Tangled

Here is my review of Patrick Jagoda's book Network Aesthetics from the current issue of the journal Novel.

Good debates are invigorating. That digital media studies has thus far provided too few real debates is at least a partial explanation for its sluggish development, prematurely sunk by a buoyant enthusiasm for all things digital or halted by the endless repetition of trite slogans unopposed, like “everything is connected” or “information wants to be free.” So it is with great fanfare that we should greet the recent explosion of sophisticated texts tackling the digital apparatus from many directions. A golden age of tech theory is currently underway, and we may expect the next several years to be fruitful ones indeed.

Already a decade ago Mark Marino helped inaugurate a new field of inquiry dubbed “critical code studies,” a disciplinary shift evident today in scholarship from the likes of Rita Raley, Adrian MacKenzie, and Matthew Fuller. At the same time, a renewed interest in infrastructure has guided a number of important recent books in media studies, such as Nicole Starosielski's The Undersea Network and Tung-Hui Hu's A Prehistory of the Cloud, both devoted to the real materiality of networks. Theorists like Luciana Parisi and Yuk Hui have recently explored the various philosophical nuances of digitality, fueled in Hui's case by the tech philosophy of Bernard Stiegler and Gilbert Simondon. Or consider Simone Browne's timely Dark Matters, dealing with the technology of race, or adjacent work on opacity and queer computing from scholars like Zach Blas, Jacob Gaboury, and Kara Keeling. While feminist theory has long engaged with digital technology, the recent Xenofeminist manifesto echoed particularly widely, due in no small measure to a series of staunch positions taken by the manifesto's authors on controversial topics such as alienation and posthumanism. At the same time, Martine Syms's “Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto” provided a refreshing alternative to some of these accelerationist tendencies, stressing as her manifesto does the mundane over the extraterrestrial. Even in the world of art criticism, computational and network aesthetics have come to the fore, exemplified by the wide dispersion of a pamphlet by the artist Seth Price, aptly titled “Dispersion,” or, in a different way, by recent volumes on networks and participation from David Joselit and Claire Bishop. Continue reading

Digital/Analog Seminars from Dundee

I'm posting the audio for my two recent seminars at the University of Dundee in Scotland.

The Concept of the Digital (May 14th) -- at the start I was relying on this sequence of images.

The Concept of the Analog (May 15th) -- at around the 1h12m mark I showed a short clip from Peter Fischli and David Weiss's 1987 film "The Way Things Go."

As you'll hear the sessions oscillate between formal presentation and informal discussion, and there are frequent exchanges with the seminar participants. I'd like to thank all the faculty and students at Dundee who participated, and in particular acknowledge Sarah Cook, Tina Rock, and Dominic Smith, who were very generous with their time during my visit.

Infinite Resignation

“There’s no philosophy of pessimism...only the reverse...”

After long last. (But never long enough). Your summer just got a whole lot worse...

9781912248193

I've read this in manuscript form, and it's an astonishing work. Very personal. And at the same time absolutely impersonal. This might be ET's definitive statement, and I dare say destined to become a classic text in the literature on pessimism.

Dundee Centenary Fellowship

I'm happy to announce that I'll be a guest at the University of Dundee in Scotland in a few weeks for the Dundee Centenary Fellowship underwritten by the Scots Philosophical Association. While in Dundee I'll be giving two masterclasses and a public lecture.

First Masterclass: The Concept of the Digital, May 14th, 4-6pm

Second Masterclass: The Concept of the Analog, May 15th, 4-6pm

Evening lecture (on Digital Aesthetics), May 16th, 4-6pm

Debord AI

I'm working on a project right now that's so strange and perverse that I simply have to divulge my experiences, although I'm not yet sure what they amount to. Several years ago I worked on a strange episode from the late Guy Debord, the notorious French author and filmmaker and founding member of the Situationist International. In the 1970s Debord designed and released a game called the Game of War. I wrote about it and ported the game to the computer a few years back. The computer version is offline at the moment. But now and again I return to the game, spending time trying to rebuild it using today's technologies in the hopes of getting it back online.

Discovering that Debord had released a commercial board game was a surprise to me. Researching this game in great detail was revelatory. But what I'm doing now is truly strange... I'm trying to author the AI for the computer version. In essence I'm trying to convert Debord into an algorithm. I'm building my own Debord AI. Continue reading

Anti-Computer

In my graduate seminar we've recently been thinking a bit about machines. Given that our focus has been on the 19th Century, attention has been directed toward ergodic machines (from the root ergon meaning work). Ergodic machines are machines that run on heat and energy. Such machines are essentially mechanical in nature. They deal with basic physical mechanics like levers and pulleys, and questions of mass, weight, and counter-balance. Ergodic machines adhere to the laws of motion and inertia, the conservation of energy, and the laws of thermodynamics governing heat, pressure, and energy.

I've often struggled to pinpoint the difference between a tool and a machine; it's not simply a question of scale or complexity. Still, the tool and the machine constitute two different branches in the philosophy of technology. For instance Heidegger wrote about tools but had much less to say about machines. Deleuze, for his part, was obsessed with machines, leaving tools by the wayside. Overall, ergodic machines are interesting from a philosophical point of view, given how philosophy tends to privilege presence and being. Categories like energy, heat, power, change, motion, evolution, or process tend to get second billing in philosophy, if they're addressed at all. To promote them to primary billing, as Foucault did, or Whitehead, or Nietzsche, is something of a radical gesture. Continue reading

21 Paragraphs on Badiou

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 in e-flux journal]

A Theory of Media

What would it mean to provide a theory of media? In contemporary discourse, terms like mass media, social media, visual media, or digital media are used quite freely. Commentators like to claim that we live in a media age, an observation whose very banality too often undercuts its potential utility. It will be worth while to pause for a moment and review the three most common ways of thinking about media, media as substance, media as structure, and media as logic.

The first answer to the question of media is found in the concept of substance. Under the Substance Model of media, the word “media” means medium or carrier. Here we find the great discussions around technology, around things like paper, paperwork, copper wire, signals, artifacts, archives, nodes, devices, what in Plato are called the hypomnemata (ὑπομνήματα), the so-called memory extenders, or the “extensions” of man. The Substance Model typically categorizes media in terms of artifacts or objects. Indeed, a number of contemporary media scholars describe themselves as archeologists, as performing media archeology. Here “middle” is understood in a strictly physical and material sense, as means, go-between, intermediary, the actual materiality of the thing being mediated. The Substance Model focuses on the gut, the meat, the flesh, the body, bodies as such. The Substance Model thingifies the world, turning everything into genetic elements and carrier channels. Something of a pre-Socratic view resurfaces here. Medium thinkers ask questions like “what is the elemental substance?” Pre-Socratic, this approach is Aristotelian as well. Recall Aristotle, great thinker of the mean (the midway, the middle), that great cataloger of matter into classifiable things. Even seemingly immaterial topics like politics or ontology were relevant to Aristotle because he found a way to itemize and articulate them as things, just like the animals of the field or the clouds in the sky. Continue reading

What Is the Analog?

This is an excerpt from a forthcoming essay on "The Golden Age of Analog."

What does the analog mean today? A hard question indeed. For the digital, many will simply make reference to things like Twitter, Playstation, or computers in general. Here one might be correct, but only coincidentally, for the basic order of digitality (the digitality of digitality) has not yet been demonstrated through mere denotation. The question of the analog is harder still, with responses often also consisting of mere denotations of things: sound waves, the phonograph needle, magnetic tape, a sundial, the wheel. At least denotation itself is analogical. But still what's the answer? Shall we flip a coin? Or, better yet, roll the coin down the hall and let it land where it will.

The analog, what is it? A number of contemporary authors have taken up the question directly. Consider Kaja Silverman's most recent work, where now in two consecutive volumes she has turned her attention away from difference and toward its putative antonym, analogy. Or recall how the first great Deleuzean in North America, Brian Massumi, once wrote an essay called “On the Superiority of the Analog.” I shudder to think how badly he would be trolled online if he were to pen such an essay today. Even at the height of the first Internet bubble, Massumi stayed true to his principles. He knew that to be a Deleuzian obligated one to embrace the analog fully, to become an analog philosopher.

Continue reading