Beyond the Galaxy [A Conference Talk]

Recently, I was invited to deliver a paper at the BH+DH Conference at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The call for papers prompted presenters “to study how digital humanities grows out book history, how ‘bh’ and ‘dh’ continue to be mutually informative and generative, and how they also contradict each other.” Below is a copy of my presentation, which I hope to return to as an article:


First film, then print, and finally, the post.

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After the horrific events of Charlottesville and a growing tolerance of racist rhetoric by our civic leaders, various pundits and politicos throughout the mainstream media have expressed, on the left, shock, and further to the right, awe, at the reemergence of white nationalism from out the west wings of American political discourse. Of course, racist ideology is nothing new to our nation’s institutions, nor has it ever vanished from them entirely, such that if anything of late has been in fact surprising, it is not that white supremacists occupy every corner of the Oval Office, but rather that they do so, so flagrantly. Just about gone are the folksy dog whistles—why would they need them, when the Commander-in-Cheeto is the first president in over a century to not enjoy the companionship of any pet—and in their place we hear political rhetoric hounded by Dixie-whistling confederate apologists and shepherds of a Germanic carnage, who bear the tiki-torch of America’s shameful and ongoing legacy of racism. The fact of that matter is that while the White House has repeatedly housed white supremacists, the American public has not seen such brazen and blatant racism come from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue since Woodrow Wilson screened D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915). The first-ever film shown at the presidential residency, Wilson reportedly described it as “writing history with lightning,” and it was thanks to his enthusiastic approval and that of the Supreme Court—Chief Justice Edward White only agreed to watch the three-hour epic after hearing it made heroes of his beloved Klan—that the pictured secured wide release and enormous popular success.[1]

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For all its ahistorical sincerity, the irony underlying the historic impact of The Birth of a Nation is that, while the film utterly and willfully misrepresents white supremacist propaganda as an accurate record of Reconstruction and the rending of American unity, at the same time Griffith’s masterpiece engendered a new movie-going public across the country, as well as rekindled the KKK—the same iteration as likely included Fred Trump, by the way. In establishing for the first time a nonverbal cinematic language, a feature-length narrative structure, a full score combining original and adapted music, realism as film’s standard aesthetic mode, and (especially) Hollywood’s huge economic potential,[2] The Birth of a Nation stands as a principle illustration of the relationship between a citizenry’s ideology and its media. Said otherwise: D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation gave birth to our nation of movie-goers, with its artistic and technical innovations defining even up to today the basic rules and expectations we have for cinema—an origin inseparable from the film’s similar entwinement with the politics of its, which remains our, time. The point here is not simply that Griffith’s movie functioned explicitly as racist propaganda reimagining and revitalizing American white nationalism, but that by delineating the nascent medium’s grammar and potential, The Birth of a Nation hailed a cinematic citizenry, doing for the 20th Century what Benjamin Franklin’s printing press did for the 18th and what Silicon Valley has been doing for ours: That is, they effect newly mediated publics, or what Benedict Anderson has termed imagined communities.

According to the late Anderson, the birth of a nation—and here we are talking about the concept of a nation generally, no longer limited to Griffith’s film or to America specifically, but nationhood and nationalism at large—is entirely dependent upon an era’s dominant medium of communication, and in particular, the development and standardization of print technology. When combined with the mechanical reproduction and disseminative power of Capitalism, early print media “laid the bases for national consciousness” by both giving “a new fixity to language” as well as fixing “unified fields of exchange and communication” among a burgeoning public.[3] For the first time, print media—and especially newspapers and pamphlets—permitted people who would otherwise be strangers separated across continental geographies and centennial temporalities to conceive of themselves as an interrelated population of fellow-readers, all sharing the same semi-official “print-language,” each reading the same printed material. “These fellow-readers, to whom they were connected through print,” writes Anderson, “formed, in their secular, particular, visible invisibility, the embryo of the nationally imagined community,” wherein every morning people would open their newspapers, well aware that countless like-minded neighbors were simultaneously replicating this banal ritual, absorbing the news in privacy and silence, as if in morning prayer. What is more, the synthesizing form of the medium itself allowed this emerging citizenry to imagine themselves as a quasi-cohesive community, sharing the space and the time of a single printed page: Persons in, say, Maryland could see juxtaposed on the same page a column covering the commercial news of their surrounding neighborhood and, barely a line apart, a paragraph on the social happenings in Virginia, thereby creating among these fellow-readers a sense that this disconnected assemblage of events, people, and things all belonged together, and in time, all belonged to the imagined community of a single, limited nation[4]imagined not because they are inauthentic, but because nations are speculatively established, founded upon a promise first made available by the “reproducibility and dissemination” of print media.[5]

2561532Despite immediate appearances, the literary character of nationalism is not lost in the transition from print to film as our dominant national medium, from the birth of a nation with cannons to The Birth of a Nation with cameras nearly a century and a half later. Had I the time here, I would more fully trace the relationship between exclusionary racism and print-culture nationalism through reference to the work of Peter Sloterdijk, and tying that together with the traditional humanities more generally, but for now I want to limit our scope to a discussion of how media structure ideologies, and thus how communication technologies inform our understandings of the human condition. That media function unconsciously to constitute our social and psychical experience is what Marshall McLuhan means with his famous dictum that the medium is the message: The ideological power of the periodicals written by the founding fathers stems not so much from the overt arguments they make for revolution or democracy, but from the material form in which those arguments are delivered. The topical juxtaposition of a newspaper page or the replicative distribution of a printed pamphlet thus can do more to unite and stabilize the idea of a national public in the minds of diverse, silent, yet monolingual fellow-readers than any explicit patriotic rhetoric.

For McLuhan—who agrees with Anderson that nationalism finds its origin in the regularity of print technologies,[6] which is why modernity’s epoch of the nation-state is coterminous with what he calls the Gutenberg Galaxy—the cinematic medium merely continues the alphabetic, literary import of the printing press. Insofar as “the Gutenberg technology of movable types is quite indispensable to any industrial or film process,”[7] from the contracts to the critics, then, writes McLuhan, “[f]ilm, both in its reel form and in its scenario or script form, is completely involved with [print] culture,”[8] that is, with “a culture in an extreme reach of typographic conditioning,”[9] of which “[f]ilm [is], as a form, [its] final fulfillment.”[10] McLuhan’s claim here is not ancillary to my larger point about nationalism, print culture, and—here is where we are headed, in short order—the Internet’s transformation of traditional ideological structures; rather, McLuhan helps us to explain the excessive popularity of Griffith’s film by interpreting The Birth of a Nation not as a revolutionary break with communications media past, but stricto sensu as a continuation of print’s ideological form of mechanical reproduction and uniformity, imagistic juxtaposition, phantasmatic interiority, high-definition realism, and linear narrative structure.[11] By this account, the unprecedented and perhaps still unparalleled triumph of The Birth of a Nation at bottom should be generally attributed to its patriotic and nationalist function, instead of its entertainment appeal, aesthetic merit, sheer novelty, or use as Klan propaganda (in this context, it is worth recalling that the film came out after the outbreak of World War I, but before the United States joined the Allied forces, a point when exceptionalist isolationism and protectionist nationalism were running high).

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Were Griffith to release his film today, complete with CGI-enhanced battles and a score by Hans Zimmer that goes BWONG, I doubt it would be greeted with the same success, despite an audience already existing that has shown a renewed political commitment to white nationalism. Even a century after The Birth of a Nation, mainstream film studios, like our public discourse at large, have maintained a banal tolerance of racist ideologies, and audiences rarely balk at even the most egregious examples of minority exploitation or erasure; rather, it would be the film’s overriding and structural nationalist implications that would fail to connect with viewers today. Such a claim may seem counterintuitive in light of movements declaring they will #hashtag Make America Great Again and demanding we put America First—the latter slogan also being used by Woodrow Wilson in the 1916 presidential election—but my point here is, again, a structural one: If nationalism and nationhood as such arise with the ascendancy of print media, are conditioned by and contingent to Gutenberg technologies, then in an era marked by the decline and death of print, in the wake of print’s waning, nationalism and nationhood consequently must bear witness to this shift, characterized itself by the fluidity and specificity of the Internet, our new, now dominant medium.

This is all to say that if we have, over the past few years, seen the rise of neo-nationalisms and neo-fascisms abroad and at home, then these social trends and political movements necessarily must be of a different quality than their print-based predecessors. In place of print-nationalism’s mechanical uniformity, wherein a Texan and a Wisconsinite conceive themselves as always receiving the same news, sharing the same page, appearing under the same typographic conditions, the economic model of the Internet is constructed around targeted advertising and individually curated newsfeeds, what Eli Pariser describes as our algorithmically personalized filter bubbles, which prevent traditional communities from imagining themselves as interconnected across space and time. Whereas print technologies effectively stabilize and elevate some particular vernacular dialect into a standardized national tongue—or, in the related case of screen media, the way regional American accents generally have been reduced in deference to network newscaster English—the Internet once again returns us to a semi-oral kaleidoscope of nonstandard usages and in-group slang, often involving nonverbal signals like memes, emojis, and reaction gifs. This drift moves in other directions, as well, for if print media traditionally were limited in their dispersive capacity to physically and temporally “finite, if elastic, boundaries, beyond which lie other nations,” as Anderson says,[12] these borders fall away when faced with the instantaneous, widespread, indefatigable reach of the Internet.

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The rapid-fire, far-ranging technological systems underlying contemporary modes of communication irrevocably alter our traditional social formations, thereby giving birth to new nationalisms ostensibly reproducing an imagined past, but in reality unrecognizable to those older institutions. The hypertextual fecundity and fluidity of modern digital media make print’s uniformity, isolation, and commonality unviable as principles for political organization, which is why neo-nationalisms (particularly of the white supremacist type) position themselves as a-nation-within-a-nation, representatives of a supposedly “true” or “real” political remnant that inherently disrupts any sense of functional national unity by pitting neighbor against neighbor, where a citizenry are defined not by a geographic or typographic relation, but by ideological and ethnic affiliation. Again, had I the time today, I would trace this transformation of nationalism from the so-called Gutenberg Galaxy of print media, through the Babbage Black Hole of digital technology, to what McLuhan labels our emerging Global Village—but whereas McLuhan sees this “simultaneous happening,”[13] this “sudden implosion” of “all social and political functions” as a net positive of the Net,[14] what we have seen of late is how the move from classical nationalism to the Global Village has resulted in a resurgence of tribalism and eugenic ideologies.[15] To be clear, this is not to say that such racist and divisive tribalism is inevitable, nor do I mean to endorse a vision of strict technological determinism; yet changes in media will ineluctably have social and subjective effects, prostheses working to redefine what we can do, how far we can go with one another, and therefore, at bottom, who we are as a people. Had we been paying closer attention to this shift, the advent of the Global Village could have gone the way McLuhan believed it inevitably would, a world where political boundaries and personal bigotries fall away as we are thrust into a situation of radical cybernetic interconnectedness. The possibility has not been foreclosed, and we might still reorganize ourselves and our society towards that egalitarian promise should we chose to do so—and the moment for that choice simply will not wait in a world of digital haste—but a functioning democracy can no longer be achieved through the stratagems and structures of print-nationalism, for though the structural ideal of the republic might still remain, the nation as traditionally imagined is no more.

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Continue reading “Beyond the Galaxy [A Conference Talk]”

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Abstract for “BH + DH: Book History & Digital Humanities” Conference

So here’s a new thing I thought I’d try: Instead of simply sending off abstracts to conferences and waiting in equal parts silence and anticipation, I might as well share my idea on here first, and see what sort of feedback I get.

When Marshall McLuhan wrote his groundbreaking work of media theory The Gutenberg Galaxy over a half-century ago in 1962, humanity had only just begun to explore space the year prior, and was still a ways away from our first giant leap toward the steady footing of the moon. At the time, computers were still conceived as monolithic, massive, and maniacal, much like the artificial intelligence HAL (one small step typographically to the left from IBM) in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Viewed from the vantage of the iPhone epoch and the dawn of digital sociality, scholars interested in the intersection of Western cultural history and media theory should begin to look anew and askance on McLuhan’s foundational text, which is decidedly, in form and content, a book about books. In my brief presentation—tentatively entitled “Beyond The Galaxy & Through the Babbage Black Hole”—I will return to McLuhan’s elementary insight that “the medium is the message” to interrogate the emergence of novel subjectivities in a post-print, ebook era. Putting McLuhan in conversation with the work of cyberneticians and computer scientists, I will suggest that digital networks no longer support the linearity and self-consciousness that characterize a traditional humanist subject structured by book technologies; rather, insofar as new media are organized by acephalic feedback and entropic communication, so too are (post)human networks, in terms both of the social and the individual.

Update: This abstract was accepted.

 

Annotated Bookshelf: Understanding Media

McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko, 2003.

As thick as the Bible, as quotable and just as prophetic, Understanding Media is a hell of a book, divided into two parts: The first outlines in aphorisms McLuhan’s basic definitions and distinctions, while the second, far longer, section details a number of specific media. He begins with his famous dictum that “the medium is the message . . . the personal and social consequences of any medium — that is, of any extension of ourselves — results from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology;” and, as such, “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium” (19), “a way[] of translating one kind of knowledge into another mode” (85). In other words, a medium in McLuhan’s sense, is defined broadly as a technological means of communication — from the radio to roads, clocks to clothing — the effects of which “do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance” on psychic and social levels (31). McLuhan furthermore argues that “[a]ny invention or technology is an extension or self-amputation of our physical bodies” (67), which works to maintain a narcissistic (and narcotic) equilibrium of the “central nervous system” in response to “the physical stress of superstimulation” (64); in turn, in “this continuous embrace of our own technology in daily use . . . we related ourselves to them as servomechanisms” so that humans become “the sex organs of the machine world” (68). Some of these media, such as movies or radios, he characterizes as hot, and others as cold, like TV or the telephone, the basic distinction being that highly developed, high definition “[h]ot media are . . . low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience” (39), a temperamental tendency that the general cultural, itself hot or cold, will affect. The process of cultural history is dialectical, according to McLuhan, developing through three distinct technological epochs, as can be traced through the history of verbal language: An original tribal era, socially undivided except by space, dominated by the spoken word, made up of psychically complex individuals (75); yet the “alphabet (and its extension into typography) made possible the spread of the power that is knowledge, and shattered the bonds of tribal man, thus exploding him into an agglomeration of individuals” (234), socially mechanized and specialized, subjectively detached and uniform. Today, however, the electric logic of automation or cybernation has returned us full circle into “nomadic gathers of knowledge, nomadic as never before, informed as never before, free from fragmentary specialism as never before — but also involved in the total social process as never before; since with electricity we extend our central nervous system globally, instantly interrelating every human experience” (472).

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: Heidegger & the Media

Gunkel, David J. and Paul A. Taylor. Heidegger and the Media. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014.

In their concise and appreciably clear-cut text elucidation of Heidegger—whose writing rarely warrants those adjectives—Gunkel and Taylor suggest that, according to Heidegger, “we live in a mediated environment in which the distinction between being and Being or the ontic and the ontological has become increasingly indistinguishable” (5). Against this mediated muddling, the authors attempt to recuperate Heideggerian phenomenology’s interest in the essence of technological ecology instead of the multiplicity of particular artifacts and digital apps: Pace complaints about Heideggerian abstruse, “to accuse reasoning that is unapologetically ontological of being too abstract is akin to criticizing water for being too wet” (132). Comparing the Heideggerian terminology of Gestell to McLuhan’s maxim that the medium is the message, Gunkel and Taylor claim that our being-in-the-world is always already mediated, first by language and then more materially, quipping: “There is no-thing outside media” (57). That is to say, because Heidegger emphasizes a totality of world that discloses (and withdraws) itself when we relate to things in a manner of Zuhandenheit, “[a]ll things, in so far as they are something rather than nothing, are always and already media” (104)—a point which counters a correspondence theory of truth that sees the world as simply out there, for Dasein is there, too. Yet this also means that Heidegger’s criticisms of our “age of the world picture”—for which the authors coin the term Dasign (157)—do not merely result in provincial nostalgia, but, “[i]n so far as there is a saving power in this situation, it is to be found in technology” (151), attuning to media in a more primordial way.

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.

The Medium Always Arrives @ #MLA16

In 1966, the Beach Boys released the legendary Pet Sounds, Bob Dylan dropped the double album Blonde on Blonde on us, the Fab Four shot Revolver our way, and Jacques Lacan published his collected papers up to that point, Écrits. The various essays and talks are presented in more or less chronological order—and I mean Lacan’s, not Lennon’s, work here—with the exception of the first text, the Seminar on “The Purloined Letter” from 1956, the height of Lacan’s structuralist period and his investigation into the Symbolic register of psychical experience. Lacan himself draws the reader’s attention to this anachronism in an appended introduction to the introductory material—a few prefatory pages which, mind you, are placed after the Seminar text: It’s confusing and temporally convoluted, but, hey, that’s psychoanalysis in general and Lacan was nothing if not performative. He saw in the Seminar the widest ranging and most accessible elucidation of his theory of “intersubjective communication…in which the sender,” to quote Lacan, “receives from the receiver his own message in an inverted form” (30). Isn’t it ironic, then, don’t ya think, that the Seminar on “The Purloined Letter” ends, right before the new beginnings, with what is perhaps Lacan’s most contentious and misunderstood claim: “[W]hat the ‘purloined letter,’ nay, the ‘letter en souffrance,’ means is that a letter always arrives at its destination” (ibid). No doubt, Lacan meant here many things, and chief among them that a letter, a signifier rather than the signified, is beyond the guidance or control of its so-called sender and will arrive where it arrives, when it arrives, by any means of arriving, regardless of whatever conscious intent is behind the letter.

In his extensive account of Poe’s short detective story, Lacan shows that it is the locative instance or syntagmatic contingency of the titular letter that triangulates and transforms the various intersubjective relationships of the narrative, irrespective of what message the letter might in actuality contain. All that matters is the materiality and position of the letter within a signifying chain for it to have a perturbing effect; as such, a letter never need leave a desk to arrive, it never even needs to be opened—hence a letter is no more than an envelope. Knowledge of the mere existence of a letter, the threat that it might reveal something dangerous or the possibility it contains something titillating, is enough for a plot to be thrown into motion, to cause people to act a part. For Lacan, the entirety of a Symbolic network—which consists of the plurality of competing discourses and contexts that make up our subjective environs, and which he also famously calls the unconscious “structured like a language”—can dramatically shift with the unexpected intervention of a letter; the point here being that letters or signifiers, the envelopes that say more than the ink they contain, in their performative materiality are the actual agents motivating and organizing unconscious desires and patterns of thought. In that case, to say that the letter always arrives means simply that a signifier, in a gravitational relationship to itself, defines who is who, the receiver or the sender, rather than the latter the letter; moreover, it is to say that meaning ineluctably, ultimately, is beyond the subject’s attempts at mastery.

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Perhaps a pithier way of saying all this, losing only some of Lacan’s ambiguity and polysemy, is to recall Marshall McLuhan’s maxim that the medium is the message because, as he explained in 1964’s Understanding Media—released the same year Beatlemania hit American shores and that Lacan formed the École freudienne de Paris—“it is the medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action,” while, on the other hand, “[t]he content or uses of such media are as diverse as they are ineffectual in shaping the form of human association and action” (20). As McLuhan would have it, a medium unconsciously prescribes a relational ontology and a system of values through the practice of its material affordances: Prior to written language, for example, it was well-nigh impossible to think in terms of linear cause and effect or, with printing, a self-conscious authorial subject; after cable TV overtook the newspaper as the West’s principle medium, and the home computer soon after that, there has emerged an increasingly neoliberal and apathetic egoism as a result of a media environment algorithmically tailored to individual tastes. In doing this, says McLuhan, “media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered. The medium is the massage,” and always an extension “of some human faculty—psychic or physical” (MM 26), prosthetically reorienting our perception and expectation of the world, and thereby reflexively redefining our own position within those surroundings. What is written on a page or put on display serves merely to distract and conceal the real work of the medium; it matters less what’s on the screen than the social and subjective situations the viewer assumes in order to see the screen at all.

The Lacanian conception of the signifier, in its performative materialism, thus shares resonances with McLuhanite media theory, particularly in the way that both defer the determination of meaning to external inputs over an easily fooled and misconceived consciousness. It is the medium that signifies, whoever may have signed the letter itself: “Such is the signifier’s answer, beyond all significations,” says Lacan: “You believe you are taking action when [the letter is] the one making you stir at the bidding of the bonds with which [it] weaves your desires” (29). Accordingly, Poe’s letter becomes an impeccable instance of McLuhan’s medium: Whatever state secret or erotic admission the envelope contains is negligible compared to the ability of a letter to be passed around easily and to easily pass notice; to say that a letter always arrives is to say little more than that a letter can be sealed in an envelope, addressed more or less, then sent—and consider what machinery kicks into gear to ensure the letter finds its destination: The stamps to print, the people to outfit, the dogs to muzzle! Moreover, in its function as a medium of long-distance communication, it is forever the possibility of a missive to be missed, such that its inevitable arrival will inevitably come as a surprise—neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night may deter the workers of the U.S. Postal Service, but whether and when the mail appears is as uncertain as the weather. So we check the mailbox, digital or dentable, made of tin or ten thousand lines of code, even if we expect nothing but spam and bills; we swipe down and hit refresh to reassure ourselves that nothing somehow escaped the panoptic server’s notice; or we shove hands into pockets, positive we felt the phone buzz and heard it ring only to find the phantoms are no longer in the machine, but under the skin.

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The differences between Gmail or snail mail aside, what our current digital media ecology actualizes even more today than in 1956—the year Elvis struck it big—is Lacan’s claim that “the very notion of the unconscious” is “that the symbolic is located outside of man” (392), in our technological objects as much as in our social context, realized material practice as much as in psychical reality. Such an extimate structure—wherein what is most internal to our psychical operation is a kernel of the exterior world—does not deny the unconscious, but rather reveals the everyday character of the unconscious: The symbolic world that we participate in, participates in us simultaneously, conscribing the limits of our reality both intentionally and automatically, socially and technologically. In Lacanese, this symbolic world that envelops, involves, and invades us is one definition of the big Other—and hence Lacan will claim that “the unconscious is the Other’s discourse” (É 10), structured for us by more names and numbers than we could begin to forget, but which the uncanny machine itself remembers forever: In that it contains these multitudes, the medium is thus also the mass-age. The more ingrained technological devices become in our absentminded routines, the more their algorithms define our desires and practices, and the more our unconscious becomes digitized through a hegemonic culture and instantaneous, distance-defying global medium.

Following Freud’s procedure in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, the logic of what we might call a digital unconscious becomes evident if we look into the cracks in code opened up when technology breaks down—or, at least, breaks up whatever feelings of tranquil consistency and narcissistic mastery that media prosthetically produce. Consider, for instance, the ceaseless frustration of autocorrect software—perpetually changing my outraged outbursts to complain instead about “Donald ducking Trump”—which in its intrusive failures elucidates the overdetermined enframent of our digital symbolic networks, becoming the digital analog of parapraxes, or slips of the tongue; hence we might call these autocorrect overcorrections Freudian typos. Such daffy “ducking” puritanism has been a problem since the first iterations of predictive text in the mid-2000s, and a decade later our smartphones, the primary medium for textual communication today, seem to have failed to learn to swear—just try to get Siri to do it! Linguistic normativity is asserted here with more banality and pervasiveness than it ever was by lexicographers of the past, done so in a manner that sets limits on writing creatively, on exploring new avenues of poetic expression through slang or neologisms; hence a friend’s playfully calling me the nonstandard “hommie” becomes, after autocorrect interference, the yet more absurd “homage”—which might as well be seen as an homage to nothing other than the textual constriction that suggested the replacement in the first place.

With contemporary media, as much as designers in-scribe their planned uses and expectations for technologies into the final product—hold the phone in this way, write in that way—those technological objects in turn pre-scribe whatever interactions with them and through them users might have. Developers write algorithms that set the rhythm for everyday digital life, rhythms that, as Bruno Latour has convincingly explained, enjoin users “silently and continuously” to “do this, do that, behave this way, don’t go that way, you may do so, be allowed to go there. Such sentences look very much like a programming language” (157), which produce something like a digital unconscious, a structure of desires and injunctions that overdetermine user behavior. We might go so far as to think of this as a form of technical con-scription, a system, as Deleuze wrote at the advent of the Internet age with Nirvana on the airwaves, wherein “perpetual training tends to replace the school, and continuous control to replace the examination,” so that “one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation,” of parapraxial slippage (5). As Freud has taught us, it would be a mistake to write of these social mechanisms of control as entirely exterior to us, as mere distractions disrupting otherwise normal mental functioning; rather, they form a digital unconscious, a rhythm of values and politics and desires set by our media ecology which reframe the relationship between subject and object, self and technology.

 

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To some degree, then, if we push the logic that the medium is the message-slash-massage to its extreme, we would be justified in flipping McLuhan on his head to suggest that humans are the unconscious extensions of their media and that online users might instead be thought of as used online. This is more than merely the simple cinematic trope of a billion-dollar brain pulling strings of code behind the scenes or screens—there is no Other of the Other, Lacan asserted in 1960, the year the Beatles formed and Elvis was discharged; rather, my claim is that the ostensible creativity and imagined anonymity experienced on the screen works to conceal the very symbolic network of institutional algorithms that make the screen work at all. We realize without realizing, we are apprehended without apprehending: Those who have ears will never hear code running and those who have eyes will never see protocol as it functions, only when and if it crashes—no Neo exists among us to see the Matrix in all its furious green glory. Less and less, quantitatively and qualitatively, we are offline; that is to say, we spend more time with computers and put more of ourselves online then we have with any medium previously—with the necessary and necessarily invisible result that the ideological rules of intersubjective language and computer language increasingly coincide. Insofar as social media networking platforms construct in advance affective relationships according to predictive algorithms, represent constricted personality traits over a virtual multiplicity, and increasingly restrict the ability to reimagine history against the archive, the affordances of a digital environment become the limits of subjective experience—which is why we can say, in a seriousness concealed behind laughter, that a new relationship or a new job or that new connection you met at MLA is not official until it’s Facebook official.

Annotated Bookshelf: The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects

McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore. The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects. Berkeley, CA: Gingko Press, Inc., 1996.

A “collide-oscope of interfaced situations” (10) and a mini-manyfesto of graphic design mixed with media theory, McLuhan and Fiore’s brief text celebrates the technological and (counter)cultural innovations of the late 1960s, “our electrically-configured whirl” (150). Riffing on his famous catchphrase, McLuhan punningly amplifies his (titular) maxim to assert that “[a]ll media work us over completely. They are so pervasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical, and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected, unaltered . . . All media are extensions of some human faculty” (26). Thus media, whether linear and rational writing or “boundless, directionless, horizonless” speech (48), shape the ways in which citizens communicate and societies perceive and relate to themselves; so, if “print technology fostered and encouraged a fragmenting process . . . [e]lectric technology fosters and encourages unification and involvement” (8), which will eventually recreate “the world in the image of a global village” (67). For McLuhan, the contemporary Western anxiety, political and cultural unrest is a result of “official culture . . . striving to force the new media to do the work of the old” (94). Yet a critical understanding of media, and particularly a pedagogy of humor (92), “provide means of direct attention and enable us to see and understand more clearly” that “[e]nvironments are not passive wrappings, but are, rather, active processes which are invisible” (68). McLuhan thus makes a call for education institutions to “shift from instruction, from imposing of stencils, to [rhetorical?] discovery — to probing and exploration and to the recognition of the language of forms” (100).

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.