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  • Writer's pictureDaniel de la Torre

The role of mediation

Updated: Nov 17

Deanthropomorphization is put to work in the mediations that turn accessible phenomena that were previously inaccessible to the human by its biological constitution. These mediations can be instantiated in mechanical or intellectual instruments, when they are used to abstract phenomena that was imperceptible and are able to reveal the underlying patterns of naïve experience. In this way, the categories under which experience is apprehended can be modified by the correction of appearances by the use of technical innovations that reveal a structure that was previously unknown:

''…eyeglasses do not deanthropomorphize, but the telescope or microscope does, since those simply reestablish the normal relationship in the daily life of the entire man, which was disturbed, while these other devices open a world previously inaccessible to the human senses. The border, although it will practically always be blurred by intermediate situations, can be drawn taking into account whether the instrument leads back to the daily life of the entire man or whether it makes perceptible a qualitatively different world, the world of being-in-itself, of what exists. independently of man.'' (Lukács ''Aesthetics'' of 1963, vol. I, chapter 2 ''The deanthropomorphization of scientific reflection in sicence'')

Instruments enhance the perception of an object, augment the agency of a subject and test the adequacy of the reflection that abstracts its properties and patterns. In this way, they are key to overcoming the limitations imposed by the physiological constitution of the researcher. The elaboration of intellectual instruments for the construction of meaning that makes the objects of the environment intelligible has also interested philosophers of technology like Bernard Stiegler, who has ‘‘argued that the synthesis between Kantian transcendental imagination and the schematism become possible only through the exteriorization of (…) tertiary retentions’’.

The current concept of media in communication studies was preceded by reflections about the agential role of instruments as well as by the more widespread noun mediation, first used to refer to a third party position that would facilitate the exchanges among two subjects, as in the case of an interpersonal conflict. Mediation does not play an active role by itself, yet it permits the actualization of a state of things that was unresolved. As John Guillory has argued, mediation is best conceived as an impersonal process which can be set into motion by different instruments, which can establish new relations by communicating elements that are alienated from each other. Although every media codes its message and contents, its use depends on a previous intention that is catalyzed by it and which is irreducible to technology. The relation among agents and the instruments that enhance their agency is thus one of reciprocal codetermination.

The use of mediation through history can be a key for its understanding as much as ideas or concepts can be. This strategy was used by Clifford Siskin in his investigation about the history of systems, which are conceived as a genre of media composed of material and expressive aspects that change with each of its iterations, in which relations among elements and wholes are explained by the axioms of each system. This type of media does not have an ultimate instantiation, since new systems are continually developed with different characteristics that are not reducible to a matrix structure or model, but only to a relationship between axioms, parts and wholes, which can be adapted by their transduction to other media formats, as occurs with algorithms in the digital age, which replace printed instructions in a book.

Searching for the apparitions of the term ‘system’ in English catalogs of from the XVI century to present age as well as the assembly of processes that underlie those apparitions, Siskin has shown that knowledge in the modern age has been shaped by this genre as much as social institutions and technological interfaces, With the use of system, new forms of relating to each other as well as investigating nature have become possible, as it can be seen in the history of the particular systems in modern disciplines. For instance, Newton’s suggestion that the book of nature was written in the language of mathematics supposed a departure from anthropomorphic worldviews insofar as his abstractions put quotidian experience into question in order to reveal a structure that can only be known through mathematical instruments. The principles of his system are distinguished for the attempt to capture the underlying patterns in physics, without trying to mold them to a previously established anthropomorphic picture. This shows evidence of an attitude that aims for disclosing those laws that condition phenomena with total indifference regarding the apprehension that human consciousness has of them. This attitude, along with the incorporation of abstraction and experiment in economic production, set the character of deanthropomorphization in the modern age, for which the book of nature is not written in the language of humanity, but it is humanity that must develop its linguistic and cognitive abilities to be able to read it.

Two key features made the system genre apt for the totalization of knowledge and the transformation of the way complex organizations are conceived, overcoming the anthropomorphic analogies between society and the human body: the capacity to incorporate simple wholes inside more complex ones as well as to insert a system within a larger master system. Scalability permitted the arrangement of multiple components related under the principles of a system, and those systems could become embedded as parts of larger ones. In this manner, the effort to form a Master System that would put in order the different particular systems that arose since the XVII century gave birth to the first prototypes of encyclopedias, whose categorization promoted the specialization of modern disciplines.

Another Master System that revolutionized both the understanding and the organization of social totality, which is described by the use of various specific sub-systems, can be found in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, where he applies the investigation on the basic principles for calculating the behavior of the members of a society that occupied him in the Theory of Moral Sentiments. Lukács also noted this merit on rationalizing social totality in the reification essay of 1922, arguing that in The Wealth of Nations every social object can find an abstract, quantitative measure, by its apprehension under the form of commodity (taken by Lukács as a form of objectivity or Gegenständlichkeitsform in the Neo-Kantian sense, that is, as a categorial form that permits the intelligibility of social objects). While some may argue that this rationalization of social totality can be found earlier in Hobbes’ Leviathan, the explicit interest that Smith took to spearhead the integration of Scottish Illustration on the broader Enlightenment project was that which distinguished his master system.

This totalization of social structures by their embedding and scaling as part of a more comprehensive system, along with the self-organizing models investigated by biology, which also become modeled in the genre of system, was key to the development of twentieth-century social systems, such as the ones proposed by Talcott Parsons or Niklas Luhmann. These social systems are taken by Siskin as examples of particular instantiation of this genre, but not as explanations of system as such, which has no other essence than its formal organization as applied to a diversity of qualitatively-determined contents.

The apprehension of social totality under the form of system reconfigured the subjective experience towards it, for system became an object to blame for the shortcomings of social organization as much as for the overdetermination of agency by its rationalization into partial systems. At this point system itself become reified as an abstract representation of a society whose processes exceed the individual intentionality of the subjects that compose it.

With the development of computation, both the material interface technologies that compose their hardware as much as the formal components of its software have had their imprint on the genre of system. Douglas Engelbart developed the mouse, keyboard and screen interfaces so as to make human beings a component of the computing system. On the other hand, algorithms consolidated as the organizative principle of programming systems. Ever since, algorithms have been so closedly related to system that they are often used as synonyms, The speed of the changes made possible by this implementation of algorithms represents a qualitative novelty that changes the practice of everyday life, thus being deanthropomorphizing.

Apprehending algorithms as the organizative principle of a system, Daniel Dennett has proposed to read Darwin’s evolution theory as the formulation of an algorithm for the adaptation of species into their environment. In the light of his history of mediation, Siskin argues that this interpretation of evolution as an ultimately algorithmic process not only depends on the picture brought by the recent uses of computation, but also on the shaping of knowledge itself within the form of systems, which embed one inside another so as to integrate a greater range of phenomena. Because systems have shaped the very structures of our knowledge, their organizative principle, which can be formulated as an algorithm, can come to structure such totality.


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