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Book Review -- Onto-cartography by Levi R. Bryant

Post created 2015-01-12 22:57 by Gabe Koss.

As I began to wrap up the fascinating book Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media by Levi Bryant I felt compelled to write something on the subject as I found it both fascinating and accessible.

Onto-Cartography was released in April, 2014 by Edinburgh University Press. It is available on Amazon

I was recommended this book by my friend Harlan Morehouse as I had been interested in a number of books he had previously recommended. Specifically related to Onto-Cartography were Ian Bogosts Alien Phenomenology and the seminal collaborative collection A Thousand Plateus by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (D&G).

In Alien Phenomenology I was exposed to Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) which appealed to me as a programmer. There is an intuitive quality of the way OOO presents existence as non-hierarchical nesting of inter-related objects. This was a universe in which the human being was not central and had as much validity of existence as a pencil or a beluga or a black hole. OOO also helped me voice in more precise terms some of the anthropocentric beef I have with both the economic and ecological human communities active in the world today. Anthropocentrism is a fundamental flaw in our long term thinking and even many people with the best of intentions tend towards a purely self preservationist approach.

OOO was not without its problems and I soon found myself scratching my head as concepts such as Rhizome theory and Nomadology constantly shattered the simplistic models of "flat hierarchies" I had concocting based on OOO. A Thousand Plateaus holds many powerful concepts for this including the explanations given around lines of flow and drift, deteritorialization and reteritorialization, stratification and double articulation.

Needing a practical application to grapple with these extreme levels of abstract thinking I started an using concepts from D&G as well as OOO and other things I have read in an attempt to map an abstract schema for data indexing. Spoiler alert, that isn't the point of this post and I have nothing to show from that as yet.

Once while out for a run I told Harlan about my project and he was almost indignant. It wasn't that he didn't understand it at an intellectual level but he argued that in many ways it was counter to the overall purpose of A Thousand Plateus. In retrospect I tend to agree but I think it was a valuable exercise for me and it resulted in many interesting diagrams as I tried to conceptually map different objects into Rhizomes or other "structures".

My studies continued and I began reading Bryants blog Larval Subjects. I was intrigued and so it came to pass that when Onto-Cartography was released I had already pre-ordered it. Tragically I didn't have the mental fortitude to read it for several months.

In the book Bryant lays out the framework for what he sees as tool for mapping the nature of reality. Hence the so called "Ontological Cartography". He builds up a very accessible model from the fundamental concept that "everything is a machine" and every exchange between two machines must be mediated by other machines; hence "an ontology of machines and media".

The aspect of machines acting as both individuated objects while simultaneously as the intermediary medium between other machines, controlling and manipulating flows is very similar in concept to the ideas of stratification and the double articulating nature of the interstrata as presented in the essay "10,000BC: The Geology of Morals" found in A Thousand Plateus.

Bryant explains the machine as medium:

A machine functions as a medium for another machine not only when it amplifies or extends a sense-organ, but also when it modifies the activities or becoming of any other machine. Vitamin B functions as a medium for our bodies when it modifies our moods. Cigarettes function as a medium for lung cells when it modifies how they maintain and reproduce themselves. The temperatures of the nest in which a crocodile has laid her eggs functions as a medium for those eggs insofar as as it plays a roll in the sex of the developing eggs.

After expanding his views on the base nature of the world as machines relating machines to machines he continues to expand on many functional topics of the philosophy. There is a chapter devoted to Bogosts Alien Phenomenology and another detailing the structure of worlds.

The chapter titled "Machinic Assemblages and Entropy" discusses the way that machines are joined into the assemblages of which all machines are comprised (reminiscent of OOO's nested flat hierarchies). Assemblages must constantly overcome the tug of entropy to decay and break down from their unnatural structure. Bryant introduces the concept of 'negentropy' and explains that "a system is negentropic if it engages in active operations to maintains a state of low entropy across time." He goes on to quote Louis Althusser on this topic.

Althusser remarks "... in order to exist, every social formation must reproduce the condition of its production at the same time as it produces, in order to be able to produce." Human bodies, minds, and affects along with relations between humans must be formed or reproduced in various ways in order for the city to resist falling into entropic dissolution so that it might continue to exist across time.

Bryant continues to lay out a detailed framework of the different types of bright and dark machines before arriving at his final chapter titled "Earth, Maps and Practices". Here he presents his ultimate thesis and the true goal of the whole book.

This takes the form of a series of tools of analysis based around the concepts of Onto-Cartography and also clearly states the main goals of the philosophy.

Near the end I found one more very relevant connection to a concept found in AI theory. Specifically this is the idea of backpropagation of values through a neural network of functions. Simply put backpropagation is the process of using a functions derivative to determine what sorts of inputs are needed to gain a desired output from the function. Bryant describes a similar process of biological backprogation taking place between DNA, RNA and the synthesized protein.

Overall I quite enjoyed the read. I still have much to digest and will probably need to read it again in the not too distant future.

I would highly recommend Onto-Cartography to anyone who is interested in language, ecology, gender and race relations, post-structuralism, materialist philosophy or just curious what I am talking about. I found it to be a great summation of many challenging works with a very important layer of Bryants own analysis, synthesis and creative thought added. What is presented is ultimately very compelling while still being significantly more accessible than most.

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