The Fault’s Not in our Stars

Posted by on Nov 14, 2014 in Blog, Modeling/Prototyping, Projects

[Submitted by Colin Bowers]
This is the question I wish to explore in the following remarks: do traditional grammars and frames change of their own accord through the collision with new materialities, new cultural dominants, and new forms of technology?
Hegel contended that the owl of Minerva only took flight at night, and similarly, Mark Taylor and Esa Saarinen in their book Imagologies : Media Philosophy* claim that it’s nearly impossible to theorize in-the-midst-of, while process is ongoing, happening.  Critical reflexivity nearly always requires some kind of theoretical distance from the work researchers are engaged in, and one common form for this distancing to take is temporal, as Hegel’s remark intends: theory most often comes after, but that moment of ‘after’ is one of those categories that is guaranteed in processual movement (see my first blog post above).  This is my biggest concern with the Heraclitean aspect of NKE’s that are always in motion, always expanding or shrinking, never static and nearly always incomplete; how do we manage to keep a relatively accurate cognitive map (to borrow Fredric Jameson’s terminology) of the complexity of the processes we’re engaged in?  I don’t mean to suggest here that theory should enter the picture and survey the progress and legislate the directions it must go in; shutting down potential avenues of creative and subversive play.  However, human beings are lagging behind in developing the conceptual tools and perceptual apparatuses that our technology demands, as well as in the invention of new metaphors and tropes for describing and evaluating what is actually going on in DH fields.  As a result, I think we have no choice but to employ inherited theoretical paradigms and older terminologies until we’ve succeeded (assuming we ever can) in catching up with the changes that we have initiated but that are moving forward with a momentum of their own.  For example, a professor** recently corrected me when I said I need to turn off my phone- they aren’t ‘phones’ of course, they’re really mini-computers with multiple functionalities, of which the phone is only one.  The point is, of course, that everyone still asks to borrow someone’s phone if their battery has just died, and we know what they mean– even if the purpose is to borrow their ‘camera’ to take a selfie).  The hope is that the outworn phrases and terms might acquire a jarring and provocative shock-effect when adopted in the new situation; the words themselves remain the same, but the context has completely changed, and therefore the meaning of the older terms potentially acquires a new valence.

Fredric Jameson has a somewhat lengthy passage that I’ll reproduce in full which is worth considering in the context of this discussion, although I’m not sure I necessarily agree with him:
…the paradox from which we must set forth is the equivalence
between an unparalleled rate of change on all the levels of social life
and an unparalleled standardization of everything– feelings along with
consumer goods, language along with built space– that would seem
incompatible with just such mutability.  It is a paradox that can still be
conceptualized, but in inverse ratios: that of modularity, for example,
where intensified change is enabled by standardization itself, where
prefabricated modules, everywhere from the media to a henceforth
standardized private life, from commodified nature to uniformity of
equipment, allow miraculous rebuildings to succeed each other at will,
as in fractal video.  The module would then constitute the new form of
the object (the new result of reification) in an informational universe:
that Kantian point in which raw material is suddenly organized by categories
into an appropriate unit.
But the paradox can also incite us to rethink our conception of change
itself.  If absolute change in our society is best represented by the rapid
turnover in storefronts, prompting the philosophical question as to what has
really changed when video stores are replaced by T-shirt shops, then
Barthes’s structural formulation comes to have much to recommend it,
namely, that it is crucial to distinguish between rhythms of change inherent
to the system and programmed by it, and a change that replaces one entire
system by another altogether.  But that is a point of view that revives para-
doxes of Zeno’s sort, which derive from the Parmenidean conception of
Being itself, which, as it is by definition, cannot be thought of as even
momentarily becoming, let alone failing to be for the slightest instant.

I don’t think New Radial or other NKE’s has/have pretensions to replace one system (by which Jameson means ‘mode of production’) with another, although it does make use of and extend the ‘commons’ and, as such, stands against the profit motive.  I see it instead as an ‘enclave’ space that does take advantage of ‘pre-fabricated’ modules but allows them to connect and enagage with other modules and it facilitates those encounters without erecting an over-arching metalanguage that forces those databases to abandon their own unique indexical and ontological character.  So yes, there’s an element of ‘pre-fabrication’ to databases, but the uniqueness of NR lies in the encounter, in what users build within their collections, and that much at least is free-flow, emergent and unpredictable; I would argue that it’s not difference with an underlying sameness, but an initial standardization or sameness that produces, through various digital events coordinated by multiple authors, genuine originals or startling combinations.
* “What our age needs is communicative intellect.  For intellect to be communicative, it must be active, pratical, engaged.  In a culture of simulacrum, the site of communicative engagement is electronic media.  In the mediatrix, praxis precedes theory, which always arrives too late” (p. 2, 1994.)
** I owe this point to Dr. Tony Thomson, in conversation. Fall 2014.

Jameson, Fredric.  The Seeds of Time.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Taylor, Mark, and Esa Saarinen.  Imagologies.  New York: Routledge, 1994.

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