Code Drift: Essays in Critical Digital Studies: cds007
Date Published: 5/6/2010
Arthur and Marilouise Kroker, Editors


Code and the Technical Provenance of Nihilism

Bradley Bryan

An Invitation to Nihilism

The death of God is not obvious. It is the un-heeded event that Nietzsche claimed present in our every act of knowledge from now on, a hidden death known only to those who have come to witness it in the most unlikely of places: libraries, conferences, classrooms, bureaucracies, laboratories. Nihilism, the destiny of thought that captures this event, is not an illusion or something that comes to pass to only a few people and not others; nihilism is not black leather and believing in nothing. Nihilism is something: everything comes to nothing, in a word. And one particular word to witness the becoming-nothing of everything in the life-blood of today's human is "code." The code is the ground of the living being, and the task of what follows is to see the death of God in it.

The task of today's laboratories is to make plain and clear to sight what goes on inside the living being or molecule. The laboratory is an apparatus of technology, which is simply the logos of techne -- the truth regarding technique. The technical provenance of nihilism is not found, or not only found, in the gadgets of technology, as this would give us the illusion that we stand in a relation to the gadgets that we use in an instrumental manner. Martin Heidegger's now classic meditation on technology rooted the technological in technique -- a word that makes all attempts to come to terms with technology much more difficult, if only because the very notion of a technique seems present in every activity one might imagine.[1] The dedication to refining one's tennis technique, for example, occurs under the same sway as the striving to decode and illuminate the human genome. To grasp the technical provenance of the code, of our "knowledge activities" in relation to the codification of the body, is also to understand the relation between nihilism and technology today. It is to see the death of God in the concerned orientation towards one's technique, and in the anxious search for genomic codes. It is also to gather the way Heidegger properly appropriates the task of explicating nihilism from Nietzsche by sighting the flight of the gods in the halls of knowledge.

Biotechnology eschews mystery, proceeding and moving with the conviction that all things can, in principle, be explained. But this spirit, this ethos and vocation, needs to be embraced, soaked up, breathed, such that the lack of clarity to it and the entities of this world, to our very selves, becomes painfully and joyously apparent. So the "we" here is an ambiguous we -- because sometimes we are the ones set upon by them, the scientists, at their disposal to be marked. Other times we are the ones who are seeking the code, our complicity in the vengeful products of biotechnology unavoidable (and even our avoidance itself can be willful). In reading Nietzsche and Heidegger, one may notice that nihilism and technique do not countenance despair, which may seem odd given that Nietzsche and Heidegger both descry the death of God as the fundamental event of Western history. To see why the appropriate response is neither hand-clapping secular giddiness nor downcast black-leather sullenness requires close attention to the way this uncanny death is manifest in the world around us. It does not take work to see why such poses are laughable; what is harder, and will take more effort, is to see what is laughable in what carries itself with such seriousness. If the code is itself nihilistic, we must attend to how, and why, and see why the code, while "true" and "real," remains deserving of our scorn. In what follows I hope to generate some excitement about nihilism for us, and to do so by attending closely to just what a genetic code is -- which is really only ever to ask who we are that could feasibly imagine and utter phrases about it such that we might transform ourselves in the very asking.[2] From the ordinary may spring the remarkable if we allow ourselves to travel on a journey of foreignness, and to then come home to see how strange our home is: the advent of the strange and unheimlich is foreign in the sense that our own home can come to seem like a strange land to us only when we have tarried away awhile. We may never come home, but might, if we are careful and serious, find ourselves sufficiently schadenfroh, and even enjoy it.

Code and Legality

The code has a legal provenance. In every sense it is: a rule, a law, a command, an argument, a claim, an ethic, a creed, a protocol, a standard. It is the generalizable statement, the "what is" that lays down a girder for the building of world, as Heidegger continually noted, most presciently in the seminars he gave later in his life.[3] It is the bridge to the transcendent in the literal sense of trans- and --scend: to "step across" into a world, to bridge the human to its world. The syllogism is the operation that allows the particular, me, to imagine myself as part of the universal, the world: the way an "I" becomes present as something that acts upon the world, and is acted upon as "me." The separation between "I" and "me" is the temporal opening accomplished by code as law (Gesetz) -- by the encoded command that differentiates the moment of commanding and the moment of suffering the command. It will be remarked that we can distinguish kinds of rules and standards and codes and laws, that each "acts" in a different way in different settings -- but this misses the point of grasping the legality that sits at the base of code: the code is the command of the not-yet, and it exists in every entelechy of code. The very idea of the digital relies on the opening of time accomplished by code: the code is thought of as real in the sense of being a res or thing of the world (and as such a being it manifests a presence that endures, that "has" time).

The code harbours this moment of leaving the mind and entering the world, approaching the body, comprehending the body as something that is not subject to my thoughts. As Ian Hacking has perceptively queried, it is interesting, even funny, that despite the demise of the mind-body distinction, it has had such a successful run in computer programming since the differentiation of software from hardware instantiates the very notion of the thinking thing in the Cartesian sense.[4] Artificial Intelligence (AI) fulfills the dream of modernity not because it is human-made intelligence but because it is ostensibly a thinking thing that is the ground of its own thoughts precisely because its self-legislating ground is in a readable code, a principle of sufficient reason. And yet it is claimed that AI is not aiming at system autonomy in the sense of being self-originating, but rather autonomy in the sense of a receptivity that can ground its reactivity to the conditions of world: the AI-being "transcends" and "makes a difference." Its execution of protocols and commands, the being of artificial intelligence, is legislating and in this sense is already something other than the human.

The rhetorical analysis contemplated here, of what the words / commands / symbols themselves "are" in what they "do," of what happens in this speaking, is a kind of linguistic phenomenology, if one permits that speaking words is language (an admitted leap). In what follows I begin by wondering at the kind of being that would be hailed by the phrases and commands of biotechnology's codes, to look and listen closely to the legality that belongs to the code, to lay out its temporal orientation and the vengeful origins it harbours, and to see how the vengeful heritage of the code belongs to what Heidegger calls "the sway of technique." The hailing of the code is nihilistic precisely because of its legal heritage, of the grounding of the code as an expression of the will to power, a will that exhausts itself in a rage against time. Nihilism's presence can be shown in more than simply the disenchantment that the code (as Gesetz) holds, as prophesied by Nietzsche; it can be shown to reside in the way all beings in the world stand to be revealed as available to cognition, fungible and exchangeable in their identity, and ready to be put at the disposal of the human. That the world of things stands ready to be revealed as encoded tells us that the sway of technique is always already at work: technique is now the way the real is revealed, as "enframing," Ge-stell, requires that the being of all beings is thinkable as stock, as Bestand.

Code is a metaphor in all the ways that Orwell loves metaphors -- it is not just catachresis (as in "the tongue of the shoe"), or abuse (as in "the kiss of conscience"). It is a metaphor that lacks a referent, but is itself somehow more telling than the thing to which it refers, and remains truly telling only if we hold its metaphorical status clearly in view. Nietzsche reminds us to not worry about metaphor and its referents because all language comes to pass through metaphor.[5] If we focus on referents we forget the experience, the event, that the word itself holds and must be (which, he shows by way of The Genealogy of Morals, is not to posit an origin, but to bring to light a condition of the word's possibility). The import of the code's metaphorical status is that all codes are prima facie sayings, and in the saying, they are a doing -- or, at least, this is the self-understanding of science and knowledge about codes: they do by saying.

The idea that a "saying is a doing" predates J.L. Austin, and can in some sense be traced to Hobbesian nominalism, that the act of naming is itself the Sovereign moment. But it is also a Kantian moment, in that all saying is a pre-disposing of the will. That is, every time the will wills it does so by orienting itself by way of a possible maxim; every act has a maxim for Kant, and this maxim is coterminous with the will itself. For Kant, the will actually only ever wills itself in all willing, since, true to his Lutheran roots, he held that the will can not be said to effect that which it desires to effect. And so when the will wills, it only ever wills itself as the kind of being that would do what it claims. For example, were I to lift a cup of coffee to have a sip, I do not in fact will it in the sense of producing the event. I aim to do so only by ensuring that I am the kind of person that could do something, and as such bring myself into being as that will. The principle of autonomy, that I am a self-legislating being, assures that I am also limited by my very self-causing in that I cannot cause anything else. I lie before me as the kind of being revealed by the maxims I propound -- or I do so as Kant would have it. This trajectory of "bringing into being" through a maxim is reincarnated in Habermas's grounding of the ideal speech situation (the foundation of his "discourse ethics" of later years) in the notion that speech only occurs when something remains to be said.[6] That we seek agreement, that we aspire to an ideal situation, is possible only if we presume that all saying proceeds because it needs to be said -- is called forth into the world to make itself heard, as it were. Consistent with every understanding of truth and justice in the West since Antiquity, justice is only ever brought into being at the behest of the spoken. The transformative power of the saying is what underlies Gregory Bateson's social ecology. Bateson's challenge to cybernetics occurs at the very level of information as "news of a difference": that information is only ever information insofar as it brings with it some "news" that is in some way not identical with everything that has come before.[7] It turns up as information only because we notice it as differing and in some way required. In each of these, from Hobbes to Bateson, the saying that a code could be is marked by a movement from non-being into being by way of a saying. Saying is a doing, and it is a doing that brings something into being, that accomplishes something. But this shows temporality: the very idea that every saying must also presume some consequence as problem that supervenes upon saying as such is plagued by the ressentiment and rage against time that Nietzsche prophesied as belonging to codes as such. And so we see that the problem of nihilism can properly reside with the code only because the latter holds the particular temporal orientation grounded at its core by a saying that is also a willing. This temporal orientation of code holds us to "world".

Nietzsche demurs, knowing how hard it is to say anything at all, anything worth saying, or anything new. But Nietzsche's own novelty stems from being the first to see that our sayings of beings were all doings, and that they are doings that project a temporal orientation that seeks to redeem the present from the suffering it occasions. Nietzsche is the first to see that the problem of existence is the problem of enduring through time -- and here Heidegger is in his debt. Ressentiment is the rage against time, the drive to discover being and the being of freedom so that we can hold someone (or something) to account for the vicissitudes of time. Indeed, Nietzsche's diagnosis of Kantian freedom as vengeful was not an act of refutation but simply a frank demand that we be honest about what our philosophical queries about freedom entail. He notes that we seek freedom not because we wonder why or if we are free, but simply to be able to hold someone responsible for suffering, as though it were caused or occasioned by an agent. This "finding" of Kant's is knowingly put forth by Kant himself as a practical but incomprehensible necessity: we cannot understand freedom itself but can understand the practical necessity of it, since we could have nothing like morality without it. Nietzsche agrees (though demanding that we confront the question of morality's purpose). And so freedom, the being of the self-legislating agent in its very moments of maxim production, is posited so that we can stand in a relation of judgment with respect to the things that befall us in existence. The power of judgment is contained in simple saying. [8]

An easy notion to imagine psychologically, tougher existentially: ressentiment. It names "resentment," and its manifestation is in the act it imagines: getting even. Revenge only occurs because of resentment, but the human, as human, is not-yet-human until its resentment turns into revenge: it is revenge that brings the beast to humanity, and makes it human. We must not imagine resentment and revenge as distinct emotions or parts of the life of the human; rather, they are constitutive: they are found in every moment of thinking and willing. It is inconceivable for Nietzsche to imagine the human without revenge. The great crime, even the great treason, of the human is to exact revenge on the masters, to subdue them by holding them accountable for the suffering they occasion. Only a free human can be responsible through time for what it does; to be free is to stake one's very being as security for its actions in time, punishment and its exaction make no sense otherwise ("... to breed an animal with the right to make promises..."). Indeed, the realm of the true is not possible without the sublime revenge that is carried out at the birth of the human. The birth of the human is the great crime, and it presupposes a law -- which the human subsequently erects. In order to make sense of suffering, the slave (the human), whom we all are, posits an unchanging world over-against the world of flux, and it posits a will that can separate itself in time -- separate its own commands and obediences: the birth of language, of code, of semiotic exchange. To say, and then to do, requires a will that separates in time, that is time.[9] Ressentiment's revenge is the rage against time, is the veritable attempt to bend time to our will. Nietzsche diagnoses Kantian freedom as the very way we carry this out: the will that must understand itself as standing behind all of our reasons -- that it is reason itself, co-terminous with freedom. The transcendental apperception, the "I think that I think," is nothing other than the principle of sufficient reason, the code of all codes.

But with nihilism, the code of codes becomes cynical in itself, yet cunning -- and so it departs the mind and moves into the body. The code goes cellular. And we nihilists become suspicious of codification.

Meanwhile... the Event of Epistemology

The active thinking subject is something achieved with perhaps the most tremendous Earth-shaking event of modernity: the advent of Epistemology: the presumption that all things are cognizable in principle. This both underlies and is the being of the code (the sense of "both underlies and is" should become clear shortly, for "where" is the code?). To say that this is an event at all, however, is to name the transformation of the beings of the world into beings of knowledge, beings articulable for knowing. The very being of a code is as this in-between moment -- of the translation of the truth of a being (the logos of ontos) into a truth of knowledge (the logos of episteme). But the transformation is not simply this act of translation: it is the presumption that the truth of knowledge is prior to and is what grounds the truth of a being. "All beings are in principle cognizable," that is to say that all beings are in principle reducible to the coded articulation that allows their being to be grasped as it is. The rise of positivism does not change this basic orientation. And even though the critique of epistemology began shortly after Kant in Marburg and Jena, it has not changed the radical sense of the event of knowledge. When Kant noticed that the subject must (if there is to be reflexive understanding at all) be presumed in all thinking, epistemology's priority was assured. [10] This is true despite whether Kant was aiming at an epistemological or metaphysical account, or whether he was engaged in a critical or foundational exercise -- for it is the point of necessity ("must") that secured the position of the subject. Thus, while Heidegger carefully shows how Kant's critique is a metaphysical and not epistemological exercise, it does not change the fact that what is shown in Kant's metaphysics allows for the security of the knowing subject, a transformation all the more ironic when Kant's Lutheran Pietist heritage would suggest that there is very little that a rational being can "know."

The code itself, then, marks the shift from ontology to epistemology, that is the question of being becomes the question of how we know ("what" becomes "how"). The radical import of Cartesian doubt becomes apparent only when we allow that nothing can be the case unless the thinking subject can know it, which is to say can be certain of it -- or free from doubt. It is the moment of Cartesian certainty, coupled with Kant's qualification of what belongs to the understanding (or "intellect," as Arendt would translate Verstand), that accomplishes the shift from beings to knowledge, and in so doing makes impossible a return to ontology. It also leads, seemingly inevitably, to a couple of other events: to the transformation of time that Kant accomplishes, and to an eradication of the possibility of a ground apart from the will that can assure itself of such a ground. (Recall that with Kant time becomes a condition of the possibility of the thinking subject and not an Aristotelian feature of the universe.) So what is the code? The commanding grounding, the code is the "making-cognizable" of anything in particular and everything in principle.[11] The megalomania and insipidity of this stance -- underlying all thinking in biotechnology -- should invite derision.

And yet, how is the code implicated in this story of stories? What is happening when we seek codes, when we say there is a code, when we speak the code, or let it "be read and executed"? The code is something that the human must impose by "finding" its necessity at every moment: it thus materializes from the darkness of our revenge (a darkness present not because of anything foreboding or frightening but present simply by dint of what is unseen). Here too we are told of the ambiguous transformation of the numinous into data as mathematical abstractions: it is said that mathematics serves to render the formless and unintelligible ready and apparent; or it is said that mathematics serves to make present abstractions of mind. Either way, the proposed realism of mathematical objects becomes entirely irrelevant because it begs the question, again, of why the search for such objects and the rules that condition their "reality" are sought. But in this mathematics can be seen simply as the search for conditions, descriptions, rules -- or, codes in the wide sense suggested here. The code is the moment of information, of something new, as that which makes a difference for us, and as such is an opening of time. And as we find this opening of time, the nihilistic heritage of code becomes more apparent, easier to see in the ordinary fetishism of code. We might ask why we ever imagined that our encounters could make "more sense" because of the comprehension of the code, the law. But this takes the code to be more illusory than its presence suggests. We are not "duped" into "believing" in a code that "is not there." To think of it this way is to fall into the problem of belief, or of a mistaken epistemological procedure -- such that we might repair our orientation to such "objects." Let us follow Husserl in approaching the code as a way to unravel how nihilism and technique continue to haunt us through the inevitable appearance of the code. In what way does the code "appear" when we speak it? How is it that the code seems to "be there"? Where is this code that everyone is talking about? There are four particular moments, from the most recent to those that come before. These moments are implicit in the way the code comes to presence in the beings around us, and the way their conditions of intelligibility are immanently bound to their presence: (i) the interpretation of the physical structure as "bearing" its code; (ii) the prior moment of sighting and naming of the code from its physical structure; (iii) the prior moment of divining presence in an intense measure of variability; and first and perhaps foremost (iv) the anonymous profile that renders the search for code sensible in the first place.

i. Physical Structure

The genetic code is often "seen" in its physical structure, that is in its actual double helix moment, as though something to be sought and found as a physical code, as the raw data waiting to be marshaled into and expressed as information. It sits, latent, until called upon, unzipped, specified and enacted. In this sense the mechanistic aspect of the code is apparent, much like parts in a switch, a machine, or device; much like a part of a carburetor in a car -- doing what it is called upon to do when gasoline and air cross it, coming forth and carrying out what their physical structure portends. DNA, as code, does not command like the commander, but rather is simply the command itself that awaits being executed, much like the statutes in a book of legislation going to work in the breach of a law.[12] The genetic command thus is thought to exist as the encoded physical structure that emerges both from and with its physicality from a moment of perceived latency. It comes to presence when called forth into the moment of visibility, from which one divines its prior existence as the latent yet existent code inscribed into, and identical with, the very physical structure of the molecule. Its latency is, must be, presumed if the living being could be said to unfold in its particularly encoded way.

And so Hegel's question of the presence of Geist is the same question regarding the position of code: "Where is the law?" Like positive law, the law that prohibits murder is present in each room, at every moment, despite no murder taking place; and yet the law itself only goes to work, becomes what it is, in the breach of it -- when crime itself takes place. But where is it? It cannot be seen or touched, even if we simply utter it. Hegel notes that the law only goes to work in its breach or abrogation, which is to say that the law itself is never properly present until the situation that calls it forth is manifest. But what "is" the situation that becomes manifest? How "is" this situation one that "calls forth" the law, or evidences or shows the law? What is shown in the showing of the law? DNA sits in its latency and is called forth because the exigencies of a situation have made this moment necessary, the moment when DNA will unzip and begin to instruct the process of protein production -- "the building blocks of life". The juridical tenor of these metaphors will not go unnoticed, and yet they are challenging precisely because it is not clear to what they refer. This ambiguity thus demands a solicitude and sorrow for language as it comes to us in speech, in the moment in which something is simultaneously sighted and named. But our sorrow falters and alters if it becomes despair or melancholic, finding no way out ("What have we to do with refutation!"). Our sorrow finds its true wings in mockery, just as Hegel once thought tragedy was resolved in comedy.

ii. Sighting and Naming

To Hobbes and other nominalists, the moment of being is the moment in which something is named: nominalism describes the radical act of ordering by setting valences, an ordering that presumes to require, and thus includes, a prior moment of "sighting" accomplished in some sense with every naming. In setting a valence we see as: we see the physical structure as a code, and in seeing it as a code can understand the being of the physical structure as something other than its code, can indeed imagine it. With what might be more appropriately called "genetic interpretation," the "marks" or "bumps" of a physical structure are approached and seen as "factors," as actual "moments" in the transformation of a being from one state through to the next -- in a way that allows us to assign responsibility for change through time, or for continuity, by describing the code that makes such change real by being understandable (epistemology as prior to ontology). In this seemingly backward activity of naming and sighting, the reason why something became and is as it is also becomes apparent: ressentiment. But let us be clear about how the genetic code uncouples sighting and naming as though they are separate acts not joined in an inescapable hermeneutic circle; let us sight and name this sighting and naming.

In much science, the way genetic codes are spoken of is in the form of the primer. The primer reports on knowledge. The report -- that which brings sighting and naming, the way of seeing as -- contains a number of literal things; if we can train our eye and ear, we will see that primers are everywhere. Notice what is said to happen (and what happens to us) in this primer given by Susan Aldridge:

Take a large onion and chop finely. Place the pieces in a medium-sized casserole dish. Now mix ten tablespoons of washing-up liquid with a tablespoon of salt, and make up to two pints with water. Add about a quarter of this mixture to the onion and cook in a bain-marie in a very cool oven for five minutes, stirring frequently, and liquidize at high speed for just five seconds. Now strain the mixture and add a few drops of fresh pineapple juice to the strained liquid, mixing well. Pour into a long chilled glass and finish off by dribbling ice-cold alcohol (vodka will do) down the side so that it floats on top of the mixture. Wait a few minutes and watch cloudiness form where the two layers meet. Now lower a swizzle stick into the cocktail and carefully hook up the cloudy material. It should collapse into a web of fibres that you can pull out of the glass. This is DNA (short for deoxyribonucleic acid). DNA is the stuff that genes are made of... DNA is just a chemical -- not a more complex entity like a chromosome or a cell -- and it is only in a biological context that it acquires its status as the molecular signature of an organism.[13]

We become subjects who respond to the code that lies "in there." A simple recipe, a series of motions of our hand among the things that lie ready to our grasp -- et violà: DNA! We might marvel at the simplicity of this, but also notice the key moment where "a web of fibres" is sighted / named, and we are told to see it as DNA. "This is DNA."

The statistical activities that underlie the identification of beings reported on in the primer lay hidden, and the veritable creation of the subject happens in its words (as Althusser would call it, the way we become apparent as subjects in the very hailing of biotechnology). The sighting and naming given is a simple report on the "way of the world." It is a saying that presumes something remains to be said; it is news of a difference: the report on knowledge presents a disjuncture of history while also presaging its continuity. The something that is said in the primer, that remains to be said, has been made manifest, says that now things are different, even if it simply confirms everything. But its confirmation places us in a new place, a different one. In biotechnology's primer one finds a reporting that tells us of a physical proximity, of scouring the physical structure for signs: the realities of aspects of the living being are physically approached by someone. They are "labeled," "marked," and "manipulated" -- and these notions of physically approaching are to provide a moment when the underlying (hitherto invisible) structure can be seen, and in being seen, interpreted as visible by the signs that point to "what's there." Notice how the same manner of speaking in the primer just cited is also present in the following description taken from a more sophisticated textbook in molecular biology, the text most cited as the touchstone reference for how DNA molecules in fact work.

Two procedures are widely used to label isolated DNA molecules. In the first method a DNA polymerase copies the DNA in the presence of nucleotides that are either radioactive (usually labeled with 32P) or chemically tagged. In this way "DNA probes" containing many labeled nucleotides can be produced for nucleic acid hybridization reactions. The second procedure uses the bacteriophage enzyme polynucleotide kinase to transfer a single 32P-labeled phosphate from ATP to the 5' end of each DNA chain. Because only one 32P atom is incorporated by the kinase into each DNA strand, the DNA molecules labeled in this way are often not radioactive enough to be used as DNA probes; because they are labeled at only one end, however, they have been invaluable for other applications including DNA footprinting, as we will shortly see.[14]

This text would be studied by undergraduate science students in their third or fourth year, and thus serves different purposes than Aldridge's recipe. Still, the description itself concerns how to spot and identify DNA molecules: it tells us what is known by others and invites us to sight / name as well, to share in a moment of vengeful causality-seeking. Again, the task here is not to assess these as claims, but to look at the manner of discourse. This manner is itself the mode of reporting what has been "found." The act of reporting, of needing -- positively needing -- to say what is seen marks a critical moment in shifting from what beings are to how they are known (a fleshy reaction to time). Notice that when we look at the other reports on knowledge by researchers, non-primers as it were, we are taken not into reporting as though an event was witnessed, but of a method carried out and executed -- one that still must collapse sighting and naming into the singular act of reporting. The method involves the statistical probability of carrying out the activity of "marking" bumps, fissures, boxes, setting these valences for markings, and sighting what is marked as what is named. The non-primer daylights its statistical method as the way the being can be found / named as what it is. This shows both the epistemological moment, but also holds its resentful longing -- in the idea that the world's bodies must disclose the sort of coded pattern one aims to find.

iii. Variance and Measure

But how does a statistical apparatus "find" what it finds? What kind of speaking, sighting and naming is carried out in the statistical statement? And what does it purport to find? The radicalism of Darwin is apparent here: we replace the differentiation of types and kinds in the natural world with a variation among each discrete being. That is, with Darwin, the living world becomes continuous and differs according to traits not species, which themselves differ according to the situations that would call them forth. The notion of statistic relies on being able to approach variation, not difference, with measure (which is what Mendel brings with factorial analysis). But this idea of measure is simply the statistical interpretation of what is probable stated in terms of degrees of belief, i.e. the transformation of the being of difference in the world into a being of knowledge. Let us look at how statistical analysis is linked to the being of the code, becoming an epistemological moment of sighting and naming.

Statistical thinking relies on the Kantian shift to the subject -- without which probability in the modern sense would be impossible. Laplace, that staunch Kantian, recognized that the principle of probability was not simply "games of chance" or a world of chaos and unfolding, of change. The principle of probability, following in the wake of the re-placing of time, lay as a condition of the knowing subject, and God no longer a necessary hypothesis. The notion of the overturning of time, of the subject that makes sense of time as a condition of itself, while happening with Kant, is made manifest with Laplace's work on probability and indifference. The "indifference principle" sets out a remarkable argument for thinking about truthfulness in probability not in terms of objectivity but rather in indifference -- which underlies "degrees of confidence" or "degrees of belief" in statistical analysis. The way that statistical inferences work to produce regularities seems to involve no precise moment of discovery, nor does it seem to have the trappings of bare creation precisely because its organizing principle, Laplace's indifference principle, sets the human as the source of valuing claims. That is, the degree of likelihood of an event (of the appearance of a coded being, for instance) is characterized in the degree to which one can be assured of the probability of its occurrence. The event's occurrence is contingent upon the grasp of its likelihood -- whether it is believable, whether one could, or should, assure oneself of this likelihood and accept it: "and with that we are on moral ground!" [15]

Statistical inferences in genetics are attributed in two distinct ways, mapping on to the two ways these inferences are often understood. Probabilistic inferences express both a relative frequency and the degree of belief of the occurrence of an event. Rates of coin tossing are said to be expressions of the former; wagers or expressions of likelihood based on statistical probabilities reflect degrees of belief.[16] It might seem that the statistical probability of an event's occurrence, rather than degree of belief, is more quantifiable and hence reliable, but genetics uses both statistical probabilities and various forms for testing confidence (as degrees of belief) at the same time in generating its "facts."[17] While formally it seems easy to separate the objective likelihood of an event and the degree of belief one might have with regard to its occurrence, it is less clear to grasp how a statement of "fact" (e.g. the percentage chance of precipitation, the chance of tossing ten heads in a row) is not also at the same time reducible to a subjective state (e.g. a 60% chance of precipitation is also saying I am 60% sure that it will rain).[18]

The discrepancy between objective and subjective statements of probability is usually managed by focusing on the structure of the elements of an "objective" situation like tossing a coin. Because a coin has two sides, the chance of tossing heads is ½, or 50%. That is to say, the probability of heads (as against tails) is equal in the likelihood that it will occur. But it is clear that only one of those events will occur -- and with perfect knowledge we would say that its likelihood is 100%. Of course only one of the two events will occur -- and will definitely occur. It will not occur with certainty, however. That is, I cannot be certain it will. And thus to say that something has an equal chance of occurring, while seemingly an accurate portrayal of the likelihood of an event, actually only gives us a statement about the certainty with which one of the two probabilities will occur, only a degree of possible belief. Laplace formulated this as what came to be known as the indifference principle.[19] A theory of chance will reduce "all the events of the same kind to a certain number of cases equally possible, that is to say, to such as we may be equally undecided about in regard to their existence, and in determining the number of cases favorable to the event whose probability is sought."[20] With the indifference principle we are not relying upon the "true features" of reality in order to come up with a relation that somehow exists there, but rather have a way of structuring the kinds of expectations generated regarding a future event. Indeed, "indifference" tells us that our expectations have been signaled and equalized, that we could not (or ought not to) care less about the actual structure of the universe, and in fact are setting valences to grasp the possibilities we divine. The main reason there is any debate at all over the objective and subjective features of these situations is because there are those who would like to maintain that it is an objective feature of the temporal structure of world that there exists a ½ chance of throwing a heads, or a ½ chance of a baby being a boy -- and with that we come to understand that perhaps there is much more involved in the question than objectivity or subjectivity, perhaps something involving the deep desire to see chance tamed in an expression of probable outcomes.[21] It marks an important shift in temporality, and it occurs in the shift from ontology to epistemology that belongs to nihilism: it presents the shift from Aristotelian time to Kantian time, such that time becomes a condition of the possibility of the subject, and in so becoming "reduces" events to the human understanding of those events qua one's relative expectations and certainties about them. If it is the case that the code's expression is a statistical expression of the likelihood of what is expected rather than any actual, physical code that sits in each of us like a legal command -- how exactly does the statistical apparatus go to work in assigning the valences it finds?

If what we say here is appropriate, then the code is nothing other than our own latent slide to subjectivism, to embody the notion that the human is the measure of all things. The slide to subjectivism can be seen in the formation of genetic profiles, assemblages of information that build limited personas. Witnessing this slide in the specifically statistical way that profiles are formed, the critical and in a sense foundational role of the profile brings us full circle to the emptiness of the liberal subject, to the haunting absence at the core of contemporary life, to the death of God and the increasing gadgetization of the human under the sway of technique. While the code is sought using statistical techniques, it is the profile that actually generates code, and yet this profile is not grounded in any particular real being at all.

iv. The Code that fits the Profile

Baudrillard's edifying work should not be lost on us here: there is nothing beyond these codes, these signs and symbols, and our experience of these codes is of a simulated existence, not of any deeper reality. [22] Thus the code's existence is not simply found like an object (it is, in this restricted way, not "real"), but exists in relation to every other code, is read according to every other code. The profile simulates the human, thus instantiating it through its genomic codes. Indeed, the articulation and figuring of the code involves both intensive correlation with events, as well as cross-correlating with other genetic strands. The compilation of the "genome" occurs through a correlation that is not "read" against any "original" code or genomic information. The question "where is the code?" turns out to be a good one. The structure cannot be "read" on its own, and so needs a Rosetta stone of sorts -- some kind of transcription device that allows for code segments to be "read" and "interpreted." This profile, this empty human subject at the core of the Human Genome Project, is assembled in much the same way as the liberal subject described by Wendy Brown in her incisive States of Injury.[23] Let us look at what is "human" about the Human Genome Project.

When the original researchers sought to "assemble" the Human Genome, the key problem, the only real problem statistically speaking, involved representation: how could "we" be sure that the resultant genome would be sufficiently representative of what is called "human"? The first few builds of the human genome (build 1.0 and 1.1 -- as though no different from software) attracted the very criticism the folks at the Human Genome Project (HGP) sought to avoid: the Human Diversity Genome Project (HDGP) posed its main task as demonstrating the way the HGP was necessarily insufficient because it did not adequately reflect the wide diversity of humanity. This criticism turned out to be vital to the project itself, in that it increased the statistical relevance of "diverse" inputs. The project was further besotted with its dream of pure representation when it learned that one of the primary leaders of the project, Craig Venter, had put some of his own DNA into the sample material. Beyond the bad taste that it seems to show ("Craig Venter dreams of his immortality in the Human Genome itself"), the challenge it poses goes to the heart of representation: the human genome, when sequenced, could only be said to be fully representative, if the sample size itself was sufficiently broad such that it would not matter whose DNA is "put in." More poignantly, if the human genome, when sequenced, could meet the challenge posed by the HDGP, then the human genome could properly be said to represent no particular human too closely, and thus represent every single human. While the sample size can always grow, can always in principle "accept more," the ideal of pure representation is equally unachievable in principle. And yet the point of the profile is to generalize "sufficiently" away from our particularities, but in a manner that would allow us to approach our particularities. The power of the human genome lays in precisely the fact that it represents no one in particular, while claiming that every single human being stands in relation to it in principle by being "human."

The human genome reference sequences do not represent any one person's genome. Rather, they serve as a starting point for broad comparisons across humanity. The knowledge obtained is applicable to everyone because all humans share the same basic set of genes and genomic regulatory regions that control the development and maintenance of their biological structures and processes. In the international public-sector Human Genome Project (HGP), researchers collected blood (female) or sperm (male) samples from a large number of donors. Only a few of many collected samples were processed as DNA resources. Thus the donor identities were protected so neither donors nor scientists could know whose DNA was sequenced. DNA clones from many different libraries were used in the overall project...In the Celera Genomics private-sector project, DNAs from a few different genomes were mixed up and processed for sequencing. The DNA resources used for these studies came from anonymous donors of European, African, American (North, Central, South), and Asian ancestry. [24]

There is a difficult tension at the heart of this. The DNA represents "no one" and yet was taken from particular individuals -- ostensibly in a way that allows the human beings to be representative, for any "human" to be an example of all others. But as soon as we ask the question of representation as though it were mere repetition, we are mired in the difficulty of what it means to demand that a single source of DNA, as with a single human being, be "representative." In some sense, it is demanded that the human must be representative, since particular individuals are canvassed for sample material for this formative profile. In the case of "blending" the DNA with others to achieve a kind of representative -- then we move closer to attempting an "average," and the question of sample becomes relevant. Here, the way the sample is rendered representative is by anonymizing the data. That Craig Venter's DNA was used can only be an argument against the representativeness of the specific sample only if a sample is, in principle, itself sufficient for the formation of representative profiles. But this begs the question of inclusion and of how to decide whom to include. And what if the sample somehow included everyone -- it is still no one in particular, as with Borges' mythological map that is exactly to scale yet remains still a map.[25] And yet we take our bearings from the profile and not from everyone. (It is thus not interesting but telling that the question of ensuring comprehensiveness of sample was sought along lines of continental ancestry.)

This new profile, the human genome, takes us beyond the Platonic idea and eidos of the human: it is assembled with reference to every single possibility for being human as "found" in the genome itself. Now when it is said to be "found" in the genome, there emerges the obvious problem of "reading" the genome in absence of an understanding of the "language" it houses. Because there is no Rosetta stone that would allow transcription, the biotechnologist must also design the device for transcribing the information that genes hold. To do this, the biotechnologist turns to the alternative language that we already hold, the language that Mendel began with in inferring (with induction) the possibilities present in phenotypes -- in the observable traits -- and these are drawn from experience itself. The biotechnologist will look to "biomarkers": the little boxes on the forms given to those who supply DNA, boxes with names like "gender," "race," and "ethnicity." The possibilities for these biomarkers are as endless as experience itself, and the value we set upon as a biomarker that will disclose the gene as its cause is caught up in the activity of evaluating itself -- a circle that pretends to be a ground -- the very nihilistic exercise of resentment with which we began. Thus the quest for the gene that causes colon cancer, for example, begins with the biomarker and ends with the correlated gene only if we admit of the original temporal orientation towards the beings of this world as ordered and knowable in a particular way in advance. By so deigning, the human discloses itself as working out its nihilistic heritage towards and through the sway that the technical has over our mental workings.

We do not design these truths, but are caught in seeing the real as revealed to us this way, such that the movement to and away from code cannot simply be laid at biotechnology's door, for it is liberalism's heritage as well. Wendy Brown's deep critique of the liberal self shows us that the self at the core of liberalism is the same empty being as the human genome-build. As Brown shows, the liberal state works against the possibility of harm or injury insofar as it attracts to who we are rather than simply what we do: if I suffer injury on the basis of my identity as a woman or person of colour, then the liberal state will work to vacate that which causes the injury because who I am has no basis for what I do. The liberal state's devotion to toleration is the same devotion that the HGP has to pure representation: if any particular state action discriminates against or favours one segment of our diverse population, then it cannot be said to have been open, equal, and "representative" (in Mill's sense). Thus the liberal self is an empty self that cannot in principle represent any one person or group too closely or it attracts the criticism of those who do not see themselves in it. This drive to inclusion, Brown shows, rests in the resentful drive to hold something and someone accountable -- and in being so held the liberal state draws its power. The scientistic projection of code manifest in the human genome derives power from every single one of us in the same way.

To Conclude: Turning away from the code...

... is not possible. For this is the way we are called upon to speak now, to think of these codes as somehow in us, constituting us, and at our disposal. What sense could our refusal to speak the vocabularies of code possibly have, specifically when the "truths" of code come to appearance in the hailings such as cancer, mortality rates, and longevity? The moment of completed nihilism for Nietzsche is when a "transvaluation" becomes possible; but as nihilism's consequences draw us to them, we see not the possibility of a "transvaluation" but of the implication of our willfulness into the very way what is revealed to us stands there in the way that it seems to: as stock (Bestand) for our liberalized dreams. The technical is only ever a way of revealing, but it is a way of revealing that makes all others seem "untrue" or, worse, contingent upon a "worldview" or "perspective" (taking us into nihilism once more). The technical heritage of nihilism requires that the intense willfulness that lies at the base of our thinking -- of the epistemological overturning of ontology -- is not at our disposal to "revalue." And so the turn from the code is not possible (at least not willfully), even though we may seek to live in an age of technique without letting all things slip into its mode of revealing. But such "letting" sounds personal, panic-stricken, isolated, and idiosyncratic -- not that we crave a system. The exciting moment is now: we can see the tense difficulty of living in an age of genetic code, of "accepting" the way it is put to us and even believing it, while recognizing we have no grounds for doing so, that being caught in an age of technique and nihilism allows, authorizes, even encourages us to see the ultra-serious moneyed genomes as farcical, vain, short-sighted, distracted, and not wise enough to be melancholic. The exciting time for nihilism is when our thinking about the technical provenance of the code, such as it seems to be present to our thinking continually, invites our mockery. "For what have we to do with refutation!"


[1] It is important to note the consistent mistranslation of technik in the English versions of Heidegger's essay: he clearly distinguishes technology as simply belonging to the technical and what presences under the sway of technique. Nowhere does he actually speak of technology as such. The import of this mistranslation is that we make the challenge of thinking through technology easier by imagining it as a sub-field akin to applied science, rather than as a focus of everything from basketball to baking. The essay itself, «Die Frage Nach dem Technik» is known in English as "The Question Concerning Technology," The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lovitt (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1977). Hereafter I translate technik as "technique" and technische as "technical" rather than "technology" and "technological" as Lovitt has.

[2] A similar sentiment is voiced by Gianni Vattimo in his exceedingly clear "An Apology for Nihilism" The End of Modernity, trans. J. Snyder (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).

[3] Martin Heidegger, Zollikon Seminars, trans. F. Mayr and R. Askay (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 2001), 36ff.

[4] Ian Hacking, "The Cartesion Vision Fulfilled: Analogue Bodies and Digital Minds" Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 30 (2005), 153-66.

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, "Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense" The Portable Nietzsche, trans. W. Kaufmann (New York: Viking, 1976).

[6] See Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis, trans. T. McCarthy (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 107-08.

[7] Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 460.

[8] Philippe Nonet, "Judgement" (1995) 48 Vand. L. Rev. 987.

[9] This is Kant's formulation of the will: see the final paragraph of Kant's The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. M. Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); and Nietzsche's clarification in Beyond Good and Evil, trans. W. Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1966), s. 11.

[10] See Martin Heidegger, Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, trans. R. Taft (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990); and Gadamer's careful historical discussion of what happened after Kant in "Kant and the Hermeneutical Turn" in Heidegger's Ways, trans. J.W. Stanley (New York: SUNY Press, 1994), 49-60; and Charles Taylor, "Overcoming Epistemology" Philosophical Arguments (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995).

[11] This Deleuze and Guattari helpfully note how coding, overcoding, and decoding are implicated within each other: Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. R. Hurley, M. Seem, H.R. Lane trans. (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 240ff.

[12] Hegel understood the being of law in this way, i.e. in its going-to-work (Wirklichkeit) in the breach: G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, trans. Allen Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), s. 94-96.

[13] Susan Aldridge, "DNA is life's blueprint" The Thread of Life: The Story of Genes and Genetic Engineering (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 3.

[14] Bruce Alberts, Alexander Johnson, Julian Lewis, Martin Raff, Keith Roberts, and Peter Walter, The Molecular Biology of the Cell, 4th ed. (New York: Garland Science, 2002), 491.

[15] F. Nietzsche, The Gay Science, trans. W. Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1974), s. 344.

[16] M.G. Bulmer, Principles of Statistics (New York: Dover, 1979 [1967]), 6-7.

[17] The difference between frequencies and beliefs comes to the fore to solve the "jury problem." That is, there is a clear distinction between the probability of something occuring (its chance) and the reason we have for thinking the event did or will take place. The "jury problem" concerned how to design a jury that took account of the possible variations of conviction rates given juries of differing sizes. Cf. Ian Hacking, Taming of Chance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 98.

[18] Ian Hacking, The Logic of Statistical Inference (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), ch. 5; J.R. Lucas, The Concept of Probability (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970), 13-21; M.G. Bulmer, Principles of Statistics, 5-11; Richard von Mises, Probablity, Statistics, and Truth (New York: Dover, 1981 [1957]), 75-6. Compare the foundationalist moves made, more generally, in Rudolf Carnap, The Logical Foundations of Probability (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962), and the attempt at the qualification of this in E.A. Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of the Modern Physical Sciences. (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1980).

[19] Pierre Simon, Marquis de Laplace, A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities, trans. F.W. Truscott and F.L. Emory (New York: Dover, 1951).

[20] Ibid, 6.

[21] The main objections to the indifference principle regard (i) the difficulty of easily separating out outcomes in a manner that can produce indifference in the absence of some other knowledge of their likelihood, or (ii) the paradoxes that result from a strict application of it. See M.G. Bulmer, Principles of Statistics, 8-9. Though no statistician, I fail to see how Ramsey's abandonment of the principle in favor of a method of "bets" secures any more grounded or objective understanding of the position of the subject in relation to probable outcomes. Set out in F.P. Ramsey, Foundations of Mathematics and Other Logical Essays (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1931).

[22] Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society (London: Sage, 1998), 79-80; Baudrillard, Simulations, trans. P. Foss, P. Patton, and P. Beitchman (Semiotext(e),1983).

[23] Wendy Brown, States of Injury (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

[24] U.S. Department of Energy Office, "Facts about Genome Sequencing" Human Genome Project Information, (accessed on August 1, 2009).

[25] Jorge Luis Borges, "On Exactitude in Science" in Collected Fictions, trans. A. Hurley (Penguin, 1999).


Bradley Bryan is the Director of the Technology and Society Minor Program and an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Victoria. He is the author of "Approaching Others: Aristotle on Friendship's Possibility" Political Theory (Dec. 2009) and "'Hail the Cure!' Althusser, Biotechnology, and Biopolitics" in ed. Stuart Murray and David Holmes, Critical Interventions in the Ethics of Healthcare (London: Ashgate, 2009).

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