Thursday, 18 February 2010

Social Networking & The Angel of History

cartoon by Cliff Mims

Greetings, my public. The three of you, anyway. When I started this essay for you, there was a right blizzard occurring just outside my front window - well, probably out back as well, but I didn’t check. The blizzard is long past and I have gone on several tangents. In any case, I give you a long-winded blog in two parts.

Part I
Electronic Intimacy: Dispersion and Constellation

I think we can safely say that months-long inclement weather causes introspection (best scenario) or possibly depression (worst scenario). In my case, I think it causes too much dependence on the internet. Ah, that magical world of information, interconnectedness and social networking. I’ll be honest. I’ve been struggling with the social networking part of it lately: the quarrels and quibbles, the aspersions and allusions, the fawning and fraternising, the colluding and colliding, the humour and humouring. Sometimes it’s a bit much. Or, I should say, I’ve made too much of it.

Exciting community dynamics notwithstanding, social networking has lost much of its allure since I don’t rely on it anymore for communicating with my partner. When it was one of only a few ways to communicate overseas with her, I suppose I overlooked some of the more disquieting aspects of life in the net. And, frankly, we were both very good at communicating with each other in that format, and had a ball doing it, if I do say so. But now I’ve become increasingly wary of two things inherent in my experience of social networking: a) my dependence on it, and b) how the sheer banality of the way it forces me to communicate, for the most part, in
byte-bites* flattens my personality, dumbs down my own sense of myself.

Thrillingly, after a long session of hanging out online in my communities, I know that so-and-so and so-and-so have commented on each other’s photos, and that someone I vaguely know has become friends with someone I’ve never heard of - lol. No really, lmfao. After such a session, I can’t remember what it was I was supposed to be looking up online. What was the information I needed track down? My other projects suffer as a result of this. Yet the first thing I do online is race to those communities to see what’s going on. Um, nothing is going on, Rhodes. Get that through your head.

Let’s be clear. I am not saying that the very real people on the other end of my e-connections are in any way dumbed-down or banal. Far from it. I can only assume they have their own lives and pursuits. However, the fact that I assume this rather than know it unequivocally, points up another unsatisfying experience. My use of social networking sites does little to help me understand much about the lives of people I know, to say nothing of the people I am “friends” with but whom I don’t actually know. I’m more often than not baffled by the in-jokes on status lines, and I’m guilty of making in-jokes myself. I am bemused by the snarky bitterness I sometimes encounter (ouch! guilty there, too).

Does it sound like I’m blaming social networking sites for my inability to manage my time and energy? That would be like chugging a few beers and then blaming the brewery for the fact that I stagger and drool unappealingly. Nope. It’s not the internet’s fault that I’m uncomfortably hooked on it. To be fair, there are useful things about the internet and social networking sites. As I am an expatriate without an international calling plan, I do rely on the internet for vital information. Since moving to Canterbury, I have been informed of two deaths, a hospitalisation, a surgical outcome, and biopsy result, via the internet (both by e-mail and by social networking sites). And, it should be noted, I wouldn’t be lucky enough to be an expatriate, were it not for the internet.

The more I think about it, the more I realise my dependence on being involved with online communities has to do with the fact that my family and friends are scattered all over the world. I settle for byte-bites in the absence of more thorough communication. It’s faster and more up-to-date than letters or e-mails, and more convenient than scheduling transatlantic skype calls. Folks, there is something to be said for that. However, perhaps because I did not grow up plugged-in, I miss, in the absence of face-to-face conversation, the dying art of letter-writing.

Enter the blog. For what is a blog, but a letter posted on the internet? So, while my status line may cause you to wonder about my mental state, or why I’m being such a bitch, these letters should let you know that I’m a real person with full-blown (or possibly over-blown) thoughts and concerns. And as I know each of you are real (the three of you, anyway), we do then have a real connection. As my friends and family do not, to my knowledge, have their own blogs, it feels like a bit of a one-way connection, but a connection nonetheless. Just as if the blog you were looking at was a letter, (illegibly) hand-written, stamped and addressed specifically to you. Isn’t that one of the key questions concerning the electronic intimacy offered by the net: is this connection real?

Let us first consider the definition of cyberculture.

The Oxford American Dictionary that is included on my Mac iBook says this when I look up cyberculture:
No entries found.

Oh. Moving along.

According to Free Online Dictionary cyberculture is:
the culture arising from the use of computer networks for communication, entertainment, work, and business.

That makes sense. Wikipedia agrees with this definition and adds to it: is not just the culture that results from computer use, but culture that is directly mediated by the computer. Another way to envision cyberculture is as the electronically-enabled linkage of like-minded, but potentially geographically disparate (or physically disabled and hence less mobile) persons.

What do the experts, those trendy, cutting-edge, post-modern, post-colonial, post-srtuctural, post-human cultural theorists have to say? Hmmm. See if you can decipher it.

This is what the scholar N. Katherine Hayles has to say about the development of cyberculture in her paper titled
Virtual Bodies and Flickering Signifiers: Information technologies do more than change modes of text production, storage, and dissemination. They fundamentally alter the relation of signified to signifier. Carrying the instabilities implicit in Lacanian floating signifiers one step further, information technologies create what I will call flickering signifiers, characterised by their tendency toward unexpected metamorphoses, attenuations, and dispersions.

Well, that clears it right up, doesn’t it? Floating signifiers? Sounds dangerously like potty humour; I’m going to steer well clear of it.

The author does touch on a very good point, though, which is that information technologies are more than just a change in how we produce and distribute the written word, the illustration, or the photograph. You cannot accurately compare the invention of the printing press to the development of today’s information technologies. IT, and therefore cyberculture, is explosively and expansively different than the printing press situation, important as it was, because of at least one fundamental difference: the common citizens of the industrialised world can easily obtain laptops and internet connections and publish their ideas to a potentially huge audience, whereas it never was the case that large numbers of people could have done the same with the printing press. Furthermore, what we still quaintly call the ‘written’ word can now be manifested instantly before our eyes and endlessly edited, tweaked, deleted, reconstituted, toyed with, and otherwise altered before ever actually becoming the ‘written’ word or, in the case of blogs and status lines, the pixelated publication. This hugely chaotic and too-long paragraph I’m writing at the moment - does it exist? Well, yes. Just not in the same sense as if I had to typeset it, roll up my sleeves and print it using my printing press, praise the fact that I didn’t have to write it on a clay tablet, and then ride my horse into town and nail it to the side of a building. But yes, it exists.

And what do we make of the fact that we can, if we choose, instantly publish our personal headlines? This gets back to my discomfort about the byte-bite culture I experience online. Even if I don’t much care for it, it is still amazing that the technology exists (and the will to consume/use it) such that I can let everyone who cares (and many who don’t) know that I’m going to go pick up my dry-cleaning. And it’s amazing that online news sources might actually, if I was a person of some notoriety, report that I had ‘tweeted’ (good god) this information to my adoring public. We have camera surveillance (the UK is the most heavily surveilled society on Earth, I believe), why not self-imposed textual surveillance? Or, if you’re the broadcaster, would that be considered textual exhibitionism? Hmm.
Texthibitionism* anyone? Definition: the compulsion to tweet your boring-ass bullshit to everyone and their dog. You know, I loves me some celebrities, but I’m not sure I give a damn what any of them are doing this exact moment. Does this frantic need to post up every little thing create a sense of continuity and community in our busy lives, or could it be just information pollution? I’ve digressed into my personal dislike of some aspects of cyberculture again, haven’t I? It’s okay. No one could possibly have continued reading up to this point.

Next let’s see what the experts have to say about the community aspect of cyberculture. Is cyberculture made up of communities with participants engaged in real relationships?

Roger Clarke in his early-days-of-the-net paper Encouraging CyberCulture made suggestions as to how people can work towards a mature form of cyberculture: there is a burning need to build on our understanding of culture more generally, and map culture onto the new medium. People in cars don’t see people; they see other cars. We need to find ways to help people see other people when they use the net...

Clarke says that
‘culture exists when a group of people exhibits cohesion through the sharing of values, language, rituals and icons.’ His suggestions and arguments are predicated on the idea that people can achieve culture/community by means of the internet. I ask you, how is it possible to resist that bright-eyed vintage 1997 enthusiasm for cyberculture? I can’t. I think the connections and the communities that have sprung up are real, and I think it’s important to treat them as such. I may have my preferences about how to communicate, and I may dislike the electronic small-talk about who has joined what Facebook group about as much as I dislike reality TV and shredded coconut, but that doesn’t mean that the relationships are any less real. It simply means I am an old curmudgeon, online and off. The real world is all around us, including online.

N. Katherine Hayles, in an audio interview with Arthur Kroker, recorded in 2006, had some interesting observations about culture and technology. There was a discussion of the way that culture has shifted over time from speech to writing to code (some people would say computation). She brings up an interesting point that with the shift to code, code itself has two addressees: the human and the intelligent machine. I thought that was a very interesting thing. On the one hand, code is written (or perhaps built would be a better word) by humans, or at least the original codes were. But to be understood by another human an intelligent machine is required to ‘read’ and perform the functions specified in the code. This idea of two addressees, one of them non-human, is fascinating. Hayles mentions that at any given time in ‘computationally intense’ cultures, most humans are unaware of up to 95% of the data flow between machines. There must be so many layers of code running at all times. As we become ever more dependent on our computer technology, it does make me think that he who controls the formation of code, controls everything. The geek shall inherit the Earth.

Hayles goes on to say that our technology can help us think through the complexity of our world if we choose that. She says that how we choose to explain the world has material effect on who we are. I have to say I agree with her there. We only have to think back a few hundred years to the Church’s absolute control of information to confirm that position. Who are we? Are we the creations of the one true God who gave us complete dominion over the animal and plant world? Or are we complex beings in the interconnected web of life, responsible to current and future generations? How we explain our world does indeed have material effect on who we are. And how we explain our world relies largely on how we interpret our history.

On that note, on to Part II, which, not coincidentally, is related to one of my attention-deprived projects I complained about above.

No, really. Keep going. The second half is at least as exciting as the first half.

Part II
At The Feet of The Angel

Some of you will recognise what I’m about to write about as D’s old Angel of History thing. Yes, I am still fascinated with it. Onward. Have you ever heard of a philosopher called Walter Benjamin? Have you ever heard of a painter by the name of Paul Klee? Have you ever heard of musician-and-much-more Laurie Anderson? Have you heard of the poet Carolyn Forché? They have each other in common. Some of them might have met each other, though none of them ever met all of them. How are they connected? And, is the connection real?

If you’ve made it this far you probably have insomnia or like boring reading; you’ll also likely know that I’m going to say yes, the connections are real. If real relationships and connections can exist in cyberspace, where responses can take seconds or months to occur and may be from users separated by rooms or continents or oceans, why not then across history? Why not between and through ideas? Let me try to explain what I’m getting at. We’re going to leave the online world for a while, but not the web of interconnectedness.

Consider Walter Benjamin’s position on the notion of history. That is, history as a philosophical problem. You didn’t know history was a philosophical problem? In philosophy, as in math, everything is a problem: a problem in the sense of being a question meant for academic discussion. Right. Back to the topic at hand. Benjamin’s position on history. Benjamin’s writing-style is surprisingly accessible, but his meaning is at times impenetrable, and I don’t think this is all to do with issues of translation from German to English. I shall do my best to present him in a minimally boring fashion.

Benjamin considered himself a historical materialist and took a stance critical of what he calls historicism. In his Theses on the Philosophy of History , the seventeenth thesis starts out with this:

Historicism rightly culminates in universal history. Materialistic historiography differs from it as to method more clearly than from any other kind. Universal history has no theoretical armature. Its method is additive; it musters a mass of data to fill the homogeneous, empty time. Materialistic historiography, on the other hand, is based on a constructive principle. Thinking involves not only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well. Where thinking suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives that configuration a shock, by which it crystallises into a monad.

What is a monad, you ask? Yeah, I asked the same thing. A monad, not to be confused with nomad, is a noun meaning a single unit, the number one. Not a poetic word in my book. Can you imagine Three Dog Night singing ‘monad is the loneliest number...’ No. Not really. In philosophy, a monad, according to my computer’s dictionary (the same one that had no listing for cyberculture), is an indivisible and hence ultimately simple entity, such as an atom or a person.

Benjamin had a favourite painting, which he owned. It is called Angelus Novus, by his contemporary, Paul Klee. Klee was a prolific Swiss-born German painter who was influenced by expressionism, cubism, and surrealism. He taught with Kandinsky at the Bauhaus school and, like so many other artists, ran afoul of the Nazis who included his work in an art show, Degenerate Art, in 1937 some four years after he moved back to the country of his birth. According to Wikipedia, his tombstone reads: I cannot be grasped in the here and now, for my dwelling place is as much among the dead, as the yet unborn, slightly closer to the heart of creation than usual, but still not close enough. He stands outside of time, near to creation. There is something in that which resonates with my understanding of Benjamin, though I find it difficult to articulate exactly what. Benjamin was very taken with the painting and purchased it from Klee in 1921. Angelus Novus inspired his ninth thesis, which reads:

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

Perhaps Benjamin took Angelus Novus to be a monad of sorts, at least to his own understanding of history. His ninth thesis reemerges in poetry and music in the late 20th Century, notably in the works of Laurie Anderson and Carolyn Forché.

Laurie Anderson released an album in 1989 called Strange Angels. This project was somewhat of a departure from her previous work in that she focused quite a bit on singing and a bit less on the spoken word and multimedia pieces that had come to define her style to that point. She included a song on that release called The Dream Before in which she merges a retelling of Hansel and Gretel with a cogent and concise version of Benjamin’s Angel of History. This was my introduction to the Angel of History and to Walter Benjamin. It’s worth taking a look at the lyrics in the event you are unfamiliar with the song, and it’s most definitely worth buying the music if you don’t have it already:

The Dream Before

Hansel and Gretel are alive and well
And they're living in Berlin

She is a cocktail waitress

He had a part in a Fassbinder film
And they sit around at night now drinking schnapps and gin

And she says: Hansel, you're really bringing me down

And he says: Gretel, you can really be a bitch

He says: I've wasted my life on our stupid legend
When my one and only love was the wicked witch.
She said: What is history?
And he said: History is an angel being blown

Backwards into the future

He said: History is a pile of debris

And the angel wants to go back and fix things

To repair the things that have been broken

But there is a storm blowing from Paradise
And the storm keeps blowing the angel backwards into the future

And this storm, this storm is called Progress

Forché is a poet well known for her willingness to stand and deliver on political topics. However to say she is chiefly a political poet or that she writes political poetry would be far too broad a stroke. She does not shy away from the difficult or explosive or political topics, but, as she makes clear in an interview with poet/blogger Christopher Nelson, she’s does not necessarily begin with a particular stance in mind:

In writing certain poems I know where I am, but I don’t know what the poem is going to be. I’m in a moment imaginatively which usually begins with an image, or a glimpse of something, or something fires off from the past, or something flashes before me and I start writing toward someone.

Like Anderson’s Strange Angels,
Forché’s The Angel of History, published in 1994, was a stylistic departure, in terms of voice, from her previous poetry. Her previous poetry was lyrical, and single-narrative in its presentation. In The Angel of History, she utilises what some might call polyphonic narrative. It’s difficult to tell sometimes who is speaking, and it isn’t the same characters or locations throughout, although the overall tone of lamentation does provide continuity, in my opinion. I was interested to learn from her interview with Nelson, that this style choice, although I’m sure conscious in some ways, was really dictated by her frame of mind. She refers to a time of intense stress when she was living in Beirut and came under fire, shells exploding all around as she hid in her basement: for a while I felt that my mind was behaving as a kaleidoscope. I couldn’t sustain a thought the same way , and when I wrote, I couldn’t sustain the speaker on the page...The breaking up of the language in The Angel of History started because I was writing in that mental state.

One of the speakers in The Angel of History comes through this way:

She has always been afraid to come here.

It is the river she most
remembers, the living
and the dead both crying for help.

A world that allowed neither tears nor lamentation.

Sometimes it does seem as if the atrocities and complications, both personal and collective are piling up at our feet as we helplessly look on. And in our fast-paced world I do wonder if we have created an environment which leaves no room for tears or lamentation.

Both Anderson and
Forché, if they were explicitly referencing Benjamin’s Angel of History and assembling their own complementary narratives, must have felt they understood what he was getting at. Perhaps they each had a stop-thought moment when they first read the thesis or otherwise heard of Benjamin’s Angel. To see if we can get into Benjamin’s head a bit, let’s think of our own monad, a shoe perhaps. Show me an abandoned shoe on the highway - how does that happen? - and I will show you, from our collective past, intertwined narratives so poignant, so imbued with sadness or strife, courage or abject horror, that one or both of us may weep (I assure you I did):

Think Nazi death camp, the huge piles of shoes stolen from the dead and warehoused.

Think Montgomery Bus Boycott, the black citizens of Montgomery walking the soles off their shoes that whole long year.

Think John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession, the boots placed backwards in the horse’s stirrups.

Think soldiers’ boots, as singular memorials and as public protest to the Iraq war.

Think about the following as well if you want to bring those images mentioned above into even sharper relief: think about the Reagan-era directive to the poor to pull themselves up by their bootstraps; think about Imelda Marcos, the dictator’s wife, and her 3,000 pairs of shoes; think about Charlie Chaplin’s film The Gold Rush in which the tramp eats his shoe; think about the term jackboot used to signify authoritarian rule; think about the shoe thrower, the reporter who threw his shoes at President Bush; think about the shoe bomber; think about the old adage walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

Believe me when I tell you it did not take all day to think of this list. It took minutes. It isn’t because I have a linear list of the history of shoes or the history of sadness in my head. It’s because along the way, the shoe has cropped up again and again as an object inculcated with emotion, a symbol of struggle, of sadness, of anger, of the horror of genocide, of the fallen. I give you these snapshots of history based on the concept of a single abandoned shoe because along the way I, or we, have come across the images of a shoe or shoes, or perhaps the actual artefact(s), and come to a full stop, thought arrested by the importance of what is witnessed.

Again let’s turn to Benjamin’s Theses. This from the sixth: To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognise it ‘the way it really was.’. It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger.

We interact with our past, and our collective history whether we want to or not. Certainly Anderson and
Forché both interact in the realm of ideas with Benjamin, as did Benjamin with Klee. But can it be said that Benjamin and Klee interacted in some way with Anderson and Forché? Yes, in a certain way they did, because they produced art and writing which survived to have influence on those who came later. In Benjamin’s case, as we shall see, we have to give more weight to the argument that he interacted because he hoped his writing might survive. He could not have taken it for granted that his work would survive.

One of the questions I’ve been asking throughout this very long blog entry has to do with connections: connections between people in social networking sites and the internet, and connections between people and ideas through time. Looking again to the Theses, Benjamin addresses this somewhat in the thirteenth thesis in which he continues his critique of historicism: Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal connection between various moments in history. But no fact that is a cause is for that very reason historical. It became historical posthumously, as it were, though events that may be separated from it by thousands of years. A historian who takes this as his point of departure stops telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary. Instead, he grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a definite earlier one.

I’d like to explore this notion of constellation. But first I think it might be helpful to interject a little more information about our doomed philosopher. Here we’ve been on a total bender of materialistic historiography thanks to Mr. Benjamin, but perhaps you don’t know any of his personal history. Perhaps it would help you understand him to know that he was a German Jew in the Nazi era who almost made it out. His invocation of danger in the sixth thesis, as quoted above, makes sense in this context, doesn’t it? Much of the text of Theses is concerned, understandably so, with resisting fascism. Benjamin fled first to France and then, hoping to get to America where he’d been offered a teaching position, fled to the French-Spanish border town of Portbou. He walked through the mountains to get there and was reportedly feeling very ill upon arrival. He was told by Spanish authorities he would be denied passage across the border. He died in a hotel room, having overdosed on morphine, on the night of 27 September, 1940. His friend, the political theorist Hannah Arendt, escaped via the same town a few months later. Benjamin had sent Arendt his unpublished Theses back in the spring of that year; she safeguarded it and it was later published in his memory.

Bearing in mind the fact that Benjamin’s Theses could easily have died a quiet, anonymous death with the countless other works, ideas and hopes of his six million unlucky contemporaries in the Holocaust, let’s return to the idea of constellation. I may not be reading it precisely as Benjamin intended, but I take this idea of constellation to mean disparate elements connected by a theme rather than a necessarily linear causal relationship. Thus, in my mind, Benjamin is connected to Klee, Anderson and
Forché (who are all three connected to each other) because of his Angel of History and the artefact that inspired it. This connection, coalesced around a theme, exists regardless of whether I recognise it, however, when I do recognise it, I enter into relationship with this constellation. The relationship is a very real one, insofar as I believe and act as if it is a real relationship. I don’t know whether Benjamin would heartily agree with that, but I think he would like the part of it that flies in the face of historicism.

That’s my take on the idea of constellation in the historical materialist sense and, indeed, in the cybercultural sense, but it’s important to consider that the term constellation, while it can be defined as a group of related things, does also refer to a group of stars forming imaginary lines of mythological figures. The stars themselves are lifetimes apart and from some other vantage point in the galaxy, our mythological mapping of them would simply melt into an unrecognisable pattern. The stars throw their light, their high speed information, out in all different directions at once. Towards what? Towards nothing. Towards the observers. And the light that was sent out in any given star’s present, is received by the observer as the star’s past, the long-gone light of the heavens . Perhaps this can be said of history as well, that the points of light don’t align or realign, it’s the historians who do, each drawing their different mythological beasts on the face of the historical cosmos.

Alas, my readers, we’ve come to the end of this long beast. Somewhere there’s a digital angel watching the pixels of this essay stack up alarmingly high. And we both have our backs to the future.

*Coined any new terms lately, Rhodes? Why, yes I have. The term byte-bite, I’ve decided, means something similar to the term sound-bite. In the e-world, byte-bite is the abbreviated communication style favoured by inveterate texters, whether or not actual abbreviations are used. the byte-bite is the enemy of eloquence, the obliterator of nuanced and layered meaning. Grrr. It’s convenient, but evil.

Then there’s texthibitionism (not my original term, I’m sorry to say) which I described gruffly above but thought I’d mention again as the act of posting personal headlines on the internet for the purpose of attracting attention to oneself.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Total Pageviews