Notes for Nicholas Gane “Computerized Capitalism: The Media Theory of Jean-Francois Lyotard”

Key concepts: capitalism, crushing of the unharmonizable, culture, inhuman, lines of flight, new media, paralogy, streams of capital, subterranean streams, technology.

Reveals Lyotard blind region regarding technological comportment. Besides giving direction to critical code studies, points to role of working code and fossification in resisting default being of cyberspace subjectivity. Even if there is no way to live without mediation by digital media, there are better and worse ways to live in it, such as regarding nature and extent of consumption and production. For any mode of cybernetics to operate, there must be some information, real or virtual, transduced or simulacral. Thus Hayles identifies access to information as more significant than property rights.

Related theorists: Berry, Bogost, Castells, de Lauretis, Deleuze, Guattari, Harman, Lyotard.


capitalism, culture, inhuman, Lyotard, new media, technology

Imagine doing this for all the other texts that lack them, culling down to enumeration of around five key words.


Power analysis similar to Castells and de Lauretis; inhuman affairs points towards Harman, Bogost, Berry.

(431-432) Rather, the task of the present paper is to look at the general connection of digital technology and capitalist culture, and beyond this the impact of this technology not simply on human but also on 'inhuman' affairs. . . . The Postmodern Condition (Lyotard 1984), for example, starts with a study of the changing nature of knowledge in computerized society. . . . But, unlike McLuhan, the underlying message here is quite different: these technologies are not merely 'extensions of man' but extensions of the capitalist market insofar as they speed up and thus promote the production, exchange and consumption of information. And on this basis, there is, for Lyotard, contrary to McLuhan, an intimate connection between digital technologies and relations of power. This connection is twofold: first, power is connected to expenditure, for there can be no technology without investment just as there can be no investment without technology; and second, power, as Virilio (1986) has suggested, is now also an effect of speed, the potential for which is enhanced by the advent of digital media.


Lyotard as a new media theorist.

(433) But this popular interest in 'postmodernism' had drawbacks, one being that it led to the neglect of other important aspects of Lyotard's work, including its critical approach to the study of new media.


Analogous to Kittler view that all media systems think about are their effectiveness, never what human oriented ends they serve, supply, instantiate; in one respect their feedback given the low bandwidth to begin with is merely to keep working, although in the age of Internet protocols distributed cognition overabundance of computing power there is no reason to hold back.

(434-435) Knowledge, then, has not only become a commodity, but strangely structures the basis of commodity production itself, to the extent that it has become 'the principle force of production over the last few decades' (Lyotard 1984: 5). . . . For, to politicize McLuhan's famous dictum, the medium of commodity exchange becomes more important than the content of what is being exchanged.

We need to remember how our cyborg subjectivity is situated within the built environment that seeks to optimize itself in terms of performativity.

(436) The underlying problem here is that 'truth' is increasingly tied to expenditure and power, for the pursuit of knowledge is now tied to the use of advanced and, on the whole, expensive technologies. . . . 'The true goal of the system, the reason it programs itself like a computer, is the optimization of the global relationship between input and output – in other words, performativity' (Lyotard 1984: 11).

Active goal of free information, paralogy is Lyotard silly term like Derrrida grammatology that Ulmer takes the idea to the extreme. Is working with myths and parables symptom of the exhaustion of print as it submerges with other digital data including reproduction of the real (audiovideo)? Want to avoid such distance from the truth, so to speak, by carefully writing working code and never mere codework.

What happened with FOSS exemplifies what Lyotard predicts as an alternative resistance to the looming default: specifically addressing Lyotard advice of making data free, it must imply also the knowledge, availability, and permissibility to compute this data as well, which leads to Stallman and has been well articulated in the succeeding years.

(437-438) This resistance takes the form a a postmodern science, or 'paralogy', which concerns itself with 'undecidables, the limits of precise control, conflicts characterized by incomplete information, “fracta, catastrophes, and pragmatic paradoxes' (Lyotard 1984: 60). . . . And with this anarchic mode of experimentation in mind, Lyotard states, in the final passage of The Postmodern Condition, that new media technologies can be more than simply tools of market capitalism, for they can be used to supply groups with the information needed to question and undermine dominant metaprescriptives (or what might be called 'grand narratives'). The preferred choice of development, for him at least, is thus clear: 'The line to follow for computerization to take . . . is, in principle, quite simple: give the public free access to the memory and data banks' (Lyotard 1984: 67).


Lyotard was naive about power of capitalism to regulate information access, like early free software advocates.

(438) In retrospect, Lyotard's Postmodern Condition anticipated the development of today's computerized society with great accuracy, but its concluding argument for free public access to computer memories and databases, and for the radical potentiality of postmodern science, now seems rather naïve. Above all, this argument neglects the institutional forces that structure our access to information, and the power of the capitalist market, aided by new media technologies, to shape the form and content of this information.

Inhuman is the concretizing system technology, time, and human create that I call the machine other, machinic, and it is the site of alien temporalities we may intuit machine embodiment as if there were machine intelligence like human consciousness out there in the world; its other sense is its effect on human souls, Heidegger wasting enframing, Kittler, Hansen, and others more nuanced accounts of how the soul is and has always been represented as and by artifacts, leading into technological determinist and social constructionist philosophies of technology, and we have to ask the question whether Kittler is really a social constructionist who proclaims that the military is the controller of all things.

(438-439) Lyotard takes up the latter of these two questions in The Inhuman, which addresses the way in which technology and time combine in service of 'the system', which in turn invades the domain known as the 'human'. . . . The inhuman then has two meanings, which Lyotard urges us to keep separate. The first refers to the 'inhumanity of the system' . . . the second is more difficult to pin down, but appears to refer to the way in which 'the system' haunts the human from the inside, taking the soul, for example, as its hostage.

Approaching the inhuman involves change in experience of time that others have discussed, but is mainly speeding up and reduction via programmed analog to digital conversions; it moves toward everything happening by software, instead of only ten percent as Campbell-Kelly assesses the present age.

(439-440) In other words, not only does development mean letting go of the past but also of the present, as events become increasingly pre-programmed and thus simulated. This effectively signals the loss of lived time as the present becomes part of a loosely pre-established future.

Docility through direct control by technology and implied through its effects on subjectivity; the unharmonizable is the remainder in lossy and especially lossless encoding.

(440-441) This speeding up of life, including the majority of cultural production and consumption, is facilitated by the emergence of digital media, which reduce information to 'bits' that are easily digestible and easily subsumed within a system. . . . In view of this, the result of such development is not greater political 'freedom' but the emergence of new 'inhuman' forms of control. . . . This emphasis on efficiency and performance extends to thought itself. . . . This process is part of the general homogenization of all cultural forms, part of what Lyotard calls the crushing of the 'unharmonizable' (1991b: 4).

A key, long paragraph that should be balanced with Hayles: culture transformed through affordances of inhuman practices, questions limits of traditional critical theorizing perhaps in acknowledgement of immiseration of the mind in media from the start; see Benjamin and Adorno.

(441-445) The digital transformation of culture, however, also has a further consequence, namely that in our day-to-day processing of short 'bytes' of information we ourselves become more like machines. In other words, through our use of new media technologies, we, as humans, become increasingly 'inhuman'. . . . Lyotard's concern, more precisely, is for the way in which new media have reconfigured the connections between matter, the mind and time. It is rather that the digitalization of data tears both cultural artifacts and sensory experience from their moorings in physical time and space. . . . Lyotard's answer is that, with technological development, memory itself will become less dependent on human life and with this less reliant on any 'earth-bound body'. Indeed, he states that one of the primary aims of today's techno-scientific research is to overcome or 'unblock' the biological obstacles that the body places in the way of communication. The result of such development, however, is not just an effacement of physical presence, but also a transformation in the nature and construction of culture. . . . [quoting Lyotard] The penetration of techno-scientific apparatus into the cultural fields in no way signifies an increase of knowledge, sensibility, tolerance and liberty. Reinforcing this apparatus does not liberate the spirit as the Auflkarung thought. Experience shows rather the reverse: a new barbarism, illiteracy and impoverishment of language, new poverty, merciless remodeling of opinion by the media, immiseration of the mind, as Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno repeatedly stressed. [1991b:63]

(444) In so doing, he not only analyzes the working of the capitalist market through culture itself, but also calls into question the extent to which we may oppose this process through critical theorizing.

Just in time information processing in networks by streaming predigested cultural capital; loss of opportunity for reflecting on possible inventions.

(445) In other words, we always have to be ahead of ourselves, not reflecting on possible inventions but trying to beat time by anticipating the arrival of ideas. Network technologies are designed to do this by 'streaming' information: destination machines execute files before they have been received in their entirety (e.g. a media player can play music before a complete MP3 file has been received).

Strong words about determining, self-reinforcing power of technological spirit (inhuman, technologized time, calculative reason) and capitalism, put less critcially by Castells; subjectivity captured by capitalism, relating to Rice and Ulmer, too.

(445-446) For just as computers are evaluated according to the speed they process information, the same now holds for human thought, for, as The Postmodern Condition predicted and the fable now warns, the most effective streams of cultural capital are those that can be transmitted, received and decoded (consumed) with the greatest ease. In these ways, the inhuman (technologized time) has invaded both the human (life itself) and culture, and in the process has strengthened the grip of the capitalist market. . . . In other words, even the most radical forms of thought and identity, including those at the heart of the 'postmodern condition', have been captured by the capitalist system and commodified. Concepts such as difference, alterity and multi-culturalism, for example, have become very marketable, and now if your are a member of a minority group 'Cultural capital is interested in you. You are a little walking cultural market' (Lyotard 1997: 6). In other words, cultural forms that once existed in opposition to the capitalist system have been colonized and placed in the 'cultural bank'.


Resist process of inhuman by returning to indeterminacy of childhood; thus, postmodern fables, for which we could imagine adult purposes of virtual reality systems to aide in that return.

(446) In response, Lyotard elusively suggests that we resist this process by returning to the indeterminacy that lies in childhood (the 'second inhuman', see above); to that realm of possibility that lies in the birth of souls or thought that has yet to be captured or effaced by either instrumental reason or time (see also Lyotard 1992).
(447) In
Postmodern Fables, meanwhile, there is again no explicit political manifesto to be found, but rather the work itself is left to stand in opposition to the logic of capitalist media. . . . The fable plays with the boundaries between fiction and reality, and in the process disturbs the narrative structures that frame and legitimate knowledge.

Subterranean streams of resistance to capitalist streaming media related to rhizomes and lines of flight is key to Berry seeking liberation from determination, capture, effacement by instrumental reason or time of something crucial of the human spirit, also played on by Ulmer; visit Barthes on myth.

(447-448) He states that, as opposed to streams of cultural capital, 'true streams are subterranean, they stream slowly beneath the ground, they make headwaters and springs'. . . . Such an existence is not founded on a politics of opposition and critique, but proceeds through fleeting, disruptive movements. Like Deleuze and Guattari's (1988) rhizomes or 'lines of flight', Lyotard's streams flow beneath the capitalist order, connecting subterranean points in unforeseen and never-to-be-repeated ways. . . . This model of working underground takes us back to Lyotard's work of the 1970s, in which the work of art, at least in its most challenging, even threatening figural forms, is a product of the unconscious. . . . Streams of resistance then, or what Lyotard might call 'headwaters and springs', disrupt reality (capitalism) by working at a different level through the play of the unconscious, and, beyond this, fiction or myth.


Concludes revealing Lyotard blind region regarding technological comportment: besides giving direction to critical code studies, this analysis of Lyotard points to role of working code and fossification in resisting default being of cyberspace subjectivity because for any mode of cybernetics to operate, there must be some information, real or virtual, transduced or simulacral; even if there is no way to live without mediation by digital media, there are better and worse ways to live in it, such as regarding nature and extent of consumption and production.

(448-449) It would seen that Lyotard, in the end, is left with few critical resources with which to oppose the logic of the capitalist system. For there is no obvious way out of the trap he identifies: thought and even artistic practice that run counter to the logic of capitalist culture (and that achieve any kind of mass appeal) cannot resist capture by the market, and thus are destined to be drawn into the system to which they are fundamentally opposed. This means that the possibility of space outside of the capitalist market is effectively lost, including the oppositional or critical space that Lyotard would presumably seek to inhabit. But what then is the value of his work? This value lies, ultimately, in its provocative attack on the evolving technologies of the capitalist system. This attack draws our attention to the power structures embedded within technology itself, and to the role played by digital media in commodifying cultural production, exchange and consumption. . . . Indeed, this is precisely the challenge that Lyotard's later works leave us with: to find new modes of thought and expression that are not dictated by the structural dynamics of new media technologies, and which might, in turn, be used to expose and disturb the powers of the accelerated capitalist system.

Gane, Nicholas. “Computerized Capitalism: The Media Theory of Jean-Francois Lyotard.” Information, Communication and Society 6.3 (2003): 430-450. Print.