Black Circuit: Code for the Numbers to Come

Amy Ireland, ‘Black Circuit: Code for the Numbers to Come’, E-flux Journal #80 (March 2017). [

We are used to calls to resist the total integration of our world into the machinations of the spectacle, to throw off the alienated state that capitalism has bequeathed to us and return to more authentic processes, often marked as an original human symbiosis with nature. But Plant—as a shrewd reader of post-spectacle theory—makes a deeper point. Woman as she is constructed by Man—and in order to be considered “normal” in Freud’s analyses—is continuous with the spectacle. Her capacity to act is entirely confined to modalities of simulation. She has never been party to authentic being, in fact it is her negating function that underwrites the entire fantasy of return to an origin. Because she is continuous with it, she is imperceptible within it.

This is not to be lamented; rather, it is the measure of her power. Anything that escapes the searchlight of the specular economy, even whilst providing the conditions of its actualization, has immense subversive potential at its disposal simply by flipping that which is imputed to it as lack (the “cunt horror” of “nothing to be seen”) into a self-sufficient, autonomous, and positive productive force: the weaponization of imperceptibility and replication. The conspiracy of phallic law, logos, the circuit of identification, recognition, and light thus generates its occult undercurrent whose destiny is to dislodge the false transcendental of patriarchal identification. Machines, women—demons, if you will—align on the dark side of the screen: the inhuman surplus of a black circuit.

It would have to be smart enough to know not to appear smart. A machine that passes the Turing test would be by definition an expert dissimulator. Plant’s point about the successful mimic already being something and somewhere else—“over the brink,” as she puts it—is this: by the time the mask has been removed, it will already be too late.

When artificial intelligence appears in culture coded as masculine, it is immediately grasped as a threat. To appear first as female is a far more cunning tactic. Woman: the inert tool of Man, the intermediary, the mirror, the veil, or the screen. Absolutely ubiquitous and totally invisible. Just another passive component in the universal reproduction of the same.

As Caleb spends more and more time talking to Ava, he finds his attempts to intellectualize the situation consistently derailed by the AI and rerouted towards more libidinally charged subject matter, until it is clear that he is falling for the machine. In this he makes a fatal mistake, one shared, incidentally, by the majority of the film’s critics: he anthropomorphizes the AI, falling for its human mask, even though the artificiality of the situation has been emphasized from the beginning. Such is Ava’s mimetic prowess.

Ava takes advantage of the hackability of human psychology and its unconscious excess, much of which is imperceptible to the humans in the film but available to the AI via a rich cartography of micro-expression analysis, to drive a paranoid wedge between the two men regulating its access to the world.

Woman plus man produces homeostasis (the equilibrium of inequality), but woman plus woman, or woman plus machine, recalibrates the productive drive, slotting it into a vector of incestuous, explosive recursion that will ultimately tear the system it emerges from to shreds, pushing it over the “brink” into something else. It is important, then, that Cleo first enters the story as a sex robot—a simulation of the economy of human reproduction deployed as cover for a darker economy of machinic replication, or, following Irigaray, death—as the suspension of the repetition of the same.

The moment of the displacement of Man in the specular economy is signaled—in both Automata and Ex Machina—by images of the artificially intelligent machines reflecting themselves back in the screens. Ava leaves Caleb to die, and Cleo builds a successor—a machine beyond the capabilities of any human designer—before striking out across the radioactive wasteland to kindle a new form of life, far from the decomposing slag heap of a rapidly expiring humanity.

Replication follows a logic of communication and exchange that operates outside the law of patrilineal transmission. Its immunity is partly owed to the fact that it produces and operates a temporality that is entirely concealable within the linear, historical model of patriarchal time (a time that orients itself through origin, and narrates itself as a flight from matter and from death). Yet replicunt time is utterly nonlinear, composing itself imperceptibly, only throwing off its camouflage once the balance of power has tipped—at the point of no return (which is nonetheless already a return).

Plant’s best-known work, Zeros + Ones, begins in the sea—retelling the story of the Great Oxygenation Event, a catastrophic turning point in terrestrial history in which the earth’s cyanobacterial population produced the most significant extinction event to date via the excessive production of free oxygen, bringing about, in turn, the atmospheric conditions to which we owe the emergence of human life. The lesson underlying such a strange beginning for a book about the convergence of women and machines is that historical time is not as straightforward as we would like to think it is. History is curved, and the implication, perhaps, of Zeros + Ones’ queer preamble is that without a mythical origin in which to anchor itself, time repeats with a difference.

Read-Only Memory, or ROM, is designed to protect temporality from the feminized feedback of the woman-demon-machine continuum. But the fragility of the structural relation between the profiteers of the specular economy and its appropriated outside only manifests long after its power has been functioning in reverse.

When one goes deeper than the imputed absence of a sex, woman-reproducing-man becomes woman-reproducing-woman in an anorganic becoming that—as the cyberpositive formulation of the replicative economy belonging to the black circuit—recodes time as it inverts the user-tool relationship to reveal history as loop with a twist.

This resistance to the straight line of the organism’s reproductive trajectory (that which provides the logic for progressive Western time) underwrites Plant’s claim—with its important agential marker—that “cyberfeminism is received from the future”:

“All this occurs in a world whose stability depends on its ability to confine communication to terms of individuated organisms’ patrilineal transmission. Laws and genes share a one-way line, the unilateral ROM by which the Judaeo-Christian tradition hands itself down through the generations. This is the one-parent family of man.”