Johnston – The Allure of Machinic Life

9780262101264Johnston, John Harvey. The Allure of Machinic Life: Cybernetics, Artificial Life, and the New AI. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008.  Publisher’s webpage.


Last post for today, again drawing from a prior write-up to work through my backlog!  This is continuing the Simondon theme we’ve already established with my compilation post on the man himself and with the post I published earlier today on Muriel Combes’s interpretation of him.  John Johnston isn’t taking up Simondon per se, but rather making a study of “computational assemblages” he sees as structuring contemporary techno-scientific discourse and practice.  It’s an interesting material-discursive history, so let’s dive in, already!

In a sense, it may be deceptive to include Johnston’s book in a section on Simondon’s philosophy, as much of his project here represents a reversal of Simondon’s theories of technical individuals.  Whereas Simondon sought to describe the evolution of technical individuals through a biological metaphor, Johnston turns model on its head to examine the ways in which the Kittlerian discourse networks (what he terms “computational assemblages” composed of technical objects and the discourses surrounding them) condition our scientific understanding of ourselves.  He makes this reversal clear in the following quote from his introduction:

This process [of Simondonian technical evolution], I think, can best be described not as a becoming-organic, as Simondon puts it, but as a becoming-machinic, since it involves a transformation of our conception of the natural world as well…. [O]ur understanding of this becoming-machinic involves changes in our understanding of the nature and scope of computation in relation to dynamical systems and evolutionary processes. (7)

This is not to say that Johnston rejects Simondon’s theories.  In fact, we may even say that he is performing none other than Simondonian internal individuation as he traces through a history of AI and ALife by reading precisely the “computational assemblages” in which those two fields are concretized.  We can summarize his methodology as Kittlerian media history combined with a Simondonian approach to intellectual history or the history of science.  His reading of the intellectual (even ontological) impact that the invention of the computer made upon society is compelling, and his argument that we have come to recognize our place as “thinking machines” that are simply on a different order of complexity from other machines is similarly persuasive, as in the following passage:

The only thing remotely comparable [to computers] was the clock, another autonomous machine that when widely introduced into Europe completely restructured human behavior.  And just as the clock… is a time-marking machine that can be found not only on our walls and wrists but also in our bodies, institutions, and exchanges both economic and informational, so too these logic machines must inhabit and traverse us in unnoticed ways, giving structure and meaning to what we all too casually call life. (71)

The assertion that a new media paradigm for the recording, storage, and reproduction of information must fundamentally alter the way we experience our place in the world is one with which I agree.

The problem is when, even while acknowledging the work of N. Katherine Hayles and its caution against allowing information to become disembodied, Johnston seems to let disembodiment sneak in through the back door.  This becomes clear in his discussion of Lacanian psychoanalysis and its incorporation of the discourse of cybernetics and automatic computing.  Johnston carefully traces Lacan’s language from his Paris seminars (and their later modifications in Écrits) and shows how Lacan comes to think of the Symbolic order as the “realm of the machine,” equivalent to computational functions that exist as a set of rules governing how signs are relationally arranged, the precondition for our assigning meaning to them in the realm of the Imaginary.  Notice, however, the language Johnston uses as he describes the process Lacan identifies by which the Symbolic is created:

As Lacan implies in the lecture, this autonomization of the symbol, that is, its being set free from the constraints of nature (the physical laws of matter and energy), is at the heart of the symbolic function and its relationship to the real. (94)

The Symbolic becomes unmoored from physical reality in an exact duplicate of the way information is disembodied in Hayles’s analysis.  What’s more, setting the Symbolic register in terms of a corpus of rules puts it at the cognitive level, even if this cognition happens subconsciously in Lacan’s formulation.  It is through the Symbolic register that Johnston then routes his discussion of Garry Kasparov’s two chess matches against the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue in order to show the ways in which the in-mixing of the symbolic, imaginary, and real create our experience of subjectivity as being in the world.

Where I remain unconvinced is in the absence of the term “affect” in this analysis (or even in the book’s index).  In following Sara Ahmed, Elizabeth Grosz, Teresa Brennan, and the other affect theorists on this list, I take affect to be a quality of the subject that exists pre-cognitively yet nevertheless has an effect on that subject’s experience of subjectivity.  Affect is not governed by rules like language (the parallel to which Johnston continually returns), but rather orient our perceptions prior to any attempt to put them into words.  We may note, for example, that Lacan’s model of the Symbolic, as Johnston outlines it here, does not allow for any mutation that breaks linguistic rules as anything but an aberration.  His version of our interpretive filter on the world, then, feels static to me.

It raises the question, though, of the status of affect within Simondon’s thought.  To wit, from where does the impetus to individuate arise in the case of internal individuation on the part of the organic subject?  Simondon glosses internal individuation as thought itself, so it cannot be the case that a cognitive impulse on the order of Lacan’s Symbolic could inaugurate it.  My own feeling is that it is affect which serves as the spark for individuation to begin.  We could cite Brennan’s “transmission of affect” as an external individuation of the subject’s affective state, but it seems that such a state would be responsible for throwing the individual “out of phase with itself,” as Simondon puts it.  Maybe it’s the case that language is the metaphor for this process to which we must return, for the way I’ve described it here sounds like nothing so much as a set of language-like rules or conditions (programming) set into affect that cause it to trigger in certain ways through certain stimuli.  If it is a language, though, it is a very different language than any we have known.


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