When Fibre Meets Fibre

Networking as ritual meeting of body, brain and technics

How to Cite

Murphie, A. (2003). When Fibre Meets Fibre: Networking as ritual meeting of body, brain and technics. M/C Journal, 6(4). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.2227
Vol. 6 No. 4 (2003): Fibre
Published 2003-08-01

The Virtual and the Physical

A wide range of ritual practices have accompanied the ‘rise of the network society’. This is witnessed in the secular and non-secular magic and mysticism that is endemic in contemporary science fiction, in war-chalking, in new forms of compulsion, neurosis and addiction, or just in the everyday use of networked technologies. Such ritual practices are often only seen as interesting diversions or attachments to the main social issues involved in networking. Indeed, some might see these diversions precisely as attempts to cope with the network society, or even to flee from its apparent technicity and reassert identity against the network (Castells). Yet many of these ritual activities suggest complex ritual engagements with the network. What happens when we consider these ‘diversions’ as central to the ongoing dynamic of networks – technical and social?I shall not be providing an anthropology of these ritual activities. Neither shall I be documenting case studies of the shamanistic, the mystical, neuroses, and so on, as all these find their accommodations with the network society. I shall only, via the work of philosopher of anthropology José Gil, give reasons for the importance of the understanding of ritual to a more general understanding of networks. For networks bring together not just copper wires, Ethernet, optic fibre and electromagnetic radiation, but also other fibres (such sinew and neurons), and other radiations (such as affects, the chemicals and hormones of the nervous system). Ritual is at the heart of this ‘bringing together’. Following Gil, I will suggest that rituals do not just facilitate network operations, they also translate and transform networks in the process.

For Gil, ritual space 'has a symbolically overloaded, polysemic topography' (80) in which every site (paralleling neurons in the brain or points in the P2P network) is 'overdetermined'. This allows an over-riding of linear 'technical causality' with ritual ‘magic’, something akin to the over-riding of logical theories of cognition with theories of emergence and the superpositionality of potentials throughout the circuits of the brain or network. Within this superpositionality, symbolism is not so much a series of meanings as a series of actions. Symbols, as enacted in rituals (or in the firing of the patterns of the brain, the movement of packets through Internet), 'designate realities, they set forces into motion, they are "in the present"' (81).

Gil also points out that these ritual acts are accompanied by 'particularly intense affective experience' (81). When signs are not focussed directly upon the production of meaning, but are over-determined in ritual, this is 'in order that powerful energies are released that will become the main power source for the cure'. Indeed, in ritual there is a 'regime of energies' along with the 'regimes of signs'. Moreover, the meshing of the two suggests that either term is probably inadequate to explain what is occurring. Signs form constellations of forces that partner other constellations of forces (including other signs), 'separating' or 'condensing' energy fluxes' (82), or enabling 'translation' between them (and between signs as forces). Both the flow of these forces and their translations are, of course, seldom ‘smooth’. There is rather a constant re-writing – or in the context of networks, better, re-wiring – of shifting, contingent and contesting networks of forces. The constant heterogeneous flow of forces only adds to both the intensity of networks and the drive towards more forms of active ‘translation’ found in the proliferation of rituals within networks. It is in this dialogics of intensity and translation that we find the politics of networks. This is a politics that is far from being a politics of pure information.

Returning to Gil, it is not only that signs translate forces on behalf of the body. I would add that it is not only the technical nodes in general (and signs are precisely technical nodes) that translate these forces on behalf of the body. The body is itself the crucial 'operator translating signs [and forces] in the ritual'. With this devaluing of symbolic processing qua symbols (so long crucial to so many of the myths and sciences of cognition and information), the brain becomes participant in (though not director of) this bodily translation of signs - and the forces assembled and disassembled. Through, and as, networks of assembled and disassembled forces, brain/body relations and distributions are assembled and disassembled within the concatenation of brain, body and world that is technics. This occurs over the time of evolution but equally over the time of the formations of habits, in the body in general, or as weights of connection between neurons or nodes in the network. It is partnered in the formation of socio-technical evolutions, specific socio-technical assemblages and the weights according to connections between these assemblages. Of course, the more networked things are, the faster the weights of connection change.

The network takes the ritual place of the gods. As Gil writes, 'the gods can do what people can't do. They can make energy circulate freely, since they embody both loose and overcoded energy, the loosest and most overcoded of all' (84). This is why we still find magic - or at least something that is effectively like magic - at the heart of any exercise of power. Indeed, the ambiguity of the relations between ‘secular’ and variations of ‘spiritualist’ magic have long been an under-recognised part of media/technological development (as recently documented with regard to the nineteenth century development of the cinema and the entertainment industries in general by Simon During, or in Chris Chesher’s notion of computers as ‘invocational media’).

This is not so much a question of metaphysics versus a more directly materialist approach to technical power as a question of directing forces by the necessary means. In order for 'action to have effects…words must release forces in the body; these forces must react directly on the organs' (143). Indeed, Gil claims that it is only with the notion of 'magical-symbolic thought' that we can resolve some of the ambiguities surrounding the material operation of forces and signs, where cultural analysis quite contradictorily seems at one time to assume the priority of one, and at another time the other.

Gil points out that ritual magic is precisely that which works at the border between power and discourse, force and sign. This is not an unintelligible border. Even at its apparently most disorganized in terms of its philosophical or scientific coherence (in ritual ecstasy for example), ritual magic is in reality extremely organised (although an organisation of forces and translations rather than one of stable states). As Gil writes, even the 'gestures, words, or cries of the possessed are coded' (137). Indeed, the codes involved are precisely those of possession, but of a possession by networks rather than of them (thus the legal and commercial confusion surrounding file-sharing and so on, in that networks may be undone, but they cannot be possessed). Yet if those subject to ritual – or to networks – are coded, this is not initially within a semiotic structure but within a structure of active transformations. Therefore, 'magical words are action' (84) and ritual (the rituals of science and materialist metaphysics as much as 'primitive' ritual) is an 'actual activity' (137). In ritual there is 'more than a text, more than a semiotic structure [and more than information or communication]…one had to keep in mind the link that unites forces to signs, and the investment of energy that the body imposes on symbols'.

Gil's conceptual envelope for this 'more than text' is 'infralanguage'. The 'infralanguage is the [real but] abstract body' (136). I would suggest that this ‘infralanguage’ is also, at least in part, the body registering its immersion in technics – a registration that occurs before cognition, before communication. Or, it is the body – considered in the posthuman sense as any dynamic assemblage. Infralanguage is the assumed of networked engagement, perhaps the libidinal condition of the network (science fiction is clear on this – why else the fascination with plugging leads into our heads and closing our eyes to enter a different world – a different libidinal economy). Like a posture or a series of movements in rituals, infralangage is 'both learned and given' as it translates 'codes and contexts'. Moreover, as here we are talking about a networked learning (and perhaps a dynamic archive as ‘given’), we are not just talking about human learning, or the distribution of weights within the network of the brain, but also about the way that there is a distribution of weights across nodes between brain, body and world – across networks. Particularly important here are 'abstract rhythms' (Felix Guattari has labelled these 'refrains') as these are basic elements of processual structure that can cross codes and contexts, bring them together, translate them in, we could say, polyrhythms, syncopation or simple rhythmic transformation and variation. It is perhaps no wonder that computer games and music have been so central to the expansion of networks – both deal intensely with these rhythmic transformations of codes and posture at the interface of the networks of technics, brain and body.

Infralanguage works with codes, bodies, the organs of the body and with a 'complicity' between 'bodily forms and the form of things'. Fibre meets fibre. The shifting investments and assemblages of the body meet a network cast precisely as the enhanced ability of technics (including technics as the human) to shift and reassemble its own investments. Again it is important to note that these investments never come together smoothly – not even, perhaps, into Baudrillard’s smooth if vapid ‘ecstasy of communication’. Rather the constant reconstitution and reassemblage of investments only adds to the intensification of the drive towards connection – and further reassemblage, translation of heterogeneous and contesting aspects of these investments. Thus reassemblage – in a parallel to ‘real-time’ media’s ongoing reformulation of time – is ongoing within networks, as the intensification of connection brought about by enhanced networking constantly reconfigures networks themselves. Infralanguage only gains more importance. It performs the necessary work with the 'condensation of energy on an exfoliated surface' (exfoliation is the opening of the body into spaces as it structurally and dynamically couples with them). Within networks surfaces are exfoliating in more and more complexity.

In this ongoing reorganization there is a surprising immanence to networked cognition, situated perhaps in what Pierre Lévy has called ‘collective intelligence’. This is a technically enabled - but not technically delimited - reorganisation of cognitive forces within a heterogeneous collectivity. Lévy’s work possesses the advantage of demonstrating that, although the flow of networks is always in flux, always ‘political’, this in itself contains the positive political potential of intensity and heterogeneity. In these multi-directional flows, the collective intelligence that could emerge (but it would always be a struggle) would be a ‘fractal’ collectivity of: ‘macrosocieties, transindividual psyches of small groups, individuals, intra-individual modules (zones of the brain, unconscious ‘complexes’), agencies which traverse intra-individual modules that move between different people (sexual relations, complementary neuroses)’ (107-108). For Lévy, ‘the collective hypercortex contains … a living psychism, a sort of dynamic hypertext traversing the tensions and energies of affective qualities, conflicts, etc’.

In this networked cognition, that beyond the brain seems to take up many of the functions often ascribed to the brain. And the thought that eludes the individual - the thought that for the individual is famously withdrawing in time and space even as it appears - does not elude the network or the activity of ritual magic as a working with these networks. Gil notes that in ritual,

…thought coincides with being… time and space do not impede the grasping of the thing in itself - because, on the contrary, they [time and space] are organized in such as manner that they can be transformed by appropriate techniques and at the same time remain linked to their normal perception—in order to create from it the conditions of possibility and the formal framework for knowledge of the absolute. (84)

What is this knowledge of the absolute through 'magic words' and rituals? It relates to 'the possibility of capturing the free forces that traverse bodies' (85). In other words, the absolute is reworked immanence rather than a totality that is given once and for all. Throughout his book Cyberculture, Lévy calls this the ethic of ‘universality without totalization’ – global coverage that is receptive to every local difference. Feedback and autopoiesis - crucial terms within many investigations of the cognitive and informational - become the very affective substance of ritual techno-magic. For Gil, ritual autopoiesis addresses the famous 'failure to understand how to know the "thing in itself"' as per Kant. For Gil, this failure is in fact a 'negative proof' of 'the success of magical-symbolic thought in capturing fleeting time in the links of its spatial representations, making it a recurrent or a cyclic system'.

Perhaps it is a matter of loving the network through ritual at the junction of perceptual and world, spaces and affective or cognitive fields. I mean ‘loving’ in the sense taken up by John Scannell in M/C when he remarks that ‘graffiti writers love the city more than you ever will’. All acts of love are drenched in ritual (such as graffiti writing) because all acts of love are intense translations of forces. Perhaps those who embrace the network through ritual show others the way. Hackers, war-chalkers, technopagans utopians, perceptual experimentalists, the new techno-neurotics – all these are willing to explore the affective, intensity of the new rituals. All ‘love’ the network with all the difficulties and complexity that love implies. For them, the network is not just an information or communications conduit, but a partner in ritual becoming.

Author Biography

Andrew Murphie