Differential Life, Perception and the Nervous Elements: Whitehead, Bergson and Virno on the Technics of Living – Andrew Murphie

The living being is above all a thoroughfare, and . . . the essence of life is in the movement by which life is transmitted. (Bergson, 1911: 128)

Life (anima — on the side of the mental image) is always already cinema (animation — image-object). (Stiegler, in Derrida & Stiegler, 2002: 162)

Redefining life is now an industry in itself. Life is increasingly put to work, not only in a series of new technics, but also in a series of new concepts (which could themselves be regarded as a kind of technics).1 This is obviously the case within the biotechnology industries. It is less obviously so, but just as important, in HCI (human-computer interaction) industries and studies, in new networks of perception, and in the new technics of cognition and memory. In all these areas it is the practical combination of technics and concepts that makes for new modes of living, new freedoms within, and new controls over ‘life’ — often all at the same time.

Moreover, the proliferation of specific concepts of life is beginning to show that life is not ultimately to be defined, but is found instead in process, specificity and plurality; ‘in the interstices’ (Whitehead, 1978: 106). It is found in the interstices even of those technical practices and ideas that are meant to capture and control life via tight procedures and narrow redefinitions. Life emerges from the interstices to exceed performance management, or outmanoeuvre the intellectual property borders set up by biotechnology corporations.

This is not always problematic, not even for those corporate activities that at first seem to resist life’s interstitial becomings. In fact, the proliferation of interstitial intensities between and within individual approaches to ‘life’ makes the constant redefinition of life an even more productive industry. Life’s elusive becomings keep the life industries going (here I mean the technical production of life, not only via biotechnologies, but via media technologies, lifestyle and performance management, etc). These industries relentlessly re-align themselves to ‘life’, quite literally by definition, and there is always more ‘life’ to capitalise. In sum, it is the mobility of life — its productive potential — that gives it its seemingly infinite range of specific virtual and actual individuations (Cooper, 2002; Neilson, 2004; Massumi, 2002). In turn, this extends the territories within which life can be put to work. It enables life to be worked via a series of different systems, concepts and values. And, despite the rhetoric of genetic determination in biology, or ‘learning outcomes’ in the management of cognitive life, difference is indeed the key here — more precisely, productive and ongoing differential relations.

At the same time, in a kind of double game, industrial developments are devoted to the capture of life’s potential under the spell of specific concepts (with their patented technics) of life. Concepts here are not just ‘ideas’. They are indeed something like spells — a form of ‘materialist magic’. They attempt to marshal forces, transformations, and potentials – in short, those things that we cannot completely know – in the service of the magician (researcher or corporation). Like magic, this industrial capture of life has two sides. It involves diverse attempts at micro-managing the actual individuations of life processes. At the same time it controls the production and capture of life as virtual — that is, precisely as potential for divergence and differentiation, creativity in the interstices. The ambiguities that currently surround patents, and intellectual property in general, all hinge on this attempt to own both virtuality/potential and actual individuations.

I shall shortly propose a simple concept of life — that of differential life –in which new technics and concepts give new modes of access to the virtuality of life. I shall then argue for the general importance of interactive technics to an understanding of differential life. Following this, I shall briefly describe some relevant examples of interactive technics. Then, using the work of Henri Bergson and Alfred Whitehead, I shall give a more specific conceptual framework for an expanded concept of differential life. Whitehead himself long ago recognised that the ‘status of life’ was a key problem across disciplines. He wrote that, ‘. . .the status of life in nature. . . is the modern problematic of philosophy and of science. Indeed it is the central meeting point of all the strains of systematic thought, humanistic, naturalistic, philosophic. The very meaning of life is in doubt’ (Whitehead, 1938: 148). He thought this was partly because of the ‘muddle-headed positivism’ of his times. This positivism still sometimes infects much research into interactive technologies and life.

After describing Whitehead’s philosophy of differential life in relation to interactive technics, I shall then turn to Paulo Virno’s work. The latter will allow me to complicate the notion of differential life in terms of the contemporary politics of the formation of labour. I shall argue that, precisely as the differential intensity of life is industrialised and maximised, so there is a frequent and paradoxical diminution of life as lived. The end result is too often the simple reduction of life to work, as Capital and governments face increased demands to work life and research is directed towards finding increased power to do so.

Of course, the total control over differential life that is sometimes sought is seldom found. The working of life constantly converts life itself into something else, creating new differential series, which in turn create new freedoms. Life — however it is defined — tends to over-run its rationalised contexts. For some at least, this calls for new forms of control (in the drive towards a new world order, perhaps). Thus the importance to any industry capitalising on differential life of what Virno calls ‘virtuosity’ as an in situ modulating response to life’s over-running of its contexts.

Virtuosity also suggests the ambivalence of enjoyment within the over-running of contexts. Enjoyment is a crucial register of the immanence of living, an ongoing (and in itself virtuoso) modulation of the pleasure and pain surrounding life’s differentiations and integral assemblages. It also must be captured in order to maximise the capital of differential life. Here I shall be interested in the enjoyment found in assemblage, and in the potential this assemblage has to allow the new to emerge from the routine. It is for this reason that I shall later outline Alfred Whitehead’s idea of self-enjoyment. This notion provides a way of rethinking interactive technics in terms other than the smooth symbolic processing and predictable outcomes that often form a goal for interactive technics: for example, in HCI (human-computer interaction) research and development; or in biotechnological manipulation (where genetic code is often taken as a pre-determined message for the future — it is supposed that we can neatly change this future by changing the message); or even in the way that many tend to think that media and communications work.2

Differential life and new technics

New technics have always led to mutations in the perception of matter. These mutations have changed not only our concept of matter, but allowed us to increasingly animate matter, and participate in its ongoing mutations (for example, in the development of the cinema, or in the intervention in genetic matter).3 It would be a mistake, however, to think that recent technical interventions in life have led to a new episteme, or a new world order (or Empire) that would give this new life, and new challenges to life, a common sense and a consistent politics. The result is rather more diffuse, and more differential. Life is rendered (sometimes quite literally) more obviously the differential life that it has always been. And yet, because shifts in perception lead to mutations in matter, this ‘rendering obvious’ changes life. Making differential life more visible has led to an entire new ‘ecology of practices’ surrounding life (Stengers, 2002: 262).4 Life now produces, and is produced in, an ongoing and prolific series of relations between the technics of perception and mediation, animated and mutated matter, and our own ‘nervous elements’ which we often regard as closest to our sense of self (Bergson, 1991: 65). It follows that any definition of life can only be partial and provisional. Life is better understood in the plural, from many different angles at the same time.

As the bleed between concepts of life becomes something of a haemorrhage, it has indeed become obvious that the ‘. . .living being is above all a thoroughfare and . . .the essence of life is in the movement by which life is transmitted’ (Bergson, 1911: 28). Life as a whole is a thoroughfare for, amongst other things: genes and related entities, biotechnologies, and biometrics; electronic networks, human-computer interaction and mnemotechnics (the networking and transduction between databases, augmenting or even semi-replacing traditional memory); the micromanipulation of cognitive and affective processes in social control (in performance enhancement, new labour relations, new configurations of enjoyment, and patterns of consumption); and of course mutating matter itself in various forms (food, bodily fluids, impulses travelling via the connections of nervous systems, etc).

New modes of living as access to the virtual

As the ‘movement by which life is transmitted’ becomes more complex, new modes of living approach the complexity of differential intensity. These new modes of living are a response to the question of finding new forms of orientation to the shifting concepts and processes of life. Of course, these new modes of living no longer give us ‘position’.5 Instead, we could say that the implications of the mathematics of differential calculus are finally understood in the contexts of everyday life. This is to suggest that the new modes of living give us differentials and integrals as a guide to our movement within the world, instead of fixed points of reference. Or, that orientation increasingly involves not only position, but also precise velocities, modulations, differential conjunctions. In short, one is not only placed vis a vis places but also between places — places that are themselves in the process of movement and transformation. With this complex orientation towards conjunctions and splits, flows and shifts, differential life opens up to virtualization.6 Tiziana Terranova provides a very good definition of this new access to the virtual:

The virtualization of a process involves opening up a real understood as devoid of transformative potential to the action of forces that exceed it from all sides. In an informational sense, the virtual appears as the site not only of the improbable, but of the openness of biophysical (but also socio-cultural) processes to the irruption of the unlikely and the inventive. (Terranova, 2004: 27)

I shall shortly turn to Bergson, Whitehead and Virno in order to give an account of this unlikely and inventive opening up of the real to the virtual. That said, I am not going to attempt to analyse the precise relations between them.7 Rather I want to use the work of all three thinkers to examine the politically urgent questions involving the current syntheses of modes of living and concepts of life in relation to the virtual. Throughout, the question of the relation between the biotechnological and the mnemotechical syntheses of modes of living will remain implicitly crucial. However, as biotechnology and mnemotechnics are co-determining, I hope this will give me sufficient excuse to focus on the mnemotechnical syntheses (primary in the form of HCI events). If further argument for this is needed, Richard Beardsworth has written that:

. . .molecular biology’s own understanding of itself . . . is philosophically naive and pre-critical, if it fails to think the technical mediations that inform, from the first, its framing of what it understands as the ‘real’, whether it be the gene or any other constituent of life (Beardsworth, 1996: unpaginated).

Interactive life

Does the question ‘What is life?’ have to have one answer in relation to technics? I want to suggest that Bergson, Whitehead and Virno enable us to think this question in terms that allow for differential life. I am particularly interested in the way in which the thought of both Bergson and Whitehead might contribute to the stream of research into human-machine interactions based upon notions of embedded, contingent or situated cognition.8 Admittedly, this is an approach somewhat at odds with that prevailing in a number of related areas (media, cognitive science, HCI and even some aspects of biotechnological development), which perhaps remains overly attached to cognitivism and symbolic processing.9 However, I want to argue that Virno in particular allows us to understand the dubious political situation brought into being by this attachment.

There are two basic aspects to this approach. First, life itself is taken as interactive from the start, and moreover, as inhabiting a series of interactive technics (for example, biotechnologies, reproductive technologies, technologies of perception and mediation, the techniques by which one lives moment to moment) immersed among other series (the world at large). This is the basis of what I have called differential life. Life is not taken as something more or less passive with which interactive technologies interact (or vice versa). If we begin with interaction, there is no passivity, but rather a groundless field for the emergence of what Whitehead refers to as ‘occasions of experience’ (1938: 151). Interaction is assumed as primary, not as something that comes after the supposed ‘stable entities’ involved. Shifts in our interactive engagements can be seen to challenge life, but they can just as usefully be seen merely to express, indeed create the processual life that is already there differently — and not only in the future, but at every moment of every interaction. Such an understanding allows us to examine more effectively the life that is already lived in conjunction with technics. Furthermore, this approach is suggestive of a social theory — and ethics — of interactive life, situated within the immanence of current technical developments, not one fixed upon possible future developments, ongoing research and so forth (although of course this is important as well).

Second, perceptions, sensations, actions and mediations are taken as crucial components of life — as crucial as biochemical metabolism, or creative intelligence. Biologists may have valid questions about metabolism and life from which we have much to learn in an interdisciplinary setting. Innovators in interactive technologies, however, have as many valid questions about perceptions, sensations, actions, mediations and life. Indeed, it is important to investigate the difficulty of separating these processes absolutely when thinking of interactive fields. And in fact there are several transdisciplinary areas already investigating the junction of these processes.

Metabolising information

Some physical interactions — even biochemical transductions — are often now thought as carrying a series of what may best be termed for the moment, ‘informational forces’. The recent development of the new (trans)disciplines of biosemiotics and neurosemiotics have suggested that communication — what I prefer to see as ‘a-signifying semiological’ interaction — occurs at the level of living cells and neurons (Hoffmeyer, 1996; Harries-Jones, 2002; Favareau, 2002; Guattari, 1995a: 4). Any living system is already a question of the interaction of information channels, assemblages of forces and biochemical reactions. Of course, this means that informational forces are never only, or always, symbolic processes. It is precisely this that gives work with biotechnologies and the bio-informatics much of their force.

Moreover, living systems come together with other forms of interaction in a society of networks, machinic assemblages, or hypercomplexity (Castells, 2000; Terranova, 2004; Guattari, 1995a & 1995b; Qvortrup, 2002). In short, information, the transduction of forces and biochemical reactions are interdependent. This of course was the basic realisation of cybernetics half a decade ago, but it is often forgotten today in the analysis of HCI (and related fields), in part due to the reduction of interaction to the premises of cognitivism (Dupuy, 2000). These premises provide a more docile and linear series of objects and processes to study, and more opportunity for research outcomes to be documented, funding bodies to be persuaded and so on, it is true. And this ease of use — along with the production of a docile form of interactive life — is in part the reason they are so widespread. However, many recent theorists thinking about interactive technics have moved beyond these premises. These theorists draw on a diverse range of older philosophies as well as contemporary neuroscience or contemporary developments in interactive technologies, often by-passing or minimising many of the major tenets of HCI studies, and related areas, drawn from cognitive psychology (roboticist Rodney Brooks, for example, writes simply of ‘intelligence without reason’ and ‘intelligence without representation’ (1991a and 1991b). In doing so they have further complicated our understanding of living systems, human intelligence, and the role of technics within life, proposing a powerful mix of information and embodiment, life and technics. In such contexts, mind is an emergent, structurally coupled property of ‘radical embodiment’ (Varela and Thompson, 2001). The most notable of these structural couplings is between brain, body and world in ‘extended mind’ (Clark, 1997).

In addition, for some of these thinkers it is technics that makes for human life. For Bernard Stiegler, for example, there is no human life without technics (1998). Human life has always been that life which is pre-mediated by technics. There is no ‘human’ that comes before the technical. This means that human life has always been a somewhat paradoxical assemblage of the living and the non-living — human life has the dead, the mechanical, the past at its heart as well as anything we might call living, strictly speaking. Stiegler writes that, as technics is a ‘”process of exteriorization”, technics is the pursuit of life by means other than life’ (Stiegler, 1998: 17). And for Stiegler it is especially the technics of mediation that inhabit human life, often in a foundational (if differential) manner — of time, space, memory, understanding, imagination, vision, reason, movement, etc. In particular, the new technics of networked mediation make for a tertiary series of retentions that increasingly intervene, indeed constitute, human short and long-term memory. Technics also provide a ‘fourth synthesis’ that is increasingly found at the heart of Kant’s three syntheses of understanding, imagination and reason (and indeed the passive synthesis of intuition) (Stiegler, 2003a: unpaginated). Now more than ever, there is no life, not even an awareness of life, that does not take place within an ecology of the living and the non-living. This means that embodiment is always processually assembled. There is no ‘essential’ body as against technics.

At the same time, to say that life is found in the interaction with technical systems is not to say that the machines are alive. Margaret Boden has convincingly argued that metabolism is ‘a fundamental requisite of the sort of self-organization that is characteristic of life’ (1999: 246). This means bluntly that ‘strong A-life is impossible’ (Boden, 1999: 246). Yet this tells us that there are other questions about life and interaction, questions that are not to do with whether machines themselves are alive. What of the life that is lived in concert with machines — the shifts in metabolism occasioned by shifts in embodied mediations and vice versa, and perhaps the challenges or additions to metabolism as a criterion of life (Wilson, 2004)? What if radically embodied theories of (often technically) extended mind are applied to life? What if, at the same time, we were to take into account, more radically than the approaches of cognitivism or symbolic-processing, the part that perceptions and actions, sensations and mediations (or what we shall see Whitehead call ‘prehensions’), play in the processes of living. And not only at the level of cells and neurons, but throughout the entire processual assemblage, and mixed networks in which life is lived? Instead of the processing of symbols, linear forms of development and communication, or smooth ergonomic flows with the workplace, we might find network drives and archive fevers (Derrida, 1998). There may be a role for symbolic processing in these drives and fevers. Yet, if anything at all, symbolic processes and symbols form only a subset of the non-living (that is, dead) part of the larger assembly that is thinking as life.

To live, then, is to assemble and mediate interactions between what we might normally call ‘living’ and non-living. It is literally to bring data, archives and so on (the past) into life, in combination with the as yet unactualised futures of potential interactions. Furthermore, life does not do this neutrally — not, we might say in the old sense at least, purely technically, or according to some boring routine. It does so in active ‘self-enjoyment’ (Whitehead, 1938: 150). Assemblage and mediation allow both the self and enjoyment not so much to impose themselves on an interaction, but to emerge from it (and by self here, we do not necessarily mean the subject, especially not the human subject — self-enjoyment is a part of all entities, all occasions of experience as they become occasions).

This very rough sketch suggests that interactive technologies are a matter of life (network drives, assemblage, the transductions of various forces, chemicals and so on) and death (archive fevers, disassembly). With apologies for their brevity, I shall briefly list some examples of self-enjoyment in interactive assembly from art and the everyday. I shall then end with an extended discussion of the theoretical frameworks to which I have gestured towards so far.

The unexpected actual in occasions of self-enjoyment

As if on a cadaver that is nevertheless a technics that brings me into a different mode of living, I lay my hands upon an ‘anatomically correct model of a human body lying supine on a table. Set into this body are some 100 proximity, pressure, light and sounds sensors and a theremin’ (Paul Woodrow and Alan Dunnings’ Derive) (Woodrow and Dunning, n.d.). To interact with this body is also to assemble — and be assembled within — occasions of self-enjoyment with the sonic and visual environment that this interaction produces. The data, one’s own and the system’s, is brought into an unexpected series of actualisations. Or, in simple self-enjoyment (again not necessarily as a subject, but as an occasion of experience, that is, the self-enjoyment of the occasion as a whole), I chase a robot on bicycle wheels around the room — but it is more than an object and I am less than a subject, the robot also follows me, plays with me (Simon Penny’s Petit Mal, 1995).10 I can also play chase with polygons, and assemble in self-enjoyment within an interactive visual field, as I pursue image particles around the virtual environment of the CAVE in Simon Penny’s ‘Traces'(1998-2000). Here Penny’s stated aim is to produce the ‘visceral sensation of collisions with virtual objects’, as opposed to a disembodied experience (Penny, 2004). Or, in a literal rendering of symbols as forces subject to embodiment, with my hands I hit words like tennis balls as sentences disassemble and peel off the walls in another VR installation: Wardrip-Fruin, McClain, Greenlee and Carroll’s Screen (2002).

Perhaps predetermined data and unactualised potentials — a fusion of the forces of indexical signs, music and the dancing body — are assembled in real time in the games arcade as I dance in Dance Dance Revolution. Or in another playful example, maybe Sony Playstation’s Eye Toy — and the video game Kung Foo — allow me to re-actualise a martial arts training that was ‘archived’ long ago (as now vague habits of youth in my ageing body). We could say that the habitual data and unactualised potential material involved have remained virtual until re-actualised when confronted with Kung Foo’s interface. Eye Toy captures the images of my movements in real-time and places these within the frame of the television screen. As my upper body fills the screen and is surrounded by cartoon attackers, it becomes clear that I have always been one interactive image amongst others (as Bergson saw it). I discover myself assembled within a whole different mode of perception. This is a good example of the difference it makes when the non-living is assembled with the living. The ecology of self-enjoyment in which I am involved has to adjust, re-assemble. I also ‘rediscover’ a certain level of fitness, or lack thereof, as I rapidly lose my breath in the haze of technically enhanced perception/metabolism.

Such lived relations between data and potential are lived ‘the more’ in even broader interactive networks. Maybe my local network drives and archive fevers (say in the enjoyment of music) join with those of others as I interact with the Internet radio station found at http://www.last.fm/. My data (the music I like) and as yet unactualised potentials (the as yet unheard music I might like because other people who have similar tastes like it) are brought into a vast network of the data and potentials of others. The next song played constantly surprises me. It really has changed my life.

Digital technologies also make strange new forms of network ecologies in the more experimental arts. In 1996, I visited a three-story gallery in Copenhagen, in which 50 actors on 20 sets carried out improvisations — as determined by a computer processing live-via-satellite video images of an ant’s nest in the United States (Lars von Trier’s Verdensuret — see Murphie, 2004a). Such interactive networks combine a variety of ‘self-enjoyments’ — ants, actors, audience, for a start. To take another related example, there are the strange new interactive ecologies of the visual arts. In the case of ‘The Levitation Grounds’ by Joyce Hinterding & David Haines (2000-2002), their own digital 3D imagery was a combined with satellite images received from passing weather satellites. Or, to take another wonderful example of the meeting of metabolism, sensation and interface, there is Ulrike Gabriel’s installation Breath (1992), in which the users rhythms of breathing change the visual experience in a 3D environment — which of course changes the breathing of the user, and so on.

In all these examples, perception is crucial to life as lived in the entire assemblage of self-enjoyment — and vice versa. Moreover, it would not be right to take these as the special cases they might seem. In general, it is impossible to imagine any process of living separate from perception — even for an amoeba. |It is worth pointing out that perception is not being understood here in the sense of representations given to a pre-existing subject, a communication between an isolated ‘self’ and a ‘world’ distinct from this self. Rather I want to take up Bergson’s sense of perception as the very basis of our interactive immersion in the world, a world in which ‘we’ are interactive images amongst other interactive images (it is useful to think of an ‘image’ as any sensation; and to think of a perception/action continuum, arising from movement, in interaction with light, or sound, touch, etc; it is not useful to restrict the notion of ‘image’ to visual representation).

Life as immersion in sensation

Bergson is particularly effective at explaining the intertwined nature of perception/action and life. I will quote a well-known passage from his work here at length, as it is so apposite to the part interactive technologies play in life. Bergson begins from interaction:

So we place ourselves at once in the midst of extended images, and in this material universe we perceive centers of indetermination, characteristics of life. In order that actions may radiate from these centers, the movements or influences of the other images must be, on the one hand, received and, on the other hand, utilized. Living matter, in its simplest form and in a homogeneous state, accomplishes this function simultaneously with those of nourishment and repair . . . perception arises from the same cause which has brought into being the chain of nervous elements, with the organs which sustain them and with life in general . . . Perception, in its pure state, is, then, in very truth, a part of things. And, as for affective sensation, it does not spring spontaneously from the depths of consciousness to extend itself, as it grows weaker, in space; it is one with the necessary modifications to which, in the midst of the surrounding images that influence it, the particular image that each one of us terms his body is subject. (Bergson, 1991: 63-65; my emphasis)

So for Bergson we live among moving ‘images’ (our own body for Bergson is one image among others — though a special image). Life actualises itself as a series of centres of indetermination in the complex whirling of these images in relation to each other. Life is thus not only survival in the sense of nourishment and so on, but also the ability to act from within centres of indetermination. Or we could say that if life is survival, this is dependent upon being able to act from within centres of indetermination (one problem is that these centres are constantly transforming themselves).

Sensation is of the form of this movement of images — and the deepening of sensation (habits and modulations of habits in interaction with novelty, to put it too simply) gives us our sense of our interactive selves (we might say that sensation is converted into a kind of intuition). This leads us to Whitehead’s concept of life.

Life as an offensive against repetition — self-enjoyment

For Whitehead ‘life is an offensive, directed against the repetitious mechanism of the Universe’ (1956: 102). (This incidentally seems to me to describe the very life of the computer game, in that it is directed not only to repeat, but to conquer repetition, to rebel against the game in repeating it). By this Whitehead meant that life was an excess beyond mechanistic repetition, ‘an aim at that perfection which the conditions of its environment allow’ (1956: 102). In short, ‘life is a bid for freedom’ (Whitehead, 1978: 104). This is also a bid for ‘a certain absoluteness of self-enjoyment’ (Whitehead, 1938: 150).

Life and self-enjoyment are not necessarily exactly the same here, but they are closely related in that they are perhaps the two sides to this ‘bid’. Self-enjoyment in assemblage arises in parallel to the real freedom that occurs in an ongoing individuation, or transduction, to use Gilbert Simondon’s term, a translation of forces so that they can come together into a novel assemblage (1992: 313). Of course, a similar notion is found in Maturana and Varela’s discussion of life as autopoiesis, although Whitehead is perhaps closer to Guattari’s understanding of a combination of autopoiesis with allopoiesis (Maturana and Varela, 1980; Guattari, 1995b). In this there is a:

. . .certain immediate individuality, which is a complex process of appropriating into a unity of existence the many data presented as relevant by the physical processes of nature. Life implies the absolute, individual self-enjoyment arising out of this process of appropriation. I have, in my recent writings, used the prehension to express this process of appropriation. Also I have termed each individual act of immediate self-enjoyment an occasion of experience. I hold that these unities of existence, these occasions of experience, are the really real things which in their collective unity compose the evolving universe, ever plunging into creative advance. (Whitehead, 1938: 150-151; my emphasis)

This was no abstraction or idealism, as although ‘the aim is always beyond the attained fact . . . The goal is some type of perfected things, however lowly and basically sensual’ (Whitehead, 1956: 102).

Neither is it a complete rejection of routine, or of habit. Rather, like databases, these routines and habits play their part in interactive novelty. In fact, routine cannot be completely assimilated into a controlling knowledge (as sometimes assumed in more rigid cognitivist approaches to HCI, and related areas). Routine is also engaged with the modulations of practical life to be a complete tool of control. Routine or habit (or memory, for that matter) always involve a repetition and a difference. They are differential. Furthermore, the more interactive it gets, and the more networked, then the more intense are the differences in repetition in the constant adaptation to shifting network ecologies. Whitehead writes, ‘Now it is the beginning of wisdom to understand that social life is founded upon routine’. But he also writes that, ‘The notion of complete understanding controlling action is an ideal in the clouds, grotesquely at variance with practical life’ (1956: 114-115). This is at odds with many of the fantasies of control that surround interactive technologies. Sticking to technical routines is often given precisely — and contra Whitehead — as a way of complete control over the ecology of actions within the network. Yet only partial control — in the form of immersion or participation — ever results, at the same time as a multiplication of the intensities of differences via networked ecologies.

These differential intensities are literally felt — that is, lived as new sensations (new occasions of experience) — within the interactions involved. This explains the intensification of felt (often antinomies of) power so dramatically played out through interactive technologies. This play can perhaps be harmless, as in some interactive art. Yet if coupled with a desire for control, this play of differential intensity can produce the political antinomy of our times. This often leads to a certain virulence in the management of life (something mirrored in some computer games). It also leads to a series of resistances to differential life and interactive technics.

Castells has pointed out that many of the actions of those immersed in the network society are directed precisely against an immersion in networked intensity (2000). They are directed towards stabilisation, resisting change where possible, creating or preserving identities, even and especially when the case is hopeless. Fifty years ago Whitehead could already see that this was the effect of a nasty historical hangover:

The whole of this tradition is warped by the vicious assumption that each generation will substantially live amid the conditions governing the lives of its fathers and will transmit those conditions to mould with equal force the lives of its children. We are living in the first period of history for which this assumption is false. (Whitehead, 1956: 102)

Whitehead’s philosophy is perhaps an antidote to the virulent antinomy of control and intensity in contemporary politics. For much contemporary politics, it would seem that the task is to encourage or promise an impossible repetition that would transcend the new differential intensities (that of course such politics also feed upon at the same time). Whitehead’s approach is the inverse. It is the task of life, in Whitehead’s terms, to aim beyond this repetition while remaining immanent to it. This approach also allows Whitehead to avoid opposing the technics of repetition to life, and instead pose an immanent philosophy of life as emergent from repetition. The virulent antinomy is defused in favour of the enjoyment of novelty.

Let us tease out the life, enjoyment and novelty a little. Although very much involved with each other, they are not the same. Life includes the self-enjoyment of a novelty that is real. Yet the concept of self-enjoyment ‘does not exhaust that aspect of process here termed life’ (Whitehead, 1938: 151). Self-enjoyment is enjoyment of particular processes related to life. It is enjoyment of:

a creative activity belonging to the very essence of each occasion. It is in the process of eliciting into actual being factors in the universe which antecedently to that process exist only in the mode of unrealised potentialities. The process of self-creation is the transformation of potential into the actual, and the fact of such transformation includes the immediacy of self-enjoyment. (Whitehead, 1938: 151)

Of course, the enjoyment is in the specific processes given by the aim — the differential intensities of specific series of events in relation. The enjoyment is not in any impossible and vague ideal. One could recall here the specificities of martial arts training as opposed to, for example, ballet training, my own body’s habits with regards to martial arts, the development of Sony’s specific platform for video games, and the specific games, all with their own potential events that are actualised in relation to each other in a specific occasion of experience (the playing of Kung Foo). Other instances would provide other specific occasions of experience. We can thus talk about ‘life’ in many specific forms. Doing so would open up HCI, biotechnology and other practices involved in modes of living (for example, architecture and design in general) to the differential intensity inherent within them.

It is perhaps at this point that we can understand what Whitehead calls life as ‘aim’. Differential life — being novel — is always specific. Moreover, the novel has a certain consistency. It is not a matter of ‘anything goes’. For Whitehead, ‘aim’ meant ‘the exclusion of the boundless wealth of alternative potentiality, and the inclusion of that definite factor of novelty which constitutes the selected way of entertaining . . . data in the process of unification’ (1938: 152). Thus, ‘the characteristics of life are absolute self-enjoyment, creative activity, aim’ (Whitehead, 1938: 152). It is this combination that allows us to rethink interactive technics.

The interaction of actualized data and the virtual

For Whitehead, we must distinguish between:

the actualised data presented by the antecedent world, the non-actualized potentialities which lie ready to promote their fusion into a new unity of experience and the immediacy of self-enjoyment which belongs to the creative fusion of those data with those potentialities. (Whitehead, 1938: 151)

To think about interactive occasions such as computer games or interactive artworks is to have to think about actualised data; but also about non-actualized potentials and the creative fusion of both (and the virtuality that is brought to bear the more complexity there is, and the more relational networks there are to be drawn into an ‘occasion of experience’ — an example I have provided here is that of the Internet radio station last.fm).

Life lived is a creative fusion of past and future, although it is a fusion that is never complete but maintains, within specific assemblages of self-enjoyment, series of differential intensities (so that I can play Sony’s Kung Foo differently next time, or so that every time I listen to last.fm, it will be different — more different than a standard radio station). Within an engagement with interactive technologies, this fusion involves a literal and specific series of embodiments of the differential intensities of broader networked ecologies. While acknowledging the importance of routine, life in these contexts is defined according to the:

originality of response to stimulus. This amounts to the doctrine that an organism is ‘alive’ when in some measure its reactions are inexplicable by any tradition of pure physical inheritance. . .Thus a single occasion is alive when the subjective aim which determines its process of concrescence has introduced a novelty of definiteness not to be found in the inherited data of its primary phase. (Whitehead, 1978: 105).

In other words, we could say life is play. In Virno’s terms, life expresses a certain virtuosity, and this, we shall see, is its value to Capital (2004). In that Whitehead is describing a network of processes, summed up in the word ‘occasion’, his ideas are particularly apposite to the networks of sensations, perceptions and actions in a highly technical society. Whitehead’s concern with the mutual immersion of routine and indetermination is particularly useful. Both routine and indetermination have to be worked with simultaneously in order to achieve anything at all — we could say simply to live with interactive technologies.

The network, life and society

Whitehead’s notion of life thus makes sense of the network society as a ‘evocation of intensities’ that do not necessarily pre-exist that evocation, rather than only as an assembly and operation of pre-existent cognitive artefacts and symbols (1978: 105). It is now that we can understand why it is that life is ‘in the interstices’. Whitehead explains that neither society nor subjectivity are enough to explain this evocation of intensities:

God’s purpose in the creative advance is the evocation of intensities. The evocation of societies is purely subsidiary to this absolute aim. The characteristic of a living society is that a complex structure of inorganic societies is woven together for the production of a non-social nexus characterized by the intense physical experiences of its members. But such an experience is derivate from the complex order of the material animal body, and not from the simple ‘personal order’ of past occasions with analogous experience. There is intense experience without the shackle of reiteration from the past. This is the condition for spontaneity of conceptual reaction. The conclusion to be drawn from this argument is that life is a characteristic of ’empty space’ and not of space ‘occupied’ by any corpuscular society. In a nexus of living occasions, there is a certain social deficiency. Life lurks in the interstices of each living cell, and in the interstices of the brain. (Whitehead, 1978: 105-106; my emphasis)

Social context is not enough — not even in a society of cells or neurons.11 Although, of course, this life in the interstices does eventually turn ‘back to society: it binds originality within bounds, and gains the massiveness due to reiterated character’ (Whitehead, 1978: 107). Let me go into this relation between the pre-existent and novelty — the bounded and the interstitial — in more detail, as again it is relevant to interactive technics.

First, Whitehead’s philosophy is based on a notion of process (or becoming) — ‘there is no nature apart from transition’ (1938: 152). It only takes into account actual, processual but specific occasions of experience. It is therefore based upon what is actually relevant within a given assemblage of circumstances that comes together in on ongoing manner to form events — ‘an endeavour has been made to base philosophical thought upon the most concrete elements in our experience’ (Whitehead, 1978: 18). This is a matter of what is relevant to what he calls ‘actual entities’ or ‘actual occasions’ — the latter would include any kind of existence, whether of God or of ‘the most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space’. In other words, all entities are occasions — temporal, in process, events.

Second, Whitehead’s is a philosophy of assemblages of these occasions — ‘the reason for things are always to be found in the composite nature of definite actual events’ (1978: 19).

Third, what he calls ‘prehensions’ are central to the assemblage of occasions. Although not entirely accurate, we could say that a prehension is a kind of basic ‘transportable’ perception/cognition extracted from other actual occasions (or we could say that perception/cognition is the transport of prehensions). More precisely, a prehension is an element of the real relationality between actual entities. ‘Actual entities involve each other by reason of their prehensions of each other’ (Whitehead, 1978: 20). It is also carries the burden of the relationship of actual present experiences to actual past experiences. Furthermore, it allows for an embodied experience that is also an experience of process — of the event (although prehensions are not immediately sensory as in empirical data — they are more like an intuition). A prehension is a kind of intensity. It is both more and less than a symbol, a cognition, information, or even perhaps a personalised ‘feeling’ or sensation (and thus gives us a very different set of possibilities for understanding interactive technics). We might describe it as a kind of slightly virtualised version of an actual entity. It is a carriage of an entity’s diagram of differential intensity into a new assemblage of self-enjoyment or occasion of experience. Of course, in the process, a prehension is dynamic, and allows passage from past the future. An example Whitehead gives is thirst: ‘”thirst” is an immediate physical feeling integrated with the conceptual prehension of its quenching’ (Whitehead, 1978: 32).

A prehension ‘reproduces in itself the general characteristics of an actual entity: it is referent to an external world, and in this sense will be said to have a “vector character”; it involves emotion, and purpose, and valuation, and causation’ (Whitehead, 1978: 19). It is not the actual entity itself, however, because it is only partial, referring elsewhere to the entity. As such prehensions are about the relatedness of actual occasions, or better, of past occasions come together into a new assemblage. Prehensions can be positive or negative, in that, relationally, an ‘actual entity has a perfectly definite bond with each item in the universe’ (Whitehead, 1978: 41). Negative prehensions involve ‘definite exclusion of that item from positive contribution to the subject’s own real internal constitution’ and positive prehensions involve definite inclusion (Whitehead, 1978: 41).

In other words, this is a theory of interactivity in which ‘final causation and atomism are interconnected philosophical principles’ and ‘the reasons for things are always to be found in the composite nature of definite actual entities’ (Whitehead, 1978: 19). Prehensions are ‘pre’hensions because they pre-exist the coming together of new actual occasions of experience. Yet it is the coming together that matters — and this is transformative (thus producing novelty). As such, the relations subsequently formed are what are crucial to entities conceived as processual events (occasions of experience such as a particular quenching of thirst). As Deleuze writes, ‘relations themselves are types of events’ and ‘Events in their turn are types of relations: they are relations to existence and to time’ (1993: 52). This, incidentally, tells us what a living person is (and in fact what all living entities or events are). A ‘living person is some definite type of prehensions transmitted from occasion to occasion of its existence’ (Whitehead, 1978: 107).

However, this becomes more complicated in the coming together of pure physical feelings – the obvious felt embodiment of, for example, ‘the transfer of energy in the physical world’ as felt by ‘simple actual entities’ and conceptual feelings (Whitehead, 1978: 246). As Whitehead tries to avoid a mind/body split, one way to describe the latter is as the feeling of a concept — something that ‘feels like a thought’. In other words, this is that which is often bracketed off into the kind of study performed by cognitive science, but for Whitehead this is not wise. For him, ‘conceptual feelings are primarily derivate from physical feelings, and secondarily from each other’ (Whitehead, 1978: 247). We could thus think of conceptual feelings as a particular series of feelings immersed amongst others, somewhat distinct in character but not separate from other feelings in this immersion — that is, the non-conceptual feelings.

On the other hand, the assemblage of pure physical feelings is hybridised by the conceptual feelings, once derived. This leads to ‘impurity’, in which ‘an “impure” mental prehension is also an “impure” physical prehension and vice versa’ (Whitehead, 1978: 33). This occurs, in other words, when ‘the actual entity forming the datum is objectified by one of its own conceptual feelings’ (Whitehead, 1978: 246). This is usually the case. Again it is a matter of the relational, and this leads to hybrid prehensions. A ‘”hybrid” prehension is the prehension by one subject of a conceptual prehension, or of an “impure” prehension, belonging to the mentality of another subject’ (Whitehead, 1978: 107).

Collapsing the walls between embodiment and abstraction

Today we might say that pure physical feelings have never been so mixed in with their related ‘conceptual feelings’. We might also say that prehensions have never been so mixed — so ‘hybrid’. The startling result is that networked ecologies of subjectivity are undoing, both conceptually and in everyday practice, the final thin borders between embodiment and abstraction/concept/cognition. A defining aspect of network and interactive technics is that they allow us to feel networked abstraction, impure prehension, so well (an obvious example might be Wardrip-Fruin et al.’s Screen, as described above, in which words can be hit away in a virtual environment). It is this that forms the basis for our interactive participation in real formations of specific abstraction.

Networks, interactive technologies, and interfaces can all be seen as transporters and intensifiers of prehensions — and they blur the boundary between ‘pure’ and the ‘impure’ more and more. We can also see networked interactive engagements with their rules, procedures, and taking up of habits and techniques, as kinds of society (examples might again be gameplay, or the network of research and other practices such as legislation surrounding stem cell development). Life moves in the interstices of these societies, introducing novelty that then turns back into the actual occasions of experience of societies.

If there is a subject to be found in all this, it is Whitehead’s subject-superject. The ‘subject-superject’ involved in interactions is only partly social (hence Whitehead’s novel concept of the subject) (Whitehead, 1978: 28). It inhabits the gaps of unactualised potential that are not yet ‘social’ in the full sense. It finds self-enjoyment in the bringing together of a unity of experience from both the social and unactualised potential (as a final cause it brings together prehensions, habits, techniques, hybrid prehensions, previous and other occasions of experience).

In sum, Whitehead’s philosophy can explain the intensity and dynamism of interactive technologies within the network society. It also allows us to raise questions about the status of perception/cognition (or prehension) in relation to life as variation or intensity, and both in relation to technics and the social. Such conceptual movements so complicate many common notions in the study of interactive technics that they call for a diverse methodological experimentation to match that found in interactive technologies themselves (Lunenfeld, 2000; Murphie, 2004b).

This experimentation with the intensity of the new, however, also forms part and parcel of the new politics of worked life. I shall therefore conclude with a brief summary of the relevant ideas of Paulo Virno (2004).

Life, cognition, work and politics

Whitehead’s work enables us to begin to develop a positive understanding of differential life that emerges from the interstices of contemporary events involving technics. It also allows us a politics that analyses the social as it is. More importantly, however, it allows both an understanding of, and participation in, the synthesis of new modes of living that arise within the interstices of a society as they arise. All three of these are useful points from which to begin to propose a politics of the technics of the living.

Yet it is perhaps the new forms of synthesis that must be engaged with above all else. As I outlined at the beginning, one crucial combination in this regard is the expansion of the engagement with the potential of life via technics which is synthesised with/modulated by the reduction of life to ‘worked life’ (a life which is increasingly over-worked at every level). In response to this, the temptation is to think that it is, as always, a question of a concept of life misapplied for political gain — one that can be corrected by critical analysis. Yet it is much more than this. The reduction of life to work is an active conversion of life itself. It is a re-synthesis of life in favour of its appropriation into the new attempts to both open up the virtual to Capital, and to regulate this opening up of the virtual in the direction of particular modes of life that feed back into the new networks of worked life.

The concept of ‘worked life’ here has many aspects. It includes new modes of organization of production that reduce life to work along with associated strategies that Virno points to, such as those concerning the increased synthesis of cognition as labour (2004: 61). It also includes ‘worked life’ as conceived within biotechnology; that is, the obvious working of life via its possible modes of (bio)technical reproducibility. Moreover, and as we have seen, it includes the working of life via new networks of perception, and via the rapid expansion of the mnemotechnics that have always played an important part in human modes of living.

It would be easy to take Whitehead’s concept of self-enjoyment in opposition to the notion of worked life, and in many ways it does re-open the potential of differential life beyond its forms of capture in, for example, the deployment of cognitivism. Yet I would suggest Virno complicates the notion of self-enjoyment itself via his concept of ‘virtuosity’, something very close to an ongoing event of self-enjoyment, but this time precisely as a mode of living in ongoing capture by new labour relations (2004: 61).

For Virno, the virtuosity of temporary assembly and creativity in thinking or living, often taken as oppositional to more static and obviously oppressive modes of labour, is one of the characteristics of labour in the contemporary formations of Capital. Virtuosity, the ongoing enjoyment of assemblage, is one of the defining characteristics of the labour of what Virno, among others, calls the ‘multitude’.

The multitude is the mode of social life at odds with what has been assumed as the basis of political life throughout the modern, that is, the ‘people’. A people is engaged in the act of producing identifiable forms of general communality (such as a public sphere or democracy) through relatively fixed processes (like voting). A people is more or less unified in common political purpose, whether that is the expansion of empires, or opposition to capitalist modes of production. On the other hand, the multitude is a kind of differential series. It never comes together in the general way that the people is supposed to.

For Spinoza, the multitudo indicates a plurality which persists as such in the public scene . . . without evaporating within a centripetal form of motion. Multitude is the form of social and political existence for the many, seen as being many. . . (Virno, 2004: 21)

The multitude is then a diversity linked by differential networks. As Virno puts it:

An entire gamut of considerable phenomena-linguistic games, forms of life, ethical inclinations, salient characteristics of production in today’s world — will end up to be only slightly, or not at all, comprehensible, unless understood as originating from the mode of being of the many. To investigate this mode of being, one . . . must circumnavigate the multitude-continent, changing frequently the angle of perspective. (Virno, 2004: 22)

However, there is something unifying the multitude, albeit in its diversity. The differential unification of diversity is the very power of globalisation and networked technics. More than this, globalisation and networked technics allow the diversity of the multitude to be capitalised by a new form of functionalist overdetermination. The:

multitude does not rid itself of the One, of the universal, of the common/shared; rather, it redefines the One. The One of the multitude no longer has anything to do with the One constituted by the State, with the One towards which the people converge. (Virno, 2004: 42)

What constitutes this One? It is the functionalist:

linguistic-cognitive faculties common to the species . . . the general intellect. It has to do with a unity/universality which is visibly unlike that of the state. Let us be clear: the cognitive-linguistic habits of the species do not come to the forefront because someone decides to make them come to the forefront; they do so out of necessity, or because they constitute a form of protection in a society devoid of substantial communities (or of ‘special places’). (Virno, 2004: 42 – my emphasis)

First, I will assume here that this general multitude of functionalist linguistic-cognitive habits are always embodied forms of cognition, precisely because they are ‘habits’, in (embodied cognitive) labour or enjoyment for example.

Second, I will assume that this does not preclude cognitive-linguistic habits (falsely) premised upon concepts of disembodiment (as in cognitivism or symbolic processing, both of which are of course central to the functioning of the general intellect — in the imposition of cognitivist educational theories on the deployment of technics within universities, for example). Of course, these concepts must find real embodied assemblages in order to continue to exist.

Third, I will assume that these habits are interlinked across the new networks that exceed any state, community or notion of the ‘people’.

With these assumptions, we can begin to explain the synthesis of a broad range of conceptions and practices involved in modes of living. In many of these the point of the dialogue between a modulating but tightly channelled and regulated series of linguistic-cognitive habits (in performance management, learning outcomes, or intellectual property as applied to the manipulation of genetic material or the work on creative arts such as music or film) and the enhanced potential of life is both to produce the potential in a certain manner, and to synthesise particular modes of living suited to the differential intensities involved.

Of course, Whitehead has shown that this will never be a predictable affair – for which we can be thankful – but this is precisely where the work of virtuosity is targeted. There is increasingly a kind of virtuosity, whether in the production of stem cells, in new interactive technologies, or in the working, thinking subject-superject. It is a virtuosity that works towards a ‘potential to produce’ and ‘produce itself’ (Virno, 2004: 81; Lotringer in Virno, 2004: 12). Potential is always what is at stake.

‘Life’, pure and simple bios, acquires a specific importance in as much as it is the tabernacle of dynamis, of mere potential.

Capitalists are interested in the life of the worker, in the body of the worker, only for an indirect reason: this life, this body, are what contains the faculty, the potential, the dynamis. The living body becomes an object to be governed not for its intrinsic value, but because it is the substratum of what really matters: labor-power as the aggregate of the most diverse human faculties (the potential for speaking, for thinking, for remembering, for acting, etc.). Life lies at the center of politics when the prize to be won is immaterial (and in itself non-present) labor-power. (Virno, 2004: 82-83)

In the multitude that no longer forms a ‘people’, labour and the virtuoso performance of the intellect are interchangeable. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it binds a number of modes of living — thought, work, enjoyment, perception, work on the substances and processes of life itself — to new post-Fordist modes of production based on potential, and in the service of a regulating general intellect. A little like Whitehead’s ongoing processes of self-enjoyment, ‘a virtuosic performance . . . is without end product’, aside perhaps from more potential — more differential intensity along with modes of control of this intensity (again the general intellect), with both of these open to ongoing Capitalisation (Virno, 2004: 55).12 These virtuoso modes of production might include the production of services and communications, of ‘life’ as a new commodity, of potential itself as commodity, even of politics as a dispersed and general series of events of commodity-potentials. The aim is that everything can be swept up in these new forms of production of commodity-potential.

On the other hand, this interchangeability forms the basis of a contemporary alternative politics that turns potential away from the commodity, if only temporarily. Politics in this sense is precisely an ongoing and particular series of events of self-enjoyment (or perhaps a divergence from the particular series of events of self-enjoyment tied to particular differentials between virtuosity and the general intellect) that always must re-assemble, for example outside of the frame of the general intellect. These events occur with more and more frequency within the new forms of access to virtuality, made possible by commercial imperatives to be sure, but also by the interchangeability of labour, politics and intellect (with the crucial, if always ambiguous, intervention of enjoyment).

With regards to the technics of the living we could now describe the modes of synthesis of the political ambivalence of technical virtuosity more precisely, and more in tandem with events as they occur. I would suggest, moreover, that thinking about the arguments played out within this political ambivalence involves re-thinking the relations between technics, life and the embodiment of functionalist linguistic-cognitive habits.

In order to fully understand these arguments it is perhaps necessary to take the term ‘argument’ as inclusive of a technics of analysis and synthesis broader than, if inclusive of, that covered by the terms ‘language’, ‘rhetoric’, or even ‘discourse’. Assuming this, it is possible, in this context of interchangeability, to understand differential life as produced by the argumentative mix of technical virtuosities via which life plays itself out in an ongoing manner. It is this technical virtuosity, whether in the case of work with stem cells, or in mixing media elements to make people dance, or in re-arranging one’s process of cognition along with one’s laptop, that is the ambivalent work/enjoyment of life.

Knowing how to place the health of one’s own soul in danger

Whitehead and Virno thus allow us to redefine not only the politics of life, but of work and enjoyment in relation to life. With respect to all three, Virno provides an explanation for what is a paradoxical contemporary situation regarding politics. This is that, although nobody believes in politics (of the people) any more, we are all increasingly encouraged to be politicians.

Virno here refers to Weber’s definition of the ‘qualities of the politician’, which include ‘knowing how to place the health of one’s own soul in danger’ (Virno, 2004: 55). Within the multitudes one is constantly encouraged to risk oneself, one’s thinking, one’s somatic potential in virtuoso style, in the service of both the general intellect and the potential of differential intensity. At the same time, the dispersal of the multitude makes a general politics almost impossible. In short, the ‘health of one’s own soul’ is almost always required locally as a way of temporarily actualising the work of the general intellect/differential life. This always puts one at risk, but at the same time it counts less and less beyond the local situation. One is always ‘in danger’, but one never matters. As Virno has it:

The crisis of the society of labour consists of the fact . . . that social wealth is produced from science, from the general intellect, rather than from the work delivered by individuals. The work demanded seems reducible to a virtually negligible portion of a life. (Virno, 2004: 101)

Worse than this, there is always a sense of being worked in public (performance evaluation, DNA records are obvious examples), yet without access to a public sphere. Virno writes here that:

if the publicness of the intellect does not yield to the realm of a public sphere . . . then it produces terrifying effects. A publicness without a public sphere: here is the negative side — the evil, if you wish — of the experience of the multitude. (Virno, 2004: 40)

This produces a kind of ‘dread-panic, angst, pathologies of various kinds’ in either ‘an “I” that no longer has a world or a world that no longer has an “I”‘ (Virno, 2004: 78). One is exposed. One must perform with virtuosity. Yet this performance is subsumed into the general and the personal angst involved, and finding no anchor, turns into a kind of featureless dread.

In the absence of a unified politics that can be ‘taken over’, but in which one must perform and in which one’s performance is constantly assessed by general criteria, life of all kinds can be increasingly exposed to a strange public situation. Life becomes a form of property administered by the general intellect but no longer owned by the people. It is this that determined the way in which life is worked (via, for example, work on the human genome, or proprietary formats for the exchange of the elements of the technics of memory and mediation). It is in the microcosms of this public life — miniature experiences of public life that never quite come together — that one is constantly a kind of politician, putting at risk the health of one’s own soul in order to precipitate certain events of processual assemblage (Rossiter, 2003).

Thinking life differently

The activity in this ‘publicness without public sphere’ takes place according to the demands of performance without unifying principles beyond the functionalist general intellect. It is thus often the activity of cognitive labour, especially with regard to differential life. One must always think up principles, strategies, and tactics. One has many more decisions to make. One habituates one’s body to interactive technics, converted now as much as possible into embodied and technically extended decision-making processes. So that one’s embodiment is also pre-mediated by the technics of the general intellect. Hence the creation of the ‘general intellect’ precisely as the multiplicitous cognitive drive that fuels contemporary culture in its new networks, and which sweeps up labour, life and enjoyment in its path. This applies especially to all interactive technics, from new media to biotechnologies and techniques and procedures for performance regulation.

The result is somewhat devastating. At what is left of the personal level, the general intellect is accompanied by the feeling that ‘my own’ intellect is no longer really ‘mine’ (something literalised in battles over intellectual property) and perhaps that my own life is not mine (literalised now in the development of ethics for the biotechnology industries). The feeling is also perhaps that ‘my own’ intellectual production, or ‘my own’ living, is not terribly significant in the larger mix of research and assemblage, or even perhaps enjoyment. Why? Because, although it is always the multitudinous life that it at stake in ‘my thinking’, at the same time I cannot influence this multitudinous life in any significant way, or even comprehend its coordinates. In short, I am caught up simultaneously both in a general diversity of life, and in my own faltering attempts to draw together events as they are reflected in ‘my own’ processes of living. And neither of these poles of my experience of living finds anchor or resolution.

Whitehead’s philosophy might, of course, suggest that there can be coherence without anchor or resolution. Virno, however, writes that problem is that the ‘permanent mutability of forms of life, and the training needed for confronting the unchecked uncertainty of life, lead us to a direct and continuous relation with the world as such, with the imprecise context of our existence’ (2004: 33). Specific fears about specific events are merged with a more general anguish, unmuffled, as Virno puts it, by the ‘substantial communities’ that once hid ‘our relationship with the world’ — we could also say with life in general. Yet again Whitehead’s philosophy suggests that we might be able to enjoy a certain diverse series of coherences in our relations within the world.

In short, although Virno’s work seriously qualifies Whitehead’s with regard to life and the self-enjoyment of assemblage, Whitehead’s may also suggest that things are not as bad as Virno sometimes seems to think. I would suggest that the problem is not so much the relationship to the world beyond our substantial communities. For one thing, the new technics of life make much available to us in terms of community, if we can find a way of participating in occasions of experience or assemblages of self-enjoyment differently.

The problem instead lies in the series of existential dependencies produced by a feeling of crisis. And there is a real feeling of crisis identified by Virno in new formations of labour. The anxieties involved lead to what Stiegler calls a much expanded ‘technics of decision’ and this in turn leads to very common philosophies and practices quite at odds with those of the like of Bergson and Whitehead (cognitivism is one I am obviously at odds with in this respect) (Stiegler, 2003b). The ‘technics of decision’ is a concept to perhaps accompany Virno’s ‘general intellect’. Life, cognition and technics combine within this technics of decision. It is a way of living, a mode of thinking, a series of procedures and machines. It emerges as an arrangement of mediated perceptions and interactions that are re-enforced technically at every moment (decisions dealing with the software on one’s laptop, with medical systems in crisis, wondering which form to fill in, with environmental crisis, with acts of terror, with media presentations of leading politicians who seem to possess insane views of the world). The technics of decision must exhibit a virtuosity in responding precisely to the uncertainty of ways of living, modes of thinking, and contemporary technics that give rise to this technics of decision in the first place. Moreover, to repeat, the technics of decision must perform all this in the absence of a comforting and supportive, unified public sphere.

In sum, it is as though nearly everything has to be re-created at every moment (though this is not a problem for Whitehead). The difficulties involved carry the risk of ‘drastically increased forms of submission’ to each and every new set of local forms of power as they arise (Virno, 2004: 41). There is nothing beyond them to give one security, so every local form of power is clung to. As Virno puts it, having to perform with virtuosity, to assemble interactions on the hop, carries the danger, ‘when it does not take place in the public sphere’, of ‘an unchecked proliferation of hierarchies as groundless as they are thriving’ (Virno, 2004: 41). In these hierarchies and their demand for the virtuosity of a technics of decision along with new assemblages of interaction, ‘the whole person . . . is subdued, the person’s basic communicative and cognitive habits’ (Virno, 2004: 41).

Does ‘life’ provide a multitude of ways out of this predicament as well as a multitude of ways into it? As I have just suggested, life needs to be thought differently with regard to the affective modes that accompany processes of self-enjoyment. If it is a combination of fear and anguish (in ongoing dread) that lays the ground for a submission to hierarchical assemblages, it may well be that forms of enjoyment that work around this dread, pose alternatives to it, are crucial to a shift in the nature of possible forms of living.

The Italian activist Bifo ventured, while in Sydney recently, to speak of love in this context. This is a love that might have to both protect some established modes of life and find new forms of expression for them. Virno suggests that, as with the ‘seventeenth century’ multitude, there is the question of ‘safeguarding forms of life which have already been affirmed as free-standing forms, thus protecting practices already rooted in society’ (Virno, 2004: 42). Even for the ‘post-Ford’ multitude’ it is not ‘a question of “seizing power”, of constructing a new State or a new monopoly of political decision making; rather it has to do with defending plural experiences, forms of non-representative democracy, of non-governmental usages and customs’ (Virno, 2004: 43). At the same time, the task for the multitude is not, as it might have been conceived in the past, to capture the political process in its entirety (this is already captured in the diversity of forms of production reduced to one form of value under the new cognitive labour and assembled habits of dread). The task might be that of ‘calmly and realistically searching for new political forms’ appropriate to the multitude (Virno, 2004: 43).

This is clearly a question of the self-enjoyment of the interstices of interactive assemblage, along with the acceptance of the new modes of living and the intervention of the technical in the midst of life. Yet it does not have to involve submission to the general intellect. The philosophical, political and technical task, if one is to dismantle the contemporary power of the general intellect, might be to re-assert the specificity of self-enjoyment in occasions of experience.


I am grateful to the Humanities Research Centre of the Australian National University, and to the conveners of the Biophilosophy and the Politics of Life Visiting Scholars Program – Sandra Buckley, Brian Massumi and Stephen Zagala – for support in the development of many of these ideas.


1 ‘Technics’ should be taken to include both technologies and techniques, in technical systems. As Peter Pels writes, it refers to:

. . .a regulation of human practices that comes in a certain objectified form, as a set of objects (tools, machines, buildings), as a set of more or less explicit rules, as a ritual or an exemplar of conduct, or as a disciplinary apparatus (of course, technology usually combines two or more of these). (Pels, 2000: 137)

2 In general, see the work of Karola Stotz, Paul Griffiths and their collaborators on, as Stotz puts it, ‘ the changing concept of the gene and the current shift in molecular biology from genetics to (post)genomics’ (http://www.pitt.edu/~kstotz/). More specifically see Stotz’s description of the effect of transcription in the genome (Stotz, 2004); or Stotz, Griffiths and Rob Knight on how biologists conceive of genes (Stotz et al, 2004). Neil Theise and Diane Krause’s recent work on nonlinearity in stem cell development is also relevant here (Theise and Krause, 2002). As is the interdisciplinary project CELL, involving Theise, artist Jane Prophet and mathematician Mark d’Inverno and others (see Prophet and d’Inverno, 2004 or http://users.wmin.ac.uk/~dinverm/cell/ ).

3 For a detailed discussion of a specific example that combines both animation and a kind of participation, see Catherine Waldby’s work on The Visible Human Project (2000).

4 For Stengers, an ecology of practices:

. . . is about how different forms of knowledge and cultural practices work, but it is also the relation between what is happening and the way it defines itself in relation with others, or the way it represents those others. (Stengers, 2002: 262)

5 Here I am to a large extent following the key discussion given by Bernard Stiegler (1996, 1998).

6 A more detailed discussion of the virtual in relation to interactive technologies can be found in Murphie (2002). See also Massumi (2002).

7 Bergson and Whitehead obviously have a lot in common as philosophers. Yet Whitehead also disagreed with Bergson on key points — notably the status of calculation (or quantity), to which Bergson was much more hostile than Whitehead. Their relationship is quite complex, for example, over the status of ‘spatialization’. Whitehead both deploys and criticises Bergson’s views on spatialization in Process and Reality (see, for example, Whitehead, 1978: 220, 321).

8 This stream might include the work of such diverse thinkers as: Lucy Suchman (1987) on the foundations of embodied interaction within the discipline of HCI studies; Richard Coyne (1995), Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores (1987) on the digital, design, Heidegger and (in Coyne’s case) poststructuralism; Rodney Brooks on robotics and ‘intelligence without reason or representation’ (1991a and 1991b); Hubert Dreyfus (1996) on embodiment within cognition; Andy Clark (1997) on extended, embodied mind; Yvonne Rogers (2004) and Mike Scaife (Scaife & Rogers, 1996) on external cognition in the context of interactive technics; Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch (1991) on embodied mind; Bernard Stiegler (1998) on technics, time and life; Brian Massumi (2002) on the virtual and interactive technics; Vicki Kirby (1997) on the corporeal and the signifier; Donna Haraway (2004) on the cyborg and the politics of informatics; N. Katherine Hayles (1999) on information theory, cybernetics and embodiment.

9 Cognitivism, as opposed to behaviourism, for example, focuses on the internal processes of thinking (and assumes that thinking is a matter largely of ‘internal processes’). Arising in part from information theories it tends to dwell upon the symbolic processes it assumes to be working within individuals, and via which individuals then communicate (for example, via media devices, or just via speech). I would not want to suggest that cognitivist approaches to HCI have no practical value. For discussion of recent shifts in the investigation of HCI within HCI studies, see Rogers (2004), or Hollan et al (2000).

10 Again, although subjectivity might sometimes come into this (late in the experience), self-enjoyment is not about the subject (though Whitehead does discuss a ‘subject-superject’, as I shall explain). In fact, subject and object are inadequate terms when one takes interaction first. The problem with a lot of analyses of ethics, life, biotechnology, HCI, and so on, is that they start with subjectivity. Here cognitivism is again part of the problem.

11 See also Elizabeth A. Wilson (2004) on this in the context of rethinking feminism, the brain and the body, or William Bogard (1998) on the inadequacy of social theory with regard to bodies.

12 Here, of course, Whitehead’s philosophy can avail itself not so much of an end product, but of occasions of experience. Whitehead does not mourn the loss of unity as much as Virno perhaps does, though he shared the antipathy to the general intellect. For example, Whitehead wrote that that ‘no system of external tests which aims primarily at examining individual scholars can result in anything but educational waste’ (1929: 13).


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