McKenzie Wark speaking @ UNSW

McKenzie Wark
Associate Professor of Media Studies, Eugene Lang College and the New School for Social Research, New York
How did the critical theory of media become hypocritical theory? On the one hand, critical theory has become a mandarin exercise, concerned only with the past. On the other, developments in new media receive mostly enthusiastic endorsements and the talk is mostly tips for how to use the ‘tools’. In this presentation McKenzie Wark tries to reconnect the broader critical focus of media theory with everyday and contemporary questions. He will discuss work he has published in three recent books, A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard 2004), Gamer Theory (Harvard 2007) and 50 Years of Recuperation (Princeton 2008). He will examine both the theory and the practice of critical media studies.

DATE Friday, 25 July
TIME 4 – 6 pm
LOCATION University of New South Wales Robert Webster Building M15 Room 327 (Theatre)

Materiality of Gaming/Learning

Slashdot has got around to linking to OCZ’s Neural Impulse Actuator (NIA) a brain-computer interface. Reviews of the NIA have been floating around for a while. The review on is interesting because in the introduction the impact of the device is framed in terms of existing interface devices:

When we first heard of OCZ’s interesting “brain-computer” interface a couple of years ago, we couldn’t help but have visions of The Matrix. The very notion of controlling a computer with the mind conjures up images of exotic, fictional technologies from sci-fi movies. We were also slightly skeptical about the NIA’s ability to improve our gaming experience, even if it were to work as advertised. Don’t get us wrong, controlling the computer hands-free with our mind sure sounds neat, but we really like our mice, keyboards and gamepads. Perhaps we’re old fashioned but there is at least one member of the HotHardware team that thinks the keyboard and mouse are the only input devices you will ever need, well at least for the foreseeable future.

I find this interesting because it indicates the emergence of a gamer habitus (albeit PC gaming). This section from the conclusion also reminds me of a section from Jennifer Daryl Slack’s essay on The Matrix and ‘becoming-adolescence’:

While we spent most of our time testing the NIA with fast FPS games where response time is of the utmost importance, it can be just as useful in other genres. In a RTS, you could use the NIA to bind build orders and unit commands. With a RPG, you can finally launch magical abilities the way they were meant to be cast, with your mind. The NIA is certainly not limited to games either. The highly versatile configuration utility and driver software allow the NIA to be used in any environment, including the Windows desktop. The NIA could become the center of your experience or it could just as easily act like a third hand, it’s up to you.

Unfortunately, the NIA isn’t without caveats. Before you can enjoy the unique gaming experience provided by the NIA, you’ll need to slog through day upon day of training to build up your skill with the device. Thankfully, training often involves nothing more than playing games. This is definitely the hardest game controller to master on any platform. The need to calibrate before each session is also a bit of a drag. However, if you persist, you’ll be rewarded with a truly unique experience. How many people can claim they won a game of Pong without using their hands or feet?

Training is not meant to be something that takes ‘days’. From Slack’s essay:

Learning With Eyes Closed
Resisting the prison of the everyday Matrix requires knowledge, information, and training. Education is generally acknowledged here to be crucial. One has to know how to fight, how to fly a helicopter, how to leap from one tall building to the next in a single bound, and so on. Members of the resistance acquire this knowledge plugged into a computer downloading programs. In his initial training session Neo is hooked up to learn in this fashion. In this fantastically speeded up and transformed version of neurolinguistic programming, a mind not only learns, but a body becomes something knowledgeable. In this way, Neo learns Kung Fu in a matter of mere moments. Then strapped into their chairs, he and Morpheus fight in virtual space. In this fight, we witness the transformation of Neo from a skinny, night-owlish computer hacker to a trim, muscular; and extraordinarily skilled Kung Fu artist. One does not need to learn the old way, where learning Kung Fu involved a lifetime of discipline and effort, of training and apprenticeship, of success and failure. One learns by sitting back and letting the machine do the work.
[Learning] in The Matrix happens to you, almost without exertion. You sit passively in a chair and the learning comes to you. What remains of exertion is slight. Downloading is exhausting, both on the mind and the body. Tank takes Neo through ten hours of “training” at his first session and is impressed by Neo’s endurance, declaring with delight, “he’s a machine.” But what we see is Neo sitting in a chair, eyes closed, getting “jolted” with knowledge. He has sort of a momentary hangover afterwards that doesn’t appear to be particularly taxing or to have any long-term effects. (pp. 18, 20)

weird and unprofessional?

I received my teaching evaluations back from one of the universities at which I was employed last semester. Overall they were mostly ‘negative’. ‘Negative’ in a relative sense, I got 3.72 out of 5.0 when the minimum is 3.9 and 4.3 earns you a letter of commendation. How to take the criticism? Some of the comments were extremely helpful and even thinking about students assessing my performance helped me think about my teaching practice. Some questions were not really relevant (no materials in the library — didn’t use the library; lack of direction — I didn’t have much direction either as I was given it 2 weeks before semester with no material!! etc.). Adjusted then, I got pretty close to the ‘minimum’. If I was to teach the course again (which I am not), then it would be very different. Some responses were interesting however, especially the critical comments about my blog. Here are some cut’n’pasted comments from the section about me (that don’t include any indentifiable references to the course). Spelling, etc. retained from original, while numbering has been added:

1) I feel that Glenn is not confident in his teaching. I also would like to take this opportunity to raise awarenes to Glens blog on the net. I feel this blog is inaapropriate especialy when students work is mentioned
2) A bit vague at times but fun dynamic and extremely interactive. I liked having a younger teacher as he made me feel like we can actuallyachieve this as a career in the near future.
3) He is a good lectureer and knows his stuff however sometimes he can be a little intimidating to approach & not always gives adequate feedback
4) Not always approchable often very negative towards students
5) overall – a good teacher
6) mumbles – but we have realised that is how he talks which is understandable. Straightforward which is good but I believe he could be better and he has a blog which is weird and unprofessional

Hmmm. Weird and unprofessional? Really? Maybe my students don’t understand they can write comments on my blog if they don’t agree with something I have written, as a few students have in the past? And that I am even willing to let through abusive and offensive comments as I have also done in the past (albeit not from students, not unless they moved to Korea).

In a certain sense, I do have a real problem being ‘professional’. ‘Professional’ has a number of senses. ‘Professional’ can mean the construction of a persona for the purpose of some sort ritualised social relation organised around the service-based economic exchange of skilled labour. I am pretty good at what I do, and I am learning all the time, so I don’t think it was this sense of ‘professionalism’.

There is another level of ‘professionalism’. I understood very quickly I needed to be ‘professional’ for the sake of my students who cannot cope with their teacher being human; affectively, it is a question of comfort. (A bit like not wanting to think about eggs as baby chickens.) The problem is I don’t believe learning is meant to be ‘comfortable’. Some students can cope with being uncomfortable, question why they feel uncomfortable and rise to the challenge of whatever is uncomfortable; others want to expel whatever stimuli is producing discomfort (‘this is too hard’, ‘you are not nice’, ‘weird’, etc.). Sometimes this lack of teacher-as-robot ‘professionalism’ is a product of having an excess of charisma and the opposite problem of students being too comfortable arises. This is the problem I had with one tutorial cohort second semester last year. I guess I need to find a balance.

Of course, the distinction between public/private is reproduced in the context of the university, especially those universities that directly service the bourgeois… So the presence on the internet of something that these students would like to keep private (even though I have never revealed any identifiable information when discussing students), means that these students find it uncomfortable or even offensive. It is odd how some students readily admit they are being lazy and so on, but others want to cover up such character flaws. Having a blog doesn’t really allow you cover up anything…

Seven songs meme

“List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they’re not any good, but they must be songs you’re really enjoying now, shaping your spring. Post these instructions in your blog along with your 7 songs. Then tag 7 other people to see what they’re listening to.”

Lawson tagged me a while ago. In no particular order:

1) Pork and Beans — Weezer. Weezer is the patron saint of irreverance. The Red Album has gloriously devolved into post-Eminem self-reflexive engrandisement where Pop is the Other. However, Pop is not refuted, but hyper-valorised in the neo-liberal death spiral of ironic catch-phrase enthusiasm. Weezer is a Gen X band riding the waves of their own cultural influence as its impact feeds back across and through Nxt Gen emo power pop bands like a schizophrenic wave machine in a shopping mall built for paranoics. Plus it has some mad riffs. I love that shit. This will not be the last Weezer track on this list as I bought the Red Album, the first new CD I have purchased in over a year…

2) Everywhere — Fleetwood Mac. I am a serious fan of tunes that would destroy civilisation if covered by Rise Against. Actually, for that matter, there is not enough eschatological Pop. The bright side of life is the brilliant glow of a malfunctioning microwave that turns your blood into pure Red Bull giving you the superpower of controlling time… or maybe just Everywhere by Fleetwood Mac playing while checking your emails and having your morning coffee.

3) Shooting from the Hip — Chicks on Speed. This song: They sound like Hollywood representations of European supermodels having a conversation with each other on Japanese game show mobile phones while trying to assemble an Ikea flat-packed computer desk that has been packed with the wrong instruction sheet. Me write good to hers’ song.

4) Anyway You Want It — Rise Against. In my top 5 or maybe 10 songs of all time. I have had it on every iPod playlist since hearing it. I have been cranking it lately in my car as I fixed my stereo. Fuckin sick…

5) The Greatest Man That Ever Lived (Variations on a Shaker Hymn) — Weezer. Another Red Album track. This song sounds like a well crafted accident but crazy, like the record executives told them THEY NEEDED TO PRODUCE THE GOODS and so Weezer responded with this massive Fuck You with Eddie-Murphy-Delirious Chocolate Sprinkles on top. Warning: It tends towards the E-P-I-C scale of an inedible gobstopper.

6) Dream Police — Cheap Trick. The best line in this song is “They’re driving me insane, those men inside my brain”. It is actually a rather compelling song about mental illness, albeit wrapped up in 1980s Cock Rock goodness.

7) Daytime Dilemma (The Dangers of Love) — The Ramones. In the archeology of the present this song proves that Jerry Springer (THE Daytime Dilemma) is the future anterior of The Ramones. Love is like Crocodile-Dundee-with-a-knife dangerous and The Ramones nail it with this masterpiece. Better than James Joyce, they capture the hauntological dimension of romantic relations.

Hmm, I won’t pass on the meme but feel free to take up the challenge.

away, returning

I am going to the Gold Coast for two nights and I am leaving in about 5 or so hours. I had to finish off writing my class notes for an online class I am teaching over winter school. It is my first postgraduate class situation and it is very fun. The class size is small and the students are very switched on. It is shit we don’t have more contact hours, but the course is designed for those who basically work fulltime.

Speaking of work, I have lined up a pretty solid amount of casual work for next semester. I need to get my focus back on my work and stop buggering around in the weird limbo space I find myself. In the winter school class we draw on Kate Crawford’s Adult Themes for the section on the shifting character of work. She raises the example of the Austrian village, Marienthal:

A famous study of unemployment and its sociological effects was based on a small textile factory village in Austria called Marienthal. During the 1930s, the factory hit hard times, and three- quarters of families in the village became dependent on relief payments. The study observed how continued joblessness slowly deprived the people of Marienthal of the patterns and disciplines that give life structure and meaning:
The workers of Marienthal have lost the material and moral incentives to make use of their time. Now that they are no longer under any pressure, they undertake nothing new and drift gradually out of an ordered existence into one that is undisciplined and empty.’
It was a groundbreaking study that detailed how devastating unemployment can be for individuals and for a community at large. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote that the people in the Marienthal study were dispossessed of routine, of the vital illusion of having a function or a mission and, ultimately, experienced a kind of social death.

So for the new precarious or ‘flexible’ workers, even privileged workers like casual academics, have to either continually reorientate their ‘routine’ in the warding-off-of-social death way that Bourdieu describes or find some way to incorporate workplace churn into their subjectivities. I have been doing the former and, well, failing miserably. I am already something of a amateur nihilist so it doesn’t really help to have to jump one’s mind set from the relative ontological security of the PhD completion process to the bleak prospect of 2-3 months maximum guaranteed employment. It is less a gravy train and more like an aerobics machine in one of the lowest levels of Hell, Tartarus (see Tantalus). A job is always just in reach, but a career can never be grasped. (EDIT: Hmmm, makes me think of both Adorno’s description of ‘spectacle’ and Whitehead’s concept of ‘appetition’…)

The Hell metaphor was a deliberate segue for bringing up the tv show Reaper. I think it is pretty good at problematising the workplace for post-youth, young adults, albeit in a weird US, non-class-antagonism sort of way. The main character works two jobs. One as the ‘reaper’ for Satan, capturing souls that escape from Hell. The other really is hell, working in some shitty ‘home depot’ type of store with a complete asshole of a boss… Worth checking out when it gets to Australia I think. From what I can deduce the second fifth of the season is a bit slow (first fifth, cool shit as Sam figures out what he is doing), but then the season length plot arc starts to have greater weight than the episodic dramas and the meta-level narratives begin to fill in the gaps.