AN INTRODUCTION BY BENJAMIN BRATTON
"Translation passes through continua of transformation, not abstract ideas of identity and similarity."
"And, finally, whether it has essential limits or not, the entire field covered by the cybernetic program will be the field of writing."
"Myths of Electronic Living," begins what we hope will be a different kind of conversation about contemporary life and politics, a forum composed of many different voices that in the past have not often been heard along side one another. This first "transmission" of _SPEED_ includes articles both by members of the "academy" and "industry"; people too often separated, not by interest or conviction, but by impersonal structures of various kinds. Part of what we hope to accomplish in this, and in future issues, is to circumvent these structures toward the discovery of new objectives, languages and understandings that might produce better and more public ways of thinking about technology, media and society. This first collection grew out of one such coming together.
Last August, at the annual SIGGRAPH meetings in Anaheim, CA, _SPEED_ sponsored two panels entitled "Technology, Representation, Politics," made up of people from the academy and the business community, professionals interested in theorizing questions of technology. The contrast between our panel participants' marginal (within the context of the SIGGRAPH setting), but earnest attempt to demand a dialogic relationship with technology, and the beyond-overwhelming razzle-dazzle of the nation's largest computer graphics industry hoe-down, was, to say the least, severe. Nevertheless, the sometimes confusing but surprisingly successful communicative relationship that we were able to construct amongst ourselves demonstrated an avenue of hope. It is in the spirit of each participant's attempt to make sense of the various "local tongues" that s/he had to work with in Anaheim, that this first transmission is dedicated.
This process of learning to hear across our technically afforded languages, and the producing of better (if temporary) "hybrid languages" is a skill that we can only learn from each other. It is my hope then, that the informal, introductory essay below is written in such a way that certain arguments central to the different approaches we wish to bring together will be accessible to a (relatively) wide audience. The reader therefore, may find many things already known in a re-stated form, but, s/he will also hopefully find some ideas (even if they weren't intentionally included) that work to establish useful if temporary "links" between present and potential concerns. It is meant as an initial gesture, not a call for ground-rules, in what we hope will be a fruitful conversation between those who are paid to think and those who are paid to construct the tools with which we think. Since we all do both, we anticipate an exciting exchange.
We would also like to thank the participants at the SIGGRAPH panels whose work does not appear in this collection: Steve Kurzman of U. C. Santa Cruz, Department of Anthropology; Alan Barnum-Scrivener of Advanced Digital Systems; Garth Gillespie of U. C. Santa Barbara, Department of German; and David Frerichs of Future Vision Technologies, Inc.
MYTHS OF ELECTRONIC LIVING
This issue is about "myth"--myth as a language with which we make sense of life in the midst of electronically mediated social reality, myths as stories that we tell ourselves and each other about what that reality *is*, and myths as stories that we are *told* about where that reality is going and what we should be doing in that course. We hope to put forward the term as a mode of critical political discourse, one that will make the inherent reflexivity of "electronic living" a useful political priority. In effort to do this, a re-orienting of what the term "myth" means is necessary in order to ask it to do what we suggest. First, instead of being "inherited stories" whose authority depends upon their age, these myths are present and future-oriented operations. Second, a particular contingent understanding of language as being now "infinitely rearrangeable," dependent only upon its internal structures and not an external symbolic order that would precede it, is necessary to make myth, as Roland Barthes wrote almost forty years ago, "... a type of speech." (1957, 109)
How then does "myth" operate for and through electronic speech, especially the kind of speech we all make back through the electronic information that surrounds each of us and yet does not seem to want our replies? The question of language, how and what it "represents," and how and what it can be forced to "represent', is one that works through and across each of the articles in this current issue of _SPEED_. From strikingly different "angles," and with an *approximate* variety of "native tongues," the authors work the question of "myth" and what it can do (and already does) in our different "electronic lives." But as suggested above, what lies behind this question is a particular notion of language's structure, a "digital" structure which has for better or worse asked us to translate all experience into its particular form. This structure has been commonly called the "code." A number of theorists of electronic subjectivity, Jean Baudrillard and Arthur Kroker perhaps most severely, have approached the "code" as an apocalyptic monolith; not so much as a social structure but, rather, as the end what we could take the "social" to be. It is seen as instituting a terminal seriality of meaning by disembedding the sign, not only from its referent, but also (perhaps therefore) instating any and all conceivable action into a synchronic and implosive mechanism of sign circulation. *Our* purpose is to address something quite different. The "code" works in different ways at different times and in different spaces for different people; it is not, therefore, external to the particular social circumstances of those who must organize their lives through its limits and affordances. The "code" is rather, in its peculiar "structure," an imagined linguistic space whose properties are always a matter of the location from where one is able to enter its demands. By pushing its traces through the widest variety of experiences, back onto itself and out into other locations, we hope to, in whatever small way, indicate a suspension of the "code" as a "total" and paradigmatic logic, and point towards its democratic possibilities as an avenue of practical, if unpredictable, politics.
First, however, in order to find our way back to that address of "something different," we need a more specific explanation of what the "code" *is*. As already said, as "code," language seems to become infinitely re-arrangeable. Computer "code," for example, allows "any" speech as sequential combinations of zeroes and ones. Keep in mind that the relationship between the social "code" and machine language is a crucial conjunction. In both cases, by re-organizing the basic blocks, or "grams," anything can be produced, since virtually anything and everything is composed of these serial, digital units. This is not only the basis of computer languages, but now also according to some notions, of the process of thinking itself. The character, Bryce, from the _Max Headroom_ TV show seems to have a handle on this; he says that "the human mind is nothing but a binary computer ....you know, lots of on/off switches."
This basic machinic "understanding" of cognitive processes has, however, taken hold in more arenas than science-fiction television. In many Psychology departments for instance, mental health is losing ground to artificial intelligence. Here the "code" pushes in and offers a new model of the mind as machine. A mathematical theory of information, the amplification of "information" as source and as solution, over and beyond the flimsiness of the dream and the story, has made possible the marriage between neural-network cognitive psychology and the theoretical wings of computer science. The consideration of the computer as a mind is congratulated by the consideration of the mind as a computer. What brings the two together is the common language of the code, the binary "digital." Computers speak a language of these infinite binaries, zeros and ones in particular but re- assemblable patterns of repetition and variation, as do, in this popular manner of speaking, human social machines.
As the uncanny abilities of some machines to give the "feeling" of human sentience and the empathetic interaction of intelligence is seen as ultimately reducible to the seemingly unromantic flow of zeros and ones, what becomes clear to researchers in artificial intelligence is that thought itself, or what can count as thought, is an equation, an effect of flows, intensities and networks of numbers and number theory. Outside of the laboratory, however, what becomes difficult is the totalizing character of such a linguistic structure. Though, it is then now possible to "say" anything, there is (according to Kroker's principle) nothing much left to say, or no new ways to say anything, since all utterances would be simply variations of this closed gaming. This problem of "replication" has been central to the theory and philosophy of language long before the invention of the computer, but that should be expected, as in many ways the computer is a synthetic moment of a longer and broader trajectory of technical translation and production of "universal languages." The reader should be cautioned at this point that our concern is not with the "scientific" validity of neural network modeling, we assume that within the range of its own questioning, it has plenty. Our concern is with what is now popularly understood as the "paradigmatic" operations of the code: the notion of a "code," whether semiotic as for Baudrillard, machinic as for the computer scientist, biological as for the geneticist, constructable as for the neural-network psychologist, or repeatable and beautiful as for the enthusiast of fractal equations, which has, in many ways emerged as the dominant logic of our period. This grand pronouncement is, of course, part of that emergence, and as such should be read as a question, as part of what we wish to complicate and what we invite the reader to help us complicate, and not as the deadly end-game envisioned by Baudrillard.
The "code," broadly conceived as "universal language," has been a haunting vision within the specifically Western story of media for quite some time. It is part of its genealogical evolution. Marshall McLuhan's spiritualization of globalization was based in an ecumenical imagination of transcending difference through the device and toward a universal orality of culture, community and presence. The reception of his thought benefited from the existence of digital language and the location of that language in the external, yet extensional, device, whether the computer, the car or the phone line. His predecessors were focused on language itself as the device through which to work both the science and spirituality of media. Attempts have been made throughout modernity to construct a "global" language capable of indicating any idea or truth to and by anyone through the artificial device. A sketched history includes Francis Bacon's bilateral alphabet, Pascal and Leibniz' calculating alphabets and machines, Charles Babbage's "difference engine," Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener's mathematical theories of communication, as well as later productions of computer languages as the basis of working artificial intelligence and the neural-network cognitive models of the mind. This history of total languages parallels the historical development of mathematics, machines, ciphers and philosophies of "mind," and as I have drawn it here, continues to perform an ordering role in the techniques of scientific knowledge.
In attention to the limited space afforded by an introductory essay, we will consider only two of the above moments in the social and mythological history of "global language" and allow them to contextualize the others as well as the trajectory of such projects in general: (1) Jorge Luis Borges" story/essay "Analytical Language of John Wilkins," and (2) the social philosophy of "code" as the basis of artificial intelligence and "interpreting machines." This, hopefully, will indicate the character of our framing the works included in this first transmission as also "interpreting machines" of a sort.
According to Borges' short story, Wilkins, taking his cue from Descartes' proposition for a "general language that could organize and contain all human thought" began to undertake that task and conceive such a device. Again quoting Borges directly: "Wilkins divided the universe into forty categories or classes, which were then subdivisible into differences, subdivisible in turn into species. To each class he assigned a monosyllable of two letters; to each difference, a consonant; to each species, a vowel. For example, de means element; deb, the first of the elements, fire; deba, a portion of the element of fire, a flame." (This system, as Borges notes, is similar to Leibniz' numerical alphabet wherein zero is written as 0, one 1, two 10, three 11, four 100, five 101, six 110, seven 111, eight 1000... such a device is, of course, the basis for digital computer language.) Since such a language is based on the "universal" principles of mathematics and infinite serial sequentially, it would then be assumed that Wilkins had indeed produced, as Descartes intoned, a language that could express any and all concepts and things, by and to anyone, regardless of their native tongue. Problems arise, however, in the schematics by which hierarchies of the "order of things" are arranged, and subsequently quantified in letters. Such apparently arbitrary classifications and subdivisions are presented; the ninth category: metals as "imperfect," "artificial," "recremental" and "natural." Ultimately, these, and all categories, mimic the "Chinese Encyclopedia" also here discussed, in which animals are divided into: "(a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs..."--*stop me if you've heard this one before*. The ultimate inability to close the machinings of language has not, however, deterred anyone from continuing the attempt to construct devices of "pure knowledge." (see Borges, ibid)
The computer chips that are fast becoming ubiquitous in our daily lives, whether or not we recognize the chip in our coffee makers to be a computer, are built upon the mathematical alphabets briefly discussed above: combinations of zeros and ones in specific sequences, ordered by higher "linguistic" functions, and producing the effect of a picture, a word, a voice-- "knowledge" of any and all sorts, or so it may seem. Here, a brief sketch of the procedure's modern history is useful. The attempt to construct artificial linguistic devices that could say and think all things was made somewhat more modest by attempts to construct physical devices that could "think" specific, limited ("mathematical") things. Leibniz, Pascal and Babbage (among others, see Goldstone) built cumbersome but elegant "calculators" that could (taken as a group) perform basic mathematical functions by manipulating zeros and ones in accordance to a language of their correspondence to complex integers. Wiener and Shannon, as a project for the U.S. military during World War II, constructed firing tables and mechanisms that would allow surface-to-air missiles to "track" and fire upon moving targets in the sky. The steam-rolling complexification of such machines soon resulted in the development of vacuum tube based "supercomputers," such as the Eniac. These machines could process (what seemed at the time to be) massive amounts of information, in the form of zeros and ones, in order to provide ("translated") information more quickly than previously possible. Especially after the advent of the silicon chip, the sub- discipline of artificial intelligence began to attract more and more interest; here, again, the vision of a "linguistic device" that could "think" all things, was resumed.
The excitement over constructing artificial thinking devices based on conceived parameters of human cognition, memory and judgment, resulted in a peculiar discursive switch: as models of the computer became increasingly based upon models of the brain, models of the brain became increasingly based upon models of the computer. The neural-network or Connectionist discourses of cognitive psychology assume similar models of thought-- decentralized, information-routing, pattern-building and electro-stimulus based processing--as do those in Computer Science who attempt to build "learning networks," artificial systems that can learn to route information and solve unexpected problems without immediate human assistance. Present day phone call routing networks, for example, are based on paradigmatic knowledges gleaned from Connectionist cognitive psychology. These developments hold tremendous interest not only for the study of social knowledge, but also for the practical, reflexive production of social speech. They indicate a shift toward (or successful radicalization of) the quantification of the social self, a self now conceived as a "node" through which social information might pass, and thereby force the spiritual character of citizenship in the "global village" (sic) to re-focus its sites.
As the model of the mind, however fashioned, is conversant with the model of the machine, the model of the self is fashioned in a manner conversant with the model of that mind. This is the crucial insight afforded by our truncated readings of Baudrillard and Kroker. But as suggested above, we wish to activate the term "myth" in order to map not simply routes of escape from these models, but to indicate better mutations of those codes, to orient the seriousness of electronic subjectivity toward its own terms. A general, synthetic model of how the works included in _SPEED_ 1.0 might do this is probably not what is required. Mutation is always specific in character, even if "global" in purpose and potential ramification. As such, this introduction will couch each piece in its own terms and thereby, with a little luck, the reader will be able to formulate a glimpse, even if by negative definition, of what each affords toward these ends.
After stating this, allow me to contradict myself somewhat by suggesting, if not a model for "myth," at least some moments of overlap between the works below. Myth, as it is formulated here, is understood as the stories that we tell ourselves and each other about what the social reality of electronic life "is," as well as the capacity of those stories to subsequently circulate themselves in the terrain from which future stories are formulated. That is, in a circumstance in which nothing can be granted unconditional belief, as nothing can be confidently assumed to have veracity, the procedure of establishing meaning in contemporary context is definitely "risky business." Instead of performing the concluding actions of past stories, thereby extending the security of those stories to order and give meaning to present circumstances, each of us is forced to improvise --re-code-- meaning from incomplete clues.
Contradictory information from equally "valid" sources comprises the landscape from which we formulate the stories that allow us to continue living in the social world. These "fragments" make claims for us and ask us to make claims for them. Two possible reactions to this situation might be opposed for our purposes. One is to assume a real veracity of a particular combination of these seemingly infinite fragments (like the scholars in Borges' library of Babel who searched in vain amongst an infinity of texts for the single "true" combination of graphs and letters); that is, to confront the incompleteness of the social sign as one would confront a broken device--the imperative is then to put it back together in the form already known and understood, to make it do what it once did. Another possible approach is to accept the challenge of the incomplete sign as a source of constructive (not re- constructive) power and knowledge (and not necessarily only power/knowledge.) To do so is to actively re-arrange found texts in order to produce new meanings and to imagine and to speak new social organization through them. In this sense, there is no such thing as a pure cultural producer and no such thing as a pure cultural receiver. To produce is, especially in the moment of the "code," a matter of creative re-arrangement and active dissemination of potential maps, combinations, based on that re-arrangement. Focusing on the fact that the "myths" I create from incomplete codes might in some way find their way into the myths you subsequently disperse, might seem a needlessly "Idealist" (in the sense of concepts leading the change of material circumstances) way to imagine a political electronic language, but it remains true that the guarantees afforded by clear distinctions between what is substantial and what is un-substantial are no longer available, except as potential contingencies of electronic negotiation.
This first transmission begins with conversations with two contemporary "fiction" writers: (1) "Technically Speaking" with Mark Leyner and, (2) "Apparatus and Memory" with Kathy Acker. Both authors have, as we have arranged it here, taken the position of cultural producer, myth-maker, to be always an of interpreter of fragments. Leyner's novels, fast-forward romps through the debris of the consumer collective consciousness, force to the surface the sublime delinquency of what hopes to "succeed" the "public sphere." His literary characters can be read in a manner similar to the way one reads the competitors in a video game; the ability to "inhabit" their pre- determined intentions is directly proportional to their two-dimensionality-- it's very easy. Somewhere between Trivial Pursuit and Pat Sajak's rewriting of _Mein Kampf_ --if the ingredients in "Twinkies" were to serve as the basis of a sequel to _Easy Rider_-- Leyner dissects the imagined and lived metaphysical contradictions and epiphanies of the channel-surfing consciousness.
Kathy Acker's procedure of constructing her texts can be (and often is) seen as a distillation, of sorts, of life lived without guaranteed social signs. For those less familiar with her work, Acker's novels, short-stories and plays are constructed primarily from bits and pieces of already written works. Acker "re-writes" works that have "written her," in order to make them say what she needs to say back at them and through them. A passage from Conrad might be made to condemn the condescending and disciplining gaze of the colonial cop. A passage from Burroughs might be made to implicate the reader in (his) own desire for the "climax of the text." Some lines from Rimbaud might be made into cyberpunk science-fiction. Everything is made into something else, made to say what Acker hears in it; and primarily what they are made into is a "throwing" of Acker's desires into the text, at the reader and therefore out into the world where they might come back to her on better terms. Even though her texts are constructed from precedent bits and pieces of literature, Acker's "voice" is so loud in her re-workings that it sometimes deafens the reader. One cannot "read" her works in the distanciated manner of an eavesdropper, they are too demanding. They demand, not empathy, but a response. The procedure of reading her works is quite like the procedure by which they are created: the text sits before the reader, and like few others, Acker's work requires an interjection of the reader's desires into the text by "listening" to the text, thereby allowing it to do what the reader needs from it. In this sense, her's is perhaps archetypal of what "myth" can now be. It is a re-arrangement of a precedent reservoir of incomplete signs, one that injects that reservoir with subjective desires, and as disseminated, demands its host to re-inject the text with its own reactions and re-formulations.
Mark Jenkins, in his piece entitled: "The "Pleasures & Terrors" of Identity: Language & Subjectivity in Kathy Acker's _Empire of the Senseless_," explores the nuts and bolts of a particular myth, Acker's re-created, post-patriarchal Paris. He explores the parameters of Acker's specific invocations of the horizons of transgression, at the level of the body and at the level of language, as a political juncture or axis around which the literature of life can be thought to function. The circumstance of contemporary political writing is one in which "the stable identity of mythic self-hood becomes a wavering mirage, causing the subject the immense pain and confusion of desire infinitely deferred. But amidst this infinite mortgaging of self, Acker argues that the very ex-centricity of our regime of dislocation and absolute difference presents new opportunities for the construction of previously impossible narratives of new desires and, therefore, new kinds of subjectivities."
In "Final Amputation: Pathogenic Ontology in Cyberspace," Mark Pesce hopes to complicate the conceptual distinction between what has unfortunately been bifurcated as the "meat world" and the "virtual" worlds of lived and potential cyberspace. Even as a conduit of electronic information, the fleshly hardware through which we make any meaningful connection has its thresholds, its breaking points. It not only can get drunk on its own code, it can be made ill by inappropriate enterings into the inertial spaces of electronically- immersed sociality. His is neither a single-track warning against the "unnatural" dangers of VR, nor a repetition of some inherent difference between a reality "out here" and a quadriplegic falling "in there." It is rather, a complication of the overlaps. Pesce's warning assumes the concretely physical character of the electronic image. The lighted image induces specific physiological changes in its "host," indeed, this is how we even see it. With this re-organized vision of cybernetic connection, he initiates a conceptual groundwork for the ambulances that will undoubtedly patrol the "information super-highway" some time in the not-too-distant future.
Robert Nideffer's piece: "Imag(in)ed Gulfs," examines the role of myth in the reception, by both intellectuals and "consumers," of the Persian Gulf War. He suggests that fundamental mis-negotiations of "myth" made critical understandings of "postmodern" death and destruction, not only limited, but in many ways impossible. Framing much of the critical work on the Persian Gulf War was what might be seen as a panic over a loss of "reality" in the midst of the incredible technologization of its operation. At one extreme is Baudrillard's famous statements that the war "will not," "is not," and "did not" happen, but was rather circulated un-tethered in the "unreal" spaces of irreferential media. At the other end are complaints from many on the oppositional Left who, disappointed in the ineffectuality of traditional means of protest, demanded a recovery of the "real" spaces of war's violence. Nideffer suggests that this "myth," the verifiable and desirable differentiation between "natural" war and "artificial" war (a notion reproduced in critical commentary from both the Left and the Right), served to obsfuscate the always cybernetic character of social-conflict-at-a-distance, and thereby left oppositional voices without the explanatory tools necessary for undoing the effectiveness of the nationalist, racist, nostalgic and spectacular "myths" that ordered the war's participation for the world audience.
In "Digital Fall Guys," Will Kreth examines the various potential ramifications of being lead by a particular myth, the "information super-highway," and what that will mean for the future development of tomorrow's common sense of what "one" can do with what should be very public technologies. Present throughout the text is a warning concerning the direct application of older social and legislative precedents to the emerging arenas of media law. Without anything approaching consensual or even hegemonic understandings of where "we" are going with new mechanisms of communication, we are left *entirely* at the level of metaphor, presently a metaphorical "highway." The awkward, "futurist" tones of these "debates" have not invited an outpouring of serious, critical commentary. Kreth, however, demonstrates the potential danger of remaining disengaged from these issues. It will be fatal if we underestimate the intentions of corporate and governmental interests for control over and access to new media, simply because others are overestimating what is frequently seen as the media's inherently democratic capacities. The "myths" that are leading the cornerstone legal decisions currently being debated in congress and the courts will become tomorrow's unchallenged precedent as to how electronic sociality will function. Kreth's work is an intervention in that procedure, one that hopes to orient thought toward the elaboration of better "leading myths" by tracing the dystopian and utopian imaginations from different blocs of legal realities and possibilities.
We hope you enjoy...
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