Emergent themes

Broodthaers, Chaise et Caison

After a long discussion, three terms emerged as initial guiding threads for the Informed Matters CoP in 2016-2017. They are:

  • Complex systems;
  • Disobedience; and
  • Action.

Below is a first approximation or sketch of the topos constituted by these three terms.

One orienting passage for making sense of the relationships among these three terms occurs in the article written by Judith Butler (2011) that was one of the readings for the 4 November meeting in which she states,

“… that for which [Arendt] faulted Eichmann was his failure to be critical
 of positive law, that is, a failure to take distance from the requirements that law and policy imposed upon him; in other words, she faults him for his obedience, his lack of critical distance, or his failure to think.

“But more than this, she faults him as well for failing to realise that thinking implicates the subject in a sociality or plurality that cannot be divided or destroyed through genocidal aims. In her view, no thinking being can plot or commit genocide. Of course, they can have such thoughts, formulate and implement genocidal policy, as Eichmann clearly did, but such calculations cannot be called thinking, in her view.”

Thought, it may be conjectured, is not a question of having ‘intentions’ distinct from, and prior to, ‘actions’ and then imagining their consequences. The ‘thought’ is realised in the unfolding of the action; an unfolding during which there are many moments in which to pause, itself a mode of action, and ‘reflect’, another mode of action, upon the processes of conscious ratiocination and upon the course of (inter-)action thus far.

The complex system may be thought of as an historical conjuncture, for example, the complex, concatenated moment constituted, through patterns of diffraction, in the aftermaths of, first, 1989/1991 (post-Cold War, the New World Order and New International, as discussed, for example, by Derrida in Specters of Marx); second, the events of 11 September 2001 (the War on Terror); and, third, of the financial collapse of 2007-2008 (the Great Recession).

All of these geo-political and geo-economic diffractive patterns are themselves overwritten and further diffracted by developments in the World Wide Web and the digital realm (Web 1.0, Web 2.0, social networking, social media, big data), leading to new waves and flows of populism and disruption of traditional (or mass media-based) forms of government (the Arab Spring, IS, Brexit, Trump-ism).

Alternatively, the complex system may be thought of as a socio-technical system (human and machine) or as distinct realms of biopolitics (human and animal), or indeed as object-oriented ontologies, opening to post-Humanism (de-centring and de-emphasising the human), in one direction, and to the posthuman (re-articulating and supplementing the human), in another direction.

Or are all of these complex systems simply forms of metaphysics that shut down philosophy and ‘thinking’, understood as the (inter-)actions of eros/agon?

Disobedience, as a conscious form of action, becomes pertinent in relation to the machine and machine function and to biology and biological function, along with the recognition that neither the machine nor nature simply ‘functions’: ‘it’ ‘thinks’ (‘it’ ‘desires’). Disobedience requires understanding the rule or policy, in the form of a statement; knowing that the statement is to be understood performatively, i.e. that it should be acted upon; knowing that the appropriate way of acting upon the rule/policy is ‘to obey’; knowing how that obedience should be performed or demonstrated; and then consciously and deliberately acting otherwise.

In this case, the first question concerns the relationship of the ‘I’ to the ‘it’, prior to being able to pose such questions as the following:

“If the “I” who thinks is part of a “we” and if the “I” who thinks is committed to sustaining that “we”, how do we understand the relation between “I” and “we” and what specific implications does thinking imply for the norms that govern politics and, especially, the critical relation to positive law?” (Butler, 2011)

The “we”, the plurality, is no longer simply or only ‘human’ or anthropomorphic. It is never simply the ‘I’ nor the ‘we’ who are engaged in ‘struggle’/’contest’. The ‘I’ and the ‘we’ are caught up in the ‘thinking’ that (actively) environs us, for which the notions of artificial intelligence, ubiquitous computing, ambient intelligence and internet of things are at once evocative and inadequate.

Aestheticisation, design and production

The first term in the sequence above, ‘artificial’, may be the most important, for it brings to attention the artifice of the designed world, or rather a world full of ‘designs’ yet, as a whole, un-designed, un-planned, but not unregulated, a world whose rules call out for repeated disobedience. The artificial world in the midst of which we live may be susceptible to being understood through design history (but of what kind?), tracing the endless material re-configurations, or design theory (ontological design?), elaborating the figures of an ever more abstract calculation, an artificial world becoming all the while more ‘artful’, to the point where Latour (2002: 38) asks,

“Do we really have to spend another century alternating violently between constructivism and realism, between artificiality and authenticity?”

which puts in jeopardy a position such as that of Arendt (1998: 2), who argues that,

“The human artifice of the world separates human existence from all mere animal  environment, but life itself is outside this artificial world, and through life man remains related to all other living organisms.”

Nigel Cross (2001: 54) explains, following Herbert Simon’s suggestion, that

” … the study of design could be an interdisciplinary study accessible to all those involved in the creative activity of making the artificial world.”

Cross (2001: 54) continues,

“What designers know about especially is the ‘artificial world’ – the human-made world of artefacts. What they know how to do especially is the proposing of additions to and changes to the artificial world. Their knowledge, skills and values lie especially in the techniques of the artificial. (Not ‘the sciences of the artificial’.) So design knowledge is of and about the artificial world and how to contribute to the creation and maintenance of that world.”

Michael Muller (2011: 12) points to Wolfgang Welsch’s view, in Undoing Aesthetics, that,

“… today’s processes of aestheticization are not merely surface phenomena of the world of commodities or of human-body design, but that they penetrate into the deep structures of both matter and objects.”

This leads to a view of production that complicates the poiesis of Arendt’s ‘work’, as Muller argues:

“Inside an increasingly artificial world, i.e. inside a fabricated and produced world, culture can no longer claim to remain in an autonomous zone for the production, transmission, and acquisition of aesthetic objects. Culture is integrated into the entire world system of production. Culture participates in the production of the world. This must mean, however, that the concept of production exceeds the conventional, purely economic sense of producing.” (Muller, 2011: 12)


Arendt, H. (1998). The Human Condition, 2nd ed. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Butler, J. (2011). Hannah Arendt’s challenge to Adolf Eichmann. The Guardian, 29 August. Available from http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/aug/29/hannah-arendt-adolf-eichmann-banality-of-evil [Accessed 6 November 2016].

Cross, N. (2001). Designerly ways of knowing: design discipline versus design science. Design Issues, 17 (3), 49–55. Available from http://oro.open.ac.uk/3281/ [Accessed 11 July 2016].

Latour, B. (2002). What is iconoclash? Or is there a world beyond the image wars? In: Weibel, P., and Latour, B., eds. Iconoclash: Beyond the Image-Wars in Science, Religion and Art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 16–40.

Müller, M. (2011). Avant-garde, aestheticization and the economy. Footprint, 8, 7–22. Available from http://www.footprintjournal.org/articles/download/avant-garde-aestheticization-and-the-economy [Accessed 8 October 2016].


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s