April 21, 2007 § Leave a comment

As the narratives proliferate over authority, responsibility, and blame in the aftermath of the tragedy at Tech, professionals and laypersons alike struggle with a “story” that will bring causal sense to the event. In keeping with our predilection for construing violence as about or by individuals, more and more attempts to “know” the shooter and his motives appear in blogs, newspapers, and special reports. There is always a profound anxiety surrounding such attempts, especially in light of the troubling imbrications of the concept of the individual with violence (many gun control arguments assume a kind of prophetic relationship to the potential of violence and personal freedom).

Even within professional circles there is a troubling focus on preventive measures and blame coming to the fore. At the Chronicle of Higher Education’s site, faculty and staff debate the level of preparedness available on campus, as well as the level and degree of intervention into a troubled student’s life. Interventions, incarcerations, response plans aside, what is really “preventable” about this crisis?

Our mental health system in the U.S. is as broken as health care. No question. Yet, how do we know when someone will cross a line and do violence to themselves or others? Any attempt to bar anyone with mental health issues from participating in education would make the mission of higher education an impossibility – not least because some of the most talented, sensitive, and promising students and faculty themselves have struggled with depression, mania, even schizophrenia. Such afflictions by themselves are not indicators of future violence. And there is the further problem of knowing when personal affliction foments under the influence of a cultural addiction to violence.

The group of English professors at Tech who, as one describes it, put together a “task force” to try to help Cho, did as much as they could under very difficult circumstances. Moreover, who is to say that Cho might not have found another possible future in his pursuit of proper treatment, the cathartic act of writing, and encounters with the power of language? For every Cho, there is the writer, thinker, maker who finds a way to re-mix the alchemy of troubled soul, dysfunctional world, and individual responsibility. We just never know. It is often the caring patience of a professor or mentor – a person with the insight to face unnerving behavior with understanding and a willingness to let one “work through it” that means the difference between the creative life and the life of isolation or worse, of giving back instead of falling away.

Edgar Allen Poe, one of our better-known troubled minds found, for a time at least, productive power in his madness. But he inflected his “symptom” through his ability to de-individualize his affliction; to let it groan for all of us in a way that made us think more expansively about repression, torment, and dis-ease. Poe himself was confused over whether he was suffering in the face of a world gone mad or a dysfunctional mind. His best work shows how the two are hard to parse. I have thought often over the last few days about Poe’s art of the doppelganger: the “ghostly counterpart” of the self. Some ghosts speak back to individual madness to transform it: Hamlet’s father asks for remembrance more so than revenge, for his son to imagine him “Doomed for a certain term to walk the night / And for the day confined to fast in fires, / Till the foul crimes done in days of nature / Are burnt and purged away.” But Hamlet hears less the cry for collective remembrance than he does the beckoning of a “fair and war-like figure” and he turns on himself and those around him. Some ghosts we want to conjure to speak and others we want silenced: We have hungered for stories about who Cho was and what his “motives” were; but we recoiled to see the ghostly images in his own video of an angry, insane young man mimicking militia-style poses and ranting against greed and loneliness. Such apparitions swell the narrative. Liviu Librescu, professor of engineering killed in the shooting and survivor of the Holocaust, carries so many ghosts with him out of this world. Too many war-like apparitions anymore to make out solitary selves; singularities; causes.


April 20, 2007 § Leave a comment

Peace to colleagues, family, and friends at Virginia Tech.


Comp Lit

April 16, 2007 § Leave a comment

The NY Times has slipped some figures on translated literature into this week’s book review supplement. Jascha Hoffman’s Comparative Literature cites the following (excerpted):

Out of the approximately 1.5 million new books published last year….

30% were published in English (approx.) – approximately 6 % of the world’s population speaks English as a first language.

In 2004, 29% of the books published in the Czech Republic were translations, while in the U.S., a meager 2.62% of published books were translations. Spain and Italy come in at 25% and 22%, respectively.

A combined total of 92 Persian, Turkish, and Arabic titles were published in the U.S. last year (my own note here: though there is no indication of as much in the figures themselves, and though modern Persian is still spoken in Iran, parts of Afghanistan, etc, it is possible that “Persian” refers here to translations of older texts as well).

By contrast, of the 35,854 books published in Iran in 2002, 23% were translations.

Some secondary observations and oddities: Under the category of “International Fiction Best Sellers of 2006,” Dan Brown (author of the Da Vinci Code) comes in at #1, just behind Daniel Kehlmann of Germany. Yet, it’s not the Da Vinci Code but Digital Fortress in that slot – a tale about an NSA supercomputer called TRANSLTR, an invincible code buster that guards against electronic terrorism, under new threat from a former NSA employee who has written an unbreakable code.

A not unrelated ‘coded’ statistic to my mind: Croatian poet, Dubravka Oraic-Tolic’s Palindrome, “Palindromska Apokalipsa” was translated into English last year by an academic, apprentice press. “What is America”: “what is born from our dreams without our knowing.” The statistics in this NY Times document point to many forces at work in our “giving birth” across the globe (“democracy”; globalization; and so on), but with damn few codes beyond our own encryptions (English). Even in translation.

25 years: Pembroke Center Research Newsletter

April 13, 2007 § Leave a comment

Pembroke Center’s research newsletter for 2007 and research retrospective:

Read Pembroke’s research newsletter

Joe Dumitt, UC Davis

March 23, 2007 § 1 Comment

Joe Dumit, Director of Science and Technology Studies at UC Davis,
will lecture on April 3, as part of the Pembroke Seminar on Mediated
Bodies/Bodies of Mediation:

“Bodies Aggregate:
Accumulating Prognoses,
Growing Markets, Experimental Subjects”

Jolie, Bless’d…art the Hallmark Cherubs

January 7, 2007 § 2 Comments

Katie Kertz of NC has ignited a firestorm that burns in the Land of TwelvePack Pabst as brightly as it does on the blog pages of Washington Post art critic, Blake Gopnik:


The painting is described by the artist as an attempt to explore the “cycle” of celebrity, using the “unattainable” Jolie and the “psychological oppression” of Wal Mart to provoke questions.

And provoke she has. She alludes to a torrent of activity at her blog, on email, and via phone that includes everything from requests for interviews from the AP to death threats.

Most amusing to me was the Washington Post blogosphere’s treatment of this “event.” Liz Kelly drew attention to the painting on her blog, Celebritology, and feeling both out of her depths doing aesthetics and fearful of contacting Kretz directly (she says this tongue-in-cheek, supposedly, but one can’t help reading class fear here — the Washington Post dabbling in the world of front lawn tire sculpture and “van art” evoking terror of The Heavens….), so she asked Post art critic Blake Gopnik to weigh in. Here’s the ruling from above:

“Kate Kretz’s painting comes closer to magazine illustration than to the subtle fine art you’d expect to see in a major museum of contemporary art. It gets its messages across, alright. It presents Angelina Jolie as our nation’s Madonna of Consumption. In a glory of siliconed breasts, collagened lips and foreign-adopted cherubs, Angelina reigns over Wal-Mart’s banality — its all-American brands, its all-American flag, it’s all-American obesity. The problem with the picture, art-wise, is that its messages are way TOO clear. It’s more like a puzzle-picture than a probing work of art: Once you’ve deciphered it, there’s not much chance of giving it a second look. Its van-art technique, especially, is so generic that it hardly has a thing to say that hasn’t been said a thousand times before — often, much better. The crucial question, in our busy age: Why spend time with this work, when a 500-word Op Ed would do a better job expressing its opinions, and any number of Old Master paintings would mean more to an art-loving eye.”

“Deciphered it” in “our busy age”? Anybody breaking down your e-door with missives over that last traveling Monet exhibit you de-coded in 500 words for the uninformed, Blake? And though I could summon many adjectives and a few expletives, perhaps, re: Wal Mart, “banal” is not one of them. If the Wal Mart phenom was a trivial matter, we might all have a better handle on the psycho-aesthetics of consumer culture. We could start with the Gallery culture of the NY high art scene and work our way up to Wal Mart. I think the joke’s on the Post if it sees the aesthetics of Wal Mart as the triumph of “banality.”

No matter what you may think of Kretz’s art (but do check out “psychological clothing” at her site!), you have to concede that she has managed a social performance that goes far beyond “de-ciphering” the “message” and the texture of oils (I’m beginning to think that Rey Chow has it just right in her new book when she warns that representatives of the humanities and arts now sound more like Cold War operatives than impassioned practioners and critics interested in the capacities and potential in the potential of Being…get out your de-coder rings and beam that woman right back to her trailer park…).

But while we’re on the subject….

How about this…


Ever so subtle ideologically.

If you don’t spend much time with 17th-c. art (van Dyck), you may not be familiar with this masterpiece, but I’d bet money you’ve seen the cherubs cut from the margins and planted, out of context, on the front of a holiday Hallmark card.

Kudos to Kretz for appropriating her “high art” into another meaningful performative context, the “museum” of consumerland, class and race in America, and the e-public sphere.

{I would love to be a fly on the wall in Miami as the crowds trickle by}

Going Viral

December 30, 2006 § Leave a comment

By design or not, an hour and a half into a special 20/20 feature on the “evolution of images” via new media, a special report broke the flow to announce the execution of Saddam Hussein. There was a slight broadcast delay while all affiliates synchronized, during which time a picture of Saddam Hussein, the voice of a translator echoing from behind, momentarily collided with the regular broadcast. For a few fleeting seconds Paris Hilton and Saddam Hussein jostled next to one another while a screen counter ticked off the moments to allow stations to switch over. If one was to imagine a kind of white noise preceding the end of the world, this is what it might look and sound like.

The 20/20 special was a spectacle of everything from YouTube to the pleasure Americans take in watching “real crime” unfold on video shot on camera phones, surveillance systems, and small personal digital devices — the delight in seeing something “unfold as if through a keyhole,” as one “expert” described it. During one sequence that seemingly aspired to be an “analysis” of the percolating phenomena of new media images on the web, the issues surrounding “going viral” and the “obliteration of privacy” were alluded to. Going viral refers to the rapid proliferation of images and video now made possible through the web and personal communication networking.

On the dangling heels of “going viral” was a discussion of the diminishing state of privacy and how “young people today no longer value privacy in the way previous generations have.” A ridiculously inane and airy observation as there ever was, and, of course, no one bothered to attempt a nuanced definition of what exactly we might mean by privacy. Moreover, none of the well-coiffed slightly tilted talking heads on camera dared talk about the violation of privacy at the governmental level. Still, I found the whole mess fascinating. Particularly because the whole business finally coalesced into a schizophrenic montage of our collective “symptom” when white noise, Hussein, the voice over, and Paris Hilton all crowded onto my screen for a moment. Snow Crash. Then a return to mediated order.

In “War, Terrorism, and Spectacle:On Towers and Caves” Sam Weber makes the following observation:
“But violence in the United States has generally been
portrayed, if not always perpetrated, as a private affair, done either by desperate
or deranged individuals, or against desperate or deranged individuals.
Violence tends to be individualized or, better, privatized, as with the Mafia
and ‘‘organized crime,’’ and thus understood as an extension of individuals,
of the family, or of private groups. This is the violence that is demonstrated
from morning to evening on the broadcast media, from the reports
of mayhem on the highways that accompany the morning news (at least in
Los Angeles!) to the incessant series of murders and killings that make up
the not-so-new ‘nightly news.'”

Privacy may be taking a turn, as 20/20 tells us, but violence is not. Indeed, violence is more “public” than ever, though privately relayed. If privacy is re-framing itself, it is in the form of the spectacle; as a remediated, viral, and re-disseminated image — a fast-moving “commodity ruling over all lived experience.

The possibilities are endless — and here, I think, there is real potential for new media to re-make our engagement with an embodied experience of “going viral.”

What if we were made to look at that momentary Snow Crash on my screen for three straight weeks — a moment where we were confronted with the anamorphosis of Paris Hilton, Hussein, and a the ticking off of time? What if this was the iteration we could expect as an “image” of the events that unfolded on December 30th? An image that crowded our over-indulgence and gendered voyeurism right up against the dangling heels of a dictator, and the failure of foreign (public) policy?

My fear and sad expectation is that instead we will hear and see over and over again in the days to come a virus of another sort. Can we all imagine ourselves collectively kneeled before the keyhole?

“Wait a minute, Juanita. Make up your mind. This Snow Crash thing– is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?” Juanita shrugs. “What’s the difference?” (Snow Crash, 1992)

Miming Think

December 20, 2006 § Leave a comment

So, Bush issued his end-of-the-year press conference where he readily admitted that we might not be winning…. (*Winning*, are you kidding me?)

Why is it that a mind-numbing juvenilia concept like “winning” can masquerade as political discourse, making it to the front page in slightly-larger-than-normalcy news type of the NY Times; the LA Times, The Post, etc?

One possible explanation: the gesturo-haptic. Brian Rotman’s 2002 article argues for a new mode of “writing” and inscription that is displacing alphabetic inscription. The gesturo-haptic is a form of writing that is connected to a developing lexicon of embodied movement made possible by new forms of media like motion capture. {Just think: how many dancing, silhouetted bodies have you seen on advertising banners of late, hm?}

Along these lines, Brian Massumi describes the misuses of “affect” — the autonomically inflected gap between content and effect made possible by mediated images (actually affect is more interesting than this, but for the purposes at hand…). He describes Ronald Reagan’s success as rhetor in these terms: “Reagan politicized the power of mime. That power is in interruption. A mime decomposes movement, cuts its continuity into a potentially infinite series of submovements punctuated by jerks…Each jerk suspends the continuity of movement, for just a flash, too quick really to perceive — but decisively enough to suggest a veer…. Reagan operationalized the virtual in postmodern politics….He was an incipience. He was unqualified and without content. But the incipience that he was, was prolonged by technologies of image transmission, and then relayed by apparatuses, such as the family or the church…. They selected one line of movement, one progression of meaning an implanted it locally. (read more Massumi)



“The emphatic glare”: the problem here is that the interruption is filled by that blank stare, followed by that I-really-do-remember-what-word-comes-after-“the” chuckle.

Or, “The pause and head shake, followed by the quick stab of the hand”: I recognize this form of affect from sports bars on a Sat night. It translates roughly as, “masculine aggression has its smart side too….” In embodiment speak, of course.

Can you blame us for intuitively registering that “winning,” collecting as it does naturally around such haptic gestures, comes across as pretty heady stuff?

Open Source Secrecy and the “Self-Governing” Web

December 3, 2006 § 1 Comment

In the Dec. 3 NY Times Sunday edition magazine is an article on US spy agencies and information technology.

The article traces the history of spying in relationship to information-gathering technologies, focusing on the reluctance of the competing agencies to embrace a new model for intelligence, Intellipedia (based on the open source wiki form of wikipedia). Of interest to me are the implicit anxieties and tensions that are manifest around the attempt to appropriate the idea of open source communication for the esoteric and largely paranoid activities of Intelligence and spying.

While there are some fascinating arguments made for how exactly the ability to track “connectedness” would, in theory, augment spying operations, the coherence of the ideas expressed trip over the very concepts inherent to open source logic. Indeed, the term “self-governing” is employed in this article to describe the theoretical and practical foundations to wiki and blog environments. Distributed authority is the repressed element at play here, and it has become an issue at the center of so many recent debates over the efficacy of wiki-driven information sources (academics, for example, have become increasingly ant-wikipedia of late, despite indications that corrections to intentional and unintentional “errors” are more efficiently dealt with than in more conventional media forms).

Public and private authority and ownership are being entirely re-configured by new technologies and media forms like wikis and blogs. Interestingly, the theories and concepts that inform such technologies are in conflict with an economic and social system organized around the protection of ownership envisioned as the fundamental right to private capital — policing has its roots in the formation of nation-states and capital, even in their most nascent forms. Or, can we detect in this article the mutation of a new form of capitalist logic?

A parallel phenom, I think, is the recent hyper-attention focused on the Russian spy, Litvinenko. Exemplary of how bodies are now becoming media states and media effects themselves, this event works across mulltiple registers in the public imaginary. The use of Polonium-210 has captured our imagination precisely because it so fully manifests the confused elements surrounding the technology of terror amid late-stage capitalism: here is a substance that spreads and contaminates, taking life, but is difficult to detect in its lethal form; and moreover, here is a weapon that can move through the social body without incurring harm, but becomes deadly when it finds its way inside the biological body. What better example of a world caught between the technological, social, and discursive frames of Cold War mentalities, where technologies and bodies, like information, can be atomized and isolated, and an emergent wiki-constructivist system of meaning that registers specific types of “connectedness” as the discriminating agent in determing where bodies begin and end; where systems of mediation and information conjoin and proliferate as “cells” (here, we have to be able to glimpse a closed form and an open system operating simultaneously).

A kind of “self-governance,” to be sure.

Nov 11

November 11, 2006 § Leave a comment

I spent some time this morning with the recently published, Electronic Literature, Collection One. Reiner Strasser and M.D. Coverley have a piece in this collection, ii – in the white darkness: about [the fragility of] memory. This interactive work, meant to “reflect” the experience of those suffering from Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s Disease, uses small pulses of light to draw responses from the participant in choosing fragments of sounds and images in activating the appearance and disappearance of constructed memories.

I have mixed thoughts on the work as a new media piece, but found the pulsing light interface to be affecting in illuminating that space between the choices we make in ‘calling forth a moment’ with anticipation and that momentary (but potentially powerful) suspension of meaning that follows even the most trivial and mundane of decisions — a brief glimpse at a temporary state of being where confidence in the continuity of flow is in abeyance.

I have a close family member coping with Alzheimer’s. Apart from all the emotional and practical struggles that accompany this illness, there emerges an opportunity to be mindful of memory. Like the small pulsing lights in White Darkness, I am a distant witness to my family member’s attempts at working through the structure and remnants of memory. I have been struck by how aware they are at times of the need to re-think how memory functions and what kinds of experiences “fill” memory. On a recent visit, they related a story to me — several times over — that seemed to have come to the fore as an essentially significant experience:
“I remember being a child in the car with her [an aunt] on a long trip. Somewhere along the way — during a stop at a restaurant, I think — one of us kids kicked her shoes out of the car. She was really mad that we had kicked her shoes out of the car.”

Later that day, the same story: “…she was so mad that we had kicked her shoes out of the car.”

Some Alzheimer’s sufferers actually develop more acute memories of the distant past, losing instead their grasp on the moment-to-moment events that constitute short-term memory. I am persuaded that the “shoe” in that story that came back again and again that day was its own kind of pulse, an encapsulation of an actual childhood memory, but also a kind of metonymy of things lost that leave traces, that refract the future by virtue of having gone missing. The shoe emerges as a kind of “dropped step” that, while signifying loss, also insists on finding its way back into the forward amble of narrative as its own memory.

I can picture my family member as a small child curled in the back of an old Packard, realizing twenty minutes out on I-40 that the shoes bounced out, fearfully maintaining the illusion of continuity, knowing that the story won’t change until the car stops and the discovery is made that something has been lost. I can think of an old black creased pair abandoned next to a trashcan in a parking lot of ice-worn asphalt. A very sad object, indeed.

Or, perhaps she crawled in the back of that car and subtly kicked those shoes from the side door, knowing all the way back to Pittsburg that Grumpy, Arrogant Aunt was remembering this trip very differently from how it actually happened. What power.

By next week, I’ll be back in CA — more visits with loved ones, and a return to my second home: Laguna