Friday, 16 October 2009

An Experiment with Sex and Hit Counts

- the body is our general medium for having a world. sometimes it is restricted to the actions necessary for the conservation of life, and accordingly it posits around us a biological world; at other times, elaborating upon these primary actions and moving from their literal to figurative meaning, it manifests through them a core of new significance: this is true of motor skills such as dancing. sometimes, finally, the meaning aimed at cannot be achieved by the body’s natural means; it must then build itself an instrument, and it projects thereby around itself a cultural world - maurice merleau-ponty

We’ve got sash windows in our new flat, windows which rattle and clank if someone’s walking about with even the lightest step, and if I sit up from the sofa to get my coffee they give a satisfying clunk. Today I went to grab my cup just as a fly touched down on the window, which shuddered violently, and the fly bounced away, no doubt shocked at the power he wielded.

On a distinctly unrelated note I’ve started teaching again, which might feel powerful if I didn’t care so much about doing a good job. If ever there felt like something to avoid being average at it would be teaching (special mentions to brain surgery and bomb disposal).

To diffuse my fears I’ve been thinking about sex and technology. This isn’t a ruse to improve this blog’s Google rank, though I’ll let you know if I get a sudden hits spike. No, this has all been kicked of by a satisfying combination of Mark B. N. Hansen, Martin Arnold, William Carlos Williams, a dissertation on trickster myth in Ted Hughes, and getting to play with the new SONY Reader Touch, and I just thought I’d post some of the things that have been buzzing round my head as I prepare for a conference at the end of the month (I'll post the paper when it's done).

I really wanted to like SONY’s last reader, the PRS 505, but the screen’s contrast was shot, and the pages turned with what felt like a couple of seconds’ sickening wipe and refresh, a double flash that I was never going to be able to ignore. “When the pages turn faster,” I thought, “when text is black, when it doesn’t look like a breadboard mated with a calculator, then I’m in.” But that wasn’t true. I’m an annotator as well as a lover of the book form (the two, for me, being connected rather than mutually exclusive, but then I’ve always enjoyed the aesthetics and the function of a well creased spine and a dog-eared page). I knew that, really, the time when I would make the jump to digital reading would come when I could scribble on the screen, highlight passages and copy them into my essays, and most importantly turn the page with the smooth flick of a finger across a touchscreen.

How on earth is that day here already, within spitting distance of the first generation? It’s incredible, it’s marvellous, I still won’t buy one.

The problem is my life’s been ruined by experiencing the iPhone. Now nothing less than intuitive multi-touch screens with near-zero latency will impress, and that’s a long way off for eink, the only part of the SONY Reader that was really exciting in the first place. The iPhone and it’s gestural controls seem to solve many of the problems of haptic-blindness that I’ve talked about before; I think a gesture at a virtual space could be as significant as a gesture at a physical environment, at least for the limited kinesthetics of the reading experience, where the device should ideally melt away as much as possible (unless the work is deliberately, or even unintentionally, riffing on its own materiality...which I guess all texts do to some degree...hmmm).

The problem, it would seem, is it’s all about sex, or sensuality at any rate. I was reading Mark Hansen’s awesome New Philosophy for New Media when I came across this:

“As art historian Jonathan Crary has demonstrated, all of the precinematic devices involved some central element of manual action on the part of the viewer. One had to yank outward on the two strings supporting the circular face of the thaumatrope; to spin the phenakistiscope, the stroboscope, and the zootrope with one’s hand; to flip manually through the flip book; to crank the handle of the zoopraxiscope and the mutoscope; to move one’s neck and head in relation to the diorama; to walk around within the space of the panorama; and even manually to replace the slides in the stereoscope.

That these manual actions were not simply extraneous to the experience of the illusion of movement - and that they functioned precisely to render this experience a profoundly embodied one - has been suggested by film scholar Linda Williams. According to Williams, these is a sort of elective affinity between the tactile ‘interfaces’ of the precinematic devices and the pornographic image: in both cases, an experience of touch is integral to the efficacy of the visual spectacle” (pp37-38)

When I showed my students two films from Martin Arnold’s The Cineseizure (pièce touchée and Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy) for our week on Formalist criticism (there seemed no work more appropriate to demonstrate the distinctions between fabula and szujet, that form is content, and that things can be considered for their own simple beauty whilst slowly offering up unexpected complexity), it struck me just how tactile they are. Alone… is pure sex, an Oedipal nightmare on the one hand, but also featuring an at times incredibly erotically charged Judy Garland, all pouts and quivering lower lip. pièce touchée is subtler in its haptics, ending up referring to male dominion on the screen with positions and gestures, but also making the tactility of its own filmic production, and of the apparatus of film itself, radically obvious, hypermediated, with every touch and flicker of the film brought out, alongside the knowledge of just how much Arnold had to handle the work in order to bring it to the screen.

The sense of touch, as I’ve mentioned before, and will undoubtedly return to frequently on this blog, fascinates me when it comes to written texts, particularly the root problems of a missed pleasurable tactility at the heart of but-you-can’t-read-it-in-the-bath arguments against ‘technologising’ reading (as if books weren’t already deeply technical productions, though ones, I guess, of heavy touch - the finality of the printing press hitting the page, the links to the smashed keys of the typewriter, all lost now in the age of digital printing and word processing, but still lurking in the background). These might well be linked to an almost sexualised touch (“there’s something about books, the way they smell, the way the feel…”).

Richard Morgan, in his Z-movie-style cyber-trash novel Altered Carbon, does a rather stellar job of going through all the implications of ‘re-sleeving’ the human mind in a variety of bodies, and goes so far as to sex (gender) the touch of skin:

“Drunk one night, Sarah had told me Women are the race Tak. No two ways about it. Male is just a mutation with more muscle and half the nerves. Fighting, fucking machines. My own cross-sleevings had borne that theory out. To be a woman was a sensory experience beyond the male. Touch and texture ran deeper, an interface with environment that male flesh seemed to seal out instinctively. To a man, skin was a barrier, a protection. To a woman it was an organ of contact” (150)

Somewhat troubling gender politics aside, the oscillation between skin as barrier and contact point gets to the root of many of the discussions surrounding a Merleau-Pontian notion of Flesh, or a Deleuzian field of anuses, and I’m wondering at the moment whether we can ever connect with our devices, or merely have to hold them apart. Frank Wilson discusses the commitment of the external object into our bodies across history (from apes becoming ‘at-one’ with branches, to contemporary athletes and tool-users operating as if external devices were part of themselves), and it’s incredibly persuasive. But even if such an assimilation is possible with a book, can a digital screen, even one with virtual gestures, ever function in a similar fashion? And what would be the effects if so?

“When the perverse ingenuity of man has outered some part of his being in material technology, his entire sense ratio is altered. He is then compelled to behold this fragment of himself ‘closing itself as in steel.’ In beholding this new thing, man is compelled to become it” - Marshall McLuhan

For William Carlos Williams, in his story/essay/article/poem ‘Jacataqua’ (from In the American Grain) the world of machines, of technology, represented our growing puritanical/prudish fear of a tactile world:

“Machines were not so much to save time as to save dignity that fears the animate touch. It is miraculous the energy that goes into inventions here. Do you know that it now takes just ten minutes to put a bushel of wheat on the market from planting to selling, whereas it took three hours in our colonial days? That’s striking. It must have been a tremendous force that would do that. That force is fear that robs the emotions: a mechanism to increase the gap between touch and thing, not to have contact” (pp182-183)

These words of Williams' rang in my head when, during a friend’s dissertation on Ted Hughes, I came across Richard Stivers' assertion that society often sees technology and sex as fundamentally opposite: one ruthlessly efficient, the other messy and inefficient, a ‘pointless’ expense of energy if not used for procreation. I think he’s on to something. Do we want to touch the world anymore? Is the drive away from musty books to sterile screens a continuation of what Williams' saw in the industrialisation of farming? Or could it be the collapse of Stiver's binary?

The iPhone is attractive in its ‘pointlessness’, and charged with its touch; the SONY Reader Touch, despite the promise of its name, is functional, efficient technology, and the urge to touch it is minimal. This is what technology designers now have to deal with. The sexualisation of technology, crossing a gap towards making us want to touch something, is always challenging, and always feels weird. Until it doesn't.

Oh, and I was wrong, broadband is a human right



1 comment:

Bianca said...

I’m trying to get this comment out in the last 10 minutes before my boss comes back into the office, so if it doesn’t make sense, then I apologize!

Your post made me think about Merleau-Ponty's assertion that ontology is by nature sexual; all being exists as invagination, the mutuality of the caress of the flesh, as you mention. There is reference to this in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - MP section.

I’m interested in the way you a) speak of a sexual relationship with books as one of holding/possessing/taking something to us and being sensorily stimulated by this action; and b) speak in term of a dichotomy between technology (which discourages touch) and sex (which depends upon it).

In a merleau-pontian sense, at the heart of all of our intentional actions is the truth of non-intentionality. Grasping is always a matter of being absorbed, embraced, held, or engulphed. The implication of power, possession etc in sexual terms is doesn't work with such an understanding of the world because there always a flip side to any act of penetration or domination.

So the 'imperialism' of a sexual relation with books is negated by the reality of the flesh. Our encounter with books be they paper or e-texts is not so much a matter of touching/grasping them (either to hold them away or hold them to us) as existing in a mutual caress with them/each other.
And this happens not only on the level of physical touch but also on a mental or ideal level. Ideas are also a matter of the same fleshly interaction.

In this sense, merely reading off a screen without any direct tactile contact with the text is exactly the same as holding the text, marking it, feeling its pages/the screen between one's fingers. There is no difference between these interactions with the text even though there may seem to be one. The impression of sterility versus sensuality is chimera. The dynamic of caressing exists in the same degree no matter how separate text and reader seem.

What seems to me interesting about e-books you can hold is that they draw attention to this kind of contact - they make it obvious to you that you are touching the intangible. The closeness -and ultimately the interpenetration - of the material and the ideal has never been better exemplified. The make use of the perceived dichotomy between sensuality and sterility to break it down and open our eyes and bodies to the reality of inter-sub-objectivity.

Oh God my boss is here. Does that make sense at all?

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