Questioning the Digital @ The London Conference in Critical Thought 2015

Last week saw the 2015 London Conference in Critical Thought take place at UCL. It was the first LCCT I have been to, and also my first time convening a panel at a conference. Nat O’Grady (Southampton) and I had put together a stream on ‘Questioning the Digital’, a phrase lifted from David Berry’s Critical Theory and the Digital (2014). We had a massive response to the CfP, and ended up convening 5 panels, although we could have doubled that easily. We were also really lucky to have some great guest chairs in Susan Schuppli (Goldsmiths), David Berry (Sussex) and David Chandler (Westminster), who was a fantastic last minute stand in for our last session. The Questioning the Digital panels were as follows:

Panel 1: Security, Possibilities, Futures

Gloria González Fuster and Rocco Taking Data Apart: Are Big/Meta-Data Docile Security Devices?
Shyam Krishna The Served and the Surveilled: Biometric Technologies as a Tool for Progress
Ali Rahebi Cybernetic Immanence and the Obsolescence of Critical Reflection: Scenes from Big Data Ideology

Panel 2: Big Data, Power, Governance

David Chandler After Causation: Big Data and the Promise of Post-Humanism
David Bremner Big Data as hydra: Rouvroy, Deleuze and Guattari, Heidegger
John Morris Stress Testing for Financial Contagion: A Deleuzian Reading of Eisenberg and Noe’s Algorithm

Panel 3: Questioning the Virtual

Mike Duggan Exploring the virtual dimensions of real-world geographies: The case of location-based services and a sense of place
Ben Walker Layered Community Space in the Digital Age
John McManus Football fans and algorithms: an anthropological attempt to salvage “the virtual”

Panel 4: Digital Subjectivities

Ian Thomas The sexual web: Reappraising digital sexual practices through posthuman ontologies
Jasper Verlinden The Skin as Interface: On the Digitalization of the Body in Affect Theory
Emily Rosamund Surveillance, Preemption and the Production of Character in the Age of Big Data

Panel 5: Art & Narrative

Maria Dada The Writing That Writes Itself
Ambika Subramaniam Contemporary dialogues on art and the digital
Pip Thornton Language in the Age of Algorithmic Reproduction

It was a fairly ambitious timetable which left me with little time to attend any of the other incredibly diverse and interesting streams. But our panels, which we had grouped into 5 distinct themes, seemed to work well, and I learnt a huge amount from both the papers and the free-flowing and lively discussions which followed them. When I first heard about the LCCT, it had been recommended as a very open and democratic forum for discussion and ‘new’ thought, which was why it appealed to me and why I thought it would be a great conference within which to explore new technologies through the framework of existing critical theory. It is, afterall, what I have been doing using Walter Benjamin to look at search algorithms. But I have to admit there were times when I started to question the progressiveness of this particular line of ‘Questioning’. Perhaps I wasn’t quite prepared or equipped for the deluge of Deleuze, or maybe I need to address the question to myself – why is it useful to use Benjamin! That said, I really enjoyed some of the Deleuzian papers, for example John Morris’s Stress Testing for Financial Contagion: A Deleuzian Reading of Eisenberg and Noe’s Algorithm and David Bremner’s Big Data as hydra: Blindspots between Rouvroy, Deleuze and Guattari, Heidegger. Both these papers had the kind of inventiveness I was hoping for when we made the CfP.

There were many other highlights, but I also especially enjoyed the paper given by Ambika Subramaniam in the Art and Narrative panel. Ambika, a practising artist who is studying towards an MA in Fine Art at Chelsea College of Art and Design, presented extracts from her artistic novel, ‘The Return of the Super Maria sisters’. Part of a wider ongoing project which “follows video game characters Maria and Luisa through their upgrade into the digital contemporary”, Ambika’s paper played with several Deleuzian concepts which I think may be useful in my own research, especially the idea of deterritorialization. This, from her abstract:

Unlike previous artistic movements, contemporary art exists in an era of rapid
consumption and overstimulation that has lead to the heterogeneous deterritorialization of art production, comparable only to Deleuze and Guattari’s notions of a body without organs.
I continue to be fascinated by the use of art and narrative to critique the digital – whatever ‘the digital’ might be, that is, as Mike Duggan quite rightly questioned in our final Q&A discussion… perhaps we should have figured that out before we started…

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