2679320745_92288d6246Melanie, over at the aleatorist, has a post up responding to a recent discussion between Bogost and myself. Melanie’s work focuses on the intersection between technology, media, and literature, tracking the manner in which technological shifts inform, without determining, literary production. In particular, Melanie draws attention to Luddite attitudes she encounters among many of her colleagues with respect to the new media and technologies:

There are many ways to show students that the current way they negotiate texts is not inherently weak. Sure, they might not read the same way as previous generations, they might not enter higher education with all the skills necessary to read critically, but these are skills that they work to acquire in college. As evidenced even in the layout of this neglected blog, I enjoy using concepts such as “constraint” and “play,” computer programming fundamentals like loops and subroutines, nested media realities and transmedia narratives, and contemporary visual culture and technology studies to help students negotiate literary texts and composition skills. Contrary to the academic lament that “students today don’t care about reading or writing” (a lament which, it’s worth noting, is not unique to our moment), I find that students have ample ability to negotiate complex narrative structures, shift in and out of perspectives, problem-solve, balance multi-tiered information–all skills enhanced by aspects of “growing up digital” and all uniquely attuned to literary studies.

I think Mel hits on something of central importance in her reference to laments among academics about students not caring about reading or writing. I have encountered this lament quite often among my colleagues as well, especially those who come from a background informed by Gadamerian hermeneutics and who practice philosophy through the analysis of the history of philosophy. It appears that something similar goes on in literary studies, where texts and a particular way of reading texts is privileged above all else. Faced with forms of textuality, writing, and communication that have come into prominence with the new internet technologies, it cannot but appear, from within this way of thinking, that we have fallen into states of decline. Rather than discerning the emergence of new ways of thinking, communicating, producing, feeling, and interacting, these new forms of textuality are instead seen as forms of decay and decline. We thus get a sort of Adornoesque Luddite narrative about how modern technology has led to a cultural decline that enslaves us all.

read on!

This sort of narrative always surprises me– and I’m aware I’m simplifying tremendously –because it comes from those who ought to know better. On the one hand, nearly all of us are familiar with Derrida’s analysis of Plato’s Phaedrus and his deconstruction of the opposition between speech and writing. Indeed, many of us take this analysis for granted and treat it as “foundational” to contemporary philosophy. It is thus jarring to hear those repeat Plato’s exact gesture in an opposition between texts and technology. Rather than seeing the new technology and media as an affordance for new human possibilities, we instead engage in the reactionary gesture of attempting to maintain a particular form of cultural practice that is doomed to eventually die out. On the other hand, we have all become familiar with the idea that cultural milieu generates forms of subjectivity or, as Hegel liked to describe it, “shapes of consciousness”. In this connection, it is surprising to see the prevalence of a sort of crypto-essentialism that gives lip service to the idea of historically shifting shapes of consciousness, while nonetheless attempting to assert the primacy of a particular shape of consciousness.

I have often argued that the task of philosophy is to think the present. In my recent interview I observed that philosophy cannot proceed without its others. These two issues are interrelated. In striving to think the present, philosophy strives to think the differential of its time and of a life that requires new conceptual creations seeking to comprehend the real of reality. If there is a greatness to Marx and his historical materialism, it is in the manner in which he strives to think the present. When Marx analyzes, for example, the factory and the working day, the aim is not simply to engage in a moralistic exercise of denouncing exploitation. No, Marx is no Luddite, nor is he a moralist. He is not a Luddite because his aim is not to return us to a prior form of pastoral social organization. He is not a moralist because he does not begin with a set of pre-defined, a priori normative values, but instead seeks to determine how particular sets of values emerge out of the organization of the historical moment. Rather, while Marx sniffs out forms of alienation and exploitation in these new forms of social organization, he also seeks to determine the affordances or potentials that have been rendered available as a result of how bodies are individuated or formed within these new machines. For example, Marx argues that the factory disciplines the worker and forms a collective organization that affords the possibility of a revolutionary overturning current regime of production. The factory is not simply a site of alienation and exploitation for Marx, but is a milieu of individuation that forms a new type of body and subjectivity that opens the possibility of a new social order. I think this sort of analysis is what is missing in a number of the conservative critiques of the new technology. Rather than lamenting the manner in which people are not good readers and writers in the way they were fifty years ago– which is much like lamenting the manner in which workers are not like feudal peasants, i.e., apples and oranges –we should instead seek to determine the new individuations that are taking place within this mechanosphere, the emergent forms of subjectivity, the new structures of cognition, and the new affordances for very different ways of living.