Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Hansen and Machine Identity

In the last post I wrote that Hansen believes that “the digital does not alter us (à la Kittler) but instead extends and reflects us”. I’d like to take this post to revise this statement and investigate the status of machines in Hansen’s theories through his writings on Paul Virilio and Friedrich Kittler (who’s work I have unfortunately never read, so I will have to take Hansen’s relaying of his opinions at face value). Although I don’t think that this revision will change my argument about Hansen’s relationship to Bergson, I do think that the machine has more complicated status in his writings than I initially stated.

Kittler (according to Hansen) believes that we have entered a post-human era. This has occurred because of machines’ position in creating human perceptions through the translation of information into human stimuli. (Hansen 71-78) Humans’ received stimuli from machines constitute “the purely contingent by-product of a preparatory phase in the evolution of information toward fully autonomous circulation.” (Hansen 77) Humans passively sit, receiving the various leftovers of stimuli, which are tacked on to the endless passing on of information between machines. In response to this Hansen posits, through the writings of several theorists, that meaning and information cannot be separated. For Hansen all things contain within themselves an “equipotentiality,” an inherent element which relates to and derives meaning from that which created it. In a confusing twist though, the human seems to have escaped this chain and exerts/creates meaning for both the machine (which emerged from it) and the organic (from which it emerged). Hansen recruits Raymond Ruyer to his argument, quoting him as saying, “If the physical world and the world of machines were left completely to themselves, everything would spontaneously fall into disorder; everything would testify that there had never been true order, consistent order, in other words, that there had never been information.” (82) Unlike in Uexküll’s writings, where different meanings exist in the world for different life forms, for Hansen the world exists as chaos without the human. (As a side note, to me the use of the phrase “true order” in this quote is a perfect illustration of a post-enlightenment attempt to fill the void created by god’s absence with human agency.) Therefore, even if humans only receive a portion of the information contained within the machine, all that information is tinged with its equipotentiality, its potential use by its ultimate creator: the Human. On page 82 Hansen writes, “those, like Kittler, who posit an autonomy of the digital simply have things backward: if ‘the digital’ poses a danger, it is the danger of a false, not a real autonomy—the danger that cybernetics will forget the human (and the biological) basis of information.” This position, that the danger lies in a false autonomy of the digital, leads us to Hansen’s writings on Virilio.

Hansen frames Virilio as working within his humanist tradition. Using Virilio’s concept of the “vision machine” Hansen identifies a potential split between human and mechanical perception. On page 103 Hansen summarizes Virilio’s position as, “what we face in today’s vision-machines is the threat of total irrelevance: because our bodies cannot keep pace with the speed of (technical) vision, we literally cannot see what the machines can see, and we thus risk being left out of the perceptual loop all together.” (103) From this Hansen concludes that we must bring the machine back to the human body, or risk losing our significance. What is completely astounding to me is that this precise process, whereby the human is phased out or becomes irrelevant, is the same process that he has so firmly insisted is not taking place in his response to Kittler. One can reasonably ask how machines can both simply contain empty patterns of information waiting for human embodiment, and simultaneously be a vision-machine with its own (autonomous) non-human way of perceiving the world. We are left with two competing visions of machines, as either active agents (or combatants for Hansen) or as passive tools that extend the human perception. The digital is either a battleground in which the human fights for relevance, or a playground where the human revels in his or her own agency. I would argue that it could be one or the other, or neither, but certainly not both.

It strikes me that Virilio’s writings are much closer to Kittler’s than Hansen’s. Virilio sounds almost identical to Kittler when he writes in The Accident of Art that with digital technology “we are faced with the failure of the analogical in favor of calculation and numerology of the image. Every sensation is going to be digitized or digitalized. We are faced with the reconstruction of the phenomenology of perception according to the machine. The vision machine is not simply the camera that replaces Monet’s eye… now it’s a machine that’s reconstructing sensations pixel by pixel “(65-66). This is the state of the contemporary vision-machine for Virilio, which has effectively extended itself beyond the domain of just vision and into all sensation. In The Accident of Art Virillio argues that only through catastrophic accidents, caused by a combination of mechanic disinterest in the human, and the growing significance and might of mechanization in our society, will we ever acknowledge our own growing irrelevance.(109) Through the process of globalization and the invention of the simultaneous broadcast we are constantly hitting the refresh button on a presumed knowledge of the present at the detriment of our sense of the future and the past.(Virilio98-102) Due to our fascination with what we falsely think of as an extension of our perception, which now encompasses the entire world, we miss the fact that we are giving over our sensations to machines.

On page 105, Hansen concludes from Virilio’s writings that “If we now regularly experience a ‘pathology of immediate perception’ in which the credibility of visual images has been destroyed, isn’t the reason simply that image-processing has been dissociated from the body? And if so, what better way can there be to resist the industrialization of perception than by reinvesting the bodily basis of perception?” What Hansen misses here is that Virilio agrees with Kittler regarding the autonomy of machines. For Virilio, machines exist outside human meaning and that machines pursue different goals than those prescribed by their equipotentiality. The “right to blindness” is not a call to turn over the other sensations of the body to the machine through an emphasis on human activity in the digital, but to turn away from the digital with our limbs as well as our eyes.

-Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa

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