Archive for October, 2004

Irrational Exuberance

Saturday, October 30th, 2004

LA downtown.jpg

I feel an “irrational exuberance” whenever I visit Los Angeles (which is something I only get the opportunity to do something like once every three or four years). Really, this happens whenever I visit California — but more strongly in LA than elsewhere. Maybe it’s the air, the palm trees, the sun. Or maybe it’s the traffic — I love it when somebody gives me a ride down the boulevards, past the strip malls and the mansions, through the neighborhoods (both residential ones unknown to me, and ones like Westwood, or Venice, or Hollywood, or wherever there is –atypically — lots of foot traffic, people shopping. Perhaps it’s something they put in the air, in the water? A friend who lives here told me that the happiness of southern California was simply this: people being fattened up, to be choice dishes at some sort of alien banquet (orchestrated, no doubt, by Governor Arnold). Today nobody gave me a ride; but, tired of all the bank skyscrapers downtown, I walked a few blocks east and enjoyed the funky vitality of Broadway. Maybe part of it was the nervous, slightly paranoid buzz I was feeling (I forgot to eat lunch, and instead drank way too much coffee — something that would never happen to me anyplace else).

When I’m here, I imagine an alternative life path for myself: if I knew how to drive; if I had gotten a job here. It would be like gliding, an endless exultant horizontal displacement, the sensuous enjoyment of surfaces (when in actuality I am not at all a sensuous person). California, the optical illusion at the end of the rainbow. Of course this alternate life path never happened, and never will (not even in all the plurality of worlds of quantum mechanics, or of David Lewis’ logic). And it’s no use mourning for the self you are not (not that this place puts me in the frame of mind in which I could mourn). But still…

A Grammar of the Multitude

Friday, October 29th, 2004

Paolo Virno’s A Grammar of the Multitude covers some of the same ground as the work of Michael Hardt and Toni Negri. The multitude, in contrast to older notions of the People or the proletariat, is a grouping without unity. People come together in the multitude, on the basis of what they have in common; but without becoming One, without subordinating their singularities or negating their differences. Virno, like Hardt and Negri, derives the concept of the multitude from Spinoza, and argues that this form of organization is especially suited to our postmodern, networked society (to what Hardt and Negri call Empire, and Virno — focused more closely on modes of production — calls “post-Fordist” society).

Many readers (myself included) have found Hardt and Negri’s utopian invocations of the multitude a bit vague; and it’s here that Virno’s book is especially useful. Virno offers a number of different perspectives on the multitude. Basically Virno argues that, in post-Fordist production, it is less “labor power” (the potential to produce) that is being mobilized by capitalism (which is the traditional marxist formulation) than it is what Marx called “general intellect,” or the entire range of human capacities and abilities, both mental and physical.

From one point of view this is quite horrific: it means that capital demands from workers, not just exertion for a set number of hours a day, but everything, all the time: our dreams and intuitions, our passions and pastimes, our leisure as well as our work. We can see this in the spread of notions of “intellectual property,” as well as in the ways that leisure time as well as work time is increasingly subjected to the full sweep of commodification and branding. And this totalization of what capitalism demands from the worker goes hand in hand with the strategies of “flexible accumulation,” with its emphasis on part-time work, overtime work, continual changes in roles, pressure for innovation in every activity, etc.: all of which not only relegates everyone (including “professionals” on the one hand, and the unemployed or underemployed on the other) to the status of being a worker, but puts all workers increasingly in the status of what Marx called the Industrial Reserve Army (no job is permanent, everyone is replaceable, etc).

These conditions produce the category of the multitude. Specialization, or the division of labor, is increasingly a thing of the past. In the post-Fordist world, everyone increasingly draws upon a generalized “sharing of communicative and cognitive abilities.” Labor becomes increasingly performative, in the sense that what produced is more the productive activities themselves, than the reified end products. (This corresponds to what Hardt and Negri call affective labor, and to what others call the service economy). This means that poesis (making) and praxis (political or collective activity) are unified, for perhaps the first time in human history. All industry is subsumed by the culture industry: it’s not that cars are not still being manufactured, but that every aspect of the automotive industry, from how work is done on the shop floor to how advertising gives automobiles their cultural cachet and signification, is controlled by technologies of information and communication, which involve human beings in depth, rather than just calling upon them for specialized forms of labor. “The communications industry,” Virno says, “plays the role of industry of the means of production.” There isn’t any such thing as the “hacker class” hypothesized by McKenzie Wark, because in effect everybody is a hacker, and all social activity is grounded upon hacking.

This still sounds pretty dystopian: capital now demands everything from me, 24/7, rather than just eight hours a day. But this is where Virno — more convincingly, to my mind, than Hardt and Negri — sees grounds for an inversion. He recommends strategies of “civil disobedience” and “exit”: forms of resistance that no longer rely on “the gloomy dialectic between acquiescence and transgression,” but simply shift the grounds of social activity elsewhere. (To my mind, downloading mp3s is a low-key example of what Virno recommends). But more importantly, Virno draws out qualities of the multitude that, even if originally elicited by capitalist exploitation, necessarily exist in excess to that exploitation. Capitalism works by appropriating the surplus that labor creates; but under the conditions of “general intellect,” produced by the post-Fordist economy itself, there’s a surplus that no regime of privatization is able to expropriate and contain. This is due, first of all, to the sheer fact that intellect is now “general”: creativity and expression are no longer personal and private. The more I express my own singularities, the more I reject conformity to externally imposed norms, the more I find that my own expressions are in fact collaborative: that they intersect with, call upon, presuppose, and interact with those of others. Just as hip hop producers are most original and creative when they work with — rework — samples drawn from prior songs. Property is theft. There really is no private language, as Wittgenstein said.

Virno analyzes this process in many ways. Drawing on Gilbert Simondon, he discusses the process of individuation in the multitude: the way I express my singularity in the commuunicative context of general intellect cuts across traditional divisions of private and public. Virno also analyzes categories such as the “idle talk” and “curiosity” so excoriated by Heidegger (who views them with horror and disgust as inauthentic ways of being of the ignorant masses), and shows how they might better be regarded as civic virtues, and sources of invention and renovation. And Virno considers the question of “the emotional tonalities of the multitude,” of the ways certain affects are not so much subjectively felt, as already built into our way of being in post-Fordist society (this discussion resonates strongly with some of the arguments made by Brian Massumi about pre-subjective affects: a subject I hope to go into more in detail at some future point).

I hope I’ve given some sense of the richness of Virno’s book, despite its brevity (barely over 100 pages). I’m still working through the consequences of his arguments. It’s only by delineating the new grounds of affect and subjectivity that characterize the post-Fordist, network society, that we can even begin to think about tactics of political transformation. This is what grounds my current work-in-progress on postmodern aestheticism, and I’ve found Virno’s book richly suggestive.

Smart Gels

Saturday, October 23rd, 2004

I’ve seen this in a number of places (Slashdot refers me both to the Wired article and to the original press release): Thomas DeMarse, of the University of Florida, has cultivated a culture of 25,000 living rat neurons, and hooked up the culture to a computer running flight simulator software. The neurons have learned, in effect, to fly the simulated plane.

This is fascinating on a number of grounds. The neurons constitute, in effect, an artificial bio-brain. The neurons have hooked up with one another for the first time, in the same way that neurons actually do hook up in a developing human’s or animal’s brain; and an interface has been successfully established between this bio-brain and the silicon computational machinery of a computer. Strong-AI enthusiasts like Ray Kurzweil fantasize about replacing human neurons with silicon chips, one by one, until the mind has been entirely translated or downloaded into a computer. But neurons and silicon logic chips in fact function in quite different ways, so the idea of interfacing neurons and digital computers, as DeMarse and others have done, is in fact much more plausible. Brains need to be embodied, in a way that electronic computing machines don’t; but an experiment like this suggests a way that this embodiment could in fact be made entirely simulacral, like in the old (updated-Cartesian) ‘brain in a vat’ scenario.

The whole experiment turns on the fact that brains don’t operate the way digital computers do. Brains signal chemically as well as electronically, which makes them different by nature from computer chips; and from what little evidence we have on the subject, it would seem that (as Gerald Edelman, among others, argues), brains are not in fact Turing machines, but operate according to entirely different principles. Indeed, DeMarse’s goal is less to train the neurons to do useful computational work, than he is “to learn how the brain does its computation.”

The SF writer Peter Watts in fact deals with all these questions in his “Rifters” novels Starfish and Maelstrom (I haven’t yet read the just-published third volume in the series, Behemoth: B-Max; a fourth and final volume is scheduled to come out next year). In these novels, neural cultures called “smart gels” do computational tasks — involving pattern recognition, nuanced judgments involving various qualitative factors, and so on — that digital computers are ill-suited for. But the fact that “smart gels” are required to make human-style judgments, but are devoid of human personalities and emotions, itself leads to disturbing and disastrous consequences…. It’s always a problem when “intelligence” is divorced from context.

A Hacker Manifesto

Thursday, October 21st, 2004

McKenzie Wark‘s A Hacker Manifesto is a remarkable and beautiful book: cogent, radical, and exhilarating, a politico-aesthetic call to arms for the digital age.

The book really is, as its title says, a manifesto: a public declaration of principles for a radically new vision, and a call to action based on that vision. It’s written as a series of short, numbered paragraphs or theses; the writing is tight, compressed, and aphoristic, or a Wark himself likes to say, “abstract.” It’s not “difficult” in the way that certain “post-structuralist” philosophical texts (Derrida, Lacan, etc) are difficult; rather, A Hacker Manifesto is characterized by an intense lucidity, as if the writing had been subjected to intense atmospheric pressure, so that it could say the most in the least possible space. Deleuze writes somewhere that an aphorism is a field of forces in tension; Wark’s writing is aphoristic in precisely this sense. I read the book with both delight and excitement, even when I didn’t altogether agree with everything that Wark said.

A Hacker Manifesto owes something — both in form and content — to Marx and Engels, and more to Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (a book about which I feel deeply ambivalent). Wark’s ambition (which he calls “crypto-marxist”) is to apply Marx’s ideas to our current age of digitization and “intellectual property.” Unlike cultural marxists and “post-marxists” (who tend to refer to Marx’s general spirit more than his actual ideas), Wark focuses squarely on “the property question,” which is to say, on issues of economic production, of ownership of the means of production and the results of the production process, and therefore of exploitation and expropriation. Class is the central category of Wark’s analysis, and Wark defines class as Marx defined it, as grounded in people’s diverse relations to production and property, rather than using the vaguer sociological sense (a group of people with a common sense of identity and values) that is most often used today. It’s always a question of conflicting interests between the producers of value, and the legal owners who gain profit from the producers’ labor, and who control the surplus that the producers produce.

Modern capitalism begins in the 16th and 17th centuries, when — in the wake of the decline of feudalism — wealthy landowners expropriate formerly common lands, reducing farmers or peasants to the status of (at best) paid laborers (but more often, landless people who own nothing, and can’t even find work). (This is the stage of what Marx calls “primitive accumulation,” a useful term that Wark oddly fails to employ). Capitalism then intensifies in the 18th and especially the 19th century, when industrial workers, in order to survive, must sell their labor to capitalists, who control the means of production, and who reap the profits from the massive economic expansion of industrialization. Wark sees a third version of this process in our contemporary Information Age, where the producers of information (understood in the widest sense: artists, scientists, software developers, and all sorts of innovators, anyone in short who produces knowledge) find their labor expropriated from them by large corporations which own patents and copyrights on their inventions. Wark calls the information producers “hackers,” and refers to the owners/expropriators of information as “the vectorialist class” (since “information” travels along “vectors” as it is reproduced and transmitted from place to place).

This formulation allows Wark to synthesize and combine a wide range of insights about the politics and economics of information. As many observers have noted, what used to be an information “commons” is increasingly being privatized (just as common land was privatized 500 years ago). Corporations trademark well-known expressions, copyright texts and data that used to circulate in the public domain, and even patent entire genomes. The irony is, that even as new technologies make possible the proliferation and new creation of all sorts of knowledge and information (from mash-up recordings to database correlations to software improvements to genetic alterations), the rules of “intellectual property” have increasingly restricted this proliferation. It’s paradoxical that downloading mp3s should be policed in the same way as physical property is protected from theft; since if I steal your car, you no longer have it, but when I copy your music file I don’t deprive you of anything. Culture has always worked by mixing and matching and altering, taking what’s already there and messing with it; but now for the first time such tinkering is becoming illegal, since the very contents of our common culture have been redefined as private property. As I’m always telling my students, under contemporary laws Shakespeare never could have written his plays. Though nothing is valued more highly in our world today than “innovation,” the rules of intellectual property increasingly shackle innovation, because only large corporations can afford to practice it.

Wark makes sense of these developments as nobody else has, by locating them, in his “crypto-marxist” terms, as phenomena of “the property question” and class struggle. “Information wants to be free but is everywhere in chains” (#126). This means also that the struggle over information is more crucial, more central, than traditional marxists (still too wedded to the industrial paradigm) have been willing to notice. While previous forms of economic exploitation have often been (dubiously) justified on grounds of scarcity, Wark points out that for information this justification becomes completely absurd. Information is cheap and abundant, and it takes all sorts of convolutions to bring it under the rule of scarcity. This alone reveals the idiocy of “intellectual property.” Individual hackers (software engineers, say, or songwriters) might feel they have something to gain economically by controlling (and making sure they get paid for) the product of their particular informational labors; but in a larger sense, their “class interest” lies in free information, because only in that way do they have access to the body of information or culture that is the “raw material” for their own creations. And the fact is that, by dint of their ownership of this raw material, it is always the “vectorlist class” who will profit from new creations, rather than the creators/hackers themselves.

In making his arguments, Wark brings together a number of different currents. If his Manifesto has its deepest roots in the Western Marxist tradition, from Marx himself through Lukacs and Benjamin to the Situationists, it also draws heavily on Deleuze and Guattari’s notions of the “virtual,” as well as Mauss’ theory of the gift. At the same time, it relates directly to the practices (and the ethos) of the free software movement, of DJs producing mash-ups, and of radical Net and software artists. (Indeed, much of the book originally appeared on the nettime listserv).

Much of the power of A Hacker Manifesto comes from the way that it “abstracts” and coordinates such a wide range of sources. Wark argues that the power of “information” lies largely in its capacity to make ever-larger “abstractions”: “to abstract is to construct a plane upon which otherwise different and unrelated matters may be brought into many possible relations. To abstract is to express the virtuality of nature, to make known some instance of its possibilities, to actualize a relation out of infinite relationality, to manifest the manifold” (#008). Abstraction is the power behind our current servitude, but it is also the source of our potential expanded freedom. The regime of intellectual property abstracts away from our everyday experience, turning it into a controlled stream of 1s and 0s. But the answer to this expropriation is to push abstraction still further, to unleash the potentialities that the “vectorialist” regime still restricts. A Hacker Manifesto is already, in itself, such an act of further abstraction; it charts a path from already-existing forms of resistance and creation to a more generalized (more abstract) mode of action.

There are various points, I admit, at which I am not entirely convinced. Wark makes, for instance, too much of a separation between industrial workers and hackers, as between capitalists and vectorialists; this underestimates the continuity of the history of expropriation; I’d be happier with a term like Hardt and Negri’s multitude, vague and undefined as it is, than I am with Wark’s too-rigid separation between industrial production and knowledge production. Hardt and Negri have a more generous understanding than Wark does of the ways in which the information economy creates the common. I’m also, I fear, too cynical to accept the historical optimism that Wark in fact shares with Hardt and Negri; in the world today, I think, in both rich countries and poor, our affective investments in commodification and consumerism are far too strong for our desires to really become aligned with our actual class interests (however powerful a case these theorists make for what those interests are).

Nonetheless, I don’t want to end this review on such a (mildly) negative note. If anything, I fear that my comments here have failed to give a sense of the full breadth of Wark’s argument: of the full scope of his references, of how much ground he covers, of the intensity and uncompromising radicality of his vision. Whether or not A Hacker Manifesto succeeds in rousing people to action, it’s a book that anyone who’s serious about understanding the changes wrought by digital culture will have to take into consideration.


Saturday, October 16th, 2004

Jonathan Couette’s Tarnation is an astonishing, heartbreakingly beautiful film. It’s autobiography transfigured, and life as performance. It’s a survivor’s diary, and it’s a love letter without hope, yet unquelled by the absence of hope. It’s a psychedelic, avant-garde, experimental film, and yet it’s a pure documentary, concerned with the Real, only the Real.

Jonathan Couette’s mother Belle was and is crazy: after an incident of (what Freud would have called) hysterical paralysis when she was 12, she was given hundreds of shock treatments, which unhinged her for good. She gave birth to Jonathan when she was 19; his father was already gone from the picture. Jonathan remembers seeing Belle raped in front of him when he was three. She got even crazier after that, and he was taken from her; after a few years in foster homes (where he remembers being abused), he was raised by his grandparents (Belle’s parents), while Belle herself spent years going into and out of various psychiatric institutions. Growing up, Jonathan suffered from “depersonalization disorder” (a sort of dissociation that leads to one’s viewing oneself and one’s body affectlessly, as if from the outside, and being tormented with a continuing sense of unreality). But he also discovered that he was gay, and found in his gayness, and in his passion for acting and filmmaking, ways of escaping the familial horror that nonetheless continues to haunt him.

Tarnation is about — no, Tarnation is — Couette’s self-healing and self-overcoming, together with his infinite love for Belle, the mother who was literally never able to be “there” for him. The film contains some reenactments, but mostly it’s composed of the Super-8 films (and later the videos) of his own life that he started shooting when he was 11 years old (he is now 31 or so). Footage of himself and his family and his real-life dilemmas; and parallel footage of his acting, his trying out of different personas. On the one hand, we see him at 11, in drag, putting on the role of a Southern belle with a young child, who was raped much like he remembered his mother being: there’s incredible nervousness in this performance, but also an over-the-top melodramatic flair, as if such role-playing could exorcize the pain by some sort of homeopathic ritual. On the other hand, we see him as an adult, in the present, trying to interview his mother, trying to make some sense of her mood swings, her inconsistencies, her bitterness and anger, her inability to focus or to make anything of herself.

But Tarnation is not a film of pathos and victimization. It’s quite harrowing in parts, depressing and devastating and overwhelmingly sad; but it’s also a powerful act of reimagining and reinventing, the creation and projection of a new sensibility, a new subjectivity. And as such, there’s something exuberant, even (dare I say it?) exhilarating about it.

A formalist would call it a triumph of montage. The film is a swirl of fragmentary images, unexpected leaps and associations, and soundtrack music that both intensifies and distances the material being presented on the screen. Couette mixes his personal, archival footage with bits and pieces of movies, TV shows, and pop songs; he cuts his images up, sometimes playing them out of sequence, or repeating them like musical motifs or dividing and multiplying them on the screen. A lot of the recorded speech is barely audible, while crucial details of his life story are distanced by being narrated only by terse third-person printed titles.

In all these ways, the form of the film matches the content. Not just in terms of schizophrenic disintegration, but much more importantly as an act of reconstruction. For Tarnation doesn’t try to restore a “normal” life, to establish a straightforward (or straight) narrative; it doesn’t offer consolation. What it does do, beautifully and astoundingly, is produce a subjectivity (for the film, and hopefully for the director/protagonist as well) that is capable of enduring (of living through, of not just surviving, but persisting in the face of) the traumas and tribulations of its history. Tarnation expresses and embodies a mode of being-in-the-world that is absolutely singular, rich and strange, yet at the same time completely comprehensible and recognizable to the spectator (watching the film, I find myself utterly captivated by and immersed in its alien and unsettling world, while at the same time understanding that this world is not all that strange and alien after all, since it is also my own, the very same world that I myself inhabit). It’s something about the third person titles, the acting and role-playing, the interweaving of personal footage with media footage, the continual metamorphoses of images in the frame, the rush of events punctuated by moments of stillness.

The emotion that makes it all work, and that is embedded deeply in every frame of the film, is Couette’s love for his mother: a love that is absolute and unconditional (as any true love must ultimately be), at the same time that it is impossible (and recognized as impossible): impossible for anybody, in any circumstances, of course, but all the more so with a mother as unstable, unavailable, unreachable as Belle. Tarnation is, you might say, a melodramatic fiction: not fiction in the sense of illusion, however, but a fiction that is entirely actualized, wholly present, in Couette’s own life, and that also becomes actual for us, as we watch the film.

Derrida and The New York Times

Wednesday, October 13th, 2004

I just signed the collective letter of protest being sent by university professors to The New York Times, in objection to the paper’s “mean-spirited and uninformed” obituary for Jacques Derrida.

So Yesterday

Tuesday, October 12th, 2004

I know Scott Westerfeld as a science fiction writer, but his novel So Yesterday is set in the present, and it is categorized and marketed as “Young Adult” fiction, rather than SF. Be that as it may, So Yesterday is a clever and pointed novel about corporate logos, innovation, and the concept of “cool” — which to my mind are science fictional subjects, or at least aspects of our current reality that are themselves already science fictional.

The narrator of So Yesterday, 17-year-old Hunter, is (as his name implies) a coolhunter, also known as a Trendsetter: one of those people who discovers the newest trends, recognizing them before anyone else, and thereby helping to market them to the masses, to make them “cool.” The object of his affection, Jen, is an Innovator: one of the people who actually invents the trends (in fashion, clothing, etc.) that are then picked up by the Trendsetters and marketed. Hunter works freelance for “a certain athletic shoe company named after a certain Greek god,” advising them on what’s cool and what’s not. (The narrator promises that there will be “no product placement in these pages,” which is why he resorts to such cute euphemisms).

The plot of So Yesterday brings Hunter and Jen in contact with the Jammers, a group of renegade Innovators and Trendsetters, activist pranksters whose aim is to gum up the works: to subvert the process by which innovations turn into trends through corporate logo-ification and marketing. The fictional Jammers are reminiscent of many activist groups that really exist, such as Adbusters and rtmark and the Yes Men; but they go further than these actually existing groups both in the ways they take the cutting-edge technologies and networks of production, marketing, and distribution and turn them against themselves, and in the ways that (like an actual guerrilla/revolutionary group) they go well beyond the bounds of legality.

Logos, brand names, and so on, are so important a component of the construction of our social reality today that I’m surprised that more fiction writers haven’t taken it up. (Aside from So Yesterday, the books that come most readily to mind are William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition, and Bret Easton Ellis’ Glamorama).

What’s most interesting about So Yesterday is Hunter’s (and on a different level, Westerfeld’s or the novel’s) ambivalence about the whole corporate machinery of cool. On the one hand, we have the sense of something creepy, something lost, when an in-group tells everybody else what to do — when that in-group, especially, promotes fads that take over people’s minds so stealthily that they do not even realize they are being manipulated. They just spend their dollars, which immediately turn into runaway corporate profits. And despite being on the cutting edge, Hunter remains oppressively aware of the social hierarchies of “cool,” among both teenagers and adults. He knows you can never trust the kids who are cool, or the people who are rich and fashionable.

Yet the concept of “cool” itself is never questioned by the novel. It’s axiomatic that certain things (or ways of being, or fashions) are cool, and that not everybody can embody such coolness. The cool object — in this novel, the ultimate object of cool is a running shoe produced surreptitiously by the Jammers, and adorned with an anti-logo, a design that negates, by crossing it out, the famous Nike swoosh — is instantly dazzling in its coolness to the cognescenti, the Innovators and Trendsetters, but only dimly apprehended by the mass of consumers who will end up purchasing it. If Hunter and Jen are attracted by the Jammers, it’s because the Jammers’ brand of subversion is itself the coolest thing out there.

And though the Jammers themselves are initially presented as revolutionaries, who want to tear down the whole corporate system, it turns out that their real interest is something more, or less. Their aim is not to destroy the system of cool, but if anything to restore the prestige of cool by mystifying it, making it more sticky and less transparent. Their objection to the corporate system is that “the cool hits the mall, before it has time to digest.” They aim, therefore, to “market confusion, jam the ads until the Consumers don’t know what’s real and what’s a joke.” They are anti-corporate Dadaists; but they know they live in an age when Dadaism, together with all the other High Modernist shock tactics, has itself become a highly effective advertising tactic the corporate arsenal.

Towards the end of the novel, “the client” (Nike) gets ahold of the designs for the super-cool shoe that the Jammers invented. Nike never releases this shoe as it is; “instead, they pirate little bits of it every season.” For the corporation follows “the first rule of consumerism: Never give us what we really want. Cut the dream into pieces, and scatter them like ashes. Dole out the empty promises. Package our aspirations and sell them to us, cheaply made enough to fall apart.” What’s utterly remarkable about this passage is how it negates itself. It provides a full critique of the commodification of desire, of how it works through negation and lack, of how it mobilizes infinite deferral. Except… that what it posits as the (lost) originary object of completely gratified desire is itself nothing more, or other, than the commodity fetish par excellence (the coolest running shoe ever made). And this deflates the whole point of the critique.

My point here is not to criticize Westerfeld, or his novel, for being insufficiently revolutionary. But rather, I want to suggest that the ambivalence I’m describing — the doubt as to whether you can really separate coolness from corporate branding, given that coolness in our society inevitably involves hierarchies of both money and taste, organized around the symbolic powers of brand names and logos — is a justified sort of “realism” or cynicism, when it’s juxtaposed with the utopianism of, say, the free software movement, or more generally of Hardt and Negri’s “multitude.”Hardt and Negri (and, in a different way, McKenzie Wark, whose wonderful Hacker Manifesto I will be writing about soon) argue cogently that, in our current network society, creativity and innovation are necessarily collective. Westerfeld’s characters, to the contrary, never question the “cool pyramid,” with lonely Innovators at the top, and the need of a marketing and profit-extracting machinery to filter the innovations and make them trickle down to the mass of Consumers. I’m inclined to say that, in a certain sense, both sides in this argument are right. The ambiguity of Westerfeld’s Jammers (an elite group intervening against, but yet retaining an allegiance to, the elite and corporate machinery of “cool”) points to a real difficulty, one that Hardt/Negri, Wark, and the no-logo and free-software activists don’t seem to have addressed with sufficient rigor.

The problem is this. In the high-technology, highly networked world we now live in, our highest value is always innovation. I myself see this as the highest value, and I have no wish to contest it. (Postmodernity is all about serial repetition of cultural codes and cliches that already exist, but this doesn’t contradict my point. Hip hop, for instance, is totally about innovation: its problem is precisely how to deploy samples, the already-sedimented, in such a way as to make them innovatively new; the High Modernist imperative to “make it new” has been transmogrified, but not abandoned). But innovation is nearly impossible to disentangle from the ways in which our entire society is saturated by fashion, marketing, and consumption. The innovator is not the same as the entrepreneur; Westerfeld recognizes this as much as anybody. But different as these roles are in essence, it is almost impossible to detach them in practice. Innovation is inextricably tied in with entrepreneurship, marketing, advertising, and branding, since these are the conditions of its possibility: the only ways it can be made-present, or come to any sort of being-in-the-world. So the move to Hardt/Negri’s affirmation of the multitude, or Wark’s self-recognition by the hacker class of its own class position, is fraught with much more difficulty — both conceptually and pragmatically — than these theorists recognize or acknowledge. Ironically limited and non-utopian, So Yesterday makes us aware of this situation.

A brief note on Whitehead

Monday, October 11th, 2004

Colin Wilson says wonderfully about Whitehead:
“This, I think, is ultimately what I find so amazing about Whitehead.  The style and the manner convince you that here is a more-or-less academic philosopher, building his incredibly abstract system in a kind of vacuum, when in fact he is a creative genius of the same order as Plato or Beethoven.”

Jacques Derrida, 1930-2004

Saturday, October 9th, 2004

Jacques Derrida’s death today at age 74 marks the end of an era. He’s the last of that generation of French thinkers who revolutionized thought in the 1960s.

Derrida doesn’t mean as much to me as Foucault does, or Deleuze (or Deleuze and Guattari), or even Lacan (despite my very serious reservations about the latter). (I wrote about my sense of Derrida’s achievements and limitations when I blogged the documentary about him). But he was a philosopher very much worth reading, and who had a certain (mostly good) influence on the world of ideas. I largely concur with Nightspore’s estimation of his significance.

To speak in more personal terms: Derrida was important to me because, when I first read his early writings, my understanding of the world changed. I was never able to see things the same way again. There are not too many writers, philosophical or literary, about whom I can really say something like that. Later on, I came to feel that Derrida was not as profound, or as deeply relevant, as many of the thinkers who influenced him (Nietzsche, Bataille, Blanchot), or as certain of his contemporaries and peers (the aforementioned Foucault and Deleuze especially). But Derrida provided me with a way in, which at the very least enabled my reception of those other thinkers. For one thing, he helped me to understand the radical contingency of meanings, and of all the constructions we erect upon the basis of those meanings. For another, his ideas about decentering, and the infinite process of relationality or reference, and the logic of difference, remain crucial elements in all the criticism I write (even if they are rarely at the forefront of my interests and intentions). I’d even say that there’s an odd synergy between what I learned from Derrida, and what I learned from LSD (which I first experienced around the same time that I first encountered and studied Derrida): they both gave me the same sense of how whatever is (intellectually or emotionally) significant also tends to be extremely fragile and fleeting (by which I mean both transient, and continually, mercurially moving from point to point).

Well, I don’t take psychedelic drugs any more, and I don’t often find myself impelled to read Derrida. But they’ve both left their traces in my psyche. I was never as interested in the later writings of Derrida as in his earlier ones: though their meditations on death and mortality, and on friendship and obligation, are undeniably moving, they didn’t have the same sort of revelatory effect on me as Of Grammatology or Writing and Difference did. (This is probably because, by the time I came to Derrida’s later books, I was already familiar with the writings on these themes by Blanchot and Levinas, and by their brilliant interpreter Joseph Libertson).

Finally, I think that Derrida’s philosophical importance is that he upheld the spirit of Kantian critique for the late 20th century. For Kant, one of the most important tasks of philosophy is to criticize and undo what he calls “transcendental illusions.” These are, Kant says, “sophistries not of human beings but of pure reason itself. Even the wisest among all human beings cannot detach himself from them; perhaps he can after much effort forestall the error, but he can never fully rid himself of the illusion that incessantly teases and mocks him.” Derrida followed Kant’s program, in that he ceaselessly interrogated these illusions that are built in to the very nature of rationality itself, and endeavored, patiently and carefully, to undo them, while remaining aware that such an undoing will never be definitive or final. I’m inclined to think that philosophers in general make too much of reason, and give it a more prominent place than it actually occupies in human life. Be that as it may, it’s clear to me that Derrida was a far better philosopher, and far more committed to rationality and truth, than those (and there were many) who ignorantly accused him of being an irrationalist, a nihilist, and an obscurantist.

What Drugs is Bush On?

Friday, October 8th, 2004

George W. Bush is a speed freak. The only explanation for his performance in the second debate tonight is amphetamines. He showed all the symptoms: the twitchy aggressiveness, the excitement, jumping to his feet all the time, speaking much more quickly than he usually does, almost shouting some of his replies… You even saw the moment, about 2/3rds of the way through the debate, when he started to crash — he faltered for a moment, then went on but without quite the same level of energy. The drugs also released his inhibitions, so that we saw the return of his frat boy smirk and his self-congratulatory nods and winks.

Well, I guess that’s one way to overcome the confusion, the lack of focus, and the deer-caught-in-the-headlights look that Dubya exhibited in the first debate.

I’d worry that this would impair the President’s judgment, much more severely than the alcohol he used to consume in great quantities did; but since Dubya lacks all judgment even when sober, there isn’t anything to impair.

As for Kerry, he did an OK job as Mr. Facts-and-Figures; too bad American voters don’t really care about that. I very much fear that the polling figures will swing back to Bush in the next few days, now that he has proved that he can (with the suitable chemical enhancement) “perform.” Why, speed for Dubya is just like Viagra for Bob Dole; it gives him the macho potency that Americans want in their Commander in Chief, and it probably even raised his IQ a few points.

Seriously, you know there’s a problem when Kerry can’t even bring himself to say that he’s pro-choice without a lot of mealy-mouthed evasions. This means that the game is fixed: according to the rules Kerry can only say he will do Bush’s policies better than Bush himself does. Any actual alternative is considered out-of-bounds from the get-go.

You wouldn’t know, from watching this debate, that things are completely and radically going to hell: that scores of people are being blown up every day in Iraq, while at home civil liberties are being slowly but surely abolished, democracy is being transformed into theocracy, millions of people are being shorn of their medical coverage and old age pensions (not to mention the large numbers who don’t have these things in the first place), and a gang of rapacious good old boys is bleeding the country dry, redistributing nearly all the remaining wealth from the other 98% of the population to themselves. Kerry certainly isn’t addressing these issues. He’s arguing from a position in which Bush’s near-psychotic reality-distortions are taken for granted as a starting point — and that’s an argument he cannot hope to win.

You’d also think, if this debate were your only source of information, that America is almost entirely white. In the debate’s “town meeting” format, all the questions but one were asked by white people.