User:Eleanorg/1.2/RWR/Essay draft 1
notes for where next
Returning to Butler's essay 'Beside oneself' which talks about grief, and the very scary 'constitutive sociality of the self'. She's talking about post 9/11 politics and the temptation to deny our vulnerability, to shore up integrity - a nice link to the approach that MPAA et al are taking to copyright. The dissolution of the interface is all about 'being undone'. Butler gives good reasons why we should accept and embrace these interfaces/boundaries - they open us to sociality and love as well as to the risk of violence.
how does the interface according to haraway map onto the 'constitutive' boundaries that butler talks about?
the work not being autonomous clearly maps onto tech interfaces here: it is 'born' as a mashup of other works and it is destined to be copied, distributed, re-mixed.
Want to take Butler's thoughts on 'constitutive sociality' and go further, psychoanalytically, into the notion of anxiety. What is it made up of, what does it defend against, and how can an analysis of these defences inform the way we advocate for the surrender of control in open licensing?
THE INTEGRITY OF NATURAL OBJECTS
Wikipedia describes an interface as "a tool and concept that refers to a point of interaction between components", which "allows a component... to function independently while using interfaces to communicate with other components via an input/output system and an associated protocol". I will examine here some of the discourses surrounding the ubiquity of this "point of interaction" in high-tech societies, comparing the way its social implications have been theorized in a number of texts ranging from the 1980s to today. In particular I will look at the anxieties which have been provoked by the notion of the porous interface, and the discourses which are both defending and fighting against it today.
When I'm in my pyjamas, I like to read old essays in heavy textbooks that talk about how I should, by now, be having intergalactic body-melting boundary-blurring virtual viral sex with polymorphic avatars in the neon cathedrals of cyberspace. Or, at least, be plugged into the less sexy matrix that is the universal hyper-capitalist data flow, driven by "the translation of the world into a problem of coding, a search for a common language in which all resistance to instrumental control disappears" (Haraway 2002, p.112). The Cyborg Manifesto predicted with emphatic clarity the importance of the interface to the economy of the late 20th century, where "control strategies [will] concentrate on boundary conditions and interfaces, on rates of flow across boundaries" (ibid p.111). Here is a vision in which maximum porosity is demanded of the interface, its previous "resistance" dissolved through the correct application, like solvent, of "the proper standard, the proper code... for processing signals in a common language" (ibid p.111). Haraway places the motivation for this dissolution of old boundaries with the logic of late capitalism, intensifying and transcending "the universal translation effected by capitalist markets". These porous interfaces also "provide fresh sources of power" (ibid p.114) for those who would oppress us; thus "the biggest threat to such power is interruption of communication" (ibid p.113). For Haraway, then, unlimited data flow across an interface is the ultimate free market or totalitarian wet dream, where an impermeable interface is conceptualised as "resistance" which must be broken down.
How does this discourse of the frictionless interface compare with contemporary discourses surrounding data exchange? Judging by the current efforts being made by rights holder associations to regulate internet content exchange, Haraway's prediction that "control strategies [will] concentrate on boundary conditions and interfaces, on rates of flow across boundaries - and not on the integrity of natural objects" (ibid p.111) seems extremely relevant. In what terms, then, do such rights holders conceptualise these "rates of flow"?
The Motion Picture Association of America devotes significant space on their website to detailing their views on illicit content exchange for a general audience. One prominent text, "Types of Content Theft", is an interesting example of the discursive strategies used by such groups to frame the way that contemporary interfaces are understood. A sense of didactic anxiety runs through the text, with shrill sentences such as "all it takes is one camcorder copy to trigger the mass reproduction and distribution of millions of illegal Internet downloads and bootlegs...", and, "if you download movies using illegal peer-to-peer sites, you are often also distributing illegal content... to other peers in the group, who in turn distribute the files to yet others".
The text paints a picture of a monstrous, spawning network ("all it takes is one..."; "...to yet others") which users are warned not to get caught up in. The peer-to-peer user, for example, is assumed to be innocently hoodwinked by a system in which they would not willingly participate: "While people may believe their files are being exchanged among only a few "friends", these files can be accessed by millions of people around the world...".
As the text fails to explain why the sheer number of exchanges would be a problem for anyone except rights holders, it invokes the discourse of vulnerability to infection by way of discouragement: "you are... potentially exposing your computer and private information to strangers. By allowing strangers to access files on your computer, other sensitive information, such as bank records, social security numbers and pictures, could also become accessible and put you and your family at risk of identity theft or worse". Here, the 'stranger' is construed as a potential intruder, with abstainence from contact, rather than better security, assumed to be the best protection. The concept of the family is also conservatively invoked to denote what should be a private, impenetrable unit.
The irony in this discourse, of course, is that it is groups such as the MPAA who are lobbying for users' traffic to be made visible to, and screenable by, the very strangers who are here presented as a threat. There is thus an ambivalence at the heart of this discourse, which is not fully captured by Haraway's prediction that "the biggest threat to such power is interruption of communication" (Haraway p.113). Rather, it is the monstrosity of uninterrubtable communication which is the source of panic here. This is an ambivalence which has been eloquently analysed by those writing about the status of the cultural object in this scenario; what we might call the "integrity of natural objects" which Haraway predicted would become irrelevant.
Jos de Mul's 'The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Recombination' revisits Benjamin's classic text to think over many of the same phenomena that Haraway describes. Just as Haraway sees the porous informational interface as an intensification of capitalist universal exchange, de Mul describes digital remixing as an intensification and transendence of Benjamin's mechanical reproduction. The loss of aura emanated by the unique object which Benjamin described is perhaps analagous to Haraway's "integrity". De Mul continues in this vein, noting that in a society in which the database has become a dominant cultural metaphor (de Mul 2009, p.99), cultural objects "seem to be inherently unstable" (ibid p. 103).
This is a sentiment echoed by Oliver Laric, in his aptly titled films 'Versions' and 'Vvversions'. Both de Mul and Laric conceptualise the fleeting, unstable and remixable cultural work as an instance, thus as a kind of performance. De Mul notes that digital objects are "like the performing arts process rather than product" (ibid p. 103), while Laric posits that "all manifestations [of a remixed work], from physical to virtual, act as performances of the idea" (Laric 200?).
Thus, we cannot speak purely of "boundary conditions and interfaces, on rates of flow across boundaries" without reference to the "integrity" of the objects which are connected by these interfaces. What we are seeing, in the increasingly clamourous discourses of lobbyists like the MPAA, is not a forgetting but a desperate returning to the natural object, as opposed to the fleeting "performances of the idea". The MPAA's emphatic use of traditional objects such as the "family" or "American jobs" (citation needed) is directly related to their attempt to shore up the integrity of the cultural objects - films, soundtracks etc - which have been made porous and unstable by the dissolution of boundaries to communication.