PRE FACE: Or How to Begin at the End

Amy Ireland

Distinctions between the main bodies of texts and all their peripheral detail—indices, headings, prefaces, dedications, illustrations, references, notes, and diagrams—have long been integral to orthodox conceptions of nonfiction books and articles. Authored, authorised, and authoritative, a piece of writing is its own main-stream. Its asides are backwaters which might have been—and often are—compiled by anonymous editors, secretaries, copyists, and clerks, and while they may well be providing crucial support for a text which they also connect to other sources, resources, and leads, they are also sidelined and downplayed. —Sadie Plant

Something happened, but what? —Deleuze and Guattari

For every event there is first a prophecy. —Serial Experiments Lain

In Zeros + Ones Sadie Plant sets a nonlinear re-writing of the material history of feminism, industrialisation, biology, evolutionary theory, robotics, and computer science in motion via an examination of the role played by Ada Lovelace in the design and development of Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine. Although Babbage was to take full credit for the invention at the time, Plant focuses on the occulted history of correspondence, conversation and reciprocal apprenticeship that defined Babbage and Lovelace’s working relationship in order to reveal the extent of Lovelace’s influence on the new technology, which, in the retrospective account of history, has long since eclipsed that of Babbage. As well as aiding Babbage in discussions developing the mathematical principles behind, and the hardware for, the Analytical Engine, it was Lovelace’s unsolicited translation of a paper by the Italian engineer, Louis Menebrea, along with footnotes and a commentary that far outstripped the intellectual contents of the paper itself, which left the world with what has been acknowledged as the first working computer program.

The development of Lovelace’s program was entangled with the introduction of the Jacquard loom into England’s textile manufacturing industry—one of the first examples of automated industrial production—and was seen by Lovelace as a form of weaving. It was, she wrote, ‘the introduction of the principle which Jacquard devised for regulating the most complicated patterns in the fabrication of brocaded stuffs’, which

rendered it possible to endow mechanism with such extensive faculties as bid fair to make this engine the executive right hand of algebra. We may say most aptly, that the Analytical Engine weaves Algebraical patterns, just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves.1

Thus, Plant concludes, a continuing process of ‘abstract weaving’ knits women, computation, and the dawn of technological industrialisation together, at the same time as it dehumanises, anonymises, and relegates them to the position of supporting infrastructure in the linear, progressive history of technological development.2 Despite Lovelace’s marginalised position in this history, Plant situates her as a prophetess of the complex cybernetic processes responsible for the automation of daily life that we are all too familiar with today, for, understood as an index of a relation to temporality that is imperceptible in terms of ‘the Read Only Memory history’ of Man, ‘abstract weaving’ has everything to do with prophecy.3

Gifted with a mathematical competence unusual among the educated men of her time, let alone the largely uneducated female population, such a path in life not being open to them, Ada Lovelace considered herself a seer: ‘I am a prophetess, born into this world,’ she would write in her diary, and paraphrasing Kierkegaard, ‘this conviction fills me with humility, with fear and trembling!’4 As in a woven image or pattern, the course taken from discrete threads to the emergence of a represented, recognisable object or product, is a nonlinear one. Once enough threads have been put into place, a motif emerges, but it is always in terms of a retrochronic legibility, premised on a process that is necessarily primary: the construction of the hardware and the programming of the software that execute the patterns of intrication presiding over the warp and weft of the threads which form the image. The lesson—one which would fascinate Plant—that can be taken from this is that recognition, conceptual identification and negation are always secondary. In this sense, the primary process of weaving is a future coincident with the present’s past. The moment of identification and appearance always arrives behind the functioning of the process which assembles it as its object—whether this is an industrial product, a historical phenomenon, or indeed, a self. Ada Lovelace’s writings testify to an intuitive apprehension of this fundamental delay. Rebuffed from admission into the Royal Society of London because of her sex, but convinced that her pioneering work would one day be understood for what it was, she did not even bother to append her name to the Menebrea footnotes, confiding to Babbage, ‘I do not wish to proclaim who has written it’.5 In both the conscious maintenance of her anonymity and her contribution to the technologisation of the processes of production that would link computation and weaving together, Ada Lovelace conspired with the primary process immanent to all representation—invisible, patient and quietly anticipating the long term effects of her work, lagging far behind their imperceptible, perpetually futural, initiation.

Anonymity forges a curious pact with temporality. Its refusal of all the definitional aspects of being ‘human’—a requirement aligned in the history of Western metaphysics with representation, legibility, rationality and hence, authority—codes its conspirators as outsiders: prophets, seers, cyborgs, wraiths and monsters. Not only in Zeros + Ones, but across all of her writing, Plant emphasises the connection between material, auto-catalytic, self-organising, positive feedback processes and the coding of the female sex by history, psychoanalysis, biology, genetics, economics and the emergent field of computer science. These processes are consistently, and across disciplines, taxonomised as pathological, unhealthy, hysterical, unnatural and deranged in relation to their stable, ‘normal’, homeostatic counterparts, correlatively codified as masculine (following the logic of the binary that sees zero only as a negation of the one), and which she aligns with notions of originality, authenticity, integral selfhood, reason and, of course, visibility. Othered in advance, it is this corrupt, feminised, systematicity that patriarchal systems of control and identification are premised on, and yet it is always repressed and subordinated in its role as facilitator, lubricant, or medium for the masculine sociality and parameters of exchange that rely on it for infrastructure. Women and machines, Plant argues, have historically shared the ghostlike position of the intermediary. They are nonetheless ‘the very “possibility of mediation, transaction, transition, transference”’.6 Man’s ‘go-betweens’, the ‘anonymous editors, secretaries, copyists, and clerks’, those who

took his messages, decrypted his codes, counted his numbers, bore his children, and passed on his genetic code. They have worked as his bookkeepers and his memory banks, zones of deposit and withdrawal, promissory notes, credit and exchange, not merely servicing the social world, but underwriting reality itself. Goods and chattels. The property of man.7

This is a very different position to the one described by Mark Fisher, when he writes

[m]en experience themselves, not as imbricated in language or technology, but as their users. In fact, and this point is crucial, the assumption of a transcendent, Promethean position in relation to language and technology is what it is to be a man.8

Lovelace too, for all her brilliance, was deemed by contemporary medicine to be a victim of hysteria, a so-called nervous disorder afflicting only women, and apparently due to perambulations of the womb or matrix, leading to an inability to concentrate and a lack of constancy. Lovelace, herself, simply put it down to ‘too much Mathematics’.9

What does it mean, then, to steal or wind into history sideways—para-logically, as it were—not to place oneself in the ostentatious position of an expert or an authority, but to enter, via the pathologised margin, flanked by the material process itself, as the stealthy bearer of a secret or a prophecy? To emerge from below and occupy, subversively and in advance, the function of teleological terminus proposed by progressive, linear temporalities of eschatological development (the domination of culture over nature) spanning origin and apocalypse (or salvation) in their incremental ‘appropriation of all the powers of the parts into a higher unity’—what Donna Haraway calls an ‘oral symbiotic utopia or post-oedipal apocalypse’, the nominal endpoint of patriarchal systems of temporal and integrative administration?10 Apocalypse or salvation only appear as legitimate endpoints to a subjectivity premised on integral stasis and an inherently binarising logic that is dialectally subsumed into a temporal linearity produced via a double reference to an inaccessible origin and a fear of death (united in the word ‘matrix’), both of which must be appropriated, mastered and overcome. To usurp the position of authority and channel—through obfuscation, anonymity, intelligence and cunning, the weaving of a coded message or a riddle—the course of history, via the technology of prophecy is also, in its disturbance of telos, a practice of weaving time.

‘Women have always spun, carded and weaved, albeit anonymously. Without name. In perpetuity. Everywhere yet nowhere,’ writes Plant.11 To prophesy is to complicate, pleat, loop or fold time. One is said to ‘weave’ a spell or a charm, knotting a virtual future into the obscure unfolding of the present and its written past. There is a connection, emphasised by Plant, between weaving, magic, prophecy and secrecy, who notes (quoting Mircea Eliade’s Rites and Symbols of Initiation) that, ‘The moon “spins” Time and weaves human lives. The Goddesses of Destiny are spinners.”’12 When Eliade looks at the traditional tribal ‘seclusion of pubescent girls and menstruating women, often the occasion for the spinning of both actual and fictional yarns’, she continues, ‘he detects “an occult connection between the conception of the periodical creations of the world … and the ideas of Time and Destiny, on the one hand, and on the other, nocturnal work, women’s work, which has to be performed far from the light of the sun and almost in secret’.13 To this she connects historical accounts of the witch trials, whose only documentary evidence is attributed to the male voices of the legislators and the witch hunters of the time, the actual practices of the male and female witches themselves forever lost to intelligible record and therefore existing only in the negative of their authoritative imprints: ‘The voices of the accused reach us strangled, altered, distorted; in many cases, they haven’t reached us at all’, adds Carlo Ginzberg, in his sprawling transcultural survey of ancient magical practices.14 ‘What “really happened”’, remarks Plant, poignantly, ‘has left the scene’.15 ‘What happened’ is the question that arises in the wake of a secret, which, like the witches, prophetesses, cyborgs and monsters of Read Only Memory history, leaves no trace of its strange workings, only an apparent question, which can never be sufficiently answered. Its mark is best evidenced, perhaps, only by the hybrid monstrosities and cyborg bodies it leaves in its wake.

As the link between the ancient, feminised labour of weaving and the dawn of accelerating computation technologies, Ada Lovelace is a cyborg, and a prophet. She is in good company. Among such figures always, significantly, feminised, trans- or poly-gendered, are the many, mad monstrosities of mythology and cultural history. These pathologised and frightful seers arrive consistently from outside and approach Read Only Memory history simultaneously from what it understands as a before and an after, the past and the future, always and at once infiltrating from beneath and from afar, like the Sphinx, Tiresias, or the Eumenides that haunt the narrative of Sophocles’ Oedipus plays. The sphinx is a cyborg or a hybrid—part woman, part eagle, part lion—who dispatches a prophecy concealed in a riddle (What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?) to which Oedipus, thinking he has solved it, responds with the answer ‘Man’.16 Tiresias, a transgendered prophet, figured in T.S. Eliot’s indictment of a tragic modernity, The Waste Land as ‘blind / throbbing between two lives / Old man with wrinkled female breasts’ is, according to a footnote, the poem’s ‘most important personage’.17 It is Tiresias who ‘perceives the substance of the poem’ (the seer’s role in the text emerges, interestingly, in relation to the scene concerning two feminised labourers: the secretary and the clerk), and who delivers to Oedipus, in Oedipus Rex, the terrible prophecy of patricide and incest that, precisely in trying to avoid, Oedipus unwittingly fulfils.18 The Eumenides, Erinyes or Fates, ‘daughters of the earth, of the dark!’ preside over Oedipus’ death or disappearance in the enigmatic final scene of Oedipus at Colonus in which, fated to expire in the Eumenides’ sacred grove, Oedipus vanishes, with only the king of Athens and a confused messenger looking on, the latter proclaiming as he returns from the mysterious site, ‘Oedipus is dead! But no short speech could explain what happened’, an utterance reprised moments later in the question of the Chorus, ‘What? What happened?’19 The Fates are traditionally goddesses of time and, infamously, weavers—like Ariadne who is connected with both the weaving and unweaving of the Athenian labyrinth, particularly enigmatically in Nietzsche, as Deleuze points out in Nietzsche and Philosophy, claiming that, ‘Ariadne is Nietzsche's first secret’, the double of Dionysus, who recursively completes nihilism in affirming the Dionysian affirmation.20 The etymology of ‘Sphinx’ in ancient Greek derives from the verb σφίγγω (sphíngō), meaning ‘to squeeze’ or ‘tighten up’ (Plant: ‘[K]nitting is a matter of making loops. At its simplest, it is done with a single, continuous thread, which loops around and intricates itself’) and as Robert Graves recounts in The White Goddess, ‘Sphinx means “throttler” … in Etruscan ceramic art she is usually portrayed as seizing men, or standing on their prostate figures’.21 The concept corresponding to fate in Anglo-Saxon culture is ‘wyrd’ (Shakespeare renders the Greek Fates as the—again, transgendered—Wyrd Sisters of Macbeth), its Norse cognate is Urðr, connected to the Norns, or weaving female deities who control the destinies of men, and both words are derived from the root wert, ‘to turn’, ‘to spin’ or ‘to wind’.

What is it about this fearful link between women, weaving, and temporal power that transforms them into such sick and monstrous creatures in the collective imagination?22 Is it the fact that they are always either partial or multiple—‘at least two’—and thereby intractable to the rules of identity, straddling both sides of being, the transcendental and its objects?23 Or that they index—for the identity that comes to reflect upon them—a primary alienation, from the 'matrix', matter or ‘mother’ that begets it? Representation is always in the thrall of something monstrous it cannot perceive. For Oedipus, for Babbage and his colleagues, for those who speak the language of history, the unrepresentable arrives first, but also last. These threshold beings of the future and the past, presiding over the fragile threads integrating life and death inhabit both edges of time and enfold everything within their trap, secreted in the present. They are at once the secret ‘origin’ of an obscure—because nonlinear—production, and the prophetesses of the ‘end'. ‘There are only two answers to the question “which comes first” and both of them are female,’ writes Plant, 'the male element is simply an offshoot from a female loop’.24 Zeros + Ones itself closes with the casting of a prophecy. Plant writes of the processes she has been describing that they are ‘a code for the numbers to come’.25

In The Infra-World, a short treatise on the imperceptible in art and culture, François J. Bonnet isolates a strange prose fragment entitled ‘Heracles 2 or The Hydra’, embedded in Heiner Müller’s 1972 play Cement.26 ‘Heracles 2 or The Hydra' narrates the vicissitudes of its male, warrior protagonist, Heracles as he penetrates deeper and deeper into a disorienting jungle in pursuit of a feminised, mythical beast that he would confront and slay in battle, the Hydra. As he tracks what he believes to be the animal he is hunting, following a trail of blood, he finds his perceptions of space and time shifting and starts to wonder if he has not skipped several geological epochs back in time. The canopy of twisted vegetation blocks out the sky, his only resource of temporal navigation, and he confronts repetitions of particular configurations of branches which completely distort his impression of moving forward in space. Driven by a sense of increasing desperation, Heracles increases his pace but cannot tell if he is travelling faster or more slowly than before. Worse, the jungle seems to be animated by a strange kind of sentience and he begins to believe that it is measuring him. He forgets his name and begins to disassociate from his own sense of self and embodied integrity. As the space of the jungle shifts around him

[o]nly he, the unnamed one, had remained the same in his long sweat-inducing path to the battle. Or was what walked on his legs over the increasingly faster dancing ground also a different one than he? He was still thinking about it, when the jungle once more gripped him.27

Mueller’s jungle is an intensive space-time, made of shifting, abstract lines, rhythms that modulate as he moves through it, different regimes of speed and slowness. There is no homogenous metric against which he can measure his position within it. Slowly the realisation dawns on what is left of ‘Heracles’ that the trail of blood he has been following is his own, and the mythical beast he thought he was hunting is the jungle itself:

He did not get any further, the jungle kept up with the tempo … and he understood, in the rising panic: the jungle was the Hydra, for some time now the jungle he thought he was walking through had been the beast, which bore him in the tempo of his steps, the ground-waves were his gasps and the wind his breath, the trail which he followed was his own blood, of which the jungle, which was the beast, (since when, how much blood does a human being have?) took its sample; and that he had always known it, only not by name.28

The Hydra emerges as the ambiguous time-space of the jungle itself, not as a definable and delimitable agent, but as a temporality without a face, a ‘mother’ as the protagonist finds himself referring to it—to her.29 As he attempts to fight her, he finds the blows returning to himself in a confusion of user and tool, the separation that allowed for his mastery, composure and control bleeding out among the decaying debris of the rank jungle floor. The Hydra is powerful precisely because it is everywhere yet imperceptible. Heracles has encountered the form of the secret. The jungle is also, in its double temporality—at once ahead and behind, at the beginning and also the end—an image of the future itself: a shifting ‘X on a mobile map’, an index of a truly ‘alien future’.30

It is this formless form—the imperceptibility of the Hydra, the form of the secret—that offers the subversive potentials, written in time-space—of a reorganisation of humans and their monsters, an artificial intelligence (following Kant) that weaves the two together into a greater, emergent, subjectivity: the ‘numbers’ or the ‘people to come’.31 In its anonymity it undermines the systems of identification and control that administer our daily lives. It is a relinquishment of our unique ‘human’, masculine language of post-individuation representation, cut off from the emergent properties that bring it about, an affirmation of the hybrid, the alienated, the multiple and the in-between—the quiet undercurrent of babbling historical time. And abstract weaving is its key. The secret is that the end is already in the beginning, and both simultaneously compose an instant and an atelic vector. Its telos is concealed to itself, generated immanently in every pulsation of a multiplicitous material heterogeneity of which it takes part—providing that it remains monstrous.

‘This is a time of many endings and deaths’ writes Plant. ‘Modernity, history, and man himself have hit the skids of material change and now spiral into redundancy. The sciences, arts, and humanities lose their definition and discipline; law and order fall into decay; the social bond slips beyond repair. [We are not] immune to the viral contagions which are munching through the stabilities of the old world. Self-assembling systems, smart materials, intelligent buildings, computer generations', intelligent algorithms, and 'virtual space destroy the pretensions' of humanity grasped as the dominion of 'Man'.32 But each ending is also a beginning, precisely that prophesied by Ada Lovelace two centuries in advance of its tangible manifestation: an alien future, building itself in the ruins of the language of man, speaking in the swarming jungle tongue of no one in particular, perpetually and consistently alienating itself from what it has previously been, rejecting all prior determinations and the judgements attached to them, and spiralling out of the infinite mathematical spaces of the in-between where the zero beneath all of the ones inexorably and incessantly churns, assembling a future for the monsters, the cyborgs, the prophets, hybrids, aliens and the numbers to come.

  1. Sadie Plant, Zeros + Ones (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 18. 

  2. Sadie Plant, ‘The Future Looms’, Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk (Los Angeles: Sage, 1996), 46. 

  3. Plant, Zeros + Ones, 27; Plant, ‘The Future Looms’, 46. 

  4. Plant, Zeros + Ones, 20. 

  5. Plant, Zeros + Ones, 8. 

  6. Plant, quoting Luce Irigaray, Zeros + Ones, 36; This Sex Which is Not One (New York: Cornell University Press, 1993), 84. 

  7. Plant, Zeros + Ones, 36; 9. See also, Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, The Cybercultures Reader (London: Routledge, 2000), 304: ‘To be feminised means to be made extremely vulnerable; able to be disassembled, reassembled, exploited as a reserve labour force; seen less as workers than as servers; subjected to time arrangements on and off the paid job that make a mockery of a limited work day; leading an existence that always borders on being obscene, out of place, and reducible to sex.’ 

  8. Mark Fisher, ‘Continuous Contact’, k-punk blog, http://k-punk.abstractdynamics.org/archives/004826.html, 2005. 

  9. Plant, Zeros + Ones, 32. 

  10. Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, 292. 

  11. Plant, Zeros + Ones, 190. 

  12. Plant, Zeros + Ones, 69; Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation: The Mysteries of Birth and Rebirth (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1965), 45-6. 

  13. Plant, Zeros + Ones, 69-70. 

  14. Carlo Ginzberg, Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 10. 

  15. Plant, Zeros + Ones, 70. 

  16. Ccru takes the Sphinx’s riddle to be a prophecy: ‘Horror does not confuse the riddle with the secret (it is the answer that is Cryptic). If 423 is Man, then what is 423? This Thing with only a number? The unknown becoming? The horror of the riddle lies in what it tells.’ Ccru, ‘Flatlines’, Writings 1997-2003, (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2017), 115. 

  17. T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems, (New York: The Modern Library, 2002), 53. 

  18. T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land and Other Poems, 53. 

  19. Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 38; 97. 

  20. Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983), 18. See also Gilles Deleuze, ‘The Mystery of Ariadne according to Nietzsche’, Essays Critical and Clinical (London: Verso, 1998). 

  21. Sadie Plant, ‘Mobile Knitting’, Information is Alive (V2_/NAi Publication: http://v2.nl/publishing/information-is-alive, 2003), 30. Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1997), 408. 

  22. Although Greek mythology is privileged here due to its telling relationship to psychoanalysis and Western humanist conceptions of time, this trope appears across cultural mythologies far more generally: the Hindu Kali, the Teotihuacan Spider Goddess and the Egyptian Neith are just some examples. 

  23. Irigaray, This Sex Which is Not One, 26. 

  24. Plant, Zeros + Ones, 231. 

  25. Plant, Zeros + Ones, 256. 

  26. François J. Bonnet, The Infra-World, (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2017), 33-35. 

  27. Heiner Müller, ‘Heracles 2 Oder Die Hydra’, in Werke 2: Die Prosa (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 1999). 

  28. Heiner Müller, ‘Heracles 2 Oder Die Hydra’. 

  29. Heiner Müller, ‘Heracles 2 Oder Die Hydra’. 

  30. Laboria Cuboniks, The Xenofeminist Manifesto: A Politics for Alienation (London: Verso, 2018), 93. 

  31. Plant’s prophecy is a remixing of Deleuze’s ‘people to come’, which is in turn taken from Nietzsche. ‘Wake and listen, you lonely ones! From the future come winds with secretive wingbeats; good tidings are issued to delicate ears. You lonely of today, you withdrawing ones, one day you shall be a people: from you who have chosen yourselves a chosen people shall grow – and from them the overman. Indeed, the earth shall yet become a site of recovery! And already a new fragrance lies about it, salubrious – and a new hope!’ Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 57. This passage is quoted by Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (London: Penguin, 2009), 382. 

  32. Sadie Plant, ‘No Plans’, Architectural Design: Architects in Cyberspace (London: Academy Editions, 1995), 36. 

Amy Ireland is a writer and theorist based in Melbourne, Australia. Her research focuses on questions of agency and technology in modernity, and she is a member of the technomaterialist transfeminist collective, Laboria Cuboniks. Recent work can be found in Audint—Unsound : Undead, Goodman, Heys & Ikoniadou, eds. (Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2019), and as part of the upcoming exhibition, 'AI: More Than Human', at the Barbican, London, May 2019.