Do Cybernetics Dream of Digital Resistance?

Do Cybernetics Dream of Digital Resistance?
A conversation between Maxigas & Stevphen on Brian Holmes’ Escape the Overcode

This is an exchange between Maxigas, from the  Horizon Research Institute / Indymedia Hungary and Stevphen Shukaitis (from Essex, Autonomedia, and the CPPE). We discuss Brian Holmes’s Escape the Overcode in a series of emails, focusing on the ambiguity of cybernetic art and resistance, the conditions of knowledge production, innovation and cooptation.

Please picture me sitting at the top of a suburban house running on champagne and nicotine.  Reading through Brian’s book I realized that he is homing in on the topics I find most inspiring, his payload exploding in the last chapter, the “Dark Crystals.”   Therefore I propose that we start at the end, with a passing quote from the very last piece that I will promptly hijack:

 The problem with the overcoded societies is that they do not leave you in the face of your own questions. The frame of the answer is sketched out in advance: not the exact contents, but the abstract parameters. In art as in politics, the serious discussions always go back to the 1960s and 70s. Maybe our chronologies need reevaluating.

In the next sentence he pulls the focus on the present and the future, which I will not follow, trying instead to push a bit methodologically what he also tries in a way throughout the course of the book.  What if – specifically as revolutionary intellectuals of sorts – we root our historical consciousness not in the 30s and 40s of the authoritarian personality, the 60s “cultural shock,” and the 70s autonomy, but instead in the cybernetic turn of the 50s, the 80s and 90s cyberpunk, and the alterglobalization movement against neoliberal globalization in the decade that Alex Foti once called the naughties?  Can we shift the frame of the answers that Brian is writing about in this way, by the way of a detour (I know, a 60s thing).  If we fail, we can still look at these decades as engendering the waves of resistance in the 60s and 70s which lead to the reorganization of capitalist relations of production as much as culture, and creating the conditions for the crisis which caught us by surprise, deepening since 2007.  After all, we are looking for new grounds from which to spring new beginnings, aren’t we?  That is, the present and future that Brian wrote about.

Cybernetics has been interpreted brilliantly both as an all-prevailing ideology – all the more because the right and the left, or what was left of it, embraced it  – (in the Cybernetic Hypothesis of Tiqqun), and as a lost occult teaching (in Andrew Pickering’s the Cybernetic Brain) which we serve as an antidote for modernity, and finally in Escape the Overcode where two separate essays trace diverging genealogies.  I wonder if we can entangle this mess.  While Brian is conceptualizing cybernetics and coding as the engineering of control wielded by the Cold Warriors of the 50s, he also points to Guattari’s ideas developed in the 80s on escaping these capture apparatuses through working transversally with flows, affects, territories and abstract machines.  He also points to hacking (esp. reverse engineering) as exemplary for this operation.

Anonymous could be analyzed as a veritable instance of how such a movement works.  It developed into a kind of war machine that interlocked with the institutions of the state and capital, able to produce stochastic responses that diverted flows and proliferated affects (“Expect us”), invoked territories (“We are from the Internet”) and used logical machinery like software.  In his 2006 presentation of cybernetics and counter-cybernetics, Brian explains that for Guattari, the defining characteristic of an escape mechanism is that it produces multiplicities (difference) rather than overcoding such as “centering, unification, totalization, integration, hierarchization, and finalization.”  As Gabriella Coleman explains lucidly in many places, the very difficulty of speaking about Anonymous is exactly that despite capable of collective speech, it is ridden by a continual process of bifurcations and convergences.  Brad Troemel argues that these collective enunciations, as practiced at 4chan – the image board hold to be the breeding ground of Anonymous – serve as an emerging model for artistic production

Sorry for my slowness in responding. I’m currently on a family vacation, and it seems there has been less time for reading and thinking then I had thought there would be. There is so much work involved with being on vacation there is precious little time for relaxing, which I suppose is deeply ironic. At the moment we’re in the village of Walsingham in Norfolk, which is an important site for Catholic shrines and such things. My partner and her parents are at some shrine at mass, and I have managed to sneak off to a local pub for a quick pint of pear cider and to write down some thoughts for you.

Rather than start at the end, for my first set of thoughts I’d like to start at the beginning. Or perhaps even more accurately, before the beginning. Sitting here look at my copy of Escape the Overcode there is a very really risk, as I suppose there is when approaching any book, of thinking about it as a bound, complete, and autonomous object. For people who are involved in elaborating critical theory, theorizing social movements, and so forth – there is a tendency to think of a book as the product of some long and labored process, one that is usually quite isolating. The image of Marx working away in the British Library for years to write Capital springs to mind as an archetypical example. At the end of the process of thinking and writing, maybe some editing or revising occurs, but in the end the author’s name is slapped on the cover and it circulates out in the world where the author can claims rights, whether legal or moral, for what is contained.

Now this is a somewhat flawed understanding of knowledge production and book writing in general, one which is even acknowledged by most authors in the lists of people that are thanked in most books (even if this more diffuse and cooperative nature of knowledge production typically does not extend beyond that). But this is an especially flawed way to approach the writing of someone like Brian Holmes. Why is that? Looking at a book like Escape the Overcode it’s very easy to think that it was composed as it appears, as one coherent block, as a united effort and composition. But that’s not simply the way Brian works, and that it is not his way of working gets to the heart of the value his work has a thinker and a catalyst of various forms of collective becoming and thought.

Most people will not encounter the ideas contained in this book first when they are in book form. It is more likely that they will first come across some small intervention he has made about a particular collective or project, or about a political or economic situation. Perhaps it will be on an online listserv discussion, as Brian has for years been a constant and one of the clearest voices taking part in debates on such forums as nettime and constant others. Or perhaps the first encounter will be in one of the almost innumerable events and seminars Brian has taken part in, whether through the ongoing Continental Drift events, or at any number of art or political events. And that could be in New York, Croatia, Paris, Chicago, or almost anywhere.

The point of observing this is not to portray Brian as some sort of jet setting theory guru or cyber-magician, but rather to point out that is necessary to approach Brian’s work from the idea that he is always working in between, within an always growing and evolving network of cooperation and ideas. Brian’s ideas develop not in scholarly isolation, but in the wealth of expanding circulation. And they develop through patterns of circulation that while certainly have some negotiated relationship to the university, and the art institution, are not primarily formed by these organizational forms. This is very important as there is a much greater degree of autonomy afforded to the kind of extra-institutional practice, extra-disciplinary practice.

So we could say that Brian’s work emerges from a context marked by network flows, or in the space of cybernetics, as is the main focus of this book. And that his analysis is not caught simply in an analysis of how cybernetics functions as a system of control, or a way for thinking beyond current conditions of domination. Brian does both, which is completely necessary, as otherwise the end result is something very naïve: either an understanding of control that does not see any possibility for disruptive agency (critical theory pessimism), or an elaboration of forms of escape and political becoming that neglects the ways in which those very social energies could indeed become part of perfecting systems of control. In the conceptual language of autonomist theorists this is the interplay between the force of technical composition of capitalist relations and organization, and the political composition of insurgent social energies. When Brian suggests looking towards the decades of cybernetic development (rather than of creative rebellion or of authoritarian control) he is making a key claim.

Well what is the claim? It is that to find new moments and spaces of autonomy, of escaping the overcode, the point is not to look to outmoded forms of social domination, or to recapitulate previous forms of creative rebellion. Rather the task is to understand how more flexible systems of dispersed social domination have found ways to utilize the insurgent energies of social movements, the creativity of radical arts, to engineer new forms of control. This is what Brian does in his vast discussion of various political and artistic projects: finding what kind of compositional potential they hold, what kind of relations they animate, how they interact with the systems of governance structuring the space within the work, and how they enable escaping from them. But, using the same autonomist concepts, the approach is that it necessary to work from the conditions of political decomposition, the state where insurgent energies have been rendered into other forms, precisely in order to be able to find new possibilities from within and against those conditions.

Ok, that’s all for now. I’m out of cider and I need to go pick up the rest of the family. I will write more later and pull out some quotes and discussion.

We will see how it goes.  It seems logical, especially from a committed autonomist perspective, to claim both an outside of cybernetics – largely based on errors? – and a potential for reverse engineering control structures and behavioral models.

That’s even more refreshing because in the midst of my research into the history and reception of cybernetics I tend to fall encounters many deterministic and dystopian characterizations and narratives.  On that side I still recommend the ‘Cybernetic Hypothesis’ that I was referring to in the first message.  Tiqqun’s position meets with Baudrillard on the point of the remedy where they recommend disrupting the control signals and signatures with introducing noise to the system in order to disrupt it.  The reaction of the Italian radical technology collective called Autistici/Inventati is an attempt to go beyond such a pessimistic view.  They have set up a privacy-aware activist blogging platform under  On the cover is a statement from J.G. Ballard: “The environment is so full of television, party political broadcasts and advertising campaigns that you hardly need to do anything”  and answer the challenge by counterposing their own slogan: “Noblogs – [because] Information disorder was not enough.”

Attaching to your rant about (inherently) collaborative knowledge production, do you know I referred to your article in EICP about the necessity for strategic considerations in the anti-systemic movement, of going beyond tactical answers?  I was reviewing the ‘Face to Facebook’ project by Paolo Cirio & Alessandro Ludovico (whois tell me the domain was registered 31-Mar-10) for the Hungarian tranzit blog, arguing that it opens the possibility to go beyond tactical media towards a strategic media?  Conversely, I am reminded how we discussed tactics vs. strategy when you stayed in our commune in Budapest.  Finally, the project itself surfaced on my screen while browsing the nettime listserv, where all three of us are subscribers.  So yes indeed, lines of thought are intertwined and individual subjectivities are but points of crossing and gathering.

When you and Brian write about the recuperative and co-optative tendencies of cybernetic society, and the compositional potential of various political and artistic projects I remember that what was interesting for me in the ‘Face to Facebook’ project was exactly how they stage a counter-cooptation, a détournement carried out with the tools of symbolic logic.  They basically scraped a million or so profiles from Facebook and used facial recognition (neural networks!) to select the smiling ones.  In the next step they set up a dating website with the data of all these smiling users.  Using the modeling of affect to release real affect.

Which brings us back to two points set out in the first texts of the Escape: “The Affectivist Manifesto” and “Network Maps, Energy Diagrams.”  I quote from the first:

In the twentieth century, art was judged with respect to the existing state of the medium. … The prize at the end of the evaluative process was a different sense of what art could be, a new realm of possibility for the aesthetic. … The backdrop against which art now stands out is a particular state of society. What an installation, a performance, a concept or a mediated image can do is to mark a possible or real shift with respect to the laws, the customs, the measures, the mores, the technical and organizational devices that define how we must behave and how we may relate to each other at a given time and in a given place. What we look for in art is a different way to live, a fresh chance at coexistence.

Funnily, it’s like reading my CV: from studying aesthetics to anthropology, from doing avant-garde art to activism.  And where these meet is the F2F project that manages to turn into a real possibility and an affective event what the recent wave of critical social theorists can but describe about Facebook as a machine of affective capture and an instrument of soft(ware) social control.  At that time what I meant by referring to the project as ‘cybernetic art’ was that it is operational and performative rather than representational and illustrative.  It works.  They made the shit hit the fan through redirecting affective and information flows where they were not supposed to go.

Engineering flows while mapping out the process publicly and transparently produces a ‘battle plan’ of sorts, pointing out the attack vectors for subversion.  Actually it could be radicalized further by designing “attack trees” – a methodology used in computer science to map out possible vulnerabilities of a system.  Here is an example from a class at the University of Denver

Of course these are probably too deterministic and hierarchical for us, we need a more topological approach that can lead to the discovery of novel possibilities.  In any case, both diagrams above manage to break away from the mapping of oppressive powers and move out in the direction of the energy diagrams described in “Structure and Agency in the Global System”:

Thus we can distinguish between a determinate network map – a geographical representation of structures of networked power, which attempts to identify and measure the forces at play – and an undetermined energy diagram, which opens up a field of possible agency. Deleuze describes the diagram of power as “highly unstable or fluid” constituting hundreds of points of emergence or creativity. His aim is to indicate the openness, the possibility for intervention that inheres to every social relation, because of the limited but real power that flows through each of the participants. Thus at its point of application, where individual behavior is molded into functional patterns by the convergence of mutually reinforcing constraints, power can also fold in upon itself, producing resistance and alterity through its own redoubling in the subject, then its subsequent dispersal.

The last line, stating how “power can also fold in upon itself,” reminds me of a puzzle you could perhaps help me to solve.  The title of a recent Mute issue, ‘Double Negative Feedback’, is still haunting me.  Norbert Wiener treats negative feedback in his 1948 foundation book on cybernetics as a form of error correction.  Double negative feedback, then, is when correction mechanisms run amok, fed by their own output, making the situation worse, potentially leading to a phase change?  Amongst other things, Mute seems to apply the concept to the crisis and its political backlash, the proliferation of popular resistance.  It could also apply to the F2F project which only grows as a result of the negative attention it receives from Facebook, Inc., highlighting its contradictions.  In general, it could be a notation for a political strategy that aims to turn repressive mechanisms against themselves, engendering a growing wave of disruptive tendencies.  But maybe I am mistaken; tell me if my concepts are slack.

Thanks for that. In general I quite agree with your formulation, particularly where you end up with the idea of forming political strategies by turning repressive mechanisms against themselves. But I’d like to work back a bit before getting there.

What we see in Brian’s writing, in this book and more generally, really moves past a binary of optimism and pessimism. And this is quite important, since when discussing techno-politics it’s really quite easy to fall into some form of techno-optimism (ala Wired) or techno-determinism in a more negative sense (cue here almost any science fiction work about the encroaching and controlling effects of technology). It’s quite difficult to move beyond these positions, or constant movement between them, given how ingrained they have become. You can also see this is Bifo’s recent writing, in which he seems very much to switch back and forth between a hyper-optimism about the possibilities for resistance today to a near suicidal pessimism. And it’s interesting that he does through re-engaging with Baudrillard and Guattari, drawing out connections and tensions between their arguments. Bifo argues that a kind of naïve hyper-optimism, or belief in unlimited potential, whether of the body or the commons, inevitably leads to forms of collapse when the conditions supporting that disappear. Thus what he elaborates is less a manic depression in theory, although it can read like that, but trying to hold together, but trying to hold together widely divergent ideas and outlooks at the same time rather than constantly moving back and forth between them.

It’s important to point out that when we talk about politics of technology, about eng with technology, we are always more then just engaging with the objects and systems themselves. There is always a mediating function of dispositions to the technology, which one might call the ideological technological apparatus. And this seems to be the case even where you might not expect it. Take for instance the anarcho-primitivist John Zerzan, who is at this point most widely known for this total rejection of technology, language, civilization, and so forth. Well, how did he get there? Strangely enough not through some sort of Rousseau-ian idealization of the pre-industrial, as you might think, but through a heavily Marxist analysis, working through Adorno and negative dialectics and reaching ever deeper and more complete forms of totalization he wants to reject. One could joke that the one technology that Zerzan cannot do without would be Hegel. And this is the point, that the mediating dynamic for Zerzan’s approach to technology is not just his appraisal of its worth or tendencies to domination, but an underlying dialectical structure of thought that only approaches particular technologies as expressions of an underlying and inevitable unified progression.

But so what if there is always an assemblage of ideas and approaches that mediates our relationship to technology, and thus shaping techno-politics? It’s probably enough just to acknowledge that and move on with that understanding. The problem I would see it is when that theoretical assemblage becomes overly detached from the realities of what is attempted to be theorized. This can be seen in the autonomist debates that have taken place over past ten years around immaterial labor and the politics of network, at least in the most widely circulated forms. They have come with lots of lots of hyper-optimism: great expectations of new political subjects that would emerge from these new conjunctions of labor, technology, and communication. Here I’m thinking primarily of people like Hardt and Negri, but also many who have taken up their ideas, of which I would include Brian and myself. The problem then becomes when you engage with the grounded realities of particular technologies, or particular laboring practices. It becomes messier, and doesn’t fit the theory as well. A glib version of this would be: “you think immaterial produces communism? Try working at a call center or at McDonald’s?”

Or you can take the work of Alex Galloway (2004), such as his writing about protocols and distributes systems of control. Network forms can seem to offer great new realms of uncontrolled freedom, but when you engage with the particulars of the form a much different story emerges, one just as marked by control as subversion. But this is not to fall back into a optimism-pessimism divide as much as argue that resistance comes from an engagement with the particulars, rather than in an overarching conception that neatly explains things. Although having said sometimes the poetic force of an idea is the most valuable thing in. This is how I would tend to approach folks like Tiqqun. If we subject their ideas to critical scrutiny in terms of their analytic accuracy I doubt they would hold up very well, but that’s not their purpose. Their purpose is a call, to action, to inspire, and thus this is less important. And I would suggest that you could make a similar argument about many autonomist ideas from the 1970s, or the ideas of the Situationists for that matter.

This brings us back to Brian, who does a very good job at developing politics from the particulars of artistic practices and technological forms. But he does not do this through forsaking theory, as if it would no longer be needed if you brought together enough examples. That would be naïve empiricism, one that would declare “truth is concrete” (which ironically enough is the title of a large arts and politics gathering happening next week in Graz) but would rather, in the Marxist sense, “rise to the concrete.” And thus it makes even more sense when you look at Brian’s network maps and charting out of flows and relations between projects and practices. It shows that he is working from the particular and potentials of various practices, but through their relations in overall systems. Something similar could be starting an ‘affectivist manifesto’ – affect is relational, created through interactions, rather than intrinsic attributes without context.

As for what you raise about “double negative feedback,” one could put an interesting autonomist twist on that in relation to the current crisis, or ongoing crises. If you start from the idea that capital has a tendency to draw from the energies of resistance and working class rebellion that tell you several things. Resistance and rebellion generate not just forms of organization, knowledge, and energies for political movements, but also for capital, which draws these energies to drive itself forward. If we have reached a stage where that dynamic of resistance and absorption no longer works in the same way (as Bifo and others have argued), this is not only a problem for radicals looking for new ways forward, but also for capital itself. Why is that? Because it then be the case that capital is not only dependent upon forms of labor which it does not directly control, but is also dependent on forms of political antagonism directed against precisely as these generate a constitutive outside based upon which capital modulates and mutates. An end to the resistance-absorption dynamic could thus lead to a kind of capital blindness. Crisis, as a form of negative double feedback, could thus result from the overwhelming power of working class movements, but rather from their absence, that they are not there pushing forward capitals contradictions and into new directions. There are many people who thought that green capitalism and ecology was going to be this new constituent force, but that seems to have not happened, at least to the degree expected.

I’ve already rambled on too long, but I’d like to end back at the beginning with a quote from Brian that brings together these ideas in a direction where I think you were going. In Brian’s discussion of Mario Tronti he comments that Tronti’s ideas evolved in a Taylorist / Fordist context. But these conditions have changed multiple times over since the 1960s. Thus Brian argues

In our era, when knowledge management and the endless quest to identify and channel innovation represent the dominant strategies for exploiting the educated postindustrial labor force, how could one see crowd sourcing, corporate networking technologies or the codification of the creative industries as anything but the enemy of the multitudes? If something is to be done with “creativity” today, it must first of all escape from the protocols of capitalist control.  (36)

For Tronti this was quite clear: the working class finds itself becoming a part of capital’s self-valorization, and from that position has even more capacity to sabotage its domination. But the organizational form of this overcoming necessarily takes the mediating form of capital’s interests and in turns renders them into antagonistic form, as the terrain and struggle for the dissolution of capital. Brian argues that this insight is still valid, but needs to move with current conditions:

In our time, this translated into a struggle against the definition of a “creative class” by capitalist sociology, and above all, against its functionalization for strategies of corporate, urban and financial profit. Artists, writers, actors, painters, audio-visual producers, designers, musicians, philosophers, architects, all have had to find ways to refuse to let their subjectivity become the mere medium of capital flows, a stepping-stone between money and more money. Anyone who feels the inordinate pressure that direct management now exerts on the intelligence and expressivity that it demands and continually solicits, and anyone who can see those same pressures reiterated in the tight stylistic, financial and temporal constraints of the freelance markets of creativity, will find in Tronti’s writing both an incitement to resistance and exodus, and a keen analysis of the governing structures of capitalist society, of its dynamic equilibrium. Yet this analysis needs to be updated, where both the objective structures of contemporary society and the subjective dimensions of creative labor are concerned. (36-37)

I would heartily agree with this perspective, and suggest that it is the core of the book, not only in struggles over creative labor, but in working through the particulars of cybernetic governance and the transformation of the social world, to develop new tools for changing it. And this is why Brian argues for moving away from typical avant-garde gestures, which he suggests no longer produce a “liberating effect” (75), but rather modulating intensities and patterns, creating new escape routes from overcoding, that add up to playing a significant game:

The question isn’t one of dodging the magic bullet, or of constructing some fantasy space where you could survive unsurveilled. The question for artists, intellectuals and technologists is how to play a significant game, instead of reclining and declining in a gilded cage, as the PR and development wing for yet more corporate spin-offs of the mainline military devices. The question is how to engage in counter-behaviors, able to subvert the effects of cybernetic governance. (325)

Note: an earlier and shortened version of this exchange was previously posted here

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