Some questions about Actor Recursion Theory (ART): An interview with me – (Part 1)

So what’s Actor Recursion Theory then?

Actor Recursion Theory is a name I’ve given to a specific intervention outlined in my dissertation. It’s not fully developed yet, and as such links or presents my haphazard state of mind during a PhD thesis. It’s reflects an opinion, but I leave plenty of room for others.

The name for it is influenced by Latour and Callon’s Actor Network-Theory, and it upholds most of the methodologies that accompany it, but with one crucial difference; in Actor Network-Theory, the actions of discrete actors can be traced by a synchronic heterogeneous network of relations. In Actor Recursion Theory, actors can be traced and furthermore, executed by diachronic recursion and the repetition of finite rules, which have the capacity to refer to themselves and act on other recursive actors. Recursion is most commonly used in mathematics and computer science and it defines a procedure where a function is applied within its own definition. To put it another way, it is the process a procedure must go through in it’s executant state when one of the steps of the procedural rule involves repeating the procedure itself.

Every theoretical and pragmatic hallmark of Actor Network Theory is carried over, local production, translation, alliance, the naturalisation of culture, the equality between humans and non-humans, (the principle of generalised symmetry) hybrids, the agency of the actors producing time and space, the concreteness of actors in specific situations etc; all with the exception that [ART] actors are constructed and enter into relation with the central mechanism of recursion as the mode of execution and translation between actors. As you can imagine, this may change the dynamics of what an ‘actor’ is constituted by and what it can do. To say that an actor operates by recursion fundamentally revises these hallmarks.

Another important thing; Actor Recursion Theory aims not to totally replace Actor Network Theory nor subsume it – it has a different intervening application linked to its primary concern. It simply provides a different way of understanding the pragmatic capabilities of creating and producing an aesthetic piece of work (‘work’ in the ANT sense of translation is also carried over). Recursiveness is not only just tied to forms of computing and computational art, but to many types of art production. How do actors express themselves aesthetically?

Any other reasons for coining that term?

Well one major part of it happened to rest on the abbreviated acronym of Actor Network-Theory (ANT). I’ve always quite liked the allusive metaphorical capabilities of it. As Latour once stated, “ANT” is “perfectly fit for a blind, myopic, workaholic, trail-sniffing, and collective traveler.” (Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory [2005: p.9]); not to mention that an ‘ant’ constitutes a discrete unit of action in the dynamic network of an antfarm, which we can trace through observation and testing. A perfect encapsulated fit all round.

Well, the acronym for Actor Recursion Theory is “ART” – and this nicely encapsulates the generative and enumerative aesthetic capabilities of how an actor ‘acts’ in its recursive iteration. Plus on the unlikely chance it got accepted as a major field of research for science and technology studies, perhaps computer science studies, academics would have to always-already deal with ART in its recursive deployment…

In fact, this bemusing play with a movement’s acronyms (OOO notwithstanding) is also recursive. It comes under the rather unimaginative name of recursive acronyms, or ‘metacronyms’. These are acronyms which self-refer to themselves (usually humorously) in the expression for which they self-express. For example, CAVE [Cave Automatic Virtual Environment] or sometimes PHP [jokingly referred to as Personal Home Page]. In this sense, as a preliminary discipline, Actor Recursion Theory can only refer itself as ‘art’ and remain independently self-refering, every time someone wants to use it (if it ever needed to be used in the future and in other fields).

But surely “ART” is epistemologically undefinable, unlike an “ANT” which we can define easily?

True. But Graham Harman’s critical reading of Latour has given us some ground into understanding that something as simple as an ‘ant’ is just as undefinable and complex as ‘art’, whilst also remaining specific, autonomous, discrete and concrete. Whilst this may seem like a retrograde step for aesthetics, I take it as a necessary conjecture in suggesting that aesthetics has only just begun to realise it’s capacity for change in the concrete specificity of determinate things. Aesthetics is no longer confined to sign games, creative malaise or the hopeless drudgery of insular commercialisation within a market trend – instead it has the capacity to lurk in-between real-world structures of all kinds, albeit whether humans are beholden and bewitched by it or not. We just need a theory that not only ferrets it out, but can understand why some works of art have greater qualities than others.

So how does ART ‘Recursion’ contrast with ANT ‘Networks’ in light of aesthetics?

For some reason, there has always been some ambiguity as to what Latour means by a ‘network’. We’re used to conceiving a network as some massive, equivalent ‘syncing’ web of collective communication, which flows together across vast global stretches of nodes, servers and lines. But this would undermine the difference between a network and an actor, (for Latour a subway, or ‘the Internet’ are actors, as well as their components). As Latour states;

“Recent technologies have often the character of a network, that is, of exclusively related yet very distant element with the circulation between nodes being made compulsory through a set of rigorous paths giving to a few nodes a strategic character. Nothing is more intensely connected, more distant, more compulsory and more strategically organized than a computer network. Such is not however the basic metaphor of an actor-network.”

A network in the ANT sense, is a collection of heterogeneous dynamic interactions between discrete units of all kinds, at all levels where new translations can emerge. The network is more than a system, it is a historical collection of meetings, translations and gatherings where action has taken place in one place only. It is the actions which define the network, not the other way round through a representation of patterns. Staring and theorising at the network only produces a translation of it, mostly as the thing that is ‘doing the staring’ is acting upon it, through its own stare. Networks need to be explained through the participation of actors, and are not to be used to explain away the participation of actors. To this end, Latour has earned his following by justifying an approach which analyses the pragmatic empirical networks that contingently bequeath a specific event to emerge at a particular time, and the alliances peculiar to those bunch of actants.

However when one wants to use this theory of dynamic networks for the discussion of a current or future aesthetic event, object, thing or production, we suddenly become unstuck. For one thing, actors and networks are a very good toolkit for understanding and analysing the history of ‘whats come before’ (This is a criticism which Graham Harman has made elsewhere). An actor network theory of art history is perfectly credible, (in particular, see Michael Zell) but the problem comes with justifying and differentiating where the necessary aesthetic action must take place. Specifying the networks which have brought together actors in one place can, in principle, explain specific alliances which demystifies artistic genius (much like ANT has tried to do with scientific geniuses) and makes non-linear the typical linearity of ‘Western Art history’. But can ANT supply a toolkit which provides the means to understand expression itself, and the constructive configurations which may or may not show it? Can ANT explain certain capacities for the future production of art?

There are a few theorists who have attempted to understand the production of aesthetics through ANT, not least through a revised form of substance in OOO, where aesthetics can be located between the withdrawal and sincerity of objects. But it all depends on how one views the aesthetic existence of an ‘artwork’ and the observer reception of that artwork. The explanation of this gap takes on many forms. Many trends of art theory (Bourriaud 2002; Groys 2010) have repeatedly dropped the idea of a discrete work, which is of  determined aesthetic quality in-itself, in favour of discursive indeterminate relations, usually occurring in-between human communities and power structures (although ANT isn’t guilty of these two factors, for it’s rightful refusal in separating natural actors from cultural ones).

Clearly it would be mindless and moronic to suggest that Actor Network Theorists encourage the destruction of aesthetic quality, if one simply concentrates on the networks surrounding and composing it. But the question is a simple one: what are the operational requirements for an unified entity to forge an aesthetic effect in the first place if actors are not constructed (nor contingent) on human observers? If aesthetics can be shown as being a historically contingent relationship between two actors, which are contingent and traceable on a network, then why bother to create art at all? How would one distinguish an artwork under such terms if not human ones?

In the realm of ART then, we seek to supplement the contingent, stochastic exposition of the network with the necessary execution of automatic recursion. Here, we are suggesting that artwork is a mechanical and durable repetition of a finite actor which is executed over and over again, over one pieces or a collection of pieces. The durability of an entity is traced not by the networks of neighbouring localised environment, but by the execution of its acting state as a rule repeated over and over within a formal system irrespective of that system. It is the actor which defines the recursive action. Recursive actors can be non-linear, yet have the bizarre behaviour of being intrinsically auto-determined despite the impact of any contingent environmental influences.

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