Wall Street; Madison, Wisconsin; Spain; Egypt; Greece; and London—the sites continue to proliferate—offer examples of what has been tagged a viral politics protesting a viral capitalism. Although this is a recent and spectacular instance of the viral, there are the repeating and more ordinary ones. Fear-raising reports of the threat of biological terrorism that at any moment might go viral are released with some regularity; in Fall 2011, the New York Times Magazine led with a story about the 2001 anthrax attacks that announced, “We are still not ready.” Nor does a week go by without some study claiming to document the loss of our ability to think logically because of our susceptibility, if not addiction, to digital media, the form of which is more affective than its content. One only has to turn to books like David Weinberger’s Too Big To Know (2012) to read how the web’s structure is destroying the institutions of knowledge production as we have known them. If social protests, the structure of digital media, and threats of terrorist attacks on the health and welfare of nations can all be described in viral terms, this special issue of WSQ would propose that the viral has itself gone viral. The “viral” has come to describe a form of communication and transmission in and across various and varying domains: the biological, the cultural, the financial, the political, the linguistic, the technical, and the computational.
But what is contagious about the social protests of today, or infectious about threats of biological terrorism, or addictive about the form of digital media is not so much about the transfer of messages or ideologies, or the production of a singular solidarity or a clearly defined collectivity, but [End Page 13] rather the process of transformation. The viral is transformative; it has an open-ended relation to form itself. In this sense, the viral takes on characteristics, albeit selectively, which usually are attributed to the virus. At play is the virus’s ability to change itself as it replicates and disseminates, or what Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker refer to as the virus’s capacity for “replication and cryptography” (2007). In its replications, the virus does not remain the same, nor does that which it confronts and transits through. Viral replication swerves from the performative “repetition with a difference”; it is replication without reproduction, without fidelity, without durability. It is this generative differentiation that is repeated. It is the repetition that is the difference, the difference that counts and that is expressed numerically in code as “a continual replication of numerical difference.” The virus, it might be said, seeks out code as its medium. It is through code that the virus performs its mutation in and across species, as well as all technical platforms or domains.
While the viral may differ from the virus in that the former seems only to signal exuberant capacities of rapid replication and distribution without the capacity for mutation accorded the latter, nonetheless, the difference between the viral and the virus is not one of opposition, a point explored by Zack Blas in this issue. Rather, the characteristics of the virus, we would argue, serve as a threshold, an horizon against and alongside which virality takes its action. There is the becoming of the virus in the viral. Or to put it another way, the viral seeks to be an infecting form, to have the virus’s capacity for mutation, its sensitivity to the timing of repetition, the rhythm of the speeds of repetition, and the resonances of its numerical vibrations. As such, the viral has invited economic, political, social, and cultural investment in new processes of quantification that would allow code to be applied to what Luciana Parisi has described as “the full densely packed zones of information that are the intensive surrounds of zero and one,” or the seemingly infinite series of numbers between zero and one. These processes of quantification enable a “numerical variability, which remains computationally open.” (2009, 363).
Providing code with a computational openness may only further erase differences between the viral and the virus; quantification that is computationally...