Radical Software @W139

Radical Software @W139

by Daniel de Zeeuw

On August 27th, I moderated two lecture performances at the Radical Software art symposium at W139 in Amsterdam, by Jelena Vesić and Rachel O’Reilly. (Tonight) September 4 (at 7 p.m.) Lee MacKinnon will give a talk about love and technology and romantic literature as media technology from love letters to sophisticated algorithms underlying mobile dating apps such as Tinder that increasingly rationalize and quantify romantic relationships. Below are some short comments on the theme of Radical Software.

When the term ‘software’ is applied outside of the context of computerized media, does its use become metaphorical, and only then, spontaneously? Or, is it always already metaphorical, in its “proper” context? Or, yet another option, is it metaphorical in neither its proper nor its improper context? Examples of such improper contexts (in terms of conventional language use) are: the human body, inorganic matter, society, and so on. So it is, that drugs can be conceived in terms of a radical software that runs on the human brain, of speed bumps and CCTV cameras as environmental software that runs on local behavioral dispositions, of time and space as software of particles?

If the software metaphor is to be assessed, what would constitute an adequate criterion? A pragmatic standard is readily available and broadly accepted. Just ask: does it multiply the conditions for our understanding of, and acting in, the surrounding world? This is an open question. Yet at first sight it seems hardly sufficient, as we can always ask: for whose understanding, and to what end? in a way that creates a politically complex situation.

Software as metaphor in inseparable from that of hardware. Yet this fundamental distinction can hardly be located anywhere, not despite but rather especially when thinking it through (caught in the positivist trap, irony of mythical language – it is itself “soft”). A similar problem appears when trying to differentiate between the source code and its execution. It would be naive to think that one day these problems will be resolved, as this very obscurity is the condition of its practical and rhetorical functioning.

Drugs as radical software of the mind is part of a distinct cybernetic rationality, positing the fundamental plasticity of things, their ability to be influenced, shaped, governed. Things do not have natural essences, yet they move semi-autonomously – sovereignty is in controlling relations, pre-adjusting to emergent inflations and redirecting regressive conjunctions.

To think about the world in terms of information and computational processes collapses traditional dualisms: thought/practice, mind/body, culture/nature, human/non-human, organic/inorganic. Yet it does so at the cost of erecting another dualism: that between software and hardware.

Artistic practices are (can/should become) sites where consequences of this collapse are acerbated and experimented with, at the cost of being subjugated to the dualism it itself thanks its existence to: that between art and non-art. Yet this should not be read as an injunction to get caught once again in that mindless self-reflexive meta-ing of an art in search of a lost object.