The All-Too-(in)Visible (Part 2: Difference with a Digital Hue)

I direct my thoughts away from the abstract space of virtuality and digitality and delve into the concrete realm of physical place: my community. After all, the virtual has not come to be a discrete space but one intricately tied to, and constitutive of, the all-too-real places we inhabit and dwell within. The question of the virtual is not one limited merely to the binary and silicon of the machine, nor the graphical terrains and networks that our online-selves inhabit. The following post relates not to the virtual itself but more to the physical; not so much the avatar but rather to the fleshy bedrock that controls and works in concert with it.

I want to start by thinking about the future of the internet. Will the new ‘web’ simply lead to a reinscription of the existing status-quo, where large corporations dictate the images we are bombarded with, or does it contain the possibility for a viable challenge to the status-quo? There is no linear and autonomous trajectory to technology – let alone the internet. Technological developments are the result of individual and collective choices that are not governed by some ultimate law of connectivity. Rather, they are governed by history, by economic, cultural, ego-driven interests and issues of control of material resources. The virtual space is only what we have (and in the future will) make of it. The future is not something to peer into but something we conceive of and bring about.

I often wonder about making visable physicality within something traditionally seen as invisible and incorporeal. One might think of making the ‘wireless’ visible, an act akin to adding scent to the invisible fumes of noxious gasoline.

The Municipal Wireless Internet operates on the Unlicensed Radio Spectrum (broadcasting on 802.11 on the spectrum). Around 200 U.S. Cities have some kind of municipal wireless network.  Data on these networks travel as radio signals over an unlicensed area of the spectrum. In high density areas we often find a meshing of different routers that create a cloud of signals. All it takes is one router to be connected to the internet as signals travel from router to router often covering a large network with one single connection to the internet. Despite the pervasive nature of these signals, the fact that they often pass around and through our bodies, their invisibility often obscures them from our thoughts. In order to think about and harness the potentiality of these signals we must render them visible in some way.

I begun thinking about this idea while reading about the tragic, unfortunate and avoidable violence sweeping across Toronto in the summer of 2007. By the end of October, 2007 Toronto seen close to 71 murders (the all time yearly record being 88 in 1991). As the city ran red with the blood of impressionable youths whose lives had been forfeited, they were also blanketed in a less innocuous substance: the radio waves and signals that comprise our growing municipal wireless internet networks.

We might be fooled by the incorporeality of these radio waves, and be inclined to exclaim: is it not unconscionable to be discussing the in-visible internet in the same breath as the bloodstained face of a murdered child, the all-too-visible? How can we conceive of a whirling CPU fan against the hands of a young mother fanning herself to keep cool as she clutches the body of her dead son? After all, the most unconscionable of us who espouse the libratory nature of the virtual are precisely those Gnostics for whom the internet is a disembodied realm of free play, divorced entirely from flesh and blood.

I remember some of the images following the murders that occurred in Toronto’s so called ‘summer of the gun’ in 2005. What I saw in the newspapers and the media was disheartening and impossible to ignore: I was reminded of an article from 2007 in the Toronto Star. Accompanying the article was an image of a black mother in mourning with hair curlers still set in their hair, her son helping her up or consoling her, with his jeans far below his waist. Two white police offers stand by, watching the unfortunate scene. These are truly the most disturbing images as of late, disturbing, not only for the sadness they emit, but the stereotypes they propagate. Many of the images we receive are unfortunate, and a hundredfold so given that the ways we think of ourselves and our communities is often (or always) mediated by representations. Representations, like a feedback loop, work their way through us – in the process altering us and re-inscribing their authority. Some of our sense of who we are, and our place in our communities, is supplied by the constant barrage of images.

Perhaps we need to be reminded of something basic: We have only one life, only one opportunity to make something of ourselves. To let the proliferation of images carry us downstream is to ignore the agency that we possess. To continue to let (corporate) entities represent us and our communities, for their benefit, would be a travesty. If there ever was a time where control over the media was something within the reach of every spectator – it is now. This is the reason I see some potential in the coupling of peer created content and the wireless internet.

As I watch the news, music videos or read the newspapers I find evocations in the news of definite categories such as Israeli or Palestinian and Black or White. After watching enough music videos or news broadcasts, one might be inclined to believe in a ‘black’ or ‘white’ or ‘Israeli’ or ‘Palestinian’ identity. bell hooks, a prominent African-American critical theorist, is concerned with

…reformulating outmoded notions of identity. We have too long had imposed upon us, both from the outside and the inside, a narrow constricting notion of blackness. Postmodern critiques of essentialism which challenge notions of universality and static over-determined identity within mass culture and mass consciousness can open up new possibilities for the construction of the self and the assertion of agency.

She strives “…to affirm multiple black identities, varied black experience. (against… the) discourse (which) created the idea of the “primitive” and promoted the notion of an “authentic” experience, seeing as “natural” those expressions of black life which conformed to a pre-existing pattern or stereotype.”

In our communities representations  – aimed at generating profits – are protected by vague defenses such as ‘freedom of expression’. But ‘freedom of speech’, does not mean that consumers and citizens of the media-empire do not have the right to interrogate the representations we are bombarded with and demand new ones. By media-empire, I mean the unavoidable fact of living in a major city and encountering representations constructed by the media, where advertisements and corporate suggestion become the flora and fauna of our lives.

Hence, while blame for the brazen daylight murder of Jane Creba at Yonge and Dundas square during the ‘summer of the gun’ lies squarely with her assailants – we cannot ignore the architecture of her execution site. Yonge and Dundas Square is a series of large concrete stones surrounded by dizzying advertising towers and hundreds of flashing advertisements displaying everything from the newest 50-Cent record to white, buff Abercrombie models: an architecture of mass-suggestion, or mass-impression – architecture that we are shaped by and internalize.

But amidst this frenzy is something invisible to our eyes. What is invisible to us is the new web, the wireless and potentially participatory space that has the capability of damaging the suggestive power that these advertising towers can have over us. The wireless and the new web: sustained by signals that penetrate the advertising towers, the flashing advertisements, the AMC multiplex and the bodies that populate Yonge and Dundas Square.

Can this new web, combined with the decreasing cost and increasing dissemination of information and computer technologies, assist us in halting those who believe, for economic, religious, or political reasons, in constricting, fixed and static identities? Can we spite and challenge those who adhere unswervingly to a certain gang, a certain country or a certain religious faction?

After all, where do the ways we think of ourselves and others come from? There is no doubt that the media bears some of this responsibility. Protest is admirable but there are other, albeit less obvious, options for challenging stereotypes. If you are concerned about stereotypes propagated by the dominant media bodies, perhaps it would be better to ignore their legitimacy altogether.  Until now, this has not been an easy task.

In the world of the new web the role that the dominant media plays is changing. In a sense they are becoming increasingly less important. It is time to stop worrying about how others are affecting you and to begin conceiving ways of how you can affect yourself and others. (After all, both your own personally created webcasts and the one broadcast by AOL/Time Warner are often reducible to the same 12’ x 12’ box in Windows Media Player.) It has been difficult to counter the media due to the vast gap between Hollywood and the consumer, but we find ourselves in constant re-evaluation of this gap with the properties of the new web.

We have seen unconscionable bolstering of certain racially charged identities in media-products such as the ‘Stop Snitchin’ campaign. And the usual response has been for black activists to picket the corporations responsible. It is high time we stopped picketing the large media outlets for their unethical policies and representations and focused our energies on fostering new representations of ourselves and our communities and disseminating them on the new web, a space where anyone has, or could come to have, the ability, the right, and an equal share in the creation of their identity. To picket the media is to further legitimate it, it is to say “we acknowledge your tremendous power – and the authoritative control of your writers”, when it is clear that doing so would be legitimizing the reign of a tyrannical monarch, now sickly, and teetering between life and death.

It is possible to challenge these monarchs from inside their kingdoms. Whether they will continue to linger in their sickly state, reclaim their health, or perish, is in our hands.  And those of us who want to work with the media, it may be possible to use the wires and the technology to benefit both.  This is not an issue of censorship, but one of infusing a communal-ethics into the media, which since at least the 1920s has truly revealed itself to be concerned with profits and ‘beyond-good-and-evil’. We have the right to demand of our corporations that they act in a way that takes into consideration the effect that representations have on individuals and communities. The new web could be a highly democratic and participatory space. But, the tide will not turn on its own without the agency and choices of individual actors and the recognition of communal action.

[Imag(e)]ining Differences: Let the explosion of our technologies infiltrate the corporate media networks. And if the corporation refuses, and tries to shut down these lines of control, it may already be too late. The term ‘viral video’ reveals its true function in this context. The Unlicensed Radio Spectrum could, if sustained by municipalities/communities, operate without the say of Rogers or Bell. Our concern should be with knocking the empires offline or asking whether it is possible to work with them to create a democratic, participatory and ethical space. Thus, we will have achieved a revolution not by criminality but the speed of the digital. We would be harnessing the fiber optics, the hybrid creatures, the wireless networks and the peer-produced frameworks the media have engendered to demonstrate its radical weakness.

Why would anyone return to obediently accepting when they are used to creating while they accept? We might, if we are bold enough, reclaim the physical public space and control over our identities, paradoxically, through virtual spaces.

Cornel West asks: “How does one acquire the resources to survive and the cultural capital to thrive as a critic or artist?” It requires self-confidence, perseverance and discipline without complete reliance on the mainstream. It requires a site of freedom to interrogate the ways that we are bound by certain conventions. The (re)creation of identity, the denigration of an authentic identity or group, and the capacity for ironic re-descriptive divergent images will not offer a utopian future, but might clear our spaces of the profit driven and ethic lacking representations that we often internalize and often spectacularly and tragically externalize on our communities.

The challenge becomes one of control over meanings.  Despite all meanings being contingent, not all are equal. The position that things are ‘socially constructed’, for example, does not entail total relativism. Grafting certain meanings onto things can have serious repercussions. This does not imply that there are ‘final’ meanings for things, it merely implies that some ‘meanings’ can have disastrous consequences. Often these disastrous ‘meanings’ are disastrous simply because they promote the illusion of their fixity. They appear naturalized and ingrained into the natural-world. There is indeed a natural world, with its own contours and crevices. Likewise, there is indeed a human body, a sexed body, whose physiological differences, while in no way deterministic, act to contour, in some way or another, the way we conduct ourselves. No two bodies are alike, and it is this fact, a ‘determinism of difference’ that we must recognize.

There is nothing affirmative about the means of production becoming concentrated in the hands of the few, not because we are distanced from some essential nature, but because we are distanced from our ability to discover our anti-natures, our differences.

Capital, in concentrated form, hordes the ability for identity creation.  Yet, at the same time this concentrated capital has engendered the conditions for radical modes of identity creation.  It is possible to bypass this concentration by harnessing the power of wireless technologies and digital imagery: technologies that are, despite being created by corporations, not necessarily bound to any corporate entity.

We  recognize the nihilistic conditions in our most populous imagetropolises, the tremendous sense of hopelessness. We recognize as well the nihilistic claims made by thinkers such as Baudrillard regarding the condition of virtuality and question whether this is indeed the final case. After all, the virtual – and the digital images associated with it – are coming to influence our consciousnesses. Amidst this hypertropic pressure we find new creatures in the abyss, creatures borne from the phantasmagoric toxins of concentrated capital. We hear the call for a revaluation (of identity and subjectivity), the only way to make the problem less acute, by theorists such as bell hooks, for whom the solution to the nihilism facing black communities lies in the fostering of radical creative spaces and oppositional articulations of subjectivity. The networks where her ‘politics of difference’ may transpire might be the ones closest to us, yet often the most unthought, and certainly the most unseen. On these networks we might foster our image-bodies and work with avatars, the strange monstrosities whose very nature challenges the idea of an essential identity.

There never has been a time when the stakes where higher, when representations (in our case digital-imagery) of community could be networked, disseminated instantaneously and so diffusely.  But these factors mean little unless we theorize on how they can be utilized and exploited. One thing we notice is that the economy of images requires no corporate content to function.

If this is the case, why not simply demand the construction of more municipal wireless networks? Or why not look into the challenges of setting up our own? Why not spend your immaterial labour not only creating and looking at digital images, but creating our own conditions for their dissemination? We are the ‘illegitimate offspring’ and we have stolen the digital from our greedy parents. For without us there is no image economy of looking, there is no ‘machine’, there is no hit count, and our greedy parents who subsist off our labour will be forced to look elsewhere for a kitchen with full cabinets and to scheme new methods of amassing profits outside the realm of representational images.

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~ by dccohen on April 7, 2010.

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