Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Spectres of Messianic Justice (Derrida's SOM part 2!)

It has been months since I wrote the auspiciously subtitled Part 1 of my reflections on Jacques Derrida's Spectres of Marx. When I first bought the book I thought I knew what the spectres of Marx would turn out to be, but of course, first I had to finish the whole book1 and ascertain to what degree Derrida and I were on the same track. This, some of you familiar with Derrida's work will understand, took some time. And then other urgencies intervened, and vacillation began its orbits.
The spectres of Marx appear for Derrida in the first sentence of the Communist manifesto. “A spectre is haunting Europe, it is the spectre of Communism”.2
Derrida asks about this spectrality, right at the outset of one of the most influential documents of the 19th & 20th centuries. Are these spectres the spectral beings traversing Marx and his oeuvre, or, are they the spectral legacy of Marx and his oeuvre, the legacy of a certain manifestation of the worker which built for us this technological age?
Derrida explores both of these interpretations, spending much more time on the Messianic implications of transcendental haunting invoked by Marx's use of the word spectre. “Can one conceive of an atheological heritage of the messianic?” (p.211). The atheological messianic notion of a justice to come “beyond right and law”(p.220), central to this book, remains so through his subsequent writings, which he comes to call Messianicity.3
Thus Derrida likes one French translation of spectre: 'revenant' (the returning/returner), and works at length to articulate how the inexorable revenant may lose its ominousness and become more of a companion, eventually pleading with Marcellus in the first act of Hamlet “thou art a scholar, speak to it, Horatio.”
The inevitable revolutionary rhythmicity of the revenant builds up resonance, a murmuring echo in the psyche of the subject. It is not memory of lived experience, it is an experience which transcends our time and is not totally 'of it'. As implied, the revenant is returning for justice. Can we say that, upon its visitation, we, who cannot provide such justice feel guilty? Is it possible to describe a haunting which traumatizes all people, and is it possible to speak to this?
“if right or law stems from vengeance, as Hamlet seems to complain that it does – before Nietzsche, before Heidegger, before Benjamin – can one not yearn for a justice that one day, a day belonging no longer to history, a quasi-messianic day, would finally be removed from the fatality of vengeance?”(p.25)
Are Derrida's revenants the resonance of things we have actually encountered, i.e. there was a time then the revenant was not merely returning (echoing) but actually together, gathering us, 'with us' in time and space? Ensemble, French for together, has the root for resemble, semblable, similar. Can we say that the revenant is like us living today, that it was once an actual person who lived? Is the spectral here the combined resonances of people's lives lived in the world?
What is the notion of justice but that of the wronged revenant?
The ineluctable spectral resonance builds up an awful, stultifying wallah which threatens even the Marxist ego. Derrida dedicates the last chapter to Marx's (and comparing Stirner's) efforts to expunge the ghosts haunting them. Marx's unwillingness to cohabit with the spectral may explain why he so categorically denied any sort of meaning an industrialized worker may have in his work.
"Labour to earn a living involves: 1) estrangement and fortuitous connection between labour and the subject who labours; 2) estrangement and fortuitous connection between labour and the object of labour; 3) that the worker's role is determined by social needs which, however, are alien to him and a compulsion to which he submits out of egoistic need and necessity, and which have for him only the significance of a means of satisfying his dire need, just as for them he exists only as a slave of their needs; 4) that to the worker the maintenance of his individual existence appears to be the purpose of his activity and what he actually does is regarded by him only as a means; that he carries on his life's activity in order to earn means of subsistence." - Karl Marx 1844 Comments on James Mill, Éléments D’économie Politique
Marx is himself too haunted, has not learned how to speak to the ghost which coalesces before his criticism. Perhaps most frightening is that these ghosts may be perceived lacking the very thing which made them useful (to Marx, and to Capitalism) in the first place, their bodies.
Everyone knows there is nothing so terrifying as a nobody, but it is precisely this persistence of the spectral body of the worker, individual and inexorably part of the revenant, which resonated most strongly in the capitalism. Capitalism, Marx is rightly canonized for being the first to painstakingly and incontrovertibly point out, accumulates wealth by institutionally alienating workers from the value they create. But this notion of alienation is merely economic and, unacknowledged by Marx, the worker cannot help but invest, even if only slightly, with human sensibility and care, in the actual carrying out of his work.
The body experience of the worker is recorded in the object of his labour, and this object will continues to serve as a resonance of the worker who made it's spectrality as long as it exists. If, conversely, technology is the skills and knowledge necessary to produce the technological object then, technology is also stored in the worker's body.
Marx takes the Cartesian (after de la Mettrie) man-is-a-machine hyperbole and hyper-industrializes it. But if we extrapolate from Chomsky's principle of the innate faculty of language and turn the man-machine hyperbole around, we can say that a machine always has something human-like about it and that this humanity in the machine is in part a residue of the body labour and body knowledge that went into producing it, and not just ideas and instructions.
If we can see the industrialized world, not only as dominated by alienating principles and processes but rather as persistently inhabited by sentient bodies, we will begin to recognize another spectrality, that of the physical body resonance of past generations which bequeathed to us the surfaces of modernity. When we thus return to the spectral its acoustic dimension, we may begin to consider the problem not to be that the ghosts appear, but that they leave too quickly before we can echo them detectably.
Disconcerting is not that we, in industrialized convenience, traverse (and are traversed by) a realm of discorporate human spectrality, but rather that the spectres we come across retain their individual integrity with faces and bodies. This is the experience of modernity as a traversal of myriad minute instances of integral, resonant, individual spectral remains, swirling around us like innumerable snowflakes in the shapes of human beings, each an autonomous revenant.
But here, Zizek would allow, Derrida and I are both mis-appropriating Marx, and Engels, for they spoke not of spectrality or of spectres but of THE spectre of Communism.
In English, this spectre is a looming thing, like the "spectre of unemployment". In current usage, the spectre is usually a bogey man summoned when fear is required. In that it is destined always to return again, it is a Derridian messianistic revenant, yet this spectre's return is always invoked, it returns on call and retires until called again.
This means the spectre of communism is always immanent, and, as Marx and Engels affirm, the revenant will soon be here to stay. But we have seen that even Marx and (real existing) Communism are haunted by spectres, “untimely spectres that one must not chase away, but sort out, critique, keep close by and allow to come back” (p.109)

1Slavoj Zizek nimbly danced around a tricky question at his recent lecture in Helsinki “What does it mean to be a Communist Today” when asked how familiar he really was with das Kapital. His response was. “ To really believe ideology you shouldn't know too much about it.”, giving examples such as Stalin, who certainly hardly read and never read Lenin or Marx, or Marx himself who misunderstood Hegel, who in, turn misinterpreted large parts of Kant. Zizek's disconcerting response shows that misappropriation, purposeful or otherwise may be far more politically effective (and interesting) than strict knowledge of and adherence to a text, if indeed this is even possible.

2 In German it isEin Gespenst geht um in Europadas Gespenst des Kommunismus“. The word Gespenst has a wonderful craftsman-related connotation from its root in the verb 'to span' as in to span cloth over a hoarding. It harks back(or forward) nicely to Marx's famous 'length of cloth' example in Capital. So we have a spectrality which spans Europe goes through it an also goes around it, defining it.
3 an interesting article which integrates some thorough exploration of Derrida's notion of the messianic is in Prof. Dr. Lieven De Cauters The Tyrant as Messiah

For further Reference: (for those who speak French or Italian, unless someone wants to prevail upon me to translate this) Here is an interview of Derrida by Enrico Ghezzi in which he elaborates on the various notions of spectrality in his book 'Spectres of Marx'.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Public Emotion!

Paul Virilio is the velosopher, the philosopher of speed...

He is the one who best described how photography accelerated the way we think by allowing us to access the microchronology of daily life, until we were industriously and industrially speeding up production process to keep up with our accelerated consciousness. When, WWI shocked everyone over the scale of slaughter which mechanized ideology could execute, the machines seemed to, as Flusser would say, "spout" history.

As the smoke began to clear, they plowed the war dead into neat memorial garden rows, and claimed "we humans are better than that", cried "never again!" and they believed it. And there was a socialist bouillonnement in Europe which tried to take care of the root problems and misconceptions which allowed simple scientific truth to be so misapplied.

Yet some how, it happened again, and this time around the world, and this time including that which is most offensive to anyone who implicates himself in the least notion of humanism, the industrial death camps of the Germans, and the instantaneous mass slaughter, of the atomic weapons dropped by Americans.

Western thought has never recovered from the shock, but technology can't help itself, nobody dares to pull the plug. Technology causes more problems than it solves, but it does solve them all eventually, except the one that it causes more than it solves, and that these problems seem to be increasing in destructive power.

Public Emotion from b gottlieb on Vimeo.

1540, "reversal of what is expected" (especially a fatal turning point in a drama), from Gk. katastrephein "to overturn," from kata "down" + strephein "turn" (see strophe). Extension to "sudden disaster" is first recorded 1748.

"Le progrès et la catastrophe sont l'avers et le revers d'une même médaille"- Hannah Arendt, oft quoted by Paul Virilio "Progress and Catastrophe are two sides of the same coin", we won't get one without the other. Virilio insists that he does not proclaim the apocalypse, and sees only hope in the finitude, the limits, mortal, and other, of humanity which are revealed with every catastrophe. We expect the best, but suddenly, there is an accident, and this reveals the real best, different but as good as that which we expected.

__what follows is an excerpt from from an interview with Virilio published in Le Monde on February 2nd, 2009

Gérard Courtois et Michel Guerrin: Croyez-vous, comme certains, que le capitalisme touche à sa fin ?

Paul Virilio : Je pense plutôt que c'est la fin qui touche le capitalisme. Je suis urbaniste. Le krach montre que la terre est trop petite pour le progrès, pour la vitesse de l'Histoire. D'où les accidents à répétition. Nous vivions dans la conviction que nous avions un passé et un futur. Or le passé ne passe pas, il est devenu monstrueux, au point que nous n'y faisons plus référence. Quant au futur, il est limité par la question écologique, la fin programmée des ressources naturelles, comme le pétrole. Il reste donc le présent à habiter. Mais l'écrivain Octavio Paz disait : "L'instant est inhabitable, comme le futur." Nous sommes en train de vivre cela, y compris les banquiers.

Gérard Courtois et Michel Guerrin: Do you believe, as do some, that capitalism is coming to an end?

Paul Virilio: I rather think that it is the end which is coming to capitalism. I am an urbanist. The Crash shows the earth is too small for progress, for the speed of history. From which [we get] the repetitive accidents. We used to live in the conviction that we had a past and a future. But the past doesn't happen, it has become monstrous, to the point where we no longer refer to it. Whereas the future is limited by the question of ecology, in the programmed end of natural resources, like oil. This leaves only the present for us to live in. But the writer Octavio Paz said "the immediate is uninhabitable,as is the future". We are living this now, the bankers included.

PS. corollary in today's Wall Street Journal from Granta's John Freeman. The fact that this call to eschew email and forgo all indulgence in the increasing panoply of light-speed communication is being published in the WSJ must mean that it is (and perhaps Granta itself (representing literary traditional intellectual/left critique) has become)not only hopelessly out of touch, but probably, likely through their trust-fund investments, so hopelessly ensnarled in the thing they wish to critique that they can only produce counter-intelligence for the disaster management industry. We probably need more of this.
Or this.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Berlin Street Life:: Poster Politics

It is elections season in Berlin and the streets, more than ever are the locus for a great battle for the hearts and minds of Berliners. The democratic system appears in full bloom with posters of the dozens of parties festooning every available lamppost and boulevard. (click on the images for larger size)

The CDU (Christian Democratic Union) is reigning chancellor Angela Merkel's party, They seem to be running as the 'safe bet in times of crisis'. Indeed the word 'Sicherheit' (safety, but also, security) is very present on their posters. If you feel a panic coming on because of the immigrantsmuslimsunemployedneonaziboozerworkerpinkocommies coming down the street at you, the CDU are your safe bet.

Here's a poster where they are promising not just Security, but also Leisure time, obviously for the well-dressed man in the first class train seat. This image was taken in the fairly upscale area of Mitte.

On the Karl-Marx Allee on the other hand, deeper in the former East Berlin, the CDUs posters are almost all defaced. Here, someone has spraypainted 'keine Wahl' (which translates either as 'no choice' or 'no election').
The slogan 'Business, with good reason" - says smiley business guy. On the lamp post on the right you can see a modest poster from the Marxist-Leninist party which is here imploring "no more short-term work and firings - a 30-hour week with equal wages for all!"

For contrast, here is a defaced CDU poster in West Berlin. The vandal even bothered to enclose their vitriol in a somewhat weather-resistant plastic sleeve. I got a bit arty with the superimposition here, look through the larger version of the poster to the establishing shot... This brusque slogan on the original poster simply says "We have the strength" with the We on a German flag. So according to the defacer, do the Power Rangers have the strength. The interventionist is evidently irked at the notion that the Rangers have to share the strength with the reeking-sense-of-entitlement CDU (they are in power now, after all, or, in German "Wir haben die Macht!") In small print the dissident continues plaintively, "how much longer are you going to make us endure this crap?"

Back in the East again The CDU is not the only party which is submitted to massive-billboard-scale humiliation. Both the SPD (German Social-democratic Party) , CDU's arch-rivals, something similar to the American "Democratic Party", Business with a human face, reason trumping out and out greed, etc. and the FDP (Free Democratic Party) libertarians both must submit to the vandal's spray and splatter.
Someone obviously went to the trouble of mixing up some flesh coloured paint to blank out the faces of the 'real voters' portrayed in the SPD ads. The text in this one reads "Education should not depend on parent's bank accounts. And that's why I am voting SPD" Yes very reasonable you unbelievably modest-looking middle-of-the-road elitoid.

Again, for comparison, here is a pristine SPD poster in West Berlin. The slogan goes "This is how we respect quality labour: Decent wages for the people" and then subscript "Our country can do more". Hmmm... very... restrained and reasonable, you are breaking my heart SPD with your fusty know-it-all properly measured concern.

Meanwhile, back on Karl-Marx Allee...
Not far from the CDU poster, the FDP seems to be mixing the Ron Paul backyard brew of nationalism and libertarianism. Note the lack of any visilble minorities in the crowd and the background made out of the colours of the German standard promising untold acres of Germanness beyond. Schmarmy crop-head business school tyke gets a kkklown nose here, CDU and FDP are, in our cursory survey, evidently both sprayed with the same can.

I mentioned in my previous post the quintessential post-war german notion of being 'konsequent'. Definitely the SPD are the standard-bearers of 'konsequent'-ness. Here they are, deep in the East, fighting Nazis with konsequent-ce.

You will notice a different quality to this poster, it has a kind of minority-party look, actually having been pasted on a piece of press-board, as are perforce all the posters of the lower-budget parties. You are educated and are thus naturally have anarchist leanings but you don't want to throw away your vote, now, do you? ("there is nothing so anarchic as the bourgeois ideal"- Georgio Agamben (paraphrased by Slavoj Zizek))

The Piratenpartei, on the other hand... write in what you'd like us to be for or against...hmm extreme idealism? This can only come from an extreme sense of entitlement. Of course, with regard to internet they are the most informed and advanced, if only the internet was made purely of thought. Pirateparty the party of sci-fi justice.

What's this? Socialist Tramp Stamp? now that's change I can believe in.
It doesn't matter really what it looks like though for these new generation SED (Sozalistiche Einheitspartei Deutschland, the former ruling party of East Germany) what's important are the IDEAS . These people from Die Linke (the Left) are even more konzequent than the SPD they are so konsequent they want to change the world not just the government! Lot's o luck with that. But really, they are one of the best-established firmly left-wing parties in all western democracy, so they are pushing the envelope.

Die Linke leader Gregor Gysi (also the last leader of the SED during the early post-wall re-unification period) seems to be advocating a rather radical educational reform to combat poverty. Note that the website is (for justice, for correctness, for fairness) (see my previous post, especially the last paragraph).

The Green Party, so konsequent that they have forgone completely the wasteful and expensive large billboard ads and restrained themselves to modest curbside posters (no doubt printed on recycled paper)

This poster compares a possible coalition of the CDU (Schwarz) and FDP (Gelb) to nuclear waste.

The nuclear issue was understandably very volatile during the cold war drawing many pacifists and alternative lifestyle practitioners to the Green Party. The Greens were the only party in West Germany who could catalyze and sustain large-scale grassroots anti-government protest, and even influence policy on numerous occasions. But now, in the internet age, their attraction is fading. It is hard to reconcile their back-to-the-earth roots with the globalized industrial demands of today's generation of twittering alternative culture jammers.

Greens muscling in on Pirate Party turf in a grungier area on the edge of Mitte and on the issue of internet privacy. Stencil type guy warning you "you are under suspicion!" Jah Man! The Pirate Party poster below is 20 degrees cooler "you already know what we are about, we just need to tag some crap and put it up".

Here we can see the Pirate Party's open-access model in full effect. The poster asks passers-by to write in the white space what they would like from their party. The response (looks authentic) "more support for the Greens!"

The amazingly broad reform platform of the Green Party is perhaps due to the fact that they are actually two (or even four) parties. Their official name Alliance 90/The Greens comes from a reunification era union with three dissident (but very gerecht) East German political parties. The result is a party that tries to please everybody. They are the kind of party that invites people like me to speak at their meetings (they have!).

The headquarters of the Green party glowing green in the Berlin evening. Evidently powered using only wind and biomass. Their slogan "It's about everything!"

Nice to see the old hard-liners are keeping up the fight. Berlin is where Marx and Engels honed their chops back in the day so I guess it is understandable that this is one of the last places one can still see them on election posters. The slogan reads "Our Crisis Advisers".

Of course there are those who will conscientiously refuse to take part in the ceremonies of our civil society, they will refuse to vote, pay taxes or otherwise deign to acknowledge the endemically hypocritical and flawed personalities of their parents, erm, I mean the institutions of the state.
Though their earnest protest certainly strikes a chord with me, I wish they would have found a more inventive way around the problem of how to disseminate their idea than by having it printed on a state-of-the-art, made by slave labor printer with conflict mineral inks designed on their conflict mineral computers run on hard-core institutional power grids.
In the modestly smaller print in German they exhort "We seize back the public space!" Sounds inappropriately militaristic, and something we should already be aware of an not have to read it off a garbage can. What are you going to do with the public space you've seized, make it private? Yah yah this just a temporary solution until we take POWER!

The problem is, there are only stop-gap solutions in today's democracy, it is almost taboo to speak about a long-term political program in our advanced media-accelerated political sphere. Vilém Flusser, in a soon-to-be-published DVD of late interviews and lectures, claimed that the invention of photography was the beginning of the end of the linear concept of history. The photograph does not need the photographer to take photos. The persistent presence of the photographer serves only to impede the normal functioning of the apparatus (this word also refers to state apparatus). "Revolution no longer is a political event. Politics are then over. Revolution becomes an inversion of the intention of the apparatus."

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Biographical Berlin part 1

Berlin is my second home. The order and the 'correct' procedural quality of daily life here allows for an enormous amount of radical and experimental culture to thrive. This correctness also extends to the way Berlin deals with it's difficult past. Liebeskind's brilliant Museum of German Jewry and Eisenmann's excellent Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe are two remarkable examples of successful memorial architecture on a grand scale. The Topography of Terror memorial to the victims of the SS and the publicly visitable Stasi archives testify to a studied earnest approach to dealing with difficult memories.

In Germany, find out the proper procedure and follow it exactly, and everything will work very smoothly. Everyone should be 'konsequent' (there is no direct translation, but it means something between considerate (of the consequences of your actions, i.e. do unto others... )and consistent, and everything should be 'gerecht' (fair, just, correct). Yet there is always space for dissent and even anti-sociality and difference.

The city is bankrupt and has been for a long time and is searching in the most efficient way possible to find a raison-d'etre in this world where the action is gradually shifting east and south.
This may be one of the reasons that the streets of Berlin have become such vibrant spaces of autonomous expression.

Anarchism has a strong tradition in Berlin, the current phase of which originated in the 'special status' laws from during the divided Berlin period which attracted thousands of German pacifists to the city in the 70s and 80s (compulsory military service was waived for residents of Berlin).

The 'Coming Insurrectionists' have come to Berlin. They are uncontrobable, they are so uncontrobable the sheer power of the insurrection is like a tidal wave crushing semantic conventions. UNCONTROBABLE! yes that is exactly what you are!

Someone, perhaps the same 'Coming Insurrectionists' launched a big messy splat on the cooly low-res-graphicked exterior of our new 'Temporary Art Hall'. This swinging splash is an exquisitely inarticulate oath. The Temporary Art Hall represents all that is bad and good in Berlin's contemporary art scene. Good, there is relatively a lot of money for new art, and the funding agencies are willing to try new and daring institutional concepts, bad, once the funding has been secured the same old power plays and in-group mentality stymie anything really exciting from taking place. The current show is so inauspicious they have had to drop all admission charges. With the trend towards privatization of all public services, art institutions increasingly have to compete with Reality TV.

Turning around 180 degrees, and what do we see?

an empty field with the TV tower in the distance? What is the name of this place? This is the site of two willful demolitions. In 1950, 5 years after World War II and 1 year after the capital of West Berlin was established at Bonn, the communist authorities tore down the slightly damaged Stadtschloss (City Palace) which for 500 years had been the symbolic of seat power in the region.

In its place they erected the 'Palast der Republik" (Palace of the Republic), one of the the most successful public buildings of the GDR, popular with East Berliners for it's bowling alleys, dance halls, as well as being the location of the parliament and administrative functions such as issuing marriage licenses. The Palast der Republik became a strong symbol of what was positive in the social experiment of East Germany.

The Palace was shut down in 1990 amid claims that asbestos had been found in the construction.
Some groups appeared to lobby for the reconstruction of the City Palace. in 2007, it was decided that the City Palace would be rebuilt in Italian Renaissance style.

On the site, today, awaiting the start of construction, the city has created a veritable tabula rasa. Neat swaths of green with tidy wooden walkways and not the slightest trace of the Palast der Republik. For me, it is ironic that the City which is so concerned with facing and preserving it's past should treat the memories of half of its citizens with such evident antipathy. Berliners are by no means unanimous in their support for the 'City Castle' project, and, due to the current financial strictures, the project seems to be going into storage mode.

This reminds me of the peculiarity in German, retrieved from Nietzsche by Derrida in Specters of Marx (p. 30) between the homonyms gerechte (correct, fair, just (see above)) and gerächte (avenged).

In the GDR, Berlin, city of Hitler, was re-baptised "Berlin Stadt des Friedens" (Berlin, city of peace). The slogan, accompanied with the customary dove, once emblazoned across the socialist capital, is been progressively removed during the 20 years since reunification. Evidently, city leaders would prefer to see the history of East Berlin as an exceptionally forgettable error. Soon, apparently, Berlin will retrieve an earlier identity: symbolic center of imperial Germany.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Gratitude for Technology

Gratitude in etymology (Derrida cautions about this "abuse of etymology that serves as explanation, play on homonyms (he should know about this one), privileging of nomination, autonomization of language, and so forth"- Specters of Marx, p. 167)

gratitude c.1500, from M.L. gratitudo "thankfulness," from L. gratus "thankful, pleasing" (see grace).

grace from L. gratia "pleasing quality, good will, gratitude," from gratus "pleasing, agreeable," from PIE base *gwer- "to praise, welcome" (cf. Skt. grnati "sings, praises, announces," Lith. giriu "to praise, celebrate," Avestan gar- "to praise").

etymology from the amazing etymonline

In this book I wish to create a manifestation of the legacy of human care and effort that coalesces in the contemporary surface. This manifestation, of the intricate webs of human relations intertwining back through history, all the way to the flint knife and before, is proposed to be a media object, a digital media modeling of documentary/historical traces, that should serve as contemplative resonator for gratitude for technology.

Rather than being an object of our contemplation it is a Flusserian project projected from processes inside the apparatus which is modeling the history of human collaboration recorded in the document of the contemporary surface. This work requires an infinite labour:

  1. of research, to compile records towards a comprehensive documentary legacy of the human history of technology,

  2. of mimetics, to re-enact and reembody all the events of this legacy

  3. of modeling, developing categorization and cross-referencing protocols and the algorithms to traverse these, creating recombinant documentary sequences and inter-associations with intuitive subjective sense of perspective and movement..

My friend Steven Augustine has challenged my use of the notion of gratitude as implicitly religious. Seeing as even the secular humanist modernist tradition is redolent of judeo-christian learning, this charge is hard to defuse. Without god, utterly without god, we really only have each other, and we will have to start dealing with that fact with the earnestness it deserves.


Today, while editing, I heard a scratchy squeaky rhythmic something coming from the park beneath my window. There were a few young voices obviously enjoying this racket very much. I finally figured out that it was

“Das Geht ab” (it’s starting) by Frauenartz (Gynecologist) and Manny Mark coming out of a cellphone speaker. I thought about what I was doing, trying to make something sublime, but the cell-phone makers know just what functionality the kids need. Kids today, as back when I was, are desperate for anything that will give them hope that this technological future world will be worth it.

People are grateful for technology which transports them, away from their bodily and existential uncertainty into a fantasy space where everything responds to them, and offers them an intoxicating taste of complete control. We suspend ever longer this technological fantasy through drugs , through media, it seems the future will be one where people will be transported from cradle to grave without ever having a moment unmediated by technology. There will be no slowing down of technology no crisis just an ever surging yearning thrust towards fusion with automated processes.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Hyperbole of Justice (Derrida SOM pt. 1)

Research for my current work "a PEotST" and its upcoming manifestation in Ji Yoon Yang's radical new exhibition project "NOW WHAT" has lead me deep in to Derrida's Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, The Work of Mourning & the New International which, I have found, much to my humbling satisfaction, has not only a beautifully written thesis, but also several direct points of confluence with Gratitude for Technology and "a PEotST". I started here with some ideas about the notion of justice and I hope to follow up in the near future with a post on the notion of the specter.

"The Electronic Revolution has not yet found its Marx" wrote Wolfgang Schirmacher in his prescient article "Net-world from the inside" in 1997, but what Marx could the current 'revolution' possibly require?

At the dawn of the age of Quantum Computing and the exponential acceleration and miniaturization of many of the essential industrial processes on which our daily life is based, it is clear that the social-critical position customarily embodied in the left, seems to have reached an impasse. What is left of the left today but a resistant force to the propulsive force of capitalist progress? Would the death of the Socialist Party in France, as envisaged by Bernard-Henri-Lévy herald the emergence of a radically more effective form of political mobilization for social justice?

Indeed even the viability of the notion of a party, of party politics itself is being held up for re-evaluation. "Now, as one can see foreshadowed, it seems, everywhere in the world today, the structure of the party is becoming not only more and more suspect(and for reasons that are no longer always, necessarily, "reactionary", those of the classical individualist reaction) but also radically unadapted to the new - tele-techno-media - conditions of public space, of political life, of democracy, and of new modes-or representation,( both parliamentary and non-parliamentary) that they call up." Derrida writes in "Specters of Marx", powerfully problematizing the state-party relation which has dominated global politics for the last 200 years.
"...liberal democracies, constitutional Monarchies, Nazi, fascist or Soviet totalitarianisms. Not one of these regimes was possible without what could be called the axiomatics of the Party. "(p.127)

Central to Derrida's meditations in the book is the notion of justice, justice, which he offsets, in his accustomed punny methodology with the notion of justness, justesse correct- or exactness (de justesse means just barely) approaching with the engineer's ruler the infinitesimal convergence-point of truth, to which any application of justice must ascribe.

"Specters of Marx" is a radical text, more radical than Marx alone could be today and too radical for Derrida to imagine writing while the Iron Curtain still divided the world in two. I was startled to see we make a similar call for a thoroughgoing, indiscriminate and nonjudgmental reckoning and acknowledgment of the 'whole truth' of a given political manifestation, integrating illegal, black/grey market and otherwise prohibited-though-persistent sex and drugs, body parts and slave dealing modes of social organization active in every society.

"How can one ignore the growing and undelimitable, that is, worldwide power of those super-efficient and properly capitalist phantom-States that are the mafia and drug cartels on every continent, including the former so-called socialist States of Eastern Europe? These phantom-States have infiltrated and banalized themselves everywhere, to the point that they can no longer be strictly identified. Nor even sometimes clearly dissociated from the processes of democritization (think—for example—of the schema, telegraphically simplified here, that would associate them with the history-of-a-Sicilian-mafia-harrassed-by-the-fascism-of-the-Mussolinian-State-thus-intimately-and-symbiotically-allied-to-the-Allies-in-the-democratic-camp-on-both-sides-of-the-Atlantic-as-well-as-in-the-reconstruction-of-the-Italian-Christian-democratic-State-which-has-today-entered-into-a-new-configuration-of-capital, about which, the least on can say is that we will understand nothing of what is happening if we do not take account of that genealogy). All these infiltrations are going through a "critical" phase, as one says, which is no doubt what allows us to talk about them or to begin their analysis. These phantom-States invade not only the socio-economic fabric, the general circulation of capital, but also statist and inter-statist institutions."
(p.103 my emphasis).

Whereas the politics in  "Gratitude for Technology" is grounded in a material-economic understanding, Derrida's is polemic and prophetic.   In the Communist Manifesto there is always the problem of the persistence of an intellectual elite layer in what should be a completely egalitarian paradigm: that of the Communists who serve the function of the guiding imagination of the proletariat "The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the lines of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement." (C.M. II(2)) Even in Derrida's New International, we must assume a judgmental intellectual hegemony as a moderating and visionary force leading the world toward justness. Since this campaign will not be consummated in the foreseeable future, what we need (to be satisfied with) are (operating) principles.

Only through embracing and understanding the complexities of our current age can we hope to cultivate satisfying activities which will hearten us and engage us as in a world of economic production under just conditions (as opposed to the current regime of "maximum profits (and/)or bust"). The New International hopes to supplant or supplement earlier teachings, rituals, strategies, such as those of the Bible scriptures and church service,  with more prosaic ones which call citizens to actively engage with and question their own reality. The Specters of Marx, thus regularly confronted and encountered, would seem to necessitate an institutionalized scholarly rigour in a mode akin to that of the Chassidim or other orthodox faithful who regurgitate to re-metabolize their scripture at every social juncture.

The prospects seem dim for the cultivation of what would be the requisite appetite of 'learning for society's sake' among the general populations of our contemporary states where education is merely one of the many discouraging processes necessary for the formation of the contemporary political subject, indoctrinating, assimilating and domesticating the pupil, stripping it of its confidence and of its just conviction.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Congo Confluence : a proposal

I just submitted a proposal to do a psychogeographic project for the 01SJ Biennal 2010 in which Kinshasa will be superimposed on San Jose using public projections, both mobile and stationary, performances/rituals and a variety of other mobile media tricks. What follows is some of the text from the concept proposal.

The title of this work "Congo Confluence" is a reference to the Congo Conference of 1884-1885 at which the European powers divided Africa into the nations we know today. This work addresses a core issue not only in Digital Media but also in globalization as a whole. This is a work in which technology is used to open a window of human access to the black box of the economic relations which already intimately connect them across the the world.

This is a work about about the materiality of digital media, the cellphones and other portable devices, laptops, built-ins and wearables. The layer of digital media which is coming to spread over every surface is not news, from media theory to industrial design this has been an exciting topic for at least a decade, however, what is not discussed, is that this information conveying layer is also a physical, material one, and that many of these materials are won from the earth under conditions which would be unacceptable to any contemporary humanist.

My point is that the idealism inspired by increasingly tiny and mobile technology is simple vanity unless it is counterbalanced with an earnest acknowledgement of the material circumstances of the technology's production. Despite all our relative wealth and security, we continue to look at the rest of the world and even each other with fear and trepidation. Increasingly it seems weapons and defence uses dominate technology research. Why? because there is injustice in the materials of our technology. It is hoped that a rapprochement with this fact will bring about more humanizing and valuable use and discussion of the state-of.-the-art technology.

It is a painful fact that the 10-year war in the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) is largely the result of various militias and the corrupted DRC army vying with each other for control of Coltan, Cassiterite, Niobium and other minerals vital to producing the very smaller electronic components which make our state-of the-art. By some reports, these 'conflict minerals' have resulted in the deaths, rapes and orphaning of over six million people. Every developed country, their corporations and their "aid" agencies is involved in this sorry state of affairs. The DRC, mineralogically, one of the wealthiest countries in the world, is one of the poorest. Kinshasa, the capital has less than 3 hours of electricity per day.

Nevertheless, just as it does here, life in the DRC goes on. Markets open, and people go to work and try to make a living, a career, a future. Kinshasa, over 1000 miles from the mineral-death-rich Kivu provinces, is a bustling metropolis with a thriving music industry and burgeoning contemporary art scene.

Now I know psychogeography is so y2k, and, in the early days of locative media, everybody started quoting deBord and getting big grant money for projects which largely either flopped or were no more than prototypes for industrial products which arrived on the scene 24 months later. And now that Israeli army is using deBord to blast new trajectories through people's houses in Gaza, its seems his pedigree as a leading light for radical emancipatory digital practise has become almost irredeemable.

But psychogeography can help us understand what it is like to live somewhere else without actually travelling there. Seoul's Flying City's 2003 project, mapping (for Koreans) inaccessible Pyongyang onto Seoul, had a strong resonance. So, too, I believe will the current proposed project of mapping Kinshasa onto San Jose and extending the map eastward to scale so that the eastern frontier of Congo, the aforementioned Kivu provinces so drenched in blood and hardship, the regional capital Goma, will be found right next to Denver CO.

Layering the thriving culture of today's DRC with all its hope intermingled with the reverberations of extreme injustice and pain on the relatively sedate surfaces of today's America should produce some powerful effects and, it is hopes, engender much valuable discussion and long-term exchange between the two places so tied by economic binds, to mitigate the injustice that eats away at our satisfaction with the accomplishments of the technological age.

Monday, July 27, 2009

the morality of pure science

In late June, I went to visit Otto Rössler to talk about human scale in relation to the size of atomic particles. I also wanted to discuss the role that visualization plays in the experimental process. Atomic particles are almost exclusively data, generated by the invisible particle flitting through a sensor array. It is hard to separate the energy of the particle from the energy of the data, there is a lot of overlap of reality and simulacra in the visualization of particle physics, especially since the "reality" is generated though a controlled experiment.

I knew Rössler had more urgent matters to discuss, however. Besides being known for the eponymous Rössler Attractor, a formula used in chaos theory mathematics, Rössler famously has issued a public warning on Spiegel TV that the experiments at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN have a chance of creating stable micro black holes (mBHs) which could put the world at risk.
With his self-deprecating humour only barely masking his concern, he told me the chances were 1 in 6 the world would be destroyed when CERN begins operations again in September, Russian Roulette.

His claims have been solidly discredited by many eminent physicists, including Stephen Hawkings, yet, he says many also support him but are unwilling to do so publicly for fear for their careers. Indeed, I found at least one other prominent scientist voicing a similar warning.

With the date of the restart of the LHC approaching, Rössler is forcefully calling for a scientific safety conference to be held whereby the public can be informed of the true risk and the actions being taken to prevent any disaster. In the clip below, he relates a conversation he had with CERN physicist Rolf Landua where they discussed an experiment which could test whether Rössler's calculations were correct or not. Such an experiment would significantly postpone the riskier experiments for which the LHC was built. Claiming all he wants is to be proven wrong, Rössler seems to be employing a stalling tactic similar to that described by Leo Szilard in his "Mark Gable Foundation".

Szilard, with Einstein, one of the essential geniuses of the atomic bomb, had to watch impotently in horror as his brainchild was exploded over a civilian population, despite his and Einstein's protests to then President Truman. Szilard became catalyzed into an activist and writer, who worked to slow down the pace of scientific progress.

Rössler invokes the repented sins of Szilard, Oppenheimer and Einstein, and claims that the pursuit of the LHC experiments as planned, without additional safety considerations, would be a sin against science. Rössler might feel himself responsible for innovating some of the mathematics which have found their application in the LHC. Most poignantly, Rössler is calling here for what appears today an anachronistic sense of scientific morality, one that places the value of truth above all.

One look at the genealogy of today's technologies will reveal that business interests (or their national proxies, states and their militaries) have accompanied every technological discovery. There is no knowledge untainted by lucre, just as there is no literature and no art devoid of the existential realities of the material survival of the artist. It is time we acknowledge these concurrent forces in the works we admire and integrate these in our appreciation.

Can scientists be held accountable for the adverse realisation of their theories? We can see with nuclear physics, the research has provided the full range of effects from the beneficial to cataclysmic. Today we live in a world where not a day goes by without some global crisis over "Nuclear Proliferation". Science is the new god, providing for our wildest desires and deepest fears. But, as Bruno Latour pointed out in his book Laboratory Life , science is a social product, and scientific results must also be considered with attention to the contexts under which thy were produced.

In the next blog, I would like to explore the notions of absolute and relative good and bad in the frame of Derrida's discussion of Marx in "Specters of Marx". For now, I will leave you with the question. If we cannot determine good or bad, what does it mean to plunge forth unmitigated into post-humanizing scientific revolution? Rössler raises the same conCERN at the end of the clip above. If CERN goes online on schedule in September without additional safety questions addressed, it will be "a proof they didn't care about risk, even though they know it exists".

UPDATE: 31.07.09 Looks like CERN is experiencing more leakage problems with the cooling units which may push the start of experiments up to November or even later!

UPDATE 2: 4.08.09 New York Times reports today that, due to system electrical faults, CERN may not reach full operationality for years if ever!