Some Thoughts on K-Punk @ Virtual Futures 2011

“We believed that the cybernetic approach to consciousness – whipped up frothy – would carry us to a plateau overlooking a pleasant mirror, but instead left us blathering in a dressed up solitude of manikin planets, twirling in a blank and unfriendly spaciousness.” (Steven Jesse Bernstein: The Sport Pt.1 – Prison)

During 2011’s Virtual Futures conference at Warwick University, Mark Fisher (K-Punk) presented some reservations about the internet and mobile technologies, emphasizing their depersonalising, commodifying and anxiety producing aspects and making the claim that we got on OK prior to their appearance (See Here for Talk). The following is a catalogue of thoughts and observations that occurred in response to that talk.

  1. Prior to the ubiquitous appearance of the internet in the home, TV, radio, the music video, the author, film etc., had already done their job in virtualizing, encrypting and fragmenting our identity. Every identity was lonely in that every identity required a key to decipher it and a stage on which to play itself out, deliver its meaning. Nightclubs, music cultures, tribal dress codes were perhaps the first virtual worlds or social network profiles; environments wherein you could encrypt your form with personal meanings and search for others with a similar encryption and therefore the key for discerning the essence of that identity. Prior to the internet with its chatrooms and social networks, I tested penpals in rock magazines and the CB radio as means of escaping a local alienation in global media – there was an ache for performance and involvement before the internet was established. Art, politics, celebrity, glamour had already collapsed into individual identity; the internet now replaces the stage as a creative outlet and social network profiles become a form of liquid crystal, pixelated, tribal dress.
  2. The photographic image had already given us a taste for the frozen attitude or posture, itself capable of condensing us into an objective, emotionally expressive (yet spiritually vacated) still; likewise, with the stylistic, idealised essence of our culture. The photograph could freeze an emotional or cultural state in the same way we aim to freeze our emotional state today. The nonchalant text message or tweet or status update is an emotional freeze-frame, imitating the photographic image. It is a reversal of the way in which McLuhan considered Freud and Jung to have modelled their gestalts for dream analysis on the photograph – where a photograph portrays the posture of the body, the gestalt portrays the posture of the mind (McLuhan, Understanding Media,pg. 262-263). Today however, the photograph transmits to you a psychic attitude itself, its cold, frozen pattern containing its own emotional seductiveness. The text message or status update then represents a snapshot of an emotional state in a similar way to how one’s social network photos represent an iconic instance of one’s cultural context and all the compressed social impressions one wishes to condense and impart.
  3. Celluloid, photographic paper has no natural emotional warmth or palpable human presence or trace; nor does it allow for any deep conscious involvement. There is no soul in the photograph, no relationship, and this is true of pretty much all techno-media. Even with TV and film, you ‘watch relationships’, you don’t ‘have them’.

    Sherry Turkle in her book Alone Togetherhas made the observation that in our direction of technological advancement, we are giving up on each other in some fundamental way. In a talk about the book, she says:

    “Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies, and these days there is no coyness about its aspiration to substitute life on the screen for the other kind. Technology is seductive when its affordances meet our human vulnerabilities, and it turns out, we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely, but fearful of intimacy. Connectivity for many of us offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We can’t get enough of each other, if, if we can have each other at a distance in amounts that we can control. Think of Goldilocks: not too close, not too far, just right. Connection made to measure, that’s the new promise. The ability to hide from each other even as we’re continually connected to each other. ” (Sherry Turkle talking about book: Alone Together)

    What Turkle identifies here however should not be seen as the problem with new media, but rather – in its use – we find the instantiation of the technology driven emotional life of contemporary man – a state of neo-sociophobia and relational disintegration whose exaggerated disequilibrium new media has been employed to resolve. These problems of regulated intimacy and made to measure emotional connectivity predate the internet and SMS messaging; this vulnerable self which must remain at a distance even as it communicates is the emotional life produced by our relationship with screens more generally. TV, photography, literature, the destruction of community through increased traffic, moral and social simulation and Spectacular Reality have already installed this exaggeration of remoteness and the desirable escape into a celluloid and frozen, screen life.

    Screens lack human trace and involvement; likewise, the self as an image of self. Patrick Bateman from 1991’s American Psycho perhaps reflects something of the heart that met new technology and the heart which new technology now reflects:

    “I had all the characteristics of a human being– flesh, blood, skin, hair– but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, the rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning.” (Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho)

  4. At the Virtual Futures conference K-Punk suggested that some sort of withdrawal from the current arrangement is necessary, a position he has also played with a number of times in his blog:

    “One of the many reasons that Dominic’s postulation of a “militant dysphoria” is so suggestive is that it holds open the possibility of a politics that is answerable to the negative, rather than one which obediently falls into line with the affirmationist imperative to “be positive”.

    Don’t join in. Withdraw. Be negative.” (K-Punk: Be Negative)

    What he here identifies, if nothing else, is the underlying aesthetic tendency of our time – a heart that perhaps desires negativity for its own sake. Here and in the book he references (Dominic Fox’s Cold World: The Aesthetics of Dejection and the Politics of Militant Dysphoria) an attempted political use of negativity is conjectured, and yet this negativity, this withdrawal appears more profound inside us than anything as functional and purposive as political will. As with our resistance to intimacy, there is something too in us that resists the social, a resistance bound up in the nature of ‘the social’ which is at the same time the nature of ourselves.

    At the Virtual Futures conference, K-Punk lamented that there has been no significant movement in popular culture for the past 15 years – only the repackaging and reanimation of past ideas. The most significant movements possible however, perhaps lie in the manifestations and explorations of this negative space. I would postulate Joy Division as the unwitting identifiers of this obscure potential, Unknown Pleasuresimplying a positive value in that which seems impossible or irrational. The album cover amusingly presents the wave pattern of an imploding star, the lyrics themselves connoting extreme density, tending towards a contraction into small spaces, withdrawals and strange excitations concerning the impossible touch. There need be no justification nor resolution of this negativity, nor even the phobic intimacy of our glassy grey hearts. Negative aesthetics is a strange passage of unlikely pleasures and their exploration seems pertinent, possible and affirms the infinite potential of the shifting substance of the human social life and psyche.

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  1. Interesting reading your thoughts in response to the talk. For those interested, you can listen to a podcast of K-Punk’s talk from Virtual Futures in full here – http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/knowledge/themes/virtualfutures/markfisher/

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