Technology, Revolution, and Education: An Interview between Dustin Cohen and Jeff Roberts (From Jan, 2012)
Back in January, 2012 I was interviewed by Jeff Roberts, Department of Communication, University of Texas at San Antonio, editorial board for the journal K-Debate.
Jeff Roberts (JR): You mention that you are “interested in thinking about technology in new ways” – how so?
Dustin Cohen (DC): Technology – whether it is media, information, genetic or military based – has become our raison d’etre. On CNN.com, for example, the “Tech” news is sandwiched between “Entertainment” and “Health”. We are awash in ontic descriptions of the latest gadgets or the opinions of pop psychologists about their effects on our happiness and ability to concentrate. But there is another way to discuss technology (and “technology” is a nebulous word that risks meaning everything-and-nothing) that requires tuning down this ontic chatter and thinking ontologically. One of my guiding lights here is Martin Heidegger’s assertion that “the essence of technology is nothing technological”. I look, for example, at Augmented Reality software, and ask why at this particular time, we have become interested in augmenting, or increasing, our reality. I look at the smart phones, and ask why we aspire today to being mobile, or in constant motion. Rarely do we consider what the root of our fixation with being mobile is, or what is driving us toward augmenting the world, or whether these trends toward mobility and augmentation have anything in common. Our manipulation of the world, the tools we create and desire, the techniques we design and adopt, are influenced by a whole constellation that includes our historically contingent understanding of ‘nature’ and ‘matter’, political and economic factors, and the static psychical structures that form the core of our humanity.
JR: In your more recent works (Humanizing the Avatar comes directly to mind), and in our previous conversation, you note a shift in the trajectory of your work. As the title suggests, “Humanizing the Avatar” is quite distinct from traditional Baudrillardian approaches to confronting issues of technology and exchange. Where several offer analysis of Baudrillard’s writing upon the world in terms of pure form, a showing through, possibly even implosion of meaning all together – you take the philosophy in a different direction. Why do you feel compelled to work through Baudrillard’s thought on a more content-based level? Is it possible, potentially important, for us to read Baudrillard through a lens of individual agency/political utility?
DC: I believe Baudrillard often articulated his ideas in a ‘symbolic’ language that certainly can, at first blush, appear bizarre, opaque or even reductive. For example, cloning is understood as an expression of the symbolic antagonism between Life and Death; transsexuality the antagonism between the Undifferentiated and the Differentiated; 9/11 the antagonism between the Global and the Singular… Baudrillard scrutinized our technologies, our ways of regarding our bodies, and our political ideologies through these symbolic lenses. For example, consider this description of plastic surgery in Radical Alterity:
…they take away everything negative in a face and make it ideal, in theory, with only positive, ideal traits. All of the alterity, negativity, contradiction, and asymmetry are removed from the face. Everything related to character, action, or expression is generally smoothed over in plastic surgery to produce an artificial model…The aim is to remove every figure of alterity from fate and ensure that everything that is not negotiable, that could not be negotiable, becomes negotiable for the sake of general redemption of forms and signs.
On the symbolic level we find that plastic surgery represents winning out of “positivity” over “negativity”; “ideality” over “fate”; “negotiability” over “alterity”; the “symmetrical” over the “asymmetrical”. This is not what I would describe as an implosion of meaning. In fact, Baudrillard’s ideas have made meaningful everything from the asexual ‘mother monster’ in the music video for Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way” to the craze over avatars and virtual worlds.
JR: What do you think about chatroulette?
DC: Well, I’ve just gone to Chatroulette and my spin of the virtual wheel brought me face to virtual face with a couple single men bathed in an unwelcoming webcam glow, a few crotches being stroked by hairy hands, giggling teenage girls, and finally a graphic image of a prolapsed male anus. Of course, this is nothing unusual: the internet has, for as long as I can remember, been a petri dish for the human libido and all its various perversions. Today, we have higher resolutions, faster connection speeds and more complex software, so the old desires and perversions circulate faster than ever. At the turn of the century Georg Simmel noted that we act “as though the electric light raised man to a stage nearer perfection, despite the fact that the objects more clearly seen by means of it are just as trivial, ugly or unimportant as when looked at it by the aid of petroleum.” As an aside, it is not for nothing that among the most popular pornographic videos that squish their way through the fiber optics are those that deal with circumventing the most ancient taboos against incest, or are fulfilling old Oedipal fantasies involving sons and mothers.
But what is novel about Chatroulette? In contrast to the old text based chat rooms where users took screen names to chat, and were capable of using their imagination when answering the question “A/S/L?” (shorthand for “Age/Sex/Location?”), Chatroulette destroys this ability for a man to answer as a woman, or a senior citizen to chat as a twenty-something. We are dealing less with the imaginary when we are put in confronted with a parade of real faces and bodies that flicker on the screen for a moment before vanishing when either party casually clicks ‘next’.
JR: In your essay “Just doing it with Hyperactive man” you caution against universalist calls for radical change – a willing for the sake of willing – rooted in a fidelity to perpetual change and faith in some sort of utopian future to come. In todays hyper-mediated spaces, you warn that “just doing it” without plan or end point in mind risks ceding the political, or “handing over a seething mass of raw biological material into the cold hands of anti-revolutionaries brimming with plans and ends.” Given this, how would you suggest we proceed or engage the political more responsibly/effectively?
DC: A recent article by Adam Shatz in the London Review of Books, reminds us that “Egypt isin’t Tahrir Square”. This was confirmed when the Egyptian Bloc, the progressive liberal, social democratic, and leftist alliance, came third in the polls, and did well only in Cairo. First place was captured by the Muslim Brotherhood, and second place to a fanatical Salafi party called al-Nour which is hostile to women’s rights and Christians. Meanwhile, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a military junta, has assumed control in lieu of the Mubarak regime. However post-modern we take ourselves to be, we must recognize that the forces of stability, linearity and belief continue to retain their power. The media celebrated the scene in Tahrir Square as if it were an Olympic spectacle – “After these messages, we’ll return to the revolution in Tahrir Square!” – but had very few cameras elsewhere in Egypt. We have since seen how strong the old forces of stability and belief are: the stage is populated by the SCAF, the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Nour, the Saudis, the Copts!
Furthermore, the nebulous term “revolution”, when undefined, can mean anything to anybody. So, it is not surprising to read that the SCAF has “all but declared war on Tahrir, assailing protesters calling for civilian rule as ‘enemies’ of the revolution, which is perversely claims to embody”, or hearing Egypt’s new prime minister “blaming protesters for the violence, accusing them of an ‘assault on the revolution’ ”. There is a tremendous volatility in this trend toward permanent and undefined revolution. This is because there are anti-revolutionary forces that are more than happy to channel and direct these energies with a “revolution” of their own.
It is difficult for us to engage more effectively, because the way that we regard ends and means is changing. As Czeslaw Milosz prophesized in The Captive Mind (1951): “Today man believes there is nothing in him, so he accepts anything…” We are the heirs of Futurism, and our aspiration is to dance, to be in motion, to the point where we do not realize we have actually been moving from one side of the stage to the other, or even are falling into the orchestra pit. There are no shortage of believers and ideologues licking their chops at the thought of dizzy young revolutionaries, spinning like tops into the utopia of permanent impermanence. Jacques Ellul observed in The Betrayal of the West (1974) that “…[I]t does not matter where we are going. We are caught up in the madness and hubris of the dance of death; the important thing is the dance, the Saturnalia, the Bacchanalia, the Lupercalis. We are no longer worried about what will emerge from it or about the void it points to. [E]veryone is glutted with promises and regards the mad dance as a way to authentic renewal. Yet there is no goal, nothing transcendent, no value to light the way; the movement is enough.”
JR: Would attending to blind spots of the hyperactive man require us to embrace a more end-oriented approach? Are precautionary hesitations and pre-emptive measures – such as scenario planning, risk assessment/calculation, and pragmatic policy formulation – be a necessary steps towards (possibly even prerequisite to) any hope for a successful revolutionary change? Or, do these forms of engagement risk a more suicidal implosive scenario of generalized exchange and indifference?
DC: Yes, I think there are types of precautionary hesitations and pre-emptive measures can be a corrective against the idea of change as an end-in-itself. Having said this, I recognize that one can over-assess, over-calculate, and spend so long agreeing on policy that a window of opportunity for a new state of affairs can come and go. There is definitely a big question mark hanging over the political possibilities created by the dance of ‘hyperactive man’ and dooming ourselves through it.
JR: In your article “The Two Attas?” you discuss how systems of general exchange give birth to, at a bare minimum, fragments of singularity. In reference to Mohammad Atta and the World Trade Center you explain how “Atta received a Western education and assimilated the ideas and technologies of modernity and globalization into the 9/11 plan…. We find an irreducible singularity emerge out from a system of generalized exchange, the exacerbation of an uncertain culture of virtuality carried out by a man who was produced and influenced by that very culture.” Would you mind elaborating on the relationship between education and a system of general exchange?
DC: In “The Two Attas?” I wanted to determine whether Baudrillard’s controversial ‘symbolic’ account of 9/11 could be verified against some of the factual evidence about the attackers themselves. The idea is that our contemporary Western economic system is a kind of tower of Babel where all things must be capable of being transferred and exchanged. The argument goes that this universal, generalized, system is fragile because it has no ability to digest remainders or asymmetries and no means of reciprocating to excesses and sacrifices. On a very practical level, many students today are increasingly looking for a generalized education where they are taught how to succeed in the generalized economy, an education that teaches them how to comprehend all things in terms of their exchange-value. But who has not experienced the urge to disturb this stillness of a glassy lake by throwing a stone into the water? This generalized system is blanketing the planet without acknowledgement that its agents are ultimately human beings who will, for various reasons, offer the challenge of the religious, the poetic, the unquantifiable, and the singular.
JR: In US academic debate, students are asked to play the role of the federal government and switch sides – at separate times both affirming and negating – the validity of a given “resolution” through out the course of a given tournament. For example, this year the topic/resolution positions the student on each side of the following statement:
“Resolved: The United States Federal Government should substantially increase its democracy assistance for one or more of the following: Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen.”
The rules of the game (understood here as distinct from laws) ask students to advocate democracy assistance as either a good or bad idea/policy, depending on which side they are assigned during a given round of tournament competition. When playing such a game, how should one proceed? Is it possible to remain outside a system of generalized exchange?
DC: A ‘generalized’ debate, functions on the principle that you provide an argument for “democracy assistance” and I give you an argument against “democracy assistance”. It can only operate on this binary logic (good/bad; 1/0; presence/absence; affirmation/negation) because both sides have agreed on what “democracy assistance” is, which presumes firstly, that they have agreed upon the definition of what “democracy” is. As anyone knows, there is a vast gulf that separates the radical on the street chanting “This is what democracy looks like!” and a hawkish presidential candidate promising to bring democracy to the rest of the world. Or, for example, I might be expected to debate with you about the treatment of “peaceful” protesters, although we may not share identical ideas of when a protest is and is not “peaceful”. We do a tremendous violence to the uniqueness of our ideas when we say require that a debate must accept one single definition. Our critical faculties become hypnotized and automated to simply exchange opposites when we engage in this type of predictable and programmable debate. I think that the key is to practice trusting in the multiplicity of our ideas and the uniqueness of our definitions, and reciting the wise old all-too-human proverb “It takes all kinds to make a world”. You may reflect: “If my whole life I have not been making a world, what have I been doing?” And then a strategy might begin to form.