Reading D and G

Last week, I attended a lecture by Prof. John Thompson (Cambridge) on “Books in the Digital Age.” And, in a discussion re: the academy and books and how they operate, Prof Ken Wark (from NS Sociology) made the point that, for students today, books are somewhat irrelevant. Instead, he presented the metaphor of the Professor-As-DJ, pulling PDF texts from here and there, remixing theory into a mashup we call “class.” And, for the most part, that’s true — most of my classes don’t have “books,” but readers, collections of texts.

I mention this, because, I’ve read D&G’s “Rhizome” chapter probably five or six times now, and I still don’t get *a lot* of it. And it makes me wonder, as I so often do when reading some of these authors for our classes, French philosophers in particular, what is it? Is it the translation? Are these guys just being purposefully obscure, a sort of hiding the fact that they don’t really have anything to say? Or, is it me — am I either not bright enough to grasp all this? Or, my point to all this, is it because I’m reading the chapter, instead of the book? Is there context that I need to really get this?

That said, I do get it enough to know that D&G’s work is important, because we just have to look at the world around us to see that their notion of rhizome explains much of what’s happening. Social networking, viruses like SARS, terrorist networks, new military models in response to terrorism threats, genetic research, new science understanding swarming behavior — all of this has become predominant in our culture in the last 10-20 years, and, if we look at previous cultural models, none seem adequate in describing just what’s happening today. None of them get to this idea of “connectedness,” which today is so predominant. And connectedness can be both positive (Wikipedia) and negative (SARS).

Multiplicities…always n-1. The network is always defined in terms of “taking-away-ness” — that speaks to the unstable nature of the rhizome, the idea that it’s never “one thing.” And, more importantly, it can never be broken, only changed. Ruptured, but continuing to flow…

One thing I did find intriguing was D&G’s description of the book as a machine, something seen in Aarseth:

As the cyber prefix indicates, the text is seen as a machine–not metaphorically but as a mechanical device for the production and consumption of verbal signs. Just as a film is useless without a projector and a screen, so a text must consist of a material medium as well as a collection of words. The machine, of course, is not complete without a third party, the (human) operator, and it is within this triad that the text takes place. The boundaries between these three elements are not clear but fluid and transgressive, and each part can be defined only in terms of the other two.

D&G say this triad (or, at least, a similar one…) no longer holds:

There is no longer a tripartite between the field of reality (the world) and a field of representation (the book) and a field of subjectivity (the author). Rather, an assemblage establishes connections between certain multiplicities drawn from each of these orders…In short, we think that one cannot write sufficiently in the name of an outside. The outside has no image, no signification, no subjectivity.

In Aarseth, he’s suggesting something that’s not obvious, that the book is nothing without the “third party,” the human “operator.” D&G — I think(!) — are saying something similar. We cannot separate our or divide from us what we create. There are no clean and clear lines between “subject” and “representations” of our world, because there is no “One,” there is no singular subject, only connections, only multiplicities.

“A multiplicity has neither subject nor object.”

This seems a rather radical statement, tossing aside the notion of subject/object, self/other, that’s been an essential element of thought since we started thinking. But, in light the idea of virtuality, and the messy kind of reality our networked lives in cyberspace have made, it makes sense. We need new terminology to describe this new sense of being, how we all exist now with on foot in the physical, and one in the virtual.

One question that I’ve been thinking about as I’m working on my final paper for my Digital Media Theory class is: “What if the server crashed?” That is, what would we lose if our virtual existences one day simply vanished?

It’s easy at first to think, “not much.” But, I can only speak for myself, it’s much more than that. There’s a good amount of thinking, of identity creation, of writing that I’ve invested online. And the more I put myself out in cyberspace, the more difficult it becomes to leave it.

I’ve (we’ve…?) grown dependent on our virtual lives, it’s more than an objective “other,” and, yet, it’s still difficult to think of it in the subjective sense.

Is it me, or is it my avatar?

So, I think what D&G have opened up is a new way to consider all this, new paradigms and descriptions and categories. And we need it…we’re tired of trees…


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