Levi R. Bryant: First Impressions on Onto-Cartography

Onto-cartography is the investigation of structural couplings between machines and how they modify the becoming, activities, movements, and ways in which the coupled machines relate to the world about them. It is a mapping of these couplings between machines and their vectors of becoming, movement, and activity.

– Levi R. Bryant, Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media

I have barely even begun to delve into Levi’s new work but already I’m pleased with the way he is approaching his investment in materialism. There is an opening preface by Graham Harman that introduces Levi’s previous and current work and situates it within Speculative Realism. Harman is generous with his praise telling us that Onto-Cartagraphy “is not only a thought-provoking and erudite book, but also a thoroughly enjoyable one”.1 I concur so far I’m impressed with Levi’s keen sense of materialism’s many traditions and how he differentiates the subtitles and nuances of these various forms. One thing he does right off the bat is to let the reader in on his own philosophical conversion. Levi like many of us had been weaned on twentieth-century Continental philosophy or as many term it the ‘Linguistic Turn’. Levi had gone the full gamut and become convinced that the socio-cultural or discursive materialism arising out of this era was the only way to go. Yet, something happened.

Again, like many of us the age of computers brought not only a new means of exploring the world of knowledge, but also brought a new form of entertainment: video games. It was one of these games that awakened Levi from his long sleep in late continental thought: Sim City 4. SimCity is an open-ended city-building computer and console video game series originally designed by developer Will Wright. The player must define zones, each having limits on the kind of development that can occur there. Development of the zones is not performed directly by the player, but happens when certain conditions are met, such as power supply, adequate transport links or acceptable tax level. The residential zones, in green, provide housing for Sims; the commercial zones, in blue, provide shops and offices; and the industrial zones, in yellow, provide factories, laboratories and farms. There are three different densities in the game: low density for small buildings, medium density for low to mid-sized buildings, and high density for anything up to large tower blocks.

What Levi realized and what shook his “commitments to the core” was the discovery that social relations are not only constructed out of discursive practices (i.e., the “signifier, meaning, belief…”), but that the underlying infrastructure of our environmental milieu or ecologies we inhabit such as “roads, power lines, pollution, and so on” all have real material properties that affect those relations. As he tells it:

As mundane and ridiculous as it sounds, I was startled by this encounter. My entire theory of social relations, power, and domination was threatened. Despite being mediated through something as apparently immaterial … as a computer game, I had had an encounter with real materiality., with physical stuff, with things, and encountered the differences they make. (6)

Realizing that the basic stuff of reality impacts not only our relations but all relations human or inhuman he opened his materialist eyes toward new ways of relating things. Over the years Levi has used several sliding terms to describe what things are, what the basic stuff of materialism is. But he was never truly satisfied so he came to the conclusion that he’d get out of the business of naming this object and leave our actual understanding of the basic units of matter to the appropriate domain of knowledge: science, and physics in particular. Instead he would deal with both the corporeal and incorporeal modes or forms within which matter structured or coupled itself. This is where his notions of machines comes in. He incorporates Ian Bogost’s notions of an alien phenomenology  in which machines engage and interact with each other and ecologies within a milieu, and environment. There is not just one type of machine but a myriad, and because of this machines exist at different levels of reality and have an ontology that both constrains and affords these machines certain paths of possible interaction or movement. Because of this machine ontology is best understood as discovering the different ways these machines not only interact coupling and decoupling with each other, but also describing their operations, their input/outputs of flows of information, matter, and material incorporated within their activities.

The major thrust of his work is to provide a mapping (Onto-Cartography) of these machine assemblages or ecologies across a spectrum of geophilosophical notions: cartography, deconstruction, and terraformation. Under cartography he provides four distinct types of map: cartographical maps, genetic maps, vector maps, and modal maps. Under deconstruction he offers traditional reading with an emphasis on the politics of oppression. And, under terraformation he offers a vision of worlds or ecologies or heterotopias: “alternatives that would allow people to escape the oppressive circumstances in which they live” (12).

My first impressions extend only through the first chapter so far. Yet, what I’m seeing is that Levi has a great command of the material he is describing. He sets the stage for us by using argument and counter-argument in the typical philosophical or prescribed method. In the first chapter he describes his use of machine ontology as well as his approach to media ontology. He goes into depth on Marshall McLuhan and extends beyond him into a more post-human perspective in the sense that McLuhan was to restrictive in his own theories reducing everything to either extensions of or for us as humans, while for Levi the task at hand is to show that machines also can extend their relations and interactions between each other, too. As he tells us:

To study media is not simply to investigate technologies, tools, artifacts, and forms of communication, but rather the way in which machines are structurally coupled to one another and modify one another regardless of whether or not humans are involved. (35)

Obviously I have a long enjoyable read ahead. The above is just a teaser not meant to detail out his work. I’ll be reading his work for the next few days… hope you will too!

Remember to visit Levi’s blog Larval Subjects as well as read an interview about his new book: here (pdf).



1. Levi R. Bryant.  Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media (Edinburgh University Press, 2014)

5 thoughts on “Levi R. Bryant: First Impressions on Onto-Cartography

  1. I still need to get a copy of Onto-Cartography (which will probably be my next pay day) but there was talk on twitter of synthetic zero hosting a reading group such as with AIME recently, and others in the past. There was a fair bit of interest but as yet I don’t know if its come to much (I’ve been internetless for a wee while) but if you’d be interested I’ll coordinate with michael and dmf to see what in’a’gwan.


  2. On a related note, where you end, with the idea of machinic coupling, this is an approach I’m wanting to take myself in relation to the writing I’ve been doing on mental illness and bodies. I think that onto-cartography as this last suggestion makes out is pretty close (perhaps not a shocking discovery) to the Deleuzo-Guattarian idea of pharmacoanalysis. That’s the line I would like to pursue a bit more, and that I think I’m beginning to.

    At the same time I’ve recently spent my time uncoupled from the infomachinery of the internet by inhaling RD Laing- both as part of my antipsychiatry reading and delving a bit deeper for the influence his thought had on Guattari. What I’m interested in with Laing in relation to Levi’s new book is the importance of the concept of mapping in his work on the phantasy relations in the family. This concept names an operation, really a series of operations on operations, within the “family”- as distinct to the actually existing family. The upshot of mapping is that it produces the dizzying transferential structures of relations that compose the ideological family as experienced in phenomenality. Examples are of the order that daughter (d1) experiences mother via mother’s (m1) experience of her own mother (m2) in which she places daughter into the position of (m2) and thus posits herself as daughter (d2). Laing writes entire systems of these positions. Can this choreography also be “materialised” such that machine 1 places machine 3 into the position of machine 4 via the mediation of machine 2? If that makes sense.


    • Levi makes quite an argument for bringing out the nuances of cartography as a myriad of mapping techniques. I haven’t gone beyond the first chapter so will have to hold off till I finish the work.


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