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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Final Pathos Project: Peer Revision Edition

Cascading waves larger than Japan’s tsunami will crash down, bubbles will burst with the force of supernovae, and the streets will run red with the ink of a budget in deficit if Americans don’t fix the debt crisis, or so we’re told. The current debate over how to fix the U.S. budget dilemma swarms with a passionate rhetoric of crisis, victimization, and shame as lawmakers define the borders of concern. For my project I will undertake an aesthetico-politcal mapping of the affective intensities that compose the public(s) surrounding the debt crisis. I will show how the various strategies employed in institutionalized discourse create collective imaginaries that are held in a precarious balance, subject to the swift flick of a legislation writing wrist.
The current debate occurs upon territories of feeling more so than disembodied cognition. While this characteristic is true of most American politics, it is especially germane to the budget issue for a few reasons. The tax code is a labyrinthine web of policy text that is abstract beyond most people’s comprehension, yet issues of dollars and sense remain intricately tied to deeply held values and questions of identity. The budget we choose determines who we are, take Obama’s budget speech for example “This is who we are. This is the America I know.” Furthermore, such a complex issue requires metaphors that simplify the issue in cognitive terms yet amplify its magnitude in affective force. The budget debate occurs on the limits and thresholds of political alignments, investments and cuts occur in relation to emotively charged goods that circulate not just as public benefits but as affective entities.
Adopting a rhetorical analysis that explores the dimensions of pathos and affect is especially poignant in the case at hand because of the nature of topic. While much of the institutional discourse dispersed centers on concrete effects of a particular plan, there is also a meta-commentary on the material effects of the budget and debt debate on financial markets. Lawmakers are faced with a situation in which their participation in the debate changes the conditions of the policy field itself.
Specifically, I will focus my analysis on the ways that the search for the wound circulates rhetorics of shame and victimization in order to translate abstract policy numbers onto emotively invested figures. Beyond being merely politically useful tropes, this move is part of a larger process of shifting the collective imagination of “the good life.” Austerity and sacrifice are posed as positive principles in response to the eschatological predictions of crisis. I will supplement this final aspect by demonstrating the ways that visual imagery, through graphs and charts become an increasingly effective tool for simplifying such a dizzying array of statistics. And finally, I will point to some of the larger implications such an analysis has for theorizing the operations of publics and the role of the critic.
Sara Ahmed theory of ‘affective economies’ is a useful analytic for understanding why feelings dance with figures. For Ahmed, affect is an impersonal force that swarms through networked spaces that precede the subject. She analogizes the movements of affects to the circulation of commodities. They accumulate a surplus of value or intensity through processes of exchange that conceal their histories, transformations, and origins. Ahmed offers a useful vocabulary for interpreting the recent budget and debt debates. Emotions are the sticky substances that mediate the individual-milieu couple. Ahmed writes, “the individual subject comes into being through its very alignment with the collective. It is the very failure of affect to be located in a subject or object that allows it to generate the surfaces of collective bodies (128).” Affect is in intimate contact with the realm of meaning, rather than existing completely external to it. This is because affects operate in order to define and arrange bodies within specific relations.
Ahmed writes on the tethering of catastrophe to character, “narratives of crisis are used within politics to justify a “return” to values and traditions that are perceived to be under threat.” There is a strange dialectic in which the fear of loss is always accompanied by what Lauren Berlant terms a ‘cruel optimism’ (93), or “the condition of maintaining an attachment to a problematic object in advance of its loss” (94). The budget (Politicians’ pork, peoples’ benefits and taxes) seems to be this frustrating endurance of an affective form par excellence. “Cruel optimism as an analytic lever,” for Berlant,“is an incitement to inhabit and to track the affective attachment to what we call “the good life” (97). The rhetoric of the budget debate gravitates toward appeals to futurity. Obama’s speech for example, “this doesn't have to be the country we leave to our children.” Fundamentally, it asks the question what sort of life do we want to reproduce and who is helping or hurting this cause.
The parallelism between the macro structures of spending and the everyday structures of feeling offers an insight into the economies of emotion. Economic analyst Kevin Drum writes “There are limits to how far a big country like the United States can get from fundamentals, but we're still susceptible to the kinds of mob emotion that power both bubbles and bank runs.” The value of austerity is instilled as an ethic for both our economic and rhetorical etiquette. There is the constant refrain of the necessity for an ‘adult conversation.’ Berlant writes, “All of the strikes and tea parties in response to the state’s demand for an austere sacrifice under the burden of shame tell us that this incitement for the public to become archaic as a public is not going down too easily.” The intense fears of populism, the crowd, or class warfare haunt the discussions in a way that shows the impossibility of austerity. Joshua Green writes that, “‘class warfare’ has that extra dimension of apocalyptic consequence and the undertone of victimization that work so well together even though they shouldn't, like sweet-and-sour soup.” (Joshua Green) The figure of the incompetent and unfair populist is tied to a dismantling of the very fabric of American life.
Obama said in his speech, “We will all need to make sacrifices. But we do not have to sacrifice the America we believe in.” The budget crisis forces us to rethink the way shame functions as the underbelly to the positively imbued value of austerity; and furthermore “to think of austerity in relation to claims that the vulnerable should recode loss as sacrifice and therefore produce an affective cushion to replace the loss of other material ones, which were both real and affective.”
Austerity becomes a way of coping with the stark realities of an uncertain future. Ahmed theorizes about how “the fear of degeneration as a mechanism for preserving social forms becomes associated more with some bodies than others.” The Right has been able to recode shame from the figure of the crony capitalist to the excessive politician or consumer. The Left sticks shame to those that would “tell families with children who have disabilities that they have to fend for themselves” or “abandon the fundamental commitment this country has kept for generations.” Obama makes responsibility not just a partisan thing but “patriotism.” Ahmed writes, “threat of such others to social forms (which are the materialization of norms) is represented as the threat of turning away from the values that will guarantee survival.” Here it becomes evident that threat operates not merely as tethered to an objective referent of economic crisis.
Threat is intensified not only by means of exaggeration but also by attaching itself to abstracted character forms and socialized values that circulate without being tied to particular objects. Anxiety sets in because the ambiguity about what investments are excessive or dangerous or the cuts that might affect the vulnerable comes with the fear of passing. Berlant says “It might be unbearable to discover how little one matters to the reproduction of life, but shame is just one of the many moods of affective relation that locates persons and groups in the anxiety of forging an idiom of response.” Shaming is part of the process of constituting subjectivities by defining a self or collectivity in terms of proximity to or alignment with objects of promise or peril.
Mapping this terrain of affective friction means that “one must embark on an analysis of rhetorical indirection as a way of thinking about the strange temporalities of projection into an enabling object that is also disabling” (95). Taxation or cuts in spending are this paradoxical object for the parties. This contradiction at the heart of affective objects provides a basis for extending Ahmed’s Marxist analogy of affective commodities in terms of Crisis Theory. Crisis goes back to the Proto Indo European root krinein meaning “to separate, divide, judge.” Is this not what occurs within the encounter and enactment of a cruel optimism? Enabling forms of enjoyment are separated from the disabling, a conception of the good life is judged against its threat.
As Marx himself put it “the simple form of metamorphosis comprises the possibility of crisis, we only say that in this form itself lies the possibility of the rupture and separation of essentially complimentary phases” (451). While Ahmed analyzes affect in relation to the M-C-M circuit, Marx indicates that in the entanglement of production and circulation (or the M-C-M and C-M-C circuits) in the reproduction of capital lays “a further developed possibility or abstract form of crisis” (455). Furthermore, the largest cause of crisis derives from capital’s tendency to over-accumulate, “to produce to the limit set by the productive forces…without any consideration for the actual limits of the market” (465). Affective crises or over-saturation occurs when their circulation is separated from how they are produced or when they threaten the matrix that renews their life force.
When affects are freed from referents they can circulate and thus accumulate force so freely that they can be redeployed to undermine their initial cause. Ahmed writes, “To declare a crisis is not “to make something out of nothing”…But the declaration of crisis reads that fact/figure/event and transforms it into a fetish object that then acquires a life of its own” (132). The crisis becomes a thing that grows larger than the sum of its parts. “Through designating something as already under threat in the present, that very thing becomes installed as “the truth,” which we must fight for in the future, a fight that is retrospectively understood to be a matter of life and death.” (132) For example the figure of the elderly at threat of losing their life support has become an oversaturated figure within the political landscape: the Left use it as a victimized figure because of the ways the Right has employed it previously.
The budget debate no longer becomes about numbers but how we align with this particular figure. The hyper-mediated figure of the elderly or the budget crisis-thing is an assemblage of so many hybrid forces that a crisis ensues for the audience to interpret how it fits within their conceptual horizon of the ‘good life.’
Another interesting parallel in the analogy is the way that affect is actually related to market dynamics. By analyzing the accounts of emotional tendencies in markets and stockbrokers we get an example in which cognitive activities feed-forward and back into feelings. As Couze Venn writes,
what passes for the most rational of economic activities…that in reality turns out to depend on ‘a feeling for the market’ mixed in with a whole range of in-the-moment experiences as well as cognitive calculations. What is striking, then, is the instantaneous correlation of every kind of ‘information’: facts, signals, rumours, news, mixed in with moods and emotional energies, enabling agents to participate in an activity in which all behave both as an individual and as an element of a collectivity. (Couze Venn 2010)

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Cybersubculture Report: Peer Revision Edition

Cyber-subculture Report
Collective intelligence ecologies are rapidly emerging on the Internet that are transforming the way that knowledge is produced and dispersed. Researchgate.net is an exemplar of this phenomenon. The social networking site is intended to link up researchers of various sorts to engage in collective projects and share information and data. Its intention is to provide an open space for the free expression of ideas, especially relatively new or experimental leaps in interdisciplinary work. The site however falls victim to its own freedom. The loose collection of ties makes it difficult to find other researchers or groups that are dedicated toward the exact same issues.
RG is an SNS that uses a very similar interface as Facebook, but with a slight twist. Rather than “friending” people, one simply “follows” people, as in Twitter. The site however facilitates the creation of connections based on various “keywords” one puts in their profile. Each of one’s “keywords” represent one’s academic interests or the research fields one works in. Users can search for people who share these “keywords” as well as join groups. The groups range from broad areas of inquiry, such as “Plant Breeding,” to relatively obscure territories, such as “Econophysics.” People can post comments, plan events, and edit their profiles using an html interface that has an uncanny resemblance to Facebook’s. Furthermore, one can link their RG account to their Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Friend Feed accounts. RG is a synchronous meeting-space in which its users are able to track the activity of various contacts they are “following.” Users can post publications that they are currently working on in order to get feedback, the site’s potential for collaboration ranges from “From a student co-authoring his first research paper to a busy post-doc or a strategy-thinking professional group leader.” The site is meant to act as a somewhat informal form of peer review. RG takes their inspiration from “Wiki-like concepts” and other transformative tools emerging in the wake of Web 2.0’s release.
            The RG interface models many similar SNS sites, but its visual appeal differs. It is imbued with an air of modernism with its minimalist design and incorporates elements that reach out to its target demographic, i.e. one’s interests are presented within boxes that mimic elements on the Periodic Table. Users can toggle between multiple activity feeds; from groups, discussions, or individual publications by people you follow. There are additional features that include a Job Search and a news blog about RG site updates. One can request publications, store them in their personal “library” and share them with other users. You can search through various publications and read abstracts, as well as participate in discussions about individual works.
Beyond having individual connections with other researches based off of specific or relatively minute relations, users can also engage in ongoing discussions and set up events between researchers interested in a field. Groups serve the function of facilitating such needs. The website allows anyone to create a group who chooses to, in line with the spirit of the site that “ResearchGate offers tools tailored to researchers' need.”

Identity & Sociality

RG is composed mainly of graduate students or academics; it originally catered toward the Natural Sciences but has expanded to include groups of an interdisciplinary nature and/or critical theorists. Members represent themselves in a somewhat professional manner, managing an online self that assumedly reflects a ‘real’ version of themselves. The site is open to both establishing new connections and exploring different realms of social activity as well as maintaining currently held ties and modes of relation with others. Members range from very well established academics that are professors at various universities to tinkerers and inventors interested in science/education for its own sake. Take Thomas Wier for example, he studied linguistics and classics at UT and now works on linguistics at the University of Chicago.
            One of the more fertile aspects of the site is the opportunity it creates for coordinating conferences. Groups are often created to gather people together who are interested in a relatively broad discipline or issue so as to provide a common space for marketing opportunities for collaboration. Rather than being the actual medium for engaging in collective research review, the site is a jumping off point for collaborating by other means.
Researchgate.net is a predictably disappointing example of gendered hierarchies within knowledge production. While the prejudice is not as explicitly displayed as it may be in an actual academic environment, it is implicitly just as strong. I do not have actual numbers on the demographics, but just from my research alone there is an evident divide between disciplines in terms of gender.
Elderly white males and young Indian males heavily dominate the Natural Sciences. Perhaps, this divide is not actual in terms of absolute numbers, it is however apparent, especially in terms of the members with a large amount of followers. The largest groups of women are typically younger and more interested in contemporary critical theory. 
I have not seen any actual acts that I would see as explicitly sexist on the website, yet there is some intangible force which seems to prevent collaboration across genders. Thus, there hasn't been any need for management to intervene. Maybe management has intervened previously and driven out all of the obvious sexists, I'm not sure. Nonetheless, my experience indicates that social networking sites rather than opening up new connections or modes of engaging in research has simply extended traditional biases.
There is an institutionalized form of management, yet I’ve never seen them intervene nor any reason for them to do so. Since credibility on the site is gained by being a well-respected researcher or academic people generally constrain themselves. Furthermore, the site is about collaboration and connection between ideas more so than about people. Quibbles or fights reduce down to a question of knowledge. While some people do take attacks on their work personally this kind of interaction is rarely public. The site is about getting in contact with other researchers rather than publicly displaying the process of the collaboration itself.
People are generally rather cordial because its to their benefit to be perceived as open and engaging rather than cold and shut off. Hierarchies are determined by credentials in a real sense of qualifications that back up one’s research. Researchgate only allows people to upload publications if they can be verified through database searches. People who are published are perceived as more distinguished members of the community. These people typically have more followers than people who are not published. It could be the case however, that these are just the types of people that function better in openly social settings and thrive for reasons beyond the mere public’s perception of an achievement. The number of followers is also an indicator of credence, yet the site is such a loosely knit community that people are very liberal with the number and kind of people they will follow.

As opposed to having a single or unified literacy, if there is such a thing, Researchgate is characterized by a plurality of literacies. Since the site is mainly considered with disciplines that exist on the periphery or are rather novel interdisciplinary approaches, the literacies are by their nature rather obscure. This however does not pose as much of an obstacle to the site as it might seem at first. Since, the site is one of few avenues for people engaged in these studies to be peer-reviewed or get feedback on their work, they are very open to helping people understand the vocabulary they are working with. Moreover, they are eager to get people on board because they want to generate discussion about their ideas in hope that they will either find someone who is likewise interested or that they will pique the interests of new people.
Researchgate thus is composed of a non-harmonious network of discourses. Rather than being an impediment, this website thus encourages reading a specific research encounter across multiple fields or methods for understanding the world. At the same time, I have also felt discouraged from entering certain groups dealing with highly speculative forms of science recently emerging since I realize that there would be a huge learning curve before I would actually benefit from reading it. The site however serves a different function than say Wikipedia, it's not meant to educate you on the most basic level of common information, but to spread information that exists on the margins.
When people are reposting actually published materials longer posts are perfectly permissible. For comments and writing on people’s walls short posts are typical. They are typically congratulatory, there is rarely conflict that publicly occurs between members. The site has a “see more” button like Facebook which almost acts as an indicator that its faux pas to write much beyond that.

This is a set of comments that were juxtaposed to one another in the group "Unified Description of Matter.” The huge gap in literacy level between the two bears a few implications to unpack. First, there is a wide diversity in levels of understanding, experience, or perspective. But since the community is such a loose gathering people do not attack or berate others for being inferior or making mistakes. Peter Jakubowski is a physicist with a phD from Poland interested in quantum theory and a unified theory of nature. He has seven publications under his belt and research experience in the field. In the above transcript he expresses his anguish over the inability to actually coalesce together for collective research through the site. He writes, “I have my problem with this growing diversity…and I am afraid, it is not a problem for me alone.” He is self-reflexive about the site, calls for dialogue, uses proper grammar and syntax.
Directly following this call for more focused groups that are aimed at really solving scientific problems is a comment from Rickey Cowell. The only personal information on his profile is his location in the United Kingdom. The one required piece of information, the designation of research interests says “life is what its all about.” He clearly is not on the site for the same reasons as Jakubowski. Cowell writes “ok new to all of this so if this is in the wrong place sorry and can’t spell that great but here. I think are we here at all.” He writes sentences, if you can call them that, that are incomplete or in an incorrect syntactical form. They lack any semblance of structure or proper use of punctuation and capitalization. He though also expresses an uncertainty about where his proper place is within the community.
Researchgate has all of the right conceptual tools in terms of technology but lack the human capital necessary to vitalize the website’s potential. While the sites function for actually producing collaborative research is limited by the lack of participants interested in the same subjects, it is able to market job opportunities and events effectively. Furthermore, it exposes people to new research that is reposted and shared collectively. The site seems like it would do better if it had better algorithms for linking people together with similar interests. If it had better browsing interfaces for searching under categories rather than for random words, people might be able to connect more easily. Perhaps its greatest virtue, delimiting the flows of knowledge production, is also its greatest impediment at the beginning. The fluid structure makes it more difficult to find the right connections rather than a plethora of connections.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Visual Argument Revision

 In my visual argument I claim that the current and on-going Airstrike campaign by coalition forces in Libya causes an immense amount of devastation that largely remains mystified. I substantiate this argument by showing the forms of destruction, suffering, and backlash evoked as a result of the violence. The presentation intends to instill feelings of compassion, guilt, shock and uneasiness as a result of seeing the same violent act from multiple vantage points. My argument functions in reverse order. It will take the audience through a change in perspective by starting with what is most foreign and then progressively moving to a perspective that sees the reader from a 3rd person’s point of view. The presentation mimics the process of concealing but through a complete reversal. The opening image begins with the burying of the dead. This is meant to shock the audience into uncertainty. Before they can rationalize about the argument, they are jolted into speculating about what was buried beneath this flower. There are no faces just hands and the rawness of the earth. This scene is intended to evoke a compassionate questioning and search for meaning. The audience wouldn’t know if the person being buried is one of “us” or “them.”
The next photograph is of a Libyan funeral. This is intended to evoke sympathy This image is meant to further evoke feelings of exigency and sympathy. Now the audience is given a bit more context, but it shows a larger group of people who are feeling upset. The audience will identify with the sorrow on their faces and feel likewise. Seeing the entire group of family and friends should make the audience interpret the image as meaning there is a larger amount of violence that is done beyond the discreteness of an individual body.
The next two photographs are pictures of Gaddafi and Obama striking an uncannily similar pose in speeches. The two photos are not meant to equate the two figures with one another but just show that what we think of as diplomacy has dissolved into finger pointing. The first two sets of pictures are place upside down in relation to each other to make the point that they are opposed to each other. This should provoke uncertainty in relation to the audience’s previous views because there is a form that presents the photographs as opposed yet the content reveals a striking similarity.
The next image shows the aftermath with a Libyan civilian standing where his house formerly was. His demeanor is solemn and he is holding a large photograph of Gaddafi. This is meant to evoke a contradictory response on the part of the audience. On the one hand they should feel sympathy for this person whose home was just destroyed. On the other hand the audience may feel that since this person is a Gaddafi supporter he deserved it. The interpretation or conclusion intended is that the airstrikes are failing to persuade Gaddafi loyalists. Perhaps the person here is a friend of those that the funeral was mourning for. The audience is made to think about why this person could support an authoritarian figure in the face of such violence. Yet juxtaposed to the fragility of a funeral the audience is forced to undergo a calculus that can’t be rationalized. The audience here should be feeling a larger sense of guilt and uneasiness about how easy the question of Airstrikes seemed to them before. Whether they were for or against them, they are forced to delve into the complexity of the ethical issue. 
After the funeral, one observes the violence from through a broken window. This is meant to show the audience that even if one was someone distant from these people, seeing the devastation from the ground makes one rethink the scenario. The images are meant to challenge some of the mainstream conceptions of the middle east, while some think of deserts and villages, when one sees a modern metropolis in ruins the scene hits home. This photo’s purpose is meant to further amplify the magnitude of the situation and show the larger effects it has on environments that are unfit for a war scene.
The next photograph shows an image of an actual explosion from ground level. This is meant to shock the audience when faced with actual destruction. It illustrates the feeling of fear that is instilled in people when running from completely unexpected bombs from nowhere. The next photograph shows another image of an explosion yet it is further away. This escalation is meant to cause unease in the audience. It shows that there is no such thing as a casualty free war. Showing visual images of the violence exerted by coalition forces challenges the audience’s understanding of the airstrikes. Instead of viewing the violence as completely contained to military targets the images show its extension directly into everyday life of civilians. It further shows that the violence is not as contained as one could have thought.
The image of the airplanes flying is meant to show the power disadvantage between the Libyans and the coalition forces. A quick zoom out to the air shows the displacement between those doing the violence and those who feel it. The audience here should have their conception of the idea of U.S. military advantage challenged.
From the realm of actual violence, the argument jumps into the realm of diplomatic violence. The next two images are pictures of Ghaddafi and Obama. These two images are almost mirror opposites of each other. The argument as a whole flips upside down because we have also shifted from the realm of actual material violence to what is dispersed and shown. There has been a paradigm shift in perspective from that of the actual to its virtual stand in from just bodies, to the realm of nations. Finally, there is a picture of a man watching the news of the Libyan Airstrikes on a television from the comfort of his leather chair. This scene should consummate the audience’s experience because it shows the exact position they are most likely in. This third person perspective forces self-reflexivity and questioning of the audience’s position to make such rash claims about the nature of war and violence in the Middle East. Its meant to make people leave the question open for interrogation and slow down rather than rush head on into easy solutions. The audience should be feeling an entire range of emotions as they recall what they’ve just been exposed to from guilt and shame to outrage and a state of unknowing.

Pictures Cited:

ghadafi pointing

flower mourner

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Transcendent Man

If there is a Bacchic like movement in the age of cyber-technology, the followers walk in the wake of Ray Kurzweil. Scientist, Inventor, Theologian? Cult-Leader? Kurzweil speaks from a position eerily close to a prophet or Tiresias. He is seen as a source of revelation when it comes to predictions about future technologies. He claims to have predicted the world wide web back in the 80’s, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the date of the mapping of the human genome. Furthermore, he predicts that the exponential rate of growth within information and communication technologies will lead to a point in which man must meld with machine in order to continue to survive. He predicts that by 2045 a singularity event will occur on the limits of our current conceptual horizon that will radically alter our conception of consciousness and complexity.