onticology

Canada's Kickstarter: Grants, the State and the Ontology of Technology (Presented at the Eastern Sociological Society 2012 in New York City)

On february 8th a company in Southern California announced to the world that they were going to build a game for 400 thousand dollars. Here is the video they used to announce it.

The next day they had raised more than 1 million dollars for the project. Right now the current amount raised is above 2 million, with approximately 60 thousand individual backers.

If you aren’t familiar with Kickstarter, it’s essentially a private-sector direct capital investment website. Rather than securing funding through traditional sources such as banks or venture capitalists, organizations of all kinds appeal directly to the public for funding to make things. Oftentimes the things created through Kickstarter have a cultural character to them – rather than, say, a factory that manufactures widgets, they tend to be documentaries, music albums, websites and, as in the case of Double Fine adventure, videogames.

For some, Kickstarter has changed their lives, and changed the relationship that people have with the products they buy. Kickstarter is one of those things that seem like a perfect fit for the Internet – directly connecting people with the things they want to support directly. In this way it reflects some of the utopian visions of the Internet that were hailed by the likes of Nicholas Negroponte or Alvin Toffler, as the ideal decentralized marketplace, reflecting the individualist character of contemporary capitalism: one where the producer lays out what they have to the public, and appeals directly to the market.

This is what Double Fine had to say about Kickstarter:

Crowd-sourced fundraising sites like Kickstarter have been an incredible boon to the independent development community.  They democratize the process by allowing consumers to support the games they want to see developed and give the developers the freedom to experiment, take risks, and design without anyone else compromising their vision.  It’s the kind of creative luxury that most major, established studios simply can’t afford.  At least, not until now.

Sink or swim, it’s your product that counts. It appears on the surface as a transaction that eschews government meddling in the market – a meeting place between individuals that is mediated without the collectivist excesses of the welfare state, without compromising your own creative vision to the whims of outsiders.

For Canadians, however, such a vision of “democratized” funding isn’t available yet. This happens to us all the time actually. We can’t use Hulu either. Good luck trying to find clips from Saturday Night Live. And so with all things that we can’t use, we have our own version. I made this joke a few weeks ago on twitter actually:

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People seemed to like it! Mostly Americans I found. I think the idea that Canada has its own, essentially socialized system of support for creative endeavours is something that a lot of Americans have a hard time imagining. This isn’t to say that the US doesn’t have its own cultural policy, its just that, for every dollar per-capita, Canada has way more. Canada has had, since the end of WWII, a rather large state-supported system of cultural grants and regulations that attempt to develop Canadian cultural production on the border of the world’s largest cultural exporter in the English speaking world.

Canada’s Federal Government has developed various arts and cultural organizations, regulatory bodies and tax incentives and that support Canadian cultural production like the Canada Council for the Arts, Telefilm, The National Film Board and various others. Similarly, provinces themselves have developed their own cultural policy that focuses on local culture, such as the Ontario Arts Council.

A comparative Canadian example of the success story that seems typified by Double Fine Adventure would be Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, an adventure game on the iPhone and iPad.

Rather than appealing to the market or getting a bank loan Superbrothers and Capyberra Games, a small/ish development studio located in Toronto, decided to make their videogame with a grant provided by the Ontario Media Development Corporation (OMDC). I won’t bore you with the intimate details of the process, but essentially the OMDC provides grants to small scale media business projects, ones that need roughly 300 thousand dollars to see it through. They provide up to 150 thousand in a grant, composing half of the project’s total funding, as long as the project is intentionally designed to turn a profit, is based in Canada, and the project retains the intellectual property in Canada.

Adams and Capyberra got the full grant, spent a year in production and released the game. It was a success inside of the first month of sales, and when I talked to him he had made more than twice the amount it cost to develop. I imagine it has made more than double that amount by now.

I’m intrigued by this because Canada’s cultural policy plays such a big role in the creation of culture: it has a very different conception of what culture is – for the policy makers and the governments that approved these grants, they framed Canadian culture as a vital component of public life, something that in the face of America’s cultural industries it needed to be collectively supported lest it drown in the noise. Historically, this meant supporting radio, television, the visual and performing arts, films, etc, but this is beginning to include videogames, even if the OMDC gave funding for Sworcery because it was framed as a profit making venture, something that would develop high-tech immaterial labour industry in Ontario. This recognition by the contemporary state in videogames as culture and a business is an important step for the medium, something which almost every other established media form has went through in the 20th century.

The involvement of the State in the development of new media is something we often forget to bring into discussions of technology, especially in the American context, attributing them to free flows of capital, to the market, individual brilliance etc. Tim Wu’s The Master Switch details the development of telecommunications technologies in the late 19th and early 20th century and showcases what a myth it is to imagine communications technology without the state lurking behind the curtains, be it the film projector, long distance telephony or the Internet. In bringing up the role that, say, acquiring capital from the state rather than the free market, we can talk more broadly about the ideological assumptions we have about technological development such as the ideologies of non-interventionist Hayekian economics vs. The Keynesian welfare state, but also ontological assumptions we have about how technology exists, it’s very being.

Lots of critical theory falls prey to what Levi Bryant calls the Hegemonic fallacy, where in we begin to see one difference as the only difference that makes a difference. A hegemonic object that dominates all others. For example, a purely historical materialist position of Sworcery or Double Fine would reduce the existence of these objects entirely to their development under contemporary capitalism, as only commodities whose being is composed entirely by a dialectic of use and exchange value. This is reminiscent, in some ways, of the thesis proposed by Nick Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter in Games of Empire, whose Hardt & Negriesque ontological position paints videogames as being defined entirely by their process of becoming, which is their relation to global capitalism and Empire. Similarly a post-structuralist take could concieve of Sworcery and Double Fine Adventure as objects whose being is composed of entirely as signs and signifiers operating under the hegemony of language, as texts to be read and understood in terms of play or sociology.

Instead I propose thinking about these videogames as objects existing in what Levi Bryant calls an entanglement, a concept he borrows from Karen Barad, that resists the hegemons of correlationist ontology. Levi Bryant’s flat ontology, called Onticology, instead suggests that objects of call kinds, be they the the 1939 World’s Fair, stoves and icy lakes all exist in ‘entanglements’ (rather than the entirely relational character of Latour’s ontology which is based on networks) of equally real objects, where some exert more force than others but are not overdetermined by other objects like language or capitalism. As Bryant elaborates:

Where a hegemonic ontology treats one agency as making all the difference, an ontology premised on entanglements is attentive to how a variety of different objects or agencies interact in the production of phenomena. Just as new patters emerge when waves intersect one another or encounter an obstacle with no one agency entirely responsible for the pattern, networks of objects interacting with one another produce unique patterns that cannot be reduced to any one of the agencies involved.

In Doublefine’s case, it gives us a way of deconstructing Kickstarter, and its mythos as an example as an ideal 'free market’ that is solely responsible for Double Fine’s success. We can certainly point to things like social capital (Doublefine’s founder, Tim Schafer, is a very well known developer), but we also avoid letting this social critique overdetermine it as well. There are a panoply of human and non-human objects out there playing a role in Double Fine’s Adventure’s existence: fan communities, the late 90s boom of laying down fibre optic infrastructure throughout the United States and the pleasant weather native to California. Similarly, with Sworcery, we recognize the role of the interventionist Keynesian state is playing in allowing videogame developers to practice their craft, but it isn’t a hegemony, a force that overdetermined it as a medium. It isn’t as if we can point to the involvement of the OMDC’s funding as having any one kind major impact on, say, a gameplay mechanic or a narrative flourish. Rather, the creativity that Sworcery exhibits, is also linked to Foxconn Technology Group’s manufacturing plants in Shenzhen, copper deposits in Kazakhstan and the close knit indie development community here in Toronto.

But if we are specifically interested in the role that the state is playing, thinking in terms of entanglements can help contextualize Sworcery’s existence and the role that the Canadian state played, and what this means for it as an object. It can, in part be an example of of oppositional professional practice in a large city that has had very few major development studios (until the last few years with the opening of Ubisoft). Toronto’s development community, for a whole bunch of reasons, has a unique culture where artists, coders and enthusiasts that exist as a community. Grants and funding programs allow this community to have a distinctly progressive and inclusive culture, one that in the last year was host to two successful feminist interventionist projects to help women in Ontario learn how to create videogames. Yet in spite of these grants allowing for what could be described as progressive practices, they are still entangled with the state, and for those of us who study technology interested in social justice and something “beyond capitalism”, should be ready to recognize.

just another example of how amazingly weird and awesome ooo is

“Viewed through this lens, it is equally valid to say that cows exploited human desires for fat, compelling us to clear forests and protect them from predators, enhancing their reproductive possibilities. But domestication doesn’t end here. It is not simply that cows domesticated us in the sense of leading us to develop a set of practices such as raising cows and clearing forests so they would have more grazing land. No, the conspiracy of cows against humanity go far deeper. It is likely that cows also introduced extreme selective pressure on human populations dependent on cows for food, weeding out those members of our species that couldn’t tolerate high-beef diets and selecting for those that could. It’s likely that in many human populations cows changed our very genetics. As Scu has argued, we are addicted to meat. This addiction, in part, was carefully cultivated by cows themselves.

Note well, I am not saying this is good or that this morally justifies our ugly and ecological destructive treatment of livestock. I am saying that there are a variety of different teleologies involved in the evolution of cows. Some involved human aims. Others involved nonhumans such as chickens, cows, pigs, lamb, etc. The same could equally be argued for various grasses such as wheat, as well as a variety of other plants upon which we’re deeply dependent. And, I would argue, the same would be true of technologies, social groups, and texts […] 

There will never be a society composed just of humans because humans always dwell among a variety of different agencies including humans but also including all sorts of nonhumans. These nonhumans are never just wax for human intentions, but introduce all sorts of differences of their own that are irreducible to human intentions.”

-Levi Bryant, “The Materialism of Onticology”

I want to have my social constructivism and have my realism too. In fact, I want to go so far in my realism that I even count social constructions as real. They are all too real for those who live with their negative effects and like an ecosystem they regulate the possibilities of lives, our ability to respond to pressing problems like climate change, and the lives of countless nonhuman beings. However, recognizing that a theoretical framework is limited and that more theoretical work needs to be done broaching different domains of analysis does not leave the original theory unchanged.
… when we cast about for objects to contemplate, our tendency is to encounter objects in relatively fixed circumstances. … Intellectual work today, no less than in ancient Greece, is dependent on a certain distribution of labor that renders academic life possible by relieving a particular segment of society largely independent of manual labor. This, in turn, leads objects to be encountered in a particular way insofar as the academic, by and large, does not encounter volcanic potentials hidden within objects by virtue of not directly acting on objects.
—  Levi Bryant , in The Democracy of Objects on how mugs don’t posses the colour blue, but rather do blue. Rather than thinking of objects as possessing fixed qualities, we need to think about their virtual properties, those which exist in reserve, but are just as real, if not actual. The cup blues. The cup is bluing. (but it can do black, in a lightless room, too)
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Constructivism: Do We Need a New Term?

Deeply indebted to Hume, no doubt, and his theory of the body as a system of habits, the point was that far from being unchanging, are “natures” are “built” or “formed” by the socio-historical milieu in which we develop.  They are “constructed”.  Of course, the moment that these immanently sensible demonstrations– and they were demonstrations –were made, the phallusophers came along and mucked everything up.  Suddenly a debate about whether or not human “natures” are eternal and unchanging or whether they’re formed through a social milieu became a debate about whether beings are “real” or whether beings are “unreal”.  To say something is or that it is “natural” was treated as saying that it is “real”, while to say that something is “constructed” was treated as saying that it was “unreal”.  In the meantime, the phallusophers completely divorced the debate from the concreteness of the issues out of which it arose– gender identities, “racial” identities, practices and ways of doing things –and instead made it a thoroughly abstract debate about whether or not one is a “realist” (i.e., someone who thinks there are real things “out there”) or an “anti-realist” (someone who thinks that everything is just an invention of the imagination out of mind, language, power, etc).  Things were thoroughly muddled from the get-go as the concrete sociological, ethnographic, and political issues were abandoned for a nice Fox News for/against debate.  And here, I cannot but hasten to add, that I’ve been extremely disappointed to see some of my speculative realist comrades advancing debate in precisely these terms…  As if points about development were entirely irrelevant.  Way to go White Male Philosophers!  I can hear the cries now, because I’ve heard them over the last few years, “fuck you very much, new realists!”  Like Dawkins in last year’s dust-up about the treatment of women in the secular-atheist community, too many speculative realists have completely managed to miss the point of the realist/constructivism debate, turning it into an abstract issue that ignores the genesis of forms of life.  What’s worse, is that rather than integrating these critiques and learning from them, too many SR’s have dug in their heels, insisted on keeping the debate abstract (ignoring points about the reality of development and context), and have been haughtily dismissive of these issues.  Hmmmm, what a wonderful realist perspective (one would imagine that realism would imply empiricism and a desire “to go to the things themselves”).

The point of this broader orientation– which I share –that includes nonhumans is not to reject the methodologies of the humanists and their concerns (laws, norms, beliefs, ideology, signifiers, contracts, etc.) but to broaden the field of political engagement, intervention, and analysis. The thesis is that not all social and political problems are problems of beliefs, law, ideology, etc. If we’re trying, for example, to understand the shift from Catholicism as the only reigning form of Christianity during the Middle Ages (and the Orthodox church as well!), to the Protestant Reformation and explosion of Christianities, we’ll find many interesting things at the level of belief that might have motivated this transformation, but would nonetheless be remiss in ignoring the role of the black plague in eroding confidence in the Church. These microbes were agencies in the formation of subsequent assemblages. If we ignore the fact that people living in northern Alaska have limited access to technologies such as the internet, markets, etc., we’ll give a highly distorted analysis of why they live as they do, presenting the rather uncharitable account of why their social assemblages have developed as they have (e.g., suggesting that such people are primitives). Once we include nonhumans in our social and political thought we both arrive at more nuanced understandings of why social assemblages are as they are (cartography), but also broaden our means of political intervention. Just as it makes little sense to debunk an alcoholics beliefs to get them to stop drinking when they are addicted, it makes little sense to solely rely on debunking people’s beliefs about the environment to get them to live more sustainably when material alternatives are not available to these people. Recognizing that people might be entangled in “sticky material networks” or regimes of attraction gives us the opportunity to set about undoing these networks (deconstruction) and providing other material alternatives (composition).
— 

Levi Bryant - Musings on Onticology and Politics II

THIS. Thisthisthisthisthisthis

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Larval Subjects: Materialism, Form, and Purpose

As I argued in an earlier post, all my materialism commits me to is the thesis that if something exists, it is material.  That’s it.  It doesn’t commit me to the thesis of reductionism or that the smallest units of matter are the really real things of the world.  H2O is a real entity in the world and while it cannot exist without hydrogen and oxygen, we have to observe H2O itself to discover what it’s powers are.  Signifying systems are, for me, real material beings in the world that have to be studied in their own terms.  While signifying systems can’t exist without electro-neural-chemical systems, we would learn next to nothing about a particular signifying system by studying neurology.  At most, we would learn about certain constraints on signifying systems by studying neurology, not how a particular signifying system is itself structured.  This is because neurological systems exist at a different level of scale and are composed of different types of elements.  Someone will say “but signifying systems are not like rocks!”, and they would be right.  But hurricanes aren’t like rocks either and no one doubts that they’re material phenomena.  Or maybe they do.  It would be peculiar if they did.

Onticology, historical materialism, the virtual, morphogenetics

While many entities must certainly come to be, it does not follow from this that the being of entities can be defined by the process of which they came to be. Were this the case, then we would reduce entities to their history. However, as every parent knows, while they were certainly the efficient cause of their child coming to be, the child has a being independent of this morphogenetic process by which it came to be. The being of a being cannot be reduced to its efficient cause, but also has its formal or structural case.

Moreover, DeLanda seems to be at odds with his own thesis, for later, in the same text, he proposes a flat ontology that would be “one made exclusively of unique, singular individuals, differing in spatio-temporal scale but not in ontological status”. In formulating his ontology as a flat ontology, DeLanda’s thesis seems to work against his prior claim that the being of beings is to be conceived in terms of their morphogenetic processes. For here it seems that DeLanda takes the Aristotlean route of treating individual substances as what are primary. As Aristotle puts it, “anything which is produced is produced by something […], and from something”. In other words, individual substances are produced by and through other individual substances necessarily precede processes of production and are the condition of production. The point, then, is not that we shoulden’t examine processes of production. We should. Rather, the point is that substance ontologically proceeds production. 

- Levi Bryant The Democracy of Objects p. 112-113

This was a particularly interesting passage to read today as one of the breaking points that Levi has with Deleuze’s ontology. Previously he made very clear that substance has to proceed the virtual, that instead of all objects rising out of the virtual of the pre-individual, the virtual rises out of substance, of objects themselves.

This passage is about DeLanda’s ontology, but I feel like this is an interesting way of helping me in understanding why I can’t get on board with historical materialism, which this is clearly a bit of right hook at. Marx’s, or maybe more accurately, Engels’ ontology rests almost entirely on the historical construction of objects, which results in objects being defined by their morphogenetic process of becoming. Suddenly a chair isn’t a *chair* anymore, but instead it is a commodity, one which could be replaced by any other, as it is the process and relations of production itself that define the ontological character of objects under capitalism. The first problem with this ontology is that it requires the correlate of human cognition to find its ontological status (otherwise it is just unindividuated substance). The second is that it reduces (here is the Latour coming out in me) the object entirely to capitalist relations, as it was these relations there were its efficient cause.

This is important to me because a lot of the political economy I read fetishizes relations or production, rather than focusing on the object itself and in the process ends up ignoring the character of the object itself. Instead it seems to me that the ontology of political economy should start with the chair as a solid, concrete, actual object. In one sense this means that we can accept the withdrawn “chairness” of the chair, the essence which it hides from us even as we tear apart its history of production and circulation. For it seems to me a disservice to the chair, and the person sitting on in the chair to tell them that it is only a commodity, only a dialectic of use and exchange value. Instead this relationship to capitalism is only one aspect of its being, one possible outcome of its virtual character.

One of the problematic consequences that follows from the hegemony that epistemology currently enjoys in philosophy is that it condemns philosophy to a thoroughly anthropocentric reference. Because the ontological question of substance is elided into the epistemological question of our knowledge of substance, all discussions of substance necessarily contain a human reference. The subtext or fine print surrounding our discussions of substance always contain reference to an implicit “for us”. This is true even of the anti-humanist structuralists and post-structuralists who purport to dispense with the subject in favor of various impersonal and anonymous social forces like language and structure that exceed the intentions of individuals. Here we still remain in the orbit of an anthropocentric universe insofar as society and culture are human phenomena, and all of being is subordinated to these forces. Being thereby reduced to what being is for us.

Levi Bryant - The Democracy of Objects