Monday, 2 December 2013

What Next?

I want to tie this off with a bow and deliver it for Christmas. I want this to have a neat conclusion like a good college essay, like a good story, like a goodbye. What next, what next, what next? I have some senses of where to go, but those senses are inarticulate, they still feel untrained by even a constructed truth. The further I go, the more my conclusions become trailing pauses, and maybe that's not a mark of semester fatigue but a growing sense of the vast gulf that stretches upon all sides, the gulf of complexity and confusion in which shouted conclusions are lost acoustically, sent back in fragments.

I wanted, in short, to round out the semester with a kind of overview of sorts--an attempt, I suppose, to figure out what I can do to bring what I've learned in the course into my own life. Clearly, if that introduction is anything to go by, it hasn't been the easiest of projects. Hence the overwrought poetics there.

See, the thing is, I think I've got a sense now of how to apply the theory side of things to my own work. I have a sense of what it means to be a cyborg scholar.

For example:

At long last, in part due to my attempts to apply his ideas in the essay on Forbidden Voices, I think I have a solid sense of how to begin working with Latour's ideas about propositions and articulation. I can see applications of the ideas in particular to queer subjectivity--by shifting the discourse to one of propositions rather than absolute truths about queer nature, it might be possible to embrace ever more complex articulations of what it means to be queer.

This, in turn, potentially sheds some light on the idea of queerness in the animal kingdom. There's a real danger in applying broad human categories of behavior to animals, particularly ones as socially affected as categories of sexual behavior, but this drive to articulate while, to some extent, withholding conclusions can maybe allow for a greater understanding of nonhuman queerness that doesn't translate easily into simple metaphor.

And, of course, the move towards articulation mirrors the moves by Haraway and Sandoval toward a fragmentation of identities that is mirrored, as far as queer performativity is concerned, with the ever widening proliferation of queer identities, including, increasingly, categories such as "heteroflexible" that blur the lines between straight and queer. These seem to me like propositions rather than truth statements; ways of expressing a particular kind of existence that doesn't easily fit under a wide politically mobilizeable category.

So, I'm getting a sense of how the pieces fit together. The different scholars are talking to each other not just in real life but in the virtual space created by my knowledge of them, if that makes any sort of sense.

But where I'm falling short, I think, is the application of this theory not to my academic life but to my civilian life (leaving aside for the moment the question of whether or not I have a life outside of academia. Wow, that's a grim thought).

In other words, what next?

What do I do to bring these ideas into my lived experience, both in the realm of the material and the realm of the digital?

I have found this to be a deeply affirming experience in some ways. I love junk culture--pop and schlock and overblown nonsense. Seeing science fiction show up again and again in the writings of Haraway and others makes me feel so strongly that I'm not crazy for finding so much of value, so much that resonates, in these works. One way forward for me, then, is to treat my unseriousness a bit more seriously. I'm missing some pretty horrifyingly huge chunks from the Canon of junk culture, and it's time those holes were filled. (I've got a new Octavia Butler novel and a book of Ursula Le Guin's short stories sitting on my desk right now, waiting for when I need a break from writing essays.)

So that's one thing.

I've pondered M'Charek's discussion of the shifting nature of identity and its construction quite a bit these past few weeks, and in previous posts I've mentioned how difficult it is to escape that constructive process in the digital, but to some extent I do still believe that I can wrest some control of my identity in the digital world... or maybe wrest control is the wrong term. Rather, I can metamorphose into something different on the 'Net, I can slip and slide and play with my form. The practical limits of time and money and energy that restrain me in the material world from expressing myself as fluidly gendered do not weigh quite so heavy here in the realm of light. What's next for my persona here? I'm not really sure, but I'm excited to let go a little and see where my own mind takes me.

So that's another thing.

But these are just a couple of small things, and they're maybe not enough to lead me into the future. It feels like a grasping attempt at meaning more than a fully fleshed out plan for where to head with this new knowledge.

Maybe, however, that's simply the questing state that feminist--or broadly theoretical--discourse demands: a kind of continual process of becoming.

It surprises me in some ways that this semester we have talked very little about adolescence, another state of in-betweenness, an uncomfortable cyborg state. This feels like an adolescence in some ways, or maybe a first poking forth from the chrysalis, the emergence of a new insect into a vast world of moving colors. It's frustrating and disorienting to be in such a vast field, but it's also exhilarating, I think.

I sometimes hear that in a transhuman world of vastly increased lifespans and cyberization, transformation and continuous evolution will be impossible. I can't quite understand this mentality. Technology is a continuously disruptive force, as is biology, and externalities--the queering forces of nature--seem to always find their way back in.If I can't find a conclusion, it's because as a cyborg I'm in this state of perpetual becoming. My future identity is flexible plastics.

I am Cyborg Maria.

And we started with Janelle Monae so it's only fitting if she sings us out.

Mechanical Animals

I'm having a hell of a time remembering what animals appear in the science fiction stories I've read. Particularly cyberpunk stories, which seem to me the most relevant sci fi to our current society (I might've remarked before on the fact that many of the major cyberpunk authors now set their stories in the present day).

There's Fido, in Snow Crash. It plays a fairly pivotal part in the plot, but on the whole appears for only a handful of pages.

There's the giant bird in "I Have No Mouth, But I Must Scream," created by AM, but it's just an incidental obstacle, one of many horrors the last humans encounter.

I can't think of a single animal in any William Gibson novel.

Nor any animals in The Matrix.

This isn't to say that there are none, but what I'm trying to get at here is that animals seem to play such an incidental role in these narratives that they're barely memorable at best. When they do appear, they are incidental and simple in their natures. Fido, for example, is more an archetypal idea of loyal dogness than an animal in his own right (although, in fairness, ALL the characters in Snow Crash are fairly archetypal--the book consciously plays with that fact. See: "Hiro Protagonist." I just can't get over that name).

The introduction of animals as another intelligent force worthy of political consideration in cyberfeminist theory caught me off guard for this reason, I think. The basic idea of looking at animals hasn't been completely off my radar, of course, but I've always previously, in discussions with other transhumanists, discussed animals in terms of which ones were closest to us in human intelligence, and which would be the next to join us as fully evolved species.

Christ, even typing this I feel like going back in time and smacking myself.

I can't totally blame myself, though--with an absence of different models for human-animal interactions to work from, and a society built upon a clear hierarchical understanding of human-animal power dynamics, it's not surprising that I'd end up formulating a way of talking about these relationships that places me at the top of a paternalistic pyramid of education and elevation directed towards my inferiors.

It's also, I think, not surprising that even forward-thinking scholarship sometimes struggles to break from these structures as well. I think particularly of Beatriz DaCosta's pigeon project, which involved the application of sensor devices to pigeons to measure urban air quality. She refers repeatedly to the pigeons as "collaborators," but it's never quite clear to me what role as collaborators the pigeons were able to have. How much control, for example, did they have over their flight routes? How much understanding of what their purpose was? 

There's material here, I think, that we could engage with more deeply, but I'm not quite sure where to start. I'm reminded, too, of discussions of animal painters. I think it's in Dutton's The Art Instinct (a book with some serious problems but that does offer some interesting potential insights) that I read recently about the way chimpanzee painters depend, for their art practice, upon a handler taking their canvas from them at a certain point. Without this removal, they will continue splattering paint long after the canvas becomes a muddy wreck. Is this collaboration? I'm not sure. I look at it askance the same way I look at three year old "prodigy" abstract painters askance--there's clearly a facilitation of one sort or another going on here, a curation of images. I worry that in performance art, more so even than in painting, it's easy to disguise the use of living beings as "randomly programmed automatic paintbrush[es]" as the Guardian described Aelita Andre.

A painting by the artist Aelita Andre

I think Donna Haraway does a somewhat better job in this talk on DaCosta's work of delving into some of these problems. You can jump to about the 15:45 minute mark to go straight to her part of the talk.

Feminism, Technology, and Transformation from FemTechNet on Vimeo.

The interesting thing about Haraway's conceptualization of DaCosta's relationship with the Lucinha, Bringer of Light is that for Haraway (as with just about everything else, which is part of why I love her) the relationship is not an innocent one. It's a complex relationship where the animal's existence is shaped by and contingent on human need. It's a genetically designed entity created, effectively, to fulfill a human need. Haraway doesn't shy away from how much the dog is a function of human agency.

But she also flips that around and discusses the way in which DaCosta's life, already shaped by cancer, is shaped further by the bringing of this Bringer of Light into her life. And that has me wondering: how much agency does DaCosta ultimately have in Lucinha's creation and entrance into her life and her world? DaCosta is not responsible for Lucinha's breeding, her genetic structure, her temperament (Haraway contrasts Lucinha with her sibling, notably), and does seem, in Haraway's reading, to participate as a collaborator in Lucinha's training, in that Lucinha makes it necessary to go to a training camp, to work with her constantly, and so on.

Haraway is therefore making clear the animal agency, even if that agency isn't necessarily a result of multi-stage planning like we'd expect from humans. But neither is DaCosta's agency fully a product of that kind of prior planning or obvious, closed-ended collaborative goals.

I'm not sure how to untangle all of this, honestly. I'm a novice here, and it's hard to write a conclusion when I'm not sure what conclusions I can draw from this continuously problematized set of relationships.

I think it's time for me to seek out some science fiction where animals play more than a bit part, though.

Cyborg Maria will never be good to you, bad to you.