Geek as Villain of Geek Culture

Looking around, I wondered why Halliday, who always claimed to have had a miserable childhood, had later become so nostalgic for it. I knew that if and when I finally escaped from the stacks, I’d never look back. And I definitely wouldn’t create a detailed simulation of the place. (103)

At the time of writing 51% of the 236038 ratings on Goodreads for Ernest Cline’s 2011 novel Ready Player One are five stars. Most commentaries on the novel are celebratory. I think it is one of the most condensed representations of contemporary hegemonic masculinity organised around geek/brogrammer culture. For those who have read it, think of the story and all the main characters. The ‘James Halliday’ character wasn’t the benevolent tech genius, entrepreneur and lovable anti-social geek, but is, in fact, the super-villain. His character is premised on the social norms for reproducing the kind of toxic masculinity that has come to characterise a number of recent fronts in the culture wars.

The novel is set in the near future and Halliday and his business partner Ogden Morrow create a kind of mash-up of Facebook and World of Warcraft virtual world called Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation (OASIS). The plot of the novel is driven by an elaborate meta-game in OASIS created by Halliday as a Willy Wonka-style mechanism for handing over control of most of his estate. That is, whoever ‘wins’ this meta-game, thus proving their ultimate geek credentials, inherits ownership of OASIS. The meta-game requires players to have elaborate knowledge of mostly late-1970s and 1980s popular cultural texts. The ‘Halliday’ character hid the meta-game as a series of elaborate ‘easter eggs’ embedded in the structure of the larger OASIS universe. It is the ultimate geek fantasy, not that you are simply ‘better’ than the normative social and cultural ideal, but that the new normal is premised on (alleged) geek ideals.  As Nicholas Mizer explains:

The geeks of the story race through an “easter egg” hunt in the OASIS, the winner of which controls the fate of the virtual spaces it  contains. In this story, geek cultural spaces are all known and mapped, in a totalized version of the geek dilemma I have described [of too much popularity]. Rather than directly confronting the corporate “egg hunters” that want to re-shape the virtual world to their own ends, however, the protagonist always manages to stay one step ahead of them because his intense love of the cultural spaces has driven him deep below their surface. Here power comes not through simply inhabiting the spaces of geek culture, but through intensive familiarity with every aspect of those spaces. (24-25)

Mizer goes on to describe this as the cultural tactic of ‘digging down’ into the context of a cultural text (or practice or artefact) to such an extent that the ‘geek’ becomes completely immersed and is able to discover new qualities of the text worthy of their interest. Hence, the cultural logic of the ‘Easter Egg’ meta-game that Ready Player One is based on. 

Ironic Imagination

Mizer’s essay explores the “disorientation felt by geeks experiencing the new power dynamics of a post-revenge [of the nerds] geekdom” (4). That is, geek culture was traditionally understood to be subservient to other ‘dominant’ popular cultural formations. Mizer is working to develop an understanding of geek culture after its ‘revenge’, which is to say after it has become hegemonic. Key here is Patton Oswalt’s 2010 in Wired magazine “Wake up, Geek Culture. Time to Die“. Oswalt locates the cause of the problem squarely with the ‘Internet’:

There are no more hidden thought-palaces—they’re easily accessed websites, or Facebook pages with thousands of fans. And I’m not going to bore you with the step-by-step specifics of how it happened. In the timeline of the upheaval, part of the graph should be interrupted by the words the Internet. And now here we are. The problem with the Internet, however, is that it lets anyone become otaku about anything instantly. In the ’80s, you couldn’t get up to speed on an entire genre in a weekend.

Ready Player One is a response to the democratisation of geek culture. Cline presents every aspect of Halliday’s taste as worthy of valorisation through the gamified logic of the competition:

“Canon” was the term we used to classify any movie, book, game, song, or TV show of which Halliday was known to have been a fan.  (40)

Jim [Halliday] always wanted everyone to share his obsessions, to love the same things he loved. I think this contest is his way of giving the entire world an incentive to do just that. (122)

Cline operationalises the dual cultural logic of the ‘Easter egg’: that there is secret knowledge regarding a shared cultural object and what matters is who is knows and who does not know about this secret. Geek authenticity is therefore a performance of ‘knowingness’ about the shared cultural object (that may or may not exist, such as the case with spoilers and the like). The ‘Easter eggification’ of geek culture encourages a paranoid, reactionary mode of cultural consumption that is forever defensive about protecting the conditions of possibility for the ‘Easter egg’.

No Shared Identity?

Mark Fisher‘s recent piece on “Exiting the Vampire Castle” earned a response (“B-Grade Politics“) from Angela Mitropoulos.

EDIT 27/11/13: See comments below. I am accused of individualising critique on the grounds it is ‘personal’.

I’ve removed the section that placed Angela’s comments in the context of her other recent online postings where she is critical of what I guess you could call ‘Leninist-brocialism‘. I have expanded the below to clarify my point (considering two people with PhDs do not understand it). Now I have structured this post as 1. very simple rearticulation of the two pieces and 2. an expansion of my point.

Put very simply: Mark’s and Angela’s respective pieces approach the question of engaged political critique from different positions. From Mark’s perspective the point of engaged political activity is to overcome the individualising mechanisms of capitalism. From Angela’s perspective the point of engaged political activity is to extrapolate from the ways we are exploited at a personal level to find the broader political dimensions. So far, not insurmountable differences.

The differences become insurmountable at the next level: For Mark, what he calls identitarianism is a kind of white-anting within progressive political movements, exacerbated by the way we are encouraged to project a version of the self through social media. For Angela, any move to elide difference is to betray a commitment to anti-racism and/or anti-sexism and to base critical engagement on a political subject that according to this logic is defined as straight, white and male.

Rather than finding some way to overcome these differences, the final level turns them against each other: Mark draws on Nietzschean notions of bad conscience, describing those who subscribe to Angela’s position as the ‘moralising left’. Angela suggests that by ignoring race and sex, Mark is ignoring how capitalist exploitation is actually played out, and maybe ironically (but unlikely) Angela suggests Mark’s post was about his own enjoyment. For Angela, because Mark is relying on a notion of class, he is basically reinscribing the identity-based politics that he is allegedly critiquing.

Good? I hope that is an adequate summary and that I have represented the different positions fairly. I had assumed readers of my original post had read both Mark’s and Angela’s respective pieces, and had a relatively sophisticated understanding of these issues.

My interest in this the relation between experience, identity and what Spinoza calls a ‘common notion’. Do we have a ‘common notion’ of living in capitalism? I believe Mark was trying to address this.

Of course, my understanding of ‘common notion’ is via Deleuze.

[Spinoza] always defines a common notion like this: it’s the idea of something which is common to all bodies or to several bodies—at least two—and which is common to the whole and to the part. Therefore there surely are common notions which are common to all minds, but they’re common to all minds only to the extent that they are first the idea of something which is common to all bodies. Therefore these are not at all abstract notions. What is common to all bodies? For example, being in movement or at rest. Movement and rest will be objects of notions said to be common to all bodies. Therefore there are common notions which designate something common to all bodies. There are also common notions which designate something common to two bodies or to two souls, for example, someone I love. Once again the common notion is not abstract, it has nothing to do with species or genera, it’s actually the statement [ÈnoncÈ] of what is common to several bodies or to all bodies; or, since there’s no single body which is not itself made up of several, one can say that there are common things or common notions in each body.

I read this in a number of ways. Following Massumi’s notion of “becoming-together”. Following Guattari and Negri’s notion of “new alliances” (PDF). Massumi is useful because he frames this ‘political economy of belonging’ in terms of the experiences shared by those who ‘become-together’. Experience for Massumi may very well be subjectively felt, but it is not ‘subjective’; it is pre-personal and through which the individual is individuated. Guattari and Negri’s notion is useful because it posits a ‘common consciousness’ apprehended by a ‘revolutionary imagination’ that serves as the ‘basis of the constitution of a future movement’.

Deleuze’s reading of Spinoza’s ‘common notion’ is framed in terms of sadness and joy. Sad affects are when bodies are acted upon in conditions that ‘do not agree’ with it, and ‘nothing in sadness can induce you to form a common notion’. On the other hand, joy is the condition of a ‘common notion’ (from Deleuze’s lecture):

One never makes progress on a homogeneous line, something here makes us make progress down there, as if a small joy here had released a trigger. Anew, the necessity of a map: what happened there that unblocked this here? A small joy precipitates us into a world of concrete ideas which sweeps out the sad affects or which is in the process of struggling, all of this makes up part of the continuous variation. But at the same time, this joy propels us somehow beyond the continuous variation, it makes us acquire at least the potentiality of a common notion.

I’ve written a great deal about how affective-complexes involving ‘joy’ and their relation to localised fields of knowledge are played out as ‘enthusiasm’ in working class subcultures.

Returning to the distinction between Mark’s and Angela’s respective pieces, I read both as suggesting that there cannot be a ‘common notion’, but for different reasons. Angela is arguing that racialised and sexed bodies are exploited more than straight, white and male bodies in the current composition of capitalist relations, and that there cannot be a ‘common notion’ across these differences if difference is elided; she writes:

That is, unless ‘success’ has been practically and more or less consciously defined as the recruitment of people who do not want to talk critically about race or gender politics, will not overly criticise those (white men) who present themselves as their ‘leaders,’ and who will actively curtail any committment to anti-racism or anti-sexism in the name of a ‘class unity’ magically redefined as essentially white and male.

Mark, on the other hand, is advocating what is common:

A left that does not have class at its core can only be a liberal pressure group. Class consciousness is always double: it involves a simultaneous knowledge of the way in which class frames and shapes all experience, and a knowledge of the particular position that we occupy in the class structure. It must be remembered that the aim of our struggle is not recognition by the bourgeoisie, nor even the destruction of the bourgeoisie itself. It is the class structure – a structure that wounds everyone, even those who materially profit from it – that must be destroyed.

Mark is using the word ‘class’ here in a specific way; class is necessarily based on the shared experience of living in a capitalist composition of social relations (“frames and shapes all experience”). This is an experience of exploitation in different ways depending on one’s particular position we occupy in the class structure. Already his piece is at odds with an approach which seeks to reduce individuals to their individualising identity. An appeal to a shared experience is problematic for those who believe that they do not share any experience. Class consciousness is a knowledge of this experience and a knowledge of our relational positioning in this shared experience. (At a very simplistic level: most of the commentary about Mark’s piece I have encountered online and offline begins by identifying and agreeing with his experience of ‘snarky social media’ .) Does a ‘brosocialist’ have anything in common with those who identify as queer and/or coloured? Is there a ‘common notion’?

Mark, secondly, is suggesting that the current compositions of capitalist relations encourage the circulation of sad affects and the erasure of what is common; enter his notion of the ‘Vampires’ Castle’:

the Vampires’ Castle seeks to corral people back into identi-camps, where they are forever defined in the terms set by dominant power, crippled by self-consciousness and isolated by a logic of solipsism which insists that we cannot understand one another unless we belong to the same identity group.

The ‘Vampires’ Castle’ is both structure and ephemera; it is an ‘assemblage’ in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense.  The ephemeral character of structure is really very difficult to even describe, let alone talk about. Deleuze discussed it in “What is structuralism?” and instead turned to the terminology of the ‘machinic’, etc.

My overall point, can we have positive identities or a positive sense of identity that is shared? Yes, of course. Mark is describing a situation where we are encouraged to misrecognise this shared dimension. Importantly, to return to Angela’s second point above, she pours scorn on ‘recruitment’. Clearly, she frames her identity in terms of the capacity to talk critically about race or gender politics. It would be interesting to know if Angela thinks she shares any dimension of experience at all and, if so, how does she police the boundaries of how this shared dimension is defined.

As a final additional point, it is amusing that Deleuze frames the development of adequate ideas (adequate ideas are when you appreciate the relations of causality in the balance between positive and negative affects) from common notions in terms of ageing:

Knowing how to age is arriving at the moment when the common notions must make you comprehend in what way things and other bodies disagree with your own.

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.

Simondon and Techno-Aesthetics

“If Léger managed to get the roar of the factory, the squeal of a drill press, and the screech of the unoiled gear, into his paintings, it was an achievement I, at least, do not much appreciate.” Review of Léger exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (O’Connor 1998)

In the latest issue of Parrhesia is a translation of a 1982 letter from Gilbert Simondon to Jacques Derrida where Simondon discusses what he calls “techno-aesthetics”. There has always been a tension, if not a latent snobbery, running between the high aesthetics of the art world — that practicing artists and other professionals approach with a keen sense of technique — and the high technics of the machinic phylum — that practicing engineers, scientists and others approach with a keen sense of aesthetics. The publication of this translation is timely for my own work (currently in the process of being reviewed for publication) that has tried to think about the character of technê using concepts of ‘experience’ and the ‘event’ from contemporary philosophy work on aesthetics (Massumi, Manning, etc.).

Simondon begins by reflecting on the character of visibility in techno-aesthetics, what he calls phanero-technics. (Phaneros, visible; from phainein, to cause to appear.) He has two examples, that of the Eiffel Tower and the architectural practice of Le Corbusier. He emphasises slightly different points in his two examples. In the case of Le Corbusier it is a case of rendering visible what is normally hidden. This exposure is a kind of consecration or valorisation of the technics of function and the technics of design. The frame, such as embodied in the magazine front cover, is a valorising-machine designed to function as an apparatus of capture on the newsagency stand. The frame of exposed-technics is abductive, rather than premised on a shared reading-technics of emphasis, and it dissolves in the solution of experience. Le Corbusier’s “phanero-technical attitude” may render visible the pipes and cables conventionally hidden but the non-normative frame of the exposed-technical relies on the repetition of aesthetic experience and contraction of memory to appreciate the difference of exposure and therefore of the valorisation.

Simondon suggests that the Eiffel Tower didn’t have a function, beyond that being “merely an elevated vista point”, but it became the “best emission antenna in France”. If we agree with Jonathan Crary’s point that the spectacle (as in Debord’s Marxist critique of the image-commodity) is more an architecture for fixing spectators in a certain relational point in space than a semiosis for the communication and indoctrination of an ideological meaning, then the elevated vista point of the Eiffel Tower gains a different resonance. The Eiffel Tower contributes to the technics of what John Urry has called the “tourist gaze”.

The “tourist gaze” is a concept Urry develops from a certain reading of Foucault’s work on the clinic and the “medical gaze”. Urry maps a quasi-genealogical account of contemporary tourism in terms of the way there is an economy of image-perspectives that tourists are encouraged to inhabit. Although not necessarily the sole reason for travelling tourists come to occupy specific “vista points” and the layering of tourist-subjectivities is captured in the work of Swiss-French artist Corinne Vionnet and her project Photo Opportunities. What is interesting about the Eiffel Tower is that the Tower itself becomes the site/sight captured by tourists rather than being the location from which vista-points are constituted; Simondon argues that phanero-technics “is itself already aesthetic: the Eiffel Tower (the tower of the World’s Fair) and the Garabit viaduct on the Truyère river have an undeniable aesthetic power”. Noting the same connection between Vionnet’s work and Urry’s in a brief note on the art project, Madeline Yale suggests that “its distorted visual referent functions as a device for memory transport by funneling many experiences into one familiar locale”.

Photo Opportunities (2005-2012) — Corinne Vionnet

Vionnet’s work is interesting in the context of what has been described as the “New Aesthetic” in the sense that David Berry describes NA as a “form of abduction aesthetic linked to the emergence of computationality as an ontotheology”. The ‘fuzziness’ of the Eiffel Tower above, not unlike the blurred edges of the pirated video-camera filmed of a 3D film at the cinema, is in part the layering of tourist vista-points captured by a camera, but it is also the outcome of Vionnet’s online activity to use everyday Internet search engines to find appropriate images and the design-work of image processing software. The images map an interplay between two series of events: the collective experience of implication in the discursive-architecture of the tourist spectacle and the ‘historical discontinuity’ of shifting from the photo album (or slideshow sceening) to the Internet and social network-enabled sharing of photos — vernacular mnemotechnics and practices of photography from ‘Kodak moment’ to ‘Facebook moment’.

Simondon then shifts to a discussion of the contemplation and handling tools. Using the example of a double-ended wrench specifically designed for cyclists. The two heads of the wrench have four diameters and having a head on each end makes the tool easy to grip in a fist. This tool “answers very well to what it is required to do” and “gives aesthetic pleasure when one contemplates it”. It reminds me of a trivial event from my teenage years. Discussing cars with a father of one of my friends (the father had just bought a Corvette), I was consuming a mint. The father exclaimed to the simplicity of the design of the mint’s container that would release a single mint when squeezed. On investigation the container did not have any moving parts, rather the flexing of the plastic ejected a mint by modulating a series of three chambers. One to extract a mint from the holding chamber, and then a third to release the mint from the extraction chamber. It was an elegant design and a I remember my friend’s father being very excited by this.

This is still contemplation, however, and Simondon goes on to note that “contemplation is not techno-aesthetics’ primary category. It’s in usage, in action, that it becomes something orgasmic, a tactile means and motor of stimulation”. This is a “very particular pleasure of sensation”. Between the ‘consumer’ of the work of art and the sensations of the artist can also be thought of in terms of the pleasures of sensation. One of the more important insights in the brief letter is that Simondon argues there is a “continuous spectrum that connects aesthetics o technics”. Simondon’s example here has a direct connection to my previous research (on enthusiasm in car culture). He discusses the interplay of technics and aesthetics in the context of the Jaguar EV 12 from the perspective of functionality. The body of the Jaguar is designed to be aerodynamic, however the undercarriage is less so. In a later passage Simondon returns to discussing the Jaguar’s engine in a rough comparison to that of the Citreon 2CV. The engine fo the 2CV is “that of car at degree zero”, which for Simondon means that the technical elements have been arranged for function, ease of access and so on. The engine of the Jaguar, on the other hand, has been designed to be an exaggerated technical object that has been araanged for the purposes of a techno-aesthetics incorporating the long hood of the engine and the positioning of the radiator. The exaggerated ‘spoilers’ of modified-car culture are a more extreme example of the point Simondon is making here. Modified cars fitted with ‘body kits’ use a technical aesthetics in subcultural ways. This is a material semiotics of force and function noted by Gene Balsey in the very first critical work on modified car culture “The Hot Rod Culture” (1950); what he called the “competition aesthetic” of post-war hot rodders drawing on the aesthetics of the slat-lake racers.

Similarly, aesthetic objects lend themselves to technical analysis, with Simondon referencing the reception of the Mona Lisa’s technical analysis. This entire paragraph of Simondon’s is remarkable. He is contemplating the Mona Lisa’s smile-event (in Deleuze’s sense of the event, pun intended;), here is the relevant section:

On the very same canvas, one encounters the beginning and the end of a smile–but not the exhaustion of a smile, the entelechy of the smile. […] The smile that begins, and the smile that ends so as to return to the face’s mask of seriousness, are the extreme terms of this temporal thickness: the smile will unfold itself, and at the same time it will also already be disappearing. The only thing that exists and is materialized are the outer limits of the moment of exhaustion, of full realization. But the entelechy is not figured as part of the painting. Are there not in this unique image two superimposed techniques, as is the case with palimpsests? Aren’t there two messages to decode, in order to infer the source-message (the master-message), which is lacking? It’s the original reality that remains mute, non-present, but past and to come in a quasi-immediate but nevertheless mysterious way. What is of central importance is the mystery itself of what is not-figured.

‘Entelechy’ comes from Aristotlean philosophy and refers to when an object is completely actual and fully present. The smile-event exists between two movements — a ‘becoming’ — one where it is exhausted and the face returns to seriousness and the other when the smile is fully realised. These ends in the double-movement of the smile are fully real but virtual. In the same way Vionnet’s work captures this double-movement, but is complicated by a transversal movement across the two (double) series of the vista-point of the tourist gaze and the algorithmic return of a keyword search of photos proffered for ‘sharing’ and their doubles in the mnemotechnical iterations of these two series across generational differences (both of human collective memory and technics).

In the realm of consumption techno-aesthetics intervenes in what Simondon describes as the  “conditioning (in the commercial sense of the word)” of commodities.  Simondon describes an example of food and the way it is received across cultural differences vary in reception in a given region. Perhaps most interesting of all for those into Object-Oriented Ontology is Simondon’s example of electricity: “Industrial aesthetics can be, first of all, the aesthetic of produced objects. But not everything is an object. Electricity is not an object. It can only be detected and manipulated through objects and possibly also through natural environments: lightning passes through and structures itself through corridors of air that have already been ionized.” Simondon’s example is from nature but his point is that techno-aesthetics deals with action, or ‘function’, not objects.

I’m currently about half way finished writing an article about the garage as an assemblage that has certain gendered and affective affordances for the passage of action. One of the critical remarks I want to make about Simondon’s brief note is ‘functionality’ is always already present in the forms of action either in practice or designed ‘into’ a technical system. I’ve been thinking about how enthusiasm is often a constituent element in vernacular epistemologies of a techno-aesthetic disposition. What is at stake for these amateur tinkerers and what not is that they do not appreciate ‘function’ in the same way as an expert or professional. ‘Functionality’ is backformed from the experience of engaging with “what works” not “the way it works”.

Although Simondon acknowledges that assumes that we engage with technologies according to “the way it works” but technologies do not work the same for everyone even though they may be designed as such. The enthusiast’s knowledge is born of experience and involves an intimate appreciation of ‘function’  immanent and congruent to practice. Without this immanent sense of function and correlative co-determination of the subject and object arrayed by the function, a techno-aesthetics can easily lapse into a neo-Modernist technologism (or critical appreciation of the dialectical opposite, ala Ellul’s technique). Function is a consequence of design for Simondon, while I am suggesting it is immanent to ‘work’. In other words, I am arguing for a techno-aesthetics belonging primarily to technê and not episteme (and ‘truth’); or a techno-aesthetics on the technê end of the spectrum on knowledge and experience.

Like the smile discussed above, functionality is an event, a double-movement between what works and what doesn’t. Something that is malfunctioning is still functioning albeit poorly from the perspective of Simondon’s assumed entelechial functionality. Enhusiasts are often suspended, in action, between two relative compositions of a technical assemblage characterised by different states of functionality. There is a terrific moment in Hugh Howey’s novel Wool (spoiler-free introduction on Geek Dad blog) that captures this movement. The novel is set in a ‘silo’ and its inhabitants are survivors of some kind of apocalyptic event. I want to talk about an event where a character, Juliette, repairs a generator, but I won’t give too much away because it is a very good book.

The generator is a huge industrial machine that generates electricity for the whole silo, which is enough for hundreds of people to live. For as long as Juliette has been alive, the generator has been an incredibly loud machine the vibrations of which can be felt throughout the lower levels of the silo. Juliette convinces the administrative superiors in the silo that preventative maintenance is necessary to ward off catastrophic failure. Juliette carries out the repairs and when the generator is started she needs to be signalled by another person close to the generator that it is operating and that the first character needs to stop pressing the ‘starter’ button.  The generator’s rotating assembly is now so finely balanced there is no vibration and very little noise. The repairs carried out might as well have been improvements because the repair/design of the generator was born of experience and involves an intimate appreciation of its working functionality.  Juliette is operating in a context where there is a constant struggle between all the parts of a machine working together in functional harmony and the constant pressure of entropic decline (used as a metonym in the novel for the functioning of the silo).

Writing on Nationalisms

I am working on two papers that require a rigorous conceptualisation of the ‘nation’. One is hopefully going to be a group effort from some of my colleagues here and it is about an event space in Canberra. I am constructing a draft introduction so we are have a shared reference point. The other paper develops some of my PhD research and examines a particular episode in the history of Australian modified-car culture, the 1980s “V8’s ’til ’98” media-led consumer campaign. In both cases, a concept of the ‘national’ is required that is in some ways similar.

There are a number of ways to think about the ‘national’ as a concept that can be used in these contexts. Often the ‘national’ is described as a function of identity, both collective and individual. At moments of crisis, such as war or civil unrest, the national is articulated in such a way as to produce a cohesiveness. It normally draws on discourses of the ‘nation’ circulated as an economy of signs and symbols that most members of a nation would instantly recognise. Much attention has been paid to understanding the power relations involved in this process and how the ‘imagined community’ of the nation is produced.
The process of producing the national does not only occur at moments of crisis or in better times during rituals of celebration and purification (such as national days or remembrance days) that sanctify the national imaginary through particular signs and symbols. Often this happens by excluding other signs and symbols or ‘purifying’ the representative frame through which the elements that constitute the ‘national’ are valorised and the ‘imaginary’ sanctified.

The way the national is articulated as part of everyday life is not part of a crisis or celebration. Michael Billig’s (1995) concept of “banal nationalism” is useful for understanding how the ‘national’ is articulated through the practices of everyday life. Billig argues that along with the more spectacular expression of national identity at specific times and places, nationalism is reinforced through a multitude of small and subtle ways that are so commonplace to be otherwise unremarkable. When introducing the concept, Billig remarks that “banal nationalism is not a flag which is being consciously waved with fervent passion; it is the flag hanging unnoticed on the public building” (8). I am using Billig’s concept of ‘banal nationalism’ in two different ways in the two papers.

In the “V8’s ’til ’98” paper the historical example of the possible withdrawing of the automotive technology of the V8 engine from the consumer market produces an anxiety amongst automotive enthusiasts. A defence of the V8 is mobilised around broader anxieties relating to the globalisation of the Australian automotive industry. The ‘economic rationalisation’ of the Australian automotive industry was a policy goal of the Hawke Labor government and policies were introduced to increase the market fitness of the industry. It was known as the Button Plan after its chief architect John Button. ‘Economic rationalisation’ was the Australian version of a broader global process of neo-liberalisation in late capitalist societies.

The anxiety around the possible discontinuing of the V8 were expressed in the enthusiast media in terms of an influx of foreign-designed and foreign-manufactured automotive technologies. ‘Asian’ automotive technologies were explicitly identified as a threat and their introduction into the Australian market was discoursed as a conspiracy in some of the most flagrantly racist language I have come across in my archival research. At stake was not so much the technology in itself or the technology as a signifier of a particular identity, but the capacity of the technology to function as part of particular Australian socio-technical assemblage within the system of automobility. This socio-technical assemblage is of a particular automobilised subject of the masculine Australian driver combined with a particular automobile technology of a car powered by the ‘high-performance’ large capacity V8 engine that are used to perform upon (or, better, process) the particular space of the Australian road. The anxiety around the V8 was mobilised to defend the way automobilised Australian subjects could exist witin the dynamic system of flows and spaces of the Australian system of automobility. Other automotive technologies were dismissed in the enthusiast media on the grounds that they cannot ‘hack’ the ‘tough’ Australian conditions.

The experience of the system of automobility is part of everyday life. Members are subjectivised very early in their lives through governmental discourses that attempt to produce ‘safe’ road user subjects. For example, everyone within an automobilised society must learn how to cross the road. This is a particular competence that is designed to enable subjects to properly identify the dangers and associated risks of directly participating in the system of automobility. One consequence of this (that the road safety industry has never come to terms with) is that the space of the road is therefore potentialised in different ways depending on what Grossberg calls ‘mattering maps’ of the subjectivised individuals. The aim of governmental discourse is to produce anxiety that functions as self-surveillance for not only being aware of the dangers, but the primary risk of a subject developing a dangerously blasé attitude towards the risks. Different societies produce different systems of automobility. The cultural dimension of the system of automobility coupled with its banal everyday intimacy means that when a subject of one system of automobility is transported into another system of automobility he or she can experience the radical shock of an entirely different way of existing (within the system of automobility).

The “V8’s ’til ’98” media-led consumer campaign functioned as a moral panic about whether or not automobilised Australian subjects would be able to perform a particular Australian (and masculine) form of processual production of and engagement with automobilised time-space. A properly processual conception of the subject is essential for appreciating the capacities for action afforded by linkages with socio-technical assemblages. I am attempting to isolate the subjective dimension of part of a process of what Whitehead calls ‘appetition’. It is a way of avoiding definitions of the ‘subject’ derived from structuralist concerns with identity. Brian Massumi’s work is similarly concerned with the processual dimension of experience. His description of ‘anticipation’ captures some sense of this subjective dimension of appetition:

Orders of substitution and superposition are orders of thought defined as the reality of an excess over the actual. This is clearest in the case of anticipation, which in a real and palpable way extends the actual moment beyond itself, superposing one moment upon the next, in a way that is not just thought but also bodily felt as a yearning, tending, or tropism. […] But the definition also applies to substitution […]. Substitutions are cases in a combinatoric (a system of “either-ors” sometimes conjoined as an “and”). Not all possible actions are present as perception to the same degree. All of the permutations composing the combinatoric are not actionably present to the same degree in every perception. (original italics, 2002: 91)

Massumi is describing the relation between possible actions and the future as expressed within perception. The ‘possible’ is produced through perception as a dynamic infrastructure for immanent future action. The banal nationalism experienced on the road as part of the system of automobility is not only produced through explicit signifiers of nationhood (in Australia, this is exemplified by the Southern Cross stickers on the rear window of vehicles), but in the way the experience itself is produced as a processual relation by the socio-technical assemblage of (nominally) car, driver and road.

To invert the focus of Meaghan Morris’s analysis of the automobilised drama of Mad Max (in her “White Panic” essay, which used to be at the Sense of Cinema site, but is no longer there?), the event produced is not of the masculine violence of the car crash as a metonymic event of colonisation and the ‘white panic’ of occupying ‘the road’ as an existential horizon of national purification, rather the event produced is of a kind of mastery of ‘the road’ through the magnification of power afforded by the V8 engine. This event still demands a masculine violence, but of domination and competition articulated through a mastery of the flows of time and space within the system of automobility. The event of the crash is an exception within the differential repetition of this other far more common and banal event, which is the event of ‘traffic’. The panic around the possible withdrawal of the V8 from the Australian automotive market is a panic born of the consequential disenfranchising of Australian automotive subjects from being able to experience the processual dimension the Australian system of automobility.