The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

Enclaves of Theory and Theology


You may lie on my first, by the side of a stream,
And my second compose to the Nymph you adore
But if when you've none of my whole, her esteem
And affection diminish, think of her no more
                                         Jane. [Austen]

(Charade - answer, a banknote.)

[ But a different answer, away from capital, may be given altogether,
"whole" replaced by the homonym "hole," "lie" curled in meaning, and
"first" taken elsewhere; this is the application of local theory,
an _ontology_ of capital replaced by the body, the body ultimately
inaccessible. And then, what happens to capital? ]


Abstract: My bad theory: If anything is basic it's lack. We scramble to
suture the rest. We can't. We think we do.


I pay no attention to theology; inerrancy or core belief is already dead
in relation to its imperviousness. Think of god or spirit as token; as
ulterior, in-evident, there is little to say about them, except of course
for what might be enacted in their name.

Theory is no longer at an impasse; theory - in the sense, in any sense, of
speaking the world, is already lost. It's lost in technology, in the
concrete, which it misplaces and misinterprets - how can one speak of
codework without understanding code, speak of epistemology without access
to, and understanding of, the very machines that extend, at least for the
privileged, the real - whose very definition is characterized by
withdrawal? The entanglement of theoretical subject and object is best
served by quantum mechanics from below, now approaching the level of
ordinary visibility.

This is occasioned by recent readings into theory, where it is clear that
the authors were circumlocuting a field they had little knowledge of - in
this case, codework - but it's also occasioned by an increasing dissatis-
faction with theory's applications beyond the social in general. It's too
easy to slip from augmented reality or virtual worlds or virtual reality
itself, to ontologies or epistemologies, with the receding dream of the
fundamental guiding one astray. There are several levels involved, all
crumbling, all entangled - the physical-real, the mathematics of the world
(however world and mathesis are defined), the current technologies of the
world (ditto), access to these technologies, theory and its techne - and
melding or interoperability among all of these. It's theory that
disappears in the mix - or the rest of us; increasingly, to understand the
world has come to mean to understand technical vocabularies on all levels
- from conceptual/theoretical astuteness to access to tools, which depends
on the grace of institutions and individuals. In my own case, Patrick
Lichty and Sandy Baldwin directed me towards mocap at their institutions;
Frances van Scoy extended the invitation to 3-d scanners; Mark Skwarek
guided me through the beginnings of mocap, and so forth. I walk in and out
of labs with residencies that range (once) from half a year to (most
often) 2-3 days. I walk into institutions, into institutional cultures; in
this regard I'm luckier than most. But the access remains highly limited,
and what's more important here, the resulting phenomenology is always
bracketed. I suspect this is the case for most people; it's a matter of
degree. All I can do - all _anyone_ can do - is write from the outside,
from the external (within or without a phenomenology of externality), but,
by grace of these invitations, I have learned, at the least, my limits.
Theory on the other hand proceeds without limits; its contemporary
over-reliance on the body, abjection, sexuality, and other issues is to
some extent a withdrawal to a fictional core that remains inviolate: begin
and end with the body of the theorist, and the details of codework for
example will either be bypassed, introjected, or seen as irrelevant. None
of this would matter, if theory didn't carry the weight it does; we've all
read descriptions of our own work as if they're written in a foreign
language, indecipherable with occasional partial legibilities that seem
inherently wrong. Media (in the sense of writing-about, placing that
writing, receiving and remediating that writing) does that to one, and
there's little recourse at the other end. (On the other hand, our own
descriptions, as cultural workers, often chart out vast philosophical
terrain, as if materiality - and the bridging between abstract theory and
materiality - made a difference. I'm guilty of that! In this enclaved
essay I'm guilty of that!)

When I give a talk now, I try to begin with issues of "the fragility of
good things" (from catastrophe theory), extinctions, global slaughter
coupled with populations exponentially increasing - and enclaving, a
concept borrowed from Mike Davis, emphasizing the secure and violent walls
placed around the wealthy, around global institutions and bodies, around
governance in general. Theory itself is enclaved in this regard - as is
the epistemology/ontology of the real (at variance with theory), dependent
on Fermilab, the LHC, AR, holographic VR, etc. etc. - pick your level,
your machine, your theorist. The levels aren't interoperable, nor are they
well-defined. The result is brilliant production, with either micro-man-
aged phenomenology, or phenomenology left in the dust. (Brian Greene's The
Hidden Reality figures here for example.)

It's characteristic of this short essay, that _I don't know what I'm
talking about, nor can I_ - which is why the weaker the theory, the more
functional. I keep thinking of the usual question, for example - Why is
there something rather than nothing - and coming up with the exhaustive
positioning of physical bootstrapping, the universe bringing itself,
continuously, into existence, so that the Why - which implies both origins
and causality - if it doesn't fade away, at least is in need of a coronary
bypass. The solidity or projection of real or virtual objects stands
ultimately in relation to physical theory; if holography plays a role in
our appearing, how many codings occur to construct a virtual world?

The bottom line, not the fundamental one, is the failure of regimes - of
technology, theory, coding, phenomenology, physical and somatic realities
- to interconnect, in combination with apparent flows of power among them.
This power is split and sutured by human claims among humans that don't
quite interconnect. I'm not talking about the old notion of two cultures,
but about fragmentation everywhere, suturing within micro-domains (code,
technology, augmented and diminished realities, theory, daily life). This
is hard to grasp, when even this description falls apart, is rifted; how
could it be otherwise? I'm not talking about the old notion of master
narratives, but about a collocation of narratives, topologically-distinct
but fuzzy and broken sememes. I'm not talking about a dearth of ontologies
but about ontologies as local conventions, epistemologies always already
under contestation. (Which is amazing and liberation; there are just the
old Sartrean issues of scarcity economics in the midst of Bataille's
surplus increasingly harbored from above.)

And I'm talking about enclaving brought about by an exponential increase
in knowledge, coupled by an exponential increase in wealth among a small
and isolated class - both have utterly transformed the landscape, origin-
ally one of privilege, network broadcast, and limited access - through a
period of net neutrality, open sourcing knowledge (but not medical care,
basic survival safety nets, life on the ground), and a distant horizon of
universal open channels of information and communication - to one again of
technological privilege, limited broadcast and access, local control. I
can see the model changing from the imperial through the appearance of
democracy, back through neoliberalism to an imperium in everything but
name. Better managed this time, everything appears better and better
advertised; it's just a kind blurriness in the details: WELCOME TO THE

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