Machines and drugs

17 November 2006
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Do we really regard technology as an integral part of ourselves in the same way "machines" are composed of flesh and blood and social context? And doesn't the rapture of losing oneself satisfy a natural psychological need? The machines are the compelling drug.

Vast numbers of short video clips made the Internet site www.youtube.com the world’s largest “TV channel”. It was virtually created by its users who uploaded their own videos and other clips. After a couple of years’ work, the owners of Youtube recently sold it to Google for US$ 1.65 billion. The users had voluntarily taken on the job of creating the website content. They wanted to communicate, they wanted to be seen. An example is the teenage boy who recently appeared on Frederik Skavland’s programme on NRK (the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation) – the young celebrity had swallowed a variety of spices in front of his video camera; the resulting video was seen by 65 000 users. Skavland’s entertainment machine of course compelled him to do the same in front of one million viewers. Youtube became a colossal machine, a “social” apparatus integrating people from all over the globe.

Ever since the dawn of philosophy, philosophers have marvelled at the relationship between human and machine. And the machines have changed in the process, from simple tools and mechanical devices, through industrial machines and engines, right up to today’s electronics and computers. Let’s take a moment to contemplate the machines of our world in the company of the philosophers.

It is important to acknowledge that machines are more than just metal. Charlie Chaplin tried to say something about this in the film Modern Times – the industrial world where the cogwheels and cyclical motions of the machines nearly took over the factory worker’s bodily functions.

Don’t we live with machines today in the same way people used to live with their livestock? And who today can really live in a society without electricity, electronics, cars, trains, and planes – a traffic-free society?

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger further develops our machinal way of being in a 1955 lecture/essay called “The Question Concerning Technology”.1 According to Heidegger, homogeneity threatened the very rationale of the modern technical-industrial society by excluding the person from his/her existential humaneness – in a kind of existential amnesia. In the essay, he attempts to uncover our mentality and way of thinking using the example of the air-traffic system: he points out how procedures and practice have developed to allow for the existence of air transport in the first place: “An airliner that stands on the runway is surely an object. […] Revealed, it stands on the taxi strip only as standing-reserve, inasmuch as it is ordered to ensure the possibility of transportation. For this it must be in its whole structure and in every one of its constituent parts on call for duty, i.e., ready for take-off.” Heidegger describes modern humanity, modernity itself, as a “challenging enframing” that hinges on everything being dispensable, standing ready, and forming a standing-reserve (or resource) that can be ordered, used, ruled over, and utilised by all and sundry. The spirit of technology is precisely this “enframing”, this “setting up” that basically objectifies or renders useful everything in its path. In the service of profit or power, objects – and people – are the material that stands ready, that is made available. Similarly, Marx taught that the worker becomes a commodity. In this sense, the human being does not rule as subject over object, as human being over nature, but has himself become an orderable object – even regarding himself as such, as something useful, something which is made available.

And was it not precisely Western civilisation’s technological lifestyle that was attacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001? And not only from the air but also on trains, subways, and buses. And was it not precisely this technological lifestyle that responded when the Bush Administration rolled out everything they had in their arsenal that was ready for take-off – planes, motor vehicles, bullets, and mechanically disciplined soldiers. The US government rolled out its “standing reserve” – and the world knows what the results were.

In order to delve further into the machine-related technological aspect of our contemporary way of life, we should turn to a more contemporary philosopher, Felix Guattari. His insights are more up-to-date given that “machines” have changed since Heidegger’s more industrial times. In the essay “Machinic heterogenesis”,2 he too describes the airplane, but here the focus is the French Concorde, the commercial supersonic aircraft which he sees forming part of a much more extensive “combination” than the purely technical airplane-object or standing-reserve: “This object’s ontological consistency is significantly composite; it stands at the intersection […] of worlds, intensities, coordinates, and their specific machinations.” In other words, the total combination of activities that enables a phenomenon as complex as air traffic. A conventional 1950s propeller plane and (especially) supersonic planes like Concorde need to have a huge apparatus around them: financial systems, political guidance, employers and employees, airport trains and buses, catering, engineers, security, air-traffic controllers, media, passengers, luggage – everything that renders air traffic “ready for take off”. This “apparatus” is therefore not just purely technical but is composed of psychological, economic, and political desires. Guattari describes these as “machines” that are put into action or made available but – if they are to be “effective” – dependent on their technological, economic, and political feasibility. If such a collective and composite apparatus of machines and desires meets too much resistance, it will disintegrate. Twelve Concorde planes were grounded when one of them catastrophically burst into flames during landing in Paris. But the circumstances were much more complex than that. Another example of a major apparatus grinding to a halt, albeit for just a short period, was provided by the four thousand planes that were ordered to land in the US on September 11, 2001.

Several of the combinations that surround us can also be described as machines. One can say that machines are social groups. And that the body is a machine. Or that we have scientific, theoretical, and informational machines.3 The breakthrough of text via the typewriter happened simultaneously with that of urban mega-machines. If we read Guattari in a positive light, we can say that the big Capitalist machines begat several “children”: “First urban, then royal state machines, commercial and banking machines, navigational machines, monotheistic religious machines, deterritorialized musical and plastic machines, scientific and technical machines, and so forth.”

If one sees machines exclusively as objects, as things that we can use when it suits us, we are blinkered and believe we have control that we actually do not. Guattari goes well beyond old-school, technological critique in the book Molecular Revolution – Psychiatry and Politics:4 “Machines, in the wider sense, that is not to say not only technical machines, but also theoretical, social, aesthetic machines, never operate in isolation but by aggregation or by arrangements. A technical machine, for example, in a factory, in interaction with a social machine, a training machine, a research machine, a marketing machine, etc.”

The fascination with the “machinal” around us is also nothing new. From a psychological perspective, there are more than a few machine junkies amongst us. The machines are the drug, and not merely in the metaphorical sense.

This ardent rapture is apparent when ordinary people become obsessed with surfing the Internet all night, or when less ordinary people start hacking into computer systems. Ordinary people who upload videos of themselves onto Youtube.com and teenagers who spend entire days playing computer games. Isn’t this all about that sense of being part of something, of belonging to something that is bigger than yourself? Letting yourself be drawn into a larger apparatus and losing yourself?

Machinal drugs can also be found in extreme sports or in the concentration of the mountaineer. Or in the crowds at rock concerts, football stadiums, or political rallies. Equally, in a rousing symphony that momentarily “de-individualises” the culturally refined.

Guattari went so far as to call anorexic patients drug addicts – he was a practising psychoanalyst. And which “machinal” states does one not experience with sado-masochism, with loud music, subjection to starvation, insomnia, sexual excitement – and desirously repeated movements, exhausting work, or sporting activity? These can be categorised as events that “turn you on”, just as the TV, as the drug machine, “turns you off” after a tiring day at work. One should not underestimate the pleasure of being able to break free from the self…

My aim here is not necessarily to give a negative critique of this mentality. We chose long ago to live with technology around us and as part of us – both communication technology and all the various forms of industry’s machinal descendants. The machinal in us is also driven by an eros, a natural desire – desiring machines that drive us, that liberate powers, that connect and interconnect us. This comes into its own when we detach ourselves from the grip of everyday life. These superior territories, the established power structures, and the many ingenious devices of Law and Capital always try to channel, structure, and systematise this desire. Or to profit from all the drug’s various forms.

Drugs and enthusiasm have their own anarchic powers and can become unruly in their diversity and opposition. What’s more, we humans are interconnected in a network of all types of machines. Is there not unmanageable potential and diversity in this? The drug’s masters came from and via California. Not only did they promote Eastern mysticism but also its proliferation in Silicon Valley.

Beyond that which is mechanically-machinally-industrially homogenous comes also mental-electronic-machinal heterogeneity. This driving force can be found in the phrase “You tube”.

  1. See Martin Heidegger, "The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays", Oikos and Techne, Tanum 1973/(1957).
  2. See Felix Guattari, Chaosmoisis, an ethico-aesthetic paradigm. Indiana University Press 1995, French original 1992.
  3. See above, in the chapter: "Machinic heterogenesis".
  4. Guattari, Penguin Books, 1972.

Published 17 November 2006

Original in Norwegian
Translation by Nicole M. Fishlock
First published in Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) 11/2006 (Norwegian version)

Contributed by Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo)
© Truls Lie/Le Monde diplomatique (Oslo) Eurozine

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