Notes on Control

Patrick Lichty

“What is the Matrix? Control” –  Morpheus

As the new year of 2017 turns, eyes raise from our Facebook pages to consider the changes happening in the past few years. The expansion of global authoritarianism, in Singapore, China, Russia, Turkey, the Philippines, much of the Arab world, the US with the election of Trump, and traditional areas like much of Sub-Saharan Africa have led to the notion that capital and democracy are diverging. The irony of this is that the current flavor is a populist authoritarianism, driven by populaces fearful of changing demographics, crime, global politics, and by neo-liberal capitalism. For example, as of late, my interactions with Filipinos in my home city-state of Dubai invariably leads to their asking about my opinion of their president Duterte, and how happy they are with the extrajudicial killings as it has made their home so much safer, and they look forward to his re-engaging with China for economic talks. Add this to various locales like Singapore where the public reports high levels of happiness despite high degrees of micromanagement and surveillance. And these are the countries which I can easily talk about.

Achille Mbembe’s recent article, “The Age of Humanism is Ending” marks the collision of capitalism and populist authoritarianism as threatening the Enlightenment model of democracy. Systems of compassion, care, and welfare are being replaced by Neo-Darwinist notions of speed, efficiency and control. What is important now is not processes but outcomes. In Gilles Deleuze’s 1992 essay, Postscript on Control Societies, he presciently predicts the expansion of Foucault’s notion of the Clinic and Prison as spatial enclosures to the notion of control as the assignment of codes to bodies, spaces, indices, as systems of control. We have moved from spaces of control, Deleuze says, to systems. We have moved from the clinic to the medical system, from prisons to control systems, from galleries to Artsy (systems of exchange). These systems, as Deleuze notes, create substitutions of the space for the practice of the space – prison for house arrest, school for eternal online learning, clinics for diagnostics, the distribution of content for the creation/exhibition of art. In terms of art, this is also the hyperprofessionalisation of practice through creating work that is centred on commodification, likes, etc. generated from the numerous art/business incubator programs, and so on. We can see this through Titanic Sinclair’s That Poppy project, which acts as a vehicle and a critique of these systems. This, in my opinion, follows with the sub-summation of everything into the capitalist control regime. As Deleuze mentions, we are no longer individuals, but dividuals, typified by the control of the body/material, and by control of the password, or data body. This dividuated regime of control is doubly problematic as it enforces constraints not only on the material, but the informatics, and even processes of same.

Michel Foucault, in Discipline and Punish, wrote of Jeremy Bentham’s prison design, called the Panopticon, in which no one would know at any time who was viewing or being viewed between the jailors and the jailed. This, of course, has been a critical staple in talking about the emerging surveillance state foreseen in his own way by George Orwell in his book, 1984. However, the rise of the selfie surveillance state, on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat create an ironic milieu in which surveillance in the form of sous-veillance (self-surveillance) are ubiquitous. This practice plays into the same regime of effects, as the conduits for this sous-veillance is still in the hands of global capital. Artists like Hasan Elahi, Steve Mann, and Wafaa Bilial seek to short circuit the regime of surveillance through radical transparency and the sous-. Elahi does this through frequent transmission of his locale to the FBI, Mann though his wearing of a cyborg interface, and Bilial through the mounting of a digital camera to the back of his skull for a time. Also, curator Filippo Lorenzin is looking at the systems politics inherent in their exhibition, Blinding Pleasures. In it, they explore the False Consensus effect and how current technological milieuxs exercise Deleuze’s systems of control that effectively contain the mind as Foucault’s space constrained the body. This begs the question that when the information and physical constraints surround us, how do we think in alterior ways? How can we, as Eugene Thacker states about philosophy in In the Dust of this Earth, “think the unthinkable”, or push our thought into ways either out of the box or in a Bateillean way, unthinkable.

There is a term that was an aside in a novel that has shaped my notions of alterior thinking in regards to how one might conceive idiosyncratic, unexpected, or “outlying” behaviour. In one of William Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy novels, All Tomorrow’s Parties, he mentions that the manager of a nanofax center (sort of a 3D printing replication shop) was “going lateral”, and another of someone who is a “lateral character with a 9 (mm pistol)”. Gibson’s notion of the “lateral” relates to non-linear, unexpected, or even random approaches to a situation, denoting the gesture of chaotically stepping beyond norms of expected behaviour. Benjamin Grosser explores the obfuscatory function of uncertainty in Go Rando, where it randomly assigns one of Facebook’s emotion statuses to every “like” registered confusing the notion of online affect. In terms of systems of control, this means circumventing the trajectory of cause and effect, averting the semiotics of the surveilling gaze, or placing noise into the circuits of capital that depend on harvesting ‘honest’ user reaction data. Further steps into the notion of the “lateral”, creating irruptions to authoritarian regimes of control include venturing into the Dark Web, or to local webs. These include Dina Karadsic’ PiVilion Project, or the Aram Bartholl-sponsored Router Gallery, both of which either make lateral moves in terms of the Internet, or still use the technology while disconnecting it entirely. Bartholl’s USB Dead Drops also employ circumventions to the aesthetics of control, taking the occult physical repository of data as point of alterity. The aesthetics of control relate to the way information is constructed, transmitted, and received. Dead Drops steps aside from the controlled regime of data acquisition by accessing a device on the Internet, etc., challenging the notion of normative means of data circulation. Also, the Canadian collective, Desearch Repartment challenges the control agendas of content on a vessel on the Thames in their residency, censorSHIP, which could easily be paired with Henry Warwick’s Alexandria Project scholarly dead drop to challenge what role the state and capital have in the control of information. And, the intersection between the algorithm and systemic control is expressed in Max Colson’s Control Experiments in which he employs artificial intelligence to plumb the control superstructure of computer networks. He even takes this one step further by employing chatbots, and academic aesthetics to stage a mock symposium discussing these ideas. All of these artists sidestep, subvert and critique the notion of the control system by inverting and complicating their spheres of influence. 

Deleuze makes one last point that is of great interest, saying that the “man (sic) of control is undulatory, in a continuous network. Everywhere surfing has replaced the earlier sports.” If one interprets “sports” as being a metaphor for terms of engagement with regimes of control in artistic terms, we can go several ways. One might be the notion of shifting from modes of production of online art to surfing and aggregation as an art practice as canonised by Olson et al. and the 'Internet surfing clubs' of the late 2000s, heralding the state of postinternet culture. Another cultural irruption could be rapid shifts in production, as typified by Allahyari and Rourke’s #3DAdditivism project. What Deleuze suggests are sets of unstable practices, and perhaps unstable media.

Creating strategies of criticism or resistance in control societies, must be fluid and variable, both to resist the will to codification and classification that agendas of control demand, and the frameworks that authoritarian regimes demand. As capitalism’s reach become ubiquitous, artists must also be careful of their use of objects and codes in order to critique or circumvent the cycle of capital and consumption, and systems of codification and control. As we move into 2017, what appears clear is that Adorno’s theories of commitment arise under the framework of oppression with the American election of Donald Trump, and that commitment is the potential of the artist to reroute the circuits of power in times of repression. In the age of control, art will no longer be, as Baudrillard put it, “empty gestures toward status”, and control abhors noise in the streams of power and capital as much as nature abhors a vacuum.