unthinking

Tomorrow I’ll be giving a talk at the Human Futures and Intelligent Machines summit at Virginia Tech. Some slides, in progress, below:

Check out the program: http://o-culus.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Human-Futures-and-Intelligent-Machines-Agenda1.pdf and a link to the livestream: https://virginiatech.zoom.us/my/tech4humanity

Here’s an excerpt from an essay I worked on last summer (currently still in an embryonic stage..) which includes some of the ideas I’ll share in the talk. It calls for queer theory as a remedy for positivism in Internet studies. Although I will not be discussing queer theory tomorrow,  the ideas about the Deleuzian ‘dividual, data as an agent of sameness-making, and reification through digital processes will be central.

***

As a scholar, I am less interested in the Internet than I am in emerging cultural and ethical
problems presented by data at scale. However, Internet studies is an important stage for my
research, as data and the Internet are mutually constitutive. Because critical perspectives on data are welcomed within its scope, I am invested in this field.

An important accomplice to my scholarship is queer theory; specifically, the growing movement toward a “queer Internet studies.” I maintain that queer Internet studies can be used to challenge digital positivism, and that queer theory’s treatment of gender identity in particular is a highly useful tool for scrutinizing the epistemic ground of digital positivism. As the name suggests, “queer Internet studies” deploys queer theory and methodologies in its investigations of the Internet. Per the work of one of its founding figures, Michel Foucault, a major function of queer theory is to reveal the lack of determinacy in the emergence of dominant power structures — in other words, to demonstrate that events which have appeared natural or inevitable were as historically contingent as “unnatural” or “queer” phenomena. A queer perspective on the Internet gives traction to research that subverts or “makes strange” given precepts of digital modernity. Thus queer internet studies can significantly decenter digital positivism.

Of course, “queer” is not just a name applied antecedently to outcomes prescribed by Foucault. Historically, queer studies has focused on subjects relating to gender, sexuality, affect, identity, and related topics. Of these, “identity” is among the more difficult to define: whereas there is some consensus that “sexuality” guides specific desires, what identity means in function and principle is a more intractable riddle. In fact, the persistence of this conflict has itself proven to be a rich site for investigation. Gender and sexuality may partially constitute personal identity, but the difficulty of the project of isolating an essence to identity itself has frequently been both a beginning and terminal point for inquiry.

In the digital world, however, “identity” has at least one unambiguous meaning: it refers to the external markers by which expressed online selfhood is confirmed to be the real you. These are the markers that are “stolen” when identity theft occurs: your name, date of birth, social security number and so on. Put together, they form an image of a human being that has financial value across various platforms, which is why identity theft is a lucrative crime. According to this usage, identity is always and only data. But less instrumental conceptions of “identity” are also finding increasingly greater expression in data. With the rise of personal quantification tools and positivist self-reflections produced by our networked habits, selfhood has never before been understood quite so much a function of metric as it is today. Social media theorist Rob Horning paints an unsettling picture of this in his essay “Sick of Myself:”

As more information about ourselves is captured within Big Data systems by phones,
social media platforms, fitness trackers, facial recognition software, and other forms of
surveillance, algorithms assign identity markers to us, place us in categories based on
correlations to patterns drawn from massive data sets, regardless of whether these
correspond to how we think of ourselves. We become, to an extent, what other people do,
as their data contributes to how ours is interpreted. The system will infer our identity,
according to categories it defines or invents, and use these to shape our environments and
further guide our behavior, sharpen the way we have been classified, and make the data
about us denser, deeper. As these positivist systems saturate social existence, they nullify
the idea that there is something about identity that can’t be captured as data. (Horning,
2017)

Here, Horning points out that the ineffable parts of identity are not only under siege by information, but that the information which assaults human beings on an individual basis is not actually native to each individual. Rather, a great deal of it issues from statistical means: the data-individual is in part an average derived from varyingly-sourced information that is algorithmically grouped and blended into opaque homogeneity. Here, selfhood is understood as a triangulation from demographic factors that apply to humans en masse. The person reflected is not so much themselves as a representative sample, stripped of the quirks and rough edges that would disturb the smoothness of a statistical normal curve.

For this human simulacrum, philosopher Gilles Deleuze coined the term “dividual.” In his essay “Postscript on Societies of Control,” he writes: “the numerical language of control is made of codes that mark access to information, or reject it. We no longer find ourselves dealing with the mass/individual pair. Individuals have become ‘dividuals,’ and masses, samples, data, markets, or ‘banks’” (Deleuze, 1992). None of the data the compose the Deleuzian dividual exist beyond a network that gives them meaning, a network that averages the information of millions to make of each one a picture with least enough structural coherence to render it cogible to others. Here, the question of identity is answered by equivocation and resemblance-making rather than the proclamation of unique character.

By certain accounts of what is meant by the term “queer,” then, the Deleuzian dividual is already not-queer. In her essay “A Declaration of Psychedelic Studies” — which, like this one, sees in queer theory a possible ally to a developing interdisciplinary field — psychedelic researcher Neşe Devenot interprets a formulation promoted by queer theorist David Halperin to reflect queerness as defined by deviance:

Unlike gay identity, which, though deliberately proclaimed in an act of affirmation, is
nonetheless rooted in the positive fact of homosexual object-choice, queer identity need
not be grounded in any positive truth or in any stable reality. As the very word implies,
“queer” does not name some natural kind or refer to some determinate object; it acquires
its meaning from its oppositional relation to the norm. Queer is by definition whatever is
at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to
which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence. “Queer,” then, demarcates
not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative…it describes a horizon of
possibility whose precise extent and heterogeneous scope cannot in principle be delimited
in advance. (Devenot, 2012)

If “queer” demarcates a positionality as opposed to a positivity, it is always beyond the reach of the reifying operations of data production. Horning’s “Sick of Myself” draws attention to the economic logic that underscores these procedures: the ineffable self as ever-more occluded by data is a product of the capitalist injunction to transform all phenomena into profit. This process begins with reification, or the concrete representation of a transcendent or ineffable entity. Reification may distort or misrepresent its subject, but in this case, faithful representation is beside the point: if an entity cannot take form and shape — if it demonstrates no positive core or essence — it cannot be mobilized as a vehicle for capital. As such, capitalism has no need to acknowledge it.

Following this, if there is indeed an aspect of identity that cannot be expressed in data, drawing attention to this is not in the interest of the largest financial stakeholders of the Web. Amazon, Alphabet, Facebook, Netflix, and similar companies depend on a constant stream of user engagement, out which is derived more potentially profitable information about them. A positivist perspective suggests that this picture is capable of wholly encapsulating its subject, or at least every profitable angle of it. This representable self is the data-self, the self as a function of algorithmic reconstruction. Because the data-self, the dividual, is a useful figure for intervening in data positivism, in/dividual identity is the main conceptual lens through which I mobilize queer Internet studies against digital positivism. This is not to imply that queer identity is the only intellectual antidote to digital positivism. But it is productive for this insofar as identity is both a foundation of Internet business models and a primary concern for queer theory.

Christian Fuchs, Vincent Mosco, Rob Horning and a growing number of like-minded contemporary thinkers question the assumption that more information leads to more truth. This is a bold line of reasoning, and it is necessary to foreground it in Internet studies. Internet research that is founded on the same precepts by which Internet stakeholders conduct business can only hope to make a small amount of room for surface-level cultural and social analyses. In his essay “From digital positivism and administrative big data analytics towards critical digital and social media research!” — exclamation point included in the original title — Fuchs offers a clarion call to scholars who would hope for something more:

We need a paradigm shift from administrative digital positivist big data analytics towards
critical social media research. Critical social media research combines critical social media theory, critical digital methods and critical-realist social media research ethics.
Challenging big data analytics as the mainstream of digital media studies requires us to
think about theoretical (ontological), methodological (epistemological) and ethical
dimensions of an alternative paradigm. (Fuchs, 2017)

As he notes, this critical turn must unfold on many fronts, furnishing dynamic opportunities for reflection, inquiry, and transgression. Such scholarship can reveal the current state of the Internet for its precise lack of inevitability, for the fact that Web infrastructure has been appropriated to serve normative ends, and that this was not determined in advance but rather a function of the capitalist telos.

***

 

more jazz listening than usual these days

I took this video about seven years ago on a very very cold night. There were so many people in the audience I couldn’t maintain a decent shot for ten minutes.

A little easier on the ears/brain.

mood antipodes

 

Polar ends of a strange and specific but very familiar (to me) emotional spectrum.

Excerpt from Betty Grover Eisner’s “The Importance Of The Nonverbal In Psychedelic States”

In this highly logical and verbal society-where semantics appear to be the trafficway of human relationship-it may be disconcerting to find that words often complicate interaction rather than Simplify it. This is particularly evident in relationships where neurotic elements are present. In our culture ego defenses most commonly use verbalization as a method of manipulation and control. Words are also used, consciously or unconsciously, to deny basic motivation and intent. As our western civilization has grown toward the logical, the rational, and the scientific, attention has been diverted (sometimes forcibly) from the intuitive, the spontaneous, and the so-called irrational. This split between rational and irrational-between conscious and unconscious-makes an individual feel pulled apart. In order to operate efficiently with other people he must close off his deeper levels. The price of effective closure is a feeling of emptiness and loneliness; as a by-product creativity shrivels and dies. The use of psychedelics has made excruciatingly but excitingly clear the extent to which adults have been conditioned away from access to the unconscious during the process of growing up. The psychedelic experience gives glimpses that life is intended to be full of brilliant color, stereophonic sound, flowing dimensionality on the sensory level, and unitive and ecstatic experience in relationship to the one-or to the many.

During the past nine years of work with mind-changing drugs, the focus of our interest has turned increasingly toward the removal of barriers which stand in the way of the individual’s fulfillment of his creative potential. In the language of psychotherapy, this means concern with change of character-change of lifelong habit patterns of perception and action. Most of the patients seen and worked with have been from the hard-core residual of individuals who have not been helped by any form of ordinary psychotherapy. ‘Ne have watched the psychedelics emerge not only as the fastest potentiators of character analysis but in many cases as the only possible tools able to create conditions wherein change can occur-tools, so to speak, for opening doors closed by heavy locks and bolts of long disuse. It has been of interest and importance to discover that with knowledge and experimental experience, smaller doses can be substituted for larger ones, and less potent, less esoteric drugs can be as useful as LSD and mescaline. The techniques that make this possible also speed the process of psychotherapy. One factor is the increasing use of individuals trained in drug work and in group processes. (By “drug” is meant treatment with LSD, mescaline, Ritalin or amphetamines, used alone or in various combinations, and also experimental work by the research group with other psychedelics such as ibogaine and ololiuqui). The other is the development of a whole new series of therapeutic techniques-mostly non-verbal.

Betty Grover Eisner’s Erowid page

indignities

Writing tweets; thinking in pull quotes; drunk brocialists; disappointment, faintly suggested but fully registered; hangovers; Puerto Rico; superhero movies; Elon Musk; Bitcoin boosters; union busters; the treacly-precious task of recuperating “dignity;” being a good sport; tawny blonde highlights; forgetting how to offend; being forgotten; forgetting faces but not conversations; losing your religion; enjoying yourself more when you realize you’re enjoying yourself; bug bites; the tradeoff between pure erotic fantasy and spontaneous honesty; stuttering; politically incorrect lucid dreams; the jokes that don’t land; the jokes that land too much; the agora of protein bars; New York, NY.

I’ll think of more later.

picture update

Since I sometimes think I should post more images here, some screenshots I’ve taken recently, plus a photo of a gorgeous copy of Avital Ronell’s CRACK WARS.

 

I like that it has three ribbons, presumably to mark three different places in the text. It’s useful.

fiction excerpt

I have a short story coming out through Holum Press pretty soon. Here’s a bit from another one I’m working on — I guess at this  point it’s more of a character sketch. A real plot’s about to happen …

***

When Rose was a little girl, she’d lock the door to her bedroom whenever she was inside it, even though nobody ever bothered her in there. It was the first thing she did when she came home from school. Tiny feet pounding the stairs, backpack swinging from one thin arm, breathless by the time she reached the end of the hall. As soon as she slammed the door behind her, she’d click the knob upright. Then onto watching TV or drawing with colored pencils. Dinner was always at six.

A few times she forgot to change the lock back. After-dinner-tired, she might slouch upstairs around nine o’clock to encounter the obstacle. This is the story of how Rose Kennedy learned to pick locks. She even slept outside the door once, rising before her grandmother woke up to spring it open with a bobby pin. The next step was to carry bobby pins all the time, which she remembered most days. She figured that would be easier than getting into the habit of double-checking. After a few months she knew exactly what to do when she locked herself out. Eventually she moved onto picking combination locks and car doors, just for the hell of it. She never discussed this with anyone.

Rose at the bar, age eighteen, didn’t move as nimbly as you might expect of a seasoned lock-picker. Sometimes clumsy, sometimes so self-conscious it would break your heart. She would only chat to men if they started first, controlling her soft voice to be even meeker. Rose ordered red wine and scotch when they were around, and when she danced people watched her.

At twenty-three she drank vodka and club soda with lemon. She danced less and slept past eleven most days. Her ennui was underwritten by a keen awareness of cultural impoverishment she picked up in college. Rose thought she hated everything.

Tonight she visits an abandoned warehouse adorned ostentatiously with fluorescent paint, psychedelic patterns and bloated cartoons stretching themselves across its corners. Here she comes, picking delicately toward the place where a few early drinkers hang in a flock. Not a real bar — it’s a folding table façade wrapped in white green gingham, tended by a woman with no clue how to mix a drink.

Rose orders a vodka-soda and realizes she knows the bartender from somewhere, maybe a friend of a friend. She introduces herself as Laurie and takes a shot as Rose crosses the halfway mark on hers. Laurie leans delicately against the table; it might collapse even against the weight of her slight body. Though they’re both of legal age, the women exchange the smiles of partners in crime. Their drinks taste like a dividing line.

All-grown-up-Rose still knows how to pick locks. This will come in handy soon, but she doesn’t know it yet.

At sixteen, she prayed for the end of her boredom. “Please, God, let something interesting happen.” A friend asked her if she could enjoy life without looking for significance in everything. “You can’t just tie everything up in a metaphysical bow of meaning,” he’d said.

Nearly-2AM-Rose stumbles out of the warehouse, almost falls on her knees. She picks herself up with the scrappy dignity of the drunk, gripping a faux fur shawl to her chest. Pink and silver bangles nearly slide off her right wrist. She thinks she lost her shoes but they’re in a velveteen backpack slung halfway down her spine, and anyway it doesn’t matter, since she’s getting a taxi to her apartment.

She waits in a parking lot, observes the fall’s first chill. Rose used to hate this moment of the year, back-to-school time, the early nightfall stoking grim feelings that would flower into suffocating sadness by November. Now she doesn’t mind so much. It’s early September, time to fold up the summer and stow it in a forgettable place, admire the leaves before they lose their gloss.

The taxi will arrive soon. As Rose edges toward the curb, she hears a muffled banging noise from across the lot. She scans her surroundings, sees nothing. The sound is coming from the northeast corner. Still very much under the influence, she correctly identifies it: someone’s trapped in the trunk of a car, slamming their extremities against its ceiling to get the attention of a bystander. “Oh fuck” she says to nobody.

She ducks behind a parking meter as the taxi moves in, watches it cycle twice around the perimeter before exiting. Now the lot is empty. It almost feels serene. Rose keeps her gaze fixed on the sedan. Black glowing under a halogen lamp, it’s strangely well-lit for an abduction, she thinks. Her fingers locate three pins tucked inside a velveteen pocket. Clutching them in a tight fist, she rises from her stooped position to begin a rescue mission.

 

Mrzyk & Moriceau made a music video and it looks really good.

you’re living all over me, part 2

Richard Doyle says the drugged narrator writes in the “Nth person plural” — a psychic transfer that starts in a level-up from first person to third, then beyond, full exit from singular personal enclosure, ego immolation. It starts when you notice how often you use I in your writing, how references to you and your problems punctuate everything you say and do, the hell of the self, the effusive suffocating I, me, I, I, the crime some people charge social media with: crowding oneself in with oneself, filter bubbles, “the daily me,” bodies made out of their own information.

In this moment depression, our current pandemic, is not as an infection, a malignant actor from the outside like bacteria or rape, but an infarction, endogenous — it’s cancer. Too much self growing inside the self. I’m living all over me.

Recently I read that masochism as a kink is deep down more purely evil than sadism. That masochists are more self-interested, less compassionate. That their libidinal energies well up and attract predators like mosquitoes circling to stagnant water.

Now I think about what it would be like to dominate someone else, to conjure blood to virgin cheekbones, train my fingers to pinch and beat and hypnotize, read my eros into its translucent surfaces. To bring a blush to the back of a neck, so pretty like the stem of a young plant, just to find out if it’s as easy to snap in half. I imagine this complete alien who exists in time but not space, who takes up no weight in the world, the fairy thing-body of time but not even time because you can only seduce it in quantum lightshows that flicker somewhere between your fantasy and the fantasy that it sees you, too.

And I think about a strain of continental philosophy that categorically rejects psychology as a science. That remakes heart medicine in the image of a collective awareness, a translatable jargon, a realpolitik. According to which the question what does pain mean? makes sense.

I’m a childless pacifist, I’ve never brought life or death into this world. At times I’ve felt pretty inhumanly exterior to these normal cycles of genesis. But pure life and death, I mean total pleasure and pain, unnumbness, I know them too. Buddhism says life is suffering, but doesn’t pain push us back into the blindness of the ego? Doesn’t it remind us of that basic separation we’re always grieving? I think I’m right and the Buddhists are wrong.

the dirty south < the debased north

Last week I was in Dallas, Texas, where I found this great book:

The inscription says Listen! Magick is afoot. Which is better than a hand!

Now I am in New York City to talk about bots, phenomenology, and maybe the entire Internet at Theorizing The Web. I am preparing by watching this:

Which I recorded in Woodstock last summer. If I had one wish I’d be heading there after the conference. But I’ve got some important stuff going on in Virginia next week, see. This is only a three day trip.

I will return to New York soon!