Besting Baudrillard!

Hi all, and sorry for the delayed posting! Here are some thoughts on data, epistemology, power, and Baudrillard to spice up your Saturday morning.

Reading Hamish Robertson and Joanne Travaglia on the connections between the “data revolution,” which swept 19th-Century Europe as the agencies of a newly centralized and bureaucratized state set out to better understand and control rapidly expanding urban populations, and our own crisis of “big data,” I felt like I had found the response to Baudrillard I had been looking for. What I most appreciate in this piece is the fact that, while certainly critical of the ideological functions of contemporary big data discourses, Robertson and Travaglia resist the urge to simply jettison the phenomenon altogether, excising it from the province – even the possibility – of meaning. Rather, taking a more historiographic approach than Baudriallard (whose main historical reference seems to be his own now-revised opinions on the meaningful/less-ness of mediated images), they give themselves space to sit for a moment with the weird politicalities of big data, thinking carefully about 1) what ‘big data’ actually represents or allows us to access, and 2) the specific institutional formations (the disciplin-ification of the contemporary university, the sponsorship of the state, etc.) that helped it to take shape.

Where Baudrillard was emphatic in his belief that representational technologies like opinion polling represent absolutely nothing – that they are properly the objects of simulation, rather than of meaning; objects that narrow the field of agency and resistance to ironic subversion and mocking laughter – Robertson and Travaglia rightly note that, even if big data do not represent what we think they do, they nonetheless represent something, and this something is certainly something worthy of our consideration: “That a census or a social survey is a snapshot of the way our societies are regulated is rarely remarked on and instead emphasis is given to the presumed objectivity of the categories and their data. This is the ideology of the small data era in action – the claim that it is science and not society that we are seeing through such instruments.” In other words, even if the referent of population data is not the population itself, we are still dealing with reference and meaning; we are glimpsing not a population in its totality, but the various ways in which that population is defined, managed, and governed.

For those of us concerned with the contentious social and cultural topographies of data – say, those of us in this class – this is something I don’t think we can afford to overlook. Our data collection activities might not, in the end, tell us that much about the objects we want to study, but they do offer an important opportunity to glimpse the ways in which we as researchers imagine our objects, or more precisely, how we imagine them to be accessible and available within the parameters of academic knowledge production; to reflect on how we attempt to locate ourselves within (and potentially without) the conditions of our scholarly formation. These are questions of epistemology, about knowability. Quite appropriate, then, that Robertson and Travaglia seek appeal to Luciano Floridi: “Floridi writing on the philosophy of big data, has said quite specifically that the real big data problem we face today is less one of the quantity or quality of data or even technical skills but rather one of epistemology.” If, as Robertson and Travaglia note, “a great deal of social data is coercive in nature” – or at least ensconced within the particular ways of knowing we inherit from 19th-Century European social science, and thus intimately bound up with the pathologization, governance, and in many cases eradication of certain populations – I think it behooves us to aspire to more than Baudriallard’s mocking laughter when confronted with the massive and admittedly overheated discourse of big data. We need to find where our data sets touch the world, and consider what that touching might tell us about the politics of knowing, even and especially when it “fails” to represent the world.

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Besting Baudrillard!

Old and New, Again.

Though I appreciated its broad, lit review-esque format – sometimes major contours and general trends help me to sharpen my focus on more detailed case studies – reading Manuel Castells’ “Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society” nonetheless pointed up much of what I find frustrating in so much scholarship examining the relationship between power, politics, and network(ed) communication. Castells’ argument turns on a bold periodizing claim that distinguishes the putatively contemporary phenomenon of mass “self-communication” from its precursor, the era of mass communication. The latter, in Castells’ account, is defined primarily by the relation between two key groups of actors: political elites on the one hand, and media makers and institutions on the other. Though careful to draw out the ambivalent and non-deterministic relation between the two – “the media are not the holders of power, but they constitute by and large the space where power is decided” (242) a “political message is necessarily a media message” (241) even as the media themselves cannot fully contain the fullness of the political – Castells nonetheless sees in this vexed alliance the ordering principles for a whole mode of political life and power. And this is an order, we should note, in which those individuals, communities, and associations that exist outside the halls of power figure only scantly, as minds and hearts to be persuaded, influenced, and appealed to with varying degrees of success. In this arrangement, the public appears merely responsive; seduced and compelled, but rarely resistant or creative, straining to navigate a stormy sea of unending crisis and scandal.

The possibility of insurgence emerges only later, with what Castells calls “the rise of mass self-communication” (246), a phenomenon in his view inextricably tied to the proliferation of networked communication technologies like the Internet. Counter-power, social movements, and mobilization escape the seductions of the elite media-politics nexus only insofar as they instantiate “a new kind of media space” (246), one comprised of “horizontal networks of interactive communication that connect local and global in chosen time” (246). Though I don’t mean to challenge the notion that new media technologies and lateral communication practices have indeed changed the way politics is done – especially in activist spaces, and at the grassroots – I just can’t quite abide the suggestion that this join between oppositional politics and networked communications is particularly new, and neither am I convinced that it is necessarily tied to ‘the digital.’

Indeed, as I mentioned during our crit session this week, the main intervention I mean to make in my own work for this class is that networked communication technologies have long been at the centre of pitched struggles over power, privilege, and political life; that in their very bodies – their material and infrastructural thereness – such technologies have consistently played a key role in fomenting oppositional communities, popular mobilizations, and counter-hegemonic imaginaries. To take up the case of the Thirty Meter Telescope: it is certainly true that social media platforms like Twitter have been central to Indigenous resistance efforts, allowing Kānaka Maoli activists to communicate with one another, challenge the claims of an international scientific community, and forge ties of solidarity with Indigenous populations abroad, such as those in South Dakota and British Columbia opposing the development of the Keystone XL and Enbridge Northern Gateway pipelines, respectively. But the network has always been contentious in Hawai’i. Indigenous activists have, for instance, challenged the landing of undersea Internet cables along certain stretches of beach, connecting such landings to long-standing projects of territorial dispossession that consistently privilege corporate and military interests above those of Native Hawaiians (Nicole Starosielski’s work is particularly illuminating here). They have also contested the development of geothermal energy projects that would require the installation of elaborate cable grids in ecologically- and culturally- sensitive regions and divert key river and stream systems (see Davianna Pomaika’i McGregor and Noa Emmett Aluli’s chapter in A Nation Rising). Even as far back as the late 1800s and early 1900s, Kānaka Maoli ardently opposed – through armed insurrection, political petition, and community organizing – those varied legislative projects that coupled the development of telecommunications infrastructure with the privatization and expropriation of Hawaiian land and resources.

If we are interested in developing a robust account of how media technologies function as spaces of contention, I think these are the sort of histories we ought to look for, or at least be attentive to. Not everyone needs to be concerned with questions of colonialism and empire, of course. But to presume that specifically digital networks form the condition of possibility for insurgent politics is to have a blinkered view of both networks and politics; one that strips them of their material bodies so as to make them available to the buzzy rhetorics of newness and emergence that characterize our contemporary media cultures.

Old and New, Again.

From Glitches to Evil Genius: Freedom Problems

As those who took Peter Bloom’s Textual Analysis seminar last quarter might recall, I am not known to play especially well with Baudrillard. While I recognize that polemic, as a genre, is deliberate in its eschewal of nuance and complexity, I still find that Baudrillard’s polemics in particular – milleniarian, (post)apocalyptic – too readily retreat from the difficulties of historical and material specificity. For all the sound and fury about the disappearance of the referent and the impossibility of response, Baudrillard’s thought, to me, is ultimately conservative. There is little point in thinking seriously on the image’s relation to the material world, to politics, to the body, to history when the image itself has already conquered all three. Baudrillard traffics in a perverse sort of comfort: comfort in knowing that we need no longer think or act, for thinking and acting are emptied of their substance. The only thing left, after simulation, is to put one’s feet up and fiddle while Rome burns.

It was oddly heartening, then, to find in “The Masses: The Implosion of the Social” a gesture toward possibility. Trying to find a route out of both psychoanalytic and Marxist accounts of the social – imagined in the first case as that which represses will and desire (the drives), and in the second as the ensemble of productive forces and relations by which the will is alienated – Baudrillard performs on the concept a sort of recuperation-in-reverse. If mass media forms like opinion polls imagine (and attempt to produce) the social as a coherent, reasoning body politic, capable of rendering unequivocal decisions within set discursive parameters, Baudrillard insists that the social is in fact precisely what escapes this apparatus. The social is not, for Baudrillard, the “public” of the “public opinion poll” – knowable, representable, quantifiable – but rather “the mass” that resists representation as such, indulging only out of an ironic pleasure that derives from the strangeness of seeing one’s own ‘will’ offered up as proof of a truth one knows to be false. The mass names and instantiates the “offensive resistance of the social itself to its investigation” (582). This non-representability, this refusal of the masses to become the object of social scientific investigation and mediated exhibition (or at least their knowledge that such exhibitions ring hollow), is what Baudrillard calls the “evil genius of the object” (583). And here, however Baudrillardian in tone, is the fleeting possibility that the image does not and indeed cannot fully capture the real. The possibility of escape, even of freedom.

But there is an unfortunate turn of events in “The Masses” that recalls some of the discussions we had last week about glitch. Speaking of Menkman, we questioned what is at stake in conflating noise, error, and interruption with freedom from constraint; whether precisely in tying the possibility of freedom to unintelligibility, to being outside language (or code), we may actually be reproducing a well-entrenched epistemological hierarchy through which certain communicative practices and cultural formations – Ali’s example of oral faith communities, for instance – are already deemed unknowable. This is a way of monopolizing the possible meanings of freedom, and at the same time of construing particular subjects as untouched wellsprings of knowledge and possibility – a maneuver profoundly fetishizing and Otherizing in its paternalism.

Baudrillard, maybe predictably, makes a similar move. For in the end, the “evil genius of the object” takes the form not of a collective political mobilization that accommodates such ‘extra-rational’ considerations as affect and embodiment, but rather of an “expulsion toward others, philosophers and men in power, an expulsion of the obligation of being responsible, and of enduring philosophical, moral, and political categories” (585). The best we can hope for, it seems, is a kind a spitting- or vomiting-up of (un)truth back to power, and if there is anything closer to an anti-language than vomit, I can’t think of it; it is even less semantically freighted, less intelligible, than silence. Once again, the only possibility of escaping capture in representation rests in negating it altogether, to speak (at best) in murmurs, excretions, and expulsions. This does the work of construing as the marks of freedom what are in many cases indices of duress, exclusion, strain, and violence. These are not the resources I wish to marshall against contemporary orderings of being and knowing. I want something more, I suppose, out of a concept as tantalizing as “the evil genius of the object.”

From Glitches to Evil Genius: Freedom Problems

Thinking at the Speed of the Digital/The Digital at the Speed of Thought

With the possible exception of Wark’s reflections on the Hacker Manifesto, each of this week’s readings focus to some extent on the mutability of the digital, ruminating on the ways in which networked forms of knowledge production might help to unsettle a whole range of taken-for-granted epistemological, corporeal, institutional, and aesthetic formations. In the Vectors editorial statement, for instance, we read of how “born digital” knowledge projects, in privileging an ethos of association, collaboration, and synthesis, might renew our thinking on copyright and intellectual property, peer review and research, publication and display, even work and pleasure. Taking a similar tack, the FemTechNet Manifesto conjures up a rhizomatic community of makers, artists, and researchers who together reconceptualize, under the sign of feminism, the already-fraught relations between body, subject, machine, and knowledge. And finally, in the Glitch Studies Manifesto, Menkman imagines an artistic practice committed to bending computation to the point of breaking, unleashing as the raw materials of a new avant garde those stutters and misfires that ghost every ‘successful’ digital transmission.

In all three texts, moreover, this ethos of transgression figures as more than a rhetorical device, grasping at a politics that seeks to deconstruct extant epistemological and institutional enclosures, even as it strains to imagine alternatives in the present tense (note FemTechNet’s “we are”). Given the stifling conditions under which knowledge is produced in the contemporary moment, such a politics is surely necessary. Especially in the corporate academy, we are in dire needed of thinking that does not answer first to the toxic exigencies of individual achievement and private ownership. Collaboration, at its best, can function as a mode of commoning that slows the consumption of knowledge by property.

Given this urgency, however, I find myself pondering the manifesto as a genre, troubled somewhat by its tendency to traffic in the sort of pithy aphorisms and sweeping imperatives that have become the stock and trade of not only the corporate university, but of the Silicon Valley tech startup, the speculative global art market, the snake-oil TED talk, and so on. As Bernice Johnson Reagon reminds us in her blistering 1981 talk on the subject, coalition politics, though vital, demands an exacting and often exhaustive slowness. In coalition, Reagon writes, “I feel as if I’m gonna keel over any minute and die. That is often what it feels like if you’re really doing coalition work. Most of the time you feel threatened to the core and if you don’t, you’re not really doing no coalescing.” In a moment when discourses of disruption and innovation routinely carry the day, almost to the point of mundanity, what sort of discomfort – what sort of threat – can the manifesto engender?

There is value in meeting power where it stands. As The Critical Art Ensemble once wrote: “treading water in the pool of liquid power need not be an image of acquiescence and complicity.” Today, the manifesto might be how we wade. But still I wonder, in the end, whether it cuts all too close to precisely those punishing temporalities it means to evade; if its rhythms cohere all too readily with the demands of and for speeded-up intellectual and cultural production. I suppose I am asking whether there is a way of writing with the digital that is a bit more prosaic, even parochial, than the manifesto. Can our textual practices go beyond gesturing toward, and instead help to instantiate, the meaningful slowness of coalition? Might slick animations, provocative theses, and responsive interfaces in fact obscure the ragged edges they are supposed to reveal (in the Vectors statement, how did “labour” come to be peripheral and “process” central? How were different concept clusters defined and stratified? According to whose values and interests? Does the text’s interactivity adequately explain itself?)?

Modesty does not become the manifesto. But in the contemporary moment – overflowing with “innovation,” constantly disrupted, fixated on the immensity of mediated networks, geological time, and universal space – modesty, I think, has both a certain pragmatic appeal and an ethical valence. Modest claims can be more easily accounted for, called to account, held accountable. I wonder what would happen if instead of wading, we were to plod.

Slowing down involves resisting neoliberal regimes of harried time by working with care while also caring for ourselves and others. A feminist mode of slow scholarship works for deep reflexive thought, engaged research, joy in writing and working with concepts and ideas driven by our passions. As a feminist intervention, slow scholarship enables a feminist ethics of care that allows us to claim some time as our own,  build shared time into everyday life, and help buffer each other from unrealistic and counterproductive norms that have become standard expectations. Slow scholarship has value in itself, in the quality of research and writing produced, and also enables us to create a humane and sustainable work environment and professional community that allows more of us to thrive within academia and beyond.

For Slow Scholarship: A Feminist Politics of Resistance through Collective Action in the Neoliberal University,” Great Lakes Feminist Geography Collective

 

Thinking at the Speed of the Digital/The Digital at the Speed of Thought

Beginning With Friction

Though it seems a bit plain to say so, what I appreciate most about Lisa Gitelman’s approach in “Raw Data is an Oxymoron” is her insistence that data are invariably “cooked,” that they come to us “scrubbed” and involved in relations of “friction” (171). I am particularly struck by the latter of these two terms: friction. In her 2005 ethnography of resource development and extraction practices in late 1980s and early 1990s Indonesia (conveniently called Friction), Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing writes that friction both enables and constrains. To be sure, friction slows and inhibits motion, expressing itself as resistance. But paradoxically, it also makes movement as such possible. Without friction, Tsing reminds us, a tire simply spins in the air, propelling nothing at all. Even as friction holds us back, it moves us forward. It sets things in motion, shifts the scene, moves stuff around, forms, deforms, and reforms relations; keeping open the possibility of invention even as it holds certain arrangements in place.

Approaching data in these terms – as an ensemble of frictive relations, or what Gitelman elsewhere calls “potential connections” (172) – is productive in the context of my own project, which will attempt to visualize the relations between changing legal definitions of Nativeness, Indigenous depopulation, and territorial dispossession in Hawai’i. Beginning with friction – emphasizing the “worries, questions, and contests that assert or affirm what should count as data, or which data are good and less reliable, or how much data is enough” (171) – helps me to understand how two relatively similar datasets, such as the 1897 Kū’e Petitions against the Annexation of Hawai’i (see image below) and the Hawaiian Census of 1896, both of which sought to enumerate the Indigenous population of the Hawaiian islands at the close of the 19th Century, are nonetheless quite distinct. Even as they claim the same populations, they marshall those populations differently, producing them as evidence of different phenomena, siphoning them into discontinuous and even oppositional political projects. In the very production of these populations as data, then, friction is produced; the data become freighted, vexed, and fraught, involved in a pitched contest over who will count, why, and to what ends. The process of turning populations into data, in other words, makes things happen. It moves bodies into and out of legibility, arranging them in particular ways; a frictive shifting that has had and continues to have profound (and often deleterious) consequences for Indigenous Hawaiians.

Beginning With Friction