Friday, February 24, 2006

Things are very hip now, and hip things resist critique

So I've been thinking about the Internet of Things and going back over my dissertation's discourse analysis sections (including the bits on technological inevitabilities) to make them tighter.

In their introduction to a 2002 TCS Special Issue on the Object in Social Science, Pels et al. open The Status of the Object with the observation that by 1999 things were being seriously revitalised in social and cultural theory:
"After poststructuralism and constructivism had melted everything that was solid into air, it was perhaps time that we noticed once again the sensuous immediacy of the objects we live, work and converse with, in which we routinely place our trust, which we love and hate, which bind us as much as we bind them. High time perhaps also, after this panegyric of textuality and discursivity, to catch our theoretical sensibilities on the hard edges of our social world again, to feel the sheer force of things which strike back at us with unexpected violence, in the form of traffic jams, rail accidents, information overload, environmental pollution, or new technologies of terrorism. Perhaps the most intriguing feature of this new constellation is our (re)discovery of the multiple new ways in which social and material relations are entangled together, blurring conventional distinctions between the software and hardware of our social lives."
Notice how the rhetoric also conjures a sense of hybridity: we're engaging a world that is strangely feminine in its softness and emotion, and yet masculine in its hardness and force. Is this our re-shaping of Haraway's cyborg for the ubiquitous era? My students resist Haraway as a threat to their (taken-for-granted) senses of humanity and sexuality, just as they resist Latour's proliferation of hybrids as "too messy", and even our renewed focus on complexity as, no joke, "too complex".

If our return to the object (to the real?) signals a collective desire for more solid ground, do we not risk creating new forms of obduracy that threaten both current and future efforts towards change?

We're witnessing, I think, a broader cultural-historical phenomenon in which academia and technologists are only two 'singular but plural' speakers among many. And so technologists today also speak of embodied interaction, augmented reality, spatial-annotation, etc. as inherently hybrid processes and objects.

But here too, we risk a rather messianic return to the physical after realising the trappings of the immaterial, an exaltation of the relatively stable in the face of increasing instability. Extending Pels et al., above, how can we use examples of technological reification and fetishism (present in discourse and action) to understand ubiquitous hybridity as something about which we remain rather ambivalent, if not overtly conflicted. What can our attempts at stability, standardisation, naming, etc. tell us about how we value motility, or the ability for mobile computing to move.

When things are really popular it's really quite unpopular to question or resist them.

(You know, like when critical commercial practice comes off a bit like Simon Cowell and critical academic practice gets dismissed as hairy, angry, militant, man-hating lesbian ranting or hairy, pie-in-the-sky, idealist, out-of-touch blathering.)

So when
the question of "thingness" is swaddled in the promise of an open-source zeitgeist and competitive advantage, as in pervasive computing and locative media, then critique itself poses a complex risk most often countered by further entrenchment and intractability.

And now here I am waiting for pop to eat itself.


Anonymous Francois Lachance said...

I find the assertion by Pels et al. that poststructuralist discussions of textuality and discursivity were/are incompatible with discussion of materiality. Perhaps I've been haning out in an other sector of the intellectual commons.

In any event, your entry reminded me of the work of Brian Cantwell Smith. You may recall that back in May 2004 you wrote about his book

I myself took on his assertion that "You can hardly cook for dinner something that is fictional [...]" in an entry of my own and sounded a similar note to your waiting for pop to be eaten.

Interestingly I got there through a very textual close reading of prepositions (in Cantwell Smith's writing) and how those prepositions orient a reading body in an actual world.


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