23 January 2014

Marcuse and Objects

Herbert Marcuse
For Marcuse, the a priori concept of the object precedes and makes possible its appropriation by rational theory and practice. That is, that the links between science, technology and society are shared in the form of experience created through the technological a priori that creates a quantifiable reality of science and hence an instrumentalizable reality for society (Feenberg 2013) – objects as such. That is, "when technics becomes the universal form of material production, it circumscribes an entire culture; it projects a historical totality – a 'world'" (Marcuse 1999: 154). In other words, "technology has become the great vehicle for reification – reification in its most mature and effective form" (Marcuse 1999:168). As such "the world tends to become the stuff of total administration, which absorbs even the administrators" (Marcuse 199: 169). Thus, Marcuse argues that,
The science of nature develops under the technological a priori which projects nature as potential instrumentality, stuff of control and organisation. And the apprehension of nature as (hypothetical) instrumentality precedes the development of all particular technical organisation (Marcuse 1999: 153). 
Even experience itself becomes "corrupted" because of the way in which experience is mediated through technologies and scientific methods resulting in abstract labour and the fetishism of commodities (Feenberg 2013: 609). The measure of society is then, in this account, eliminated, depriving society and individuals of a means to critique or provide justifications against the prevailing a priori of technological rationality. This,
technological reality, the object world, (including the subjects) is experienced as a world of instrumentalities. The technological context predefines the form in which the objects appear... The object world is thus the world of a specific historical project, and is never accessible outside the historical project which organises matter, and the organisation of matter is at one and the same time a theoretical and a practical enterprise (Marcuse 1999: 219). 
As such, there are two moments that Marcuse identifies in relation to this, namely quantification and instrumentalization. He writes, firstly regarding quantification that,
The quantification of nature, which led to its explication in terms of mathematical structures, separated reality from all inherent ends and, consequently, separated the true from the good, science from ethics... And no matter how constitutive may be the role of the subject as point of observation, measurement, and calculation, this subject cannot play its scientific role as ethical or aesthetic or political agent (Marcuse 1999: 146-7)
Secondly he explains that it is claimed that,
Theoretically, the transformation of man and nature has no other objective limits than those offered by the brute factuality of matter, its still unmastered resistance to knowledge and control. To the degree which this conception becomes applicable and effective in reality, the latter is approached as a (hypothetical) system of instrumentalities; the metaphysical "being-as-such" gives way to "being-instrument." Moreover, proved in its effectiveness, this conception works as an a priori – it predetermines experience, it projects the direction of the transformation of nature, it organizes the whole (Marcuse 1999: 152). 
This creates a way of being, and experience of and set of practices towards everyday life that embody and realise this a priori in a number of moments across a life experience. Indeed, it develops an attitude or a towards-which that is infused with the instrumentality towards the world that conceives of it as being a world of entities which can be known, controlled, manipulated and if required transformed. Consequently,
the "correct" attitude towards instrumentality is the technical approach, the correct logos is techno-logy, which projects and responds to a technological reality. In this reality, matter as well as science is "neutral"; objectivity has neither a telos in itself nor is it structured towards a telos. But it is precisely its neutral character which relates objectivity to a specific historical Subject – namely, to the consciousness that prevails in the society by which and for which this neutrality is established. It operates in the very abstractions which constitute the new rationality – as an internal rather than external factor... the reduction of secondary to primary qualities, quantification and abstraction from "particular sorts of entities" (Marcuse 1999: 156). 
The question then becomes the extent to which this totalising system overwhelms the capacity for agency, and as such a critical consciousness. Indeed, related to this is the important question of the relationship between science and technology itself, in as much as the question to be addressed is, is science prior to technology and therefore a condition of possibility for it? Or has science become technologised to the extent that science is now itself subjected to a technological a priori? The latter a position held by Heidegger, for example. In other words, is science "complicit with the system of domination that prevails under capitalism" (Feenberg 2013: 609). Indeed, Marcuse agreed that,
Critical analysis must dissociate itself from that which it strives to comprehend; the philosophic terms must be other than the ordinary ones in order to elucidate the full meaning of the latter. For the established universe of discourse bears throughout the marks of the specific modes of domination, organisation, and manipulation to which the members of a society are subjects (Marcuse 1999: 193). 
The danger of "one-dimensionality" that the lack of critical thought implies, creates a form of modern reason that has domination built into its structure. Indeed, Horkheimer and Adorno argue,
The thing-like quality of the means, which makes the means universally available, its “objective validity” for everyone, itself implies a criticism of the domination from which thought has arisen as its means. On the way from mythology to logistics, thought has lost the element of reflection on itself, and machinery mutilates people today, even if it also feeds them. In the form of machines, however, alienated reason is moving toward a society which reconciles thought, in its solidification as an apparatus both material and intellectual, with a liberated living element, and relates it to society itself as its true subject. The particularist origin and the universal perspective of thought have always been inseparable. Today, with the transformation of the world into industry, the perspective of the universal, the social realization of thought, is so fully open to view that thought is repudiated by the rulers themselves as mere ideology (Horkheimer and Adorno 1999: 37; quoted in Feenberg 2013: 609).
How then to recover the capacity for reflection and thought and thus to move to a new mode of experience, a "two dimensional experience responsive to the potentialities of people and things" (Feenberg 2013: 610). This would require a new orientation towards potentiality, or what I call elsewhere possibility (Berry 2014) that would enable this new spirit of criticality, critical reason as such. In other words, the reconfiguring of quantification practices and instrumental processes away from domination (Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse) and control (Habermas), instead towards reflexivity, critique and democratic practices.

For Feenberg this requires "counter-acting the tendencies towards domination in the technological a priori" through the "materialization of values" (Feenberg 2013: 613). This he argues can be found at specific intervention points within the materialisation of this a priori, such as in design processes. Feenberg argues that "design is the mediation through which the potential for domination contained in scientific-technical rationality enters the social world as a civilisational project" (Feenberg 2013: 613). Instead, Feenberg argues that the "socialist a priori" should inform the processes of technical implementation and technical practice. However, it seems to me that this misses the instrumentality implicit in design and design practices more generally, which often tend to maximise instrumental values in their application of concepts of efficiency and organisation. This, in some senses requires a call for a radical politicisation of design, or a new form of critical design which is different and more revolutionary than the form outlined by Dunne & Raby (2013). Here we might start making connections to new forms of rationality that offer possibilities to augment or perhaps replace instrumental rationalities, for example in the potentialities of critical computational rationalities, iteracies, and other computational competences whose performance and practice are not necessarily tied to instrumental notions of efficiency and order, nor to capitalist forms of reification (Berry 2014).


Berry, D. M. (2014) Critical Theory and the Digital, New York: Bloomsbury.

Dunne, A. and  Raby, F. (2013) Critical Design FAQ, accessed 23/1/2013, http://www.dunneandraby.co.uk/content/bydandr/13/0

Feenberg, F. (2013) Marcuse’s Phenomenology: Reading Chapter Six of One-Dimensional Man, Constellations, Volume 20, Number 4, pp. 604-614.

Horkheimer, M. and Adorno, T. W. (1999) The Dialectic of Enlightenment, London: Verso.

Marcuse, H. (1999) One-dimensional Man, London: Routledge.

17 January 2014


French philosopher François Laruelle
If we take seriously the claims of François Laruelle, the French "non-philosopher",[1] that it is possible to undertake a "non-philosophy", a project that seeks out a "non-philosophical kernel" within a philosophical system, then what would be the implications of what we might call a "non-media"? For example in seeking a "non-Euclidean" Marxism, Laruelle argues that we could uncover, in some sense, the non-philosophical "ingredient", as Galloway (2012: 6) calls it. That is to find the non-Marxist "kernel" which serves as the starting point, both as "symptom and model". Indeed, Laruelle himself undertook such a project in relation to Marxism in Introduction au non-marxisme (2000)where he sought to "'philosophically impoverish' Marxism, with the goal of 'universalising' it through a 'scientific mode of universalisation'" (Galloway 2012: 194). That is, that Laruelle, in Galloway's interpretation, seeks to develop "an ontological platform that, while leaving room for certain kinds of casualty and relation, radically denies exchange in any form whatsoever" (Galloway 2012: 194). Indeed, Galloway argues Laruelle in,
deviating too from 'process philosophers' like Deleuze, who must necessarily endorse exchange at some level, Laruelle advocates a mode of expression that is irreversible. He does this through a number of interconnected concepts, the most important of which being 'determination-in-the-last-instance" (DLI). Having kidnapped the term from its Althusserian Marxist home, Laruelle uses DLI to show how there can exist casualty that is not reciprocal, how a 'relation' can exist that is not at the same time a 'relation of exchange', indeed how a universe might look if it was not already forged implicitly from the mould of market capitalism (Galloway 2012: 195).
That is, the exploration and therefore refusal of exchange at the level of ontology, rather than the level of politics – at what we might call, following Laclau and Mouffe (2001), the political. Laruelle argues that this "philosophical" decision is the target of his critique,
What is probably wounding for philosophers is the fact that, from the point of view I have adopted, I am obliged to posit that there is no principle of choice between a classical type of ontology and the deconstruction of that ontology. There is no reason to choose one rather than the other. This is a problem that I have discussed at great length in my work (Les philosophies de la différence), whether there can be a principle of choice between philosophies. Ultimately, it is the problem of the philosophical decision (Laruelle, quoted in Mackay 2005).
Thus the diagnosis is not the lack of a philosophy at the centre of works, but rather an excess, which results in the subversion of a system of abstraction that in some sense problematically uses exchange as an axiomatic. This is the notion that exchange renders possible the full convertibility of entities as a form of philosophical violence towards the multiplicity of the "real" and which founds a form of thinking that becomes hegemonic as a condition of possibility for thought – even radially anti-captialist thought within philosophy as defined. Instead Laruelle suggests we get the essence of something from the "real", as it were. Indeed, when Derrida asked "Where do [you] get this [essence] from?" Laruelle answered "I get it from the thing itself" (Laruelle, quoted in Mackay 2005). Laruelle argues,
We start from the One, rather than arriving at it. We start from the One, which is to say that if we go anywhere, it will be toward the World, toward Being. And I frequently use a formulation which is obviously shocking to philosophers and particularly those of a Platonist or Plotinian bent: it’s not the One that is beyond Being, it is Being that is beyond the One. It is Being that is the other of the One (Laruelle, quoted in Mackay 2005).
Within this formulation, Galloway argues that there is evidence that Laruelle is a "vulgar determinist and unapologetically so". That is, that for Laruelle,
The infrastructure of the material base is a given-without-givenness because and only because of its ability to condition and determine – unidirectionally, irreversibly, and in the 'last instance' – whatever it might condition and determine, in this case the superstructure. Thus the infrastructure stands as 'given' while still never partaking in 'givenness', neither as a thing having appeared as a result of previous givenness, nor a present givenness engendering the offspring of subsequent givens (Galloway 2012: 199).
There are clear totalitarian implications in this formulation of determinism running from a material base, and the resultant liquidation of the possibility of autonomy as a critical concept. Indeed, the overtones of a kind of scientific Marxism, read through a kind of simplistic Newtonian theorisation of science seems itself limited and regressive. Not only politically, which surrenders self-determination and individuation to the causal first cause, called the "One", to which "clones" are subservient in determinism.  As Srnicek describes,
At the highest level, one ultimately reaches what is called the One – the highest principle from which everything derives. Now there are a number of reasons why this highest level must be one – meaning singular, unified and simple. The first basic reason is that if it weren't simple, then it could be decomposed into its constituent parts. The highest principle of reality must not admit of multiplicity, but must instead be the singular principle that itself explains multiplicity. Now as a simple principle, it must be impossible to predicate anything of it (Srnicek 2011: 2)
Non-philosophy is not just a theory but a practice. It re-writes or re-describes particular philosophies, but in a non-transcendental form—non-aesthetics, non-Spinozism, non-Deleuzianism, and so on. It takes philosophical concepts and subtracts any transcendence from them in order to see them, not as representations, but as parts of the Real or as alongside the Real (Mullarkey: 134). 
An approach to media that incorporates non-philosophy, a "non-media", would then be a rigorous non-philosophical knowledge of the "kernel" of media, the deterministic causality ground in an ontology of media that stresses it unidirectional causality and ultimate status as the ground of possibility. That is, a set of realist claims from a rigorously non-philosophical tradition, seeking to get at the core of media, from the "thing in itself". Indeed, Laruelle himself has talked about the links between philosophy and media, as Thacker outlines,
Near the end of his essay “The Truth According to Hermes,” François Laruelle points out the fundamental link between philosophy and media. All philosophy, says Laruelle, subscribes to the “communicational decision,” that everything that exists can be communicated. In this self-inscribed world, all secrets exist only to be communicated, all that is not-said is simply that which is not-yet-said. One senses that, for Laruelle, the communicational decision is even more insidious than the philosophical decision. It’s one thing to claim that everything that exists, exists for a reason. It’s quite another to claim that everything-that-exists- for-a-reason is immediately and transparently communicable, in its reason for existing. If the philosophical decision is a variant on the principle of sufficient reason, then the communicational decision adds on top of it the communicability of meaning (Thacker 2010: 24).
Hermes was the swift-footed messenger,
trusted ambassador of all the gods,
and conductor of shades to Hades. 
Indeed, Laruelle disdains the communicational, "meaning, always more meaning! Information, always more information! Such is the mantra of hermeto-logical Difference, which mixes together truth and communication, the real and information" (Laruelle, quoted in Thacker 2010: 24). A radically realist non-media would then dismiss the interpretative moment of understanding for the fidelity to the One, the possibility of the source of the communicational in terms of the "material" base from which all causality springs.[2] This would seem to be a step that not only dismisses any possibility of a philosophical or theoretical understanding of media in terms of its materiality, as such, but also the possibility of any agency created as a result of the material or technical a priori of media. In this sense, it is not difficult to share Derrida's repudiation of the possibility of a non-philosophy but also to question its claims to seek to work at the level of ontology, outside of philosophy, but also of interpretation (see Mackay 2005). Instead does such a claim rather represent a totalising moment in thought, an example or claim of a non-mediated experience, devoid of thought itself and therefore of the possibility of critical reason and politic? The "terror" of the real, in such a formulation, represents not a radical break with contemporary thought, here cast as "philosophical", but rather of the real as the horizon of thought and its limit.[3]


[1] Ray Brassier (2003) has described François Laruelle as "the most important unknown philosopher working in Europe today".
[2] It appears that the notion of "material" in this account, increasingly looks less like a historical materialist account and rather as a synchronic metaphysics cast as a "realism" outside of human history as such. Philosophy, history, culture and so forth being merely the epiphenomenon "determined" by the "material" or perhaps better, real, base of the "thing in itself".
[3] It is worth noting the contradiction of a position that claims such an overarching determinism stemming from the One, will inevitably undermine its own claims to veracity by the fact that such determinism would naturally have "caused" Laruelle to have written his books in the first case, and hence providing no possibility of agency to assess the claims made, as the individual agency (such as there is) of the readers and commentators would also be locked into this deterministic structure. Such that, even were one to detect such claims, ones consciousness having been formed from this source, would themselves be tainted by that determinism. 


Brassier, R. (2003) Axiomatic Heresy: The Non-Philosophy of Francois Laruelle, Radical Philosophy 121, Sep/Oct 2003.

Galloway, A. R. (2012) Laruelle, Anti-Capitalist, in Mullarkey, J. and Smith, A. P. (eds.) Laruelle and Non-Philosophy, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Laclau, E. and Mouffe, C. (2001) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics, London: Verso Books.

Mackay, R. (2005) Controversy over the Possibility of a Science of Philosophy, La Decision Philosophique No. 5, April 1988, pp62-76, accessed 17/01/2014, http://pervegalit.files.wordpress.com/2008/06/laruelle-derrida.pdf

Mullarkey, J. (2006) Post-continental Philosophy: An Outline, London: Continuum.

Srnicek, N. (2011) François Laruelle, the One and the Non-Philosophical Tradition, Pli: The Warwick Journal Of Philosophy, 22, 2011, p. 187-198, accessed 17/1/2014, https://www.academia.edu/947355/Francois_Laruelle_the_One_and_the_Non-Philosophical_Tradition

Thacker, E. (2010) Mystique of Mysticism, in Galloway, A. R., French Theory Today An Introduction to Possible Futures,  Published by TPSNY/Erudio Editions.

14 January 2014

Questions from a Worker Who Codes

In relation to the post-digital, it is interesting to ask the question as to the extent to which the computational is both the horizon of, and the gatekeeper to, culture today (Berry 2014a). If code operates as the totalising mediator of culture, if not the condition for such culture, then access to both culture and code should become social, political and aesthetic questions. This is partially bound up with questions of literacy and the scope of such knowledges, usually framed within the context of computational competence within a particular programming language. This question returns again and again in relation to the perceived educative level of a population in order to partake of the commonality shared within a newly post-digital culture – should one code? In other words, to what extent must a citizen be able to read and interact with the inscriptions that are common to a society?  Indeed, in the register of art, for example, Brecht considered the question itself to be superfluous, in as much as providing an opportunity of access and therefore praxis opens the possibility of such experiences and understanding. He writes,
one need not be afraid to produce daring, unusual things for the proletariat so long as they deal with its real situation. There will always be people of culture, connoisseurs of art, who will interject: “Ordinary people do not understand that.” But the people will push these persons impatiently aside and come to a direct understanding with artists (Brecht 2007: 84).
In relation to the practices of code itself, it is, of course, not a panacea for all the ills of society. However, it is on the other hand a competence that increasingly marks itself out as a practice which creates opportunities to interact with and guide ones life in relation to being able to operate, and define how the computational functions in relation to individuation processes (see Stiegler 2013, Cowen 2013, Economist 2014). Not only that, as the epistemic function of code grows in relation to the transformation of previous media forms into a digital substrate, and the associated softwarization of the process, culture is itself transformed and the possibilities for using and accessing that culture change too. Indeed, Bifo argues, without such competences, "the word is drawn into this process of automation, so we find it frozen and abstract in the disempathetic life of a society that has become incapable of solidarity and autonomy" (Berardi 2012: 17). For Berardi, cognitive labour would then have become disempowered and subjected to what he calls "precarization" (Berardi 2012: 141). In response he calls for an "insurrection" in as much as "events" can generate the "activation of solidarity, complicity, and independent collaboration between cognitarians", that is, "between programmers, hardware technicians, journalists, and artists who all take part in an informational process" (Berardi 2012: 142-3).

The aim of this literacy, if we can call it that, in relation to the computational, and which is similar to what I have called iteracy elsewhere (Berry 2014b), is also connected to notions of reflexivity, critique, and emancipation in relation to the mechanisation of not only labour, but also culture and intellectual activities more generally. Understanding the machine, as it were, creates the opportunity to change it, and to give citizens the capacity to imagine that things might be other than they are.

This is important to avoid a situation whereby the proletarianisation of labour is followed by the capacity of machines to proletarianise intellectual thought itself. That is, that machines define the boundaries of how, as a human being, one must conduct oneself, as revealed by a comment by a worker at a factory in France in the 1960s who commented, that "to eat, in principle, one must be hungry. However, when we eat, it’s not because we’re hungry, it’s because the electronic brain thought that we should eat because of a gap in production" (Stark 2012: 125). Delegation into the machine of the processes of material and intellectual production abstracts the world into a symbolic representation within the processes of machine code. It is a language of disconnection, a language that disables the worker, but simultaneously disables the programmer, or cognitive worker, who no longer sees another human being, but rather an abstract harmony of interacting objects within a computational space – that is, through the application of compute (Berry 2014c). This is, of course, a moment of reification, and as such code and software act as an ideological screen for the activities of capitalism, and the harsh realities of neoliberal restructuring and efficiencies, the endless work,[1] made possible by such softwarization. Indeed, under capital,
time sheds its qualitative, variable, flowing nature; it freezes into an exactly delimited, quantifiable continuum filled with quantifiable 'things' (the reified, mechanically objectified 'performance' of the worker, wholly separated from his total human personality): in short, it becomes space. In this environ­ment where time is transformed into abstract, exactly measurable, physical space, an environment at once the cause and effect ofthe scientifically and mechanically fragmented and specialised pro­ duction of the object of labour, the subjects of labour must like­ wise be rationally fragmented. On the one hand, the objectifica­tion of their labour-power into something opposed to their total personality (a process already accomplished with the sale of that labour-power as a commodity) is now made into the permanent ineluctable reality of their daily life. Here, too, the personality can do no more than look on helplessly while its own existence is reduced to an isolated particle and fed into an alien system. On the other hand, the mechanical disintegration of the process of production into its components also destroys those bonds that had bound individuals to a community in the days when production was still 'organic'. In this respect, too, mechanisation makes of them isolated abstract atoms whose work no longer brings them together directly and organically; it becomes mediated to an increasing extent exclusively by the abstract laws of the mechanism which imprisons them (Lukács 1971: 90).
But of course here, it is not seconds and minutes measured in "the pendulum of the clock [that] has become as accurate a measure of the relative activity of two workers as it is of the speed of two locomotives", but rather the microsecond and millisecond time of code, combined with new forms of sensors and distributed computational devices that measure time. Indeed, "time is everything, [humans are] nothing; they are at the most the incarnation of time. Quality no longer matters. Quantity alone decides everything: hour for hour, day for day" (Marx 1976: 125). For it is in the spaces of such quantification that lies the obfuscation of the the realities of production, but also of the possibility for changing production to a more democratic and humane system that makes, as Stiegler claims, "a life worth living" (Stiegler 2009).[2]


[1] It is interesting to think about the computational imaginary in relation to the notion of "work" that this entails or is coded/delegated into the machine algorithms of our post-digital age. Campagna (2013) has an interesting formulation of this in relation to Newman (2012) has called "nothing less than a new updated Ego and Its Own for our contemporary neoliberal age" (Newman 2012: 93). Indeed, Campagna writes, "westerners had to find a way of adapting this mystical exercise to the structures of contemporary capitalism. What would a mantra look like, in the heart of a global metropolis of the 21st Century? What other act might be able to host its obsessive spirit, whilst functioning like a round, magic shield, covering the frightened believers from their fear of freedom? There was only one possible, almost perfect candidate. The activity of repetition par excellence: Work. The endless chain of gestures and movements that had built the pyramids and dug the mass graves of the past. The seal of a new alliance with all that is divine, which would be able to bind once again the whole of humanity to a new and eternal submission. The act of submission to submission itself. Work. The new, true faith of the future" (Campagna 2013: 10). Here, though I argue that it is not immaterial apparitions and spectres which are haunting humanity and which the Egoist can break free from, but the digital materiality of computers' abstractions formed of algorithms and code and which are a condition of possibility for individuation and subjectivity itself within cognitive capitalism. 
[2] As Stark writes,  "for a worker to claim the right to create—to theoretically “unalienated” labor—was a gesture as threatening to the factory bosses as it was to the official organs of the left, with their vision of the worker acceding to a state of being-in-oneself through work. Regarding this form of sociological indeterminacy, Rancière argues that “perhaps the truly dangerous classes are . . . the migrants who move at the border between classes, individuals and groups who develop capabilities within themselves which are useless for the improvement of their material lives and which in fact are liable to make them despise material concerns.” Further, for Rancière, “Working- class emancipation was not the affirmation of values specific to the world of labor. It was a rupture in the order of things that founded these ‘values,’ a rupture in the traditional division [partage] assigning the privilege of thought to some and the tasks of production to others.” Binetruy affirms this rupture, recalling that while initially wary of “these Parisians who came stuffed with film and cameras,” he quickly realized that “they did not come to teach us any lessons, but rather to transmit technical training that would liberate our spirits through our eyes. Once you have put your eyes behind a camera, you are no longer the same man, your perspective has changed.”" (Stark 2012: 150).


Berardi, F. (2012) The Uprising: On Poetry and Finance, London: Semiotext(e).

Berry, D. M. (2014a) The Post-Digital, Stunlaw, accessed 14/1/2014, http://stunlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/the-post-digital.html

Berry, D. M. (2014b) Critical Theory and the Digital, New York: Bloomsbury.

Berry, D. M. (2014c) On Compute, Stunlaw, accessed 14/1/2014,  http://stunlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/on-compute.html

Brecht, B. (2007) Popularity and Realism, in Aesthetics and Politics, London: Verso Press.

Campagna, F. (2013) The Last Night: Anti-Work, Atheism, Adventure, London: Zero Books.

Cowen, T. (2013) Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, London: Dutton Books.

Economist (2014) Coming to an office near you, The Economist, accessed 16/01/2014, http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21594298-effect-todays-technology-tomorrows-jobs-will-be-immenseand-no-country-ready

Lukács, G. (1971) History and Class Consciousness: Studies in Marxist Dialectics, MIT Press.

Marx, K. (1976) The Poverty of Philosophy, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volume 6, 1845–1848, London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Newman, S. (2013) Afterword, In Campagna, F. (2013) The Last Night: Anti-Work, Atheism, Adventure, London: Zero Books, pp. 92-5.

Stark, T. (2012) “Cinema in the Hands of the People”: Chris Marker, the Medvedkin Group, and the Potential of Militant Film, OCTOBER, 139, Winter 2012, pp. 117–150.

Stiegler, B. (2009) What Makes Life Worth Living: On Pharmacology, Cambridge: Polity Press

05 January 2014

On Compute

Today, the condition of possibility for the milieu of contemporary life is compute. That is, compute as the abstract unit of computation, both as dunamis (potentiality) and energeia (actuality), that is as the condition of possibility for the question of the in-itself and the for-itself.  Compute as a concept, exists in two senses, as the potential contained in a computational system, or infrastructure, and in the actuation of that potential in actual work, as such. Whilst always already a theoretical limit, compute is also the material that may be brought to bear on a particular computational problem – and now many problems are indeed computational problems. Such then that the theoretical question posed by compute is directly relevant to the study of software, algorithms and code, and therefore the contemporary condition in computal society, because it represents the moment of potential in the transformation of inert materials into working systems. It is literally the computational unit of "energy" that is supplied to power the algorithms of the world's systems. Compute then, is a notion of abstract computation, but it is also the condition of possibility for and the potential actuation of that reserve power of computation in a particular task. Compute becomes a key noetic means of thinking through the distribution of computation in the technological imaginary of computal society.

In a highly distributed computational environment, such as we live in today, compute is itself distributed around society, carried in pockets, accessible through networks and wireless connections and pooled in huge computational clouds. Compute then is not only abstract but lived and enacted in everyday life, it is part of the texture of life, not just as a layer upon life but as a structural possibility for and mediation of such living. But crucially, compute is also an invisible factor in society, partially due to the obfuscation of the technical condition of the production of compute, but also due to the necessity for an interface, a surface, with which to interact with compute. Compute then as a milieu is such that it is never seen as such, even as it surrounds us and is constantly interacting with and framing our experiences. Indeed, Stiegler (2009) writes that,
Studying the senses, Aristotle underlines in effect that one does not see that, in the case of touching, it is the body that forms the milieu, whereas, for example, in the case of sight, the milieu is what he calls the diaphane. And he specifies that this milieu, because it is that which is most close, is that which is structurally forgotten, just as water is for a fish. The milieu is forgotten, because it effaces itself before that to which is gives place. There is always already a milieu, but this fact escapes us in the same way that "aquatic animals," as Aristotle says, "do not notice that one wet body touches another wet body" (423ab): water is what the fish always sees; it is what it never sees. Or, as Plato too says in the Timaeus, if the world was made of gold, gold would be the sole being that would never be seen – it would not be a being, but the inapparent being of that being, appearing only in the occurrence of being, by default (Stiegler 2009: 13-14)
In this sense, compute, is the structural condition of possibility that makes the milieu possible by giving it place, in as much as it creates those frameworks within which technicity takes place. The question of compute then, both as a theoretical concept but also as a technical definition is crucial for thinking through the challenge of computation more broadly. But, in a rapidly moving world of growing computational power, comparative analysis of computational change is made difficult without a metric by which to compare different moments historically. This is made much more difficult by the reality that compute is not simply the speed and bandwidth of a processor as such, but includes a number of other related technical considerations such as the speed of the underlying motherboard, ram, graphics processor(s), storage system and so forth.

Compute then is a relative concept and needs to be thought about in relation to previous iterations, and this is where benchmarking has become an important part of the assessment of compute – for example SPECint, a computer benchmark specification for a processor's integer processing power maintained by the Standard Performance Evaluation Corporation (SPEC 2014). Another, called GeekBench (2013), scores compute against a baseline score of 2500, which is the score of an Intel Core i5-2520M @ 2.50 GHz. In contrast, SYSmark 2007, another benchmark, attempts to bring "real world" applications into the processing measurement by including a number of ideal systems that run canned processing tasks (SYSmark 2007). As can be seen, comparing compute becomes a spectrum of benchmarks that test a variety of working definitions of forms of processing capacity. It is also unsurprising that as a result many manufactures create custom modes within their hardware to "game" these benchmarks and unfortunately obfuscate these definitions and comparators. For example,
Samsung created a white list for Exynos 5-based Galaxy S4 phones which allow some of the most popular benchmarking apps to shift into a high-performance mode not available to most applications. These apps run the GPU at 532MHz, while other apps cannot exceed 480MHz. This cheat was confirmed by AnandTech, who is the most respected name in both PC and mobile benchmarking. Samsung claims “the maximum GPU frequency is lowered to 480MHz for certain gaming apps that may cause an overload, when they are used for a prolonged period of time in full-screen mode,” but it doesn’t make sense that S Browser, Gallery, Camera and the Video Player apps can all run with the GPU wide open, but that all games are forced to run at a much lower speed (Schwartz 2013).
On a material register the unit of compute can be thought of as roughly the maximum potential processing capacity of a computer processing chip running for a notional hour. In todays softwarized landscape, of course, processing power itself become a service and hence more often is framed in terms of virtual machines (VMs), rather than actual physical machines – a number of compute instances can be realised on a single physical processor using sophisticated software to manage the illusion. Amazon itself defines compute through an abstraction of actual processing as follow,
Transitioning to a utility computing model fundamentally changes how developers have been trained to think about CPU resources. Instead of purchasing or leasing a particular processor to use for several months or years, you are renting capacity by the hour. Because Amazon EC2 is built on commodity hardware, over time there may be several different types of physical hardware underlying EC2 instances. Our goal is to provide a consistent amount of CPU capacity no matter what the actual underlying hardware (Amazon 2013).
Indeed, Amazon tends to discuss compute in relation to its unit of EC2 Compute Unit (ECU) to enable the discretisation.[1] Google also uses an abstract quantity and measures "minute-level increments" of computational time (Google 2013). The key is to begin thinking about how an instance provides a predictable amount of dedicated compute capacity and as such is a temporal measure of computational power albeit seemingly defined rather loosely in the technical documentation.

The question of compute is then a question of the origin of computation more generally, but also how the infrastructure of computation can be understood both qualitatively and quantitatively. Indeed, it is clear that the quantitative changes that greater compute capacity introduces makes possible the qualitative experience of computation that we increasingly take for granted in our use of a heavily software-textured world. To talk about software, processes, algorithms and code is then deficient without a corresponding understanding of the capacity of compute in relation to them and a key question for thinking about the conditions of possibility that computation make possible for our lives today.


[1] Amazon used to define the ECU directly, stating: "We use several benchmarks and tests to manage the consistency and predictability of the performance of an EC2 Compute Unit. One EC2 Compute Unit provides the equivalent CPU capacity of a 1.0-1.2 GHz 2007 Opteron or 2007 Xeon processor. This is also the equivalent to an early-2006 1.7 GHz Xeon processor referenced in our original documentation" (Berninger 2010). They appear to have stopped using this description in their documentation (see Amazon 2013). 


Amazon (2013) Amazon EC2 FAQs, accessed 05/01/2014, http://aws.amazon.com/ec2/faqs/#What_is_an_EC2_Compute_Unit_and_why_did_you_introduce_it

Berninger, D. (2010) What the heck is an ECU?,  accessed 05/01/2014, http://cloudpricecalculator.com/blog/hello-world/

GeekBench (2013) GeekBench Processor Benchmarks, accessed 05/01/2014, http://browser.primatelabs.com/processor-benchmarks

Google (2013) Compute Engine — Google Cloud Platform, accessed 05/01/2014, https://cloud.google.com/products/compute-engine/

Schwartz, R. (2013) The Dirty Little Secret About Mobile Benchmarks,  accessed 05/01/2014, http://mostly-tech.com/tag/geekbench/

SPEC (2014) The Standard Performance Evaluation Corporation (SPEC), accessed 05/01/2014, http://www.spec.org

Stiegler, B. (2009) Acting Out, Stanford University Press.

SYSmark (2007),  SYSmark 2007 Preview, accessed 05/01/2014, http://bapco.com/products/sysmark-2007#details-product-info

01 January 2014

The Post-Digital

Courbet, Gustave-The Painter's Studio; A Real Allegory (1855)
As we increasingly find that the world of computational abundance is normalised, the application of cheap digital technologies to manage or partially augmented traditionally analogue experiences, technologies and practices will doubtless grow.[1] That is, the power of "compute" is growing both in breadth and depth as it permeates society and culture (see Davies 2013; Berry 2014a). All around us we are increasingly surrounded by new fields and flows of computation that co-construct and stabilise a new artifice for the human sensorium – streams, clouds, sensors and infrastructures. Not unlike previous moments in which mediums become part of everyday life, this new field is noticeable for its ability to modulate and transform itself through the use of algorithms and code. Not just as a general plasticity but as a flexible structure that adapts to context and environment tailored to the individual, or perhaps better, dividual, of the computational age. This new field of computation is not necessarily top-down and corporate controlled either. Thus, we see at a bottom-up level, the emergence of a market in cheap digital processors that enable the implementation of innovative new forms of culture and cultural experimentation. We might think of these moments as part of the constellation I am calling the "post-digital" (see also Berry 2013a; Cramer 2013; Cox 2013; Philipsen 2013; Sable 2012).
Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), 1968.
Designed by Lina Bo Bardi

Thus, the historical distinction between the digital and the non-digital becomes increasingly blurred, to the extent that to talk about the digital presupposes a disjuncture in our experience that makes less and less sense. Thus computation becomes spatial in its implementation, embedded within the environment and part of the texture of life itself which can be walked around, touched, manipulated and interacted with in a number of ways and means – life becomes mediated in and through the computal (Berry 2014b). Indeed, in a similar way in which the distinction between "being online" or "being offline" has become anachronistic, with our always-on smart phones and tablets and widespread wireless networking technologies, so too, perhaps, the term "digital" describes a world of the past.

Which is not to say that time is not an important aspect to computation in this post-digital world. The compressive effects of computation and the flattening metaphors and visual language of computation tend towards an encounter, maximised perhaps by its tendency toward spatiality, to transform time from a diachronic to a synchronic experience. Indeed, history itself may be re-presented through the screen through a number of computation functions and methods that make it seem geometric, flat and simultaneous. A sense of history is then a sense of real-time flows, not so much distant and elusive, whether as cultural or individual memory, but here and now, spectacular and vividly represented and re-presented. Time in this sense is the time of technical time, and the history attendant to it is technical history, presented through databases, code and algorithms.

Thus within a time of computational abundance we might think in relation to the question of the "post-digital", in as much as we are rapidly entering a moment when the difficulty will be found in encountering culture outside of digital media. Or perhaps the non-digital will largely be the preserve of the elite (by choice, education and wealth) or the very poor (by necessity).  The detritus of society will be cast into the non-digital and the fading and ephemeral will be preserved within computational databanks only, if it is preserved at all. Indeed, even the non-digital becomes bound up in the preservation possibilities offered by the digital,
Non-digital media technologies... become post-digital when they are not simply nostalgically revived, but functionally repurposed in (often critical) relation to digital media technologies: zines that become anti- or non-blogs, vinyl as anti-CD, cassette tapes as anti-mp3, analog film as anti-video (Cramer 2013).
Computal Surfaces: main stage for the
Republican convention in Tampa, Fla (2012)
In a post-digital age, whether something is digital or not will no longer be seen as the essential question. Or rather, the question as to whether something is or is not "digital" will be increasingly meaningless as all forms of media become themselves mediated, produced, accessed, distributed or consumed through digital devices and technologies. This is, to move away from a comparative notion of the digital, contrasted with other material forms such as paper, celluloid or photopaper, and instead begin to think about how the digital is modulated within various materialities. It is also when the contrast between "digital" and "analogue" no longer makes sense either. This spectrum of the digital, a distribution across an axis of more of less computal, gives rise to the expectation of the always already computational of everyday life.

Muffwiggler, Modular Synth Meetup,
University of Sussex (2013).
Thus, the post-digital is represented by and indicative of a moment when the computational has become both hegemonic and post-screenic (see Bosma 2013; Ludovico 2013). As Cramer argues, "the distinction between 'old' and 'new' media collapses in theory as well as in practice. As Kenneth Goldsmith observes, his students 'mix oil paint while Photoshopping and scour flea markets'" (Cramer 2013). The "digital" is then understood as a previous historic moment when computation as digitality was understood in opposition to the analogue, although that is not to say that it will not remain as a marginal notion with related practices within post-digitality. Thus, under our contemporary conditions it might be better to think about modulations of the digital or different intensities of the computational as a post-digital moment rather than digital versus analogue as such. We should therefore critically think about the way in which cadences of the computational are made and materialised. In other words, notions of quantitative and qualitative dimensions of "compute" will be increasingly important for thinking about culture, economics, society, politics and everyday life. Tracing power will in many cases be tracing compute, both in terms of the reservoirs of compute managed by gigantic computational Stacks, but also in the places where compute is thin and poorly served. By Stacks, I am referring to the corporations that increasingly rely on computational "technology stacks" for profit and power, such as Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon but also the technical imaginary formed through the notion of these stacks as a diagram (Berry 2013b).

"Cuddlebot": low-tech touch/haptic sensing hardware (2013)
Compute as already always part of life might also herald that the moment of the digital as digitalisation is already the past, and that new challenges lie ahead for thinking about the way in which the computal saturates our culture, institutions and everyday life in varying degrees of modularity and intensity. This growth in computation has put citizens at an obvious disadvantage in a society that not only has historically tended to disavow the digital as a form of knowledge or practice, but also has not seen computational thinking or skills as part of the educational requirements of a well-informed citizen. For example, the lack of understanding of the importance of encryption and cryptography in digital society was humbly described recently by Glenn Greenwald, who one might have thought to have been better schooled in these technologies (Greenwald 2013). Indeed, as computer power has increased, so has the tendency to emulate older media forms to provide content within simulations of traditional containers, such as “e”-books, through techniques of skeuomorphism and glossy algorithmic interface design – rather than learning and teaching computational practices as such. This, perhaps, has the advantage of new computational forms being able to be used and accessed without the requisite computational skills to negotiate the new literary machines of computation, such as the underlying logics, structures, processes and code. However, it also means that in many cases today, we are unable to read what we write, and are not always the writers of the systems that are built around us (Berry 2011; Oliver, Savičić and Vasiliev 2011; Allen 2013). This illiteracy does not seem to be the ideal conditions for the emergence of an informed and educated citizenry to engage with the challenges and dangers of a fully softwarized post-digital society. It also points to the urgent need for a critical and engaged Bildung for the post-digital world, if it is not to become precariously post-democratic.


[1] This post was inspired by attending "Muffwiggler" at the University of Sussex, Saturday 16 November 2013, organised by Andrew Duff, and funded by the Centre for Digital Material Culture. The event was notionally a homage to analogue synths, but in reality was colonised by digital/analogue hybrid synthesisers and controllers which were properly post-digital in both form and function. More information http://www.muffwiggler.com and http://www.flickr.com/photos/du_ff/sets/72157632801557258/


Allen, J. (2013) Critical Infrastructure, accessed 31/12/2013, http://post-digital.projects.cavi.dk/?p=356

Berry, D. M. (2011) The Philosophy of Software, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Berry, D. M. (2013a) Post-Digital Humanities, Stunlaw, accessed 30/12/2013,  http://stunlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/post-digital-humanities.html

Berry, D. M. (2013b) Digital Breadcrumbs, Stunlaw, accessed 30/12/2013, http://stunlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2013/10/digital-breadcrumbs.html

Berry, D. M. (2014a) On Compute, Stunlaw, accessed 05/01/2014, http://stunlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2014/01/on-compute.html

Berry, D. M. (2014b) Critical Theory and the Digital, New York, Continuum/Bloomsbury Academic.

Bosmas, J. (2013) Post-Digital is Post-Screen – Shaping a New Visuality, accessed 30/12/2013, http://post-digital.projects.cavi.dk/?p=580

Cox, G. (2013) some old problems with post–anything (draft version), accessed 30/12/2013, http://post-digital.projects.cavi.dk/?p=230

Cramer, F. (2013) Post-digital: a term that sucks but is useful (draft 2), accessed 30/12/2013, http://post-digital.projects.cavi.dk/?p=295

Davies, J. (2013) Compute Power with Energy- Efficiency, accessed 30/12/2013, http://developer.amd.com/wordpress/media/2013/06/Compute_Power_with_Energy-Efficiency_Jem_AMD_v1.1.pdf

Greenwald, G. (2013) 30c3 Keynote, Chaos Computer Club, accessed 30/12/2013,  http://media.ccc.de/browse/congress/2013/30C3_-_5622_-_en_-_saal_1_-_201312271930_-_30c3_keynote_-_glenn_greenwald_-_frank.html

Ludovico, A. (2013) Post Digital Publishing, Hybrid and Processual Objects in Print, accessed 30/12/2013, http://post-digital.projects.cavi.dk/?p=323

Oliver, J. Savičić, G. and Vasiliev, D. (2011) Critical Engineering Manifesto, accessed 31/12/2013, http://criticalengineering.org

Philipsen, L. (2013) Do not Return to Sender – Why post-digital aesthetic research should actually distinguish between artist, critics, and audience, accessed 30/12/2013, http://post-digital.projects.cavi.dk/?p=350

Sable, D. (2012) A "Post Digital" World, Really?, Google Think Insights, accessed 30/12/2013, http://www.google.com/think/articles/a-post-digital-world-really.html

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