Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Writing Technologies: Reflections on Echographies of Television

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,

“Perhaps it is this extinction (of the models for desires for singularities) that we would have to ‘negotiate’ without for all that having to give up singularity, idiom and even a certain at-home, this at home which, I will say again, can project an image of closedness, of selfish and impoverishing and even lethal isolation, but which is also the condition of openness, of hospitality, of the door” (81). 


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. I agree that there is an unfortunate polarity concerning many approaches to technology: on the one hand, and certainly following the Platonic tradition, technology is always already external, an (becoming-)other, if you will, which poses a threat to our otherwise mythic conception of a stable, univocal expression of our ontological being (and we see this tradition pass from the hands of Plato, to industrial-era Luddites, to techno-doom prophets concerning the television, to burgeoning anxiety regarding digital space and culture); on the other hand, there is a misinformed techno-happy camp that finds nothing but a Technological Horizon that will bring forth/disclose the Promiseland. Nonetheless, both of these camps agree on the same false division--that there is a divide between technicity and our ontological orientation (and, dare I say, constitution). In Technics and Time Vol. II, Bernard Stiegler notes that: it is not just an issue of "a history of technics in time, but of technics as the proper constitution of time" and that "the history of technics is the history of Being." As such, I agree that the issue at hand has perhaps less to do with agency (though Virilio would have us believe that, "technology is accelerating at such a rate that we may one day find ourselves the powerless witness"--and that is definitely a question of agency) and more do to with "orientation." But there is a certain primacy to technicity that orients us (which affords retentional finitude, memory [which also to say, forgetting], history, etc.), and that a possible disorientation demands a need for a reorientation. So I'm on board.

    I was interested--if not disheartened--by Rutsky's analysis of Heidegger's notion that "technology is not the essence of technology." While he certainly gestures towards the idea that such a notion is merely the imperative of "technology" being such by way of movement, process, Rutsky only presents this in a most general manner. I always think back to Heidegger's example of the hammer in Being and Time: the "hammer" only becomes such by way of its "hammering." And while Stiegler critiques Heidegger's inability to think beyond the merely ready-to-hand tool/instrument, there is something to be extrapolated from Heidegger's concept, as presented. To this end, and in a slightly shizophrenic move here, I am reminded of David Wills' concept of the technique of the dorsal turn (which I also bring up because of your address to the importance of "technique"): to not only be able to turn the back, but to be able to do such so as to be able to see "behind us." I think there is much to be thought about here regarding technicity, ontology and embodiment.

    (I also thought of Avital Ronell and her Telephone Book, which does a treatment of the telephone similar to your treatment on the televisual/television by way of Derrida and Stiegler).

    I'm not sold on the idea that the qualification of writing, as such, and as opposed to proto-writing being qualified as writing, is ethnocentric. I think that the very idea that something is deemed "proto-writing" and, as such, is an ethnocentric stance, says more about a certain contemporary anxiety regarding writing (as we understand it now) and literacy. The question of proto-writing and writing (or proto-history and history) is perhaps one of degree...but I need to review my Stiegler on that note.


  2. No apologies necessary. I really appreciate that you took the time to respond and, perhaps more importantly, that my post provoked response in a more productive manner than explicit critique (which I'm certainly open to). A couple of thoughts (late, informal -- its 2:21 and I drank too much coffee and I've been reading Freud and Lacan -- its been a day of intellectual pleasures):

    On the Heidegger reading:

    In class today, I obliquely mentioned the text by "Verbeek" called "What Things Do" (I think that's the title at least). This is a text that reads Heidegger from the perspective of Don Ihde's post-phenomenology. Rather than focus on the the text "Question Concerning Technology," except to critically and clearly critique it, his Heidegger is a more "pragmatic" Heidegger derived from Dreyfus, and, as mentioned, Don Ihde. Verbeek's book is about technological objects as products that we "use." He uses the distinction of which you make reference: ready-to-hand and presence-at-hand. I think Verbeek thinks that although technologies are ready to hand for a certain type of use, when it comes to understanding how they work or being able to "hack" them, they manifest a present-at-handedness -- an opacity that obstructs a readyness to hand. But! At the same time, his project is to think about how we might make objects that we are more "attached" to, objects that we would not necessarily be apt to throw away.

    As we did with Rutsky, the main critique we raised in last semester's course, was a neglect of an engagement with Marx and a critique of capitalism. This is a totally legitimate critique, but I think that it is useful to set the two approaches of Verbeek and Rutsky against each other (which is not to say that we must pit them against each other, but rather that we look at them together). Rutsky's reading, appropriated from Weber, is that high tech is involved in a "bringing-forth" aesthetic, a poesis, but as we said in class, the problem is 1) why is this exclusive to high-tech and 2) we neglect the 'intent' or 'purpose' for which these technologies are made.

    I would argue, particularly with the neo-Romanticism (and Kantian) discourse of Rutsky that Rutsky is saying that "high tech," because it has already somehow passed the stage of modern technology's "enframing" restores (?) or at least inaugurates a new kind of revealing that would be the revealing of "poesis." On this point, Verbeek's analysis of the problem of contrasting "the mill" with the "hydroelectric plant" (cf. "Question") is not just that Heidegger uses nostalgic, romantic rhetoric, but has to do with TIME. Verbeek writes,

    "Therefore, the mill reveals not so much the specific way in which being is understood in a specific historical context, bur rather the event of 'coming into being' itself. The mill is not a CONSEQUENCE of a historical epoch in the history of being, as is the hydroelectric plant according to Heidegger; rather, it makes visible being itself" (75).

  3. This critique may or may not apply to Rutsky, since it does seem like he would claim that "high tech" is a consequence of a particular historical epoch rather than an originary revealing. But, I will simply point to one passage where it does seem like Rutsky returns to a kind of rhetoric of organic wholeness that stems (verb intentional) from the rhetoric of Heidegger:

    "technology itself becomes 'organic,' living: no longer dependent on human planning and construction, it grows in unpredictable ways, evolving its own structures according to what seems to be its own internal logic, its own secret 'aesthetic'" (140).

    We might add, also the logic of capitalism (which, true, I don't really want to "reduce" it to and this is where I think microanalyses of particular technologies might become fruitful at least for talking about high-tech, or technology in general.)

    ---- On the question of "ethnocentrism"

    I was unclear. I was referring specifically to Greg Ulmer and other "grammatologists" tracing the inauguration of "literacy" to the Greeks rather than to what we could call, ethnocentrically, "proto-writing." For Ulmer, this is also connected to the Greeks creating the INSTITUTION of literacy -- the school (the Lyceum, I believe); so perhaps that would be difference? Did what Robinson calls "proto-writers" have the same conceptions of the "self" -- what we call the "literate self" as the Greeks who are deemed "full writers"? Could we ever know if this is the case or can we make a case for it?

    If so, then that question that Andrew brought up in class today is relevant to some of the questions I raised in this post: When exactly do we start to say -- ok, there are these new technologies, and we need to find more productive modes of self-reflexivity in order to engage with them that is fundamentally different from how we engage the printed page? And can we then make an institution out of it?

    Ulmer sometimes frames 'electracy' (as does Marshall Mcluhan with his concept the "global village") as a kind of combination of literacy and orality. Whether this jives with Stiegler's own grammatology in TT2 -- I do not know as I have unfortunately not read the text (only Volume 3, Echographies, and a couple of essays), but it does seem to me like Ulmer and Stiegler are both trying to figure out how to adapt institutions, usually educational institutions, to the condition of Electracy. That is, following Derrida's injunction in Echographies, to learn how to edit, cut, paste, etc.

    But do we just teach the 'technical' techniques -- how to program, how to use cameras, etc.? No -- not least because many students, at least students, for instance, at UF, know how to use them (And this is not limited to students, but, to every citizen of the global village); Rather, what is important is to teach a method that can transform our relation to self and to other, our own unconscious and the collective subject.

    (I'm glad your response provoked my response to both your post and my initial post -- I love dialogue)

  4. I need to emphasize, though, that in my final comments, I am not saying that we shouldn't learn more about how technologies work, programming languages, and how to productively use various "software" or "internet" interfaces; but we cannot assume that by making the tools transparent, we will know how to select meaningful symbols, sparking libidinal energy that has become exhausted in an age of malaise from disorientation.