Patchwork is Not a Model (Part 3)

It was brought to my attention a few weeks back that the conversation Michael James, Ed Berger and myself, had over a series of blogposts and their comments sections, made its way to Facebook where a really interesting discussion took place between Reza Negarestani and Levi Bryant.

I’m not sure of the etiquette of Facebook-to-blogosphere transplants so I’m just going to quote pertinent comments using first names only. I think it would be a shame, for those of us actively discussing these things, to lose this conversation behind the Facebook wall.


Of Michael’s blog response to my short little shitpost — facepalm for not leading with the at least somewhat boiled if not fully cooked takes… — Reza (rightly) writes:

Reza: This an excellent post. Even though I think what counts as a scientific model is not free floating. The idea that a map is not the territory is advanced by people who think we can actually talk about an exterior reality without a proper structure to logically, mathematically or computationally discern it. From the standpoint of scientific theories, it would be absurd to talk about a territory without a demarcation of [what] we distinguish as a territory, separate from the map. It would be the very definition of the myth of the given. In any case, this is a good piece, informative and not beholden to trends.

Levi: That’s interesting. I don’t think the claim that the map is not the territory is the suggestion that the territory is a given. Rather, it’s just a reminder not to erase the territory or replace it with a map. I think we do this all the time, especially in philosophy and what’s referred to as theory. We engage only with maps, treating them as having no difference from territories.

I want to note here that the original intention of the post was absolutely along the lines that Levi describes here. Rather than that make the conversation redundant, however, I think much of what is said here resonates with a number of other discussions around patchwork going on at the moment, particularly revealing the complexity of nationalism and its mythologies.

Reza: Levi, I can agree with you on this point. But we should realize that map / territory crowd come in at least (reactively speaking) two groups. Your suggestion is what I would call vigilant realists and I find it to be sufficiently critical, the other group though (the ones who think we can simply have a territory without a map, being without structure) are what I would call greedy materialists and realists. Of course, in the the latter camp things can also be fundamentally different.

Levi: The worst part about what you call greedy materialists is that often they’re confusing the map and the territory without even realizing it. Their territory is a map that’s not recognized as a map.

Reza: Levi, I highly suggest Puntel’s book Structure and Being on this issue. It really addresses some of the issues we take for granted.

I’m very curious to check out this book myself, especially considering the inchoate investigations of this blog where the relationship between nation and subject — structure and being? — is reciprocal and, therefore, plastic in much the same way.

Yvette: What if ‘the map is not the territory’ is taken more literally to mean ‘A 2-D projection of a thing is not the same as the 3-D thing, mainly because it lacks a dimension which is fundamental to the 3-D thing”. i.e., a circle is not a sphere, a triangle is not a pyramid, which is true. ?

Reza: Yvette, that is another problem, broadly understood this is the issue of unhinged / unconstrained idealism and theory. You can call it the caprice of thought where one simply applies the last trend in what counts as a theoretical structure to the world with no critical reservation. This is why I think we should take philosophy of science seriously, because its major concerns deal with exactly the same issues. First epistemic ones: How our projections have any traction on items in the world? Second methodological ones: which structure is better, logic or math (the debate between logicicism and its mathematical detractors), third, is it actually wise to talk about a mind-independent reality (debates around idealism and realism).

Levi: Isn’t this already getting too far into the weeds of abstraction in a way that erases the territory? Let’s tarry with Yvette’s literalism for a section. A map in the literal sense is a flat surface that has a metric grid over it. Let’s say it’s a map of the peninsula of Svaerholt in Norway: a remote region that once housed a fishing village, a Nazi fortress, and a Russian POW camp. Now on that map, a kilometer is a kilometer. They’re all the same. Now you land on Svaerholt. You find that all kilometer’s are not equal and that distance is textured and means very different things depending on the type of boots you’re wearing and the terrain you’re walking across. First you have to cross the beach, which is covered with rocks and drift that are very difficult to move across. Then you get a little further and the rocks are still there, but now there’s rusting barbed wire and rusted out land mines. This poses it’s own challenges and you slow down more. Now you get to the grass and the hills and the rainwater that covers those grasses. Distance means something different as you cross all of these terrains and distance is something quite different if you’re wearing the poorly constructed clogs the Russian POWs wore, or a good pair of waterproof hiking boots. I don’t know that pointing this out is falling prey to the myth of the given. Is Svaerholt “given”? It’s different than that flat metric on the map. Often in our theorizing and philosophizing this dimension is completely lost and we speak of it as if it contributes nothing. However, once you’re there you know a little bit more about what life was like for those soldiers and prisoners that’s very difficult to convey in a text or a map.

Reza: I disagree that a map is ‘essentially’ a flattened world view. A simple glance at complexity sciences and modern engineering shows us that a map can actually be a multi-level description of the world. How many modelers think that a map is a flat world or that it is actually the world? That would be an oversimplification. Does Boltzmann think his statistical multi-level of map of thermal phenomena is the same as macroscopic thermodynamic irreversible behaviors?

Levi: Yes, we can have many different sorts of maps, but that doesn’t change the fact that they always lose something. No matter how beautifully I describe coffee (a map), the person who has not drank coffee will not know what it tastes like. We too often proceed as if not existing in language means the thing doesn’t exist at all. That’s the first move of Hegel’s Phenomenology, in fact. There are all sorts of things that can only be gestured at without being said. It’s why people who want to become doctors and nurses need to go through clinicals and actually work in hospitals as a part of their training. It would be good if philosophers had to do something similar.

Reza: The idea that we always lose something is part of what Kant calls objectivity: to arrive at a status when we say something is thus and so with the understanding that we may be wrong but we have fulfilled a set of criteria such that our claims can be gauged and rectified. To think that there is a lossless reality out there which we can simply accessed is tantamount to the myths of private access, neither scientific nor philosophical. Does Newton think his equations of motions are the ultimate descriptions of reality? No he is a scientist, he knows after Kepler that such equations are lossy pictures of natural laws. In fact it would be dogmatic to think of natural laws as if there are some stuff out there awaiting our recognition. There is no natural law that can be put forward without deductive-nomological, statistical-nolomological and statitiscal-inductive frameworks, all of which require theoretical structuration, be it in the domain of deductive logical theory or probability logic.

Again, I feel like Levi is capturing beautifully the many problematics I hoped would be encapsulated in the original post, but I also want to take Reza’s critiques seriously.

However, is this issue of Kantian objectivity not precisely at the heart of the issue here? I’m reminded of this in revisiting Land’s The Thirst of Annihilation — which I was doing earlier today in working on another post — and in the first chapter there is a passage on what Land calls the “dialectical illusion” that I spent quite a bit of time with.

He notes how, for Kant, the dialectical illusion is between objectivity and objects, which is to say, it is “a confusion between conditions of possibility and their products.” Reza seems to describe this too here but I’m unsure how this differs from what Levi is also saying? Is this not a coalescence of objects and objectivity; of the map of a territory and the territory-in-itself? We cannot know the latter absolutely so we must accept that the map is only ever an approximation.

There’s a later passage that I likewise found intriguing in light of this conversation — and I should add here, on the off chance Reza sees this, that I’m not bringing in Land simply to be an irritant, I know he’s moved on — in which Land goes on to likewise describe a relationship between “model” and “subject”. He writes, speaking indirectly to the conundrum of map and territory-in-itself:

This is not merely to collapse Kant’s thing-in-itself back into the phenomenal world, because Hegel does not think of spirit as a timeless (transcendentally pre-given) system of cognitive faculties (in Kantian fashion), but as a historical auto-production, in which the self is really — and not merely reflectively — determined by the logically orchestrated content of thinking as and through time. Hegelian history is not formal but speculative, which means that the subject is developed — and not merely expressed — through the series of predicates by which ‘it’ is thought.

Modelling, and mapmaking in particular, are processes. Reza says as much himself. Much of the point of which I think the patchwork conversations are currently revolving is that new circumstances demand new cartographies of both world and subject in tandem. How might we go about imaging these maps in the radical terms that our immediate crises demand? As illuminating as Reza’s thought is — and I must confess that I suspect there to be much on this, particularly related to Hegel, in Intelligence & Spirit, which I am yet to properly crack the spine of — I remain sceptical as to how this can assist in the speculative notions that Levi emphasises here, as I also intended to do.

Is it simply a difference in perspective concerning the same resolution to an issue? Or is it deeper than that?


I’m remembering that at the start of this year I said I planned to properly read Kant’s first critique. An aborted promise which has ended up with me reading Hume instead…

As far as these last few comments go, I feel like I need to get a move on with catching up on my Kant and Hegel… Because at this point, they lost me:

Choggys: I have always thought hypothetical lossless reification of essence as a means of providing context to definitions which are only ever rudimentary and incomplete. It’s Kant’s as if.

Reza: Yes they are species of ‘as-if’ judgements. As I mentioned, Kant sometimes forgets his own dictum that as-if should not be mistaken as a constitutive judgement. This is in my opinion a source of a lot of confusions pertaining to transcendental deduction. The only ‘tentative solution’ is to think of as-if arguments in terms of a virtuous circle of analogy where we have to account for the scale or the extent of analogies rather than just overextending them.

Miguel: But the problem is not that we are loosing something… It’s an issue with accuracy, as stated in Borges’ “On Exactitude in Science”. But maybe it is not a “problem” as such. Each known physical theory, so far, proposes a limit to certainty. Is it credible to make any sort of distinction between a theoretical proposition and a reality which is definable only and exclusively in terms of measurability (i.e. a matematizable) reality? Objective measures of complexity exist (Kolmogorov complexity) What constitutes the information is going to be locally determined by the process of which its epistemic metarepresentation is taking part.

Levi: But I’m not making the claim that you’re attributing to me. I’m pointing out 1) that an occupational hazard of our discipline consists in thinking only concepts are real (we only talk about maps), and 2) overlooking that we must go to the world itself to know many things because they can’t be put in language. This was the point of my example of medical training. I’ll bow out of discussion at this point because it’s clear we’re talking past each other and about entirely different things.

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