In Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel, every possible book, the sensical and the nonsensical, exists within the geometric shelving that quite literally makes up the universe, such that:
“…the Library is ‘total’— perfect, complete, and whole—and that its bookshelves contain all possible combinations of the twenty-two orthographic symbols (a number which, though unimaginably vast, is not infinite)—that is, all that is able to be expressed, in every language. All —the detailed history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalog of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the proof of the falsity of those false catalogs, a proof of the falsity of the true catalog, the gnostic gospel of Basilides, the commentary upon that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book into every language, the interpolations of every book into all books, the treatise Bede could have written (but did not) on the mythology of the Saxon people, the lost books of Tacitus”
Jorge Luis Borges 1
There is a “dream and nightmare”2 contained in the idea of the perfect and total record of all there is to say or know: all expressible things, expressed in every possible way. This is the dream of totality, which has been called the Ideal, or the Absolute, or the Infinite, or Nature. More precisely, its expression as a library, an archive, is the dream not only intuiting the existence of a totality but having it at our disposal. In short, it is the dream of total knowledge by means of simulation – knowledge as the world held in parallel. Knowing here is not held within but instead hovers above, an order higher than the mess of the real, marked by its authorising correspondence.
This body of thought is an old dream and it has a bloody history. Another of Borges’ fables is instructive in this regard. He writes of a map commissioned by the ruling body of a great empire. This map was produced in such perfect detail that it covered the whole of the empire’s territory exactly. The ratio of this map is 1:1, a perfect simulacrum of the real. There have been many commentaries on this idea: in Borges’ telling, it is a cunning and flexible metaphor. The French theorist Jean Baudrillard characterised the fable of the map as a prelude to our own hyper-mediated situation, in which it is not the map but the territory that rots away, leaving only the idea of the empire itself. Dissolve the lived reality of the territory – its people, cities, lands – and all that remains is the disembodied will to mastery, a catastrophic and totalising force of political domination.3 The map and the empire reveal the political character of this impulse towards totality. Because a library, or a map, is an exteriorisation: it is not contained in the mind or in the community. Rather, it is a material object that contains certain potentialities, capacities, certain ways of bringing forth. The archetype of this is writing, because writing, as Guy Debord argued:
“… is the rulers' weapon. In writing, language attains its complete independence as a mediation between consciousnesses. But this independence coincides with the independence of separate power, the mediation that shapes society. With writing there appears a consciousness that is no longer carried and transmitted directly among the living - an impersonal memory, the memory of the administration of society.”4
The anthropologist James C. Scott has noted the emergence of the earliest states alongside the earliest forms of writing.5 A state functions as a centralised political entity via the mechanisms of taxation, coercion, force, and (to some degree) law. This is impossible to maintain at scales above a few thousand subjects without some exteriorisation of memory via notation, inscription, documentation. The census, then, as an attempt at the total indexing of the state’s subjects via their recording in the writings of the state, may be an archetypal attempt at this sort of totality. It is the production of a record: an inscription and abstraction by which the whole may be apprehended, held, and – crucially – mastered.
This kind of technique of power has a long but contested imbrication with modes of thought. The relationship between inscription and totality in western thought has, historically, been rather contentious. If we take the works of Plato to indicate a certain foundational moment in the western tradition (given that a tradition is little but the selective rearticulation of a narrative of continuity), then writing might in fact be opposed to totality. In the Phaedrus, Plato argues via Socrates that writing, as a form of mimesis and as hypomnemata, is in fact an inferior simulacrum of thought. It may in fact be one that erodes the very techniques of thought, atrophying the memorising faculties by supplementing them with a more durable support. If writing is an inferior and even deleterious supplement to thought, then it presents a potential problem for apprehending totality. This is because thought itself, for Plato, at best reflects a fragment of the totality of the forms. Writing, then, represents an occlusion of what is real by way of producing a more operable simulacrum. More durable than speech or thought, more tangible, manipulable, codifiable. In the alphabet, we arrive at the basis of many of these dreams of totality by way of a discrete and endlessly recombinable system of atomistic units, the letters that designate and grammatise the continuous flow of speech.6 It is by way of this mechanism, and discretisation, that the notion of a technical, exteriorised mastery of knowledge – rather than an embedded-embodied practice of it – becomes possible. It is true that, in his way, Plato effectively recognises the gulf between representation and reality, and between totality and its simulacrum. Inasmuch as his rejection of the sophist’s instrumentality of rhetoric insists upon a real distinction between the true and the merely effective, Plato gives philosophy independence from mere power as means to ends.7 The dialogic practice of philosophy is a technique for avoiding some of these more obvious moments of instrumentality. And yet in his rejection of writing, Plato inaugurates a certain philosophical blindness to the ways that even this non-instrumental ideal of philosophy is predicated upon materiality. This is the constitutive status of technology that has been often obscured by the Western philosophical tradition since Plato. Reason is implicated in and co-constituted with its material conditions: the Athenian thinker cannot spend his time in contemplative discourse without the slave to till the fields.
For many reasons beyond this, it has taken a long time for the apparatus of the academy to recognise its own imbrication with power. The technicity of empire, of which writing is just one example, goes beyond any specific technological operation. Rather, it is a question of the logic of systems, the relations made in matter, that structures like empire work to leverage. In many cases this happens by insisting on the externalisation of these technical-material forces into a realm of abstractions. Think the divine right of kings, the invisible hand of the market, or the opaque and vague self-assurance of ‘big data’. Simulation and empire, then, are not just metaphors but a description of how the technicity of power tends to function. It is for this reason that the ideologies of imperialism – its racism, patriarchy, anthropocentrism – should not be thought of as separate from its actual material operations, but rather as part of their mechanism. The autonomy of sign systems is the sine qua non of capitalist imperialism. Achille Mbembe writes:
“The world of words and signs has become autonomous to such a degree that it exists not only as a screen possessed by its subject, its life, and the conditions of its production but as a force of its own, capable of emancipating itself from all anchoring in reality. That this is the case must be attributed, to a large extent, to the law of race.”8
The simplest way to apprehend the totality of something is to reduce it to a legible abstraction, and then deploy extraordinary violence, to ensure reality conforms to what you have said it to be. By producing race as a classificatory technique, empire collapses the distinction between “outside and the inside, between envelopes and their contents. It sends us, above all, back to surface simulacra.”9 The body of the racialised subject is inscribed with the signs that the imperial logic requires it to have: indigenous sovereignty is denied by virtue of its illegibility to the a priori totality of possession.10 Terra nullius and the racialised body are said to be all there is – if it isn’t in the sign system, it doesn’t exist. This works doubly well if you elide the fact that you’ve done this at all, by suppressing any recognition that the techniques of classification, possession, and representation are productive of the very thing you’re claiming to be true. Again, this is a logic immanent to any system implicated in imperialist power structures. The census and the records of the state may be the oldest example here, but our current inscriptional systems – computing, and its many practices and divisions – are part of this history. This means that, despite the emancipatory rhetoric of its earlier years, software and digital media are equally implicated in these power structures. Despite the ideology that wishes to emphasise technological impartiality, or ‘unbiased’ AI, it is necessary to recognise that our current inscriptional systems work to codify bodies under a totalising regime that exacerbates, rather than overcomes, ongoing injustices.
It is true, top-down indexicality has undergone something of a decline within the development of contemporary computing. Notions of total mastery by identifying a complete map of the real, embodied in the attempts at Good Old-Fashioned AI, have long since fallen out of fashion. But the clever work of computing is to press its modes of operation beneath the surface of its interfaces. This presents users with the illusion of mastery and control when in fact they are labourers, mining themselves for legible information.11 This information is then deployed heuristically to codify groups, trends, and patterns of behaviour. As Wendy Chun writes: “We are expected to be as blind to software as we are to race; but race and software both act.”12 A company performing big data analysis can make race legible without ever naming it as such, instead operating through proxies of how race functions in the world. As AlphaZero and its ilk show,13 our new systems do not need to be told the rules of the game to be very, very good at playing within them.
Instead of the old world of top-down classification, then, there is a shift to processual totality. Rather than making a complete and total archive of all that there is, the goal is to create a complete method, a set of algorithms (with means for making more algorithms built in) for parsing all that there is. The construction of new interests, ideas, activities, or relations can be easily and rapidly subsumed into the operations of the data merchants. This is, in many ways, one of their main opportunities for profit as it constructs new sites for commodification. Thus totality is not an achieved state but an ongoing process. The number of paths is not infinite at any given time, but a new one is constructed as you round each corner. The map, or the library, casts totality in its oldest form. But in the present it operates as something far more abstract. Jonathan Beller analogises to another Borgesian figure of the “garden of forking paths, less the garden of Eden and more a fully immersive discrete state machine.” In it “human qualities are becoming coded, instrumentalized, and structurally converted into tools of communication – each semiotic instance offers a fork.”14 Note the difference in metaphors here: a garden evokes not mechanism but organism. The new cybernetics operates almost like a simulacrum of Hegel’s Geist, with “self-organisation and autopoiesis”15 used to instantiate “the looping movement of returning to itself in order to determine itself.”16 The chain of being – that old Aristotelian hierarchy – now forks, and does so with each irruption of difference, computationally responding to each attempt to assert some reality that escapes it.
Notably, this incorporates a notion of an ‘outside’ – adaptability to, and indeed the utility of, noise.17 Racial capitalism has consistently operated by constructing an externalisable and exploitable ‘outside’ to labour proper. In this (often racially constructed) ‘outside’, work is done and exploitation occurs, but the valuation accorded to the labour of the ‘inside’ in society is denied. The simulacra of race build these borders within borders, these inverted hierarchies of surface and depth, real and incidental properties. It is worth keeping in mind the continuation of this as the substrate of planetary computation: the sweatshops, the mining and recycling of rare-earth metals, and the whole planetary network of production, consumption, and waste. While the labour of the slave allowed Rome to perform its censuses, diffuse, exploited, and precarious labour is instrumental to performing the new operations of totality today. In this kind of capture, there are new divisions built on the old, new sites for the real to be converted into something exchangeable. What then has changed? In the sense of totalising logics, perhaps, not much. The goal is still to absorb and extract all there is under the banner of empire. The differences lie in the complexity, the greater degree of self-referentiality, and the responsiveness possible for mechanisms of power. The Garden of Forking Paths is more subtle than the Library of Babel, but no less totalising. But despite the shift from an archive totality to a processual one, it is worth remembering that neither are truly infinite. Both remain bounded infinities: infinite only to the degree that they are capable of separating the material from the symbolic. And still, there is no library without its librarians, no garden without its gardeners.
- Borges, Jorge Luis. Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley. (London: Penguin Books, 1999), 115.
- Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. Programmed Visions: Software and Memory. (London: The MIT Press, 2011), 11.
- Baudrillard, Jean. Simulacra and Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. (University of Michigan Press, 1981), 1.
- Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle, trans. Ken Knabb. (Rebel Press, 1992), 76.
- Scott, James C. Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States. (Yale University Press, 2017), 140.
- Longo, Giuseppe. “Critique of Computational Reason in the Natural Sciences.” In Fundamental Concepts in Computer Science, eds. Erol Gelenbe and Jean-Pierre Kahane, 43–70. (London: Imperial College Press, 2009), 45.
- Brassier, Ray. “That Which Is Not: Philosophy as Entwinement of Truth and Negativity”, Stasis 1, no. 1 (2013): 174–86.
- Mbembe, Achille. Critique of Black Reason, trans. Laurent Dubois. (London: Duke University Press, 2017), 13.
- Ibid, 10.
- Moreton-Robinson, Aileen. The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 110. Avaliable here
- Galloway, Alexander R. The Interface Effect. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012), 135. Avaliable here
- Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. Programmed Visions: Software and Memory. (London: The MIT Press, 2011), 179.
- Silver, David, Thomas Hubert, Julian Schrittwieser, Ioannis Antonoglou, Matthew Lai, Arthur Guez, Marc Lanctot, et al. “Mastering Chess and Shogi by Self-Play with a General Reinforcement Learning Algorithm.” (DeepMind preprint, London, 2017).
- Beller, Jonathan. The Message Is Murder: Substrates of Computational Capital. (London: Pluto Press, 2018), 35–36.
- Hui, Yuk. Recursivity and Contingency. (Rowman and Littlefield, 2019), 52.
- Ibid, 18.
- Ibid, 28.
- Choat, Simon, Marx Through Poststructuralism: Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010).
- Thoburn, Nicholas, Deleuze, Marx and Politics (London; New York: Routledge, 2003).