larvatus prodeo

Descartes has a term, larvatus prodeo, which I think bears some merit in the context of the anonymized communcations of the internet. It means “to go forth/to emerge, masked/ghostlike”. In Descartes’ original usage, it was an idea of protection through masquerade for the controversial thinker. Regor Sebba translates a French copy of a lost Latin work, Olympica, written by Descartes in his youth: “As an actor, to conceal his blush of embarrassment, enters the stage masked, so I step forth onto the stage of the world, masked.”

Sebba points to a contrast in Descartes’ thought, between res cogitans and persona cogitans. The first is simple ‘res‘ a being, a material, ‘cogitans‘ that thinks, ponders, engages in thinking. ‘Persona‘, though, this is intriguing: ‘persona‘ a mask, a character that presents itself to the world. Perhaps Descartes was already beginning to make the move to the idea of the dualism which would later make him famous. A dualism between a presented self as a Lacanian masquerade, and the real, material, thinking individual that sits behind this, as a form of puppeteer.

Larvatus prodeo, then. I would prefer to read it as a ghostlike emergence, rather than a concealing of a self in a communicated framework, it is a wispy ethereal presence of a subject in a networked space. By engaging in a process of constant contact and individuation in a communication matrix, flitting across spaces and moments of discussion, communication, and aesthetic experience, a real self is invested with a semblance of identity. But, to be true to Descartes’ usage, the classical reading would have to be along the lines of the capacity for a transcendent notion of the self that expresses itself through material substrates, such as the network, or the human body.

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cellular networks and tracking

This article points to the problem of stability in cellular networks, when various institutions begin to rely on them beyond the simple mechanisms of cellular communication. In this case, the article points out that the British Prison service utilizes the O2 network in the UK in order to monitor those criminals on parole who have electronic-tagged ankle bracelets. The statistics are not particularly worrying – at least to me, in Australia – 200 monitored criminals had intermittent coverage over the O2 network outage, out of 13.5k monitored individuals. That’s a little less than 2 percent. I imagine that there will be other issues at play that mean that a network of such a size probably has errors roughly in that range on a daily basis.

What is interesting to me are the following reminders: a) state institutions utilizing private cellular networks for juridical purposes, and b) the technology used for tracking parolees is exactly the same as the standard used by most cellphones: the SIM card. Which is to say, it’s very very easy to track an individual utilizing a SIM card technology, if you’re a state or corporate power, or have control of the network via other means. That isn’t to say that it’s a general current condition, or that we live in a police state, but it’s perhaps a suggestion to think about the device in your pocket as being dangerous beyond its simple cancer risk. To quote something Christopher Soghoian said on Twitter some time ago, “Remember, a cellphone is a tracking device that can also make calls.”

agrippa, book of the dead.

In 1988, William Gibson wrote a poem called Agrippa, A Book of the Dead. While the link I have provided can be read as many times as you’d like, the original piece was published in the form of a executable file on a 3 1/2″ floppy disc that could be read and viewed only once per copy. After being opened the executable would, while the poem was being read by a user, re-write its own assembly code into an encrypted format leaving it, for all effective purposes, unobtainable.

There is a description of the original publication here, which, to my mind, conjures a similarity to the book, House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski. Esotericism is something that I enjoy enough to pardon it even when it is as wilfully inscrutiable as it appears in these two pieces, and I certainly like the appearance of Agrippa as shown in Gibson’s piece.

I think there is, perhaps, something to be said here about hyper-texts. There’s enough of a link to the spy-thrillers of James Bond and Mission Impossible in the self-destructive text, especially so when it comes about through a stenographic device. The merging of steampunk aesthetics of burnt book covers and computer data storage along with the morbidity of the shroud and the record of the transcription of the DNA of some hapless fruitfly speaks to a variety of posthumanism that I’m fond of. Too bad the 3 1/2″ floppy drive has essentially disappeared.

orthodoxy

The so-called ‘orthodox’ reading of a text is something of a minefield. I feel the word ‘orthodox’ has a degree of a prejudicial attack contained within it, but it’s a necessary concept to understand in academic discourse. To be orthodox in reading a particular thinker or philosophy is, in my mind, to be committed to a singular reading of a particular text, at the expense of all other readings. The idea of an orthodox reading of a singular text, whether that be philosophical, political, textual or otherwise, is nothing short of a limitation of the critical, emotional, or conceptual power of a work.

While I could present my own pseudo-theory of the orthodox reading (see last paragraph), I think that it is worth pointing out what I mean by way of example. Gualtiero Piccinini, in “Turing’s Rules for the Imitation Game” (Minds and machines, 2000, 10(4), pp.573) helpfully separates out several types of ‘readings’ of Alan Turing’s famous 1950 essay, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”. These categories are the literal and the standard readings. The literal readings are ones that Piccinini sees as focusing on the first section of Turing’s article, specifically in terms of how it addresses gender. The standard readings are ones that focus on the later sections of Turing’s piece on machines imitating humans, which has since evolved into the famous Turing Test. I see no problem with these categories, and I see no problem with Piccinini criticizing the adherents of the literal reading for being obstinate in their dedication to issues of gender. My problem is specifically the way in which he then suggests that the literal reading should be discarded in favour of the standard reading.

This is the orthodoxy that I referred to earlier. By suggesting that there is only a single, standard reading, and that all others are a revisionist line misses the fact that Turing’s piece provides a number of potential readings that can be utilized at different times. Pinccini may be right – there may be a revisionist camp that I am unaware of – but that would still point to the problems of orthodoxy that I am mainly concerned with: a revisionist line would attempt to supplant the standard reading with another, singular and orthodox reading. The literal reading of Turing’s work provides a useful thought experiment in anonymity that is increasingly important in my work – in that, we can’t be certain of the gender, let alone other important aspects of an individual, at the other end of our computerized, networked, conversation. Even more important for social and critical theory, rather than a theories of AI, is the importance of such a conceptually simple example of the performativity of gender that Judith Butler has so helpfully granted us.

(Obligatory pseudo-theory of orthodox readings: Obviously not conceptually or philosophically complete, but any condition as to why one reasonable reading should be favoured as the intended and orthodox reading over all the rest would necessarily be extra-textual. The way in which we read particular texts depends on our own semiotic conditioning. Perhaps a good conceptual basis for understanding this could be found in the various interpretations of religious texts within a particular religion. Each denomination places emphasis on different portions, rendering some aspects as literal and others as metaphor. The basis for these readings are extra-textual, and even the most adherent fundamentalist would have to interpret some portions of their texts as subjective metaphor.)

spark!

The default first post for WordPress is a standard piece, titled “Hello, World!”. There’s a bit of humour to be had in such a posting – a bit of a double entendre occurring – in “Hello, World!”. The two readings that are being referenced here are a formal speech act, and the act of programming. Both are appropriate for a new venture into digital media, and doubly appropriate for a critical reflection in the first post of a new blog.

On the first reading we have the enunciation – a spark! – the declaration of a beginning. “World: I, me, am here [and without clarity I begin a foray into blogging]”. To be a mix of insipid and poetic, it reads as if spoken by a new-born demiurge about the potentials of the blog – at this point, the blog can go anywhere. It is only after a period where the blog gains a project that it loses this potential and becomes leaden with the expectations that the project contains, or else becomes disused and abandoned like previous blogs of mine.

The second reading is less obvious. When learning a new programming language, usually the first – shall we call it a tutorial? – demonstration of the software is usually designed to instruct people into the most basic aspects of the language’s compiler syntax. The traditions of programming have lead to “Hello, World” as the generic test phrase that these tutorial problems ask a new user to output.

So, with that, I should state the project that this blog aims to work within: To discuss my own writing and thought, to link or publish as many of my future personal publications as I can, and to ruminate on topics of interest to me, prior to developing them into articles.

I am an early stage PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, writing a thesis on the theories of communications, media, and networked activist politics. I’ve written in an academic or professional context on a variety of topics over the years: on books, on videogames, on films, on ethical consumption, on Marxism, on post-political activism, on the social theories of networked activism, on anti-identity politics, on manifestos, on the intersection of the sciences and the humanities, and more. Interesting thinkers (although by no means the most important, correct, or orthodox) to my approaches include Bifo, Castells, Foucault, Harvey, Agamben, Thacker, Tronti, Lazzarato, Deleuze, Raunig, Stiegler, Dyer-Witheford, Zizek, Hardt, and Negri. These interests dominate my research, and will dominate the attitudes I take to my blogging.