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20. Coding and the surplus value of code

Yi-Jinkyung, Professor

Seoul National University of Technology


[Download]20 coding.pdf

Since Anti-Oedipus, the concept of coding has been used so often, being paired with territorialization but at the same time, in contrast with it. Code refers to cipher, mark, and rule, etc, which is commonly used in relation to information and communication or language activity. To understand what the other person is saying, we need to know the code used for that word. Not to mention the grammar, we also need to know the rule for articulating sounds and words. It is not easy for Koreans to distinguish between punk and funk because there is no articulation rule to distinguish between p and f. These two are very different kinds of music, but they get the same signifiant in Koreans.

The same goes for speaking. If a Korean doesn't make it clear that the sound he's going to make is a word that begins with an f by making a sound of wind leaking between the teeth and the lip, any American will say 'what're you talking about?' even if he says 'puck you' at the top of his voice. Because there is no f pronunciation in Korean, If you pronounce as usual, it'll be pronounced as 'puck you.' If the person understands what you meant to say later, he may laugh, saying “was it a swearing?” Even when you swear, you have to abide by the code. The cipher is encoded so that the meaning cannot be understood, but at the same time, it should be able to be understood by the recipient. For this purpose, a certain hidden ‘code’ is used.

Coding means to encode the rule of sign usage like this, and makes the users use the sign according to the rule. On the contrary, deviating from the given rule of sign usage is called decoding. Creating a new rule of the signs that deviated from the rule is referred to as recoding. It should be noted that it is different from the usual meaning of information theory or communication theory, where changing certain signs into different signs according to the set rule is referred to as coding, and returning encoded signs to the original signs by that same rule is referred to as decoding.

Genetic information consisting of A, T, G, and C and the process of making proteins also work through codes. Three nucleotides combine to form a code of amino acids, and the amino acid molecules are combined together according to another code to make a protein. However, in the process of RNA copying and transmitting the genetic code of DNA, decoding occurs due to various factors such as splicing, transposon, and retroviruses. Genetic engineering is a technology that uses reverse transcription genes to recode the genetic code for a certain purpose. As such, coding, decoding, and recoding occur routinely not only in the stratum of ‘signification’ but also in the stratum of ‘organism.’

The word code refers to not only law or regulation but also rules that are not so explicit. There are many codes such as social status code, professional code, gender code, and various cultural codes that regulate religious ritual, table manners, dress, and cooking. Etiquettes at the times of meeting and parting, traffic signals, and rules of game are also codes. Wherever humans live, there are codes. Society demands and compels its members to faithfully obey the rules given to them. When faithfully obeying the social code, one becomes a 'subject' required by that society. The social code constitutes and maintains the stratum of 'subjectification' like this.

The social code, however, divides the society into groups that follow different codes and hierarchizes them. Freemen and slaves, aristocrats and peasants are groups of different qualities that can never be grouped into a single category such as 'human beings.' The caste system, which maintains the strict division of Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Sudra, is a system that intensifies the discontinuity and hierarchicality of these coded groups to the extreme degree. Subjectification produces different subjects according to these divided different codes. The existence of these different codes raises questions and resistances for those belonging to different groups. This is why the struggles against social status have been repeated historically. Attempts to deviate from the given code are constantly occurring, if not in the mode of struggle. Some are running away from serfdom or slavery in search of freedom, while others are being expelled from the community and adrift. Some people wear different clothes and choose different lovers, freeing themselves from the coercion of gender codes. It is drawing a line of flight deviating from the stratum of subjectification.

When these lines of flight form a collective outflow, a decoded flow is formed from the given code. When the decoded flow overflows, codes that used to form strata such as status, occupation, and gender are destroyed. For example, the Western feudal society was dismantled by the decoded flow of running away to the city, and by the decoded flow of peasants who lost their land by enclosure movement and got turned into vagrants. However, when this decoded flow overfloods, ‘society’, ‘order’, or government becomes impossible. There usually occur attempts to capture this flow with other codes. Attempts to 'recode' occur.

In some cases, coding breaks down the existing different codes and leaks the decoded flows, uniting them into one huge code. This is called ‘overcoding.’ For example, Qin, the first great empire of China united former tribal groups and small states into a single state. This leads to a decoded flow that deviates from the social status and occupation that belonged to the code of the previous society. The empire state territorializes them on new territories according to imperial needs, such as mining or smelting. This is the case for territorialization being paired not with coding but with decoding. In addition, Qin dynasty imposes new weights and measures, currency, letters, and calendars. The old codes are dismantled and overcoded into a single new code. However, in this case, because a new division and hierarchy of the group such as status and occupation is reintroduced, this overcoding still is a kind of coding.

On the other hand, there is a case where the decoded flow is integrated into a ‘codeless’ system in the sense that it does not divide the decoded flow into hierarchical groups again and does not assign different codes to each group, although it is a kind of overcoding, There appears a huge flow of vagrants who are deprived of their lands due to the enclosure movement, and they are free from status servitude because they already lost their occupations and social statuses. It is when this flow of potential labor force deterritorialized from the land and decoded from the status meets the flow of capital that capitalism is born. Capitalism doesn’t recode them back on status. In the marketplace, status doesn't matter at all. The only thing that matters is how much you pay for my commodities. The logic of the market gives everyone this kind of equivalence. The universal category of ‘human’ emerges from this.

Previously, the status code regulated what to do for a living and how to act. When the code disappears, these regulations become impossible. Hobbes' question, "How is society possible?" comes from this. Capitalism establishes a system of 'universal' rules that applies to 'all humans' other than the code set by status: get a job through employment; produce value through labor; you cannot eat unless you work; buy and sell goods by equivalent exchange; the measure of all values is money, etc. This is also a kind of overcoding in that it integrated the entire flow that deviated from the previous code into a single system of 'universal' rules. However, this is certainly different from the previous imperial overcoding that re-divided people into groups with hierarchical status and imposed different rules depending on which group they belong to. This is called 'axiomatization' in that it was integrated into a system of universal rules that seem self-evident like a kind of 'axiom.'

Just as a deterritorialization movement that occurred within a stratum is reterritorialized on another territory, the decoded flow is also destined to be recoded. However, although decoding destroys the existing code on a large scale and gets rid of it, it is often possible by just changing a particular element slightly, too. European classical music has various codes overlapped. Codes of harmony-tonality, codes of the musical forms such as counterpoint and sonata, codes of genre such as concerto and symphony, etc. A piece of music drawn as a score is the result of overlapping these multiple codes. From the relation with performance, a score can be said to be another code in that it is a kind of 'rule' that causes the performer's action to be repeated. The performer must play by that score-code. However, even in this case, the speed or tempo provides moments for decoding while leaving the given rhythm pattern or melody as it is. Although tempo symbols such as Anante and Presto are written on the score, the tempo itself changes each time the score is played. The performer sometimes changes it greatly to emphasize his own interpretation. Glenn Gould creates his own color by playing slow ones even slower and fast ones even faster. The performer can change the intensity of the sound of the musical instrument such as 'touch' while leaving the score as it is. Jazz musicians change the melody by following the theme work. These are margins that enable flexibility and elasticity deviating from the given order-words of the score. The variability that this margin allows enables decoding by itself. Deleuze/Guattari call this ‘margin of decoding.’

The same goes for language. Even when we read or say the same sentence, we do it in a different tone. If the tone is raised up close to screaming or uttered in a very low voice like Xoomi, i.e. Mongolian throat singing method, the original meaning in the sign disappears and turns into a nonverbal sound. “Uh, this is the sound of an animal!” The phonetic tone, here, provides a margin of decoding that deviates from the language that signifies. When this sound is repeated and comes to have a new rule, it is recoded on a different type of sound. Using irregular pulse, which breaks the regularity of accent, in the dance music <The Rite of Spring>, Stravinsky decoded the time structure of the Western music. Using the rhythm of non-Western music, Messiaen recodes such decoded beats on a new rhythm mode. As such, the decoding and recoding that occur through the margin of decoding is called transcoding.

Such transcoding is usually to take off a part out of the chain of the code and use it to one's own 'gain.’ Deleuze/Guattari call this ‘capturing the surplus value of code.' All code is made up of two or more fragments These fragments are connected by a chain. Because all the fragments are tied to a chain, it is difficult for them to escape freely. However, some fragments can be taken off through the margin of decoding and be used in a different way. In this case, the fragment that was taken off has a different value than the original one. It is about taking advantage of the virtuality of that fragment.

This is called “surplus value” in that it is more than the original value. Such a surplus value is the 'surplus value of code' in that it is a surplus value that exceeds the value within its original code. To use a fragment of a particular code through transcoding is to appropriate such a surplus value for one's own gains. This is referred to as the capture of surplus value. It can be said that the musical performers mentioned above 'take off' the sound that the composer coded on the musical scores or existing music and capture the surplus value of code for the sake of their own musical interpretation or style.

However, if this is all about the surplus value, one may ask back if the concept of surplus value originally defined by Marx as an economic concept is dissolved into the subjective concept of 'interpretation.' That is not quite the case. Looking at the case of economics first, the profit from selling commodities through the remote trade is exactly the surplus value of code. The use value and exchange value of commodities are coded differently from society to society. Beef intestines and bones are not eaten in the United States, but they are good food ingredients in Korea. Deer horns are of little use in Russia, but they are precious ingredients of oriental medicine in Korea. As such, when fragments such as intestines or horns are taken off from the coded chain of value in a particular society and transferred to another society with a different code, the surplus value generated from code differences can be captured. The gains made by merchants from remote trade show the economic form of the surplus value of the code.

The surplus value of code is found everywhere in the survival of living things. The pollination of orchids where the orchids seduce wasp by imitating the shape of wasp and the mimicry of Boquila trifoliolata that imitates the leaves of the neighboring plant are exactly the cases where living things capture the surplus value of code from other individuals for their survival. It is thanks to the gene code of the retrovirus called ERV-3 in the human genome that human fetus in the uterus can avoid the mother's immune response. It is about obtaining the surplus value of code by capturing the gene fragments that originally belong to the genetic chain of the virus. Deleuze/Guattari's word that 'the place of life' means the surplus value of destratification(TP 336) can be understood in this context.

It is said that the human genome contains more genes of viruses or microbes than human genes. The unintentional symbiosis of alphaproteobacteria and archaea implies that the genetic traits of animals or plants themselves are constructed by decoding the genes of heterogeneous microorganisms. "A code is inseparable from a process of decoding that is inherent to it....There is no genetics without 'genetic drift.' The modern theory of mutations has clearly demonstrated that a code, which necessarily relates to a population, has an essential margin of decoding....This involves not translation between codes (viruses are not translators), but a singular phenomenon we call surplus value of code, or side-communication."(TP 53)

However, in Anti-Oedipus, the concept of surplus value of code is sometimes used in a slightly different nuance than this. For example, in some ritualized and ceremonial gifts such as Potlatch and Kula, the disequilibrium between the gifts exchanged stands out markedly. It's a game where the person who gives more than she/he received 'wins', so to speak. Here, the one that gives more acquires 'prestige.' This is a factor that recovers the disequilibrium between the gifts given and taken, which is called the surplus value of code in this book(AO 150). Nietzsche says there is an odd equation('damage=pain') at the origin of punishment, where the criminal should be given as much pain as the damage she/he caused. This is possible because of the pleasure the eyes get from the pain of the criminal, and this pleasure is said to be the surplus value of the code (AO 191). This means a certain price that is paired with the disequilibrium caused by the gift or debt(damage) in a particular code rather than the surplus value gained from the use of fragments of code. This is not something that arises from the transition to another code but a certain gain that is within a given code but is not explicit. The concept of this nuance disappears by the time of A Thousand Plateaus, and the surplus value of code is clearly limited to a concept corresponding to transcoding that transfers fragments of a particular code to another code.



translated by Jung Ki Lee



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