October 13, 2020

Scenic Design Practices

Filed under: GA — adam @ 5:59 am

It seems to me that we’ve gotten to the point, with the emergence of computing as a “metamedia,” where there’s no basis for distinguishing between “media” and “technology.” All media, including the most basic, such as speech, gesture and writing, are implicated in the vast array of recording and monitoring technologies, and as subject to algorithmic governance or “planetary scale computation” as anything else; while all technology is now dependent on code (itself a form of literacy) and contributes to the spatial arrangement of human activity no less than media such as buildings and cinema. And we can include “infrastructure” in this as well. Drawing, then, upon the understanding of “media” I proposed in Anthropomorphics, as all the means of constituting scenes, and the understanding of “technology” I proposed, that is, as the articulation of desacralized and abstracted human practices, I would synthesize it all as “scenic design practices.” Every practice is designing a scene; or, really, redesigning a scene, or some portion of a scene, with the techno-media (this term to be revised presently) available. This would include all practices, large and small, carried out by the powerless as well as the powerful, obviously with different effects and constraints across the spectrum.

I’m a little, most indirectly, familiar with some of the more significant contemporary theorists of technology, such as Gilbert Simondon, Bernard Stiegler and Freidrich Kittler, each of whom reaches back into other traditions of thought, and I’ll be doing more reading here, but I’ve already got some sense of where anthropomorphics will differ from and offer something unthought by these other approaches, so I’ll lay down some of that thinking here. The first “medium,” of course, was the scene constructed and embodied as the originary scene, part and parcel of the emergence of the sign, which I would see expansively as the posture as well as gesture of an entire human body conforming itself in real time to the postures and gestures of an emergent community of other humans. (One could always draw the boundary between sign and scene/media differently.) The first tool, or implement, meanwhile, would have had to have been some ritual enhancing “device,” that is to say, something that would materialize the memory of the originary scene by drawing or enhancing the boundary between center and periphery. A circle of bones, perhaps, marking the ritual space, eventually something like an altar, and whatever materials might have gone into constructing a permanent likeness of the central figure. Maintaining the means of ritual would involve the development of “skills,” which is to say repeatable movements that can be transmitted to others and perfected, and the creation of increasingly differentiated and specialized “tools,” which would always be bound up with sacred purposes. The real “instructor” here would be the central figure itself, who teaches the community how to create and use the tools in accord with ritual prescriptions. And, of course, myths would be generated explaining how some sacred figure provided the community with these tools and prescriptions. Since each new element of ritual must have displaced a previous one, it makes sense that such myths are often associated with some kind of transgression, an aura which until modern times has always surrounded knowledge or technical innovation.

This would all hold true for the development of weapons used for hunting and war, all of which would involve the same intimate, imperative relation to the gods and ancestors and the prescriptions and tools for building altars and conducting rituals. I’m assuming that nothing can be outside of the ritual-mythic nexus, a very tightly bound up system of imperative exchange, until the emergence of the ancient empires and their serial destruction of local communities with the mass enslavement of their populations (of course, as Engels observed a long time ago, enslavement was an alternative to extermination, once the ruler became powerful enough to make use of subjugated populations). We now have vast populations excluded from the ritual center, which means that anything can be done to or with them. It is at this point, I’m hypothesizing, that we can start to speak of “technology,” as the direct, i.e., de-sacralized and de-ritualized aggregations of humans who can be combined in an orderly way for concentrated purposes involving the use and transformation of “nature.” As Nitzan and Bichler point out, referring to Mumford in Capital as Power, the very conception of technology is an effect of power: seeing all this “labor power” at your disposal would inflame the imagination.

This imaginative impulse is both constructive and pulverizing. Not only does it afford massive and complex structures, but also for continual grinding up into ever more minute particles. “Analysis” is a result of this. So, we can take any scene and treat it as a media apparatus which is simultaneously one small piece of much larger apparatuses, but can itself be broken down into any number of mini-apparatuses. I use the word “treat” here rather than, say, “view,” because to treat something is to change it in some very specific way, to prepare it for a particular use. Insofar as we treat the scenes we inhabit or infiltrate as an articulation of design practices, we are participating in those practices. We’re designing the scenic features that will more or less eventually go into the production of some utterance, or sample. If you’re rich and powerful, this might entail organizing a studio, hiring specific kinds of directors, getting certain performers under contract, hiring publicity people to create and maintain a brand, so that you get to the point where your design issues in a movie in which a particular actor stands in a particular way, on a particular scene, and says something, which a designed for audience will hear and pass on in various ways to secondary and tertiary audiences. Designing algorithmic orders that make it more probable that certain items turn up in a search is an even more obvious example. And this entire configuration can continually be redesigned.  If you’re essentially powerless, like most of us, the appropriation of design practices nevertheless gives you a way of thinking about how to spend your time and energy—in various ways, you’re contributing to the construction and maintenance of a range of scenes, and the more precise you get about the samples you’d most like to generate, the more effectively you can think where to replace certain scenic elements with others so as to bring about resonant attentional shifts. The powerless can do this because the mega-machines into whose service we have been pressed require the “pieces” to take some initiatives and assume some responsibilities.

The design of assignments for students in pedagogical situations provide as good an example of design practices as anything else I can think of. (I’ll issue my customary broadside against my academic colleagues and point out that, even though this is their main job, in my experience very, very few of them give this any disciplined thought at all. They ask students to do what they imagine themselves doing, thereby favoring the students best able to mimic their own gestures.) The purpose of an assignment is to have the students learn how to do something that they could only have learned how to do laboriously or even serendipitously without the assignment, with the thing they learn to do also being something they will not only have to do very often in other situations, but that will also be a condition for them to do a lot of other things. This is what makes an assignment, to use a little bit of contemporary pedagogical jargon, “high-impact.”

For one thing (I’m speaking about my own field, “freshman comp,” here), this requires breaking down “academic reading and writing,” i.e., a particular advanced form of literacy that is best defined in terms of the continuous production of nominalizations that function as subjects and objects of sentences in a hierarchical system of distributed citationality. (In “academic discourse,” “a hierarchal system of distributed citationality” readily becomes the subject of a sentence—so, what has to be learned, for example, is what does “a hierarchical system of distributed citationality” do; that is, what verbs does one put after it? What is it like, i.e., which adjectives modify it, etc.?) More simply, academic discourse is characterized by vast reserves of implicit references to disciplinary conversations in the abbreviated form of their stored conceptual innovations. You break this down by defining the practice you want rehearsed (say, distinguishing “distributed citationality” from something significantly other to it) against the “epistemological obstacles” that interfere with performing it. Those obstacles are located in the mythical language of everyday life, where “Big Scenic thinking” prevails, and one relies on the dictionary meaning of words and imagines oneself “agreeing” and “disagreeing” with discrete statements, and therefore having “opinions,” “viewpoints,” and so on, rather than working out the implications of a concept. So, the assignment stages confrontations between the epistemological obstacles of mythical everyday discourse, on the one hand, and the language of some disciplinary space, on the other. This produces an “inter-language,” where we find the learner using everyday vocabulary in the grammar of the disciplinary discourse and the vocabulary of disciplinary discourse in the grammar of everyday language. The inter-language now becomes the center of the disciplinary space, as the students construct a vocabulary and grammar to describe and analyze it, thereby preparing themselves to move self-reflexively into other disciplinary spaces.

Now, all this is on a small scale—a class with one teacher and 15-20 students occupying the same space. But the practice of staging confrontations between Big Scenic, mythical thinking and emergent disciplinary spaces which expose the limits of Big Scenic thinking can be scaled up as large as one likes. This is the way to think about tweeting, blogging, constructing websites, publishing, even the creation of new currencies, political organization, or anything else we might be doing. Everything is the staging of pedagogical hypotheses that will in turn generate resonant, ramified hypotheses of and against the Big Scene. This entails hypothesizing the vast range of possible responses to what you might do, and how you might interfere with that field of possible responses so as to facilitate more encounters between the Big Scene and disciplinary practices. This is no doubt why trolling has become such a prominent, almost all-inclusive feature of social media and more traditional practices that have been transformed by the social media ecology—trolling is aimed at generating responses you can then use so as to compose an utterance that will generate more responses you can use… The problem with trolling is that it locks everyone into their initial positions, whereas it is better to open up new positions.

You can then, imagine yourself not so much giving an assignment across the techno-media or field of scenic design practices (after all, who are you to give others assignments?) but as performing some assignment that provides an example for others. This is the only way through the “technological world picture,” and through Capital, for that matter, which also depends upon Big Scenic mythology. The iterative center assigns to each of us the practice that will distinguish it from the sacrificial remnants chewed over in Big Scenic thinking insofar as you specifically complete the practice. And that practice is some scenic design practice that will translate that same assignment into some other institutionally, infrastructurally mediated scene.  The translation will be the creation of the scene, the transference of some vocabulary within some grammar to another technological idiom. You do this by translating the constraints and affordances of platforms into imperatives and questions to be redesigned as assignments. Such practices entail inquiring into the scenic design practices that have produced each and every one of us. A constant pulverizing has been going on since the ancient empires—the Axial Age was a limited response to that, but we still haven’t seen anything better. What would be better is not trying to pick up all the pieces and put them back together again, but treating the pieces (habits that program us to try and get our rightful slice of the central object) as materials for scenic design that will have us all looking to help one another find our respective name and place. We all have some place we should be, and some name we should inhabit, and we can only find our name and place within a social order designed to produce scenes that afford such findings.

Maybe we could call the “techno-media” the field of “mimological impressments” upon which scenic design practices operate. “Mimological” derives from Marcel Jousse’s “mimisms,” which is a concept that enables us to identify any human action as an articulation of infinitesimal gestures rooted in imitation; the word “impressment” means coerced recruitment into some military or industrial mega-machine, but property can also be impressed, and therefore so can anything in the natural world, all of which is pressed into service; but, even more, if we abstract the word “impress” from impressment, we have the (admittedly secondary) meaning of making a mark on something, with the something being the resources of the world subject to (transformed into resources by) the operations of the sciences, and the mark being made by some mimological arrangement. All of “nature” is made to imitate the forms of human activity, and that activity is further pulverized into new mimisms in imitation of the new impressments. Drawing on my previous post, I’ll suggest that the “assignment” here is to treat our entanglements with mimological impressments as both liminally obsolete and still under construction. This allows us to defer the demands of imperative exchanges mimological impressments impose on us—it provides a space for studying what it means to be “on” Twitter, or Facebook, or Google, or a blog and turning the demands of these spaces into platforms for staging pedagogical scenes that show where the boundaries between one scene and others lie. (The same holds, even if more indirectly, and through a different kind of operational chain, for building bridges and roads, or weapons, or buildings—it’s all scenic constitution through mimological impressments.) Once you identify a boundary, you can imaginatively, thought-experimentally, place some thing in an oscillatory relation to the respective sides of the boundary. So you take the same sample (utterance, statement, meme, icon, imperative…) and treat it as belonging to different spaces. (The simplest example: some statement or action that would be sign of madness on one scene but of genius on another—this allows you to assess the statement, and the respective scenes, and to respond to the statement or one “similar” to it so as to further test the hypothesis.) Ultimately, if you do enough of this, and bring enough and the right others into doing enough of this, you’ve established a discovery procedure for fulfilling the imperative of the center. Everyone would just be interested in compiling sample utterances in such a way that all participants find themselves maximally addressed by them.

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