Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Monday, August 9, 2010

“Somewhere Out There, There's a Bullet with Your Name on It”

Imagine a record player (remember those?). Now imagine a record called I Cannot Be Played on This Record Player. When you put the record on, the sounds that are recorded on the disk cause the record player to vibrate in such a way that it falls to pieces.

Douglas Hofstadter, author of the wonderfully capacious and multilayered Gödel, Escher, Bach, talks about the exploding record player as an analogy for Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem. The theorem states that any well formulated system will be unable to account for at least one statement that is TRUE on the terms of the system itself. This put paid to Russell and Whitehead's attempt to systematize mathematics. Alan Turing's Turing Machines provide a graphic, physical version of the Incompleteness Theorem. You can't design a Turing Machine that will be able to predict whether all algorithms will halt or go into an infinite loop: “Not-All algorithms are predictable.” (Did someone say “

On iTunes U and in some essays I've thought about the record player as more than just an analogy. I mean, it's true, isn't it? If you make a record that produces the right tones, you could blow up a record player. In fact, this was a specialism of creators of rave music in the early 90s. I remember going to several raves where the speakers would explode because of a tune called “LFO”—Low Frequency Oscillator, a boondoggle on old synthesizers, but also a joke metaphor for “I Cannot Be Played Through These Loudspeakers.”

(Which reminds me: I once told a composer friend to call a particularly intense electronic tune “I Can't Believe It Isn't Music!” Anyone can steal this idea for free. Go on.)

(And which also reminds me of what I've heard of Ian Bogost's and Levi Bryant's forthcoming work on media as objects.)

Hofstadter gives the example of a virus. A virus is basically a piece of RNA or DNA code in a protein packet that says to your genome, “Hey, there's a version of me somewhere in your system. Go fetch it will you?” This is a version of a Henkin Sentence. The trouble is, this Henkin Sentence comes bundled with an Epimenides Sentence, along the lines of “It is true that I am lying in this sentence.” So you go into overdrive producing copies of the virus, then you die—just like your computer. Thus begins the race between viruses and other life forms to detect and destroy viruses and, conversely, to slip through the net.

The record player story is a story about life forms. There is at least one entity out there (it could be lurking in your genome) called something like “If Tim Downloads This, He Will Auto-Destruct.” That's what mortality MEANS. Life forms exist precisely to the extent that they are fragile. I kind of concur with Martin Hägglund on this point, via a different route.

Then I got to thinking about OBJECTS in general (see my previous post—yay, I am an object oriented ontologist). Not just living, but all objects. There is an EVEN LESS metaphorical sense in which the record player story is true for objects. I mean, we were just talking about record players a minute ago. There is at least one other object out there that could bring it about so that a certain object was annihilated. This object is not inscribed with code that “says” something like a Henkin sentence. It wouldn't matter to the record player if the record that blew it up was called Pierrot Lunaire, not I Cannot Be Played on This Record Player.

So I was wondering whether there was a deep congruence between Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem and the notion of withdrawal in OOO. Thinking as Levi Bryant does of objects as systems, and coherent ones at that (otherwise they couldn't be operationally closed, in the lingo), would this not imply that there is at least one genuine element of any object-system that we can't account for? In other words, objects are systems that we, or any other object, can't “know” everything about, PRECISELY to the extent that they TRULY exist.

(This comes from a discussion of Xavier Zubiri with Graham Harman, who as I'm sure you know has opened up a treasure trove of philosophy old and new. Zubiri talks a little about Gödel in On Essence. Thanks Graham and forgive me if I made any errors here. And please correct.)

Might this not be a way to account for the beautiful symmetry between the fact that objects do seem to relate in some sense, yet in some deeper sense are totally withdrawn from one another? Objects are vulnerable and withdrawn simultaneously, and I wonder whether this is just a coincidence.

I have a problem which is that I tend to think in metaphors and images rather than in logical or otherwise well formulated ways, so I'm putting this out there because I think it's interesting, not because I think it's right.


Jon Cogburn said...

This is a dynamite idea. I posted my first thought about why it's so important to me at . I'm swamped right now and not able to devote the serious thought it deserves, but will try to get something more substantive up in a few days.

(P.S. Sorry I'm so tardy with e-mail. Will be caught up in the next two days.)


skholiast said...

I've often thought that the withdrawal/availability "split" of OOO is akin to the Cantorian diagonal proof (one infinity veering away from another), on which Godel based his own.

In any case, Hofstadter's book will go down as one of the great literary masterpieces of 20th-c philosophy, and I still think it sums up beautifully a piece of insight as old as Plato but always new: that a model can include a representation of its own falling-short as model.

Robert said...

Very stimulating thoughts Tim,

Its a similar argument to the idea that every plan has its contingencies. And I think you're heading on an interesting pathway with objects.

As you know, contingencies are entities which frame my thoughts in conjunction with algorithms. There are always disruptors and destroyers which operate contingent in relation to other operations.

I think whats worth considering though is the relationship between object-destroyers and object-builders so to speak. Perhaps there are different variations of relation with regard to destroying and composing?

Timothy Morton said...

Skholiast, I was thinking the same thing--Cantor is for sure in the background here. I'm glad you like Hofstadter. What a tome.

skholiast said...

Tim, I might add that there is a whole Badiouan resonance here as well. I was re-reading part of Being and Event today w/ this in mind: the event being the undecidable of the situation (which nonetheless one decides, thereby making oneself a subject). This might be one way to more fully elaborate an account of "events" for nonhumans. (I tend just to stipulate this, but that might be just laziness on my part...)