Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Reading The Stack; A New Experiment in Writing

Since I pose as faculty for my day job, and since the student and faculty work I supervise is precisely delineated by the writing of Benjamin H. Bratton (roughly the realm of rhetorically straightjacketed TED - I will now waste no time to watch his TED talk on what's wrong with TED talks), in his recent book called The Stack, I am going to try something slightly new for me. I am going to annotate my reading here in public.

Already I'm over my head, since I use the word "delineated" to describe a piece of writing in a way that can only be ironic in relation to what the book is "about." But it has been my experience that writing, in and by the act of preserving for later access what might otherwise have been an active dialogic interaction between at least two similarly situated human individuals, destroys as much as it can preserve, maybe even in a fashion similar to what we call pickling (I like pickles fine).

This particular piece of writing announces near its outset that it won't even afford images, thereby raising another layer (another dangerous and uncontrollable word in this context here) to the book's confinement in the prison-house of (written) language.

I expect the read to be difficult, which is also why I feel the need to annotate my read, but it also feels almost excruciatingly promising. Here, finally might be a blueprint for the resistance we all seek. Here might be some explanation for both the global phenomenon of Trumpism and for his ultimate irrelevance of its name-sake.

We already did learn, thanks Barack, that the level of humanity of the occupant of the Oval Office of these United States makes hardly any difference. Bratton promises to describe and define the actual, though only metaphorically so-called, geography of the global systems in which we find ourselves.

At my outset, I wish to define and describe still more certain ironies than I already have. These resonate with the irony that my Windows machine takes far longer to wake up than to boot up (that's the machine I use 'at home') while my Mac which I use for work is almost never put to sleep. Did I say I'm having sleep troubles in my old age?

Bratton promises to help me to understand my alliances and allegiances by helping me to understand the actual order of the world, which has come upon us, so he tells us, quite by accident. I think some definition is in order here, about what is meant by "accident."

Now I've already said that as an academic I'm a poser. I continue in awe of those who actually do teach academic subjects. I myself diverted from the study of anything substantive at a somewhat early age, and have only ever been a proper academic as a teacher of the Chinese language. And I don't even believe that language-teaching is properly academic, sorry colleagues.

My initial bet has paid off ever so slightly, in that my decision to (nearly) master the language I chose mainly because of the distance from the familiar of its written form, has given some insights which my discipline-specific colleagues may sometimes lack.

Bratton's book is explicitly trans-disciplinary, but will draw, so says the author, on mostly those subject areas which would require other-than-text to be included: design, architecture, political geography, and many more. This trans-disciplinary piece of writing excludes anything but writing, and sets out to demonstrate that the world is now already in thrall to an order defined primarily by the writing of code, and that this new world order has come about not by design, but by accident.

At my outset, I admit to panic that my own mind has already been subsumed by the great machine in which I am embedded. I know that post-911 I still do rush to plug my ears in to NPR while driving, and scan the aggregated news each morning looking for sense in the Trumpian outrage. Bush dubya is sounding sensible, which is reason enough to get off the news-addiction and back into something more eternal. Writing, naturally.

Those technologies which make up Bratton's Stack are themselves understood to be the mechanisms which might deliver us from accident, right? Medical technologies will master disease, and Googly technologies might internalize the externalities of capitalist wealth-concentration which is sucking the planet dry, and we might even colonize space as a way to mitigate the depredations against still-externalized earth, on which all the technologies feed, at a rate to accelerate what humans started doing when we learned to cultivate and to farm.

The machine has become a life-force itself, Bratton seems to suggest by calling its structure accidental which must be some opposite to the deliberate planning of the farmer, and he promises to search for what a human might do to carve out a space for what we aspire to be, external to accident, eternal for our aspirations against what some do still name God. We must cultivate our world, and to do so we must find a way, properly, to describe it (as though farming ever required the Word, pre-agribusiness).

Stunningly in Chinese, there is no real space for a named and singular God, and no real meaning for accident as a meaningless (random) happenstance. There is instead a kind of acceptance of the limitation of mind, and meaning always, but not metaphorically, beyond the grasp of language. Accident is simply that which cannot be understood, not necessarily that which has no meaning. Sometimes letting go is the only way in to what is going on. The Dao that can be daoed is not the eternal Dao.

Here are the global ironies now, beyond those which might be described in this book I'm eager to read: China is a civilization-state, which defines itself not relative to borders but really relative to a kind of blood-line or racialist definition for culture. I know this because no matter how well I internalize Chinese language and traditions, I can never be Chinese.

A civilization-state may have valence relative to the Stack which is lacking for those of us still indulging dreams of secure borders, even while we cultivate within those walls murderous crazy tendencies among our faux-native populations. Our own irony is that we are, always have been, and always will be a nation of mongrels, and rate our strength on that. Red-blonde Donald may represent a longing for the stability of shoe-black Chairman Xi. The efficiency of straight talk, as though that has ever existed in Chinese. These ironies resonate to the point of a dangerous harmonic.

We have only borders to define ourselves, and only priority of entry to define native against intruder. Those of us who pay attention are in the grips of paranoia about the Surveillance State, while the Chinese are aware of it as a mostly benign presence which might single out the crazies while allowing those who exercise reasonable decorum in their state-facing activities a wider range of what we call free speech than those of us within the American boundaries who are restricted by political correctness.  So go some of the narratives.

Without meaning to denigrate the suffering of legions of Chinese conscripted for railway-building, and excluded by a a kind of prejudice even beyond that once deployed against the Irish, we oversimplify here always. Black as opposed to white. People of color, as opposed to some imagined norm, and for purposes of redress Chinese sometimes want to identify as people of color even while out-whiting the whites (does that still include the Jews?) for access to our machines of exclusion (overheard at a faculty-meeting yesterday afternoon, when the discussion turned to 'what's up with diversity and inclusion here'); our universities.

Once again, we need quotas against the undesirables, but our "home-land' is defined cybernetically now, as much according to where Chinese invest their money, as by where American businesses do or don't pay taxes. Just as hardly any mongrel American is lacking DNA from all over the world, hardly any product could be called "made in the USA."  Even the notion that my data can be confined to national borders is ludicrous in a federated distributed cloud infrastructure, though lonely New Zealand is apparently giving it a go, just as China is in reverse (try AWS in China if you want to try weird, and that's the one defined by atavistic geopolitical treaty!).

I pledge my allegiance to the human, and not to any nation-state, however construed. That means that I am opposed only to those who would order our realities to favor themselves as a defined "user" at the top of Bratton's Stack, in opposition to nearly everyone else on the planet. That makes me a danger to no-one, but a sworn enemy to the oligarchs of whatever political stripe. Blow the Trumpet, indeed!

Not so incidentally, it makes me a danger to the accidental and therefore mindless machine-space which now defines the anthropocene. If this book cannot give me some semblance of a road-map, it will have been a waste of time. I might as well be reading two compelling - truly - physically embodied books sitting on my coffee table. One delineating the history and implementation of the German university ideal as that relates to Nazism. The other a play (to be read and not to be performed, presumably) whose characters are atomic and subatomic particles in relationships to each other and to the police-forces of bondage.

These other two are written by friends, and there is allegiance there as well. I can have no allegiance to anyone who deploys the full arsenal of  academic language against the bulk of us for whom such language might as well be Greek or Chinese, but which is in any case opaque. In the interests of accuracy and completeness, which is the scholarly enterprise, from which I am in exile (at least). And so I will try to provide a kind of roadmap to the roadmap, for myself if not for anyone else. For me, it's mostly a memory exercise. For you, it may be the future, which you should claim for yourself before someone with a lot more power in the here and now claims it in your name for himself.

No comments: