David M. Berry on Tue, 22 Nov 2005 23:04:21 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> What is code? A conversation with Deleuze, Guattari and code

What is code? A conversation with Deleuze, Guattari and code
By David M. Berry & Jo Pawlik


The two of us wrote this article together. Since each of us was  
several, there was already quite a crowd. We have made use of  
everything that came within range, what was closest as well as  
farthest away. We have been aided, inspired multiplied [1].

JP: Code is described as many things: it is a cultural logic, a  
machinic operation or a process that is unfolding. It is becoming,  
today's hegemonic metaphor; inspiring quasi-semiotic investigations  
within cultural and artistic practice (e.g. The Matrix). No-one  
leaves before it has set its mark on them...

DB: Yes, it has become a narrative, a genre, a structural feature of  
contemporary society, an architecture for our technologically  
controlled societies (e.g. Lessig) and a tool of technocracy and of  
capitalism and law (Ellul/Winner/Feenberg). It is both metaphor and  
reality, it serves as a translation between different discourses and  
spheres, DNA code, computer code, code as law, cultural code,  
aristocratic code, encrypted code (Latour).

JP: Like the code to nourish you? Have to feed it something too.

DB: Perhaps. I agree that code appears to be a defining discourse of  
our postmodernity. It offers both explanation and saviour, for  
example, the state as machine, that runs a faulty form of code that  
can be rewritten and re-executed. The constitution as a microcode,  
law as code. Humanity as objects at the mercy of an inhuman code.

JP: True and it gathers together a disturbing discourse of the elect.  
Code as intellectual heights, an aristocratic elect who can free  
information and have a wisdom to transform society without the  
politics, without nations and without politicians. Code becomes the  
lived and the desired. Both a black box and a glass box. Hard and  
unyielding and simultaneously soft and malleable.

DB: Code seems to follow information into a displaced subjectivity,  
perhaps a new and startling subject of history that is merely a  
reflection of the biases, norms and values of the coding elite. More  
concerning, perhaps, code as walls and doors of the prisons and  
workhouses of the 21st Century. Condemned to make the amende  
honorable before the church of capital.

JP: So, we ask what is code? Not expecting to find answers, but  
rather to raise questions. To survey and map realms that are yet to  
come (AO:5). The key for us lies in code's connectivity, it is a  
semiotic-chain, rhizomatic (rather like a non-hierarchical network of  
nodes) and hence our map must allow for it to be interconnected from  
anything to anything. In this investigation, which we know might  
sometimes be hard to follow, our method imitates that outlined by  
Deleuze & Guattari in Anti-Oedipus (2004). It will analyse by  
decentering it onto other dimensions, and other registers (AO:8). We  
hope that you will view this article as a 'little machine' (AO:  
4), itself something to be read slowly, or fast, so that you can take  
from it whatever comes your way. It does not ask the question of  
where code stops and the society starts, rather it forms a tracing of  
the code-society or the society-code.

DB: Dystopian and utopian, both can cling like Pincher Martin to  
code. Code has its own apocalyptic fictions; crashes and bugs, Y2K  
and corruption. It is a fiction that is becoming a literary fiction  
(Kermode). We wish to stop it becoming a myth, by questioning code  
and asking it uncomfortable questions. But by our questioning we do  
not wish to be considered experts or legislators, rather we want to  
ask again who are the 'Gods' of the information age (Heidegger).  
By drawing code out and stretching it out, we hope to make code less  
mysterious, less an 'unconcealment that is concealed' (Heidegger).

JP: Perhaps to ask code and coders to think again about the way in  
which they see the world, to move from objects to things, and  
practice code as poetry (poeisis). Rather than code as ordering the  
world, fixing and overcoding. Code as a craft, 'bringing-forth'  
through a showing or revealing that is not about turning the world  
into resources to be assembled, and reassembled forever.

DB: And let us not forget the debt that code owes to war and  
government. It has a bloody history, formed from the special projects  
of the cold war, a technological race, that got mixed up with the  
counter-culture but still fights battles on our behalf. He laid aside  
his sabre. And with a smile he took my hand.

--Code as concept--

DB: A stab in the dark. To start neither at the beginning or the end,  
but in the middle: code is pure concept instantiated into the  
languages of machines. Coding is the art of forming, inventing and  
fabricating structures based on these languages. Structures that  
constrain use as well as free. The coder is the friend of the code,  
the potentiality of the code, not merely forming, inventing and  
fabricating code but also desiring. The electric hymn book that  
Happolati invented. With electric letters that shine in the dark?

JP: And what of those non-coders who use code, or rather are used by  
code instead of forming it? Code can enable but it can also repress.  
Deleuze believes that we live in a society of control and that code  
is part 'of the numerical language of control' requiring of us  
passwords, user names, and the completion of form fields to either  
grant or deny access to information, goods and services (1992).

DB: Yes, code becomes the unavoidable boundary around which no detour  
exists in order to participate fully in modern life. It is  
ubiquitous. Formatted by code, harmonised with the language of  
machines, our life history, tastes, preferences and personal details  
become profiles, mailing lists, data and ultimately markets.  
Societies of control regulate their population by ensuring their  
knowing and unknowing participation in the marketplace through  
enforced compatibility with code. Watch over this code!... Let me see  
some code!

JP: But there is no simple code. Code is production and as such is a  
machine. Every piece of code has components and is defined by them.  
It is a multiplicity although not every multiplicity is code. No code  
is a single component because even the first piece of code draws on  
others. Neither is there code possessing all components as this would  
be chaos. Every piece of code has a regular contour defined by the  
sum of its components. The code is whole because it totalises the  
components, but it remains a fragmentary whole.

DB: Code aborescent. Plato's building agile, object-oriented and  
postmodern codes under the spreading chestnut tree.

JP: But computers are not the only machines that use code. Deleuze  
believes that everything is a machine, or to be more precise every  
machine is a machine of a machine. By this he means that every  
machine is connected to another by a flow'whether this flow is air,  
information, water, desire etc'which it interrupts, uses, converts  
and then connects with another machine.

DB: I agree that human beings are nothing more than an assemblage of  
several machines linked to other machines, though century's worth of  
history have us duped into thinking otherwise.

JP: But, does every machine have a code built into it which  
determines the nature of its relations with other machines and their  
outputs? How else would we know whether to swallow air, suffocate on  
food or drink sound waves? There is even a social machine, who's  
task it is to code the flows that circulate within it. To apportion  
wealth, to organise production and to record the particular  
constellation of linked up flows that define its mode of being.

DB: Up to this point, code is verging towards the deterministic or  
the programmatic, dependent upon some form of Ur-coder who might be  
synonymous with God, with the Despot, with Nature, depending on to  
whom you attribute the first and last words.

JP: But Deleuze delimits a way of scrambling the codes, of flouting  
the key, which enables a different kind of de/en-coding to take place  
and frees us from a pre-determined input-output, a=b matrix. Enter  
Desire. Enter Creativity. Enter the Schizo. Enter capitalism? You  
show them you have something that is really profitable, and then  
there will be no limits to the recognition of your ability.

--Code as Schizo--

DB: Deleuze & Guattari warned us that the Schizo ethic was not a  
revolutionary one, but a way of surviving under capitalism by  
producing fresh desires within the structural limits of capitalism.  
Where will the revolution come from?

JP: It will be a decoded flow, a 'deterritorialised flow that runs  
too far and cuts too sharply'. D & G hold that art and science have  
a revolutionary potential. Code, like art and science, causes  
increasingly decoded and deterritorialised flows to circulate in the  
socius. To become more complicated, more saturated. A few steps away  
a policeman is observing me; he stands in the middle of the street  
and doesn't pay attention to anything else.

DB: But, code is bifurcated between a conceptual and a functional  
schema, an 'all encompassing wisdom [=code]'. Concepts and  
functions appear as two types of multiplicities or varieties whose  
natures are different. Using the Deluezean concept of Demon which  
indicates, in philosophy as well as science, not something that  
exceeds our possibilities but a common kind of these necessary  
intercessors as respective 'subjects' of enunciation: the  
philosophical friend, the rival, the idiot, the overman are no less  
demons that Maxwell's demon or than Einstein's or Heseinberg's  
observers. (WIP: 129). Our eyes meet as I lift my head; maybe he had  
been standing there for quite a while just watching me.

JP: Do you know what time it is?

HE: Time? Simple Time?... Great time, mad time, quite bedivelled  
time, in which the fun waxes fast and furious, with heaven-high  
leaping and springing'and again, of course, a bit miserable, very  
miserable indeed, I not only admit that, I even emphasise it, with  
pride, for it is sitting and fit, such is artist-way and artist-nature.

--Code and sense perception--

DB: In code the role of the partial coder is to perceive and to  
experience, although these perceptions and affections might not be  
those of the coder, in the currently accepted sense, but belong to  
the code. Does code interpolate the coder, or only the user? Ideal  
partial observers are the perceptions or sensory affections of code  
itself manifested in functions and 'functives', the code  
crystallised affect.

JP: Maybe the function in code determines a state of affairs, thing  
or body that actualises the virtual on a plane of reference and in a  
system of co-ordinates, a dimensional classification; the concept in  
code expresses an event that gives consistency to the virtual on a  
plane of immanence and in an ordered form.

DB: Well, in each case the respective fields of coding find  
themselves marked out by very different entities but that nonetheless  
exhibit a certain analogy in their task: a problem. Is this a world- 
directed perspective'code as an action facing the world?

JP: Does that not consisting in failing to answer a question? In  
adapting, in co-adapting, with a higher taste as problematic faculty,  
are corresponding elements in the process being determined? Do we not  
replicate the chains of equivalence, allowing the code, to code, so  
to speak, how we might understand it?

DB: Coders are writers, and every writer is a sellout. But an honest  
joy/Does itself destroy/For a harlot coy.

JP: We might ask ourselves the following question: is the software  
coder a scientist? A philosopher? Or an artist? Or a schizophrenic?

AL: For me the only code is that which places an explosive device in  
its package, fabricating a counterfeit currency. Which in part the  
knowing children sang to me.

Dr. K: This man is mad. There has been for a long time no doubt of  
it, and it is most regrettable that in our circle the profession of  
alienist is not represented. I, as a numismatist, feel myself  
entirely incompetent in this situation.

DB: For Deleuze, the ascription of these titles exceeds determining  
whether the tools of the trade in question are microscopes and test- 
tubes, caf??s and cigarettes, or easels and oil-paints. Rather they  
identify the kind of thinking that each group practices. Latour  
claimed that if you gave him a laboratory he could move the world.  
Maybe prosopopoeia is part of the answer, he should ask code what it  

JP: But not just the kind of thinking, but the kind of problems which  
this thought presupposes, and the nature of the solutions that it can  
provide. To ask under which category the coder clicks her mouse is to  
question whether she is creating concepts as opposed to dealing in  
functives like a scientist, or generating percepts and affects like  
an artist.

DB: If you're actually going to love technology, you have to give up  
sentimental slop, novels sprinkled with rose water. All these stories  
of efficient, profitable, optimal, functional technologies.

JP: Who said I wanted to love technology?

DB: The philosopher loves the concept. The artist, the affect. Do the  
coders love the code?

JP: If we say that code is a concept, summoning into being or  
releasing free software as an event, the coder is cast first and  
foremost as a philosopher. The coder, as philosopher, could neither  
love nor covet her code prior to its arrival. It must take her by  
surprise. For the philosopher, or more specifically the conceptual  
personae through whom concepts come to pass and are given voice,  
(Deleuze does not strictly believe in the creativity of an individual  
ego), Deleuze reserves a privileged role in the modern world which is  
so woefully lacking in creation and in resistance to the present. He  
writes: 'The creation of concepts in itself calls for a future form,  
for a new earth and people that do not yet exist' (1994, 108).  
Deleuze would hope this future form would be recognizable by virtue  
of its dislocation from the present.

DB: If the software coder really is a philosopher, what kind of a  
future is free software summoning and who are the new people who  
might later exist?

JP: Thanks to computers, we now know that there are only differences  
of degree between matter and texts. In fact, ever since a literary  
happy few started talking about 'textual machines' in connection  
with novels, it has been perfectly natural for machines to become  
texts written by novelists who are as brilliant as they are anonymous  
(Latour). But then is there no longer any difference between humans  
and nonhumans.

DB: No, but there is no difference between the spirit of machines and  
their matter, either; they are souls through and through (Latour).

JP: But don't the stories tell us that machines are purported to be  
pure, separated from the messy world of the real? Their internal  
world floating in a platonic sphere, eternal and perfect. Is the  
basis of their functioning deep within the casing numbers ticking  
over numbers, overflowing logic registers and memory addresses?

DB: I agree. Logic is often considered the base of code. Logic is  
reductionist not accidentally but essentially and necessarily; it  
wants to turn concepts into functions. In becoming propositional, the  
conceptual idea of code loses all the characteristics it possessed as  
a concept: its endoconsistency and its exoconsistency. This is  
because of a regime of independence that has replaced that of  
inseparability, the code has enframed the concept.

--Code as science--

DB: Do you think a real hatred inspires logic's rivalry with, or its  
will to supplant, the concept? Deleuze thought 'it kills the concept  
twice over'.

JP: The concept is reborn not because it is a scientific function and  
not because it is a logical proposition: it does not belong to a  
discursive system and it does not have a reference. The concept shows  
itself and does nothing but show itself. Concepts are really monsters  
that are reborn from their fragments.

DB: But how does this relate to the code, and more specifically to  
free software and free culture? Can we say that this is that  
summoning? Can the code save us?

JP: Free software knows only relations of movement and rest, of speed  
and slowness, between unformed, or relatively unformed, elements,  
molecules or particles borne away by fluxes. It knows nothing of  
subjects but rather singularities called events or hecceities. Free  
software is a machine but a machine that has no beginning and no end.  
It is always in the middle, between things. Free software is where  
things pick up speed, a transversal movement, that undermines its  
banks and accelerates in the middle. But that is not to say that  
capital does not attempt to recode it, reterritorialising its flows  
within the circuits of capital.

DB: A project or a person is here only definable by movements and  
rests, speeds and slowness (longitude) and by affects, intensities  
(latitude). There are no more forms, but cinematic relations between  
unformed elements; there are no more subjects but dynamic  
individuations without subjects, which constitute collective  
assemblages. Nothing develops, but things arrive late or in advance,  
and enter into some assemblage according to their compositions of  
speed. Nothing becomes subjective but haecceities take shape  
according to the compositions of non-subjective powers and effects.  
Maps of speeds and intensities (e.g. Sourceforge).

JP: We have all already encountered this business of speeds and  
slowness: their common quality is to grow from the middle, to be  
always in-between; they have a common imperceptible, like the vast  
slowness of massive Japanese wrestlers, and all of a sudden, a  
decisive gesture so swift that we didn't see it.

DB: Good code, Bad code. Deleuze asks: 'For what do private  
property, wealth, commodities, and classes signify'? and answers:  
'The breakdown of codes' (AO, 218). Capitalism is a generalized  
decoding of flows. It has decoded the worker in favour of abstract  
labour, it has decoded the family, as a means of consumption, in  
favour of interchangeable, faceless consumers and has decoded wealth  
in favour of abstract, speculative, merchant capital. In the face of  
this, it is difficult to know if we have too much code or too little  
and what the criteria might be by which we could make qualitative  
distinctions between one type of code and another, such as code as  
concept and code as commodity.

JP: We could suggest that the schizophrenic code (i.e. the  
schizophrenic coding as a radical politics of desire) could seek to  
de-normalise and de-individualise through a multiplicity of new,  
radical collective arrangements against power. Perhaps a radical  
hermeneutics of code, code as locality and place, a dwelling.

DB: Not all code is a dwelling. Bank systems, facial recognition  
packages, military defence equipment and governmental monitoring  
software is code but not a dwelling. Even so, this code is in the  
domain of dwelling. That domain extends over this code and yet is not  
limited to the dwelling place. The bank clerk is at home on the bank  
network but does not have shelter there; the working woman is at home  
on the code but does not have a dwelling place there; the chief  
engineer is at home in the programming environment but does not dwell  
there. This code enframes her. She inhabits them and yet does not  
dwell in them.

--Code as art--

JP: You are right to distinguish between code as 'challenging- 
forth' (Heidegger) and code that is a 'bringing-forth'. The code  
that is reterritorialised is code that is proprietary and  
instrumental, has itself become a form of 'standing-reserve'.

DB: So how are we to know when code is a 'bringing-forth'? How  
will we know if it is a tool for conviviality. How will we  
distinguish between the paranoiac and the schizophrenic?

JP: We know, that the friend or lover of code, as claimant does not  
lack rivals. If each citizen lays claim to something then we need to  
judge the validity of claims. The coder lays claim to the code, and  
the corporation, and the lawyer, who all say, 'I am the friend of  
code'. First it was the computer scientists who exclaimed 'This is  
our concern, we are the scientists!'. Then it was the turn of the  
lawyers, the journalists and the state chanting 'Code must be  
domesticated and nationalised!' Finally the most shameful moment  
came when companies seized control of the code themselves 'We are  
the friends of code, we put it in our computers, and we sell it to  
anyone'. The only code is functional and the only concepts are  
products to be sold. But even now we see the lawyers agreeing with  
the corporations, we must control the code, we must regulate the  
code, the code must be paranoiac.

DB: This is perhaps the vision offered by William Gibson's  
Neuromancer, a dystopian realization of the unchecked power of  
multinational corporations which, despite the efforts of outlaw  
subcultures, monopolize code. Through their creation of AI entities  
code becomes autonomous, it exceeds human control. If indeed it makes  
sense to retain the term human, which Gibson pejoratively substitutes  
with 'meat'. The new human-machinic interfaces engendered by  
software and technological development demand the jettisoning of  
received categories of existence as they invent uncanny new ones.

JP: This is the possibility of code. The code as a war machine.  
Nomadic thought. The code as outsider art, the gay science, code as  
desiring-production, making connections, to ever new connections.

DB: Code can be formed into networks of singularities into machines  
of struggle. As Capital de-territorializes code there is the  
potential through machines to re-territorialize. Through  
transformative constitutive action and network sociality'in other  
words the multitude'code can be deterritorializing, it is  
multiplicity and becoming, it is an event. Code is becoming nomadic.

JP: This nomadic code upsets and exceeds the criteria of  
representational transparency. According to Jean Baudrillard, the  
omnipresence of code in the West'DNA, binary, digital'enables the  
production of copies for which there are no originals. Unsecured and  
cut adrift from the 'reality' which representation has for  
centuries prided itself on mirroring, we are now in the age of  
simulation. The depiction of code presents several difficulties for  
writers, who, in seeking to negotiate the new technological  
landscape, must somehow bend the representational medium of language  
and the linear process of reading to accommodate the proliferating  
ontological and spatio-temporal relations that code affords.

DB: This tension is as palpable in Gibson's efforts to render  
cyberspace in prose (he first coined the term in Neuromancer) as it  
is on the book cover, where the flat 2D picture struggles to convey  
the multi-dimensional possibilities of the matrix. The aesthetics of  
simulation, the poetics of cyberspace and of hyperreality are, we  
might say, still under construction.

JP: Perhaps code precludes artistic production as we know it. Until  
the artist creates code and dispenses with representational media  
altogether, is it possible that her work will contribute only  
impoverished, obsolete versions of the age of simulation?

DB: Artists have responded to 'code' as both form and content. As  
form, we might also think of code as 'genre', the parodying of  
which has become a staple in the postmodern canon. Films such as  
'The Scream' series, 'The Simpsons', or 'Austin Powers';  
flaunt and then subvert the generic codes upon which the production  
and interpretation of meaning depends. More drastically, Paul Auster  
sets his 'New York Trilogy' in an epistemological dystopia in  
which the world does not yield to rational comprehension as the genre  
of detective fiction traditionally demands. If clues are totally  
indistinguishable from (co)incidental detail, how can the detective  
guarantee a resolution, how can order be restored? As Auster  
emphasizes, generic codes and aesthetic form underwrite ideological  
assumptions and can be described as the products of specific social  

JP: And what of code as content? Like the 'Matrix'. Here is a film  
which has latched onto the concept of code and also its discussion in  
contemporary philosophy, almost smugly displaying its dexterity in  
handling both.

DB: Or 'I' Huckabees' with its unfolding of a kind of  
existential code that underlies human reality. Are our  
interpretations shifting to an almost instrumental understanding of  
code as a form of weak structuralism? Philosophy as mere code, to be  
written, edited and improved, turned into myth so that our societies  
can run smoothly.

JP: The hacker stands starkly here. If code can be hacked, then  
perhaps we should drop a monkey-wrench in the machine, or sugar in  
the petrol tank of code? Can the philosopher be a model for the  
hacker or the hacker for the philosopher? Or perhaps the hacker, with  
the concentrations on the smooth, efficient hacks, might not be the  
best model. Perhaps the cracker is a better model for the philosophy  
of the future. Submerged, unpredictable and radically decentred.  
Outlaw and outlawed.

DB: Perhaps. But then perhaps we must also be careful of the fictions  
that we both read and write. And keep the radical potentialities of  
code and philosophy free.

Wet with fever and fatigue we can now look toward the shore and say  
goodbye to where the windows shone so brightly.


[1] We were, in fact, at least four, and we think you can guess who  
the others were.


Deleuze, G. (1990). Postscript on the Societies of Control. L'autre  
Journal, Nr. 1.

Deleuze, G. (2004). Foucault. London: Continuum.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1994). What is Philosophy? London: Verso.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (2004). Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and  
Schizophrenia. London: Continuum.

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (2003). A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism  
and Schizophrenia. London: Continuum.


(c) 2005 David M. Berry, Jo Pawlik
This article is made available under the "Attribution-Share-alike"  
Creative Commons License 2.0 available from http:// 

--About the authors--

David Berry is a researcher at the University of Sussex, UK and a  
member of the research collective The Libre Society. He writes on  
issues surrounding intellectual property, immaterial labour,  
politics, free software and copyleft.

Jo Pawlik is a doctoral student at the University of Sussex  
researching the interaction between the American counterculture and  
French poststructuralism, focusing in particular on the deployment  
and political purchase of the concepts of madness and schizophrenia.


Originally published in Free Software Magazine




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