Achille Mbembe on Afrofuturism and the "Genealogies of the Object"

This translation is an excerpt from Achille Mbembe's 2016 book Politiques de l'inimitié (chapter four). Chapter two of the book was previously translated by Giovanni Menegalle in issue 200 of Radical Philosophy. The journal Theory, Culture & Society also recently published a conversation between Mbembe and David Theo Goldberg. I translated this quickly for a friend; please email me with comments or corrections should you find any. 

As a literary, aesthetic and cultural movement, Afrofuturism emerged from across the diaspora during the second half of the Twentieth Century. It combines science fiction, reflections on the relation between technology and various black cultures, magical realism and non-European cosmologies in order to question the past history of so-called persons of color, as well as their current conditions in the present.1 In rejecting humanism outright, Afrofuturism contends that humanism can only exist by relegating some other subject or entity (whether alive or not) to a merely mechanical status as object or accident.

Afrofuturism is not simply content on shattering the illusion of the "properly human." Rather, according to them, the black experience defeats the very notion of the human species. Produced from a specific predatory history, the Black is essentially a human refashioned into a thing, forced to endure the same fate as that of an object or tool. Because of this, the Black has become bearer of a kind of human grave. He is a wraith who haunts the delirious fantasies of Western humanism, itself having become a kind of crypt to house the souls of all those forced to share the fate of objects. Continue reading

Theory Hot and Cold

The artist Steve Lambert had a great tweet once that was something like “every time you send me a .doc file, my opinion of you decreases.” I have similar feelings about Bruno Latour. Whenever people cite Latour, my opinion of them decreases.

Nevertheless Latour has been, it will be reluctantly admitted, tremendously successful as a researcher, thinker, and author. And so the citations proliferate. Yet I was still surprised to see the recent profile of Latour published in the New York Times, whose reporting on intellectual matters is not so much remedial as nonexistent. As a rule, the Times will cover scholars when they kiss their students, when they publish hoaxes, and when they die. Itemized in reverse order of preference, these options are somewhat limited. Yet in deviating from convention, reporter Ava Kofman turned in a fine story on an unappealing subject -- more on that in a moment. One can only hope that the Times will increase this sort of reporting and, next time if not also for all time, shift away from the kind of mainstream male social scientists who tend to garner the most column inches. For instance I couldn't help but notice that Anne Fausto-Sterling, one of Latour's peers in the discipline of science and technology studies (STS), published a 900-word opinion piece in the paper at the very moment when Latour was the subject of a 6400-word feature in the glossy Times magazine. What if those numbers were reversed? Continue reading

Defining the Digital

Listen to my conversation with Patrick Jagoda on the Critical Inquiry podcast.

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Here are some recent posts that might provide a bit of context...

Patrick mentioned my post on the anti-computer, a concept that, admittedly, isn't yet well defined, but could be paired with some previous notes on the definition of computation. Overall I'm thinking a great deal at the moment about the anti-computer as well as the non-computer, loosely following the distinction already made between anti-philosophy and non-philosophy.

I've written a bit about Debord AI, which is also touched on briefly in the interview.

The notion that Badiou is a digital philosopher has also been the topic of several recent posts.

And last but not least, I invite you to read my review of Jagoda's book Network Aesthetics, where the roles are reversed and I get to explore the intricacies of Jagoda's work.

Speaking with Yuk Hui at diffrakt in Berlin

Berlin friends.. I'll be speaking with Yuk Hui this coming Monday, October 29 at 7:30pm at diffrakt. I've admired Yuk's work for some time now -- his first book for instance is one of only a few texts that tackle philosophy and digitality together -- and I look forward to this conversation, not least because we don't entirely agree on several fundamental points! Yuk's take on the alt-right and neoreactionary currents is also highly recommended, if you haven't read it, and I gather he's just now copy editing a new book on recursion, both as a technical reality (looping, functions that call themselves, etc.) but also as a philosophical structure, albeit a kind of pathological structure that philosophy has a hard time assimilating.. but these are exactly the kinds of things I hope we will be able to discuss more on Monday.

Digital Media and Materiality

Announcing my spring grad seminar at NYU on "Digital Media and Materiality." I'm delighted to be team-teaching with Leif Weatherby from the German dept. The course is listed in MCC as well as in German.

Digital Media and Materiality
Leif Weatherby & Alexander Galloway
Wednesdays 2-4:40pm
Spring 2019

Norbert Wiener wrote in 1948 that "Information is information, not matter or energy. No materialism which does not admit this can survive at the present day." This course takes up the challenge, introducing students to the range of recent materialist research, while at the same time maintaining a skepticism about claims of the “newness” of this approach & the coherence or unity of the “material turn” in social theory. While including materialist media theory, the course will also focus on the elemental aspects of digital media – from codes & circuits to power generation & storage – in order to assess the usefulness of materialist & infrastructural analytics for understanding contemporary media systems.

The Immanence of Truths

I'm told that Alain Badiou’s L'immanence des vérités has recently appeared in Parisian bookstores. I look forward to ordering a copy, and am reposting here my initial intuitions about the book, published last spring on e-flux, both as an invitation to think further about Badiou -- unquestionably the most interesting living philosopher -- but also to provide more context for my recent post on the black box of the world and a previous attempt to define the analog.

Following in the spirit of book reviews written about books that do not exist, I offer here—no doubt at my own peril—a series of observations in anticipation of Alain Badiou’s forthcoming Being and Event 3: The Immanence of Truths, a book that does not yet exist but will exist at some point in the future.

1. Alain Badiou has been interested in poetry and literature throughout his long career. Yet in recent years he seems to be turning more closely to poetry. Such a turn presents something of a problem for Badiou, a Platonist, given Plato’s skepticism toward poetry and concomitant preference for mathematics. But what is poetry? And what is math? For Badiou poetry is a marker for the event, for life, for the real, for what Jacques Lacan called “the impossible.” By contrast, mathematics is the space of the precise letter, of argument, of proof, of learning and training (after the original Greek meaning of mathēsis), of formal abstraction in its most rigorous articulation. Already notorious for his defense of mathematics as ontology, Badiou has become a bit more evenhanded on the question of the matheme versus the poem, preferring instead to describe philosophy as poised “between” poetry and mathematics, not simply privileging the latter.

2. In its essence, poetry is an attempt to touch the real continuum of life. And, as Badiou argues, there is no poem that does not in some basic way describe an event. While at the same time mathematics is an attempt to abstract away from the real continuum into the realm of consistency, name, rule, and identity. Still, the contrast is perhaps overstated. Poetry is impossible to define in its totality without reference to rule and rhythm, figuration and abstraction. Likewise mathematics spans both domains. There has existed since the ancients a mathematics of the real continuum as well as a mathematics of the proper name and rule. The former is a mathematics of pure difference while the latter a mathematics of pure identity; the former a math of time—indeed directly in time—while the latter formalizes time to a sufficient degree as to be able to purge it entirely, replacing time with space. Continue reading

Empty Frames

Let me pick up on something from a previous post:

"The digital video encoder has never been happier than when given the job of encoding films by Chantal Akerman or James Benning. These are computer-friendly substrates"

The punch line being that the "ideal" computer image would be an empty frame. And the most odious image, according to the essence of computation, would be white noise, an image of pure entropy. I'm not sure if Gregory Chaitin has ever visualized his omega number, but that's what it might look like. The omega image.

Related image

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The Black Box of the World

In continuing to explore the domains of the digital and the analog, I've come to an unexpected conclusion, one that will no doubt be obvious to others but which I nevertheless found surprising. I've finally realized the extent to which analogicity has been hounded out of technical history. In the past I had assumed, incorrectly, that digitality and analogicity were more or less equal alternatives. Yes there was a litany of digital techniques in human history -- moveable type, arithmetic, metaphysics -- but so too history could furnish its share of analogical triumphs, right? Not exactly. In my unscientific survey, the digital techniques far outweigh the analog ones. And many things categorized as blockbuster interjections of peak analogicity -- the invention of the calculus, Richard Dedekind's 1858 definition of real numbers -- harbor deeply-ingrained anti-analog biases upon closer inspection. Dedekind sought to discretize the real, not think the real as pure continuity, and his tool of choice was the cut, a digital technology if there ever was one. And while Newton's "fluxions" are genuinely strange and interesting, both Newtonian and Leibnizian calculus aimed to "solve" the problem of pure continuity via recourse to a distinctly digital mechanism: the difference unit, or differential. Good show, now try it again without cheating! It almost makes me nostalgic for Euclid. At least he stayed true to the analog sciences of line and curve, without recourse to the digital crutches of algebra or arithmetic.

So while I'm deeply skeptical of the analog turn in theory -- a few decades ago it was all language, structure, symbol, economy, logic, now it's all affect, experience, expression, ethics, aesthetics -- it's only fair to admit the profound rareness of analogicity. Particularly in philosophy, which is almost entirely dominated by digital thinking. (In mathematics it's not even close: math is one long sad story of arithmetic subduing geometry, the symbol subduing the real.) It's exceptionally difficult to think continuity as continuity. Very few have accomplished this feat. So if anything we need more work on continuity and analogical sciences, not less. More work on signal processing, noise, randomness, modularity, curves and lines, heat and energy, fields, areas, transduction, quality, intuition. Less on arithmetic and discrete breaks. More on bending, blurring, bleeding, and sliding. More on the body, more on real experience. More on what William James called the “blooming, buzzing confusion” of life. Continue reading

Russian Interview -- «Мир не кажется мне цифровым до самого основания»

Artguide has just published an interview between me and Andrey Shental, co-curator of the Philosophical Club at Winzavod Centre for Contemporary Art in Moscow. Read the interview in Russian. I'm also posting the English transcript below.

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Andrey Shental: I know that programming has never been your main preoccupation, but nevertheless how has a practical engagement with computation influenced your theoretical observations?

Alexander R. Galloway: It is an important part of my own explorations and research techniques. People have different styles and approaches, my style was always to work on projects in parallel, rather than to reduce philosophy to technology, or to subsume technology into philosophy. I try to pursue both of them at the same time. I will give an example, when I worked on my first book on internet protocols (Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization), I was also working on a software platform called “Carnivore.” They both were dealing with data protocol, protocols for data that moved through networks. So one day I would be debugging network packets and another day I was working on a more theoretical, critical responses to this same type of networking. To give another example, when I was writing a book on videogames I was also authoring a game as well. The two practices influence and inform each other.

Shental: Your interest in computation affected your interest in “digital philosophy”. But now you want to speak of digital philosophy without referencing the computer, as you claimed in your lecture at the Philosophical Club. Of course, digital is a very old term that has its own independent history, but today it is hard to dissociate it from technology.

Galloway: Yes, that is true. Part of my desire today — even in a polemical sense — is to say we need to take a pause and define digital without, first and foremost, making reference to digital technologies. I would not say it is an absolute claim or goal, because you are right, I do acknowledge that the digital has a special relationship to technology and particularly to industrial technology in contemporary life. So I see this as a separate but necessary detour that we need to make conceptually. Continue reading