Towards a post-normative communication and media studies

Twitter has announced a call for research submissions that helps them “identify indicators of conversational health that are even more specific to Twitter and its impact.” I expressed my skepticism about this on Facebook and so I am writing up some notes here.

‘Conversations’ are one way to examine interactions on social media. We looked at conversations as the unit of analysis in our Turnbull paper due out in MIA I think in a few months (based on our ANZCA paper). A simple point to make is that the ‘public conversation’ is not the same thing as ‘conversations on Twitter’ or even ‘Twitter publics’. Sure, there are conversations that happen entirely on Twitter (say a Trump tweet and reaction and cross talk), but these are not very useful as the basis of assessing public conversations. How Twitter users produce openings on other spaces, so that the circulation of discourse is necessarily cross-platform. The philosophy behind Cortico’s general approach looks interesting, but Twitter and Cortico will need to partner with other platforms.

There are broadly two ways to map the circulation of discourse. The first is derived from Bourdieu and maps a ‘field’ based on the social interactions between actors and the analytical construction of what is valued in the field (doxa). I think this is inherently flawed because of the reliance on a notion of faith (as in good or bad faith). Bourdieu’s Manet lectures are clear on this. The second is derived from Foucault and maps the discursive regularities between statements and the analytical construction is regarding the conditions of possibility based on ‘authority’ and composition of power relations (dispositif). What Foucault broadly called ‘eventalization’ (only ever in interviews, so the method has to be reverse engineered across a range of works). Interestingly, network graphing techniques seem to be aligned with ‘eventalization’ until you realise that they mostly rely on the providence of digital objects and platform-based network relations between them. There have been few attempts to map networks of discourse in spite of the platforms as this multiplies the work exponentially.

Analysing discourse in terms of the ‘health’ of conversations assumes a normative dimension that I think smuggles in assumptions about the good faith of actors. There are two problems here. First, analytics are unlikely to indicate how a particular user is ‘blinkered’, and therefore has an extremely constrained degree of freedom (in the systems theory sense), what Guattari called a low co-efficient of transversality or Warner might talk about in terms of the character of reflexivity. They will instead show how such blinkered users belong to tribes, because of the discursive coherency and affective congruence of discourse. So what? Second, Twitter does not appear to want to operate upon the good or bad faith of actors, and therefore take obvious steps to reduce the weaponised use of the platform (such as reduced functionality for new accounts until thresholds of participation are passed, such as number of followers or interactions). Getting over the normative assumptions about the good faith of users is an important first step.

ebooks: or the

Appending ebooks to something is a practice belonging to subcultures on twitter and derived from the meme surrounding the horse_ebooks twitter account. Here are some notes on the cultural meaning of ‘_ebooks’.


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Various ‘_ebooks’ accounts have been created. What they all have in common is the algorithmic act of sampling source material and turning it into a tweet. On the process behind horse_ebooks:

The algorithm that produces the horse_ebooks stream, like most spammic algorithms, relies on user interaction to grow more effectual. It interprets text as data, and determines which keywords might best promote an outcome like the sale of Cialis or Horse Medical Records. Just as with many of our more popular and less insidious internet applications, the more interaction the algorithm gets, the smarter it becomes. The growing popularity of horse_ebooks has reciprocally allowed it to become better at generating tweets like “The Fear Of lowlife criminals With Environmental Protection” (October 30, 2011; 49 retweets).


While it is true that the algorithm publishes tweets that were, at some point, somehow, written, it is non-author in the sense that it defies the binary border between ebook and reader. It imagines non-authorship in a way that even social media, with its dissolution of anonymity, can enable.

Sure. There is something else going on when _ebooks is appended to non-_ebooks; that is, something that is ostensibly not the algorithmic poetics actioned in the event-space between discourse and code. Something has been extracted from the _ebooks phenomena and has now been folded back into the social practices on social media.

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What has been extracted? (Or what makes ‘_ebooks’ singular?) It is something that, firstly, plays with the relation between sense and nonsense. horse_ebooks enthusiasts are sometimes criticised for anthropomorphising the algorithm-based expressions. The non-discursive semantic sampling of source material is an algorithmic variation of the creative/aesthetic practice of producing and exploding disjunction. Contra the critics, this does not foreclose the possibility of meaning, only that the discursive dimension of the sample has also been parsed by the algorithm. What is this discursive dimension? The incorporeal materialism of all language. [1. See Foucault’s “Discourse on Language” on ‘incorporeal materialism’:  “If discourses are to be treated first as discursive events, what status does this notion of event have? Of course, an event is neither substance, nor  accident, nor quality nor process; events are not corporeal. And yet, an event is certainly not immaterial; it takes effect, becomes effect, on the level of materiality. Events consist in relation to, coexistence with, dispersion of, the cross-checking accumulation and the selection of material elements; it occurs as an effect of, and in, material disperion.”]

So a little nugget of sense emerging from non-sense. From the perspective of information theory, this is clearly irrational, because signals do not simply emerge from what is ostensibly noise, noise impinges on signals and so on. The meaning produced by _ebooks twitter accounts is (unintentionally?) meaningful but in a quasi-random manner. ‘Random’ because it is derived from the sampling algorithm, ‘quasi’ because it relies on coded text that otherwise belongs to the logical systems of language. That is, the _ebooks are never quite ‘noise’ because they are, at a minimum, sensible as nonsense.

The _ebooks tweets exist not just as a ‘text’, however. They are better understood as an event. Techniques and technologies of representation (language, media, etc.), like all kinds of communication, are forms of transport. [2. Raymond Williams was very clear about this in his ‘Communication’ entry in the iconic Keywords — where it can mean ‘transmit’ or ‘share’.] Representation brings a time and place into contact with another time and place. The singular quality of this contact is the event of sense. Practices on twitter materially enact this process of representational transport. Retweets are ambiguous, ‘favourites’ are less so.

The practical dimension of ‘retweets’ and ‘favouriting’ modifies the relations of visibility and the relations of valorisation inherent in all acts of communication. The normative content of a tweet does not have to be the content that is valorised; rather, more sophistcated twitter users often retweet in an ironic fashion. Twitter users can choose to participate in these processes of transportation by retweeting, this is obvious; less obvious is the purpose of retweeting ostensibly nonsensical tweets. In the passage of the retweet — the ‘journey’ of the communicational transport — what is gained or lost?


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One of Tim Lampe’s Horse E-Posters:

For a long time subcultural groups have created entire languages of meaning that appear to be nonsensical to outsiders. This is in part happening here as ‘_ebooks’ is a syntactic morpheme belonging to denotational practices of twitter-based subcultures. Retweeting can be understood as a practice of citation; think of that bloke everyone went to school with who knew every single line from the Simpsons. Citing the Simpsons produced a measure of cultural cache as a performance of cultural taste.

Retweeting does something similar, but with an additional dynamic dimension. The political economy of belonging in online networks not only means ‘following’ the right ‘people’ (or emitters of becoming-sensical content), but also of participating in the passage of meaning as meaning itself is enacted. Not only is the content shared, as per Raymond Williams’ definition of communication, but the becoming-sensical of the content is also shared.

Think of a joke that develops over the course of an evening. The release of tension signalled by the smile (weak) or laughter (strong) is triggered by a disjunction that produces the affective tension present in all humour. [3. “A horse_ebooks walks into a bar.” “The barmen says, “.] Such jokes cascade, but they are also repeated other nights, just as the possibility of such a joke developing is repeated. The algorithmic disjunction of sample text of the original ‘_ebooks’ twitter accounts is pregnant with a similar potentiality.


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What does ‘_ebooks’ represent?

What happens when ‘_ebooks’ is appended to something?

It is an ironic signifier. Instead of signifying the becoming-sensical of the original algorithmic ‘_ebooks’ twitter acounts, it is signifying the (allegeded) becoming-nonsensical of an actual person’s expression.



Sexual Desire, Associated Milieus and Appetition

In my previous post I outlined the paper I had just submitted on gender and garages. My final point in the paper is thinking Whitehead’s concept of ‘appetition’ with Simondon’s concept of ‘associated milieus’. Thinking about it some more (while on my exercise bike doing my daily morning ride) I remembered this post Powered by Daydreams from just under six years ago. I was engaging with something Levi had written (prior to his turn to OOO) about the relation between fantasy and the immediate visceral responses of the body:

[Levi] posits the event of an emotional outburst at an immediate visceral level, but then the retroactive coding of this event by the sense making apparatus of our minds places this event within the orbit of certain narrativised causal chains (‘immigrants’, ‘D&G’, ‘homosexuals’, etc). Why overcode the outburst as causally linked to a transcendentally displaced social antagonism? Why can’t the event of the outburst be an immanent acceleration within the body of a sensation that has more in common with evolutionary psychology (ie an instinctual response to one’s hunger) than the aporias at the heart of social antagonisms? Brian Massumi has explored some of the dynamics between affect and the retroactive coding of affect (as a potential movement between two intensities). That is, at that precise moment, one’s hunger seeks out the ‘social antagonism’ to express itself and prepare the body for acquiring food. Would a fully satiated body seek out social antagonism? Just look at the Australian middle-class…

I go on in the post to provide an autoethnographical example of thinking about a pretty girl (‘girl’ yes, I was in my late 20s) that used to go to the same gym:

A friend of mine dubbed her “checkout chick” after she discovered that she works at a supermarket as a checkout operator (and as a subtle dig against me because of my romantic predilictions for bourgies). I would never approach or even talk to someone with romantic intentions in mind when at the gym as it is not an ethically appropriate act for the space. However, I also quickly realised that by not even speaking to her and being able to daydream about a particular fantasy — even if it involves merely focusing on say, for example, her extremely beautiful eyes — then my body is flooded with adrenaline or whatever other chemicals the body has to make itself feel good, and I feel good, and I can go full tilt on the cardio machines for another five minutes and then again and again for different fantasies for over an hour.

I don’t think I’d read Whitehead properly at this stage, which is surprising considering I invoke something very close to his concept of appetition to describe fantasy-like structure of thinking that encourages the ‘activation contour’ of affect (Stern) accelerating in the body as something akin to “an instinctual response to one’s hunger”.

Associated milieus for those living beings with the capacity to create imaginary conceptual prehensions would have to include ‘fantasy’ or something close to ‘fantasy’. Channeling Tomkins it explains how the coassemblies of affect and sexual desire (and other ‘drives’) can operate in the domain of what Foucault described in Deleuze’s work as ‘incorporeal materialism’, which is Foucault’s interpretation of the ‘virtual’. I think I need to read The Logic of Sense again. I was approaching the conceptual fabrication work of thinking ‘associated milieus’ and appetition’ together from a non-normative functionalist and ultra realist position. A point I don’t get to make in the paper is that these ‘appetitive mileus’ are a useful way to resolve the problem of scale in Deleuze theory of events. How to think scale of events when there is a baroque nested structure, what is the relation between the ‘wound’ and the ‘battle’? The excess of one event in another event of a different scale, when the first event is individuated as an element in the larger enveloping event, is the ‘associated mileu’ of the first event. There is an infinite number of such milieus from the perspective of the fourth person singular (or individuation of entire chaosmos). Delineating ‘appetitive milieus’ serving as ‘that’ event (of a larger scale, enveloping, or transversally linked, displaced in the past or future) for ‘this’ event will depend on the capacity of the living being.

Also, it was about the eyes, the relation between the eyes and eyebrows, as a gestural signature of her grace, a way of being in the world.

Gender and the garage-assemblage

Yesterday, I sent off my final version of a paper I’ve been working on for some time. The question of gender in the context of my existing work is somewhat problematic. Except for a few notable exceptions, I was not entirely happy with the way masculinities have been critically discussed. Clifton Evers work on surfing and masculinity is the primary (published) exception. Clif develops what I’d call an intensive masculinity by mapping the transversal circulation of affect across and through surfing bodies, boards, waves, beaches and a broader ecophilosophical context of beaches in Australian culture. I am aware of forthcoming work from at least one other person who thinks the development of gendered subjects in similar ways. Feminist philosophers (Grosz, Probyn, Driscoll) have been discussing the relationship between affect and becoming-gendered subjects for about two decades.

The paper I just sent off was a thorough engagement with the garage as an assemblage. My focus was developing an account of the passage of masculine action, primarily in the context of men working on cars. The ‘highlights reel’ of the substantive points made in my argument include:

1. The garage is a territory, but the garage-assemblage is a territorialising machine. Classic example is of the roadside repair.

2. Men territorialise technical discourses in intensive or ‘minoritarian’ ways by mappng the intensities of socio-technical objects through a process of anthropomorphisation. Technical discourses become heteronormatively gendered not so much to exclude women, but to enable a sensuous engagement with technology.

3. This produces produces statements, visibilities and ‘tactilities’ congruent with the affects in circulation. (Minor point here about Foucault’s epistemic conception of discourse, I am looking at discourses of techne.)

4. Draw on Simondon’s notion of techno-aesthetics to argue that the vernacular epistemologies of the garage-assemblage operate according to an immanent sense of ‘(mal)functionality’. ‘This’ technology functions in ‘this’ manner ‘here’.

5. Masculine techno-aesthetic competence is valorised through this intensive discourse by articulating a relation between this ‘functionality’ and the subcultural tests of effectiveness by which technological performance is measured.

6. ‘Know how’ is the outcome of ‘figuring out’ the immanent functionality of a given socio-technical object.

7. The homosociality assembled through the garage-assemblage is premised on an economy of respect determined by a subject’s techno-aesthetic competence.

8. Production of ‘know how’ is one passage of masculine action afforded by the garage-assemblage. It draws on the affordances of an intensive technical discourse and the other affects of the garage assemblage.

9. There is another complex passage of action developed through a correspondence between related assemblages (garage and street, or garage and motorsport track, etc.). Masculine ‘appetition’ (Whitehead) belonging to the garage-assemblage is organised around the ‘associated milieus’ (Simondon) of these related assemblages. A mechanical failure on the track, for example, serves to structure the challenge in the garage; it is this challenge that mobilises masculine enthusiast bodies into action.

Overall, my argument is largely a critique of Connell’s structural concept of masculinity, as it is focused primarily on the movements between different assemblages of contingent patterns of affect and bodies ‘in relation’. I’ve tried to expunge as much ‘normativity’ as possible and focus on the processes of (collective) individuation.

Like Clif I have spent some time in the spaces that I am writing about. To give you an example of what I mean by the correspondence between assemblages, below are some images of the last time I worked on my Falcon (that I still own, in storage). I took this shot while working on my Falcon so as to replace a snapped pushrod.

Here is the offending pushrod.
offending pushrod
This is the above car just beforehand. I filmed it idling on the driveway.

Contemporary Nihilism

“With the emergence of a privileged mediocrity, the innocent life became accessible to the masses.”

One of the more interesting essays in the Media Archive collection is on Contemporary Nihilism: Innocence Reorganised. I have elsewhere described a quality of this as ‘performative stupidity’. From ‘Contemporary Nihilism’:

The innocent thrive on everyday ritual; it’s what makes them happy. A failing washing machine suffices to drive one up the wall: The bloody thing simply must function. The plight of materiality is that it’s always breaking down, failing, malfunctioning and generally behaving in odd ways, and that it cannot be quietly replaced. Untrammeled consumption holds a promise that from now on, nothing will ever happen.

Foucault points out how the neoliberal mode of governance seeks to control events (plague, recession, etc.) more than it attempts to control a population. Contemporary anaesthetics sets up populations on autopilot (or perhaps alienpilot) so the aggregate system (and constituent distributions of greater access to opportunity for some over others) reproduces itself. ‘Innocence’ is this anaesthetic nexus; an assemblage of human and alien being.

[Desire] is tempted by the offer of a secure existence. By displaying good behaviour, one is assured that the ongoing changes in the vast world outside will not cause any catastrophes. Rebellion is punished and virtually pointless.

Rather than rebellion, my response is to always accelerate beyond the current implicit demands for productivity to the space of opportunity that exceeds the requirement to be functional: I’ll do my 8 hours of work in 6 hours, then do 4 hours of my ‘own’ work. I do this because I am a child of neoliberalism and because I can. It is all possible, if you are a freak (and childless, familiness and even friendless in extreme circumstances). There are other ways to accelerate beyond the structural demands of the system, however. For example, harness the surplus value of others to maximise the freedom from the burden of maximal-productive functionality. This is a neo-marxist rearticulation of the neoliberal discourse of ‘opportunity’ that properly locates entrepreneurial-nodes in their place. Hence, the ideological function of The Pursuit of Happyness. The maximising-functionality mode of anaesthetic control is failing however; as the modulating system of constraints continually accelerates and individuals and class cohorts reach to the future to free up time in the present with credit and so on, or despair.
As I’ve witnessed in various workplaces, those incapable of accelerating beyond the system of control, or keeping up with the increased demands for functionality, are therefore attacked on two fronts: 1. from within the system for “rocking the (anaesthetic) boat” and 2. by those that are capable of accelerating beyond the system of control. “Tolerance means envy of the other’s simplicity.” Is there a tactical anaesthetics? A return or reversal, to revel in the dynamic cell you’ve been given? Acceleration-beyond is too hard to maintain, it lapses into a resolute ironic accommodation and becomes absolutely cynical. The use of revolutionary soviet era motifs by creatives in the advertising industry is a deployment of irony so as to cope with one’s intimate implication in the anaesthetic mode of control. Witness Twitter.
Hence the travesty of contemporary journalism. Journalism is a profession organised around always-already reaching beyond the anaesthetic status quo. It needs to get the ‘story’. Yet, contemporary news-based media have very little interest in disrupting ‘innocence’. Scandal is a resource for reproducing the anaesthetic conditions that delivers an audience cohort for media to sell to advertisers as much as it delivers a voting-bloc of citizens to politicians.

The others are scrutinized distrustfully, in a form of surveillance which it is impossible to sanction since there no longer exists any common exchange to define a norm. Normality can no longer define any aberration. Only drug-related nuisance, streetwalkers’ districts, travelers’ sites and refugees’ centers may now temporarily unite citizens in mobs, for fear of declining property values.