Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Computational Bio-politics

"It has been clear for several centuries now that, if we want to understand the world, it is not sufficient to describe it by words, it is necessary to calculate the world. "
- Vilém Flusser (from a soon-to-be-released DVD of interviews with Miklós Peternák)

Our age is lauded for the unprecedented modes of social functionality enabled by new technologies, especially by the internet. This appears to be the realization of egalitarian Enlightenment humanist aspiration, embodied in many of the so-called Universal Human Rights. This is an egalitarianism of info-beings predicated on the de-emphasis of materiality.

Material bodies are not equal, but minds, at least, can generate such generalizing agendas. We don't hear from the UNCF that "A body is a terrible thing to waste", a body is a necessary evil. Increasingly, our age is one of a spiritual human collusion of minds, released from the fleshy shells in which they gestate. The body is becoming extensible, replaceable, expendable, redundant. All technology points to a future of the prevalence of the mind over the materiality of the body.

Of course, as McLuhan observed, as one technology becomes obsolete, society generates reactionary cultural forms. The artists, as usual, are the most sensitive to this. Stelarc & Orlan began announcing the obsolescence of the conventional figure of human form decades ago, this has since become almost mainstream. For these artists, their bodies, far from being irrelevant to their social presence, become central, this is also increasingly the case for pornographic actors, vanguard subjects of body transformation. As most of us lead increasingly discorporate social lives, our body culture becomes ever more cliinical and artificial.

The social forms generated by discorporating bodies seem unprecedented, but they are not. This is evident in how political discourse has revealed its true impotence. Vilém Flusser, at the dawn of the PC-age, warned about the coming age of electro-idolatric society. "Thinking is anti-image" he warned, the rule of images will not bring about democracy, but a new form of magical terror. A society in the thrall of the magical power of images.

The only antidote to this, according to Flusser, would be politics, based in the rational, linear processes of text. Text makes historical consciousness which is directed against the image. But the problem today is that electronic text is every bit an image as is an image. Projected from data into text-like manifestations on the screen, the text is not text in a classic sense, but electromagnetic data, which could manifested as easily as a sound or an image or a movie.

this blog post as an image

This text is an image projected by computing, cycling machines. This text is 'kept alive' on the screen at the rate of your local electrical current (50 or 60 times a second, but recently, parallel processes can multiply this). All the exciting new ways we can interact and contact eachother today are so much spontaneous swirls and algorithmic fractals, projected on beguilingly luminescent material, bound in the minerals and metals of satellites and cables, the exotic alloys of the circuit-boards and chips, as much as the tables and toilets of the factories where these were assembled with such precision, the wells and rivers which washed and wet them.

And all along the material course from gravity-sodden earth to speed-of-light peta-flop circuit, is a choreography of human bodies writhing back through history, single file and cavalcade, rhythmically and momentarily themselves — this reality of technology is flesh, bone, muscle and blood of human beings with feelings and needs throughout history.

There is a common industrial history to the text on this screen and the clothes on your back and the fibers of your seat — and here we have a possible reversal: now that text is, itself, an image. Technical images, products of textual codes,  may still provide something to fulfill the political role of text.

In this sketch from Kommunikologie, Flusser attempts to systematise his theory of meaning. In the diagram, the image alienates people and engenders in them magical consciousness, text, alienates from the thrall of images and engenders historical or political consciousness, and he is not yet clear what is engendered by the techno-image. At the end of his chapter "How the codes function", where this diagram appears, he indicates two (although not mutually exclusive) possibilities.

The first, as I mentioned before, is that we will enter into a new magical era dominated by the image, what one might call a techno-magical era, in which Flusser seems to encounter Virilio in describing as mania, madness "Wahnsinn". The second possibility is that we somehow discover how to understand the codes of the techno-images.

"Eine Möglichkeit ist, in einer bedeutungslos werdenden, sich nunmehr sich selbst bedeutenden kodifizierten Welt ein sinnloses Leben zu führen. Das ist die Zukünft als Totalitarismus. Díe Alternative dazu besteht darin, die Codes des Technobilder in der Griff zu bekommen und gemeinsam eine neue Art von Bedeutung zu projizieren."
(Kommunikologie, p.110)
"One possibility is to live a meaningless life in an increasingly meaningless codified world, which, from now on, has meaning only of itself. This is the future as totalitarianism. The alternatives depend on us coming to terms with (literally gettinga handle on) the codes of the techno-images and together thereby projecting a new type of meaning." (my translation)

Flusser does not consider the techno-image an image in the classic sense, he considers it a 'project' projected from inside the technology. Thus, when he refers here to projecting new meaning, he is speaking of accomplishing this with the techno-images. The notion of meaning here is clearly Enlightenment Humanist, and the emancipation of the human spirit from the totalitatrianism of the techno-image is an imperative only possible through operations on the level of code.

"Entweder wir leben in den undurchdringlichen Wänden bedeutungsloser Bilder oder machen aus diesen Bilder Brücken zur Welt. " (ibid, p.110)
"Either we live in (sic) the impermeable walls of meaningless images, or we make, out of these images, bridges to the world" (my translation)

Here Flusser closes with the hope that the techno-image can lead us back to knowledge in the world. Paradoxically the techno-image is our greatest threat and only tool to escape this threat.

Flusser says, in a soon-to-be-released (now released!) interview with Miklós Peternak at the Osnabrück New Media Festival in 1988, "I am impressed by the fact that one of the most important dimensions of the present cultural revolution, linguistic communication, both the spoken and the written word, are no longer capable of transmitting the thoughts and concepts which we have concerning the is my firm belief, that if you want to have a clear and distinct communication of your concepts, you have to use synthetic images, no longer words."

Vilém Flusser on Synthetic Images from b gottlieb on Vimeo

We must not only use synthetic or techno-images to communicate about the world, computer-based images (and by this I also mean text, video and audio) are the only possible means we have to communicate meaningfully today about images. If fact, it is at the image level itself that we can best start our discourse, a discourse into the persistent materiality of the techno-image.

History is made today, not at the level of text, but at the level of techno-images beholden to computer codes, which are bound in, and the historical documents of, globalized industrial processes. The reality of these processes, which is the reality of the material manifestation of this text on your screen right now, such as it is, is the true political reality of this age. A reality only modellable and navigable by figures of computation.