Life as an Extreme Sport

Objects are Boundary Projects

[B]odies as objects of knowledge are material-semiotic generative nodes. Their boundaries materialize in social interaction. Boundaries are drawn by mapping practices; ‘objects’ do not pre-exist as such. Objects are boundary projects. But boundaries shift from within; boundaries are very tricky. What boundaries provisionally contain remains generative, productive of meanings and bodies. Siting (sighting) boundaries is a risky practice.

Objectivity is not about dis-engagement, but about mutual and usually unequal structuring, about taking risks in a world where ‘we’ are permanently mortal, that is, not in ‘final’ control.
-Donna Haraway, Situated Knowledges, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature

the sound of protest

I’ve been wondering for a while now what the point of protesting [fill in the blank] is – what purpose does it serve? For example, protesting the recent bombings on Falluja isn’t going to stop the bombings; the largest protest in history didn’t stop the attack on Iraq, so why is a smaller protest going to do anything? I now think that the point is to prevent marginalizing from happening; by getting out and creating enough of a ruckus that the media – one of the creatures of the virtual that helps perpetuate mimetic circulation – covers the event, people who hold an alternate view are suddenly no longer marginalized, but instead are taking over the very mechanism that is attempting to silence them.

Critique – Media Virus and Memes

The idea of a meme is something that has always offended my sensibilities, without ever really knowing why. Obviously its most colloquial use, such as “LiveJournal-memes” is not accurate in the Dawkins-sense of the word, or the way that Dennis Rushkoff would like to see the word used. Memes are simply supposed to be one of three variants of a virus, be it a publicity stunt, a co-opted virus, or the self-generated virus. Rushkoff argues that in all instances, the virus has some sort of “sticky surface (akin to how a genetic virus works) that then allows the infection of something else into the cell or organism (with the organism in a meme being culture itself). Rushkoff uses words like datasphere to name this interconnected, technologically adept organism, and then goes on to use chaos theory to describe how it comes into being. And this is where he hits on what bothers me about memes to begin with: why bother? Yes, why bother. All Rushkoff is doing is watering down Apadurai’s concepts of ‘spheres, with the technosphere becoming the datasphere and using network theory repackaged to describe the chaotic yet “natural” behaviour of his datasphere. It’s simply reframing and rephrasing cultural dialogue and mimetic circulation in a trendy term and selling it to the masses – in fact, this selling to the masses is a key to Rushkoff’s conception of the origin of memes to begin with. In a nutshell, Rushkoff is arguing from a post-modernist view that looks at media through an ironic lens, and sees only the surface feedbacking to the surface, creating endless fractal loops that never go any deeper than the last feedback iteration.

The funny, or perhaps even ironic, thing, is that the LiveJournal-meme is probably the closest to what a meme should or would be. In this virtual space, someone posts a quiz or questions that their friends then read and repeat, with their friends reading and repeating, et cetera, as it spreads through-out this particular node of the network. For example, Person A posts a series of questions with answers, clearly fashioned as a “fill in the blank” style question. A recent one circulating was formatted something like this:
1. My LJ name is _________ because _________.
2. My friends list is called _________ because _________.
3. My user picture is _________ because _________.

Under these series of questions, Person A then repeats the question with the blanks filled in. Through years of schooling, we instantly recognize the form of the questions as fill in the blank, and proceed to do so. Persons B, C, and D all read Person A’s journal and repeat the questions and blanks in their journal, where Persons E-H see it (sometimes several times, as many people read similar journals). In relatively short fashion, the three questions have taken off like wildfire through the pocket of the virtual known as LiveJournal.

Using the terms of network theory (“node”, “network”) is important, because what we are seeing is not a meme but the creation of a non-human hub or connecting point in a complex social network. In general, these nodes are considered to be people, but in this case the hub is the series of questions itself. Instead of one person forming more and more connections until they trip some critical point and become a hub (a place of high connections), the questions themselves become a place of high connection. Graph theory often looks at this sort of connectivity in terms of static places, but in this case the hub is a non-corporeal concept.

If we speculate that there are multiple networks interfacing with one another – a wetworks or meatspace style set of nodes, hubs and connections, the connectivity of certain spaces, and a third, conceptual and non-corporeal network of ideas – we can stay within the confines of established interdisciplinary sciences to explain continual mimetic circulation without focusing on co-opting ideas that only weakly manage to portray the potential of the ideas.

In reality, where the idea of the virus applied to mimetic circulation comes into play ties back to the idea of sticky surfaces and syringes for injecting the viral particles. Instead of a virus allowing subversive memes to infect the culture, new symbols arise that allow other people to co-opt said symbol for their own purpose. The sticky surface of Michael Jackson’s latest legal problems allows people who have pet issues that can be related to the legal problems to use that as a starting point, a highly connected hub, for their own dissemination needs.

Ethics and Materiality

Indeed, there is no body as such; there are only bodies – male or female, black, brown, white, large or small – and the gradations in between. Bodies can be represented or understood not as entities in themselves or simply on a linear continuum with its polar extremes occupied by male and female bodies… but as a field, a two-dimensional continuum in which race (and possibly even class, caste, or religion) form body specifications.
-Elizabeth Grosz

In contrast to the body, embodiment is contextual, enmeshed within the specifics of place, time, physiology, and culture, which together compose enactment. Embodiment never coincides exactly with “the body,” however that normalized concept is understood. Whereas the body is an idealized form that gestures toward a Platonic reality, embodiment is the specific instantiation generated from the noise of difference.
-N. Katherine Hayles

It has occured to me, over the course of reading Hayles’ book How We Became PostHuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, that the field of ethics, and specifically of bioethics, is all about realizing the data made flesh. Or, to be less obscure, it’s about realizing that while we’re all individuals, we also are all connected with one another. The arguments about multiple and conflicting autonomies make no sense if you take the modernist concept of each of us being a separate and unattached beings. Likewise, the postmodernist, disembodied concept of self also has very little play, because beneficience (and again, autonomy) is often tied to a physicality that postmodernity prefers to ignore. It’s when we get to this material poiesis, this materiality of data made flesh, that we have a system that acknowledges both the physicality of the body and the connectivity of the, for lack of better word, soul, or self.

contemplations of a final project

Right now I’m thinking along the lines of science fiction and how we’ve gone from the utopia’s of 1960s scifi to the distopia of today. I was originally just gonna talk about scifi distopia, but I think I might be able to weave a narrative about the advances of computing technology and how the advances have changed the popular conception of computers. I think that Gibson via Neuromancer really created the genre of computer-related dystopias… altho for obvious reasons Clarke would have to be the grandfather of* (although I’d have to reread Dick’s Minority Report). While the movie certainly had a computer-generated dystopia, I don’t recall the short story being anything like that. Scifi really morphed from computers as augmentation of humans and allowing the creation of dystopias a la 1984 and Harrison Bergeron to computers as oppositional forces a la Neuromancer and the Matrix.

I got thinking about this because Cerruzi, in his book on the history of computing, asks if we can begin to conceive of a world where computers have negative impact, and says that no one saw the car and thought of smog.  Now, granted, he wrote the book 4 years ago, and only briefly updated it since then, so I have to forgive him The Matrix, et all – but Gibson wrote Neuromancer back in 1983(ish).

*A bit of poking shows that Blade Runner came out in 1982, and Gibson published Neuromancer in 1984. So obviously Dick has some serious paternity of the concept of computer-created, futuristic dystopias, as well. Perhaps a better idea would be taking either Blade Runner or Neuromancer and using them as a starting point to jump into the history of, tracing key concepts back and then forward again – for example, if I were to use Blade Runner, to trace the idea of the cyborg automaton backwards to a convenient beginning, and then forward again to hit up into Dick’s Androids…

Stuff to think about, and I would still need to find a group to integrate with, project and presentation-wise. But it has definite possibility.