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Meshes, Objects and Algorithms

Just thought I’d write a quick one, weighing in on Levi’s post regarding Tim Morton’s notion of The Mesh, (heres what I believe is the transcript of that talk). I’ve not read any of Morton’s stuff, so I’m not obliged to comment on my thoughts regarding his notion of what The Mesh constitutes; but I really like the name, its an excellent term for what he’s arguing in terms of deconstructing the “language” of ecological life structures.

“Mesh” can mean both the holes in a network, and the threading between them. It suggests both hardness and delicacy. It has uses in biology, mathematics and engineering, and in weaving and computing—think stockings and graphic design, metals and fabrics. It has antecedents in mask and mass, suggesting both density and deception. By extension, “mesh” can mean “a complex situation or series of events in which a person is entangled; a concatenation of constraining or restricting forces or circumstances; a snare.” In other words, it’s perfect.”

What I appreciate about the term is that it happily tries to include things and their contingencies within the same, well.. mesh. Everything is interconnected, and as such contingencies are unknown (precisely because they are contingent), but arise from the same mesh as it were. Politically, I think Morton has this tied into a number of implications which align to a speculative ontology, which can account for poltical relationships outside of the human-nature correlate. In his post – Levi also describes his position as akin to ‘Eco-Marxism’ which would infuriate a lot of political people I know (as far as one or two are concerned, saving ecology is cultural and nature is almost like a series of unimaginable catastrophes), but again, I am intrigued by this notion;

“Eco-Marxism wouldn’t simply be a Marxism that takes into account “the environment”, but rather would significantly expand the domain of Marxist thought. On the one hand, eco-Marxism would include nonhuman actors such as animal, mineral, and quantum beings within its scope. Put differently, the index wouldn’t simply be to human emancipation. I’m still thinking through this.”

By its own admission, conceptualising political thought outside of human relations is not only necessary but tricky, as one not only has to deal with the reducibility of human action to the human correlate, but defining the notion of Marxist politics to such an extent, that it can siphoned off as a particular relationship between a number of entities, corporeal and incorporeal. This has to discount the suggestion that every relation in the cosmos is either wholly ‘political’, partially ‘political’ or in the other case it generally isn’t political but has the potential to be political (which brings up a number of other issues involving what this potentiality constitutes, and also analysing when it occurs, when it has occurred and when it is most likely to occur). This is why as I’ve mentioned before (and Levi mentions) Bruno Latour’s essay ‘The Compositionist Manifesto‘ holds a number of important points about the hostile position of critique, and instead politics should take the idea that emancipation is not a forgone conclusion in human history, but that it takes serious hard work to compose movements and keep them together. On the whole, these issues need to be ironed out, and my ’5 – 10-years-time brain’ is focused on what this predicament  might have in cultural topics. My hunch is that whatever comes out of Meshes and Eco-Marxism, may be the same set of questions that have an impact on aesthetics; if there are any more prominent topics which have been ludicrously reduced to the realm of human other than aesthetics and politics, then let me know. And yes, I am all too aware of the coincidence of using the term ‘composition’ in politics as well as aesthetics, so much so, that I have another hunch that they harbour similar qualities. So whilst we’re all thinking through this, I’d like to offer my own rudimentary position. This is quite dangerous as a PhD student I know, but I’m screaming to get my own thoughts out on anything at the moment, besides reading, drafting the thesis and structuring September’s paper, an article and a book chapter. Provisos: This is a rudimentary term of my own, which is nowhere near hard and fast and I only put this term out there to help and aid discussion. But, the term that I use has helped me try to dissect these excellent questions going forward. Some of you might know the word very well, in fact, it is one half of the blog-name.

Following Graham’s ideas on autonomous objects, I propose the term Algorithm. The term is a multi-amalgamated term from several sources, most notably from the canon of digital physics and pancomputationalism; Stephen Wolfram, Juergen Schmidhuber, etc, who argue that quantum physics need not be incompatible with computation, (these often range from theorising that the entire universe is one huge digital computer. But I also want to distance myself from those thinkers and inject some philosophical discussion into its inclusion, particularly how it could be placed in a realist ontology. I had been trying to figure out a term for digital aesthetics which would happily describe the production and execution of an artwork digitally. In particular Bogost’s Unit Operations has also helped me forge this term in terms of expression and aesthetic computation. So what is an algorithm? Many of you reading this will know what an algorithm is typically, some of you will even know how mis-used the term is. The general suggestion is that an algorithm is a systematic procedure of calculation which solves a problem and is generally known as an almost universally computational process which starts with an input, and executes instructions to achieve a required output, or an alternative pre-programmed output. For example, when I type the keyboard button ‘y’, the Intel Processor on my MacBook takes that input and executes a calculated instruction to generate the shape ‘y’ on the corresponding screen. The processor will often find the easiest way to navigate through the structure of the algorithm to achieve that output, i.e. if something in the Flow Chart chain is blocked, either, like the network that it is, it finds an alternative pathway to plant ‘y’ on the screen, or that output is not generated and the algorithm stops.

Physicists such as Stephen Wolfram have proposed that ontological complexity is the result or continued ‘real time’ calculation of a series of instructions, or one instruction, rather than any reducibility to matter or mathematics. Simple sets of instructions can generate unimaginable complexity, as Wolfram and others have shown. Wolfram has also asserted that it is fundamentally impossible to reduce execution down to its native series of instructions; you simply have to experiment with an arbitrary set of instructions, run them, or execute them and then witness the output. You may get life, you may get a whole universe or you may get nothing. But the problem with Algorithms here as I’m realising more and more is that they are not simply reducible to computation, the digital or pure information, for the very same reasons that Graham criticises ’Ground Floor Materialism’ ontologies. Basically, the idea that there is an underlying process or material ‘thing’ that lies behind all units or objects. Also, an algorithm is not just something given to ‘life’, or is reducible to life, computation does perfectly well from initial conditions, even to breed the stereotypical artificial life (see cellular automata). The often neglected mis-use comes from the ‘puzzle-solving’ element of the term, which harbours intent, in my mind, algorithms do not harbour intent, rather unit- or object consistency. It is what grants objects or units, the metaphysical stance of being unitary. ‘Algorithm’ then (as I try to term the idea) is the term given to ‘units of execution‘. They execute themselves on the product of other executing units. It is a configuring structure. But one which does not rely on a second collection of entities to be executed on. There are only algorithms. For example, one could speculate that baking a cake from a recipe is an algorithm, (an additional intervention would suggest that it is not calculable, but lets avoid that for now) once the instruction, ingredients and individual are there, the execution can take place. Algorithm proposes the following axioms;

1.) That the execution is independent of any of the contributing factors to its configurability. Execution is a cordoned off area of sheer metaphysical non-relation. The execution-which-generates-or-may-not-generate-cake, exists independent of its materials, instruction, individual or product (output).

2.) The contributing factors that give structure to the baking-execution are also, always- already executing algorithms. Units, matter, objects do not precede algorithms, executant algorithms generate units, matter and objects.

3.) What gives rise to the physical, metaphysical, relations is another term; that of Contingency. Relations are contingent, adhoc in relation to other neighbouring or compositing executant algorithms. The ingredients, look, smell, and appear the way they are, in relation to us. Following the basic ground-rules of Object Oriented Ontology, they are also capable of relations between themselves. Relations then, are contingent, they are asymmetrical from the executant algorithm in question. When algorithms approach others, there is nothing else aside from contingency. Algorithms are thoroughly determined, Contingency is throughly undetermined.

I knew it wouldn’t be a quick post. I’ll draft a bit more of this when the time is right, as I’m still working this out. For the PhD, this is to be implemented into an aesthetic framework (that aesthetics is a contingent effect, the digital artwork is executant algorithm) so I know it might have few philosophical teething problems. The basic position is this from an aesthetic point of view. Building artworks is about configuring the right materials in the right places to generate an output; in short – execution. The process is fundamentally independent from the materials/artists/movement it exists within, but although an output is desired, this does not stop the executant algorithm from being contingent.

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for this. I too am interested in algorithms. Evolution101 at UC Davis begins with algorithms. I’m writing a short essay on them (nowhere near as comprehensive as yourself) for Thinking Nature. I would like to read your work and cite you–any recommendations?

    Posted on 29-Jul-10 at 3:18 pm | Permalink
  2. parallax00

    Hi Tim,

    Thanks for the comment. As a second year MPhil/PhD student in the UK, I haven’t got much ‘work’ out there to read, but I’ll contact you via email with the last paper I presented concerning Heidegger, Harman and Algorithmic artworks. Algorithm as a concept and a computational practice is extremely esoteric, but looking at your interests I’d have a glance at Stephen Wolfram’s ‘A New Kind Of Science’ if you haven’t already; all 1000 pages of it. His research is the closest to my term, (except for the Ground Floor Materialist Science.)

    All the best.

    Posted on 29-Jul-10 at 9:00 pm | Permalink

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