Flesh and Affect: On Alexander R. Galloway’s “Uncomputable”

September 18, 2022   •   By Arjun Appadurai

Uncomputable: Play and Politics in the Long Digital Age

Alexander R. Galloway

ALEXANDER GALLOWAY IS a thinker in the classical mode who has a big message in his new book about digital media as a form, Uncomputable: Play and Politics in the Long Digital Age. As Kant might have done, Galloway presents a critique of digital reason, along with a Foucaultian account of its conditions of possibility. Unlike Kant, however, Galloway is also a builder of video games and a writer of code who has made journeys into the darkest heart of programming. As one who unites digital practice with critical theory, he belongs to a grand tradition that runs from Aristotle to Spinoza, a tradition that became less lively after the Enlightenment. In this tradition, builders and makers could also be artists, philosophers, and critics, because they felt free to roam across those disciplines and professions that are today separate guilds and enclosures. Galloway is descended from such figures as Archimedes, whose inventions intimately fueled his conceptual discoveries; Galileo, with his mastery of telescopes and astronomical modeling; and Lagrange, with his brilliant work in calculus and his practical work on standards and measures. Spinoza, whom Galloway admires greatly, was at the cutting edge of lens-grinding technologies in 17th-century Europe. Each of these thinkers moved seamlessly between instrumentation and speculation, a habit that Galloway brings to the center of his study of what he calls “computability.”

More proximately, Alexander Galloway is a student of Fredric Jameson, and thus his journey to media theory from literary studies is via philosophy and media criticism. He is an exemplar of the shift from what is still sometimes called “communication studies,” which tends to focus on propaganda, persuasion, advertising, and mass media, to a focus on media theory, which is a product of the reshaping of communication studies by humanistic scholars coming out of literature departments, film studies, and the history of science. This form of media studies owes more to German media theory of the last few decades, to French critical theory (notably Deleuze and Foucault), and to the turn to the posthuman and the nonhuman in Euro-American social theory (exemplified by such varied thinkers as Bruno Latour, Bernhard Siegert, and Isabelle Stengers). This species of media theory does not evidence much interest in ideologies, the culture industries, or such once-popular topics as the impact of television on social violence or of advertising on popular consciousness. Instead, this recent avatar of cultural studies is interested in codes, screens, interfaces, infrastructures, pattern-seeking, and networks, in a sort of mimesis of computer science and information science. Galloway is conscious of this shift, but he also exemplifies it. In this sense, his book may be viewed as an immanent critique of this new specialist trend within the broader field of cultural studies. Galloway has published prolifically in literary studies and in video game studies and design, has done studies of protocols, networks, and interfaces, and draws his energy from his creative interests as a gamer, programmer, and artist.

In this book, Galloway assembles and recomposes a variety of important essays published elsewhere between 2004 and 2020. But the book is much more than a reader or anthology; it is something between a critique and a manifesto. It begins by laying out his central preoccupation with the quality that gives the book its title — “uncomputability.” This term refers to computing and the computer, both of which Galloway has been using, designing, and playing with for more than two decades. In this book, he is trying to address the realm that gives computability its power: the realm of the uncomputable, which he defines as involving a range of sites, such as lived experience, intuition, flesh, and affect. In his argument, developed over a series of vignettes, technologies, and texts, Galloway shows that it would be a big mistake to see computability as a teleologically driven property that slows the march of the uncomputable in human life. Rather, he sees them as co-produced and dialectical modalities, which have stimulated each other since the time of the ancient Greeks.

The bulk of the chapters are a journey between devices and discoveries in the realm of computation, which leads Galloway to revise and retell many familiar narratives. Indeed, the greatest strength of the book is its strategy of following the genealogy of familiar digital devices and forms to uncover hidden and illuminating histories, such as the links between certain sculptural explorations in the 19th-century history of photography and the current technologies of computer graphics. Likewise, he shows how the genealogical links between cinema and photography are not so much about forms of visual narration as they are about the supplanting of time by space. The most important of his examples brings to our attention the rich interaction between weaving (a quintessentially analog practice) and the early history of computing, exemplified by figures such as Ada Lovelace. In each of these cases, and many others, Galloway shows that he is a master of what we might call the reverse-branching method of archival research, which follows the trace of a phenomenon to its familiar branches, and then again to smaller and more exotic branches until they yield a counterhistory. In Galloway’s hands, this method allows him to move seamlessly from his understanding of web design to a reading of Aeschylus’s tragedies.

Galloway has a greater motivation than the uncovering of this type of counterarchive, and a clue about that larger agenda is to be found in his close analysis of an interesting figure called Nils Aall Barricelli. This relatively obscure scientist was concerned with what could be called the study of artificial life, or of bionumeric evolution, or of computer-generated reproductive behavior. Barricelli was not primarily interested in whether the behavior of numbers in a digital environment could exhibit patterns of significance to biological evolution — the vitalist evolutionary process that governs animals, plants, and humans — but rather in the process of survival, mutation, and adaptation of all “symbio-organisms,” including numerical ones, that can find a place for reproduction. This domain, which privileges neither uniformity nor chaos, is a space of emergent living processes that are not confined to organic forms of life. Galloway is fascinated by Barricelli for at least three reasons. First, he allows Galloway to exemplify his ambition to research technical achievements by technical means, in this case by using his laptop to rewrite Barricelli’s “pseudocode,” to translate, debug, and execute in today’s software. The second point of fascination for Galloway is Barricelli’s affinity with a group of process-oriented thinkers, including Henri Bergson, Gilles Deleuze, and Catherine Malabou, who see causality as nonlinear and view emergent interactional processes as potentially parallel, multiple, and indirect. The third reason for Galloway’s interest in Barricelli is because the latter’s experiments offer a stunning example of the co-productivity of bio-organic and digital-numeric modes of organization.

Galloway’s final substantive chapters are concerned with the technology and the figurative status of the “black box.” In these chapters, he develops a complex argument (again, occasionally reverting to Greek tragedy) to explore the structure and function of the black box in our computational times. Galloway weaves back and forth between the black box as a device whose insides are inaccessible by design, and the black box as a function or relationship between inputs and outputs that requires no understanding of its mediating algorithms. This lets him introduce a brilliant reversal of what Marx said about the commodity (mystical shell versus rational interior) by remarking on the external rationality of the keyboard, screen, and interface, and the dark, invisible, mystical interior of the network itself — its nodes, codes, and libraries.

This reversal is what poses, in Galloway’s argument, the biggest challenge to critique in the age of colonization by computability, for our main tools for examining the “hidden abode” of computability come from within computability itself: algorithmic methods of translation and search, and even the design of traditional long-form writing. In this context, Galloway could have cited the software called Scrivener, released in 2021 after a much longer trial period, which allows writers a new order of convenience in composing long pieces of writing — assembling, accessing, and recombining notes, sources, and thought fragments, at all scales.

The most important question that Galloway raises and addresses at length in his last two chapters is whether the growth of computational affordances and habits spells the shrinkage of the possibility of critique, in a Kantian or Marxian sense. In other words, because computability encourages methods of reading, searching, displaying, and pattern-seeking that disguise their ideological drivers, they may make it impossible to conduct any serious examination of the workings of ideology as such. Here, Galloway approaches a truly exciting horizon, namely the possibility of outlining something like a “Critique of Digital Reason.” This book could be treated as a prolegomenon to such a critique, but it does not quite work as a prolegomenon for reasons that will be discussed below.

Black boxes lead Galloway to a close analysis of the distributed network (the child of an engineer called Paul Baran working in the 1960s and ’70s). The distributed network is “a specific network architecture characterized by equity between nodes, bi-directional links, a high degree of redundancy, and a general lack of internal hierarchy. […] The distributed network is thus a black box network.” The discussion of this information architecture is Galloway’s pivot for telling a highly technical version of a history that others have told more simply: the decentralization of information transfer, which was the basis for much optimism about grassroots mobilization, anticentralization politics, and lateral forms of creativity, before nation-states and corporations soon turned this decentralization into a powerful tool of surveillance, extraction, and domination. In another Greek allusion, Agamemnon’s chain of triumph has co-opted Clytemnestra’s web of ruin.

The book thus ends on a melancholic note, with Galloway showing us the impossibility of any sort of humanist critique of computability that does not risk becoming itself a form of computability, mistaking algorithmic search for archival serendipity, parsing for reading, and compilation for comprehension. If we see Galloway’s despair in Kantian terms, we might say that immanent critique is impossible when the immanent world has become defined by computability, when the digital has all but gutted the analog, and when data, pattern, and noise have become the key attributes of legitimate knowledge. 

Galloway is at pains to show that the contrast between computability and uncomputability is not a matter of seriality, teleology, or progress, by any definition. Yet he spends a large portion of his concluding chapters in trying to explain the colonization of our world by computability, and the challenges this colonization poses to critique, resistance, or exit. If computability always exists in creative tension with its others, from Aeschylus to Norbert Wiener, then what tipped the scales to make computability now seem to be the winner? 

One plausible answer to this question is not available to Galloway, due to his disinterest in the world outside the transatlantic region (barring a few minor allusions to China). This disinterest is compensated by a periodic and dutiful gesture to the place of women — from Clytemnestra to Ada Lovelace — in the history of computing and of the minoritization of Black Americans in the digital world, both issues internal to the Euro-American history of computing. There is an entirely plausible line of argument that connects the financialization of contemporary capital to the new logics of digital imperialism — such as hermeneutical reason, affective connectivity, and numerous nondigital forms of data and evidence — and thus shows why computability has colonized its ever-present others. This line of argument would require us to connect capitalism, global financial markets, and the relatively recent domination of electricity as a form of energy. But the study of both electricity and finance today requires a serious engagement with the global frontiers of computability, and Galloway regrettably remains within the abode of Euro-Atlantic (mostly American) digital regimes.

Another plausible counterargument to Galloway’s view is that the Other of computability is not, as he suggests, affect or experience or the body or the spirit, but calculability. Computability is about algorithms, while calculation is about arithmetic. Put another way, calculation in its simplest form is about numbers, whereas algorithms (the heart of computability) are simply recipes. The fact that they use the difference between ones and zeros to design code, create programs, and produce software is entirely secondary to their nature, which has as little to do with numbers as cooking or sailing — or weaving, Galloway’s own richest example. Seen this way, Galloway has posed the wrong contrast. What we really need is a discussion of the old and unresolved tension between computation and calculation, between how to identify the shortest distance between two points (a problem of computation) and how to measure the distance between those two points (a problem of calculation).

But for Galloway, who prefers to oppose computation to critique, the solution to that problem is to practice his own versions of computation (for example, by redesigning a wargame originally designed by Guy Debord) and to theorize them in light of a tradition that runs more or less from Leibniz to Latour via Marx, Deleuze, and François Laruelle. In short, Galloway thinks in the mode of critique and creates in the mode of computation. He argues that this is his way of “unifying” or softening the gap between the two: “Personally, my own efforts have followed a multimodal strategy of producing academic writing concurrent with software production, the goal of which being not to quarantine criticality, but rather to unify critical theory and digital media (around the technique of allegory, for instance).”

Can this upscaled version of the “two cultures” model, reverting to the trope of “unity” across critical humanities and algorithmic technologies that we saw earlier in such thinkers as Ernst Cassirer and C. P. Snow, be our only recourse? Perhaps not, if we refuse the initial binary between computability and its Other that defines Galloway’s entire argument. The best immanent critique of computability cannot derive from a method that replicates the very binarity defining computability itself. A more compelling critique of pure digitality may need to be more resolutely rhizomatic. Galloway knows and admires Deleuzian thought, and is familiar with rhizomes, networks, folds, and organicity in Deleuze’s thinking, but he remains confined within the digital, the algorithmic, the binary, and the machinic. In his 1972 book, Fredric Jameson, Galloway’s teacher, waged a heroic struggle against “the prison-house of language,” by which he meant the regnant structuralism and formalism of the 1960s. Galloway has escaped that prison but has yet to find a way out of the prison house of computation, the governing formalism of our time. Jameson’s book is likely to remain a classic for another 50 years. I am less sure about Galloway’s. Such are the mysteries of uncomputability.


Arjun Appadurai is senior distinguished professor at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle (Germany) and emeritus professor at New York University. He is working on a book about the durability of caste as a system of stigma.