Minor Media - Heterogenic Machines
Notes on Felix Guattari's conceptions of art and new media
1. A minor philosopher
According to Guattari and Deleuze's definition, a 'minor literature' is the literature of a minority that makes use of a major language, a literature which deterritorialises that language and interconnects meanings of the most disparate levels, inseparably mixing and implicating poetic, psychological, social and political issues with each other. In analogy, the Japanese media theorist Toshiya Ueno has recently refered to Felix Guattari as a 'minor philosopher'. Himself a practicing psychoanalyst, Guattari was a foreigner to the Grand Nation of Philosophy, whose natives mostly treat him like an unworthy bastard. And yet he has established a garden of minor flowers, of bastard weeds and rhizomes that are as polluting to contemporary philosophy as Kafka's writing has been to German literature. (cf K)
The strategies of 'being minor' are, as exemplified by Guattari's writings (with and without Deleuze), deployed in multiple contexts: intensification, re-functionalisation, estrangement, transgression. In the following I want to offer a brief overview over the way in which Guattari conceptualises media, new technologies and art. As a proposition for further discussion, I include descriptions of several media art projects that may help to illustrate some of the potentials of such 'minor machines'. Without wanting to pin these projects down as 'Guattarian' artworks, I suggest that the specific practices of contemporary media artists can point us in the direction of the re-singularising, deterritorialising and subjectifying forces which Guattari indicated as being germane to media technologies. This essay, then, is an experiment that tests the resonances between Guattari's thinking and different artistic projects.
Many artists who work with media technologies do so through strategies of appropriation and from a position of 'being minor': 'Whenever a marginality, a minority, becomes active, takes the word power (puissance de verbe), transforms itself into becoming, and not merely submitting to it, identical with its condition, but in active, processual becoming, it engenders a singular trajectory that is necessarily deterritorialising because, precisely, it's a minority that begins to subvert a majority, a consensus, a great aggregate. As long as a minority, a cloud, is on a border, a limit, an exteriority of a great whole, it's something that is, by definition, marginalised. But here, this point, this object, begins to proliferate (...), begins to amplify, to recompose something that is no longer a totality, but that makes a former totality shift, detotalises, deterritorialises an entity.' (Guattari 1985/1995) Thus, in the context of media art, 'becoming minor' is a strategy of turning major technologies into minor machines.
a. Krzysztof Wodiczko (PL/USA): Alien Staff
Krzysztof Wodiczko's Alien Staff is a mobile communication system and prosthetic instrument which facilitates the communication of immigrants and aliens in the countries to which they have migrated and in which they have insufficient command of the language for communicating on a par with the native inhabitants.
Alien Staff consists of a hand-held staff which has a small video monitor and a loudspeaker at the top. The operator can adjust the height of the staff's head to be at a level with his or her own head. Via the video monitor, the operator can replay pre-recorded elements of a conversation, an interview, or a narration of him- or herself. The recorded material may contain biographical information when people have difficulties constructing coherent narratives in the foreign language, but it may also include the description of feelings and impressions which the operator normally doesn't get a chance to talk about in the new environment. The instrument can function as an interpreter both in the sense of a translator, and in the sense of a mediator. The Staff is used in public places where passers-by are attracted to listen to the recording and engage in a conversation with the operator. Special transparent segments of the staff contain memorabilia, photographs or other objects which indicate a part of the personal history of the operator and which may be used to introduce a conversation about the operator's background.
The Alien Staff offers individuals an opportunity to remember and retell their own story and to confront people in the country of immigration with this particular story. The Staff reaffirms the migrant's own subjectivity and re-singularises individuals who are often perceived as the representative of a homogenous group. The instrument displaces expectations of the audience by articulating unformulated aspects of the migrant's subjectivity through a medium that appears as the attractive double of an apparently 'invisible' person. This medium neither broad-casts, nor does it narrow-cast to a particular audience. It is a specific, minor intervention into the everyday territory of a majority and suggests a possible type of practice that Guattari meant by 'post-media'.
2. Guattari on media: mass media, new technologies and 'planetary computerization'
Guattari's comments about media are mostly made in passing and display a clearly outlined opinion about the role of media in contemporary society: a staunch critique of mass media is coupled with an optimistic outlook to the potentials of a post-medial age in which new technologies can develop their singularising, heterogenic forces. The latter development is, as Guattari suggests, already discernible in the field of art and other cultural practices making use of electronic networks, and can lead to a state of 'planetary computerisation' in which multiple new subject-groups can emerge. For the purpose of this essay, a brief sketch of this complex of ideas, which is mainly based on texts written in the late 1980s and early 90s, will have to suffice.
Guattari consistently refers to the mass media with contempt, qualifying them as a stupefying machinery that is closely wedded to the forces of global capitalism, and that is co-responsible for much of the reactionary hyper-individualism, the desperation and the 'state of emergency' that currently dominates 'four-fifth of humanity' (C 97; cf TE 16, 21). Guattari makes a passionate plea for a new social ecology and formulates, as one step towards this goal, the necessity, 'to guide these capitalist societies of the age of mass media into a post-mass medial age; by this I mean that the mass media have to be reappropriated by a multiplicity of subject-groups who are able to administer them on a path of singularisation' (TE 64). Beside classical leftist strategies for inducing this 'shift away from oppressive mass-mediatic modernity toward some kind of more liberating post-media age in which subjective assemblages of self-reference might come into their own' (Guattari 1989, p.98) - raising the consciousness of the masses, the abolishment of Stalinism, new forms of collectivity and work -, Guattari explicitly mentions the 'technological development of mass media, especially their miniaturisation, the lowering of their costs, and the possibility of using them for non-capitalistic ends' (TE 65).
Guattari posits the non-hierarchical potential of information technologies in reorganising social structures, and highlights the fundamental changes that the emergence of 'computer-based subjectivities' will bring about for the being of humans (TE 42, 29). Without negating the strictly capitalistic framework within which this development is currently taking place, he expresses high hopes for the 'machinic mutations (...) which deterritorialise subjectivity.' (C 97) The development of interfaces that support a return to orality will be an important step in this direction: 'The era of the digital keyboard will soon be over; it is through speech that dialogue with machines will be initiated - not just with technical machines, but with machines of thought, sensation, and consultation .... All of this, I repeat, provided that society changes, provided that new social, political, aesthetic and analytical practices allow us to escape from the shackles of empty speech which crush us, from the erosion of meaning which is occurring everywhere (...).' (C 97)
Some of this restrained enthusiasm came from Guattari's experience, in the 1970s, of working with the French Community Radio movement which, in the aftermath of 1968, tried to realise principles of community access, direct democracy and the freedom of speech through local public media. More recently, Guattari was being influenced by the writings of Pierre Levy, a French philosopher who since the 1980s has been working on the potential role that new technologies are playing for the emergence of what Levy calls a 'collective intelligence.' Levy claims that the extending communication networks create a new cultural space in which general participation and interconnection can bring forth a new form of universality, a global cultural plane that is universal in both its openness and its continuous internal transformation, and that is not totalising as regards the contents or ideologies it carries. It seems that this optimistic interpretation of the socio-political effects of new technologies, of a 'universality without totalisation', influenced the rather euphoric attitude that Guattari took. (cf Guattari 1990/1995, p.115, C 96-7, C 107)
Guattari's conception of post-media, and its adaptation by others, has recently been denounced by the English critic Richard Barbrook for being dishonest and for siding with the techno-utopian, neo-liberal right. (cf Barbrook 1998) Barbrook's argument hinges on allegations that Guattari was authoritarian in his leadership of the Paris community radio Frequence Libre, and that, amongst other things, he and Deleuze were Stalinists who instigated the purges of Cambodia by the Khmer Rouge. Barbrook accuses 'Deleuzoguattarians' of being unable to grasp the truly subversive potential of the Net which, as he explains, has initiated a gift economy in which a growing number of workers can participate without the mediation of cultural elites. Market competition is whithering away as 'workers can now experience non-alienated labour within the hi-tech gift economy'. Take this as you will ... Ironically, Barbrook's scenario comes across as even more rosily utopian, and more similar to the neo-liberalist exploits of Wired magazine, than Guattari's, who qualifies his hopes and who, more importantly, takes the socio-technical transformations into account that will be necessary to realise this 'machinic revolution'. As Barbrook rejects Guattari's analytical terms, he gets stuck in copying a 19th-century Marxian utopia, a history painting with digital artisans instead of peasants and workers' collectives.
Barbrook does not recognise technologies as potentially subjectifying forces and sees them as a mere tool of unchanged human action and exchange. He therefore has little sense of the potential for a fundamental upheaval of the social and technical economy that digital technologies are effecting. Guattari, on the other hand, strongly believed that a radical redefinition of the role of technology, and of the relationship between humans and machines, was both vital for the success of his project, and most critical for many of those who he saw as potential allies. He therefore committed a considerable amount of attention to arguing the necessity of a positive technological agenda. 'People have little reason to turn away from machines; which are nothing other than hyperdeveloped and hyperconcentrated forms of certain aspects of human subjectivity, and emphatically not those aspects that polarise people in relations of domination and power. It will be possible to build a two-way bridge between human beings and machines and, once we have established that, to herald new and confident alliances between them.' (Guattari 1989, p.96) The 'age of planetary computerization' (Guattari 1989, p.103) is an era of 'a monstrous reinforcement of earlier systems of alienation, an oppressive mass-media culture and an infantalising politics of consensus' (ibid.), but more than the previous historical phases, this age also holds the potential of radical change for the better.
b. Seiko Mikami (J/USA): World, Membrane and the Dismembered Body
An art project that deals with the cut between the human subject and the body, and with the deterritorialisation of the sense of self, is Seiko Mikami's World, Membrane and the Dismembered Body. It uses the visitor's heart and lung sounds which are amplified and transformed within the space of the installation. These sounds create a gap between the internal and external sounds of the body. The project is presented in an-echoic room where sound does not reverberate. Upon entering this room, it is as though your ears are no longer living while paradoxically you also feel as though all of your nerves are concentrated in your ears. The visitor has the impression of being inside a huge ear, of being immersed in the membrane of the ear.
The sounds of the heart, lungs, and pulse beat are digitized by the computer system and act as parameters to form a continuously transforming 3-d polygonal mesh of body sounds moving through the room. Two situations are effected in real time: the slight sounds produced by the body itself resonate in the body's internal membranes, and the transfigured resonance of those sounds is amplified in the space. A time-lag separates both perceptual events.
The visitor is overcome by the feeling that a part of his or her corporeality is under erasure. The body exists as abstract data, only the perceptual sense is aroused. The visitor is made conscious of the disappearance of the physical contours of his or her subjectivity and thereby experiences being turned into a fragmented body. The ears mediate the space that exists between the self and the body. Mikami's work fragments the body and its perceptual apparatus into data, employing them as interfaces and thus folding the body's horizon back onto itself. This is not the 'body without organs' that Guattari and Deleuze speak about. Yet, the art project facilitates an experience which may point in its direction. More importantly, the project elucidates the difference between an actual and a virtual body, the actual body being deterritorialised and projected outwards towards a number of potential, virtual bodies that can, in the installation, be experienced as maybe even more 'real' than the actual body.
3. Guattari on art
Guattari's conception of post-media implies criss-crossing intersections of aesthetic, ethical, political and technological planes, among which the aesthetic, and with it artistic creativity, are ascribed a position of special prominence. This special role of art is a trope that recurs quite frequently in Guattari's writings, even though he is rarely specific about the artistic practices he has in mind. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari give some detailled attention to the works of artists like Debussy, Boulez, Beckett, Artaud, Kafka, Kleist, Proust, and Klee, and Chaosmosis includes longer passages and concrete examples for the relevance of the aesthetic paradigm. These examples come almost exclusively from the fields of performing arts, music and literature, while visual arts are all but absent. One reason for this could be that the performing arts are time-based and processual and thus lend themselves much better to theorisation of flows, transformations and differentiations. The visual arts can be related to the abstract machine of faciality (visageite) which produces unified, molar, identical entities out of a multiplicity of different singularities, assigning them to a specific category and associating them with particular social fields. (cf MP 167-91) This semiotic territorialisation is much more likely to happen in the case of static images, whether two- or three-dimensional, than in time-based art forms. An interesting question, then, would be whether media art projects, many of which are time-based, processual and open-ended, can be considered as potential post-medial art practices. Moreover, given the status of computer software as the central motor of the digital age, and the crucial role it plays in aesthetic productions like those discussed here, software may have to be viewed as the epitome of post-medial machines.
Guattari seems to have been largely unaware of the beginnings of digital media art as it developed in the 1980s. He talks in rather general terms about the exemplary working style of the artist that the mental ecosophy will have to follow in order to 'search for relief from the mass-medial and tele-informatic uniformity, from the conformism of fashions and the manipulation of public opinion by opinion polls and advertising' (TE 23). Guattari suggests that the artist is particularly well-equipped to conceptualise the necessary steps for this work because, unlike engineers, he or she is not tied to a particular programme or plan for a product, and can change the course of a project at any point if an unexpected event or accident intrudes. (cf TE 50)
The significance of art for Guattari's thinking comes primarily from its close relation with processes of subjectivation. 'Just as scientific machines constantly modify our cosmic frontiers, so do the machines of desire and aesthetic creation. As such, they hold an eminent place within assemblages of subjectivation, themselves called to relieve our old social machines which are incapable of keeping up with the efflorescence of machinic revolutions that shatter our epoch.' (C 54) The aesthetic paradigm facilitates the development of new, virtual forms of subjectivity, and of liberation, which will be adequate to the machinic revolutions: 'Once again, it is the aesthetic machine which seems to be in the best position to disclose some of its often unrecognised but essential dimensions: the finitude relative to its life and death, the production of proto-alterity in the register of its environment and of its multiple implications, its incorporeal genetic filiations.' (C 107)
c. Knowbotic Research + cF: IO_Dencies
The Alien Staff project was mentioned as an example for the re-singularisation and the virtualisation of identity, and World, Membrane and the Dismembered Body as an instance of the deterritorialisation and virtualisation of the human body through an artistic interface. The most recent project by Knowbotic Research, IO_Dencies - Questioning Urbanity, deals with the possibilities of agency, collaboration and construction in translocal and networked environments. It points in the direction of what Guattari has called the formation of 'group subjects' through connective interfaces.
The project looks at urban settings in different megacities like Tokyo and Sao Paulo, analyses the forces present in particular local urban situations, and offers experimental interfaces for dealing with these local force fields. IO_Dencies Sao Paulo enables the articulation of subjective experiences of the city through a collaborative process. Over a period of several months, a group of young architects and urbanists from Sao Paulo, the 'editors', provide the content and dynamic input for a database. The editors collect material (texts, images, sounds) based on the situation they are in at the moment and on their personal urban experience. A specially designed editor tool also allows the editors to build individual conceptual 'maps' in which each editor can construct the relations between the different materials in the data-pool according to his or her subjective perception of the city.
On the computational level, connectivities are created between the different maps of the editors, a process that is driven by algorithmic self-organisation whose rules are determined by the choices that the editors make. In the process, the collaborative editorial work in the database generates zones of intensities and zones of tension, which are visualised as force fields and turbulences and which can be experienced through interfaces on the internet and at physical exhibition sites. Participants on the Net and in the exhibition can modify and influence these electronic urban movements, force fields and intensities on an abstract, visual level, as well as on a content-based, textual level. The objects in this force field are purely symbolic and conceptual, and the parameters are not spatial or territorial, but relational and depend on the editors' approach to their urban material.
The visualisation shows the intensity of relational forces in the data-pool as they are being constructed and transformed by the self-organisation. When zooming in, the keywords referring to specific materials in the database appear. By selecting them, it is possible to see or hear the respective textual, visual or auditory material on a separate monitor. This engagement with the projects and its material is fed back into the database and influences the relational forces within the project's digital environment. The networked project facilitates the fusion of reception and construction by several connected translocal users.
Characteristic of the forms of agency as they evolve in networked environments is that they are neither individualistic nor collective, but rather connective. Whereas the collective is ideally determined by an intentional and empathetic relation between agents within an assemblage, the connective rests on any kind of machinic relation and is therefore more versatile, more open, and based on the heterogeneity of its components or members. In the IO_Dencies interfaces, the different participants become visible for each other, creating a trans-local zone of connective agency. The inter-connectedness of their activities can be experienced visually, acoustically, and through the constant reconfiguration of the data sets, an experience which can become the basis of the formation of a specific, heterogeneous group subject.
4. Guattari's concept of the machinic
An important notion underlying these analyses is that of the machine which, for Guattari, relates not so much to particular technological or mechanical objects, to the technical infrastructure or the physical flows of the urban environment. 'Machines' can be social bodies, industrial complexes, psychological or cultural formations, such as the complex of desires, habits and incentives that create particular forms of collective behaviour in groups of individuals, or the aggregation of materials, instruments, human individuals, lines of communication, rules and conventions that together constitute a factory or administrative institution. 'Machines' are assemblages of heterogeneous parts, aggregations which transform forces, articulate and propel their elements, and force them into a continuous state of transformation and becoming. Machines are multiplicities without unity, they are criss-crossed by multiple lines of forces.
The machine is always productive, as against the 'anti-production' of a fixed structure. Its productivity lies in the creation of discontinuities and disruptions, it dislodges a given order and runs against routines and expectations. The product of the machine and the process of production are synonymous: the machine produces the process of transformation. The machinic appears in a mode of immediacy and incidentality, confronting a structure with other potentialities and questioning its given shape.
For Guattari, the concept of the machinic and the aesthetic are inseparably coupled: '(The) processual aesthetic paradigm (of ontological heterogenification) works with (and is worked by) scientific and ethical paradigms. It is installed transversally to technoscience because technoscience's machinic Phylums are in essence creative, because this creativity tends to connect with the creativity of the artistic process. But to establish such a bridge, we have to shed our mechanist visions of the machine and promote a conception which encompasses all of its aspects: technological, biological, informatic, social, theoretical and aesthetic.' (C 107)
The notion of the machinic phylum is introduced by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus in order to articulate the dynamic and transformational forces inherent in any substance: 'We may speak of a machinic phylum, or technological lineage, wherever we find a constellation of singularities, prolongable by certain operations, which converge, and make the operations converge, upon one or several assignable traits of expression.' (TP 406) The Mexican-American writer Manuel De Landa has elaborated on the usefulness of the notion of the machinic phylum to express the double articulation of the machinic as a continuously transforming and transformed, connecting and releasing processuality. A 'structure' is a closed system of well-defined elements which are related to each other and related to other systems. The machine, in contrast, implies the sudden appearance of the radically new, it is a breaking point and a singular point of discontinuity.
In Guattari's conception of the machinic, machines form a binary-linear system. As Henning Schmidgen outlines, 'there is always one machine which brings forth an energy flow, and another machine which is coupled with it and which makes a cut, tapping into the energy flow.' This cut of one machine into another takes the form of an event or incident, it happens immediately. It is 'significant' insofar as it transposes expressive material from one machine to another and ruptures the semiosis of the second. The machinic cut ('coupure'), is the interface, the 'Schnittstelle', it is a field of potential agency and a field of potential subjectification.
Guattari's conception of the machinic suggests a reading of the media art projects presented here, and other such projects, in relation to the technological, social and aesthetic phyla which bring them forth. Becoming machine, one of the many heterogeneous becomings that Guattari describes and that is a potential effect of minor media machines, would mean following the deterritorialising line of flight of the phylum.
d. Xchange network
My final example is possibly the most evocative in relation to Guattari's notions of the polyvocity and heterogenesis that new media technologies can trigger. It also links up closely with Guattari's own engagement with the minor community radio movement. In late 1997, the E-Lab in Riga initiated the Xchange network for audio experiments on the Internet. The participating groups in London, Ljubljana, Sidney, Berlin, and many other minor and major places, use the Net for distributing their original sound programmes. The Xchange network is 'streaming via encoders to remote servers, picking up the stream and re-broadcasting it purely or re-mixed, looping the streams' (Rasa Smite).
Xchange is a distributed group, a connective, that builds creative cooperation in live-audio streaming on the communication channels that connect them. The people of Xchange and others are thus also exploring the Net as a sound-scape with particular qualities regarding data transmission, delay, feedback, and open, distributed collaborations. Moreover, they connect the network with a variety of other fields. Instead of defining an 'authentic' place of their artistic work, they play in the transversal post-medial zone of media labs in different countries, mailing lists, net-casting and FM broadcasting, clubs, magazines, stickers, etc., in which 'real' spaces and media continuously overlap and fuse. (cf Break/Flow 1998)
Xchange especially explores the possibilities for co-streaming. One of the initiators, Raitis Smits, describes the main strategies: 'The simplest one is to mix your sound source with another (one or more) real audio live-stream. In this case each of the participants is doing one part of this live session (e.g. one is streaming voice, another background music). There one can listen two (or more) different streams - the final one with all transmissions mixed together or each 'input' live stream separately. Another interesting experience of co-streaming is creating the loop. Each broadcaster takes another's live stream, re-encodes it and sends it further for the next participant. In this loop sound input is going around and coming back with a small delay of 5 to 10 seconds, which creates multiple sound layers. When the sound keeps travelling around, the stream gets more and more noisy, and finally it turns into one continuous noise.'
5. Heterogenic practices
I believe that, if we want to understand the technological and the political implications of the machinic environment of the digital networks, and if we want to see the emergence of the group subjects of the post-media age Guattari talks about, we may have to look at connectives like Xchange and the editor-participant assemblages of IO_Dencies. The far-reaching machinic transformations which they articulate, hold the potential of what Guattari refers to as the 'molecular revolution'. To realise this revolution, it is vital to 'forge new analytical instruments, new concepts, because it is (...) the transversality, the crossing of abstract machines that constitute a subjectivity and that are incarnated, that live in very different regions and domains and (...) that can be contradictory and antagonistic.' For Guattari, this is not a mere theoretical question, but one of experimentation, 'of new forms of interactions, of movement construction that respects the diversity, the sensitivities, the particularities of interventions, and that is nonetheless capable of constituting antagonistic machines of struggle to intervene in power relations' (Guattari 1985/1995, p.4-5).
The implication here is that some of the minor media practices pursued by artists using digital technologies point us in the direction of the positive potentials of post media. The line of flight of such experimentation is the construction of new and strong forms of subjectivity, 'an individual and/or collective reconstitution of the self' (TE 21), which can strengthen the process of what Guattari calls 'heterogenesis, that is a continuous process of resingularisation. The individuals must, at the same time, become solidary and ever more different.' (TE 76)
Inke Arns / Andreas Broeckmann: 'Small Media Normality for the East.' In: Nettime, ZKP 4, and on Rewired: http://www.rewired.com
Richard Barbrook: 'The Holy Fools.' In: Mute, No.11, London 1998, p.57-65
Break/Flow: 'Post-Media Operators.' Nettime, 10 June 1998 (http://www.factory.org)
Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari: Kafka. Pour une litterature mineur. Paris: Ed. de Minuit, 1975 (K)
Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari: Tausend Plateaus. (1980) Berlin: Merve, 1992 (MP)
Felix Guattari: Pragmatic/Machinic. Discussion with Guattari, conducted and transcribed by Charles J. Stivale. (1985) In: Pre/Text, Vol. 14, No. 3-4, 1995
Felix Guattari: Cartographies schizoanalytiques. Paris: Ed. Galilee, 1989 (CS)
Felix Guattari: 'Regimes, Pathways, Subjects.' (1989) , p. 95-108 (from: CS)
Felix Guattari: Die drei Ökologien. (1989) Wien: Passagen Verlag, 1994 (TE)
Felix Guattari: 'Über Maschinen.' (1990) In: Schmidgen 1995, p. 115-32
Felix Guattari: Chaosmosis. An ethico-aesthetic paradigm. (1992) Sidney: Power Publications, 1995 (C)
Knowbotic Research: IO_Dencies (1997-8) - http://www.khm.de/people/krcf/
Manuel De Landa: 'The Machinic Phylum.' In: V2_Organisation (eds): Technomorphica. Rotterdam: V2_Organisation, 1997
Seiko Mikami: World, Membrane and the Dismembered Body. (1997) - http://www.ntticc.or.jp/permanent/mikami/mikami_e.html
H. Schmidgen (ed): Ästhetik und Maschinismus. Texte zu und von Felix Guattari. Berlin: Merve, 1995
Henning Schmidgen: Das Unbewußte der Maschinen. Konzeptionen des Psychischen bei Guattari, Deleuze und Lacan. München: Fink, 1997
Krzysztof Wodiczko - http://cavs.mit.edu/people/kw.html
Xchange - http://xchange.re-lab.net
(Rotterdam/Berlin, November 1998)