Ever since Plato we have lamented any new technology’s entrance into the public sphere, particularly ubiquitous technology that structures our everyday lives (rather than, say, a space shuttle or some other big discovery or invention in science). I remember when I used to complain that youtube is just a place for people to put their shitty, nonsense videos up. Of course, just because in the beginning these technologies started as a massive distraction from more focused and worthwhile media (at least in my opinion), youtube has since become a way to share a lot of educational material, including hour long lectures or clips from film. “youtube,” although part of the internet, I think, is a technology -- or at least a particular instantiation of the internet as technology. In other words, Youtube is a particular technology (a)part of the internet because of the way its changed “our” (and by ‘our’ I suppose I am using this to describe educators, although this could also probably be extended to internet users with a fast enough connection to display videos) everyday practices. Once youtube became ubiquitous, it linked with facebook, so now youtube videos are shared and circulated as quickly as a link to a blog (which can also harness youtube videos). Youtube has been bought by google, which is now a verb. The list can go on and on.
Although we can sit and argue whether technology x is “good” or “bad” to no avail, many still hold a general opinion about technology as a whole: Either technology will lead to a utopian society or technology will lead to a dystopian disaster. Usually this debate is centered on the technology currently invading our lives, rather than, say, a “pencil” or even something as harmful (according to Plato) as writing (assuming that technology isn’t always writing)! When we discuss whether or not “technology” is a good thing in colloquial discourse, we usually mean the technology sold at Best Buy, a store, by the way, filled with the latest consumer technologies.
Notice also that when we speak of technology we usually think of an object, neglecting to remember that technology can also refer to a “technique” – ways of organizing and acting in the world. Technological objects may help in performing these techniques or, more importantly, these objects act as interfaces for human (and nonhuman) engagements with the world. Thus, not only objects, but ideas and systems can be considered “technologies” – the scientific method, hermeneutics, heuretics, etc.
The question for me, as I indicated in class, was how a particular technological object actually structures and reorients the world or at least calls for such reorientation. Technological objects, far from simply being a “designation” of a technological idea (see Verbeek) actually influences how our ideas are constructed, distributed, and debated. Intellectual blogs, like this one and, say, Levi Bryant’s calls for (or at least allows for) a wider distribution of academic ideas (in the same way that open access publishing does, except that this is still directed toward an academic audience). For Bryant, moreso than me, given my limited readership (viewership – which one is more accurate?), this also invites him to respond directly to criticisms voiced by anyone from fellow academics to people who maybe just come across his blog. While he is clearly speaking to an academic audience, the blog gives him a way to float ideas and receive feedback instantly without having to go to a conference. Thus, he begins to get risky with some of his ideas (as do I – my blogposts are rarely extensively edited). In other words, the technology of the blog (inextricably linked to several material technologies) have altered the way academic scholarship is not only distributed, but constructed. Or perhaps, it reveals something we already knew about academic scholarship – either way, the technology introduces new ways of seeing part of the world.
Derrida, frequently criticized (see Mark Hansen, Levi Bryant) for his idealism masked by a rhetoric of materialism, in Echographies of Television, a series of interviews with Bernard Stiegler, pays a lot of attention to how the situation of the “interview” (a particular technique or technology -- a genre is a technology, a form, a way of seeing) for television, including the cultural contexts that are required to understand the current event examples they discuss. But more importantly for my argument, Derrida discusses the effect of the camera on his discourse and body. Below I quote a few passages at length:
I want to stop you a minute. What bothers me and seems so artificial or constraining is not the fact that this apparatus is technical. Technics is everywhere, when I’m writing with a pencil or when I’m chatting around a table, or when I’m sitting at ease in front of a computer. It is this type of technics that I’m not used to with its heaviness, its rigidity, this environment, this rhythm (Echographies 87-88)
. . .I would like to evoke what is happening here when, instead of pursuing the necessary course or relatively interior consequence of a meditation or discussion, as we would if we weren’t surrounded by this technical apparatus, all of a sudden, as if we had been interrupted, we had to start speaking in front of the camera and recording devices. A modification is produced—in any case, in me, and I don’t want to pass over it in silence—which is at once psychological and affective. Another process is set into motion if you like. I don’t speak, I don’t think, I don’t respond in the same way anymore, at the same rhythm as when I’m alone, daydreaming, or reflecting at the wheel of my car or in front of my computer or a blank page, or as when I’m with one of you, as was the case a little while again, as will be the case again a moment ago, as will be the case again in a moment, talking about the same questions but at a another rhythm, with another relation to time and urgency [. . .] the relation to urgency and to rhythm would be different and now it has suddenly been transformed by this system of scenographic and technical devices [. . .] The first thing to do, if what we are doing here has any specificity, would therefore be not to forget, not to subtract, not to neutralize this effect, and to record on tape, to archive the re-marking of this face that we are recording, that I, in any case, am recording with a certain amount of difficult” (70-71, italics mine).
“A minute ago, I wanted to say that what is changing, with all these technical mutations we have been discussing, including those that constrain us, that make us uncomfortable, that oblige us to speak in a rigid and artificial way here, what is happening, and this is not accidental, is really a transformation of the body. This relation to technics is not something to which a given body must yield, adjust, etc. IT is more than anything something which transforms the body. It is not the same body that moves and reacts in front of all these devices. Another body gradually invents itself, modifies itself, conducts its own subtle mutations” (96).
The point of quoting Derrida at length is to make it clear that Derrida understands that there is an impacts and an effect that occurs with current recording technologies that is not there (or at least is different) in, say, the writing situation. Thus, although all technologies, we might say, could be considered “writing” (even ‘thought’ is writing rather than pure presence to self, remember) these recording technologies write the subject at a different speed and a different rhythm. This is not to say, I think, that these technologies are only a faster in the sense of a measurable degree because speeds and different temporalities create different structural effects. It is hard to determine what these are, given that Derrida admits that maybe people who are on television all the time are not “uncomfortable” but the way a body and a discourse is transformed by the technology, I think, has to have, if not a universal structure, at least invite certain modes of interaction and relation. We might see this acknowledgment as an implicit critique of Stiegler’s claim that life is already cinema (that life operates on a kind of cinematic principle). There is a difference, of course, between the television interviews and cinema. For one, as Derrida says, he would need 20 hours to really get into Heidegger’s Being and Time, but television doesn’t operate on that principle. For one, that might even fly in the face of what we usually expect an “interview” to be. How many people could sit through 20 hours of back and forth with close readings of Heidegger? (I might be one of the few in this world). Would the interview be totally uncut? Furthermore, would there be as many references to particular issues in France.
There is more than one technology being used in these interviews – the interview, the camera, the cable channel that is able to broadcast it. All of these contexts, and how they influence an expected audience, must be taken into consideration – and yet they can be taken into consideration easier if Derrida were writing. He says in the interview (which I am now reading):
“Excuse me, I’m going to interrupt you again for a second. When I write, I often say to myself: “Good. . . You are paying so much attention to this sentence, you are working the breath and the syntax, you are paying attention to the rhythm, etc.” And then, depending on where it is going to be read—and this is even more the case when I rework something for an interview that is going to appear in a magazine or newspaper, which does happen, even if only rarely—I know that this going to be read very quickly; I then try to integrate into my calculation the fact that this is going to be read in this way at another speed. But this “televised” – for the televised is everywhere – is a very difficult and even impossible operation, all the more so in that there is not one reader or one readership which is homogeneous in its experience or in its culture of “reading” or “listening,” “seeing,” “having a look”
For one, I think we should note that I’m surprised Derrida is talking about the television as not having “one reader” or “one readership which is homogenous” when he is usually (but again, not under the pressure of the televisual apparatus) to say that one is never sure where the address/post/letter is going to end up – who one’s addressee is. But of course, here we have Derrida speaking “practically,” as a writer. Of course he is going to anticipate contexts of readers or listeners; This is one thing that is sometimes annoying about reading late “essays” that were really pre-written addresses to conferences. Although perhaps I shouldn’t say this is annoying, but rather, fortunate, that Derrida makes sure that should someone read his text he or she understands on what occasion Derrida is presenting his text.
Because these interviews were televised and relatively “improvised,” I don’t feel like it’s fair of me to point at Derrida’s line about the “homogeneity” readership as showing that Derrida does not practice what he preaches, as he is talking about what all of us as writers try and do – anticipate our readers. His point is that he cannot do that “as much” (although, here again, we’re stuck with measuring quantitatively) when he is recorded ‘live’ as it were. Derrida identifies this paradox:
“When we watch television, we have the impression that something is happening, only once: this is not going to happened again, we think, it is “living,” live, real time, whereas we also know, on the other hand, it is being produced by the strongest, the most sophisticated repetition machines. This apparently contradictory trait distances these machines—I don’t know what generic name to give them – from the book, for example, where you are of course also dealing with a certain iterability or with reproducibility, and even with the televised, but which in a sense presents itself as such, and which says to you in advance: ‘You can go back to the first page, or you must do it, you must reread. . .” we have, here, two experiences of repetition and of the televised that are very far apart, if not heterogeneous.”
Later, Derrida and Stiegler call the effect of the mimicry of living flux (and its “exactitude” as Stiegler puts it). Stiegler says,
“It should be added that at issue here is the exactitude of recording. What you just said, in point up the shortcomings of this Barthesian point of view, is legitimate, and doubtless Barthes himself would have agreed: the reality effect in no way guarantees the authenticity of what is captured. But it nonetheless remains the case that it elicits and authentification effect for the person who looks [. . .] Hence a certain mode of accumulation, in an “exact” form, producing a sense of exactitude and of authenticity, that is to say, of presence, would be the condition of a certain form of intelligibility” (107-108).
Stiegler is trying to get Derrida to admit that these technologies yield other forms of “intelligibility,” which can lead to other technologies (where they be ‘ideal’ or ‘material’ in nature – though this distinction is increasingly hard to maintain). Stiegler thinks that these recording technologies, there exactitude, allows us to gain a new “intelligibility.” Derrida responds, using the word “meaning” instead of “intelligibility,” saying to Stiegler that all we have is “exappropriation,” “this double movement in which I head toward meaning while trying to appropriate it, but while knowing at the same time that it remains – and while desiring, whether I realize it or not, that it remains – foreign, transcendent, other, that it stay where there is alterity” (111).
That’s all very well and good – we cannot ever completely appropriate meaning, but I think that Stiegler’s point is less a matter of intelligibility than practices that enable new kinds of self-reflexivity; Derrida maintains there is no meaning for an existence in general, but Stiegler wants to find some way to orient society at large toward a meaning (or several meanings, but one that structures institutional practices). Perhaps this is what Derrida means when he says that “the field of meaning itself – on the scale you have called the ‘discrete’, the spacing of the discrete—only by multiplying the conditions of this very discreteness, in other words, spacing , non-sense, the blank, the interval, everything that bounds sense and non-sense as it were, exceeds or splits it” (108). To attempt a simplified translation of this complex sentence, might we say that the only way we can increase the field of meaning is to write with these technologies – to cut, edit, paste, crop, color, distort – discrete practices that transform the consumer, the addressee, into an addressee that can respond in kind with his or her own writing?
This is a question of access, but not just access to certain technologies, but access to how the technologies “work” or at least how to use them to produce and participate rather than simply use them in the way the corporate apparatus (or the State) wants them to be used. This seems to be one of the explicit arguments forwarded by both Derrida and Stiegler in these interviews. Derrida seems generally concerned about the possibility of technologies facilitating (at one and the same time) “globalatinization” (see “Faith and Knowledge”), but also is optimistic that this might help us to get beyond the nation-state. He says, “You will be less and less able to convince citizens that they should be content with national production once they have access to global production from the outset by themselves” (53). Why not produce things (which includes things in the virtual realm) that can be circulated and distributed that do not necessarily only benefit the nation’s economy?
But the ability of a given “citizen” to produce rather than simply consume media is still a question of using technology. But technology, as a “writing” and just as a “language” can never be fully appropriated: fully used by the masterful human being. Derrida says,
“We have come back, here, to the question of instrumentalization. None of this [selecticity, a critique of a politics of memory, etc.] could be done without instrumentalization and without a culture of instrumentality. But at the same time – the question of language alerts us to this – there is a point at which technique does not mean instrument. “Mastery of language” does not simply signify a relation of objectivity nor objectifiable. We might say that there is always already the technical or the instrumental and at the same time, that not every technique can be instrumentalized [. . .] The practitioner of language, whether it be everday language, political language, scientific language, or poetic language, and poetic language more than any other, is not in a relation of user in the instrumental sense. There is always already a technique, but this technique is not totally instrumentalizable” (64).
This is an important distinction that I think bears more comment. Derrida’s example of “language” I think is appropriate, since we can never fully appropriate language (just like we can never fully appropriate ‘meaning’ in general) – we have to translate and negotiate and we have to participate “in” language, but language is never “ours.” We never just “use” language as if it were some neutral technology that we then put into rhetoric; no, as Burke and Derrida both have shown, language already has baggage – coming from the history of its uses, its traces. Language is always already “technical” but it is not instrumentalizable, absolutely appropriable (Language is not the House of (human) Being). Similarly, any kind of writing is not “ours” and if material technologies are various ways of writing (as well as being “writing” themselves) than we should expect that we, as human beings, are not the only ones who “write.”
We have finally arrived to the problem of “writing.” As we have already discussed in class, “writing” can mean alphabetic writing, image writing, objects (as writing). But although we can call that all “writing,” as Greg Ulmer has argued, citing Eric Havelock, alphabetic writing – interacting with the page-- inaugurated the “self” of literacy. Furthermore, alphabetic writing allows us to see patterns of repeating signifiers. It is true that this history eschews the more material history of “proto-writing” of various other cultures and is, honestly, a bit ethnocentric, but we might not be able to show through those fragments that a certain kind of ‘self-reflexivity’ was created. Ulmer says that Electracy, our current age, is characterized by the “middle voice” –a speaking to the self who is also another and who might also be another other. The task is not to simply assimilate electracy to literacy (its just “writing” – its all “writing”) but to thematize the types of self-reflexivity that this logic gives rise to (prefigured, for Ulmer, in the Modernist avant-garde and poststructuralist theory). The “individual self” is replaced by a collective subject that we are trying to form without erasing the singularity of an individual’s experience and traces. Ulmer writes that we should not try to “adapt digital technology to literacy (anyway, that is happening as a matter of course) but to discover and crate an institution and its practices capable of supporting the full potential of the new technology” (29). The institution that he (and others) are trying to create is the EmerAgency – an electrate collective working to make visible the sacrifices we make as citizens (global and local) for another particular value. The EmerAgency uses “flash reason” or “image-reason” rather than deliberative reason, which takes too much time. Can we get everyone in the world to be part of this collective subject as the EmerAgency? Maybe not – probably not – but Ulmer calls on Humanities scholars to begin to take up this task.
To me, Ulmer’s experimental pedagogy, theoretical apparatus, and internet collective might be the closest concrete response to Stiegler’s (and to some extent, Derrida’s) call for an exploration of new technologies opening up new modes of reflexivity and practice. Stiegler asks Derrida, “Do you mean to suggest [. . .] that “political” community—in quotes since the word “political” is itself affected by the question—would have to become something like the thinking of a community of networks, or a technological community?” (65)
Derrida responds that he would avoid “community,” agreeing that it is necessary “to try to train and to educate as many people as possible (I say “people,” vaguely, in order to avoid determining them as subjects or as citzens), to train them to be vigilant, to respond, and on occasion to fight, but without presupposing or assigning an obligatory identification or reidentification” (67). Derrida wants to preserve the idiom, the singularity, without advocating a kind of self-interested egoism. One mode of singularity (or “model”) is “nationalism,” but Derrida sees this mode of singularity becoming extinct. We are global citizens and though the West has definitely set the terms of globalization, it may also usher in new modes of individuation not reliant on the nation-state – if we can come to terms that globalization has also threatened to erase idiom at the same time that it allows contact with others. He says,