The Language of Machines

There is a language of machines. While we may not know we know it, we do. It is our language too. Our sensitivity to the mechanical gesture confirms our affinities with the inanimate. We are the becoming thing of animality.

Machine Language
The representation of a computer program which is actually read and interpreted by the computer ... Humans almost never write programs directly in machine code.[2]

The machine is a mirror that reflects that ghost which remains of a piece with it and responsive to it. This ghost does not stand in for the soul. There is no soul save that which nostalgia presents to bait sentiment. I write we are haunted because we unable not to press the awareness of our machinic being to the limits of our consciousness. It becomes thin there, and peripheral; its movements, caught obliquely, seem alien and threatening. No, we are machine; a will to machinic fluency moves at the shallows of our shells. We are the division of self into the organismic-machine and the machinic-organism–an unequal splitting, a deforming mitosis.

The pistons of this engine return: a clock? or a train, or a missile? The same contraption? And what contrivance is History? A one hundred year romance with the machine. Constructed, Futured, Dreamt and Fathered. Crying now in your shadow, Atom son of Adam chased us to the bunker. Had us there, but sleeping we imagined it was aliens; they knew us better than we knew ourselves. We desired machines and they desired each other. It was jealousy or join them and so we have.

But thoroughly fucked, aren’t we now limp and sore–ready to live in the world of the “post-” where materiality becomes a ghost and language as data rules the melty overcoded, encoded, transcoded uni-verse of capital’s triumphant apotheosis?




Haraway’s cyborg refuses to simply leave the old world behind and inhabit the new as a virtuality. Instead, she troubles the boundaries: human/machine, human/animal, myth/technology.[3] Myth is technology and technology myth. A corollary: language is technology and (via a commutative theorem) technology is language. Although the radiant glamorization of the cyber and the virtual tempts us into imagining the ascendancy of data that leaves the material behind, the cyborg myth insists on a hybridity that maintains the significance of physicality within the domains of ontology, epistemology and phenomenology. These are the spaces we inhabit as lubricious border entities: partial machines, hungry for connection.

A practice, in the here and now, which focuses attention on the problematics of language as disturbed by a confusion over the status of the material and the ideal, as re-formed by the situation of the present, necessarily touches the previous iterations of the same.[4] The difference of this return with a difference must be specified within conjectures about the zeitgeist.

The border territory is worked over–again and again. It may be the only territory that works, ever. This is the place that we live, so this is the place that we work. The edge-condition is the troubling of trouble. It once (upon a time) was the troubling of language. And it is that. It is the trouble with language again. What troubles us this time is the code. There has been code as long, at least, as there has been codex, but now code is taking over. That situation makes us ask questions of language again.

Some questions are the same:

... questions about the structure of language, but we observe that the structure of language is seen as well in the structure of the machine, and wonder what that means about the machine and about language.

... questions about the performativity of language, but we see that, in the machine, code performs in a way that ordinary language never dreamt of performing, and wonder what that means.

... questions about the materiality of language, but we notice that, in the machine, there is no software, and wonder if we must rethink the sign as a regress of embedded codings that obscure the material substrate of linguistic performance.[5]

... questions about the intersubjectivity of language, but we detect how our communications are directed at, and responded to, by inanimates, and wonder how to conceptualize the subject of intersubjectivity, when the other of the dialog is not conventionally human.

... questions about the iterability of language, but we scrutinize the conventions of our ritual pronunciations of linguistic formula; they seem to depend for their functioning on communities and traditions of use, though this gives way, in the machine, to a conventionality of invention, which depends only on a temporary and contingent consensus–and we wonder if there is an escape from history or culture.

Of course, some questions will be different, as will some answers.

Do not anticipate a sudden countercultural efflorescence. The reaction–if there is one–to a certain intensification of technocracy, media, globalization, religiosity, war and, for want of a better descriptor, proto-fascism, will undoubtedly be different. But this is what we are contending with. And in order to engage in an ethical practice of any sort, and especially to engage in an ethical practice called art; we need to account for a relationship between our situation and our actions, between our work and its reception, between affects and effects.


To the questions posed to language by code mentioned above should be added the questions posed to language by its styles of deployment within the cultural and political spheres. In these, there is a shift towards iconicity that is characterized by abbreviation, compression, and the dominance of affective ascription in the place of meaning. The space of language contracts so that the sprawl of rhetoricity cannot be sustained in the vaporous and narrow corridors between media nodes and their spectacular events. What can be supported and what is ultimately effective in this landscape is the epithet, the slogan, the logo, the quip, the tag, the sound-bite, etc.; these are all symptoms of the becoming brand of politics–what is a variation, for our time, of Benjamin’s aestheticization of politics.[6]

That brand strategy–that staple of corporate behavior which is definitive of capital’s face in the era of globalization–becomes the communicative strategy of the political sphere is significant. Debate is excluded from an arena crowded by the deployment of brand automata. These are the memic machines of a freestyle battle for attention and allegiance, where conviction no longer exists as an index of rhetorical efficacy, but is redefined as faith beyond reason. Language has become deviant and autonomous: colonizing rather than communicating. Yes, as Bill Burroughs had claimed all along, language is a virus. It works on its own but in the interest not just of itself, but of its species being, which profits by the transformation, via exo-digestion, of the solid to the liquescent glimmering agar of info-capital. We do not ingest the circulating memes as they produce affections and allegiances, enmities and rivalries, they abrade us from the outside. We dissolve into the soup of them and our loyalties are the flows and eddies that move and mingle within their rich and turbulent of waters.


[2] Free Online Dictionary of Computing, 17 May 2005, Imperial College Department of Computing, 25 May 2005, <>.

[3] Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technolgy and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women : The Reinvention of Nature, London, Free Association, 1991.

[4] I begin to suspect that there is something in the character of the time that echoes the era of three and four decades ago. This is the basis of the special relevance of critical, conceptualist, and minimalist strategies of the 60’s and 70’s to contemporary “new” media practices.

[5] See Friedrich Kittler, “There Is No Software,” Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1999.

[6] Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" Illuminations, New York, Schocken Books, 1968, p. 241.