Malabou's Life Resistance

Catherine Malabou is one of the most interesting thinkers working today. She has a broad facility with Western philosophy, writing on Kant, Hegel, Derrida, the themes of temporality, plasticity, difference, technology, and many other things. And at the same time she has published extensively on neuroscience and issues surrounding the mind and brain. A few years ago I wrote a short piece on Malabou, focusing on the moral implications of plasticity, her signature concept. Last year a new essay of hers was published in English under the title “One Life Only: Biological Resistance, Political Resistance.” With great flair she outlines the broad sweep of philosophical bias against life. The opening paragraph is stunning:

“That a resistance to what is known today as biopower -- the control, regulation, exploitation, and instrumentalization of the living being -- might emerge from possibilities written into the structure of the living being itself, not from the philosophical concepts that tower over it; that there might be a biological resistance to the biopolitical; that the bio- might be viewed as a complex and contradictory authority, opposed to itself and referring to both the ideological vehicle of modern sovereignty and to that which holds it in check: this, apparently, has never been thought.”

Never been thought, she says. An exaggeration? Perhaps, but her point is a fair one: don't let philosophy condescend toward technology or biology; allow materiality to be philosophical on its own terms; conceive of resistance from “the living being itself...the bio-,” not from “the philosophical concepts that tower over it” (429). Continue reading

The Digital and the Analog

I'm happy to announce my fall doctoral seminar at New York University.

The Digital and the Analog

(MCC-GE 3150 Special Topics in Technology Studies)

Digital devices permeate contemporary life. But what exactly does the digital mean? Are all computers digital? What about photography or film? We begin with a working definition of digitality as representation via discrete units. Using this definition, we explore the various technologies of the computer age, but also look beyond them. Sections of the course are devoted to technical images, digital versus analog images, photography, cybernetics, computer graphics, and compression. Readings are drawn from the work of Gilles Deleuze, Vilém Flusser, Katherine Hayles, Kaja Silverman, Hito Steyerl, and others.


I've been returning frequently in recent weeks to that momentous section from Being and Event where Alain Badiou marshals all his poetic and persuasive powers. I refer to the important meditations Twenty-Six and Twenty-Seven and the “impasse of ontology” described therein, the crux of the book if not the crux of Badiou's project overall, with page 278 in the English edition containing perhaps the single most important paragraph in all of Badiou.

Badiou testifies in this section that the impasse of ontology was triggered world-historically by what he calls the “Cantor-Gödel-Cohen-Easton symptom,” referring to the four mathematicians who together, in Badiou's assessment, have revealed a condition within mathematics, and hence also within ontology, that forces a choice (280). Cantor primarily and Cohen secondarily are the two most important figures for Badiou, particularly in Being and Event. Gödel figures a bit as well and Easton less so. Nevertheless Badiou combines these four figures into a single event within the history of mathematics. Badiou defines the event as an “errancy” or “excess of the state” over the situation (282). Such errancy mandates a subjective choice. Continue reading

Kriegspiel -- An Update

I already posed an update on Carnivore, the network traffic visualization tool first launched in 2001 and currently usable as a library inside Processing. Carnivore is up and running -- so happy coding!

Screen Shot 2015-07-29 at 1.50.27 PM

Kriegspiel is a different beast entirely. As a digital reinterpretation of Guy Debord's 1977 tabletop game, I was happy with the original beta. But the code gradually became obsolete and the game is offline at the moment. In retrospect I can see some problems in how it was conceived and designed. The application was just too bloated. It relied on a 3D graphics engine that was overpowered and unnecessary for what was needed. Online play relied on a large networking library (itself now discontinued), which was unwieldy. Trying to keep it all up and running on three platforms, plus hosting a server, was hard to pull off. Truth be told, Java was probably not the right choice from the beginning. There have been some notable games written in Java. But the vast majority of game coding is done in languages like C++ that compile to native instructions. Continue reading

Carnivore -- An Update

tl;dr: Carnivore is up and running -- so happy coding!

I've been getting a lot of email recently about Carnivore and Kriegspiel, the  two software projects that I've spent the most time on over the years. As anyone who's released software knows, it's unclear how long code should be maintained. A few years? Five? Ten? I've gone back and forth about whether to maintain these projects. The Kriegspiel beta went offline a few years ago and is due for a major overhaul. Carnivore was first launched over fifteen years ago -- that's some old code! -- and has changed dramatically as networks themselves have changed. So here's the latest update on Carnivore. I'll post a separate update for Kriegspiel.

Continue reading

The AT&T Long Lines building

33 Thomas Street cropped

Laura Poitras has a new short film called "Project X," which screened at the IFC theater in New York a few months ago before being released online. (No, not that Project X.) Using phrases and texts gleaned from documents released by Edward Snowden, the film deals with the affective experiences of working every day as an employee of a government spy agency: don't wear clothing that could reveal your identity, drive in an unmarked car, etc. Dark and dour, the Poitras short feels like a contemporary riff on the old conspiracy film, where architecture and infrastructure add to a sense of pervasive dread.

While it narrates the lives of spies, the real star of the film is not a person but a building, the AT&T Long Lines building at 33 Thomas Street in lower Manhattan. I wrote about this building previously, under the heading of "black box architecture." But after a recent report in the Intercept, followed by a piece in the New York Times, we now have a more concrete picture of this looming monolith.

As many had long suspected and as the Snowden revelations now confirm, the AT&T Long Lines building operates as one of the main NSA listening posts in the region. The spy agency apparently identified this key chokepoint for communications going in and out of New York -- hardlines going overseas but also satellite dishes on the roof -- and installed itself in the building, taking over a few floors from their landlords, AT&T. As the Intercept reports, "the Manhattan skyscraper appears to be a core location used for a controversial NSA surveillance program that has targeted the communications of the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and at least 38 countries, including close U.S. allies such as Germany, Japan, and France."

These documents and others show that commercial entities like AT&T have long colluded with government agencies on data collection when it comes to questions of national security. Data is value. And the NSA has proven itself adept at gaining access to telephonic and digital information. The same is true for the titans of industry, who for about a decade or more have focused all their attention on data collection at all cost. Take Google or Amazon Web Services -- they're in the same business as the NSA. The main distinction is that the NSA can tap into data reserves forbidden to its Silicon Valley counterparts.

We, and I personally, believe very strongly that more information is better, even if it’s wrong,” said Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, Inc. And we should take him at his word. For companies like AT&T and Google, more is better. It's also wrong.


A Lossy Manifesto

I recently co-authored an article with Jason LaRiviere titled "Compression in Philosophy," published in a special issue of the journal boundary 2 devoted to the work of Bernard Stiegler. (Email me if you can't access the article due to paywall.) The piece ends with the following "Lossy Manifesto."

By way of conclusion let us return to Sterne and the debates surrounding compressive media. Such debates usually entail a number of claims: (1) media abstract, reduce, and encode a complex and heterogenous world, and (2) once encoded, media files may be compressed and expanded using lossless algorithms that preserve the integrity of data, or alternately (3) media files may be compressed using lossy algorithms that necessarily delete data. Given the above discussion we are in a better position to amplify and evaluate these various positions. Continue reading

The Last Instance

“Our uchromia: to learn to think from the point of view of Black as what determines color in the last instance rather than what limits it.” Our uchromia, our non-chromia or non-color — what does Laruelle mean by this?


As Laruelle would say, color always has a position. Color always has a stance. The color palette or the color spectrum provide a complex field of difference and alternation. The primary colors reside in their determining positions, while other colors compliment each other as contrasts. Hence the color posture: purple complimenting yellow, red complimenting green, the primary colors’ posture vis-à-vis the palette, and ultimately the posture of color itself governing the continuum of light and dark, as colors take turns emerging into a luminous and supersaturated visibility, or receding into a sunless gloom. Continue reading

My Assignments

It's good to have a path to follow, some structure to help organize one's explorations. So a few years ago I gave myself some assignments. I've tried to stick to them as best I can, and they guide most of my current work.

My first assignment concerns politics -- avoid a representational politics. I interpret this assignment in a broad sense. It includes both simple representational models but also models that pertain to metaphysics. In other words, avoid representationalism in both politics and in the structural domains that intersect it.

My second assignment concerns economics -- avoid a post-fordist economics. Again I interpret this broadly. It includes things like financialization and informatization, affect and sensation (as sites for proletarianization), reversibility and exchange, creative play, rhizomatics and distribution (a.k.a. “network fetishism”), the industrialization of difference, and so on.

Fulfilling the first assignment is easier than fulfilling the second one. Anti-representationalism is not rare in theory. I naturally gravitate to thinkers who push in that direction. Yet avoiding a post-fordist economics is much harder, since the principles of post-fordism are so deeply integrated into contemporary life, so much so that both the forces of order and their putative enemies often evoke such principles. It's almost impossible to identify a contemporary mode of thought that doesn't, in some way, endorse distribution, or horizontality, or affect, or play, or the new, or some other aspect of the contemporary mode of production.

This is why I'm interested in the tradition of radical immanence (ex: Michel Henry, and François Laruelle -- and perhaps certain readings of Deleuze). Radical immanence fulfills both assignments. It doesn't require a representational politics, if you do it right. And it doesn't propagate a post-fordist economics.

But you say: how doctrinaire! You're just obsessed with purity! Perhaps. But thought is a technology like any other and it's useful to build the right kinds of tech -- the right assignments -- that keep you moving in a good direction.