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Virtuality, Differential Ontology and Deterministic Digitality References

Digital technologies . . . have a remarkably weak connection to the virtual, by virtue of the enormous power of their systematization of the possible. They may yet develop a privileged connection to it, far stronger than that of any preceding phylum. But that connection has yet to be invented or, at best, is still an inkling.i

The production of novelty is not, for Brian Massumi, a particular feature of digital technologies. It is, in fact, quite the opposite. Possibilistic constraints…if( x ){

then( y ){

else( z ){

end if.

…cannot draw, we might say, the smooth or nomad space required for the creation of “new” Being.ii The digital can only move, as Massumi remarks, “step after ploddingly programmed step.”iii Whenever the digital is equated with the virtual, he argues, a destructive violence is executed on the latter term impeding us to adequately grasp its true nature. Having in the horizon the open potentialities of Being, we are content in conforming to the previously programmed determination of routine execution.

Fair enough. I could not agree more. There is, nevertheless, one remarkable element in the common experience of working with digital technologies—that is, with the ubiquitous computer—that in our minds surely resists fitting inside a picture of the closed possibilistic system that Massumi describes. There is always a critical moment, dramatic and stressful most of the times, when the computer unpredictably “decides” to throw our brilliant “realization of the possible” to the unreachable depths of oblivion. CRASH. Error –090977. “You will lose any unsaved changes.” “The program is not responding. Please tell Microsoft about this problem.” RESTART. “But why?”, we may yawn, “Why is this happening right now? It was working perfectly before. What is the difference?”

This experience undoubtedly supports Massumi’s argument. In order to ensure the correct and productive functioning of digital technologies, all processes that may differ from pre-established alternatives must be registered and debugged. “Digital coding per se”, he argues, “is possibilistic to the limit.”iv

This is why he grants the analog superiority over the digital. It is the analog the one that occupies a privileged position in relation to virtuality. Mainly through the body, he suggest, for it acts as “a transducer of the virtual”.v

Only when it mobilizes material dynamics is the digital capable of connecting with the virtual, capable of participating in the production of the new.

Still, that unpredictable error-crash must attract our attention. We have learned from the philosophical elaborations of Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze and indeed from Massumi’s own, about the ontological primacy of difference. A strange but fruitful outcome we may find in thinking about errors, digital ones, within the ontological framework of Bergson and Deleuze’s conception of difference. It is certainly indisputable that the deterministic construction of computers forbids the appearance of the unforeseen. It simply crashes the system.

One is tempted to think of the error as a difference invading the system and of the crash as an interruption or abortion of a process of differentiation. Is that closure, however, the fundamental nature of digitality? Or is it a specific historical and technical engagement with it? Massumi recognizes that avenues are opening for developing a digital-virtual connection. He is mostly trustful of the analog and embodied technologies. But could there be a sort of back door?

A more direct connection to the virtual perhaps. A numerical one. We may think, for example, of Genetic Programming (which Massumi recognizes by mentioning adaptive neural nets) an approach to digital production based on the “cultivation” of, we could say, simple self-differentiating programs. Since it is mostly a productive and finalistic procedure—as we will see later—it is based on probabilities, falling short of a real connection with potentiality. It nevertheless exemplifies an incipient engagement—in the realm of digitality—with differentiation as the fundamental substance of Being: the ontological ground. Further developments may appear only on the condition that we attempt to recognize in the digital a participation in the efficacy of differentiation.


It is as if the ground rose to the surface, without ceasing to be

What is the condition for something to be? Which is the same to ask: what is necessary for the creation of something new? This is the issue that concerns us: the potential for production of “new Being” in the digital realm. This is what Massumi is talking about when he speaks of a possible connection of the digital with the virtual. Where does this virtual come from?

As Pierre Levy has reminded us, the virtual for the scholastic philosophers like Duns Scotus was “that which has potential rather than actual existence”.vii

Being in potential. But we must not start from the virtual or being in potential. In doing that, we are in danger of being trapped in a petrified Being which remains static and potential. This is what Bergson and Deleuze found. We must start from difference, or better yet, from differentiation. In their ontology, difference is the ground, the condition of Being. As Michael Hardt argues, in Deleuze, difference is what gives being its necessity and substance.viii

By starting from difference, they construct a tension in potential being that must necessarily be released through differentiation. It is only then that the potential being not only acquires the condition of existence but must actualize itself. We asked before: what is the condition for something to be? For Bergson and Deleuze that condition is difference. Differentiation is the process by which the virtual actualizes itself. It coincides with the virtual on one side and with the actual on the other. In that sense, we could say that difference is the being of becoming and the becoming of being.

Being is there at the beginning—pure, undifferentiated and univocal—it is present in every product but it also remains open as a reserve for production of novelty. It immediately differentiates itself. Nevertheless, it remains univocal. It is the beingness that remains present in all existing things—differentiations—but isn’t exhausted in them. Deleuze explains: “The notion of differentiation posits at once the simplicity of virtuality, the divergence of the series in which it realises itself and the resemblance of certain fundamental results that it produces in these series.”ix

In every account of the virtual, we always find two concepts that serve to distinguish the ontological status of entities: the possible and the potential. These categories can throw light on the degree of participation from the virtual that an entity has.

Bergson explains that for a mind content with common sense, the possible is less than the real.x

That is, the real is the possible with existence added. The possible is the real minus existence. This is an illusion, however. As much as supposing that one’s own body is the realization of its image reflected in a mirror. The possible depends on experience, on the potentials already actualized. It is a projection of present events into the past, where they appear as conditions already present before their realization. “The possible is therefore”, he argues, “the mirage of the present into the past.”xi

Massumi develops this idea further on. For him, possibilities are not only thrown back into the past but also into the future, delineating “a region of nominally defining—that is, normative—variation.”xii

This normative regulation of the outcome, in the form of possibilities, completely opposes the potential.

“Potential”, Massumi suggests, “is the immanence of a thing to its still indeterminate variation.”xiii

We might say that the virtual remains immanent to each actualization, each product or body. They are accompanied by it on one side as this beingness that persists on divergent lines.xiv

But each thing also has, on the other side, a particular participation from the virtual in accordance with its own differences in nature—the potential. Not everything can become anything. This is not to say that the potentials of things are closed. Since each thing is in a process of self-differentiation, each actualization produces a resonation on the whole of Being, a change in the virtual as such that changes the potentials of being.

The capacities that each thing has to participate from the virtual—its potentials—even if they depend on its qualitative differences are not closed. They are unknown and unpredictable. “Potential is unprescripted.”xv

This is the indeterminate variation that Massumi describes. The process by which actualizations resonate and transform the virtual is what Pierre Levy calls “virtualization”.xvi

Each actualization makes something potential as much as it makes something cease to be potential.

Instrumental Reason.

“The medium of the digital is possibility, not virtuality, and not even potential.”xvii

The current configuration of digital technologies is modelled on the image of the trivial machine: a machine whose behaviour is predictable because there is a linear relation between its inputs and outputs.xviii

In that sense, they should be mapped in a lineage that stems from the deterministic framework of modern science. The ideal is the universal mechanistic system in which the linear relation of causes and effects makes possible the apprehension of all previous and subsequent states. A system closed to difference. El Ordenador, L’Ordinateur. The dynamics of the postmodern networked technologies are grounded on a perfect instance of the clockwork mentality of modernity.

Quite correspondingly (with an echo from the Frankfurt school), Massumi describes a model of reason suitable for the quantitative “thinking out of possibilities”xix that characterizes digital processing: the instrumental reason. The digital, which finds its origin in that model of rationality, is “a numeric way of arraying alternative states so that they can be sequenced into a set of alternative routines.”xx

This restricts the processes and, accordingly, a prediction of the outcome is the presupposition from which the functionality is derived.

Outside of the digital, however, in the realm of matter and bodies, Massumi finds the analog: “a continuously variable impulse or momentum that can cross from one qualitatively different medium into another.”xxi

The key words are: qualitatively and different. The analog is the proper medium for differentiation—actualization of potentiality. Creation of novelty. The Prigoginian ontological indeterminacy that lies outside the deterministic digitality.xxii

The Blue Screen of Death.xxiii

In the event of a crash, however, the possibilistic closure of digital technologies doesn’t appear so strong. Consider this description: “The art of debugging such crashes is connecting the actual cause of the crash (easily determined) with the code that set off the chain of events. This is often very far from obvious—the original bug may in fact be perfectly valid code from the predecessor’s perspective.”xxiv

Suddenly confronted with the image of digital processing as a highly recursive dynamic, we may remember how Prigogine and Stengers describe a moment in the history of science when unpredictability, previously reduced to an epistemological limitation, began to acquire an ontological primacy in quantum mechanics and thermodynamics. Is it possible to think of the error-crash outside of the instrumental reason of inputs and outputs?

As we argued before, the ontology of difference developed by Bergson and Deleuze may offer some clues. This is a complicated conceptual operation due to the subtleties in Bergson-Deleuze ontology and the technical singularities of computer programming. We could, nevertheless, take the risk and advance a possible approximation. We already described the complete coincidence between the process of differentiation and the actualization of the virtual. If we are able to characterize the computer error-crash with the particularities of Bergson and Deleuze’s difference we might be able to recognize in the digital a potential openness towards virtualization.

Michael Hardt developed an interpretation of Deleuze’s reading of Bergson in the framework of the scholastic debate around causality.xxv

Deleuze’s aim was to escape from the false conceptions of difference found in Plato or Darwin, who developed a finalist difference driven by a goal—Good or survival—and, most of all Hegel, who abstracted difference to the point of converting it to negation. For him, all of those are false conceptions of difference because they remain external. Deleuze allies with Bergson to develop a concept of vital difference: internal and efficient. Internal difference, he argued, cannot be conceived as a simple determination. The “being” conceived as a product of determination “can only be attached to a cause, end or chance, it thus implies a subsisting exteriority.”xxvi

If a digital error can be thought of in terms of internal difference is because it also escapes to be understood in terms of an external causality. Michael Hardt suggests that Deleuze reads Bergson conceptualization of internal difference as a scholastic debate in which causality is replaced by difference. Deleuze, allied with Bergson and the scholastics, attacks “three conceptions of causality that result inadequate for a foundation of being”.xxvii

In the first place the material and mechanistic cause which is a fundamentally physical and linear cause that produces an external effect. As we saw before, the computer crash is relational and context dependent, it is bound up in highly recursive and non-linear processes.

Debuggers can spend lots of time looking for the seed of the error in the code only to find a valid instruction executed in an unpredictable situation. The cause of the crash is absent; it is the actions overflowing the possibilities. The second form of causation is accidental: “a cause that has a completely contingent relation with its effect.”xxviii

This could not be said about a computer crash. Even if it is unpredictable, a computer crash is preceded by a singular chain of events internal to the digital code.

The subtlety here is that for Bergson and Deleuze, internal difference not only is not determination but it leans “towards indetermination itself.”xxix

With Bergson, Delezue argues, “the unpredictable and the indeterminate is not the accidental, but on the contrary the essential, the negation of the accident.”xxx

The crash, it could be argued, is the shutting of the door of a deterministic system in the face of being trying to actualize its potentials through differentiation (virtuality).

The third idea of causation that Deleuze attacks is the final cause, in which the cause is determined in the production of its effect by an end or objective. A note on Genetic Programming could be inserted here. According to John R. Koza, the pioneer of this method of programming, the aim of genetic programming is fundamentally the production of entities that resolves “a broad variety of problems”.xxxi

In order to achieve this, genetic programming must perform a distribution within an interval “that looks as much as possible like the outcome of a random process.” xxxii

A group of programmers explain: “Since we shall employ deterministic algorithm to generate those numbers, we are in fact not dealing with random numbers but with quasi-random or pseudo-random numbers”.xxxiii

Massumi argues that probabilities are the form in which the digital at least tries to approximate the potential, but it is an imposture. They are “weightings of possibilities according to the regularity with which they might be expected to appear”.xxxiv

In this sense, genetic programming doesn’t approach the virtual because it keeps determining the possibilities of being. It nevertheless offers interesting ideas.

They speak, for example, about “random experiments” which are “undetermined as to their final outcome”.xxxv Also, in the language of genetic programming, “events . . . are the observed results of random experiments.”xxxvi

They are the reading of “heads” or “tails” after the coin has been flipped. When we start to speak in terms of events, chances are we are seriously approaching the potential: the event as a critical point of becoming.

This is what Deleuze finds in Bergson, a conception of being that is not cause, that it doesn’t have an end but that is also not the product of chance. This is how Bergson-Deleuze difference is the substance of Being. As the digital error, or we might say, as the digital difference, the differential Being of duration is necessary but not finalistic, unpredictable but not accidental. Being is machinic—engineered by differentiation.xxxvii

The Digital Élan Vital.

We need to adventure into the idea of a digital élan vital.xxxviii Not as a conscious agency—Bergson and Deleuze were very careful to place consciousness in a very specific moment in the unfolding of duration—but as a movement or impulse of differentiation. Numerical nomos, escape from overcoding, tweaking with the abstract machine of mutationxxxix.

Indetermination. What is needed for opening the door to this digital élan vital is to approach digitality in a sort of a-programming: germinal or bootstrap coding of iteration, experimentation allowing for differentiation. Difference and repetition. Would this be a minor science? Maybe it would coincide with the “intelligence of knowledges and ancient practices”.xl

The digital as perennial numerology. Minor programming as Mystical Mathematiks.


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