Felix, this stuff is fabulous, I never knew that about Boyle, it's so insightful as to social structure.
I am curious whether anything emerged in the discussion about the relation between the young class of, let's say, science professionals, and the different historical figures of the state? Because such intriguing concepts have bodies and create civilizations, when not declining into the war of all against all.
Your notes made me think about how practicing science, the kind that calculates and builds things, has developed over time - something like a social form. In the later Enlightenment Boyle's vision coheres into the impressive idealization of the Hegelian functionary - the perfectly disinterested civil servant adjudicating all the differences between interest groups in a fractious society. That figure was at the foundation of the national state, in the wake of the French Revolution, and it had everything to do with the emerging search for professional deontology, some kind of collective yardstick or touchstone for social behavior.
Then after the world-shaping ethical-practical development of the disciplines and professions in the late nineteenth century, that epistemological period collapsed into wat and a whole new figure of the state emerged in mid-20C. It was able to synthesize the different powers of knowledge into programmatic collaboration over continental spaces and multi-year intervals, particularly due to the mental discipline cultivated in places like academia and government research. You know how they thought, that was our era, it was yesterday. The most recent social form - the hypermodernizing technocratic state - was able to bring the scientists, the professions and the military into unison with the corporations, and by so doing it ignited the Great Acceleration around the world.
Now, after misconstrued attempts in Europe and elsewhere to sketch out and enact a trans- or meta-national governance (think NAFTA even) the old, rule-governed modernizing state remains stuck in its outstripped national frame - unable to scale up, while breaking apart into chaos as you say. It's can't sublate itself into a new figure. I'm convinced by your argument about the returning war of all against all, and particularly the role of the media in that. How exactly is the impassive Hegelian functionary supposed to make a decision while the twitter-storm is setting off a social movement outside? Especially when experience has revealed the *inside* to be riddled with objective abuse on all floors? Yet at the same time, I take one of your points to be that the collapse of rule-governed objectivity equals the breakdown of the modernizing state. In other words, a big fall, a moment of tremendous fluidity and danger.
Philip Mirowski said everything strictly political about yesterday's epistemology in the title of one of his books, Science Mart. If the EU has failed and Austrian economics really isn't nirvana in a box, then to go beyond the practicing science of the national state presumably requires overcoming another order of challenge, one that's somehow off the charts, something barely measurable and conceivable for present-day institutional rationality. Yet the challenge is obvious. The hypermodernizing states overcame war between equals, so-called "Totale Krieg," so I guess they won't do that again. Instead the challenge is the overwhelming power of a storm, a wave, a flood, a drought, a fire, an infrastructure event, one after another after another. Responding to such things is how social form gets created. In our case it means bringing existential needs to planetary scale, conceived ecologically as molecular co-involvement with biogeochemical cycles. Surely practical reckoning with the consequences of nine billion people is the only thing that could again draw us into an enlarged and deepened epistemic field, with some new set of touchstones for collective behavior. What's the state of that state? And what are its chances?
Anyway, the stakes of such brief discussion are mind-boggling, and it's great you've shared these notes.
To put it more short, I'm curious how your concepts play out over historical time?
On Mon, Jun 4, 2018 at 8:59 AM, Felix Stalder <email@example.com
[Today I was at an internal workshop at the HKW which was about
preparing the opening event of their new 3 year program "The New
Alphabet". These are notes for my introductory input. Not a full linear
text, but close enough to it that it's hopefully still accessible in
this form. Felix]
Complexity, epistemology and power in the digital condition
• I start from several assumptions
1. We – as increasingly global societies – are experiencing a sharp
rise in social complexity
2. This is triggered by an explosion of social, biological and
machinic actors that overwhelm established orders.
3. This proliferation of agencies is sustained and accelerated by
4. There is a close relationship between epistemology – how to create
facts about the world, what can be stated as facts and who can state
them – and power – how to organize the world, what needs to be organized
and who can do it.
5. the present is characterized by a crisis of the established
epistemic-political order, let’s call this modern-liberal, and the
emergence of a new one, that is yet to be named.
• So, these are the assumptions.
• To give a sense of the stakes of this crisis and the relationship
epistemological and political regime – and because I think the analogy
to the baroque proposed by the HKW can be quite productive – I am
looking at a debate between Thomas Hobbes and Robert Boyle that took
place around 1660, the year when both the monarchy was restored in the
UK, but also the Royal Society was founded.
• The debate concerned the question how facts could be asserted.
Boyle – having in mind the new experimental sciences – argued that
observations of individual men, when organized into a community of peers
and bound both by a strict adherence to impersonal methods and limiting
themselves to narrow domain – could agree upon facts in a peaceful
manner. This implied an ethos of disinterestedness and
inter-subjectivity, made all possible by the constructing the domain of
knowledge, nature, to lie outside of society.
• Hobbes, on the other hand, doubted the idea of disinterestedness.
For him, all activity of men was political and knowledge beyond dispute
could only flow from absolute axioms. His ideal was Euclidean geometry.
• Both Boyle and Hobbes were fully aware that their positions had
immediate political applications. The last 30 years, with Civil War and
Republic, has shown that dispute over knowledge could lead to war and
social chaos – making life, as Hobbes had put it, “nasty brutish and
short” – giving questions of how to come to an agreement about facts of
• Boyle’s notion of communities organized around their own methods
and rules but bounded to limited domains basically created different
scientific disciplines, but more importantly, separated science from
politics and religion. Questions from one domain, he maintained, had no
bearing on those in the other domains.
• Each would follow its own rules, set by the community of peers,
and not impose them on the others.
• Thus, in the last consequences – the state, church and science
would be separated, each with its own institutions, procedures to
ascertain facts and settle disputes.
• This separation into domain allowed to manage the rapidly rising
social complexity in all three domains, driven by the proliferation of
religious sects following the reformation, the new encounters with the
non-European world during the colonization and the increase in social
dynamism through the growth of mercantile capitalism spurred by
• This settlement – which defined the modern-liberal era – is
• Hobbes suspicious that knowledge is always political and that
disinterestedness is impossible is back with a vengeance.
• For one, the increased complexity of society – caused as
mentioned, by the exponential increase in actors that comprise it –
makes the outside position, so crucial to disinterestedness and
inter-subjectivity, impossible. The observer is now inside the problem
and hence has only a partial view. This was the fundamental insight of
• More importantly, the problems of the natural sciences no longer
concern the “other” – nature – but ourselves. Almost all scientific
problems now raise the question: how do we want do live? This breaks
down the separation between political and scientific questions.
• This is not really new. Latour argued that we have never been
modern for 30 years now.
• But we can also observe the rapid establishment of new ways of
organizing this increased complexity.
• On a political level, one answer is to add another layer of
governance, namely, protocols. Protocol sets the rules of engagement,
but it does not give order, what to do, it doesn’t even mobilize
desires, telling people what to want. Anything goes, as long as agency
re-affirm the rule of the protocol that creates the conditions of agency
in the first place.
• The contemporary technical protocols vastly increase the number of
actors that can interact.
• IPv4, created in the early 1980s, established space of some 4
billion actors, each identified by a unique number and everything within
that space could, in principle, be addressed and interacted with.
• They are all used up by now.
• IPv6 expands this number of several orders of magnitude, in fact
so many, that it’s theoretically possible to address every single atom
on the planet individually.
• But it’s not just the number of actors that is rising, it’s also
their heterogeneity: people, machines, animals, plants, objects and
dynamic patterns. By putting sensors everywhere, they all can now speak
and the present in this space created by the protocols.
• Epistemologically, it’s the jump from small data to big data.
• Big data allows, so the promise, to take in everything, to avoid
• But data is not knowledge. That is generated through algorithmic
procedures, that run through that data until they find something that
“works”. So, the answers becomes directly related to the question and
the question is one of utility. Because it core issue turn from external
truth to internal use.
• Both, protocols and machine analysis, promise a new unified space.
The separation of knowledge domains collapses.
• It’s the same actors that drive both the expansion of protocols as
a way to organize a much higher number of actors, as well as the new
epistemological procedures, to make sense out of this complexity. But
“making sense” means not to establish truth, but to able to interfere in
it. Not from the outside, but from within.
• What I’m now interested in is what kind of questions can be
addressed, and by whom, and what kind of knowledge disappear within this
new unified space of planetary protocols and data driven analysis.
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