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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Connolly on the Event

William Connolly's new Blog post on the event, emergence, and creatitvity;
We are mesmerized by its combination of uncertain origins, messy modes of self-amplification, and fateful possibilities. Sometimes an event fills us with hope, sometimes foreboding, sometimes with despair. But how should we grasp the very idea of an event? What about those of us located within departments of the human sciences, such as political science, economics, sociology, anthropology and geography? Each unexpected event, in fact, creates a flurry of discussion in the human sciences between those who think politics can be comprehended in classic categories of explanation and prediction, those who wish they could believe that but actually doubt it, those who adopt qualitative or interpretive approaches, and those, most recently, who think that attention to the event carries you into territory that is not entirely reducible to any of these dominant perspectives. These conversations go on between us and within us when a fateful event occurs. 

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Alchemical Virtual Reality

eXistenZ is set in a timeframe uncannily close to the present in which virtual reality gamepods are in vogue. The opening scenes of the film begin with an introductory speech to a game testing. Allegra Geller, originally presented as the world’s leading game designer is shot by a ‘realist,’ or a reactionary to a world under the sway of simulacra. Ted Pikul acts as her bodyguard and they escape. Allegra needs to enter the game and so Ted hesitatingly gets a bioport (a hole in the spine that allows one to play) installed, conveniently at the country gas station. Pikul saves Allegra from being killed by Gas, the clerk, and they evade danger. Next they go to a ski lodge to repair Ted’s bioport and begin to play the game. After an intimate scene between Ted and Allegra the pair’s fun gaming experience takes a turn for the worse. Ted finds himself working an assembly line job in which his activity is reduced to the point of thoughtlessness. The scenes are marked by an intense oversaturation of abjectly visceral images of animals being slaughtered. The simulated world is even more bodily of an experience than the real world. At lunch Ted impulsively kills a Chinese waiter at the restaurant. As Ted and Allegra realize how consumption has become production in the world of the game, that their enjoyment is being harnessed for the reproduction of their oppression, they plan on destroying the rest of the pods by plugging into a diseased pod. This plan fails, Ted has to cut the cord, and Nourish, a worker and cook at the restaurant,  burns the diseased pod. The pod explodes releasing spores into the atmosphere and Ted and Allegra return to the ski lodge. At first they think they’ve returned to reality yet other game figures bleed into the picture and the distinction becomes unclear. The manager of the lodge, Vinokur, saves Allegra and Ted when they’re attacked by realists who are also characters from other games. In a twist of fates, Ted reveals that he was originally a double agent sent to kill Allegra, but she blows him up with a bomb she implanted in his bioport. In a final turn, we’re returned to the original scene of the movie, in which the audience realizes that eXistenZ was simply a game within the game tranCendenZ. Pikul and Allegra then kill the actual game designer and the film ends with the Chinese man asking if it's still a game.

eXistenZ is an horror movie in a rather unconventional sense. Trying to condense the film’s travels through levels of epistemological uncertainty will only pay testament to the absurdity eXistenZ points to at the heart of experience. At surface level, the film simply asks the age-old question: How do we know what we experience is real and not mere artifice? How do we know we are not just dreaming or a brain in a vat? Yet upon reflection eXistenZ strikes at the urge to ask that question in the first place. The film is a meta-commentary and reaction to the current status of cinema in a world of trans-media production. Steven Shaviro, in his new work Post-Cinematic Affect, writes, “The ontological basis of film seems to be under threat…Film theorists have begun to worry…that cinema has become an art of the past” (94). Rather than praise some primordial time when film was in its golden ages, filmmakers “hyperbolize the contemporary media landscape” and “make a movie that itself subsumes and reflects upon post-cinematic forms – computer games in particular” (94). So in one sense eXistenZ is a horror film to film itself. It exaggerates the notion that film has lost its monopoly over the forces of seduction. In another sense, however, the film is a mockery of ‘realists’ and the attempt to control or decide upon what is the ‘proper’ level of simulation. Equally though, the film is evidence of a sincere faith in film’s autonomy as an art form. eXistenZ’s ability to resist narrative closure or a stable interpretation creates a different relationship to the experience of the product itself. While in a game one has a completed landscape that the user can roam through, a film is always a determinate selection of images and montages. In the movie free will exists only to the extent that it’s interesting. A film likewise is only interesting if there is the free will of interpretive play. There is something frustratingly pleasurable about watching eXistenZ. There are so many instances in which the audience thinks they have figured out the levels of simulacra yet end up short. Trying to decipher it is like battling a seven-headed monster. Yet, this shows a reversal in roles in which the audience is being played by the film itself. The tables are turned in relation to The Matrix as well. In the Wachowski Brothers’ film the matrix is much larger, but its presence is more identifiable. In eXistenZ the game is relatively small, yet it’s nearly impossible to know when one is under its control. Furthermore, the fact that one desires rather than fears the simulation in eXistenZ is a frightful experience because one is more scared of desiring to be cheated than simply being cheated. The movie forces the audience to come to grips with the impulse that desires repression. As the audience watches the gamers get tricked they realize that the film has duped them as well. It is in the switch between eXistenZ and tranCendenZ that the audience becomes aware of the uncertainty in distinguishing between the two in the first place.

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Monday, April 4, 2011

Towards a Thinking-Feeling Cultural Theory

Jenny Edbauer defines affect as “the experience of having the ground pulled out from under our feet” (11). This reminds me of the old Tom and Jerry or Wiley Coyote cartoons in which a character runs off the cliff but does not fall until they realize that they are no longer standing on solid ground. There is a split second in which the character still attempts to run and move before they realize they have been slighted. There is a break in the narrative of the chase. There is a moment in which a sense of shock is registered and visibly felt before the character falls.

Edbauer offers several other illuminating ways to theorize affect: “as the sensation of the periphery” (12), “a feeling of excess and exposure” (13), and “the experience of relationality” (13). The mixture of characterizations (sensation, feeling, experience) demonstrates the ways that affect is an irreducible force. It is a challenge to commonsense modes of understanding subjectivity. It shows us that “we are not a/lone(ly), but that we exist in relations beyond what we may recognize or even wish” (11) and that we “already exist in zones of indetermination” (16). Conceiving of the self as existing always already in relation transforms the grounds upon which cultural theory can analyze why subjects develop attachments within the realm of ideology or qualification.

Edbauer also shows the ways in which affect is an impersonal and social force. (14) Since affect is something that precedes indexical qualification or cognitive interpretation “The visceral registering of excess is not necessarily a positive or negative phenomenon” (20). For these reasons Edbauer offers an alternative interpretation to understand why Bush’s fumbling speeches actually move people. She writes, “Before we can like, love, or loathe Bush—before the space of critique is even opened to us—we encounter his potential for affect(ation)” (16). We are “sensually involved” (16) in our experience of the Presidential event in such a way that we cannot stay removed.

Bush is an exemplary case for Edbauder because the so-called Bushisms are perfect demonstrations of the ways in which cultural theory’s representational or ideological explanations alone are insufficient. While Bush’s speaking ability in many ways is opposite of Teflon Ron’s, there is a similar dynamic at work in both. Although, Massumi’s citing of Oliver Sacks’ work challenges certain conceptions of Reagan as the Great Communicator, there is still an obvious difference in the polished or professional quality of their mannerisms. Massumi sees Reagan’s jerky movements and erratic rhythms of speech not as deficiencies but supplementary communicative forces. The affective events that implicate the audience in Reagan’s speeches were the reason why he could be so many things to so many people.

In many respects I find Massumi’s explanation for why Reagan moved people much more satisfactory than Edbauer’s explanation for Bush. While she does a great job of descriptively translating Bush’s idiosyncrasies into the vocabulary of affect theory, I’m still left wondering about exactly what is the specific connection between Bush’s jolts and the audience’s experience. Reagan was a very popular figure among people while Bush was seen in a less than favorable light. I’m not sure that Bush even really moved many people in his speeches.

Edbauer writes that, “Bush hacks our experience of narrative so easily, and with such a degree of intensity, because we are already in a kind of relationality with this executive body” (12). What sort of relationality are we already in with Bush? After listening to speeches from Bush during multiple campaigns and speech conferences are the interruptions really that interrupting? In other words, after Bushisms become a predictable part of his narrative do the “incorrect statements, tautologies, malapropisms, mispronunciations, and bewilderings remarks” (6) really “stage a jolt, causing intensity to build around them” (6)? Or are audiences so used to them that they glide over the surface of the skin relatively unnoticed? I think that Edbauer would say that the question is not whether they are cognitively registered but what these sticky associations do in experience of the Executive body. Is it just the fact that there are jolts and interruptions that “exposes the “productivity” of affect as a relational capacity” (7)? It’s difficult for me to reconcile the idea of affect as impersonal yet always already social.

It is here that I would like to compare Edbauer’s account of affect with a reading of Kristeva’s work on affect. I’m not sure exactly if Edbauer would disagree with all of it, but in the very least I think it offers an additional way of theorizing the question. I think that Kristeva’s reading of Plato’s chora from the Timaeus very closely resembles a lot of writings surrounding affect studies. The chora is the third principle that mediates the between matter and ideas. It is understood as a sort of receptacle or maternal space. Cecilia Sjoholm in “Kristeva & the Political” (2005) writes,

The chora is the space outside of being because it engenders transformation, mobility, motility, novelty, not a psychic site but a site of investments. Although it may be a container of affects and memories, it is not immediately translatable as the body, but rather the quasi-transcendental condition that makes corporeal mediation possible. The chora is a term of mediation irreducible to the terms of negativity and signification, not governed by law, but by a kind of organization. (19)

Much of this description of the chora is similar to the ways that Edbauer and Massumi describe the necessary condition of potentiality that allows affects to emerge, transfer, and transform. The above description attempts to distinguish the chora from theories of affect that conceive of affect in a reductionist manner as directly translatable to bodily experience.  I think that the ways that Edbauer describes the process of thinking-feeling demonstrates that Sjoholm’s distinction is not applicable to her account. Another one of Sjoholm’s definitions of the chora is strikingly similar to descriptions of affect, “that which cannot be named but shown in the form of rhythm, form, excess” (19). The chora is the space of generativity and poesis, the irreducible zone of indiscernability in which “the alterity of the other will make itself known through the excesses of signification known as the semiotic” (19).
Sara Ahmed’s essay “The Skin of the Community: Affect and Boundary Formation” in the collection “revolt, affect, collectivity: the unstable boundaries of kristeva’s polis” also offers an interesting account of affect to dovetail with Edbauer’s. I think her account can help explain some of the reasons why Bush moves people, but perhaps at the expense of giving up too much ground to explanations that exist within the realm of meaning. Ahmed writes,

The transformation of this or that other into a border object is over-determined. It is not simply any body that becomes the border; particular histories are reopened in each encounter, such that some bodies are already read as more hateful and disgusting than other bodies. Histories are bound up with attachments precisely insofar as it is a question of what sticks, of what connections are lived as the most intense or intimate, as being closer to the skin. Such an encounter moves us both sideways and forwards and backwards (the histories that are already in place that allow these associations and not others stick, and that allow them to surface in memory and writing) (106).

I find it hard to account for the reasons why Bush move’s people without bringing in the question of memories and histories in relation to the Executive body. It seems that Edbauer is so concerned with theorizing affect as purified from the realm of meaning that it comes at the expense of analyzing contextual factors influencing people’s experience of Bush. The sticky associations surrounding the speaker such can act as blockages or heightened sensitivities to the affective forces of a speech in ways that lead to dramatically different experiences on the part of the audience. While I agree with the importance in situating affect as preexisting the grid of ideological et. al. forces, I think it is likewise impossible to leave these factors out. I also do not mean to do an injustice to Edbauer’s theory in my reading of it and simply criticizing it for leaving something out. I think that this is a question she is conscious of when she writes, “this is not to say that the sensual experience of affect marks a return to a primal scene of origination” (16). Nonetheless, perhaps this is simply begging the entire question of affect studies that continues to haunt me. Which is how can a theory of affect toe the threshold between talking about something which exceeds qualification yet productively analyze its force without qualifying it. The aporia strikes back.

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Sunday, April 3, 2011

Unfiltered with Marcia Stepanek

Marcia Stepanek, in her post “The New Digital Divide,” argues that we must shift the way we think about the relationship between the web and civic engagement. She begins her post with a few pieces of rather tangential evidence. I think the reason that she struggles to grapple with the forces of division is because she misinterprets the effects certain technological tools have on our interactions with the web. For example the use of net filters and search devices appear to be used primarily for targeted ads and niche marketing strategies. I fail to see the connection between the advent of these tools and people’s inability “to break out of these self-imposed (or machine-imposed) comfort zones” (Stepanek). I do agree that this practice is morally suspect and perhaps an egregious breach on personal privacy, but this seems to be a minor barrier to the larger problems we’re facing.

Admittedly, these filters taint what people are exposed to. But it seems that as a whole these filters can’t prevent someone from finding information if they so desire to. My understanding is that people’s search results are still relatively similar no matter who they are or what they are searching, at least among the top results. It is only once one gets down lower in the results where there is not much discrepancy between hits that results are tailored to the user. While this practice may prevent people from seeing ideas more foreign to their interests it may have some benefits as well. For example, allowing less common but more relevant information to get to people displaces the forces that keep all people looking at the same ideas. Instead of viewing only the most viewed results people are exposed to what they are actually searching for. While it is debatable that google knows exactly what you’re looking for, in my experience, the tool has been beneficial to a certain degree.

The filter bubble’s do make it so a person is less exposed to ideas that they dislike, but all of this really begs the question of the way they work. The information that the filters aggregate is based on what one clicks in the first place. I’m much more skeptical perhaps than Stepanek of the question of getting from exposure to actually transforming people’s ideas. Just because a link pops up in search results does not entail that people will click it or view it. Perhaps in principle one could argue its good to leave the option on the table, but pragmatically speaking it may be of little effect.

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Praxis & Online Politics

Danah Boyd’s 2009 article “The Not So Hidden Politics of Online-Class” analyzes the new divisions that are plaguing the cyber public sphere(s). While great leaps have been made to increase online participation among the disenfranchised groups, this view has lent itself to many who are of the opinion that the problem simply ends there. Boyd writes, “There's a terrible tendency in this country, and especially among politically minded folks, to interpret an advancement as a solution” (Boyd). Her article goes on to stress the fact that while the materials and tools are available for cross-cultural interactions and a flourishing of diverse discourses people simply have not used them in such an ideal fashion. Rather, the stark reality of the situation is that online networks are just as, if not more, insular and interest oriented as the traditional networks that preceded the age of the Internet.

In some ways, Boyd argues, the Internet has even exacerbated certain hierarchies or divisions between groups along multiple axes from class and race to gender and sexual identity. “Social stratification is pervasive in American society (and around the globe). Social media does not magically eradicate inequality. Rather, it mirrors what is happening in everyday life and makes social divisions visible.” Some of her argument seems directed at people who confuse the relationship between social change and technological change. Rather than espousing a Messianic vision of technological determinism, Boyd sees culture as the driving force behind changes online. While certain forms of oppression have been eroded by the possibilities opened up by the Internet, one should not confuse the direction of causality. Or moreover one ought not conflate correlation with causation. The Internet as a means of production merely represents an aspect of a larger trend that’s persisted since the 1970’s. Power no longer operates in a traditional top down approach. Rather it exists diffusely and on multiple levels. Each aspect of the social is aimed at producing certain forms of subjectivity that are more amenable to reproducing society at large. Power can no longer be located solely within the theoretical narrative of the nation-state, gender, or capital. Instead, each of these forces must cooperate with one another and act within networks.

While many theorists have analyzed this aspect of our contemporary condition of late capitalism, I’m thinking here of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, especially Commonwealth. I think it’s interesting to read Boyd’s article in relation to this work, because while I admire Boyd’s interest in ensuring that we do not lose focus of the material reality that the Internet is built upon and protects, I think one should also keep in mind the types of new possibilities the Internet is opening up. For example if one were to contend, as I do, that the regime of private property is ultimately the first form of alienation and the largest proximal determining factor than the challenge the Internet wages on traditional modes of thinking could be more powerful than originally imagined. Commonwealth is an attempt to reassert the role the commons play in the modern imaginary and material reality. While it’s easy to see the commons as increasingly sparse and limited as a result of the series of enclosures conducted by modern Capital, it’s also hard to ignore the ways in which they incessantly sprout up. Hardt and Negri write in the Preface, “Innovation in Internet technologies, for example, depends directly on access to common code and information resources as well as the ability to connect and interact with others in unrestricted networks. And more generally, all forms of production in decentralized networks, whether or not computer technologies are involved, demand freedom and access to the common” (x). I think that in certain respects this is true or can be. While social networking sites are still highly stratified according to the typical racial or class based creeds, I think that the Internet networks dedicated to knowledge production or creation are typically more of meritocracies. Often people can conceal their identity and the people on the other end of the computer screen do not care. I think this is especially true for people who are collaborating across seas.

 Boyd’s problem seems to be that Social Networking sites do not facilitate enough conversation beyond pre-established ties. But for the cases where people are collaborating for productive activities it seems that these barriers pose less of a problem. Boyd however warns against the lull of complacency she sees setting in, “While we've made tremendous strides in certain battles, the war is not over. The worst thing we can do is to walk away and congratulate ourselves for all of the good things that have happened. Such attitudes create new breeding grounds for increased stratification” (Boyd).

While I agree perhaps the question is that society was not yet ready for the Internet’s potential. Perhaps a realignment of freedom and necessity would elucidate the situation. One cannot simply will into motion an entire new set of rhythms for society to move within. Only once the material aspects of production themselves are altered will people be able to realize their capacity for engagement with the collectivity in a different light. Yet on the other hand, it seems equally true that the process of consciousness-raising cannot occur through outmoded forms of communication. In a mutually transformative relationship I think that the ways the Internet blends consumption with production, communication with practical activity, the physical with the virtual evinces one that a dogmatism of any strain will fail to undue the current blockages of thought. The problems of today will never be fixed in a Cinderella approach to critical theory or activism, but rather only by employing the full force of our productive potentials and acting across multiple registers.

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