Search results for "man "

The question of identity

Author: joe

Tuesday, 20 November, 2012 - 22:09

One of the concerns that arises in the analysis of the relationship between selfhood and computerised media is a focus on authenticity. There is a tension that arises between the various personae that people are able to adopt in any given situation and the centripetal force that unites them in some supposed inner core. The relative status of these different personae - the extent to which they have fidelity with respect to the "primary source" of the "inner core", or the extent to which they perhaps mislead other inter-actors as to the true nature of that "real person", or even threaten the supposed integrity of the authentic self, is instantiated in the very functionality and interface of the computer screen which permits the same "logged-in, authenticated user" to adopt pseudonymous guises in online environments that can be slipped in and out of, framed as they are by windows one can "cycle through".

The people that Turkle describes, who find in the windowed interface a serendipitous enactment of their sense of their plural selves might, as Zizek puts it, be enabled to "discover new aspects of 'me', a wealth of shifting identities, of masks without a 'real' person behind them". In the postmodern world of simulation, where we as subjects trust in the fantasies presented on the digital screen rather than become modernist masters of the inner workings of the device, (the technics), instead we should "endorse this 'dissemination' of the unique self into a multiplicity of competing agents, into a 'collective mind'" and appropriate the logic of the "'decentred' subject".

Zizek provides a number of analogies for thinking about the efficacy of the production or construction of the decentred self, albeit that it might involve an "immanent violence and arbitrariness" since it has no authentic hinterland to which it must pay some sort of deference. Capra's film "Meet John Doe" portrays a character who adopts a "fake identity" but learns to adopt the subject position that the role demands of its actor. The cultural landscape is awash with imaginative explorations of the consequences of identity play, and in many of those story experiments, the narrative is resolved only when the protagonist learns to accept the identity which was at first mere play or a reluctant contingency. In "Sommersby", the interloper who adopts the identity of Jack demonstrates the fullness of his sincerity by accepting the penalty of death that is its price. The transience of identity necessary for persons to "become someone else" has its corollary in the tradition of fictions in which disguised characters become the object of some lover's affection, only for those affections to switch target as the disguise is revealed or passed along: in Twelfth Knight, Olivia easily accepts Sebastian as a husband despite having fallen in love with his disguised sister Viola, suggesting that accepting someone for who they appear to be is a perfectly adequate strategy.

Such ways of thinking about the self are clearly in contrast to traditional conceptions in which an authentic, continuous self acts as a guarantor of identity. Odysseus' testing of Penelope by adopting a disguise is an early instance of the depiction of a "true" identity which should be immune to the vicissitudes of changing circumstance or outer appearance. Woolf's “Orlando” is another case where a distinct and unitary identity both survives and underpins a shifting collection of personae and genders, adopted in dramatic episodic shifts. The protagonist's picaresque adventures are intertwined with the trope of 'The Oak Tree', the work which Orlando eventually completes, and which acts both as the "spine of the earth" and as the embodiment of change as it "flowered and faded so often", as it had over many years, "put forth its leaves and shaken them to the ground".

Erving Goffman provides useful tools for thinking about the shifting personae that we adopt. Using a dramaturgical model as the context for understanding interpersonal interactions, Goffman suggests that in any given situation we are actors on stage, a context which entails the existence of an audience whose observation of us is a primary structuring factor in our self-awareness. While on such stages, we stick to particular scripts - those we have learned, through normal processes of socialisation, which are appropriate to the context.

Such performances, enacted under the consciousness of observation, occur where Goffman calls front ‘stage’ or ‘region’ – the situation in which ‘act out’ the appropriate sorts of behaviours that we know are expected of us. Distinct from the ‘front’ region is a corresponding ‘back’ region – where alternative modes of performance can occur. Note though that this ‘back-stage’ situation need not be thought of as the refuge of the true or authentic inner self which can express itself away from the gaze of the audience: the back region is rather ambiguous, since it is commonly co-habited by fellow-performers who are also part of our ‘team’, also ‘letting their hair down’; and it is also a place where habituation can result in back-stage scripts becoming every bit as socialised in our behaviour as the formulae we follow front-stage. The back can be though of as just another front.

This dramaturgical metaphor opens the way to anti-essentialist conceptions of selfhood: contrary to traditional notions of the dimensions of our identity that have been considered to be stable, material and inescapable - sexuality, gender, kinship, race – not to mention the tangible common sense that we ‘are who we are’ (‘I am that I am’) – there is no inner core as such, but a constantly evolving and self-monitoring sense of self whose coherence is the subject of constant vigilence – either of ourselves or of circumscribing institutional and social apparatuses and their many ‘techniques’. It is only in the light of such possibilities that Butler could articulate the trouble with gender, and suggest that discursive formations of selfhood are anterior to the traditional material considerations of physiology and instrumental knowledge practices.

Categories: identity, performance, authenticity, front, back, queer theory, Goffman, Turkle, Zizek, Butler, Foucault, selfhood,
Comments: 2

Database obesity

Author: joe

Friday, 08 June, 2012 - 21:20

Specifying the nature of narrative - that is, the connecting of otherwise unconnected things into a coherent trajectory - is also to thereby define its antithesis - the anti-narrative. For Manovich, this is the database, which refuses to participate in the articulation of one item to another. They have no beginnings or endings, argues Manovich, nor formal or thematic development, no organisation. These items are flat: "every item has the same significance as any other". Of course there are different kinds of database which may well have structures and forms, hierarchical, arborescent or otherwise, such that users may operate on them and traverse those elements. In such traversals narratives may emerge as the members of collections are briefly brought together as the answer to a query - but in this action the distinction is confirmed: what was non-narrative became narrative, in the retrieval against some operation: "the narrative becomes just one method of accessing data among others".

The narrative act is thus one of selection, and in the example of the database as source of the given materials of narrative, quite literally we issue the command to "SELECT" data from stores according to given criteria. The symbolic form of the database is precisely not selecting: its logic is one of indiscriminately gathering and cataloguing, rather than picking out and assigning significance. Manovich notes the "storage mania" that characterises the digital world, in which everything is collected, from biological molecular structures to communication records to household shopping. A form of cultural sousveillance is at work and its production piece is the database. If we have left an age of myth in which stories provided the symbolic resources for scrying life, then we have entered an age of endless acquisition in which the symbolic imperative is to complete the record of everything. It is perhaps ironic that in a milieux that is claimed to be a "therapy culture" we should have become a collective case of compulsive hoarding.

The end point of such an undertaking is an absolute mirror, a digital record of every act, every cultural object, every distinct thing that makes a distinction, such that it be recordable. An archive of everything, a mirror of the world - not merely to have replaced the territory with the map, but to overflow the territory, such that the map outgrows the world it represents, filled as it is with endless possible repetitions of its own contents, infinitely reproducible. The archive is larger than the world it represents. Hence we see another anti-narrative characteristic emerge: where the collection expands arbitrarily, happy to accept all data and heedlessly insert the new or reproduce endless copies of the old, the narrative conversely simplifies by selection, reduces abundant and chaotic elements into something more manageable, digestible - indeed narrative is a kind of digesting of materials into meanings we can absorb, while the database is inflationary and inflammatory. It is unsurprising that contemporary challenges include replication and scaling, information giganticism and overload. We are obese with our refusal of narrative.

Categories: narrative, connection, database, Lev-Manovich, anti-narrative, sousveillance, hoarding,
Comments: 0

Narrative connections

Author: joe

Thursday, 07 June, 2012 - 21:52

In Database as a symbolic form Manovich contrasts databases, which are merely collections of data, with narratives which instead consist of "a series of connected events caused or experienced by actors" (1998). Manovich's aim here is to retrieve something about the database as a form which we had missed. Actually, far from being 'merely' a collection of data, the database is the catalogue of materials from which the artist might then construct a narrative. The database not only precedes the narrative act but also in fact enables it by providing its raw materials. He notes that "a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events)", whereas the database "refuses to order this list". Thus it is the connecting of elements that were otherwise without order, the catching up of them into trajectories of cause and effect, which characterises narrative. Great story-tellers – Manovich's example is Dziga Vertov – are able to merge database and narrative into a new form, as in Man with a Movie Camera in which Vertov's encyclopaedic cataloguing of the techniques of the new language of cinematography is transformed into a narrative of discovery and possibility.

The strange partner of the anti-narrative character of the database - its resistance to connecting and articulating, and its priority to narrative - is its incompleteness. The web, which is formally recognisable as a database at the largest scales, is always being added to, and these additions are not appended as though to the last items of a list, but can be inserted anywhere. No narrative could survive such a process without sacrificing its integrity - as Manovich puts it, "how can one keep a coherent narrative or any other development trajectory through the material if it keeps changing?" We should not be fooled, then, by the apparent interconnectedness that gives the web its very name. Notwithstanding the links that carry us from one place to another - whether that place is a site, a page, an element, a node within a collection of nodes - there is no way to pin down those connections into something fixed and finished. Even were we to focus in on just one location in the web, entirely within our control, and to impose our structured navigational system onto a designed pathway through our given materials, we must still concede that our user may at any moment stray off the prescribed route, by switching browser window or alt-tabbing away to glance at messages or to graze on walls, feeds, streams and timelines. Every online link is susceptible to insertions of material which may be earth-moving or inane.

Manovich's analysis, in distinguishing the characteristics of databases, gives us a working definition of narrative which is consonant with dominant interpretations. In Propp's formalism, the 31 functions from which all folk-tales can be derived become a narrative when they are instantiated in a story which must always present the functions in unvarying order, even if they may leave some or others of them out. Even in Levi-Strauss' analysis of myth, in which many narratives are taken as parts of an entire system, the de-temporalised components of those stories are nevertheless structured in ways that reflect the underlying imperatives of human nature. Barthes' transcultural, transhistorical narrative, which is "simply there, like life itself", is a corollary of the sentence, with its syntactical (connecting) arrangements of subjects, verbs, objects, modes. Greimas' even more granular analysis posits such connecting principles as desires or aims, communication, and support or hindrance, as the basic patterns of narrative. Todorov's definition, which consists of different states of equilibrium and disequilibrium, is precisely a narrative because those states are articulated to each other. Genette's understanding of narrative is relational, being a product of the interactions between levels of narrative, perspective and focalisation. Historians such as Hayden White and Louis Mink separate the narrative, with its explanatory agenda, from the chronicle, with its enumerative function. From Aristotle, with his requirements for the high being laid low and the lowly being exalted, to Brecht's desire to rouse the audience to reject the necessity of inevitable endings, narrative is only narrative if it is a discrete series of items, caught up together into a connecting principle, a trajectory, a start, middle and end.

Manovic, Lev, 1998. Database as a Symbolic Form Available online at:

Categories: narrative, connection, database, Lev-Manovich ,
Comments: 1

Fruit and flowers

Author: joe

Wednesday, 03 August, 2011 - 23:37

Perry Bard is the artist behind Man with a Movie Camera: The Global Remake, a participatory reproduction of Vertov's 1929 original. We are invited to upload video clips of our own which match or interpret, shot for shot, the sequence of the original. The remake allows us to therefore see one, two, three - and more, an infinite number of films called Man with a Movie Camera, the first, the original, placed next to the second, the shot-by-shot crowd-sourced substitute, creates a third film composed of the two engaged in a concurrent dialogue, side by side. The act of montage is no longer only a diachronic suture, stitching two fragments into a meaningful utterance, but also a synchronic relation of each fragment to its reinterpreted counterpart. But a further fragment is always implied: the one you wonder might be waiting on your phone or hard drive, the one you might go out and make now. This putative fragment is just the first of an endless number of presumptive shots you now know are hovering at the edges of possibility, stretching the polygenetic, tesselated sequences out through both dimensions of now and next. If meaning is created through articulation, that is, the joining of pieces, tokens, words, or images moving and still - the basic fact of montage - then the possible expressions of meaning generated by the intertextual adjacency of source, reproduction, reinterpretation and imaginary addition are endless. The myriad thinkable paths all occur somewhere, dispersed in the matrix. The most familiar occurrences are merely those that float in the shallows.

In On the Internet, nobody knows you're a constructivist: Perry Bard's The Man With the Movie Camera: The Global Remake, Seth Feldman examines the interplay between Vertov's original and the participatory remake, and notes that the first significant aspect is the generative promise which Vertov makes for his film, which promise Bard's project fulfills. Seth writes that his thesis is that "Vertov's writing and The Man With the Movie Camera in particular are less historical texts than they are generative forces or perhaps, more accurately, generative grammars for the pure language of cinema that Vertov envisioned." What is the generative grammar that Vertov envisioned? Vertov writes of it in his notebooks, published in 1984.

When The Man with a Movie Camera was made, we looked upon the project this way: in our Michurin garden we raise different kinds of fruit, different kinds of film; why don't we make a film on film-language, the first film without words, which does not require translation into other languages, an international film? And why, on the other hand, don't we try, using that language, to speak of the behaviour of the "living person", the actions, in various situations, of a man with a movie camera? We felt that in so doing we would kill two birds with one stone: we would raise the film-alphabet to the level of an international film-language and also show a person, an ordinary person, not just in snatches, but keep him on the screen throughout the entire film [...]
An experiment's an experiment. There are all kinds of flowers. And each new breed of flower, each newly produced fruit is the result of a series of complex experiments.
We felt that we had an obligation not just to make films for wide consumption but, from time to time, films that beget films as well. Films of this sort do not pass without leaving a trace, for one's self, or for others. They are as essential as a pledge of future victories. [...]
If, in The Man with a Movie Camera it's not the goal but the means that stand out, that is obviously because one of the film's objectives was to acquaint people with those means and not to hide them, as was usually considered mandatory in other films. If one of the film's goals was to acquaint people with the grammar of cinematic means, then to hide that grammar would have been strange.
Dziga Vertov, 1984, Kino-eye: the writings of Dziga Vertov, UCP: Berkeley, pp153-155

The film does not hold up a mirror to the world, but it generates the world. It begets, leaves traces, and pledges future victories. Cinema reveals its grammar to us in order that we may learn it. Fruit and flowers. "Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind, whose seed is in itself, upon the earth" (Genesis, 1:11)

Categories: dziga-vertov, perry-bard, man-with-a-movie-camera, generative, film, grammar, montage, meaning, fruit, flowers,
Comments: 0

The eye of the mannequin

Author: joe

Tuesday, 02 August, 2011 - 22:41

Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera is, according to the first title frame's final parenthesised subtitle, an "excerpt from a camera operator's diary". It is a re-presentation of the records of the man with his camera, an excavation of an naively created archive - authentic and unspun. The film unfolds reflexively in its very name and subtitle, its title sequence, and its opening scenes which present a cinema theatre filling with spectators, gathering to watch the moving images on the screen.

An orchestra is frozen in time, the camera cutting between individual musicians poised and waiting, in tension with their instruments. Vertov stretches the sequence in time, pausing on the horns and the fingers resting on the valves, the double-bass straightening its player through the bow, the timpani, violin and trombone holding their humans taut as they anticipate the still conductor's movement at the prompt of the rolling of the film. The elongated duration in which the inert players remain motionless, braced for the introductory notes, outlasts the sense of natural time elapsing: life is fixed fast and rigid.

The projector's shutter is shown slowly to open and to begin beaming light, whereupon the conductor brings his orchestra to life: the once motionless musicians now burst and flail over their charges. Although when released the film was accompanied by live music in theatres, and subsequent audiences have enjoyed the film with a variety of audio interpretations as its soundtrack, the film artefact itself is silent, and has an extraordinary effect when viewed without sound. In silence, the orchestra works wildly, and the projector swallows its reel of film noiselessly, before finally the cinematic vision appears: a single numeral '1' is erected into view and we begin moving through a window of a house. The eerie silence augments the distances we travel: we are watching a film-maker watching a film-show. The camera watches the audience watching what the camera has seen.

Some minutes into the film within the film, we see the eyes of a mannequin, peering from a store-window, gazing out on the world. Eyes, windows, camera. The lifeless figures in the windows and the dressed busts, the posed dummies at the sewing-machine or astride a bicycle - even a stuffed dog articulated so as to seem expectant and watchful: all look out at the world, whose alienated form reflects on the inanimate almond shaped bumps painted to look like the organs of sight in a facsimile human face. The camera sees for them: their own images, their view of the streets, the paraphernalia of commerce which surrounds them, the sleeping bodies of the otherwise absent human race.

It is a puppet show in a world of matter with a transcendent intervening cinematic machinery providing an occasionalist vision and sense. An outside force runs through the world, causing actions and events, permitting sense to be made, prompting beings into life: mediating. The world's continued existence is brought about by machinery with a roving eye.

Categories: dziga-vertov, man-with-a-movie-camera, film, time, eye, window, mediation, cinema, puppet, mannequin, occasionalism,
Comments: 0

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

Workers and intellectuals

Author: joe

Monday, 13 December, 2010 - 23:57

While thinking about Gramsci last week, I was reminded of his emphasis on the solidarity of intellectuals with workers. Who are these intellectuals he talks about? He distinguishes between two different kinds: the "traditional" and the "organic". The former, traditional, intellectuals emerge, seemingly legitimately, from the pre-existing structures of society, and thus appear to have relative autonomy, and somehow represent independence from political interference or interest: clericy, academics, philosophers, theorists - he calls them a "stratum of administrators". The latter, organic, intellectuals are those who are created as part of the emergence of social classes and structures. Gramsci offers the example of capitalist entrepreneurs who, as part of their endeavour, produce a host of technical advisors, organisers, managers and specialists who aid, lubricate and support their entrepreneurial adventures.

As I've said, I read Gramsci as a teacher who is wiser than me, so when troubled by something he suggests, I am forced to grapple with it seriously, rather than gloss over it. Gramsci is famous for his assertion that "all men are philosophers", but this simply entails the further question - what is the function of the intellectual dimension of each person, in the struggle for emancipation and enfranchisement?

The answer may seem to lie in the "traditional" intelligentsia, who have retained their autonomy from the dominant political class, rather than the "organic " intellectuals whose knowledge is infected by coercion into the dominant mode of production. What would be necessary, were this true, would be for the "traditional" intellectuals, the academics and scholars, scientists and theorists, to teach the lowly, "organic" intellectuals. Indeed much contemporary discourse on the threat to the university implies this analysis: rising tuition fees and withdrawal of funding from arts and humanities means that the university system is in danger of being co-opted into subservience to the dominant mode of neoliberal production, being stripped of its historical intellectual autonomy, and directed at instrumental, commercial subjects which will drive capital growth in the economy, because under the new arrangements it will be limited to the richest in society and through privatisation, arcane or unprofitable subjects will go to the wall in favour of crowd-pleasing employment-guaranteeing degrees.

But here's what Gramsci says:

The problem of creating a new stratum of intellectuals consists therefore in the critical elaboration of the intellectual activity that exists in everyone at a certain degree of development, modifying its relationship with the muscular-nervous effort towards a new equilibrium, and ensuring that the muscular-nervous effort itself, in so far as it is an element of a general practical activity, which is perpetually innovating the physical and social world, becomes the foundation of a new and integral conception of the world. The traditional and vulgarised type of the intellectual is given by the man of letters, the philosopher, the artist. Therefore journalists, who claim to be men of letters, philosophers, artists, also regard themselves as the "true" intellectuals. In the modern world, technical education, closely bound to industrial labour even at the most primitive and unqualified level, must form the basis of the new type of intellectual.
The Formation of the Intellectuals by Antonio Gramsci

Technical education, not education which aims at the production of the man of letters, must inform the new, necessary stratum of intellectuals - and this emphasis inverts the obvious answer outlined above. Far from valuing the autonomy of a layer of intellectuals detached from the dominant mode of production, Gramsci seems to critique intellectual activity that is not engaged with 'muscular-nervous' (i.e. practical) effort. Instead of lumping the "organic" intellectuals in with the dominant classes their efforts serve, he argues that it is this body of intellectuals that need to be fostered - and at that, through development of their practical, instrumental abilities, rather than their elevation into lofty academic "eloquence":

The mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life, as constructor, organiser, "permanent persuader" and not just a simple orator (but superior at the same time to the abstract mathematical spirit); from technique-as-work one proceeds to technique-as-science and to the humanistic conception of history, without which one remains "specialised" and does not become "directive" (specialised and political).

Or, you might say, all talk, no action. What is it in this critique of the "eloquence" of the traditional intellectual that is not enough? Isn't it the very separation of the academy from the consciousness of the worker that renders it extraneous? If that were all, then it might be enough simply to educate the worker into the concerns of the academy. But that would simply be an attempt to assimilate and thereby eradicate the very consciousness of the worker, in the mold of Matthew Arnold's vision of a universal education system that taught all children ancient Greek so that they could avoid being too anarchic. Actually Gramsci seems to be arguing that progress towards a new emancipatory hegemony requires a class of intellectuals that is not separate from the workers, but embedded in it and thus with its hands on the machines, engaged in the reproduction of the organs of society.

One of the most important characteristics of any group that is developing towards dominance is its struggle to assimilate and to conquer "ideologically" the traditional intellectuals, but this assimilation and conquest is made quicker and more efficacious the more the group in question succeeds in simultaneously elaborating its own organic intellectuals.

The dominant class wishes to colonise and normalise both classes of intellectuals. The problem for the university is that it imagines itself to be separate from the bourgeoisie, but in solidarity with the worker. In fact the reverse is all too true. The university should be invaded by the masses, not because the academy can transform them into lofty thinkers, but so that the workers can put knowledge to their own ends. Resistance must be on those terms, not the protectionism that characterises much of the current defence of the HE sector. As Armin Medosch wrote a couple of days ago,

"[the university system] reproduces internally the class structure of society, where the show is run by non-teaching managers, while a few celebrity professors benefit and the majority are just intellectual wage workers adjusting to different levels of exploitation and alienation. If the students really care for education as a public good they would be well advised not only to defend the status quo but raise maximalist demands, and simultaneously, as already happens in the many occupations and self-teaching experiments, to seek to re-invent university from below, redefine what counts as knowledge and science, and to experiment with new learning and teaching techniques and devices which are more egalitarian and less tainted by the fetishisation of knowledge in the class structure of 'cognitive' informational capitalism."

The university is already private, rich-favoured, neoliberal. The fight should be to seize the opportunity to reform it in the image of the worker, rather than the rich.

Categories: Antonio Gramsci, intellectuals, university, solidarity, worker, hegemony, emancipation,
Comments: 0

Objects, knowledge and ethics

Author: joe

Monday, 06 December, 2010 - 22:08

It's been a fascinating few days watching the SR / OOO and the Metaphysics and Things conferences unfold online in the last few days - Bogost, Bryant, Morton, Harman, Haraway, Stengers, Shaviro and others on objects and units, processes and procedures, rhetoric and semiotics. It's very stimulating to see ideas open up and develop nuance as they get pulled in different directions by new combinations of cast members. I'm looking forward to getting my teeth into the detail soon - particularly what strikes me as a very Latourian atmosphere clinging to some of the outcomes, (by which I mean, a healthy and indiscriminate abundance of agents together translating and transforming the world). In the meantime, I want to return to the stubborn subject of withdrawn objects.

A few days ago Graham Harman called out a certain approach to making philosophical arguments, naming it trumpery - "the triumphalistic one-upping of positions that are defined as naive/traditionalistic" - particularly with reference to arguments which want to "denounce hidden unities behind the plurality of surface-effects . . . It's time to recover these bemoaned hidden unities lying behind appearance, rather than trumping them with easy avant garde positions that are now much too banal to be avant garde."

I don't know whether this was specifically in reference to a post of mine Graham linked to earlier; in that post I said, "I just want to dispel hidden realities which betray their appearances, or illusory facades which belie some more authentic realm" - which is pretty close to the position Graham dislikes.

I should point out that I think my position is more a form of specious dilettantism than avant garde trumpery. I'm an autodidact when it comes to philosophy, and have no real interest in making deep ontological commitments one way or the other; I am deeply interested, though, in how philosophies make me feel - their affect and the aesthetic experiences they evoke. So far as I am a professional academic / researcher (which is not very far), I'd say I'm in the phenomenological camp which denies that we can speak of things lying outside our experience without chasing ghosts and hallucinations. One of the things I love most about engaging with philosophy is the sense that I'm entering a world of abysses, ghouls, hauntings and the supernatural...

This position is often written off as a sort of postmodern cop-out: it flies in the face of common sense (because spades are spades and arche-fossils are arche-fossils); it insults scientific progress whose methods, its proponents constantly remind us, are the only valid means of investigating the world; it always escapes affirmation and, cowardly, never risks itself in defence of a particular worldview or outlook; it disappears (often accompanied by obscurantism) into surfaces, play, simulacra, language, representation - or, inevitably, up its own arse.

However, there is something about this position (which I prefer to call anti-foundationalist than postmodern), which seems to me to be crucial. Rorty describes it in Consequences of Pragmatism:

Suppose that Socrates was wrong, that we have not once seen the Truth, and so will not, intuitively, recognise it when we see it again. This means that when the secret police come, when the torturers violate the innocent, there is nothing to be said to them of the form "There is something within you which you are betraying. Though you embody the practices of a totalitarian society which will endure forever, there is something beyond those practices which condemns you." This thought is hard to live with, as is Sartre's remark:
"Tomorrow, after my death, certain people may decide to establish fascism, and the others may be cowardly or miserable enough to let them get away with it. At that moment, fascism will be the truth of man, and so much the worse for us. In reality, things will be as much as man has decided they are."
This hard saying brings out what ties Dewey and Foucault, James and Nietzsche, together - the sense that there is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put there ourselves, no criterion that we have not created in the course of creating a practice, no standard of rationality that is not an appeal to such a criterion, no rigorous argumentation that is not obedience to our own conventions.
Consequences of Pragmatism by Richard Rorty

If there is no universal truth to which we can appeal when the secret police come to the door, then all we can do is decide what we want to defend, and defend it as best we can. If there is no fallback position, no 'criterion' outside of human dealings to appeal to, no God, or universal morality, or even genetic imperative, all that is open to us is to make our case - the last thing we can be is complacent. It is, no doubt, undergraduate philosophy 101, but I see no way to go about epistemology, ontology, metaphysics or practical philosophy of any sort, without first taking up an ethical position.

Attendant to this position, for me, there must also be two further consequences: a suspicion of anything that might claim to be a more "authentic" or "foundational" realm than the surfaces amongst which we live our effervescent, sensual lives; and also a recognition that a world without foundations is one where the irresistible force can be resisted, the unstoppable object can be stopped, the impassable obstacle can be passed, and the hard kernel of things can be cracked.

That was all a long, round-about way of saying that I'm not so much a trumper as a dilettante, and not so much a dilettante as a double agent. I also don't want to imply that objects that withdraw are the harbingers of enslavement. Just that I want to understand the meaning of hidden realities. What is it that is hiding? Does it hide from everything? And why is it hiding from me?

Categories: Graham Harman, objects, withdrawal, Richard Rorty, pragmatism, ethics,
Comments: 2


Author: joe

Thursday, 02 December, 2010 - 23:52

- on lines from Rilke

Gouge out my eyes:
I still see you.
Burst my eardrums:
I still hear your voice.
Hack off my hands:
I still feel you.
Pluck out my tongue:
It still probes your mouth.
Chop off my genitals:
I still have carnal knowledge of you.
Bleed me to death:
I am still hot for you.
Cut out my heart:
It still beats for you.
Dash out my brains:
You are in my bones.
Cremate me:
You are in my ashes.
Scatter them:
You are in every particle.
Variations On A Theme Of Rilke by Patrick O'Shaughnessy

Patrick O'Shaughnessy is my grandfather. This poem has always been one of my favourites. I was reminded of it last night, while watching Graham Harman's fantastic lecture on Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology at the "Hello Everything" conference. He uses an analogy about cotton and fire to illustrate the withdrawn dimensions of reality that can never be accessed by any kind of relation. Knowledge can never exhaust the objects it encounters: even fire does not exhaust the cotton it encounters.

I imagine a sudden spark catch hold of the cotton, triggering a whooomff of flames engulfing the soft cotton. The fibres glow and crackle, but quickly start to blacken into sooty embers, and disintegrate. As they sliver and spread, there are specks and motes of pitchy, carbonised cellulose dispersing in the air, jetting upwards on the crest of fiery waves or drifting sideways and earthward. Somewhere in that conflagration the cotton is destroyed - the object that was some cotton is now a crowd of particles dispersing in the air, a de-condensing collection of new, smaller objects. Exactly where it is, in the process of that disassembling, that the cotton's destruction occurs - at which point the cotton is translated into its disaggregate particulate components - is ambiguous: is it the instant the fire first catches the flammable edges of the white plant fluff, or when each last part of coherent fibre is finally desiccated and splintered? Is there a gradient of dispersal, or a quantum jump - is "being" on a spectrum or is it a lump?

Michael at Archive Fire uses the example of a horse eating an apple:

An apple is partially 'withdrawn' from a horse who holds it in its teeth because the teeth of the horse are only in contact with the skin of the apple, leaving the inner non-skin parts of the apple "hidden" and temporarily in excess of the horses bite. So the horse can be said to be in direct contact with the real apple, however not in its entirety. There are aspects of the apple that are partially withdrawn. But when the horse bites into the apple a 'deeper' kind of access is granted, the apple's individuality has been compromised, and when the horse subsequently begins to digest the apple the very distinction between the apple and the horse begins to break down. In this example the interaction between apple and horse goes from partial contact and withdrawnness to deeper disclosure and eventually to absorption in such a manner that completely obviates the need to posit any sort of unbridgeable 'gap' between either the two objects in themselves', or between the horse's encounter with the apple and its experience of it. In an intimately enmeshed and complicated cosmos these things often touch, mix and mingle in ways that are specific to what they in fact are.
The Depth of Things - Part 1: Conjuring the Gap by michael of Archive Fire

Here's what I feel, even if I don't really know it - my intuition: my identity is not hermetically sealed from the world - rather my consciousness is ecologically entwined with the environment in which it moves; my body is not a finitely bounded unity, but a breathing, drinking, leaking density plugged into the material world. Perhaps less intuitively - my mind is not an encapsulated mirage hovering around my brain, nor a mere emergent epiphenomenon which is the effect of a billion grey cells, but something more difficult to understand, such that it feels more like magic. In any case it's just as hard for me to think of my individuality as absolute, as it would be for a believer to let go of the essential existence of the soul. Merleau-Ponty says:

I discover within myself a kind of internal weakness, standing in the way of my being totally individualised: a weakness which exposes me to the gaze of others as a man among men, or at least a consciousness among consciousnesses . . .

My grandfather's poem pictures an indestructible essence, in the guise of the obsessive lover. The subject who loves can never be exterminated by any action of his object; but at the same time the loved one can never extract themselves from the grasp of the lover. I know you, even though you emasculate me. But the essence does in fact de-individualise, and the lover is no longer himself alone - his object is absorbed into his bones and his blood; into every particle. Each last speck still remains the "I" of the lover, and yet completely mingles with "you" of the loved. You and I, inextricably intermixed.

Categories: Patrick Shaughnessy, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Graham Harman, objects, withdrawal, love, poetry, essence, knowledge, relation,
Comments: 0

We are discovered

Author: joe

Wednesday, 01 December, 2010 - 22:06

- on being a puppet

Therein resides the paradox of the notion of the "performative," or speech act: in the very gesture of accomplishing an act by way of uttering words, I am deprived of authorship, the "big Other" (the symbolic institution) speaks through me. It is no wonder then, that there is something puppet-like about the persons whose professional function is essentially performative (judges, kings...): they are reduced to a living embodiment of the symbolic institution, i.e. their sole duty is to "dot the i's" mechanically, to confer on some content elaborated by others, the institutional cachet. The later Lacan is fully justified in reserving the term "act" for something much more suicidal and real than a speech act.
This mystery of the symbolic order is exemplified by the enigmatic status of what we call "politeness": when, upon meeting an acquaintance, I say "Glad to see you! How are you today?", it is clear to both of us that, in a way, I "do not mean it seriously" (if my partner suspects that I am really interested, he may even be unpleasantly surprised, as though I were aiming at something too intimate and of no concern to me - or, to paraphrase the old Freudian joke, "Why are you saying you're glad to see me, when you're really glad to see me!?"). However, it would nonetheless be wrong to designate my act as simply "hypocritical," since, in another way, I do mean it: the polite exchange does establish a kind of pact between the two of us; in the same sense as I do "sincerely" laugh through the canned laughter (the proof of it being the fact that I effectively do "feel relieved" afterwards).
The Interpassive Subject by Slavoj Zizek

I love Zizek's reversals. I like to call them Zizekian switcheroonies. "Is not your love for Zizek the very condition for your hatred of Zizek?" In this particular switcheroony, the speech act is turned on its head. It is not the speaker who makes the world such by the act of speaking, but the Other which expresses and enacts its will through the speaker - the subject supposed to believe.

Today I was discussing Wikileaks with students, and I was reminded of the interpassive subject, ("Is, however, the other side of this interactivity not interpassivity?"), who in their very participation in the digital realm become the means of the digital realm to "enjoy the show". Wikileaks now knows everything. Wikileaks has every document there is. Wikileaks is the panopticon, the subject supposed to know.

When rumours emerge that Wikileaks will publish the internal documents of a large bank, I half expect every bank immediately to surrender and publish everything, just as one of Arthur Conan Doyle's friends is supposed to have left the country and fled for good upon receiving a hoax message from the author, stating just "We are discovered. Flee now!"

My machine enjoys the show as I perform my part for it, my VCR enjoys watching my TV; we are puppets amongst the arguing objects that populate our environment, and Wikileaks will publish every thought I have ever had, so that you (and I) can realise what I feel.

Categories: Slavoj Zizek, interpassivity, subject, Wikileaks, speech, act, performance,
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


Author: joe

Tuesday, 23 November, 2010 - 23:51

- on the absence of inner realities.

While we could retain the common-sense notion that fostered appearances can be discredited by a discrepant reality, - there is often no reason for claiming that the facts discrepant with the fostered impression are any more the real reality than is the fostered reality they have the power of embarrassing. A cynical view of everyday performances can be as one-sided as the one that is sponsored by the performer. For many sociological issues it may not even be necessary to decide which is the more real, the fostered impression or the one the performer attempts to prevent the audience from receiving. The crucial sociological consideration, for this report, at least, is merely that impressions fostered in everyday performances are subject to disruption. We will want to know what kind of impression of reality can shatter the fostered impression of reality, and what reality really is can be left to other students. We will want to ask, "What are the ways in which a given impression can be discredited?" and this is not quite the same as asking, "What are the ways in which the given impression is false?"
I would like, finally, to add that the matters which the audience leaves alone because of their awe of the performer are likely to be the matters about which he would feel shame were a disclosure to occur. As Riezler has suggested, we have, then, a basic social coin, with awe on one side and shame on the other. The audience senses secret mysteries and powers behind the performance, and the performer senses that his chief secrets are petty ones. As countless folk tales and initiation rites show, often the real secret behind the mystery is that there really is no mystery; the real problem is to prevent the audience from learning this too.
The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman

Goffman's front and back regions and their associated performances are standard fare in the kinds of intro-to-cultural-studies units I've taught on, especially in relation to online participatory media, where it has been a popular way of understanding the liberating and playful 'face-work' that disembodied, pseudo-anonymous spaces afford. The front persona acts out roles based on scripts determined by the performative imperatives in play at any given moment - the particular stage being occupied, the nature of the audience present, the props and paraphernalia to hand, the superset of expectations and conventions which are mobilised by the narrative genre at work and the attendant sense of destination that such stories always demand. The 'front' persona is what we think it is - it is transparently a role, immediate in its ability or otherwise to convince us of its sincerity.

The back region is always more problematic. it is very tempting to ascribe to the 'back' region a hidden authenticity - the real actor behind the role, the performer behind the performance. If the front region is determined by the external pressures of peers, observers and the wider world, as well as the internal pressures exerted by self-consciousness and confidence, personal desires and aspirations, fears of failure and hopes of acceptance, then surely the back region is what is concealed by the performance: the inner drives and originating sources of such desires, fears and hopes - the real person behind the appearance. Common wisdom fears that excessive and injudicious self-exposure will reveal more of oneself than was intended or might be desirable or safe, precisely because areas of the back persona will escape through cracks in an out-of-control performance - corpsing.

I had gone along with this interpretation of Goffman's analysis, teaching undergraduates about the front persona and it's conformance to social norms, versus the back persona and its association with a more authentic, hidden self - until one of my colleagues demanded to know why I was so sure this back persona should necessarily be 'the real me', and even whether Goffman intended that we should understand it so. Why would I assume that 'back' were synonymous with 'real'? Go back to the text, the script.

The analysis of back regions focusses for the most part, (frustratingly for the essay-writing or lecture-planning skim-reader looking for a quote about online identities) on teams. The teams go front-stage together in their workplaces, sanatoria, suburbs and homes; they also go back-stage together where the anti-front actions play themselves out - informality, swearing, solidarity, irritability being a few of the symptoms Goffman lists. But back-stage is still stage: the actor has merely turned his back on one proscenium arch to face another audience. The back is just another front: the business of complying with scripts continues just the same. We may ask, where is the back region to this new front-that-was-back? Is there an end to the infinite regress, when the actor leaves and finds himself alone? Goffman himself notes the dilemma:

"it must be allowed that one can become so habituated to one's front region activity and front region character that it may be necessary to handle one's relaxation from it as a performance. One may feel obliged, when backstage, to act out of character in a familiar fashion and this can come to be more of a pose than the performance for which it was meant to provide a relaxation."

He seems to imply, here, that habit makes the back region a performance in itself, but I wonder if his aside - that the question of "what reality really is can be left to other students" - is not a hint that those other students might be chasing a hall of mirrors. The performances are - as the dramaturgical analogy implies - acts, and as such, they enact; they make real. Perhaps they do not reveal or conceal hidden depths, so much as they compensate for the absence of such essences, and in so doing produce what is now, newly real. There is no inner core which ever-withdraws from display and revelation. There is only a performer; there is no actor; and therefore - no gap.

Categories: Erving Goffman, dramaturgy, performance, identity, gap, front, back, persona,
Comments: 0

Milk teeth

Author: joe

Monday, 22 November, 2010 - 21:51

- on performing and pioneering

Truth on the stage is whatever we can believe in with sincerity, whether in ourselves or in our colleagues. Truth cannot be separated from belief, nor belief from truth. They cannot exist without each other, and without both of them it is impossible to live your part, or to create anything. Everything that happens on the stage must be convincing to the actor himself, to his associates and to the spectators. It must inspire belief in the possibility, in real life, of emotions analogous to those being experienced on the stage by the actor. Each and every moment must be saturated with a belief in the truthfulness of the emotion felt, and in the action carried out, by the actor.
If you only knew how important is the process of self-study! It should continue ceaselessly, without the actor even being aware of it, and it should test every step he takes. When you point out to him the palpable absurdity of some false action he has taken he is more than willing to cut it. But what can he do if his own feelings are not able to convince him? Who will guarantee that having rid himself of one lie, another will not immediately take its place? No the approach must be different. A grain of truth must be planted under the falsehood, eventually to supplant it, as a child's second set of teeth pushes out the first.
An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavski

I'm fascinated by the practice of actors. Actors are imposters, strangers, aliens, pretending to be something they are not; but when they do it well, we say they 'inhabit' their roles - are 'at home', 'dwell' in the character, 'live in' the persona - vocabulary which implies something about belonging and home-beddedness. It's a strange and intense interplay between artifice and authenticity, with truth 'supplanting' falsehood.

I had a go for a few years in a community drama group, and without wishing to claim any kind of acting gift, I did experience that sort of simultaneity which consists of being myself and being someone else. I acted for about 8 years, and finally began to have the sensation of both being in control, and nevertheless 'in character' - self-watching as well as free-flowing, spontaneously contrived. To be 'saturated with a belief', and yet ever to feel it is not enough. It is a paradox, to be constantly creating the space which one then occupies.

I struggle to describe it. It is as though the outer edge of the performance is a bull-bar, an outstretched arm purposefully clearing an opening, into which the rest of the self can then expand. The new space is colonial - I settle there, feeling like a foreigner, imposing myself on the indigenous; but habitation makes the new world familiar, until eventually the land is mine. I am an occupier who has gone native. But have I expanded the empire of my self? When I pioneer this new territory, has my homeland grown? Or am I now an émigré, who has adandoned the old land for the new? Is my performance acquisitive or picaresque?

Categories: Constantin Stanislavski, acting, performance, self, territory, colonisation,
Comments: 0


Author: joe

Tuesday, 16 November, 2010 - 22:52

- on infiltration

My point of view is for me not so much a limitation of my experience as a way I have of infiltrating into the world in its entirety . . . But how is it possible for me to experience the world as a positively existing individual, since none of the perspective views of it which I enjoy exhausts it, since its horizons are always open, and since moreover no knowledge, even scientific knowledge, provides us with the invariable formula of a facies totius universi?
Phenomenology of Perception by Maurice Merleau-Ponty

I am a secret agent, I carry out espionage; I see partially and report back from a labyrinth of mirrors; I dissimulate and double, decoy and delude; I am disguised as I walk among the unknowing objects of my surveillance; I blend in in order to see better; I see only what is not visible, and so deal in fiction.

I am an intruder, I do not belong; I trespass and infringe, perpetrate and interfere; I alter the course, inhibit and encourage, affect and disturb; I change history, divert destinies, I influence the outcome; I violate, obstruct and pervert.

I am an infiltrator; I pass through the walls; an impurity, unstrained from the solution, absorbed by osmosis, diffuse in the world; I repel the substrate, not condensing, precipitating, solidifying, crystallising; but dissolving, melting, subliming, evaporating.

Categories: Maurice Merleau-Ponty, infiltration, espionage, embodiment, immanence,
Comments: 0


Author: joe

Monday, 15 November, 2010 - 21:52

- on anarchists and oligarchs

Ah-ah-ah, ha-ha, ho-ho!
Fly into the streets! All who are still fresh and young and not dehumanized - to the streets! The pot-bellied mortar of laughter stands in a square drunk with joy. Laughter and Love, copulating with Melancholy and Hate, pressed together in the mighty, convulsive passion of bestial lust. Long live the psychology of contrasts! Intoxicated, burning spirits have raised the flaming banner of intellectual revolution. Death to the creatures of routine, the philistines, the sufferers from gout! Smash with a deafening noise the cup of vengeful storms!

Is this the voice of the revolting, the oppressed, the unemployed, the disenfrachised - the jobless, the state-dependents, the unions, the students, the working-classes, the poor, the minority? Is it the call-to-arms of those fighting the old order, the oligarchs, the Bullingdons, the capitalists, the bankers, the bourgeois?


Tear down the churches and their allies the museums! Blast to smithereens the fragile idols of Civilization! Hey, you decadent architects of sarcophagi of thought, you watchmen of the universal cemetery of books - stand aside! We have come to remove you!
The old must be buried, the dusty archives burned by the Vulcan's torch of creative genius. Past the flaky ashes of world-wide devastation, past the charred canvases of bulky paintings, past the burned fat, pot-bellied volumes of classics we march...! Above the vast expanse of devastation covering our land the banner of anarchy will be proudly unfurled. Writing has no value! There is no market for literature! There are no prisons, no limits for subjective creativity! Everything is permitted! Everything is unrestricted!
Anarcho-Futurist Manifesto, 1919, by A. L. and V. L. Gordin

Where anarchy and the market meet: Smash everything, you neo-anarcho-liberals!

Categories: anarchy, revolution, anarcho-futurism, manifesto, neo-liberal, anti-intellectual,
Comments: 0

Heap of sawdust

Author: joe

Tuesday, 09 November, 2010 - 16:46

- on freedom and craft.

Understand this clearly: You can teach a man to draw a straight line, and to cut one; to strike a curved line, and to carve it; and to copy and carve any number of given lines or forms, with admirable speed and perfect precision; and you find his work perfect of its kind: but if you ask him to think about any of those forms, to consider if he cannot find any better in his own head, he stops; his execution becomes hesitating; he thinks, and ten to one he thinks wrong; ten to one he makes a mistake in the first touch he gives to his work as a thinking being. But you have made a man of him for all that. He was only a machine before, an animated tool.
And observe, you are put to stern choice in this matter. You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their aims strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them. All the energy of their spirits must be given to make cogs and compasses of themselves. All their attention and strength must go to the accomplishment of the mean act. The eye of the soul must be bent upon the finger-point, and the soul's force must fill all the invisible nerves that guide it, ten hours a day, that it may not err from its steely precision, and so soul and sight be worn away, and the whole human being be lost at last - a heap of sawdust, so far as its intellectual work in this world is concerned; saved only by its Heart, which cannot go into the form of cogs and compasses, but expands, after the ten hours are over, into fireside humanity. On the other hand, if you will make a man of the working creature, you cannot make a tool. Let him but begin to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing; and the engine-turned precision is lost at once. Out come all his roughness, all his dulness, all his incapability; shame upon shame, failure upon failure, pause after pause: but out comes the whole majesty of him also; and we know the height of it only, when we see the clouds settling upon him. And, whether the clouds be bright or dark, there will be transfiguration behind and within them.
And now, reader, look round this English room of yours, about which you have been proud so often, because the work of it was so good and strong, and the ornaments of it so finished. Examine again all those accurate mouldings, and perfect polishings, and unerring adjustments of the seasoned wood and tempered steel. Many a time you have exulted over them, and thought how great England was, because her slightest work was done so thoroughly. Alas! if read rightly, these perfectnesses are signs of a slavery in our England a thousand times more bitter and more degrading than that of the scourged African, or helot Greek. Men may be beaten, chained, tormented, yoked like cattle, slaughtered like summer flies, and yet remain in one sense, and the best sense, free. But to smother their souls within them, to blight and hew into rotting pollards the suckling branches of their human intelligence, to make the flesh and skin which, after the worm's work on it, is to see God, into leathern thongs to yoke machinery with, - this it is to be slave-masters indeed; and there might be more freedom in England, though her feudal lords' lightest words were worth men's lives, and though the blood of the vexed husbandman dropped in the farrows of her fields, than there is while the animation of her multitudes is sent like fuel to feed the factory smoke, and the strength of them is given daily to be wasted into the fineness of a web, or racked into the exactness of a line.
The Nature of Gothic Architecture by John Ruskin

Here is the interplay between autonomy and automaticity, or as Ruskin goes on to describe it, monotony and change. It cuts both ways - here, freedom of thought versus the unthinking automaton; there, the paralysis of reflection versus the repeated muscular action of practice. It is the experience of mastery that comes with self-determination in work as against the slavery inherent in institutionalised programming; but equally it is the iron cage of systematic thought as against the solipsism of anarchic play.

I'm not sure, as Ruskin implies, you really can have one without the other. I am a man and a machine; I enslave and am enslaved, as I quick-step or slow-dance between thought and action, between absorption in craft and pausing for reflection. I need the space for free-thinking and the discipline of rigour; I require systems as well as playgrounds; I need to feel human and frail as well as to feel rational and effective.

There is some connection with these desires and my joining the protest against cuts tomorrow.

Categories: John Ruskin, man, machine, thought, craft, freedom, mastery,
Comments: 0


Author: joe

Wednesday, 03 November, 2010 - 22:15

- on dwelling in the being of a thing.

Looking for the moment the gap closes: being in the flow of the moment; sincerity; dialogue; thinging. Theoria, praxis and poiesis are the three Aristotelian "activities" of man: theoria - the contemplative, analytical mode; praxis - the mode of action; and poiesis - the conjury, the making, or (after Heidegger) the 'bringing-forth'. But how do these modes play together? Are we entrapped in one or the other, only ever switching between them as we might change gears? Or are they like polyphonic tones, playing together, merging with each other, alternately moving back and forth in dominance and recession, but always humming along at the same time?

I quote Richard Sennet at length here because when I read his account of craft (butchered here), I am thinking of these modes, and noticing the opening and closing of the gaps between thought and action, mind and world, being and withdrawal.

We could find no better guide than Erin O'Connor about how the hand and eye together learn how to concentrate. A philosophical glassblower, she has explored the development of long-term attention through her own struggles to fashion a particular kind of wineglass. She reports . . . that she has long enjoyed the Barolo wines of Italy and therefore sought to fashion a goblet big and rounded enough to support the fragrant "nose" of the wine. To accommodate this, she had to expand her powers of concentration from the short- to the long-term . . .
In learning to make a Barolo goblet O'Connor . . . had to "untape" habits she'd learnt in blowing simpler pieces in order to explore why she was failing . . . develop a better awareness of her body in relation to the viscous liquid, as though there were continuity between flesh and glass . . . Now she was better positioned to make use of the triad of the "intelligent hand" - co-ordination of hand, eye, and brain . . . But she still had to learn how to lengthen her concentration.
This stretch-out occurred in two phases. First, she lost awareness of her body making contact with the hot glass and became all-absorbed in the physical material as the end in itself . . . The philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty describes what she experienced as "being as a thing". This philosopher Michael Polanyi calls it "focal awareness" and refers to the act of hammering a nail: "When we bring down the hammer we do not feel that its handle has struck our palm but that its head has struck the nail . . . . I have a subsidiary awareness of the feeling in the palm of my hand which is merged into my focal awareness of my driving in the nail." If I may put this yet another way, we are now absorbed in something, no longer self-aware, even of our bodily self. We have become the thing on which we are working.
This absorbed concentration now had to be stretched out. The challenge O'Connor met was the result of further failure . . . The problem, she came to understand, lay in dwelling in that moment of "being in a thing." To work better, she discovered, she needed to anticipate what the material should next become in its next, as-yet nonexistent, stage of evolution. Her instructor called this simply "staying on track"; she, rather more philosophically minded, understood that she was engaged in a process of "corporeal anticipation," always one step ahead of the material . . .
The rhythm that kept O'Connor specifically alert lay in her eye disciplining her hand, the eye constantly scanning and judging, adjusting the hand, the eye establishing the tempo. The complexity here is that she was no longer conscious of her hands, she no longer thought about what they were doing: her consciousness focussed on what she saw; ingrained hand motions became part of the act of seeing ahead . . .
The Craftsman by Richard Sennet

The materials of life require a master to give them form, while dwelling in the being of a thing is anarchic and free-wheeling. Hmmm. Ahhh. Hello, and welcome to the tropes of mastery and freedom . . .

Categories: theoria, praxis, poiesis, Aristotle, Heidegger, Richard Sennett, craft, The Craftsman, flow, absorbtion, concentration, focal awareness, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Michael Polanyi,
Comments: 0

Cracked actor

Author: joe

Thursday, 28 October, 2010 - 22:31

- on the pretence of being.

"... to the biologist the brain is not a thinking machine, it is an acting machine; it gets information and then does something about it" ... The cyberneticians then, conceived of the brain as an immediately embodied organ, intrinsically tied into bodily performances ... the cybernetic brain was not representational but performative ...
One might imagine the representational brain to be immediately available for inspection. Formal education largely amounts to acquiring, manipulating and being examined on representational knowledge. Such activities are very familiar to us. But the performative brain remains opaque and mysterious - who knows what a performative brain can do?
The Cybernetic Brain by Andrew Pickering

Performing, not representing; acting, not thinking; opaque and mysterious, not immediately available. The being of things like brains, rather than the inward reflections of them. Pushing open the productive (and mournful) gap between language and reality, between thought and world.

I'm intrigued by the strange mirrors in these dissections of world and image. The hard stuff of the world is real, while the thoughts and words which grope towards representing it are shadowlike and ghostly; and yet faced with the shortcomings of the image, the figures that offer themselves are synonyms for artifice and pretending. It's as though we are unable to even build a language that can cope with the thinging of things without them requiring some sort of author, blueprint or script.

What is it to act? To be someone with two identities, split - the visible, performed, conjured, and the hidden, original, obscured. The performed need not be put on like a mask, but is perhaps revealed, found, uncovered from within. Far from being dead behind the eyes, the actor is in fact more authentic, being skilled in calling forth the facets of self that fulfil the needs of the performance.

Categories: cybernetics, Andrew Pickering, knowledge, representation, performance, acting, pretence,
Comments: 0

Making ghosts

Author: joe

Wednesday, 27 October, 2010 - 22:42

- on the abyss inside everything.

Ortega holds that the inwardness of things is a depth that can absolutely never be fathomed, insofar as it is not interchangeable with any sum of its attributes ... The growth of knowledge is a process of digging away at this inwardness of things and attempting the ultimately hopeless task of bringing it to light. "This," says Ortega, "is the task of language, but language merely alludes to inwardness - it never shows it." In more melancholic terms, "a narrative makes everything a ghost of itself, placing it a distance, pushing it beyond the horizon of the here and now." The fate of language, as of perception and ... of all relation, is forever to translate the dark and inward into the tangible and outward, a task at which it always comes up short given the infinite depth of things.
Guerilla Metaphysics by Graham Harman

Hopeless, melancholic, ghost. As Romanyshyn's mourning wells within the gap between saying and being, so Harman's lonely doom for the split object, sundered between the sensuous and the real - what is revealed and what always withdraws.

I like Ortega y Gasset's distinction between executant and image - the former grasping towards the fullness of being, the latter faltering short of adequacy. I'm reminded of Arnold's verdict on Shelley - "a beautiful but ineffectual angel". I especially enjoy the irony of the connection of execution to being - how close the ending of life is to the presence of life; how narrow is that gap. Are there no fleeting moments when it closes? When the inward representation of experience and the uncompromising nowness of being fuse? Harman says:

To observe something, no matter how closely, is not to be it; to look at a thing is not the same thing as to stand in its place and undergo its fate, even if what we are observing is our own psychic lives.

... so there is no closing the gap here. But still I wonder if there might be? Transcendental meditation? Praxis? Being 'in the moment'? Laughter? Thoughtlessness when lost in smiling eyes? Dialogue? In the sincerity of experience?

Categories: Graham Harman, split, object, Ortega y Gasset, being, Zuhandenheit, Vorhandenheit, presence-at-hand, readiness-to-hand, knowledge,
Comments: 0

Mind the gap

Author: joe

Tuesday, 26 October, 2010 - 23:36

- on resisting closure.

Why drag in ... lines from a poet? Because, again, of the gap! In the gap between the saying and what slips away there is a sense of sadness, a feeling of mourning... In the gap there is always a reminder that asks not to be forgotten. The shadow of the unsaid haunts our saying... The difference lingers with its own terrible and relentless insistence, which, like an outgoing tide, sucks our words back into the fullness of being. To write down soul, then, is to attend to the mourning in our knowing for what our words leave behind.
The Wounded Researcher by Robert Romanyshyn

As I've noted here before, I attended a masterclass with Robert Romanyshyn, and in the course of two days he changed my mind about psychoanalysis - I had tended to see it as magic, conjury, or at best, 'thinking aloud', rather than a powerful way of translating the mysterious subterranean existence of individuals into self-knowledge. Maybe I'm not all the way there yet, since I still have discomfort with 'furniture of the mind'. Perhaps it is the same kind of discomfort a scientist has with ether or deities - unpalatable candidates to explain what is inscrutable but nevertheless already there. But anyway I'm digressing.

The inadequacy of language; the difficulty of grasping experience; the abysses over which we easily skip to escape confronting the dead ends of fear, death, incomprehension, finitude. The impossible capture of life in language seems to be a self-evident denial of the 'linguistic turn' - that 'there is nothing outside the text'. Far from being inadequate to contain experience, language is the universe in which experience unfolds. In this latter tradition, the galaxy of signifiers is a world of infinite play in which final determination of meaning is always postponed; thus language offers infinite freedom - every possibility left open, closure resisted, finitude escaped...

ah! But there is the clue - that language is everything, and that language is not enough, these are perhaps both symptoms of a deeper phenomenon: the gap, the lack of closure, the expectation of an end that is not there. A longing for endings created by endlessness. Since we reach endings all the time, and yet we continue.

Categories: Robert Romanyshyn, language, finitude, mourning, gap, closure, linguistic turn, phenomenology,
Comments: 0

The Paradoxical Academic

Author: joe

Monday, 02 November, 2009 - 21:28

The most impressive management skill is to be able to hold and argue in favour of two contrary, exclusive and irreconcilable positions at the same time.

For instance in a university an academic should be passionate about research and strive to minimise teaching time in order to concentrate on research; at the same time, one should not concern oneself with the conflicting pressures on time and energy that the seemingly different requirements of research and teaching exert, since really research and teaching are essentially both just instances of the same thing: your passion for your subject.

Or: of course an academic does not necessarily have to have a doctorate in order to execute their job; but equally obviously, anyone serious about being an academic should of course do a doctorate - why would they not, if they are passionate about their subject?

Or: no academic should seriously be considering the amount of time they devote to different activities such as research and teaching, because they should all be part of the same process which is geared towards output. Meanwhile, the outputs which those academics are measured upon are produced as part of a working timetable which most human beings experience as occurring in, occupying and taking up time.

Or: one should be selfish with one's time, such that others do not divert your attention from your own research passions; meanwhile, one should be collegiate and work supportively with colleagues and students.

I am deeply impressed by the notion that I can contribute to excellent teaching through research by doing less teaching, be an unacademic academic, unselfishly deny students the time they ask of me, unselfishly refuse to provide cover for sick colleagues, unselfishly take no part in projects colleagues invite me to take part in, so that I can selfishly protect my time. (sorry, not "time", "output"). It is possible that the time I have taken to write this Trot nonsense is an example of inefficiency on my behalf.

Categories: academia, management,
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

Wounded research #2

Author: joe

Wednesday, 29 April, 2009 - 07:38

The scrawl on the paper is a residue of a thought, and the reading of it now no more retrieves that thought than water restores dried up remains to their original vitality. I'm looking at the few notes I wrote in the phenomenology / depth psychology masterclass, and wondering if the handwriting itself might give me a clue as to the quality and taste of the thoughts and reflections that provoked them. Still, in the distillery they might briefly miss the port that has left the barrel but soon enough they look ahead to the flavour of the whisky. One of the other participants asked me at the time if I was enjoying the class, and I replied that while it was wonderful to be able to dwell for a couple of days on the place of my self in my work, when it was over I'd still have to return to the pressures of the institution and objectify, alienate and commodify my work and pretend I'd somehow contributed value to a knowledge economy. Actually I didn't quite say that: but that's a fancy way of retrospectively reworking the meaning I think I remember trying to put into brief, friendly, conversational words.

"Objectivity as a performance" is the note on the paper. The discussion turned to the kind of knowledge you'd want a carer to have or use. A doctor needs to slip between different modes - from the caring, interpersonal, individual-focussed human being who talks to the patient about their unique embodied life; to the impersonal, efficient, distant expert who examines your intimate body without judgement. When you visit the doctor and ask him to check your prostrate, you don't want the subjective eye of the appreciative flaneur of the body to be cast over your rectum: you want what Robert refered to as 'the hand of knowledge' to be the hand that touches you; not the hands of aesthetics, culture, poetry. In this respect, the doctor's behaviour is a performance in the strong sense that Goffman would use the word. The embodied, co-presense of two human beings in a room, each of whom have a myriad techniques of the self with which to hold at arms length the blank face of the universe, must always find ways to mediate the event of their interaction: scripts and roles which they understand and which they have already frequently rehearsed. The doctor's role is a difficult one: as any stage actor knows, flicking the switch and moving from one role to another is challenging enough; that the doctor absolutely must play one role, 'dead behind the eyes', but absolutely must not play that way, must 'be there', for the other, only augments that difficulty.

But this legitimation of 'objective knowledge' comes with ambiguity for me: it neither affirms the naive realism that asserts the viability of objective truth, but neither does it deny it. The performance of objectivity by the doctor is comparable to the performance of objectivity by which the drama of science unfolds. Those engaged in the practices and pursuits of scientific knowledge are engaged in a continual enactment of the scripts and signs of objectivity, permitting the collective suspension of disbelief which we all assent to by participating in modern society, and which would crash around our ears should enough of us suddenly nudge our neighbours in the theatre and mention the fact that we're really just decorated monkeys with a knack for communal hallucinations. In either case - the one to one with the doctor, or the continual reproduction of the scientific-technological superstructure - we might ask to what extent is the performance of objectivity a historically contingent phenomenon, or to what extent is the appeal to universal truth a part of the furniture of the mind, or, indeed the furniture of the universe? Of course, we can imagine a world in which those of us in need of care can seek help from others without needing to negotiate our neuroses and thereby demand that our carers perform their schizophrenic roles, and instead meet us with the freedom to be holistic, whole-person healers. But one of the premises of this masterclass is a discipline of depth psychology which is grounded in an archetypal approach to psychoanalysis and psychotherapy, itself a mode of understanding the architecture of the human mind as somehow fixed: the human psyche as a unity in diversity. It helps not at all to say that the structure of the human experience is contingent upon our evolutionary history, if as a species it is still an inescapable, eternal necessity.

Categories: subjectivity, objectivity, knowledge, phenomenology, depth psychology, masterclass, Robert Romanyshyn, science, performance, memory,
Comments: 1

Wounded research #1

Author: joe

Monday, 20 April, 2009 - 23:03

Last week I attended a two day masterclass with Robert Romanyshyn, two days of incredibly intense thinking about the role of the researcher in the research: the work of research - or better, since the word 'research' comes with such a lot of alienating baggage, simply - the work - as a vocation which forms a part of the life of the researcher. I thought I'd write some notes here which emerged from the class for me. There was such a lot in it that it's taking time to disentangle the many ideas and responses, aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional, that unlodged themselves from unnoticed peripheral places and swam into view briefly before yet other currents took hold and carried them away. I managed to write some of them on a piece of paper in front of me, but even then, the words are simply spidery shadows of thoughts that are now gone.

Firstly, it isn't possible to summarise the two-day masterclass without being utterly reductionist. In fact the nature of reductionism, as opposed to a generative approach to knowing, was a constant underlying thought for me as the days passed. I've written about this before: the misleadingly common-sensical idea that the formulation of knowledge is about finding patterns of truth that account for many things in the world - the unity in diversity that is so beguiling. This characterises a pattern-view of knowledge dominant in empiricist and positivist fields like science, in which heterogenous phenomena are worked, and worked on, until they can be 'unified'. The accounting-for of the weak, strong and electro-magnetic forces, and the sought-for incorporation of gravity into this one model, is an exemplar of such an endeavour. Against this is the constructivist notion that the production of knowledge is an adding to the world of discourse, rather than an encompassing of diversity into an ever-shrinking set of axioms. We make knowledge, rather than either stumble into it blindly, or discover it deliberately; and the constant striving for more knowledge inevitably makes yet more knowledge in a self-fulfilling wish. The great fear and exhilaration of a 'theory of everything' is the paradox that such a theory explicates everything, leaving a universe made out of one algorithmic axiom, even while a theory of everything is just another moment of talking in a century-long conversation, another blade added to the collection of knives, a metaphorical doubling which, in the collision of new discourses with old, not only augments the inventory of the world but also piles up yet more tantalising ambiguity as a remainder of its workings.

Such questions also go to the heart of questions of objectivity, that dream to which so much knowledge aspires. Robert's project is to explore the necessary subjectivity of the researcher who undertakes the work. Far from encountering the world dispassionately and investigating it with valueless eyes, identifying questions because they are there to be identified, and answering them through the antiseptic, sceptical techniques of empirical enquiry - actually workers engaged in the business of making knowledge are human beings who laugh and love and sweat and labour and hunch with sore tension in their shoulders over desks burdened with elbows and scrawled-on books and distracting thoughts of lovers and meals and farts and fears and hopes. And these workers, persons, identities, these foibled animals haunted by angelic consciousness, do the work for a expanding universe of reasons, of which they may not even be fully conscious - animated by a dialogue with not only the ever-unfolding edge of the present but also with the sum of the individual and collective past.

Categories: research, work, subjectivity, objectivity, phenomenology, depth psychology, knowledge, Jung, masterclass, Robert Romanyshyn,
Comments: 0

Systems and Units, Trees and Rhizomes

Author: joe

Thursday, 05 February, 2009 - 21:56

So I'm writing up the final lecture on narratives which revolves around the post-structuralist 'decentring' - the advocation, that is, of thinking of rhizomatic rather than arborescent structures.

A couple of weeks ago I was using the idea with some first years, and thinking of the idea in terms of genre: genre is not a 'container' into which you place texts which then 'become' vampire road movies or rom-coms. As soon as you think in terms of genre being a particular instantiation of intertextuality, you've seen the contingent, mutable, anti-foundational, endlessly defered nature of the post-structuralist vision, and the impoverished kind of simplistic absolutism it dismissed in systems-level, structuralist thinking.

Today I found another useful way of thinking about the subject (perhaps because I'm currently seeing it everywhere!) in Ian Bogost's book, Unit Operations, in which he explores Badiou's articulation of 'count as one' and 'the situation', analogous in some ways to 'extensional' and 'intensional' sets; the latter, intensional, from Frege and Russell's top-down, analytic philosophy in which objects are collected by definition (like the container model of the genre); the former, extensional, is instead a conception of a 'multiplicity' whose collection together is a bottom-up operation (like the formation of generic convention through intertextual echoes): the properties of the collection are observed and articulated, rather than defined and imposed. Properties and behaviours observed through induction, rather than calculated through deduction.

Of course, this idea of the 'extensional' set is convenient for me precisely because it emphasises the emergent nature of spontaneous assemblage (a word I will certainly be exploring more very soon, a la Latour, Graham Harman, etc), rather than the authoritarian nature of systematic organisation. Think of it, in cinema terms, as the difference between coming up with an 'outlier' indie box office hit which is ground-breaking and innovative, and the follow-up derivatives that a corporate industry will produce in order to capitalise on the newly defined market. Or think of it as an autonomously organised grouping of common-interest bloggers who speak to each other in ways that outsiders can understand and join in with, and launching a peer-reviewed journal on the same common-interest which renders the intellectual endeavour exclusive and impenetrable.

On a sideways-related note, I mean to take Graham Harman's advice and write more in order to write more. Actually, I already have, in terms of writing a good fifteen thousand words last week producing the lecture notes for lectures three, four and five of the first year undergraduate Narratives strand which I've just finished teaching. Hence the final, rhizomatic essay I have to squeeze out as soon as it'll pass through my constricted ability to talk about Bocaccio, Icarus and digital Messiahs in the same piece of long-form writing.

My colleague Kip Jones also sent me a copy of a recent conversation between himself and Mary Gergen about communicating social science research through performative and artistic forms, which in turn, represents an undermining of the authoritative, arborescent academic expert who deals in objective knowledge, and the collaborative, rhizomatic, ambiguous nature of dialogue and interpretation. It's interesting, and, more importantly, NOT hidden behind a paywall, an Athens-only login, or a institutional-subscription model journal. Find it here, thanks Kip.

Categories: system, structure, structuralism, post-structuralism, rhizome, genre, intertextuality, intensional, extensional, set, Badiou, Harman, Frege, Russell, Bogost, Latour,
Comments: 1

A History of Madness... i

Author: joe

Monday, 14 May, 2007 - 23:34

A new edition of Foucault's A History of Madness (previously translated as Madness and Civilisation) was published earlier in the year, and there has been some notable turbulence in its wake. Foucault, (along with Derrida, Baudrillard, Lacan, Latour, Deleuze, Kristeva) seems often to be a lightning rod for the different sections of the left who were split in the culture wars in the US in the 90s, and more recently for the scientific disciplines' criticisms of contemporary humanities - the lack of rigour, and indeed, the lack of attention to 'reality' itself. Meanwhile those same critics are often referred to by Foucauldian sympathisers, rather disparagingly, as members of 'the reality based community', as though anchoring oneself in an objective world were naive and unintellectual, rather than an obvious choice.

I don't intend to attempt to resolve any of the antipathies here, or even to single out the likeliest candidate for 'correspondence to truth'. This piece of reflection is simply a working through. Much of my time is, besides, spent explaining the relevance of Foucault to undergraduate media students, a task which is itself not without some irony. More to the point, I'm currently embarking on a (currently nebulous) research project, which will involve attempting to unite various domains of knowledge which range from rhetoric, hermeneutics and creativity to health and physiology. As part of my search for and resolution of an appropriate research methodology, it seems a good idea to grasp what it is about Foucault that polarises scholars and their disciplines so much.

In order to complete my bachelor's degree in Eng Lit, I sat, amongst interminable others, an exam on medieval literature, for which I later discovered I scored a distinction. I remember distinctly one of the essays I wrote was a response to a question along the lines of: what is the relevance of medieval literature (I think it referred specifically to Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls) to contemporary society?

I responded confidently with my assertion that the nature of human experience is no different today than it was in the 14th century. While the complexity and number of cultural 'things' may have increased, and there may be more 'units of meaning' in the world today than there were then, though many social values may have changed, though the way society is structured may have evolved - nevertheless, what it means to be a human being has not. We still are born into a world as humans, experience it as only humans can, and die a human death as an unavoidable symptom of living. While there may be worlds of nurture and convention between me, Chaucer, Plato and Ugh the caveman, if we all somehow came together in some timeless place, we would look at each other with recognition.

We are defined, I argued, by our species. The challenges, both philosophical and sociological, involved in living together as creatures with will and freedom, desires and sympathies, have not permuted. The compromises of rule and negotiation are constant; the paradoxes of society and the individual are immutable; the human instinct to compete, and our propsensity towards altruism, do not alter from one generation to the next. Humanity, while it may be a temporary phenomenon on the face of the earth, is in itself an eternal thing. Hence, (I argued with reference to some talking birds), the challenges of Chaucer's protagonists are the challenges of our own brothers and sisters, and therefore of ourselves.

At the time I imagined I got the distinction because my argument was sound. Now I think I got it because my argument was conservative, and met with approval. It was a British answer, sound in the face, back in the early nineties, of French post-structuralists. I remember it must have been 1992 when I got my first lecture on deconstruction, delivered by a young turk of a lecturer, rather than any of the old grandees who prefered to keep their fragrant noses in Shakespeare and Hardy.

It seemed to me that this view was unassailable; and of course, I will now problematise it, though I may still leave it unassailable: the question is not simply, what if I were wrong, but also, how would we know? And even if humanity at base were the same, if we say that social values have changed, how can we dissociate those changed values from measuring whether our nature were the same? What does it mean for two human beings to have a similar nature, but see the world in entirely different ways? Mightn't we just as well be members of different species? If our values and hence ways of apprehending the world metaphysically are incommensurably altered, what can we possibly share, except a physiology, which we're unlikely to bring together, unless by force, since we clearly have no common values through which to court?

In the other, Borges tells the story of how he, as an old man in his 70s, finds himself sitting on a bench with a young man who turns out to be himself, 50 years earlier. As we may think, the child is father to the man, but whether we consider the youth or the elder as the leading edge of a man moving into the transdimensionality of potential, it turns out that nowhere can they commune, or establish a point of common recognition - even with oneself there can be no intersubjectivity:

"Half a century does not pass in vain. Beneath our conversation about people and random reading and our different tastes, I realized that we were unable to understand each other. We were too similar and too unalike... Either to offer advice or to argue was pointless..." (Borges, 1979, p9)

Borges, J. L., 1979, 'the other' in The Book of Sand, (London: Penguin)

Categories: michel-foucault, epistemology, knowledge, human-nature, jorge-luis-borges, history-of-madness, working-through, endlessly self-similar universe,
Comments: 0

Capital and The Trap

Author: joe

Sunday, 18 March, 2007 - 22:31

Is Adam Curtis secretly a Marxist of the purest form, who believes like Marx that the political economy determines the cultural values that circulate in society? His portrayal of the relationship between democracy and the free-market (what Marx might call the 'base') and their effect on society (what Marx might call the 'superstructure') is pure determinism. At times he seems to imply that the influence of a few back-room economists on the policy of Clinton inevitably lead to cultural changes which the rest of us cannot escape. Is he in danger of reproducing the classic Marxist mistake of assuming that people are stupid?

Is Curtis a neo-conservative marketeer who criticises the target-driven culture of the last 10 years because it has not worked, or a neo-socialist who believes in regulatory intervention? We will never know because he equates the intervention of target-setting with the no-holds-barred free market. Just because a target is set without law or regulation does not mean it is not a political intervention.

Is Curtis an anti-science luddite, who only partially read arguments for the selfish gene in order to criticise those models for being deterministic? Certainly, he appears to imply that Maynard-Smith and Dawkins merely think that organisms are machines for genes. Had he read Dawkins' book The Extended Phenotype, (published 5 years before the date of the clip of Dawkins used in the film) he would have been familiar with that biologist's well-argued retraction of the robot metaphor. Indeed he would have understood that the 'machines for genes' discourse leads to a new understanding of collaboration (between single-celled organisms, into eukaryotic cells, into larger, multi-celled organisms, and between organisms into a symbiosis or ecology) which is not only characterised by the reach of the gene.

However, the attentive viewer who is led down some of these cul-de-sacs will be relieved to learn that, on the contrary, Curtis may not believe any of these things.

The frustrating thing about this film was the ellipsis: while watching I find myself railing against the partiality and elliptical nature of the argument, only to discover the twist later in which balance is at least partly restored. At the end, Curtis dramatically announces that, actually, economists and geneticists alike might have revisited some of the deterministic theories they produced, and now think that the world may be more complex. Maybe Curtis will do the same?

Without trying to pre-empt the outcome of Curtis' argument in next week's third and final part, I nevertheless have an eery feeling that we will hear about emergent complexity, possibly related to evolutionary-stable-states, which will redeem aspects of game theory, and thereby rescue mankind from its current narrative status - the disequilibrium of being a determined gene machine; maybe we'll hear about, far from the market as a mechanism of a kind of social natural selection, actually there is an unequal competition between corporations with power and markets of consumers with none; we may even learn that democracy and the free market are not the same thing. Shock, horror. I can only hope that he will complicate his argument further by conceding that our social relationships and ideas of freedom are not merely inevitably determined by economic policy, and that superstructural mechanisms, made out of things like his own film, contribute to the 'emergent complexity' of cultural life.

It's rather disingenuous of Curtis to narrativise the debate in this way: it creates a story, yes, but it does a disservice to his argument, and the protagonists in it. For all that I sympathise with the points of view he seems to put forward - that free markets aren't the solution to the world's problems, that pharmaceutcals medicalise the world in order to profit, that people are not machines - there are better ways to make the case than to set up straw-men for later demolition.

Categories: adam-curtis, freedom, genetics, game-theory, political-economy, marxism, market, humanity,
Comments: 0

Symbolic Exchange and The Trap

Author: joe

Sunday, 11 March, 2007 - 23:10

I was 17 when the Berlin wall was flooded over by hordes of retro 80s-permed East-Germans. I was at the house of my first girl-friend and it may not be unconnected that I believed that I lived in a world where things got better with time - that we're on some (as I only later learned cynically to call it) Hegelian journey to an ever better world.

I was 26 when I finally sat down and got my head around Paul Rabinow's presentation of Chomsky vs Foucault and (as he saw it) their opposing views of the examinability of human nature. By this time I was corroded enough to be swept along by Foucault's deconstruction of the institutional motives behind every instance of human discourse, but intellectually curious enough to wonder whether Chomsky wasn't onto something with his fundamentally structuralist proposition that human nature might be a knowable thing.

I'm not sure that being 34 and watching Adam Curtis's latest adventure into televisual propaganda that is 'The Trap' will be as seminal, but it is worth comment right now. I love his programmes, but in a somewhat problematic elitist manner, I have 'issues' with this one.

Before watching I heard at least two radio reviews of it in which it was praised for being intelligent for TV, but damned for its flaws in polemic. However, in watching it I was unprepared for my over-riding response - which was that it was surprising that Foucault would make such good telly.

Televisually it is journalism - not gonzo, but nevertheless featurish in its one-sidedness - but as close to polyphony as TV gets, with its intersection between (unattributed and frustratingly unverifiably quoted) images and deterministically argued voiceover.

As a media lecturer it is hard to escape the feeling that this is going to be a great clip to illustrate the Foucauldian relationship between discourse and power, especially in relation to the psychiatric industry's will to legitimacy. The downer in all this though, is the sick feeling at the back of my throat that, not unlike the discourses Curtis damns, this is an egregious example of manipulation and self-serving ellipsis of the worst kind - possibly inescapable due to the simulative medium for which it was made (can't let my distaste for TV pass by without comment), but partly too, of course, because Curtis can't afford a dissenting voice.

If anyone with half a grasp of political history were to be interviewed with full knowledge of Curtis's agenda, they would necessarily point out that his notion that John Nash is the cause of modern woes is ludicrous; his example of the prisoner dilemma is as far from the usual prisoner's dilemma as you could get; the idea that the psychiatric profession's attempt to gain legitimacy in the 80s was an attempt at a 'new kind of control' is a desperate form of amnesia; and his conflation of rationality and impersonality is deeply simplistic.

Curtis problematised Nash's version of game theory by presenting his schizophrenia, but his argument that his equations went on to become the basis for an era of cold war politics is unsubstantiated. The prisoner dilemma as most of us know it shows that collaboration is a better strategy than betrayal, even if for selfish motives - and in the so-called deterministic world of the gene, what is the difference between selfishness and selfish altruism? Neither selfishness nor altruism exist at the mathematical level that game theory addresses. The psychiatric industry was exposed in Foucault's genealogy of the doctrine as being the will to power from its inception in the Enlightenment - far from a new thing in the 80s. And finally, since rationality, as predicated on human logic, is merely a constructed, self-negating reflexive system, recognised now by most mathematical and scientific methodologies, to portray it as somehow 'inhuman' is stereotypical and simple.

However, to conclude in as elitist a fashion as I began, I recommend this programme to anyone who hasn't yet realised that the world is not getting better as we hurtle inevitably towards the implosion predicted by last weeks' obituary filler, your friend and mine, Jean Baudrillard. I await with interest to hear what exactly 'The Trap' is, if it is not that we tend to unquestioningly believe what the TV tells us, whether the voice is a manipulative politician, or a manipulative film-maker.

Categories: adam-curtis, jean-baudrillard, TV, propaganda, michel-foucault, freedom, manipulation, game-theory,
Comments: 2

A Sea Symphony

Author: joe

Saturday, 20 January, 2007 - 22:49

A Sea Symphony. Human voice a texture, instrument a foil.


O my brave soul!
O farther farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!

Strange that Vaughan Williams turns the human voice in to a (glorious) bank of sound, when his text so celebrates the imperious urge of an individual soul. What miracles of Whitman's does VW leave out... Oh captain, my captain!
O to struggle against great odds, to meet enemies undaunted!
To be entirely alone with them, to find how much one can stand!
To look strife, torture, prison, popular odium, face to face!
To mount the scaffold, to advance to the muzzles of guns with perfect nonchalance!
To be indeed a God!

And yet, what troubles this soul that it must escape? And in what company?
O to sail to sea in a ship!
To leave this steady unendurable land,
To leave the tiresome sameness of the streets, the sidewalks and the houses,
To leave you O you solid motionless land, and entering a ship,
To sail and sail and sail!

And lastly, are the soprano and baritone, singing together, singing symbiotically, but not singing to each other, a spirit yearning for its soul, or a manifestation of companionship? What is this ocean of searching?

Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman, 1855

Categories: ralph-vaughan-williams, sea-symphony, sea, soul, walt-whitman, leaves-of-grass, christchurch-priory, choral,
Comments: 0

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

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,
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