The Digital and the Analog

I'm pleased to announce my Fall 2017 graduate seminar at NYU.

The Digital and the Analog (MCC-GE 3150)

Syllabus

Time: Wed, 2 - 4:50pm
Location: East Building 712

Digital devices permeate contemporary life. But what exactly does the digital mean? Are all computers digital? What about other media like photography or film? Is rationality itself digital? Is philosophy? We begin the seminar by developing specific definitions of the analog and the digital using sources from philosophy, media theory, and aesthetics. With these definitions in hand, we turn to contemporary digital media theory. Sections of the course are devoted to analogicity, digitality, the logical, the illogical, the absurd, cybernetics, digital computers, digital audio and compression. Readings are drawn from the work of Simone Browne, Gilles Deleuze, Elizabeth Grosz, Katherine Hayles, Jonathan Sterne, and others.

Brometheanism

In recent months I've remained quiet about the speculative turn, mostly because I'm reticent to rekindle the “Internet war” that broke out a couple of years ago mostly on blogs but also in various published papers. And while I've taught accelerationism in my recent graduate seminars, I opted for radio silence when accelerationism first appeared on the scene through the Accelerationist Manifesto, followed later by the book Inventing the Future. Truth is I have mixed feelings about accelerationism. Part of me wants to send “comradely greetings” to a team of well-meaning fellow Marxists and leave it at that. Lord knows the left needs to stick together. Likewise there's little I can add that people like Steven Shaviro and McKenzie Wark haven't already written, and articulated much better than I could. But at the same time a number of difficulties remain that are increasingly hard to overlook. To begin I might simply echo Wark's original assessment of the Accelerationist Manifesto: two cheers for accelerationism, but only two! Continue reading

Media and Mathematics

Here is audio from my talk on "Media and Mathematics" presented last Saturday at the École normale supérieure in Paris. The talk was on digitality and philosophy through the work of Alain Badiou. It picks up after some of my recent posts here, particularly the topic of mathification and the question of whether Badiou is a digital philosopher.

"'Since its very origins,' Badiou wrote in Being and Event, 'philosophy has interrogated the abyss which separates numerical discretization from the geometrical continuum. [...] from Plato to Husserl, passing by the magnificent developments of Hegel's Logic, the strictly inexhaustible theme of the dialectic of the discontinuous and the continuous occurs time and time again.'"

Thanks to Emily Apter, Marc Crépon, and Martin Crowley for organizing the conference, and to Knox Peden for moderating the panel.

Economies of Existence

The Swervers vs. the F*ck-Annies

Recently the Center for 21st Century Studies in Milwaukee staged a conference with the enticing title “The Big No.” I wasn't at the conference, but know a few people who were, and I watched a couple of the talks online. Among other things, the conference was notable for bringing both Frank Wilderson and François Laruelle together in the same place for the first time. In my view, afro-pessimism and non-standard philosophy share an affinity both methodologically and thematically. And I know that grad students at UC-Irvine in particular, where Wilderson and Jared Sexton both teach, have been working on fleshing out some of these connections, as have scholars elsewhere like Daniel Colucciello Barber and Anthony Paul Smith.

Originally the conference announcement took me by surprise, given how the Center for 21st Century Studies had positioned itself, at least under Richard Grusin's directorship, as a leading site of Swerver theory. Grusin's 2012 conference “The Nonhuman Turn,” followed by an influential edited collection of the same name, helped solidify and consolidate this particular kind of contemporary humanities discourse.

Reticular empiricism is certainly seductive. The Swervers have attracted many contemporary thinkers to their side. In fact it's very difficult to find a theorist or philosopher today who does not at some level think in terms of action and expression, becoming and process, difference and multiplicity, gaps and slippages, chaos and contingency -- these are some of the many virtues of our age. Such virtues constitute the contemporary ontology, along with the dominant sense of what it means to be a person. Continue reading

Talks in London and Paris

Please join me for some upcoming talks in London and Paris.

On May 24 at 7pm I'll be speaking about computers, art, and visuality at the Carroll/Fletcher Gallery in London. Thanks to Kaja Marczewska for organizing. (I'll also be participating in a workshop on critical digital humanities at University of Westminster on Tuesday the 23rd -- I'm told it's not open to the public, but interested parties can get in touch with me.)

On May 30 at 4pm I'll also be talking in Jussi Parikka's program at the Winchester School of Art.

Then on June 10th at the "Economies of Existence" conference in Paris I'll be speaking about the work of Alain Badiou under the heading "Media and Mathematics."

The Swervers

A key issue from my recently concluded seminar on the non-human was how to characterize contemporary theory. Previously I've discussed materialism, as well as the distinction between the ethical and political, and also the curious cocktail of pragmatism, empiricism, and realism that seems to dominate so much writing today. But after reading and working through a variety of texts I wanted to propose a series of themes that seem to run through much contemporary writing in critical and cultural theory.

The first theme comes directly from poststructuralism, a kind of filtered or modified riff on the old poststructuralist language of gaps, traces, supplements, patchiness, mixing, messiness. These are still the virtues of the day. As Wendy Brown puts it in Undoing the Demos, we must attend to “supplement,” “slippage,” and a world that “does not fully cohere” (215). Anna Tsing has talked about patches and patchiness (as has Kathleen Stewart). Tsing also connects this with the notion of entanglement, or what she calls a “mosaic of open-ended assemblages of entangled ways of life” (Mushroom, 4). Patrick Jagoda, in his recent book on Network Aesthetics, describes “a world that is messy, uncertain” (102) in an attempt to show "an ambivalent sensitivity to the riskiness and complicatedness inherent to all intimacies" (180). For his part Hiroki Azuma is concerned with “an endless movement of slipping sideways” (Otaku, 105). And in one of the most powerful sections of Habeas Viscus, Alexander Weheliye evokes “the sorrow songs, smooth glitches, miniscule movements, shards of hope, scraps of food, and interrupted dreams of freedom that already swarm the ether” (131). Let's dwell in his language: glitches, shards, scraps, interruptions, swarms. This is a very specific vocabulary.

At the same time, my seminar and I identified an attention to pragmatic concerns, from action and production, to expression, creativity, performance, and experimentation. At play here is the old philosophical distinction between being and doing, the former a question of presence or existence and the latter a question of will, event, or action. Recall when Deleuze confessed his desire "to remove essences and to substitute events in their place” (Logic of Sense, 53). Now nearly fifty years after Deleuze wrote that, it's not uncommon for a contemporary theorist to say that the being of an entity does not matter, what matters is the doing. As Benjamin Bratton recently put it, “Platforms are what platforms do” (Stack, 41). Jasbir Puar says something similar about assemblages: “There are thus numerous ways to define what assemblages are, but I am here more interested in what assemblages do” (emph. added). We may describe this approach as post- or anti-hermeneutic in that it tends to focus more on function, performance, or modeling rather than representation, mimesis, or meaning. Weheliye agrees with this pragmatic turn as well, writing that “Assemblages are inherently productive, entering into polyvalent becomings to produce and give expression to previously nonexistent realities, thoughts, bodies, affects, spaces, actions, ideas, and so on” (Habeas Viscus, 46). From word to deed, it seems that Goethe was correct after all: In the beginning was the deed! Continue reading

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

Mathification

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