Is it possible to discover digital prophecies in thinkers like Lacan, Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, and Baudrillard? Heckman has a go at it in this close reading of Dionysius Geoghegan's Code: From Information Theory to French Theory.
As a Gen-Xer in college I was in a unique position to witness the rise of the World Wide Web. Not because I had any special proximity to any place that made a particular difference, but just because it washed over all of us. When I started kindergarten (1980), computers were esoteric objects for engineers and nerds, when I finished grad school (2004) they were supposedly for everyone. I recall a whole host of movies (from War Games to The Matrix, Tronto The Terminator) which documented the cultural anxieties and possibilities of this transformational technology. I remember the braying sounds of dialup, the speed of DSL, the convenience wifi, and now the ubiquity of mobile. I started undergraduate research using a card catalog and paper index and finished using Boolean searches and databases. Additionally, I had the good fortune of being invited to serve as a graduate assistant to be the web editor of a journal (Rhizomes.net) in 2000. For better or worse, I was impetuous (and hungry) enough to take on the task with absolutely zero experience (much less knowledge). So, armed with a copy of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Creating an HTML Web Page, I spent the Summer in the computer lab trying to figure it out. Along the way, I met Jason Nelson, who taught me the virtues of ripping code, the convenience of Dreamweaver, the hackery of trial and error, and the joy of Flash. A few months later, I started a second journal with some grad school friends, and realized that I was no longer a 19th Century Americanist with a thing for poststructuralism but a digital media weirdo (theory, culture, humanities, publication, arts, whatever).
The point of this elaborate wind-up to a review of Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan’s Code: From Information Theory to French Theory (Duke UP 2022) is not because my biography matters, it is to highlight my naivety. There is phenomenological distance between the experience of everyday life and the institutional processes that enframe it and this can be a disorienting thing. If you asked me what I thought of all the theory I was reading 20 years ago, I would have told you a familiar generational tale. For an older generation, all this postmodern stuff might seem obscure and esoteric. The theorists themselves—Baudrillard, Kristeva, D&G, Foucault, Derrida—are like prophets peering beyond the horizon. But what they got a sense of was the world “we” were living in during those years: Reality as a cascade of signs and symbols, a world oversaturated by glittering illusions; the televisual perspective governing our movements, our identities masks that conceal nothing; a sense of the world without history or future, politics as a disaffecting series of pragmatic improvisations. After reading Geoghegan’s book, the prophets are less prescient and we are all less precocious, but the reality he weaves together in this ambitious text is vastly more important than the persistence of flattering illusions.
Geoghegan begins with the roots of cybernetic theory that flowed out of the computational innovations of World War II, flourished in the years that followed under the ample patronage of the United States military and intelligence establishment, filtered into affiliated universities, foundations and think tanks, and formed the backbone of technological development. Identifying the colony, asylum, and camp as embodiments of the “terrific threats of technocratic power run amok, of the state’s data-driven exercises to control human conduct,” Geoghegan illuminates the antecedents of cybernetics that frame its origins (1). On the one hand, such endeavors loomed large in people’s minds as grim examples of organizational power. On the other hand, armed with a consciousness of these travesties (and impressed by their power), cybernetics arose from the hope that it might be possible to organize mass behavior otherwise. In other words, “code, communication, computing, feedback, and control…embodied an effort to develop more enlightened analytics for the force wielded by science and the state” (2). This impulse (or temptation) is to achieve the ends of the colony, asylum, and camp without resorting to their grisly means. At the risk of editorializing too aggressively, this is the main tension that persists in me upon finishing the book: To achieve submission to authority without violence and to obviate politics though technology (a recurring point within the book) are the defining “ethical” maneuvers of technocracy under a neoliberal paradigm. Did the cyberneticists escape this tendency? Did the French theorists escape this tendency? Will we, moving forward, escape this tendency? Or, as Foucault liked to remind us, are we simply participating in the production of power?
Teasing out the influence of cybernetics on the University more broadly, Geoghegan draws connections from familiar names in the history computing (Weaver, Shannon, Bush, Wiener, and von Neumann) to social scientific and humanistic fields both adjacent and seemingly disparate—media studies (Lazarsfeld and Lasswell), anthropology (Bateson and Mead), psychology (Kubie and Harrower), and literature (Richards and Ogden)—facilitated in large part through the Rockefeller Foundation and Macy Conferences. In a practical sense, these connections arise out of the material antecedents of Modernity (colonies, camps, asylums, and institutions of control), indeed Shannon’s dissertation project was concerned with eugenic data (36). But what made computation so attractive was the potential to mediate a wide range of phenomena by reducing it all to manipulable symbols that could be subject to analysis with a kind of impartiality. Prior to the buzzy-ness of “convergence culture” or the consolidation of all things under “text,” the information theorists had already sown the seeds of the new epistemology through the exciting possibilities of calculation.
It is through two European transplants to the U.S., the Russian-born linguist Roman Jakobson and the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, that the articulation of the universal theory of human culture known as Structuralism came to be. And their articulation of the field continued to evolve as they returned to Europe, backed by U.S. institutions, both public and private. Though it is customary to treat Continental theory as a departure from the U.S. tradition, Geoghegan demonstrates rather convincingly the impact that this relationship had on its development. Prior to this text, I understood thinkers like Lacan, Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, and Baudrillard as prophets of the slippery signification that would become commonplace in the hyperreal media environment of postmodernism, in the virtual/augmented/alternative realities of the digital, of posthumanisms and object-oriented ontologies and artificial intelligences of today. After reading the text, it becomes very clear that epistemic shift took place decades earlier, more properly a continuation of the technocratic drift than its rejection, emerging in the dialog between information theory and social science.
In this text there are powerful lessons about knowledge and power that should chasten scholars who mistake privilege for merit. Reflecting back on Lyotard’s account of the Postmodern Condition, “knowledge and power are simply two sides of the same question: who decides what knowledge is and who knows what needs to be decided? In the computer age, the question of knowledge is now more than ever a question of government.” (8-9) After reading Code, it seems less like a premonition from 1984 that describes our own troubled situation than an admission that the font of knowledge was already compromised. This is not to say that meritorious scholars do not rise nor is it to say that the insights of these scholars are without value, rather it is to say what Foucault consistently maintained, institutions shape discourse, which determines our knowledge. Suddenly, the pervasive irony of poststructuralism, the apathy of postmodernism, the preference for surfaces over depth stops seeming like a commitment to the arbitrary nature of the sign and more like a sardonic reflection on the situation. I always wondered what happened to turn the page so definitively on the French existentialists and May ’68. Could it be possible that the voices I have romantically understood as beyond the dry bureaucratic air of the American scene were simply enclosures of another culture? And, certainly, the now cliched hostility to Americanization provoked by the Marshall Plan contributes to the authenticity of continental theory as a critique of US culture. A nuanced history of the sort provided by Geoghegan, however, assists in our understanding of its complexity, as the material and intellectual influences and their consequences become sublimated to create semiotic distance between worlds that are more entangled than we would like to imagine.
The truth is that my mind still reels from Code. I am painfully curious to consider thinkers not mentioned in the text, like de Certeau, Cixous, Virilio, etc., to re-examine the critics that were displaced by the Post-Structuralist turn, and to think through its implications for a broad range of Modernist critiques. Geoghegan’s work simply cannot be ignored for those who study cybernetics, electronic literature, poststructuralism, or institutional theory. Additionally, the through line from colonies, camps, and asylums to the contemporary view of all populations as subject to enclosure is a history that is repressed for obvious, unflattering reasons in the digital era, as is the sad reality of how our elaborate apparatus is being used today. Geoghegan ends on a powerful note, asking whether or not we will be similarly moved to seek an escape from the apparatus that seeks to contain us.
Lyotard, Jean-François. 1984. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Bennington and Massumi, Manchester: Manchester University Press.