The Blathering Superego

Managerial liberalism is doing what any superego must under severe stress: continue, against all hope, to assert control. Yet, faced with an ascendant global right and a resurgent global left, its correcting and corralling impulses have gone haywire.

— Emmett Rensin, “The Blathering Superego at the End of History


Annotated Bookshelf: The Transhuman Condition

Pruchnic, Jeff. Rhetoric and Ethics in the Cybernetic Age: The Transhuman Condition. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Although contemporary dystopic fictions—say, any given episode of Black Mirror—largely suggest a symbolic sociality captured by dehumanizing technology of calculation a la Heidegger, Pruchnic reminds us that the information superhighway is a two-way street, undergirded by a cybernetic logic that broadly mirrors human diversification in the constitutive flexibility of the digital realm. Said otherwise, “the most pervasive impact of the age of information technology beginning with cybernetics is not the increasing ubiquity of these material technologies themselves, but the ways in which politics, culture, and economics has increasingly found its operating principles in those processes that find only their most obvious manifestation in physical technology” (9). Contemporary culture, for all its heterogeneity and fracturing, is accordingly grounded by a singular techno-logic wherein media function to suture persuasive ontologies and various epistemologies (mind you, Pruchnic stops just short of such an aporia, but his analysis lends itself to a more homogenous conclusion). Rhetoric thus can be said to be a “particularly salient domain for analyzing contemporary culture because it, like the dominant processes of culture today, is less concerned with representation, epistemology, or ideology than it is with a spectrum of directly motivational or persuasive forces” (17). Such a transhuman condition, wherein technological and human networks bleed into one another at the bleeding edge, leaves little room for resistance as traditionally conceived in critical theory, says Pruchnic; rather, “the fundamental challenge of the present is not so much to discover some radical alternative to contemporary conditions…but to figure out how these same techniques already immensely immanent in contemporary capitalism can be made to produce different outcomes, to somehow ameliorate the immense inequalities or material damages that largely remain common to the system, despite its vast mutations in other areas” (38)—and such invention is what rhetoric can deliver, particularly in the field’s recent interest in the asignifying and nonrational import of affect in communication, “a matrix for the formation of psychic associations and dispositions” as well as a “mechanism through which they might be altered” (43).

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.

I, Phone: Subjects on the Line [A Conference Talk]

Recently, I was asked to deliver a paper at GRACLS 2016, the annual graduate student conference hosted by the Program in Comparative Literature at the University of Texas-Austin. This year’s theme was the Extrahuman, and seeing as Avital Ronell was our keynote speaker, I chose to pick up where I believe she left off in The Telephone Book, updating her text for a texting age. Below is a copy of my presentation, which I hope to return when further along in my dissertation project:

I, Phone: Subjects on the Line

Yes, yes—doubly yes—I did undoubtedly, though teeming with much doubt, begin this paper on the phone on the phone, thumbing through an article or two and swiftly putting down those ideas a generous audience might put up with. (Put down or upload, they amount to the same here, for as I will come to, phones today are too all-encompassing to act as effective compasses, providing too many directions to offer sure direction, if they ever could.) Of course, in due course, I was intermittently and interminably interrupted by the hardly silent hum and thrum of my pixilated notepad, its high-pitched pings and dings and things of that nature calling my concentration away from my task. Just as hysteria had supposedly become legion during Europe’s late nineteenth century—the wandering womb being the original-if-forgotten “organ without body” favored by fledgling psychoanalysts—or as schizoid modalities had broken out following the breakdowns of interbellum modernism, our digital epoch has added on another clinical diagnosis: ADD, or APPLE-DISTRACTION-DISORDER. Notably missing from my roll call of 8-bit notifications, however, was the rollicking ring of the receiver, that familiar-cum-infrequent series of repeating oscillations now more often than not replaced by an echoless ding-sans-dong (and I pinky promise to return to that missing dong in the Q&A, should anyone so desire). The singular chime, which has come to signal the death knell of the telephonic bell, has become all the more typical, which is to say that users prefer by far today texting over talking, or sending a SnapChat to actual chitchat—much to the chagrin of Carly Rae.

Who calls today? we might ask, our question carrying overtones of Heidegger’s ontological interrogation alongside more prosaic concerns with the shifting uses ushered in by and with the development of first simply mobile and now so-called smartphones—the disputed term here being not whether my iPhone is “smart,” but to what extent it remains a phone when the phoné has been displaced; for if the voice no longer retains its nominal prominence, then do we have in our pockets and purses only phony phones? and have we ever spoken to anything other than a phony phoné on the phone? It is not difficult to imagine that in a few years time, that original telephonic capacity itself will go the way of the 3.5mm jack, gone as quickly as lightening, the everyday incursion of voices during the last century supplanted by a digitally enabled schizography (to hijack an early neologism of Jacques Lacan’s). All of this is admittedly rather hyperbolic, and my aim here is not in the least to nostalgically bemoan the e-clipse of some original telephone bequeathed us by grand Ma Bell, nor to lament the loss of a voice that in truth never entirely belonged to either end of the telephone line, and especially not to forewarn apocalyptically of some sort of cellular Skynet looming on the human horizon. Such technophobic philippics—as with their flipside, the transhumanist encomium—too easily suggest a straightforward and reliable distinction between human being and “our” media, offering up a timeline wherein emergent technologies cut clear breaks with past subjectivities. At the same time, in light of digital diffusion and in the light of our glowing LCD screens, who can still ignore the significance of modern technology on how we speak to and of one another, how we define our relationships and ourselves? While the writings of, say, a Walter Ong or an Eric Havelock on consecutive paradigms of orality and literacy might in the final analysis turn out too schematic and dramatic, while human being and technology are from the first ontologically indissoluble, the manifest difference between speech and writing, between calling and texting, the effect of the medium on (or in or as) the message entreats us to reevaluate the call of modern technology broadly and, more specifically, that of the telephone as we trace its transformation from a tool of vocal communication to one that is not (just) one.

avital-ronell-2015-1Already a quarter of a century ago, when it cost little more than a quarter to place a call at a payphone, when there were such things as payphones outside Doctor Who—though at nearly a grand a pop, every smartphone is effectively a payphone (messaging rates may apply)—in her monograph on the machinery (mono because it spoke in only one ear at a time), Avital Ronell suggested that the telephone offered “the cleanest way to reach the regime of any number of metaphysical certitudes. It destabilizes the identity of self and other, subject and thing, it abolishes the originariness of site….it is itself unsure of its identity as object, thing, piece of equipment, perlocutionary intensity or artwork” (9), at once an “object of a sustained hysterical fantasy—yours and mine—or thing of inmixation, telecrypt, or, in all cases, partial object” (202). We get hung up when we attempt to pin down the telephone, situated as it is somewhere between the invocatory and the oral drives, split between the caller and the receiver, this unceremonious phantom medium that, when it rings, regardless from where or whom, quickens the subject into response-able being as in that moment “one drops what one is doing, what one has been, and becomes what one is: a priori and automatically indebted” (30). When it rings, it spurs; or, said otherwise, the telephone makes us as it makes us wise to the other—yet we cannot decisively say what it is precisely because the telephonic umbilical serves as a condition for the possibility of saying whatsoever, we cannot readily place the telephone (mobile or not) because it functions extimately, within a middle register, uncannily welcoming long-distance charges into the immediate familiarity of our homes. Despite its inconspicuous ordinariness and because of its constitutive commonality, the telephone discloses “a certain irreducible precedence of the Other with respect to the self” (82), a primordial nonpresence that always already splits the subject and renders human being as an answer to the call of the Other.

Such a wholly other, which persists as a hole of alterity within the divided self, resists capture politically, psychically, linguistically, and so cannot be totalized and reduced to a specific, knowable object; hence the telephone, as a part object or organ without body, is in conference with a long-distance party line of other others, like the feminine and the Frankensteinian, the addict and the idiot. Rather, for Ronell “the telephone is a synecdoche of technology,” both “lesser than itself but also the greater” (20), a part (itself perpetually partial, at no time total) standing in for a broader symbolic network of contemporary AT&T: Automatic Tropes and Technicity. The telephone assists us in naming the unnamable Other of technontology, it helps us to expose the underlying cables and technical bugs, the extrahuman elements that coil through the hollow core of human being—and yet: What becomes of the collect call of the telephone following the flowering of cellularity? do the philosophical and tropological functions of the telephone differ when the medium itself functions differently? what vibrations are felt in the wider web of our hyper-mediated world, our digital enframement, once the phone stops ringing and its umbilical wire has been cut? We must ask these questions concerning technologies—none of which are reductively the question, as if there were just one to ask, and just one to ask about—out of neither a reactionary nor provincial moralism, some backwater or blackforest neo-Luddism, but instead to trace the topological displacements and condensations of the mutating medium’s psychosocial effects as it mobilizes a technological unconscious, intensities all the more compelling when we reproduce the habitual ignorance that the phone has historically enjoined (by dint of its long-established unpretentiousness in kitchens and living rooms, its anonymity echoed now by our orthodox aphonia). Consider here the phenomena of phantom vibrations, when you become alarmed by the hallucinatory feeling that your phone just buzzed: More than an indicator of the telephone’s interruption of the line between subject and object, do we not sense these sudden intrusions into the schizobody as a psychopathological reminder-and-remainder of that which is tying us to the Real of foreign contingencies, the illusory perception serving as a symptom of the return of the repressed, all the more formidable for being forgotten?

With the loss of the voice today like a pandemic of technolaryngitis, our smartphones have at the same time compensated with an augmentation of our visual and tactile senses, often in combination, as with Pokémon Go, which requires players to train their bodies as much as their Bulbasaurs while its augmented reality synthesizes our subjective viewpoint with objective game data; this is a far cry from Peter Sloterdijk’s too cynical claim a decade ago that the age of the online world picture “only offers the continuation of the telephone by visual means” (“Cell Block” 103). While lines yet need be laid tracing the twenty-year period between the release of Ronell’s The Telephone Book during the twilight of dial tones and the first iPhone—which effectively rang the death knell for telephone books for the general public—the advent of smartphones transformed the frame of our emerging media ecology by organizing a newly dominant rhetorical order that has “rerouted, computerized, electrocuted, [and] satellited” our psychosocial discourses and desires (109). My claim here is not to suggest that the technologized subject in some way splits an independent line off from “the” history of human being, for the split subject is always already on the line, never off the hook, made response-able insofar as we are hooked on telephonics. Rather, as Ronell has so disruptively demonstrated, ever since primordial Prometheus the anthropos has been fundamentally prosthetic; accordingly, to track the topological curling of the telephone cord at our core, we might call the iPhone the modern promethean preorigin of our contemporary digital Dasein, supplying (and demanding of us) for this epochal mode of Being a different kind of Apple and another sort of byte.

tumblr_ndy80un0ct1qaqx8xo1_500Through elision of phoné, part-object-cause of desire, and tactile conditioning of the schizobody, like that other modern Prometheus, the iPhone with its miniscule “i” offers us a paradigm of being more machine than man (contrary to common usage, here I mean Victor-the-inventor, not his “unfortunate and deserted creature”: The death-drive-toward-knowledge of the former transforms the scientist into an answering machine for the alchemical algorithms of Cornelius Agrippa, an automaton of rationalism to contrast the romantic yearning of his Miltonian monster). Or, more to the point: Do not iPhones signal, weakly by design, the continued computer colonization of the subject, the substitution of digitally operated dial tones by a hyper-dexterous digitality, a shift in value from the communicative affordances of the phone to the nigh unaffordable smart, and the overall displacement of hauntology-at-a-distance (tele) by the egospheric cellular? In itself, to be clear, this is all well and good, a sign of little more than typical technological progress, as in Marshall McLuhan’s observation that “the content of any medium is always another medium,” technoprogeny a material accretion atop and a topological deformation of its ancestor—the monster is also named Frankenstein and thinks of little else than his “unfeeling, heartless creator.” Yet as the recent legal battle over the classification of the Internet as a telecom utility and its protection under telephone regulations clearly demonstrates, complications arise when we continue to treat legally and economically, rhetorically and psychologically, technologies that are effectively computers as devices only nominally still telephones; in doing so, we disavow our digital enmeshment and its unconscious psychosocial effect, as if nothing had changed, the cables of the Other buried beneath too much earth to cross any other way (and to an extent, do we not see such a lapse taking place already in The Telephone Book, the style and performance of which were made possible, and thereby reflect more, not the handset that connected authorial-Dasein-and-designer, but the layout and typographic freedom of the computer?).

Camera yet calendar, newspaper yet notepad, personal trainer yet personal assistant: If we are still to call the iPhone a synecdoche today, then it is so not because it continues to constitute a single part within a wider technological totality, but because it contains that totality within itself as digital possibility, including for the moment a final vanishing trace of the voice. As it exists now, however, within the realms of the political Symbolic and our everyday Imaginary, when (as McLuhan says) “official culture is striving to force the new media to do the work of the old,” and so “[w]e approach the new with the psychological conditioning and sensory responses of the old,” the iPhone (and digital media broadly) aligns more closely to the paradigmatic logic of metaphor rather than metonymy, functioning as a signifier of nonpresence and substitution. Who needs a camera or a calendar, newspaper or notepad, personal trainer or personal assistant today when deep in you pocket they each stand by in app-sentia, waiting to be called up from (what Saussure labels) the “virtual mnemonic series” of the device’s programming? Having located our mobile phones along language’s metaphorical axis, with Roman Jacobson we might here speak of a cultural aphasia that fails to realize contiguities, with Lacan the dominance of drive over desire, or with Julia Kristeva a potential for transgressive poetic resistances, though such considerable considerations must be put on hold until a future project; for now, I have attempted merely to trace the call—or rather, the always already missed call—of the iPhone, placing a bug on the line that divides subject and prostheses, self and other, “I” and phone.

Annotated Bookshelf: From Counterculture to Cyberculture

Turner, Fred. From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago: U Chicago Press, 2008.

How did we go from HAL to Her, from conceiving of computers as impersonal monoliths and harbingers of hierarchical bureaucracy to the means of our embodied emancipation and subjective revolution? In From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Fred Turner offers a compelling history of this transformation, following the networks surrounding Stewart Brand from the holistic ’60s through the deregulatory ’90s in order “to reconceptualize the process by which technologies take on symbolic meanings and…to rethink the role of network entrepreneurship in the shaping of public discourse” (251). Drawing a distinction between the radical tactics of the New Left and the individualistic New Communalists, the back-to-land hippies who in effect became yuppies, Turner describes in excessive detail how the latter “turned away from agonistic politics and toward technology, consciousness, and entrepreneurship as the principles of a new society…develop[ing] a utopian vision that was in many ways quite congenial to the insurgent Republicans of the 1990s” (8). In other words: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Having appropriated the cybernetic rhetoric and interdisciplinary methodology born of the military-industrial-academic complex that they at the same time sought to escape, the New Communalists—through the establishment of “network forums” and ostensibly egalitarian but in reality elitist new communities beyond the reach of ordinary governance, whether under Geodomes or on the WELL—ultimately imbued the way we think about computers with the same idealist and individualistic frontiersman mentality that motivates contemporary neoliberalism.

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: Notes on the Death of Culture

Vargas Llosa, Mario. Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society. Trans. John King. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

Curmudgeonly conservatives like Vargas Llosa are in sore need today, when the Right seems utterly addled and scrambled, yoked by their cracked oafs; not that he’s right—although he moves in that direction at times—but that his longing intellectualism at least engages the space for debate that current authoritarians on the other side of punditry lack. In the essays collected here, Vargas Llosa argues that culture as it has been known for centuries, a high and literate culture that is the providence of educated elites, has vanished, replaced by a civilization of the spectacle: “The civilization of a world in which pride of place, in terms of a scale of values, is given to entertainment, and where having a good time, escaping boredom, is the universal passion” (23f.), a civilization that has “conditioned the reflexes of a public that lacks the intellectual and discriminatory antennae to detect when it is being duped” (28). In line with Neil Postman’s lamentations some 30 years ago, Vargas Llosa argues that a “need for distraction [is] the driving force of the society in which we live” (31), “yielding to the inflexible pressure of the dominant culture, which privileges wit over intelligence, images over ideas, humour over gravity, banality over depth and frivolity over seriousness” (38)—as much a challenge to thinkers like Derrida and Baudrillard (both explicitly denounced here) as nonthinkers like, oh, the rest of society. The problems that plague us today—the rise of neofascists and religious fundamentalisms, the vanishing of private and erotic life, “the disappearance of elites, of proper criticism and of dedicated critics who once established aesthetic hierarchies and paradigms” (179)—are the result of a culture disavowed in favor of modern “inanity and vulgarity” (99), “the playful banality of the dominant culture” (131); a civilization, of course, deeply obsessed not with deep literature but “[a]udio-visual information, so fleeting, transient, striking and superficial” (220).

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.