It’s difficult to overvalue the network either in terms of a concept or an apparatus in this cultural moment. With everyday web access set soon to launch from wearable devices like the Apple watch, fully merging our everyday life with a more completely developed “internet of things” (IoT), networks and networking practices increasingly invoke an almost universal context for all human activity. The sheer inclusiveness of their reach into everyday life can seem staggering. Each veritable instant of our being—whether spent awake, asleep, secluded in solitude or lost in the comfort of crowds—inevitably forms another connection to the active swirl of digital information packets and protocols we call “the net.” As such, networks are not just models of communication and information; they easily signify the very substance of living itself in action.
It’s partly this newfound primacy of networks that prompted media theorist Lev Manovich at the beginnings of digital culture in the late 20th century to theorise the database as the dominant symbolic form for structuring and building cultural meaning in the digital era. The database replaced narratives and narration in this role during the print period. For Manovich, understanding composition in new media began by seeing the process of communicating as fundamentally concrete and image-oriented, deriving from the spatial arrangement of signifiers, whether through juxtaposition or layering. Although Manovich’s preferred technique for this process is the montage, calling it “the default visual language of composite organization of an image” (Fall 1999), his overall insistence is that digital composition practices use tools to construct meaning as a spatiality through visual placement techniques. For this reason, the database emerges as a particularly important apparatus in this process as it provides a structural repository for all such elements.
Similar arguments occur in many of the more recent studies of networks currently populating cultural theory, including works like Bruce Clark’s Neocybernetics and Narrative (Minnesota 2014) and, as we’ll see here, Christopher Vitale’s especially inventive philosophy-cum-manifesto Networkologies: A Philosophy of Networks for a Hyperconnected Age (Zer0 Books 2014). As with Manovich, a key focus in contemporary network theory underscores the composite, interactive nature of such systems. Networks remain inherently interconnected, layered and multiple in their functions. Vitale’s study distinguishes itself from media-centred approaches, however, by arguing that not only do networks ably represent our world and how we communicate in it, they provide a rigorous model of how all physical elements within the world itself interact with each other. In this way, Vitale’s theory of networks effectively reconstructs the very process of human cognition in direct relation to the material “real.” To sum, it is one of Vitale’s primary theoretical objectives to synthesize cognitive reasoning and all physical or real relations in the world, claiming that the network offers an innately dynamic, comprehensive model for all modes of interactivity, whether cognitive or physical. Thus we have in “networkology” an active attempt to counter the dilemma of mind-body dualism that has dominated western epistemology since Descartes. Citing contemporary neuroscience models of the brain, Vitale suggests that human thought itself can be considered a juxtapositioning or layering of signifiers as signals. In his words, “consciousness and our sense of who we are results from a dynamic and shifting network of syncing pulsations, layered within relatively more stable distributed nets of neural connections” (loc. 470). Consistent with this decidedly phenomenological view, Vitale gives us cognition not just as a physical process of “syncing pulsations” but quite literally as a “form of thinking.” In this paradigm, “bones and muscle” or the deceptively simple act of water flowing around an obstacle like a rock in a river, as much as mathematical figures, appear “honed by the thought process of evolution” (470).
The neuroscience model Vitale cites as the chief inspiration behind this theory begins with the concept of artificial neural networks (ANN). A relatively recent, certainly radical, hybrid of medical and information technology advancements, for Vitale, is vital to modern philosophy specifically because it empirically demonstrates several discursive premises of western phenomenology and continental philosophy. As Vitale argues, “[f]or what artificial neural networks show, in their very existence, methods, and startling successes, is how even the most complex manifestations of our world, up to and including those of the human mind, can be seen as produced by networks. The very fact that any of this is possible nevertheless debunks some of the most long-standing myths of Western culture. What the new science of networks has shown then, and artificial neural networks in particular, is that the types of experience given rise to by the human brain can be produced from the networking of the stuff of the world with itself. What matters isn’t what is networked, but how. Nothing less, and nothing more. This could possibly change the way we see almost everything” (loc. 480). In Vitale’s work, both the concept and the structure of ANN together give us a very distinct combination of statistical learning models with biological neural networks. It’s easy to appreciate Vitale’s enthusiasm, given how the model of artificial neural networks generates a full communication system structured nominally as interconnected “neurons” sending messages to each other much in the same way that the central nervous systems of animals apparently function. This model has the advantage of applying neural networks to communication systems, thus yielding models of computation and information processing with the possibility of learning. Given specific tasks to solve, and a class of discrete functions, computers neurally networked are able to derive and then re-derive optimal responses based upon variations in generated, i.e., “observed,” data. Accordingly, these neural networks demonstrate more than just patterns; they suggest something akin to how intelligence is measured: the capacity in an organism (or any entity for that matter) to process information by adapting new data to new circumstances. It’s difficult not to extend these newfound abilities in computer networks to include an increasingly subtle array of human (all too human) characteristics. The author himself actually pairs the knack to learn in ANNs with the capacity to guess and even forget (loc. 1718). Vitale summarizes this interdependent relationship between an entity and its environment as a kind of “embodied cognition,” referring indirectly to Merleau-Ponty’s “embodied” notion of perception. For Merleau-Ponty, understanding the world necessarily involved participating in it, where knowledge emerged dialectically between the body (le corps propre) and the parameters of objectivity laid out by science. Networks in Vitale’s study offer a similar dimension, given how they engender a constantly changing, adaptive learning environment. Hence in the network we have the basis for a suitably embodied cognition.
Vitale works in media and philosophy at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, where he is an associate professor of media studies. Vitale’s interest in the thought of Merleau-Ponty complements other significant references to phenomenological lineages in continental philosophy throughout the book, notably the work of Gilles Deleuze. Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s concept of the rhizome plainly matches central premises in network theory (A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, 1987). Emphasizing multiple, non-hierarchical points of access into texts, rhizomatic modes of representation demonstrate a very literal kind of network where meaning occurs through non-linear, multiple, heterogeneous connections as opposed to the more typical “trees” of knowledge western culture has tended to offer as the dominant symbol of learning. When one organises knowledge according to pre-established tiers, an authority is in play. In contrast, the rhizome signifies spatial, process-based, interactive lines of thought set firmly against the dilemma of Cartesian dualism. Following from very similar premises and methods, Vitale’s “networkology” continues along certain radical streams of modern philosophy such as critiques of binary reason. Dialectical in structure, founded upon nodes and nodal links, networks function as inherently collaborative, combinatory frameworks of constant interaction. In this context, an enabling critique of dualism and dualistic thinking also appears, for in both their structure and function, nodes and links simply do not work that way.
So how do nodes and links work? Vitale spends a significant portion of the first half of the book establishing his terminology and core principles primarily to explore this question. At base, networks are composed of four basic parts: “nodes” joined together by “links,” surrounded by “grounds,” while operating on different “levels.” Each of these elements give rise to separate modes of logic; so we have the logics of “node,” “link,” “background” and (in a more complex manner), the logic of “emergence.” Whatever elements might constitute the particular “network” being observed—regardless of the type of system: organic, machinic, neurocognitive, etc.—all operate in at least one of these four manners: as nodes, links, backgrounds and/or emergences. These types of logic clearly draw heavily upon the language of science, especially that of complex systems and theoretical physics. Vitale’s terminology, in fact, recalls quantum models in physics where nodes, links, backgrounds and emergences take on the characteristics of Up, Down, Charm, Strange, Top and Bottom behaviours typically applied to quarks. Vitale makes the same analogy himself, describing networks and their differentiations as “fractal,” with a quark-like divisibility (loc. 1844). In this way, networkology seeks to further the critical interrogative relationship to science central to phenomenology in general—in particular, its poststructuralist lineages. Vitale makes clear that part of his interest is to “recontextualize or problematize some of the assumptions at work within these practices” (loc.592). Here, again we might review Deleuze’s rhizome and even Manovich’s database as acute attempts to employ the language of science in order to critically probe its discourses. The network provides, Vitale suggests, a similar type of lens-like function; in his words, “[e]verything in the world can be seen as a network, and in this sense, to call anything in the world network simply means to see it relationally, as a network composed of networks, linked to others, layered in levels, against a ground, and as an aspect of various processes and reifications” (loc.315; 353). Vitale demonstrates this premise quite literally in the second half of the book, where the format of his writing changes into more of a formal manifesto. Premises or points are presented in an aphoristic manner as “nodes” linked together to form their own network within still other networks, and on, and on.
Where Manovich and Deleuze use their terms symbolically—that is, as media forms designed to interrogate science discourses first and foremost at a linguistic level, Vitale implies that more than just language and sign systems are at stake here. And this is one of the primary theoretical shifts that distinguish this philosophy from other cultural studies of networking, including those deriving from cybernetics and information theory. With Vitale, a more powerful insight is possible once we move beyond semiotic and media-based systems and into deeper theories of how information is both processed and yet also experienced physically, cognitively and even psychically. Critics of this approach may continue to be wary of the inherent risk of positivism implied by any claims to epistemological authority. When Vitale credits networks with the capacity to “sync” human learning together in a manner that can be compared to—perhaps include—“animal symbiosis” or “molecules shifting in their relational configurations to bond with each other,” his claims invoke an almost Kantian formalism. It’s exciting, of course, to imagine a mode of understanding as inclusive as “networkologies,” to be able literally to see the world, as Vitale encourages us, “networkedly.” In poststructuralist theory, after philosophy’s linguistic turn, so to speak, and the refinement of cybernetic systems, networks provided a markedly dynamic paradigm for understanding the complex influence of signifying systems on human psycho-social development. “Symbols,” Lacan famously argues in his work on language and psychoanalysis, “in fact envelop the life of man in a network so total that they join together, before he comes into the world, those who are going to engender him…” (Language 42). But Vitale’s network is not to be considered primarily of the symbolic realm. Networks in Vitale’s manifesto, along with the capacity to see things “networkedly,” invite us to contemplate a much more multifarious—even foundational—relationship between the subject and his or her environment. Extended as such, we have a startlingly fresh, if challenging, intellectual context designed to combine the psycho-semiotic systems of theorists like Lacan and Deleuze with contemporary insights into neuro-cognitive models, not to mention various new directions in theoretical physics.
Clark, Bruce. Neocybernetics and Narrative. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.
Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.
Lacan, Jacques. “Symbol and Language.” The Language of the Self: The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis. 1956. Trans. Anthony Wilden. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Manovich, Lev. “Database as a Symbolic Form.” “The Digital.” Millennium Film Journal No. 34 (Fall 1999).