Culture Machine, Vol 3 (2001)

CM2001 Article: Culture Machine


Culture Machine

Culture Machine 3 is open. Being open to the viral has perhaps from the outset been the style of our attempt to open up the work of cultural studies to the possibility of unpredictable mutation.

Discursive contaminations, involving, for example, metaphorical transmissions, exchanges and conceptual displacements between supposedly discrete disciplinary investigations, effectively promote the identification of new objects of inquiry, which themselves spawn mutations in the object: for example, conceptualizations of the relation between interiority and exteriority, such as the organic and the environmental, can be transposed into any number of 'cultural' contexts. Baudrillard, for instance, has referred to this as a 'process of contagion - a viral loss of determinacy' at disciplinary borders. Ed Cohen here investigates autopoesis on the border between bio-science and poetics allowing the ethical aspects of cross-disciplinarity to emerge as an inherent property of life. He shows in his readings of Valera, Margulis and Sagan, amongst others, how the existence of the organism is from the first 'coextensive' , and that 'to forget this constitutive conjunction is a political and ethical choice'.

With this edition of Culture Machine we aim to promote the further evolution of cultural studies along post-humanist lines. Instead of virology being restricted solely to a presupposed object and the science which traditionally claims it (e.g. the virus sample in the bio-science laboratory, or at work in a diseased body) here it resists its own disciplinary isolation on the basis of an inherent dynamic of cross-disciplinary contamination. As De Landa says ' we need to take advantage of the heterogenous mixtures of energy and genes, germs and words which allows us to conceive a world in which geology, biology and linguistics are not seen as three separate spheres' but as three perfectly coexisting and interacting flows of energetic, replicative and catalytic materials.' (A Thousand Years of Non-linear History).

Sandy Baldwin's discussion of measure and scale pursues the inseparability of thought, the logos and matter to the point where thought itself is revealed to itself as nano-technological machination and Alex Reid's essay on machinic becomings (if you have a sound card) literally speaks for itself! Keith Ansell-Pearson, writing in his Viroid Life, connects the 'virtual' with the 'viral' when he says of viruses that 'they stand at the border between the living and the non-living ... defying any tidy division(s) of the real into organic, inorganic, engineered, manufactured.' Mark Hansen's analysis of William Burrough's viral theory of information shows how the 'paradoxical aliveness' of the virus is rooted in both language and organic being; and that its aliveness is dependent on its being hosted. Perhaps both literature and science evolve according to the viral logic. Jesse Cohen's text here certainly demonstrates how the untidy divisions of science fact and science fiction can provide an environment for a viral transmission of power memes.

Virology might well be claimed to be a currently prescient differend in that 'there is no single context, or referent, to which it applies, nor any single measure of its disciplinary relevance: linking one phrase to another is problematic', and this is, according to Lyotard, the problem of the political (The Differend). Mary Flanagan addresses the re-coding of the machine as sexual politics. The computer virus is held up as the figure of the desire for the potential mutational reorganisation of life par excellence. She offers us a 'constructive virus' modelled on the bacterio-phage. If you want to re-gender your machine, visit her site for a free download.

The viral signals the inescapable, multiple indebtedness of every discourse and every system of thought to every other one; of every one to every other one: it is, therefore, also an invocation of the ethical. Derrida (writing on and speaking in the name of Levinas) identifies the representation of the Other in the discourse of the Same with the thought of contamination; of the saying of any supposedly absolute alterity by its being-said: 'There is no more a negative contamination than there is a simple beyond or a simple inside of language, on the one side and the other of some border' (At This Very Moment... ) Melinda Rackham poetically reflects on the evolving viral symborg, an entity whose becoming is by way of infection. 'We the infected' become one without being reduced to sameness; the virus, in replicating itself among us makes us a collective host.

The 'virus' operates at the very limits of metaphoricity and reflection on the viral serves to direct thought to what might be called the 'evolution of the real' beyond the traditional, metaphysical understanding of the nature/culture difference and everything which is deemed to come to pass at the border between. It suggests reality is of this in-between, mediated and adapted according to its representations: for example, in cultural manifestations; linguistic, filmic, literary, etc., as well as in the forms of natural science - and in relation to all of their reflexive effects and interactions. Language, materialism, bio-philosophy, media and infomatic replications (such as the viral advertising of Culture Machine itself: please FWD!) evolutionary holisms and multiple becomings (such as those described in the work of Deleuze and Guattari) may all be said to figure in the complexity (r)evolution, by way of contagions of one sort or another with emergent techno-cultural forms. Grayson Cooke here explores the notion of mutation in relation to the face and faciality and D & G's 'monstrous hood.' The way we look and look at ourselves is the point at which what might take to be down to our DNA meets the cultural mirror of technology: we tick, morph and twitch as the codes of representation and the computer interact.

Biologists learned with difficulty to avoid imputing any kind of purpose or predetermined goal to evolution. On the molecular level, evolution is the result of random changes to DNA. Those changes, realised in the resulting organisms - if there are any, for many mutations fail to lead to viable organisms at all - are then subject to natural selection, and organisms that happen to survive, whether by luck or good design, get to propagate their genes to succeeding generations. There is no purpose and no sense of direction to evolution - it just does whatever it does.

Whatever this edition 'does' some recipients will no doubt be immune to it, others will incubate what to them may even seem at first innocuous, but we are confident that the selection of work gathered here entails risky exposure to viral cross-disciplinarity for authors and readers alike. Culture Machine can be little more than a sloppy laboratory, a dirty vessel and an unwashed filter: in the expanding universe of CMCs it is just a tiny exposed media-space, encouraging infection. How else might new bits of 'genetic' material enter cultural studies gene pool today, such that new life, new thinking might evolve?

A.L. research for instance, suggests that the resolute exclusion of any kind of overall pattern to evolution is an overreaction. Evolution may not have goals or purposes, for those are human things. Nevertheless, it can have a dynamic of its own. As Gary Banham's essay shows, the relationship between A.I. and A.L. is as yet under-theorised: the relationship between life and thought incorporates some species of transcendental inquiry, and perhaps post- modernity is best conceptualised as a mutant strain of modernity. You can programme A.L. knowing that its mutations are random, that its selection process has no built-in goals, no predefined notion of what is deemed best - and despite this, it will follow a distinctive series of changes, organising itself into more and more complicated organisms, falling into apparently universal patterns. Just because the viral system cannot be considered goal-oriented (other than in the sense that open-ended, unpredictable mutation is its 'inhuman' goal) does not mean that it does not also risk becoming - for a while at least - an institution. But, the technics of the medium should offer some protection, at least, against such an ossification. Becoming digital, somewhere between life and non-life, as Eugene Thacker's reflections on The Visible Human Project' s digitization of the human anatomy show, risks the loss of corporeal comprehension: the host editors of this edition have never had the coporeal pleasure of meeting its contaminant-contributors. We are delighted, nonetheless, to be their digital hosts and we aim through the viro-electronic dissemination of their work to instigate an epidemic of interest among those who by chance, through acquaintance or by way of our viral advertising, are thereby exposed to it.

The further evolution of this organ(ism), as with any other depends in part on feedback, and, as usual, we welcome that in any publishable form.