Saturday, May 15, 2010

Time Will Tell, But Epistemology Won't: Part IV

The programme of the Rorty Archive conference also featured academic bête noire Ian Bogost, who has become known both for taking on archivists who he feels ignore a platform studies perspective and for mocking the pedantic culture of philosophers in the academy. So, given the fact that the morning of the Rorty conference had been devoted to archivists and philosophers, Bogost often delivered his appreciation of Rorty in the form of a critique of attitudes about his work and his archive.

Bogost began his talk, "We Think in Public," in 1999 with an account of tech entrepreneur Josh Harris's decision to create "QUIET" an art/performance space for one hundred friends. QUIET was equipped with bus depot televisions that could view activity everywhere in what Bogost called an "Orwellian clubhouse where libertarians could try their hand at Fascism." (Another account of QUIET by participant Steven Kaplan is here.) Harris and Jupiter communications had faith that the future would be online television and that sites like, which was founded by Harris in 1994, would be huge revenue-generators. After QUIET closed, Harris decided to spend 1.7 million dollars wiring up the Soho loft he shared with then-girlfriend Tanya Corrin to broadcast every detail of their lives, including copulation and defecation, for the We Live in Public project. Bogost explained that before Harris left such experiments for life in a remote apple farm, his enthusiasms were often driven more by fiscal pragmatism than by utopian excess, since "everything is free except the video we own." In this way Harris "anticipated standard practice," since "everyone lives in public" in the pods created by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, who reigns over four hundred million participants rather than Harris's hundred or hundred and fifty.

Bogost reminded the audience that Rorty himself was suspicious of "cautionary techno-tragedies" and that it was no accident that he began the book Achieving Our Country with an unflattering comparison of novels like Snow Crash to the earlier socialist novels that effected real change. For Rorty this opposition showed the difference between spectators and agents. Bogost argued that although We Live in Public is nonfiction, the dystopia in Harris’s online studio in which "any idiot can live in public."

Then Bogost criticized the current paradigm of "the public intellectual," as he argued that Rorty presented a much more serious challenge to us and for us "to think in public" and not in the way in which "public intellectual" functions in the present day "more as an armband than as a badge." He mocked what he has elsewhere called "the turtlenecked hairshirt" of contemporary intellectualism that purported to offer the public "sweet ripe berries" that are more superior to their mass-market "preserves." He also drew attention to the small proportions represented by "the public intellectual’s public," which encompassed readers of periodicals like American Prospect, The Nation, Dissent, New Republic, and The Atlantic. After drawing attention to the narcissist self-absorbed writer depicted in a typical Charlie Kaufman film, Bogost asked "Are we just kissing babies?" Bogost did not want to spare his audience from confronting the possibility that academic production merely represents a "futures market hedge" or a "sordid indulgent liberalism of the liberal arts." As Bogost put it bluntly, "Thinking in public is orthogonal to scholarly life," and "the public intellectual is an oxymoron." Although "intellectual rigor" is used as an honorific in the academy, Bogost pointed out that it was really a form of grotesque rigor mortis that most would shun.

Then Bogost turned his attention to the need for what he called a "post-autistic philosophy" that is more than an "exercise in inner pedantry." He charged that the philosophical profession, as it was normalized by the APA, had made "doing philosophy" little more than hunting for "weaknesses in arguments" rather than an offering of "imaginative, illuminating redescriptions." He used Rorty's own words to poke fun of a stereotype that he has compared to the character of "comic book guy" in the animated television show The Simpsons. Such a person is a quintessential "nerd pedant" designed to lampoon "the nitpicking of the Internet in general." Bogost asserted that this nitpicking was certainly put on display in the blog comments about Rorty’s death that followed the "Rorty has died" announcement on the web. He also insisted that it was manifested in the academy's reactions to Rorty in general as a philosopher, in an academic culture in which "'discourse' is brand name for a device to manufacture petty snipes."

Although Bogost is an avowed, anti-correlationalist, reader of actor network theory, and object-oriented ontologist, he argued that Rorty made a number of significant contributions to intellectual history, three of which he enumerated in his talk.

1) Irony: Bogost praised the fact that "Rorty’s ironist is a good conversationalist," one who participates in "listening" and is "skeptical of private enclaves and zones." His attachment to any particular coterie was just as incidental to his profession as the fact that "a plumber is a Cincinnati Bengals fan." Bogost lauded Rorty's ability to move between the "analytic autocracy and the continental commune" with the canny mobility of Thomson's "coyote." Although many might reduce his contributions to assertions that "Rorty tried to change philosophy and failed" or Rorty was "hoisted on the petard on his own pragmatism," Bogost thought that Rorty recognized that "the purpose of philosophy is escape." (At this point, Bogost actually showed a slide in his beautifully illustrated talk of a stock photo of the escape key with legs.) He reiterated his praise of the idea of "the great outdoors" in intellectual life, and pointed out that "Rorty admired birds instead of propositions."

2) Liberalism: Bogost explained how Rorty's pragmatism issued from Dewey, but he also had "no projects to propose to America"and "no vision" that would lead to close-mindedness. Rorty was, of course, a pragmatist taken with "unabashed patriotism" who was interested in "incremental reform," the "reduction of cruelty," and a greater understanding of "solidarity." Yet he recognized that "philosophy is not the handmaid of politics" and was aware that "liberal politics could add blinders." In acknowledging the difference between ontology and ethics, Bogost argued that Rorty also acknowledged that "the public is a big place."

3) The Linguistic Turn: Bogost described how "Rorty’s contingencies are rooted in vocabularies. Bogost admitted that he admired this aspect of Rorty's work, as a "lapsed Derridian" himself. (Like Thomson, Bogost also attended some of Derrida's seminars at UC Irvine.)

In a time in which scholarly pursuits have become more about "chasing trends more than culturing inspiration," Bogost worried that Rorty's digital archive might merely serve as a kind of vapid curiosity like the praxinoscope. In understanding the writing process both of Rorty and for writers in general, Bogost argued that Rorty's digital files "are really not documents at all." For Bogost, all of the faxes, ledgers, and uninscribed door posting that Rorty created were "not just objects but also things" that were "born as stuff multitudinous" to be appreciated as more than just "digital, textual exhaust." He warned that many theorists of digitality could be "just as reductionistic" as previous theorists of language, particularly when they don't interrogate phrases like "in the cloud" or think about the actual platforms involved in computational production. Bogost insisted that Rorty's files are fundamentally "not documents but entanglements" that include "password reminders" and "browser standards." He worried that the model presented for file systems presented digital archives "like libraries" when perhaps -- in the spirit of Rorty's own wish that he had spent more of his life of poetry -- "like bestiaries or like Walmarts."

Bogost closed by arguing that we "need a new irony." As a good ironist, it is worth noting that during his talk, Bogost punctuated his presentation with several lists of things that philosophers might want to interrogate or which could be seen as representative of the possibilities of this "great outdoors" that he was promoting. Bogost has actually created a Latour Litanizer where users can generate their own poetical lists.

Update: Bogost has posted a brief appreciation of the conference and the many lively exchanges of the day here.

More Updates: Bogost's paper has now been posted here.

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