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  • Undecidability: The History and Time of the Universal Turing Machine
  • Adrian Mackenzie (bio)


In the Historical Perspective

The specific event in history which marks off a before and after for computers, the “BC” and “AC” of which Bruno Latour speaks in We Have Never Been Modern, is located somewhere around World War II. 1 In a recent article, Andy Pickering speaks convincingly of computers as examples of the “World War II regime,” the “scientific-military cyborg that was a principal product of World War II.” 2 While in general there is no reason to dispute that historical claim about the provenance of computers, it is increasingly necessary to question the way in which the entry of computers into history is understood. Along with others, Pickering does begin that questioning through his project of showing how “machines do things that unaided human minds and bodies cannot.” 3 Amidst all the geopolitical, cultural, technological, and economic contortions associated with World War II, computation has a decisive effect that exceeds human agency. It plays a decisive role. If the wartime history contains a transition from a projected possibility to actuality, it is because the advent of computers as an event is best expressed there. [End Page 359]

While in sympathy with current investigations of the “temporal emergence” of non-human agency, this paper seeks to take that questioning a step further by asking whether computation can enter fully into history, or whether it is reducible to history. The attempt to examine the performances of material objects must, as Pickering points out, “understand history in real time, as it happens, without recourse to endpoints located in the historical future.” 4 This entails abandoning the master narratives of Nature, Reason, and Society for the sake of an “ever-evolving play of human and non-human agency,” or a “temporally emergent dialectics” 5 between living and non-living entities. But as a theoretical premise, the abandonment of endpoints or foundational substances for the sake of “history in real time” does not go far enough. Not everything is a matter of history, even in the contingent sense of history as the “open-ended extension of culture in fields of agency.”

As well as understanding present-day computers as the product of a contingent confrontation between heterogeneous actors, it is necessary to understand the advent of computation in terms of a constitutionally incomplete and unlivable event that exceeds both prospective and retrospective calculation in certain respects. The point of this understanding is to show that we should not assume that the performance of material objects is closed or determinate in contrast to the open-ended or indeterminate extension of culture. The case of the computer shows that the performative power of a non-human agency can not only be incalculable in advance, but also charged with an ongoing incompleteness that arises from their complex temporalities. To treat the performance of this material object as known or determined is to once again retrospectively ascribe an endpoint located in the historical future.

In other words, the open-ended extension of culture in fields of agency remains asymmetric if the fields of non-human agency are seen as closed, disciplined, or predictable. In the case of computation, we will see that any notion of history as an asymmetric open-ended extension of culture into domains of non-human agency carries intractable problems. Radical indeterminacy in the fields of agency perhaps triggers a process within the domain of culture that goes beyond being the negative or sublated term of the dialectics of emergence to which Pickering refers. Correspondingly, it also perturbs the equanimity of Latour’s assurance that beneath the appearance of laminar historical flow imposed by modern temporality [End Page 360] there lies a “turbulent flow of whirlpools and rapids” tumbling around the submerged processes of (Serre’s) “quasi-objects.” 6 If there is a constitutional incompleteness inherent to the advent of computing, it inhabits every level of temporality, including that imposed on entities by the “harsh retraining” and “disciplining” which Latour ascribes to modern temporality.

The Turing Machine’s Entry into History

How could any such constitutional incompleteness be brought into view? One thread by which to follow the...

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pp. 359-379
Launched on MUSE
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