Alan N. Shapiro, Hypermodernism, Hyperreality, Posthumanism

Blog and project archive about media theory, science fiction theory, and creative coding

Interview with Artist Network Theory

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An interview with Alan N. Shapiro by Axelle Stiefel

August 2020

This interview was published in Volume 1, Issue 2 of Artist Network Theory.

Info about Artist Network Theory

AXELLE: We met in a media theory course you gave in Lucerne at the HSLU where I was enrolled as a student in the masters design program. I was struggling to legitimate my position as an artist entering the field of design in a program which at the time had no face, no position, and no theory. Basically, it was just pretending to be business oriented, an argument which was thrown at me to pressure me, because art is commonly viewed as detached from economic realities, which we know is the contrary. Art is at the forefront of value making in semiotic capitalism and an important driving force of the economy. Yet the survival of the art world paradoxically depends on this old-fashioned myth of its independence. At the time, coming across your lessons was very surprising and refreshing. You came with references like the Situationists, science fiction theory, transdisciplinary teaching, speculative design, and post-humanism. During one of our encounters, you basically told me that theory was my way, which was not only empowering, but of course performative. Whether I am  a theorist or not is still an open question for me, but I want to say that somehow I owe you this magazine, because it is an attempt to try out this hypothesis. The way you explained your itinerary to me, you worked for many years as a programmer to finance your living and self-finance your research and writing. This was from 1986 to 2012. After 2012, you started teaching at art universities in Europe with visiting professorships and adjunct courses. You quit academia in 1986 in New York, in a moment where a whole older generation of 1960s liberals and radicals occupied the humanities and social sciences academic positions, leaving no chance for academics of your generation in the 1980s. You wrote many hundreds of pages at the time, but there were no places for an intellectual in the economic system of America. You also felt that to really understand and write about technology from a humanities viewpoint, you had to directly experience technology from the inside, in the real world, and not just culturally speculate about technology with a shallow understanding as many on the political Left have, as you say. You also met a lot of resistances during your intellectual biography as a sociological theorist. Academy was and still is very conservative. First you wanted to focus on media as a sociologist, but that  was too ahead of its time for the dominant paradigms of Marxist and empirical sociology who laughed at the power of the media and Baudrillard’s simulation and hyperreality. Then you wanted science fiction studies to look seriously at “pop culture” science fiction like Star Trek, but that was ahead of its time too for the professors who, in their paradigm, only respected so-called avant-garde science fiction like Metropolis and Blade Runner. You left America. Perhaps you had a strong premonition of the current totalitarian disaster of Trump. You settled in Frankfurt – because of its theory heritage – and you are one of the rare Americans to my knowledge who speaks four languages: English, German, French, and Italian without mentioning code languages. Meanwhile, you wrote a book which was quite popular “Star Trek. Technologies of Disappearance”, which projected you into the position you are in now as a media theorist. I have four questions for you.

AXELLE: What is the revolution of Creative Coding you also name Poetic Software or Radical Software ?

ALAN: All three of these terms have already been in use by practitioners and scholars, and they have specific meanings in their cultural and historical contexts. Creative Coding refers to software tools, programming languages, and hardware platforms which are intended for and developed by artists and other creative people. An example is “Processing”, which was originated by Casey Reas and Ben Fry. It is object-oriented and helps to make interactive visual art projects. Another example is music programming languages like SuperCollider, or microprocessors like Arduino and Raspberry Pi, which can control robots or other electronic devices and make new media art installations. Poetic Software as a paradigm shift in informatics is studied in the separate scholarly works of Florian Cramer and Camille Paloque-Bergès and in the “code poetry” of a practitioner like Alan  Sondheim, who mixes software code with verse and prose – both genres of writing in the traditional sense. The seminal thinkers Jacques Derrida, Vilém Flusser, and Marshall McLuhan all wrote about the importance of the object of inquiry that we call writing for our philosophical understanding of what is going on now in Western society. If we don’t have thinkers capable of philosophizing about what is happening today in Europe and the United States, then we are truly lost as a civilization. Connecting software code (which are systems of notation) to the history and future of writing seems to me to be an essential project. To look at software poetically is to diverge from the received view that software code is a formal, logical, ultimately numeric, combinatorial-calculating notational system, and instead start to understand the cultural, linguistic, poetic, aesthetic, resonant, musical, and semiotic aspects of software. It is both to see the history of software retrospectively in this light, and to consciously emphasize the poetic, cultural, and human-language dimensions of software in future projects, directions, and paradigms of informatics. I disagree with Friedrich Kittler, the founder of German media theory and “media archaeology,” who said “there is no software” and believed that the numerical logic of the low-level hardware that Alan Turing and John von Neumann conceptualized in the 1930s–1940s is determining and decisive. In my view, just because the “kernel” or “center” of computing is rational and computational and digital-binary does not mean that all other layers, languages, and interfaces of the system, and which surround the kernel, must obey or follow that logic. In this sense, the entire education of the persons we call programmers is wrong, since it is assumed that these persons must orient themselves to logical ratiocination. But the education of humanists is wrong too – since they are supposed to be the opposite of that. We need instead something hybrid or in-between, like a computational aesthetics. Here I revive the most radical of the philosophers of science, who is Paul Feyerabend with his anarchist epistemology, and I say with him: “Anything Goes!” The term Radical Software was the name of a very interesting journal published in the US from 1970  to 1974. The journal was focused on the earliest manifestation of new media art which was video art, on Gregory Bateson’s eco-logical-cybernetic thought, on critiques of the power of the mass media (which was a very strict duality of screen and viewer), and presentations of activist projects of democratization and decentralization of the media. My work is a sort of manifesto for the idea that Creative Coding should take the next step of understanding its project as transforming what informatics is, led by the power of an arts, humanities, ethical, and “posthuman” perspective, rather than Creative Coding being merely the expansion of the practices of writing software code according to the predominant engineering paradigm to a new category of people whom we call artists, designers, and creatives. You could say that I am doing a sort of “deconstructionist” reading of what Creative Coding has been. The work of the Creative Coding movement will have significant consequences for what informatics is in technical universities.

AXELLE: You are presently working on a new book. One argument you develop in this book is to get over the dichotomy between the humanities on one side and the computer sciences on the other. You observe that the humanities needs the computer sciences for oppositional definition. This way the humanities preserve and reclaim the possession and authority of creativity and consciousness upon the computer sciences. You suggest to reverse this tendency, dissolve the authority of the humanities in order to free Coding, if I understand you well. Can you develop a bit on that?

ALAN: The reason why renowned humanist philosophers like John Searle resisted artificial intelligence for so long and said that it was impossible is because of the philosophers’ allegiance to this humanist culture which says that only humans have certain special and “ineffable” qualities like consciousness, feelings, experience, emotions, morality, judgment, free will, etc… and robots and androids could  never have those qualities. But that is the anthropocentric arrogance and hierarchy. We keep technology in its place as robotic, numerical, machine-like, and void of ethics so we can keep our power. This perspective is my own variation on Donna Haraway’s cyborg theory or Rosi Braidotti’s posthumanism. I do not want to reject the logic of computing, but rather to build on top of that logic, extending it to be more ambivalent, emotional, embodied, aesthetic, creative, etc. I would like to see a transcending of the binary opposition or dualism between rational/combinatorial/algorithmic intelligence and those special qualities which humanistic culture have granted to humans which makes them “not technology.” To insist that machines are dead inert objects or that everything about computers and code and soft-ware is just engineering is paradoxically to cling to humanism. It is a refusal to move on to the posthuman or cyborg paradigm where humans are in dialogue with technology as environment and come to terms with themselves as technology.

AXELLE: You have been working as a programmer for years to make a living. What did programming do to your thinking? At what point and in which way, did you encounter creativity in this field?

ALAN: I would emphasize that learning how to program made me eventually into a much better academic and essayistic writer. When you write software code, you must organize the project extremely well, you must think of everything, every possible circumstance of what could happen or what could make your program crash. This is called “defensive programming.” I guess it taught me how to practice “defensive writing.” The ideas that I put forward in my writing are generally unconventional, so I tend to think that I am going to get attacked unless I express myself very coherently and comprehensively. I also think that there is a great value for cultural studies in learning the object-oriented thought process of writing code in programming languages like C++ and Java. Although it has been little explored, there is a lot in common between object-oriented software design and the object-oriented ontology or philosophy of Graham Harman and Levi Bryant or, by extension, the object-thinking of Heidegger  and Baudrillard. The patterns of object-oriented software seem to me to be cultural patterns and not only technical patterns. They mirror what is going on in processes of virtual reality and simulation in  cyber-culture generally. And, vice versa, the cultural theory of simulation and hyperreality has a lot to learn from those programming languages and computer science design tools. How is hyperreality instituted on the micro level of detail of code? For example, the concept of inheritance hierarchies in software design can explain a lot about how our transmedia visual culture works. I also see a lot of  creativity in the “live-coding scene” – writing and visually displaying source code in an improvised way during an art installation, performance, or a group coding collaboration, often in connection with the art forms of dance, poetry, music, or audio-visual exhibition.

AXELLE: What do you retain from Feyerabend?

ALAN: Paul Feyerabend receives much less attention nowadays than other major figures in science and technology studies such as Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway, or Karen Barad. And less attention in the field of the philosophy and history of science than, say, Thomas S. Kuhn or Simon Schaffer. Yet Feyerabend is important in the history of ideas of the paradigm shift in how we think about science that took place in the 1960s-1970s. What makes him interesting is that he is sort of the anti-Karl Popper. To simplify somewhat, Popper was an extreme positivist who believed that scientific rationalism is a stratum of high rarefied air that rises above all possible contemplations of the biographical, cultural, economic, institutional, and historical contexts and conditions in which any given scientific discovery is made. Popper dominated the philosophy of science during the first half of the twentieth century and then his worldview and influence crashed. Feyerabend was Popper’s assistant, and then rebelled against him, and rightly so. Related to this rebellion, and perhaps Oedipal struggle, there is something very pure and lucid about Feyerabend’s vision. To now change registers slightly, what really interests me is the question of how to redirect ideas from the intellectual history of the philosophy of science (which focused on physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, etc…) to interrogating computer science or what Herbert A. Simon called “The Sciences of the Artificial.” Many scholars have the view that computer science – despite its name – is not even a science, it is a technology. I think that terms like science and technology are somewhat obsolete. They belong to modernism, and we are now living in hypermodernism. We need to invent new terms. I can stand on the shoulders of what Feyerabend wrote about science a few decades ago and see or assert that only a certain portion or kernel of computer science is indeed “scientific” (a term that I would slowly displace towards a newer term) and much of computer science is “cultural” (also a placeholder term) and changes from decade to decade. Alan Turing’s computer science is not the same as 1960s COBOL business-procedural programming nor the same as 1980s object-orientation and the Xerox PARC (where Jobs and Gates got their ideas) graphical user interface revolution, and then Artificial Life, quantum computing, biological computing, neural networks, Deep Learning, etc. And then Creative Coding and whatever we wish to make of it. Anything goes.

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