Drones in the Cloud: Attending to Snapchat

I don’t know enough about you
To be kind, to be kind to you
Don’t you even think about me
Cymbals, “The Natural World”

The Cymbals’ electro-pop lament of unrequited attention (‘love’) has the same furtively repetitive energetics of yearning through ‘refresh’. Refresh the inbox, refresh the stream, refresh the wall. Repeat. Has the person responded? “Here is my attention; take it.” The “I” of the song is a single contact in a series of contacts presented as the natural world (or ‘milieu’) belong to the song’s second-person “you”.[1. As this reviewer on Pitchfork described the track, it is a “witty, sweat-salty pop song about the peculiarities of media-drenched modern life”.]

The expectation of being attended to is held by the “you” but it is also shared by the “I”. Obviously, the expectation is not held in the same way. Two perspectives on the same expectation indicates a certain kind of power relation. Teachers and students are meant to share expectations of what will happen in a classroom, but they will have radically different perspectives. The flip-side to the alleged passivity of narcissism consists of the capacity to excite or agitate the world. ‘Agitate’ not in the sense of arguing — there is that too, however — but more in the sense of an ‘agitator’ sometimes used as part of the viticulture process in great wine baths to ensure that the elements in solution continue mixing (and fermenting and so on). What does this mean?

There is a labour of sharing that requires an intensive strategic infrastructure to distribute collective expectations in asymmetric relations of attending and being attended to. The technology is part of this; ‘living with notifications’ in the same way you’d say living with some potentially painful but treatable condition. Snapchat operates purely in this realm. It is not what is shared so much as the anticipation of sharing. The just-in-time sociality of online relations often encourages a temporality not unlike the rhythm of waves, in the silent way the tide draws out the body of water — gathering in the potentiality of repetitive anticipation. Like the way a comedian waits for the audience to ‘get it’ (hoping beyond hope that their gag is, indeed, gettable).[2. I often feel very awkward around people when it is apparent they are not ‘getting it’, but that is something else…]

You decide what you want from me
We can hear the passing of time
And the sound that is in your mind
— Cymbals, “The Natural World”

The second-person “you” has a spectral composition, distributed across her agitations. (Obviously I am using ‘her’ when it very well might be a ‘him’; I know I present such a persona online sometimes.[4. EDIT a few hours later: For ironic emphasis I posted this image to Instagram and to Snapchat today with different text components. Not sure if anyone got the irony in the context of this blog post. A few people got extra annoyed at me thinking I was sexting them. I guess an ironic sext (not that it is a sext as such), is still a sext.]) Being attended to can therefore be experienced as endured, where the causal relation begins elsewhere; essentially, a passive relation to the actions of others. This is an abdication of responsibility, however. Participation in the anticipatory economy of sharing attentions is at the same time an impersonal cultivation of personal relations. This is a kind of existential wriggle. Impersonal because “you” engage with the cloud, which is nevertheless populated by (im)personal intentionalities.

Does the cloud have a face? What is the faciality of the cloud? I am tempted to suggest it is the drone: a being of pure intentionality — always a mission, always a target, its cybernetic perspective is pure HUD, baby — but one that is remote-controlled. Control is displaced across space for drone pilots; for the Cymbals’ “you” it is displaced across time in the anticipatory economy of sharing. The moral crisis of drone warfare is repeated online in the ethics of being attended to. The question of agency is therefore very tricky in such a scenario as it implies a degree of responsibility. What happens when the drones come home to roost? Can you be seduced by a drone?

Drone

A further, more pressing question presents itself: What if, instead of two people, the Cymbals’ track describes a process belonging to a single person?

That is, the agitations in question do not belong to some other (online) realm or ‘world’, but constitute that through which one’s subjectivity is individuated. I don’t know enough about myself to know if my own remote-controlled agitations are returning, repeating their anticipations. This would be the McLuhanist point (the way media technology “massages” the “human”): am I drone of my own affectations, a being of pure HUD intentionality, perpetually remote-controlled by a future version of myself (assembled by expectation and gathered through anticipation)?[4. Is this a mechanism to produce the absence of immediacy, most acutely experienced as the immediacy of personal responsibility?]

 

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’.

 

[] [] []

 

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.

[] [] []

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?

 

[] [] []

 

fulltimeinternet
One of Tim Lampe’s Horse E-Posters: http://horseeposters.com/

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.

 

[] [] []

 

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.

 

 

Frank and Robot

 

Go and see it.

Great track. “Fell On Your Head” by Francis and the Lights.

The point isn’t whether or not he was going to kill himself, it was that he had a moment of lucidity — and he wanted to share that with his kids; and when he was debating whether or not to erase the robots memory it was a realisation that if he did, he was being deleted; a metaphor for his state of being — he wasn’t living, if he couldn’t remember.

Adorno as a critical theorist of temporality

Any critique of Adorno’s concept of the culture industry or mass culture that begins by introducing the notion of identity and the relation between identity and any segment of culture focuses on what is essentially the weakest, if not inconsequential, part of Adorno’s critique. The ‘identity’ critique is based on an overvaluation of the importance of variation (aesthetic or otherwise) in a cultural commodity or a range of cultural commodities. For example, the distinction made by Bernard Gedron between a cultural text and a functional artefact in his critique of Adorno’s critique of popular music relies on the kind of ‘information’ that Adorno argued was required for patrons of mass culture to be able to identify the objects of their ‘curiosity’. Gedron argues that unlike a particular part of a particular model of a mass produced automobile that can be swapped out for another part, a cultural text does not have this parts interchangeability. A more sophisticated version of this critique in the latter part of Gedron’s article is to suggest that the apparent changes within a given market of popular culture is clearly evident of Adorno’s inability to sufficiently account for variability of identity. A focus on cultural commodities at the expense of other aspects of Adorno’s critique signals an utter misapprehension of Adorno’s critique. More broadly, as noted by Max Pensky, there is a normative mode of engagement with Adorno’s writings that is little more than a “ritualistic gesture, reiterating the familiar charges of elitism, pessimism, and high-modernist myopia.” Pensky continues to say that the “trouble is that such accounts effectively preclude critical engagement with the body of thought in question.”

A far more useful way to read Adorno is as a critical theorist of temporality. By ‘temporality’ I do not mean a temporality in the Hegelian-Marxist sense of a dialectical movement that attempts to capture a teleological historical development from one historical mode to another. Bruno Latour’s argument that we have never been modern strongly suggests an alternative thesis to a developmental conception of history. For Latour, modernity is an event that is differentially repeated and (re)produces particular configurations of relations. This is a Foucauldian type of argument, where epistemic shifts are aggregated dispositifs that must continually (re)produce particular compositions of hierarchical power relations. Power does not come from above however, it runs through populations in the ways they reproduce the conditions of their own subjection.

The theory of temporality that I am extracting from Adorno’s writing has more in common with the later writings of Althusser than with a dialectical negative critique of historical development. A productive ‘philosophy of contingency’ dominates the later work of Althusser, and is very useful for understanding the properly immanent nature of contingency. The ‘encounter’ of an ‘aleatory materialism’ “becomes the basis of all reality”:

Whence the form of order and the form of beings whose birth is induced by this pile-up, determined as they are by the structure of the encounter; whence, once the encounter has been effected (but not before), the primacy of the structure over its elements; whence, finally, what one must call an affinity and a complementarity [completude] of the elements that come into play in the encounter, their `readiness to collide-interlock’ [accrochabilite], in order that this encounter `take hold’, that is to say, `take form’, at last give birth to Forms, and new Forms — just as water ‘takes hold’ when ice is there waiting for it, or milk does when it curdles, mayonnaise when it emulsifies. Hence the primacy of ‘nothing’ over all ‘form’, and of aleatory materialism over all formalism.

“The Schema of Mass Culture” presents an argument for how mass culture produces populations that are trained to process contingencies in ways that reproduce the culture. That is, the schema of mass culture is to modulate the capacity of populations to process a temporal order that belongs to an aleatory materialism. Adorno initially describes this modulation as ‘pre-digestion’: the “permanent self-reflection based upon the infantile compulsion towards the repetition of needs which it creates in the first place”. Difference as that which forces repetition is annihilated; instead there is a circularity that short-circuits self-reflection. This is the ‘totality’ of mass culture, a series of “pre-digested” tendential movements. The elements of this short-circuiting relation are practically irrelevant (which geek with which Apple product? Does it matter beyond an “infantile compulsion”?).

Consumers therefore find themselves in what Adorno calls an “abstract present”. Co-ordinates of recall beyond the short-circuit are extinguished, except in peculiar discursive moments where the past, as ‘nostalgia, is mobilised to valorise the appropriateness or not of the present. The reward for this erasure is that the “tension” of the consumer suspended by the short-circuit is guaranteed a ‘happy ending’ in the “ritual conclusion”. Adorno relates this ‘tension’ to the capacity to witness suffering, that is, negative affect. In its place is a passive affection of the ‘happy ending’. Negative affects are not necessarily passive, as Elspeth Probyn has noted in her work on ‘shame’. The experience of shame signals, in the first instance, that a subject is interested, thus sending the subject off on what Sylvan Tomkins called an ‘activation contour’ that develops in the body as the experience of shame. Perhaps the subject is spurred into action by this negative affect, and thus suffers from ‘active affections’ and the correlative increase in the capacity to act. The resolution of tension in the short-circuit of the ‘happy-ending’ is a depotentialisation of affect, so the short-circuit becomes a mechanism for the production of passive affections or what Weber called ‘charisma’.

What post-structuralist philosophers call a relation of futurity is therefore hobbled. This is not some kind of magical process however. There is a mechanics of the event structurated in perception through a suspended expectation. This is the happiest ending, as it were. An ending where this in fact no resolution, but the constant repetition of tension. Adorno likens this to the variety act, which for spectators is experienced as a kind of ‘waiting’; where the “waiting for the thing in question, which takes place as long as the juggler manages to keep the balls going, is precisely the thing itself”. Adorno describes this as a “suspension of living developmenet”, an apparatus of capture produced through the riveting experience of observing potential failure.

There are therefore two ways that the short-circuits produced by the culture industry ‘end’ (or, better, cycle again for another ‘beginning’) and that is through the projection of a ‘happy ending’ as a resolution of tension to produce the subservience of passive affections or a manipulation of tension as a way to capture attention. What if one becomes aware of this short-circuit? What if it is simply refused? What is the secondary apparatus of capture produced by mass culture that ensures there is no escape?

The secondary apparatus of capture is located in the total commodification of ‘curiosity’ and its relation to what Adorno terms ‘information’. Like the surplus labour that is used to control workers, there is a “reserve army of outsiders” ready to participate. They are organised in relation not to the exchange value of their labour but in the production of visibilities of the latest novelty. Did you hear about…?!

The less the system tolerates anything new, the more those who have been forsaken must be acquainted with all the latest novelties if they are to continue living in society rather than feeling themselves excluded from it.

Mass culture becomes a sport, which is “not play but ritual in which the subjected celebrate their subjection”. There is a compulsive repetition to inflict upon oneself “the same injustice he has already endured at the violent hands of society”. Exemplar: Love it or leave it. Kiss the flag. Are you with us or against us. “The act of repetition schools obedience,” Adorno writes, and in doing so absorbs the radical potential of anxiety. Beyond participation, the spectator contains nothing of the potentially redeemable characteristics of sportsmen (“certain virtues like solidarity, readiness to help others or even enthusiasm which could prove valuable in critical political moments”). Mass culture only wants the “howling devotees of the stadium” as they replace spontaneity is a “crude contemplative curiosity”. There is another circuit here, both an extension and an intensification of the short-circuit of pre-digested interest. Instead of facing towards a circular ending planned into the commodity, the commodification of curiosity is a way of incorporating contingency and dissolving its radical potential.

Adorno describes information as the socialisation of curiosity; that is, information “refers constantly to what has been preformed, to what others already know”.
Information is a socialisation of curiosity in the sense that information as a mechanism of control “enforces solidarity with what has already be judged”. It is a deprivation of knowledge about the object of curiosity for the purposes of bestowing the curiosity with satisfaction. Is this not how the entirety of online ‘discussion’ functions? The distribution of knowledge as a diluted ‘information’ about whatever contingency in the world fires up our ‘curiosity’? Whoever cannot answer the challenge of providing curiosity with its palliative antidote of information, that is, of “effortlessly reproducing the formulas, conventions and judgements of mass culture as if they were his own, is threatened in his very existence, suspected of being an idiot or an intellectual”. This is played out in the production of “hieroglyphic meaning” as consumers cannot escape either short-circuit. They turned inward, that is, turn into the elements of the relation rather than the implication in the relation at all.

The more the film-goer, the hit song enthusiast, the reader of detective and magazine stories anticipates the outcome, the solution, the structure and so on, the more his attention is displaced towards the question of how the nugatory result is achieved, to the rebus-like details involved, and in this searching process of displacement the hieroglyphic meaning suddenly reveals itself. It articulates every phenomenon right down to the subtlest nuance according to a simplistic two-term logic of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’, and by virtue of this reduction of everything alien and unintelligible it overtakes the consumers.

Hence, the tension is reproduced as a general anxiety of whether or not the subject of mass culture, the consumer, is sufficiently implicated in its workings: “Participation in mass culture itself stands under the sign of terror”. The micro-fascisms of everyday life betray an anxiety that is harboured “within the very medium of technological communication”. It is not that you are anxious about leaving your mobile phone at home, it is the anxiety produced when you do. What short-circuits have you accidently disconnected yourself from? How will you be an insufficient spectator of pre-digested curiosities? Under a hieroglyphic aegis, how will you be able to smuggle in the judgement of contingency with the satisfaction of knowing what comes next?

Engagement and Academic Media Ecologies

EDIT 17/08/11: Updated final draft of unit outline here.

I am in the process of redesigning the content of an introductory first year undergraduate media studies course that I shall be teaching in second semester of this year. I’ve presented a rough draft of a list of weekly topics and readings to a meeting of the department and received generally favourable feedback. My pedagogical approach is strongly influenced by my research into enthusiasm and the question of practical mobilisation (I have ‘unprotected’ a post that outlines my statement of (Deleuzian!!) teaching philosophy I wrote three and a half years ago), which in the academy is often called ‘engagement’. Academics are tasked with ‘engaging’ with the world through their research and public activities (inflected through their specific areas of interest). Students are tasked with ‘engaging’ with a scholarly program set out by lecturers and enacted by tutors. It is apparent to me (and through discussions with others and a brief review of scholarly literature on the subject) the difficulty for undergraduate university educators is precisely the problem of student engagement.

There are two ways to approach this. The first traditional way is to set out a scholarly program shaped by the expected disciplinary knowledges and specific areas of interest familiar to academics. Students are expected to learn and engage with these disciplinary knowledges. The result is the production of a student subjectivity shaped according to the expectations of the discipline. Within media studies this means a familiar week by week exposition that more often than not follows the chapters of a set textbook. In a somewhat polemical paper outlining what he calls ‘Media Studies 2.0’, William Merrin (who has a blog that ironically seems to have not been used for over a year) describes it thus:

[The] disciplinary texts retained a mainstream, broadcast core. […] This core can be easily identified in the textbooks we produce as the public-face and point-of-entry to the discipline. These employ a remarkably similar classificatory scheme with a near-standardised list of topics (audiences, institutions, representation, effects, semiology, advertising etc.), an emphasis upon a small number of broadcast forms and their history (print, radio, cinema, television) and a near-identical selection of acceptable ideas, perspectives, debates and content to interpret these forms. (20-21)

The course structure that I inherited followed this disciplinary mode of pedagogy. The advantages of this disciplinary mode of pedagogy are numerous. Students leave the particular introductory media studies unit with a set of knowledges and perhaps even skills that they share with every other student whose subjectivity, at least in part, has been produced by this disciplinary machine. There is an efficiency in terms of a time saving when an academic relies on a set textbook. It is not a question of doing less work, that is, finding relevant texts and assembling a course reader or article depository on e-reserve in the institutional library. Rather more time can be spent concerned with the administrative responsibilities of running a unit, which is normally very large (hundreds of students).

The disadvantage of this approach, if it actually is a disadvantage (I am not entirely convinced), is that it is something of a take it or leave it approach. Students are assumed to already be motivated and the question of engagement is displaced to a prior condition, outside of the lecture theatre and tutorial room. There is a barrier of entry, one which is assumed in all univeristy courses, whereby students need to ‘apply’ themselves or otherwise accept the consequences (normally, failure). I am not entirely convinced this is a disadvantage because there are strong pedagogical reasons for encouraging the conditions of failure as a kind of meta-disciplinary barrier of entry. If students fail then they are ‘not ready for university’, i.e. not sufficiently motivated prior to tertiary education.

The other way of approaching the problem of engagement, that is, of mobilising a student cohort, is somewhat experimental in scope and inverts the burden of engagement to a certain degree. Instead of the university educator presenting a corpus of disciplinary material that a student engages with, the university educator engages with the students’ existing collective critical location. To put it another way, instead of presenting the challenges faced and encountered by the respective discipline, the educator engages with the challenges faced by the student cohort and gradually introduces various relevant disciplinary knowledges and skills. It is a radically different mode of engagement. It means that the challenges presented week by week need to be very contemporary. The danger of this approach is obviously that the university educator then assumes, to a certain degree, the responsibility of student engagement instead of the problem of student engagement being something students themselves have to take responsibility. Plus I’d argue it requires a different kind of work, which I am not sure the current structure of university professionalism rewards.

Regardless, if this approach is taken, it is therefore apparent that one of the challenges faced by first year undergraduate students is that they need to engage with what can be called the media ecology of the university. The university is a key site in the contemporary creative industries for the production of knowledge and employment (or at least potential engagement by) scholars and others. I wanted to have a week in this redesigned media studies course that explored the university precisely in these terms. The various questions I wanted ask include:

– How has the university developed as a key site in the production and distribution of knowledge?
– Is it possible to think of the university as a media industry?
– If so, then what are the key texts produced by the university? How are they accessed? What are the barriers of engagement?
– What media literacy skills are required to consume and produce these texts of the university?
– How has the ‘new media’ ‘search’ culture affected the way research is carried out?
– How have ‘social media’ affected the dissemination of media texts?

In a sense, academics are immersed in the social milieu that these questions are designed to outline. The transformation of a student cohort so students can perform a competent student-scholar subjectivity means that they need to become competent in their engagement with the university as a key site in the creative industries, at least for the duration of their university careers.

Do any of my readers know of a journal article or book chapter that engages with the university as a media industry or in a similar way? Merrin’s article quoted above is the closest I have found so far.

Merrin, William. (2009) “Media Studies 2.0: upgrading and open-sourcing the discipline” Interactions: Studies in Communication and Culture 1(1): 17-34