Digital Mythologies / Digital Plagues (Part 2)

The Text and a Context for Prosumption

To give meaning to a text, it shouldn’t simply entertain you; it should be allowed to interweave itself inextricably into the fabric of your life. To this extent, the text still lives – in pockets[1]. In its digital abundance, its disembodied homogeneity however, the text has a significantly altered presence. We use ‘the text’ rather than ‘the book’, to give it its de-individuated meaning, ‘the book’ implying an antiquated, individual and cumbersome body.

‘The text’, as a term, evokes the impression of academics – endless papers written by rarely remembered names; ‘the text’, as a term, arrives with the atmosphere of archives. And this is the effect that the conversion of literature into digital information will have/is having – information accessed and accumulated as if from an archive then stored – divorced from the unique and distinctive identity of the author. A book was a physical artefact associated with a name and a cover; the text was the primary content and the book was its aesthetic form; the author was embedded into the text through the book and was associated with the weight of some legacy or mythology. The digital text comes with a thumbnail image, subdued by the device, every text arriving on the same device, the device being the hand-held artefact no longer capable of prioritizing the individual text or author, but all text arriving, indistinct with a user-selected-typeface, through the same generic portal. A depersonalised information stream.

One effect of this is on Toffler’s prosumer (producer-consumer). The detachment of the author from information makes that information ours. Consumer identity and individualism backs up the consumption of the text and as such, the consumer acquires ‘something to say’ and the means to say it. To clarify, in the past there was a distinction between the exceptional character and ‘the mass’. Today, the mass aspire (and succeed) in becoming the exception[2] and it is the faceless text-stream that can facilitate this aspiration. It is significant that Gauss read Euclid; less so that Paglia reads Sontag who read Nin. Even that Baudrillard or Foucault read Nietzsche – Baudrillard and Foucault (among other contemporaries) having exposed the manner in which information (which produces truth) will generally, within certain limits, do whatever it is told. The exceptional writer disappears therefore, like the text, even to themselves, amidst a sea of prosumer identity prosumption. Power-lust or vapidity aspires for money; passion and any hint of imagination for identity or notoriety. ‘The mass’ and ‘the writer’ both, become entangled in the free-market of creativity and ‘meaning’ gets lost there in the shifting sweep of the changing tides.

Moreover, with text having been moved into the archive, there are consequences for pretension and posturing too. No longer could the middle-management caricature of Abigail’s Party present his guests with the complete, leather-bound works of Shakespeare – books he confesses to having never read. Instead, he must read the works (or at least their digests) to participate in their legacy. Informational posturing rather than posturing with property. The new bookcase is that which we have read and that which we can talk about. Names and legacies to this extent still afford meaning, but they are ours now – the jewels (or graffiti) of prosumption to be littered impressively (or smeared irreverently) across every creative work. Creation too is becoming a form of passivity and inertia.

Within traditional modes of consumption, there was a sadomasochistic relationship between a producer and a consumer. To consume meant to self-harm through the loss of money (and by implication, security). Expenditure would give the item purchased its value – you made a sacrifice to attach yourself to the product, hence the identities and attachments that formed around them – music genre, fashion, home pride, lifestyle etc. In a digital age, where free is the new economy, this whole relationship begins to dissolve. One significant adjustment has been the reversion of the sadomasochistic role of consumer and producer, where now the consumer begins to resent the producer even where they work for free. The producer begins to sacrifice himself to the general indifference and humming-bird attention-span of the over-stimulated consumer, who, where items are free, needs to re-learn how to give them value[3]. Even where value is given, it is surely a less intense value than was conditioned by attachment through self-sacrifice. Moreover, the producer, as an element of his work, begins to disappear – creative commons, open source software – the creators again, amorphous names like the academics of an archive. Without the protective violence of economic sacrifice, the producer ceases to exist within the content of their product.

The conversion of produce into free information[4] dissociates that produce from its creator. It also dissociates the product (and creator) from a certain value, where that value is derived from the pain of having acquired it. The result is that everyone has access to everything and everyone gains something to say as they crash into the vast sea of total obscurity. Consumption has become a data-stream – sometimes a 0 passes by, but occasionally a 1. In any case, it won’t be present for long, the next wave about to crash past in nano-time and obliterate the memory of all you’d hoped to store – and there is much to store! This situation requires new ways of valuing and new attitudes to producing. It may even mean an end to valuing, at least for things that can’t be reinterpreted and reproduced through the characteristic filters of our own passions. Everything a flicker now, everything a moment. Sunlight on the ridges of the rushing stream. To either produce or to value, it is these shivering moments to which we must attend. Passive in our activity and active in our passive (passing) regard for others.

Notes

[1] – Such a descritpion is perhaps a symptom of the state about to be described.

[2] – In Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher, the protagonist is a woman controlled and fashioned by her mother to become an extraordinary and famous concert pianist. Though Erika does become extraordinary, it isn’t as a pianist – more extraordinary is her creative pathology through alienation and self-absorbed individuation, manifesting in an aesthetics of self-harm and erotic self-destruction. An interesting chapter continually describes Erika as ‘the Mass Anger’ as she makes her way home on public transport, resentfully hitting against the faceless public who she despises and would not want to become. ‘The Mass Anger’: anger against the mass; the anger of the mass; a mass of all-consuming, personalized anger.

[3] – I have various reservations regarding the extent to which the consumer is capable of this re-learning value. ‘The mass’ is what the producer encounters, not the regulated individual. The individual can interact responsibly, can develop an ethics of value, can measure the depth of their pleasure, their passion and their vanity and choose to commit to something. The mass, on the other hand (that is, people encountered as a mass – ‘the hive’) have no such regulative and appreciative faculties – it consumes wild, indifferent and insatiable. And in any case, the age is that of the frenzy of the mass – responsible action is degrading to the limitless and vital character of electric, mass-consumptive impulse.

[4] – 3D printing is perhaps set to do the same to other physical products as has been done to music, books etc. The informational blueprint will take precedence over the artefact.

Summary of Ideas

  1. The book contained, in its physical form, the individual author and their legacy/mythology. The electronic device subsumes the author and takes their place as the primary object of attention.
  2. ‘The text’ replaces ‘the book’, the text having more in common with archived content than conventional literature. Information is free, will do as it’s told, is barely distinguished, one piece from the next; is everywhere.
  3. The prosumer can take ownership of archived content. In a sense, ‘the author’ and their legacy become an integral part of the prosumer. The author becomes an effective sign in the arsenal of creativity – a component to be embedded within a personal product.
  4. It also becomes meaningful to archive within oneself those creatives who possess cultural worth. ‘Archive’ here is used to suggest that passion and personal obsession are not necessary features in guiding acquisition. It is necessary only that one carries the information and can access it and regurgitate it.
  5. The individual despises their facelessness within the mass. The extraordinary individual loses their face within the prosumption of the mass. The Mass Anger is the universal attempt to break free from the gravitational field of the the mass.
  6. Free information is devoid of any personal sacrifice in its acquisition. This cultivates a certain indifference in those that consume it. It is hard to know how to value something one has not ‘paid for’ and hard to know if something is valued by those that do not pay. (‘Paid’ here is a broad concept. It connotes any form of anguish from which one may produce values. Economic self-sacrifice is just one form of meaning-generative anguish).
  7. Creativity therefore becomes another form of passivity – passive in the sense that watching TV has been a source of opprobrium in the past. Action becomes conformist, even where its intention is to rebel.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

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