specktral speculations

compassionate critique, anonymous inquiry, quantum lulzology

#15: Affect, Anonymity and Awareness: Learning in a Digital Environment

Below are condensed and transposed summaries of posts #1-#14. Special thanks to the anonymous users at /r/criticaltheory for their time, feedback and criticism.

Institutional Cut

My doctoral research project will explore the historical relations between perception, consciousness, agency and volition as experienced through digital communications technology and multimedia. A process akin to the explosion of ontological and metaphysical awareness as a result of the development of the written word in Ancient Greece, and the subsequent development of the printing press and dissemination of printed matter in the Enlightenment era in the West is presently unfolding globally, through digital representations of thought encoded and shared in online multimedia. Individual identities, subjectivities and perspectives remain hidden in plain sight and cybertext ‘speaks for itself’ amid vast postindustrial networks accessed by individuals living in cities around the globe, twenty-four hours a day. In what I conceive as the ‘anonymous mode,’ interstices that have always existed in and between the omnipresent evaluative, social, political, economic and academic systems and structures governing everyday life are becoming visible, accessible, usable–and exploitable, in confounding new ways. My investigation will begin by tracing and characterizing how the subjective anonymous perspective has been mediated through language and literature throughout history, in early ancient Greek primary texts, in the post-print era literature and culture and today, with accelerating intensity and visibility in cybercultural conjunctures like http://www.facebook.com, http://www.reddit.com and http://www.4chan.org.

Bruno Latour’s actor-network approach will inform my examination of how relations in semiotic networks affect meaning in and between domains of discourse, consciousness and the physical world. How are these relations specifically performed? Which ideas gain traction with the majority, which decay? In the 2013 book/digital project An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence, Latour enacts the very perspective that my work focuses on analyzing with his appeal to the reader to work with him on his inquiry. By describing the forces and intensities affectively exchanged between human and non-human actors in conscious and unconscious relations, we may trace their multiple becomings and fluid performances and make new meaning. This affective semantic data mediates every experience of being in the world, and is what Latour describes in his first book We Have Never Been Modern, simultaneously “real, like nature, narrated, like discourse, and collective, like society” (6). These traditionally ephemeral, difficult to perceive relations can be interrogated by following their affects across the various domains of experience in which they appear. For the first time in history, these abstract critical relations are achieving stability and visibility, suspended in the digital economy opened up by the Internet protocol suite, through the mechanical organization of cybertext and multimedia circulating in online, constituting cybercultural discourse. Affect generated by the constant, fluid relations of anonymous users online can even be found at times sticking in and between the domains of personal experience, discourse and even moving through the social life of users away from the keyboard.

Rolan Barthes initially described ‘myth’ as a second-order system of signification that presents itself as natural and eternal but is actually an expression of a historically specific and contingent ideological vision of the world. Barthes realized that the problem in trying to ‘demystify’ myth or construct any fully formed ‘semiological science’ is that any such project coheres tenuously around the paradoxical permeability and transparency of critique through the accessible language and critical discourse in print society. Likewise, any objective study of a social subject or phenomena using printed language is as intrinsically unstable and incoherent as social and cultural discourse itself. Culture and its producers continuously evolve and adapt regardless what critical insights or formerly invisible truths are made visible. To acknowledge and account for the inherent paradox in his own unfolding critical endeavour to construct a ‘science of signs,’ in his late work Barthes develops his concept of ‘the Neutral’ as a potential tertiary perspective from which to understand the paradoxical cultural production of Doxa or myth.  Barthes’ poststructuralist work sought to better understand, analyze and use the power of self-reflexive meta-critical theoretical insight in his practical encounters with concepts like Doxa and in his local literary and cultural economy but he died in 1980 before finishing his inquiry and long before the Internet. It is my contention that the neutral perspective sought by Barthes, is presently accessible, knowingly or not, by users operating online in the anonymous mode.

Also essential to my work is the seminal 1997 study Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature by Espen J. Aarseth. In it, he traces a topology and genealogy of ergodic literature which focuses on “the consumer, or user, of the text” as an integral figure who traverses the mechanical organization and structure of a cybertext, raising the interpretive stakes in their capacity to produce various meanings and interpretations (1). In cybertext, the struggling internal tensions of interpretative insight and narrative control demand that users make crucial decisions in order to understand and experience narrative. The improvisational effort, intervening energy, and emotional investment circulating in and between users and cybertexts amplify the affective capacities of the most engaged users. In this way, ergodic literature “incarnates” cybertextual affectivity in a way traditional text cannot and increases the ability of users to intimately know and experience narrative–and each other–in new ways (4).

Since online anonymity exists on a spectrum from anonymous to authentic, my work will focus on three specific sites, which allow users access to varying degrees of anonymity. At the authentic pole of the spectrum I will analyze the social network www.facebook.com. Specifically, the protocols that allow users to create profiles, mechanisms by which users may organize themselves and interact with others, the evolving ‘Statement of Rights and Responsibilities’ document which all users are subject to, the relations between user profiles and advertisements, and the functionality of the website’s front-end network architecture. I will also conduct close textual analyses of the content generated found in my personal profile from 2004 to today to trace the development of my own anonymous awareness as a user. As a neutral site near the center of the spectrum I will examine the wiki-style content aggregator www.reddit.com. I will analyze the protocol which determines the most visible content, the ‘karma’ system as the sole means of identifying pseudonymous user accounts, the functionality of the website’s user-generated ‘subreddit’ and ‘multireddit’ content sorting systems and the ‘reddiquette’ document, as an informal expression of reddit’s community values as written by the community itself. Because of reddit’s unique user friendly functionality and accessibility, I will also conduct critical textual analyses of the most popular posts, user accounts, comments and subreddits. On the anonymous end of the spectrum my work will examine infamous and oldest, Standard English, online cybercultural aggregator on the Internet, www.4chan.org, specifically the ‘Random’ themed sub-board ‘/b/’ . Since users on 4chan have no profile or account, the subject of my analysis will be the various ‘threads’, or dialogic strings of images and cybertext created by anonymous users themselves over various durations of time. I will also analyze 4chan’s front-end network architecture and sorting protocol which determines which posts become most visible and how long they can be used. The content on /b/ is notoriously violent, offensive and illegal, my analysis seeks to approach this problem as a symptom of extreme anonymity, rather than as the object of inquiry and analysis.

Although useful in its own right, contemporary scholarship on cyberculture (Coleman, is largely conducted by researchers limited by disciplinary institutional boundaries, protocol and assumptions. McKenzie Wark calls for an ‘antidisciplinary’ approach to cyberculture studies arguing, “critical theory that does not reflect on its own conditions of existence rapidly becomes hypocritical theory,” but I believe this resistance to disciplinary knowledge is counterproductive (69). By appropriating and practically deploying elements of traditional critical theoretical frameworks from the fields of psychology (James, Freud, Tomkins and Jung), affect studies (Sedgewick, Massumi), French poststructuralism (Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze), quantum mechanics (Russell, Schrödinger, Bohm), narratology (Genette), communication studies (McLuhan, Ong), hermeneutic/transcendental phenomenology (Husserl, Heidegger), pragmatism (Whitehead), as well as Buddhism, Taoism and Mysticism, my work seeks to engage the geographically, temporally, and institutionally boundless phenomena of cyberculture on its own terms, rhizomatically, in all directions. By bracketing what these frameworks take as their objects and why, and focusing on how their inquiries methodologically unfold, new meaning becomes visible, accessible and useful from historically limited and isolated linear print perspective texts, written by authors in isolation and read passively by readers in solitude. In this way my work will access semantic nuance that has always already existed in literature and culture, transmitted through the endless process of reading an writing across history, hidden in plain view, just beyond the grasp of the assumptions, perspectives and experiences of human beings living in a pre-digital environment.

Following Roland Barthes’ semiological analyses of both high and low, linguistic and visual material culture and Bruno Latour’s pragmatic networked approach, my work will draw critically, and gain useful vitally by learning from an adisciplinary field of theory. By keeping my work online and accessible to the public (at specktral.wordpress.com), my project will use any feedback or comments it receives to learn from any mistakes, assumptions or gaps and reconfigure its ideas accordingly as the theoretical research process unfolds in practice. My research calls for and enacts a new mode for cybercultural critique, a material semiotic discourse analysis, rooted in ones own intimate personal experiences online and away from the keyboard. My own experiences as an extremely active anonymous user for the last fifteen years gives me access to this inside perspective, and my academic focus on literary and critical theory, including a self-directed program of reading under the supervision of York’s Marcus Boon, ‘The Concept of Anonymity Online and in the World’ taught me how to externalize my inside perspective in an accessible and academically rigorous fashion. Under the supervision of McMaster’s Anne Savage, a SSHRC grant would give me the economic stability to continue my research and help generate useful and practical academic scholarship that benefits anyone who uses the Internet.

As Internet use steadily increases across the world, a practical new theory from the users perspective will become more necessary, valuable and useful to anyone who ventures online for an extended period of time. The vast majority of traditional critical frameworks (even the most powerful ones) are alone insufficient to interrogate the boundless experiences and phenomena encountered in the digital environment because that were conceived, written and experienced by print perspective authors– in our increasingly digital world, the rules of what a text, author or reader can do are becoming fundamentally reconfigured without regard to any such limitations. By networking elements of various frameworks, freeing them from their traditional objects and allowing inquiries to roam across domains by following the way users are affected, the traditional dissonance between theory and practice can resonate in harmony, in an effort to understand and experience the new potentials of learning possible in a digital environment.

 

Director’s Cut

According to Statistics Canada, as of 2010, 80% of Canadians aged 16 years and older use the Internet, one-third go online with a wireless handheld device and almost one-half of users (47%) have been online for 10 years or more. Canadians have the time, facility and interest to use the Internet more than the vast majority of the world. This statistic amounts to a simple fact: those with the most practical experience achieve the most greatest expertise. Today, what more and more Canadians like myself are practicing is the art of expression and interpretation through the digital medium of cyberculture. Blogs, text messages, social networks, email, multimedia clips, wiki’s, music, images, games, commerce; there are innumerable ways of interacting and exchanging with each other and the world by encoding our thoughts into transmittable electronic data.There are also a myriad of technological tools to multiply the capacities and potentialities of this new mode’s ability to convey meaning in historically impossible and potentially problematic ways. From playful: keyboards let us turn innocence (‘let’s meet up’) into desire (‘let’s meet up ;), the semicolon/right-bracket ‘emoticon’ implies a hidden agenda; to threatening: smartphones give us unlimited access to facts in an equally unlimited number of physical situations: the potential deceit of a citizen who allegedly runs a stop sign that ‘wasn’t visible’,  is neutralized by the looming presence of Google maps on the prosecutors open, visible and waiting laptop; to lethal: as in Werner Herzog’s 2013 short film commissioned by AT&T, From One Second To The Next, where he documents the effects of text messaging while driving by sharing tragic stories of both perpetrators and victims of vehicular manslaughter. The PSA, which was shown to over 40, 000 schools across America opens with the staggering statistic: “Over 100 000 accidents a year involve drivers who are texting. The numbers are climbing sharply”. Users are learning to play with, distract themselves and repurpose digitally encoded language, multimedia and knowledge in mind-bending new ways.

My doctoral research project will explore the historical relations between perception, consciousness, agency and volition as experienced through communications technology and multimedia. I will make the case that a process akin to the explosion of ontological and metaphysical awareness as a result of the development and spread of the written word in Ancient Greece, and the subsequent development of the printing press and dissemination of printed matter in the Enlightenment era in the West is presently unfolding globally, through digital representations of thought encoded in multimedia. Cybercultural representations shimmer and pulse with life as they are created, remixed, shared and recreated over time. Users identities remain hidden in plain sight amid the vast networks access by individuals living in postindustrial cities around the globe. In what I conceive as the ‘anonymous mode’, interstices that have always existed in and between the omnipresent evaluative, social, economic, and academic systems and structures governing everyday life are becoming visible, accessible, usable–and exploitable, in confounding new ways. My investigation will begin by tracing and characterizing how the anonymous perspective has been mediated through language (in cybertext and multimedia cyberculture) throughout history, in early ancient Greek primary texts, in the post-print era literature and culture and today, with accelerating and oscillating intensity and visibility in cybercultural aggregators like http://www.facebook.com, http://www.reddit.com and http://www.4chan.org.

The focus of my project will inquire into how gradients of anonymity in ‘always-on’ material (between objects and things) semiotic (between ideas and concepts) relations evolve into palimpsestic cybertexts with increasing affective capacities. To what extent do the bipolar fields of anonymity and authenticity impact the emergence of coherent, majority-supported, mutually imbricated, meta-critical cybertexts across the web and the world in real time? Specifically, what events and circumstances generate visceral, international reactions among large numbers of anonymous users? How is this process translating into real-world political action?

Bruno Latour’s actor-network approach will inform my examination of how relations in material semiotic networks affect meaning in and between domains of discourse, consciousness and the world. How are these relations specifically performed? Which ideas gain traction with the majority, which decay? Latour’s 2013 project An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence will itself function in concert with an online apparatus allowing inquiry summed up in the book to be pursued and modified (used) by interested readers who will act as co-inquirers and co-authors of the final results. What effect will this process, already affecting scholarship, have on pedagogy and how can pedagogy apply and learn from such processes? My thesis will follow a similar trajectory, fourteen exploratory essays can already be found and engaged with online at www.specktral.wordpress.com.

In AIME Latour, conscious of the contemporary digital dimension, enacts the very perspective that my work focuses on analyzing with his amicable and personable appeal to the reader to work with him on his inquiry. He opens with a conversation that maintains an anonymous perspective and identifies actors by their function: “They’re sitting around a table, some fifteen French industrialists responsible for sustainable development in various companies, facing a professor of climatology, a researcher from the Collège de France” (1). While describing the specifics of his anecdotal narrative, Latour parenthetically interjects often to express and make visible, his personal perspective, biases and intentions. The amount of commentary Latour includes in his anecdote helps the reader become aware of their own unrealized assumptions as his rhetorical questions evoke contemplation, while parsing the tone of his commentary further neutralizes and suspends the readers judgement: Is he being sarcastic or genuine? Do I agree with him or not?). This technique allows a careful and interested reader to entertain two sides of an argument simultaneously. Latour’s anecdote serves to illustrate a difficult theoretical concept unfolding in practice, the idea that belief in scientific certainty (“Science with a capital S,” as Latour calls it) is sometimes worshiped as truth and at others is tactically doubted to gain power in a debate: “When one appeals to Science, there is no need for debate, because one always finds oneself back in school, seated in a classroom where it is a matter of learning or else getting a bad grade” (3).

By describing the forces and intensities affectively exchanged between human and non-human actors in conscious and unconscious relations, we may trace their multiple becomings and fluid performances and make new meaning. This affective semantic data shimmers everywhere and mediates every experience of being in the world, and is what Latour described in his first book We Have Never Been Modern, simultaneously “real, like nature, narrated, like discourse, and collective, like society” (6). These traditionally ephemeral, difficult to perceive relations can be interrogated by following their affects across the various domains of experience in which they appear. For the first time in history, these abstract critical relations are achieving stability in the Internet protocol suite, and through the mechanical organization of cybertext and media omnipresent in online material (between objects and things) semiotic (between concepts and structures) discourse. Affect generated by the constant, fluid relations of anonymous users online can even be found at times sticking in and between the domains of personal experience, discourse and even moving through social life of users away from the keyboard.

Crucial to my work is the seminal 1997 study Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature by Espen J. Aarseth. In it, he traces a topology and genealogy of ergodic literature to the accretive ancient Chinese text, the I Ching. Ergodic literature focuses on “the consumer, or user, of the text” as an integrated and integral figure who traverses the mechanical organization and structure of a cybertext, raising the interpretive stakes in their capacity to produce various meanings and interpretations (1). Since modern life, from birth to death, is a continuous process of interpreting experiences and representations of experiences, what are the ontologic implications of digital ergotic media on those most proficient users, and on the rest of us? Whereas a reader’s abstract work traversing traditional linear texts is trivial (eye movement and page turning), ergodic users’ work is vital as they traverse cybertexts in nontrivial, affective performances. In cybertext, the struggling internal tensions of interpretative insight and narrative control demand users make crucial decisions in order to understand and experience narrative. The improvisational effort, intervening energy and emotional investment circulating in and between users and cybertexts amplifies the affective capacities of the most engaged users. In this way, ergodic literature “incarnates” cybertextual affectivity in a way traditional text cannot and increases the power and ability for users to intimately know and experience narrative–and each other–in new ways (4).

Following Roland Barthes’ structural demystification of the semiological process of making meaning, the term ‘user’ can be more usefully deployed to describe the interaction between individuals and cybertext. The word ‘user’ is defined in the OED as “A person who has or makes use of a thing… a person who employs or practices something,” it is the practical dimension of being an online user that is becoming increasingly important to focus on as people spend more and more of their waking lives, engaging, sharing and communicating online. The shift in understanding Aarseth proposes is recursive since knowledge inherent in any text can be interpreted as a phenomenon of habitual practice rather than a definite inscription to be completely possessed. Texts are encountered in multimedia, in different ways by each interested individual, for different reasons. When people relate, communicate or exchange ideas online, the traditional authoritative systems and structures of economic, hegemonic, judiciary, political or otherwise asymmetrical power-knowledge relations become virtually useless. A user’s online anonymity, like a given individual’s self-awareness in everyday life, there can be no absolute empirical measure of this condition, only gradients and degrees of possibility and potential. Some users are more aware of their perceived anonymity in relation to their local community than others. Some of those anomalous users are twice exceptional in their ability to both be aware of their own anonymity, how it is perceived from within a local community and how that perception is oriented and perceived from the extrinsic perspective a global majority community of users.

These extra-capable anomalous users or ‘powerusers’ tend to focus on and perceive semantic nuance that is usually dismissed as noise or meaningless static by the greater majority. Semantic nuance is any hidden meaning transmitted tacitly, without intentional perception or reception that exists in the form of attitudes, assumptions or value judgments (Doxa) rooted in unrecognized fears or desires. For these anomalous users the obvious binary oppositional stances, tactics and orientations, which appear in surfeit abundance among the majority of users expressions not only cease to matter, but become virtually meaningless. The near-invisible codes circulating in and between anonymous users today in cybercultural discourse is nothing new, and can be found inherited throughout history, circulating in language and cultural expressions across the spectrum of experience.

In his 1956 book Mythologies, Barthes describes “myth” as a second-order system of signification that presents itself as natural and eternal but is actually an expression of a historically specific and contingent ideological vision of the world. Barthes realizes that the problem in trying to ‘demystify’ myth or construct any fully formed ‘semiological science’ is that any such project coheres tenuously around the paradoxical permeability and transparency of critique through the accessible language and critical discourse in a society. Language can convey infinite meaning in infinite ways. Likewise, any objective study of a social subject or phenomena using printed language is as intrinsically unstable and incoherent as social and cultural discourse itself. Culture and its producers continuously evolve and adapt regardless what critical insights or formerly invisible truths are made visible. To acknowledge and account for the inherent paradox in his own unfolding critical endeavour to construct a ‘science of signs,’ Barthes examines the binary “Doxa/paradoxa” in Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes (which could be read as a precursor to the blog) and in the last series of lectures he ever delivers develops his concept of ‘the Neutral’ as a potential tertiary perspective from which to understand the paradoxical cultural production of Doxa.  Barthes’ poststructuralist work sought to better understand, analyze and use the power of self-reflexive meta-critical theoretical insight in his practical encounters with concepts like Doxa and in his local literary and cultural economy but he died in 1980 before finishing (and long before the the Internet). It is my contention that the neutral perspective sought by Barthes, is presently being occupied, knowingly or not, by users operating online in the anonymous mode.

In the anonymous mode, Doxa (myth, stereotype, the status quo) becomes a visible and accessible semantic structure to be ergodically traversed, recognizable by its hidden yet recurrent and popular patterns of signification. In this way, the anonymous user is able to occupy a second-order orientation that lies outside traditional binary oppositions and obtain a perspective inaccessible and inconceivable to Barthes. By recognizing recurrent patterns in ones own thinking (preserved in the form of cybercultural representations) and critically resisting them, anonymous users tacitly question the omnipresent Doxa/paradoxa oppositions of modern life and achieve access to new modes of understanding, awareness, agency and volition. The much misunderstood ‘hacktivist collective’ Anonymous is one such eruption of users in this mode of being. The neutral is a step back from the primary term which is violence. In the anonymous mode, semantic violence is neutralized and new meaning becomes affectively perceptible and useful.

Both opposing sides of reality–fact and fiction, truth and falsity, Doxa and paradoxa, as well as both poles on the perceivable spectrum of experience–the virtual and the actual–become simultaneously accessible and perceptible from the anomalous, anonymous perspective. At the virtual/invisible end of the spectrum reside the metaphysical, rational, affective, spatiotemporal, cognitive, emotional experiences, and on the opposite actual/visible end are the physical, material, and sensory experiences (tactile, olfactory, auditory, gustatory, visual). Powerusers able to take an orthographic perspective are learning to unfocus on the obvious, visible data of physical, material experience (treating it as static or noise) in order to affectively perceive the subtle, inverse, invisible, interstitial semantic data conveyed as tone, truth value and bias in the anonymous mode. This subtle, concealed signal is always present in human expression, and can be perceived most accurately in popular, repetitive cybercultural multimedia expressions commonly identified as image memes, retweets, likes, etc. In the anonymous mode all users (but especially powerusers) ergodically navigate cyberculture in what Phillip K. Dick calls ‘orthogonal time’ where, “there is no before versus now versus after; there [are] only degrees of depth or truth or actualization of crypte morphosis” (February 13, 1975, 4:166). Dick later traces this last concept back to the Presocratics: “The secret is to view something ‘from the other side’ and not as it is–overtly. Heraclitus’ ‘latent form’–crypte morphosis where the concealed truth and hence kingdom lies–Zen realizes this. Paradox.” (October-November 1980, 1:23).  It is this historically ephemeral, concealed, visible yet invisible dimension of reality that becomes perceptible in the anonymous mode among the infinite and always expanding and boundless field of multimedia cybercultural representation.

By appropriating elements of traditional critical theoretical frameworks from the fields of psychoanalysis (Freud, James, Jung), affect theory (Sedgewick, Massumi), French poststructuralism (Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze), quantum mechanics (Russell, Schrödinger, Bohm), narratology (Genette), communication (McLuhan), hermeneutic/transcendental phenomenology (Husserl, Heidegger), pragmatism (Whitehead) as well as Buddhism, Taoism and Mysticism in a new way, by not focusing on what they inquire and why, but how their inquiries and analyses are made–I intend to reveal new meaning (from historically limited and isolated materials like print, written by isolated authors and read by readers in solitude) that has always already existed hidden in plain view, beyond the grasp of the biases of the human body and its ability to perceive, experience and express reality. Following Roland Barthes’ semiological analyses of both high and low, linguistic and visual material culture, I draw critically from an adisciplinary field theory, incorporating and extending various frameworks to fashion an new mode of analysis.  Extending Barthes’ literary semiology, the object of my research calls for a new material semiotic discourse (or cyberculture) analysis that exists outside of the majority of historical limitations (space-time, logic, the five senses, capital) which have always affected literary, cultural, and critical theoretical production and consumption without acknowledgement or recognition. By virtue of the new medium cyberculture as both subject and object of this new practical theory, and the always-on structure of interactive networked communications technology these historical limits on perception and expression are increasingly becoming more obvious and then bracketed by users engaging in the anonymous mode.

 

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