The thing about an interface is that when it is working smoothly you hardly notice it is there at all. Rather like ideology, really. Perhaps in some peculiar way it is ideology. That might be one of the starting points of Alexander Galloway’s book, The Interface Effect (Polity 2012). Like Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle in Cartographies of the Absolute (Zer0 Books 2015), Galloway revives, and revises Fredric Jameson’s idea of cognitive mapping, which might in shorthand be described as a way of tracing how the totality of social relations in our commodifed world show up, in spite of themselves, in a particular work of literature, art or media.
Take the tv show, 24. In what sense could one say that the show is ‘political’? It certainly appears so in a ‘red state’ sort of way. The Jack Bauer character commits all sorts of crimes, including torture, in the name of ‘national security.’ But perhaps there’s more to it. Galloway draws attention to how certain formal properties of narrative, editing and so forth might help us see ‘politics’ at work in 24 in other ways.
24 is curiously a show about the totality, but in a rather reactionary way. Characters are connected to something much greater than their petty interests, but that thing is national security, whose over-riding ethical imperative justifies any action. This is of course much the same ‘moral relativism’ of which both the conservative right and the liberal center accused communists and then postmodernists.
The hero, Jack Bauer is a kind of hacker, circumventing the protocols of both technologies and institutions. Everything is about informatics weapons. Interrogation is about extracting information. “The body is a database, torture a query algorithm.” (112) Time is always pressing, and so short-cuts and hacks are always justified. The editing often favors ‘windowing’, where the screen breaks into separate panels showing different simultaneous events, cutting across the older logic of montage as succession.
The show’s narrative runs on a sort of networked instantaneity. Characters in different places are all connected and work against the same ever-ticking clock. Characters have no interiority, no communal life. They are on the job (almost) 24/7, like perfect postfordist workers, and like them their work is under constant surveillance. There is no domestic space. They have nothing but their jobs, and as Franco Berardi’s work also shows, a heightened ownership of their labor is their only source of spiritual achievement. “Being alive and being on the clock are now essentially synonymous.” (109) What was prefigured in modern works like Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock is now a total world.
But Galloway takes a step back and looks at a broader question of form and its relation to the content of the show. The twenty-four hour-long episodes in a season of 24 are supposed to be twenty-four consecutive hours, but there’s actually only 16.8 hours of television. The show makes no reference to the roughly 30% of the viewer’s time spent watching the ads. As Dallas Smythe and later Sut Jhally have argued, watching tv is more or less ‘work,’ and we might now add, a precursor form of the vast amount of more detailed non-labor we all perform on all kinds of screens.
Galloway: “24 is political because the show embodies in its formal technique the essential grammar of the control society, dominated as it is by specific and information logics.” (119) One might add that it is probably watched now in a specific way as well, by viewers checking their text messages or with Facebook open on their laptops while it plays on the big screen. It has to compete with all our other interfaces.
How then can the interface be a site where the larger historical and political forces can be detected playing themselves out as they articulate individual experiences and sensibilities into that larger world? How is the one transformed into the other, as a kind of parallel world, both attuned and blind to what is beyond it? What is the dialectic between culture and history? This might be what Fredric Jameson called allegory. For Galloway, allegory today takes the specific form of an interface, and even more specifically of the workings of an intraface, which might be described as the relation between the center and the edge within the interface itself.
Culture is history in representational form, as social life as a whole cannot be expressed directly (To say nothing of social-natural metabolic life). Culture is if anything not a representation of social life per se, but of the impossibility of its representation. Hence one might pay as much attention to the blind spots of an instance of cultural work – like the missing 30% of 24, where the ads run.
Further, might there be a certain homology between the mode of production at work at large in history and the specific way in which the form of a cultural work does its work? This was perhaps what Jameson was proposing in his famous essay on the ‘postmodern.’ But these times are not post anything: they just are what they are. If this is, in a term Galloway borrows from Deleuze, a society of control, then perhaps the interface is a kind of control allegory.
I can remember a time when we still called all this new media. It is an absurd term now, especially for students whose whole conscious life exists pretty much within the era of the internet and increasingly also of the web and the cellphone. I can also remember a time when the potentials of ‘new media’ appeared, and in some ways really were, quite open. That past is now often read as a kind of teleology where it was inevitable that it would end up monopolized by giant corporations profiting off non-labor in a society of control and surveillance. But this is selective memory. There were once avant-gardes who tried, and failed, to make it otherwise. That they – or we – failed is no reason to accept the official Silicon valley ideologies of history.
I mention this because Galloway starts The Interface Effect by recalling in passing the avant-garde in listserv form that was nettime.org and rhizome.org – but without flagging his own role in any of this. His work with the Radical Software Group and rhizome.org is not part of the story. That world appears here just as the place of the first reception for that pioneering attempt to describe it, Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media (MIT Press, 2002).
Manovich came at this topic from a very different place from either the techno-boosters of Silicon valley’s California ideology or the politico-media avant-gardes of Western Europe. His own statement about this, which Galloway quotes, turned out to be prescient: “As a post-communist subject, I cannot but see Internet as a communal apartment of Stalin era: no privacy, everybody spies on everybody else, always present line for common areas such as the toilet or the kitchen.” How ironic, now that Edward Snowden, who showed that this is where we had ended up, had to seek asylum of sorts in Putin’s post-Soviet Russia.
As Galloway reads him, Manovich is a modernist, whose attention in drawn to the formal principles of a medium. Where new media is concerned, he will find five: numeric representation, modularity, automation, variability and transcoding. Emphasis shifts from the linear sequence to the database from which it draws, or from syntagm to paradigm. Ironically, the roots of digital media for Manovich are in cinema, and Dziga Vertov is his key example. Cinema, with its standard frames, is already in a sense ‘digital’, and the film editor’s trim-bins are already a ‘database’. Vertov was, after all, not a director so much as an editor.
Manovich’s perception of the roots of ‘new media’ in Vertov is still something of a scandal for the October journal crowd, who rather hilariously think it makes more sense to see today’s Ivy League art history program as the true inheritor of Vertov. Manovich refused that sort of political-historical approach to avant-garde aesthetics, which in a more lively form could be found in, say Brian Holmes or Geert Lovink. Manovich was also at some remove from those who want to reduce new media to hardware, such as Friedrich Kittler or Wendy Chun, or those who focused more on networks than on the computer itself, such as Eugene Thacker or Tiziana Terranova.
As a post-Soviet citizen, Manovich was also wary of politicized aesthetics that gloss over questions of form as well as those who – in the spirit of Godard – want to treat formalism as inherently radical. Interestingly, Galloway will take a – somewhat different – formalism and bring it back to political-historical questions, as one of those heroic Jameson-style moves in which quite oppose methods are reconciled within a larger whole.
Galloway’s distinctive, and subtle, argument is that digital media are not so much a new ontology as a simulation of one. The word ‘ontology’ is a slippery one here, and perhaps best taken in a naïve sense of ‘what is.’ A medium such as cinema has a certain material relation to what is, or rather what was. The pro-filmic event ends up as a sort of trace in the film, or, put the other way around, the film is an index of a past event. Here it is not the resemblance but the sequence of events that make film a kind of sign of the real, in much the same way that smoke is an indexical sign for fire.
Galloway: “Today all media are a question of synecdoche (scaling a part for the whole), not indexicality (pointing from here to there).” (9) Galloway doesn’t draw on Benjamin here, but one could think Benjamin’s view of cinema as a kind of organizing of indexical signs from perceptual scales and tempos that can exceed the human – signs pointing to a bigger world. It takes a certain masochistic posture to even endure it, and not quite in the way Laura Mulvey might have thought one of cinema-viewing’s modes as masochistic. For any viewer it is a sort of giving over of perceptual power to a great machine.
To the extent that it helps perceive often subtle, continuous changes by sharpening the edges through a binary of language, let’s say that by contrast digital media is sadistic rather than masochistic. “The world no longer indicates to us what it is. We indicate ourselves to it, and in so doing the world materializes in our image.” This media is not about indexes of a world, but about the profiles of its users.
Galloway does not want to go too far down this path, however. His is a theory not of media but of mediation, which is to say not a theory of a new class of objects but of a new class of relations: mediation, allegory, interface. Instead of beginning and ending from technical media, we are dealing instead with their actions: storing, transmitting, processing. Having learned his anti-essentialism – from Donna Haraway among others – he is careful not to seek essences for either objects or subjects.
A computer is not an ontology, then, but neither is it a metaphysics, in that larger sense of not just what is, but why and how what is, is. Most curiously, Galloway proposes that a computer is actually a simulation of a metaphysical arrangement, not a metaphysical arrangement: “… the computer does not remediate other physical media, it remediates metaphysics itself.” (20)
Here Galloway gives a rather abbreviated example, which I will flesh out a bit more than he does, as best I can. That example is object oriented programming. “The metaphysico-Platonic logic of object-oriented systems is awe inspiring, particularly the way in which classes (forms) define objects (instantiated things): classes are programmer-defined templates, they are (usually) static and state in abstract terms how objects define data types and process data; objects are instances of classes, they are created in the image of a class, they persist for finite amounts of time and are eventually destroyed. On the one hand an idea, on the other a body. On the one hand an essence, on the other an instance. On the one hand the ontological, on the other the ontical.” (21)
One could say a bit more about this, and about how the ‘ontology’ (in the information science sense) of object oriented programming, or of any other school of it, is indeed an ontology in a philosophical sense, or something like it. Object oriented programming (oop) is a programming paradigm based on objects that contain data and procedures. Most flavors of oop are class-based, where objects are instances of classes. Classes define data formats and procedures for the objects of a given class. These classes can be arranged hierarchically, where subordinate classes inherit from the ‘parent’ class. Objects then interact with each other as more or less black boxes. In some versions of oop, those boxes can not only hide their code, they can lock it away.
Among other things, this makes code more modular, and enables a division of labor among coders. Less charitably, it means that half-assed coders working on big projects can’t fuck too much of it up beyond the particular part they work on. Moreover, oop offers the ability to mask this division of labor and its history. The structure of the software enables a social reality where code can be written in California or Bangalore.
A commercially popular programming language that is substantially oop based is Java, although there are many others. They encourage the reuse of functional bits of code but add a heavy burden of unnecessary complexity and often lack transparency. It is an ontology that sees the world as collections of things interacting with things but where the things share inputs and outputs only. How they do so is controlled at a higher level. Such is its ‘metaphysico-Platonic logic’, as Galloway calls it, although to me it is sounding rather more like Leibnitz.
The structure of software – its ‘ontology’ in the information science sense – makes possible a larger social reality. But perhaps not in the same way as the media of old. Cinema was the defining medium of the 20th century; the game-like interfaces of our own time are something else (as I proposed in Gamer Theory). The interface itself still looks like a screen, so it is possible to imagine it still works the same way. Galloway: “It does not facilitate or make reference to an arrangement of being, it remediates the very conditions of being itself.” (21) The computer simulates an ontological plane with logical relations “The computer instantiates a practice not a presence, an effect not an object.” (22)
An ethic not an ontology – although not necessarily an ‘ethical’ one. “The machine is an ethic because it is premised on the notion that objects are subject to definition and manipulation according to a set of principles for action. The matter at hand is not that of coming to know a world, but rather that of how specific, abstract definitions are executed to form a world.” (23) (I would rather think this as a different kind of index, of the way formal logics can organize electrical conductivity, for example.)
“The computer is not an object, or a creator of objects, it is a process or active threshold mediating between two states.”(23) Or more that two – there can be many layers. (Benjamin Bratton’s stack). “The catoptrics of the society of the spectacle is now the dioptrics of the society of control.” (25) Or: we no longer have mirrors, we have lenses. Despite such a fundamental reorganization of the world, Galloway insists on the enduring usefulness of Marx (and Freud) and of their respective depth models of interpretation, which attempt to ferret out how something can appear as its opposite.
Galloway tips the depth model sideways, and considers the interface in terms of centers and edges, as “… the edges of art always make reference to the medium itself.” (33) This center-edge relation Galloway calls the intraface. It is a zone of indecision between center and edge, or what Roland Barthes called the stadium and the punctum. Making an intraface internally consistent requires a sort of neurotic repression of the problem of its edge. On the other hand, signaling the real presence of an edge to the intraface ends up making the work itself incoherent and schizophrenic, what Maurice Blanchot called the unworkable.
In cinema the great artists of the neurotically coherent and schizophrenically incoherent intrafaces respectively might be Hitchcock and Godard. The choice appears to be one of a coherent aesthetic of believing in the interface, but not enacting it (Hitchcock); and an incoherent aesthetic of enacting the interface, but not believing in it (Godard).
But Galloway is wary of assuming that only the second kind of intraface is a ‘political’ one. The multiplayer computer game World of Warcraft is as much an example of a schizophrenic intraface as any Godard movie. “At root, the game is not simply a fantasy landscape of dragons and epic weapons but a factory floor, an information-age sweat-shop, custom tailored in every detail for cooperative ludic labor.” (44)
In a classic Jameson move, Galloway doubles the binary of coherent vs incoherent aesthetics with a second: coherent vs incoherent politics, to make a four-fold scheme. The coherent aesthetics + coherent politics quadrant is probably a rare one now. Galloway doesn’t mention architecture here, but Le Corbusier would be a great example, where a new and clarified aesthetic geometry was supposed to be the representative form for the modern ruling class.
The quadrant of incoherent aesthetics + coherent politics is a lively one, giving Berthold Brecht, Alain Badiou, Jean-Luc Godard, or the punk band Fugazi. All in very different ways combine a self-revealing or self-annihilating aesthetic with a fixed political aspiration, be it communist or ‘straight edged.’ The World of Warcraft interface might fit here too, with its schizo graphics interfacing with an order whose politics we shall come to later.
Then there’s the coherent aesthetic + incoherent politics quadrant, which for Galloway means art for art’s sake, or a prioritizing of the aesthetic over the political, giving us the otherwise rather different cinema of Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock, but also the aesthetics of Gilles Deleuze, and I would add Oscar Wilde, and all those with nothing to declare but their ‘genius.’
The most interesting quadrant combines incoherent aesthetics with incoherent politics. This is the ‘dirty’ regime, of the inhuman, of nihilism, of the “the negation of the negation.” Galloway will also say the interface of truth. Here lurks Nietzsche, George Bataille, and I would add the Situationists or the Jean-François Lyotard of Libidinal Economy. Galloway will by the end of the book place his own approach here, but to trouble that a bit, let me also point out that here lies the strategies of Nick Land and his epigones. Or, more interestingly – Béatriz Préciado’s Testo Junkie.
So in short there are four modes of aesthetic-political interface. The first is ideological, where art and justice are coterminous (the dominant mode). The second is ethical, which must destroy art in the service of justice (a privileged mode). The third is poetic, where one must banish justice in the service of art (a tolerated mode). The last is nihilist, and wants the destruction of all existing modes of art and justice (which for Galloway is a banished mode – unless one sees it – in the spirit of Nick Land – as rather the mode of capitalist deterritorialization itself, in which case it is actually dominant and the new ideological mode. Its avatar would perhaps be Joseph Schumpeter).
Galloway thinks one can map the times as a shift from the ideological to the ethical mode, and a generalize “decline in ideological efficiency.” (51) I suspect it may rather be a shift from the ideological to the nihilist, but which cannot declare itself, leading to a redoubling of efforts to produce viable ideological modes despite their waning effect. (The sub rosa popularity of Nick Land finds its explanation here as delicious and desirable wound and symptom).
Either way, the mechanism – in a quite literal sense – that produces this effect might be the transformation of the interface itself by computing, producing as it does an imaginary relation to ideological conditions, where ideology itself is modeled as software. The computer interface is an incoherent aesthetic that is either in the service of a coherent politics (Galloway’s reading), or, which wants to appear as such but is actually in the service of an incoherent politics that it cannot quite avow (my reading).
Hence where Galloway sees the present aesthetico-politics of the interface as oscillating between regimes 2 and 3, I think it is more about regimes 1 and 4, and entails a devaluing of the aesthetic-political compromises of the Godards and Hitchcocks, or Badious and Deleuzes of this world. I think we now have a short-circuit between ideology and nihilism that accepts no compromise formations. Galloway usefully focuses attention on the intraface as the surface between the problems of aesthetic form and the political-historical totality of which it is a part.
The interface is an allegorical device for Galloway, a concept that is related to, but not quite the same as Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s that “software is a functional analog to ideology.” Certainly both writers have zeroed-in on a crucial point. “Today the ‘culture industry’ takes on a whole new meaning, for inside software the ‘cultural’ and the ‘industrial’ are coterminous.” (59)
The point where Galloway and Chun differ is that he does not follow her and Kittler in reducing software to hardware. Kittler’s view is part of a whole conceptual field that may be produced by the interface effect itself. There is a kind of segregation where data are supposedly immaterial ideas and the computer is a machine from a world called ‘technology.’ The former appears as a sort of idealist residue reducible to the latter in a sort of base-trumps-superstructure move.
This might correct for certain idealist deviations where the ‘immaterial’ or the ‘algorithm’ acquire mysterious powers of their own without reference to the physical logic-gates, memory cores, not to mention energy sources that actually make computers compute. However, it then runs the risk of treating data and information as somehow less real and less ‘material’ than matter and energy. Hence, as usual, a philosophical ‘materialism’ reproduces the idealism it seeks to oppose.
I think Galloway wants to accord a little more ‘materiality’ to data and information than that, although it is not a topic the book tackles directly. But this is a theory not of media but of mediation, or of action, process, and event. Galloway also has little to say about labor, but that might be a useful term here too, if one can separate it from assumptions about it being something only humans do. A theory of mediation might also be a theory of information labor. An interface would then be a site of labor, where a particular, concrete act meets social, abstract labor in its totality.
Software is not quite reducible to hardware. I think we can use a formula here from Raymond Williams: hardware sets limits on what software can do, but does not determine what it does in any stronger sense. Software is not then ‘ideological’, but something a bit more complicated. For Galloway, software is not just a vehicle for ideology, “instead, the ideological contradictions of technical transcoding and fetishistic abstraction are enacted and ‘resolved’ within the very form of software itself.” (61)
Of course not all interfaces are for humans. Actually most are probably now interfaces between machines and other machines. Software is a machinic turn for ideology, an interface which is mostly about the machinic. Here Galloway also takes his distance from those who, like Katherine Hayles, see code as something like an illocutory speech act. Just as natural languages require a social setting; code requires a technical setting. But to broaden the context and see code as a subset of enunciation (a key term for Lazzarato) is still to anthropomorphize it too much. I am still rather fond of a term Galloway has used before – allegorithm – an allegory that takes an algorithmic form, although in this book he has dropped it.
What does it mean to visualize data? What is data? In simple terms, maybe data are ‘the givens’, whereas information might mean to give (in turn) some form to what is given. Data is empirical; information is aesthetic. But data visualization mostly pictures its own rules of representation. Galloway’s example here is the visualization of the internet itself, of which there are many examples, all of which looking pretty much the same. “Data have no necessary information.” (83) But the information that is applied to it seems over and over to be the same, a sort of hub-and-spoke cloud aesthetic, which draws connections but leaves out protocols, labor, or power.
Maybe one form of what Jodi Dean calls the “decline in symbolic efficiency” is a parallel increase in aesthetic information that goes hand in hand with a decline in information aesthetics. There’s no necessary visual form for data, but the forms it gets seems to come from a small number of presets.
Galloway thinks this through Jacques Ranciere’s “distribution of the sensible.” Once upon a time there were given forms for representing particular things in particular situations. But after that comes a sort of sublime regime, which tries to record the trace of the unrepresentable, which succeeds the old distribution, as a result of breakdown between subjects of art and forms of representation. The nihilism of modernity actually stems out of realism, which levels the representational system, for in realism everything is equally representable.
Realism can even represent the Shoah, and its representability is actually the problem for there is nothing specific about the language in which it is represented, which could just as easily represent a tea party. The problem might be not so much about the representability of the Shoah as that its representation seems to have negligible consequences. Representation has lost ethical power.
But perhaps Ranciere was speaking only of the former society of the spectacle, not the current society of control. Galloway: “One of the key consequences of the control society is that we have moved from a condition in which singular machines produce proliferations of images, into a condition in which multitudes of machines produce singular images.” (91) We have no adequate pictures of the control society. Its unrepresentability is connected to what the mode of production itself makes visible and invisible.
Galloway: “the point of unrepresentability is the point of power. And the point of power today is not in the image. The point of power today resides in networks, computers, algorithms, information and data.” (92) Like Kinkle and Toscano, Galloway cites Mark Lombardi’s work, and adds that of the Bureau d’études as examples of what Brian Holmes calls a counter cartography of information. One that might actually restore questions of power and protocol to images of ‘networks.’ But these are still limited to certain affordances of the map-form as interface.
So we have no visual language yet for the control society. Although we have them for some of its effects. Galloway does not mention climate modeling, but to me that is surely the key form of
data-> information -> visualization
problem to which to attend in the Anthropocene. As I tried to show in Molecular Red, the data -> information interface is actually quite complicated. In climate science each co-produces the other. Data are not empirical in a philosophical sense, but they are wedded to specific material circumstances of which they are unwitting indexes.
One could also think about the problems of visualizing the results, particularly for lay viewers. I see a lot of maps of the existing continents with data on rising temperatures; and a lot of maps of rising seas making new continents which omit the climate projections. Imagine being at a given GPS coordinate 60 years from now where neither the land form nor the climate were familiar. How could one visualize such a terra incognita? Most visualizations hold one variable constant to help understand the other. In Gamer Theory I showed how the SimEarth game actually made some progress on this – but then that was commercially a failed game.
There’s lots of visualizations of networks and of climate change – curious how there’s few visualizations which show both at the same time. And what they tend to leave out is agency. Both social labor and the relations of production are not pictured. Images of today’s social labor often land on images of elsewhere. Galloway mentions the Chinese gold farmers, those semi-real, semi-mythical creatures (under) paid to dig up items worth money in games like World of Warcraft. Another might be the call center worker. Who we might more often hear but never see. These might be the allegorical figures of labor today.
For Galloway, we are all Chinese gold farmers, in the sense that all computerized and networked activity is connected to value-extraction. One might add that we are all call center workers, in that we are all responding to demands placed on us by a network and to which we are obliged to respond. There is of course a massive iniquity in how such labor (and non-labor) is rewarded, but all of it may increasingly take similar forms.
All labor and even non-labor becomes abstract and valorized, but race is a much more stubborn category, and a good example of how software simulates ideology. In a game like World of Warcraft, class is figured as something temporary. By grinding away at hard work you can improve your ‘position’. But race is basic and ineradicable. The ‘races’ are all fantasy types, rather than ‘real’ ones, but perhaps it is only in fantasy form that race can be accepted and become matter-of-fact. Control society may be one that even encourages a certain relentless tagging and identifying through race and other markers of difference – all the better to connect you at a fine-grained level of labor and consumption.
The answer to Gayatri Spivak’s question – can the subaltern speak? – is that the subaltern not only speaks but has to speak, even if restricted to certain stereotypical scripts. “The subaltern speaks and somewhere an algorithm listens.” (137) One version of this would be Lisa Nakamura’s cyber-types. In an era when difference is the very thing that what Galloway calls ludic capitalism feasts on, it is tempting to turn, as Badiou and Zizek do, back to the universal. But the questions of what the universal erases or suppresses are not addressed in this turn, just ignored.
Galloway advocates instead a politics of subtraction and disappearance: to be neither the universal nor differentiated subject, but rather the generic one of whatever-being. I’m not entirely convinced by this metaphysical-political turn, at least not yet. It is striking to me that most of The Interface Effect is written under the sign of Fredric Jameson, for whom politics is not a separate domain, but is itself an allegory for the history of capitalism itself. And yet the concluding remarks are built much more on the Jacobin approach to the political of the post-Althusserians such as Badiou, for whom the political is an autonomous realm against the merely economic.
From that Jacobin-political-philosophical point of view, the economic itself starts to become a bit reified. Hence Galloway associates the logic the game World of Warcraft with the economics of capital itself, because the game simulates a world in which resources are scarce and quantifiable. But surely any mode of production has to quantify. Certainly pre-capitalist ones did. I don’t think it is entirely helpful to associate use value only with the qualitative and uncountable, and to equate exchange value with quantification tout-court. One of the lessons of climate science, and the earth science of which it is a subset, is that one of the necessary ways in which one critiques exchange value is by showing that it attempts to quantify imaginary values. It is actually the ‘qualities’ of exchange value that are the problem, not that its math.
So while Galloway and I agree on a lot of things, there’s also points of interesting divergence. Galloway: “The virtual (or the new, the next) is no longer the site of emancipation… No politics can be derived today from a theory of the new.” (138) I would agree that the virtual became a way in which the theological entered critical theory, once again, through a back door. I tried to correct for that, between A Hacker Manifesto and Spectacle of Disintegration, through a reading of Debord’s concept of strategy, which I think tried to mediate between pure, calculative models and purely romantic, qualitative ones. It was also a way of thinking with a keen sense of the actual affordances of situations rather than a hankering for mystical ‘events’.
But I think there’s a problem with Galloway’s attempt to have done with an historicist (Jamesonian) mode of thought in favor of a spatialized and Jacobin or ‘political’ one. To try to supersede the modifier of the ‘post’ with that of the ‘non’ is still in spite of itself a temporal succession. I think rather that we need to think about new past-present configurations. It’s a question of going back into the database of the archive and understanding it not as a montage of successive theories but as a field of possible paths and forks – and selecting other (but not ‘new’) ones.
Galloway is quite right to insist that “Another world is not possible.” (139) But I read this more through what the natural sciences insist are the parameters of action than through what philosophy thinks are the parameters for thought. I do agree that we need to take our leave from consumerist models of difference and the demand to always tag and produce ourselves for the benefit of ludic capitalism. In Spectacle of Disintegration I called the taking-leave the language of discretion. But I dissented there somewhat from the more metaphysical cast Agamben gives this, and pulled back to the more earthy and specific form of Alice Becker-Ho’s studies of Romani language practices – that scandal of a language that refuses to belong to a nation.
I think there’s a bit of a danger in opting for the fourth quadrant of the political-aesthetic landscape. Incoherence in politics and aesthetics is as ambivalent as all the others in its implications. Sure it is partly this: “A harbringer of the truth regime, the whatever dissolves into the common, effacing representational aesthetics and representational politics alike.” (142) But it is also the corporate-nihilism of Joseph Schumpeter. I think it more consistent with Galoway’s actual thinking here to treat all four quadrants of the aesthetic-political interface as ambiguous and ambivalent rather than exempt the fourth.
Ludic capitalism is on the one hand a time of that playfulness which Schiller and Huizinga thought key to the social whole and its history, respectively. On the other, it is an era of cybernetic control. Poetics meets design in a “jurdico-geometric sublime” (29) whose star ideologues are poet-designers like Steve Jobs. The trick is to denaturalize the surfaces of this brand of capitalist realism, which wants to appear as a coherent regime of ideology, but which is actually one of the most perfect nihilism – and not in the redeemable sense.
I’m not entirely sure that the good nihilism of withdrawal can be entirely quarantined from the bad one of the celebration of naked, unjust power. It’s a question that needs rather more attention. Alex Galloway, Eugene Thacker and I may be in accord as ‘nihilists’ who refuse a certain legislative power to philosophy. As I see it, Galloway thinks there’s a way to ‘hack’ philosophy, to turn it against itself from within. I think my approach is rather to détourn it, it see it as a metaphor machine for producing both connections and disconnections that can move across the intellectual division of labor, that can find ways knowledge can be comradely, and relate to itself and the world other than via exchange value. From the latter point of view, these might just be component parts of the same project.
Software can now simulate the spectacle effectively that it is able to insinuate another logic into it, the simulation of the spectacle itself, but under which lies an abyss of non-knowledge. But I am not sure this was an inevitable outcome. As with Jodi Dean, I find Galloway rather erases the struggles around what ‘new media’ would become, and now retrospectively sees the outcome as, if not an essence, then a given. This is partly what makes me nervous about a language with seceding or withdrawing. One of the great political myths is of the outsider-subject, untouched by power. All such positions, be it the worker, the woman, the subaltern, can now be taken as fully subsumed. But I think that means one works from an inside – for example via Haraway’s figure of the cyborg – rather than looking for an exit back out again.