CapitalismLetters

#Theory21c (part 2)

It is quite scandalous how much theory-talk still retails metaphors based on 19th century worldviews. As if what we can know about the world had not undergone several revolutions since. Hence if one were to look for a #Theory21c it would have to start with people who at least engage with technical scientific languages of our times. One example of which would be Tiziana Terranova’s Network Culture (Pluto Press 2004). I looked back over the bulk of the book in a previous post. This one takes up her engagement with the theories and sciences of biological computing.

This is perhaps the most interesting part of Network Culture. Terranova extends the Deleuzian style of conceptual constructivism to scientific (and other) languages that are interested in theories and practices of soft control, emergent phenomena and bottom-up organization. Her examples range from artificial life to mobile robotics to neural networks. All of these turned out to be intimations of new kinds of productive machines.

There is a certain ideological side to such of this discourse, however “… the processes studied and replicated by biological computation are more than just a techno-ideological expression of market fundamentalism.” (100) They really were and are forms of a techno-science of rethinking life, and not least through new metaphors. No longer is the organism seen as one machine. It becomes a population of machines. “You start more humbly and modestly, at the bottom, with a multitude of interactions in a liquid and open milieu.” (101)

For example, in connectionist approaches to mind, “the brain and the mind are dissolved into the dynamics of emergence.” (102) Mind is immanent, and memories are Bergsonian events rather than stored images. These can be powerful and illuminating figures to think with.

But maybe they are still organized around what Bogdanov would call a basic metaphor that owes a bit too much to the unreflected experience of bourgeois culture. It just isn’t actually true that Silicon valley is an “ecosystem for the development of ‘disruptive technologies’ whose growth and success can be attributed to the incessant formation of a multitude of specialized, diverse entities that feed off, support and interact with one another,” to borrow a rather breathless quote from some starry-eyed urban researchers that Terranova mentions. (103) On the contrary, Silicon valley is a product of American military-socialism, massively pump-primed by Pentagon money.

Terranova connects the language of biological computing to the Spinozist inclinations of autonomist theory: “A multitude of simple bodies in an open system is by definition acentered and leaderless.” (104) And “A multitude can always veer off somewhere unexpected under the spell of some strange attractor.” (105) But I am not sure this works as a method. Rather than treat scientific fields as distinct and complex entities, embedded in turn in ideological fields in particular ways, Terranova selects aspects of a scientific language that appear to fit with a certain metaphysics adhered to in advance.

Hence it can be quite fascinating and illuminating to look at the “diagonal and transversal dynamics” (105) of cellular automata, and admire at a distance how a “a bottom-up system, in fact, seems to appear almost spontaneously….” (105) But perhaps a more critical approach might be the necessary compliment. What role does infrastructure play in such systems? What role does an external energy source play? It is quite possible to make a fetish of a bunch of tiny things, such that one does not see the special conditions under which they might appear ‘self’ organizing.

As much as I revere Lucretius and the Epicurians, it seems to me to draw altogether the wrong lesson from him to say that “In this sense, the biological turn entails a rediscovery, that of the ancient clinamen.” (106) What is remarkable in Lucretius is how much he could get right by way of a basic materialist theory derived from the careful grouping and analysis of sense-impressions. One really can move from appearances, not to Plato’s eternal forms, but to a viable theory that what appears is most likely made of a small number of elements in various combinations. But here the least useful part of the Epicurean worldview is probably the famous swerve, or clinamen, which does break with too strict a determinism, but at the expense of positing a metaphysical principle that is not testable. Hence, contra Terranova, there can be no “sciences of the clinamen.” (107)

This is also why I am a bit skeptical about the overuse of the term ‘emergence’, which plays something of a similar ideological role to ‘clinamen’. It becomes a too-broad term with too much room for smuggling in old baggage, such as some form of vitalism. Deleuze, in his Bergsonian moments, was certainly not free of this defect. A vague form of romantic spiritualism is smuggled in through the back door, and held to be forever out of reach of empirical study.

Still, with that caveat, I think there are still ways in which Terranova’s readings in biological computing are enabling, in opening up new fields from which – in Bogdanovite style – metaphors can be found that can be tested in other fields. But the key word there is tested. For example, when tested against what we know of the history of the military entertainment complex, metaphors of emergence, complexity and self-organization do not really describe how this new kind of power evolved at all.

More interesting are Terranova’s use of such studies to understand how control might work. Here we find ways of thinking that actually can be adapted to explain social phenomena: “The control of acentered multitudes thus involves different levels: the production of rule tables determining the local relations between neighboring nodes; the selection of appropriate initial conditions; and the construction of aims and fitness functions that act like sieves within the liquid space, literally searching for the new and the useful.” (115) That might be a thought-image that leaves room for the deeper political-economic and military-technical aspects of how Silicon valley, and the military entertainment complex more generally, came into being.

Terranova: “Cellular automata… model with a much greater degree of accuracy the chaotic fringes of the socius – zones of utmost mobility, such as fashions, trends, stock markets, and all distributed and acentered informational milieus.” (116) Read via Bogdanov rather than Deleuze, I think what is useful here is a kind of tektology, a process of borrowing (or détournement) of figures from one field that might then be set to work in another. But what distinguishes Bogdanov from Deleuze is that for him this is a practical question, a way of experimenting across the division of labor within knowledge production. It isn’t about the production of an underlying metaphysics held to have radicalizing properties in and of itself.

Hence one need not subscribe either to the social metaphysics of a plural, chaotic, self-differentiating ‘multitude,’ upon which ‘capital’ is parasite and fetter, and which cellular automata might be taken to describe. The desire to affirm such a metaphysics leads to blind spots as to what exactly one is looking at when one looks a cellular automata. What is the energy source? Where is the machine on which it runs? Who wrote the code that makes it seem that there is ‘emergent’ behavior?

There is a certain residual romanticism and vitalism at work here, in the figure of “the immense productivity of a multitude, its absolute capacity to deterritorialize itself and mutate.” (118) The metaphysical commitments of a Marx read through Spinoza become an interpretive key that predetermines what can be seen and not seen about the extraordinary transformations that took place in the mode of production.

Terranova: “If there is an abstract social machine of soft control, it takes as its starting point the productivity of an acentered and leaderless multitude.” (123) It is remarkable how everyone, from the Spinozist left to the libertarian right seems to have forgotten about the ‘information superhighway’ moment in the history of the internet, and wants to talk instead about its self-organizing features. But what made those features possible? From when came the energy, the infrastructure, the legislative frame? Is there not a larger story of a rather more ‘molar’ kind about the formation of a new kind of ruling class alliance that was able to get a regulatory framework adopted that enabled a corporate take-over of all that military and scientific labor had until then been building? No wonder the right wants a ‘little people’ story to make that larger story of state and corporate power go away.

Where I an in agreement with the path Terranova is following however is in rejecting the social constructionism that seemed a default setting in the late twentieth century, when technical questions could never be treated as anything but second order questions derived from social practices. Deleuzian pluralist-monism had the merit at least of flattening out the terrain, putting the social and the asocial on the same plane, drawing attention to the assemblage of machines made of all sorts of things and managing flows of all kinds, both animate and inanimate.

But the danger of that approach was that it was a paradoxical way of putting theory in command again, in that it treated its metaphorical substitutions between fields as more real than the fields of knowledge from whence they came. What was real was the transversal flows of concepts, affects and percepts. The distinctive fields of knowledge production within which they arose were thus subordinated to the transversal production of flows between them. And thus theory remained king, even as it pretended to dethrone itself. At the end of the day Deleuze saved high theory from itself, and this is what remains old-fashioned about the whole enterprise.

This is what is interesting to me about Bogdanov and Haraway, as they seem to me approaches to the problem of negotiating between fields of knowledge production that don’t necessarily privilege the practice of creating what flows between fields over the fields themselves. Perhaps because their training was in the biological sciences they have a bit more respect for the autonomy of such fields. However they still want to press the negative, critical question of how metaphors from commodity production might still contaminate such fields, and they do engage in a counter-production of other kinds of metaphorical tissue that might organize the space both within and between fields of knowledge otherwise.

It seems crucial in the age of the anthropocene that thought take “the biological turn.” (121) Never was it more obvious that the ‘social’ is not a distinct or coherent object of thought at all. But it might be timely to tarry with the sciences of actual biological worlds rather than virtual ones. One of the great struggles has been to simulate how this actual world works as a more or less closed totality, for that is what it is. The metaphorics of the virtual seem far from our current and most pressing concerns. The actual world is rather a thing of limits.

I would also want to be much more skeptical about the sociobiology of Richard Dawkins. I would prefer to follow Haraway in her attempt to reconstruct the line of a quite different kind of biological thinking, as she did in her first book on the biological metaphors of Crystals, Fabrics and Fields (1974). If one wanted a biological thought that could be appropriated in Deleuzian metaphors, then surely that was it.

Terranova: “What Dawkins’ theory allows is the replacement of the individual by the unit or, as Deleuze named it, a ‘dividual’ resulting from a ‘cut’ within the polymorphous and yet nondeterministic mutations of a multitude.” (124) But perhaps it is rather the opposite. Dawkins’ world is still one of hypercompetitive individuals, it is just that the individual is the gene, not the individual organism. But then there always seems to be to be a certain slippage in the term ‘multitude’, which could describe a universe of petit-bourgeois small traders more than something like a proletariat.

I see Dawkins more as Andrew Ross does, as The Chicago Gangster Theory of Life (1995). Of course Terranova is aware of this, and offers an interesting reading of the tension between competition and cooperation in Dawkins. “Selfishness closes the open space of a multitude down to a hole of subjectification.” (126) It is just that I would prefer to bracket off the Spinozist metaphysics, with its claims to describe in advance a real world of self-organizing and emergent properties.

I don’t think the alternative is necessarily a ‘deconstructive critique’. Deconstruction seems to me also to hinge on a kind of high theory. Where Deleuze foregrounds concept-production as king, deconstruction foregrounds the internal tensions of language. Both fall short of a genuine pluralism of knowledge-practices, and the struggle for a comradely and cooperative joint effort between them. The one thing that seems to me to have been pretty comprehensively rejected by everyone except those who do theory is the demand to put theory in command. I think the only thing left for us is a role that is interstitial rather than totalizing.

Still, Terranova’s reading of biological computing remains illuminating. Its function is not so much to naturalize social relations as to see the artificial side of natural relations. ‘Nature’ starts to appear as necessarily an artifact of forms of labor, techne and science, but to be more rather than less useful as a concept because of this. Contrary to Tim Morton, I think the ‘nature’ is still a useful site at which to work precisely because of how over-determined the concept always is by the means via which it was produced.

Terranova ends Network Culture with a rethinking of the space between media and politics, and here I find myself much more in agreement. Why did anyone imagine that the internet would somehow magically fix democracy? This seemed premised on a false understanding from the start: “Communication is not a space of reason that mediates between state and society, but is now a site of direct struggle between the state and different organizations representing the private interests of organized groups of individuals.” (134)

Of all the attempts to think ‘the political’ in the late twentieth century, the most sober was surely Jean Baudrillard’s theory of the silent majority. He had the wit and honesty to point out that the masses do not need or want a politics, and even less an intellectual class to explain politics to them. The masses prefer spectacle to reason, and their hyper-conformity is not passivity but even a kind of power. It is a refusal to be anything but inert and truculent. Hence ‘the black hole of the masses’, which absorbs everything without comment or response. Meaning and ideas lose their power there.

One way of thinking about today’s big data or what Frank Pasquale calls The Black Box Society (2014) is as a way of getting back at the refusal of the black hole of the masses to play its role. Big data is a means of stripping the masses of information without their will or consent. It exploits its silence by silently recording not what it says but what it does.

Terranova accepts the force of Baudrillard’s approach but not its quietist conclusions. She still wants to think of the space of communication as a contested one. “Images are not representations, but types of bioweapons that must be developed and deployed on the basis of a knowledge of the overall information ecology.” (141) This I think is a useful metaphorical language, provided we remember that an information ‘ecology’ is not really separate from what remains of a general one.

Terranova refuses all of those languages which see images as some sort of metaphysical corruption of an enlightened space of reason. The object of a media practice has to become biopolitical power, that power of inducing perceptions and organizing the imagination. While I am skeptical as to whether the term ‘biopolitical’ really adds all that much, this does indeed seem to cut through a lot of misconceptions about the thorny relation between media and politics. After all, there is no politics that is not mediated. There is no real sense in which politics could ever be an autonomous concept.

In sum: Network Culture is a book that remains a significant step forward. I am now a bit more skeptical than ten years ago about the limits of the Spinozist flavors of Marxism. They tend to want to see the monist-pluralist metaphysic as a superior image of the real, and to subordinate other knowledge production to that image. I find this less enabling now. However, Terranova used it to excellent effect in this brief, dense book, usefully framing the issues for #Theory21c where information is concerned.

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McKenzie Wark

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