Monday, 31 August 2009

Bifo/Guattari -- philosophic plumber poets

Franco Bifo Berardi's Félix Guattari - Thought, Friendship, and Visionary Cartography was a great by-the-pool-book, and it made me convinced of the fact that Guattari is at least as important to media studies as is Deleuze. Ironically however, Bifo's points that seem closest to the core of media studies -- his meditations on the Internet -- are the least convincing, but his other remarks concerning what Guattari might call mixed semiotics, the refrain, the semiochemical, etc. are excellent in expanding media studies towards processes of subjectification. Bifo is polemic, aberrant and intriguing writer whose ideas often escape me yet I continue returning to them. I find this book on Guattari to be as much about Bifo, and hence it indeed shows how thinkers/writers act at best as catalysts; they take you to places where you would not have gone without them. Or as Bifo puts it: "rhizomatic thought is the cartography of landscapes yet to come...".

Bifo is not afraid of spreading the concept of the viral in his book, which seems to apply to his methodology as well. Contagion, viral spread and such concepts act less as metaphors than to demonstrate how such semiotic regimes as language act as mixed semiotics, always non-reducible to signification but spreading through a variety of regimes. Bifo paints the picture of Guattari as a materialist thinker -- a new materialist -- who is interested in the interplay and transversal relations of signification and non-signification. So virality refers to the mechanospheric dimension of reality that bypasses divisions between biosphere, noosphere etc. to underline that reality consists of the relations of heterogeneous elements. His materiality is the materiality of the singular -- not reducible to representations, contexts or other concepts borrowed from a more linguistic orientation of cultural analysis -- but one where the materiality of the event in its singularity is approached as a situated experience. There is one nice phrase that I want to quote from Bifo: "We generally say the the meaning of a statement depends on the context, but we must add that the meaning of the context in turn depends on statements that intersect it."

In terms of signs and language in its materiality, some of the implications reach towards software as well. I tried recently to write something about ethologies of software which tried to find some Deleuzian points of entry to code -- but ones which would not see code and the digital only as a reduction of intensities. Bifo's grasp of language in Guattari does this as well -- the focus on signs as always constituted of affects. Bifo quotes Paolo Fabbri on Deleuze and signs: "Any sign is the effect of the action of a body on another body, and therefore affect; and this variation of effects on a body provokes a variation in power, in affective sensibility: increase of power (joy), decrease of power (sadness." Now to transport this idea to software is the intriguing bit; and to see code not only as codification and regulated order, but as performance, temporality, and bodies of code in interaction. Furthermore, such a mode of analysis would see software as an assemblage - and part of other non-code related activities that sustain it (a media ecological approach.)

Materialism of language -- and the multiplicity of semiotic regimes is one key point that Bifo/Guattari offer. Another related to this is the conceptualisation of capitalism as a semiotic operator, a point worth quoting in length..:" the pervasiveness of the capitalist model no longer depends solely on an effect of abstract overcoding that manifests itself especially in the moment of exchange, but also depends on the technologically mediated integration of different moments of manufacturing: planifying moments, techno-scientific moments, informational moments, material moments, and so forth." In other words, capitalism act as such an operator that relays, channels, establishes and integrates processes of social production. This I find an important point in the sense that it does not negate capitalism to a dead vampire that only sucks on living energy, but as a mode of operationality. It does not mean a benevolence of capitalism, but it still points towards its energetic side.

Bifo is strong when he talks with Guattari on capitalism and its operations in the infoscape, also when he addresses the postmediatic affect and the psychic dimensions of capitalism. The idea of "schizoanalytic aesthetics" becomes a methodological guideline of sorts as well, where such an aesthetics is not focused on "beauty as an object of contemplation, but the way in which bodies perceive each other in the social field. In an era of displacement and migrations, of contaminations and integralisms, of nationalisms and aggression, an essential political problem is that of the semantics of social proximity, and thus of aesthetics." Such a rethinking of aesthetics internal to politics and even ontogenesis of relationality is what ties the project to other thinkers recently much discussed; Jacques Ranciere of course, but even A.N.Whitehead in the mode that for example Steven Shaviro takes him as a fresh alternative to a Heideggerian inspired post-structuralism. Of course, Guattari/Bifo are not as consistently "philosophical" in the sense of elaborating all details of their onto-politics etc., but this does not lessen their importance. Bifo makes the wonderful remark in the interview that is attached to the book that Guattari often sounded like a plumber when he wrote about flows, tubes, cutting and tightening.
Bifo, on his part, talks how his book was perceived by his publisher Luca Sossella as a book of poetry.

Yet, as said, the shortcomings of the approach are evident in the passages on the Internet. Some approaches have indeed put too much emphasis on the rhizomatic nature of the Internet, and critics have as much failed to see the emergence of much more interesting Deleuze-Guattarian inspired Internet studies. Hence Bifo's emphasis on the rhizomatic, distributed and hence revolutionary character of such networks fail to see the layered, also hierarchical protocols etc. that characterize the modern Internet.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Hey Mr. Tory, why do you hate media studies so much?

Oh Mr. Tory, why do you hate media studies so much? It's amazing that you claim the education system of dumbing down, as if it was somehow connected to the popularity of what you claim to be "soft subjects", as media studies. Of course, I am sure that English is not on that list -- it does after all represent the finest in British culture, right? Languages in general are seen as "tough topics." And what they teach there in English lit., or languages? -- literature, books, practices of reading and interpreting -- does not have anything to do with media? Well, Mr. Tory, if you would study media studies, you might see things differently. Literature too is a medium, it just happened to be the key medium for production, consumption, governance and distribution of information before the internet came along. Perhaps you should study media studies to get a bit of perspective.

Why do you Mr. Tory hate media studies so much? I wonder whether you would be yourself able to pass the courses? Do you know what media studies is about? No, its not what BBC suggested through its Media Studies test. It's not about learning to what social class/audience category teachers belong (as suggested in the BBC test), or what font BBC website uses (another question in that test). I wonder how you might survive reading Adorno, tackling Marx, engaging with Hall, writing an essay about Guattari, or coping with the centrality of software for contemporary culture. Badly, based on the statements you give.

Why do you Mr. Tory hate media studies so much? Because it might actually produce critical knowledge that is not only aware of the centrality of maths and sciences for the contemporary media culture of "creative industries" (e.g. through software studies), but also because it is able to create such connections that reveal their relations with other fields, including economics, politics and like. Its for this reason, Mr. Tory, that actually I would claim the centrality of media studies to understand contemporary culture. It is in an ideal position to understand the links between arts, sciences and technology, with yet another source of inspiration coming from philosophy. Too much for you? I am sure it is -- after all, it might make you question so many of your own defining beliefs. To freely quote the Finnish poet Pentti Saarikoski: the conservatives, the right wing, they don't need philosophy -- their world view is ready and sealed. To update it: the tories don't need media studies, it might question too much and critically their world. Better damp it down, before it gets too far.

Monday, 17 August 2009

More spam to the world

Finally its coming out: The Spam Book - On Viruses, Porn and Other Anomalous Objects from the Dark Side of Digital Culture, edited by yours truly and Tony D. Sampson (UEL). Its was with the publisher for about 18 months, which testifies to the fact that always when you write cultural/media studies, write a) about history, b) write about metaphysics so that what you claim cannot be said to grow old when the next version of your favourite software/operating system comes out.

Writing about spam and editing this book was fun. It was bizarre to understand the lack of research into this defining feature of digital culture, and only now PhDs and research into spam cultures are emerging. For me, spam is a perfect index, or more accurately a vehicle that we can use to drive into such themes as security, delineation of order and disorder in software cultures, capitalism and the non-signifying production of value, desires of consumerism and the weird automated processes running wild on the underbelly of networks.

From the back cover of the Spam Book:

For those of us increasingly reliant on email networks in our everyday social interactions, spam can be a pain; it can annoy; it can deceive; it can overload. Yet spam can also entertain and perplex us. This book is an aberration into the dark side of network culture. Instead of regurgitating stories of technological progress or over celebrating creative social media on the Internet, it filters contemporary culture through its anomalies. The book features theorists writing on spam, porn, censorship, and viruses. The evil side of media theory is exposed to theoretical interventions and innovative case studies that touch base with new media and Internet studies and the sociology of new network culture, as well as post-presentational cultural theory.

And some blurps...

“Parikka and Sampson present the latest insights from the humanities into software studies. This compendium is for all you digital Freudians. Electronic deviances no longer originate in Californian cyber fringes but are hardwired into planetary normalcy. Bugs breed inside our mobile devices. The virtual mainstream turns out to be rotten. The Spam book is for anyone interested in new media theory.” —Geert Lovink, Dutch/Australian media theorist

“What if all those things we most hate about the Internet—the spam, the viruses, the phishing sites, the flame wars, the latency and lag and interruptions of service, and the glitches that crash our computers—what if all these are not bugs, but features? What if they constitute, in fact, the way the system functions? The Spam Book explores this disquieting possibility.”
—Steven Shaviro, DeRoy Professor of English, Wayne State University

Foreword, Sadie Plant.
On Anomalous Objects of Digital Culture: An Introduction, Jussi Parikka and Tony D. Sampson.
Mutant and Viral: Artificial Evolution and Software Ecology, John Johnston.
How Networks Become Viral: Three
Questions Concerning Universal Contagion, Tony D. Sampson.
Extensive Abstraction in Digital Architecture, Luciana Parisi.
Unpredictable Legacies: Viral Games in the Networked World, Roberta Buiani.
Archives of Software—Malicious Codes and the Aesthesis of Media Accidents, Jussi Parikka.
Contagious Noise: From Digital Glitches to Audio Viruses, Steve Goodman.
Toward an Evil Media Studies, Matthew Fuller and Andrew Goffey.
Irregular Fantasies, Anomalous Uses: Pornography Spam as Boundary Work, Susanna Paasonen.
Make Porn, Not War: How to Wear the Network’s Underpants, Katrien
Can Desire Go On Without a Body?: Pornographic Exchange as Orbital Anomaly, Dougal Phillips.
Robots.txt: The Politics of Search Engine Exclusion, Greg Elmer.
The Internet Treats Censorship as a Malfunction and Routes Around It?: A New Media
Approach to the Study of State Internet Censorship, Richard Rogers.
On Narcolepsy, Alexander R. Galloway and Eugene Thacker.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Recycling Centre for Digital Waste, or how to stop worrying, and love spam, porn and viruses

I am still waiting to see the actual physical Spam Book that should be in print now. We are planning a launch event I believe for the 23rd of September in London, at Goldsmiths College. More on that later – now I am just anxious to see the actual book. Meanwhile, I wrote a very short Afterword for my friend Juri Nummelin’s new collection of Spam – a collection of spam poetry again. I like his way of applying some classic avant-garde art methodologies to current digital culture -- in a way, taking "spam texts" etc. "seriously", i.e. treating them as interesting pieces of living literature in themselves. Btw. after this text, I wanted to add my new favourite spam mail that I received today. Its only a variation of an old theme, but hilarious, I find.

Here’s the text, anyway:

Waste is the truth about our culture. Garbage, waste, all the residue from our daily chores is a reminder of a future-to-come that is constantly present in predictions about the impending eco-crisis and pollution of the living environment beyond repair. Waste is not only a passive negation of what is useful, but is itself a produced part of our culture, a continuous reminder of the libidinal urges of consumer culture. It’s the living dead, the zombie, that haunts the brains and bodies of consumers. Just like we produce goods, we produce waste.
In a parallel manner, all the waste that we call spam (e-)mail is the truth about network culture. It’s the hyperbolic development of the desires, perversions, and fantasmas that connect our brains to consumer cultural mechanisms. The continuous hints of your insufficient penis size or inability to perform in bed, the promises of gigantic richness, incredible deals in software or pharmaceuticals, all that is only a tickling of that cerebral state that capitalism has been preparing for decades. It’s part of the trend identified by the Italian philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato. Contemporary capitalism is decreasingly interested in producing concrete goods and products. It focuses more and more in a Leibnizian creation of worlds, in which consumerism can flourish. Capitalism produces worlds and desires. Our network world is the world of spam and excess. This book by Juri Nummelin is also a glimpse to the circulation of desires and perversions of this network culture of capitalism.
We all receive spam e-mails and other waste, so the idea of collecting, archiving and even publishing that excess is an act not entirely without absurd connotations. It continues the Dadaist and Surrealist interest in archiving the accidentalities of modern culture. Such acts of archiving the surreal of everyday culture are valuable in exposing the contingencies of any archival logic. So is Nummelin an archivist of garbage and waste? Or is he working as the recycling centre for digi-waste? Perhaps. But at the same time Nummelin is the Dadaist of network culture who has an extreme interest in the poetic in the banal, in such acts of communication (yes, we should call those software enabled non-human acts of mass spamming communication in this era of the posthuman) which approach the degree zero of language, in the found objects of digital culture, which hide in their everyday guise a very avant-garde aura.
Spam mail, viruses and all that we have learned to hate and despise in digital culture is a reminder of the fact that most of everyday Internet traffic is far from “useful” or “nice”. Most of the global info-wonder is built on spam, porn and in general to the darker sides of our libido. This is also why so much of spam email seems to be coming from the Others of our culture: Africa, Russia, outside the so-called organized society. Spam email is the travel literature of contemporary culture to the heart of darkness to have a date with Kurtz; of course, the only one we meet there is the pulsating core of our own consumer society. Spam emails, if you actually read them, maintain several such fantasies that are a combination of the sexualized Other and from universes not too far from Philip K. Dick's novels.
And spam, porn, and viruses are far from useless nuisances. With them, we have seen the development of a gigantic subsection of digital industries, namely security. From security software to various trainings, we are being taught to be responsible Net-users by underlining the grave dangers of spam for our sanitized, clean digi-future. For years, there has been talk of the necessity of a new closed Internet. Corporations would be guaranteed a frictionless world of communication and flow of information, but would leave the so-called average people in their miserable worlds of porn and spam. Weirdly enough, it resonates with such science fiction scenarios where most of humanity has been left after the apocalypse to sink in a world of dirt and lowly libidinal drives.
In the midst of the gloomy future scenarios and production of fear, such poetic recycling is however more than welcome. They are the modern surrealist techniques of tackling with the absurdities and layers beyond meaning of communication; the accidental, the haphazard, the unconscious that can be revealed through artistic methodologies. Media theorists such as Alex Galloway and Eugene Thacker have written about such dream sides of software, and there is a growing body of net art that is more interested in the dark sides of network culture than its polished progress stories. Through such methods we learn of another kind of a message: don’t be afraid to embrace your spam! They tell you the truth about the processes of interpellation that try to hail you as the proper capitalist subject! Love your spam as you love your emails from friends!

And then, the email from Sergeant David Bruce:


No label []
Sgt David Bruce sent it to me on Aug 9, 2009, 3:39 AMShow details
Dear Sir/Madam

My name is (staff Sgt.) David Bruce i am an American soldier, serving in the Military with
army's 3rd infantry division.

i have a very desperate need for Assistance and have summed up courage to contact you.
I found your contact through internet serching and I am seeking your kind Assistance to
move the sum of Five million United States dollars (us$5,000,000) to you, as far as I can
be assured that my share will be safe in your care Until i complete my service here.

Source of money: some money in US currencies were discovered in barrels at a Farmhouse
near one of saddam’s old palaces in tikrit-iraq during a rescue operation, and it was
agreed by staff Sgt Kenneth buff and i that some part of this money be shared Between
both of us before informing anybody about it sinceboth of us saw the money first.

This was quite an illegal thing to do, but i tell you what! no compensation can make up
For the risk we have taken with our lives in this hell hole, of which my brother in-law
Was killed by a road side bomb last time.

The above figure was given to me as my share, and to conceal this kind of money become a
Problem for me but with the help of a British contact working here and with his office
Enjoying some immunity, i was able to get the package out to a safe location entirely Out
of trouble spot.

he does not know the real contents of the package, and he believes that it belongs to a
British American medical doctor who died in a raid here in Iraq, And before giving up,
trusted me to hand over the package to his family in country.

I have now found a very secured way of getting the package out of Iraq to you at home For
you to pick up, and i will discuss this with you when i am sure that you are willing To
assist me and that my money will be well secured in your hand.

I want you to tell me How much you will take from this money for the assistance you will
give to me.

One Passionate appeal i will make to you is not to discuss this matter with anybody,if you
have any reasons to reject this offer, please and please destroy this message as any
Leakage of this information will be too bad for the u.s. soldier's here in Iraq.

I do Not know how long we will remain here; month of May was the deadliest month for us to
be out Here. Totally, we lost 127 men and i have been shot,wounded and survived two
suicide Bomb attacks by the special grace of god.

This and other reasons i will mention later Has prompted me to reach out for help.I
honestly want this matter to be resolved immediately, please contact meas soon as Possible
with my private e-mail address which is my only way of communication (e-mail:

May god bless you and your family"
From David Bruce.

Monday, 3 August 2009

A review of Digital Contagions

Anthony Enns raises good points in his flattering review of my Digital Contagions-book that just came out in the most recent issue of Leonardo Digital Review. Enns is himself well familiar with the debates in German media theory, having sat in the seminars of Friedrich Kittler and Wolfgang Ernst for years – and being still an avid visitor of Berlin like myself. Hence, it is no wonder that he places more emphasis on my book’s connections with the certain Kittlerian-mindset (but the “old”-Kittler of Discourse Networks and critic of digital culture). Enns is able to pick up on some really good points, but I just want to tackle some questions raised by the review.

1) Enns writes quoting me that viruses work through the principles of bottom-up emergence; I think this is only part of the picture, and I try to place them on the much wider strategic webs of definitions and articulations in which such ideas of emergence are read in their political contexts as well paying attention to the work of stratification that is as important as the idea of any distributed nature of viral networks. Such a focus on emergence is problematic if it is not specified, and instead of thinking virus software as a form of emergence, I try to think “emergence” as a form of interconnected complexity, a media ecology of sorts, where various scales of this phenomena are in constant interaction. We need to steer clear of the old ideas of internet as a distributed random network for emergence, and pay attention to for example the scale-free nature of contagions, as Tony D. Sampson has pointed out very well: we need to specify what kind of topologies are we dealing with in these milieus of accidents.

Later on in the book I refer to Katherine Hayles’s ideas relating to emergence: “Structures that lead to emergence typically involve complex feedback loops in which the outputs of a system are repeatedly fed back as input.” In other words, I also try to articulate how viruses are much a more systemic part of the loops in which software and even malicious accidents are tied to the new software business that was emerging, e.g. in the form of digital security.

2) This is why I want to steer clear of the idea that viruses are automatically vehicles of resistance; It’s not only that I reject that “viruses might represent the resistant logic of hackers attempting to subvert or appropriate corporate technologies” but that again, this image that stems from some 1990s tactical media inspired accounts, as well as a Deleuzian focus on viruses as tools of sabotage and non-communication, needs to be complexified. We need to pay attention to the singular modes of functioning of this specific software type, as well as the uses and misuses of the discursive iterations of its characteristics. This does not necessarily mean a straightforward failure of such programs of resistance, but a recognition of the multiple contextual forces in which resistance always takes place. In the Deleuzian context the idea of virus as a cut in communication made perhaps sense, but not in such contexts where accidents can be turned so easily as part of the strengthening of the security industry in itself – and this of course applies to much wider trends in security, as demonstrated after 9/11.

3) The first point also relates to how I don’t see capitalism as potentially even benevolent force, but as itself “viral” -- viral capitalism is characterized less by substance than through its forces of deterritorialisation, variation, modulation. It feeds through differences, it spreads virally to a variety of practices and discourses that might superficially seem contradictory to itself. It’s not enough, as I argue following e.g. Luciana Parisi, to posit a dualism between the living “good” multitude and the big bad capitalism that sucks power out of the creativity of people, but to actually track the modes of invention, change and appropriation inherent in capitalism’s apparatus of capture. In other words, the only way I see capitalism as a living force is due to its powers of/for change. This follows from a variety of Marxist positions as well – and one could find really nice passages from Marx himself about capitalism & crises.