Reductions

As an ontological provocation, the idea of writing this piece of research is to encourage the debate around the linkage between urban studies and STS from an empirical-philosophical viewpoint mostly inspired by Annemarie Mol’s perspective on post[1]-Actor-Network Theory, Viveiros de Castro’s multi-naturalism (2004) and Heidegger’s ontological work on usability (2008[1962]). This research is also an object-oriented ethnography about embedded knowledge in a situated, multiple and temporal location, pedestrianized Times Square, regarding how to make an urban ethnography from STS.

“Philosophy used to approach knowledge in an epistemological way. It was interested in the preconditions for acquiring true knowledge. However, in the philosophical mode I engage in here, knowledge is not understood as a matter of reference, but as one of manipulation. The driving question no longer is ‘how to find the truth?’ but ‘how are objects handled in practice?’ With this shift, the philosophy of knowledge acquires an ethnographic interest in knowledge practices. (Mol, 2002: 5)

Empirical philosophy is an invitation to go multiple, to approach and describe an element exhausting its modes and affordances concerning its different ways of being and behaving depending on the kind of temporal association this element participates in. “In this respect, empirical philosophy follows the increasing STS and social anthropological interest in exploring the world as multiple; not in terms of perspectives as in multiculturalism, but in terms of ontological multiplicity.” (Jensen & Gad, 2009: 292)

Empirical philosophy is also an invitation to be situated. It conceives of knowledge production as more than a deliberate work on ideas floating somewhere and nowhere in particular. From this perspective, concepts need to be located, spatially bounded and materially shaped in a sort of situated ontological material-semiotic construction. “From the point of view of STS and empirical philosophy, this means that they cannot be analyzed out of context. Instead, technologies as well as concepts of technology must be analyzed as part of practice.” (Ibid: 298)

Following that line on philosophical empiricism, this dissertation aims to exhaust a spatiality through different cases of repetition. This last enterprise evolves a sort of paradox located between Gilles Deleuze’s and Jorge Luis Borges’ conceptions of reality and Deleuze’s idea of philosophy as the process of creating “concepts that are always new.” (Deleuze & Guattari, 1994:5). For both Borges and Deleuze reality is an incomplete, multiple, temporal and sometimes contradictory set of heterogeneous aggregates happening simultaneously in a particular space that is not necessarily Cartesian.

In Borges’s work we have, for instance, the idea of labyrinth and with Deleuze —together with Guattari— the notion of rhizome. Here both elements, one from literature and another from philosophy, will act as epistemological devices for approaching the world that is there. Borges’ proposed labyrinth is materialized by the bifurcated structure and intention of this textual artifact, the work you are reading right now. At the same time, the roots of that labyrinthine proposal can be traced, simultaneously, from his story “The Garden of Forking Paths (Borges, 1964)” from Kafka’s literature and Leibniz’s philosophy and, simultaneously, to the idea of the rhizome (Deleuze and Guattari, 2004[1987]) where it is finally merged and diluted.

Following this path, the structure of this project has been divided into three parts. The first one is an ontological reflection on the binomial urban studies-STS and urban-city, based on an ethnographic study of Times Square, New York City, carried out in September 2017 and July to September 2019 (Routes iii and vi). The second part is an ethnography of Times Square that resulted from the fieldwork made during the temporal frames already described. (Routes ii and iv). The last section of this work gathers a multimodal set of ethnographic artifacts and experiments resulting from the encounter and contamination between Times Square and the one who is behind those words (Route v).

As the crow flies, the intention of the whole dissertation, as announced in the introduction, is to propose a temporal and unstable answer to the question: What can STS learn from Times Square for doing urban ethnography? To answer that query is not an easy job. There are many interferences that need to be dealt with first. Each of those interferences, or ontological complications (OC), are related to a particular part of the language composing this work’s main topic. For instance, there are some OC in accordance with  “STS”(1); others within the “learning from” process (2); some which are more concerned with doing ethnography (3)  — this OC is subdivided into two further OCs regarding “urban ethnography” (3.1) and  “STS ethnography”(3.2)— and finally some others as stated in “Times Square” (4).

Ontological complications appear (they were always there, typically we just tend to ignore them) when one is dealing with reality on the basis of a theoretical presumption to organize, classify and, finally, reduce it. It is, precisely, the act of reducing which is a paradox in itself, one that expands and repeats reality until finally producing a different semantic organism every time. Following the principle of Irreduction (Latour, 1993), at the same time we can and we cannot reduce a specific thing to something else. That ambiguity is, more or less, an invitation to avoid reductionism but without falling into the fallacy that any form of reduction is reductionism per se.

At least in this context, the difference between reduction and reductionism is that reductionism denies the emergence and existence of (almost all) mid-level entities. At the same time, it aims to seek the real substance behind what is understood as an element. This kind of reductionism, conceived as an ontological one, neglects the idiosyncrasy of everything that is not alive. “There are not visible objects but men and women and cats and other living organisms, that are not tables or rocks or hands or legs.” (Inwagen, 1990: 18).

Let us take, for instance, the classic and overused example of the rock that was thrown into a window[2], and let us approach using the conception of reductionism inspired by Inwagen’s materialism (ibid) and Merricks’ eliminativism (Merricks, 2001): A rock was thrown into a window, the window was broken. However, the rock was not the cause of the window being broke. In fact, nothing was broken because the window does not exist, neither the rock. What we have (because we as living organisms exist) is a lot of particles (materialism) or atoms (eliminativism) interacting outside among each other.

Reduction, on the other side, does not neglect the existence of mid-level entities but also recognizes their multiple, fragmentary, unstable and collective being. We have, thus, the first case of reduction I aim to present, continuing with the example of the rock. A rock is a rock in the way it behaves like a rock. But it can also be, without any alteration of its components, a projectile, a craft tool, a decorative item. For instance, if a rock is turned into a projectile it is reduced to some of its properties: its hardness, its shape, its resistance, as well as into some of its possibilities of action: to hit, to break, to hurt.

Simultaneously, to reduce means to put an element in relation to a specific situation (situation, from now, must be understood as an acronym from situated and temporal association) in this case, a semantic one. Considered as a decorative item the rock might be reduced in terms of color, shape, texture, value, composition and size, any and all of which bond it to a sort of semantic structure. That structure gives the rock a distinct sense of being, based on the aesthetic interpretation and categorization of the properties described above, which later we will understand as modes.

A rock, or any other entity, could of course be separated into its components. However, that movement is not reducing anything. It is just disjointing an entity. Take a diamond and try to break it down into its physical structure. You will get a lot of carbon but the diamond will be gone. Repeat the same process but this time into its physical properties: hardness, transparency —let’s assume the diamond is faceted—shape. In the end, you will get a set of characteristics of something but the diamond will also be gone. Those properties could be related to a piece of glass, plastic or another mineral.

For a rock the transformation from a decorative element into a projectile has more to do with its relational circumstances than an inner issue related to its properties and composition. Thus an actant’s ontology attends to its relationships with other elements and its different actions and the confirmation and later stabilization of those linkages where it is participating. The condition that an element has is not a solid, immutable aspect that belongs to its pre-made and ideal essence. On the contrary, it is a mobile, multiple, and collective circumstance.

“Nothing is, by itself, the same as or different from anything else. That is, there are no equivalents, only translations. In other words, everything happens only once, and at one place. If there are identities between actants, this is because they have been constructed at great expense. If there are equivalences, this is because they have been built out of bits and pieces with much toil and sweat, and because they are maintained by force. If there are exchanges, these are always unequal and cost a fortune both to es­tablish and to maintain.” (Latour, 1988: 162).

To sum up this initial understanding reduction, the act of reducing something implies cognitive work based on the translation and movement of semantic components —usages, modes and affordances— from one entity to another, temporally creating a new one but without compromising the ontological integrity of the first. A rock will continue being a rock despite being a crafting tool, a decorative element, or a sacred object. The ontological complication regarding this first idea of reduction is how to conceive a solid (but multiple) entity with multiple doings and beings.

Reduction does not have a straight direction but a bifurcated one. There is another possible route to take for understanding this movement: Reduction also means translating the world outside into structured explanations of the world itself. Those explanations are a broad category that “consists of those models of reduction that construe it as a relation of explanation in the sense that the reduced entity is explained by the reducing entity no matter whether these entities are theories, laws, empirical generalizations even individual observation reports” (Sarkar, 1992: 170).

Some complications arise at this point. The first one is that reduction does not mean easiness, at the opposite. If we agree that an element — it does not matter what kind of element we are talking about— is always a multiple set of relationships, the act of reducing it into its practices, affordances or modes implies a continuous process of observation, translation, re-signification and relational positioning as well as the reproduction of each of the possibilities of being and doing it may have. But how multiple is a multiplicity? How to deal with multiplicity from a limited and located perspective?

A quick answer to the first question would be: a multiplicity is as multiple as the number of relations in which it is participating. The second question does not have a quick solution. In fact, one could approach this issue from different angles in order to expand, and at the same time reduce, discussion regarding encountering multiplicity. I would like to propose two ways —certainly, they may be others— by which a possible answer could be found: One could take that question as a methodological matter of multimodal ethnography or as a matter of socio-technical translation.

However, I would like to shortly essay another way that might lead us to a possible answer to this unsolved question regarding the mechanisms and tactics for approaching (reducing) a multiple multiplicity. The route I plan to explore is based on Michel Serres’ work on Leibniz’s idea of “enriching our models of thinking.” I will put aside Serres’ noisy proposal of multiplicity, only focusing on his schematic and structuralist modeling method. Modeling modes for representing and locating ideas is one of the most exciting and challenging topics one can take from Serres’ work. So, I intend to find a model for reducing Serres’ methodological models that can show us a proposal for reducing and expanding an element, in this case Times Square.

In a conversation with Michel Serres, Bruno Latour (Serres & Latour, 1990) proposed the metaphor of the “time machine” to understand and represent how Serres used to construct his texts. Serres’ production, often accused —in both positive and negative ways— of poetry (Ibid: 44), is considered “difficult to read because [he does] not affiliate [himself] with any precise tradition. He has ‘neither masters nor disciples’” [ibid: 43], as well as due to his way of considering literature and philosophy (humanistic cultures) as valid —and necessary — interlocutors for scientific culture to approach reality in its whole (see Serres, 1982). We have here an initial, though somewhat abstract, idea of reduction. We will return to it later.

The supposed “time machine” Serres had for constructing his academic production grants a total “freedom of movement” that allows him to “find [himself] in Ancient Rome them poof! in Ireland and Wales then, without a pause, poof! in Vedic India [then] among the animals and then, poof! in politics and then, without warning, among theorems.” (Serres & Latour, 1990: 44). But that freedom Latour highlights goes beyond a heterogeneous and anachronistic selection of topics, authors and places. It is, of course, a matter of time. However, it is not about moving oneself between different times. It is about the act of mobilizing specific times and organizing them together into the same space of representation.

On his website Christoper Watkin (2005) translated two paragraphs from Le Système de Leibniz et ses modèles mathématiques (Serres, 1968) which I consider helpful to understanding how Serres’ work —inspired by Leibniz— on a sort of (i)mathematical modeling as a method and on (ii) time, could be considered another way of understanding reduction. Below you will find the proposed translation of those paragraphs made by Watkin:

“Bergson critiqued the reduction of time to space as a fundamental error; it is clear that we must say quite the opposite. The meagre understanding we have of time (and by that token of evolutionary processes as well) stems from the fact that we make bad use of space (and it is space alone that allows us to give rigor to the idea of continuity), or from the fact that we always use its opposite, namely the line. We deny space and think we are talking about time; by this very denial we speak about the line.

So, in order to extend Leibnizian thought by generalizing it, we must take seriously the idea of differentiation into multiple elementary times (in some complex transformation) to which we could refer the evolution in question. Then we must consider the line as the model (in other words, the formal representation) of one of these times. Finally, we must project the multiplicity of these lines in a space of representation. Together they would then define a complex surface, a figure of evolution, which would contain “chimneys” of strong acceleration or infinite growth, “mountain passes” which signal the end of an “ascent” and the beginning of a “descent”, and areas with motionless lines and so forth, even tears… The notion of progress would thus become regional, like that of decadence, accumulation, cessation, etc., and so it would become crude to talk about the progress of science, the decadence of a civilization, the maturity of a revolutionary situation, or the genesis of psychology, because this would be to reduce a global evolution to a linear sequence. The fact that as we write this we have before our eyes a mathematical model unknown to Leibniz but conceived by Euler, makes the point that we must enrich our models of thinking which are, generally speaking, lamentably poor. Whereas science noticeably employs incredibly fine-grained structures, we are still philosophizing with the help of unrefined models and schemas, with techniques of thought which have hardly progressed.”

The idea of multiple times, each of them represented by a line[3], tied together in multiple ways, proposes that we explore and experiment with new models of organizing and representing the world outside. In other words, to conceive reality as a sort of space of representation of different lines of time —the line should be understood as a model for project-specific, local and trajectories— what Serres calls contemporaneity (Serres & Latour, 1990: 45; 47), is an invitation to design our own ways of connecting those trajectories in a sort of (urban) assemblage shaped by, and this is one of the proposals of this dissertation, the (situated) world we are trying to deconstruct.

This particular idea of a structural model composed of multiple times in Michel Serres can be represented in Borges’ The Garden of Forking Paths. Here we are talking about a sort of mediated labyrinth containing a heterogeneous set of temporal aggregates that are assembled and unassembled continuously by the movements generated (in the case of this work) by the ethnographer at the moment of translating —by means of reducing— the world outside to a different media. However, and this is the “freedom of movement” Latour was pointing out before, there is no unique way of accomplishing that.

What was clear to Serres is that the process of approaching and projecting the world as it is requires a collaborative and symmetrical work between what he has called man culture (the humanities) and scientific culture. Nevertheless, either the model, the path, the strategy, the route, or any other similar term describing an approach to reality must be constructed so as to take care of each situation’s particularities. “One might say that Serres’ models are ‘readymades’ rather than generalized concepts since they are invented afresh with each investigation. Furthermore, having identified a model, rather than simply generalize at will, Serres insists upon demonstrating the model through the gradual addition and substitution of new elements.” (Brown, 2002: 3)

To talk about reduction following Serres is to point to a sort of horizontal cognitive syncretism where to reduce means to coordinate; to coordinate means to mediate; to mediate means to create linkages between different ways of thinking and to approach reality recognizing that there neither a correct nor a consistent manner of facing the world. “The main importance of his philosophy for the study of science is that he is one of the few philosophers to be utterly uninterested in the notion of a critique, be it transcendental or social. As a consequence, he makes no distinction between language and metalanguage, using a poem, a myth, a theorem, or a machine as something that explains as well as something to be explained. (Latour, 1988: 258).

To reduce is to organize a multiple world constantly flowing and happening simultaneously into a multiple structure that can contain and project that movement of simultaneity. However, the interferences and complications related to each part of this statement are continually reminding us there is not a single path, a single way to build a structure to represent the world outside and, at the same time, that there is not a single kind of structure we can construct and use for doing that.

As an exercise in reflection and as a challenge to what we think of as solidified, are we really sure that those elements composing the central question of this dissertation —What can (i) “STS” (ii) “learn from” (iii) “Times Square” for (iv) “doing ethnography”? — are valid conceptual elements? If we expect to reduce them, to use them, to represent them, we need to know first what we are talking about when we are referring, for example, to STS or to Times Square. Also, it is necessary to see if they are valid or not. But what does valid mean here?

There are two ways of finding the answer to the question above. As usually happens in these kinds of situations, there is a short way and a long way one can take. The shorter route will take us directly to Chapter three.one and a passage for exploring the idea of validity and its consequences. The long one is following each element composing the inquiry we already know. Continuing in the spirit of this dissertation you can also choose the order of the components. The options are multiple and they are up to you.


[1] Line was also a metaphor essayed by Deleuze (see de Miranda, 2013) for talking about trajectories, associations and aggregates: “The rising ground is no longer below, it acquires autonomous existence; the form reflecting itself in this ground is no longer a form but an abstract line acting directly upon the soul’ (Deleuze 1994[1968]: 37). “Further in his writings, and particularly in his dialogues with Claire Parnet, Deleuze asserts quite simply that: ‘Whether we are individuals or groups, we are made up of lines’” (Deleuze and Parnet 2007: 124, referenced by de Miranda, 2013:107). For a deeper distinction between lines: molar, molecular and rupture ones see de Miranda, 2013: 110).

[2] This metaphor has been used repeatedly but with different purposes and angles, for example, by Ekstrom (2018: 43) in order to discuss “free will”; by Campbell, et all. (2007: 129) for talking about “freedom and causal contribution”; by Skow (2018) referring to “causation.”

[3] The prefix “post” (Gad & Jensen, 2010) is related to the turn, to the growing academic corpus in ANT resulting from a series of discussions and contaminations propitiated by different scholars from different perspectives and disciplines which were condensed in the book Actor-Network Theory and After (Law & Hassard, 1999).

References

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Brown, S. (2002). Michel Serres: Science, Translation and the Logic of the Parasite. Theory, Culture & Society, 19(3), 1-27.

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Serres, M. (1968). Le Système de Leibniz et ses modèles mathématiques. Paris: Puf.

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Viveiros de Castro. (2004). Perspectival anthropology and the method of controlled equivocation. Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowlamd South America, 2(1) 3-22.

Watkin, C. (2015, May 25). Translation from Michel Serres’s thesis on Leibniz: “we must enrich our models of thinking which are, generally speaking, lamentably poor”. Retrieved from: https://christopherwatkin.com/2015/05/25/translation-from-michel-serress-thesis-on-leibniz-we-must-enrich-our-models-of-thinking-which-are-generally-speaking-lamentably-poor/.