Machinic Modulations: New Cultural Theory & Technopolitics,
Editor: John Armitage
Publisher: London, UK: Taylor & Francis, 1999
Review Published: August 2000
"Reviewing Angelaki within Cultural Studies: A Crash Course in the Technology of Politics and the Politics of Technology"
When John Armitage announced the special issue of Angelaki as "machinic modulations: new cultural theory and technopolitics" on the key cultural studies listserv, cultstud-l, he drew this public response from my friend, the late Professor Ioan Davies (York University, Toronto): "It seems to me that those of us who are concerned with the culture of intellect, as opposed to a consumer knowledge which privileges most of the disciplines from which we have awkwardly separated ourselves, should seriously establish a point of connection in which we not only exchange ideas, but also provide spaces within which those ideas may play. Consequently within this forum, and any others that may appear and their connecting links, I dedicate myself to providing an agency for such a discourse. Reading ANGELAKI is a beginning. But surely all of you have a encore, or the beginning for a discourse. In the future, my Academic site, Addressing the Academy, will become the centre for this, but other suggestions are welcome" .
Unfortunately, Ioan Davies passed away suddenly and tragically in Cuba in February 2000. That was just prior to the Marxism Today conference before he could fully realize this latest of his many ventures. His invocation is one I take up, and others around me espouse. We take up Armitage's call as well. When Armitage announced this issue, he asked: "are cybernetic machines and postmodern cultural theories of technology now yielding to new *hypermodern* theories and the emergence of technopolitics? the writers assembled here present a variety of perspectives on contemporary technocultural and technopolitical practices, ranging across the key contributions of marxist, situationist,post-marxist, poststructuralist, postmodern, and hypermodern theorists" . And the journal itself really does pit human against machine, seeking to make transparent the processes of mind and action that we witless humans don't even bother to take for granted pounding out our dissertations, treatises, and academic fictions in a posthumanly wired world in which the machines have taken over the asylum. If they haven't, why would anyone publish such a collective homage to runaway technocracy?
No doubt the academic powerhouse and artistic pantheon assembled for this issue of Angelaki draws from among and represents the brightest and best of our time at the intersection of cultural theory, politics, and technology. Do they live up to Davies' call for connectivity between ideas and people, or do they privilege the exchange? Placed within a framework of Continental thinkers, the journal allows for a focus and a brilliance in the exchange: the texts are well placed, well situated, and contextualized by their editor. This situation does raise the question of writing to a stated goal or end, but there is little chance that the likes of Verena Andermatt Conley, McKenzie Wark, Michael A. Weinstein, Nicholas Zurbrugg, and the rest, could be swayed this way: simply put, Armitage caught their drift and spent three years assessing and amassing their work into a beautifully edited simulacra of a crash course on technology, culture, and politics. I have no doubt that many copies of the journal are on order at the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies: I'm just impressed that a couple made it into the hands of reviewers. Some of my colleagues have expressed eager interest in my well-thumbed copy of the text. And the new Graduate Programme in Communication & Culture at York University, with its strong focus on technological politics in communication, which starts in September with its first cohort of students but without its main proponent, my late friend, will be looking for its own entry into the discourse that is the subject of this latest edition of Angelaki.
Am I exaggerating when I say that the book is a crash course on everything from, say, David Cronenberg's Crash to Arthur and Marilouise Krokers' dissected Data Body? Not so much, really. Apparently as the apocalypse approaches (see Michael A. Weinstein's article on the impending global economic crisis), there is time to review everything from Wark's beautiful take on Marx, "All that is Solid Melts into Air" -- now "Airwaves" -- to several assays on Paul Virilio (Armitage's own specialization ), to an interview with the Critical Art Ensemble which asks about originality and value in production. Essential exchanges take place, and in the journey the journal attempts to address inequities in class and gender up front. Verena Andermatt Conley (author of 1993's Rethinking Technologies) contextualizes cyberfeminism, for example, from the fall of the Berlin Wall and the onset of globalization, with a comparison between subjectivity for Deleuze and Guattari and for Slavoj Zizek, who, in 1998, "bemoans the loss of Being, but from his own longing for closure -- that is, for universal schemas, based on mastery, castration, canonical masterpieces, traditional world-views and stable meaning freed from processual cyberfeminist experimentations. Cyberfeminists can use their machinic space to help them actualise virtual universes, to invent new subjectivities, to connect by opening new mental ecologies, to engage in transversal thinking between disciplines and institutions" (135). Indeed, the essays and the journal exemplify the call for interdisciplinarity and community.
Armitage proffers the divide between "New Cultural Theory" and "Technopolitics," although each section is clearly influenced by the other. But the former is used to neatly set the stage or perhaps set the theoretical table for the latter. How well is this split, if it is one, defined? Armitage states in his introduction that "for Marx and for Debord, for Derrida and for Nietzsche, for Benjamin and for Haraway, for Baudrillard and for all the contributors to section one of this special issue, the logic of technology is one of the most influential elements in the determination of new cultural practices" (7-8). Armitage then suggests that politics is being redefined by technology. The essays take it upon themselves to make or demonstrate comparisons between the study or practice of culture and the deployment or reception of technology. You might at this point suggest that, after Armitage and his contributors, I am essentializing either human or cybernetic experience. I found that the contributions of the artists in this issue of Angelaki did the most to both provide connectivity and bring the project down to earth: to our most deeply felt surfaces, kind of a theory for the people, a technopolis within the covers of the text. For example, the Critical Arts Ensemble interview that closes the book refers to two ongoing projects: a "process performance" entitled The Society for Reproductive Anachronisms (a take-off of the international Society for Creative Anachronisms, perhaps), "a faux activist organisation (SRA) that has the primary objective of stopping allmedical intervention in human reproduction"; and the development of "low-cost robots" "to appropriate heavily fortified public space for the purpose of contestational expression," that is, to leaflet, graffiti, and otherwise disrupt "spaces where a person doing such activities would face certain arrest" (200). But CAE comes right out and states that they do not "want to overstate the situation; we are just making toybots, but they are effective" (200).
This issue of Angelaki is replete with its own cultural disrupters. Mostly, they fire on all cylinders. The first part ends with Louise K. Wilson's "Stories from the Research Labs," including transcriptions of the "audio instructional soundtracks accompanying The Role of Vision and Neck Inputs during Adaptation to Motion Sickness Study," from a Montreal aerospace lab in the early 1990s. However, the heart of the journal, where it makes its transition from the section on cultural theory to the technopolitics part, is a little wanting.
The technopolitics section begins with what should be a seminal essay by Douglas Kellner, "Globalisation from Below: Toward a Radical Democratic Technopolitics." It proposes the use of new technologies for radical purposes on behalf of the marginalized and disparaged. While the essay could benefit from the grounding in class and gender studies that Angelaki does not misplace elsewhere, it does make some interesting if undeveloped points about worthwhile goals. Kellner speaks about roles for public intellectuals without demonstrating their status as either. He gave much the same talk at York University in a lecture I arranged earlier this year in memory of Ioan Davies -- they were friends as well. Perhaps this article would have benefited, as the lecture did, if it was more of an expression of radical democracy, the way the artists in other essays included live and breathe their work.
Each article in this journal ends with contact information for the authors and, in the case of its published interviews, for the interviewees as well. It may be a small thing, but recommendations for connectivity would ring fairly falsely without this simple touch, and the editors are to be thanked for finding space to include this useful information. As well, bibliographical citations by this journal's authors are complete and very useful.
There are essays in this collection that are more than amusing. Mark Dery (author of 1993's Flame Wars: the Discourse of Cyberculture) contributes "The Female Unix" which reviews the place of Sadie Plant's Zeroes + Ones: Digital Women + the New Technoculture, neatly attributing to Plant's work the same flaws as much of western male history, that is, that cyberfeminism is based on biological determinism. After Dery, Cathryn Vasseleu writes in "Touch, Digital Communication and the Ticklish" about the sense of touch in the world of digital technology, an important assessment of the way that the body will make its space in cultural and technic politics. (A recent conference at the Concordia University in Montreal, "Uncommon Senses," focussed on the other senses against the privileging of sight in art and culture.)
Will this book be of interest to non-academic types whose wretch index rises with the kind and level of jargon necessitated by these articles? Possibly, but will they search out this journal? I won't be persuading them to read Virilio or the Krokers. I avoid much of that myself, and I'm a technophile. But I do have a thing for Baudrillard -- and for jargon, if it is very well explicated and serves a useful purpose: the creation of some new way to explain the world we inhabit, or the worlds we create. (I study Kristeva, forgodsakes.) The essay in this collection that does that best is perhaps Kevin Robins' "Against Virtual Community for a Politics of Distance."
What would my friend Ioan have said about all this, in the end? Probably that connections are important, and that we should make them wherever we can but appreciate them for what they are. Many important theorists expand upon their contributions to technoculture within this journal, which invites scrutiny and study and in some cases, a real appreciation for exposition. On occasion, the Emperor has no clothes, but I'm willing to forgive her. She's only posthuman.
1. Ioan Davies, "(Fwd) [cultstud-l] ANGELAKI 4.2: MACHINIC MODULATIONS," Friday, November 26, 1999, message on "SPTnews" (SPTNEWS@YORKU.CA).
2. John Armitage, "[cultstud-l] ANGELAKI 4.2: MACHINIC MODULATIONS," November 26, 1999, message on "CULTSTUD-L: A listserv devoted to Cultural Studies." (firstname.lastname@example.org).
3. Armitage in fact arranged a mini-conference within the huge Third International Crossroads in Cultural Studies Conference, held in late June 2000, in Birmingham UK. "Paul Virilio I and II" were comprised of many of Angelaki 4.2's scholars, including UCLA star Douglas Kellner, Harvard's Verena Andermatt Conley, Nicholas Zurbrugg from DeMontfort UK. (Unfortunately, I missed these sessions, preparing for my hosting the following day of "Cultural Dialogues and Dialogic Cultures: Mikhail Bakhtin and the Communication of Cultural Studies I, II and III").
M. Michael Schiff:
M. Michael Schiff is a Ph.D. student in the Graduate Programme in Social & Political Thought at York University in Toronto, Canada. His dissertation in progress on Julia Kristeva and Mikhail Bakhtin is a mix of digital sorcery and scholarship. As well, he founded and co-edits j_spot the Journal of Social and Political Thought, and is issue editor of the current Vol. I, No. 2, "material / bodily / strata." <email@example.com>
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