Turtles

Alan Smart

Platforms—political platforms, software platforms, reinforced concrete pads with code-mandated footings, vaporous vectors of techno-ideological determination, the rack, the rig, the ‘architecture,’ the infrastructure, the format, the page you now read, the language in which we write to you, the beach beneath the paving stones, the world turtle upon whose back that beach rests and the stack of other turtles under it, which in the account of Bertrand Russell’s noble savage/little old lady, extend “all the way down”—dictate the conditions of what is and what is possible. Platforms are both prison and home, spectacular scaffolds or mute scaffolding, that which limits what can be said, done, and thought, as well as the thing that makes possible what never was before. Whatever relations these structures negotiate with or impose upon Nature, they are most significantly “made” and therefore it is always possible to imagine them unmade or made differently. In this way, all platforms are designed and all design operates within and upon the platforms that support it, define it, pose its problems, and establish its criteria for success. In relation to this, however, it is important to state that platforms—or at least the ones of interest here—are not plinths. They are not the thing that gives discreet things that little lift off the earth which elevates them into the sphere of “high” art; they are not neatly bounded “artificial ground” upon which compositional figuration can be imagined to take place; and they are not mantlepieces or curio cabinets for object fetishists to fill with their tchotchkes. Platforms are heavy, pervasive, and capital intensive—they both support and confine the lowest and highest, the most and least free.  

In the context of capitalism’s contemporary condition—either “late” or “advanced” depending on one’s level of optimism—issues of platform have become both increasingly important and miserably fraught and conflicted. Structures founded on innovations in mediating relations of exchange, choreographing logistical flows, and creating spaces for communication, have surpassed the massively-material productive forces of heavy industry as the drivers of both the economy and the culture it forms and deforms. As these structures have flourished, those who create and control them have assumed roles as framers of world-defining ideological schemas, and, as they have come into crisis, regimes of austerity have asserted, not their rightness or goodness, but rather the impossibility of any alternative not already facilitated by existing platforms. Likewise, much of the most hopeful, most radical, and most beautiful work of political praxis and aesthetic production-become-reproduction has come to be focused on creating new platforms, or occupying, transforming, or subverting existing ones.

This issue of Counter Signals began with an interest in discussing platforms, as a specific scalar level of the publishing process: those systems and structures by means of which texts are produced, and through which they circulate, are invested with value in various ways, and eventually are made public. This collection is by no means encyclopedic. It does not claim to omnisciently map the entirety of this territory of territories, but neither does it pretend be a naïve juxtaposition of idiosyncratic oddities, or a cabinet of curiosities reducing carefully, and culpably engineered apparatuses to ‘objects’ in the ‘post-human’ faux-populist, know-nothing democracy of ontologically flat, actor networks. What is attempted here is to create a critical assemblage of exemplary cases, historical fragments, contemporary experiments, and analysis both practical and theoretical, that adds up to a consideration of the concrete situation.

Recent discussions of “platform” resonate with historical and ongoing discourses on similar concepts, such as “network,” “infrastructure,” “system,” and, more generally “structure,” that have marked the later phases of modernity, and the modernisms and postmodernism that have sought to understand and contend with them. Much of this discourse has been defined by either an ecstatic embrace of the dematerializing, depoliticizing, and emptying-out of content and significance attributed to systems by neoliberalism, or by a (neo)reactionary horror at the interconnectedness of the world and the way that the contingency of support structures destabilizes and denaturalizes the supposed solidity of the humanist subject. In contrast to these two poles, the call for contributions to this issue of Counter-Signals was also a call for courage. Most immediately, this is the courage to resist trembling either in terror or ecstasy at the seemingly-sublime enormity of platforms, of infrastructure, or “The System.” Further, however, it is the courage to refuse melancholic paranoia, and the glib cynicism in which it is so often, and so inadequately, masked. Rather, it is hoped, a discourse can be defined here that goes beyond delirious projections of “possible futures,” either dark or enlightened (or darkly enlightened, or simply brightly dim), and turns away from both scandalized denouncements of sinister conspiracies, and smug elegies to higher orders and deeper truths. The often-quoted passage from Marx and Engels’ Manifesto of the Communist Party asserting that “all that is solid melts into air” is, somewhat less famously, followed by the assertion that “man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” This issue of Counter-Signals offers a space to play-out this compulsion, and to ‘face’—soberly or not—the reality of life and work defined and conditioned by webs of human relations, even as our very faces, bearing the organs of sight, and representing the sites of these ethical engagements, themselves sublime into vapor, melt into air, or, as Hito Steyerl suggests, “become liquid.”

Platforms are inhuman and often de-humanizing but they are made and maintained by the work of people, and built as much out of tangled, densely felted tissues of human relations as they are by material infrastructure and intricate lattices of software code. These structures of relation establish a recursive, mutual constitution of the turtles of subjectivity that, impossibly but manifestly extend forever in infinite regress, and eternal return. Jeff Bezos—as well as his legions of immiserated “fulfillment associates,” and the consumers whose desires they fulfill—create Amazon-dot-com even as they are created by it, and the rest of late capitalism. Counter-Signals—this issue specifically but also the publication as a whole—and Other Forms are likewise a platform of mutually-constituting subjects: “self-publishing” for selves yet-to-be; publishing addressing publics not yet formed, or endlessly in flux. This collection of texts seeks simultaneously to define terms, parameters, and points of fixity, and to identify paths of flight, opportunities to subvert, escape, unfound, and destabilize the structures that both support and confine our work and our lives. This is done in full acceptance of the fact that to challenge or attack platforms is to—in the tradition of Gordon Matta-Clark, or Daffy Duck—saw the floor from beneath our feet. Whether this will leave us standing on the beach, falling into the infinite void, or simply dropping down into a deeper sub-basement full of even darker, grimier machinery remains to be seen. If this interests you, comrade reader, take up your saw, stand next to us as we hack through this issue, and wait for the drop.

Down with platforms! All the way down!

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