Bruce Sterling

Not my bag, and what’s in it

Recently, a colleague working in animal studies and I were discussing Ian Bogost’s new book Alien Phenomenology and she eventually asked me what I find compelling about the Object Oriented enterprises. This is totally not my bag, but what follows is what I could spill out of in a sitting, for what it’s worth.

I’m tangentially interested in Object Oriented Ontology for a very few reasons. My primary reason is that I’m directing a really smart dissertation that’s trying to cobble an Object Oriented Rhetoric, so I kind of need to know what he’s talking about. Also, my close friend Levi Bryant is one of the primary figures in OOO (along with Graham Harman and recently Bogost, Tim Morton, etc.), so I get an earful whether or not I ask for it (he’s passionate about it and I trust his passion). I have to say that Levi’s flavor of it all sits better with me, as he’s coming at it through Deleuze and Lacan, so I have some purchase there. And I suppose that there’s maybe some overlap between OOO and my proto-project on authenticity; there may be something there I can use for something once I figure out what I want to talk about.

Also, I’m not compelled by the philosophy as much as interested in how it’s explained. Graham Harman’s work is really interesting, but I’m less a fan not because his book on Latour (for instance; it’s the one I’ve read) doesn’t offer interesting reading, but that his examples/analogies are often problematic for me (available here). Levi Bryant (find his latest here) is sometimes better at it, but I’m biased toward the informing background, etc. I like Bogost’s work on games, so I’m reading the new one. My point is that this is my FUN reading, so I want to be entertained while I’m taught.

Really interesting is how these discussions have intersected with recent interest in The New Aesthetic. So Bruce Sterling’s Wired piece gets read by Warren Ellis, Bogost responds to Ellis via Twitter (I was e-mailing with Ellis while they were tweeting – #namedrop), Alex Reid considers all of this in his own way, etc. And they do seem to be having a really useful conversation in this collision. OOO has a nice critique of NA.

I’ve been thinking that the scary thing about OOO (and maybe why some react so viscerally to or against it?) is that it doesn’t seem to have an ethics. I don’t mean that it’s unethical, but that it is non-ethical. It doesn’t make (m)any ethical claims I can identify. Which means that really bad things could come from its deployment. But it also means that very good things could come, too. Because they are taking such a radical stance (that flattening), it’s not just things and (non-human) animals that are objects, but humans, too. So can there be an ethics with/out the human? My answer right now is maybe not.

Of course, OOO also often seems guilty of a kind of animism. I think that’s a strategic move, but it’s still a problem they’ll have to deal with. A lot of the work of course comes from Latour, but insists that networks aren’t everything; that objects exist and aren’t completely knowable or describable except in terms of of those relations shouldn’t elide the possibility that there’s always something more there (this is that withdrawal, I think) that needs to be accounted for (this resonates for me with the Lacanian Real in his later, topological inflection). So where I don’t take the animism charge seriously, I think what they might be up to is an atomism.

I know much less about Animal Studies than I know about this stuff, but what I’ve happened upon through the OOO discussions and other places, I think it might offer a fine critique of OOO. The latter has no apparent praxis (maybe it’s biggest problem) and animal studies (and eco-criticism more largely) clearly does. But OOO might offer something useful, too. I’m looking forward to the inevitable collision to see what comes out.

For instance, when Cary Wolfe was introduced at a recent talk, there was a sentence that said something like his work moves posthumanism away from technology and toward the animal. I hope that it’s more like he expands it to include the animal. My worry is that, say, privileging the bonobo over the dvd ontologically (Bogost equates them?) might dismiss the dvd (and technology generally) as trash (or even sin) and not deal with it seriously (I guess dark ecology address this, though, right? Marine animals mutating from an oil spill is natural, but dangerous and not desirable). And there’s sometimes a sad scientism on OOO’s side that seems to find its corollary in Animal’s “science studies.” And animal studies might sometimes be guilty of the correlationist fallacy Quintin Meillassoux describes and decries.

What I most admire about the OOO work is that it’s so available. I’ve linked to some of the blogs, and these folks are generous to a fault. All of them are invested and engaged. And many of them are committed to open access publishing so that, while we can (and should) buy meat-space versions of their books, they are also available immediately in web or pdf options. Not only does this help include folks in the discussions who might otherwise be cut off, it makes the discussions vibrant and allows nuancing and change on a dime.

(Having said this last, I’m turning off comments not because comments aren’t valuable to me, but because all of the usual end-of-semester stuff is going to keep me away for a while and I don’t want to slight anyone.)

Some thoughts I don’t have yet

[What follows is my very first blog post ever and represents some first thoughts on a new project I might take up once I’ve done some real reading and thinking. For these reasons, please be charitable.]

Recently, some colleagues and I proposed a panel for the Identification-themed 2012 RSA conference. It begins:

What is authenticity? How does the authentic register in the strange? How might the authentic be performed or marketed? In what ways does the authentic conjure or deny identification? This panel takes up the call of the authentic as a mode for and against identification and considers ways in which authenticity is-or-can-be an argument for what is foreign and familiar to an audience. Just as the phrase “Authentic Mexican Food” makes sense only outside of Mexico, the panel contends that any invocation of authenticity depends on a kind of spatial or temporal distance and that the use of “authentic” is an attempt to either elide or reify that distance for an audience, to make the exotic and strange seem homely or to maintain a comfortable strangeness in order to allow for identification.

What I’ve come to suspect is that any claim about the authentic relies on a certain distance from the object in question. For example, my own personal realization of a standard post-colonial trope happened during the last Democratic Presidential primary. During one of the debates, when the field was still large, one pundit commented that the choice of a nominee would come down to which candidate seemed most authentic to the voter. At that exact moment, I reached for a bag of tortilla chips that was emblazoned with the slogan “Authentic Mexican Taste” and, with that coincidence, realized the problem. “Authentic Mexican Taste” only makes sense outside of (a mythic) Mexico. (Of course, you can see that referenced in the proposal, but this distance may be very much like the distance insisted on by medieval courtly love narratives, too).

Anyway, I’d like to follow up on these ideas. I’ve made some headway already, in an article that appeared last year in Popular Culture Review on the show Mad Men and in a talk on RealDolls and Reborns I gave at the 2009 RSA. Since I’ve tackled the “past” in the former and the “present” in the latter, I’m looking to the “future” now! And the stuff I’ve been reading/watching/listening to (mostly coincidentally) has been Bruce Sterling’s discussions of atemporality, Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, some of Cary Wolfe’s What Is Posthumanism and Ian Bogost’s Persuasive Games, along with my usual psychoanalytic stuff. But what’s really been exciting me is the comic/graphic novel work of Warren Ellis (to whom I’ve come late, I know), especially the unfinished Doktor Sleepless series:

It’s 1991.

Richey Manic is carving something into his arm because Steve Lamacq has suggested the Manic Street Preachers lack an essential authenticity.

What’s echoing in this backstage room is the voice of Ian Brown, still say “cos it’s 1989. To to get real.”

In 1999, godspeed you! Black Emperor start releasing CDs sleeved in untreated cardboard. Intended or not, it denotes authenticity. Keeping it real.


Godspeed’s brand was authenticity. That’s what they had to sell. And if they didn’t sell records and gig tickets, then they were just twelve guys in Montreal eating Ramen until they died.

Richey Edwards couldn’t be Richey Manic, that Richey, unless he sold you on the concept that he was 4 real.

Ian Brown and the Stone Roses couldn’t be that band, the band of the moment with the authentic voice that turned out to be the band in the right place at the right time and raised everyone up–unless they were more real than you.

Around the turn of the century, Justin Timberlake began to carry around with him a group of black vocalists, whose job it apparently was, in live performances, to declare how “real” Justin Timberlake was before he began to sing.


Authenticity is bullshit. Never more so than today. We can be anyone we can imagine being. We can be someone new every day.

I’ve cut out a lot from this speech the eponymous Doktor Sleepless gives, but you can see the point. Except that this is a guy who dresses like an Old Hollywood Mad Scientist and is, well, likely the bad guy. And he’s addressing in part a problem he’s seen in reactions to a movement he helped start. Called Grinders, these are mostly young people who practice extreme body modification (this book is set in the “future”):

We’re not real enough. We’re not authentic to our society. Free speech does not extend to our own bodies.


Be authentic to your dreams. Be authentic to your own ideas about yourself. Grind away at your own minds and bodies until you become your own invention. Be mad scientists.

Here at the end of the world, it’s the only thing worth doing.

I am certainly Lacanian enough not to believe in an authentic self and I frankly find a lot to be afraid of in this kind of call for authenticity. But there’s this great hope-in-hopelessness thing here I like. One of the points Bruce Sterling has been making about the atemporality of the present is that we don’t seem to have a future any more. Many of us can remember when the future was the year 2000. It kind of stayed there (Conan O’Brien’s bit kept the same year even after, right?). So Sterling points out that versions of the future now start from the past – steam-punk, diesel-punk, whatever. Of course, cyber-punk started a few decades (give or take) earlier, but the gesture is kind of the same. Except that maybe the cyber-kind was most directly drawing from a “hacking” aesthetic. Those others look back to dead-ish technologies and fancy them up, whereas hacking seems about reuse and – more importantly – repurposing. So, William Gibson’s famous “the street finds its own uses for things.” In Shivering Sands, Ellis argues:

We have become entrained to step outside of the stated rules of a device’s operation in order to get it to do what we want. Put another way: we’re all hackers now. That’s exactly what bodymod people [the Grinders of Sleepless, for example] are doing – hacking the properties of the device they’re born with.

I know, this raises the whole cyborg thing. I’ don’t want to go over the critiques of that right now (What Is Posthumanism mentioned above does that well). But I’m wondering if this idea of difference between the design of a device (even the body) and its potential properties isn’t something like the distance or gap I described far above as a hallmark of the authentic? And maybe this gap is the bar of the Lacanian split subject? Which may be all to say that the missing cause, the wholly assumed or posited object of authenticity can be rendered (maybe in fantasy) as the future? Ellis writes in Sands, “For as long as I can remember, the primary goal of my work has been to force outbreaks of the future.” And these outbreaks can be fictions, right? Colette Soler argued for literature as symptom, and literature is sometime fiction. But Ellis warns, “Don’t let fictions out into the world. You don’t know what’s in them.”

Anyway. My first thoughts on something new (for me) and my first blog post ever. Maybe there’ll be another sometime.