Week 30 – Anna Barham – 27 July-2 August

Fig-2_30_50_16Don’t be evil.

In 2007 Google (the well-known lunar landings provider who did the search engine thingy) introduced a free directory inquiry service in the US called GOOG-411. Your call was digitally parsed by the ‘robot operator’ who then offered to connect your call to its top results. It wasn’t clear what Google was getting out of providing this generous free service, which they even promoted on billboards.

Three years after its introduction the service was suddenly dropped. Google had already released its search-by-voice service in Android, and so the penny.. dropped. GOOG-411, as Google has admitted, had been a covert phoneme-gathering operation intended to create a huge database to improve voice recognition technology for Google’s search products.

Google had amassed thousands of hours of requests for plumbers and pizza delivery and connections to confusingly named places like Schenectady spoken in every accent from every state of the US. The free GOOG-411 service enabled the technology and techniques that activated the speech recognition software which was and is now amassing a vast repository of spoken words in every language on earth, improving itself in a perfect feedback learning loop every time the user corrects a faulty transcription.

Open the pod bay doors, Siri.

Fig-2_30_50_7Anna Barham’s video “The Squid That Hid” outlines the difficulties speech presents to speech recognition software, from accent pronunciation and articulation to background noise. The big problem is that spoken words just run on from each other. It’s hard for humans too. Without visual punctuation it can be hard or impossible to arrange the string of syllables into words into sentences. To the untrained ear Polish sounds like English recorded to tape and played backwards. Yiddish sounds like someone cheating at Scrabble. English sounds like a sarcastic Swede reading words at random from a car manual (see also “Prisencolinensinainciusol”).

Ambiguity over the beginnings and endings of words is the basis of the Four candles/ fork handles sketch, and ambiguity about punctuation gives rise to the Eats shoots & leaves joke.

In the first line of Finnegans Wake we find “past Eve and Adam’s” which can also be read “Pa, Stephen: Adams” which deliberately equates Joyce’s father Stanislaus and his fictional portrait of the artist as a young man and archetypal Son Stephen Daedalus with the Bible’s archetypal Father figure Adam.

Seemingly Fleshed Inside

It all begins with this passage from Image Machine by Bridget Crone (2013). Anna Barham used it as the starting point for the film Double Screen (not quite tonight jellylike) which presents variations on Crone’s text as reworked and mangled by voice recognition software. I say “it all begins” but Crone’s text is itself a response to Amanda Beech’s Fi nal Mac hi ne. I daren’t look whether this also derives from something else for fear we’ll end up in some bottomless pit of recursion and influence.

Barham’s use of the text next went into Penetrating Squid, an ongoing novel whose third chapter forms the basis of the text that was the basis of her week at Fig-2. The text was generated in live reading groups where readers take it in turns to read a text into transcription software. Barham has apparently generated over a hundred versions of Crone’s text. Barham then went on to read short sections over and over again through the software to generate more radical disruptions and the three chapters of Penetrating Squid, which are audible on Soundcloud.

BridgetCrone-PassageFromImageMachine
click image to embiggen

Crone’s text starts with a description of cleaning a squid and as bits fall onto newspaper the words distort and the text itself distorts and falls into associative chains of sounds and images. In the original we find “Tight pieces of sinewy flesh inside the squid try to hold onto this gooey mess” which is one of the short phrases whose variations form the bulk of the text Barham uses, which start off recognizably: “tried to hold onto the screen pieces of silver reflections cybersquaring trying to hold onto the screen” and get further “trying to hold onto the discreet/discrete maths inside the square” and further out: “listening in the pool pieces of seemingly flesh inside”.

IMG_0299In the ICA studio space for Week 30 of fig-2 Barham set up a microphone plugged into a Mac running OS X dictation software with a printer, plus a screen displaying the text as it was generated by the visitors reading. Visitors to the space were encouraged to read from the printouts they found, producing new printouts for the next visitors. As you’d expect over the course of a week the text bore little recognition to chapter three of Penetrating Squid.

Even over the course of successive readers the changes are considerable. In four steps we find, in no particular order, “Hello all this time”, “Hello I’m Harry”, “Okay hello and hurry”, “Okay hello unhurried”. It’s the old game of Chinese Whispers in electronic form.

IMG_0312The OS X software has real-time correction routines that try to identify the meaning of what is being said and retrospectively correcting it, so for example identifying whether you were ‘being discreet’ or rather talking about ‘discrete forms of meaning’.

Intriguingly, this illustrates aspects of Wittgenstein’s theory of language, that we create meaning not via the relation of individual words to the things we associate with them necessarily but via the relation of the words between themselves. The noun ‘Good’ stands for something different thing to the good of ‘good game’. Going on, Wittgenstein challenges us to come up with a meaning for the word “game”. We can’t agree, but we all know what it means in use. Meaning is use. This is the principle that Google Translate and OS X Dictation use: context.

It is awesomely powerful, but incomplete. While the machine understands to an extent meaning as generated by use, there’s still a step missing here, perhaps even missing from Wittgenstein’s theory, that would explain why we can’t agree on our game but still know what it means. It’s a cognitive next step that people working in voice recognition software are struggling with, entering the realm of Artificial Intelligence to seek the breakthrough.

Even with such clever tech and with the rich amount of phoneme data that has been gathered in exercises such as GOOG-411, it is still remarkable how hard it is for machines to transcribe speech, as Anna Barham’s work amusingly demonstrates. Never ask a robot to sell you fork handles.

TRYING TO HOLD ONTO THE SCREEN

In Week 29 of Fig-2 I said that “You are an internet” and imagined inhabiting posthuman cyberspace having transcended physical form. In an act of direct regression, this week I have experimented with subverting this in real time to explore who is The Best: machines or humans? So please put your hands together for this my experiment with manually performing voice recognition transcription. You might think the transcriptions of software are laughable, but wait until you see mine.

I typed out all seven minutes of “Penetrating Squid / Chapter 3 / Seemingly Fleshed Inside” from the soundcloud, first with stops to type, and then typing straight through trying to keep up as best I could. Both attempts are viewable in this googledoc.

In the first pass, which took about forty-five minutes, I couldn’t decide between certain homonyms (discreet/discrete, you’re/your, onto/on too), made harder by the lack of conventional running sense. My ears are pretty good but I wasn’t sure if I heard lightly or likely. I typed silly instead of city.

The second pass, in real time, was of course a trainwreck. Certain omissions and conflations occur near the start and everything is mis-spelled, and then it just gets worse as I miss more, and at some point I knock CAPS LOCK on without realizing. By this point words have bled into each other and are half formed and in the wrong order, the text obliterated, repetitious. I enjoyed afterwards finding an example of spontaneous creative accident: a Joyce-style portmanteau word QWEAKNESS. At a couple of points I froze completely and I remember typing the letter ‘i’ about six times in a row, utterly defeated.

Insight is quick / inside the squid

mutant lisp generatorThe texts created from accidents can be beautiful and poetic. Is Anna Barham a poet? This is a kind of suggestive poetry, certainly if the meaningless syllables of dada poetry can be said to be poetry. The poetry creates kinds of sense because each word has a meaning, and new meanings are being created and found by the strange aleatory juxtapositions of the words. A clash of meanings is set up where there was no conscious intention. It is created anew by use and association, which brings us back to Wittgenstein’s notions of meaning as use.

Random associations and meanings can also occur in the physical dimension, or our perception thereof. Whenever I see or think about Anna Barham’s (amazing) anagrammatic Twitter handle “Banana_Harm” I have the sensation that I can smell foam banana sweets. For Mmm: by Anna’s tweaks.

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I am indebted to Daniel Soar’s LRB article “It knows” for the Google knowledge, and Fig-2 curator Fatoş Üstek’s interview with Anna Barham.

Week 29 – POSTmatter – 20-26 July

DANIEL ROURKE 22 JULY LIVE WRITING http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-daniel-rourke

Hello cruel wwworld. I have abandoned my physical form and its inky fingers and terrible headaches. I now inhabit a googledoc with fifty other anonymous avatars, mostly the more anthropomorphised animals: Anonymous Beaver, Anonymous Fox, Anonymous Monkey and Anonymous Panda; and their exotic cousins Anonymous Axolotl, Anonymous Liger, Anonymous Ifrit and Anonymous Quagga. Everyone’s having a good time. There is no trouble, just good-natured exchanges and the sense of a vibrant community. I love everything. 10

EMMA CHARLES, 'THE STRAIGHTEST PATH ALLOWED BY LAW', 2015
EMMA CHARLES, ‘THE STRAIGHTEST PATH ALLOWED BY LAW’, 2015 – http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-x-emma-charles

In the studio an ancient slide projector clicks through twenty-four images then rattles rapidly through the slide magazine and returns to the first image. GOTO 10

The googledoc empties and during the night one of the anonymous anthropomorphised animal avatars deletes all the text leaving justbyewhich three days later becomespoer.combye”.

http://postmatter.com/#/currents/postmatter-x-fig-2
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/postmatter-x-fig-2

The magazine is digital, and called POSTmatter because it has transcended the need for the physical form, just as I have done. Its overly anthropomorphised animal avatar would, I think, be an Anonymous Platypus. But while the platypus is a semi-aquatic egg-laying mammal from eastern Australia, the Anonymous Platypus is a digital magazine that originally began as a trapezoid egg on an iPad in 2010 then hatched into this growing cross-platform monotreme. Its staple diet is editorial pieces, exhibitions, and art commissions that sit at the convergence of the digital and physical. It uses its curious but versatile duck-bill to drill into organic matter and physical space and deposit mindbombs from the web superbrain.

POSTmatter’s fig-2 show has two thematic components,

  • the natural landscape and how it can be presented digitally;
  • the process of writing and publishing a magazine;

intersecting with two realms:

  • the ICA studio space;
  • the digital online publishing space.
JACOB KIERKEGAARD, ‘STIGMA’, 2014
JACOB KIERKEGAARD, ‘STIGMA’, 2014

There’s a certain parallelism across these that broadly echoes dichotomies of real-unreal, natural-artifical, present-absent, and so on. All of the work presented both physically and online is about the intersection of physical and virtual. This is an area of contemporary importance in art practice. Even Gilbert and George have embraced digital, making those weird symmetrical images of themselves. Grumpy stalwart and militant smoker, the one guy left who still paints, you know, paints paintings with paint, even David Hockney has taken to ‘painting’ on an iPad.

Five creative artists are presenting work in the studio space. A further five write live, broadcasting the process of composition online via the viewable googledoc, each writing for an hour (the psychoanalytic hour). There are live webcasts between artists all over the world, streaming in the ICA studio space.

fig-2_29_50_17-EmmaCharles-ThestraightestpathallowedbylawThe layout of the space itself is a quote: Jardin d’hiver by Marcel Broodthaers, from whose work was borrowed the original moniker fig-1 and the present fig-2 – this is why it’s dressed like a greenhouse. It’s not winter, and it’s not Broodthaers. This is what the show is really about, or springs from.  There are allusions to Broodthaers’ first Italian retrospective, ‘L’espace de l’écriture’ (The Space of Writing). This is a space in which writing is written. An hour a day, in the googledoc. Five writers. Countless anonymous anthropomorphised animal avatars. In his words “writing (poetry), object (something three-dimensional), and image (film)”: these three elements are those of the fig2 show. Tracing a line from Broodthaers to fig-1 to fig-2 and then exploring the line as a literal artefact as a mark on the page or a string of text, this is a fig-2 theme. We discussed it in Week 3 and have traced it through subsequent weeks. Emma Charles “The Straightest Path Allowed by Law” traces the fibre-optic cabling between New York and Chicago, photos from the route flash up on the carousel.

Emma Charles’s carousel slide projection leads me to discover her film “Fragments on machines” in which we see servers and wiring and all the physical infrastructure that underpins the supposedly virtual space.

“My muscle has been replaced by flex and copper, my brain a server, 1s and 0s my voice. I exist as a phantom under iridescent colour. I speak in shimmering tones to the hidden construction of the form. I desire to become data and will be mobile, moving to provide. I will become the information flow. I am your personal relationship to the source. I become more and more. I move in and out of positions several times a day to adapt. I adjust by fractions to adapt to my surroundings. I collect, I discard, I seek positive results, then the purge at the end of the day. I refresh, renew, liquidate and realign my entire self.”

JOHN GERRARD, ‘WORKING DRAWING FOR INFINITE FREEDOM EXERCISE (NEAR ABADAN, IRAN)’, 2011
JOHN GERRARD, ‘WORKING DRAWING FOR INFINITE FREEDOM EXERCISE (NEAR ABADAN, IRAN)’, 2011

Fig-2 is kind of an ‘acoustic’ venture – rearranging an actual physical space every week. But even here, each week is completed by its archival documentation on the fig-2 website, and the soundcloud artist interviews, and the social media presences. Each week isn’t complete without these glosses and reflections and the establishment of interconnections and themes between each of the fifty shows. Themes recur, and only when it’s all done will the full picture be visible.

I think fig-2 is London’s last gasp for a funded relatively low audience experimental art-led venture. The arts are facing a 40% funding cut and while this won’t change much for most of us- musicians don’t get a penny from anyone- it’s a kick in the balls for fine art: installations cost a fortune. Already the art scene is distracted by big blockbuster shows; this will get worse. Arte Povera will be more widespread. Stuff like fig-2 won’t happen. No middle-budget edgy but accessible work. It’ll be punk and prog. Guerrilla gigs and grand opera. An expression of the class warfare the rich are waging on not just the poor but the middle classes too. Already more art is happening on the internet because as a space it is accessible in a way that galleries just aren’t.

The notion of ‘digital publishing’ seems of a different character to ‘pure’ ‘digital art’ – it is mediated by a publisher, the digital magazine. There are digital curation platforms such as sedition but these are different not just because they’re selling videos or apps or other media that can be differentiated from prose or even hypertext. They’re selling limited editions. It’s a retail marketplace for individual works, following the model established by photography. The work is in theory infinitely reproducible but it is limited because the economics still obey the formula ‘scarcity = value’.

Whereas a magazine is a work in itself, from which its contents can’t be detached except to be republished in another magazine or in a book. Except this sounds like print publishing talking; a digital magazine doesn’t have ‘editions’ it’s just one constantly rolling edition. There’s no bumper christmas issue, no summer special with four different collectable covers.

MARK DORF, //_PATH, 'UNTITLED72' AND 'UNTITLED56', 2012
MARK DORF, //_PATH, ‘UNTITLED72’ AND ‘UNTITLED56’, 2012

The economics of digital art are weird. Buying mp3s still seems weird to a lot of us because you don’t physically have anything for your money. But you might listen to an mp3 hundreds of times. How many times will you watch a digital artwork? New media art. Internet art is a category discrete from digital art. One advantage of digital art is that if a museum host it on their servers then it can be permanently on display rather than only when an exhibition is mounted.

We learn from a piece in vice magazine of all places that MoMA’s digital collection is currently about 90 terabytes in size, but the museum expects that to grow to 1.2 petabytes (1.2 million gigabytes) by 2025. That archive will soon be stockpiled on Linear Tape-Open (LTO), a magnetic tape storage system developed in the 1990s. This is one solution to the storage problem of digital media, but doesn’t really address the problems of obsolescence: that the technology and software to maker older work visible doesn’t exist any more. In the Uncube x POSTmatter webchat editor Louise Benson noted that the original issue of POSTmatter as it was released on the iPad is no longer supported.

CLEMENT VALLA, ‘POSTCARDS FROM GOOGLE EARTH’, 2010
CLEMENT VALLA, ‘POSTCARDS FROM GOOGLE EARTH’, 2010

It’s interesting that POSTmatter chose ‘landscape’ as one of the big themes for their week. Landscape doesn’t exist. It has been supplanted by Google’s Universal Texture, which we encountered in Week 12. This is the rather terrifyingly named Google patent for mapping textures onto a 3D model of the entire globe. Sometimes this goes wrong, and for a moment the workings of the Universal Texture are exposed, and it’s like being Neo seeing the Matrix, or a glimpse of the Mind of God. Clement Valla has a wonderful project documenting examples of these surreal/cubist mistakes in Google Earth when large structures are reconstructed wrongly.

Writing live at the ICA studio Orit Gat produced “Travels in Google Maps” further exploring these problems of how our real and digital environments have become one and the same. When navigating with google maps, who has not been confronted by some weird glitch and assumed that it is not google but reality itself that is at fault?

Uncube editor Sophie Lovell says “I don’t see any difference really between things and the “web”.” Big communication wallahs like Professor Joseph Turow have argued for the decapitalization of the word ‘internet’ for a decade. This process is pretty much complete except among those people who would still list ‘the Internet’ as a hobby. To everyone else it’s just where we spend most of our time now. It’s the internet, not the Internet, just as we don’t usually refer to the Town Centre or the Park or the Bath.

This is one reason why it is true to say that The Internet Does Not Exist. It has become the water in the fishbowl, which we can’t even see any more while we’re swimming through it. Intersections between digital and traditional media alert us to the nature of the media, reminding us that this is water. You are an internet.

FullSizeRender (5)

POSTscript: At time of writing, POSTmatter is still publishing work generated during its week at fig-2. Here is a list of works they published. It was impossible to represent these in any detail in a short piece, even one in a fragmented style. But if you want to get into the themes above, these are explored in dynamic ways in the individual works.

http://postmatter.com/#/currents/postmatter-x-fig-2
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-larissa-sansour
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-sam-jacob
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-daniel-rourke
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-jacob-kirkegaard
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-iain-ball
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-lawrence-lek
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-uncube-x-postmatter
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-tyler-coburn
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-orit-gat
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-x-emma-charles
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-alice-butler
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-mark-dorf
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-rachel-pimm
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-milika-muritu
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-matthew-flintham
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-michael-newman
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-john-gerrard

alterego
https://fig2loyaltycard.wordpress.com/2015/07/28/week-20-18-24-may-d-cheeseman-o-hagen-r-trotta-by-alix-mortimer/

POST POSTscript:

Week 12 – Tom McCarthy – 23-29 March – Satin Island

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Present: Tom McCarthy (author, installation artist), Fatoş Üstek (curator, mathematician), Clémentine Deliss (curator, researcher), Alfie Spencer (Flamingo Group Head of Semiotics), Mark Blacklock (author)

Apologies: Claude Levi-Strauss (anthropologist), Levi Strauss (businessman), Bronisław Malinowski (anthropologist), Guy Debord (situationist), Paul Rabinow (anthropologist of “the contemporary”), Alain Badiou (thinker), Roland Barthes (semiotician), Jacques Derrida (deconstructionist), Douglas B. Holt (author on brands), Daniel Defoe (novelist)

  1. The Book

I find myself in the position of the narrator, U, in Tom McCarthy’s book Satin Island, surrounded by screens and data, trying to synthesise raw unconnected toomuchinformation into narratives. There are four elements: the Show, the Book, the Think Tank, the Company Report, and the Interview. There are five elements.

Satin Island is “a book about the general impossibility of writing a book about the general impossibility of etc.” U (a poor man’s Ulrich from Musil’s Man Without Qualities) is a corporate anthropologist who has been tasked with creating The Great Report, “the First and Last Word on our age.” To this end, he scrolls through countless images, circling around various obessions: oil spills, cargo cults, ethnographic objects, critical theory, the transport system in Lagos, the mysterious death of parachutists. Like Shakespeare’s Autolycus he is a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles. The book documents these obsessions but can’t unify them.

ACTION: The reader will consider whether the artistic success of the book at representing (even dramatising) the unassailable rag-bag nature of information/knowledge while revelling in curious and interesting detail, is achieved at the cost of the literary failure of the book, inasmuch as we are given a plotless novel with no proper characters or satisfying meaning. What are novels for, anyway?

Sylvain_Deleu_Fig-2_Tom_McCarthy_-25

  1. The Show

I wondered if it was just a marketing exercise, turning the book into an installation and having the whole text read aloud (flatly as a “Company Report”). It turns out that Tom McCarthy is no stranger to the gallery space, and the book itself grew out of a 2010 residency projecting oil spills. In Satin Island, U creates vast dossiers from unrelated material, sticking them up on the walls of the offices of the Company and trying to find connections, like Beuys diagrams, or Benjamin’s Constellating Dots. Stage designer Laura Hopkins designed the space, littering it with U and McCarthy’s source texts, images and scrawled connections. It was an effective representation of the book, maybe with a cheeky viral bit of marketing thrown in.

ACTION: The reader will consider whether in fact all the work that takes place in any gallery space is in fact just a marketing exercise, and ask whether what is being sold is an idea, or the work, or the career of the creator of the work.

Sylvain_Deleu_Fig-2_Tom_McCarthy_-43

  1. The Think Tank

The Think Tank aimed to trace anthropology through corporate culture and literature through a ‘brain-storming session’ that was actually somewhere between a lecture and a seminar. A “golden triangle” was postulated combining literature, corporate culture, and anthropology. This was an exposition of the book, but interesting in itself as an interrogation of meaning-making and information gathering in several different spheres. Fatoş Üstek (who as an undergraduate studied topology) mind-mapped the event on a huge wall mirror, “curating in a semantic sense”.

Clementine Deliss (curator, researcher, publisher) discussed anthropology and ethnography, and asked probing questions about the impulses of ethnographers and museums. The anthropologist is a ‘bug chaser’ a collector writing everything down in detail, but Levi-Strauss himself advised that we should forget objects and study culture and behaviour: the oilspill of modernity.

ACTION: The reader is asked to consider what is the nature of hoarding, classification and acquisition, and whether it can be subversive when there is also immaterial culture. If authenticity refers to a local identifiable product of one culture, how do we refigure authenticity in the context of globalisation?

Alfie Spencer (the amusingly titled Head of Semiotics at the Flamingo Group) presented a theory of branding in relation to the meaning-making. Beginning with his self-definition “I brand (verb) the way an author says ‘I observe, I interpret’” and that his position (which is analogous to the central character of Satin Island) is at an intersection between production, commerce/business and capitalism. He helps corporations make money by analyzing what it is to brand versus write versus interpret. There is a confrontation between how objects resist language and can be made to ‘speak’ via branding. Writing remakes, interpretation asks what it can do within a form of life, and branding makes a future for it. In this sense, branding is a process of closure, whereas writing is open.

ACTION: The reader is asked to consider whether writing would love to be branding, whether interpretation lusts after branding’s finality, and to consider this in relation to a novel whose open form resists closure, and further to consider whether the ambition of branding is the same as that of propaganda, and whether Alfie Spencer is therefore a tool of The Company, a footman for the Ruling Class Apparatus, forcing final forms on us.

Mark Blacklock offered up literature as a site for “speculative anthropology” and discussed Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe is a corporatist, a bookkeeper, reducing everything to information, just like U in Satin Island. Information gathering becomes the central theme of Defoe’s novel too, which is also tied to the acquisitive research methods of ethnographers in putting together collections of objects that create narratives about societies.

ACTION: The reader is invited to consider whether to answer Blacklock’s call for “an anthropology of solitude” with regard to Robinson Crusoe, bearing in mind Alix Mortimer’s priceless tweet: “To get your New Paradigm name, take your real name and put An Anthropology of… in front of it”

Mark Blocklock also reported that “Robinson Crusoe spends three years using his craft to craft a craft – a boat – which when finished can’t be moved, so it becomes a sculpture.” I love this in and of itself, but this is also a teleological point that reminds me of one of the paradoxes of ethnographic objects: that whatever their original purpose was, once they are put on display they become art objects.

ACTION: The reader is further asked to consider whether this pipe is or is not a pipe.

  1. The Company Report

The reading of the complete book out loud was a homage to On Kawara’s One Million Years, in which huge ledgers filled with all of the dates from a million years ago to a million in the future are read slowly and neutrally, monotonously. Perhaps McCarthy intended this to draw attention to the contrast between vast empty timescales and the overwhelmingly data rich present.

ACTION: The reader will consider the meaning of alluding to On Kawara in the performance of Satin Island being read out loud in the style of a ‘company report’ and whether this is a comment on timescales or the sheer implacableness of data.

Sylvain_Deleu_Fig-2_Tom_McCarthy_-14

  1. The Interview

The author Tom McCarthy claims that authors are byproducts, that to think the author is the source of meaning is like saying a plastic bottle is the source of the water it contains: it’s a straight-up category error. The author is a byproduct of literature. There are author patches swirling around the Pacific Ocean as we speak, redundantly and useless. Yes, meaning is a bundle of relations that goes back centuries and forward too, but in Barthes’s seminal essay he announced the death of the author and even now people act as if it never happened. What digital culture pushes to the forefront is not even the death of the author or even the redundancy of an act of writing, but the question of which routes to pursue, the methodology of navigation. This is what the Situationists were asking; they saw things as simple as walking the ‘wrong way’ round Paris as an act of resistance and as an artistic practice. Not for nothing does the book Satin Island share the same initials as Situationist International.

ACTION: The reader is called upon to consider what writing is, and what writing would be if everything is already written. How can we understand a writing or literature that would operate differently? Can we imagine a form of writing as resistance to grand narratives, devoted to opening up ambiguities?

ACTION: The reader is asked to consider whether Tom McCarthy is a byproduct.

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  1. Any Other Business

Grand narratives are back. Okay so there’s no codex unlocking the master meaning of the age, but there is a master programme, and it is being administered by Apple and Google. The Company. The Corporation, Leviathon, processing vast amounts of data. Every keystroke is sold to the NSA. Apple’s locked-down battery-flattening PC-poisoning products now fill me with as much dread as the horrific self-belming output of Microsoft, the tech equivalent of those dreadful Hollywood movies that are obviously stamped out by committees rather than creatives. Is Google’s motto still “Don’t be evil”? I can’t even remember.

The world is literally being remade: the Universal Texture is a rather terrifyingly named Google patent for mapping textures onto a 3D model of the entire globe. Sometimes this goes wrong, and for a moment the workings of the Universal Texture are exposed, and it’s like being Neo seeing the Matrix, or a glimpse of the Mind of God. Clement Valla has a wonderful project documenting examples of these surreal/cubist mistakes in Google Earth when large structures are reconstructed wrongly.

ACTION: The reader is asked to consider the question “Who might inhabit these landscapes?”

How do the totalising corporations get away with it? Satin Island’s Koob-Sassen Project is explained away thus: “It is… a pretty boring subject. Don’t get me wrong: the Project was important. It will have had direct effects on you: in fact, there’s probably not a single area of your daily life that it hasn’t, in some way or other, touched on, penetrated, changed; although you probably don’t know this. Not that it is secret. Things like that don’t need to be. They creep under the radar by being boring.”

In David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King we also learn about the efficacy of ennui to make invisible, to stifle politics: “The real reason why US citizens were/are not aware of these conflicts, changes, and stakes is that the whole subject of tax policy and administration is dull. Massively, spectacularly dull. […] The IRS was one of the very first government agencies to learn that such qualities help insulate them against public protest and political opposition, and that abstruse dullness is actually a much more effective shield than is secrecy. For the great disadvantage of secrecy is that it’s interesting. People are drawn to secrets; they can’t help it.” (85)

U’s relationship to media is almost gnostic, pursuing a deep secret that is forever elusive, a Godhead beyond the veil. It is fundamentally a literary relation. The whole world is an encrypted text. McCarthy notes that we can trace this back to a theological impulse – the world was a script for god. Not to mention structuralists, and he notes that Walter Benjamin’s and Jacques Derrida’s epistemologies come out of Jewish mysticism. Digital figurations are fascinating but not categorically new.

ACTION: The reader is thanked for reading, and invited to have a lovely day. Do comment!

Date of next meeting: Wednesday 22 April, London Review Bookshop, Tom McCarthy in conversation with Nick Lezard

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