Control and Accident:
Thought in the Age of Cybernetics
Jussi Parikka (bio)
University of Turku
Department of Cultural History
“Cinema seems to be at the heart of the society of control, at the same
time producing information, communication and control as well as an intelligence
of the virtual that insists and subsists, and that can produce resistance.”
– Patricia Pisters (2001, p.140)
“Capitalism modulates all assemblages of life
before life – nature before nature – the human before the human by augmenting
the capacity of doing and thinking, communicating and reproducing: the tendency
of capitalism to regenerate itself.”
Luciana Parisi (2004, p.85)
contemporary societies of control, capitalism “does not first arrive with
factories” but with “words, signs and images”, as the Italian philosopher Maurizio Lazzarato (2004, p.190) aptly points out.
Several other philosophers and media theorists have similarly accentuated
the cinematic nature of subjectivity in network societies. For example Patricia
Pisters (2001, p.140) notes how cinema resides at the center of societies
of control. Cinema, as a certain principle of audiovisual production, is in
this view to be understood as a Post-Fordist factory of the mind, directly
tapping to the brain in order to create not only bodily loyal factory workers,
but also mentally suitable subjects of capitalism. Pisters is referring to
Jonathan Beller’s views from 1994, when Beller articulated the inherent connection
cinema and audiovisual production of consciousness have with capitalism. For
Beller, cinema is seen as a factory for production of commodified consciousness
that is integrated into the world system of capitalism; capitalism does not
anymore expand spatially but intensively into the flesh and the brain. “Vision
becomes a form of work” (Beller, 1994, p.59) and the body is deterritorialized
as part of the network system of communication capitalism where the question
of controlling the attention of users of digital technologies becomes the
key issue of power. Thus, it seems that the “old media” of cinema can still
be understood as a key technique of modulation of subjectivities in the age
of new media, remediating new technologies and attitudes towards them as well
as creating patterns of use (and users) that are susceptible towards those
this article, I engage this idea of cinematic subjectification through three
exemplary films of science fiction from the 1990s. By examining a certain
theme of technological subjectivity in the films Johnny Mnemonic (USA 1995), Matrix (USA 1999) and Pi (USA 1998) I argue that such depictions that are
often labeled as “cyborg-films” are not to be understood so much as representations
of man-machines, but as modulations of subjectivity and part of the creation
of digital culture. In Johnny Mnemonic and the Matrix, brains
are tapped into computers, which produces a new state of subjectivity where
the limited human perceptions and capabilities are enhanced with technological
In Pi, an independent film production by Artisan
Entertainment, the main protagonist’s astounding mathematical capabilities
level those of supercomputers able to decipher the chaotic basics of the world.
It also, although in a different tone as the Hollywood mainstream productions,
articulates the theme of technological thought, but highlighting the friction
in this interconnection and acting as a kind of revealer of the discourse
networks otherwise hidden.
approach the films as enactors of certain modes thought, working as factories
of subjectification, connected to the thematics of control societies and information
capitalism. Following Luciana Parisi (2004), I argue that the representationalist
ethos of cultural studies of the recent years has produced a problematic agenda,
whereas we would need concepts that deal with becomings and metamorphoses
and an eye towards mixed semiotics where issues of signification are analyzed
in connection with asemantic semiotics and asignifying materialism. In this
sense, I focus on how audiovisions fabricate models to think with and models
of thought. The notion of cyborgs, so thoroughly linked to contemporary media
condition can actually be a) understood as a cinematic production of technological
assemblages of subjectivity which b) encompasses a wide media-archaeological
history of formalized images of thought and technology.
construction of this brain-computer-coupling appears as a process of subjectification
that guarantees the functionality of the individual: the brain is formed into
a processing (information) machine, which helps the slow and noisy human thought
(Licklider, 1990) to hold together. While earlier media technologies have
succeeded in imposing themselves on the faculties of the eye, the ear and
the mouth, transforming key notions of transmission and storage technologies
of culture, then the computer as an expression of a more general cultural
logic has developed into a paradigmatic model for subjectivity, something
that connects to issues of biopolitics, digitality and capitalism’s ability
to create and modulate life in order to recreate itself. This technologization
of the sensoria can also be understood as an ultimatum of a sort, or as a
general problematics of contemporary culture, as N. Katherine Hayles (1999,
p.243-244) has it: “If the name of the game is processing information, it
is only a matter of time until intelligent machines replace us as our evolutionary
heirs. Whether we decide to fight them or join them by becoming computers
ourselves, the days of the human race are numbered. The problem here does
not lie in the choice between these options; rather it lies in the framework
constructed so as to make these options the only two available.” How is the
brain formed in the rhythms of contemporary science fiction depictions of
brain as a computer, and in addition, how to approach the openness, the undifferentiated
mass of the brain as an event in contemporary technological culture and find
ways that do not reduce the brain to its techno-capitalist contexts? This
is addressed in the final chapter with the aid of the idea of events as accidents, accidentum.
the film Pi Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette) suffers from severe headaches.
Max became ill while staring at the sun as a child – a sickness that lead
to his fear of human contacts. Yet, almost as an exchange, he got incredible
mathematical abilities to interpret the whole world as numbers. The plot of
the film turns around the three axioms of Max: 1) mathematics is the language
of nature; 2) everything can be understood and presented as numbers; 3) if
you present the numbers of any given system in a graphic form you will find
patterns. In the film, Max’s Leibnizian obsession is to find the universal
code determining the world, the general diagram which explains all the occasional-seeming
and chaotic phenomena such as stock prices. In the context of more cosmological
goals, such ideas of calculation were already prevalent with the Medieval
and early modern cosmologies of Raymond Lullus (1235-1315) and Athanius Kircher
(1601/1602-1680) engaged with what has been called the first wiring tables
of modern computer theory. (See Künzel & Bexte, 1993.) Gottfried Wilhelm
von Leibniz, and his idea of a calculus ratiocinator, a universal calculator
of universal code continued the ideas of calculation as the basis of the universe.
In addition, Leibnizian ideas were formalized later on in the calculus of
thought by George Boole (1854), whose version of binary logic formed the backbone
of later electro-mechanical connections in computers.
for Max, he is not the only one interested in this peculiar ability located
in his head. Greedy business people want Max to determine the riddle of the
stock exchange while a Hasidic sect wants to solve—with the help of Max—the
code of the world, of length of 216 numbers, which also is the name of God
which is found in Talmud. As Max seems to close on the solution his headaches
worsen which resonates with the crash problems his own “supercomputer” Euclid
is experiencing. However, even though the belief that in the background of
the chaotic world there is a beautiful and simple diagram drives Max, he seems
to be drifting towards growing disorder. Thus Pi is largely a film
about mental disorders in the age of generalized mathematization and abstraction
of the world. Interestingly the mental states are constantly equated with
technological phenomena, especially the mysterious crashing and bugs in the
Euclid computer (visually thematized with the aid of an ant in the computer
circuits.) The audiovisual stuttering of the film further emphasizes the slight
out-of-focus nature of Max’s venture: the director Aronofsky uses several
noise-elements as well as e.g. crooked camera-angles in this. Here we find
a multiscalar crossing between semiotical layers from signifying
narratives to asignifying materiality of images.
main character Johnny (Keanu Reeves) in Johnny Mnemonic (USA
1995) also suffers from hard headaches. He is a so-called data courier who
with a biotechnological implant has changed his brain into a storage medium,
a hard disk (the film was advertised with a poster in which the main protagonist
Johnny was commented with the text “Meet the ultimate hard drive.”) However,
the price of increasing the ability of brain was a removal of certain parts
– Johnny’s childhood. Human memories are replaced with mechanical ones. Due
to overload, Johnny’s technological brain starts to leak, causing terrible
headaches. The leaking data threatens to kill him if not removed in time.
The climax of the film is a finale in which a cyborg dolphin hacks into Johnny’s
brain to assist in finding the key code to remove the extra payload from his
head – this scene is highlighted with spectacular images of cyberspatial nature
where the normal, Euclidean time-space coordinates are supplemented with the
non-space of informational matrix: these of course are part of the cinematic
enthusiasm of late decades to get inside the machine and to apply computer-generated
images as part of the filmed sequences, in fact turning the surface of the
image into a data matrix of a kind. Tron (1982) was the pioneer in
this, followed in the 1990s with e.g. Lawnmower Man (1992), Johnny Mnemonic (1995), whereas The Matrix-trilogy
(1999, 2003) succeeded in creating the celebrated suturation of the computer
created images with the computer enhanced bodies and movements of these still-human
actors (Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Ann Moss, Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving).
Interestingly, this emphasis on special effects and the “cinema of attractions”
has been one of the key themes in the revival of Hollywood since the 1980s,
something which has also been called the neobaroque cinema (Cubitt, 2005,p.
217-244). As Norman M. Klein
(2004, p. 238) notes, the visibility (instead of naturalness) of f/x was in
itself taken as a key trait of the post 1977 films: “[M]ovies revealed how
the media corporation operates. Hollywood special effects are filled with
traces—clues—left by production methods. In fact, often the story implies
production: aliens as media making war; frequent paranoic details about feedback
systems; stories about the gruesome backbiting in warlord capitalism.”
“New Hollywood” with its mode of production entangled with certain narrative
and audiovisual conventions was especially connected to the blockbuster thematics
of huge profits financing the increasing budgets (due especially to special
effects). As J. Macgregor Wise notes, analyzing the “living machine films”
of the 1980s and 1990s, the New Hollywood product “tends to be a more multimedia
presentation, spinning of sequels, television series, toys, T-shirts, books,
comics, and other items.” (Wise 1997, p. 19. Cf. Cubitt, 2005, p. 218) Cinema
has succeeded in distributing itself across media, and recent years the Internet
has provided an apt platform for such ecologies of cinema spin-offs. Thus,
in a way, “cyberspace” has realized itself also as a cultural product of the
New Hollywood, as a new age of attracting the spectator to the screen, demonstrating
the complexity of the man-machine assemblage as a cultural narrative and a
symbol, but also as the very concrete spectator-film relationship of cinema
Cohen embodies in his brain one of the central properties of modern computing,
the ability to process data, whereas Johnny incorporates two other issues,
storage capacity and transmission.
These features of the modern computer seem to be also tenets
of the process of subjectification in the age of cybernetic machines. Hence,
besides their aching heads, these male protagonists share a more intimate
link. The characters and their cerebral pain act as passages to mapping the
subjectivities and the demands placed on the faculties of thinking, memorizing
and feeling. The pain can also be understood as a residue, a sign of the openness
of the brain, its basic potentiality of being out of tune with formal models,
and also as a sign of the accident at the center of this “the brain is the
computer”-model. Pain is the friction point in the creation of an artificial
system brain-machine. I will return to this at the end of the article.
Lev Manovich (2001, p.57-59)
we can argue that the central theme of the media technologies of modernity
has been the externalization of the sensorial. The media objectifies and stratifies
certain traits of thinking, which succinctly deterritorialize from being mere
faculties of the human (while also deterritorializing what it means to be
human.) Francis Galton used overlapping photographs at the end of the 19th-century
to identify basic human types with their physical characteristics. Hugo Münsterberg
saw the essence of cinema in its ability to reproduce states of mind on the
screen. At the same time, in the 1920s and 1930s when the cinematic image
gained a lot of intellectual interest in Europe and in Soviet-Russia, Sergei
Eisenstein presented his theory of how the cinema thinks with the technique
of montage. In a similar spirit, Jaron Lanier presented his phantasy from
the 1980s of how virtual reality technologies enable the integration of the
psyche to the computer, the amalgation of inner images with technologically
produced ones. Such views rest on the assumption that the subject should be
approached as a folding of the inside and the outside, a process of individuation
where interacting elements are immanently related.
brain is the computer is then a reformulation of Deleuze’s idea of the brain
as the screen. In an interview from then 1980s, Deleuze expressed this as
The brain is unity. The brain is the screen. I
don’t believe that linguistics and psychoanalysis offer a great deal to the
cinema. On the contrary, the biology of the brain – molecular biology – does.
Thought is molecular. Molecular speeds make up the slow beings that we are.
(…) The circuits and linkages of the brain don’t pre-exist the stimuli, corpuscles,
and particles that trace them. (…) Cinema, precisely because it puts the image
in motion, or rather endows the image with self-motion, never stops tracing
the circuits of the brain. (Deleuze, 2000, p.366).
see how e.g. Pisters’s ideas stem exactly from these Deleuzian pathways. The
brain is formed with the rhythms of cinema, the key media technology of modernity.
Media technologies act as an a priori layer for thought, yet in the Deleuzian
emphasis the brain is an immanent part of this layer which conditions thought
and sensibility: there is no causality from technologies to the brain. In
Deleuzian terminology this can be seen as a process of de- and reterritorialization
where e.g. the mouth deterritorializes from eating to making sounds which
are reterritorialized to meanings and so forth. These movements can be deciphered
as assemblages of heterogeneous parts, where also technologies can be understood
as de- and reterritorializing elements for the sense and thought capabilities.
(Johnston, 1999, p. 28-29). The modes of perception created by cinema are
folded with the brain as they form a common plane of immanence. In relation
to this I focus on the brain-computer rhythm as it is expressed on a plane
of cinema. This leads to interesting questions concerning not least the creative
potentiality of the brain: does the computer, or informational, model of the
brain leave space for creativity, novelty and the recreation of the brain
or is the brain increasingly captured as part of the information capitalist
flows of subjectification? What kind of modulations and histories of thought
and the brain are we presented with?
Pi and Johnny Mnemonic relate closely to such histories of man-machine
relations, as well as the autopoiesis of the factory. The factories of industrial
modernization as the prototypical new machine-complexes were obviously not
modeled on people (as some of the automata of the 17th- and 18th-centuries)
anymore, but incorporated them as parts of the cogs and wheels of productive
processes. The human being became more of an observer of these complex factory
and steam engine systems, a reactive part of the speed of the factory. This
reactivity was expressed in the underlined faculty of attention and adaptation,
illustrated comically in the classic Charlie Chaplin-scene of Modern Times (USA, 1936) of the poor worked being sucked into the orifice of the machine.
Even though the conveyor belt might seem an old-fashioned model of production
and societal organization, it still has relevance when considered as part
of the formulation of “brain factories” in the sense articulated by Beller
and Pisters, among others.
Crary argues in his Suspensions of Perception how attention is an especially important issue concerning the industrializing
Western society and modernity in general. According to Crary , (2001, p.1-14),
the world of increasing sense stimuli has been usually conceptualized as fragmentation,
shock and distraction, while at least as important role should be given to
cultural techniques of attention and concentration. According to his analysis,
attention became a central requirement in the capitalist world of sense stimuli:
lack of concentration was analyzed as a medical and societal problem in a
world which was increasingly based on the capability of the worker/consumer
to receive massive amounts of sense input. The daydreaming worker at the conveyor
belt was a danger for the capitalist production process in a similar manner
as the consumer’s incapability to focus on the stimuli produced by advertisements
and other commercial distractions was judged a hindrance to the whole principle
of exchange on which the rising consumer society was based. At the same time
as capitalism was producing continuous movement in the form of novelties,
it was necessary to produce a subject that was receptive towards such processes.
the psychological problem of perception, a norm of attentive subject was postulated
within this field of research of reaction times, sensory sensitivity, chronometrics
of the mind and conditional reflexes. This can be analyzed as a certain discourse
network where the two-fold phenomena of attention and distraction were given
consistency. (See e.g. Crary, 2001, p.25-25; 49. Cf. Crary, 1998, p.96). Crary
has emphasized how Hermann von Helmholz’s psychological studies in the 19th-century
set a new basis for the rationalization, instrumentalization and gradual replacement
of the human sensory skills with technological prosthesis. (Crary, 2001, p.319-329.
and other early computing projects during the 20th-century continued along
this scheme. John Von Neumann was preoccupied e.g. with the brain-machine-symbiosis
question which, as occasionally simplified, was not about seeing the brain
as a computer but working towards conceptions of how to find points of community
between these two “processing machines.” As Von Neumann noted, the brain was
a much more complex “machine”, yet it came second in speed: “There is, however,
a factor in favor of these machines: they’re faster than the human brain.
The time in which a human nerve can respond is about ½ millisecond.
However, that time is not a fair measure of the speed of the neuron, because
what matters is not the time in which the neuron responds, but the time in
which it recovers, the time from one response to the next potential response.”
(Von Neumann, 1966, p.65) Even nerve cells seemed to be reliant on attentive
perception, the capability of coherent and focused multi-paralleling action.
Of course, as has been widely analyzed, cybernetics brought the same issues
to the forefront first in connection with sensory perception requirements
in war-time situations and subsequently in connection to the rise of media
it would be an impossible task to cover the whole field of cybernetics that
is relevant to our analysis, it suffices to underline the importance that
these discourse networks had in relation to contemporary production of digitality.
Cybernetics and system theories conceptualized the openness of Man to her
surroundings as with the famous ideas of Herbert Simon (1969, 23-54) from
the end of the 1960s. The capabilities of the human being are an interfacing
of the complexity of its surroundings, even though certain internal limitations
act as bottlenecks for enhancing these faculties. As Simon notes, human beings
have restricted memory capabilities (unlike computers) which restrain her
processing capabilities as well. With Simon, as with several key proponents
of systems theory, the human being was conceptualized as an interfacing between
the environment and the so-called-human being. This continued as a theme that
did not succumb merely to a science fiction narrative but was used in the
design and planning of key interfacing devices of digital culture in various
computer labs and research institutes. Similarly, also recent steps in cognitive
science (such as Andy Clark’s work) have analyzed higher cognitive capabilities
as intertwined with external resources, for instance machines. (Johnston,
one cannot understand the cyberpunk imaginary of late decades without this
historical background in psychophysics and cybernetics. Also Johnny Mnemonic’s
world should be analyzed in terms of its intensive sense stimuli rather than
the extensive representative forms; the film embodies a capitalist landscape
in the cyberpunk-mode, an urban environment filled with various stimuli such
as advert neon lights, traffic noise, chemically induced accelerations and
slowing downs and the endless connections of screens and displays. In this
sense, it is part of the capitalist process of the 19th-century,
which is based on the continuous flow of things (due partly to the idea that
electricity, the prima motor of new media culture, was thought of as a flow)—flows
of money, images, sounds, identities connecting in heterogeneous assemblages.
The constant production of newness can be deciphered as a central theme relating
to bodies, signs, images, languages, social relationships, commodities and
capital. (Crary, 1998, p.10-11). In addition, Johnny Mnemonic marks also the
passage from a psycho-physical sphere of urbanity to digital era of networks
protagonist Johnny is employed as an information courier in order to emphasize
the role of the brain as a processor and recorder of data. As the intro
text to the film says: “The most valuable information must sometimes be entrusted
to mnemonic couriers, elite agents who smuggle data in wet-wired brain implants.”
Again, as both the scientist testing human capabilities since the 19th-century
as well as the computer pioneers of the 20th-century have taught
us, the unwired brain is incapable of handling such enormous amounts of information.
Even though the eye with its capability to process info has remained something
much unparalled, the brain has other bottlenecks e.g. with decision and recording
capabilities that make it obsolete concerning the potential amount of information
that could be transmitted via fiber optic cables.
Nerve Attenuation Syndrome, a curious viral sickness, emphasizes the centrality
of the brain in Johnny Mnemonic. It induces strong cramplike seizures
that cause unconsciousness and eventually death. The cause of the virus is
“information overload, all the electronics around you, poisoning the airwaves,
technological fucking civilization, but we still have this shit because we
can’t live with out it”, as dr. Allcome (Henry Rollins) clarifies. Here, as
in Pi, the vitality of the brain is marked by an accident, or sickness,
a point of friction.
protagonist Johnny is part of the elite due to his technological enhancements
that guarantee his capabilities to survive the information overloads. The
narrative of the film raises Johnny as a messianic figure of a kind when it
is revealed that the data overloading his brain is in fact a cure for the
nerve attenuation syndrome. Johnny and the data in his head can make these
people subjects again, engage them in the process of subjectification. By curing these people from their nerve syndrome and their lack of tolerance
they are also cured to become self-controlling, attentive, focused and autonomous
subjects that participate in the media capitalist way of life; they are again
able to see the images, hear the audio and focus on the commodities offered
to their senses and their brain. As a parallel to the 19th-century
sciences that constructed the attentive subject with their own mechanical-technical
measuring devices this narrative from Johnny Mnemonic can be understood as emphasizing the need for
a particular kind of attentiveness and the faculties for channelling information.
Again I want to underline that perhaps the scene and the narrative should
not be taken as a representation of a situation within the western media world. Instead, the film forms
a much more complex assemblage where Johnny Mnemonic is not merely a film about attention and
media culture, but itself as a cultural product is depended on such faculties
of concentration and consumption. It does not merely depict a world of sensorially
challenging media scenes, e.g. virtual reality, but it itself tries to employ
a certain amount of visual spectacles that demand a basic level of responsiveness
from the capabilities of the viewer. (See Melehy, 1995. Wise, 1997, p.53-54.)
It invites to a position of a spectator that is also doubled
as one of participator, a theme which Sean Cubitt (2005, p. 227) sees characteristics
of the Hollywood “neobaroque” in general.
Consequently, Johnny Mnemonic can be opened via the social-technological changes
that have raised the computer as an apparatus of connectionism (and information
as the key symbolic value and the “stuff of communications”) and also as the
diagrammatic abstract machine
with what to conceptualize also the thematics of thought
and perception. Even though the film itself is technocritical, as exemplified
e.g. in the quotation from Dr. Allcome above, it cannot solve the tensions
inherent in itself as an assemblage part of the very media cultural production
of “New Hollywood”. In the film, the computerized media culture degenerates
the ability to think; yet at the same time Johnny finds in the digital cyberspace
the possibility for creative thinking and in the end even bits of his long
lost childhood memory. The memories of paradise lost and the warmth of childhood
are as well technologically preserved and mediated. Johnny’s brain is externalized
from the beginning on and the lost authenticity reveals to be media technologically
conditioned as well, transmitted as digital images. So, without technology
no images, without attention no reception of images, and with no images, no
general, media theorists have been eager to incorporate cybernetics as the
focal point in the creation of contemporary subject of media culture. The
cybernetic circuits of feedback and teleology have offered valuable concepts
to such thematizations of subjectification as noise-reduction, control and
stabilization. According to Paul Virilio, humans are able to pass the threshold
of their natural limits solely by slipping into cybernetic suits with what
to adjust the space-time coordinates of perception into the non-spatial speed
of information culture. This is to be understood as a specific form of control,
where the computer “[…] has suddenly become the arranger of tangible reality.”
(Virilio, 1997, p.131). This connects to Virilio’s view of the
history of perception as one of logistics – a rearranging of the perceptual
capabilities of the human being according to military and police logic. (Johnston
1999, p. 29-30.)
other words, this acceleration and logistics of speed is no novel theme of
cyberculture, but something inherently part already of modernization at the
end of the 19th-century. The media archaeological traces of such
an experience of speeding-up the human body can be found for example in the
novel experience with the new transport technologies, especially the train,
whose impact on the human sensors is perfectly illustrated in William Turner’s
painting “Rain, Steam, and Speed The Great Western Railway” (1844), or in
the time travel fantasies of H.G.Wells, who in his Time Machine-novel
(1895) presented the jacking into the flux of time as a kind of a acceleration
of the human perception. In addition, Wells’s time machine resonates with
the cinematic experience where the human sensorium is speeded up to match
the movie projector’s speed of 24 images in a second.
is, of course, famous for his problematization of this issue of cybernetically
enhanced, or accelerated, perception. Computers and other technologies of
perception increasingly set the norms to which the human perception and thought
must adjust, an issue that moved from the design blueprints at computer research
labs to be part of the personal computer culture since the 1980s.
This is also the line that I follow with the aid of the
specific films at hand: the fine-tuning of the sensorial and cerebral basis
of the human being in order for it to be capable of “technological perception.”
Such an assemblage encompasses numerous lines that converge, ranging from
the continuous theme of modernization and the senses to the computer pioneers
of the post- WWII-period such as J.C.F. Licklider, who aptly regarded the
on-line experience as one of intelligence amplification (Licklider & Taylor,
1990), and onto the cinematic assemblages of these specific films that are
in themselves, also, production machines for subjectivities of the network
culture. Such subjects are increasingly also networked subjects where issues
of communication are further emphasized. This theme can be deciphered also
as a general cinematic pattern in cyberpunk-narratives such as Johnny Mnemonic where of course the movie revolves around transportation of data but also
the whole narrative is based around movement of looking for someone, meeting
new people – a complex system of networks. Similar is the theme in The Matrix, where networks of communication (accessed via telephones) are
an implicit organizer of the narrative, and the whole three-piece series is
in cyberpunk fashion organized as a complex network of relations between people,
places and events.
In Pi, artificial systems are continuously on the verge of instability,
chaos. On the level of the narrative, Max’s gift for rational calculation
is part of his fight against the chaos of the world, the axiomatic refrain
that keeps both his mind and his mathematical theory together: the world is
– it has to be – a code. The narrative refrain is furthermore amplified with the
contagious audio refrain of the movie. This is another asemantic element that
ties with the signifying semiotics of the narrative.
compulsive refrain is crystallized in Max’s dialogue with his old teacher
Sol Robeson (Mark Margolis). For Sol, who has dedicated his whole academic
career to the mathematical problem of the pi, the world is a Go-game board,
which is potentially open to infinite amount of combinations. No game is like
another one, thus there is no linear pattern, or a code, that would restrict
the virtual potential of a game. For Max, this view is unacceptable, too chaotic.
For him, as a game of Go advances, the number of potential moves is reduced
and we see patterns emerging: there is always an order inherent in the potentially
chaotic. Max’s neurosis connects to the engineering problems of early
computers and transmission technologies, discussed e.g. by Shannon and Weaver.
By discussing these games, Max and Sol are also discussing issues of stochastic
processes and Markoff chains, that is, the statistical regularities of informational
systems (see Shannon & Weaver, 1949, p.102-103). Go is the world, which
for Max and several key scientists of late decades, is a computer or a computer-like
process, like a cellular-automata.
spiral is another key asemantic visual form in the movie. Max finds spirals
everywhere: the milk poured into the coffee, the cigarette smoke revolving
in the air, the seashell found on the beach, etc. Such diagrams of geometry
and the distanced viewer suit Max’s models of thought perfectly; the spiral
is a symbol of evolutionary movement, which however always ends in the middle,
the peaceful terrain of non-movement, timelessness, and harmony. In addition
to the symbolic connotations the spiral has in Christian symbolics and e.g.
in psychoanalysis, it is a mathematical theme. The Spiral was discovered by
Pythagoras in the 5th century BC. The mathematical definition of
spirals sees them as “derived via the golden rectangle, a unique rectangle
which has the golden ratio. When squared, it leaves a smaller rectangle behind,
which has the same golden ratio as the previous rectangle. The squaring can
continue indefinitely with the same result. No other rectangle has this trait.
When you connect a curve through the corners of these concentric rectangles,
you have formed the golden spiral.” (Pi-Website). The symbolical movements
of Max are actually a tracking of mathematical patterns. “My new Hypothesis:
If we're built from Spirals while living in a giant Spiral, then is it possible
that everything we put our hands to is infused with the Spiral?” The Spiral
is a diagrammatic element in the movie, stretching the social field from Max’s
pathologies to mathematics and onto a visual theme, or a refrain.
pain seem, however, to worsen as he approaches what he thinks is the “Euclidean point” and the final code. The migraine-like
aches act as if reminders to Max of the chaotics of the world, hinting that
his urge for control and order are penetrated, similarly as mathematical patterns,
by the eternal flow of the world. As Gödel demonstrated in 1930 in his “On
Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems”,
even mathematical, formal systems cannot be closed but are always dependent
on their outsides.
his insistence, Max reminds us of Norbert Wiener. The mentor of cybernetics
also experienced the intertwining of physical symptoms – pain, respiration
difficulties – to his mathematical work. Wiener himself thought that any experience
could function as a symbol for a mathematical pattern, leading him to conclude
that his personal physical pain was an expression of such an unsolved problem
(Pfohl, 1997). Perhaps Max’s and Norbert’s painful states of body are only
passing phases in the route to solving the crucial equations that haunt them
as psycho-physical symptoms.
Or, then, they can be taken as indicators of a much more
interesting issue having to do with the accidentality of the assemblage of
film Pi functions as a store house of media history, also opening towards
the research into the after-image phenomenon of the eye. This key-problem
of the 19th-century was of interest already to Goethe, who was
followed by the Czech Jan Purkinje and his meticulous studies on the relationship
of the eye and the brain. Regarding the film Pi, we should foremost
consider Joseph Plateau’s studies, where he almost lost his eyesight. Similarly,
several people analyzing the phenomenon of persistence of vision suffered
also from severe headaches. The link is obvious: the after-image phenomenon
was analyzed e.g. with tests in which one stared at the sun, just like Max
tells he had done in the film Pi. The tests in the 19th-century
were inherently connected to developing key devices of moving image, such
as the thaumatrope and the phenakistiscope. (Crary, 1998, p.104-107.) Max’s
remark on how senses and especially the seeing eye are made meaningful only
with the brain, the connection organ, is thus a direct link to the empirical
experiments and theories concerning human perception. At the same time it
also articulates the connection between the contemporary focus on the brain
in relation to computer technologies and the early psycho-physiological experiments
of the 19th-century.
perception of light (perception) and movement (action and attention) were
key issues in the midst of the 19th-century modernization, whereas
the brain is a vital focal point of post-Fordist production (although these
processes amplify and build on each other). Capitalism is increasingly focused
on the incorporeal transformations within the brain, as Lazzarato (2004, p.189)
notes: “Incorporeal transformations produce (or would like to produce) first
and foremost a change in sensibility, a change in our way to value and perceive.”
This kind of a “cerebral work” takes as its object the brain in its quest
to produce virtualities, possible worlds (where there is a whole industry
focused on this Leibnizian task). Our heads are the object of language, communication,
rhetoric, images and so forth that produce spiritual subjectivities and modes
of life that adhere to the capitalist way of life. (Lazzarato, 2004,
p.193). The body is not the focus of control societies, but the brain, and
the brain is tapped with the aid of signifying and asignifying refrains. Subjectification
happens through the capturing refrains also produced by the marketing industry
(Lazzarato, 2004, p.190), but also in an implicit form of other cultural products
which tune us in for a specific wave-length receptive to capitalist production/consumption.
The brain is captured as part of the capitalist agenda
through specific tactics of imitation and mimesis, as Jussi V˛h˛m˛ki (2004)
notes, which in our case connects to the issue of mimesis of computers as the expressive machines of control society.
Pi and Johnny Mnemonic also visualize how the intertwining of the
brain and the computer is an issue of folding and individuation. Technologies
are not external prostheses of man’s perception organs, but they act as deterritorializing
and reterritorializing agents of perception: they are internal to the process
of perception, elements with which a perception is formed. Also the brain
is deterritorialized in the digital age from the organic form of the human
being as they stretch towards the networks of information – the patterns and
processes of technologically enhanced cultural perception in the age of cybernetic
connection machines. Following Manovich this can be seen as the theme of technological
externalisation of perception and thought that began with Galton’s photographs
and continued e.g. along with the cinematic man-machine apparatus. This all
relates to the issue of thinking the media culture of modernization not so
much as a visual age of the eye, but as an era of the brain: images are merely
a form of information and therefore the brain, the connection machine, is
the general issue at hand. (See Johnston, 1999, p.27-48). As Max states
in Pi, “what good is the eye for without the brain? Nothing.” The visual
theme of the brain is highlighted in the critical refrain with Max’s deliriums
of brains lying uncannily on the pavement of a metro station, or in the kitchen
sink (in one scene covered by ants, which also bug Max’s computers – ants
are in this respect an element of accidentality and near chaotic self-organization
Pi can be characterized as a baroque film that revolves around mathematics, an
element which, to follow Cubitt (2005, p. 234), turns the image into an allegorical
fugue that is characterized by the presence of a Code that seems also to haunt
the protagonists and narratives. Such themes of algorithmicity have marked
also other recent movies. The hit film Matrix (USA, 1999) and its sequels
(2003) can also be approached as assemblages that articulate the connection
of the brain and the computer via the theme of programmability. The protagonist
Neo (Keanu Reeves) notes quickly how easy it is to learn in the cybernetic
age. No more reading books, writing notes, hammering facts and figures to
your head: all that can be directly programmed to the folds of the brain.
paradox of the movie is that although Neo is released from the Matrix-virtual
reality of computers, he is not altogether disconnected from being enhanced
by similar machines. As the plot goes, he is to be trained as a freedom fighter
that would show the people still connected to the Matrix that they are living
in a dream world. Neo’s training means plugging into the computer via connection
in the back of his head, and feeding the needed training programs as part
of his psychophysical capabilities. In this scene, in a few instances, Neo
learns jujitsu, karate, tae kwon do and a range of other key skills. His adaptability,
or “learning abilities”, is raised as an issue, or as Tank, the computer operator,
states: “Ten hours straight. He’s a machine.” And aptly, that seems to be
the case considering Neo’s processes of thinking and learning: the brain is
a connection machine that reaches out towards the outside, which in this case,
refers to the computer enhanced media equipments of the mother ship – and
in general the virtual reality acceleration of the Matrix. Neo truly
is a key figure of the contemporary media culture (as is the spectator giving
her attention to the pace of the Matrix-films) who folds the complexity
of the surrounding system to himself (Cf. Simon, 1969). Even more so than Johnny Mnemonic, The Matrix-movies demand fine-tuned perception
skills from the viewer, perpetually trained attention to the state-of-the-art
special effects and continuous acceleration and decelerations of the moving
image. With the Matrix, the relation to digital games is evident: video
games can be seen as a similar training ground for the senses, not merely
for the visual, but also for the tactile bodily movements which have to react
to the interactive rhythms of the game.
contrast, the discourse networks of 1800, analyzed by Friedrich Kittler, saw
great pains to develop precise and meticulous techniques of learning, producing
also huge amounts of manuals for educators in order to cultivate children
in a proper manner in the especially important techniques of reading and writing.
(Kittler, 1990, p.25-69).. Neo seems
to obliterate this network by his near unmediated ability to adapt—as if there
would be no need for specific cultural techniques to incorporate the human
into the cultural discourse networks. The process of learning is thus in itself
(seemingly) unrepresentable, visualized merely in the twitching body of Neo
as he is downloaded with data. This unmediatedness is of course a mere illusion,
the central phantasm of cyber culture of recent decades of immediate, non-symbolic
communication, whereas every electrical engineer knows that digital communications
are not immaterial, but need very meticulous knowledge of the material substrates
which convey signals we receive as images, sounds and words. Yet, such images
of adaptation and learning are propagated continuously, behaving also as signals
of the demise of hermeneutics. As information has been increasingly articulated
as a process of downloading data without a view on the semantic context as
Shannon and Weaver established the formal engineer definition of information,
there seem to be no need for such specifically human endeavors of Gadamerian
nature as hermeneutics. The machines do the interpretation for us, and the
act of “thinking” is reduced on such planes of thought to mere channeling
of information, and adjusting to the capability to receive as much as data
as sensorally possible. In other words, “the human sensorium was fragmented
and redistributed as a multiplicity of particularized and ‘autonomic’ functions,
brought together again if ever only in the specious unities proposed by the
entertainment industry,” as Johnston (1999, p.32) describes a Kittlerian view
of the passage from discourse network 1800 to 1900.
the operator of the mother ship and the discourse network of 2000, gives us
another key quote. Tank thinks that it is unnecessary for Neo to waste his
time with operating systems; they are merely boring and time-consuming when
you could be spending your time with something more exciting like downloading
combat programs. This insignificantly mentioned phrase implies that Neo, our
paradigmatic figure of a media cultural subject, does not need any interfacing,
operating systems, or any method for interpretating machine impulses. His
brain is already tuned, which is emphasized visually: Neo’s brain is formed
into a diagram on a computer screen, where his brain capacity is defined and
measured. A direct neural connection from the back of his head leads to the
computer and the screen visualization, where computer feeds information to
the correct places in his brain, controlling the successful transfer of data.
This scene finds apt resonance with Beller’s views of the cinema-capital connection:
“What if one thought of cinema not so much as a factory for the production
of concepts, but as a factory for the production of a consciousness more and
more thoroughly commodified, more and more deeply integrated in a world system? In a world organized like cinema, consciousness
becomes a screen on which the affects of production are manifest. What if one thought of cinematic technologies, with their ability to
burrow into the flesh, as a partial solution to the problem of expansion faced
by the full globalization of capital?” (Beller, 1994, p.58) Capital is therefore
perceptive towards the fact that the brain is open to media technological
modulations and the constant creation of worlds.
Matrix, Pi and Johnny Mnemonic are in this sense assemblages
to think with, tools for thought with
which to plunge into the issue of this particular cultural shift: the brain
deterritorializes as part of a technological assemblage, implying a shift
from “man as the interpreting animal” (hermeneutics) to man as the calculating
animal (Turing) – in this simplification I of course neglect all the quasi-mystical
themes of e.g. The Matrix. Similarly Johnny Mnemonic’s and Pi’s narratives rely on romanticized views of natural human subjectivities hidden
inside the technological surfaces, but at the same time, paradoxically, their
so-called-humanness is formed only as part and in relation to the technological
assemblages. In addition, especially Johnny and the characters of The Matrix are stressed as cartoon-like which fits well into the thematics of the digital
image as brushlike: the capabilities of the human figure are increasingly
painted and computationally designed on desktops than performed by human bodies
– of course, as the short documentaries presenting “The Making of” of such
digital films show us, the human bodies do move – but are layered with the
help of computer programs into worlds and situations humanly impossible. Digital
cinema techniques of composing, modulating, and so forth, enable the audiovisual
enactions of such post-human bodies that are not merely performed in the body-phenomenological
sense, but increasingly calculated.
As Morpheus teaches Neo that the rules of the Matrix-reality
are no different from rules of any computer system, meaning that these rules
are susceptible to bending and twisting (as the bodies nearly convulsively
twist and bend in The Matrix-trilogy.
) The superbodies are not merely bodies of flesh but bodies
of digital bits, organized in the representational mode as nearly-human figures.
the first computers of the 1940s and 1950s were titled as ”superbrains”, electric
brains and electron brains, as the designers and financiers wanted to underline
that these computers could perform such tasks that were earlier restricted
for humans (Suominen, 2000, p.40-43). Originally
the word ”computer” was reserved for people (usually women) who were hired to companies and organizations to take
care of the calculation duties. As the calculations became too complex
and the amount of data to be processed grew enormously (demonstrated especially
during the Second World War operations organisation), the human brain became
obsolete concerning the needs of modernization. (Fox Keller, 1995, p.82. See also Light, 1999). The cultural change and
articulations of the brain has overflowed this organ with connections with
the information infrastructure (television, telephone, mobiles, faxes, memos,
commercials, computer screens, etc.) enhanced by digital connections. Information
fatigue is of course the diagnosed name for the “everyday cyborgs” that connect
with those devices, and who are overwhelmed by their pace – a curious disease
that manifests itself in anxiety, irritability, tensions and feelings of helplessness.
The so-called-human being has to participate in the acceleration of the technological
rhythm, which was in the age of steam engines and factories principally a
question of physicality and the ordering the physical capabilities of people,
for instance at the factory. Yet, now, the virtuality of the brain is modulated
as part of the rhythm of the cybernetic feedback loops, something that the
films analyzed here participate in as well.
has to be noted is that the discussions on “electron brains” and “electric
thinking” cannot be just taken as amusing and defective metaphors but the
analogy is diagrammatically more profound. Such views have found resonance
not only with science fiction stories of computer-brains, but also in the
very concrete cultural assemblages of brains and the incorporeal capacities
of people folded with computerized machines, and digitally processed and transmitted
products of audiovisual culture. Thus, I think, that we should take those
products of science fiction, a good example of an apt novel is Bruce Sterling’s Distraction (from 1998), as vehicles and “tools-for-thought” which
take us deep inside the reality of digital media culture of multitasking,
parallel processing and other information network processes. Following Steven
Shaviro, who has analyzed the viral condition of contemporary culture, we
can argue that such fictions are important mappings of the openness of the
human condition in the age of biotechnology and informational networks: “The
individual organism is only a transitory by-product of the multiple processes
running through this network. I cannot make any categorical distinction between
the replicators (genes or memes) that would intrinsically belong to me and
those (biological or linguistic viruses) that would have only affected me
from outside. […] The imperative that gives rise to me are never truly my
own. Parasitism thus becomes a universal principle.” (Shaviro, 2003, p.16-17).
Accident of Thought
this light, the brain-computer complex seems to be underlined foremost as
a control machinery of a kind, something that resonates with Deleuze’s ideas
of control society and the subsequent theorizations by e.g. Italian theorists
(Lazzarato, Hardt & Negri, Paolo Virno, Franco “Bifo” Berardi, etc.).
Yet, the recent decades of cyber culture, especially the American examples
of Mondo 2000, Wired, and others, has continuously emphasized the liberating
effects of this revolution of the mind, the freedom from restrictions of hierarchy,
the creativity in personal computers. Such views, however, point to the focal
issue within the idea of “computationally enhanced subjectivity”, whereas
it is no wonder that most of the cyberpunk inspired fictions, like Johnny
Mnemonic and Matrix, have been hailed by such enthusiasts.
line from such films goes back to the cyber culture of 1980s and further to
the computerized hippie fantasies of previous years, which during the recent
decades have deterritorialized from the specific communities of West Coast
of the US to spread in the form of an audiovisual refrain throughout the globe.
Timothy Leary, a pioneer figure in this movement, can be taken as an exemplary
figure for our argumentation as well. Leary’s ideas of connecting the brain
and the computer to form a novel “chaos machine” are apt regarding how power
functions in post-Fordist societies.
(1994, p.35-38) wants to emphasize how the computer is able to take the brain
into new assemblages and to create new events. The linking of the brain and
the computer is foremost a creative event, which is placed as an opposite
to rigid models of power that mould thought and cultural practices with laws,
regulations and other norms.
(1994, p.14-15; 38) fantasizes that the brain wants to be connected to the cybernetic circuit which enables it to swim and
navigate in the flow of information and electronic data. According to Leary,
the brain needs data just like our bodies need nutrition: the brain loves
overloading as it is able to process hundreds of millions of signals in seconds.
The brain wants to process, but also to connect with other brains and form
cerebral networks which maximize the endless flow of information. Leary is
trying here to model the very traditional hacker imaginary of the revolutionary
effects of free information and primacy of thought, issues which however stand
at the center of contemporary forms of control. True, such ideas of self-creativity
and development serve a break from the disciplinary societies of hierarchic
spatial control. Yet, whereas we do not have so much moulding of our bodies and minds, we have modulation and
channeling. To use Deleuze’s (1987) notion of control societies as highways:
you can drive freely on the highways as much as you like and experience the
liberty of it, but still you are continuously following the routes and plans
of organization that keep you on the road.
control is exactly based on new thoughts, creativity and new connections,
which are performed as spontaneous expressivity of people. Just like Max,
Neo or Johnny, Timothy Leary wishes to guarantee his operability by forming
himself into a brain machine, which would swim like a fish in the flow of
digital information, and surf on the top of such flows. However, these flows
resonate intimately with the flows of capitalism.
crucial question remains, in the midst of these discourses and practices that
create audiovisual spaces of freedom and creativity, whether we want or even
can resist such enforced communications, compelled connectionism? As creativity
has been captured as part of the advertisement industry, how to come up with
novel ways of seeing, thinking and acting—that is, where is the interval of
micropolitics? Can we rely on seeing the brain as a linking machine of novel
connections, recreation and heterogeneous alliances, when the cybernetic control
is based on similar ideas of “spontaneous autopoiesis?” I want to end my article
with a short questioning towards the possibilities of resistance in the age
of cybernetic machines, where, to remind of Pisters’s (2001, p.140) words,
cinema distributes both control but also the virtual potentials for resistance.
Deleuze, the potential of the brain (as a concept and a principle of creation
of novelty) is somewhere else than the acceleration of thought or increasing
of performance capacity—the functions of a communication society. Brains are for Deleuze machines of the event: events are something
that cannot be reduced to their origins or contexts, nor can their effects
and end results be determined beforehand. The brain-event is a potentiality
of the new and a potential of creating novel connections that resist both
the rigid lines of segmentarizing discipline but also the microlines of control
of e.g. capitalism that folds on itself, the body of capital. (Deleuze, 1990,
p.238-239.) In his cinema philosophy Deleuze delineated the new understanding
of the brain as one that refuses to be tied down in a harmonious totality
of organization, continuity and similarity. Instead, the brain network is
an acentric system of distributed agencies: the cinema of networks. This also
connects to the emphasis on the cut as an opening between series, not anymore
subjugated to the continuity of images in harmony. The cut is a linkage, an
event that forks in new directions. (Johnston, 1999, p.44-46.)
we have to find ways to discern open-ended becoming from determined becomings
that are merely ostensible modulations that function according to the logic
of information capitalism. This phantasm of capitalism, exemplified from certain
cyberpunk themes onto audiovisual production of subjectivity in advertisements,
films, etc., does tap into the ontological openness of the so-called-human-being
that is a creation of the socio-technological forces running through him –
here the masculine tense is intended. Such “becomings-machine”, however, conform
to the already established, known and experienced and fails to deliver any
novel pathways in the becoming-technological of the human being. The illusions
of change and transformation are at the core of capitalism, whereas novel
events are still rare. (Ansell-Pearson, 1999, p.206-208).
Laruelle (2000, p.176) captures the essence of eventuality aptly: events are
able to create cracks between the substantialities of Being, History and Time,
ruptures of a kind, not empirical “happenings.” In this sense, events are
between things and able to make those seemingly stable entities vibrate into
new kinds of constellations via their ability to create novel connections. What has to be accentuated, however, is
that events are not restricted to being capabilities of the human being and
the human brain, but the human is only secondary in relation to events. Such
a priorizing of the human is a common theme in fiction and academic theory,
which try to decipher the autonomity of the human in the pressures of the
technological world. As Matrix tries to romanticize the human creativity and emotionality, similarly
cultural studies have often been too focused on thinking based on the separatedness
of the human and the non-human (nature, technology, etc.), instead of trying
to find approaches and contexts to bypass such distinctions. This, of course,
is due to a revitalization of the Kantian schema of duality between the outer
world of materiality and spatiality and the internal (human) world of temporality
and thought. (Cf. Wise, 1997, p.3-13. Wiley, 2006). Yet, what we need are
thoughts as events that short-circuit such rigid themes, which actually do
not get us anywhere in relation to the key assemblage of technological thought
in the age of cybernetic capitalism. In other words, we have to get past of
the cultural studies / social constructionism thematics of representation
and signification which are not sufficient enough to map new modes of material
subjectivities and the material
asignifying semiotics of media technologies, whether we are talking of audiovisuality
of cinema or the circuits of digital computers and computer networks. In this
sense the films analyzed above are not mere representations but complex intertwinings
of mixed semiotics that are part and parcel of the very technological-economic
condition they “represent” – in this sense the focus should be turned to the
events and constitutions that maintain such films.
suggestion for mapping such gaps would be to start with the anomalous in the
films, the headaches. As a narrative and visual theme (functioning especially
well in Pi with specific audiovisual underlining of the pain) it highlights
the point of fuzziness in the brains of the protagonists. Headaches act as
accidents of a kind, where the Latin etymology of accidentum bears
the enlightening connection with happening, falling out and with “event.”
Whereas the history of (media) technologies has relied on the special phantasm
of presumed rationalism, expressed well in the rationalist man-machine connections
from Fordist conveyor belts of Taylorian fashion to the Post-Fordist factories
of mind with the scientifically conveyed audiovisual consumer products, cracks
open up alternative perspectives into machines and people. So-called-human
beings are accidental beings, outside themselves, but so are also the technologies
we live by. Again, I want to highlight how interestingly Pi underlines
with the parallel thematizations of the brain and the crashing of the Euclid-computer
due to bugs – what is significant is that the solution seems to come
at the point of its crashing down when the computer spits out the code Max
has been waiting for, 216 numbers in length. The accident proves to be the
event, and the supercomputer seems to work out best at its moment of failure.
As with Deleuze’s idea of the cut in cinema, the accident is not to be taken
merely as a temporarily dysfunction in the normal functioning of a machine
(a principle of homogeneous series) but it should also receive its own consistency
as a friction that marks the borders of the “normal” operation of the system.
The accident is the equivalent of cut (cinema) in the register of network
the context of computers, Adrian Mackenzie’s (1996) analysis of the Turing
machine is of special interest. Mackenzie argues that computers should be
seen as machines that surpass the human subjectivity in that they cannot be
understood as merely processors of programmed instructions. Mackenzie argues
furthermore that according to our common sense (and Kant’s ideas as well,
we might add) only humans have the ability, or capability, for non-determination
and intuition, whereas machines are programmable, passive and repetitional.
Yet, what has been neglected according to Mackenzie is that also the idea
of a Turing machine incorporated at its focal point the idea of insolvable
problems and the realization that all processes and calculations of technological
kind could not be understood as self-referential algorithms. Mackenzie wishes
to use this observation as a key to demonstrate that also the computational
core of thinking includes the vagueness of insolvability – the continuously
deferred moment of solution. In other words, even though the computer – and
technology in general – has been posited throughout its history of the late
20th-century as the miracle machine of rationality, such processes
are always relational to the logical theme at the core of the Turing machine,
that is, accidents, break-downs, the outside.
These can also be seen as events in the sense of cracks
in the substantiality of technology.
that are formed with technological rhythms, such as Johnny, Neo and Max, are
technological subjects in the sense Kittler proposes: so-called-human beings
that have their sensory and cerebral faculties formed according to the media
ecologies of an age. This is also the theme that connects the films to their
outside: they are products of a technological-economic assemblage, two of
them apt examples of the Hollywood-system, which produces such packets of
sound, vision and text packed into consumer products. But what does such a
theme of so-called-subjectivities mean when the accidents and break-downs
of discourse networks are raised to the forefront?
films produce problematics of technological subjectivity that tap directly
to the vein of modernization and media culture – yet, the solutions provided
do not deliver what could be call sufficient complexity but end up in reinstating
rigid distinctions of people, technology, nature, sexuality, and so forth.
Thinking, spontaneity and creativity are not human capabilities but to be
understood as non-personal events and accidents. In addition, this puts into
new light Virilio’s call for a specific field of research that addresses the
accidents of technologies, a certain agenda of mapping out the crucial breaking
points of the media technologies of recording, transmitting and calculating.
“How is it possible to state,” Virilio asks, “ that technologies are being
developed, without any attempt being made at learning about the very specific
accidents that go with them?” (Virilio & Kittler,1999,
p.84). This is a question all
the more critical considering the intimacy of technologies and people, not
just as scifi-cyborgs, but in the smooth form of cinematic-digital-cerebral
production of capitalist worlds of technology, of channelings of perceptions
and thoughts pertaining the to friction-free utopia of digital capitalism.
What are the accidents, the friction, of thought that should be amplified,
the noise that should be affirmatively channeled in order to produce resistances
and new perspectives on technology and subjectivity? Regarding such questions,
merely Pi seems to provide interesting pathways with its theme of the
crack, the interval, the point of breaking down. Technological and subject
malfunctions are not mere failures of identification (as for example in the
analysis of hysteria in the psychoanalytic tradition, nowadays proposed by
e.g. Slavoj Žižek) but the crucial events that can be affirmed.
The crack and the breaking point are zones of indetermination which is followed
by an actualization – in this, the intervals are primary even though they
are the ones that remain unrepresentable and can be approached merely as becomings,
as potentia – a potential novelty. Such views have been lately embraced
by e.g. Rosi Braidotti with her project of affirmative nomadism and material
theory of becoming. This also fits perfectly when mapping the potential affirmative
understanding of the accident, the crack in technological subjectivities as
social imaginary modulations of thought and subjectivity: “These in-between
spaces, these spatial and temporal points of transition, are crucial to the
construction of the subject and yet can hardly be rendered in thought and
representation, given that they are what supports the process of thinking
in the first place. The intervals, or in-between points and processes, are
facilitators and, as such, they pass unnoticed, though they mark the crucial
moments in the whole process of becoming a subject.” (Braidotti, 2002, p.40).
am grateful to professor Jukka Sihvonen for his comments on an earlier draft
of this paper.
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My use of the term assemblage is instructed by
Deleuze & Guattari (1987) and Johnston (1999) who uses the term “machinic
vision” to refer to the de- and reterritorialization of human capabilities
in technological contexts. I however use the term “technological assemblage”
to underline the issue of technical media in the context of this article.
In addition, national cinema e.g. in Europe has
been also keen to employ special effects and computationally fine-tuned
aesthetics the late years. In this sense, we are not talking merely about
a Hollywood phenomena, but of the change of the whole audiovisual landscape
in cinema and other audiovisual products, e.g. digital games, which live
in intermedial, or a media ecological relationship with each other.
Cf. Kittler, 1996. The issue of the sexuality
and the maleness of these figures should not be underestimated. All of these
audiovisual productions focus on opened and “invaginated” male bodies and
brains, something that is aptly analyzed by Braidotti (2002, p.212-263).
Perhaps we are approaching the question of why
such neural disorders are a crucial issue on the biopolitical agenda. Shannon
E. Lowe (2002) has analyzed attention deficit disorders as inherently connected
to issues of contemporary culture. According to her, the diagnosis of AD/HD
(Attention Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder) as such a key cultural problem
is telling of the new ways of conceptualizing the subjectivity and the body
of the human. AD/HD is often seen as a lacking capability to focus on tasks
that are defined as boring and repetitious. Most often the focus is on children,
who are able to stand still and who have something that is referred to as
“lack of self-control.” The syndrome is understood as a lack of organization
in the patient’s brain, where the “lack” has also been visualized and localized
to the right pre-frontal cortex. Lowe analyses this diagnosis of lack and
problematization of hyperactivity as a product of the novel machines of
subjectification of contemporary culture, which aim not merely to control
the body (as in disciplinary societies analyzed by Foucault) but also the
mind/brain. Aptly Lowe writes about the externalization of the brain with
medicaments. For example, Ritalin is one such medicine that is used to slow
down the excessive movement within the brain. In addition, stimulants are
used to accelerate the brain.
The abstract machine is a diagrammatic plane
of piloting that according to Deleuze and Guattari is not a representation of the real, but constructs the real. Yet, it is not an infrastructure
nor a transcendental idea (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987, p.142). It is immanent
to its actualizations.
Such themes are analyzed by the Finnish cultural
historian Hannu Salmi (2003).
See for example the discussion in popular computer
magazines such as Byte which underline issues of the brain and brain monitoring
and enhancement. “The Visual Mind and Macintosh.” Byte January 1985.
See also “Computers on the Brain.” Byte June 1988 and July 1988 (part
There are also certain resonances between Pi and A Beautiful Mind (USA,
2001). Both address the issue of thought, illness and society; whereas thinking
is a continuous folding of the brain and the outside (whether “society”,
“history” or “media technological discourse networks”), similarly diseases
of thought are symptoms of that very folding and can also traced back to
the assemblages in which the normalcy of thinking is posited.
This form of creation of possible worlds through
distribution of audiovisual commodities can be linked to late 19th-century
and for example Thomas Alva Edison. Crary (2001, p.31) writes: “Edison saw
the marketplace in terms of how images, sounds, energy, or information could
be reshaped into measurable and distributable commodities and how a social
field of individual subjects could be arranged into increasingly separate
and specialized units of consumption.”
Pi states the issue of programmability of the brain clearly – medicaments
clear away the chaos (the pain) of the brain: 80 mg of Prozamine, 6 mg of
Sumatripan, 1 mg of Dihydroergotamin, and so forth, are not any metaphors
for the (re)organization of the brain, but ways of manipulating the speedness
and connections of the cerebral system. In this case these migraine medicines
affect among other things the blood circulation of the brain. Chemicals
are soft prostheses, which directly tap into the brain as one is able to
interfere with the processes of programmable computers – a parable would
be the possibility to design and mould media objects such as digital images
with program tools. This issue of medicalisation and the conceptualisation
of the human cerebral organ as a soft machine is thus inherently connected
to the general ontological and epistemological issues of digital culture.
Digital media products as data are never finished but dynamical, just like
web pages, in the potential state of updating, and similarly human capabilities
are increasingly depicted as open, subject to learning, self-improvement
and enhancement. The so-called-human being of the digital media culture
is never finished with anything; (s)he is doomed to the spiral of perpetual
training. (Deleuze, 1990, p.237).
On digital cinema and new media, see Manovich’s
(2001) The Language of New Media.
Of course, although new media techniques have
made such gestures and post-human postures easier on the screen, the historical
and diagrammatic theme is part of the simulatory scheme of the cinema already.
An apt example are the twisting bodies and detached heads of Georges Méliès
from the early 20th-century. See V˛liaho, 2005.
This is furthermore emphasized by Trond Lundemo
(2003, p.13) who argues that the essence of technology is to break-down:
machines are defined “by their failure to fulfill their tasks.” Time-based
media, namely computers and cinema, are haunted by the accident of erasure
of information. With computers this is made visible by computer viruses
and the effects they impose. In this sense they are the “general accidents”,
demonstrating the inherent Turing principle of also modern day computers.
In addition, also cinema is an art of breaking-up, not just in the form
of film cans decomposing over the years, but by its very essence, demonstrating
the technological ontology of accidents we live by. Films are by definition
cut-ups, decompositions and recompositions: “The movement of the film image
is frozen, speeded up, has amendments added to it and departs from the realm
of the analogue. The image does not just store and transmit objects, but
render things subject to interaction and manipulation at will.” (Ibid.,