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Author: joe

Wednesday, 06 July, 2011 - 18:50

Today I wrote a glossary for the wellbeing paper I wrote in May, following the comments I got from the reviewers. I had no idea which words to gloss, so I picked the interesting ones; and some were easy to gloss, others were difficult. Here they are.

- the power of acting, or exerting one’s will in order to effect the course of events.
- Aristotle’s term for ‘recognition’: the crucial moment of realisation in which a person or character either recognises someone’s authentic identity, or senses their own genuine nature, as if for the first time; the discovery or revelation of the truth.
- more than speaking, to articulate is to be able to connect things and join them together, such as words, sentences, ideas or narrative sequences.
- literally, ‘purging’; a term Aristotle borrowed from medicine to refer to the arousal and release of emotion through dramatic narrative.
- a heavily burdened word which refers to processes in which divergent views or positions are played out, through argument, conversation, dialogue or conflict, hopefully towards reconciliation; an unfolding of point and counterpoint.
- the term borrowed from Greek to refer to the world of a narrative; the internal integrity of the storyworld, which is filled with people, places and customs which belong to that world.
- literally meaning ‘outsideness’, this term is used by Mikhail Bakhtin to refer to the ability of an author to ‘speak’ the authentic voices of characters other than their own.
- the transference of one’s own agency to a symbolic proxy; e.g. sexual arousal through objects (Freudian fetishism), or allocation of value away from human labour and onto commodities (Marxian commodity fetishism).
- mistakes and errors of misrecognition, frequently a crucial element in ancient tragedies whose protagonists often fail to recognise someone they ought to know.
- in phenomenology, ‘intentionality’ refers to the ‘directedness’ of conscious experiences: always towards objects, concepts, feelings and perceptions; hence it is related to but not the same as the common understanding which implies purpose and motive.
- a Greek term used by Aristotle to refer to the ‘likeness’ of stories to the real world: their imitative capacity.
- the implied or actual audience to whom a story is directed.
- at its simplest, a narrative is a telling or re-telling of a series of events which are connected.
narrative configuration
- Louis Mink and Paul Ricoeur use the term ‘configuration’ to refer to the dual act of being able to grasp the different component or sequences of a narrative, while also apprehending the story as a whole, unified structure. Narrators and narratees, authors and readers, writers and audiences, all must be able to see both the figure of the entire story, and the sequences from which it is composed.
- a term used by Mikhail Bakhtin to refer to the diversity of languages and voices that are present in the many strata of societies, the different eras of history, or the lines of great literature.
- the lead role in the story, the main actor in the drama, the self of the individual’s storyworld.
- Augusto Boal’s terms for the new fusion of spectator and actor he wishes to bring about in both his drama and wider society.
technology of the self
- a term coined by Michel Foucault to refer to the means and techniques by which the self is shaped, both internally by the individual, and externally by influences outside the individual’s control.
- a neologism created by the translation of Heidegger’s term ‘unheimlich’; I prefer unhomeliness since it implies a non-supernatural lack of a sense of belonging, rather than the word ‘uncanny’ which is sometimes used as a translation.
- Brecht’s term for drawing attention to the artifice of dramatic performance - variously translated as ‘defamiliarisation’, ‘estrangement’, ‘alienation’ and ‘distanciation’; a mechanism whereby the illusion of narrative is punctured in order to highlight the highly contingent and constructed nature of stories and their worlds.

Categories: agency, anagnorisis, articulation, catharsis, dialectic, diegesis, exotopy, fetishism, hamartia, intentionality, mimesis, narratee, narrative, narrative configuration, polyphony, protagonist, spect-actor, technology of the self, Verfremdungseffekt,
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The Machine Starts: Computers as Collaborators in Writing

Author: joe

Thursday, 28 April, 2011 - 23:33

Earlier this week I presented a paper at the Narrative Research Group Symposium on 'Nonhuman Narratives', at Bournemouth Unversity. It was a day filled with very interesting papers ranging through the posthuman and nonhuman, the monstrous and inhuman, and the nonhuman animal. The text of my paper is copied below, but I wanted to make a few remarks about the paper and the symposium first.

As usual, I found it incredibly difficult to compress the things I wanted to discuss into a 20 minute talk. I'd have liked to have talked more about the practice-led side of the ideas that provoked the paper, discussed a wider range of 'flat ontologists' (e.g. Jane Bennet, as Anat Pick suggested in the Q&A following my talk), and I'd have liked to have gone on to explore both playful and serious consequences of machine agency, from Ted Nelson's Computer Lib / Dream Machines to Kevin Kelly's arguments for The Technium.

The huge depth of subjects from the day make it impossible to sum up or do justice to the ideas, but I want to pick out a couple of insights from the day that really got me thinking.

David Herman talked about understanding (and writing, in graphic form) animal narratives, which was derived from a post-Cartesian approach to mind influenced by Uexküll's idea of an animal's 'Umwelt'. This hinged on a conception of mind as distributed in the environment, rather than sealed inside a thinking being (reminding me, incidentally, of the work of my colleague Dr Paul Stevens), thus permitting questions such as 'what's it like' to be a dog, mollusc, even doorknob. In particular I was intrigued by a remark in the Q&A following David's talk in which he suggested that because mind is a phenomenon distributed through body, environment and institution, we therefore do have access to it. Access to mind! - literally mind-blowing.

Anat Pick's talk, which examined Robert Bresson's portrayal of the donkey Balthazar, offered a way of thinking about determinism and agency that I'm not familiar with, but that I found really intriguing. The tension here is less determinism 'vs' agency, and more determinism 'and' grace; grace in the face of the necessity of the world which involves a form of assent, but is neither mere acceptance, nor does it preclude the resistance of persecution. In the Q&A she cited a Spinozan approach to understanding the necessities inherent in a deterministic universe, which then enables an agent to act within those necessities. I will have to learn Spinoza...

Finally an interesting phenomenon on the day was the frequent dismantling of binary oppositions. In the summary, it was noted that many tensions were explored in the day - human and nonhuman, humane and inhuman, normal and other, known and unknown - but that the categories kept breaking down. In the case of my talk for example, taking a relatively uncontroversial interpretation of nonhuman and following the logical paths such notions suggested, ended in dissolving the distinctions entirely. Human and nonhuman writers are indistinguishable; human and nonhuman texts are too...

I think of this as the inevitable consequence of any dialectic: the definition of a category depends on the splitting off of that category from it's other; it is as though we halve an apple, and are then surprised that the one half is very much the same as the other half... To define good, we create the not-good in the image of the good. Arbitrary categories are susceptible to and dissolve under systematic analysis. The difficulty (even impossibility) is in finding non-arbitrary distinctions. Humans are animals, humans make machines in their own image, monstrous killers are humans; the challenge thrown up by the dissolution of firm distinctions are all ethical: why might eating animals be morally different to cannibalism? what happens when you recognise nonhumans as 'persons'? does dehumanising serial killers absolve the social realms in which they occur from any blame? There may well be a boundary between human and nonhuman, but it is not necessarily where we conventionally think it is.

So I'm grateful to Bronwen Thomas and Julia Round for organising the day, Einar Thorsen for live-blogging it, and to the other speakers and participants for their ideas and openness. I am however, sad that no-one seemed to recognise the opening slide I used. While I was preparing the presentation, I woke in the middle of the night, unable to get back to sleep, going over and over in my mind the ideas I had for the contents of this paper; my mind had been possessed by a parasite, and as its host I was powerless to resist it. I lay there and remembered an album cover from 1981: The Police, 'Ghost in the machine'. I was barely 10 when I acquired the vinyl LP, and it fascinated me - the songs' lyrics about spirits in the material world, the ethereal synthesisers, the images of circuit boards on the inner sleeve. So I got up at 5 in the morning and went downstairs and pulled out my 30-year-old record, amazingly still unscratched, and played it, and felt a strange mixture of sadness and pleasure that none of my machine collaborators were scrobbling it to

The Machine Starts: Computers as Collaborators in Writing

While I was preparing this paper, the 11-year-old I live with asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was preparing a presentation about how great machines are at telling stories. "How can machines tell stories?" he asked incredulously. I realised that should have been my title! I originally chose to reference E. M Forster's short story, 'The Machine Stops' in my title because I think it is necessary to invoke at once the dystopian vision that the idea of storytelling machines conjures. The idea of sentient machines - which surely they must be to compose tales - is popularly horrific, alienating, and dangerous. Intelligent machines always turn out to be evil. Often popular adaptations of this trope present clear lines between human and nonhuman 'intelligences', thereby permitting a war between them in which the happy outcome is the one in which the unfeeling machines are vanquished.

Forster's story is dystopian and has the contours of such an ethical boundary, but is more subtle, exploring the way in which the humans who inhabit the machine world are shaped by its demands and imperatives. A transgressing wanderer reaches close to the surface of the subterranean world of the machines, and later reports:

"There was a ladder, made of some primӕval metal. The light from the railway fell upon its lowest rungs, and I saw that it led straight upwards out of the rubble at the bottom of the shaft. Perhaps our ancestors ran up and down it a dozen times daily, in their building. As I climbed, the rough edges cut through my gloves so that my hands bled. The light helped me for a little, and then came darkness and, worse still, silence which pierced my ears like a sword. The Machine hums! Did you know that? Its hum penetrates our blood, and may even guide our thoughts. Who knows! I was getting beyond its power. Then I thought: "This silence means that I am doing wrong." But I heard voices in the silence, and again they strengthened me." He laughed. "I had need of them. The next moment I cracked my head against something."
The Machine Stops, (Forster, 1909)

I love the idea that the all-pervasive rumble of the machine is so constitutive of life that it withdraws from consciousness even as it guides our thoughts, and I'm going to return to the idea that how we think is shaped by the machines we live with. First though, I'm going to quickly talk about some work I've been doing with the digital writer, Tim Wright. In a project called 'Hauntology', we've been exploring how we can create interactive and participatory narratives using a combination of poetry, software, antique objects and digital sensors and circuits - and increasingly now - walking. In one piece, a chest of drawers was 'haunted' by the spirits of its previous owners. A user could access snippets of their lives by interacting with the chest of drawers and objects on and in it, as well as eventually 'haunting' it themselves with the sounds they left behind for the next users to hear.

We're currently exploring how we can use an old wooden box, wired up with an audio device and some sensors, to act as the focal device for a walking, talking, poetic experience based on the poetry of Thomas Hardy and the geography of the outskirts of Dorchester. In this we are trying to compose a narrative experience which is absorbing, authentic, haunting and provocative - out of antique bric-a-brac, digital sensors and media, physical space, sounds, smells, scenes, embodied and interpersonal interactions, and both reading and writing poetry. To this end I've been experimenting with wiring electronic devices into old wooden boxes.

One of the things I've noticed about the process is the feeling that the electronic systems and circuits, and the antique wooden boxes and drawers, are all exerting their own influence on the proceedings. They only allow certain sorts of behaviours and affordances to get the go-ahead. At first I thought this is an artefact of my own imprecision and inexperience. The further I get, though, the more I'm sure that the objects I work with have intentions of their own. Just as a sculptor seeks to find the form already within the matter at hand, as if discovering the spirit in the material, so I am collaborating with the devices I coerce and adapt to perform as they want to, as though I am obeying a ghost in their machine.

I'm now afraid that I'm sounding crazy, so I want to run through a quick and very partial history of writers collaborating with devices, to see if I'm alone in my craziness. I'm thinking here about the production of textual artefacts through the action of some sort of device - something I'm therefore going to call a device-oriented narrative - produced by some sort of rule or algorithm or heuristic process. I think this is a fairly good, low-level definition of a 'writing machine' - an apparatus or assemblage which performs some sort of function on the raw materials of textual production.

Here's an example of an electronically produced poem:

"Sentences begins.
money must
Sentences for love forsaken."
Sentences, (Hartman and Kenner, 1995)

Nick Montfort explains the provenance of this piece of text, taken from a book by Hartman and Kenner, "Sentences":

"To write Sentences, Hartman and Kenner took 457 19th-century "Sentences for Analysis and Parsing, Thayer Street Grammar School" and providentially generated an intermediate text, using Claude Shannon's Markov chain technique as implemented in TRAVESTY by Hugh Kenner and Joseph O'Rourke. The resulting text was corrected and used as input to Hartman's program DIASTEXT, which carried out diastic selection as developed by Jackson Mac Low."
Sentences in 1k, Grand Text Auto, (Montfort, 2008)

I don't want to dwell on the detail of the particular processes that were used to produce these texts - just to note that Montfort's description illustrates very clearly the notion that a non-trivial operation has been performed to produce the work: the raw input is worked on in some way to produce a text at the end. In this case at least two sets of iterative actions were performed on the input to produce strangely evocative words. This therefore is a machine text.

I want to draw a distinction here from what Espen Aarseth has refered to as a 'cybertext' - a text which requires work on the part of the reader to traverse it. I want to think of texts which require some act of delegation by the writer to a machine to produce them. We could get horribly metaphysical about what constitutes mechanism, machinism and what does not. Is a pen a machine? A typewriter? While it is tempting to say that in the term 'machine' I exclude devices which merely reproduce mechanical extensions of the writer's actions, this may become a moot point as we proceed. Katherine Hayles in How We Became Posthuman in 1999, deals with the difference, for example, between a typewriter and a computer by noting the non-linear disruption that occurs when dematerialisation is introduced into the machinic action. I want to avoid this distinction, as there are perfectly good examples of writerly delegation that can occur within entirely material parameters.

I'm going to go with Richard Sennet's understanding of the machine in 'The Craftsman' of 2008, which I read as an intermediary device between the hand of the craftsman and the work itself, which effects some non-trivial transformation. This allows me to include devices such as horoscopes and Tarot cards, runes and tea-leaves, dice and difference engines, as well as electronic circuits, random algorithms, neural networks and artificial intelligences.

As the inclusion of Tarot hints, divination or possession by a deus ex machina seems to have a provenance in machine thinking. The 'I-Ching' was not only a repository of confucian wisdom, but a device for answering questions. Aarseth describes it thus:

"The I Ching is made up of sixty-four symbols, or hexagrams, which are the binary combinations of six whole or broken ("changing") lines [...] A hexagram [...] contains a main text and six small ones, one for each line. By manipulating three coins or forty-nine yarrow stalks according to a randomizing principle, the texts of two hexagrams are combined, producing one out of 4,096 possible texts. This contains the answer to a question the user has written down in advance (e.g., "How much rice should I plant this year?")."
Cybertext, (Aarseth, 1997)

From a European, humanist point of view, there is no particularly significant difference between a blind algorithm and the pronouncements of oracles and fortune-tellers - both are equally meaningless, and in the post-Enlightenment mind it is difficult to think otherwise. Educated people are supposed to scorn horoscopes and prophecies. Yet this adoption of a rational, materialistic ontology doesn't extend to our celebration of the transcendence of human agency and intelligence, with which we persevere in cherishing against the blind heuristic principle of automatons.

The automative principle of composition is evident in the work of Raymond Roussel, such as in Locus Solus from 1914. Although after his death he inspired the OuLiPo writers and the nouveau roman, during his lifetime, after some initial popularity amongst the surrealists, he was largely ridiculed and certainly critically panned. His works are very unusual, as can be gleaned from this account of his composition technique from John Ashbery:

"Sometimes he would take a phrase containing two words, each of which had a double meaning, and use the least likely ones as the nucleus of a story. Thus the phrase 'maison á espagnolettes' ("house with window latches") served as the basis for an episode in Impressions of Africa about a house (a royal family or house) descended from a pair of Spanish twin girls. [...]
"Just as the mechanical task of finding a rhyme sometimes inspires a poet to write a great line, [...] "rhymes for events" helped him to utilise his unconscious mind. "
'Introduction' to Raymond Roussel, How I Wrote Certain of My Books, (Ashbery, 1995 [1962])

The French surrealist writer Michel Leiris suggested that Roussel is tapping into an ancient tradition of eliciting myths from words, seeking out the 'disease of language', which is the source of mythology or collective unconscious." (ibid) Here, though Leiris is still perhaps seeking to legitimise the text for its inner human truth, its interpretation of the human unconscious. The text may be unconventionally produced, but its defender still seeks to recuperate it into the realm of human desires, motives and meanings, against the criticism that the work is a joke of no obvious inherent merit.

Similar recuperations might be made of other device-oriented narratives. In the 1920s the Dadaist Tristan Tzara, cited by Burroughs and Gysin later as an inspiration for their employment of the composition algorithm called 'the cut-up', apparently started a riot by pulling a poem out of a hat. In his dada manifesto, his wrote:

Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are - an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.
dada manifesto on feeble love and bitter love, (Tristan Tzara, 1920)

It is difficult not to see the dada movement and Burroughs' later adoption of the cut-up as much a political gesture as one of literary exploration - though this was certainly an ingredient in Burroughs' extensive use of it throughout novels like The Soft Machine, Cities of the Red Night and others. Burroughs describes it in 1961:

"The cut-up method brings to writers the collage, which has been used by painters for fifty years. And used by the moving and , still camera. In fact all street shots from movie or still cameras are by the unpredictable factors of passersby and juxtaposition cut-ups. And photographers will tell you that often their best shots are accidents . . . writers will tell you the same. The best writing seems to be done almost by accident [...]
Take any poet or writer you fancy. Here, say, or poems you have read over many times. The words have lost meaning and life through years of repetition. Now take the poem and type out selected passages. Fill a page with excerpts. Now cut the page. You have a new poem. As many poems as you like."
The cut-up method of Brion Gysin, (Burroughs, 1961)

The casual abundance of poetry produced this way directly challenges the idea that a specially gifted and inspired writer is the essential ingredient in the writing - all that is necessary is a heuristic device and some raw materials on which to act. The results are often extremely powerful, as any reading from Burroughs' work will attest:

"Pan God of Panic piping blue notes through empty streets as the berserk time machine twisted a tornado of years and centuries - Wind through dusty offices and archives - Board Books scattered to rubbish heaps of the earth - Symbol books of the all-powerful board that had controlled thought feeling and movement of a planet from birth to death with iron claws of pain and pleasure - The whole structure of reality went up in silent explosions - Paper moon and muslin trees and in the black silver sky great rents as the cover of the world rained down - Biologic film went up.. . "raining dinosaurs" "It sometimes happens. . .just an old showman" Death takes over the game so many actors buildings and stars laid flat pieces of finance over the golf course summer afternoons bare feet waiting for rain smell of sickness in the room Switzerland Panama machine guns in Bagdad rising from the typewriter pieces of finance on the evening wind tin shares Buenos Aires Mr. Martin smiles old names waiting sad old tune haunted the last human attic."
The Soft Machine, (Burroughs, 1961)

The production of literary texts through machinic devices seems to proliferate in the middle of the 20th century. Writers like Barthelme, Beckett, Pynchon, Vonnegut, Robbe-Grillet, Perec and Calvino all produce texts which can be said to have been written with the aid of a heuristic device in the tradition of Roussel and Tzara. Often they are consciously political - David Porush in his work on cybernetic texts named after Burrough's novel, The Soft Machine, argues that such fiction:

"...far from being representative of a class of fiction in its decadence, is the most meaningful and hopeful sort of fiction. It cannot as a body be understood without constant reference to its source in a highly technologised society. For that very reason, however, it has the power to invent a new way of seeing, it offers a new language, and along the way it tells a fine, often amusing, often grim story about how far along we are."
The Soft Machine, (David Porush, 1985)

This odd combination of decadence and Brechtian self-reference and estrangement is also reminiscent of the flâneur and the psychogeographic movement: Benjamin's flâneur walked, either to revel in decadence, or to ambiguate the scopic regimes of the city's imperative to consume. No doubt, as in the situationist dérive and later psychogeographic texts and actions, there is an important emancipatory element: situationists walked to resist a 'world moving away in to representation'. The algorithmic obedience of tracing out a route that is arbitrarily pre/pro-scribed, but through the elective and playful devices of our own choosing, is actually, (ironically), a way to reassert the agency of the human and the individual against a machinic world of capital and convention.

However I'd like to go much further than Porush goes. He argues that one of the tropes of cybernetic fiction is that of self-dismantling. This is a deconstructive move, and resonates with the late 20th century concerns of continental philosophy, which seeks to dislodge the layers of meaning that stratify human existence in order to bring to notice the complex shifting network of linguistic and textual currents which inform our lives and institutions. However, I'd like to go further than seeing cybernetic texts and device-oriented narratives as merely deconstructive.

Consider that, even though we accept the premise of the intentional fallacy, we still privilege human intentionality as both qualitatively different from and somehow better than the nonhuman world of relations. So, even though we accept the notion that a text might be a device which can surrender novel meanings and effects which the author didn't intentionally encode there, we still find it hard to accept that an algorithmically generated text could offer anything of equal value: note that we still conventionally attribute the richness of a text, and its capacity for renewed interpretation, to the skill of its author - to have written something that 'transcends' the finitude of its human creator.

As I've suggested, we have tended to think of automatically produced texts as somehow lesser than those originated by acts of human imagination alone. It is with this tendency that we also consider the possibility of artificial intelligence as a watershed: the achievement of machine consciousness will be equivalent to lifting those machines up to some lofty, hard-to-reach transcendental threshold which makes them finally equal to humans. I'd prefer to see the problem from the other side, and wonder what it is we think is so different about human agency that separates us from the rest of the universe. This is not to reduce humans to mindlessness; Zizek puts it:

"It is here that the "reductionist" project goes wrong: the problem is not how to reduce mind to neuronal "material" processes [...] but, rather, to grasp how mind can emerge only through being embedded in the network of social relations and material supplements. In other words, the true problem is not "How, if at all, could machines IMITATE the human mind?," but, "How does the very identity of human mind rely on external mechanical supplements? How does it incorporate machines?"
Organs Without Bodies - Gilles Deleuze, (Zizek, 2008)

This is not just deconstruction (in which a philosophy of consciousness gives way to a philosophy of linguistics and signification), but a shift towards "placing humans and nonhumans on an equal footing". To go further then, we have to re-equate humans with the menagerie of other things in the world, the nonhuman - what object-oriented ontologists have called a flat ontology.

Levi Bryant has outlined a book-project called The Domestication of Humans in which he considers the way that plants and microbes have transformed human beings:

"The whole point of such a project, of course, is to develop enhanced techniques for thinking in terms of flat ontology. When posing questions in the humanities our tendency is to think in terms of unilateral determination. We talk about humans structuring reality through their perceptions, concepts, and signs, treating the process of structuration as proceeding from the human towards a sort of gooey chaos that then gets structured by the human. Flat ontology calls for bilateral determination, where determination doesn't simply run from human to world, but where all sorts of other entities structure humans and societies as well."
The Domestication of Humans, (Bryant, 2010)

Bryant derives this notion of a flat ontology alongside Graham Harman, who in turn cites Latour's Irreductions as a breakthrough in terms of escaping the realm of the human. Adrift on a sea of other agents and irreducible entities, Harman argues that we should start to rethink the bustling nature of the world of objects, amongst whom the human object is a mere one among many:

"Even as the philosophy of language and its supposedly reactionary opponents both declare victory, the arena of the world is packed with diverse objects, their forces unleashed and mostly unloved. Red billiard ball smacks green billiard ball. Snowflakes glitter in the light that cruelly annihilates them, while damaged submarines rust along the ocean floor. As flour emerges from mills and blocks of limestone are compressed by earthquakes, gigantic mushrooms spread in the Michigan forest. While human philosophers bludgeon each other over the very possibility of "access" to the world, sharks bludgeon tuna fish and icebergs smash into coastlines.
"All of these entities roam across the cosmos, inflicting blessings and punishments on everything they touch, perishing without a trace or spreading their powers further, as if a million animals had broken free from a zoo in some Tibetan cosmology."
Object Oriented Philosophy, (Harman, 1999)

Andrew Pickering considers the consequences of putting human and nonhuman agency on the same footing. His work The Mangle of Practice from 1995 looks at the way that scientific work proceeds in practice, and argues that far from being the logical, deductive unfolding of evidential knowledge, this picture is a retrospective portrait imposed on a messy sequence of stumbling events in which human goals have strived and struggled with the material agency of machinic experimentation. Work of this kind (and I argue that there is a direct parallel here to the way that writers write and texts are produced) is the product of a mangling of ideas and forces, machines and hunches, objects and products. This is a dance of agency between the human and nonhuman, in which such apparently crucial phenomena as human intentionality emerge from the interplay of possibilities and events, "brought to heel by the cultures in which they are situated":

"Scientists do not simply fix their goals once and for all and stick to them, come what may. In the struggles with material agency that I call tuning, plans and goals are at stake and liable to revision. And thus the intentional character of human agency has a further aspect of temporal emergence, being reconfigured itself in the real time of practice, as well as a further aspect of intertwining with material agency, being reciprocally redefined with the contours of material agency in tuning."
The Mangle of Practice, (Pickering, 1995)

So I want to conclude by suggesting that I was right to feel that my machines are trying to have their own way. Me and my machines are, to use Pickering's terms, tuning each other to our own 'agenda'. We are both devices which perform machinic captures of input material and transform them into artefacts which, in Tzara's phrase, resemble ourselves. So the computers, circuits, dice, algorithms, typewriters, pens - and even the words themselves - are cybernetic machines with which we are forced into collaboration and partnership, rather than mastery.

Italo Calvino confirms this from his own experience of writing:

"Literature as I knew it was a constant series of attempts to make one word stay put after another by following certain definite rules; or more often, rules that were neither definite nor definable, but that might be extracted from a series of examples, or rules made up for the occasion - that is to say, derived from the rules followed by other writers. [...] The "I" of the author is dissolved in the writing. [...] Writers, as they have always been up to now, are already writing machines; or at least they are when things are going well. [...] And so the author vanishes - that spoiled child of ignorance - to give place to a more thoughtful person, a person who will know that the author is a machine, and will know how this machine works."
Cybernetics and Ghosts, (Calvino, 1967)


Forster, E. M., 1909, The Machine Stops [Online:]

Hartman, C. O. & Kenner, H., Sentences, Sun and Moon Press, New American Poetry Series: 18, 1995

Montfort, N., 2008, 'Sentences in 1k', Grand Text Auto [Online:]

Aarseth, E., 1997, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, Baltimore: JHUP

Hayles, N. K., 1999. How We Became Posthuman, Chicago: UCP

Sennett, R., 2008, The Craftsman, London: Allen Lane

Roussel, R., 1914, Locus Solus, [Online:]

Ashbery, J., 1995 [1962], 'Introduction' in Roussel, R., 1995, How I Wrote Certain of My Books, Cambridge, MA: Exact Change

Leiris, M., 1987, Roussel l'ingénue, Paris: Fata Morgana

Tzara, T., 1920, dada manifesto on feeble love and bitter love, [Online:]

Burroughs, W. S., 1961, 'The cut-up method of Brion Gysin' in The Third Mind, New York: The Viking Press

Burroughs, W. S., 1966 [1961], The Soft Machine, Paris: Olympia Press

Porush, D., 1985, The Soft Machine, New York: Methuen

Zizek, S., 2008, Organs Without Bodies - Gilles Deleuze [Online:]

Bryant, L., 2010, 'The Domestication of Humans', Larval Subjects [Online:]

Harman, G., 2010, 'Object-Oriented Philosophy' in Towards Speculative Realism, Ropley: Zero Books

Pickering, A., 1995, The Mangle of Practice, London: Duke

Calvino, I., 1997 [1967], 'Cybernetics & Ghosts', in The Literature Machine, London: Vintage

Tim Wright, digital writer / cross-platform produce [Online:

Categories: machine, writing, digital, text, paper, academic, cybertext, device-oriented, narrative, research, Forster, Hartman, Kenner, Montfort, Aarseth, Hayles, Roussel, Ashbery, Leiris, Tzara, Burroughs, Porush, Zizek, Bryant, Harman, Pickering, Calvino,
Comments: 2

Lazy in the library

Author: joe

Thursday, 25 November, 2010 - 19:59

- on thinking of nothing

Of human knowledge as a whole and in every branch of it, by far the largest part exists nowhere but on paper, - I mean, in books, that paper memory of mankind. Only a small part of it is at any given period really active in the minds of particular persons. This is due, in the main, to the brevity and uncertainty of life; but it also comes from the fact that men are lazy and bent on pleasure. Every generation attains, on its hasty passage through existence, just so much of human knowledge as it needs, and then soon disappears. Most men of learning are very superficial. Then follows a new generation, full of hope, but ignorant, and with everything to learn from the beginning. It seizes, in its turn, just so much as it can grasp or find useful on its brief journey and then too goes its way. How badly it would fare with human knowledge if it were not for the art of writing and printing! This it is that makes libraries the only sure and lasting memory of the human race, for its individual members have all of them but a very limited and imperfect one. Hence most men of learning as are loth to have their knowledge examined as merchants to lay bare their books.
The Art of Literature by Arthur Schopenhauer

I am lazy, bent on pleasure, and definitely very superficial. This all on top of being full of a cold - sorry - a debilitating respiratory infection requiring me to rest fully and properly. I had planned for this week's ruminations to conclude with some thoughts about a world that does not inexorably withdraw beyond the gap outside experience; but I need to read and think in a way that is beyond me right now.

Therefore I turn to Schopenhauer for my text today. I particularly note his observation that "unless an author takes the material on which he writes out of his own head, that is to say, from his own observation, he is not worth reading", and those that do write about the content of other books - "talk in such a loose and vague manner, that the reader puzzles his brain in vain to understand what it is of which they are really thinking. They are thinking of nothing."

Categories: Arthur Schopenhauer, snot,
Comments: 0


Author: joe

Wednesday, 24 November, 2010 - 23:51

- on the excess in the image-world.

... there is an absolute gulf between Heidegger's readiness-to-hand and presence-at-hand. No real passage between them is possible, since the tool as a brutal subterranean energy and as a shining, tangible surface are utterly incommensurable ... it should be clear that every entity is ready-to-hand ... in the primary sense of "in the act of being", of unleashing itself upon the environment ... All of reality ... lies in a state of "metabolism" between the unchecked fury of tool-beings and the alluring facades through which we alone encounter them. (The Theory of Objects in Heidegger and Whitehead)
I always find myself deployed amidst a specific geography of objects, each of them withdrawing from view into a dark primal integrity that neither our theories nor our practices can ever exhaust. (A Fresh Look at Zuhandenheit)
If an object is always a vast surplus beyond its relations of the moment, it has to be asked how those as-yet unexpressed qualities are stored up for the future ... I am convinced that objects far exceed their interactions with other objects, and the question is what this excess is, and where it is. (The Revival of Metaphysics in Continental Philosophy)
Towards Speculative Realism by Graham Harman

I'm not attempting (or competent, not being a philosopher) to address the what and where of the excess of Harman's objects. I'm initially interested in Harman's way of characterising the presence of objects, and how different it is to Heidegger's attitude to Vorhandenheit. Where the latter denigrates the coming-to-presence of things in the world (as Harman notes, through the insistent epithet, 'mere'), the latter is always keen to celebrate it. Surfaces shine, sparkle and glitter; they are volatile, luminous, phosphorescent, radiant, resonant, dazzling; with faces, haloes, auras. This is not to say that he is less complimentary towards the withdrawing, strife-filled unleashing of the ready-to-hand, volcanic, turbulent, violent, primal tool-beings as they surge and thrust into the world.

Indeed this rich and exuberant world-surface constantly coming into action and awareness - the sensuous menagerie of the equally-footed animate and inanimate entities that jostle and strew the ground of the universe - seems to me to be just as excess-bearing as the long withdrawing surplus borne by the irreducible and unreachable inner core of real objects. That image world is right there, burning incessantly, coming about its business, hurtling out of the future rather than left over from the inertia of the past.

So I wonder then, what if we took the same steps with Harman's take on the "Heideggerian drama of revealed and concealed" as we took with Goffman's front and back personae: what the revealed hides is not a concealed substance, but its absence. Can we remove the 'effects' part of 'surface-effects', since there is now no causal agent hidden from view? Can the performance of the image be what facilitates the existence of the executant reality?

I realise of course that I'm veering away from Harman's specific arguments here, toward either Husserl's magical intentional objects which bleed sensual qualities without decohering, or toward re-instating a Kantian a priori apparatus which provides the form for the world's inhabitants to take up. But I'm not equipped to argue these points. Rather I just want to dispel hidden realities which betray their appearances, or illusory facades which belie some more authentic realm. Perhaps it is the same impulse which makes me recoil from the psychoanalytical requirement of a furniture of the mind - an unconscious which structures the conscious without permitting access to it. I don't want to bridge the abyss: I want to obviate the need for the bridge by unconjuring the abyss - closing the gap.

Thus I'm willing to concede I'm master of nothing, just as long as I can also say that friends who may turn out to be backstabbing machinators and sophists made themselves so not out of an inevitable and inscrutable essence, but because of the actions and interactions that they and I perform and enact - hence leaving the door open for such outcomes to be inverted: should we present alternative images, then we should unfold alternative executions in the world.

Categories: Graham Harman, Martin Heidegger, vorhandenheit, zuhandenheit, presence-at-hand, readiness-to-hand, surface, image, executant, world, being, gap,
Comments: 5

Sources and Translations

Author: joe

Monday, 08 November, 2010 - 22:31

- on the withdrawal of the text.

The task of the translator consists in finding that intended effect [intention] upon the language into which he is translating which produces in it the echo of the original. This is a feature of translation which basically differentiates it from the poet's work, because the effort of the latter is never directed at the language as such, at its totality, but solely and immediately at specific linguistic contextual aspects. Unlike a work of literature, translation does not find itself in the centre of the language forest but on the outside facing the wooded ridge; it calls into it without entering, aiming at the single spot where the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one. Not only does the aim of translation differ from that of a literary work-it intends language as a whole, taking an individual work in an alien language as a point of departure - but it is a different effort altogether. The intention of the poet is spontaneous, primary, graphic; that of the translator is derivative, ultimate, ideational. For the great motif of integrating many tongues into one true language is at work. This language is one in which the independent sentences, works of literature, critical judgments, will never communicate - for they remain dependent on translation; but in it the languages themselves, supplemented and reconciled in their mode of signification, harmonize. If there is such a thing as a language of truth, the tensionless and even silent depository of the ultimate truth which all thought strives for, then this language of truth is - the true language. And this very language, whose divination and description is the only perfection a philosopher can hope for, is concealed in concentrated fashion in translations.
The Task of the Translator by Walter Benjamin

Re-reading this passage again recently for a lecture plan, I saw for the first time new significances in Benjamin's articulation of the work at stake in translation. The texts themselves - sources and translations - are split not only in their causal relationships as either originals and derivatives, but also in their modes. The original is the outcome of spontaneity, "primary, graphic", while the derived text is "utlimate, ideational". The existence of the original can be found, is specific, and tied to contexts, while the translation aims at "totality".

This essay is often read as an exploration of the angst of searching for the "intention' of the author - the author, who must later die at the hands of Barthes, even as Foucault stands by with Frankenstein's resuscitator. But I can't help but read these lines now with a different compiler at work in my brain. This "ultimate, ideational" text must appeal to a text we cannot access - written as it is in "pure language", the "language of truth". It is perhaps a writerly text, the reading that is written at every encounter with a reader. But perhaps it is also a withdrawn text, ready-to-hand, invisible.

Levy Bryant recently wrote an interesting discussion on what an object-oriented literary criticism would look like. Following his ontological plan of understanding objects as fundamentally split, he suggests that any given text is split between its local manifestation and its withdrawn and inaccessible dimensions.

Insofar as the virtual proper being of a text is necessarily withdrawn, this dimension of texts could only ever be sensed in traces indicating or suggesting another dimension at work in the manifest dimension of a text. Based on the "logic" of these traces, the literary critic might seek to form a "diagram" (always partial and incomplete) of the virtual text that haunts a manifest text.
Notes Towards an Object-Oriented Literary Criticism by Levy Bryant

Yet the withdrawn text that we cannot access is invisible only because it is ready-to-hand, zuhanden, in action, tooling and thinging, everywhere; meanwhile the manifest text we encounter is empty, present, vorhanden. The "true language" is everywhere, in action, at work. Our fixings of it, in sources and, vicariously, in translations, are brittle instances, frozen, delicate, unable to bear the demands we place on them.

Categories: text, translation, language, truth, Walter Benjamin, Martin Heidegger, presence-at-hand, readiness-to-hand, source, original, writerly, author,
Comments: 0


Author: joe

Monday, 16 August, 2010 - 12:40

I haven't written anything here for some time, but luckily for me, this is because I have had too much in my life to write about here rather than too little. Marriage, moving, chickens, may-poles, 10-year-olds, Florence, fish pies and poems have all made for much richer preoccupations than discourse, academia and language. More practicality, living and hot stink of fox, less of the thin gruel and abstraction. More air, more touching, more heartbeats.

Heartbeats mp3

Duration: 00:00:20; Size: 411KB

Categories: heartbeat, absence,
Comments: 2

Draft review notes #1

Author: joe

Saturday, 29 August, 2009 - 10:09

[Some contextual notes for my PhD, regarding the status of participatory media in academia and industry]

In the early 2000s, following the dot-com crash, the press, the broadcasting, music and publishing industries reassured themselves that 'online' would never seriously encroach onto their activities. I was working in a vocationally oriented university department, among people who repeated and reinforced those attitudes circulated in the received wisdom of industry promotional departments and analysts. The line 'this isn't a media studies degree, it's a vocational degree' was often used when I suggested that we didn't encourage students enough to understand conceptually what they were doing when engaged in 'mediation'. Just as the media industry now disparages degree courses specialising in media, so then, lecturers in vocational subjects tended to be people who had spent some time working in industry and were keen to 'give something back' by teaching part-time, and thereby rescuing industry training from 'out-of-touch' academics.

The attitudes which were thus perpetuated are still familiar: serious journalists should write for print, since online could only ever offer dumbed-down copy and readers never devote time to reading long articles on screen; filmmakers should concentrate on the photographic medium because digital video is inauthentic and poorer quality; digital audio is too compressed to offer the superior listening experience of analogue, and serious musicians will always have a safer career when signed up for a deal in the industry rather than going it alone; online video can't compete with the appeal of broadcast TV - the list of supposedly self-evident truths go on. These truths were enacted in a practical way in the university simply by encouraging the 'left-over' students to take the online modules, allowing the options in broadcasting and journalism to be set aside for the ablest and most ambitious students.

Supporting 'meme-plexes' manifest themselves, sometimes periphally as the common-sense background, sometimes as a moral panic or a manichean harangue, always helping to substantiate the dominant assumptions: piracy is not only theft, but it supports organised crime - as though sharing your files will perpetuate the drug industry or terrorism; or, online sources are unreliable and must be double-checked against 'proper' offline sources such as books; or, online spaces are dangerous - paedophiles stalk your children, hackers are stealing your identity, gamers are getting disturbed into copycat murder-sprees, and even you - yes you, the average, middle-of-the-road, normal, everyday surfer - even you are losing just a little more of your social skills, and maybe even just a little but more of your humanity, every moment you sit in front of your computer screen.

Categories: phd, media, participatory media, academia, propaganda,
Comments: 0

Banksy and the institution

Author: joe

Sunday, 19 July, 2009 - 23:01

I know there is something in the Banksy exhibition at the Bristol City Museum that I have missed: some act of vandalism and subversion that I was not subtle enough to find, some artistic whim, antithetical to the institution of art, that was too discrete to find. The archetypal 'art terrorist' has committed some act of treason in the museum, somewhere, somehow, that none of us has found: I feel strangely comforted by the certain knowledge that there is something shocking, unsupportable, and offensive lurking in the gallery.

More illegal than a small piece of skunk next to an ornate bong amongst the pottery; more irreverent than puppet eyes on a Rembrandt self-portrait; more institutionally insulting than a riot policeman on a child's penny-powered rocking-horse-ride; more clever than a suitcase of Diana-head-minted currency in £1000-bundles; more knowing of our day-to-day lives than bird-on-the-wire CCTV cameras and self-vivisecting rabbit coquettes. Something so unseeable, so invisible, so appalling, that none us of can see it. Even if we saw it, our brains would scramble the sight with its cognitive dissonance, such that we'd walk away, unknowing, and no wiser.

I am utterly certain it is there - through a process of unimpeachable logical deduction, I know for a fact that Banksy has beaten us all. The logic is borne out by the history of his career and the evidence of his work. I defy you to find the flaw in my argument.

Banksy starts as a graffiti artist; then moves on to guerilla subversion of mainstream art works; paints murals on the Israeli West Bank barrier. Next Banksy replaces the music stores' display stock of Paris Hilton CDs with fakes; and then places Guantanamo-prisoner-alikes in Disneyland - all of these acts are 'transgressive' in that they offend a good proportion of conservative taste, and are to be celebrated for that reason even if nothing else of the work excites you.

Graffiti is a transgressive because, well, you're not supposed to deface public property: it is, as Bristol Museum puts it, a "form of illegal activity, regardless of its artistic merit." When it is encouraged and sponsored by local councils, it loses any dangerous edge it had, and becomes - at best - wholesome, at worst, limp and insipid community outreach as practised by Christians and others of equally atrophied musculature. Graffiti is at its most aggressive and pure only when it is sure to be erased at the first opportunity by the police of public space, just as action is pure only when it escapes all intellectual justification and argument.

Surreptitiously defacing artworks in public museums and galleries is transgressive because it is an attack on the only possible institution which might redeem the graffiti artist from the clutches of the law, by granting such 'art terrorists' legitimacy; it is a biting of the only pompous, self-satisfied hand that would deign to feed you, just as that hand realises it must recognise you in order to stay relevant. 'Subverting artworks' is transgressive because it is a rebellion against the law of the father; an act of the carnivalesque turning an ossified world on its head.

The political muralism on the West Bank barrier, quite aside from its UK-specific resonance with the 'civil war by any other name' of The Troubles of Northern Ireland, is transgressive because it challenges our bourgeois notion that citizens and artists and painters and hoodies and members of the public have no say, no recourse to action - no escape from Ulrich Beck's characterisation of tragic quotidianism - and hence no action to take, in the face of geo-political calamities; yet at the same time underscores the alien inability of any artist or other member of the Western demos to speak to an open ear of either aggressor or victim. The Israeli wall is the target, but it is the Palestinian bystander who condemns the act of beauty on a terrible medium. A voice where no voice can have effect, nor find a listener.

Subverting the music retail market's obsession with celebrity is transgressive not because it reminds us that Capital is the great Other that dialectically determines our lives, nor that the industry is the instrument of the superhuman machine or the body-without-organs, nor even that the market is the means by which the mass is kept in obeisance to a superstructure of the hegemony. In fact it is the reverse - it mocks the Marxists by reminding us that the act of rebellion generates more value than the cultural commodity: Banksy's fake Paris Hilton knock-off is far more valuable in both material and immaterial terms than any original: the fake is now the only authentic artefact. Adorno, eat your heart out!

Populating Disneyland with Guantanamo-jumpsuited-inflatable-dolls is transgressive because - (as if it needed pointing out!) - aside from the dissonance of imperialism, hypocrisy, war-mongering and injustice that it spotlights, it reminds us that Disneyland and the objectives of the 'coalition of the willing' are essentially the same, after the killing and the brutalisation are done: to displace living from the realm of experience, into the realm of representation. Thus we enjoy the vicarious ride-of-our-lives via the hyperreal news media, assured that if there are victims of hypocrisy and torture in the world, then our own lives must be at the very forefront of progress, luxury and guilt-ridden complacency - the only kind of guilt we allow ourselves to guiltlessly enjoy.

And so of course, I look for the transcendental transgression in Banksy's show at Bristol Museum, suggestively titled Banksy vs Bristol Museum, like a competition - which I interpret as an arms race... a competition to outwit each other; the disclaimers warn as we enter that views expressed are not those of the museum or its partners, and the defacements on display are not real defacements, since "some of the historic relics now on display throughout the museum are fakes". Such framing devices only heighten my expectation that we will find Banksy sock-puppeting the museum into condoning opinions that would otherwise be silenced, and that real, priceless works have been defaced by a Bristolian 'revolutionaire' as only a decadent world deserves to have its valued artefacts defaced.

Or I consider, that since this exhibition has been organised, as the disclaimers proclaim, "by an independent agency", thus the Museum have themselves been subject to the same suspicions as I have entertained, and so will have been expecting Banksy's representatives to hijack the best intentions of the museum's curators; and in turn this agency acting on behalf of Banksy will have been expecting the museum to hunt high and low for any infringements or transgressions. Any act by Banksy to subvert the permanent art, or to render illegal the public space, or to articulate the unendorseable, will have been anticipated; the building combed for booby-traps; any attempt to outwit the strictures of public bylaws and the good taste of the artistic institutional community forestalled and anaesthetised. The anticipations are anticipated; the foreseeings foreseen; the special operations specially operated upon. The each outwitting the other in an ever-contracting spiral of mutual suspicion and cold-war-style conspiracy and paranoia, resulting in the most cutting edge out-manoeuvrings imaginable.

Then, of course: I get it. There is no hidden act of subversion; nothing too unbearable we cannot acknowledge it; nothing so clever we kick ourselves in our credulousness. I finally realise that the ultimate trangression has been successfully mounted: Banksy has defeated my intellectualisation of his work. He has easily capitulated, with paranormally little effort, to a parochial museum, home to ceramics, pottery and geological oddities. He has performed the ultimate transgression of the outsider artist: by selling out - a complete triumph. He has tricked me into romanticising his career and my search for the ultimate meaning in a museum. This is the something that is shocking, unsupportable, and offensive lurking in the gallery - it is the last word in resistance: to resist the pundits; and the last word in not selling out: selling out.

Categories: Banksy, art, graffiti, resistance, over-intellectualisation, transgression,
Comments: 0

Being and Knowing: World as Diegesis

Author: joe

Tuesday, 14 July, 2009 - 22:52

Another conversation, this time with Shaun, and more thinking through, thinking aloud, thinking thought. Shaun attended all the first year media theory lectures over the last academic year, including the six part series I delivered on narrative. So, he got to hear me rework and reiterate impressionistically over the same endless themes of diegesis and artifice, story and plot, world and representation which I surreptitiously pretended was an overview of narrative theory.

So I was attempting to explain how that period of intense focus on ideas about narrative and, in particular, the phenomenon of diegesis, had since inflected my thought. The diegesis is the storyscape - the integrity of the imaginary theatre we accept when we give over to a narrator the suspension of our disbelief. The diegesis is the internally coherent world of the story - and 'world' is the key word here, since the idea of a 'world' is one of the ways in which I'm trying to muscle into an understanding of Heidegger which I think is going to be central to my PhD thesis. If you are going to read on here, put your Kafkaesque reading hat on and read it all as subjunctive: "I would, God-willing, understand in this way..."

Using a combination of Graham Harman's lucid writing on Heidegger, Timothy Clark's valiant exposition of Heidegger's thought, Hubert Dreyfus' concordance and commentary on 'Being and Time', and the dense source text itself, I've been trying to work towards an understanding Heidegger's concepts of Zuhandenheit and Vorhandenheit, theoria and praxis, not to mention Dasein, being there, and being a 'thing that things'. The concept of 'world' in this realm of thought seems helpful to me. Clark says that Heidegger's use of the term 'world',

"is close to the common meaning of the term when we talk about the 'world' of the Bible, or the 'world' of the modern Chinese or modern English - i.e.the fundamental understanding within which individual things, people, history, texts, buildings, projects cohere together within a shared horizon of significances, purposes and connotations. [...] the more fundamental shared disclosure of things within which [we] find [ourselves] in all [our] thoughts, practices and beliefs, providing the basis even of [our] self-conceptions and suppositions."

- all of which seems to be a perfect definition of diegesis if understood as pertaining not only to the fictional worlds we muster, but also the fields of meaning we conjure in every aspect of what we still call 'real life'. In the tool analysis, Heidegger's hammer [makes sense | obtains | is grasped] as part of the world of equipment, which [makes sense | obtains | is grasped] as part of the world of human action. These realms cohere diegetically - they belong to, define and co-constitute each other. In action, we grasp the hammer as a tool, we extend our limbs and 'be' our intentional 'being' in the praxis of carpentry, and by extension, the praxis of existence. We act, and as we do, we are attuned to the world of action and meaning we inhabit: we experience the world holistically - we cease to be figures, and recede into the ground of the diegesis. Praxis is the means whereby we live and dwell - believe - in the diegesis.

The hammer when it breaks, shatters the diegesis: we are no longer engaged in praxis, but in the comprehension of material objects divorced from their diegetic meaning: an extreme Brechtian 'Verfremdung', or alienation from the essence of the hammer. A broken hammer is no hammer: it is a residue, a fragment, a memory, a concept, an idea, an object, a construct, a prop, revealed and separated from its function in the diegesis: a corpse in the theatrical sense - a moment in which the illusion is shattered, the figure of artifice processes and emerges from the ground of the theatre, and we are appalled enough by the shattering of the illusion to be compelled to laugh uncontrollably in the face of the futility of pretence. The broken hammer is an object of our reflective thought, which we diagnose in its symptomatic failure; it is seen as though from above, outside, from nowhere, divorced as it is from the field of praxis. Our consciousness of the broken hammer is the kind of consciousness we simply relinquish in the midst of being. It is empty, shell-like, valueless, objective. It is the transcendental knowledge to which the academy, science, Western materialist thought aspires - and as in the perennial cliche, it pins the butterfly to a board in order to comprehend it even as it dies.

Following Harman, I understand the fate of the broken hammer not to be merely an event in the life of a lone doomed tool, but to be caught up in the being of all things that do their 'being' - the 'thinging' of things, people, starfish and coconuts - the dichotomy between Vorhandenheit (presence-at-hand) and Zuhandenheit (readiness-to-hand). All things which are capable of submitting to the gaze of other things and being translated into the intentional objects of contemplation are uncovered - as are figures processing and emerging from the ground of their diegetic existence - as lifted out of their being, their dwelling in the multiplicities of the interlacing diegeses to which they belong. The object of my reflection is a shadow of its being - the prehensile presence-at-hand of a thing, behind which all its indestructible being - the inexhaustibly rich readiness-to-hand of a thing - withdraws.

In this way, anything we care to articulate or speak of, any 'thing' to which we care to give edges through the process of signification, and by which we mediate a representation of that 'thing' to another, is reduced to a presence-at-hand - a mere one amongst its infinite resource of arbitrarily graspable facets - a reduction; a theory. Thus all representation, articulation and signification is work in the realm of artifice, mimesis - or presence-at-hand; a reductive distinguishing of a facet of an object from the ground of its diegesis - the world of its Romantic potential, its being, its participation in praxis. The insertion of the stethoscope between the healer and patient is no less than a conversion of the human subject into an object of instrumentation, a reduction of the being to one amongst its many facets: a mediated, rythmic, booming pulse stands in for the beating heart of a living being. The sound is a metonymic reduction of the living being of the beating heart.


A short recap then: praxis is the unification of human action and knowing - holistic. Theoria (and hence conceptual, reflective, objective knowledge) is the distantiation of the world from the experience of that world. This distanced, alienated knowledge, extracted from the diegesis of its being, is a projection, a paper-thin shell, a shadow - a presence-at-hand, available to our consciousness as no more than a facet of the fullness of being. Being itself never emerges from the ground of diegesis - the integral, coherent, self-consistent, co-constitutive storyscape of the world in which we un-self-consciously dwell.

From these thoughts flow other problematisations, to be dealt with another time, of impartial academic enterprises, traditional doctoral theses, and the very nature of the attempt to document the research process.

Categories: Martin-Heidegger, phenomenology, phd, working-through, Dasein, being, Zuhandenheit, Vorhandenheit, presence-at-hand, readiness-to-hand, knowledge, objectivity, research, praxis, diegesis, narrative, world,
Comments: 0

stethoscope - fragment

Author: joe

Monday, 06 July, 2009 - 23:44

In discussion with Fran - we were going through a box of old and antiquated medical instruments he'd collected, objects of curiosity, memory and history - we noted how the stethoscope serves not only to provide a 'virtual world' as Jonathan Sterne puts it (an acoustical representation), but acts as a sort of 'distantiation device' - a prop which helps the doctor to adopt a role and enter into the performance in which the human body is objectified.

Placing a mediating device between two human beings facilitates the creation of a subject who manipulates an object. We parcel off the problem-of-the-body into an objectified, if not objective, realm which we believe is transcended by the physical theatre of the stethoscope itself, and the disembodied, privileged knowledge of the physician. We defer our formal discomfort by effacing our embodied being.

I imagine a time-lapse evolution depicting the history of the stethoscope: play it in reverse and the long looping cord shortens and hardens into a trumpet; the forceps-like earpieces exit the ear, fuse and widen into the mouth of a horn; the bell and diaphragm device contrived for human contact simplifies into a chest piece with a hole. Then, finally, the whole instrument disappears and the physicians ear falls onto the patient's chest in a tight human embrace.

Categories: stethoscope, technology, distantiation, present-at-hand, Martin Heidegger, Jonathan Sterne, embodiment, performance,
Comments: 1

Communities of Practice: intersections between learning, fan-fiction and the institution

Author: joe

Friday, 27 March, 2009 - 10:38

Yesterday I was in two unrelated seminars which struck me as having interesting resonances with each other. The first was a Learning & Teaching seminar I led about Communities of Practice and the challenges of pursuing a 'participatory pedagogy' in the constraints of an institution. The second was led by Richard Berger and Bronwen Thomas in the Narratives Research Group, who both talked about fan fiction and slash fic.

In the first seminar which I was leading, one of the I was key ideas I was trying to articulate was the issue of domains of knowledge: academics work within specific disciplines and subject areas; common sense tells us that those disciplines and subject areas are generally stable and fixed; and students expect teachers to act as gatekeepers or transmitters of that body of knowledge. In Situated Learning (1991), Lave and Wenger suggest moving away from a conventional understanding of such bodies of knowledge as stable and external, objective entities which can be transmitted unmodified from tutor to pupil; instead they suggest thinking about disciplines and the engagement with them by a scholarly community as a set of socially reproduced practices. Disciplines are continually constituted by the practices which communities engage in: reading, interpreting, discussing, participating, negotiating and renegotiating. Far from having a constant and fixed set of axioms which teachers repeat to students until the students have learned them, rather, the social practices of academic life are continually transforming the individual and intersubjective meanings that participants construct.

In the second seminar, Richard presented a historical overview of fan fiction, noting the features of intertextuality, variation, and the evolving nature of the participants; Bronwen conducted a "bottom-up" analysis of some of the activities and conventions which characterised the online fan fiction communities. Popular source texts become the site for participatory adaptations; the tensions between the 'authentic' text - that produced by the original author - and the variations produced by the fan community, are resolved in myriad ways: in some cases through legal means (copyright holders try to close such communities down), but more often through mechanisms which start to look much more like master / journeyman / apprentice relationships. New fan fiction authors contribute their efforts, get feedback, rework and improve their work, and in the process of doing so, become recognised and increasingly 'senior' members of the community. Mechanisms are evolved for deciding what is permitted - i.e. what variations are allowed to to be included, and what contraventions of the source 'storyworlds' are proscribed. Original authors (such as Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy) often give their blessing to these communities and sometimes even allow the 'authorised versions' of their work to respond reflexively to new variations in the ever-evolving fan canon - or what Jenkins call the 'fanon'.

In both of these domains there are some crucial features: the notion of canonicity (whether in terms of a clearly defined academic discipline, or in terms of a source text or storyworld) and the participatory practices and conventions which characterise the continual reproduction of that canon.

So, participation, and the learning and adoption of the norms of the community, generate the necessary social capital for participants to become trusted members of the community of practice. It would be interesting to see what sorts of commonalities and differences emerge in comparisons between the two different domains: do fanfic journeymen and masters have to be good at writing fanfic themselves, or can they acquire their position of trust through expert knowledge of the canon, or through the continually respectful and constructive writing of feedback? May academics rely on their past achievements of qualification or recognition, or must they continually reinforce and reproduce their status through continuous participation?

What seems more problematic, though, is how the respective canons in each of the domains are viewed. Lave and Wenger note that a community of practice is characterised by the often antagonistic processes of participation and reification. One might understand the pressure to maintain the integrity of the 'authentic' canon in the face of variations produced by fans as a contest between reification and participation - indeed L&W note that there is inevitably a competitive tension between long-standing members (refered to as 'old-timers') and the newcomers; the latter are destined ultimately to replace the former. Hence the 'old-timers' seek to maintain the integrity of the body of work they have striven towards, while newcomers exert an evolutionary pressure on that work which inevitably undergoes transformation and contestation.

In academia, however, I sense that the reverse is often the case: newcomers in the form of students, raised in the behaviourist hot-house of secondary schooling, and forced to commit to large investment and future debts, are resistant to the idea that academic disciplines might be reflexive, unstable, and more importantly, open to modification and reconstruction by their inexpert selves. Indeed, why would they be asked to pay such a lot of money for 'tuition' fees when 'tuition' is not the necessarily the high-road to the valuable commodity of knowledge? They expect lecturers to transmit considerable quantities of information and distrust the idea that they might learn as much from each other as they might learn from an academic expert. Those same lecturers themselves recognise the pedagogy of situated learning and actively encourage students to question and challenge the handed-down-ness of academic authority, being fully aware of the constructedness of their own expertise and of the discipline as a whole. Meanwhile, the institution itself imposes upon those teachers and students yet more behaviourist assumptions and structures. These take the form of VLEs into which tutor-created resources are fed for students to consume, the minimisation of social and embodied tutor/learner contact in favour of income-generating activities, and locking up contemporary knowledge advancement in the closed-access academic publishing industry which in turn perpetuates itself by persuading scholars that they must lock their knowledge up in the pages of their journals in order to acquire 'esteem'.

Lave & Wenger's model of situated learning makes clear that learning transforms not only the learner but also the subject to be learned. It seems ironic then, that this profoundly liberating and politically significant insight is often lost on learners and ignored by learning institutions.

Categories: learning, pedagogy, Jean-Lave, Etienne-Wenger, situated learning, communities of practice, community, practice, fan fiction, participation, canon,
Comments: 3

Wikipedian Palimpsest

Author: joe

Tuesday, 17 February, 2009 - 22:19

Only those of us who like to live our lives inspecting the inner workings of the sphincters of camels will have failed to notice the sudden kerfuffle around Wikipedia Art - a project which is soon going to be so citable, the wikipedian deletionists will explode with reverberating feedback loops of infinitely regressing thought, their heads bursting as though they were apoplectic Victorian fathers confronted with Daguerreotypes of themselves masturbating.

I found the abundant discussions most interesting when they addressed questions about authenticity: did the artists mean to arouse delicate questions regarding epistemology and truth? Or was it a knowing, cynical ploy to generate buzz and 'notability' either to raise their commercial earning potential in other work, or to support tenure track academic careers? Did it matter if the latter was the case if the former ensued anyway? Does a work of art require an authentically artistic intention on the part of the creator in order to be an authentic piece of art?

On rhizome curt cloninger said something clever: "We are "policing" the "art-worthiness" of the piece here at rhizome the same way the wikipedians were policing its "encyclopedia-worthiness" there at wikipedia." We all work the work with our own discourses, our own knowledge practices, our own epistemes; we will always talk past each other.

Categories: wikipedia, art, net-art, authenticity, epistemology, truth, authorship,
Comments: 0

On blogging

Author: joe

Thursday, 12 February, 2009 - 16:39

I was recently invited to say a few brief words about the value of blogging. The event was a conference of uni staff who are taking part in a 'research-enhancement' programme of activities with a view to developing their research careers.

Not that I know much about research careers - I have cunningly managed to avoid disturbing anyone at the uni who keeps track of people's research activity. No journal papers, no conference papers, nothing that carries any esteem indicators whatsoever. I earn no esteem.

But anyway, I do write a blog, but more importantly have used blogging in teaching for four years now, so did have a couple of things to say about it. We ask students to start a blog when they begin the course, though we don't make it compulsory via assessment. I think it is important to make things elective, since incentivisation usually encourages instrumentality. (And only a cynic would note that this is the story of HE generally...)

Since the blogs aren't compulsory, you quickly find that the 'participation pyramid' (the imbalance between contributors and lurkers) which we see on sites like Wikipedia also characterises student participation. I increasingly think it is important to accept and allow such inequalities in uptake. By making things compulsory you infantilise the activities and the participants, and so those who would have contributed anyway get less benefit (who benefits from being infantilised?) and those who are compelled to join in do so in a tokenistic way. Ultimately, we want to encourage responsibility and independence, and micro-managing everyone's participation in various activities undermines that very aim.

Those who do participate voluntarily go on to experience many of the useful outcomes of writing in public. Of course, sometimes the writing is a whinging stream of consciousness, but actually this is a tiny part of it. More often, students write about the progress of their group work, or they articulate their desire to be better organised; sometimes they mull over the consequences of postmodern thought on their own dearly-held beliefs. I have read students link their own ideas to the Zapatistas, or share design ideas with clients. They write commentaries on oddities they have found in the wilds of the web, or they talk about the distresses and calamities of everyday life in eloquent ways. The range of subjects are fantastically kaleidoscopic, and it is, dare I say it, a little patronising to suggest it is simply an opportunity to whinge.

Just the act of writing (and especially in public) has many meta-cognitive benefits. Formless ideas are given form through writing. Feelings find expression. Thoughts which struggle to make sense become more sensible when we force ourselves to interpret them through language. There is something transformative and risky about writing ideas down and sharing them with others.

Jeremy Crampton, a Foucault scholar who keeps a blog, writes about Levy Bryant, a philosopher and author, and his blog, Larval Subjects, a blog I enjoy hugely. These thoughts capture the relationship between articulation and actualisation.

Larval subjects. Larvae are creatures in a process of becoming or development that have not yet actualized themselves in a specific form. This space is a space for the incubation of philosophical larvae that are yet without determinate positions or commitments but which are in a process of unfolding.

Larval Subjects

This captures the spirit of not knowing where you're going when you set out, a kind of lostness. [...] But there is something experimental to blogging, as a technology of the self. recall Foucault's comments about the pointlessness of writing a book if you already know what you're going to say.

Foucault Blog

Writing moves our ideas along, and develops them, determines and exposes their form and offers the potential for them to be further shaped and worked. This is true even if you write your diary in an underground cave, burn it and lock the ashes in an iron vault which you sink in an abyss (or write it in Blackboard). It is even more true if you do it in the open, out in the wild, and use the writing of your ideas to send out taproots seeking out people with similar interests, who can respond to you constructively, or people who couldn't disagree more, who will tell you exactly why your ideas stink. It is the ultimate in peer-review.

The objection raised to this is often that you shouldn't write about your research publicly in a blog because people will steal ideas from you, or you'll struggle to publish it in a journal later because it will already be in the public domain. I think both of these objections highlight the two main things that are wrong with academia. There are no ideas that can't be improved by being exposed to criticism, and the desperate need to retain ownership and exclusivity over ideas is, it seems to me, antithetical to the premise of education.

So, in the 30-or-so seconds I spoke at the mini-conference, I didn't manage to say quite all of those things, but those are the things I meant.

Categories: blogging, writing, meta-cognitive, articulation, learning, education, research, pedagogy,
Comments: 4


Author: joe

Tuesday, 13 January, 2009 - 23:19

There are often serendipities (though I'm talking about reading theoretical works here, so when I write 'serendipity' you may read 'pain in the arse') in the way I discover new avenues of critical thought to pursue, though now I think about it, the serendipity probably resides in my limited ability to discern and decipher connections rather than the rarity, inscrutability - or even coincidence - of the connections themselves. Perhaps I'm like a half-wit, or at least the opposite of a Quasimodo, who given any chance sees the rightness and absolute simplicity of analogies and apposite moments as though they were the salty truth of the world. I, on the contrary, make hard work where there might be restful ease.

In any case, I was reading Lave and Wenger on the subject on legitimate peripheral participation [1] (their precursor to the inexaggerably important idea of communities of practice) when I was drawn to their description of Bourdieu's ideas of 'conductorless orchestras' (what other metaphor for benign anarchy could you hope for?) and thus led to Michael Grenfell's edited work, Bourdieu and Education, in which I was teased by the characterisation of Bourdieu's work as an attempt to resolve the dichotomy of objective knowledge ('knowledge without a knowing subject') and hermeneutics (subjective and individual understanding).

His intent is to find a theory which is robust enough to be objective and generalizable, and yet accounts for individual, subjective thought and action. [2]

This for me is another case of serendipitously discovering more justification for resolving such dichotomies (e.g. the subject / object dichotomy) by encapsulating the whole dyad under the reunified sign of 'practice', as Mike and I discussed (if you can be arsed to read pages and pages of burbling) at the CEMP blog.

In any case, if you cannot see the woods for the trees, try banging your head on those trees until they tire of your bloody-minded importuning and give you a map of the locality.

[1] Lave, Jean & Wenger, Etienne, 1991. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation,
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

[2] Grenfell, Michael, 1998. Bourdieu & Education: Acts of Practical Theory,
Florence, KY, USA: Taylor & Francis, Incorporated

Categories: theory, PhD, objectivity, subjectivity, hermeneutics, Bourdieu, pedagogy, participation,
Comments: 0

The Transitive Author

Author: joe

Sunday, 08 June, 2008 - 21:00

I've had (this isn't meant to sound as confessional as it does) Roland Barthes on my mind recently. Earlier in the year a student quoted some of him at me in an essay, and I'm afraid I don't think they really grappled with the sense of the text (note I'm not saying they 'interpreted it incorrectly'!) - it was more of a quote-shoe-in to tick the theory box. But the quote - a line I've often glanced over and left behind as I engage in the tmesis of excavating a Barthes text - has kept coming back to me in the form of the question I wrote on the student's paper - 'What do you think Barthes is getting at here?'

Barthes opens The Death of the Author with some introductory questions which help to frame his exercise - he wonders, when a writer writes, whose is the voice? A question that arises because, according to B., writing is 'the destruction of every voice [... writing ...] is the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the identity of the very body writing'. Fine. I love this, and the rest of the essay explores this counterintuitive insight so interestingly that it has made its way into every cultural studies curriculum that ever made a student's life misery. But I find myself returning to the start of the second paragraph - which our friend the student earlier quoted:

No doubt it has always been that way. As soon as a fact is narrated no longer with a view to acting directly on reality but intransitively, that is to say, finally outside of any function other than that of the very practice of the symbol itself, this disconnection occurs, the voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death, writing begins.
[The Death of the Author]

Leaving aside the discussion of the historicity of the 'idea of the author', and the Foucault debate, and all that, I'm persistently drawn to, and dwell on, that word: intransitively.

To narrate a fact intransitively is to narrate a fact no longer with a view to acting directly on reality.
To narrate a fact transitively is to narrate a fact with a view to acting directly on reality.
To speak transitively is to intend to act on reality.
Write with purpose, with an object.
A subject acting on an object.
To narrate a fact intransitively is to speak no longer with a view to acting directly on reality.
To speak intransitively is to speak without purpose, without object.
[Joe's head, a lot, recently]

Of course, I can understand that B. at this point heads off into his own particular intentional use of 'intransitively' - that is that 'the claim to decipher a text is ... quite futile'. Indeed, the entire business of dwelling on 'what Barthes is getting at' has a bottomless irony which peered into too long gets quite vertiginous. But I am a human being - indeed, I am an impure thinker - and when addressed by a speaker, even if it is across the sea of the 'starred text', the chasm of decades and the incommensurability of two different native tongues, I first reply: 'what do you mean?'

So the word 'intransitively' follows me around. The author speaks without intention in the way that the dead speak to the living - either through the reconstruction of the memories of the living, or in the cynical charlatanism of the medium/critic. But I read transitivity differently (as, I think Barthes would agree, is my right). To speak transitively is to intend to act on reality. To speak transitively is to not only want to change the world, but to attempt to do so. I saw a quote by Hunter S Thompson on, of all places, a Facebook profile, which captured that intention:

Although I don't feel that it is at all necessary to tell you how I feel about the principle of individuality, I know that I am going to have to spend the rest of my life expressing it one way or another, and I think that I'll accomplish more by expressing it on the keys of a typewriter than by letting it express itself in the sudden outbursts of frustrated violence.
[Apparently this comes from The Proud Highway]

But even when writing is not a valve for pent-up rage, who pretends to speak without the intention of changing the world? A dissertation I marked recently also indirectly stabbed at this idea: do documentaries effect social change? Of course it is an impossible question to answer, but it provokes the thought that the documentary form covers a spectrum of approaches - and the approach that pretends to 'reflect' reality, and offer an 'intransitive' factual window onto reality is only the most dishonest form.

A colleague of mine recently gave a seminar on his work. Trevor Hearing explores the documentary film form as a way of engaging in scholarly work - to use film-making both as a research tool, and as a way of communicating academic knowledge. It forces recognition of a dialectic between film and text - the practice of visual 'story-telling' versus the abstract, supposedly 'factual', textual form, and this reveals the hidden values of each. The very things that Trevor's films are made of are human actions and interactions and their interface with the documents, visual, textual, and filmic, that human beings by their very productive nature leave behind them.

But again, what Trevor's stimulating and fascinating work illuminates is the dishonesty of that peculiarly academic practice of writing papers in which the author 'disappears'. The stock comment to write on student essays is often 'try to write less subjectively - be more objective...' - or - 'try not to write in the first person...' what other perspective do we actually expect people to write from? Where is this mythical third person position whence the academic writes? In fact, the academic paper is a worked and reworked artefact, painstakingly laboured over by a human being, in a chair, with a tilting head, and a breathing, aching body. That disappearing 'I' is a fiction. If Trevor's film had so many edits as that supposedly free-standing, evidence-based, objective - intransitive - academic paper, the cuts would leap out of the screen and reek of manipulation. The emphasis on, not the disappearance of, the author is what makes Trevor's film so much more meaningful.

One of the strange ironies of knowledge is that the practices and the discourses are so often at odds with each other. Science stakes a claim to be a 'descriptive' practice - that is, its methods produce descriptions of the world - reflections if you will. This is at the heart of the scientific claim on truth - that language can be bent into a form that faithfully describes and corresponds to brute reality - that language can be made intransitive but faithful. Actually, the real products of sciences are the world-changing technologies that every minute break the human connection to the past. And these extensions of man are made precisely because that linguistic practice is so very transitive, so very laden with rhetorical, persuasive action, discursive power, intention. With our knowledge, constructed as it is from experience and language, we act irreversibly.

I seem to have used Barthes' Death of the Author to argue in favour of the reappearance of the author. Blimey. But then, he is dead.

Categories: barthes, author, post-structuralism, knowledge, transitive, intransitive, writing, truth, science,
Comments: 0

Acid Nausea

Author: joe

Friday, 17 August, 2007 - 03:52

Acid is known for its hallucinatory qualities; less for its anti-hallucinatory qualities. Several hours in, my friend James asked me if it made me, like him, feel hollow. We sat there in his student digs 13 years ago, and I finally understood Hawkwind. "What like hungry?" I replied. "No" - his glorious long kinks of brown mane falling around his temples - "like you're empty".

Click on the strip-light in the bathroom after stumbling there in the darkness, barely awake, and the pupils contract. The scene is under-exposed, livid, and as the eyes adjust, the instant and utter strangeness of the synthetic world fades back into familiarity. The mat is recognisable again, the friendly sink and familiar fittings slot back into order. But in that first instant a deeper relationship between you and your world is revealed, where meaning is stripped away, the brain unready to veil the harshness of reality with its knack of confabulation.

In Sartre's Nausea the table, the wall, the pebble, even the hand and the grey thing in the mirror that is your face, are the malevolent sources of queasy sickness, their anthropomorphic intent placed there by a mind striving to avoid panic.

"... for the most commonplace event to become an adventure, you must - and this is all that is necessary - start recounting it... But you have to choose: to live or recount... When you are living, nothing happens".
James shaved away the cruft of recounting and found nothing.

Sartre, Jean-Paul, 2000, Nausea, London: Penguin, p61

Categories: acid, nausea, jean-paul sartre, existentialism, confabulation,
Comments: 0

Arthur Lee: 1945 - 2006

Author: joe

Saturday, 26 August, 2006 - 01:14

In memory of Arthur Lee (1945 - 2006)

Menticulture podcast - To Arthur Lee

Duration: 6:06; Size: 5MB

Categories: love, arthur lee, the damned, calexico, alone again or, podcast, guitar,
Comments: 3

The scientist in the garret

Author: joe

Wednesday, 26 April, 2006 - 23:55

Highly enjoyable viewing recently came in the form of Mark Lawson interviewing Sir David Attenborough. Initially I was frustrated and enraged by a particular line taken by Lawson: having established Attenborough as a secular Darwinian, Lawson then framed his following question so as to imply that secularism, and the scientistic methodology / worldview doesn't allow for value. Given that you don't concede any inherent absolutist, religion-driven moral view of the world, he implied, why even bother trying to communicate your enthusiasm? Indeed whence that enthusiasm?

Part of me hopes, and would once have assumed, that this question was a nice rhetorical BBC type question, placed there to allow someone with the privileged knowledge of the universe to share an understanding with us lesser mortals.

Increasingly, however, I suspect a different reason for this kind of question, which isn't simply to allow the exposition of a position in a debate, but stems from an inability for humans from the humanities to conceive of humans engaged in science as anything but inhabiting a Sartrean existential void.

In other words, people grounded in the arts adopt a similar stereotype of science and scientists as the religious faithful adopt towards the secular. This is particularly ironic since it was the artistic types who first set out to occupy the ennui and angst of the existential attic. But they were drinking absinthe and creating synthetic meanings for themselves - whereas now the scientists have truly removed meaning from all facets of living. Perhaps the artists feel shamed that they were not able to go the whole hog. The irony is, of course, that the humanities have shrivelled into a 'cultural relativist' and correspondingly bleak view of life, while the sciences give us far more food for wonder than any small-minded religious fable.

Categories: science, arts and humanities, religion, david-attenborough, existentialism, Darwinism,
Comments: 0

Author: joe

Thursday, 22 December, 2005 - 01:01

I've recently been working on a web site for Cath, to showcase her artwork and to put her reflective writing online. It's been an interesting collaboration, not least because as well as trying a few new experiments myself, the way the site is developing is also feeding into how Cath thinks of her artwork.

My experiments are mostly technical, using Ajax techniques to feed back search result counts in real time to help avoid the user wasting time clicking back after finding no results, and implementing tagging as a way of content management as well as sorting and searching.

What's been more interesting, though, is that the functionality of the website alters Cath's perception of her work.

CB: Seeing a lot of thumbnails of my images makes me 'see' my own style more clearly, makes me realise I do have a style.

Well, I've been saying that her style is 'dipped in LSD at birth' for the last 13 years :)

But there's something else worth noting too. For a long time I worked with visual artists at the London College of Fashion who conceived of their exhibits as something that they controlled. An artist determines which images make a specific collection, and in which order they appear, the name of the collection, etc. This is a strong desire in pretty much all the photographers and illustrators who were learning Multimedia with me.

At, we've taken a different approach, and used Cath's folksonomy of her work (describing the images with 'tags') to create a gallery builder. The user combines different keywords to construct a gallery of their own. This doesn't seem like a particularly novel thing to do - after all that's what using an image search engine does. However, when you apply it specifically in a space where one artist is presenting their work, the activity is not so much about 'looking for images' as allowing the user to 'curate a collection'.

Cath is also looking forward to seeing how the visual representation of her folksonomy develops, and how it will reveal themes and preoccupations as she adds more work. The folksonomy makes the most frequent tags larger than the infrequent.

Maybe it would be an idea to take snapshots of the folksonomy for different periods of work...?

Categories: folksonomy, art,, ajax, interactivity, curation,
Comments: 1

Practice-based Research

Author: joe

Monday, 19 December, 2005 - 16:03

This entry is written to address and extend Cath's previous post about theory and practice, and also to reflect on a seminar I attended last week about Practice-based Research.

What are theory and practice?

What Cath has outlined is a common way of looking at what are considered to be two ontologically different activities: creativity and reflection. Creativity is often also called art, practice, production. Reflection is often called research, theory, analysis, criticism. The former is often aligned with imagination, emotion, and that part of human existence which is thought of as 'unrationisable'. The latter is often aligned with systematic thinking, reason, what is 'rationisable'.

There is a lot of merit in thinking of them as ontologically different activities. Artists often consider themselves to be drawing on ineffable, inscrutable, undescribable inspiration. Theorists, in contrast, consider themselves to be engaged in the pursuit of analysing and describing phenomena. You could go so far as to say that the practice of art is based on subjectivity, while theory is based on the pursuit of objectivity.

Since the two activities can be understood in such mutually exclusive terms, it is understandable that individuals see themselves as primarily interested in one or the other. Hence arise compromises in the academic environment: practitioners are goaded into engaging with theory, with the encouragement that a 'critical awareness' will support their practice. And we're all familiar with the reverse situation, where 'academics' are accused of being out of touch with 'the real world' because they deal with abstractions rather than 'production' or 'industry'.

Theory and practice are the same

In the middle of this dichotomy are academic departments like my own which are trying to 'unite' theory and practice in teaching and learning. Rather than having separate strands, some of which address theory issues, while others address production and practice, a new program of teaching has been designed to integrate both.

The discourse on this approach tends to run along the lines of 'diminishing the divide between theory and practice', 'demonstrating the relevance of theory to practice', or 'showing that theory and practice are parts of the same process'. (Interestingly, while there has been a lot of such discourse, there has been very little about how the teaching of theory and practice are integrated. This is left to the discretion of clumps of individual teachers to decide).

The strengths of this approach range over a number of areas: the learning experience for an undergraduate is improved because

The teaching experience can be better because:

However, there is a major weakness to this approach too. This is the danger that theory is taught merely as it serves the objectives of production - theory in effect becomes subservient to practice. This in itself is not the bad thing: any practitioner who engages with theory will tell you that it informs their work. The bad thing flows from this new emphasis.

Theory and practice are not the same

When theory is cherry-picked as it seems to be relevant to practice, it loses its own logic.

For example: I am currently involved in teaching a unit called 'Narratives', which follows on from a unit called 'Images', and which leads into a unit called 'Audiences'; the students are learning Interactive Media. Some of the key ideas that are associated with this 'Narratives' unit inlcude the idea that 'narrativisation' is something that we all do all the time - it's not something that only people we call story-tellers do; that narratives encode, reinforce and query the cultural values we live with; and that the idea that a magician-like author creates a narrative for a reader to correctly interpret is problematic. Key 'theorists' here include Barthes and Foucault, whose dialogic works in the 60s and 70s blew apart notions of what an author is, what a text is, and what a reader is.

Previously, critical thought in the literary tradition of F.R Leavis and others, saw the work of correctly interpreting a text by an author as an exercise in acquiring enough erudition in the field of the text, the author and their period. Such acquired learning then gave that reader the ability to hand down to the rest of us, with less erudition, what this author was really trying to do. AB&F (After Barthes and Foucault), the author and the reader become fused, and the text becomes a hot, creative space where creative, interpretative acts occur. The erudite reader no longer is entitled to a 'correct' reading: the erudite reader simply has a different reading. Every reader, regardless of education and erudition, creates the 'writerly' text as they engage in the creative, productive act of reading. This was revolutionary and profoundly anti-elitist.

In the necessity-driven context of short weekly seminars delivering theory and practice designed to demonstrate their relevance to each other, the revolutionary nature of these ideas is in danger of being lost, and the notions of readerly and writerly texts become simply parts of a vocabulary necessary for assessment. What is the point of talking about the writerly text if there is no understanding of the fact that the writerly text is above all a political idea, rather than a literary one?

Theory is pointless

There is a rather lovely irony in theory AB&F: interpretation is subjective, but no less valid for being so. One does not need to be educated to have valid interpretations of texts. You don't have to know the theory of the writerly text to be constantly producing it. The 'message' of theory today is that you don't need to learn theory. There has been a simultaneous development in critical writing of, on the one hand, work that is impenetrable to lay-people because of the accumulation of jargon and technical mumbo-jumbo, while on the other hand, a message that argues that it is not necessary to become better educated and more learned in order to have valid, productive responses to cultural artefacts. Theory in this reading has become a prank on those who pursue it, and it is therefore no suprise that theorists' writing has developed this shroud in order to conceal the vacuum within. It is admittedly a difficult problem: how, as a member of a segment of the population which has been lucky enough to attain such a brilliant level of learning, do you then preach that such learning is not necessary? When you want to argue that becoming erudite is just an elitist plot, how do you say so without seeming to pull up the ladder to education behind you? If there is no right or wrong, just a lot of discourse, what is the point of anything at all? Who cares whether someone's understanding of the writerly text is political or literary when either interpretation is equally valid?

Theory is not pointless

It may be inevitable that once-revolutionary ideas eventually become obvious and assumed. New generations grow up in cultures where what once seemed earth-shattering is now common sense; they in turn go on to produce new ground-breaking, earth-shattering ideas. The point of critical theory (as opposed to 'being to a theorist'), though, is not to believe the message of theory, but to examine and question obvious, common sense ideas and assumptions. There was an earth-shattering point when mankind began making marks on objects in order to communicate with absent people, yet today we can take it for granted. By engaging with the historicity of that moment, we can enter a place where it seems suddenly remarkable to be a human being, and that the world we live in becomes an amazing organic product of countless revolutionary things which seem now to have disappeared behind the everyday surface of life. On a smaller but more pressing level, questioning the assumptions about the way of the world is a necessary social act in a global culture which is marked by war, immoral economic inequity and cultural conflict on an unprecedented scale.

The pursuit of critical thinking and theory as an end in itself, then, has the strength of allowing all events, developments and works to be seen as political acts, precisely because theory tries to contextualise and historicise those acts, events, developments and works, and shed light on the social and political relations that combine to create that history. This is reason enough that theory should be considered separately to practice, since an artist trying to analyse and compensate for all of the cultural assumptions that may go into producing the work will end in a paralysis of self-censorship.

Theory kills practice

One thing which seemed to emerge from the seminar on Practice-based Research I attended last week was the idea that the creative act in practice, and the systematic thought in theory, are mutually incompatible. In romantic literary terms, we might say that the creative act is inspired by a muse - an unknowable goddess - who provokes, or even produces the creative drive in the artist. In modern language, we might say that art is the product of a creative act of the imagination, which is yet to be deciphered in evolutionary, biological or functional terms. Were the muse to be 'understood', or 'theorised', she would no longer be an inspiring goddess; were the imagination to be deterministically mapped, it would no longer be the magical source of our creativity.

I woud refute this idea for a number of reasons:

Theory is a practice

A tacit assumption that seemed to be at work in the Practice-based Research seminar was the idea that theory is a necessary but unpleasant activity. The seminar appeared to be a long apology for theory. Perhaps this is a reflection of the stereotyped view of theory as a Casaubon activity, dry, solitary, monotonous, incorporating 'bean-counting', dealing with abstractions and generally joyless. It's about spending too much time reading books and writing papers no-one reads.

I suppose that an artist, in the creation of an artefact, even if the motivation is pure self-expression, would acknowledge that at some point the work is destined to be recieved by an audience. And I also supppose that the artist would grant that when an audience enters into a relationship with the work, they too engage in a creative act of interpretation, empathy, outrage, emotion, revulsion, agreement, and reflection.

The act of reading requires the reader to enter into just such an act of creativity, with all the interpretative possibilities that offers. The practice of theory is about engaging in that creative act. And just as an artist would acknowledge that their output enters into a dialogue with other work and doesn't exist in isolation, so the practice of theory is about entering into a dialogue. Writing is a productive, transformational activity, regardless of whether it is conceived in advance as a piece of literary art or a piece of critical writing.

While I was writing this, my computer crashed and I had to start all over again. The content I rewrote was not the same as the first version. I could write this a hundred times, and every time it would be produced differently, precisely because the act of writing is creative and spontaneous.

Traditional Academia

The final thing I want to write about was the presentation of research in humanities as distinct from research in more traditionally academic subjects. Clearly there is a complex problem arising from the history of academia, and the perception that social science research is 'soft' science. There is also a reverse problem, where the humanities see traditional areas like scientific research as having an unwarranted dominance over the arts. Scientific methodologies get described as 'bean-counting' and are accused of being 'patriarchal'.

Partly this is because of the post-structuralist purgatory that has emerged in humanities, where the scientific method is simply seen as a discursive tool by which vast swathes of dead white males rule the world, and a technocratic hegemony reinforces its hold on cultural development. The scientific response certainly ought to be: show us where your theories predict reproducible phenomena, rather than haranguing us from the sidelines with philosophical contortionism.

More fundamentally, however, I think there is a misconception here that only creative arts engage in practice during research. I can't think of a single field of enquiry where the researchers in the field wouldn't argue that what they do is a creative practice. It's actually monumental arrogance to claim that the creative act is the domain of art, while other kinds of knowledge don't involve imagination and creativity. However, it is not so obvious that the arts education system is providing students with the same theoretical rigour provided by sciences.


One only has to look at the rise of creationism, intelligent design, fundamentalism, the increasing mistrust of science in issues of public health and the decline in uptake of science education to see that an anti-Enlightenment sentiment is gaining ground. What part do people (humanities graduates?) working in the creative industries today play in that?

Categories: research, humanities, practice, art, science, theory, creativity, elitism, writing, postmodernism, post-structuralism,
Comments: 1

Theory and practice

Author: cath

Thursday, 15 December, 2005 - 21:06

I didn't do it justice, my answer to your question about why study art theory and practice in tandem. I thought about it quite a lot after our conversation and wanted to answer more fully.

Firstly, studying art theory supports art practice because of all that motor neuron stuff going on that you often mention.
Secondly, it supports art practice because I find myself tuning in and becoming more and more aware. There's a lot to be said for an artist developing an eye for things by observing art in all its forms.

And, an artist is always re-appropriating the past, even if they try not to. It could be an unconscious or a conscious thing.

If I study gothic architecture, romanesque art, impressionism etc etc. sometimes it can initially seem removed from my personal artistic journey, but a point always comes when all the exposure informs on my artistic practice.

The last thing I was thinking is that studying art history gives me an opportunity to reflect on art in a different way to practicing art.

Any subject that is studied indepth needs to be approached from many different angles. Theory, hand in hand with practice makes that possible.

Categories: art, theory, practice,
Comments: 1

Web Gallery of Art

Author: joe

Sunday, 06 November, 2005 - 23:10

Discovered this amazing art resource today - the Web Gallery of Art.

Nearly 14,000 reproductions of art from 1100 to 1850, artist biographies, glossary of art terms, and virtual guided tours of the gallery.

I think it's incredible :)

Categories: art, resource, education,
Comments: 2

UK Summer Soundseeing

Author: joe

Sunday, 16 October, 2005 - 23:55

What I did this summer - UK Summer Soundseeing podcast

Been a long break from podcasting, so we make up for it with a hour-long UK soundseeing special. Climbing waterfalls in Welsh valleys, folk music in Penzance, what there isn't to do in Lincolnshire when you're young, and why public art isn't very public...

Some links from the show:

Menticulture's UK Summer Soundseeing Podcast mp3

Duration: 59:26; Size: 28MB

Categories: podcast, soundseeing, uk, summer, art, folk music,
Comments: 1

Art Mobs

Author: joe

Wednesday, 22 June, 2005 - 22:30

The institutional voice is all very well, but I want what's under the radar.

Art Mobs is a project which gives you not only the chance to experience art in a new way by listening to alternative audio guides, but actually invites you to create your own guides.

Look at rocketboom for 8 Jun, and then try out these guides to various artworks, especially try the Francis Bacon, 'Painting', 1946 audio guide while looking at the painting itself!

Categories: art, mobs, grassroots, podcasting,
Comments: 3