Unit Operations I

I first really engaged with Bogosts’ work in college, a few years ago, as I dug into Games Studies seriously for the first time. I’ve expressed slivers of his work before- one of my earliest posts was a rather dry excerption of a college essay of mine, on the Simulation Gap, Procedural Rhetoric, and Sim City. I didn’t have to deeply engage in his ontology before, though.

Below, excerpts of Ian Bogosts’ Unit Operations. I mostly skip his tying up with older philosophers (Heidigger, Badiou), because mostly he is drawing a different history for assemblage theory than we’ve already explored through DeLanda.


I. Unit Operations, First Pass

“To unpack the relationships between criticism and computation, I will rely on the notion of unit operations. Unit operations are modes of meaning-making that privilege discrete, disconnected actions over deterministic, progressive systems. […] I contend that unit operations represent a shift away from system operations, although neither strategy is permanently detached from the other.”

Literary theory: Unit Operations interpret networks of discrete readings; system operations interpret singular literary authorirty.

Software technology: object technology (OT) exploits unit operations; structured programming exhibits system operations.

Biology: DNA nucleotide bonding displays unit operations; the “Darwinian idea of acquired characteristics illustrates system operations.”


II. Why “Units”

The term unit was selected because it was relatively context-free. Units are elements, things. They can be contingent (like a building block) or autonomous (a system can be a unit in another system).

Object can be a reasonable analogue. Graham Harman usesit in his related concept of an “object-oriented philosophy”. Bogost is only avoiding it because it has special meaning in computer science.

“[…] Units not only define people, network routers, genes, and electrical appliances, but also emotions, cultural symbols, business processes, and subjective experiences. Aggregates of these units, such as works of literature, human conditions, anatomies, and economies can properly be called systems, [though not of the kind that I’m about to describe, because] such systems can be understood in turn as units themselves.”


III. System Operations are Totalizing Structures

“System operations are totalizing structures that seek to explicate a phenomenon, behavior, or state in its entirety. Unlike complex networks, which thrive between order and chaos, systems seek to explain all things via an unalienable order. For centuries, systemacity was the fountainhead of the sciences. [Even the social sciences: “Mark C Taylor characterizes the structuralists’ obsession with systems as an attempt “to discover reason in history by uncovering forms and patterns that are permanent and universal rather than transient and arbitrary”]. Stability, linearity, universalism, and permanence characterize system operations.”

“System operations pay the price of openness for certainty. Accordingly, they often depend on attitudes or values that inform the approaches that created the system in the first place.”

These systems are suggested to be discovered, natural, universal. That’s why they are considered totalizing systems- and this differentiates them from complex systems, an “assemblage of units”, which are “typically autopoietic or at least arbitrary, and characterized by exploration or interpretation rather than discovery.”

“Unit-operational systems are only systems in the sense that they describe collections of units, structured in relation to one another. However, […] such operational structures must struggle to maintain their openness, to avoid collapsing into totalizing systems.”


IV. Why “Operations”

“In systems analysis, an operation is a basic process that takes one or more inputs and performs a transformation on it. An operation is the means by which something executes some purposeful action. Mathematical operations offer fundamental examples, especially the function as outlined by Euler. Other kinds of operations include decisions, transitions, and state changes. I use the term operation very generally, covering not only the traditional understanding but also many more” [Brewing tea, falling in love]. They can be mechanical or discursive. A material and conceptual logic always rules operations. There is a logic of units [Heidegger: creative; Software Engineering: procedural] and a logic of systems [Heidegger: static; Software Engineering: structured].

Complex networks are open, adjudicated by the nonsimple interaction of a variety of constantly changing constituents: “The Internet, the brain, human genetics, and social fads”.

“Unit operations articulate connections between nodes in networks; they build relations. Rather than attempting to construct or affirm a universalizing principle, unit operations move according to a broad range of diverse logics, from maximizing profit to creating new functional capacity. Such a broad understanding of the operation is required to facilitate the common processes of the artistic and technological acts that are my subjects.”


V. Juxtaposed with local Games Studies canons

“In Hamlet on the Holodeck [a big Games Studies canon text, from the narratology school of thought] Janet Murray argues that digital environments share four essential properties: they are procedural, participatory, spatial, and encyclopedic. The first and in my opinion the most important of these properties, procedurality, Murray defines as the computer’s “defining ability to execute a series of rules.” More specifically, procedurality refers to the practice of encapsulating specific real-world behaviors into programmatic representations.”

A big favorite of Murray’s: ELIZA.

“Unlike Espen Aarseth’s [very influential] notion of the cybertext, which relies on configuration as a formal property of the artifact itself, unit operations are located both at the textual and the critical level. Aarseth articulates a “traversal function” that assembles a particular string of readable signs (what he calls “scriptons”) from a possible array of textual signs (what he calls “textons”).” But cybertext ultimately is a work, not an particular critical practice- unit operations can be observed in any artifact, “rather arbitrarily”.


VI. (Example Unit Analysis Not Included)

Bogost provides an analysis of the Spielberg film The Terminal, which I won’t totally except because the gist is simple enough: “In my unit analysis of the film, the story serves as the glue for a configurative work about specific modes of uncorroborated waiting. This approach is quite different from the inverse, an analysis of the [trite] story of Viktor, Amelia, Dixon, and others with common touch points in the common theme of waiting. Such a distinction is core to the critical process of uni analysis, which privileges discrete components of meaning over global narrative progression.”


VII. Object Oriented

In the second chapter, Bogost draws histories of literary thought (esp. structuralism and post-structuralism, (with shoutouts to Lacan and Zizek!)) and of computation. While interesting, it may not be an important addition to these notes.

In the first chapter, Bogost claims a conceptual inheritance from Complexity Theory and from Object Technology (Object Oriented Programming). The complexity bit is familiar. Bogost digs into OOT in chapter three.

“Software must exhibit four properties to be considered object oriented”:

  1. Abstraction: The programmatic representation of an object, disassociated from any specific instance; only modified or instantiated versions of an object model or class actually exist.
  2. Encapsulation: The content of a software object is hidden from other parts of the system.
  3. Polymorphism: The different derived instances of a class can have different behaviors.
  4. Inheritance: The class itself can be used to create other classes, which adopt or inherit the parent classes’ structure, attributes, and behavior.

Through remapping, our phrases invented to represent the new and the abstract come back to haunt us in our interpretations the pre-existing material world.

Encapsulation hides the internal workings of a particular operaton (or method) for the purposes of reducing complexity and protecting the real or intellectual property of the operation. A bank encapsulates the customer-account relationship- there is a procedure that goes on behind the counter, in a proverbial “black box”.

Part II will be on videogames.