Wondering About Words

Upon reflecting on the manifestos for this week, I ended up thinking about the centrality of text/writing in conveying information. As manifestos, each project attempts to subvert ideas regarding dominant ideologies/epistemologies in a multitude of fields. Whether explicitly or implicitly, each manifesto brings to the forefront questions of form in regards to knowledge production, particularly in thinking about incorporating human and computer epistemologies into an integrated approach.

However, despite efforts to re-imagine the dynamics of discourse into a form more attuned to the digital age, what struck me as interesting was the centrality of the written/spoken word to all of the pieces. While the form of each text was experienced in drastically different ways, the only one to engage with the word outside of its visual textuality was the FemTechNet manifesto. By experimenting with the aural dynamics of the cyber voice, FemTechNet’s manifesto played with ideas of the collective yet anonymous voice (“we are”) that is often embodied in the collective/collaborative grassroots project. However, it is usually not experienced outside of the disembodied voice of the written text, lending it a somewhat detached feeling from the humanistic affect it attempts to purport. Utilizing the oral form brings voice and texture to the disembodied voice we all read while experiencing text online. However, there’s an odd distancing effect given by the cyborg effect – there is an experienced dissonance of aural closeness that points towards humanity performed by a cyborg voice that is distinctly non-human as well as a disjuncture between the collective, humanist/subversive thought spoken in a singular disconnected outlet.

This seems to embody the spirit of glitch art as proposed in its manifesto, looking to the importance of interruption – “Flow cannot be understood without interruption, nor function without glitching. This is why glitch studies is necessary.” By experiencing this dissonance, the FemTechNet manifesto seems to offer a moment of exploration of experiences between human interaction, en vivo and online. By providing this perceived dissonance and continuity, it allows for an exploration of the distinctions between individual and collective, man and machine. The Vectors manifesto seems to explore this area as well, attempting to bring together the worlds of human thought and computer thought in their dynamic model. While these different approaches to exploring this “interruption” between human and machine “thought”/expression, a couple of things seem to be points of further exploration. Particularly in the Vectors manifesto, I find the project’s goal to combine human and machine thought slightly problematic as perpetuating this difference maintains the narrative that computers/technology exist in a realm parallel to their human origins. However, maybe this is the point in the interruption – to explore the distinctions and contours of this conversation, to examine the flows of discourse.

What also struck me, and perhaps this is me participating in the same practice of which I’m being critical, is the continued centrality of the spoken/written word to convey meaning even as technologies make it easier to create and share multimedia forms. As personal declarations of intent, manifestos have a necessity to declare clearly and succinctly how they are attempting to subvert problematic dominant ideologies. It’s interesting to me that the best way in which to do this remains the word. One would think that proposing manifestos antithetical to the word would be at the heart of subverting dominant modes of thinking and knowledge production. Wouldn’t collaboration amongst broader audiences subsume a need to communicate in a more universal language? Doesn’t the use of English assume a certain audience? A certain level of competency in order to comprehend and participate? I’m not proposing that I have a solution to the confines of language, but I find it striking that manifestos that aim to question the ideologies of linearity and modes of production continue to cling to language as the primary mode of expression. Are we confined to thinking in text form? Is this universal, or a production of the West with its roots in textual tradition? Are there ways to subvert the text beyond an interactive rearrangement of words or aural rendering of a text? Can a manifesto be communicated in an image, a video, a work of art, a song? Is there a hierarchy of mode of expression? Can we subvert it?

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Wondering About Words

On Process and Manifestos

Reading, listening, and interacting with various types of manifestos this week, I could not help but meditate on the ways in which playing with format can contribute to critical and historiographic interventions in digital media and data studies. The interactive editorial statement of Vectors was obviously striking in the way that it engages a more active participant and troubles the boundary between both author and reader as well as manifesto and manifestation. In particular, I love the way that the search function and hyperlinking of components adds a collaborative element to the plain act of reading. Ironically, the philosophical question at the heart of this issue is brought out through a question asked under the search term, “search”: “Can an argument be interactive and remain an argument? We think that it can.”

This is a really interesting claim, and I’m not sure I’ve fully formulated my own understanding of its implications. But I do think that there’s a definite limit to the extent that it can be universalized into other forms of “interactivity.” What if, for instance, we were to encounter the Glitch Manifesto as a glitched or deformed text? So much of what is important in that manifesto is represented within its semantic content, so in that sense glitching it would either destroy its argumentative weight or transform the argument altogether. In fact, I think glitching the manifesto would be disingenuous—more a gimmick for the times than a genuine reflection of how new ideas can intervene into the old.

On the other hand, the sound file of FemTechNet is a more passively experienced, but still conveys a sense of process and temporal depth that is so important to experiences of digitality today. The use of a “female” mechanical voice to “read” the text similarly suggests a collaboration between the human and machine and in particular, feminism and its technicity. It moreover retains traces of its textuality in the way that it gets read and the way that it is organized. There’s an indexical, semiotic relationship in having a computer read a text—it’s almost as if you can hear the paragraph indents with each declaration.

By experimenting with format, FemTechNet and Vectors are both self-reflexive, creative meditations on the messages they put forth, but like the Glitch Manifesto and the Hacker Manifesto, they are also both reflections of the moment in which they are written. The self-conscious choice of sound coincides with a historical moment in media scholarship when people are calling for the de-centering of visual epistemologies over acoustemologies or haptic knowledge, just as a written list-form manifesto about glitch inevitably confronts established “templates” and “action scripts” through both its form and content.

What I think is ultimately a worthwhile challenge in writing these editorial statements is acknowledging the particular time and place that they arise and engaging in an extended dialogue with the past. Questions that McKenzie Wark’s interview asked are important consider: How might the battlefield shift over time? Who are the warriors? Who will be the inheritors?Why are we at “war” in the first place? This is why I liked the Vectors statement so much—by incorporating search, there is an embedded sense of the mundane acts of online mediation that have led to the event of the publication’s creation, as well as a record of relevant cultural keywords that we can reflect back on in the future.

 

On Process and Manifestos