Control: Digitality as Cultural Logic. Seb Franklin. MIT Press, 2015. pp. 240. $37. ISBN: 978-0-2620-2953-7
When reading the third chapter of Seb Franklin’s Control: Digitality as Cultural Logic, I was reminded of a recent workshop I attended on “Literature and Legal Studies” presented by Todd Butler: the chair of my English Department at Washington State University. Butler had us read a section from Franz Kafka’s “Before the Law,” in which a man sits in front of an open doorway until his death — never being able to pass. After reading the excerpt, the workshop focused on how legal systems are constructed quite independently of any one person’s intention — resulting in a very complex, and often dehumanizing system that offers certain opportunities for justice but only when interpreting the law in a very specific way and only in certain circumstances. Butler celebrated how, for instance, legal scholars were able to halt the implementation of Donald Trump’s first executive order to cease immigration from seven primarily Muslim countries. Throughout the workshop, however, I found that several students were dissatisfied with the vision of justice emerging through this legal context. How can such a dehumanizing net of laws, they wondered, possibly protect minorities consistently enough to ensure their participation in a democratic society?
I hadn’t made the connection when attending the workshop, but “Before the Law” as well as the entirety of Kafka’s novel The Trial is central to the emerging scholarship on what has come to be known as “control societies.” Control societies, as Franklin defines them in the context of Deleuze’s famous reading of Kafka, are characterized by a social vision in which “[t]he entirety of social life […] becomes imaginable as a system of perpetual recursion that finds a precursor in the dreams of Babbage and Hollerith, as well as in those of untold bureaucrats” (107). The notion of “perpetual recursion” is key to control societies, as it seems the mechanisms of control start to take on their own life — independent of the human institutions they were created to address. When considering Seb Franklin’s reading of control as an epistemological form, his focus on what he calls the “concrete social relations” of control, as opposed to the technologies of control, constitutes both a strength and a weakness of his account (26). As a book on labor history and post-Foucauldian philosophy, Franklin’s Control: Digitality as Cultural Logic, substantially expands reflections on control society made by Gilles Deleuze, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Friedrich Kittler, and Alexander Galloway — among others. Yet, by limiting himself to the “construction of digitality as metaphor,” Franklin creates a rhetorical situation in which he must both recognize the agency of nonhuman technologies in shaping ideology and reject that agency (xxi).
Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Franklin’s book is his extensive survey of bureaucratic history and the way he implicates literary and critical theory in that history. For instance, the fourth chapter juxtaposes the avant-garde methodologies of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett with the cybernetic theories of Norbert Wiener and Claude Shannon. Such juxtapositions are further enriched with Franklin’s revelation that the literary critic I.A. Richards participated in the Macy conferences for communication engineering. I knew nothing about this early collaboration between cybernetics and literature; and as such, chapter 4 provides a powerful rethinking of how computers impacted the development of English Studies. We learn that von Neumann read Goethe’s Faust throughout his life, and that such readings might have provided a foundation for his linking of language with action in computing. Wiener and Deutsch, meanwhile, wrote an article in 1963 on Rudyard Kipling, connecting the morality in his work with the binary logic found in computation. Finally, Richards presented a paper at the 1963 Macy conference titled “Communication Between Men: Meaning of Language,” in which rejects digital methods for analyzing literature arguing that the “ ‘scientific objectivity’ of which many a linguistic scientist is so charmingly vain … is so out of place when it tries (as it does) to interfere with education or criticism” (qtd on 115). Richards’s warning provides Franklin with a dire prediction of our future, in which the failures of standardized testing and student evaluations show all-too-well how quantitative evaluation can subvert educational opportunity.
But is digitality just a cultural logic? And even if we bracket the technological aspects of digitality while acknowledging their existence, what are we missing if we trace control exclusively through human ideas and institutions? At points, Franklin seems very intentional in limiting the scope of his analysis to cultural forms and epistemological categories. Franklin’s readings of the nineteenth-century theories of industrialist Charles Babbage and census-organizer Herman Hollerith, as well as his account of the early history of cybernetics in the Macy conferences and the notion of the programmable person found in films such as the Bourne franchise point to the broad resonance of control in cultural forms. At the same time, Franklin’s primarily ideological approach to media history creates strange misreadings of some media theorists. To give one example, he calls Kittler’s reading of Aristotle in “The World of the Symbolic” “a neat (if anachronistic) synthesis of narrative form and precybernetic concepts of the subject,” when Kittler’s larger project on Greek Cultural Techniques rethinks the history of programmability from the vantage point of Greek music, mathematics, and language (150). In other words, as Geoffrey Winthrop-Young argues, “Kittler alludes to a certain similarity between the Greek alphanumerical system and the computer. Both are based on recursively operating sign systems that can process linguistic, visual, and acoustic data” (107). The digital equivalency that Franklin sees as symptomatic of a certain logic spawned by human thinkers in the nineteenth century is identified by Kittler as having a much longer non-human history — one that belongs to a self-recursive sign system programming the development of Western culture and subjectivity since at least the development of the Greek alphabet.
Despite these difficulties, Franklin’s history of digitality’s cultural deployment has much to offer — particularly as it regards the connections between industrial labor, cybernetics, and the development of the digital computer. At the same time, there are many points where Franklin admits the limitation of a purely cultural approach to digitality. In his introduction to Part 2 of the book, Franklin says that “it is necessary to simultaneously engage digital technologies and the cluster of (often aesthetic) metaphors that surround them” (85). One wonders whether, by attending to the technological aspects of digitality, Franklin believes that we are inevitably submitting to its dehumanizing logic. Marx himself displayed an ambivalence toward industrial technology in his “Fragment on Machines.” Even as he argued against the replacement of human agency by automated technology, he situated this argument in line after line of stunning prose describing its awe-inspiring power. Perhaps Marx was wrong to argue that this was a form of dehumanization. Or, perhaps, by describing the feeling of losing that agency, Marx and other digital labor theorists reveal a posthuman and ecological form of relationality that was hiding behind our fantasies of human supremacy the whole time.