“The Nation-state deals in bodies”: Blood Sacrifice, (Digital) Textuality, and memes

I’ve been reading Technological Visions: The Hopes and Fears That Shape New Technology by Marita Sturken and Douglas Thomas. It’s a collection from 2004 which contains a really diverse set of work on technology, politics and society. The piece in it that has really stayed with me, and kept cropping up in my thinking this week, is Carolyn Marvin’s Peaceable Kingdoms and New Information Technologies. Marvin’s main argument is that digital forms of communication don’t have the power to reconfigure borders, or to challenge the basis of institutionalized power, because they are bloodless. Nation-states have always been founded on the sacrifice of blood – war – in order to establish communities. The imagined communities of nationhood, she states, citing Benedict Anderson, need some bond to imagine before they can start imagining, thinking and writing about it. Marvin views the essential catalyst of national community as the letting of blood from the body, the death of citizens in defense of the nation, because it is this which is the foundation of a national bond.

Marvin has written extensively on this concept before (see her and David Ingle’s Blood Sacrifice and The Nation) but here the discussion is focused on the relation of digital forms to the nation state.  Marvin focuses on the difference between textuality and embodiment, with the later being constructed as the hallowed face-to-face that is seen as a tangibly different mode of communicating. “At the level of lived existence, social structure is visibly anchored by conventions of proper social distance in face-to-face exchanges between persons of similar or different statuses.” The face is the thing which keeps people together, and also the thing which establishes the “proper” distance of social behaviour. I won’t go into the Face as a theoretical/theological concept here, but certainly it’s at the foundation of Marvin’s argument about nation states – that proximity to blood sacrifice is the embodied situation which makes the imagining of nation-state by the citizen possible:

Nation-states are not simply well-coordinated daydreams of language and information. They are communities of moral obligation whose members’ bodies are committed to mutual common defense
Where connections are attenuated by distance and mediated through texts – in the sprawling industrialized nations where readers of this essay are likely to live – ties of compelling psychological and social power must be generated in the absence of physically intimate bonds that unite members of face-to-face communities.

That “moral obligation” is manifest in contrasting ways: see the UK in these recent weeks after the EU referendum. Hate crimes are forms of extremely reductive “mutual common defense”, based on a crude moral obligation that is about justifying the sacrifice of the nation: You’re not allowed to share in our sacrifice, because it’s impossible that you spill your blood for the nation – because it’s the wrong blood – so fuck off back to your own national sacrificial altar. In reality, it is refugees and stateless peoples who are the sacrificial fodder upon which nation-states subsist.

The second part of the above quotation is what refutes the power of the digital text, the text which is defined by the distances between those who read it and the mediation of the platforms through which it is experienced. There’s an assumption by Marvin, I think, about the efficacy of texts through their sharing, in that the text which is digital can be shared, but such a mechanism doesn’t automatically come with the presence of the face. The giving of a book, or leaflet, or pamphlet, in-person, comes with the face always there.

For Marvin, digital communities can’t challenge the imagined communities of nation-states, because “digital texts are abstracted from the bodies that produce and receive them […] they are endlessly duplicated and effortlessly distributed.” The body, the site of power for the nation state, is “the real treasure of the community”. “Texts can recall stuff” but don’t have “real bodies to back them, as gold backs currency”. Taking Marvin’s argument further, she seems to suggest there is an effortlessness, a lack of friction, in the digital (we have to ask what the nature of that “abstraction” is). I would suggest this is not a lack of embodiment, because all digital acts are first of all embodied acts, but currently could be seen as a lack of the trace or signifier of embodiment? Which means that digital acts lack the ethical weight of the body? My thinking isn’t clear here. I’m just not sure it’s as easy as saying textual/digital = abstract, body/blood = real, but by this I don’t necessarily mean to refute the idea the nation state deals in bodies.

Toward the end of the essay, Marvin suggests that digital networks, or other forms of textuality, might one day challenge the nation-state, but only when there is a path from abstracted digital texts to the body, one which will be established through violence:

The more citizens are strangers, the more dramatic and compelling – the more violent – must be the rituals that elicit their willingness to sacrifice despite (and frequently in defiance of) family, religion, and other body-based affiliations that compete for moral supremacy and have the capacity to derail or destroy national purpose.

I’m not going to think through the above in detail here, because I’m running out of time and this is already a bit long, but Marvin’s thoughts made me think of a recent piece by Aria Dean. It examines memes and blackness, and was published in a new magazine dealing with the nature of digital forms, Real Life. Discussing the bodiless nature of memes, Dean refers to the artist Hannah Black’s comments about modernity and embodiment:

We use words like modern and contemporary to signal changes in the arrangement of meaning of images. But I wonder if we could put more pressure on these apparent novelties if we could situate the present in this long history of circulating bodies.

This circulation of bodies is linked by Dean to the Middle Passage: “From the Middle Passage onward, we have been in circulation — shipped as goods to the new world, circulated throughout the Americas as labor, circulating ourselves as fugitives.”

Memes, though – perhaps the ultimate digital text – are posited in this piece as engines of movement which create a network which is beyond the state: “[t]he meme moves so quickly and unpredictably as to establish a state(lessness?)”. This boundlessness, this metaphysical rejection of the border, means that “[f]or blackness, the meme could be a way of further figuring an existence that spills over the bounds of the body, a homecoming into our homelessness.” You’ll have to go read the piece, but it seems that some digital forms, such as the meme, are no longer as abstracted from the nature of the body, and bodily sacrifice, as might initially be the case.

race/ anonymity/ porn – Ethics and the Internet in Zadie Smith’s NW

I’m starting some work on Zadie Smith this summer, specifically her novel NW (2012). It seems to me to be the first attempt by a British author to directly address what it means to use the Internet, or to communicate digitally, and to ask (if only partially) how digital forms lead to a recalibration of ethical boundaries (or an augmenting of the possible acts available to us). This work comes after my draft first chapter, where I was trying to pick a route through digitality, literary ethics, modernism and twenty-first century literature, to set up a critical foundation from which to proceed. It tried to do too much at once – obviously – but the process was useful at least.

Part of what I was attempting to say in that first bit of writing, though, was that it is valuable to think about stuff written in the twenty-first century through the prism of the technological. Looking at texts from the modernist period in this way – Virginia Woolf, Henry James – highlights some important cultural conflicts, political anxieties and ethical concerns. Modernist writers were attempting to transcribe, translate or put into a form the relationship that society had with new mechanical and electrical stuff which created new ways of seeing the world. And there was a politics of expression that went along with that – which meant that a modernist perspective was often coupled with an acceptance that new technologies couldn’t be shunned, but must be understood, seen as an essential part of the cultural fabric, maybe even worshipped. Smith’s novel is one that understands this impulse. The difference in the contemporary period is that the technology, the new thing, is not only mechanical or electronic but the digital.

NW is a novel that testifies to the ubiquitous nature of digital interactions. It confirms the centrality of digital forms to many elements of lived experience. Most simply, mentions of digital forms of communication are littered throughout the book, as might be expected of the realist mode in which Smith tends to write. Characters get out their phones, look at websites, sit at laptops. The ills of technology are drably agreed upon during a dinner party by faceless guests.

Critically, a digital form of communication works as a central plot device, creating perhaps the defining moment of conflict in a novel which is generally more interested in the quotidian or the points when characters notice time passing. The central character, who changes her name from Keisha to Natalie, performs a sexual transgression which is primarily a digital one. In a section knowingly entitled Love in the ruins, she cheats on her husband with two young men in a “50s semi” in Wembley, facilitated by a “listings” website, on which she is known by the handle WildInWembley and her email address is KeishaNW. The freedom Keisha/Natalie finds in this particular form of communication is that of temporarily leaving her role as head of household and “big lady jesus” lawyer. Having changed her name once, the textual avatars she uses online refer back to her previous identity. In one sense, the online space provides a place where Keisha can perform an identity that she feels she can no longer materially embody – she has moved on too far from her family and her upbringing. At the same time, in the “listings” website she is “BF [black female] 18-35” – she becomes a sought after sexual fantasy, a racially-defined fetish for couples and naive young men. “Why?” asks the narrative “What do they think we can do? What is it we have that they want?” This, however, is as far as the narrative goes in questioning the racial biases of the “listings” website. Keisha turns up at the house of drug addicts, and then later a moneyed bourgeois couple – on both occasions the sex is cancelled, the first because the couple are too high, and the second because Keisha is not able to, in that moment, satisfactorily separate her status as fetish from her life as Natalie, the professional.

There is more to be said about the extant presentation of digital forms in this novel, not least the fact that Keisha’s use of the website is a) described in flat, quotidian terms (“She went to the website. She went to bed”) which perhaps reflects a complacent, liberal understanding of the Internet as a utopian space. There is also the Chat Roulette used by the men that Keisha engages in sexual activity with, whom she chastises (“Boys, boys, why are we doing this? You’ve got the real thing right here.”)The political dimensions of the digital forms seem essentially flat, impotent. “Look, there is raceanonymity, and porn online” the text seems to say, “isn’t it terrible?”

I’ll finish this piece about my initial ideas with what I think is the most important engagement with digitality in the novel, a chat dialogue between Keisha and Leah which is printed in the text itself. From one perspective, it’s just another epistolary gimmick (Exhibit B being Smith’s On Beauty, where she re-imagines the opening letter of Howards End as an e-mail). But I would argue the effect is more radical than that, that there is evidence that this particular passage says a lot about the different ways of seeing that this particular digital form facilitates and how they are transformed when it is fixed into the pages of a print novel:

shut it blake
That’s just so fucking FASCINATING
Hello hanwell DARLING. What brings you to the internets this
fine afternopn
woman next to me picking nose really getting in there
tried to call but you no answer

This can be viewed as rupturing the form of the novel, because it cancels the normally ever present omniscient-third-person voice, one which is highlighted in ironic asides or philosophical observations. It becomes absence here, where in the rest of the novel it is either explicit or dropped into at certain moments. As such, the computer-mediated-communication, the tangible presence of this particular layout, this peculiar form, emphasises the absence of the controlling, omniscient voice. It becomes an ethical encounter which lacks the mediating presence of the novel. Any mediation or distance between the reader and characters comes in the form of the permanent appearance of a normally permeable (or alterable) textual form – the chat dialogue. It is in the midst of these textual tensions that an important ethical question is raised:


lady jesus I am getting married
on may
that’s great! When did this happen???
Six in registry same like u but irth actyl guests
I’m really happy for you seriously
Actual guests.
Iz for mum really.
also, I really love him.
lust him.
Important to him and he wants to.
It’s what people do innit.
sorry clerk one min
enough reasons?

The important ethical question, although one of privilege and bourgeois choice – should I marry this man – is never answered by Keisha, and the reader might choose to assume the veracity of her need to suspend the conversation for work. (Incidentally, both characters are at work, in the kind of jobs which afford them basically unobstructed internet access. I can’t work out what to say about this yet past the fact that internet is not a magical world but another aspect of material living conditions from which you can be alienated/prevented from accessing). Keisha couldn’t answer her phone, so Leah tells her using an instantaneous message. Later, the irony of the speed of the message is emphasized when she complains that the two of them are getting old. A moment of life-changing significance – one which a reader might explain a realist novel to make more of – happens instantly – should-I-get-married is not, “a different kind of moment” as Leah describes the Kierkegaardian “instant” earlier in the novel. The mediated nature of their interaction influences the ways there are of reading their relationship, changes the ethical possibilities available for knowing their relationship. For example, when Keisha asks Leah about having children, her emoji response changes the texture of the exchange:


Does this mesn
Mean procreation??

The emoji shifts the mode signification – it’s a familiar element of internet discourse, but it’s unfamiliar when fixed in the pages of a novel. Face, and the presentation of the face as an important element of the way that human beings relate to each other, is foregrounded here, as it is throughout the novel. The smiley face of Keisha is, perhaps, an over-determined signifier. It appears to represent her inarticulacy, and her desire to mask seriousness with humour, yet it also tells us she has an understanding of internet culture and language patterns (she welcomes Leah to “the Internets” earlier in this section). Leah’s reaction is comic, but also neutralizes the seriousness of the question which is then not addressed again – a question which is arguably the ethical dilemma which defines Leah’s character. The smiley alters the ethical terrain of the interaction – and the two characters suppress or change the direction of the conversation. The digital format of this interaction means the effects of it are stark, because the ethical ground on which it happens is unfamiliar.

Much more could be said about this passage, in terms of its poetics, the way that the text-as-novel consciously manipulates the form of the communication (the knowing line breaks, the lack of time stamps, the switching between standard and non-standard English, the asynchronicity of the communication , the presence or absence of a Levinasian version of the face). But I’d best stop, and start reading again.

Ideas That Are Floating Around 1#

Trying to get some of my thoughts, as well as thoughts stolen from influenced by other people, in order (or perhaps more accurately “in a list so that they resemble order”) to make it feel like I’ve made progress:

  • Digitality – the constant use of digital networks devices – is ubiquitous in post-industrial societies. It influences ethics and politics in ways which are novel, challenging, and in many cases, illegible – or we hope it does/we’re told it can.
  • Digitality does different stuff to previous technology, because it works at speeds far greater than previous tech. Although from one perspective, “the digital age” or “the information age” is actually just a sped up version of previous technological ages  – and it’s a fallacy to think that we transition peacefully from one to the other, or that there’s ever a moment where everyone is caught up. (Kind of like the relationship between modernism and post-modernism, perhaps) I don’t think it’s hard, though, to say “look at all this cool new game-changing digital stuff”.
  • This acceleration of reality (cf. Virilio, Crary) means the merging of/coming together/combining of atoms and bits (Jurgenson). We think about life in terms of networks and connectivity now – bits shape our understanding of time (i.e. has the data sent yet, will this connect, this is taking too long because the connection is slow). This doesn’t mean atoms have been or are being replaced, or that we now like purely though information or data, but rather that our material experiences are supplemented by and often augmented by digital interfaces.
  • WARNING this is to say not that the digital is a different world to the ‘real’, a kind of binary or dualistic thinking about digitality (which, in fact, we could say is a form of othering). In fact, the above means to assert that digitality is central to everyday experience, or the quotidien. When we act online, we constitute – or perform  (and I need to read some more Butler) – ourselves in ways which are coherent with actions that are not on the Internet, or not mediated by digital devices and networks.
  • The main result of this coming together – the thing which underlies most of the consequences, conflicts and positive things which happen when loads of interaction is mediated by digitality – is that there is a change in what it means to be present.
  • That is, presence in a digital sense simultaneously becomes absence . This means that our understanding of what it means to be somewhere – and thus to be able to pay attention to or experience that place – has changed, to contain competing elements, or perhaps to the point where there’s an ethical hierarchy of actions which are embodied (i.e. happen in what we might difficulty call ‘real life’) and actions which are digitally mediated. And if digitality is a part of everyday life, it means our everyday understanding has changed too. That is, lived experience AND the way that we make-up for the fact that we can’t see someone has, gradually, become something else entirely.
  • We could go to sociology to help understand this – and a lot of people have done. But I (and others much better than me at arguing) would argue that literary texts, especially since old, proper hard Modernism, has made understanding or transcribing our relationship with technology its own job.
  • The point is, if there’s a change in what it means to be present, this change must have been reflected in literary texts.
  • The most appropriate way to address and think about the ways that digitality is represented in texts is to consider the ethical status of the digital interactions in these texts, because ultimately questions about the role of digitality revolve around ideas about what is meant by acting online, or what kind of ethical weight it holds.
  • Critics must do justice to the ethos of text which makes digital experience central to its image of life but making the understanding of digital experience central to its critique. This means a critical examination of texts which make these sorts of ethical questions about technology central to the way that they work and effect the reader.
  • This does not mean science fiction, however (including Dave bloody Eggers). We used the word everyday, earlier. The idea of transcribing and thinking about digitality must not be made devoid of a political understanding.
  • Writing about technology, even the most critical works, often reinstates a politics which considers the human being as a template drawn from powerful human beings. What digital networks have the capacity to threaten – I think – is established power, in certain forms.
  • The issue is that marginalised or oppressed subjects do not have their experience of digitality effectively written, or rather it is subsumed by a grand dystopian impulse – “oh how terrible this is for all humanity.” (looking at you again, Dave).
  • Related to this is the idea that spectatorship is encouraged by digitality, and that spectatorship is something that means we have no effective action or intervention – merely Oh Dearism. What does it mean to spectate online rather than understanding, intervening or engaging? And is that all that digital forms engender, spectation? And is this spectation really a new thing? And isn’t that all that reading really becomes, especially in literary circles? And aren’t we spectating on the spectator when we read about digitality?
  • Is a wholly digital intervention possible?
  • Who are the writers trying to answer this? Or are they all hiding from the idea that internet experience is vital, now and always.
  • Search engines are an ideological tool. They alter ontologies of knowing. We use them everyday.
  • Online behaviour is detached because of change in presence – does this mean that the mediated self needs to change/alter or that digital interfaces need to change in order to make them quote more human unquote.

/out of steam

“Fantasmic Digital Insularity” – Jonathan Crary’s 24/7

While zipping up to Lincoln and back last week for What Happens Now, I’ve been getting in a bit of Jonathan Crary’s 24/7 (thank Gari). It’s a book that’s been on my “must get round to reading that” list for months. I’m talking mainly about the second chapter here, although there are some general comments about the work as a whole.

Crary’s main thesis is that the concept of 24/7 is the dominant aspect of present-day capitalism, and that this should be central to critical thought about the control structures of the twenty-first century. It’s an emotional and intelligent polemic, given to poetic and arresting claims: “[a]n illuminated 24/7 world” is one “without shadows” – “the final capitalist mirage of post-history, of an exorcism of the otherness that is the motor of historical change.”  Crary’s reading is politically-driven and motivated by a desire to emphasize the ideological violence at the heart of a 24/7 world.

The main issues defining contemporary living are contained in the fact that present-day capitalism must ultimately see sleep as an affront to its ideological workings. The 24/7 society is, as it were, always on, and as such temporal boundaries become blurred. It undermines distinctions “between action and repose” creating “a zone of insensibility, of amnesia, of what defeats the possibility of experience “. This reminded me of Paul Virilio, and certainly there’s a lot of overlap here in thinking about his concept of “accelerated reality” or “electronic optics”. Beware, says Crary, it is not the tech devices themselves, but the structures of experience which they permit that contain the substance of control:

The idea of technological change as quasi-autonomous, driven by some process of auto-poesis or self-organization, allows many aspects of contemporary social reality to be accepted as necessary, unalterable circumstances, akin to facts of nature [as well as the] [c]oncealment of the most important techniques invented in the last 150 years: the various systems for the management and control of human beings.

Certainly this kind of critical perspective is important during a period where there is an incessant digitizing throughout post-industrial – or in Bernard Stiegler’s words, quoted by Crary, hyperindustrial – society. He emphasizes that digital products are given a constantly regenerating veneer of novelty, in order to promote a form of “self-administration” which ultimately results in the individual becoming an application for processes and controls. There is a lot to nod along to when reading this appraisal of digital products, although we might want to remove the word “exclusive” from the following:

There is an ever closer linking of individual needs with the functional and ideological programs in which each new product is embedded. “Products” are hardly just devices or physical apparatuses, but various services and interconnections that quickly become the dominant or exclusive ontological templates of one’s social reality.

This does bring us to one of the problems with Crary’s argumentation. He suggests that one of the central problems with writing about new media is that it puts its focus in the wrong place, on the devices and products themselves, “the particular operation and effects of specific new machines or networks”. More important for him are questions about “how the rhythms, speeds, and formats of accelerated and intensified consumption are reshaping experience and perception.” This lapse into generality causes some problems later in the chapter, as well as pointing clearly away from the more convincing political reading of technological structures towards something like Heidegger’s essence of technology.

The main issue is that Crary then makes reference to specific concepts of digital experience – internet pornography, online gambling and video gaming – which arguably require a focus on the specific devices of consumption in order to understand the way their “rhythms” have changed. His dismissive tone when discussing how writing on new media goes out of date doesn’t acknowledge the role that thinking about hardware plays in larger questions about technological structures. Crary focuses, after all, on “products” earlier on in the text, and makes explicit references to the current giants of tech Google and Microsoft throughout.

The obvious counter-argument  here is that the “rhythms” and “speeds” of digital consumption cannot be thought separately from the very materiality of the devices that condition such consumption. Crary’s apparent desire for separation turns, then, into a question about form and content, one which he doesn’t satisfactorily address. Perhaps this is part of the bigger picture though, pointing as it does towards a form of difficult liminality, a condition which is related to sleep in the closing chapter of the book.

I would take further issue, though, with the  closing comments at the end of Chapter 2, which seem to shift Crary’s otherwise interesting polemic onto a more tired side of the debate about new technologies. There is, it seems to me, a further difficulty in drawing boundaries. After denigrating the “intellectually spurious” work of technophilic writers such as Esther Dyson, Nicholas Negroponte and Kevin Kelly, Crary argues for the kind of anti-technology stance which feels reactionary and unthinking:

Real-life activities that do not have an online correlate begin to atrophy, or cease to be relevant. There is an insurmountable asymmetry that degrades any local event or exchange. Because of the infinity of content accessible 24/7, there will always be something online more informative, surprising, funny, diverting, impressive than anything in one’s immediate actual circumstances. It is now a given that a limitless availability of information or images can trump or override any human scale communication or exploration of ideas.

This assertion – for it is an assertion – relies on the same logic of the apparently intellectually spurious authors of technophilic persuasion that Crary dismisses. Any interrogation of the rather cloudy noun phrase “human scale communication” leads down the path to a suspiciously safe liberal-humanism. It also relies on the notion that the relationship between “life” and the “digital” is a dualistic one, a perspective convincingly challenged by contemporary writers on tech (see Nathan Jurgenson here). The above is a totalizing statement about online activity which is reductive of the ways in which social media supplements or influences behaviour, as opposed to replacing it. More critically interesting would be to consider the way that activities which don’t take place online are discussed and represented online. Far from the idea that these activities either do or don’t “have an online correlate” a more nuanced and accurate critical perspective would be to view “online” behaviours as working in combination with “offline” behaviours. The line is blurred. We do not find limitation on the inside of the screen and exploration on the outside. Crary here is actually not far from the technophilic writers he calls the “academic watchdogs”, those which he says police views critical of the technopoly. I don’t disagree that pro-tech writing is often lacking in critical reflection, I just don’t think the way to challenge it is to write polemic which does the same.

Although Crary seems to be one of the most politically-engaged and in many ways clear-sighted writers on the subject, here he throws his lot in with Sherry Turkle et al, those other watchdogs of the human subject. As we find later in the text, being against the problems of twenty-first century capitalism means, apparently, being against the entire concept of digitality, because within digital forms “a sociality outside of individual self-interest becomes inexorably depleted, and the interhuman basis of public space is made irrelevant to one’s fantasmic digital insularity.” I fear that Crary’s view of the digital spaces we inhabit is too limited, and the arguments here would be improved by some acknowledgement of the possibilities for digital communities to augment and support unity between individuals. The problem for Crary seems to be that the very boundary he makes firm – between “real life” and the world of digital capitalism – is too rigid.