Sometimes the best tool for dismantling is the master’s…

Raley’s “what’s the point?” is misplaced conclusion to her discussion of  swarming and other denial-of-service attacks (and a little lazy.)  This is not the material question. Unfortunately, I think (perhaps in an effort to feign neutrality at the end and in her discussion of the meaning of “hactivism”), she fails to more clearly connect the dots between how material-but-ultimately-symbolic structures of border control: fences, web cams, signs, etc. that require equally material-but-ultimately-symbolic exclusionary modes of resistance (36).

Just like the aim of increasing strict immigration legislation and border security is the exclusion of certain bodies from participation in the United States (further reinforced when those some of same bodies do make it stateside, but do so illegally, and are still excluded because of their status as non-citizens–Agamben’s homo sacer[38]), the tactics of political resistance must also exclude. The Cult of the Sacred Cow may take issue with the application of the term “hacktivism” to these efforts, but their aim as activists is different from EDT or the EZLN (41). Hactivism that seeks to maintain an open Internet can’t rely on cutting off the free-flow of information. The physical expulsion (itself a “denial of service”) of migrant people from the U.S. requires a like response. This isn’t about opening, it’s about exposing the mistreatment and marginalization of migrant and indigenous people for whom the “free-flow of capital” does not exist. They are exploited non-entities within the system governing U.S./Mexican trade relations. This kind of activism cannot deny capital. It cannot reverse that power structure so instead it temporarily limits the free-flow of information. These are as much symbolic/media events in response to the “systemic logic” (43) of denial as they are literal disturbances against individual entities that perpetuate that denial. Maybe it isn’t Sacred Cow’s idealized protest, but it’s still in-keeping with the larger disruptive logic of protest.

With this in mind, Dominguez’s admission that there is no endgame (46) shouldn’t be read  (without a better context in which to frame it) as an inability on the part of activists to look beyond “the next five minutes” or or a failure on the part of media tacticians to coalesce around a singular identity. There is no singular identity. This is what protest looks like when it is in resistance to similar unending assault  It’s an acknowledgement that on this particular front the notion of an “end” does not exist because undeclared wars do not have declared ceasefires. Moreover, it’s not a matter of just doEAT-ing it and her cutesy imperative directs (46). Dominguez’s understanding that to notions of utopia cannot be anymore clearly fixed seems to be a nuanced understanding of the nature of resistance: as the systems and logic of oppression shift, so too must the resistance to that oppression and what it means to escape it.

deconstructing game play

I should probably start by saying I am a terrible video game player. Despite three obsessed brothers who coached me through countless hours spent trying to play everything from Super Mario Bros. to Final Fantasy (I think the furthest I ever got in a game was about halfway through Oddworld), I am a miserable gamer. To me, even winnable games are unwinnable. In searching for pieces for creative responses earlier in the semester, I found one of Jason Nelson’s pieces:  evidence of everything exploding. After spending a solid half hour trying to get beyond the first screen, I gave up on the game and went about looking for another piece. It did not occur to me that a designer or artist might make a game with the intention of frustrating the player. However difficult, I assumed the failure was mine–not an element of the design.

Reading Wilson and Sicart’s piece for this week (and seeing Nelson on the syllabus) I was reminded of my previous experience. We’ve previously discussed the physical book as the un-discussed element of text. The materiality of the book seems to go without saying until the author or designer forces the reader to confront its physicality either by restructuring the page (mirroring the text so its backwards or upside down) or closing it off entirely (a book enclosed on all sides so that it cannot be read without being literally broken apart.) I see abusive game design as forcing the same kind of dialogue between the player and the previously un-discussed designer. Relative to the book, the video game is still in its infancy, but we still have established modes of interacting with it: start up game, play game, win game (eventually.) This is, as the authors point out, a fairly conservative approach to play design and well-worth interrogating.

While the author remains privileged within the text, the player (in my limited experience with conventional gaming) appears foregrounded in the game.  Abusive game design flips that dichotomy. The player is still there, the structure of the design also reveals itself in order to question the conventions of traditional game design. That said, I wonder if this goes as far as a personal conversation between the designer and the player as the authors suggest. Instead, I would suggest that abusive game design uses the gamer in order to in order to de-center the conventions of game play. Another poster (Zach?) compares the way this piece privileges the designer to what Barthes advocates against in Death of the Author. I like that, but I don’t see gaming as having previously privileged the designer. If anything abusive game design kills the player.

Constructing narrative on Twitter.

Back when I first started really using the Internet (1998?) my friends and I would search AOL for chatrooms dedicated to shows or bands we liked. In retrospect, I probably spent an inordinate amount of my childhood talking to teenagers (who were really 40 year-old men) about Buffy The Vampire Slayer and The X-Files. But I also found a community of writers who wanted to use this new platform to new work. In one room, volunteer poets were given a topic and a few minutes to crank out a five or six lines of poetry. These pieces were, without exception, very bad. The point was to write in the moment. It followed the same logic of competitions like NaNoWriMo. The platform of the chatroom did not really allow for careful lines of crafted simplicity. These were the draftiest of drafts.

When scanning a piece like The Good Captain, a space adaptation of Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno (why do so many Melville adaptations take place in space?!), that was originally formatted for Twitter, I cannot help but think of the way the logic of the chatroom shaped the work produced there. (Telling you that the work was uniquely awful may not help my point. In the hands of more skilled writers, the work may have been better. ) The Good Captain follows Cereno’s plot formatting: a brief intro explaining the narrative, followed by the first person account of the ship’s rebellion, then an official document recounting the whole onboard revolt.

The shift in platform raises interesting questions about telling a story like Cereno. Print allows for shifts in point-of-view and narrative style that seem artificial on Twitter.  Much like those early chatrooms, Twitter is best when its able to provide an up-to-the-minute narrative. It allows requires a kind of storytelling not always at work in this piece. In the sections sandwiching the action of the story, the platform betrays the artificiality of the story. The middle section, however, is best suited to Twitter’s aesthetic. I’d like to see more pieces done on Twitter that actually make use of the platform effective instead of trying to shoehorn older narrative structure into platforms that just don’t fit.

data maps and a re-asserted narrative structure

In reading Simanowski and Mamber for this week (and Manovich last week), I can’t help but be repeatedly reminded of Fredric Jameson’s notion of postmodernity as being without historical referent: the capabilities of technology have removed linearity and allowed a simultaneous dispersal  and compression of information. If modernity still relied on the historical imperative of industrialization to connect it (through exploitation) to nature, postmodernity’s database removes that link (OK, fine…practically, we still need to exploit nature for stuff…that’s not what I’m talking about here.) Echoing Manovich, Simanowski notes the “endless and unstructured collection of images, texts, and other records” (qtd 160) that make up the database. And it does follow that our aesthetic would shift as well. We don’t just see in these maps. Work becomes winkingly self-referential, relying on the audience’s internal database of meaning (for example, an episode from The X-Files that pokes fun at David Duchovny’s work on Twin Peaks relies on the audience’s ability to recall both.)

The re-imagining of data as art (real-time, malleable art no less) does seems to follow this aesthetic shift. At the same time, doesn’t this re-structuring of the de-structured affect content? Simanowski seems to say no (even with that head nod to McLuhan that form is content) because the underlying data still exists. The map only represents the data in a different way. I’m not sure I buy that completely, especially since Mamber’s work in mapping The Birds fundamentally alerts the experience of that piece. The same could be said of any data-based narrative map because it flattens the narrative (imagine the same thing being done with a movie like Psycho that relies on the ending’s big reveal.) A similar narrative map of Memento that tells the story forward would drastically change the story and the analysis that could be done of it.

This isn’t by way of simply saying that “this is new and I don’t like it.” But these visualizations and networks seem to reassert the narrative even as Simanowski suggests that they do not. It seems that even in the seemingly structure-less age of the database, narrative reasserts itself in ordered imagery.


In Kenneth Goldsmith’s Soliloquy, the artist taped a voice-activated recorder to himself during one week in April, 1996, in order to capture every word he spoke. The piece, originally printed in a book appears online organized by day. Initially, the site seems blank. Once the reader/viewer/user (I’m still not sure how to refer to myself in this environment) moves her cursor over the page, text appears. Sometimes a single word or short phrase. Sometimes a longer passage. Given the artists desire to capture the impermanence of spoken word (though it is granted endurance by having been now thrice documented: first on tape, then in print, now online), this ephemeral aesthetic construction makes sense. A narrative is difficult to pin down. An accidental mouse shift causes the reader to lose her place entirely. But I don’t think that is the point of this piece and it seems fitting to discuss it in terms of database construction.

(As a quick editorial aside, this may be the first piece I’ve examined either in this class or for these responses, that legitimately rankles me. I’ve previously studied/encountered this sort of recording as a thing that is done to someone or used against someone, not an experiment one enters into voluntarily. I’m reminded on Gene Hackman in The Conversation, hearing his own voice played back to him over the phone and then tearing apart his entire life to find the bug. This is how I’ve previously experienced “surveillance society.” To willingly submit to that seems utterly foreign.)

Thinking about this piece in terms of Lev Manovich’s essay on database logic, I can make the following observations:

  • There is no obvious “narrative” here. The reader may glean a story from this assemblage of transcribed speech, but it isn’t the point of its collection nor is it necessary to experiencing the piece. Say what you will about IF or randomly generation poetry–those mediums still refer back to the narrative as an organizing structure (this isn’t, though it reads like one, a judgment of this piece…it’s just how it functions.) This piece is not pretending to be a story.
  • While the piece is not unstructured–it’s organized by day and appears to be presented in the order in which words were spoken–it does not subscribe to any other hierarchy. It’s a fairly simple database. If we take the artist’s statement at face value, this is everything Goldsmith said for one week as it was said. Nothing has been culled or removed or cleaned up. Interesting, this piece was started the same time (within a couple years) Manovich notes a boom in data collection where “everything is being collected” from asteroids to phone conversations (224).

On the one hand, this is a relatively simple endeavor: at least upfront, the heavy-lifting of this project was done by the tiny recorder. At the same time, it seems to signal a fundamental shift in how we recognize and encounter ourselves. Does this amount to an autobiography? The title suggests a performance even as the artist’s statement indicates unfiltered data collection. I wonder if I’m wrong about this piece not containing any discernible story. If I could make the argument that DNA tells a kind of story, can’t I say the same of this piece? Is there, maybe, a way to read it like we’ve read other pieces in this class?

The New Aesthetics

Last week, my good friend’s younger sister posted a recreation of her childhood home (their parents recently sold their house in Northern Virginia and moved to another state), complete with the family pets–two dogs–in their respective favorite spots:the dogs are decidedly less cubed in real life.

I was reminded of this post during this week’s readings, specifically (for obvious reasons) the essays on The New Aesthetic…

At work in this recreation isn’t a grand artistic or philosophical statement, S— made this because she was homesick. She’s just started her second year in college and when she does go “home”, it will not resemble her home at all. This Minecraft house renders the once-physical, completely digital in order to preserve those physical memories. In the comments, her sister noted the importance of the dogs in their right places as if this was a photograph recalling an actual event rather than a crude digital rendering. She’s pressed this software into the service of rebuilding her childhood home because the actual, physical house has been written over by its new owners and inhabitants. The result, comforting to S—, her sister, and friends, is also a little disquieting when examined. The perspective is off so the room appears larger (and colder) than it was and the image’s brightness and color palette re-imagine a living room I’ve been in as austere and uninviting.  Something of the uniqueness of place is missing in this rendition (it’s aura removed by digital reproduction?)

Bruce Sterling is right when he says that machines can’t really do all the sensory perceiving we metaphorically ascribe to them. They are not the sentient, moral actors of science fiction. And we don’t, as Alex already pointed out (and Hayles goes on about in the reading last week), have a language to accommodate screens and coding within an ongoing critical, literary history that centers on (physical) pages and text. Sterling’s argument here seems to focused on the machine and not, even though he discusses our “friendship”, human interaction with the machine. It’s the cybernetic relationship built in that interaction that forces the increased blurring of the physical and digital. In this way, New Aesthetics isn’t about “making it new”, it’s about recognizing that increasingly fluid interplay and being OK with it.

Both Sterling and Ian Bogost seem to want New Aesthetics to be more than what it is currently. In their essays, both men call for a more bold “true” metaphysics: Bogost wants an a twentieth century style manifesto and Sterling, similarly, wants to move beyond the aggregation of objects,  and “digital scrapbooking.” Brindle et al may eventually do both. But that doesn’t make sense here and in this medium. It seems to me that to force newness and singular vision onto this aesthetic would undermine it. For the time being, The New Aesthetics functions like this Minecraft house: reconsidering the old and familiar through the filter of the digital and shifting the focus from the separation of these two spheres.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged…

Can we treat a youtube series based on Pride and Prejudice as a piece of literature in its own right?

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries are the brainchild of Hank Green (of Vlogbrothers fame) and Bernie Su and aim to re-tell the story of Jane Austen’s famously unwed Bennet sisters. Lizzie is now a 24 year-old grad student in mass communications, living at home and filming a semi-weekly video blog with the help of her best friend and classmate Charlotte Wu. The episodes, averaging about 4 minutes each, follow the basic plot of the novel with a few tweaks: Mary Bennet is their cousin, Kitty Bennet is a Lydia’s cat, Mr. Bingley is now Bing Lee, handsome doctor-to-be, and Mr. Collin’s proposal is a job offer.  That said, I’m not terribly interested in the actual content of the videos or how it has to change from the original to make sense in a 21st century context. Mrs. Bennet is still overly concerned with eligibility of her daughters and George Wickham is still a bit of a smarmy prick.

The shift of platform, medium and genre, while telling essentially the same story, accommodates interaction in a way the previous re-imaginings of this work, however true to the original or wildly off-script, simply cannot. Using Youtube’s established comment system, the audience interacts with the narrative (and with other audience members) in the comment section. Responses range from warnings to this Lizzie not to trust Wickham’s version of events to viewers who have not read Pride and Prejudice and are responding with Lizzie to the plot as it unfolds. Within the context/structure of the video blog-as-narrative-tool, the audience asks questions of Lizzie, which Lizzie occasionally answers in special episodes. Suddenly this sequestered, canonized fiction recreates itself as mutable reality. No where does the artificiality of the performance reveal itself (except under the narrative, where a production list indicates to the audience that this is a performance…Interestingly, one of the characters is played by Lonelygirl15 cast member, Maxwell Glick. That early web series caused a stir when it was revealed that it wasn’t an actual video blog, but a scripted show.)

In the medium of the video blog as personal diary, the perspective of the work shifts from third-person omniscient(ish) to first-person (fairly) limited. The technology of webcam affords the audience only a narrow glimpse into the girls’ lives and the show creators exploit that limitation for narrative effect. Outside a brief foray to vidcon (where the actress as Lizzie fangirls her series creator…playing himself) and a somewhat more extended stay at the Lee’s while the Bennet house is renovated, we do not see the girls outside Lizzie’s bedroom. This in itself functions as a comment on Austen’s own limited scope. While Austen excelled at capturing family life for women of a certain class in England in the early 19th century, her male characters lack that same richness and typically fall into three camps: good, good but brusque, and awful. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries drastically limits the appearance of all the other characters. Instead, we get them though Lizzie’s retellings and reenactments (with the help of Charlotte, Jane, and Lydia.)

Surely, no one would say that watching this series is identical to reading Pride and Prejudice. But it does force us to ask how this is different. In many ways, the comment section suggests that this re-telling mimics the earlier experience of the text: the viewers want Lizzie to be happy and are hurt by Bing Lee’s sudden departure. The comment section could even be said to function as an online book club. No one there is “reading” this text as we would for a class…but how many people read analytically outside an academic or professional setting? If the book is its story, this is not fundamentally different. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries doesn’t replace Pride and Prejudice any more than any of the other countless retellings and adaptations If anything, the changes in medium and genre that force the narrative’s interactivity interrogate what it is to experience a book and what it means to be a text.

“We drank and insulted each other’s mothers.”

Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries’ (YHCHI) “Dakota” is a re-telling of Ezra Pound’s Cantos I and II as a drunken ride though one of the two Dakotas (the artists do not specify)…but you wouldn’t immediately know that to see it. Nor is it important to the artist or the understanding of the piece that the viewer be familiar with Pound’s work (though it is a fitting use of Pound’s own dictum: “make it new.”) The animated black text (available in English, Korean, Spanish, and Portuguese) flashes across the white screen in step with highly syncopated jazz drumming, eventually punctuated by the exuberant hollering of band members as the piece escalates towards its conclusion. The effect is a kind of dizzying digital beat poetry (that, after the repeat viewings required for critique, leaves the same visual echo as staring too long at a light…and a bit of a headache.)
In an interview with Thom Swiss, YHCHI notes the “tendency to read quickly” online, perhaps limiting the length of text passages whether creative or critical. While the interview as it appears in the link isn’t dated, YHCHI’s joke that the need for small, instantly accessible clips of writing comes from a fear of receiving a big phone bill does seem to “date” the conversation. But even with flat-rate in-home Internet access, immediacy is still preferred. Lengthy posts on blogs or in discussion forums are occasionally dismissed with the comment tl;dr (too long; didn’t read). This may be seen now a result of the increased portability of screens made smaller and smaller. It’s physically difficult to read long articles or passages on smartphone screens.
“‘Dakota” resolves this problem of digestion by breaking up its narrative onscreen. The active “reader” of Pound’s poem becomes a passive “viewer” of ‘“Dakota” as it’s visually “read” to her. In a medium marked by interaction, YHCHI’s “Datoka” feels like a textual movie. Here there is none of the clicking common to other digital literature. The piece cannot even be paused (though the viewer can, by right-clicking, forward or rewind the piece.) The piece pushes back at the notion that the reader/viewer should physically engage the work on a computer screen. After a minute the stark contrast and quickening pace feels like a bombardment of information that is actually less overwhelming when transcribed (as the artists do elsewhere.) In this way, “Dakota” is marked by both urgency and distance. It’s as if the creators are daring the viewer to ask for more immediacy, taunting the reader who wants to see fewer words per digital “page.” In another piece on the group’s site, “ARTIST’S STATEMENT N0. 45,730,944: THE PERFECT ARTISTIC WEB SITE”, asks what else the artist could be doing instead of waiting for a large file to upload. “Read a good book?” it suggests back. Perhaps YHCHI wonders, on some level, if the reader/viewer may not be better off doing the same. “Dakota” is hard to watch because of the physical strain this seeming passivity puts on the reader/viewer.

The program’s user-friendly…but it’ll cost ya’

Tartleton Gillespie begins “The Stories Digital Tools Tell” with the statement: “The modernist belief that technology is neutral has been so discounted that it seems almost unnecessary to reiterate it” (107). He then goes on, it seems, to expand on that opening gambit for about twenty pages–suggesting that this is actually a point that requires significant repetition in the digital age.

Parsing out the politics of technology is potentially tricky as it could easily obscure human manipulation and place blame on the object, rather than “true sources” of oppression (109). After all, people made these things. Gillespie, recognizing this, asks the reader to re-imagine things as “artifacts” borrowing a definition from Cole’s Cultural Psychology: “an artifact is an aspect of the material world that has been modified over the history of its incorporation into goal-directed human action” (109). It’s in this definition that we can begin to see how “artifacts have politics” (108). The politics behind a low-hanging highway overpass (109) or subway system that does not grant access to the fancier (and historically whiter) sections of town has a relatively obvious message to users: undesirable people are to be kept out. Highlighting similar political agendas (or any political agenda) in a digital space or even in computer software is decidedly more difficult.
In the sections on the politics of digital technology, Gillespie focuses on metaphor and design and largely avoids the systems of oppression hinted at in the earlier sections. New technology borrows from older media to seem more accessible or “intuitive” to new users because the tools within the program are named so as to seem already familiar before the user even opens the program (115). The language of the program reinforces notions of solitary and originary authorship, long questioned in academic settings (Barthes, Derrida,etc.), that still resonates in the larger cultural landscape. But the politics at work in making the feel user comfortable and creative seems benign compared to bridges that act as moats, keeping the working class out of Georgetown.

Problematically, Gillespie avoids these same questions of access in his discussion of Dreamweaver and Director. In one instance in the section on authorship, he notes that developers, who once dealt with programmers and designers, must now contend with an “ever broader consumer base” (119). While it’s true that the Internet isn’t just used by researchers and elite professional nerds, outside of passing mention of “Western attachment” to the individualized author (119) and built-in locking mechanisms that limit file-sharing (115), Gillespie ignores how even this expanded user-base is still economically and culturally exclusive. These programs, even in stripped down “student and teacher” editions, are tremendously expensive. Director 11.5 costs around $1000. Assuming you already own a copy of Dreamweaver (which runs close to $400 without the student discount), updating isn’t a matter of running a simple software update. It will cost you $125. Even the Internet, theoretically a radical democracy where all ideas are sharable absent any strict hierarchical privilege, still assumes the availability of the hardware to access it and the money to maintain that access. Even if we accept that the artifact exists at the center of a complex technological system, it’s important to interrogate the groups of users the system excludes, not just which technical functions the program-as-artifact in that system prioritizes. Questions of metaphorical marginality seem secondary to this immediate economic concern.