Networks and Spheres

The end of the quarter is approaching. As a pseudo-conclusion, I would like, instead of reviewing and going back to what we discussed previously, to ask questions about the possibility of future concepts and ideas that would differ and go beyond the notion of networks.

Networks are currently à la mode, but is this trend going to last through time? Will we be thinking about networks in fifty years? Evidently, it is a simple rhetorical question and I am curious to know whether anyone has an opinion.

Starting from this idea, I would like to introduce you to the work of Tomàs Saraceno. The artist is known for creating works involving spheres, clouds, and soap bubbles.  His artworks are terribly poetic and one might even say visionary.

Tomàs Saraceno, Galaxies Forming along Filaments, Like Droplets along the Strands of a Spider’s Web, 2009.

Tomàs Saraceno, Galaxies Forming along Filaments, Like Droplets along the Strands of a Spider’s Web, 2009.

Tomàs Saraceno, Galaxies Forming along Filaments, Like Droplets along the Strands of a Spider’s Web, 2009.

Tomàs Saraceno, Galaxies Forming along Filaments, Like Droplets along the Strands of a Spider’s Web, 2009.

The artwork Galaxies Forming along Filaments, Like Droplets along the Strands of a Spider’s Web was exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 2009. These spheres are made with interconnected elastic ropes. Tomàs Saraceno’s is an artist-architect who has created moreover the installation In Orbit in which visitors can walk “in the air” on a spider web. The picture below may look photoshopped, but it is a “real” picture taken at the K21 Ständehaus in Germany.

Tomàs Saraceno,In Orbit, 2013.

Tomàs Saraceno,In Orbit, 2013.

His works are inherently utopian and they try to create an alternate world or cosmos that is made with renewable energy (see Sarano’s website and collaboration with MIT). One notable reason why I am evoking his work is because his spheres were referenced in an article by Bruno Latour called “Some Experiments in Art and Politics”.
In this article, Latour questions the difference between spheres and network. Indeed, Peter Sloterdijk, has been criticizing networks for being ‘anemic’ and ‘anorexic’ and instead he preaches for a philosophy of spheres and envelopes. To him the advantages of spheres are their possibility of creating life like a womb. In this work Saraceno combines the lightness of the sphere, the galaxy, the spider web with the engineering of a network of elastic ropes. These spheres and bubbles seems to belong to a different world that is one of the reasons why they are so evocative and I wonder whether they may be the vision of a future world where people will live on clouds…
Or as the famous physicist, Stephen Hawking, said “the 21st century is the age of complexity”, and networks may therefore simply be the tip of the iceberg.

To end with a note of poetry…


Following up on our discussion of Syriana, I wanted to pose a way of thinking through the form of cinema as a visualization of the network.  In class we talked a lot about the film’s structure, using the accident and complex narrative as a way of assembling (and deconstructing) the possibility of representing a network as such.  Much of our language and way we were working through the film (our concern for causal disruption, character identification, and problem of plot) had me thinking about Deleuze’s theory of cinema in Cinema 1: the movement-image and Cinema 2: the time-image.    (Now, full disclosure: this relationship between network narrative and Deleuze’s film theory is an ongoing project for another class.  However, our reading of “Postscripts on Control Society” feeds directly into these connections and I think can potential generate further discussion.) 

Deleuze provides a radical reorganization of film theory through Bergson’s theories of movement.  Utilizing the three thesis on movement, he suggests that cinema is not meant to be read as a system rooted in the fragmentation and reconstruction of action in space and time, but instead can be thought of as a relational assemblage of images caught up in the constant flow of matter. Importantly, all matter is images that are continually reacting upon one another and the screen becomes the mode of organizing this flux: fragmenting, framing and reconstructing.  Cinema is thereby a process: a mode of relations that allows us to perceive (conceive) from our center of indeterminacy.  The standard form of organization is the movement-image, which Deleuze breaks down into three stages: perception-affection- action.  Cinema begins by framing, giving us a perspective that tends toward a Whole beyond the image.  This opens up the image to form connections and the construction of a (interior) whole.  Affection serves as the bridge between the two, transforming (“translating”) the fragmented perception into completed action.  Perception there is not to be understood as anthropocentric, instead, reading images as matter, Deleuze denies the Cartesian split in an effort to see cinema as the medium through which we understand the world’s immanence and situate ourselves from within the flow of images (matter).  Now, I’ve glossed this bit of theory here to explore cinema’s use of affect in relation to Syriana’s narrative structure. 

For Deleuze, the emergence of affect between perception and action is precisely where the excess of meaning, the pre-linguistic and possibility arise in the structures of cinematic meaning making.  The standard construction of the movement-image (most commonly associated with Classical Hollywood Cinema) naturalizes this emergence through narrative or content: affect becomes rationalized through narrative devices like character identification, suspense, plot development, etc.  However, this process, this movement through affect, creates a kind of instability (interval) that Deleuze saw increasingly present in post-war cinema.  This delay through cinematic experience was a potential detour from causal, fixed systems of meaning making typically associated with the medium.  Instead, the affectual interval that rose up in the process, could be read as the suspension—hesitation—that reveals the construction of human consciousness and opens it to alternative modes of thought.

I’d like to question whether we can see Syriana’s network as structured through the movement-image and explore its production of affect in relation to issues like the accident and complex convergence narrative.  If we understand the film as a process, attempting to construct meaning from within the networks of global capital and terror (and image-matter itself), then we can perhaps read the accident as a kind of affectual interval that disrupts (explodes) the systematic organization of plot but simultaneously tends toward a kind of aesthetic shape to the experience of the network as such and enters back into the cycle of relations that make up the film as whole.  For instance, we could read the trade accident just before the first explosion through the lens of Deleuze as follows:  George Clooney’s character positions the sequence’s (“set’s”) perspective, fragmenting and constituting action around the weapons sale.  Suspense is developed, as the film’s shaky handheld camera work rapidly cuts between close ups of Clooney and the exchange.  We understand suspense in relation to the actions carried out, produced and contextualized within the exchange.  However in a single moment, Syriana disrupts the drive of the intended action with the movement of the second missile.  This accident suspends the causal drive, inserting delay and a literal moment of hesitation on the part of Clooney.  Caught up in the network of the film itself and those interior to Syriana, the weapon becomes swept up in the flow of image-matter and narratively integrated into the overarching plot structure.  However in this moment, the narrative is subsequently opened up to the multiplicity of networks (tending toward the whole), connected through the object, but situated within the indeterminacy of said multiplicity.  Thus the affect of the accident becomes a critical tool for disrupting and opening up the film’s structure and producing an aesthetic (experiential) rendering of a network(s).  If we understand the accident as a kind of affection-image (ala Deleuze), then the hyperlink film may be thought of as a form of narrative that employs the accident (affect) as a mode of disruption (suspension) that opens up and creates connections between converging storylines and asks viewers to continually reorient themselves in relation to these restructurings.  At the same time, this process remains relatively closed (as a Hollywood film) to produce an internal rendering (affective experience) of the network. 

So this is a sloppy appropriation of Deleuze’s theory on network aesthetics and the film, but I wonder if this formation allows us to see Syriana’s use of affect/accident as core structural device in relation to the medium of film itself.  Particularly given our reading of “Postscripts on Control Society” last week, I’m inclined to see Deleuze’s theory of film in relation to his discussion of networks and the film’s attempt to produce a representation as such.  If we understand Syriana as a visualization of the control society—“self-transmuting molding continually changing from one moment to the next”—then I suggest we try and explore cinema’s role in structuring (and disrupting) the aesthetics and affects of the network(s).  So my question would then be, is affect the waste of the network? Or perhaps the waste of film (art) viewing?  How does cinema fail to produce an internal narrative of a network as such?  Do you even buy this connection to Deleuze?  (I could totally be reaching here: and please tell me if I am.) 


Work Cited:

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1986. Print.

—. “Postscript on the Societies of Control” (Gilles Deleuze, pp. 177-182)


Networks, “Accidents” and the Hyperlinked Film

Can a film, even a hyperlinked film, teach us about what it means to live within a network? Can it help us experience what the affects of the network really are? Syriana, particularly the first half of the film, did evoke for me something like what we’ve called the network sublime– a sense of the vast, but deeply interpenetrating, chains of causality that seemed to elude my grasp. This disorientation was tempered, however, by the fact that I was not exploring this nexus of oil money, global politics, and individual families on my own — I was being provided with a guided tour. In a movie, if the world seems indecipherable, sometimes all one has to do is wait.

Patrick Jagoda’s reading of Syriana, and his critique of US military reactions to potential network threats, and specifically to radical Salafi groups stresses the necessity for a deeper understanding of the systems within which such groups emerge. Jagoda specifically discusses the concept of blowback, and suggests a more expansive sense of causality and responsibility, one that acknowledges “accidental” outcomes as nonetheless results of one’s actions. This is a model of responsibility that makes serious demands on the actor, and can easily trigger a certain kind of defensiveness. How, after all, can one be willing to accept action at all if that also means accepting responsibility for the things that you don’t think that you’ve done, or claim you didn’t mean to do?

This is where narrative parables of network causality can seem both intensely helpful and completely inadequate. To me, it seems to be the case that the realm in which we are collectively most willing to be accountable in a certain way for the “accidents” that result from our actions is in stories. We trust that in stories the chains of causality will be tightly drawn, but also that they will result in a certain kind of poetic justice. More specifically, in films like Crash, or Syriana, viewer expectations about the way stories work help to soften potentially defensive reactions to deep causality. We expect, after all, seeming disparative events to be linked together because they are already contained for us within the single frame of the story. If a narrative doesn’t provide this linkage we are disappointed; if it attempts to, we are relatively ready to be accept it.

There are of course exceptions to these generalizations, but at least for most commercial films, it remains true that audiences expect a sort instrumentalism, and connection to the “main” action, from most elements of the narrative. As the old saw has it, if there’s a gun hanging by the door in Act I, it’s going to be fired in Act III. In this way, even films which, like Syriana, attempt to think about global interconnectedness and causality, become corrupt, or at least facile, representations of networks because they fails to account for network waste,because if waste is part of the network aesthetic it isn’t often, and isn’t in Syriana, part of the narrative aesthetic.
The question of responsibility can perhaps be reframed as the question of whether network waste exists. Within the tautness of a two hour story arc, the answer to that question will almost always be no, but in the world, responsibility is messier, connections are harder to draw. This isn’t to say that deep responsibility isn’t the frame that’s needed, but that hyperlinked films perhaps give us unrealistic expectations about what it might feel like to see those connections, though they also train us to see them. In Syriana, to see the network is to be like God, is to be the spider in the center of the web, for whose benefit the drama is played and from whose perspective everything “makes sense.” It’s very different from living as Oedipa Maas– not sure whether or not the connections you see are connections, whether they count, whether they’re malevolent or beneficent, whether any of these facts should matter to you at all, or whether they might have the potential to fundementally alter your life as you have always known it.

Works cited:

Jagoda, Patrick. “Terror Networks and the Aesthetics of Interconnection.” Social Text 28.4 (2010): 65-90.

Artist and Bioterrorist

The readings for this week investigate hacktivism, bioterrorism and the network interconnection between protection and destruction. One appalling case that could serve as an example for these texts is the trial of Dr Steven Kurtz, member of the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE). CAE is composed of five tactical media practionners interested in the intersection of art, technology and political activism. The legal story that they faced is quite disheartening but representative of current paranoia concerning terrorism and its protection in the United-States. Between 2003 and 2004 CAE worked on the exhibition Free Range Grain that was supposed to travel from the Shirn Kunsthalle, Germany to Mass Moca in the United States. Free Range Grain was a live performance that enhanced the visibility of the global market of genetically modified food products. In order to improve the awareness of the public and to demonstrate that despite restrictions, contaminated goods can enter the European Union, CAE used molecular biology techniques to test genetically modified food products. They constructed a public laboratory where visitors could bring their own products that they found doubtful. The collective tested them over a 72-hour period to see if their suspicions were justified. The biotechnologies used in the laboratory were innocuous and could not harm any participants.

However, the story is far from over. In May 2004, Kurtz called 911 after finding his wife had died in her sleep. The emergency personnel who responded to Kurtz’ call found his art and activities suspicious. As a result, they contacted the FBI, and the day after, Kurtz was detained and accused of bioterrorism, and the FBI, Joint Terrorist Task Force amongst other entities seized Kurtz’ artworks, materials, documents and computers. The criminal accusation Kurtz was facing could have led him to a twenty-year jail sentence. Regardless of the fact that the Health Department later declared Kurtz’ material was not a public safety threat, the case lasted four years. Few years later and after a public outcry the artist was finally cleared of all charges in 2008. At the end of this trial, Kurtz simply asked:

As an innocent man, where do I go to get back the four years the Department of Justice stole from me? As a taxpayer, where do I go to get back the millions of dollars the FBI and Justice Department wasted persecuting me? And as a citizen, what must I do to have a Justice Department free of partisan corruption so profound it has turned on those it is sworn to protect?

This case is unfortunately not unique and Kurtz was able to be vindicated thanks to financial and public support of the international artistic and scientific community. Without this support, Kutz might have been found guilty, simply by being an artist who is questioning the status quo with biological tools.

Even if Galloway and Thacker state in The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (143)“Hence future politics will turn on freedom of use, not on the antiquated and gutted freedom of expression”, this story demonstrates that freedom of expression is still essential and should not be easily discarded.

To read the full story, see:

The Place of the Unknown in the Rhetoric of Networks

As the quarter draws to a close, I wanted to think more about the rhetorical structures that govern how we talk about networks. Obviously, Patrick’s article for this week gives us one set of critiques for such a discourse—especially a discourse that “faces” the network as an enemy, or that uses the spatiality of networks to occlude their historical evolution. But rather than think about the particular cognitive and linguistic forms of this rhetoric, I want to point to something that isn’t located in any particular discourse about networks, but which might nonetheless inform the various critical readings we’ll be discussing this week—as well as earlier readings from throughout the quarter.

The rhetoric of networks might be framed in terms of how networks make claims on our attention quite generally. One way to account for this would be to point to symptoms of networked existence in contemporary life, and here we could say that the aesthetic project of Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana is precisely to show that these symptoms are indeed the symptoms of a network (Jagoda 66, 81). But these are also necessarily symptoms. If networked life is something that by definition exceeds the individual’s sensorium, then representing a network as “the cause” of something can only be an aesthetic or rhetorical gesture—dependent on something like a totality effect, a gestalt, a fictive unity.

Here, Galloway and Thacker’s connection between biopolitics and networked political life seems relevant. As they note, following Foucault, biopolitics is contingent on the science of demography (72), which—like other forms of collective empiricism—attempts to speak with authority about objects that far exceed the experience of any individual. The force of biopolitics thus arises, in part, from our ignorance: we don’t really know the lived reality of other citizens, and demography works both to posit the self as interchangeable with any other (as a data point), and to thereby make individual experience irrelevant in the face of a larger, faceless community. While biopolitical discourse appeals to various other ideologies to do its work—say reproductive ideology, or the ideology of labor—it has the peculiar power to render moot the experience of the individual, who demography locates in a space of unknowing.

Something like this would be true of any discourse whose aim was to produce knowledge, and thus to educate its reader. But insofar as networks exceed the sensorium in precisely the way that the population does, a discourse about networks can make particular rhetorical appeals to what its readers don’t known. While Galloway and Thacker riff on Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” (134), it seems to me that the urgency of their project, seen as a claim on our attention, plays on our ignorance of networks in precisely the way Rumsfeld plays on the ignorance (and “insecurity”) of the American people. Terror networks up the ante here by animating the unknown via an appeal to some threat, but the unknown already has a power deployed by the network theorist in order to animate their theories within political thought. With this in mind, we might read the at times manic transdisciplinarity of Galloway and Thacker—and of Peter Krapp—as ways of reinforcing the relationship of ignorance between their reader and the many networks in which that reader participates. And while Galloway and Thacker ultimately take up the project of becoming unknown (135 ff.), they do so more to prize the unknown than to allow their readers to accomplish such a project.

My concern is that, if the theorist’s power derives from the unknown, then they are as likely to reinforce the unknown as to dispel it. How can we talk about what we don’t know without making the unknown a site of rhetorical power? How can we address what’s unknowable in a network without simply reinscribing our ignorance?

Works Cited

Galloway, Alexander R. and Eugene Thacker. The Exploit: A Theory of Networks. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 2007.

Jagoda, Patrick. “Terror Networks and the Aesthetics of Interconnection.” Social Text 28.4 (2010): 65-90.

Krapp, Peter. “Terror and Play, or What Was Hacktivism?” Noise Channels. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 2011. 27-42.

DeLillo, Political Terror, and Networked Capitalism


 It took him a moment to absorb the words and identify the line. He knew the line of course. It was a poem he’d been reading lately […] It was exhilarating, his head in the fumes, to see the struggle and ruin around him, the gassed men and women in their defiance […] and to realize they’d been reading the same poetry he’d been reading.

Cosmopolis, Don DeLillo, pp. 96-97

From Underworld to Mao II, the “terrorist network” is a symbolically significant and recurring motif in Don DeLillo’s corpus. The quotation above is taken from the final moments in the first part of Cosmopolis where Eric Packer, 28-year-old billionaire protagonist, is fortuitously caught in the middle of an anarchist protest at the Nasdaq Exchange. From his inert limousine, Packer helplessly watches as protesters change the notices on Nasdaq’s electronic stock ticker to, first, a paraphrasing of the opening sentence in The Communist Manifesto (“a specter is haunting the world—the specter of capitalism”) and, second, “a rat became the unit of currency,” taken from Zbigniew Herbert’s poem “Report from the Besieged City” (DeLillo 2003, p. 96; Conte 2008, pp. 179, 182). The event is nestled between two other related incidents: the detonation of a bomb in front of an investment bank (p. 94) and a protester’s suicide by setting himself on fire (p. 98).

Though forms of political protest and rebellion, tactics such as bombing, hacking, and martyrizing suicide have close affinities to conventional acts of terror. In fact, the abovementioned citation could be read as a subtle allusion to forms of political activism that have been historically categorized as “terrorism” by either the mainstream media or the state. The “Baader-Meinhoff phenomenon,” or what Stanford linguistics professor Arnold M. Zwicky calls “frequency illusion,” describes a syndrome whereby something a person has recently read, studied, or learned about serendipitously recurs in a different context and place. This phenomenon could be employed to describe Eric Packer’s surprising experience of recognizing the words on Nasdaq’s electronic display as a reference to a poem he had recently read. With that, or so I suspect, DeLillo makes an inexplicit allusion to the Red Army Faction (RAF), an armed revolutionary militia colloquially known as the “Baader-Meinhoff Gang.” Active during the Cold War in Western Germany, the RAF was labeled a terrorist organization in light of its preferred tactics for inciting revolution: kidnappings, executions, bombings, and many forms of violent struggle. The American “Weather Underground,” The Italian “Red Brigades,” and other armed revolutionary groups were similarly pegged as terrorist organizations throughout the Cold War. This identification of political groups as terrorist organizations was not only a product of their violent praxis, but also of their ideology as seen from the American/Soviet-capitalism/communism binary that determined the contours and rules of ideological warfare during the Cold War. Similarly, when lurked at by a billionaire currency trader from a limousine trapped in lower Manhattan, political contestation takes the form of terror.

This move from political activism to political terror raises the following questions: Has America’s “War on Terror” following the 9/11 attacks, in conjunction with networked technologies, changed our understanding of terrorism? Why are networked activist movements discussed by Manuel Castells, for instance, not forms of terrorism while radical hacktivist tactics, as Peter Krapp makes clear, can often be interpreted as “cyberterrorism”?

DeLillo’s allusion to the RAF can be read as a gesture towards a conceptual break between the definition and practice of “terrorism” before and after the Cold War. As Joseph M. Conte argues, after the 9/11 attacks, we should expect changes in world culture “to have the instantaneity of a paradigm shift in which suddenly none of the rules and explanations of the earlier regime applies” (p. 181). In his article on terror networks, Patrick Jagoda complicates the idea that the end of the Cold War marked a definable historical junction in terrorist practice. He argues, contra Marc Sageman, that “the politics of the late cold war produced militant organizations that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, shifted from cooperative partners to vicious foes” (p. 73). For this reason, he continues, “it is impossible to disentangle early guerilla groups from recent terrorist networks” (p. 73). For Jagoda, the study of networks not only invites but also “require[s] a reevaluation of how we think about temporality and history” (p. 74).

Cosmopolis takes place through the course of one day in April 2000, or, as DeLillo himself noted, “between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the Age of Terror” (Conte 2008, p. 183). Given the ambiguous historical moment in which the novel is set, another way to read DeLillo’s allusion to the RAF is as a prescient commentary on the capaciousness of “terrorism” during the “Age of Terror,” encompassing all possible threats to national security. This, I believe, invites a critical inquiry into how post-9/11 conceptions of terrorism within networked environments have come to include political tactics of disruption such as sabotage and hacking.

As I will discuss in my presentation this week, the way in which the French government has charged members of the anarchist (so-called “ultra left”) group known as “Tarnac 9” with “criminal association for the purposes of terrorist activity” is one example of how capacious, malleable, and vague the post-9/11 discourse on terror has become. Like the RAF and the Red Brigades before them, the Tarnac anarchists have been incorporated into the “terror networks of late capitalism” (Jagoda, p. 77). The difference being that the latter have no casualties to their name and rely almost exclusively on rudimentary means of sabotage, rather than executions and mass killings, to disrupt, interrupt, and reconquer the regular flow and movement of production, commodities, and people within networked capitalism (The Coming Insurrection, p. 74).

Finally, in The Spirit of Terrorism, Jean Baudrillard asks, “When the world has become so thoroughly monopolized, when power has been so formidably consolidated by the technocratic machine and the dogma of globalization, what means of turning the table remains beside terrorism?” Perhaps Baudrillard’s point here is not so much that terrorism is the only viable avenue for change, but rather that acts which successfully contest the sovereignty of networked capitalism and Empire will invariably be understood as a form of terrorism.

Works cited:

Don DeLillo. Cosmopolis (New York, NY: Scribner, 2003)

Joseph M. Conte. “Conclusion: Writing amid the ruins: 9/11 and Cosmopolis,” in The Cambridge Companion to Don DeLillo (John N. Duvall, Ed., Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008)

Patrick Jagoda. “Terror Networks and the Aesthetics of Interconnection” in Social Text (2010, pp. 65-90)

Jean Baudrillard. “The Spirit of Terrorism” (Rachel Bloul, Trans., Le Monde, 2001):

Peter Krapp. “Terror and Play, or What Was Hacktivism?” in Noise Channels (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2011, pp. 27-42)

Manuel Castells. Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movement in the Internet Age (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2012, pp. 218-243)

The Invisible Committee, The Coming Insurrection (New York, NY: Semiotext, 2009):