INTERVIEW: Virus / Body / Signal Transmissions. Interview with Jussi Parikka, by Ignacio Nieto

Jussi Parikka, author of Digital Contagions is interviewed by Ignacio Nieto.

Spanish text

[Ignacio Nieto]: I am very interested in the way virus is conceived as thought: as an abstract form that can auto-replicate itself on an environment, in an autonomous way, without considering the system of relations based on capitalism or in religion or in politics (usually as we are organized in the public and private sphere). Do you think that there is a possibility to translate those kinds of considerations for human relationships? Could you imagine or describe, a possible world, where bioelectronic devices attached to humans, or to other organic forms or to other generations of machines could exist with that kind of protocol?

[Jussi Parikka]: What interested me early on with this project (Digital Contagions) was how to think the virus in itself as a form of though, a vector, a mode of transmission and media. Instead of approaching it merely as a socially constructed metaphor that is fabricated in order to impose sense on the imperceptible events of the computer, it might be fruitful to approach the viral as carrier, a condensation point concerning much of the agenda concerning media in the age of networks. What is a perfect virus. An ideal medium, defined only by its abilities of infect, transmit and copy itself? This idea was of course picked up early on by the theories of the meme, which to my mind are more telling of the media technological changes of the late twentieth century than merely of the discussion relating to evolutionary cultural genes. So when Richard Dawkins suggested that perhaps culture works according to the idea of the selfish cultural gene, the meme, that is interested only in propagating itself, he proposed a very ahumanist vision of the media sphere, where later on for Susan Blackmore the Internet and the viral ecology are key examples of the copy machine mechanisms of the meme. In a way, they were of course giving a scientific version of William Burroughs’ notion of the Word Virus which uses us human beings as secondary vehicles. In this scenario, “copying” is not merely a human controlled activity as in the age of Melville’s Bartleby (the unreliable scribe from the 1853 novel) but an automated action more akin to the unconscious level of genes, or the as imperceptible layers of the computer systems. So what Burroughs and others were already proposing is that far earlier than coming up with bioelectronic devices that make us into cyborgs, were are being haunted by another kind of a virus in a more older media, language.

Concerning autonomy of the viral, I think I am more interested in the affinities the viral have than its identities. How the viral is continuously articulated through various such affinities, from software and networks, to philosophy and fiction. This might easily lead us to think of the viral as merely a pattern that spans beyond the material substance, but this dualism of pattern vs. substance is a mistaken one. Instead, I opted to think this through in terms of diagrammatics, of how the “viral” crosses through a whole social field and becomes a term that seems to be defining various practices and discourses of network society. In a certain Deleuze-Foucault vein, also adopted by Eugene Thacker, I wish to approach the viral as a diagrammatic social programming of the cultural field, a way of organizing concrete assemblages into more abstract modes of resonation. Here, the concept of diagrams can help us to understand how concrete machinations, such as in medicine or technology or network security, are intertwined on a level of abstract machines, diagrammatically and immanently linked on a social field. Here, human social relations are not removed from technical social relations, but both of them are approached in terms of a common folding. The crucial question of much of cultural studies of media and technology is to find approaches that do not reproduce the dualism ‘humans vs. machines’, but finds concepts and approaches that flow through the binaries, crisscross and move transversally. This is one of the reasons why I wanted to adopt the idea of a media ecology from Matthew Fuller and Félix Guattari. In its Guattarian sense, the term “ecology” can used to illustrate the transversal relations between various ecologies from environment to social relations and onto the technical ecologies not reducible to human signification.

[IN]: In your paper co-written with Jaakko Suominen: “Victorian Snakes? Toward a Cultural History on Mobile Games and the Experience of the Movement,” you make a call to the reader to adopt an analytic point of view, an anthropologic way of seeing this crossed referential notion that talks about space-time and entertainment. What do you think about the title of the workshop made in by the Nokia Research Center at Nokia Syracuse University, called: “Wireless Grids Research Group: Cognitive and Cooperative Social Networks vs. Home & Office Grids”? Are there, common places between the paper: “Victorian Snakes? Toward a Cultural History on Mobile Games” and the experience of the Movement and the workshop that took place at Nokia Syracuse University?
Making a critical analysis: What is this wireless grid project about? An environment of control relations? The next phase of the ecology understand under the sense of Guattari? What?

[JP]: In our analysis of the cultural history, or perhaps the “media archaeology” of mobile entertainment, we did not want to focus so much on content, or in individual technologies or sociological characteristics of mobile media culture. Instead, we wanted to approach the question how mobile entertainment can be characterized as a modulation of space and time, of the crucial phenomenological coordinates that connect recent years of boom in mobile games and entertainment to the broader history of media and modern experience. Connected to such earlier “inter: faces” as the pocket book and such techniques of transportation like the train, contemporary enthusiasm of mobile entertainment on the move discloses a modulation of the psyche in movement.

I am not in a position to comment directly on the conference as I did not attend it, but we can see how it relates to the issue of capturing the body in movement. The very simple fact that human beings are moving, mobile entities, has been realized also by the capitalist media industry which tries to tap into those moments of movement, tapping into the moving, sensing body. One could see mobile entertainment related to Maurizio Lazzarato’s postfordist philosophy of immaterial labour and the capturing mechanisms of media capitalism. Contemporary capitalism is not merely about the production of consumer objects but more accurately defined by the way it modulates and creates worlds – a becoming Leibnizian of capitalism. Bodies are marked by media cultural signs, suggests Lazzarato, and it is analysing this Kafkaesque act introduced in Prison Colony that is of crucial interest, analyzing it through the singular ways different new technologies frame, grid bodies. And as we know, this creation of worlds is not restricted to the broadcasting media of e.g. television and radio, or cinema, but works now also through the small screen. Wireless grids are, then, beyond the technical invisible gridding of the globe also about gridding and framing the sensing moving body, channeling it into a world where the mobile entertainment content providers and other players are competing for the attention of the user.

In what sense does this relate to a Guattarian analysis of ecology? In The Three Ecologies, Guattari suggest that the overlapping ecologies of the environment, the social and the psyche are being polluted by the Integrated World Capitalism (IWC). The relation of the body to its exteriority is being captured by polluters like Donald Trump (and Bill Gates might one add) whose ways of structuring the ecologies of e.g. city planning and living, or computer architecture span much wider than the restricted area where they are working in. Here, subjectivities are consisted of groups, subjectivity being articulated on the ecological layers of the world, not detached from social relations but neither from the environment and technology we might add – affinities again. The important way we can use Guattarian ideas is to note the complex intertwining of the various ecologies, where technological solutions feedback to social relations but also for example ecologies of perception like in the capture of perception on the move in mobile entertainment. So in this, perhaps the designers of mobile media could be seen not merely creating technological products but also producing psyche, affects, the body in movement, or at least capturing the body in movement on a level that is prior to consciousness, or meanings. Where are then the possibilities for an “ecosophy”, experimentation in mobile media? There is a wide range of emerging work that connect mobile media, art and activism under the banner of new urban social relations, new modes of perception and ways of thinking for example “sociality”, or “community”.

[IN]: This wide range of emerging works that are under the banner of new protocols and architectures produced by the market of communication technologies, are different from the
other state(s) or the other generation of communication technologies in two general aspects that are relevant to notice:

– small and low cost technologies (bluetooth modems, mobile phones) versus more expensive and medium size technologies (computers stations)

– global networks versus piconets or micro networks.

How have these aspects been an influence to the re-thinking of the notion of activism, and how do these new ways of critical exercises challenge grid and sensor control technologies?

[JP]: The issue moves on various scales. Whereas e.g. mobile phones might be seen as low cost technologies that are easily acquired and put to experimental use, the same technology can be quite closed in the sense that the operation system manufacturers, network operators, etc. act as bottle necks for a distribution aimed at larger audience. How one is able to work around is to “rescale” the mobile phone and find the significant crack in its logic on some other level. How to incorporate the mobile as a catalyst of relations (human and other), how to open it up from the technological closedness so that it can become a tool of creativity. Even such a straightforward thing like the London transport oyster card can be “opened” up for artistic experimentations as with the project Arphield Recordings where a recording of the sounds of the cards and their readers was made into a “ready made” sound art piece.

I find in this sense Matthew Fuller’s use of Whitehead’s notion of “miscplaced concreteness” very helpful. By fabricating standard objects, elements of any assemblage are isolated and produced as clearly functionalized. However, every assemblage and object carries in itself a margin of indeterminacy, a potentiality to be switched on and connected alternatively, to be inserted into relations cut out from the objectification. Standardized technological culture needs modular components in order to work – the so everyday requirement of any technology – but this does not rule out other possible uses, connections. Naturally, technologies and protocols carry with them different kinds of potentials in any case. The qualities of temporal and adhoc connections have been discussed for a long time as needed organizational prerequisites for a dynamic activism (for example Hakim Bey’s Temporary Autonomous Zones being the obvious reference point) so it will interesting to see how these in itself simple and low cost technologies could be translated into networks that are because of the temporary nature of the connections between bodies and signals so effective. This is a curious kind of a relation, or interaction, between the temporary organisational forms that have been part of political guerrilla tactics for a long time and the network technologies that resonate strongly with this temporary duration.

I think that one of the crucial questions will be how to make the experiments with signals, protocols and frequencies resonate with social bodies on the streets and public spaces, and how to find the new forms of the political immanent to the potentials of the technologies. The radical meaning of politics, as underlined by various thinkers from Alain Badiou to Jacques Ranciere, is not the normal way of “policing” on a set agenda, but of summoning events, radical breaks. In this sense of the political or activism, we cannot know before hand what is the agenda, what the uses are, or what the results might be. Activism in this sense is a probing of a kind, not policing or doing politics, but finding what even might be political with no guaranteed results beforehand. In this, one crucial probing of the political happens through experimentations with technologies. Or actually, the political is precisely this probing, this zone of experimentation, where activism should keep tuned for the unexpected.

[IN]: I agree with you, referring to the third question, that we have to be aware about these new forms and possibilities. In this sense, could you give an example, maybe of an art piece you have studied and established some differences with the recent previous state of signal transmission and computers linked to the body and signal connections?

[JP]: Heath Bunting and Kayle Brandon’s Borderxing Guide is a fine example of the intertwining and tensions of the presumed friction free borderless state of networks, of the space of information, and the human materiality that are is bound by the gravity of national borders. The project maps the potential crossing points with maps and tools, and making them available on the Internet – to some authorized people. This is the way surveillance and the control of bodies in a technological society does not happen solely based on the spatial architecture of the Panopticon, but via access, passwords, and modulation of networks and signals, as Deleuze suggested in his Control Societies text. But still there is no less reality in this sphere of signals and networks, its not a boundary free space (if it even is a space, or a temporal modulation). I really like the Heath Bunting quote in this context as well: “The artist doesn’t just gaze. It’s not just the perception of reality that is up for grabs, it’s reality itself.”

I find myself interested similarly in the translations between those imperceptible spheres of signal transmission, wireless signals, and the phenomenological world of the human being. The Cell Phone Disco project visualized the electromagnetic fields of an active mobile phone into a light pattern, and Life: a user’s manual project was based on the frequency which surveillance camera’s use (2,4 Ghz) and which could be tapped in order to get a glimpse to the radio spectrum. Technical media is not reducible to the meanings, significations and perceptions of the human being, but still, there is a continuous translation between the non-human spheres of signal transmission and the human perception of those things. I think the same thing was underlined with the virus project some years back with virus code – in itself beyond the modality of human perception, at least when it comes to execution etc. –distributed via human bodies (virus code printed on t-shirts) and in other visual forms. The imperceptible and harmless nature of the code was continuously made perceptible and iconographic in a way that questioned the ontology of networks and code: where does code begin, where are its borders, where does the code encounter the body of the human?

Naturally, the danger in general is the blackboxing of the human being (instead of the blackboxing of the technological): to neglect the intensive qualities and potentials of the human body in movement, its continuous folding with its outside. Avoiding this danger, recent years of Deleuzian-inspired theory, e.g. Luciana Parisi and Brian Massumi, have been looking into the living architectures of Greg Lynn, Lars Spuybroek and other designers where the technological creations mix and intermingle with the human bodies involved in those evolving spaces. There is a dynamics of bodies and technologies and their crossing points that is under scrutiny, not just the points being connected (technology or human). The technological should not be left in the hands of the corporations or the engineers, but neither should theory be forgotten; similarly as activists and artists with technologies and media, theory should be bent and twisted for new realities, experimented, worked rigorously in laboratory fashion, created, probed and connected to the reconfigurations of technological spaces and temporalities.


Jussi Parikka teaches and writes on the cultural theory and history of new media. He has a PhD in Cultural History from the university of Turku, Finland and is Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, UK. Parikka has published a book on “cultural theory in the age of digital machines” (Koneoppi, in Finnish) and his Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses is published by Peter Lang, New York, Digital Formations-series (2007). Parikka is currently working on a book on “Insect Media”, which focuses on the media theoretical and historical interconnections of biology and technology. In addition, two co-edited books are forthcoming: The Spam Book: On Viruses, Spam, and Other Anomalies from the Dark Side of Digital Culture (Hampton Press) and Media Archaeologies. His articles have been published e.g. in CTheory, Postmodern Culture, Game Studies and Fibreculture, as well as in several Finnish journals and books.

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