Sunday, 29 June 2008

Imperialism, Iraq, and Oil

Below is a post taken from the historian David Kaiser's blog 'History Unfolding', in which he speculates on the future of the American and Western oil companies presence in Iraq. Kaiser, incidentally, is the author of the excellent book, 'The Road to Dallas', one of the, in my humble opinion, best books on the Kennedy assassination. It is scholarly and sober in its approach, and hence, avoids the more outlandish claims of most conspiracy theories.

Plans for Iraq
Several news stories last week have made clear the Bush Administration's plans for Iraq. They seem to confirm a great many suspicions that some have harbored from the very beginning.

The principal issue between the United States and Iraqi governments right now is the pending Status of Forces agreement, which the Bush Administration wants to replace a UN mandate that will be expiring at the end of the year. Based on news reports, that agreement would turn Iraq into what was called in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a Protectorate. It would create as many as 50 permanent American military installations inside the country, and give the United States the right to conduct military operations and detain Iraqi citizens as we saw fit. Yet meanwhile, Washington does not apparently want to assume the obligation of defending Iraq against foreign enemies, perhaps so as not to be drawn into the intermittent, small-scale war that has already started between Turkey and Kurdish activists based in Kurdish Iraq. One news account perceptively pointed out that the British reached a similar agreement with the Iraqi monarchy in 1932, when Iraq received independence. That agreement--which was never popular--led in 1941 to a pro-Nazi coup, followed by the renewal of British occupation until 1947. Semi-independence was a key feature of British policy in the Middle East in mid-century. Egypt enjoyed a similar status until 1952 when Gamel Abdul Nasser overthrew King Farouk, threw the British out, and became the leader of Arab nationalism. The British also tried without much success to retain influence in Jordan by arranging for the British Glubb Pasha to remain in command of the Arab legion. After Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, the British arranged an alliance with France--whose government nurtured the fantasy that Nasser was chiefly responsible for its troubles in Algeria--and with Israel to attack and unseat Nasser. That move angered the rest of the world, including the United States, and completely backfired. The era of both informal and formal western rule in the Middle East seemed to be at an end.

In retrospect the Arab nationalism of the 1950s looks relatively easy to deal with, not least because it was largely modernist and secular. What we hope to do in Iraq, however, seems likely to confirm all the contemporary propaganda of Islamic fundamentalists, and it is already provoking considerable Iraqi resistance. Once again we are confronted with a grave dilemma: the Iraqi parliament whose election we arranged is not likely to approve the kind of relationship our government wants with Iraq. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration--in another breathtaking extension of executive power--wants to assume responsibility for the domestic security of a foreign nation without submitting the matter to Congress.

The second story has to do with oil--that four western oil companies have carved out a role for themselves in improving the functioning of Iraqi oil fields, and hope that this will lead to long-term contracts. Now it is rapidly becoming a conservative article of faith that nationalized oil companies like those of Venezuela, Ecuador and Russia are bad things--that they cannot be relied upon develop their oil fields efficiently. The idea that western private companies might once again tap the huge oil reserves of Iraq cannot help but be appealing. But it, too, would reverse a half-century old trend, and it would indicate a return of western economic, as well as political, domination. It is hard to believe that Iraqis will undertake this willingly.

Imperialism, I have become convinced over the years, never results simply from the rapacity of richer nations. A stronger and a weaker nation cannot be brought into a relationship without the stronger tending to corrupt the weaker, and the real question is not whether the stronger nation will acquire influence, but how much it will try to acquire. As long as the Middle East pumps enormous quantities of oil, its politics and ours will remain intertwined. President Bush has apparently decided that he can cut the Gordian knot by turning Iraq into an ally like Germany or Japan, but there is little evidence that any leading Iraqis of any persuasion want what our government wants. No agreement, probably, will be signed, and the new President will inherit a legal limbo. I hope that by the end of his first term Iraq might have a truly sovereign government--or, perhaps, more than one of them. That in any case should be the American goal.
posted by David Kaiser at 9:36 AM 0 comments

Friday, 27 June 2008

Transsubjectivity: Digital Futures

I couldn't resist posting a picture of Hideo Kojima's appearance at a launch event for the latest instalment of Metal Gear Solid, where he took the stage to the strains of Joy Division's "Atmosphere" (Kojima is known to be a huge fan of their work, with part 2 of MGS subtitled "Substance". He also adores Stanley Kubrick).
This got me thinking about the possible cross-overs with film proper, particularly anime, so I then came across the work of Matt Hanson, which appears to challenge my preconceptions of these relationships. In his book The End of Celluloid, Hanson chronicles how filmmaking is being superseded by a "spectrum of moving image...The book presents an insight into these new styles infiltrating the mainstream, taking in film, animation, FMV and machinima (computer gaming animations), digital tv, pop promos, websites, PDA and PVP devices."
Ckeck out the roster of featured artists in the book:

Jonas Åkerlund (Spun)
Roger Avary (Rules of Attraction)
Matthew Barney (The Cremaster Cycle)
Danny Boyle (28 Days Later)
Chris Cunningham (Flex, Windowlicker)
Mike Figgis (Hotel, Timecode)
Grant Gee (Meeting People is Easy)
Lars von Trier (Idioterne)
Peter Greenaway (The Tulse Luper Suitcases)
Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Solid series)
David Lynch (Rabbits, The Third Place)
Koji Morimoto (Noiseman Sound Insect)
Hideo Nakata (Ringu)
Marc Evans (My Little Eye)
Ken Thain (Rebel Vs Thug)
Mark Neale (No Maps for these Territories)
Mamoru Oshii (Avalon)
Kinematic (9-11 Survivor)
Bill Viola (The Greeting, The Passions)
Kieran Evans & Paul Kelly (Finisterre)
C-Level (Endgames: Waco Resurrection)
Strange Company (Eschaton, Steelwight)
Richard Linklater (Waking Life)
Simon Pummell (Bodysong)
Fumita Ueda (Ico)
Shynola (Radiohead blips & music videos)
Kasuhisa Takenouchi (Interstella 5555)
Sabiston & Pallotta (Roadhead, Snack & Drink)
Janet Cardiff (The Telephone Call)
Andy & Larry Wachowski (Animatrix, The Matrix trilogy)

I don't know at present to what degree Hanson's work touches on the theoretical concerns of someone such as Sean Cubitt (not sure if he is like Ken Wark or not), or even, much to derridata's horror, the itinerant academic career of "Moodle", but anyway, here is a link to Hanson's blog, and below that, a quite lengthy lecture he delivered (poor audio quality though, so it requires patience to sit through it):
Finally, here is a taste of how Linklater's adaptation of A Scanner Darkly is treated as symptomatic of an emergent form of subjectivity, with reference to Arctor's speech, delivered while wearing his scramble suit (I suspect the gist of this approach is comparable to Scott Bukatman's recent book on special effects and subjectivity):
"There are a number of different ways to argue that the mind-game film is symptomatic of a relatively new conception of subjectivity - one that has emerged over the past 10 years and under the influences of technological restructurations and scientific preoccupations. This notion is usually assembled under the header of ‘the posthuman’, although it in fact has little to do with not-being-human-anymore. Posthumanist issues such as artificial intelligence and consciousness lead to a conception of the human individual that does not pose a break from humanity, but rather a move away from a historically-developed and culturally distinct sense of humanism which involves individuality, uniqueness, truth, objectivity, embodiment, freedom, will, and agency. Very much in line with the posthuman, Garrett Stewart proposes the term “postsubjective virtuality” for what happens in films akin to those I have mentioned, though for the underdetermination of images, perspectives, and validity that I take as determinants in my corpus, I prefer the term “transsubjective”.
This choice is partly in order to avoid confusion with the Lacanian and Lyotardan understanding of intersubjectivity as a social phenomenon of communication and meaning-production, and partly to emphasise the transferable, borderless, and unstable nature of subjectivity amidst the technological and psychological distortions of mind-game films.
Identity is the key arena for all these distortions to be played out: like many mind-game films, A Scanner Darkly is riddled with doppelganger motifs, counter-identities, amnesia, and split personalities. Without entering the realm of cyborgs, the questioning, fragmentation, and splitting of identities in A Scanner Darkly establishes a similar discussion of human identity, consciousness, and subjectivity. Arctor finds his identity muddled not only by the surveillance of himself he is forced to process, but also by the dwindling of his mental faculties due to the drugs he has himself become addicted to during his undercover narcotics investigation. All these internal and external influences contaminate any clear-cut, coherent sense of self; Arctor perfectly illustrates the posthuman notion, here phrased by Slavoj Žižek, that:
At the level of material reality (inclusive of the psychological
reality of “inner experience”) there is in effect no Self: the Self
is not the “inner kernel” of an organism, but a surface-effect. A
“true” human Self functions, in a sense, like a computer screen:
“What does a scanner see?”
what is “behind” it is nothing but a network of “selfless”
neuronal machinery.
In a fitting scene, Arctor delivers a work speech in his scramble suit, but suffers extreme discomfort halfway. His perceptions of the audience are truly caught in the prism of filmic representation: before the blur of his scramble suit, we see the markings “Live” and “HQ” within what is supposedly Arctor’s vision. Arctor’s subjective perceptions appear filtered by the panoptical reign of his employer; our perceptions of the film are filtered by its logic of surveillance and mediation".

“What does a scanner see?”
Techno-fascination and unreliability in the mind-game film

Laura Schuster

Thursday, 26 June 2008

"Not tonight dear, I have to reboot": Predictions of Robot Intimacy

I have to acknowledge The New Atlantis as comparable in quality to the kind of intelligent conservatism offered by Robert Manne (who has proven himself one of the most perceptive critics of the Howard era, in contrast to gasbags such as Andrew Bolt, Paddy McGuiness and Piers Akerman). The following piece appeared a while back, so it has taken this long to clear my schedule enough to mention it here. I see it as a companion piece to not only my earlier posting on "Mangobot" and Japanese robotics, but the documentary Arguing the World, which captured my attention many years ago, and traced the origins of the neocon intellectuals, such as Irving Kristol, who were contemporaries of sociologists such as Daniel Bell that later moved to the Right; this is significant because in his book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism Bell in effect breathed new life into longstanding fears (e.g Culture and Anarchy) about the corrosive effects of cultural populism (later focused by other critics on postmodernism/cultural studies) as well as the emergence of the postindustrial "information society".
It is fitting then that The New Atlantis continues in this vein, and manages to do so by sounding like common sense, that is empirically grounded, rather than devolving, in the final instance, on some conception of an unchanging "human nature". Or rather, it is underwritten by a peculiar form of essentialism, perhaps with an elective affinity to Intelligent Design advocates, that we humans are too protean and complex to be programmed or imitated by any form of Artificial Intelligence.
This is exactly the kind of claim that Artificial Life advocates have more explicitly set out to challenge with their references to autopoiesis crosscutting all lifeforms. This does little in itself though to challenge the observation that even in the so-called "robot kingdom", Japan, such initiatives have been generally unsuccessful thus far in gaining acceptance (anyone watching the clip I've included of Paro, will quickly see why it failed in hospitals; it is simply annoying).
On a more theoretical plane, one can easily picture an army of Lacanians waiting in the wings to seize on the implications of the following statement (the "mirror stage" writ large):
"It is important, Breazeal emphasizes in her published dissertation Designing Sociable Robots, “for the robot to understand its own self, so that it can socially reason about itself in relation to others.” Toward this goal of making conscious robots, some researchers have selected markers of self-understanding in human psychological development, and programmed their machines to achieve those specific goals. For example, Nico, the therapeutic baby bot, can identify itself in a mirror. (Aside from human beings, only elephants, apes, and dolphins show similar signs of self-recognition.) Kismet’s successor, “Leo,” can perform a complicated “theory of mind” cooperation task that, on the surface, appears equivalent to the psychological development of a four- or five-year-old. But these accomplishments, rather than demonstrating an advanced awareness of mind and self, are choreographed with pattern recognition software, which, though no small feat of coding cleverness, has none of the significance of a baby or an elephant investigating himself in a mirror".
And this is to say nothing of the fitting critique of Rodney Brooks' materialist reduction of humans to "nothing more than machines", letalone the delightful skewering of David Levy's Love and Sex With Robots:
"The latter half of Levy’s book, a frighteningly encyclopedic treatise on vibrators, prostitution, sex dolls, and the short leap from all of that to sex with robots, scarcely deserves mention. Levy begins it, however, with the familiar story of Pygmalion, in a ham-handed act of mythical misappropriation".
Very entertaining to be sure, but more compelling from a sociological perspective is the observation that sociality is not something that can be simply programmed in advance, but is in need of continual structuration (to employ Giddens' apt phrase). This is something I've noticed a lot recently, not only in regard to Randall Collins' work on interaction rituals and Artificial Life, but also in efforts to apply Sennett's conception of "craft" to ethnographies of virtual environments. The necessity here is one of gaining an understanding of the world as something which resists us, thus prompting a need to continually refine an autotelic self; hence repetition ideally implies an articulate, rather than compulsive, engagement with difference (in effect lending a new inflection to one of my favourite terms, seriality).

Sunday, 22 June 2008

“It is gas and plague. It is tank and aircraft horror. It is baseness and falsehood. It is hunger and poverty.”

“Frederick Birchall, Berlin correspondent for The New York Times, published an article about Germany’s preparations for war. It was October 8, 1933.

“Birchell quoted from a recent book by Ewald Banse, a teacher at the Technical High School in Brunswick, Germany. The book was called Wehrwissenschaft — ‘Military Science.’ War was no longer a matter of marches and medals, Banse observed: ‘It is gas and plague. It is tank and aircraft horror. It is baseness and falsehood. It is hunger and poverty.’ And because war is so horrible, Banse said, it must be incorporated into the school curriculum and taught as a new and comprehensive science: ‘The methods and aims of the new science are to create an unshakable belief in the high ethical value of war and to produce in the individual the psychological readiness for sacrifice in the cause of nation and state.’

“Birchall’s eye rested on one passage in particular of Banse’s book. In it, Banse charged that in the Great War the French had attempted to use bacteriological warfare against German crops and livestock. The plain had failed, Banse said, but the technique deserved investigation. For a weak nation that has been disarmed and rendered defenceless, such as postwar Germany, biological warfare – tainted drinking water with typhus germs and spreading plague using infected rats – ‘is undoubtedly the given weapon.’ The League of Nations had forbidden such techniques, but when it came to national survival, ‘every method is permissible to stave off the superior enemy and vanquish him’.”

Nicholson Baker, Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, The End of Civilization, page 44.

“[A]n intensive study of this volume should have provided a plain, clear warning to the European democracies. Your reviewer read it at the time of its first printing in 1934. Not until the beginning of the Nazi march against Czechoslovakia did it again come to mind, and then there came a growing realization of the entire program which the book forecast. When the attack upon Poland took place, conjecture became certainty, and on the basis of material in the volume this reviewer strove unsuccessfully to tell newspapers of the coming invasion of Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, and Belgium, and the broad plan for the attack on France. It is all in this book, the pattern standing out for one who can pick out its recurrent motif. While the author treats of war from the geographical viewpoint-and does a thorough job of it-he also furnishes a comprehensive military guide for Nazi con- quest. His strictures upon certain peoples, notably the Norwegians, the Dutch, the Belgians, the Czechs, the French, and the Rumanians, have turned out to be plain warning of the wrath to come.”

Great Neck, L. I., N. Y.

Reviewed work(s): Germany Prepares for War by Ewald Banse
Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 216, Defending America's Future, (Jul., 1941), pp. 183-184

“Ewald Banse, pseudo-geographer, was appointed professor of military science at Brunswick Technical College in February, 1933. He has written Wehrwissenschaft and Raum und Volk im Weltkriege. The former volume preached Schrecklichkeit and bacteriological warfare. Because of foreign criticism, the book was suppressed by the Nazi regime on October 20, 1933. On November 3, the publishers of the second book sold the English language rights to an English publishing house. On the same day, the German government confiscated the work and denounced it as the ‘senseless babblings’ of an ‘irresponsible theorist’ who was furnishing material for anti-German propaganda abroad. It was, nevertheless, translated by Alan Harris, and is now published in Great Britain and the United States as ‘an astonishing revelation of aggressive tendencies’ by ‘a distinguished scholar and scientist’ who is alleged to be an official spokesman for the military policies of the Third Reich. That the rulers of the new Germany are romantic devotees of the Heldentum ideal, that they are utilizing every available means to inculcate war-worship in the masses, and that they are committed to a program of expansion involving the ultimate partition and destruction by military violence of Germany's neighbors, is beyond question in the minds of all well-informed observers of National Socialism. That the English- speaking world deserves to be fully informed of these facts also admits of no debate. That the translation and publication of this particular volume is the best means of achieving this end, however, is extremely doubtful. In the first place, the English title is highly misleading. The volume is concerned only incidentally with Germany's preparations for the next war. It consists primarily of a series of stale, post mortem observations on the last unpleasantness. In the second place, the volume is in no sense representative of the military literature of Hitlerism. The writings of Hitler, Rosenberg, Constantin Hierl, and many other Nazi leaders are far more revealing of the spirit of the new militarism. And as for the science of strategy, the Nazi regime has at its disposal scores of able tacticians, compared to whom Banse is a mere muddle-headed amateur. Banse's book is valuable, therefore, only for foreign laymen who are completely ignorant both of Nazi militarism and of militaryscience. Blood and thunder are here in abundance: ‘A grim, iron age lies before us.... The sword will again come into its own ... War is a grand stimulant and uplifter . . . ,’ etc., ad infinitum. But the observations on strategy, past and prospective, and on national geography and psychology are too puerile to be taken seriously by any one. Here is much nonsense about "war-like and pacific temperaments" among races, trite comments on the tactics of the Great War, platitudes about climate, resources, and morale, and more nonsense about Poland, "restless, ambitious, and greedy,’ deserving of a new partition, Jugoslavia, ‘the Balkan war-profiteer,’ Czechoslovakia, ‘an ulcer in Germany's side,’ and other prospective enemies and allies. A clue to the writer's mentality lies in the sentence: ‘It is possible to get moon-stroke as well as sun-stroke, as the author himself once learned to his cost in North Africa.’ If re-armed Germany had to rely on such moon-struck strategists as Banse, the world would have little cause for apprehension. Unfortunately, far wiser and more dangerous practitioners of the art of war will be available when the day of reckoning arrives."

Frederick L. Schuman
University of Chicago
Reviewed work(s): Germany Prepares for War; A Nazi Theory of "National Defense.’ by Ewald Banse ,
The American Political Science Review, Vol. 28, No. 3, (Jun., 1934), pp. 524-526

“Among the books of the day before yesterday, some are better reviewed today than on the date of their appearance. This is particularly true of books dealing with a war of the future, which have gone down into oblivion because the wars forecast by their authors did not come to pass. Professor Banse’s book is an exception, since the war it envisaged in 1932 has in large measure come about, while some of the aims postulated may still be attempted. This need not cause surprise. For Banse is, in more than one sense of the word, one of the makers of the present war, not as a combatant but rather as a preparer of the mental atmosphere. Every émigré from Germany carries in his memory more or less vivily his ‘own’ Nazis (it is a pity these specimens have never been pooled for the purpose of a history and sociology of National Socialism), and Banse has been in my botanizing drum ever sense 1915 when both of us belonged to the same German infantry regiment. It was then quite clear that the future fire-eater was a bad case of malingering. In the years of the German Republic, he must have felt equally out of place, teaching geography in one of those technological institutes where the humaniora are usually assigned to second-raters or other failures. Then, in Brunswick, which gave an early naturalization to Hitler, the outsider, Banse was one of those resentful academics talking of Raum and Reich, the biggest words in the German language. He was among the forgotten men brought by the events of 1933 into a place in the sun of the Third Reich.

“In 1933, Banse promptly became professor of a new science, Wehrwissenschaft, because his book, with the original title of Space and People in the World War, had anticipated this recently approved science. In this sense, the book is academic, but Nazi-academic. When an English translation appeared in 1934, the Berlin Propaganda Ministry called it irresponsible and had it ostensibly suppressed; but it was clear from the treatment of the author that he was considered merely indiscreet, for he had given away what only the London Times and others equally blind refused to see – that Germany would ream, quietly at first, and eventually would try to do the last World War over again, this time avoiding the old diplomatic mistakes.

“To claim that Banse’s study of the first World War is the ‘actual Nazi War Plan’ is justified to the extent that this war is indeed a repetition, a ‘fighting over again’. The author could proudly say that the Germans have heeded the science of national defense, of which he wrote a primer, and have avoided repeating their old mistakes, while the Allies have not reviewed and taken to heart their former errors but only their former victories. Defeat, in this instance, is a better teacher than victory.”

Alfred Vagts
The Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, N.J.
Reviewed work(s): Germany Prepares for War: A Nazi Theory of "National Defense" by Ewald Banse
Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 2, (Jun., 1941), pp. 299-300

Saturday, 21 June 2008

The Triple Helix Model and the Knowledge-Based Economy

Loet Leydesdorff & Martin Meyer

The Triple Helix model of university-industry-government relations can be generalized from a neo-institutional model of networks of relations to a neo-evolutionary model of how three selection environments operate upon one another. Two selection mechanisms operating upon each other can mutually shape a trajectory, while three selection environments can be expected to generate a regime. The neo-evolutionary model enables us to appreciate both organizational integration in university-industry-government relations and differentiation among functions like wealth creation, knowledge production, and legislation. The specification of systems of innovations in terms of nations, sectors, and regions can then be formulated as empirical questions: is synergy generated among functions in a network of relations? Thus, this Triple Helix model enables us to study the knowledge base of an economy in terms of a trade-off between locally stabilized and (potentially locked-in) trajectories versus techno-economic regimes at the global level.

Voices of hope

Still recovering from Andrew Denton's gushing interview with the distinguished naturalist David Attenborough. I certainly bear no real personal animosity, but what saddened me was confirmation of the critiques I'd heard about over the years, that Attenborough constructs his films so that there is little sense of how the status of Nature has altered under conditions of reflexive modernization, so that it too is a subject of human calculation and control, even, or especially when, it appears to be a pristine, untouched environment (this is attributable to decisions about risk management etc). What surprised me more then was his claim that what is most depressing is the encroachment of humans into the wild, and his portrayal of this in Malthusian terms i.e. "there are simply too many people". Good Lord! What about the distribution of wealth and the ideology of consumption as relevant factors?; coming from Attenborough's relatively privileged position, a failure to mention them sounds very much like a lack of understanding of extended families as the only alternative in the absence, or relativisation, of a welfare state.
As much as I admire Stephen Fry for his deconstruction of hegemonic masculinity, I thought again of his shared background with Attenborough while watching the documentary on Fry's experiences of living with bipolar disorder. Since first going AWOL from his public school, up until more recent reporting of his disappearance from a theatrical production, one can, and should, have considerable sympathy for him and others living with the condition. What was strange though in watching the program was how Fry would talk about going on shopping sprees to help alleviate his depression, without once considering how having this option would be unavailable to many fellow sufferers. Fry must have assumed that for "good television" he would need "articulate" [sic] subjects, so all the other interviewees were, like him, members of "the creative classes"; to use an admittedly crude example, the kind of person who, in an American context, would be attending a New England university and daydreaming they were Sylvia Plath because they had read The Belljar, which had confirmed their sense that no one really understands them. To be sure, a comparable aspiring writer was featured, among others, all of whom shared the characteristic that their illness could have been examined in different terms: a more sociological approach would have considered how the condition could be exacerbated by the hyper reflexive involution associated with late modernity. To repeat, the point is not trivialisation by me of mental illness, but rather that the interviewees may not have been so unanimous in their decision to "walk with the angels" by choosing to keep their illness if given the choice. I doubt that many homeless persons with the same condition, who have to live with the consequences of neoliberal deinstitutionalisation, would have supported Fry's view. If anything, the program was closer to psychologism, mixed with a dash of bioliberalism, as Fry showed greater interest in a possible genetic causal link for his bipolar disorder.
Likewise, Attenborough ends up targeting society without realising the terms he uses are themselves byproducts of a reflexive risk consciousness.
These personal testimonies hardly qualify as "voices of hope" then, but fortunately derridata passed along the following more compelling piece on Antony Hegarty. Very interesting, especially the references to the "difference in repetition" as a defining characteristic of the voicing of queer subjectivities (complicating my own previous musings on seriality and pathology, which I have elsewhere, i.e. not in this blog, acknowledged with reference to another piece on "queer sameness"). I don't pretend to have anything more than a passing knowledge about queer theory though, so I won't undetake anything like a detailed comparison here:

Lydia Lunch vs Joe Rogan

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Monday, 16 June 2008

George Ritzer's "McDonaldization" of society thesis

Note to self: continuing today's theme of increasing rationalisation, have found some fascinating clips of Ritzer from the "McDonalidization" study page.

Interviews with George Ritzer
Content on these pages requires a current version of Adobe Flash Player.
Clip #1. Ritzer's inspiration for the book.
Clip #2. Ritzer responding to critics.
Clip #3. "The Starbuckization of Society."
Clip #4. Why students should read The McDonaldization of Society 5.
Clip #5. Importance of McDonaldization to students.
Clip #6. Resisting McDonaldization.
Clip #7. Future of McDonaldization.
Clip #8. Disneyization, Super Size Me, and Fast Food Nation.

I close with an excerpt from a piece I read about privacy and the Patriot Act in relation to librarians, but which I would argue has wider applicability to the technological storage of information, and the financial interests handling them. In each case it has to do with a different form of privatisation which is determining what counts as “privacy” and “public” access. Perhaps this trend could also be construed as a form of McDonaldization:
“The surveillance and secrecy aspects of the Patriot Act are notable, but they are of a piece with public and private trends that predate the War on Terror. Henry T. Blanke, following on the work of Daniel Bell, David Harvey, Sue Curry Jansen and others, argues that the privatization and subsequent disappearance of information from public view is an essential feature of late-capitalist development. Blanke articulates the problem this way: "With the growing economic prominence of information has come the encroachment of corporate capitalism into the public information realm and a concomitant distortion of information issues and policies to serve private interests. At stake is the future vitality of democratic public spheres of independent art, inquiry, discourse, and critique" (Blanke, 67). As information is increasingly commodified and entered into the realm of capitalist exchange, the library finds its core mission--to provide free and equal access to information--systemically compromised. Take, for example, the role of for-profit database vendors in limiting information access. Database vendors like Elsevier, EBSCO, and ProQuest include a provision in most contracts that has a striking similarity to the gag order included in the Patriot Act. Most contracts, negotiated on an individual basis, include a confidentiality provision that prevents librarians from sharing the terms of their contracts with one another. Because we are prevented speaking openly about the contracts we sign, we are limited in our ability to organize against other parts of our contracts that undermine systems of sharing and access. For example, contract terms often force librarians to agree that material contained in a database won't be shared via our traditional interlibrary loan networks, and sometimes even demand that the library conduct surveillance of other libraries by requiring regular reports of who requests articles from the database via interlibrary loan. While less sensational and immediate than the Patriot Act, these tendencies of capitalism reduce access to information in fundamental ways. As a profession, we have few strategies for resisting the tyrannies of the capitalist marketplace”.
Free Online Library: Librarians and the Patriot Act. by "Radical Teacher"; ... David Harvey, Sue Curry Jansen and others, argues that the privatization and - 31k -

2001 and "the Google Effect"

Having just posted on The Shining, I couldn't resist referencing this piece as well. It is advisable to avoid the passages foregrounding Friedrich Kittler (sorry, you can't escape hermeneutical science by simply reinstating it on another level by making technologies, rather than humans, the historical actors), would be my advice, and concentrate instead on the more acute foregrounding of Taylor's techniques of industrial management, and the parallels with Google's efforts to devise an algorithm that may one day evolve into a form of artificial intelligence. This is the compelling part of the argument that links to the increasing rationalisation featured in The Shining, and possibly by association, the violent side effects at the heart of that film.
Here are the parts I particularly enjoyed:
"About the the same time that Nietzsche started using his typewriter, an earnest young man named Frederick Winslow Taylor carried a stopwatch into the Midvale Steel plant in Philadelphia and began a historic series of experiments aimed at improving the efficiency of the plant’s machinists. With the approval of Midvale’s owners, he recruited a group of factory hands, set them to work on various metalworking machines, and recorded and timed their every movement as well as the operations of the machines. By breaking down every job into a sequence of small, discrete steps and then testing different ways of performing each one, Taylor created a set of precise instructions—an “algorithm,” we might say today—for how each worker should work. Midvale’s employees grumbled about the strict new regime, claiming that it turned them into little more than automatons, but the factory’s productivity soared.
More than a hundred years after the invention of the steam engine, the Industrial Revolution had at last found its philosophy and its philosopher. Taylor’s tight industrial choreography—his “system,” as he liked to call it—was embraced by manufacturers throughout the country and, in time, around the world. Seeking maximum speed, maximum efficiency, and maximum output, factory owners used time-and-motion studies to organize their work and configure the jobs of their workers. The goal, as Taylor defined it in his celebrated 1911 treatise, The Principles of Scientific Management, was to identify and adopt, for every job, the “one best method” of work and thereby to effect “the gradual substitution of science for rule of thumb throughout the mechanic arts.” Once his system was applied to all acts of manual labor, Taylor assured his followers, it would bring about a restructuring not only of industry but of society, creating a utopia of perfect efficiency. “In the past the man has been first,” he declared; “in the future the system must be first.”
Taylor’s system is still very much with us; it remains the ethic of industrial manufacturing. And now, thanks to the growing power that computer engineers and software coders wield over our intellectual lives, Taylor’s ethic is beginning to govern the realm of the mind as well. The Internet is a machine designed for the efficient and automated collection, transmission, and manipulation of information, and its legions of programmers are intent on finding the “one best method”—the perfect algorithm—to carry out every mental movement of what we’ve come to describe as “knowledge work.”
....I’m haunted by that scene in 2001. What makes it so poignant, and so weird, is the computer’s emotional response to the disassembly of its mind: its despair as one circuit after another goes dark, its childlike pleading with the astronaut—“I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m afraid”—and its final reversion to what can only be called a state of innocence. HAL’s outpouring of feeling contrasts with the emotionlessness that characterizes the human figures in the film, who go about their business with an almost robotic efficiency. Their thoughts and actions feel scripted, as if they’re following the steps of an algorithm. In the world of 2001, people have become so machinelike that the most human character turns out to be a machine. That’s the essence of Kubrick’s dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence".
What the Internet is doing to our brains
by Nicholas Carr
Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Nicholas Carr’s most recent book, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google, was published earlier this year.

"Academic research involves three steps: finding relevant information, assessing the quality of that information, then using appropriate information either to try to conclude something, to uncover something, or to argue something. The Internet is useful for the first step, somewhat useful for the second, and not at all useful for the third" Beth Stafford.

The Shining

I've just come across this intriguing review of Geoffrey Cocks's The wolf at the door: Stanley Kubrick, history & the Holocaust. Thomas Caldwell argues that the book would have worked better had it concentrated more exclusively on The Shining, because it is very convincing in that regard in teasing out Kubrick's preoccupation with The Holocaust (his other project, The Aryan Papers, was never realised, and Kubrick reserved a telling critique of Spielberg's Schindler's List as not really amounting to a Holocaust film, because it was about survivors). Caldwell argues that Cocks overextends this thematic in his reading of Kubrick's other works, for the most part, with a few notable exceptions, such as the title character of Dr. Strangelove. Here is one of the more telling passages from the review:
"Much of The wolf at the door is background material for Cocks' ultimate argument that The shining is Kubrick's Holocaust film.
Stanley Kubrick wanted to make a film about the Holocaust. Stanley Kubrick never made a film about the Holocaust. Until he did. It was not the film he said he would make. But it is the one he made. (172)
After so much build up the final chapters do provide a rigorous and fascinating reading of The shining as a text on the Holocaust. Cocks explores the cultural significance of the hotel as setting and the symbolism of the typewriter as "the primary weapon of the SS bureaucrats of the Final Solution who have rightly been designated 'desk murderers'". (188) Cocks discusses the inter-textual references The shining contains from literature such as Thomas Mann's 1924 novel The magic mountain, Joseph Conrad's 1902 novel Heart of darkness and the novels of Franz Kafka. Some of the many films that Cocks contrasts The shining with include The 1000 eyes of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang, France/Italy/West Germany, 1960), The exterminating angel (Luis Buñuel, Mexico, 1962), The night porter (Liliana Cavani, Italy/USA, 1974) and even Barton Fink (Joel and Ethan Coen, USA/UK, 1991), which Cocks convincingly argues is a homage to The shining. Cocks examines the nursery rhymes that are evoked, the psychoanalytical meaning of the maze in regard to the female body and the role of the child in Kubrick's films. Cocks' eye for detail is extraordinary and after finishing The wolf at the door it is difficult not to think of the blood pouring out of the elevator as the blood of the millions murdered in the Holocaust. Likewise, it becomes clear why audiences have previously associated the Grady twins with the 'medical research' done by Dr. Joseph Mengele on twin children at Auschwitz".

I've found an interesting companion piece to Cocks. What I like about it is that it builds a highly detailed, and very original, case for the temporal logic/method of the film as a reflexive statement about apocalypse. The use of Mayan references by this blogger, to my mind, does nothing to downplay any parallels with the genocidal themes that Cocks brings to light. If anything, they are complementary. Having read the Fred Jameson, Douglas Kellner and Michael Ryan interpretations, it is refreshing to read something very different, as it reminds us of the true significance of "reader response criticism", whilst profoundly reaffirming the cultural/historical legacy of The Holocaust: the gas chamber, rather than the Weberian iron cage, becomes the metaphor of the dark side of modernity.
I hadn't felt so rewarded by a reading of a Kubrick film since Metaphilm's piece on Eyes Wide Shut, which included a fascinating link to The Konformist, where the film becomes a hardcore conspiracy narrative.I worry about the seemingly arbitrary nature of some readings, but The Shining has proved a welcome companion piece to Adam Roberts's Science Fiction, which comments in effect on some of the iconography used for this blog, although I stress that any collusion on my part was purely unintentional (here I cite his description of the racial coding of the Alien and Predator films; gender aspects are, of course, also examined, elsewhere in the text):
"Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) represents the alien as a black-skinned monster—played, in the original film, by a black actor in a suit—who lurks in the bowels of the industrial ship, a symbol of the industrial city, killing via a ghastly combination of rape and violence. It doesn’t take much cultural decoding to see this as an expression of white middle-class fear at the potential for distrust of an alienated black urban underclass. In John McTiernan’s Predator (1987), the savage hunter alien has dreadlocks, a clear enough signifier of blackness. He inhabits the jungle, preying violently and barbarically on the ‘Western’ colonisers, be they American, ‘Dutch’ or Hispanic. He also, when he finally uncovers his face at the end of the movie, has a peculiar mouth with teeth that look like bones pierced through his face—another ‘jungle man’ caricature of racial blackness. The coding is made even more explicit in the sequel, when the action relocates from the jungle to the urban battlefield of Los Angeles, another, more politically loaded location for white fears of black violence, with the alien joining in the gang war. In the first film, the Predator is destroyed by the Aryan übermann Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the second, the casting is even more ingenious: the black actor Danny Glover is pitted against the black-man-as-alien, precisely in the scene where black-on-black violence in contemporary America is at its most acute" (2000, pp 119-120).

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Survival horror: the machine dreams of late capitalism

A complementary thesis: "machine dreams" (how economics became a cyborg science), a book previously featured on this blog, and Jameson's postmodern waning of affect as a symptom of late capitalism. What is the most obviously successful cultural exemplar? I would argue it is the video and computer game industry, and this relationship awaits consideration in the field of ludology. My previous "machine dreams" post referenced the "fuck you buddy" ethos as descended from gaming theory, so it follows that a transition to a related commodity form would become conventional.
To be sure, discussion could have just as easily focused on recent horror films such as Saw, whose horror is entirely reliant on the assumption that people, when placed in any critical situation equating to the prisoner's dilemma game, will behave predictably in the most self-interested, reactionary manner. But nowhere is it more explicitly articulated than in the pronouncements of game designers who base their "survival horror" on the dynamics of small group relationships, comprised of minimal selves, by drawing on a limited repertoire of texts in a serial fashion; think of the treatment of John Carpenter's remake of The Thing as a confirmatory authority by the designers of upcoming titles such as Dead Island and Left 4 Dead. Antecedents in the culture industry can, of course, be traced even further back, to the dynamic traced by Marx, when he described Robinson Crusoe as the perfect embodiment of economic man (a kind of minimal self who adapts by learning how to rationally make use of his limited resources in the most efficient manner).
As Bauman has also observed, apocalyptic fantasies of lone survivors afford a glimpse of what death must look like, and this assessment is apt insofar as looking is foregrounded more than feeling per se. So, the waning of affect described by Jameson, when translated into Raymond Williams's lexicon, becomes an emergent structure of non-feeling.

This paradoxical effect has been traced to some extent in Jen Webb and Sam Byrnand piece in the June 2008 issue of Body & Society, "Some Kind of Virus: The Zombie as Body and as Trope":

"They show, too, what is perhaps the most devastating aspect of zombie as metaphor for the current economy: there is no (evident) way out. Your only option, when faced with the zombie menace, is to kill or be killed. Either way you’re screwed, because you are dead, or you have become what you fear. The act of violence that removes the horror and threat of the zombie reconstructs me, the human, as zombie – a being that is only body, without empathy, without respect for life: very like the marketplace, in fact".
The "solution" therefore amounts to little more than a zero sum game (i.e. the logic of "fuck you buddy"). By the same token, this might explain the recent focus on creativity amongst many social theorists, say the turn to Castoriadis, who are less interested in following their cultural theoretical cousins, some of whom appear more preoccupied with unearthing emancipatory content in populist forms. I think it fair to say though that all fear a situation in which we would have no alternative other than sharing the same "machine dreams".
Other than the upcoming game, Earth No More, some imagery of which I've posted here, I will try to track down the film Equilibrium, which might be construed as a commentary on both the normotic Left and Right. But remember Barry Schwartz's point about "free choice" too in my earlier tedtalks post: opportunity costs are the price paid under more reflexive conditions because it makes us more disatisfied with what we had previously enjoyed. This gradually leads to a profound sense of disappointment with more attractive successor versions, whereby a self learns to withhold feeling from the world, because nothing is able to encompass the totality of what a "free" self is. It seems then that the culture industry has finally acknowledged this logic by turning an opportunity cost into a niche market. Hence cynicism can be repackaged as ironic postmodern sophistication once opportunity costs themselves are transformed into the cultural icon of the zombie (paralleling the flattened affect experienced by the consumer.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Human Nature

I think I see window opening shortly where I can make up for some of my recent neglect of this blog. Until then, I'll have to stick with the twitter approach, by simply posting a link to a Steve Fuller lecture on the recent revival of 'human nature' as a topic in the social sciences.
Suffice to say, the piece is very much in keeping with this blog's mission statement, so comes highly recommended:

Thursday, 5 June 2008

The Return of John Berger's "Ways of Seeing"

I tried to post a link before but then the clips were removed; but here they are back up on YouTube. I'm unsure whether the BBC had removed them in anticipation of a dvd release, so for now I recommend making the most of them while they last.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Biology in Science Fiction

I've just come across this interesting blog. It obviously shares a considerable focus with Acheron, so I intend to monitor it regularly. Peggy is obviously a very genial blogger, who not only sees the dystopian/utopian ramifications of biocultural developments, but also has a disarming sense of humour, which helps to leaven and vary the tone. I've taken an arresting image here from one of her more recent posts, and I thank her as well for this article, which taps into my previous post about xenomorphs.