Sunday, July 29, 2012

Book Triad: Humans are Overrated

This book triad the fourth, for those keeping score at home.  For this set, there's:

The Democracy of Objects by Levi Bryant
The Hundred Thousand Kingdom by N. K. Jemisin
Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology

Reviews after the break.

Democracy of Objects by Levi Bryant.  Bryant presents his case for an object-oriented ontology (OOO), something that treats all objects as things that exist in their own right, without implying that everything exists in the same manner. Above all else, it's a very articulate account, wherein Bryant never hesitates to give a full explanation for a concept that may seem to require a bit of extra space. The introduction argues the need for an object-oriented approach, saying that the common structures of phenomenology aren't really about ontology, but epistemology, that the discussion of what exists has been buried in the discussion of what we can know to exist and perceive (and if that seems immediately plain to you, you've got a good OOO start.) In the first chapter, he builds on Roy Bhaskar's transcendental realism, which he uses to start his basic structure of objects. Chapter two starts with Aritotle's notion of substance to explain what constitutes an object, and how to talk about what makes it unique. Chapter 3 borrows from Deleuze, and emphasizes the difference between what we can perceive about an object and what it is, differentiating between the virtual and the actual. Chapter four takes up Luhmann's system theory to start to discuss how objects relate to each other. Chapter five furthers the discussion, to describe how objects fit within concepts of constraint, and time. And the last chapter demonstrates the use of his theory, expanding on the withdrawal of objects with Lacanian sexuation. As you may have guessed from this description, it's an intensely interdisciplinary book, but that's the point; Bryant wants an ontology that can applied in just such a general manner,something that gets beyond the anthropocentric philosophies we have now to something that can look more at the relations of things. I don't entirely buy his theory--after all's said and done, I'm reminded of the saying "everything looks like a nail if you're a hammer." Only in Bryant's case, everything looks like an object. It's just a little too totalizing a philosophy for my tastes. But I fully admire the way Bryant went about arguing his points, and disseminating some extremely complicated philosophical concepts in the process.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin.   N. K. Jemisin's "The Hundred Thousand Kingdom" is a fantasy book that's different from most, but is generally the better off for it. The plot of the book is that Yeine Darr,a girl from a minor barbarian kingdom, is called to take up her title as Heir in the kingdom of Sky after her mother dies under mysterious circumstances. She's rather quickly thrust into the family business of politicking and general back-stabbery, and has to just as quickly gain her footing. That's half the book, more or less, and it's vaguely reminiscent of another "girl thrust into magical family business" book, Charles Stross' Merchant Princes series. The other half of the book has her dealing with.. a different family feud. The mythology of the book is that the equivalent of Sun God feuded with his two sibling gods, killing one and enslaving the other. The other (and some of their children who sided with the other) was given over to humans, and forced to obey their every command--which is exactly where Yeine's family's power comes form. It's kind of like the genie/master relationship. The enslaved gods are not thrilled with this set of affairs, and plan to use Yeine to change it. It's kind of an odd book, in that it's throwing some rather disparate elements together. There's a focus on family, and what it means to reconcile the person your parent really was with whom you thought they were. There's a bit on world mythology, and there's a bit on courtly politics. There's even a bit (okay, more like a lot) of the "forbidden romance" so popular these days thanks to the vampire crowd. The book is more about relationships between the characters and establishing their history and passions than action per se; there's not a lot in terms of fighting, and it's one of those books where the climax occurs more or less without the protagonist doing anything. The book manages to convey a large scale (one hundred thousand kingdoms' scale, at least), while actually taking place among a rather small group of core characters. I think I liked it most for the combination of celestial and familial scope, though I don't really see how you get a trilogy (or even a sequel) out of it, given how things ended up.

 Insect Media by Jussi Parikka.  Jussi Parikka wants readers to consider what it would be like to consider things from an insect perspective. First and foremost, that means reconsidering the environment not as something you're separate from, but something your very being is situated to respond to, and vice versa. The book is divided into two halves, which can be broadly construed as a section on the history of insect thinking in the 19th and early 20th century, and insect thinking in light of technology. Chapters further break things down into more refined subjects, such as insect technics, architecture, rethinking time, metamorphosis, individuation, swawrming, and sexual selection. The book has a wide ranging stable of philosophers that Parikka frequently makes reference to; Deleuze and Guatarri get a lot of attention, as does Simondon, as you may have guessed from the appearance of "individuation." Uexküll is the most present of the early insect studiers, and Darwin also comes up a lot. Grosz and Parisi and a few other offer a more feminist perspective, among other things. But for my interest, it's the reinterpretation of Roger Caillois that is particularly attention-grabbing. In game studies, Caillois is known for classification of game traits, that games offer combinations of randomness, competition, vertigo, and mimicry. Mimicry is usually interpreted as representation, but Parikka argues that, given how Caillois uses the term in early texts, it can be better thought of as transformation or metamorphosis, the way a creature changes radically its relationship to the environment. Is this a good way to think of the transformation of person into player character? At any rate, it's a good example of Insect Media argues for: considering the value of an insect perspective.

My first and third readings really fed into each other well this time around.  It felt that the two were different perspectives on the same general subject of posthuman thinking.  Parikka's stuff fits very well into Bryant's larger scope and Bryant's booming generalities work better with some of the concrete examples Parikka supplies.  It's odd, then, (if not entirely unexpected) that the two have had something of an ongoing argument over the nature of Object Oriented Ontology, starting here on Parikka's blog. To sum up for those who are too lazy to click, Parikka wonders if "object" is too vague and too general, and why they're bothering to essentially re-invent the nonhuman wheel, and Bryant disagrees on both points (in the following discussion, he's "larvalsubjects.")  This is a bit of an oversimplification, but it seems to me the argument is almost as much about academic territory as the finer points of philosophy; both figures have invested a lot in their respective approaches.  To bring Jemisin in on this, her book touches not so much on the posthuman but transhuman, making humans into "better" things--in this case, it's part of a much larger fantasy tradition, the fictional depiction of gods.  And in that case, the question becomes how you strap human perception and emotion onto more or less unlimited power to create and destroy.  On that level, the book's a very interesting exploration of what it means to preserve human relations on that level of being. ...Ugh, I'm getting overly philosophical.  Between the ontologies and insects and last round's technology and Auschwitz, the nonfiction portion of the triad's been very heavy of late.  I think I'll take it a little easier for the next batch.

Later Days.

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