Saturday, January 30, 2016

Vitruvius Pollio, The origin of the dwelling house

 Chapter 1 of Book II of "Ten Books on Architecture", available from Project Gutenberg.  Sections 1, 2, and 7 (from the Richard Schofield translation published by Penguin rather than the one here) are quoted on pp. 218-219 of Spheres II by Peter Sloterdijk.  Pay particular attention to Section 2.

1. The men of old were born like the wild beasts, in woods, caves, and groves, and lived on savage fare. As time went on, the thickly crowded trees in a certain place, tossed by storms and winds, and rubbing their branches against one another, caught fire, and so the inhabitants of the place were put to flight, being terrified by the furious flame. After it subsided, they drew near, and observing that they were very comfortable standing before the warm fire, they put on logs and, while thus keeping it alive, brought up other people to it, showing them by signs how much comfort they got from it. In that gathering of men, at a time when utterance of sound was purely individual, from daily habits they fixed upon articulate words just as these had happened to come; then, from indicating by name things in common use, the result was that in this chance way they began to talk, and thus originated conversation with one another.

2. Therefore it was the discovery of fire that originally gave rise to the coming together of men, to the deliberative assembly, and to social intercourse. And so, as they kept coming together in greater numbers into one place, finding themselves naturally gifted beyond the other animals in not being obliged to walk with faces to the ground, but upright and gazing upon the splendour of the starry firmament, and also in being able to do with ease whatever they chose with their hands and fingers, they began in that first assembly to construct shelters. Some made them of green boughs, others dug caves on mountain sides, and some, in imitation of the nests of swallows and the way they built, made places of refuge out of mud and twigs. Next, by observing the shelters of others and adding new details to their own inceptions, they constructed better and better kinds of huts as time went on.

3. And since they were of an imitative and teachable nature, they would daily point out to each other the results of their building, boasting of the novelties in it; and thus, with their natural gifts sharpened by emulation, their standards improved daily. At first they set up forked stakes connected by twigs and covered these walls with mud. Others made walls of lumps of dried mud, covering them with reeds and leaves to keep out the rain and the heat. Finding that such roofs could not stand the rain during the storms of winter, they built them with peaks daubed with mud, the roofs sloping and projecting so as to carry off the rain water.

4. That houses originated as I have written above, we can see for ourselves from the buildings that are to this day constructed of like materials by foreign tribes: for instance, in Gaul, Spain, Portugal, and Aquitaine, roofed with oak shingles or thatched. Among the Colchians in Pontus, where there are forests in plenty, they lay down entire trees flat on the ground to the right and the left, leaving between them a space to suit the length of the trees, and then place above these another pair of trees, resting on the ends of the former and at right angles with them. These four trees enclose the space for the dwelling. Then upon these they place sticks of timber, one after the other on the four sides, crossing each other at the angles, and so, proceeding with their walls of trees laid perpendicularly above the lowest, they build up high towers. The interstices, which are left on account of the thickness of the building material, are stopped up with chips and mud. As for the roofs, by cutting away the ends of the crossbeams and making them converge gradually as they lay them across, they bring them up to the top from the four sides in the shape of a pyramid. They cover it with leaves and mud, and thus construct the roofs of their towers in a rude form of the "tortoise" style.

5. On the other hand, the Phrygians, who live in an open country, have no forests and consequently lack timber. They therefore select a natural hillock, run a trench through the middle of it, dig passages, and extend the interior space as widely as the site admits. Over it they build a pyramidal roof of logs fastened together, and this they cover with reeds and brushwood, heaping up very high mounds of earth above their dwellings. Thus their fashion in houses makes their winters very warm and their summers very cool. Some construct hovels with roofs of rushes from the swamps. Among other nations, also, in some places there are huts of the same or a similar method of construction. Likewise at Marseilles we can see roofs without tiles, made of earth mixed with straw. In Athens on the Areopagus there is to this day a relic of antiquity with a mud roof. The hut of Romulus on the Capitol is a significant reminder of the fashions of old times, and likewise the thatched roofs of temples or the Citadel.

6. From such specimens we can draw our inferences with regard to the devices used in the buildings of antiquity, and conclude that they were similar.

Furthermore, as men made progress by becoming daily more expert in building, and as their ingenuity was increased by their dexterity so that from habit they attained to considerable skill, their intelligence was enlarged by their industry until the more proficient adopted the trade of carpenters. From these early beginnings, and from the fact that nature had not only endowed the human race with senses like the rest of the animals, but had also equipped their minds with the powers of thought and understanding, thus putting all other animals under their sway, they next gradually advanced from the construction of buildings to the other arts and sciences, and so passed from a rude and barbarous mode of life to civilization and refinement.

7. Then, taking courage and looking forward from the standpoint of higher ideas born of the multiplication of the arts, they gave up huts and began to build houses with foundations, having brick or stone walls, and roofs of timber and tiles; next, observation and application led them from fluctuating and indefinite conceptions to definite rules of symmetry. Perceiving that nature had been lavish in the bestowal of timber and bountiful in stores of building material, they treated this like careful nurses, and thus developing the refinements of life, embellished them with luxuries. Therefore I shall now treat, to the best of my ability, of the things which are suitable to be used in buildings, showing their qualities and their excellencies.

8. Some persons, however, may find fault with the position of this book, thinking that it should have been placed first. I will therefore explain the matter, lest it be thought that I have made a mistake. Being engaged in writing a complete treatise on architecture, I resolved to set forth in the first book the branches of learning and studies of which it consists, to define its departments, and to show of what it is composed. Hence I have there declared what the qualities of an architect should be. In the first book, therefore, I have spoken of the function of the art, but in this I shall discuss the use of the building materials which nature provides. For this book does not show of what architecture is composed, but treats of the origin of the building art, how it was fostered, and how it made progress, step by step, until it reached its present perfection.

9. This book is, therefore, in its proper order and place.

I will now return to my subject, and with regard to the materials suited to the construction of buildings will consider their natural formation and in what proportions their elementary constituents were combined, making it all clear and not obscure to my readers. For there is no kind of material, no body, and no thing that can be produced or conceived of, which is not made up of elementary particles; and nature does not admit of a truthful exploration in accordance with the doctrines of the physicists without an accurate demonstration of the primary causes of things, showing how and why they are as they are.

Some Sloterdijk quotes to round this out.

The vital point of Vitruvius' speculations is obvious: building follows  a centripetal force that first causes humans to come together, and then results in the necessity of accommodating those who have gathered. (p.219)
So this is another example of a centripetal or sociopetal force.

Fire pampers humans and makes them dependent on forms of relief; thus civilization could begin as a history of pampering---and a battle for access to the scarce means of pampering.  All other pampering and relieving measures, both domestic and urban, followed the first great convenience of the open fire.  It is the warmth of the tamed fire that draws people together in a gathering place, as if around a focal point. (p. 219-221)

Fire in the hole!  (Here, Sloterdijk is presumably playing with words, since focus is fire in Latin.)

It would cost no effort to develop Vitruvius' laconic ideas further into a sociology of the hearth, which would identify the first motives of group formation in a doubly irresistible human conversation about this pleasantness.   Vitruvius highlights the decisive point very clearly: the first humans to enjoy that warmth called the next over, then communicated with them in gestures and primitive words about the benefits of the new-found, wondrous central force. (p. 221)

Here we get properly "phatic" activity going on.  The "ring of people" (p. 221) reminds me also of the Kula ring, which is formed in a very different way, but which might perform a similar social function.

Sloterdijk discusses elsewhere (I think in "You must change your life" but I don't remember, maybe it is in his book on Derrida) how important bragging is in philosophical and religious history.

[T]he hearth is older than the house, and a house is above all a converted fireplace. (pp. 222-223)
This is a strong image.  It's certainly true in my little house that the wood burning stove, brick fireplace, and chimney are a very central and prominent feature.

Human vessels and cooking vessels form a material rhyme around the hearth.  I have shown in a different context why, in addition, the house always had to be a residence for spirits of closeness. (p. 223)

The other context (referenced in a note) is Spheres I, Chapter 6, Soul Partition: Angels---Twins---Doubles, pp. 413ff.

Only at the city hearth, consecrated to the goddess Hestia, could the solidarity-providing combination of domesticity and statehood be staged in a manifestly convincing manner. (p. 223)

This is relevant to the question I posted in the former post -- about the possibility of non-state-centric phatics.  Still an open question it seems to me.   This is also relevant to our discussion of transcommunication, since we have posited that communal living in cities can easily fulfil the "kick back" feature of transcommunication.  It's relatively clear that it "is" the city that kicks back.

For the Romans, the shrine of the hearth goddess Vesta was undoubtedly the center of their res publica. Through the sacred fire guarded in her temple, the Romans secured their indispensable equation of house and empire. (p. 223)

This is the important cultural evolution I was referencing in Section 5.3 of our outline.

The untouched vestal virgins guaranteed the aura of utmost intactness, without which the gathering of citizens around the immaculate central hearth would have been unthinkable and unguardable.  The priestesses of divine domesticity had to be equipped with extraordinary salvific privileges: if a criminal condemned to death passed a vestal virgin on the way to his execution, he was immediately set free.

 These purification rituals seem closely related to the pharmakos notion.  Whereas the criminal represents the bad elements that need to be gotten rid of (the scapegoat), the vestal virgins and their fire represent the good elements that have the power to remedy that.  But it seems obvious that these are two "gendered" poles of the same feature and that the vestal virgins are themselves prisoners of a sort.  This reminds me of something I was reading recently about normalized prostitution in some groups in India.  I'll have to look up the details when I get home.  But for instance, compare the notion of "comfort women" to the pampering fire.

Friday, January 29, 2016

what is something? - for a subatomic phatics

By the people who brought us --

I really like the illustration of fundamental particles.  It seems to speak volumes about where `phatics` (as we know it) ultimately comes from.  (Particularly from around 4'00".)

thinking the analogue

I started thinking about this question when reading the first chapter of Judith Butler's Gender Trouble. Basically, it goes like this: we imagine a "law" or some other system of judgment that can discriminate or categorize -- e.g. beings according to sex or gender.

I wanted to get acquainted with Butler's work which I haven't looked at before precisely because I wanted to read it "against" Turing's imitation game, which in its initial formulation is exactly a gender-discrimination test. 

This law, where does it come from?  Well, I'm imagining that optimistically speaking, it has been created as something like a social contract.  The entrants to Turing's imitation game have, at least in principle, agreed to submit themselves to the experiment.  (We can also consider Turing tests that are not voluntary.)
"I am the woman, don't listen to him!"
And so on.

But here's where it seems to take a "phatic turn".  What if phatic behavior creates a miniature "law" that can be used to discriminate -- between those who are "in" and those who are "out" of the conversation in particular?  Between "noise" and "signal" in Kockelman's info-theoretic terms.

Once you see something, you start to see it everywhere. 
The subject, its concepts, and also the objects in the world to which the concepts are applied have a shared, internal essence: the self-resemblance at the basis of identity. Representational thought is analogical; its concern is to establish a correspondence between these symmetrically structured domains. The faculty of judgment is the policeman of analogy, assuring that each of the three terms is honestly itself, and that the proper correspondences obtain. In thought its end is truth, in action justice. The weapons it wields in their pursuit are limitative distribution (the determination of the exclusive set of properties possessed by each term in contradistinction to the others: logos, law) and hierarchical ranking (the measurement of the degree of perfection of a term's self-resemblance in relation to a supreme standard, man, god, or gold: value, morality). The modus operandi is negation: x = x = not y. Identity, resemblance, truth, justice, and negation. The rational foundation for order. The established order, of course: philosophers have traditionally been employees of the State.  The goal laid out for it by Wilhelm von Humboldt (based on proposals by Fichte and Schleiermacher) was the "spiritual and moral training of the nation," to be achieved by "deriving everything from an original principle" (truth), by "relating everything to an ideal" (justice), and by "unifying this principle and this ideal in a single Idea" (the State). The end product would be "a fully legitimated subject of knowledge and society" —each mind an analogously organized mini-State morally unified in the supermind of the State. - Brian Massumi, Translator's Foreword to A Thousand Plateaus.
Indeed, the same sort of State-centric rhetoric goes into the introduction of the Patterns of Peeragogy paper that I recently co-authored and submitted.

Is there another option, in Deleuze or Butler?  Can we think of a non-statist phatics?

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Political Economy of Institutions and Decisions series (cambridge press)

«The Political Economy of Institutions and Decisions series focuses on two central questions: How do institutions evolve in response to individual incentives, strategies, and choices, and how do institutions affect the performance of political and economic systems? The series concentrates on answers to these questions based in methodological individualism. Its scope is comparative and historical rather than international or specifically American. Its focus is positive rather than normative, but many of the studies in the series offer analyses of informal institutional factors, such as social norms and culture, based on a rational-choice approach.»

Some of that seems (possibly) related to phatics. What I'm thinking here relates to the idea of a "gift economy", which exists in both ancient and modern forms:

E.g. here are some quotes from that article:

«Gift exchange thus has a political effect; granting prestige or status to one, and a sense of debt in the other. A political system can be built out of these kinds of status relationships. Sahlins characterizes the difference between status and rank by highlighting that Big man is not a role; it is a status that is shared by many. The Big man is "not a prince OF men," but a "prince among men." The Big man system is based upon the ability to persuade, rather than command.»

«Bowie sees [alms-giving to beggars] as an example of a moral economy ... in which the poor use gossip and reputation as a means of resisting elite exploitation and pressuring them to ease their "this world" suffering.»

«Engineers, scientists and software developers have created open-source software projects such as the Linux kernel and the GNU operating system. They are prototypical examples for the gift economy's prominence in the technology sector and its active role in instating the use of permissive free software and copyleft licenses, which allow free reuse of software and knowledge. Other examples include file-sharing and open access.»

Some questions are: (a) what do these topics have in common, and (b) is that thing-in-common related to phatics?

Not to be overly clever (see my recent post about Stiegler), but I think the thing in common is that there IS a "common thing"! The objects of reciprocal (or as Baudrillard puts it, "symbolic") exchange are effectively held-in-common *as an institution*, even when the individual objects are consumable items, like food.

Do these "common things" have phatic behavior at the core? I think it is likely that they do -- especially insofar as the state of being held-in-common-as-an-institution is a bit like being a "microlanguage" (albeit sometimes a language of physical objects rather than texts).

I'm not sure I can *prove* this point at the moment, but a few of the books from the series mentioned in the subject line here might help develop the case.

An interesting question is when and how the "mutuality" of a language breaks down into the "sidedness" of a market: again, Baudrillard's book "Symbolic Exchange and Death" deals extensively with that case (and further evolution/metastasization of "sidedness" in societies of control).

With this in mind, a few interesting titles from the series:

- The Dilemma of the Commoners: Understanding the Use of Common Pool
Resources in Long-Term Perspective

- Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from
Medieval Trade

- Beyond the Miracle of the Market: The Political Economy of Agrarian
Development in Kenya

- The Politics of Oligarchy: Institutional Choice in Imperial Japan

- Making a Market: The Institutional Transformation of an African

- Regulations, Institutions, and Commitment: Comparative Studies of

- Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective
Action (by Nobel Prize winner Elinor Ostrom)


I did some work with Ostrom's formalism; I'm adding my poster summarising what I learned here.  A preprint version of the paper is available here.   The full-size poster is here (A1 format).

Thursday, January 14, 2016

paths as blends - anthropogenic change

Some vintage writing from me that gets at some ideas in "distributed cognition".  While this isn't strictly "phatic" it seems like something closely adjacent.

Figure 3 presents a simple illustration of the idea: a path is traced out as a blend of several forces. Commenting on a similar image, Andersen [1] writes that the basic metaphor for thinking is travel. But rather than considering a simple path between obstacles, we might envisage a skier descending amongst moguls. Through continued use, the landscape shifts, and the classifications of paths in terms of their homotopic features or their desirability may change. The “relations between relations” [2] that define semiotic systems can be hooked together and react back on themselves, as our representations, relations, and the world we live in evolve over time.

References are:

[1] ANDERSEN , P. B. Dynamic semiotics. Semiotica 139, 1/4 (2002), 161–210.

[2] KOCKELMAN , P. Biosemiosis, technocognition, and sociogenesis: Selection and significance in a multiverse of sieving and serendipity. Current Anthropology 52, 5 (2011), 711–739.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

finishing up Stiegler's "What makes life worth living: On pharmacology"

I wanted to write a bit more about the central idea of a pharmakon, but then realized that Wikipedia doesn't really do this term service, so I started a new draft article to define the term properly. I also encountered a relatively short article that may be a useful introduction to Stiegler in the "phatics" context, namely Relational Ecology and the Digital Pharmakon, published in 2012. As a general comment on his 2010 book, I found it really profound -- in places -- and I'm glad that I read it.

However I regret that I would have a hard time recommending it to anyone who isn't relatively steeped in post-structuralist French philosophy. There are too many long snowclone-style sentences with the form "if A of B and C, then C of B to A". These just come across as waffling around. And there are also too many places (for my taste) where Stiegler uses terms without any definition, but which casual readers aren't likely to know.

OK, with this comment I'm sure I come across as a bit lazy, and this sort of thinking could be taken as a prime example of the short-circuiting of attention that the truly profound and poetic passages point to as a contemorary ailment: the tl;dr effect. Even so, I must admit that I'd like to see a much shorter version of the book (which is why I have high hopes for the "Relational Ecology" paper that I mentioned) which keeps the thoughtfulness and some of the poetry, but dispenses with some of the gymnastics. I think that could be easily done, and I marked some of the passages that might form part of a "redacted" version of the book.

Perhaps I'll add some of those in attached comments later on. For now, I'll just make a few remarks, mostly in my own words. Firstly, I think Stiegler is clear that discussion can create a "thing" which can then be attended to. What's particularly interesting is the temporal nature of this thing. One possibility is that whatever is created is a momentary connection -- but another possibility is that what is created endures beyond the initial constituents. The enduring form is what Stiegler refers to a "long circuit". Only within long circuits is it possible to exercise care for a next generation. This is especially interesting because the "next generation" does not necessarily need to denote the next biological generation, but can be any form of selection that is based on care or attention. The opposite effect is what happens when these circuits of long-term care are interrupted or "short circuited" -- and Stiegler makes a case that contemporary forms of capital and media do just that. He is particularly concerned about "marketing" as a sort of programming that removes the ability (and even the time) to think.

This could be generalized to any form of communication that "short circuits" or pre-judges a selection process -- for instance, yesterday I watched a short talk by Cathy O'Neil about big data algorithms that  make decisions that can have a huge effect on the lives of their targets, but which are "secret" and which no one can get access to. That seems like a perfect (if scary) example. Nevertheless, as Steigler's organization Ars Industrialis remarks elsewhere, "a pharmakon should always be considered in the three meanings of the word: as poison, as a remedy, and as a scapegoat (or outlet)". (They cite Bateson's analysis of the role of "alcohol" as understood by Alcoholics Anonymous.)

This means (for example) that even if we are inclined to see big data algorithms as "poisonous", we should also remember to consider the way they function as a "remedy" and as a "scapegoat". For instance, O'Neil points out that the secret algorithms that compute the "Value Added Model" of a teacher's performance are meant to remedy the earlier un-apt way of judging teacher performance (based only on how many students pass or fail). [UPDATE: the late Aaron Swartz wrote an essay that describes how this sort of economizing has been going on for a long time, and that claims that the whole activity of public education serves as a smoke-screen for more nefarious machinations.]

The basic Derridean view on the pharmakon is that we should not try to "resolve" this dilemma one way or another, or we will end up doing violence to the underlying philosophical situation. Here's a quote that shows how Stiegler views the situation:
Rather than opposing the 'bottom-up' to the 'top-down', it is a matter of constituting systems for producing metadata that organize and create political technologies encouraging the emergence of psychic and collective individuation processes of a new kind. These systems must be grounded in the representation of differing perspectives, polemics and controversies, as well as convergences of interest or perspective enabling re-groupings, that is, ultimately, transindividuations that recognize themselves in meanings, thereby constituting collective individuations, and establishing, at the heart of digitalized public life, argued and analysable critique that counters the murmurings that abound in a falsely consensual digital world lacking instruments for enhancing collective singularities. - p. 95, "What makes life worth living"
An example of a statement that is at once relatively profound and, in my opinion, far too acrobatic. A shorter version of the quote might just say: "Rather than opposing the 'bottom-up' to the 'top-down', it is a matter of constituting systems for producing metadata[.]" and then let the reader think about who has access to this metadata and what they can do with it. (I.e. is it used to form a political discussion, to create new institutions, or is it used to create markets? Why, or why not, in each case?) For our purposes, another quote from a couple of pages later helps to show what else the metadata might do:
The new metalanguage that metadata forms constitutes a new epoch of the grammatization process that globally trans-forms the conditions of transindividuation. A psychic process is translated at the level of a collective individuation through which psychic individuation is marked, inscribed so to speak in the real, and is recognized by other psychic individuals: this work of collective individuation by psychic individuation, and conversely this inscription of collective individuation in psychic individuation, is formed by the process of transindividuation. Now it is precisely this circuit formed by the process of individuation that can be seen in 'social networks' -- however poor they may seem at first sight, just a few years after their appearance. p. 97, ibid.
This quote again seems somewhat overladen and snowclone-like, but at least it is relatively explicit. It illustrates quite nicely how a Saussure- or Hjelmslev-style "semiotic division" can be inserted between the psychic and the social. Now, I'm not sure that's such a grand conclusion, but it's something.

I might rather conclude with the thought that the "metalanguage that metadata forms" could be seen not as new but as old and universal -- something that the phatic function (in its various guises) can help to understand and theorize. In any case, together with the other quote, I think this note shows the relevance of Stiegler's thinking to theorizing phatics. He fleshes out some of the Simondon ideas with contemporary examples and shows connections with the idea of the pharmakon (referencing Derrida, but also Husserl, Freud, and Winnicott). Quite a lot for one small book to do.