May 29, 2010

Is Virtual Suicide even Possible?

May 25, 2010

Can there be a better example of the seemingly inescapable nature of digital culture, of the house-of-mirrors logic of simulation inherent in social networking sites and the internet in general, than the false promise of freedom offered by advocates of virtual or “Facebook suicide”? The site Seppukoo (a phoneticizaiton of the Japanese word for the form of ritual suicide practiced by the Samurai) claims to counter what its creators see as the commoditization of our social and private lives online by offering an application that will deactivate one’s Facebook account and redirect friends to a personalized memorial page. The contradiction inherent in this process is revealed in the manner that the Seppukoo virtual “community” is modeled after Facebook itself, with a user’s status increasing according to how many of his former friends are convinced by his act to commit virtual self-destruction themselves. The act of removing oneself from the narcissistic web of digital culture thus instantly re-inscribes one in the selfsame logic of simulation, with the ability to re-activate one’s Facebook account always present as a means for resurrecting one’s online presence.

Despite the Seppukoo site’s flaunting of the cease-and-desist order it claims Facebook has issued, it would not be surprising to this author if the application were revealed to have been issued with the tacit approval of Facebook itself, as a means of negotiating its current controversies over privacy settings. In this context, the opportunity for Facebook suicide (and an equally dramatic resurrection, when loneliness sets in) becomes just another spectacular, digitally public event–a kind of pressure release valve that will allow disgruntled users to rediscover just how much they need social networking sites in their lives.

What would be truly subversive is the application a friend of mine described, which would use one’s Facebook account to eradicate all postings, pictures and traces of activity recorded in triplicate on the three separate databases that I have been told Facebook uses to store its data. After accomplishing this uprooting of one’s online presence, the account would be permanently shut down, and the digital equivalent of a “do not resuscitate” order inscribed on the Facebook servers. According to my source, this application existed, for a time, but was promptly suppressed by Facebook, as its’ providing a true reversibility of one’s digital existence ran contrary to the interests of Facebook to accumulate, and capitalize upon, the masses of personal data gathered about its users.

This type of application, whether it ever really existed or not, seems to approximate the violent removal of the subject from the hegemonic field that Slavoj Zizek describes in his paraphrasing of Badiou’s idea of “subtraction”. In this theory, the subtracting of oneself from the field of constantive power relations has the dramatic effect of revealing the hidden reciprocities between seemingly contradictory subject positions, thus exposing the usually hidden tensions in the totality of the ideological framework (see First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. p.128). But perhaps this, also, is too strong a claim: the logic of simulation upon which social networking sites are based quickly fills in any “holes” in the fabric of hyper-reality with its nigh-limitless supply of content, and it would take a critical mass of users to “drop out” for this to have any noticeable effect.

Perhaps the true “third way” out of this predicament is to performatively embrace the logic of simulation itself, while undermining it from within through, say, simply not participating in divulging any actual information about oneself. “Friending” perfect strangers, creating bogus accounts and false online identities and disseminating false or trivial information via these networks exposes the simulated nature of our reified online identities, though these tactics could have unintended and unwanted effects in one’s realworld life. To this extent an “account swap” tactic whereby users exchange passwords and impersonate other users, if performed by enough people, would have the effect of destabilizing the entire system. But why mess with a good thing? We love the attention, and the ability to attend to our friends and acquaintances. And without these sites, where would we be able to find and share funny stuff?

Gone Skatin

May 21, 2010

Signal Jackers

May 17, 2010

I will have you know, dear reader, that I am currently writing this in my kitchen, where my cable internet connection hath no reach, and so I’m taking advantage of one of my neighbours’ “D-link” unsecured signals. Which amounts to a small act of bandwidth piracy on my part, though I am scrupulous not to download voluminous material and so contribute to what might be an added charge on this person’s monthly service bill.

But it turns out that covert signal thieves like myself are not the only pirates out there, and that the Google Street View vans that have been prowling city streets since 2007 have been collecting more than just pictures of the city and its people. Thanks to questions from privacy enquirers in Hamburg, Germany who nonchalantly asked a Google employee what the hard drive in their Street View vehicles are set up to contain, it became public knowledge last week that Google has been recording data transmitted over unsecured wireless signals as its vehicles roam the neighbourhoods of the developed world. This means that simple, text-based messages such as e-mail and, yes, blogpostings, have been recorded and archived alongside Google’s vast storehouse of books, images and photos of city streets.

Google claims that it has been doing this “mistakenly”, which it seems far fetched to read as “accidentally”, since how does one set up a fleet of vehicles to “inadvertantly” collect private information from people’s wireless internet communications and navigations? I guess that “mistakenly” in this context means something like “deviously” and “unethically”, as it is entirely unclear how the inclusion of this spy technology in the Street View arsenal could simply be part of their desire Google to “help improve its mapping products”.

But this revelation does answer a question that has been nagging me since I first learned about the whole Street View project not one month ago. After navigating the amazing software that allows one to prowl, as disembodied observer, the streets of cities across the world, I wondered to myself the possible motivation a big company like Google would have for embarking on what can only be an extremely expensive, large scale project of this sort. Surely it had to be more than a simple techno-utopian desire to create a virtual map of the world. Perhaps it was an instance of what Derrida named “archive fever”, or the ultimately self-defeating desire to save everything.

But now it seems that a darker, though not unrelated motive for the project has surfaced: Google does want to save as much of our discursive culture as possible, even to the point of intruding into the private lives of hundreds of thousands of citizens. I am reminded of the German film of 2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others in which a popular and successful playwright in East Germany in the eighties is put under surveillance by the Stasi secret police. The end of this film brings us to a period after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the protagonist Goerg Dreyman gains access to his own Stasi file and learns, for the first time, the extent to which his living space had been monitored. The difference between this scenario and Google’s systematic surveillance is that, with the fall of the failed Socialist utopian projects, there no longer exists a sense of there being a possible “outside” or “end” to the systems of control that combine to form the contemporary social world.

It is difficult to imagine how, in the current vision of an expansive global capitalism, there could be a dissolving of state power of the kind that allowed for the “liberation” of the East German people and the opening of the Stasi police archives as a national museum and monument to the “bad old days”. I’m not saying that such an eventuality is impossible in the modern context, just that we have no imaginative categories, short of the apocalyptic disaster scenario, in which a similar liberation narrative might be constructed.

Remember the scene in one of the original series of Planet of the Apes TV shows when the human and ape protagonists stumble upon a computer mainframe still functioning in a vault beneath the ruins of New York city? Now imagine that the scientists who have been stranded in this alternative future are from the current decade, and that the computer they find just happens to be a Google machine full of information collected by its Street View cars. The heroes are astounded to discover an archive collecting the private lives of a vanished civilization, but in looking further into the data, they discover that it was Google itself that supplied the information used by the mutated apes to undermine and ultimately enslave their human masters.

We are living in an age of unprecedented opportunities for the surveillance and control of populations, but, like the naively idealistic Dreyman in The Lives of Others, we remain smug in the belief that our own good fortune and abilities somehow exempt us from this general circumstance. And this, in the end, is the process of hegemony, whereby we are willing to relinquish hard won freedoms for the illusory promise of greater security or, what’s worse, for a technological gimmick that allows us to spy on friends and neighbours from afar.

Iron Man II

May 12, 2010

Last night while watching Robert Downey Jr. channel an American fantasy of techno-capiltalist individualism while Scarlett Johansson efficiently dispatched teams of enemy goons with her deadly kneecaps, the downtown theatre was unusually full. My friends and I were sitting near the centre of the theatre, and were surrounded by a sea of mostly young moviegoers eager to see men in suits of metal armor blow things to smithereens and have fabulous parties afterward. Iron Man II was a testosterone-soaked celebration of the military-industrial complex that saw private big business wedded to military bureaucracy in defense of the American way of life. I didn’t expect much else from this film, but I never cease to be amazed at the unabashedly ideological messages that remain hardly disguised beneath all the superheroics and curvaceous female leads.

Modernist faith in technological progress was an explicit theme of the film, but was signaled in a minor episode in which the egomaniac playboy Tony Stark, in one of his many callous attempts to irritate his aid and love interest Ms. Pepper-Pots (Gwyneth Platrow), replaces a small Barnett Newman painting hanging on his wall with a comicbook art poster of himself as Iron Man. This telling gesture points out the continuity between the modernist vision of a utopian present break with the past, for which the abstract expressionist movement, with its focus on pure form as its sole content, provided a defining aesthetic, and the post-modern cyborg fantasy embodied in Tony Stark as a man kept alive by the same nuclear-like technology that also produces “world peace” in the film through American military dominance. The utopian social vision inherent in the high art of modernist painting and the lowbrow culture of popular comics are here revealed to inhabit an ideological continuum despite the film’s vindictive gesture of supplanting the former by the latter.

Are those fireworks, or exploding soldier drones?

Another strange eruption of the film’s unconscious occurs at the climatic scene where Stark and his sidekick “war machine” (Don Cheadle) fight the baddie and his army of robot drones. The battle begins inside the geodesic dome at the centre of the Stark Industries Theme Park in a synthetic “natural” landscape that includes rolling green hillocks, fake looking trees and a cascading creek. By the time the heroes vanquish the Russian antagonsit Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) and his army of drones, the synthetic pastoral at the heart of the modernist futurtopia (which is actually a nostalgic retro-futurtopia, as it is built on the a model provided by Stark’s father in the fifties) has been devastated by fallout from the battle. The entire structure is then blown up when the vanquished drones self-detonate in one last attempt to thwart the American dream, but the attempted sabotage is triumphally recuperated when the attendant explosions produce a tableau of fireworks that brought to mind images of Disneyland that any Western child who has grown up within the last forty years would recognize. (One couldn’t help but wonder at the intentionality of this gesture, given Disney’s recent purchase of rights to the entire Marvel franchise).

But the element that truly lent this cinematic experience an air of surreality came from outside the screen, from the audience itself in the form of a disabled man sitting near the front of the theatre, who, excited by the film’s many scenes of action, mayhem and high-living, seemed to want to signal his enjoyment by emitting long strings of repetitious syllables and guttural exclamations. These unusual sounds mingled with the action of the film, producing a form of meta-soundtrack that I found to be strangely fitting. For, in a movie that depicts patriarchal, technological violence coupled with a fantasy of capitalistic agency, this vociferous audience member provided the human counterpoint to the ideological obfuscations produced by the film’s highly conservative plot and genre structures. As the man’s interjections continued, people sitting in the audience started to get annoyed, even standing up in their seats to try to locate the source of the disturbance. There was an unsettling moment when the audience became aware of itself as a mass, and I feared that some sort of violence might break out. Then, a young man sitting near the left aisle said “Sit the fuck back down. Let the guy do his thing and enjoy the film”, a gesture which mollified both the crowd and the man making the noise, and which made me strangely proud of the assembled group. I wonder, now, if the the disabled man, like Tony Stark, was aided in his living by some form of technological prosthesis, and if this individual saw himself mirrored, somehow, in the battling figures wreaking havoc via technology on the big screen.

Perched inside the hole of a giant, roof-top doughnut, Downey Jr. as Iron Man feels right at home.

In the film itself, the figures that Downey Jr’s character performs are all prototypes of individualistic striving and achievement: from when the playboy millionaire decides to pilot his own race car, to when he appropriates the roll of DJ at his birthday party, to when he singlehandedly constructs a particle accelerator in his laboratory, Tony Stark is the model of the lone genius or solitary hero. The fact that he joins forces with a “sidekick” to defeat the bad guy, and that he actually makes gestures towards monogamous commitment with Ms. Pepper-pot does not really diffuse the fact that Stark is a sort of idiot savant, a roll that works to screen the extent to which his existence is buttressed by and dependent upon the help of others. But the film is full of supporting characters who belie Stark’s narcissism, and the primary difference between the corporate playboy hero Stark and the antagonist CEO of Hammer industries (Justin Hammer played by Sam Rockwell), lies not in their degree of dependence on others, nor on motivations or behaviour, but rather on Stark’s charisma, media savy and fashion sense against Hammer’s cloying demeanor and slightly frumpy business attire.

In short, the semiotic value structure of the film is coded in terms of taste rather than morality, with a championing of the lowbrow but “slick” post-modernist sensibility of Stark against the aristocratic, awkward and “artificial” sensibilities of Hammer. It is strange that Rourke’s Slavic, cockatoo-loving, tattooed character should be consigned to Hammer’s company as the embodiment of all that resists incorporation into the auspices of late capitalist society (the tribal, the Old World, the physically deformed), but as the coupling of the Barnett Newman painting with the comic book poster illustrates, these binaries work in their opposition to conceal a continuum that supports the whole ideological structure in the first place.

Pick up and Read

April 29, 2010

Time spent reading is the best part of my day, and some of the best days are the ones that I can spend the better part of immersed in a book. The reason I am in school is that it is one of the few places that recognizes what I like to do as a form of labour. The by now expectable, defaultĀ  question from strangers about what I am doing with my time is “Where will that get you?” I need to think up a better answer than “Perhaps I will teach”– something like “It’s not about getting anywhere, it’s about staying where I am”, or, more to the point, “It’s about personal survival”. The problem is, to understand that answer, one needs to be the kind of person who has also managed to survive by reading, and those kind of people would not likely ask such a question in the first place.

But, if I may make a personal confession, reading has literally saved my life, probably more times than I am actually aware of, since, like homeopathic medicine, a steady consumption of books has likely staved off many precarious derangements of body and soul. But there have been other times when I have been laid so low by life’s crises that only books have been able to–I won’t say bring me back to life, since that is a process involving multiple factors, the most important of which seems to be human community–but at these pivotal times of crisis books have been the primary agent that has both preserved something crucial to human functioning and helped turn my mind away from whatever dark and perilous position it has found itself in.

"Hmmm...weak this plotline is."

For books, too, are a form of community, one that covers the entirety of recorded human history (and here we have to include the oral traditions of storytelling that preserved the first human communities through so many centuries of pre-textual existence). Books are a pact between the past and the future, an archive, if you will, of the human conscience itself. The artefacts contained in this collection are brought to life in the precarious balance of the present moment by people who like to read, who need to read, because humans are the storytelling animals on this planet.

Kulturbot will return

April 22, 2010

Extra! Extraneous!

April 19, 2010

A late night trip to the magazine rack!

Finishing a 25 page paper that you’ve been intently focused on for several days is a bit like surfacing from a diving bell that’s been sitting at the bottom of a lake: there’s a whole world up there that’s been going along on its merry way, and which an entire news industry will do its best to prevent you from noticing. For instance, I was shocked to discover that the Vatican has decided to forgive the Beatles for their wayward lifestyles and is finally admitting that Strawberry Fields is a catchy tune, regardless of whether the Sgt. Pepper’s album has sold more copies than the Bible or not. But I can’t imagine the Pope will ever forgive John Lennon for the humanistic messages of his solo career–doesn’t Nostradamus have some kind of prediction about that?

I don't get it.

Then there’s Time’s revisiting of the glories of World War Two, which must be some kind of strategy to booster support for the War on Terror, so we can get that over with and move on to the next excuse to kill people. And, if that wasn’t bad enough, Maclean’s had to resurrect an equal and inverse spectre, perhaps to deflect attention from the totalitarian tendencies of the current Canadian government. I should have stayed in the "homemaking" section.

And the National Post had a cover story about safari adventure vacations that I have no idea what to do with. As far as I can tell “The Real” is speeding by my neighbourhood 24 hours a day in form of five lanes of traffic contributing to local smog levels. Ok, maybe popping my head out from under the cover of my books wasn’t such a good idea after all!

But then Rebel Ink came to the rescue. Not only did it feature a picture of my future wife, there was a feature on skateboarding and punk legend Daune Peters. Peters has an ambition to cover his entire body with tattoos before he dies. He also has only six of his original teeth. I don’t know why I find this comforting after browsing through the other newsstand offerings, but I do. I guess tattoos are the opposite of newspapers: they don’t get replaced every day and they don’t give you the illusion of being “in touch” with the greater world. But you can, sometimes, read them on the bus. Which reminds me of a joke: what’s black and blue, red and blurry, and over forty?

Kultur Break

April 12, 2010

I’m setting the kulturbot surveillance satellite to “autopilot” for a while, in order to finish some term papers. With the observational filters set at their widest possible margin, it will be fun to see what images and sites of interest get stored in the bot-cache. If only the kulturbot platform could be reconfigured to write my schoolwork for me! But alas there seems to be, as of yet, no way around the necessity of human intervention. Please stay tuned for further transmissions…

Mixed Metaphors

April 6, 2010

Chapman’s “Canadian Vanilla, eh!” ice cream is gluten free, but may contain beaver by-products. The box instructs one to “slice with a hot knife to reveal the maple leaf”, which I can’t help but read as a metaphor for the violence inherent in nationalism. But eat this stuff quick because, as you will remember from high school, we’re a cultural mosaic, not a melting pot — and you wouldn’t want the colours of your ice cream to blend into a uniform pink goo!