Review of Cox, Geoff and Alex McLean (2013) Speaking Code: Coding as Aesthetic and Political Expression. London: MIT Press. Submitted to Rhizomes.
At a conference in 2001 Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi performed the source code of the ‘lovebug’, or ‘I love you virus,’ which had caused immense amounts of disruption and economic damage the year before. The lovebug virus spread with immense speed by attaching itself to a very human need, for affection, or so it might easily be understood as such was when millions of people chose to open an innocuous looking e-mail with the subject heading of ‘I love you’ not realizing the malicious code included. Bifo’s performance of the virus code was not based around discussing these social aspects, or trying to analyze their meaning, perhaps through a discussion of the pathologies of immaterial labor, as he has in the years since then (2009). Rather Bifo chose to perform the code itself, to literally read out the coding involved in the operations of the virus. By doing so Bifo effectively moved the conversation about the politics and aesthetics of the viral form, not just looking at their social effects and meanings – but rather on the operations of the code itself – to ask from there what the politics of the code in itself might be.
Fast forward twelve years later and in many ways cultural and social theory still tends, when discussing technology, to somewhat neglect the operations of the technologies themselves, in favor of other aspects of their effects and social functioning. It is this tendency that Geoff Cox and Alex McLean’s new book, Speaking Code, is an excellent corrective to, with its focus on the aesthetics and politics of code. Their analysis focuses on the functioning of the code itself, and what sense of politics and aesthetics can be derived from its functioning and through its performance, particularly in relationship to language. Intriguingly their text is not simply just an analysis, but also a performative gesture, which intersperses sections of code written by McLean with Cox’s analysis. In this combination writing itself is a critical practice where the sections of code function “not as illustrations but as additional forms of criticism” (12).
By focusing on the performative and language-like aspects of coding Cox and McLean manage to avoid the pitfalls of technological determinism, whether in negative or positive senses. Thus they fall neither into assumptions about the dominating tendencies of an all-encompassing technological rationality, or work from any implicit assumptions about how they inherently cooperative and collective nature of immaterial and digital labor will lead to new forms of potential politics. Their analysis emerges from an engagement with the particulars of the functioning of code, but one that considers these functioning within wider systems of communication involving both human and non-human agents.
This approach of holding together the cultural, technological, and organizational recalls the work of Jon McKenzie (2001) in his analysis of the functioning of performance across those multiple registers. Likewise Cox and McLean focus on how coding functions to interpellate subjects into its operations and functioning. This interpellation, however, does not occurs in the way the I’ve always imagined interpellation in the Althusser-ian version, like god in Monty Python opening the sky and calling out ‘hey you’
For Cox and McLean interpellation occurs in a protocological manner, through distributed networks of communication. Thus one is not interpellated by the actions or speech emanating from a single body, but rather through the operations of protocols and their coding: “the call to order is rather more like being allocated an Internet protocol (IP) address that defines you as a unique user in the network” (5).
At one point they draw from an example used by Mladen Dolar on the failure of interpellation. Dolar describes a situation where an army commander issues an order to attack, only to have his soldiers fail to respond, instead responding with an appreciation of the beauty of the commander’s voice. In this way Cox and McLean move their engagement with the failure of interpelleation to an engagement with the aesthetics of code, suggesting that the aesthetics of coding are useful for shifting the focus from command and control to cultural expression and refusal. Here aesthetics becomes an avenue for the undercutting of determinism, moving from the rational and calculative, to that which exceeds it: an excess that partially determines the forms of rationality that rely upon it.
Cox and McLean point to a number of esoteric coding practices that suggest create ways for undermining the authority and operations of the code itself. Coding language such as Befunge, Brainfuck, or Piet they suggest “challenge expectations of what source code does in itself and what it might do once run… undermine the interpellative authority of the computer and stress alternative interpretations like the paradoxical qualities of speech” (7). The cover of the book itself, which looks vaguely like a version of the Malevich cross produced in a hippy daycare facility, was created through the use of Piet. They suggest that there are many programmers working in this spirit, focusing on the making of code itself in ways that connect to larger structural issues around language, communication, and the poetic qualities of coding itself. This extends beyond interventions that are specifically artistically or aesthetically oriented into the ways that norms of values celebrating ‘beautiful coding’ inform programming practices (Case and Pinerio 2006).
This connects with a number of themes found within the debates of post-operaist thinkers whom Cox and McLean draw from, particular Bifo’s work, but more broadly. Their focus is then not just on the operations of the coding, and how it interpellates subjects through its operations, but the kinds of codeworking that are involved in this assemblage. But here the notion of codeworking has the potential to expand and radically transform the notion of labor. Codework here refers both to the labors involved in the writing of the code itself, and the labors performed by code once it is executed. If were are in a condition today where physical, intellectual, and machine labor have increasingly integrated, the operations of codework provide a key way to understand these transformations. For Cox and McLean codework “necessarily carries with it the labor that has been invested in its production, as well as the labor invested in the broader apparatuses through which it is served” (39). This opens the question of if the operation of code that interpellates human labor is in itself working, understood as a form labor. And if labor is occurring outside of the human body and subjects, one is left with an entirely new and transformed conception of labor.
Drawing from Bifo, who has written the foreword to the book, Cox and McLean argue that by integrating the intellect, language and imagination, “labor power produces new and more totalizing kinds of subjectivities” (50). This is how Bifo understands the soul, which he suggests has been put to work. Likewise Cox and McLean focus instead on the voice, present through the operations of code and what it brings to itself, which is deeply embedded within these processes. Taking the approach to aesthetics and politics of codework that Cox and McLean develops thus brings us back to the question of developing new forms of political subjectiviation and antagonism in and despite the neutralizing tendencies that attributed to their current operation, for instance in the functioning of social and interactive media. This is argued to be “just another example of capital recuperating the democratic potential of “new” technology for the privatization of public assets. It sells the public its own publicness” (91).
If not then corporate social media that collects rents on the immaterial assets and creativity of the laboring sociality of its users, what else would, or could there be? This is precisely the question that Cox and McLean leave us with, asking
Can we imagine autonomous coding practices that generate possibilities for actually existing alternatives; or a coding public that is also able to recursively act for-itself? This would represent an expression of networked intelligence that has separated itself from proprietary forces with some degree of autonomy from economic determination, rediscovering the actuality of what it means to speak and act freely in public. (96)
This would be to work towards an autonomous coding practice, but that does not make any assumptions about its autonomy based only on the form it takes, the labor the animates, or the concepts that motivates it. Rather it is these multiple relations of coding, culture, performance and labor are intertwined in the performance of coding, and its operation.
|Hopefully it could avoid being this cheesy...|
Alex Galloway suggested recently (2012) that there are very few books on new media worth reading. It is because of how easy it is for any analysis of media or technology to fail to hold together an engagement with culture, technology, labor, and sociality at the same time. It is a difficult task indeed. Over recent years there has been a growing trend of just this kind of analysis, a critically informed media theory operating at multiple levels, that draws from autonomist theory (Wark 2007; Bratich 2008; Dyer-Witheford and de Peuter 2009; Coleman 2012). With Speaking Code Cox and McLean have written a book that raises precisely the right questions, drawing out aesthetics and politics from the operations of code itself, and using that to tease out possibilities for the coding of autonomous practices in the present.