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Monthly Archives: October 2015

I am curious about how Deleuze and Guattari’s 1980 depiction of the rhizome connects to the cybernetic discourses that according to Hayles, are founded upon “a conceptualization that sees information and materiality as distinct entities.” (12)  This is not to suggest that Deleuze and Guattari are explicitly interested in the disembodiment of information, but rather that elements of their focus on rhizomatic processes point towards a disinterest in the embodiment of information.  As Deleuze and Guattari state in the introduction, “We will ask what it [a book] functions with, in connection with what other things it does or does not transmit intensities….” (4)  Similarly, in understanding language, they shift focus from individuals to discourses: “There are no individual statements, only statement-producing machinic assemblages.” (36)  Therefore, Deleuze and Guattari are examining the interconnected functions of nodes within a network and neglecting both internal ontological questions and actions within the nodes.  This focus on function seems to me to be similar to the black box analogies that Hayles identifies as allowing for posthuman thinking.  

This is not necessarily to say that Hayles could not be siding with Deleuze and Guattari regarding the potential of rhizomatic/posthuman thinking.  In reference to the posthuman, Hayles states that, “For some people, including me, the posthuman evokes the exhilarating prospect of getting out of some of the old boxes and opening up new ways of thinking about what being human means.” (285)  For Hayles, the dangers of posthuman thinking come with its integration into liberal humanism.  Throughout A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guattari resist liberal humanism; the second sentence, for example, states that “each of us was several.” (3)  Perhaps Deleuze and Guattari, in decidedly moving away from liberal humanism, are instead providing for a posthumanism that Hayles would appreciate?

This week, I was interested in Fanon & Lyotard’s conceptualizations of language (particularly, of “language games”), and how they might complicate or extend the way we’ve been discussing language in class. Lyotard’s sees language games (borrowed from Wittgenstein, a term describing the different categories of utterance and the “rules specifying their properties and the uses to which they can be put”) as foundational to any social relationship: “the question of the social bond, insofar as it is a question, is itself a language game, the game of inquiry. It immediately positions the person who asks, as well as the addressee and the referent asked about: it is already the social bond” (10, 15). Fanon gives this focus on language games and their positioning of subjects a concrete instantiation in his description of black men’s relationship to their colonizers: “to speak is to exist absolutely for the other,” he writes, and continues: “To speak means to be a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization” (8).

 

On one hand, these points seem completely in step with the logic of cybernetics: language, and the messages sent between actors in a society, are considered to be of primary importance for understanding how that society functions. But Lyotard moves in a different direction, arguing that the transmission of information is not the point: “It is clear that what is important is not simply the fact that they communicate information. Reducing them to this function is to adopt an outlook which unduly privileges the system’s own interests and point of view” (16). And a second point: language’s underlying agonistic function is missed by cybernetics. Lyotard employs the idea of “moves” and “countermoves,” which are not simply messages, but affect the positions of the addressee or sender or referent. Returning to Fanon — he sees talking down to a black man as something that involves a recasting of positions: “To make him talk pidgin is to fasten him to the effigy of him, to snare him, to imprison him, the eternal victim of an essence, of an appearance for which he is not responsible” (22). Fastening, imprisoning, snaring: using this speech is an act of positioning, of enforcing an order.
Wiener and the cyberneticians see human language as a specific instance of an information/communication process that can be generalized to any transmission of information. I’m wondering if this view is as incompatible with Lyotard’s as he suggests it is: is cybernetics’ focus on homeostasis an implicit endorsement of the system’s goals and point of view? Does it make sense to say that a system has a “goal” in cybernetics?

How can dance and myth challenge established definitions of knowledge?

Some topics presented in the readings this week dealt with how can a culture define itself, and how can a counter-definition to an established notion of knowledge be constructed? This is something that seems very relevant to all of us, especially when we consume sources of online information, sometimes without acknowledging who agreed this source was legitimate. Also, how is it possible that a culture define itself without relation to other cultures in a networked and linked society?

Firstly, we should look at role and dentition of knowledge in a place that has undergone colonization by an external culture. After reading both of Fanon’s pieces, I struggled to relate the content to what we are learning in this course, but then encountering Lyotard’s arguments on the origins of knowledge, I decided to revisit Fanon to ask: where does the definition of knowledge come from? It made a lot more sense in relation to our topics of discourse and information. I feel like Fanon would agree with Lyotard in that knowledge is constructed and that its definition is set by the white scholars of his time, as he points out that most things are defined next a white standard. But how is this power, that defines what knowledge is, questioned?

(One of) the answers to this seems to lie in both dance and myth. This may seem unexpected, and peculiar, but to me it instantly made my think of the Nicaraguan play, El Güegüense. Fanon explains how both dance and myth subvert the power of colonization by reinforcing culture and taking the power (and fear) associated with the colonists and putting it in myths.

“The supernatural, magical powers reveal themselves as essentially personal; the settler’s powers are infinitely shrunken, stamped with their alien origin. We no longer really need to fight against them since what counts is the frightening enemy created by myths.” (Fanon, 56)

El Güegüense is a comedy written by an indigenous Nicaraguan. In the mythic story, a smart man ends of tricking Spanish colonists and avoids paying taxes to the Spanish crown.

“The circle of the dance is a permissive circle: it protects and permits.” (Fanon, 57)

In el El Güegüense, and in the Nicaraguan performance traditions, there is a dance called Palo de Mayo, which is similar to the May Pole dance, but is native to Afro-Caribbiean culture. The circle created by the dancers reminds me so much of Fanon’s description. Fanon’s pieces made me reconsider aspects of my own culture (such as the origin of myth) and I’m so glad that I have read this perspective. (Is it ok that I take his readings out of the French context though?)

These myths and dances seem to be related to performances- ways we can either reinforce or subvert established forms of knowledge.

Many posts already seem to focus on Lyotard or start from there so I will be focusing primarily on Fanon. In light of Fanon’s pieces I think a particular narrative to be pulled apart is that of nonviolence and the way that it is “an imaginary resolution of real contradictions.” On the one hand nonviolence is touted as the colonized and the colonizers sitting around the table to renegotiate a compromise peacefully, while on the other it is part and parcel of the violence of colonialism and its legitimation, i.e. expansion westward is nonviolent because of course Native peoples are non-sentient savages undeserving of this land they occupy while use of force to remove them is our right, slavery is nonviolent because the black is non-sentient object of property and the force used is necessary to get that property to yield properly to the will of the master.

As Black Skins, White Masks may attest, the situation for Black people or the colonized more generally is one of violence all around, it is a condition of violence where agency and subjectivity can be given or taken at will rather than something one just has and enacts through some kind of self-possession. Living through the other, the white, the colonizer, is a condition of violence in itself and so it ought to strike as odd the notion that such a contradiction could be resolved “”non-violently”” as though what is and has occurred was already not violent and it is the acts of the colonized to ‘put the last first’ which instantiate the violence by throwing the first stone; as though the question were not ‘how to stop this spiral of colonial violence once and for all’ and instead ‘how to control these savages from becoming violent and disturbing our peace.’ Non-violence itself then covers over the contradictions inherent in the colonial condition in order to imagine peaceful resolution of domination, not through its overthrow and destruction but through its negotiation and maintenance.

Fanon’s focus on the colonized intellectual seems to fit in well here where they are so caught up in western narratives of progress, totality, science, the self-invested subject, etc. that they can hardly grasp the rage and terror with which their brethren tear through the colonial regime except with shock and awe. The intellectual is perhaps the only one to whom the violence exploding from colonial situation is a surprise, them being the only ones to whom the narrative of nonviolence is primarily addressed and assimilated eagerly. The colonial bourgeoisie and the colonists themselves, as well as the mass of the colonized on the other side are all quite aware of the brutal repression and violence such a system of colonial rule requires (though this begs the further question of what other forms of contradiction resolution and legitimation through narrative can we locate between the time of the book’s writing and today when we can imagine ourselves as beyond colonialism in this brutal form. Violence today does seem to be quite an impossible answer to the question of racial subordination.) It is only the colonized intellectual who has been made to forget, anesthetized by colonial narratives.

“Now that we have got him to the dock, let him sail; we shall see him again. For the moment, let us go to welcome one of those who are coming home. The “newcomer” reveals himself at once; he answers only in French, and often he no longer understands Creole. There is a relevant illustration in folklore. After several months of living in France, a country boy returns to his family. Noticing a farm implement, he asks his father, an old don’t-pull-that-kind-of-thing-on-me peasant, “Tell me, what does one call that apparatus?” His father replies by dropping the tool on the boy’s feet, and the amnesia vanishes. Remarkable therapy.” (Black Skins, White Masks 13)

A separate question however that is posited by this exchange of memory is how simple it is to say that the colonized mass can simply deny, resist, or ‘throw up’ the narratives of western colonial powers. What does one forget and what does one remember in is place?

“The violence with which the supremacy of white values is affirmed and the aggressiveness which has permeated the victory of these values over the ways of life and of thought of the native mean that, in revenge, the native laughs in mockery when Western values are mentioned in front of him. In the colonial context the settler only ends his work of breaking in the native when the latter admits loudly and intelligibly the supremacy of the white man’s values. In the period of decolonization, the colonized masses mock at these very values, insult them, and vomit them up.” (Wretched of the Earth, 43)

This would require some situation, which we surely don’t find in the case of many colonized peoples today, where the intellectual and cultural traditions of the colonized group are exclusively separable from the “fake ideology” of the colonizers and that there would be a way to definitively separate the two kinds of narratives like oil from water. It also requires a kind of equivalence where one can hold onto one or the other without any real difference; one remembers where they are from or they are steeped in eurocentrism but one is necessarily able to do either one. In contrast it seems if we are breaking from the narrative that totalized ‘people’s’ exist then it seems that this ‘teeming mass’ is itself a creation which covers over the contradictions inherent in any actual mass of human beings. Further it seems that one is not so much able to vomit back up colonial narratives since they are a part of the ways colonized peoples develop their subjectivity even if it is circumscribed. These narratives are something to be negotiated rather than pitted one against the other and chosen between.

Beyond the idea of vomiting up colonial mentalities it might make sense then to focus instead on the move to decolonization as one where the needs and desires of the mass of people overwhelm the ability of the properly political to incorporate them, to make them apart of the colonial meta-narrative in the way freed slaves in the confederacy joined the union army. The failure of narrative is then a decolonial move in one sense as it moves for a contradiction that cannot be resolved and a breakdown of the political, the sensible, and the totalized. To put the first last and the last first one has to break the meta-narrative of the political (since the ‘real reason’ is always white reason) and advance something beyond its scope and outside of its possibility. The question of sovereignty, the denaturalizing of racial categories and the re-inscription of autonomous political ones is a way of understanding what such a breakdown of the political might look like today considering the ongoing march of colonial legacies and racial violence.

A different question along with Myles then is to ask “who has access to this move?” Is the explosion of the political too late or too early? If the decolonial process is something ‘the people’ can just feel as they cross that boundary of irrevocable change then how could one get to that deferred/missed moment of explosion?

On a larger ethical level, I would also say I find it inappropriate to locate decolonization today as being about a self-possessed subject on the internet considering as we have already gone over that most of the world has no access to the internet and the battles fought there presume first a destruction and violence in the real world. I also find it inappropriate and itself racist or at the very least symptomatic of the climate of color-blind racial violence in America to dislocate Fanon from talking about Black and Indigenous people’s actual fights against colonial rule and viewing his arguments as being figurative or pliable to some universalizable and raceless subject. I hope this can be addressed in seminar.

Last week we ended one of the rounds of the in-class multi-tier discussion with Marlena’s question of what gives design its validity.

I think validity goes hand-in-hand with the questions of legitimation that Lyotard discusses in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. In discussing an alternative way of legitimation he opposes the way scientific knowledge is legitimized through metanarratives to the narrative function and the method of parology.

“The mode of legitimation we are discussing, which reintroduces narrative as the validity of knowledge, can thus take two routes, depending on whether it represents the subject of the narrative as cognitive or practical, as a hero of knowledge or a hero of liberty. Because of this alternative, not only does the meaning of legitimation vary, but it is already apparent that narrative itself is incapable of describing that meani­ng adequately” (31).

I guess the very preoccupation with validity/legitimation is in Lyotard’s view the characteristic of scientific knowledge approach. If validity is linked to consensus, then I think an interesting link can be drawn to about design. Can we say that in postmodern design validity lies in parology rather then consensus? When we talked last week the question of validity in design stemmed from Orit Halpern’s discussion of IBM offices. It seems as if it is easier to assess the case studies used in the book in terms of pragmatics, aesthetics and reasoning. Just as with the book structure itself, the emphasis was on the emerging from the informational deluge patterns. But isn’t that a case om reliance on metanarrative Lyotard deems outdated? With things like speculative and critical design can we say that we moved on towards parology? Or do we still rely on patterns of juxtaposition and prediction? Are these systems, namely of criticism and analysis, what gives design its validity?

Last week I touched upon the visualization as a part of passport control. William S. Burroughs essay “Electronic Revolution” has a fascinating foray into that:

“Whatever you may be, you are not the verbal labels in your passport anymore than

you are the word “self.” So you must be prepared to prove at all times that you are what you are not.” (34). Burroughs has also fascinating lines of playback. Playback is very different from feedback and to me has a parallel to Lyotard’s distinction between parology and consensus.

Burroughs in a delightfully didactic manner equates playback with GOD (or the tape recorder 3, the playback and “reality”) (12). Is legitimation/validity the playback you must be prepared to prove at all times that you are not?

 

 

Even more delightfully didactic Burroughs on a (less) relevant subject:

 

In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard’s argument hinges at once on the use and contextualization of linguistic games, the self-perpetuating legitimization of science, and the metatextual and historical narratives that surround science and its values. “It is not inconceivable that the recourse to narrative is inevitable,” Lyotard writes, “at least to the extent that the language game of science desires statements to be true but does not have the resources to legitimate their truth on its own.” In the wake of this, the pragmatics of scientific knowledge that need proof will eventually turn suspicion on the viability of proof itself. When proof is called into question, metanarratives, such as that which relates science to human emancipation and enlightenment, become necessary to legitimate science.

Lyotard goes on to argue that narrative statements, however, though similar to scientific ones, operate in a subtly different way. While scientific statements are totalizing and universalizing, claiming truth “to the exclusion of all other statements,” narrative statements attain their worth based on a set of criteria contingent on the culture within which they exist. This would suggest that the evaluation and prescription of narrative statements will vary based on culture and history. I do not think that Lyotard is necessarily freeing narrative “utterances” from the burden of proof, but instead realizing that by nature of their prescriptive/evaluative relation to the subject, such statements require a more complicated form of proof than their denotative scientific counterparts.

I do think that we might need to complicate this distinction between denotative and prescriptive/evaluative statements, especially in light of Fanon. Does a supposedly denotative statement at some point begin to become “evaluative” in a culturally specific manner? And what exactly differentiates the denotative “truth” of a scientific statement from other narrative judgments of the aesthetic or ethical value of a specific observable aspect of reality? While Lyotard emphasizes the form of language acts, he seems to in many ways ignore their denotative ability, which ultimately ignores the effects that such language struggles can bring about in the real world through epistemological violence. Here I believe we must turn to Fanon’s understanding of “irrationality,” of the reality that defies “truth” and even language. Do narrative and scientific statements look so different from the perspective of an individual who cannot inhabit either? Is this perhaps the point at which denotative statements slip into evaluative ones?

I am interested in how Lyotard’s notion of paralogy as a “move … played in the pragmatics of knowledge” (61) and Fanon’s rhetorical “unreason” in Black Skin, White Masks resonate with each other. In the chapter “The Fact of Blackness,” Fanon cites Léopold Senghor’s description of “rhythm in its primordial purity” found in “the masterpieces of Negro art” and describes throwing himself “back toward” unreason“I had rationalized the world and the world had rejected me on the basis of color prejudice. Since no agreement was possible on the level of reason, I threw myself back toward unreason … Out of the necessities of my struggle I had chosen the method of regression, but the fact remained that it was an unfamiliar weapon” (93).

And yet, Fanon is unable to completely “regress,” for the white man rationalizes Fanon’s unreason, telling Fanon that he is “so real in [his] life,” and that Fanon “reconciles” the white man to himself because he can run away from his “ritualized, polite civilization” through the black, child-like “adorably expressive faces” (101). Fanon writes, “Thus, my unreason was countered with reason, my reason with ‘real reason.’ Every hand was a losing hand for me” (Ibid).

Fanon’s description of only having the option of playing “losing hands” can be put into conversation with Lyotard’s theorization of paralogy as making new moves in the language game, as changing the rules, and as a mode of approaching justice without consensus. Lyotard argues that the goal of dialogue is not consensus but paralogy (66), writing, “The function of the differential or imaginative or paralogical activity of the current pragmatics of science is to point out these metaprescriptives (science’s ‘presuppositions’) and to petition the players to accept different ones” (65).

If paralogy is not about the maximization of performance (Lyotard 60)—which, for technical devices means efficiency or the maximum output with the minimal input—how do inefficiency and the discourse of losing illuminate processes and strategies of decolonization? What possibilities are offered by interfacing colonial, metaprescriptives with unreason and/as paralogy? Is the colonized/oppressed’s “unreason” always appropriated by authoritative “real reason,” or can playing a losing hand create new terms for the game?

Since taking Digital Media, I’ve been haunted by the question of what it means to be a self and what it means to be a body in a digital sphere. In Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge he presents the modern self as “A self does not amount to much, but no self is an island; each exists in a fabric of relations that is now more complex and mobile than ever before…one is always located at a post through which various kinds of messages pass” (15). Indeed, he equates this self to merely a node in a network of other selves. Is he suggesting that one cannot be a self without other selves?

I was fascinated when he went on to explain the role of the self in a communication network of selves. He states: “one’s mobility in relation to these language game effects (language games, of course, are what this is all about) is tolerable, at least within certain limits (and the limits are vague); it is even solicited by regulatory mechanisms, and in particular by the self-adjustments the system undertakes in order to improve its performance. It may even be said that the system can and must encourage such movement to the extent that it combats its own entropy; the novelty of an unexpected “move,” with its correlative displacement of a partner or group of partners, can supply the system with that increased performativity it forever demands and consumes” (15). The concept of a system combatting its own entropy is quite curious. Is this even possible?

How do I deal with the brokenness of everything? Reading The Postmodern Condition, I was totally struck by Lyotard’s claim, “the continuous differentiable function is losing its preeminence as a paradigm of knowledge and prediction.” (60) I’m not sure that I get anything out of this that I don’t get out of Terranova’s nonlinearity of the micro/macro, but it’s a handy metaphor: derivatives are an aggregation, a reduction of dimension, so the claim that continuous differentiable functions are the exception, not the rule, implies that the macro, the aggregate view, the approximation of a more complex system, is usually missing something: the system is rarely stable. The “islands of determinism” model allows us to understand how the macro is sometimes adequate, and that its adequacy varies across the domain of the function.

 

Lyotard calls for parology, destabilizing the island of determinism: the improbable? Who has access to such a move? When Fanon writes, “to shatter the hellish cycle, he explodes” (107), this seems to be an entirely non-parological response to the harsh rigidity of social territories, insofar that Fanon is explicitly not making a move: “the first impulse of the black man is to say no” (23). Lyotard mentions that ‘the system’ might stifle a scientist who makes too radical a move, but less clear is his analysis of those who are never allowed to make a move in the first place. “It is in its nature to induce new requests meant to lead to a redefinition of the norms of ‘life’” (63) Lyotard writes that rehumanization “at a different level of normative capacity” follows dehumanization. What does this mean?

 


 

Nevertheless with all my strength I refuse to accept that amputation. I feel in myself a soul as immense as the world, truly a soul as deep as the deepest of rivers, my chest has the power to expand without limit. I am a master and I am advised to adopt the humility of the cripple. Yesterday, awakening to the world, I saw the sky turn upon itself utterly and wholly. I wanted to rise, but the disemboweled silence fell back upon me, its wings paralyzed. Without responsibility, straddling Nothingness and Infinity, I began to weep.

– BSWM 108

 

Here, Thomas’ note, “violence is figured as an atmospherics”, calls out to me: for Fanon, the violence (the gap between continuous and discrete?) has permeated even the sky, turning on itself like the gnashing of teeth. Gazing upon this horror, Fanon weeps, another null move.

I took particular interest in the notion of subjectivity across the pieces this week. Lyotard introduces subjectivity in relation to knowledge in the postmodern age. Essentially, how knowledge is disseminated, and how various communities interpret/view/value/act on that knowledge reflects the differences between said communities. Lyotard explains: “The true goal of the system, the reason it programs itself like a computer, is the optimization of the global relationship between input and output — in other words, performativity” (11). How a community performs knowledge internally and externally determines that society’s optimization, or how it achieves the “goal” of simply existing as a society. Thus, Lyotard continues, consider the Allegory of the Cave. The inhabitants of the cave recognize and interpret objects entirely differently than the Philosopher King, or the individual who is enlightened/exists outside of the cave. That difference between the two (the basic difference of where the two societies are positioned to interpret knowledge) thereby determines their subjectivity. Particularly in an overall assessment of global networks and interactions, an understanding of that difference becomes crucial in understanding not only the interaction between the societies, but even in understanding the societies themselves on an individual level.

Fanon posits that (particularly in the relationship between the colonizer and colonized) the juxtaposition, comparison, or relationship between the two groups determines the subjectivity of interpretation and understanding. Especially in the shifting nature of relationships in decolonization, the particular position that a group occupies in relationship to another determines how they view or interpret a situation, or an application of a particular form of information. For example, “The settler’s world is a hostile world, which spurns the native, but at the same time it is a world of which he is envious” (52). Thus, “That impulse to take the settler’s place implies a tonicity of muscles the whole time; and in fact we know that in certain emotional conditions the presence of an obstacle accentuates the tendency toward motion” (53). The particular emotional condition stimulates action — that emotional condition inherently depends on the position of the two groups in decolonization. Thus, the understanding of one message, of one piece of knowledge, depends on the other group. He continues in The Negro And Language: “The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards. He becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle” (9). According to Fanon, the one way to mitigate the dependency of interpretation on relationships with others is “to make man admit that he is nothing, absolutely nothing — and that he must put an end to the narcissism on which he relies in order to imagine that he is different from the other ‘animals'” (12). Perhaps simply recognizing the presence of inherent subjectivity, rather than assigning value judgment to individuals and how they can/should interpret a piece of information, mitigates the potential pitfalls and dangers in determining and assigning value judgment to particular knowledge.