Monday, October 29, 2007

will another robot write its hagiography?

i recently attended a lecture given by kathleen hayles on electronic literature. she basically spoke on certain convergences between machines and humans, and postulated a "heterarchy" wherein machines push humans to the next level and vice versa, each one contributing certain idiosyncratic characteristics and irregularities as you go along. she argues that various contemporary computational processes qualify as "cognition." we no longer assume that cognition equals consciousness, in part because consciousness is located not just in the mind but also in the body, and in the "time-sense" that our bodies/minds have together. together, we get a kind of co-evolution in a very physical sense - humans as a species are developing different neural pathways to adapt to the machines.

but this isn't really what i want to talk about, instead it's just a preface for this article about a robot scribe.

i think the most interesting part is the flickr photoset to which boingboing links, because it really brings home the physical presence of this object.

so, obviously, this sets up a whole host of interesting questions. can an act completed in a certain way be regarded as holy regardless of a lack of intention? what status does this text have as an object? is it holy? what difference does the pen make, or to be more specific, what difference does this project have from a laser printer being fed an endless scroll and printing the same thing? (i think that this one has to do with time and the resemblance of the robot's arm to a human arm, moving to form each letter independently). also on time, kathleen hayles argued that robots function on digital time and humans function on analog time. with a task like this, are these two ideas of time conflated? i wonder how fast or slow the robot's capable of going - would the meaning of a project like this change if it created one painstaking letter per hour? i'd also like to know about any possible irregularities in the text - i think this would be even more interesting if the robot was writing with a quill and an inkpot, so that he'd have to deal a little bit more obviously with the vagaries of fluid dynamics. it's additionally interesting that usually i have no trouble referring to a robot as "it," but above i called it "he," ostensibly because of the resemblance of its activity to one carried out by men in the middle ages, but who knows about other subtle codings for gender in mechanicity?

finally, many of my more unformulated inquiries about this also have to do with my own bodily experience - what would it feel like to go into that room in the middle of the night, and just stand there watching that machine write until day?

Saturday, October 27, 2007

on the redefinition of terms

so somewhat in response to dan's most recent post on wraetlic, and somewhat in response to eileen joy's lucent comments on my last posting, i should say a few things about my views on the way that certain fraught words (i'm thinking religious, i.e. god, faith, sacred, etc. but also any number of other words that are either over-popular or un-popular in academia) should function.

what i want to do is something like a re-thinking of derrida's idea of words "sous rature." with this term, derrida (after heidegger) allows for the fact that one cannot avoid talking about certain concepts which one wishes radically question using the terms that make a number of assumptions about those very concepts. thus: the strike-through. the word-made-ironic in a terribly controlled way. when i think of this term, i always think of language as a vessel (beware, very extended metaphor ahead!), and the act of putting something under erasure to empty the vessel while continuing to use it. but i think that this vessel metaphor allows us to focus in some interesting ways on the history associated with certain terms in a more hopeful way. it's not necessarily that i want to question the existence of that which the term names, but instead that i want to change what and how the vessel holds. in many cases, i want the vessel to crack (or for us to recognize that the vessel is already cracked), so that we are not placing the word under erasure but instead recognizing that it can fundamentally no longer hold what it once did. sometimes this means that we continue pouring into the vessel and it continues leaking. at any one moment it looks like it's doing what it once did (and this "once" is, obviously, in some ways an idealized case, but let's leave that for later), the liquid stays at the same level, but with attention over time, we realize that it is only our continual willingness to keep topping it off that keeps the vessel full. though there are lots of implications to this metaphor, i'm particularly interested in what happens if we (locally) allow the vessel to drain and begin using it differently even as others may attempt to keep it full (or to throw it out because it's flawed.) take, for example, a term like "faith." there are undeniable religious resonances in this word, even when it's used without direct reference to religion. many people continue to "keep the faith" despite increasing evidence that faith is less responsible (by which i mean unable to speak for itself) in light of philosophical, political, social, and religious developments over the last century-and-a-half or so. in "secular" academia, however, faith can easily be something of a dirty word. some cadres of critics want to attempt to throw it and its ilk out altogether. even to be derridean and put it "under erasure" is a certain kind of "throwing out," despite its (relatively) pragmatic value for discussion. so, i'd like to try to put faith in a space wherein i can play with the borders between its existence and nonexistence, coming from the negative side. i'd like to look at the shape of faith, the way it functions, its history, its possible future - everything encoded in the material of the word, and see if i can make it hold something flawed - i.e. by definition not faith. speaking specifically of religious terms, i think that secular criticism can come dangerously close to losing the possibilities for thinking that surround these words and concepts - jettisoning them as "not part of the critical project." certain schools of contemporary christianity (or even kierkegaardian) embrace the idea of "faith without faith" or "hope without hope" - but i find that they pull a crazy hat trick at the very bottom of all of it, wherein, like playing the daisy-game of "she-loves-me she-loves-me-not" after counting the petals, one always ends on the positive side. i want to do the same, from the negative.

but then, and this is where i think this addresses eileen, i think that i want to be able to do this in other situations, too. for example, there's the modernist and new-critical attempt for ahistoricity - the stuff is Art, especially in fragmented montage form, so it somehow transcends time. this is, of course, terribly dangerous and irresponsible. but i also think that the need to work at anchoring things historically, to continually look towards death, can become almost like a certain kind of faith. so, what i argue in the last post, is in some ways a call for certain modes of "time without time" or "history without history." i think that allowing for this mental-metaphorical space in which two mutually exclusive things can exist in the same place at the same time is hugely important for creative thought, but forcing it to be unquestioningly temporal or eschatological isn't a limitation that seems productive to impose there.

so i think that we should be able to remember, always, that history will end, and even that our lives will end, that other lives have ended. but we should also sometimes, temporarily, be able to simultaneously believe that time has stopped, or reversed, or become irrelevant, that history is entirely paratactic, that we will never die and that others have not died. this is, for me, a terrifically profound (and i think not irresponsible) mode of hoping.

i want to add as well (and here's where my response to dan comes in) that this all sounds terribly individual, but i don't think that's a limitation i want here either. on the contrary, it seems like this sort of "suspension of disbelief" allows for the formation of certain kinds of communities of thought that are temporarily less bogged down by the trappings of everyday or even (often) critical language. this is a poetic relationship, not even (for example) in dan's readings or robin's readings but in the silent spaces between, in which those poems were for a few moments less mutually exclusive, and when the audience and the poets were also less mutually exclusive.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

sometimes you fuck time, sometimes time fucks you

reading through a post on in the middle, specifically the part in the comments section of eileen joy's recent post on queer temporalities. regarding fucking time and time fucking you and how bodies and the touch all work into this. i'm going to keep this out of the discourse there, because having not yet read much dinshaw or sedgewick or schulz or any of the other players here, i feel like i might be missing something. but i also think that the debate there seems to be missing out on what i feel is a key line between the physical and the mental (metaphysical if you will, but i think i won't). dinshaw's short essay on touch refers to barthes' analysis of how a photograph works - all physically/mechanically. light through bouncing from objects through lenses to film, film developing into photo, finger to photo is a several-steps-away touch of the past. the revolution with the camera, assuming that there's no conscious photomanipulation, is that all of this is physical/mechanical. we can talk about this touch because there's no real mediation of the mental. now, this allows for some incredible directness when we talk about touching the past. but it also makes for a merely two-way touch - we touch the past, it touches us, along a continuum. sure, this messes up the linearity of time - time can go backwards, it can go forwards. dinshaw's touch makes this all very real. we can, in some senses, "fold" time (when i think of folding time, i am referring mostly to madeline l'engle's wonderful "a wrinkle in time" books). but there are two ways to think about such a fold. you can consider how two places along the line are brought together thanks to an ability to fold (like dinshaw), or you can consider what happens within that fold, where the time goes when it's pushed out of the two-dimensional line. this is what i was talking about below when i say that graphs give us a lovely metaphor for thinking about physical/mental space as well as linearity. consider a painting, instead of dinshaw/barthes' photograph. we have a lot of the same characteristics - light touches the objects, the paint is placed on the canvas, we can touch the paint. the key difference is the mind of the painter. the light enters the mind of the painter and... something happens that is fundamentally different from the photograph. this breaks up the beautiful physical simplicity of the touch that you get from the photograph, but also gives us another field to play in. the painter's mind gives us the ability to not just fold time, but to travel within the fold, and therefore in some senses outside of time.

so back to the "in the middle" post. in the comments, dan talks about "fucking time," and eileen worries that time can only fuck you. eileen's ideal university, though, seems to allow for both of these kinds of fucking to talk to each other. in the musée histoire, time fucks you, invariably and inevitably. in the musée fedora, though, you have imaginative space to deal with this fact, and this imaginative space i think allows for the possibility that you can imaginatively fuck time. this doesn't, of course, change the body's march towards death. but in the same way that, for example, language can invoke sense-based mental reactions that transcend what the "real" senses can experience, art can invoke body/time-based mental reactions that transcend the boundaries and strictures to which "real" bodies or time are held.

this is one of the reasons that i get all excited about dali's paranoid-critical method, in perhaps a much broader way than he intended it to function. the idea is, you learn to "see" objects with your physical body, but train your mind to distrust your senses so that that the physical object becomes merely a ground for a willed hallucinatory experience. the difference between yourself and a mad(person) at that point is... you're not mad. i think that we have to react the same way to these questions of history and time, especially as regards a history so far away from ours that we cannot even know whether we should or should not think of it as ultimately "other."

i take eileen's point about the absolute fact that time fucks you, but i also think that a major function of art, narrative, and even many kinds of semi-speculative history is that it allows you to suspend your disbelief for long enough to fuck time as though in a dream. yes, you'll wake up. but if you're changed (here's where the fine line between mental and physical becomes very strange, on the chemical level), have you not somehow brought a trace of that ability into our own temporality? there's a kind of subversion there that i think is very productive, but we're often too cynical, i think, to take it seriously.

this is also why i don't just want there to be a bridge between the eileen's musée fedora and musée histoire. i understand the need for conceptual divisions between art and history, and between artists and historians... but those divisions need to be kept fuzzy, and i think venn diagrammed together (where does the vesica pisces come into queer/historical/theological studies?) my goal is really to live in that in-between space. i.e., (perhaps in a somewhat different way, but i'm not sure) in the middle.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

perhaps the phonograph needs a new needle

one way of starting: i was speaking to a class of honors freshman the other day, discussing why it's important to study the "great books." at one point, i referred to "humans," and then i corrected myself and said, "people," and then i again corrected myself and said "not that the two are necessarily the same thing." the first question after my talk was about this distinction. what did i mean? i told them that i'm still working this out, but that it is i think unfortunate that we have so few ways to talk about homo sapiens. it's risky to refer to any person as "not-human." but it's also risky to refer to all people as "human." we need better definitions, or at least i need better definitions, i said.

or another way of starting: people post things on blogs all the time, and they say "i cried when i read this; the world is a horrible place." and usually i read them, and usually i agree that in that context the world is a horrible place. but i've developed quite a thorough distancing response from this kind of information. when i did some serious reading on the holocaust as an undergraduate, i reached a point where i could not think anymore. that horror, like a cloud of wasps on the horizon, approached, attacked, and overwhelmed me with each particular moment of trauma.

this is when i turned to aesthetic theory, so i could investigate this kind of situation but remain outside of it. i've been trying to deal with the implications of this stance since reading Mann's Dr. Faustus a couple of years ago - aesthetic formalization begs the question of one's own humanity. this is one of the reasons that i've become so interested in concepts of "care," "love," "touch..." though i'm only beginning to really investigate the wonderful literature around these terms. they make aesthetics possible again. there's a certain kind of redemption there.

and then i read something like this. and everything becomes more complicated again. i don't understand how to deal with this kind of dehumanization. the sheer numbers combined with the brutality. the idea that these men may have been psychologically damaged by years of genocidal conflict. the fact that these rapes are so widespread - how many men are committing them?

i know that this is not the first case of rape being used in warfare. i know it's not the worst. i know that constructing this as a "crisis" situation, pointing towards the imminent end of the world, is no more effective than it can be in any of the thousands of cases in which this kind if thing has happened.

what i don't know is how to incorporate this into my ideas of what "human" is. all of my thought-structures about form, politics, regiment, dehumanized aesthetics - they break here. this is a different kind of coldness, so inextricably connected to and also disconnected from sexuality, that i am again in unfamiliar and reiterative territory. there are many things to say here about the state's role in such acts, about the inversion of social values. these are important things to say and investigate, and a critical part of the way this particular kind of people seem to come into the world. right now, though, i'm hung up on these broken people themselves, the ones who commit these kinds of acts. i cannot think them effectively. they are so other. i do not know how to conceptualize this kind of brokenness.

and so, thinking stops. i will write more about this later. i do not know how or if this place i am in is productive or necessary or what. but for now, i am on a static repeat, like a finished record.

so much so that i don't know how to end this.

i just keep wanting to repeat, statically.

like a finished record.