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REVIEW: Jussi Parikka “Digital Contagi ons" by Joseph Nechvatal


Oliver Grau <[log in to unmask]>


Oliver Grau <[log in to unmask]>


Fri, 28 Sep 2007 09:53:58 +0200





text/plain (327 lines)

“DIGITAL CONTAGIONS: A Media Archaeology of Computer 
Viruses” by Jussi Parikka (Peter Lang Books, 2007, 327 pages) 
by Joseph Nechvatal (Marrakech)

{loop:file = get-random-executable-file;
if first-line-of-file = 1234567 then goto loop;
prepend virus to file;}
-Fred Cohen, Computer Viruses: Theory and Experiments

We cannot be done with viruses as long as the ontology of network 
culture is viral-like.
-Jussi Parikka, The Universal Viral Machine

One could be forgiven for assuming that a book with the title
Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses” would be of sole

interest to those sniggering hornrimmed programmers who harbor an 
erudite loathing of Bill Gates and an affection for the Viennese 
witch-doctor. Actually, it is a rather game and enthralling look, via a

media-ecological approach, into the acutely frightening, yet 
hysterically glittering, networked world in which we now reside. A 
world where the distinct individual is pitted against - and thoroughly

processed by - post-human semi-autonomous software programs which often

ferment anomalous feelings of being eaten alive by some great 
indifferent artificiality that apparently functions semi-independently

as a natural being.

Though no J. G. Ballard or William S. Burroughs, Jussi Parikka 
nevertheless sucks us into a fantastic black tour-de-force narrative of

virulence and the cultural history of computer viruses (*), followed by

innumerable inquisitive innuendoes concerning the ramifications for a 
creative and aesthetic, if post-human, future. Digital Contagions is 
impregnated with fear and suspicion, but we almost immediately sense 
that it also contains an undeniable affirmative nobility of purpose; 
which is to save the media cultural condition - and the brimful push of

technological modernization in general - from catastrophically killing

itself off.

This admirable embryonic redemption is achieved by a vaccination-like 
turning of tables, as Parikka convincingly demonstrates that computer 
viruses (semi-autonomous machinic/vampiric pieces of code) are not 
antithetical to contemporary digital culture, but rather essential 
traits of the techno-cultural logic itself. According to Parikka, 
digital viruses in effect define the media ecology logic that 
characterizes our networked computerized culture in recent decades.

We may wish to recall here that for Deleuze and Guattari, media 
ecologies are machinic operations (the term machinic here refers to the

production of consistencies between heterogeneous elements) based in 
particular technological and humane strings that have attained virtual

consistency. Our current inter-network ecology is a comparable 
combination of top-down host arrangements wedded to bottom-up 
self-organization where invariable linear configurations and states of

entanglement co-evolve in active process. Placing the significant role

of the virus in this mix in no uncertain terms, Parikka writes that, 
“the virus truly seems to be a central cultural trope of the digital

world”. (p. 136) Indeed digital viruses are recognized by Parikka as

the crowning culmination of current postmodern cultural trends - as 
viruses, by definition, are merger machines based on parasitism and 
acculturation. So it is not only their symbolic/metaphoric power that 
places them firmly in a wider perspective of cultural infection; it is

their formal structure, in that they procure their actuality from the 
encircling environment to which they are receptively coupled.

Moreover, with the love of an aficionado, Parikka lucidly demonstrates

that computer viruses are indeed a variable index of the rudimentary 
underpinning on which contemporary techno culture rests. He astutely 
anoints the indexical function of the virus by establishing not only 
its symbolic melancholy power in relation to the human body and sex, 
but by folding the viral life/nonlife model (**) into key cultural 
areas underlying the digital ecology; such as bottom-up 
self-organization, hidden distributed activity and ethereal meshwork. 
In that sense Parikka describes network ecology as both actual and 
virtual, what I have elsewhere identified as the viractual. (Briefly, 
the viractual is the stratum of activity where distinct 
actualizations/individuations are materialized out of the flow of 
virtuality.) But some viruses do not simply yield copies of themselves,

they also engage in a process of self-reproducing autopoiesis: they are

copying themselves over and over again but they can also mutate and 
change, and by doing so, Parikka maintains, reveal distinguishing 
aspects of network culture at large.

I would add that they mimic the manneristic aspects of late 
post-modernism in general, particularly if one sees modernism as the 
great petri dish aggregate in which we still are afloat. So computer 
viruses are recognized here as an indexical symptom also of a bigger 
cultural tendency that characterizes our post-modern media culture as 
being inserted within a modern (purist) digital ecology. This aspect 
provides the book with a discerning, yet heterogeneous, comprehension 
of the connectionist technologies of contemporaneous techno culture.

But beyond the techno-cultural relevance, the significance of the viral

issues in Parikka’s book to ALL cultural production is evident to 
anyone who has already recognized that digitalization has become the 
universal technical platform for networked capitalism. As Parikka 
himself points out, digitalization has secured its place as the master

formal archive for sounds, images and texts. (p. 5) Digitalization is 
the double, the gangrel, that accompanies each of us in what we do - 
and which accounts for our cultural feelings of vacillating between 
anxiety and enthusiasm over being invaded by something invisible - and

the sneaky suspicion that we have been taken control of from within.

To begin this caliginous expedition, Digital Contagions plunges us into

a haunting, shifting and dislocating array of source material that 
thrills. Parikka launches his degenerate seduction by drawing from, and

intertwining in a non-linear fashion, the theories of Gilles Deleuze 
and Félix Guattari (for whom my unending love is verging on obsession),

Friedrich Kittler, Eugene Thacker, Tiziana Terranova, N. Katherine 
Hayles, Lynn Margulis, Manuel DeLanda, Brian Massumi, Bruno Latour, 
Charlie Gere, Sherry Turkle, Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, 
Deborah Lupton, and Paul Virilio. These thinkers are then linked with 
ripe examples from prankster net art, stealth biopolitics, 
immunological incubations, the disassembly significance of noise, 
ribald sexual allegories, antibody a-life projects, various infected 
prosthesis, polymorphic encryptions, ticklish security issues, numerous

medical plagues, the coupling of nature and biology via code, incisive

sabotage attempts, anti-debugging trickery, genome sequencing, 
parasitic spyware, killer T cell epidemics, rebellious database 
deletions, trojan horse latency, viral marketing, inflammatory 
political resistance, biological weaponry, pornographic clones, 
depraved destructive turpitudes, rotten jokes, human-machine symbiosis

as interface, and a history of cracker catastrophes. All are conjoined

with excellent taste. The shock effect is one of discovering a poignant

nervous virality that has been secretly penetrating us everywhere.

Digital Contagions’s genealogical account is proportionately 
impressive, as it devotes satisfactory space to the discussion of 
historical precedent; including Turing machines, Fred Cohen’s 
pioneering work with computer viruses, John von Neumann's cellular 
automata theory (i.e. any system that processes information as part of

a self-regulating mechanism), avant-garde cybernetics, human 
immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the Creeper virus in the Arpanet network,

the coupling machines of John Conway, the nastily waggish Morris worm,

Richard Dawkins’s meme (contagious idea) theory; and even the under 
known artistic hacks of Tommaso Tozzi. Furthermore, the viral spectral

as fantasized in science fiction is adequately fleshed out, paying 
deserved attention to the obscure but much loved (by me, anyway) 1975 
book The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner and the celebrated cyberpunk 
novel by Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash; among other speculative books and

hallucinatory films.

But the pinnacle of interest, for me, of this engaging and educative 
read is its conclusion where Parikka sketches out an alternative 
radical media-ecological perspective hinged on the viral 
characteristics of self-reproduction and a coupling of the outside with

the inside typical of artificial life (a-life). He correctly maintains

that viral autopoiesis undertakings, like Thomas S. Ray's Tierra 
virtual ecology art project, provides quintessential clues to 
interpreting the software logic that has produced, and will continue to

produce, the ontological basis for much of the economic, political and

cultural transactions of our current globalizing world.

Here he has rendered problematic the safe vision of virus as malicious

software (virus as infection machine) and replaced it with a far more 
curious, aesthetic and even benevolent one; as whimsical artificial 
life (a-life). Using viral a-life’s tenants of semi-automation, 
self-reproduction, and host quest; Parikka proposes a living machinic 
autopoiesis that might provide a moebius strip like ontological process

for culture.

Though suppositional, he bases his procedure in formal viral attributes

- not unlike those of primitive artificial life with its capability to

self-reproduce and spread semi-autonomously (as viruses do) while 
keeping in mind that Maturana/Varela’s autopoiesis contends that
systems are an integral component of their surroundings and work 
towards supporting that ecology. Parikka here picks up that thread by 
pointing out that recent polymorphic viruses are now able to evolve in

response to anti-virus behaviors. Various viruses, known as 
retroviruses, (***) explicitly target anti-virus programs. Viruses with

adaptive behavior, self-reproductive and evolutionary programs can be 
seen, at least in part, as something alive, even if not artificial life

in the strongest sense of the word. Here we might recall John Von 
Neumann’s conviction that the ideal design of a computer should be 
based on the design of certain human organs - or other live organisms.

The artistic compositional benefit of his autopoiesic virality theory,

for me, is in allowing thought and vision to rupture habit and bypass 
object-subject dichotomies.

I wish to point out here that although biological viruses were 
originally discovered and characterized on the basis of the diseases 
they caused, most viruses that infect bacteria, plants and animals 
(including humans) do not cause disease. In fact, viruses may be 
helpful to life in that they rapidly transfer genetic information from

one bacterium to another, and viruses of plants and animals may convey

genetic information among similar species, helping their hosts survive

in hostile environments.

Already various theories of complexity have established an influence 
within philosophy and cultural theory by emphasizing open systems and 
adaptability, but Parikka here supplies a further step in thinking 
about ongoing feedback loops between an organism and its environment; 
what I am tempted to call viralosophy. Viralosophy would be the study 
of viral philosophical and theoretical points of reference concerning 
malignant transformations useful in understanding the viral paradigm 
essential to digital culture and media theory that focuses on 
environmental complexity and inter-connectionism in relationship to the

particular artist. Within viralosophy, viral comprehension might become

the eventual - yet chimerical - reference point for culture at large in

terms of a modification of parameters, as it promotes parasite-host 
dynamic interfacings of the technologically inert with the biologically

animate, probabilistically.

So the decisive, if dormant, payload that is triggered by reading this

book, for me, is an enhanced understands of pagan and animist sentiment

which recognizes non-malicious looping-mutating energy feedback and 
self-recreational dynamism that informs new aesthetic becomings which 
may alter artistic output. Possibly heuristic becomings (****) that 
transgress the established boundaries of nature/technology/culture and

extend the time-bomb cognitive nihilism of Henry Flynt. This 
affirmative viral payload forces open-ended multiplicities onto art 
that favor new-sprung conceptualizations and rebooted realizations. 
Here the artist comes back to life as spurred a-life, and not as a sole

articulation of the pirated environment of currency. So the so-called 
art virus is not to be judged in terms of its occasional monetary 
payload, but by the metabolistic characteristics that make art 
reasonable to discuss as a form of extravagant artificial life: 
triggered emergence, resilience and back door evolution.

(*) A computer virus is a self-replicating computer program that 
spreads by inserting copies of itself into other executable code or 
documents. A computer virus behaves in a way similar to a biological 
virus, which spreads by inserting itself into living cells. Extending 
the analogy, the insertion of a virus into the program is termed as an

"infection", and the infected file, or executable code that is not part

of a file, is called a "host".

(**) Scientists have argued about whether viruses are living organisms

or just a package of colossal molecules. A virus has to hijack another

organism's biological machinery to replicate, which it does by 
inserting its DNA into a host.

(***) Retroviruses are sometimes known as anti-anti-viruses. The basic

principle is that the virus must somehow hinder the operation of an 
anti-virus program in such a way that the virus itself benefits from 
it. Anti-anti-viruses should not be confused with anti-virus-viruses, 
which are viruses that will disable or disinfect other viruses.

(****) A heuristic virus cleaner works by loading an infected file up 
to memory and emulating the program code. It uses a combination of 
disassembly, emulation and sometimes execution to trace the flow of the

virus and to emulate what the virus is normally doing. The risk in 
heuristic cleaning is that if the cleaner tries to emulate everything,

the virus might get control inside the emulated environment and escape,

after which it can propagate further or trigger a destructive 
retaliation reflex.

Joseph Nechvatal
Mid-September 2007, Marrakech

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