“Voici l’histoire que j’aurais aimé raconter : que la répétition s’évade de la répétition pour se répéter. Qu’en cherchant à se faire oublier, elle fixe son oubli, et ainsi répète son absence. » (Jen-François Lyotard, L’inhumain, 165)
I remember posters in the Parisian subway: the green and desaturated image of a mineral egg. It had been the talk of the month on the news. There was an eighth passenger, of whom we knew nothing. A newsman prompting the audience to keep the secret hidden. Suspense had to be maintained for the sake of others. I was eight years old. I didn’t see the movie at the time it was out, but this is my first memory of such a striking communication campaign for a film – the first steps towards a cultural globalization. Of course, there was something terribly enticing about this non-visible zone. My brother would tell me imaginary tales surrounding the film, that he hadn’t seen either. Every day, this self-taught author had the possibility to rearrange narratives, and this transformation had a tremendous power over my own mind, as I struggled to articulate chaotic fragments of a broken story line. At age of thirteen, I was finally able to see Alien on a hacked VHS. Because it had been taped so many times, the picture had lost its clear quality, as if the image had been veiled, conferring an uncanny documented reality to the film. I found myself at home within this film, feeling uneasy in a yet so familiar place. I already knew it all, the infinite space and its cold silence, the plot twists, the dusty corpses, the unleashed beast, the bodies collapsing from the inside, the breathtaking fear, I had known it all along.
THE BEAST, THE ROBOT AND THE MOTHER
In the towering Nostromo, the presence of the beast is perceived as her fluids melt the ceilings and floors, in a sheer gravity process. Metal and bodily secretions fuse into a residual slime that no human dares to touch. The dissolving power of saliva creates a fractal communication between parallel dimensions, just as the characters seem to be mere grafts transplanted in an organic structure whose agency cannot be grasped. Indeed, there are two inhuman entities involved in this film’s flux scheme: the Alien and the android. But there is also a third, often forgotten, embodied in the sovereign Mother, the spaceship’s computer system and Ripley’s unfailing companion in her escape towards nothingness.
In their relationship to the living, the beast and robot’s fluids act as inversions. On the one side, a blind and incommensurable life flux perpetuating death, dissolving matter and perforating thoraxes. This same perforation that swallows the Alien’s body and the bodies it invades — a body within a body, a mouth within a mouth, a tongue revealing another mouth. Both exteriority and interiority are punctured, seemingly inverted. On the other side, a white liquid gushing from a vein system, revealing the ambiguous nature of the android. In both cases, through very distinct processes, these living entities embody anti-worlds. The excessive flux destroys everything that comes in the Alien’s way, since its very nature is to overcome any striped surface. The Alien’s ability to tear a body apart is as infinite as its capacity to claim it, that is to say, kill it, while no metallic doors may interfere with its exploration of the hallways. It is a perforating machine, leaving holes in identities, melting the limits between the inside and the outside.
« Une société n’a peur que d’une chose : le déluge ; elle n’a pas peur du vide, elle n’a pas peur de la pénurie, de la rareté. Sur elle, sur son corps social, quelque chose coule et on ne sait pas ce que c’est, quelque chose coule qui ne soit pas codé, et même qui, par rapport a cette société, apparaît comme non codable. Quelque chose qui coulerait et qui entraînerait cette société à une espèce de déterritorialisation, qui ferait fondre la terre sur laquelle elle s’installe : alors ça, c’est le drame. »1
Excessive living flux descends. It penetrates and melts the ground, regardless of the interstellar void subsisting underneath. Gushing saliva evades the gaping mouth of the Alien, opening the fluxes’ bodies, while the android Ash’s mouth, even closed, still bursts with liquid substance. This incommensurable flux is not born from excess but from lack, leading to inevitable demise as the watery fluid leaves the android’s body. His flux is only a finite stock whereas that of the Alien is produced. The robot’s fluid is ascending, a splattering fountain of milky substance, which stains matter more than it dissolves it. Swallowed semen permeating the mouth and body-phallus ejaculating until there’s nothing left, until death.
How can we explain these fluxes’ opposed trajectories, not only in their relationship to the living but also to the very particularity of the anthropologic? For these two entities are inhuman, insofar as they deny human beings by excess, in the gravity of descending fluxes, or by imitation, in the fountain of ascending fluxes. To be able to understand the importance of fluxes throughout time, we would have to give a detailed account of their conception in the Western world. Without a doubt, we would also need to describe their polarisation between φύσις (nature), σῶμα (body) and τέχνη (art), and how their repartition evolved into the cybernetic world, drawing a certain Zeitgeist. If indeed this project was developed elsewhere, it is important to insist here on the radical ambivalence of life-giving and life-taking fluxes in an intractable back-and-forth movement. Fluxes of the Nile as it floods, draining corpses while leaving a layer of highly fertile silt. Fluxes of the rain pouring along Athens’ eroded cliffs, drying the land and where, according to Plato:
« La terre de ce pays dépassait, dit-on, en fertilité toutes les autres […]. C’est qu’il y eut de nombreux et terribles déluges, au cours de ces neuf mille ans. Au cours d’une période si longue et parmi ces accidents, la terre qui glissait des lieux élevés ne déposait pas, comme ailleurs, des sédiments notables, mais, roulant toujours, elle finissait par disparaître dans l’abîme. Et, ainsi qu’on peut s’en rendre compte dans les petites îles, notre terre est demeurée, par rapport à celle d’alors, comme le squelette d’un corps décharné par la maladie. »2
The Alien and the robot are metaphors of this very ambivalence in the living, which can only be located outside of our living, through an excess – or a lack – of life. Through these dramatisations of human being, the technological and organic apparatus thus become intrinsic. The hypothesis of an anthropology, carried in fluxes through pure internal necessity, is without a doubt expressed in the third entity, the Mother computer, insofar as it comprises the two previous entities while always remaining absent. It’s both the mother of the beast and the robot, a structure protecting any living organism from the emptiness of space that even the Alien cannot withstand. It is companion of humans in their awakening from a long amniotic hibernation, a guiding voice who ushers them into a dark maze of metal hallways. Only embodied at the beginning, Mother gradually disappears as it becomes the place itself. It is the mother who spawns the android and who observes the reproduction stages of the beast, a parasitic process, in which life consumes the living – the facehugger being no exception – to achieve birth; a life that denies existence.
Alien’s aesthetic shock has always been a recurring fascination, that of a world both organic and mechanic. But what strikes us here is not so much the fusion of these two materialities, but rather their effusion, how they pervade each other until they can be nothing more but the result of their own relationship. What brings the two entities together, in a formless resemblance between pure technical imitation and the most extreme expression of life, is recognizable in Ash’s blind admiration for the Alien and its restless conatus, knowing no other drive or peremptory law than those dictated by its own reproduction. This admiration remains neutral; it is not a recognition of the imitation process, but what is found to be familiar in difference. The robot is deceitful, while the Alien eliminates any form of existence. The spaceship acts as the backdrop of this interaction, presenting a few problems in its geometry: indeed, how can communication happen between parallel lines? What goes in and through dissimilar dimensions, dissolving them altogether? It is the computer that makes both the geometry’s openness and closeness possible. I would like to come back, for a moment, on the omnipresence and ultimate absence of this computer. Mother is only materialized once, while the mission is still functioning as planned. It then will only appear through mechanical processes (opening and closing doors) or as a vocal background. It is the one and only protected place, safe and sovereign, with door closed, representing precisely here a flux in itself, as Lacan stresses it here:
« Une porte n’est pas quelque chose… je vous prie d’y réfléchir… de tout à fait réel. La prendre pour quelque chose de réel conduirait à d’étranges malentendus. Si vous observez une porte, et par exemple que vous en déduisiez qu’elle produit des courants d’air, ceci vous entraînerait à l’emporter sous votre bras dans le désert pour vous rafraîchir et le résultat serait néant. […] Il ne faut pas qu’une porte soit “ouverte ou fermée” ! Il faut qu’elle soit “ouverte puis fermée, puis ouverte, puis fermée…” La base de toute espèce de machine naît en ceci que vous connaissez qui est la possibilité, grâce au circuit électrique et au circuit d’induction branché sur lui-même, c’est-à-dire ce qu’on appelle un feed-back, mais très original, qui a pour effet qu’il suffit que la porte se ferme pour qu’aussitôt elle soit rappelée par un électro-aimant en état d’ouverture, c’est de nouveau sa fermeture, et de nouveau son ouverture, vous engendrez ainsi ce qu’on appelle une oscillation. »3
The concepts of plasticity and, furthermore, of change, as they are developed in the work of Catherine Malabou, present us with the necessary tools to understand the three-fold inhuman entities co-existing in the film. Indeed, the question raised here is not so much how to articulate them, but more how each of them bares the conditions of their own division or, more precisely, their own rift, between the living, the technological and, in the case of Mother, the logical. Each of them is in distant relationship with the self and their connection is invested precisely in this gap, this rift, insofar as instead of being a retrospective phenomenon it remains what constitutes their own origin. The reproductive obsession of the beast is bond with form. To be formed, we need pathos and we need to be reformed, meaning we need to change our configuration. And this is the reason why bodies are dislocated:
« Qu’elle soit présentée comme une peau, un vêtement, un atour, que l’on peut toujours quitter sans que l’essentiel soit altéré. […] Toujours, dans la métaphysique, la forme peut changer, mais la nature de l’être demeure. C’est cela qui est discutable, et non le concept de forme lui-même, dont il est absurde de vouloir prétendre se passer. Il faut arriver à penser une mutation qui engage et la forme et l’être, une forme nouvelle qui soit littéralement forme d’être. »4
In a similar manner, when we move from φύσις to σῶμα and τέχνη, this plasticity of form is what is as stake, questioning Aristotelian hylomorphism. Nature acts as a void, swallowing the bodies in its gaping mouth, and in turn, these same bodies start considering other species (to the exception of cats and androids) as hosts. The technical mimics the human only to admire the Alien. “Perfect organism” Ash mutters “its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility (…). I admire its purity. A survivor… Unclouded by conscience, remorse or delusions of morality”. What strikes us here is that the Alien is not only inhuman but also, to some extent, the non-human part of humans, what it was before being human: anonymous flesh, a remainder, surviving in the shadows.
A three-bodied flux
The circulating mechanism between organic, technical and logical bodies enables us to elaborate differences between the three entities presented in the film, as an incorporating spillage that at no time coordinates each of them as organs. The Alien is the living at its most extreme form, a living that only evolves as a thanatological principle, found elsewhere in human’s will to colonize other planets, and to domesticate the Alien only to turn its organic structure into a weapon – which is Ash’s mission. As a sole or multiple entities, the Alien dissolves unity, crawling and sprawling from anywhere and everywhere, it is the a-priori of existence par excellence:
« Les tourbillons sont décrits sous la dictée du sujet même, du point de vue du mort, du sujet qui risque la mort face au flux. Ce qui terrifie n’est pas le sens du bruit, je veux dire la chose dite, médite, mais la multiplicité croissante qui la dit. La peur est du grouillement, de la marée, l’angoisse pullule, la connaissance par concepts enrégimente ce troupeau nauséeux sous la généralité pure de l’un. »5
The Alien is part of a parasitizing flux, both suspension and annihilation of other fluxes in the process of its own reproduction. This paradoxical bond between reproduction and death through the use of a hosting body turns the Alien into an expulsion, born from a body’s explosion. The Alien is afflux insofar as its body fluids – drool and blood alike – flow in a constant Christic exchange of fluxes. The excess of flux is a permanent struggle, hard materiality becoming viscosity. The afflux is also that which erupts from nowhere, therefore destroying the compartmentalisation of Euclidian geometry.
The android is reflux, insofar as the milky liquid – a mimic of blood – flowing out of his mechanical organic structure drains its body to extinction. There, we bear witness to an uncanny reflection. While the living seems limitless, bond with a constant flux, the robotic organism is an allegory of finitude through its diminishing flow. Through him, the non-living’s limit through its own extinction becomes clearly visible. The reflux is not only liquid but also imitation, as the android acts as a subtraction to the human to himself. It acts as a deteriorated repetition, a degradation that soon leads to fascination for the afflux the xenomorph exudes. On par with Turing’s machine, its intelligence is defined as operational, no more, no less.
Finally, we have the computer. Seemingly bound to the spaceship, it represents the ultimate protection from the spatial void. This entity, named Mother-Nostromo is influx, insofar as it is, if not the source of both others, then at least their context. In the first minutes of the film, human beings are asleep while Nostromo is on auto-pilot mode; upon reception of an SOS, the spaceship derives from its original trajectory to answer a distressed call. The first communication takes place between the machine and the Alien. The humans are seemingly absent, the communication engaged between the other two, without us, acts as a liminal zone between silicon (Mother), carbon (Nostromo) and organic (Alien) structures. We are tempted to associate this first scene with a transitional state from a certain mode of absence (sleep) to another (death) insofar as humans inhibit the communication between the two xeno-species embodied in the beast and the computer. The terror induced by the Alien is only consequence of an interaction in a given place. Place is inseparably bound to matter – the hard metal structure of the spaceship – and to logic – the computer’s voice invading every corner. The Alien travels through the spaceship in a parallel movement to each level, crushing perspectives as a result; spaces are no longer separated, everything communicates through the circulation of constant fluxes. If any human attempt at withdrawing into the last corners of the spacecraft only serves to prove that there is, indeed, no possible escape. The smooth surface of the alien’s space is far superior to the striped surface of human beings.
Mother, as it is called in the film’s first minutes, will be the one waking the passengers from their interstellar slumber, thus bringing them back to life. It is also their guide through Nostromo’s uterine maze. The true dialectic at stake in this film is located between the reproductive and the protective maternal modes, between the bodily flux of the Alien and the vocal flux of the computer-spaceship, between what penetrates and what countains.
THE FLESH OF THE WORLD
We could posit there is a fluxional attraction between the extreme presence of the Alien and the relative absence of the computer. It is possible to develop this attraction in the film because it already is there all along within our most banal everydayness. What binds the beast to the computer? What is their most intimate rapport? And how do they relate to this grey world where Nostromo lands, where mineral and mechanical fuse to give birth to unspeakable horror? What is this life waiting for other lives only to be reborn through them?
Ever since the emergence of cybernetics, fundamental informatic questions were raised. The dialectic between signal and code if one of the tensions at stake between Wiener, Neumman and Shannon. The first telecommunication networks appear in 1837 with Samuel Morse’s electric telegraph system, quickly followed by telephonic networks developed by AT&T. What characterized these networks was their passivity: once the signal was sent, there was no voluntary modification possible. Without amplification, the signal would progressively deteriorate as the communication distance would increase. The electric wave we have here is a direct consequence of the wave produced by a vocal signal; it is the sound of my voice reshaped into something else. If a network remains passive, then all it does is carrying a signal which will eventually decrease, until it is completely dominated by noise due to the network’s imperfections and the line’s increased resistance with distance. Thus noise is considered as the natural nemesis of any signal’s transmission. This deterioration seems similar to the second principle of thermodynamic’s second principle: these telephonic and telegraphic networks create confusion between the medium, the electric wave, the message and the sonic wave. The notion of information was partly developed to resolve the issues caused by the loss of signal into the noise. It is when the network stops being intended as transmission of electric current but as a vehicle for message transmission that this notion will appear. The energetic model is discontinued, since it was only a mean to an end, that is to say, only a way to consider the signal as an autonomous wave whose characteristics are to be studied and reproduced through a sampling process. Cybernetic engineers will gradually abandon their focus on the signal’s physic properties, to apprehend it as a code distressed by statistic noise. Yet, one of the major discoveries in cybernetics rests in the use of noise, considered as feedback, as a way to auto-finalize mechanical behaviours.
Cybernetic will remain haunted by this ambiguity: behind the purity of code dwells a material signal, while the information’s immunity is also grounded on noise’s disturbance, in short, behind the logical voice of Mother hides a beast whose fluxes penetrate the walls. Whose sovereignty are we witnessing here: that of Mother or the Alien’s? If Ash’s mission is to bring the Alien back to Earth to be studied, then why does the central computing system only seem to work towards the survival of human beings? Is there a vicious game at stake here, using the fleeing humans as living bait out of pure entertainment? Isn’t this film akin to a cruel game aimed at training monstrous children? Turing said: « Au lieu d’essayer de produire un programme qui simule l’esprit adulte, pourquoi ne pas plutôt essayer d’en produire un qui simule celui de l’enfant ? S’il était soumis à une éducation appropriée, on aboutirait à un cerveau adulte. Il est probable que le cerveau de l’enfant est une sorte de calepin comme on peut en trouver dans les papeteries : très peu de mécanismes et beaucoup de feuilles blanches. […] Notre espoir est que le mécanisme dans le cerveau de l’enfant soit si petit qu’il soit aisément programmable. »6 The fact we consider the machine like a child, that is to say, a product of reproduction, creates a sense of distortion between what is constitutive of the σῶμα (body) and of τέχνη (art).
This sense of distortion is intensified if we consider the theory of grey goo, incipiently found in Neumann but explicitly formulated in the work of Drexler7. What we have to remember is that Turing’s universal machine applies to calculability itself. The information’s assumption consists in a machine that could potentially achieve any possible calculus. Considered as calculus layered over calculus, it’s a machine born from machines; this tells us a lot on its capacity to auto-replicate – of which the most contemporary examples would be 3D printers. There lay the limitless fantasies of production’s production, of the permanent recycling of all things (old machines being raw material for new ones), of a zero-cost production, thereby finalizing the constant industrialisation process8 , deeply rooted in the first Aristotelian motor’s perpetual motion (described in Physics). Turing envisioned it as such: « Les serviteurs fourniront à la machine les cartes au fur et à mesure des besoins. Ils répareront les éléments qui tombent en panne. En réalité, les serviteurs tiennent lieu de membres pour la machine. Mais avec le temps, l’ordinateur remplacera les fonctions des maîtres comme des serviteurs. […] les maîtres sont susceptibles d’être remplacés parce que dès qu’une technique devient suffisamment stéréotypée, il devient possible de mettre en place un ensemble de tables d’instructions qui permettront au calculateur électronique de s’en charger par lui-même. […] Ce sujet nous amène naturellement à la question de savoir jusqu’où il est possible en principe pour une machine de calcul de simuler les activités humaines. »9
As a machine producing other machines, computers could then colonize every available corner on Earth through the invasion of multiple nanotechnologies until no other living specie would remain:
« Mettons qu’une machine supra-intelligente soit une machine capable dans tous les domaines d’activités intellectuelles de grandement surpasser un humain, aussi brillant soit-il. Comme la conception de telles machines est l’une de ces activités intellectuelles, une machine supra-intelligente pourrait concevoir des machines encore meilleures ; il y aurait alors sans conteste une « explosion d’intelligenceˮ, et l’intelligence humaine serait très vite dépassée. Ainsi, l’invention de la première machine supra-intelligente est la dernière invention que l’Homme ait besoin de réaliser. » 10
This turn to the technical is a source of inspiration for Ray Kurzweil in its most contemporary singularity. It is deeply rooted in a radical transformation of the technical, which not be instrumental anymore but self-operated, provoking a brutal shift in the Aristotelian separation between the living that acts and technology that is acted. This self-finalisation would give technique a fluxional capacity: its “life” leak on the living and in doing so would overshadow Earth behind a grey, entropic and deadly veil.
If we are giving this particular vision of technique, we also develop an imagery of the living that seems pulled apart, in utter contradiction with itself: the living desires death, the living is the dead. From there derives another perspective, where the damp and the dry undergo the same partition as the living and the dead.
Dry and damp
We have to give credit to contemporary author Jonathan Littell, who demonstrated in his noteworthy Le sec et l’humide : une brève incursion en territoire fasciste (2008) how Nazism was at the same time haunted by this partition and conjured it altogether. Alien is a contemporary take on Galen’s ancient method of saignée, addressing a double concern: the damp body and the dry body, the body drowned from the inside by its own flux and the flux-less body. If fluxes appear so ambivalent when considered as pharmakon, it is because the pathological crisis originates from small delay in the drainage, following a same chronological development. The humeur deteriorates first, then comes the fever and finally the pathological crisis which is an attempt at expelling the excess of humeur. The first moment is an internal one, the second a symptom emerging on the body, the third a reaction towards the exterior, an effort to restore balance. In this moment, anything can happen. Sickness can either succeed in colonizing the body resulting in the loss of the patient, or, quite the opposite, the organic process at play will allow the sick patient to recover. The crisis comes from a clinamen, defining sickness as a possibility of the organic structure. Yet we can say that it is this very possibility that allows the development of technology, that is to say the very essence of it. Sickness is a possibility of the body, it is the proof that something can happen, that could cause the organism’s habitual functioning to cease. If there is a slight delay in the same elements, if bodily functions are at where this interruption is operated, it means that there is a possibility for both a bad and good translation within the body. As translation, it can be repeated (principle of iterability) and as an un-differential, it can be dislocated as another shape and in another matter. This displacement, this dislocation, are what defines the fantasy of a technical singularity. As Derrida writes it : « Ce que j’appelle l’itérabilité, qui à la fois répète le même en le déplaçant ou en l’altérant, c’est à la fois une ressource, un pouvoir décisif et une catastrophe : de la répétition ou de la reproduction. Il y a dans cette logique de l’itérabilité de quoi […] remettre en cause les oppositions du type physis/tekhnê (donc aussi physis/nomos, physis/thesis) […] »11
This self-devouring aspect doesn’t only concern the rapport between organic and technical iterability, but also affects something located bellow the world, understood as entirety of the as-such. Metaphorically, this ship waiting for a new reproductive chain on a hostile planet represents our claim to cosmic pessimism. What is this thing below the world that appears to be devouring itself? What is this life that seems to act against Life? What can this terrifying fantasy tell us on our everydayness? Is it only a candid emotion emanating from a lost human being in the cosmos:
« Φύσις, ce qui règne, ne désigne pas seulement ce qui règne lui-même, mais bien ce qui règne en tant qu’il règne, soit : le règne de ce qui règne. Ce qui, pour l’expérience immédiate, est ce qui règne avec un excès de puissance, revendique précisément pour lui-même le nom de φύσις. Et cela, c’est la voûte céleste, ce sont les astres, c’est la mer, c’est la terre, c’est ce qui menace constamment l’homme, mais en même temps le protège aussi, le soutient, le porte et le nourrit ; c’est ce qui, menaçant et supportant ainsi, règne de soi-même, sans l’intervention de l’homme. »12
The fact that autophagy exposes the structural ambivalence of φύσις (nature) in the metaphor of a threatening home whose internal wounds have rendered inhospitable doesn’t provide any understanding of this devouring entity, reproducing itself in the wreck of our frail existence.
In the slightly altered ending presented in Alien Resurrection’s director’s cut, Jeunet places Ripley at the top of a hill overlooking the devastated landscape of what used to be Paris, whre she utters “I’m a stranger here myself”. As a heritage of Rimbaldian modernity, we realize the obvious: the Alien is us. This allows us to apprehend the principle of autophagy which is at play here, a question that concerns the relation between the flesh and the planet. Indeed, we are haunted by our own flesh because we are only a mere configuration of it, ephemeral and finite, an account we find in Trigg’s The Thing: A Phenomenology of Horror (2014). The matter we are made of was here before us and will survive our existence on this planet. In the depths of our being lies also the most anonymous of matters and at the edge of this hostile flesh-planet, we can only quiver. The world is devouring itself just as we devour ourselves at the thought of being nothing more than an accidental rupture, submerged in a flux that drowns us from both sides. We must not be baffled, though, by this haunting conjuration, as embedded as it is in modern capitalism’s entropy and its constant flow of supply and demand and its leaning towards a stabilized energy.
Alien is science-fiction insofar as it draws parallel lines between two species that is to say between two phenomena that we can understand scientifically, within two different contexts: technical (Nostromo) and logical (Mother). This parallelism, that the blood flux of the beat occasionally penetrates, is organised between two repetitions. The first one is reproduction, represented in the egg-laying infernal contamination; the second is imitation, represented by the android.
Alien isn’t a fiction outside of science13, it relates to a principle of causation, in which horror is produced by a blind repetition mechanism, where no human resistance can prevent the inevitable flow. Scientific observation doesn’t act as a mastering tool that would allow for a foreseeable future, but instead lets in an inevitable sense of terror: nothing will stop the beast as here the laws of science have become laws of destruction. Thus, science here gives us an account of the extinction of a species, the same species studying this causation, annihilating science itself.
The film’s repetitive process, elaborated in laws that aim at equating the different to the same, is therefore a differential one: both organic reproduction and robotic imitation call the same into the different which, within repetition, dislocates itself at the contact of another series. What would become of the film if the spaceship only carried one species? What would the plot become if both species were not permeated by the species-less android?
In summer 2015, a series of events critically modified our relationship to repetition and imitation. At the end of May, a Japanese team was able to generate photorealist textures. On June 17, Google published an article entitled Inceptionism (Mordvintsev et al.). On June 18, a team of researchers from Facebook developed a model of image production (Denton et al.). A month later, a source code for the software named Eyescream was released on Github (https://github.com/facebook/eyescream). A software capable of generating photographic images from any type of analyzed image. On August 12, Google reiterated this process with Deepdream (https://github.com/google/deepdream). The latter rose immediately to fame among the online community, fascinated by the possibility to produce new images (dogs, fish…) from random images (faces, landscapes, pizzas) through the magical power of this software. Random shapes morphed into others as if they had been generated under the influence of LSD or psilocybe. Neuronal networks looked for patterns resembling a previous image bank in the image’s noise, and by a process of repetition, accentuated the proximity between the two: “apply more”. One of the most fundamental principal of cybernetic information had been applied to the submerging flux of visual data.
Beyond the technological process generating these images, the popularity of this application can be interpreted through its title, Deep Dream. What we witness is the machine’s dream through its hallucinations, other images previously memorized seen in a given image. The image is haunted by a series of apparitions until it gives way to a world of fluxes, where any given thing can morph into another, following the logic of circulation at play in the most ancient visual traces of humanity. Deep Dream: the moment we slip into the depths of a dream, the moment we feel ourselves falling into this abyss, we realize we are actually dreaming. The machine doesn’t dream when it dreams. Witnessing the machine’s dreams, we imagine the dream dreaming.
Yet, what really strikes us in both Alien and the theory of grey goo is visual resemblance. Because both operate on a same pareidolia, Deep Dream appears as a Californian psychedelic version of Hans Ruedi Giger’s gothic horror. In this psychological phenomenon, the stimulus recognizes something that isn’t really here. This is the process at play in the commonly used Rorschach test, for example. Comparably, when we see faces or animals in the clouds, their presence is pure hallucination and we are aware at all times of this particular status. This awareness can induce bliss or angst, and as it attests of a lapse in our perception, we become the witnesses of its mechanism, functioning at the very edge of itself, therefore constituting a transcendental empiricism. Unlike metaphor, pareidolia is asemantic, it doesn’t aim at representation, even if it replicates something that isn’t here. When I see one thing instead of another, it is only because the patterns are similar. In turn, this similitude seems to become independent from the elements it is observing, leading to an algorithmic over-interpretation. As Bratton writes, the process is « drawing connections and conclusions from sources with no direct connection other than their indissoluble perceptual simultaneity. »14
How does Deep Dream operates? A neuronal network tries to connect patterns of a random image to images it already has in its memory bank. These memorized images are then injected into the initial one until it is completely recovered. Its own memory is hallucination, because it is anticipating this convergence in the decomposition of noised-patterned images. Pareidolia is the intersection between computing research and divination consisting in seeing what isn’t here. Modern conspiracy theories use this method to give alternative accounts and interpretations based on visual “proves”. In Eyescream, another computing process is at play since the software learns while duplicating itself. Two machines are set against each other: one is generative (A) and the other discriminative (B). While (A) produces fake data so real that (B) actually analyzes them as real, (B) learns to not be fooled by (A)’s falsity. After you let them play for a moment, the result is a generator that can produce as many images as desired. The machine can thus generate images that replicate others, whilst not being identical, since they duplicate themselves internally, following a process of technological schize.
This process is critical insofar as it replays on another level the rupture of harmony between noema and noesis, between object and conscience in Alien. A xenomorphic organism penetrates the collapse of subjectivity, just as Deep Dream, operating on a rather grotesque and comical mode, only reproduces us by fighting itself. We need to affiliate the beast with the molluscs and dogs from Google software. The crumbling of limits between inside and outside, between human and inhuman, is not a singularity anymore but a general condition for the technologically constructed visibility. The erosion of identity mastery and the disintegration of the phenomenological pact through ontic excess that no ontology can aggregate do not call for terror anymore. They call for a concrete operation in this de-correlated flux, which are not a product of a self-reflecting ego activity anymore but that of technological beings. What follows is a formless resemblance, comparable to that of the Alien’s deadly reproduction process or the relational intelligence of Turing’s machine, between the transcendental schize as practice of our experience pushed to its limits and the operational schize of a computing neuronal network. It is through the perception of relational agencies between different entities (Alien, android, mother, ship, cyber machine, grey goo and neuronal networks) that we will be able to perceive, as a reflection, the complexity of our times.
Hyper-production and capture
Fluxes are always afflux and reflux. We can be submerged by both excess and lack. Their irrevocable association is expressed since the industrialisation era, dreaming both of a limitless energia capable to recycle itself and of entropy that exhausts the resources of Earth. Growth and crisis are not two separate moments, they are afflux and reflux. This means that this ambivalent structure is mediated everyday through modern capitalism and its production apparatus. What I want to do here is to compare consumerism against productivism, that is to say an anthropological approach against a technological one, my artistic work being haunted for the past several years by the latter.
My own production is driven by the technological capacity to generate quantities that by far exceed the possibility of human experience, in a shape that is similar to what we would be capable to produce ourselves, without ever being confused by this similitude. There is a certain joy in being able to observe the effects I programmed from the inside-out, while at the same time being unable to predict every possible form. This hyper-production goes even further when it is in direct link with the Web, in itself constituting a bank of potentially boundless existential data, insofar as it grows more rapidly than our capacity to explore it in a transfinite movement.
In this artistic mechanism there is capture, reproduction and hyper-production, a tripartite set which certainly brings us back to the logic of the Alien. « Memories center » (2014-2015, http://chatonsky.net/projects/center-of-the-memories) is a machine I created, capable of infinite dreaming. But it isn’t the subject of “its own” dream, it only dreams what we project into it: the anthropological and the technological do not precede their own relationship and this is the reason why both anthropocentrism and techno-centrism must be avoided. This installation combines a sculpture, representing a data center in the middle of the room, and a tripartite videoprojection apparatus. From a database gathering the 20 000 dreams collected by Adam Schneider and G. William Domhoff at the University of California, the program generates new dreams using Markov chains. The machine acts as though based itself on our dreams to produce similar yet not identical others. The software identifies potential keyword sequences in these new dreams and proceeds to search on different sites (Flickr, Instagram, Tumblr) for corresponding tagged images. Three of these images are then displayed on each projector and processed through a filter usually employed by artificial vision to detect shapes. A digital female voice proceeds to narrate the dream. Transformation sequences at play operate on modes of differentiation and convergence: at some point, we all tried to search an image on Google using a keyword and observed the discrepancies between the two, the image never “being” the word. This failure in translation has a striking effect, we are sensitive to the reasons for these discrepancies both from an anthropological and technological point of view, as we start to imagine the reasons why said image would have been tagged with said word. The dream “of the” machine, since she is dreaming of us as much as we are dreaming of her, relies particularly on these discrepancies, on these flawed global translations of nonsensical digital code15. The dream allows for these incidental occurrences precisely because it is already accepted, incoherence here is analyzed as a latent meaning waiting to be discovered. Thus there is a structural relationship between the processing mode of the computing software and the human imagination. In both cases, what we have are images of images, only following different modalities. The machine stubbornly produces dreams from our dreams just as we give a certain image of the machine by observing its process.
Capture (2009-2015 http://chatonsky.net/capture) is a fictional rock band so productive no one can pretend to hear, see or read everything. This project, based on the crisis suffered by the cultural industry, which systematically stages its death crushed under the weight of illegal files downloading, associates many generating software to produce music, texts, images and videos. This production is a realistic one insofar as, contrary to classic computing production, it doesn’t produce abstract data but datas similar to that of pop production. The difference between realism and abstraction is genetically simple. Abstraction departs from entities close to the signal, a pixel is then a coordinate x or y. Realism departs from already constituted media, because these are the ones we are effectively aiming at. To this end, it combines generating and capturing software, the latter tasked with gathering data from the web. The found data will then be “degenerated”, altered enough for their origins to be blurred, all the while maintaining their structure. The generation is a model which produces elements both homogenous and diverse, as it operates. Unlike Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek’s accelerationism, this degenerative productivism is not concerned with the implementation of a new hegemony through the transformation of infrastructure’s finality. Rather, it aims at destabilizing our instrumental relationship to technique. It is concerned with the infrastructure itself, it all its technological materiality: how can we produce machines that can produce more than we can only perceive? How can productivism go beyond the possibility of consumerism? The world of consumerist drive is not the only one involved in digital hyper-production anymore, since while a material background, it also produces a fluxional world where the smooth penetrates the ridged. By producing data based on the ones we constantly overflow the social media with during the course of our existence, the machine acts as an excess of the human world and adds a degenerative difference to it. This second world, both plausible and different, clouds the questions of unity and identity. It isn’t a counter-world, it’s a parallel world, so close and yet so uncanny. Either by excess of production, that is to say an afflux similar to that of the Alien, or through degenerative imitation, such as that of Ash, we can pierce through what separates the infra from the hyperstructure. This is probably what Klossowski had anticipated in Living Currency: « Dans le produit de l’art, l’affect trouverait l’expression de son phantasme : dans l’ustensilité qui refuse de l’exprimer, l’affect agirait sous le couvert de l’utilité de quelque chose où l’affect n’aurait que faire. »16
The third project I created, Deep (2016, http://chatonsky.net/deep), connects the organic, the logical and the imitative into a software, capable of learning to draw based both on a series of drawings I realized myself between 1992 and 2016 and on sketching textbooks. The software creates a noise from which patterns linked to my former drawing emerge, based on the vectoring of massive visual data stocks (Emily Denton, Soumith Chintala, Arthur Szlam, Rob Fergus, http://arxiv.org/abs/1506.05751). In order to provide a more precise result and to make it more plausible, I then apply a stylistic device automatically produced from the same files (Leon A. Gatys, Alexander S. Ecker, Matthias Bethge, http://arxiv.org/abs/1508.06576) to the noise-pattern. Lastly, the generated file is reintroduced in the software’s learning system, using autophagic feedback, which in turn creates a distance from the human made model for the machine to perfect progressively its own style. Unlike in the industrial paradigm, imitation and individuation are no longer opposed. The individual condition itself becomes imitation because far from repeating itself, it is subject to a constant self-devouring. Repetition distances itself from imitation, insofar as it is no longer bond to the representative, but to the generative: reproduction of a difference rather than reproduction of the same. The original reference, my drawings, wasn’t stable and already tainted at all times with the possibility of a fracture, which in turn just had to be expanded. What we need to observe here is not only what this hyper-productive process – for once it is launched it cannot be stopped – has to do with the grey zone between the living and the technical in Alien, but also how the artistic field is redefined. The Alien-art colonizes our existence to achieve its reproduction. The human being only was an occasion for it to happen.
Alien has certainly become a commonplace for those who see in science-fiction a great medium to sustain speculative theories. But this commonality also lies in something we all share, a popular culture that without a doubt shapes our imaginary, our world. For some of us, this film is associated to childhood memories, reminiscence of grounded emotions we must revisit despite the excess of already and overly heard. The concept of hyperstition, rapidly sprawled on the Web, allows us to articulate the three steps in this present text: science-fiction, cybernetic history and current computing infrastructure. Going from one to the other helps us understanding how science-fiction’s imaginary has progressively been materialized in our modern context. It is not only a matter of passing encounters17, but of structure. Indeed, because it associates hyper and superstition, hypersition acts as a tool to describe the way some ideas leave an impact on our culture, causing ripples on our material infrastructure. Hypersitition is the intersection where imaginary and concrete change meet, both embedded into an accelerating cycle, for behind instrumentality’s rationality there is always impulsional’s formlessness. One of the many forms this hyperstition assumes could be seen in modern capitalism, whose discourse leaks into the world. It has become more and more difficult to dissociate infrastructure from superstructure rendered inextricable through endless associating feedbacks.
Hyperstition allows us to understand how fiction generates reality, since the latter is not a precondition in itself, but technoscientifically constituted since any given thing has been considered as code. It is not only a social construct, but something that both perform the truth is performed by it, blurring the limits between cause and consequence. What remains of this transmutation is only flux. This is precisely what is at play between the Alien, the grey goo theory and computing development of neuronal networks. How can we then recognize reality from fiction? Consequences from causes? Doesn’t the neuronal net already have practical consequences on our existence? Didn’t cybernetic anticipate and invented the conjunction between 3D printing and a world drown into consumerism? Isn’t Alien a figuration of the relationship between nature, the living and the technical? Fluxes, as phenomena and as logic, are fundamental in this transfer. They allow us to experience a time where future and terribly ancient leak on each other. The blood exuding beast that drools on the ship’s floors is the real and vivid image of this inextricability: it is life before life, it is life after life. It is what splits life and the distinction between what is inside and outside of it. For fluxes to drain, in all their excess and lack, the φύσις (nature), σῶμα (corps) and τέχνη (art) must be split and bifid. All beings must be the symptomatic result of a schize through which the world collapses into the abject.
1Consulté à l’adresse http://www.le-terrier.net/deleuze/anti-œdipe1000plateaux/0116-11-71.htm. C’est nous qui soulignons.
2 Platon (trad. Léon Robin) (1977). Œuvres complètes, vol. II, Paris : Éditions Gallimard, coll. « Bibliothèque de la Pléiade », « Critias »
3Lacan, J. (1978). « Psychanalyse et cybernétique, ou de la nature du langage », dans Le Séminaire, livre II, Le moi dans la théorie de Freud et dans la technique de la psychanalyse. Paris : Seuil, Paris, 793-797.
4Malabou, C. (2009). Ontologie de l’accident : Essai sur la plasticité destructrice. Paris : Éditions Léo Scheer. 23.
5Serres, M. (1986). Genèse. Paris : Grasset.114
6Turing, A. (1950). Computing machinery and intelligence, Oxford: Mind, vol. 49, 456
7 Drexler, E. (1987). Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology. Garden City: Anchor.
8Riflkin, J. (2014). La nouvelle société coût marginal zéro L’internet des objets L’émergence des communaux collaboratifs et l’éclipse du capitalisme. Paris : Les liens qui libèrent éditions. Cette hypothèse a été critiquée par http://alternatives-economiques.fr/blogs/gadrey/2014/09/28/jeremy-rifkin-l%E2%80%99internet-des-objets-et-la-societe-des-barbapapa/
9 Turing, A. (1947) . Lecture to the London Mathematical Society 20 February 1947. Consulté à partir de http://www.vordenker.de/downloads/turing-vorlesung.pdf
10 Good, I.J. (1965) « Speculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine », Advances in Computers, vol. 6.
11Derrida, J. (2008). Séminaire La bête et le souverain : t. 1, 2001-2002. Paris : Galilée. 120
12Heidegger, M. (1992), 57.
13Meillassoux, Q. (2013) Métaphysique et fiction des mondes hors-science. Aux forges de Vulcain.
14Benjamin H. Bratton, « Some Trace Effects of the Post-Anthropocene: On Accelerationist Geopolitical Aesthetics,” e-flux journal 46 (June 2013)
15Meillassoux, Q. (2011). Répétition, itération, réitération Une analyse spéculative du signe dépourvu de sens. Consulté à partir de http://www.diffusion.ens.fr/index.php?res=conf&idconf=3053
16 Klossowski, P. (1997). Monnaie vivante. Paris : Rivages. 51 (Change ref)
17Davis, L. Science Fiction That Caused Political Change. Consulté à partir de http://io9.gizmodo.com/5075613/science-fiction-that-caused-political-change
A point alienates from itself and becomes a line. A line alienates from itself and becomes a square. A square alienates from itself and becomes a cube. A cube alienates from itself and becomes a hypercube. Black Hyperbox is a dimension of productive alienation from concepts through experience and from experience through thinking. Black Hyperbox is a productive lie, a future-oriented spatiotemporal ruse, where the conceptual horizon is mutilated through doing and the horizon of imagination is mutilated through thought. In Black Hyperbox, any known can be black-boxed and the unknown can turn out to be most banal.
This was the text that announced Black Hyperbox, initiated by Florin Flueraș and Alina Popa in 2015. Black Hyperbox started as a frame for performance and text based on the alienation between practice and conceptualization. Meanwhile, individual artworks, mostly performances, emerged from its process. They are circulating sometimes independently, sometimes together. Now Black Hyperbox is also a book, the outcome of the discursive section of the project. Its contributing authors were immersed in Black Hyperbox or gravitating around it, at least conceptually. In the book, Black Hyperbox comes forth as a place that holds incompatible conceptual zones and spatiotemporalities together: Old World and New World, theater and jungle, jaguars and AI, prehistory and futurism, the earthly home and the alien space,Mecca and the North Pole, spaceships lost in cosmos and the politics of Isis, Malevich’s black square and the moon travel, thought and hallucination.
Contributions by: Florin Flueras, Alina Popa, Ioana Gheorghiu, Ștefan Tiron, Gabriel Catren, Irina Gheorghe, Garett Strickland, Sina Seifee, Bogdan Drăgănescu, Eleni Ikoniadou, Cristina Bogdan, Cosima Opartan, Nicola Masciandaro, Ben Woodard, Blake Victor, Adriana Gheorghe, Gregory Chatonsky, Dorothée Legrand, Georges Heidmann, Matt Hare, Larisa Crunţeanu, Dylan Trigg, Ion Dumitrescu.
Edited by Alina Popa and Florin Flueras
Design by Radu Lesevschi and Alexandru Andrei
Published by PUNCH
With the support of AFCN and CNDB
Translation : Audrey Petit-Trigg