Wednesday, December 13, 2017

the encyclopaedia and the database: utopian potentials

A fragment from a conversation with Lanfranco Aceti on Time, to be published at some point. The first line refers to Eco's idea that 'the knowledge we seek is unlimited because it assumes the form of a continuous interrogation'. The reference to Descartes refers to the 4 stages of the method.

The idea of knowledge not as accumulation of facts or data but as permanent inquiry has at first the structure of a future-oriented job of work. At the same time however, Calvino's concept of the encyclopedia as a project to give subjectless voice to the environmentalised, externalised and excluded surely points both to the silence of the dead and the silence of future generations (the silence of Gaia after humanity). The present is the only space of action, but it is also the only time of speech. This allows us more specificity about the possibilities for temporalising the relations established in database architectures. At present, databases extract relations from past behaviours extrapolated into the future for present profit. The present so constructed is therefore that singularity, the travelling but always still point into which past and present collapse to be consumed and discarded. This limited form of action is inherently destructive. It owns no obligations, only accumulation and debt. But if the present is the only time for action, speech and the resolution of obligations, it can be reconceived: no longer a point into which past and future disappear but the field of movements. Since, as system, the stilled, timeless present of the singularity is debarred from resolving the contradiction between coherence and completion, it already contains within itself the contradictions that stop it from unifying and universalising its knowledge in the Cartesian model.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Distinguishing 'instant' and 'moment'

Cybernetic connectivity has a different character to the continuum, even as it emulates its ecology of mutual mediation. A relational database undoes the linear march of film in favour of a single time embracing every item that it stores. In place of the perpetuity of change, the database establishes networks connecting each item to any other. This is a pretty good solution to the design challenge of creating something that works almost like the planetary ecology of humans, technologies and natural forces. The problem is that selecting the pathways between nodes relies on prior design decisions about what counts. Facebook for example use hundreds of indicators to select which items appear in which order in your news feed. Choosing which features to single out, and what ranking to give them, requires a necessarily hierarchical taxonomy. The various forms of relation have to be given numerical values to indicate which relations are the most significant. And it is these numerical values that distinguish the database from the ecologies, social or physical, that it represents. Far more navigable and flexible than film, the database shares with the older medium its reliance on counting numbers to distinguish it from the continuum that it still tries to stand in for.

The database can be read aesthetically as an extension of television which, by the beginning of the 1970s, had begun to provide an endless modular flow of programming. Film, unless it is pure repetition, comes with the promise of an end. Television never stops. Like TV, the database has no conclusion, but now because it has no temporal direction at all. Perhaps for the first time in modern history it aspires to the condition of something like a truly windowless monad.

The kind of database I'm thinking of is not like a film or photographic archive, where each item can in principle if not in practice be attended to; but the vast databases of Facebook and Instagram with their billions of items and relations. Like the physical world, their complexity is too great for any one to attend to even a fraction of the contents. And they are proprietary: both the contents and even more so the algorithmic principles that order them belong to corporations, themselves combinations of computers and people so integrally bound together I've taken to calling them cyborgs.

The planetary ecology, which includes the natural, technological and human worlds, is not the same as the internal ecology of a database, but there are similarities. One distinguishing feature is that there is a definitive outside of the database. It creates externalities and environments, and to a great extent depends on them: the materials and energy that constitute and power it. Even at the planetary scale, the ecology, dependent on tides and sunshine, and subject to cosmic radiation, is borderless. At the same time, neither artificial nor planetary ecology have a defined goal, unless you count profit as the sole goal of proprietary databases. One can certainly imagine a database of this scale that has no goal whatever, and that simply evolves. Perhaps then a second difference is that the planetary ecology, even though it lacks a teleology, has an eschatology.

In their various and often mutually contradictory ways, much of the critical thinking that inspires the early 21st century engages with some form of the utopian principle: that immanent within the present is the possibility of a vastly different state of affairs: that, as the slogan has it, another world is possible. That possibility is precisely what disappears in the database ecology.

But at the same time, if there is an eschatological dimension to the planetary ecology, and if it is also true that the broader ecology encompasses databases, their materials and energy and their implication in human affairs, then there has to be also a sense that the database contains within itself the reason why it may become otherwise. Such an occulted hope may lie precisely in the difference between enumeration and continuum, or to put it another way, in the rift between the instant and the moment, where the word moment carries the sense of momentum, of the intrinsic power of any actual state of affairs to become other.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The past and present beauty of Saturn

If beauty is to stand, the monument that outlast perennial bronze, then it is already posthumous at the moment of its birth.

The Imagist is a photographer and vice versa – the instant preserved, the pressed flower, is not a pledge to remember but the triumph of the future over the present. Then who will speak for and to the present of its own yearning to be wonderful and free?

Blinn's animations and Cassini-Huygens's telemetry are both in their ways reliable depictions of Saturn. Only the god escapes, who is also the father of all the gods.

But is it the case that either denudes the old-father of some sacred dignity? To the contrary, clothed in the glories of colour and movement, the imaged planet is as far from us as the old god, indefinitely removed, knowing we shall never clap eyes on him in the same room or in the fields or on the battlefield. The glamour 'that is upon him' of distance and time's absolute is not undone by codec and gamut: “that you do no work / and will live forever”.

It is enough to know that he exists. Our pictures are – expensive, compulsive – simple acts of worship.

And if these images of Saturn are at once beautiful and posthumous acts of worship dislodged from the co-presence that distinguishes natural from artificial beauty
(Beethoven, deaf, teaches that music in composition is its pure presence)
then observations of Saturn prove that the invisible and inhuman beauty of Saturn as he is Now that we infer from Saturn then, in imagination or by instruments, continuously graces what it is to be, this summer evening in a garden in England in fading light.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Logistics and behaviours

In the history of consumerism, the Keynesian response to the 1929 Crash built on the foundation of the nuclear family which became responsible for consuming the over-production caused ultimately by the falling rate of profit. Under the pressure of organising consumption, the this artifically limited kinship structure began to falter with the accelerating rise of divorce in the 1960s. In the wake of the family as core organisational structure (though like the extended family before it, it continues as substrate to the newer forms), the new core institution of consumerism became the individual, much as described in Wendy Brown's work on neoliberalism. Thirty or more years after the triumph of neoliberalism (Thatcherism, Reaganomics) the individual, like the nuclear family before it, is in crisis (see for example Bifo's work on mental illness as a symptom of capitalist crisis). Today a new institutional core to consumerism arises. It is no surprise to computer science or digital commerce analysts that the individual is now a residual concept like the nuclear and extended variants of the family. In consumption and production, the new key phenomenon is comprised of discrete behaviours, of the kind gathered and orchestrated in Facebook's Edge Rank.

Under these circumstances we are dealing less with a dissolved self and more with a ditributed self, spread out through prosthetic media and connected to technological and physical environments. Such a distributed self throws itself open to the characteristic organisation of distribution: logistics, specifically the contemporary form of logistics as biopolitical management.

The movement towards behaviours begins in the industrial revolution's shattering of work with the division of labour. This not only, per Marx, de-differentiates the specific forms of work; it shatters the worker, who from now on is only acquired as the performance of small tasks – proto-behaviours. The expansion from the phenomenological range of the factory-based division of labour in the C19th to the New International Division of Labour (NIDL) by the late 20th is in itself a fundamentally logistical operation, just as logistics is fundamentally premised on labour and its division. This division proceeds through partwork to cognitive labour and the database economy

As labour moves from the productive to service and thence to cognitive; as mode of production moves from productive to service to financialisation; so social organisation of consumption passes through three invented categories: nuclear family, individual, behaviour. Now not only production but produsage moves from self to the fragmented division of affective/cognitive work, now disassociated from the residual comunitarianism of family which, bereft of its extension to kinship groups, persists as the last exploitable element of social solidarity (as in “I save for, work for, vote for my family”)

The mode of rebellion moves in parallel: to liberate the family from the bonds of kin; the individual from bonds of family; and now the behaviour from the bonds of coherent self. The war against the Cartesian ego is won and lost – the schiz is not a liberatory project anymore. It has become (like the individual before it) the unit of oppression and exploitation. As nomad, rhizome and smooth space moved from celebratory utopianisms to journalistic accounts of corporate organisational paradigms in the 1980s, the schiz is no longer a much needed liberation from Cartesian ego and becomes a journalistic account of the psychological outcome of the intensified division of labour into cognitive labour. Schiz today marks the triumph of hyper-inidividualist affective prosumerism over the old identitarian politics. Identity today, viewed from the data base economy, is a behaviour – while its significance to its performer is immense, to its audience it is purely data, because its audience is no longer (only) human but EdgeRank.

The extraction of profit and rent is no longer grounded on user-generated content as intellectual property, but as logistical aggregation of behaviours. The internet of things, which includes the thingly status of behaviours in disciplined consumption, parallels the move from productive/cognitive via service/affective to finance/logistical sectors. My debt is also a promise to consume – in an orderly fashion. Communicative capital is thereby reduced from the compulsory labour of UGC (Dean) to the universal exchange of derivatives in the form of bundled (future) affective and cognitive labour plus future consumption. It is absolutely clear in this that the demands of the falling rate of profit far supersede any remnant of use-value, such as the production of social solidarity as a value of communicative action.

From this position on the move from tasks to behaviours embracing the work of both production and consumption, the next stage is to trace the logistical. NIDL (but even factory discipline) depends on the logistical management of materials and workers's reproduction of labour.

The moment of the orchestration of transoceanic maritime transport – with the construction of the Suez Canal as its most extravagant expression – and the linkage of rail and telegraph on transcontinental scales, is precisely the same moment that the world ceases to be a Westphalian contractual and conflictual – and therefore event-based and thus historical, temporal – diversity of localities and regions and begins to become both a system and a planet. It is the moment when nature appears as a definitive other to the factory-industrial-urban complex. This is why the parallel history of nature is so important – the specifics of exclusion, externalisation and environmentalisation in each phase: because that granular production of nature's otherness is what will have to provide the allies for any future solidarity with post-individual human behaviour. The fragmentation of work and the institution of the logistical inaugurate the contemporary at the heart of the modern, and form one process with the environmentalisation of nature

Logistics is the electronic mode of panpsychism (task to be articulated in a piece I'm currently writing)

This thesis requires two further stages:
1 - a more detailed media history of logistics, from double-entry to adding machine and thence to digital – or perhaps more explicitly distribution (telegraph- radio – net) and storage (unique, copiable, generated) media
2 - to discover what is the appropriate mode of politics for a post-individual, behavioural cloud.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Blogging at Winterthur

My current duties make blogging an intermittent process but I am doing a series of posts for fotomuseum Winterthur, where recent, brilliant series of posts have ben written by Jody Dean and Nick Mirzoeff. You can find us at

upcoming a discussion of how the individual image gets lost in the processed whirl of the Mass Image, and reflections on what data visualisation means for photography