Thursday, September 27, 2007

All Your Base Are Belong To Us

In considering the movement away from Foucaultian Disciplinary Society to the Deleuze & Galloway Control Society, I realized that video game space is perhaps the best example of a total control society.

In video games, the world exists only as much as programmers are willing to code it, which is to say that the world is entirely controlled. Considered a game like MarioKart, which not only controls the space that a player is allowed to interact with, but also the very actions and movements the player can make. No MarioKarter can get up and leave their kart for instance. These games, even while emphasizing player freedom within the gamespace control the very rendering of the world around the player not only does the game process the visualscape for player interaction, but the ability to look is also pre-coded. Even the interfacing tools of a joystick, gamepad, or simple keyboard control the ways that players can interact with a game down to a specific science.

This brings up the phrase "All Your Base Are Belong To Us" a catchphrase for the digital gamer, taken from a now cult classic "Zero Wing" game (1989). In the opening cut sequence, a villified cyborg takes control of the operation of a bomb aboard a supposedly "good" ship claiming "All Your Base Are Belong to Us." The imperfect grammar, combined with the suggestion of the phrase made it a ubiquitous trash-talking element.

But when viewed from the context of the Control Society, particularly within the controlled context of gamespace, this is phrase seems prophetic. When the human interacts with controlled, hack-proof video gamescapes, "all your base are belong to us." And's more, we, rather than the game or the computer, become the other, set up against the collective "us" of technology.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

09 F9 11 02 9D 74 E3 5B D8 41 56 C5 63 56 88 C0

Although Galloway proves that the Internet is not chaos but a highly structured system, the amount of control inherent in this system is still limited. The solitary unit - a person, an IP address, a domain - is vulnerable to the hierarchy of TCP/IP protocol that Galloway presents; it is easily cut off from the rest of the network, but information, which is by its nature not confined to one source or one branch of a network, supersedes any hierarchical structure and is uncontrollable. It has the characteristics of a virus, and once it has spread out from its origin, lopping off one branch is futile; the entire tree must be cut down.

I point to the recent HD DVD encryption key controversy that erupted on the Internet this summer. In an effort to suppress the key, the Motion Picture Association of America and the Advanced Access Content System consortium began sending cease and desist letters to websites that had published the encryption key, demanding that the information be removed. However, instead of controlling the information, these cease and desist letters sparked a riot in which the encryption key was copied over to thousands of other sites. From the primary event of copying, secondary accounts of the encryption key arose as news sources began reporting the copying. One user driven news site, Digg, became yet the third reincarnation of the encryption key when the main page of its website was taken over by reportings of the key. Digg began to censor the stories and faced such a backlash from its users that the censoring of the reporting of the copying made headlines in other sources. While all this was happening, the encryption key, which was once merely text, had evolved into images, T-shirts, videos, and even a song…

anchors away...

In approaching his valuation of emerging networks, Lyotard makes a really interesting assertion: “Data banks are the Encyclopedia of tomorrow. They transcend the capacity of each of their users. They are ‘nature’ for postmodern man.” (p53) A handy footnote further clarifies that he is here implying that organized mastery of the databank has become “the major challenge for the advanced poles of humanity in the coming decades” as the task of mastering the material world is “already assured” (see ref to Nora and Minc, p 98-99)

This is particularly striking for two reasons. To begin with, the phrasing itself seems rather prophetic ; the internet as we know it, having arisen as one of the primary frameworks connecting the databanks of electronically stored knowledge, contains within itself many separate instances in which new “realities” are created. Organizations like 2nd Life, World of Warcaft, and various other MMORPGS have become worlds in themselves in which very real (anchored within the “real world”) capital, time, and emotional energy is spent. The network has become a place where new worlds do exist in which we invest ourselves. And for many people, these “cyber realities” are becoming increasingly more ‘real’ (in the sense of their import) than those of the naturally existing world we inhabit.

Beyond the creation of a second “nature” or reality to explore, however, I’m also intruiged by Lyotard’s jump in metaphorical thinking – his image of the databank moves from one of an encyclopedic collection of accumulated knowledge (pertaining, I’d assume, to the natural world) to a distinct totality whose relation to this world has been largely effaced. This transformation of databank from storehouse “descriptive of this world” into a domain whose challenges supplant and superceded those of this world seems like quite an enormous one. And this linguistic shift begs the question: what place does the world-within-the-network actually occupy within our own world (that is, this world of traditional reality, this traditional domain of “nature”)?

If the network turns in on itself, generating new knowledge whose referents are increasingly within the network themselves - will the amount of knowledge within the network actually pertaining to the “real” world eventually become proportionally nil? At what point does the derivation of the network’s value diverge from its anchoring within the real world? Have we already crossed that line? If not, will we soon?

The Internet vs. The State

"The ideology of communicational 'transparency,' which goes hand in hand with the commercialization of knowledge, will begin to perceive the State as a factor of opacity and 'noise.'" - Lyotard

Professor Mark Tribe made an interesting observation in a class I took with him last semester - in discussing the history of the development of the internet, he noted that the creators of the fundamentals of internet protocol, which emerged in the 1960s and 70s, lived in the Silicon Valley/San Fransisco area of California. They were hippies. Their opposition to allowing government control or censorship of the free flow of information was evident in the basic functioning of their coding, which has manifested itself on the highest levels of how the internet operates and effects modern society. Beyond the confrontation between State power and economic flows that Lyotard discusses, the flow of information has already had a powerful impact on the ability of the State to regulate what its citizens hear, say, and believe, and - based on the precedent of how economic integration and globalization has undermined State authority historically - it portends to have an even more massive influence on the future. Informational integration and globalization, perhaps aided by the paralogical language Lily predicts below, has the potential to dissolve the State even further. Yet I think Lyotard's response to this is lacking - his construction of networked knowledge as a commodity, in my opinion, is undermined by the Web 2.0 revolution. User-generated content produces knowledge freely, and that content is consumed freely (with the exception of SecondLife). This development could have an even more decisive effect on State legitimacy, as its production is even less susceptible to regulation and control (see the speed with which the execution of Saddam Hussein was posted on the internet, despite the U.S.'s efforts to keep it invisible) than the bits of information Lyotard discusses.

Response to Galloway vs. Lyotard comment below

Interesting that you mention as a fundamental difference between the two theorists the belief that one has to know how to use technology to communicate in today's "computerized society". Particpating in the Cyworld lab tonight made me realize just how much knowledge you needed to even sign up for community membership. Of course, the typical fields had to be filled out, but the next page was even more interesting-- it told you to check your email (or go on AIM) and then immediately gave you a field to type in the special code from your email. This indicates that they probably expected their users to have their email open in a separate window or tab, or have their AIM working in the background. Both of these actions are not common among new computer/internet users-- mostly, these behaviors are typical of experienced (and moreso, connected) internect users. People who constantly have their email or AIM running are usually highly connected and technologically savvy. It was shocking to me to see an internet site so geared towards this type of person-- usually these social networking sites bend over backwards to be as technologically "dumb" as possible so as to attract as many users as possible. Obviously, Cyworld expects its users to be of a different breed-- to know technology intimately and to be a full-fledged citizen in a post-modern computerized society.


Unlike Galloway, Lyotard believes that knowledge=power sometimes, yet he notes that in order for us to communicate on a global level, we have to have enough knowledge of the technology to be able to use it effectively. Therefore, we are only empowered on a global level if we know how to use technology. So shouldn't knowledge=power, always?

Also, if we are continually advancing global communication at this rate, will we ever reach the idealistic apex of a unified techno speak? Could we in fact make language paralogical and eliminate social barriers? Or, will new barriers form as new networks and groups reform within the context of the internet?

material substrates

Since Lyotard’s final suggestion is to give individuals free access to “memory and data banks,” I think one area that deserves attention is his idea about the nature of data/knowledge (68). Although I buy most of what he writes about the externalization of knowledge, he seems to advance the somewhat posthumanist position that knowledge is separate from material substrates. If knowledge is indeed external to something, it must be transcendental. For example, on page 50, he writes that in high learning, what is transmitted is an “organized stock of established knowledge.” He then writes, however, that while new technologies would change the medium of communication, even suggesting that teachers themselves would be replaced by intelligent terminals, pedagogy would not (unlike what was previously thought) suffer (50). He goes on to write that only in the grand narratives of legitimation that the replacement of teachers by machines is intolerable (51). Since these narratives no longer drive the quest for knowledge, this aspect of “classical didactics” is irrelevant (51). Data banks are the future, he suggests. They “transcend” their users; they are the nature of the postmodern man (51).
What this implies to me is that knowledge is now transcendental and exists in some form completely separate from material instantiation. Instead of taking this as a fact, I think this perceived separation should be investigated. What becomes of form-specific media analysis? It seems more likely to me that this perceived divide between knowledge and material is begat by computerization rather than affected by it. Why do we believe that knowledge is now transcendental? What does this mean for Lyotard’s computerization of society?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Periodization and Culture

I'm intrigued by some of the periodization schemes that have come up in this week's reading, particularly in the Galloway article. Regardless of whether the theorists he cites are talking about social or cultural epochs, they all seem to define the periods they study based on the mechanisms or models through which power functions. Combining some ideas from Foucault, Kittler, and Galloway, we have the narrative scheme "sovereign -> disciplinary -> control." Classical cultural studies scholarship (classical as in 1960s-1990s), however, has consistently labeled the model of power during that time period (the latter half of the twentieth century) "hegemonic." Hegemony is a model under which power functions through consent as much as through coercion; think of, for example, the simple examples the rise of television, junk food, and American neocolonialism. Would this period fit between disciplinarity and control? I certainly feel that it could. In the control society, power lies in the ability to control flows and circulations of information, a notion distinct from that of hegemonic power. Do the theorists we read dismiss hegemonic power as too brief an historical moment to be recognized, or do they reject the idea entirely, or is it subsumed under one of their other rubrics?

Monday, September 24, 2007

Some considerations on 'Language and Communication in a 'Society of Control'

(I originally posted this as a comment but after a quick general look at the blog - I recently managed to finally log in - I realized that comments are not that widespread and I was not sure about the blog 'netiquette' nor about the usefulness of sending a somehow 'hidden' post as my late first contribution and so I re-sent it here below.. sorry if I did something wrong. no megalomania involved.)

The opposition between the two distinct forms of power described in Tess’ last paragraph (that I will call ‘information access’ and ‘information shaping’) is an extemely good point because it actually raise a crucial question about the status of internet as a so-called ‘imagined community’. According to Benedict Anderson, the nation is a cultural artefact originating from the interplay between ‘a system of production and productive relations (capitalism), a technology of communications (print), and the fatality of human liguistic diversity’ (pp. 42-43). Within this theoretical frame the novel, meant as a synchronic form of representation, has played for Anderson a key role in imagining the nation as a ‘sociological organism moving calendrically through homogeneous empty time’ (p. 26). However, as Pheng Cheah writes in Grounds of Comparisons ‘[…] at a later historical age, once the nation has been born, more determinate and even ideological use can be made of the novel. Here, “representation” is more than the picturing/figuration of the form of the community. It is “thematization”. A particular nation and its characteristics can be made the referent and theme of the novel’s plot and characters’ (p. 7).
I am willing to argue that – increasing rapidity of technological innovations taken into account – twenty years can reasonably be considered, in Cheah’s terms, as internet imagined community’s ‘later stage’. As Alexander Galloway points out ‘In that year [1995], there were 24 milions internet users. Today, the internet is a global distributed network connecting billions of people around the world’ (p.6). It is probably not incidental that, compared to the precise data of 1995, Galloway leaves the current number of users overtly indefinite.
Since, as Tess implicitly let us notice, users might be said to differ precisely in owning either ‘information access’ power or ‘information shaping’ one, there is no way to know what type of new user is about to join the community in this precise moment (this difference is oviously connected to relations of power that lie outside the realm of information and whose stability is undermined by the fluidity of Appadurai’s global ‘–scapes disjunctures’). As a consequence, there is no way whatsoever to produce any ‘picturing/figuration of the form of the community’. If, as Anderson pointes out, ‘the novelistic format of the newspaper assures the reader that somewhere out there the “character” Mali [or China] moves along quietly, awaiting its next reapperance in the plot’ (p. 33), Cheah’s concept of “nation thematization” in the case of the internet community can only take the form of an interactive fiction any user is contributing to inscribe in our ongoing present. Interactive fiction is probably the most appropriate metaphor to replace Anderson’s novel in our Internet nation ‘later stage’.
In other words, the editor might still be there but the reader has in the meantime become the writer of that same newspaper. For this reason I tend to think that none of the two means of control can possibly be said to be greater: any reason to delete China would be today connected to the ideological use of an image of China which the editor knows to be unreliable just because it is also partly produced precisely by incontrollable users.

″Dark Source″

In March of 2005 ″Making Things Public″ opened at ZKM. The curator, Bruno Latour, pulled together innovative art works by media specialists, video producers, sculptors and sound engineers in order to create a multi-disciplinary, multi-media installation that insisted on the visitor to ″experience, in a new way, the presence of political matters.″ Many of the works included within the exhibition explore the instances of representation - both artistic and political - that occur in contemporary public space.

The picture of the installation above is from Ben Rubins ″Dark Source″ project - a kind of informational sculpture - that interrogates the political practice of electronic voting and the technologies that enable such activity. I wanted to post about this project for two reasons.

1. ″Dark Source″ deals with the source codes that make electronic voting possible -- source codes that are kept private because of copy-right issues. In ″Dark Source″, Ben Rubin dramatizes this problematic political situation by displaying lines of code that have been systematically erased. As Ben Rubin writes ″What is on display, then, is not the forbidden source code, but rather the state of affairs in which we find ourselves today, one in which the critical infrastructure of democracy in the United States is becoming privately owned, and being private, is also being made secret.″ The political and social issues this piece so provocatively raises correlates nicesly with Galloways writings on protocol and control in de-centralized societies. ″Dark Source″ raises the questions -- how is political representation based (and subsequently restricted) by the technologies that facilitate public action? what are the political consequences of privately owned source codes?

2. But perhaps more importantly, i refer to Ben Rubins art because i think it in many ways represents an alternative to the somewhat lame ″resistance by silence″ paradigm presented by Galloway. I think art like Ben Rubins spectacularizes certain political realities in a way that insists on reform - or at least on public awareness.

im interest in bringing art into the picture -- however cumbersome and problematic it might be - to regard it as a force that might ameliorate some of the issues of restraint or control raised by Galloway.
I'm interested in how resistive or counter factions fit into Lyotard's language games. Where is the space for resistance, in the world where knowledge, technology, and surplus are so closely related? On the last page, Lyotard advocates a system where the public has free access to the databanks. Does the internet offer that now, or is it a utopian vision?
If no meta-narrative exists in the postmodern condition, and we are in a state of fragmentation and pluralism -- is that not what prior revolutions fought for, decentralization? I guess what I'm trying to express difficulty with understanding is how Lyotard's postmodern theory might allow, prevent, or even instigate social change.

Legitimation by paralogy

I'm attempting to make sense of Lyotard's final chapter on legitimation by paralogy. Paralogy, as I understand it, captures the search for new meaning in old language games. I am unsure how paralogy is the "treatment to the problem of legitimation" (65), and also why Lyotard does not believe the "the goal of dialogue is consensus" (65). As a pluralist, I understand Lyotard's aversion to consensus, however, his personal feelings against it does not make it untrue. Also, what are the diameters of consensus? A community, a country, a continent? And now, with the spread of the internet, would consensus have to include every online user?Finally, I am also unclear on how paralogy works with performative language games or if it does at all. Is paralogy the only alternative to consensus and what does consensus, especially on the internet, mean? Basically I'm just very confused...

Duality of the real and the abstract

The Lyotard reading reminded me of one of my favorite quotations, though the author escapes me. The quotation was "if the human mind were simple enough to understand, we'd be too simple to understand it." It seemed to me that a lot of Lyotard's argument centered around the fact that all of our language systems--science, mathematics, etc--are invariably imperfect, as indicated by the invocation of Godel's incompleteness theorems, and in many respects Lyotard seemed to justify the nihilist observation of scientific inquiry that arose from "the truth requirement of science being turned back against itself" (39). Lyotard seems to lament the fact that the pursuit of knowledge has become more about the production of real power than about the abstract expansion of knowledge or even the production of ethical "law."

I was especially surprised at how quick Lyotard was to claim that, "the greeks of the classical period.. established no close relationship between knowledge and technology." It seemed to me that one had to look no further than the technological stratagem of the Trojan horse, or the highly adapted combat technologies of the Roman empire, if one wishes to be more historically literal, to see a clear demonstration of the long understood link between the pursuit of technological knowledge and the production of real power. It seems to me that the link between knowledge and power has always existed, and moreover I don't seem to feel the same way as Lyotard--namely that the production of this power comes at the cost of a more pure pursuit of ethics or morality. Isaac Asimov's science fiction literature made a case for the relationship between technology and real power as a positive aspect of civilization in his Foundation series by constructing a galactic empire that was both predicated on technological advancement in the extreme, and counterbalanced by an equal emphasis on governance, ethics, and human law. There were two separate governing entities that embodied each one of these characteristics. In his work, Asimov seemed to suggest that without the production of this real power, our elements of ethical philosophy remain just abstract imaginings. If Lyotard decries the practical for its displacement of the abstract, I must say that I believe a balance of the practical and the abstract is the only viable solution. I do not agree that our society is trending towards one of technological pursuit to the exclusion of all else, and I see it as the academy's place to maintain that relationship.

I felt that Lyotard made many provocative observations, but went astray in suggesting that things are different now than they were "back then." Human beings, I have always felt, have remained remarkably constant, and the real difference between now and then is simply the progress we have made with the extra time we've had. I'd like to revisit that initial quotation that led in turn to my writing here. It seems to me that if language and our systems of knowledge seem imperfect, can we be absolutely certain that they contain within them the metapragmatic tools of self analysis? Perhaps our language is simply not one that is designed to describe the whole truth of the universe, but instead built for the practical concerns of building knowledge and asymptotically approaching an all-encompasing understanding and implementation of the abstract in the real.

"Democratic" Protocol?

One aspect of Galloway’s introduction that I found particularly interesting (and a bit confusing), was the emphasis on protocol as “democratic” (13, 25). I think this term is crucial since it is such a central theme to the way people often speak about the internet, suggesting that it is a more ‘democratic’ medium than previous media forms (such as book publishing). Internet technologies are cited as unique and important precisely because of their potential as ‘democratic’ tools. Yet Galloway argues, “While protocol may be more democratic than the panopticon in that it strives to eliminate hierarchy, it is still very much structured around command and control and has therefore spawned counter-protocological forces” (13). What impact, then, does this democratization of control have on our societies? Galloway goes on to say that “protological control is still an improvement over other modes of social control…it is through protocol that one must guide one’s efforts, not against it” (17). While I certainly could benefit from further clarification about the idea of “protocol” itself, my curiosity is why Galloway seems to suggest that just because control is more “democratic”, it is better than other forms? And what does that democratization entail? It seems that in Galloway’s formation, “democratic” is substituted for “distributed”, but I think this may elide some important differences.

Is protocol truly “democratic”? To me, this brings up issues of participation and agency – in a democracy, at least in theory, people participate in the creation of their government and in so doing affect its form. Is this the case with protocol? I may simply be misunderstanding the use of the term in this context, but Galloway clearly wishes to link the technological form with the governmental or societal one. So one open question for me is whether this is a fair comparison, but I would also very much welcome anyone who would like to argue with my interpretation here or elucidate the meanings of these terms further.

For Sale to the Highest Bidder: The Commodification of Legitimacy

"Is legitimacy to be found in consensus obtained through discussion?" (Intro, xxv)

This question, posed by Lyotard in the Introduction, brought me back to our discussion of imagined communities, and the idea that imagined communities might come into being through the performative recognition of the community by an external observer. In the same way that I believe communities may be realized by external forces or by internal ones, I believe legitimacy can be reached either through consensus (internal forces) or by imposition (external forces).

Lyotard goes on to discuss the development of "knowledge in the form of an informational commodity" (5), and the power of those who have achieved competence within the various forms of language games (18). This brings up several interesting points. If the prior question of legitimacy as formed by consensus can be answered in the affirmative, and knowledge--the basis for discussion leading to consensus--has become a commodity to be bought and sold, can legitimacy itself, then, be bought and sold? If consensus, reached through sharing (or buying/selling) knowledge between members of a community, is indeed the basis for legitimacy, the commodification of legitimacy must not be far off. However, if the basis for legitimacy is imposition of regulations by an external force, does this make the commodification of legitimacy more or less likely? I'm not sure what I think about this possibility either, but thought I would open up the floor for discussion.

What are the implications of a tradeable legitimacy?
This is the first time I've studied postmodernism, so I thought Lyotard's ideas of the "breaking up of the grand Narratives" were particularly interesting in this weeks readings.

Lyotard says "economic 'redeployment' in the current phase of capitalism, aided by a shift in techniques and technology, goes hand in hand with a change in the function of the State...functions of regulation, and therefore of reporduction, are being and will be further withdrawn from administrators and entrusted to mcahines" (14). I interpreted this as Lyotard saying due to cybernetics and the rise of the information age, there is no longer faith in the "grand Narratives," or I guess the metanarrative, because one can no longer identify "with the great names, the heroes of contemporary history" (14). So in a sense, metanarratives no longer exist or are valid because we live on smaller narratives that get defined and created by new information and technology and the circulation of these things. However, what I don't understand is, why is this a complete dismissal of the "grand Narrative?" Can't this complete idea be seen as a metanarrative in itself? Couldn't there, in the future, be a post-postmodern way of life that would just make Lyotard's postmodernism another metanarrative in history? Or am I interpretting all of this the wrong way...

Language and Communication in a “Society of Control”

“The key thing may be to create vacuoles of noncommunication, circuit breakers, so we can elude control.” (Deleuze qtd. in Galloway 17)

Is noncommunication the only way to truly “elude control”? I believe that it is. Even the Internet, whose TCP/IP protocols are “anarchic and highly distributed” (Hall qtd. in Galloway 8) and which appears to be a society built on anonymity, relies for communication on rigid protocols like HTML and HTTP. “Web traffic must submit to a hierarchical structure (DNS) to gain access to the anarchic and radically horizontal structure of the Internet” (9), Galloway writes, casting protocols as the laws people follow in order to gain freedom of communication. “Protocol,” he warns, “is dangerous” (16).

IP addresses (which to me resemble social security numbers, those least anonymous of tags) can be traced; web pages are eternally cached. All online communication – indeed all language – leaves footprints that facilitate control.

In a sense, the Internet is an imagined community based entirely on language: words comprise websites, forums, and email while on another level written computer code allows online actions and transactions to function in the first place. “I attempt to read the never-ending stream of computer code as one reads any text,” Galloway writes, “…decoding its structure of control” (20).

Given that the imagined community of the Internet is a mecca of communication, and language is a means of control (as Benedict Anderson seems to suggest), is the Internet less or more controlled/controllable than other, more concrete communities?

Also on the subject of control, Galloway asserts that “the root servers…have ultimate control over the existence (but not necessarily the content) of each lesser branch” (10). By way of an example, he says dramatically that “if hypothetically some controlling authority wished to ban China from the Internet…they could do so very easily through a simple modification of the information contained in the root servers… China would vanish from the Internet” (10).

Intriguing to me is the idea that while the Internet is indeed a society of control, a given “controlling authority” cannot choose the manner of his power. He can delete China, perhaps, but he can’t really edit it. Users function differently: we can change the Internet’s content in our own small ways, but we can’t even delete a blog post once it’s been cached by Google. Which means of control is greater?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Old Boy and Time

I posted my reading response earlier this week on our myCourses, but then I realized we had a separate discussion blog. So here it is...

I was most intrigued by Old Boy's exploration of differing conceptions of temporality. The length of Oh Dae-Su's imprisonment is calculated on a practical to allow his captor to enact his revenge, but it also works to blind Oh Dae-Su from the truth by warping his perspective of time. This is most apparent when we are shown side-by-side shots of Oh Dae-Su training in his cell and images from the global media as the last fifteen years of world history pass by. Although he is allowed a television and is thus privy to the passage of time outside his cell, Oh Dae-Su's conception of time nevertheless shifts from the "empty homogeneous time" described by Benedict Anderson - in which a larger imagined community, in the case, the rest of humanity, exists together - to a messianic time focused entirely on revenge. To Oh Dae-Su, time is merely the space between his imprisonment and his revenge on his captor. Tragically, he is thus blind to the rest of the world's passage through time, most poignantly that of his young daughter. By the time he realizes the disjuncture between these two realities, it is too late. Old Boy thus offers an allegory for clashes between various temporal perspectives - will the friction between new forms of temporality introduced by world-wide networks and previous notions of time result in tragedy? The most obvious example - the disjuncture between the messianic time of Islam and the linear historical development constructed by the U.S. - may not bode well.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Comparative Cosmopolitanisms and the Case of Orhan Pamuk

"This is an author that creates an immediate and almost childish joy of reading. He has stolen the novel, one can say, from us westerners and has transformed it to something different from what we have ever seen before ... His roots in two cultures ... allows him to take our own image and reflect it in a partially unknown and partially recognisable image, and it is incredibly fascinating." -- Horace Engdahl
Especially after reading Bruce Robbins' "Comparative Cosmopolitanisms," I am struck by the relevance of the debate accompanying Turkish author Orhan Pamuk's Nobel Prize, awarded just last year. The press surrounding the announcement in 2006 painted the author's work as an important nexus between East and West, particularly as the contemporary struggle for Turkey's membership in the EU wages. In interviews as well as in critical assessments of his oeuvre, the subject of dual cultural identity comes to the fore. It is less a divided, conflicted identity, than one that straddles two traditions within the shifting, local culture of his homeland. Turkey makes an endlessly interesting case for the interactions of the local and global.

Given the canonizing impulse of the Nobel Prize and the loaded reality of awarding it to a Turkish author, how can we tie this case with Robbins' treatment of "third world metropolitan celebrities"? Compared with Salman Rushdie, whom Tim Brennan places in a group of removed, palatable (to Westerners) "cosmopolitan commentators on the Third World," what does Pamuk's work do? Andrew Finkel, a London-based journalist, has said that Pamuk "wasn't afraid to be an intellectual," and thus "changed what people thought a Turkish novel would be." Who is/are the target reading public(s) and what does this mean for his inclusion in the Western academies?

I'm particularly interested in the assertion that to be truly politically engaged/engaging is to be rooted in the national. As he deals indisputably in the local as well as the historical specificity of his childhood, draped in artful nostalgia, where would you place Pamuk (and authors like him) in this ongoing discussion?

Beyond the Self, Beyond the Local

Until now, our readings have predicated imagined communities and cosmologies as a sort of inevitable telos in the ideological development of the individual. There seems to be an understanding that the individual, moving from a conception of self that must be assumed to be Cartesian (an actualization through thought or Lacanian self-recognizance) that progresses into conceptions of the people immediately around him (community) and the collected individuals beyond his grasp, but whose presence is understood (the nation, or the cosmopolitan global).

Here, our readings seem to diverge, offering various states beyond the self and the local. There is the nation and its inherent nationalism (Anderson), the culture of interchange, exchange, and circulation (Lee and LiPluma) the situated, topological self, cognizant of his "place" in the world (Robbins) and the Kantian univerisalism, that presents the world beyond the self as a singular unity that is most often viewed fractured, so as to reveal only communities that are parts of the larger, united state. As Robbins puts this final idea, "According to this ideal [Kant's], there could be only one 'world-wide community of human beings" (2).

How can we reconcile all of these varied theories? Though they are academically interconnected, referring to and quoting one another, each offers a new perspective to understand the community beyond the self and the local. Which is to be preferred? Can the individual self (as represented by the single student) or the local (as represented by our discussion groups) even work to conceptualize the structures of the interlocking societies above us?

Also, it occurs to me that following Appadurai's "technoscapes" and "mediascapes" an alternate, individuated cosmopolitanism could be suggested. Technology and the media enable the individual to be both plugged into the global system and to perceive it personally. suggested readings, titles like "your" New York Times, or media slogan's like "what's happening in your world" seem to suggest a commodification of cosmology down to the individuated consumer. Is this yet another way to understand the cosmopolitan, another way to think about the space beyond the self and the local? When Time Magazine made "you" the person of the year, was it identifying the individuated cosmopolitanism that modern technological practices have enabled? Do we live in the age of customized cosmologies and Do-it-yourself globalism?

Double Fold Surgery

I remember when I was in elementary school, my mom came home one day with dark sunglasses and a bandaged face--she had just, without first informing my sister and I, received double eyelid surgery. My sister and I were horrified that she would--in our young opinions--disfigure herself. My mother used to tell me that her friends believed her eyelids were natural because both my sister and I have natural double-folds. We saw her surgery as a step towards us, towards a Western look (to clarify: my sister and I are half-Asian, half-white).

Professor Chun noted that today double-fold surgery is an attempt to capture the Korean and not the Western aesthetic. However, unlike Anime characters that are neither completely Western nor completely Asian, the double fold surgery has clear linkages to the attempt to erase the Asian-ness of the Asian eye. However, because as Appadurai states, "...for politics of smaller scale, there is always a fear of cultural absorption by politics of larger scale, especially those that are nearby" (6), it is problematic to claim the surgery as a desire to look Western. Such a desire is equivalent to the acceptance of American cultural hegemony. I believe that calling the look Korean is simply euphemizing Americanization. It is a way for Asians to appropriate Western traits without admitting that they are doing so. Furthermore, Korea is not politically threatening to its neighbors. In the case of double-fold surgery, it is the sheep's clothing.
I certainly agree with Lee and LiPuma's assertion that the realm of the 'international' is currently undergoing a metamorphosis as a result of the dissolution of traditional boundaries and identities (particulate nationalism, ethnocentrism, etc), with various notions of collective social imaginaries transformed through performative circulation... but I think the conclusion that the resulting effect of such a transformed economy of circulation is “to subordinate and eventually efface historically discrete cultures and capitalisms and to create a unified cosmopolitan culture of unimpeded circulation” seems to disregard the unpredictability and complexity of those very systems of exchange and circulation which are fueling this transformation.

Perhaps the new reality of a worldview structured by these systems of circulation does efface traditional identifications of nationality – the MTV generation isn't strictly an American phenomenon – but aren't the resulting transnational communities which replace those older structures still distinct amongst themselves (despite the degree to which their memberships may overlap)? In other words, don't the complexities of these systems of circulation, and the new overlapping forms of simultaneous membership and identity they allow, continue to render difficult (if not impossible) the conception of a global totality or “unified” culture of any sort? Do these new social imaginaries really privilege a unified culture, or do they too (like the identifications before them) fragment any sense of global totality by creating new networks of particulate identity that have replaced traditional identification narratives like ethnicity and nationality?

It seems to me that Robbins' conception of a plurality of cosmopolitanisms (a conception in which “[l]ike nations, cosmopolitanisms are now plural and particular”) more accurately describes the result of the economic transformation detailed by Lee and LiPuma. Although I agree that “unimpeded circulation” (as Lee and Lipuma put it) may come close to describing (some parts of) the reality we face today, I still think that we now find ourselves not within a “unified cosmopolitan culture,” but rather a fragmented and nebulous network of cultures. And these overlapping communities, if they are to be structurally understood at all, amount to a complex multiplicity of cosmopolitanisms in which, as Robbins writes, “more than one 'world' may be realized, where 'worlds' may be contested.”

Agency in Appadurai

I'm intrigued by the issues of agency raised in the Appadurai article. The temporal disjunctures that complicate our conception of past, present, and future can 'play havoc with the hegemony of Euro-chronology' (3). This puts cultural phenomena such as Filipino renditions of American pop music in a complicated position: they simultaneously subvert Western chronology and reinforce notions of the primitive Other.

Appadurai addresses this conflict of active appropriation and passive homogenization by emphasizing that the landscapes are 'deeply perspectival constructs' (7). On one hand, the subjective and malleable nature of these landscapes make agency possible. On the other hand, the lack of any objective perspective ensures that local empowerment will remain universally insignificant. Is this idea damning or hopeful?

Two issues further complicate issues of agency. To piggyback on the Lee article, the (performative) act of navigating these landscapes is implicitly contributing to their construction. Moreover, competing actors (nations, states, advertisers, etc.) are waging war to control the imagination that 'is now central to all forms of agency' (5). What implications does this have for personal or communal agency?

I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on this video, in the context of this discussion. (Watch it to the end). I think the context of the prison, the gender roles, and the mock violence raise some interesting questions.


While thinking of a reply to this week's readings, I got hung up on the word imagination as a mash up of image + nation, two concepts that seem to be at the heart of the Appadurai essay. So much of the social practice of imagining oneself as a part of a local or global community relies on imagery. The scapes presented in Appadurai's text are meant to complicate global flows as both fractal and overlapping. It seems, from Appadurai's focus, that this simultaneously disjunctive and convergent condition is due to the chaos of images that arise from the mediascapes and ideoscapes. This further underscores the profundity of imagery in effecting the global cultural economy. Of particular interest to me is the role that this chaos creates as images evaporate from mediascapes and ideoscapes enhancing the production and consumer fetishes that Appadurai uncovers. How impossible is the task of making "the invisible visible?" Can we counteract the condensation of images that saturates imaginations and influences the ability to consider the nation and the world in a manner cognizant of the complex global flows at work in shaping each?

Dominant Flow?

At the end of the essay, when speaking of the five scapes, Appadurai asks, “Can we speak of some of these flows as being, for a priori structural or historical reasons, always prior to and formative of other flows?” He answers this by saying that it is largely context dependent. But is there the notion of a dominant flow for a particular era? Certainly looking at the influence of print media in creating imagined nations, one could say the Industrial Revolution was dominated by a mediascape. Looking at the advent of the Internet only recently, perhaps we are in an era dominated by a technoscape. Appadurai notes of “Silicon Valley in California, where intense specialization in a special technological sector (computers) and specific flows of capital may well profoundly determine the shape that ethnoscapes, ideoscapes and mediascapes may take” (21).

Ethnocentrism without Place

Appadurai mentions the misconception of the "global village" and how media create communities with "no sense of place". This newfound lack of place suggests the phasing out of ethnocentrism (without a place to which one can feel nationalistic), yet it simultaneously recreates a new kind of ethnocentrism with "placeless" communities. How does "rootlessness" impact our sense of nationalism and community? Does a physical place in fact give one a greater sense of belonging?

Can we claim a song as entirely "American"?

When the Filipinos that Appadurai describes sing old American hits, are we to presume that they understand the words that they are singing ? This is not a rhetorical question—in European countries where English-language pop songs are popular, it is only barely possible to distinguish those who speak the language from those capable of near-perfect phonetic mimicry. Are we to consider the “nostalgia without memory” transferred from this global flow to coexist with an understanding of the song’s ostensible “meaning” (as packaged in the English language), or from the song in-and-of-itself as a Western export ? We see how these songs are significant from the perspective of global flows, but what do they mean to Filipino culture themselves?

I wonder also how we might characterize these songs as nostalgia. Did these songs emerge into Filipino culture roughly simultaneously with their release in America? This would, in a sense, give a song both an American and Filipino “life-span”, and would dually become just as much a part of Filipino culture as American. So, is their nostalgia really one without memory? Appadurai argues that they are a nation of “make believe Americans,” but described less pejoratively, can we not allow them full custody of a song as it has existed for them, rather than assume that the song exists for them as a signifier of a “past they never lost”?

In France this past Spring, I had the privilege of watching several popular American films dubbed into French – a somewhat excruciating, but nevertheless fascinating experience. As it happens, for every American actor, there is only one French “voice-artist.” The man dubbing Will Smith in “Les hommes en noirs” is the same as in “A la recherche du Bonheur”. The “voices” are utterly incognito. While playing half of Will Smith’s role for an audience of millions, there is no acknowledged differentiation between them, aside from a line in the credits. How does this modification of an American cultural product affect its situation in French culture. For a French audience, does dubbing make the film more or blatantly less French ? Unlike American songs, we might consider the dubbed film a warped cultural product—does this necessarily affect its situation in French culture or its status as a piece of nostalgia ? (Perhaps Will Smith, a contemporary example, wasn’t the best choice here…).

knowledge is separate from material substrates

Since Lyotard’s final suggestion is to give individuals free access to “memory and data banks,” I think one area that deserves attention is his idea about the nature of data/knowledge (68). Although I buy most of what he writes about the externalization of knowledge, he seems to advance the somewhat posthumanist position that knowledge is separate from material substrates. If knowledge is indeed external to something, it must be transcendental. For example, on page 50, he writes that in high learning, what is transmitted is an “organized stock of established knowledge.” He then writes, however, that while new technologies would change the medium of communication, even suggesting that teachers themselves would be replaced by intelligent terminals, pedagogy would not (unlike what was previously thought) suffer (50). He goes on to write that only in the grand narratives of legitimation that the replacement of teachers by machines is intolerable (51). Since these narratives no longer drive the quest for knowledge, this aspect of “classical didactics” is irrelevant (51). Data banks are the future, he suggests. They “transcend” their users; they are the nature of the postmodern man (51).
What this implies to me is that knowledge is now transcendental and exists in some form completely separate from material instantiation. Instead of taking this as a fact, I think this perceived separation should be investigated. What becomes of form-specific media analysis? It seems more likely to me that this perceived divide between knowledge and material is begat by computerization rather than affected by it. Why do we believe that knowledge is now transcendental? What does this mean for Lyotard’s computerization of society?

knowledge is separate from material substrates?

Since Lyotard’s final suggestion is to give individuals free access to “memory and data banks,” I think one area that deserves attention is his idea about the nature of data/knowledge (68). Although I buy most of what he writes about the externalization of knowledge, he seems to support the somewhat posthumanist position that knowledge is separate from material substrates. If knowledge is indeed external to something, it must be transcendental. For example, on page 50, he writes that in high learning, what is transmitted is an “organized stock of established knowledge.” He then writes, however, that while new technologies would change the medium of communication, even suggesting that teachers themselves would be replaced by intelligent terminals, pedagogy would not (unlike what was previously thought) suffer (50). He goes on to write that only in the grand narratives of legitimation that the replacement of teachers by machines is intolerable (51). Since these narratives no longer drive the quest for knowledge, this aspect of “classical didactics” is irrelevant (51). Data banks are the future, he suggests. They “transcend” their users; they are the nature of the postmodern man (51).
What this implies to me is that knowledge is now transcendental and exists in some form completely separate from material instantiation. Instead of taking this as a fact, I think this perceived separation should be investigated. What becomes of media-specific analysis? It seems more likely to me that this perceived divide between knowledge and material is begat by computerization rather than affected by it. Why do we believe that knowledge is now transcendental? What does this mean for Lyotard’s computerization of society?
While I thought the Appadurai article was extremely convincing, I was confused by his conclusions about women and cultural reproduction. He poses the question of how families/small groups, the “classical loci of socialization,” deal with the reproductions of themselves and cultural forms as shapes and cultures grow less bounded (17, 19). As opposed to what he calls the traditional anthropological problem of “enculturation in a period of rapid culture change,” this new form of enculturation also faces the problem of deterritorialization as families try to negotiate mutual and divergent aspirations and understandings in the new order of “fractured spatial arrangements” (18). What is interesting to me is that in the midst of this description of fractured arrangements, disappearing points of reference and constant flux, Appadurai posits the female body as the constant and default site of the violent friction that ensues. He writes that women become “subject to the abuse and violence of the men” who are torn about their heritage and opportunity within shifting formations (18). He writes that B-grade films blanket the world in gendered violence that “reflect and refine” gendered violence as “young men … come to be torn between the macho politics of self-assertion” in arenas in which they are denied agency (19). He concludes that the “honor of women” (which seems to be the bodies of women) then becomes an “armature of stable (if inhuman) systems of cultural reproduction” as well as “a new arena for the formation of sexual identity and family politics” (19). Women’s honor becomes a surrogate for “the identity of embattled communities of males” (19).Violence against women is hardly a new phenomenon and I think his explanation that some of it is now the result of male confusion about heritage/opportunity leaves something to be desired. I am not sure exactly why women must become the object of violence in this situation. His example about the son who joins Hezbollah results simply in the son not getting along with his family. Why do “women in particular” bear violence as a result of this friction (18)? Why do increasingly fetishized representations of work and leisure cause women to be the surrogate for identity for males?

Base, Superstructure, and Where Do We Go From Here?

I have one relatively straightforward question this week, dealing mostly with the Lee and LiPuma article on "Culture of Circulation." In the essay, the authors describe processes by which what would formerly have been described as the economic base adopt the models and mechanisms of the superstructure, both through the idea of the cultural circulation of capital and through the reduction of capitalist exchange to a form of the performative utterance. This is hardly a new idea--see recent work by Scott Lash, William McClure, or Jean Baudrillard before he died in advance. But none of these writers describe a viable response to this apparent collapsing of the base into the superstructure (or vice versa, because they seem to meet in the middle). When class struggle (for the sake of making the argument more poignant) ceases to be a transformative tactic, what can be done? Is the dialectic displaced from historical materialist attempts at "real" (in the Zizekian sense) economic structural change into an ahistorical struggle to use the tools of the order of the symbolic to fight the increasingly irresistible realm of the imaginary?

Monday, September 17, 2007

Old Boy and the cosmopolitanism of emotion/blogging

"Laugh and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone."

I was struck by Dae-Su's frequent repetition of this mantra in Old Boy. It seems to suggest an "imagined community," or "cosmopolitanism" of emotion; creating a community around a feeling seemed to encourage Dae-Su in those times of most extreme hardship. At the same time, whenever Dae-Su used laughter to offset pain, his tormentors were shocked and taken aback. They appeared to feel confused, even alienated by Dae-Su's expression of joy in a time when most other people would have succumbed to weeping and groveling. In this way, was Dae-Su's laughter in fact a way for him to step into his own world, rather than being surrounded by (perhaps imagined) supportive "cosmopolitans" from the real world? In Old Boy, it seemed that it was laughter that made Dae-Su alone, rather than weeping.

In reading Robbins' "Actually Existing Cosmopolitanism," I also started thinking about the cosmopolitanism of blogging. By creating the possibility a community outside the bounds of nationhood, race, religion, or other unifying factors, have the authors and readers of blogs created a new type of cosmopolitanism? Robbins references Anderson's discussion of print-capitalism, and suggests that electronic and digital media will be central to motivating people to become more cosmopolitan by prompting people to "get emotional" about others who are not part of their nation or race. It seems that blogging is a particularly powerful tool for this type of motivation, as information can be instantly shared and expanded (or commented) upon, with a virtually limitless audience.
How sexy was Lee and Lipuma′s ″Cultures of Circulation″?

Very. And of course it was: jargoned, sleek, innovative, Lee and Lipuma adeptly borrowed terms from the comp-lit-y camp (i.e. performative, third-person subject) and coupled them with a dizzying slew of economic terminology to create a piece that really told us about our post-modern selves. Transgressive social performances and hedge funds…there is nothing more cool.

Rarely have I encountered a piece of critical analysis that has slapped so much of sensationalism and self-conscious ingenuity – the cotemporaneous attraction and revulsion I had for the piece I was reading reminded me more of my experience of watching hyper-cool movies (Kill Bill vol. 1) than of reading other critical texts.

But this is not to say I′m condemning ″Cultures of Circulation″ -- most of Lee and Lipuma′s arguments were quite revealing and compelling. I refer to my visceral reaction to the piece as a way of expelling ″Cultures of Circulation,″ from the privileged heights of academia and to expose it as the cultural object (dare I say – the commodity) that it is. I pick on ″Cultures of Circulation″ simply because it’s easy to target. Since the introduction to this class, we have been considering the newspaper and the novel as politically powerful cultural forms whose circulation throughout the national and international market is something subject to sociological and economic inquiry. I find myself curious as to why products of the academy are not subject to the same inquiry as other circulated objects. Do the concepts of Product and Market stink too much of low-culture to be considered viable principles for classifying⁄ investigating the academic realm? Is such reflexivity made impossible simply because academics lack the critical distance to investigate the matter? Robbins′ piece on ″Comparative Cosmopolitans″ might be a good place to start in answering these questions– as he seems to (heretically) toy with a conception of the academy as prone to the same cultural trends that define the sexy, the cool, that is popular culture.

These are intentionally provocative questions, but I just want to start the debate here – is ″Cultures of Circulation″ so different from Kill Bill?
There is one specific part of "Old Boy" that sticks in my head. It is when Dae-Su is imprisoned and assumes that there are other prisoners in rooms similar to his. Upon receiving three chopsticks for his meal, he thinks to himself: "My only thought was that the man next to me had only one chopstick." Dae-Su has absolutely no contact with any of the other prisoners, except perhaps through the CCTVs in the security room; and only after he has been released. In fact he probably has no concrete evidence of them during his imprisonment. What is his connection to these fellow imagined men he has never met? Why does he not free them? How are they connected by Robbins' texts and rituals, in this case perhaps television, the delivery of food, and the periodic gassing and haircut? Dae-Su is imprisoned in a small locality with fellow human beings, but seems to identify with the outside world.

Virtual Commodities and the Question of Fantasy

Several of this week’s readings discuss the relationship of economics with imagined communities and “global flow.” One trend, summed up nicely by Appadurai, holds that “sustained cultural transactions across large parts of the globe…have usually involved the long-distance journey of commodities” (1). In section last week we touched upon the notion of language and information as emergent commodities in our newly transnational world; along the same lines, it’s unsurprising that the advent of the internet has subverted old notions about commodification and international transactions.

I’m thinking specifically of a recent article in the New York Times Magazine about the Chinese “gold farming” industry that thrives on the exchange of virtual commodities (e.g. coins and weapons that characters collect in online games) for real money. This scenario brings to mind the “floating currencies” that global economy necessitates, according to Lee and LiPuma, though “[they] introduced a new level of risk into the system” (205). It seems to me that virtual coinage is the ultimate floating currency, not least because of its strikingly subjective value. You see, gold farming is disarmingly simple but very strange: For 12 hours a day each gold farmer “plays” an MMORPG like World of Warcraft, the escapist fantasy world transformed into a grueling workplace. “Circulation can animate a drive toward social totality,” write Lee and LiPuma, “when labor itself becomes a commodity on the market” (199). But is this type of “cultural transaction” really bringing communities together?

The article also refers to “the contemporary decline of the nation-state” in relation to “the increasingly transnational character of labor and the global mobility of finance capital” (Lee and LiPuma 208). Chinese gold farmers collecting virtual loot to sell online to wealthy, lazy foreign gamers makes an absurd but fitting example.

Lee and LiPuma write of “the social imaginary of the market…[which] combines buying and selling with formalized models of contract and exchange” (196), citing both the stock market and the older marketplaces “of mercantile history” (197). Today the online economy also garners its share of attention: in modern markets like eBay and Craigslist, consumers use neo-banks like PayPal to purchase commodities like virtual weapons. Though barely resembling marketplaces of the past, it serves the same function; in that respect the internet hearkens back, surprisingly, to a historical model. It is perhaps significant to note that the popular MMORPGs of gold farming fame tend to eschew futuristic world-building for fantasy landscapes evoking the distant past. The internet more than any other medium in history allows for the speedy international exchange of new ideas and goods, yet it has proved fertile ground for nostalgia. Indeed, Appadurai links “the politics of nostalgia [with] the postmodern commodity sensibility” (4), and later he uses the term “mediascape” to describe “proto-narratives of possible lives, fantasies” (9).

These days, what constitutes a commodity? Books and newspapers? Language and information? Digital weaponry? Labor? What about nostalgia and fantasy? You tell me.

places and environment(s)

One of the moments that I found most interesting in Bruce Robbins’ “Introduction Part I: Actually Existing Cosmopolitanism” was his declaration that “Yes, we are connected to the earth – but not to ‘a’ place on it, simple and self-evident as the surroundings we see when we open our eyes. We are connected to all sorts of places, causally if not always consciously, including many that we have never been to” (3). His argument strikes me as almost obvious, especially in the context of this class, yet it also seems provocative. I think the “romantic localism of a certain portion of the left” (3) is often very present at Brown, but I wonder if it is always in the na├»ve and reductionist way Robbins suggests. Yes, we have “complex and multiple belonging” (3), but are we not also shaped by our environments, and if parts of those environments come from or point to other places, does that make the place we are in any less concrete? In other words, are we connected to all sorts of places, necessarily, or are the places themselves collections, created in part by many other places? I think we are connected to many places, but does it not matter which ones?

The very fact that Robbins notes that the television may be made elsewhere from where it is used suggests that it does. And it seems to me that part of the work Robbins is advocating, of “turning invisibly determined and often exploitative connections into conscious and self-critical ones” (3) involves a renewed consciousness of place coexisting with certain cosmopolitan and interconnected leanings. This may very well be in line with his argument. But while his focus seems to be mainly on how people can make connections across places and transcend their local interests while not forgetting their positions, I think he may ignore the fact that places are not blank spaces composed of whatever objects and images make their way in. While Robbins references “the current distribution of the world’s resources” (14), my question is how environment plays into notions of cosmopolitanism. I am specifically thinking of the phrase “global warming,” which seems to reference the need for trans-national solutions to the problem of climate change, but which glosses over specifically located effects. In an era in which our environment is increasingly coming to light as impacting our lives, and our lives as impacting our environment, how does cosmopolitanism respond to global problems that are enacted in very local ways? Is this the same as the question of laborers in different nations having sometimes oppositional and sometimes overlapping interests?

I am not sure this is so much addressing Robbin’s argument, but this was just something that came to mind as I read his discussion of place and places.


In Appardurai, one thing that caught my attention was when he mentioned that “for polities of smaller scale, there is always a fear of cultural absorption by polities of larger scale, especially those that are nearby. One man’s imagined community is another man’s political prison.” (6)

This took me directly to Old Boy and a comment made earlier by IAN. Though I took this Appardurai quote out of a political context, it also applied to the imagined community, or more of an imagined prison, that Oh Dae-Su was a victim of throughout the entire film. It is interesting how we speak of imagined communities, but what about imagined prisons?

Oh Dae-Su, after his release from the apartment-room prison, explains “I’m just living life in a bigger prison” (~53:00”). As Ian posted, “…at what point does Dae-Su's perceptible individuality take over? Does it ever? As Dae-Su moves through the streets of Seoul after his imprisonment, does the audience feel he has been distanced from the community of people around him, or has he been returned?”

It is interesting to think that though physically, Dae-su escaped from his place of imprisonment, the space or the –scape he lives in is still imprisoning him by means of distorted information and manipulated media. This imagined prison-community haunts him on his path for revenge because his mind still lives in someone else’s imagined community which Appardurai says “can be another man’s [Dae-su’s] political prison.” Dae-su’s knowledge of the world is molded by selected television programs and therefore he is living in his own imagined community which also happens to be his prison.

“Like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter, like a bird from snare of the fowler free yourself.”

This quote from the movie shows that the imagination has become something more powerful as Apparduari suggested; “Imagination as a social practice” is no longer “mere fantasy” or “mere contemplation” (5) but can have very real effects on an individual as Dae-su’s imagined prison has on him. Even an imagined community can capture your mind and punish you.

Cosmopolitanism in the Academy

"In the much-publicized backlash against the left's influence in the academy there has been a strange coincidence. On the one hand, literature departments..." (Robbins, 1)

It is perhaps striking that Robbins should elect to begin his piece Comparative Cosmopolitanisms with the equating of "the academy" identically with "literature departments." (1) While the arguments Robbins makes concerning literature departments offer an interesting insight to that portion of the academy, I would contend that his arguments could be even more broadly applied to the academy as a whole.

At the center of Robbins' argument are national identities as defined by common texts and rituals--speech communities, to borrow the term from anthropology--and more specifically, the dichotomy between the conservative movement to retain a strict national focus and the liberal trend of striving to identify as cosmopolitan to the exclusion of a specific national identity. While I probably cannot provide a credible exegesis in regards to the internal politics of the academy at large, it has been my experience that the struggle that Robbins dramatizes as taking place within literature departments is simultaneously occurring at this moment within every discipline. Academic disciplines are, after all, groups that identify themselves by common texts and practices and rather than the increasing cosmopolitanism of their respective subject matters, academic disciplines today seem faced with the increasing cosmopolitanism of knowledge as a whole in the form of a move towards interdisciplinary. The conservative literary view point that decries the loss of what is traditionally the concern of literature departments is echoed in the conservative position that disciplines should remain disciplinary and that interdisciplinary topic areas degrade the respectability of the discipline in question. Likewise, the liberal move to seek disciplinary cosmopolitanism has been heralded by some in favor of more interdisciplinary approaches to knowledge as providing a more balanced approach to the problems being addressed by having no root discipline to draw from. Following from the logic of Robbins' arguments, however, neither of these view points both acknowledges the figurative "metropolitan situation" of those schooled in a specific discipline and also explores the cosmopolitan topics that so want for study.

Robbins notes that a popular trend in criticism has been to assume the perspective of " a conquering gaze from nowhere" (3) and operate under the assumption that the analysis of the critic derived wholly and uncorruptedly from the next being analyzed. This trend was previously highly characteristic of anthropological writings, in which the anthropological observer wrote as though removed from the people being observed, but was ultimately abandoned in favor of an approach that acknowledged the observer's agency in reconstituting the behaviors of the "text being analyzed" to draw a parallel to Robbins' own arguments regarding literary criticism. Because critics have on the occasion denied their own "metropolitan situation" they have necessarily created a "Heisenbergian effect" which is to say they have altered the material being viewed in the process of viewing it. It seems that this same trend is present in interdisciplinary study, where in favor of approaching a topic on its own terms, the disciplinary perspective that must shape the observations made is excluded. What is necessary, Robbins might agree, is an acceptance and embracing of the disciplinary roots of scholars approaching new material.

At the same time it is easy to discount a perspective on the basis of its disciplinary ties, for what does an engineer know of the social implications of media representations? One of Robbins' major themes is precisely that no locality however small is purely local to itself. To put this in the context of a discourse on disciplinarily, no discipline is so localized to its subject matter that it does not have an impact and importance elsewhere in the vast kingdom of knowledge. Much as Robbins' justifies a cosmopolitan trend in literary criticism, so does his argument justify a cosmopolitan move for disciplines as a whole.

Borrowing elements from both the conservative and liberal ends of the academic spectrum, Robbins' arguments regarding literary criticism seem to provide just as much light by which to examine disciplinarity as they do for their initial subject matter. Robbins might therefore advise academics within each discipline to reforge their specialty as one that "without presumption of ultimate totalizing certainty, believes in its own intellectual powers of generalization, abstraction, synthesis, and representation at a distance, and in the process of putting them to use--that believes, one might say, in its own work."

Thursday, September 13, 2007

ICCC and the Tomb of the Unknowm

Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, Sourcewatch, Centcom, Defend America are all online resources (of varying repute) that are committed to accurately documenting the number of American casualties caused by the The first resource listed (ICCC) is by far the most comprehensive, reliable, and easily navigatable of the sites I visited. A visitor to the site is immediately presented with the latest casualty – name, location of death, fort base, birthplace. But the tragic data gathered by ICCC can be limited and searched in myriad ways – death by age, by gender, by location, by cause. Every death is not only accounted for, but categorized – regrouped – and therefore perpetually present. Indeed the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count vigorously facilitates the naming (the namibility) of the lives lost in this But is there a cost to this commendable project? What happens when the casualties of a nation at war resist the violent fade into anonymity – but instead perpetually return, even in death, as a name and as a face. While introducing the concept of Nationalism, Anderson refers to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as the iconic cultural artifact that embodies Nationalisms progenitive power and destructive potential. But my question is this – how can a nation remain committed to the violence perpetrated by it, if activist movements (and the technologies they use) prohibit the (re)-construction of the Tomb of the Unknown?
In President Bush’s statements the night of September 11, 2001, there are strong nationalist undertones, however, he ends on a spiritual note. This, to me, is where the weight of his message falls. After using the word “evil” to describe the attacks on the tower throughout his remarks, he concludes with Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me.” What does this statement suggest in a post-911 America? How are nationalism and religion still competing as cultural systems in America? Anderson says “It is the magic of nationalism to turn chance into destiny” (12). Does this magic still act on us in the same way?

I am also interested in the qualities of patriotism versus nationalism, particularly in the production of patriotism post-911. How is nationalism alike and unalike patriotism? If nationalism is an internal recognition of an external reality, albeit imagined, can patriotism be seen as nationalism turned inside out? To what degree is patriotism an attempt to adorn a disappointing reality with the trappings of pride and nationalism in order to create a sign system through which the individual can imagine the nation, but not necessarily internalize it. “Beneath the decline of sacred communities, languages and lineages, a fundamental change was taking place in modes of apprehending the world, which, more than anything else, made it possible to ‘think’ the nation” (22). How does patriotism take advantage of modes of apprehending in our media saturated society in a manner that forces us to think the nation, even as we may no longer believe in one?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

After “All the news that’s fit to print”

Of the newspaper as a facilitator of imagined community, Anderson writes: “The second source of imagined linkage lies in the relationship between the newspaper, as a form of book, and the market.” (33)

When print consumption is a less and less a “mass ceremony” as Anderson describes it, and a “Long Tail” economy enables niche products to find dedicated markets and publication without requisite mass appeal, do print sources have a stronger or weaker impact on their market and the ‘community’ it creates? How does Anderson’s imagined community account for the relationship between a community’s (imagined) scale and power?

Sites like that have sought to harness ‘citizen journalists’ into cohesive groups focusing on their local environment have had only limited success, perhaps because they expose and identify the community being imagined, rather than leveraging the perceived power of a greater (anonymous) audience as traditional newspapers have been able to do.

Also essential to the power of the newspaper, Anderson writes, is its self-sufficiency, its exact and perfect replication. But journalism on the Internet — citizen or otherwise — is fluid, not finite, and available for alteration and response. Editors and journalists, previously vested with an inherent trust as arbiters of this shared print culture, surrender authority to readers. And so do interactive news media then diminish the operative elements of “print capitalism” as Anderson describes them — the capacity to link “fraternity, power and time meaningfully together”?

Is this finiteness, a degree of implied authority or an assertion of definitiveness, instrumental to the impact of print capitalism in fostering imagined communities? Walter Cronkite’s daily declaration — “And that’s the way it is” — may been exclusive and incomplete, but it unequivocally established what Anderson describes as the anonymity of shared experience.

In our world, it seems the proliferation of news media creates cracks in imagined communities of scale. Readers’ imagined notions of ‘shared’ values, ideals or products may not be any different, but with an ever-increasing buffet of choices available for consumption, no one source, no nightly newscast or newspaper can suggest that it represents America, or any nation. Those that do (dare I say Fox News?) are questioned, even ridiculed, for asserting a dominant voice that no outlet can claim in an age of splintered media.

Boundaries and Borderlands

"Since World War II every successful revolution has defined itself in national terms -- the People's Republic of China, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and so forth -- and, in so doing, has grounded itself in a territorial and social space inherited from the prerevolutionary past" (2).

I'm interested in how the borders of imagined communities are defined and where they emerge from. Must nationalism operate within geopolitical boundaries, and are these boundaries necessarily territorial? If nationalism is based on culture and print-media, then what limits those phenomena to a particular territorial space? Along which spectra (temporal, territorial, ideological, etc.) are communities organized, and is there something unique about locality that makes it a precondition for the idea of the nation?

The necessity of physical proximity is waning. In some large companies, project teams are spread across continents and time zones to allow for around-the-clock work. At the McDonald's drive-thru, the person taking your order may be sitting at a desk in India. Flirtation on AIM and MySpace is replacing the traditional courtship ritual. As spatial relations become skewed and/or irrelevant, will geographic distance be replaced by a different metric? How will we delineate our communities in a virtual world?

Anderson hints briefly at the potential for elasticity at the boundaries in his discussion of United States nationalism (p. 64). What is the relationship of a nation to its bordering nation (or more generally, a community to its bordering community)? To what extent is a nation defined by what it is not, and what are the implications of this for a tenuous or disputed border?
Some other questions that arose during reading:
- "In fact, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined" (6). What role, if any, does imagination play in a "face-to-face" community. Is there such a thing as an "unimagined" community?
- Is there a modern analogy to the "awesomeness of excommunication" (16), or does the dissolution of sacred language preclude that possibility?
- Anderson focuses on print-media, specifically novels and newspapers. In a footnote on p. 54, however, he describes the unique contribution of radio as an "aural representation of the imagined community". Besides removing obstacles of literacy, what unique effect does aural representation have on the formation or consciousness of an imagined community? What about other media?

Updates, Individuals, Angel Wings in Oldboy

In reading Imagined Communities, I found myself particularly interested in "updating" Anderson's theories, or rather, finding the relevant new media technologies that either support the continued patronage of nationalist ideology or are beginning to undermine it. When Anderson discusses his "deep, horizontal comradeship" (7), he so in partial connection with cultural elements like the novel and the newspaper that enable a communal sentiment and understanding. Moving from these modes of cultural representation, where does the internet, social networking, blogging, and web 2.0 bring us? While some features of the internet, namely facebook, myspace, and other webware that literally defines communities and communal belonging, other sites seem to reinforce the individual: does not the specific, unique, personalized soapbox of the blog seem to package the individual? Or do mass-blogs like cough, cough, blogger, enable a sort of generic thought forum that continues to unite and communalize, what might otherwise be separate and individualized?

Essentially, how is that Anderson or any understanding of the Imagined Community assess the radical, the interloper, or the outsider? Are these figures a shade of gray that help to mark and delineate the imagined community, thus serving the interest of community preservation, or could the outsider authentically hope to create an identity outside of a community? Perhaps this is what is truly imaginary?


On another note, after watching a film as arrestingly powerful as Oldboy, I find myself quite seeing LOTS of Anderson sprinkled throughout the film text. Dae-Su's conditioning through television for one thing, especially in the expedited chronology of his imprisonment (complimented with an abbreviated video history of Korea), shows that even as Dae-Su is isolated from physical interaction with his community, he is still enveloped its culture and progress, arguably as Korean as any other Korean.

But at what point does Dae-Su's perceptible individuality take over? Does it ever? As Dae-Su moves through the streets of Seoul after his imprisonment, does the audience feel he has been distanced from the community of people around him, or has he been returned? What does Park suggest with his use of clear Korean iconography throughout the film?

Also, I couldn't help but enjoy the image of the angel's wings at the beginning and end of the film. I was very much reminded of Benjamin's eloquent personification of history: when Dae-Su first puts on his daughter's wings at the beginning of the film, he is entirely facing away from the turbulence of his future, but is blown backward towards it cognizant only of what has already transpired with him. At the end of the film, he can be said to have be turned around, painfully aware of the difficulty of the future, and the strong winds of history that propel him. At this point, Mi-Do takes up the wings, herself only aware of her past, but not sure of the dark future threatening her progress.
Anderson writes that one of many reasons that conceptions of nationalism developed in creole communities before they developed in their European counterparts was a combination of restricted lateral and vertical movement within the creole imperial administrative unit and the arrival of print-capitalism (60-61). Still, the spatial restriction, he writes, had no consequences until the newspapers gave people a sense of shared possession of the local economy and politics and an idea of a “steady, solid simultaneity through time” (63). Newspapers’ temporality, then, is worth considering. Anderson writes that newspapers are obsolete on the morrow of their printing, which lends itself to simultaneous consumption that is paradoxically done in “silent privacy” (35). This, he writes, is one of the most perfect examples of a “secular, historically clocked, imagined community” (35).
In class, Professor Chun raised the question of the temporality of the blog, which she said followed the chronology of the newspaper but carried an archive of older posts like a novel. A couple of posts have already brought up the question of whether bloggers/internet community users can also feel rooted in a virtual place/space or a part of a new type of “nation.” However, it seems to me that the blog has the potential to alter the temporality of Anderson’s original American nationalism rather than the spatiality. While Anderson does declare that a “fertile trait” of the early American newspapers was their “provinciality,” the provinciality is reliant less upon geographic boundaries than it is on the ability of the newspapers to frame events based on a specific way of thinking that happened to be common to the locals who read the paper. Anderson writes that, for example, while a Mexican might read about events in Buenos Aires, “it would be through Mexican newspapers … and the events would appear as ‘similar to’ rather than ‘part of’ events in Mexico” (63). He writes that what originally brought newspaper readers to come to think of this imagined “we” was the “structure of the colonial administration and market-system,” not any particular tangible space.
If the newspaper allowed the perfect clocked imagined community, the blog, with its dependence on a peculiarly temporal archive that leads to what Professor Chun called the “non-simultaneousness of the new,” completely breaks down exactly what it was that made the reading newspaper the archetype of that imagined community — the temporality of the ceremony. If the potential for reading blogs/ en masse is tenuous, then what becomes of Anderson’s nationalism?

Shared Language

One of the themes running through the selections of Imagined Communities we read that I found most interesting was that of national language (or lack thereof). In “The Last Wave”, Anderson specifically argues that the origin of nationalism does not require a shared language, and that what language is used to represent that nationalism s not, in itself, important. Although sacred languages were once the basis for imagined communities of religious groups, nationalisms are shared among people with different “mother-tongues”. Anderson writes that “It is always a mistake to treat languages in the way that certain nationalist ideologues treat them – as emblems of nation-ness” (133). The idea that specific languages are not important in nationalist movements strikes me as strange, although perhaps only because I am thinking of precisely the “nationalist ideologues” Anderson is trying to refute. For example, I am wondering about the contemporary movement to have English named as the official language of the United States, and ongoing debates about bilingual education in public schools. It seems to me that in this case some people are trying to use language to set the boundaries of their imagined community in a way Anderson dismisses. And while it may be quite true that “anyone can learn any language” (134), such learning often takes time and energy such that language does, in many cases, seem to stand in for a certain kind of imagined community, one that at this moment seems to me at times to trump nationality, or at least coexist with it. So, I suppose my question is whether the idea that “nations can now be imagined without linguistic communality” (135) is somehow starting to be threatened, and if so, how is that related (if it is at all) to growing global communities which can more and more easily bypass language barriers thanks to new technologies.

I am also curious about the assertion in this section that “Nothing suggests that Ghanaian nationalism is any less real than Indonesian simply because its national language s English rather than Ashanti” (133). While I don’t doubt that Ghanian nationalism is just as real as any other, I do wonder if the representation of the national language as specifically that of the colonist makes a difference in the way people understand their relationship to nationalism. Anderson seems to me to be making the case that it makes no difference, but when he mentions that “[t]oday there are perhaps millions of young Indonesians, from dozens of ethnolinguistic backgrounds, who speak Indonesian as their mother-tongue” (134) I have to wonder if this does not suggest some sort of goal of linguistic unity that may be connected to the cementing of an imaged nation. Even Anderson’s example of Switzerland as a multilingual nation seems somewhat unfulfilling to me since by his own admission Switzerland would probably have tried to Germanize if it were not for potential political ramifications (138).

I may well just need a little more convincing to agree that specific language choice for nationalism is unimportant, but I find it interesting that with so much emphasis on the power of language, the shape that language takes is still so easily brushed off.

The Consciousness of the Collective Online

Does Anderson take for granted the ability of each member of an imagined community to have “complete confidence in [other members’] steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity” (26). In the physical world, members might not know each other’s names, but they are aware of their bodies filling the space. They see each other, and this is confirmation of their simultaneous existence. But the Internet complicates this by removing the body. Members can no longer see each other, and they are not always aware that there is anyone existing simultaneously on this website or that website. Presence which is often taken for granted in the real world, needs to be represented online. Early on websites introduced counters and guestbooks to record their visitors, but these failed in creating communities because they fashioned websites as motels rather than community centers. The very notion of a “guest” creates the idea of an outsider and does not seek to incorporate the Internet surfer as part of the website. It did not create a steady stream of returning members but a terminal of passing vagabonds. However, the username incorporated Internet surfers into the website by giving them an identity which they could return to in future visits. They were no longer merely visitors but users of a site. Like the real world, there are places on the Internet where people congregate and places people pass through. How important is the notion of identity when it comes to forming an imagined community online? Can an imagined community even exist without the consciousness of the collective?

the local-global-local

Connecting Anderson’s notion of nationalism to the local/global tension of 9-11.

Anderson says that, while Nationalism has historically specific roots, it is an invention “there, so to speak, for the pirating” (156). In other words, a local (limited) imagining of simultaneity becomes a model which can be used globally. This concept, that a specific representation can have a universally resonant structure is instinctively understood. However, Anderson does not clearly qualify the change the execution of the subsequent global to different local adoption would incur on the previously locally specific event.

Let’s take 9-11 as a tangential example of this local/global tension. I would argue that the collapse of the Twin Towers was an extremely geographically localized event that took on global signification. The event, although broadcast far and wide -- as we viewed in class this past week – was traumatic for the New York City community in a fundamentally distinct way than it was for the rest of the world. In particular, the victims and their families, NY Fire Dept., the people in the geographic vicinity of the dust and debris. 9-11, then, was quickly snatched into the global sphere, a different ballgame of signs. Yes, the local and global were conflated to some extent --- for example, in commemorative trinkets the hero imagery of the NYPD is often inseperable from the American Flag. Nevertheless, in the transition from the local to global, the rights of those locally involved were diminished. One need only look at the current construction battles, and the Victims Families and Lower Manhattan community board oppositions. What is altered, lost, detrimental, in the hyphen between global-local ?
If (according to Anderson), the nation is an imagined community due to the fact that one can never meet every other member of his/her nation, can a community in which everyone knows the other members have "nationalism"?

How Alive is this Blog?

“Thus, the model of official nationalism assumes its relevance above all at the moment when revolutionaries successfully take control of the state, and are for the first time in a position to use the power of the state in pursuit of their visions” (p. 159).

When does nationalism stick to its people? More importantly, when do other groups start recognizing a community’s sense of nationalism? Anderson’s story about the naming of Vietnam makes me think that nationalism is more about a sense of validity than a sense of comradeship between a group of people—China’s understanding of the Vietnam nationality weighed more on a global scale than the state of Vietnam’s idea of what their nationalism should be. Why did revolutionaries need to take over the state to be most effective in reaching their goals? (Why did Moscow have to be the “new” capital?) It seems to be more about validity than an effective organizing idea.

My point is this: how do people know when the imagined space becomes an imagined community? The state could insist on nationalism, but what about the new kinds of imagined communities—the ones without an overseeing state? This is where outside groups are needed to validate an imagined space’s “community-ness”. Look at this blog, for instance. Are we a part of this imagined community because we were informed it was an imagined community for us to be part of (as with official nationalism)? Or are we a part of this community because we post to this blog? Or will we be part of it when we reference it as a community in class or to our friends and peers (all outside groups)? I think that newer imagined communities (versus official nationalism) need to be validated using groups outside the community.