Excommunicationby Alexander R. Galloway, Eugene Thacker, McKenzie Wark
Always connect—that is the imperative of today’s media. But what about those moments when media cease to function properly, when messages go beyond the sender and receiver to become excluded from the world of communication itself—those messages that state: “There will be no more messages”? In this book, Alexander R. Galloway,
Always connect—that is the imperative of today’s media. But what about those moments when media cease to function properly, when messages go beyond the sender and receiver to become excluded from the world of communication itself—those messages that state: “There will be no more messages”? In this book, Alexander R. Galloway, Eugene Thacker, and McKenzie Wark turn our usual understanding of media and mediation on its head by arguing that these moments reveal the ways the impossibility of communication is integral to communication itself—instances they call excommunication.
In three linked essays, Excommunication pursues this elusive topic by looking at mediation in the face of banishment, exclusion, and heresy, and by contemplating the possibilities of communication with the great beyond. First, Galloway proposes an original theory of mediation based on classical literature and philosophy, using Hermes, Iris, and the Furies to map out three of the most prevalent modes of mediation today—mediation as exchange, as illumination, and as network. Then, Thacker goes boldly beyond Galloway’s classification scheme by examining the concept of excommunication through the secret link between the modern horror genre and medieval mysticism. Charting a trajectory of examples from H. P. Lovecraft to Meister Eckhart, Thacker explores those instances when one communicates or connects with the inaccessible, dubbing such modes of mediation “haunted” or “weird” to underscore their inaccessibility. Finally, Wark evokes the poetics of the infuriated swarm as a queer politics of heresy that deviates from both media theory and the traditional left. He posits a critical theory that celebrates heresy and that is distinct from those that now venerate Saint Paul.
Reexamining commonplace definitions of media, mediation, and communication, Excommunication offers a glimpse into the realm of the nonhuman to find a theory of mediation adequate to our present condition.
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THREE INQUIRIES IN MEDIA AND MEDIATION
By ALEXANDER R. Galloway, EUGENE THACKER, MCKENZIE Wark
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
LOVE OF THE MIDDLE
Alexander R. Galloway
On July 7, 1688, Irish scientist William Molyneux sent a letter to his friend the philosopher John Locke in which he proposed the following hypothetical scenario. Consider a man, blind from birth, who knows the shapes of spheres, cubes, and other objects, but being blind only knows them via his sense of touch. If the blind man were suddenly given sight, would he be able to identify and distinguish between these same spheres and cubes by vision alone?
Known today as Molyneux's Problem, the thought experiment was one of the central philosophical problems of its time. Any number of thinkers proffered solutions to the problem, from G. W. Leibniz, Voltaire, and Denis Diderot, to Hermann von Helmholtz and William James. Molyneux's problem was so compelling at the time, and indeed still resonates today, because it addresses key questions in mediation, aesthetics, and the sciences of perception, and in what would become psychophysics and cognitive science.
While ostensibly a thought experiment about the cognitive relation between different modes of perception, in this case tactile and visual perception, Molyneux's Problem also speaks to greater issues within the Western tradition. Indeed Molyneux's Problem is so compelling because it is, at root, the great allegory of Greek philosophy. What role will vision play in the organization of the faculties? Can knowledge be gained simply by gaining sight? Is the path of philosophy the path that leads to enlightenment, and if so what role do light and vision play in such a revelation? In a certain sense, Molyneux's Problem is not unlike the cave of shadows and the path to light and knowledge described in Plato's Republic. Just as Plato's pupil must wrestle with the murkiness of false knowledge and the hope of higher cognition unified by the light, Molyneux's blind man must determine if and how his newfound sensory ability will aid the communicative interplay between self and world.
Author of the Dioptrica Nova (1692), Molyneux helped establish the modern science of optics, and in particular the seventeenth-century conception of visuality as translucence, as opposed to today's notion that visuality is largely a question of opaque surfaces like screens or images. Indeed the story of the blind man who learns to see, only to face the risk of being unable to assimilate his visions and thus being dazzled by that very light, shows the importance of dioptrics in particular (the division of optics concerned with light passing through materials) and of optics in general, both as a science but also as a metaphor for what enlightenment man might be.
A few years earlier, in the 1670s, Spinoza wrote his own allegorical tale of transformation. It comes near the end of the Ethics, and we might assign it a name, Spinoza's Poet.
Sometimes a man undergoes such changes that I should hardly have said he was the same man. I have heard stories, for example, of a Spanish Poet who suffered an illness; though he recovered, he was left so oblivious to his past life that he did not believe the tales and tragedies he had written were his own. He could surely have been taken for a grown-up infant if he had also forgotten his native language.
Himself a master craftsman in the dioptric sciences, Spinoza uses his poet to illustrate a very different kind of illumination. His is a light lost in the shadows. It points not to the Republic but to the Phaedrus, the Platonic dialogue in which Socrates notes the inferiority of writing to pure thought. Writing is an image of speech, Socrates explains, and therefore an image of the self once removed. As a mediation of speech, writing is thus something of a problem for the Platonic tradition. Following Plato, Bernard Stiegler calls this the problem of hypomnesis, that is, the problem of the translation of memory into physical media supports. With a "grown-up infant" who can no longer speak because he has forgotten his language, Spinoza gives a play on words. The Latin infans means the non-speaking, from a negation of the deponent verb fari, to be speaking. In this sense, media threaten to render us speechless, turning us into grown-up infants. The poet's light is a dark cloud within the self, pure opacity in a forgetting of media.
Each story deals with mediation, and each contains a metamorphosis of the communicative faculties. One is the story of reason acquired, the other of reason lost. Spinoza's Poet experiences a collapse into oblivion (lethe), while Molyneux's Seer experiences a newfound revealing of the world through reason and sight (logos). The one is about the truth of one's own Muse, one's own memories. The other is about the journey out of chthonic knowledge (through tactile feeling) and coming to know reason. Ultimately they represent two competing assessments of seventeenth-century modernity.
The risk to Molyneux's Seer is that he will be dazzled by vision, his sense of sight uncorrelated to his sense of touch; the risk to Spinoza's Poet is that he will slip into the psychosis of amnesia, his own expressions effaced and banished from conscious memory.
If Molyneux's Problem is a modern reinterpretation of Plato's cave, which is to say an allegory about learning to recognize the world through a reorganization and cultivation of the cognitive faculties, Spinoza's Poet is an anti-cave, a story about unlearning and forgetting what one already knows. Spinoza's Poet is the story of oblivion gained (lethe) instead of oblivion lost (aletheia). Not quite "the death of the author," nevertheless the poet in Spinoza produces works that he can no longer recognize. It is the ultimate revenge of one's own literary production, the ultimate excommunication, the ultimate betrayal by media.
* * *
The goal of this chapter is to tell a story about mediation, to determine a few facts as anchor points along the way, then to make an argument about a very particular transformation in the historical arrangement of media.
Many will say that mediation is of a single kind, for example the single kind of mediation evident in Spinoza's Poet. To some this single mode of mediation appears sufficient, for it captures the basic paradox of media, that the more we extend our minds into the world the more we risk being alienated from it.
Others will ratify the single kind, but complement it with a second kind: Spinoza's Poet together with Molyneux's Seer. Again, the two appear sufficient. For every danger of alienation and obfuscation there exists the counterbalance of cultivation and clarity. Even if a person loses his or her communicative faculties, there is the hope that the person will gain them again. If the world falls dark, it will soon grow light.
But there is not simply one kind of mediation. Nor is the problem solved by adding an auxiliary mode to include experiences of cultivation or enlightenment. I hope to convince you that these two are engulfed within a third middle, a third mode of mediation that is both emblematically modern and as old as the Earth.
Three modes of mediation, three middles: the first is communication in the most workaday sense, mediation as extension, transit, representation, reflection, mimicry, and alienation. It includes both circulation and exchange and the dangers they provoke such as disenchantment, fraud, and deception. The second is pure and true communication, or the kind of communication found in communion, immediacy, and immanence. The third is the multiplicity of communication, a complex affair in which the communicative infrastructure itself dilates and reduplicates to such a degree that it extinguishes any sort of middle whatsoever (and with it any sort of media).
Each middle has its own avatar. First is Hermes, the embodiment of communication in the most normal sense, for, as the god of the threshold, he governs the sending of messages and the journeying into foreign lands. From his name we derive the term hermeneutics, the art of textual interpretation understood as a kind of journeying into texts. Second is Iris, the other messenger of the gods, often overlooked and overshadowed by the more influential Hermes. As Greek goddess of the rainbow, Iris indicates how light can bridge sky and land. She presides over communication as luminous immediacy, and from her we gain the concept of iridescent communication. Third are the Furies, the most rhizomatic of the divine forms. They stand in for complex systems like swarms, assemblages, and networks. The term infuriation captures well the way in which the Furies can upend a situation, thrusting it into a flux of activity and agitation.
What does this mean today? As a number of critics and theorists have observed in recent years, hermeneutics is in crisis. Formerly a bedrock methodology for many disciplines across the humanities from phenomenology to literary criticism, many today consider hermeneutics to be in trouble, in decline, or otherwise inappropriate for the various intellectual pursuits of the age. Why plumb the recesses of the human mind, when the neurological sciences can determine what people really think? Why try to interpret a painting, when what really matters are the kinds of pre-interpretive affective responses it elicits—or, to be more crass, the price it demands at auction? Many have therefore spoken of a "post-hermeneutic" moment, in which stalwart interpretative techniques, holding sway since medieval scholasticism if not since antiquity itself, have slowly slipped away. But what has replaced hermeneutics? Some find inspiration in a new kind of scientism (disguised as cognitivism in many disciplines), others return to a pre-critical immanence of experience, and still others are inspired by a newfound multiplicity of "flat" experience endlessly combining and recombining through rhizomatic networks.
The task here is thus multiform. First is to define mediation as hermeneutics, by way of the figure of Hermes himself. But Hermes does not have the last word on communication tout court. Although he is the traveler, there are certain journeys on which even Hermes is unwilling to embark. Thus two additional journeys will be of interest: after Hermes, a second journey back to Iris and immanence, and a third out to a kind of tessellated, fractal space inhabited by the Furies.
All three modes of mediation bear witness to the paradoxes of communication. Hermes's hermeneutics acknowledges that even the clearest form of communication is beset by deception and withdrawal. Iris's iridescence brings the communicants into an ecstasy of immediacy, producing a short circuit of hypercommunication. And the Furies' infuriation destroys the primacy of sender and receiver, reduplicating communicative agents into endless multiplicity. The hermeneutic wayfarer, the ecstatic mystic, and the furious swarm are thus all excommunicants in some basic sense. They all venture beyond the human into the unknown. All three modes incorporate the logic of excommunication into themselves, since they each acknowledge the impossibility of communication, whether it be via deception, immediacy, or multiplicity.
Yet, at the same time, none of the three modes consummate excommunication entirely, for none forsake mediation altogether or attempt to communicate with the purely inaccessible. Excommunication is quite militant. Excommunication is the message that says there will be no more messages. As Thacker and Wark will demonstrate more fully in the chapters to come, excommunication refers to the impossibility of communication that appears at the very moment in which communication takes place. While my three modes of mediation make certain overtures to that effect, they forgo the ultimate step. They remain firmly rooted in this world, the human world of the here and now. So, in laying a certain terrain, I aim simply to start the conversation rather than finish it. Only by venturing out into the realm of the purely nonhuman will we be able to take stock of excommunication proper. The subjects of the chapters to come, Thacker's dark communication and Wark's alien communication, give an indication of what this realm might be, not so much an image of our world, but a message from a world in which we are absent.
HERMES AND HIS EPITHETS
The myths tell of Hermes that he was "born in the morning, by midday he was playing the lyre, and in the evening he stole the ca_ le of far-shooting Apollo." He grows up rapidly and has no past, or so it appears. He is clever and inventive, but also cunning and deceitful. His brother Apollo calls him a "friend of dark night," and christens him "The Prince of Thieves." To which Hermes, still a baby, retorts with a fart and a sneeze.
As mediator, he is perhaps best known as Hermes diaktoros, Hermes the messenger. A traveler from afar, he is often depicted, particularly in sculpture, in the act of binding his sandals in preparation to depart. He is that thing that is just about to leave. "Nothing in him is fixed, or stable, or permanent, or restricted, or solid," wrote Jean-Pierre Vernant. "In space and in the human world, he represents movement, passages, state changes, transitions, contacts between foreign elements. At home, his place is by the door, protecting the threshold, warding off thieves because he himself is the Thief." In the Homeric Hymn to Hestia, Hermes is called angelos. This word means messenger too, but it is also the word that gives us "angel," the divine messenger, the one who mediates and chaperones travelers while they are on a journey. Thus Hermes is the guiding god. He accompanies travelers and merchants. The Greek poet Theocritus wrote: "I go in / Awe of the terrible vengeance of Hermes the god of the wayside, / For he is greatest in anger, they say, of the heavenly powers / If anybody refuses a traveller wanting directions."
Because of this he is also known as Hermes of the turning hinge (Hermes strophaios) and is often present at the front door of houses, that is, by the hinges of doorways. "[T]he practice [of installing Hermes at the door] might also have arisen from his power over the ghostly world; for we know that the primitive Greek was troubled by the fear of ghosts entering his house, and used spell-words ... and other magic devices to prevent it; and a statue of Hermes at the entrance would be a natural religious prophylactic." The god of the threshold is, in this way, also the god of borderlands, market places (Hermes agoraios), and the protector of merchants (Hermes empolaios). Indeed merchants are those daring souls who must travel to foreign lands in order to circulate goods, and the two terms merchant and Mercury, Hermes's Roman appellation, share a common root. "While many other deities were also agoraioi [among them Zeus, Athena, and Artemis], Hermes was the market-god par excellence." But why? "It is probable that the way-god is here again asserting his immemorial rights, acquired before the development of cities, when trade was conducted by traveling merchants, who needed the help of the deity of the road, and whose safest market was perhaps on the borderland between two communities, where a boundary-pillar of Hermes would preserve the neutrality and guard the sanctity of the spot." Moving fluidly across borders, Hermes thus illustrates a high level of promiscuity. He is given, in the Homeric Hymns, the title of king of exchanges. We might therefore call him the god of circulation itself. Indeed, for this reason, Jacques Derrida called Hermes, with some brio, the "signifier-god."
He is the signifier god for all of these reasons. But he is also the signifier god in a more literal sense, for Hermes is said to be the inventor of writing, the alphabet, and numbers. (That he is also the inventor of fire, before Prometheus procured it for humanity, is also rarely noted.) The Neoplatonist philosopher Plutarch recounts the following observation: "Hermes ... was, we are told, the god who first invented writing in Egypt. Hence the Egyptians write the first of their letters with an ibis, the bird that belongs to Hermes, although in my opinion they err in giving precedence among the letters to one that is inarticulate and voiceless"—and here Spinoza's Poet again looms large. The mute ibis bird, inarticulate and voiceless, stands in for the alphabet and hence writing in general as that thing both externalized and opaque. As Plato writes in the Phaedrus, the individual using written language must, in varying degrees, come to terms with the fact that the written text kills all forms of dialogue, for it can never speak back, only parrot over and over its own fixed contents. As with Spinoza's Poet, the object of expression (the piece of writing) is that thing that is rendered foreign and unintelligible to the one person most likely to be able to commune with it, its author. The Latin writer Hyginus recounts the following on the invention of letters: "The [three Fates] Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos invented seven Greek letters—A B H T I Y. Others say that Mercury invented them from the flight of cranes, which, when they fly, form letters. The cranes in flight are not mere wildlife in this example, but a totemic incorporation of Hermes himself, the one who flies on journeys. So when the cranes take a shape, and the shape is a letter, it is at the same time Hermes who forms (invents) the letter.
Excerpted from EXCOMMUNICATION by ALEXANDER R. Galloway, EUGENE THACKER, MCKENZIE Wark. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
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Meet the Author
Alexander R. Galloway is associate professor of media studies at New York University and lives in New York, NY. He is the author of four books on digital media and critical theory, most recently, The Interface Effect. Eugene Thacker is associate professor in the School of Media Studies at the New School and lives in Brooklyn, NY. He is the author of many books, including After Life, also published by the University of Chicago Press. McKenzie Wark is professor of liberal studies at The New School for Social Research and lives in Queens, NY. His books include A Hacker Manifesto and Gamer Theory.
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