January 23, 2005


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Why do I hate talking on the phone, but find MSN messenger so compulsive?

Partly it is because phones are too intrusive. Not because they impose an unwanted intimacy but for exactly the opposite reason. In a typical telephone conversation, you are forced into (re)assuming your assigned social role. Switching out of MSN to talk on a phone is to be forced away from intimacy, back into the Face, back into the established protocols of mammalian interaction. With MSN, however, the ambiguity and novelty of the medium – when using internet messaging, are we speaking or writing? – allows for more slippage. If we tend to say that we will ‘speak’ later on MSN, it is not because we are falling into phonocentrism, but, quite to the contrary, because we are aware that this is a mode of communication which combines speaking with writing, or rather typing (which should not be reduced to writing).

Zizek also provides a clue. In The Fragile Absolute, Zizek illustrates Lacan’s distinction between two types of enjoyment, as outlined by Lacan in Seminar XX: Encore, by referring to male and female uses of the web. ‘On the one hand [heh heh – k-p],’ he writes, ‘we have the closed, ultimately solipsistic, circuit of drives which find their satisfaction in idiotic masturbatory (autoerotic) activity, in the perverse circulating around objet petit a as the object of a drive. On the other hand, there are subjects for whom access to jouissance is much more closely linked to the domain of the Other’s discourse, to how they not so much talk, as are talked about: say, erotic pleasure hinges on the seductive talk of the lover, on the satisfaction provided by speech itself, not just on the act in its stupidity. And does not this contrast explain the long-observed difference in how the sexes relate to cyberspace sex? Men are much more prone to use cyberspace as a masturbatory device for their solitary playing, while women are more prone to participate in chatrooms, using cyberspace for seductive exchanges of speech.’

While men wait for high-resolution webcams which will show everything, women trade words. The fact that both MSN and txting are predominantly used by females is indicative of a more general libidinal difference in how the two sexes have tended to relate to both technology and language.

Some remarks by Irigaray in This Sex Which Is Not One are instructive here, but we have to be careful, since they are capable of misinterpretation if read too quickly. ‘[W]oman’s autoeroticism,’ Irigaray writes, ‘is very different from man’s. In order to touch himself, man needs an instrument: his hand, a woman’s body, language… And this self-caressing requires at least a minimum of activity. As for woman, she touches herself in and of herself without any way to distinguish activity from passivity. Woman “touches” herself all the time, and moreover no-one can forbid her to do so, for her genitals are formed of two lips in continuous contact. Thus, within herself, she is already two – but not divisible into one(s) – that caress each other.’

It is crucial to avoid subsuming what Irigaray is saying here into familiar but inaccurate narratives about women being ‘excluded’ from language. Such a claim would be too easily refuted by a welter of banal empirical observation: the female investment in MSN and txt is only the latest manifestation of an intense female involvement in epistolary technologies. As everyone knows, there was a strong relationship between the epistolary and the novel, both formally and in terms of content (formally, consider the complex implexed epistolary structure of Wuthering Heights, Frankenstein and Dracula; as for content, it is impossible to imagine any of the great literary romances proceeding without letters). And of course, the novel itself began as a Gothic romance, produced by and for women. As Austen’s Northanger Abbey demonstrates, Gothic romances were very precisely a means of women ‘turning each other on’ (and not only sexually). As a propagative erototechnology, the novel was itself a mode of Gothic propagation, the reading of which enabled women to literally – and literarily – enjoy themselves, exploring the spine-chilling thrills that lay beyond the pleasure principle. The scandal, from the POV of patriarchal specularity, was that this enjoyment was both in full view – women would openly read novels in public – but fundamentally inaccessible to the male gaze (what they were doing to themselves could not be seen by men).


No: Irigaray’s point is not about women’s exclusion from language, but about their libidinal incapacity to use it. Men experience themselves as not imbricated in language or technology, but as their users. In fact, and this point is crucial, the assumption of a transcendent, Promethean position in relation to language and technology is what it is to be a man.

All of this is congruent with the cyberotics Sadie Plant began to develop a decade ago.

It’s not only for personal reasons, I think, that I always found Sadie’s Zeros and Ones a disappointing book. It struck me as floaty, imprecise and gestural in a way that the writing that fed into it (‘The Future Looms: Weaving Women and Cybernetics’, ‘Female Touch’, ‘Cyberfeminist Simulations’, ‘Coming Across the Future’) was not. In those early pieces, Sadie developed a lateral connectionist rhizo-writing which challenged the phallic rigor of logos, without lapsing into ‘poetic’ vague-out, by systematically unraveling the rigid pseudo-certainties of patriarchal authority.

Sadie was much more British, much more punk than the precious and ever-so-slightly pompous Donna Haraway. Where Haraway invested in the anti-cybernetic figure of the cyborg, Sadie patched into the anorganic network-weave-matrix of orphan matter. With its invocation of a ‘socialist feminism’, Haraway’s dusty ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ stank of the American liberal academy, whereas Sadie’s work was self-evidently an interface between the academy and its Outside, a line of flight where renegade theorists could commingle with artists, novelists and sonic manipulators. The anti-capitalist pro-market cyber-theory-fiction she and Nick Land innovated in the 90s could only have emerged in Britain. It reminded us that, for all the California-Wired-Hollywood bluster, cyberpunk was essentially a British invention, synthesized first through fictions and sonics then theory.

(As an aside, wasn’t Postpunk in many ways already cyberpunk, the ‘post’ precisely signaling a break with lumpenpunk’s dull r and r orthodoxy? But the ‘cyber’ component of postpunk was not only, or even primiarily, sonic, it was also a matter of the incorporation of anti-biotic fictional viruses into the sonic body. For Magazine, Joy Division, Foxx, the Normal and the Brit-saturated Grace Jones, J.G. Ballard was at least as significant as anything ‘musical’ – his crash ontology was the sonic fictional equivalent of the amen breakbeat in jungle, a kind of consistency-generating semiotic machine.)

One of Sadie’s greatest acts of theoretical viracy was to rescue Irigaray’s work from the tedious swamp of academic representationalism in which it had been mired. When I first saw Sadie speak, to a bunch of idiot-male academic gatekeepers (‘this isn’t Philosophy – get off our land’) at the Philosophy Department in Manchester University, I could almost feel the synapses in my brain reconfiguring as I fell into that vertiginous exhilaration you always feel when conceptual defaults are put to flight – Gibson AND Irigarary, cyberpunk AND French theory… Surely they COULDN’T go together, could they? And yet they MUST…

The line Sadie most frequently cited from Irigaray was this question, from Speculum: ‘If machines, even machines of theory can turn themselves on, cannot women do likewise?’ Cyberfeminism would have to be about women turning themselves on. Whilst there is an obvious auto-erotic dimension to this, it is important not to stop at erotics, but to think about female auto-affection in the most abstract way imaginable. The emphasis was no longer on women seeking representation within the optic of patriarchal spec(tac)ular power. Nor was it about women bragging about their escape from patriarchy’s Videodrome. Both WHAT and HOW men thought were irrelevant to the (un)raveling Cyberfeminist Matrix, which Sadie showed had always been weaving itself, alongside and beneath what patriarchy was screening. Women’s theoretical productions and labour were integral to Spectacular Optical patriarchy, but the reverse was not the case. Women could quite easily get along without men, but men remained pathetically dependent upon females, both fantasmatically and materially.


The suggestive paralleling of women and computers was far more than mere analogy. Sadie pursued the anti-identitarian logic of simulation beyond where maleborn writers such as Deleuze (in Logic of Sense) but more significantly Baudrillard – a theorist Sadie deserves credit for taking seriously at a time when his stocks at an all-time low - were prepared to take it, making possible a kind of post-de Beauvoir existentialist feminism, in which women were Nothing more this process of booting-up without presupposition. Just as computers lacked any assignable essence in that all they were defined only operationally, by their simulation of what other machines (typewriters, calculators, audio and video-players etc.) could do, so women were, in themselves, Nothing: there was no essence of authentic womanhood to be recovered from behind the screens and the simulations. Yet Sadie was able to sidestep the tricksy sophistries consequent upon the Satrean substantialization of Nothing because of her drawing upon the role of zero in digitality and cybernetics. There, zero was not straightforward absence, but an effective virtuality, the baseline from which all intensities are differentiated. Far from being guaranteed by transcendent Unity, the only genuine monism would be a radical abgrund which shattered all identities, all Ones: what the Lyotard of Libdinal Economy called the Great Zero, the unengendered and unnatural Matrix from which all of Nature springs.

On this account, it was suddenly clear that it was men, not women, who were lacking, and always had been. The presence of the phallus – the Master-Signifier, the signifier as such – now marked a disabled body with organ, which was unable, unlike the female body, to turn itself on; the male organism would always require something else to jack into in order to access the depersonalizing matrix of abstract matter, while women, by contrast, could not but be in touch – first of all, with themselves.


So it was possible now to see that patriarchy’s ultimate meta-narrative was itself a story about the meta. The male relationship to the world would always be mediated by tools which he, as the transcendent subject, saw himself as ‘using’. The cyberfeminist assault upon this orthodoxy drew upon two discursive machines which, prima facie couldn’t have looked more male: cybernetics and psychoanalysis.

Cybernetics began as a technics of war. In WWII, it became obvious that human beings alone were not capable of operating at the speed necessary to use weapons like machine guns on aircraft effectively. To optimize their function, the machines would have to be able to reflect on their own performance and produce adjustments: the science of feedback. Hence the paradox of cybernetics, which, precisely in its quest to achieve the final domination of nature by Man ends up reinserting Man into the Matrix of matter. Cybernetics showed that control operated at the level of the circuit, the feedback loop. Such control bore no relation to the transcendent domination that Promethean Master Science once believed it could enjoy. The machine-gunners were not transcendent users of technology, but themselves meat components of a circuit containing both biotic and non-biotic materials.

As for psychoanalysis, its aporia, the void around which the whole discourse unraveled, was the enigma that Freud famously could not resolve, the question ‘What do women want?’ The Irigarayan reverse consisted in deploying the techniques of (the ostensibly) male discipline of psychoanalysis against itself and against the western canon of Master philosophers. Plato’s founding myth of the cave, for instance, was saturated with uterine imagery. From the start, Philosophy would be narrated as an escape from a matter coded as feminine.

The combination of cybernetics with psychonalysis and feminism made possible a writing that would no longer be representational, but productive: an erotic engineering. Crucial here was Gregory Bateson’s post-Wienerian cybernetics of the plateau. The paradox of climax or satisfaction oriented libidinal economies is that they are always haunted by an inbuilt and therefore inevitable dissatisfaction. Everything is geared up to the production of the single moment of alleged ecstasy at orgasm, such that prior to coming, all effort is concentrated into a grim labour while afterwards one is condemned to a tristresse, presaging the diminishing returns repetition of the whole cycle. Almost all of the time, you want to be where you are not. Schopenhauer and Burroughs are among those maleborn speaking animals who have described this grim prison from within its confines.

It is important to recognize that Irigaray’s critique of specularity was not about disparaging looks and looking as opposed to the tactile. There is a tactile gaze whenever looking is not seen, as it is in the phallic libidinal economy, as a substitute for contact.

In the specular economy, everything fulfills a function extrinsic to itself – the images on the screen are there solely because they stimulate the male organ, which in turn must be stroked by the hand. This hand-screen-tool relation is reproduced in the specular-analogue invention of the Mouse, the impetus for the creation of which was men’s unwillingness to learn how to type.

In fact, as both Friedrich Kittler and Nick Land have forcefully shown, the whole male-driven production of the Graphic User Interface (GUI) is a disastrous move for cyberpunk. In early computing – in which, as Sadie has demonstrated, women played innumerable (previously) unsung roles – the relationship between human beings and machines was depersonalizing and dehumanizing. In other words, human beings were sprung out of the representational prison wherein they confuse themselves and their potentials with what the Dominant Operating System tells them they are. With the development of the tellingly named Personal Computer, computers are denumerized and ‘de-abstracted’: your relationship to the machine is conducted via a screen that locks you out of its core functions at the same time as it represents the computer as continuous with the analogue-specular world. You interact with the machine via the eye and the icon. As Kittler glumly notes, with the development of the tellingly named Personal Computer, you are condemned to be a person. This is obvious when you consider that, once, the word ‘computer’, like the word ‘typewriter’, could originally be applied both to the human being ‘using’ – that is to say, involved with – the machine as well as to the machine itself. And it is no accident that most of these typewriters and computers were in the first instance women.

Nick’s invention-discovery of Qwernomics – the schizo-analysis of the impact upon primarily female typists of the arrival of the Qwerty keyboard in the nineteenth century – reinforces this. At the same time as Freud was pioneering his ‘talking cure’ of female hysterics in Vienna, working women in offices were having their unconscious reprocessed through their fingers via keyboard. As their name suggests, the relationship of touch typists to their machines is a tactile, not a specular one: neither the page that is typed upon nor the keyboard need be seen.

Kittler follows McLuhan in tracking a complicity between high modernism and Gothic popular propagation in their focus on the typist (with Eliot, Kafka and Nietzsche – who according to Kittler was the first philosopher to use a typewriter – complemented by Dracula, whose narrative is famously mediated through typewriters and phonographs).

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Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, which seems to have as much to do with Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter as Burroughs’ novel, is where these two lines fuse. The incredibly charged scenes between Joan and William Lee are not just mediated by, they are almost entirely conducted through, the typewriter. ‘More erotic…’ Joan moans as they take turns at the keyboard. Perhaps uniquely in contemporary cinema, Cronenberg understands that the erotic is distributed and abstract, not localizable and ‘natural’. Far from being perverse, the typewriter scene in Naked Lunch, like the many machinic sex scenes in Crash correctly shows that the only way for men and women to relate is via a machine – precisely because, no matter how physically close male and female organisms may get, there can be no contact unless the signifying screen is breached, unless, that is to say, the sociobiotic writing machine which assigns sexual roles is itself challenged. In the ‘natural’ way of things – i.e. in the Dominant Operating System’s representation of nature, i.e. the Symbolic Order – there is no sexual relation. There is only masturbation using a woman’s body on the male side (all phallic desire is essentially masturbatory – Lacan) and, if they are very lucky, a wholly different kind of auto-eroticism for the woman. Only by confronting the fantasmatic screen that both separates men and woman and makes such engagement as there is between them possible, only, that is to say, by together rewriting what is already written - the social, biotic and semiotic codes which tell us what we are (Metkoub, it is written: and they don’t want it changed) – only then can there be contact.

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Kafka's first letter to Felice: Kittler notes that 33% of the typing mistakes in this letter concerned the personal pronouns "ich" (I) and "Sie" (you). 'Mechanized and materially specific, modern literature disappears in a type of anonymity which bare surnames like "Kafka" or K" only emphasize.'

As Kittler says, word processing engenders a new relation between the sexes:

'Word processing these days is the business of couples who write, instead of sleep, with one another. And if on occasion they do both, they certainly don’t experience romantic love. Only as long as women remained excluded from discursive technologies could they exist as the other of words and printed matter. Typists such as Minnie Tipp, by contrast, laugh at any romanticism. Tha is why the world of dictated, typed literature—that is, modern literature —harbors either Nietzsche’s notion of love or none at all. These are desk couples, two-year-long marriages of convenience, there are even women writers such as Edith Wharton who dictate to men sittirng at a typewriter. Only that typed love letters—as Sherlock Holmes pro and for all in A Case of Identity—aren’t love letters.'

Yet internet messaging and txting make possible a wholly new series of erotic relations even as they restore the original sense of ‘romance’ lost once the term was appropriated by sexualists. Instant Messaging and txt are predisposed towards courtly encounters of roleplay, deferral and ambiguity, in which ambivalence is enjoyed, not (supposedly) extirpated in a meeting of meat which, no matter how brutally physical it becomes, always take place through fantasmatic screens.

But what makes IM and txt different to both the epistolary and the telephonic romance is the question of temporality. With letters, there was always, inevitably, a delay of at least a period of hours; with telephones, by contrast, there is a temporal immediacy which can too easily be confused with an affective immediacy. Phonocentrism is in this sense strictly literal (or should that be, strictly phonic, lol): the here and now presence of the voice is assumed to guarantee an authenticity lacking in keyboard-produced text which always appears after it has been typed (even if only a few seconds). But the delay in IM and txt is what allows us to recognize what we can easily forget when face to face: that we are never speaking to a persona and that all our relations with others are relationships between machines.

Posted by mark at January 23, 2005 12:20 PM | TrackBack