Notes on Levi R. Bryant’s Onto-Cartography: Chapter One

Young Man: In this process of “working up to the matter” is it your idea to work up to the proposition that man and a machine are about the same thing, and that there is no personal merit in the performance of either?

Old Man: Yes—but do not be offended; I am meaning no offense.

– from Mark Twain,  What is Man?

Mark Twain lived in a deterministic universe. For him the environment ruled all, external influences controlled, directed, and commanded both human and inhuman agencies from end to end. He might also be the progenitor of what my friend R. Scott Bakker terms the Blind Brain Theory:

Young Man: Oh, come! Where did I get my opinion that this which you are talking is all foolishness?

Old Man: It is a quite natural opinion—indeed an inevitable opinion—but you did not create the materials out of which it is formed. They are odds and ends of thoughts, impressions, feelings, gathered unconsciously from a thousand books, a thousand conversations, and from streams of thought and feeling which have flowed down into your heart and brain out of the hearts and brains of centuries of ancestors. Personally you did not create even the smallest microscopic fragment of the materials out of which your opinion is made; and personally you cannot claim even the slender merit of putting the borrowed materials together. That was done automatically—by your mental machinery, in strict accordance with the law of that machinery’s construction. And you not only did not make that machinery yourself, but you have not even any command over it.1

For Twain the presumption of free will was erroneous, a belief that would fall away one day.  We are the end product of the brain’s ongoing processes, temporary agents or functions in a never-ending cycle of environment testing. We are blind to the very processes of choice and decision that control our lives. We are in fact according to Twain nothing more than mere automata – biological machines built by natural selection over the course of history. The young man of the tale argues that we are free and willing creatures. But the old man says: “I am sorry, but you see, yourself, that your mind is merely a machine, nothing more. You have no command over it, it has no command over itself—it is worked solely from the outside. That is the law of its make; it is the law of all machines.”

Levi R. Bryant might have called this Law, Gravity: the features of machines of the world exercise a certain gravity over us that draws our action and aims in direction we did not intend” (OC, 23). Now whether Mark Twain was correct in his estimation that we are all machines among a universe of machines is open to question, but that he drew our attention to that fact is without doubt one of those oddities that keep my own mind seeking to know whether he was indeed right. This all brings me back to Levi R. Bryant and his new book, Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media, on Machine Oriented Ontology (MOO). I decided that instead of trying to review the work as a whole that instead I’d begin taking a few notes along the way, see where Levi is leading us in this confluence of Machines and Media.

Towards a Post-Human Media Ecology

What’s interesting in the title of his first chapter is that hyphenation between ‘Post’ and ‘Human’. Why not eliminate the hyphen altogether, as in Posthuman? Levi has his reasons. So many theories surround the notion of the posthuman that he does not want to confuse the issue through imbrication or any overlapping of these two words, but would rather draw attention to both as qualifiers in a parade of ideas that implicate both in some kind of ongoing ill-defined process.

A lot of people associate posthumanism with synthetic artificial intelligences, or a symbiosis of human and artificial intelligence, or uploaded consciousnesses, or the result of making many smaller but cumulatively profound technological augmentations to a biological human, i.e. a cyborg. Some examples of the latter are redesigning the human organism using advanced nanotechnology or radical enhancement using some combination of technologies such as genetic engineering, psychopharmacology, life extension therapies, neural interfaces, advanced information management tools, memory enhancing drugs, wearable or implanted computers, and cognitive techniques. Yet, there are other paths to take, too. I remember years ago reading the postmodern critic Ihab Hassan’s, seminal essay “Prometheus as Performer: Towards a Posthumanist Culture?” in which he remarked that we “need to understand that five hundred years of humanism may be coming to an end as humanism transforms itself into something that ice must helplessly call post-humanism”. I think that it is a wavering between these two senses of the end of the human as human and the end of the era of humanism that is at the heart of Levi’s hyphenation and separation between ‘post’ and ‘human’. As Anne Balsamo once argued, in “Feminism for the Incurably Informed,” South Atlantic Quarterly, what is needed as we move beyond the humanist era are “readings as articulations that can escape from the dualism of anti/pro-humanism by offering a vision of “post-human existence where ‘technology’ and the ‘human’ are understood in contiguous rather than in oppositional terms” (p. 684)”. But one also needs to add that we should also see the contiguity of what humans are not, the inhuman surround of existence that is the environment and infrastructure of both material and immaterial, corporeal and incorporeal existence that gravitates from the environment itself.

Right off the bat Levi gets us on board with a definition of Being: “…being is an ensemble or assemblage of machines” (15).2 He pulls out his OED (Oxford English Dictionary): “machines consist of “…material or immaterial structure[s] [composing] the fabric of the world or of the universe.” Levi himself likes the notion of machine because it relates entities as machines that “function or operate”, as well as showing us a concept that is no longer bound to the history of transcendental forms of subjectivity of subject and object splits that have shaped many of the problems and philosophical conundrums for “four hundred years”.

Like many philosophers Levi needs to clear a path for himself and starts by clearing up some of the false notions or prejudices surrounding the concepts he wishes to deploy in his new ontology. Some of the common prejudices about the concept of machine(s) he’s noticed are (1) the notion that machines are rigid, designed, or have a purpose or use. The notion that machines are rigid, fixed, routine, automated and have no ability to learn, grow, or develop is according to Levi erroneous. Instead what we need at this moment is something new, a machine-oriented ontology that offers a new view of machines. There are a multiplicity of machine types and non of them can be reduced to either material or immaterial effects, nor corporeal or incorporeal manifestations. We need, he says, a concept of the machine that is “broad enough to capture that shared nature of these different types of machines, and a field we might call “mechanology,” not unlike zoology and botany, that investigates the essential features of different types of machines, such as living machines, incorporeal machines, artistic machines, political machines, etc. (17)”.

The second prejudice deals with a sort of hidden notion that many people have: that machines are made or designed by someone or something. This notion that all machines must have a creator or inventor is erroneous. That there must be some intentional act by something or someone that brought this machine into existence is false. Instead as he remarks after Manuel de Landa “machines emerged from out of other machines without any intentionality guiding this emergence” (18). All of this brings us back to Levi’s use of the term gravity in place of power to describe the effects machines have on other machines without the need for the concept of intentionality. Thinking of the latest versions of cosmology in which dark energy and dark matter which on the surface seem invisible not being matter as we know it. These are the forces that produce according to physicists what we term gravity. Very little is understood about either of these forces at present except that they seem to help us describe what is going on in the current universe. The point being that there are both corporeal and incorporeal, material and immaterial forces that affect and produce external pressures on everything in the universe. Every machine from the smallest boson particle to the largest star clusters of the Great Wall, both micro and macro worlds are full of machines: engines of productivity and creation. But none of them have some hidden hand behind them, no god or designer has made these machines; instead, these machines acting according to simple rules over vast time periods of the universe have contributed to the making of each other through natural processes.

The third, and final prejudice, that machines have a purpose are use is as well erroneous. Instead machines as Levi recounts it “take on a purpose or use when structurally coupled to other machines” (24). When a machine is withdrawn or decoupled from another machine it lies dormant or asleep till another machine perturbs it and provides input that awakens the machine and forces it to output some form of response to the pressure of this other machine. Yet, as Levi notes, this process can be unidirectional or bidirectional. Unidirectional if a machine triggers a response with out needing a response in turn, while bidirectional when a machine expects some kind of response from the machine in return. Most of these notions feed well into our current algorithmic culture of code/decoding, messaging systems, communication, etc. And, in a lot of ways these notions will feed into Levi’s alliance or confluence of the terms machine and media later on.

Next Levi tells us there among types of machines there is a division between corporeal and incorporeal. Corporeal machines are physical entities, actual objects that we can see, touch, feel, etc. Incorporeal machines are different, not because they are immaterial or indefinite but because they are reproducible or as Levi’s state it, they are “iterable while retaining their identity”:

It is this iterability that imbues them with a potential eternity. So long as the inscription remains or the incorporeal machine is copied or iterated, it continues to exist. If this eternity is only potential rather than actual, then this is because operations of iteration can always cease leading the incorporeal machine to cease its repetition, or because inscriptions can always be lost or erased, leading them to pass from the world. (26-27)

The point is that a corporeal entity is a one time off incarnation and cannot be repeated ad infinitum, while an incorporeal by its very nature is iterable and can be repeated identical each and every time without losing its efficacy. When I think of this difference it brings to my quirky mind the notions of transhumanists and their warped notions of the iterability of the human agent as uploadable into a cyborgian system that will then allow them to live forever as long as they can be copied into new substratum’s repeatedly. Such notions seem erroneous to me because transhumanists forget that the substratum or physical body is itself a part of the very entwinement of the creature we are. If you split the information and memories held in the brain from the physical substratum what would remain of the human? These are not questions that Levi is dealing with at all so I’ll move on. (My mind wanders into strange worlds at times).

After dividing corporeal from incorporeal types of machine Levi goes on to define what types exist under these two categories. Under corporeal forms are the three “great species” of inanimate, animate, and cognitive machines. Incorporeal machines on the other hand range from natural to cultural artifacts that can change over time as well as modify corporeal machines through certain interactions. One can think of certain algorithms that populate and make up the inner productivity of corporeal machines supplying inputs and outputs like codes, books, recipes, sexual relations, etc. There is no one defined separation between the two types either, there are overlaps in which corporeal and incorporeal machines transcribe, transform, and interpenetrate both themselves and other machines in a continuous interplay of processual relations.

This leads us to his next great them of post-human media ecology. Again like a never ending leitmotif that will be reiterated he reminds us that machines do not have a use or purpose, but only take on a use or purpose in being structurally coupled to another machine (30). This notion that machines alone have not purpose or use, but take on a use and purpose the moment that either they or another machine or entity perturbs them is a guiding motif throughout the work. In some ways this brings us back to Graham Harman’s philosophy of Objects. In his first work Tool-Being Harman tells us we must start with this basic premise: “What is first at stake is an absolute gulf between the things and any interaction we might have with them, no matter whether that interaction be intellectual or merely manipulative(1)”.3 This gulf or separation of things is taken a step further as Harman remarks:

When the things withdraw from presence into their dark subterranean reality, they distance themselves not only from human beings, but from each other as well. If the human perception of a house or tree is forever haunted by some hidden surplus in the things that never becomes present, the same is true of the sheer causal interaction between rocks or raindrops. Even inanimate things only unlock each other’s realities to a minimal extent, reducing one another to caricatures.(2)

The key here for Levi is that machines are not for us, they are not for each other as well. It is this abyss or gulf between objects or machines and their relations that is at the heart of both Harman’s and Bryant’s ontologies. One will have to deal with this abyss or gulf between things before one can understand the way things relate. Why? Because one has to ask the old question: If things are withdrawn, or unrelated, by what mechanism do they ever cross that gulf or abyss and relate to any other entity, thing, object, or machine to begin with?

For Harman this idea leads us back to the early Occasionalist philosophers:

Since objects remain partially concealed from one another even during physical causation, they never touch one another directly. But if direct causality is impossible, then it is necessary to revive some form of occasional cause. I hold that this can be done on a “local” level without strange and arbitrary invocations of a hidden God.(12)

Steven Nadler’s excellent introduction to this history, Occasionalism: Causation Among the Cartesians, is a good place to start to understand just what this concept entails. According to Nadler it was the seventeenth-century philosopher, mathematician, scientist, diplomat, engineer, and historian Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz who came up with the neologism occasionalism: “the system of occasional causes”. 4 Yet, Leibniz himself knew that the roots of this term lay in certain radical Muslim theologians, as well as in the works of Nicolas Malebranche, Lous de la Forge, Geraud de Cordemoy and many others (4).

I’ll start with Malebranche for whom occasionalism was at root an ontological argument that demonstrated that there are no real causal connections between natural events, and that God alone is a causal agent (166). The point of this argument like all those that would follow, including Hume’s epistemological argument against natural causation, all are based on a form of skepticism against natural connections between entities; and, that these entities or events can ever be shown to have any connections or relations between themselves. The gradations of skepticism bely the arguments across the spectrum, and I’ll not go into the intricacies of these at this time. Hume’s skepticism would lead him to show that there was no logical necessity between things, and that because of this we could not ever have demonstrative knowledge of natural causality tout court.

So how do entities ever begin the operation of relating to other entities? Does one always need some Deus ex Machina, some God or causal agent outside the natural system to enact this connect by fiat? Harman tells us that need not be the cased. For Harman there is a secular form of occasionalism he terms Vicarious Causation. It was in his second book Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things that he tells us that any “philosophy that makes an absolute distinction between substances and relations will inevitably become a theory of vicarious causation, since there will be no way for the substances to interact directly with one another” (2).5 He situates the problem of indirect causation as a problem of intermediation:

The most pivotal issue for object-oriented philosophy is vicarious causation, a concept introduced as a modification of the long-discredited notion of occasional cause. If objects exceed any of their perceptual or causal relations with other objects, if they inhabit some still undefined vacuous space of reality, the question immediately arises as to how they interact at all. More concisely: we have the problem of nonrelating objects that somehow relate. Since no causation between them can be direct, it clearly can only be vicarious, taking place by means of some unspecified intermediary. Whatever this third term may be, it already seems clear that it has something to do with the shower of loose qualities that captured the interest of the carnal phenomenologists.(91)

But we ask: What is this “unspecified intermediary”? How does this get us away from the reduction to God as causal agent? If the intermediary is unspecified then isn’t it possible for the notion of God to slip back in? Of course Harman himself remarks that the term “vicarious cause” has been coined as a way of keeping our focus on how isolated substances might communicate, without dredging up any of the historic debates between theologians and skeptics (92). But how? And if that is not enough he seems to complicate matters further by iterating that it’s not just a question of how two separate objects are able to affect each other without directly touching. The same puzzle is already found within individual objects: note that a substance is also the vicarious cause of its qualities, since it brings them together in a single whole, even while they remain distinct and affect each other only through the substance itself (93). So that an object is not only withdrawn from other objects but is also split within itself. As he describes it:

The implications are as simple as they are mysterious. We have already noted a quadruple structure of objects formed by the intersection of two distinct axes. What is now so fascinating is that the problem of vicarious cause (a.k.a. occasional cause) is actually present along both axes. As just mentioned, there is a communication problem not only between separate objects, but also inside of objects. Communication seems to have broken down across the entire universe. Whatever vicarious causation may be, it is called upon to serve as the glue of the universe, the cement that binds macrocosm and microcosm alike.(93)

This notion of vicarious causation as the “glue of the universe, the cement that binds the macrocosm and microcosm alike” seems to be like our modern day physicists who with all their mathematical precision are tracking the micro and macro worlds of dark energy and dark matter, etc. Is this all metaphysical mumbo-jumbo or is Harman on to something? Now we begin to see why both Harman and Bryant have been fascinated by Marshall McLuhan. The notion that entities, machines, things, objects all relate vicariously through some intermediary medium is at the heart of Harman’s use of McLuhan’s The Medium is the Message: “The vicarious medium in which objects interact with one other and with their own qualities must also provide the space where all the events of the world unfold” (GM, 94). The idea that the vicarious medium situates this interaction of objects within a produced space is key. In Guerrilla Harman likens this space or medium to the old notion of ether. In modern particle theory the ether is a medium that in wave theory of light permeates all space and transmits transverse waves. So again it’s a sort of medium in which objects interact indirectly through input/output operations without ever making direct contact.

We learn that the problem of vicarious causation is at heart a problem of communication: “we should begin by trying instead to find some entryway into the problem of vicarious cause: the communication that occurs through all the various girders, freight tunnels, shafts, and pulleys of the world” (GM, 97-98). With his use of such metaphors we understand too that this is problem of infrastructure and of all those material systems that undergird the physical world. In understanding how things ever begin to communicate with each other we need to grasp what kind of relations are involved in a this vicarious medium: first, there are the relations that exist between the distinct objects of the world; second, there is the unremitting duel between an object itself as a real unity, as a single thing, and the same object as made up of numerous specific features; and, third, there is a further partition in objects when they are considered not as independent subterranean realities, but as existing in relation to us, and perhaps even to other objects in general. (GM, 149) Ultimately the glue that binds things together in this vicarious medium is the notion of qualities: “the same sensual ether that spreads between things and their visible qualities will make possible the physical and causal relations as well” (GM, 154). These visible or sensual qualities “serve as the interface between two completely separate objects, and not the fact that humans happen to be conscious of them. Elements are the glue of the world, the vicarious cause that holds reality together, the trade secret of the carpentry of things” (GM, 166).

Because of many of the misunderstandings concerning his notion of vicarious causation Harman wrote an extended essay that he hoped would clarify the issue:

Vicarious causation, of which science so far knows nothing, is closer to what is called formal cause.  To say that formal cause operates vicariously means that forms do not touch one another directly, but somehow melt, fuse, and decompress in a shared common space from which all are partly absent.  My claim is that two entities influence one another only by meeting on the interior of a third, where they exist side-by-side until something happens that allows them to interact. (On Vicarious Causation)

In Guerrilla Metaphysics, Harman suggested that causation is always vicarious, asymmetrical, and buffered. He defined ‘Vicarious’ as meaning that objects confront one another only by proxy, through sensual profiles found only on the interior of some other entity. He defined ‘Asymmetrical’ as meaning that the initial confrontation always unfolds between a real object and a sensual one. And by ‘buffered’ he means that objects do not fuse into the tree, nor the tree into its sensual neighbors, since all are held at bay (On Vicarious Causation). The problem that has to be solved in vicarious causation is that two objects must somehow touch without touching. But how can this be accomplished? Gravitation? According to Harman and Bryant that is exactly it. As Harman sums it up: “The gravitational field of a real object must somehow invade the existing sensual field” of another object, thereby creating something new – a new third object in which the original two communicate with each other and there by perform operations.

I’ll leave off from there and return to Levi, now.

We discover in Harman’s short book of essays, Bells and Whistles, that Levi rejects what Harman calls vicarious or indirect causation; second, he rejects what Harman calls sensual objects; third, he rejects what Harman calls real qualities. We learn that Bryant seesno problem at all with direct relations between entities. As Harman explicates:

In Bryant’s case this is somewhat strange, since he is also on record as agreeing that entities always translate one another whenever they relate. In other words, Bryant agrees that when an apple is encountered by a human, a raindrop , a pig, or a worm, all of these entities fail to exhaust the reality of the apple, since they simply translate it into human terms, raindrop language, pig phenomena, or worm understanding. Bryant agrees with me that exhaustive knowledge of a thing is never possible. And nonetheless, he does not see any especial problem with how two objects can make direct contact . The problem Bryant faces here is that translation is also a starting point, not just a result. It’s not as if fire and cotton make easy direct contact and only then does the fire translate the cotton into some caricature or distortion. Instead, the fire and contact only make contact with images or simulacra of each other from the start. And this entails that only vicarious or indirect causation exists, not some direct form of relation. The real cotton and real fire must always be mediated in their link by a sensual object.(BW, 175)

Harman remarks that Bryant’s other two objections are reducible to a single point of disagreement: his rejection of the fourfold structure of reality. For Bryant’s onticology, the key distinction is between “virtual proper being” and “local manifestation,” which suitably reflects the Deleuzean flavor of Bryant’s prior path of thinking.(BW, 176) Harman goes into much more detail but ultimately cuts to the chase, saying:

Bryant does not see the sensual world as containing any objects, so there is no internal tension within the sensual realm for him. We also saw that Bryant doesn’t think that real objects have qualities, meaning that there is no internal tension on that level either. It seems that for Bryant the “real” is entirely made up of objects, while the “sensual” is entirely made of qualities. Rather than a fourfold structure, Bryant gives us a more standard twofold structure.(BW , 179)

Now of course I’ve gone into much more than I wanted too in discovering the connections between Bryant and Harman, as well as the underpinning disagreements over vicarious causation, etc. Now I want to return to Levi’s final section of Chapter One, Post-Human Media Ecology. What we discover in the first paragraph is the idea that objects or machines in themselves have no purpose or use value, that purpose and use take on meaning only when two machines or an assemblage of machines are structurally coupled. We learn that this concept was taken from Maturan and Varella, and as they explicate it:

Structural coupling is the term for structure-determined (and structure- determining) engagement of a given unity with either its environment or another unity. The process of engagement which effects a “…history or recurrent interactions leading to the structural congruence between two (or more) systems” (Maturana & Varela, 1987, p. 75). It is ‘…a historical process leading to the spatio-temporal coincidence between the changes of state..’ (Maturana, 1975, p. 321) in the participants. As such, structural coupling has connotations of both coordination and co-evolution.

During the course of structural coupling, each participating system is, with respect to the other(s), a source (and a target) of perturbations. Phrased in a slightly different way, the participating systems reciprocally serve as sources of compensable perturbations for each other. These are ‘compensable’ in the senses that (a) there is a range of ‘compensation’ bounded by the limit beyond which each system ceases to be a functional whole and (b) each iteration of the reciprocal interaction is affected by the one(s) before. The structurally-coupled systems ‘will have an interlocked history of structural transformations, selecting each other’s trajectories.’ (varela, 1979, pp. 48-49)

Structural coupling, then, is the process through which structurally-determined transformations in each of two or more systemic unities induces (for each) a trajectory of reciprocally-triggered change. This makes structural coupling one of the most critical constructs in autopoietic theory. This is particularly true when approaching the phenomenological aspects of the theory. For example, structural coupling is the foundation for Maturana’s account of linguistic interaction as ‘languaging’ (Maturana, 1978)

The key reference points on the subject of structural coupling are: Maturana (1975, pp.322-326; 1981, pp. 23-29); Maturana & Varela (1980, pp. 78-82; pp. 98-99); 1987, pp. 75-80); and Varela (1979, pp. 32-33); p. 48ff.).

Now we get to the heart of the matter. Levi does not invoke Graham Harman but does invoke Marshall McLuhan when he suddenly brings us back to the notion of occasionalism:

Following McLuhan, we will thus say that when one entity enters into structural coupling with another entity, if functions as a medium for that entity. (OC, 30)

Remember that Harman defined this medium as the cornerstone of vicarious causation. Remember that in Guerrilla Metaphysics Harman termed this medium as an “unspecified intermediary”. Bryant locks it down using the concepts drawn from Maturana and Varela of structural coupling. And as they said “structural coupling one of the most critical constructs in autopoietic theory,” and, it seems, it is for Bryant a cornerstone concept as well. What else is a structurally coupled system if not what Harman described as the third object, the sensual medium within which the other two original objects make indirect contact? Even Maturana and Varella imply this register in that when two entities meet there is a range of ‘compensation’ bounded by the limit beyond which each system ceases to be a functional whole and (b) each iteration of the reciprocal interaction is affected by the one(s) before. Be that as it may it was interesting to see the transformation within Levi’s ideas as he tries to overcome and revise, even distance himself from Harman’s philosophical concepts. Yet, he cannot escape them.

He almost verboten admits this when he says: “A machine functions as a medium [or intermediary] for another machine when it is structurally coupled to another machine, extending its powers and capacities in some way” (OC, 31). As we notice there is still the mystery of causality here: “extending its powers and capacities in some way”. What is this some way? When it comes down to it all this talk of vicarious causality etc. never gets to the root of the problem: What is this some way? What is this causality between objects? None of this is ever really explained in detail, but is left dangling in mystery. Next he even brings in McLuhan instead of Harman when he tells us that a “medium is an intermediary that relates one thing to another” (OC, 32). Remember that Harman spoke of this as early as Tool Being. What we are really seeing here is not some Oedipal wavering , but instead we are noticing for the first time a reversal, we are seeing Bryant as scholar as well as philosopher. Levi Bryant is probably one of the most learned philosophers of our age. One can see through the three works he has published so far that he not only has read each philosopher under consideration, but commentaries, and the problems and philosophers, social, intellectual milieu, and byways and highways, nuances of each and every angle of the subject till it bleeds. He has not only a mastery but a command of the texts he grapples with. That we can admire. Maybe it is an obsession, but it is a good one.

Enough! Or too much… again, sidetracked. Forgive my obtuse mind. What we’ve discovered is that Harman himself, and he’s mentioned this quite a bit has a great debt to Marshall McLuhan which seems to be coming out now through Bryant’s articulations. Harold Bloom once spoke of the poet in a poet, and I’m beginning to see the philosopher in the philosopher. The subtle channels of influence that seep through texts and bring us back to the communal pool beyond which only Lethe can give us reprieve.

Without going into the full details of this final section of Chapter One what we discover is the pure nuggets. Levi rehearses the basic litany of ideas that McLuhan in his many works, and especially The Medium is the Message gave us. The core has always been that each of the mediums of media are extensions of our powers and capacities, yet Bryant adds a difference that makes a difference. He hones in on the basic truth that it’s not the message or content that is important, but how the material structuring of the media actually shapes and molds and modifies our actions and relations with one another. All this is known from a cursory reading of McLuhan himself. And, as Levi, tells us, “as promising as McLuhan’s conception of media is, we believe that it remains too restrictive and needs to be modified…” He proposes adding two modifications: first, beside McLuhan’s notions that the medium extends and amplifies our sense-organs, we need to understand the wider problem of how it also modifies the “activity or becoming of another machine” (OC, 33):

Investigation of media is not solely concerned with how machines amplify and extend sense-organs, but also how machines modify and extend the activity and becoming of entities. (OC, 34)

The second issue is that McLuhan restricted his theories to humans, and Levi offers that we need to be more inclusive than this and to bring in all those non-human entities into any viable mechanology. So what will such a mechanology look like? Levi in his praise of McLuhan tells us:

McLuhan’s notion of media explodes its restriction to particular carriers of human communication and meaning, allowing us to think a medium as structural couplings between machines that modify the becoming, movement, activity, or sensing of other machines. In short, the concept of media provides us with the beginnings of a theory of relations and interactions between machines. (OC, 35)

Instead of the study of human made systems or “mass media”, we have the study of an ecology of machines or a machinic ecology that takes in all machines, human and non-human. In this sense it is post-human, in that “it is not restricted to how various entities function as media for human beings” (OC, 35). It elides the difference between the human and non-human.

With this Levi offers a first run of a definition of Onto-Cartography:

“…onto-cartography is the investigation of structural couplings between machines and how they modify the becoming’s, activities, movements, and ways in which the coupled machines relate to the world about them. It is a mapping(cartography) of these couplings between machines (onta) and their vectors of becoming, movement, and activity. (OC, 35)

He tells us that over the course of the book this initial definition will be updated to reflect new input. So stay tuned.


1. Twain, Mark (2011-09-21). What is Man? (Kindle Locations 105-111). Book Tree. Kindle Edition.
2. Levi R. Bryant. Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media. (Edinburgh University Press, 2014)
3. Harman, Graham (2011-08-31). Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (p. 1). Open Court. Kindle Edition.
4. Steven Nadler. Occasionalism: Causation Among the Cartesians (Oxford University Press, 2012)
5. Harman, Graham (2011-08-31). Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (p. 2). Open Court. Kindle Edition.
6. Harman, Graham (2013-11-29). Bells and Whistles: More Speculative Realism (p. 171). John Hunt Publishing. Kindle Edition.


6 thoughts on “Notes on Levi R. Bryant’s Onto-Cartography: Chapter One

  1. I have to say, I’m not entirely sure of your argument. Are you merely explaining the stage, so to speak? Are you just describing the arena in which a particular discourse takes place, as you are also describing the place?

    It appears to me that such approach(es) enjoys missing the effect for the effecting. Because I can guarantee in no time there will be other authors that will come up with further ideas and terms. It seems to me that if we know that such an approach will continue in the same manner and only find solution in the activity, that the proposed solution must be faulty or admittedly nonsensical in as much as then people are taking quite seriously figures that only pose as real, missing the daily life actually having to turn fields, sow seeds and socialize. Such approach as you appear to represent seems quite metaphysical to me.

    But I could be missing something.


    • I must admit I have no clue what your talking about. What argument are you referring too? Arena? Place? Effect for effecting?

      My notes are personal notes on Levi R. Bryant’s new book which is part of an ongoing project by Bryant who is both a Deleuzian scholar as well as a member of the Object Oriented Ontology (Graham Harman, Ian Bogost, Timothy Morton, etc.) or Speculative Realist movement begun back in 2007.

      My approach is if you’ve read any of my back posts mostly a personal interweaving of themes that hopes to tie certain threads between differing parts of this philosophical heritage together. My opening with Mark Twain was actually to show in parable form the extreme myth of deterministic Physicalism against which all materialists now must wage battle for or against. Levi has moved beyond such things and because of his deep scholarship and reading sheds light from a great band of thought forms and produces a new materialist discourse that I believe is both exciting and formidable. As compared to another new materialist, Adrian Johnston, Levi’s work shifts beyond the older cultural materialist traditions (linguistic turn, etc.) and brings us a wider grasp based on a materialist infrastructure which connects back to empirical insights and forward to algorithmic or mapping, modeling, etc. of our material emancipation and liberation the proletariat under new forms egalitarian structures based on a realism that is neither fully human nor non-human but moves in a true voluntary association that Marx himself once though possible.

      So again I’m not sure what your asking? Obviously ontology is metaphysics since it deals with what ‘is’ and how this ‘is’ – does…

      But it also aligns us with pragmatic actual practices not just abstract notions spouted in ivory towers.


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