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Desiring Code-Machines: Virality and Sex

Desiring Code-Machines: Virality and Sex

June 15, 2016

Dana Kopel

In Italian philosopher and feminist theoretician Rosi Braidotti’s “posthuman theory,” virality offers a way of re-conceiving subjectivity as inherently communicative and interconnected, and not merely among human beings. Indeed, it could be said that “the viral has itself gone viral” as the concept is increasingly mobilized to make sense of new modes of communication and transmission operating within and beyond numerous domains: “the biological, the cultural, the financial, the political, the linguistic, the technical, and the computational” as well as the digital and the realm of sex.Patricia Clough and Jasbir Puar, “Virality,” WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly 40: 1 and 2 (2012), 13. Contagion is mobilized as “a hermeneutics of everything,” a means of interpreting “affective, financial, sexual and biological” events: “Politics has become epidemiological … Pop psychologists speak of a contagion effect, involving mimicry, susceptibility and repetition. Marketing goes viral, its research arm turns to pattern recognition,” and so on.

Sydney-based academic Angela Mitropoulos writes that “contagion is the emblematic meme—and the meme, by definition, spreads contagion.”Angela Mitropoulos, Contract and Contagion: From Biopolitics to Oikonomia (New York: Minor Compositions, 2012), 205. Yet contagion functions differently than the meme, which presupposes exact replication of self-contained entities. Contagion, by contrast, implies transversal processes in which that which infects and that which is infected are both transformed: when a virus replicates within human cells, for instance, it causes mutations that extend beyond the cellular level, impacting the entire body.Steve Goodman, Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2010), 130.  British theorist Sadie Plant reaffirms this distinction in her framing of “cultural viruses,” which necessarily implicate the fields and figures (i.e. the scientist) through which they are identified. Plant’s cultural virus also operates virally in that “it can lie dormant for a long time” before being triggered by—or triggering—a moment of cultural relevance. To illustrate her point, Plant uses the example of MDMA, which was developed in the 1960s but only became a cultural phenomenon in the 1990s, in the context of the emerging British rave scene.Matthew Fuller, “Intelligence Is No Longer on the Side of Power: An interview with Sadie Plant,” (1995),

Cultural virality, especially as a complexification of memetics, becomes particularly relevant with the emergence of online communication. Computer viruses, self-reproducing software that infect computer programs, initiated an understanding of virality as digital—an understanding which now extends to describe the way content propagates through online networks. Viruses, whether biological or digital, are “code-machines”Ashkan Sepahvand, “On the Cosmic Origins of HIV and the De-Planetarization of the Body-Apparatus,” Makhzin issue 2 (September 2015),; they replicate and, in doing so, are understood to pose a risk to the stability of a system imagined as hermetic. Yet Manuel Arturo Abreu reminds us that the distinction between a system’s inside and outside is not given but political, with the virus understood to be invasive Other; beyond the digital, this often has racialized and gendered connotations.Manuel Arturo Abreu, “Transtrender: A Mediation on Gender as a Racial Construct,”newhive (18 April 2016), In reframing the virus, might we also reimagine this relationship between inside and outside, secure self and replicant other? Finnish media theorist Jussi Parikka argues for rethinking of computer viruses “not exclusively as technical pieces of code that infect programs… [but] as active ‘tools to think with’ that might (1) short-circuit our views concerning the past and the histories of technology and media ecologies and (2) produce viable futures for novel concepts, paradigms, and formulations concerning media design.”Parikka, Digital Contagions, 290-1. In this framing, the virus is not seen as a hostile intruder, and digital virality comes to mark what we now understand, often neutrally or positively, as the accelerated spread of content online.

It’s important to acknowledge that capitalism also functions virally, inserting itself into what Parikka calls “seemingly hostile cultural flows” and transforming them into monetized or financialized entities. Destructive computer viruses, for instance, give rise to an entire apparatus of commercial and governmental security software aimed at preemptively safeguarding computers from viral attack.Ibid., 287. If contagion is “endemic” to cultural, political, and social networks, Mitropoulos contends that the financial sphere most intensely manifests a paradigm of contagion: financial crashes and market unrest are understood to spread outward, from their original location to infect the global economy.Mitropoulos, Contract and Contagion, 205-6. Contagion poses a threat to the certainty and stability of “capitalist futurity,” to the projection of the future as an extension of the present upon which neoliberal capitalism is premised.Ibid., 30. Yet contagion also generates and manipulates life; and life, within a biocapitalist paradigm, generates profit: biotech firms, for instance, financialize the rights to potential future life forms, using venture capital to create and patent new molecules and engineered tissues. Life itself becomes an object of financial speculation.Melinda Cooper, Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era(Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008), 28.

Elaborating the complex relationships between capitalization and life, Luciana Parisi points to the overlaps of finance, virality, and what she calls “abstract sex” within biotechnical or information capitalism. In her work Abstract Sex: Philosophy, Biotechnology, and the Mutations of Desire, she argues for an engagement with “non-linear dynamics of evolution depending on contagions and epidemics” in order to chart “the turbo-dynamics of capitalization.” Luciana Parisi, Abstract Sex: Philosophy, Biotechnology, and the Mutations of Desire(New York: Continuum, 2004), 145. Contagion becomes a model of the non-linear processes of generation within biotechnical capitalism, but it also gives rise to alternative models of reproduction and filiation. This is what Parisi calls abstract sex. These alternative models, though not inherently queer, are independent from the heteronormative binaries often narrativized as the standard in human sex and reproductive practices. Abstract sex, no longer tied to human (or animal) copulation and reproduction, instead occurs at sites of mutual transfer, through processes such as bacterial reproduction and viral exchange:
Abstract sex points to the non-linear coexistence of the biophysical (the cellular level of the body–sex defined by bacteria, viruses, mitochondrial organelles, eukaryotic cells); the biocultural (the anthropomorphic level of the human body–sex defined by psychoanalysis, thermodynamics, evolutionary biology and anatomy in industrial capitalism); and the biodigital (the engineering level of the body–sex defined by information science and technologies such as in vitro fertilization, mammal and embryo cloning, transgenic manipulation and the human genome in cybernetic capitalism) layers of the virtual body–sex.Ibid., 12.

Conceived as processes of transmission and replication, abstract sex bridges micro and macro scales, connecting microbial, human, cultural and technological bodies and sexes. Abstract sex allows for the emergence of infinite genders and modes of sex “constituting a molecular ecosystem of micro-mutations where information transfers proceed by contagion.”Ibid., 175. Sex is thus abstracted from the body “to proliferate through infective transmission, molecular contacts”; in doing so, sex abstracts bodies themselves, reimagining them as a porous, open system—at once virtual and tangible, inorganic and alive.

Derived from Spinoza’s refusal to see any body as an isolated, organic whole, Parisi’s virtual bodysex always exists within matrices of other bodies, networks of power and desire. The virtual bodysex is the site at which bacteria intersect with all other strata, including socio-cultural and economic systems; sex is the event in which these macro- and microscopic systems transmit, transform and reproduce. Abstract sex takes place not between (fictionally) individual bodies but among them, at varying scales—from the microscopic to the systemic—contained within and extending beyond discrete bodies. Sex, moreover, acts upon the body at “biological, cultural, economical and technological” levels, through processes of communication and information transfer.Ibid., 11. Thus sex is neither explicitly biological nor entirely cultural and discursive, but bridges the organic and inorganic, the abstract and concrete, in what Parisi calls a “virtual relationality.”Luciana Parisi, “The Nanoengineering of Desire” in Queering the Non/Human, ed. Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird (London: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2008), 302-3. Indeed the concept of abstract sex challenges the binary logic that frames biology or nature in opposition to culture; virtual in opposition to real.

In Abstract Sex, Parisi emphasizes bacterial and viral sex—mechanisms of microbial communication, replication and parasitism—as a significant mode of both information transmission and non-filial reproduction. Following Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, Parisi understands bacteria as central, even emblematic, forms in the study of life and its reproduction. Because they emerged shortly after the formation of a solid crust on the earth’s surface, bacterial “sex—as a mode of transmission and reproduction of information—is almost as ancient as the body of the Earth.”Parisi, Abstract Sex, 61. This is not to reframe processes of bacterial replication and biodigital transmission as sex, but to expansively rework the definition of sex itself to account for all forms of life—including, of course, the non-human life forms from which human life arises—and even the non-living. Through processes of bacterial sex, for instance, human genomes, tissues and organs are formed and differentiated; in this, the “microbial mutations” of bacterial sex “[catalyze] the emergence” of sex and gender as material formations.Ibid., 79.

The coinciding of capital and abstract sex, as in the paradigm of contagion, manifests in what Parisi calls biodigital sex: the largest-scale layer of sex, biodigital sex incorporates molecular layers—such as bacterial and meiotic sex—as well as social and cultural transmissions and processes of capitalization. Biodigital sex is characterized by continuous flows that never reach a climax.Ibid., 167. It appears as an opening up of sex and desire—from binary, temporally limited human acts to a continuous series of exchanges and flows between bodies of all kinds—but nonetheless resembles, and remains deeply imbricated within, the ceaseless flows of biotechnical capitalism. This is to say that an infinite proliferation of abstract sex, and by extension of genders and forms of desire, through processes of viral replication and transmission is not inherently liberatory. If sex operates virally, intersecting with the human body yet extending far beyond it, then to conceive of posthuman sex—which incorporates microbial and technological contagions alongside and within bodily exchanges—requires new politics of both desire and contagion.

Dana Kopel is a curator and writer based in New York.