A Glimpse of Nodal Ontology: Media, Art, Globalization

Curator's Note

 The network evokes two starkly different modern political anxieties: the universality of the community embodied by the democratic revolution could be dismantled by the subversive power of a well-organized secret group; and the weak universalism of pluralistic polity is replaced with the post-human administrative machine. These two visions of power are not in opposition. The apparent anachronism of the former can easily meet the futuristic scenarios of the latter, even in the SF dystopia genre. See, for instance, how the recent revival of the Cold War TV series Battlestar Galactica makes use of this narrative plot: the ship has survived the Cyclone (a post-robotic machine race and a Super-hybrid race) invasion simply because its captain has refused to have it linked to the Computer-Network. The cultural-technologic-political system of the Battlestar is thus immune to the cyber-attack but not to the various power networks that emerge in the social world of the fleet. 

In light of the example given above, it is much easier to argue that networks are social and technological, but not political. This possible argument cannot simply be refuted by means of evoking here the catchy title of Wael Ghonim's Revolution 2.0 or the media story of the 'Facebook Revolution.' We acknowledge the role Facebook and Twitter played in the various stages of the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions, but considering the "complex ecologies" through which "the technical properties of electronic interactive domains deliver their utility" (Saskia Sassen) to the formation of networks of meaning and action, that is, to discursive articulation. In order to spot the political network, we do not simply need a modal ontology (according to which the political network exists in one possible world), but a nodal ontology (according to which there are complex nodal points of intersection between the possible worlds and the actual). A glimpse of this matrix of sense is shown by Thomas Saraceno's work, specifically his 2011 exhibition Cloud Cities, by his singular ability to establish "a dialogue between people, objects and spaces."  A metonym of the web of life, technology, and culture, Saraceno's utopian objects do not assume an overcoming of the messy character of politics but offer an artistic replay of our most sincere global uncertainties, in similar terms (sic!) to Italo Calvino's  intriguing description of Octavia (in Invisible Cities).




What is interesting to me about Saraceno's Cloud Cities exhibition is its ability to pause, or arrest only when it is not being used. Saraceno makes the point that each small movement necessitates a movement of each connected (or networked) participant. This movement is both the ability to move and be moved, often without choice or by necessity of the apparatus. For instance, to leave the "city" one would need to crawl or walk to an exit, thus disturbing each other participant connected by this common ground. Likewise, this movement may be interrupted or re-routed based on any other movement, vibration, or disruption in the city.

In an interesting parallel this suspension, both from the stable ground below of the exhibition space and our stability as a subject, necessitates negotiation both social and physical. That is, what is perhaps political about networks--and certainly as it speaks to such moments as the Arab Spring--is its demand to constantly negotiate on several simultaneous registers. Choosing to point a smart phone or send a tweet is not merely a technological act of pointing or typing an apparatus, it also involves the very physical act of standing, and perhaps standing up or against a participant of the same event.

Sorin, for me this entry has me thinking in part what a nodal ontology would need to negotiate: how the social and technological is already a material and somatic engagement if it is to claim its right to politics.

 Thanks for this suggestive posting, Sorin. I can see how the two conceptions of the network you discuss can be easily dismissed as non-political. But I wonder if you would say the same of networks more generally. In particular, I wonder about the kinds of selective but practiced bonds between people that become operationalized in any successful political movement. I'm also thinking about the selective but practiced bonds between technological interfaces that affect a certain image of the possible horizon of who and what exists out there in the world--for instance, the way the emergence of broadcast culture or the Internet could be said to articulate a new image of the social totality as a network. If one defines the political as an ontological intervention in our understanding of what society includes or omits--and I realize this is an if--is it so simple to cast aside the political status of the concept of the network?

Along similar lines, I'm curious to hear more about the idea of a nodal ontology, and what you have in mind regarding the (at least seeming) tension between these two terms.

Thanks again for the provocative proposition.

 Thank you for the comments and questions! My initial remarks suggested that "political networks" are not merely a type or a class subsumed by the network, that is, by a mode of organization of elements within (and, perhaps, as) a totality. Given this hypothesis, the "political network" is not there or here to be mapped, to be represented as an image of intersecting lines, and hierarchies of connectivity. Mapping is the easy part. Understanding the sense of the nodal points in the image-representation is a more important task, precisely because the presumed network-totalities are always linked to other spheres of sense (not all of them being networks)! 

I don't doubt that the network-model can be linked to ways in which power expresses itself and is understood to operate. In truth, there is much validity to the old idea, networks of power, as well as to the current conception, the power of networks. While these phrases  can project anti-political scenarios, or --to be more precise--  anti-democratic-political ones, they can also inspire the creation and practice of private and public bonds.  I am avoiding the use of the term political here because I am still trying to understand the how the systemic character of social relations and the network organization partake in a more complex language-game of links, knots and intersections than the ones made visible by possible representations.

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