“Before the Posthuman Can Take [Its] Place: Performing Place and Person, in the Early 21st Century…”
© Susan Melrose
School of Arts
Trent Park London May 2002
“…information wants to be free…” 1
“…the confluence of cybernetics with liberal humanism was not to run so smoothly.”2
|What does it take, for the earth to move for you? It seems to me that sometimes the déclic (French term, linked etymologically to the English “click”; meaning – nicely – a mechanism which triggers another mechanism; the noise provoked by that action; and – metaphorically – a sudden intuitive understanding) can be a small, quiet one. Even when small, however, the reverberations are sometimes immense – not least where mechanisms are multiple, and intricately linked, the one to the other.||
What are the implications – for various fields of
(human and “posthuman”) engagement – of
Hayles’ “resistant materialities of
embodiment” (above)? The answer probably depends upon
where you are, as well as who you work with; may well
depend, in addition, upon what you can get your hands on. I
first read Hayles (1999) early in 2000, in the context of
the “liveness” debate concerning some of us in
the fields of performance. It was in late 2001 that I
re-read her, along with a number of writers whose work,
dating from the late 1950s through to the end of the
century, had assumed something of the status of canon for
There were a number of triggers to my re-reading, including what I took to be a shift in tenor in a number of texts published in the second half of the final decade of the 20thC – amongst them Hal Foster’s The Return of the Real 3(1996), and Jacques Derrida’s Cosmopolites de tous les pays, encore un effort! 4 (1997). Both of these texts were concerned, in their different ways, with what Hayles has called “resistant materialities of embodiment”. The Real was already back, in other words, before the century’s end (if indeed ‘it’ had ever left – but that is a different story, or perhaps a different fold in the same story/ies). In Foster (1996) something (traumatic) keeps (some things keep) coming back – hence his recourse, in his text, to what he called the “Freudian notion” of deferred action. Let’s keep that notion to one side. In Derrida (in French in 1997, translated and published in English in 2001), under the heading of “Forgiveness”, the writer began with explicit reference to “today’s political debates”, noting, with equally explicit reference to the Second World War, that “the equivocal is maintained throughout the world. Forgiveness”, then, “is often confounded, sometimes in a calculated fashion, with related themes: excuse, regret, amnesty, prescription…”5 . Yet “[a]s enigmatic”, he continues,
|as the concept…remains, …the scene, the figure, the language which one tries to adapt to it belong to a religious heritage (let’s call it Abrahamic, in order to bring together Judaism, the Christianties, and the Islams). This tradition – complex and differentiated, even conflictual – is at once singular and on the way to universalisation through that which a certain theatre of forgiveness puts in place or brings to light.|
I read this again, in French and then in English, late in 2001, remembering, as I did so, after that déclic to which I refer above, that forgiveness, in Derrida, is linked to perjury. Both forgiveness and perjury tend to involve speech performed in quite peculiar settings, many of them public. With reference to these, I found myself wondering, quite suddenly at the end of 2001, whether striking events, involving “resistant [embodied] materialities”, might have, at least momentarily, overtaken speech, overtaken writing, overtaken some aspects of cybernetics, overtaken forgiveness – even as the media machines pumped out their coverage. For me that early 21st century déclic took the date 11 September, 2001; yet its “matter and energy” had undoubtedly gathered over a much longer period, marked out, historically, by key moments, events and responses to these. Some such key moments and events, at least in terms of the 20thC, can be calibrated with what Hayles identified, in 1999, as three “waves of cybernetics” (pp.50-160) and their respective anxieties.
Foster’s 1996 text invited a reappraisal of some thirty years of critical-theoretical writing, in the light of “neo-avant-garde” art practices of the final third of the 20thC. Hayles, published one year later (also in the US), seemed to me to look back in order to look forward (“When and where did information get constructed as a disembodied medium?”). Hayles identified certain early decisions with regard to the ways information might be viewed, as specific to the “circumstances of the U.S. techno-scientific culture during and immediately following World War II” (50).
What happens when a mechanism, activated, triggers a whole sequence or sequences – some of which are newly forged – of other mechanisms? I am not myself equipped to write, as Hayles does, about “the relatively simple architecture of robots [and] the vastly more complicated workings of the human neural system”6. My crude attempts which follow (discursively but ‘off the page’, ‘out on a limb’), to model interconnectivites forged (or forced) by (what I have experienced as) ‘their’ coincidence in a certain period of time and cultural climate, acknowledge in advance some of their limitations. What’s in my mixed bag? Clustered around “2001” and hanging on into mid-2002, I find the following: fin de siècle/middle aged-backward-looking/ bemusement/liveness-digital debate/ “re-”/www/September 11/late-industrialised subjectivities/forgiveness/“the lie”/performativity/audit/erasure/ “suicide” bombings…
These nonetheless highly economical discursive markers are something to juggle with. A mixed bag; something less at first glance than a constellation, or “relay of semic clusters”7 – although it could undoubtedly be brought to rehearse one or two. Certainly this emergent ‘set’ – which, if it can be made to resonate more widely, might take onboard the appearance of an assemblage of apparatuses (of production) – seems at first glance to be made out of the disparate. Yet each turns, for me, on a nodal point or points, a ‘knot’. And the whole, once I juggle with these disparate elements, produces – through sometimes unexpected overlap with those other nodal points – something like a generative matrix or matrices, which are ‘knowledge- producers’, liable to operate within a particular ‘knowledge-economy’. My ‘take’ on that ‘knowledge-economy’, unlike Derrida’s view of forgiveness before September 11 (that it was “on the way to universalisation”), is that it is locally and regionally-specific, and its productivities dependent to some large extent on both ‘history’, on displacement, on exclusions, and on contingency. Different users juggling ‘the same ingredients’ will obtain different outcomes. Mine, here, have to do in this instance with something as banal and apparently conservative as the reach and the ‘cover’ of grammar and of pixels. At its sharpest, my question is this: when I write ‘we’, and ‘our’, in whose name/s am I allowing myself/allowed to speak?
Although I have described as productive the juggling and overlap of different ‘knowledge-ingredients’ and ‘knowledge-grids’ or ‘transparencies’, by someone, somewhere, to some end or ends, I have added that productivity is locally-responsive; can result from chance encounters (hence it can entail actions in the contingent register) as well as from already-institutionalized, even naturalized ‘sets’. Within these sets, elements which otherwise co-exist, once named, can be brought into conflict (or ‘dramatized’). In Hayles, for example, her apparently portentous suggestion that “[b]ooks will not remain unaffected by the emergence of new media” explicitly differentiates between “older media” (including “books”) and “the new media”; in so doing the writer relegates her own writing to a pre-digital age, without a backward (meta-)glance. Derrida argued that forgiveness tended toward universality, whereas I am seeing it as relative to time, place, and position, hence as dramatic; Foster reviews the past, invites back the real, and arrives at trauma; Hayles brings in the posthuman, as though speaking for the whole world.
What is the impact of local and material context on writing itself? In the mid-1980s the quest for fissures and fault-lines was linked to a particular approach to ‘history’ and materiality. Is “Derrida” – and what then of “Barthes”8 – contextually-bound? I want to do no more here than suggest that it is possible, after the déclic, to read some of these texts differently, effecting thereby a ‘reconfiguration’ on the basis of a sometimes intuitively grasped recognition of a pattern or a fragment of a pattern which recurs. I want to suggest that these writings (which does not necessarily mean these writers, if we are concerned with human Actors and agency) can be revealed to articulate internal ‘dramas’, always calculated upon a material-real whose ‘folds’, viewed from particular angles but not others, can veil or permit the veiling of certain sorts of knowledge-dramas, historical injustices, contemporary erasures, and instances of symbolic violence.
Hayles’ “resistant materialities”, “embodiment” and “presence”, despite her concern to avoid ‘rehearsing’ “antagonistic relation[s]” (48), opposes, within her own pages, “information”, “pattern” and “virtualities”. Her “[e]mbodiment is always instantiated, local, and specific. Embodiment can be destroyed, but it cannot be replicated”(49), is self-dramatizing in very conventional terms; yet her book fails to write so-called ‘Third’ or developing-world digital realities into her equation. Does her writing articulate ways of seeing or grounds of thought specific to an ‘advanced capitalist’ or post-industrialized consciousness, thereby implying, but wrongly, that digital realities are “on the way to universalization”, rather than that they are conjugated upon the subject’s naturalized overlooking of instances of historically-effected injustices? If that were the case, and if her readers – caught up by the promises of the “posthuman”– were to overlook inequalities of digital access and ways of seeing, would it be the case that she or he, you and I, were complicit in that exclusion?
What might be the marks of complicity, compromise, implication, naturalization, in the realm of the digital – where a pixel’s a pixel, for all that? As such, it is neither marked nor unmarked – unless, that is, we can shift our position appropriately, in order to take up “the notion of parallax, which involves the apparent displacement of an object caused by the actual movement of its observer” (Foster, 1996:xii). Doesn’t the world-wide-web allow for infinite diversity, embracing all subject-positions irrespective of geographical and socio-economic difference? Or is that apparently infinite diversity ‘in fact’ limited, for each of us with access, by the culturally-determined thinkable? What happens to infinity, if the “actual movement of its observer” is limited by the fact that the zone of difference is actually off-screen? Not literally off-screen, perhaps, but off the screen of the late-industrialized-thinkable? Speaking as some so easily do of the ‘universal’ advantages of the www, and with the e-magination in mind, let me ask first how ‘compromise’ or ‘complicity’ might be identified in the age of digital technologies, if both compromise and complicity depend upon a user’s contrast of what is available with norms established in/by one or another ‘close at hand’, material-real?
“One can be in error or mistaken without trying to deceive and therefore without lying…”9
Let’s not forget (if we were to want to speak about “cultural memory in the present”) Derrida’s pre-millennial observations on time and ‘truth’: that “[b]etween lying and acting, acting in politics, manifesting one’s own freedom through action, transforming facts, anticipating the future, there is something like an essential affinity… The lie is the future”10. Yet “[t]he fabulous and the phantasmatic”, he continues, “ have a feature in common: stricto sensu and in the classical sense of these terms, they do not pertain to either the true or the false, the veracious or the mendacious. They are related, rather, to an irreducible species of the simulacrum or of virtuality.”(65).
Was September 11 “a lie”, or was it, rather, a highly effective performance (I apologise for this observation) calculated upon a history of lies? Can we trace, after the events, a path back through the dramatic constitution of this way of seeing and doing? (I use the term “dramatic” here to signal an institutionalized presentation of the elements apparently simply ‘referred to’.) The tracer of the path needs firstly to identify the knowledge-political assemblages which have applied, especially where certain terms might now seem to have been erased. Is it possible to declare here and now that both optimistic and pessimistic ‘millennial’ generalisations (including my own) – as to ‘how things are/might be’ – painted a ‘false picture’, not least in the sense that the calendar to which they operated continues to be called ‘Christian’? If this can be argued, then from this precise point of view, quite a number of texts published over the past thirty years, not least those which assert their own claims to ‘truth’, can now be seen to err in both their hubris and their omissions.
|Mameli (1997: 4), cited in Eco (trans. A McEwen, Secker and Warburg, London, 1997:399): “intelligibility is not an accidental characteristic of the universe, …not a simple epiphenomenon of how things are, but [it] is a characteristic that ‘shapes’ the universe…a theory of intelligibility is also a metaphysical theory of the structure of the universe.”|
|I was interested, recently, and for reasons which should become clear, to look back at Edward Said’s 1980s essay in Hal Foster’s Postmodern Culture 11 , in which Said (from within the Palestinian diaspora) advocated what he identified as interference (in the mode of postmodern culture), which would include “crossing of borders and obstacles, a determined attempt to generalize exactly at those points where generalizations seem impossible to make.” He went on, in 1982, in these terms:|
|One of the first interferences to be ventured, then, is a crossing from literature… into those exactly parallel realms, now covered by journalism and the production of information, that employ representation but are supposed to be objective and powerful. Here we have a superb guide in John Berger, in whose most recent work there is the basis of a major critique of modern representation. Berger suggests that if we regard photography as coeval in its origins with sociology and positivism…, we see that “what they shared was the hope that observable quantifiable facts, recorded by experts, would constitute the proven truth that humanity required. Precision would replace metaphysics; planning would resolve conflicts…”12|
|Said’s text, apparently concerned at that time with writing, the media, and the territorial, was published in Critical Inquiry, 9, in 1982. Perhaps it is pertinent to remind ourselves firstly that the writerly and disciplinary ‘knowledge-political’ “borders and obstacles”, approached by Said in the 1982 text, have recently been re-literalized in the Middle East, making the writer’s preoccupation with textuality appear to have been a self-imposed distraction. Secondly, it might now seem that the critical-theoretical and neo-avant-garde should never have been seen to be divorced – as some have argued – from the historical and geographic (after which, as a consequence, it was obliged to yearn). Thirdly, it should now be clear that the “borders and obstacles” which ‘ought to’ mark any reader’s imagination in 2002, are no longer simply those observable between writerly disciplinary registers, photographic and other textual modes – even if for many of us it remains the case that information is necessarily mediatized, transmitted through institutionalized channels. Have you ever been to Jenin, whether under seige or not? No? Nor me.|
In the place of more conventional mediatized registers, the “borders and obstacles” which now prick at my mind are those lived and enforced, on an everyday level but with increasing (reported) savagery in 2002, around Palestinian refugee camps. In terms of these sorts of frames of reference, with regard to borders which have never ceased since the late 1940s to be a matter of crisis, Edward Said’s “interferences” of the early 1980s are revealed, in retrospect, either to be displacement, and/or to constitute luxury goods of ‘advanced’ capitalism. It was, after all, within the precincts of an ongoing late, post-industrialised, capitalism, that Hal Foster (1996: xiv), looking over his shoulder, observed – possibly ruefully – that “critical theory has served as a secret continuation of modernism by other means”.
I wonder whether we should not conclude, if Foster’s assertion is valid, that this ongoing critical-theoretical “modernism by other means” failed, in terms, at least, of what it set out to be its own objectives, over the final decades of the twentieth century?
That failure seems to have been sharpest where, from within advanced captialism, its explicit concern was focused on the problematics of otherness (concerned, amongst other things, with post-colonial and gendered identities). I am not concerned here to measure critical-theoretical efficacy in terms of learning and teaching in the university; but rather to ask what world view it perpetuated, such that it was largely able to omit reference to the Palestinian real-on-the-ground in the Occupied Territories – as though the Palestinian experience could, in the main, be erased from the fields of reference of the critical-theoretical discourse.
What are the implications of an observation of this sort? It seems still – or repeatedly – to have been possible, even commonplace, for the late-industrialized and post-industrialized subject, not to think, not to represent, not to figure the Palestinian everyday experience; not to contemplate the Palestinian habitus, in the Occupied Territories – and this despite what has clearly been the problematisation, across the work of noted European critical writers, of the relationship between the critical-theoretical and the “truth”13.
What should ‘our’ position be, here, with regard to the supposedly infinite play of information on the world-wide web, if it can be argued that ‘we’ can only ‘see’ there that to which we are directed, that which has been up-loaded (in the language/s of our choice), or at which we direct ourselves to look? What is the status, in hypertextual terms, of that ‘information’ which is not yet published? What is the status, more troublingly, of information included, for which I have not yet learnt/taught others to look? Learnt where? Learnt when?
Learnt from whom?
|By a slight displacement, by slipping one word in beneath another, [the proposed title, “History of the Lie”] seems to mimic the famous subtitle of a text that some years ago very much interested me. In The Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche gives the subtitle “History of an Error”…to a sort of narrative in six episodes that, on a single page, recounts in effect, and no less, the history of the “true world”… The title of this fictive narrative announces the narration of a pure fabrication: “How the ‘True World’ Finally Became a Fable”. … It is not, then, a fable that is going to be told, but rather the story of how a fable fabricated itself, so to speak.14|
|One year after Derrida was published, in 1995, on the fabrication of the ‘true world’ as fable, Hal Foster struggled, in The Return of the Real, to “approach actuality”, asking: “what produces a present as different, and how does a present focus a past, in turn?” (xiii). “This question”, Foster added, “also involves the relation of critical to historical work, and here no one escapes the present”. Nor do they escape the ‘spectres’ of past subjectivation. Foster’s other explicit concern of 1996, to be sure, was what he called “neo-avant-garde art”, “art and theory since 1960”; and it might therefore be supposed that he identified, as his own proper concern, art and theory’s recent history. On the other hand, art identified in the post-WWII period could hardly (afford to) escape one mode or another of reference (including displacement), to those circumstances to which later twentieth century conflict in the Middle East can be linked.||
Despite this tight link, it has seemed easy, in some late 20thC publications, to assume a wholly familiar, culturally and economically close ‘present day’ – as though the limits of the (writerly) known might be the pertinent limits of the knowledge-map. How many folds, however, does an expanded account of “the present” need to include, ‘should’ have included – up to and beyond 11 September – if it is indeed the case, as some suggest, that those implicated in the historically-significant actions taken, might have had some basis for a sharp but banalized sense of exclusion from the advantages of late-industrialised capitalism; for the sense that their concerns were erased from that history of the world which calculates present time on the basis of the Christian calendar?
“The present”, plainly, is always mediat(iz)ed, in part by language, thought and the senses, as well as by the more conventionally identified ‘media’ and their schedules. It is a fabrication, a fable – or at least it is a fable in the telling. Does that mean that it might participate in a lie? “The present” is dramatized, in most representations, in the sense that the clause itself tends to allow us to “stage” subjects oppositionally. It is staged, hence it assumes a performative aspect: “This fabulous narration about a fabulation, about the truth as fabrication, is a coup de théâtre. It puts onstage some characters who will remain more or less present, like specters, in the wings.” Rehearsing, staging, telling ‘the present real’: Derrida was writing in 1995 about everyday performance, about performativity, as well as about make-believe (making-believe) – which performances Austin 15, some might recall, identified as entailing “hollow” performatives. (An evocative, post-WWII term, undoubtedly, but one which begs a few questions within digital culture: whom can we now call upon, in less certain, digital times, to measure substance and solidity – hence hollowness? Where is the measure, and who holds it? By what authority?)
Spectres remaining “in the wings”: Derrida provided himself, here, with a nicely theatrical metaphor – of containing, centring, unfolding and ghostliness. Implicated in it, unavoidably to my eye, however, are wholly conservative models of power. They suppose a particular ground-plan; dominant, architecturally-supported lines of vision; identifiable markers – “borders and obstacles”. They suppose, thereby, institutionalized and highly conventional instances of visibilities and invisibilities; an illuminated main scene – e.g. a dramatized New York, if not Jenin – within which Actors and agents play out ancient dramatic scenarios, at least if they are challenged-forth16/clicked upon.
Don’t the spectres in the wings, however, point to a remarkably limiting and conservative metaphorical scene? I am supposing that what limits the critical-theoretical but also the philosophical imagination, even where the critical-theoretical or philosophical narrator is as wily as is the case for some I have named above, is still largely-speaking recognisable because marked, within the Judeo-Christian cosmology – hence the metaphoric account here, of visibilities and spectres, of stage and wings. It remains territorial; it cleanly marks out property, properties, propriety, appropriateness, in certain, established terms, and not in others. In the complexities of foldings and unfoldings it entails, it makes it easy to overlook the claim to self-representation as subject of what it erases and excludes, and to what effect/s. But the philosopher is perfectly aware of this. Isn’t he?
|…the objects in question, those on the subject of which a verdict is to be reached, are not natural realities “in themselves”. They depend upon interpretations, but also on performative interpretations. …[By performative] I mean to underscore above all the performativity at work in the very objects of…declarations: the legitimacy of a so-called sovereign state, the position of a boundary, the identification or attestation of a responsibility are performative acts. (81)|
“When performatives succeed”, Derrida continued without interruption in 1995, “they produce a truth whose power sometimes imposes itself forever…”. “Forever” is surely a fantasy – isn’t it? I am reluctant, in 2002, to suppose that there might be “a truth whose power” might impose itself “forever” – unless we are able to recognise that one part of that imposition might emerge as a lesson learnt, too late, while other aspects might not. Meanwhile Hayles, in 1999, whom I quoted above on the posthuman, remained within a known “world” of her own engagement. Hayles, on this evidence, remained ‘book-bound’ in 1999, from where she viewed the digital. Her “actually works with”, then, was written – perhaps nostalgically – from within literature. It remained – as a consequence – ‘publishable’, but disjoined from what it worded: symbolic, wholly grammatically-enchained, syntactically conservative 17, and book-bound. And if her writing is praised by other, named writers, as “monumental”, “fine”, “careful”, “incisive”, “informed”, it is worth pointing out that these judgements themselves refer back to and are symptomatic of, an evaluative apparatus linked not simply with the book, with the evaluation of the book within university-press publications, but also with what the book can do, or be done with.
What can be said about the worthy tradition within which Hayles’ account of the (necessarily imagined) posthuman takes its place? Writing about what was described as “image-making”, Derrida (1995:73) noted that “the process of the modern lie is no longer a dissimulation that comes along to veil the truth”, precisely “[b]ecause the image-substitute” – one example might be provided by the ways in which the Gulf War was represented televisually – purports to “offer a full-fledged substitute” for reality, which it replaces. What that image-substitute effects “is the destruction”, not so much of reality itself (for which it attempts, besides, to account), but of certain aspects or planes, dimensions and configurations of the real, which thereafter can be overlooked, because they have been replaced. But can we assert that a (late industrialized) substitution – less wilful than habitual, conventional in the formal sense of the term; and for which justification can be found with regard to processes specific to the televisual more generally – has the status of a lie?
“My testimony will be lacunary”, Derrida readily admits. “Am I guilty of this? Does this mean that I will have lied to you?” (70). Is it a lie to write “we”, as in How We Became Posthuman, and to choose the past tense (“became”), and to assert understanding of processes (“How”)? Perhaps I don’t need to claim that; perhaps all that I need to assert is that Hayles’ grammar, like that of Fukuyama, below – like my own, without doubt – is implicated in historically-specific and repeatedly reproduced partial accounts of (sometimes deadly) injustices.
Hayles as writing is wholly obedient, in this sense, to the contraints of grammar, the page, to wholly conventional graphemics and to a certain weight of the publication in the hand. Isn’t her “how information lost its body”, from this point of view, curious? “Body”, here, is the Book.
|The (Hayles) book, in this case, which I weigh right now in my hand, is conventionally, appropriately and conservatively formed – some 350 pages in paperback. It is paper which, the book itself asserts, “meets the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for the Information Services – Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.48-1992.”||
Well and good. ‘We’ (readers) seem to know where ‘we’ are, then, within the observable limits of a known “tele-techno-mediatic”world (Derrida 1995:83), whose marks, now, can seem to (be asserted to) be called up in all parts of the globe which have access to a certain level of digital technology. (The qualifying subordinate clause is neat, of course. But I wonder: what was the techno level in the Jenin refugee camp, in April-May, 2002? What should ‘we’ say about “the posthuman” (whether in Hayles’ or Fukuyama’s account) when the term can only be applied to certain parts of the known world? What is the reach of “Our…”, in Fukuyama’s 2002 title?)
The book itself (as “artifact” it effectively participates, despite our tending to take books for granted, in the operations of a technologically-determined knowledge assemblage and its apparatuses), participates in the mainstream where authority is produced and reproduced. This is very familiar pre-millennial territory, despite postmodern attention to master narratives, and despite third-wave cybernetics (this includes the “cybernetic anxiety” to which Hayles herself refers18.) In Hayles’ own terms, the book as artifact could/‘should’ fit within established patterns of seriation (14) – that is, it would involve attributes that change over time; but I want to argue that the book I have before me is wholly conventional as book – it is effectively pre-digital, reproductive of the analogue-mode – hence its only claim to be able to include “a pattern of overlapping replication and innovation” would relate to its subject-matter. In these sorts of terms, she notes that:
|Conceptual fields evolve similarly to material culture, in part because concept and artifact engage each other in continuous feedback loops. An artifact materially expresses the concept it embodies, but the process of its construction is far from passive. A glitch has to be fixed, a material exhibits unexpected properties, an emergent behaviour surfaces – any of these challenges can give rise to the development of still other concepts. The reasoning suggests that we should be able to trace the development of a conceptual field by using a seriation chart analogous to the seriation charts used for artifacts. (15)|
Constellations represent, in spatio-temporal dynamic terms, patterns made from associated ideas and mutual entailment; these are perceived to “go together naturally”, thereby forming conceptual constellations corresponding to artifacts, and “possessing an internal coherence that defines it as an operational unit” – Christianity provides one useful example. “Rarely”, Hayles adds, “is a constellation discarded wholesale”.
The book as constellation of values is a neat enough notion, especially when we embed it back into an identified context (which might actually not include that of ‘developing’ countries). On this evidence it would seem that Hayles is disinclined to discard either the book or what it lays claim to, within which it takes its rightful place (the scriptural economy19). After all, she notes, “it can be a shock to remember that for information to exist, it must always be instantiated in a medium, whether that medium is the page … the computer-generated topological maps used by the Human Genome Project, or the cathode ray tube on which virtual worlds are imaged” (13).
Instantiation in a medium: does this recall something of Judith Butler’s now legendary difficulty with the bodyness of live performance, where the markers of biological identity can seem, in significant part, to resist ideological reconfiguration20? Perhaps in these sorts of terms, we can agree with Hayles that human subjects will “achieve consciousness through recursive feedback loops cycling between different levels of coding”. The association, she wrote late last century, “of posthuman subjectivity with multiple coding levels suggests the need for different models of signification”. Yet “the more consciousness is seen to be the product of multiple coding levels, the greater is the number of sites where interventions can produce catastrophic effects” (279).
Between 1999 and mid-2002 much has changed, and much remains. The aspirational as well as the doom-laden fin de siècle has now ceded to the shock of the material-real in collision with those forces which dominate the techno-realms of late capitalism, and which could once be figured by the image and idea of the twin towers. If the book-ness of the book remains familiar – I continue to weigh it in my hand – I also however retain, somewhere behind my eyes, the searing image of the twin towers (11 September 2001). But also in my ears, from last month, is the wail of a middle-aged Palestinian woman whose husband, ‘escorted’ from the Church of the Nativity, will shortly be exiled to Cyprus, in which place, all things being equal, he will not cease to be Palestinian. Nor will his children. Yet despite that ‘imprint’, from the point of view of my own perceptual apparatus, I ‘see’ only those strictly selected televisual images of the chaotic (‘murderous’) aftermath of the actions of the young adult Palestinian suicide bomber. I see only a past, in other words – never her/his present or future aspirations, which largely speaking, cannot be figured within that ‘account’ of action, Actor and agency.
How long did it take for the twin towers disaster to enter the popular imagination – and what link might there be between that “catastrophe” – whose implications for the individuals and families involved I have no wish to diminish – and suicide bombings/border-interferences in the Occupied Territories? How long? Fifteen or twenty minutes? How long did it take me to believe what I saw? The video images, let’s not forget, continue to offer the view privileged by widely-available technology. Are they, then, ‘truthful’? Particular stages (nice metaphor) of technological development are implicated in the historically-specific constitution of a human subject’s imagination and Imaginary. But what might you dream, as a Palestinian child, growing up within a Palestinian refugee camp? What might constitute your habitus, if you grow up under occupation, with stones to throw as your most basic means of intervention in the world?
Do the images of penetration/castration/implosion of the twin towers give the lie to Baudrillard and others on a Gulf War that did not take place? At what point and on the basis of what mediatized aspects, what performative instant or instants, did the video images acquire for you the authority of something which used to be called ‘fact’? And in the same sorts of terms, at what point on the slippery cline of performative impact – in the audit of performativity21 – do suicide bombings carried out by (idealistic and desperate) young Palestinian adults separate themselves out from what, closer to home (as one says), we readily identify as the neo-avant-garde, “limit-case” performance art? Performativity, Jon McKenzie (2001) points out, is central to a culture of audit, which has cunningly co-opted, to its own, ‘late capitalist’ ends, terms like “diversity, innovation, and intuition” (6). However, he adds,
Although technologies perform, very few researchers have asked, “What is this performance?” and “How does it function in different scientific and technical fields?” (11)
McKenzie proceeds to quote Butler on performative acts as “forms of authoritative speech: most performatives, for instance, are statements which, in the uttering, also perform a certain action and exercise a binding power.” Yet “the normative valences of her performativity concept”, McKenzie argues, “were initially passed over…and have only of late become fully appreciated by scholars.” (15) One instance of contemporary institutionalized performatives, McKenzie argues, is “organizational”, focused on “maximizing outputs and minimizing inputs”, and linked, thereby, to the culture of audit. His work here is welcome, as well as alarming. But I should prefer to ask, with regard to Butler’s observations (widely cited in cultural and critical-theoretical writing), about the lack of authority and binding power which, as corollary, is specific to those whose lives are lived outside of late-industrialised contexts: here utterances and actions, not finding their proper place, conventionally go unheard, can readily then be overlooked. What actions are ‘counted’, what ‘counts’, within the Israeli “audit” of Palestinian activities, and vice versa?
At what point does the image I must myself invent – of the preparations and the activities leading up to the suicide bomber’s ‘event’ – transfix me with terror, not because the act is unthinkable; not because it is, in techno-mediatic terms, unrepresentable, available only through dramatic fictions; but because it may, ‘in fact’ (as I can still so easily write), be one logical outcome of a banalized terror, produced in the everyday as normality; but dependent upon and practised, on the (Palestinian) other, by the absence of an other’s constructive-constitutive and humane look or enquiry. I want to write that suicide bombing in young Palestinian adults may well be produced and reproduced, not through anti-semitic hatred, but more simply: by ‘our’ collective overlooking of her or his existence, her or his right to exist and to think in the present and future tenses, about what should be proper to, appropriate to, the property of, the Palestinian subject.
The Real remains: can we represent ‘it’ as Hayles does, in terms of “embodied forms”? Perhaps in this instance we need to identify the Palestinian Real as a constellation of neglect, ideologically-informed but visited upon the subject’s sense of self; of looking away – because it has seemed to be more comfortable to look away than to intervene. Perhaps we need to inspect our own place/s within that constellation, wherein action is never innocent, but implicated and complicit. The real comes back, patently, can come crashing back – and especially so when certain of its “multiple coding levels” and “different models of signification” have tended not to be communicated widely to ‘us’. (Following a recent London rally (18 May 2002) in support of the Palestinians, average press coverage of 50,000 supporters was limited to 20 seconds, and according to A.N. Wilson22 it selected as ‘appropriately’– representative visual material “the 20-second flash” of “a group of women swathed in black veils and calling for jihad” .)
In other words, if it’s been late capitalism and its discontents for some of us – and I want to argue that “its discontents” are part of a luxury economy – others have not shared that advantage. While Hal Foster drew, in the mid-1990s, on the Freudian “notion” of deferred action (“In Freud an event is registered as traumatic only through a later event that recodes it retroactively, in deferred action”) in order to attempt to grasp the “significance of avant-garde events” as a “complex relay of anticipation and reconstruction”, he plainly could not foresee the power of the suicide bomber – yet perhaps he/‘we’ should have done so, given the extent to which self-sacrifice (if not suicide) is ‘written-in’ to the (Judeo-)Christian psychic and extra-psychic strata. But what of those cultural ‘strata’ within which those knowledge-traditions are not, or are differently embedded? Can we begin to imagine the Palestinian experience, from outside it? Policies depend upon such assumptions – don’t they?
A computer can certainly construct the
image of a dog, provided it is given suitable
algorithms: but it is not by examining the flow-chart
for the construction of the dog that a person who has
never seen a dog can have a mental image (whatever a
mental image may be) of one. Once more we find ourselves
faced with a lack of homogeneity between categories and
intuition, and the fact that the schema of the dog can
be verbalized as “quadruped animal” brings
us back only to the extreme abstractness of every
predication by genus and differentia, but it
does not allow us to distinguish a dog from a horse.
Deleuze (1963) observes that the schema consists not of
an image but of spatiotemporal relations that embody
or realize some purely conceptual relations, and
this seems exact as far as the schemata of concepts of
pure intellect are concerned. But it does not seem to be
sufficient when it comes to empirical concepts…
(in order to think of a plate, I must resort to the
image of the circle…a rule for constructing the
image if necessary, the empirical concept of the plate
should nonetheless include the notion that its form may
And so we try to construct the concept of tree (we assume it) as if the trees were as we can think them. We imagine something as possible according to the concept (we try for an agreement between the form and the possibility of the things itself, even though we have no concept of it), and we can think of it as an organism that obeys certain ends. (9)
How to mark the critical imagination with an ongoing, lived actuality which has been largely erased, by and within (the imagination of) late capitalism? I write “erased”, yet by definition what has been erased is, like “in-visibility”, bound-in to the everyday-visible-actional, and to the Imaginary, which might be said to have played its role in determining both representations and erasures. The prefix “in-” (in-visible) does not, in other words, admit the real-ly unimaginable into the frame. On the contrary, erasure marks a particular territory of our psycho-social experience, and in this sense, the term represents a wholly useful conceit.
I should prefer to characterise many of those matters lying apparently outside the (self-) interest of the subject of late capitalism as overlooked, since it may also be a matter of carelessness, a matter of convention, habitual rather than thought. Nonetheless, to overlook is an action, a set of actions, a turning away, which has at some point been motivated – even if that motive has been subsumed into ‘the way things are’, and its outcome/s might now, on reflection, surprise. But to overlook has at some point been a matter of policy, an insurance – even if the outcome of bad faith, guilt – as well as a set of habitual gestures within a particular economy of the everyday, culturally-determined and reproduced, as though it were natural.
What can the overlooked give back to themselves, and then to others, when they feel that they have nothing/are unthought, unthinkable, in positive terms – not least by major lobbyists in that post-industrialized America? Suicide bombing – surely – marks the return of the unthinkable-real of the late capitalist imagination; it impresses itself – “through recursive feedback loops cycling between different levels of coding” – with a bang. Suicide bombing is the radical other, in this sense, of the late-industrialised consumerist subject – so accustomed, as Actor, otherwise, to ingest and ex-press.
But what is the measure, the impact, on the late-capitalist subject, of the suicide bombers’ set of unfigurable actions? Their intervention surely forces a “recourse … to the values of subject, self, consciousness, even intentional meaning and phenomenon, a little as if we were limiting ourselves to a phenomenology of the gift even as we declared the gift to be irreducible to its phenomenon…” (Derrida, Given Time: 1. Counterfeit Money, trans P. Kamuf, The University of Chicago, Chicago and London, 1992). Yet ‘our problem’, with regard to sympathy and empathy, is surely brought to crisis point when the suicide bomber’s intervention produces other victims (where, in the history of the 20thC, victimhood has ‘gone with the territory’ 23).
What can provide that external measure, in whose terms ‘we’ might better evaluate the act? Perhaps we need to remove it from that 20thC history, re-evaluating it in the terms available to ‘us’ – i.e. in terms of Actor and agency, in terms of the (late-industrialized) pursuit of Subjecthood. In these terms, perhaps Foster’s fin de siècle neo-avant-garde performative might provide that measure – except that the one (whether performed by Franko B or Orlan) is a matter of luxury goods, the other utter impoverishment, in terms of symbolic capital, of the rights of the subject.
Yet don’t we need to attempt to locate, in our culturally-determined imagination, the spreading “catastrophic effects” of suicide bombing? If in conventional symbology the assault on the twin towers is an act of castration with implosion, isn’t suicide bombing by young Palestinian adults the act of the radical other, the slave, the imprisoned, the self-mutilating, for whom the present is unbearable and the future unimaginable? What do you want to be, when you grow up? Your self?
Perhaps we had better ask where, when, and in whose name, a young Palestinian might want to assume the burden of historical contingency. Until we do so, the young adult Palestinian’s present and future in the Occupied Territories will continue to be scarcely imaginable: who and what so systematically opposes her/his right to be Subject? The weight of overlooking is compounded by the now widely-available stories of American lobbyists to Congress in support of the Israeli cause: these continue to appear on the BBC24, where they note the American Christian Right’s support for the Jewish lobby; they talk of some three billion US dollars contributed per annum in defence of Israel. ‘Free’ is an economic category, as well as an aspiration.
That someone should fight back in 2001 – low-tech and the more (monstrously) ‘effective’ for it – on the very body of a major symbol of the self-acclaimed posthuman digital culture, should have given the critical theorist something to ponder on. There is nothing posthuman about the essential aspect of suicide bombing, nor about life as it was lived under – for example – the Taliban in Afghanistan. Meanwhile the Palestinian trauma, diagnosed long since but largely ignored for reasons which have become clear, keeps on coming back (as “deferred action”, a “complex relay of anticipation and reconstruction”); and it will go on doing so, for as long as persecution of Palestinians for the fact of being Palestinian, ‘at home’, can seem to have been erased from the conscience of the West. It continues largely to be erased, today, at least from the programmes of those who can effect international political change.
In the absence of a careful deconstruction of the myths surrounding our own implication in historically-specific, sustained and currently reproduced injustices, and in the absence of high-level political lobbying and of effective political action on the ground on behalf of the Palestinian cause, how might ‘we’ permit ourselves to fail to understand the actions of a young adult Palestinian, resulting from her or his own inability to imagine and to enact a less tenuous future? On the basis of her/his making herself visible, through violent intervention? In terms of what I have argued to be both a ‘real-world’ and a still unimaginable scenario of the late-industrialized world, is it foolish to suggest that in each instance, and typically, Hayles’ “posthuman”, Barthes’ criticism and truth, Foster’s Return of the Real, and Fukuyama’s Posthuman Future, have worked, in their (respective) day, a writerly fantasy of inclusion and exclusion, whose precise concern is/has been with the problematics of the machine/human interface25 and its implications for the subject in advanced/late industrialized capitalism, rather than with the heterogeneity of the human-real, as such?
© S. F. Melrose, School of Arts, Middlesex University, London, May 2002
1 c.f. "Toward Embodied Virtuality", pp. 1-24, in Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1999.
2 N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, Univ. Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1999
3 H. Foster, The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century, The MIT Press, Cambridge and London, (1996) 1999
4 R Rand (ed), FUTURES of Jacques Derrida, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California 2001
5 J. Derrida, 1997. I quote here from the English translation, Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, trans. M. Dooley and M. Hughes, Routledge, London and New York, 2001: 27
6 N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics, Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago & London, 1999:245
7 D. Rodowick, Reading the Figural: Philosophy After the New Media, Routledge, New York & London, 2001: 94; cf. N. K. Hayles, who identifies as a “homeostasis constellation” a network within which information is reified (51)
8 Roland Barthes’ writing first appeared (in French) in 1953. His Le Degré zéro de l’écriture, as Philip Thody points out in his introduction to the English language translation of Critique et vérité (Criticism and Truth, trans. K. P. Keuneman, The Athlone Press, London, 1987), “argued that the classical prose which both embodies and expresses the world view of the French middle class was first developed in the seventeenth century…[and] may well have seemed as strange to people at that time as Barthes’ own language still does to some people today” (13)
9 J. Derrida, “History of the Lie: Prolegomena”, ed. Richard Rand, Futures of Jacques Derrida, Stanford Univ. Press, California, 2001: 65-98
10 J. Derrida, ibid.
11 Said in H. Foster (ed.) Postmodern Culture, Pluto Press, London, 1985. Foster’s text, curiously enough, was first published with the title The Anti-Aesthetic, Bay Press, WA, 1983 – perhaps indicating that Foster had reappraised the prefix “anti-”, and found it to be inappropriate to the postmodern…
12 E. Said, “Opponents, Audiences, Constituencies and Community”, in Foster (above), pp.135-159
13 see, amongst others, R. Barthes, Critique et Vérité, Editions du Seuil, Paris 1966; in translation, K.P. Keuneman, The Athlone Press, London, 1998
14 Derrida, op cit, 65
15 J. Austin, How To Do Things With Words, Oxford University Press, London, 1976
16 The term is Jon McKenzie’s, from his Perform – Or Else: From Discipline to Performance, Routledge, London and New York, 2001
17 Once again I refer here to the ways in which writers tend to use the clause and clause-connective structures to name and then ‘stage’ elements apparently ‘in the world’. ‘In’ that world, however, they may not interconnect as the clause structure chosen by the writer implies. See my “Entertaining Other Options”, 2002 at http://www.sfmelrose.u-net.com
18 Hayles, op cit, pp.84-112
19 M. de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press, Berkeley, (1984) 1981
20 J. Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”, Routledge, London and New York, 1993
21 see, for example, J. McKenzie’s Perform or Else: from Discipline to Performance, Routledge, New York and London, 2001
22 The Evening Standard, London, 20 May 2002:13
23 I use a colloquialism here which seems to me to be remotivated
24 “A Lobby to be Reckoned With”, Radio 4, 17.00h, 12 May 2002
25 whether literal or Deleuzian, in a ‘society of control’
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