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  • Poiesis and Enchantment in Topological Matter by Sha Xin Wei
  • Michael Uhall (bio)
Sha Xin Wei, Poiesis and Enchantment in Topological Matter. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2013, 384 pp. $45.00 cloth.

The basic idea informing Sha Xin Wei's Poiesis and Enchantment in Topological Matter is that both matter and media inhere in a continuous plenum of inextricably interrelated processes. As the title indicates, Sha employs the mathematical field of topology, drawing upon its rich reservoir of concepts and functions (e.g., ranging from point set topology, referring to the set-theoretic foundations of general topology, to systems of ordinary and partial differential equations, which endeavor to model flows and rates of change over time) in order to theorize how continua serve as the conditions of possibility for both matter and media. It is these latter two terms that attract Sha's attention most throughout the course of the text, and his engagement with them speaks to the following questions: What is the role of responsive media in determining how we conceive and perceive our irreducibly active implication in the world that environs us? How can such responsive media induce shifts in our ethical or political comportments as subjects? How can we craft material ontologies that bracket objects so as to foreground processes, yet which retain the conceptual richness of both objects and processes? What happens to our aesthetic and political practices, to ourselves and to our world, when we conceive of these foregoing terms as effects of ontogenetic processes rather than as predicative enumerations or sovereign exercises?

In brief, then, Sha carefully situates his text as an intervention in multiple fields simultaneously. On the one hand, it clearly speaks to many of the concerns of the new materialists. By showing how objects and processes necessarily implicate one another, Sha implicitly proposes a point of possible rapprochement between the various warring factions of object-oriented ontologists and relational process metaphysicians. He does this by directing our attention toward ontogenesis, or the distinctly processual means by which differentiable objects come into existence. On the other hand, Sha's text insists that media theory situate its objects of study within the contexts provided by various robustly articulated materialist philosophies. This is not to suggest that media, or media objects, should be subordinated to philosophical frameworks. To the contrary, Sha recommends that matter and media be conceived in similar terms: as the multimodal effects of underlying ontogenetic processes, yes, but also as providing the very theater in which fundamental, reciprocal transformations in both produce the full spectrum of all such effects.

In the text, Sha clarifies, first, that he has little interest in advancing a strictly philosophical argument. Instead, his purpose in writing stems from the desire to engage with and stimulate the reader. This does not imply that the text contains no arguments, [End Page 563] of course, but, rather, speaks to the tone, which is consistently exploratory, entirely genial, and wholly transdisciplinary.

Throughout chapters 2 and 3, Sha proposes a "genealogy of topological media" (p. 5), by which he intends the various articulations and performances of ontogenetic continuity that consistently inform the text. His examples of such topological media range widely across the history of media—incorporating, for example, lengthy discussions of the transition from representational to algorithmic and performative notational schemata in both dance and music, as well as detailed examinations of the numerous art installations Sha has contributed to or designed (e.g., the Geometer's Workbench "smart board" for mathematicians, Hubbub speech-sensitive urban surfaces, and the TGarden responsive environment). At stake here is Sha's claim that we need to embrace the transition from technologies of representation, which endeavor to transmit data to a receiver who remains passive until animated by coded instructions (or "recipes"), to technologies of performance, which endeavor to transform the very site in which performance takes place. This necessitates that our focus shift from the composer and origin to the performer and site, from analysis to instrumentation, from designing objects to designing instruments, even from the instruments themselves to modes of material and temporal sequencing. Accordingly, material/ media environments become not only participatory, but also make it possible for those subjects...


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pp. 563-566
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