Shifting the site of execution.

The ptrace() system call provides a means by which a parent process may observe and control the execution of another process, and examine and change its core image and registers. It is primarily used to implement breakpoint debugging and system call tracing.

[Linux man-page for ptrace]

"[An operational code] is inscribed on his body with the Harrow."

[Franz Kafka, In the Penal Colony]



Just as Antonin Artaud proposed a fundamental theatre which urges 'forward the exteriorisation of a latent undercurrent of cruelty,' [Artaud, The Theatre and its Double] a theatre, which, like the plague, causes a localised, geological eruption on the skin, so a fundamental technology could be imagined which at its depth concerns the skin, the surface; a software which has shifted its site of execution from mineral substrate to the skin itself. And just as all theatre has something to do with the vision of Artaud, the eruption and exposure on its surface of a cruelty which can be identified as that of rationalism, so all technology must surely have to do with the skin, however abstracted (as a tower or as a volcano), it must surely operate on that surface.

Skin is tied to code by way of geology; both by way of a comparable earth surface which is mined in order to render statements of language and logic executable, and through revelation as the eruption of that surface, a certain symptomatology. A silent surface ('that does not disclose its symptoms' [Artaud]) always to be pricked, pointed to, mined, excavated and extruded, in order to test, engineer, show and expose precisely something.

As part of a larger investigation attempting to locate the precise site of execution of software or code, the project pain registers attempts to follow this trajectory, asking whether this site of execution is (on) the skin, and what it would mean, if this is not the case, to shift the current site to the skin and thus to elaborate a fundamental technology. To state it simply, what does technology, expressed as software or code, have to do with the skin and what are the histories of this potential connection?

Does this equation, of skin and code, with links both to steganography (as a secret writing on the skin, to be covered with a growth of hair) and to magic or kabbalah (the emergence of coded figures on the skin) thus imply a (Ballardian or pornographic) shifting of the site of execution or is this trajectory somehow intrinsic within the culture/history of code and encryption?

Operational code

Operational codes or opcodes, the bare logical bones of computation expressed in easy mnemonics such as jsr and lda which form the instruction set of any processor, are clearly located on a questionable surface which divides software and hardware; descending or unwrapping an onion skinned or geological layering (Feynmann, Fuller) from the so-called application level (simulating and/or making the world as it is, multiple spreadsheets in motion ordering intensities and economies), to the level of material fluctuations on a mineral or synthesised substrate. The layer of opcodes, of language pinned upwards to abstraction, rests on a diagrammatic layer of controlled (electronic, electric) flows, a skin tattoo described in the early days of processor design with pen on paper, with a physical inscription. Opcodes form the base layer, a resource for Llullian re-permutation, the foundation blocks for babelling towers of abstraction (enclosure) describing all that is possible.

"There in the Inscriber is the mechanism which determines the movement of the Harrow, and this mechanism is arranged according to the diagram on which the sentence is set down. I still use the diagrams of the previous Commandant. Here they are."

[Franz Kafka, In the Penal Colony]

Inspired in part by a cursory reading of Kafka's short story, In the Penal Colony, in which a complex executable mechanism, its workings and social procedure, are described, a mechanism which inscribes the sentence (of the law) directly on the skin of the 'Condemned Man', pain registers attempts to directly translate or transfer the operational codes which are running on a computer's CPU (Central Processing Unit) in 'real time' (whilst a common program such as the Firefox web browser is running) into the slow and painful inscription of a needle, piercing the skin of the operator or user's hand. A particular, common operational code such as that dictating the movement of the contents of one place in memory to another location, results in the needle achieving a certain depth in the hand, another opcode, say demanding the addition of two values, might barely touch the skin of the hand. The repetitive rhythms of changing operational codes, as an application for example initialises its opening state, are translated into the hypnotic, up and down movements of the needle (making use in the second prototype of a CD-ROM ejection mechanism), appearing somewhat like the slowed, jerked motions of a sewing machine.

I’ll describe the apparatus first and only then let the procedure go to work.

[Franz Kafka, In the Penal Colony]

In contrast to the complex apparatus described by Kafka, in which multiple components such as the bed, appendages holding the body of the condemned, and the harrow (covering the body with multiple needles) work in concert to inscribe and embellish the sentence, the pain registers apparatus returns to the same spot on the pierced skin, with the user free to move the hand to inscribe other points. And despite other glaring dissimilarities (the deadly intent of the first mechanism), both projects share a similar time scale (comparing pain registers running in the hyper-slowed time of a machine which must examine and translate each instruction which would otherwise be executed at GHz speeds, with Kafka's 12 hour ordeal), and an obvious inscription of exactly software's running codes. Kafka's short story is a technical exposition, with clear reference to a particular technology which is yet to come. There are flows of executable logic (and of blood and water) as described (in the diagrams which are rendered executable by the machine) by 'a labyrinthine series of lines, crisscrossing each other in all sorts of ways. These covered the paper so thickly that only with difficulty could one make out the white spaces in between.' [Kafka] This is an exact description of the (originally hand-drawn, now described by ever more complex software routines) diagrams which are inscribed on silicon to construct the CPU which renders both opcodes and the sentence (of the law) as executable. Yet, these diagrams are both code and CPU for the programmable logic which is the machine; they instruct the machine to execute, reproduce and furrow(into the skin) the same traces as that logic, to mime the production processes of reproduction of the CPU which is yet to come for Kafka (even down to details such as the obsoleted acid etch of the skin wounds, a common industrial technique now applied to silicon).

Both Kafka's mechanism and pain registers are intended exactly and explicitly as embodying (necessarily painful) sites of execution.

There is equally (with both Kafka and a software which is perhaps only yet to come) a literal play with hiding and with transparency as "Someone who is not an initiate sees no external difference among the punishments" yet "the Harrow is made of glass" so that spectators can witness the inscription. Around the sixth hour of the process "The man simply begins to decipher the script." [Kafka] And this deciphering operates as a revelation "he experiences it [(the software)] on his own body."[Kafka]


pain registers probes into running code thanks to the ptrace system call (described as to its function in the opening quotation) which provides that glass (harrow) window into the running process, the (rendered visible) inscription on mineral substrate; running codes yet hiding their transition into the unseen etched, electroplated lines of logical flow. ptrace offers one potential view, a clued indication of the site of execution, alchemically obscured by opcode incantations.

x=ptrace(PTRACE_GETREGS,pid,NULL,&red); ya=red.eip;

ptrace is a piece of code, a functionality which can be called at will, which allows one piece of software (the parent) to observe, control, examine and alter any aspect of another process running on the same operating system. The ptrace call is commonly used to debug running code and can be considered as an active language, infiltrating and interrogating, snooping on and injecting code into living, running processes; ptraces of death, and of life. ptrace is a set of codes, embedded within the operating system, which project a potential process promiscuity within the machine and are thus commonly viewed as an unnecessary security risk. Within this context, pain registers can be promoted as a debugging aid, promoting skin transparency; "our man deciphers it with his wounds." [Kafka]

yb=ptrace(PTRACE_PEEKDATA,pid,ya,NULL); printf("%c",yb%255);

These terse code snippets (above) calling ptrace functions effect the work of pain registers on the side of running code whereas an appendage or code prosthetic of modified hardware is used to actually translate the traced opcode values into needled plunges (in knowing reversal of the operation afforded by the punchcard, that other surface lying historically at a beginning for user software with Jacquard's loom). The key register (a simple storage site in the processor) known as the instruction pointer (cast here as eip) is probed as to its location, and then peeked (PEEKDATA) as to the value at this location (in memory), revealing the operational code to be punched into the CPU (before it happens), the value to send to the needle appendage. As the title suggests, the instruction pointer(IP) points to the instruction which is about to be executed. Incrementing this pointer register simply moves on to the next instruction which is stored in code memory. A simple loop can easily be effected. Illegal instructions are rare, as the sites to which the IP can refer, and indeed the IP itself, are heavily policed by the operating system. Virus, and related crash in the widest sense impact at this forbidden, plagued site of eruption, enacting Artaud's geological skin shift.

pain registers thus makes use of ptrace to shift the site of execution onto the skin, to allow the instruction pointer, rather that which it points to, to pierce the skin of both hand and machine; but where is this latter skin?

Roofed-in writing

Exactly, an encoded skin. The skin as the carrier for a message yet veiling itself as carrier, as message bearer. A skin which is rendered executable when the precisely communicated site (on a certain part of the head, for example) is shaved and cleaned, made ready for decoding, and finally driving the action (of a spy, a general, an army, a chain of command). The message, unseen, is revealed, without code or encoding, simply a hiding.

This is classical steganography, literally a roofed-in writing (the crypt), a skin-hiding which refuses to acknowledge that it hides something, a forerunner of coded or digital steganography (the embedding of one (secret) message within an innocent appearing text, image or sound file, the cover file) with both potentially viewed as monuments to technology. And what if, rather than a tattooed (again the needle) message on the skin, there existed a notation and language solely of scars and imprints, of quite direct symptoms; the instruction pointer as a delicate record and playback needle for the floppy skin, an aid for reverse engineering of the secret.

Software, as the title and content of Florian Cramer's book length work makes abundantly clear, is 'Words made flesh.' Code or software is a magic which makes the world as it is, a world (in) which the symbolic renders, changes and moulds materials and people; as code, as encoding, as crypt and as cryptography, as a series of roofed-in containers. Code is a surface or skin steganography which creates and thus exposes the world as a rational certainty, the hiding of a hiding which is precisely a holding-in of the uncertainty or incompleteness underlying this project (of Goedel, of Turing, of all the cryptomaniacs). Within this magic, this kaballah, a code, an alphabet of opcode mnemonics appears and disappears like shadows on the skin.

Fanged instruction pointers

There is another writing (alongside Kafka's) which foretells a future architecture, another story which focuses on the piercing of the skin in relation to execution; Bram Stoker's Dracula, rooted in the historic for-all-times mantra of the long wait for the rendering executable finally outside the magical, for the modern rationalist Enigma (of Turing). A story which ends both then and 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 users and of their desires and affects. The possibility of transferring execution outside these sets of containers or black boxes into the world is resolutely denied. There is only one (the most holy, the most 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. This exterior, this data (outside the colony, that which was not meant to be executed as code, that which is without authorship) would thus be rendered executable.

Writing on the site of a distinct geological fault line in Whitby, Bram Stoker predicts in 1890 that all code has the potential to enact a vampiric execution and that this execution is part of a warring technology of the body and of the executable substrate; Descartes' 'machine made of earth'. A battle of the earth, enacted on the (pierced) skin.

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' [Bram Stoker, Dracula], 'the earth placed in great wooden boxes' [Stoker], 'his earth-home, his coffin-home, his hell-home' [Stoker], 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, calling into being a key character of the third story below), 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 doped 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 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.

A singular vampire fang is able to pierce the skin, crashing Stoker's bachelor machine; a literal (and shifted) instruction pointer rendering executable and finally executing a promiscuous, pornographic logic or code in the form of a highly contagious word and code virus which threatens to engulf London, 'where, perhaps, for centuries to come he might, amongst its teeming millions, satiate his lust for blood, and create a new and ever-widening circle of semi-demons to batten on the helpless.' [Stoker]


Obviously the machine was breaking up. Its quiet operation had been an illusion. He felt as if he had to look after the Officer, now that the latter could no longer look after himself. But while the falling gear wheels were claiming all his attention, he had neglected to look at the rest of the machine. However, when he now bent over the Harrow, once the last gear wheel had left the Inscriber, he had a new, even more unpleasant surprise. The Harrow was not writing but only stabbing, and the Bed was not rolling the body, but lifting it, quivering, up into the needles.

[Franz Kafka, In the Penal Colony]

Kafka's machine is an extended, slow motion car crash with the sharp end of technology, teeth (of cogwheels) literally digging deeper furrows into the skin, marking the skin with legible tattoos and scars, the imprints of (car) switches, gear levers and of manufacturers' dashboard medallions.' /[J.G. Ballard, Crash] A third (utopian) relation or vector of the piercing of the flesh surface comes into view, making plain a certain equation of skin and code, by way of a common denominator, or integration function, pornography, under the sign of the degraded (by Stoker), vampiric instruction pointer; such an equation is made plain in J G Ballard's Crash in which 'science and pornography are moving together on a curious collision course.' [Ballard, 1990 interview]

A surface reading of Ballard's Crash would discern a rendering sexual or eroticizing of technology under the sign of the automobile, yet, as Ballard makes clear, Crash is a revealing of the latent desire or erotics of technology itself. Ballard talked incessantly within interviews and his works of a reversal of the classical division between inner psyche and external reality; a reversal which is equally a revelation, an unveiling or an exposure. A leakage at a skin barrier (become membrane or mucous surface).

'…It isn't sex that Vaughan is interested in, but technology.' [J.G. Ballard, Crash]

Within the world as pornographic executable (and pornography as always executable, inspiring a (coded and endless) repetition of depicted acts within this 'flesh world') how can either software or pornography be isolated and referenced? Once leaking, how can these twin containers ('The enclosure both permits the [operating] system and extends the possibilities of cruelty as in, for example, a fairy tale or pornographic film.' [Roland Barthes, Sade, Fourier, Loyola]) exist as such?

Yet these questionable equations, set up by Ballard, are further complicated if it can be considered that such an inversion itself (of the roles of the psyche as interior fiction and the real) could easily be considered strictly as a shift of the instruction pointer; summarised as a rendering of data (the fantasy, the imagination, the symbolic) as code, as executable (the real, that which is enacted and constructed by software in/as the world itself).

And that it must be considered that this shift of the fanged instruction pointer is much more than simply a transgression, dysfunction or perversion of a skin barrier or border, much more than the crashed execution of an 'illegal' instruction; that Ballard's Crash points to more than a shifting of the pointer of desire, of a pornographic instruction pointer (the repetition of desire) on to technology and the car (crash); although this is precisely what the crash of technology enacts.

That the figure and title of (the car) crash is not accidental and that it is not simply too banal to explore the links between Ballard's particular crash and the crashing exposed and enacted at the interface of hard and software which potentially originated in a very literal crash at this precise intersection. The computer crash originally referred to the disastrous impact of the hard disk's read/write head on the shiny, information-rich surface of the hard drive platter. An equally fleshy crashed interface is the semi-mythical 'killer poke', apparently thrusting obscene values into the memory of the machine, eliciting violent hardware destruction.

Ballard's pornographic crash takes place at precisely this skin intersection, an intersection of pointed matter and flesh and this is where software is enacted; the contours of the executable substrate are rendered within a pornographic and steganographic imaginary of scars and surface wounds. Baudrillard [Simulacra and Simulations XII] makes plain this imprinting on the skin when writing about Ballard's Crash (in the same essay in which Kafka's machine and Ballard's crashing are contrasted with the first typified as 'puritan, repressive' and thus implying the possibility of perversion in its signifying or sentencing, and the latter as 'on the same level as the body, without phantasms, without metaphor, without sentences.' [Baudrillard])

Each mark, each trace, each scar left on the body is like an artificial invagination, like the scarifications of savages, which are always a vehement response to the absence of the body. Only the wounded body exists symbolically - for itself and for others - 'sexual desire' is never anything but the possibility bodies have of combining and exchanging their signs.

[Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulations XII]

Sexual desire as a software on and of the skin - 'bodies […] combining and exchanging their signs.' [Baudrillard] Yet contemporary, realised software so far refuses this imagination which must be made explicit and revealed, that which lies veiled within code architectures and commentary; a voyeuristic ptrace which can track and meddle (in technical terms to peek and poke) with the running instructions, the running loops and repetitions of any real world process, describing exactly the instruction set, the peripherals, the instructions, the scheduling algorithms, the translation tables of permutations, templates and containers which set up those 120 days of crashing ('… Using this set-up they could duplicate the Mansfield and Camus crashes - even Kennedy's - indefinitely.' [Ballard]) The promises of the word made flesh are denied in a necessary crash; the crash of the operating system is some kind of fraudulent non-accident, designed to avoid the Ballardian collision and miming the same faked revelation or exposure of the pornographic, designed and enacted to draw to a halt any potential perversion of the instruction pointer, before it gets out of hand. Crash appears as original and volcanic revelation, yet uncovers only another unpierced skin layer; in both cases, only more protocols.

'If codes can fuck your computer, where’s the porn that depicts them?'

[Florian Cramer & Stewart Home, Pornographic Coding]

It appears as a one way street; observing and tracking the self-evident codes and software within pornography (the primary code of repetition, a stag/for loop for a bachelor (party) machine), whilst witnessing the refusal of any operating system, of any programming language to engage in a Ballardian chrome-skinned promiscuity.

The necessary shift of the instruction pointer onto the skin (as identified by Ballard) is thus both necessary and is present as a certain latent quality (unavoidable crash potentials) within technology and code, within its pornographic play with that latency or hiding itself, its qualities as a crypt.

The body is a machine of earth, the skin a reversible 'line between inner and outer landscapes' [William S. Burroughs, Preface to The Atrocity Exhibition], which is either subject to geological eruptions (plague revelations) or to a piercing by a perverse instruction pointer, but is not subject to division into those containers called protocols or organs. The instruction pointer has already shifted.

'Earthquakes can result from seismic upheavals within the human mind.' [Burroughs] just as the plague is a 'psychic entity' [Artaud] which erupts on the skin in wonderful, new geological excrescenses.

'Just as volcanoes have their own chosen locations on earth the bubos have their own chosen spots over the expanse of the human body.' [Artaud]

Martin Howse 2013

See also: pain registers

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

Date: 2013-04-23 17:15:14 BST

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