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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

What is the political ontology of networks? Are political organisations such as the US administration best understood in the tradition of sovereignty, or alternatively, as networks? What becomes of conflict when enemies become faceless; when they cannot be faced, in Levinas's sense of the word? Such questions are at the forefront of this experimental piece of media theory, which marks the first book-length collaboration between Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker [1].

The authors suggest that whilst discourse on networks proliferates -- a proliferation matched (and materialised) in new technologies -- there has been little critical engagement with networks as such. Defined broadly as "any system of interrelationality" (28), networks are not inherently emancipatory; they need not be anti-hierarchical (distributed); they promise no freedoms, democracy, nor wealth. Networks do not shun relations of power, they reconfigure them. The Exploit thus offers "a theory of networks" founded on the claim that networks are political formations in their own right, even -- indeed especially -- if they often appear as purely technological and without central command. Moreover, Galloway and Thacker insist that the network is increasingly becoming the dominant mode of organising relations of power and contestations thereof. Computer viruses versus antivirus updates; disease outbreaks versus information distribution and vaccination; intelligence agencies versus terrorism: these are all instances of networks fighting networks.

The challenge, they argue, is to develop a general political theory able to describe this seemingly amorphous thing, the network. The fact that a network is always a spatial configuration drives the authors to "think topologically" -- to think of power as topological. This leads to a brief foray into the scientific sub-discipline of graph theory, but the more pertinent conceptual link between the topological and the political is drawn from Foucault and Deleuze. The authors combine Foucault's insights from Discipline and Punish [2] with Deleuze's oft-cited thesis on control societies to develop the concept of 'protocol'. (It should be noted that the first section of The Exploit offers little more than a summary of Galloway's earlier work, Protocol, which is entirely dedicated to this concept but focuses almost exclusively on the internet.) The authors write: "Protocol is twofold; it is both an apparatus that facilitates networks and a logic that governs how things are done within that apparatus" (29). In other words, as the Panopticon is both the diagram of power and a political technology for Foucault's disciplinary society, so is protocol for societies of control. Protocol is thus both a set of rules or codes that enables, modulates, and governs a specific network (such as IP/TCP for the internet) and also a general logic of governance for all networks.

When "abstracted into a concept," the authors write, "protocol may be defined as a horizontal, distributed control apparatus that guides both the technical and political formation of computer networks, biological systems and other media" (28). In this sense, whilst networks can assume any structure (centralised, decentralised, distributed, or mixed), control itself is always distributed. All nodes/points and lines/edges must succumb to the protocol a priori. It is both what makes the network possible and what governs it.

Especially with regard to networked media technologies, the arguments set forth in The Exploit have real explanatory value and are able to capture forms of control that remain under-theorised. A specific strength of the work, for example, is when the authors link protocol to postwar cybernetics, information theory, and systems theory. It is here, they claim, that protocol has its "ontological foundations" (55). Indeed, "the primary function of protocol is to direct flows of information" (55) conceived precisely in the terms of those traditions. The authors thus offer a persuasive historical trajectory that explains how protocol can govern seemingly disparate networks, from computer technologies to informatically-coded biological systems.

In a slight shift from previous theorisations, "protocol" emerges in this text as decidedly maleficent and, as such, the "target of resistance" (78). Via a series of confrontations with new problems regarding conflict [3], the authors eventually arrive at a new concept, "the exploit," that emerges in relation to their new ontology. The exploit is described as a new form of tactic specific to the realm of protocological control. The authors write: "Protocological struggles do not center around changing existent technologies but instead involve discovering holes in existing technologies and projecting potential change through those holes. Hackers call these holes 'exploits'" (81). The concept thus resonates with de Certeau's classic formulation in The Practice of Everyday Life, but is updated and enriched to suit the new technopolitical context. More like a Deleuzean line of flight, exploits are immanent, informatic, viral, and not "counter" in the traditional sense of conflict [4]. Rather, by taking advantage of "holes" in networks, exploits alter the network dynamics themselves and thus reorganise relations of force.

Whilst The Exploit is filled with singular insights and represents one of the subtlest attempts to develop a political theory of network technologies, the work has limitations. Following a long history of works which claim to "perform their concepts" [5], The Exploit is structured as "a series of marginal claims, disconnected in a living environment of many thoughts, distributed across many pages" (vii). The work is structured like a network, with the main points or "nodes" coming first, and other related observations or "edges" coming later. Somewhat deliberately, this often results in partial theorisations, never developed to a level of precision where the reader can make considered judgements. This is particularly the case in the second section, "edges," which consists of page-length essays that are supposed to connect in all sorts of unpredictable ways to the "nodes" developed in the first section.

A second problem is that even though one of the central claims of the work is that networks take numerous forms and can thus be centralised and hierarchical, the authors often rely on the old centralised/decentralised dichotomy: "while in the past networks may have posed significant threats to power..." (20); "power blocs struggle against insurgent networks" (14); "the key dynamic revolved around new networks grappling with the old power hubs" (15); and finally, "network actors struggle against centralized powers" (21). In these passages, network is clearly opposed to centralisation and the term "power" is frequently equated with centralisation. This is part of a larger concern with slippages and oscillations in the definition of networks, which leads to confusion more generally as to what is and is not a network, and thus what does and does not fall under the logic of protocol.

This brings me to a third concern: whilst the value of protocol (and the exploit) is obvious in some contexts, I found the concept less convincing as it moved from the specific to the general. For example, it is argued in the prolegomenon that "networks create the conditions of existence for a new mode of sovereignty" (20). The authors suggests that American sovereignty is actually a network sovereignty. It is thus implied that the logics of protocol and its parasitic other, the exploit, are firmly at home in this domain: US Sovereignty is protocological. Here it seems like the network is ontology and protocol is a totalising force of power. At other times, however, the authors warn of the limitations of their thesis: "in no way whatsoever [do we] suggest that non-protocological [6] practice should abandon successful techniques for effecting change such as organising, striking, speaking out, or demonstrating" (82). Where, one might ask, are the practices of striking and demonstrating directed if not at the same governments already described in the language of networks? I am not suggesting that the concepts should be jettisoned, nor even remain completely anchored, merely that such generalities pose difficult questions that remain unanswered or unclear in the text.

Limitations aside, The Exploit is impressive in scope. Galloway and Thacker combine detailed technical knowledge of computer technologies, code, and bioinformatics, with a general knowledge of warfare, cybernetics, and continental theory. The authors show a willingness to think at the level of the general, making broad connections and developing far reaching theories, even if these are not always completely successful. This attempt to push beyond the strict formal analysis that has dominated media studies of late, without abandoning its emphasis on technical knowledge, is commendable. The Exploit offers a refreshing interrogation into the discourse of networks; a discourse still rife with unfulfilled promises of wealth, freedom, and abundance -- promises as empty as ever.

  1. An earlier version of this review is published in the journal Antithesis (vol. 18, 2008). I would like to thank the TCR group for the numerous conversations we had about this book.

  2. In particular, from Foucault they appropriate the idea that something (in Foucault's case, the Panopticon) can be both an abstract, generalisable "diagram" of power and a specific political technology.

  3. For example: If power is utterly distributed, who controls the network? Are networks alive? Can one be against a network? Can it be "faced" as an Other?

  4. The authors note that "counter" invokes an opposition (them and us), both of bodies and logics. They find this historical formulation of alternative political thought undesirable and suggest replacing "counter" and "resistance" with "impulsion" or perhaps "thrust" (98). Exploits are not about being against (negation), but being for (transformation).

  5. Marshall McLuhan, Guy Debord and Deleuze and Guattari are but a few authors in this tradition.

  6. Non-protocological practices are those that take place outside of networks and thus protocological control.

De Certeau, Michel (1984). The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Deleuze, Gilles, "Postscript on the Societies of Control", from OCTOBER 59, Winter 1992, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 3-7.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Guattari, Felix (1987). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Foucault, Michel (1978). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon Books.

Galloway, Alexander (2004). Protocol. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Levinas, Emmanuel (1969). Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press.

Nathaniel Tkacz:
Nathaniel Tkacz is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne. Broadly, he is interested in networks and the interplay of technology and discourse. His thesis contemplates the new forms of knowledge that emerge in new media ecologies. His most recent publication is: "Power, Visibility, Wikipedia," Southern Review: Communication, Politics and Culture, Vol 40, No.2, 2007.  <nathanieltkacz@gmail.com>

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