Wednesday, 26 August 2009

the moment of choice (part ii) - 18,825 words

- i am not the wise old fish - david foster wallace -

Thought I’d better post before I headed off to London for a week. I’m moving the day after I get back and who knows when things will be sorted enough to make blogging viable. BT willing, service should remain uninterrupted, but yeah, who knows?

When I last talked about choice, I discussed the idea of (audio-/biblio-/)cinephiliac moments, and how they might be linked to a distinction between experiencing the sublime and feeling a connection with the world. The link was predicated on choice: choosing to see details instead of spectacle, choosing to find ourselves in the world, rather than other to it. I’d like to add to that discussion of choice with a consideration of elements from David Foster Wallace’s This is Water.

Delivered as a speech to the graduating students of 2005 at Kenyon College, This is Water represents a distillation of Wallace’s notion of choosing to live a compassionate life. Once he is done dissecting the traditions of the commencement speech itself, he begins to question where we get our ‘templates for belief,’ our ways of orienting ourselves to the world. These conceptions, he argues, are not somehow fixed, but selectable, programmable, and continually plastic.

The simple way to live, however, is to develop a default position that relates to the way we physically view the world due to our embodiment, the ‘ontology of our apparatus’ perhaps:

“Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default setting, hardwired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of…Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real


The importance of education for Wallace is to develop a critical awareness that tells us not what to think, but how to think, and what to think about. This education, I suspect, was not equated with the classroom in his mind, despite the graduation speech format. A ‘liberal arts’ education can, at best, introduce us to the materials which might make us see the world in a new way, to start to question our default assumptions, but the act of learning, of educating ourselves ‘how to think’ is surely the work of a life, not a degree (I digress). When we cease to make ourselves the centre of the world, apart from it, but instead look for moments of connection, and importantly for Wallace, of compassion, then we can be truly free. When someone wrongs us in some petty way, or when a grindingly mundane situation seems unbearable because of all the damn people that are making things difficult, with their stupidity, their thoughtlessness, their bile-raising selfishness, then it is only by choice, by moving away from assessing the world only in its relation to ourselves, that we can avoid becoming subdued and psychologically damaged by the everyday. We wouldn’t be asking to be walked over if we were to give people the benefit of the doubt a little (a lot?) more - maybe they’ve had a far worse day than we have; maybe this situation feels a whole lot worse for them?

The point is that “[t]his is not a matter of virtue - it’s a matter of…choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of [our] natural, hardwired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through the lens of self.” And the pay-off is profound:

“I submit that this is what the real, no-shit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out…It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars - compassion, love, the subsurface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it.”


I offer up these thoughts from This is Water because the idea of an active-compassion, a choice-based irreligious faith of sorts, is incredibly appealing to me. The world may be how we choose to see it, but we have to work hard to exercise that choice. Art is a catalyst which can make that decision making process that much easier - it opens us to new lives with its content, and new ways of seeing with its form; it forces us to slow down and consider anew. This isn’t a new way of thinking about art, of course, but maybe attempting to recognise the link between choices within art, choices about art, and choices inspired by art would be time well spent.

My previous post on choice posited that a -philiac moment was a choice to engage with detail rather than spectacle (a default position), and that to seek connection, rather than experiencing the sublime (another default), was again a choice to be made. Wallace sought to tell that room of students, and us, that the process of choice can apply to every aspect of everyday life, and that we need to teach ourselves how to make every moment a -philiac moment of sorts, a pleasure in the details that might only occur to us. If we’re lucky, that life will include abundant art works and interactions, connections, with the natural world, alongside the fitful shopping trips and office meetings where we must work hard to achieve compassion, if only to maintain our own calm and project a little back into the world.



- from some ideas about print-based thought in chapter 2 -

“In much the same way as we might look at a typical countryside image and think that it is ‘natural’, forgetting the centuries of human landscaping that have often gone into its construction, so have many readers consumed printed books, and reported that they appear to model their thoughts accurately. My contention is that, perhaps, they should have asked if their thoughts have in fact been modelled to fit the printed page. As Sergio Cicconi puts it:

‘[c]hirographic writing, and, later, typographic writing, [has] strongly modelled the organization of our thoughts, so much that now we tend to think of the linear and propositional structures of printed books as the most faithful representations of the way we organize thinking. But in spite of the paradigmatization of the ‘printed-thought’, a printed text is a very vague (and artificial) approximation of the flow of our thoughts’

We think in a ‘print’ way, not because that’s our ‘natural’ way to think, but because our society has developed a secondary heuristic of codex reading, with structures in place to select for its strengths in a very specific way. This has modelled our minds, and also our societies, so that organised, linear thought has long been prided as intellectually superior, as a sign of the brain working at its peak. New research into creativity and play has revealed what has long been appreciated by artists, designers, musicians, and anyone who produces ‘creative work’ (as if any product was ‘uncreative’) on a regular basis: linear thought is certainly rare, and probably an illusion. There is no doubt that organising one’s thoughts into a cohesive narrative is useful, and often essential, but to suggest that it’s our default, or even most productive state is a folly sustained by the equating of mental efficacy with the inflexible drive forward of the printed word"

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

you know what we do with pirates - 12,809 words

- under capitalism all production is for the market; goods are produced not in order to meet human needs and desires, but for the sake of profit, for the sake of acquiring further capital - j.m. bernstein -

- copyright law…[is] not a set of constant commitments that, for some mysterious reason, teenagers and geeks now flout - lawrence lessig -

I wasn't going to start writing about copyright on here until after Christmas when I began to tackle the subject in my thesis writing. But two stories on Wired today changed my mind.

The first detailed the new piece of anti-piracy propaganda from The Business Software Alliance. A YouTube video in the style of MSNBC's To Catch a Predator, the clip initally presents itself as a cringeworthy parody - a man, dressed in full pirate garb, goes to a woman's house to illegally copy software. The anchor interrupts him eating cookies, after promising the audience that we're going to see him catch "a real sicko," and interrogates the 'pirate' until he leaves the house, embarassed and which point he is violently forced to the floor at gunpoint by two police officers and arrested. The first line of the Wired article reads: "The Business Software Alliance has a new anti-piracy video that for the first time uses humor instead of scare tactics to get out its message."

First off, it seems weird that the BSA would even want to associate itself with To Catch a Predator's entrapment-for-entertainment schtick. But, far more terrifyingly, this is the content industry's soft and fluffy approach: 'sick' pirates should be treated like sexual predators, with all of the violence, lazy moralising, and disregard for human rights that has become de rigueur in the wake of much of the media's coverage of such cases. This is the cult of fear as quantum leap: by explicitly associating simplistic archetypes our revulsion is meant to kick in - who'd want to be a pirate, they're paedophiles!

Ok, so it's not as one-to-one as that, but you get the idea. And at the very very least, the notion that potential software pirates should be ever held at gunpoint, especially before they've even copied something, is just vile.

So, article #2, published on Wired about an hour earlier. "7 Good Reasons to Switch to Windows 7". Number 4:

Yarr! We know there are plenty of you out there downloading pirated digital booty, especially in Windows land. But it’s never been convenient to be a pirate compared with being a paying customer. For example, if you’re a legitimate buyer purchasing movies off iTunes, you can easily stream your media to your legitimately purchased Apple TV. If you’re a pirate, you’d have to go through roundabout programs and hardware to re-create the experience.

Windows 7 is an OS practically made for pirates. Want to display your movies, photos or music on your TV? Bam! Windows Media Player will do that out of the box if you have a Wi-Fi enabled TV, or an Xbox. No extra programs to install: Windows Media Player seamlessly communicates with your Wi-Fi device to display your illegal content in all its glory on your fancy HD TV.

And sharing media is easy, too. Want to download all of your brother’s music? Bam! HomeGroup, an easy networking feature included in Windows 7, will make that super easy between computers running the OS. Immediately upon plugging in to your network with Ethernet or Wi-Fi, HomeGroup will ask if you wish to join the group on the network, allowing you to set up easy file sharing in minutes.

And I agree - all of this must have been on Microsoft's mind. Items which faciliate piracy, or encourage it, even tacitly, sell well. The largest capacity iPod is currently at 160GB of memory. That's about 40,000 songs, or 3300 odd albums at 12 tracks an album. Average price of £10 an album... I guess you can put films on there, about 50 of them, but unless you download them from the Apple store you have to copy your own DVDs which is, notoriously, a bit of a grey area.

Microsoft know that piracy sells, and they have wisely implemented systems which facilitate it in their new product. Yes, of course there are legitimate uses for the new technology, but Microsoft well know the power and popularity of piracy, of course they do. After all they, along with Apple, are active members of the BSA...



- from the 2nd section on copyright -

"Through recent changes to the fabric of the law - changes made in response to the percieved threat of digitised media by a collection of few artists, many distributors, and a terrifyingly small amount of corporations and the reactionary policies that they have succeeded in getting enacted - textual scholars are being inhibited by a scared minority from within the content industry. But, increasingly, ‘textual scholars’ just means ‘people.’ As we have seen, many consumers are beginning to view, criticise, interact with, and even produce our culture's texts, and on an increasingly influential scale. The work of textual scholarship can equate to the leisure time of anyone who wants to become involved in the work, meaning that the fears and restrictions of academics can now belong to everyone"

Monday, 17 August 2009

the moment of choice (part i) - 12,809 words

- glaucous den - james joyce -

I’d have posted sooner, but I got bitten by something strange and ended up in A&E with my ankle feeling (and looking) like it was making a bid for freedom. No idea what got me, but I’d avoid it if I were you (suggestions of vampirism have been much appreciated by the way).


A notion of choice has increasingly been on my mind. I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while now: a few weeks back Matthew linked me to this great post on Dylan Triggs’s ‘Side Effects’ blog, a piece on the attempt to reconcile a classical notion of a dis-corporealised sublime moment, a moment of our being ‘lost in the object of contemplation’, with an always-embodied conception of being that we read in the later Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Trigg suggests that the classical sublime moment is a moment of ‘wild-body’, a temporary return to a pre-refelctive mode of being. But, he wonders, if we are always embodied, and the body is always cognitively and culturally constructed, then how might the personal (baggage) become the anonymous (uncannily baggage-less in the face of the wilderness (wilderness?)) in a sublime moment?

Using the opening sequence of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God as a case-study of sorts, he concludes:

“At first, the impression of this scene can be formulated as thus: human being, finite and egotistical, swallowed by the infinite and boundless grip of the surrounding world, the result of which instigates an aesthetic of the sublime in the viewer attending to this movement. Human being is literally dwarfed by the mountains, with all that is peculiar to human life…smouldered in the foggy presence of the Amazonian mountains. But this formula lends itself to the desire of the viewer, pre-empting the sublime in advance. Recall Merleau-Ponty: ‘There is a fundamental narcissism of all vision.’ The scene is too easily read as a classical vision of the sublime. But if we reformulate the opening as less a mode of human life colonised by barren, anonymous wilderness and more as a scene of deep ambiguity between the microcosmic animation of human movement and the colossal stillness of the mountain, then the result is more of a hybrid…As a viewer, the landscape touches a part of our embodied being that was there all along, and this is the flesh coming alive - a sentiment that is best expressed in Merleau-Ponty’s claim that ‘It is impossible to say that nature ends here and that man…starts here.’”

There seems, to me, to be a choice here, a choice not to find something sublime, that is rather appealing. To give in to a feeling of the sublime is to give in to a duality of self and other, where your self is temporarily dispersed (or threatened) by the process of observation. It’s as if you were made of different stuff to the world, and the world was suddenly able to discombobulate your stuff by simply being. This is the ‘narcissim of vision’ - why are we so other to the world, and the world to us, that we should fear destruction via sight? Reconfiguring the sublime moment as a moment of tremendously powerful connection, trying to find, actively seeking, the shared ground between the awe-inspiring in nature and the tininess of ourselves is at once enormously empowering, and also a stance which leads to understanding and commonality, things which are crucial to a sustainable engagement with the world around us. We’re made of the same stuff; it’s impossible to say where one ends and the other starts.

This started me thinking that this moment in Herzog, as it is outlined by Trigg, is linked somehow to the notion of a ‘cinephiliac moment'. In discussing its conception within Christian Keathley’s Cinephilia and History, Or The Wind in the Trees, Girish describes the cinephiliac moment not as a moment of drama, or spectacle, but as those “small, marginal moments that detonate an unforgettable little frisson in the viewer…[T]hey are fleeting ‘privileged’ moments writ small that we find ourselves strongly attracted to, perhaps even disproportionately so given their scale and possible (lack of) intention”.

One of Girish’s descriptions of his own such moment is worth keeping in mind as an example:

“Jean-Paul Belmondo is driving his babysitter Anna Karina home in Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou (1965). They’re having a long conversation, but I can never remember what it’s about even though I’ve seen the film three or four times. Here’s why: The streetlights passing by are reflected on the windshield in crisp, crackling colors - electric blue, flaming yellow, tart orange - moving diagonally across the windshield like little comets, one every few seconds. It’s so visually gorgeous, and hypnotic - due to its metronomic regularity - that I find myself doing little more than following the shifts of color and light that streak across the car, forgetting all about story, character and dialogue for the rest of the scene”

As to whether there are audio-/bibliophiliac moments of a similar order, I would utter a tentative ‘yes’. I see an easy(ish) similarity in those moments in music where it isn’t the melody or the lyrics that are hitting home, but instead the way a musician is phrasing a line, or the tone of a trumpet that is achieved, the little extra bits that only matter to you, and that amaze you all the more if you come across someone else who loves them for the same reason. The bibliophiliac moment is, by its nature, different I think. There’s less scope for accident or serendipity in the written text, every word has been chosen carefully, and there is nothing on the page extraneous to the writing which might affect us in the same way as the above examples (typos and printing/binding errors aren’t really of the same order; I think it’s unlikely that such a vertiginous effect could be produced by their appearance, though not impossible. Even so, they remain somewhat apart from this discussion; I would not describe the play of light on the ice-cream cart’s umbrella as a cinephiliac moment, even though it may occur in the cinema and have a profound effect upon your viewing). The ‘moment’ as we’re discussing it seems best defined as a superficially minor event within the text that resonates with us disproporionately to what would be its generally percieved relative weight, part of the effect of which is peculiar to the medium in which it is delivered - the serendipitous play of light on a windscreen in a film, the way a trumpet player bends, just so, into his high C in a piece of music.

So what of writing? I think there’s more work which has to be done on the reader’s part to produce such a moment. The writer provides us with a space which can be peculiarly fertile for our own creativity, so that a certain play of words might stand out to us irrespective of their narrative drive, or of their existence as a programmed article of imagery, but they cannot choose to include these sequences, they cannot even know that they are there. No doubt Godard knew the lights on the windscreen were beautiful, but he could not have predicted their effect on Girish; their presence in the film is incidental to their effect. In a book, however, the writer sets up a host of windscreens to which we must provide the hypnotic little comets; they are never on the page. My own most recent example came from Jacques Derrida’s Memoirs of the Blind: Self-Portraits and Other Ruins:

“The author of Ulysses, after having written his own odyssey (itself haunted by a ‘blindman’), ends his life almost blind, one cornea operation after another. Hence the themes of the iris and glaucoma pervade Finnegans Wake (‘…the shuddersome spectacle of this semidemente zany amid the inspissated grime of his glaucous den making believe to read his usylessly unreadable Blue Book of Eccles, édition de ténèbres...’)”

The lines from Joyce, contextualised by Derrida, just stopped me, and I read these few sentences over and over, enjoying their weight, not just their meaning. Two words, ‘glaucous den,’ still haven’t left my head, and they continue to bounce between meaning a beautiful description of blindness, and an oddly bodily-yellow lit small room, a room the colour of the insides of cataracts. A bibliophiliac moment I think, a moment that could only be produced by a book, as indeed all of the word play in the above quotation is in part based on how it looks on the page as much as in our heads.

To return to Trigg’s example of Herzog’s opening scene, it is not really a cinephiliac moment in this sense; the scene is clearly designed to impact upon the viewer, rather than it being a small moment stumbled upon and with its meaning (or maybe ‘meaningfullness’) largely ascribed by the individual. But the ‘small’ cinephiliac moment, in the same way as the decision not to view the mountain’s image as sublime, also seems to be a moment of choice. It’s the choice not to be lost in spectacle, but to revel in the detail, and as such I think that it stands equally well against the sublime as a messy zone of connection, rather than a concrete division between ourselves and the other which we are bowled over by.

This notion of choice has increasingly been on my mind. I’ll pick it up again next week.



- from a paragraph on touch in chapter 2 -

“When we remove our ‘tactile observation’, it is a unique and very human kind of blindness which we need to fear. When we read The Diving Bell and the Butterfly it is Jean-Dominique Bauby’s paralysis which stays with us, not the sewing shut of his left eye. Tales of the blind, for all their ability to scare us, for all their links to a Freudian castration complex, hold none of the horror of a true loss of touch, not just a numbness of the hands, but a removal of the skin from our sensation. To touch is never in our control - we touch against our will - always maintaining a point in pressure with something, hence the fascination with temporary escape: acrobatics, zero-gravity, or the weightlessness of floating in a heavily-salted sea (though none of these represent a true loss of touch or else they would become grotesque, the feel of the air, our clothes, the water keep us, forgive the word, grounded). Never in our control, but for the most part controlled (what is pain but excessive touching, or the echo of a misplaced touch?). No wonder that so many avid readers, so many holders of printed books, feel that they must speak out - do they subconsciously fear that the new technology might make us, if not paralysed, then haptically blind?”

Friday, 7 August 2009

annoying things - 9119 words

- drinkingeveryoneofhiswordsinonegulp - julio cortazar -

My computer decided to switch itself off without warning today. This has led to me spending more time backing work up than writing it. I'm sure typewriters aren't this terrifying.

N. Katherine Hayles' Electronic Literature is possibly the best book I've read on theorising the new technologies of reading. I'm only halfway through.

It keeps getting better too.

My research crosses some of the same territories, and Hayles' work has started to help shape some of my arguments by carving a real divide between works that originate in print and abide by 'bookish' rules, and works that are 'digitally-native', operating by rules which are emergent in these early days of 'electracy'.

With this opposition subconsciously acting as a framing device I began to realise, though I guess I always knew, that my own work is concerned with the books that fall in between, the books with multiple bodies, books that were originally printed and have become digitised, or work that has only ever existed online but appears in recognisably print-like configurations, books that feel that they have to mimic books because the new medium unsettles things. I want to tell you how these books might function in this liminal state; I want to show you the(/a) history of how they got to this place, and why I believe that we need to know that history in order to fully understand what's going on with digital texts; I want to show you what effects all of this might have on the ways in which we cognise, think philosophically, and administer our legal practice. Only another 90,000 words to go...

I'm glad to say that Hayles and I have something in common: we both write about printed works which bear hallmarks of the new digital world. As such, and as people with excellent taste, we choose to write about Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves from time to time, some of us with more critical acclaim than others...



- from chapter 2 (Heidegger's Being and Time is on its way; his notion of 'readiness-to-hand' will make an appearance in this discussion in the future) -

"The revolutions of both photography and film led to a belief that they were able to apprehend reality without mediation (to such a degree that photographs were initially refused the protection of copyright as the image had been created by the reflection and capture of light, a scientific, rather than artistic, endeavour). To borrow from Bolter and Grusin's Remediation, this is transparency produced by novelty, and it has come with every revolution in visual media, from perspective painting to virtual reality, only to be, almost instantly, irrevocably diminished by hypermediacy, the other pole of observation where the eye behind the lens, the brushstroke, the hand on the camera becomes the object of focus. From this point onwards, a point of realisation, the viewer can only ever oscillate between these two states, as someone with their nose pressed to the glass might go cross-eyed to see the dirt on the window to the world.

Transparency via ubiquity comes about when an object is used so often, and is so suited to the task at hand, that it becomes functionally invisible to the user. Whether this is the tennis player whose racquet becomes an extension of her arm, or the photographer who is as happy looking through his lens as through his eyes, ubiquity or internalisation of a technology can produce a powerful effect of media transparency.

Linked to ubiquity is what I will necessarily term ‘intuitiveness’. This form of transparency occurs when a new object immediately melts away from observation, again from its prodigious suitability to the task required of it. This is the transparency to which the designers of most mainstream technology aspire: for a user to pick up their new item, be it a phone, a camera, or a car, and either through analogy (such as computer icons resembling the real-world things they designate, such as calculators, desktops, or paintbrushes), conformity (following the lead of prior technologies), or some other logic (the ergonomic requirements of the average hand for example), instinctively know how that device is going to function.

Codices have almost certainly never produced the brief and profound hit of transparency through novelty; by its very nature written language always produces a very obvious wall of mediation which must be deciphered, and even the expert reader must take some time over an unfamiliar sentence. I have no doubt, however, that a book’s contents have elicited this feeling; be it a poem which seems to transcend its language, or a novel which transports us to another place to be amongst very real people, readers are rarely privileged to forget all that is around us, and all that we hold in our hands. This, however, is never an effect of the medium itself - the book is something to transgress, not something with which to be transported."