Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration


My current project has grown out of my recent work on the history of cybernetics, set out in The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future (Chicago, 2010). Centred on the history of cybernetics in Britain since WWII, the book explores a striking set of traditions that acted out a unconventional ontology across a wide variety of fields and areas of practice, a nonmodern ontology of the coupled becomings of people and things (as distinct from a modern ontology of dualist fixity and predictability). I tried to catch the political valence of such traditions in a contrast between modern projects that aim to bend the social and material worlds to our will and nonmodern ones that display an experimental and performative openness to what the world has to offer us (poiesis vs enframing, in Heidegger’s terms). I noted that these nonmodern traditions are socially marginal, and the book attempted to contribute to a sociopolitical gestalt switch. The idea was to display the viability of nonmodern practices in many fields and, by showing how they fit together as a unitary assemblage, to denaturalise modernity and its works.

The same impulse runs through my present work. On an institutional level, and with support from the Gulbenkian Foundation, I am organising a series of workshops that aim to foster an international antidisciplinary community of artists and scholars in the sciences and humanities around an ontological theme. The first workshop was held at the University of Exeter in October 2010. My own research is now directed towards a book, provisionally entitled Art and Agency. I imagine the book as having three main sections. The first would explore contemporary artforms that function as ontological theatre—that stage, in different ways, the liveliness of nature and machines; reciprocal performative couplings of the human and the nonhuman; transformations of the self; and the unpredictable becomings that characterise all of these. Examples range from expanded cinema, generative music and robot art to less classifiable artforms that I think of hylozoist, which aim somehow to find and extract art from nature (brainwave music, the sounds of telephone wires in the wind, the growth of crystals in electrochemical cells).

The second section of the book will also focus on the arts, but will aim to give the discussion historical depth and also to go beyond the west by looking at distinctively Chinese artforms. I am especially interested in exploring the place of rocks, stones and miniaturised trees—bonsai—in traditional Chinese culture and their relation to Taoism. These art objects, it seems to me, again function as ontological theatre, powerfully evoking a decentred ontology in which humanity is at most a part of nature and not the controlling centre, itself caught up in the flow of becoming.

This discussion of the arts, ancient and contemporary, seeks to bring home the ways in which specific artforms conjure up and help us grasp a nonmodern ontology and the distinctive sorts of projects and modes of being that go with it. It is intended as a further contribution to the denaturalisation of modernity and the presentation of a viable alternative. The arts have a certain power in this respect inasmuch as they short-circuit the scholarly detour through words and confront us directly with the performative aspects of being. But it is important to emphasise that a nonmodern ontology can be equally central to the practical aspects of everyday life. To establish this the book will conclude with a third section on engineering. Here I am especially interested in our dealings with the environment and with an approach sometimes called adaptive ecological management. This again displays, but in a very different register from the arts, a performative experimental relation to nature that contrasts strikingly with the modern ‘command and control’ approach. This adaptive approach resonates strongly with the artforms discussed in the first two sections and helps us to understand the practical relevance of a nonmodern ontology in the mundane world—the fact that ontology makes a difference across all sorts of fields and practices. In this section I would hope to draw on examples from contemporary engineering in the West and traditional techniques of water management in China.

The above sketches out an agenda for research that I think will lead somewhere interesting, though perhaps not to the book I have just imagined and described. During my time in Konstanz I intend to work on all three fronts, finding out about and writing about specific contemporary developments in the arts, traditional Chinese artforms and adaptive engineering.