Acknowledging the trends of a new cultural-topological turn Jonathan Kemp reads Sha Xin Wei’s recent book on poiesis, enchantment and topology, inside out
I teach you the friend and his overflowing heart. But you must understand how to be a sponge if you want to be loved by overflowing hearts
– Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
If, in a point-driven Cartesian mapping, space is reducted as topographical, measurable, ‘like a carapace’, luckily it's not the only way it can be seen to work. Since the late 19th Century, mathematicians (Bernhard Riemann, Carl Friedrich Gauss, Johann Benedict Listing, August Ferdinand Moebius, Henri Poincaré) have pulled, bent, and squeezed it outwith of any graphic fix to formalise new found continuities and connectivity, variously foregrounded in notions of limit, boundedness, orientation, neighbourhood, cut, interior, and exterior.
No wonder then, that topology, with such performative means of description, has come to serve as a non-totalising articulation of numerous fields outside its mathematical origins. Born in the exhaust fumes of Freud’s failed ‘Topographic Project’, Lacan was first to grasp it, ‘not as a theoretical model, but as the original machine (met en scene) that directs the subject’ in the immanent structuring of our wonky psyche-substrates. And if other social scientists have outsourced topology to render explicit any latent pathologies in the socio-technical, then architects like Greg Lynn use it to spread their gobbets of blob as the quid pro quo of contemporary machinic process.1
Thus, Sha Xin Wei’s Poiesis and Enchantment in Topological Matter joins other recent psycho-mathematical treks across art and culture, including 2011’s Tate Modern's Topology Project, an attempt to reify this incubus of much contemporary theory; and 2012’s special edition of Theory, Culture & Society, ‘Topologies of Culture’, whose contributors were tasked with examining social life as topological substrate.2
Sha, concerned with the implications for a humanist ethics in this latter trajectory, details the strands of this research in his recent book. Firstly, as an essay in process philosophy, he calls for the relinquishment of all forms of transcendentalism, including metaphysical a priori oppositions such as subject-object, and argues for a continuous and immanent substrate materiality. Secondly, through a detailed exegesis of set-theory and topology, he articulates how such a grounding of continuous process, can produce value and novelty. Thirdly, the book variously plots the implications for subjectivation and sociality in such approaches when elaborated in topologically-created and computationally-driven performative events and installations.3
Sha’s is a generous enquiry, deploying mathematical-poietic lures for thinking and feeling, ranged in scale from setting out the recursive, reciprocal execution of ontological individuation for the ‘ethico-aesthetics’ of ‘pathic’ dynamism; to simply nudging artists and scholars towards more ‘alinguistic’ means and methods of producing and negotiating cultural artefacts and dynamics.
What is really most at stake for Sha ‘is the potential for ethico-aesthetic experiment’.4 From which, ‘any sense of sociality and pathic subjectivity [can] emerge’ but without appeal to any kind of ‘transcendentalism’. So, he asks:
To anticipate the arguments of this book around topological media, can there be continuous, distributed agency, and what ethico-aesthetic invention would that enable? (p.7)
Before he goes about slicing away at any a priori positivism about the material. This is done (via bundled arguments about musical scores, dance, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gilbert Simondon, Karen Barad, and Arabic music) to rehearse an argument that the means for any such invention must be enabled through phenomenological experimentation that simultaneously manifests and represents its necessary ground of ‘continuous substance, continuous process.’
Articulating a set of axiomatic propositions to express these ‘value-generating processes’ co-constituted in the fundament of the ‘connected plenum’ (magma), Sha makes clear the condition for the possibility of ethics. And, in following Whitehead’s axiom that ‘how an entity becomes constitutes what the entity is’, Sha then moves from implicating such ‘enchanted matter’ as the ‘field oriented’ dynamic substrate for an ontogenesis necessarily ‘laden with value’, to asking to what poetic figuration can we appeal in order to articulate such a continuous ethical ground?
For Sha, topology, in formally describing the qualitative similarities among things, boot-straps itself as this primary mode of articulation. Lived experience, he attests, can be indexed with rigour, interrogated along its contextual fields of ‘affective intensity’ without being totalised or reduced as a priori functions of some measurable system.
As a Stanford PhD in the modelling of scientific data, he exceeds due diligence in making explicit his preferred topology for the enchantment and poiesis of matter – primed as an ‘anexact’ yet rigorous ‘poetic articulation’ of events, point-set topology articulates the ‘generative aspects’ of a shared, ‘primordial play’ with which a positive ethico-aesthetics can co-construct a sociality free of commodification. And the play of the computational, as it
affords boundless and intricate ways to construct media with experimentally different sorts of behavior than what one expects from noncomputational media like, water, wood, tissue, and sinew (p.90, author's italics)
is reinforced as the means to effect, in a perverse confluence,5 the book’s thesis of subjectivation:
Not from an atomic world, because we run into complexity and the problem of intersubjectivity – the problem of how monads or groups of monads sum to one society. However, if we start with a plenum – already one substance – then we have, not a starting place – an Archimedean leverage point – but a magma of co-structuration that can be the substrate subjectivation. (p.8)
Accordingly, this confluence of continuous material dynamics, and topology, via computational media, is uniquely charged to gain traction on halting our drift towards oblivion to access an affective, caring, joyful life, and thereby our ‘immanent humanity’.
In effect, this litany of subjunctives (for all that may yet be true) demand for a reciprocity of a non-allegorical caritas (with the transcription of an ardently human ‘care’) from the cruel homeopathy implicit in those concrete executions he butterflies out of the meatier tranches of topology and process philosophy.
Sha’s elaborations of such execution, those ‘time-slice’ like installations, experiments, and ‘events’, are hinged together to, as he says, ‘lightly scaffold’ the ‘emergence of shared patterns of behaviour or recognition’.6 And free from any grid-like restriction, such emancipations can then cascade in their co-articulative gestures and movements to realise otherwise unbeknownst socialities.
In another moment, Sha suggests that these new topological understandings, implemented in his poetic machineries of technological improvisation, can be unfolded and transcribed across rationality to transform reason (and humanity) itself.
What is not so clear is how these transcriptions are hardcored to effect the stickiness of his confluence. With the imprimatur of topology as ethico-aesthetic action, invariance, here as social memory, needs establishing through, say, a maximum gestural isomorphism from each performative localisation. If the topological-computational underpins and transforms the conceptual, where can any global versioning of caritas be located, especially if it is otherwise rendered oblique through a mandated protean extensiveness? In other words, from where does the required globalising epistemological stiffness emerge?
This is a real pragmatic task for this work, that, or its being remaindered like some wormy intuitions or orphaned carry outs in a heap of spent ‘symbolic charge[s]’.
In a key chapter, Ontogenesis, Sha argues that
sometimes a local, even point-based phenomenon can manifest a global quality. This need not be so mysterious at all if we regard the world as a processual magma. (p.144, author’s italics)
And, by using a figure of a cut plant stem Sha points to how simultaneities occur across nature, and phenomena can share a common ‘natality’.7 In questioning what cosmologically impels such ontogenic reciprocity he, after sketching over various metatheoretic candidates, suggests that they might be understood as arising from the negentropic impulse of a contiguous plenum, where phenomena are impelled to ‘poke through’ from the substrate-noise.8
With ‘topological media’ propped up as the desired mode of articulation adequate to grip onto this new life, the capacity is there to patch a way across the
simplest symbolic substances that respect the lifeworld’s continuous dynamism, change, temporality, infinite transformation, ontogenesis, superposability, continuity, density, and value, and yet are free of or at least agnostic with respect to measure, metric, counting, finitude, formal logic, linguistics (syntax, grammar), digitality, and computability, in short all formal structures that would put a cage over all of the lifeworld. (p.162)
And once this poietic self construction has been filigreed out from the margins9 of undefinable openness, ‘we’ encounter its
radically decentred, deanthropomorphized concept of experience and cultural dynamics [...] a conceptual trellis for the condensation of subjectivity in the endless exfoliation of experience in the world. (p.182)
The apparatus for executing such a ‘nonanthropocentric conception of living matter’ is one, he declares, in which any state changes are meaningful and where data is modelled, cooked, and has feedback mechanisms, yet is neither nonrandom, bureaucratic, nor tyrannical (p.207). As the book details, this has taken the form of a ‘responsive media installation-event’ system that ‘synthesizes’ with participants sensing via the adornment of ‘computationally augmented’ fabrics within time and sensor-based interactive environments.10
This is the pedunculate of practice, one tasked with eviscerating cultural dynamics yet ever clocked by current-state proprietary technologies (hard and soft). Necessarily co-constitutive within its environment, it excludes as it includes, so where the call for ‘art all the way down’ promises of ‘opening up the technical substrate’, it’s the tyranny of ‘lingua franca’ machines in funded labs rather than the less disciplined craft of any ‘DIY artist’ that’s ringfenced for the mainlining of ethico-aesthetics (p.110).11
Thus, any detailing of the wider ‘materials science’ of cultural dynamics and ‘human-machine agencies in the creation of emergence of subjectivities’ (p.254), is jettisoned, along with, arguably, any strong claim for ethico-aesthetic practice:
I prefer to create installation-events in which participants may have compelling experiences without having to think how everything works […] puzzle solving is a poor substitute for theater or any thick form of life. (p.256)
It's worth noting here that had Sha invested in examining Karen Barad’s ‘agential realism’, an extension of Nils Bohr’s theory of complementarity, he would have had to hand a more deliberate methodology for any ‘Atelier-Lab’.12
Practice, and play, is dynamically determined from without, via multiple material-discursive agencies, but here Sha accessions it as a non-random non-instrumentalised polity, compacted and affiliated, via veiled lookups between verb and gesture, with environmentally sedimented (subject) intuitions. It is as much this out-with that produces the with-in, and without any transcription across the spatio-temporal, there can be no sense of primordial sets, open or not, and certainly no ‘thick experiments in the wild’ (p.235).13
Furthermore, far from establishing loops of feedback (the parody of cybernetics) to synthesise media and the senses, where software affects behaviour and behaviour modifies the system (memory), the sequential alteration in its technical mechanisms expose a bigger problem, a Gordion Knot of rationality that prescribes any infinite and uncertain quality to behaviour.
Sha is overconcerned not to slash through this knot; he wants to avoid being thrown into the uncontrollable chaosmosis, the ontologically unstable groundless ground (Félix Guatarri) replete with its micro-fascist potential. Thus rather than embrace any merelogical imbalance or distortion in the dynamic life-world, Sha wraps his affective field of primordial care (p.94) around the sweet epistemic core of ‘ardent humanism’, and (lettered in red) shot through with The Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you (p.103).
This is his datum against which the prefiguring of any ethics for our time can be transcribed. It’s an attempt at a read/write construction to inscribe stability over the continuous substrate. But where its means, of synthetic a priori reasoning and a clocked technological procedurality, make it a metaphysics of necessity – a metaphysics of mechanical reasoning (sequence-matching as logic) – that has hit on the technics of knowing, it’s a how of things sensed and known that is discontinuous with any processual autonomy of mind.
Thus, and to conclude, this is a book on implementation: the less than incidental confluence of topology, of current-state (proprietary) technologies, of a ‘joyous’ reading of continuity in Gilles Deleuze and Alfred North Whitehead, piped around a damaged narrative of subjectivation. If it’s the nomos to come, it’s one that deactivates openness and non-constructedness (invention) by deferring to a rubric of symbolisation that procedurely (computationally) remonstrates that humans, with all their billions of micro-biological contingencies and relations, cannot produce novel behaviours or emerge newer socialities without the aid of some kind of normative supra-prosthetic. Sha pendunculates his Möbius mirror, and anything prescient about humanity succumbs to the red masque of illimitable dominion, of disciplinary oblivion.
And now I am no longer able to distinguish what is dream from what is actuality; irrational numbers grow through my solid, habitual, tridimensional life; and instead of firm, polished surfaces, there is something shaggy and rough...14
Jonathan Kemp has a long history of organising and collaborating (including as ap and xxxxx) on DIY material processing laboratories, environmental installations, interdisciplinary symposia, and social software events executed in international festivals and venues throughout Europe, the US, and Brazil. His current work is informed by an interest in aleatory and code-brut reconfigurations of computation’s material substrates
Sha Xin Wei, Poiesis and Enchantment in Topological Matter, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 2013.
2 Professor Sha Xin Wei is Director of Arts, Media & Engineering at Arizona’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. From 2001-2013 he instigated and directed the Topological Media Lab at Concordia University, Montreal, http://topologicalmedialab.net/ More information on the Tate’s Topology Project can be found at http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/eventseries/topology A table of contents for the Theory, Culture & Society issue is available at http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/29/4-5.toc
3 The book really would have been better as two volumes – a treatise on process philosophy in the light of Sha’s insights on topology, and a separate volume as a lavishly illustrated manual to the 12 years of practice at the Topological Media Lab.
4 The experiment engages with Félix Guatarri's Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm, Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995.
5 Vis a vis the ‘subjectivation’ and (pre-)construction of the individual; of the synthetic discipline of mathematics where the objects of its analysis are of our own creation; and of the computational media-theatre of his and others invention.
The expression ‘perverse confluence’ is borrowed from Evelina Dagnino, a Brazilian political scientist, who coined the phrase in relation to bundled notions of ‘active citizenship’ by diverse interest groups in her 2010 paper, ‘Citizenship: a perverse confluence’ in Andrea Cornwall and Deborah Eade (Eds.), Deconstructing Development Discourse: Buzzwords and Fuzzwords, Oxford: Oxfam, 2010, pp.101-110.
7 An illustration borrowed from Saussure's 1906-1911 Course in General Linguistics – Sha suggests two spots of the same material, although separated by the 'universe' of its trunk, were born at the same point simultaneously as a part of the stems history; Saussure uses it more simply to make the point that cutting across the stem reveals something about the plant stem’s synchronic state which cannot be seen if only cut longitudinally (ie. diachronically).
On natality as the central category of the political see Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.
8 cf. Michel Serres.
9 With regards to ‘openness’ and ‘margins’ Sha elsewhere describes how the boundary-value of the open set is undefined and yet a margin.
10 Gilles Chatelet's ‘mathematical gesture’ is referenced.
11 And where methodology becomes the reality within the lab machine, hinged on the theoretical presumptions of its own dynamics, its surely bureaucratised to bridge the cognitive gap between its hermeneutics and those Feyerabendian agencies outwith in the world of academia and funding.
12 Sha significantly misreads Barad's concept of ‘agential realism’ by suggesting that he is extending her notion of performativity into ontology (p.59), seemingly unaware that she repeatedly describes it as an ‘epistemological-ontological-ethical framework’. He later misquotes her methodology of 'diffraction' as one of ‘refraction’ (p.239). The above highlights how there is less than exact editing in the book: from paragraphs here and there that don't make sense (e.g. p.71, where Sha jumps suddenly from commitment in the work of Peter Brook and Jerzy Grotowski, to the importance of agreement in any continuum limits within quantum mechanical models); or do not answer the question they set themselves up to do (eg. in answer to the question of how to evaluate his methodology, Sha gives a baffling non-answer about ‘human subjects committees’ (p.228-229); or references that are either incorrect or distorted (eg. John Searles Chinese Room argument is misrepresented as being a form of an homunculi conceit (p.254).
As Bohr explains in ‘Unity of Knowledge’, ‘The recognition that the interaction between the measuring tools and the physical systems under investigation constitutes an integral part of quantum phenomena has only revealed an unsuspected limitation of the mechanical conception of nature, as characterized by attribution of separate properties to physical systems, but has forced us, in the ordering of experience, to pay proper attention to the conditions of observation […] Thus there can be no complete configuration of quantum phenomena, since in order to measure e.g. the momentum of a photon, another state must be sacrificed (its position).’ Niels Bohr, ‘Unity of Knowledge’, (1954), in Essays 1958-1962: On Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge, New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1958, p.74. Arkady Plotnitsky, who has discussed Bohr extensively elsewhere, does not mention him in his Afterward to Sha's book.
13 ‘At worst it provokes its participants with anonymous processes, ventriloquising them by abstraction. Of course, the social forms that we mentioned earlier all have rules and conventions, some of which are followed pretty strictly even if they are tacit. However we think of these rules not as chains or shells encasing our activity, but rather as collective agreements arising after the fact, emerging as conventions in the course of play. We think of rules as constructed by newcomers to the game, for the newcomers' benefit, as a way to summarize history. And we think of rules as scaffolding to enable the players to improvise against a provisional framework, and reach beyond the scope of their past activity if they desire.’ Maja Kuzanovic of FoAM, discussing Sponge and FOAM associations including Shas's main project, TGarden (undated). http://fo.am/from_representation_to_performance/
14 Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, London: Penguin, 1993, p.96.