Angel, Virus: Cyberspace Breakdown(s)

By Suhail Malik, 16 October 2008

Universally declared as a massive transfiguration in communication, in our current, early, version - cyberspace fulfils many of the dreams and ambitions we have had about reaching through to each other - communicating - without either central organising powers or the distances and separations such powers rely on: for example, locality, nationality, country, time delays, and finances ("it's the cost of a local call"). Communicating perhaps without the distinctions, differences and difficulties of the gender, sexuality and race each of us necessarily has to have. Communicating, that is, without all the barriers and disruptions that get in the way of a truly global and universal communication. And this is partly because in the net we need not appear as or where we are. In cyberspace, it is said, we can be what we would like to be: human, perhaps - actually, virtually - for the first time.

This is the virtual community - of communicators. It is a community of angels (from the Greek aggelos: `messenger'). And what it takes for granted from the start, what remains unquestionable for this community, is that such communication - an angelic conversation - is possible in the first place. But that this is impossible, and that communication can never happen without poisoning communication itself, becomes manifest with the infection of cyberspace - and perhaps then of the human too - by what today are called viruses.

What's new about cyberspace will happen in the haunting of cyberspace - by its contagions. What's new about communication will happen between angels and viruses.

The following article is the second part of an extended piece entitled `Angel, Virus', the first part of which appeared in the summer issue of Mute as "Angelotechnology". 


'You know,' said the Finn, ... 'that's some weird shit, out there...' He slowly shook his narrow, strangely elongated head. 'Didn't used to be this way.' He looked at Lucas. 'You people know, don't you? [ ... ]

'He knows. Knows it's not the same ... Hasn't been, not for a long time. I been in the trade forever. Way back. Before the war, before there was any matrix, or anyway before people knew there was one. [ ... ] There were cowboys ever since there were computers. They built the first computers to crack German ice, right? Codebreakers. So there was ice before computers...

....'Lucas knows, yeah. The last seven, eight years, there's been funny stuff out there, out on the console cowboy circuit. The new jockeys, they make deals with things, don't they, Lucas? 'Yeah, you bet I know; they still need the hard and the soft, and they still got to be faster than snakes on ice, but all of 'em, the ones who really know how to cut it, they got allies, don't they, Lucas?' [ ...]

'Thrones and dominions,' the Finn said, obscurely. 'Yeah, there's things out there. Ghosts, voices. Why not? Oceans had mermaids, all that shit, and we had a sea of silicon, see? Sure, it's just a tailored hallucination we all agreed to have, cyberspace, but anybody who jacks in knows, fuckin' knows it's a whole universe . And every year it gets a little more crowded...

(CZ 169-70)

From where did they come, these 'things' and 'voices', if God is dead and heaven is another name for its own obsolescence? How did they happen? There are some technoscientific, some perfectly rational, explanations of their origin:

'What a load of shit. Things made a lot more sense before you people started screwing around with them.'

`We didn't bring them here, Jammer,' she said. 'They were just there, and they found us because we understood them!'

`Same load of shit,' Jammer said, wearily. `Whatever they are, wherever they came from, they just shaped themselves to what a bunch of crazed spades wanted to see. You follow me? There's no way in hell there'd be anything out there that you had to talk to in fucking bush Haitian! You and your voodoo cult, they just saw that and they saw a set-up, [ ... ] and Beauvoir and Lucas and the rest, they're businessmen first. And these Goddam things know how to make deals! It's a natural! [... ] You know, hon, it could just be that somebody very big, with a lot of muscle on the grid, they're just taking you for a ride. Projecting those things, all that shit ... And you know it's possible, don't you? Don't you, Jackie?'

`No way,' Jackie said, her voice cold and even. 'But how I know, that's not anything I can explain ...'

Jammer took a black slab of plastic from his back pocket and began to shave, 'Sure,' he said. The razor hummed as he worked on the line of his jaw. 'I lived in cyberspace for eight years, right? Well, I know there wasn't anything out there, not then.. [ ... ]'

Jackie leaves. Jammer conspiratorially asks Bobby

`What did they look like, kid? You got a make?

'Just kind of greyish. Fuzzy ...'

Jammer looked disappointed.

'I don't think you can [emph.add.] get a good look at them unless you're part of it.' [... ]'You think they're for real?' 

'Well, I wouldn't want to try messing one around 'So what do you think they are? [ ... ]

'Well, I don't know. Like I said, I don't think I can swallow them being a bunch of Haitian voodoo gods, but who knows?' He narrowed his eyes. 'Could be, they're virus programs that got loose [ emph.add. ] in the matrix and replicated, and got really smart [ ... ] I knew this Tibetan guy did hardware mod for the jockeys, he said they were tulpas.' Bobby blinked. 'A tulpa's a thought-form, kind of.

Superstition. Really heavy people can split off a kind of ghost, made of negative energy.' He shrugged. 'More horseshit. Like Jackie's voodoo guys.'

(CZ 234-35)

 Angel, Virus, Cyberspace breakdowns

Viruses. Can a virus invent God after the death of God? What space, if any, and what virility, if any, does a virus have in technology? Are viruses virtualis? A minimal definition of what a computer virus is is given in Simon's `Virus, Bugs and Star Wars' (1989: the book is cited here because of its traditionality and unwillingness to provoke controversy). 

viruses: coding illicitly introduced into computer systems and able to 'reproduce', so spreading from one part of a computer system to another or from one system to another; and able, according to the type of virus, to achieve many different types of effects.

(ibid. 104, emph.add.)

The reproductive capability... can have cumulative and potentially catastrophic effects.... The virus - through its ability to progressively 'infest' a complex system - may have consequences that far surpass the perpetrator's intentions.

(ibid., emph.add.)

And this 'potential catastrophe' can only happen 'cumulatively' because the virus remains hidden until it is activated, always 'accidentally'. The virus 'is, for example, a benign or malign program (within legitimate software) that is unsuspected by the user (until it functions)' (ibid. 111, emph.add.).

In other words, a virus always 'happens', is found, invented, having already happened: 'part of the problem is that a virus may take steps to avoid detection, until it is too late.' for what's called the 'host' (ibid. I 12,emph. add). Thus,

The virus phenomenon is particularly worrying because of the uncertainty it generates: it is difficult to know whether a system is infected, whether a virus will spring into action at some moment in the future. [Undetectable,] a computer system will probably run and run, allowing the infestation to spread: in such a way the computer is induced to co-operate in its own mutilation.

(ibid. 106, emph.add.)

Is virality virtualis, then? (- Remember that Angels are also destructive.) What or which time does it have?

Viruses contaminate. They come from somewhere else. Where? In the text from which these citations are being taken, Simons notes that viruses 'mutate'. 

A virus, as an effective parasite ... can run without being explicitly called by the user of the program, a trick it can manage by altering the operating system. [ ... ] A virus may take steps to avoid detection, as with the deliberate evolution of different species of virus ... ] It is also of interest that some virus-detection programs do themselves become infected, and so are then only capable of degraded performance.

(ibid. 113, emph.add.)

(This last instance where the 'detection system' is itself infected is certainly of some interest: such an 'interactive system', if transposed to humans, is how the HIV virus works.)

A virus maintains its agency only in remaining hidden. Its virality is lost upon its discovery. A virus is never itself found, never presentable in its virality. Viruses are interspecial. A virus comes always from another species. It is always new. The origin of the virus is always elsewhere. Where?

Discussing the origins of viruses, in a collection of papers from the first conference to be held on viral mergence (1990), Krause begins the 'Foreword' thus: 'Like science, emerging viruses know no country. There are no barriers to prevent their migration across international boundaries or around the 24 time zones' (Emerging Viruses xvii). Viruses would be virtualis, then. From Pasteur: 'Science knows no country because it is the light that illuminates the world'. With Pasteur, science is angelic, virile; and so almost, with Krause, are viruses too.

`Almost' because viruses 'originate' in corporeal space. They move in, across and through intermediate locales, taking their time. At least, bio-chemical ones do. From the essay just cited: 

For whatever reason, 'swine flu' did not go global. The same can be said for Ebola virus infection. While deadly localised outbreaks occurred in Africa, it too failed to go global. But AIDS did so. This poses the practical question: Do strategies exist to anticipate, detect, and then prevent future epidemics due to new viruses or the reemergence of old ones? Can we devise countermeasures to forestall the emergence of new plagues?

(ibid. xviii, emph.add.) 

Krause continues: 

microbial mischief ... attracted attention. They conspired with the changing circumstances of our times and fermented a succession of unexpected events - epidemics of genital herpes, Legionnaire's disease, toxic-shock syndrome, Lyme disease, and a surge in malaria that encircled the globe. And then came AIDS. [ ... ]

"Has something new ocurred?"asked Congressman Joseph early during the House Appropriation hearings for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in 1982. "Why do we have so many new infectious diseases?" "No", I said, "nothing new has happened. Plagues are as certain as death and taxes."



Virality will always be new, and that is nothing new. In its discovery or invention, a new virus is not at all new. It can be very old. And that is because it comes from somewhere else. Which 'elsewhere' is not reliably or fixedly 'outside': a virus is species-specific, which is only to say local. Even in the Logos, even when 'contemporary man is a manmade species', as Lederberg writes in a paper from the same collection as Krause, even when there is, after the death of God, in the virtualis of technology, only us, even then, 'our only real competitors for pure virtualis,

remain the viruses; for it is by no means clear that antiviral antibiosis can generally be achieved in principle. The very essence of the virus is its fundamental entanglement with the genetic and metabolic machinery of the host.

(ibid., emph.add.)

Does a virus have an essence, is it at all fundamental? Only in techno-logos: viruses will always be able to appear as messages, and be able to be decoded by us. That will be their essential deter­mination: a means of communication. And virality will be dead.

Angel, Virus, Cyberspace breakdowns

But a virus is there in a place, at least biogenetically and perhaps in biotechnological virtualis too since there is no need to restrict viruses to the 'living':

[o]ur view of [ a ] virus as a parasite is complicated by that of a virus as a genetic element, a two-way channel. The viruses are routinely subject to phenotypic modification [emph.add.] by the host cells and, from time to time, the viruses incorporate host genes in their standard genomes and vice versa.

(ibid., 5)

Th[e] pattern of mutualism must have prevailed from the very early stages of biosynthetic evolution, perhaps even prior to the organisation of the cell as we know it. The recombination of self-replicating molecules to facilitate biosynthetic complementation would have accelerated primitive chemical evolution from the earliest times.

(ibid. 8, emph.add.)

And another 'expert' in the field (Levine):

viruses populate the world between the living and the non-living, the molecules that can duplicate themselves and the ones that cannot. (Viruses 1)

`Between the living and the dead', and in the living - which might be the organic, 'intelligences', the spiritual, the virile- and in the dead - which might be the molecules, chemistry from the 'earliest times', viruses may already 'contaminate' the machinic, right through to the level of the molecules.

The 'machinery of the host' that Lederberg mentions above need not then be alive. It may be machinery, perhaps even electronic machinery. And perhaps even cyberspace. Why not? If virality is interspecieal then there may be a contamination across types of species, from the inorganic to the organic, from the living to the 'inert', from stones to humans, from plants to machines. Perhaps. None of this can be known until it has already happened, without putting an end to its virality. (Virality is necessarily a hypothesis, something like a fiction.) But it is just this hypothetical virality that matter may have in the virtualis of immaterial communication.

It's worth taking another look at Aquinas' logocentric determination of that virtualis.

For: a virus is not what it does. The virality of the virus is somewhere else. In Aquinas' terms, it is finite not only in 'respect of existence itself but also in its place. And that matters for the angels, too, because that is just what specifies the angels as angels.

The angels are only the angels they are - virtualis - because of their viral 'contamination'. Following Aquinas, if an angel is what it does i.e., communication, intermediation and the angels are themselves the medium and substance through which communication may happen and through which they understand, it would follow that an angel is its substance is its immateriality is its medium is its essence is its understanding is its knowing.

In the Logos, an angel - which is created - would then be God - who is creator: 'God alone is substance identical with existence and with activity' (ST 54,1; p.74/75; cf. too ibid.'Reply'). But Aquinas has already worked this out and prevented it in its possibility.

Angels are not to be confused with God because they have ideas and they operate 'by means of place'; they move to exercise power in this place or that'. With Aquinas, it is the power, the virtualis, of the angel that determines and demarcates their existence, knowledge and understanding:

the angel's knowledge is indifferent to whether he is distant or close to the place [of what is known], but it does not follow that its movement between places is in vain; it does not move localities so as to gain knowledge, but to operate by means of place.

(ibid., emph.add.)

Virtualis exercises itself on and by means of place. But that space is the geo-spatio-corporeal place - which has no place for the angels. Space-place would contaminate the place of virtualis, ruining the infinite and unextended reach of its power. Space-place localises each angel.

Spaced place 'contains', inhibits and inhabits the place of angelic virtualis, the medium and power of the Logos; it ,makes' the angels have ideas. Wherever Virtualis takes place, spaced-place will have been there, actually or potentially. Virtualis is contaminated by what has here already been called virality. Material viruses (those that are said to be biogenetic, molecular, machinic, and so on) may themselves be the virus that spaces the communicative virtualis of the (techno-)Logos, allows it its virile power by restricting it.

In angelic virtualis, the place and time of communication itself, space is a virus. 

Angel, Virus, Cyberspace breakdowns

Virality matters. That will be the corruption, the individualisation and the impotence of virtualitas. In its materiality, it may have been a passage, a message, some communication, not just between and across matter and matter but also between and across the material and the immaterial.

A virus inhabits and inhibits any 'we' from what would have been 'ourselves'. And if 'we' are already inhabited by a virality, of a virus perhaps as yet unheard of, 'we' are not who or what 'we' are, and will ever be able to be. It is not even the case that 'we' are 'individuals' together since that very 'individuality' has perished.

Virality does not take place by the Logos even if it will have happened in the Logos. The Logos is not and never has been uniform, monodirectional, complete and saturated. The Logos need not be logocentric. Inhabiting the virtualis of technology there may be a new possibility, a possibility newer than anything that technology will bring, newer than good and evil, newer than God. Newer than anything we will ever hear of or come to know or understand, a possibility coming from someplace new that is actually impossible and newer than you. 

Except: if there will be anything newer than the Logos there, it will take place through what today has been called a virus. Which has yet to be found or invented but may be already here. We will never know until it is too late, until our corruption has already taken place. By technology, say. Spaced technology: technology corrupted from the virility of its virtualis. Technics, we could call it.

Communication will not stop, even if it does not come to 'us', and even if it never quite happens. Tele-technics remains there as that which will never be near 'us', nor come to 'us' in a language, or a media. Tele-technics remains at a distance - and promises just that, that there is a distance, however much communication itself - and today that means technology - will accelerate. Teletechnics commits all of that to its obsolescence, which means that in its virtualis technology will come - to be out of fashion, a ghost of its former self.

`It's' said the Wig, plugged in to the white hum, the background noise of cyberspace, would speak of just this, the ghost (of the ghost) of God:

`Did you know why? What it was about?' `No,' Jones said, losing interest in the story, 'he'd just say that the Lord moved in strange ways. [ ... ] He said God likes talking to Himself...'

I. Reference abbreviations given in the main text: CZ - Count Zero; ST - Summa Teologica, reference to which are given in the form: (ST q,a; p.x), where q=Question no., a=article no., and,where appropriate, p.x=page x.

February 95