Technology, Events, and Thresholds of Subjectivity

I am reading Adrian Mackenzie’s Transductions at the moment. There are a couple of reviews and mentions online. The reviews are mostly positive. My experience of the book so far is summed up by this comment from the esteemed Chris Chresher:

A transductive approach extends the domain of the political beyond language and institutions: ‘politics is in technology just as much as it is in the more visible and enunciative domains of collective symbolic interactions’ ([Mackenzie, Transductions] 43). However, Mackenzie doesn’t pursue political questions per se, focusing more on the philosophical questions of the ways in which technical changes alter the capacities of bodies, and their experiences of time.

Danny often has a go at me for what I understand to be his criticism of those who use theories and do research in such a way whereby one basically finds research to fit the theories; so that research is essentially a rhetorical exercise. What Danny calls a ‘processual’ approach to research. I welcome Danny’s provocations because otherwise I would lull into a sense of accomplishment akin to pleasuring one’s self. (Believe me, I would not choose ‘modified-car culture’ if my aim was to simply to demonstrate how good I am at reading and intellectually digesting difficult philosophical arguments and other scholarly stuff.)

A similar critique can be made of Mackenzie’s book. Is the ‘transductive’ relation between technological ensembles and user-collectivities encapsulated through a combination of Judith Butler’s notion of material iteration with Simondon’s concept of ‘technicity’ really the best way to talk about bodies, time and speed?

One problem I have been grappling with is the multi-dimensionality of the car and the multi-dimensionality of ‘enthusiasm’. Firstly, enthusiasm. I have decided to discuss ‘enthusiasm’ as the pre-individual and necessarily collective thread around which modified-car culture is organised. It exists on affective and material levels and can be found embedded in discursive formations. The problem I have been trying to address and which is evident in the BCCCS-style subcultural theory is the constitution of a typology of subjecthood organised around a singular subject (ie the punk, the mod, the rocker, etc). There are massive problems with this approach. A few that others have noted include the tendency to exclude those who do not fit this model (including discriminations based upon gender, ethnicity, and most importantly, class) and a perhaps related tendency to perceive such singular subjecthoods as heroically resistant to a hegemonic order against which the subjecthood is defined.

Much scholarship has concerned itself with affirming or debunking particular conceptions of the ‘punk’ or more broadly conceived ‘subcultural’ identity. The true or false determination of a punk identity is a somewhat pointless exercise for anyone not concerned with policing what is included or exlcuded from the punk enthusiasm. The determination of a punk identity is one example of what Deleuze and Guattari call the axiomatisation of the capitalist socius. The punk axiomatic is exactly the set of ‘givens’ or ‘assumptions’ one thinks of when imagining the ‘punk style’. Punk is this, this, this and so on. I am not really that interested in questions of identity. Let that concern those who have a stake in the capitalistic axiomatic.

I have decided to appoach the problem a different way. Instead of a singular subjecthood, in my thesis I shall argue there are multiple subjectivities distributed across a singular enthusiasm. In the case of music-based spectacular subcultures, the is a singular enthusiasm, for example lets call it punk, around which multiple subjectivities are organised (or which are intepellatively organised by a subcultural media or embodied gesture), including audience, musicians, shop owner, music executive, public, mainstream, and so on. Punk is not a style, but a problematic of which the (axiomatised) style is but one expression; just as all the subjectivities either individual or collective are also expressions.

The common thread to all subjectivities organised around ‘Punk’ is that they actualize a dimension of ‘Punk’ the social event. The term ‘Punk’ is the retroactive coding of a heterogeneous but related set of practices which existed before the moniker ‘punk’ did. The activities and events precipitated by these practices are given the monolithic name ‘Punk’ by history’s representatives, such as the popular mass-media and governmental authorities. The absorption of Punk into history demands a folding of the punk-event into the subjectivities of all the differential subjectivities actualised from the singular punk enthusiasm.

My interest is in the the multiple actualisations of an enthusiasm for modifying cars. The relations between the various subjecthoods that exist as expressions of a singular pre-individual, but necessarily collective enthusiasm for modifying cars. In the case of modified-car culture the subjectivities produced are relatively simple to describe because of the insertion into the set of relations by the car. The car organises the distribution of subjectivities into relatively sedimented relations determined by the proximity to the technology of the car. The subectivities of enthusiasm include, but are not limited to, driver, passenger, techno-mechanic, artisan, spectator, journalist and commentator. The subjectivities are determined by thresholds of proximity, which can be thought of in terms of an experiential and knowledge-based intimacy. I have tried to discuss this before on my blog in terms of ‘users’ and the example of gamers, modders and so on. A very simple parrallel can be drawn between actualisations of an enthusiasm for modifying cars and actualisations of an enthusiasm for computer gaming. A ‘subcultural event’ for gamers is ‘gaming’ or ‘modding’ and for modified-car enthusiasts it is ‘modifying’ or ‘driving’ or ‘spectating’ or whatever. Or just how various everyday ‘fan-enthusiast’ subjectivities are distributed in time and space by mass-produced ‘cultural franchise events’ such as Australian Idol

To get back to the issue at hand: Mackenzie’s Transductions. Mackenzie does not take into account this aspect of the ‘interface problematic’, that is, the socio-economic implications of different subjectivities organised around a singular technology. The easiest example to give is of when a technology is working or when it isn’t working. Some info-tech computer systems in a knowledge economy environment are ‘always on’ such as various types of server and so on. When such systems are off that means something has gone wrong. ‘Going wrong’ — like Deleuze’s favourite example of ‘being cut’ — is an event. The event emits a stream of singularities which distribute bodies in space and organise the subjectivities performatively embodied in them. What does this mean? The ‘user’ ceases to exist in a ‘user’ relationship to the technology. User does not signal a becoming, but a socially sedimented subjectivity. What the singular dimension of the ‘going wrong’ event organises in time and space is not only the body of the user, ie it is no longer embodying a user subjectivity, but also the body and subjectivity of the computer technician. The technician comes to fix the computer. If the computer user and computer technician are in fact the same person (such is often the case for gamers or car enthusiasts), then threshold of subjectivity is crossed. The technician unscrews the ‘black box’ of technology and enters into a more intimate relation with the technology. (Hence, D&G’s comments in _AO_ about N-sexes and the flows produced between a handyman and his tools.) The normal user and computer technician are two subjectivities organised around the singular technology and distributed in time and space by the event of the ‘going wrong’. Socio-economic considerations? Is there not a question of the political economy of knowledge, labour and so on that emerges as soon as one takes into account the different sedimented subjectivities organised around technologies and distributed in time and space by events?

So far I have not come across any discussion in Mackenzie’s book that even indicates he is aware of this problem of subjectivity or related questions of political economy or labour. I am only half way through so maybe it does come up. Dunno? But to me it signals the dangers of the purely philosophical argument versus the socio-economic or ‘political’ (as Chresher says) implications of a philosophical argument. Even though the book is listed under ‘Cultural Studies’ I would have thought the socio-economic or ‘political’ considerations would have been central to any mode of scholarship coming under such a heading.