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The secret life of rhythms

This is the text of my presentation in the Secret Life of Objects last Wednesday.

1. I'll start with mineral media. The slowest of all broadcasting devices, the slowest capturing device. Mineral antennas. They carry traces, traces of events in stones, in fossil, in sediments, in orogenesis, in floor below our feet. Philosophical stones. Geophilosophical fossils. And still, geontological media.

2. The National Park of Yasuní in Ecuatorian Amazon is an area of rainforest home to 20 threatened mammal species and several groups of indigenous peoples who live in isolation, the Tagaeri and Taromenane clans of the Waorani. The park together with the Waorani reserve covers an area of more than 10 thousand square kilometers. There are more species of trees there than in the totality of the US and Canada combined.

Now, there is a secret life of petrol underneath all this. 846 million barrels of petrol. Dig this petrol would mean tons of CO2 spread in the atmosphere. It would mean placing Yasuní in a global fuss that makes life, death and other tupenny aches an affair of capital. That would entail the insertion of the crude below the feet of those who live in Yasuní in the antropocene.

Yasuní ITT initiative: the secret life of petrol. Started in 2007. The trust fund was created about 5 years ago, August of 2010. Aimed at collecting 3.6 million from pledges of the global community dollars to keep the petrol buried. In 2012 the pledge added to no more than 200 thousand.
To pay to maintain – sponsor, sustain – a secret life. To keep it covered, in a sense recovered. To keep the fossils secret, veiled, non-removed, withdrawn. Out of reach. This far, our interaction with objects revolves around spending our energy to put them at our disposal. The Initiative asks us rather to spend energy to keep it away from our disposal. It is the price of withdrawal. The price of sparing. Sumak kawsay against growth: Bataille says that only when growth is limited there emerges a real excess. The commodity turn in mineral life orchestrates the acceleration of the anthropocene – there is only one direction to go, that of coding life of all objects into capital. Yasuní ITT attempts to vow that other senses of novelty could come and repetitions can drift in other directions. It is about a community around the withdrawn oil. The Initiative is one of self-restrain of a capital-centered economy in favor of a bio-geological secret. Whatever is not manifest is secret. Dispositions are secret – to preserve the park is to preserve the unknown.

The contrast with the excesses coming from the buried fossil there is the cursed abundance of the fossil drilled for fuel. Acosta traces the diagnosis of this curse to Humboldt when he came to Ecuador: non-human is abundant attracts human poverty. Stiglitz refer to it as the paradox of resources – resources, to be sure, for growth. Growth is a geoeconomic endeavor: it is an ecology where the resources are whatever is irrevocably enlisted. As for human poverty in non-human abundance, it reveals how human communities are full of foreigns to the race: they include the flesh of the domesticated animal and the secrets of the minerals. To bank sumak kawsay is to bank on the unmanifested oil. Acosta is suspicious of the compensations asked for keeping the mineral buried: is capital the only alternative media? It is as far as it is the only beat in town.

3. Elizabeth Povinelli is involved in another mineral media project. The Karrabing living library is a media project where events in the interaction between the Karrabing hord in Northern Australia and the stones will be broadcast live. The media project would support and propagate their geontology. It is not about a cultural tradition about nature – it is about the link between the geos and the bios. It is also not about how to deal with the inanimate – it doesn't assume a carbon imaginary according to which the animate and the inanimate are sharply distinguished. Once a stone is part of a community, it is part of its geontology – part of the atmosphere that supports life. The atmosphere that supports life is life itself. It is enough to remember Lovelock's insistence that what is outside a living organism – or a plethora of them – is somehow part of its cybernetic system through air interchanges, temperature control and maintenance of functioning systems.

Povinelli is motivated by three women in her media project. One of them is Chippel in Karrabing. A geotic structure that comes with a secret life of a girl being abused who pretended to be dead. She is pretending. The geotic structure is a camouflage perhaps because each thing is human deep inside – at least for each thing's perspective. But more likely because she had to withdraw. Hers is the secret life of an object of rights. She is the geotic structure, but she needs a narrative to survive even withdrawn. Again come the miners. Them and the resource-seeking devices. Like the crude in Yasuní, Chippel meets the curse of the resources. The ordinary practice of depriving a rich community of its rich elements. Chippel is geotic to hide from a hostile surrounding: better live pretending she doesn't live. Better withdraw. Mineral life is fragile – maybe it was described by Rilke when he talks of the nostalgia of the gold coin for its stone mountain. Maybe it is a life of refuges – the stone pictured by Szymborska as having no doors, and therefore no great outdoors. Still, minerals are part of a living community. Chippel doesn't strive for a non-qualified life, she can only thrive if she's not in a miners field. But minerals broadcast slowly.

4. An element of mineral media is resonance to its surroundings. Karkowski spoused a noise account of ontogenesis. “All the forms existing in the universe” he wrote, “plants, trees, minerals, animals, even our bodies have their shape created by resonating to some specific frequencies in nature. In a very real sense then, at the core of our physical existence we are composed of sound and all manifestations of forms in the universe are nothing else but sounds that have taken on a visible form. [...] There is no doubt that the body metabolism functions primarily via a combination of electrical frequencies, pulse rates and biochemical hormones. […] There is nothing else but sound, all that exists is vibration.”. I take him to usher in a rhythm-oriented ontology. And I take resonance to be a first ingredient of what goes across humans and non-humans.

It is interesting to look at a particular form of sedimentary rock very common where I come from – the ancient ground of Brasilia. Many of the rocks in the region are rhythmites. A rhythmite is composed of layers of sediment laid down with a periodicity. They register rhythms of the local events, rhythms that can be seasonal, of shorter-term processes such as tides or of longer-term processes like regular floods. The rhythmites around Brasilia register patters reminiscent of sea tides and, as such, they reveal that the area may have been home to a prehistoric sea. The sea, which might have been around millions of years ago, left its vestiges on the ground because it had rhythms. The geology of rhythmites is the study of the periodicity of past events. It studies how what takes place around rocks marks them. Sedimentation is rhythm-oriented. It takes place at the pace of what is in the vicinity – and provides a condensed register of its neighborhood as its layers keep track of what has happened there.

Sedimentary rhythmites are philosophically interesting. They are, perhaps, philosophical stones, for they overtly illustrate what it is to be oriented by rhythms. In fact, as sedimentary rocks, they are clear registers of the pace of past sedimentation. They explicitly solidify the rhythms around them – their shapes register the periodicity of what is happening. They are also speculatively interesting: they are constituted in a way that is perhaps not sui generis. Maybe rhythmites and their paced sedimentation are not unique; maybe they represent a more widespread vulnerability to surrounding rhythms. Things are shaped and composed by patterns around them. Rhythmites receive repetitions that form beats surrounded by intervals. These rhythms shape sedimentation, which registers the surrounding events as beats; they contract the repetitions in a materiality that stores the patterns of the events taking place around them. Sedimentation is indeed an antenna. It captures the beats it is capable of capturing – these sedimentary rocks have a pace that is up for grabs for the events around it. But sedimentation is also a broadcaster. Rhythmites both capture and transmit. They keep traces. Store and exhibit. But traces are no more than a secret life. Minerals like rhythmites have a secret life of traces. They keep their previous resonance that shaped their folds. Rhythmites of the anthropocene keep the traces of the human empire: the anthropocene is the time where mineral media is biased in human favor.

Chippel stores her folds. Her folds are made of traces: her ontogenesis recapitulates something. Minerals keep the secrets of the floor below our feet. Floors are rhythmic. They are the meeting point of a rhythm from the one side – the vulcanism, the genetic code, the non-manifest life, the first potentialities – and from the other side – the atmosphere, the environment, nurturing processes, the space of actulities. Chippel may have no doors, but she has floors. Everything does.

5. Delanda understands rhythms as intensive time. Intensities are distinct from qualities in that they can affect their surroundings, like how a colored paint transmits its color to the surfaces it touches. If something metallic is placed close to a piece of wood, its qualities will not transmit by simple proximity – its shape, its size, its volume – but its temperature will. Temperature is an intensity: closeness to something cold is enough to make something else colder. Some properties become intensities under particular conditions – the flavor of spices, for example, affects whatever is cooked with them. Intensity is about contamination without a specific transmission agent; it is broadcasting and reception without a dedicated antenna. So the rhythms of one’s body affect each other – locomotion influences digestion, breathing affects the heartbeat, hormone cycles interfere in sexual peaks. Similarly, the surrounding rhythms have an impact on the internal rhythm of a body. Rhythms impact other things by the force of resonation. A rhythm from the streets resonates in my body, makes my feet move, changes my breathing, alters my digestion. Rhythms interfere in the timing of things. Rhythms set the clock.

Delanda calls the process by means of which a rhythm resonates in other things entrainment. The pace of one cycle entrains others. The rhythms in the street entrain my pace of working, music entrains dancers. Entrainment, to be sure, is always dressed, as opposed to naked. It happens through mediations. Different people are entrained differently by the same music, depending, for instance, on the different marks left in their bodies by the rhythms they have been entrained to in the past. Yet on the dance floor, they synchronize. A common rhythm is in fact what makes a dance floor what it is – different responses to a common entrainment. People on a dance floor can be compared to organisms acting together through nothing but a common rhythm. A geontology, as I take it, is a regime of entrainment.

6. Deleuze and Guattari diagnose a way to understand the recapitulation between the geotic and the biotic that has to do with floors: the double articulation. Two operations are not only simultaneous but also provide materials one for the other. The first is sedimentation where stuff thrown in the floor gives shape to the surface – it is the process by which stones are formed from what is around them and the surface of the Earth is covered by the debris of what has taken place here. Sedimentation is a form of entrainment because it informs the floor; the past is coded by the traces it leaves fro the future in the common plane where both happen. This first articulation is understood as chiefly molecular as it aggregates all kinds of dust that fall in the floor and does no more than pile them up. There is a sense in which sedimentation creates a surface for it provides the elements with which it is composed – it provides a substance to the floor, a substance that shapes it. The second is that associated to the orogenesis, the folding that takes place when mountains are formed. They describe it as a folding that brings in a functionally strable structure which makes room for the sedimentation to take place. This second operation is one where the existing forms – products of sedimentation – consolidate into something substantial. The second articulation is what gives the Earth its topography that conditions what takes place next. It is an affair of sediments accommodating themselves, but it gives shape to further sedimentation. This is why the second articulation is molar, it provides structure for what comes next.

It is clear how the two articulations are intertwined. One provides the materials where the other indicate where these materials will be placed; one is matter and the other is form but matter itself produces form and form modifies matter. This geological double articulation where sedimentation produces the surface and matter if modified what has already taken shape is then speculatively extended to various sublunar issues. The two articulations take place around the stratum that is the skin of living organisms in the form of most exchanges of energy that sustain life – the skin is the basic bodily feature, but it has to be itself without organs. The articulations around a surface are common to what is living and what is not – it could be seen as a general dimension of animation that takes place in different speeds, in different paces, in different rhythms. As such, it is the fine structure of intensity. Further, the interaction between an environment that sediments organisms and a genetic makeup that organizes these sediments on the basis of previous processes of sedimentation is thought in terms of the double articulation. Genotypes appear as a collection of folds that would shape the acquisition of behavior. They are shaped by the sedimentation history of the species where the environment left its traces. Genetic structure and environment contributions are therefore intertwined in a double articulation. But they exemplify a broader structure of interaction between earthly things and their surroundings – those things are formed within their surroundings and carry on in an interchange with it. Eventually some of this interchange is condensed in a molar form that will affect the incorporation of elements from the environment, elements that in turn will affect the molar structure. The surface of a stratum is therefore a regulation device – it makes the inner and the outer correlate.

This intertwined double articulation is rhythmic. The output of two coupled rhythms; a beat gets louder when, say, more and more people start clapping their hands to it but as more people join in, the beat itself changes. Any interaction of rhythms – and any interaction of double articulations – follow this pattern of co-existence: a rhythm incorporates others but not without eventually being affected by them. The plurality of rhythms meet in a common plane. Nothing that crawls in the floor is alien to the resonances of the rhythms. But rhythms are plural and therefore there is a border between them. A border between two entraining rhythms is a land with no government. An anarchaic land.

7. There is also a secret life of rhythms: traces. Rhythms themselves withdraw either in merging with others or by slowing its traces. The pace of the waves are hidden in the rhythmite, resources (seeds, crude under the Park) conceal their abundance, Chippel stores traces of a geontology that the community of Karrabing strives to restore. There is then a secret life of traces. It is an ontology – or a hauntology. It is about specters which have objective immortality, if anything is. Traces are media because they have themselves a rhythm. But traces are the secret politics of rhythms.


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