“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

Friday, April 26, 2013


I shall be talking about this on June 29 in Brussels for Tuned City. 

Timothy Morton

A sentence has its own logical DNA, and is mind independent. It is a kind of entity, an “object” in the terminology used by Object-Oriented Ontology. Likewise, a sentence has its own grammatical, syntactical and sonic genome. In this sense, a sentence is like a virus. Viruses are chronologically subsequent to bacteria, in evolutionary time. But they are logically prior, since they encapsulate the strange loop that exists between a physical system and a semiotic one. 

In the same way, what is called a riff (sruti, lick, chop) has its own logical, semiotic and physical DNA. A sound, considered in this sense, is like a virus—which is why the term earworm is highly appropriate. We could think of ideas as viral structures for which minds are vectors. In the same way, earworms are spread by humans and other related vectors, such as MP3 players. Riffs are logically prior to the tunes (and so on) in which they find themselves. 

This means that distinctions such as natural/unnatural, sound/noise and so on fail when subjected to enough analytical or musical pressure. This failure is not due to the fuzziness of (human) perception or subjectivity, or the context in which sounds appear. This failure has to do with the deep ontological structure of entities as such: they are riven from within between what they are and how they appear, even to themselves. 

It is better to think sounds as entities in their own right, coexisting in an ecology of sonic hosts and parasites, in which the host/parasite distinction is neither thin nor rigid.  My talk examines the implications of thinking this way. Ambient phenomena are an ideal way to probe this thought.  


Bill Benzon said...

"...A sentence has its own logical DNA, and is mind independent...."

It is? In what way? It seems to me that sentences are utterly dependent on minds and that whatever it is you mean by 'logical DNA' is, in part, constitutive of minds. They are inextricably intertwined. And the same for good old Popeye. If Popeye is autonomous and mind-independent, he/it is only so in a very different sense from some flower or some galaxy (far far away) and that difference pretty much seems to be taken for granted and ignored in OOO.

Jozsef Kele said...

I could be off mark but in the sense of inscription of differences that make a difference. The are as marks or waves or as patterns in some way if they encoded in some other media. All minds could vanish and that materiality would endure

Anonymous said...

I like your paper titles. I had wanted to ask you to expand on "raven's gloss" at the mla.... Maybe here?

Bill Benzon said...

@D/O: Yes, minds could vanish and the materiality would endure. But only as marks. No meaning.

Jozsef Kele said...

Still, leaving aside meaning a sentence doesn't lose potential to be read when there are no minds to read it. When we launch repositories of inscribed marks into deep space, whether they will be read or not, we don't also launch the presence of our minds

Bill Benzon said...

@D/O: That's true, but it also seems a bit desperate. The fact is certain material formations have been created by minds, for minds, and it's in that context we most need to understand them. In that context we can't treat minds as a mere (philosophically embarrassing) appendage. The sentence, the musical passage, the fictional character, is intertwined with both the material stuff and the minds. We need to account for both together.

I go into this in some detail in this post:


Peter Weise said...

There does seem to be either a problem or a revelation in the phrase "independent of the mind"--another way to put this would be, sentences function on minds similar to the mechanisms of DNA within the body and the mind. The rhetorical effect of the statement that there is sentence-DNA is to reduce the old contrast between mind and body, or mind and materiality. The phrase "independent of the mind" can then mean independent of this thing that we think of as beyond materiality. Instead of DNA, one might say the relation between sentences and minds is like the relation between mosquitos and animals. Just as we take a sentence into our brains and bodies, the mosquito takes in the blood of another animal. The question of permanence seems beyond the point: human DNA will stop producing RNA, etc., once humans die off, and sentences could stop producing their effects, too, unless another being with some sort of material literate apparatus begins to use those sentences. - Peter Weise (pjweise@ucdavis.edu)

Bill Benzon said...

@Peter Weise: I have no problem with the notion that the mind is implemented in the material stuff of the brain and that material stuff has the same ontological status as that of inscriptions on surfaces or vibrations in air. The problem is talking about inscriptions on surfaces (or vibrations in air) as though they have powers that allow them to climb into the brain and there take hold and do something in that brain. Inscriptions simply don't have such powers. Mosquitos obviously have powers that allow them to feed on bodies. But wave forms in air have no such powers.

Dave Hallett said...

The problem (it seems to me) with casting the problem in terms of "powers" is the arbitrary assumption of one object as "ground" simply because it is more familiar. One could say that the key has "the power" to open a lock, but equally the lock has "the power" to be opened by the key. Viruses don't have "powers" to infect our cells, it's simply that the conjunction in time and space of a virus and a cell has distinctive outcomes.

Similarly, I think it's problematic to say that "sentences are utterly dependent on minds". Is mathematics discovered or created, then?