Friday, September 21, 2018

“Wherever he is! Wherever he is!”: Jim Walsh on the world’s rediscovery of “The Gold Experience” and the funky powerhouse joy that is the New Power Generation


The New Power Generation was on the second encore of its first-ever appearance at First Avenue on September 14, when lead singer MacKenzie and rapper Tony Mosley (a.k.a. Tony M) implored the crowd to pay respects to their fallen leader, Prince. As the crowd and band cheered at the night’s first mention of Prince’s name, bassist Sonny Thompson (aka Sonny T), who began his live music career playing with The Sonny Thompson Band in the 7th Street Entry next door, gleefully shouted out, “Wherever he is! Wherever he is!”

Along with fellow original NPG members Mayte (Prince’s first wife), Morris Hayes (a.k.a. Mr. Hayes), Tommy Barbarella, and the NPG hornz, Prince’s spirit was alive and wild and in the house that hot Thursday night. The grief over Prince’s death has given way to acceptance and, this night, real joy—the kind of joy that’s driven by live music, not nostalgia or even reverence for its dearly departed creator. “The music,” is how Prince simply answered when I asked him what he wanted people to know about him, and it was the music this night that lifted most every soul in the joint, especially scintillating dance work-outs like “Sexy MF,” “Get Wild,” “Daddy Pop,” and “DMSR (Dance Music Sex Romance).”

Many of those old tunes are now finding new ears, which was part of the reason I was eager to publish Gold Experience: Following Prince in the ‘90s, my clip-by-clip account of arguably the most overlooked years of Prince’s prolific career. It’s also a thumbnail history of the New Power Generation, one of Prince’s all-time greatest bands (“I’m not a judge,” he told me once when I asked him what his favorite band to play with was in terms of generating live heat; “I don’t set foot on a stage unless it’s hot”). To be sure, I have a special place in my heart for the NPG and Prince’s great album “The Gold Experience.” I was passionately covering Prince and the NPG for the St. Paul Pioneer Press when he asked me to write the liner notes for “The Gold Experience,” released in 1995 and debuted at number 6 on the Billboard charts, and rarely heard of again, despite it featuring Prince’s last chart-topping single, “The Most Beautiful Girl In The World.”

These days, Prince’s first band The Revolution has been paying tribute to all His Royal Badness’s greatest music of the ‘80s, and the hole in everyone’s soul is starting to fill in and being replaced with wonder, amazement, and living in the now. We all pay tribute in our own way, and when Prince died I eulogized him here and here, and, to ensure that his work in the ‘90s was given its proper due, Gold Experience: Following Prince in the ‘90s via the University of Minnesota Press.

I was a champion of Prince then, and now, which is why I’m thrilled to know that more people than ever are hearing “The Gold Experience”—many for the first time, since to this day it still feels like an underground release. The good news is that last month, the Prince estate and Sony released 23 long unavailable albums digitally, including “The Gold Experience,” along with the compilation “Prince Anthology: 1995-2010.”

Though never afforded the mythological status of, say, “The Black Album,” “The Gold Experience” nonetheless carries with it a similar man-versus-machine storyline. His last record for Warner Bros. Records, “The Gold Experience” was made and released at the height of Prince’s war with the media giant, and therefore it received little promotional push. At the time, Prince was an early expert adapter of the digital music revolution that was fully underway, and a visionary who saw the future we’re now living out, embodied by artists like Chance The Rapper, a truly independent artist who sells out tours and wins Grammys with little help from the dinosaur that is the major label/media/music business.

Delicious irony, then, that “The Gold Experience” is today available all over the world—for FREE (cue Prince cackle here), via streaming sites such as SpotifyApple Music, YouTube, Pandora,  and, which concluded of “The Gold Experience”: “The album is considered by some fans to be the ‘Purple Rain’ of the 1990s.”

Noted Variety:

Curiously, the artist’s biggest hit from that period—‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,’ which reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in April of 1994—is not included, although it was part of the original tracklist for ‘The Gold Experience.’ Reps for the estate and Sony declined comment, but a source close to the situation tells Variety that the song is ‘on legal hold as a result of existing litigation.’ (The song was originally issued on the indie Delmark Records after Prince’s label at the time, Warner Bros., with whom he was publicly sparring, reportedly declined to release it; after its chart success, the song was included on Prince’s next album for Warner, ‘The Gold Experience.’) 
Assembled and curated under the auspices of the Prince estate, ‘Prince Anthology: 1995-2010’ opens with the title track from 1996’s ‘Emancipation’ (‘This is my most important record,’ Prince said of his first album released after he’d left his original label, Warner Bros. Records) and closing with the anthemic ‘We March’ from 1995’s ‘The Gold Experience’).”

Fresh and freaky to this day, “The Gold Experience” is a tour-de-force of funk, rock and soul, and captures the NPG at the height of its powers. As Mr. Hayes told Minnesota Public Radio’s The Current recently, “ 'The Gold Experience’ album was like this band had really just got into that crunched-down, super-tough, well-rehearsed band that was like a powerhouse band.”

Likewise, critics and fans are discovering or rediscovering the greatness of “The Gold Experience.” Last year, the Hello, My Treacherous Friends blog opened this reassessment with “It might be an unpopular opinion, but Prince’s criminally out-of-print ‘The Gold Experience’ is my favorite of all of his albums. Released 22 years ago today, ‘The Gold Experience’ saw Prince at his funkiest, raunchiest, slyest and sexiest while delivering a collection of songs that easily match previous high points like ‘Purple Rain’ and ‘Sign ‘O’ The Times.’”

Around the same time, careful listener and ever-reliable critic Keith Harris, music editor at City Pages in Minneapolis, ranked “The Gold Experience” #4 out of Prince’s 32 albums (his top five: 1. “Sign O’ The Times,” 2. “Dirty Mind,” 3. “Purple Rain,” 4. “The Gold Experience,” 5. “1999”), writing, “By 1994 ‘The Artist Formerly Known as Prince’ was better known for not having a name and for accusing his label of reducing him to a ‘slave’ (as he had emblazoned on his cheek) than he was for making hits. It was a weird time to release a masterpiece, but damned if that’s not what ‘The Gold Experience’ is. The NPG’s attack is streamlined to a hard funk punch on the feminist celebration ‘Pussy Control’ and the hard-hitting ‘Endorphinmachine,’ and Prince even tacked on the lovely ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in the World,’ the 1993 top 10 hit he didn’t yet know would be his last.”

So what are you waiting for? The time is right for all Prince fans to discover or rediscover the carnal funky joy of such would-be classics as “Pussy Control,” “Endorphinmachine,” “We March,” “319,” and “Billy Jack Bitch.” As Prince wrote to me after I wrote an open love letter to him as my time covering him wound down, “Go and get your gold experience/peace love march…”


Jim Walsh is a Minneapolis-based writer, journalist, columnist, and songwriter. His books include Gold Experience: Following Prince in the '90s; Bar Yarns and Manic-Depressive Mixtapes; and The Replacements: All Over But The Shouting: An Oral History.

"Jim Walsh was front and center for one of the most prolific and controversial eras in Prince’s career, and Gold Experience offers an intimate, real-time account of this critical chapter in the evolution of a generation's greatest musician."
—Alan Light, music journalist and author of Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Occupy Surplus-Value: Toward the Revaluation of Value


It is hard not to despair. The enormity of the problems dwarf the human scale, even though it is we, humans, who have created them. We seem to have fallen under the wheels of an economic system whose signature products are inexorably increasing social inequality, periodic crises from which only the top tier (those whose "irrational exuberance" triggered crisis in the first place) happily recover, and environmental devastation of such a magnitude that it has tipped us over into a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, bearing the now-shameful name of a restless species which seems to have answered the ancient call to go forth, multiply, and subdue the earth a tad too enthusiastically.

Many solutions are proposed. But they rarely target the drive toward quantitative increase written into the dynamic of the capitalist system. Growth is an unassailable article of faith in most discursive realms, even today, as the evidence of its unsustainability daily mounts. Its periodic quantitative measure drives not only the economic cycles, but electoral cycles as well. Even the newly energized democratic socialist movement dares not call it out. Part of the reason is likely that the hyper-complex global reach of the capitalist economy makes systemic change capable of so radically realigning the basis of the economy seem a pipe dream. Many of us are at the same time energized by the urgency of the situation, and prey to feelings of paralysis in the face of the enormity of the task. Small gestures and local projects may fire our imaginations, but cannot quell our sense of the doomed inadequacy of our means. In response, some preach "acceleration": pushing capitalism beyond its limit, or just letting it go, toward a crisis to end all crises, or over a tipping point where our species being is transcended by its subsumption under the transformative technologies its own indefatigable allegiance to capitalism has unleashed.

99 Theses on the Revaluation of Value
is in response to this quandary. It refuses both a reformism accepting of the disastrous systemic general-operating parameters of the capitalist economy, and accelerationism. It proposes an "affirmative" approach to the problems. In light of what was just said, this may come across as disingenuous. Optimism in the face of such rationally grounded despair? How can we not be pessimistic to the extreme? Face it: pessimism is the only rational response. But on the other hand, was it not precisely the economic rationality of the capitalist economy that brought to where we are? Perhaps what is needed is a side-stepping of the alternative between the rational and the irrational, a move beyond the binary choice of pessimism and optimism, hope or despair.

It is a common misunderstanding that affirmative thought and politics are forms of optimism, based on an acceptance of what is. They are anything but. What they are based on is what Deleuze calls "belief in the world" – an actively lived engagement with the potential the world holds for change; with the capacity it always holds in itself for outdoing itself. Affirmation is predicated not on accepting things as they are, but on living the present in so intense a manner – so engaged, so tautly, affectively attuned to the field conditions – as to release a quantum of the charge of futurity they hold. It is to practice "immanent critique": not standing outside and judging from a safe position of implicit superiority, but rather diving into the mess and complexity, risking failure, accepting the inevitably of being wrong at times, maybe even spectacularly – but gaining by that the possibility that a well-tempered tweak from within might alter the relational cast of the field, deflecting the course of things down an altered trajectory, to however small (but potentially great) a degree. It is, to use a phrase of Donna Haraway, to creatively stay with the trouble.

What is gained by this is not necessarily success – although there is no prospect of success without it. Because a theoretically and programmatically correct eagle's-eye view of the totality is nowhere less attainable than with the open, complex, rapidly self-evolving system that is the capitalist economy in which we are immersed. What is gained is what might be called an aesthetic yield of intensity: the feeling that whatever comes, it will have been worth it to have lived the moment thus, because it was lived to the utmost. This is an example of what I call "surplus-value of life": an experienced value that is its own value, worth it for itself. This is a purely qualitative value. It is an incomparable as the timbre of particularly pellucid note of music or the saturation of a breath-taking color. It is incommensurable, unexchangeable. It is such as it was, all and only that, and nothing more than how it was lived. It can be pursued on the smallest or most macro of scales, beginning from right where one is. No need to wait for the correct, final analysis (which will never come) before jumping in. No need for the end-all up front (which will never happen). Any and every moment can yield surplus-value of life, provided the moment is intensely lived.

There is also a common critique of intensity that equates it with pleasure or "positive" affect, in greater than usual quantity. By this account, waxing long on intensity is little more than a pollyanaish romantic indulgence. This is a complete misunderstanding of the concept. Intensity has no more to do with the hedonic categories of pleasure and pain, or with magnitudes of either, than it has to do with optimism versus pessimism. What it has to do with is the living of potential, experienced qualitatively. It doesn't have to do with the pacifying beauty of a red that is a personal favorite, for example. It has to more do, to hijack Claudel, with the felt conundrum of a sea so blue only blood could be redder: quality of experience outdoing itself, overspilling any effective frame of comparison, standing out, in and for its own character. Utmost quality. Excess of quality.

The first conceit of 99 Theses
is to think that the theory of value can be remolded on the model of surplus-value of life. And that capitalist surplus-value is a quantitative capture and conversion of surplus-values of life that are purely qualitative in nature. And that there are such things as relational qualities, irreducibly collective surplus-values of life that we attain only by outdoing our individual selves in relational engagement and affective attunement with shared field conditions. And that the pursuit of these transindividual values can potentially sketch lines of escape from the capitalist capture of surplus-value of life, which the economy continually appropriates toward its own ends, feeding upon it parasitically. And that these lines of escape might eddy into autonomous zones, vacuoles of capitalist business-as-usual, bubbling pores in the capitalist field that prefigure a postcapitalist future in much the same the way that Marx saw capitalism growing in the pores of feudalism.

There is a need for a critical moment, clearing obstacles to the effective practice of immanent postcapitalist critique. Immanent critique does not exclude negative critique, or even destruction. It actually requires them. But it requires that they be dosed and well-diagnosed so as to positively produce the conditions for the affirmative, creative and constructivist, practice of immanent critique. A not insignificant portion of the 99 Theses is dedicated to this field-clearing task of negative critique. The objects of the critique are the market logic underwriting the capitalist system, the myth of equal exchange as the supposed principle of the market, and money in its market role of general equivalent and medium of exchange. The critique of these concepts opens the way to an understanding of the contemporary neoliberal capitalist economy as in fact predicated on excess: not equal value for money, but the drive to surplus-value, in its specifically capitalist expression.

To understand the excess nature and role of surplus-value, it is necessary to take a long, hard look at the financial markets and their speculative dynamic. This requires feats of extreme abstraction, because the financial instruments that dominate the financial sector (such as derivatives) are themselves abstract to the hilt; or better, they are concrete technologies of extreme abstraction. The present-day economic dominance of the financial markets and their highly speculative modus operandi makes it little more than a wan dream to think that we could right the world by disciplining capitalism's in-born tendency for speculation and resurrect the centrality of the old productive economy, where value is commensurate with hard work, and price reflects the true "value of money." This vision of the productive economy is at any rate little more than an extension of the market myth, romantically applied to labor. It conveniently forgets the violence that went into creating the capitalist labor market in the dominant economies, as minutely documented by Marx in volume 1 of Capital – not to mention the essential link between this endocolonial enterprise and the even greater exocolonialist violence of the slave trade and its aftermaths. It also glosses over the ongoing "extortion" of life-time and life-quality that goes into maintaining the labor market, under neoliberalism in increasingly precarious forms – just as essentially linked to the neo-colonial leveraging of global inequalities.

It is the second conceit of the 99 Theses to consider that the speculative nature and excessiveness of the financial markets is actually a better place to begin than the conventional, equal-exchange-based concept of the market. The key is to collectively reappropriate surplus-value of life, breaking free of the mechanisms that capture it for the continuing production of capitalist surplus-value and its murderous dynamic of quantitative increase in unequal accumulation. The task, in a word, is to "occupy" surplus-value. To affirm excess, but in a qualitative key – for a future sea so blue that only something other than spilt blood could be redder. This requires staying with the trouble that is intensity, sorting out its complex relations to quantity, quality, and affect, and understanding their vicissitudes as the conversion to capitalist surplus-value takes place, with the goal of identifying escape hatches. A great deal of the book is dedicated to this philosophical task.

The final conceit of the 99 Theses is that diving into the field conditions of the present, including but not limited to their properly economic dimensions, involves affirming, of all things – gasp! – crytocurrency. Crytocurrency is one of the contemporary field conditions that holds as-yet unplumbed potential. If its yield of potential is paltry as yet, it is because it has yet to correct its birth defect of libertarian market ideology, and its corresponding penchant to reproduce the worst kind of capitalist speculative energies. But in the dawning post-blockchain world, a plethora of projects are brewing that potentially operate by very different logics. They offer the possibility of a range of qualitatively different micro-economies growing pore-like in the capitalist field, and then entering into complex ecologies with each other to start composing a postcapitalist alter-economic field. This is a possibility because these "local" projects are in fact translocal: they are local to networks whose reach can be wide; and they can be made "interoperable" even as each retains its power to define its own mode of governance and its own dedicated value system.

The book delves into some of these potentials, focusing on the project I collaborate on, the SenseLab's "3 Ecologies Process Seed Bank." This is an attempt at inventing a non-market-based collectivist economy running directly on affective intensities of creative play (of the most serious kind – as a counter-model to work). The idea is to build a vacuole where the production of surplus-value of life is the operative economic principle, then to finds ways of making it interoperable with other alter-economic projects, as part of a collaborative ecology of complementary and mutually sustaining micro-economies deriving their richness and strategic staying power from their correlative diversity in a way that empowers them to collectively negotiate their transitional relation with the dominant economy, cooperatively shielding each other from being coopted or destroyed by it.

If this sounds impossible, it is. At least, it is in the present. But in the futurity in this present, it is eminently potentialized, we worldly believe. 99 Theses doesn't purport to have the last word. The 3E Process Seed Bank project doesn't claim to be the model. The goal of both is much more modest: to help provide a starting point, intense and alluring enough for some to dive into and affirm, and in doing so convey to others that the potential is there, wherever they labor and play, free to be harvested in the non-circulating currency of surplus-value of life.


Brian Massumi is author of many books, including 99 Theses on the Revaluation of Value: A Postcapitalist Manifesto; Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation and Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts.

"Brian Massumi has brought a rich perspective to bear on the deepest problem linking capitalism, ethics, and calculation: the problem of quality. This book offers many good reasons to see that the emphasis on number, quantity, and countability is the ruling fiction of the empire of capital and the main obstacle to the revaluation of value in both theory and practice."
—Arjun Appadurai, author of Banking on Words: The Failure of Language in the Age of Derivative Finance

"Brian Massumi's latest philosophical tour de force continues to debunk mainstream economic thinking to make space for postcapitalist alternatives. Reclaiming value as qualitative intensity within an ethical ecology of powers, Massumi pushes the Marxist concepts of capital and surplus value to the limit. He thus shows how the radical task of reverse engineering financial capitalism exceeds both the contemporary cryptocurrencies and cryptoeconomics scene, opening up onto a postcapitalist future."
—Tiziana Terranova, author of Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Outsider Theory, Ruggles of Red Gap, and unforgetting: On the unfinished, ongoing work of political and intellectual struggle.

Pennsylvania State University

When I was in graduate school, an acquaintance of mine introduced me to a movie called Ruggles of Red Gap. Released by Paramount in 1935, the film—a quirky comedy—features the Canadian actress Maude Eburne (no relation), who made a career playing characters named "Ma." Ruggles of Red Gap is perhaps most notable for the scene in which the titular Ruggles, an English valet played in condemned-veal deadpan by Charles Laughton, recites the Gettysburg Address. The scene is memorable not only for Laughton's line reading of the speech, which rises from a nearly inaudible murmur; it is also memorable because nobody else in the scene can recall its words.

The Gettysburg Address scene takes place in a dusty saloon in the gold-rush era town of Red Gap, Washington. As Laughton's recitation unfolds the other patrons gather around him in awed silence, a cluster of enormous moustaches, each one more remarkable than the last. The fact that Laughton's Ruggles knows Lincoln's speech by heart is poignant, the film suggests, because Ruggles is himself a servant. Though a fish out of water in Red Gap—whose butler's livery is mistaken by the locals for English finery—Ruggles is not only a servant; he is also property. The premise of this 1935 comedy is that his master, the dissolute Earl of Burstead, has wagered his faithful valet in a late-night Parisian poker game and (I'm terribly sorry, old chap) lost the bet. The victors are a gold-enriched Wild West couple on a Yerpeen bender, Ma and Pa, who somewhat awkwardly import Ruggles back to Red Gap with them.

The film thus becomes a loose allegory for slavery—at least for a few spellbound moments at its center, when Ruggles begins muttering the Gettysburg Address in a bar. But in doing so it also becomes a story about the way knowledge circulates, even—or perhaps especially–when it might otherwise seem to be failing to circulate. Ruggles of Red Gap certainly gestures toward the all-too-ready tendency for American settler colonists to forget the founding proposition "that all men [sic] are created equal," whether in the era of Manifest Destiny, or during the Depression, or during the so-called age of Trump. It's not the most subtle gesture in the history of film. Ruggles of Red Gap offers neither a sustained critique of US imperialism and white supremacism, nor, for that matter, a lament for the closing of the American mind. Its credibility as an allegory for civil rights is sketchy, even offhand. But the barroom scene is significant for the way it smuggles Lincoln's speech into the heart of an unsuspecting madcap comedy.

For the film also saliently demonstrates a scene of unforgetting, reversing a collective amnesia whereby Pa comes to wonder, now, what did he say that day at Gettysburg? Ruggles, declaring his own independence from servitude, recites Lincoln's speech to a roomful of increasingly eager listeners, including Maude Eburne's Ma. What is remarkable—and of course, staged as a coup de théâtre for the benefit of the viewing public—is that everyone pays attention. The message of Lincoln's speech likewise hinges on this attention: on visiting the Civil War battleground, Lincoln refused to consecrate the ground, calling instead for his listeners to dedicate themselves to the "unfinished work" he associated with democracy: to unforget, in perpetuity.

I had occasion to recall this scene over the recent Labor Day weekend, which was punctuated by two very different efforts to capture public attention in the name of democratic politics. One involved the craven—and hastily withdrawn—gesture of inviting a neofascist blowhard to drum up public "debate" at the New Yorker Festival. Another involved the Nike corporation's decision to center an advertising campaign on the quiet but reverberating antiviolence campaign of Colin Kaepernick. Both decisions were efforts to solicit attention, and both the New Yorker and Nike would claim to do so in the name of democratic principles—if not the explicitly governmental terms of Lincoln's "government by the people, for the people," then at least in the terms of the right to free speech, a gesture of enshrining or hallowing certain kinds of speech acts, whether loud ones or quiet ones. The New Yorker Festival invitation briefly sought to extend the magazine's aspirations toward "big tent" democracy into a veritable three ring circus; but as the tent collapsed it disclosed little else than the whiteness of the tent itself. As for the Nike campaign, it was not immediately clear whether the shoe corporation was championing Kaepernick for his perseverance in protesting the silencing of Black lives and the persistence of anti-Black and anti-Brown police violence in the US— or whether it was merely upholding him as "controversial." There was, of course, no need for Nike to clarify their position; the advertisement works either way.

Meanwhile, on the Senate floor, Kamala Harris and a handful of other Democratic senators sought to disrupt the hearings for the lifetime appointment of a new Supreme Court Justice. They did so not only to protest the nomination of a judge known for his right-wing, pro-corporation interests, but also to demand the time necessary for paying attention to delayed and withheld papers documenting his former White House activities. As Harris explained, "The committee received, just last night, less than 15 hours ago, 42,000 pages of documents that we haven't had an opportunity to read, review or analyze." Another call for attention, this time not only in the interest of democratic processes but also, curiously, in the interest of minutiae, of the circulation of records and archival documents, of reading, of public knowledge.

What brought Ruggles of Red Gap to mind was the way in which it dramatizes living memory, rather than formal monuments, as the stuff of democracy. Charles Laughton's recitation of the Gettysburg Address proposes that Lincoln's project of emancipation was to be kept alive not by capturing or enshrining attention, but by performing the "unfinished work" of unforgetting itself. Not, in other words, from sensationalism or mass appeal, but from the slower, more deliberate work of repetition, repertoire, and recursion.

In my new book I take up analogous questions, examining how facts and nonfacts alike circulate and take on meaning as elements in a historical process. An intellectual history of outlandish ideas, Outsider Theory studies the processes and media through which errant, unfashionable, or otherwise unreasonable thinking circulate and take form within the intellectual life of the present. Rather than erecting monuments to "great thinkers," I am interested in the extent to which speculative inquiry extends beyond the work of professional intellectuals to include the work of nonprofessionals, whether amateurs, unfashionable observers, the clinically insane, or populations not commonly perceived as intellectuals. The book features the work of a variety of such figures, from popular occult writers, gnostics, and “outsider artists” to the Marquis de Sade and pseudoscientists such as Immanuel Velikovsky. It accounts for how and why such ideas have left their impression on twentieth-century thinking and continue to exercise a role in its continued evolution. The ambition of this project is therefore not to enforce the demarcation between good and bad theories, but to dramatize the stakes of their intelligibility. And those stakes are especially urgent today: not because every piece of unread documentation is important, but because the repercussions of not reading are severe.

In spite of the vogue for reboots and recursions in Hollywood (A Star Is Born has, apparently, just been reborn, or born again), I doubt if there will be plans to remake Ruggles of Red Gap anytime soon. One might lament the shallowness of the public repertoire of such films: the difficulty of getting one's hands—nevermind one's eyes—on such films, of coming to know them in the first place. To what extent have we, the public, been recast as the gawking, amnesiac saloon patrons? It is an image of the shrinking public sphere that innumerable journalists, education reformers, pundits, and scholars have been lamenting for at least the past decade, if not since the height of the Culture Wars of the late 1980s. Is it not Ruggles who, in his borrowed livery and ready access to the Western Canon, puts The Closing of the American Mind to shame?

But Ruggles—I maintain—does not cite Lincoln in order that we might genuflect before the Great Men of history, as if to enshrine great political leaders or the great geniuses. Ruggles repeats the Gettysburg Address as a performance of its message not to consecrate, and to dedicate oneself instead to the unfinished, ongoing work of political and intellectual struggle alike. This work, indeed, is far from finished. And it is to this unfinished work—the ever-unfinished work of thought, the ever-unfinished work of teaching, and, the ever-unfinished work of political belonging and emancipation—to which Outsider Theory seeks to contribute.


Jonathan P. Eburne is associate professor of comparative literature, English, and French and Francophone studies at the Pennsylvania State University. He is author of Surrealism and the Art of Crime, coauthor of four other books, and editor of ASAP/Journal.

"A bracing challenge to academic squeamishness, Outsider Theory is a learned, mischievous, and fascinating book that makes a compelling argument for the positive role of fraud, failure, and error in knowledge production."
—John Wilkinson, University of Chicago

"Jonathan P. Eburne has written a generous, curious, rigorous book about ideas often dismissed as ridiculous, embarrassing, and even dangerous."
—Evan Kindley, author of Poet-Critics and the Administration of Culture

"This timely book is not only genuinely interesting, but makes a strong and original contribution to the discussion concerning the future of the humanities. Jonathan P. Eburne's study of questions of method is itself an achievement of method, engaging with the outsiders not as a cabinet of curiosities, but in a way that troubles thinking, and especially thinking about thinking."
—Margret Grebowicz, Tyumen State University

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

"History is nothing if not a collection of antecedents, one leading to the next": Michael Schumacher on the 1968 election and the war for America's soul.


Excerpt from The Contest: The 1968 Election and the War for America's Soul


A political campaign is a dehumanizing rite. Its only purpose is power, and tends to bring out the worst in men. Repetition, exhaustion, anxiety, and pressure must be endured cheerfully. Instincts have to be disguised. Sleep and privacy are elusive. Each day brings some new temptation to compromise a little.

These words, written by journalist Jack Newfield in 1968, are as true today, in the era of social media and cable television, as they were in days past when campaign news was delivered by horseback, rail, sheets of newsprint, network television, radio, and person to person. The election of 1968, in which Newfield's friend Robert Kennedy ran until he was assassinated in California on the state's primary night, was one of the closest and most bitterly contested in American history, conducted against a tumultuous backdrop that even today seems impossible.

The world seemed poised for implosion. Soviet tanks and troops rumbled through the streets of Czechoslovakia, using military might to quash a reform movement. Thousands of Italian students, demanding reforms at the universities, battled with police. In France, students took over buildings at the Sorbonne, built barricades, fought with police, and touched off a national strike involving more than seven million workers. In Japan, more than twenty-five thousand students, demonstrating against the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, touched off clashes with police.

The United States was the white-hot center of it all. During the 1968 election cycle, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, the Tet Offensive erupted in Vietnam, President Lyndon B. Johnson decided not to seek another term, George Wallace ran as a controversial third-party candidate, students took over Columbia University, violence exploded across the country in the wake of King's death, and the Democratic National Convention was grotesquely disfigured by violent clashes between the city's police and youths protesting the war and the old politics, among other issues.

When Senator Eugene McCarthy entered the race for the Democratic Party nomination, it was with great reluctance and little hope of success. Lyndon Johnson, despite his slippage in popularity among voters, was still very powerful, and it was a foregone conclusion that he would win the opportunity for reelection; his 1964 victory over Barry Goldwater had been the most dominant win in presidential election history. Still, there was a growing movement to unseat him, generated by antiwar groups. McCarthy knew, at least in the beginning, that he was likely to be a sacrificial lamb in his opposition to Johnson, but he agreed to run—no small act of courage—because he, too, felt strongly that Johnson needed to be challenged by a candidate dedicated to ending the bloodshed in Vietnam.

And so it began: McCarthy announced his candidacy late in 1967, and one of the most improbable presidential elections in modern U.S. history, continuously influenced by the events of the day, lurched out of the starting gate. Robert Kennedy joined the fray in late March—late enough to be accused of being an opportunist, as his entry came shortly after McCarthy's impressive, unexpected showing against Johnson in the New Hampshire primary. Hubert Humphrey committed to the race a few weeks after Kennedy. The campaign was contentious from the onset. McCarthy and Kennedy sniped at one another, despite their obvious similarities, and both attacked Humphrey, who, as vice president, represented the hated Johnson administration. On the Republican side, Richard Nixon ran virtually unopposed, with only token opposition from Nelson Rockefeller and Ronald Reagan; his greatest challenge was to defeat his loser image. Former Alabama governor George Wallace, hoping to gain support for his segregationist agenda, became a surprisingly popular third-party candidate.

Each of these men had compelling resumes and campaign teams. McCarthy pieced together a grassroots campaign fueled mainly by youthful volunteers, who went "clean for Gene" by cutting their long hair, shaving their beards, and setting aside their blue jeans and miniskirts to dress in a style that made them look professional to the people they met while campaigning door to door; the amused media tagged the campaign "the Children's Crusade." Kennedy combined the older, more experienced people who had worked on his brother's 1960 campaign with younger, enthusiastic, idealistic staff members eager to reestablish a Kennedy legacy shattered so suddenly on November 22, 1963. Humphrey, entering the race too late to face the other candidates in the primaries, worked the caucuses, union halls, back rooms, and town halls, hoping to secure enough delegate support to win the nomination in Chicago. Nixon, a poor television presence, complemented his campaign team with a group of media specialists who would change the face of campaigning in the future. Wallace, unburdened by the need for delegate votes, zigzagged cross-country, meeting supporters at state fairs, shopping-center parking lots, medium-sized halls, fish fries, and barbecues—anywhere the "common folk" gathered. Taken together, the candidates created a mosaic of every type of campaign strategy America had seen in its history.

Two issues—the Vietnam War and civil rights (which later morphed as an issue into law and order)—raced to the forefront of discussion and remained that way throughout the election cycle. In researching and writing about the candidates and their attention to these issues, I found myself revisiting the historical events of the previous two decades and their connection to issues threatening to tear the nation apart in 1968. How could one write about civil rights without examining Hubert Humphrey's 1948 speech that divided the Democratic Party, the Southern states splitting away and forming what became known as the Dixiecrats? How could one write about George Wallace's segregationist politics without examining such seminal events as James Meredith's enrollment at the University of Mississippi, Wallace's attempts to bar two students from enrolling at the University of Alabama, the march on Selma, and Lyndon Johnson's groundbreaking civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965? Could one write about Johnson's decision to step away from the presidency without looking at the events in the Vietnam War and the rise of the antiwar movement that led him to his decision? History is nothing if not a collection of antecedents, one leading to the next.


America's soul: When I thought about the subtitle for this book, I worried that might be hyperbolic, but the more I researched, the more I believed that, yes, the election was the culmination of a mighty struggle lasting for at least a decade, beginning with the early civil rights movement and continuing through the Vietnam protests, the battle waged over what America was and where it would be headed in the future. The continuum could be found in the history behind the development of the candidates and those who supported them.

The war for America's soul was generational, fought between those who served in (and lived through) World War II and their children, the skeptics and opponents of the Vietnam War, the two generations disagreeing vehemently on what constituted America's soul. Both sides offered valid points. The older generation had survived the Depression (or its remnants) and a global war. The 1950s, with the establishment of the middle class, homeownership, and movement in the way of travel and relocation, were a reward; the growth of the Soviet Union and its "empire," along with the budding space race, interrupted the calm and further engrained the nationalistic older generation with what it believed was the soul of the American way. These were principles worth fighting for, no matter the cost.

The younger generation—the baby boomers—wanted none of this. They were as interested as their parents in the political climate, but they were removed from the events that shaped their parents' lives. They were too young to remember the Korean War, and World War II and the Depression were ancient history. They rejected blind nationalism. They demanded a voice in determining the direction America was taking. They had been weaned on television—the glass teat, as Harlan Ellison called it—and unlike their parents, their views were based on images. When they saw the newscasts of the battles for civil rights or the war in Vietnam, they insisted on action. When results were slow in coming, they took action. They participated. Not all of them were motivated by the purest of intentions, of course, but their numbers were significant enough to force a discussion between the two generations. 


This is an excerpt from The Contest: The 1968 Election and the War for America's Soul. Author Michael Schumacher is the author and editor of many books, including biographies of Eric Clapton, Phil Ochs, Francis Ford Coppola, and Allen Ginsberg. Dharma Lion: A Biography of Allen Ginsberg; First Thought: Conversations with Allen Ginsberg; and There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs were published by the University of Minnesota Press.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Jack Zipes: "Fairy tales evolve and spread in strange ways."

University of Minnesota

I first came across Pyotr Yershov’s fairy-tale poem, The Little Humpbacked Horse, when I was preparing my fairy-tale postcards for publication in my book Tales of Wonder. Among the Russian postcards in my collection, I kept finding cards illustrating The Little Humpbacked Horse by different gifted artists, often with short texts or messages written on the back side of the cards. It was as if I were receiving unusual messages from Russia with love.

My curiosity aroused, I decided to find and read Yershov’s poem in English and to find out more about the author himself. When I finally obtained a couple of English translations in verse, I was stunned. I discovered Yershov was a young man from Serbia who wrote this poem in 1834—primarily for adults—and that the great Alexander Pushkin esteemed Yershov’s work and predicted a great future for him as a writer. More significantly, I learned Yershov had transformed oral Russian folk tales such as “The Firebird and the Gray Wolf” and “Sivka Burka” into a witty, anti-tsarist poem. It was for this reason that his poem was more or less censored or banned until the Russian Revolution of 1917. Then, since Yershov’s work was a critique of the aristocracy and of a tyrannical tsar, the poem was republished and illustrated numerous times from the 1920s to the present. It was even made into a ballet and animated film. And the target audience became children more than adults, who continued to respond favorably to the poem because it tended to offer a critique of Stalin and dictators in general.

Well, I thought to myself, even though Russians and Europeans may have more experience with dictators and brutal aristocrats, this poem may have meaning for democracies on the brink of becoming authoritarian societies. Why not adapt the poetic versions into good terse English prose and illustrate the fairy tale with Russian postcards. They might teach us a lesson. Why not make the poem even more critical of fascist rule than Yershov’s poem did? Why not strengthen the wonderful friendship between little Double-Hump (whose name my wife created) and brave Ivan? Why not have the princess and Ivan simply disappear at the end and leave the people to decide how their country will be governed?

Fairy tales evolve and spread in strange ways. In the case of Fearless Ivan and his Faithful Horse Double-Hump, the Russians can teach us a lesson or two of how to combat absolutism. Many Russian fairy tales resonate like letters from Russia not only with love but with freedom, and I want to share them in English with young and old readers. And, of course, I have thrown a good deal of joy into the mix.


Jack Zipes is professor emeritus in the Department of German, Scandinavian, and Dutch at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of more than forty books, including Fearless Ivan and His Faithful Horse Double-Hump (a retelling of Pyotr Yershov's Russian folk tale, Minnesota, 2018); Tales of Wonder: Retelling Fairy Tales through Picture Postcards (Minnesota, 2017); The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World; Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales; and Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children, and the Culture Industry.

Wildflowers Series #5: "All of it magical."

Churchill Greywacke and Mountain Avens at Cape Merry
in Churchill, Manitoba. All photography by Kelly Povo.


When we signed up for a class about subarctic wildflowers at the Northern Studies Centre in Churchill, Manitoba, we decided to drive rather than fly to Winnipeg where we would catch the plane to Churchill (the only way into that town now that the tundra train’s washed-out tracks have not yet been repaired). We made lots of stops along the way to look for native wildflowers in Minnesota prairies, floating bogs, and the tallgrass aspen parkland, and we saw at least an orchid a day, from rose pogonia and grass-pink to heart-leaved twayblade, round-leaved orchid, lesser rattlesnake-plantain, showy lady’s-slipper, and western prairie fringed orchid.

Once in Churchill, we abandoned our daily orchid count, since orchids grow abundantly, especially round-leaved orchid and green-flowered bog orchid (or maybe small northern bog orchid, we still aren’t sure how to tell them apart). We saw new-to-us northern lady’s-slipper (also called sparrow’s egg for the delicate dots on the pouch) and a rare northern twayblade along with plenty of tiny blunt-leaved orchids. Tiny was the operative word for many of the flowers we saw, so much so that we put a moratorium on using the t-word. Many, but not all, of the plants that we knew from Minnesota are smaller up by Churchill, but we still recognized them: bog rosemary, large-flowered wintergreen, early coralroot, buckbean, bog laurel.



And many flowers were completely new to us: flame-coloured lousewort, white mountain avens, northern hedysarum, elephant’s-head, three-toothed saxifrage, alpine arnica—the list goes on and on. Any stop alongside the road presented more flowers to add to the list. Altogether in our six days in Churchill we listed over 100 new and familiar flowers and plants, including, at a stop at Rankin Inlet north of the treeline on our flight back to Winnipeg, the lovely pink flowers of thrift.

The surprise of the trip was common butterwort, which we’ve only ever seen in two places in Minnesota, although we do know there are other populations. In Churchill, butterwort was ubiquitous: we seemed to see its purple flowers nodding above sticky yellow star-shaped leaves every place, every day. Common butterwort, uncommon in Minnesota, thrives in the Churchill region, and made us laugh every time we saw it, which was frequently.

We went to Churchill to learn new flowers, but we loved finding old flower friends from Minnesota as well. Coming home, we discovered that some of those same new-to-us flowers also grew in Minnesota. Flowers grow wherever sun and soil and moisture offer a foothold. They don’t stop at borders, and neither did we.

Well, we actually did stop at the Canadian border to show our passports and answer questions, but you know what we mean.

And even though we went to see wildflowers, we also saw beluga whales swimming in the Churchill River.

All of it magical.


Phyllis Root and Kelly Povo spent ten years collaborating on Searching for Minnesota's Native Wildflowers: A Guide for Beginners, Botanists, and Everyone in Between. Check back on this blog as they document their wildflower-seeking adventures this summer.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

2018: The Year of Haptics? (Part II of II)

David Parisi
Associate Professor of Emerging Media, College of Charleston

Preceded by Part I.

Historicizing Haptic Hype

Also in 2018, amidst the billowing excitement over the latest wave of haptic devices and the growing anticipation for Ready Player One, I published Archaeologies of Touch: Interfacing with Haptics from Electricity to Computing, where I explicitly attempt to provide a critical and comprehensive history for haptic interfaces. Part of the book's goal is to destabilize the purported novelty of haptics—to complicate what has been a simplistic origin story—by linking the genesis of these virtual touch machines to a series of ancestral predecessors. Eighteenth-century electric shock batteries used to treat everything from headaches to tonsillitis, blunt-ended compasses adopted by psychologists in the nineteenth century to map the nerves responsible for tactual perception, and apparatuses built in the mid-twentieth century to translate sounds and images into tactile sensations: each helped provide the raw materials for contemporary haptics engineers, while also serving as examples of touch being transformed by technology far in advance of Computer Haptics cohering as a dedicated research field in the late 20th century.

As I attempted to contextualize the genesis of computer-assisted touch, the hype cycles that recurrently surrounded haptics technologies became a central target of the intervention I hoped the book would make: at least as far back as 1991, when Howard Rheingold published his bestselling Virtual Reality: The Revolutionary Technology of Computer-Generated Artificial Worlds, the possibility of computerized touch has been a subject of ongoing fascination for technology journalists. Every few years since, a reporter would ‘discover’ haptics, write up a story about the potential of what’s going on in a research lab to revolutionize human-computer interaction, and pronounce the technology’s impending arrival with certitude. The rhetoric in these articles manages to straddle the line between seductive technoutopianism and humanism, with haptic tech offering to provide a sense of embodied presence capable of countering the detached visuality of the standard graphical interfaces. Since I began following the field in 2002, I’ve witnessed this trend repeatedly, with my own opinions and prognostications on haptics swinging wildly over the years. I’ve been intoxicated, at different moments, on hype that served to validate my own research program, triumphantly declaring the forthcoming death of television (a claim I might have unwittingly cribbed from an Arthur C. Clark quote on the back cover of Virtual Reality: “Virtual Reality won’t merely replace TV. It will eat it alive.”). At other points, I approached haptics as a failed tech whose rejection might indicate something about the cultural resistance to technologizing touch.

I gradually came to confront my own roller coaster of emotions on haptics reflexively, trying to see the noisy hype cycles themselves as a type of signal, not of anything definitive about haptics tech itself, but rather, as a sign that we continually want to use touch as a way of transforming our relationship to computing technologies. For haptics prosthelytizers, the fascination with digitizing touch indicates a deep dissatisfaction with the dominant visualist interfacing schematic in computing, signaling a desire to get back to a mode of being in the world that grounded in visceral, bodily interaction, rather than detached and distanced observation. Noting the recurrence of this technoprimitivist impulse in the haptics literature, I became less invested in projecting the future of technologized touch, and began treating haptics as the outcome of a transformative desire motivating those who research and write on it.

The popular press and engineering discourse, as I suggest in Archaeologies of Touch, mobilizes three intertwined logics—or narrative frameworks—to make sense of haptics technologies: The first, the logic of the analog medialization of the senses, suggests that touch technologies will do for touch what technologies of image- and sound reproduction previously did for the eyes and the ears. A 2008 Economist article, for example, described “a new breed of ‘haptic’ technologies that do for the sense of touch what lifelike colour displays and hi-fi sound do for eyes and ears.” The second, the logic of the master device, proceeds from the assumption that the future of haptics will be marked by the triumph of a single standard device for recording, storing, and transmitting touch sensations, rather than a proliferation of application-specific devices. The third narrative framework, a logic of perpetual immanence, situates haptics as an inevitable technology that is on the cusp of widespread adoption and domestication. Back in 2012, for example, IBM’s Robyn Swartz declared “Within the next five years, your mobile device will let you touch what you’re shopping for online. It will distinguish fabrics, textures, and weaves so that you can feel a sweater, jacket, or upholstery – right through the screen.” The particulars of these narratives differ—some suggest more conservative timelines for adoption, while others, like Swartz, predict a more rapid proliferation—but in the nearly 30 years since the publication of Rheingold’s Virtual Reality, they’ve retained a striking consistency to their framing.

During this period, we’ve seen the steady bleed of haptics out from the design labs into everyday life: rumble feedback (ubiquitous in game controllers since 1997), vibrating alert systems (used in pagers, now found in smartphones and wearables), military and surgical training, computer-assisted design, medical rehabilitation, and aides for those with visual and hearing impairments, to name just a small subset (for a more complete picture of the field’s history, see Hasti Seifi’s comprehensive database and visualization project). All while we’ve been talking about haptics as a technology of some exotic and far-flung future, it’s been here, hiding in plain touch. Attempts to incorporate touch feedback into computing began in the late 1960s (first with Frederick Brooks and J.J. Batter’s Project GROPE, followed soon after by Michael Noll’s force feedback joystick), but this early history is frequently overlooked, feeding forward an inaccurate narrative that situates haptics as excitingly novel. Our current moment seems to be less about a sudden emergence of a new wave of devices, but rather, a sort of arbitrarily-chosen endpoint in a long process of gradual knowledge accumulation. The number of haptics-related scientific and technical publications has been rising consistently but sharply since the mid-1990s (roughly 350 in 1997, 2500 in 2007, and then nearly 7000 in 2017), with some significant fruit borne occasionally along the way.

The Future Might Be Haptic

My knee-jerk response to 2018 has been to double down on the thesis I posited in Archaeologies of Touch, and label this Just Another Hype Cycle. But what if, with this latest generation of VR, something fundamental has shifted? What if this array of experimental gloves, bodysuits, and vests quickly settles into an enduring, stable, and widely-adopted unifying device? How would we begin to assess claims that haptics has ‘arrived’ in 2018, especially after so many similar declarations in the past? (another: Wired magazine described the ‘sensational rise of haptic interfaces’ in 2013) How do we see through the fog of marketing campaigns and impressive tech demos to assess the state of touch’s technologization? Premature obsolescence is a danger inherent whenever writing about emerging technology, one the Archaeologies of Touch doesn’t possess any particular immunity to. So it is at least worth considering the possibility that we’re at a long-awaited turning point in the history of touch technology—that we’re entering something that looks like an ‘epoch of haptic interfacing’ (a phrase already used by the interface designer Hiroo Iwata to describe research in the field during the 1990s). But more importantly: why does it matter? What are the macro-level implications of haptics technology that should be of concern to those outside the narrow field of human-computer interaction research?

Rather engaging in the folly of technological prediction here, I’ll speak instead to the latter set of questions. If the foretold future comes to pass—if haptics achieves the widespread adoption predicted for nearly 30 years—then this is where things will get very interesting very quickly. It’s inadequate to merely claim that touch is being taken over by or expressed through or merged with digital technology; rather, we need to describe the microphysics of this transformation. Part of the thesis I’ve been advancing in my work on haptics involves taking seriously Marshall McLuhan’s claim that transformations in media also bring with them transformations in the cultural sensorium—transformations in the ways we use our senses to know, relate to, and experience the world. New technologies of perception change the ground from which we make epistemic claims: the (possibly) impending rise of haptic media demands our attention because of its potential to reawaken and re-empower a haptic epistemology. But ‘touch’ is always an imperfect and messy descriptor: even speaking from a strictly psychophysical standpoint, touch refers to sensations such as movement, weight, vibration, texture, temperature, and pain. If we use the term ‘feeling,’ the range of meanings expands considerably, encompassing all sorts of affective states that can be activated and induced by digital technologies.

Accordingly, when we say that touch is being expressed (or transmitted, or extended, or synthesized, or communicated) by digital media, this should just be the start to a line of questioning: we need to understand how touch is being expressed, and which model of touching is being embedded in the material configuration of these new haptic media. Through their design and standardization, haptic interfaces encode normative models of sensory and bodily functioning—much of the twentieth century research on touch communication, for example, was driven by attempts to rehabilitate bodies deemed to be disabled—and tracing the specific lineages of these models can provide insight on the power dynamics circulated through touch technologies. But these devices are also expressions of a desire to contest existing dominant models of mediation—tacit challenges to the sensory ordering of audiovisualist media, often touted explicitly by haptics designers and marketers for their potential to stage an upheaval in our mode of mediatic existence.

By providing specific examples of touch’s rearticulation in the scientific, medical, and technical literature on haptics, Archaeologies of Touch was intended to lay a historical foundation for future studies of technologized touch, while also recognizing that this history is necessarily incomplete, always subject to contestation and revision. In short, this historical framework implies an ongoing empirical project that will complement, challenge, and perhaps even blow up the genealogy I establish. More flexible models that push back on the rigid scientism of the engineering and psychophysics literature, akin to the sort of investigations currently being undertaken by Carey Jewitt and Sara Price as part of their InTouch research program, can provide a valuable picture of the cultural responses to digital touch. Building partnerships between humanists and engineers, engaging in ethnographic studies of how touch gets constructed in haptics labs, will also illuminate, to paraphrase the medical historian Robert Jütte, the “use value” touch attains as a result of new technologies of perception. We should be grappling with haptics interfaces as sites where conflicts between corporate actors are played out (as with Immersion Corporation’s myriad patent infringement lawsuits), while also recognizing their potential to open up new aesthetic and experiential possibilities (through the incorporation of haptics into digital storytelling, for example). The challenge that faces us, if 2018 ends up being a turning point for haptics, is to navigate between the technofestihism often embraced by hapticians and the technodystopianism that humanist critiques of technology fall too readily back on, so that we can get a clear and sober understanding of the way haptic media, by allowing us to feel things that aren’t really there, transform the sensory epistemology of digital worlds, while also reshaping the constitution of touch itself.


David Parisi is author of Archaeologies of Touch: Interfacing with Haptics from Electricity to Computing. Parisi is associate professor of emerging media at the College of Charleston.

"Archaeologies of Touch weaves a careful history of haptic technology with a provocative analysis on the changing nature of how we recognize and measure touching. This allows David Parisi to provide the remarkable: a history of that which has always appeared just beyond our reach."
—Phillip Thurtle, University of Washington

"Archaeologies of Touch convincingly contextualizes recent forms of digital touch within an overarching history of psychophysiological and technological experimentation with the senses and sensory communication. David Parisi pulls together an impressive wealth of resources for scholars to understand how we ‘haptic subjects’ became haptic in the first place."
—Mark Paterson, author of The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies

2018: The Year of Haptics? (Part I of II)

David Parisi
Associate Professor of Emerging Media, College of Charleston

Based on popular press accounts, 2018 has been the year when haptics technology finally hit it big: by featuring haptics tech prominently in its depiction of a fully embodied virtual reality, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One—an adaption of Ernst Cline’s 2011 novel of the same title—sparked a renewed cultural interest in the possibilities of virtualizing touch. The haptic bodysuits worn by characters in the film allowed them to feel a range of sensations in the computer-generated world of the Oasis (the film’s trailer featured a woman running her fingers running across his chest in VR, with his bodysuit lighting up to indicate points of contact, as she asked “can you feel this?). It was not the first spectacular depiction of digital touch in a big-budget science fiction film—for example, all the way back in 1992, Brent Leonard’s psychedelic The Lawnmower Man portrayed two characters clad in neoprene bodysuits engaging in virtual intercourse, with their liquid bodies melting into each other. But, unlike previous films, Ready Player One was released at a moment when virtual reality had recently passed from being the stuff of science fiction to being something you could find on the shelves at Best Buy and Target. These long-anticipated devices, however, still work primarily through vision and hearing, preserving the audiovisual legacy of twentieth century media. Ready Player One offers a seductive image of a VR more visceral and engaging than what’s currently on hand—one that disrupts rather than enshrines audiovisuality by projecting the body fully into a computational simulation. Even before the film’s March release, it inspired a spate of articles comparing the touch technology available in 2045 to current-generation interfaces.

Those who went looking for evidence of haptics’ imminent domestication found it to be in abundant supply. A new virtual reality glove from the company HaptX wowed attendees at the Sundance Film Festival, with the product demo allowing those who donned the glove to feel the feet of a tiny fox as it pranced across their palm. The Teslasuit—an actuator-loaded, full-body haptic suit that uses a combination of vibration, electricity, temperature, and motion capture systems to create the feeling of embodied presence in virtual worlds—continued to tease an anxious tech press with rumors of an impending commercial release. A Wired magazine article raised eyebrows by (incorrectly) describing a range of new haptics devices designed to inflict pain on their users. Ultrahaptics, with its touchless feedback system that creates midair ‘haptic holograms,’ demonstrated potential applications for their product, including in-dash entertainment interfaces for automobiles, digital signage, medicine, and gaming. Just before Ready Player One’s release in March, Microsoft—which has dabbled in haptics since its work with force feedback joysticks in the 1990s—announced four experimental haptic interfaces that grew out of the Haptics Controllers Project it began in the summer of 2017. Immersion Corporation—a company so synonymous with digital touch that its tagline announces “Immersion: We Are Haptics”—pushed a set of ongoing initiatives, including one aimed at incorporating touch feedback in ads on mobile devices (using haptics to enhance an ad for Arby’s, for example). The Dutch teledildonics firm Kiiroo rebranded to become Feel Robotics, in an effort to expand the company’s efforts beyond the limited but lucrative sphere of sex tech. Buoyed by the renewed interest in virtual reality, venture capital poured into haptics startups (as Sarah Needleman described), with the projected growth of the haptics industry legitimating these investments. So far in 2018, each month feels like it’s brought the announcement of a new suit or new jacket or new glove or a new…something else altogether. With this dizzying flurry of activity, one might reasonably be convinced we’re on the verge of a revolutionizing transformation in the way we inhabit virtual spaces—one where corporeality counters and complements visuality, as just as it did in futurological computer-generated worlds like William Gibson’s Matrix, Neal Stephenson’s Metaverse, and Cline’s OASIS.

This piece is continued in Part II.

David Parisi is author of Archaeologies of Touch: Interfacing with Haptics from Electricity to Computing. Parisi is associate professor of emerging media at the College of Charleston.

"Archaeologies of Touch weaves a careful history of haptic technology with a provocative analysis on the changing nature of how we recognize and measure touching. This allows David Parisi to provide the remarkable: a history of that which has always appeared just beyond our reach."
—Phillip Thurtle, University of Washington

"Archaeologies of Touch convincingly contextualizes recent forms of digital touch within an overarching history of psychophysiological and technological experimentation with the senses and sensory communication. David Parisi pulls together an impressive wealth of resources for scholars to understand how we ‘haptic subjects’ became haptic in the first place."
—Mark Paterson, author of The Senses of Touch: Haptics, Affects and Technologies

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Patricia Ticineto Clough: Why the cyborg can no longer be a figure of either politics or ontology.

Professor of sociology and women's studies at the Graduate Center and Queens College, City University of New York

Following the publication of The User Unconscious, I had the occasion to revisit Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” and found myself challenged to articulate the relevant differences between what is proposed in The User Unconscious and in Haraway’s groundbreaking essay. In the manifesto, Haraway famously offered the cyborg as the figure of feminist politics as well as an ontological standpoint from which to understand the late twentieth-century technoscience and its cultures. Minimally defined, the cyborg was meant to point to border wars between animal and human, between human and machine. The latter was the focus of the manifesto and drew attention to what was becoming a machine-human hybrid or an organic-inorganic hybrid. With the cyborg as politics and ontology, Haraway eschewed Freudian psychoanalysis as reductively biological and for its offering an oedipal timeline that implies either healing “the terrible cleavages of gender in an oral symbiotic utopia or post-oedipal apocalypse.” While much of the manifesto still holds important insights, in The User Unconscious I argue that the cyborg can no longer be a figure of either politics or ontology; nor can we point only to the “pleasures” and “responsibilities” in the confusion of boundaries, celebrated more often than not by Haraway in the manifesto.

The confusion of boundaries has been displaced by the indeterminacy or incomputability that ordinarily functions as the condition of possibility of algorithms operating in finance, governance and sociality, while also urging new forms of intervention relevant to datafication by which I mean the data mining of tracking and sensing technologies as well as internet use and all sorts of mobile devices. These technologies are putting us in touch with the agencies of other-than-human objects and environments, which in themselves are inaccessible to human consciousness or bodily-based perception or to which consciousness and bodily-based perception have no direct contact. Feeding forward to human conscious the data of what already has occurred prior to consciousness and perception, the algorithms supporting datafication are operating in ways that often enough are also inaccessible to human consciousness and perception. Not surprisingly the scholars in media studies, critical theory, and philosophy to which I turn in The User Unconscious have fostered a “speculative empiricism” inspired by Alfred North Whitehead, where consciousness and bodily-based perception have been displaced as the stable, substantial hub of all experience, extending the domain of the social to the pre-affectivity of environmental forces or other-than-human agencies that initiates a rethinking of sociality as well as subjectivity, the unconscious, and affect—all as part of the ongoing reconfiguration of the liberal arrangement that purports to sustain a separation of the state, economy, the private and public spheres.

In the manifesto, Haraway would situate the cyborg in a displacement of the separation of the private and public spheres in terms of what she referred to as the “homework economy”–not just a matter of the feminization of labor generally but more “the integration of the factory, home, and market on a new scale” (39), making possible what more recently would be called affective labor or as I would put it: the labor of affect-itself. Referring to the capitalizing of affective capacities at the human scale and the pre-affective capacities at the other-than-human scales of matter, the labor of affect-itself refers not only to economy but to a biopolitics that is as well geontological, as Elizabeth Povinelli puts it, in extending Foucault’s take on power, dismissed by Haraway in the manifesto. In this context, the separation of the public and the private spheres to which Haraway referred in the manifesto now is further displaced by what in The User Unconscious I describe, following Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, as “the separation of the personal and the networked,” where economy and (bio/geontological) politics are confounded in the subject or the I’s inextricability from the networks of data which the I in part constitutes and in part is constituted by through the ‘free labor” of giving off data in using digital media usually without the subject’s consciousness or perception. As the I is composited with its own data traces as well as the data fed forward to it from other-than-human agencies beyond consciousness and bodily-based perception, the subject, I go on to propose, is humanly and other than humanly embodied.

Not only has affective labor expanded to operate from within the human body and from without it, putting the body beyond the skin, or embodiment beyond the organism, there also has been a shift in psychoanalysis beyond Haraway’s rendition of it that has invited an account of affect as the force of the unconscious, its force in seeking objects: that is, refinding objects that are lost (infantile objects). (For a reconsideration of affect and the unconscious, see: Studies in Gender and Sexuality, Volume 19, Number 2: 2018.) But affect is not only a matter of the human scale; there also is the pre-affectivity of the other-than-human scales of matter beyond consciousness and perception. The user unconscious, I therefore have suggested, is a matter of affect, in psychoanalytic terms, the force of seeking lost (infantile) objects, operating, however, in a networked environment of objects that along side those lost are those that are not lost but rather are lively and not containable brought by datafication out of reach of human consciousness and bodily-based perception, that is, an environment of the endless availability of the search that in itself supersedes finding an object. (For a discussion of online searching and the objects of the unconscious, see Stephan Hartman (2011), "Reality 2.0: When loss is lost," Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 21, 468-482.) This endless searchability supported by datafication is another way of posing the liveliness of objects or their other-than-human liveliness that suggests an embodiment of the I and the unconscious that is human and other than human, yet to be fully engaged as a matter of subjectivity and sociality.

As the user unconscious refers to the subject or an I that is both humanly and other-than-humanly embodied, it is necessary to rethink the social and subjective characteristic of race, gender, sexuality, age, and ethnicity usually attached to the body-as-organism but which are being reconfigured in the ongoing rearrangement of inside and outside the body beyond the skin, the public and private spheres and the economy and state. Linked to a biopolitics of populations, what I have described in The User Unconscious as a datafied population racism aimed at the profoundly unequal distribution of life capacities among populations, the body-as-organism now is the site of a shift in critical concern about confused boundaries to one about the incalculability functioning in the operation of algorithmic production of datafication registered differently across populations as a traumatic recognition of other-than-human agencies that are the speculative empirical condition of possibility of human experience.

While “The Cyborg Manifesto” has stacked up a number of criticisms, perhaps most notably those aimed at its all too celebratory take on cyborgian technoscience, I have found in returning to it an invitation also sounded in The User Unconscious to not only research the devastations of current datafication but also to engage a fuller appreciation of it in forming interventions that affectively address changes in sociality and subjectivity registered in the user unconscious.


Patricia Ticineto Clough is professor of sociology and women’s studies at the Graduate Center and Queens College, City University of New York. She is author of The User Unconscious: On Affect, Media, and Measure (Minnesota, 2018); Autoaffection: Unconscious Thought in the Age of Teletechnology (Minnesota, 2000); Feminist Thought: Desire, Power, and Academic Discourse; and The End(s) of Ethnography: From Realism to Social Criticism. She is editor of The Affective Turn: Theorizing the Social with Craig Willse, editor of Beyond Biopolitics: Essays on the Governance of Life and Death, and, with Alan Frank and Steven Seidman, editor of Intimacies: A New World of Relational Life. Clough is also a psychoanalyst practicing in New York City.