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.

 

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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: Evil Media

Fuller, Matthew and Andrew Goffey. Evil Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2012.

Appropriately seductive and ironic for a book on the social effects of new media, Evil Media makes a thought experiment out of Google’s famous motto, Don’t be evil — what would need to be changed in actual technological and media practices to turn the Internet giant’s injunction into just Be evil? For the authors, for media to be evil “in an ‘extramoral’ sense” means that the media forms create “a troubling opacity and thickness in the relations of which they are a part, with an active capacity of their own to shape or manipulate the things or people with which they come into contact” (5). Specifically, the authors are interested in “gray media”, the unobtrusive but omnipresent media that often go overlooked, like spreadsheets, GUIs, memos, etc. Thus the ambiguity of evil is both a product of evilness itself as well as of the grayness of media, and “[i]t is prudent here to accept the simple fact of the matter: a certain degree of obfuscation characterizes the process whereby mediators, at different layers of abstraction, chain or agglomerate together in the production of a connection (which then typically appear transparent)” (81); or, put another way, in evil media, “a process of subjection to the machine takes place . . . [and] regularizing expression does facilitate a certain kind of highly structured forgetting” (113). After the introduction, in a slyly advisory, Machiavellian vein, Evil Media provides a number of stratagems, which “aim not to present any one method as appropriate in specific situations, or as limited to certain actors, but to develop a sense of the range of explicitly sophisticated techniques in circulation and articulate their major tendencies” (62) for exercising control of and/or by computers. But within their rhetoric of evil, “to use the word ‘control’ as such is a misnomer. It smacks too much of despotism and neurosis; what is wanted instead is . . . allowing humans to concentrate on what really gives them pleasure and fulfillment — relying on media and other actuation systems to get the job done” (128). The question then becomes which job? — the job in service of a social machine, in which “ignorance is really the most important value to trade on” (100); or the job of subverting that machine via its evil media, in service of which Fuller and Goffey believe their book offers a stratagematic mode that is “not just a power play but a deliberate attempt at exploiting natural [coding] language and the opportunities that the temporal unfolding of discourse provides” (22).

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: 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: Interface Fantasy

Nusselder, André. Interface Fantasy: A Lacanian Cyborg Ontology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.

The cyborg not just a fantasy in the everyday sense, for from a Lacanian perspective, fantasy is cyborgnetic (68): “the computer screen functions in cyberspace as a psychological space—as the screen of fantasy….the interface,” argues Nusselder, “has a similar status to that of fantasy” (5). In the sense that Lacan deploys the term, fantasy—formalized ($◊a), or the split-subject in relation to objet a—”is not solely the opposite of reality but also the (libidinal) motivation of our odyssey through reality” (12); that is to say, like a computer interface, fantasy is a frame of reality, defining it, installing it with meaning, de-signing (or da-seining) our being-in-the-world-wide-web. Ultimately, this means that “[i]n order to understand ‘real’ objects, we cannot simply address ‘things as they are, because we ourselves also constitute them, mentally and cybernetically (49); rather, we have consider the conditions of possibility that fantasy, our relationship to a lost object of enjoyment, enables. “Considering the fictitious structure of reality, cyberspace seems to be nothing else than a realm of technologically produced fictions,” little different from “reality as we know it” (53), and including the fiction and fantasy the constitutes subjectivity, “active windows upon the outer world” (76). Nusselder argues that “it is fantasy as a mediating screen that allows for a third conception of the self, beside the modernist unitary subject of representation and the postmodern subject of simulation. Fantasy is pivotal here, as it results not in a separation of virtual and physical spaces, as in representation, or a blending of them, as in simulation; instead, fantasy interfaces virtual and physical space” (64), with the implication that “interface subjectivity is about ‘subjective-objective’ space” (80): “The interfaces with cyberspace are new frames for connecting body and mind, which never were two separate entities but were combined by fantasy in the first place” (141). What this suggests is neither a violent neo-Cartesian dichotomy, nor a dissolution of Symbolic efficiency, but a pharmaceutical and rhetorical ambiguity wherein “[i]nformation technologies can screen us off further from this thing that we cannot or dare not confront, or conversely, can offer a medium in which it can manifest itself. In this sense they function exactly as the screen of fantasy: they may lead us into illusion by letting us take the reality on the screen for the real thing itself, or they may provide new appearances of the real” (102).

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: Preface to Plato

Havelock, Eric A. Preface to Plato. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2004.

Hearing in the Homeric idiom a form of consciousness vastly removed from what he sees in Platonic philosophy—the irony here of course being in no small part (or perhaps the smallest part, the most minimal unit of meaning) our limited knowledge of how Old Ionic would have actually sounded—Havelock argues that such a shift can be accounted for in the transition from oral poetry to the written word as the primary technology of preserved communication. Following the insights of Milman Parry that the repetitive structure of character epithets and the metrical syntax of the poem functioned to aid the bardic memory in performance, Havelock suggests that “a collective social meory, tenacious and reliable, is an absolute social prerequisite for maintaining the apparatus of any civilization” (42), a requirement filled by the Homeric epics. As a tribal encyclopedia, the poems “memorialise and preserve the social apparatus, the governing mechanism, and the education for leadership and social management” (94) by constantly putting on display, in the action of the drama, the nomoi and ethe of Ancient Greek relations; hence “the warp and woof of Homer is didactic, and…the tale is made subservient to the task of accommodating the weight of educational materials” (61), unconsciously ingrained as they were repeated by the poet and learned by the audience. “Oral verse was the instrument of a cultural indoctrination, the ultimate purpose of which was the preservation of group identity” (100) through its practically mesmerizing hold over an audience—which explains Plato’s rejection of poets from the Republic. Havelock’s point is that oral instruction and poetic memorization was all that was available prior to the popular emergence of writing, and that such a technological limit in turn set the limits of Greek thinking, to Plato’s chagrin. Although some of Havelock’s claims—for example, that “the oral technique…threw power and so prestige into the hands of the orally more gifted” (127), or the cathartic role he grants to the nervous system of listeners (157)—are deterministically reductive and extravagantly speculative, the basic claim that “[t]he Homeric epics constituted a body of invisible writing imprinted upon the brain of the community” (141) is a sound one, and will ground the complementary work of W.J. Ong a couple decades later. Ultimately, the “laws governing the syntax of the tribal encyclopedia, the verbal texture of [contingent and temporally bound] act and event, the need for episodic location in a narrative situation, the need to place that narrative situation in the context of a great and compendious[ly memorable] story” (176) point to a totalizing (and pre-Oedipal) Homeric state of mind—a means of experiencing the world which Plato seeks to break from in order to think, for the first time, a terminology and conception of subject and object, abstraction and paradigm, things in themselves and knowledge as such. Thus Havelock can say that “the Theory of Forms was a historical necessity” (267) and was “epistemological” rather than metaphysical (30), grounded in the tectonic effect of communicative technology on syntax and lexis.

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.