Introduction Nervous Digital Systems

Felix Stalder:  “Before introducing Michael Taussig, let me give you some context for this afternoon’s event. My name is Felix Stalder, and together with Konrad Becker, we’ve been organizing a series of events exploring the increased role of automated decision-making in our contemporary culture. This story is often told as a relatively straight forward one: Autonomous machines, with near-perfect knowledge and unwavering precision based on unambiguous math and objective logic, replace biased, and unreliable humans, in a quest for higher efficiency and fairer outcomes. But the closer we looked, the more dubious this story became and the more similar the whole endeavor became to performance of a magician, operating on the level of language, belief, and substitution.

The most obvious sleight of hands is on the level of language. For example, there is a frequent slide from automated to autonomous when we hear about the new technical systems that reorganize our lives and ourselves.  Automated is a relatively uncontroversial idea. Certain actions are delegated to a machine that executes it following a set of rules. But autonomous, the idea that the machine sets the rules itself and executes them according to its own criteria is something totally different. With a small slip of the tongue, the magicians achieved the most difficult feats of all: making himself disappear. But of course, there are no autonomous systems, the magician simply moves in the machine, and closes the door from the inside. We have come, in a way, full circle, back to the chess playing Mechanical Turk, and Michael will later talk about this figure in more detail.

But there is more, and we talked about this with Lydia Liu a couple of months ago also here in the Red Salon. We are trying to emulate human consciousness in machines and should we ever be successful in this endeavor, which is not certain by any means, then we will also create a machinic unconsciousness, a Freudian Robot, as she called it, with no Freud around to analyze it. Google Deep Dream gave us the first inkling of this, but it seems safe to say, its more consequential forms will not be pretty pictures, and they will not be easily separated from more conscious dimensions of machinic rationality.

A little further back, we had S.M. Amadae, who talked about the history of logic, particularly in the cold war context of game theory and the paranoid assumptions about human nature that were at the very core of this thinking. In subsequent technological development, these assumptions got deeply embedded into the machines which, to this day, incorporate these mathematical models. In her view, rationality and paranoia have thus become inexorably and dangerously intertwined.

Which brings us to today and why we are so happy to have Michael Taussig, who has been exploring the relationship between “rational” and “magic” thinking for many years, at least since the publication of “The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America” in 1980. In this book, he develops two critical perspectives. One looks at Western Capitalism from the vantage point of those living at its periphery, and thinking through the contemporary moment in their cultural categories. The second focused on anthropology, his discipline, as lacking awareness of its own conditions and presumption. With this double perspective, he turned the table, revealing the indigenous accounts of the contemporary world as providing critical insights and the anthropologist as offering a near magical account of their own objectivity.

I will not go through all of the books Michael has published since then, there are many, most recently, last year, in fact, Palma Africana, about palm oil, this most contemporary of commodities, which creates, at the same time, climatic, biological, social devastation. Let me just quote the opening line of this book, so you get a sense of his language: “It [meaning palm oil] is the contemporary elixir from which all manner of being emerges, the metamorphic sublime, an alchemist’s dream.”

As McKenzie Wark wrote recently in a moving review of this book “Taussig’s writing is also about what Walter Benjamin called the “mode of perception”, which for the German writer emerged, sometimes with a lag, out of the mode of production. According to Wark, Taussig deploys “vectors of raw facticity” to invent a kind of “freaky realism” for the times. “The instabilities, fragmentation, shock, and phantom-like qualities of the modern—meaning here agribusiness—are to be subject to the premodern modes of perception as well as the modern, rather than held apart and distinct.”

So, to account for our historical moment, we need an appropriate mode of perception, a way of seeing and understanding the world that is adequate to its contemporary configuration. And for Taussig, this demands the critical examination of the language itself, particularly of academic language which he likened to modern agribusiness: deadly successful by exterminating everything that does not fit its reductionist calculus. Let me quote Taussig one more time, from an essay, called the Corn Wolf from 2010, in which he reflected on his attempt to construct new mode of perception:

“I have long felt that agribusiness writing is more magical than magic ever could be and that what is required is to counter the purported realism of agribusiness writing with apotropaic writing as counter magic, apotropaic from the ancient Greek meaning the use of magic to protect one from harmful magic.” And we all need a bit of counter magic. So with this, please join me in welcoming Michael Taussig.