Fingering Prefiguring

Fingering Prefiguring

2004-05-02
Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History
Edited by Darren Tofts, Annemarie Jonson and Alessio Cavallaro
Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2002.

Alex Reid examines a cross-section of essays in Prefiguring Cyberculture, a work that historicizes the future as neither alarmist nor utopian.

One of the continuing concerns of cyberculture studies has been the articulation of a deeper and broader history. The essays in Prefiguring Cyberculture pursue this history through an analysis of key historical texts. The texts selected for analysis include literary and philosophical classics, science fiction landmarks, and the foundations of cybernetic theory. There are several potential pitfalls a collection such as this might encounter: creating a collective apology by cozying up to the classics or alternately seeming shrill by setting up these texts as strawmen. Even worse would be the danger of becoming dull through a combination of returns, yet again, to texts we’ve read many times (Haraway’s manifesto or Gibson’s Neuromancer) and presentations of unexpected texts whose relevance to the projects of cyberculture are strained at best. Fortunately, Prefiguring Cyberculture does not suffer from these problems. Instead, one finds a compelling collection of essays that point to innovative critical and aesthetic forward directions through their insightful examinations of the past.

The editors group 18 essays into three sections on subjectivity, space, and the future. The book also includes a section of ten artists’ statements, which provides the book with an impressive visual punch. While the sections offer some superficial structure to the book, and the essays in each section do speak to one another, the editors know better than to make too much of these easy divisions, as questions of subjectivity and space continually intertwine with one another and address the future. Likewise, the section introductions address the slipperiness of each of these terms, noting, for example, “there is something oddly, even uncannily anachronistic about the very notion of futuristic speculation, since its visions are always, and of necessity, irresistibly measured against an eventual point that is designated, in an imminent present, as the future. The future is always history” (210). [For a look at a similar attempt to historicize the present, see Darren Tofts’ review of Murphie and Potts, and O’Mahony, in Histories of the Present. In the same vein, Steven Shaviro reviews a work of fiction, Bruce Sterling’s Tomorrow Now, in Histories of the Future ]

Rather than provide a shallow accounting of all the book’s offerings, I will examine more closely two essays from each section. Given the eclectic quality of the collection, I do not offer these as representative, but rather as samples of the intellectual and rhetorical variety the editors offer. Erik Davis’ “Synthetic Meditations: Cogito in the Matrix” is the first selection in the book. Davis situates Descartes’ experiment in radical skepticism (leading to his famous pronouncement) in the context of the doubting of reality underlying The Matrix. As Davis is quick to point out, “Of all the lumbering giants of the Western philosophical tradition, none now resembles a punching bag as much as René Descartes” (12). While not seeking to defend Descartes, Davis has little interest in extending the typical postmodern critique. Instead he mines cyberculture to examine the cogito’s continuing importance in our understanding of subjectivity. This tempered approach is characteristic of many of the essays here in that the texts being analyzed often do not receive the treatment one might predict. In addition, the analysis represents what might be termed a philosophical “maturity” for an interdisciplinary mode of study that has come of age. Davis contends that if the future presents us with an increasing technological management of desire, as virtual reality and nanotechnology appear to promise, then the cogito remains an important resource in differentiating our consciousness from the world with which it desires to identify.

The final selection in the subjectivity section, Zoë Sofoulis’ “Cyberquake: Haraway’s Manifesto,” addresses a more predictable element of cyberculture’s intellectual history. Sofoulis’ recounting of the manifesto is thorough but the essay’s most useful contribution is its mapping of the manifesto’s impact on feminism, cyberculture studies, and beyond through an analysis of particular features of the text. As she notes, “The Manifesto’s publication coincided with the peak of textual studies and the linguistic turn in cultural theory. Its descriptions of cyborg as a kind of etched surface, and its notions of information and coding, fitted in well with some of the feminist psychoanalytic-textual analysis that understood gender in terms of language, codes, and signs” (92). [link to Nakamura’s (2003) altx/ebr interview, where Haraway looks back on the popular reception of the Cyborg] This discursive turn also made the text an easy target for Marxist-inflected feminism, from which Haraway specifically was departing. Indeed, as one might expect of a “foundational” text in a largely anti-foundational discourse, Haraway’s Manifesto has become a site of critique. Sofoulis recovers the text by situating it in its historical context and reminding readers of the important work the text accomplished in its time. Surprisingly, then, Descartes and Haraway appear to share a common fate as foundational texts turned critical targets, and both Davis and Sofoulis demonstrate the continued value of their predecessors in understanding the particular trajectories cyberculture studies now takes in exploring subjectivity. This is clear in Davis’ analysis of The Matrix where the potential of the Cartesian “pure subject as void” (which Deleuze and Guattari note takes the form “of the idea of the infinite as an absolutely necessary point of subjectification” in Descartes [128]) meets the dangers of Haraway’s “informatics of domination.” The ability to separate that which enunciates from the subject of the enunciation - the “I” who thinks from the “I” who is - fosters the hybridity of the cyborg and points to the strategies of political resistance that have emerged from Haraway’s manifesto. [notably in the five-volume Politics of Information edited by Marc Bousquet and Katherine Wills]

Prefiguring Cyberculture ‘s second section begins with the most experimental text in the collection, Gregory Ulmer’s “Reality Tables: Virtual Furniture,” which uses Plato’s Republic as a launch point for an investigation of virtual space and the mutation from the interface of face-to-face conversation to what Ulmer playfully terms the “inter pelvis.” This essay, which reappears in a similar form in Ulmer’s impressive, if daunting, textbook Internet Invention, traces the use of the term “table.” Ulmer’s text is “conductive,” linking associatively from scientific tables to table-turning during a séance. Ulmer’s move toward this experimental rhetoric reflects his thesis that new media presents a cultural transformation as dramatic for us as the development of writing technologies was for the Greeks. This leads him to ask, “From our position at the close of the era of literacy and the opening of the era of electracy, what parts of writing will be retained, and what parts of the new media will be accepted as the elements from which to compose an online educational practice?” (112). [link to A Project for a New Consultancy, Tabbi’s email interview of Ulmer] This questioning is not a set up for a solution but rather an indication of an aporia. However, Ulmer does articulate some potential practices in his investigation of Elvis impersonation (leading to the aforementioned “interpelvis”). By understanding literacy and face-to-face conversation as apparatuses of a specific technology of communication, we can see them as prostheses (as cyborgian connections). Dialogue, conversation, and reading are always already acts of impersonation. Ulmer suggests that the goal of choragraphic method (developed in Heuretics: the Logic of Invention [link to Vitanza’s review of this text in Writing the Paradigm ]) is to practice the “picto-ideo-phonographic writing that makes Elvis and all other manner of impersonation a way to conduct problem-solving, critical thinking, creative innovation, and all the other language practices important to education” (128).

Ulmer’s experimentalism is echoed in Donald Theall’s “Becoming Immedia: The Involution of Digital Convergence,” which states its focus as Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man but in actuality concerns itself more with Finnegan’s Wake and a minor philosophical tradition from Vico through Bergson and McLuhan to Deleuze and Guattari. Theall articulates an alternate avant-garde prehistory for cybernetics in “the intersection of memory and human history - Joyce’s `ambiviolent’ revision of Bergsonian creative evolution - which requires the complex treatment of space, time, movement, and `information’ that has lead to the vertiginous ontological heterogenesis of `hypertext in every genre’ and a `dynamic ideography’ ” (152). In this context, Teilhard’s noosphere represents an optimistic view of the becomings-conscious made possible by technology. In a vein similar to Ulmer, Theall suggests that the Joycean revision of Teilhard “leads to the technoscientific discovery of the electromagnetic and intuits the significance of its emergence for establishing new modes of sense and meaning” (152). That is, both of these essays contend that the shift to new media signals a dramatic change in the possibilities of consciousness, knowledge, and communication that cannot be articulated simply as an expansion (or reduction) of human agency and cognition. The signaled change is not a matter of technological determinism, as one might contend with McLuhan, but a vector of mutation. These explorations indicate a productive direction for cyberculture studies, which may have begun with Haraway’s Foucauldian, discursive analysis as Souflis suggests but in these essays uncovers a different theoretical trajectory in postmodern theory.

Ironically, the essays on the future are collectively the least radical in the book. Instead, they represent reasoned attempts to predict the future and/or analysis of historical visions of utopia, including Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis and Samuel Butler’s Erewhon. The section ends with two essays that present opposing approaches to future studies: Richard Slaughter’s “From Future Shock to Social Foresight: Re-contextualizing Cyberculture,” which addresses Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, and Damien Broderick’s “Racing Toward the Spike,” which explores Vernor Vinge’s concept of the “spike.” By calling these essays the least radical, I do not mean to suggest that they are not filled with surprising and sweeping predictions, but rather that the philosophical logic that drives the predictions is quite mundane: technology will either save us or doom us, and it’s up to humans to do their best not to be doomed. Otherwise, Broderick’s predictions about e-mortality or “transcending” machines dare us not to be shocked. As he succinctly puts it, “We will live forever; or we will all perish most horribly; our minds will emigrate to cyberspace, and start the most ferocious overpopulation race ever seen on the planet; or our machines will Transcend and take us with them … Or something else, something far weirder and … unimaginable ” (290). Indeed it is this final possibility that marks Vinge’s concept of the “spike.” The spike, which Vinge alternately terms a “technological singularity,” describes a technological event of such magnitude that it becomes impossible to see beyond it into the future. Broderick mentions several possible technological developments including cloning and nanotechnology, but the development that most interests him is artificial intelligence. Referencing a number of computer scientists, he predicts the spike will strike sometime in the 21st century, assuring our grandchildren of the technological possibility of e-mortality. Broderick is unabashedly optimistic about the cultural and ecological effects of these developments. As he rhetorically poses, “will nanoassembly allow the rich to get richer - to hug this magic cornucopia to their selfish breasts - while the poor get poorer? Why should it be so? In a world of 10 billion flesh-and-blood humans (ignoring the uploads for now), there is plenty of space for everyone to own decent housing, transport, clothing, arts, music, sporting opportunities…once we grant the ready availability of nano mints” (286). Indeed. Then again, one might ask why the rich hug the current “magic cornucopia to their selfish breasts.” Of course Broderick always has an out: the spike suggests that whatever follows is beyond our ability to understand or predict (for example, the wealthy sharing with the poor).

Slaughter presents a less wildly imaginative though perhaps more socially realistic vision of the future. Slaughter criticizes Broderick’s perspective as one of “technological narcissism,” that is, one that places undue emphasis on the effects of technology on individuals and societies. Instead, Slaughter refers to four “worlds:” an inner, individual world (i.e. the subjective world); an outer, individual world (the individual as understood by human sciences); the outer, collective world (the world of science); and an inner, collective world (“quintessentially the world of reference of stages of social development, of worldviews, languages, professions, and the like,” which is perhaps an ideological world) (275). For Slaughter this multiple worldview suggests that technological developments are ultimately balanced by developments in other areas. Of course, development does not happen automatically; it requires the participation of individuals and groups. As such, he is more realistic about the processes of globalization “driven by powerful transnational corporations in pursuit of abstract goals such as: growth, innovation, profit, and shareholder value. These processes are not linked with any notion of social need or human value” (274). He thus contends that the purpose of future studies is “to reveal the contours of this unacceptable world and to generate widespread social discussion about feasible alternatives” (274-5). In short, Slaughter’s definition of future studies’ goal echoes the general goals of academics engaged in cultural studies and critical theory. However, this futurism, both “optimistic” and “realistic,” is undercut by the collection’s coda, Mark Dery’s “Memories of the Future: Excavating the Jet Age at the TWA Terminal.” Reviewing the shabby remains of JFK ‘s TWA Terminal, Dery pronounces that the Jet Age “is well and truly gone, and with it the belief that we are cleared for takeoff to a brighter tomorrow, master-planned by social engineers and watched over by technocrats who will ensure that the monorails run on time” (300). His coda serves as a hangover cure for those drunk on a vision of the future. In part, it answers Broderick’s rhetorical question as to why the wealthy would keep the “magic cornucopia” of technology to themselves - for the same reason they travel in First Class leaving everyone else “penned up in Economy Class, breathing recycled farts and choking down McGlop”: because it reasserts a sense of superiority and class difference essential to their identity (298). Particularly striking is his sardonic pre-9/11 routine regarding plane crashes that highlights air travel’s function as “postindustrial myth:” “humans huddled in a pressurized metal cylinder, streaking across the sky at supersonic speeds with a machine (and two or three technoliterate attendants) at the helm provide a concise metaphor for our predicament as a society, in the year 2001” (302). This metaphor becomes all the more apt now that much of the world has been called upon to share in the fate and consequences of the unlucky passengers of 9/11.

In fact, those events move this final essay beyond the hyperbolic comedy of White Noise, where the pilots of an out-of-control plane prematurely proclaim they are all aboard “a silver gleaming death machine” (90). Instead, as Baudrillard contends, terrorists “have taken over all the weapons of the dominant power. Money and stockmarket speculation, computer technology and aeronautics, spectacle and the media networks - they have assimilated everything of modernity and globalism, without changing their goal, which is to destroy that power” (2002, 19). That is, if the airplane once served as a symbol of technical achievement, of futurity, and had come to occupy a degraded nostalgic and perhaps cynical function in which humans were increasingly replaced by technology, these terrorist events demonstrated the potential for dramatic reversal, for turning the dream of cyberculture and even the nightmarish “will to virtuality” (as Arthur Kroker terms it) back into a realm of symbolic exchange where the fungible quality of the digital no longer applies.

Perhaps this dramatic reversal is a quality of Broderick and Vinge’s “spike” or the re-balancing of the worlds Slaughter describes. It may be, as Davis suggests, that understanding cyberculture in the context of globalization and global terrorism requires cogitative meditation that separates consciousness from desire, finding the void of the pure subject, or the return of Haraway’s warnings against the consequences of patriarchal technoculture. It may even lead us curiously back, as Ulmer mulls, to the syncretic formation of modernity in the admixture of Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures, to print literacy as the technological foundation of our knowledge. It may be that the “spike” is not a technological fantasy but an ineffable, creative involution bringing us into the realm of the unthinkable.

In any case, Prefiguring Cyberculture presents us with these and many other concerns. It irrefutably demonstrates the value (in case anyone had a doubt) of excavating our intellectual past to understand the trajectories of the present. Furthermore, it contributes importantly to the articulation of an extensive philosophical, artistic, and political context for cyberculture studies. It is a valuable and compelling read for anyone concerned with where technology has come from and where it might go.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. The Spirit of Terrorism. Trans. Chris Turner. London: Verso, 2002.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: U of MN P, 1987.

DeLillo, Don. White Noise. New York: Penguin, 1984.