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The Postdigital Membrane: Imagination, Technology and Desire

Author: Robert Pepperell, Michael Punt
Publisher: Portland, OR: Intellect Books, 2000
Review Published: October 2005

 REVIEW 1: Nicholas Ruiz III

The biomedia of the flesh resists the disarray of entropy; it resists the escape of its affair into Nothing. Such is the embodiment of the genetic Code; the Code manifest. Theorizing the coalescence of propositions we call human "life," one might consider the biocultural deposition of the Code's assemblage of assumptions; an assemblage that is always in constant, real-time symbiosis with the milieu, natural and constructed. It is the biocultural complex of life's assumptions and conditions, which today seems most set to characterize the human condition, and in the face of this development Robert Pepperell and Michael Punt stop to reconsider our progression, in The Postdigital Membrane: Imagination, Technology and Desire, as an aphoristic series of eclectic propositions.

Proposition One is that "technology removes obstacles to desires" (8). Technology evolves, as do our desires, and the relationship between the two is symbiotic. We can never be satisfied, because to be satiated is to be without imperative. The urgency of living is the desire of the Code to vitally persist, if not to flourish, or if nothing else, to spread. If technology is the handmaiden of this desire, then perhaps desire, even if modulated by society, is a production of the Code. Pepperell and Punt remind us that the new premise is often the old theory in disguise; and that the decided upon past is often panhandled as the new and multiplicitous tomorrow. Cast across generations, the circuit of technology, desire, and imagination they elucidate is memetic: "The imagination is prompted by human desire to modify the world through technology, which in turn prompts desire" (25).

Proposition Two is a characterization of "awareness." When considering that of which awareness consists, the old subject/object dialogue is again considered, from a Merleau-Pontyesque (1992) phenomenological perspective, albeit with a focus upon current technological circumstances; and all this, via the evocation of the metaphor of the membrane. The postdigital membrane is posited as the conceptualized ethereal "continuity between ideas, the active human body and aspects of the environment in which we exist" (39). Richard Dawkins (1989) might reveal this relationship as that between the gene and the meme.

In Proposition Three, we are greeted with a rendering of how it is that histories, predictions, and superstitions represent little more than "narratives of human imagination" (40). The aim here appears to be to iterate the idea that human experience and its communicata are contingencies, based at every moment "in the postdigital conception of time and space, an involuntary condition in which we witness the bi-directional flow of events from one side of the temporal axis to the other -- with access to neither side" (44). In other words, "we are eternally locked in the present" (45). One cannot help but sense a bit of latent Buddhist "what is important is this very instant" ideology in this conscious focusing upon the Moment and the "Be Here Now" viewpoint assumed by Pepperell and Punt.

Proposition Four again, if inexplicitly, draws upon a Buddhist position (e.g. No-Mind) which rejects the idea that language alone composes a milieu. In such a schema, one might say that language is one of the many "representations (that) invoke the presence of absent things, thus meeting and creating desires" (66). Pepperell and Punt's claim is that language is not a mystical essential component of Homo sapiens, but rather, a technology that is utilized to sew up and order a continually breaking-apart and recombining world. In order to apprehend the world, we must necessarily break it apart via language, that in turn, we then use to reconstruct it -- and recently, deconstruct it again.

Proposition Five: New machines elicit new ideas regarding differences between the human and the machine, and to a large extent, varying ideas are shaped via the biopolitical regime of research funding. For Pepperell and Punt (and most everyone else), metaphors have their limits (e.g. posthuman). In this proposition, they seek to explore how we are beyond machines by virtue of our emergent consciousness, that which cannot be created or effectively modeled, in their opinion. Their point in fact is, that when (if?) machines become conscious, a breach between Mysticism and Science will have been transcended, where the "posthuman" as a machine will truly materialize and exist, rather than the often thought scenario where the term "posthuman" is taken to mean something such as where Homo sapiens coevolve alongside our technologies into a biomediated post-H.sapiens product.

Proposition Six offers a bit of art theory. Is art essential to Homo sapiens? For Pepperell and Punt, the creation and recognition of the art object is the exercise of human signification as a technology of transcendence, a material codification of the "energy" of life as "an energetic resonance of the artist" (105). Art becomes one of the many locations (another being science) of "consensual consciousness," wherein the physical limits of the conscious flesh are transgressed via the materials of cultural transmission.

In Proposition Seven, we are introduced to some controversies of science, rationality, and logic, in relation to the metaphysics of the potentially unknowable. Richard Dawkins is cited (among others) as the propagating force behind the concept of the human as biomachine. It is not so much that they attempt to discredit the sociobiologists, as much as they seek to cultivate a Wilsonian (1998) "consilience" between the branches of knowing and intellection. Pepperell and Punt do not favor a model that views life as organized data, but rather prefer a model where the organic whole is not displaced by the abstracted representation.

Proposition Eight (i.e. "a recording is part of what it records") seeks to describe the contiguity of the human presence relative to objects, most excessively realized in the circulation of the fame currency of celebrity and its reception and trade among consumers of such products. The positing of the contiguity of cultural products with human being leads Pepperell and Punt to assert that the products of a culture exist as a kind of permeable "membrane of the imagination that merges two sets of circumstances" (136). On the one hand are the portrayal of events and on the other hand are the events surrounding the events, those "that make up the use, or reception, of the product (its means of distribution, viewing context, condition of the viewer listener, and so on)" (136-7).

Proposition Nine notices through a range of media (e.g. Madame Bovary, pornography, Lolita, The Giant of Cerne Abbas, etc.) a variety of human sexual transmissions indicative of the biomediation Pepperell and Punt find most imaginative in consensual codification. The "erotically charged representation" (155) is the most intimate nexus of desire and technology, an amalgamation of the wants (and needs) of a technologically informed signifying species. We cannot see a limit for desire, an endpoint on its horizon, but rather only a proliferation of desire's seemingly infinite means and hastening of gustatory ends.

Proposition Ten concludes Pepperell and Punt's foray into the feral milieu of postmodernity. With regard to the postdigital, Punt and Pepperell propose that we shall always be one step behind the real, no matter how fidelitous our technologies become, or how sophisticated our simulations grow to be. In reaching for an understanding of imagination, technology, and desire, they recognize the facility of the operational tools of reason, while acknowledging their impossible exchange for the real. The human species may exhibit its particular "boundaries, languages and regional identities, but these are essentially abstract constructions of human mentality imposed on the terrain. The earth below and the air above remain unbroken" (164). Similarly, Baudrillard (2001, p. 18):
    Now, we have almost no theoretical intuition of what has, without realizing it, become a quantum universe -- just as we never had anything but a dim theoretical awareness of the order of simulation into which our modern world long ago unwittingly passed, while retaining a blind faith in the idea of an objective reality. I would even say that it is this superstitious belief in -- this hysteresis of -- the "real" and the reality principle that is the true imposture of our times.
In seeking to move beyond the over-signification of everything, Pepperell and Punt seemingly seek to preserve the whole of the real, even while we digitize and account for all of its parts. The Postdigital Membrane is a theoretical textual location where the processually rampant over-digitization of everything stops to catch its metaphysical breath.

Jean Baudrillard, Impossible Exchange. New York: Verso, 2001.

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception. New York: Routledge, 1992.

E.O. Wilson, Consilience. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

Nicholas Ruiz III:
Nicholas Ruiz III is a graduate teaching instructor and doctoral candidate in the Interdisciplinary Program in the Humanities at Florida State University. His work has appeared in Noema Tecnologie e SocietÓ, Rhizomes.net, Media/Culture.org.au, The International Journal of Baudrillard Studies, Reconstruction,and elsewhere. He is also the editor of Kritikos.  <nr03@fsu.edu>

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