Friday, December 29, 2006

The Postmodern As Prologue

Today's MLA session on postmodernism featured some heavy hitters about the cultural impact of digital technology in conjunction with some historical perspective on the postmodern, postmodernity, and postmodernism. First up to bat was Amy J. Elias, who provided a concise overview of "Postmodernity, Antifoundationalism, and Dialogical Value." Second at the plate, was Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth, who promised a "manifesto" that argued that the transition "from objectivication to linguistification" has implications for government institutions and that the idea that systems were plural and contingent allowed for a recognition of the function of differentiation, whether you were talking about office politics, tea ceremony, or the Pentagon.

The next slugger was N. Katherine Hayles, author of the excellent How We Became Posthuman and My Mother Was a Computer. Hayles is an important digital theorist, so I was a bit disappointed to see that so much of the argument of her otherwise very cogent paper concerned a comparison of two technological elites, international currency traders dealing with "virtual capital" and composers of digital literature artworks, who may have more of a sense of the protocols at work in complex algorithms than many Americans who have little knowledge of the black box operations running undecipherably on their computers. Given that the rest of the talks were concerned with dialogue, the public sphere, and the creative commons, I would have liked to have seen more reflection about the civic implications of Hayles' reading of "experiences of virtuality in everyday life" when human and computer cognition are intertwined.

Last out of the dugout was Mark Poster, writer of Information Please, which I had actually read on the plane out to Philadelphia. I didn't agree with all of his arguments about the "media unconscious" and the withering away of the virtual state, but it was an ambitious book with a lot of philosophical context about informationalism, albeit one that opened with the same Bert/Bin Laden example that Henry Jenkins recently ran with at the front of Convergence Culture. I thought that the fifth chapter about the rhetoric surrounding identity theft and the fourth chapter about the political philosophy involved in the construction of the "netizen" were particularly useful for media theory, and I plan to use some of his work about the desire to control the media experiences of the young in Virtualpolitik.

Today, Poster argued that the modern period was an historical anomaly when it came to the proprietary ownership of intellectual property and that the postmodern has, as Frederic Jameson has argued, a special relationship with technology. I liked that Poster picked two very politically engaged examples as his exemplars: 1) the fact that audiobooks from public libraries are restricted to a single user at a time, despite technology that easily enables simultaneous use of the same digital artifact and 2) the story of the speech of UCLA Marxist Robert Brenner being broadcast to an Iranian audience via a webcast of his telephonic reading of the text, although Poster didn't have much time to address its implications.

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