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: Breaking Up [at] Totality

Davis, D. Diane. Breaking Up [at] Totality: A Rhetoric of Laughter. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Univ., 2000.

Disregarding the weird white gnome traced on the yellow front cover, Davis’ playful text traces a laughter that is like a sneeze or a seizure, and so not “human, not logical, yet is capable of overtaking human beings — of laughing us even when we choose not to laugh,” rendering powerless the certainty of human reason “in the face of polymorphously perverse ‘rhythms,’ which echo out of the ‘noise’ of physis (non/rational) rather than the melodies of nomos (rational)” (23). This being the case, “we are three times possessed: by a kairotic Laughter, by a laughing logos, and . . . enframed by . . . a laughing techné” (121f.), the liveliness of which, slipping as technology does from human control while so often controlling our desires, has effectively dispersed our human egos. In line with Vitanza’s third sophistic, Davis offers up “a rhetoric of ‘cracking up’ . . . a breaking up of our accepted topoi, a shattering of what we tend to assume is common ground” (17), deconstructing and destabilizing the traditional, totalizing humanist subject and its resultant political and pedagogical institutions, while affirming “the experience of abandoning oneself to abandonment in” a nonpositive political alliance that “will nudge our perceptions into a space where a different and post-humanist Being-with-others might be/come possible” (67). “One way to accomplish this,” she suggests, “to laugh with the Laughter-in-language, is to engage a radical redescription of ‘the world’ through metaphors of heterogeneity and multiplicity: metaphors of excessss and overfffflow” (106), such as Irigaray’s notion of mimicry, Cixous’ écriture feminine, Lyotard’s differend, and Vitanza’s theatricks — a tweaking of the Symbolic through the affordances of emerging media and mimetic styles. This then becomes the aim of feminist politics and contemporary composition pedagogies, which would subvert rather than simply reverse power dichotomies, and as such would “[s]erv[e] nothing but writing . . . would invite students to strain toward the Unhearable, to be made and simultaneously unmade by a language on the loose . . . to be/come laughers who get laughed, to embrace incommesurabilities, to listen for the noise/static without needing to silence it” (253).

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: Žižek and Heidegger: The Question Concerning Techno-Capitalism

Brockelman, Thomas. Žižek and Heidegger: The Question Concerning Techno-Capitalism. NY: Continuum, 2008.

As an encounter between philosophers of rare association, Brockelman’s book begins promisingly: Tracing Žižek’s own acknowledged origins with Heidegger, the text situates the former within the question of radical, existential finitude opened by his predecessor, as that traditions most extreme culmination. “Žižek seconds Heidegger precisely up to [an] ‘ontological’ completion of finitude that initially seems a merely epistemological insight,” argues Brockleman, an agreement between them that reality itself—the object and not just knowledge of it—is structurally limited, “but the two diverge in their understanding of what such a completion implies—what ethical attitude and what political stance follows from it” (xiv). While both initially call for a “subject of anticipatory resoluteness [who] makes a commitment to the idea that the condition demanding resoluteness is the way things really are—that is, that there is no order to the cosmos, that the universe is essentially and inherently incomplete and without a totalizing position from which one could make sense of it” (5)—Heidegger nach Kehre will retreat from such “subjectivism” in favor of an ethics of Gelassenheit (19). On the other hand, Žižek doubles down and moves “in the direction of a subjectivity which is both collective and praxical” (23), a subject that is herself the void interrupting the totality of the Other, of reality. This disparity is evident in the differing (ambivalent) responses either philosopher gives to the advent of modern technology. Heidegger, of course, was concerned with the power of Gestell to both make of the subject the measure of the world-picture, as well as the standardizing and rul(er)ing of Dasein by technology. Likewise, according to Brockelman, Žižek sees in modern techno-capitalism a form of objectification, though ultimately our anxiety over technology “lies in its ability to make us confront our very subjectivity, our freedom,” for not only does it reveal how “nature itself is incomplete,” imbalanced and evolving, but it also “forces us to see wherein that incompletion of nature emerges. Nature is incomplete at one point alone—the point of the subject with its free act, the point where this subject contaminates reality” (41); that is to say, for Žižek, the objectification of technology allows the subject to realize her finitude. Unfortunately, from this point on, Heidegger fades from the text; to his credit, however, Brockelman’s elucidation of Žižek’s ethics of the futur antérieur Act—“the trace of subjectivity” that “acts upon the Real, producing a reality” previously unrealized (109)—is convincing, concise, and clear—rhetorical qualities that Brockelman shares with Zizek, as is pointed out throughout the text: “Žižek does his best to present the truth, full stop; and all secondary concerns about the ‘imperial’ authorial voice or related matters be damned. On the other hand, though, Žižek’s work, which claims the mantle of a praxical philosophy, is all about doing things with words” (119), a “performative contradiction [that] actually helps Žižek to make his point—that the act occurs beyond the historical categories by which we comprehend it” (126), that a commitment is needed beyond interpretation, an anticipatory resoluteness beyond epistemological piety.

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: Crack Wars

Ronell, Avital. Crack Wars: Literature Addiction Mania. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

As the West reels and retches with the Saigonese swan song of the wretched War on Drugs, Ronell’s narcoanalysis of the fiasco’s ouroboric foundations, the mutually constitutive relationship between culture and over-the-counter-culture, is as relevant as ever. In the singular plural, drugs of all doses and compounds name for Ronell “a special mode of addiction,” an “implicit structure” of Being-on-drugs “that is philosophically and metaphysically at the basis of our culture” (13). “Drugs, it turns out, are not so much about seeking an exterior, transcendental dimension—a fourth or fifth dimension—rather, they explore fractal interiorities” (15), expose in the subject and the state “an internal dimension of polemos—opening the apocalyptic horizon of the politics of drugs” (19). A condition of and for dependency and response-ability, “Being-on-drugs indicates that a structure is already in place, prior to the production of that materiality we call drugs, including virtual reality or cyberprojections” (33), suggesting that a relationship of dependence is prior to becoming dependent. Ronell, following Heidegger, “does not name the object that would respond materially to the call of addiction but suggests that addiction is itself addicted” (42), a movement of desire desiring its reflexive perpetuation through the impossibility of fulfillment; the subject can exist in no other way, relying on (continually) interiorizing the other to emerge at (not: once and for) all. Using (!) Madame Bovary to illustrate how “[t]he horizon of drugs is the same as that of literature,” how “they share the same line, depending on similar technologies and sometimes suffering analogous crackdowns before the law” (78), Ronell traces the addicted origins of contemporary pharmaceutical culture to the decline in the paternal metaphor evinced by Flaubert’s novel (74). “Like the Western world,” say Ronell, “there is no place or moment in the life of Madame Bovary that could be designated as genuinely clean or drug-free, because being exposed to existence, and placing one’s body in the grips of a temporality that pains, produces a rapport to being that is addictive, artificial and beside itself” (104f.). Organic purity is never more than imaginary, and so any mode of being that reveals that structure—whether writing or drugs or technology—is “[c]onsidered non-productive and somehow irresponsible, a compulsive player of destruction,” resisting “the production of value” and “disrupt[ing] the production of meaning” (106), worthy of declaring to war against.

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: Mass Mediauras

Weber, Samuel. Mass Mediauras: Form, Technics, Media. Edited by Alan Cholodenko. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1996.

Regardless of prior familiarity, for anyone interested in Heidegger’s later writings on technology, Weber’s six essays and three interviews collected here do for “Die Frage nach der Techniket al. what Dreyfus has done for Sein und Zeit, setting those unwieldy (and, as Weber emphasizes, fundamentally untranslatable) texts in an approachable and clear light. Following the Heideggerian praxis closely, Weber carefully traces terminological connotations to re/dis-cover the uncanny import of our everyday media environs—perhaps the most interesting chapter, “Television: Set and Screen,” offers, for example, an extended close reading of the noun “television” to indicate how “what one looks at in watching television is not first and foremost images…one looks at a certain kind of vision” (118). This is the lesson that Weber again and again pulls from Heidegger apropos modern technology: That “what is represented and produced counts only insofar as it supplies ‘raw material’ for [a] process of objectification, representation and production” (50), insofar as it reifies a particular metaphysics of representation so that “what is beyond all doubt is the fact that representation itself is taking place,” that the subject is stable and able to re-present (47). Heidegger calls the essence and consummation of this movement Gestell, which Weber translates not as “enframement” but as “emplacement”—emphasizing the lexical spatial root of stellen (“to place, to set”), pace those who thing Heidegger has nothing to say abou the body; hence modern tech, like a TV set, “takes its place as that which assembles the disparate in a fixed and stable order” (70). This impulse toward order enjoins orders, however, whether legal or economic, meaning that “[t]he more technics seeks to place the subject into safety, the less safe its places become” (74), resulting in modern media’s frantic “ambivalence, between the desire to occupy a place of one’s very own and the desire to break out of a place in which one is caught” (6).

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: A Voice and Nothing More

Dolar, Mladen. A Voice and Nothing More. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006.

You, the reader—like all post-Ambrosian readers—are mutely skimming these words; or, at least, pseudo-silently, for there is still a voice reciting the words, perhaps in fragments and whispers, in your imagination. Yet, even in that innermost sanctum of your mental murmur, there are, at the very least, two voices: The one you associate with your own, with its peculiar accent and individual intonation, the voice that a spectrogram would identify as yours; but, moreover—that is to say, more than the first voice and over it in the sense of an uncontrollable beyond—because someone else has written these words, given them the inflection of his punctuation and rhythm and diction, that voice of another is in your head, as well. This ambiguity and multiplicity of the object voice which can never be fully claimed as your own, but which, rather, “stands at the axis of our social bonds, and…[is] the very texture of the social, as well as the intimate kernel of subjectivity” (14), is what Mladen Dolar aims to explore in his compelling monograph: “It seems,” he says, “that human consciousness is a vocal affair…a struggle between voices” (86). Despite the popularity (and ordinary misappropriations) of the Lacanian gaze and further Derridean charges of phonocentrism, Dolar seeks to elevate the oft-maligned voice as a paradigmatic embodiment of the objet a, recognizing in its impermanence and polysemy a historical ground for linguistics, metaphysics, ethics, and politics. According to his detailed account, “the object voice is the pivotal point precisely at the intersection of presence and absence” (55); said another way but set on another level: “What language and the body have in common is the voice, but the voice is part neither of language nor of the body” (73). This physical and philosophical oscillation, the voice’s ability to simultaneously support signification (as a medium) and interrupt it (as the unnecessary material substratum), allows Dolar to describe the voice as “plus-de-corps: both the surplus of the body, a bodily excess, and the no-more-body, the end of the corporeal” (71). In that latter sense, the voice “is what does not contribute to making sense…the material element recalcitrant to meaning, and if we speak in order to say something, then the voice is precisely that which cannot be said” (15). That is why, Dolar contends, so many fields, from phonology to musicology, have tried to marginalize the voice, associating it with the feminine, the irrational, and the indomitable: All reasons to revitalize the voice in contemporary theory.

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.