ahorbinski: My Marxist-feminist dialectic brings all the boys to the yard.  (marxism + feminism --> posthumanism)
I'm one of five recipients of the Berkeley Center for New Media's Summer Research Awards this year. Many thanks!
ahorbinski: My Marxist-feminist dialectic brings all the boys to the yard.  (marxism + feminism --> posthumanism)
Bibliographic Data: Appadurai, Arjun. “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy." Public Culture 2, no. 2 (spring 1990): 1-24.

Main Argument: "The crucial point, however, is that the United States is no longer the puppeteer of a world system of images, but is only one node of a complex transnational construction of imaginary landscapes" (4). Moreover, global cultural processes are now organized around what Appadurai terms "the imagination as a social practice," by which he means "a form of work (both in the sense of labor and of culturally organized practice) and a form of negotiation between sties of agency ('individuals') and globally defined fields of possibility. … The imagination is now central to all forms of agency, is itself a social fact, and is the key component of the new global order" (5).

Disjuncture & Difference )

Bibliographic Data: Latour, Bruno. “On Technical Mediation–Philosophy, Sociology, Genealogy.” Common Knowledge 3, no. 2 (1994): 29-64.

Main Argument: Latour talks about the relationship of people and τεχνη in its broadest sense, beginning with the myth of Daedalus and his δαιδαλια, his crafty inventions. As Latour summarizes, "that we are not Machiavellian baboons we owe to technical action," i.e. technical mediation, which is "a form of delegation that allows us to mobilize, during interactions, moves made elsewhere, earlier, by other actants. It is the presence of the past and distant, the presence of nonhuman characters, that frees us, precisely, from interactions" (52). Technique is thus "the socialization of nonhumans" (53). For Latour, then, "responsibility for action must be shared, symmetry restored, and humanity redescribed: not as the sole transcendent cause, but as the mediating mediator" (54).
The mistake of the dualist paradigm was its definition of humanity. Even the shape of humans, our very body, is composed in large part of sociotechnical negotiations and artifacts. To conceive humanity and technology as plat is to wish away humanity: we are sociotechnical animals, and each human interaction is sociotechnical. We are never limited to social ties. We are never faced with objects. This final diagram relocates humanity where we belong–in the crossover, the central column, the possibility of mediating between mediators. (64)
τεχνη και ανθρωπος )

Bibliographic Data: Law, John. “Actor Network Theory and Material Semiotics.” The new Blackwell companion to social theory (2009): 141-58.

Main Argument: Law offers a basic sketch of actor network theory, with the proviso that in some sense abstracting the theory from concrete examples is a betrayal of its first principles, one of which is the fact that there is no knowledge without exemplars. Actor network theory can also be understood as an empirical version of poststructuralism, because its approach "asks us to explore the strategic, relational, and productive character of particular, smaller-scale, heterogeneous actor networks," and thus "it can also be understood as an empirical version of Geilles Delueze's nomadic philosophy," because "both fever to the provisional assembly of productive, heterogeneous, and (this is the crucial point) quite limited forms of ordering located in no larger overall order" (145, 146). Since the early 1990s, actor network theory has moved in certain directions: one, to the idea of enaction or performance, because "we are no longer dealing with construction, social or otherwise: there is no stable prime mover, social or individual, to construct anything, no builder, no puppeteer. …In this heterogeneous world everything plays its part relationally. …all of these assemble and together enact a set of practices that make a more or less precarious reality" (151). Another direction is multiplicity, which argues that "most of the time and for most purposes practices produce chronic multiplicity. They may dovetail together, but equally they may be held apart, contradict, or include other another in complex ways" (152). A related notion is that of fluidity, which holds that objects may reconfigure themselves, that different realties may be loosely rather than rigidly associated, and that we do not have to imagine a single actor network. The point of all of this is that
This new material semiotics insists that the stories of social theory are performative, not innocent. It also assumes that reality is not destiny. With great difficulty what is real may be remade. And it is with this thought, the possibility and the difficulty of living and doing the real, that I end. … But, and this is the crucial point, the two are only partially connected: goods and reals cannot be reduced to each other. An act of political will can never, by itself, overturn the endless and partially connected webs that enact the real. Deconstruction is not enough. Indeed, it is trivial. The conclusion is inescapable: as we write we have a simultaneous responsibility both to the real and to the good. Such is the challenge faced by this diasporic material semiotics. To create and recreate ways of working in and on the real while simultaneously working well in and on the good. (155)
Actor Network Theory 1990 and Beyond )

Bibliographic Data: González, Jennifer. “The Appended Subject: Race and Identity as Digital Assemblage.” Race in Cyberspace (2000): 27-50.

Main Argument: González looks at the construction of avatars online [remember that this was well before Web 2.0] through the lens of two art projects and discusses the ways in which all of these examples present the body as an assemblage of parts--parts that can be swapped at will, along with somatic markers of racial and ethnic identity--as examples of "appended subjects," which she defines multiply as "comprised of appendages…or that of a subject or person who is defined by a relation of supplementarity," or "an object constituted by electronic elements serving as a psychic or bodily appendage, an artificial subjectivity that is attached to a supposed original or unitary being…In each case a body is constructed or assembled in order to stand in for, or become an extension of, a subject in an artificial but nevertheless inhabited world" (27-28). Drawing on Althusser as interpreted by Joseba Gabilando, González in fact argues that subjects in these arrays are interpolated not just by mimesis but also by position; with the result that "embedded in fantasies of collecting body specimens and creating hybrid subjects is a matrix of desire that seeks to absorb or orchestrate cultural differences" (46). Moreover, "by representing a shifting locus for a distributed subject–radical in the sense that it is perhaps shifting and changing, living, dying and nonessentiallized–the appended subject in the form of an online body also defines a relation to a so-called global interface as primarily one of consumption, not opposition" (47-48).

The appended subject )

Bibliographic Data: Morley, David and Kevin Robins. “Techno-Orientalism: Japan panic." Spaces of Identity: Global Media, Electronic Landscapes,and Cultural Boundaries (1995): 147-73.

Main Argument: Exoticism of Japan + technologically-inspired anxiety = techno-Orientalism.

Argument, Sources, Examples Japan has always been one of the West's Others, and in the 1980s, Japan seemed to be calling the terms of Western (and particularly American) modernity into question, partly through technological and economic advancement, but also partly through the perception of Japanese culture as fundamentally non-Western, i.e. non-individual ("domo arigato, Mr. Roboto!"). The trick, however, is that "the West both needs and wants its Japan problem," which of course is the point of Orientalism: the West constructed a mirror in which it could see itself in reverse and thereby construct itself as the obverse, with little if any reference to the actual "Orient." Another wrinkle comes from the fact that the West constructed itself as "modern," whereas Japan was the first society to achieve visible postmodernity, thus figuring postmodernity as other when in fact it is/was/shall be us. In other words, "what Japan has done is to call into question the supposed centrality of the West as a cultural and geographical locus for the project of modernity. It has also condoned the assumption that modernity can only be circulated through the forms the West has constructed" (160). The twist of techno-Orientalism, however, is that the association of high technology with Japan/eseness now serves "to reinforce the image of a culture that is cold, impersonal and machine-like, an authoritarian culture lacking emotional connection to the rest of the world" (169).

Further reading: Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age; Said, Orientalism; [personal profile] synecdochic, "Why Monetizing Social Media Through Advertising Is Doomed To Failure, Parts 1-3"; Nakamura, Digitizing Race; Hayles, How We Became Posthuman

Meta notes: "What you don't know is what the knife does on its own. Your intentions may be good. The knife has intentions, too." – Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass
ahorbinski: hulk smash male privilege! (hulk smash male privilege)
Bibliographic Data: Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Main Argument: This book is the interrelated story of three stories: one, "how information lost its body" and "came to be conceptualized as an entity separate from the material forms in which it is thought to be embedded;" two, "how the cyborg was created as a technological artifact and cultural icon" after WII; and three, "how a historically specific construction called the human is giving way to a different construction called the posthuman" (2). The posthuman is a complex field, but it generally has the theme of the union of human and machine, and as a view it usually shares the following assumptions: one, it "privileges informational pattern over material instantiation," with the result that embodiment is seen as historical contingency rather than biological inevitability; two, it "considers consciousness…as an epiphenomenon, as an evolutionary upstart trying to claim that it is the whole show when in actuality it is only a minor sideshow;" three, it "thinks of the body as the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate;" and finally, it "configures human being so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines" (2-3). Thus, "the posthuman subject is an amalgam, a collection of heterogeneous components, a material-informational entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction" (3). The posthuman subject is in some senses a critique of the liberal subject, but "to the extent that the posthuman constructs embodiment as the instantiaton of thought/information, it continues the liberal tradition rather than disrupts it" (5). Hayles is here critiquing the posthuman dream of nothing less than immortality: "the point is not only that abstracting information from a material base is an imaginary act but also, and more fundamentally, that conceiving of information as a thing separate from the medium instantiating it is a prior imaginary act that constructs a holistic phenomenon [i.e. information, which must always be embodied in something] as an information/matter duality" (13). Information, understood holistically, is "a complexity too unruly to fit into disembodied ones and zeros" (ibid).

Historiographical Engagement: New media theory, science, philosophy, science fiction

How we became posthuman )
Critical assessment: This is an excellent and revolutionary book; Hayles is so smart that I am sure I have failed to capture all of its implications in thees notes. Equally to the point, as I typed these notes on my laptop, I found myself stroking the pages of the paper book I was reading, reminded by her words of "the fragility of a material world that cannot be replaced" and given a new appreciation for it and for its imperfections (49). Beyond that very material operation on me and my embodied self, this is the first book I've read for my exam that has given me hope: I think that Hayles here may have found a way out of the tightening net of informational capitalism and post-postmodernity, because the body is not an informational pattern but a real thing that exists, and because cognition is epiphenomenal rather than sovereign, which means that the liberal subject, much like the center, cannot hold. It will take a while, and it will require much thought and work, and thought-work, on the part of many people. But eventually, with these two truths, we will be able to get out if we try. (Whether this can happen before capitalism destroys the planet via unchecked climate change is, of course, another question.)

All that having been said, Hayles could stand to read some SF books that aren't by straight white guys, IJS.

Further reading: Joan Slonczewski, Brain Plague; Gibson, Neuromancer; Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?; Blade Runner; Stephenson, Snow Crash; Sherry Turkle, Simulation and its Discontents; Vannevar Bush, "As We May Think"; Catherine Bateson, Our Own Metaphor; Donna Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto"; James Beniger, The Control Revolution

Meta notes:
Although I think that serious consideration needs to be given to how certain characteristics associated with the liberal subject, especially agency and choice, can be articulated within a posthuman context, I do not mourn the passing of a concept so deeply entwined with projects of domination and oppression. … If my nightmare is a culture inhabited by posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories rather than the ground of being, my dream is a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality, that recognizes and celebrates finitude as a condition of human being, and that understands human life is embedded in a material world of great complexity, one on which we depend for our continued survival. (5)


"And there was a moment. There was a moment, dear listeners, when I considered it. I considered joining Carlos and becoming perfect. But I’ve come to know something after these months together with dear Carlos.

"Perfection is not real. Perfection is not human. Carlos is not perfect, no. Even better — he is imperfect.

"Everything about him, and us, and all of this, is imperfect! And those imperfections in our reality are the seams and cracks into which our out-sized love can seep and pool. And sometimes we are annoyed, and disappointed, and that too is part of how love works. It is not a perfect system, but oh!

"Oh, well.

"And so I resisted.

"I fought off the vision of the shrouded figures and the dark planet and all that was perfect and I held close to imperfection.

"To my own imperfection.

"To my imperfect Carlos.

"I took him, and I carried him out of the cube. I came up, heaving, into this world that will disappoint us.

"Finally, free." – Welcome to Night Vale, "Condos"
ahorbinski: A snakes & ladders board.  (struggle & stagger)
Bibliographic Data: Nakamura, Lisa. Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Main Argument: In this work, Namakura "locate[s] the Internet as a privileged and extremely rich site for the creation and distribution of hegemonic and counter hegemonic visual images of radicalized bodies" (13). Moreover, now that the internet's audiences are much more diverse, "women and people of color are both subjects and objects of interactivity; they participate in digital racial formation via acts of technological appropriation, yet are subjected to it as well" (16). Nakamura argues that this process, and the mediation of these identities, is "regulated and conditioned by the types of interfaces used to classify, frame, and link them" (27); "the premise of this book is that women and racial and ethnic minorities create visual cultures on the popular Internet that speak to and against existing graphical environments and interfaces online" (172).

Historiographical Engagement: Wendy Chun, Alexander Galloway, Henry Jenkins, many others

Visual cultures of the Internet )

Critical assessment: This is another great new media book that I wish hadn't been written ten years or more ago; although it was published in 2006, most of the material is from 2003-05, and it shows, not in that what Nakamura says here is wrong, but in that I really would like to know what she thinks of the developments in race, Web 2.0, interactivity, and all the other subjects she discusses here in the decade since. I've heard her speak, and she's a great scholar as well as a very nice person, and I really just want more of her thoughts than this book, fixed in time and print as it is, can provide.

Further reading: Windtalkers; Gibson, Neuromancer; Blade Runner; Dirty Pretty Things; Galloway, The Exploit; Tina Takemoto; Hayles, How We Became Posthuman

Meta notes: "It's all connected."
ahorbinski: My Marxist-feminist dialectic brings all the boys to the yard.  (marxism + feminism --> posthumanism)
Bibliographic Data: King, Katie. Networked Reenactments: Stories Transdisciplinary Knowledges Tell. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012.

Main Argument: "…in the nineties, science-styled television documentary forms, internet repurposings, museum exhibitions, and academic historiographies worked hard to shape an array of cognitive sensations accessed, skilled, and displayed by new technologies. These emergent embodiments became experiments in communication and offered epistemological melodramas of identity, national interests, and global restructuring" (8). In her view, "reenactments are not a way to keep pasts and presents apart--or a way to keep authorities and alternative knowledges, metaphors and referents, materialities and abstractions, forms of academic expertise and cultural entertainment, or affects and cognitions separated, managed, or delimited by membership. Flexible knowledges, transdisciplinarities, new media, all plunge us into uncertainties, risk, collusion, and collaboration; all conditions that--as with responsibilities to multiple audiences from painfully limited authorships--we do not control and in which we are elemental 'bits' in emergent reorganizations of knowledge economies and among altering evaluations" (18).

Networked reenactments )

Critical assessment: This is an excellent, really dense book. The four chapters could just as easily have been six, especially because King is a very dense writer. She says many things that are interesting and thought-provoking, though I think at times the fact that what she is talking about is still inchoate gets in the way of her pinning things down explicitly. In a word, it's still kind of hard to understand what she means by "reenactments" at times, though I think the idea of pastpresents is important to understanding it. Still, this is an excellent book, and I think she really understands the current dilemma of post-post-modernity in a way that other writers aren't willing to even fully acknowledge.

Further reading: Fembot interview with Katie King; Dinshaw, Getting Medieval; Hopkins, A World Full of Gods; Haraway; Latour; Manovich
ahorbinski: My Marxist-feminist dialectic brings all the boys to the yard.  (marxism + feminism --> posthumanism)
Bibliographic Data: Penley, Constance. NASA/Trek: Popular Science and Sex in America. New York: Verso, 1997.

Main Argument: Penley argues that what she calls "NASA/TREK"--the hybrid pop culture object that is NASA and Star Trek, combined--is "popular science," which is "a collectively elaborated story that weaves together science and science fiction to help write, think, and launch us into space" (9). In her view, "popular science, fully in the American utopian tradition, proposes that scientific experimentation be accompanied by social and sexual experimentation" and that "we are, or should be, popular scientists one and all" (10).

NASA/Trek )

Critical assessment: It has to be said up front that this book has not aged well, which makes it all the more annoying when people writing now cite only this book for arguments about fans. As the quotation from the last page of the book above should make clear, moreover, this is very much part of the "first wave" of fan studies in that its attitude towards fans and fan works is so utopian. Fandom certainly can be a space for the production and contemplation of alternatives at multiple levels, but that does not make everything fans do part of some better world.

Further reading: Contact; Gravity; Galaxy Quest; Katie King, Networked Reenactments
ahorbinski: Emma Goldman, anarchist (play the red queen's game)
Bibliographic Data: Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, 2006.

Main Argument:
This circulation of media content--across different media systems, competing media economies, and national borders--depends heavily on consumers' active participation. I will argue here against the idea that convergence should be understood primarily as a technological process bringing together multiple media functions within the same devices. Instead, convergence represents a cultural shift as consumers are encouraged to seek out new information and make connections among dispersed media content. This book is about the work--and play--spectators perform in the new media system. (3)

Convergence culture )
Critical assessment: Damn, this book is full of dudes. Also, it's super trippy reading this book now because Jenkins was so right that everything he says in here feels so self-evident as to be axiomatic. There are critiques that could be made--see the entries by Steinberg and by myself in the "Further Reading" section--but by and large Jenkins deserves his position as the prophet of convergence culture, in my opinion. That said, a look at the problems "the Wikipedia" has developed as it has matured shows that new media are not arising in a new environment, but rather are, to some extent, shaped by preexisting structures of oppression and control even as they challenge them. Ah, the post-post-Fordist post-postmodern dilemma.

Further reading: Marc Steinberg, Anime's Media Mix; Alex Leavitt and Andrea Horbinski, "Even a Monkey Can Understand Fan Activism"; Lisa Gitelman, Always Already New; Anne Allison, Millennial Monsters; Andrea Horbinski, "After Henry Jenkins: Transmedia Fandom"

Meta notes: Convergence and divergence are two sides of the same coin.
ahorbinski: A DJ geisha (historical time is a construct)
Bibliographic Data: Azuma Hiroki. Otaku: Japan's Database Animals. Trans. Jonathan E. Abel & Shion Kono. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Main Argument: Drawing on postmodern and critical theory, Azuma argues that otaku--Japanese fans of anime, manga, and video games, called in Japan the "contents industry"--are a new, postmodern type of human being (shinjinrui) whose subjectivity has no need for the "grand narratives" that framed the modern era. Instead, otaku care only for little narratives at the level of simulacra, i.e. at the level of the actual media they consume, and for "grand nonnarratives" at the level of meaning behind those media, which Azuma terms a database. In their ability to instantly gratify their desires with little narratives, Azuma sees otaku as animals in the Kojévean sense, but in his view they do maintain a vestigial humanity, in the Enlightenment sense, at the level of the database. Thus, they are database animals.

Postmodern, database, animal )

Critical assessment: It's been two years since I first read this book, and my reaction to it now is much more complex. It was obvious to me in 2009 that Azuma was bringing brilliant theoretical insights to the table, and that is still very much true, but on the other hand, the flaws and weird gaps in his argument are much more obvious this time around. Also, the book is now ten years old despite the fact that the English translation only appeared two years ago, and its age is beginning to show; someone very much needs to bring out Azuma's newer books such as Tokyo kara kangaeru and Yûbinteki fuantachi, to say nothing of the sequel to this book, Gêmu teki rearizumu no tanjô.

I more or less agree with most of what Azuma says in the second, principal chapter of the book concerning the idea of the 'database' and otaku (fan) consumption of its elements; with only cosmetic (surface) changes of terminology, these premises apply readily to English-language media fandom, and they're quite insightful. I have problems with Azuma's treatment of factors that he relegates to the periphery of his argument, namely (in no particular order) gender, queerness and sexuality, passive versus active consumption, and the uniqueness of Japan vis-a-vis global (post)modernity and capitalism.

To take the last of these first, Azuma buys into really tiresome (and tired) ideas about the rupture in Japanese modernity constituted by the American Occupation of Japan from 1945-52 after Japan's defeat at the end of the Asia-Pacific Wars and consequently, to my mind, overplays the uniqueness of otaku subculture as an inheritance of the Edo period (?!), when in reality, I think, the more interesting frame in which to interpret otaku subculture is to consider it as a local form of a praxis that emerges as an effect of advanced capitalism globally. Despite his (rightly) criticizing Murakami Takashi for Murakami's appropriating otaku aesthetics to turn a profit in the pop art world, Azuma more or less agrees with Murakami's superflat thesis. He also is, on the whole, pessimistic about the possibility of forging genuine emotional connections and alternative social spaces and economies through otaku praxis, which seems to me wholly unwarranted. Even more infuriatingly, Azuma notes in passing that not all fans of the contents industry in Japan are male, but proceeds to assume that all otaku are heterosexual men (and to mention homosexuality and pedophilia in the same breath as behaviours of choice) and to more or less follow Saitô Tamaki's offensive, and wrong-headed, Freudian interpretation of anime and manga and to bend that interpretation back on otaku. As people like Fujimoto Yukari, Sandra Annett, and many others have made clear, otaku are not the sum total of Japanese fans, and to assume a priori that all otaku are heterosexual men is deeply problematic. Azuma also underplays, to a criminal extent, the fact that otaku and fan praxis worldwide is defined not by passive consumption, but by investment and involvement in media to an active degree that wider society regards as abnormal at best. Fans aren't passive consumers; that's wider society. Fans are the people who actively take apart, reassemble, tinker with and critique the media they love, in all metaphorical registers of those words--Azuma is dismissive of such central otaku sites as the doujinshi (fanworks) markets, which seems--and I use this word in the full knowledge of how Azuma employs it in text--snobbish, despite the fact that half the examples in this book are drawn from girl games.

It will be clear from these remarks that my own estimation of these matters, including the nature of the relationship between modernity and postmodernity, is much closer to the line that Tom LaMarre takes in The Anime Machine, though I don't think that even Tom goes far enough in reckoning with gender. The thing I really think Azuma misses about otaku is--two things, actually. I mentioned his wrongheaded ideas about the nature of otaku consumption above, but the other thing I think he doesn't grasp, or at least doesn't talk about, is the fact that otaku consumption is knowing. Fujoshi and otaku know that they're primed to like characters with hair that sticks up because the hair is a moe thing, and they like those characters despite recognizing the conscious manipulation. There's a middle ground to fan subjectivity that Azuma barrels past, and I think teasing it out is important. Still, Azuma is an essential thinker in these matters, and someone with whom we must all reckon (and riddle) before we proceed.

Finally, the translation is very good overall, but contains some minor factual errors (Cardcaptor Sakura is a manga by CLAMP, for instance) and a few infelicities of English terminology (no one calls AMVs and vids "mad movies").

Further reading: Thomas Lamarre, The Anime Machine; Anne Allison, "The Cool Brand, Affective Activism, and Japanese Youth"

Meta notes: The Sherlockians give themselves a lot of press as the first fans--and the "good" ones, whatever that means--and it seems to me that, as much as widespread fandom is clearly an effect of advanced capitalism globally, just like capitalism has always carried within it the seeds of its advanced form, elements of fandom can be discerned going as far back as, say, the 1840s, when fans of Dickens gathered on the wharfs of New York City to find out about Little Nell's fate. The seriality of media is an essential precondition for the fannish impulse.

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ahorbinski: shelves stuffed with books (Default)
Andrea J. Horbinski

May 2016

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