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Posts Tagged ‘immateriality’

Our Progress So Far

January 22, 2011 Leave a comment

For the benefit of those not physically present in meatspace for our first few class discussions, here’s a little virtual rundown of what’s happened so far.

In our first discussion, I introduced the notion of an “ideology of disembodiment” (drawing on N. Katherine Hayles and others), an ideology that permeates digital discourse. As an example of this, we began class by watching the AT&T “Pure Imagination” commercial. Perhaps an even more striking example is the IBM data baby commercial, which we watched in class on the first day.

“This is a baby,” the voiceover intones, as we look at some squiggly visualizations of data. Talk about “data made flesh,” as Case sees the objects of commerce moving about in Ninsei (Neuromancer 17). Or, rather, in this case we have flesh made data. My point was that the ad’s rhetoric suggests ontological equivalence between the fleshy “baby” and the disembodied “data.” When we consider it analytically, it becomes clear that the transformation from flesh to data requires several moments of mediation: turning physiological readouts into datastreams, turning datastreams into visualizations, combining film (presumably digital film, which uses algorithmic rules to convert patterns of light and sound into bits) with CGI, publishing the ad, getting the ad to youtube, getting the youtube ad from internet to computer to classroom projector, etc. At each moment, meatspace intervenes.

To contrast with my insistence on the matter of meatspace (the meat of the matter, if you will… or is that ‘heart’ of the matter?), we read Jerry Barlow’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”. That foundational document argues that cyberspace, the “new home of Mind,” transcends the world of flesh, steel, commerce, politics, nation, personal identity, and all sorts of other meaty matters. Yet by looking closely at Barlow’s language, we noted the contradiction between the supposed freedom of cyberspace and the exclusion necessary to its existence.

Our first discussion of Neuromancer began with several passages of importance, identified by class members (at least the ones who got my email–sorry!). Here were just a few of those. Matt pointed us toward the “data made flesh” bit mentioned above; Cory looked at Case’s post-op fear of being “still meat” (38); Nicole focused on Case’s pre-op disdain for the “prison of the flesh” (6); Zach drew us into the trippy language Gibson uses to convey the Panther Moderns’ info-terrorism, the “subliminally rapid images of contamination” (61); and Christina chose one of my favorite moments, when Molly first reveals the blades implanted in her fingers: “…four-centimeter scalpel blades slid from their housings beneath the burgundy nails. She smiled. The blades withdrew” (26). What a great femme fatale…. All of these passages engaged, in one way or another, with the themes of bodies, markets, and cities that I offered as potential sites of significance for the novel. As evidence of those themes coming together, I cited the relation between Case and Molly’s intimate moments (in which Gibson describes Case’s “orgasm flaring blue in a timeless space, a vastness like the matrix”) and Case’s intimate moment with his new computer (Case with his case, you might say): “distant fingers caressing the deck, tears of release streaking his face” (33, 52). We then proceeded to perform the Five Analytical Moves (from Writing Analytically on a short sentence early in the book: “He looked back as the plastic door swung shut behind him, saw her eyes reflected in a cage of red neon” (10). Lots of repetitions, binary oppositions, and implicit ideas to be drawn out there, the tools which will inform your work for the first paper.

Yesterday’s class began with a “fun” discussion of plagiarism. Given so much chatter about plagiarism in a digital age (such as this one, and this one), it seemed worthwhile to discuss what it actually is. Definitions and reflections from Cory, Christina, Aimee and others, got us toward the fundamental principal as posed by Rosenwasser and Stephen in Writing Analytically (on 254-7), namely that plagiarism is passing off others’ ideas as your own, and that the best way to prevent it is to be as overt as possible about who is speaking when. More to follow as we get nearer the research paper.

The “fun” part of the discussion was the page from Kathy Acker’s novel, Empire of the Senseless, which contains “rip-offs” or “cut-ups” (depending on your perspective, I suppose, or which annotation to the library copy you prefer) of other works, including NM. Given that Acker has her characters chasing a “construct” named “Kathy,” I suggested that Acker’s use of other voices points toward the constructedness of her own authorial voice (an argument that others have made, including Richard House, and some others he cites in the article linked). Similar to academics, Acker gestures toward her indebtedness to others; she just follows different rules than those we have established for academic discourse. As Stanley Fish argues here, plagiarism is a (quite serious) breach of academic decorum, but not an absolute moral failing. In different contexts with different rules of etiquette, copying, sampling, borrowing, adapting, cutting up, mashing up, can mean quite different things than they would in an academic context.

The “construct”–as a figure for texts, computer programs, selves, worlds–offers us a way to address Tyler’s astute observation about NM, that it’s hard to tell the difference between the “real” world and the “virtual” one. As we continue reading the novel, keep thinking about this issue and the specific ways it manifests. As I said at the end of class yesterday, in particular think about the AI, Wintermute, and the construct of the Dixie Flatline, as ways to contemplate the constructed nature of human character, authorial identity, physical worlds, virtual ones, and those that negotiate between the two.

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Here Beginneth Yon Web Log

January 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Welcome to the course blog for ENGL 115F, First-Year Writing Seminar at Vanderbilt University, taught by Brian Rejack (Dept. of English). The course title is “Imagining the Internet: Representations of Digital Culture.” Instead of giving a course description here (if you want that, just look at the syllabus page), I thought I would present a narrative moment from the long gestation period the course underwent in my brain.

It all began with me watching TV like a good cultural critic–that is, by snarkily scoffing at the ideological claims forwarded by advertisements that I, as a hoity-toity intellectual, was of course immune from (sarcasm comes across on the internet, right?). Here is the particular commercial that caught my attention:

I found myself simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by the ad. The attraction stemmed from the cute little kiddie drawings floating about the city, and naturally by Gene Wilder’s soothing tenor. The repulsion resulted from my cultural snobbery. What could a smartphone possibly have to do with imagination, that exalted mental faculty I have come to understand primarily through my study of the British Romantic poets? Would Keats consider playing “Angry Birds” on an iPhone an act of imagination?

After I calmed down (my students know that the first step of analysis is to suspend judgment :)), I began to think more about the relationship between imagination and the internet. Perhaps a virtual space is merely computer-assisted imagination, a new non-space of the mind in which one can form the mental pictures that characterize imagination. But then, like a good analytical reader, I went back to the commercial’s details. The people in the ad, presumably the ones imagining the cartoonish figures, are engaging in mundane tasks like doing laundry, waiting for the bus, commuting to work. Many people are carrying briefcases, and the entire ad takes place in a downtown, urban environment that seems fitting for corporate as opposed to domestic activity. And lots of activity there is! People are in cars, on buses, on bikes, walking–we even see a dog enjoying a car ride, looking wistfully out the window at one of the paper figures. Those paper figures seem envious of all that everyday human activity. The dragon rides along on the road with the cars; the fish swim behind the cyclist; the three-eyed purple creature walks along the sidewalk, hoping to be noticed by the urban professionals. Then all the imagined figures collapse, seeming to gain materiality as they do. The train crumples into the wall, and our three-eyed friend sways in the wind as it drops to the ground.

And then we see the tragic figure on whom the commercial settles. A bearded, middle-aged man in a suit and tie, with his tie loosened, hair disheveled, and posture slumped, all of which suggest fatigue, maybe even despair in the face of the corporate world he presumably inhabits daily (note the lunch, laptop and coffee–essential elements to survive the grind–placed around him on the bench, itself situated oddly amidst the urban landscape, as if it too offered some respite from the world he’ll return to after his lunch break). And then he consults his phone, and it’s back to childhood innocence, the world of pure imagination, apart from the material world and all its trappings.

The commercial presents a fairly typical view of digital culture–technology offers us escape, that escape takes a disembodied form, there is limitless possibility for expression, freedom, etc. It’s not quite as lofty as the early-90s cheerleading of virtual spaces (like Jerry Barlow’s “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”), but it operates on the same assumptions: that the internet exists apart from the world of the flesh, of commerce, of suffering, and offers an ideal world in its place.

So this brings me to my point (finally!). The Romantics (Shelley and Keats, especially) understand imagination as the mental faculty that bridges the divide between body and mind. Imagination is sensual; it’s messy; it’s dangerous; it’s revolutionary. But it is all those things because it remains attached to materiality. As Katherine Hayles and Matthew Kirschenbaum, among many others, have argued so well, much of digital culture seeks to elide completely any questions of materiality or embodiment. That’s precisely what this commercial does with imagination. Imagination is “pure,” completely apart from the world, in this ad. What might happen if we think about bodies and matter through digital spaces, as the Romantics did through imagination?

Well that’s one of the things we’ll ask in this course. First up, William Gibson’s Neuromancer, a text deeply conversant with the “prison of the flesh,” but not quite so eager to eliminate it completely.