Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Nihilism, Decay, and the Place of Theory

In Geert Lovink's final lecture for the the Critical Theory Emphasis at UC Irvine the topic was "Net Criticism in the Web 2.0 Age."

Lovink began by looking at the Web 1.0 genre of the mailing list and singled out the nettime lists as an exemplary case that is now both dormant and vibrant, although it has transformed from its original incarnation after its 1997-1998 heyday when it represented the voices of four to five thousand people.

Then Lovink introduced the title of his talk by encouraging audience members to look at recent books about the current debate about the nature of art criticism, such as The State of Art Criticism, and the assumptions about disciplinary preparation that it represents. He sketched out his own history rethinking the virtual public/public domain/third space view first as part of the Amsterdam squatters movement and then as an Internet activist. He also encouraged more skepticism from his American audience about Lawrence Lessig's call to save capitalism from its own monopolies and what he called the "Berkman center" ideology, since he asserted that the market was a "problem for defending and defining freedom," and "the hype machine has not been taken apart." Yet he said what he meant by "critical" didn’t necessarily refer to the Frankfurt School, since he lamented that there was really "no new Marxist network theory" to speak of.

To answer his own question "Why don’t we have net criticism?" despite the activities of three billion users, he offered several possible explanations. First, he suggested that the lack of interest could be tied to the failure of news media who merely issued what he called "cut and paste press releases." Second, he advocated for a "progressive/techno-libertarian coalition" to be made in acknowledgement of how the Internet was such an "integral part of society" that involved "osmotic interfaces between inside and outside." He announced himself as seeking more than just "to alienate people" in his quest to "get a better sense of the different agendas" and understand how figures like Joi Ito, Lawrence Lessig, and Richard Stallman (with his "theological raves") are "operating in a field that is hegemonic in nature. As he points out both factors work in concert, since "the press will never question seriously what they say," nor will it "seriously question Microsoft or Google," since we have not "developed a critical IT press." He argued that there were some issues "still with the Berkman line" worth examining, such as "spam filters, copyright laws, the patchwork of security," although he also presented a "call for engagement and responsibility" beyond Berkmanism.

Although he declared that "software is the most sublime cultural artifact of our time," he argued that methods from traditional art criticism would be inevitably insufficient since "cultural practices are not pure art forms." Furthermore, he argued that net criticism 'does not need the general support of grand theories of great thinkers," since it was "not about the right quote from Walter Benjamin," and such criticism might produce "few academic careers for individuals." He also suggested that the "rhizome metaphor of Deleuze" couldn't tell us much "about the nature of the objects." In contrast, Lovink offered that "cybernetics, systems theory, and mass psychology" might still prove relevant to net criticism, although these theories also reflect "the shadows of the enormous tragedies of WWII" to which they form a response, so that net criticism can get beyond its obsession with the Cold War.

Next, he asked the following question: "Why use the concept of criticism in the first place?" After all, he granted that the "dystopian futurism" of science fiction led to significant contributions to net criticism in the 1980s, particularly thanks to the work of Bruce Sterling. He also credited Alex Galloway and Wendy Chun with addressing the "gap between humanities and world of engineers and scientists" in their work. He spoke about the need for "not just ideology criticism" and a "critique of the wired generation" but criticism that was able to "read code itself" despite the "rigor and study," and he lauded Lev Manovich for his work on software studies that moved net criticism in this direction. As for himself, he championed the importance of including those with "crooked CVs" that are "almost irreparable."

He also argued for something like Northrop Frye's 1957 Anatomy of Criticism that created a kind of "autonomous zone." Returning to the example of art criticism, he pointed out that they were asking if all art critics should be art historians, as they tested the boundaries of the field. He reminded the audience about Terry Eagleton's Function of Criticism and Said’s call for public intellectuals as well, in suggesting what the tasks might be for a ask "virtual intellectual."

Following this introduction to theoretical principles, the two main genres that served as the subjects for his talk were blogs and YouTube videos.

For blogs, he thought that they raised interesting questions about "what is the public sphere" and bemoaned the fact that blogs were now becoming "corporate enclosures in social network sites." As a significant genre, much like diary-keeping, he asserted that bloggers were not just "failed journalists," since they were engaged with a "technology of the self," through which they could "experiment with the public diary." Blogs, he claimed, allowed writers to construct "sculptures around a link, event, or observation" or manifest a "dense cloud of impressions around a topic." For all his well-known criticism about the narcissism of blogging, he also insisted that through blogging people were "invited to reflect in world that doesn’t usually does not allow it," so that blogging is "not just a PR of the self" but a special kind of engagement with "software architecture" through the “voice” of a person and practices of orality. For Lovink, blogs were "tools for oral exchanges not extensions of writing," and he extrapolated on this idea by pointing out how Twitter reflects "the desire for more conversation and less text" that will soon be supplanted by video conversations.

He hoped to invite his audience to engage with rather than recoil from what he saw as "nihilism," since the phenomenon that he was describing might also encourage participants to "mix up a topic with the speaker." In explaining Zero Comments and "zeroing out meaning, context, and meaningful outcomes," he argued that it was not so much about Nietzsche, but more about Cornell West, since Lovink was not concerned with "philosophical doctrine" but rather "the lived experience of coping with hopelessness and lovelessness." In many ways, the cynicism exemplified by blogging functioned by "collectively attacking the centralized knowledge of twentieth century" and consequently could also be read as "regaining personal integrity and redefining a subjectivity." Thus, one could also say these cultural formations "zero out the enormous pressures that we are under with marketing systems and propaganda." Although bloggers were "looking for partners in crime," they were also drawn into comparison and the discourses of "a world of commodities" with the "drive to rank" in which "blogs themselves are ranked." Furthermore, he observed that "the software itself comes with lists" built in. Nonetheless, he argued that blogging has a "stylistic uncertainty” imbued with "emotional scope" that is facilitated by "everyday leisure boredom." In comparison to the 150 million blogs of Lovink's concern, he mourned the fact that "social network sites fail the invitation to reflect," because they are merely "fields to fill out": "this is what I am; this is what I do; this is my c.v. I’m looking for a partner; I’m looking for a job." In contrast he insisted that "blogs bring on decay" and could be a real "threat to the media industry" now that "television is only for baby boomers," and printed material has lost its aura. Of blogging, he said it could be a "microheroic Nietzschean act of the pajama people" worth paying attention to as "decadent artifacts."

In the final section of his talk he discussed YouTube and new practices of "database watching" while popular YouTube clips played in the background, starting with the Game Over Project from NOTsoNOISY. Lovink intoned that "we watch databases"and find ourselves asking: "Which search terms will bring up the best fragments? Was it under 'pets' or 'entertainment'?" Left to the "monocultural monoplexes" and "the limitations of our own mental capacities," we find "the hunt for moving images is as important as looking at the search result itself." In other words, "Is searching really more important than finding?" he asked. "Are we really in dialogue with the machine?" Ironically, he pointed out we actually "watch too few films," because we are "not able to sit still" "while father cinema reads us a story" in the Freudian dream in which "authority is nowhere in sight," and "Google permits everything." As Lovink explained it, "The power that controls us is just as anonymous as we believe we are," as we experience a "phase of collective fun" that plays with "how we are addressed, what kind of subject-formation" we engage in. Of course, there is happy slapping and "mediagenic college students with their mainstream rock’n’roll techniques" in which "billions are scratching away with abandon."

As Lovink began to reach the end of his lecture, he made this pronouncement: "total attention ideal is achieved only in retirement homes." Nonetheless, this "orgasm extended" in which "the desire to see more of the same rather than something radically different" could be continually gratified suggested for Lovink a paucity of imagination. "Why hasn’t the philosophy of difference arrived a Google headquarters?" Lovink asked.

To questioners that suggested there might be a moral dimension to Lovink of disapproval that ignored the value of YouTube as an educational database, he replied that "images are highly coded," and viewers can "have fun decoding," so that this visual culture is both "immensely banal and also immensely compact" in ways that "preventing accepting the remediation model from Grusin and Bolter."

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