Very enjoyable read - best stuff i've read on here for a long time,
loads to chew on :-)
> even better than the [ethe]real thing:
> a response to Alex Galloway's "Protocol"
> "All of us were slowly losing that intellectual light that allows you
> always to tell the similar from the identical, the metaphorical from
> the real. We were losing that mysterious and bright and most
> beautiful ability to say that Signor A has grown bestial -- without
> thinking for a moment that he now has fur and fangs."
> - Casaubon from Umberto Eco's "Foucault's Pendulum"
> ALEX GALLOWAY IS A GEEK. IT'S A GOOD THING.
> When reading a text on media theory, my underlying skeptical question
> is always, "How much do the nuances which are foregrounded and
> analyzed here practically relate to human experience and human
> society?" If they barely do, the book winds up being one more
> exercise in scatological academia and/or cyber-utopian fluff-urism.
> Refreshingly, Alex Galloway's "Protocol" succeeds in avoiding what
> Geert Lovink calls "vapor theory." This is due in no small part to
> the fact that Alex Galloway is a geek (or at least a wanna-be geek).
> Not "geek" in the pejorative sense, but "geek" in the "down with the
> root workings of technology" sense. For example, Galloway's research
> led him to read hundreds of RFC (Requests for Comments) documents, the
> technical documents that establish Internet protocol (among other
> things). Galloway writes, ""Far more than mere technical
> documentation, however, the RFCs are a discursive treasure trove for
> the critical theorist." I wonder how many other critical theorists
> would think so.
> Observation, interpretation, and application are the three steps of
> inductive textual criticism. Not a few technological pundits breeze
> through the initial observation step, acquiring only a superficial
> understanding of the tech, and then rush off to boldly interpret and
> apply. This leads to elaborate, inventive conclusions that are
> frequently misguided if not altogether wrong. But Galloway has looked
> long and hard at the network and its protocol, and his interpretations
> (even though I disagree with some of them) are more intricate and less
> cliche as a result of his having looked. As such, "Protocol" lays the
> groundwork for anyone to riff off of Galloway's insightful
> observations, even if her preconceived biases differ from his.
> Furthermore, Galloway's range of sources is so diverse, it feels like
> an academic compilation tape. His research is intimidatingly broad --
> from usability expert Jeff Veen to generative software artist Adrian
> Ward, from open source evangelist Richard Stallman to cult lawyer
> Lawrence Lessig. Marx, Baudrillard, Barthes, Foucault, and Deleuze
> make expected appearances. But also appearing are Marxist media
> theorist Hans Magnus Enzensberger, cyberfeminist Doll Yoko, and phone
> phreaker Knight Lightning. The list goes on (and on and on).
> Furthermore, "Protocol"'s tangential anecdotes about the formation of
> the internet and the history of hacking and virii read like a
> scattershot compendium of geek folklore.
> HEAVY INSIGHTS, WELL CODIFIED
> Galloway's prose, although not exactly McLuhan-esque, is inordinately
> sound-bytable. Below are just a few "spoilers," nuggets of
> particularly acute and concise insight:
> On the nature of protocol:
> "From a formal perspective, protocol is a type of object. It is a
> very special kind of object. Protocol is a universal description
> language for objects... Protocol does not produce or causally effect
> objects, but rather is a structuring agent that appears as the result
> of a set of object dispositions. Protocol is the reason that the
> internet works and performs work... It is etiquette for autonomous
> agents. It is the chivalry of the object."
> [Note the rare combination of precise description and poetic flair.
> "The chivalry of the object" is a definite keeper.]
> On protocol's inherent imperviousness to Modern criticism:
> "Only the participants [of protocol] can connect, and therefore, by
> definition, there can be no resistance to protocol... Opposing
> protocol is like opposing gravity -- there is nothing that says it
> can't be done, but such a pursuit is surely misguided and in the end
> hasn't hurt gravity very much."
> Along the same lines:
> "The internet can survive [nuclear] attacks not because it is stronger
> than the opposition, but precisely because it is weaker. The Internet
> has a different diagram than a nuclear attack does; it is in a
> different shape. And that new shape happens to be immune to the older."
> Galloway rightly insists that just as code is more than a mere
> semantic language (it causes machines to actually do something), the
> network is more than just a metaphor for connectivity (it actually
> behaves according to protocol).
> He instructively traces of the cultural perception of computer viruses
> -- from a form of intellectual exploration to a form of machinic
> contagion (akin to AIDS) to a form of terrorist weapon.
> He makes the important distinction between protocol and proprietary
> market dominance (Windows XP is not a form of protocol because its
> source code is opaque).
> And he offers these inspirationally punk rock samples regarding
> tactical media:
> "Everyone interested in an emancipated media should be a manipulator."
> "Fear of being swallowed up by the system is a sign of weakness."
> "The best tactical response to protocol is not resistance but
> All culminating in this rousing definition:
> "The goal is not to destroy technology in some neo-Luddite delusion,
> but to push it into a state of hypertrophy, further than it is meant
> to go. Then, in its injured, sore, and unguarded condition,
> technology may be sculpted anew into something better, something in
> closer agreement with the real wants and desires of its users. This
> is the goal of tactical media."
> Right on! Where do I sign?
> EPISTEMOLOGY IS AS EPISTEMOLOGY DOES
> Having sufficiently praised "Protocol," I'd like to enter into
> critical dialogue with it. My first problem with the text is that it
> oversteps its stated scope. Galloway makes epistemological assertions
> without offering epistemological defenses.
> He says in the introduction, "I draw a critical distinction between
> [the] body of work [that deals with artificial intelligence], which is
> concerned largely with epistemology and cognitive science, and the
> critical media theory that inspires this book. Where the former are
> concerned with minds and questions epistemological, I am largely
> concerned with bodies and the material stratum of computer technology."
> Unfortunately, "bodies" and "matter" to Galloway take on markedly
> metaphysical meanings, meanings that delineate a fairly explicit view
> of reality which he feels no obligation to defend. He asserts a kind
> of "aesthetic materialism" (his term). In short, he seeks to recast
> the spiritual and soulish in terms of the "virtual," the "second
> nature," the cultural/sociopolitical, the "artificial," a "patina,"
> the essence or sheen that derives from matter but is not "other than"
> matter. (More on this later.)
> "Protocol" eschews epistemological questions as not pertinent to its
> scope, but by deeming such questions irrelevant, Galloway has already
> entered into implicit dialogue on "the matter" (pun intended). If I
> wish to discuss human origins without talking about evolution, I'm a
> creationist. If I wish to discuss life without talking about soul or
> spirit, I'm a materialist.
> In the book's foreword, Eugene Thacker calls "Protocol" a type of
> "materialist media studies." He goes on to observe, quite accurately:
> "'Protocol' consistently makes a case for a material understanding of
> technology. 'Material' can be taken in all sense of the term, as an
> ontological category as well as a political and economic one."
> Galloway gladly owns up to politics and economics, but his ventures
> into ontology, although apparent, are less disclosed.
> MARX SAID IT, I DECONSTRUCT IT, THAT SETTLES IT
> My next critique of "Protocol" is that it awkwardly uses Marx's
> "Capital" to justify a contemporary materialist understanding of
> artificial life.
> After 14 pages of foregrounding Marx's vitalistic language, Galloway
> concludes, "'Capital' is an aesthetic object. The confluence of
> different discourses in 'Capital,' both vitalistic and economic,
> proves this. The use of vitalistic imagery, no matter how marginalized
> within the text, quite literally aestheticizes capitalism." That
> poetic language can transform a theoretical text into an aesthetic
> object seems perfectly plausible. That poetic language can "literally
> aestheticize" capitalism itself is a more vague and suspect assertion.
> Even if Marx does attribute a kind of "will" to objects within
> capitalism, he's not exactly celebrating reification or commodity
> fetishism. Galloway asserts, "[The] vitalism in Marx heralds the
> dawning age of protocol, I argue, by transforming life itself into an
> aesthetic object." Aside from the fact that "life itself" was
> understood as an aesthetic object in the soulish realm long before
> Marx, likening commodity fetishism to machinic artificial life seems
> an awkward stretch. Galloway himself points out that Foucault's
> theories of control date Marx's, and Deleuze's date Foucault's. Is
> Marx so canonical that he's worth 14 pages of deconstruction in order
> to claim him as the historical genesis of one's contemporary assertion?
> DUMBING DOWN LIFE
> Continuing on the "artificial life" critique (and invariably stepping
> on dozens of cyber-toes), there are two ways to make "computers" seem
> more than what they are. You can discern life where there is none, or
> you can redefine "life" until it matches what you discern in
> computers. Galloway subtly snubs futurist Ray Kurzweil and the Wired
> "gee whiz" crowd for doing the former, and then proceeds to do the
> Building on Foucault and Deleuze, Galloway asserts that "life,
> hitherto considered an effuse, immaterial essence, has become matter,
> due to its increased imbrication with protocol forces."
> He assents to Crary and Winter's definition of "protocological" life
> as "the forces -- aesthetic, technical, political, sexual -- with
> which things combine in order to form novel aggregates of pattern and
> After an explication of Norbert Weiner's ideas on cybernetics,
> Galloway concludes, "If one views the world in terms of
> information..., then there is little instrumental difference between
> man and machine since both are able to affect dynamic systems via
> feedback loops." Would Weiner himself have agreed to such a sweeping
> So matter is life and life is matter. Not metaphorically, but
> actually. This is achieved by defining "life" very loosely.
> I'm reminded of a passage in "The Language of New Media" where Lev
> Manovich comes very close to defining "narrative" as any action that
> constitutes a change of state. Walking from room to room thus becomes
> a narrative. At which point I would simply choose a different word.
> AESTHETIC MATERIALISM AND THE CYBORGS FROM MARS
> Why is Galloway so keen to show that a "second nature" of aesthetic
> materialism exists in both social and machinic systems? Because such
> a "second nature" affords the exploration of an aesthetic realm
> without the abandonment of a materialist world view. Such a "second
> nature" also admits the possibility of man/machine hybridization. If
> reality is all just matter, and matter may be abstracted into
> organized information, artificial life and biological life are
> "virtually" kissing cousins. Galloway actually defines the
> information age as "that moment in history when matter itself is
> understood in terms of information or code. At this historical
> moment, protocol becomes a controlling force in social life."
> At the end of his chapter on "control," Galloway goes on to predict a
> historical period "after distribution" -- a future where computers are
> replaced by bioinformatics, information is replaced by life, protocol
> is replaced by physics, and containment is replaced by peace.
> A similar "gee whiz" passage occurs earlier in the "control" chapter:
> "When Watson and Crick discovered DNA..., they prove not simply that
> life is an informatic object..., but rather that life is an aesthetic
> object; it is a double helix, an elegant, hyper-Platonic form that
> rises like a ladder into the heights of aesthetic purity. Life was no
> longer a 'pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent
> seas' (Eliot), it was a code borne from pure mathematics, an object of
> aesthetic beauty, a double helix! This historical moment -- when life
> is defined no longer as essence, but as code -- is the moment when
> life becomes a medium." I agree that DNA is fascinating stuff, but to
> attribute the mystery and wonder of existence to the aesthetic beauty
> of a DNA strand seems more like cyber-utopian poetry and less like
> scholarship aloof from ontological concerns.
> Elsewhere, Galloway waxes eloquent about biometrics: "Biometrics [the
> science of measuring the human body and deriving digital signatures
> from it] considers living human bodies not in their immaterial
> essences, or souls, or what have you, but in terms of quantifiable,
> recordable, enumerable, and encodable characteristics. It considers
> life as an aesthetic object. It is the natural evolution of Marx's
> theory of second nature." The progression from souls to quantifiable
> biometric information is presented as an aesthetic advancement? If
> anything, biometrics seems a neo-techno form of alienation.
> Another curious assertion: "Computer use could possibly constitute a
> real immigration of bodies (from the online to the offline)," which
> seems akin to this cryptic statement by feminist Sadie Plant: "You
> can't get out of matter, that's the crucial thing. But you can get
> out of the confining organization of matter which is shaped into
> things and of course, organisms." I find it difficult to accept such
> conceptions of the self at face value.
> IT'S THE PEOPLE, PEOPLE.
> "Protocol" radically posits that the Internet is successful not just
> because it is anarchic, but because this "anarchy" coexists with a
> rigid form of control. I agree, but I think the rigid form of control
> is not the DNS (Domain Name System) hierarchy (as Galloway proposes),
> but the core, old-boy geek community of RFC-writing protocol-shapers
> (which Galloway critiques as an institutional weakness of protocol).
> Domain names are a mnemonic convenience, but their use is not a
> prerequisite for entry to the network. One can still access a server
> using its IP number, it's just inconvenient. Yet protocols, according
> to Galloway's definition, are not merely meant to make access more
> convenient, they are meant to either enable it or forbid it
> altogether. Thus the real control of the Internet derives not
> primarily from the DNS but from the fact that protocol itself is
> shaped by an altruistic, but nonetheless human and
> extra-protocological community.
> Galloway argues that, "Life forms, both artificial and organic, exist
> in any space where material forces are actively aestheticized." I
> agree. But who is doing the aestheticizing? He continues, "The same
> protocological forces that regulate data flows within contingent
> environments such as distributed networks are the same forces that
> regulate matter itself." I'm not so sure. The forces that regulate
> "non-organic" "life" in network environments are protocols created by
> humans. The forces that regulate organic life in "natural"
> environments are material needs like food and shelter that are not
> created by humans (unless we're talking about a capitalistic
> environment, where many forces are man-made. But capitalism is not
> "matter itself.")
> A reasonable string of questions thus arises: can vitality exist in
> economic and social systems apart from human life? Is Foucault's
> desire to "define a method of historical analysis freed from the
> anthropological theme" really viable? Does vitality exist in machinic
> systems without initial human input? There may be some minimal form
> of "vitality" on the network even without any humans actively using it
> (Eugene Thacker muses, "Is a network a network if it's not being
> used?"), but would that vitality exist without humans first
> constructing the network's protocol to begin with? Is individual
> human soulishness (mind, will, emotions) at the root of such vitality?
> Even Tom Ray's "Tierra" (software that creates a virtual evolutionary
> environment in which "artificial lives" autonomously "live") still
> begins with human input. The "life" initially comes from Tom, and
> only indirectly from the protocol of the environment.
> STRANGE IS GOOD
> "Protocol" concludes on a less speculative, more balanced note.
> Galloway summarizes the problems inherent in protocol, and recognizes
> that its ethical use will ultimately depend on what we humans make of it.
> The fact that I'm able even able to dialogue with "Protocol" from a
> non-materialist, soulish perspective is testament to the solid,
> methodical, observational foundation Galloway has laid.
> Personally, the chapters in "Protocol" on hacking, tactical media, and
> internet art make me excited to be making internet art in 2004. Not
> because "Protocol" extols the virtues of some futuristic AI utopia
> that's just around the bend (and has been just around the bend for the
> last 30 years without ever quite materializing), but because it
> exposes and delineates the very actual, sexy, dangerous shifts in
> media and culture currently underway. The truth is always stranger
> than fiction, and strange is good.
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