The Computer and the Necropastoral

With my snout up against the fact of the Anthropocene, with my bill snared in fishing line and the blood pooling in my industrially overdeveloped chest and my meager thighs locked and a bolt in my bovine brain, I find myself reeling through an Anthropocenic zone I call the Necropastoral.

Joyelle McSweeney “What is the Necropastoral?”

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the back cover of Joyelle McSweeney’s chapbook The Necropastoral

In reading Sterne’s “Out With the Trash,” I immediately began weaving in my understanding of the Necropastoral into his discussion of the obsolescence of technology. The Necropastoral is a poetic movement that moves away from the unified beauty of Naturalism and towards a more catastrophic, decayed understanding of the industrialized, globalized world we live in. It is a middle space halfway between “newness” and obsolescence, a junkyard of decay.

Sterne writes,

This is one of the important subtleties that other kinds of studies of waste often leave aside. The usual argument is that when an object loses its value, it becomes trash. But in the world of computing equipment, there is an important continuum between that kind of progression and a more insidious gap between obsolescence and trash. There is often a significant gap in time between the reclassification of a computer as obsolete and its fall into disuse…Computers exist in a marginal category–between “useful” and “garbage”…Computers are too valuable, so we eventually throw them out and buy new ones. (25)

In other words, computers are occupying a Necropastoral space, and later when Sterne discusses the physical disposal of hardware, how it “can release hazardous materials and heavy metals into the environment,” we can see how the decaying of the computer reflects back on us. This, after all, is what it means to be in the Anthropocene.

Though Sterne’s article predates Joyelle McSweeney’s definition of the Necropastoral featured on the Poetry Foundation’s blog, it does not predate artists and new media theorists working in a Necropastoral tradition – taking apart decaying computers and repurposing them, “junk art” using chips and wires pulled from junked PCs, or even just simply using them for spare parts. I think one of the things that the Necropastoral shows us is that while things go from new to obsolete rather quickly in the new age, the never really truly reach obsolescence. They may approach it, but it is the artist’s job to bring those junked pieces back into existence and make them new again.

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Italian artist Leonardo Ulian creates mandala structures out of computer parts

Tom Anderson was my first friend, and he was yours, too.

danah boyd’s scholarship on the sociological divisions within social media networks sparked a very serious question for me: where is Tom Anderson now? All users on Myspace began with one friend, and it was his smiling face in front of a white board. So what is he up to? Where is the “Where Are They Now?” E! special on good ol’ Tom?

What my question is really getting at is the set of discourses, networks, events, people, etc. that contributed to Myspace’s upheaval and subsequent disappearance in its Friend-based form. Maybe more importantly, where did all the Myspacers go? If Facebook was and is a space of white flight, then where do we see non-dominant SNS-users migrating to in its place? Is this a situation of colonialism in some regards, where white users have colonized the kind of communication that once occurred on Myspace, leaving the ghetto so gentrified that it disappears? And where are the new reservations, where non-white users are creating new hush harbors of access?

Through analyses of Black Twitter and hashtags like #NDN, #AfterSeptember11, and #ImNotaCriminal, it’s clear that in the place of Myspace-as-personal-SNS, there has occurred a non-white flight away from Facebook, towards media that more fully encapsulate the experience of non-dominant identity. Moving to Galloway & Thacker, we might also take boyd’s teenage SNS selection as an issue of protocol. In boyd, Anindita says that Myspace’s appeal in part is that it is complex and flexible: “You can add music, make backgrounds and layouts, but Facebook is just plain white and that’s it.” While Myspace was in some ways a more malleable protocol that included more diverse identities from the inside and was only slightly exclusive from the outside, Facebook’s protocol in both respects was more strict and therefore more controlling.

So what, then, marks Twitter/Vine/Instagram’s popularity amongst teens and adults of color? With many of the same protocol features as Facebook – likes rather than full responses, no profile individuation process – these SNS sites reflect Facebook more than Myspace. On Twitter, the protocol is even more “controlled” in that a user may only post  140 characters with little possibility for an extended “call-and-response” type of communication. Vine and Instagram use a fairly rigid model of 1:1 sharing rather than remixing and responding. So, then, again – what is the appeal that brought people of color to another place “on the other side of the tracks” rather than into the suburban modularity of Facebook?

In response to Keeun’s question/On Engineers

Here is Bruno, barely in the room. Photo by: The Franklin Institute.

I was going to write (and probably still will) about Law’s claim that engineers understood the tenants of ANT before anybody else. But after reading Keeun’s blog post, I really wanted to spend more than a short comment responding to her question at the end of her post.

She writes, “I keep coming up with one question: If actor-network approach never describes realities simply, if the purpose of study is to reveal the complex and mulit-relations of all kinds of actors, what is the minimum and maximum research about the networks? Where shall we stop? Should the results be open-ended?”

We both visited Duke about a month ago to see “The Education of Bruno Latour” in which the team of the National Critical Zone Observatory discussed the work they had been doing across North America. One of the things that really struck me about that talk was the way in which everything that Bruno engaged with was a playing-out of ANT. I don’t have a sense of theorists as living their theory, but I certainly got that from Bruno as he sat at a table relatively silent for two hours while other people talked about his theory. He was only an effect of the Critical Zone, never the prime component.

Aside from his demeanor, the Critical Zone itself is fascinating. One of the common measurements taken in Critical Zones everywhere are LiDAR readings, which use laser technology to render high-resolution images of an area. The LiDAR signal not only creates a clear picture; its ability to penetrate boundaries we have thus far been unable to see past means that LiDAR can be used to “see” what’s underground, behind canopies, or what’s in a place that no one can reach. The amount of data that LiDAR readings offer us is huge, and so it requires scientists to “sift” through it all using networked relationships between objects rather than the objects themselves. Overall, the goal of the Critical Zone is to understand that any one “social” or “natural” phenomenon dealing with the Earth’s surface or its soil is neither social nor natural, but an effect of a set of human and nonhuman data that interacts.

In another ANT vein, I recently interviewed an NGO which helps communities affected by huge corporate development projects by assessing environmental compliance standards. In one instance, the US government had invested in a hydroelectric power plant on an area in Oaxaca that was the only access point for clean water in the entire region. It was also a cultural and spiritual place of significance for nearby villages. The organization helped these communities litigate and mediate to where the US government, the corporation, and the communities agreed to stop plans for the project. It was clear that the NGO was using an ANT framework to highlight the relationships between all actants in the network and to help all parties understand how precarious the network in which they resided (and could not control or have primary agency) was after all. A few years ago, I came across a study in Scotland where an education researcher was using ANT to reframe the conversation around the classroom and board agencies. It was a field that needed to understand itself within a network in order to better help students.

So, my answer to Keeun is that I do think that ANT studies are endless because they aren’t studies – they are applications/re-attunements. What I think is important about the Critical Zone Observatories and the NGO and the Scottish education study is that they are all applying ANT to fields that benefit from an ANT understanding by bringing the “human” back to scientific understanding – or bringing the “technical” into humanistic understanding. Bruno isn’t “studying” or “researching” ANT when he sits at the front of the room saying nothing, he is living it – we all are, and I think it’s our job to understand where and in which we fields we can highlight that we are, in fact, living in the network, experiencing the network, affecting the network, and being affected by the network.

And about engineers: one of the most interesting points of my academic career has been explaining what I do to my engineer father, who, through the Air Force, was an integral part of these early investigations into computer systems. The first time I ever talked about ANT, he finished my sentence, though he had no clue who Bruno was. He has always understood what he does as an open system versus the closed system mentality of other fields, but what I think is interesting, what I think Bruno adds to the conversation and has added to my dad’s understanding of what he does, is that there is still a human there, an agent or an actor in those systems, alongside the wires and control boards, within them. He understands more how precarious those early years were and still are – how without one component or one shift, the entire system could have been different.

The Wonder Years

In Kirschenbaum’s Introduction to Mehanisms, he defines his approach to forensic materiality as the study of technology in its individuated forms, whereas formal materiality acts as a way of articulating a “relative dimension of materiality” where materiality is “arbitrary and independent of the underlying computational environment” (13). In other words, the physical manifestation of a technological unit versus its ephemeral ontology.

My initial interest in Kirschenbaum was with forensic materiality, but I quickly began to see that the forensic materiality of technology necessitated its formal materiality, and vice versa. However, Kirschenbaum’s discussion is mainly with storage units such as diskettes and external hard-drive. I am interested in how this framework is a way of understanding the archive of the Internet.

I’ve recently been using the Wayback Machine, a tool that stores and caches old websites, to find old blog posts and personal websites. With this storage machine, I can potentially conjure up all the embarrassing moments of my technological adolescence – and there are plenty.

What I find interesting is that through this kind of electronic text analysis, I am understanding more and more that I and the Internet “came of age” at about the same time. Livejournal and Xanga hit in 1999 (I was 9, we had DSL, it was awesome), Myspace in 2003 (13, year of horrors), Facebook in 2006 (16, year of rebellion). I can track the negotiation of public and private through the Internet in the same way I can track my own negotiation of social space. I see the poems I posted on FictionPress in 2005 and I cringe, but I also am transported back to a time when the materiality of that kind of participatory technology was finding its way in the world in the same way I was.

There really are no safe spaces when you’re a teenage girl, and yet I look back at those AIM chats, the blogs I made, those forums I frequented, the first posts on Facebook, and I understand them as spaces where I could be vulnerable, because the Internet was vulnerable.

Interestingly, too: in trying to find a screen-shot of one of these artifacts, I’m beginning to understand how I was apparently more aware of privacy than I thought, or than I am now even. Very little of what I produced from that time is able to be see, because my aliases and usernames changes so much, from “blues123” (AIM, 1997) to “carouselambra1969” (HipForums, 2003-2005). Many have, in fact, been lost. Now, I choose to use my name. I am okay in this vulnerability, after having negotiated it and ached through it for so many years. I know what I want to be material. I wonder if the Internet has grown up this much, too?

“Thrash Mix 4”: the MP3 as Archive

In “The mp3 as cultural artifact,” Sterne argues that the mp3 is an embodied technology that upsets our historical notions of distribution and exchange value. In discussing our relationship with the materiality of the mp3, Sterne writes, “That one can collect mp3s suggests that they appear to users as cultural objects, even if they are not, in any conventional sense, physical objects that can be held in a person’s hand” (831). I thought this would have been an interesting place for Sterne to discuss the concept of the mixed CD, especially as it pertains to the Benjamin quote about collectors and how exchange value changes when something does not work within known bounds of commodity theory.

For me, the discussion of mp3-as-cultural-object was interesting, but I don’t think the mp3 means anything if it isn’t thought of in the context of the mix or the collection. Even growing, up I don’t really remember just downloading one song. If I knew of a song by a person, I implicitly understood that that song was an important piece of a much larger relationary context: the artist, the album, the person who uploaded the content and perhaps wrote a few download notes about their experience with the music. When I did download or interact with just one mp3, it was because of a mix I was making for a party or a friend. Important to the individual identity of any one mp3 was the collective identity of all mp3s – how they were ordered, their tone, their lengths, what they would mean to the recipient of the mix.

I think a much more useful understanding of the mp3 is not as object but as archive. Even in an iTunes library, I sometimes will make a mix by searching for key terms that are related to what I’m curating: “home” “punx” or “love” are recent mixes made using this technique. The idea of archive also brings along the same sense of bodily interaction that Sterne discusses when explaining mp3 technology – the mp3 as container for containers is necessarily something that brings together. And finally, I think that an mp3-as-archive paradigm helps bring in the more cultural/social implications that I originally thought Sterne would delve into – the mp3 as container for memories, for lovers, for eras of a lifetime.

TV Junkies: Where Have All The Boob-Tubes Gone?

I’ve recently been made aware that I am, in fact, a millennial. I don’t feel like a millennial: I grew up with landlines and a little white TV that, no, wasn’t in black-and-white, but had such bad reception that it wasn’t much different. My parents locked us out of the house after school and on weekends – they said, Go! Play! And don’t come back ’til dark. But, okay, I was born after 1980, I now only have a cell phone, my world is mediated through online formats, and I accept difference as a societal good. Pew gave me a “64%” on the “Millennial Scale.”

In “Television’s First Seventy-Five Years,” Uricchio ends, at least for me, with the question, “Where has live TV gone?” After discussing the ways in which film of the 20th century attempted to co-opt the technologies and “essences” of television, Uricchio turns to the ways that television has co-opted the practices of film: “Television increasingly relied on film and videotape, on reruns and the economic logics of syndication…Live television survives in the margins, where it can be found in the restricted sphere of surveillance and medical applications, Webcams, and cell phones” (302).

This, above all else, places me as a millennial in my own head, and it surprises me. If I think really, really hard, I can probably pinpoint only a handful of moments in my life where I was aware of live TV happening. The Janet Jackson Super Bowl was probably the last one. The majority of my media consumption is actually not synchronous even now – it’s through email, posting on social media, writing blog posts, and watching pre-filmed YouTube videos. Occasionally I’ll hop on G-Chat, but how different is that from any other telegraphic media from the late 19th century?

What I’m saying is that I’ve always conceptualized TV as different from film and other media in the same way that Uricchio distinguishes it: temporally. TV (when I had one) was “liveness,” but what I was actually experiencing was syndication masked as liveness. More recently, I was thinking about this in terms of radio and podcasting, and reality TV as some semblance of “real-time” that is still pre-scripted and pre-recorded. There is a semblance of simultaneity, but underneath it all, those programs are pre-recorded. There is opportunity and necessity to cut and splice in order to perform some weird notion of continuity that doesn’t involve human “ums” and “errs.” Perhaps this is why these media forms have never really got me in the same way that listening to the radio hosts (and not the actual music played on the radio) gets me.

What does that say, though, about our worldview, because as others have noted, our theorists this week are interested in parsing out that above all else within a historical framework. Does the fact that live TV doesn’t exist anymore mean that in actuality, TV does represent the passivity that critics say it does? Or does it mean that we are okay with the rouse? With the feeling of immersion and continuity that new media affords us (that film never could do), but with the added benefit of cutting and splicing the parts we don’t like or the parts that call too much attention to our own lived experiences (that TV never could do)?

A Gendered Understanding of Communication

For this week’s reading, I’ve focused in on Keep’s “Touching at a Distance,” which interprets the advances in telegraphic technology as a harkening “back to the body” during and after the age of Enlightenment. “The sensing body and not the reasoning mind” tied the telegraph to fundamentally feminine ways of knowing and communicating through the network, an interaction that was necessarily mediated via the apparatus of the body and the dispersed soul (241). One passage in particular spoke(!) to me this week:

Man’s progress towards truth, that is to say, toward an authentic understanding of himself, has been consistently imagined as a form of ascent, a rising up out of the dark, earthly, and utterly material realm associated with ignorance and superstition. This path to enlightenment has been, at the same time, a flight from the body, and in particular the maternal body…Man only comes to know, in this sense, as he learns to see, and in learning to see, comes to forget, to put behind him the remembrance of the body as the condition of knowledge, as that which makes knowledge possible…If the visual, and those technologies associated with the visual are what lead man out of the matrix of the feminine, it is then the haptic that calls him back, that reminds him of all that he has sought to escape in pursuit of a higher ideal. (252-3)

For Keep, it was the feminine that propelled information from the beginning, and this is a way of reconceiving the way that communication was inherently seen as “enlightened” or “masculine.” Behind every good man is an even better woman. Behind every good word was a woman listening in, touching it, carrying it with her in her every moment.

I was thinking the other day about how I learned math, totally decontextualized, a monoglossia wherein “the authoritative word demands that we acknowledge it, that we make it our own” (Bahktin, Dialogic, 342). I struggle with learning simple concepts like refraction, which I spent 4 hours the other day trying to grasp, and I wonder sometimes what I would have become had I learned my own authoritative word, that no one “demanded” I “acknowledge” the law of sines, but instead knew it through the “matrices” of my body, of my bodily technologies like the voice and the ear and the hand. If we are to learn about episteme, about perception, why deny the vessel through which I experienced such phenomena?

I am seeing the lattuce-work of mycelium uncovered in the dirt, the hyphae which looks so very like haptic, the threadwork of the quilt, mother’s silk robe, playing fake Dream Phone with a cardboard box, pirouetting all over the dancing floor, the riot grrl zine-making where we made instant relatives, instant histories, instant realities, cut and pasted and said out loud words like pink over and over again so it wouldn’t sound so fumbled, so it wouldn’t sound so weak, “so we didn’t have to die”.

This way of embodying or disembodying truth, or accepting that there is a truth-root to be unearthed at all – in the courtroom, in the rape case, in the classroom – I cannot accept this authority, which is why in place of academic argument, I am more interested in work that is personal, narrative, in untranslatable languages, lyric-critical (lyricritical?). Where vision, logos, corroboration, robur as in strength, as in man, as in a straight line to a single point of origin or death mean “authority,” I would rather be Tweeting about dis-authority, about I and my, we, as in you and me and the affective system of wirings and miswirings that make up our network of utterances, the “Hey girl” meme, the contextual understanding. And I would argue that these felt modes of communication encompass more than just women, on which Keep’s analysis focuses. Marginalized groups make marginalia not because they can’t read the words on the page, but because survival means not-reading, means speaking in music, gesture, art, within a hush harbor of distraction.