Decolonizing Tech

Further thoughts from Todd McComb...

The obvious prompt for this page is completing the Practical listening series with Section 10, Decolonizing technology in March 2020 (a couple of weeks before quarantine rules descended here, as it happens).

I'm also retiring the old bibliography from that series, the page for which also served as something of a chronology for my non-review writing. Presumably such a chronicle will now come to accompany this space. However, I'm also not intending more long productions, and so want to focus on shorter entries instead as more manageable in terms of exertion & time commitments.

I think I'll keep this introduction brief, though, and so get to some specific further thoughts....

(And to that new new bibliography... a link added here subsequently for convenience.)

Todd M. McComb <mccomb@medieval.org>
12 September 2020

In considering this new project, and in particular, what prompts me to make an entry, I feel compelled to note that I come into it with no particular plan: I mean, the overall goal is to contribute some thoughts toward decolonizing tech — the meaning of which will emerge over the course of the discussion — but I'm not undertaking this series from an outline or sketched outcomes. (I do have a series of topics already noted for possible discussion, but no order, and I doubt that the first 20 entries here are going to end up matching my approximately 20 bullet points very closely. Things will change. I do intend to elaborate some specific notes from Decolonizing technology at some point, though....) In that sense, there's always "too much" material, but part of the intent here is to be able to respond to current topics. And I want to do that in a manageable format, both for myself & for readers. So I'm not intending to litter this page with citations or links either, but I'll often have a specific source as trigger for an entry.... (I suppose much of this paragraph is just to assuage my own ego, since I've carefully planned my prior theoretical writings, and will feel more exposed like this. Maybe that's an improvement, but there's consequently always going to be a sense of "But what about...?" remaining here. And an answer might not come soon.) And it'll probably take a while to get to some obvious questions too, since I do need to recall aspects of prior frameworks....

So to recap something of the analytic (or, reductively, rubric) that I elaborated in (the relatively elaborate) PL10, the sense of "decolonizing tech" here is deliberately ambiguous between the internals of "tech" as an industry, and a/the (hypothetical) use of technology in (broad) decolonizing projects per se (i.e. with "decolonizing" figured as an adjective applied to tech): In this, the latter is obviously the larger goal, or at least is directed toward that larger goal, but the former can have a role too. (Some say it accomplishes the more general goal directly, but that's liberal fantasy. A more diverse set of collaborators doesn't change the economic system by itself, although obviously it does blur the contours of exploitation, the boundaries between haves & have nots....) I've also elaborated a sort of three-headed analytic on ownership-control-authority: These topics have been treated somewhat differently in different texts, but in much of this specific space, they coincide in the corporate "persons" of the tech monopolies & their main driver, greed. (It's worth noting that greed can & is suspended for matters of ownership & control in the tech industry, though. Profit taking can come later....) I've also interrogated technology specifically around the body, whether as extending or disciplining the body (with the important caveat that extension can simultaneously yield discipline), and via various notions of speed: Under neoliberalism, hoarding per se comes to be about speed, about outpacing (i.e. about "discovery" per Basic Mechanics), not only outpacing "competitors" (& establishing monopolies, the corporate dream scenario, increasingly attainable per reduced regulation), but the law. And whereas I discussed the way that law (as a technology, mind you) tends to lag, an aspect of this intertwining that I failed to discuss was the violence of law per se (although I did name it as a colonizing technology).... As it happens, Judith Butler's new book The Force of Non-Violence only appeared as I was completing that essay, and I put off reading it until recently — thinking it might involve layers of minutia, as sometimes in Butler: But no, this is a rather clear rethinking of the meaning of non-violence, and should be accessible to a more general reader. (Despite the many citations, Butler explains the ideas she uses. Although, I'd already read almost everything cited, so maybe I'm in no position to judge that....) And part of that rethinking is to take up Walter Benjamin, and the basic thesis that law — as prohibition — inherently invokes violence. (The history of law per se is one of Benjamin's arguments.) When I wrote of the deliberate entanglement of the tech industry, then, of staying ahead of law (via speed), I wrote — in a sense — about conscious efforts to outpace such legal violence. And I've been in so many places so close to the tech industry for so many decades now, being involved at least peripherally in so many decisions, and then eventually coming increasingly to lose every important battle... until the current situation, with the for-profit sector having achieved not only ascendance, but impunity: So a domain in which commerce was actually explicitly forbidden(!) when I encountered it, has come to be the trashiest of neoliberal paradises.... (I'll come back to more specific aspects of my experience here at some point....) And in fact the neoliberal arguments involved should be linked directly to what Benjamin has to say on the violence of law, as the rhetoric was remarkably similar — but more specifically about the inability of regulatory bodies to understand (the internet or web) & so to act appropriately. (In the minds & rhetoric of greedy techies, of course, this was not a lament about needing better regulations, but rather an argument for why not to attempt it: Can't win, don't try, being a generalized update to Thatcher....) So people were very concerned about exactly this sort of legal violence, a brake on their (eventually profitable) ecstasy, but also long before there were big profits to protect.... And so another emphasis for Butler is on equality, something she claims is inherent to a truly non-violent society. (As I've articulated in so many ways over recent years, hierarchy & rupture are two sides of one coin, so I'll certainly agree, pace what "equality" can mean....) But Benjamin is coming from an anarchist perspective, and so what is anarchy in this context? (This is where the old internet arguments really go off the rails....) Anarchy is a situation where people don't have power over others. That's not to say only formal a priori power, but actual power in practice. (Rather, the latter is to be minimized.) Basically "anarchic" resistance to a centralized tech authority instead led to massive power for some: The "system" failed to correct for power imbalances that were developing — & for many of the players, this was quite intentional. (The people involved basically erected the Hobbesian proto-universe online, despite it never having existed before.... And they did it because it was always their dream world. The rest of the rhetoric was mainly about distraction, just as it is now.) Developing during the era of neoliberal dominance, then, the internet became the ultimate neoliberal wet dream, with its markets & optimizations & ultimately its ability to concentrate wealth ("more efficiently!") — & to bully (i.e. outside formal proscription). So let me turn back to earlier in this historical arc: As technological developments came to exceed legal contexts, they did bring their own de facto laws, their own ways of doing things. And as opposed to Butler, who never seems to move off of law as prohibition (as it's also figured by Benjamin), this is precisely where positive law enters the picture. (Note that Butler has explicitly bemoaned her own inability to discuss the body, and this is where a different such discussion also belonged. I will return to this topic as well, which for some, including Butler, is ultimately psychoanalytic....) There's also the sense of escapism that accompanied internet ecstasy for many, suggesting (again) the positive drives, a generalized sense of excess.... And what is or isn't violent, or relative to what context, seems easily to be spun by rhetoric — & has been for millennia (as interrogated in part by Butler) — such that prohibitions on "violence" (e.g. of protestors) can end up furthering oppression, i.e. systemic violence. (There's a sort of developing topology to these contemporary moments, to evoke Byung-Chul Han, whom Butler doesn't mention, although they do both operate at least partially under a Foucauldian umbrella....) And the virtual world seems to have been made for spin.... So what would "positive" law applied to tech, i.e. as avowal rather than prohibition, look like? Well, it'd look a lot more like religion (specifically, liturgy) — & does often appear that way, including in the mode of neoliberal greed, the presumptive superiority of "the market," etc. And I realize that any talk of religion tends to inflame techies, despite (or because of) how thoroughly religious they tend to act, so I'll need to come back to that thought.... In the meantime, note that basically all of these things are technologies: Indeed, the way that Butler figures & circumscribes non-violence per se, i.e. as suspending & interpolating concepts (e.g. grievability), positions it clearly as a sort of mediation (i.e. as inherently technological). And so I'll let Butler's book conclude my old bibliography, as I jumpstart this new project....

17 September 2020

I'm not anticipating that entries here will go on tracking bibliographic entries directly for much longer, but I do want to take up a few — perhaps tangential — thoughts from François Bonnet's After Death (which actually appeared in French in 2017, but in English only recently). Bonnet seeks not only to trace the historical contours of presentism, per e.g. last year's Concepts of contemporary history (which would have benefited from Bonnet's perspective), but especially to discuss its effects on the contemporary subject. (In this, his concern with individuation seems to follow Stiegler's, but the latter is not mentioned. The general issue there is the changing boundary or non-boundary between the individual subject & society... & the world in general.) And although the anesthetic (& so amnesiac) qualities of presentism do certainly concern the contemporary musical & artistic space, it's to notions of guaranteed safety that I want to turn next: Indeed, I've already positioned modernity per se as an exercise not only in (global) imperial hoarding, but as an attempt to eliminate risk or "fortune." (Rather, in concentrating the Earth's wealth for a few, modernity reallocated precarity. It should be emphasized, though, that various aspects of this hoarding project are still being praised, including that concentrations of "capital" provided a spur to technological development: Let's not embrace benevolence in assessing such a motivation, though, but rather the cynical business of remaining in control.... So much Western technology is still war technology.) The modern risk abatement project is then reconfigured in the postmodern (or nascent neoimperial) era, in Bonnet's terms, around a broad forgetting of death (i.e. of the historical & finite character of individual human life): Note, crucially, that this presentist forgetting is not the elimination of risk, but rather its forgetting, its reconfiguration into spectral form (i.e. as a vague "cloud," to throw out a current technological metaphor). Of course, such a situation is thrown into further relief by the new risk (& spectacle) of coronavirus. And response to that risk has been largely predictable within this frame: For one, poverty (as correlated or aligned with racism, sexism, etc.) is always a vector for increased exposure, but is so particularly in areas (including where I live) where medical care is rationed according to socioeconomic status. (Any sort of general epidemic is thus, fundamentally, a genocidal tool against the poor — at least in economically hierarchical societies. And coronavirus is certainly being deployed this way....) Following that logic, it's then upper middle class (i.e. the classic Western "bourgeoisie") fears that dictate policy & practice, fears portrayed as truly novel (& thus terrifying) by people who were already largely in denial regarding the risks in their lives (including to others due to their own actions...). The situation also brings condescension, reinforcing class lines & portraying the precarious as themselves dangerous: Another "state of exception" appears, such that fear brings calls for safety, with increasing fascist imposition on its heels (as various long-term fascist policy demands have now been imposed unilaterally & with little resistance), all part of a global race toward the right (a race buoyed by "technologies" such as centrism...). So what we see is a shock, an interruption to a particular regime of denial (& a new danger, but not a reconfiguration of precarity per se), an opportunity to implement more restrictive policies in general (not unlike the 9/11 terror attacks) — & then we'll see the regime of denial reconstitute itself: Many people already seem to be easing their safety concerns, despite no fundamental lessening of virus risk. (Part of this can be figured as a narrowing of uncertainty. Or simply as moving away from ultimately impractical hypercaution.) But that's also because coronavirus risk was never of a different order: It remains to be seen how the totals (& arguments over classification) turn out, but it looks to me now as though e.g. deaths in the US due to virus (& note that the US response has been figured as especially problematic) will be roughly 10% of projected 2020 deaths here (which, I should also note, were already being projected to rise...). The point? Most of the other risks have already been assimilated to regimes of denial. So another important point concerns numbers & calculation per se (as the foregoing already starts to suggest): We've been hearing — again, especially from the most bourgeois elements — that the value of life is incalculable, and hence that coronavirus risk should be figured as basically infinite against other life issues. And I want to highlight this anti-calculation sentiment — which is already fading, and was certainly never ubiquitous — within the very heart of the neoliberal calculation regime: Considering neoliberal apathy toward anything that can't be exchanged — the exchange of images online coming to exemplify this situation for Bonnet, such that calculation need not refer (explicitly) to price, but to data more generally... — such an interruption is critical (to e.g. postmodern conceptions of "event"), even as the regime continues to synchronize images of each of us for marketing & propaganda purposes. That we remain thoroughly calculated (even as notions of "the value of life is incalculable!" ring out now more than ever) is of course also evident within the Western health industry, particularly around concepts of "insurance," but also via medicalization per se.... And (the history of) "medical science" is joined at the hip to Western modernity, including in two basic ways: Modernity forged biologism around labor (itself a technology), i.e. increase population so as to increase production & increase accumulation. (Each additional labor unit, at least in principle, provided additional profit....) Thus, people who could not work needed to be repaired — not for themselves, but so that they could (or would) work again. Moreover, in its quest for concentrated accumulation (or stockpile), modernity generates many new health problems, whether from its labor regime directly, poisonous contaminations, harvesting necessities of life, etc. In other words, although "medical science" is hailed as a great achievement by modernity (even the greatest, in some circles), much is not only devoted to problems caused by modernity itself, but is still oriented according to paradigms of work directed toward wealth accumulation. (And the other major historical paradigm of Western medicine arises not from the labor regime, but from charlatanism aimed at the newly rich. That strand actually has the longer history.... Consequently, in the US anyway, both health & insurance are for-profit industries, the former retaining an incentive to keep people alive but sick....) These labor regime issues would be problematic enough, but returning to the overall topic here, a significant element of discontinuity between the modern & postmodern eras lies within the regime of biologism itself: Human labor is no longer to be maximized, but rather kept to more "manageable" proportions, with the remainder replaced by (different, more obedient) technology (presumably continuing to seek infinite production & profit... & so without much long-term sanity). Moreover, the neoliberal regime emphasizes human competition & even biological legacy... meaning that the specter of genocide (or at least necropolitics, i.e. "competing" on health) is increasingly everywhere. (Per the general analytic here, one must also look into situations of ownership & control, and we've seen the tech monopolies clearly augment both for themselves during this crisis, again as traditional middle class opposition falls quickly in line — i.e. around the "exception" & its cultivated fears. That US politicians might seek to regulate online media or sales now seems to be an even more remote possibility....) And then, although perhaps I've already involved too much at once, a final issue to raise in this entry is that of antisocial (or anti-human) sentiment masquerading as environmentalism: Condescension toward many people's "poor" virus safeguards already has various groups being figured as dangerous per se, and genocidal impulses (to reduce the population in general, and so to further concentrate wealth) will surely be proliferating in upcoming rhetoric, including around environmental concerns. (Tangentially, e.g. friendly virus warnings to "Stay inside!" don't actually make sense in any specific way — unless figured against such an us-them axis & global involution more generally, such "competition" still being the basic premise of neoliberalism....) Figuring the poor as "the problem" (including the global poor) is certainly nothing new, but I very much want to emphasize that a healthy ecology involves everyone & everything. That's a simple truth, at least until ramified, because a healthy ecology also involves death & change: Notions of static immortality are themselves illusory (as most everyone actually already knows, if they bother to remember) & even dangerous. While life is — ultimately, paradigmatically — dynamic & risky.

25 September 2020

I'd intended a bit of a break here, but not like this: It's not only that the virus response in this country has been a debacle on the macro scale (sailing past that 10% incremental mortality I'd noted earlier...), but that various corresponding adjustments in my personal life have left me feeling agitated, i.e. without much daily mental clarity. And mental clarity is sort of the point to discussions such as this, e.g. anticipating problems or countermeasures & trying to think ahead, rather than being reactive in a short-sighted way. (People with more resources can, of course, hire extensive staffs to plan for such circumstances. Disruptions thus provide a window of opportunity for people who are ready to implement their agendas. And creating paralysis within the general population is a strategy.) In other words, this sort of thinking is more important than ever during a crisis, & so I feel a need to try to muddle along here.... In fact, the circumstances remind me that "theory" is always in danger of reifying anyway: Clarity fades (perhaps almost imperceptibly) into reification, as various ideas take not only shape but assume power. And some people around me like to describe what I do as "philosophy" sometimes, but to be clear, I don't embrace that term (which I read as internal to imperialism, in a similar sense as "human" tends to reinvoke liberalism...): Indeed, philosophy is a technology — or even a "gimmick," in Sianne Ngai's terms, i.e. an "object" that's both too much & not enough. (And the latter is easy enough to observe, between the grandiosity involved in dictating formal possibilities & the lapses of practical applicability....) Instead, I look at tracings or untanglings, but that's not to say that any such activity isn't susceptible to issues of reification, i.e. basically any time a result is formalized. (Among other issues, this involves writing, or expression — presumably linguistic — per se. Ideas thus become words, i.e. static, and invoke issues of legibility, even of ontology....) Questions of avoiding reification while thinking, & especially while expressing thought, then become (at least for me) questions of segmentation & typology as well, i.e. of the (analytic) sense of exposition & organization: Such reification is technological reification, pace language as technology, with questions of reification further becoming questions of hypocrisy from any decolonizing perspective, as static "philosophy" comes (eventually, if not immediately) to enforce a status quo.... (Fascists thus love reification, in practice, i.e. the calcification of typological hierarchy & segmentation.) Moreover, such reification is constantly happening to any idea once articulated, that or its vanishing... but then, vanishing may simply be change & motion. (I want to recall the issue of exemplarity as well, itself a gimmick, i.e. too much & too little: In other words, examples become reified — i.e. made canonical — themselves, at which point they're no longer contingent as examples. Moreover, an example generally requires some kind of segmentation, if not a full-fledged typology....) In this sense, critique is always also consolidation (certainly pace Kant) — as is reaction. But what then of "reinventing the wheel" in every circumstance? Practicality — including pace the opening to this paragraph — is certainly an issue, but decolonizing also cannot be another kind of universalizing.... Instead, we're going to need ideas that are fluid & accommodate constant change.... Any specificity then becomes both strength & weakness, not only because it suggests a hardening of (possibly relevant) thought in motion, but also because of the general scene of the battle, with its layers of secrecy & leverage. (But then, I'm not any good at secrecy myself, even if I do try not to draw too clear a picture for the wrong people....) Emphatically though, these observations are not about defeatism: Rather, they're statements that fluid circumstances are our real circumstances! (It doesn't feel comfortable to me to be writing right now, but it shouldn't.) Something more rigorous (& pretty — or clear) is often useless in the face of real problems, and that goes for communication in general: Western epistemology focusing on "science" is one way of communicating ideas about the world, but does it (always, or even usually) work? Following Boaventura de Sousa Santos, ways of knowing must be evaluated for their practical outcomes (& I'd add, must never become exclusive). Ironically, in the Western arena, this describes marketing rather better, i.e. it's done according to measured "communication" outcomes. (Of course, this leads into various forces of technological enchantment/entrainment & capture....) We clearly need other stories, and we need other stories that work as communication — not that fit some abstract criterion of truth (which can be nothing but reification or distraction anyway). What has knowledge even become today? It's my specialty, I guess, but in the "prove it" world of neoliberalism (& science, mind you), knowledge is generally proven by using it to obtain wealth (as discussed more extensively in Concepts of contemporary authority) — and again as suggested amid the opening to this paragraph, wealth is increasingly required to gain knowledge.... (Such an observation then opens to the regime of calculation as noted in the previous entry, reification & technical specificity often serving to elide the entire ecological scene — or reduce it to numbers.) And so I'm reminded that "decolonization is not a metaphor," rather it's colonization per se that becomes fluid under neoliberalism, as private corporations escape their prior nation-state containers, and continue to implement neoimperial regimes of people with (highly asymmetric) power over others. (And that's increasingly accomplished via producing & hoarding knowledge....) Of course, these are the for-profit "owners" of contemporary technology, and their "property rights" continue to be enforced by the castrated inheritors of the nation-state administrations: These technology owners are also greatly expanding their power at the moment, largely without counter, as they increasingly control communication per se. (And note that ongoing quarantine provides them the perfect laboratory for mastering the body via the virtual as well, a tricky endeavor to be sure....) In any case, if the rest of the planet is to defeat these "property rights," & to produce laws that limit the amount of power anyone can have over anyone else, it'll still involve some kind of expression, a reification, a series of thoughts to which one can return, i.e. a history... in some sense, flowing somewhere. In that sense, response also becomes relational, i.e. a flowing from the middle — i.e. as technical insertion (i.e. mediation) per se, concepts flowing in an infinite hall of mirrors (or forging a relationscape, per Erin Manning).... (Untangling can then easily come to double relation per se, as a matter of perspective....) That's ultimately the technological fate & (analogic) character of theory, but there's also a pharmacology of theory: One might say that it's useful until it works too well, i.e. until it becomes too clear. (In the meantime, what's clear enough is to fight these unprecedented concentrations of power — often equated legally to property — in the field of media & communications....)

8 December 2020

The prior entry raises not only the ambition of "mastering the body via the virtual," but issues of my own (writing & theoretical) clarity. And at the risk of indulging too much autobiography — & at a risk level that I'll definitely be exceeding here at some point — I'd like to untangle the latter around an interrogation of presence: I haven't had so much a lack of ideas, and certainly not a dearth of affect (figured here as a sort of pre-idea), but exactly as already noted, a lack of clarity. The situation thus immediately underscores the collective nature of individuation & selfhood, meaning that "voice" is always collective in important ways. (A nonlinear & iterative process of semiosis, whether functioning unconsciously or consciously as education, forges our own modes of self-expression, in particular our sense of what needs to be expressed....) In other words, I need some sort of audience in order for (my) ideas to take concrete shape, and I've barely had a chance to speak with anyone for many months. Lacking such concrete interaction, I find that my thinking remains fuzzy, such that more effort is required in order to conjure a (necessary) context. Of course, many people are interacting more over the internet: Personally I've been trying to keep my internet use about the same, so I've been feeling a significant drought in my interactions — & also in the quality of my interactions even so. Such an observation is obvious enough, yet I heard e.g. significant buzz about doing away with in-person voting for the US election last year, and responded immediately wherever I could, namely that (further) removal (or sublimation) of "presence" per se from the political arena would be disastrous. I was roundly mocked around Silicon Valley ("shouting someone down" being a normal activity here) — but fortunately, Black Lives Matter decided that presence was actually important (& consequently the election outcome wasn't as disastrous as it could have been). So what then of technologies of presence, as I propose to call this developing set of means for interacting with others, generally via (digital) sound or video? I'm going to set aside issues of "privacy" for this entry, but do intend to return to that discussion soon (& privacy is a liberal or bourgeois concept, so not something I truly embrace, even if I do share overlapping concerns...). Instead, let me figure presence around notions of embodiment, and how one's "body" appears in social media: For one, there are greater choices in how to (re)present oneself. (No one knows you're a dog?) But those choices are largely internal to whatever technology of presence is being used, meaning not only that one might "be present" differently in different places (for better or worse...), but that one's presence is by permission of a tech company (i.e. a for-profit entity). So I also want to turn to a note from PL10 (& I'd suggested already here that I'd be revisiting some of these notes), No. 14 on the extension or even amelioration of embodiment: Is "bodily imprisonment" indeed mostly a feminist issue? A trans issue? What of the posthuman & its pharmacology more generally? (On the internet, no one knows you're a woman? Or it's actually becoming a privileged arena for pinkwashing & various pink collar jobs?) As the note asks then, what does a regime of virtual presence mean for reproduction & gender? (What e.g. of reproduction strictly internal to a virtual space? That could soon be meaningful....) Such questions lead immediately back to notions of ownership as already articulated, i.e. who "owns" one's virtual presence? Moreover, corporate ownership of our social interactions yields not only a sense of subjection — specifically in terms of the iterative process of semiosis, as noted above, yielding voice... — but of appropriation. And not only appropriation of profiles or definitions of "who we are," as framed as distinct & individually addressable (& surely as maps that quickly become more real for many than what they supposedly designate...), but as "presences" that can simply be switched off. So what then of political presence? Obviously it's completely vulnerable to the framing company or organization, and one can be "virtually disappeared" without any (even nominal) crime being committed. (Various non-people & duplicates can be virtually appeared as well....) There's no "public space" of internet presence, nowhere that someone can express themselves without (perhaps imminent) danger of exclusion. There's also increasingly little means to know who or what is or isn't fabricated (e.g. as multiple amplifications of a single opinion).... So now, while sliding into the alternately horrific & hopeful world of the posthuman (or at least, hopefully, of the post-imperial), what does human presence mean? Is someone without a "social media presence" even fully human, or fully political, today? (I'll have to dive into the pornographic at some point later too....) Are these images — in the very general sense — property? (Does property get a voice?) Once again notions of technological property quickly outrun the law.... And social media technology does become a weapon, civilizations largely being based upon (technological) weaponry, now as the new governmentality — & as a hierarchical force, a centripetal force, i.e. both as drawing people together & as establishing a small number of (corporate) decision makers in tiers over the rest of the world. In other words, despite (or because of...?) the many divisive projects online, internet spectacle becomes & remains a central attraction. And internet attention is not "policed" in the same way as it once was either, i.e. when a variety of interesting & open-ended conversations occurred in broad public forums, with noise & spectacle per se now having largely eliminated productive discussion & even clarity of thought: There becomes no real (governmental) reason to limit public information, or even discussion, which becomes practically impossible anyway amid the noise. And this frothing sort of speculative, virtual world continues to offer many more possibilities for technological mediation, whether of identity or otherwise: A sense of "magic" also tends to return (& must be noted as such), producing (or arising from) a ramified series of fictions, already asking per PL10 note No. 198, "... in what world does one live & on whose authority?" The question becomes concrete (via the virtual).... And the question suggests various (new?) slants on realism, whether e.g. of the right or left sorts, as well as concepts of (virtual) pessimism & notions framing imagination: Leftist realist art has thus long been critiqued for (effectively) limiting the latter, but fascist realism is at least as declaratory: The internet bully becomes the basic Hobbesian figure, working to synchronize domination while corporate employees execute their mechanical "moderation" policies (often around the bully, who already knows the game...). This is the real world, we are told! Now virtual.... It's also (inescapably) about who we are & what we become & on a daily (if not momentary) basis.... In any case, realism per se isn't the issue — although the power to declare the real is certainly an issue for fascists — but rather the need to trace relations within this situation, i.e. to determine how posts & identities function both online & outside the virtual frame. In other words, according to what (phenomenological?) field of presence (or perspective) is the political subject formed? Such interrogation, particularly amid proliferating technological mediation, is bottomless — but some sort of meaningful ownership of one's online presence is also an obvious component of decolonizing tech, i.e. of evading capture by or "within" tech media (escape per se perhaps being iterative...), but also of (crucially) continuing to trace a kind of (political) presence that can't simply be switched off. (Of course, that one's humanity might simply be switched off assumes that such a switch was ever read as "on" in the first place. Again though, online, how does anyone else really know?)

29 January 2021

Whereas the previous entry suggests some (e.g. political) risks around losing presence, there's also growing (individual) risk in our society around being present (such risk, broadly speaking, also being a facet of the power of presence...), including via the increasing prevalence of surveillance — combined with private ownership & decision-making around using such information (e.g. to disqualify people from economic participation). Particularly around the tech industry, such concerns have often come to be figured as notions of "privacy" — a notion called to double duty after having already figured private ownership & private business. In other words, within our social framework, the privacy debate basically becomes about ownership. And a sense of ownership then (automatically?) comes with an inclination to exploit: The latter remains a given in most "privacy" debates, in that freedom from harassment is figured (only — or "practically") as about someone else's access to information, not about freedom per se from harassment & exploitation. (In principle, the latter are often already crimes! But are nonetheless widely accepted & allowed, or even encouraged....) Within this frame, then, people are basically demanding ownership of their "personal information" & ultimately the ability to engage in some sort of marketplace around that information, i.e. to sell themselves. (The alternative is apparently to have oneself stolen, and this happens frequently as well....) I.e. many people are demanding the same sorts of bourgeois or neoliberal rights as "private businesses" — becoming entrepreneurs of themselves, again as an ongoing aspect of the postmodern (neoimperial) condition.... Of course it's no wonder that such demands are framed within the horizons of liberalism, or that they're being subjected to the usual misinformation campaigns by profit seekers: That's our society & so what we really need is renewed figuration of the public, rather than multiplied retreats into privacy. Further, it's religion per se that defines (public) social values — as I once again (e.g. per PL9) insist upon a capacious definition: The notion that "we" are doing away with religion per se (especially as a circumscribed sort of "wrong belief"), when scientific rationalism is "merely" changing social values, is untenable: Anyone raised in a social structure will have been exposed to a variety of ideas about social belonging, and those sorts of "values" (while later able to be questioned...) do prove very durable. That is religion, plain & simple! .... Okay, so the different religions in our society (some surviving from prior eras, or else diverging differently from prior eras) have a different sense of values around privacy, including e.g. exactly what should be made public or private. (This is a very broad statement. E.g. neoliberal fundamentalists believe, in very coarse terms, that anything profitable should be private — & that things that aren't profitable shouldn't be done.) I might even suggest that one's religious beliefs then condition one's feelings around a hypothetical nexus of privacy & freedom (the freedom to exploit & to hoard privately coming to define that notion in many circles today...), and indeed that while religion does have a private component (& might even come to define the private per se, in many circumstances...), it's ultimately about a relation with other people. And different religious attitudes come to suggest different "echo chambers" in our society, such that views are amplified & reproduced accordingly.... (And one might go on to suggest even more of a nexus between surveillance & religion, i.e. raising questions of transparency around religion per se. But how transparent can anything ever really be to a small child? And they're always learning....) And then what is private expression, versus public expression, in terms of what one can really say? (In an internet world without "public places" there's surely more to be said....) So if we want people to have a sense that there's more to life & the world than what they can perceive, that it's bigger than themselves, that they ultimately need to learn to live together with various people & non-people, even those they might not understand.... We clearly need better communication on these & other important points (e.g. better stories), i.e. communication that actually works on a practical level. (Today that often means marketing-based.... And in terms of stories, I find it fascinating that the first several Star Trek franchises have basically no surveillance... to the point that they don't even know if someone is kidnapped from their own spaceship, these being essentially military vessels.... Perhaps it's silly to dwell on popular fiction, but someone with real media power made a point of portraying a technological future this way.) Particularly when it comes to deep-seated values & other religious notions, then, these are also matters of legibility (e.g. per PL8), especially questions of what is or should be legible to whom: That's basically a matter of education (including proliferating educational settings), such that (in some ways) I'm talking about "unconscious" education in figuring the religious.... And education has been a public function (including sometimes as specifically religious), but it's also increasingly under attack on that basis. There's thus a basic embedded question there of what's public, i.e. public knowledge, i.e. public legibility (& both in terms of what people are allowed to know & what people are required to know). (And already per PL10n67, Western legibility does always both require & posit e.g. segmentation & typology, technical alternatives coming to involve — reciprocal — mystification, with any spectrality generated being papered over — presumptively, anyway — by the same proliferation of surveillance technology....) Legibility then becomes a public question, a question of public, a figuration of worlds.... What should be legible & to whom? (The cost of omniscience will always remain unattainably high....) In some sense, this is a question of deriving meaning from information, some of which might otherwise go unnoticed.... So whether in public or private, what should people learn? (This is also a question of collective individuation, per the previous entry, and even of expression & voice....) Note that there's already some real "separation of powers" in place around that question, though, and a sense of "checks & balances" regarding what to learn ought to be respected: After all, not everyone needs to know everything for society to function well, and such "differential" is really much of our (postmodern) issue, particularly as (like much else) even larger asymmetries are being forged. (And as PL10n37 heralded "open listening" or a micropolitics around uncertainty, itself figured tentatively as a sort of religious value, so as to "disarm authoritarian listening," such hope only seems to have become more remote, at least regarding online communication, over the past year....) That there might be various layers of students & teachers is then inevitable — the situation itself coming to figure (at least partially) religion as I've defined it — but there's also a weaving of (these already existing...) "information asymmetries" (& e.g. their protocols of initiation, private, religious or otherwise) more broadly through society. So is this situation only a matter of (the mechanics of) eventually teaching everything, or is some information to be withheld entirely? Again, from whom? And back to near the beginning of this entry, who owns knowledge? Moreover, what is public knowledge? (And recall that regimes of denial largely function by obscuring self-knowledge, so the ramifications of collective individuation must be considered....) In other words, what are the boundaries or borders of knowledge? To whom or what are they permeable? (And is this a formal matter, or one of simple resonance or technique?) Of course, in our society, privacy itself becomes a (private) technology, e.g. something to be purchased.... (And a lengthier discussion of pornography will still have to wait, but such an allusion — & recall that porn was an early font for internet activity — does raise another intersection of religion & privacy, figuring a boundary often regarded as vague.... Like all surveillance in our society, porn also generates a kind of appropriation.) Privacy-as-product then allows one to purchase illegibility (from some perspectives) as a kind of freedom, basic freedom from exploitation receding into the distance.... (Per the general rubric here, one might posit that such a transaction requires subjecting one's body to relations of even greater speed. In other words, it's not a slowing or easing of relations, but an addition... and granted only by a more powerful institution & according to its own terms.) And so that privacy is basically a liberal-bourgeois notion is obvious enough, but it's probably also worth noting some early modern history (again) here: Early evocations of "free & public market" (eventually whittled down to "free market" during the long seventeenth century...) explicitly included the concept of all transactions being public, the novel proliferation of private transactions being precisely cause for alarm at the time.... (Now it's become almost unthinkable that businessmen, even such public figures as our noxious ex-president, should have all their deals made public....) And that "public market" meant a physical space might merely seem to be old-fashioned now, but where is our public space (as figurative market or otherwise) online today? Further to neoliberal terms, a private-public dual has even come to figure a basic cannibalization of the latter by the former, i.e. via the broad drive to "privatize," i.e. to liquidate & exhaust the public sphere: This is very much the context from which notions of "privacy" must be read! And in that context, "information businesses" are currently liquidating yet another public sphere, i.e. the space of people's everyday activities (& knowledge thereof), yielding broad (& privately administered, constructed according to techniques of marketing & propaganda...) typologies of who is told what. These typologies & associations should certainly be made public knowledge. (Does what your smartphone learn about you actually help you? Demand it! Not some formal "excuse" for being more trouble than anything....) And there need to be public places to discuss these issues. In other words, let's center the public in any discussion of privacy (which is instead often figured in the negative...), private hoarding (of anything) being a central issue today: What should the public know about itself, whether individually or collectively? (Note that e.g. "background checks" appear to be proliferating.... Note further such important "public knowledge" as who won a democratic election....) It seems that the public side of an increasingly imposed public-private dual is largely being made to disappear.... But that's also where democracy lives, i.e. in public discussions of public issues.

19 March 2021

And now I want to interrogate specific notions of "pornographic transparency" — beginning with some remarks from PL10 note No. 197: Han is someone who offers worthwhile analysis of the contemporary situation, but also relies upon an untheorized "pornographic transparency" trope. In particular, while concerns over strategy & secrecy need to be considered, and it's certainly the case that (political) notions of transparency have been (in line with the neoimperial regime & its ongoing) universalizing, such an analysis would benefit from considerations of legibility & perspective. And "legible to whom?" does become an increasingly significant question due to growing (information) asymmetries. In that sense, pornography becomes a spectacle, and so another kind of (increasing) obfuscation.... Han is correct that many urges toward "authenticity" ultimately become about marketing oneself, though, and that the emotionalization of commodities can bolster consumption, even that "values" come to be packaged & sold as products — & I certainly support his call for play (in contrast to more work). But while pornography might exemplify (in some sense) the basic neoliberal principle of making everything available for exploitation, is it actually transparent? Han's claim that the naked body is stripped of symbols — while sounding (naïvely) correct — is false: The porn industry encounters a body "covered" in symbolic markers. (And that the nude cannot engage in seduction seems a strange implication.... What Han is lamenting, of course, is abandonment of particular sorts of traditional — i.e. culturally derived — mating rituals, indeed seemingly those of hetero-patriarchy per se.) Yet the elimination or marginalization of ritual is surely underway, including as Han describes, both in terms of neoliberal (economic) transparency & according to a sea of "multiculturalism" that seems only to render daily life into a haze, i.e. as relatively unmarked by ritual events (& so into a perpetual present). If religion is ultimately about attention, then (& its resonance with others...), the religion of the (neoliberal) interior increasingly becomes consumerist distraction. Pornography is not only a distraction, though — & one should note how "mildly pornographic" images are suffused into a variety of marketing & propaganda, i.e. are not confined to explicit sex videos... — but a product, i.e. something itself commoditized. And porn is not transparent at all! Indeed it figures illusion, and is notoriously unsatisfying (as e.g. Adorno had already noted the profusion of sexual images as rendering the population both more aroused & less satisfied...), regardless of what its consumers might be seeking. (Jennifer Nash has figured such dissatisfaction around feelings of possession, i.e. to penetrate the inscrutable & impenetrable e.g. black woman & so finally to SEE her.... Except that, beyond the simply factual realm, where the consumer of porn will not be doing any penetrating, he doesn't ultimately really see anything more real. There is still only a body, the surface of a body.... While extreme closeups become completely unsatisfying, i.e. violate the conditioned scopic distance.) Likewise porn discussions are usually unsatisfying, at least for people who aren't wanting the erotic component, because all that's really happening is watching people perform sexual activities (assuming "traditional" pornography, that is...) — something we already know that people (somewhere) are often doing. And further to "transparency," becoming voyeur (i.e. consuming porn) implies an immediate sense of distance: One is watching (& unknown, at least until online forms of interactive porn...), not present, with the (asymmetric) non-presence conditioning & animating the experience. (A sense of closeness implied by intimate images is thus held in suspension by the format itself via its imposed distance, i.e. reinjecting an antisocial quality as well as entrenching the typical scopic orientation....) But what of participants, i.e. consent to being watched? Ubiquitous surveillance now means that various "pornographic" images (& sounds) are constantly being collected by technology companies, governments, etc. In that sense, one's personal life becomes transparent, and per the previous entry, one finds many discussions of "privacy" etc. So people are concerned with becoming pornography for others, perhaps, especially as such positions are usually abjected in Western society, but are also concerned with randomly (or not so randomly) encountering unwanted images themselves in various contexts. (And tricking someone into seeing something they "can't unsee" was once a popular internet game too, porn — & bargain hunting... — having been relatively early motivations for others to join us "academic researchers" online....) Both seem like legitimate concerns (including e.g. for children), and as usual, in this society can be figured around notions of ownership, i.e. of owning one's presence (per an earlier entry), and in turn around notions of porn as appropriation, i.e. of "having oneself stolen" per the previous entry: One might even conclude that porn figures some sort of boundary, as having oneself filmed under different conditions is widely (albeit not always) considered to be okay.... And considering the difficulties (e.g. per Zupancic) of defining sex per se, a definition for porn is not straightforward (as e.g. "a video of people having sex" is presumably not practically sufficient...). Indeed, I keep coming back to notions of perspective, legibility & consent — e.g. of "how to" sex videos seeming to have legitimate educational purposes, not to mention sexual depictions as artistic expression, etc.... One might then say that "appropriation" is a particular, non-consensual form of making legible (i.e. to some perspectives — often especially the privileged perspective of the transcendent, ocularcentric spectator). Various aspects of "sexual entertainment" are then summoned & arrayed in order to cultivate or enforce standard social hierarchies & their perceptual asymmetries, underlaid by basic commodifications of "sex" promising satisfaction without entanglement — & instead usually delivering further entanglement (in imagery) with little satisfaction. But this is all about contemporary porn's embeddedness within late capitalism, and very little about watching people have sex per se! (Satisfaction without entanglement is a capitalist slogan/lie in general, after all.) Yet discomfort around porn — such that Han can use it rather uncritically, i.e. as a stopping point for discussion — persists, and really beyond the notions of property & ownership that I've tried to indicate here. And I've already noted the way that concepts of religion have intertwined concepts of the private (by first defining concepts of the public), neoliberal religion basically being profitability per se (as buoyed by an imposed non-relation between traditional religion & "business") — this being where notions strictly separating "loving" sexual activity from (presumably profitable, for someone) sex work are usually located. However, feminists have long interrogated why so much sex work (& housework, etc.) is uncompensated, with notions of "sanctity" consequently coming to sound like anti-labor clichés. (I would never actually advocate for extending neoliberal economic relations, but given our immersion in them already, they could certainly be arrayed more equitably....) In that sense, the "reproductive domain" has still been held (at least partially) apart from the political-economic, but the context of Western society also suggests that suppression of women (& their power, economic & otherwise) was the actual target (of such reservation) — & not the opposite, as usually claimed. And that a naked woman walking casually down the street should instantly become a target for all manner of violence (especially a woman of color) is then an image that broadly underlies Western social hierarchy — as simply having "a good attitude" about one's body & sex will not stop many people in this society from reading abjection — & so from responding to abjection (prototypically) as the bully does, i.e. as a call for further abjection. (Any attempt to push against the status quo in this arena is then typically met by repressive responses following the usual lines of privilege... those changing only slowly. In that sense, pornography can thus make some things quite transparent, or rather legible: Per the de facto terms of our society, someone else might be owed something for a woman having bared her body! This is a powerful claim about property....) But some people, women included, are also able to weaponize their sexuality, i.e. to tap into a power that has generally been proscribed by liberal society (or else banished to a dangerous "other"): A sexual presence (& this is not synonymous with the unveiling of some body part...) can take on a sort of conspicuousness, i.e. according to the allure of porn (or even prior regimes of seduction...), or as something from which the innocent might require protection, i.e. modulation of attention in general (as such imagery comes to be used clinically in mainstream corporate marketing, i.e. as technology), thus figuring terms such as "obscenity." But what is actually read as obscene? (This is where one can see that the naked body is rich in symbols! And let me also specifically distinguish modesty from shame: They involve different interactions with power.) PL10 note No. 117 then goes on to suggest a "pharmacology of conspicuousness," further to bodily alienation (which can itself become conspicuous), and so posits an internal-development / external-imposition dual that probably conditions people's ongoing responses to their own sexual imagery as well (along with responses to technology more broadly): E.g. "youporn" & exhibitionism are thus increasingly popular, as widespread surveillance simultaneously concerns others for their own personal privacy. (One might characterize people who are "selling themselves" as taking control....) Moreover, the entire 24x7 nonstop consumer culture can be figured as increasingly pornographic (as does Han — & do note the insomniac qualities of porn), i.e. as the elimination of all barriers to exploitation, whether temporal, observational, etc... — such that all activity ultimately becomes a basis for profit (which, note, likewise requires "suspension" or a framework for calculation...), and of course according to asymmetric (i.e. hierarchical) terms. (And in the absence of ritual markers, people do come to reterritorialize e.g. on celebrities — including for their pornographic images, i.e. as suspended within another framework of social distance. So this is, once again, a world packed with symbols — if rather flimsy symbols.) And in a previous entry I asked what human presence might come to mean, and even e.g. whether someone without "media presence" can be considered fully human or political today. In other words, I asked about voice — and voice does figure much of the indeterminacy surrounding pornography today, i.e. whether it's exploiting or empowering.... (That depends on these other relations I've been tracing....) In any case, porn does not make a good trope for some kind of extreme over-transparency: Its making-legible is not only considerably more contingent than that, but raises aspects of pre-capitalist relations. Yet it does also raise a variety of (technological) questions around consent, ownership & perspective (not to mention religion, etc.)....

3 May 2021

Having been at this project for a while — & of course it's something of a "further thoughts" project anyway... — the results do come to seem rather rambling. (As already noted, circumstances haven't contributed to the greatest writing clarity either.) At some point, I should probably pull out some "main points" to emphasize in more compact fashion, but for now I do want to continue something of a "brainstorming" mode & in turn the usual tangents-filled style in order to trace some of the (many) implications.... In particular, I've been able to find relatively little "conceptual" discussion of law from a "critical" perspective, i.e. how law works (in our society in general, not just how it fails some groups...), how it's functioned other times & places, how it's instituted.... In short, how do we change to different sorts of laws & what should that be like? And regarding this issue, I want to return to an orientation on anarchy, not figured as a dearth of law, but rather as a general(ized) limit on individual power. (In other words, there would be laws — & differences between people — but tendencies to render such differences into a hierarchical society would be formally retarded. And I'll set the question of "enforcement" aside for the moment.) But then (as discussed here already) notions of "anarchy" have been used online in order to bring the tech empires enormous power, as indeed "technology" becomes a means to outpace law per se, i.e. so as to operate according to scenarios without established limits or conventions. Such hierarchization has then derived — in part — from information asymmetry per se, i.e. basic notions of what is legible to whom. (Such asymmetry is growing rapidly.) And then law per se is then typically asymmetric, i.e. as a state function that might involve some layer of political consensus, but is often simply imposed on other groups. (In that sense, historical notions of "freedom" always seem to reference the figure of the slave, i.e. the lessening of particular asymmetries, but not in reference to any kind of underlying equality. Rhetorical "freedom" in our society is then further figured specifically as the freedom to exploit, not as freedom from exploitation, and so as hypothetical entry into a potentially exploitative position!) Legibility issues are not new, however, and so hierarchies deriving from law (always) involve differential treatment. Differential legibility also forges arenas for profit, such that e.g. according to contemporary (techie) "privacy" rhetoric, one might even buy it directly. In any case, further to Paragraph 5, anarchy thwarts broad legibility, i.e. the "God's eye" perspective, and so rests more upon molecular interactions & habits. So I want to take up some thoughts from PL10 Note 170, in particular notions of positive law: PL10n161 had already noted that, under liberalism, law is generally figured in the negative, i.e. as prohibition (anything else being, in principle, OK). And Paragraph 1 had already asked "What would avowal rather than prohibition look like?" Notions of avowal (or affirmation) & prohibition then forge & figure the body as well: One might call this an ethic, in very broad terms, i.e. as a way of living (in which e.g. bodily extension already becomes a sort of bodily discipline...) — & of course, formal law will lag any such established habit. (Again, the tech empires have capitalized on this situation, with e.g. Facebook already able to forge & channel broad social interactions according to their own fascist, profit-seeking discipline. Such a forge is both world-making & increasingly an engine of human individuation. In other words, this is all happening irreversibly & fast. And it's happening in the general realm of positivity & affirmation!) Call it all "de facto" law perhaps (or simply habit), and realize that it's being established now by private companies according to their own personal goals. Per the previous Paragraphs, then, the situation leaves many people questioning our own legibility, i.e. around e.g. (political) presence or surveillance, as there's little protection versus exploitation. (And "virtual" profits of this sort have been fully convertible to wealth in general, such that they can lay claim to — & dominate — real resources. Such a situation suggests erecting barriers to fungibility, to which neoliberalism is fully opposed....) Supposedly there's "no alternative" & these things just happen, because it's "human nature" or whatever. No, it's just greedy people (consistently) getting their way. So what would "anarchic government" be like, specifically as a technology for limiting power imbalances? For one, law needs greater flexibility: It should be viewed as a living entity (i.e. contrary to notions of eternity or universality...), in order to limit exploitation in any particular moment, and it needs to be "enforced" by community standards, i.e. real (social) belief in the law (i.e. as liturgy). Regarding its historical structure, then, one might think of law as a sort of memory, i.e. needing constant reinterpretation (& suffering hazards of e.g. exemplarity...). And then one might figure e.g. traditional concepts such as karma as a kind of accountability — although let me be clear, that I don't envision passivity: People need to speak up for any sort of "molecular" law to function (& let's recall that "law" per se is fundamentally erected against the bully — i.e. as the many against the one). In any case, we can't tolerate some kind of "external" law-as-command. Communities need their own law-liturgies (in which they actually believe...), even as the global world requires cooperation as well. There is already a variety of "molecular" law existing (within neoimperial, top-down "molar" systems...), though, e.g. communities on which external laws are (partially) imposed & differentially enforced, even entire regimes of "extra-legal" violence (e.g. around "drugs"), such that states can come to collude with the worst exploiters. E.g. Veena Das then suggests that various de facto laws occupy various interstices (or in a sense I've previously invoked here, logistic dimensions...), even that technologies of law incorporate various fictions. Establishing "grass roots" law-liturgies then becomes about finding a voice (reciprocal to finding an audience...) — & in the physical world, can bring bodily violence, while in the virtual world can simply (& quite legally) mean being "disappeared" (but without bodily violence?). How do we move to some kind of "positive" scheme then? (Particularly when so many people these days are opposed to any sort of justice?) How do we stay ahead of the bullies & (financial) exploiters? It seems that a sort of hypothetical, "predictive" law would only be gamed, assuming the exploiters know its algorithms... and I've said that knowing the law is essential. (Is it, though, in all its details? I do reject e.g. revenge, categorically....) But those remarks still seem to proceed from notions of mastery, so what of distributed social law of which no one is really master? I envision some kind of open-ended scenario, I suppose, but it requires (mostly, as there will always be some sociopaths...) a real desire to do the right thing, i.e. a strong religious orientation toward a community (of which many are increasingly unsure anyway...). Per PL10 Note 194, I've also (tentatively) suggested a sort of "machinic undoing," i.e. disautomation (& "unharnessing" of biology, becoming illegible...) & (imposed) slowness. In other words, if tech empires are outrunning the law, how about limiting their speeds? (Indeed I'd already suggested in PL10n160 that any relevant technology policy entails a politics of speed....) There are conceptual issues here: What is the "base" speed, so to speak? Ecologies include many.... But we could probably peg "human" activity to human speeds, the basic idea being to allow time for reflection & the generation of meaning (& appropriate social disposition). The main issue for me isn't so much multiple temporalities, though, as various could be tracked, but the evolutionary context of human activity, i.e. our basic biological embedding. (E.g. we cannot make a "law" to limit the speed of biological pathogens.) However, speed is also something of a proxy for energy use, and so for environmental damage in general, meaning that a slowing could be the only way (regardless). And counter to accelerationism (called out as inherently universalizing, e.g. by Yuk Hui), slowness does seemingly preserve an opening for various temporal & spatial intersections, i.e. for an ecological pluriverse of human (& non-human) differences. What are we in such a hurry to do anyway? (This is not a rhetorical question: We already know that the answer is profit.)

20 July 2021

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