Annotated Bookshelf: Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive

Dean, Jodi. Blog Theory: Feedback and Capture in the Circuits of Drive. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2010.

Although brief, Dean’s monograph is a conscious attempt to slow down contemporary communications media and think critically about the networked hegemony she calls communicative capitalism, “that economic-ideological form wherein reflexivity captures creativity and resistance so as to enrich the few as it placates and diverts the many” (4). Following Žižek, Dean contends that the modern media epoch is caught by “the decline of symbolic efficiency, the recursive loops of universalized reflexivity, the extreme inequalities that reflexive networks produce, and the operation of displaced mediators at points of critical transition” (29). To explain the reflexive circuit, Dean suggests that Lacan’s notion of the inhuman, undead, and disruptive drive — which posits pure loss as its object and “attains jouissance in the repetitive process of not reaching it” (40) — “expresses the reflexive structure of complex networks,” and that “[c]ommunicative capitalism thrives not because of unceasing or insatiable desires but in and as the repetitive intensity of drive” (30), a never ending loop within which media users are stuck. “Caught in reflexive networks” without being grounded by sufficient symbolic efficiency to make choices meaningful, “we lose the capacity for reflection. Our networks are reflexive so that we don’t have to be” (78) — a situation that produces what Dean, with a nod to Agamben, names a whatever being, a contemporary subjectivity that is “‘neither generic nor individual’” (80), both anxious and apathetic, “passive . . . because they are subjects of drive” (85). In effect, enjoined by the network itself, whatever beings communicate on the Internet, whether through a blog post or clicking ‘Like’, for the sheer fact of communicating, without a care for what is communicated: “Like a tweet, a Facebook update marks the mundane by expressing it, by breaking it out of one flow of experience and introducing it into another” again and again (98), producing a nugget of jouissance in the failure to land while simultaneously making it impossible to move beyond the loop. “In the reflexive doubling of communication, the enjoyment attached to communication for its own sake displaces intention, content, and meaning” so that ultimately the “something extra in repetition is enjoyment, the enjoyment that is capture in the drive and the enjoyment that communicative capitalism expropriates” (116).

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.


Annotated Bookshelf: Life on the Screen

Turkle, Sherry. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. NY: Touchstone, 1997.

While in her next major text, Alone Together, Turkle would come to reconsider and reverse a great deal of the enthusiasm, this much lauded book displays the sort of technoptimism that characterized the advent of the Internet in the Clinton years. The work is loosely structured around three metaphors—“the computer as tool, as mirror, and as gateway to a world through the looking glass of the screen” (267)—although the same questions of identity, subjectivity, and reality return throughout. In general, Turkle believes that computers have today become one of culture’s dominant “objects-to-think-with” (48), allowing users to play seriously in the virtual environment with competing theories, politics, identities—you name it. Accordingly, “[a]s human beings become increasingly intertwined with the technology and with each other via the technology, old distinctions between what is specifically human and specifically technological becomes more complex” (21), to the point that the no “simple causal chain” remains: “Our times make us, we make our machines, our machines make our times” (46). Turkle does not see such a loop as a tautology, a short-circuit, or an dialectical paradox, but rather understands the decentered fragmentation of human-computer interaction as embodying the truth of postmodern theory—an umbrella term that covers seemingly the whole of French thought, from Derrida to Lacan, Lévi-Strauss to Deleuze. In particular, because of her training as a psychotherapist, more so than the Baudrillardian hyperreal or Foucauldian panopticon—though they each get their nod in a book constantly nodding—Turkle contends that “online personae have something in common with the self that emerges in a psychoanalytic encounter…significantly virtual, constructed within the space of the analysis, where its slightest shifts can come under the most intense scrutiny” (256). Despite the provocative interest in the intersection of the divided subject and cyberspace, Turkle never gets much deeper than the superficial suggestion—MUDs are new and protean, after all, and like the sea, there seems too much to see, too much to cover to do more than skim. Ultimately, then, an ambivalence cuts through the text, a journalistic indecision that does not quite know what to make of computers, though making seems to be the most fruitful trait of computers. That is to say, for Turkle, the value of the virtual lies in its ability to make real and objective our psychical fantasies and desires; as her title indicates, what is “real” and “human” still serves as the basis for judgment rather than as imaginary supplement—a tendency that subsequently leads to her change in position a decade and a half later.

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.

Annotated Bookshelf: The Scandal of the Speaking Body

Felman, Shoshana. The Scandal of the Speaking Body: Don Juan with J.L. Austin, or Seduction in Two Languages. Translated by Catherine Porter. Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 2003.

Interrogating the intersection between psychoanalysis, speech act theory, and Molière’s Don Juan, Felman attempts to articulate “the scandal (which is at once theoretical and empirical, historical) of the incongruous but indissoluble relation between language and the body; the scandal of the seduction of the human body insofar as it speaks” (5). Such a seductive situation posits “a desire that desires itself and that desires its own language,” turning speech an sich into “the true realm of eroticism, and not simply a means of access to this realm” (15). Yet there is no alternative, for “the referent cannot be attained directly; it can only be approached or aimed at through the intermediary of language” (50)—so much so that “the referent is itself produced by language as its own effect” (51). Taking the instance of Don Juan’s promising without any intent to keep his word as “the performative utterance par excellence,” Felman perversely claims that “the seducer, strictly speaking [!], does not lie,” for a “trap of seduction [] consists in producing a referential illusion through an utterance that is by its very nature self-referential” (17). That is to say, the play stages a conflict between those who insist on the constative closure of language and those, like Don Juan, whose performative speech acts accomplish a (diabolical) reflexive force, a “referential residue of meaning” (52) which amounts to “a performative excess” (55). For Felman, “[t]he act, an enigmatic and problematic production of the speaking body, destroys from its inception the metaphysical dichotomy between the domain of the ‘mental’ and the domain of the ‘physical,’ breaks down the opposition between body and spirit, between matter and language” (65), just as it did “the alternative, the opposition, between referentiality and self-referentiality” (53). Insofar as this act of radical negativity, necessarily either comic or tragic—evoking laughter or imposing fate—“cannot know what it is doing” as it “subverts both consciousness and knowledge (of language),” one can say “[t]he speaking body is scandalous” (67). In that case, any “utterance of knowledge, no longer constative but performative, is no longer so much the object of contemplation, but of enjoyment” (72), becoming “an event—a ritual—of desire” (76); but “the scandal lies less in sex than in language…through which the body’s doing always fails to speak itself, whereas the speaking never fails to do” (78), so that “matter…without being reducible to language, is no longer entirely separable from it, either” (108). “This scandal of the outside of the alternative, of a negativity that is neither negative nor positive,” a Deleuzian nonpositive affirmation (104), names what is trivial and comical and so inassimilable by ideological history, yet it is “the things that have no history” that “make history” (106).

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.

Annotated Bookshelf: Language as Symbolic Action

Burke, Kenneth. Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1966.

As thorough an introduction to Burke’s philosophy of Dramatism as one might hope for, the diverse essays collected in this volume develop “the standpoint of ‘symbolicity’ in general…the four primary linguistic dimensions,” which are “logic, or grammar; rhetoric, the hortatory use of language, to induce cooperation by persuasion and dissuasion;” dialogical ethics; and “poetics pure and simple…the sheer exercise of ‘symbolicity’…for its own sake” (28f.). The five essays of the first section loosely define his procedure, beginning with a Dramatist definition of man as: the symbol-using, -making, -misusing animal; inventor of (and moralized by) the negative; separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making; goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (a sense of order); and rotten with perfection (16). The final clause points to “a kind of ‘terministic compulsion’ to carry out the implications of one’s terminology” (19), which, for the critic, becomes in the following essay an injunction “to formulate [subsequently] the critical precepts implicit in the poet’s practices” (32); while, more generally, describes the way that “all members of our species conceive of reality somewhat roundabout, through various media of symbolism” (52), through nomenclatures that Burke calls terministic screens. Specifically, “[a] Dramatistic terminology…must steer midway between the computer on one side (when taken as a model of the mind) and the neurotic on the other” (63); the former because a computer is “a thing” that “merely moves whereas [a person] acts” (53), while the latter “is identified solely with the process of repression in the Unconscious,” too narrow a focus for the Dramatistic identification of general “symbol systems” (66). After these first few chapters, Burke proceeds to illustrate the method of Dramatism through close analyses of literary texts, from an exhaustive indexing of keywords in the Oresteia to bodily excretion and catharsis in Wagner, and further elaborations of general rhetoric, from a theory of entitlement that suggests “things would be the signs of words” (379) to thoughts on McLuhan’s maxims. In said chapter, Burke, while conceding that McLuhan is “often incidentally incisive and delightful,” takes his subject to task for “giv[ing] us a lineal theory of the steps into the mechanical age and through it into the electric age…a somewhat obsolescent way of heralding the anti-Gutenberg future” (418).

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.

Annotated Bookshelf: Inessential Solidarity

Davis, Diane. Inessential Solidarity: Rhetoric and Foreigner Relations. Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2010.

Drawing on the ethical turn of Levinas and late Derrida, Inessential Solidarity aims “to expose an originary (or preoriginary) rhetoricity—an affectability or persuadability—that is the condition for symbolic action…[a] foreign(er) relation irreducible to symbolic prereqs” (2), laying a groundwork for the claim that rhetoric “is first philosophy” (15). Within “the space of shattered egos” that is a community (10), the place of “a common but dissymmetrical unworking of ‘identity’” that is a conversation (13), this “solidarity is at least the rhetoricity of the affect as such, the ‘individual’s’ irreparable openness to affection/alteration” (4). Reading across Burke’s notion of rhetorical identification, of “symbolic representation…the production and intervention of meaningful figures” (21) as the process through which we come to say I—a process which Davis notes nonetheless necessitates an individual before the I—she, through a close reappraisal of Burke’s own Freud, submits that “ego is formed ‘directly and immediately’ through a [pace the mirror-stage] blind identification in which a not-yet-I-swallows the not-yet-other alive” (27). As such, “dissociation is productive of the exteriority that sociality implies, that it is through disidentification, dislocation, depropriation that social feeling emerges and (so) something like society becomes possible” (35). Turning then to Levinas and de Man, Davis proposes “that the relation with the other is not a function of symbolic exchange but of an extra-symbolic ‘No’ that is aimed directly at rhetoric’s intralinguistic function: figuration” (37); that is to say, “[y]ou are born into presence precisely inasmuch as you are reduced to the status of a figure” (41). In Levinasian terms, this is the face that names “the eruption of an enigma in the phenomenon, which names an interruption in narcissitic appropriation (identification) and therefore the opening of ethics” (50). “To encounter a face is to receive a rhetorical imperative that drops me into response-only mode, subjecting me to the scandal of obligation, to a responsibility that I can neither comprehend nor ignore” (60)—thus the extra-symbolic No becomes an originary Yes to “the infinite obligation to receive and respond” (119), a response-ability “grounded in the passivity of the host-age and not in the freedom of a spontaneous of self-determining agent capable of resolute choice” (87). In line, perhaps, with McLuhan, Davis argues that rhetoricians today must “approach speaking and writing, any form of the address, not simply or firstly as the means of communication…but as communication itself, as modes of the saying” (113).

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.

Annotated Bookshelf: Cross-talk in Comp Theory

Villanueva, Victor and Kristin L. Arola. Cross-talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. 3rd ed. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 2011.

This hefty anthology — which aims not at being “comprehensive, but is, rather, fuel with which to prime the pump: some talk and some cross-talk, the utopic and the dystopic” (xiv) — charts six major themes within composition studies that have emerged over the past half-century. The initial section traces the development of pedagogies that teach writing as a process not product, while the following focuses on discourse-centered rhetorical theory; attention shifts in the third section to cognitive approaches, as well as their subsequent critiques; anthropological, multicultural, and antifoundationalist approaches inform the fourth section; questions of race, gender, and class — as they inform voice broadly construed — are posed in the fifth; a final section, added for this edition, explores the intersection of new media and composition. A specific thread the ties together the sixth part, “Virtual Talk,” is the way that the rhetoric surrounding technology homogenizes while the technology itself reinforces cemented divisions, a tone which is set by a prescient 1985 text by Richard Ohmann, “Literacy, Technology, and Monopoly Capital,” and carried through Adam J. Banks’ piece, “Oakland, the World, and the Divide: How We All Missed the Moment.” For Ohmann, “questions of literacy and technology are inextricable from political questions of domination and equality” (699): Because “computers are an evolving technology like any other,” they are inexorably “shaped within particular social relations, and responsive to the needs of those with the power to direct that evolution” (704) — that is, to the managers of late capitalism who are characterized by its “powerful drive toward planning” of the instrumental and Taylorist type (702). “Technology, one might say,” pace accounts that suggest media simply arise from the ether sans politics, “is itself a social process, saturated with the power relations around it” (705); thus, “the computer revolution, like other revolutions from the top down, will indeed expand the minds and the freedom of an elite, meanwhile facilitating the degradation of labor and the stratification of the workforce that have been hallmarks of monopoly capitalism from its onset” (707) and which are signified by terms of (il)literacy. Yet teaching literacy still has liberatory potential, and technology can help achieve that aim, but only insofar as it is recognized that “[t]echnique is less important than context and purpose in the teaching of literacy; and the effects of literacy cannot be isolated from the social relations and processes within which people become literate” (711).

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.

Annotated Bookshelf: Contending with Words

Harkin, Patrician and John Schilb, editors. Contending with Words: Composition and Rhetoric in a Postmodern Age. NY: MLA, 2001.

An anthology of postmodern contributions (and critiques) to (and of) composition, the essays collected here range from Althusserian approaches (Clifford) to Bakhtinian dialogics (Bialostosky) to Crowley’s curmudgeonly rebuttal; two chapters in particular — Lynn Worsham’s “Writing against Writing” and Victor Vitanza’s “Three Countertheses” — challenge contemporary pedagogies, submitting postmodern composition to postmodern readings. Worsham understands “écriture féminine as a spectacular discourse subculture . . . a style and an identity for a subordinante group” (85) that resists the academy’s “linearity of phallocentric discourse and its tendency toward stasis and systematization through opposition and hierarchy” (88). As such, écriture feminine “is a practice of self-exile within the dominant order of meaning” (92) and “a raid on the articulate”; hence it “cannot be freely imported into the writing classroom to work alongside academic discourse toward the goal of literacy” (93) without being “brought back in line, incorporated, and located within the dominant framework,” fetishized as a commodity (94). With the usual flair of his “theatricks” (158), Vitanza reproaches composition with a trio of “counterresponses to (1) the will to systematize (the) language (of compositing), (2) the will to be its author(ity), and (3) the will to teach it to students. In short, they are counterresponses to the field’s will to control (this) language” (140). Following Deleuze and Guattari, Gorgias, and Lyotard, the chapter urges “modes of resistance that are to be deployed against the game of rationality/knowledge and against the dominant (political) modes of representation, which are expressed throughout the field of composition” in both of its major schools, the foundational and the “social-consensual theory-hopeful rationalists” (145). In his first counterthesis, VV “insist[s] that all attempts to universalize,” like the rationalism of Habermas, “must be resisted and disrupted through ‘radical multiplicities’ . . . there should not be any foundational principle or covering law or ontogenetic model for composition theory and pedagogy” (148); that includes the current emphasis on invention in the classroom, for “what appears to be writing as discovery is only . . . writing that uncovers what has already been predetermined by the modes, or the social codes, of production and representation” (150), especially by repeating commonplaces that foster the dominant discourse. Following from this, in the second counterthesis, VV undermines totalizing language games, which assert either a humanistic conception of the author or an addressor-addressee dynamic of the traditional communications model, by underlining “a third, (dis)integrating element beyond the binary (of the two general models), an element that [he has] called ‘Third Sophisitic possibilisms’ and that can be seen as ‘the demon, the prosopopoeia of noise’,” the laughter dramatized by Davis (155). As a teacher of writing, that means paying heed to the “question of students’ resistance to and disruptions of these so-called rights and other self” stressed by expressivism-inclined instructors (157); instead, one must attempt to “write from inside [a discourse] but as an outsider . . . paralogizing (the opposite of paralyzing) the university so that it might become a (polymorphous) perversity” (159). As such, VV declares in his final counterthesis “a moratorium on attempting to turn theory into praxis/pedagogy” (160), at least for now, desiring “not a discipline or metadiscipline but a ‘nondiscipline,’ . . . a paralogic pedagogy” that “would attempt to be discontinuous, random, and filled with fragmented thoughts and” — with what my own students are familiar — “digressions” (165).

This post is one entry in an ongoing annotated bibliography of my bookshelf. If it’s useful to any person other than myself, all the better.