Allegories of Control

Bradley J. Fest has just written a review of my book The Interface Effect. Published on the website of the journal boundary 2, the review is long and detailed, flattering at times but also critical, and I invite you to read it at your own leisure. In fact, the review touches on a number of topics and texts, and covers several different themes that have reappeared in my writing over the last ten years or so. While the review focuses on The Interface Effect, it also covers what I've been calling the “Allegories of Control” trilogy, a narrative arc begun in 2004 with Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization, continuing through Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (2006), and concluding with The Interface Effect (2012).

Like other authors, I tend to think in terms of conversations and critiques that continue from book to book. So it's a pleasure to have a reviewer who also considers the larger frame of reference. A debate might begin at one point in time, only to culminate several years later. My recent comments about network pessimism, for instance, owe much to the analysis of networks began in Protocol, The Exploit, and other texts. Likewise the final chapter of The Interface Effect opened a door that I was only able to enter in a subsequent examination of digitality and its relation to politics and ethics.

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Fest's criticisms are essentially two. The first focuses on claims made in the third chapter of The Interface Effect, a chapter devoted to the theme of unrepresentability. There I try to describe the dialectical straightjacket of contemporary digital aesthetics. It's an argument I also made in the final chapter of Gaming (and was likewise criticized by reviewers for making it there). On the one hand, the ubiquity and fungibility of digital media seem to open up a vast expanse of aesthetic possibility. But, on the other hand, digital aesthetics are incredibly narrow and highly standardized. It's not so much a question of cliché -- give me the title of a TED talk and I can already tell you want it says -- but more a question of genre. Such things ebb and flow, but I maintain that today we're living through a period in which genre is incredibly strong, much stronger than genre's putative opposite (neo-modernism, the avant-garde, or whatever, if anything, might fill an analogous role). I discovered this in the early days of the Carnivore project. Mind you, data have no necessary visual form, and Carnivore doesn't force any kind of formal conventions, aside from those already built in to the structure of TCP/IP packets (which itself is significant). Still, so many Carnivore interfaces came back looking the same: a child's rendering of a network with Tinkertoy hubs and spokes. There were so many of them we used to joke and call them “herbivore” interfaces. My point is that digital aesthetics are anything but liberating. Digitality is sold as the ultimate triumph of heterogeneity and multiplicity. But, as I argued ten years ago in Protocol, the Internet is also the most highly standardized mass media hitherto invented. By a long shot. Therein lies the conundrum of unrepresentability today: everything is possible in the age of “no alternative.” The question is why.

The second point of criticism has to do with the socio-political analyses in The Interface Effect, indeed not just analyses but also proposals if not proscriptions. As Fest has well intuited, it was an undertaking that so escaped the bounds of the closing pages of that book, that it required a 300 page pendant in order to be addressed with any seriousness. I il_570xN.488454360_qgtkshare Fest's impatience with the colossal cliché that is “Bartleby.” There was a time, thankfully now terminated, when one couldn't attend an academic talk in the humanities without mention of our friend the defiant one. (It was usually paired with obligatory references to Giorgio Agamben and/or Carl Schmitt.) I've tried my best to keep Bartleby's name out of print. But trying is not always succeeding, and his name is incredibly useful as shorthand for a series of other things that, it turns out, are quite interesting and valuable to discuss. I'm a proud student of Michael Hardt, and it shows; I think of Protocol as something like a sys-admin's footnote to Empire. And I've spent a lot of time trying to understand and develop some of the ideas gleaned from Hardt's work and the theory and philosophy he passed along to me, ideas like refusal and withdrawal, but also immanence, love, and “whatever being,” a complicated notion that traces back through Agamben and Deleuze to medieval philosophy. In the last few years, the concept of the whatever has shifted toward what I view as a better and more interesting concept -- the generic -- about which I'll need to devote a longer post soon.

Such propositions and proposals are not uncontroversial, as Fest's review reminds us. The two most contentious topics I've found during such discussions are indeed these: withdrawal and the generic. It's difficult because both of these terms can be defined in different ways. I'll admit that the conventional definitions of these two terms are not very appetizing. From Thoreau to the Unibomber, withdrawal conjures, at worse, pictures of oblivious if not callous indifference, and at best, a kind of romantic elitism enjoyed by the privileged. While at the same time the generic evokes images of bland monotony, by way of standardization, generalization, and universalization. I say these terms can be defined in different ways; indeed I deploy them in ways almost entirely opposite to the conventional definition. In retrospect it would have been easier to select different terminology!

As someone raised by back-to-the-land hippies in rural Oregon, I'll admit to having a deep personal connection to the autonomist spirit -- which of course in the context of the American West always remains intertwined with both libertarianism and the legacy of settler colonialism. But in fact I don't define withdrawal in such terms. I'm hoping someone will pen an “Anti-Thoreau” to help assuage the misunderstandings that surround this political concept.

Withdrawal means withdrawal from systems of representation. Hence those who withdraw -- or those who are involuntarily withdrawn before the fact -- are at times invisible and at other times pressingly visible and present. Withdrawal usually means you don't go anywhere, but instead inhabit a site of insufficiency at the real root of a system of representation. And I stress that withdrawal is often an undesirable if not involuntary condition; so we might speak about the working class as subject to “withdrawal” from capitalist accumulation, even as it provides the very heart and hands of such accumulation. Or we might talk about trans persons as having “withdrawn” from systems of gender regulation and normativity. Withdrawal means being present -- not out in the woods, but right here, right in the middle of things. Indeed, it's no coincidence that the greatest example of withdrawal in recent years came under the name of “Occupy.”

The roots of withdrawal come from proletarian theory and subaltern studies, cases in which people are excluded (or sometimes voluntarily exclude themselves), yet nevertheless invert such logics of exclusion from a weapon into a tool. You exclude us -- but, look now, we refuse to speak in your language. Don't get me wrong, I'm hugely sensitive to the accusations of privilege that often accompany any strategy of withdrawal. Who has the ability to withdraw? And what if withdrawal is not an option -- or not desirable in the first place? Still, militant withdrawal seems to be the last remaining weapon we have against the most intractable problems. I'm thinking of something like the Black Lives Matter movement and the calls by moderates for new “police sensitivity training,” or an increase in funding for body cameras. We talk about racism in this country as if it's something one sits down with at a conference table in binding arbitration to haggle over who gets what. Militant withdrawal is a much more ambitious stance, something like Ta-Nehisi Coates' recent exploration into paying reparations for slavery, not as a magic solution but as the first step toward a new American reconstruction. Militant withdrawal embodies precisely this kind of abolitionist spirit. And we could make similar arguments about capitalism: it's useless to sit down and “bargain” with the bosses; instead we should withdraw from the system of class distinction, assume immediate collective ownership, and institute democratic decision making. Of course I'm straying a bit from the book review, but I hope this provides context for some of the concerns raised there.

Beyond these points of debate, I'll admit that reviews are a rare indulgence because they provide an opportunity to luxuriate in one's small successes. I cared about that idea, and so did you -- I found interest in a word or phrase, and another soul did too. I'm always curious to learn what resonates most with readers. And when it agrees with one's own assessment there comes a small thrill of vindication. Vanity be damned, we all have our private schedule of favorite bits. For example I'm quite proud of the first chapter of Gaming, cited here by Fest, even if that chapter hasn't received as much attention as, say, the second chapter on the cinematic origins of the first-person shooter, or the final one on artist-made game mods.

The review also highlights some of my confrontations with other authors and with media studies as a field. Everyone loves a good feud, but I suspect that Fest overstates the case. The long section on Lev Manovich, which opens The Interface Effect, in fact was written in the spirit of friendship and admiration. I've known Lev since the late 1990s, us both being products of that first wave of Internet criticism fueled by email lists like Rhizome and Nettime. And, truth be told, the sections on Manovich in The Interface Effect were first drafted because a friend had asked me to write an introduction to the French translation of Manovich's landmark The Language of New Media. (My text was subsequently never published in France because of a third-hand publisher's disagreement to which I wasn't privy.) So the text was initially written as a kind of homage, even as it contains moments of critical appraisal. I wanted to celebrate Manovich's best talents -- his formalism above all -- but also explain, in a plausible and attentive way, the near absence of society and politics in Manovich's book.

Likewise the notion that we should toss out the remediation argument -- a line I somewhat regret given how it has been interpreted as an attack on a book of that name by Richard Grusin and Jay David Bolter -- should be understood within the larger framework of formalist, and particularly McLuhanist, media studies. I teach in a department that, at its founding and through the 1980s and '90s, was an important site for the promulgation of McLuhan's ideas. I am and remain profoundly influenced by McLuhan and the kind of formalist media studies that he represents, as indeed most people in this field are at some very basic level. Still, it's difficult to take McLuhan seriously on a number of points: the preference for snappy sloganeering over deeper scholarship, the clumsy historical analyses, the uncritical embrace of the present (an effective veil for his social conservatism), the puerile notion that a universal set of laws pervades all human media.

As I've discussed in some recent blog posts on the work of Fredric Jameson, I maintain that formalism, while necessary, can never do its work alone. Form is not an adequate explanation; it's form that needs to be explained. And so within the discipline of digital studies I've tried to explain form -- not simply describe it -- using the methodology of “control allegory.” The challenge is particularly formidable with digital media because such media rely on high levels of formal distinction -- arbitrary formal distinction, I might add. For this reason I find the remediation argument to be less of an explanation than something that needs to be explained. Why do media layers encompass and subsume other layers? Or, for that matter, why do we conceive of media as layers in the first place? I'm drawn to these kinds of questions -- and indeed I've ventured to answer them.