“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Tuesday, May 17, 2011


The Very Large Array, New Mexico

Signifiers and signifieds, meet your mysterious twin brother, the transduced...

The era of the linguistic turn thought of information models such as signifiers and signified (structuralism). These were subject to various different kinds of analysis, such as deconstruction, which argues that there is no genuine signified, just an infinitely deferred chain of signifiers. When it makes this observation, what deconstruction is pointing to, obliquely, is the presence of a withdrawn object (1+n objects, precisely), outside the signifying system. Like the letters on this page don't care about the pixels they're made of, but without them...

The era of OOO, by contrast, will deal in the following couple: transducer and transduced.

A transducer converts one kind of energy into another kind of energy. In other words, a transducer is an object that mediates between one object and another. In still other words, a transducer is an essential component of vicarious causation.

An electromagnetic wave propagates through space. An antenna focuses the wave and converts it into electrical signals.

Electrons flow through a wire. A fluorescent bulb converts their energy into light (Dan Flavin, one of my favorites).

The piezoelectric effect transduces mechanical pressure into high voltage electrical energy, a jet of electrons. This jet of information is amplified further by butane, resulting in a flame.

A record needle (magnetic cartridge) converts mechanical vibrations from vinyl into an electrical signal. A loudspeaker converts this electrical signal into sound waves.

In short, transduction is the logistics of vicarious causation. In each case, input into the transducer is treated as information, which gives the energy in the transducer a specific form.

The transduction energy then acts as a carrier wave for this information.

(On this view, “clunk causality” (mechanical causation) is a small region of the configuration space of transductions. Mechanical energy in one system is converted into mechanical energy in another, thus giving rise to the illusion for mechanical-scale objects (such as humans) that causality is only mechanical and that information is only ideal, not physical.)

(Also, on this view, perception is just a small region of transduction space. Hearing, for example, depends on pressure cells in the cochlea. FYI these are the only plant cells in the mammal body...)

Thus in any causal event we have two series, depending on whether we are thinking from the point of view of the transducer or that of the transduced:

From the point of view of the transducer, incoming energy is information. This is in line with the notion that the causal dimension is aesthetic. Information is the aesthetic form given to the carrier wave supplied by the transducer. Reality looks like this:

information >>> carrier wave >>> information >>>

From the point of view of the transduced, the transducer is irrelevant (nonsensual, withdrawn). This is in line with the reality of real objects. Reality doesn’t “look like” anything.

Thus we have a nice asymmetry, an OOO asymmetry. It matters not one whit to the transduced whether it is picked up or amplified or whatever by an aerial or a microphone or a piezoelectric crystal. The electromagnetic waves go on propagating around the aerial, despite it. The aerial might as well not be there.

Sign theories such as structuralism only deal with the point of view of transducers. To a transducer, everything looks like information. Rather than ignoring it or regressing from it (by substituting some form of new material for instance, such as a flow), OOO encapsulates linguistic turn theory in a wider configuration space that includes the physical.


Brian Davis said...

nice connection here: "In each case, input into the transducer is treated as information, which gives the energy in the transducer a specific form.

well put. henri lefebvre makes some interesting points in this vein in his writings on cities ("the right to the city" essay, I believe). He's talking specifically about transduction (as opposed to deduction or induction) as a method of architectural research (he's attempting to validate it, saying it was repressed by the rise of in/deduction in scientific and philosophical thinking). sounds a lot like your characterization of structuralism. are you tapping into those ideas at all as you work this out? or is this coming from another place?

Timothy Morton said...

Hi, that's interesting, thank you. I hadn't read that part of Lefebvre so I'm happy to stumble across this.

Leaf said...

Two comments, hopefully brief, about withdrawnness in relation to fractality, and about what I call 'enformation', which might partly correspond to vicarious causation.

When I was being taught about the use of fractals in theoretical ecology/macroecology, we were encouraged to think in terms of 'plus dimensions'. So a straight line has/is one/1 dimension, but a wiggly line has 1+ dimensions, so is 1+D; a flat area (sheet, page, field) has/is 2D, but a rucked-up area (folded/crumpled sheet/page, tussocky field, hilly landscape) has/is 2+D; a geometrical cube or block is 3D, but a cube or block of fi sponge or pumice (full of surfaces and holes) is 3+D. If you add in time and its possible curvature or circularity, and its relations with memories of things past (cf engrams and neutrino visitations in fi Solaris) and empathy (cf fi Vaster than Empires and More Slow), then memories as revisitations of past experience by present or future experience, including anticipated experiences (such as experiences of mastery of a skill or sport as conjured up in some forms of training), become 4+D ent/event/environment(itie)s. All experiences of experiencing enform ent/event/environment/ities - that is what experience is. (Cf an earlier comment here about Bateson's 'news of a difference'.)

Leaf said...

Further to above, see also the sustainable futures techniques of envisioning, feedforward and backcasting, as a way of bypassing present problems and mindsets that predicte(d) and perpetuate(d) them - and these techniques are used in built architecture and information architecture(for examples see fi http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Backcasting ; http://wearearising.org/2009/01/13/backcasting/ ; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Futures_techniques ; http://www.naturalstep.org/backcasting ; http://www.iasummit.org/proceedings/2007/backcasting_or_how_i_learned_t (how I learned to stop predicting and help my clients).

Stan Salthe's reference to hylozoism in his paper Development (and Evolution) of the Universe is also pertinent: "This model imposes a ‘hylozooic’ kind of interpretation upon Nature, as all emergent features at higher levels would have been vaguely and episodically present primitively in the lower integrative levels, and were stabilized materially with the developmental emergence of new levels. The specification hierarchy’s form is that of a tree, with its trunk in its lowest level, and so this hierarchy is appropriate for modeling an expanding system like the Universe. It is consistent with this model of differentiation during Big Bang development to view emerging branch tips as having been entrained by multiple finalities because of the top-down integration of the various levels of organization by the higher levels." > http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hylozoism - mention of OOP.