Let’s see you grit those teeth (version Kamina)

I don’t even know why this happened but it is so stuck in my head and I want it out. Video unrelated. Or maybe, given her sheer absurdity and zaniness (I refer you to “PONPONPON” if you’re not already familiar with it), I can actually make Kyary relevant to something I’ve worked on, if I have the brainpower and willpower to do so.

Not sure I have either after that.

Still, because I can barely remember my own name through this fibro-fog, and because my last post really cleared some things up for me, I’m going to take the time and space here to (ethically) reflect on everything I need to be thinking about for the oral defense portion of my qualifying exams: i.e., as much as I can without revealing anything about my questions or answers. tl;dr version: I feel like this is the worst piece of writing I’ve produced in my entire life; I’m ashamed that it ever saw the light of day; but I suppose it got me thinking above and beyond the question and I’m going to attempt to record those threads before they, like my name, escape me too. And in an ideal world, that’s the real goal of the exam, right?

Here is a story before I delve into my quals woes. I get into a psychotherapy debate with my therapist. My therapist kills it by noting, Maybe the real question is of a higher order than this. If you know this much about the profession and its techniques, why not indicate to me that you have this knowledge?

Well, I say. What do I know? I’m no expert. I have no right to challenge those who are.

It always boils down to this.

Was it the way I was raised, the way I learned to learn? Until I’ve spent months on a single subject or even text, I don’t feel qualified to speak about it. I think through writing. When I draft, it’s too stream-of-consciousness, disorganized, all the warrants to my claims absent. The seams show: what I do and don’t care about, the ways in which I truncate tangents that may be more fruitful to pursue in order to stick to a guiding question. tl;dr, I get embarrassed enough about Invictus for exhibiting a younger writing style; meanwhile these two papers, on which so much depends, exhibit all the tics and flaws I would never want to see the light of day. And I’m supposed to defend this? The only way I can is to force myself to believe it is largely about the ideas. The ability to think through a question in some fashion, however poorly executed (at least it’s readable, and for people familiar with my interests, the leaps in my logic may actually be apparent). Did I do all that? I don’t know. I guess I’ll find out on Monday.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about temporality as the key to understanding and challenging and/or escaping power. For instance, time as a biopolitical technique of supervising and disciplining the body, its performance, and its processes is quantitative, concerned with duration instead of quality; by contrast, kairos-time–the propitious moment, the supreme opportunity–is qualitative, personal, free from the clock-time of power. It is closely linked to cunning intelligence, metis, which relies on this temporality and on affect management, and is also in a constant state of becoming-other, becoming-indefinable(?). Standard myth depicts Metis as a goddess whose major role was to be consumed by Zeus, who then became invincible, always alert and vigilant, unlike his tricky father Kronos who was caught off guard and thereby deposed. However, other myths depict her has male or male and female simultaneously, still capable of metamorphosis, wedded to Poros and/or Eros, the exploit and love. There are linkages here that could be theoretically followed, especially with the addition of humorous entertainment, insult dialectic, and swarm intelligence (early Greek thought held an especial reverence for the energy of the swarm, if I’m remembering correctly).

It was taken for granted in Greek mythology that even the most powerful gods had a limited cycle of metamorphosis. Tenacity always won the day. Menelaus bested Proteus by holding on for dear life, whatever he changed into. Metis was won with an embrace. (Side question: Is tenacity a disciplinary technique to stop becoming? Do we need to let go of it and welcome contingency, accident, and pathology in order to become?)

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series boils down to something, too: we change, or we die. Sometimes, we die to change.

So far I’ve only reviewed one answer thoroughly, but I do know that in both answers I probably failed to be critical. Maybe this problem is twofold: I never see myself as expert enough to tangle with established work, and–given my English/Creative Writing background–I see myself more as a bricoleur, grasping a text as a whole and then taking what I need without paying much mind to material I find irrelevant for my purposes, problematic, or trite. I did this to a fault in what I’ll call Answer 1. For some inexplicable reason I excised Terranova’s (2004) explication of perception management, how (if we follow Baudrillard to a point) the masses imply a distracted perception that can only be related to as perception, that “it is only in so much as the masses perceive that their material composition and political disposition can be affected” (p. 140), which seems so much more pertinent to my larger discussion of the importance of affect management in reclaiming temporality before and after the so-called digital turn. I failed to acknowledge how much I support Rob Wilkie’s (2011) claims about nomenclature, that the search for the right label implies that something novel has happened even though the digital condition replicates all the disparities and inequalities of offline society. In viewing digital networks as capital networks, he forces us to acknowledge that this revolutionary, emancipatory technology is still defined in the interests of capital, which appropriates labor for private accumulation and extension of the capitalist system, excluding whatever possibilities would arise if private ownership were eliminated (p. 10). I failed to sketch out the larger questions that bothered me, like the significance of the “fog machine of war” produced by disinformation campaigns and deceptions by social media–the cloudiness of the infosphere, which throws into question the the clarity of proof, which as an aside feels a lot like my vicarious experience of the Sri Lankan war–and how I wanted to say something about the need for nonviolence from Below because violence is the tactic of Above, about trickster humor being the means of “oiling the joints” and ensuring nonviolence, about deceptive humorous negation maybe being the pinnacle of something, as denial and negation both express faith in new possibilities and beginnings, and fiction–deception–is by nature the expression of those possibilities.

Did I say any of that? No. I also didn’t delve that deeply into Chun’s notion of paranoia, because I take for granted that we all know that the celebratory rhetoric of the Internet user as an invisible, untouchable, private agent is a myth. Just like public space online is a myth. I also didn’t say much about Galloway’s work, even though I love Galloway’s work, and swarm intelligence is so fascinating to me and, as always, I am no expert so what can I say? I can say that the “negotiatedness” of protocol–the fact that its universalism is achieved through prior negotiation–means that it can be different; that tactical media is all about the kairotic encounter, it means choosing how and when to attempt to change protocol to better align with our real desires and how we want to live our social lives (p. 196). I can say that protocol is meant to regulate, modulate, and manage interrelationality, much like biopolitics; it is the medium and means for control, from the coding of bodies to virtual bureaucracy. While protocol allows openness and many-to-many connections, it also constrains content (e.g., we must use the approved formats or what we say is not communicable).

In a sense, we speak, but only in predetermined voice.

Maybe all I’m really seeking in my answer is the thing, if it exists, that power cannot coopt.

But I was so worried about demonstrating even superficial knowledge of my reading lists that I downplayed my strengths. In all this discussion of temporality, why did I abandon my love of myth as though it were a thing to be ashamed of? Mythology has perfectly encapsulated the kinds of “weird,” radical temporality that I argue goes hand-in-hand with kairos and may even be an essential component of it. Metamorphoses and transformations transpire abruptly and rapidly and cannot be undone, like the traumatic moment of destructive plasticity; they were thresholds of external and internal change that marked changes in life stages and changes in relation to the rest of society. Daphne becomes-tree to escape Apollo. The prophet Tiresias strikes mating snakes and becomes-woman. Procne and Philomela, whose story is a traumatic one, become-birds. Arachne angers Athena with her pride and becomes-spider. More insects, who occupy a “weird” temporality of their own, in which variation is identity… rendering it, like the subjectivity of destructive plasticity, likewise inassimilable?

And then there’s literature. Katherine Hayles does it; why didn’t I? From Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony” to Julio Cortazar’s “Axolotl,” we are transfixed by the idea of affective transformations so strong, so unrecognizable to us, knowable only through habituated experiences. Incidentally, these are two authors who also wrote stories of becoming-animal, becoming-insect, becoming-strange: we all know what happened to Gregor; and Cortazar’s narrator talks through two split windows of time, connecting with animals on a visceral level until his affective engagement with the creature makes him one of them, such that he is a self inhabiting two subjectivities at once and unable to recognize himself in either one of them. Cinema attests to our fascination with our own horror at what might reside inside us, if we were stripped of civility or traumatically “changed.” Or if we stopped short, like the mayfly, like those labeled “disabled” who nevertheless make art that forces our perspective to shift. Like the relevant point I failed to make about Hayles’ work, the shift from presence/absence to pattern/randomness is interesting because it permits transformations from the inside, like metanoia, disturbing current categories to arrive at new cultural configurations (p. 285). There is a chance that sense will emerge from chaos, if we stare at the randomness long enough, there are patterns. I am familiar with this. I look for patterns all the time where there are none. The problem is knowing what is there, naturally, and what I am imposing, which is meaning, which is everything. But this is verging on literature from the other list now. I was so worried that my areas would begin to overlap and become indistinguishable, just because all of the literature converges on the messy theoretical crossroads I mentioned in my last post.

If I had criticisms of the literature, it was either a fault of my own reading habits (i.e., the refrain of “the myth of the new” is way too obvious and heavy-handed if you look at all the media history in a row), or simply that the author was unable to take their concepts and analyses as far as I wanted to take them (which could also just be a matter of timing; Jerome McGann went as far as he could by the publication dates of the works I selected but I was chafing for his take on the now). Or maybe my criticisms are related to what I feel like I didn’t understand. For instance, Galloway’s connections between protocol and conceptual art and tactical media didn’t seem clear to me; nor did his take on the role of appropriations and cooptions by power. I’m afraid to say that Hardt and Negri, in Commonwealth at least, didn’t give me a strong sense of what the multitude was or even what successful resistance would look like (Virno, by contrast, defined it and its toolkit succinctly). I think Teresa Brennan’s suggestion that affects are not contained, and her take on chronic pain and the inability to manage the reception of others transmissions is peeking over the edge of a slippery slope of blame. I haven’t read enough Deleuze or Bergson to properly comment on some of the arguments about temporality, faciality, becoming. These all feel like borrowed terms and I’m terrified of using them incorrectly.

Or, as some people tell me, is it just that I’m oversaturated with information, and I have no idea how to critique any of it, let alone parse it into disparate, sometimes overlapping strands?

In the end, I was like all my students in my Composition & Rhetoric classes. I wrote my way into my paper. By then it was too late to go back and write what I wanted to write. I think it shows. But hopefully the directions I wanted to go also show. Kairos. The affective transformation intrinsic to metanoia. Tricksterism. Destructive plasticity, its becoming-unrecognizable, its unrecognizable subjectivity that resists assimilation by virtue of being like the third thing of trickster’s purview, which is maybe the new subjectivity Foucault, Deleuze, and others variously call for. The temporality of animals, whose bodies “do” things differently from us and make for interesting modes of becoming. As Parikka noted, it is the insect that is the emblem of radical temporality. (I’m looking for patterns right now, in the Saturniidae family of the order Lepidoptera, a family named for Saturn, aka Kronos, god of linear time. Instead I find myself reading up on kairomones, “opportune pheromones,” a term usually used in entomology to describe a semiochemical emission that mediates interspecific interactions and benefits the recipient as opposed to the producer. For instance, the alarm pheromones of some ants alert predatory spiders. What’s interesting about kairomones is that they can cause morphological changes over time.)

What am I left with? Ruminations that reveal nothing about my question or even my answer to readers or to myself? A renewed awareness of the fact that, in order to really know a text, I need months to read it, think about it, write about it? The pain in my arm and shoulder begging me to stop? Last night I was awake until 3am wishing I had the means and will to hack off my feet at the ankles to stop the pain in my joints. And now I’m thinking of the death spiral or, rather, the ant mill: the informal term for the formation of army ants–strong-jawed but blind–that loses track of the pheromones they’re following and begin following each other such the entire contingent marches inward on itself, into a dense black hole. Is this a neat analogy for digitality? Blindly believing celebratory rhetoric, we march and consume until there’s nothing left but a pile of moving bodies that know neither themselves nor each other. Time as duration. Moving for the sake of moving. Dangerous only to itself. Dying, finally, of exhaustion.

Maybe I’m doing that thing I do, when I like an image so much I force the pieces to fit. But sometimes it makes the picture change beautifully.

So I’ll run with it. Ants are only as intelligent as their environment permits, according to Parikka (2010), and their relationship to their environment is a constant negotiation of the kairotic encounter. If the difference between insect and human intuition really is the human capacity for metanoic transformation, then we can only break free of the ant mill by recognizing the temporal milieu as kairos and experiencing its affective dimension, metanoia: that is, change or die.

Bug time. In today’s robust, highly distributed, and mutable networked systems, is this the effective form of political resistance? That is, is this the counter-protocological practice, the exploit? (A strange interjection: If trauma writes its expression on the body, what is written on the bodies of bugs, who die, evolve, die, evolve in relation to human influences like pesticides, habitats, or kairomones–looking at you, bedbugs.) If I can ask with a straight face whether or not, given the excess of its spectacular offenses, it is affective destruction that (digital) transgressors seek, then can I answer, also straight-faced, that what we need is an infestation? What I’m trying to picture is not an infestation of power by human bodies, or even an infestation of networks with clogging signals, but an infestation of human bodies from within to enable the (psychological? affective?) mutations that would in turn enable effective political resistance (that, ideally, cannot be anticipated or coopted). Galloway and Thacker circle back to the deceptively simple question of resistance within the network. I keep coming back to temporality, offensive humor, spectacles of grotesque excess. The qualities power cannot sanction except during ritual time.

I’m not sure I’m making sense anymore, maybe because my sternoclavicular joint has been screaming for 30 minutes. But is this a way of understanding the kind of hypertrophic counter-protocological practice Galloway and Thacker begin to sketch out (p. 98)? I can’t help but think of “Leningen Versus the Ants,” in which the army ants clog the moats with their bodies and become their own kind of land mass. A new formation, if you will, even if it’s a necrotic landscape. And maybe that’s also key. The necropolis of Clive Barker’s “Haeckel’s Tale.” So I now find myself wondering, despite its obvious inapplicability, if the answer is death, out of which comes change. Malabou’s destructive plasticity. Like scar tissue that overwhelms the wound, it is the possibility for mutation within the mutable network. Perhaps a mutation for which the network is not prepared.

Of course, I don’t feel expert enough to call this any kind of answer.

So what am I really looking for in an answer to a question I can’t describe to you? Even if it’s found deserving of rewrites, I’ve at least discerned the threads I want to keep returning to: bug time, swarm intelligence, the exploit, tricksterism, dirt-work, accidents, plasticity, kairos, classical rhetoric, metis, the biology of life and of death.

To conclude, because I’m too tired to wrap up properly, I’ll leave you with the titular scene I’m quoting. Thanks, Gurren Lagann, for serving up the inspirational punches I need sometimes.

Creative Commons License
This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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