Sondra Perry’s Typhoon coming on sits right at the middle, as well as on the front cover, of Seb Franklin’s recent book The Digitally Disposed. Perry’s artwork consists of a large projection of an animated fragment of J.M.W. Turner’s 1840’s Slave ship, a painting that depicts the infamous 1781 Zong massacre in which over 130 enslaved Africans were thrown overboard by the ship’s crew in an attempt, by the owner, to claim the insurance money that would be impossible to claim if they died of disease or dehydration. Using the Ocean Modifier tool in Blender, Perry animated an isolated high-resolution closeup of Slave Ship in which neither the sinking ship nor the drowning bodies are discernible. The mesmerising oceanic whirling is periodically disrupted by the appearance of the underlying generic 3D ocean template itself, whose deep purple shade is in fact the default colour of Blender’s ‘missing texture’ warning. In this brief 4-page chapter (by far the shortest in the book), Franklin offers us a highly evocative interpretation of this piece in which several of the topics and preoccupations of the book are presented in a condensed swirling and churning of their own: the bleak history of the Atlantic slave trade and its contemporary aftermaths, the violence of abstraction and commodification, the fungibility of digitized objects, the dark underbelly of the liberal-humanist subject. Describing Perry’s installation in a way that also provides a succinct summary of the book itself, Franklin writes that Typhoon “insists upon a history of digital abstraction that is grounded not in the computer but in the informatics of value, or the differential computation of living labour and its reproduction.”1 However, if Typhoon coming on attests to the intertwined histories of economic abstraction, digital representation, and racialized violence by making aesthetically tangible the symptomatic omission and occlusion of the latter, The Digitally Disposed attempts to render this tangibility intelligible by deploying a carefully assembled theoretical apparatus which draws from a wide range of sources, including cybernetics, Marxian value-critique, postcolonial and feminist studies, black studies, and theories of racial capitalism.
Franklin’s argument situates itself within a growing body of literature in the field of media studies which works with a broader understanding of digitality that does not reduce it to a fact pertaining to particular devices or consumer electronics. Perhaps we can think of Alexander Galloway, who has insistently grappled with these problems to think through a more general theorization of the digital that understands it as an operation of abstraction grounded on a form of representing the real by way of its “discretization or making-discrete.”2 Galloway has repeatedly depicted this operation as a style of thinking and conceptually apprehending the real that has historically preceded digital machines by many centuries. Franklin’s work occupies a complementary place within this broad theorization of the digital, concerning itself with how this operation of discrete abstract representation is tied to particular social and cultural dynamics which constitute the conditions of possibility for those technologies with which the digital has now become synonymous. Thus, Franklin has written about “digitality without computers”, where digitality is understood as “a social logic that reaches beyond computational technologies.”3
In his previous book, Control: Digitality as Cultural Logic, Franklin focused on the historical imbrication of digitality and the episteme of control that emerged in the 20th century with cybernetics; an episteme that, despite the disappearance of cybernetics as a scientific discipline per se, arguably still underpins the way in which technological systems are conceived to this day. While Control already touched on the mutuality of digitality and control with “a system of value production that can produce profit only by exploiting and dispossessing human life,”4 The Digitally Disposed drills into this precise problem. In this second book, Franklin develops a careful examination of how value and dispossession function in the context of a capitalist system which operates with inbuilt dynamics of racialization, and how this is intertwined with the social logic of digitality.
Value and digitality are two modes of abstraction which often appear to result from different historical and logical processes which have only accidentally converged today in the digitalization of capitalism and in the digital technologies of logistics. Franklin’s purpose in this book is to go beyond this surface appearance to show that, in fact, these two modes of abstraction are related in a much more fundamental way than one might otherwise think. The relationship between the histories of capital and digitality is more nuanced—it is a recursive one—and the tightly-argued expounding of this relationship is, I would say, one of the book’s most challenging and rewarding aspects.
Franklin’s thesis is that “the conceptual and discursive norms” that subtend the technical operation of digitality “reproduce the abstract logic of a much older system of social organization.”5 Or expressed somewhat differently, that the “practices and conceptual structures” of digital culture “are forged and bound together by the value abstraction centuries before the language of digitality takes shape around the electronic digital computer.”6 Alfred Sohn-Rethel’s materialist epistemology provides some of the necessary tools to elucidate this aspect of the relationship between digitality and the abstract logic of value-mediated forms of social organization. In Intellectual and Manual Labour, Sohn-Rethel argued that the prevailing form of social synthesis specific to a social formation lays the groundwork for the forms of thought and science that can develop therein. In capitalist society, social synthesis is primarily effected through the real abstractions mobilized by market exchange, and it is these, he argued, that lay the ground for the development of abstract cognition and even, as he further contended, for the categories that constitute the Kantian transcendental subject. Picking up Sohn-Rethel’s gauntlet—while sidestepping the heated discussions7 that have disputed, among other things, the historical and philosophical accuracy of his particular account—throughout the book Franklin examines “the ways in which digital notions of information, communication, and self-regulation cleave to conceptual frames that are grounded in the logic of value and its associated historical conditions.”8 One might say that this is one way to parse statements such as that of Jonathan Beller when he writes that “what we today call digitization began more than seven centuries ago with commodification.”9
One thing must be emphasized, since an important part of the book’s broader argumentative thrust depends on it. If value, in its abstractness, has furnished the conceptual apparatuses and discursive tools which have been foundational to how the digital has been conceived, this is only half of the story that Franklin is trying to tell. Franklin insists on avoiding framing the relationship between value and digitality along the lines of what Fredric Jameson calls ‘expressive causality’, that is, a form of causality wherein “the newer mode of abstraction simply takes on the shape and impetus of the older.”10 According to him—and one could say that this might very well be the theoretical fulcrum of his argument— not only does digitality reiterate the form of abstraction that characterizes value, but one can also say that value is digital—or more precisely, informational—in and of itself. Galloway argues that when we go “beyond the consumer-electronics theory of the digital and the analog, a whole new landscape becomes visible”, one in which the definition of what counts as a ‘digital technology’ is burst asunder. Within this broadened horizon, “the logic gate and the computer are merely the latest in a long stream of digital technologies that would begin with the integers, the alphabet, or even the atom, the synapse, the gene, and even the point itself.”11 On a similar note, The Digitally Disposed approaches value as a kind of digital technology, one that precedes digital devices and computers by several centuries: “before the information age, there are the informatics of value.”12 Or, using one of the book’s (many) striking formulations: “Digitality is not an allegory of value. Rather, value is (or appears) informatic avant la lettre.”13
Franklin’s wager is to develop “a theory of value as an informatic mechanism that operates across capitalism’s longue durée.”14 He will argue that it is precisely this informational character of value that allows for the seamlessness with which the value-determined forms of social synthesis proper to capitalism have converged with the digital procedures of abstraction, distribution, and control characteristic of cybernetics and essential for today’s informational capitalism. Such a convergence is also the most recent historical development in the recursive historical relation between value and digitality proposed by Franklin. Value was informatic long before information theory and cybernetics were formalized, but the episteme mobilized by them has in turn provided the conceptual frameworks that allowed for the development of particular technologies which perfected and intensified the techniques for the management of persons and things. Informational systems emerged from within a social matrix in which the paths technology could take were already constrained by the logic of value-mediated social organization, and these systems in turn allowed for the increased granularity of control of various aspects of these social processes. In short, “value informs digitality, and digitality entails methods for the intensification and control of value-mediated social organization. Each provides the other with inputs, and each shapes the other’s outputs.”15
Another of the book’s main gambits lies in yet another recursive movement of sorts which we have already glossed over, one which is not historical, but rather methodological and epistemological. Value was informational before informatics and forged the modes of abstraction which digitality and cybernetics will recapitulate and which will inform digital technologies, technologies that in turn will transform and intensify the protocols of control associated with the forms of value-mediated social reproduction of late capitalism. However, Franklin argues that this historical convergence of value and digitality “reveals as much about the logic of value as it does about the centrality of information to contemporary social and economic imaginaries.”16 Throughout the book, these revelations are expounded and rendered intelligible through the very same concepts formalized in the 20th century by cybernetic theory, concepts which, as we already said, the mode of abstraction of value purportedly informed. This is not merely a case in which a more recent vocabulary is anachronistically used to describe social forms that precede it by several centuries. Franklin’s theorization of value as an informatic mechanism is not a metaphor or a stylistic device. I would rather argue that it can be read as a refraction of the broader argument of the book in its methodological approach and conceptual strategy. If we can improve our understanding of the digital world by examining the “world-making protocols”17 of value that informed it, Franklin argues that we can also deepen our understanding of these same protocols by using the concepts furnished by digitality.
The tightly wound relationship between value and digitality resides in the deep affinities that can be found when one examines their respective logics and mechanisms. While other authors have boiled this down to the conversion of quality to quantity—highlighting the violence that this implies—Franklin argues that, to approach this complicated question, we should rather focus on the “socially synthetic power of abstraction”18 that value institutes and that digitality will recapitulate and intensify. Franklin recasts value as a communicative medium or “mechanism of emergent connectivity”19: as the mediating abstraction which produces the social forms that allow disparate things to be commensurable, interconnected, and exchanged in the market. These mechanisms enact a particular relationship between the abstract and the concrete, one in which “the concrete grounds the abstract, and the abstract disciplines the concrete.”20
Franklin’s understanding of value as “a mechanism of emergent connectivity, of social synthesis that appears (but only appears) to emerge and regulate itself without direct coercion”21 or as a “general mechanism of abstract, indirect form-determination” which “connects and shapes it materials substrates”22 owes as much to information theory as to a specific lineage of Marxian thought. Generally speaking, the strands of Marxian theory that inform Franklin’s reading understand value as a “phantom-like objectivity”23 which grounds a totalizing social system premised on a form of abstract domination which places capital accumulation at the forefront, shaping society and compelling individual behaviour accordingly, albeit without an immediately apparent application of coercion and violence. Throughout the book, Franklin convincingly shows how this form of abstract domination of the concrete is restaged in various cybernetics and information theory texts. His approach, crystallized in the notion of the informatics of value—one of the concepts that performs a lot of the theoretical heavy-lifting in the book—is the result of a careful back-to-back reading and deft interweaving of Marxist value-form theory with texts penned by figures such as Claude E. Shannon, W. Ross Ashby, Norbert Wiener, and Heinz von Foerster, among others. Franklin reveals the uncanny similarity between the way information was conceived as a form of ‘abstract form-determination’ and the basic logic of social organization under capitalism. The irrelevance of semantics and meaning in Shannon’s theory of communication mirrors the indifference of exchange value towards the concrete aspects of this or that labour process.
Thus, Franklin defines the informatics of value as “the sequence of processes through which capital reproduces its patterns without the direct application of force, synthesizing reliable circuits from a multitude of independent activities.”24 However, this form of abstract domination wherein “an empty abstraction that is borne by but somehow remains separate from and determines the concrete relationships between persons and things”25 has a dark and not so streamlined flipside. The seemingly immaterial and abstract operations of value and information both depend on a material substrate which is continuously, and necessarily, obscured, disavowed or abjected. Value and digitality both institute a particular relationship between formalization and abjection.
To explain this point perhaps we can go back to the title of the book itself and ask: what does being ‘digitally disposed’ mean? What kind of operation or process is the term ‘disposal’ referring to? These questions bring us right into the heart of what I would argue is the second of Franklin’s main contributions, that of bringing his informatic theorization of value as a conceptual scaffolding to engage with problems related to the structural role that differentiation along the categories of race, gender, and capacity (or the ascribed bodily and mental aptness for value-productive activity) plays in the dynamics of both capital and digitality. In other words, if one half of the story is the continuity or resonance between digitality and capitalism in terms of their abstract logics, the other half concerns the specific mechanisms through which they operate upon their material substrates—persons, things, social groups—whose relations they determine and whose natural bodies merely appear as a ‘bearers of value’ when ensnared by the determinations of market exchange.26 In short, it concerns “the processes of dispossession, abjection, and differential valuation through which capital and digitality effect social organization.”27
Marx’s work is peppered with different figurations of value which have sparked endless discussions and have often been exegetically used as textual proofs for different traditions of value theory. Throughout the first volume of Capital, Marx often uses the German word Gallerte which, in Ben Fowkes’ 1976 translation (one of the most readily available today), is rendered as ‘congealed quantity’, a figure often used to support a substantialist understanding of value. In some exceptional occasions, widely quoted by those who have argued against theorizing value as a substance, one can find Marx describing value as a “social hieroglyphic.”28 This is a figure that is closer to the understanding of “value as an empty form that takes hold of material relations”29 that Franklin veers towards, and which is more akin to the abstract logic of computation and the digital. However, Franklin also picks up the thread of several discussions around Gallerte which bring forth the more nuanced implications of this term and how its allusions, not towards a generic embodied quantity, but rather to the industrial production of animal gelatin which implies a violent process performed on an organic body. In this context, it points towards the way in which the value relation expresses itself when it traverses the bodies of workers.30 In other words, it refers to the processes of concrete abuse and material degradation that the bodies and minds of workers undergo under the conditions of wage labour. Franklin deploys these two figures of value extraction—abstract computation and material degradation—to explain the two poles of a spectrum along which the differential processes of social organization or distribution under capitalism take place.
It is this process of organization of the social through mechanisms of abjection, dispossession, and differential valuation that Franklin refers to with the notion of disposal. Disposal is the relational process which “positions certain bodies and things within, outside, or across the threshold of form in order to maximize the functionality and reach of the system it constitutes.”31 In other words, disposability refers to a systematic allocation determined by the circuits of value, a differential distribution of society between the congealable and the computable. On the side of computation, we have the idealized state of value-mediated social relations, the streamlined world created by the real abstractions of exchange and circulation wherein capital accumulation occurs without the need to apply direct force over bodies. This realm is populated by the ‘free’ wage labourer who voluntarily participates in those market-condoned ways of living and reproducing that were created behind her back, a homeostatic subject who can aspire to live a life beyond mere subsistence and survival.
However, the computation of value cannot be separated from the congelation of living bodies. This brings us to those structurally allocated populations besieged by dynamics of dispossession that can range from direct violence, oppression and destruction, to the slow death and material degradation that result from the debilitating and ever more precarious conditions of social reproduction. It is the differential allocation of racialized and gendered populations on this latter side of the spectrum that has been examined by various strands of feminist and postcolonial studies, as well as by those theories of racial capitalism which have shown how we inhabit “a system of accumulation that requires the structural externalization and differential integration of racialized, feminized, and debilitated life in order to maintain rates of relative surplus value extraction.”32 The functioning of capital as an apparently self-regulating system of abstract determination depends on the restriction of available life forms to those mediated by value, along with the regulatory production of gendered and racialized populations with a level of wage remuneration (or lack thereof) which locates them perilously close to the threshold of survival.33 In other words, not all bodies are computed equally, and “the computation of certain bodies produces conditions that tend toward their degradation.”34
Franklin frames these dynamics of differential allocation through the logics of gender and racialization in terms of ‘degrees of connectivity’ to a value-mediated market-dependent social system understood through the figure of the network: “If ‘full’ connection to the value network designates lower vulnerability to premature death and the attribution of fully human status, nonconnection or partial connection map onto greater vulnerability and withheld or partially allocated humanity.”35 Connecting to the value network becomes a precondition, not only to ensure continuous survival as a wage-labourer, but also to attain and maintain the status of personhood. Recalling Charles Babbage’s promise that industrial machinery could serve to discipline an otherwise fickle workforce, along with von Neumann’s concern about the unreliability of the concrete vis à vis the perfection of formally represented processes, Franklin posits that the primary function of the value network is “the synthesis of reliable circuits from unreliable actors.”36
Whereas the focus of the first part of the book is mostly that of assembling a theory of the informatics of value, the second part is organized around a series of shorter chapters where Franklin exercises his hermeneutical acuity to analyse several instances of what he calls media histories of disposal. Ranging from contemporary artworks, film, and literature to classic texts of cybernetic theory—and even Babbage’s amusingly exasperated ramblings when faced with the noisy ‘nuisances’ roaming the streets of Marylebone—the perspicuity of the analyses developed here is reason enough to dive into the book. In each case, Franklin finds traces of the value-informatic logic, wherein abstract form supervenes upon a disavowed and formless matter. Besides Perry’s artwork mentioned above, another highlight (from the end of Part I) is a chapter on Samuel R. Delaney’s Neveryòna, where an artifact taken from a book by René Thom serves as a synecdoche for the broader topics raised throughout the rest of the book.
To conclude, tying together several of the threads that I have briefly sketched out here, Franklin asks the crucial question: “What can formulating the value relation as differential computation reveal about the historical and practical relationships between digitality and racial capitalism?”37 There is currently a growing body of research on the role that digital technologies play in the reproduction and perpetuation of racial and gender-based injustices. For instance, attempts to show how AI-fuelled technologies of facial recognition and predictive policing reproduce the patterns of racial discrimination embedded in their training databases have been well documented and are less prone to be met with surprise or bewilderment today. What distinguishes Franklin’s contribution from these otherwise undeniably important efforts is the staunch conviction of the fundamental role of value’s world-making protocols and the careful critical analysis of the latter using the tools of political economy so often neglected in contemporary media studies. Franklin’s approach manages to probe a bit deeper, laying bare the forms of disposal that tie together racial capitalism with digital culture, exposing the duplicitous nature of the logic of abstraction “as the deployment of abstraction and abjection.”38
Arthur, Christopher J. “The Spectral Ontology of Value.” Radical Philosophy 107 (2001): 32–42.
Beller, Jonathan. The World Computer: Derivative Conditions of Racial Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2021.
Franklin, Seb. Control: Digitality as Cultural Logic. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2015.
———. The Digitally Disposed: Racial Capitalism and the Informatics of Value. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2021.
Galloway, Alexander R. “Golden Age of Analog.” Critical Inquiry 48, no. 2 (2022): 211–32.
———. Laruelle: Against The Digital. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014.
Jappe, Anselm. “Sohn-Rethel and the Origin of ‘Real Abstraction’: A Critique of Production or a Critique of Circulation?” Historical Materialism 21, no. 1 (2013): 3–14.
Marx, Karl. Capital, Volume I. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990.
Ruda, Frank, and Agon Hamza. “An Interview with Moishe Postone: That Capital Has Limits Does Not Mean That It Will Collapse.” Crisis & Critique 3, no. 3 (2016): 500–517.
Seaford, Richard. “Monetisation and the Genesis of the Western Subject.” Historical Materialism 20, no. 1 (2012): 78–102.
Sutherland, Keston. “Marx in Jargon.” World Picture 1 (2008): 1–25.
- Seb Franklin, The Digitally Disposed: Racial Capitalism and the Informatics of Value (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2021), 124. ↩
- Alexander R. Galloway, “Golden Age of Analog,” Critical Inquiry 48, no. 2 (2022): 228; See also Alexander R. Galloway, Laruelle: Against The Digital (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014). ↩
- Seb Franklin, Control: Digitality as Cultural Logic (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2015). ↩
- Franklin. ↩
- Franklin, The Digitally Disposed, 15. ↩
- Franklin, 11. ↩
- Sohn-Rethel’s account has been criticised from several fronts. From within Marxian theory, one of the main criticisms has been directed towards his privileging of exchange over production as the origin of real abstraction, and to his discussion of commodity exchange separately from its specificity within the capitalist mode of production. Thus, Anselm Jappe argues that this approach neglects the constitutive role that abstract labour plays in capitalist exchange as a whole. In a similar vein, Moishe Postone points out that this also implies an ahistorical rendering of abstraction which is ultimately detrimental for Sohn-Rethels matierialist-epistemological project, since it flattens the differences between the material origins of Greek philosophy and 17th century thought. On the other hand, Richard Seaford has attempted to vindicate Sohn-Rethel’s account of coined money as a crucial factor in the genesis of Greek philosophy by diving deeper into the history of numismatics. See Anselm Jappe, “Sohn-Rethel and the Origin of ‘Real Abstraction’: A Critique of Production or a Critique of Circulation?,” Historical Materialism 21, no. 1 (2013): 3–14; Frank Ruda and Agon Hamza, “An Interview with Moishe Postone: That Capital Has Limits Does Not Mean That It Will Collapse,” Crisis & Critique 3, no. 3 (2016): 500–517; Richard Seaford, “Monetisation and the Genesis of the Western Subject,” Historical Materialism 20, no. 1 (2012): 78–102. ↩
- Franklin, The Digitally Disposed, 16. ↩
- Jonathan Beller, The World Computer: Derivative Conditions of Racial Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2021), 17. ↩
- Franklin, The Digitally Disposed, 46. ↩
- Galloway, “Golden Age of Analog,” 229. ↩
- Franklin, The Digitally Disposed, 92. ↩
- Franklin, 16. ↩
- Franklin, 196 n.60. ↩
- Franklin, 19–20. ↩
- Franklin, 46. ↩
- Franklin, 28. ↩
- Franklin, 37. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Franklin, 15. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Franklin, 46. ↩
- Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990), 128. ↩
- Franklin, The Digitally Disposed, 59. ↩
- Franklin, 5. ↩
- Christopher J. Arthur, “The Spectral Ontology of Value,” Radical Philosophy 107 (2001): 34. ↩
- Franklin, The Digitally Disposed, 5. ↩
- Marx, Capital, Volume I, 167. ↩
- Franklin, The Digitally Disposed, 197. ↩
- Keston Sutherland, “Marx in Jargon,” World Picture 1 (2008): 1–25. ↩
- Franklin, The Digitally Disposed, 5. ↩
- Franklin, 89. ↩
- “Capital only functions as if it is an autonomous, self-regulating system, and in order to maintain the as if it is necessary to separate people from the possibility of living without the value network and to maintain populations that can barely live or cannot live on the wages the value network affords them. Race, gender, and capacity are the necessary forms of appearance of these regulatory mechanisms.” Franklin, 70. ↩
- Franklin, 7. ↩
- Franklin, 70. ↩
- Franklin, 67. Emphasis in original. ↩
- Franklin, 10. ↩
- Franklin, 56. ↩