compassionate critique, anonymous inquiry, quantum lulzology
In “Encoding, Decoding,” Stuart Hall describes the economy of interpretive work in relation to televisual broadcast media, the viewer and contemporary research of the late 1970’s. For the contemporary analyst, Hall’s position is paradoxical throughout as he is both writing from the subjective position that resists the traditional theoretical “sender/message/receiver” conceptualizations of the time, while remaining unknowingly stuck within the conceptual gyre of history. Hall’s attempts to resist this tradition are thwarted by his use of the same assumptions he endeavours to rectify. Hall relies on the assumption that what he perceives to be “useful,” “normal,” “effective,” “obvious” and “meaningful,” coincides and reduplicates the subjective perceptions of the “we,” “our” and “the researchers,” to whom he implicitly appeals throughout the paper. This paradox however is only noticeable to a contemporary reader who has had the benefits of the passage of time, exposure to the various evolutions of critical interpretation and access to contemporary communications technology like the Internet.
Twenty years ago David Harvey begins the chapter “Postmodernism” in his book The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, with a significant and succinct insight into the relevance and impact of theoretical evolution over time:
Over the last two decades ‘postmodernism’ has become a concept to be wrestled with, and such a battleground of conflicting opinions and political forces that it can no longer be ignored. (39)
If postmodern theory (and the twenty or so years of theoretical evolution since) has taught us anything, it is that internal and external conflict, complex crisis, fragmented meaning and addictive, subjective rationalization have become some of the primary operating assumptions (socially, discursively or otherwise) in our increasingly globalized world.
Even at the time of Hall’s writing, the complexification of material (between objects and things) semiotic (between concepts and structures) interpretative modalities looms daunting and ominous over his thought. He gestures towards this confusion throughout but quickly moves past it in order to assert his own subjective, ‘more (and useful)’ explanation rather than risk of seeming the fool (128). The wonderful irony of offering and writing what Hall deems “useful” in parenthesis, appended by the conjunction “and,” is even more meaningful to a contemporary reader. Hall’s fear of appearing foolish in the eyes of his implied readers is his subjective blind spot. This gap is made most obvious (and ironic) in his discussion around “the (ideological) effect of concealing the practices of coding” (132). Rather than explore the merits of his confusion, Hall relies on parenthetical textual gesticulation before retreats to the comfortable support of an implied audience, “But we must not be fooled by appearances,” Hall writes, because if ‘we’ do, presumably his whole argument would appear to fall apart and itself become meaningless. Hall’s subsequent recourse to the Saussurean notion of the arbitrariness of the sign is a reasonable move and the only widely accepted or available means of justification at Hall’s moment in the history of theoretical evolution. With the benefit of the passage of time and with access to nuanced evolutions and expansions in theoretical interpretation since, a contemporary analyst can assume the position of their own implied foolishness, which has become intimate to contemporary modern life and in doing so, try to pay attention to confusion because, well, what is there to lose?
The rules and regulations of modern cultural, discursive and capital economies have become negotiable by the info-democratization of the Internet, as such the only soluble currency left to modern individuals is their time and they way they use it. By paying, in attention, to particular matters of concern, especially ones thought to be useless, problematic or confusion. And with the benefit of having instant access to the vast databases of information and other users online, anonymous users are newly able to generate interesting, useful and unexpected meaning from traditional sources that have been obscured by history and the isolated subjectivities of authoritative authorship, capital investment or discursive frameworks by side stepping the ubiquitous domination truth-power-knowledge relations of modern codes, systems and structures online.
Hall’s analysis comes very close to acknowledging the contemporary modern user’s eventual turn to embracing foolishness in his closing discussion of the oppositional code. One can only assume that Hall feels he “must” term the “oppositional code” as such, because he is effectively trapped in history and subject to the powerful circulations power-force relations of his particular time and place in the world (138). Free from the historical assumptions of Hall’s implied audience and the posturing the authoritative approval of his local community (presumable academics), the anonymous online user instead embraces their periphery position and is able to neutralize the constant mediation of violent, ideological or hegemonic dominance which has become naturalized by paying attention to whatever whimsical, esoteric confusion appeals amid the constant, monotony of cybercultural capital.
Today, Hall’s historical, theoretical positions of the hypothetical “professional,” “negotiated” and “oppositional” codes may be subsumed into what could be termed the ‘user’ code. The term ‘user code’ is deployed to unshackle Hall’s astute, yet historically unrealizable observation that “He/she [who] detotalizes the message in the preferred code in order to retotalize the message within some alternative framework of reference,” and creates “significant political moments,” by reframing the interpretive stakes as subjective, intimate, essential, accessible and newly possible. Even Hall’s use of the hybrid pronoun “He/she” connotes the contemporary turn to operating, knowingly or not, in the anonymous (androgynous) user mode. The modern anonymous user code allows new critical moments of political agency free from history and the oppositional binarism that assumes there is always some better, greater, more just war, hegemony or agenda that can replace the existing state of affairs.
Modernity is all war. It is crisis and it is meaningless. Hall is able to glimpse this insight in his criticism of the professional code’s “conflicts, contradictions and even misunderstandings [that] regularly arise between the dominant and the professional significations and their signifying agencies” (137). By using the modern user code Hall’s historical, theoretical conceit, is free to become a practical, contemporary operating assumption for users online and in the world. In the user mode of existence, new forms of interpretive dexterity, flexibility and creativity are opened up and given attention, and potential blinders of historical assumptions and their staid modes of opposition, resistance and contingent defiance may be ignored.
By moving with this tenuous assumption as their operating protocol, anonymous users are able to stabilize their various, disparate subjectivities and achieve new, actual political agency and aesthetic expression. Anonymously dodging and weaving through the tiny gaps which inevitably open up in and between the interstices of systems and structures of modernity, users become able to use each other and modernities systems, (use in the sense of play, not of abuse) to recognize and bring their individual subjectivities to bear upon one another. By virtue of this intimate, active and omnipresent interpretive, interpersonal work sharing fears, pains, guilts, hopes, desires, moralities, pleasures, loves and agencies, the user becomes able to understand, that it is the accumulation and volume of shared differences and experiences that mediates across the disparate subjective conditions of a given community, and when operating in sync rather than in opposition- can be a powerful new force. From the accretion of these virtual choices made online tends to emerge anomalies. These anomalous users with particular capacities are relating online in gradients of self-awareness and anonymity, and activating the power of anonymous user volition and motivating and enabling new modes of becoming, which are able to affect actual, unified, coherent, meta-critical anonymous user’s hyper-awareness is powerful, is possible and is effective.
Hall places agency throughout his paper in the processes (or codes) which are designed to allow, permit and restrict movement and as a result ends up playing by the very rules of modernity he is attempting to demystify. Although bringing in Saussurian linguistics, Marxist materialism and Roland Barthes’ early semiotic theory to bear on the economies of interpretive work, Hall remains trapped by his historical position, a conceit he freely admits in the first word of his paper, “Traditionally…” (128). Hall assumes contingency of the process of use, when in fact no “normal,” contingent process exists. What makes a communicative circuit ever totally “complete”? Who determines its finitude or efficacy? Stuart Hall? “The Researchers”? The mystical “professionals” or “elites”? What about the rest of us? These contentious assumptions regarding the qualities of moral or substantive character that Hall relies on throughout, are the hallmarks of his own situation and modern subjectivity.
It is that very feeling, that unspoken (unspeakable?) urge to assume that ours in particular is a more privileged position than others in the world that traps us in the gyre of modernization. For the fool however, even false appearances, knowingly or not, can become meaningful. By sharing and exchanging experiences of so-called falseness, assemblages of fools become able to relate, empathize and share the great burden of modern foolishness which is always already trust upon them by themselves and the global populations of fools and non-fools alike.
Online, in material semiotic cybertextual discourse, vast, heterogeneous communities of global users, existing alone in gradients of known and unknown foolishness, are free to becomes a local community of anonymously foolish modern users. Under the neutralizing veil of anonymity, the panoptic moralizing judgment of modernization becomes diffused and bearable. Relieved from this omnipresent critical modern experience, users are able to communicate, articulate and act (both online and in the world) in new and effective modes, free (to greater or lesser extents) from inherited fears and historical assumptions. Online anonymous users may cry aloud from the void in cybertext:
Heeeeeeey! Everyone look at me! I’m a fool! What is so terrible about being a fool?! Yes I am a fool, does that make my life any less “meaningful” or “important”? Not to me is doesn’t–nor does it to all my fellow fools alive in the world RIGHT NOW! Isn’t that right fellow fools?
And in response, a torrent of support from the implied anonymous audience comes in the form of ‘likes,’ ‘tweets,’ ‘posts,’ ‘pics,’ ‘clips’ and ‘links’. This support is real, it resonates, circulates and proliferates mainly because it feels good. It feels something like love, and so it spreads. Today, modern fools online are newly able to become aware of their shared, isolated, modern subjective position, their humanity in ways Hall could not have imagined. As they do, the possibilities of new forms of mobility, agency and being multiplies, becomes stronger and more stable–first among those users brave enough to risk acknowledging their own foolishness, and then hopefully by the rest of us.
Hall’s perspective is at a distance from the contemporary analyst as he is trapped by his historical moment. In his world, communications technology in the Mass Media era was commandeered by corporate, professional and elitist interests. Media was merely audio-visual and present in peoples lives only through the print and advertising industries, network cable television and Hollywood. With the technological evolution of the Internet, came an explosion of individual, user to user exchange, communication and foci of interest. This material semiotic big bang is still very much reforming every aspect of modern life in the globalized, industrialized world. Online, users traces of communication exist in cybertext, free from the limitations of history, temporality, materiality and subjectivity. These footprints can be analyzed with respect to how users use material semiotic cybertextual discourse, and what techniques and strategies are generating the most interest in new, creative and effective ways. By pursuing enquiries in this fashion, the contemporary analyst may use the users mode of analysis to make meaning from entropy, and articulate particular idiosyncratic orders amidst the apparent chaos and say something that actually resonates with their own personal experiences in modern life.
Today, experienced, creative and interested analysts can perceive relations that exist in the interstices between the modern modes of signifying codes which Hall usefully describes in his important paper. By paying attention to the mediation and affect in economies of interpretative work unfolding between users online and in the world, the contemporary analyst may operate under the user’s assumption that the existing modern codes of order are not actually total, and do not compel their personal, subjective interests. But instead, users see these codes as opportunities to think, understand and become in new, different and creative ways. Contemporary analysts attuned to this peculiar, if not foolish impulse to turn abuse of use into playful use, are more able to engage in the user mode and perceive the mediation of this affect in and among the economies of contemporary cybertextual communicative exchange. In this way, it becomes possible to make new meaning from the violent chaos of modern material semiotic power-truth relations online and in the world, and to reveal and trace the important mediation of affect in and among new emerging forms of culture, politics, aesthetics and ethics generated, knowingly or not, by individuals operating in the user mode of existence.
I am currently embarking on a four-year mission to complete a PhD in English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University. I'm also engaged to my beautiful, cosmic fiancé, to whom all my work is dedicated. My research focuses on describing and theorizing how the concept of anonymity works (from the inside) in order to better understand the way users online impact each other and the world away from the keyboard. My theories can be found on my blog, specktral speculations in their nascent and always mutating form. All writings are 'copyright', contact me if you have any questions or jokes.
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