“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, May 05, 2012

the shock in shock: 3


The turn from one understanding electricity to another, from the classical and medieval emphasis on numbness and cold to the modern emphasis on suddenness and fire marks the moment of shock in the history of shock.
            Marshall McLuhan, in an article he wrote with an engineer, Barrington Nevitt, in 1973, introduced an interesting term of art from rhetoric into the philosophy of technology: “Today, metamorphosis by chiasmus – the reversal-of-process caused by increasing its speed, scope or size – is visible everywhere for everyone to see. The chiasmus of speedup is slowdown. Perhaps first noted by the ancient Chinese sages in I Ching or The Book of Changes, the history of chiastic patterns is traced through classical Greek and Hebrew literature by Nils W. Lund in Chiasmus in the New Testament. Computer programmers have also learned that “information overload leads to pattern recognition” as breakdown becomes breakthrough.” The passage ends, in typical McLuhan fashion, with a cornpone soundbyte – but the suggestion of going by chiasmus is nevertheless solid.
            In the literature about modernism, Walter Benjamin may have developed the most illuminating notion of where shock, as a social motif, came from and why it proved so useful. Susan Buck-Morss, one of Benjamin’s interpreters, suggests that Benjamin connected Freud’s thought about war trauma – trauma related to shock – with the trauma of the factory regime,  as denounced by Marx. If the former was shock in the modern sense, the latter was a long fatigue, a numbness. Both, however, had a defining relationship to repetition. The repetition of the anxiety of the traumatized soldier was psychological – a feeling of overwhelming danger that possessed him, waking and sleeping, again and again, as if his whole body were repeatedly trying to grip some moment that kept slipping away. The repetition of the factory worker was routine – a matter of a designed work flow that forced him to do the same thing over and over, to a mechanical standard.
 In the modern social experience, shock can’t be separated from the numbness out of which it came – they are bound together in a persistent chiasmus :

            “Under conditions of modern technology, the aesthetic system undergoes a dialectical reversal. The human sensorium changes from a mode of being "in touch" with reality into a means of blocking out reality. Aesthetics sensory perception becomes anaesthetics, a numbing of the senses' cognitive capacity that destroys the human organism's power to respond politically even when self-preservation is at stake. Someone who is "past experiencing," writes Benjamin, is "no longer capable of telling . . . proven friend . . . from mortal enemy." (Buck-Morss, 104)

Friday, May 04, 2012

the politics of self pity

Interesting to observe the anger of the right, as they sense that Sarkozy has led them to defeat. Part of me thinks that the cries of anguish are such that they should arouse my compassion, and part of my thinks they are hilariously funny. The best expression of Sarkozyism in decline was penned by Didier Barbelivien, Sarko's singer friend, in Le Monde yesterday. There are, as it were, two sides to the Sarko mindset: smug entitlement and self-pity. It was the self-pity note that D.B. played. The media elites did the great man in! He gave so much to France! He gave France later retirement! He gave France a glorious battle with the unnameable Khadafi! He gave France as much unemployment as it could stand! etc. Never let it be said that dignity has ever stood in Sarko's way, or those of his friends. Let this be inscribed on his political tombstone:

"A l'aube, il ne sera distancé de son principal adversaire que d'un point et demi. Alors, dès le lendemain, il repart en campagne sur ces routes de France qu'il aime tant et il en appelle au peuple "inoxydable". Il fustige les médias, la pensée unique, les mensonges éhontés de son adversaire, il ose s'adresser aux électeurs du Front national, aux centristes, à tous les autres et mêmes aux abstentionnistes, mais où se croit-il ? Dans une élection présidentielle ? Après tant d'éditoriaux contre lui, d'insultes de bas étage, de sous-entendus ignobles, on est même allé jusqu'à exhumer les fantômes de Pétain et de Laval pour l'enterrer tout à fait. Et il est toujours debout ! "

Tears roll down my face, reading this. Tears of laughter. Sarkozy is one of those politicians, like George Bush, who put a lot into developing the image of a tough guy. Of course, nobody in such soft circs is a tough guy. It is tough to be a soldier, but ordering soldiers to fly over some village and bomb it -nothing is easier, flabbier, less 'tough". But like all tough wannabes, at heart, Sarkozyism is all about crying in a bar over your own misunderstood virtues. Let's hope the sondage are right. The orgy of self-pity unleashed by the right in France this last week is killin' me.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

shock 2 - excursus on analytic philosophy and history

shock 2
    So far, I have followed a favorite method of mine: what you might call Bertrand Russell’s accidental contribution to historical science. Russell was as an ardent devotee of the cult of substitution. From the point of view of ideologiekritik, substitution is where philosophy in the 20th century absorbed the wisdom of the bourgeois political economists of the late  19th century - substitution taking over the function that was once held, by the classical economists, by a more naive form of competition and utility.  By invoking the substitution of goods, economists were able to incorporate the price system and technology without going back to the old classical economist's labor theory. And by invoking substitution, Russell could logicize mathematics without worrying about any nasty semantic residues.  What could be substituted could be equated: what couldn’t posed philosophical and logical questions that will shape our formal solutions (for instance, the introduction of type-token hierarchies). The idea of substitution is so powerful that it remains, generally, out of the spotlight - no Being and Substitution treatise exists, as far as I know, in the philosophical canon. Substitution is our zero.

In the canonical instance of the author of waverly, King George IV (the face card is drawn from the mental pack, bringing us back, by a Tory reflex, to England) may believe that the Author of Waverly wrote Ivanhoe without believing that Walter Scott wrote Ivanhoe – since King George IV did not know that the anonymous author of Waverly was Walter Scott. We, however, do.  Our intellectual historical horizon can be defined, at least roughly, by the substitutions of descriptions that we can make, as much as our location in technology space is described by the substitutions we can make between tools.  
    To expand this beyond the propositional attitude: in the history of shock, we see a distinct difference between the ancient notion of numbing and coldness, and the modern moment of the blow and fire. The latter is hard to substitute for the former. And yet, the experience of Greek fisherman with the tornado puts us, looking back, in the position of saying that the Greeks were talking about shock; that is,if our own idea of shock is coherent.
    Etymologically, the numb is the secret sharer of shock.
    In a letter to Benjamin Franklin published in the Philosophical Transactions (1775), a John Walsh communicates an experiment made with the torpedo that proves that the fish does direct  its electric shocks – although without sparks. “Indeed, all our trials have been upon very feeble subjects, whose shock was seldom sensible beyond the touching finger.” What I want to point out here is that these are “shocks” – not a poison, or a numbing fluid. Although it is still not totally clear what a shock is, or at least how it is caused. The shocks and jolts tpo which insentient things are subject are merely rather sensational collisions, but the shock that the human body is subject to seems more mysterious and compelling. For what is true about the torpedo is true about us – we too have nerves. This is where the shocked present was bound to dwell.  

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Industrial experience: zero hour, 1


What school of philosophy worthy of its name has not warred against the present? The present, the now, has been demystified and shown up in a hundred different ways. It is the vanishing point, the scapegoat, the zero of metaphysics.  It sticks in the throat the way zero, too, once stuck in the throat. And zero, too, is a hallmark of modernity. The ancients did not have zero. The Babylonians had a placeholder that allowed them to represent zero, but it was only a placeholder. It was analogous to the decimal point, which is not itself a number. Zero was a gift from the East – George Ifrah, in his book on numbers, dates the birth of zero to 458 in the Lokavibhaga. From there  it traveled to China and Southeast Asia, and to Central Asia. In Baghdad, Al Khwarizmi (780-850), who founded algebra – or at least picked up the stray pieces of mathematical knowledge and put them in a book - used Hindu numbers. According to Michel Soutif, “Leonardo Fibonacci of Pisa wrote a treatise of arithmetic, the Liber Abacci, in 1202. This work, which would play a driving role during the XIIIth century, describes the
« Novem figurae Indorum” with the 0 sign that the arabs call “zephyrum”. The long adventure of zero in the West can be said to conclude in 1898, when Peano substituted zero for one in his list of the five primitive notions in mathematics, about which he said: “All systems which satisfy the five primitive propositions are in one-to-one correspondence with the natural numbers”.  Of course, long before 1898, it was realized that nothing comes of nothing, which is precisely the use of nothing, and every schoolboy knew how to draw the zero, multiply with it, add with it, etc. And every engineer as well. We had already begun to build the artificial paradise on the foundation of the zero.
We can call zero a notion or an idea, or we can call it a devise. A devise is a thing, but it is also the affordances of a thing – it is not only what the French call a truc, but it is also what  Americans call a “deal”, or a “trick” (“the trick of the x is that it does such a such”). The deal and the trick follow in the enchanted train of the trope, the turn. The ancients  didn’t have a notion of zero as a natural number, but they did know all about shapeshifters, magicians, and how the dead can be brought back to life – from beyond the zero, as Pynchon puts it in Gravity’s Rainbow, where the trick is that extinguished reflexes live again when they are whispered to by the unearthly elements, the synthetics, the witch’s brew, the chemistry of zero.
From this point of view, a history of devises – a history of technology – would be a history of tricks. David Edgerton, one of the leading historians of technology, has criticized the field for identifying technology with innovation, or invention, when, he claims, technology is about use. To emphasize this clain, he gave one of his books the title, “The Shock of the Old”. In it, he turns the readers attention to the utterly mixed nature of modern technology, in which, contrary to those historians that saw one technology after another inaugurate speeded up ages (of steam, of petroleum, of biotech, of information, etc.), old tech and new tech coexist. The age of the auto in the twentieth century was also the age of the greatest use of horses in any war, in the Nazi invasion of Europe, where the Germans alone employed 2 million horses. The age of the internet in the 21st century saw Osama bin Laden escape on a pony (or a stallion) from Tora Bora, and U.S. GIs relearn horseback riding whilst carrying telecommunications that allowed precision aerial bombing.
Edgerton’s title takes its wit from the word “shock”, which has come to be canonically associated with modernism and the new, and was used by Robert Hughes as the title of his book (The Shock of the New).  Shock is modernism’s trick, its deal, its now, where the zero comes into play. It is worth examining the notion of the shock, then, for it forms a kind of model whose elements come into play in the industrial experience of the accident and – significantly – alienation in all its distressing wonders.
In Stanley Finger and Marco Piccolino’s The Shocking History of Electrical Fishes (notice, again, that shock is charged, here, with a certain irony – as though its metamorphosis through the popular press, which hung shock on crime,  or on truth, or on any sensation, had created a certain self-refective numbness), there is a quotation from Galen about the torpedo, a fish that seemed to fascinate the Greeks
Some [physicians] even believe that, through the action of their power (dunamei), some matters could alter nearby bodies by simple contact. Such a nature is encountered in the sea torpedoes. They have a power so that that, through the trident of the fishermen, the alteration is transmitted to the hand, which soon gets numbed (narkison).”  
That numbness has already been recorded in the Meno, where Socrates is compared to the torpedo, which numbs those who come in contact with it. Similarly, Meno says that he is ‘benumbed in my soul and my mouth…”
These instances of numbing, however, seem to elide the moment of the simple contact, or moment of shock. In Finger and Piccolini’s account, they helpfully comment on the numbing sensation that is referenced over and over with the term shock – but the term in play, up through the medieval period, is always some variant of numbing, or stupefying. It wasn’t until the end of the 17th century, as various electrical devises, such as the Leyden Jar, ‘condensed’ electricity to the point that people could control electric shock to an extent that numbness began to be replaced by the more naked word shock. In Samuel Johnson’s poem for the death of Stephen Grey, the “electrician” – one of the scientists most interested in the qualities of the electric fluid – shock has replaced numbness and become a sort of cosmological element:
“No more shall Art thy dexterous hand require,
To break the sleep of elemental fire;
To rouse the power that actuates Nature's frame,
The momentaneous shock, the electric flame;
The flame which first, weak pupil to thy lore,
I saw, condemn'd, alas! to see no more.”

Johnson was the last person on earth who wanted to break the sleep of elemental fire if it meant overturning the design of the classical universe presided over by a loving deity, and pervaded by the forces discovered by the Greeks and refined upon by the moderns. But his images betray him. They carry us irresistibly to Blake, Shelley, and romantic science: “the dextrous hand”, “Nature’s frame” and most particularly, the “momentaneous shock”.