“The point is that the very roots of the electoral system—the news people see, the events they think happened, the information they digest—had been destabilized.”

— Alexis Madrigal, “What Facebook Did To American Democracy


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]


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).


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.


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

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: 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: Life on the Screen

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

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

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

Annotated Bookshelf: The Electronic Word

Lanham, Richard A. The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1994.

Illustrative of the optimism that welcomed the first wave of personal computers, Lanham’s collected essays celebrate the aesthetic, political, and pedagogical potential of digital literature and new media technologies. Such possibilities are expressive of a general “expansion of rhetoric’s sphere of influence” since the Sixties, a revival of “the rhetorical paideia as our dominant theory of knowledge and education” (55) that is, “above all, a theory of general education, a centripetal system” (145); Lanham contrasts this “oral/rhetorical/dramatistic/semiological world” with “its literate/ philosophical/positivist opposite” (214), the binary divisions and didactic denunciations defended by Plato and Ramus, a fundamental antagonism that has characterized the entire history of Western culture between rhetoricians who created the truth of their own reality (and the reality of their own truth) and philosophers of the fixed and static. The computer, then, for Lanham, “often turns out to be a rhetorical device as well as a logical one” (31) and as such “constitutes the ultimate postmodern work of art” (17), destabilizing the distinctions between creator and critic, dissolving traditional disciplinary and aesthetic boundaries, and drawing us to “look at the surface pattern” of the text, “AT the design rather than THROUGH it” (43). “Rhetoric as a method of literary education aimed to train its students to toggle back and forth between AT and THROUGH vision, alternately to realize how the illusion is created and then to fool oneself with it again” (81); and Lanham argues that digital literature allows modern subjects to attain and maintain a bistable oscillation, “a toggle to boggle the mind” (82) between those “two basic orchestrations of reality” (166). In this schizophrenic “reality in which figure and ground can continually change places” (82), pace the fears of Luddites like Postman, “[t]he characteristically unstable Western self, by turns central and social, sincere and hypocritical, philosophical and rhetorical, is just what electronic literacy has been busy revitalizing” (25) because it suspends the line between private and public selves (219).

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.