Russian Interview -- «Мир не кажется мне цифровым до самого основания»

Artguide has just published an interview between me and Andrey Shental, co-curator of the Philosophical Club at Winzavod Centre for Contemporary Art in Moscow. Read the interview in Russian. I'm also posting the English transcript below.

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Andrey Shental: I know that programming has never been your main preoccupation, but nevertheless how has a practical engagement with computation influenced your theoretical observations?

Alexander R. Galloway: It is an important part of my own explorations and research techniques. People have different styles and approaches, my style was always to work on projects in parallel, rather than to reduce philosophy to technology, or to subsume technology into philosophy. I try to pursue both of them at the same time. I will give an example, when I worked on my first book on internet protocols (Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization), I was also working on a software platform called “Carnivore.” They both were dealing with data protocol, protocols for data that moved through networks. So one day I would be debugging network packets and another day I was working on a more theoretical, critical responses to this same type of networking. To give another example, when I was writing a book on videogames I was also authoring a game as well. The two practices influence and inform each other.

Shental: Your interest in computation affected your interest in “digital philosophy”. But now you want to speak of digital philosophy without referencing the computer, as you claimed in your lecture at the Philosophical Club. Of course, digital is a very old term that has its own independent history, but today it is hard to dissociate it from technology.

Galloway: Yes, that is true. Part of my desire today — even in a polemical sense — is to say we need to take a pause and define digital without, first and foremost, making reference to digital technologies. I would not say it is an absolute claim or goal, because you are right, I do acknowledge that the digital has a special relationship to technology and particularly to industrial technology in contemporary life. So I see this as a separate but necessary detour that we need to make conceptually.

Shental: It seems that you and some other philosophers (I have in mind Quentin Meillassoux, who resorts to experimental mathematized sciences) suggest a new philosophical episteme that conceptually substitutes for the post-structuralist obsession with language. However, for Jacques Derrida, one of the major figures of that movement, numbers are also signs (just like letters), they are manifestations of writing. But are there fundamental differences between the linguistic and numerical?

Galloway: I want to reduce them to one thing, or at least I try to argue that they have a very intimate relationship. As regards to Derrida, you are right that he discusses writing, but I was more influenced by other works from post-structuralism that focus specifically on the category of the symbolic. Either coming from psychoanalysis, or other post-structuralists such as Jean-Joseph Goux or the “Tel Quel” group who want to think of symbolic economies. Because for me the digital is understood in terms of the letter, the number, the sign. But more generally, the digital is also the domain of the symbolic. So the relationships between symbols is a digital relationship. It is a fundamental insight borrowed from Saussurean linguistics and semiotics.

Shental: Is your critique of the digital also a critique of calculation? I am wondering because there is a whole tradition of the critique of calculability and numerical reduction from György Lukács to “The Invisible Committee.” What is your relationship to that critique? Could one say that with the advent of the digital the very ontology becomes calculable, so to speak?

Galloway: Under modernity, a very powerful and quite common mode of political engagement is, if you will, to answer the problem of the digital with the solution of the analog. Romanticism is a great example: romanticism as a response to increased rationalization of positivist knowledge in the 19th - early 20th century. I acknowledge this mode of political respond to the overreach of rational logical systems by making references to analog things such as authenticity or reality. It is not the only option that people have. I am not sure it is the best one, but it is a common one indeed.

Regarding calculation, the digital certainly makes calculation easier. At the same time I want to separate these two terms. Something may be symbolic or discrete (digital) without being algorithmic or calculable. Think of literature or poetry, both of which are built from discrete symbols even if they don't “calculate” in the mathematical sense. That said, there is a common if not also pernicious ideology at work today that equates ontology with digitality, in order to assert that being itself is one giant computer. This school of thought is called “Digital Philosophy”; I disagree with this school for a variety of reasons, most simply because the world doesn't seem to be “digital all the way down.” The world seems to consist of both digital and analog phenomena.

Shental: Your idea of dividing philosophy into digital and analog is refreshening. Of course if one introduces new categories, it implies a retroactive discovery of new distinctions, new differences that were not present before. However, the line that demarcates the digital and the analog overlaps with the line that divides the transcendental (Kant, Hegel, Marx, Badiou) and immanent philosophy (Spinoza, Nietzsche, Bergson, Deleuze). What then is the value of your distinction?

Galloway: I have no profound answer to this question, except to note that terms such as “digital” and “analog” are already in common usage today; they are more common than philosophical jargon like “transcendental” and “immanent”. So we can take advantage of vocabulary already familiar to a lot of people, even people who are not familiar with philosophy and theory. Even if we can use that discourse, as you rightly describe within a more long-standing conversation about the transcendental and the immanent, that can be useful. But your point is absolutely correct. To conceive of the digital in a rigorous and conceptual way means to understand it allied fundamentally with both the symbolic and the transcendental. On the other hand, the analogical mode -- depending on how we define immanence -- is allied with certain Spinozist or Deleuzian definitions of immanence. Mostly, because the analogical mode is one that has a special relationship to real materiality.

Shental: So is it just a way to popularize philosophy?

Galloway: Yes, in a sense. But at the same time, the digital and the analog, like any interpretive lenses, allow us to see existing philosophy in a new way. For instance, if we define the digital through analysis and the analog through synthesis -- which I think we can do -- then perhaps we have a new way to read Kant's first “Critique,” where the analytic and synthetic play an important role. These are the kinds of questions I'd like to pursue more in the future.

Shental: In art and photography theory, there is also a great divide between analog and digital ontology. Following the Piercean triad of signs, the digital is taken as the iconic mode that is based on mere similarity, while analog photography has a direct physical or material connection to its referent.

Galloway: It is tricky, it comes down to how we define connection or relationship. I said a second ago that an analogical relationship locates the relationship within real materiality. That is a difficult claim to defend...and of course the digital has a relationship with the real as well. I think what we have to do is revert to a much more specific description of relations and connections. The digital's connection to the real is the same relationship that the transcendental or symbolic has to the real. The digital uses a mechanism of abstraction or formalization, a movement from more material to less material. So it becomes very difficult, because it depends on how we define a lot of these terms. The analogical has a much more directly mimetic and continuous relationship. We might even call it more directly mechanical -- although of course some mechanisms can be digital too. These are the terms we use when we describe the kind of connections or relations that exist in the analogical mode. To clarify an earlier claim, I think of the digital and analog as modes of representation and mediation. The goal is to qualify and describe the particular mode for each.

Shental: It is funny, when I was at Rosalind Krauss' lecture at the Tate Modern, she was talking about Tacita Dean's installation at Turbine Hall, that was entirely dedicated to reflection of the medium of film, i.e. the physicality of celluloid. And her talk was all about the supremacy of the analog over the digital. But at a certain moment she divulged a secret: she was writing the paper watching someone's documentation of the film on Youtube.

Galloway: (Laughter) I think there is a tendency within art history and art historical criticism to rely too heavily on uninterrogated assumptions about media formats. If it is photography, it must be analogical; if it is video on a computer, it must be a digital video. Rosalind Krauss is smarter than that, of course, and she understands that one must think in terms of modes of mediation, rather than rely on pre-given definitions of physical formats. Still I believe there is a bias in art-historical discourse that makes it difficult.

Shental: You also say that Badiou is one of the few digital thinkers among analog philosophers. Is the idealization of the analog a form of resentment?

Galloway: Indeed the vast majority of rationality as such, of philosophical discourse in general, is on the side of the digital. What I tried to claim in the Moscow lecture is a counter-intuitive argument, that we live today in era in which the analogical is still very popular. Still, I don't think it should be taken as an indication of any larger macro-historical claims. It just means that we live in a special era, where a small number of analog thinkers have become very, very influential. The most well-known would be Gilles Deleuze. But we can also talk about other figures as well. I don't think we should take it as an indication of what philosophy is overall or what rationality is overall, mostly because rationality through the concept of logos is closely intertwined with what the digital is.

Shental: As far as logos is concerned, when you divide mathematics into arithmetic and geometry, I think of Derrida's division of speech and writing and two modes of being. Figures are continuous and ceaseless like speech, numbers are discrete like writing, always mediated and spatialized.

Galloway: The power of Derrida is that he inverts one of the fundamental arrangements of philosophy. Begin with the logos: this is realm of speech, but also the realm of “ratio” and rationality. Derrida contrasts this with writing -- with media, really, in the proper sense of the word. When I say “inverts” I'm referring to how we tend to assign auratic authenticity to the real, while we assign a sense of desacralized profane existence to the rational. Maybe it is just a modern condition, I'm not sure. What is powerful with Derrida is that he returns to the fundamental distinction between speech and writing. This is very Socratic, it comes straight from Plato, that speech is more authentic and writing is less authentic. I think Derrida is delighting in the perverse nature of inverting that relationship. Because we know that Derrida privileges writing over speech.

Shental: In his lecture at Winzavod, Franco “Bifo” Berardi, has discerned two modes of sensibility: conjunction and connection. While conjunction was organic relations or let's say analog, connection is based on algorithms and is detrimental. Would you agree with him that the digital affects our sensibility?

Galloway: I would agree that processes of conjunction and disjunction are related to connective logics, and that they can certainly be mapped onto the history of the digital and the analog. The way I usually describe it is that the digital relies on a kind of either/or logic, a logic of stark distinction or strong difference. Alain Badiou makes it very clear in Logics of Worlds (the second volume of Being and Event), in a section called “The Theory of Points.” This is part of his larger discussion about what subjects are and determining the political experience of the subject. But for him there comes a moment when a qualitative, heterogeneous landscape can be galvanized around two discrete points, producing an “either/or” decision. For me this is the essence of digitality as a concept. We can contrast it with something that is much more common in the work of someone like Deleuze, which is the logic of “and... and... and...and...” off into infinity. Deleuze's logic is affirmative. He describes a parade of aesthetic qualities that are all equal. This is connected to the idea of sensation and aesthetic experience. It's an excellent description of the analogical mode.

I find it interesting however when Deleuze describes the plane of immanence as nothing but an endless parade of differences and multiplicity. And he says that difference is so pervasive that it becomes somehow “smooth.” I see this in the “and... and... and... and” logic of the analogical. In other words pure difference tends to produce a kind of radical homogeneity. At the end, a certain kind of consistency or smoothness becomes evident across the entire plane. So if the digital follows the rule of two, the analogical follows the rule of one, the pure continuity of “and.”

Shental: I would like to end up with post-internet art and its relationship with the digital. Because despite all these proclamations it, paradoxically, looks very analog in the end.

Galloway: I think post-internet aesthetics returns us to the question of modernism. Among other things, the question of modernism has to do with the following question: do you attend to the specificity of the medium? Let's not forget that, within recent computer art, it was the net artists of the 1990s who were the most modernist. They were the artists who made works directly about the material conditions of the computer: Vuk Ćosić,, Alexei Shulgin, Olia Lialina. Post-internet aesthetics, on the other hand, is a bit strange because it is not modernist. Perhaps it is a continuation of postmodernism, with digitality a kind of signifier that imbues the work, but only at the level of content not form. Digitality becomes a stylistic condition rather than a material condition.

Shental: Would Malevich be a digital artist? He divides one into two: black and white, zero and one.

Galloway: I don't have an answer to that. Part of it has to do with how we understand the “Black Square.” Can we remove the square from the rest of his works? And would that be a problematic maneuverer? I think a lot about this, to the extent that “Black Square” is the zero condition of modernism, but also the zero political condition of Bolshevism. I do think that the “Black Square” has a relationship with the concept of the generic that I've become interested in the last few years. Both the way François Laruelle and Badiou talk about generic. In one sense, there is a certain political logic that is about strengthening and emboldening subjects and subject positions. Yet there is another logic that renders subjectivity insufficient. And that mode, in my view, is invoked in the “Black Square”.