Digitality and Intent

I gave a two-person talk with Nan Z. Da last fall at U. Michigan on the theme of "Digitality and Intent." Here is my text for the talk, slightly revised and expanded.

In prepping for this event, Nan and I decided on the theme of "Digitality and Intent" as a way to address one of the hard problems in computational approaches to literary study, namely the relationship between measured textual features and human intentionality. So let me begin by adopting the naive posture: what does "intent" mean? I propose to think about intent along three different lines.

In the context of digital inscription, intent might first appear as measurable qualities of users. One might pose the question "what is a user's intent?" And the answer typically revolves around the notion of features. A feature is simply some differential that is measurable. And the assumption among engineers is that these features inscribe user intent; the features are authorship in some basic sense. I stress that features really are any kind of differential whatsoever -- provided the differential can be positively measured. In mathematical terms, intent might be inscribed as a vector (or set of vectors), given that vectors are a simple way to register a differential. (Vectors are taught in school as having "a direction and a magnitude," although most computer languages store vectors simply as a pair of two points, starting point and ending point, which accomplishes the same thing.) And I still think McKenzie Wark wrote the definitive theoretical book on this, with her A Hacker Manifesto (2004), which elaborates the concepts of vector and vectoralist.

Given these features captured as measurement vectors, data science is often described as a "multidimensional" science. After all, a dimension is just an axis on which to measure. So if you have 17 measurement axes, you have 17 vectors, and you have a 17-dimensional space. This might not make much intuitive sense to everyday human experience, but a 17-dimensional space is completely normal in data science, just as an 88-dimensional space is normal in piano sheet music. The recent success of AI has a lot to do with these kinds of high-dimensional spaces (and the Linear Algebra necessary to calculate and transform them). Of course there are many problems with this approach, which I will merely hint at without attempting to resolve: Are you measuring accurately? Is your measurement model distorted by unwanted biases? Do measurements (no matter how complex and nuanced) effectively capture users' intent? Continue reading

Martin Hägglund's "This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom"

It's a great book, worthy of all the attention it's getting. I don't have a coherent assessment or review, but here are some disorganized thoughts about the book, in no particular order...

Despite never discussing Heidegger, this is essentially a Heidegger book. The themes are all there: finitude; an ethics of care; the human being as the one who questions after its own being; our relation to death; an orientation toward time ("the secular"). Surprisingly there are only two or three references to Heidegger, all in footnotes, one note divulging that Hägglund's next book will explicitly address Heidegger's Being and Time. Continue reading

Normal Science

A prediction... we're entering a new phase of normal science. I expect this to last a decade or more.

To understand "normal science" we return to Thomas Kuhn's influential 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In that text--devoted to the history of science although we might extrapolate outward to other domains as well--Kuhn differentiated between historical periods of relative equilibrium, punctuated periodically by "paradigm shifts," during which entire schools and traditions are overturned and reinvented. During the periods of "normal" equilibrium, scientists are mostly intent on probing the local, internal inconsistencies in their theories, toward the ultimate goal of grounding their work in a series of more consistent claims. Yet, at certain points, there emerge observations (or theories) that can't be subsumed within the existing paradigm of knowledge. These new claims are first judged to be inexplicable, perhaps even impossible, yet slowly gain adherents resulting in the realization of a "scientific revolution" within knowledge. It might grow gradually, then seem to break all of a sudden. Other thinkers have proffered similar lenses through which to view intellectual history and the mechanics of how history changes. The French scene around Gaston Bachelard and Louis Althusser was keen to talk about "epistemological breaks." More recently Alain Badiou has theorized conditions of consistency or stasis, which he terms "natural" or "normal," periodically punctuated by transformative "events." Continue reading

Support the strikes at New School and University of California

UPDATE: UAW Local 7902 has reached a tentative agreement with New School management. Ed workers in California have also voted and ratified a new contract. 

Strikes are ongoing at the New School in New York, as well as a massive strike in the University of California system. I stand with the striking workers, and will be respecting these picket lines both physically and virtually.

Please consider signing a pledge not to cross the picket line at the New School, including not appearing or participating in events (virtual or in-person).

For contingent faculty in the NYC area, please also consider signing the pledge not to scab for the New School.

You can contribute to the UC strike fund here.

If you are a UC faculty member, please consider signing the pledge of solidarity indicating that you will both honor the picket line in full and not replace struck labor.

Agre > Zuboff

When Shoshana Zuboff published The Age of Surveillance Capitalism four years ago, I remember feeling skeptical and slightly guarded. You're telling me the Harvard Business School hates Facebook now too? Okay, sure, welcome comrade...better late than never. Zuboff's book is big and bold. It makes a clear argument, and, most importantly, it makes that argument in a broad public arena that very few media scholars (like me) have access to. If Zuboff's in the New York Times, good on her.

At least that's what I used to think. Having recently read Stephanie Sherman's essay "The Polyopticon: A Diagram for Urban Artificial Intelligences," I was reminded of the problems in Zuboff's project. According to Sherman, "Zuboff’s drastically limited by her vision of the liberal subject."

I agree; and I'll add another shortcoming: "surveillance" is entirely the wrong word and the wrong concept. The persistence of surveillance as a model for power -- including the larger system of panopticism it suggests -- is simply an incorrect description of the current conjuncture. But how exactly?

Continue reading

How I Modeled Guy Debord's Brain in Software

I was never a member of the cult of Debord. I had read Society of the Spectacle in college, and even watched a few of Guy Debord’s films on my own. I mostly associated Debord with a certain kind of downer avant-garde, all bile and bilge, albeit frequently fun and exhilarating. Later in 2011, now working as a teacher, I assigned Society of the Spectacle in a graduate seminar, mostly for old time’s sake. It bombed. Or maybe the lessons of the book had become so commonplace by then that many younger students didn’t see the point. Why call for a revolution of everyday life, when contemporary life is in constant chaotic rotation? Why call for a form of aesthetic hijacking, when much contemporary art—from memes to games to fine art—is sampled, riffed, and repeated endlessly? Had the work of Debord, that notorious French author and filmmaker and founding member of the Situationist International, finally run its course? Had Debord been done in because he won out?

Continue reading at ROMchip

Along the Diagonal Line

Claude Parent and Paul Virilio, Architecture Principe 5 (1966), p. 9.

Recently I've been thinking a lot about diagonal lines and processes of diagonalization. Inherently formal and spatial, if not also graphical, the diagonal or oblique line has played any number of important roles: from the diagonal of the unit square (which nearly destroyed Pythagoreanism and, later, played an important role in Plato’s Meno), to the modern intervention of Georg Cantor’s “diagonal argument” (where in 1891 he demonstrated that the real numbers are uncountable), to the structuralism of A.J. Greimas and Jacques Lacan, to Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s postmodern “machine,” defined as a diagonal that cuts through an assemblage. The diagonal is a dynamic force that grants access to several important domains, namely relation, contradiction, and the irrational. Continue reading

Deleuze on "The Greatness of Marx"

There's an amazing post at Destratified about the connections between Deleuze and Marx, focusing on Deleuze's proposed but unfortunately unrealized book Grandeur de Marx. After reading the post, I remembered an article in Le Nouvel Observateur with some revealing quotations from Deleuze about Marx, including a reference to the "Grandeur" book. (I briefly referenced this in my book on Laruelle, pp. 96-97.) The article didn't seem to be digitized anywhere, but luckily I was able to find the original article again on microfilm in the library, and sent it to Matthew for inclusion in his bibliography. I'm posting the article below for anyone interested, with a rough translation of the final section where Deleuze describes his relation to Marx. Deleuze died only a few days before this article was published.

Gilles Deleuze:

I never had any special loyalty to the Communist Party. (I was never psychoanalyzed either -- I escaped all that.) And I had never been a Marxist prior to the 1960s. What made me hesitate was to see the kinds of things the communists made their intellectuals do.

I should also add that I wasn't a Marxist then for the simple fact that I hadn't really read much Marx in those years.

I read Marx at the same time I read Nietzsche. This was a nice pairing for me. And I still find validity in many of those concepts. There's a critique there, a radical critique. You will find references to Marx and marxism all throughout Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus. Today, I can say that I feel completely marxist. For example, the article that I published on the "Society of Control" [reprinted in Negotiations] is completely marxist, even though I discuss things that Marx knew nothing about.

I don't understand it when people try to say that Marx was wrong. And even less when they claim that Marx is dead. There are so many urgent tasks today: we need to try to understand the global market, what it is and how it moves. To do that, one must turn to Marx.

My next book will be titled "Greatness of Marx." It will be my final book. Although these days I no longer have the desire to write. After my book on Marx I think I'm going to quit writing. At which point I will spend the rest of my time painting.

[Source: "Le ‘Je me souviens’ de Gilles Deleuze," Le Nouvel Observateur (Nov 16–22, 1995), 50-51.]