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[Nettime-bold] Alan Shapiro: Society of Instance

From: "Alan Shapiro" <>
Sent: Tuesday, June 12, 2001 9:46 PM
Subject: Society of Instance

Society of the Instance
Alan Shapiro

The entire virtual life of societies in which postcapitalist conditions of
seduction prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of software
instances. Everything that was previously either venerated or rejected in
the fixated mirror stage by the ideologically constituted ego as fetish
system of commodities, structurally sustaining panoply of consumer objects,
or imposing spectacle of images has dissolved away into an uncharted virtual
reality of the real time instantiation (or permutable, momentary
actualization) of modeled and coded, flexible, extensible, beautiful
software "objects." My investigation must therefore begin with the analysis
of a software instance, and the process of instantiation into an
(objectless) "object" (little unit of distributed artificial intelligence)
of what is known in the theory and cultural practice of object-oriented
programming as a software class.

Object technology today embraces everything from object-oriented languages
and engineering methods, object-oriented databases, and distributed
communications middleware for the Object Web (standardized CORBA / Java or
Microsoft's Component Object Model) to the Unified Modeling Language project
spearheaded by Rational Software Corp., integrated development environments
for building Windows applications like Delphi and Visual C++, moving world
3D graphics authoring systems, and advanced MIT Media Lab research in AI,
nano-wearable computing, autonomous agents, and artificial life. The new
object-oriented technology, however, is not just a burgeoning movement for
greater elegance and efficiency within the software industry. It is also an
energetic tendency influencing and thoroughly reshaping all of globalizing,
contemporary culture, as well as social and individual existence. The
"postconsumerist" multimedia software instance - with its instantaneous
(complementary to instantiating) hyperlinks; its intensification of visual,
windowed information; and its multiple, effortlessly inter-translatable
"tracks" all rendered from the same transmitted stream of digital bits
(Negroponte, Being Digital) - is the emblematic software object of this
current trend of affairs. Informatics must thus be viewed simultaneously
from within as a neo-science or professional practice, and from without as
the principal transformative cultural (and epistemological) force of our

Within the hyper-ascendent trajectory of the pragmatic employment of
computers and software, object-orientation (along with other great
innovations of the personal computer revolution, such as interactive
graphics or PCs as communications media) has been a huge benefit and a
source of vastly improved useability. As compared with the earlier
imperative, functional, and procedural methodologies of computer science and
software development, object-orientation, considered "from the inside" (from
a vocational standpoint), plainly brings its practitioners into closer
contact with the dynamic processes of the "real world." Considered "from the
outside," however (from the standpoint of discerning the philosophical and
cultural effects of object technology), the operation of carrying over the
realist conception of a consensus-ordained, observable, external reality
from classical, natural science to computer systems - which are virtual, not
physical - is something I regard as highly spurious and seek to place into
question. Looked at from a "business" point of view, object-orientation
clearly lifts professional programmers up to a loftier vantage point from
which they can construct systems which are not only more robust and less
costly, but which either more accurately emulate already existing
non-virtual systems which they are intended to automate, or more
prolifically implement new applications which have been inspired solely by
the digital imagination and its creative tools.

Procedural programming combined the imperative (computer as executor of
sequential instructions) and functional (computer as calculator of
mathematical values) approaches into a unified technique whose advantage was
its capacity to break down large, complex requirements or tasks into
smaller, more manageable parts. The basic modular component of a classic
procedural programming language like C, known as a "function," is both
imperative and functional. In C, a function (equivalent to a procedure or
function in Pascal) both carries out a succession of operations, and returns
a computed value to its calling function. As a "problem-oriented" language,
however, C remains a dialect(ic) of the (scientific) Enlightenment, a final,
release compilation of the rationalist-empiricist epistème of Bacon, Newton,
Descartes, and Leibniz.

Unlike its object-oriented successor C++, C is obliged to maintain an
unyielding separation between data (data structures) and the computing
functions which operate on that data. This is precisely because the
designers of the C programming language (Kernighan and Ritchie), or of the
Pascal programming language (Niklaus Wirth), were not able to think about
the crucial problem of code reusability in any terms beyond the logic of
binary opposition between the "subject" process of the executing thread
(identified by projection with the computer scientist herself) and the
already written, reusable pieces of code which are "not the subject." The
subject thread temporarily relinquishes its control over program execution
to reusable code modules which are conceived in the very image or reflection
of the scientist-subject. These helper routines or function libraries are
delegations or extensions of the scientist's "purposive-rational
intelligence," her problem-solving, data-obtaining capabilities. The
archetypal scientific subject empirically observes and analyzes the
external, natural world with the aim of "acquiring data" about it, and then
either generalizing towards the attainment of Enlightening knowledge or
interpreting the data in the Light of verifiable or refutable theories and
hypotheses. Data is a significant goal, and the computer is an essential
tool which assists in its procurement.

Given the Cartesian epistème's stringent dichotomization with regard to
things between the "is" and the "is not" (Leibniz's universal combinatorics
of the applied binary code) or between the self-assured cogito and the
self-evidence of the physical world, data could never be a constituent part
of the fundamental building blocks of any representational or computational
system dependent on this paradigm. Data could only be something which is
"passed" back and forth among the system's core compositional units (the
functions), or which is conceived as residing in input and output data
structures which get reconciled in a supplementary "data mapping." The
conceptualization of code and data as inseparable, integral aspects of an
intrinsic, indispensable, cohesive entity called the "software object"
necessitated the abandonment and going beyond of the Weltanschauung of
empirical, binary, subject-object-based, reality-promoting science.

At a certain indeterminate (Canetti) point in its history, science shifts
from making use of a physical model of the universe to making use of a
virtual model, from the "original" mission of "getting closer to" and
upholding reality to adopting an agenda of strengthening and promoting
virtuality. Such a major about-face in a knowledge system is only feasible,
of course, because the effectuated transmutation is the outcome of a subtle,
always already present, immanent reversibility. The unexpected flip is
provoked by the teasing out of potentialities which were inherent within the
system in its "original" configuration, and which new circumstances have
summoned to the fore (in this case, the post-1968 social climate in the West
which engendered the retooling of survival strategies of postcapitalist
seductive power). In the empty, penumbral center of the momentous inversion
of realist science into virtualist science stand the magisterial adventures
of computer science, the emanation of the software instance, and the
spreading, omnipresent machinery of (multimedia, windowed,
information-concentrating) instantiation. The object-oriented (computer)
scientist is no longer an observer and data analyst of the physical world,
but is a designer and builder of anamorphic, virtual worlds.

>From the perspective of the cultural and cognitive consequences of object
technology (rather than from a strictly vocational perspective), the greater
efficacy enabled by the new paradigm is a double movement (of reversibility)
concurrently both closer to and away from "the real." Object-orientation's
true merit is relative: it is a great thing for computers, whose
serviceability it enhances considerably in comparison with what computers
were before. Object-orientation is, however, not necessarily such a great
thing for reality, since its spiraling appeal and potency cause more and
more aspects of life to be brought daemonically under the sway of
instantiating computers and the reign of the multimedia instance. The
gesture "towards the real" within the double reverse movement of
object-orientation is perceptibly self-contradictory and self-sabotaging,
even though it appears at first glance only to be ambivalent. On the one
hand, this directional vector "towards the real" is partly and frequently
dressed up as a matter-of-fact claim about increased apperception and
faithful representation of reality. It is a duplicitous gambit which
continues to cash in on the still-paying dividends or rhetorical remainders
of the self-evident "scientific real" left over from the very
rationalist-empiricist epistème which the partner motion "away from the
real" (exemplified in the concept of the "software class") seeks to subvert.

On the other hand, the distributed software object is partly and frequently
lauded for its proximity to reality according to the ways of seeing and
cheery virtues of a new (post)simulationist, neo-Platonist epistème.
Presented within this fresh (Platonist) framework, the idea of the software
object hinges directly on the metaphor of already familiar, existing
physical and social objects. Object-orientation is an approach which appears
to encourage the intellectual and artistic elaboration in the design process
of cybernetic or quasi-structuralist "models of reality." What I wish to
demonstrate is that the misperception of the twofold simultaneous movement
"towards the real" and "away from the real" as an apparent ambivalence
rather than a contradiction (hiding the possibility of immanent reversal) is
due merely to muddled dereliction in sorting out the locations and maneuvers
of the two respective epistèmes. The neo-Platonist move "away from the real"
is rhetorically disguised, thanks to the legacy of scientific rationalism
and its seductive force, as an element of concretion belonging to the move
"towards the real." The postcapitalist system withholds its potential for
liberatory, human-chosen, seminal reversibility by short-circuiting each of
its vectors at a limit point into its opposite (the motion "towards the
real" - towards the "play of appearances" of the revivified object - flips
into virtuality; the motion "away from the real" flips into the modeling,
cartographic, simulational, computer-assisted real). However, the double
movement at the heart of this procedure remains self-contesting. At the same
time, it both depends upon and progressively undermines
rationalist-empiricism's residual assumption that reality always remains
intact, no matter what new, pernicious cultural operation is brought to bear
upon it.

Two of the key conceptual innovations of object-oriented methodology are the
software class and the software object. The central notion of software class
is defined as an abstraction of the common properties of like things. The
class of trees, for example, is designed to encapsulate both the attributes
and operations (data members and function members, in the terminology of the
C++ programming language; fields and methods in the terminology of Java
development) which concern all trees (or at least those trees which are
available in a specific virtual worlds modeling environment). There may then
be descendent subclasses of the tree class, such as the beech, myrtle,
mahogany, pine, and cypress "families of trees" classes, and yet further
descendent subclasses of these intermediate level classes. Each new derived
subclass inherits characteristics from another class which is one
abstraction level higher in the class hierarchy or chart, although these
property inheritances remain largely theoretical until the critical moment
of object instantiation. Fir, hemlock, larch, and spruce trees might be
examples of still more specialized classes which derive from the pine tree
family class. Redwood, incense cedar, and juniper tree classes might derive
in turn from the cypress tree family class. A distributed software object
which is instantiated as a "particular" redwood tree - in a virtual reality
Redwood National (Theme) Park - might have some properties which are coded
and maintained in the class from which the software object is immediately
instantiated (the redwood tree class), other properties which are coded and
maintained in a class which is one level higher in the class hierarchy (the
cypress tree family class), and even further properties which are coded and
maintained in the base class of the class hierarchy (the root nodal tree
class). The base tree class, depending upon the given system implementation,
may itself be descendent from an even more underlying and abstract base
class with a name like CWnd (Microsoft Foundation Class Library) or TForm
(Object Pascal or Delphi), denoting some fundamental element of the system,
such as, respectively, a (Windows) window or a screen dialog backdrop. In
actual simulation or modeling practice, interrelated groups of software
classes are conceptualized diagrammatically and in multiple connections as
part of a project-specific inheritance ranking of classes and descendent
subclasses which are deemed to be suitable to the patterning and management
of a distinct environment, platform, or application domain. Targets of such
occupational, object-oriented, class diagram design might include a
graphical user interface operating system, a bank of elevators in an office
building, a four-dimensional texture mapped virtual world, or the
client-server transactional operations of a large business enterprise.

In my arboreal hierarchy example, or tree (in the data structures or diagram
sense) of trees, the base class Tree might have the attributes (data) of
Color and TextLabel, and the operations (code) of Draw and
MakeRustlingNoise. The intermediate level class CyprusFamilyTree might have
the attributes of NumberOfCones and ConeType, and the operations of Shake
and Rotate. The most differentiated class RedwoodTree might have the
attributes of Height and TimberGrade, and the operations of Protect and
ChopDown. If I, the applications programmer, then choose to create an
instantiated software object and call it MyRedwoodTree, I can then set the
attributes of this new software object (usually during, and as part of, the
act of instantiation) to MyRedwoodTree.Color = BrownishRed,
MyRedwoodTree.TextLabel = "Keep your hands off!,"
MyRedwoodTree.NumberOfCones = 300, MyRedwoodTree.ConeType = Leathery,
MyRedwoodTree.Height = 200, and MyRedwoodTree.TimberGrade = Excellent. The
result, in my virtual world, of instantiating the software object and
setting these attribute values will be a redwood tree "instance" which is
brownish red, has a text label which reads "Keep your hands off!," has 300
leathery cones, is 200 feet high, and seductively attracts crowds of virtual
lumberjacks. Similarly, the software instance MyRedwoodTree can be
programmatically manipulated by calling the operations MyRedwoodTree.Draw
(graphically renders the tree), MyRedwoodTree.MakeRustlingNoise (plays a
looping .WAV file), MyRedwoodTree.Shake (stirs the tree in a specific cyprus
tree family manner), MyRedwoodTree.Rotate (turns the tree in a specific
cyprus tree family manner), MyRedwoodTree.Protect (activates a killer force
field around the virtual redwood tree), or MyRedwoodTree.ChopDown
(sacrifices the redwood tree to the timber industry).

The point of exhibiting all this detail is to rigorously nurture my
contention that the instantiated, distributed software object has achieved a
state of existence which is finally beyond the logical Cartesian or
classical, mathematical physics dualism between the "is" and the "is not"
(or even beyond the discriminative categorization of the "this" and the
"that" -- the modernist, Saussurian, proto-linguistic system of arbitrary,
positive differences among phonemes). A given instantiated software object
both "is" and "is not" like another short-lived software object instantiated
from the same abstract parent classes. The same particular transient
software instance both "is" and "is not" like the specification of
attributes and operations coded and maintained in each stratified, abstract
class from which this software instance gathers its behavior and conjoins
its evanescent appearance.

Beyond a certain (im-precise) point in time, without realizing it,
object-orientation definitively transgressed the limits of the discrete,
binary, nominalist, symbolic logic which was the "original" foundation of
computing. The software instance, as the basic (de)compositional unit of
this new (post)simulative system, enacts data- and context-specific
performances of its ancestor classes, at last unifying data and the
operations on that data into a single, self-contained entity. Initialized in
real time, and in precise circumstances of seduction for each new
occurrence, the distributed object coalesces its parameters of existence "on
the fly" from coded and maintained, detailing and specifying,
(de)constituting parts. Unlike binary bits, which were the elementary
particles of earlier, classical computing, these latter-day class layered
"elementary particles" are undecidable and non-discrete to the core. The exp
ress characteristics conferred on the software object at the moment of its
virtual inception include the instance's attributes, operations, memory
state, inter-object messaging or event protocols, and associative and
aggregational relationships with other distributed objects. With
object-orientation, the problem of code reusability has been rethought in an
ingenious and much more pliable way. This very suppleness, however, is also
the secret mechanism of seductive power in the newly upgraded, virtualizing
cultural system.

The passing of messages and the responding to events are also among the most
important aspects of the behavior of software objects in the object-oriented
paradigm. The Windows operating system, for example, is often discussed in
terms of its "message-driven architecture," and most Windows applications
are structured according to an "event-driven technique." Rather than
consisting of code which acts upon its surroundings and chooses when to act
in conformance with a self-driven interior logic (the old procedural
paradigm), the Windows program is a first-level "command target" or message
dispatcher which receives messages from Windows (itself an instantiated
cyber-environment), parses them, and passes them along to the "window
procedure" or message map of the appropriate window object within the
application. Client area, component windows are themselves instantiated from
specialized window classes like 256-color bitmap buttons or multi-column
list boxes. A message intended for a designated child window might be
something like a forced repainting or user input from the keyboard. The
program sits idle much of the time, does its processing when called upon,
and then returns control back to multi-tasking Windows.

In the Unified Modeling Language, the message is the basic unit of
inter-object communication, and a message can only be sent between two
objects which have a named association. An event is a type of message
announcing a noteworthy occurrence. A message almost always holds either
data or control commands intended for a target software object, but it can
also contain "metadata" furnishing, for example, network-demanded protocol
information about itself. Each (non-message) software object in a system
specifies and makes public its own distinctive messaging interface, thereby
signaling to other potentially communicating software objects the
handshaking procedures, obligatory precursor events, and methods of message
transfer which it supports. The inter-object message is itself a kind of
software object, since it is also instantiated from abstract (message)
classes, themselves enumerated in the standardized UML metamodel as an
elaborate hierarchy of specialized synchronous, asynchronous, periodic,
episodic, and bursty inter-object message subclasses.1 The networking
transport (layer) of software objects has also become the site of a dense,
painstaking formalization, with increasingly ornate systems of message
formatting, packeting, routing, prioritizing, reliability, and reporting.
Inter-object messaging (in a distributed architecture) allows a software
object to invoke an operation belonging to another "fine-grained" software
object residing elsewhere on the network, and even leads to the going beyond
of the concept of boundaries between local and remote machines. As messaging
becomes even more prominent in distributed object technologies (for example,
in CORBA 3.0 with its new compatibility with Message-Oriented Middleware),
it is important to keep in mind that message and transaction objects are
varieties of instantiating software object, and that their studied
refinement only adds further to the repetoire of virtualizing techniques
available to multi-mediatized culture and its relentless endo-colonization
of lived experience.

The seventeenth century mathematician and philosopher G.W. Leibniz is
credited both with assembling a protocomputer arithmetic machine which
performed multiplication and division as well as addition and subtraction,
and with devising a new branch of mathematics in his essay De Arte
Combinatorica (1666). Leibniz followed René Descartes in wanting to deduce a
complete knowledge system starting from a few basic tabula rasa principles
of certainty. Leibniz believed in a "universal character" or universal
logical language which someday would be inferentially constructed step by
step on the heels of the establishing of the correct first propositions. For
Leibniz, the selection of the quintessential grounding axioms for the lingua
franca system entailed the contriving of a few absolutely requisite
representational symbols for the prime concepts, and a few absolutely
requisite rules for combining these symbols. Once the general system was
successfully set up, all existing or new scientific and cultural questions
could then be solved, according to Leibniz, by invoking the dictum "let us
calculate." This dream of applied mathematical certainty was reinvigorated
and pursued anew in the mid-nineteenth century by the formal logician George
Boole (the calculus of finite differences, the algebra of logical
reasoning), and in the early twentieth century by logical positivist
philosophers like Bertrand Russell (the logical conclusions of first
principle theorems for all of mathematics, the logical conclusions of first
principle atheism for all of human beliefs). Leibniz's vision of an
unrestricted method of automatic ratiocination by calculation was then
actualized in the mid-twentieth century invention of the high speed digital
computer, which was first conceived in 1936 by Alan Turing and Emil Post (in
separate descriptions of code-driven, finite state automata), and then built
by John von Neumann and his University of Pennsylvania Moore School Group
colleagues during and immediately after World War II.2

Since any specialized automaton (precursor of the software application)
could be delineated with a finite set of binary instructions, argued Turing
in his 1936 paper, "On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the
Entscheidungsproblem," therefore a universal automaton (precursor of
computer hardware) could be imagined which would exactly mimic the desired
behavior of any specialized automaton simply by cycling through those same
instructions.3 In his book Turing's Man, J. David Bolter characterized the
information processing technique of a Universal Turing Machine as the
replacement of "discrete symbols one at a time according to a finite set of
rules." This "original" logic of computing was firmly rooted in the dualism
of the "is" and the "is not" (the long strings of binary digits or 0s and
1s, the perfect "existential" weight of the discrete identifiers). It still
had rather strong ties to the old physical model of reality (the
substantiality of numbers, the switching of registers and signals in both
storage and processing), and to the "certainty" - or identity with itself -
of the old scientific object.

Prior to the compelling appearance of "object technology" in recent decades,
computers were deeply and intricately associated with the triumph and
concretization of mathematical, symbolic logic. As recently as 1984, the
computer science and Classics professor J. David Bolter was able to write -
in apparent obliviousness to the rise of object-orientation - that "every
computer program is the ... realization, the tangible proof, of a theorem in
logic ... every programmer ... is a logician with a theorem to prove." If
anything was certain concerning the status of electronic digital thinking in
the history of ideas, Bolter asserted, it was that the land of the CPU and
the fetch-and-execute cycle is a kingdom from which God and religion are,
without shadow of doubt, excluded. "The unification envisioned by Plato" -
the ideal world of the Platonic Forms and Ideas, the "series of perfect
patterns from which the imperfect objects of the material world" are
derived - "has no counterpart in computerized thought."4

With the great shift in the software development paradigm which kicked into
high gear in the nineties, from structured and procedural programming
languages (Fortran, ALGOL, Pascal, C) to object-oriented languages
(Smalltalk, Java, Delphi, C++), we have reversed from the Cartesian
subjectivism of Turing (computer as machine to imitate the intelligence of
the logician) and von Neumann (strict division between the "subject" of
program commands and the operated-upon data) to the neo-Platonism of
object-oriented luminaries like Rational Software's Grady Booch (the
diagrammatic modeling language is the program code) and Xerox PARC's
Smalltalk inventor Alan Kay (the de-sensualization of children's play on the
computer screen depicted in glowing McLuhanesque terms as an "extension of
man"). In an ironic twist of fate, Western thought goes back and slurps
thirstily from the primal fount of Platonist metaphysics, returning full
circle to the favoring of the abstract ideality of essences over the
sentient reality of single case appearances, to the disseminated purity of
the "transcendental signifiers," to the systemically deferred, yet urgently
required, attendance of God.

The move against antinomies seems oddly to be refracted and paralleled
throughout all of postconsumerist, mainstream cyberculture. The
anti-Saussurian "raising of the bar" between paired terms (signifier /
signified) has led "merely" to the decoupling of dualisms which turned out
to belong to the time-bound, "doomed" Enlightenment epistème. The assault on
binary oppositions has cleared the way for newly emergent, brilliantly
resourceful persistence strategies on the part of occidental metaphysics
(postcapitalism). Object-orientation, with its class hierarchies and virtual
object instantiation, appears to have introduced a "deconstructive
Platonism" (Plato revised by grammatology), a vast "production" of
interminable, subject-less "writing;" a layered, metonymic chain of
(re)valuation; a perpetually and recursively auto-substituting,
auto-supplementing, structured and seductive game of différance. The virtual
tree which I see outside the three-dimensional digital video window (or
screen) of my computerized car is no longer a real tree. It culls together
its existence from the (differentiating and deferring) class hierarchy of
trees. It both is and is not a tree, because its différance has been put
into play.

Object-orientation's strategem of entity generalization and concomitant
specification of instances is strikingly reminiscent of the Platonist Realm
of Forms and Plato's accompanying critique of merely technical or
representational copies which do not partake of the "Idea" of the original.
Software instantiation (de)institutes a temporary relationship between an
ordered ranking of software classes and the created, then destroyed,
software object which is a parameter- and data-specified instance of those
determining classes. In Platonist terms of iconic likeness, a software
instance would be regarded as a legitimate resemblance rather than an
illegitimate semblance or simulacrum, even though the distributed software
object is, in a certain sense, inferior to the less tangible software class
due to the former's transitoriness. The significant contrast would be
between the system of classes / objects and its predecessor, the classical
"society of the spectacle" (or société de consommation) system of lowly,
imitative images.

In the section of The Republic entitled "How Representation in Art is
Related to Truth," Socrates sounds uncannily like a guru of object-oriented
design when he says: "Let us take any common instance [!!]; there are beds
and tables in the world -- plenty of them. But there are only two ideas or
forms of them -- one the idea of a bed, the other of a table. And the maker
of either of them makes a bed or he makes a table for our use, in accordance
with the idea." Primary reality, for Plato, is not to be sought in the
empirical world of everyday things (ordinary instances of beds or tables),
but rather in the general, abstract Forms (the divine idea of the bed or
table) from which "concrete" things are derived or fashioned. Socrates goes
on in this passage to say that there are three philosophical categories of b
eds: the idea of the bed (made by God), the instance of the bed (made by a
carpenter), and the imitation of the bed (made by a painter). Concerning the
question of how near or far each of the three categories of beds is to the
Ideal Forms of Beauty, Truth, and Excellence, it is clear for Socrates that
the idea of the bed is the closest to these exalted virtues, the instance of
the bed comes in as a respectable second closest, and the imitation of the
bed runs a pitiful last -- far removed from anything valuated as either
noble or good.

The Socratic dialogue in Politeia about mimesis is a contemptuous critique
and dismissal of (imitative) poetry and painting, which only reproduce
technical copies and are said to be "thrice removed from the truth."
Painting, for Socrates-Plato, is a degraded art form of the semblance or
mirror image, an aesthetic activity which demands of the painter "no
knowledge worth mentioning," and no comprehension of "true existence."
Moreover, although it "may deceive children or simple persons," imitative
painting comes up way short in its endeavor to fool the majority of members
of the polity into being placated by its inauthentic, second-rate images.
Media technologies of mere duplication or representation are ultimately
inadequate because they fail as instruments of political superintendence.
Object-orientation is a new "artificial language" of seductive power (a new
system of virtualization) which curiously combines a Platonist ingredient
(transcendental signifiers or software classes) and a deconstructionist
ingredient (unending, undecidable, auto-referentially recursive "discourse"
in the hierarchical, (de)instituting, subclassing chains).

In an interesting excursus on différance, Canadian cultural theorist Gary
Genosko isolates the disparity between Derrida's and Baudrillard's
anti-semiologies or respective critiques of Saussure as located in a
decisive difference in emphasis placed on the "orders" of either value or
signification. In his examination of the Saussurian sign (in Speech and
Phenomena, in Of Grammatology, and in the essay "Différance"), Derrida
focused on the negative "linguistic concept of difference without positive
terms," taking apart Saussure's (mistaken) dualistic metaphysics of
signifier and signified, and thus leading to critical recognition of the
impossibility of the sign's self-referential unity or full presence to
itself. The doubled, horizontal relationship of value, which relies for its
structuration on the sign's two internal components (signifier and
signified) and the bar between them, is shown by Derrida to be a myth. By
consequence, the vertical relationship of signification - the bar between
the sign as a unified entity and what the sign excludes - must also be
mythical. Signification, which depends for its existence on the
establishment or "institution" of a positive plenitude of the sign, is
prematurely subsumed under value, which has already undergone the negative
critique of the subversive, differential play of language. The edifice of
signification is subordinated to the foundation of value.5 Once the
foundation fails, the building is - much too quickly - believed to collapse
along with it. The rapid stress applied by Derrida to the bar of value both
denies to signification the operational preconditions for its critical (and
fatal) scrutiny, and underestimates the intractability of the
auto-rectifying, re-complexing, continually morphing, positive sign. The
negative critique of the transcendental signifiers is an auto-proliferating,
contiguous, reiterative critique which bypasses the otherness of both
subjects and objects. It turns one in a direction away from any enduring,
ironic, sacrificial engagement with the eighteen-headed hydra of
signification or the simulacra.

Object-oriented software engineering and multimedia design (in their
prevalent forms) are languages for the streamlining, administration,
control, and substitution of human experience. As a cybernetic, "artificial
language" (human languages were always artificial, of course),
object-orientation has profited a great deal from its in-depth familiarity
with "so-called natural languages." It is keenly aware of the (negative)
différance which Derrida in some sense claims to be a force or quality
possessed by all languages which is subversive of metaphysics. In order to
devise an "artificial language" of decentralized control or regulation of
the quotidian, it helps to know a lot about the functioning of the
"revaluation or dislocation chains" of human languages. Seductive power is
also exercized all the more efficaciously after language has been
transferred to an electronic, cyber arena, where it becomes more
"programmable" than ever before. Software classes (the Platonist pole of the
system), however, are "reconciled" signifiers (they are not, in turn,
signifieds of yet more signifiers, and so on ad infinitum). They are the
system's closure points, the limits to the free play of discourse, and the
very stipulations for virtuality. After the menacing "subjective" unrest of
1968 (which continued well into the seventies), the subject-object system of
"mere images" (Plato's simulacra), technologies of representation, and clear
separation between viewer and viewed (or between consumer and artistic
product) was judged to be insufficient for the preservation of the polis.
The metaphysical tradition was then renovated and renewed.

In the early years, I was submerged by a governing spectacle or consumer
society -- a "system of objects" categorized collection which had not yet
blossomed into a consummated system of distributed (temporally deferred and
differentiated) objects, not yet become a language. Baudrillard paused for a
long moment to contemplate the specific weight or unity of the
socio-cultural sign in its methodical, signifying logic or "semiological
reduction" of ambivalence, reciprocity, and sensuality. The sign, in its
wholeness, was still structured in vintage consumer society according to a
taxonomy of positive, "arbitrary" differences from other sign-objects
(within the Saussurian, modernist, cybernetic-operational, Cartesian
epistème). After this prolonged hesitation Baudrillard moved on to his own,
more deliberate, long-term project of "deconstruction" or prying apart of
the signified-signifier relation into the denominator of simulation models
and the numerator of the (fourth-order) simulacra or pure, crystalline

The early emphasis in Baudrillard was on the stability of the sign in its
positive configuration, the ruling semiocracy, or the collective, autoerotic
perversion and "passion for the code" which institutes a serialized social
"cohesiveness," and is opposed en bloc to the suppressed anthropological
principle of symbolic exchange. "To become an object of consumption, an
object must first become a sign ... it is thus arbitrary ... it derives its
consistency, and hence its meaning, from an abstract and systematic
relationship to all other sign-objects." In the vertical order of
signification of the (not yet distributed) system of objects, difference is
still organized on the level of undivided signs, in the bar of separation
between the coded abstraction of the joined signifier / signified and that
which this "ideological unity" radically exiles (Bataille's sumptuary
expenditure or Mauss' potlatch and obligatory gift exchanges). In the
self-endorsing mass media of "speech without response," what is sold to
"consumers" with each advertising message or replicated image is not a
particular product, but rather the system of abundance and diaphanous
communication in its entirety, the order of signs itself. "Without
'believing' in the product, therefore, we believe in the advertising that
tries to get us to believe in it."6

The special and technical speed-effects of the broadcasting electronic
medium overwhelm the content or real events which the medium is naively
believed to beneficently bring into relief or report on. This inversion of
message and medium brings about the most non-obvious, yet most insidious,
kind of manufacturing of pseudo-event. "Substitution of a 'neo-real' for
'the real' is occurring everywhere, produced as a whole based on the
combination of the elements of the code. In the wide spectrum of daily life,
an immense simulation process is taking place, in the image of the
'simulation models' on which the operational and cybernetic sciences are
working." The generalized code - now understood in the sense of a flexible
re-combinatorics of the broken down, unraveled, most elementary particles or
units of something real, as well as in the "anti-semiological" sense - takes
the place of the fading signified or referent (in its classic form).7 In L'
Échange symbolique et la mort (1976), this insight into the workings of what
Baudrillard calls the "third-order simulacra" develops into a full-scale
commentary on "the metaphysics of the code" -- the obsession with genetic
information (DNA) and its affiliated, "micro-molecular" command and control
sequence-transcription dialects as the new definitional matrices of life and

What opened the door for the notion of simulation was the pressure which
Baudrillard applied to the signified (or referent), in the first of two
moves (the second being the move from the signifier to the fourth-order
simulacra of potentially reversible, "accursed share" objects) leading to
the dismantling of the "doubly uneven" sign. Baudrillard pulls the thread of
simulation from the sign-spindle's fragile, tapered end (the signified), and
keeps on pulling. Since capitalism relies so much on the instrumentalizing
equivalence of exchange-values and on the dynamic, charismatic allure of
continually mutating signifiers, use-values and signifieds recline into a
reduced ideological status as orbiting satellites, justifying alibis, or
retrograde "security deposits" (des cautions) of the former terms
(exchange-values and signifiers). Needs are posited as "rational" and
"natural" finalities by the consumer system, but they are, in fact,
insatiable "desiring symptoms," tautologically projected by the
"personalizing" signification and selling process itself. Reality and lived
experience (le vécu) lose their standing as self-evident, objective
references, and are substituted by "reality-effects" and "live-effects"
which the signifiers still require for collateral purposes of legitimation
and fresh data input. The "structural revolution of value," as it is called
in L'Échange symbolique et la mort, has completely unhinged the sign from
its referent. It has left the emasculated signified in a state of relative
enfeeblement whose apprehension is still partly obscured by both the rote
trumpeting of Enlightenment virtues and by the downright celebration of

The reconstitution of a thing based only on its information is just what the
doctor ordered for a society bent on cultivating its ability to allow
individuals to live alone in ostensible safety, while simulating a life of
rich experiences (interactions with the enchanting, technical twins of other
people and the world). History (which was perhaps always a simulation
model), for example, is shattered to bits by the celluloid, tape recorder,
and document stockpiling apperception of events (L'illusion de la fin). From
within a culture of simulation, as is our situation, claims of cognitive or
hermeneutical access to antecedent "real history" can no longer be verified
or sustained. Memories of the Vietnam War are replaced by memories of
Hollywood movies about the Vietnam War. Referential substance and "truth"
are everywhere replaced by a superabundance of information and data.
Ordinary reality is replaced by the permanent buzz of "entertainment" -- the
eternally recurrent, stereotypical hyperreality of television and of all the

Simulation of the body in plastic surgery, bodybuilding, cosmetics, and
"beam me up, Scotty." Simulation of thinking in artificial intelligence.
Simulation of sexuality and desire in pornography. The end of war in the
Pentagon's video game virtual war machine. The end of linear time in the
no-time of real time, and in the retroactivity and turbulence of time
travel. The end of aesthetic illusion in the holodeck, and in neural-direct
and helmet-and-glove VR systems.
The end of communication in the over-proximity and ubiquitous connections of
telecommunications. The end of fiction (and its opposite, reality) in
"science fiction" films which only publicize and disseminate the newly
arriving digital technologies and their prescribed living conditions. The
end of the referent of human beings in the will to build a technical,
immortal replacement species. These simulation systems are assemblages
belonging to the "third-order simulacra" -- mongrel, duplex contraptions
where the signified (catalyzed by a dose of "fatal theory") has absorbed all
of the energy of its signifier into itself, thus generating a parodic and
bloated "exorbitant" version of what it already was. But compartmentalized
American thought sees nothing to be troubled by in any of this. Plastic
surgery is a signifier of the body or of social success. An inner ear
cellular phone implant is a signifier of connectivity. A nano-cartridge
memory implant is a signifier of my freedom to lie (to myself). Campbell's
Soup cans are a signifier of soup -- and that's that.

This "Californian" hyper-pragmatism of the bi-structured sign is a
single-minded lucidity of the technological agent and its purposive ends.
Its ideological resiliency serves as a poignant reminder of the prestigious
and prodigious ground still shared between the third-order, cybernetic,
combinatorial, "mode of information" codes and Enlightenment-rationalist
science. Considered from an "anti-sociology of knowledge" point of view,
simulation systems still suffer from the preeminent malady of the long era
of the classical scientific epistème: the prevailing illusion that the world
is not an illusion, or the epochal nullification of what Baudrillard calls
"the vital illusion, the radical illusion of the world."8 Science has always
insisted on an unwavering identity of the object with the object -- on the
pinning down of a fixed, determined object in its material (or
informational, transcribed) constancy. This predilection of science has
effectively concealed the absence of things from themselves, the fact of
their differentiated and temporally deferred "incarnations," the fact of
their non-immediacy, and the seductive play of their appearances.

So-called "primitive" societies, as Baudrillard and others have often
pointed out, had a different (more symbolic, reciprocal, and creative)
relation to the problem of the truth or reality of this world -- a question
which Western society resolved through technical simulation. With
instantiation and the software instance - with a certain artistic practice
which they invite - the opportunity to recover (or reverse) what Paul
Virilio calls "the aesthetics of disappearance" comes into view. It is the
excess of information, inaugurated by the postcapitalist cultural system
itself, which provokes the "objectlessness" of the object, the apparition of
the object which is not an object: the software object. Here lies the
possibility of a fully original anthropological moment (the flip of the
software instance into the Nietzschean play of appearances), and the
potential contestation of the scientific worldview.

The "interface" of a human to the world (a relationship which should respect
that which makes the world, or an object, indifferent towards me) -- this
contact area of illusion or "fiction" is, properly speaking, the territory
of the signifiers. After the signifieds have been cleared out of the way
(they imploded as simulation systems), Baudrillard is free to undertake his
second move in the strategic divestiture of semiology - a step which will
complete the supplanting of the object as structural sign by the object as
pure sign. This is a creative and proactive - yet "non-subjective" -
involvement with new "signifiers." In a gesture which is at once political
(though without attracting power) and (post)aesthetic, Baudrillard returns
to his original passion for (the system of) objects, but this time in a
meditation on "pure objects" (as well as "pure events" and "pure images").
These new "evil genius" objects, born of the system's exorcistic and
excessive processes, unknowable through their information, shaped in their
superficial and empty molds as "unconditional simulacra," are the carriers
of irony and shrewd indifference. Images were denigrated and expelled from
the "body politic" by Plato, and they are again today  -- their singularity
rolled over like subliminal cannon fodder in high-speed, windowed,
multi-component instantiations. The dizzying qualities of these
object-oriented instances start to resemble the "aleatory giddiness" which
Roger Caillois, in Les jeux et les hommes (1958), saw as characteristic of
the ethnographically archetypal game forms of chance and vertigo which, as
with gambling, are now making their comeback.

I identify the post-1968 dominant cultural strategy of object-oriented
cyberspace as the construction of a new signification system, erected on the
scaffolding of the previous one. As far as mainstream cyberculture is
concerned, this transition from the third- to the fourth-order simulacra can
be summed up by the formula: Simulation plus Différance equals Virtuality.
The deconstructionist boxer struck a forceful blow against the Cartesian
epistème. This arching jab turned out, however, merely to be one of the best
video replay highlights for the recombinant resource database, to be used in
the prize fight promoter's overall scheme for the differentiated
distribution of the spectacle onto every screen and holographic living room
table in town.

Plato's metaphysics of reality proclaimed a tripartite structure, posed on
the equilibrium between (for example) the divine idea of the table (the
transcendental signifier) and the supposed "real" exemplification of the
table produced by the carpenter (the transcendental signified), to the
double exclusion of the image created by the painter. The stability of this
system has already been shaking for quite some time. The software classes of
object-oriented programming are a symptom of this loss of steadiness.
Software classes are relatives both of the "reconciled" signifiers and of
the "reconciled" signifieds (related to the positive structuralist-semiotic
sign), but they are also one step further along in simulation. With the
progressive withering of referents, the "rock solid" instances of the
carpenter's workbench evanesce into the conceptual abstractions (based on
design and memory) which will generate virtual software instances. The
software classes are the post-simulationist remains of (references to)
reality, and they become a basic unit of the new virtualizing system.
Transcendental signifier of the tree class, declared by the programmer,
(de)coupled with the transcendental signified of trees "in reality" which he
remembers, on whose memory this system survives, but which will not be
around for long.

To accomplish the system of virtuality which is starting to reign around the
globe today, the signifieds (the references to "reality") must also be
dispersed, distributed, put through the work of differentiation,
phonemically and temporally processed by what is alternatively called either
linguistic deconstruction or the software subclassing hierarchies. The
differential move is the limitless, extreme, free play of fourth-order
simulacra -- an entropic, friction-free, fractal "chaos" of (re)valuation.
Différance, however, is only half of the equation's left side. The
paradoxical, hybrid system (simulation plus différance equals virtuality) is
simultaneously postcapitalism's temporary salvation and its fast burnout
(its desperate reform). In spite of its extraordinary charisma and seductive
powers, instantiation is in a much more precarious position than any of its
predecessors in the history of capitalism (alienation, reification,
simulation). The software instance relies on transcendental signifieds
(trees) which will soon disappear, and on transcendental signifiers (the
idea of trees) which will quickly follow into extinction. It also relies on
the differential qualities of language, which it will soon exhaust as well.


1 - Bruce Powel Douglass, Real-Time UML: Developing Efficient Objects for
Embedded Systems (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1998); pp.25,56-61.

2 - Herman H. Goldstine, The Computer: from Pascal to von Neumann (Princeton
University Press, 1972).

3 - The Computer: from Pascal to von Neumann; pp.274-75.

4 - J. David Bolter, Turing's Man: Western Culture in the Computer Age
(Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984); pp.22, 47, 77-79.

5 - Gary Genosko, Baudrillard and Signs: Signification Ablaze (London:
Routledge, 1994); pp. 18-24.

6 - Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects (translated by James Benedict)
(London: Verso, 1996) (originally published by Éditions Gallimard in 1968);

7 - Baudrillard, La Société de consommation: ses mythes, ses structures
(Paris: Denoël, 1970); pp.194-96.

8 - Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime (translated by Chris Turner) (London:
Verso, 1996).

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