continent. maps a topology of unstable confluences and ranges across new thinking, traversing interstices and alternate directions in culture, theory, biopolitics and art.
Issue 4.2 / 2015: 19-23

Pitch Drop

Jonathan Kemp

One’s mind and the earth are in a constant state of erosion, mental rivers wear away abstract banks, brain waves undermine cliffs of thought, ideas decompose into stones of unknowing, and conceptual crystallizations break apart into deposits of gritty reason.

Robert Smithson, A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects (1968)


Pitch Drop 1 

Poised somewhere between a Thalean liquid universe and an ALICE quark-gluon droplet, the Pitch Drop's bloodless versioning pushes us inside a Poiseuille bubble in which everything is “so impalpable that we cannot in any way lay hold of them”.[1] And yet it is heresy to think that any observer cannot make sense of this drip dropping as the cut of measurement that, correctly orientated, amplifies the big picture. This dripping detachment can never be confounded with a coming coalescence, not even for an impossibly unbounded time-zero moment; each of the directions would pull the drip into entirely different phenomena.


From time-zero, it is milliseconds before sensory disjuncture sets in; demon-brains reconcile distinct thresholds, so that the speed of light and sound are predictably bound into one event or moment, into this drip. Machining a hierarchy of nows to form the next, this naturalisation of lag as continuous flow is a sometime resistor to the assault of manic jumpcuts, too chaotic to comprehend. Only if the macro holds all the way down does the dissipative molecule get transfixed in this (um)welt of finitudinal cuts. With such a hack, process and its procedural representation get loosely stitched together, blooded and bound, in almost the perfect crime.


But it also appears as the carrion of any strategem that is written on the back of contemporary re-appraisals of this teeming material world. In the search for a more authentic globe, it’s a bloody war on demon transcendence that feathers such a jolly tar in the new aesthetic -- the non-organic affected-affecting of Jack human, where certainty is stitched together on a macro level.


If protean, can anything be what we think it not to be? Confounding the macroscopic, how can we observe up close any lag, any moment? And how can we tell that our effort is not, just for an instant, also the heat of this protean, chaotic moment? Is it only golem who can stand outside a bubble universe, see the bigger picture, measure and adjust for any flux taking place?


Any search will inevitably corkscrew itself high into the air from which it is to pluck at a geologic epoche (n+1), a theological (n+1) that crushes the categorically inorganic, the arche-fossil, to re-earth it in a flattened bucolic landscape that is more protein-rich than protean. From a singular fleshy host this viral expansion across all domains is rendered as distributed, informational, and radically rhizomorphic; yet, it singularly hypostatizes its caveat that no one part displays a less than lacklustre agency. There is only demon agency.


Pitch Drop 2

If everything that implicitly exists cannot be rendered explicit,[2]  then surveyance covers only those parts that can be technically measured, such that two assumptions are made: “something's always missing” and “will it be revealed if we do this or that?”.

Stuff comes in real, material form, at many speeds and scales, none more fundamental than any other, so when things are measured, they're only ever coercions of those forms. The rest we don't think about because of the erasure of any localised means of production. Be it the scale, the image or the proposition of the product, the process by which it emerged is effaced and erased, the play of the pitch drop lab.

It’s this disregard for the local and material of the world that offends the ontological claim that the world is made of matter, and that its material product and reproduction are the basis of all other forms. Yet, even this claim can appear counter-intuitive as where everyday concepts such as belief or art are illusions, then what is the status of those of matter, energy, bits, and electrons? Materialism itself always veers towards the same idealism, because it reduces objects to a fairly shallow set of ultimately human-accessible properties.

Any act of observation, of detection, makes the cut between what is measured and not measured, as it separates out stuff from these entanglements to render some things visible and others not. So observation and measurement appears to be of inherently ethico-onto-political significance.

But to explain something in terms of its smallest bits doesn't render its mid-scale objects any less real, “anymore than zinc and sulphuric acid cease to react in a certain way when we explain their reaction in terms of the atomic reaction”.[3] There is, then, a problem in identifying which bits to measure and whether such measuring does more than just concatenate its object into a versioning of what remains essentially the same until it is not (the drip drops).


Coal with conchoidal fracture, image copyright 2015 MicroVision Labs, Inc.

Pitch Drop 3

How heretical is measurement? And if measurement is a formalism that always trades off some things for others, then what more can we hope to do with all this measured stuff? Does it hold the key to turning existing bodies of flesh, data and text inside out?.

The question is always divided between the heresy of jumping into that heaving teeming material world to bring about novel and vertiginous coordinates for everything, or the more fearful vision that wonders if, within its humble imaginarium, wouldn’t it be a good idea to keep some of these things, those structures only because they're kind of useful?

Do such analytics even need to be an embryo for a counter-order of objects, of matter, of humans, Against Method, as A Matter of Contingency, of Facticity? Should measurement care about being the means to access a Matter that explodes the crystallization beyond the awe of implementation?

What makes facts happen is matter itself, in a repository of absolute contingency. These matter of facts, drops that build on each other according to matter's own principle of sufficient reason, with rougher and rougher uncrystallized matter always underlying our current precarious objects.

And always, the threat is its being the reservoir from which other regimes of objects can arise.

Pitch Drop begins to signal something of the deeper struggle between informed objects and this uncrystallised matter. It is a struggle between objects replete with histories that try to intercede against a matter that turns all this inside out, a matter that threatens to lead us astray with its raw flows and circulations of energy and material. This is the struggle between the contraflow of overdetermined, human-produced objects that are pushed over and against an entropic matter -- a matter that undermines the comforting fallacy of our heretical objects.[4] 

Imagine a more criminal project, where our crystallized objects allow for a more violent kind of access; one akin to salt dissolving into water, sulphuric acid spilled over earth, soft bodies smacked against hard surfaces. Such a physics of decrystallization does not assume bodies and objects, this or that, to be at the starting point, but points, rather, to the crime of how matter got tied up into those bodies and objects, this and that. But even if some things are cheaper to fold up like that, any tying up of objects depends on the sufficiency of matter, not the comfortable mid-way points that denote some faked consolidation of agency.

This is part of any material project. Matter is unfettered, but bodies and objects, this or that, grounded on matter, need to spew out in massively reproducible genealogies. The notion is to remonstrate with these crystalline objects -- to remonstrate with those midway points, decrystallize this and that, and liquify their matter -- not to have them repeatedly recrystallized in only slightly different ways. It is the re-mattering of objects that is really heretical, that is explosive. It’s fearful, it’s the brutal crime where there is no over-coding by something other, by some unitary idea that untethers it from its substrate physics.

In the face of a primordial physics, humans might just have to stick with the objects they seem to always build and cherish. After all, if the world is a confusing, ill-considered blob of matter, it's from this blob that we individuate our things - from the first copper produced by the transformation of rock by heat, to the current use of half the periodic elements in recent processors. Perhaps it’s best to keep individuating them, best to ignore the underneath of those precipitations, the catastrophic now lurking under their surface in the wrenching of matter's processes and procedures.

Pitch Drop 4

If the flows of events in the world are processes, then the underlying logic of such flows, the metaphysics of how things are, is procedural. Our interventions, our descriptions, our measurements are our procedural representations, concerned with quantifying how those processes and procedures might be.

Processes are implemented somewhere, in the blob of matter, the constant origin of all new actual entities, which acts like a space where procedures bump into each other. In this sense, matter would not only be the stuff things are made out of but also the space to which all things go to get knocked into shape. This is matter's own principle of sufficient reason, its genealogy and its geology.

Procedures are ways of executing processes. They can also create processes. They can be non-symbolic and intuitive, as in the case of humans and animals going to sleep at night, and they can generate novel behaviours, like dreams. They can be stopped and begun again when a new day dawns. Whatever they do, they involve some matter, and some configuration of matter as the apparatus that delimits their procedures.

In the case of sleep, this may be something like a biological clock. Computers are very useful in representing procedures, and may, in turn, create processes -- think of cellular automata as artificial life. They may produce outputs that include real world expressions, like controlling an aeroplane, or run procedures that interpret and represent other processes in the material world, such as fast Fourier transform (FFT) analysis.

There is always a compression at work to avoid the recursion of explaining the machinery of representation. More exactly, such procedural representations explain processes by invoking procedures that smuggle in other unaccounted-for processes, say, the biological and material processes in which any apparatus is embedded.

The problem is that as more powerful regimes of knowledge emerge because of the updates in the configuration of this apparatus – like the shifts from paper, which allowed us to engage in long chains of reasoning that are impossible for neurological processing alone, to contemporary bio-computers as embodied substrate machinery for problem-solving – then smuggled processes, like inductive bias, remain procedurally unaccounted for (cf. footnote 2). All procedural representations are stopped at a certain point, decided on symbolic, pragmatic grounds, so that where thinking halts on such macro scale, any result will always be just good enough.

Measurements are wrapped in matter, just as everything else is. They are inscribed in things like brains, pottery, paper, electro-magnetic frequencies, and computer codes that persist over time and extension. The configuration of their matter is, nonetheless, contingent, as matter is never only fixed, but passed around in variations with fuzzy borders, not only because of actions applied to it but because of its own protean activeness. Any apparatus is thus necessarily wrapped in matter and its contingencies that accord to their own logics. Thinking, and science, doesn't refer to things but to parameters and correlations, as it bootstraps its practices through refinements in the deployment of its apparatus.

Formalism is thus both necessary and ontic (real) – necessary because of how and what is doing the representing (brains = matter = constraints) and ontic because it is such framing, as in a molecule colliding with molecule, that brings particular things into being.

On the other hand, procedural representations are always in relation to some other information processing systems (organic or machinic), and so define for such systems a partial but necessary sum of knowledge for the world around them, one that cannot really be submitted to proof in the sense of any compelling necessity. Implementing a particular array or apparatus of matter creates both ontic effects and epistemological limitations. Materiality and meaning are both indeterminable outside these particular, normative, and persistent set-ups, and no contradictory value can exist because of the entanglement with one apparatus and not another. In essence, concatenating with the same crystallized object, committing no heresy, revealing no crime.



[1] Maxwell, J.C. (1872). Theory of Heat. London: Allen and Unwin, pp 153-154. Cited in Otto E. Rössler Antithermodynamics, European Scientific Journal December 2013, (accessed January 14th, 2015).

[2] That is, they “transform closed systems to open systems and express behaviour beyond that computable by algorithms” Turing, Alan, On the Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis, (1952).

[3] Bhaskar, Roy, A Realist Theory of Science Verso (2008)(1975), p 59

[4] “Taken as a system, nature is one in which information tends progressively to disintegrate according to the second principle of thermo-dynamics. Man opposes this natural tendency towards entropy not only by acquiring, storing and transmitting information, but also (and in this he differs from all other-organisms) by intentionally producing in-formation. This specifically human, anti-natural faculty is "spirit," and it results in "culture," that is, in objects, which have improbable forms, in "informed objects." Flusser: Towards A Philosophy of Photography (2000), p 21