Is theory still afraid of the internet? Just four years ago, e-flux published an article by theorist Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi titled ‘Cognitarian Subjectivation’. In it, Bifo argues that capitalism’s recent neoliberal turn has led to the devaluation of cognitive work, transforming it from an asset, valued by venture capitalists for its ability to come up with propositions to increase productivity, to production itself, compelled to work within the rhythms of mechanistic speed and regularity. He argues that one of the driving forces in this devaluation is the stress of networked connectivity, which results in a population whose cognitive energy is devoured by the network’s constant demands, consumed by an incessant social interactivity disguised as both work and leisure.
For Bifo, networked connectivity is commandeered by the avarice of neoliberal capitalism, and deployed to hold us in a stream of impossible stimulus. Our co-operation is coerced with the idea that our existence within the system of capital (which provides food, housing and comfort) is precarious. This precariousness is engineered to both dull the type of thought that leads to the actualisation of self, and encourage the desires that promote commerce. Bifo suggests that, seeing as such a large proportion of life now happens virtually, we have become disengaged from the material realities of production and the territorial constraints of geographic space, and that this disengagement leads to behaviour that reaffirms the system. He asks: is the process of autonomous, collective, self-definition possible in the present age? And answers: “The way to autonomous and collective subjectivation starts here: from the general intellect searching for a body.”
The idea that the material world of our bodies and the virtual world of digital media are somehow incompatible and impossible for us to synthesise echoes through a fair proportion of the writing on new media and digitality done in the late 20th and early 21st century. Prominent new media theorists like D.N. Rodowick and Friedrich Kittler argue that new (digital) media is fundamentally distinct from old (analogue) media: not only in format, but in how our bodies and minds are capable of responding. For them, the old is closer, more natural to the human. These lines of thinking place immense importance on indexicality as a material, and therefore graspable, trace of the human. They also reinforce the idea (also currently favoured by commerce) that the digital is completely immaterial. The internet is predominantly sold to us as completely invisible through the language chosen to represent it—the word ‘cloud’ conveys the idea that data streams through the air like gas rather than through incredible networks of cables and collection points. The physical traces of documents may be gone from our houses, but the data farms that hold them spread across vast areas of land. The transmission of data is only made possible by material infrastructure. As designer Timo Arnall notes, “We are overloaded with childish mythologies like ‘the cloud’; a soft, fuzzy metaphor for enormous infrastructural projects of undersea cables and power-hungry data farms.”
There are some stunning images of Google’s data farms that reveal the immense physicality of passing so much data around. With their lengths of pipe stretching across the ceiling in Google’s harsh mini paintbox colours, they are not so different from the industrial images of early twentieth century modernity: metal workshops, oil refineries, auto factories. And although (unlike images of the industrial revolution) they appear spotlessly clean and empty of human bodies, they are nonetheless the result of human labour. People built them.
Perhaps the theories of new media that express fear about the digital are simply a continuation of the discourse of the ‘other’ that has haunted western thought for decades. It’s possible that what theorists are really arguing is that we are unable to grasp or live happily with anything that is not us. This is the virtual as an affront to the material world.
But the view is different for new new media thinkers who have grown with digital technology, and who cannot remember a social sphere that wasn’t networked in some way. West Space Journal asked me to respond to Bifo’s article because it seemed to be speaking of a future that is already conceptually past. Now, a generation acculturated to digital connectivity are re-evaluating how the creation of identity and the actualisation of political and intellectual autonomy can develop through an engagement with the very tools that, in a neoliberal context, function as channels for pure, disembodied and disembrained productivity.
The notion that re-engaging the physical is the solution to a life where the stress of incessant cognition has caused “pathological effects in the social mind, saturating attention time, compressing the sphere of emotion and sensitivity,” seems somewhat regressive. It has shades of a return to nature, and the notion that the ills of modernity can be soothed with ‘honest’ physical work. Rather than lamenting speed, we should instead ask questions of rhythm. A digitally connected world does not necessarily mean a materially disconnected one. Nature, the physical world, the sense we can have of being fully present in the body and the tactility of making are not annulled by the presence of the internet.
Yuri Pattison’s RELiable COMmunications is an online work that offers an image of how autonomous subjectivation might look in a digitally networked era. Presented as part of the New Museum’s New Art Online series, RELiable COMmunications brings together traces of events with material consequences: the archive of an attempted Soviet coup, where in 1991 a communist group tried to dismantle Gorbachev’s government; the chat log between Chelsea Manning and hacker Adrian Lamo which lead to her arrest; and a 3D rendering of the Chelyabinsk meteor, which spins and shifts as you scroll down the page, breaking into smaller pieces, spinning in from the side of the screen and hovering over the text, a visual and spatial disruption to the flat page behind it.
By combining the flat, text-heavy aesthetic of the early web with the weightless structural forms of 3D graphics, Pattison emphasises the idea of space and time as layered rather than linear. The tumbling meteor appears to sit on a separate layer to the background image, coexistent with, yet not integrated into, the main page. The work changes, so that each time I visit I’m not sure if I’ve misremembered the things I saw, or if the page has been changed. There is a section where yellowish, medium-resolution web photographs are layered over one another—part glitch, part collage. In the press release for the work, Pattison notes the Inuktitut word for internet “ikiaqqivik” means “travelling through layers”. In an article titled ‘A Matter of Time’, filmmaker Babette Mangolte writes, “Now time is geography and is inscribed in layers on a set screen with bit-size slots. When you dig into these bit-sized slots to see what is there you find bits of time memory one on top of the other without chronology. You travel through time now by traveling through layers of pixels. And the space is totally in front of you without shadow.”
The space of RELiable COMmunications loops back and forward. It is a space where the past is made present, where new information appears and then slips away. It is a space charged with the feeling of there being something more than what we can see. The work alludes to the experience of being online–of following links through a series of pages, stumbling across pieces of digital detritus, dead pages and spam–and at the same time, it conveys Pattison’s thought process, visualised through thematic links that are related but surprising. The scrolling flow and changing configuration of content shows the work’s coming into being. It is, in a sense, a visual representation of the process of the artist’s autonomous subjectivation.
Central to the work is the Jabber chat log between whistleblower Chelsea Manning and hacker Adrian Lamo (who later passed the logs on to the FBI, leading to Manning’s arrest). With two spinning meteorites hovering on either side of the text area, the chats cascade down the screen and then erase, a rhythmic movement of appearance and disappearance. Sexuality, security breaches, bad military behaviour, is funnelled through a volley of instant messages. The details of Manning’s life have been much publicised, but Pattison places the chat log into the context of a continuous, multilayered process of digital, networked autonomous, collective subjectivation. As Manning’s case, Wikileaks, and the use of Twitter by Turkish citizens during the recent ban shows, what we choose to do with the internet is bigger than the structures of neoliberal capitalism can hold. Even within the confines a conservative overarching ideology, autonomous becoming is both possible and inevitable.
The internet Pattison evokes is not the commercially productive and emotionally exhausting space of Bifo’s network, but a space where autonomous subjectivity thrives. The meteor, crudely but time consumingly rendered in flat grey shades, bursts into the frame as if from the offscreen space. Its surprising motion and disruptive incursions challenge the way ‘walled gardens’—the social sites sanctified by capitalism—fix space into the centre of the screen. In controlled networking spaces like Facebook, where the design is ‘invisible’ and data is collected for commercial gains, content appears as if from inside the screen itself, keeping visual attention channeled inward. The sideways movement of Pattison’s meteor butts against this static, centralised vision, pulling the eye and the mind to what is left offscreen. With this simple animation, Pattison demonstrates that the kind of thought necessary for autonomous subjectivation is alive and kicking in the networked world.
“Deep, intense elaboration becomes impossible when the stimulus is too fast,” Bifo writes. But perhaps, instead of speed or slowness, it is a question of rhythm and of the way we negotiate different tempi. For Bifo, the blend of digital speed and physical stasis leads to a cognitive dissonance so extreme that the mind cracks under the strain. For the citizens of the future, these temporal shifts will likely be subsumed into the rhythm of daily life. Daily life in the material world will go on. And infrastructure—even if it is built with the spoils of capitalism and in the service of its continuation—can always be repurposed, restructured, and remade. We have not yet been lobotomised.