All posts by ARG

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."

economies_of_existence.jpg

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

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.

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

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.