The Coils of a Serpent: Haptic Space and Control Societies

1000 Days of Theory

The Coils of a Serpent

Haptic Space and Control Societies

A haptic dream

I am in a room. No… I am in a room, my front room, sitting in a chair, my chair. No… Yes, my chair. At my computer, working. I am not afraid. They said how real this would feel, that you feel like yourself, and you do, really… but no… I reach out, pick up my cup, it has weight, substance, it is hot from the coffee. Its surface is smooth and hard. I feel it in my hand, no, it’s pressing against my hand. No…

I stand, I mean, I feel I get up. Because I stand, I feel like I get up…. Yes… The suit I am wearing, feel I am wearing, pushes in/out on me. I can feel my back tighten, my feet flex, my forehead crease, my brain dull behind my eyes… yes…no, I am (am I?) feeling it tighten around me. It grips me… no… A wave of pressures on me, inside me. I feel I am being wrapped from the inside, a coil pushing out. No… no… It’s just me. They said it would feel this real, the hardness of things, the textures. I am not afraid. I feel my weight and size shift as I move. Strange sense of being outside myself… the sense that I am elsewhere, or nowhere. In a room experiencing all this, tightly wrapped up. Yes, in a room, my room, wrapped under my skin.

My computer blinks and I start. I touch its keys, and they feel my fingers and push back on them. I enter a number I have been given, no… my computer enters the number into my fingers. Suddenly everything changes. I am back in my room, at the computer, my computer, at work. Nothing has changed. Yes. I am not afraid. They said it would feel this real.

“The coils of a serpent are more complex than the burrows of a molehill.”

Deleuze places this sentence at the very end of “Postscript on the Societies of Control” in a section contrasting the socio-technical “programs” of control and disciplinary societies.[1] He writes that we have learned a few things about the telos of the disciplines, but much remains to discover about the forces that control societies make us serve. What is clear is that a strategic shift in power relations is underway.

This shift can be framed historically and economically as a problem of capitalist governance involving the limits of enclosure as a tool of capitalist accumulation. Disciplinary institutions, like the factory or the school, physically enclose diverse populations and force their unification. The confinement of labor within the factory and factory-city gave Capital much power over the accumulation process in the 18th and 19th centuries. It also encountered the resistance of bodies to concentrated containment and regimentation. In part, what Foucault calls the modern “crisis of the disciplines” reflects a move by Capital to modify disciplinary forms of enclosure, to counter the resistance they provoke and intensify the accumulation process.

The disciplines reached their height early in the 20th century. After WWII, information technologies make it possible to release populations more into the open. Rather than pack them into closed spaces, Capital begins a new strategy to disperse them. Network controls, like remote surveillance and electronic passwords, allow it to keep its grip on bodies, in fact, to extend and tighten that grip. The new controls promise to counter the resistance of populations to confinement by instituting a kind of mobile and free form of enclosure. The forces of accumulation, exploiting the capacities of openness and accessibility in networks, begin to follow you on the road and, as we have learned in the last few decades, turn “on the road” into work, home into work, play into work, the whole planet into a flexible, controlled space of work.

It is possible that all this means the end of enclosure as a capitalist program and the advent of post-disciplinary, even post-capitalist, society. More likely, as suggested by Deleuze’s analysis, is that rigid mechanisms of enclosure are giving way to supple ones that have lost none of their power to constrict the body. The new mechanisms can position and fix the body independently of its location. They expand its territory but more tightly control the information parameters within which it functions. These controls range from the mundane (remote electronic surveillance — are you where you’re supposed to be?) to the extreme (genetic engineering — you’re always there in advance). These are still forms of enclosure, but the walls of the factory give way to the permeating “spirit” of the corporation, the accumulation of things shifts to the accumulation of information, and networked bodies replace the spatial concentration of populations.

One of these supple technologies of enclosure is called haptics, from the Greek for the ability to make contact with or to fasten. Unlike information control that requires a confined population (discipline), or a dispersed population under passive surveillance (such as CCTV), haptic technologies respond to the active body and supply it with tactile feedback. The program of haptics is simple: simulate the body’s feelings of manipulating objects in the real world (data-gloves that react with vibratory stimuli to users’ handling of simulated objects are a classic example of a haptic technology). Haptic control is one of many “coils of a serpent” forming on the horizon of control societies, intensive information networked in ways to manage and counter the body’s most basic capacity to resist, its sensitivity to its own power.

Because it is tactile control, haptics reminds us that “coils of a serpent” is not a metaphor for Deleuze. Control societies are not coils in name only, but literally. They are not analogues, but isomorphs of each other. They do not resemble each other, nor is one a model for the other. They are different concrete assemblages with different contents, but they are assembled and work in the same ways, specifically as tactile controls. Likewise, disciplinary societies do not resemble burrows of molehills, they are distinct assemblages organized by the same abstract machine, one that can be described as serial or optical control.

Coils and burrows are apparatuses of capture; in burrows or coils, either way, you are caught. Burrows, however, are rigid, arborescent structures, assembled as series of confined spaces or interiors. Foucault has shown us how, in disciplinary societies, you move from one interior to the next, from home, to school, to work, back home.[2] These interiors are constructed as closed “optical” spaces and their occupants placed under passive observation. Each interior partitions space and orders time according to its own method — the factory, the household, the classroom — but you always move sequentially between them.

Serpents’ coils, on the other hand, are meshes rather than series.[3] A more flexible form of enclosure than burrows, they adjust to the body as it moves and wherever it moves. Serpent’s coils are networks of modulating pressures. They contract and release in waves, substituting for control of the body’s optical environment the regulation of its tactile milieu. Because they enclose the body at its surface, effectively reducing the interior to the body itself, coils form a kind of mobile confinement. Surrounding you as you go out the door and into the open, they go where you go, or stay where you stay. With coils, control is more intensive, enclosure more supple, and confinement to fixed interiors redundant.

Control societies, Deleuze writes, are organized by codes. Codes are flexible systems of capture in ways that fixed enclosures are not. They can be quickly and easily reconfigured to regulate access to networks. He uses Guattari’s example of a passcode that allows you into certain areas of a city at given times of day, but can just as easily be changed to lock you out. Embedded today in technologies like barcoded ID cards, and tomorrow in your genetically modified cells, codes eventually aim to control capitalist accumulation at the haptic or tactile level.

In a sense, we could assert that this is still discipline, updated to new conditions of accumulation. In fact, control societies simulate disciplinary societies — they have all their “feel” without their walls. Not just discipline by means of optical control, but by direct adjustments of the sensitivity of the body, its capacities to affect and be affected. It is hard to imagine control societies without the extensive preparations made for them by disciplinary societies. But, as Deleuze says, the coils of a serpent are more complex than burrows, and if we have learned something of the complexity of the disciplines, we are still struggling to understand and resist societies of control.

Everything touches everything.

— Jorge Luis Borges

Reach out and touch someone.

— Old AT&T advertising slogan

If the body’s optical space was a target of disciplinary societies[4], haptic control is about its tactile space. Unlike vision, which is concentrated in the head, tactility is distributed throughout the body (including the eyes), in sheets of varying intensities. It is not one of the five senses (touch), but a capacity of all of them, a quality of openness or sensitivity. Tactility involves not only so-called extero-perception (perception directed outward to the external environment), but also proprioception, the body’s internal sense of itself and its required efforts to move or resist movement.[5] It belongs to the body’s complex web of nerves and muscles and joints. Like Taussig said of the nervous system, tactility is that “which passes through us and makes us what we are.”[6] It is, quite literally, an affect that opens or closes us to becoming.

Haptic technologies are not new — body armor and clothing control the tactile space between the body and its environment. Today, like everything else, these controls are being informated. In network society, Borges’s haptic world in which “everything touches everything” becomes an engineering project to produce digital environments that have exactly the “right feel” and can command the body directly. McLuhan noted years ago that information media are tactile systems.[7] They demand not just the eyes and ears of the viewer, but the intensive involvement of the whole body. The medium is not just the message but the massage, a technology of the flesh.[8] Reach out and squeeze someone.

The common view of haptic control is that it simulates the sense of touch, but the larger goal is to create “immersive” environments that synthesize visual, auditory, and olfactory messages with tactile or vibratory information, to create so-called “multi-media” interfaces that produce “complete” sensory experiences. The simulation of touch is simply one step in a project governed by an integrative model of sensitivity rather than a traditional, oppositional model of the senses. In the haptic model, the eye may have tactile as well as optical functions, as a surface of pressure or heat, for instance. It is very difficult, some say impossible, to construct complete and convincing tactile interfaces — virtual reality systems simulate visual or sound information passably well, but the problems of engineering virtual objects to feel real are of another order of magnitude altogether. Object-images on computer screens can look real, but their texture and weight are hard to capture with existing technology. Incomparably more difficult is reproducing a complete haptic space, which includes the felt movements over time of a subject in relation to his or her manipulation of virtual objects. Research, however, is moving in this direction.

Putting the difficulty in terms of the distinction between passive and active touch, inventor Kenneth Salisbury observes:

Unlike our other sensory modalities, haptics relies on action to stimulate perception… to sense the shape of a cup we do not take a simple tactile snapshot and go away and think about what we felt. Rather, we grasp and manipulate the object, running our fingers across its shape and surfaces in order to build a mental image of a cup.[9]

To get a convincing sense of touch in a virtual world through a haptic interface, the manipulation of the object must occur over time, in a synthetic world still with spatial and sensory continuity, so that tactile memory flows over time to build up a complex dynamic haptic image of the object under examination. To accomplish this, the haptic is collocated in virtual space with the visual, auditory, olfactory, etc., so that interactions confirm each other for the user and produce a realistic, embodied experience.[10]

Current haptic interfaces generate vibratory and force feedback to the user, and convey sense information about objects and their surfaces in virtual space. They must be designed to react to users’ actions that are themselves prompted by haptic cues in the user’s virtual environment, in order to reproduce, for instance, the feeling of grasping and working with real objects. In a word, they are feedback systems — users react to tactilely induced sensations with further manipulations of virtual objects, in a continuous, controlled loop. A research paper on cognitive computing notes:

These sensations can be programmed to communicate information about the occurrence of certain events. Such systems are known as haptic cueing systems. Haptic cueing is analogous to the audio-visual messaging system used in conventional graphical user interfaces where the user’s attention is diverted to a certain event or region of the display through audio-visual cues. It presents a simple yet effective messaging approach. …. Results [of experiments with haptic devices] have shown that tactile cueing based systems for conveying spatial features are an effective tool in communicating spatial information to individuals who are blind.[11]

Haptic interfaces simulate the feel of objects, their texture, surface resistance, bulk, edges and gaps. Current applications include locomotion devices for navigating virtual worlds (updated treadmills), orthopedic equipment, touch-screen technologies, tele-operators (remotely controlled robots), diagnostic tools for measuring or producing pressure and resistance, density, heat, and other intensive parameters, and, of course, computer games that provide gamers with various kinds of vibrational or positional feedback.[12] Some of the first modern haptic technologies were developed in avionics to simulate the vibrations on aircraft wings, conveyed as information to the pilot’s hand on the joystick. These early tools were in many ways the precursors of modern telesurgical instruments, which assist remote doctors to feel, as well as see and hear, the images of distant bodies.[13] Today there are uses of haptics for sex, which would augment visual and aural with tactile forms of erotic stimulation. Pornography, not surprisingly, is a force of innovation in haptic control. If the use of cyber-gloves to simulate the feel of objects in virtual space offers us a glimpse of the future of tactile control, the vibrator does the same in the electronic evolution of sex toys, where convincing tactility is the Holy Grail. There is even an old research and marketing designation for this branch of haptics — teledildonics.[14]

There is a complex relation between haptic control and what Deleuze calls “dividuation,” the logic of control societies.[15] Individuation, the logic of disciplinary societies, is external division of a mass into distinct, numbered (or signed) entities. Dividuation, on the other hand, is the internal division of entities into measurable and adjustable parameters, in the way, for instance, a digital sound sample is divided into separate parameters of tone, pitch, or velocity.[16] For audio engineers, these parameters, or “modules,” can be independently adjusted (some fixed while others are varied) and modified in real time to flow within certain limits (e.g., if the velocity setting is too high or low, the sound breaks up or becomes inaudible, etc.). Each sound, in turn, can be divided into smaller samples that are also subject to parametric control, and so on. Think of your body composed of samples of vibrational information like these sounds, whose parameters can be measured and used to generate tactile feedback (e.g., the pressure you exert in grasping a virtual object fed back to you as the felt hardness of the object). Haptic controls adjust this information to vary within pre-set thresholds.

Deleuze writes that dividuals in control societies are not shaped by molds, which produce distinct individuals, but consist of modulations of coded information. That is, dividuation involves something like a “moving form” of coding (continuous decoding and recoding). A mold, Deleuze writes, is a distinct casting, whereas a modulation is like a “self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other, or like a sieve whose mesh will transmute from point to point.”[17] If individuation produces units that have a distinct casting, dividuation produces the flexible modules of control (the parameters) through which they pass. As an economic process, dividuation serves the demands of postmodern global Capital for flexible modes of production and consumption [18]. When recommends books for customers to buy based on information stored in its database, or when global corporations abandon Taylorist forms of control based on the individuation of confined bodies in favor of outsourcing and informated production strategies, they use the tools of dividuation, i.e., parametric controls, internal adjustments of sampled information, continuous modulation.

Capital is a decoding machine.[19] A code is simply the form of repetition of some process (e.g., the translation of words in a language, the conversion of money into goods, the sorting of statuses into ranks, bodies into categories, etc.). Decoding unlocks the economic value of repetitive processes, and it is the basis of capitalist control of accumulation. Baudrillard writes, for example, how the code of fashion in capitalist societies is simply the repetition of the newest model.[20] As soon as one model emerges on the market, it is decoded and replaced by a newer one. Foucault describes prisons as assemblages that decode delinquency, and biopower as a system that decodes life.[21] We are all familiar today with genetic science as a decoding machine linked to global capitalism that promises to accomplish for the body what advertising does for fashion. Here we have one of the best examples of the abandonment of strategies of individuation in favor of continuous modulation. Having broken the molecular code of human individuation, genetic science proceeds to experiment on its parameters. Dividuals are like the newest fashions, the “latest” individuals, recycled hybrid forms with recombinable parts, easily reconfigured, hot items today, obsolete tomorrow.

The program of dividuation is flexibility. Dividuals are not the products of fixed training in closed environments, but artifacts of data mining searches and computer profiles. They are the continuously morphing targets of advertising schemes, insurance scams, and opinion polls. A dividual is a data double passed through a moving screen, stripped down to whatever modular information is required for a particular intervention, task or transaction. Increasingly, postmodern subjectivity is defined by interaction with information meshes and the modular dividuals they produce. When you use an ATM machine, you are interacting with your dividuated self, or when you access your work environment via your home computer. Likewise, when a database is mined for information on your buying habits, leisure habits, reading habits, communication habits, etc., you are transformed into a dividual.

This brings us back to haptics. Imagine an ATM machine whose interface is not just textual or visual, but simulates the feel of a real transaction with a real bank teller. Or the haptic workplace at home, a haptic road trip, a haptic surgical procedure performed by a haptic doctor. In these examples, the body is connected to data that feeds back feelings, emotions and capacities for judgment to it as so many parametric modulations. Such a body would have as many modular forms as networks to which it potentially can be connected — simply decode the interface, reconfigure its parameters and save to the file dubbed “New You.”

Nomad Art

Typically, Deleuze and Guattari do not focus on haptics from the viewpoint of control, but as a capacity to resist control. They describe haptics as a kind of “nomad art.”[22] They define nomad art, first, in terms of “close range” vision, as distinguished from long-range or “distance” vision; and second, as tactile, or haptic space, as distinguished from optical space. “Haptic,” they write, is a better word than “tactile” since it does not suggest an opposition between vision and touch, but rather invites the assumption that the eye itself may fulfill this non-optical function.

For Deleuze and Guattari, haptic space is smooth space, i.e., it is fluid and intensive. Smooth space is deterritorialized and must be navigated by constant reference to the immediate concrete environment, not to abstractions like maps or compasses, but by perception that attends to the particularities of the materials that must be traversed, as when a person walks through sand or snow (Deleuze and Guattari use examples of nomadic peoples, Bedouins or Inuit, to illustrate this).

Optical space, in contrast, is striated space, extensive, fixed and territorialized. Optical visuality sees objects as distinct, at a distance, identifiable, and existing in three-dimensional space. It maintains a clear and precise relationship between figure and ground. Laura Marks writes:

Optical visuality is necessary for distance perception: for surveying a landscape, for making fine distinctions between things at a distance. That’s how the object of vision is constituted in optical visuality. The subject of vision — the beholder — is also conceived as discrete, as having solid borders that demarcate the beholder from the thing beheld. So you can see why optical visuality is needed, for example, for firing a missile. It conceives of the other, the object of vision, as distant and unconnected to the subject of vision. Optical visuality is necessary. But it’s only half of vision.[23]

In the other half, haptic visuality, the subject is not detached from the object and sees the world as if it were touching it: close, intensive, on the surface of the body. Deleuze and Guattari cite Alois Riegl (along with Wilhelm Worringer and Henri Maldiney) as the artists who gave fundamental aesthetic status to the relation between close range vision and haptic spaces.[24] Reigl, a historian of textiles who studied the complex visual textures of Persian rugs, borrowed the term from psychology, haptein, signifying a kind of vision that “grabs” the thing it looks at.[25] Drawing examples from Imperial Egyptian art, Riegl defined haptic space as the “presence of a horizon-background” in which space is reduced to a plane, from which an optical space was later differentiated in Greek and Roman art. The latter space formalized the relation of objects to their background, organized perspective and represented volumes.

For Deleuze and Guattari, the space of nomad art is flat and immanent. There is no transcendent operator, and the experience of space is intimate and immersive. “Cezanne,” they write, “spoke of the need to no longer see the wheat field, but to be too close to it, to lose oneself without landmarks in smooth space.”[26] The same can be said of a musical improviser who loses herself in the sound of her and others’ playing. Any artist who becomes immersed in her work is a nomad. In the notion of “too” close, Cezanne captures the submersion of the artist in the particularity of her materials. It has nothing to do with vision or hearing or touch in their isolated, separated forms, but with enveloping sheets of intensity and perception as affect, not merely affection.[27]

Deleuze and Guattari’s distinction between smooth and striated is an ethico-aesthetic distinction between two ways of occupying space. Smooth space is lived in immediately, there is no subject-object separation, and the body is not conceived as a physical property so much as a provisional assemblage of connections between flows of affects and ideas. To inhabit striated space, on the other hand, is to be caught up in hierarchical forms of observation and control. It is to travel on pre-set paths to predetermined destinations, laid out according to fixed maps that distance the traveler from the milieu in which he moves.

In their corporate and state configurations, electronic networks are striated systems. Baudrillard sees in McLuhan’s insight about the tactility of the media a formula for society where “contacts” have replaced the sensuousness of touch, and testing becomes a continuous “palpitation.”

And you understand why McLuhan saw in the era of the great electronic media an era of tactile communication. We are closer here in effect to the tactile than to the visual universe, where the distancing is greater and reflection is always possible. At the same time as touch loses its sensorial, sensual value for us (“touching is an interaction of the senses rather than a simple contact of an object with the skin”), it is possible that it returns as the strategy of a universe of communication – but as the field of tactile and tactical simulation, where the message becomes “massage,” tentacular solicitation, test. Everywhere you’re tested, palpated, the method is “tactical,” the sphere of communication is “tactile.” Without even speaking of the ideology of “contact,” that is being pushed in all its forms as a substitute for social rapport, there is an entire social configuration that orbits around the test (the question/answer cell) as around the commandments of the molecular code.[28]

Tactile media, of course, do open new possibilities for expression, performance, and so on:

The haptic device allows the artist to have a direct contact with a virtual instrument, which is able to produce real-time sound or images. We can quote the physical modeling synthesis, which is an efficient modeling theory to implement cross-play interaction between sound, image and physical objects. For instance, the simulation of a violin string produces real-time vibrations of this string under the pressure and expressivity of the bow (haptic device) held by the artist.[29]

Can technical control also be nomad art, haptic and smooth? Can the feel of playing a virtual violin be the same as playing a violin? Can haptic space be informated? The technical control of tactility does produce affections (see note 27). The virtual violin has a different expressiveness than a real one, and produces new sensations in playing and performance. But though tactile control is affective, it is not an affect itself. McLuhan’s “tactility” of the media refers to its capacity to affect us, to stimulate our nervous system, but the media itself is not an affect, has no independent power to exist or act. Haptic space is resistant to haptic control by the media, to measurement, to modulation, ultimately to informationalization. Capital’s efforts to dominate haptic space, however, are real. To find its most affective forms, we only have to look to the technologies of cloning, haptic control on our immediate horizon. What is a clone if not an effort to simulate haptic space, a figure of the complete parametric control of affect in the name of accumulation? But is a clone a nomad artist? I don’t think so.

Men fear most what they cannot see.

— Raz, in Batman Begins

Raz’s formula is not quite right. According to Elias Canetti, men fear most the touch of what they cannot see. He opens Crowds and Power with these words: “There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown. He wants to see what is reaching towards him, and to be able to recognize or at least classify it.”[30]

Presumably, if man could see what touches him, it would ease his fear of it. Canetti, like Foucault, sees visibility, optical space, as a trap; what is observed can be known and thus controlled. But he notes another way that man loses his fear of being touched, and that is simply through being touched itself. Canetti goes on to say that men lose their fear of being touched in crowds. The fear of being touched is what distances human beings from each other and keeps them isolated individuals. In a crowd that presses in on itself and becomes denser, however, physical contact among individuals is unavoidable and produces the opposite of fear, a feeling of power or even daring. Crowds are compressed populations that are dangerous in different ways than bodies. They do not always respond to the disciplinary forces that keep bodies docile and in line. In crowds, it is not simply a question of seeing the unknown, but often of rushing headlong into it. The body becomes capable of what the crowd is capable, for better or worse. It is incorporated tactilely, by physical proximity and by being carried on the crowd’s undulations and vibrations.

Canetti has a better sense than Raz of the real machines at work here. They are not just vision-machines, but desiring machines in the most basic sense, as waves of affect that course through multiplicities.[31] This is haptic space, where everything is “too close.” In a compressed population, which paradoxically discipline creates, tactile connections replace visual ones, and immersion suppresses differences. One way to view haptic space is as the suppression of a code, the code that organizes optical space, which disciplinary society and capitalist accumulation used to such great advantage. There is an evolution of complexity of social control here. Man needs to see the unknown, and so he keeps watch over it, places everything under surveillance. But beyond simply watching the unknown, the real problem is grasping it, fastening to it, walking through it, running with it. This is not a problem of surveillance, but of immersion. We said earlier that haptic control is a problem of controlling released populations. Now we can be more specific. It is a problem of crowd control, i.e., control of turbulent multiplicities.[32] It is not exercised on individuals from a distance, nor does it operate internally to individuals (in the sense that individuals internalize norms of behavior). Rather, it is designed to be a reflexive and self-organizing property of the crowd itself, as the transmission of a multiplicity of contacts is articulated in waves that intensify and diminish like waves of the ocean. Or in collective vibrations that respond to the force of strange attractors.

Generally, the problem for the police is how to exercise control over crowds, over dense and moving populations, how to confine them or otherwise keep them orderly.[33] Foucault, of course, famously writes about the roles of hierarchical observation and examination in this process. But control within the crowd, as a function of its own self-organization, is of another nature altogether. The affects that govern the internal organizations of crowds are haptic, tactile and immersive. Police technologies for controlling crowd affects are evolving in network societies. No longer content with passive surveillance (cameras, listening devices), the new technologies seek to control crowd affect directly, by informating tactile qualities of crowds — texture, concentration, pressure, attraction and repulsion — generating those qualities through technical means.

Tactile networks are the technical horizon of crowd control. This I take to be the whole logic of haptics understood as an information control technology and means of capitalist accumulation. The dream of police technologies is to harness the tactility of crowds and place it at the disposal of the new information economy. This demands not just control of visible space, but parametric control using tactile feedback.

In the 1973 sci-fi story “Flash Crowd,” Larry Niven envisages a society that has invented teleportation. An argument in a mall covered by a TV crew becomes the impetus for an instantaneous riot, as people from everywhere teleport to the scene. The modern incarnation of this is the “flash mob.” Flash mobs are populations that suddenly assemble in a public place, do something interesting, then disperse. They are mostly self-organizing, taking advantage of the potentials in digital networks and instant messaging, and are often unpredictable and disruptive. We can imagine contemporary social control as a problem in the anticipation and policing of flash mobs. This is what occupies the authorities today. (In Niven’s story, a policeman dryly says of flash crowds, “we watch for them”).[34]

Imagine a society where instead of teleporting to an event, you are plugged into an interface that is a node in a highly policed haptic network. In such a society, the police (or authorities of other kinds) are able to control the generation of flash crowds, mobilize them in advance and assemble them at the necessary times and places, in ways that invest the full tactile participation of their members. This is the logic of televised “pay-per-view” events, where the goal is to provide paying customers with realistic spectacles of remote happenings (e.g., sporting and entertainment events, political and educational events, sex and violence). Or Capital’s dream of an automated and mobile labor force, capable of being outsourced over computer networks to wherever it needs. The remote workplace is already a reality for many “affective” laborers in the professional administrative and service sectors of the economy. The once enclosed site of the industrial workplace is becoming a relic of the past as the corporate tactile model spreads through information networks across the planet. The new networked worker, as Hardt and Negri observe, is already the common figure of the postmodern economy.[35] Finally, it is the dream of completely liquid consumption, the instantaneous mobilization of crowds of dividualized consumers online, buying everything in site, flash crowd shopping. Artificially induced tactility.

Virilio writes that crowd control is a problem in controlling speed, an issue of channeling and otherwise regulating “traffic.”[36] Information providers describe this in terms of bandwidth. But speed in turn is a function of the variable thickness of flows, that is, their texture. Control of crowd speeds is the effort to control crowd textures, pressures, densities, vibrational intensities. This, not simply bandwidth, is the control horizon of the electronic media — information textures stored in interconnected mega-capacity databases. The new haptic controls will transform our relation to remote crowds from spectator to programmed participant. Haptic interfaces, networks generally, are our contemporary forms of teleportation. Perhaps in the future these interfaces will be implanted directly into our brains to generate the body’s sense of presence in a population of other bodies similarly connected — shopping, working, gaming, traveling, learning, fighting, fucking, each body a dividualized member of an informated crowd (the database). It doesn’t matter that futuristic teleport stations like the ones imagined by Niven or in Doctor Who may never exist. This does not negate the interest of Capital and its police forces in haptic technologies to generate crowds.

Haptic control increasingly organizes labor (also a kind of crowd) as an “affective” entity. Hardt and Negri note the new forms of labor concerned with generating mood, feeling, and so on. Deleuze talks about students who seek the “motivation” to work. The new controls are tactile and require only connection to a network. If you have the right code you can join whatever crowd you must, become affected the way it is. Beyond the coercive power of visual surveillance, what distinguishes network control is ability to convert the human subject into a mobile node in a population of mobile nodes that can be sorted and compressed together instantaneously. To this end, the monadological designation once given to the visual space of control can be applied to the person wherever he or she goes. The visually tracked body is now its own network node, thoroughly deterritorialized — it becomes a mobile attachment to a database, an informated crowd, a networked population. Each population is run through a unique set of parameters — your banking crowd (accessed with this password, with its own programmed affections), your shopping crowd, your work crowd, your pleasure crowd (the online chatroom). Each crowd is a monad, but not like a space in a burrow. Here you are out in the open and the crowd is dispersed. Its members are a roaming population controlled by a variable yet common set of parameters.

Against standard critiques of postmodern culture as a “culture of fear” (fear of being watched, fear of terrorism, of losing one’s identity, control of one’s body, whatever), haptic control raises another possibility, viz., the disappearance of fear (and perhaps caution) surrounding the body and identity in postmodern society. Every machinic assemblage produces a subject alongside it that parallels it and provides it with a target — the assembly line produces the industrial laborer, the prison creates the modern delinquent. What subjects do haptic assemblages produce? What these systems may produce are fearless subjects. In the 1980’s, a number of writers on the “cyborgization” of the postmodern soldier described not only the use of surveillance technology to monitor military forces in the field, but also the development of integrated information control systems that would operate directly on the proprioceptive side of battle — combat simulators, panic-suppressing and nausea-controlling drugs, symbiotic body-weapon interfaces, digitalized performance enhancement systems of all kinds. Generally, even in a culture such as the U.S., obsessed with terrorist threats, bird flu, or aging and dying, it is not the affect of fear but fearlessness that predominates today, the same fearlessness that enables video gamers to die in combat or crash cars off cliffs or into walls without any hesitation. This is not a kind of fatalism, but more a manipulation of feeling supported by media’s incredible force of distraction.[36] Multi-player online video gaming is only a simulation of crowd experience. Life and death intensities are not at stake here. Bodies are only attached to dividuals, and contact is pseudo-tactile. Whatever the game provides in tactile realism, what matters more are the distractive and euphoric qualities the game produces. Flash wars, flash competitions, flash sacrifices, all attempts to capture and enclose crowd experience. When police forces and military entities are the players, online war is the most dangerous game of all, threatening to break out anywhere, conducted in a complete and utter state of distraction. Can we view online shopping in the same way, as the incarnation of the fearless, distracted consumer, or online sex as the creation of the fearless, distracted pleasure seeker? The bodies are dispersed, but they reassemble in an artificial haptic space, in dense, textured crowds of information.

Networks of resistance?

Power, Foucault says, is resistance. There are counter-forces emerging to tactile enclosures just as there were, and are, to the optical enclosures invented by disciplinary societies. Some of these we are familiar with. Hacking, cracking, reverse coding and engineering, viruses, spam, tools for resisting network domination. Cyber-body art. Flash happenings. Populations resist controlled distribution, whether it is dispersed on the net or behind closed walls. Haptic networks are a means of control, and control can only be an affection, not an affect; a tactile s(t)imulation, a modulation of tactility, but not tactility itself for which there are no modules, no parameters. If there is a political message in the image of the coils of a serpent, it is to resist modulation, at least in its electronic, parametric form. There are no controlled “parameters” of affect, no digitalized thresholds of tactility. Of course, this does not stop Capital’s effort to control tactility by analyzing it into bits of information and feeding that back as electronic impulses into our nerves and muscles, or by modulating the affects of populations, by maneuvering bodies within a net of tactile portals all interconnected with each other. For all these efforts, however, Capital does not control haptic space or tactility, because control, in a word, is not an affect.

Despite the hype about openness and flat communications, digital networks are mainly hierarchical spaces. Some nodes, called hubs, dominate connections and block access to information with passwords. Other connections are broken or decrypted. Networks do have a kind of paradoxical opennness — they can temporarily block their own controls — passwords are broken with the same tools used to create them, closed connections get re-routed or filled in, hubs collapse with tiny changes in their code, viruses. In these sudden, self-induced collapses of hierarchical networks, haptic space reopens to reclaim too-closeness and tactility for itself.

Resistance to haptic control is not about retaking control of haptic space, which would only be another strategy of enclosure and mirror Capital’s strategy to release the energy of haptic space and put it to work. Resistance means pushing tactility beyond its parameters, reclaiming too-closeness and immersion and fearlessness, and most of all, feelings of power, the body’s sensitivity to itself and its capacities to affect and to be affected (the capacities haptic control destroys). For populations it means resistance to dispersal over networks and rediscovery of the political efficacy of concentration and crowding. These projects are not pure, as flash crowds demonstrate, and present their own problems. Immersion and closeness in crowds can be suffocating. Fearlessness in crowds also makes them close in on the body, which in turn can offer little resistance to the crowd’s line of flight. There is always the danger that resistance to haptic control will end up enclosing the body even tighter, and even reinstating older modes of confinement (discipline, Deleuze writes, may stage a comeback).

We end with Deleuze’s concept of dividuation and its relation to haptic space. Dividuation is tied to control and parametric modulation. It is the logic of capitalist accumulation that breaks down life into measures of information, and populations into databases. We distinguish dividuation from internal differenciation, which, according to Deleuze, is not a process of modulation but a becoming different. We should understand information networks and haptic controls as dividuating technologies that block the number of connections a body can make and decrease its capacity to be affected. The new flexible forms of labor and consumption demanded by global Capital are ample evidence that dividuation serves to further artificialize life and impoverish the social connections that matter to us. Haptic space, on the other hand, is internal becoming. Each move through haptic space is a change of nature, not a controlled modulation. Reach out and touch someone in control societies is an imperative to connect, an order to accumulate information, to multi-task, to stay accessible and in the grip of a haptic control. In haptic space, however, it is an invitation for intimacy and the exhilaration of becoming too close.


I would like to thank the anonymous CTheory reviewer and the editors of CTheory for the helpful comments and suggestions they provided.


[1] Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the societies of control,” October 59 (Winter), 1992, p. 7.

[2] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison, New York: Pantheon Books, 1977, pp. 141-177.

[3] On the concept of a meshwork and its relation to digital control, see Manuel De Landa, Real Virtuality: Meshworks and Hierarchies in the Digital Domain, Netherlands Architecture Institute, 2006.

[4] Foucault, 1977, pp. 200ff.

[5] S. Gallagher, “Bodily self-awareness and object perception,” Theoria et Historia Scientiarum: International Journal for Interdisciplinary Studies 7, 2003; J.J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, London: Houghton Mifflin, 1979; Mark Paterson, The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

[6] Michael Taussig, The Nervous System, New York: Routledge, 1992, p. 10.

[7] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media; the Extensions of Man, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964.

[8] Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore, The Medium is the Massage, New York: Random House, 1967.

[9] K. Salisbury, “Haptics: The Technology of Touch,” HPCwire Special, Nov. 10, 1995.

[10] M. Hodges, “It Just Feels Right,” Computer Graphics World 21, 1998.

[11] K. Kahol and S. Panchanathan, “Haptic Cueing,” Center for Cognitive Ubiquitous Computing, 2006. Available online at:

[12] Lake Porter and Jutta Treviranus, “Haptic Applications to Virtual Worlds,” University of Toronto Adaptive Technology Resource Centre, 2006. Available online at:

[13] Griffin Weber, “Using Tactile Images to Differentiate Breast Tissue Types,” 2006. Available online at:

[14] A great term from the 1980’s referring to the integration of telepresence and remote sex.

[15] Deleuze, 1992, p. 5.

[16] Individuation and dividuation are not opposed operations. Both are control mechanisms, the first producing unified entities, the second modular, or internally divided, units. When societies move from disciplinary to control societies, they adopt a new model and practice of division.

[17] Deleuze, 1992, p. 4.

[18] Cf. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, New York: The Penguin Press, 2004.

[19] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983, pp. 139ff.

[20] Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects, London and New York: Verso, 1996, pp. 164ff.

[21] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

[22] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987, pp. 492-9.

[23] Laura U. Marks, “Haptic Visuality: Touching with the Eyes,” in Frameworks 2:1, 2004. Available online at:

[24] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 493.

[25] Marks, 2004.

[26] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 493.

[27] The distinction between affect and affection is complex, but important in this context. Control, for Deleuze, can only be an affection. An affect is the variation of the power of existing and acting. Affection is the state of a body as subject to another body. It is the “modified” or affected body, as opposed to the active body. The feelings produced by haptic technologies are not affects, but affections. Cf. Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, San Francisco: City Light Books, 1988; also Gilles Deleuze, “Course on Spinoza,” 1978. Available online at:

[28] Jean Baudrillard, Simulations, New York: Semiotext(e) Inc., 1983.

[29] With regard to sound, the physical modeling synthesis comprises a set of equations and algorithms to simulate a physical source of sound. “Sound is then generated using parameters that describe the physical materials used in the instrument and the user’s interaction with it, for example, by plucking a string, or covering tone holes, and so on. For example, to model the sound of a drum, there would be a formula for how striking the drumhead injects energy into a two dimensional membrane. Thereafter the properties of the membrane (mass density, stiffness, etc.), its coupling with the resonance of the cylindrical body of the drum, and the conditions at its boundaries (a rigid termination to the drum’s body) would describe its movement over time and thus its generation of sound. Similar stages to be modeled can be found in instruments such as a violin mentioned above…” Wikipedia, “Haptic Technologies,” 2007. Available online at:

[30] Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1984, p.1.

[31] Deleuze and Guattari view the crowd as a molar formation and prefer to focus on the “pack” as a molecular formation closer to the problem of desire. Still, Canetti’s work on crowds is exceptionally important for its examples of haptic phenomena and their relation to feelings of power, immersion, and tactility. Cf. Deleuze and Guattari 1983, 1987.

[32] See DeLanda’s explanation of turbulence, which extends ideas of Deleuze and Guattari, as a way of understanding control in self-organizing dynamic systems. Manuel De Landa, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, London; New York: Continuum, 2002.

[33] This includes all kinds of crowds, including clusters of objects, signs, and of course human beings. Cf. Paul Virilio, Pure War, New York: Semiotext(e), 1997.

[34] Another interesting example is the “TARDIS,” “a fictional time-space machine in the television show Doctor Who. A TARDIS is capable of transporting its occupants to any point in space and time. Its interior exists in multidimensional space, making it significantly larger on the inside than it appears from outside. Externally, the TARDIS resembles the shape of a 1950s British police box. The show has become so much a part of British popular culture that the shape of the police box is now more immediately associated with the TARDIS than its original real-world function. The word has also entered popular usage and is used to describe anything that seems bigger on the inside than on the outside.” Larry Niven, “Flash Crowd,” in The Flight of the Horse, 1973, pp. 99-164. Cf. also Wikipedia, “Haptic Technologies,” 2007. Available online at:

[35] Hardt and Negri, 2004.

[36] Virilio, 1997.

[37] William Bogard. “Distraction and Digital Culture,” in Life in the Wires: The CTheory Reader, Arthur Kroker and Marilouise Kroker, eds. Victoria: CTheory Books, 2005, pp. 443-460.

William Bogard is Deburgh Professor in Social Sciences at Whitman College. His latest research concerns the development of tactile networks and their relation to smooth spaces of control.