Ethological knowledge maps of liminal territories


Milan Jaros*



The “metanarratives” of modernity were grounded in Kantian epistemology and in the ideologies of Progress positing clear dividing lines between subject and object, image and reality, past and future, science and aesthetics. The contemporary is often characterized by “incredulity” to such metanarratives (e.g. Lyotard, 1986). This incredulity is one of the few features shared – albeit for very different reasons – among many schools of thought spanning human endeavours from sciences to politics and arts. Scholarly literature is littered with metaphors invoking the “decline” or even “death” of “the subject” (e.g. Ferry, 1990: 1, Zizek, 1999: 1), of the “body” (Lyotard, 1991), “reality” (e.g. Baudrillard, 1996), “art” (Danto, 1997). However, with a few notable exceptions most studies of this decline have been cast in the language whose limits they set out to question. They invoke the possibility or inevitability of this decline (Foucault, 1975), aporias of time and law (Derrida, 1994), and so on. Hence the decline of the legitimacy of meta-theory can only be seen as negativity, an approaching (be it spectacular, apocalyptic) end point.

Another way of examining the condition of humanity today is to approach it as a crisis of the Galilean attitude to nature, to (in the broadest sense) bodily existence and experimentation (Canguilhem, 1992:241). This crisis is then seen as a product of the success of the very Galilean separation of humans from things in which the project modernity is grounded. When in the course of the 20th century the “mastery” of nature reached a certain critical level, it led to a "paradigmatic shift" in the material condition of humanity resulting in a radically different notion of thingness, truth and otherness (Rabinow, 1992:249). "Nature" is no longer a simple neutral referent. Humans have acquired the power to make heterogenous bodies, artefacts that do not fit the Galilean assumption of autonomous objects to be exhibited and represented. Instead of a static lattice of autonomous objects and events it would appear to be more useful to consider spatio-temporal "heterogenous" assemblages of quasi-objects (men, programs, stones, animals) held together via “real” and “virtual” microbonds (Pearson, 1997:134). Instead of conquest there is the principle of dynamic coexistence. "…the assemblage is a structure which, like the (polyphonic) novel, is able to articulate the slide into oblivion of one mode of thought together with the rise to dominance of another without having to explain it in terms of either succession or negation, but instead can stage it as co-adaptation". It is a notion which, like the idea of polyphony or counterpoint, "finds its strongest definition and exemplification in music", in a musical score with its vertical solidity grounding the horizontal flow of liminal interfaces that constitute the experience of musical time. It is the opposite of the modernist insistence on the Cartesian opposites, on his "clear and distinct", on the autonomy, the (purity of) style, the race, and so on. The distinction is "never between assemblage and something else but the internal limits (and motion) of a possible assemblage" (Buchanan, 2000:118-9). For this assemblage to “exist” there must be "players" to "animate" it. Such an animation is an "artefact" that does not stand as a representation of any-thing nor does it aim at “deconstructing” any system of signs. Thingness is then best thought of as a “dynamic capacity to be affected and affecting”(Smith, 1996:36). The act of experimentation is freed from the Galilean constraint (autonomy); experimentation is now a constitutive act that brings into being quasi-objects, brings about their rise and decay along the line of force such an act of bonding and animation exerts. The directionality that both the post-Kantian positivistic and the Hegelian historismic epistemology removed into the realm of transcendental necessity of progress is now returned to the sites of making and connecting. To the extent that this dynamics rests on a spontaneous “play” things are not ontologically subsumed by “culture”. There is no representation, no signification, no Critique.

How does an object “become” a partial or “quasi-object”? What are the consequences of this shift for the way we experience time today, the way we can put before us signs that might account for the hybrid spatio-temporal structures that support our being? This is a question that interests academic philosophers, painters, designers of intelligent machines and students of cultural & geo-political structures alike! In the context of, say, genetic nano-engineering or politics of diasporas the question is far from academic. As expected, "responses to the notion of hybridity vary. Yet it may well be that we all "share the…notion that selfhood is constructed and not received, …negotiable and not fixed…" (Pearson et al, 1997: 19).

In the Aristotelian or Christian eras the course of change was governed by what was given, by customs and traditions that appeared external to humans. The Enlightenment liberated humans from such dependence on the Given. The Theory provided Man with the confidence needed to make "reliable representations of reality", i.e. human rules and order. Change (development, pursuit of complexity) was then informed by the necessary directional thought yielded by universal theory. The 20th century witnessed ruthless destruction by science of whatever narrative coherence remained of the ancient era and ultimately of the (material and social) conditions validating the myth of directional Progress itself. It scattered the fragments of "meaning" in a nonlinear fashion and across boundaries of the domains that had previously been thought to be autonomous. Perhaps the process of "melting everything solid into air" leaves only the bare traces of its action, the traces of the application of the Galilean mathematics - inscriptions of pseudo-mathematical formulae (e.g. broken sequences of quasi-algorithmic steps)? It is then these pseudo-mathematical analogies that remain to constitute the irreducible source of motion (change, bonding, development) driving the rise and decay of the heterogenous hybrid structures, the recognizable mechanisms that can be invoked when sufficient energy is gathered for an event, for an act-journey to come into being. The early Christians had their Bible and the early Moderns their Encyclopaedia. The research project before us to seek, to render visible maps of possible act-journeys for they will constitute a new notion of order, a new network of in-visible and constantly shifting (liminal) rails along which post-contemporary thoughts will travel and collide.



The Cosmos of Aristotle is a unity of things, gods and humans in which each has a place according to its nature. The purpose of any creature is to bring to fruition that which is its nature, to excel in its function; that is also to achieve virtue. This Cosmos is an organism at equilibrium, a world governed by the harmony of the spheres. Its returns are made real by phusis, by the eternal motion of procreation. This is why physicists and artists alike have until very recently focused on the regular, on the symmetric, on the eternal motion. They ignored the temporal, the rising and decaying for that is Aristotle’s “violent” motion not worthy of efforts whose ambition is to reach immortality! Theoria is a (ritual) contemplation of the eternal order of things. The theorist is not there to posit or constitute the world. She is there to recollect, to seek herself and her connection with the objective world of Ideas via mimesis.

When the Christian centuries rose to the challenge of reconciling the biblical commandments with the reality of medieval living, the challenge became a challenge to the ancient concept of subjectivity. After centuries of scholastic speculations, things became so overloaded with meanings that it was increasingly difficult to take seriously the claim that there is an omniscient external law. But since this law is God’s law, man can free himself only if he takes His place. Both Hobbes and Galileo end up with a modern man who takes it upon himself to posit the ends; in this role man becomes a measure of things, a master of nature. True, for Newton the laws of nature are God’s laws and the inquiry into the world of natural phenomena is a celebration of the Glory of His Creation. But these laws are comprehensible only through the intellect of man, through the autonomous mind of an independent observer. The ancient principle still retained in Spinoza of equating God and Nature is gone. Newton provided the means for grounding this positing process in a radically new objectivity. He “rediscovered” Kepler’s empirical laws of planetary motion as a subset of universal laws of motion. He seemed able to connect the mathematical-logical operations of the mind with empirical observations, to ground abstract universality of mathematics and logic in observation.

Galileo and Newton separated humans from things. The intellectual intuition of the Greeks was replaced by sensory perception. Instead of describing essences, “pigginess” and metaphysical images of things, humans were compelled to take seriously only that which can be seen, measured and quantified.

Kant set out to bring together philosophy and Newton. Newton's independent observer is Kant's autonomous mind, the transcendental subject. How can a mere mortal like Newton gain access to "universal laws of nature"? To answer this question Kant had to divide the world into two realms, phenomenal and noumenal. Knowledge is the knowledge of phenomena, the domain of Pure Reason. It requires a priori forms of perception of time and space. What cannot be present in time and space, the beginning of time, god, freedom, belongs to the realm of Ideas. These are thoughts that do not have presentations. They are thinkable but unknowable. It is the task of transcendental philosophy to make sure that we do not fall into the trap of "transcendental illusion" (to regard them as knowable). In the second Critique the Ideas acquire a positive content via the moral law. But the moral law in Kant is a potentiality. It is precisely because one cannot "know" the moral law as such that it is possible to posit morality. For if one knew how to be free and moral then morality would be the object of science! However, we can still use Ideas as regulative principles. True, we do not comprehend moral commands. But it is enough to comprehend their incomprehensibility, in fact that is all that can be expected from transcendental philosophy. Since the unknowability of the moral law is known it can orient human actions.

To act disinterestedly is the necessary condition for access to truth and morality.. Since this freedom is freedom so long as it remains a potentiality, it is only useful as a practical proposition provided there are a large number of those who are not free, i.e. who are not knowingly transcending, pursuing disinterested inquiry. For if everyone were a conscious Kantian, there would be no world of events for the Kantian subject to inquire about! The Kantian subject, whether a physicist, politician or artists must not “interfere” with the material things (objects) for they would no longer be external to him, out there. At the time of Kant's only a handful could aspire to being a Kantian subject; also their power to interfere with the physical (material and social) world was very limited. The star gazing practiced by Newton and Galileo was indeed an excellent model of disinterested inquiry. But later the victorious Kantian subject gave humans electricity, revolutions, and clones. Kant's freedom grounded in the assumption of disinterestedness becomes merely formal. Its irrelevance is the proof of its success!

What happens when the subject "lives", when she does actualize her finitude? Kant's Critique of Pure Reason deals with what "is". The Critique of Practical Reason deals with what "ought to be". The two Critiques show that the principles which apply to pure reason (which refer to phenomena) and those applying to practical reason (which refer to noumena) are logically compatible. But for any actualization of the theoretical necessity to take place there must be a connection between the domains of necessity and (individual) freedom on which this actualization depends. To establish this connection is the task of the Third Critique, the Critique of Judgement. In it Kant considers reflective judgments, i.e. judgements when the particular is given and the aim is to find the universal. The analysis of reflective judgements is therefore primarily about our powers of representation (of the world of objects), about the separation between things and images of things. For Kant the sphere of reflective judgement is also autonomous. The material condition of humanity that informs Kant’s Critiques makes the world look like an exhibition hall full of (autonomous) objects. So long as the subject can transcend the object, there are at least in principle a priori concepts it can assign to particular experiences of objects!

The 20th century science showed that Newton's laws of motion are not truly universal (e.g. that there are physical processes not correctly described by Newtonian mechanics). In fact no system of scientific knowledge is universal in the sense of the Critique of Pure Reason. The grounding condition (the Kantian transcendental autonomy of “is”, “ought to be”, and “I”) of modernity turned out to be a mere approximation. The Kantian “conception of the subject …makes history of philosophy…a history of the conditions for possibility of illusions” (Jameson, 1994: 38). This means that any knowledge system has always only a finite (bounded) domain of applicability! However, within its domain of applicability (say, macroscopic reversible events at non-relativistic speed) there is nothing "subjective" about Newton's laws. Whatever social (linguistic) constructs we put on a set of phenomena we can always within the chosen language games produce agreement on results of measurements. For example, the power and bandwidth of a laser beam used to perform an eye operation may well be replaced by other linguistic constructs but the operation/cut remains the same and reproducible; it is reliable ("objective") within certain specified limits. This "objective reality" (the patient can see again) and the world of things associated with it has therefore not disappeared. However, the questions about how this “finite” knowledge re-shapes the way people think, e.g. how the actualization of a particular knowledge system affects other knowledge systems (i.e. the perpetual battle about the boundaries and overlaps of meaning and applicability of competing knowledge systems), lie outside Kantian metaphysics. For they imply that knowledge is not detachable from the humans who use it. To say otherwise would amount to “positivistic objectivism”, to denying that such practices are value generating outside laboratory exercises.



Already in the late 1970s Deleuze and Guattari set out to develop a vocabulary that would make it possible to break away not only from the “thing” of Kant’s Critiques but also from the Heideggerian one (Heidegger, 1976). For Deleuze and Guattari (D&G) subject and object are a “poor approximation” to thought; “thinking is neither a line drawn between subject and object ...thinking takes place in the relationship between the territory and the earth.” (D&G, 1994:85, Bosteel, 1998:145). This is a move from text to territory, without necessarily denying veracity to deconstruction and textuality! And is this what we do next (e.g. Bogue, 1997) in freeing the notion of “artefact” from the contradictions of modernist discourse (Gell, 1996)? The textual analysis and the analytic tradition in philosophy both belong to the last stage of transcendental tradition grounded in the (Newtonian) temporal metaphors, in the way we (autonomous subjects) experience (Newtonian, clock) time. The Deleuzian intervention turns to novel “spatial” metaphors (“territory”). For Deleuze “what is at stake becomes a locus of an event” (Bosteels, 1998:146), a move toward genealogical perspective. Instead of Galilean universal variables (that are criticized but still retained by deconstruction), instead of worries about aporias of time and law, D&G bring out events by localising and contextualizing, by examining (mapping) the way they depend on local boundaries and links, on their (local and temporal) precursors.

A map is not just a mirror (representation) of “nature” (phenomena). A map can be viewed - apart of its representational and factual function as a tool in the hands of Kantian scientist – as a “work of art”, for its ontological and pragmatic efficacy in setting up "existential" territories. Such mapping avoids specifying subjects and objects, and how they interact. It is about pathways not about cause and effect. The unconscious might be visualized as a rhizome of “machinic interactions through which we are articulated to the system of force and power surrounding us”. “More than ever today nature has become inseparable from culture and we have to learn transversally to think of interactions between ecosystems” (Bosteels, 1998:156). Transversality is a new machinic dimension that operates prior to and across the separation of subject and object, discourse and practice. This transversality is in opposition to both vertical hierarchy (pyramidal/Hegelian) or horizontal (sequential, linear) compartmentalization e.g. in a hospital or in an archive. The goal as always is to map (the unconscious that is responsible not only for subjectivity but also for what and how the subject “knows”!) rather than to interpret (what is in it). Instead of the signifying chain the agencies behind the mapping or diagrammatic project are collective assemblages of annunciation; it means that it is a record of an experiment in a territory (quasi-objects) is created.

It amounts to selecting a fragment of reality so that it is playing the role of a partial annunciator, a detachment, a cut etc. from the signifying chain. The "machinic subjectivity" is a sum of such partial annunciations. It establishes itself as such before and alongside the subject-object relation. This cartography requires a view of incorporeal events that are neither given in advance as in standard realism nor generalized after the observation or application of laws of nature to data. It is neither deductive nor inductive. Experiment is now a world (quasi-object) creating event, not a disinterested (autonomous) application of universal (a priori) laws! The map expresses the identity of a journey, and what one journeys through (Boostels, 1998:167). It engenders the territory in question.

To sum up: D&G put forward a new vocabulary which makes it possible to turn away from the language of Kant’s Critiques, and away from describing the (various stages of development or complexity of) interactions between autonomous subjects and objects. They pointed to a new dynamic way one can view “events” and "thingness". We need theories and practices such as to “locate and refine an analysis of events in printed discourse and elsewhere in a global incorporeal environment and design appropriate geopolitical responses” (Bosteels, 1998:168).



What then has become of the real space practices of painters and architects of the Quatrocento in the able hands of “cognoscenti of the Novocento”? (Virilio, 1995:151). What “is” a thing today? This is no longer just an academic topic but also a problem of practical significance, for example, in computer science and many related fields. When is program a thing? In the Kantian language we have problems with intentionality and semantics, i.e. can computation be independent of them? Formal symbol manipulation is defined as manipulation of symbols independent of their interpretation. It is part of the analytic tradition that it is possible to register the relevant theoretical situation in advance into the object properties and order as if they were theoretically innocuous. One then declares this or that as an empirically justified result. Instead of addressing this “ontological lack” modernist designer-technologist calls for more research on “theory of organization”, or “complex systems”. It is always assumed that the units one uses (things) are free of intentionality, given. Of course, such units have been determined in advance by a set of man-made measurements following man-made rules. For Kant as well as for Heidegger experimentation (technology) is merely actualisation of some universal order (metaphysics) revealed in advance of application by some disinterested mode of inquiry. D&G would point out that the moment we start talking about phenomenon (actually doing computations) we can not separate subject and object. That is how symbol manipulation actually “works” (“bodily exists”)! Hence “symbol manipulation” is not “formal” as soon as it is actualised: it is in fact dependent on semantics and intentionality as much as it can be for it is (in its operational stage) defined in terms of it!

Smith (1996:36) proposes to address the problem by turning to “machinic” language based on a dynamic definition of objectness and intentionality via the concept of registration:

“We should not think about what it is to be an object but what it is to act, … or be treated as an object”.

Intentionality will be reconstructed not in terms of “meaning” but in terms of “being meaningful”. The goal is “to understand how a conception of objects can arise on a substrate of infinitely extensive fields of particularity” (ibid:191). Registration means “to find there, to be a certain way, to carve the world into”. For example, there is a table over there. It means: The overall situation of the “world was such as to sustain the truth ... of the intentional act of there being a table” (ibid:194). Here truth is not absolute Newtonian truth but something akin to a Fregean concept, i.e. it is “viewed as a form of reference”. For example, even a simple e-mail message goes through a series of “translations” and re-translations as it moves through the network from Illinois to, say, Paris. Maintaining reference requires a strategy for reference preservation. Hence from the point of registration through the process of communication that is establishing (the behavior of) an object in action, the repeated moves to stabilize this ontological achievement lead to compensatory strategy. In other words, to ensure pragmatically the stability (survival) of the reference amounts to bringing in local context. This makes it a “collective” endeavor: “Since what it is to be an object cannot in general be separated from what it is to be registered as an object, being an object is not a local property of the object region, not something that inheres within it” (ibid:269). The standard form of a teacup in, say, Italy reaches back into the history of Italian society. Similarly, “being a computer is a question of a fit, not of architecture”. So objects cannot be objects “on their own”. In the Kantian (Newtonian) tradition the world is assembled piece by piece from a (given) foundation of objects. Assume instead that one begins with a world as a whole and slowly disassembles it into objects. The pieces are partially extruded from the whole. The world is gradually broken down (or separated) through complex and partially disconnected processes of registration. This implies that there are infinitely many unregistered connections. It also means that there are (an infinite number) of different forms of particularity.

One has to work in order that an object (e.g. a garden) remains the kind of thing it is! Hence physics is just one registration of the world, namely one in which objects are eliminated at a particular level. Strictly speaking this is not a registration one could compute with (in Kant’s theory of knowledge, logical positivism and any other “transcendental” (Cartesian-Kantian) model the subject object separation must be complete) but one we could imagine. Registration amounts to moving from mathematics to computing (to actualisation of mathematical prescriptions), from analytic (in thought only, formal, knowledge as a priori disinterested knowledge) to the digital (calculational, knowledge as knowledge of something). Smith gives an example. One receives two copies of (the same) book; one comes from a friend and the other from a foe. It matters how the book was registered. They can only be thought identical!

Smith comes to conclusions familiar in abstract form from many a philosophical treatise but now recast as a workable model for describing “thingness” today. “Ontology is the projection of registration onto the world. Representation is the projection of registration onto the subject or vehicle” (ibid:369). Neither projection is ultimately tenable (stable). It is no surprise that we have never had a satisfactory theory of either ontology or representation. Distinction between representation and ontology is unstable (just as that between subject and object). The original intentionality act here becomes one of registration.

Because of the requirement of registrational disconnection objects are never entirely “physical” or “local”. Nothing is what it is solely in virtue of what inheres in it, since to be an object is in part to be registrable as an object! And registration requires separation. For instance, “there is no way of determining whether a lump of silicon was a computer by examining its inner structure than to imagine that one could determine whether someone was in London by giving him a catscan!”

The fact that not only ideas but also the material world are half way between the intentional and physical has interesting consequences. Objects themselves, not just their representations are unstable (culturally, socially, and spatially and temporally unstable or plural). This is not because of our imagination but via the mechanism of registration.

Smith ends his stimulating monograph with these words: “There is only one world...But its unity transcends all ability to speak.”



For geo-philosophers Deleuze and Guattari the Nietzschian “everything is permitted” becomes an opportunity to radically reappraise the (Kantian notion of) human finitude so as to turn fully away from the Galilean observer. Their “disciple” philosopher-engineer of "intelligent machines" Smith offers a workable model of “thingness” and "eventness" compatible with the material condition of humanity today, with the disappearance of “nature” as a neutral referent. The real reappears via the dynamics ontology of registration in the assemblages of partial or quasi-objects.

In their last joint work D&G make a new turn. “Are there functions...of concepts”? They present a challenge: ground the runaway generation of concepts (events), ground “concepts” in “functions” (i.e. in the "states of material world" dealt with in, say, physics, design, art and engineering) (D&G, 1994:162). Indeed, according to them it is the task “only scientists” can answer. Physics (i.e. phusis, inquiry into “the coming into radiant being”!) was, for young Deleuze as for stoics, at the heart of philosophy, and particularly at the heart of the question about being. It is a new turn for to attach a function to Deleuzian concept is in effect to “implement” registration, something Deleuze and Guattari had long been reluctant to address. Thought is “engendered” in the act of registration. But this is, according to D&G, a “philosophical”, not a Galilean (measurement and quantification) move. To attach a function is to "connect the subject" with the (social and material) specificity of the real, to "implement" the act of registration by making it communicable, recordable, and translatable (e.g. related to other registrations). To this end geo-philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1992: 625) borrows from Spinoza a notion of thingness that lies outside the Kantian (Galilean, modernist) vocabulary. It is also the attitude that informs the models of thingness of the designer of intelligent machines Brian Smith. A "body" is given not by form, function, or position in a developmental scheme (e.g. Newton's "laws" of mechanical universe). It is given by the relations of movement to rest, by the capacity for affecting and being affected, by its kinetics (position, velocity) and dynamics (collisions with other bodies, influences of forces/accelerations). In practice, it amounts to a definition of an animal, human, event not by its form or functions or as a subject/object in the sense of Galilean method but by a list of what it can and will do.

Deleuze invokes the story of a little Hans in Freud's study. Hans makes a list of properties of a draft horse pulling a cart in a city: to be proud, to have blinders, to go fast, to collapse, to be whipped, to pull a lead, etc.). This makes him a patient for his notion of the order of things - in this case the classification of the species - contradicts the established system (e.g. Darwinian hierarchy): clearly for Hans there are, for example, greater differences between a plow horse and a race horse than between a plow horse and an ox. Deleuze recalls how Jakob von Uexkull, one of the founders of Ethology, does this for the tick, an animal that sucks the blood of mammals. His tick is defined by three variables/affects: 1.climb to the top of a branch, 2.let yourself fall onto the mammal that passes beneath the branch, the warmest spot (the area without fur). A Spinozian quasi-world is defined here by three affects, by what a mathematician studying nonlinear response of system of interacting bodies would call (three) variables with thresholds, amplitudes, vectors and forces, boundary conditions etc. They correspond to the length and direction and speed etc. of the fall, branch and the mean mammal path amenable for successful contact with the mammal. This sub-world is projected by these variables from all that "happens potentially" in the forest (nature). In fact, these variables act as "projection operators" in mathematical physics; they make it possible to make maps of the territory associated - be it temporarily (as a function of time)- with this quasi-world. Deleuze is really indulging in what is called in mathematics the nonlinear response theory without being in a position to acknowledge the technical machinery that could be unleashed to serve his purposes should he wanted to make use of it. Hence he talks about "circumstances" instead of "boundary conditions", "affects" instead of "variables", etc. In this notion of the real there is no scope for a priori Ethics separable from Aesthetics or Knowledge of mechanics. Since things are inseparable from relations/contexts the question what "is" (is it?) a work of art is redundant. Also any distinction between natural and artificial is unnecessary. Hence bodies are defined by "transmission matrices" - spatio-temporal relations between one such set of variables and conditions to another, i.e. not by static (eternal, a priori, autonomous) forms. A record of such an assemblage or event is a "map", not an account of a universal form via universal (e.g. Darwinian, Kantian) terms. Spinoza (Deleuze) teaches philosophers (Kantians) how to be non-philosophers (cartographers or even better ethologists).



If nothing is given, if there is no Tradition or Necessary Progress, what is the machinery available to an activated unconscious that can be called upon to "drive" events, what initiates any Journey outside the need to survive or an accidental interference? What brings into being assemblages of quasi-objects, "events"? Let us propose a working hypothesis: The Galilean progress leaves traces or inscriptions in the unconscious, a network of invisible rails along which thought can travel, that surfaces in the form of (our capability, confidence in, and will to) analogies. We enlightened post-Newtonians are accustomed to seeing and consuming life via "measure and quantify" (via traces of pseudo-mathematical procedures). Our ability and readiness to invoke traditions may have been irreparably weakened but we consciously or unconsciously accept and habitually make use of "mathematisation" ("scientific method"). In brief, in the absence of any "traditional driver" (the ten commandments, the class struggle or the principle of uncertainty) we resort to an application of analogy behaving as if a mathematical like prescription were available to guide our next move. The failure to carry on a sequence of such steps for any length of time then forces us to recognize pragmatic (finite) territories or events. In other words, at the spatio-temporal interface between being and non-being there are groups of finite sequences of steps that the mind consciously or more probably unconsciously draws upon in order to act upon sensory or virtual stimulae, in order to set a Journey (assemblage, event) in motion. Such sequences, the way they re-occur, and the territories they engender, constitute the new post-Galilean order of things, a grounding of the new network of invisible rails to complement/replace those of the past paradigms (e.g. of the Bible, the Encyclopaedia). Recent history of material culture, and fine arts in particular, offer notable examples of how the awareness of this fractioning, weakening and gradual replacement of "representational narratives" by sequences of pseudo-mathematical analogies came about. It mirrors analogous inquiries concerned with hybrid spaces, cultures and technologies.

The Art defined by the Critique of Judgment amounts to actualization of individual freedom, a way of connecting the necessary transcendental truths about what is and what ought to be with the experience of living. To participate in the project of emancipation and progress underwriting modernity means that art must fulfill its critical role as a guardian of this link. In Greenberg's words,

“to be a modernist work is to be a work that takes its own conditions of possibility for its subject matter, that tests a certain number of the conventions of the practice it belongs to by modifying, jettisoning, or destroying them, and that in so doing renders the conventions or conditions thus tested explicit or opaque, revealing them to be nothing but conventions” (De Duve, 1998: 156).

Yet it was the very critical function of modern art that led it to challenge the autonomy of the material world in which its legitimacy was grounded. “With the onset of modernism painters begun to challenge the technical – aesthetic conditions deemed necessary to identify a given thing as a painting” (De Duve, 1998:374). The result of Duchamp’s success was that (ibid.: 375) “all art (after Duchamp) is conceptual because art only exists conceptually”. The ultimate Kantian condition is that artwork is something exhibited. It is also this quality that makes it a sign. “Works of art are shown so as to be judged as such”. Duchamp challenges this ultimate convention. Thus (ibid.: 381) Duchamp “has made visible the fact that each time the pact about the technical-aesthetic rule is broken another one is negotiated about the legitimacy of breaking the first” and “has made the borderline between art and non-art visible”…”not in a retinal sense”. It would appear that ”we are dealing with a boundary between a concept and its negation”, i.e. with a linguistic opposition and not a visible form.

De Duve chooses a radically different reading - one that would bring Duchamp back into the Greenbergian fold! Duchamp the modern artist read the binary choice between painting and not painting as a convention. Duchamp’s objective was first and foremost to mount a challenge to this convention. In doing so he opened a new form of Critique, without sacrificing the Kantian vocabulary; i.e. the grounding question of modern aesthetics what is the work of art remains on the agenda be it in a very novel sense. Far from programmatic dematerialisation of art and substitution of language (the conceptual content of the word art) for visuality Duchamp systematically explored every convention of art representation in order to expose it as a convention. Duchamp's "debunking" of conventions (bourgeois ideological constructs) was carried out by reducing the "artistic debate" to the irreducible philosophical kernel of (Kantian) distinction between pure and practical judgements; since the latter refers to potentiality only the institutional (ideological) and individual demands made upon art's "value" remain necessarily unfulfilled. The value remains undecided, a mere convention.

However, de Duve's brilliant re-tracing of Duchamp's thoughts reveals another quite different discovery of Duchamp's. Having freed himself from "ancient traditions" and "Art Theory" practiced by the Establishment Duchamp was left with the question about what it is that "drives" eventness in the absence of the "traditional drives". In the course of this search Duchamp noticed that the key moment in this shift is a particular application of analogy.

To demonstrate that the Duchamp deconstruction is ultimately grounded in Kant's Critiques, de Duve begins (ibid.:89) with a quotation from Kant's Critique of Pure Reason:

"In philosophy analogies mean something very different from what they mean in mathematics" where "the equality of two quantitative relations" is "always constitutive"..."In philosophy ...when three terms are given I may learn ....only the relation to a fourth but not the fourth term itself"

We cannot know that which is the domain of Practical Reason and Judgement. However, since this unknowability is known it provides us with reliable directional insights to which we can assign an a priori concept. This concept remains a mere potentiality and consequently any algorithm attached to it is destined to fail if an attempt is made to implement it (to actualise its law-like content). Duchamp (whose interest in mathematics went well beyond the curiosity of an artist or chess player) invokes this law-like content in his Warning. de Duve quotes from Duchamp's Warning (p.95). "..we shall determine the conditions of the allegorical appearance of several collisions seeming strictly to succeed each other according to certain laws, in order to isolate the sign of the accordance between, on the one hand, this allegorical appearance and, on the other, a choice of possibilities legitimated by these laws…". De Duve notices that this "sounds like a mathematical theorem". He then recalls a photograph taken in 1917 of the Urinal as an "example of the allegorical appearance" of it and also the "proof that the title "Fountain" once had a referent". Hence we are dealing with an organised series of events and it is as if these "collisions (that lead to the allegoric appearances etc.) seem strictly to succeed each other according to certain laws". What is this "law"? For de Duve the content of this law is primarily the undetermined nature or Art. This is therefore the law that everyone can be an artist and anything that an art institution shows is Art. Since the Art's meaning is necessarily unstable it constantly demands to be replaced (by "new" Art). That way it can still retain its the critical social function whatever "it" is.

However, the Duchamp formulation contains a cryptic message that is of no use to de Duve but that comes closer to the surface when he moves on to consider the practices that were common among the men of influence in the Society of Independent Artists and the Independents show. The Warning is followed by a note entitled "Algebraic Comparison" (ibid.: 99). Since Pythagoras aesthetic theories have always contained an element of mathematical "argument". Art objects come into being according to a "formula" such as the golden section, symmetry operations or Fibonacci's series. Duchamp sets out to deconstruct this as yet another pillar on which the "representational" theories of art rest. In his rendering the ratios are not ratios of numbers but names (concepts)! The ratios are then manipulated by invoking analogies of such names until it is "demonstrated" that "the locus of dissent and separation" was "the sign of the accordance". (ibid.: 143) Of course, the legitimacy of the golden section was in the eyes of, say, renaissance artists essentially something given, a divine inspiration or gift to be acquired by recollection or through God chosen mediators. Duchamp's new turn is that the formula is legitimated by the legitimacy of "mathematics". His note is therefore first of all the proof that the tradition is no longer available as a serious legitimating force. The play with the meaning of words de Duve interprets as Duchamp seeking to unravel the random element, the ambiguity aspect spelled out in the quote from Kant's Critique, that confuses the remains of Kantian critical force in the artistic act today be it what it may. But the cryptic phraseology used - surely deliberately - by Duchamp reveals another more provocative intention. Perhaps, instead of merely trying to play another of his "jokes" or "tests", Duchamp the chess player and amateur mathematician intended the emphasis to lie on "law". Perhaps he wanted to invoke the intuitive compulsion and skill we possess in this scientific civilisation of ours that makes us turn any encounter into a sequence of approximations by which to measure and quantify whatever is before us. It is as if we had a mathematical formula even if the encounter in question is intuitively and theoretically not calculable! In the absence of any ontological source (e.g. divine will) an object or event "is" only if "it" is capable of initiating just such series of steps. In brief, Duchamp - whether consciously or unconsciously we shall never know - implies that these sequences of approximations as if implementing a mathematical prescription by automatically invoking a series of analogies attached to an impulse are the invisible rails along which contemporary thought travel and collide. They are the ultimate residual source of motion - what remains when traditions fail us. These "rails" have been laid down by the decades of our scientific civilisation; and in the course of this "liberating progress" they have gradually replaced the pathways laid down by the "given", by "traditions". De Duve was not interested in what seems to be the simplest deduction his analysis offers. The statement that anything can be art is equivalent to saying that nothing is art, i.e. that the very question "what is art" and with it the Kantian dualist vocabulary are not worth asking. This is not because of some errors in choosing among textual or conceptual or any other theories of art but simple because the necessary condition for Kant's separation of pure reason and judgment was the autonomy of the subject and object. It is this autonomy that has been challenged by the contemporary technoscience, by the way we experience time today.

In the 1990s the paradigmatic shift from the Galilean-Kantian paradigm has become widely recognized in material culture studies (Crary and Kwinter, 1992) and in gallery and general media practices. Instead of a static lattice of autonomous objects the exhibition space is used for a programmatic display of assemblages or quasi-objects consisting of humans and things connected by “real” and “virtual” microbonds. “The Two Minute Airplane Factory” of Chris Burden, The Tate, London, April-July 1999 was a good example. Here quasi-production of toy airplanes was “animated” by both the artist and the viewers. Such an artefact is not a “representation” of any-thing nor does it aim at “deconstructing” any system of signs or activities. Experimentation is now a constitutive act that creates this quasi-object. In commenting on such exhibitions the “critic” or commentator is no longer aiming to educate the general viewer to what extent the image/object in front of him is or is not a masterpiece. The commentary will not refer to Picasso or Rembrandt’s paintings to justify the elevation of the work in hand to the status of masterpiece. Rather it might aim to inspire the viewer by pointing to the possible forms of registrations (“lines” of force, direction and eco-political context, “boundaries” marking (motion of) territories and virtual connections, etc.). The commentator might be instrumental in outlining the transformation matrix from one registration to another i.e. the differences in variables and boundaries implied in each and the possibilities offered. Such a grounding procedure may facilitate comparison, e.g. it might well lead to the conclusion that two seemingly different artefacts in fact do not after registration are equivalent making one of them redundant. Hence the commentator is not critic–interpreter but a translator-registrar. In carrying out her job she may have to draw attention to the virtual processes without which the shape of the quasi-object remains hazy or simply invisible.

In his brilliant study of "toyness" Daniel Tiffany (2000: 87) discusses Belmer's "dolls". Belmer was inspired by the story from Hoffmann's Sandman of Olympia the female automaton offspring of two men. For Belmer "as in a dream the body can change the centre of gravity of its images…for example it can place the leg on top of its arm…in order to make proofs of analogies, puns, strange anatomic probability calculations". Hence the images of decomposition, thematisation, superposition and hybridity re-inforce and are ultimately legitimised by the notion of body governed and ontologically established via the possibility of a formula, via (the dynamics of) calculation!

In the catalogue introducing an exhibition of works of 15 artists called ABRACADABRA (Tate, Sept.1999), Nicholas Serota, Catherine Kinsley, Catherine Grenier and others openly declare their distaste for the legacy of the age of universalist theories, for the fights and gloom of late modernism. While cherishing the technical advances of the avant-garde “none of the artists wants to pick a fight”, “deny or fight reality”, be “plunged into despair by the fall of Utopias “. For them “art is no longer a place to plant their flag but a territory of exchange”, art that needs to be “animated” 1. The articles on individual artists are indeed attempts to identify the “local” variables and boundaries employed in the works in question. Instead of transcendental, deconstructive-textual, sociological, stylistic etc. “critique they are there simply to assist the viewer in constructing “transmission” matrices that might, say, link the exhibits one to another, translate one set of variables to another. As for the works themselves, take for example the Loop by Eric Duyckaert. It is an artefact in the shape of a loosened infinity sign several meters long. It is constructed from many different yet simple easily “identifiable” parts (e.g. globes, triangles, boxes, bicycles, toys). In the absence of any “metanarrative” they can only be held together by “microbonds” invoked when Deleuzian energy is “exerted” along the implied infinity sign. Does the assemblage come to life on the strength of one’s mind ability to reach to many different “world-territories” in which bicycles, globes, roads, humans, signs, etc. – the “parts” displayed in the work might have had their place and function? How do “scientific” analogies “inscribe” the qualitative analogies that propel our mind along the Loop, engender “meaning”? The author himself explains: “I have been struck by the omnipresence of analogy in the arts of representation”... By implying “apparent symmetries” and equalities (along the Loop and inside it) the artist invokes the inscription code that sets in motion a “process of signification” e.g. one hinted at in the above citation. For example “symmetry” is far more than just an apparent sum of “direct experience” of repeated boxes along an infinity sign. Instead it is a chain reaction, a chain of (symmetry seeking, connection making) signification taking the mind on a journey through (say “urban”) territory.


How far can we extend this mode of analysis? Are there any regularities in the way we move from the Kantian “as if” (the assumption of order hidden in the scientific “quantify and measure” with which the Galileans study things) to the stream of analogies that in their totality give reality to an event? Alas! The vocabulary available to us today for rendering visible the dual sequence of such analogies remains largely unexplored. It must be the task of future research programmes to examine the structure and the building bricks of such processes with a view to identifying their mutual relation, to formulating (to use again the language of mathematical modelling) the "transmission matrices" between the sets of parameters chosen to account for "archetypal" hybrid structures.

To start with it might be profitable systematically to assemble graphic (visual, material) accounts of “events” in which material images make visible the philosophical (cultural, political, literary) concepts underlying them and reveal the multiple and hybrid meanings such concepts acquire. In such a collection of artefacts individual fragments which retained some of the “old” meaning (e.g. collections of ornaments, citations etc. a la Benjamin's Convolutes, Benjamin, 1999) are stitched together along crossing lines, in a web like discontinuous pattern. Amidst the debris of overlapping fragments deposited by the victorious Capital in its path to Progress there lay mechanisms constitutive of passages of thought of to-day. They originate in (but are by no means exhausted and bounded by) the ultimate remaining sources of "order", in the traces of the (fractal) mathematisation of the world. The trickster who pulls the strings animating act-object assemblages of today is no longer Benjamin’s shaman-theologian playing with “baroque” ornaments but a pseudo-mathematician manipulator-mixer. Just as the genome project amounts to producing a book of human “bio-maps” encapsulating the future and past history of humanity in its bio-being (Rabinow, 1992:249), the project grounding the post-Galilean notion of order of thought could be conceived as a "never to be closed" book of maps of journeys-as-act-objects. Such a book might embrace constitutive precedents of "order" in the form of generic (“machinic”, “virtual” or “real”) drivers, patterns of ethological links and uses of analogy. The results of the genome project take the form of graphic sequences (“maps”) of large and small letters representing units of genetic material (“molecules”) and their (chemical) relations. Similarly, maps of journeys of act-objects or quasi-objects could be constructed in the form of (multidimensional, Deleuzian) "diagrams" whose "coordinates" are the variables spanning the event-and-territory in question. To ground such mapping it is necessary to establish links between archetypal territories and their defining coordinate-variables and boundary conditions. The role of such systematics of links might be analogous to that of the genetic code and equations describing the connections between the chemical composition of the molecular sequences “grounding” the genome programme.


1. Jemina Montagu in the ABRACADABRA exhibition catalogue (The Tate Gallery publ., London, 1999) p.40.



Baudrillard, J. (1996), The Perfect Crime, trans. Chris Turner. London: Verso.

Benjamin, W. (1999), The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge: Harvard U.P.

Bogue, D. (1997) Art and Territory, The South Atlantic Quarterly 96:3, 466-82.

Bosteels, B. (1998), From Text to Territory. In Deleuze and Guattari, Eds. Eleanor Kaufman and Kevin J. Heller, 145-174. Minneapolis:Univ. of Minnesota P.

Buchanan, I. (2000), Deluzism. Edinburgh:Edinburgh U.P.

Canguilhem, G. (1992), Machine and Organism, in Incorporations, Eds. Jonathan Crary and Sandford Kwinter, pp.44-68. New York: MIT Press.

Danto, A.C. (1997), After the End of Art. Princeton:Princeton U.P.

G Deleuze, Spinoza and Us, in Incorporations Eds. Jonathan Crary and Sandford Kwinter, New York: MIT Press. p.625

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1994), What is Philosophy, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Gragam Burchell. New York: Columbia U.P.

De Duve, T. (1998), Kant after Duchamp. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Derrida, J. (1994), Aporias, trans. Thomas Dutoit. Stanford: Stanford U.P.

Ferry, L. (1990), Rights-the New Quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns, trans. by Franklin Philip. Chicago: Chicago U.P.

Foucault, M. (1975 ), The Order of Things. (Transl. unidentified). New York:Pantheon.

Heidegger, M. (1976), What is a Work of Art, reprinted in Philosophies of Art and Beauty, Eds. Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns. Chicago:Phoenix.

Gell, A. (1996), Vogel’s Net, Journal of Material Culture 1, 15-38.

Jameson, F. (1994), The Seeds of Time. New York:Columbia U. P.

Lyotard, J-F (1986), The Postmodern Condition, trans.G.Bennington and R.Bowlby. Stanford:Stanford U.P.

Lyotard, J-F. (1991), The Inhuman, trans. G. Bennington and R.Bowlby. Stanford: Stanford U.P.

Pearson, K.A. (1997), Viroid Life. London: Routledge.

Pearson, K.A., Parry, B., and Squires, Eds. (1997), Cultural Readings of Imperialism. Lawrence&Wishart:London

Rabinow, P. (1992), Artificiality and Enlightenment: From Sociobiology to Biosociality, in Incorporations, Eds. Jonathan Crary and Sandford Kwinter, pp. 234-252. New York: MIT Press.

Smith, B. C. (1996), On the Origin of Objects .Cambridge: MIT Press.

Tiffany, D. (2000), Toy Medium. Berkeley: Univ. of Calif. Press.

Virilio, P. (1995), The Art of the Motor. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

Zizek, S. (1999), The Ticklish Subject. London:Verso.


* Prof Milan Jaros, Director, Centre for Research in Knowledge Science and Society
Herschel Bldg., Newcastle University, Newcasatle Upon Tyne, NE1 7RU, United Kingdom. E-mail:

Back to contents

Back to homepage