During the fellowship period I will be finishing a new book on the deep history of cybernetics.
Oh for days long gone, when intellectuals sparred over “symbolic economies” and “cultural logics.” Gone are heady chats about the pleasures of textuality. How quaint would it seem today for a critic to proclaim, defiant, that there is nothing outside of the text. Who speaks that way any more? Who speaks of word, symbol, text, code, economy, social structures, or cultural logics? Of course many of us still do, nevertheless this language feels reminiscent of another time. Or, to be more precise, the language of language is reminiscent of another time.
The world is awash in data, yet these days it is much more common to encounter scholarly takes on a series of distinctly non-digital themes: books about affect or sensation; treatises on aesthetics as first philosophy; essays on the Ethical Turn (turning away from the political) or on real materiality (turning away from symbolic abstraction); manifestos proclaiming, defiant, that there is nothing outside of the real.
A generation ago, the theoretical humanities was fixated on codes, logics, the arrangement of texts, and the machinations of the symbolic order. Today the theoretical humanities is more likely to address topics such as perception, experience, indeterminacy, or uncomputability. Why in the digital age have some of our best thinkers turned toward characteristically analog themes? Continue reading
Please join me next week for talks in Virginia and North Carolina.
On March 18 at 4:30pm, I'll be speaking in the Humanities Institute at University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
On March 20 at 3:30pm, I'll be speaking at UNC-Chapel Hill for the Boundaries of Literature Symposium in the Department of English and Comparative Literature.
Euclid is remembered as a geometer, when he is remembered at all. But Euclid's Elements was an omnibus compendium of all mathematical knowledge known to him at the time, beginning with the first mathematics, geometry, then addressing ratio and proportion--that is, logos and analogos--and ultimately arithmetic, irrationality, and other topics. “There is hardly anything in mathematics more beautiful than [Euclid's] wondrous fifth book,” wrote British mathematician Arthur Cayley. Indeed the definitions that begin book five of the treatise furnish a series of important concepts, first the mathematical ratio, then proportion, understood as an equality of ratios.
Definition 3: "A ratio is a sort of relation in respect of size between two magnitudes of the same kind" ["Λόγος ἐστὶ δύο μεγεθῶν ὁμογενῶν ἡ κατὰ πηλικότητα ποιὰ σχέσις"].
Definition 6: "Let magnitudes which have the same ratio be called proportional" ["Τὰ δὲ τὸν αὐτὸν ἔχοντα λόγον μεγέθη ἀνάλογον καλείσθω"].
Digital and analog appear here on the same page, perhaps for the first time, at least so under the guise of logos and analogos. Of immediate interest is the expression "two magnitudes of the same kind" ("δύο μεγεθῶν ὁμογενῶν"), or, to mimic Euclid's terminology even more closely, two homogenous magnitudes. What does it take for two magnitudes to be homogeneous, to be "of the same genus"? They must contain a "part" or submultiple [μέρος] out of which each are measured without remainder. Hence 4 and 3 may form the ratio 4:3 because each is measurable by a shared, discrete submultiple, the simple arithmetical unit more commonly known as 1. But, apples and oranges are not comparable, as the old saying goes, and may form no discrete ratio, because they share no submultiple as a common basis for measurement. (This is one indication for why aesthetics and digitality belong to fundamentally different paradigms; perception easily accommodates qualitative difference while digitality constitutionally prohibits it.) The logos ratio is thus a strange beast, both multiple and homogenous. The digital begins with a differential cut, the cut of distinction. But beyond the initial cut all future differentiation is based on the same genus (the homogenous). Later in the treatise, Euclid expands this basic insight by stipulating that logos ratios are symmetric [σύμμετρα], literally “with measure” or commensurable through a shared, common part. Continue reading
I wanted to follow up on a detail from my post on The Swervers. One of the details I identified there was a preference for process and pragmatism, broadly conceived. Hence: performance, production, expression, doing... in short, becoming rather than mere being. Much contemporary work in the humanities has been seduced by this, and for good reason. It makes sense to think of the world in terms of history and change, plasticity and dynamism. It's not uncommon today for people to speak of the world as a "multitiered cosmos of becoming," as William E. Connolly did in a recent book. A number of people have issued strident critiques of this way of thinking. Christian Thorne's essay on Connolly (and Jane Bennett, among others) is particularly good. And I've also pushed back on this under the heading of the Gerund Sublime. But I want to say a bit more about the notion of becoming... Continue reading
I recently visited the Bauhaus University in Weimar, Germany and recorded a podcast with professor Christoph Engemann.
Christoph asked me to select a text that I felt was canonical for digital studies. While several candidates came to mind -- from Donna Haraway, to Claude Shannon, all the way back to Euclid's Elements -- I decided to nominate the short text "Postscript on Control Societies" by Gilles Deleuze. We spoke for about a half hour on the text and how it relates to digital theory more generally.
The politics of algorithms has been on people's minds a lot recently. Only a few years ago, tech authors were still hawking Silicon Valley as the great hope for humanity. Today one is more likely to see books about how math is a weapon, how algorithms are oppressive, and how tech increases social inequality.
The incendiary failures are almost too numerous to mention: a digital camera that thinks Asians have their eyes closed; facial recognition technologies that misgender African-American women (or miss them entirely); Google searches that portray young black men as thugs and threats. A few hours after its launch in 2016, Microsoft's chatbot "Tay" was already denying the Holocaust.
It used to be that if you wanted to explore the political nature of algorithms and digital media you had to go to Media Studies and STS, reading the important work of scholars like Lisa Nakamura, Wendy Chun, Seb Franklin, Simone Browne, David Golumbia, or Jacob Gaboury. (Or, before them, work on cybernetics and control from the likes of Gilles Deleuze, Donna Haraway, James Beniger, or Philip Agre.)
Now the politics of computation has gone mainstream. Social media followers no doubt saw the recent video clip in which New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez claimed that algorithms perpetuate racial bias. And in a recent New York Times column, legal scholar Michelle Alexander quoted Cathy O’Neil's argument that "algorithms are nothing more than opinions embedded in mathematics," suggesting that algorithms constitute the newest system of Jim Crow. Continue reading
Many thinkers today speak floridly about merging philosophy with theory, or even of achieving détente between the analytic and continental camps within western philosophy. I’m not one of those people. Philosophy and theory are two entirely different activities. They can be defined precisely. I have no interest in merging them or achieving some kind of peace treaty. The reason is that philosophy is more or less indefensible, while theory is progressive, productive, and (best of all) interesting...
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