Complex Singularities

Adventures in Thinking Outside the Tower
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#RaceFail to #Ferguson

From an essay I’m working on today:

One question worth asking is what is the space between #RaceFail and #Ferguson? One important thing to note is that the time between them isn’t neutral, but rather one of development. The networked persistence of discussions of racism in life and culture (of which the stickiness of #RaceFail is a useful metonym) has allowed critical race theory to expand from the bounds of too-insular activist and academic subcultures and publics into a known apparatus and structure of the public sphere as a whole. The space between these two tags is one of time and growth and development—similar, also, to the space between 9/11 and the Boston bombings or the recent shootings on Parliament Hill in Canada. When innocents are killed it is always a tragedy. But when 9/11 happened, Western society snapped: racism poured out of the woodwork (where it was always already having major structural effects) and overwhelmed the critical voices and societal guilt-structures that kept it unevenly and incompletely in check. But in the subsequent events we had the apparatus of critical race discourse (forged on the fly from the frictions and fractures of that time) to bulwark and embolden our critical voices, intersectional analyses to ask also what roles poverty and mental health issues might have had in triggering these horrible events, and the sobering and dismal reality of the post-9/11 period to help us resist falling prey to the fear mongering of opportunistic and hawkish politicians. #Ferguson and its ilk are the legacy of earlier critical discussions and the earlier techno-social events that mobilize them, and collectively form an activist critical objection—a quarrel—levelled at unjust abuses of power.

Referral: On the Dangers of Focus on the Family Teaching Sex Ed

This article about an amazing open letter from 17-year-old high school student Agatha Tan to her high school principal shows not only the dangers on letting Focus on the Family teach sexual education workshops but also the amazing resilience of youth with respect to attempts by institutions specifically and deliberately trying to limit their knowledge. As an interesting side note, in her original letter, she mentions that another student noted that “polyamorous individuals” were one the groups ill-considered by FotF rhetoric, a point that was shut down:

When someone else tried to raise that the facilitator’s views were too narrow and that they failed to consider, for instance, LGBTQ or polyamorous individuals, he effectively shut her down by saying that her views were not what the audience wanted to listen to and that perhaps she could remain quiet for now and bring it up with him afterwards so they could end the first half of the course for break, which was coming up “very soon”. (He failed to actually ask the audience if we wanted to listen to her opinion and assumed we wholeheartedly accepted his, and break was in fact almost another half hour later.) I personally thought that listening to her opinion was more important than tea break, but what do I know? After all, I am just a “gal”.

Such “eduction” is frankly child abuse, and I am glad that students are fighting back and voicing their concerns in the public sphere.

http://www.dailydot.com/lifestyle/singapore-sex-ed-sexist/

 

Referral: Trigger Warnings are about Violence (not Political Correctness)

Because I haven’t posted a referral in a while, and because I want to celebrate his triumphant return to blogging, and because this is an excellent piece, I refer you to Jonathan Sterne’s wonderful open letter in response to CAUT’s James Turk and the Montréal Gazette. In this respectful excoriation, Sterne aptly points out the intimate privilege inherent in being able to dismiss the notion of the trigger warning in pedagogy. And more: he skillfully critiques the notion that warning students in advance that a piece may contain images of, say, sexual assault, war atrocities, or lynching amounts to censorship of pedagogy when, in reality, it is about respect and not wanting to re-traumatize someone unnecessarily.

Check it out here on Super Bon!:   http://superbon.net/?p=2587

Griping About Grip

It is sadly telling of the state of advanced neoliberal capitalism that on my winter walk to work I always favour the private side of the street to the public.

But I should explain.

I live in Markham, Ontario, an unashamedly suburban town. One of those places notoriously designed for cars and not people. It is a place of sprawl, and not of the type of cyberpunk conurbation visioned by Gibson—his Sprawl being stark but, most notably, a place of people, of foot traffic, of endless city but
also somehow vibrant, alive, peopled—but rather that other kind; yes, stark, but also desolate, stretched out, etiolated, drained somehow of the vital essence of what makes a city a City.

As a person without a car and lodged within the realities of precarious labour, neoliberal academia, and personal reasons for sticking close to the GTA (Greater Toronto Area), my commute to work is a long affair involving a 20 minute hike to the main transit route, followed by about 3 hours of various busses through a fair few cities until I get to my place of employment. A long commute, certainly, but that’s not the frustrating part.

The frustrating part is the 20 minute walk.

In winter, the paucity of public snow removal, of gritting and salting the ice that so often forms, means that those 20 minutes (and sometimes 30) are a constantly frustrating and harrowing experience. Since the modern, North American suburb is designed for cars and not people there are few sidewalks, and those that are there are not prioritized.

But I make due. Like de Certeau, I make use of pathways and folkways. I cut through church parking lots and, more often than not, use the (paved) road rather than the (unpaved) sidewalk. But one thing in particular has been bugging me, and is the reason for this post.

In my making do I noticed a pattern. It’s a particularity of the main road that makes up the majority of my route that it is oddly divided: the east side of the street is almost all privately owned (a row of town houses, a business complex, a small park, and a condo) and the other side is all public (a highschool, a theatre, and Markham’s city hall). The reason for my griping is that over the two winters I have regularly trudged this route it is almost idiomatic that the private-adjacent sidewalk is always ploughed, salted and gritted (and early on), while the public-adjacent sidewalk is rarely, if ever, fully managed. The fact that the most ill-kept area is the walk beside the city hall fills me with rage. This should be the heart of the civil—it should be accessible, not sheathed in ice!

It frustrates me to no end that to get grip under my feet I need to choose the private option. That to have sure footing I cleave to the condos whose private managers bring out an army of shovelers in the wee hours of the morning and an embarrassment of equipment and materia to humanize the ways for their owner-citizens and to prevent damages from litigation. Like frustrated parents in an underserved school district, the lure if the private option rings so strong due to the continual erosion of the public. And it continues to erode under neoliberalism because of this faulty assumption that the private will step in and take up the slack. Which, to some extent it does, but only insomuch as is it serves a capitalist interest. Which is why on the private side of the street the way is clear around the condo and business complex, but the park in between them becomes a wasteland of neglected drifts. And why the private bus service I take drastically cuts service in the summer, and on weekends, because there is less profit to be had. And why the same private provider is building infrastructure in the form of a useful Bus Rapid Transit corridor along the highway, but bars the regional public busses from using it. Neoliberalism creeps, and living in this sprawl zone makes me feel like I’m living in Stephenson’s Snowcrash, where a crosshatching of corporate-states intercuts the nation- and network-states we already inhabit, increasingly privatizing citizenship and making it impossible to live life in the (sub)urban without an array of membership cards that grant you access to the services that should be part and parcel of public provision.

Imagined Communities

The biggest misread of Benedict Anderson’s concept of “imagined communities” is the notion that his argument is that such worlds are false or fictional constructs. Rather, what is meant by “imaginary” here is its psychoanalytic usage, which is to say “made of of images”. Humans use images to conceive of the world around us, and those images combine into a system, which Lacan called “The Imaginary”, that we use to organize those conceptions. We also use another layer of apprehension built out of language which Lacan called “The Symbolic” to similarly represent and interact with an underlying “Real”.

Now, the Imaginary and the Symbolic together build up our perception of “reality”, which is the Real as filtered and mediated by our consciousnesses, by human society, history, politics. The Imaginary is a crucial part of that construct, and is the part of human culture that is made up of things like relationships, networks, assemblages that hold meaning but might not always be symbolizable, or able to be put into words.

Communities are imaginary for this reason, because they are bigger than any one person’s individual experience, because they often escape easy description through words, or easy delineation on a map. National, provincial, municipal, diasporic, or virtual communities; ethnoscapes, technoscapes and mediascapes; activist, fan and social media networks: all of these communities and spaces are imagined—but that doesn’t make them less real.

Portrait of a Footnote

I think it takes me so long to write sometimes because I get caught up in the furrows and folds of the text I am producing. And I think that one of the reasons for this is the inherent complexity of the material relationships I am writing about. As political identities and connections, they have an excess of context, an “always more” that needs to be appended to the discussion. I want to include all of it, and when I cut parts off, or don’t include them, I feel it as a breach, a wrongness. My particular vice is the footnote—as my long-suffering editor at UBC Press can attest to. In a 70,000 word first manuscript draft I had about 15,000 words of footnote which I felt I needed to properly convey my material. Several drafts later, I have cut thousands of those original 15,000 marginal words, but others needed to be added in (due to revisions, new material, further reflections). I can’t seem to kick the habit.

Another example is the pet peeve I have had for a while with many, many people outside of the BDSM community of mis-describing this acronym as standing for “Bondage and Discipline, Sadism and Masochism”; actually it’s a compressed accronym that stands in for the overlapping cluster of abbreviations: BD, DS and SM (or, ”Bondage and Discipline, Domination and Submission, Sadism and Masochism”). This exclusion bothers me—and increasingly with the ongoing mainstreaming of BDSM—because it’s an elision that ignores the presence of the D/s scene as part of BDSM culture, and erases a key third of this finely calibrated signifier, one painstakingly worked out in the sadomasochistic public sphere with a view to inclusion.

Such is my anal insistence on spelling this out (often, of course, in footnotes) every time I use BDSM in my writing, that these footnotes get quoted in turn in other writing, something I find both hilarious and oddly satisfying—like being quoted in a style manual for the correct use of the semicolon.

And so, I remain, a stubborn user of copious footnoting, because, as in this example I pulled from annotating my choice to use “LGBT* and queer” in an article, these choices have meaning; and in the Foucauldian nexus of power/knowledge, the process and specificities of definition matter.

I used “LGBT* and queer” here, for three interlocked reasons: First, I acknowledge a range of Trans* identities in line with current activist mobilization of this term (e.g., Killerman, 2012). Second, the asterisk at the end of “LGBT*” can also be seen to speak to multiple, additional identities in line with the convention of using a “*” as a wild-card in digital searching. Finally, I include “queer” as a separate, non-capitalized additional positionality to respect the notion that some have of queer as an anti-identity identification (though a capitalized and identity-political “Queer” identity would also be included conceptually under the sign of the asterisk).

The Surfer and the Ice Cube

Recently I unearthed this paper I wrote for Brian Massumi’s brilliant PhD seminar on Discourse and Mediated Messages. The brilliance of this seminar was that we didn’t have a single reading about discourse; rather, we looked under and behind discourse to look at structuration, how things take form, event theory and and the bifurcation of reality. More than any other course, this seminar influenced the way I understand and approach discourse analysis and moreover was key in moving my thinking from discourse to event and formulating the notion of the “complex singularity” upon which this blog is based. This is the short paper in which I tease out this concept.

The Surfer and the Ice Cube: “Soft” Intervention and Movement in Sanford Kwinter’s “The Complex and the Singular.” 

November 29, 2004.

Real time is more truly an engine [...] than a procession of images—it is expressed only by producing, or more precisely, by drawing matter into a process of becoming-ever-different, and to the product of this becoming-ever-different—to this in-built wildness—we have given the name novelty. Yet exactly what is novelty, and from where does it come? What might thinking about it make possible in this world, in this civilization whose deepest religious and philosophical beliefs, and whose social and political institutions, are committed precisely to reducing, eliding, or denying the continual mutations and insistent mischievousness of unmasterable innovation and the wild becoming that drives it? (Kwinter 5).1

What are we to take from this statement? Sanford Kwinter asks this question near the beginning of “The Complex and the Singular,” but in reality it’s more of a proposition than a question. He’s asking us to put at risk, as Isabelle Stengers might say, our conceptions of novelty and our understandings of where “the new” originates (and by extension, where everything that once was new came from). Thinking in this way thrusts us back in time, making our historical perception temporally obverse, forcing us to conceive of the nature of novelty in order to push us on our apprehensions of what currently is. It is therefore not so much forcing us to abandon our abstractions, our notions of the thingness of things, as to generalize them, to see them as the-once-new, as entities that have come about within a nature that itself is “wild, indifferent, and accidental” (4).

He challenges us to see things architecturally, “to consider all architectures as technical objects and all technical objects as architectures” (21). By this he means that “around each and every object there may be associated a corresponding complex of habits, methods, gestures, or practices that are not attributes of the object but nonetheless characterize its mode of existence” (21). Many details could be layered upon this pairing of understandings (between the world of built objects and the world of prehended entities), and Kwinter does indeed do this quite expertly, but the nucleus of this move is his desire to express all entities as things that have come about and that, once they have been “built,” go on to become influences in the becomings of other things in an ongoing process of unfolding through time:

[Time] is not a unitary strand distributing homogeneous units of past, present, and future in a fixed empirical order, but is rather a complex, interactive, “thick” manifold of distinct yet integrated durations. Events belong to a class known as “emergent phenomena”—the product and expression of sudden communicative coherences or “prehensions” (Whitehead) of converging qualities inexplicably interweaving and unfolding together, even though they may originate at vastly different temporal and phenomenal scales. (22)

But this notion of the complex entanglement underlying all objects that “have become” is, alone, an incomplete picture of Kwinter’s perspective on matter. For in Kwinter’s conception, there is no “have become,” only constant, calamitous becoming. To fully understand the nature (and power) of the complex, we must also explore the notion of singularity.

Singularity is, for Kwinter, the order that emerges from chaos, from the “complex, infinitely entailed, dynamical system, or fluid manifold” of the world (24).2 In distinction to the “random, or uncombined (incoherent) differences, which emerge and pass without leaving a trace” (24) singularities “give rise to potential or real morphogeneses within and across a system” (25). In short, they are the complex becomings that “matter”; and by matter here we can read, have become the matter (or part of the matter) of a further becoming. As Whitehead explores, they have value; they can be classed among the actual entities, as opposed to the events that made them, which are within time and are therefore only an ensemble (or society) of actual entities, as opposed to actual entities themselves.3 In Kwinter’s words:

[A] singularity describes specifically that type of difference, in a world of perpetually engendered differences, that is produced at some point along a particular flow and that may be combined with another flow to induce a difference at another scale or level in the manifold. (26)

For Kwinter, the event actualizing a given complex produces a virtual entity (a singularity) that is at once real, and yet not an entity that is self-reactualizable—rather, it’s one that can only then become part of other, further, becomings.

And yet, if we take Kwinter at face value, taking his propositions on novelty and singularity at once, it leads us into absurdity. If “no novelty appears without becoming, and no becoming without novelty” (5), then each new moment is a multiplex manifold of singularities. Each and every novelty—for how can we privilege some novelties over others, all being equal with respect to their ability to become a singular influence to something—is at once singularity and complex, society and actual entity (to wear Whitehead’s words). Each becoming is a convergence of forces and a force in its own right, and becomes the matter of the next convergence, the next manifold-instant. This doesn’t invalidate Kwinter’s framework, but it does turn it in towards itself, making it cyclical—a Deleuzo-Guattarian machine, perhaps—a self-renewing nexus of complex singularities, at once influencing and influenced, constantly becoming, constantly become new.

If this collapses Kwinter’s distinction between the virtual and the actual, with every actual thing becoming immediately virtual and the matter for the next convergence, perhaps this inward-turning has in fact realized his and Whitehead’s conceptions together: “the many [becoming] one, and being increased by one” (Whitehead 21), constantly and endlessly in a “minute and ceaseless procession of catastrophes” (10). If production is at once and immediately production/destruction then we have indeed reached Kwinter’s goal of leaving us with a conception of “‘movement’ as a first principle and not merely a special, dismissable, case” (11).

What, then, is the productivity of this model? At its very outset, Kwinter states as one of his goals to engage the problem of atrophying agency, to “[bring into relief, grasp, interrogate and perhaps transform] our capacity to engage the processes of contemporary reality” (5). He speaks of the fully coded and determined ice cube, resembling “every other just as it resembles it[’s] own mother mold” (26). Fully determined, and metonymic of subjectivity in mass society, the cubic subject is “locked into a static [...] system that reproduces a pregiven form [from which all] the aleatory conditions, all of chance, hazard, all virtuality and sensitivity to other disturbances and changes in the environment—all wildness and openness—are scrupulously (i.e., by design) eliminated” (26). To these depressingly strictured conditions, which remind us more than anything of Althusserian interpellation, he opposes the free-forming snowflake which “maintains its sensitivity both to time and to its complex milieu” (27).

He then speaks of the surfer who “rather track[s], from within the flows, a variety of emerging features, singularities, and unfoldings with which they can meld” (28); of the skate- or snowboarder, who “transform[s] any found space” into something they can work with and use (29); and finally of the purist rockclimber, who, eschewing implements, “forges a morphogenetic figure in time [...] stream[s and] becomes fluid and soft [...] engag[ing] the universe’s wild and free unfolding” (31) by becoming the site of the calamitous micro-singular conjunctions of finger and ledge, palm and rock. These images of what Kwinter calls “soft” intervention (28) speak more than just to Kwinter’s commitment to see the many and various levels of organization of our universe as architectural events (from ice-formation, to parasailing and the 360°), or to the meta-incorporation of these events into architectural and philosophical theory, but first and foremost to the possibilities for movement and change in a world that seems increasingly inbricated in the structures and strictures of the perceived possible and over-concrete real.

Perhaps seeing the ongoing and universal production of novelty on all scales (from the micro-social to the macro-political) allows us a perspective that the Italian Futurists would have been very at home with: a world of pure dynamism. Within a world so conceived (or perhaps, if we agree with Kwinter, so realized) we can view the multiplex interlaced forces that transduce patterns of order between and among the various levels and complexes of reality-making not as strictures, as inescapable engines of repression and isolation, but as lines of flight, as constant creation, and as potentials for difference and movement.

 

Works Cited

Kwinter, Sanford. “The Complex and the Singular.” Architectures of Time: Toward a Theory of the Event in Modernist Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 2001. 3-31.

Stengers, Isabelle. “Whitehead’s Account of the Sixth Day.” ts. Configurations. 2004.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality. Corrected edition. New York: Free Press, 1967.

 


          1. Further references to Kwinter’s “The Complex and the Singular” will be given in the text.

          2. Though Kwinter does say “world” here, I believe it is charitable to think he, in fact, in this conception, takes in the entire universe.

          3. “And when the many that are what is felt, the feeling and the feeler, have come together into a real unity, the actual entity has attained what Whitehead calls “objective immortality,” it will feel no longer, experience no longer, but will be added to what will have to be felt by other subsequent entities.  The many have become one, and are increased by one” (Stengers 10).

Click here to download this paper as a pdf from Academia.edu

“America”

The words “America” and “American” are, even just in themselves, already mythological. How do we build credible, useful and progressive international, transnational or global socio-political structures when one of the major national/subjective building blocks is discursively overdetermined?

Big Data

Thinking qualitatively, what might we consider big data? In discourse analysis there is always more data than can be analyzed…