws on the link between quantum measure and Deleuzian philosophy that has been so relevant for media scholars like Goodman and Parikka, as well as scholars concerned with affect, like Massumi and Parisi. Furthermore, the recent interest in Whitehead among media scholars and scholars of affect—as I will address below—is an interest that is shared (and debated) by Deleuzians and object-oriented ontologists as well. See Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual (Durham: Duke UP, 2002); T.S. Murphy, “Quantum Ontology: A Virtual Mechanics of Becoming,” Deleuze and Guattari, New Mappings in Politics, Philosophy, and Culture, eds. E. Kaufman and K.J. Heller (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988) 211-229; Steven Sharivo, Without Criteria, Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009). [Return to text]
  10. Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007). [Return to text]
  11. Donna Haraway, Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium. FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™ (New York: Routledge, 1997). [Return to text]
  12. Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude, An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (London: Continuum, 2009); Eugene Thacker, In the Dust of This Planet, Horror of Philosophy Vol.1 (Washington: Zero Books, 2011) 5-7. [Return to text]
  13. See Shaviro 2009; Graham Harman, “On Vicarious Causation,” Collapse II 26 (2007) 187-221. [Return to text]
  14. Goodman 122. [Return to text]
  15. Luciana Parisi, “The labyrinth of the continuum: topological control and mereotopologies of abstraction,” Conference on Changing Cultures: Cultures of Change, University of Barcelona, Barcelona, 2009. [Return to text]
  16. Luciana Parisi, “Symbiotic Architecture: prehending digitality,” Theory Culture and Society 26 (2009): 347-379. [Return to text]
  17. All too simply put, one aspect of this debate concerns whether everything is related and therefore each entity could measure other entities, or whether there is indirect causality where entities lure each other into relations but are neither irreducible to those relations nor constituted by them—even though no entity is not made up of all its relations. [Return to text]
  18. Tiziana Terranova, “Futurepublic: On Information Warfare, Bio-racism and Hegemony as Noopolitics,” Theory, Culture & Society 24.3 (2007): 136-137. [Return to text]
  19. Terranova 135. [Return to text]
  20. Terranova 139. [Return to text]
  21. It should be noted that in keeping with an ahumanist approach, the populations are not merely human populations but all kinds—populations of cells, programs etc. [Return to text]
  22. Amit Rai, Untimely Bollywood: Globalization and India’s New Media Assemblage (Durham: Duke UP, 2009). [Return to text]
  23. Amit Rai, “Race Racing: Four Theses on Race and Intensity,” Women Studies Quarterly, forthcoming. [Return to text]