Hardware Hacking, the Refrain and Deterritorialization

Heather Stycharz


As I was reading “Of the Refrain” in A Thousand Plateaus, I thought of how to apply Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas of “deterritorialization” to other examples. One idea that came to mind was hardware hacking. For those who aren’t familiar with the term “hardware hacking,” Wikipedia describes hardware hackers as “…those who modify hardware (not limited to computers) to expand (its) capabilities; this group blurs into the culture of hobbyist inventors and professional electronics engineering.” In New Haven, my boyfriend (Scott) and my downstairs neighbor (Brian) have been creating experimental music through hardware hacking and developing code in a program called SuperCollider. Together they form the group ‘El Muco’ (electronic music composers). Scott began his studies in music as a classically trained pianist and vocalist and eventually turned his focus toward composition. Brian also began his studies in music performing, he studied jazz guitar and saxophone (among other instruments) and also turned toward composition. He now teaches at Yale pursuing interdisciplinary research, working in the margins between music theory, composition and philosophy.

I add these bio notes because I find their moves from classical/acoustic music to modern/electronic connected to the “Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal” chapter in Plateaus: “Certain modern musicians oppose the transcendent plan(e) of organization, which is said to have dominated all of Western classical music, to the immanent sound plane, which is always given along with that to which it gives rise, brings the imperceptible to perception, and carries only differential speeds and slownesses in a kind of molecular lapping…” (Plateaus 267). Like most artists, once a certain comfort level is attained with their craft, they began to push the boundaries of their ideas (in this case, music) and how to produce it. This is also something that has come up in class a few times, and thus I thought was worth noting in this instance. Their work tests the generally accepted ideas of what “music” is. Is it organized notes and rhythms, or can it be something else? Can it be chaotic?

I should note, that I am still trying to gather my ideas of Deleuze’s work and applying it to hardware hacking. The more that I explore the connections between the two, the more connections I come across. (Intense rhizome action.) Anyway, for a specific example of their hardware hacking work I have chosen their hacking of a Casio SA2 keyboard. As noted in their post about the Casio SA2, the fun of hardware hacking is exploring the object and seeing what happens as they test its circuits and connections. As you can tell from the recording, once a piece of hardware is hacked, it becomes a less stable instrument. Tripping resistors results in chaotic, random sounds, very different than the sounds the instrument was intended to produce. Through desconstruction and exploration, the object is deterritorialized and a new function, a new assemblage is created. Not only did they take the Casio SA2 apart but they decided to take a portion of it and put it into another case, turning it into a completely different object. (Though perhaps it can be argued that as soon as they started manipulating the SA2, it became another object.)

Deleuze and Guattari wrote of the refrain that “a mistake in speed, rhythm, or harmony would be catastrophic because it would bring back the forces of chaos, destroying both creator and creation” (Plateaus 311). In the case of SA2, its function is to create sounds which are random in speed, rhythm and harmony. Its chaos is its creation and intent of its creators.

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One Response to “Hardware Hacking, the Refrain and Deterritorialization”

  1. Interesting post/project… Definitely seems like the connections with Deleuze/Guattari are worth exploring here. One could say the whole array of hacking subcultures (of early electronics, digital gadgets, software, instruments, etc.) are rhizomatic in that they expand the original uses of their material by bringing these objects/sounds into new uses and contexts. In doing so, the hackers may unleash what was previously a very limited (AKA striated?) set of choices in regards to the object into something inherently chaotic and open to infinite modification.

    The question for me then becomes where do they take that process? What do they discover at the end of that process of hacking and modification — or is there no end to it? Is this a way to explore consciousness in a digital realm? What are the connections between this activity and artistic creation — since there doesn’t seem to be the same motivation of capturing affects/percepts which, according to Deleuze, define the artistic process. Could some hackers argue otherwise?

    [I’m reminded of that line in Chris Marker’s “Sans Soleil” when the author of the letters claims his friend operating the video synthesizer calls electronic imagery the only true way to capture “sentiment, memory, and imagination.”]

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