Friday, August 31, 2012

The Rhetoric of Dr. Pepper

This Dr. Pepper commercial presents the many contradictions of individualism under capitalism and it furthermore underscores the relation of visual and verbal rhetoric. The commercial is unified by a song from a Broadway musical (made popular by Sammy Davis Jr.) called “I gotta be me.” The song basically says that I have to be “me” no matter what my conditions of life. But the song is actually a remake of Davis’ song by Ryan Tedder, so already the song is not “unique” to Dr. Pepper at least in terms of its use (in other words, it is not the recognizable McDonal’s jingle—you know what I am talking about). Not to mention, perhaps even more interesting, is that the same song song is sung by Duffy in a 2009 Diet Coke commercial (Coca Cola company, of course, owning Dr. Pepper).

Through this song, though, Dr. Pepper feeds our sense of uniqueness, even to footnoting the video exhorting the reader to tell Dr. Pepper makes you unique.

The levels of irony of the commercial, so far as the presentation goes, are many. For one, the slogan “one of a kind,” in common parlance, means that you are unique, but “one of a kind” could mean just that: one of a particular kind – one more species of that particular genus; in this case, the genus would be Dr. Pepper fans – they are all united under the one corporation. Of course, Dr. Pepper is also “one of a kind” as it is one of the many drinks produced by Coca-Cola. Thus, this slogan actually reveals its unconscious: you are one of a kind under Coca-Cola.

The verbal/auditory rhetoric of “one of a kindness” is also undermined by the visual. The commercial begins with several people, all dressed differently, walking out of some mode of transit and then it comes over the guy that he should shed his work clothes and show his Dr. Pepper pride. The Dr. Pepper shirt, although each one contains a different statement, always contains maroon and white; even the so called “rebel” of the piece has just inverted the colors of the shirt and the text of a particular font (the font doesn’t change). On the one hand, there is something unifying about this as people drop whatever they are doing, show the monolithic colored shirts (as opposed to the diverse clothes—granted, also owned by corporations) they were wearing a minute ago, and congregate – for what?  -- we really aren’t sure. It seems like everyone is just congregating for the sake of jouissance (or, literally, because that’s what the director’s of the ad want them to do – these people are not “being them” by any means).

Thus, the visual presentation already undermines the statements of “individuality” that are marked on their T-shirts. But then again, so is the syntax of these statements, which is “I’m a x.” What the “x” is varies – for the most part, it seems to express their personalities that are expressed within whatever practice they happen to be engaging in. So, the woman that has “I am a cougar,” we assume, is pursuing the first guy who stripped to his Dr. Pepper shirt. The man playing chess says “I’m a beginner.” The man running with the cybernetic leg is inscribed as “I’m a fighter.” This cuts to two twins jumping rope who both have inscribed on their (identical) shirt “I’m a one and only.”

The irony is that nothing written on their T-shirts makes them unique whatsoever. They are declarative statements of general qualities (such as the “control freak”) that also reflects their current activity. Visually, syntactically, and conceptually, none of these people have anything unique about them except the very fact that they are all singular individuals (a singularity that cannot be marked or written) who have a different view of the world. But this is masked by the writing on their bodies, transforming them into an undifferentiated mass coming together to celebrate Dr. Pepper.

It should also be noted that it seems like many of these people are walking out of either a government building or a college institution. Not in order to protest its administration or to work toward changing it, but as a retreat into the innocent jouissance of the corporation. How incredibly symbolic of the move away from the importance of public institutions of knowledge and research to corporate logic of a false individualism and independence.

The very last image we get is not of a unified mob with a purpose (which would hint at the possibility of revolution) but the guy inseminating a woman who hasn’t shed her coat to reveal her inner “pepper” just yet by giving her a sip of his Dr. Pepper.  It’s conversion, mating ritual, and branding all at once – her shirt reveals “I’m a pepper.” At this moment, she has marked her body as the commodity in a way that is even more explicit (although implicit) in all of the other T-shirts in the commercial. 

This is a representation of the violent virus of writing on the body – an illusion of uniqueness that erases the possibility of other diverse idioms. The idiom is one font, in English, saturated by only two colors.  

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Story of (full) Writing

Andrew Robinson's The Story of Writing provides us with a lot of background on the earliest systems of writing and debunks the myth that some writing is completely ideographic with little relation to sound. For Robinson, "full writing," implies "a system of graphic symbols that can be used to convey any and all thought" (14). This is not a bad definition, but it already situates writing as an expression or communication of thought. Writing, at least in some of the broadest definitions I've explored since beginning to study writing, is not necessarily connected to a consciousness. Furthermore, writing is not restricted to a system (particularly a closed system of graphic symbols) of graphic symbols. Indeed, Niklas Luhmann argues that we, as conscious beings, do not communicate -- "only communication communicates." This means that other systems (or nonhuman beings) can "write." That is, writing is not necessarily restricted to language. Although Robinson points out that language is different than script, he still adamantly maintains at the close of the introduction: "full writing cannot be divorced from speech; words, and the scripts that employ words, involve both sounds and signs" (17). But when do we decide language is "full"? We know from comparative linguistics that every language cannot express every thought -- that language structures the possibility of what can be thought just as much as thought influences our writing. 

 The question for me is: What do we get out of this book besides a relatively detailed history of the decipherment of several different languages? Furthermore, what does it mean that the book takes such pains to focus on the process of how a script was "deciphered"? (In almost all the cases, the "decipherment" of a language was educated guess work -- constant trial and error-- how can we be sure they are even correct now?)

Silly Arguments about Film

For me, the most interesting part of the entire book was the last chapter, where Robinson speculates about the (im)possibility of a logographic utopia -- a universal communication, concluding that achieving this is doubtful. I agree, given the untranslatability of languages. Robinson has a particular desire to keep the importance of words (as if words were not visual) as he says we have a "visual bias" in our culture. He even makes a silly argument about cinema: 

"Today, to watch a silent film--even one of the most imaginative--is to feel that something is missing. The same is true, a fortiori, of our reaction to one of the early Sumerian tablets from Uruk or a series of unknown pictograms such as those on page 210. They lack a dimension" (214). 
First, silent films were usually accompanied by music, so it is not that sound is not a part of silent films. Furthermore, silent films frequently employed written word frames in order to explain the action. To claim that something is "lacking" in Mayan glyphs I think is a bias toward alphabetical/phonetic language because I frankly want to now write in Mayan glyphs. There is something beautiful and excessive about them in the same way that elaborate or intricate typography affects the viewer more than a standardized Times New Roman font. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the book is formatted in "textbook" style, where the visual "protowriting" is distinctly marked from the "full" writing of Robinson's text.

Assumptions about Extraterrestrials

In the final pages of his book, Robinson contrasts an Ice Age cave painting and Carl Sagan's Pioneer plaque. Robinson writes that in contrast to the Ice Age painting, "Sagan has given a written explanation of every part of this plaque. 'It is written in the only language we share with the recipients: Science." (side bar, 216). Although Robinson doesn't explicitly comment on this quote by Sagan, it seems clear that he is in agreement; the only part of the plaque that Robinson assumes the "advanced civilization" will not be able to calculate are the human figures. The "spacecraft leaving the solar system" will "surely be understood." They also "should be able to calculate that the plaque belongs to a very small volume of the Milky Way Galaxy" (sidebar, 217).

Science is not a universal language because this "language of science" requires an abundance of cultural knowledge that we cannot assume any being (not even human beings!) will be able to understand. The only thing I understand are the human beings! The other drawings just look like random scratches. Hell, how can we be sure that the aliens won't think we are saying that human beings are bigger than the solar system? The amount of cultural knowledge assumed in this plaque is nothing short of astounding.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Tentative Abstract for the International Conference on Body and Technology: Instruments of Somaesthetics

 Title: Body as Interface: The Posthuman Performative Somaesthetics of Stelarc

  In his disciplinary proposal for somaesthetics, Richard Shusterman distinguishes among three modes: experiential, representational, and performative. However, insofar as performative practices are either for representational display or cultivation of the experience of one’s own body, he argues that we could subsume these practices primarily under representational or experiential modes--even if many practices participate in both modes.  I will argue that some performance art that uses the body as a medium should rightfully be characterized as a performative somaesthetics. Unlike Shusterman’s pragmatic orientation toward self-melioration in which we aim for a healthy dose of self-knowledge, Australian performance/Bioartist Stelarc orients his work outward towards a transformation of the self through technological prostheses that has little to do with knowledge of an already constituted self. Rather than asking what we are and thus how we fit in with the environment, Stelarc asks what can we become given the conditions of environment. Akin to Shusterman’s call for a practical philosophy, for Stelarc, this question cannot be answered merely by theoretical speculation; rather, he claims that his ideas are authenticated only by actions. However, Stelarc probes the very “limit experiences” that Shusterman argues may risk “destroying the self.”  I will argue that it is precisely these intense limit experiences that Bioart/performance art engage as a performative somaesthetics, not in order to perfect the individual self or to prescribe beneficial bodily practices, but to creatively explore contestable ways the body may interface with technology. The body as Shusterman understands it is “obsolete” (in Stelarc’s terms) because the body and the “self” that Shusterman posits has become fractilized and distributed across network media. This is not to say that voluntary human action is absolutely eliminated, but rather that it becomes one among many other agencies. The human body, rather than our instrument for life, becomes raw material for the network of which we are only a node.  As Stelarc puts it, “certainly what becomes important is not the body’s identity, but its connectivity; not its mobility or location, but its interface.” 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Tentative EGO conference abstract

University of Florida English Graduate Organization 2012 Conference
CFP: Borders and Beyond: Considering Communities, October 11-13

Jacob T. Riley
University of Florida

Title: Public Parasites: The Strategic Aural Occupation of Space in Do The Right Thing and Noise
           In his book Postcomposition, Sid Dobrin argues that the occupation of space is “clearly a struggle of power, an ideological struggle to inscribe meaning.” Furthermore, Dobrin claims that only by reimagining the possibilities of space to create new places can we take the first step toward resisting oppressive and hegemonic occupations. This reimagining is the responsibility of communities who occupy space so as to define a place for themselves in the world. But space and place are always contested among different communities. Space can be fruitfully occupied through many different means, but I will focus on the use of sound. French theorist Michel Serres argues that noise, parasite in French, is intimately connected to spatial, social, and political struggles for power. Indeed, whether or not something is considered “noise” in the colloquial sense of unwanted sound depends not on a quality of the sound itself, but on the  position and power relations between those experiencing the sound.  
           In this paper I will deploy Michel Serres’ concept of the parasite in analyzing two films from different eras, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) and Henry Bean’s Noise (2008). I argue that the fictional communities and individuals represented in these films occupy space using sound in a strategic manner in order to gain access to spaces they wish to reinscribe with their own meanings, ultimately with the goal of effecting socio-political change. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Somaesthetics, Posthumanism, and BioArt: Tentative Thoughts Toward an Abstract

Having studied posthumanism and BioArt for my thesis for about a year now, I went in search for a conference CFP that would allow me to adapt some of ideas to aim at a particular target. I found this:, "Body and Technology: The Instruments of Somaesthetics."

Richard Shusterman, who coined the term "somaesthetics," argues in his "disciplinary proposal" that for too long philosophy has neglected the aesthetics of the body as a practical discipline. Although this is true for the history of philosophy, as a pragmatist philosopher, Shusterman is primarily speaking to this camp. Somaesthetics is a theoretical, pragmatic, and practical philosophy of self-fashioning, a kind of material/fleshy version of Stanley Cavell.

Shusterman defines Somaesthetics provisionally as "the critical, meliorative study of the experience and use of one's body as a locus of sensory-aesthetic appreciation (aisthesis) and creative self-fashioning. It is therefore also devoted to the knowledge, discourses, practices, and bodily disciplines that structure such somatic care or improve it" (Shusterman 1999). Thus, aesthetics here is not limited to the fine arts, but rather many practices of every day life, including breathing and movement.

Shusterman goes on to create distinctions among the various components and modes of Somaesthetics. For my purposes, the distinction he makes between representational and experiential somaesthetics will be the most relevant. Representational SA deal with external appearances and experiential, the "inner." Of course, Shusterman recognizes that many "inner" somaesthetics are facilitated by external practices and movements (i.e. yoga, tai chi, martial arts) and that external somaesthetics may be an attempt to represent to the outside world and inner state. Nor is this an attempt to reinscribe a Cartesian mind/body split. The body is not treated as an object for study, as when we speak of musico-aesthetics, but rather "a crucial sensory medium for enhancing our dealings with all other aesthetic objects and also with matters not standardly aesthetic."

Certain Bioartists stand at the threshold of bodily aesthetic practices and what one might call "the fine arts." Bioart is art that uses life as its medium, whether that life is tissue culture, other non-human animals, or the artist's own body. Both Bioart and somaesthetics focus on creative self-fashioning. Furthermore, Bioart is a theoretical practice -- that is -- its theory must be put into practice so that it be undergone and experienced rather than theorized about as an object. Thus, Bioart may be considered to be what Shusterman calls a "performative somaesthetic," which may not be easily reduced to either a representational or experiential somaesthetic, since it is the bioartists job to create an affective experience for the audience (sometimes inviting participation) while at the same time using the power of representative or performative art -- the experience of bioart is transformative for both the artist, the audience, and potentially the artwork (even if it is not the artist).

While somaesthetics in Shusterman's text seems to focus on self-fashioning, discipline, and control, Bioartists, as much as they strive to control their projects, focus on the contingent external forces of life and the materials used to sustain it. As a theoretical-practice-art that questions easy distinctions between the living and the nonliving and the human and the nonhuman, Bioart asks questions about not only the aesthetic of the human body, but the aesthetics and affects of a plurality of bodies. In other words, Bioart may lead us to consider what a posthuman somaesthetics might look like.

Of course, as is usually the case, someone has already investigated the question of posthuman somaesthetics. In his essay "Pragmatism, Artificial Intelligence, and Posthuman Bioethics: Shusterman, Rorty, Foucault," J.J. Abrams argues that the posthuman could be considered the radical extreme of creative self-fashioning.

However, Abrams' understanding of the posthuman is primarily drawn from extropian and transhumanist sources such as Francis Fukuyama, Hans Moravec, and Ray Kurzweil. Abrams understands the posthuman as simply the next step in human evolution, taking for granted that Kurzweil's predictions will come true. Abrams looks to science fiction as a guide for studying "how the body may be refashioned here on earth and in the vicinity" (Abrams 2004). But the science fiction visions that Abrams draws upon are the predictions of Kurweil and Co., a particular strand of posthumanism that would never claim. along with  N. Katherine Hayles, that perhaps we have "always already been posthuman. (Hayles 1999). Indeed, Abrams does not take into account the critical posthumanism that was beginning to develop through the work of Hayles, Cary Wolfe, Neil Badmington, etc. Abrams does take Haraway's "Cyborg Manifesto" into account, but misses her point by reading her through his  transhumanist and popular posthumanist (Fukuyama) sources, claiming that, "Haraway's own vision is to live out one's time on earth--which may, in fact, be unlimited [?] -- as actual living cyborgs. This would certainly involve transformations of the mind, as articulated in Kurzweil's nano-technological brain engineering" (Abrams 2004).

Basically, I propose to put Shusterman's Somaesthetics into conversation with critical posthumanist thought via a consideration of three Bioartists (although, potentially, I will only discuss Stelarc). I hope to point toward a critical posthumanist Somaesthetics while also taking into account some of the limits of somaesthetics scope through attempting to understand Bioart through that lens.