Alan N. Shapiro, Visiting Professor in Transdisciplinary Design, Folkwang University of the Arts, Essen, Germany

Blog and project archive about transdisciplinary design, media theory and creative coding

Transdisciplinary Code and Objects, by Alan N. Shapiro

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Baudrillard’s Impossible Exchange

In Impossible Exchange, Baudrillard separates his system of thought from ‘neo-Marxist critical theory’, which, on the whole, is also a subject-centered perspective (although one could definitely find an ‘object-centered perspective’ in the original texts of ‘Frankfurt School’ thinkers like T.W. Adorno). “Critical thought,” writes Baudrillard, “sees itself as holding up a mirror to the world, but the world knows no mirror stage. Thought must then go beyond the critical stage and reach the ulterior stage of the object which thinks us, the world which thinks us. That object-thought is no longer reflective but reversible.” The thinking of ‘the world thinking us’ leads us to a position where we cannot say ‘who thinks whom’. The relationship between subject and object consequently becomes radically uncertain.

Derrida’s Différance

Jacques Derrida is known for his critique or deconstruction of what he called the “Western metaphysics” that began with Plato and Aristotle. Derrida’s position was greatly influenced by that of Martin Heidegger, who also employed the term metaphysics in this way. Derrida defended the irreducibility of otherness or “radical alterity” in opposition to a certain idea of subjectivity that abides throughout Western culture and philosophy as the assuredness of self-presence and self-identity. Différance is a French term coined by Derrida, and it is homophonous with the word différence. Derrida’s prolific work had a profound impact upon literary theory and continental philosophy. His best known book is Of Grammatology. I find this early work of Derrida to be very interesting and very inspiring as the basis for the birth of new directions in software code. Linguistic ideas have been implemented in computer science from the sub-fields of semantics, syntactics and semiotics, but not yet from the linguistic sub-field of grammatology. Derrida’s close friend and fellow philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy once said to me in conversation that Derrida, who died in 2004, was disappointed that deconstruction has had very little influence outside of literature and philosophy. He would have been especially interested in a project bringing deconstruction to an engineering field.

Différance plays on the fact that the French word différer means both ‘to defer’ and ‘to differ’. Derrida first used the term différance in his 1963 paper “Cogito et histoire de la folie,” republished in the book Writing and Difference. Différance plays a key role in Derrida’s confrontation with the philosophy of the phenomenologist Edmund Husserl in the book Speech and Phenomena. Différance is amplified in detail in the celebrated essay “Différance,” republished in the book Margins of Philosophy, and further expounded upon in interviews collected in the book Positions. Différance comprises polysemous features governing the production of textual meaning. Words and signs are inadequate to convey what their authors intend them to mean, and they can only gesture towards additional words. Meaning is forever ‘deferred’ or postponed through endless chains of signifiers. The subversive, differential play of language; the free play of discourse; and the functioning of the ‘revaluation or dislocation chains’ of human languages are all aspects of Derrida’s system of thought which interest me for the projects of ‘creative coding’ and for my approach in general to art, design and media. There is the negative différance which Derrida claims to be a force possessed by all languages, subversive of the ‘metaphysical’ system of binary oppositions.

Another feature of différance (connected to difference, and sometimes called ‘spacing’) involves the force which differentiates the smallest units of language from one another. This is a facet of the power of poetics. Différance is a profound theory of the liveliness of language. Différance can give life to software, in the sense of Artificial Life. One could design and implement the Différance Engine, just as the Difference Engine was designed by Charles Babbage and implemented two hundred years later by the London Science Museum. One could program a subsystem of poetic signifying chains of meaning in language games, and sound associations which foster vitality. The vitality of autonomous, self-evolving, self-learning Artificial Life agents energized by natural languages.

 Plato: the First Object-Oriented Designer

Object-orientation’s entity generalization and specification of instances is reminiscent of the Platonist realm of forms and Plato’s critique of merely technical or representational copies which do not partake of the ‘idea’ of the original. Software instantiation institutes a temporary relationship between an ordered ranking of software classes and the created software object which is a parameterized and data-specified instance of those determining classes. In Platonist terms of iconic likeness, a software instance would be regarded as a legitimate resemblance rather than an illegitimate semblance or simulacrum, even though the distributed software object is inferior to the less tangible software class due to the former’s transitoriness. The significant contrast would be between the system of classes/objects and its predecessor, the classical ‘society of the spectacle’ system of lowly, imitative images.

In the section of The Republic entitled “How Representation in Art is Related to Truth,” Socrates sounds like an object-oriented designer when he says: “Let us take any common instance; there are beds and tables in the world – plenty of them. But there are only two ideas or forms of them – one the idea of a bed, the other of a table. And the maker of either of them makes a bed or he makes a table for our use, in accordance with the idea.” Primary reality, for Plato, is not to be sought in the empirical world of everyday things (ordinary instances of beds or tables), but rather in the general, abstract forms (the divine idea of the bed or table) from which ‘concrete’ things are derived or fashioned. Socrates goes on in this passage to say that there are three philosophical categories of beds: the idea of the bed (made by God), the instance of the bed (made by a carpenter), and the imitation of the bed (made by a painter). Concerning the question of how near or far each of the three categories of beds is to the ideal forms of beauty, truth and excellence, it is clear for Socrates that the idea of the bed is the closest to these exalted virtues, the instance of the bed comes in a respectable second closest, and the imitation of the bed runs a pitiful last – far removed from anything valuated as either noble or good.

The Socratic dialogue in The Republic (Politeia) about mimesis is a contemptuous critique and dismissal of imitative poetry and painting, which only reproduce technical copies and are said to be “thrice removed from the truth.” Painting, for Socrates-Plato, is a degraded art form of the semblance or mirror image, an aesthetic activity which demands of the painter “no knowledge worth mentioning,” and no comprehension of “true existence.” Moreover, although it “may deceive children or simple persons,” imitative painting comes up way short in its endeavour to fool the majority of members of the polity into being placated by its inauthentic, second-rate images. Media technologies of duplication or representation are inadequate because they fail as instruments of political control. Object-orientation is a new ‘artificial language’ of power which combines a Platonist ingredient (‘transcendental signifiers’ – in the terminology of semiotics – or software classes – in the terminology of object-orientation) and a deconstructionist ingredient (unending, undecidable, recursive ‘discourse’ in the hierarchical subclassing chains).

Plato’s metaphysics of reality proclaimed a tripartite structure, posed on the equilibrium between (for example) the divine idea of the table (the ‘transcendental signifier’) and the supposed ‘real’ exemplification of the table produced by the carpenter (the ‘transcendental signified’ – also in the terminology of semiotics), to the double exclusion of the image created by the painter. Heidegger and Derrida were perhaps right to criticize Plato and Aristotle (and the modern Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, as Derrida did) for mistaking language for ‘reality’, for assuming the existence of a one-to-one relationship between word and thing (signifier and signified), and for overstating the degree to which language is close to being an ‘objective’ classification system which ‘really’ describes how the social and natural worlds are. Yet I believe that the critical or deconstructionist viewpoint of Heidegger and Derrida with respect to Plato and Aristotle is no longer so relevant. The world has changed a great deal in the last few decades, with the ascendence of new media and new technologies. What has come into view, at least for me, is something else about Plato that is highly relevant: the fact that he was, in some ways (at least in The Republic), the first object-oriented designer. With the Platonic forms, he presents a way of thinking about the institution of reality that does not make a binary opposition between physical and virtual, between science and fiction, between conception and realization.

Software Studies: the Dominance of Code

The MIT Press has recently published a series of books in the emerging field of software studies. Two of these books focus on how the contemporary world is increasingly coded, and how, to an ever greater extent, the world is getting transformed by software in multifarious ways which go way beyond the screen.

In their book Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life, Rob Kitchin and Martin Dodge examine the explosive invasion of information about ourselves into our everyday lives, and the increasingly ubiquitous availability of this information to institutions and strangers through many standalone, networked, peripheral, handheld and mobile devices. Kitchin and Dodge see software as becoming more and more embedded into everyday life on the four levels of coded objects, coded infrastructures, coded processes, and coded assemblages. Without entering into discussion about what the latter three of these four levels are, I want to mention that coded objects, for Kitchin and Dodge, are physical everyday life objects which rely on software for their functionality. Their product design must be realized through a performance which only software code can make possible. Many of these objects are machine-readable objects that lack their own software but rather interact with external code. Objects are connectable to distributed information and surveillance networks. Some objects even develop awareness of themselves and of the surrounding world, often saving that ‘consciousness’ and those interactions on recordable storage media for future use by information/surveillance systems. In chapter 3, “Remaking Everyday Objects,” the authors study how everyday objects such as domestic appliances, handheld tools, medical devices, recreational gadgets, and children’s toys are made interface-addressable and thereby available to external processes of control and identification, making them imminently a part of the widely anticipated ‘Internet of things’.

Hacker Code as Aesthetic and Political Resistance

In the book Speaking Code: Coding as Aesthetic and Political Expression, Geoff Cox and Alex McLean present ‘the other side of the coin’, so to speak, of the contemporary situation of code in society. Rather than regarding software code only as the imposition of fixed and stifling structures and processes onto individuals and the collective, Cox and McLean see the writing and speaking of code, and through and within codes, as an expressive and creative act, something related to what has traditionally been called art and politics. As Franco “Bifo” Berardi writes in his foreword to Speaking Code, “If we can say that code is speaking us (pervading and formatting our action), the other way round is also true. We are speaking code in many ways.” Berardi goes on to say: “We are not always working through the effects of written code. More and more we are escaping (or trying to escape) the automatisms implied in the written code.” He continues: “Hacking, free software, WikiLeaks are the names of lines of escape from the determinism of code.” Many other such projects, more generalized in their transformation of what code is, are possible. Invoking his fellow Italian radical thinker Paolo Virno, Berardi writes: “The linguistic excess, namely poetry, art, and desire, are conditions for the overcoming and the displacement of the limits that linguistic practice presupposes.” Poetic language must re-emerge within software code to counteract the original historical and technological assumption that code is a series of instructions to a machine, an exercise in formal logic, and the reduction of language to information.

Cox and McLean emphasize how text and code – in the body of the code, in programmer comments, and in the establishment of code that is readable both as instructions for the machine and as ‘elegant’ expression for the human programmer – come together as the embodiment of a cyborg cooperation, a relationship of uncertainty and indetermination where each partner in the human-machine exchange of perception and behavior is reciprocally transformed. The authors of Speaking Code refer to the interesting concept of ‘double description’ as ‘mutual causation’ or circularity that was developed by the second-order cybernetician Gregory Bateson in his book Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. Starting from this notion, they begin to speak about ‘double coding’: a composite of formal logic and linguistic creativity in codeworks or pseudo-code, the generation of a hybrid expression that is both rigorously systematic and carries the unrestricted excessive force of writing as desire.

Object-Centered Art: Andy Warhol

I would like to begin my elaboration of the object-centered approach to art with a discussion of what Jean Baudrillard writes about Andy Warhol in the essay “Machinic Snobbery” in the book The Perfect Crime. Warhol is, for me, among the greatest of artists. Yet, together with Baudrillard, one can indeed doubt if Warhol is still an artist at all. For the French thinker, Warhol’s work is a so-called ‘radical illusion beyond art’ – it is not art, it is a work that has no palpable connection to conventional aesthetic or critical discourse. It is an object which Baudrillard likes to refer to as artificial or as an artifice. “Warhol starts out from any old image,” writes Baudrillard, “eliminates its imaginary dimension and makes it a pure visual product.” Unlike those practitioners who work today with computer-generated images to remake art, Warhol is himself the machine. He identifies with “machinic modulations” (John Armitage), and thereby becomes “the body of metamorphosis” (Baudrillard). Warhol gets to the heart of the secret of technology as radical illusion, going way beyond technology as tool or media. He enacts “the pure and empty form of the image, its ecstatic, insignificant iconry.” He practices the annihilation of the artist and of the creative act, placing fundamentally into question the longstanding myth of the creative subjectivity of the artist. In the future, as Warhol famously said, everyone will have their 15 minutes of fame. Now they will have that fame on Facebook or Twitter or Youtube. Everyone is a walk-on actor in the generalized system of targeted customized advertising, including Warhol himself. “Even a machine can become famous,” writes Baudrillard. “And Warhol never aspired to anything but this machinic celebrity.” Warhol is crucially no longer part of the history of art, but rather has become part of the world.

Warhol and Baseball

I am especially interested in the relationship between Warhol and American baseball. Baseball is the heart and soul of America. “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America,” the cultural historian Jacques Barzun famously wrote in 1954, “had better learn baseball, the rules, and reality of the game.” In 2007, Barzun said: “The commercialization [of baseball today] is beyond anything that was ever thought of, the overvaluing, really, of the game itself. Other things are similarly commercialized and out of proportion, but for baseball, which is so intimately connected with the nation’s spirit and tradition, it’s a disaster.” In the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt, there are several lithographic works by Andy Warhol from 1962, the first year of existence of the baseball team known as the New York Mets. Back cover baseball headlines of the iconic New York newspaper The Daily News are at the center of this series of works by Warhol. In 1962, the Mets were the worst team in all of twentieth-century baseball history, winning only 40 games and losing 120. Yet the Mets were so epically bad that they were good. They became a legend as ‘loveable losers’. Warhol also made a series of portraits of famous baseball players: Roger Maris in 1962, Tom Seaver in 1977, and Pete Rose in 1985, among others.


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