Issue 3/2013

Apparatus Machines


Machines and appliances seem to have us firmly in their clutches. Even the freedoms we believe we enjoy are largely based on mechanical devices – irrespective of how much control we think we exercise over them. Our daily lives are permeated with a perpetual stream of new gadgets, not to mention apparatus-based process – in many cases without us being explicitly aware of this. It could even be claimed, perhaps with some exaggeration, that any innovation or progress to be found nowadays exists in the technological sphere. In contrast, socially and politically, but also in the arts, there are more and more signs that the prime focus is simply on keeping a questionable status quo ticking over, with varying degrees of success - a status quo that is highly dependent on machine logics and procedures.
At the same time, innovation-driven development labs in large corporations are working flat out to keep techno-capitalism supplied with a constant stream of new devices and apparatuses. Above all in the military sphere, but also in security policy, information technology and the entertainment industry, something akin to a global engine is kept running, steering a course that contributes to driving and directing cultural and social issues in many different ways.
This edition focuses on the visible symptoms of the omnipresence of the machine-based in everyday life, which has become part of our reality yet often eludes our conceptual grasp. Timothy Druckrey, who has long addressed the functioning of “media dispositives”, addresses a specific aspect of this ever-present phenomenon in his essay, namely the increasingly impenetrable flatness imposed upon us through our dealings with high-tech and media appliances. He leaves the question of whether this is tantamount to a conspiracy or merely the current form assumed by the “mechanical unconscious” unresolved. Anne Querrien and Anne Sauvargnagues examine this latter aspect and ask (picking up on Félix Guattari’s ideas) to what extent a particular kind of not-functioning, or even failure, should be understood as an essential part of machine thinking. Uninterrupted, glitch-free functioning is ultimately only the ideal of a world-dominating technological fantasy, although the stubborn human unconscious may well not readily acquiesce to this.
Matteo Pasquinelli also addresses the largely unconscious facets of the current spread of power cybernetics in his essay. Whilst machines in the industrial age were always in a certain sense information-processing machines too, nowadays, according to Pasquinelli, we actually find ourselves at a historic threshold; it is no longer primarily information, i.e. data, which is processed (thus driving forward the production process), but rather “data about data”, known as metadata – as is demonstrated in collecting practices on a massive scale, with examples ranging from social media networks to the ever more monstrous surveillance systems all over the world. It is difficult to anticipate the extent to which a knowledge economy – the key term of the info-capitalism emanating from Silicon Valley – based on this kind of foundation will prove to be viable. Unorthodox Marxist thinkers, such as Italian engineer Amadeo Bordiga, have however always warned – intermittently, but insistently – against being over-hasty in equating technology with progress. In his piece Felix Klopotek recapitulates the thinking of this now often-forgotten renegade. Mind you, simply closing yourself off from technological innovation no longer seems an option that can just be adopted at the drop of the hat – for that, after all, a priori entails submitting to an increasingly all-encompassing network of power and technology.
Drones, deployed primarily for military purposes, are among the most recent (and most perfidious) emanations of this network. Herwig Höller traces out the contours of the slowly emerging critical interest in these remote-controlled killing machines, deployed on a massive scale over the last ten years, above all by the USA. There also appears to be an increased artistic focus on the topic; the “Drone Project” that Trevor Paglen has been working on for years serves as an example of a more subtle mode of honing in on a (military) phenomenon that largely eludes public visibility and awareness. Paglen’s photographs intentionally maintain a degree of uncertainty about what precisely is visible in the skies, which have long been occupied by augmented high-end technology, beyond the bounds of our perception.
The essay that introduces this edition’s main section is also rooted in the premise of more complex relationships between humans and devices. Tanja Widmann restages part of her exhibition project eine von euch (one of you), linking primate research with technological and socio-political developments. Straightforward appliances, seemingly pared-down to the essentials, that serve as instruments to tame and stimulate, serve to expose a genuinely fundamental “machine thinking”, permeated with a rich collage of quotations.
This provides an exemplary demonstration – as is also the case in many of the other contributions here – that scope for reflexive modes of utilisation does nevertheless still exist within the scenario sketched out in this edition. Apparatus(es) and ideology may indeed be ever more inextricably linked – but that certainly does not signify that any possibility of critical room for manoeuvre is completely obstructed.