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The Culture of Information
ENGL 25 Winter 2003, Alan Liu
Notes for Class 22

This page contains materials intended to facilitate class discussion (excerpts from readings, outlines of issues, links to resources, etc.). The materials are not necessarily the same as the instructor's teaching notes and are not designed to represent a full exposition or argument. This page is subject to revision as the instructor finalizes preparation. (Last revised 3/3/03 )

Preliminary Class Business

Finishing Up with Neuromancer

My argument last time about human identity as choice, commitment, and the "meat":

  • Case's journey of self-discovery (pp. 56, 152, 239-40, 262-63)

  • Significance of the "meat":

    • an assertion of human vs. "transhuman" or "posthuman" identity:

      cf., N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (1999)

    • a redemption of the notion of "corporate" identity:

      "corporate" [Latin corporatus, past participle of corporareto, make into a body, from corpus body]

      "corporation" "A body that is granted a charter legally recognizing it as a separate legal entity having its own rights, privileges, and liabilities distinct from those of its members" (American Heritage Dictionary)

      Gibson's fundamentalist view of the corporation: a regrounding of corporate existence in the individual human body

Neuromancer: Corporate Identity in the Postindustrial Age

Does the novel imagine a redeemed identity for the corporate organization in its larger sense as well? (Is the novel an alternative Workplace 2000 or The Virtual Corporation?)

A review of the novel's meditations on the corporate form:

  • The atavistic clan-corporation using a technology of computers and cyrogenics: (pp. 203, 173)

  • Marie-France Tessier's vision of a new kind of corporation using a technology of computers and cloning: (pp. 217, 229)
A review of the "dance" metaphor in the novel: (pp. 16, 44, 116, 249, 262)

A hypothesis:

Corporate Form IT Form Identity Work
Existing multinational, postindustrial corporations The network: "cyberspace," "matrix" Networked identity: individuals as nodes in a networked whole Postindustrial business, knowledge work, "Biz"
Ashpool vision of future corporations Anti-networking, ICE, Turing law check on Wintermute & Neuromancer Incestuous, inward turning identity of the Straylight Villa (None)
Tessier vision of future corporations Wintermute + Neuromancer = meta-matrix Transcendence of the individual: "There's others. I found one already" (p. 270) ?
? Hacking

Zen identity that includes elements of networked identity (oneness with others), incestuous identity (centered), & transcendent identity. A virus identity (like Kuang virus).

"Dance of biz"
or "art" of biz (e.g., Hideo, Case, Molly). Case as "artiste."

Artistic Responses to Postindustrialism

One view of the role of art (specifically, information art) in the postindustrial age:

From the section on "The Rebirth of the Modern" at the end of Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron's "The Californian Ideology":

"As pioneers of the new, digital artisans need to reconnect themselves with the theory and practice of productive art. They are not just employees of others—or even would-be cybernetic entrepreneurs. They are also artist-engineers—designers of the next stage of modernity."

cf., Bauhaus (1 | 2) and Modernist art and literature, Ezra Pound's "make it new"


In short, artists are creative.

Another view of the role of art (specifically, information art) in the postindustrial age:

The "kung-fu" hacker:

  • Case in Neuromancer (an "artiste" of "biz" whose art is hacking and mental martial arts, p. 262)

  • Neo in The Matrix

from William Warner, "Media Determinism & Media Freedom after the Digital Mutation: The Internet, The Matrix and Napster":

"in the 1980s there emerges into popular culture the figure of cyberpunk hacker. I read the cyberpunk hacker made popular by novels like Gibson's Neuromancer and Stephenson's Snow Crash, as one who finds a way to participate in the design, disruption and redirection of the software environment, even though he or she has been excluded from the design team."

In short, not "make it new" (innovation, creation) but destruction: break it open, break it apart. Avant-garde art as critique.

Context: Rough sketch of past rationales for art (and literature): (larger version)

Rough Sketch of History of Aesthetics Turner's Paintings Turner's paintings Picturesque Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" Edward Young's "Conjectures on Original Composition" Explanation of Realism Explanation of Realism Wendy Steiner on Modernist art and literature Ezra Pound's "Make it New" slogan and Modernist art Modernist collage Max Ernst work Explanation of "montage" Jan Tschichold's graphic design Picasso's Guernica Explanation of "montage" and Eisenstein's films Jan Tschichold's graphic design Go to section on this topic Go to section on this topic

What is the rationale of contemporary art and literature? The problem is that mainstream society in the form of postindustrial business has taken over the "make it new" ideology. Postindustrialism is about "creative destruction," with the emphasis on "creativity" and "innovation" (Gates on innovation). (The "chief innovation officer")

One major option being explored by contemporary art: "destructive creativity."

Destructive Creativity: The Case of Viral or Hacker Art

(1) A precedent: 20th-century "auto-destructive art"

Gustav Metzger and "auto-destructive art"

from Metzger's 1965 lecture proposing large-scale projects:

"The third project I would like to consider is in the shape of a 30 ft cube. The shell of the cube is in steel with a non-reflective surface. The interior of the cube is completely packed with complex, rather expensive, electronic equipment. This equipment is programmed to undergo a series of breakdowns and self-devouring activities. This goes on for a number of years - but there is no visible trace of this activity. It is only when the entire interior has been wrecked that the steel shell is pierced from within. Gradually, layer after layer of the steel structure is disintegrated by complex electrical, chemical and mechanical forces. The shell bursts open in different parts revealing the wreckage of the internal structure through the ever changing forms of the cube. Finally, all that remains is a pile of rubble. This sculpture should be at a site around which there is considerable traffic."

(2) Contemporary digital example: Joseph Nechvatal's Virus Art

Nechvatal's work in the 1980s:

  • Physical-media works that recombined and recomposed "found" media images: "intimately scaled graphite drawings comprising saturated, interwoven line tracings of pictures culled from newspapers and magazines" (Barry Blinderman)

  • Conceptually destructive:"I tend to degenerate archetypal media images," Nechvatal said in 1984. "I rip off images from the media . . . then destroy/transform them in the interests of unintelligible beauty" (quoted in Carlo McCormick).

  • Alluded to the general destructivity of contemporary technologies usually feted for their innovation and creativity. Nechvatal: "Images of mass annihilation wrought by technology now provide the major context for our art and our lives. With profoundly disturbed psyches, modern people encounter their existential fear in the atom, for when technology relieved much of man's fear of nature it replaced that fear with one of technology itself" (quoted in Frank Popper).

Nechvatal's Virus Projects 1.0 and 2.0
                      (cf., "cellular automata")

Example: vOluptas 2.0 @ 7.5 min (course login required)

Example: Transformers: Arcangel / Nechvatal (live demo)

(3) Contemporary Digital Example: Jodi (Joan Heemskerk & Dirk Paesmans)

Jodi's principles of information art:

  • Information art is retro (example 1 | 2)

  • Information art is "noise"

    >Do you see electronic media as obscuring communication?
    jodi yes/no
    ill.communication is ok
    ,makes good noise

    (Mark Napier, interview with Jodi; quoted in Sandra Fauconnier)

  • Information art is "hackerly"

    "When a viewer looks at our work, we are inside his computer. There is this hacker slogan: "We love your computer." We also get inside people's computers. And we are honored to be in somebody's computer. You are very close to a person when you are on his desktop. I think the computer is a device to get into someone's mind. We replace this mythological notion of a virtual society on the net or whatever with our own work. We put our own personality there." (Baumgärtel, " 'We love your computer' ")

Jodi's %WRONG Browser Project:

Screenshots of the .Org browser:

Org browser screen         Org browser screen

Compare (and earlier "Situationist" art movement with its tactics of "detournement")


(4) Beyond Auto-Destructive Art: Critical Art Ensemble

from "Electronic Civil Disobedience":

"The strategy and tactics of ECD should not be a mystery to any activists. They are the same as traditional CD. ECD is a nonviolent activity by its very nature, since the oppositional forces never physically confront one another. As in CD, the primary tactics in ECD are trespass and blockage. Exits, entrances, conduits, and other key spaces must be occupied by the contestational force in order to bring pressure on legitimized institutions engaged in unethical or criminal actions. Blocking information conduits is analogous to blocking physical locations; however, electronic blockage can cause financial stress that physical blockage cannot, and it can be used beyond the local level. ECD is CD reinvigorated. What CD once was, ECD is now.
       Activists must remember that ECD can easily be abused. The sites for disturbance must be carefully selected."

Examples of Viral or Hacker Art in Action