September CommQuote: “Desperate and Daring Acts of Dignity”

phoneair“In dialogue with the dead, infants, pets, or the distant, the speaker must hold up both ends of the conversation. The call must contain or anticipate the response. Our communication with the dead may never reach them, but such elliptical sending is as important as circular reciprocity. It would be foolish to disparage communications that never leave our own circle as only failures…Dialogic ideology keeps us from seeing that expressive acts occurring over distances and without immediate assurance of reply can be desperate and daring acts of dignity.” —Speaking Into the Air, p.152

So writes John Durham Peters in his magisterial classic, Speaking Into the Air (University of Chicago Press, 1999) which takes a gently contrarian view of communication via mis- and failed communications (“Miscommunication is the scandal that motivates the very concept of communication in the first place,” he observes in the book’s Introduction, p. 6)).  This concept is beautifully enacted in a recent episode of This American Life, Episode 597: One Last Think Before I Go about a phone booth in Japan where people (thousands so far) who’ve lost loved ones in the 2011 tsunami and earthquake sit and talk on a disconnected phone to their departed loved ones.

I go back to Peters (always the recommendation), “Indeed all mediated communication is in a sense communication with the dead, insofar as media can store ‘phantasms of the living’ for playback after bodily death” (p. 142) and “The two key existential facts about modern media are these: the ease with which the living may mingle with the communicable traces of the dead, and the difficulty of distinguishing communication at a distance from communication with the dead.” (p. 149)

May CommQuote

This month’s quote is brought to us by Abby Smith Rumsey‘s WE ARE NO MORE: HOW DIGITAL MEMORY IS SHAPING OUR FUTURE (Bloomsbury Press, 2016).  Notes Paul Saffo,9781620408025 Consulting Professor, Stanford University School of Engineering, “Rumsey takes us on a lucid and deeply thought-provoking journey into what makes the human species unique–the capacity to create external memory. This book will change how you think about our collective store of knowledge, and its future.”

“And so it is with our artificial memory. The more fragile the medium, the more redundancy we need. Nothing we have invented so far is as fragile as digital data. We began our attempt to cheat death by creating mighty artifacts of clay, stone, paper, and parchment that outperformed our memory by hundreds and thousands of years. Now we create storage media that maximize volume, not durability. The Sumerian scribes looking down on us from their imaginary perch in space-time would be surprised at how far we have gotten in documenting the world and its many transactions over time, how far beyond accounting, epics, and prayers we have extended the memory of humanity, and how many people can read, write, and circulate their ideas across the globe instantaneously. They would marvel at the trade-offs we so lightly make between volume and durability. But we may not have to make such trade-offs forever. We are entering now into an experiment with memory that was not even imaginable until a few decades ago–to take the first, most compact, and most enduring form of memory, the DNA molecule, and encode it with digital data…” –p. 162

February CommQuote

cliveMathew Ryan Smith in afterimage: THE JOURNAL OF MEDIA ARTS AND CULTURAL CRITICISM (Volume 45, Number 3) interviews Toronto-based artist Clive Holden, who creates digital paintings, web works, and videos by “combining new digital technologies with lo-fi analog formats.”  His latest project called Internet Mountains is ongoing (2014-present). In it he incorporates found digital objects from the World Wide Web with moving imagery to create surreal landscapes.  Here is a snippet from the issue’s feature piece, Climbing ‘Internet Mountains’: A Conversation with Clive Holden.” (pp. 8-9)

MRS: The video work INTERNET MOUNTAINS Video 3 (2015) is set against an opened book representing a mountainscape with a small cabin in the foreground. Rose-colored orbs, white sunspots, and blue arrows sometimes pulsate and at other times dart across the visual field. Can you talk about the relationship between these forms and the found imagery in your video works?

 CH: That video shares a photo background with my digital painting INTERNET MOUNTAINS #18 (2014) – a scan of an open book from an online archive. The strong vertical of the book’s spine is important to both works, along with the reflected scanner shine. These show the nature of the book as an object, and the moment the new image was born during the scanner’s process. Both echo and subvert the strong illusion of depth in the original photo.  This illusion is extended by the graphic illustration objects that float throughout the skybox’s described 3-D space. The original photo is from the Rockies in Montana and visiting there at the time would have been a rare experience. Adding the digital graphic objects helps to highlight the strange beauty of that original landscape.

 MRS: These works have a surrealistic quality to them. They’re both here and otherworldly. Do you see these as surrealistic or is it something else entirely?

 CH: The protest and humor at the heart of Dada and surrealism still shows up in the dichotomy between the commodification of conservative art processes, and the always shifting forms that are striving to maintain artistic independence. A dichotomy at work in INTERNET MOUNTAINS also lies between the conservative nature of landscape art and the changing sight of digital, geometric forms engaging in mock battle. I’m glad you’ve used the term “otherworldly,” because while making INTERNET MOUNTAINS Video 3 I found myself adding multiple suns to the sky one day, and that term popped up. I did know that multiple suns was a science fiction trope. But I read recently that it’s been proven to be nonfictional – in fact, it might be more common than our single-sun solar system.

January CommQuote

So let’s start off the new year of CommQuotes with song.  There’s a lot of research and concern in the culture about multitasking and screens, including the distraction of phones, is there ever. The issue goes down so delightfully smooth in the hands of  Eriykah Badu in the song Phone Down. The lyrics are perfectly simple, emphasis on perfect. 

Listen along hereerykah.



I can make you put your phone down
I can make you, I can make you
I can make you put your phone down
I can make you put your phone down
I can make you, I can make you
I can make you put your phone down
I can make you put your phone down
I can make you, I can make you
I can make you put your phone down

[Verse 1]
I can make you put your phone down
As we cruise through the city
I can make you put your phone down
You ain’t gonna text no one when you wit me
I can make you put your phone down
So you can show me attention
And I’ll cut mine off too
Boy that’ll help when I listen
I can make you put your phone down
Baby we don’t need it
Every time you get a message
Act like you don’t see it
I can make you put your phone down
Tell me do you copy
I can make you put your phone down
Boy that ain’t gon’ stop me

I can make you put your phone down
I can make you, I can make you
I can make you put your phone down
I can make you put your phone down
I can make you, I can make you
I can make you put your phone down

[Verse 2]
Make you not wanna check that again
I could make you put your phone down
Ridin in a drop hair blowin’ in the wind
Baby I will put my phone down
Cause when you talk imma listen
I can make you put your phone down
Leave it at the crib guarantee you wouldn’t miss it
I could make you put your phone down
And it wouldn’t leave your pocket
I can make you put your phone down
Probably wouldn’t even know how to unlock it
I could make you put your phone down
I see your friend callin but forget em’
I can make you put your phone down
Your mama probably think you out there missin’

I can make you put your phone down
I can make you, I can make you
I can make you put your phone down
I can make you put your phone down
I can make you, I can make you
I can make you put your phone down

I can make you put your phone down
I can make you, I can make you
I can make you put your phone

December CommQuote

Our last CommQuote of the year is an interview of two years ago with Kenneth Goldsmith at the Centro de 22cul-900-bruno-d24-img01_166_59_1177_769-500x326Cultura DigitalProfessor Goldsmith has recently stirred up a lot of controversy in the general culture and among poets since this interview.  His provocative comments here are worth contemplating for anyone studying media and audiences in the digital age. In keeping with the spirit of this piece (“…I just get interested in something, and I either transcribe it or I copy it”) I’ve chosen to transcribe the interview that you can also watch at the link way below.

Q: You teach a class called Uncreative Writing. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you’ve designed the class (how does it respond both to the technological panorama, and to tendencies in literary criticism, academic and creative writing)?

KG: Well, it’s a class where students must be uncreative and unoriginal, and if they are creative and if they are original, they get marked down in their grades. So they quickly learn how to be uncreative. So they must appropriate, they must plagiarize, they must not write anything original, they must not pretend anything they’re writing is original, they must claim texts for their own that aren’t theirs. My students are very good writers already, so I don’t need to make them better writers. But they’re very bad stealers, because they’ve been stealing for so long that they’ve never thought about what they’re stealing and why they’re stealing it. And so this forces them to theorize their theft and make them smarter and better. Because really at this point, nobody is original. Nobody should be original anymore. It is the way they are putting together pre-existing information that is really moving forward in the future. There is no turning the clock back.

Q: Tell us about your process for Uncreative writing.

KG: It’s the same thing. I don’t write my own books. No, I just get interested in something, and I either transcribe it or I copy it.

Q: Do you believe the concept of author stands in the digital age?

KG: Well, the author is no longer– the notion of genius has changed. The genius is no longer an isolated figure in a garret. A genius is now someone who is assembling things in the world that have already been made and putting them together in new ways. You know, I actually think of it like a hip-hop DJ; nobody ever says to a hip-hop DJ: “you didn’t play the drums.” Right? Of course he doesn’t play the drums, but he’s got the best drum samples, and when he puts them together with the best bass samples it’s going to make him the best DJ. And that’s actually kind of the way people are writing now. No need to write anything new. I think the paradigm of the hip-hop DJ is the way writing’s moving forward.

Q: Do you think that poetry, or rather, literature in general, belongs now to the realm of contemporary art? Does it still belong in a printed book?

KG: Well, in 1959, a poet named Brion Gysin said that poetry was 50 years behind painting. You know, the art world has long been open to other strategies that writing has never even experimented with. Say, appropriation: that’s very old-fashioned in the writing  world or even the music world with samples. And now literature is just getting to it, say, 100 years after Marcel Duchamp, literature is finally taking a Duchampian strategy. So I’d say it’s pretty slow, pretty far behind right now.

Q: Do you make a distinction between the practice of uncreative writing, reappropriation, recycling, and plagiarism?

KG: No, they’re all part of uncreative writing; they’re all different strategies within uncreative writing. What isn’t part of uncreative writing would be pastiche, or, taking a line from here or there. That’s not plagiarism. Plagiarism is actually taking something in its entirety, again like Duchamp, and moving it from this place to this place. And therefore it’s new and it’s different, even though you didn’t do anything to it– you changed its context. So appropriation moves in wholes, not fractions and not fragments. Fragments are no longer interesting.

Q: Does encouraging plagiarism and uncreative writing put you in a difficult position in the academic environment where you work?

KG: No. It’s consensual. It’s like an S&M club; we all agree to play roles. And we play those roles. So, it’s consensual and nobody gets hurt. No animals were harmed in the making of an uncreative writing. It’s all fantasy.

Q: How do you think the diversification of writing practices and media platforms has impacted the concept of audience?

KG: I don’t think we can understand audience anymore. I think there was a time in which one could assume that there was an audience. I think that now the audience is so big and so thin that we don’t really have any sense of who we’re speaking to. And don’t really think we are speaking to anybody. I don’t think anybody’s paying attention, really. I think we’re paying attention to headlines and tweets and things that are moving very quickly, but I don’t think that we’re engaging with content in the same way that we once engaged with content. And I don’t think that’s good or bad, I just think it’s a new situation, and there’s no point complaining about it, because that’s the way it is.So I just prefer to try to adjust myself to it, and — it’s my problem, not the media’s, the culture’s problem.

Q: If you were to write a text of your daily online routine, what would it read like?

KG: Oh, I mean, I do write the text of my daily online routine. I think the new memoir is our browser history. You wanna know anything about me? Look at my browser history; you’ll know everything about me. So, you know, I’m just online all the time. I’m never offline. I get depressed when I’m offline. I feel dead when I’m not connected to the web.

Q: What about memorability?

KG: Well, it’s all stored, isn’t it? All the memory is on my hard drive, or it’s on the cloud, or on my Twitter feed. You know, I’m not worried about it, because unfortunately, or, for better or for worse, you know, everything’s archived now. And, you know, every performance is archived, everything is photographed, there’s gonna be no problem with remembering. I don’t have to remember, because the web does it too well for me. If I need them I can Google them. I can Google my memories better than I can remember them, and, so, now I don’t have to keep it here; it’s all there.

(You can watch the interview here.)

October CommQuote

Our selection for October  (in just under the wire) comes from George W.S. Trow’s screed on American culture, WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF NO CONTEXT Originally appearing in 1980 as a long, even by New Yorker standards, essay in a special issue of the magazine, it was subsequently published as a book, and in 1997 reprinted with an additional introduction by the author.  

The essay is an indictment of American culture in general, specifically television and, to a lesser extent, magazines. I think the essay holds up pretty well applied to today’s culture.  Where it falls short, in the sense of feeling a little dated, is in the vitriol’s television-centeredness, given how television has become so varied and, as argued by many recent critics, out-performs the movies in storytelling innovation and nuance. But I find his idea of demographics as the “new history” chilling and even more spot-on in the internet age which finds us awash in puerile preferences that are not judged, but merely counted.  More on demographics in two excepts below that position the reader to think about the role of the hit (tv show). 

For 21st century context, you might want to check out Emily Nussbaum’s piece in the October 12 The New Yorker, The Price Is Right: What Advertising Does to TV, which touches on the Trow essay (and got me reading it). 

The New History

The New History was the record of the record of the expression of demographically significant preferences: the lunge of demography here as opposed to there...  (p.63)

False History

For a while, certain voice continued.  Booming.  As though history were still a thing done by certain men in a certain place.  It was embarrassing.  To a person growing up in the power of demography, this voice was foolish.

 The Aesthetic of the Hit

To a person growing up in the power of demography, it was clear that history had to do not with the powerful actions of certain men but with the processes of choice and preference.

 The Aesthetic of the Hit

The power shifted.  In the phrase “I Like Ike,” the power shifted.  It shifted from General Eisenhower to someone called Ike, who embodied certain aspects of General Eisenhower and certain aspects of affection for General Eisenhower.  Then it shifted again.  From “Ike,” you could see certain aspects of General Eisenhower.  From “Like,” all you could see was other Americans engaged in the process of intimacy.  This was a comfort.

 The Aesthetic of the Hit

The comfort was in agreement, the easy exercise of the modes of choice and preference.  It was attractive and, as it was presented, not difficult.  But, once interfered with, the processes of choice and preferences began to take on an uncomfortable aspect.  Choice in respect to important matters became more and more difficult; people had found it troublesome to settle on a mode of work, for instance, or a partner.  Choice in respect to trivial matters, on the other hand, assumed an importance that no one could have thought to predict.  So what happened then was that important forces that had not been used, because they fell outside the new scale of national life (which was the life of television), began to find a home in the exercise of preference concerning trivial matters, so that attention, aspiration, even affection came to adhere to shimmers thrown up by the demography in trivial matters.  The attraction of inappropriate attention, aspiration, and affection to a shimmer spins out, in its operation, a little mist of energy which is rather like a sense of love, but trivial, rather like a sense of home, but apt to disappear.  In this mist exists the Aesthetic of the Hit.  (p.64)

–From: Within the Context of No-Context by George WS Trow, The New Yorker, November 17, 1980


August CommQuote

Toward the end of The Marvelous Clouds: Towards a Philosophy of Elemental 9780226253831Media (University of Chicago, 2015)–an instant classic that should be on every student of the media’s bookshelf (wooden or virtual)–John Durham Peters calls on journalists to create a new kind of weather report.

“For traditional media scholars, the vision of infrastructure advocated here would encourage us to see media practices and institutions as embedded in relations with both the natural and the human worlds. The digital changes of our times are impossible without mines and minerals, clouds and electrical grids, habits of human want and labor, and global patterns of human inequality and abuse. The mass media of television and radio, journalism and cinema are likewise anchored in human size and shape, optical and acoustic bandwidth, forestry and plastics. If our evolutionary history had not produced the feet, spines, and skulls that we have, our media – and our world – would look very different. Media old and new are embedded in cycles of day and night, weather and climate, energy and culture, and they presuppose large populations of domesticated plants, animals, and humans, to say nothing of an old and cold universe. The digital implies basic facts of biology. We should make a greener media studies that appreciates our long natural history of shaping and being shaped by our habitats as a process of mediation.

For scholars interested in news and journalism, my arguments against content as the essence of communication might at first seem discouraging. But these arguments follow a lineage back to James W. Carey, who saw news as drama and story, habit and ritual. Indeed, survey evidence shows that people are most attached to news about the natural rather than the human world: the weather report. As currently practiced, news is already heavily environmental, perhaps without claiming it, and weather reporting is perhaps the biggest investment in daily science communication that exists. If this book had one policy proposal to make, it would be to call for a vastly enhanced weather report that moved beyond the daily kairos of the weather to the generational chronos of the climate. Like most good policy proposals, this one is wildly idealistic, especially as it faces one of the best-known facts in the sociobiology of news production: its daily short-term bias. As slow-moving stories of all kinds tend to fall out of the diurnal round of journalistic attention, this proposal joins other calls that tie the well-being of democracy to a shift in the culture and business of news. Nonetheless, the pieced are in place: we have a vast weather-watching and –reporting infrastructure that daily puts a human face on complex nonhuman data and could deepen into public drama and information about our climate, atmosphere, and latest co-evolutionary tinkering with our geohabitat. The weather report of the future could cultivate the best attachments to out earth and world. The public sphere has always needed nature as its condition, but today it needs it as content as well.”      from “Conclusion: The Sabbath Of Meaning,”  pp. 377-378


May CommQuote

Kaya Genc in the Spring 2015 INDEX ON CENSORSHIP interviews two Turkish poets, Ömer Erdem and Nilay Özer, about the struggles of writers in Turkey today.  Included in the profile are poems from each translated in English for the first time.  I’m taking the liberty to “retweet” this stunning one by Omer Erdem who notes unequivocably,  “Turkey has never treated her poets well.”

And then they shut her in a room
And then they shut her in a room
they even bolted it
they dangled a horse from a skyscraper
they crammed a sea into a picture
they wiped the eyes of a photograph from an album
we’ve shut her up they said
we’ve shut her un in a room
they gathered in a park in the evening
they fired up their blood
they spoke here and there
they placed feed in the beaks of birds
and coffins on the backs of ants
she wrapped felt around her tongue
i’ll punch myself to the ground like felt she said
then I’ll sweat tiny tiny drops she said
steam of sweat she said flame of breath
poverty is no rope to my neck
it is a gourd violin she said
a pair of keys in the door
and a hairless wall were her close friends
her arms were longer than her legs
they shut her in a room
with no right
and no left yesterday a shocked sun not informed of winter
came to visit
and for three days she has been wiping
out the walls…

Ömer Erdem


April CommQuote

This month’s quote is from an interesting article in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies (Volume 12, Issue 2, 2015), The Right to Hide? Anti-Surveillance Camouflage and the Aestheticization of Resistance by Torin Monahan.

“A curious trend is emerging in this era of pervasive surveillance. Alongside increasing public awareness of drone warfare, government spying programs, and big data analytics, there has been a recent surge in anti-surveillance tactics. While these tactics range from software for anonymous Internet browsing to detoxification supplements for fooling drug tests, what is particularly fascinating is the panoply of artistic projects—and products—to conceal oneself from ambient surveillance in public places. These center on the masking of identity to undermine technological efforts to fix someone as a unique entity apart from the crowd. A veritable artistic industry mushrooms from the perceived death of the social brought about by ubiquitous public surveillance: tribal or fractal face paint and hairstyles to confound face-recognition software, hoodies and scarves made with materials to block thermal emissions and evade tracking by drones, and hats that emit infrared light to blind camera lenses and prevent photographs or video tracking. Anti-surveillance camouflage of this sort flaunts the system, ostensibly allowing wearers to hide in plain sight—neither acquiescing to surveillance mandates nor becoming reclusive under their withering gaze. This is an aestheticization of resistance, a performance that generates media attention and scholarly interest without necessarily challenging the violent and discriminatory logics of surveillance societies.”  –pp. 159-160

February CommQuote

satin A corporate anthropologist has been assigned a big term paper so to speak; he has to write a Great Report, a vast ethnography of the world in the throes of the present and guess what, he’s overwhelmed. This is the plot of Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island (Knopf, 2015)—a protagonist named U.’s information gathering and meaning-making for a report that ultimately goes unfiled. According to Jeff Turrentine’s review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review (February 22), McCarthy has found a way in this dystopia “to make cultural theory funny, scary and suspenseful.” More from this review is our CommQuote for February.

“Of cultural critics past, McCarthy would seem to have more in common with Guy Debord, the 20th-century French theorist who coined the term “society of the spectacle” to denote what he saw as the commodification of authentic human ­experience as a function of late-stage capitalism. Many of the themes coursing through “Satin ­Island” — the mediation of our lived reality by corporate technocrats; the emergence of complex networks whose structures are unfathomable to us, even as we serve them and their hidden architects; the aesthetic and political triumph of the global monoculture (good call on that one, Monsieur Lévi-Strauss) — would doubtless get an affirming nod from Debord, who uncannily predicted the advent of our socially mediated universe of discourse when he noted, back in 1967, that “everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”
One can’t help wondering what Debord, who died in 1994, would have made of the iWorld that we now inhabit, and that Tom McCarthy finds so darkly fascinating. It’s a world where throngs of people will ­happily wait in line for hours to buy the newest iteration of a small device that gives them all of their news, keeps tabs on their friends and loved ones via third-­party service providers, and entertains them with songs and games and videos even as it records (and stores, forever) their correspondence, their purchases, their comings and goings.” –Jeff Turrentine

The book is not in many libraries just yet so I can’t link to Penn Libraries but look for it soon.