Overcoding and the Act of Naming (Reading 08)

In  hackathons I enjoy formulating ideas the most. I can throw out possible goals for the next day or two without an eye towards minor practical concerns, and the group can stray where our imagination takes us. For one hackathon in Dublin, however, I chose to join because they had an idea I never thought achievable. It was a commendable objective: an app that could assist international asylum seekers with their case. The app could mine a user’s Facebook data to determine whether they were homosexual, and therefore deserving of state-granted asylum. Their Facebook account would not actually hold this data, for that would open them up to even greater persecution. The proposed app could mine the user’s various page likes and activity for patterns that generally indicate homosexuality. With machine learning the app could actually reach an understanding not accessible to the average viewer.

Incredible as that project was, I had to wonder how we arrived at the baseline statistics to train our model. Sure we could use the activity of anyone who had openly identified as homosexual as a training model, but how many of those users considered sexuality a spectrum. In person, they would provably have more to say about their love and aspirations than Facebook’s standard “Interested in _____”.  Before we even arrived at our problem, there was some arbitrary, even impossible, decision that set apart some particular group as the marginalized, targeted by a law, in this case altruistic, as a population deserving help.

Samuel Beckett once called this problem with categorization the “inherent barbarism of the name,” confronted in his reading of Proust. There is primary reduction in the very act of naming, reducing pre-subjective experience to a single temporal occasion. It is comparable with what Deleuze and Guattari call overcoding, where material flows are deterritorialized from tribal inscriptions and reterritorialized onto the body of the despot, a kind of origin story of the signifier, where the divine father, the despot, takes credit for all means of production. I could not help but smirk at one of the topics of discussion for this week’s reading, “corporate personhood” and think back to the Oedipalization D&G see at work in Capitalism. Capitalism deterritorializes flows of capital to extract surplus and reterritorializes that gain onto persons, the figures of the Oedipal triangle. A similar process is at work as massive corporations defend their right to campaign and fund particular candidate, drawing upon first amendment rights explicitly granted to individuals. The stance is that corporations form a collective interest that should be defended as free speech, even if that speech is an allocation of funds. Facing decentralization through the flow of capital, corporations uphold a façade of subjective intent, directing funds towards some symbolic purpose on the stage of politics.

What I fear most out of this pantomime is that the political stage will turn around and overcode the flows of production that underly it. The political stage will start to order the information, not just extract it. With the threat of the Muslim registry, the risk has to do not with privacy invasion but with an exertion of despotic, codifying force that congeals the flow of information into a list of persons, ostensibly falling under a certain denomination, ideology, sexuality, or identity (itself a kind of construction). I was startled to see that an entire book had been written on the connection between IBM and the holocaust. The method of encoding through punch cards was essential to the systematic genocide committed by Nazis. It makes me wonder whether Heidegger, who I wrote about last post, had witnessed the dependance of the Nazi regime (of which he was, disturbingly, a complacent member) on such computational technologies. Because his thought on technology is so valuable for realizing the impact and perils of computers, I imagine he was at least marginally aware of the expanding application of information technologies.

As far as the final question, about moral responsibility under corporate personhood, I would say that it is not so much corporate personhood but personhood in general that is untenable. There is no primary stage over which freedom of speech can be exercised. There are just innumerable, interconnecting flows of desire and capital, like the monetary funds that our law dubiously defends as free speech.