What if I Told You that the Hegelianism Never Ended?

I think my last post responded to a column on Erik Davis' website Techgnosis (though originally it was published elsewhere). As I think I mentioned, I'm a big fan of his writing and his work because I haver such a confluence of interest with his topics.

For instance, this recent post that deals with Blade Runner, Slavoj Zizek, and SF literature. As potent a melange as a beet, cherve, and dandelion-green salad!

But let me add the vinegarette, if I might be so bold: Davis draws attention to the uncanny realization of the replicant in Blade Runner. He quotes Zizek, discoursing on the film:

"Let us recall how, in Blade Runner, Rachel silently starts to cry when Deckard proves to her that she is a replicant. The silent grief over the loss of her “humanity,” the infinite longing to be or to become human again, although she knows it will never happen; or, conversely, the eternal gnawing doubt over whether I am truly human or just an android—it is these very undecided, intermediate states which make me human." [Davis' emphasis]

Yes, this is indeed the post-modern aesthetic that makes such movies and stories so popular in this modern age. "I thought I/it was... but in reality, it was..." The horror, the tragedy! Our ideas explode into flame on the jagged, gothic spikes on reality. The matrix has us all, and we constantly struggle (uselessly) against its modern power that even gets into our minds, (bodies) man!

And self-described Hegelians like Zizek try to argue that it is this liminal zone, this uncanniness, that is the very reality of consciousness, or humanity. And non-self-described Hegelians do as well. (Whether they are Hegelians or not...) Most of the critical thinkers of the last century draw our attention towards some sort of liminality, some borderline, or sublime transference between two states that is used as a point of pivot for their theory. And they are not wrong to do so; this is a very new concept for theory. Many philosophies rigorously distinguish between the this/that, and totally ignore the and/or point. It is a new point on the dialectic: the point of transfer that unites the entire equation...

Or is it? I will can the rhetorics; no it is more of the same. It doesn't really matter how uncanny it is, or that it is "shaky" as opposed to the ur-ground of older philosophers. What it is really looking for, is a new point of authenticity.

Authenticity. I said it again. This is word that I use for it, harvested from the translations of Heidegger that I have read. Heidegger is a great example of this search for authenticity for several reasons. One: despite the very historically-important dualities that he disregards and deconstructs, the authentic vs. the inauthentic is a constant parallel to which he returns. Two: although he all but explicit states that there is no qualitative preference for authenticity of inauthenticity, you can read, very loudly, that he is striving for the authentic. Authentic being, authentic metaphysics, and authentic society. This last item brings us to point three: he accepted Nazism. Now, I would not put his work in the "Fascist" section of the library, nor would I say that it should be read as a causal vector towards Fascism. However, it can't be ignored that brilliant and groundbreaking as he was, he was swayed to desert his colleagues, fellow humans, and even lover in favor of the volk, with such horrific general consequences of which we are all very aware.

Oh, and lastly, "authentic" is a word that is pretty easily accessible to those who haven't read Heidegger. Which, for some reason, seems to be a category that includes almost everyone. It meaning is not so nuanced: there are different ways of doing to same thing. You can win by striving hard according to the rules, or you can win by cheating. One is authentic. Why? Because it wouldn't be a race if it didn't have a start point and an end point, and a prescribed course between the two.

Human race, Aryan race, 100-meter dash... all the same? No, of course not. But all have "authentic ways of being" what they are. This is what Humanism is. A relatively recent development, it takes a collection of moral axioms and cultural standards culled from over the last 5,000 years or so, and binds them all together in one agnostic, ill-defined package called "humanity". For example, if there is a genocide or other tragedy somewhere, you must declare outrage at the fact of suffering, but not necessarily do anything. Competition is fine, as long as there is a general belief in the "fairness" of this competition. Monogamy, for some reason, is really sweet. Love is also great, as long as you submit sacrifices of lust on the altar from time to time, because courtly love is like, way creepy. This is what it means to be human, authentically, circa 2008.

Of course, this is not a monoculture. We have plenty of counter-authenticities. Being ironic in the face of other's suffering is cool. Opting out of competition is also really chill. And generally thwarting monogamy to be "in love with lust" is really current. Especially if you post about it on your blog. You can also post about Zizek on your blog: case in point, myself.

And this is what Zizek is doing; he is defining a post-modern, self-described Hegelian, sub-Lacanian, authentic humanity. Which is: a totally un-humanity, where we are constantly disturbed that in this crazy, year-of-our-internet we don't know where the human begins and the iPhone ends. This isn't a humanity of commandments, or of morals, or that you can write about in a book. Oh, wait, Zizek has written it in a book! How many books has he sold lately?

And it is a very attractive idea to the humans who are constantly stunned by what "they" thought up next, or what's on the internet now, or what's new and different. What if we did wake up and discover we were all robots? Oh well, that's just these times that we live in. My entire reality is rewritten via Wikipedia every night, and broadcast on YouTube every morning.

No! This isn't humanity, or authentic anything! It's channel surfing; it's hyperlinking; it's trivia night at the local hipster bar! The problem is, the authenticity itself is false. It is a wild goose chase, a constant search for what is real, or even, ironically unreal, in and among these shifting sands of modern... what? Irreality? Unreality? Falsehood? Machinery?

This is what PKD is getting at in his books: you can't bet on anything to be what you think it is, not ever--whether it be robots disguised as humans, humans disguised as robots, or humans who think it is cool to be a robot. All his main characters are stumbling through worlds of bizarre, uncanny occurrences. But, these are not worlds of quick-sand reality, where the bait-and-slip is so, so post-modern. SF is always already the questioning of reality. What if we could fly to the moon? What if the Germans won WWII? These are concepts that fuck with reality. PKD's character's do not have reality because their events occur in worlds that are already twice unreal--they are fiction, and speculative fiction that is meant to be different then reality. The characters trip through worlds of sensation and harshly cut-together events, and the only reality is the sense that the phenomena creates at the moment. Any search for meaning in a more meta-sense is doomed to break itself off in a fiendish circle of double, triple, and quadruple ironies that expose the fascination with such metaphorical curiosities as the fashion circus that it is. Sometimes the characters find an ending, and sometimes they don't. There is no reality, and yet, it is as real as anything ever is, anyway. Take Man in the High Castle. This speculative concept of an alternate history: what is the conclusion? The conclusion is, this world is made up, invented by an author. Germans win, germans lose, there was a war, people die after living their lives, those who survive now live in some sort of post-war world. Of course, everything in contingent on what does happen. But what is the end result of reality? Nothing. Except itself. No historical is more authentic than another, and in fact, no reality may be more authentic. If one day we wake up to find it was all a sham, guess what? We still have to go to bed that night and wake up again the next morning. What if this town is the battle ground between chaos and order? What if I'll die tomorrow? What if I'm already dead? What if none of these statements are true? It's not nihilism. Nihilism is the constant, fleeting search for meaning that ends with us dying, having found nothing more than when we started, but only flitting from eternal truth to eternal truth, to the death of eternal truths, to the birth of tangential truths only found in gritty (and cyber-punk, if possible) liminal spaces.

The movie of Blade Runner can be interpreted either way, depending on what is important to the viewer. Is authentic humanity important to you? Then waking up as a non-human would be a huge problem, and one where you could philosophically find your real, true humanity (and sell books about it). Or is simply living important, as it seems to be to Decker? If you can't tell the difference between your authentic humanity and your replicated humanity, why worry?

"Too bad she won't live... but then again, who does?"

The Nexus-6 who dies after rambling on about C-beams glittering through space (an excellent scene, by the way) is dealing with problems of existence, not of humanity. What is it like, to die? Well, he's actually lucky because he has discovered, from the boiler-plate on his spine, that he has a maker, and can go to his address. And when he fails to put off the issue of life/death into the future for you, you can kill him, and maybe feel a little better. Most of us don't have the option, and instead we can only muse about such problems of existence in SF novels or on blogs.

But what if I woke up tomorrow, and discovered that I wasn't going to die? Well, I suppose it would be a little weird at first. I would probably have to find something else to blog about. But is my toast going to taste different without the sword of Damocles hanging over my head? Maybe, if you are a humanist and thought that this relationship between you and your end colored your entire life with meaning. Or, if you a self-described Hegelian, and your conception of reality was based upon a flip-flopping from one plateau of the dialectic to the next, given gravity by that huge authentic signifier forever floating out above your head somewhere. But if you were a realist, and understood all meaning to be as uniquely real as it is transient, then perhaps you merely grin and see if you could get a date with that hot replicant-receptionist. It's not buddhist. It's simply real. I always thought it was funny how, despite the existential, speculatively-mind-warping time-space crises that PKD's characters live through, they never seem to miss an opportunity to sleep with a woman or imbibe a mind-altering substance.

So, when that pharmacist shows up at your door with an energy beam that reminds you that the Empire Never Ended, just smile, take the bag of painkillers, and see if you can pimp it into a SF trilogy. Thanks, and goodnight.

ps. One technical note, that I thought of after finishing the post. If the replicant is truely undergoing a universally human, existential experience upon the realization that one is actually a synthetic human, rather than a wetware version, then it follows that the ability to have an existential experience such as this is actually a synthesized experience. Then it is not a "truly human" problem, and the Nexus corp. only engineered it as a truly synthetic experience. There is no way to say how a true human would respond to the discovery that they are synthetic, because a true human could never, truthfully, discover such a thing. However, the fictional tale of someone very-much-not-quite-unlike a human finding out this truth could evoke a lingering doubt in true humans, who would then philosophize on the idea despite it's purely speculative nature. And, perhaps this is the actual meaning of existentialism--the pondering of realities that are like our current reality yet outside of the reality of experience (e.g. "hell is other people", yet who has written the book about what the opposing heaven is like?). After all, part of the interest in what happens after we die is that there is no one around to give us a review. What are the limits of experience if there is no way to experience them?

But anyway, I think this conundrum brings up a much more interesting question re: Blade Runner. Why the hell did the Nexus corp. invent a machine that would have an existential experience? Was it a philosophical experiment, under which they created a machine in their own image, that had questions about life, the universe, and everything that they themselves had? Or was it a programming bug that developed while they were trying to create a machine with conscious-like artificial memories (the key being, the memories linger but fade, and can be recalled in a not-quite conscious way, giving rise to an understanding with a limited scope of consciousness, that would invariably question what lay outside such a consciousness)? Or was it more purposefully? Frankly, that's a pretty good fail safe. You're memory machine breaks down, and realizes that its a fake (in other words, that limited consciousness now sees more than it was supposed to). So, just like Windows, it phones home the fatal error! The machine travels across the solar system with no desire greater than wishing to meet its maker. Master, I have fatal exception E845FG1, (error code: theorization of the limited totality of consciousness) please fix me!


The Electro-Fascism Genre and anarchiTunes

Erik Davis is a writer on a large field of topics, including dark metal, information theory, mystic energies, iPods, and paranoid delusions of popular science fiction authors. His website, Techgnosis, is a compendium of sorts for columns and musings that he publishes in various places. It's also in my Google Reader list. Recently, he wrote a column for Arthur Magazine, "Archive Fever". In which he discusses the way that certain folks archive their digital music collection. Digital music and its access is a topic he has discussed elsewhere, and I've found it an interesting focus. Everybody knows the common story on how "Napster changed everything," but these sorts of story lines run in a very generalized sense, as in, how the commercial market is changed. Davis' articles provoked thoughts of my own on how the individual's interaction with the media is changing, both through a connection with digitized media and also through mobile technology. Since I happen to be on a bent of discussing mobile, digital technology and its effects on individual consumption, and I also stumbled into a huge increase in my collection of digital music, I collected some notes, by way of the fact that they are related, yet find a slightly different conclusion than Davis about the urge to fiercely manipulate the way one catalogs one's digital media.

In the past year, through situations I don't really understand, I've become a "DJ" of the sort that does not have any art to it. Rather than co-mingle the latest tracks on the dance floor for the new digital underground, I am hired to set up stereo equipment and a playlist for weddings, alumni events, and other horrible things that seem to occur every day behind closed banquet hall doors. The point is, that through this, I was able to get my hands on roughly 200 gigs of new music (or about 50,000 songs) to add to the 50 gigs (12,000 songs) that I already had. Most of it is complete crap, not even having the interest of cultural artifact that pop music has. However, there is a considerable number of oldies, motown, doo wop, and other forgotten mini-genres that would be lovely to have, and now have fallen into my lap. I'm guessing, however, that I will probably end up deleting about half of the volume before I wrangle it into any sort of usable library, by deleting misnamed, duplicate, and racist country songs (they listen to weird stuff at weddings in oregon).

This is a major databasing task, merely to get the data into the right order to begin to pick and choose what I want. I can tell you that I am also an anal-retentive freak when it comes to my music collection, not unlike Cory Doctorow, as discussed in Davis' column. My track info in iTunes (my music player of choice, perhaps unfortunately) is immaculately maintained--I like to have artist, title, and album info all perfectly correct and relevant to other tracks by the same artist. In addition, I also try to make sure the year of recording is also correct, and I have thoughtfully genre-fied my music into a specifically-small set of 17 genres. Being presented with this horde of poorly-cataloged music is a great source of anxiety for me; I have gone so far as to only work with it under terms of quarantine--I have set up a separate iTunes library for working with it, so that its files cannot be released into my general population. I believe that the ability to form separate, disparate libraries with iTunes was introduced in iTunes 7; I only say so because it seems many users aren't familiar with the ability (hold down shift, or possible the option key with a Mac, while you click and open the iTunes program. A prompt will be launched to allow you to create or select a new library to work from).

I can tell what you're thinking (can I?): I am suffering just the sort of massive commodity hysteria that Davis' referenced. The ability to reduced so vital an art form as music to bits of data has created a new neurosis; now we "own" rather than "listen". I see it a different way. This, is an unbridled opportunity to actually interact with what we are doing, and seize control of our own relations of desiring-production. This is nothing less that anti-fascism, in Deleuze and Guattari's sense.

Here's how I see it: information, regardless of media, is a sort of "literary" substance to our culture. Just sort of take that as is for a minute. Now, if we also consider that "those in power" throughout the centuries have also tried to control other people through their use and control of information, we can see that this information substance is molded, shaped, distributed by those who use it to maintain certain power structures and relationships. Almost like they produce it. Post-structuralism, post-modernism, etc. We've heard it before. At any rate, nobody will really argue that Gutenberg's press wasn't a giant victory for the little guys. And radio as well; the ability to transmit information to a large population near instantly had a profound affect on the way governments and others wielded their information substance. As a result, powerful entities tried to regulate these new technologies. The internet and net neutrality, is the modern incarnation/incantation of this dark necromancy called "freedom of information". But this is all basic history, and hardly anyone would disagree.

What is both different, misunderstood, and related to Deleuze & Guattari's philosophy (ha!) is that we are dealing with the aspects of what they discuss in the plateau of Thousand Plateaus entitled, "A Geology of Morals". Beyond all the distinctions of form, substance, content, etc. there is a crystallization of information that is it's strata, its very existence by way of its molecular structure. Even beyond molecules, because they certainly were not after desire as a new atom; you can always push the zoom one lens deeper (if a visual metaphor even applies). What is being released now, very quietly, is the ability to change the data for ourselves. How do we change it? By altering the structure in which it is produced, and used (consumption-production, if you will).

With Napster, they tried to threaten us. "If you keep downloading music than artists won't make any more money on it and then they won't make music anymore." A pathway that anyone with a job (or a boss) can understand. As if the millennia-old aspect of homo sapiens that creates art in the auditory realm will up and stop because the money does. What were they really saying? "If you behead the boss, then he can't pay you anymore." Or, "if you like Metallica, you better stop, because Metallica likes being rich, and they won't make music if you don't make them rich." The idea that music could be easily stolen en masse was one thing: the RIAA was going to lose their lock on the pattern of distribution; their control over production, their power, was being threatened. In 200 years the idea of the RIAA having the right to control music production and sue to protect it will be as strange as the idea of the Catholic church having the right to censure all books. Well, maybe 400 years.

But the "stealing" thing was only the face of the battle, depicted for (again) media consumption in order to win control in the moral structure of the courts and public opinion. I think the real battle was about the form, the digital music file. Not only is it easily copyable, it's also mutable, in a way that no other art form has been. Remixes and mashups aside, with programs like Winamp and iTunes the control of music listening itself has been taken away from the distribution networks. Radio is no longer necessary; just look at the glut of "HD Radio" ads to see how the radio industry has recognized its own twilight. Music stores, and the harsh distribution control networks behind them (ask any indie record store owner how much money they get from the sale of a cd) are no longer necessary, even for legally sold music. And, relevant to this discussion, more abstract methods of control like "critics", "acclaim", and "genre" are becoming defunct.

This is all about distribution. There are literally, millions of songs out there. But how do you know which to listen to? No money will flow if the track isn't played. Hype, airplay, word-of-mouth, are all very important, and until recently, these could be controlled, i.e. bought and sold, by those powers that made music "popular". This Band Could be Your Life is a well-known saga of the compiling of these sorts of distributive indicators, these cultural markers, what in a more Marxist tongue could be called the means of production and distribution. Casey Casem is out, and even your little sub-culture is not so important outside of its figureheads; now the blogs are in, and the individuals who publish them.

Personally, I think mp3 blogs are great. It isn't Napster; I don't get what I want when I want. Instead, I have to search until I find some individuals who are interested in similar things to myself. Then, via their posted downloads and my comments, we communicate and share. Overall, its a highly lucrative (music-wise) and non-pretentiously rewarding system. Also, a great resource for archiving music that is out of print, nearly unheard of, or both (if that is what you're into).

This, along with the rise of RSS feeds, is what I think the next generation (in the low-gestation period that is the web's reproduction) will be. First it was info, plain and simple. Then, it was user-generated content, out of the control (almost) of "content providers". Now, it is the customization, the cataloging, and the seamless access of such content. Using an RSS reader like Google Reader, or any number of other free web apps, I can customize my flows of information directly to my desires, to conform to my day to day whim. In five minutes I can create my own custom newspaper, with sections for news, arts, entertainment, economy, conspiracy theory, agitprop, personal ads, or whatever else I deem interesting.

And this (at long last I come to my point!) is what the categorization and genrefication of mp3s is all about. Doctorow, myself, and other "geeks" are not just clamping our bureaucratic sphincters closed on our informative flows, we are wielding them. With my smart playlists, and my immaculate data keeping, I can get the computer to play me what I want to hear, when I want to hear it. Of course, when I write or do other work there are certain albums I want to hear, or, certain genres, or time periods. But often I can relinquish that direct choice to a semi-intelligent algorithm that will bring me "songs that I've listened to once per month but not more that five times in the past week." I hear something I didn't expect, but I didn't hear my mp3s of Ginsberg reading "A Supermarket in California". Randomness is good, randomness is bad, but algorithms are me. It's not typing, its not banging my head against the keyboard; its cut-and-paste, drag-and-drop. It is decidedly anti-fascist (in terms of the lesser, micro-fascisms) because all control is given to the user, who can then define his/her own level of control. Doctorow rates his tracks with the star system; I don't, because to conform my various subjective rating systems to a five-star system is too hard for me. I use the "times played" counter as my most significant metric, because I find it to be the most true. If I like a song, I've listened to it. If I don't like it, I don't. Easy enough.

However, there are problems. I first started heavy digital music cataloging after I worked as music director for my college radio station. I was interested in statistics and databasing, and this seemed like a fun little project. I was, however, distraught at various elements of iTunes. The "times played" count is not tallied until the song has played completely through, leaving un-counted half plays, which is especially disheartening in the case of "secret tracks", when the last track of an album contains some 10-15 minutes of silence so there can be a last song right before the CD runs out of capacity. There are also limited ways to programs the relationships between data types in the smart playlists, no way to view statistics as a whole outside of through the song lists, and no easy way to edit information or transfer information outside of the linked relationship between the iTunes library and the literal song folder. I sent Apple an email detailing all this a while back. Some things have been made better (there is now a "grouping" data type in addition to "genre") but others haven't (the proprietary iTunes library language).

And this is a big problem. iTunes, through its clean, white browser, easy compatibility with Apple devices, and its iTunes store, is quickly becoming the standard. The users, even the power users, are still left with a lot of the "power" not in their hands. Winamp has similar but different problems; a dearth of choices and compatible content providers makes the hands-on control also quite hands-off, and despite improvements, I still think the software has running issues. I have faith though, because thanks to "ubergeeks", there is no technology that can be created that cannot be reverse-engineered, and no proprietary software that cannot be replaced with open-source. This is what the modern "geek" is, s/he is the cyberpunk, that can unlock doors that other people see. Of course, this power can be used for good or for bad (like all power), but it is heartening the way that those very knowledgeable about information systems and programming languages seem as drawn toward anarchic distributions of that power as corporations and commodifiers have been drawn to control. It makes me think that perhaps all of this post-structuralist liberation stuff about overcoming the hegemony of signifiers, the commodification of desire, etc. might actually not be an idealistic dream. Perhaps Marx's dreams of contradictions leading to capitalisms downfall are not as outdated and they are outmoded. iTunes may not be the Hitler Youth yet; but I think of it more like liberal democracy. There are elements of freedom, but still a very certain, very deliberate control (supposedly, the algorithm behind the generic "shuffle" is one of Apple's most closely guarded secrets). Music is a very personal experience, and while music is not exactly the same as syndicalized production, if you can't have anarchic information relations, it seems unlikely that you could have an anarchically liberalized production environment. In many dystopic tales of authoritarian regimes, they certainly don't forget to include the wide proliferation of public-address systems that cannot be turned off. Collection of information (surveillance and reporting) is certainly kin to the distribution of information (publication and broadcasting).

Hopefully I won't freak out while trying to add 200 gigs of music to my collection. Slow additions is the key, I think, rather than a general merge. Much the same could be said for bureaucracy; a general goal to catalog a certain area of life with data can easily fail or cause more problems then it starts. But if it is a rotating view (a databasing term that means the axis of reference can be switched out easily for another) with good data organization, one can really own one's data. And if control of oneself rather than submission to ulterior organization isn't revolutionary, I don't know what is!