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Theory 2000

Late 20th century to early 21st century critical theory and philosophy.

World Population In the past, philosophy has tended to develop over time. Now there are as many people thinking at once as there were after each other for a long time back. There are many branches of thought. We cannot know them all. A lecturer once told me that Erasmus of Rotterdam was the last person to have 'read everything'. After his time, with the invention of printing and new, 'novel', books, it became impossible for one person to read everything ever written, within their lifetime. Now we cannot hope to have a good understanding of everything people are writing now. We can only hope to find our way through it, from one place to the next without ever having a complete view. Difficult and pragmatic choices must be made about what to read and learn and when. We must always be cautious of feeling we have a complete understanding.

While my knowledge of contemporary philosophy is limited, below I've tried to give an overview on the recent influential currents of thought and what is happening now. This is then is just to show you some entry points into the sprawling network of contemporary philosophy and theory, from which you can navigate your own course. I have not read extensively in many of these topics but have tried to gain a broad overview. I hope to make you aware of some of the basic ideas and to elaborate on some important details in areas I am more familiar with.

Some general themes and pre-occupations:

What's the difference? They are related and cross over but one simple distinction to make is that Postmodernism is a description of cultural phenomena after modernism. Poststructuralism is a critical theory or philosophy - after structuralism. One thing common to them is in their name - 'post'. Both these currents of thought are named and defined in relation to something that went before. This reflects some of the central themes of thought in both these areas - that there is nothing purely new or original but everything is what it is and gains its meaning by relation to something else.

Post modernism exists not due to some inherent essence or by arguing propostions that are thought to be universally true for all and for all time, but as a historical situation in relation to modernism. One trope of post-modernism is anachronism, mixing up aesthetics from previous time periods and so on.

Post-structuralism is defined in relation to Structuralism. To understand what it is we need to have some idea of what Structuralism is. In the earlier part of the 20th Century structuralism emerged from linguistics (eg: Saussure Course in General Linguistics, 1916) and anthropology (eg: Lévi-Strauss) and formed a new field of study 'semiology' or the 'science of signs and sign systems' ('sign' as in 'signifying'). 'Sēmeiō' is a Greek root word that means 'meaning', and 'logos' means 'knowledge' ('scios' the Latin root of 'science' also means knowledge) so semiology is 'knowledge about meaning'.

With post-structuralism the term for this field of study became 'semiotics' because one of the pre-occupations of post-structuralism became a critique of knowledge itself, from the point of view of 'meaning'. As such literary criticism came to be a major exponent of this field of philosophy, challenging the whole tradition of Western epistemology and the dominance of science.

One of the main methodological approaches of Structuralism is to look at the relationships of the functional parts of a language at a single point in time (or in anthropology a mythology, belief system or cultural practices). Things have meaning only as part of a system of relationships, not inherently in and of themselves. To put it simply, 'day' is day only because of it's relationship to 'night'. If there were no 'night', 'day' would not have the meaning that it does. Languages are complex systems though with many grammatical rules, so it is a little more complicated than that. Things have meaning due to the way they 'function' in a language - the way they determine each other and lead to actions and so on. Mythically anthropologists might look at how certain gods or spirits fulfil the role of 'trickster' among other general structural forms in a pantheon and in narratives and how that relates to daily life. This is analysed 'sychronically' - a snapshot at a certain point in time, in contrast to 'diachronically' or over time. (Prior to structuralism, a lot of linguistic study was in 'philology' or the history of language change.) The point is that, for structuralism, something means what it means not in and of itself, but due to it's relationships within a system of meaning.

Post structuralism takes on this understanding of meaning as determined by relationships with other things but highlights the importance of change across time, as well as within a system at any one time (as we shall see with Derrida's concept of 'différance'). Meaning is not necessary nor inherant in anything, but is historically contingent - the meaning of anything depends on the series of historical changes that have produced it. Those historical changes are often related to the exercise of power. For post-structuralism the implications of this reach far beyond linguistics. Everything and anything may be critiqued through it's methods and insights. In particular it extends from linguistics to critiques of society and the most fundamental problems that have pre-occupied philosophers for thousands of years. This is easy enough to understand when we consider that we can't think of anything that doesn't have a 'meaning', that we only undertand anything through it's meaning. We can ask then what is the history of meaning of 'truth'. How has this been determined by power? Foucault's Discipline and Punish for example, provides an eye opening account of how the idea of 'self' has changed over thousands of years in relation to how power and control is exercised. Something that seems basic and obvious to us - me being who I am - has changed over time. When we realise this change, our assumptions are thrown into question, nothing seems to be essentially knowable.

The relationship of truth, knowledge, power, language and meaning explored in post-structuralism becomes important for other movements in critical theory and politics then and now. What is 'normal' and 'central' is defined by what is 'marginal', and establishes a power relation, relationships often establish a heirarchy where one is better than another, these are all constructed and reinforced by 'discourse' or the language we use and the narratives we tell that form and reinforce power relations and belief. The term 'post' is often adopted to acknowledge the present is inextricably determined by past events even when trying overcome past problems, or struggle against power, such as post-colonialism. Needless to say all this is important for understanding much about current debates such as debates over contemporary identity politics, such as feminism, gay rights, racism and alt right politics, played out on social media.

This is not to say these movements have been caused by a few French theorists, people would find ways to carry on their political struggles one way or another, but these thinkers have been very influential in understanding, thinking through and theorising these issues and so have influenced the course of events.

Ironically, although post-structuralism is highly critical of the formation of a 'canon' of great works, as being part of the exercise of power and 'authority' there have emerged a set of cannonical thinkers and their works in this school, such that most courses in post-structuralism would be based around them or at least make some reference to them, such as Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, de Certeau, Donna Haraway, Deleuze and Guattari, Gayatri Spivak, Lacan. Reading a few essays can give you a good overview of post-structuralism.

Because time is short and we are only giving a quick overview, post-modernism is most easily understood as a description of cultural phenomena:

... which can easily be seen in some examples:

Roy Lichtenstein

Hollywood Burn, 2006 from Soda_Jerk on Vimeo.

It's worth noting the themes of post modernity and post modernism are not themselves new, but have been recycled over the centuries. It's just that they have come to the for and become defining features of these movements. Here's just a few examples:

Aristotle recognised the importance of language to philosophy - since reason, logic and dialogic are done through language.

In Indian philosophy, Pāṇini's thorough grammar of Sanskrit (400 BC) raised vital problems in language and philosophy debated for centuries to follow.

Japanese poetry and art is very intertextual. This Ukiyo-e by Yoshitoshi is of the poet Ariwira No Narihara, on the evening, according to poems in the Ise Monogotari, that he stopped on Musashi plain and heard a mysterious voice on the wind reciting the first few lines of a poem, which he completed in reply, and in the morning found a skull, and so assumed it must have been the ghost of poet Ono No Komachi who, according to legend, had died on Musashi plain.

The Words of Khakheperreseneb, an Egyptian lamentation circa 1500BC is a good example of post-modern despair at being unable to create anything new:

If only I had unknown utterances

and extraordinary verses,

in a new language that does not pass away,

free from repetition,

without a verse of worn-out speech

spoken by the ancestors!

I shall wring my body for what is in it,

- a release of all my speech.

For what is already said can only be repeated

Collection of the sayings of Khakheperraseneb, wab-priest of Heliopolis, c.1500BC British Museum

So too in the Old Testament

That which has been is what will be,

That which is done is what will be done,

And there is nothing new under the sun.

- Solomon, Ecclesiastes 1:9, c.450–200BC

Post-structuralism is often criticised for using language that is difficult to understand or that is just meaningless nonsense. A well known example of computer generated text was a postmodernist/post-structuralist essay generator, a current example of which you can find here: http://www.elsewhere.org/pomo/.

It could be said that Foucault’s essay on subconceptualist narrative implies that sexual identity, somewhat ironically, has objective value, but only if truth is equal to language; if that is not the case, we can assume that consciousness is meaningless." Postmodernism Generator

Deleuze and Guattari are prominent post-structuralists whose work provides an examplar par excellance of this kind of language:

"There is always something genealogical about a tree. It is not a method for the people. A method of the rhizome type, on the contrary, can analyze language only by decentering it onto other dimensions and other registers. A language is never closed upon itself, except as a function of impotence."

A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari

There are good reasons and bad reasons for this use of language:

Any difficult and complex topic uses jargon. Because it is important to Post Structuralism to criticise common assumptions about truth, knowledge, society, self and so on. One one hand this means post structuralists cannot easily use some common words expecting that everyone will understand - because it is precisely that process they are investigating and undermining. This requires deep and involved discussion. In the course of that discussion some jargon words emerge so that instead of repeating whole paragraphs of explanation they can use that jargon word (eg: discourse, hegemony, spacing, presence, rhizome, etc) just as a sailor need not explain which particular rope every time but can say, 'halyard', 'stays' or 'sheets', etc.

If post-structuralism is, for example, critiquing the use of clear and precise language in science, it would be self contradictory to use clear and precise language. Sometimes language is unsual, difficult and uncertain to demonstrate this point about language use.

It also sometimes comes to be a language that you learn how to speak and which you can churn out essays in, almost like the post modern text generator. This language unfortunately can come to form an exclusive academic 'in crowd' or clique, ironically excluding many from understanding what they are talking about while they are criticising the role of discourse in power, authority, elitism and exclusivity.

It's a shame that the post modern discourse turns so many away and leads people to dismiss it as nonsense because there are important insights and understandings to be gained.

Anything we might say about Derrida's writing is an oversimplification. Anything Derrida writes makes reference to some further elaboration, complicating factor, or current in the history of thought. This is because he is doing, as an example, what he is explaining - that the process of meaning, the play of signs, works this way - by constant reference to something else.

This can be confusing to newcomers, but because Derrida makes important points that we should bear in mind, such that we shouldn't ignore him because he's too 'hard' or 'obtuse', I'll provide some oversimplifications of some of the concepts he discusses, as an entry point into the web of perpetual digression. An oversimplification gives us the illusion that we have finally understood something completely but Derrida is arguing precisely that there is no finality or completeness to meaning.

trace, space, logocentrism
overall argument that writing is not secondary, in the sense that all signification is secondary, and there is nothing beyond signification

deconstruction ≠ analysis

Basic explanation of deconstruction, not to be mistaken for analysis (as it is sometimes used).

But first understand Derrida's term 'différance' - to differ and defer - the deferral of meaning across space and time (in French the difference between the two words is not audible though written differently). Différance is the precondition of meaning, what makes meaning possible, but it also means if we try to pin down what something means with any fixed finality, we can't because we must constrantly refer to something else to understand or explain it, and to explain that explanation, etc. Just as in a dictionary every word has a definition made up of words that have definitions - of course the word also refers to something in the real world that is it's 'meaning' yet since, like words all things are meaningful, to understand their meaning we defer to other meaningful things in the real world, ad infinitum... Derrida criticises the 'myth' of 'presence' - truth/knowledge/being cannot be made 'present' by words. Instead we are always caught up in an ongoing debate - only ever able to 'refer' as writing does to speech, as speech does to the world, etc. This doesn't necessarily mean that there is no meaning, rather it is how meaning works - it is produced in a way that is never fixed and final.

Meaning depends on context.

There is nothing outside the text.

Analysis: What are the component parts?

Eg: analytic chemistry breaks substances down into the compounds and elements that make it up. Analysing a poem involves looking at the rhyme scheme, metre, and other ‘parts’.

Deconstruction: What is the history of the underlying (binary) differences?

What are the assumptions and presuppositions or preconditions that these differences possible? These differences often involve binary opposition and heirarchies where one is prior to, more important, central, higher powered, etc than the other. These power structures are created and reinforced through discourse (language use in the most broad sense).

Why deconstruction?

Deconstruction is a valuable critical method. Knowing the history of something enables us to question our own assumptions. We can understand why we think what we think. Without this technique of criticism we don't even know why we think what we think (so how could we be 'free', or resist power. etc?).

We see:

It is not necessarily so. I just happened that way because of historical circumstances.

If it’s not necessarily so, it can be changed.

We can imagine how we can change things.

Derrida is famous for deconstruction, though it can be difficult to find him specifically mentioning, let alone defining, the term. Here are some mentions of it in one of his major works Of Grammatology. These mentions also mention some of the major points of his philosophy, and of post-structuralism. I've provided some glosses.

The history of (the only) metaphysics, which has, in spite of all differences, not only from Plato to Hegel (even including Leibniz) but also, beyond these apparent limits, from the pre-Socratics to Heidegger, always assigned the origin of truth in general to the logos: the history of truth, of the truth of truth, has always been-except for a metaphysical diversion that we shall have to explain-the debasement of writing, and its repression outside the 'full' speech.

Derrida, Of Grammatology, p3, 1967

Logos is an ancient Greek term that carries a few meanings, 'the word', 'truth', 'knowledge', 'writing', 'reason', 'explanation'. In Aristotelian rhetoric it is one of three aspects of rhetoric 'logos' (the rational and reasonable part), 'pathos' (the emotional appeal), and 'ethos' (the authority, reputation or reliability of the speaker). By deconstruction Derrida shows how Plato, referring back to Egyptian wisdom, puts speech in a binary heirarchy over writing as closer to 'truth', starting a tradition that comes to define Western philosophy that 'logos' or reason is most important. Remember that the world 'episteme' in ancient Greek doesn't only mean 'truth' or knowing that something is the case but implies that the person who 'knows' it can explain it.

Not that the word 'writing' has ceased to designate the signifier of the signifier, but it appears, strange as it may seem, that 'signifier of the signifier' no longer defines accidental doubling and fallen secondarity. 'Signifier of the signifier' describes on the contrary the movement of language: in its origin, to be sure, but one can already suspect that an origin whose structure can be expressed as 'signifier of the signifier' conceals and erases itself in its own production. There the signified always already functions as signifier. The secondarity that it seemed possible to ascribe to writing alone affects all signifieds in general, affects them always already, the moment they enter the game

Derrida, Of Grammatology, p7, 1967

Derrida suggests that writing, not speech, is a better metaphor or analogy for explaining how meaning works, because it is more obvious to everyone that it refers to something that is not present.

The 'rationality' - but perhaps that word should be abandoned for reasons that will appear at the end of this sentence - which governs a writing thus enlarged and radicalized, no longer issues from a logos. Further, it inaugurates the destruction, not the demolition but the de-sedimentation, the de-construction, of all the significations that have their source in that of the logos. Particularly the signification of truth.

Derrida, Of Grammatology, p10, 1967

Note how when/where Derrida says "but perhaps that word should be abandoned for reasons that will appear at the end of this sentence" he is performing 'différance'. Ie: he's being tricky and showing off... sorry, I mean, showing us exactly what he is talking about, that 'meaning' is not 'present', but is going to come a bit later on, at the end of the sentence, which of course, refers back to the beginning. You'll notice that after a while reading Derrida and getting a bit more explanation, things that once made no sense at all, start to make a little sense.

Within the closure, by an oblique and always perilous movement, constantly risking falling back within what is being deconstructed, it is necessary to surround the critical concepts with a careful and thorough discourse - to mark the conditions, the medium, and the limits of their effectiveness and to designate rigourously their intimate relationship to the machine whose deconstruction they permit; and, in the same process, designate the crevice through which the yet unnameable glimmer beyond the closure can be glimpsed. The concept of the sign is here exemplary. We have just marked its metaphysical appurtenance. We know, however, that the thematics of the sign have been for a bout a century the agonized labor of a tradition that professed to withdraw meaning, truth, presence, being, etc., from the movement of signification. Treating as suspect, as I just have, the difference between signified and signifier, or the idea of the sign in general, I must state explicitly that it is not a question of doing so in terms of the instance of the present truth, anterior, exterior or superior to the sign, or in terms of the place of the effaced difference. Quite the contrary. We are disturbed by that which, in the concept of the sign-which has never existed or functioned outside the history of (the) philosophy (of presence) - remains systematically and genealogically determined by that history. It is there that the concept and above all the work of deconstruction, its "style," remain by nature exposed to misunderstanding and nonrecognition.

Derrida, Of Grammatology, p14, 1967

It's difficult to talk about language without using language. We cannot stand outside of it, objectively, but are always caught up in the limits of what we are trying to explain - we cannot make a clear understanding of language 'present'. Meaning works by a set of relationships by differing and deferal, so the question 'what is a sign', if everything is a sign, is difficult to answer - we cannot relate it to anything that is not a sign, even as we try to understand it by looking at the history of the sign. Derrida explains that these complex problems lead to people misunderstanding what he's talking about, and not even recognising what the problem is (this happens a lot!). Eg: Derrida tries to give an account of 'logos' but it is difficult to do so outside of the discourse of logos, yet it is also naive just to argue against this critique with a simple if Derrida claims x, but not x, then Derrida's claim is false. Derrida is asking how or why it's even possible for you to make such an argument. ('Self referentiality' or 'self reflexivity' is also a major theme in post modernism and post structuralism for this reason - it's hard to criticise logic without logic, it's hard to write about language without using writing and language.)

The movements of deconstruction do not destroy structures from the outside. They are not possible and effective, nor can they take accurate aim, except by inhabiting those structures. Inhabiting them in a certain way, because one always inhabits, and all the more when one does not suspect it. Operating necessarily from the inside, borrowing all the strategic and economic resources of subversion from the old structure, borrowing them structurally, that is to say without being able to isolate their elements and atoms, the enterprise of deconstruction always in a certain way falls prey to its own work.

Derrida, Of Grammatology, p24, 1967

The violence of forgetting. Writing, a mnemotechnic means, supplanting good memory, spontaneous memory, signifies forgetfulness. It is exactly what Plato said in the Phaedrus, comparing writing to speech as hypomnesis to mnémè, the auxilliary aide-mémoire to the living memory. Forgetfulness because it is a mediation and the departure of the logos from itself. Without writing, the latter would remain itself. Writing is the dissimulation of the natural, primary, and immediate presence of sense to the soul within the logos. Its violence befalls the soul as unconsciousness. Deconstructing this tradition, will therefore not consist of reversing it, of making writing innocent. Rather of showing why the violence of writing does not befall an innocent language. There is an originary violence of writing because language is first, in a sense I shall gradually reveal, writing.

Derrida, Of Grammatology, p37, 1967

Statements like this hopefully are now starting to make sense.

Peirce goes very far in the direction that I have called the de-construction of the transcendental signified, which at one time or another, would place a reassuring end to the reference from sign to sign. I have identified logocentrism and the metaphysics of presence as the exigent, powerful, systematic, and irrepressible desire for such a signified. Now Peirce considers the indefiniteness of reference as the criterion that allows us to recognize that we are indeed dealing with a system of signs. What broaches the movement of signification is what makes its interruption impossible. The thing itself is a sign.

Derrida, Of Grammatology, p49, 1967

From the moment that there is meaning there are nothing but signs. We only think in signs.

Derrida, Of Grammatology, p50, 1967

Identity politics have come to the forefront of attention and debate, especially in social media, in the 21st century. It's impossible to delve into the infinite nuances of this debate and these are probably already familiar to many - from whether a white girl should wear a chinoiserie to a school dance, to the #metoo movement, to the legalisation of gay marriage, to inclusion of non-binary genders on institutional documents, to Asian American writers losing contracts for writing scifi about slavery in Russia, to academics losing their job for refusing to participate in compulsory protests, to far right shock jocks silencing indigenous people in the name of free of speech, and so on.

From the point of view of a philosopher these debates are plagued by slogans, political opportunism and trolling to the point where debates on either side could likely be produced by chatbots. This isn't to dismiss the importance of the subject matter. A philosopher is likely to feel there is nothing they can do but stand back and shake their head, yet these are issues which call for a philosophical approach above all else. A good philosopher would take on this problem and find a solution - but, as yet, I'm not that good a philosopher. Time doesn't allow - again it is a problem for our generation - how can we, in the neoliberal gig economy, find time even to think properly? I hope that digests and guides like this course, help at least a little. Having said that, there are better people than me to talk about these issues - it does matter who is speaking. At the same time I shouldn't shirk personal responsibility. Is it my place as a man to lecture, to mansplain feminism? Once I said this, to keep things light hearted, to a small group and someone called out, 'coward'. I'm still not sure what they meant, but perhaps that feminism is my responsibility, and can't be shirked. Should I avoid a 'damned if you do and damned if you don't' situation, or is that the cowardice? Shouldn't I just acknowledge this is the difficult situation others find themself in all the time. (And why am I sitting here agonising over the fine points of language use when my boss literally just said, "This is a great resume. Shame she's a woman." and last week there was another death in custody, and the government keeps innocent children in jail for years and makes it illegal to tell the truth about them, and the river's all gone and all the fish are dead?) This line of thought could go on indefinitely, and this complex spiral of angst over what is 'appropriate' to do and what language to use is symptomatic of our age.

Note that while political movements of marginalised groups already existed the pre-occupation with language use in identity politics has developed largely from the focus of post structuralism on the relationship of language to the construction of identity and the exercise of power. For example, what is 'normal' is defined by what or who is made 'marginal', and that power is maintained by maintaining differences and identities that disempower.

Perhaps the most significant change in the 21st century, as is sometimes noted, are shifting attitudes of the political left and right in relation to their ideology. The political left has shifted away from protesting for liberty, freedom from authority and control towards policing of or activism towards appropriate language and behaviour. The shift can also be seen as a change from a late 60s or 70s demands for general liberty to be whatever you like to very specific hypercategorised liberties for defined groups. By contrast, the right, or 'alt-right' have come to dismiss left rhetoric and this policing/activism of language as 'political correctness' and have adopted left wing strategies advocating for freedom from these authorities and freedom of speech - ironically this is often for a 'freedom' to use language to abuse and oppress.

There is only time here to give the most cursory overview of some streams of identity politics, but these are relatively high profile so not hard to find information on. I will try to look at just a few of the philosophical points worth bearing in mind.

It's worth bearing in mind that, in Australia, much of what we hear in debates around identity politics is focused on the Anglophone world, and due to American cultural imperialism, is biased towards the American experience. The experience of racism, for example, is different in China, in Australia, in Latin America and so on, though there may be similarities.


The history of feminism is generally looked at as a series of waves:

  1. The suffragette movement around the turn of the 20th Century, focused on votes for women, at times taking a militant approach and associated with or taking strategies from union movements. The Pankhursts were prominent figures.
  2. In the 60s and 70s the women's liberation movement demanded more social equality and freedom from prejudice, such as equal pay, and that these rights be made law. This is sometimes associated with the world wars when women worked in male roles while they were away. Non-white women activists also came to the fore in this period, eg: Audre Lourde, The Masters Tools Will Never Dismantle The Masters House.
  3. In the late 20th century feminism carried on the struggle but introduced new ideas. There was a criticism of 'essentialism' or 'naturalism' in earlier feminism - that either women are 'naturally' good, kind, motherly etc, or that they should be made 'equivalent' to men and adopt masculine traits to be so. This movement focused more on allowing women to define their own identity, rather than being defined by men, or by anyone else's idea of what a woman 'should' be. Eg: Donna Haraway Cyborg Manifesto. There has also been criticism of feminism being dominated by white middle class women. Intersectionality is an important concept that emerged also, where it is recognised that the multiple identities of an individual amount to an experience that is not equivalent to any of them alone - such as the experience of a black woman cannot be reduced to the experience of being black plus being a woman.

Note that 3rd wave feminism have many similar themes to post-structuralism, influencing each other. Some later feminist theorists such as Donna Haraway and Gayatri Spivak were also leading post-structuralist thinkers.


In the 20th Century there was a continuation of political activism growing from the antislavery movement in the United States and pre and post-colonial resistance in Africa and the Caribbean. This took many forms such as Rastafarianism, the French-African Negritude movement, post-colonial literature, the Civil Rights movement and the Black Lives Matter movement. Eg: in ‘Discourse on Colonialism’ by Aimé Césaire argues that colonisation wasn't about civilising savages, but making civilised European's savage - allowing them to tolerate the most extreme kinds of atrocity so they can have sugar, coffee and spices at the dinner table.

Indigenous Philosophy

Indigenous philosophy is both the most ancient and among the most current. There is a growing interest in acknowledgement of indigenous philosophy by those foreign to it. This will be discussed next session.


(Eg: Said, Achebe, Spivak). See Achebe on Conrad and Spivak's Can The Subaltern Speak. Spivak provides an account of 'subalterns' as people who are not even identified as a marginalised group but don't even fit into any particular identity. A marginalised group, once identified as such, can at least act collectively in a political capacity, but a 'subaltern' cannot. Someone throws a spanner in the farm machine. What is the difference between this being the act of someone with a grudge against the farmer, an irrational act of a crazy person, or a revolutionary political act?

Queer theory

Queer theory develops from similar currents of thought and from gay rights activism.

One notable concept emerging from queer theory is an imperative not to somehow 'solve' the problem but that the idea of having a fixed and understood identity that can be placated, understood and thereby controlled is itself the problem. Again in affinity with post-structuralist thought there is a tendency to constantly problematise and question assumptions. Resistance to power can take the form of never being pinned down, fixed and understood as an object of study, known and predictable, but to forever resist this (note this is still a Kantian subjectivity (that which knows (subject) rather than that which is known (object)): critical theory as eternal resistance to being finally known.

Ecotheory evolved in the late 20th century as a result of several factors. Ecology and environmentalism grew significantly in the 1970s. For anyone looking for alternative theories, or the the 'next theory', it would seem obvious to create such a thing as eco theory or eco criticism. As ecology and environmentalism grew people applied critical theory to it, and people within the movement began theorising. There is much in common with other currents of critical theory and intersection with other streams of critical theory, but there is a focus on the particular insights ecology offers.

For example to see 'critical theory' and 'philosophy' itself as a emergent from a web of ecologically connected factors - society, politics, environment and so on. The kind of critical theory or philosophy we develop or lean to will be affected by these factors and our theory will in turn affect these other things in complex feedback loops. No part of it can be considered in isolation.

One of the basic premises of ecocriticism is that the stories we have about the natural world, our environment greatly effect what we do in it and to it, which in turn, because it's an ecosystem, greatly affects us. These stories are more than *just* stories, but determine cognitively what we percieve in the world around us, cognitively, at the most profound philosophical level - what to us exists, what we can know about it, and what we should do. As a simple example consider the different narratives there are, in which we hear stories retold with these assumptions, and how they will affect what we do in the environment:

Each of these myths will cause us to treat our environment differently. This is vitally important because we depend on our environment for survival. There are many historical cases of cities, civilisations and cultures disappearing, of mass migration, of starvation because of environmental change. Because the myths we live by are usually assumed to be true and we don't even think of questioning them because they are 'obvious', it is crucial to have a critical attitude - our lives and our environment may depend on it. Note that, our mythology is so embedded in our psyche that it is difficult for me to even finish that sentence without adhering to one of the narratives above - I actually changed the wording a few times. Eg: '...our survival depends on it.' (the fight for survival in the wilderness myth) '...our existence and our environment, which are mutually dependent, depend on it.' (the environmentalist myth).

A long time ago, as an undergrad in a philosophy lecture, I wondered if some people believe in gods and spirits and others don't just because some ask who the universe is instead of what it is. I think I remember that the maker of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives Apichatpong Weerasethakul pointed out in an interview that if you live in a city, the difference between 'subject' and 'object' between 'people' and the 'material' world is clear. If you live in a city, everything around you is made of inanimate matter - rocks, steel, plastic, and so on. So there is a clear difference between people and things. But if you live in the country, if you live in the jungle you are surrounded by living things all the time and living things have personality and character. It makes more sense then to ask 'who' instead of 'what'. If we ask 'who' instead of what, because ethics is about interactions between 'humans' or at least entities which like us think and feel and form their own judgements about right and wrong, then you will have an 'ethical' relationship with the world around you, rather than one based on what use we humans can put the physical world to. In this sense we could say that Western philosophy has tended towards materialism and it's ethics draws a simple distinction between humans and the (material/natural) world because it was thought up by city dwellers.

'Deep ecology' shifts the focus away from humans. We are just another part of a vast and complicated ecology - just one among millions of species. There is no reason we should consider ourselves more important that microbes, or any other plants or animals, indeed we are far less important to the ecology than other creatures, such as pollinating insects or nitrogen fixing bacteria.

The 'Anthropocene' is a term referring to the fact that the impact of humans on the earth at present will now be visible in the long term geological record. Geological eras last millions of years. Although our presence has been so far brief, what we are doing now will be detectable in millions of years. In this sense humans are a significant part of the ecosystem - we have great capacity to destroy it. In fact we make other species extinct and change the climate.

In some cases ecocriticism can be merely looking at the environment a writing was working in to consider how it affected their work.

Ash's recommended reading:

One of the most important things to know about 'post truth' is that it is on purpose.

Post truth is not just a strange thing to have emerged from social media trolls, nor just shock jocks and right wing politicians twisting the rhetoric of the left to stir the pot until some people started taking it seriously, nor the logical extreme of 'snowflake' hypercategorical identity politics playing out to the point (where everyone has the right to construct their own niche identity and epistemology without prejudice) - though these all have something to do with it.

A focus of 21st century political strategy and warfare is 'assymetrical warfare' where combatants have very different scales of capability. Superpowers, especially the US have have vastly overwhelming military might, making a direct confrontation in a traditional war of army versus army impossible - eg: ISIS versus USA, environmentalists versus government backed mining companies, etc, leading to alternative strategies such as terror attacks, cell networks, and other fields of combat such as cyber war. In a collection of essays Future Armies, Future Challenges this is described even at the level of how to combat the resistance of a POW.

To get some understanding of asynchronous warfare and the roots and structure of current war, see the brilliant movie Battle of Algiers. It was screened at the Pentagon in 2003.

It was an explicit strategy of Russian sci-fi writer, avant garde artist and political strategist, Vladimir Surkov an adviser for the post soviet Russian governments to spread misinformation in order to undermine resistance. This guy knows his semiotics. A defining strategy in 21st century politics and warfare is his concept of non-linear warfare, where a campaign of confusion is waged on many different fronts at the same time: psy-ops, propoganda, political and military actions, supporting extreme factions on both sides. The theory goes that the government should purposefully release contradictory statements, one day saying one thing and the next announcing the exact opposite. The aim is not necessarily to win, but to create a situation where resistance is dismantled my maintaining a constant state of confusion, by conducting self-contradictory activities - to create a situation where nobody can be sure what is true or real. Not knowing what is true, never knowing what the governments policy actually is, there is nothing for people to organise a resistance against. In this uncertainty nobody even knows what to resist. (Given Trumps famous involvement in 'post-truth' and the Russians involvement with Trump it's hard not to believe there is this method in the madness.)

It was the first non-linear war. In the primitive wars of the 19th and 20th centuries it was common for just two sides to fight. Two countries. Two groups of allies. Now four coalitions collided. Not two against two, or three against one. No. All against all.

And what coalitions! Not like the ones you had before… It was rare for whole countries to enter. A few provinces would join one side, a few others a different one. One town or generation or gender would join yet another. Then they could switch sides, sometimes mid-battle.

Their aims were quite different. To take over a disputed coastal shelf. To forcefully introduce a new religion. Raise ratings. Try out new lasers. To stop humans being divided into men and women as gender differences undermine the unity of a nation.

Most understood the war to be part of a process. Not necessarily its most important part.

- Vladimir Surkov, Without Sky, 2014

With this understanding, what are we to make of the confused state of Australian politics - where there is little difference between left party is as right as the right, and where extreme right and left are both gaining more popular support, and where leaders are ousted more often than in Italy?

Any strategy of resistance then, must take this into account, it must be a strategy that develops ways to deal with with this purposeful uncertainty and confusion or perhaps introduces back into power systems as some kind of counter action.

... Alt-Right etc, and the willful misunderstanding and co-opting of left wing criticism of truth and authority. Note Hitler from the session on rhetoric (eg: claiming to be a minority while being a majority, claiming to be persecuted while persecuting, myth of a good people who are wrongfully disempowered but inherently strong, struggling against corrupt people who are wrongfully powerful but inherently weak.)

The Death Of Truth And How We Gave Up On Facts And Ended Up With Trump, The Guardian Inside the Kremlin’s hall of mirrors, The Guardian

With more than a person can possibly read and so little time it difficult choices must be made. I haven't read enough Object Oriented Ontology to make a fair judgement, yet with every attempt I make to gain insights into the theory I only seem to find things that either have already been noted by others, are easy to refute or are trivial. So I feel this precious little time is spent on other things, even though, since it has gained some interest I think I'm missing something. All I can do is recommend judging for yourself, but taking it with a grain of salt.

'Ontology' is a philosophy about what 'is', or 'reality' (OOO is associated with 'speculative realism'). An object oriented ontology ('OOO') is one which looks at reality in terms of 'objects' in contrast to 'subjects'. Part of the OOO critique of the history of philosophy is it's pre-occupation with subjectivity, particularly since the German enlightenment philosopher Kant, who argued that things cannot be known 'in themselves' but only through the limitations of our capacity to understand and experience. Kant then focuses on what we as subjects are capable of. According to OOO this carries on throughout various kinds of relativism and other strands of philosophy into Post-Structuralism with it's thorough dismantling of 'objective' truth and reality as constructed through discourse and power.

Graham Harman describes 'undermining' and 'overmining':

'Just as we cannot reduce the table downward to electric charges rushing through empty space, we also cannot reduce it upward to its theoretical, practical, or· causal effects on humans or on anything else.''Just as we cannot reduce the table downward to electric charges rushing through empty space, we also cannot reduce it upward to its theoretical, practical, or· causal effects on humans or on anything else.'


'Undermining' is the tendency, as with science, to reductively give an analytical account of what causally and substantially makes up things (objects). 'Overmining' is, as with modern and post-structuralist philosophy, to look at the social and subjective construction of objects. Both of these are both explanatory and so miss the immanent object - that 'being' of the object we sense prior to analysis. In this way OOO sees aesthetics as prior to other branches of philosophy (usually epistemology is regarded as 'first' philosophy as there is no point making a statement about anything without first understanding how it could be true, but there are arguments for other branches to be 'first', such as Levinas' claim for ethics). We have an aesthetic impression of things, as sense of their being as objects prior to any analysis or explanation we might make of them. (This primacy of aesthetics makes OOO an attractive theorisation to artists). This is where I must misunderstand the interest though as this doesn't seem to be saying anything new, providing no innovation on phenomenology. In Husserl's Trancendental Phenomenology he demonstrates a method of suspending judgement and assumptions and beginning only with the immediate perceptions or phenomena in the present moment or 'stream of consciousness'. Husserl's student Heidegger departed somewhat from Husserl's phenomenology and goes into great depths that can't be summarised, but one way of putting some parts might be 'mindfulness of the Being of being' - a focus on being aware of the sense of being that things have about them, or the atmosphere of being here in this moment. If OOO is simply advocating this philosophical attitude, there's no need to coin a new term for it.

One claim of OOO (Graham Harman) is that objects interact with each other in the same Kantian sense that subjects interact with objects. Each limited by it's own capacities for interaction, unable to access each other 'in themselves', objects translate each other according to their own abilities, just as we do as subjects conscious of objects. This is an interesting claim about objects but it still can't get around subjectivity - to formulate this understanding about objects can only ever be done from our subjectivity. We still can't know this about objects in themselves, it is an explanation of how objects work that we have made up based on our subjective experience - we are still within our subjective limitations and cannot know this about objects in themselves. It's not clear how this is any different from any other naive objectivity, such as science. (possibly this is why it's called 'speculative' since it can't ever be more than a speculation that objects might be like this - but that's not good philosophy which would require a good reason, not just a guess).

'Just as we cannot reduce the table downward to electric charges rushing through empty space, we also cannot reduce it upward to its theoretical, practical, or· causal effects on humans or on anything else.'

Isn't that just saying that we can't know anything 'in itself' just as Kant and Husserl did?

"Our third table emerges as something distinct from its own components and also withdraws behind all its external effects."

...but he says:

"Our table is an intermediate being found neither in subatomic physics nor in human psychology, but in a permanent autonomous zone where objects are simply themselves."

- but as they appear to us to be so - it is to Graham that they appear 'autonomous', it is Graham who has an idea of what 'autonomous' and 'object' even is, right??? How else could it be? This aesthetic sense of the bootness of boots, the tableness of tables, or more to the point the this-particular-tableness of this-particular-table - how is that not subjective? The only way this makes sense is in the post-structuralist sense of 'differance', or like Levinasian ethics - where it is revealed that something is concealed, we sense the essence as 'internal' to it signified by it's external appearance but always beyond the grasp, as an in-itself. This is perhaps what Harman means by 'withdrawal'. But again, there's nothing new about this, it's just the 20th century philosophy he claims to criticise.

"By locating the third table (and to repeat, this is the only real table) in a space between the "table" as particles and the "table" in its effects on humans, we have apparently found a table that can be verified in no way at all, whether by science or by tangible effects in the human sphere. Yes-and that is precisely the point. Any philosophy is unwortby of the name if it attempts to convert objects into the conditions by which they can be known or verified."

- Graham Harman, The Third Table

...just as Kant says about things in themselves. So what's new?

Post Digital

Post Digital

After – Digital

Reaction against digital / Remaining human with tech: 
analogue, face to face IRL, artisanal makers, slow-food, circuit bending, pre-digital nostalgia, hipsters, reclaiming agency

Indifference to digital:
Effortlessly use digital but dismissive of digital ‘hype’ and ‘paranoia’.
I used an app to order a pizza, they know where I live – such future, so dystopia.

a new ordinary

In Film and Literature

Post Digital
Fantastic Mr Fox
Fan-fictionBladerunner 2049

Post Human
A Clockwork Orange
Bladerunner & 2049
Wild Palms
Never Let Me Go

a new ordinary

For children born in East Germany it was ordinary.

The history of ideas, society and culture – why do you think what you think?

Post Humanism

Challenges to human centred attitudes:

Is it posthuman-ism?
(a critical theory about what comes after the biological category ‘humans’)
or post-humanism?
(after the ideology ‘humanism’)

What is humanism?
Focus on human, in contrast to divine, nature or machine.
A focus on ethics – fraternity, civil society, progressive government, humanitarianism.

Eg: Dr Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech

thinking beyond human:

Nietzsche’s ubermensch and transhumanism
Cyborgs, Haraway and Hayles
Indigenous philosophy

new ordinary

Control Systems and Agency
A challenge to ethics
Cybernetics and Ostranenie

Manufacturing consent or not even bothering with that any more?
In my lifetime without my consent, without public debate, sometimes without significant resistance:

Biometrics in passports and at airports
Just two days ago I accidentally found a map showing that Google has been tracking my movements without me knowing.
Voice recognition when phoning the government.
Phones eavesdropping on conversations and presenting advertisements. Even if I switch it off on my phone, the people I’m with may have theirs switched on.
People I know may tag images of me without my consent enabling automatic face recognition.
The US government can access US corporate data, and most social media is run by US corporations, so the US government can monitor my movements use automatic face and voice recognition and eavesdrop on private conversations in my own home.
Innocent people, including children, are kept in jail indefinitely, for years, without trial.
Corporate commandeering of public streets requiring residents to use access passes.

A strategy or making us want the mechanisms of control, rather than force them upon us. It becomes difficult to get by, to get work, to socialise, etc, without participation.
To ‘opt out’ is to be unemployed, poor, desperate and alone.

we are hidden in noise

opt out alerts authorities
stealth draws attention

needle in haystack algorithms

Technology Ethics and Posthumans

Much of our ethics is based on the human interactions, especially not treating humans like objects.
If the distinction between subject and object, human and machine, collapses what becomes of ethics?
Micro, Meso and Macro system integration and agency.

Can you get work without a mobile?
Can you live anywhere without rent or debt?
Where does coltan come from?

Donna Haraway and Katherine Hayles

Donna Haraway
IT and cybernetic theory
Resistance politics

Katherine Hayles
Science fiction
IT reality

IT and Biotech

IP and DNA
DNA as encoding
Biological Hacking
Environment – Anthrax, Cane Toads and the future

Strong and weak AI
Problem solving

Robots at war
Should we be more worried that it will be out of control, or that someone will control it?


Do we control the control system, or does it control us?

How to maximise agency within a post human macro system beyond any one individual’s control?

What does ‘freedom’ mean?

"All you need for a movie is a girl and a gun." - Jean Luc Godard

Bruno Latour - sociologist/anthropologist studying scientists and engineers.

- focus on agency in interconnections among people and things

- from the Fr. tradition. Relation to de Certeau and situationalists?

- so some relation also to cybernetics and post humanism

- not a clear distinction between 'subject's and 'objects' or people and things. We normally think of people using things.

- Latour says that things have agency, even if they may not have cognition.

- More importantly, agency changes during interaction, as in example of a person with a gun from Pandora's Hope. Eg: US gun lobby says, 'Guns don't kill people, people kill people.'

- Digression into the principles of ethics, agency and cybernetics. Tech enables (enhanced) agency enables - to do - it follows, 'should we do?' and 'who can do what to who?' - technology, 'know how', thereby inherently ethical (see the workshop on ethics). Yet with post humanism, and ANT, distinction blurs boundary of subject and object and Western ethics is founded on this distinction - eg: don't treat people like objects (not as a means but an end, capable of judgement etc). Yet what is more definitively human that tool use and language, to be technological? We have always been cyborgs. Normally we might say it's not the tool that is evil but what you do with it, who uses it. A stick can be used to pound grain, to build a house, to hit someone on the head, it is not in itself 'evil'. The difference with guns, and atomic bombs, is that the specifically designed to kill, they are specifically designed to make it easier to kill more people, more easily, from a greater distance. Neither the user nor the designer and maker can wash their hands of this.

Back to Latour:

"The myth of the Neutral Tool under complete human control and the myth of the Autonomous Destiny that no human can master are symmetrical. But a third possibility is more commonly realized: the creation of a new goal that corresponds to neither agent's program of action. (You only wanted to injure but, with a gun now in your hand, you want to kill.) p178, Pandora's Hope.

"Which of them, then, the gun or the citizen, is the actor in this situation? Someone else (a citizen gun, a gun-citizen). If we try to comprehend techniques while assuming that the psychological capacity of humans is forever fixed, we will not succeed in understanding how techniques are created nor even how they are used. You are a different person with a gun in your hand."p179

"You are another subject because you hold the gun; the gun is another object because it has entered into a relationship with you. The gun is no longer the gun-in-the-armoury or the gun-in-the-drawer or the gun-in-the-pocket, but the gun-in-your-hand, aimed at someone who is screaming. What is true of the subject, the gunman, is true of the object, of the gun that is held... The twin mistake of the materialists and the sociologists is to start with essences, those of subjects or those of objects... It is now possible to shift our attention to this 'someone else', the hybrid actor comprising (for instance) gun and gunman. We must learn to attribute - redistribute - actions to many more agents than are acceptable in either the materialist or the sociological account. Agents can be human or (like the gun) nonhuman, and each can have goals (or functions, as engineers prefer to say). Since the word 'agent' in the case of nonhumans is uncommon, a better term, as we have seen is actant. Why is this nuance important? Because, for example, in my vignette of the gun and the gunman, I could replace the gunman with 'a class of unemployed loiterers,' translating the individual agent into a collective; or I coudl talk of 'unconscious motives,' translating it into a subindividual agent. I could redescribe the gun as 'what the gun lobby puts in the hands of unsuspecting children,' translating it from an object into an institution or a commercial network; or I could call it 'the action of a trigger on a cartridge through the intermediary of a spring and a firing pin,' translating it into a mechanical series of causes and consequences. These examples of actor-actant symmetry force us to abandon the subject-object dichotomy, a distinction that prevents the understanding of collectives. It is neither people nor guns that kill. Responsibility for action must be shared among the various actants."pp179-180

Digital humanities has been around for about as long as there have been computers. In a sense, because computers have been from the beginning symbol processors, and handling information and encoded messages they've always had something to do with language and meaning and so humanities. Ada Lovelace's notes consider some philosophical implications of software. Activity increased in the 90s but it has boomed in the last 10 years or so.

Put simply digital humanities means doing humanities with computers in an innovative way. There are a lot of different activities that people call digital humanities, such as: Stylometry (statistical analysis of texts to analyse stylistic features), archives and databases, digitisation of texts, image analysis of historical fashions, maps of social relationships such as publishing and letter exchanges etc.

Since we are doing philosophicy and critical theory here, we'll just consider a few things from that point of view.

These are all uses of technology for doing humanities. It's sometimes noted as a shift away from critical theory to practical concerns. Some people see digital humanities as a way to at least gain some knowledge based on empirical evidence, as in a scientific approach, in a field usually so subjective. Others see it as serving a neo-liberal agenda to submit everything to technology and as a way to monetise humanities through tech start ups and so on. Others see it as a way to carry on a critical attitude as a kind of culture hacktivism.

Many see it as making it possible to ask and answer research questions that weren't possible without the technology (such as the ability to process thousands of texts quickly or to access library and image materials from all around the world quickly) and to disseminate results, provide research tools and educate in a more engaging way accessible to more people over the web.

There is sometimes a concern that digital humanities is replacing or abandoning critical theory, deep thought, politics, for technical fetishism. Sometimes that does occur and sometimes yes, there is a technophilic neoliberal agenda at work - I have been involved in digital humanities startups. Some practitioners see it as a sort of post-theory practice, where theoretical debates are no longer of primary concern, and theory itself is less relevant. It is certainly often a pragmatic field where a lot of time is spent getting things to work, but it remains that it is usually to answer a research question, and such a question must be asked within a theoretical ground.

Furthermore, digital humanities is focused on the use of technology - or a set of tools. What tools are used for depends on who is using them. Someone who wants to make money will try to use them to make money. Someone who wants to use them to fight the resistance will use them to fight the resistance.

IT is usually developed for commercial use or for science and engineering. Humanities fundamental epistemelogical and methodological needs that are fundamentally differnt to science and commerce, yet we have minimal budgets. Bricolage is a common practice in IT - taking bits of code and assembling new systems from it, but it is especially needed in humanities - taking existing systems built for other purposes and turning them to our own ends.

To me digital humanities should not be reduced to a pragmatic ignorance of theory. Rather it provides ways to enact and perform critique and do something, beyond simply arguing the case in a paper. So, for example, the Early Modern Women's Writing archive, instead of merely arguing that early modern women's writing is under acknowledged and buried among other works and that it's many forms question the dominant form of the book - we created an archive that makes it available on the web and show cases it's many forms that are resistent to consistent structure. Producing an online digital map of colonial frontier massacres raises awareness to many more people than a print book, as well as providing links to newspapers and other sources so that people can see the evidence for themself. It also enables people to form a more personal relationship with these incidents than normally possible with statistics, since people can see incidents that occurred near to where they live or grew up and by reading individual stories.

Beyond this I'd suggest that a shift towards 'teknos' (or 'knowing how to') from 'logos' (or reasoned knowledge) is not a shift away from critical theory but a profound change in critical theory. Even while criticising 'logos' and the history of Western thought in the most profound way thinkers like Derrida were constrained to do this within logos - to continue making reasoned arguments. A focus on teknos is a radical shift in method.

A hammer may be used for many things - in one persons hands it builds a house, in another persons it is a weapon, in another person it cracks open a macademia nut. To some extent the tool is not political, the person is. However, as in Actor Network Theory, this is not the end of the story. We are part of a larger network of interactions and when we design and build technology we can't wash our hands of responsibility. Some tools are built for specific purposes - a gun is built to kill, such that someone who invents, makes, promotes guns cannot absolve themselves of responsibility for their use to kill someone. They are specifically created to make it easier for people to kill faster, at a greater distance and in higher quantities. While we can't be completely responsible for what people do with technology, neither can shirk all responsibility for what it makes possible.

Technology, and so digital humanities, involves many ethical problems. Typically technology enables people to do some enhanced activity - to process faster, to see further, or smaller, etc. Ethics relates to interactions among people, so technology necessarily has a technical dimension because it changes what people are able to do. It raises the questions, Who can use it and who can't? What can they use it for? Who can use it to do what to who?

Glitches reveal the human behind the precise veneer of technology.

... and here is my late night rant:

What is digital humanities? You're looking at it.
An all too close future in which neoliberalism has declared philosophy redundant 
because it is not profitable in a world where only vocational courses, 
ways to be useful to corporations, are salable to people desperate to be employable, 
in a struggle to be the unit of labour in highest demand. 
Philosophy and other humanities disciplines survive only through the 
actions of those who see it's value for it's own sake, who ask 
"what is all this money for anyway?" Who say, "If the party bans it, 
if the nazis ban it, if the king bans it, if the budget bans it, it's all the same."
Those few who can steal back time out of their 
14hr days in intellectual labour the field of technology innovation 
assemble ad hoc courses from pre-existing materials, books, podcasts, movies - 
both online and offline to maximise reach, to cater for as many as possible
in the shortest time whatever their type and degree of inconvenience. 
These hastily hacked together courses are little more than notes, selected 
samples of pithy quotes from Anaximandros, the Mahabharata, Spivak and Haraway, 
with annotations, aimed to get a point through, to show contrasts and oppositions 
in the shortest possible time, in the hope that insights might propogate like memes 
if only they are simple and incisive enough, designed by busy people for busy people, 
interspersed with bullet points and half finished sentences, telegraph style, 
in html pre tags showing notes as if they were raw code because when it came 
down to the last minute there still wasn't enough time even to mark it up, 
let alone write it up, followed by embedded clips, maps and audio files 
designed to sustain interest through the density of text,
trusting that one idea will lead to another and each may follow from nodes
in this broad network into depths of their own devise.

- At least that's how I see it before I wake up and delete ;-)