Archive for April, 2004

Simondon on technology

Friday, April 30th, 2004

Gilbert Simondon’s book on technology, Du mode d’existence des objets techniques (On the mode of existence of technological objects), is not quite as rich as his books on indivduation (which I wrote about here). But it’s still fresh and thought-provoking (despite having been published as long ago as 1958 — it discusses vacuum tubes at great length, for instance, but doesn’t mention transistors), and it offers radical alternatives to the ways we usually think about the topics it discusses.
Basically, Simondon opposes the commonplace view (held alike by “common sense” and by philosophers such as Heidegger) that opposes technology to nature, and sees technology basically as a tool or mechanism for controlling and manipulating nature. Against this view, Simondon argues that technology cannot be reduced to a utilitarian function, because it is more than just particular tools used for particular purposes. Rather, technology must be understood: 1) as an ensemble; and 2) as a process of invention.
As an ensemble, technology involves more than particular tools or machines; it also involves the relations among these tools and machines, and the relations between them and the human beings who use them, as well as between them and their environments, the materials with which they interact.
Some technology, especially in its simpler aspects, takes the form of a single tool — a hammer, for instance — used by a particular person (a worker or craftsman) for particular tasks.
But most of the time, “technology” cannot be isolated in this way. Tools don’t exist in isolation; they are connected in all sorts of ways. They are connected, first, by the tasks they perform, which are increasingly complicated and require coordination all through the technical sphere. But beyond this, tools are interconnected because of the conceptual schemes that generate them: these same schemes, or designs, can be used in different contexts, in different materials, so that technology is transportable and transferable (“deterritorialized” in the vocabulary of Deleuze, who was greatly influenced by Simondon).
This also means that technology exceeds any narrow utilitarian purposes. As technology expands, its discovers and produces new relations between people and things, or between people and people, or between things and things. Technology is a network of relations: far from marking our alienation from the natural world, technology is what mediates between humankind and nature. It undoes the dualism that such a division implies, by networking human beings and natural entities into all sorts of subtle relations of feedback and mutual dependency. Far from being something deployed by a subject in order to dominate and control nature reduced to the status of an object, technology is what breaks down the subject/object polarity: it is always in between these poles, and it ensures that no human “subject” is free from and uncontaminated by the natural or physical world, while conversely, no “nature” or “materiality” is ever purely passive, purely an object. Every “object” has a certain degree of agency, and every “subject” has a certain degree of materiality; technology is the process, or the glue, that makes the idealist hypostasis of a naked subject facing brute objects impossible. (I do not know if Bruno Latour ever mentions Simondon, but the basis of much of his account of science and technology can be found here).
Technology is also necessary to the expansion of knowledge, according to Simondon. It is not the mere application of scientific knowledge, so much as it is the precondition for there to be such a thing as scientific knowledge: if only because scientific knowledge is generated when technology doesn’t work as expected, when it breaks down or deviates from its utilitarian function. Even (or especially) in its failures, technology is still “working.”
Another way to say this is to note Simondon’s second point, that technology is a process of invention. That is to say, it is a continuing process, not a fixed product. Tools are not just passively used; they are reconfigured, reinvented, extended and mutated in the process of use. Simondon writes that the “alienation” that has been so frequently noted in modernist discussion of machines, is not the consequence of technology per se; nor is it just the result of exploitation in the Marxist sense, the fact that workers do not own or profit from the machines that they operate (though that certainly plays a role). More fundamental, Simondon says, is the fact that factory workers are not able to participate in the active construction/invention/reconfiguration of their machines, but are only allowed to be their passive operators. In a truly technological culture, where invention and operation would be combined, this alienation would not take place. Decades before the fact, Simondon is here theorizing and advocating what today would be called hacking and hacker culture. Indeed, I think that the culture of hacking still has not caught up with Simondon, in the sense that hacking is mostly justified in pragmatic and/or libertarian terms, whereas Simondon adds a third dimension, a depth, to hacking by showing how it is essentially tied to technology as a basic component of human beings’ presence in the world.
There are a lot more themes and arguments in Simondon’s book that I haven’t been able to bring up here — for instance, his theories on the evolution of technology (which is not simply parallel to biological evolution, but differs from it in certain crucial ways), and on the relation of technology to other basic human activities (religion, art, science, philosophy) and to the split between “theory” and “practice” (Simondon does not consign technology to “practice”, but insists that it is prior to the split, and that a better understanding of technology would help us to overcome the duality between theory and practice). But there’s a lot to think about here, and I haven’t been able to absorb it all in just one reading.

Ripley’s Game

Thursday, April 29th, 2004

Ripley’s Game, directed by Liliana Cavani, and starring John Malkovich, is the best film adaptation of any of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels that I have seen. I like it far better than Wim Wenders’ The American Friend, based on the same novel; I also vastly prefer it to Rene Clement’s so-so Purple Noon, based on The Talented Mr. Ripley. (Admittedly I haven’t seen Anthony Minghella’s version of the latter; let’s just say that I am unable to imagine a possible world in which it would be any good, and leave it at that).
The film struck me as excellent on its own terms, as well as being quite faithful to Highsmith. (I won’t say much about Highsmith here, except to note that I consider her the greatest crime writer of the 20th century, mistress of a cosmic nihilism, combining cold calculation with even icier passion, that has never been matched).
First of all, because of John Malkovich. Ripley is the role he was born to play. He’s letter-perfect, embodying a combination of chilly amorality and dilettantish aestheticism. His affectlessness is at once creepy and charismatic; the film (like the novel) forces you to identify with him, but makes that identification as uncomfortable as possible. Malkovich as Ripley has the inhuman detachment of a scientist vivisecting insects to satisfy some arcane and purely theoretical curiosity. He barely loses this distance, even when he himself is directly involved and threatened. At the end of the film, when the man he has manipulated and seduced into becoming a killer for hire takes the bullet that was intended for him, Ripley/Malkovich is bemusedly puzzled (but not really disturbed) as to why anybody would do such a thing as sacrifice himself for another.
Second, because of Cavani’s direction. She presents the film, surprisingly but effectively, as more a melodrama than a thriller. The melodramatic sense of oversize emotions cast adrift in a void really works, even though it shouldn’t; and even though the melodrama is understated and implicit, rather than overt. Highsmith’s psychological coldness and creepiness and low affect is far removed from what we usually think of as melodrama, but in a subtle way, this particular story, with its emphasis on the corruption of innocence, lends itself to it.
A word about Cavani. To my mind, she is the most underrated director of her generation (she was born in 1933). She is best known for the s&m/Nazi chic (entirely aesthetically justified, in my view) of The Night Porter; the obsessive love triangle of that film is itself obsessively replicated, with equal success, in such brilliant but little-known films as The Berlin Affair, the incredible Beyond Obsession (a sort of surreptitious remake of Wuthering Heights, with Marcello Mastroianni as a sleazy Heathcliff figure), and the deliriously over-the-top Beyond Good and Evil (the story of the Nietzsche/Lou Andreas-Salome/Paul Ree triangle). Ripley’s Game could itself be considered as a desexualized version of this triangle, with the innocent co-protagonist torn between bourgeois fulfillment with his wife, and the allure of transgression with Ripley. (Not to mention gut-wrenching guilt, which Ripley is entirely insensitive to, but which he feels, and takes a certain morbid delectation in). I should also mention, in a somewhat different register, Cavani’s film about St Francis of Assisi, starring Mickey Rourke (!!!) as the saint — an insane bit of counter-intuitive casting which Cavani nonetheless carries off. Cavani’s films are not very striking visually, but she has a genius for getting the most out of her actors while putting them into incredibly perverse situations, and for pushing the logic of dispropotionate, melodramatic desire to truly outrageous and disturbing extremes.

Masked and Anonymous

Monday, April 26th, 2004

Of course it’s ludicrous to discuss Larry Charles’ Masked and Anonymous as a movie. It only signifies as part of Bob Dylan’s oeuvre, as a kind of self-mythologizing metacommentary on his persona(s) and his music.
For what it’s worth, Masked and Anonymous has a barely coherent plot, apocalyptic themes, and gnomic utterances by everyone in the cast. Dylan himself is the enigmatic absence at the center, much as he was in his earlier cinematic opus, Reynaldo and Clara. He sings and plays, and everything in the movie revolves around him, but his actual lines are few and far between, and his actual role in the narrative (such as it is) is minimal and passive.
Now, I’m not one of those Dylanologists, like Greil Marcus and Christopher Ricks, who analyze every line, every tic, every verbal or musical allusion in Dylan’s collected works for hidden depths of significance. It seems to me, when I’ve read such analyses, that they don’t get me very far into understanding the affective power of Dylan’s music. And power the music does have, although intermittently: for every masterpiece like Bringing It All Back Home or Blood on the Tracks or Love and Theft, there’s been a real stinker like Self-Portrait or Street Legal or (sorry, gospel fans and Dylan revisionists) Slow Train Coming.
Masked and Anonymous is interesting for Dylan’s ravaged look — although when he’s on stage, or otherwise opens his mouth, he seems to have weathered his 62 years much better than this look itself would indicate — and in general for the game it plays of making Dylan charismatic precisely by denying us any possibility of an affective connection to him. Nothing is more alluring than the impossibility of pinning another person down: this is what fuels fascination, with a love object or with a celebrity. Dylan just pushes it to an almost absurd ne plus ultra, by being impenetrable to the point of an apocalyptic collapse into a black hole, or some other form of uninterpretable nothingness. There is actually no solution to the enigma, because there isn’t really anything there at all. It’s stupid, but realizing this somehow doesn’t free us from being under the enigma’s spell.
But what does this really tell us about the music, as opposed to the artist’s persona?
(I’m aware, of course, that one can only imperfectly separate the two).
Penelope Cruz’s character in Masked and Anonymous remarks at one point that Dylan’s songs are great because they are completely open to interpretation, they can mean anything you want them to. I don’t believe this for a second; I think that the ambiguities and jokes and mysteries that the Dylanologists enumerate at such exhaustive length are really just smoke and mirrors, distracting us so that the emotional impact of the songs can punch its way through our defenses, and wrench us inside. (And I don’t mean to imply that Dylan has just one emotional tone, either; there’s a great distance between the prophetic surrealism of Bringing It All Back Home, the excruciating intimacy of Blood on the Tracks , and the old man’s jesting apocalypticism of Love and Theft; and the bad albums I mentioned above are themselves failed experiments in generating other affects and moods).
So my final take on Masked and Anonymous is something like this: I enjoyed it, sort of, though not enough to want to ever see it again; I don’t buy its intimations of summing up what/who Dylan really is (and I really don’t care); but I did love how the soundtrack was suffused with versions of Dylan’s songs played by numerous other bands and musicians, in various languages in addition to English, as if the entire world of sound and music had been recreated in Dylan’s image (if that is not too mixed a metaphor).

In the Cut

Friday, April 23rd, 2004

I always find Jane Campion a compelling director, even when her films are bogged down by dubious material, as many of them have been. In the Cut, which flopped in the theaters last year, is no exception.
Start with the worst. The film is based on a novel by Susanna Moore, which I haven’t read; but as a film narrative, at least, it is pretty lame. It’s a not very compelling or tense who’s-the-psycho-murderer thriller, combined with a “descent into the erotic depths” that is totally faux. If Moore’s novel is anything like the screenplay (which she collaborated with Campion on), then it is a calculated simulacrum of “transgression” for readers of The New Yorker that bears about the same relation to the writing of, say, Bataille or Kathy Acker as the singing of Celine Dion does to that of Diamanda Galas, or the exhortations of Tom Peters do to the philosophy of Nietzsche.
Also, as I am scarcely the only one to note, Meg Ryan is totally out of her depth, in a role that was originally intended for Nicole Kidman. Kidman might well have made the eroticism — and the anguish — compelling in a way that Ryan is utterly incapable of doing.
An uncredited Kevin Bacon is wasted in a lame, meaningless role.
And there’s also one black male character whose only function in the film seems to be to add a titillating frisson of dubious racial and sexual stereotypes to the mix. This is a part, I suppose, of the overall strategy of pseudo-transgression: what’s more a taboo object, desired yet feared by the novel’s and film’s presumptive middle class white female audience than a black man?
And yet, and yet… frame by frame, and scene by scene, Campion remains an incredibly brilliant and powerful director. This is partly a matter of composition: the cluttered and fragmented mise en scene, the poetically murky nocturnal lighting, the fragmentation of vision, and the oblique placement of the actors within the frame, all combine to create a grim urban landscape, shot through with an intensity that actors and script are little more than irrelevant occasions for.
But more than this, it’s a matter of what I can only call rhythm. It’s the speed at which shots and scenes unfold, something that’s never constant, but that stutters sometimes, pauses other times, pulls back still other times. Or it’s the way that Campion pauses on an incongruous detail, or conversely, that she pans over such a detail without really giving us time to contemplate it. The reason Campion’s visuals never feel fetishistic is because they never seem to freeze time. Rather, something you can’t quite see is always being unfolded at a speed you can’t quite grasp. The speed is never the “right,” straightforward one, but always oblique to that at which we are accustomed to have narrative develop. It’s not the slowness which so many recent art directors have affected, in lame attempts to emulate Antonioni, but a deeper sense of time folding and unfolding. (This has something to do, of course, with the use of music on the soundtrack: Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson’s music here, somewhat like Michael Nyman’s music in The Piano, provides a sort of temporal structure to the film. But I don’t think what I am calling rhythm is only a function of sound; it is also inscribed directly by camera movement or non-movement).
I’m not sure I understand this well enough to give a more rigorous and focused description. But Campion’s films, it seems to me, have a unique way of modulating affect or mood via metamorphoses of duration. And this is what makes In the Cut so powerful and gripping, at least in part, even when acting and plot are completely unconvincing.

Misery Is A Butterfly

Tuesday, April 20th, 2004

Blonde Redhead‘s latest album, Misery is a Butterfly, is utterly gorgeous. Minor keys, static rhythms, slow melodies, angular, dissolving riffs, Kazu Makino’s high-pitched, ethereal vocals: these all convey, not a message, but a mood. This is blank-affect music, rather than high-pitched-excitement music.
By “blank affect,” I don’t mean affectlessness, but almost the reverse: an affect, or an intensity, that is so strong as to be “without qualities,” without labels or narrative reference points. A pure state of feeling, rather than a state of feeling something (or other) in particular.
That is to say, Blonde Redhead doesn’t tell stories; rather, it envelops me, drawing me into a zone of “mere being” (reference both Giorgio Agamben and Wallace Stevens), a state of disillusioned, quiet agitation (only such a desperate oxymoron can point to how this music at once convulses and soothes me). Absorbed in the music, I float, rocked by gentle waves that nonetheless are the echoes, or the aftershocks, of ferocious churnings deep below.
Nothing really happens in this music, and nothing can happen. Not because I am safe within these sounds, but precisely because I am absolutely unsafe, because the disaster has already happened. The music of Blonde Redhead confirms and registers this disaster; it is subdued only because it comes afterwards, when the storm has already done its worst. I look through the emotional wreckage, pick up the scattered fragments of my heart, and feel at peace: not the resolute peace of a determination to rebuild, but the peace of knowing that such a rebuilding will never take place, the assurance that I will never get back anything of all that I have lost.
All this is gorgeous, rather than bleak. Melancholy has never been so seductive. Blonde Redhead’s music seduces me like a hot bath, a bath heated almost to the point of intolerable pain. I can barely force myself to get in, but once I am immersed, once I surrender myself, I am suffused by a kind of suffering that is indistinguishable from bliss.
Most of the reviews I have read of Misery is a Butterfly have emphasized how different this album is from Blonde Redhead’s earlier work: the harsh dissonance on the guitar is gone, the rhythms are more straightforward, and the basic guitar/drums/vocals setup (no bass) is supplemented by keyboards, horns, and (I think) strings. But to my mind, these differences don’t amount to much. The production may be more conventional than in the earlier albums, but the mood or affect hasn’t been changed: it has only been deepened, intensified, metamorphosed more fully into itself.

Scientific study of physical beauty

Thursday, April 15th, 2004

Another example of the silliness and naivete of sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, etc: “Physical beauty involves more than good looks,” according to a recent study.
Now, this is a revisionist study. Previous surveys have used the methodology of showing male undergraduates pictures of various women (and occasionally the reverse), asking them which ones they found the most attractive, measuring various body ratios of the objects deemed most attractive, and concluding that “physically attractive traits include high degrees of bilateral facial symmetries, such as eyes that are identical in shape and size, and waist-to-hip ratios of 0.7 for women and 0.9 for men.” From these findings it is further extrapolated that these ratios must be universally preferred in all human beings, regardless of cultural and individual differences, and therefore must be genetically hardwired for good adaptive reasons (which usually go back to saying that these ratios are indications of the most fertile mates).
The present study determines that this is wrong, or at least that it is not the entire picture:
“There is more to beauty than meets the stranger’s eye, according to results from three studies examining the influence of non-physical traits on people’s perception of physical attractiveness. The results, which show that people perceive physical appeal differently when they look at those they know versus strangers, are published in the recently released March issue of Evolution and Human Behavior.”
What this really means, of course, is that people judge people they know well differently from how they judge complete strangers whom they have not even met, but only encountered through photos that have been shown to them for a few seconds. Scarcely a startling finding.
What the researchers conclude, however, is that:
“the fitness value of potential social partners depends at least as much on non-physical traits — whether they are cooperative, dependable, brave, hardworking, intelligent and so on — as physical factors, such as smooth skin and symmetrical features,…It follows that non-physical factors should be included in the subconscious assessment of beauty.”
This illustrates the solipsistic and self-confirming nature of the whole research project. It is assumed a priori that whatever a study uncovers about human “preferences” or ideas or behavior must be adaptive, i.e. a direct product of natural selection. The “subconscious assessment of beauty” must correspond to what is actually (i.e. statistically) most advantageous to reproduction.
With these assumptions, it doesn’t matter how shoddy the methodology is, nor what is “discovered” (whether it is something banal and obvious, or something totally counter-intuitive); in any case, the results will be explained in terms of selective advantage; and at the same time, the theory of selective advantage will be taken to be strengthened by these “results.” The circularity is perfect: nothing can disconfirm the founding assumptions, and the most simplistic and/or inane “findings” can be validated as significant research.

Infernal Affairs

Wednesday, April 14th, 2004

At the recommendation of filmbrain, I watched the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs (2002), starring Tony Leung and Andy Lau, and directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak. And I’m glad I did.
Infernal Affairs is a crime thriller with a twist, or rather a pair of twists. Tony Leung is a cop working undercover as a gang member in a triad. Andy Lau is a member of the triad who has, conversely, infiltrated the police. They both report secretly to father figures: Leung to Lau’s chief in the police force, Lau to the boss of Leung’s triad. And they are both on the verge of cracking from the strain of their double roles. The film starts there, and continually ups the ante, as each of them is assigned to uncover the “mole” that each of them in fact is. The result is an elegant, stylish genre film, which gets its energy more from psychological tension than from shootouts and such.
Visually, Infernal Affairs is similar to — though not nearly as powerful as — Johnny To’s revisionist crime films. What makes the film is the acting, together with the tight plotting and scripting: without being metaphysically heavy, or having any sort of extra-generic pretensions, it manages to convey the sort of passionate intelligence and intensity that mainstream Hollywood (and apparently mainstream Hong Kong filmmaking as well) can’t be bothered to try for any more.

Songs of a Dead Dreamer

Saturday, April 10th, 2004

Songs of a Dead Dreamer is the first volume of short stories by Thomas Ligotti. (DJ Spooky later used the title for one of his finest albums).
I’m a bit embarrassed that I never encountered Ligotti’s work before now, because it is amazing. Ligotti specializes in short stories of horror (I don’t think he’s ever published a novel).
In a way, these stories are quite classical: in terms of imagery and content they are much closer to Lovecraft than to, say, Stephen King. As for their language, it is as gothic as Lovecraft’s, even though it is subtle, restrained and economical, where Lovecraft is always textually excessive. This may seem almost oxymoronic (how can something subtle and restrained be the slightest bit like Lovecraft?), but it is the best I can do. Put it this way: sentence by sentence and metaphor by metaphor, Ligotti’s language is heightened in much the same way that Lovecraft’s is. But where Lovecraft will typically write:
“Animal fury and orgiastic license here whipped themselves to demoniac heights by howls and squawking ecstasies that tore and reverberated through those nighted woods like pestilential tempests from the gulfs of hell”
(– which is admittedly one of my favorite sentences in the English language),
Ligotti tends rather towards a sort of hyperbolic understatement (to desperately use another oxymoron), e.g.:
“He is still kneeling before the coffin as his features begin to undergo the ravages of various, obviously conflicting, phases of feeling. Eyes, mouth, the whole facial structure is called upon to perform gruesome acrobatics of expression.”
These sentences describe extremity, but hold back from it at the same time.
Ligotti’s themes are aesthetic and metaphysical, and here he is nothing like Lovecraft. There are no Cthulhus, no fish-people from Innsmouth, in Ligotti’s universe; no Lovecraftian dread of the Other. But neither is Ligotti’s dread psycho-cultural, in the manner of King and most mainstream horror.
Ligotti’s horror rather points depressively inward, to a claustrophobic, suffocating zone, where there is no longer any outside or Other, but where equally there is no more self, no more identity, no more culture. Many of his stories are written in the first person, with rather fussy and self-conscious narrators; but these narrators (as well as the protagonists of the stories written in the third person) are unmade by a metamorphosis that empties them of themselves, gives them over to forces of chaos and entropy, but usually without granting them the release of complete dissolution. They do not come face to face with some ultimate reality, but rather with a sort of unreality that (sometimes slowly but surely, other times with a disturbing rapidity) corrodes away all foundations, all points of reference, all solidity, to leave behind a kind of photographic negative of what Giorgio Agamben calls whatever-being: something without qualities, without any distinguishing marks, but only the dread of (in)distinction itself:
“These screams, the ones from beyond the door at the top of the stairs, belong only to a dummy who now feels warm drops of blood sliding thickly over his lacquered cheeks, and who has been left — alone and alive — in the shadows of an abandoned loft.”
Ligotti’s stories are like little time bombs: they are creepy when you first read them, but their profounder effects of estrangement only become apparent later, when you reflect back on them, and find their contours troublingly difficult to grasp.
Horror is a genre that tends to be beset, more than others even, by uninteresting repetition. (Think how often Poe, or Lovecraft, or George Romero, has simply been imitated, time and time again). Against this general tendency, I think that Ligotti is the most original horror writer of the last twenty or thirty years (and perhaps longer). Only Kathe Koja, who apparently is no longer writing horror, even comes close in terms of originality).
I need to read more of Ligotti’s stories.


Friday, April 9th, 2004

Alexander Galloway‘s Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralizationis a highly useful discussion of how power relations and ideological assumptions are built into the very formal structure of the Internet. Galloway is a professor of Media Ecology at NYU, as well as a net artist and former key figure at Rhizome, one of the key new media art sites on the Web. Galloway is one of a very few people who are equally well versed in poststructuralist cultural theory and computer programming, which makes him uniquely suited for the task accomplished in this book.
“Protocol,” in this context, is an underlying specification of code that helps to make the Net run; examples would include TCP-IP, HTML and HTTP, and DNS. Protocol doesn’t give the technical details of these specifications, so much as it surveys them on a meta-level, showing what kind of work they do, and what sort of effects this work has.
Basically, Galloway argues that such protocols are the way that control is exercised in our globalized “network society,” one where power is “distributed” laterally, rather than being hierarchically structured, stratified, and centralized, or even (merely) “decentralized.” A distributed network is a rhizome rather than a tree, in the terms of Deleuze and Guattari. Note that, although Deleuze and Guattari often seem to be praising the rhizome in opposition to hierarchical “arborescent” models, Deleuze also sees rhizomatic structures as key to the “society of control,” which increasingly replaces Foucault’s “disciplinary society” as the way in which power is exercised in our postmodern world. Galloway expands on this Deleuzian ambivalence. Protocol is what allows for the openness and many-to-many organization of the Net: this is because its underlying guidelines and mechanisms are open-source and indifferent to content. (A web page is formatted the same way, regardless of what words and images it contains). But Galloway points out that this is only one side of the picture: for protocol is also an extreme form of control, in the sense that it constrains and homogenizes all content: no matter what you say, you have to say it in the approved format (or else your statement will not be communicable or readable at all). “Standardization is the politically reactionary tactic,” Galloway writes, “that enables radical openness.” As a result, the Net is never simply “free”; it is always “a complex of interrelated currents and counter-currents,” which interact in “multiple, parallel, contradictory, and often unpredictable ways” (page 143).
Galloway goes through the establishment of protocol on various levels, from the technical (how code actually works to link computers together) to the institutional (how standards for the Net, and for computing devices in general, are actually established and adopted), and from the history of how the architecture of the Web was established, to the various subversive practices (by hackers, tactical media activists, net artists, and others) that test its limits and keep open the possibility of change.
Protocol is both thoughtful and informative; I have certain criticisms or disagreements, but I see these more as testimony to how thought-provoking the book is, than as flaws which would vitiate its impact.
Basically, I am not sure that Galloway addresses the question of how power works in the “society of control” as thoroughly, and especially as structurally, as he needs to do. On the one hand, he presents protocol as the locus of power in distributed networks; but on the other hand, he sharply differentiates such power from the power which comes from closed and proprietary “standards” such as those imposed by Microsoft, or those that currently govern the dissemination of so-called “intellectual property.” Of course Galloway notes that periodization is never closed or total, and that many “disciplinary” and earlier power formations coexist with those of the “society of control.” But I don’t think that things like Microsoft’s monopolies and “digital rights management” can thus be explained as resulting from the subsistence of older forms of power. Rather, it’s the same hardware and software technology, and the same Internet protocols, that generate both (for instance) P2P file sharing and the digital watermarking of files that allows their source to be traced, and restricts their dissemination. That is to say, though Galloway convinces me that “protocol” is one part of how power and control operate in the network, he doesn’t convince me that “protocol” is actually as central to such power and control as he tries to claim. The most insidious forms of power in the network, the ways that it both “incites, induces, seduces” us (to use Foucault’s words) and locates and tracks us, as well as the way that the “informatization” of everything is itself a kind of appropriation and control (as McKenzie Wark argues) — these are not sufficiently accounted for by Galloway’s discussions.
(To be fair, Galloway approaches a sense of all this on a few pages, when he notes that protocol doesn’t so much give us orders, as it puts us in a situation where we already want to obey such orders — pages 147 and 241 — but this is never sufficiently developed).
The result of Galloway’s failure to develop a sufficiently broad and deep conception of power and control in the network, is that when he discusses the forces of resistance to such power and control — as he does in the latter parts of the book — what we mostly get, disappointingly, is just a narrative of various conceptual art projects, some political and some formalist, by the likes of etoy,, and RTMark, without the sort of broader theorization that we get in earlier parts of the book.
Still, Protocol is a book well worth reading, essential as a starting point for further considerations.

Cabin Fever

Thursday, April 8th, 2004

Eli Roth”s Cabin Fever doesn’t break any new ground in horror, but it’s a shrewd and effective little film, combining dread about infection and bodily fluids with clever revisionist takes on many genre cliches. You’ve got your five young people trapped in the woods, far away from civilization (they are all quite disagreeable college-student types, from the loutish frat boy to the sensitive trixie), and your surrounding community of “rednecks” (all played, unlike the college kids, so as to upend the usual stereotypes). Many horror films are really about a small group, some sort of recognizable microcosm of society, and what happens to its members when placed under conditions of extreme stress. But the small group in Cabin Fever is so atomized, its members so utterly selfish — each of them regarding others only as sources of potential profit or danger, and ready to betray lovers or long-term friends at the drop of a hat, if that is what ‘looking out for number one’ seems to require — that they barely constitute a “society” at all; they are instead the reductio ad absurdum of post-Reagan Homo economicus.