Levi R. Bryant: Machines, Materialism and Onto-Cartography

Everywhere it is machines – real ones, not figurative ones: machines driving machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections.

– Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

Levi R. Bryant in his new book Onto-Cartography nods toward Deleuze and Guattari reminding us that in Anti-Oedipus they’d recognized or contended that Freud’s great discovery was the “productive unconscious or unconscious as a factory” (40).1 Levi agrees with them that against Freud’s later investment in Oedipus and the theatre of representation that the unconscious is instead a factory for producing desires, that production not expression, operation not representation, is at the heart of the system we term the unconscious. “Machines do not express, represent, and do not constitute a theatre.” Levi tells us. “Rather, all machines are factories producing outputs through their operations.” (40)

Levi in his book on Deleuze Difference and Givenness – Deleuze’s Transcendental Empiricism and the Ontology of Immanence once recommended that to understand Deleuze meant adopting his methodology, a methodology which began with problems rather than thesis to be expounded or expressed. Levi also recommended that in approaching the work of Deleuze that we not get bogged down in any specific set of concepts concerning the problems he grappled with such as him being against representation, established morality, recognition, the State, and so on, ad nauseam. Bryant affirms that taking up the stance of being against something: representation, established morality, etc. is ultimately self-defeating. It is to take up a normative stance which is contrary to Deleuze’s philosophical divagations. Instead Deleuze faces problems to which his philosophy is either a solution or a partial answer, and that his thought responds to a philosophical situation (Badiou) “characterized by the primacy of identity and representation as the common sense or historical a priori within which he finds himself” (DG, 5). Yet, as Levi, stipulates we must not stop there, nor assume that Deleuze thought that the problem was either identity or representation. No. Instead, Deleuze against his more romantically inclined followers sees no issue with representation, identity, and recognition per se; no, these for Deleuze were real phenomena and worthy of investigation. What Deleuze was against was the notion of reducing these concepts to metaphysical or epistemological primitives. For Deleuze argued that when these concepts are reduced in this fashion philosophy falls into indissoluble problems, so Deleuze’s philosophy of the problem was to develop a system that would allow the wary philosopher to navigate through or beyond these insoluble problems and discover alternative lines of flight and thought. (DG, 5)

As I began reading Levi’s new work I began to take notes, think through some of the issues he was facing, trying to understand what the specific problem he was confronting to which his philosophical work was either a solution or a partial investigation of a solution. First, I thought of vitalism. I remember on one of Levi’s posts on Larval Subjects his blog he once stated: “A throw-away thought:  Despite being profoundly influenced by a variety of vitalistic philosophers– Deleuze, Bergson, Nietzsche, Whitehead, and so on –I confess that my skin literally crawls whenever I hear thinkers defend vitalism.”2 My reasoning here was that in he proposes the notion that the world is composed entirely of machines, and furthers this notion by developing a post-human media ecology in which the medium is understood as any entity that contributes to the becoming of another entity affording and constraining possibilities of movement and interaction with other entities in the world (OC, 9). The key here is “medium” in which all this takes place, or through which this production of entities takes place.

Marshall McLuhan was one of the first to recognize the importance of the concept of “medium” in his now famous work Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man:

In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium — that is, of any extension of ourselves — result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.3

For Levi McLuhan was still confined to a humanistic culture in which everything was reduced or given for us, whereas for Bryant and many contemporary philosophers this is no longer viable and restrictive, and needs to be modified in the light of newer conceptual tools. He proposes two modifications: first, the category of media proposed by McLuhan is far broader than simply extending or amplifying human sense-organs: “A machine functions as a medium for another machine not only when it amplifies or extends a sense-organ, but also whenever it modifies the activity or becoming of any other machine” (OC, 33). This notion of amplification and modification as part of an ongoing process seems to inform his notions of coupling/decoupling as machines work either on other machines or internally on themselves. He provides several examples (i.e., drugs and vitamins as mediums for the modification of mood, smart phones as medium that modify activities for humans, theory functioning as medium modifying our actions in the world, etc.). Second, he seeks to overcome McLuhan’s restriction of media to humans, but an inclusive philosophy that takes in non-human actors, entities, and machines as well. This leads him to the notion of media as a theory of relations and interactions between machines (OC, 35).

All this brings me back to Levi’s argument with vitalism:

I just can’t help but feel like something magical is being snuck in the back door here, that something warm and happy is being introduced into our philosophy of nature; and– Lucretian that I am –I just can’t help but feel that such moves are retrograde.  Oh how I want to puke when Stuart Kauffman, an otherwise great theorist, talks of things like “being home in the universe” and “reinventing the sacred”.  No Stuart!  No!  You’ve done so well analyzing the mechanics of self-organization, and now you recoil from what you’ve accomplished to some sort of mystical life-force?

Now vitalism has a long pedigree and it’s modern investigators include such notables as Deleuze, Massumi, Braidotti, Bennett, Whitehead, Bergson, et. al. Our understanding of this doctrine or principle of a vital force is the notion that “living organisms are fundamentally different from non-living entities because they contain some non-physical element or are governed by different principles than are inanimate things”. Where vitalism explicitly invokes a vital principle, that element is often referred to as the “vital spark”, “energy” or “élan vital“, which some equate with the soul.4 As Levi admits “Vitalism, even though it allegedly moves in a posthuman direction, still seems a little too close to human narcissism.  It still seems a little too close to the idea that all of this somehow has a meaning, that it can somehow be redeemed, that there’s still somehow a purpose behind things.  While I think we have many purposes, I just can’t accept the idea– here I have my Ivan Karamozov moment –that there’s a purpose to the cancer that fells a person, to the tsunamic that tears a family apart, and all the rest.  And honestly, at the end of the day, I just can’t help thinking of both all the psychological misery caused by the idea of divine plans as well as all the horrific violence that’s been committed in the name of eschatologies, weather religious or secular. (see Vitalism? No Thanks!)”

As I read it central issue or problem of vitalism is the distinction between animate and inanimate life forms. In some ways it’s a category mistake. What if there is no distinction separating animate/inanimate? A lot of our notions around the history of such theories as panpychism, polypsychism, etc. seem to revolve around the notion that there is some distinction between the two levels of being. This is where all those dualism between Mind/Body, material/immaterial, etc. Thomas Nagel formulated a modern argument for panpsychism, claiming that mental processes cannot be reduced to physical matter and that if physical properties of matter are discovered by inference from other physical properties, then the same must be true for mental properties. So matter must have some “mental component.” The supposed inability of materialism to deal with qualia is another argument often made for panpsychism. Galen Strawson argues that panpsychism is a consequence of physicalism because, if physicalism is true, mental states must actually exist in physical form. David Chalmers proposed the concept of “panprotopsychism,” in which objects only possess a “proto-consciousness” and this can develop into a fuller form of consciousness when these objects combine. The idea is also very popular in New Age circles, often being tied into quantum consciousness or the notion of a “universal consciousness.” None of this is new, but it’s strange how many contemporary philosophers still debate these issues and see this as a problem yet to be resolved.

Is this the problem Levi wishes to resolve? Let’s continue… He reminds us that the central thesis of his book is a “defense and renewal of materialism” (OC, 1). But what does he mean by materialism? Surely it is not the Physicalism of the analytical philosophers and scientists? He argues that most of contemporary materialism is a sham, that it no longer bares any resemblance to the materialism of old, that in fact it has become “so watered down that it’s come to denote little more than “history” and “practice” (OC, 1). Following such thinkers as Michael Focault and others materialism became a set of discursive practices immersed in textuality and intertextuality in which “matter somehow completely evaporated and we were instead left with nothing but language, culture, and discursivity”  (OC, 2). This reduction of materialism to the semantic universe of textuality closed us off from the actual lived spaces of our external ecologies, our environments, and the ‘Great Outdoors’ (Meillassoux). As Levi put it:

Materialism has come to mean simply that something is historical, socially constructed, involves cultural practices, and is contingent. It has nothing to do with processes that take place in the heart of stars, suffering from cancer, or transforming fossil fuels into greenhouse gases. We wonder where the materialism in materialism is. (OC, 2)

This notion that materialism has lost its way is the central problem Levi seeks to overcome, to challenge all those who have decoupled materialism from its material basis and instead invented an immaterial materialism cut off from its very ties to the real world.

But what kind of materialism does he seek to defend and renew?

Cultural Materialism as Idealism: or How Machines and Games Awakened Me from my long Slumber

According to the Hegelian system ideas, thoughts and concepts have produced, determined, dominated the real life of men, their material world, their actual relations.

– Marx, Karl; Friedrich Engels – The German Ideology

As Levi argues most of modern historical materialism after Marx became its opposite, an inversion of Marx and Engel’s original thesis, and instead became sheer idealism in theory and practice. From the early revisionists (Kautsky) onward historical materialism, critical theorists, structuralists, and post-structuralists “taught us to discern how fashion exercises power and reinforces certain odious social relations by functioning as a vehicle for certain meanings, symbolic capital, and so on” (OC, 3). Yet, this was only part of the story. As things lost their materiality and entered the discursive realm of theory and practice an “entire domain of power became invisible,” according to Levi, “and as a result we lost all sorts of opportunities for strategic intervention in producing emancipatory change” (OC, 3). This turn from things to their linguistic signifiers, the Linguistic Turn, left Levi in trouble. As he states it he came to a point that he realized  that he’d become so “entrenched in the work of Žižek, Lacan, Derrida, Adorno, and the structuralists and post-structuralists” that he was “convinced that the diacritical difference introduced by signs carve up the world, and that change was effected by debunking these signifying assemblages” (OC, 4).

It was by accident that he was finally confronted with the problem he faced. He discovered by accident a computer game: SimCity 4. As he tells it this game “shook my commitments to the core”. What he discovered in playing this game is the simple truth that for all our know-how, for all our signifying practices and discursive investigations that there is something missing, something left out of the equation – and, that something is what underlies all of this discursivity and cultural theoretic: the real things, entities, and machines – the infrastructure of the world itself.  Describing the game of the city he tells us that the “point is that the form the city takes is not, in these instances, the result of a signifier, a text, a belief, or narrative alone. It is the result of the real properties of roads, power lines, pollution, and so on” (OC, 5).

What is matter? Levi tells us that this is not the problem he set himself, that he accepts that what matter is could be debated better by physicists rather than philosophy, and that instead his goal starts with the “premise that worlds are composed of units or individual entities existing at a variety of different levels of scale, and that are themselves composed of other entities. I call these entities “machines” to emphasized the manner in which entities dynamically operate on inputs producing outputs” (OC, 6). At the root of this enterprise is the onto-cartographical project, the mapping of things or machines form both discursive and physical relations based on power or gravity in which the organization of new assemblages, worlds, and ecologies out of these material manifestations of productive processes is the outcome.

He tells us that rather than promoting any particular ethical or political program instead this is a work of meta-ethics and meta-politics: ontocartography he tells us is essentially to “expand our possibilities for intervening in the world to produce change so as to better understand how power functions and devise strategies so as to overcome various forms of oppression” (OC, 8).

What is gravity?

Gravity has played a big part in making the universe the way it is. Gravity is what makes pieces of matter clump together into planets, moons, and stars. Gravity is what makes the planets orbit the stars–like Earth orbits our star, the Sun. Gravity is what makes the stars clump together in huge, swirling galaxies.

A great scientist, Albert Einstein, who lived in the 20th century, had a new idea about gravity. He thought that gravity is what happens when space itself is curved or warped around a mass, such as a star or a planet. Thus, a star or planet would cause kind of a dip in space so that any other object that came too near would tend to fall into the dip.

Yet, some of the problems surrounding gravity have yet to be solved. If gravity is a force that causes all matter to be attracted to all other matter, why are atoms mostly empty space inside? (There is really hardly any actual matter in an atom!) How are the forces that hold atoms together different from gravity? Is it possible that all the forces we see at work in nature are really different sides of the same basic force or structure?(see What is gravity really?)

This is where the problems of vitalism and gravity suddenly take on a new light. Somehow Levi will need to explain what gravity is for his project, whether it is some strange attractor, some kind of mysterious force, a physical phenomena underpinning both discursive and physical processes? This notion of power and gravity being interchangeable needs an expanded definition and explanation. I’ll not get into it yet, but later on he will introduce the metaphysical notions of “powers” and “capacities” that things, entities, and machines have. Is this tied to some notion of gravity? If it isn’t vitalism then what is it? As some of the early defenders of vitalism argued:

Mechanism is the theory which regards the organism as a highly complex machine, controlled exclusively by physico-chemical laws, without any sort of action or guidance by any force or power foreign to the conceptions of physcis and chemistry. Vitalism, on the contrary, asserts that living organisms possess within them some directive power or force of non-material nature, and therefore unknown to science. This force, called the vital force, is supposed to control some or all of the activities of the organism….On the assumption of vitalism, the living organism is something more than an incident in the universal redistribution of matter and motion; its activities are in part the product of totally new forces, which may be manifestations of a soul, a mind, or other spiritual entity….In the region of physiology, therefore, it is necessary to show that the activities supposed to be due to these entities are in reality due to physico-chemical factors.

Elliot, 1919, p. 106

Yet, as noted already for these vitalists there is a distinction between material and immaterial objects, so this want hold water for Levi who breaks down such barriers and also includes non-human elements into his problematique. We know that in the 90’s of the 20th Century scientists came upon certain anomalies that led them to formulate a more refined notion of gravity as surrounding the concepts of dark energy and dark matter:

Eventually theorists came up with three sorts of explanations. Maybe it was a result of a long-discarded version of Einstein’s theory of gravity, one that contained what was called a “cosmological constant.” Maybe there was some strange kind of energy-fluid that filled space. Maybe there is something wrong with Einstein’s theory of gravity and a new theory could include some kind of field that creates this cosmic acceleration. Theorists still don’t know what the correct explanation is, but they have given the solution a name. It is called dark energy.(see Dark Energy, Dark Matter )

Scientists still are unable to determine just what gravity is nor even test the notions surrounding these mathematical models of dark energy and dark matter. But this I think is not what Levi is dealing with, I think he is as he said not concerned with what matter is as much as what it does and produces in the way of other machines, assemblages, etc. I’ll need to think on this as I continue to reread his work. So stay tuned…

Levi in another blog post Strategic Vitalism and the Wilderness mentions the notion of the concept of strategic vitalism as an “as if” way of talking that “would not make the claim that all beings (including non-living entities) are animals, but would hold that treating all beings as animals has certain positive political, ethical, and analytic effects”. He goes on to say “a strategic vitalism does not assert that nonhumans are literally animals, but suggests that there are benefits to thinking about the things of the world in animistic, vitalistic, and anthropomorphic terms. First, there are ethico-politico consequences that thinking in terms of strategic vitalism invite”. He describes this in much the same way as Hawaiian vitalistic metaphysics dealt with in Marisol:

 In treating us as descendants of taro, volcanoes, rocks, land, sea, and sky the Hawaiian vitalistic metaphysics indiscerns the difference between humans and nonhumans, while also simultaneously emphasizing the manner in which we belong to and are produced by what I call “regimes of attraction” (cf. The Democracy of Objectschapter 5). On the one hand, this indiscerning between humans and nonhumans creates a common space where we begin to think of the strange strangers such as the volcano as like us and therefore worthy of our regard and appropriate comportment. On the other hand, this indiscerning draws our attention to how, just like grapes, we are of the soil, sea, and sky, or how these milieus cultivate us to the same degree that we cultivate them.

And, finally, against the passive reduction of matter to a dead object or thing Levi tells us that in “our analyses of the world about us, strategic vitalism has the benefit of rendering us sensitive to the surprising power of objects, that they can never be reduced to their behavior in this context. It invites us to always be on the lookout for the Lucretian swerve, taking care not to reduce things to our concept of things. As such, it helps to render us sensitive to the aleatory and to, paradoxically, anticipate the aleatory insofar as things always harbor hidden depths and powers that we can never fully master.”

This sense of powers in objects, things, entities, machines, etc. derives with Levi’s confrontation with Georg Molnar. Molnar’s basic argument is that things, entities, etc. possess causal powers that are ontologically real, and not just confined to the instances in which they are manifested. Salt contains the power of being soluble (dissolveable) in water; this power is a veritable property of the salt, even if it never encounters water and never actually gets dissolved. In insisting that powers are actual independently of their manifestation (even if they can only be described in terms of their manifestation), Molnar rejects the skeptical (empiricist, and especially Humean) hypothesis that talk of powers has no meaning apart from the conditional statement that, e.g., if the salt is put into water, then it will dissolve. The classic Early Modern reproach to medieval philosophy was to ridicule the latter for allegedly saying, for instance, that opium puts people to sleep because it has a dormative power — and to claim that this sort of explanation is utterly meaningless. Molnar is arguing, in effect, that opium really does have something like a “dormative power.” This is not to deny that such a power can be analyzed, e.g., in terms of particular neurochemical events that take place in the brain of somebody who has smoked opium. But such an analysis of the “dormative power” does not get away from the attribution of powers, since it simply replaces the power of opium per se with a more detailed account of the powers possessed by particular molecules in the composition of opium. (see George Molnar, Powers by Steven Shaviro)

Now Levi in his post Invisible Objects  tells us that “the domain of powers analyzed by Molnar corresponds to what I call “virtual proper being”. Within the framework of my onticology, I argue that objects are split or divided between their virtual proper being and their local manifestations. The virtual proper being of an object is its powers, what the object can do, while local manifestation is the properties that an object comes to embody or actualize.”

As Levi describes it Molnar developed the notion of that powers had five specific features: 1), “directedness” or physical intentionality; 2), powers are characterized by independence; 3), powers are actual; 4), powers are intrinsic to the objects that posses them; and, 5),  powers are objective features of objects. Finally as he states it “Hume had argued that our notion of powers is merely a psychological effect of how the mind associates events. By contrast, Molnar argues that powers are real properties of objects.”

In his new book he will expand on this in the section entitled Machines Are Split Between their Powers and Products. I’ll not explicate the details but will offer his conclusions. He will argue that “power” and “operation” are interchangeable terms, but that using operation rather than power entails a qualification of the term in that “power” power is the capacity possessed by a machine regardless of whether or not that power is exercised, while operation is instead the actual exercise  of a power in the production of the manifestation (OC,42). All of this returns us to Levi’s separation or distinction between virtual proper being and its local manifestations. Virtual proper being would be a machine that has the capacities to produce, while its local manifestations would be the active instantiation of a machine and its powers or operations acting in the world or internally on itself.

I’ll need to stop here… so much more to discuss, but space is prohibitive. Hopefully this sheds some light on Levi’s project.

1. Levi R. Bryant. Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media. (Edinburgh University Press, 2014)
2. Levi R. Bryant. Vitalism? No Thanks!
3. McLuhan, Marshall (2013-06-14). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Kindle Locations 148-151). Gingko Press.
Kindle Edition.
4. BECHTEL, WILLIAM and ROBERT C. RICHARDSON (1998). Vitalism. In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Vitalism

9 thoughts on “Levi R. Bryant: Machines, Materialism and Onto-Cartography

  1. Still reading your post, but a few comments thus far. First, thanks for summarizing Levi’s latest, as I haven’t been able to read it yet. I have of course read most of his blog posts over these past several years. I’ve detected two problems with his characterization of “vitalism”: (1) I don’t see a vitalist or panpsychist cosmos as in any way the result of some human need for warmth and comfort, for feeling “at home,” etc. The disenchanted and disinfected modern world of Enlightenment rationality, the world known and explained by Science as mere mindless, intentionless mechanism: this is the sort of image that, in contrast to the demon haunted world of premodernity, seems less threatening to human egoic pretensions. Yes, only we have purpose and intention, and we needn’t fear the purposes, the values, the aims of other intelligent agencies. We are finally free to rule over everything with our Reason, men made in God’s image. It all sounds like monotheism with a new paint job, if you ask me. On the other hand, the vitalist cosmos described by Whitehead, Deleuze, et al., is far more frightening, decentering, and challenging to human pretensions to specialness. All the sudden, it’s not just the gaze of other human beings that penetrates us, but the gazes of a whole multitude of beings, many of whose desires and aims we cannot even fathom. So who is being anthropocentric, the vitalist, who sees the humans as just one form of intelligent actor among many, or the disenchanted mechanist, who reserves all intelligence and consciousness for the human? Mechanomorphism serves our humanist pretensions far more readily than vitalism/panpsychism. (2) Vitalism need not be construed as the idea that some single overarching plan or purpose gives a univocal meaning to every event. From the perspective of a pluralist ontology of organism, there are in fact many purposes at play, competing, cooperating with, and capturing one another in a vast ecology of meanings. Again, hardly the sort of Panglossian caricature Levi is suggesting. Back to your post…


    • Most of those arguments were not from Levi, but from Nagel, Strawson, and Chalmers more than Levi… of course there are many ways to approach vitalism as it has a long lineage from at least the 18th Century to now…

      Most of the arguments from pansychism are from David Skirbna and Peter Ells works not from Levi per se… Levi actually has a good historical understanding of vitalism so being dismissive of it might be besides the point. I don’t see the panglossian caricature at all… and of course have read the many back log of posts… he seems well versed in the 18th, 19th, 20th, and even current notions of vitalism…


    • Matt when I read your work I don’t find signs of fear, trembling, and alienation, just echoes of the old transpersonal good vibes of relationships and a promise of (belief) in a Big Axial Shifting Fix to the human condition via a sort of academic rationalization/theory and maybe some hallucinogens, we’ve been to that Be-In party before…


      • Yes, that’s a fair reading, dmf. I do seek to pluralize ontology, which includes recognizing the multiplicity of nonhuman agencies in the world, as well as the multiplicity of archetypal agencies at work within and between nonunified human psyches (a la Hillman).

        I don’t seek to foster fear and alienation, no. I don’t see why a pluralized ontology of nonhuman agents should foster alienation. If there is no such thing as a psychic commander-in-chief (=large and in charge ego consciousness separate from nature, etc.) and we learn to live into irreducibly multiple psychical and ecological realities, we are not increasing alienation but learning to become with the multiple becomings that we are.

        There is no fix for the “human condition.” If there is a second axial revolution underway, it’s a turn away from a world defined according to the old “human” v. “nonhuman” dichotomy toward something far less hierarchical and far messier and more distributed, something rather disturbing for any old fashioned, pre-ecological liberal humanism. The psychedelic experience (or “ecodelic” experience, as Doyle calls it http://c-lab.columbia.edu/0185.html) is certainly “transpersonal,” in the sense of forcing experience outside the comfort zone of the normal waking rational personality to something posthuman. Sure, there are sometimes good vibes BUT ALSO plenty of bad vibes that come along with such experiences.


    • Like I said he is well versed in these streams of thought… if anything else, Levi is a philosopher’s philosopher… a scholar who is well read in both sides of the equation he attends too.

      Not saying I agree with everything, but he is important to think through…


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