Spectral Critique in Empire and Protocol

Joseph Reagle Jr.

spectral: like or being a phantom; "a ghostly face at the window"; "a phantasmal presence in the room"; "spectral emanations"; "spiritual tappings at a séance" – WordNet 1.7

1 Spectral Critique

“A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of Communism.” Such is the evocative opening of the Communist Manifesto. Marx and Engels were identifying an apparition that was not yet material, but a great potential in the minds of the proletariat, and a source of fear in the hearts of the industrial powers. Communists need only to “openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims” and class struggle embedded within the unyielding flow of dialectical history would arrive upon the next, much anticipated, stage of history. And for the next 150 years the Marxist tradition has struggled with (1) why the communist stage of world history never arrived – much like the failure ofpsychohistoryin Asimov'sFoundationtrilogy – and (2) subsequently accommodating themselves to critique rather than prediction.

The contemporary object of critique for the likes of Deleuze (1992), Hardt (1998), and Negri (2000) is the grandson of Marx's liberal capitalism, and the son of Lyotard's monopolistic capitalism and Foucault's  disciplinary society. Ironically, the control societyorEmpire, this muted progeny of Marx's capitalism, is the contemporary specter haunting Marx's intellectual descendants. In response, they've posited a theory that is as ephemeral as the object with which they contend, "The constitution of the order has not arisen spontaneously via a neutral and natural invisible hand, nor is the order dictated by a single conspiratorial power with a single center of rationality transcendent to global forces" (Hardt and Negri 2000:3). Who then is the enemy? A new empire wherein, “there is no place of power – it is both everywhere and nowhere. The empire is an u-topos, or rather a non-place” (Hardt 1998:143). In this way, the theory has a symmetrical elegance, but I also find it problematic.

In  Protocol, or, How Control Exists After Decentralization, Alex Galloway (2001) applies the theory of control societies to that of information networks. I wish to respond to that application with some of my own hesitations and questions.

2 Control Societies and Empire

Michel Foucault named the society in which he found himself the disciplinary society. This potent force had displaced the sovereign societies of the previous two centuries. Where there was one sovereign power, fiat, and punishment, there was now regimentation and bureaucracy: orderly lanes that moved the masses between the enclosed spaces of compartmentalized lives, “each having its own laws: first the family; then the school ('you are no longer in your family'); then the barracks ('you are no longer at school'); then the factory; from time to time the hospital; possibly the prison” (Deleuze 1992:Section 1).

However, in structure one might find comfort, yet Deleuze posits that even this is failing. The control society is like a mold growing upon the disciplinary society, decomposing, reconfiguring, and dispersing the atoms of control. The regimentation of the factory gives way to the “just in time” operations of the corporation, “The family, the school, the army, the factory are no longer the distinct analogical spaces that converge towards an owner – state or private power – but coded figures – deformable and transformable – of a single corporation that now has only stockholders” (Deleuze 1992:Section 1).

Hardt and Negri (2002) sympathize and extend this periodization, place it within a postmodern context, and exercise the theoretician's prerogative by renaming it Empire. Yet one should not confuse it with the officious characteristics nor legions of empires past; instead, it is the ethic of pervasive “just cause” that is shared between the ancient and contemporary, "Empire is formed not on the basis of force itself but on the basis of the capacity to present force as being in the service of right and peace. . . . The first task of Empire, then, is to enlarge the realm of consensuses that support its own power" (Hardt and Negri 2000:15).

The specter of Empire is omni-present but ephemeral, to grapple with it is to try to grab hold of superstition: it moves us but can not be located. The process of post-modernization has collapsed all walls, obviated/internalized the 'outside' (the civilization of nature), and destroyed the public spaces of liberal political theory (Hardt 1998:141). The parasitic spores of control have been inhaled and internalized. The single celled parasite toxoplasma gondiicauses rats to become careless, it abates their anxiety, and they fall prey to predators, permitting the parasite to complete its life cycle. Deleuze, too, notes perpetual cycles:

In the prison system: the attempt to find penalties of "substitution," at least for petty crimes, and the use of electronic collars that force the convicted person to stay at home during certain hours. For the school system: continuous forms of control, and the effect on the school of perpetual training, the corresponding abandonment of all university research, the introduction of the "corporation" at all levels of schooling. For the hospital system: the new medicine "without doctor or patient" that singles out potential sick people and subjects at risk, which in no way attests to individuation as they say but substitutes for the individual or numerical body the code of a "dividual" material to be controlled. In the corporate system: new ways of handling money, profits, and humans that no longer pass through the old factory form.  (Deleuze 1992: Section 3)  

Such is the spectral form of the contemporary Empire.

3 Machine and Code

Deleuze (1992:Section 2) believes that the form of society is matched by the form of its machines.  Sovereign societies made use of simple mechanisms such as levers, pulleys, and clocks; disciplinary societies employed “machines involving energy”, presumably steam and internal combustion engines; and the symbiote of the society of control is the computer: the spectre is truly a “ghost in the machine.” Furthermore, in an enigmatic passage he further evokes modern technology via “passwords” and “codes”, declaring that:

“ In the societies of control, on the other hand, what is important is no longer either a signature or a number, but a code: the code is a password, while on the other hand disciplinary societies are regulated by watchwords (as much from the point of view of integration as from that of resistance). The numerical language of control is made of codes that mark access to information, or reject it.” (Deluze 1992)

In Lawrence Lessig's book Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace (Lessig 2000), “code” was rendered as a social constraint and construct, altering the common conception of that which geeks took for granted, and everyone else thought mundane. It's not apparent that the cyber and critical theorists knew of each other, but the affinities are striking. Lessig opens his book by citing science fiction authors speaking at the 1996 Computers, Freedom, and Privacy Conference:

Vernor Vinge spoke about "ubiquitous law enforcement," made possible by "fine-grained distributed systems"; through computer chips linked by the Net to every part of social life, a portion would be dedicated to the governments use. . . . The future would be a world of perfect regulation, and the architecture of distributed computing-the Internet and its attachments-would make that possible. (Lessig 2000:ix)

While reading Deleuze, I was also reminded of John Perry Barlow's A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. . . Cyberspace does not lie within your borders” (Barlow 1996).

And of course, there is Tim May's Crypto Anarchist Manifesto, first drafted in 1988, that set my own course of involvement with computer security, social networks, and technology policy:

Computer technology is on the verge of providing the ability for individuals and groups to communicate and interact with each other in a totally anonymous manner. Two persons may exchange messages, conduct business, and negotiate electronic contracts without ever knowing the True Name, or legal identity, of the other. Interactions over networks will be untraceable, via extensive re- routing of encrypted packets and tamper-proof boxes which implement cryptographic protocols with nearly perfect assurance against any tampering. . . . These developments will alter completely the nature of government regulation, the ability to tax and control economic interactions, the ability to keep information secret, and will even alter the nature of trust and reputation. . . . Just as the technology of printing altered and reduced the power of medieval guilds and the social power structure, so too will cryptologic methods fundamentally alter the nature of corporations and of government interference in economic transactions. Combined with emerging information markets, crypto anarchy will create a liquid market for any and all material which can be put into words and pictures. . . (May 1992)

While the authors welcome these changes with varying degrees of optimism and pessimismthey all recognize a change in world order. Consequently, Galloway's consideration of control and protocol is apt.

4 Specter and Specificity

My criticism is that the spectral critique of Empire and Protocol lacks specificity. Hardt and Negri argued that the Hobbesian and Lockean theories of supra-national power are harmful because, “they do not recognize the accelerated rhythm, the violence, and the necessity with which the new imperial paradigm operates” (2000:8). In turn, I argue that their theory of Empire, and Galloway's theory of Protocol, capture too much in their broad sweep of recognition.

Hardt and Negri posit, “NGOs provide the pretext for moral intervention which prefigures the world order" (2000:36). On what basis is this claim made? In a short essay Birds of a Feather: War and Deceit, written on the eve of the second Iraq War, I noted that since 1945 few U.S. military interventions' true intent were consistent with the rationalized motive (Reagle 2003). In the eight cases I considered, I did not encounter any evidence that the administrations relied upon the position of humanitarian NGOs that Hardt and Negri mention, including Oxfam, Amnesty International, and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). In fact, while humanitarian aid in the time of war is not without problems (Terry 2002), during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan MSF objected to any such conflation, “This is not a humanitarian operation. It is part of a military campaign designed to gather international approval of the attacks led by the United States” (MSF 2001). Furthermore, the military establishment itself often disavows the rationalizations of the political administration for military interventions (Reagle 2003)! Granted, the administrations made fatuous humanitarian claims, but such claims do not require the presence of NGOs.

The fault of the spectral critique is that the inhabitants of a global system are seemingly implicated, even if they stand in opposition. The greatest disappointment to those that originally felt an affinity for the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspaceand the Crypto Anarchist Manifesto was that authoritarian control did not have to be direct to be effective. In a paper on Internet governance I captured my realization that absent direct coercive control, the authorities were learning to effect control by linking issues together, controlling choke points, gouging, browbeating, threatening, and herding the populace via private third parties that exercise market control (Reagle 1999). In fact, such transitive control, on the government's behest but through market agents, permits it to evade constitutional restrictions on government power; the odd formulation of “mandatory self regulation” came to be the exemplar of U.S. Internet policy. This is reminiscent of Hardt's claim that, “The institutions work even though they break down - and perhaps they work all the better the more they break down . . . Control is thus the intensification and generalization of discipline, when the boundaries of the institutions have been breached, corrupted . . .” (Hardt 1998:150).

Clearly, regimes will mouth platitudes as they send troops, and technical decentralization can be accompanied by control. And if the intent of the authors was merely to describe this relationship, I need not say more. But the authors also look for opportunities of resistance, and it is this that prompts my response.

5 Protocol Considered

Alex Galloway notes that architectures might be central (a single root of authority and contact), decentralized (a few root nodes with hierarchical relations), or distributed (every node can connect to its peers). He argues that the decentralized character of the Internet is not immune to control and that, “Whereas Empire is how political control exists under decentralization, protocol is how technological control exists under decentralization" (Galloway 2001:83). Protological control arises from the tension between the distributed character of the Internet Protocol (IP), which specifies how packets of information are constructed and sent about the network between any two nodes, and the decentrality of the important Domain Name Service (DNS), which maps IP addresses (e.g., “”) to natural language names (e.g., “reagle.org”).

Interestingly, naming used to be distributed as well. Originally, every computer on the Internet maintained a “/etc/hosts” file that kept a list of every other named computer and its IP address. But as the number of computers on the Internet grew, their maintenance become intractable, so a hierarchical naming service was created and responsibilities were delegated to registries such has those controlling the “.com”, “.edu”, and “.gov” domains. This then makes those hierarchical structure more amendable to control. Galloway has identified a critical issue though he hasn't explicitly generalized it: networks are built as stacks of layers, and the topology of one layer may be different than the layers upon which it rests. For example, DNS is hierarchical and depends upon and provides a service for the distributed IP addressing layer.  And even in the case of IP, while it is distributed at the addressing level since a packet can be addressed to any other computer, the packet actually traverses a different topology that is characterized by the highly connected telecommunication service providers.

So we know the conditions under which protological control arises, but what is it? And what exactly is the object being controlled? Galloway does not provide an answer, as his essay is more focused on drawing a parallel with the metaphor of Empire and in doing so parallels the spectral critique. I do not understand how NGOs provide the “pretext” for military intervention, nor how protocol relates to control. As I alluded to earlier, this is most apparent when Galloway considers resistance by citing a conversation between Negri and Deleuze, which I provide below with a slightly larger excerpt:

Deleuze: . . . "universals of communication" ought to make us shudder. It's true that, even before control societies are fully in place, forms of delinquency or resistance (two different things) are also appearing. Computer piracy and viruses, for example, will replace strikes and what the nineteenth century called "sabotage" ("clogging" the machinery) . You ask whether control or communication societies will lead to forms of resistance that might reopen the way for a communism understood as the "transversal organization of free individuals." Maybe, I don't know. But it would be nothing to do with minorities speaking out. Maybe speech and communication have been corrupted. They're thoroughly permeated by money and not by accident but by their very nature. We've got to hijack speech. Creating has always been something different from communicating. The key thing may be to create vacuoles of noncommunication, circuit breakers, so we can elude control. (Deleuze 1990)

As someone who engaged in various forms of “computer piracy” in the '80s, and as someone who authored protocol specifications in the '90s, I believe it's critical to distinguish between the idle experimentation of youth and constructive contributions. Granted, Galloway (2001:88) concludes by writing, “. . . protocological control is still an improvement over other modes of social control. It is through protocol that we must guide our efforts, not against it." Indeed, but it is seemingly at this point of resistance that the spectral critique looses all corporeality and dissipates. My concern is perfectly captured when Deleuze (1990) comments that “the machines don't explain anything, you have to analyze the collective arrangements of which the machines are just one component” (Deleuze 1990). One does have to consider the collective arrangement, but one must consider the machines/protocols as well.

Galloway provides examples of protocol specifications developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). These protocols are openly specified, but such was not always the case, they actively compete with proprietary protocols. They are accessible, but this was a substantive break from other, traditional organizations, affiliated with national and international institutions that required a fee to even possess a copy of the specification. And they are widely applicable, thought this is presently threatened via the encroaching encumbrance of software patents. And they are relatively flexible:

"For example, a decentralized network is precisely what gives the Internet Protocol its effectivity as a dominant protocol. Or to take another example, the flimsy, cross-platform nature of HTML is precisely what gives it its power as a protocological standard. Like Empire, if protocol dared to centralize, or dared to hierarchize, or dared to essentialize, it would fail." (Galloway 2001:86)

Lest I be accused of not understanding the very point of Empire and Protocol, the development of these relatively open institutions does parallel Hardt's and Negri's discussion of the UN and NGOs (2003:3), but aside from the description of the system, what of it?  The “flimsiness” of HTML conformance can not be taken for granted, it needs to be understood if one wants to understand the character of control.

The Internet pioneer Jon Postel's dictum to “be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others” contributed to the initial success of the Internet and Web. But this principle also enabled proprietary vendors to deploy a “embrace and extend” strategy by partly implementing an open standard, but including their own proprietary extensions. This yields control over the open specification to the proprietary extension by riding on its coat-tails. And by control, I mean something very specific: the ability to determine whom can interoperate with other implementations and to control subsequent versions of the protocol. In Galloway's context, what of the voluntary character of such protocols? In what ways are such protocols more about coordination than control? The spectral critique is apt for understanding “collective arrangements,” yet is unsatisfying, and perhaps even dangerously broad, in considering the import of the constituents.

When one argues that conflict is only likely to push the process of integration and call for more central authority (Hardt and Negri 2000:14), one can seem prescient; but it also renders one impotent. To make my point most simply, Galloway himself pointed out that DNS dares to be hierarchical, and yet it nor the Internet has failed. Galloway subsequently writes, “Those who are born against, those who constitute the new barbarians, those who have 'realize[d] their gift' (216), those who love community and hate imperial power - they are the protocological actors who inhabit the underbelly of distributed networks.” No, those are the very people specifying and building them!And the virus writers and script kiddies? They are but a nuisance.

6 Bibliography

Deleuze, Gilles. 1990. Negotiations. http://www.generation-online.org/p/fpdeleuze3.htm

Deleuze, Gilles. 1992. "Postscript on the Societies of Control." October 52 :37687.

Galloway, Alex. 2001. "Protocol, or, How Control Exists After Decentralization." Rethinking Marxism 13 13:81-88.

Hardt, Michael, Antonio Negri. 2000. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Hardt, Micheal. 1998. "The Global Society of Control." Discourse 20 3:139-152.

John Perry Barlow. 1996. A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. http://www.eff.org/~barlow/Declaration-Final.html

Lessig, Lawrence. 2000. Code: And Other Laws of Cyberspace. New York, NY: Basic Books.

May, Tim. 1992. The Crypto Anarchist Manifesto. http://www.activism.net/cypherpunk/crypto-anarchy.html

MSF, Médecins Sans Frontières. 2001. MSF refuses notion of coalition between humanitarian aid and military strikes. http://www.msf.org/countries/page.cfm?articleid=5EC9861A-665E-4060-B9F78B6BFCB67B44

Reagle, Joseph. 1999. Why the Internet is Good Community Governance That Works Well. http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/people/reagle/regulation-19990326.html

Reagle, Joseph. 2003. Birds of a Feather: War and Deceit. http://goatee.net/2003/deadly-deceit.html

Terry, Fiona. 2002. Condemned to Repeat?: The Paradox of Humanitarian Action. Ithaca, New York: Cornell Univ Press.