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The Exploit: A Theory of Networks

Author: Alexander R. Galloway, Eugene Thacker
Publisher: Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2007
Review Published: August 2008

 REVIEW 1: Daniel Gilfillan
 REVIEW 2: Nathaniel Tkacz
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Alexander R. Galloway and Eugene Thacker

In his review Daniel Gilfillan points to one of the key elements of the book -- the uncannily anonymous, network tactics demonstrated by "pliant and vigorous nonhuman actors." This is one part of our interest in networks. It is not simply that the presence of a multitude of (human) actions produces a complex whole greater than the sum of the individual parts, but rather that this notion tends to act as a smokescreen for rather traditional theories of agency, effectively smuggling it in through the side-door. Hence the rhetoric of the neoliberal view of networks as a utopia of sharing -- one gets to have their own individual agency that makes a difference, as well as the revelation of a complex/emergent/self-organizing whole, whose teleology is mystically driven by those individual agencies. In this view, networks appear as uncanny -- at once human agency scaled up several levels, and yet something beyond the human altogether. Thus, one of the issues in The Exploit is whether the whole itself is not fundamentally, and not incidentally, a nonhuman or unhuman whole.

This opens onto another point of interest, the "how" of networks. How do networks function, malfunction, or function in unforeseen ways? Gilfillan traces this interest back to our earlier, separate work on protocols and biomedia. Those texts saw something happening that was not quite the result of human technics and not quite simply the laws of nature. The case of computer and biological viruses is perhaps the most instructive. They work not because the network is broken or "down" but because it is "up," and working seamlessly. It occurred to us that this apparently counter-intuitive observation was not simply an accidental by-product of networks, but constituted a fundamental part of what networks are. It became part of the ontology of networks themselves.

The second reviewer, Nathaniel Tkacz, like Gilfillan, notes our indebtedness to Foucault and Deleuze. Perhaps we may further characterize this lineage. In the book our aim was to stitch together very specific concepts from Foucault and Deleuze, as they related to our interest in the ontology of networks. While Foucault's work on discipline is well-known to English-speaking readers, our main interest in Foucault lay not in his nexus of discipline-surveillance, but rather in his concepts of biopolitics and security. Hence, in the first part of the book, we spend considerable time reframing Foucauldian biopolitics vis-à-vis networks (e.g. our emphasis on the three aspects of population, information, and security). Now, while Foucault, in his Collège lectures, is talking more about the emergence of political economy, we wanted to juxtapose Foucauldian biopolitics with another type of political economy, that of informational life forms.

Likewise, our interest in Deleuze lies not only in his oft-cited essay on "control societies," but in linking that essay to Deleuze's over-arching interest in the concepts of immanence and univocity. In a sense, Deleuze's control society essay re-contextualizes his earlier work on Spinoza and Bergson, the former offering a topological concept of substance, the latter offering a way of thinking dynamic change as not simply secondary to the states of change. These are problems that are still very much a part of the conceptual apparatus of complexity and network science. They play out every day in the operational and functional dynamics of today's networks.

The emphasis Gilfillan places on our use of Foucault and Deleuze leads eventually to a political question at the heart of the book. What is to be done? Should we as humans learn to be more like nonhumans? If so, how would such a performative gesture ever be something more than yet another new metaphor for the subject? Or should we evoke a new kind of political sublime, and accept that the noumenal world "out there" always dupes our best and most ingenious intentions?

In philosophy there have been a number of responses to this question. We shall note but three. The first is the "master of the universe" attitude, which says that exploits such as viruses must be eradicated or prevented at all cost. We group this with the grand tradition of positivism and rationalism. The story goes like this: as bounded and artificial as technology may be, the system does indeed work, so let us refine it as best we can so it may be the most useful for the most people; yes, we can prove the limits of the system, but that does not dismiss the utility of what we know works. It is the grand tradition of system critique and system formation, which might include figures like Kant or even Wittgenstein, but also Kuhn and the so-called postmodern turn in scientific thought. But there are always loopholes, fissures, and unexpected mutations. So is it not the case that such absolutism is doomed to failure? Perhaps there is a way to fold all these failures into the very definition itself of the network?

Opposite this is the agonistic approach -- "young Werther" bearing the weight of ultimately unknowable, nonhuman totalities. In this romantic view, the world is lost in the hands of technology, dry and lifeless after the passage into modernity. And it is only through poetic experience (found in either immersion or escape) that one can find truth. The truth is never "out there," it is always "in here." These are those who weep at the sight of how much spam they receive. But at the same time these are the same people who sit in awe at how easily (and cheaply!) Skype travels around the world. Heidegger famously falls in this camp, but he might also find commerce with Deleuze, who longs to break out of the iron cage on "lines of flight," or even Badiou who counterbalances his gleefully nihilistic matheme with a manual of poetic liberation to beat the band. But for us this tradition too is necessarily doomed when it comes to a theory of networks, in that in it politics becomes a matter of quasi-mystical amor fati. It is a life of sweet drowning, awash in the crush of information.

A third camp often forms when faced with such sublime technical systems. These are the "players" of joyful excess, traces of whom are found perhaps most easily in the writings of the poststructuralists. A bit like young Werther, the poststructuralists agree that the world appears at first to be dry and lifeless, seemingly locked into a dispositif or sublime system carrying past fact and predicting future consequence. Yet, in the writing of say Derrida or Barthes, within the very structure of the world there emerges a playful supplement, a joyful excess that is as necessary to the core functioning of the system as any other so-called essential quality. Today it comes in any number of forms: gold farmers producing surplus value as they play to work and work to play, McKenzie Wark's hackers who "produce new concepts, new perceptions, new sensations, hacked out of raw data," or Google which manages magically to convert sheer quantity of data into qualitative value using little more than robots (to paraphrase Barbara Cassin). It seems that both Derrida and the dot-comers believe in emergence.

In the book we take issue with all three of these positions (in today's parlance: agro, emo, and ludo). For in all three the very question itself "what is to be done?" ends up recuperating the nonhuman aspects of networks into a human framework. The network is either (1) the passive fodder for the superman, or (2) the unknowable source of all our anguish, or (3) the invisible hand. So the problem is that in this day and age it is difficult to ask the question "what is to be done?" without implying "what is to be done for us?" Networks are interesting to us for this reason. They are poised between existing for us (travel; software standardization) and existing in themselves (epidemics; network worms). Perhaps instead it would make sense to ask: What is to be done without us? (In fact, one irony of recent cultural theory is that, during the 1980s and 1990s, so many people tried so hard to recuperate agency. They were too successful. Today it's increasingly obvious that we need to show it the door.)

Noting the failings of these three approaches is why we pose the question of ontology with regards to networks. Can there be an ontology of networks? In the mid-20th century, cybernetics posed this question: If network ontology is predicated on relation, then must there always be an outside, "third person" or "observer" to note the relation? But the problem is an old one, posed earlier by Leibniz, or even Lucretius. Is there such a thing as a network without an external mediator, standing "outside" the relation, to designate it as a network? Call it the "antinomy of relationality," that any assertion concerning relational systems in themselves must find form in another party not privy to the system of relationality. This is, to be sure, both a philosophical and political question. Certain thinkers have explored or tried to "resolve" the antinomy in various ways: ecologists and systems theorists evade the question by positing pure systematicity all the way down; philosophers of immanence explore whether a network topology can articulate itself from within itself.

A last word: both reviewers rightly point out that The Exploit is, among other things, an experiment in style, and that as such, it may not appeal to all readers. It was our intention from the beginning that the form of the book should exist in dialog with its content. Sadly, the academization of new fields like media studies has meant that a certain orthodoxy regarding style has developed. In the academic essay one poses a situation, reviews existing literature, isolates a problem, then makes a gesture at providing an answer. But even a cursory glance at the history of philosophy reveals an incredible range of stylistic innovation, from the Socratic dialogue, to Spinozist axiomatism, to Nietzsche's use of the fable. So, in writing the book, we wanted to give some sense of what would be required in thinking the concept of a network in a network fashion, which amounts to thinking thought as a network. Perhaps we should have included bits of email, all the macros and revisions, or even the metadata of the file! But what we settled on was a basic breakdown that would think about the most basic property of the network: the relation between nodes and edges. However the writing in the "edges" section does not make every connection between ideas, and the writing in the "nodes" section does not map out every approach.

We take Gilfillan's admirable phrase "blobs of resistance" seriously. Resistances crop up everywhere, though they do not always exist for us. Precisely because of this, networks deserve to be considered from an unhuman standpoint -- insofar as this is possible! Or, put another way, the key is to comprehend the unhuman within the human, as immanent to the human. This is really the note on which we close the book, with a presocratic notion of the "elemental."

Alexander R. Galloway and Eugene Thacker


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