Monday, July 27, 2015

The Gesture of Blogging

By Matt Bernico

In January 2016, Matt Bernico will teach a distance course entitled "In Media Res: Media, Technology, and Culture" in the Master of Worldview Studies (MWS) program at the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS). This blog post illustrates the kinds of questions that will be raised in the course, which will draw from the work of Vilém Flusser, Walter Benjamin, and others in order to think through how media affects and effects human culture. From the course description: "According to Michel Foucault, the 'blueprint' of the 20th century was the prison or hospital. However, we might say that the 'blueprint' for the 21st century is the computer network: namely the Internet. With the technological revolutions of the 21st century, we see the digitalization and informationalization of everything. Learning to live, think and act within this sort of society is increasingly difficult and requires new diagnostics of culture, politics and the self. This class will engage with these questions in light of the importance of materiality and embodiment in the community of faith’s ongoing reflection upon Christian life and mission." For more information on how to enroll in the MWS program at ICS, visit our web site. 

The relationship between technology and the body is always fraught with misunderstandings, ideology and assumption. For example, in a post-industrial society, what is work? It appears to be hammering away on a keyboard, but in what way can we disentangle post-industrial work from typing an essay, a blog, and so on? Materially, we might say these acts are identical, but observing and unpacking the gesture of blogging itself might yield some phenomenological difference. So, then, what is the gesture of blogging?

To begin, we might consider what a gesture is at all. In his book Gestures, the media philosopher, Vilém Flusser (1920-1991), calls a gesture “a movement of the body, or tool of the body, for which there is no satisfactory causal explanation. Meaning must be discovered in relationship to movement” (2). A gesture is a thing we do in collaboration with other actors/objects that describes the human intentionality and freedom in an act. For example, if a car speeds toward you and then you leap out of the way, this is not the gesture of leaping: the intentionality is not your own. Whereas, we might call leaping in the context of exercise or a game as the gesture of leaping. The difference is in determining what actor has the ability to express the most intention and freedom.

What can we say about the gesture of blogging? Flusser, a thinker who exclusively used a typewriter, writes about the gesture of writing and even typing, but typing on a digital apparatus, especially in the case of blogging, is quite different. Before we can get at the gesture of blogging, let’s look at the gesture of writing. According to Flusser writing is about scratching a surface in a specific linear pattern with graphite, chalk or ink. The gesture of writing is about inscription.

It is the tendency of some philosophers of technology and the media, namely Heidegger, to bemoan the fall of writing to the typewriter and in turn digital media. Heidegger points out that the way we act on the world is through our hands and writing is certainly one of the ways that humans act. Flusser would be in agreement here; humans pass the world through their hands, whereas a squid, for example, sucks the world in through it’s mouth.

However, the addition of the typewriter, according to Heidegger is an interruption of the human hand. It “tears writing from the essential realm of the hand.” In this “tearing” two things happen, writing is turned into something typed, which is to say objectified, archivable or mnemonic. Typing necessarily extends the life of the written word; to use Derrida’s vocabulary, there’s a sense of both command and commencement stemming from the gesture of typing. Second, it removes that human element from writing itself and makes everyone’s text look the same. Here, we might even notice the notion of authenticity found in Walter Benjamin being on the outside of the technical.

Heidegger and Benjamin aside, Flusser is forever the optimist. Typing, in comparison to writing, is a more “free” mode of expression than writing is. The typewriter lets us fudge the rules in the gesture of writing. In typing, we’re not just scratching the surface with graphite or ink, but we’re engraving. Punching keys with fingers and then those keys triggering a lever that impresses ink onto a page with pressure. Besides mere physicality, typing is freer in the techno-imaginary sense: it introduces speed, efficiency and the ability to play with the apparatus itself. For example, concrete poetry, an artform Flusser held in high regard, is just the type of freedom he has in mind. The gesture of typing is found in the act of engraving.

The Hansen Writing Ball, used by Friedrich Nietzsche

The gesture of writing, whether it be handwritten or with a typewriter, is about expression in both the literal and figurative sense. Notice that in the etymology of ‘expression’ we find the meaning to ‘press out’, as in from one surface to another. Figuratively, to express is to press out from ourselves to a medium. Writing, in either technical medium, does both.

In light of all this, how do we determine the gesture of blogging? This is quite difficult, not because the physicality or ergonomics of typing are so different from the typewriter to the keyboard, but because expression becomes increasingly more difficult digitally: there are more obstacles. In the physical and material sense of the word the ‘expression’ is relatively similar. We press a button with our fingers that triggers a lever that in turn engraves writing on a surface, albeit a more complex lever and more complex surface. Rather than scratching on paper or engraving on paper, the digital apparatus scratches incredibly small demarcations on the platter of a hard drive.

Taking a step back from the material processes of blogging, or even just digital writing in general, we’ll notice the span of the digital apparatus traverses the distance between industrial and post-industrial apparatus. It’s the case that computers are culturally and economically encoded in the industrial context, but they, as Flusser says, “point toward” a post-industrial society. Computers straddle the bounds of labor, and the tired Marxist categories don’t really help in the discussion of “digital labor.”

Amiga 500, a bestselling personal computer in the 1980s


Jobs that require individuals to work within digital apparatuses are administrative and appear quite different from industrial labor altogether. However, the difficulty comes with human intention and affect in approaching the apparatus altogether. It is the function of the apparatus to capture whatever one might throw at it: work, play, boredom and so on. Blogging, then, is an utterly different gesture and act than if one approaches the apparatus as a worker.

Writing becomes usurped by the manipulation and storage of information. The “tearing away” of writing increases exponentially in tandem with Moore’s Law, and with it increases the elements of command and commencement of the digital apparatus. Said in a much simpler way, what is written digitally is hard to expunge or forget. Rather than forgetting, we practice more complex gestures of forced anamnesis. The totality of what is written has to be forgotten out of the volume and anxiety that comes with the impossibility of consuming it all.

The program of the typewriter offers a far narrower amount of potential freedom and play than a computer. With the typewriter, the interface, that boundary between writer and what is written, is minimal. Digital writing, blogging in this instance, necessitates a negotiation with a far more dynamic interface. An essential question of writing, according to Flusser, is “in the face of what obstacles has he said what he has said” (22, sic)? The rules and program of the digital writing interface (the minutia of the blog platform, the word processor, and so on) become a member of the obstacles the writer must overcome, negotiate and play with.

Digital writing loses some of its linearity and becomes circular and rhizomatic. While text still moves from left to right across the screen, hyperlinks, images and the possibility to search text for specific words utterly alters what it means to write. Linearity is weakened and the rules one has to work with change. The gesture of blogging is a creative act and what is essential to the gesture of blogging is frivolity – a loose and ephemeral process, whereas work is serious, boring, and coerced. To blog is not so serious, but leisurely, yet full of expression and freedom. The point is that we approach the apparatus with different intentionality when we go to work or go to blog, and in this freedom we learn new skills of negotiation with our apparatuses. We have to work with and against the platforms constructed for writing.

Matt Bernico is a PhD candidate (ABD) at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, CH. He is an adjunct instructor at Greenville College and a sessional instructor in the MWS program at ICS. His primary interests are Media Studies, Speculative Realism and Political Philosophy. He blogs at mattbernico.com.

First image: in the Public Domain, used from Wikipedia.; Third image: © Bill Bertram 2006, CC-BY-2.5, hosted at Wikipedia.

4 comments:

  1. I was interested in your clear sense of something new occurring in the act of blogging. Much of your analysis stuck with the materiality of the acts of writing you were considering. It struck me that you had to exaggerate the material difference between the typewriter and the computer, even as Heidegger had to exaggerate the difference between handwriting and typing: exaggeration opened up something else. What seemed to go missing in the process of this exaggeration was something else. You see, it seems to me that a difference that stands out for many of us who had to make the mental adjustment to writing via the medium of the personal computer was difference between a medium that punished to a medium that facilitated revision. On a computer, nothing needs to be stuck with for revisions are easy; even the most complex revisions can occur with very little fuss and muss. That introduces a fluidity to writing that influences thinking. One doesn't dig in nearly so fast because text is itself so revisable. This change does not make it into your analysis. When you do speak concretely about the blogger and the act of blogging you contrast the blogger's social position with that of the intellectual worker. The blogger takes up a position of relative leisure with respect to the intellectual worker. That is true but is that in fact new? It seems to me that the blogger in that regard inhabits a social space that looks more like that of the novelist and poet than the journalist or other form of intellectual worker. So are you saying that the blogger who makes her living from blogging (like the intellectual worker) is one who is positioned differently vis-a-vis her work by virtue of the leisure structured into the very fabric of the act, a leisure that overlaps with that of the writing artist: that is, the novelist, dramaturgue, poet, etc.? Let's say this is what you were getting at. That makes me wonder how the revisability that the computer enables maps on to the social "between-ness" of the blogger?

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    1. Two notes

      re: reversibility

      This is right, digital writing interjects reversibility. That's what I mean when I say in my last paragraph that writing becomes circular. Maybe nonlinear is even a better term than either circular or reversible. The point is that the nonlinearity in digital writing reduces possible barriers to autocatalysis (the mechanism that keeps interaction and production moving). Instead of offering edits later, additional pieces, or whatever one can simply jump back into a piece.

      However, I'm skeptical to say that this change is without additional consequences or that this description carries a full account of what happens. Each platform itself has different rules that a writer has to play with or be restricted by. Though, those specific rules are often neglected because reading software, like we read a text, is not a practice critics often undertake. For example, writing in microsoft office is different than writing in google docs and these differences surely influence our thinking, but do we have the theoretical tools for understanding these minute differences? Each platform carries different possibilities and potentialities that we ought to consider. For example, something as small as the key combinations and short cuts offer a lot to the act of writing digitally.

      Re: social position and labor

      Maybe this is unhelpful or just painfully obvious, but analyzing blogging as a type labor is difficult because there is an incredible amount of diversity in how bloggers work, their impetus for blogging and how they're compensated. It is fundamentally a different mode of labor than industrialism. There is no office or factory, no set wage, no labor time and who even knows how to calculate the labor power for this sort of thing.

      For example, Ground Motive, is comprised of students, faculty, etc all writing out of a mixture of self-directed interest and the nice immaterial goods that come along with blogging. (some minor recognition, self-promotion, a nice page that appears when you google yourself.) However, there are also blogs that individuals and firms run as an attempt at marketing. Blogs that review products and attempt to market those products are often compensated materially, however not always in the form of a wage.

      Either way, leisure is important to take note of. Writing for Ground Motives was leisurely because there was no deadline, I could choose my topic, the editors are lovely people and most importantly I enjoyed it. On the other hand, In the case of a blog that markets products, the affect of leisure at least has to be demonstrated spectacularly or else the "style" of the blog loses it's rhetorical power and it just looks like an overt marketing attempt.

      This is how blogging, as intellectual worker, becomes different from the novelist and the others. Not only does one have to market products, but they have to do it subtly to keep alive the casualness of the whole endeavor. Keeping up the rhetorical references to casualness and leisure are important stylistic features that also have to be produced. To blog, one has to encode the production as leisure or else it's sort of pointless for the marketeers.

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  2. Your discussion of blogging and labour in your response to me is really interesting. I hear you implying that our category of labour comes to us from out of the industrial age and as such distorts quite as much as it reveals about the new cultural form, blogging. There is something I recognize in what you are saying but then presumably labour would be equally unsuited to what the peasant, servant, or artisan does in a pre-industrial economy. But what if we saw labour as an analogical notion adaptable to other economic forms than that of the industrial age that Marx had in front of him? Would a truly post-industrial notion of labour not be imaginable and if imagined is it your guess that it would still not illumine the contours of blogging without offsetting distortions so profound as to make the concept inappropriate (which I take to be one of your theses heretofore)?

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  3. Pre computer age had type of paper and pencil or pen issues to deal with. Doodling on paper was casual. Reproduction and distribution before the internet was quite costly and time consuming. Now it is essentially free and immediate.

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