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Deleuze and the New Humanities in Hong Kong

I will be speaking in Hong Kong in June and addressing Deleuze and digital culture. However, my argument is that instead of the usual suspect of starting with the Control Societies-text, Deleuze affords an understanding of the materialities of technological and scientific culture in many other ways too. As part of the geophysical materiality, we can talk about desire’s investment as an infrastructural issue of power – not ideology, just desire but that is infrastructurally effective.

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A Pioneer of Finnish Media Studies

September 26, 2013 Leave a comment

Aivokuvia sounds much groovier in Finnish than in English; the translation to the word would be “Images of the Brain”. But it also resonates with theJukka Sihvonen idea of “brain scans”, making the term more interesting in English too; a nod to Deleuze’s film theory, but also to the fascination with the materiality of the corporeal brain, interconnected with possibilities of perception and sensation, but also with the cultural-technological framing of it.

Professor Jukka Sihvonen, whose 60th birthday is celebrated by a seminar as well as the launch of his new book Aivokuvia, has always been someone who  in his writing incorporated a fantastic sense of the potentials in Finnish language and how to bend it as an active medium itself for the writing of media and film theory. Sihvonen is a major figure on the Finnish scene as well as for my personal development: he was the one who introduced  so many of us at the University of Turku, 1990s and onwards, to the theoretical figures of Paul Virilio, Gilles Deleuze, Friedrich Kittler and others. Besides proper names and theorists, he inspired us to engage in a certain mode of thinking: rigorous, but creative; refusing the most obvious questions and answers; a style of thinking in the Deleuze-Guattarian sense of the word. After his Deleuze-course, we spent several extremely long houred sessions with Teemu Taira and Pasi Valiaho excavating A Thousand Plateus in our reading group. Sihvonen spoke about Virilio and video games; he suggested to read Kittler, and made us ponder what this odd German theorist was trying to say in his Kittler-deutsch. Some of us went on to participate in Kittler’s seminars, some in Wolfgang Ernst’s, both at the same address of Sophienstrasse 22. I myself owe so many of my research ideas to his inspiration – insects, for instance. Sihvonen’s interest in Cronenberg was probably initially behind that route.

A bit in tongue in cheek (yes, do not take such branding exercises ever seriously)I have also called him one of the master minds behind a “Turku School of Media Studies“.

The new book Aivokuvia is exemplary of his interests over the years. It is more of a film theoretical book: Aivokuvia ties together the films of Tarkovsky, Bigelow and Cronenberg with the philosophical engines of Deleuze and others. Besides this new book, it is still Konelihan varina [The trembling of the machinic flesh] which is my favourite book of his, and  which really as a student inspired me to dive in to theories of media and technology enmeshed in a cultural historical context.

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University of Turku is organising the celebration seminar Video: media, taide, teknologia [Video: media, art, technology] as well as the launch of Aivokuvia, published by Eetos-association. I wish I could be there to celebrate. Warm congrats to Jukka. Looking forward already to the next book of his.

Dirty Matter

August 26, 2011 Leave a comment

I was asked to write a short forum piece on “new materialism” for Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies-journal and I wrote a piece called “New Materialism as Media Theory: Dirty Matter and Medianatures”. It partly picks up on some of the themes I have been recently talking and writing about, influenced by such scholars as Sean Cubitt. It also articulated – albeit briefly – some points concerning German media theory as new materialism, even if going the quickly to a different direction concerning materiality. Here is a short taster of what’s to come.

The key points of the text were in short: 1) we need to understand how media technologies themselves already incorporate and suggest “new materialism” of non-solids, non-objects and this is part of technical modernity (the age of Hertzian vibrations); 2) we need also to understand bad matter – not just the new materialism that is empowering, but one that is depowering: the matter that is toxic, leaking from abandoned electronic media, attaching to internal organs, skins of low paid workers in developing countries. In this context, “medianatures” is the term I use to theoretically track the continuums from matter to media, and from media back to (waste) matter.

I believe that it is this continuum that is crucial in terms of a developed material understanding of media cultures. Hence, it’s a shame from a new materialist point of view that even such pioneering thinkers as Michel Serres miss this point concerning the weird materialities of contemporary technological culture – weird in the sense that they remain irreducible to either their “hard” contexts and pollution (CO2, toxic materials, minerals, and other component parts) or their “soft” bits – signs, meanings, attractions, desires. In Malfeasance. Appropriation Through Pollution? Trans. Anne-Marie Feenberg-Dibon (Stanford: Stanford University Press 2011),  these are the two levels Serres proposes as crucial from an environmental point of view but he ignores the continuum between the two. And yet, signs are transmitted as signals, through cables, in hardware, in a mesh of various components from heavy metals to PVC coatings.

Perhaps a good alternative perspective to Serres’ is found in how both Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze conceive of a-signification as a regime of signs beyond signification and meaning: Gary Genosko’s apt example (in: Félix Guattari. A Critical Introduction London: Pluto 2009, 95-99 ) is the case of magnetic stripes on for instance your bank card as a form of automatized and operationalized local power that is not about interpretation, but a different set of signal work. Elaborating signaletic material – electronic signals and software – through a reference to Deleuze’s film theory and a-signification by Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen is also useful. As she elaborates – and this much we know from years of intensive reading of Deleuze in screen based analyses – Deleuze wanted to include much more than signification into the cinematic impact, and mapped a whole field of a-signifying matter in film: “sensory (visual and sound), kinetic, intensive, affective, rhythmic, tonal, and even verbal (oral and written).” (“The Haptic Interface. On Signal Transmissions and Events” in Interface Criticism. Aesthetics Beyond Buttons, edited by Christian Ulrik Andersen and Søren Bro Pold, Aarhus University Press 2011, 59) What she points out in terms of signal media is as important: after signs come signals, and the media of signals needs a similar move as Deleuze did with film: to carve out the a-signifying material components for digital media too.

Such a-signifying components are rarely content to stay on one level, despite a lot of theory often placing primacy to software, hardware, or some other level. Various levels feed into each other; this relates to what Guattari calls mixed semiotics, and we can here employ the idea of a medianature-continuum.  The a-signifying level of signs is embedded in the a-signifying materiality of processes and components.

In short, it’s continuums all the way down (and up again), soft to hard, hardware to signs. In software studies (see: David M. Berry, The Philosophy of Software. Code and Mediation in the Digital Age,  Palgrave Macmillan 2011, 95-96), the continuum from the symbol functions on higher levels of coding practices to voltage differences as a “lower hardware level” has been recognized: assembly language needs to be compiled, binary is what the computer “reads”, and yet such binaries take effect only through transistors; and if we really want to be hardcore, we just insist that in the end, it comes back to voltage differences (Kittler’s famous “There is no Software”-text and argument). Such is the methodology of “descent” that Foucault introduced as genealogy, but German media theory takes as a call to open up the machine physically and methodologically to its physics – and which leads into a range of artistic methodologies too, from computer forensics to data carvery. In other words, recognizing the way abstraction works in technical media from voltages and components to the more symbolic levels allows us to track back, as well, from the world of meanings and symbols – but also a-signification – to level of dirty matter.

 

MediaNatures-talk in Berlin (June 8)

I am giving a talk in Berlin as part of the MediaSoup-colloquium convened by Paul Feigelfeld (Institut für Medienwissenschaft at Humboldt University where I am a visiting research fellow for this Spring and Summer). On June 8, 6 pm (starts 6.15) I will be talking on MediaNatures, abstract below.

Place: Medientheater. Institut für Medienwissenschaft, Humboldt Universität Berlin, Sophienstraße 22A, 10178 Berlin.

MediaNatures

This talk riffs off from Donna Haraway’s influential concept of naturecultures which established one framework to think about the topological continuity from nature to culture. As such, it was an important spark for the discourse on “new materialism” in cultural studies, a form of rethinking materiality in new ways outside a Marxist or a representational framework. Naturecultures – also resonating with a range of positions such as Latour’s – is a way to think through the multiple materialities we encounter in terms of contemporary technological society.

The talk extends naturecultures into a more medium-specific direction with the concept of medianatures. By discussing media materialism and its relation to “new materialist” debates as well as “medium-specificity”, the talk addresses ways to think through the technical and scientific specificity of contemporary media – beyond meaning, representation and the human body, the fact that technical media engage in such processes, speeds, and phenomena that escape the phenomenological human register per se.

Yet,  the talk points towards a different kind of reading of media materiality than often found in accounts for instance in media theory. We can question the notion of specificity and argue that there are various specificities from which we can draw upon. While German media theory (acknowledging that the term is in itself not very apt) has been insisting on drawing on materialities that can be directly connected to the important scientific contexts of technical media, we can think through a milieu theory of media: how media establish but also draw on nature, animals and other non-human intensities, forces and potentialities. Instead of thinking nature here in terms of the metaphorics it has offered for a long time for media cultural phenomena, and avoiding proposing any form of purity of nature, I want to look at the continuums of not only naturecultures, but medianatures that is slightly different from the emphasis of media cultures as the “new” environment for us human beings. Instead we approach medianatures as affordances, as intensities, as regimes of affects and relations and as processes of mediatic nature that offer a non-human view to new materialist media theory. Hence, we end up talking about minerals, waste and nature.

Screen memories to be forgotten


“The brain is the screen”, announced Gilles Deleuze some decades ago and summed up – beforehand – a range of things to come. The enthusiasm for the brain whether in terms of screen cultures (a range of films that play with mind, brain, and memory, and what Thomas Elsaesser has called the mind-game genre) or in new kinds of media interfaces e.g. for gaming is paralleled by a range of cultural and media theory looking into the notion of brain as a key metaphor, or node, for understanding contemporary media culture. Far from an earlier enthusiasm for the mind as separated from the body, and as an emblematic figure for the oh-so-much-hated-by-cultural-studies Cartesian worldview, the more recent enthusiasms is as much oriented towards brain as the fleshy epicentre of nerves, and sensation. The brain, too, is fleshy, vitalistic, and full of mattering matter, intensity, and in the world.

This is paradoxically why Christopher Nolan’s Inception is such a disappointment. Despite fitting in perfectly with a range of screen culture examples from past years such as his own Memento to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Doll House ,
The Matrix
, etc., it does not bring anything new to the genre, or an elaborated, innovative, or even exciting take on the centrality of the cognitive for current media culture. To be honest, with a topic like this, can you fail? Memory and the cognitive can be so interestingly be connected to key contemporary processes of cultural production and capitalism, even to an extent that has been branded as cognitive capitalism. Not only knowledge, affects, and such as an endproduct that can be packaged (thanks Edison, thanks copyright laws) and sold as a discrete unit of cultural industries, but the whole process of production that is more akin to an ecology of seemingly immaterial, cognitive, or emotional values that can be harnessed into value-creation and raise important issues concerning the current “creative precariat” is where these themes concerning feelings, memory and the self are debated and become crucial for the political economy.

Without going into too much detail (as I recognize my shortcomings as a film critic…) I would summarize Nolan’s attempt as itself a bit pale, a bit short of exciting. Despite the references to Kubrick, which I personally do not understand at all, Nolan’s film is exactly not daring sci-fi when it comes to dealing with the brain or the self. The cliched guiding idea of getting caught in a dream at the expense of reality does not become transported into a more powerful and political “don’t get stuck in someone else’s dream” but only a bit sentimental storyline. The parallels between political/financial power and power over the mind remain very vague, and the attempt to multiply dimensions of reality (or dream) itself a bit boring. Whereas some critics have at least hailed the visuals as stunning (I beg to differ), what is bothering that it seems to be acceptable to recycle such outdated notions of the mind and the brain in supposedly futuristic settings. Metaphors of depth, architecture, and the subconscious remain mostly vague perhaps Freudian allusions, but on a level that is as insightful as I would expect The Sun’s summary of psychoanalysis to be.

Indeed, I admit after reading some more positive writings and after discussions that there would have been potential for much more. The theme of “contagious ideas”, or more interestingly “emotion contagion” (that is of key scientific interest for social media cultures). The labyrinthine architectural formations in which urban structures, the psyche and various realities intertwine in a Borgesian or Dickian (as in Philip K. Dick) manner are a strong cinematic trope of contemporary digital culture. Writers such as Peter Krapp have pointed out how film itself has acted as “a medium of aberrations of memory” from such avantgarde works as Chris Marker’s La Jetée to more recent science-fictions of The Terminator series and even Men in Black, and indeed its interesting to map how hallucinated, and often psychoid realities are being framed increasingly in such settings which do not take multiple realities only as delusional but at the core of power and control.

However, despite for a second trying to be optimistic and positive I have to return to my original feeling about the film; if such supposedly informed publications as the Wired are even asking if Inception is the scifi heavy-weight of the year, I must myself be in the wrong reality now.

Affect, software, net art (or what can a digital body of code do-redux)

After visiting the Manchester University hosted Affective Fabrics of Digital Cultures-conference I thought for a fleeting second to have discovered affects; its the headache that you get from too much wine, and the ensuing emotional states inside you trying to gather your thoughts. I discovered soon that this is a very reductive account, of course — and in a true Deleuzian spirit was not ready to reduce affect into such emotional responses. Although, to be fair, hangover is a true state of affect – far from emotion — in its uncontrollability, deep embodiment.

What the conference did offer in addition to good social fun was a range of presentations on the topic that is defined in so many differing ways; whether in terms of conflation it with “emotions” and “feelings”, or then trying to carve out the level of affect as a pre-conscious one; from a wide range of topics on affective labour (Melissa Gregg did a keynote on white collar work) to aesthetic capitalism (Patricia Clough for example) which in a more Deleuzian spirit insisted on the non-representational. (If the occasional, affective reader is interested in a short but well summarizing account of differing notions of affect to guide his/her feelings about the topic, have a look at Andrew Murphie’s fine blog posting here – good theory topped up with a cute kitty.)

My take was to emphasise the non-organic affects inherent in technology — more specifically software, which I read through a Spinozian-Uexkullian lense as a forcefield of relationality. Drawing on for example Casey Alt’s forthcoming chapter in Media Archaeologies (coming out later this year/early next year), I concluded with object-oriented programming as a good example of how affects can be read to be part of software as well so that the technical specificity of our software embedded culture reaches out to other levels. Affects are not states of things, but the modes in which things reach out to each other — and are defined by those reachings out, i.e. relations. I was specifically amused that I could throw in a one-liner of “not really being interested in humans anyway” — even better would have been “I don’t get humans or emotions”, but I shall leave that for another public talk. “I don’t do emotions” is another of my favourite one’s, that will end up on either a t-shirt or an academic paper.

The presentation was a modified version from a chapter that is just out in Simon O’Sullivan and Stephen Zepke’s Deleuze and Contemporary Art-book even if in that chapter, the focus is more on net and software art. I am going to give the same paper in the Amsterdam Deleuze-conference, but as a teaser to the actual written chapter, here is the beginning of that text from the book…

1. Art of the Imperceptible

In a Deleuze-Guattarian sense, we can appreciate the idea of software art as the art of the imperceptible. Instead of representational visual identities, a politics of the art of the imperceptible can be elaborated in terms of affects, sensations, relations and forces (see Grosz). Such notions are primarily non-human and exceed the modes of organisation and recognition of the human being, whilst addressing themselves to the element of becoming within the latter. Such notions, which involve both the incorporeal (the ephemeral nature of the event as a temporal unfolding instead of a stable spatial identity) and the material (as an intensive differentiation that stems from the virtual principle of creativity of matter), incorporate ‘the imperceptible’ as a futurity that escapes recognition. In terms of software, this reference to non-human forces and to imperceptibility is relevant on at least two levels. Software is not (solely) visual and representational, but works through a logic of translation. But what is translated (or transposed) is not content, but intensities, information that individuates and in-forms agency; software is a translation between the (potentially) visual interface, the source code and the machinic processes at the core of any computer. Secondly, software art is often not even recognized as ‘art’ but is defined more by the difficulty of pinning it down as a social and cultural practice. To put it bluntly, quite often what could be called software art is reduced to processes such as sabotage, illegal software actions, crime or pure vandalism. It is instructive in this respect that in the archives of the Runme.org software art repository the categories contain less references to traditional terms of aesthetics than to ‘appropriation and plagiarism’, ‘dysfunctionality’, ‘illicit software’ and ‘denial of service’, for example. One subcategory, ‘obfuscation’, seems to sum up many of the wider implications of software art as resisting identification.[i]

However, this variety of terms doesn’t stem from a merely deconstructionist desire to unravel the political logic of software expression, or from the archivists nightmare á la Foucault/Borges, but from a poetics of potentiality, as Matthew Fuller (2003: 61) has called it. This is evident in projects like the I/O/D Webstalker browser and other software art projects. Such a summoning of potentiality refers to the way experimental software is a creation of the world in an ontogenetic sense. Art becomes ‘not-just-art’ in its wild (but rigorously methodological) dispersal across a whole media-ecology. Indeed, it partly gathers its strength from the imperceptibility so crucial for a post-representational logic of resistance. As writers such as Florian Cramer and Inke Arns have noted, software art can be seen as a tactical move through which to highlight political contexts, or subtexts, of ‘seemingly neutral technical commands.’ (Arns, 3)

Arns’ text highlights the politics of software and its experimental and non-pragmatic nature, and resonates with what I outline here. Nevertheless, I want to transport these art practices into another philosophical context, more closely tuned with Deleuze, and others able to contribute to thinking the intensive relations and dimensions of technology such as Simondon, Spinoza and von Uexküll. To this end I will contextualise some Deleuzian notions in the practices and projects of software and net art through thinking code not only as the stratification of reality and of its molecular tendencies but as an ethological experimentation with the order-words that execute and command.

The Google-Will-Eat-Itself project (released 2005) is exemplary of such creative dimensions of software art. Authored by Ubermorgen.com (featuring Alessandro Ludovico vs. Paolo Cirio), the project is a parasitic tapping in to the logic of Google and especially its Adsense program. By setting up spoof Adsense-accounts the project is able to collect micropayments from the Google corporation and use that money to buy Google shares – a cannibalistic eating of Google by itself. At the time of writing, the project estimated that it will take 202 345 117 years until GWEI fully owns Google. The project works as a bizarre intervention into the logic of software advertisements and the new media economy. It resides somewhere on the border of sabotage and illegal action – or what Google in their letter to the artists called ‘invalid clicks.’ Imperceptibility is the general requirement for the success of the project as it tries to use the software and business logic of the corporation through piggy-backing on the latter’s modus operandi.

What is interesting here is that in addition to being a tactic in some software art projects, the culture of software in current network society can be characterised by a logic of imperceptibility. Although this logic has been cynically described as ‘what you don’t see is what you get’, it is an important characteristic identified by writers such as Friedrich Kittler. Code is imperceptible in the phenomenological sense of evading the human sensorium, but also in the political and economic sense of being guarded against the end user (even though this has been changing with the move towards more supposedly open systems). Large and pervasive software systems like Google are imperceptible in their code but also in the complexity of the relations it establishes (and what GWEI aims to tap into). Furthermore, as the logic of identification becomes a more pervasive strategy contributing to this diagram of control, imperceptibility can be seen as one crucial mode of experimental and tactical projects. Indeed, resistance works immanently to the diagram of power and instead of refusing its strategies, it adopts them as part of its tactics. Here, the imperceptibility of artistic projects can be seen resonating with the micropolitical mode of disappearance and what Galloway and Thacker call ‘tactics of non-existence’ (135-136). Not being identified as a stable object or an institutional practice is one way of creating vacuoles of non-communication though a camouflage of sorts. Escaping detection and surveillance becomes the necessary prerequisite for various guerrilla-like actions that stay ‘off the radar.’

Bookmachines, Soundmachines

May 9, 2010 2 comments

Kettle’s Yard had today a CoDEful of people performing on “Musical and Poetic Approaches to Technology, from subversive, DIY and historical perspectives.” By CoDEful I mean Katy Price, Tom Hall and Richard Hoadley, all affiliated with our institute.

The experimental takes on sound, music and performance moved from digital investigations into soundscapes (Katherine Norman’s pieces) to for example physical computing and interface experiments as with Richard Hoadley who performed with his self designed Gaggle too — along with two new devices, Wired and Gagglina.

I truly enjoyed Katy Price’s performance piece Bookmachine which is described as “found poem drawn from three sources about books and machines.” The opening line “the book is a machine to think with” is a declaration of book’s haptic, sonic, material qualities; an exploration into the pragmatics of the book. (And as I learned, comes from I.A.Richard’s). Indeed, the book is touched, scraped, made into a sonic platform; it is torn, taped back together, punctured. The book is less read, and when its read, its not a work of extracting meanings from it, for sure. The book is “typed into a BBC Microcomputer simulator running ‘Speech’ and the speech facility in a Macbook.” The book does, and is an object of doing much more than meaning in a Deleuzian spirit.

This is where I am alluding to, Deleuze and Guattari on the book: the root-book is very different even if its the classical form of the book; hierarchical and full of meaning. We read such books as we should read books — the way we are taught. Start in the beginning, think of what it means. The modernists then were already cutting up books (cut-ups by Burroughs) and making new kinds of series proliferate. But books can be made to do other kinds of things; books are machines, and machines connect. They connect to senses, new uses, making books into objects, trajectories, surfaces, scapes. A machine to think with alludes to the fact that books always function as part of assemblages. We like to think of book’s as organic and self-sustaining, but they always are there to help to do stuff, to think with, to accompany. We become with books. And if the book is a machine to think with, it also alludes that there are other machines to think with too; that the book is a machine similarly as computers and such are.

Book as a machinic assemblage is much more than we usually attribute to literature, and sees it even as a , well, war-machine (in the DeleuzeGuattarian-sense again). To quote Gregg Lambert:
“…literature functions as a war machine. ‘The only way to defend language is to attack it'(Proust, quoted in CC4). This could be the principle of much of modern literature and capture the sense of process that aims beyond the limit of language. As noted above, however, this limit beyond which the outside of language appears is not outside language, but appears in its points of rupture, in the gaps, or tears, in the interstices between words, or between one word and the next.” (Lambert, The Non-Philosophy of Deleuze, 141).

Literally, what lies between words are blank gaps on the page, but also paper, and the porous surface of inscription. There is always a lot that goes on between any word – much more than hallucination of meaning. The stuttering “and” is what constitutes an experimental assemblage of the book machine which tries out the various material modalities in which text, covers, paper, expose much more than meaning. The rhizome-book is the bookmachine, it reaches to outsides and neglects illusions of books as images of the world. It represents less, but sounds a lot more.

The book too has its on level of “body without organs” — the final phrase from the performance. Much more, such perspectives relate to futures of literature and literature studies. New territories of how we approach literature, books, meanings do not take at face value the idea of hermeneutics and deciphering meanings in that traditional sense, but are open to, well, opening up the book in different ways. Literature can be made into such new contexts of use and imagination where semantics and interpretation can be seen as only one way of “practicing literature”. This is where the translation of literature whether into data open to algorithmic manipulations, or then new realms of sensation in terms of multimodality, or part of other creative, experimental takes finds its futures.

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