I’ve recently been reading parts of Ian Bogost’s Unit Operations and am finding his comparison of Badiou and Deleuze & Guattari helpful and interesting. My goal here is to continue thinking through processes of identification, the ways that we situate ourselves in relation to others and to the world around us. Various theories of identification, although they don’t use this term, suggest different notions of counting. Kenneth Burke’s focus on the ways in which we negotiate identifications symbolically suggests that our experience is countable. We can identify/list/count the symbols (and thus the ideas, images, beliefs, attitudes, etc.) that we have in common. In turn, we can reflect on these identifications and critique them.
As Diane Davis argues in “Identification: Burke and Freud on Who You Are,” Freud offers an understanding of identification that occurs outside of symbolic representation and that thus precludes the possibility of counting. For Davis, Freud describes an “affective identification with the other (the ‘m/other’), who is not (yet) a discrete object or image or form. This ‘primary identification,’ as Freud sometimes calls it, precedes the very distinction between ego and model, and inasmuch as it is precisely not compensatory to division, it remains stubbornly on the motion side of Burke’s action/motion loci” (125). This model suggests that we are not always negotiating our identifications through discrete symbols (i.e., we share the same attitude toward the idea of democracy, toward the image of the president, etc.), that some of our identifications are occurring without reference to an ego that can organize and count them.
Badiou and Bogost are counters; they describe processes through which we encounter the world as a series of discrete units. In Bogost’s terms, “Unit operations are modes of meaning-making that privilege discrete, disconnected actions over deterministic, progressive systems” (3). Units must be apprehended in their singularity in order to be units, even though they are composed of multiples. As suggested by the quote, Bogost specifically differentiates between unit operations and system operations, which “are characteristically protracted, dependent, sequential, and static” (3). System operations tend to be a clunky and unresponsive. They suggest a sort of thinking and a process of identification that works top down, that organizes the world according to pre-existing categories and abstractions. Unit operations are more responsive, more attuned to emergent possibilities for experiencing and apprehending the world, for identifications.
On the other hand, unit operations also privilege discrete, disconnected actions over notions of flow, movement, and indivisibility. Even though units are already multiple – they are composed of other units – they nonetheless make the world countable. In this sense, unit operations cannot fully account for the type of primary identifications described by Davis. In Unit Operations, the work of Deleuze and Guattari represents the more open-ended counterpoint to Bogost’s unit operations. In Bogost’s terms, D&G focus “on removing boundaries, in rejecting the idea that boundaries create meaning” (156). As translator Brian Massumi notes:
Nomad thought replaces the closed equation of representation, x = x = not y (I = I = not you) with an open equation: …+ y+ z+ a+…. Rather than analyzing the world into discrete components, reducing their manyness to the One (=Two) of self-reﬂection, and ordering them by rank, it sums up a set of disparate circumstances in a shattering blow. It synthesizes a multiplicity of elements without effacing their heterogeneity or hindering their potential for future rearranging. (qtd. in Bogost, 142)
For Bogost, however, this gesture of fidelity toward heterogeneity ultimately fails:
Massumi’s matheme “…+ y+ z+ a+…” explicates Deleuze and Guattari’s insistence on sameness: here it is the continuous mathematical series, not the disjunctive mathematical set, that best characterizes being. Nomadism implies stasis as much as it implies movement. (142)
By processing heterogeneity as undifferentiated, “Nomadism thus risks becoming a system operation” (142). In other words, by emphasizing movement over discrete units, D&G fail to locate and address true multiplicity (which for Bogost requires a series of discrete units). D&G privilege an uncountable world.
So, with Badiou and Bogost and perhaps Burke as well loosely aligned against Davis and D&G here, I want to consider how these various models lend themselves to different notions of identification. Bogost insists on the importance of unit operations – on countability – for establishing a practice of identification: “Deleuze and Guattari vaunt the power of rhizomatic decision making, but they offer little practical basis for reformulating individual maneuvers” (158). A similar critique could be mounted against Davis: if we imagine identification as something that occurs outside of representation, we lack a ground from which to critique and reformulate specific identifications. Davis’s response would likely suggest that our inability to establish a ground upon which to critique primary identifications does not mean that they don’t occur.
On the one hand, we have the notion that identifications must be in some way discrete and countable, available to representation and critical intervention. On the other hand, we have the notion that this tendency toward apprehending and appropriating experience into discrete units fails to do justice to the extent of that experience, that something necessarily remains after all of the counting is done.
Bogost claims that this latter understanding reveals itself to be a sort of system operation, registering the world according to an abstract category of difference rather than accounting for actual differences between discrete objects. It seems possible to make a similar charge against Bogost. Since units are composed of multiplicities and even systems can function as units themselves, how can we comfortably draw the line between the two? Unit operations supposedly recognize the emergent quality of experience, but how can we recognize and classify this emergence without recourse to systems thinking? As soon as we apprehend something as a discrete unit, haven’t we already performed a systems (dependent/static) operation?
Bogost positions unit operations as a sort of middle ground between systems operations and nomadism, but it is not clear that this middle ground exists. The difference between unit and systems operations seems to always be a matter of perspective and scale. Both are modes of counting. Part of the question on the table seems to be whether identification is a countable process. Ultimately, the answer seems to depend less on arriving at “yes/no” than on exploring the implications of each possibility. One approach risks failing to take into account the full range of (uncountable) experience; the other approach risks failing to make available any ground from which to discuss and critique specific instances of identifications.