Thursday, January 16, 2014

Where I've Been

If you hang on for a little while, this ends up being about "hacking" and "yacking," but you have to stick with it a bit.  

I've been silent across all channels, not just here.

Everything except Facebook, where the rushing cacaphony of the feed comes in so fast and so frequent that nothing we utter remains very long.

Which is to say, silent there too, silent in the very most contemporary (since the modern is dead, and the post-modern born dead and now here we are in this long pause with no label, shouldn't it have been declared something by now?) way.

It's more than just being distracted, or not finding time. It's a fundamental distrust of speaking. A loss of faith (to speak is fundamentally an act of faith, since the signifier is no more present than any god ever was) that any words I might utter could hope to convey anything like "meaning." Whatever that was.

I've been listening to Reggie Watts a lot lately. I love his work, but it also terrifies me. I'm pretty sure the punchline of most of it is just a giant wagging finger pointing at the semiotic void. Dada with a killer beat. When I was younger, that sort of thing was pure thrill. Revolt at the language of the father, pressing down it's dead order onto the pure experience of the sensory.

But now, older (and not a father, something I forgot to even make a motion towards doing) for words to lose meaning is for all the lived pure (never really pure, I know, I know, the father was always there) experience in my head to lose the last lifeboat off the holed and slowly sinking ship of me. Get clear of the cells ticking down towards the end of their telomeres. Without meaning they are as wasted as all those base pairs left in socks.

I've taken this too far, I haven't really lost faith in all meaning. I still believe I can say to someone "the world is a mess, eh," and they will catch my drift. Even that they might read something like one of the little bits about Dallas skyglow or some such nonsense I've penned on here before and follow along (but why, on earth, should they care? In my rush to get moments out of my head, I never really figured out any rhetorical frame to put them in other than, "oh, hi, I'm dying like the rest of us and I need you to remember some things for me").

But, I've read Shannon. What I'm looking for is meaning that is "a difference that makes a difference." That was always what drove me to want to write, to research, to speak. I wanted what I uttered to make a difference. Not just to learn something new about some small field of inquiry. To make a difference.

To explain what sort of difference, probably I have to go all the way back to the beginning.

When I was maybe 13 or 14, maybe younger, my father (my actual father, not Lacan's father or Freud's father or whatever unhappy and uncaring stands in the shadows behind psychoanalysis) went through a manic artistic phase. He shot out in every direction at once, music, paint, drawing, sculpture. He availed himself of every medium at his disposal, any medium at his disposal, trying (like I am trying now, I suppose) to make something make some mark. For some difference that would make a difference.

He didn't find much traction with any of it. He still plays gigs around the upstate town where he's retired. But it wasn't the reception he wanted. I think it felt to him like defeat.

And the thing is, I didn't believe then, and I still don't believe now, that he should have had to feel that way. Some of what my father made was truly beautiful. His version of "Don't Let It Bring You Down" should be definitive. Neil Young gets that song wrong, my father got it right, I don't care what anyone says.

But the world has a surplus of beauty. It didn't need his. It wasn't scarce enough to merit economic value.

Now, in this moment everyone is calling "precarious" like using a word nestled in the dictionary so close to "precocious" might take the fangs out of the future unravelling in front of us, the fate he faced: spending his time working a dull but safe, unionised, government job seems like a wonderful dream we dare not dream. But in that moment, for him, to be turned back to it still felt like defeat.

This was the construct I wanted to make a difference in with the words I would utter when I tried to devote my life to writing words, first as fiction and then as cultural criticism (whatever that is). This is the thing I tried to aim myself at, to make my words strike at, to alter, revise, perhaps revoke. And theory seemed to promise to head in this direction! Life as work of art! End alienation now! Comrades after the revolution (which was right around the corner, it was easy to believe if you didn't think to check the publication date and notice the bold new ideas were only, like all my parents' cars growing up, new to their current owner) the surplus will be ours and the surplus of human beauty set free. There will be no reason to create scarcity any more. From each according to his means and to each according to his needs (and we need to create beauty and have that beauty recognized, we need it!!).

And, when yacking failed, when I finally noticed the sell-by date on those books was looking a little past, and the revolution wasn't going to show how ever many times we all put on our long white robes and marched up the hill to wait for it, that's when hacking beckoned. Politics is broken friends and wikipedians! We will route around it! There is plenty for everyone on the electronic frontier, just as soon as we clear copyright out of the way. And we're winning! Linux is everywhere and Wikipedia is huge and we're making open embedded hardware for an internet of things! An internet! Of things! And as I said not even three sentences ago there is plenty for everybody on the internet, and now it's going to have things and things will have plenty too and alienation will die screaming and beauty and human scale democracy will reign.

And now, hacking has failed. The understanding I wanted to deny, what I like to think of as "theory I had to fight off" (to borrow Stuart Hall's turn of phrase, mostly because I like to imagine myself in the same boat as Stuart Hall, an imaginary boat I don't deserve). We hackers had built a utopia for capital (and, even more uncomfortably, an environment hostile to women and people of color). We had been completely unable to stop the deep cutting into the surplus that my parents and their cohort had enjoyed, the surplus upon which our loftier dreams of sharing and building had been invisibly grounded in ways we had never fully acknowledged. The political force of "flexible, leaderless, lightweight organization" sparked and crackled to life in occupy, only to be crushed under the boots of the police (I know, I watched the live feed, I remember the last group of protesters, chained to each other in the kitchen tent in zucchoti park, the line of cops looking at them, waiting, knowing they had time and force on their side and a few citizen witnesses on the other end of a ustream feed wouldn't change anything about that).

And so here I am. Silent and faithless. The ship is holed. Not just mine but all of them. The republic lists. The sky and the ocean sit ill. 

Now what?







Thursday, July 04, 2013

Glass on the Fourth of July

I wore Google Glass, the cyborg accessory of the future, to Lewisburg Pennsylvania's (Population 5,610) July 4th parade.

This lasted all of 15 minutes.

The idea sounded fine in theory, it was a public event after all, exactly the sort of use case where using something like Glass seems the least problematic. No one really expects privacy at a parade.

It wasn't the surveillance aspect that got me, mostly, though the acceleration of the transformation of the public of small town Pennsylvania (Castells' "Space of Places") into the public of YouTube/Google (Castells' "Space of Flows") by me, unilaterally, by wearing this surveillance rig around on my head was pretty uncomfortable.

Instead, what was most unnerving was the sense that, by displaying this $1500 piece of titanium and plastic on my brow I was somehow wearing a sort of uniform. Claiming my allegiance to a corporate-technocratic order, a Google nation, rather than the town I was standing in, or the nation-state (however problematic, as the lines of military re-enactors and equipment reminded me) it was celebrating.

This was, in all too many ways, an uncomfortable reflection of an unflattering truth. One that simply removing the device from my head could not undo.

I went home sheepishly and removed the Glass, and returned to the parade with my DSLR. Now I appeared to be just taking pictures like everyone else. 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Quotidian

Midnight, Addison Texas. The low haze that swept in after sunset is all alight now, bouncing back the city like the sky is enclosed in a single mercury bulb. The lights of the bank offices and insurance companies north of the belt line float in it, outlines of their buildings obscured by bright haze.

This has been my quotidian, my every day, for two years now. This little two meter square balcony. The skyview that has been my most constant companion. I am grateful for it, I would have lost my mind down here without it.

I never wanted to come South. Spent my 20s proudly remaining above the Mason-Dixon even as everyone else my age seemed to migrate to the sunbelt for work. Eventually, the migration caught up with me, and brought me first to Atlanta, and then here to Dallas. They became my quotidian. Okra in the supermarket. Sweet tea everywhere. Sky glow. In Atlanta I could only glimpse it through the canopy but here...

I am looking out at Addison, right now, and the sky is all alight, brighter than any star, horizon to horizon. The only lights you can see are planes, sometimes 5 or 6 at once when traffic is stacked up over DFW. Down here, in the urban south, there is a starless quotidian.

Which I hated, for a long time. But it came to me to seem vibrant, alive. The glow of a place filled with furious human activity. Of a place people wanted to be.

And now that I'm going back North, to a sleepy Pennsylvania college town where the nearest city's population peaked in 1940 and is now half its former size, I think I'll miss that. The youth. The glow.

Still. I'll have the stars again, at least.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Skyglow

If this front doesn't break soon, I will. 83 and muggy in April is just uncalled for. Uncalled for, Dallas.

I'm going to sit and watch the skyglow for a bit and see if the rain starts. Its an activity that calls for whiskey, but I'm out of calories for the day so I'll have to stick to sparkling water.

I love useless moments like this, waiting on the rain and listening to the hum of the highway. They are so far and few between these days. So threatened by our constant productivity. My latest theory project is trying to find some framework for articulating this love. I tried Marcuse, but he was no help. Sartre everyone told me to stay away from. Right now, Agamben seems like my best hope? Dunno, hard to say.

Somehow, I need to figure through a way to argue that the useless is not useless. That it is, in fact, crucial. Human. That it's availability, and its shape, should not be left to the whims of market aristocrats. That we need a democratic uselessness.

Anyway, that will be for another day. Right now, gonna see if this front breaks.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

If you only read on explanation of the Marxist concept of "commodity fetishism" today, make it this solid summary of the idea and how its misuse in contemporary scholarship by Gavin of Unfashionably Late.

Gavin is also one of the under-appreciated stars of Marxist-Leninist weird twitter.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

The problem with "the future"

Bruce Sterling's 2013 SXSW benediction has been talked about over the course of the last month or so, as is usually the case with his contributions to the conference. Cory Doctorow clearly got a kick out of it.

I thought it was great, thought-provoking stuff. The piece still hasn't been transcribed anywhere, so I ended up listening to it on my phone while I took a walk around the neighborhood. This made his discussion of the disruption of long form text by short form always-on media all the more cogent.

I particularly liked the part where cranky old Bruce really lets fly about the state of things to his audience of boosters and entrepreneurs and tech wizards. "Everything is getting worse," he yells at them, almost to the point of his voice breaking. Despite all their talk of "making the world a better place" through "disruptive technology," the climate, politics, the economy, all are in decline. "Where's the betterness?" He asks.

Thus, I was a little confused by his ending, which sounded what seemed to be a triumphalist note. He encourages his argument to take responsibility for "killing the past" and then to "kill it and eat it" anyway. The future (I'm paraphrasing here because digging the exact language out of the audio in the clunky soundstream format the piece is being shared in is a pain) will be and must be built on the ruins of the past.

In retrospect, I think I understand what Sterling is going for. He wants to avoid what he perceives as a sort of guilt-laden retreat from movement and experimentation. The tendency that makes young people enamored of home-pickling and infatuated with the futile notion of returning to subsistence farming. An attempt to return to a romanticized past (as perhaps I am engaged in as I attempt to revive this blog in a weekend of manic posting!).

But the language of "The Future" and "The Past," so common to this sort of discourse, shifts Sterling's argument in a way that partially erases his careful critique of disruption-as-progress from only moments before. In a sense the language is similar to that used by RIP: A Remix Manifesto when it argues that the fight over Copyright is one in which "the past" (in the form of big media companies) attempts to control "the future"  (in the form of Girl Talk, mostly).

I would suggest that rather than exhorting people to take up the cause of building "The Future," despite the cost, we might more acutely need to focus on the idea (which Sterling motions to) of thinking about taking responsibility for the future we build. Given that creation is indeed, always creative destruction, shouldn't we make sure that what we build balances what has been lost?

And moreover, the discussion of a monolithic "Future" conceals the fact that that future will be experienced differently by different people. We have a responsibility to build our futures in a way that does not immiserate the futures of others. This is something that the young, rich, powerful future builders at places like SXSW seem increasingly blind to. We need a future for everyone, not just the best and brightest and most innovative.

To talk about "a future" rather than "the future" might at least move us in the direction of understanding that while future change is indeed inevitable, the direction of that change is not.


Elemental Dallas

One of my favorite undergraduate professors was a bit of a theory throwback. He still identified as a Freudian, long after trends had moved to continental philosophy. He taught the survey of methods in Literary Criticism course I took, which might explain why I'm not exactly a cutting edge theorist today.

Somewhere along the way, he worked in the idea of analyzing pieces based on the four classical elements. I have no idea where this came from. As scholarship, it seems doubtful, as a habit of mind I can't seem to shake it. Confronted with something new, I often find myself thinking: "Water, Earth, Air, or Fire?"

Atlanta, as a city, was clearly claimed by water. It rained in the sort of torrents I had only ever seen last an hour in other places for days on end. Even during a supposed drought, the summer was sticky and had you drenched in your own sweat in minutes.

Dallas, on the other hand, is a city that all but water seems to have a hold on. Earth, for the flat plains and endless dust. Fire for the baking sun. Air for the wind and the constant air traffic, and the open, cloudless sky.

In the end, though, I think this is a city of air. Seen from above, Dallas is a patchwork of uninterrupted light, since there are no trees tall enough to break line of sight to an airliner on final approach. The city is naked to the sky.

And that sky has been a source of endless fascination for me living here. There are aircraft aloft within view of my balcony more often than not. The airport to my north hosts quite a diverse set, long ezs, Beech Starships, the last flying B-29.

The birds are even more interesting than the planes. Falcons pushing flocks of starlings around the sky like sharks on shoals of herring. A few nights ago, I was sitting out before bed and heard a strange, rattling cry. I looked up and there was a checkmark of Egrets, white bellies lit orange in the streetlight, flying across the night sky in inverted silhouette.

Even here, in the suburbs of Dallas, the most domesticated and controlled place you could imagine, the sky is still wild. Just like the Firefly theme song said it would be :)  

Friday, April 05, 2013

Why I want you to read this blog

I'm going to ask you to indulge me for just a minute. 

Actually, I'm going to ask you to indulge me for just a minute, a couple times of week, for the foreseeable future. 

I'm asking you to read this blog. Blogging, which was for a brief moment a prime means for people to keep in touch, seems of late to have been mostly displaced by social networking, especially Facebook, which allows for more robust content than the ultra-concise Twitter. 

I've thought about leaving Facebook, especially given its increasingly worrisome ambitions. I'm not sure I want Facebook to become a general-purpose portal for digital content. I'm quite certain I don't want it to become a geo-political entity "on par with nations." Still, at this point choosing to exit Facebook seems like choosing to stop listening to my friends, colleagues and neighbors. Like ignoring their lives in a profoundly anti-social way. No, until such a time as we can migrate the network somewhere else, Facebook seems to be an evil we're stuck with. 

Still, there is something about the Facebook composition experience that leaves me feeling like something is missing. Something we had back in the moment of personal blogging. We seem to have lost the space of our own that blogs once provided. A space in between the more formal and controlled writing of published work (including work published on higher-profile, edited group blogs) and the constant rolling present of the social network. A space where a draft of a thought too big to fit in an update status can be hashed out over the course of a day. A space we control, and thus can navigate and retrieve thoughts from the archive more readily. 

Of course, we haven't really lost this space. This blog has still been here, unused, all these years. What we've lost are readers coming to the space. I can link to my blog, but doing that is asking an indulgence. Leave the stream of the rolling now for a few minutes and come pay attention just to me! Just dropping the link in the stream isn't enough to compel anybody to click on it (my Google analytics suggest).

So, I'm asking that indulgence, dear reader. Click the link. I could just keep posting stuff here and dropping links and hoping for the best, but writing is hard when you know no one is reading. Help me out. 

Here's what I'll promise you in return. If and when you revive your old blog, and start dropping links into the rolling present, I'll click on them :-)

A modest MOOC-posal

Proposition 1: Only the most excellent teachers can teach well enough to out-perform MOOCs

Proposition 2: MOOCs can teach the skills ordinary people need to become excellent

Conclusion: Run a MOOC to teach teaching and make MOOCs obsolete