Conflicts of Interest: What’s the Harm?

In May 2015, New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) correspondent Lisa Rosenbaum published a three-part op-ed decrying the state of conflicts of interest policing in health and medicine. Unlike most of the available literature on the topic, she accused those in the medical community concerned with undue industry influence of falling victim to a sad combination of cognitive biases and excessive moralization. Many in health and medicine appropriately rejected Rosenbaum’s argument as a big step back not only for the NEJM, but also for medicine in general. As a publication that was once on the forefront of conflicts of interest protection, Rosenbaum’s op-ed was something of a slap in the face for many who had put their trust in the journal’s editorial board and its supposedly rigorous scrutiny of competing interests.

The second part of Rosenbaum’s argument focuses on a supposed lack of evidence regarding the harms of conflicts of interest. And while she acknowledges that many studies have found clear associations between industry relationships and physician behavior, she ultimately suggests that the effects of such relationships must be tied more closely to documented patient harm if we are to accept recommended limits on conflicts of interest:

Studies seeking evidence of industry influence usually find it, providing us with well-publicized associations. Some 94% of physicians have relationships with industry, though these interactions most often involve activities such as receiving drug samples or food in the workplace. Physicians who request a drug for hospital formulary are more likely than other physicians to have had drug company interactions. Industry-sponsored studies are more likely than government-sponsored ones to have positive results. Physicians who attend symposia funded by pharmaceutical companies subsequently prescribe the featured drugs at a higher rate. All these associations are probably valid. But they don’t answer the key question: Are any of these interactions, or efforts to curtail them, beneficial or harmful to patients?

As I (and many others) have argued, there’s already more than enough evidence to reject Rosenbaum’s arguments. However, if the collected research evidence isn’t enough to persuade you, reports from the U.S. District Court in Washington DC should provide significant cause for concern. Indeed, a recently filed lawsuit alleges that ex-FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg failed to disclose over $200 million in conflicts of interest related to her husband’s ties with Johnson & Johnson. Specifically, the suit suggests that,

During the confirmation process before Congress, Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, acting in concert with her husband, Peter F. Brown, at all material times the Co-CEO of a hedge fund named Renaissance Technologies, L.L.C., failed to disclose to Congress and other relevant authorities, her and her husband’s clear-cut conflict of interest –specifically, that Renaissance Technologies, L.L.C. held hundreds of millions of dollars of Johnson & Johnson stock, the manufacturer of the deadly drug, Levaquin.

Levaquin is the key here, and it’s what specifically addresses Rosenbaum’s demand for clear evidence of patient harm. (Although, I’m not sure that any pile of data would be large enough to appease Rosenbaum.) Despite the fact that the antibiotic and related products have been tied to an estimated 300,000 deaths, the suit alleges that Commissioner Hamburg suppressed mounting evidence of harm.

Certainly, for now, we have only the complaint filed on behalf of the plaintiffs in the case. It remains to be seen how many of the allegations will be born out during discovery and litigation. Nevertheless, if found to be true, this would be entirely in keeping with the kinds of patient harms that are typically documented in cases of industry conflicts of interest. In point of fact, there is significant evidence already that conflicts of interest often result in the suppression of drug side effects and hazards data during testing and evaluation. This has been well documented during high profile cases like the Vioxx and Paxil scandals. However, more comprehensive analyses of industry-funded pharmaceuticals research as well as publications produced by authors with pharmaceuticals conflicts of interest indicate that drug hazards data are systematically suppressed. Closer to home, within the FDA, my own research [paywall, sorry] has documented how increases in the number of conflicts of interest at Oncologic Drugs Advisory Committee meetings correspond to a significant reduction in attention to evaluating drug side effects.

I wish I could be more optimistic that the Hamburg case will be the one that makes Rosenbaum, the NEJM editorial board, and everyone else finally sit up and pay attention. Unfortunately, despite an already large and steadily mounting pile of data on the harms (including patient harms) of conflicts of interest, we’ve seen more in the way of retreats than progress, of late. In 2009, the FDA banned conflicts of interest on its drug advisory committees, only to bring them back a year later. The NEJM set aside significant space in three successive issues to defend the role of drug money in medicine. And despite substantial and known ties to industry, Robert Califf’s confirmation as the new FDA commissioner sailed through the Senate 89 to 4. I suppose, if nothing else, we can take solace in having witnessed a rare act of bipartisanship.

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A Public Affair

My friend and colleague Karma Chavez from the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was kind of enough to have me on her WORT 89.9 radio show, A Public Affair, on March 9th. We talked about my recent book, The Politics of Pain Medicine, and my current research on industry conflicts of interest at the Food and Drug Administration. It’s always fun to have an opportunity to talk about your work with a new audience. Many thanks, Karma!

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Alternative Commercial Models for Drug Development

drug-moneyThe rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria constitutes a serious emerging threat and potential world-wide health crisis. The current treatment options are increasingly ineffective against evolving strains of harmful pathogens. Worse still, antibiotic resistance is not only inevitable, it’s accelerating. Although recent discoveries appear promising, no new classes of antibiotics have been found since 1987. It is currently estimated that a post-antibiotic future would result in the death of over 10 million people and cost $100 trillion in economic losses. This situation represents a clear and present danger, and some—including the AstraZeneca CEO—argue that it’s time for “new commercial models” for drug development.

Accordingly, in January of this year, the Word Economic Forum called for such a new commercial model in the form of up to $37 billion in advanced payments from national governments. This call for investments was endorsed by over 80 pharmaceuticals companies. You’ve read correctly. Merck, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, Glaxo-Smith-Kline, AstraZenaca, and 75 other companies are asking for $37 billion before they do anything. At the very least, this seems extortive. Ten million people over the next 35 years are looking at death, and the pharmaceuticals industry’s response is, “You want to live? Pay up.”

Perhaps more importantly, the idea that Merck, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, or GSK aren’t fully capable of making the necessary R&D investments on their own defies belief. These are major multinational pharmaceuticals corporations. The ten largest companies, internationally, make over $10 billion a year, with a 30% profit margin. Combined, global pharmaceuticals is a $300 billion a year industry. As Lawrence Friedhoff explains in his industry-insider’s guide to pharmaceuticals development,

“Successful development of a major new pharmaceutical product typically returns revenue that is approximately 500 times the development investment. In general, a pre-tax profit is 50% or more of this revenue; thus, successful drug development is capable of generating an after-tax return on investment of about 15,000% (assuming a 40% tax rate).”

Never mind the fact that careful use of international tax havens often results in far lower rates. This aside, there are, admittedly, special complexities in the antibiotics market, such as regulatory efforts to slow anti-microbial resistance, which, in some cases, might prevent an individual product from achieving this kind of ROI. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine that the patent-holder on the first new antibiotic in a new class since 1987 wouldn’t be set up to rake it in hand over fist.

However, maybe the World Economic Forum and the CEO of AstraZenaca are correct. Maybe it’s inappropriate to ask these companies to shoulder the R&D burden on their own, as all other companies do. Perhaps it is, indeed, time for alternative commercial models. With such a profound threat to human life and economic well-being on the horizon, it may be incumbent upon national governments to contribute meaningfully to ensuring public health. However, simple advanced remuneration doesn’t seem sufficient. If national publics are going to make an investment in our health security, then it seems inappropriate that we should be subject to the kind of price-gouging that will inevitably arise for newly patented antibiotics, especially given the lack of competition as a result of evolving resistance.

Fortunately, there is a solution. Historically, when modern governments have been faced with a deadly, economically disastrous, and potentially overwhelming threat, they have embraced the profound benefits that alternative commercial models can offer. Here, of course, I speak of nationalization. Both UK and US governments had the presence of mind to nationalize railroads, coal mines, and even a department store in the face of WWI and WWII. More recently, the 2008 financial collapse prompted the US government to assume controlling interests in certain financial and automotive corporations.

With 10 million lives at stake and $100 trillion in potential economic losses, a similar approach may be required with respect to the pharmaceuticals industry. The threat of antibiotic resistance is no less dire than the 2008 fiscal collapse. Trusting an industry that would so mischaracterize its capacity for R&D investment while simultaneously taking in hundreds of billions in annual revenues is certainly not the safest option. As the companies themselves suggest, our governments have a moral obligation to intervene, but they must do so in a way that safeguards public health and well-being. Nationalization may well be the smartest option.

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ARST Article of the Year Award 2015

The Association for the Rhetoric of Science and Technology’s (ARST) Article of the Year Award recognizes the most outstanding article on the rhetoric of science and technology published the preceding calendar year. Criteria for selection include:

1. How well the article extends practical and theoretical knowledge related to the rhetoric of science and technology

2. The article’s potential for cross-disciplinary fertilization

3. The article’s potential for teaching future generations of rhetoric of science and technology scholars

4. The overall quality of writing and thinking.

Nominations should be sent by someone well acquainted with the nominee’s work. Self-nominations are encouraged.The nomination must include the following material (copies will not be returned): 1) A cover letter recommending the article for the award (limited to two pages and providing a detailed rationale for why the person should receive the award), 2) the nominee’s vita, and 3) the article being nominated. Up to three letters supporting the nomination may optionally be included.

This year, the awards committee consists of Scott Graham (chair), Jean Goodwin, and Kenny Walker. Send nominations electronically to Scott Graham, Award Committee Chair at Nominations for the 2015 award, which honors work published during 2014, should be sent as a Microsoft Word or PDF e-mail attachment and received by May 15, 2015. Announcements of the winners will be made by August 15 of each year. Recipients will be recognized at the ARST business meeting and will receive a one-year membership to ARST.

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A Praxiography of Pedagogy

It almost goes without saying that a wide range of disciplines have recently embraced the new material (NM) turn. A large number of scholars in the disciplines of rhetoric and technical communication (TC) are included here. And while a great deal of excellent work has recently been, and is currently being developed that puts NM insights to good use in scholarly analyses of argument and communication, considerably less work has been devoted to the pedagogical ramifications of the NM turn. (I freely admit that my work here is no exception.)

Nevertheless, it occurred to me late last night (too late for this post to constitute a fully coherent thought) that the NM turn directly confronts and likely compels a revaluation of one the core pedagogical conceits of rhetoric and TC: education in theories of communication. It is a common undergraduate rhetoric or TC exercise to present students with a transmission theory of communication (often Shannon and Weaver’s famous mathematical variant) and then explain to students how such a theory does not adequately capture the reality of human communication.


In order to help demonstrate how this transmission theory ultimately fails to capture the reality of human communication, students are then offered successively improved models. They are challenged to compare Shannon and Weaver’s linear transmission model with one of many slightly better transmission + feedback models.


The transmission + feedback model is then compared to a somewhat better dialogic model or audience centered model. And finally, after some indeterminate number of failed models are offered, a truly good model is provided. These good models are typically derived from rhetoric, semiotics, linguistics, and cultural theory and offered as a far more satisfying description of human communication. These models highlight the complex dynamic interactions among audience, purpose, context, signs, symbols, culture, media, semiotics modes, etc. Now, here’s the problem: This is perspectival pedagogy. This pedagogy calls on students to view the same activity differently. It calls students to engage in the same practices but to understand them differently. The hope, of course, is that by viewing communication differently students will learn decide to enact communication differently. They will better account for audiences, cultures, etc.

Now readers of my work will know, I’m quite fond of Annemarie Mol’s multiple ontologies. I find her theory of how different ontologies are staged in practice to be quite compelling. If we apply this analysis to theories of communication, it raises very interesting questions. Given the ubiquity of transmission theories of communication, it seems likely that common communication practices actually stage a transmission ontology. If this is the case, telling students to engage in largely the same practices, but to view them differently is probably not a great option.

Indeed, a praxiography of the classroom would pretty clearly indicate that the practices of the classroom stage a strong transmission + feedback model. Students transmit communication to the instructor. The instructor literally provides feedback. The student, in theory, incorporates that feedback into revisions or subsequent assignments. There may be no more powerful staging of the transmission + feedback model possible.

For me, at least, this raises significant questions about rhetorical and TC pedagogy. If we are to take NM seriously (and I do), then perhaps it should force us to reconsider the fundamental structure of the communication classroom. If the dominant practices of the classroom stage a transmission + feedback model, is it any wonder so many of our students never fully internalize a rhetorical or cultural model of communication?

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Free Inquiry & Free Speech, Steve Fuller


Title: Free Speech & Free Inquiry: Is Science Comparable with Democracy?

Speaker: Steve Fuller, Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology, Department of Sociology, University of Warwick

When: Monday, November 24, 2014, 1:00-2:30 pm

Where: Fireside Lounge, UWM Student Union (map)

Precis:The public is more interested in science than ever—and more skeptical of scientific authority. Is this a “cognitive deficit” of the public or a “democracy deficit” on the part of scientists? Prof. Fuller will argue that members of the public should be emboldened to judge for themselves which parts of science they accept and reject, and he will propose an interesting historical model for this development: The Protestant Reformation in Christianity, with the current scientific establishment as the Church of Rome.

Bio: Professor Steve Fuller, Ph.D., D.Litt., AcSS, FRSA, holds the Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick. His latest books include The Proactionary Imperative: A Foundation for Transhumanism, New Frontiers in Science and Technology Studies, Humanity 2.0: What It Means to Be Human Past, Present and Future. He has been a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts since 1995, and was awarded a D.Litt. by Warwick in 2007 for significant career-long contributions to scholarship. He was appointed to the Auguste Comte Chair in Social Epistemology in 2011, and is a Fellow of the UK Academy of Social Sciences. In 2012 he was elected as a member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts (Division I: Humanities).

Fuller Talk Poster (.pdf)
Fuller Talk Poster (.jpg)

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CALL FOR CHAPTERS: Feminist Rhetorical Science Studies

(I have no affiliation with this CFP. I just think it looks like a cool and important project worthy of sharing.)

Edited by Amanda K. Booher (University of Akron) and Julie Jung (Illinois State University)

This collection engages emerging scholarship in feminisms, rhetorics, and science studies for purposes of theorizing the most recent “material turn” in the scene of feminist rhetorics. On the one hand, the material turn invites more robust theorizations of materiality that have long been a concern for feminist rhetoricians. Posthumanist theories and object-oriented philosophies, for example, resonate with existing scholarship that studies rhetoric in excess of human symbolic action. Such inquiries consider how, for example, embodiment is rhetorical (Hawhee; Micciche; Selzer and Crowley); embodied experiences exceed normative narratives and thus resist discursive incorporation (Hesford; Wiederhold; Worsham); embodiment functions as an originary and prediscursive site of rhetorical agency (Cooper; Davis); and rhetorical interactions can be understood as dynamic ecologies of material and discursive objects (Hawk; Rice; Rickert). The significance of the material can also be seen in the re-turn to questions of methodology and the concomitant need to understand research as embodied practice situated in space and time (Jack; Schell and Rawson; Royster and Kirsch). Studies of archival practices in particular emphasize the affordances of conceptualizing historical inquiry as the study of interactions between discourses and material artifacts (Donahue and Moon; Enoch; Kirsch and Rohan; Ramsey, et al.; Rawson; Ritter; Wells). Paramount in all these inquiries is the impetus to theorize rhetoric as being inextricably connected to issues of language and human agency, but not limited to only them.

On the other hand, while emerging theories of materiality are attuned to important issues in contemporary rhetoric scholarship, they also raise concerns for scholars doing work in feminist rhetorics. Specifically, mainstream posthumanism’s emphasis on the symmetry between humans and nonhumans, and object-oriented philosophy’s claim that everything is an object, eclipse issues of difference within the category of “human” and thus elide questions about how such distinctions get made, why, and to what effect. Undertheorized uptakes of posthumanist scholarship thus risk resinscribing a privileged position that allows one to minimize the body—-its agencies, variances, e/affects—-by placing it on an immanent plane with all other objects.

To contest this privilege, this collection attends to the rhetorical complexities of differentiated embodiment (in terms of both its production and effects) by forging a collective via the heading feminist rhetorical science studies (FRSS). Broadly defined, feminist science studies (FSS) examines the ways in which scientific theories emerge within specific historical, social, and economic contexts; challenges scientific research used to legitimate oppression and violence; and considers how categories of difference affect the making and meaning of scientific knowledge, and how these have led to exclusions, both in terms of who does science and what science does. Feminist rhetorical science studies enhances this ongoing inquiry by conceptualizing rhetoric as a discursive-material phenomenon via Karen Barad’s articulation of posthumanism: an investigation of “the material-discursive boundary-making practices that produce ‘objects’ and ‘subjects’ and other differences out of, and in terms of, a changing [dynamic] relationality” (93).

This collection thus studies rhetoric in excess of language use and conscious intentionality, while also examining how differences within the category of “human” get made and how dominant interpretations of what these differences mean produce material effects that benefit some and do violence to others. In short, _Feminist Rhetorical Science Studies_ investigates the discursive-material relationalities of gender, race, ability, and other corporeal differences as theorized in the physical, biological, and social sciences. It contextualizes and re-politicizes relationships between objects, materials, and bodies of all different sorts. In so doing, it fills gaps in both feminist science studies and rhetoric studies by articulating a theoretically complex body of scholarship that makes important contributions to each.

Given the above, the editors welcome theoretical submissions that consider but are not limited to the following themes: scientific racism; scientific ableism; environmental justice; the biology of persuasion; western appropriations of Indigenous science; transnational feminisms and rhetorics of science; language, embodiment, and the un/making of difference-as-deficiency; feminist rhetorical histories of science; research methodologies in feminist rhetorical science studies. Rhetorical analyses that theorize the implications of those analyses for feminist rhetorical science studies as described above are welcome. Possible questions to consider include:

• What dis/connections can we make between contemporary scholarship in feminist rhetorics and feminist science studies? What sorts of feminist interventions do these dis/connections make possible?

• What theory can we build in feminist rhetorical science studies by productively engaging-—through extension and/or critique—-scholarship in areas including
• posthumanist feminist science studies (Barad; Braidotti; Haraway;
Hayles; Squier: Stengers);
• new materialist feminisms (Ahmed; Braidotti; Coole and Frost;
• object-oriented ontologies (Bennett; Bogost; Bryant; Harman; Latour);
• systems theories (Clarke and Hansen; de Landa; La Duke; Kauffman;
Luhmann; Maturana and Varela; Mazis; Stephens; Wolfe)?

• What interventions might theories of bodies/embodiment (e.g., critical race theory, disability/ableism studies, queer theory, biopolitics, etc.) bring to feminist rhetorical science studies?

• How might social inequality be theorized as both an ontological fact as well as an emergent property of systems in which categories that mark bodies-as-deficiencies are but one element?

• What are the risks and affordances of using posthumanist theories as methodologies for research in feminist rhetorical science?

• What theories and methodologies for studying the production and uses of science from a feminist framework exist in other disciplines? What can we learn from these projects? What can we contribute to them?

500-word proposals are due by April 4, 2014. Notifications of acceptance will be sent by June 15, 2014. Completed manuscripts will be due December 15, 2014.

Questions and proposals should be directed to Amanda K. Booher [] and Julie Jung [].


Angela M. Haas, PhD
Assistant Professor of Rhetoric and Technical Communication
Illinois State University
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A New Addition to the Syllabus

Perhaps a little late to the party, I decided my syllabus needed a section on interface technologies. Why? 1) I’m a big fan of digital distribution of course materials where legal and appropriate. Yet many of my students who access course materials via the course management system do not give much thought to interface technologies and subsequently fail to really engage (read, study, AND annotate) the course readings. 2) I’m tried of hearing a flurry of typing and looking at only the tops of my students faces as they peer over the wall of laptops. Not conducive into in-class discussion. (Note: The following policy is fore a graduate-level theory seminar. It would be different for other pedagogical contexts.)



Obviously, there are a wide variety of interface technologies available for engaging course materials. While the instructor is mindful that individual student preferences for interface technologies are the result of a range of intersecting aesthetic, ergonomic, and economic exigencies, it is, nevertheless, essential that chosen technologies also support student learning and minimize in-class distractions. Therefore, the following are requirements for course material interface technologies:

  • Annotation support: Students must be able to write on course readings. Annotations must further be accessible in class. iAnnotate and PDFHighlighter are recommended options for tablet users.
  • Flat-profile design: Students must have access to course materials in class via a device with a flat-profile design or configuration. This means no laptops, unless that laptop is a tablet-laptop hybrid with rotating touch screen.
  • Sufficient size: In class interface technologies must have dimensions of at least 4×7 inches. Small tablets are OK. Large phones are not.


*Note: Ink-on-Paper (IOP) technology meets or exceeds all of these requirements. With the added benefits of off-line and low-power accessibility settings, IOP may, indeed, be the ideal technology for learning theory. Furthermore, recent advances in Three-Ring-Binder Storage Systems provide impressive organizational and portability support. With the added affordances of Dog-Ear and Color-Tab Apps, it’s hard to go wrong with IOP. And, finally, it is worth mentioning that IOP has been out of beta testing for nearly 2,000 years, thus demonstrating impressive reliability.

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Object-Oriented Quibbles #4: Time is Information and Why You Should Care

Welcome, one and all, to this edition of Object-Oriented Quibbles (OOQs). OOQs are my way of exploring the rich scholarship of Object-Oriented Ontologies (OOO), but with a slightly critical eye. My recurrent caveat: I love OOO—or at least parts of OOO and the broader new materialist scholarly tradition in which it participates. OOQs are my way of refining and improving my own developing OOO-esque theories. If this sort of thing appeals to you, you might enjoy my first three OOQs: 1) The Cult of the Z-Axis, 2) The Carpentry of Discourse, and 3) Wherein A Meta-Quibble Becomes a Quibble About Metaphysics.

But without further ado, today’s episode: Time is Information and Why You Should Care.

Today’s OOQ focuses on what is probably my favorite work to date in the OOO tradition: Levi Bryant’s The Democracy of Objects. Levi Bryant, as many of you know, is a professor of philosophy at Collin College. More importantly, however, he’s largely attributed with coining the term, “Object-Oriented Ontology,” which makes his work of special relevance to OOO broadly and my OOQs specifically. The Democracy of Objects is a theoretical tour de force, exploring the failed history of Western epistemology alongside the works of Graham Harmon, Aristotle, Lacan, Latour, and Deleuze, among others. The book offers a cogent and coherent elucidation of what Bryant dubs “flat ontology”—his version of OOO. “Flatness” here refers to a presupposed lack of reducibility. In Bryant’s OOO, no individual object and be reduced to or explained by any other object. This, of course, provides an obvious exodus from epistemology, in that epistemology requires an explanation by a subject (and often is enacted through a reduction of the object to that explanation). The more difficult (for postmodernist) corollary of flat ontology is the rejection of hegemonies. Bryant argues that it is equally inappropriate to reduce an object to preexisting socio-structural theories such as classisms, paternalisms, colonialisms, sexisms, etc. In short, the argument is that these constructs provide an a priori (and anthropocentric) answer to all inquiry and thus forecloses on many possible explanations.

While flat ontology and onticology provide a wide variety of directions for interrogation, this is a quibble, so I will turn now to my primary critique of The Democracy of Objects, and this begins with my argument that time is information.


What is Information?          

As Bryant describes it on page 166, Information,

is non-linear and system specific, existing only for the system in question and as a function of the organization or endo-structure of the object. In saying that information is non-linear, my point is that it is an effect of the endo-structure of the object as it relates to its environment and how the endo-structure resonates within the field of differential relations that define that structure. Information is not in the environment, but a product of the system perturbed by its environment. (Bryant, p. 166).

“Endo-structure” is Bryant’s term for the interior and essential features of an object, those features that would exist and be manifest regardless of any relations that object has with any other object. Thus under Bryant’s model, the recognition of information is an event wherein one object perturbs its environment and a second object with an appropriate endo-structure receives this annoying stimuli and due to the accidents of the second object’s endo-structure the perturbation is interpreted as information. To elucidate this more clearly, Bryant relates a cynical narrative of how he interacts with his cat, pointing out that where he interprets the cats nuzzles as affection; it’s very likely merely a desire for warmth. The cat has perturbed (nuzzled) Bryant and his human endo-structure has interpreted that as information (affection) in a way that has nothing to do with the cat.

For Bryant, information exists solely in the acquisition of a perturbation and the folding of that perturbation into the endo-structure of the object/system that is perturbed. As he further clarifies,

It follows that information is not something that pre-exists an autopoietic machine, waiting out there in the world to be found. To be sure, objects outside an autopoietic machine can perturb or irritate an autopoietic machine, but this perturbation or irritation does not, in and of itself, constitute information for the system being perturbed. Rather, any information value the perturbation takes on is constituted strictly by the distinctions belonging to the organization of the autopoietic machine itself. (Bryant 141)


Why is Time Information?

Before time, a quick detour in space: One of the four essential theses of Bryant’s flat ontology is his assertion that the world does not exist. Bryant’s elucidation of this thesis focuses on his argument that flat ontology is comprised of collectives and assemblages, not wholes and parts. Just because we humans have traditionally defined the world or the universe as a whole which subsumes the parts (objects) we investigate does not mean that would be an accurate or desirable mode of ontological gerrymandering. As Bryant elucidates,

If it is so vital for flat ontology to establish that the world does not exist, then this is because the world must not be treated as a milieu in which beings or objects are contained as parts to a whole. In short, if flat ontology is to truly be flat, then it is necessary to establish that the world is not a container within which beings are found. (Bryant p. 271)

One way to read Bryant’s rejection of the world might be to understand “the world” as information. That is, our human or societal endo-structure is built in such a way that we coalesce the manifold perturbations of our experience into a holistic narrative and map that narrative onto a presupposed super-object—the world. Indeed, the holistic super-object world is probably not one that exists in the information milieu of other autopoietic systems such as cats or birds or, probably, even chimpanzees. (Possible exception: space traveling chimps, the poor bastards.) Indeed, Bryant makes the same argument about the temporality of galaxies, climates, and ecosystems. Time—for these objects—transcends the human informational milieu, which is no doubt one reason we have so much trouble passing meaningful climate change legislation. (But that is an argument for another place.)

Indeed, Bryant specifically recognizes that human/social autopoietic systems construe perturbations within an information milieu that suffers from very particular (and likely idiosyncratic) notions of space-time. These constructs, he argues, we must overcome.

At the level of object-oriented and onticological mereology, ,we cannot work form the premise that location in time and space is sufficient to individuate an object, or that objects exist only at a particular scales such as the mid-range objects that tend to populate the world of our daily existence. Rather, entities exist at a range of different scales, form the unimaginably small to the unimaginably large, each characterized by their own duration and spatiality. Here a tremendous amount of work remains to be done in thinking these spatial and temporal structures. (Byrant, p. 241).

What makes the unimaginably small unimaginable? No doubt the fact that the perturbations they produce are unrecognized by our human/society information milieu. Although, Bryant does not explicitly cast this argument for novel approaches to space-time in terms of information, his use of the term “unimaginable” is suggestive.

Certainly, we have all had different experiences of time. The watched pot, here, is instructive. If we more actively perturb or information milieu (with some other activity), our experience of the time it take for a pot to boil is quite different than if we do nothing but watch for the impending perturbations of steam and squeal. And, again, what of non-humans? What is time for a dog or a rock? If our ontology is to be flat, it cannot be grounded in human conceptions of time.

Of course, this argument was long ago provided by Immanuel Kant in his articulation of the synthetic a priori. Indeed, Kant’s suggestion could be folded quite nicely into OOO if we assume that the synthetic a priori are human endo-structures. In this case, time would not be information any longer, but rather that essential part of human cognition which configures how we construe information as derived from perturbations. (Certainly, The Democracy of Objects addresses Kant’s a prioris at great length and does great work deconstructing substance, for example. However, this quality analysis did not extend to time.)


Why Should We Care?    

This is not just some esoteric point about the nature of time. OK. It is, indeed, a really, really esoteric point, but it’s not just an esoteric point. There are actual ramifications for OOO. Much of The Democracy of Objects articulates its theory based on references to time and the temporal experiences of objects. Chief among these is Byrant’s rejection of the Latour/Whitehead objects as instantaneous momentary articulations thesis.

Why, then, if objects must reproduce themselves from moment to moment, do I not follow Whitehead in arguing that being, at its most basic level, is composed of “actual occasions” and that objects are but “societies of the actual occasions”? Whitehead’s actual occasions are instantaneous events that cease to exit the very moment they come into existence…. However, to treat actual occasions or instantaneous time-slices as the atoms or true units of being is to confuse the being of objects with their parts. An object is not its parts, elements, or the events that take place within it—though all of these are indeed indispensable—but is rather an organization or structure that persists across time. (Bryant pp. 233-234)

While Bryant’s point about the whole/part issue is well taken, I must pause at his argument that an object is an “organization or structure that persists across time.” Whose time? I fail to see how this argument amounts to much more than, humans recognize a similarity between two actual occasions and thus by virtue of their temporal endo-structure construe a persistence between the two instantaneous time-slices. And for that matter, would not the perception of similarity itself be information? If an autopoietic system is constantly self-remaking, who is it that is recognizing the persistence/ similarity of the structure/organization?

I’m a theoretical pragmatist (both in the philosophical and colloquial sense of the term, but here I mean the colloquial). For me the utility of a theory is in many ways based on whether or not it offers a better/ more compelling account of the objects of study. Within new materialism, there are many options available. OOO is one of the primary among post-ANT/associology. However, I am a bit concerned regarding the comparative utility of OOO as long as it fails to overcome the problem of time as information. I’m still confident that OOO is a highly valuable tool, but some work may still need to be done.

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Object-Oriented Quibble #3: Wherein a Meta-Quibble Becomes a Quibble About Metaphysics

Note: If you haven’t been following along with these Object-Oriented Qubbles (OOQs) and don’t know what I’m doing here, then you might which to see OOQ #1 and/or OOQ #2.

OK, so the entire point of these OOQs was to provide me with an opportunity to further explore my understanding of Object-Oriented Ontologies (OOO) while improving my vision of OOO through friendly critical quibbling. Today’s post begins as something else. I’ll be quibbling about someone else’s quibble. That’s right I’m meta-quibbling. [For the love of god, make it stop! –screams the largely beaten down tech writer in me.] So without further ado, I turn my attention to Harold Morowitz’s recent “The Plural of ‘Ontology’ is ‘Confusion,’ published in Complexity 17.6. Although many of my readers can no doubt see where I’m going with this, it’s worth noting that Morowitz’s primary target is not OOO or multiple ontologies, but rather the use of the word ontologies in computer and information sciences. Quoting Tom Gruber, Morowitz’s presents this definition to which he objects:

An ontology is a description (like a formal specification of a program) of the concepts and relationships that can formally exist for an agent or community of agents. The definition is consistent with the use of ontology as a set of concept definitions, but more general. And it is a different sense of the word than its use in philosophy.’’ Thus, one can have ontologies of linguistics, genomics, cultural heritage, and almost any domain for which data bases exist. (pp. 5-6)

To this linguistic evolution, Morowitz’s offers the following historical/etymological/traditionalist/Max Plankian/Joseph Priestlian/Abraham Simpsonian critique:

The word ontology has an extended usage in Philosophy and in this context it is defined in ‘‘The Oxford English Dictionary’’ as ‘‘that branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature or essence of being or existence,’’ with references going back to 1663. Thus, when I was handed my diploma many years ago, under the teaching of Brand Blanshard I had accepted that definition with the further refinement from a 1903 article by F.C.S. Schiller (Humanism i.9) noting that ‘‘The effect of what Kant called the Copernican revolution in philosophy is that ontology, the theory of Reality, comes to be conditioned by epistemology, the theory of knowledge.’’ Thus, metaphysics was presented as a combination of ontology and epistemology, what we know? and how we know it? When I arrived at graduate school and the mentorship of physicist philosopher Henry Margenau these ideas were refined, ‘‘We hold with Kant that epistemology must precede ontology and that epistemology denotes the methodology of the cognitive process. The methodology of science involves deliverances of sense as well as rules of correspondence, constructs and principles regulating constructs’’ [1]. Note the recurring importance of Kant, who really first codified the epistemology of Newtonian physics (Kritik der reinen Vernunft [2]) in 1781. Later authors have formed a neo-Kantian tradition altering the a priori features of Kantian epistemology to fit the changing physics. That tradition still persists (p. 5)

While I don’t particularly have much of an opinion on the use of “ontology” or “ontologies” in information sciences, I do think it’s pretty damn ridiculous to presume that computer and/or information sciences give a crap about what philosophers think of their use of the terms. Furthermore, I always get irritated with some pedantic traditionalist purports to suggest despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary that words, their definitions, their use, or their spellings can or should be limited to what was taught while the aforementioned pedant was in grammar [graduate, in this case] school. That kind of normativity serves no purpose. I’m not going to rehearse the argument here. For two wonderfully engaging versions, try the Smithsonian’s recent “Most of What you Think You Know about Grammar is Wrong,” or Stephen Fry’s “Don’t Mind Your Language” set wonderfully in kinetic typography here.

Of course, given that this is an OOQ and not just a ranting about linguistic normativity, let’s get to the point. Despite my snarky mockery of Horowitz’s article, much in philosophy (including much of OOO) is beholden to something like the traditional sub-disciplinary gerrymandering wherein “metaphysics [is] presented as a combination of ontology and epistemology” (p. 5). Now, as anyone who’s read any OOO knows, the innovative move of OOO is to remove epistemology from the equation. Levi Bryant for example offers a wonderful excoriation of epistemology inquiry in his identification of the epistemic fallacy. As he describes it,

What the epistemic fallacy identifies is the fallacy of reducing ontological questions to epistemological questions, or conflating questions of how we know with questions of what beings are. In short, the epistemic fallacy occurs whenever being is reduced to our access to being. Thus, for example, wherever beings are reduced to out impressions or sensations of being, wherever being is reduced to our talk about being, wherever being is reduced to discourses about being, wherever being is reduced to signs through which being is manifest, the epistemic fallacy has been committed. (Bryant 60).

Graham Harmon, Andrew Pickering, Annmarie Mol, Ian Bogost, and many others all offer similar critiques of epistemology and in so doing argue (convincingly) that most of the history of Western philosophy has been plagued by an epistemological focus that reduces inquiry into reality questions about access to reality.

My quibble and key point: by maintaining a vision of ontology as subsidiary to metaphysics, OOO fails to escape the problem of access. Harman’s distinction between real and sensual objects, Bryant’s bifurcation between endo- and exo-qualities all presuppose (even when they claim not to presuppose) some sort of reference object (although a nonhuman reference object) on which sense impressions/ perturbations can land and be registered as qualities/information/sensual inputs. I would argue that these distinctions (endo/exo//real/sensual) are the manifestations of the traditional concern with metaphysics and its never-ending inquiry into essences and accidents. In subordinating ontology to metaphysics, ontology is always about the stuff of reality.

“But wait,” you say. “Isn’t that what ontology is,” you say. Well, it can be and it must be as a part of metaphysical inquiry. What I suggest instead is that we consider what it would mean for OOO to engaging in ontological inquiry stripped equally of epistemology and metaphysics. And, I’m in good company making this suggestion. From Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social,

To go form metaphysics to ontology is to raise again the question of what the real world is really like. As long as we remain in metaphysics, there is always the danger that deployment of the actors’ worlds will remain too easy because they could be taken as so many representations of what the world, in the singular is like. In which case we would have not have moved an inch and would be back at square one of social explanation—namely back to Kant’s idealism. (Latour 2005 p. 117)

So what would it mean to have an ontology without metaphsyics? A provisional answer, ironically, I locate etymologically: ontology from the Greek ὄντος, being. While much of ontological discourse, as traditionally subject to metaphysics, does focus on reality. There is a viable alternative in ontology as the study of being, or perhaps the preconditions of being. So the stuff of reality—metaphsyisics with all its endo-attributes and exo-accidents—comes later. While certainly this circumscribes the explanatory force of ontological inquiry to a much smaller arena, it saves OOO form the problems of access that still manifest in metaphysical inquiry. I would argue that this version of ontology resonances well with Mol’s multiple ontologies and Bogost’s tiny ontology. (Although, perhaps they would disagree.)

Under this model, OOO can investigate the preconditions for being (modes of association/articulation in the Latourian idiom, sites of practice in Mol-speak) and the emergent metaphysics of a particular instance of being (the articulations of that current exist for an object of study), and the subsequent epistemology (how the perturbations produced by that particular instance of being are processed by another particular instance of being as provisionally identified for the purposes of the current study). Of course, one wouldn’t need to go that far. Ontology could be enough.

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