Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Temple Grandin-- "Less Abstract Stuff"

I keep thinking about what this woman says in the talk--that we need less "abstract" stuff, even as she claims that we need all sorts of minds. I have a "verbal mind," which Grandin says in this talk are the people who "know every fact." It is interesting that she associates the verbal mind with the ability to retain knowledge, as if verbal thinkers are repositories for words. I'm not really quite sure what she is talking about when she speaks of "abstract," but given her emphasis that she is interested in effecting things "in the real world" it seems that she would not be much for philosophy or theory, even though she theorizes and perhaps even more ironically, we are theorizing about her.

I keep coming back to the moment in the film (which Grandin seems very happy with) when her science teacher says she could go into "animal husbandry." The film flashes to an image that takes the term "husband" as she pictures it in her mind--related to marriage.

I also keep thinking about the way she moves from the "bottom up" (as she says in this talk), which is brilliantly illustrated by the "automatic door" conundrum because it reminds her of the movement of knives and a guillotine.

To me, this seems to indicate that its not that she does not "abstract" things, but that she 'abstracts' things based on certain details that we tend not to notice, which makes her thinking very creative and metaphorical. Perhaps the difference is that a "verbal" creative or metaphorical person would be able to express more adequately why he/she is afraid of the automatic doors or could write about it in a poetic manner (verbally).

 This connecting of details in order to then abstract--what can we call it--a pattern but not a "gestalt" (as she says in the talk)  reminds me of one of Greg's "instruction" for our CATTt project last year where we were supposed to look for a detail in the image or the science of our particular accident. The detail will serve as a "trope" for our project.

Does the visual thinker simply find more interesting tropes? Are tropes a 'verbal' or visual phenomenon and what would be the difference in understanding?

Perhaps another issue is that once something concretely comes to mind and the association is made, it is more difficult to be unmade and unmoored; Here I am drawing on Grandin's recognizing the "fixations" of the autistic. The "door" for instance, signified one thing throughout the whole film-- the door did not take on any other symbolic and nuanced meanings. Is this another difference between the verbal and visual thinker?

Perhaps I am totally off on all accounts, but the film and the talk have really set me off thinking about these different embodied minds and processes of thinking.

Temple Grandin Film

I really enjoyed this film and thought it gave me a lot to think about in terms of posthumanism, particularly in relation to animal studies. We focused in class on implications for disability studies, which I think is also fascinating. I have recently realized why "differently-abled" is not just PC bullshit but rather a more apt description of certain people and even animals. The only issue with 'abled' is that at least in the radical posthumanism put forward by Wolfe, we also focus on our unableness, taking a cue from Derrida on animals. I'm starting to think that if we think animal studies alongside disability studies as unableness, we have the same problem as "disability studies" that Toya pointed out. The way Wolfe frames it, it seems as though its about a "shared" finitude with animals rather than pointing to different modes of embodiment. I don't think Derrida or Wolfe want to emphasize a kind of 'identity' with the other, but perhaps thinking animals and disabilities as differently-abled would help us move away from homogenization, encouraging us to point to particular abilities of any given embodied being.

Although the film is a fictional representation, I will not engage in a kind of hairsplitting of what is fiction and what is fact in her life; instead, I'd like to look at how she was presented in the film (since this is what I am immediately familiar with). In Our Posthuman Future, Francis Fukuyama argues that we should base our ethics and politics on rights and that in order for rights to have meaning, we have to ground them in "nature." Fukuyama is not naive and is trying desperately not to be essentializing through his leaning on statistics rather than ontological claims. He grounds the human in  the complex interplay of several characteristics and claims that human beings have all these characteristics and this is what makes up their uniqueness. But Fukuyama places a marked emphasis on emotions: "I would argue that possession of full human emotional gamut is at least as important if not moreso [as other human characteristics" (Fukuyama 169). The lack of "feelings" typically is something that we say a computer cannot do. 

But what are these things "emotions" and "feelings"? They are psychological states of mind--part of the psychic system that is autopoietically closed (according to Luhmann and Wolfe). I think Grandin, at least as she was represented in the film, challenges these universal human "emotions" that we all seem to display. If the complex range of human emotion is what makes us human, then many people may not be considered human. This idea of 'capabilities' of human emotion directs the question away from Bentham's animal question: can they suffer--yes, they can suffer, but can they do anything else. 

I should emphasize that I am not saying Grandin has no emotion, but it did seem like she did not know how to express those emotions or could not 'read' emotions or at least the same kind of emotions. In the film, we are shown Grandin's (aunt? i think) showing her hundreds of pictures and Grandin is saying "i'm happy in this one" or "I"m angry." She also does not seem as phased by death (again, as represented in the film) saying "where did/do they [he] go?" Grandin in the film does not shed a tear or get terribly sentimental. 

I talk about this not because I am devoid of emotions, but that maybe what we consider "emotions" and "humane" treatment is still not posthuman enough--perhaps empathy is still not going far enough. This is, in a way, how I try and read Stelarc when he says stuff like "I don't think its interesting to emphasize emotion. All of these performances are done with acute indifference, not with expectation or immersed in emotional expression" (223). In my opinion, "indifference" might not be the best word, but this kind of inhuman indifference sans emotion and really more like "sentiment" seems more posthuman to me; not in the sense of pure, masculine, Cartesian rationality, but rather that it opens us up to different ways of thinking about being. 

An example is in order.

If we took PETA (for instance) or someone who is an "animal lover" to the ranch that Grandin first saw the "machine" in (more on that later), someone may call such a device "inhumane," and "perverse" or "harmful" even though Grandin clearly sees that it calms them down. Rather than saying "how would you like it if you were in a cage," and moving on to argue from there that no one would enjoy this, she does a scientific experiment and finds that this works to calm her down as well. The device is neither sexual nor hurtful, but useful. Someone looking at the slaughterhouse may not have said "how can we calm down the animals" it is "oh my god how horribly we kill cows!" True, she does say that this is how, if she were cattle, she would want to die--calm and without much struggle--but again its not. . .sentimental. She also does not seem to have a naive view that nature would take care of the cows like a mother-- "nature is cruel, but we don't have to be."

"Mama's got a squeezebox and she don't need no Daddy or Mommy"

Yep, I had that song stuck in my head as soon as she said "squeeze machine." Its interesting that Grandin compares this machine to a "hug," even though it is not from a human being. However, in her filmic graduation speech, she attributes a lot of her success to the machine, saying "because of my machine" I am here. Sure she talks about her mom pushing her and that is just as important, but the prosthetic becomes a character in itself, through many manifestations. Her main talent is to build machines rather than men that calm the cattle. 

I've been reading and talking about the "Panopticon" section in Discipline and Punish and I could not help but think about how Grandin creates technologies that make cows 'docile'. It is perhaps ironic that she created machines that ultimately puts cows to death more efficiently and without less man-power, and that the added benefit of saving money was probably ultimately what made for her technology's acceptance. The film comments on the sexism she experienced, but not on the slaughterhouse industry, perhaps because the industry was not as horrid in the 60s as the ones nowadays (I am not sure). 

I do not really know what to do with this aspect of the film. 

Furthermore, cattle have a different embodied experience than other animals. One of the things Derrida constantly questions is "what we call animal" as if it were a homogeneous genus. Grandin felt close to cattle and horses, but, at least in the film, we do not see her interacting with household pets. Personally, I liked how the film focused on a human-animal relation that was not one of what Donna Haraway would call "companion species." In one sense, cattle were her companions, but, and Haraway points this out, as in science experiments, the relationship is always asymmetrical. For Haraway, the best we can do is to have respect for these animals. Respect is different than sentiment and I tend to think it avoids a kind of humanistic anthropomorphization. 

"The seeing leading the blind, the blind leading the seeing"

I do not know if Grandin's roommate was actually blind, but it was fascinating how the film juxtaposed these two 'disabilities'. Grandin's character says "we're the same only you have what I have through sound." I take issue with this statement because they are drastically different in many ways, but this does raise the question: Do autistic people interact better with other autistic people or with people with other disabilities? As we pointed out, each case of autism is different. Is each case of blindness? Do the blind "think in sounds" as Grandin "thinks in pictures"? Is this not just as essentializing of designating some kind of essence to woman, man, or animal? 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

"I'd rather be a Cyborg than a Goddess," or, Why Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto is relevant in today's political climate

From what I can tell by watching the news, it seems that the culture war has returned with a vengeance now that the Occupy Wall Street headlines have been replaced by the circus act known as the Republican primary, with candidates spouting outlandish statements about women and sexual politics. As a recent episode of Up With Chris Hayes noted, we aren't even talking about abortion but contraception: plan B, condoms, birth control. We are back to the 'woman question,' and to illustrate it, we can look to a recent article by James Poulos titled "What are Women For?".

Maybe I'm just not understanding exactly what he is arguing here, because at times its not clear exactly what position he is taking. On the one hand, this is not as offensive of an article as the title may seem. But on the other hand, it seems that the suggestion at the end of the argument calls for a soft leftist feminism rather than  more postmodern feminisms suggested by Haraway among others:

Ironically, one of the best places to look for a way out of the impasse is the strain of left feminism that insists an inherently unique female “voice” actually exists. That’s a claim about nature. Much good would come from a broader recognition that women have a privileged relationship with the natural world. That’s a relationship which must receive its social due — if masculinity in its inherent and imitative varieties (including imitation by quasi-feminized males of quasi-masculinized females!) is not to conquer the world.

First problem: the argument is essentialist, claiming that there is some kind of "natural" voice of women that that keeps in check violent men. To revert back to this 'natural position' is basically to set up the woman as a "goddess" rather than a cyborg. Furthermore, as Michelle Goldberg pointed out on Up with Chris Hayes the question "What are women for" brings up "in relation to who"? Of course,the answer here seems that it is men. This sets up women as having, by virtue of their biology, a 'corrective' function to men (this is what I mean by keeping men in check). 

This is a humanist feminism, a feminism that sets up an easy binary between masculine and feminine that Haraway attempts to deconstruct. Rather than offering a "place" or some kind of "purpose" for women (especially women as cyborgs) she argues,

 However, there is no 'place' for women in these networks, only geometries of difference and contradiction crucial to women's cyborg identities. If we learn how to read these webs of power and social life, we might learn new couplings, new coalitions "(Haraway)
These new coalitions will not be based on some original "innocence" that can help correct or curb masculine violence, but rather a feminism that acknowledges that women too are implicated in the world created:
With no available original dream of a common language or original symbiosis promising protection from hostile 'masculine' separation, but written into the play of a text that has no finally privileged reading or salvation history, to recognize 'oneself' as fully implicated in the world, frees us of the need to root politics in identification, vanguard parties, purity, and mothering.

Is not the recent calls for women to have to have a 'transvaginal ultrasound', an attempt of the state to tell a woman "what she is for?" (reproduction/mothering). Rick Santorum even makes it seem that a woman is a conduit for God's sick plan of "be fruitful and multiply" even in the case of rape ("make the best of a bad situation").

I feel like there is more to say here, but I'm not quite sure how to articulate it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Reflection on course goals, teaching, assignments, and readings

After class today, I started to think about why I decided to give you all such difficult, long, and obscure texts. As I have said several times, these texts are hard even for me with my extensive background in philosophy, cultural studies, literature, and to a certain extent, politics. Part of their difficulty, as many of you pointed out, stems from their length. I agree with all of you that it is more realistic (from a teaching/learning/pedagogy) standpoint to decrease the length of the readings per day, breaking them up or potentially omitting large sections that I can then summarize.

Allow me to think quantitatively for a minute, here. We have had approximately probably about 2 hours (maybe) to discuss each reading, if I give more time to the readings than say lecture or in class activities. While the blog posts (mine and yours) as well as my responses supplements this, I realize that this is not the same as "live" discussion. The Foucault, for instance, is probably about 30-40 pages of a "normal" book (even though its only about 25, give or take, in Ways of Reading).

In graduate seminars, we generally discuss a 250-300 page book in 3 hours. That said, we rarely cover the entire book in 3 hours, something that has frustrated me as someone who really enjoys discussing the little details of the book. Furthermore, its a graduate seminar, so most of us are expected to be able to discuss teh book as a whole.

But rarely do we discuss the particular "rhetoric" or "writing" of the book itself, which is ostensibly what 1102 is supposed to use the readings for.

So what is my point and why am I talking about my graduate seminars? My point is that the major reason I assign all of the text (and don't break it up) is to try and help you in your selections of information/citations and how to make it meaningful. When you do research, some research articles (at least  peer reviewed ones) will be 20-25 pages long  and if you have to cite 8 sources, that is 20x8 = 160 pages of material that you have to sort through to find a few points to include in your 2700 (10-12 page) research essay. If you use books, you need to try and wade through information/text in order to find a point that you can use to support your own argument. This is not easy I tell you, as someone who reads hundreds of pages a semester.

This process of selection, however, is not as difficult as wading through something like Foucault, a complex, abstract, philosopher/historian/theorist that I still have not "mastered" (nor ever will--no one has). Most books/articles will have indexes, abstracts, and sometimes breaks in the article indicated by section titles. These are tricks that you will need to learn in order to manage the amount of research necessary to produce your own work.

Furthermore, I recognize that the majority of us do not encounter such complex texts on an every day basis. The longest piece of writing we are apt to read nowadays might be a two-three page article on the huffingtonpost, but most of writing comes in headlines, soundbites, videos, images, or textbooks (a form of writing that is structured to help students understand meaning). Selection seems determined less by the complexity of the information and more by the amount of the information, each of it easily understandable--for the most part.

The texts that we have looked at disrupt our normal processes of interpretation of meaning and on could make the argument that they may not be rhetorically effective for even a general, educated audience such as yourselves and the public at large (I would include myself, but a lot of these texts fall under my academic specialty --theory/philosophy).

To recap, if we only have 2 hours (approx) that we can devote to an explication to these texts and they are not broken up into sections (such that then the questions might become: what makes this section of Foucault different from the section we discussed yesterday, last week, etc) and texts in the Ways of Reading complicate interpretation and are not representative of the type of research you will encounter and do encounter on a day to day basis, which is more 'accessible' to a certain extent, rhetorically speaking), then it would only be logical to conclude that the readings introduce upon the stated goals of the course in its title: Rhetoric and Academic Research.

In other words, first, if we cannot even understand the basic concepts we are working with, it is doubtful that we will be able to discuss the rhetorical choices of these authors nor will be able to discuss how you can "use" these rhetorical strategies in your own writing or how the rhetorical choices made by the author affect what he or she is trying to say. Second, if our readings are in both meanings of the term, the "exceptional" works (meaning, not the norm but also those that exceed the norm in meaning and richness), than the readings do not prepare you to encounter a typical academic research article.

If you were (or are) working in the realm of theories of power, Foucault is useful to know and indeed you may encounter his name again; if you are working with art criticism, history, and media theory, Berger is an essential voice in the field; but the sad (?) truth is that the complexity of someone like Foucault is greatly reduced in academic texts because they are, like you (and me) readers more often than producers of those "primary" texts that are so rich with meaning that people keep reading and re-reading them.

Very few of us will write like Foucault (including me) and many people outside academia find him, like you may have, impenetrable, dense, convoluted, overrated, obscure (pick your pejorative adjective), but some of us (me included) might write about Foucault or use/cite Foucault. However, that may not involve an explication of  his texts, carefully constructing meaning (many people have already done this work).

This is what makes videos and images so great to teach. Still, we must balance this with a reading of written texts because it is necessary to integrate these written texts in order to support one's argument.


Possible strategies for future courses and/or later this semester

But it is hard to decide what "level" of texts to present. On the one hand, giving news articles only presents us with a journalistic style and rhetoric. op-ed articles are good, but in a way lack the complexity, depth, and breadth of research than an academic article. Academic articles tend to be specific to the academic discipline and address issues that may only be meaningful within that paradigm or if one is familiar with the more 'primary' texts of the field. More 'personal' essays (some of which are in Ways of Reading) may include elements that the writer uses skillfully that may not be acceptable in an academic article or that beginning writers may not use as effectively--perhaps this is why Bartholomae and Petrosky recommend imitating the style. Fiction, although it usually contains implicit arguments, can be even more ambiguous about its "meaning" or the argument its making than the theoretical work we have engaged in. Not to mention, many of you are not literature majors and this technically is not a "literature" class. I do not want this course to be a repeat of your high school literature and language courses and I'm sure you don't really want that either.

The honest truth is that you will learn about the conventions of writing in your discipline; I am not fluent in many of these conventions. These conventions would also lead to a construction of different assignments than analysis, synthesis, annotated bibliography, and research paper. Due to university/department conventions, goals, and restrictions, I am obligated to constrain myself to these major assignments. But more importantly,  since many disciplines require data, experiments, illustrations, measurements--aspects of your discipline I am ill equipped to teach you--I cannot think of how I would construct such assignments that would fit our allotted time schedule.

And so perhaps this is why the course is labeled Rhetoric and Academic Research rather than Rhetoric and Academic Writing. While research processes may be similar (at least when one is researching textual sources, which, regardless of your discipline, you will have to do) the writing produced from this research has its own conventions for making meaning and displaying data.

Therefore, rhetoric can be explained through video clips, images, various different written documents. These should be texts with relatively clear arguments, 'ordinary' language (not necessarily colloquial), and of moderate length given the time we have in class to work on them. This could allow me to choose different articles that we have not discussed in class for our major assignments, but which are "comparable" to the genres and lengths of texts we have discussed in class. Of course, this risks the assignments having less to do with classwork and thus may provide less continuity and unity to the course as a whole (but perhaps this was always a forced unity). On the other hand, as long as these other texts were analogous in theme, it would seem less like the class exercises did not contribute to a larger understanding.

Perhaps introducing something new that we do not discuss in class in addition to 2 articles that we do discuss in class might allow for some tension to form in theses and in the essays in general. Perhaps the two articles in class can be shorter whereas the third one will be longer and more complex, forcing students to figure it out with one another--on the blog or otherwise. Perhaps this would help create tension in the thesis or in the interpretations of the articles. This would also free up more time for other activities besides discussion of texts.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Continuing the GFP bunny discussion

Upon re-examining the Kac webpage and returning to Wolfe's chapter, I want to clarify some of the things I may have hastily asserted in class.

For one, I did not make the distinction between reflexivity and recursivity when I was speaking about how the self-reference of the autopoietic system can be productive. If Kac's work only implied reflexivity, we we would end up with an infinite doubling-back, but recursivity means that the system "uses its own outputs as its inputs" ( Wolfe 161-162). So, Kerri was right that a kind of infinite reflexivity would be something Wolfe may not agree with. Kac's work is "recursive" in this way because he does not have complete control over how the artwork will play itself out; instead, the audience is asked to participate and somehow alter the art system. I"ll get to that more in a bit, when I refer to the "Alba Guestbook"

Second, I think that Dan/Andrew was right that by reducing GFP bunny (or any of Kac's work) to a revealing of a "hidden seediness" behind science, also reduces the artwork to the same dimensions of Coe's work critiqued by Wolfe. I should have clarified that Wolfe is not arguing that the meaning can be reduced to the "revealing" of science's hidden underside, but, drawing on Derrida here, Wolfe claims that the meaning of GFP Bunny is not simply that which is "invisible" in the sense that it is hidden from view (what we are "prevented" from seeing") but an invisible that is "not simply the opposite of vision" (166). Derrida elaborates on this sense of "invisible" in the Gift of Death: "But there is also absolute invisibility, the absolutely nonvisible that refers to whatever falls outside the register of sight [. . .] the encrypted invisible" (Derrida 90).

Its not that Wolfe does not see the visibility as somehow inessential to the work. Rather, like Andrew suggested today, he sees it as a "feint or lure that trades on the very humanist centrality of vision that Kac's work ends up subverting" (164). He goes on to say that, Kac's work makes this all too visible by eliciting and manipulating the very familiar forms and conventions of contemporary visual appetite" (165). So then Andrew is right that in a way the visual spectacle is there to create a "whoa, look at what we can do!" but maybe instead of thinking "whoa look what we can do" its an even simpler "cool!" Indeed, I have to admit that my own fascination with BioArt is not from a commitment to animal rights (or rites) or the well being of animals--it was more simply a "wow that's cool shit, maybe I should look into this more." It's a lure to get people to pay attention, a rhetorical move that draws you in until you realize that there's this whole discourse of ethics, aesthetics, and social interaction involved in this. Its not novelty for novelty's sake. 

From this perspective of the visual as a lure--can we not see these other "works" that we referred to in class today as  possible "kitsch" as part of a similar type of rhetorical strategy? The Rabbit Remix series, first of all, is not BioArt as classified (and I believe coined) by Kac. Kac defines BioArt as art "in vivo," that is, BioArt excludes "art that exclusively uses traditional or digital media to address biological themes" (Kac, Signs of Life 19). That means that such art as Patriccia Piccinni, who may use dead material, but, so far as I know, not living material, would be excluded, as would the projects of CONE (The Cult of the New Eve, part of the Critical Art Ensemble), and Sonia Rapaport's digital proposal for a "redemption" of Kac's Genesis project. These may be "new media" art, but are not BioArt as defined by Kac. We may still ask if art partially created by animals, such as Olly and Suzi's work is BioArt, or if it has to engage in the manipulation of life instead of species interaction. BioArt, according to Kac, also cannot be subsumed in its specificity to ready-mades, conceptual art, situationism, or social sculpture. 

Kac defines BioArt as art that employs these approaches:

1.) the coaching of biomaterials into specific inert shapes or behaviors

2.) the unusual or subversive use of biotech tools or processes

3.) the invention or transformation of living organisms with or without social or environmental integration. 

As a provocative statement, Kac writes, "BioArt does not just create new objects, but new subjects" (19). Inherent in this designation appears to be an assumption that "life" = "subject". Furthermore, this presumes that we know what designates something as "life." Of course, I may be critiquing Kac by using the fallacy that implicit in his statement of Bioart creates new subjects that BioArt is the only art that can create new subjects, which may not be the case. However, if he is implying that this is BioArt's original contribution to the artworld, I'm not quite sure if we should accept, uncritically this view of life. Are the Artifical Life creations of Mark Tilden 'life'? What about the Tissue Culture and Art Project's work? Surely Kac would say that their work constitutes BioArt, but even Catts and Zurr sometimes refer to their creations as "evocative objects" or "semi-living sculptures." What does it mean to create a "new subject"? 

I also looked at the link on the website titled "Alba guestbook," which has some interesting comments from people responding to Alba. I want to comment on two of them. Here's the first one:

I had the misfortune to work with Eduardo a couple of years ago, whilst I was doing my Ph.D. I remember he regularly used to come into the lab, take one of our lab mice out of the cage, beat it to death and eat it raw. He was always going on about how the first thing he would do when he got Alba would be to kill her and have her stuffed. Eduardo Kac is a very, very evil man. I have proof that links him to the shooting of Dan Mcgrew and the Ode to the Haggis. He is cruel to children and it takes him two minutes to make one-minute muffins. He also votes Democraft, and smells. IT he got hold of Alba, he would turn her into weapons of mass destruction and sell her back to the French, who would in turn sell them to the shirt-head ay-rabs in the Middle East. Let that be a warning, fat Yankees.

This is clearly bullshit, but it still was logged into Alba guest book. After reading Kac's statements about the care he took in creating Alba, it is very difficulty to believe this testimony, yet it remains there as part of the dialogic interaction of the audience. 

This next one is in response to someone who claims that Kac assumes that "living under a family is liberating," who also seems to conflate pets and meat by using a "/"

hey Eduardo, why not set yourself free from the expectation that family living is somehow liberating? for who? and from what? you offer Alba patriarchal domination, assimilation into nuclear culture, eventual throwaway in consumer society . . . otherwise why would you need her to be not simply a laboratory freak but also female and a member of a species living on the pet/meat line?

Here is the response--from "Alba": 

Dear Dogirl, I think you're mistaken. Who are YOU to say that this or that family ir more or less liberating? Where did you get this idea from, anyway? Nobody here ever said so. Don't you appreciate the companionship of those who you love? Eduardo does not offer me patriarchal domination, assimilation into nuclear culture, or eventual throwaway in consumer society . The poor guy is just trying to get me home! Do you have a home, dogirl? I don't. Instead, here I'm, in a cold cage, alone, wasting my time responding to these silly neo-marxistoid emails. Where's my carrot?

This is really interesting because someone (we cannot know who) has put themselves in a position to 'speak" for Alba, as Alba, anthropomorphizing her. This writer is probably not Kac himself, since he writes "as we negotiate our relationship with our lagomorph companions, it is necessary to think rabbit agency without anthropomorphizing it" ("GFP bunny"). 

Indeed, this seems to be the goal behind the "Lagoglyphs" series. Here is how the website explains the Lagoglyphs: 

 "Lagoglyphs are a series of 12 bichrome silkscreens created by Kac in 2007 in which the artist develops a leporimorph or rabbitographic form of writing.  As visual language that alludes to meaning but resists interpretation, the Lagoglyphs series stands as the counterpoint to the barrage of discourses generated through, with, and around Kac’s “GFP Bunny.”

The lagoglyphs are the artist's "rabbitographic" form of writing, but writing that cannot be easily translated or interpreted. In a way, then, Kac here is not trying to "speak for" Alba in the same way that the "guestbook" person has tried to do. Here, the visual is used as a rhetorical device that then gets us to think about something other than the letters marked in the same "glow" as Alba. 

Monday, February 13, 2012

Getting the Terminology Right. . .

After finishing Hayles' wonderful book, How We Became Posthuman, which gives an excellent background of first-order and some second-order cybernetics/systems theory that really helps me understand Wolfe, I decided to re-read the introduction and Ch. 1 of thee Wolfe book. I have all these terms wandering around in my head that I decided I needed to distinguish for myself ("make a distinction") in the blog. Ch. 1 is particularly good since it deals with systems theory and Derrida. 

First, we have to understand that the distinction between system and environment (at the very least this distinction) is a functional distinction rather than ontological claim (see pg xix). It seems that this is true for many of the distinctions made. As Wolfe puts it, "A preference for meaning over world, for order over perturbation, for information over noise is only a preference" (18). I take this to mean that whatever we designate and distinguish as a "system," the system at the same time includes "the environment," which is NOT a pre-given 'nature' or any other sort of ontological entity, but only a functional designation of that which is heterogeneous to the system. 

Wolfe distinguishes three levels of any given system: 

1.) the self-referential autopoeisis of a biological system's 'material substrate' 

2.) The self-referential formal dynamics of 'meaning' [. . .] that some (but not all) autopoietic systems use to reduce environmental complexity and interface with the world.

3.) The self-reference of language proper as a second-order phenomenon and  a specific medium. (pgs xxii-xxiii)

Language is a medium that can help "psychic systems" and "social systems" interpenetrate, but these systems are independent, closed, autopoeitic systems. That is "psychic systems" (which I assume means the same as "consciousness" or that "consciousness" is a particular type of psychic system) and "social system" (which is associated with communication) are completely separate. This is how we get the idea that "humans cannot communicate" in the sense that communication does not happen by a "transfer" of meaning "from" one consciousness to another--this is impossible. Rather "communication communicates"

It is crucial to understand that Luhmann and Derrida use the word "communication" in two different senses. Derrida, according to Wolfe, is critiquing the communication of first order systems of theory (13). Instead, we should think of Luhmann's communication as synonymous with Derrida' notions of "writing" in the largest sense of "trace structure." This allows us to understand how Derrida and Luhmann both do not ontologically distinguish between man writing and other nonhuman writing--writing/communication is inhuman. But writing/communication is not synonymous with "language." 

Wolfe writes, "For Luhmann, then, language is not constitutive of either psychic or social systems, but is rather a specific second order phenomena--a type of "symbolically generalized communication media" that those systems use in the service of the first order process of meaning" (22). Thus, communication can happen without language--and--substituting Derrida's terminology--writing can happen without "language" because writing is the iterable mark, the trace. 

But now we have to deal with the process of "meaning": 
Meaning enables psychic and social systems to interpenetrate while protecting their autopoeisis; meaning simultaneously enables consciousness to understand itself and continue to affect itself in communication and enables communication to be referred back to consciousness of the participants. (21)
Thus, "meaning" is something different from "communication," communication is a specific instance of meaning. All "forms of meaning [. . .] operate by means of difference" (22). However, there is yet another distinction (and more) to be made: meaning and information.

Communication is  process of three selections: information (the 'content'), utterance (the specific, pragmatic communicative event, and understanding (a receiver's processing of the difference between information and utterance that completes the communicative act) (Wolfe 22). 

Within Luhmann's schema, it is important to realize that something can be meaningful without being information because in order for something to be information it has to be the 'first' time a receiver receives it--it cannot be repeated.

Some may think here--but wait! Is this not separating form and content? Is this not another way to say that a message "holds" information that it transfers or communicates? Yes and no. Wolfe brilliantly points out that,
while Derrida emphasizes the final undecidability of any signifying instance, Luhmann stresses that even so systems must decide they must selectively process the difference between information and utterance if they are to achieve adaptive resonance with their environment. (23)
Thus, the observer has to choose if it is information or not--he or she has to make a distinction. How many times have I read the text, "the medium is the message," a short snippet of Marshal Mcluhan, but within a certain context, I may find that the communication "means" more than it did before. Or, to take another example, I "read" the word "consensual domain" when I first read the Wolfe text, but because I had barely any background on Varela and Maturana (which was today provided by Hayles) I hardly realized its meaning--no understanding really took place. But now, because the "the state of the system" (the 'me' system I'll call it) has changed, something that may have been "meaningful" becomes information--understanding takes place. The form of the text did not change, but the system (the observer) has.

So we have several terms here.




           Communication (Luhmann) Writing/Trace (Derrida)
                 1.) information
                 2.) utterance
                 3.) understanding

From what I can gather from the text, perception is, along with communication, a form of meaning--but this is not quite correct, since meaning is formed through difference and in that sense communication is not really a "form" of meaning.

According to Wolfe, "perception  (and beyond that, consciousness) and communication operate in mutually exclusive, operationally closed, autopoietic systems, though they are structurally coupled through media such as language" (231).

Here it appears that perception is linked to the "psychic system" and communication linked to the "social system." But then Wolfe writes, "At the same time, however, consciousness and perception are a medium for communication" (232).

Luhmann gets around this by claiming that there is asymmetrical relationship between the mind  and communication. Although the mind remains "invisible to communication" it is clear that "communication can hardly come into being without the participation of the mind" (232). That is, there is no "unperceived communication" and since communication is only a "functional" distinction made by an observer and not an ontological thing in itself, it needs a mind in order to communicate.

I still can't quite grasp what Wolfe/Luhmann mean by " 'the mind  has the privileged position of being able to disturb, stimulate, and irritate communication' " (339). It cannot instruct or direct communications--reports of perception are not perceptions themselves'--but they can 'stimulate communication without ever becoming communication' (379-80)" (Wolfe 232).

At first, I thought that this excluded animals from communication, but then I remembered that "mind" does not necessarily mean 'human mind' or 'consciousness' in any sort of phenomenological philosophical sense, but rather, just a perceiver, so that we can imagine an animal 'mind' stimulating communication too.

All of this brings me to the role of art that it plays in both Luhmann's theories and Wolfe's. How does art, thinking in Luhmann's terms, differ from 'writing' or 'communication'? It seems to be a mode of communication  as opposed to other modes of communication. Indeed, I think that we can safely say that art is not something that can be defined ontologically (in its being or its nature) and that art, like all other distinctions in systems theory, is a functional distinction: "Here we need to remind ourselves that questions of form are not questions of objects" (229).

Thus Wolfe phrases the question like this: "What is the relationship between discourse about art and the art object itself?"

We can find the answer by realizing that the work of art can form the question of whether a work of art is a 'work of art' as distinguished from all other 'natural' objects or discourse, but it cannot answer that question. Thus, the work of art  becomes a question: How is this a work of art? The artist, we may presume, as a first order observer says "This is a work of art," but that allows the "second order observer," the one who comes in and experiences the work of art to then to try and figure out its significance or its meaning:
For Luhmann, such questions index the situation of art as a social system under functionally differentiated modernity of art struggling to come to terms with its own raison d'etre--in systems theory terms, to achieve and justify its operational closure, or autonomy. (230, italics mine). 
Thus, art asks the question, as Wolfe does in a previous chapter, "what does art add?" (152). What justifies the art system?

For Wolfe the answer is that
the artwork copresents the dfference between perception and communication, and this difference is what allows art to have something like a privileged relationship to what is commonly invoked as the 'ineffable' or the 'incommunicable', and it uses perception to 'irritate' and stimulate communication to respond to the question 'what does this perceptual event mean? (Wolfe 233)
In Luhmann's words:
The function of art would then consist in integrating what is in principle incommunicable--namely, perception--into the communication network of society [. . .] communication guided by perception relaxes the structural coupling of consciousness and communication (without destroying it, of course). . .In a manner that is matched neither by thought nor communication, perception presents astonishment and recognition in a single instant. (Luhmann qtd. in Wolfe 233)
Art then, has a critical function in society because it forces us to pay attention to the meaning of the split between the 'real world' and the 'imaginary world'--a functional distinction that each work of art makes. In this way, so Wolfe and Luhmann claim, artworks "in calling our attention to the realm of the 'socially regulative,' cast light on precisely those contingencies, constructions, and norms that mass media, in their own specific mode of communication, occlude" (Wolfe 235). It thus allows us to deconstruct the constructions of reality provided by the mass media, perhaps, by offering a different construction of reality.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Art, the Irrepeatable, and the violence of writing on life

Eduardo Kac argues that the distinction between science and art is the type of knowledge produced: "While in science the elimination of what is not repeatable produces the field where knowledge is possible, in art the irrepeatable is celebrated as the singularity that enables aesthetic knowledge" (192). Indeed, much of what I have read on BioArt emphasizes this idea that the art is irrepeatable. Now, maybe I"m conflating irrepeatable with non-iterable, but I am interested in thinking about how this art is iterable. Indeed, I want to make the argument that in order for BioArt to truly engage its issues with technoscientific production and biopolitics, it must be disseminated through some form of writing, whether that be text, image, or video. Furthermore, BioArt itself is a kind of writing; we may at first be reluctant to admit this since we generally assume that writing is the 'dead letter' rather than living word. How could we "write" with living material? What is a "living writing," a "life writing." But artists, for example, Adam Zaretsky, speak of their work in terms of the signature. He writes,
the habit of inserting an engineered plasmid into the genome of a cell line or organism is a physical artifact that stems from the mortal desire for lasting signature. These still born scupltures, in accord with the libidinal economy of multi-generational directionality, have been impressed upon for the record alone. Consider their mutations to be a sort of genetic graffiti. 
Genetic graffiti--a transgressive form of writing.

Eduardo Kac writes that the green glow of Alba functions as a kind of "social marker" as opposed to a "biomarker," which has many different meanings depending on the field. I want to look into these meanings and see how this metaphor could be extended to more than just Kac's work.

Kac is extremely aware of the symbolic and semiotic elements of his work, as he has deemed his Alba Flag as a "social marker, a beacon of her absence" and has created a work titled Lagoglyphs, a "rabbitographic form of writing" which is a "visual language that alludes to meaning but resists interpretation, the [series] stands as the counterpoint to the barrage of discourse generated through, with, and around Kac's GFP bunny" (Imaginary Science 66).

I think we should take seriously this idea of writing in BioArt--the marks, cuts, incisions--the violent traces inscribed upon life by these artist-scientists; this can lead us to a powerful understanding, through visualization and material embodiment, to an understanding of the violence of writing and the artistic 'signature'.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Possible Thesis

As biotechnology makes genetic engineering an immanent inevitability, many people are questioning whether we should mess with Nature. Whether the critics are religious or not, the popular phrase we hear more and more, that we are "playing God," suggest that through genetic manipulation of code, we will be able to completely control the immaterial and material world. This makes us the new kind of "author" figure, but this time, rather than writing about the meaning of life, we are writing on life. The fear that geneticists are "playing God," if we take into account the analogy that God is the author of the Book of the World, assumes that the author has complete control over the text of the world and  various readers are  there to merely decipher it. Perhaps if we deciphered the creation of God, we could understand the purpose of life. 

But such a view is not possible in this post-Nietzschean era--God is dead. The Author is dead. 

What I mean to suggest by this parallel is that BioArtists attempt to show that they cannot control life as a God/Author, but nor are they simply readers. Just as we realize that language resists transparent meaning and manipulation, BioArt resists the idea that we could ever read or communicate life in its entirety through deciphering a code. Indeed, BioArtists foreground the idea that life resists code, like a language. Furthermore,  just as New Media artists and theorists have been working for years to insist on the materiality of digital information, so BioArt insists on the materiality of genetic information. BioArtists may begin at the genetic level or the tissue level, but wherever they may begin, each visualizes the materiality of their medium and their embeddness in a complex ecological system that make up their "work."