March 24, 2020

The Stack, the City

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:13 am

This will be my first run at Benjamin Bratton’s The Stack (2016), a book that is extremely interesting in its own right (and likely to continue to be so) while also representing a new area of inquiry—familiar with postmodern theory, and drawing heavily upon thinkers like Foucault and Deleuze, while taking full account of all the implications of “planetary-wide computation.” As I mentioned a little while back, while Bratton, and his colleagues at the Moscow Strelka Institute (from which much more is promised) and the e-flux journal, is certainly “leftist,” he can barely be bothered to even pay lip service to the trendy race, gender, sexuality issues, or gesture toward “power and wealth disparities.” Rather, his politics is almost exclusively concerned with climate change, and in reading Bratton and some of his colleagues it become fairly obvious that what most fascinates in ecology is the pretext it provides for design projects that would match the scope of the supposed problem and draw upon the resources available through planetary computation. In fact, if, rather than obsessing over trying to minimize (and even shrink) the amount of carbon in the environment, we were to say, “well, why don’t we just accept that all the things the climate changers say is going to happen—melting polar caps, flooded coastlines, super-storms and the rest—will happen and redesign our human habitat in response,” we’d have an “absolutist” or “autocratic” project precisely parallel to Bratton’s in scope, ambition, and disregard for present political pieties.

Bratton sees planetary scale computation as a challenge, not necessarily insurmountable, to existing forms of sovereignty. He shifts Schmitt’s “nomos” from the earth to the “cloud,” as in cloud computing. The “stack” is the vertical and “accidental” articulation of different “layers”: the Cloud layer, the Earth layer, the City Layer, the Address layer, the Interface layer, and the User layer. This model is clearly meant to replace or significantly “update” our outdated models of nations, sovereignty, citizenship, rights, and all the rest—but the problem of articulating all these levels coherently leaves open the possibility that some kind of traditionally conceived sovereignty (political will) might be beneficial or even necessary to help create the “stack of the future.” This opens the possibility for very interesting discussions. Before saying a little about each of these layers, and zeroing in on one in particular, I want to point out that, with the exception, I suppose, of the “Cloud” and “Earth” layers, which seem to be clearly the highest and lowest, respectively, the layers seem to me to be less piled on top of, than wedged (in very complicated and uneven ways) into each other.

The Cloud is the layer of the accumulation and processing of the massive amounts of data now produced, intentionally and inadvertently, through all of our daily activities. The Cloud sovereigns are Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook (I’m not sure whether Bratton would—or should—put Twitter, or others—into this pantheon). Google seems to be primus inter pareshere. I don’t think anyone needs to be convinced that whether and how these “polities” transcend and subordinate (or eliminate), on the one hand, or are integrated into, on the other hand, traditional forms of sovereignty, is one of the more pressing medium-term questions of the present order. The Earth is the earth as the source of the massive ongoing extraction of raw materials required to keep the Cloud going—the entire earth being scoured for minerals and power sources, in the use of which planetary-scale computation dwarfs by a great deal all other forms of power use. And, of course, the Earth absorbs all the consequences of this enormous burning of energy. Needless to say, all kinds of questions of economic and political control enter into ensuring continual access to (and responsibility for) Earth. The Address layer is where institutions and individuals (the latter increasingly through institutions) gain access and make themselves accessible to the Cloud; as an Address, we are each of us entered into the Cloud in various ways, from various points of entry. The Interface layer is the ways in which users are provided access to the Cloud and through it to institutions. There is always an Interface, and, the Interface level is the one where the vocabulary of the Stack most overlaps with more familiar vocabularies—we start to notice that every human interaction involves (or can be described in terms of) some kind of “interface,” which is probably going to replace the older, more philosophical term “mediation.” The Interface is a site of interesting design problems—the way the website looks and works, the series of clicks one must employ to “enter” some online enclave is enormously consequential for the shape of the subsequent “exchange.” And we all know what the “User” is, since we are all users, all day long, at various sites. Bratton seems to me to suggesting pretty strongly that “User” (with its, as I’ve seen others point out, connotations of addiction and dependency) is coming to replace “citizen” as the way we are all identified within and participate in the Stack.

Furthermore, Bratton makes it clear that Users are not necessarily human—in fact, the vast majority of them are not—or, at least, that will eventually be the case. Companies and institutions can set up proxy users, automated users with addresses through which business can be transacted. And this brings us to another aspect of what, for now, I’ll call “the thought of the Stack”—its development of tendencies within posthuman and postmetaphysical discourses that relativize or, better, “relationalize” the human in relation to the non-human—the mechanical and algorithmic as well as the animal, vegetable and mineral. To put it simply, humans are not the only agents—although the question seems to be left open (Bratton often seems to be ready to close it, though) as to whether humans are a particularly important or special kind of agent. The transcendence of liberalism would be the transcendence of humanism as well, so there are legitimate questions for postliberals here as well—certainly, if we assume that desire and resentment are always of the center, that we only have being in and through the center, we’re not exactly “humanists” either, insofar as humanism means putting humans at the center. I would insist on the distinctiveness of joint attention, but animals certainly exercise attention, the metabolics and chemical composition of other materials can be said to have some form or “tendency” analogous to attention (we could invoke Aristotle here, or point out that “attention” might be on a continuum with something like  “responsiveness”) and our machines have simulations of attention and intention programmed into them—so, humanity’s “specialization” within the Stack can be acknowledged while we see a continuum along various “layers” of being. Anyway, I just mark these as questions to be taken up as more of us, I hope, familiarize ourselves with Bratton’s and his colleagues’ work.

This brings us to the City layer, the one that I think really stands out here—all the rest of the layers have come into existence over the past few decades, but there have been cities for 10,000 years. The city is, by definition and etymology, a political entity. Bratton, it seems to me, ultimately wants to see the city insofar as it is integrated into the other layers—as a conglomeration of users and architectural interfaces that allow the Cloud nomos to organize production, circulation and consumption. But it’s impossible to avoid questions of power here, and Bratton draws upon Deleuze’s concept of a “society of control,” which Deleuze saw as replacing Foucault’s ‘disciplinary society”—whereas the disciplinary society, through institutions like schools, prisons, militaries, factories, etc., worked directly on the bodies of its subjects, the society of control “modulates” the interfacial means providing ingress and egress to various institution and interactions. This distinction has always seemed to me overstated, insofar as Foucault’s notion of “panopticism” already includes the idea of self-regulation in response to anticipated responses to one’s possible behavior, but we don’t need to “relitigate” this debate within postmodern theory here (or anywhere else, probably). Either way, controlling behavior by making it clear that certain kinds of decisions will give you a bad credit rating a decade down the line is far more effective than constantly punishing or shaming people for trivial purchases—at least on a systemic, if not always on an individual level. (Distinguishing between those who need constant “stimuli” and those who can find patterns and anticipate is also a good way of sorting people out.)

Bratton’s discussion of the City layer, like all of his discussion, is complex, interesting and rather breathless—he refers back to ancient cities as the city of temples, sacrifice, and distribution (not much, if anything, on palaces and kings, though), discusses airports as a model for thinking the contemporary city, and much else. Still, the fact that the capitals of countries, where the government is seated, are cities, seems to interest him less, as does the imperial nature of at least the major cities. Cities are the center. Like markets and money, to which cities are constitutively related, cities seem to have generally (if not invariably) been created by the imperial center. Jane Jacobs makes a very interesting, counter-intuitive argument in her The Economy of Cities, to the effect that the urban precedes the rural—that, in fact, agricultural communities were established to feed the city rather than, as seems more “natural,” cities being a result of the development of farming to the point where extensive exchange became possible (this seemingly natural assumption is strikingly and suspiciously similar to the seemingly natural assumption of barter growing to the point where money became necessary to mediate the sheer volume of exchanges). At any rate, the better we get at discussing “the City,” the better we will be able to argue that it is within the City layer that the agency needed to make all the layers of Stack more consistent, internally and with each other, will come from within the City. And, unless you believe in the possibility of technocracy (as Bratton does), that is the kind of argument you will need to make.

Needless to say, there have been lots of cities and many different kinds of cities. But perhaps we can say that cities are where individuals are abstracted from kinship and cult relations and related directly to an at least potentially desacralized authority. Even when there’s a cult of the city, it’s a cult abstracted from and shared by the separate tribes and families with their traditional cults. The city is where divine kinship replaces sacral kingship, and where the mobilization of masses of instrumentalized and de-socialized slave laborers is initiated. The city is therefore the site of intensified and distributed mimetic activity, of endless mimetic crises and deferrals, which are in turn converted into models of governance. The pastoral, the aesthetic mode that celebrates the natural and virtuous countryside to the artificial and vicious city is itself a product of and reflection upon urban life—the “artificial” city is the source of “Nature” (part of Bratton’s project is to eliminate the entire notion of “nature” as well as “culture” by acknowledging the artificiality of everything—a development heralded by the city). The city is the cynosure and produces cynosures (“celebrities”). Cities are modeled on other cities and are modeled and remodeled on themselves, or some imaginary project of themselves. To capture the city is at least a precondition to capturing the entire country—sometimes it actually seems to be a sufficient condition.

Cities have an egalitarian tendency, due to their abstractness, but they are above all centers generating satellites: other cities, suburbs and countryside, geopolitical peripheries. It is from the standpoint of the city—Washington D.C. in relation to New York and LA, in relation to Des Moines, Dallas and Orlando, in relation to the “heartland”; in relation to London, Paris, Beijing, Moscow, Dubai, Jerusalem, Cairo, and so on, and through these centers to other peripheries (and feel free to contest my American-centrism if you think another order is emerging)—it is only by subordinating the Stack to a coherent ordering of these center-periphery relations that the Stack can be integrated into the human order, rather than the reverse. But these reflections are, I emphasize, by way of laying the groundwork for engaging these new disciplinary spaces.



After writing this post, I happened to come across an essay (“On Anthropolysis,” published in 2018) by Bratton that touches on the question of human origins. Here are the first two paragraphs:


Anthropogeny is the study of human origins, of how something that was not quite human becomes human. It considers what enables and curtails us today: tool-making and prehensile grasp, the pre-frontal cortex and abstraction, figuration and war, mastering fire and culinary chemistry, plastics and metals, the philosophical paths to agricultural urbanism and more.Given that Darwinian biology and Huttonian geology are such new perspectives, we may say that anthropogeny, in any kind of scientific sense, is only very recently possible. Before, human emergence was considered from the distorting perspective of local folklores. Creation myths, sacred and secular, have been placeholders for anthropogeny, and still now defend their turf. When Hegel was binding the history of the world to the history of European national self-identity, it was assumed among his public that the age of the planet could be measured in a few millennia (103 or 104 years), not aeons (109 years). The fabrication of social memory and the intuition of planetary duration were thought to operate in closely paired natural rhythms. While the deep time of the genomic and geologic record shows that that they do not, the illusion of their contemporaneity also brought dark consequences that, strangely enough, would actualize that same illusion. In the subsequent era, the meta-consequence of this short- sighted conceit is the Anthropocene itself, a period in which local economic history hasin fact determined planetary circumstances in its own image.The temporal binding of social and planetary time has been, in this way, a self-fulfilling superstition.

As such, how is the anthropos of anthropogeny similar to or different from the anthropos of the Anthropocene? Are they correspondent? Does the appearance of the human lead inevitably toward, if not this particular Anthropocene, then an Anthropocene, and some eventual strong binding of social and geologic econo- mies? Whether the two anthropoi are alike or unlike in origin, can they converge or diverge? Instead of becoming human, does a sharp temporal linking also speak to becoming something else? That is, in what ways is a post-Anthropocene—a geo-historical era to come, eventually—aligned with “anthropolysis”or the inverse of anthropogeny—a becoming inhuman, posthuman, unhuman, or at least a very different sort of human?


The Anthropocene is that period in the history of the earth where the earth is decisively marked, even made over by, human activity. There is some interesting equivocation in Bratton’s discussion here. On the one hand, human origins can only be seriously explored after the scientific innovations of Darwinian theory and modern geology—prior to that, there was plenty of talk of human origins, but all of it mythical and folkloric (Bratton’s Voltairean contempt of anything smacking of religion or myth comes out especially strongly in this essay). In other words, only in the Anthropocene could a plausible account of human origins emerge—even if Bratton doesn’t consider the question important enough to do more than gesture towards brain development, war, fire and food. What we discover in and through the Anthropocene is that the earth and its history have no regard for human scale. At the same time, the delusional belief that the history of the earth was tailored to human needs and purposes, and was therefore to be mastered, was the very attitude that, in a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” produced the Anthropocene, the age in which the human transforms and even endangers the earth. It then makes sense for Bratton to ask whether “the appearance of the human lead[s] inevitably towards, if not thisAnthropocene, at least someAnthropocene.”

We are in the middle of some very interesting paradoxes here. What kind of being must this human be if it was “destined” to produce some Anthropocene? Presumably a being compelled to see itself as essential to the world, to see the world as created for its own sake. Why should developments in the cortex, the mastering of fire, and so on create such a being? That the human leads to the Anthopocene, and the Anthropocene leads to Anthropolysis, the “breaking up” of the human into the “inhuman, posthuman, unhuman, or at least a very different sort of human,” is very suggestive. But most of the rest of this essay is an attack on contemporary ‘reactionaries,” who wish to return to national ethnic, religious, etc., fairy tales and reject the science that will remake humans into—what, exactly, and why?—finally drifting in and out of various science fiction visions. The limits of Bratton’s anthropolysis lie in his refusal to take seriously the question of anthropogenesis. But he does end with the following thought:

If the Anthropocene binds social time to planetary time, then let the former scale up to the latter, not the latter down to the former. With maximum demystification, make human economies operate according to the geologic scale we found hiding under the rocks. This inversion of the temporal binding we have is the kind of good definition of the post-Anthropocene that we need, and the inversion of the humanist position and perspective it would require is the anthropolysis we want.

In a way, this formulation parallels that of the inherently anthropocenic human—in both cases, it seems essential to have the human scale match the planetary scale. The human must make itself a match to the planetary; or, to put it in terms that might repel Bratton, the human has to make the planet a home. I’ll appeal here to Walter Ong, who, in his posthumously published Language as Hermeneutic: A Primer on the Word and Digitizationargues that the ongoing “analysis” of reality through the process of breaking it up into smaller and smaller “bits” in fact raises more questions of “interpretation” at each point along the way. Similarly, the process of anthropolysis, of becoming a “very different sort of human” (aren’t we always becoming a different sort of human?), raises questions of anthropogenesis. GA has not, perhaps, paid enough attention to the human as a world maker, but the originary hypothesis has us zero in on the human as a scene maker, or, we might say, stage designer. Bratton is right: our stage is now the planet, and we will be designing it, one way or another. Bratton, though, seems to want to clear the stage of the clutter caused by those who still want to reduce the planetary to their all-too-human scale. The anthropomorphic way of thinking about it is to see our discoveries regarding the materials with which we are to design, and the spaces upon which we have to stage our shows, as, simultaneously, revelations regarding the new roles we and our fellow players might inhabit. We can be patient as we (diligently) elicit these possibilities, and try out different ways of scaling things up, or restaging—and, really, Bratton can afford to be patient too, because whatever sponsors he might have in mind are not going to scale up to the dimensions of his project anytime soon.

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