Mackenzie: network and the conjunctive

Adrian Mackenzie’s focus is on the experience of ‘wirelessness’ which he frames through a reading of William James’ ‘radical empiricism’. In order to deal with the way that wirelessness is articulated through protocols, regimes of digital signal processing and what Paul Dourish and Genevieve Bell call the “infrastructure of experience” (2007), Mackenzie develops a particular take on “network”. He says:

“A network is nothing but concatenated conjunctive relations, and any reality of a network as flow, as global, as distributed, as or as collective comes from how these relations are concatenated.  The coherence of a network, its ability to transport or sustain flow, depends on the quality and density of those intermediary relations. Many of the dynamics of network cultures can be understood as the interplay of disjunctive and conjunctive parts of the collection” (Mackenzie 2010: 121).

One reason Mackenzie is drawn to James is because of radical empiricism’s stress on the importance of transition, the rates and directions in which experience moves. “Experience constantly passes through many different states, ranging from the impersonal to the personal, from the singular to the general. On any scale we imagine, there is no pure flow or pure sensation of transition. Many transitions occur between scales. And every transition is shot through with temporary termini, with snags, resistances, circularities, and repetitions,” Mackenzie says (p19). Whether it is the experience of wirelessness or imag(in)ing both within and across networks, what characterises those states is movement and transition. James says: “our universe is to a large extent chaotic. No one single type of connection runs through all the experience that compose it” (James 2010: 606). In a colourful image he contrasts an idealist view of the world which is like goldfish swimming in a bowl to an empiricist view which is more like a dried human head with feathers, leaves , strings and beads dangling from it. “My experience and yours float and dangle, terminating, it is true in a nucleus of common perception, but for the most part out of sight and irrelevant and unimaginable to one another” (p612).

In the light of this flux of experience (materially rooted rather than idealistically floating), philosophy (and cultural/software studies) must account for transition and movement. James claims that radical empiricism is “fair to both the unity and the disconnection. It finds no reason to treat either as illusory” (p615).

For Mackenzie wirelessness is a matter of, and must approached as, as experience. Similarly I would argue that imaging is a matter of, and must be approach as an (imag(in)ing) experience. This is not some psycholoigisation of a media assemblage. The specific materialities of software, digital signal processing, protocol are articulated through object relations which can be seen through the lens of OOP’s “alliances” or radical empiricism’s “conjunctive relations”.

For James: “philosophy has always turned on grammatical particles. With, near, next, like, from, towards, against, because, for, through, my – these words designate types of conjunctive relation arranged in roughly ascending order of intimacy and inclusiveness” (p600). Conjunctive relations (ones characterised by these words) are far more at the heart of wireless and scopic experience than disjunctive relations associated with things or entities. They are relations of transition and “while we live in such conjunctions our state is one of transition in the most literal sense. We are expectant of  a ‘more’ to come, and before the more has come, the transition, nevertheless, is directed towards it” (p2476).

James does not say that conjunctive relations are the only ones in play, merely that they have often been seen as less important than the disjunctive relations of difference and distinction that are often seen as defining “what really exists” (Mackenzie 2010: 63).  His aim, and Mackenzie’s, is to bring conjunctive relations of proximity, transition and movement back into discussions of experience. This focus on transition and “expectation of more to come, in movement” (Mackenzie 2010: 21), leads Mackenzie to his view of network not just as flow or distributed but as rooted in the interplay of disjunctive and conjunctive relations.

Networks, as spaces of movement, transition and proximity need to be looked at in terms of how relations interconnect  – not just how objects or nodes connect, but how the relations (Galloway and Thacker’s edges) relate. For Mackenzie, a network is “nothing but concatenated conjunctive relations”. It is the space of movement and relations of transition. It is not that object/nodes do not exist but it is the (conjunctive) relations between them that constitute the network and need to be the focus of analysis. It is only then that network cultures (where those conjunctive relations rub up against disjunctive relations of difference and distinction) can be mapped.

It is here where it could be argued that object-oriented philosophy can contribute by breaking down the node/edge, conjunctive/disjunctive distinctions even further. OOP’s claim that objects are always actants in alliance, always in movement/relation allows us to see conjunctive and disjunctive relations as themselves enfolded. Objects retain their specificity and (disjunctive) difference. Jpeg is not TCP/IP or an SD memory card. But objects are always, inevitably in (conjunctive) alliances. Jpeg cannot be separated from its relations with network protocols and photographic hardware. For James, “what really exists is not things made but things in the making” (James 1996: 263). His radical empiricism takes us far along the road of anti-essentialism by arguing that objects are always in process, transition, being made and therefore the conjunctive is important. OOP arguably takes us still further by arguing that objects only exist in relations, they cannot be separated. (Conjunctive) relations of becoming cannot even be privileged over disjunctive relations of difference. Harman says: “Actants are always completely deployed in their relations with the world, and the more they are cut off from these relations, the less real they become” (Harman 2009: 19).

  • Dourish, P. & Bell, G., 2007, The Infrastructure Of Experience And The Experience Of Infrastructure: Meaning And Structure In Everyday Encounters With Space, Environment And Planning B Planning And Design, 34(3), p. 414.
  • Harman, G., 2009, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics, Anamnesis, Melbourne.
  • James, 1996, A Pluralistic Universe: Hibbert Lectuires at Manchester College on the Present Situatuon in Philosophy, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln.
  • James, 2010, Essays in Radical Empiricism, Kindle ed. B&R Samizdat Express,. [Page numbers refer to ‘location’ in Kindle edition]
  • Mackenzie, A., 2010, Wirelessness: Radical Empiricism In Network Cultures, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass..