Sunday, February 20, 2011

The CATTt and Fatal Strategy

The CATTt Method: In Defense of a Heuretic Pedagogy

This course was set up using the CATTt method developed by Gregory Ulmer in Heuretics: The Logic of Invention. Professor Ulmer's hope was that the CATTt method combined with the theoretical background of poststructuralist thought, particularly in the realm of grammatology, could be used to actually invent a discourse for the metaphysics of a phenomenon beginning in the industrial revolution: electracy. Electracy is to literacy what literacy was to oral culture. We are working to develop a discourse for this analogous situation, which we find in the discourses of the Paris avant-garde in the early 20th century and contemporary post-structuralist theory.

However, Ulmer maintains that the CATTt method can work without extensive amounts of grammatological and theoretical background. This is because the CATTt is a contained system of texts, such that ideas are invented through their intertext. While at first this might not sound different from the condition of literature as an intertextual enterprise, Ulmer's heuretic method is meant to be "applied" (I will go into what this means in a minute) to a particular situation, event, or policy issue. Ulmer's lifelong task has been to argue that the the discipline of the humanities has something to offer policy formation that other disciplines cannot. As he has reiterated many times, however, he does not think that we can replace other disciplines or sciences, but that we can offer something different. It is not a Husserlian project to find an all encompassing system of philosophy that can ground sciences. Thus, Ulmer sees his electronic humanities project, which he calls the EmerAgency as consultants, much like the government or businesses has consultants (it reminds me of how king's had 'advisors').

The CATTt is an acronym for 5 'slots' that operate on a set of texts. The CATTt and the heuretic method does not read merely read texts for information or for meaning (hermenuetics), but looks for things that the text does that we can fill in with our own content given the operation slot the text is in. While the theory is like the brain of the CATTt, the integration of the other slots gives us a way to think outside of 'pure theory'--even though Ulmer claims that the EmerAgencies practice is its theory--to being self-conscious about how we manipulate texts. Let me elaborate on this last statement. No matter what, every interpretation is also a modification of a text. Academics have used texts and figures as contrasts, analogies, and theories for a very long time. In this sense, Ulmer's work is not "original" (and indeed, he would even say that his own texts are made up of other texts and that the very notion of originality and creation must be rethought). But one of the things that the CATTt allows one to do is to be very rigorous and self-aware about how we are manipulating texts. Thus, rather than hiding the gaps filled in by rhetorical rather than 'logical' moves, the CATTt explicitly reveals our method and operative strategies. The CATTt is an experiment and its validation is in its application and whether or not it "works" (and in that sense, it is widely, "pragmatic" though having little to do with American Pragmatism as a philosophy).


Related to the experimental dimension, we should also realize that the CATTt records a process. However, it makes no claim about the accuracy of the so called "writing process" in say, process-theory composition. It is not the process of writing that is recorded, but merely the way each of us thinks through the connections and material in the CATTt. As such, the CATTt encourages frequent writing and experimental digressions. In order to fully take advantage of this method of thinking, we have used this Blog form. I was very skeptical about blogs until I realized their power in thinking non-linearly and also function as encouragements for a progressive writing process rather than to spit out a research paper at the end of the semester. The blog, with its tags, links, image and video capacity, allows us to explore many different forms of media. Ultimately, it allows us to explore non-literate forms of thinking, connecting, and writing. If we as teachers keep saying to our students that they need to "write in pieces" there is no better way (in my current opinion) to foster this than to have them create an 'academic' blog, where the record their research process. The CATTt can help to structure that process to a certain extent because you have 5 'slots' or 'topics' that you will try and fill with ideas and connections.

Anchoring your research in an event or issue rather than a THESIS is a very liberating feeling. If we wish to have our students form complex thoughts, the idea that they should have a "thesis" before they start research hinders this ability. A thesis about an issue usually is an abstract for or against position---or a proposal for a particular policy for a scenario that, I would guess, the student does not really understand. Imagine a freshman student writing about the problems with the healthcare system before he or she even has had to deal with their own healthcare? How informed could the thesis possibly be?

This is where I think the Blog and Ulmer's CATTt comes in. In fact, before recently, I was simply happy that provided a rigorous structure that was at once closed and open. The CATTt structure and selection of policy issues leads you to discover MANY different discourses--not just humanities, but science, journalistic, legalistic. Thus, the commitment to a policy issue gives the student "accidental" (we'll come back to why this is in quotes) knowledge and strategies for dealing with an array of sources. The taboo on wikipedia is gone and the student is led through a labyrinth of texts and connections that may have never been thought before. We are not so much looking for "accurate" information, but for poetic and associational connections. Regardless of the outcome of these connections (which I will return to below), the student has had to struggle with the complexity surrounding a real issue in the world in an interdisciplinary way. Ulmer frequently turns to pop-culture narratives (what he calls in his book Internet Invention "Entertainment Discourse") for instructions either as contrasts or analogies--or 'relays' (I'll explain more about this). Thus, the Blog and CATTt method truly allow for a cliche to come true: the real value is in the process.

And this is what Ulmer is getting at when he speaks about how heuretics uses the 'middle voice.' When one undergoes the CATTt method, one does not necessarily speak to others, but speaks to the 'self'. The CATTt must be undergone rather than understood--perhaps related to Nietzsche's Zarathustra's claim that we should "go under" (as Kaufmann translates). Our blogs are addressed to ourselves and to others, but the goal is for us to learn something about ourselves.

But we must be careful here. Because it is not necessarily "ourselves" as our "self"--as if we were discovering our hidden essence. But 'ourselves' as the collective subject. Ulmer argues that policy issues and disasters explain us as collective subject--our culture's values. Thus, instead of trying to explain the event (why did this happen?) we have to look at how an event explains us as a collective subject. Drawing on the concept of alienation, Ulmer argues that we are alienated from our agency--it is "out there" in the collective world of culture. Lynn Worsham comes to a similar conclusion--claiming this is the postmodern capitalist condition: "This latest development of capitalism creates an utterly alien and alienated object world in which the subject cannot recognize the results of its own activity int he world and, as a consequence, unable to recognize the subjectivity of the other" (Worsham 1015). Whereas Worsham seems to be interested in how we can get to a point where we recognize the subjectivity of the Other, Ulmer would claim that we are tied into an alientated collective subjectivity rather than an alienation from the Other's subjectivity. The Other has been turned into 'others', but these others (including ourselves) are all alienated from what we used to know as an individual subjectivity. Now, we must look outside ourselves for our culture's collective subjectivity.

This is all to say that when we are talking to "ourselves" we are not learning about some inner subjectivity, but beginning to understand our position as part of the collective subject. Thus, we are not "empowered" as some critical pedagogies would have us do, but we do begin to be affected by the collectivity that we are inevitably tied up in. Although the product produced at the end of the day may not do much for actual policy formation (mostly because our world has not valued poetics as a legitimate form of consultancy), the student has become more politically aware without being criticized for his or her political and social views. Locating the collective subject allows us to realize that while we are a part of these values, we as individuals should not feel guilty or blameworthy if we hold some of these naive positions.In other words, by telling students that they are prey to "false consciousness" is not empowering them, but placing the teacher as an authority on culture. In this sense, Ulmer seems to agree with Worsham, Morton and Zavarzadeh's suggestion that "a focus on experience depoliticizes cultural work at a tiem when we need to depersonalize experience to analyze domination as a global strategy" (1021). I read this as the call to understand the importance of collective agency of cultural discourse rather than an individual agency and responsibility--the notion that we can produce "critical subjects," who mimic the oppositional discourse of an authoritative teacher.

Thus, Ulmer's pedagogy offers us a way for students to take an opportunity to "inform" themselves--discover what they can do and learn simply by connecting a policy issue to poetics.

The Quest for a Fatal Strategy

Our class's particular manifestation of Ulmer's pedagogy is using the CATTt to develop a Fatal Strategy, a term taken from Baudrillard's book Fatal Strategies. However, we did not begin with the Theory slot in our CATTt. We began instead with the "Target," which was not a traditional 'text' but a website by Paul Virilio called Unknown Quantity. The target was the hardest CATTt slot for me to understand, but basically the Target identifies what we are looking for. Virilio's 'exhibit' is called the Museum of Accidents, an art exhibit that investigates the metaphysical properties of the 'accident'. Virilio writes,

"In fact, invention is just a way of seeing, of grasping accidents as signs, as opportunities, it is high time to open up our galleries to the impromptu, to that “indirect production” of science and the techno-sciences that is the disaster, the (industrial or other) catastrophe.
If, according to Aristotle, “the accident reveals the substance,” the invention of the substance is also the invention of the “accident.” Seen this way, the shipwreck is indeed the “futuristic” invention of the ship, the air crash the invention of the supersonic plane, and the Chernobyl meltdown, the invention of the nuclear power station."

Thus, our Target was that we were looking for a discourse for the metaphysics of the accident. In our postmodern and poststructuralist framework we recognize that there is no more "substance"--that we are going to take as metaphysical the accident/disaster, which is what appears to us. As the Greek's decided that they would define reality as "substance"--what persists, so we would define reality the 'accident' which appears. And, per Virilio, we would take that "accident as a sign." A sign of what? We at first did not know--we had to continue to look at the CATTt. This was our first instruction: find an accident and take it as a metaphysical sign. 

As mentioned above, Ulmer's policy consultancy is a poetics. Thus, while consultants tend to imagine narratives and scenarios that may happen, they do not consider the importance of figures/tropes/details. If we have lost any sense of "scene" in our world, scenarios will not be the appropriate discourse for public policy (see below for Baudrillard. Indeed, this was the RAND corporation's strategy:

"RAND contemplated the likelihood of accident, sabotage, or psychotic Air Force personnel launching an unauthorized nuclear strike" (Poundstone 91). 

So for us, we need to find a figure/trope that will allow us to discover something about our accident. The possibility of this actually becoming a mode of consultancy on a national level is, of course, slim. However, by understanding our accident within the scheme of a figure or trope, we as individuals have learned much about our connection with accidents at large and helped work toward a discourse for the metaphysics of the accident. 

Furthermore, as I have pointed out above, the CATTt method leads students to the most unexpected sources, which forces them to grapple with unfamiliar media and discourse as well as the familiar academic theory we are so used to. Poundstone points out that RAND corporation's experiments, too, had 'unexpected' consequences--accidental outcomes that no one could have predicted:

"It is easy enough to cry 'golden fleece' and make almost any type of research sound silly. RAND supporters point out that many of these studies paid of with unexpected benefits," things like the space program and crucial developments in the social sciences (Poundstone 93-94). 

Throughout my project, I have thought of the consultancy (the EmerAgency) as the doppelganger of RAND. To use an analogy, we are doing for the humanities and politics what RAND did for the social sciences.

My Accident

In Heuretics, Ulmer begins with a place--his hometown in Montana. So, since there are so many accidents in the world, I figured I would start with a place. I decided that I would start with my alma mater's town--Asheville, North Carolina. Asheville has meant so much to me--the people I met there, the mountains I have grown to love, the southern food and music that are a part of my very soul. I was trying to think--what issue in Asheville could be seen as an "accident," a disaster. Immediately, I thought about some of my friends efforts to stop Mountain Top Removal. This was an issue that I cared about, though never acted upon--mostly because I've never thought of myself as an activist (nor do I now). Still, I supported the ceasing of Mountain Top Removal--mostly because I love the mountains as much as a non-native can. 

I soon found out that Mountain Top Removal was not a mere matter of aesthetics or sentimental environmentalism (no disrespect) but that there was a particular "accident" that came with the surface mining of coal: coal slurry. Coal slurry is the mix of coal waste and chemicals that come from cleaning the coal. The coal mined from the surface cannot be sold if it is not "cleaned." The problem is that this coal slurry is deposited into valleys--valleys that are sometimes near towns--valleys and pits that sometimes cannot hold all the slurry. Indeed, through cursory research, I discovered that two 'accidents' involving coal slurry had occurred. One of which, though not in the Blue Ridge Mountains, poured more than 10x the amount of coal slurry as the Exxon Valdez spill poured oil into the streams of in the mountains. It destroyed homes and poisoned the water. The company ended up paying for this and said they would take precautions against this occurring again, but they claimed that they never would have suspected it--it was "an act of god." See, the problem with our everyday understanding of accident as something "inessential" or something that happens out of the blue with no explanation, is to deny that accident and substance are intimately and metaphysically connected. The accident reveals the substance, says Aristotle. Thus, I focused on this accident, this waste, this coal slurry as a metaphysical sign. 

Further reflections on the Target and My Accident can be found here, here, and here

The theme of "waste" is an important one in today's world. If we want to understand the need for sustainability, we need to look no further than our garbage, as Slavoj Zizek controversially points out in his segment in the examined life: 

Also, waste as explicitly a metaphysical substance has been explored at great length in Don Dellilo's masterpiece Underworld
"Civilization did not rise and flourish as men hammered out hunting scenes on bronze gates and whispered philosophy under the stars, with garbage as a noisome offshoot, swept away and forgotten. No, garbage rose first, inciting people to build a civilization in response, in self-defense. we had to find ways to discard our waste, to use what we couldn't discard, to reprocess what we couldn't use. Garbage pushed back. It mounted and spread. And it forced us to develop the logic and rigor that would lead to systematic investigations of reality, to science, art, music, mathematics" (Delillo 287).

 Furthermore, within the same conversation in Underworld, Dellilo seems to point to our Theory and Analogy portion of the CATTt, Baudrillard's Fatal Strategies and pataphysics:

"There's a word in Italian. Dietrologia. It means the science of what is behind something. A suspicious event. The science of what is behind an event [. . .] The science of dark forces. evidently they feel this science is legitimate enough to require a name"

"People who need this science, I would make an effort to tell them we have real sciences, hard sciences, we don't need your imaginary ones" (280).

Pataphysics is an "imaginary science" that we will eventually explore as our Analogy to the CATTt. For now, we might look into the instruction from Baudrillard on Fatal Strategy and see how I ended up constructing my final instruction, which is my guide toward "part II" of my the assignment, something I am currently developing.

Baudrillard: Fatal Strategies

Baudrillard's Fatal Strategies is at once an exhilarating and frustrating book. There is no index, no bibliography, not little citation. Fatal Strategies is what Ulmer would call "poetic philosophy."

But as Ulmer always reminded us, we are not looking to become Baudrillardians (although i have gained much respect fro Baudrillard through this reading an look forward to exploring him in more depth). Instead, we take a particular instructions from him.

 Rather than try recount everything that I went through with Baudrillard, I will list the instructions we got from him and then direct you to relevant blog posts

Baudrillard has given us these instructions:

  •  Treat your accident as an absolute commodity (from Baudelaire)  form that seduces you
  • Find the location of the 'sacred' in the world without scene--the obscene
  • Find a small, absurd 'fatal' detail in your accident that shows why your accident was 'sent to you'
  • Take the side of the 'gift economy'

Further reflections on Baudrillard can be found here and here.

Contrast: Game Theory (William Poundstone' s Prisoner's Dilemma)

Our contrast is 'game theory,' developed by John Von Neumann. Game theories assumptions are rational and based on fear and competition. Game theory was a model that informed cold war policy. While we got many things from exploring the contrast of game theory, we got a very small, but very significant instruction:

  • Use a pop culture narrative to create a strategy, as John Nash used the film Rebel without a Cause to create the concept of "chicken."
Outside of this, we found many explicit contrasts to Baudrillard's Theory that Ulmer summarized nicely in a table on his blog Routine:

Thus, we can see that we are working in a completely different realm.

Further reflections on contrast/game theory can be found here and here.

Final Instruction for Part II

Part II will consist of developing an "exhibit" similar to Virilio of accidents using the intriguing presentation software known as Prezi. Our most important instruction from Baudrillard was to find a "fatal detail" that tied everything together and to show why we were "sent" this accident. Mine was the material consistency of a particular picture of coal slurry that reminded me of the rock, 'obsidian'.

My final instruction and elaboration of my 'fatal detail' can be found here.

At this point, I'm not sure how obsidian helps me--I'm not sure how it will help me form a "figure," that is for my accident that will hopefully allow us to learn something from it. But I am excited to embark on that quest.

Fatal Detail/Final Instruction

Little did I know that I would end up back where I begun. The final instruction for Part 1 is to create a "figure" using a small, seemingly insignificant but fatal detail of our accident--something that "sent" us this accident, something that spoke to us and spoke to the entire metaphysics of the accident. Since we are using the logic of electracy, we are using the logic of signifiers, resemblances, associations, "punctum" (even if it might not be emotional). . .something, if we want to use the term "subjective" (although it reveals the collective subject).

Object CAUSE of the desire. . .not the thing desired itself (ABSURD DETAIL--synthome). . a meaningless signifier that organizes the whole (ob)scene, which itself doesn’t mean ANYTHING.  ­The Fetish shows you the fatal (pre-destined) of the scene. . .we’ll know it through its fatality à something in the disaster that ‘sent me’ this accident. Cannot stop it—its irreparable. We’ve got to know what’s SENT TO US SO WE CAN ACT. (class notes)

Part of this instruction is that we want to abstract the forces at work in our accident rather than the things--this is another way to understand that we are looking for a relation (in the sense that Ulmer talked about the commodity not as a thing, but as a relationship). Thus, rather than looking at a particular scene (to use Baudrillardian terminology) of my accident--e.g. the drag line, the mountains, the coal slurry--and rather than trying to synthesize them, I tried to use my visual association and description to think about a particular image. At first, I thought maybe it would be int he drag line itself, since Ulmer claims that we need to learn to "speak to our machines," but the above pictures were also in a sense created by 'machines' (the coal cleaning machines).

If we recall one of my very first attempts at an image, I recognized that the second picture above looked to me like black lava--volcanic residue. Thus, I attempted to juxtapose this image over the mountains, making it seems as though the mountains were turned into a powerful volcanic/lava force (first figure above). If we are talking about describing the forces, we can understand the coal slurry force as volcanic (this is the power we harvest from it). The power of the volcano relates explicitly to Baudrillard's example of Pompeii, which is a key passage Ulmer cites on Routine for describing our accident as metaphysical:

"Pompeii: everything is metaphysical in this city [. . .] Neither monumentality nor beauty are essentail to Pompeii, only the fatal intimacy of things, the fascination of their instantaneity as well as as that of the perfect simulacrum of our own death" (Baudrillard 42).

Furthermore, the volcano relates explicitly to one of Virillio's photographs in his Museum of Accidents: Clark Air Force Base. This is one of photos I used in my presentation.

But finally, and most importantly, it relates to my particular accident.

As I sat and thought about these two photos above, I was thinking. . .what does that coal slurry look like? What other substance than coal does it look like? What is its texture, its color, its materiality? And then I had it (and I could only hope that I could connect these two things conceptually): OBSIDIAN

The materiality of obsidian also looks remarkably like coal as well as coal slurry:

 But it is smoother, it basically looks like washed and smoothed out coal. Obsidian also suggests a pun on Baudrillard's notion of "obscene" ("obsi(n)dian) a serendipitous (or perhaps fatal) detail. The coal slurry loses its "scene" within the mountains and becomes an obscene sludge lodged in the valley--an accident waiting to happen.

Also, on a personal level, when I was a kid I loved obsidian--it fascinated me, it seduced me, it was one of my favorite rocks. I remember I had a reproduction of an arrowhead made out of obsidian from the geology center just outside my hometown. I don't know what happened to it, but it was precious to me. . .i loved the smoothness of it--god how seductive. . .

Obsidian, according to Wikipedia is "is produced when felsic lava extruded from a volcano cools rapidly with minimum crystal growth. Obsidian is commonly found within the margins of rhyolitic lava flows known as obsidian flows, where the chemical composition (high silica content) induces a high viscosity and polymerization degree of the lava. The inhibition of atomic diffusion through this highly viscous and polymerized lava explains the lack of crystal growth. Because of this lack of crystal structure, obsidian blade edges can reach almost molecular thinness, leading to its ancient use as projectile points and blades, and its modern use as surgical scalpel blades.[1][2]

Thus, obsidian connects with the "force" of the volcano that I found inherent in the lava-like substance of the coal slurry! I couldn't believe my luck! But, of course, it was not luck--it was fate. . .it was that "series of fatal throws" as Baudrillard puts it. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, obsidian is not just a precious and seductive object, but it was also something like a commodity/gift in other cultures (the gift-giving cultures). Wikipedia writes, 

"Native American people traded obsidian throughout the Americas. Each volcano and in some cases each volcanic eruption produces a distinguishable type of obsidian, making it possible for archaeologists to trace the origins of a particular artifact. Similar tracing techniques have allowed obsidian to be identified in Greece also as coming from Melos, Nisyros or Yiali, islands in the Aegean Sea. Obsidian cores and blades were traded great distances inland from the coast.[citation needed]" 
And is backed up: here

Obsidian was also used to make ancient tools and weapons--thus, a crucial rock for the production of Technics!

Obsidian, like coal slurry, is created by the accident--the detritus of the volcano (not the volcano itself). Coal slurry we do not think as a commodity, a way of exchange, but using electrate logic I have found a connection between the properties of coal slurry (although it is not always hard like obsidian) and an essential (and yet accidental) geographical substance.

The question is how do I turn this into a figure? I cannot exactly describe the figure in words--it is a material relation--a 'felt' relation rather than textual. We shall see what I can come up with soon enough. . .

Friday, February 11, 2011

Coal and Coal Slurry--a poetic reflection/association

Coal is a simple and yet complex substance. What is our (the human) relationship with coal? Why do we desire it? And why might we make coal slurry out of it? For utilitarian purposes, we make coal slurry to 'clean' the coal so that it can be used and sold. But we are not going to approach it from this perspective--what does coal mean to 'us'--what does it tell us about ourselves? about our culture? about the ways we manipulate it--the way we can't take it in its raw-form, just as we refuse meat in its raw form. Why must we shape it to our liking? Why must we give it a new form, a new composition?

"Don't push me, son, or you'll find a lump of COAL in your stocking"

--coal is not glamorous, it is not shiny like gold or impenetrable like diamonds--it is not divine--it is dirty and messy. It connotes the smoky haze of an industrial revolution rather than the clean, environmentally friendly area we wish to live in. (George Carlin--"Environmentalists don't give a shit about the environment--they want a 'nice place to live'"). Coal obscures, it engulfs our culture, it is associated with the poor ,the working class, the "miner". Although, MTR has reduced the 'human' aspect of coal--its "kinship" (to draw on Baudelaire) to human beings. Mountain Top Removal uses massive machines called "drag lines" to dig up mountains. Perhaps we are fascinated by Mountain Top Removal because we cannot let go of the desire for the dirty industrial city--the smokescreen created by a working oppressed class.

So why would we 'clean' the coal? What does coal slurry represent?

In an excerpt from her book, Coal: A Human History, Barbara Freese contrasts coal with 'oil'--oil, the liquid form that can take any shape---oil--'black gold'--oil--the purity of the word is contained in its syllables. Oil--oily--smooth, slick, soft, sensual.

Coal is primarily composed of carbon. Coal begins as layers of plant matter accumulate at the bottom of a body of water. For the process to continue the plant matter must be protected from biodegradation and oxidization, usually by mud or acidic water.

Thus, in a way, it has a 'human'  origin--but it is the deformation of the human being into a black, sooty, poor soul. Coal relates to us on a chemical level. So why would we want to alter its chemical make-up?

Perhaps its because coal slurry is closer to the form of 'oil' than coal in its raw form. But slurry is not slick and 'oily' but is also sometimes called 'sludge'--it is more like the grey, dirty snow that gets under your car than the pure white falling from the sky. The slurry is the ugliness of coal gone--it is placed into a pit and forgotten.

Or perhaps it has to do with the idea that coal, like human beings, though born in sin and made from 'dust' (carbon) can be transformed into something as glorious as gold? Perhaps we have a need to make coal "better" by cleaning it. . .perhaps we have found our dark origin in coal and wish to wipe it off--if only we could wipe the otherness away from this precious resource! If only we could make it gleam white or clear! If only we could transform it into something more like us moderns--us humans that believe in Enlightenment and In(dust)rial progress! Oh, what a joy it would be to rid ourselves of our coal-black souls (and our black brethren) and to glitter in pure whiteness. . .

Perhaps this is our coal-narrative. I hope that my poetic rhapsodizing is taken ironically as I hardly believe in such utopian progress. Coal reminds us of our sinful origins, but also "challenges" us (in the sense Heidegger gives to it in "Question Concerning Technology") to make it better, give it a good scrub.

And indeed--what do we use coal for? "Energy," in particular "electricity"! And so we complete the transformation of Dark into Light, Sin into Salvation, Fate into Progress!

Instructions for 'Theory'--The 'play' of the commodity.

For our CATTt, we are substituting the focus of "narrative," coming from our Hollywood film for 'tropes'. According to our discussion, we are substituting Game Theory's primary 'game' of poker with another type of game. Callois, who we will read next, tells us that there are only 4 types of games, the first two corresponding to money economies, the second corresponding to gift economies. Since we are trying to see our own 'money economy' from the perspective of the gift, we need to look at the second two

Four Games

  • 1.       Agon--competition
  • 2.       Alea—chance

  • 3.       Mimesis—theater (simulation)
  • 4.       Ilynx—“vertigo”  (game of Vertigo?)
(class notes)

Baudrillard focuses mostly on mimesis, but the absolute commodity is 'Illynx', which is a game of 'vertigo'.

Vertigo, n:

1. Pathol. A disordered condition in which the person affected has a sensation of whirling, either of external objects or of himself, and tends to lose equilibrium and consciousness; swimming in the head; giddiness, dizziness

2. fig. A disordered state of mind, or of things, comparable to giddiness.

3. The act of whirling round and round. (OED)

The 'act of whirling round and round' can also be framed in terms of Baudrillard's idea that our fundamental task is Appearance and Disappearance. I related this in a previous post to peek-a-boo.  In a state of "vertigo', there is no equilibrium and there is no 'dialectic' (class notes).

. . . . . . . .

Instruction: To see the accident as a commodity, which seduces people into serving it. 

In order to do this, we need to rid ourselves of the trappings of 'narrative' in order to create a figure. Andy Warhol's work, for instance, contains no narrative--neither external mythology (Pollock) nor internal diagesis.

. . . . . . . .

The late George Carlin, more than perhaps any other comedian, could be considered the comedian of the accident. He shows us that accidents, disasters, catastrophes indeed do fascinate us--he shows us that we are seduced by them:

We need to look at the accident as something that wants to happen and as something that fascinates us. Thus, instead of looking at Mountain Top Removal in its utilitarian aspect--to get coal for energy, I need to look at it as something we are seduced by. I need to locate this seductive aspect, from the perspective of the object--is the object coal slurry? Are we fascinated by coal slurry? Are we fascinated by coal slurry poisoning rivers and destroying homes? Or are we fascinated by coal? We obviously aren't fascinated by the mountains. 


Warhol and the Absolute Commodity

Absolute Commodity

According Baudrillard, the absolute commodity, the pure object, is 'worthless'. The Band pointed out that in games money becomes a fetish object. While Baudrillard spends much time speaking of the loss of seduction as the loss of scene, he argues that the form of the commodity is a new form of seduction, the "vertigo of "obscenity," when artwork becomes monstrously foreign. In other words, the work of art becomes its 'circulation' and reproduction--"more commodity than commodity" (Baudrillard 147-149).

For me, and I'm sure several critics before me, Andy Warhol is the postmodern extension of Duchamp's spirit (if i can use such an anachronism). It took me a long time to 'get' Andy Warhol's art, but once I did I could never think of art as the same thing again. Warhol's art is the desire for the work of art to become its circulation. Furthermore, like Baudelaire before him, he sought to make of HIMSELF a commodity. One might even argue that Warhol is as much part of his art as what we consider his work.

But, of course, the same may be said of Jackson Pollock. And yet, there is a key difference in the way they go about it: Pollock makes of himself the absolute subject, Warhol makes of himself, the absolute object--the commodity. Warhol was known for his 'mysterious' behavior, Pollock was known through mythologies. Pollock embodied the American Male. Warhol was no such thing:

There is a way that his 'obscene' public appearance still enables him to keep his 'secret'--because there IS no secret. Andy Warhol is surface, object, commodity. We are 'fascinated' (not traditionally 'seduced') by Warhol. Warhol is not what Baudrillard calls a "vulgar seducer," but rather "puts himself before the other's gaze, makes of himself a fascinating object" (150-151).

He also returns the 'ordinary' object, for instance, the campbell's soup can to the status of a 'fetish'. There is no "meaning" to the campbell's soup can reproduction except to make it fascinating--to place it in sight (site, cite) as ART.

Correspondences, with 'regards' to Baudelaire


Nature is a temple, where the living
Columns sometimes breathe confusing speech;
Man Walks within these groves of symbols each
of which regards him as a kindred thing

As the long echoes, shadowy, profound
Heard from afar, blend in a unity,
Vast as the night, as sunlight's clarity
So perfumes, colors, sounds may correspond

Odours there are, fresh as a baby's skin,
Mellow as oboes, green as meadow grass,
--Others corrupted, rich, triumphant, full,

Having dimensions infinitely vast,
Frankincense, musk, ambergris, benjamin,
Singing the senses' rapture, and the soul's.

In our class discussions, the band pointed to the interesting meaning of 'looking' and 'regarding'. While there has been much criticism on the violence of looking and the gaze in film criticism, particularly related to gender studies. The Band seemed to point out a less intrusive gaze, a 'regarding' without analyzing, a tracing of the play of surfaces within things. John and I had a bit of a spat about the relevance of phenemenology, which indeed did seem related to 'regarding', but not to what I considered to be the gist of Baudrillard's text, which was about the object.

Luckily, Baudelaire lets us have it both ways, as he positions the object (Nature as a temple) as the 'regarder' of man: "Man walks within these groves of symbols each/of which regards him as a kindred thing." We can take this, indeed, as confirming a sort of phenomenological view of the world as an original unity of subject-object, which Descartes only later made the final split. However, we must take note that Nature here is not something to be be adored by man, but is 'kin' to him. This allows Baudelaire to distinguish himself from the Romantic period, as he moves into the Modern along with other important French Symbolists.

Nature is a symbol to man--it 'speaks' to man, but not as a primordial and ancient voice telling us our essence, but as a cipher, various written signs that address our senses "senses' rapture" rather than our interpretive mind. This allows for us to distinguish Baudelaire's view of nature from the view that Nature is the Book of the World--God's text to be read and deciphered. Baudelaire 'forgets' (in the sort of 'active forgetting' advocated by Nietzsche--indeed, losing oneself in the senses of the seductive object/woman is a frequent theme in Fleur de mal--see the poem "Lethe" among others) to interpret the signs, and participates in a synesthesiac heuretics--the senses and the soul, the mind and the body mingle in jouissance, an unspoken cooperation and correspondence.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Prestige and Mountain Top Removal/Coal Washing

Baudrillard writes, "Our fundamental destiny is not to exist and survive, as we think: it is to appear and disappear. That alone seduced and fascinates us. That alone is scene and ceremony [. . .] for something really to appear, surging up to the reign of appearances, there must be seduction. For something to really disappear, to resolve into its appearance, there must be a ceremony of metamorphosis" (213).

Essentially, Baudrillard seems to be describing the magic act. The Prestige also maintains that you must have both appearance and disappearance for a successful act: As John Cutter puts it in a voiceover, "but to make something disappear is not enough, you  have to bring it back." Ideally, as Baudrillard says, there will be a metamorphosis, but The Prestige shows in both magic and science, metamorphosis cannot take place without waste.

I am shocked at how The Prestige, a film I haven't thought about in years, has revealed itself to me to be intimately connected to my disaster. There are many points in the film that I would like to explicate in terms of sacrifice and symbolic exchange. If you have seen the film before, you can pick up on several symbolic resonances that ultimately anticipate the end. I wish to show how the film exemplifies the Restricted as opposed to the General Economy--involving a sacrifice of excess. When i first watched the film, I thought it was good, but I now find it a masterful piece of storytelling, acting, and writing.


I argue that one of the fundamental techniques of manipulation is blackmail. Baudrillard writes, that blackmail is only "a giant special effect" that uses the soft technology of violence to dissuade. It is based on a non-utterance that "puts an end to the scene of exchange" (64-65). We find many examples of the lack of the scene of exchange--rather than exchanging, violence and obsession escalades into a tragic ending (despite the illusion of a happy one--we will come back to this). Angier tells Borden that if he doesn't tell him his secret, his daughter will be sent to a boardinghouse, implying she will not be taken care of. If he does tell him the secret, she will be provided for. However, Angier puts an end to the scene of exchange when, even though he agrees to tell him his secret, Angier takes it, tears it up and say "whatever you're secret was--mine is better." He decides that he has "won."

Before this blackmail, but after it is represented on screen we find that Angier himself was blackmailed by  his "double," who, again, just wants more and more from Angier until he betrays him to Borden--he held all of the power. The blackmailer never intends to allow the exchange to be completed--the blackmailer desires more and more power as well as resources. 


Characters constantly repeat a few important lines. One of them is "sacrifice is the price of a good trick." This aphorism is illustrated throughout the entire film as it anticipates the final 'revealing' of the secret that was not really a secret. When Cutter sees Borden's trick he tells him outright he uses a double--thus revealing the real 'secret' in the open, but we are not looking for that secret--we, the audience, is looking in the mode of Angier--for the truth, for the real secret, for the more complex trick, so we don't realize that we should already know the ending. As Cutter says,

"Now you're looking for the secret but you won't find it, because you weren't really looking, you do want to find it out, you want to be fooled."

This is another important aspect of the film because it complements the other: the really good trick, the one that is not illusion, involves sacrifice. The characters also discuss how it is impossible to pull off a good trick without "getting your hands dirty if you want to do the impossible"

1st mention of sacrifice: Angier and Borden go to see an old man who has a trick with disappearing a bird cage. This is a bet that they make with Cutter, since he cannot find it out. Borden finds it out because he does the same thing. As he watches the old man hobble like a cripple toward his carriage he watches and says to Angier that "This is the trick. He lives a lie--self-sacrifice is the only way out of this." Thus, no one can discover his methods because he refuses to believe the man can do any significant physical movements--its brilliant really!

2nd mention: Another magician disappears a bird in a cage by slamming his hand down on the handkerchief. A little boy in the audience begins to cry (the character's eventual love interest) and say "He killed it. He killed it" even though the woman reassures he hadn't. Just then, the magician 'brings the bird back', but the boy is unconvinced. Borden shows him that the bird is OK, but the boy says: "Yes, but where's his brother"

Here, the boy has already gained insight into Borden's own secret double/twin who lives half of his life. If you have seen the film before, this is a really creepy moment as you realize that this is a 'doubling' within the film of the 'secret' that Angier (and the audience, mind you) seeks. Furthermore, it is an anticipation of the 'sacrifice' that Angier must make to perform his trick (more on that in a minute).

The boy is correct--the bird really is killed as the cage is smashed into its skull. This scene will also "double"/repeat.

3rd sacrifice: Blinded by his own hubris and confidence, Borden decides that he will tie a different knot for a dangerous 'drowning woman' trick. Later in the film, Angier will ask him which knot he tied and Borden will respond "I don't know"--which is actually the truth because he wasn't the one who actually tied the knot (it was his twin brother). Anyway, the result of this is that Angier's wife, the assistant, dies by drowning.

This event sets up the next two instances of sacrifice. When Borden decides that he wants to try the 'catching bullet trick' because it is risky, he asks someone in the audience to shoot him, knowing the bullet is 'not' in the gun. However, that man is Angier, who puts in a different ball (another instance of doubling) and puts it into the gun. He shoots him in the hand, taking off two of his fingers. We learn later that the twin brother, in order to do the 'transporting man' trick will also have to remove  2 of his fingers so they look the same--these must be sacrificed for the trick to work.

Borden takes revenge when, once Cutter and Angier have worked through a way to not kill the bird in the cage trick, disguises himself as an innocent audience member. He comes up and before Angier can pull the string (attached to a complicated mechanism) Borden crushes the dove in the cage, killing it and scaring the hell out of the other volunteer and the rest of the audience. These moments--when the trick goes wrong--are OBSCENE--the scene, the illusion is gone and the true mechanism comes out.

However, we learn that people are fascinated by the obscene magic show (or think they are). When  the owner of a theater, hearing of the new dove trick, asks Cutter and Angier why he does not do the water-escape trick or the bullet catch, Cutter says:

"Cheap thrills, somebody looking for an accident"

And thus, we have the 'trick' as both the successful smooth operation that usually occurs and the possiblity of an accident. A magic trick can always go horribly horribly wrong, as Borden actually points out before he attempts the gun trick: "The trick is still dangerous because you never know if a crazy audience member will put in a button or even a bullet into the chamber"--this is, of course, precisely what happens (the movie operates fatally in this sense--each instance of sacrifice must be repeated in order for it to have meaning--see Zizek on 9/11.).

The scene of the trick/possiblity of the accident is also presented in Nikolai Tesla's presentation of Alternating Current. As Angier enters the room he sees these giant balls with lightning flying back and forth from each other. Just as Baudrillard writes that "if things have a greater tendency to disappear and collapse, perhaps the principle source of future energy will be accident and catastrophe," Telsa's 'AC' is framed as an accident waiting to happen by the audience and everyone essentially runs out of the room. This is something like the heralding of electracy in the industrial revolution.

Angier also sacrifices everything--money as well as the woman who loved him--in order to get the secret (that is not really secret)--he fails to realize that the exchange is not possible-- the secret is worth nothing --the trick becomes ordinary, the sacrifice becomes ridiculous.

Transporting Man--Sacrifice of Excess

Led astray by Borden, who gives him the key word "Tesla" to his diary (which he fabricates and gives to Angier's ex-assistant--who Angier has sacrificed for the secret. Angier has also sacrificed the memory of his dead wife--the person one thinks he is out to get revenge for--he says "I don't care about my wife I care about his secret"--he sacrifices her memory), Angier goes to America to talk to Nikolai Tesla and asks him to build a machine that will transport him from one place to another. But Tesla's machine doesn't quite work the way its supposed to--seemingly not doing anything to a hat they try it out on.

The hat should signal to the viewer something they had seen before. The very opening of the film is a shot of multiple black hats on a hillside, with a voiceover that says "are you watching closely." If we are watching closely, or at the very least, if we have already seen the film, we DO know where these hats go every time. Thus, the opening of the film is addressed to the viewer (or reader) in the same manner that both Angier's diary (that Borden reads in jail after he is framed for his murder) and Borden's diary (the diary that puts him over the edge and kill Borden) are addressed to the other person.

The problem with the machine is that it does not TRANSPORT a man with no remainder--but actually DUPLICATES him. We find out that for Angier's trick to work, he must kill every double of himself in a tank (symbolically repeating his wife's death over and over again--Nolan films the scene in exactly the same as the initial drowning. Clearly, this is no longer about his wife's death--or at least, in some sense, it seems he is responsible for the death).

Thus, the machine--the scientific machine that ends all illusion, appearance, and trickery is actually responsible for several murders. The EXCESS created by the machine (or the duplication of Borden and his twin) cannot be maintained in Angier's current mode of living. . .we have to get rid of the excess, hide the excess, which is also the secret because the secret would ultimately terrify us. . .

The original excess--the two Borden's--are also too much for this world. The Borden in jail really does die and hang, despite his last word being "abracadabra." At the same time, Cutter has led Angier to the basement to dispose of the machine (reminiscent of an Edgar Allen Poe story), knowing that the other Borden will come and kill him.

One Borden1 and the Angiers have been killed--the film ends with a typical happy scene of Cutter, Borden2, and his daughter--once all the external (accidental) elements have been eliminated, life can go on as normal and all is well. . .

Connection to Mountain Top Removal

In a recent article in Scientific American, there is an article on a photographer who has taken strangely beautiful pictures of "landscapes of Extraction: Industrial Impacts Mar the Planet." Here is one of the photos that discusses Mountain Top Removal:

This article mentions the idea of "overburden":

OVERBURDEN: That is the industry jargon for the rest of the mountain that lies over the precious coal—hence all that needs to be removed. Here at Kayford Mountain in West Virginia, bulldozers scrape away the residue of the mountaintop. This last stand of trees disappeared in less than a day, turned into "valley fill"—more industry jargon—that buries streams and levels hollers.

Thus, the "mountain" becomes excess, 'overburden' that must be controlled and disposed with. Not only the Mountain, but the coal cannot be sold in its pure extracted state, as I mentioned in my post on coal slurry. The coal requires cleaning, that ultimately creates more excess stored in various places unsafe for human beings. Excess will not be tolerated. . .or at least hidden. . .it is the SECRET of our standard of living--it is the SACRIFICE to our standard of living.

If we are looking at this from the perspective of the gift-economy, it won't do to just ignore/hid/dispose/murder this excess that is essential to the "trick". . .we must find a way to address it. . .this surely must be part of my fatal strategy.

The question is how to escape the utilitarian, clean logic that the pop culture film endorses?

"No one cares about the man who disappears (the man in the box) only the one that comes out the other side"

Monday, February 7, 2011

Terrorism and the Hostage

Theory Instructions(?)

Reading for Instructions

I think I am beginning to understand this "reading for instructions" thing. Rather than try and make sense of everything myself, I have looked for possible ways that Baudrillard can be instructive in our creation of the fatal strategy.


We already know that Baudrillard is going to instruct us to look at the object. The object in our case is our particular accident. The object is a "poor conductor of the symbolic order" but a "good conductor of the fatal"--the gods (read: the sacred) can only live in the inhuman. Taking a jab at Christianity, B. argues that the "God-Man is an absurdity" So this is one instruction: focus on the object/accident, but from the perspective of the accident--as if the accident "wants to happen." As Baudrillard writes, nature may be indifferent to men, "but it is not indifferent in the fact of making itself into a spectacle through 'natural disasters' (223). This connects with our Target because Virilio does not make a distinction between man-made and natural disasters. I would argue he focuses primarily on the 'object' (the twin towers--not the terrorists).


But what about further instructions? I think it has something to do with restoring signs to their power. If we are going to read our accident as a 'sign', then we need to ask what kind of sign--a sign with or without a signifier?

This is done, in general, by seduction--but not by one's own attempts at seduction, but the object's fascinating ecstatic seduction. Seduction teras you from your own 'desire', returning you to the world and restores power to signs. So how might we do this specifically?

If we have lost the 'scene' where the magic happens, we have to look for a new kind of seduction--"vertigo of obscenity" (149). It is this kind of obscenity that Marilyn Manson seems to get at in m(Obscene). I think he may be saying that their playful eroticism is much better than what is accepted in our society (you want commitment/put on your best suit/get your arms around me now we're goin down down down--an ambiguous lyric).

In Baudrillard's narrative:

"And so the cruel story of the woman to whom a man has written a passionate letter and who asks in her turn: 'what part of me seduced you the most? To which he replies 'Your eyes' and receives by return mail, wrapped in a package, the eye which seduced [. . .] nothing is worse than to utter a wish and to have it literally fulfilled; nothing is worse than to be rewarded on the exact level of one's demand" (152).

Thus, "destiny becomes specific: at a given moment, at a given point, SIGNS BECOME OBJECTS, impossible to turn into metaphors, cruel, without appeal [. . .] They cut short any decipherment, become confused with things" (153).

And again: "words, emptied of their meaning, begin to function as things" (190).

And ok, maybe I was thinking that this also relates to the Torino/Torino scale association.

Words cease to be things at h)and--they are like Heidegger's broken hammer--staring us in the face in their brute materiality. . .

The CATTt method--questions and concerns

I am a bit confused about the function of the blog. The blog, as I see it, offers two modes of writing: the first structure uses the blog as one would use a diary, recording the narrative of our thinking. This includes tentative connections that don't really fall under  a particular heading or subject. This would use the blog as a linear medium.

While this is the structure I take with the email, because of the 25 post requirement, my blogs tend to use each entry as a way to explore a particular topic/concept. For instance, with Baudrillard I will have separate blogs on seduction, the obese, ceremony, and terrorism. I think this is more true to the heuretic method since we will eventually probably take one of these moments as an instruction. Furthermore, this is a different mode of thinking than what I refer to as the 'narrative' mode and as such differs from one continuous diary entry. This takes advantage of hypertext.

The problem I am having lies in my hermeneutic approach to texts. I want to make connections, struggling with the "meaning" of the text, rather than breaking it up into separate sections. Baudrillard himself asks us to be more "discerning" so perhaps my problem ( is I am trying to collapse these contents into a series of connections that will eventually make sense.

I just read through Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge and, like Baudrillard, he is interested in mapping out the dispersions rather than  connections that form an intricate but closed system. Though I haven't read Deleuze on Foucault, I think I understand why he likes his thought considering his concern with "lines of flight" and dispersion/creation of concepts. Perhaps I should approach B.'s text in this way and it will help me with reading heuretically?