Friday, October 18, 2013

Jacob's Ladder: On names, language, and writing

Jacob's Ladder

Despite telling myself I'd stay away from theory this semester, I have been sucked back in, reading Michel de Certeau's Practice of Everyday Life and Helene Cixous' Three Steps on the Ladder to Writing in the space of a couple weeks as well as pieces of David Farell Krell's newest text on Derrida's Beast and the Sovereign Lectures. In this latter piece, Krell connects the future of thinking to our attentiveness to language(s). Krell writes,
"I will only add the remark that if apophantic discourse seems inadequate to the task, it means that students who pursue this line of inquiry will have to develop their gifts for language. It may not be a matter of inventing a new language, even if Zarathustra com- mands us to 'fashion a new lyre' Yet it will surely be a matter of resist- ing that overwhelming trend in our own world, including the world of higher education, to diminish the importance of language and lan- guage teaching, to flatten and banalize our powers of expression, to accept as though it were an inevitability the waxing illiteracy of our time."
For those readers unfamiliar with the term "apophantic," is a term in Aristotle that refers to a particular judgment, a judgment of what is true and what is false. In Heidegger it refers to the possibility of the "as such." Derrida, especially in Aporias, has challenged the possibility of a true "as such." Thus, if Heidegger argues that the difference between humans and animals (as he has in his 29-30 text) is that human beings understand beings as beings, in their "truth," but we deny the possibility of apophantic discourse, this form of the distinction no longer holds fast. In fact, Krell suggests in his text that there is a certain non-apophantic strain of Heidegger in Being and Time. I also argued that Heidegger's fixation on the "as such" in Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics was a shift from Being and Time here and wonder why he seems so intent on keeping this concept in those lectures.

This may all seem besides the point, but its really not, because if we cannot say the truth in the way that Heidegger believes humans beings are capable of, then we must rely on the interminable and (im)possible process of translation and uniqueness of each material signifier; Heidegger ignores the fact of writing at his own peril. That is, we need to be able to be attentive to the language, and how that language is marked by the author, of a given philosophical or literary text (or any text!). If as Greg Ulmer advises we are to write the "choral word," that is, write with every meaning of the word, creating a kind of field that a word brings forth, then we also need to be able to think in different languages and in the specific idiom of a given thinker in these languages. The very possibility of thought turns on resisting the flattening and banalization of our "powers of expression," as Krell puts it. The same word refers to many things and means differently because of the contingent ways its been inscribed in texts throughout human history.

If students, especially graduate students in literature, cease to learn these languages, then they will become less attentive to this unconscious slippage of language and be content with reducing texts to "positions" or "stances." Places from which one stands and defends rather than conceiving the text as a weave of meaning and nonmeaning. We can already see this in the paucity of metaphors used by our politicians. Everything is conceived in terms of "war." A "war on women," a "war on christmas," a "war on Christianity" a "war on Freedom." I'm reminded of the Wilco song, "War on War." I don't want to declare a "war on war," because this defeats the point. Why must we see everything as an agon? Could we ever learn to see in terms of illynx (vertiginous play?). Positions, stances -- we speak from these places, isolated on islands of solitude. Even Michel de Certeau's metaphors are drawn from military terminology: strategies and tactics, but at the very least tactics are described as in-sin-uation. An implying, a suggestion, a slithering. It's to suggest to the powers that be: why don't you take a bite from the apple -- become mortal, limited, fragile, and capable of death. Respect what this wonderful place is offering rather than the Strategic Law from on high.

It's this specificity and idiomatic nature of texts, that of course is never confined to that single text (reaching out to other uses of the word in the entire archive) that we lose when we turn words into data or when we are satisfied with a meta-discursive, philosophical language that does not pay attention to the trace-structure of language. In academia we see a turn away from the "lingustic" turn toward the material world, affect, the "great outdoors," mathematical reality, etc. and philosophers have developed languages that they more less think correspond to (as well as participate in) the reality "out there." Many of them write in English and do not let the word reach out to its other manifestations, to allow it the freedom to mutate its meaning based on ALL of its uses and even the possible words buried in the terms morphemes. Many of them also seem to ignore the insights of psychoanalysis into the materiality of the signifier and its almost magic powers, signifiers that gather our lives around a (w)hole. We choose and do not choose these signifiers.

I am not explaining myself well here. . . Let me try and get at it another way.

In an insightful recent post on "Traumas of the [Erasure] of the Real" Levi Bryant reflects on why he is dissatisfied with thinking "everything is a text." He writes,

 Naturally the humanities academic sees everything as a text because a) when you deal with texts day in and day out you tend to see texts (signs/signifiers) everywhere (in Uexkull’s terms we could call text the umwelt of the academic), and b) because it’s narcissistically gratifying for the humanities academic to think that the entire world is composed of texts.  If that’s true, if the world is composed of texts, signs, signifiers, beliefs, concepts, and norms, then we are the most important people in the world because we’re the ones that hold the skeleton key to the truth about “reality” (which, in this context, signifies the human umwelt.)

I'm not convinced that every Humanities academic does see everything as a text, but that there is something to be said for an attentiveness to the ways in which language has been inscribed in textual instances. This is because depending on which texts we are familiar with and how we respond to certain words, words mean different things for observers. Proper names, for instance, can invoke a mood or style of thought for those familiar with the name and the texts that name recalls. I say Derrida and all sorts of words come to mind. We all have our own Derrida based on the texts we can remember and recall when the name pops up. This is an effect of the trace structure of even proper names and how they come to signify and mean for us in a multitude of ways. But even more than proper names there are words such as "trace." When I hear the word "trace" I think of so many different ways its used and how I've heard it; for me, it is a powerful word with real rhetorical effects on my psyche. For others, for instance, my students, having not undergone the text of Derrida, it may mean very little. Or the French verb, "rechercher" -- for someone of a literary cast of mind, the word may recall Proust and everything associated with Proust. For an English speaker, we may never think of Proust (if we have never read Proust's title in French!). These works and the lines within them leave traces, mark, burn, and etch a new meaning, a new association into the language. This is reading the "unconscious" of the text in some ways, but not its "political" unconscious, but the unconsciousness of the signifier. 

This why reviving words like "substance" or "object" can be incredibly difficult tasks because of the ways in which these words have been used in the past, both in philosophical treatises and "ordinary" language. The point I was trying to make above is that a truly universal "ordinary" language is impossible. Of course the everyday usage of the term haunts a specialized disciplines use of the term and this is important. For instance, to say that the human is an "object among other objects" could be both estranging and profound, but because of the way in which we speak of "objectifying" people, and the horrible history of such objectifications, this haunts such philosophical recovery projects. "Subject," for instance, has throughout its usage been set off against object, one which has "agency" the other without agency, but we our also "subject to" and "subjects of." The verbal form of the word haunts its nominative. 

For philosophers, words like Idea (especially if capitalized), recalls Plato and a subsequent history of "idealism." The word for idea, eidos, is an ordinary Greek word meaning "shape" until Plato elevated that notion to a philosophical concept. Perhaps this phenomenon is what Michel de Certeau means when he writes: 
Michel de Certeau
"We are subject to, but not identified with, ordinary language [. . .] In order to constitute themselves, scientific methods allow themselves to forget this fact and philosophers think they dominate it so that they can authorize themselves to deal with it" (Practice 11)
We are subject to the ordinary way words are used, but we can also make something mean differently. To borrow a Spinozist phrase, "we do not yet know what [words/language] can do" (and are not words another type of 'body' or at the very least always touch the body?). 

But what we cannot do, in either philosophy or science, is to pretend that language can become a pure object of study "outside" of what language can say.

This why the attention to what language can say in multiple languages and other improper border crossings is so important to think a text at the textual level and within the rules (and transgressions of those rules) that occur in a given language. Even de Certeau's own analyses cannot be outside of ordinar (and non-ordinary langauge) for that matter. For instance, I kept noting that a key verb in de Certeau's text (at least according to the translation) is insinuate. Apart from the more popular distinctions usually gleaned from de Certeau's text such as "strategies" and "tactics" I could not help but notice the repetition of this signifer-- how crucial it was to describe the relation between phenomena in de Certeau's text. To "insinuate" in English means "to imply something" or to "worm your way in: to introduce yourself gradually and cunningly into a position, especially a place of confidence of favor." This verb then links (in)directly to de Certeau's description of "tactics" against "strategies." In fact, the verb is used in its definition: "a tactic insinuates itself into the other's place, fragmentarily, without taking over it entirely without being able to keep it at a distance" (xix). In fact, a tactic is this transgression and border crossing -- a way in which one subtly insinuates or "implies" a meaning through the use of a word in a particular context. It is to suggest a meaning (and I use suggest here to insinuate a hint of hypnosis).

 I remember being struck and finally understanding why Freud's honing in on the "magic word" of the Rat man ("rat") and the associations he made between "rat" and other similar (but not visually the absolute same) words in the German language actually works. In German, one might associate "rat" with another word that contains the same morpheme and this may be an unconscious, poetic work done by the mind. I am trying to think of a good English example, but I can't at the moment. However, I know that I have felt myself speaking certain words, almost involuntarily, because of a text that was working on my mind. What I recall is a function of the texts that insinuate themselves into my lexicon (did you catch it?).

Helene Cixous

Where the power of the signifier really gets interesting is when we begin to deconstruct at the level of the word. Helene Cixous, in her three lectures Three Steps on the Ladder to Writing, suggests that aside from the School of the Dead and the School of Dreams, there is the school of roots. "Roots" here mean many things, but Cixous suggests that roots signifies both plant roots into the earth (because in order to get to the 'truth' you have to do the difficult work of descending the ladder rather than ascending) but also it seems the "roots" of words. I might add also, although she doesn't play on this as much, the "routes" we take when we tra-verse borders (of languages, of particular marks, of meanings, of oral and literate modes of understanding). We have to "go" to these schools, but, as she writes, the power of the text is that we are trans-ported immediately into the text, without a passport, just as we slip into dreams.

In the "third" school, we learn how to, among other things, invent from our own proper name. Jean Genet and Claire Lispector (the latter of which plays a significant role throughout the entire text) are both taken as exemplars. Cixous' own discourse, with its metaphors of light and night reflects Lispector's own text. Indeed, Cixous' brilliance is partly to use the language of the text she reads, subtly suggesting, insinuating, whispering possible ways of understanding (but even "understanding" is still too coated with conscious thought). Rather than focus on the "natural light" of the understanding of Descartes, Cixous appropriates and transforms the image of the light reflecting off an axe, an axe that could potentially fall on any one of us.

I do not have this text with me at this very moment, so I cannot read with the kind of exactness that Cixous does with the texts she dearly loves. One thing I note about the lectures/seminars of both Cixous and Derrida is their willingness to read and to read again and again the same passages -- sometimes reading a latter passage first and then going back and reading the beginning of the passage. When I say this, I do not mean reading as an abstract activity that Frederic Jameson has argued is a mystification in the texts of Paul de Man, but I mean simply reading the damn text aloud. Reading for the way the language insinuates itself into our minds. There is no substitute for reading the text in these lectures. We can interpret and paraphrase and we can in-corp-orate (incarnate) the other's language into our own reading of it, but to read the text itself, aloud, to repeat it, is like hypnosis -- it makes the suggestions and implications we make in our interpretation (or better, our "reading with") more forceful and probable. Some may say this is a bad way to read, an "improper" way to read, a reading that is not an argument, a lazy reading in the place of a true interpretation, but I defy you to deny the power of Cixous reading-with Claire Lispector or Jean Genet. The drive to interpret dreams is what Cixous can't stand in Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. She says she used to "read it with pleasure," but finally decided that it was better if dreams were not "interpreted." At first I was taken aback by this, but in some ways, Cixous may be suggesting here that its when Freud interprets in order to cure -- as if there was a cure for the special kind of wound a dream makes -- that he makes a mistake. Cixous seems to argue that the dream should be let-be (with a Heideggerian inflection).

Genet's name suggests Genet, which is in biology, "a colony of plants, fungi, or bacteria that come from a single genetic source" (wikipedia). Flowers are for Genet one of the most important signifiers, and he plays with both his name and words for flowers in some of his passages. Cixous reads these moments brilliantly and I only wish I had the text here with me to (re)cite.

But in lieu of that possibility, I have decided to invent from my own name. In her text, Cixous notes the importance not only of human beings, but the animal, the vegetable, and the supernatural. Animals prevalent are "dogs," which Cixous said are terrifying to us because we cannot bear their pure love, since human beings are always a mixture of love and hate. The vegetable is represented by flowers and the supernatural is present in angels, hell, and the dead (ancestors) that haunt us. I decided to try and figure out if I could use my name as a heuretic for understanding myself. Name is not destiny, but perhaps through playing with my name I may glean some wisdom about myself in the same way that horoscope or Tarot might show us something we may not have thought. The fact is that this process is a construction -- not fate, but a chance association that might allow me to gather parts of my life, to interpret signifiers that could be close to me, to help me make meaning via trope and image rather than a coherent narrative. My name gathers together all varieties of beings in its spoken and written form.

But first, the "origin" of my name, Jacob.

Like many of us in the Judeo-Christian world, my name derives from the Hebrew Bible.

Jacob means the “supplanter,” which recalls to me both “planter” and “supplement” as well as its major meaning of “taking the place of” or “being in the place of.”  Jacob came out of the womb grasping at Esau’s heel, as if trying to pull him back into the womb, so he could be the firstborn, foreshadowing the destiny of his trickery that led to his receiving of the blessing.  

When I was young and found out about the story of Jacob and Esau, I was a bit furious that my namesake was such a deceiver! But perhaps there is a reason I am obsessed with "supplementary logic" of Derrida and the French thinkers. I am "in the place of" -- in the place of what or who? By association,I am an essential supplement.

So many are named Jacob, we wrestlers of Angels, we "god contended," we supplanters, we deceivers, we sophists, we rhetoricians, we blessed, but not everyone is named Jacob Riley (although of course there are many of these as well).

"Riley." I've always disliked my last name for some odd reason. It's so scottish. I've also tried my hand how it combines with many of the names of the girls I've loved and it frequently sounds odd, too trite, and silly. An ex of mine: Sadie. Sadie Riley -- ugh, what disgusting assonance! Not even sing songy, just too much.

But despite the oral unpleasantness to Riley, there is an unexpected connection between my first name as "supplanter" and one blessed by God and my last name, Riley. "Living the life of Riley" is a phrase, turned radio show turned tv show, that suggests "an ideal contented life, possibly living on someone else's time, money, work or work" but rather than suggesting a freeloader, "it implies that someone is kept or advantaged" (wikipedia).

I indeed am living on someone else's money (the state's, the university's) and I do not feel like a lazy freeloader, but that I am blessed or kept. I live a "charmed life" I've said to many a friend and colleague.

"This is stupid, self-indulgent, narcissistic, and selfish" I hear you readers cry -- and indeed, maybe it is, but so is reading and writing itself. Reading and writing is associated with leisure and indeed is impossible without leisure. Reading and writing blurs the boundary between work and play. Writing, as a kind of dying to oneself, is jouissance, le petit mort.

Before getting to the inter-species potential of my name, I want to mention my middle name, Thomas. It was in college I think that I came up with a significance to my middle known unbeknownst consciously to my mother and father: My name contains the doubt of "doubting" Thomas who asked to put his hand in the wound of Christ and the belief of Thomas Aquinas, that wonderful synthesizer of Aristotle and Christianity. Between Thomas Aquinas and Thomas the doubter, lies Jacob Riley.

 Jacob in Pieces

Ja! -- Yes! (auf Deutsch). I like when people call me ya-cub, my name pronounced in German. The first morpheme of my proper name in German, which is part of my ethnic background, is affirmation! Perhaps this is what unconsciously touches me so much to that last word in Ulyssses: Yes. Perhaps this is why I am entranced by Derrida's reading of double affirmation, the "yes, yes." A call of my name harbors inside it already an affirmation -- my name already replies and turns toward the other when called before I even acknowledge them. Hearing my name is already to take responsibility for a turning toward the other.

yay -- A Spanish woman I know who meant a great deal to me used to pronounce my name "yake," because a "j" in Spanish sounds like a 'y' and so I could not help but think that within the German Ja! is also the English expression of joy, "yay!" "YAY!" "yay" is an expression of excitement which probably derives from "yeah," or some other affirmation. The first part of my name is filled with joy and affirmation. How lucky I am to be blessed with it.

Jay -- Blue Jay -- Returning to the sound of my name in English, we hear "jay." This is the animal perched on the left side of my name. The blue jay is named for its "noisy, garrulous nature." I love noise and sound -- give me feedback any day. I am also somewhat of a "jaybird" which is a slang term for "a talkative person, a chatterer" or "a fop or dandy." I would like to believe that I avoid idle chatter whenever possible, but perhaps what is significant thought for me comes off as idle chatter to the next person. I do not know, perhaps this animal does not suit me. Perhaps this is the limit of improper invention

Cob -- (corn?) -- My vegetative nomen is cob (although the name is pronounced "cub" it is written "cob," here we have another improper crossing between pronunciation and written signifier). A Cob is also an adult male swan, and a small horse (our names contain so many animal companions). The cob of a piece of corn can be hollowed out to make a smoking pipe. Although my pipes are made of briar, I'm gonna go ahead an make this connection (why not?).

My nickname is "jake." I've always liked this nickname because of its association with the shitter--a shitter without any plumbing. I love the grotesque, the unclean, and the scatological. Swift, Rabelais, Voltaire -- the more potty humor the better! To debase is to also raise up. Bakhtin's work on carnival and the grotesque will always stay close to my nether regions (rather than my heart).

The atoms of our names contain the world and can be just one way to orient ourselves and to understand ourselves. By doing this we make our name improper and cross multiple borders. Here I can go back to Krell's initial point. It is through this play of language that we can invent so much meaning in our lives. To restrict the signifier to one language or think about a text or argument in isolation is to cut off the pleasure of the text, of writing, and of death. If the Humanities is concerned with writing and reading, then perhaps our unique place is entirely other to the sciences and the social sciences and we should stop seeking to appropriate their methodologies and their passion to discover "reality" at the expense of fiction.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Data Materialization, Experimental Art, and "Carpentry"

(reposted from TRACE blogspot)

In this post, I hope to think through how TEMPL (or whatever our lab will be called) might go about using computers and objects in order to practice media ecology by making. In order to do this, I will draw on, but also distinguish my position from, Ian Bogost's Alien Phenomenology.

First, a word about "data materialization." This term arose as a few of us outside of class met to discuss what the lab would "do." Since we were interested in both the screen and software, hardware, and the e-waste, we decided that to argue for data "visualization" would be too limiting. Aaron, who will go into more detail on this idea at a later date, mentioned a 3-d printing of an ecology of relations. Each iteration was different and revealed different things about the data ecology. From this idea, we came up with the idea of "materialization" to refer not only to the physical object, but also to nod toward the move toward re-materializing information. As N. Katherine Hayles points out in How We Became Posthuman, information has seemed to have "lost its body." However, information is always in-formed by its material existence. "Materialization" then does not just refer to 3-d printed objects,but also to the 'materialization' of data in a program, game, or academic essays. 

In Alien Phenomenology, Ian Bogost laments that "philosophy" is only enacted in written form: "writing, always writing" (Bogost 88). He argues that since academics are not even good writers and that our writing typically takes the form of nit-picky critique, perhaps "a metaphysician ought to be someone who practices ontology" (91). Bogost shifts back and forth between the idea of academic scholarship as written scholarship and "philosophy," confusing the two. Instead of philosophical treatises, Bogost calls for, following Graham Harman, "carpentry."

"Carpentry" is an interesting metaphor for many reasons. For one, it allows Bogost to make problematic claims concerning "materiality." While he admits that "written matter is subject to material constraints," he argues that with few exceptions "philosophical works generally do not perpetrate their philosophical positions through their form as books" (93). "Carpentry," however, "must contend with the material resistance of his or her chosen form, making the object itself become the philosophy" (93). This position denies the materiality and inhuman resistance of language. In an unfortunate reduction of language, Bogost writes: "Language is one tool we can use to describe this relationship, but it is only one tool" (100). Thus, language, unlike objects, is an instrumental tool deployed by humans to philosophize. In addition, the form of a book (and the genre of that book and its audience) does indeed place material constraints on the author and contributes just as much as any other medium to philosophy. Regard, for instance, Hegel's extensive reflection on "the preface" and Derrida's subsequent reading of it. 

Bogost justifies carpentry as a metaphor in a questionable manner: "it extends the ordinary sense of woodcraft to any material whatsoever--to do carpentry is to make anything, but to make it in earnest, with one's hands, like a cabinet maker" (93). "Carpentry" then reinforces this notion that it is the sovereign human subject, with his non-prosthetic hand, crafting a raw material rather than the kind of non-human turn Bogost and OOO seems to be want to reach. 

Harman rarely mentions contemporary technology, preferring objects like hammers, but Bogost at least tries to address computer technology. Bogost asks how computers, cameras, and other objects "see" the world. While we can obviously can never no exactly how a thing experience the world, Bogost suggests that we create interfaces with human beings to try and grasp how the material technology changes the way an object sees the world. He writes, 
"The experience of things can be characterized only by tracing the exhaust of their effects on the surrounding world and speculating about the coupling between black noise and the experiences internal to an object" (100). 

Ignoring Harman's language of "black noise" here, I think that the idea that we trace the "exhaust of their effects" is an interesting way to try and track and then create an interface between humans and other objects. I am actually in favor of this as I think it reflects the ecological imperative of "tracing" the marks left by non-human beings. 

However, Bogost's second point -- that we should for "experiences internal to the object" -- I think shows the baggage of subjective-phenomenology. Bogost writes, 
However appealing and familiar the usual means of doing philosophy might be, another possible method involves a more hands-on approach, manipulating or vivsecting the objects to be analyzed, mad-scientist like, in the hopes of discovering their secrets (103)
This notion of "secret" or "core" or "withdrawness" in objects is the reinscription of a metaphysical "inside" of an object that recalls Kant's "in-itself." Everything we do to an object or every attempt to represent the object is a "caricature" of it's withdrawn essence.

For Bogost and for Harman, objects are withdrawn into themselves that any access an object has to any other is "metaphorical." While I agree with Bogost that we should create artistic projects as interfaces with technologies and other non-human artifacts, I think that his emphasis on the internal workings of technologies short-changes the ecologies of these artifacts.

But although these projects are informed by philosophy, I would hesitate to say that they enact philosophy in the same way. These projects are art performed with philosophy in mind. We want to find a way to artistically present data. Instead of thinking how a particular technology perceives, it may be useful to make things that shows how different ecologies perceive data differently.

In contrast, Bogost seems to want to induce "wonder" at these artworks and thus produce wonder at the technologies they seek to metaphorically represent to human beings. It seems to me that rather than taking the pieces apart to understand, the goal would be to enchant and mystify the technologies, creating "allure."

For example, after embedding his teaching of the Atari system in a media archaeological context, Bogost writes:
But what's lost in this rhetorical process? The 6502 microprocessor and TIA graphics chip are ontologically de-emphasized, allowed only a relational role as thing in a larger network; the evolution of computing, low-level systems programming, pedagogies of the practice of fundamentals, professional skill development regimens, and so forth. Yet the 6502 is just as wondrous as the cake and the quark. Not for what it does but for what it is. (128)
I would argue, however, that our laboratory and other artistic practices of data materialization should be precisely to think about what it does rather than what it "is." How can represent and materialize the different functions of a given technology or data set. Ecologies are less concerned with something "is" and more concerned with what something does --and more importantly -- what it can do.

Bogost's conception of philosophy as art (or art as philosophy -- "carpentry") is nothing more in some sense than an anthropomorphization and subject-ifying objects with a focus on perception rather than function and the impact of the traces. Tracing the "exhaust" must be taken in its environmental context as something that effects the atmosphere, exhaust which disappears from view but which haunts the environment in its impact. We cannot simply gaze in wonder.

It is only if artistic practices take into account both the internal and external functions/effects of objects and material in complex ecologies of interpenetrating discursive and non-discursive realms that art will not become a commodity/object fetishism. Our artistic production should not strive to invoke wonder, but to irritate our perception so much that we are moved to engagement and inquiry. If art evokes wonder and awe, such awe and wonder should not lead to a contemplation of the being of an object, but orient us toward response.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Technological Determinism, Control, and Education: Neil Postman and Bernard Stiegler

Upon re-reading Neil Postman's Technopology: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, I found many parallels to calls from Bernard Stiegler. I am still unsure whether this should trouble me. Stiegler's detailed philosophical reading of Husserl, Heidegger, and Derrida is surely not for nought. However, it may be worthwhile to look at the difference between Postman and Stiegler.

The issue here is one of control. The question concerning technology either revolves around technology's "good" or "badness" or "neutrality," or, alternately, our ability to control it. I would like to argue here that Stiegler's "politics of memory" does not imply that we can control technology or that we can slow the process down (such as Virilio, who Stiegler uses generously in TT2), but that we can engage with it. Postman, in contrast, seems to suggest that we can control technology, even though he offers many examples of how technology's effects cannot be controlled or sometimes even predicted.

For Postman, the question of any new technology, is to ask what it may undo rather than what it can do (Postman 5). This already sets up his narrative as one characterized by nostalgia, as Sid Dobrin pointed out to me yesterday. Still, Postman recognizes, as does Stiegler that technology is never "neutral" because there is no technology "in itself." Instead, technology always enters into a particular situation and as such is pharmacological.

Postman misses this pharmacological aspect of technology; instead, he frames it as if technology has a telos: "once a technology is admitted; it plays out its hand; it does what it is designed to do" (Postman 7). He seems to see the technology as entering society as if from an alien force. That is, at one point, for Postman, technologies did not "attack" "the dignity and integrity of the culture into which they were introduced" (23). Postman seems unaware that (at least this is Stiegler's argument) that technics came first, and constituted the very possibility of culture in the first place. But once again, it is hard to disagree with statements such as the following:
embedded in every tool is an ideological bias, a predisposition to construct the world as one thing rather than another, to value one thing over another, to amplify one sense or skill or attitude more loudly than another. (Postman 13). 
Both Postman and Stiegler are concerned with how technologies alter education. Postman's main concern seems to be the television, a technology important to Stiegler as well ("Telecracy against Democracy"), but also the computer. Postman's views of the possibilities inherent in the computer are dated, as he argues that computers carry a banner of "private learning," "individual problem-solving." In his defense, Postman's book is pre-social network. Thus, later in this book, he characterizes computers as mainly calculating devices in the service of "Technopoly."

For Postman, the ideal time to live was not what he calls "tool using cultures" nor our contemporary moment, but what he calls a "technocracy," which emerged in the 19th century with the industrial revolution: Following Marx, he acknowledges alienation and poor work conditions, but he seems to think that back then we were more conscious of  them as evil things that must be eradicated. This is why one can call his orientation rather nostalgic compared to Stiegler (although Stiegler might be nostalgic for something else: the family? I need to read Taking Care). Postman writes,
And though it is true that technocratic capitalism created slums and alienation, it is also true that such conditions were perceived as an evil that could and should be eradicated [. . .] The nineteenth century saw the extension of public education, laid the foundation for the modern labor union, and led to the rapid diffusion of literacy. (44)
Technocracy also gave us "political and religious freedom," the idea of "progress." Postman thus concludes that "technocracy will not overwhelm us" (44-45). Technocracy does not render religion, for instance, totally ineffectual: "there still existed holy men and the concept of sin" (45).

This seems about as far away from Stiegler as one can possibly get. However, Stiegler too uses the word "spirit" as a positive term. The difference, one might argue, is that for Stiegler "spirit" must also be tied to a Freudian libidinal economy and the concept of mass affect. We get the sense that Stiegler does not long for a time when religion told us what to do; rather, much like Greg Ulmer, aesthetics and art -- various compositions -- should become an integrative paradigm. More on this later.

Returning to Postman, he sees an insidious transition between his beloved technocracy and Technopoloy. Technopology is "totalitarian technocracy" (48). Postman defines Technopoly's "thought world" via Taylor's Principles of Scientific Management:
The beliefs that the primary, if not the only goal of human labor and thought is efficiency; that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment; that inf act human jdugment cannot be trusted, because it is plagued by laxity, ambiguity, and unnecessary complexity; that subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking; that what cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value; and that the affairs of citizens are best guided and conducted by experts.(51)
 From here, Postman laments the proliferation of information without any guiding structure (for instance, the schools). I do not think that Stiegler necessarily would disagree with this diagnosis. Indeed, this is not a far cry from Stiegler's claim in Decadence of Industrial Democracies:
the reduction of trust (and of time, that is, of belief in the future) to pure calculation, which would be capable of therefore eliminating anything incalculable, is what radically destroys all trust, because it destroys all possibility of believing: all the possibility of believing in the indetermination of the future, of the future as indeterminate and in this indetermination as chance, an opening to the future as to its improbability, that is, to the future as irreducibly singular. (45) 
Ironically, for all of his laments against calculability, if we are to believe Postman, the goal is to try and predict the future (to calculate it) and we do this by paying attention to the "telos" of technology. Ignoring Derrida's important argument that the condition for the possibility of the incalculable is also calculation, the machinic, repetition, etc. Postman condemns calculation tout-court, seeing in the concept of calculation "numerical measurement." This is the type of calculation, indeed, that Derrida or Deleuze (or maybe Stiegler) might call a "bad repetition." The repetition that does not repeat in a singular way.

Still, its notable that the gist of both thinkers map onto one another. Stiegler, like Postman, even points back toward religion as the force that once maintained those "consistencies" (infinitized tendencies that do not strictly exist -- for more on this, see Stiegler's new book, What Makes Life Worth Living: On Pharmacology).

Postman increasingly fears the autonomy of technology and technique. He seems to believe that technology can once again be subject to our control. The problem, he argues, is that we have surrendered that control to "management" and to an autonomy of techniques that have become naturalized in the belief that these technical solutions can solve our problems for us. Once again, I do not think that Stiegler is in disagreement. However, his major point is not that "we" as human beings should take back control from the autonomous machines, but that we must participate in the constitution of culture through technical objects. Without this political-cultural-economic participation, the consumer remains alienated. Furthermore, Stiegler knows there is no unified "we" as a starting point, but, following Simondon, that it is through this participation that "we" emerges.

Postman uses stronger language: "And so it is necessary to understand where our techniques come from and what they are good for; we must make them visible so that they may be restored to our sovereignty" (143). The "our" he is referring to, I think, is citizens as opposed to so called "experts."

Who are these experts? Scientists. Yes, indeed, apropos of recent debates between Stephone Pinker and Leon Wielselter, Postman is concerned with what he calls "scientism." Scientism is characterized by three principles:

1.) Methods of the natural sciences can be applied to the study of human behavior

2.) Social science generates specific principles which can be used to organize humanity on a rational and humane basis.

3.) The third idea is that faith in science can serve as a comprehensive belief system that gives meaning to life, as well as a sense of well-being, morality, and even immortality

(Postman 147)

Scientism, in other words, is the belief that "science" can guide our moral and ethical belief in humanity. Scientism, as Postman suggests and as Nietzsche taught us long ago, is Science as God.

As I've pointed out before, "science" itself is an abstraction. Postman is less concerned with "science" and more with "social sciences" such as psychology and sociology - precisely the kind of "science" practiced by Pinker and co. The problem with Postman's analysis is not that he reveals the quite obvious humanities point about social science (social science tells morality narratives too), but that he seems to think that the "hard" sciences are an autonomous realm of discovery, a la Galileo (science teaches us how the heavens go, not how to go to heaven). But this refuses to acknowledge that the hard sciences, too, are now "technosciences" (and have always been technoscience). Postman writes, "unlike science, social research never discovers anything" (157). To this I say, science does not merely "discover" anything. In Technics and Time 3, Stiegler writes,
Contrary to the ideal of pure, classical scientific constativity, the essence of technology, is in fact always performative. Far from describing what is i.e., the real, technoscientific invention (whose adoption is called  'invention' insofar as it brings to light a novelty that transforms being) is the inscription of a possible that always remains excessive to being, which means to the description of the reality of being. (203-204)
That is, even the narratives and inventions of science are always an instantiation of the possible rather than a discovery of the real. This also should tell us that even though Postman may be correct that the moral directives we discover in "social science" research can also be discerned and invented by the humanities, that the humanities does not have some sort of monopoly on meaning -- just that we don't do all the bullshit that gets us to such obvious conclusions (that make the conclusions more "factual" or "scientific").

What Stiegler is really calling for is for politics. Hard science, natural science -- neither is isolated from politics, as Bruno Latour shows so convincingly throughout his entire career.

The Great Symbol Drain and The Loving Resistance Fighter: What is to be done?

Postman argues that our symbols are being drained of their meaning, mostly through their overuse and abuse. In a forthcoming article on M.T. Anderson's Feed, the genesis of which can be found here, I argue that this society is so cut off from history that marketing has re-appropriated narratives and symbols almost to no effect. How could the society even understand the reference made to the bible in one of the advertisements if all of their information comes from a constant feed of new information rather than knowledge (a distinction made by Stiegler in his important article "Anamnesis and Hypomnesis"). Furthermore, Stiegler's forthcoming book, Technics and Time 4 is subtitled "Symbols and diabols." It does seem like both Stiegler and Postman are both concerned with the "draining" of the power of certain symbols -- a metaphor that recalls the sapping of the vital bodily fluid, the potency, of any given symbol. My guess is that Stiegler's analysis will be more rigorous than Postman's and at least attempt to take into account Derrida's essays on metaphor. Whereas Postman wishes these symbols still retained their potency, Stiegler's question is which symbols should be selected.

Postman laments advertising and marketing, rather than reading marketing theory in order to gain insight into marketing's function. In this way, he does not practice what he preaches: he does not inquire into the production of marketing ideology, simply asserting that it destroyed our most powerful guiding symbols. Rather than using advertising as a way to make new symbols (as I think Greg Ulmer is arguing for), he decries its irrationality and dishonesty. Although he mentions that marketing is linked to "depth psychology," the intricate history between Freud's nephew, Ed Bernays, and the advertising industry is in no way noted. For that history, we have to turn to Adam Curtis's documentary, Century of the Self.

Where Stiegler speaks of our collection of tertiary retentions, our collective memory inscribed in technical objects, Postman refers to a rather conservative notion of "tradition." He appeals to tradition, against advertising, claiming that advertising has no right to adopt traditional symbols. At his most polemic, he uses an unfortunate metaphor in our contemporary times: "The constraints are so few that we may call this a form of cultural rape, sanctioned by an ideology that gives boundless supremacy to technological progress and is indifferent to the unraveling of tradition" (170). Postman is adamant that we must maintain a distinction between the sacred and profane -- a distinction whose implications for politics has been analyzed throughout the work of Giorgio Agamben.

Furthermore, Postman relies on the concept of "narrative" in a way that completely ignores the postmodern critique of a meta-narrative. Stiegler's "politics of memory" is hardly meant to suggest a unified narrative of history and understanding. Yes, it is an attempt at escaping cultural relativism that emerged from poor readings of postmodern philosophy, but Postman seems unconcerned with idiomatic difference.

We can sense Postman's impending conservatism when he mentions E.D. Hirsch and Alan Bloom. Postman critiques Hirsch's inane idea of "cultural literacy" of an "educated person," but reads Bloom in a favorable light! Postman also writes that we need a "national" (read: American) narrative rather than a transnational narrative. This is again in contrast to Stiegler, who argues for a transnational intellectual community which would be based on criteria. It is this latter aspect (criteria) that something like "facebook" does not allow us to do. Facebook does not allow the users to constantly interrogate and adjust the criteria of their organization. Instead, the changes in facebook are imposed from without. How many of us have said at one point or another, "Oh, look what Zuckerberg did to my facebook? A timeline? Oh, that's cute. A newsfeed? Oh shit, this is gonna suck." Facebook has evolved, but not through the participation and recommendations of its users who are barred from knowing the reasons for the interfaces transformations.

Despite Postman's more blatant conservatism and rhetoric -- and the lack of nuance in his argument-- both Postman and Stiegler arrive at similar educational imperatives. This begins with both arguing that central to our future is the future of our educational institutions. Both ask: What are our educational institutions for?

In an interview with Marcel O'Gorman, Stiegler says,
It's very important to study how maps are created. This is not taught in school, because we only teach the end results. We don't teach the process of the production of knowledge. It's a mistake. [. . .] We believe its necessary to revist the history of the construction of occidental knowledge, integrating these new technologies not just as a means of transmitting knowledge, as both objects to be explored and instruments for exploration. (470)
In Technopoly, Postman explains that we should hold

to the idea that to become educated means to become aware of the origins and growth of knowledge and knowledge systems; to be familiar with the intellectual and creative processes by which the best that has been thought and said has been produced; to learn how to participate, even if as a listener. (188)

But the problem, and the crucial difference, between Postman and Stiegler is that the former believes "the structure of the subject-matter curriculum that exists in most schools at present is entirely usable" (188). For Postman, its a question of making these subjects coherent, "a sense of purpose, meaning, and interconnectedness" of what they learn. This course of action, I think, describes the ideal of something like my own public liberal arts institution's goal. For Postman it's about understanding the past; for Stiegler, its a question of constantly (re)making the past and present in preparation for the indeterminate future.

Stiegler is making new institutions whereas Postman wants reform. Postman also clearly prefers "classical" art to our mere entertainment. He writes, "the schools must make available the products of classical art forms precisely because they are not so available and because they demand a different order of sensibility and response" (197).

This is suspicious and indicates Postman's implicit iconoclasm. Against "images," he presents us with "ideas" and classical art that demand a different sensibility. These artworks, however, do not demand a different sensibility "in themselves," but because they were from a different time period. I am not against teaching art from the past; however, art history and education cannot simply be, as Jack Stenner says referring to one of his students, "pictures of jesus." Its not the art of the past, but the art of the present --including the mass media -- that may be useful to bring students into the importance of symbols and what makes life worth living. This is Greg Ulmer's project and, I would like to believe, Stiegler is following suit.

But aside from the many problems with Postman's analysis, I generally agree with him that our education should be more focused on the humanities and that "technopoly" has sacrificed some of what makes our life meaning for the sake of efficiency and meaningless calculation and information. However, whereas Postman makes this an almost moral crusade, I prefer to frame the problem in terms of an intergenerational "politics of memory" and the processes of collective individuation via Stiegler and Simondon. Postman's "we" is an ideal we, a static we that does not attend to tendencies and desire.

For Stiegler, we may not be able to predict and control technologies, to weild it as sovereign subjects, but we can respond to it and hopefully invent not only new ways of "using" it, but inventing new technologies that can herald a new apparatus. Ulmer calls our current apparatus: electracy.

Responding to Richard Beardsworth's Response to Bernard Stiegler

In his article, "Technology and Politics: A Response to Bernard Stiegler," Richard Beardsworth (author of Derrida and the Political) argues that Stiegler's work suffers from a 'technological determinism." While he praises Stiegler's political engagement and his brilliant re-reading of Husserl through Derrida, he argues that Stiegler does not take into account the many "non-technological" details and distinctions in our current economic. This leads Stiegler to a too bleak view of the possibilities inherent in capitalism and levels the multitude of affects available in contemporary society.

I find Beardsworth's critique to be very odd, since it seems that in his most recent work, Stiegler is, if not optimistic, at least offers contemporary technologies (produced by capitalism) as a way out of what Stiegler calls a "generalized proletarianism." Beardsworth point out that Stiegler has shifted Marx's alienation from the "producer" to the "consumer." While he doesn't quite say that this move is "illegitimate" he approaches it when he calls Stiegler's conception of our contemporary condition as "too Greek." Here, Beardsworth is referring to Stiegler's return to Plato's concern with the play of hypomnesis and anamnesis.

Surprisingly, Beardsworth relies on a "classical" reading of the modern economy, implicitly accepting the narrative that the the economy is divorced from social whole. He accepts as a matter of course that the economy, via modernization, is separate from the social, which is not the case in Greek society. For Beardsworth, there is no escape from capital as our governing logic. The best we can do, then, is to find "the right strategies to tame the excesses of global capitalism" (188). He puts it succinctly on the next page:
 "Since there is no systemic alternative to capitalism at this moment in history, the question of political economy is one of whether effective regulation of capitalism is possible or not for the world as a whole" (189). 
To be fair, Beardsworth makes a good point that capital is global, and Stiegler does seem to suggest at times that, for instance, Europe might lead the way in this new "politics of memory." However, in a recent talk, Stiegler argues that we need a global network of intellectuals committed to research. Whether this includes economists, strictly dealing with the global economy of capital, is an open question, but one may speculate that this must be the case. It's also questionable if the goal for Stiegler is the eradication of or an alternative to capitalism. Surely, if it is an "alternative" to capitalism, it is one that comes through capitalism and the technological affordances made possible by its system.

But for Beardsworth, it is global capitalism as a system, one that needs to be analyzed on a particular and empirical level, that alienates us from forming a "we" rather than the problem of collective knowledge. I really don't know how to argue against this point, except that Beardsworth only really seems to suggest that in addition to Stiegler's call for a pharmacological politics of memory, political-economic critique should go on as usual. His example, for instance, is the regulation of offshore capital.

But then, ironically, is not Beardsworth offering a "technical" solution to a very "cultural" problem , one that is constituted by our originary technicity? That is, doesn't Beardsworth suggest here that it is not a philosophical problem of the "waning of affect," but that we should simply "regulate" and try and control, to reign in the effects of capitalism (c.f. Jameson on affect)? While this "devils in the details" approach certainly allows us to move forward "progressively" is this enough? Furthermore, what would the role of the academy, the arts, and the Humanities be for such a solution? Is Beardsworth really suggesting that humanities scholars have little to contribute except "empirical" critiques of global capital, which will ultimately read to anyone outside English and philosophy departments as silly and insufficiently knowledgable?

Stiegler's attentiveness to "psychopower" and the ways in which particular technologies (for instance, marketing, which we will return to when we get to Postman) are used to control us indicates that far from making "generalized" claims without "empirical" evidence, Stiegler is very interested in using the insights of scientific research to his benefit. The point remains though: Stiegler does not speak of the specificity of the economic system (if indeed it is autonomous from 'the social').

Following the narrative of Beardsworth's article, I turn now to Stiegler's transformation of Freud. Acknowledging that Stiegler's reading of Freud is imaginative and "dynamic," Beardsworth essentially argues that this "technological" reading of the libidinal economy denies "the specific autonomy" of the domain under question. This domain? The autonomy of the depth-psychological.

This is a strange turn -- the autonomy of the depth psychological? Stiegler's point, following many recent scholars, is the that "brain" or even the conscious/unconscious is not merely located in our heads, but distributed in our environment, as it always has been, through hypomnesis. How, one might ask, can we talk about the autonomy of the depth psychological? Beardsworth here seems to accept the idea that neuroscience is the final word on what he calls the "mind-body" complex. What we are seeing now, however, is that some neuroscientists are saying, essentially, Spinoza was right! (Damasio). Beardsworth clearly doesn't accept the radical re-reading of technics, as he calls technology a mere "background condition" for the whole "psychic apparatus" (is not the 'psychic apparatus' itself a distributed technology?). Instead of a close reading of Stiegler's adoption of Freudian concepts, Beardsworth returns to Freud's concepts in order to, essentially, make the same point as Stiegler will have made:
One must, however, wait to see what new forms of parenthood adopt the hyperindustrial support and what new forms of sublimation will come to structure the coming generations' sense of conscience. These new forms may be weaker than either traditional or modern forms of close social bond [. . .] I am arguing that we cannot know at this very early stage of our hyperindustrial age, although Stiegler is nevertheless right to call for critical synthesis. The political adoption of the hyperindustrial support will take time--as did monotheism to adopt non-orthographic writing and the social contract to adopt the alphabetical word. (195) 
I do not think Stiegler thinks that such adoption comes automatically or that it won't take time. As he says in another place, the pharmakon always enters as a poison, not a cure. However, the poison is the condition for the possibility of the cure, as it is only by poisoning (the operation of deconstruction) that the possibility of the 'new' arrives. So I have to disagree with Beardsworth that for Stiegler the pharmakon represents an "ambivalence" rather than an "aporia" (as it does in Derrida) because its not that its either/or, but that the pharmakon is both/and -- and this is necessary for the operation of pharmacology. Thus, although Beardsworth is right that Stiegler probably shows a little too conservative when he speaks of generations "losing" their superego, as if there once was one, in Taking Care, I do not think they are that far apart in their position regarding the libidinal economy.

****side note**** -- Although in a recent interview Stiegler has promised us a more thorough engagement with Freud and Lacan in volume 5 of Technics and Time, it is worth noting how little Lacanians have attempted a critique/reading of Stiegler. Is it possible that this "superego" is something very close to the ego-ideal, or would it be more akin to Lacan's "Name of the Father" (the symbolic)?

Furthermore, Beardsworth seems unaware (and perhaps these articles were not published at the time of writing) that Stiegler sees a lot of potential in internet technologies, especially since we now have the possibility of producing meta-data as individual citizens. Beardsworth writes, "the internet is already creative politically. Education must certainly help to supplement this emerging creativity with the art of judgment" (195).

Me lecturing on Stiegler. Photo courtesy of Juan Griego