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Category Archives: Technology

Reproducing Ambivalence

And while I’m linking and punning on Benjamin, I meant to draw attention some time ago to the nice reading of Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” posted by Ryan/Aless over at massthink. A brief excerpt:

While modern mass are has negative effects, then, its potential benefits (esp. the development of a progressive stance in the waging of social battles) outweigh them. It must be stressed, however, that these positive effects, as Benjamin points them out, are potential ones. They, first and foremost, require (which is where we began with) that art be politicized. Art must find its basis in politics and politics must permeate art (art must concern politics; politics must be concerned with art) to explicitly make it a site of ideological struggle. If Benjamin is right in his assessment that massive reception is inherently progressive, then this-the mechanical reproduction of art, its massive reception, its explicit politicization-bodes well for a progressive social program (i.e. for Marxist political goals).

This is why Benjamin feels it necessary to politicize art. It is inevitable. “The growing proletarianization of modern man and the increasing formation of the masses are two aspects of the same process,” a process that has and is happening. It is inevitable that art be mechanically reproduced, that it be massively received. The age of the masses has come, and the masses demand social and artistic participation. Thus, it is inevitable that art and politics be implicated with each other. This is why we must strive to politicize art. The only other alternative is for politics to be aestheticized, which, Benjamin points out, culminates in one thing: “War and war only can set a goal for mass movements on the largest scale while respecting the traditional property system. [. . .] Only war makes it possible to mobilize all of today’s technical resources while maintaining the property system.”

This, precisely, is what fascism aims for: “Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarians masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property.” Fascism finds its means of survival precisely in the aestheticization of politics: “If the natural utilization of productive forces is impeded by the property system, the increase in technical devices, in speed, and in the sources of energy will press for an unnatural utilization, and this is found in war. [. . .] Instead of draining rivers, society directs a human stream into a bed of trenches; instead of dropping seeds from airplanes, it drops incendiary bombs over cities; and through gas warfare the aura is abolished in a new way.”

The demand (and energy) of the masses, in other words, along with the novel forces of technology that society has developed ((e.g. mechanical reproduction), if art is not politicized (to change property relations), finds its object in war. Hence war-politics-is aestheticized: to legitimate it, to make the masses accept it. War, in effect, “suppl[ies] the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology. [. . . Mankind’s] self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” This-the aestheticization of politics, of war, of death-is precisely (since it does not want to change property relations) what fascism does-the only alternative, according to Benjamin, if we do not politicize art-if we do not make art, see art for what it is: a crucial site of ideological struggle. In other words: Destruction if not progress(ive social goals). Fascism if not Marxism.

R/A is on break for the moment – I’ll miss reflections like this until he returns.

The Embodiment of Reading in the Age of Its Digitial Distributability

Adventures in jutland has a nice post up on the embodied experience of text mediated by books and digital publication. A couple of highlights:

Yet I’m also wondering about our body/our feelings in relation to pixels – how does that side of things play out? The problem is perhaps one of re-embodying our relation to text – to words and images – differently. It takes time. It doesn’t happen all at once, but it’s happening. And although we can talk about the rights and wrongs of it, it’s not something we can resist. This also had to happen with paper and print. It has to happen for each of us. As individuals (over a certain age perhaps) our attachment to books began early. Like a lot of people, I remember the first times I stayed awake in bed reading because a book. Here was something I could hold, more than that, an object that set up the world of my body and its sensations completely differently. It seemed to give me its entire attention – it “looked back at me” – precisely because it did close me in on my own world (not that different from a laptop really). I also remember the books my grandmother used to buy me. My grandmother (who came from a long line of Welsh school teachers) used to buy me “classics”, often leather (or at least pseudo leather) bound and yes, I can remember how they looked, their feel. I also remember, when a graduate student of literature, finishing Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, which has a peculiarly sad ending, and getting so angry with the book – the physical object – that I threw it against a wall.

At this stage, I’d never seen a computer, and didn’t have to contemplate my relation to different forms of text, to pixels in short. Now I do. I work with text on screen for at least eight hours a day – and I’m sure this is also leading me to embody a relation to text in pixel form. It’s just as passionate. I might not have thrown my powerbook against the wall yet – but that’s only because it’s too expensive. I’ve had to stop myself a couple of times – we have a definite love-hate relationship. And I know I embody different affective ecologies with pixels, differently across different packages. Email is a shocker at the moment – my whole body shifts in expectation (for better for worse) when I open the browser for it. I can’t stand Word, although I use it (swearing) all the time. I like some other text programmes. For some reason I don’t mind writing online, especially in collaborative environments (it never quite feels so lonely). There are also an increasing number of things I like to read online, rather than offline. At the same time, like a lot of people, I can’t imagine reading a novel online – yet. Although, I like good design in paper and pixels (actually I think I prefer good design in pixels to paper now – as much as I love both).

I guess I’m repeating the point that it takes time for us – individually and culturally – to create new ecologies – complex, deeply affective ecologies of relations to our own bodies, objects and the bodies of others – in which we can embody a relation to pixels (and more importantly, the much more complex relations that we now experience across a range of forms of publishing, atom-based and pixel-based, often all at once). The story/myth goes that once (into the middle ages) there was very little silent reading. When this simple fact sinks in, you realise how important silent reading is. Much of our sense of being an individual, and a diminishing of our sense of being dependent on others – living communally – depends on it. Yet for a long time, not only could many not read, if they could, many couldn’t read without speaking the words (there is of course debate about this, although this is more than a question of literacy). Silent reading – which seems “natural”, is something that had to be learnt – culturally and individually. Learning it transformed culture. It led to new pleasures, and perhaps the a new kind of person (the individual). These new experiences were no substitute for reading aloud, which persists today, but they did add to it immeasurably. They also departed from it. And of course, this changed culture immeasurably.

Much of the same applies to the relations between pixels and paper. This is about unstable text versus more stable, and about “interactivity”, but it is also perhaps about more than this – socially at least; and affectively.

Much more in the original piece. I have a particular fondness for the final paragraph – I’ve occasionally done things like this myself:

I used to be well-known as a PhD student for always carrying around a worn copy of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus (a book as a kind of talisman). This book gave me great pleasure – more than tactile, this book was a crucial part of my “umwelt”. However, after I finished my PhD I suddenly realised one day that I never finished reading it. My pleasure in the object was indeed in the object – not necessarily in reading it. On the other hand, I read a massive amount of material online now – more usually than not several things at once. I think one reason for this is precisely that I tend sometimes don’t treasure specific pixels as much as the book (or not quite in the same way). So reading can be a funny thing in relation to the objects – paper or pixels – with which we read.

Cultivating – and Surviving – Networks

Bleary-eyed from lack of sleep, and thoughts spinning vaguely from trying to absorb far too many new concepts during my very short mid-term break, I found myself jolted to full attention unexpectedly this morning, after stumbling across the extraordinary new blog adventures in jutland. With only a couple of extraordinary posts up at the moment, author ibbertelsen demonstrates a virtuosity with asking particularly complex and layered questions – in this case, questions about the interconnectedness of recent, interpenetrating, shifts in theory, cultural practices, and technologies that together seem to draw upon and reinforce concepts of decentred and networked models – whether applied to thought, society, or nature. Importantly, ibbertelsen recognises that the most important question to ask when confronted with these shifts is not the representational question of the truth or falsity of the models – not: are these new models an accurate way of describing the phenomena they seek to describe? Instead, given the resonance or growing intuitive appeal of such models, the key question becomes what the impact of these shifts will be – the ibbertelsen’s own words:

Whether any of this true, and which of the new models are right or wrong (scientifically), is up for grabs. My questions, however, are not along those lines. They rather concern the cultural consequences of new models for thinking, of the multiplications and clashes of “cognitive models” that don’t match, or don’t confirm our necessary assumptions, and the way these models don’t just inform but transform our thinking practices. The jury (in so far as we still have juries rather than brain scans) is out on whether culture can survive the new models, with their new practices and assumptions, whether they are right or wrong or a bit of both.

So here is my question: Can we survive dynamic, networked thought? Networked perceptions? The blurring of thought, perceptions and actions in dynamic networks? Can culture in general (I know, which culture specifically am I writing about … but that’s part of my point), can art, can democracy, science, religion, etc survive the new mobilities in perception and cognition/thinking models, practices and yes – perhaps thinking processes themselves (thinking processes that now include perception, action, affect, sensation all in shifting brain-body -world dynamics, to the point that we may no longer be able to talk about, or even assume, “our cognitive processes”).

Part of this is that as thinking/perception, sensation, affect and action all become more networked, more dynamic, more mobile, they are also more “mobilized” in Isabelle Stengers’ sense of the word, in which models and rhetorics are “mobilized” in order to stabilise certain practices, interests, disciplines, (models of affective and cognitive control in the workplace for example, or education, to help maximise productivity). Can we survive this (often “scientific”) “mobilization” of thought, perception, affect and action?

Sub-question: What are thought, affect, perception and action when they are now so obviously in such complex are fully mobilized circuits? Are they anything stable or even nameable at all? (I don’t claim to be able to answer this question, but a basic beginning might be here).

I might add a question of my own (regular readers will no doubt guess what it will be): how should we understand the resonance itself? Ibbertelsen’s non-representational insight primes this question: understanding the emergence and appeal of any concepts or metaphors is separable from determining the truth value of those concepts (if “truth” brought concepts into being and compelled people to believe them, it becomes difficult to understand the sorts of sudden, interdisciplinary shifts to which ibbertelsen is drawing attention). So the question becomes: why are we particularly attentive to the possibility of networked models, particularly receptive to metaphors of distributed processes, now? Can a better understanding of how the intuitive plausibility of such concepts is itself constructed, also help us develop a more active relationship to this resonance, such that we can shift from asking “what impacts will this shift have”, to asking “what potentials could this shift hold”?

And speaking of resonance: Stengers’ work, of course, has been “in the air” recently – I would be remiss if I didn’t also point folks to the most recent rounds of the ongoing (should one say evolving?) discussion of Stengers and Prigogine over at Larval Subjects.

There Are Many Copies. And They Have a Plan.

There’s no reason for me to post this, other than that I keep laughing at it every time I glance at the newspaper. I’ve noticed the link URL and accompanying photo have gotten more amusing, and the article has climbed to a more prominent place on the news website, over the course of the day – probably because folks like me were emailing it to various people they knew. This is Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty discussing… er… the brave new world of policing:

A cylonMr Keelty said it was hard to estimate how much money the AFP would need to combat technology-based crime.

But he identified the use of robotics and cloning as future challenges.

“Our environmental scanning tells us that even with some of the cloning of human beings – not necessarily in Australia but in those countries that are going to allow it – you could have potentially a cloned part-person, part-robot,” he said.

My suggestion: the first budget request should be dedicated to an overhaul of whatever “environmental scanning” is. ‘Cause somehow I’m not convinced that it’s giving them the best intelligence.

Speech Impediment

I’ve attended a couple of fantastic seminars on Frankfurt School critical theory recently – part of a series conducted by another university. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn about the series until it was well underway, and was able to attend only the final two. The regular participants were very tolerant of this strange interloper who dropped in on their sessions uninvited, and ushered me along with them to the meal and drinks that followed the final seminar last night.

As it happened, there was some discussion over dinner about my own theoretical work. I have these sorts of discussions all the time with the reading group folks, of course, but we know one another well, and have built up to discussions of our own projects, from the simpler starting point of shared discussions of other texts. And I have these sorts of discussions all the time online, as well. But – and here is the interesting thing – I had grossly underestimated the impact of those online conversations on how I currently think about theoretical discussion and debate.

So I found myself last night, trying to explain a project that, admittedly, is rather difficult to explain in the best circumstances, so I wasn’t particularly expecting to sound anything other than vaguely insane. (The visiting scholar leading the seminars listened to me for a while and then, somewhat puzzled, offered, “Well, you know… these things… I mean… One needs to put them aside for ten years or so, as it were – they are so big… And, then, maybe, one can come back to them…”)

But what I found myself feeling most acutely was a kind of chafing under the restriction of not being able to write out my response – my hands were longing for a keyboard, and I kept thinking: this would just be so much easier to explain if I could lay out a bit of background, and organise the presentation a bit more linearly – if I could just respond in email or on the blog. I spent the whole evening experiencing the… er… medium of speech as incredibly limiting, and longing for the additional expressive potentials available in online exchanges.

There is, of course, a grass is always greener dimension to this reaction: in online exchanges, I often find myself wishing that someone could just see my body posture, or hear my tone, and thus avoid mistaking my intention or affect… And, in fact, in specific respects this in-person discussion was able to be a bit more hard hitting than I can be online, precisely because it was quite easy to communicate nonverbally whether the focus were on the person, or on the ideas. I managed to get through an evening of theoretical discussion and, at times, quite pointed disagreement, without having to pay all that much attention to smoothing emotional reactions – something that can be quite difficult in online exchange.

Still… the systematicity that gets lost in face-to-face exchanges, the lost ability to post information that can quickly get a reader reasonably up to speed, if you’re coming at a common problem from an unusual or obscure perspective… (When a very bright person expressed that they needed me to define some of my technical terms – like “macrosociological” – it’s fairly clear we’re coming from vastly different disciplinary backgrounds, and some basic work in building a shared vocabulary will be required before discussion can move forward…) So I kept stumbling across these moments where I couldn’t help but long to translate the discussion into an online space.

I missed my keyboard…

Don’t Begrudge Me

L Magee has rolled out the beta of the software for the PhD project profiled over at schematique.org – thanking me “begrudgingly” for my support, by which I take it LM means the methodology slam to which I contributed last week – offline, alas, so no records of the slamming remain, but if any of you were wondering why I haven’t written on the reading group lately, that would be because last week’s meeting was given over to slamming, at the expense of discussing Mannheim.

LM is currently seeking volunteers to break – er… I mean test – the software, which aims to create an environment for collaborative ontology matching. Don’t know what this means? Go over and have a look! Still don’t know what this means? Go into the environment and have a play! Still don’t know what this means? Well, that’s LM’s problem – go ask over at schematique… Although my understanding is that it has something to do with a bit of applied philosophical research within a controlled experimental environment, oriented to uncovering the potentials and the limits of commensurability. So bring along your inner Kuhn or Davidson, and assist with the development of the software that will make or break LM’s dissertation research… ;-P

P.S. I’ve just gone over to have a play myself and, can I just say: once you’ve logged in, you’re offered a set of options that includes one called “destroy”. This option just seems so much more… appealing than the others. I mean, why do milquetoasty things like “copy” or “share”, when that bright, might-as-well-be-blinking “destroy” option looms so tantalisingly. What is it meant to be – some kind of collaborative “nuclear option”?

Playing to Lose

From an article in The Age on computer games with social agendas:

Among other socially conscious games with an agricultural theme is Third World Farmer, a 2005 student project from Denmark’s IT University of Copenhagen (http://heavygames.com/3rdworldfarmer/showgame.asp). The game challenges players to stay alive through drought, disease, civil war, falling market prices and exposure to toxic waste from a chemical company that wants to lease their land.

“As the average computer game player is getting older, there’s going to be a larger market for games dealing with serious issues,” says graduate student Frederik Hermund, who helped design the game.

In the game there is no way to “win”, something Mr Hermund says has left many players frustrated, adding that the new version will not be “so bleak”. “We’re trying to implement ways to solve some of the problems by building roads and communications. I hope we’ll get less hate mail.”

Something about this scenario is strangely reminiscent of a discussion from the postgrad planning theory course this term. It’s a bit difficult to summarise the context, which related to the use of worst-case scenarios in particular kinds of activist literature. The discussion initially related to the… provenance of the scenarios – to whether particular kinds of claims could be grounded empirically. Talk rapidly shifted, however, from the accuracy of the scenarios, to what kinds of writing would mobilise greater numbers of people to political action.

I’m apparently an outlier on this one, because I tend to think that mainstream political mobilisation is more likely to result from a sense that some solution is viable. (I always think back to an undergraduate lecturer of mine who, asked whether peasants had revolted in a particular period because they were being deprived of food, said something like, “In general, historically, when you deprive people of food, they don’t revolt: they starve.” He then proceeded to draw attention to the constructive, as well as the reactive, provocations that contributed to driving dissatisfaction to be mobilised as political action.) Several of my students disagreed quite strongly, arguing that larger mobilisations would result from drilling in a sense that we have reached a point of no return: that we are facing issues to which no solution could ever be found.

I don’t have a strong universalist claim on the issue – my default position is to assume that political mobilisations have diverse causes. I would tend to think, though, that when problems appear (or, in the case we were discussing, are made to appear) overwhelming and fundamentally insoluable, a level of denial and demobilisation is somewhat likely to set in – and, as with the game manufacturers above, perhaps even a level of shoot-the-messenger anger against the harbingers of depressing news… To approach the same problem from a different direction, I tend also to think (with some qualifications) that Marx might have been onto something in suggesting:

Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.

Betting on Wikipedia

Two of my first-year students approached me this week to play Solomon in a bet they had apparently made with one another, over whether Wikipedia were an acceptable resource for university students. The provocation for the bet was apparently an interaction with another tutor, who had instructed them strictly that Wikipedia was unreliable and therefore had no value for university-level work.

Since many students in fact do find Wikipedia valuable, this advice contradicted their practical experience, and was therefore disregarded: its impact was essentially a social one, causing the students to feel that it is vaguely disreputable to admit to their Wikipedia use in polite circles – or at least in front of teaching staff… The result is a strange social situation that I’ve also seen in some of my other classes, where students with an unusually high respect for teaching staff dutifully stop consulting Wikipedia, while others continue using it clandestinely (one imagines them looking over their shoulders in computer labs), while disguising their use by never citing it…

I’m obviously not present in other classes and tutorial sessions when this anti-Wikipedia advice is meted out, so I don’t know exactly how other staff try to justify that Wikipedia is somehow a pariah resource for anyone with academic pretensions. My sense from what I get second-hand is that the objection involves one of two issues:

(1) doubts about how reliable Wikipedia content could be, when it has not gone through peer review and {{shudder}} can in fact be edited by anyone; or

(2) a more general objection to encyclopedias of any kind, on the theory that the use of encyclopedias as source texts for student writing encourages students to think of knowledge as a static given that they must learn from other people, rather than as a dynamic construct they must actively participate in creating.

I’ll address each of these objections in a moment, but I wanted first to mention in passing that these two objections actually sit in tension with one another, and rely on conflicting notions of how students should position themselves in relation to knowledge construction: the first objection relies on the notion that there are certain sources of information that students can and should treat as authorities – as materials that have been appropriately vetted so that students can cite them as true – while the second relies on the notion that claims about knowledge are arguments, and that students should therefore assume an active, critical relationship to all of their sources. So, from one perspective, Wikipedia is “bad” because it’s not a good enough source while, from the other, Wikipedia is “bad” because students might be tempted to treat it as a source. Read more of this post