Archive for technology

Old syllabus: Posthuman Media

Posted in Teaching with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on 1 February 2014 by Ben

Following a discussion with Marc Weidenbaum via Twitter, here is the syllabus for an old course: Posthuman Media.

ENGL_3116_Daily_Schedule_-_Revised_3

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Spring 2014 course materials: Music and Digital Media

Posted in Teaching with tags , , , , , , , , , , on 5 January 2014 by Ben

Some people on Twitter asked me to post this stuff, so here it is.

Although I think the class will work well, I don’t pretend that it’s comprehensive. Rather, it is rather idiosyncratic. Since it’s a theory class according to the English Department (ENGL 3116: Topics in Advanced Theory), the Wark seems necessary to me. It makes sense anyway, but does provide a broad theoretical background to some of the issues we will discuss, one that is largely absent otherwise.

I realized while constructing this syllabus 1) how much things have changed since I last taught this course in 2011, not only with regard to music itself, but also with regard to the industry (do they still sue downloaders? is this still a thing?) and media studies generally; and 2) with regard to these changes mentioned in 1,  that I am rather behind on the scholarship in the field. More accurately, I would say that I am more aware than ever of what it means to be an expert on something, and find now what I once considered to be my expertise in this field, while still adequate in some respects, somewhat less than I would like. Oh well, when I finish Here at the end of all things I can rectify that issue as I prepare for The Age of the World Playlist.

So here is the syllabus (with course policies) and the schedule. Note that the schedule is mostly organized as follows: Mondays are for theory, Wednesdays are for texts on music and/or media, and Fridays are given to listening. Mostly. There are probably more exceptions than I would like to know about.

ENGL_3116_Syllabus

ENGL_3116_Daily_Schedule

Cover to the Johns Hopkins Gudie to Digital Media

Posted in Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on 9 October 2013 by Ben

Here is the cover for The Johns Hopkins Guide to Digital Media, edited by Marie-Laure Ryan, Lori Emerson, and yours truly. It features great entries from Johanna Drucker, David Golumbia, Jussi Parrika, Matthew Fuller, Ian Bogost and Nick Monfort, Bethany Nowviskie, Jay David Bolter, Scott Rettberg, Darren Wershler, Matt Gold, Maria Engberg, John Cayley, Biella Coleman, Eduardo Kac, and Jessica Pressman–among numerous others (I am doing this off the top of my head–I don’t mean to slight anyone!).

Looking forward to the real thing, coming sometime next year.

JH Guide to Digital Media Cover

My Paper Proposal for Frontiers of New Media 2013

Posted in Conferences, Writing with tags , , , , , , on 2 April 2013 by Ben

Here is my proposal for the 2013 Frontiers of New Media Conference, on the theme: The Beginning and End(s) of the Internet: Surveillance, Censorship, and the Future of Cyber-Utopia.

Publicity, Privacy, Anonymity: Futures of New Media

Proposal for The Beginning and End(s) of the Internet: Surveillance, Censorship, and the Future of Cyber-Utopia

Benjamin J. Robertson, English, University of Colorado, Boulder

In 1890, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, addressing in part concerns over photography, considered the question of a right to privacy in the United States. They begin, “That the individual shall have full protection in person and in property is a principle as old as the common law; but it has been found necessary from time to time to define anew the exact nature and extent of such protection. Political, social, and economic changes entail the recognition of new rights, and the common law, in its eternal youth, grows to meet the new demands of society.”

A century later, in the 1990s, the increasingly public availability and use of the the Internet and the World Wide Web should perhaps have engendered a new consideration about the exact nature of and right to privacy. Of course, discussions of privacy in the digital age happen nearly everyday. Civil libertarians continue debate authoritarians, law enforcement, and commercial interests about the necessity and value of privacy in the wake of warrantless wiretapping, the expectation of privacy in the cloud, and now Google Glass. When, in 2010, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg claimed that privacy is no longer that big a deal, claiming “That social norm is just something that has evolved over time,” it seemed that the largest, newest, and most powerful capitalist interests in the world would, in the future, determine the extent to which private citizens would retain their privacy. When, in late 2012, a Gawker writer (though an analysis of public information), revealed private citizen Michael Brutsch as notorious Reddit editor Violentacrenz, whatever our feelings about Brutsch and his online persona, we were forced to wonder whether, on the Internet, we ever enjoyed any privacy and whether we could ever hope to in the future.

However, our concerns and the contemporary debate about privacy in the age of networks remain, strikingly, mired in the same assumptions behind Warren and Brandeis’ arguments in the late nineteenth century. More precisely, these concerns and this debate have failed to engage with the “political, social, and economic changes”—not to mention the technological changes—of the past several decades. We must wonder if drawing upon a discourse of privacy that began in the early years of traditional photography can have anything to say about a world of Instagram and the WiFi and 4G networks that facilitate it.

This paper investigates the question of privacy, and by extension the nature of publicity (in the sense of one’s being-public) in the context of new media and network technology. It considers whether privacy—as imagined by Warren and Brandeis, dependent on Enlightenment notions of the human and traditional notions of the commons—can survive, should survive, in the contemporary world. If we are to be posthuman or create the posthumanities as a field of study, and if this posthumanism is to be something other than the mere extrapolation of the present (what Bernard Stiegler would call the calculation of the future), perhaps we must rid ourselves of those concepts that depend on and underpin the human itself. However, the end of privacy and, along with it, publicity, need not involve simply turning our data over to capitalists. If the private/public binary involves the movement of an individual from one space to another, from the home to the commons for example, anonymity involves a permanent sort of publicity, one no longer attached, however, to the private identity of the liberal human subject.

Excerpt from my review of Stiegler’s Uncontrollable Societies of Disaffected Individuals

Posted in Writing with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on 30 March 2013 by Ben

A paragraph from my forthcoming review of the second volume in Stiegler’s Disbelief and Discredit, recently translated for Polity by Daniel Ross.

For Stiegler, there are three forms or conditions of “being”: subsistence, existence, and consistence. That which subsists (and therefore does not exist), such as animal life, merely is and leads a life without reason. That which consists (and therefore does not exist), leads a “life” in which being and reason are one, even if the relation between the two remains incalculable (and therefore beyond the scope of political economy). That which exists seeks to avoid mere being by pursuing the incalculable consistency of its being and its reason, at which it will never arrive. Such human being becomes, or individuates in a term Stiegler borrows from Gilbert Simondon, towards a consistence that only manifests on another plane (and Stiegler here draws from Deleuze and Guattari who write of planes of consistency on which assemblages manifest by finding a proper level of abstraction). In order for the existent to pursue its consistence—and avoid the disindividuation, desublimation, and/or disaffection that lead to subsistence—it must have a reason, something in which to believe: a symbol, something that possesses consistence, something whose meaning is at one with its being. In this manner, as well as in a more conventional sense, Stiegler claims that such symbols do not exist.

some thoughts on sf, horror, fantasy, genre, technology, magic, and other made up stuff

Posted in Here at the End of All Things, Writing with tags , , , , , , , , on 9 January 2013 by Ben

No time to write today as I have been prepping for the coming term, taking notes on The Natural and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. Thinking about the latter in the context of my class on the Nigh Fantastic brought me back to some thoughts I have had on the connections amongst the genres of SF, fantasy, and horror. I had been discussing these connections with a colleague last year and wrote up the following explanation. I don’t pretend that these are perfect definitions–all definitions of genre are fraught with inconsistencies. They are just speculations, useful for my current project on genre, media, and history in which I am thinking about the ways that these three genres allow us to imagine the future. Specifically, I am thinking about Stiegler’s notions of disbelief and discredit and how sf creates each and how fantasy might, if read according to terms other than those that derive from sf, foster belief rather than merely suspending its opposite. In any case, in lieu of actual writing for the day, here are some thoughts. I was specifically addressing my colleague’s concerns about the unreality of magic and therefore the problematic and unuseful nature of fantasy.

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Bataille cites Breton (this is in The Accursed Share vol 2) on the need of some men to create an authentic humanity that overcomes the inauthentic humanity that precedes it. keep this in mind.

so, my thinking on these three genres (which i won’t claim to be perfect, nor is it total given how slippery genre is) goes like this:

  • sf is about what cannot happen in the reader’s world but plausibly could (with the recognition that this plausibility derives from a certain episteme, probably related to a Hegelian notion of progress).
  • fantasy is about what cannot happen in the reader’s world and doesn’t. that is, the reader *knows* it cannot happen (again, where this knowledge is conditioned by an epistemological ground).
  • horror is about what cannot happen in the reader’s world and shouldn’t. i think for this reason we see more slasher/torture porn now than Lovecraft-style horror. the latter does not frighten us because we have no strong understanding of knowledge and it’s practices, thus we cannot be frightened by the revelation that we know nothing (which is the primary horror of At the Mountains of Madness). thus what “should not* happen in the reader’s world is reduced to the gruesome, rather than the existential. this may be why Prometheus fails–too much of the former with little of the latter. the existential fear is what is great about the first and even the second Alien film.

the three are thus connected by this “cannot happen” and disconnected by way of our understanding of possibility. further, we can also consider the genres with regard to the attitudes of characters in the narratives. in sf, characters tend to accept the existence of whatever technology (which we accept with them as possible, if not actual). in fantasy, characters tend to accept the reality of magic (although often this acceptance is not primary; in many fantasy texts, magic has only reappeared for the main characters, who then struggle with this reappearance). in horror, characters do not accept what happens in much the manner that we do not accept it as possible in our world, for the simple fact that it *should not* be possible. i can’t push much harder here without these neat distinctions falling apart, but i will mention a couple of things.

  • first, fantasy and sf have a connection insofar as characters accept as real what is for us impossible, although there are differences in how long this acceptance takes.
  • horror and fantasy connect insofar as they both deal with things that cannot happen for us. the difference between them seems to be in the way they deal with the past. whereas fantasy has the wizard, who may be a crank but tends to be respected, horror has the gypsy or similar character, who is not so much a crank as shunned altogether. both characters warn the present about the supernatural (Gandalf warns Middle Earth about Sauron, the gypsy about the werewolf or whatever). more on this in a second.
  • horror and sf connect in that they both posit a rational world to begin with. sf deals with an extrapolation of the rational into a superrational, whereas horror deals with the revelation that the rational was only ever a mask for something else. the stripping away of the rational is horror.

so this all leads to a few more points that might begin to address concerns about magic, in the context of the Breton above. all three genres, it seems to me, deal in some way with questions of knowledge, history, and humanity–which are terms that are, in some sense, closely connected with one another. so try on this alternative explanation of what the three genres do:

  • sf deals with the forward movement of history and the possibility of an authentic humanity in the future. the path to this humanity is knowledge. of course, much sf finds that knowledge is problematic and that too much an lead to decadence or destruction or something equally bad.
  • in fantasy, the authentic humanity is in the past. much fantasy takes as its starting point a present that can no longer accomplish the great works of the past (Gondor cannot do magic to counter Sauron, whereas 3000 years earlier the Last Alliance of Men and Elves could defeat him in open battle; Aragorn is the descendant of Men, but is perhaps the last of them; etc.). the past is a time when magic was understood, when it was useful and could do things. in the present, magic, if there is magic, is poorly understood, or understood only by anomalous mystics who seem to be utterly ahistorical. thus magic becomes magic through decadence. in this way, fantasy can be understood as the *future* of science fiction, a time in the future after the decadence that sf posits as the outcome of rationality in which technology is no longer understood and therefore becomes magic.
  • horror, finally, is about the present. authentic humanity has been achieved and the rational world rules all. however, that authenticity is then challenged by a discovery (as in At the Mountains of Madness or, for that matter, Prometheus) that reveals rationality for a facade. whereas sf would deal with the same sort of thing as the outcome of a rational project (even if that project leads towards irrationality at some point), horror posits something completely unexpected, to the point of being impossible. that discovery is not subject to falsifiability, is not a failed experiment so much as something that happens outside of the context of failure/success (a binary of science, both terms of which are equally scientific and rational).

so, sf is about the future becoming a kind of past–insofar as knowledge can lead to decadence. fantasy is about the past becoming a sort of future–in which rationality is lost due to exactly that sort of decadence. horror is about the present opening onto both a past (the return of the repressed, what rationality had to always ignore and obfuscate) and a future (in which what might be repressed is humanity itself). it seems then, to me, that magic and technology are not so far away from one another. in sf tech might become magic; in fantasy, tech *has* become magic (and note here that for Mieville tech and magic are very close to one another insofar as he situates them both within political economy, rather than positing magic as a force that is always outside and forever unexplained). horror might not deal with this binary at all, but rather might be about a challenge to knowledge in any form. for a world more comfortable with sf, horror is the disruption of rational knowledge, the introduction of that which cannot be known into knowledge. for a magical world, horror is less this epistemological problem than an ontological one. the character in fantasy knows that what we would call the supernatural exists, but that knowledge is hardly comforting as all it provides is the knowledge of what might happen to that character (she could lose her soul, be enslaved, etc.). these sorts of horror do bleed over (fear of the bomb in sf; coming to know of a darker magic heretofore unknown in fantasy).

so, in short, magic is the past and future of technology and thus fantasy is the past and future of sf. horror is the generic element necessary to introduce this pastness or futurity.

to paraphrase Arthur C. Clarke: any insufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.