Technology and the Plague

Technology and the Plague was first published in TECHNO-ECOLOGIES Acoustic Space #11

Edited by Rasa Smite, Eric Kluitenberg and Raitis Smits and available in print from here.

Technology and the plague

… when stars often seem to fall, then it is a token that the air is infected with much venomous vapour.

[From a treatise on the plague (based on a popular 14th century plague tract) by Bengt Knusson (Horrox, 1994, p. 174)]

Like silent rage, the most terrible plague is the one that does not disclose its symptoms.

(Artaud, 1970, p. 11)

To begin by forming the question of what exactly does technology have to do with the plague, aside from the all too obvious signs or symptoms of an extreme viral necessity (against nature) which has long been explicitly encoded in relation to software and the history and culture of computation (Van Neumann, Core Wars, The Shockwave Rider).

Rather, in this instance refining an equation with one term as these undisclosed symptoms, a question of visibility, expressed within the doubled quotations above; between an historic plague, or series of plagues (Egyptian, Oriental, European Black Death, 16th century Great Plague post-fiction of Daniel Defoe) and a psychic or psychogeologic plague described by Artaud as precisely becoming visible on the skin "like a volcano tormented by subterranean upheavals" (Artaud, 1970, p. 11), in terms which echo more modern, geophysical theories of the origin of these historic plagues, particularly the Black Death; theories which now focus on comets and earthquakes (Baillie, 2006) rather than the discredited window-dressed infection vector of infested rats. The plague already begins to appear as something other, as that itself which historically does not "disclose its symptoms", its means or its origins; and we can perhaps consider the computer virus in this new (comet) light, rewriting the second quotation.

When asking precisely what were the causes and means of transmission for the (historic) plagues, such as the 14th century Black Death, decoding a detective story which little follows conventional software models of contagion, aside from an attractive extraterrestrial proposition (Hoyle & Wickramasinghe, 1996) which could equally be posed for all technologies, the inescapable conclusion reached is that the plague is an invisible and impossible contagion, a spreading without sense or reason, and without evident symptoms or internal disease within its early stages of transmission.

In the opinion of Daniel Defoe (1935), we simply cannot prevent the spread of the plague through any form of "human vigilance" in that "it is impossible to know the infected people from the sound, or that the infected people should perfectly know themselves." (p. 244)

And starting from this question of visibility, or lack of disclosure, which Artaud is himself attentive to, if we examine the parallels he suggests as existing between (an ideal of) theatre and the plague in his thus titled essay, in which ways and senses can we successfully substitute technology for the first term within this equation?

In order to explore these mirrorings, between theatre and the plague, and between technology and the plague, such an investigation begins with the question of how technology can be defined, or in Artaud's terms, what would constitute fundamental technology, reading thus the being-functional of technology as a cover story which masks (reductively phrased) either an accident (of capital) or a conspiracy ("In the name of the cathode, the anode, and the holy grid" (Pynchon, 1973, p. 404), the possibilities of paranoia). One way to define technology, following Heidegger (1977) and Pynchon, is as that precise (military) engineering which makes of the world that which it is (a certainty) for ourselves, as a crystallisation or setting of the day; with the links between technology and military ontology soon to be made plain.

And, as we'll soon regard, within the documentary fiction entitled Dracula (Stoker, 1993), published in 1897 and considered here as key intersection of technology and the plague, this first term comes to be linked to both the skin and the substrate, both within the storage technologies of the time, the phonograph and the typewriter (Kittler, 1993), and as part of the more avant garde, contagious engineering of the Count, dependent on one particular doped earth substrate (with the doping of earth as the introduction of certain impurities into crystal structures enabling the work of computation, the inscription of active symbols and logic within matter).

From this geological landing stage (following Michael Persinger (1974), the fault line at Whitby sets in motion a writing machine at the very origins of Bram Stoker's Dracula) we can arrive at contemporary technology defined as being mined from the earth, as being inscribed on the skin (as the word of the master and of the law following Kafka (1969)), and as modelling itself after and indeed thus creating a damaged nature (Metzger, 1996).

These, perhaps haphazard or sideways, reflections on fundamental technology, touch on a geophysical necessity, a being-embedded, or containing, of particular technology within the world (as) technology/representation (the typewriter placed in Whitby), which joins both the containers of the real plague (various enclosures such as chateaux, abbeys, castles, walled cities, Boccaccio's The Decameron, Pasolini's Salo, Poe's Masque of the Red Death) and further suggests a link with the geologics of the plague; an invisible electromagnetic contagion presaged by comets, earthquakes, tremors, and eruptions (and also noting here the fact of terrestrial origins under celestial influence, which precisely defines geophysics, in a report from the Paris medical faculty in 1348 (Horrox, 1994), as "the root beneath … subject to the evil impress of the heavens" (p. 162)). Through historical reference the plague is connected with geophysical phenomena; again, rewriting Persinger, could not these electromagnetic phenomena sit at the origin of the contagion, just as they founded the first embeddings of technology? Or could the first viral payload, symptom or side effect of a more revelatory, a more luminous plague, be the comet sighting itself, a projected reality evidenced by technology ever since?

But to return to the theatre, another eruptive, geologic plague scene of skin and society described in detail by Artaud (1970), a (contagious) "mental picture of the plague" (p. 16) which is the plague itself, and to ask what exactly are Artaud's parallels between theatre and the plague and, indeed, can these be effectively summarised, before being applied to the equation of engineering and of technology? Firstly, according to Artaud, "St Augustine points to the similarity of the plague that kills without destroying any organs and theatre which without killing, induces the most mysterious changes not only in the minds of individuals but in a whole nation." (1970, p. 17). Both theatre and the plague partake of a delirium which is communicable yet invisible, without relation to a disease or a reality. There is "something victorious and vengeful in theatre just as in the plague" (p. 18); meaning also that in both there is a cruelty, defined later by Artaud (1970) as mirroring "philosophical determinism." (p. 79). And both contagions take gestures and develop them "to the limit" (in the plague within the context of a total collapse of social orderings). Yet, most expressive for our purposes within the parallels established is the following which establishes a link to one side of shared infection:

If fundamental theatre is like the plague, this is not because it is contagious, but because like the plague it is a revelation, urging forward the exteriorisation of a latent undercurrent of cruelty through which all the perversity of which the mind is capable, whether in a person or a nation, becomes localised.

(Artaud, 1970, p. 21)

With software considered as a specific case of technology, the terms of this substitution (of technology or software for theatre within an equation of "theatre being like the plague") begin to become clear. We can easily define software as that which "induces the most mysterious changes not only in the minds of individuals but in a whole nation." (p. 17) Software equally lacks, as we explore below, a certain visibility. At the same time, Artaud speaks of revelation, yet in relation now to "fundamental theatre"; theatre, technology and the plague are invisible, but participate in a delirious revelation which has the "brilliance of a strange sun" (p. 21); terms which recall a certain 20th century engineering project. Finally, "like the plague, technology is a crisis resolved either by death or cure." (Artaud, 1970, p. 22, altered by the author)

Just as Artaud proposes a fundamental, revelatory theatre, perhaps we should talk of a fundamental, exacerbated, exposing technology. Or rather is the equation more complex, with technology perhaps standing equally as a response to the plague or contagion which focuses on visibility and revelation, on necessary abstraction and enclosure as we'll come to witness within the sub-realm of software. an invisible code with visible symptoms. Technology is not only or just like the plague but rather can be seen as a term within a continuum of promiscuity-embracing-containment-exclusion in relation to the plague (as a necessity), and the shifts along this vector are necessarily strategic. And without forgetting that the plague is always already within the enclosure called technology or rationalism.

Coded visibility


  • pipefs should never be mounted by userland - too much of security hassle,
  • no real gain from having the whole whorehouse mounted. So we don't need
  • any operations on the root directory. However, we need a non-trivial
  • dname - pipe: will go nicely and kill the special-casing in procfs. */

(Torvalds, 2005)

The above quotation, extracted as code comment from within a functioning, fully operational system (free software), hints at software as an attempt to avoid promiscuity and contagion within the context of the operating system as a series of embeddings, of enclosures and of abstractions. Contemporary computation engendering the world simply cannot exist without segmentation and thus segregation. Code is a simultaneous hiding and revealing both in and as an attempt to contain against infection. Software is both invisible and is a revelation.

Examples of obscuring within this domain include blackboxing or abstraction (the API, the very foundation of the protocol), obfuscated code, encryption and security everywhere, and steganography. On the side of revelation we can cite open or free software, network transparency, the quine and the compiler or assembler, code commentary (as above), the crash, media archaeology, TEMPEST phenomena and the machinic assemblages of pornography.

This thus defined pure and total conspiratorial machine, otherwise known as code, control or software (a masculine birth at Bletchley Park), a play between an ontology of hiding and a functionality of revealing which is in one sense the world, is now renamed as pornographic aletheia, summoning as in a painting the state of not being hidden, of being evident, of a revealing related to the hidden.

The historic, plague-ridden for-all-times story of the long wait for the rendering executable outside the magical, for the modern Enigma, ends now with a blank refusal of the execution of all things, of the word made promiscuous flesh. The blind or feint of the operating system is to define itself "as an interface between hardware and user," and thus between users, when all its work and energy (from the world) is spent on a functional set of abstractions (all code), of enclosures and on the separation of effects. The possibility of transferring execution outside this container or black box into the world is resolutely denied. There is only one (more holy, more blessed) earth which can be executed and the (false) trick of the computer virus is to attempt a deadly perversion of the instruction pointer, to shift that execution needle into new material (data), outside the particular confines of a trusted and identifiable process or skin. To return to cruelty and the plague, this enclosure both "permits the system" (Barthes, 1976, p. 17) and extends the possibilities of cruelty.

La guerre contre la peste.

In so far as the life of men on earth is warfare, it is no wonder that those who battle amongst the wickedness of the world are sometimes disturbed by uncertain events…

[Ziegler, 1970, p. 186]

Having outlined the geologic or geophysical origins of the plague and of technology, a shared enclosure, we return to the story of the first viral executable, a literally embodied software launch, at the mythic, oriental origin of the Black Death.

Laying siege (in 1345) to the Italian settlement of the city of Kaffa, the Mongol army succumbed to the Black Death, and according to Gabriele de’ Mussi:

… the Tartars (Mongols), worn out by this pestilential disease, and falling on all sides as if thunderstruck, and seeing that they were perishing hopelessly, ordered the corpses to be placed upon their engines and thrown into the city of Kaffa. Accordingly were the bodies of the dead hurled over the walls, so that the Christians were not able to hide or protect themselves from this danger, although they carried away as many as possible and threw them into the sea. But soon the whole air became infected, and the water poisoned, and such a pestilence grew up that scarcely one out of a thousand was able to escape.

(Benedictow, 2004, p. 52)

From Kaffa, the plague (apparently) then spread to the West.

Cited as an early example of biological warfare, this myth (replaced more recently with Yersinia Pestis laden rats air-dropped during the Vietnam war) neatly reflects the coming-into-being of both software and the plague under the sign of warfare, or equally of engineering, with the origins of the term engineer rooted firmly as "a constructor of military engines" (as can indeed be seen in the above translation and use of the word engine, referring to a catapult or processing unit).

It goes without saying that contemporary examples such as the stuxnet worm, reinforce this mythic or necessary link between the plague, technology and warfare (a war against the Orient seguing into the story of Dracula).

This endless warfare is always a war against the plague (La guerre contre la peste), a containing against contagion, and equally this war is always a war in and of technologies (distinctly not a case of war as making use of technologies, or accelerating the development of certain technologies), a war between technologies with technology again defined as that precise engineering which makes of the world that which it is. Within this constant state of warfare, the contemporary military acronym of C5I, standing in for command, control, communications, computers, combat systems and intelligence, can more elegantly be replaced with the octopus C3 trinity of conspiracy, code and cryptography embracing a communication and a hiding (including the spreading of propaganda, or of deliberate misinformation, the jamming or denying of certain communications eg. the destruction of electronic equipment and satellites via Electromagnetic pulse (EMP)), a seeing and a listening (eavesdropping, radar, surveillance, mapping, spy satellites, TEMPEST/forensics phenomena, geophysical observation), and as control (mind control, media, software), or as (remote or autonomous) control for weapons (guidance); acro-gnomic Technology.

A machine made of earth

I suppose the body to be nothing but a statue or a machine made of earth, which God forms with the explicit intention of making it as much as possible like us.

(Descartes, 1984, p. 99)

“And now, my friends, we have a duty here to do. We must sterilise this earth, so sacred of holy memories, that he has brought from a far distant land for such fell use. He has chosen this earth because it has been holy. Thus we defeat him with his own weapon, for we make it more holy still. It was sanctified to such use of man, now we sanctify it to God.”

(Stoker, 1993 p. 248)

Writing on the site of that distinct geological fault line in Whitby, Bram Stoker predicts in 1890 that all code will enact a vampiric execution; that from this moment on the plague will be simulated and enacted on a substrate and that this plague is a warring technology of the body and of the executable substrate; Descartes' "machine made of earth". Following Friedrich Kittler (1993) and, on the Artaud-led journey towards a fundamental technology which is not "a war against the plague", is it possible to outline within Stoker's novel the opposition between the Count's technology and those of Harker and van Helsing? One side quite obviously promotes a certain biological warfare (underlining also the historical links between the belief in vampirism on which the novel is based and the medieval plagues in Europe).

Stoker identifies a technology of contagion (the vector of viral infection rewritten in journal entries and newspaper reports), a plague romance which promotes the necessity of promiscuity, and introduces the terms of substrate, the base of a technology to come fusing skin (pierced), blood (drained) and the earth (blessed) within a tale which announces the setting up of various new recording technologies which are to prove equally important for the future operation of computing machines.

There is both a global vector of contagion, the plague ship Demeter with its cargo of earth-filled containers stranding into Whitby, a vector which embraces substrate ("a number of great wooden boxes filled with mould" (Stoker, 1993, p. 68), "the earth placed in great wooden boxes" (p. 41), "his earth-home, his coffin-home, his hell-home"(p. 199)), and a romantic local viral vector (Lucy Westenra), embodying a plague promiscuity which extends a blood network of code carriers (the voluptuous un-dead).

On the other side, of Van Helsing, Harker and company, can be listed the particular technologies of the phonograph, the typewriter (Remington), the machine gun, and the stake, enmeshed within a colonial program and strategy which calls for the intelligence, containment and sterilisation of the vampire's earth stores (his substrate), before homing in (by means of spirit or psychic telephony) on the Count himself.

Stoker's updating of the vampire myth is thus a rendering explicit of certain viral vectors or lines and regions of containment, contamination and contagion (C3I) in relation to a specific code substrate (the earth) which only comes to be realised and made physically binding for the world's resources through the work of certain cryptomanes (Edgar Allen Poe, Alan Turing); a world choice made between rendering executable either the holy substrate of the Count, literally bleeding out execution across a totally promiscuous network, or the "more holy still" sanctified ("to God") and truly sterilised earth of Van Helsing.

Fundamental technology

If fundamental technology is like the plague, this is not [only] because it is contagious, but because it is a revelation, urging forward the exteriorisation of a latent undercurrent of cruelty.

(Artaud, 1970, p. 21, altered by the author)

Like silent rage, the most terrible (computer) virus is the one that does not disclose its symptoms.

(Artaud, 1970, p. 11, altered by the author)

The dual movement of (gnostic) software or embedded technology, like the plague, is a revelation which equally "does not disclose its symptoms"; a simultaneous hiding and revealing of technology and its double, whether we call this world plague or world theatre, or fundamental technology.

Fundamental or rather speculative technology is technology which refuses to participate in a war against the plague, but which embraces the eruptions of the plague as a technology, as a revealing of the conspiracy of the day, as an expression contrary to the enclosures of military engineering. Such a technology participates in a negative ecology which borrows terms from Artaud's work echoed in the title here, Theatre and the Plague, which ends in an urging "to bring back to all of us a natural, occult equivalent of the dogma we no longer believe" (Artaud, 1970, p. 22). But what exactly could constitute this "occult equivalent" in the context of technological dogma?

With plague and thus enclosure as the very foundation of military abstraction, our first software within a theatre of cruelty, we can perhaps come to recognise "the exteriorisation of a latent undercurrent of cruelty," to find an earth animism which replaces the deterministic machines of earth (Descartes and Dracula).

And if "like the plague, technology is a crisis resolved either by death or cure,"(Artaud, 1970, p. 22) then after this resolution there could exist a monument, a particular crypt for all those technologies of encryption and concealing, a roofed in writing which is defined as steganography (described as the concealment of the fact that there exactly exists a hidden message) which equally participates in that double movement of hiding and revealing itself as a monument.

Steganography appears as a monument to the (always past) technology which is the plague; coded within a black monolithic central processing unit (CPU) which appears to re-enact and thus exacerbate plague-lit pornographic strategies of containment and this world enclosure against contagion. A darkened comet processor unit (CPU), (with crystalline comet body appearing as blackened as it passed close to the earth in early 1348 (Baillie 2006), both presaging and giving the very name to the Black Death) projecting an (electromagnetic) plague; the projection ("the universe consists of a spurious projected reality" (Dick, 1995, p. 293) and this controlling technology of projection. This is technology and the plague, technology and its double.

Reference List

Artaud, A. (1970) The Theatre and its Double. (Victor Corti, Trans). London: John Calder

Baillie, M. G. L. (2006). New light on the Black Death: The cosmic connection. Stroud: Tempus.

Barthes, R., & Miller, R. (1976). Sade, Fourier, Loyola. New York: Hill and Wang.

Benedictow, O. J. (2004). The Black Death, 1346-1353: The complete history. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: Boydell Press.

Defoe, D., & In Secord, A. W. (1935). A journal of the plague year and other pieces. Garden City, N.Y: Doubleday, Doran & Co.

Descartes, R., Cottingham, J., Stoothoff, R., & Murdoch, D. (1984). The philosophical writings of Descartes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dick, P. K., & Sutin, L. (1995). The shifting realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected literary and philosophical writings. New York: Vintage Books.

Heidegger, M. (1977). The question concerning technology: And other essays. New York: Garland.

Hoyle, F., & Wickramasinghe, N. C. (1996). Our place in the cosmos: The unfinished revolution. London: Phoenix.

Horrox, R. (1994). The Black death. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Kafka, F. (1969). The penal colony: Stories and short pieces. New York: Schocken Bks.

Kittler, F. (1993) Draculas Vermächtnis. Technische Schriften. Leipzig: Reclam.

Metzger, G. (1997). Gustav Metzger: Damaged nature, auto-destructive art. London: coracle @ workfortheeyetodo.

Persinger, M. A. (1974). The paranormal. New York: MSS Information Corp.

Pynchon, T. (1973). Gravity's rainbow. New York: Viking Press.

Stoker, B. (1993). Dracula. Ware: Wordsworth Editions.

Torvalds, L (2005). /usr/src/linux-source-2.6.26/fs/pipe.c. Linux kernel source code.

Ziegler, P. (1970). The Black Death. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Author: root <m@1010.co.uk>

Date: 2012-11-22 12:07:51 GMT

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