From Data to Information

In recent months I've been spending time learning Swift. As such, I've been thinking a lot about data structures. Swift has a nice spectrum of possible data structures to pick from -- something that I'll have to discuss another day -- but what interests me here is the question of data itself. Scholars often treat etymology as a special kind of divination. (And philosophers like Heidegger made a career of it.) But I find the etymology of the word “data” to be particularly elegant and revealing.

Data comes from the Latin dare, meaning to give. But it's the form that's most interesting. First of all, it's in the neuter plural, so it refers to “things.” Second, data is a participle in the perfect passive form. Thus the word means literally “the things having been given.” Or, for short, I like to think of data as “the givens.” French preserves this double meaning nicely by calling data the données. (The French also use the word “data,” although *I believe* this is technically an anglicism imported from technical vocabulary, despite French being much closer to Latin than English.) Continue reading

Assessing the Legacy of That Thing That Happened After Poststructuralism

Now that the SR/OOO wave has crested, crashed, and receded, we can start to evaluate it with the advantage of perspective. I won't attempt to offer an autopsy here, but I do want to address a few points and then offer a prediction for the future. I'll refer to some details about SR/OOO, but I also want to consider it more broadly as symptomatic of the new ontological turn or “that thing that happened after poststructuralism.” In other words, while some of the specific issues within SR/OOO are important, I think that the advent of SR/OOO is most useful for marking an historical boundary, even if it can't explain the larger state of theory and philosophy today.

The first general point, one that I already made a few years ago, is that what began as realism has ended as materialism. We've seen this happen with the “new ontology”: what began with an interest in philosophical realism by post-Deleuzians like Manuel Delanda, has reorganized itself into a distinctly materialist discourse. Jane Bennett's 2009 book Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things was instrumental in galvanizing this broad trend. But one might also cite any number of other contributions from the likes of Elizabeth Grosz, Karen Barad, Rosi Braidotti, or Arjun Appadurai. Continue reading

Harman vs Cole (Round 2)

The philosopher Graham Harman is nothing if not amusing. Here he's responding to this letters thread, which was a follow up to an article by Andrew Cole in the summer issue of Artforum. There are a number of 4526_Langland-dreamerhowlers in there, but I'll just correct the obvious mistakes:

-- No, I've never collaborated with Andrew Cole, as claimed by Harman (twice). I didn't co-edit a book called The Cambridge Companion to Piers Plowman. Although I can say that Andrew is a fine fellow who I first met during graduate school fifteen years ago and have recently gotten back in touch with over email. Why would Harman claim something that anyone can check with a simple click? He has since apologized.

-- No, my article on the relationship between philosophy and postfordism is not an “attempted refutation” of Badiou, but rather, as the ending of the article indicates, an endorsement of Badiou.

-- No one ever denied that Marx believed in the existence of physical objects. That's a red herring. And even if Marx and Harman share this single trait (who doesn't?), it does not indemnify Harman and his philosophy of objectification in which “everything is an object.”

Harman is often an inattentive and clumsy reader of others. In his much maligned review of Laruelle in the NDPR journal, Harman mixed up even the most basic principles in Laruelle, before reducing his evaluation of the French thinker to a kind of high-school popularity contest.

Or often just tone deaf. Like the time when Harman wrote that he wished Heidegger had died at the age of 40. That way, Harman mused, we'd have the ontology from Being and Time without any of Heidegger's distasteful political shortcomings that came later in life. But as numerous authors from Derrida on down have indicated -- and the recent appearance of the Black Notebooks has definitively proven -- it's difficult if not impossible to separate Heidegger's ontology from his views on society and politics.

Thankfully, Harman has since deleted that post from his blog.

CFP 2016: Boundary Conditions

The 2016 Neil Postman Conference | New York University

Keynote: Achille Mbembe

CFP Deadline: October 10th

Conference Date: February 12th

Through their interrogation of boundaries, theorists of the postcolony, of affect, and of digital media have discovered conditions governing selection, maintenance, and authority over membership. In On the Postcolony, Achille Mbembe speaks of conviviality and complicity, of a play between surgical strikes and martyrdom, and of a divergence between the mythical time of the sovereign and “the compression, world wide, of ‘finance time’ and its reduction to purely computer time” [1]. The affective and the informatic—each with internally consistent temporal logics—are entangled yet discrete. Each prescribes its own conditions of admissibility, of possibility, of counting. These conditions are the substantive content of boundaries; the former’s arbitrariness opens the latter to contestation. Boundary conditions allow for the constitution of an authority that decides on the legitimacy of forms of life through the right to kill; they also enable embodiments and affects that align, mirror, and produce alternate networks of affinities. Continue reading

Getting back into coding...

It's summertime and I've been spending some time learning Swift, Apple's new computer language. It seemed gimmicky when it was announced -- the name, the so-called “playgrounds,” the stripped down syntax. Boy was I wrong. It's a major new language that's as sophisticated as C++ or Java. And, given that it's been designed from the ground up (albeit with some fealty paid to compatibility with ObjC and Apple environments like Cocoa), it feels very fresh and new. Imagine the low level control of C++ with the syntactic elegance of Python or Ruby.

Unicode support in Swift

My first language was BASIC, and I have a special affection for Perl, but the language I've spent the most time with is Java. "Special affection" is not a phrase that comes to mind. Beyond the usual frustrations that people have with Java, I'm often stymied by how the Java virtual machine quarantines you. Let's face it, the fun stuff happens at the level of native code. The two largest projects I've worked on over the years, Carnivore and Kriegspiel -- which sadly are now effectively offline (more on that soon!) -- both require a certain amount of “closeness” to the native OS level. Carnivore needs to access the network adapters, something prohibited by Java (without using a native bridge), and while games like Kriegspiel don't need native code per se it's much easier to program things like AI and graphics in a language that compiles to native instructions. Yes, there are ways to bridge Java into native libraries. And both Carnivore and Kriegspiel were successfully written in Java. But I ask you, have you ever coded a JNI bridge? Me neither. And I don't ever want to. In other words I've been looking for a reason to ditch Java. And this might be the right opportunity. Continue reading

Allegories of Control

Bradley J. Fest has just written a review of my book The Interface Effect. Published on the website of the journal boundary 2, the review is long and detailed, flattering at times but also critical, and I invite you to read it at your own leisure. In fact, the review touches on a number of topics and texts, and covers several different themes that have reappeared in my writing over the last ten years or so. While the review focuses on The Interface Effect, it also covers what I've been calling the “Allegories of Control” trilogy, a narrative arc begun in 2004 with Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization, continuing through Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (2006), and concluding with The Interface Effect (2012).

Like other authors, I tend to think in terms of conversations and critiques that continue from book to book. So it's a pleasure to have a reviewer who also considers the larger frame of reference. A debate might begin at one point in time, only to culminate several years later. My recent comments about network pessimism, for instance, owe much to the analysis of networks began in Protocol, The Exploit, and other texts. Likewise the final chapter of The Interface Effect opened a door that I was only able to enter in a subsequent examination of digitality and its relation to politics and ethics. Continue reading

Not Dark Enough

Aesthetics is a recurring theme in Laruelle’s work. He has written two short books on photography and has several essays on art and related topics, including texts on color, light, seeing, drawing, dance, music, and technology. But what is technology, and what is technology's relation to art?

Laruelle’s position on art and technology is not entirely intuitive. For example, he does not follow someone like Heidegger and reestablish a lineage from technology back to art, via the Greek concept of technê. Nor is he phobic of science following those skeptical of industrial modernity. Instead Laruelle is something of a purist about technology and science. He denigrates technology and elevates science, elevating it to such a degree that it becomes synonymous with non-standard philosophy overall. Continue reading

The “Big Event”

Here is another excerpt from the dialogue between me and David Berry that has just been published in Theory, Culture, and Society. This section discusses critique and hermeneutics in the network age.

ARG: Ten years ago in Protocol I wrote that protocols and networks are ‘against interpretation’. At that time I was trying to describe the qualities of this new reticular infrastructure. One of the key issues was the way in which computers are very weak interpreters – they are in very literal terms anti-hermeneutic. So it comes as no surprise that, with a change in the mode of production since the early 1970s, we have a change in the ideology of how knowledge is produced. The reticular empiricists are more or less dominant today. From Nate Silver to Franco Moretti, the hard-nosed empiricism of big data is triumphing over more interpretive or normative approaches. To be a knowledge worker today, one must affect a kind of sober pragmatism and deal with the world empirically. In a certain sense we’ve all become glorified journalists, or at best social scientists, expected simply to observe and describe the world. Bruno Latour confirms this recently in his An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: we all ought to be, like William James, radical empiricists; we all ought to move beyond ‘common sense’ to ‘good sense’. In fact Deleuze, bless his heart, is the consummate reticular empiricist. Deleuze is affirmative, non-dialectical, network-centric, and might be said to be one of the great proponents of a radical empiricism.

Shall we resist such empiricism? What a silly notion, of course not. Empiricism is essential. But it’s also totally banal. Empiricism is something akin to respiration. We all must breathe air in order to remain alive. But the spirit of humanity does not float on the breath. Continue reading

Forget Deleuze!

A dialogue between me and David Berry has just been published in Theory, Culture, and Society. During the conversation we discuss networks, Deleuze, Latour, digital humanities, love, the non-human, Laruelle, and other topics.

Here is a short excerpt in response to questions from David about the dominance of networks in contemporary society...

ARG: We must forget Deleuze. It’s troubling to admit, given how influential Deleuze has been on my own thinking. But it’s imperative today that we forget Deleuzianism in all its many guises.

First, we must forget the Google Deleuzians, those who see the world as a vital assemblage, proffering untold bounties of knowledge – and riches. From clouds, to humans, to molluscs, to molecules, the world is nothing but systems. Lines of flight slice through assemblages, creating new living landscapes. Systems are open, dynamic, and robust. Networks produce value. These are some of the many mantras of the Google Deleuzians.

We must also forget the Carl Sagan Deleuzians. Remember Carl Sagan and his awestruck odes to the ‘billions and billions of stars’? Carl Sagan Deleuzians are those who think that ontology is about producing a sense of sublime grandeur in the mind of the thinker. These kinds of Deleuzians assume that ‘nature’ and ‘human nature’ coincide, and that the world is there ‘for us’ or, more specifically, to ‘impress’ us. For the Carl Sagan Deleuzians ontology means awesome-ology.

Finally, we must forget the Wet Diaper Deleuzians, or those who, in an endless restaging of the 1960s, think that being political means liberating one’s desires. (Let’s not forget that Facebook’s entire business plan is based on the liberation of desire.) For the Wet Diaper Deleuzians, everything is a desiring machine driven by an endless reserve of polymorphous perversity. They giggle and cry, suckle and shit, fall down and get back up. The world is a giant sandbox, filled with toys. Everyone they meet is a potential Father or Master that might threaten their desire, someone to be dethroned, debased, even killed. Each act becomes a doll house revolution – off with their heads!

Screen Shot 2015-06-18 at 12.20.38 PM
Drawing by Gilles Deleuze. (Source: Gilles Deleuze, "Sept dessins," Chimères [Winter 1994], p. 17.)


DMB: If we are to cut off Deleuze’s head, in a paradoxical attempt to stop the ‘dethroned’ Deleuzian flavours of theory and practice, with what would we replace this theoretical work? Or do you have in mind some other register for thinking about a post-Deleuzian world?

ARG: I’m poking fun of course. The problem is less with Deleuze himself than with a certain kind of Deleuzian School that has arisen since his death. We must forget Deleuze, but only a limited and somewhat perverted interpretation of Deleuze. In fact there are two Deleuzes, the Deleuze of 1972 and the Deleuze of 1990. The ’72 Deleuze is the thinker of machinic subjectivity and differential systematicity. The ’90 Deleuze is the thinker of control and historical transformation. Unfortunately, the first Deleuze is so commonplace today that it has essentially become a TED talk. I see the ’90 Deleuze as the more radical voice. For example, the reticular pessimists champion the Deleuze of 1972 while ignoring the Deleuze of 1990. The legacy of May 1968, and all that it represents, plays a large role. I’m thinking of the Maude character in the film Harold and Maude, and the weary notion that liberation means running stoplights in a fast car.

But while we forget Deleuze we should also remember him. We should remember Deleuze the anti-fascist. We should remember Deleuze the thinker of materialism and immanence. We should remember Deleuze the communist.

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Is Materialism a Type of Idealism?

I've already posted on Jameson's materialism and his theory of interpretation in light of today's new materialism and the larger ontological turn in contemporary theory. Much of the new materialism tends to elevate empirical, descriptive, even pragmatic approaches in its quest to unlock material reality, while denigrating hermeneutic pursuits as a kind of useless culturalism, or what Quentin Meillassoux in a different context labeled “correlationism.” As I already described in the previous two posts, such a dramatic step is wholly incompatible with Jameson's conception of material reality. Jameson's “ontology” -- disclaimers surrounding the use of this term notwithstanding -- requires a reduction to material conditions, a determinism (no matter how weak or strong) of these material conditions, and indeed ultimately an accounting of the absolute horizon that conditions the world as a whole. Hence the dialectic of reduction-and-expression is absolutely necessary, as are the structures of figuration like allegory and metaphor engendered by them, along with the interpretive techniques required to parse them.

Let me offer one final post on Jameson, this time on his Hegelianism. This aspect has always mystified me. Jameson's primary influence is undoubtedly Marx. Yet he has never renounced the elder dialectician, nor does he have any intention of doing so. I generally hold a dim opinion of Hegelians, particularly those in whom there is no visible Marxist spark (unlike Jameson). Still, Hegel is popular again today, the academy well-stocked with Hegelians, while Marxists are only marginally less difficult to spot than, oh I don't know, fluent speakers of Esperanto. Continue reading