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The Culture of Information
ENGL 25 - Spring 2007, Alan Liu
Notes for Class 23

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 5/30/07 )

Preliminary Class Business

  • Final paper due Friday, June 8 (sample topics)

  • Readings for next time

  • Start reading Califia. Also available for use at/from the following locations:

    • South Hall 2509 during Transcriptions TA drop-in tech support hours)

    • Library reserve service

Kris McAbee: kmcabee@umail [dot] ucsb [dot] edu

Mondays: 10 am - 3 pm

Tuesdays: 10 am - 1:30 pm; 3:30 - 5 pm

Thursdays: 11:30 am - 1:30 pm

[plus extra hours:]

Thurs. May 31, 1:30-5:00

Wed. June 6, 10-1, 2-3

Unfinished "Business" From Last Week:
Postindustrialism and the Role of the Artist

Dick Hebdige, Subculture

Punk = Work = Style
("mods"; Quadrophenia; punk fashion)

Gibson Trilogy edition, Heyne Publishers

The "dance" metaphor in Neuromancer:
(pp. 16, 44, 116, 249, 262) (Case as "artiste," p. 44 )

Hacking = Work = Art


Question: What is the role of the arts in the age of postindustrial knowledge work?

Problem: The problem is that mainstream society in the form of postindustrial business has taken over "creativity."

One Contemporary Artistic Solution (?): "destructive creativity" (cf. 20th-century Avant-garde, Robert Rauschenberg's Erased De Kooning, Jean Tingueley's Homage to New York, Gustav Metzger's "destruction art")

Destructive Creativity: The Case of Viral or Hacker Art

(1) 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)

(2) Jodi (Joan Heemskerk & Dirk Paesmans)

Jodi's principles of information art:

  • 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 as "destructive" (example 1 | 2)

  • 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")


(3) 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

Information as Identity: Body, Gender, and Race in Cyberspace (new unit of course)

Some cyberpunk images of identity in cyperspace:

There are two ways to view these images of information identity:

(1) One interpretation is that these are images of people who inhabit the new information work as non-identities. According to this interpretation:

  • Computers are just calculating machines

    Sherry Turkle, "Who Am We?":

    "As recently as 10 to 15 years ago,  . . . The computer had a clear intellectual identity as a calculating machine. In an introductory programming course at Harvard University in 1978, one professor introduced the computer to the class by calling it a giant calculator." (p. 237)

  • Computer users are "nerds" and "geeks" (i.e., people with non-existent or socially under-developed identities)

  • Or they are cubicle workers (1 | 2)

  • In short, computer users are themselves like machines. They wear sunglasses that betray no identity or feeling. They are all like Keanu Reeves pretending to be Arnold Schwarzenegger as the "terminator," except with a keyboard instead of a .45.

(2) The other interpretation is the one that has been gaining ground in the past 10 or 15 years:

  • Once the computer became a machine of media and communications, and also a machine of work and power, then it obviously became more than a calculating machine.

  • The computer became a machine for making, changing, and experiencing human identity.

  • These are images of a new kind of identity in cyberspace.

Example: cyber-"Goth" (1 | 2) look-and-feel of The Matrix: the sunglasses and coats; the coffins of the undead; the twisty, windy, spooky, or claustrophobic spaces.

Plan for Lectures

  • What is Identity? — A Primer in the Contemporary Debate About Identity in the Humanities and Social Science

  • Identity — The Difference Computers Make

  • Identity — The Difference Computers Do Not Make (the problem of online gender and race)

What is Identity? — A Primer in the Contemporary Debate About Identity in the Humanities and Social Sciences

  • Enlightenment idea of identity: "liberal individualism" (from the Cartesian cogito to "rational choice theory")

  • Modern idea of identity: identity is determined by a larger structure (e.g., Freud, Max Weber, Frankfurt School, Claude Lévi-Strauss)

  • Postmodern idea of identity: identity is part of an indeterminate structure. Some influential "constructionist" or "deconstructive" theories:

    • French poststructuralism—e.g., Michel Foucault on knowledge structures ("epistemes"), "disciplinary practices," and "discourses" of identity

    • Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari on "schizoanalysis" and "deterritorialization"

    • "Hybridity" theory in race, gender, and postcolonial studies

    • Artificial-intelligence studies and the "society of the mind" thesis (e.g., Marvin Minsky, The Society of the Mind, 1985)

    • Cyborg theory:

      Donna Haraway, "A Manifesto for Cyborgs"

      "Irony is about contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes, even dialectically, about the tension of holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessary and true. . . . By the late twentieth century, . . . we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short we are cyborgs." (p. 28)

      Hybridization of boundaries between (1) human and animal, (2) human and machine, (3) matter and pure spirit (see pp. 29-31)

      Cf., Bruno Latour on technology in We Have Never Been Modern

[Continued in next lecture]