Particulate arising from study

Clocks for Deep Time

The Long Now Foundation, founded by Whole Earth Catalog editor and technoculture entrepreneur Stewart Brand, seems on its face to be a working example of Jussi Parikka’s call to conceiving of time and space more deeply. Among its archival projects and TED-Talk like seminars, the foundation has conceived of a few strategies for how to conceptualize a future that extends for 10,000 years rather than merely that of the human lifespan or a market cycle. While many of its endeavors fall blatantly short of that goal, the organization’s central public face is that of a clock, to be built inside a mountain in the Nevada desert, which will (it is supposed) endure for ten millennia producing occasional and ever-changing music.

There’s something conceptually beautiful about the idea, even though I have difficulty imagining it as anything but a eulogy for the sixth mass extinction event or an apology to whatever form of life might emerge in that timescale to apprehend it. Perhaps its something about the remoteness of the desert that primes the mind to think of dirges, or it’s the fact that the clock is designed to run with the assistance of its human visitors, or without them. More fundamentally, it might be rigidity at which the clock is set to mark time that disturbs me, the holding of the second and the hour firmly in hand far in advance of what might well be the end of these concepts’ utility. The clock thus seems to embody an optimism for the conditions of the present that implicitly limits the imagination. Deep time isn’t clock time, at least not in the sense of the steadily ticking second hand.

I wonder if a different clock, the doomsday clock that came out of the nuclear crises of the Cold War, might provide the better tool with which to think and act. Maintained since 1947 by a consortium of scientists, the clock advances and retreats relative to midnight. Time here is plastic and responsive, equally full of a vast past and a dire present. This equation seems to me to balance the tension between the unthinkable scales of human history and the decisive capacities of present action. Perhaps we need a deep time with a deadline.


Adorno and the Vitality of Critique

The closing paragraph of Theodore Adorno’s “The Culture Industry” is a rousing one:

“But freedom to choose an ideology, which always reflects economic coercion, everywhere proves to be freedom in the same. The way in which the young girl accepts and performs the obligatory date, the tone of voice used on the telephone and in the most intimate situations, the choice of words in conversation, indeed, the whole inner life compartmentalized according to the categories of vulgarized depth psychology, bears witness to the attempt to turn oneself into an apparatus meeting the requirements of success, an apparatus which, even in its unconscious impulses, conforms to the model presented by the culture industry. The most intimate reactions of the idea of anything peculiar to them survives only in extreme abstraction: personality means hardly more than dazzling white teeth and freedom from body odor and emotions. That is the triumph of advertising in the culture industry: the compulsive imitation by consumers of cultural commodities which, at the same time, they recognize as false.”

-pages 135-136, Jephcott edition

While I was initially enchanted by this passage due to the caustic pleasure of Adorno’s sweet, sweet burns, what’s making me linger here a little longer is the rich intellectual lineage buried in this tiny paragraph. Walter Benjamin’s influence is immediately felt in Adorno’s discussion of technically-conditioned route behaviours and affects, developed throughout the essay and bearing witness to Adorno’s long role as correspondent, mentor, and failed savior of the ill-fated German writer. After having completed a seminar devoted exclusively to Benjamin’s fragmentary works the semester prior, it was charming to encounter the immediate legacy of Mr. Bungle himself, enduring (if uncredited) in the work of others in the decade following his suicide.

Similarly, just as one extends into the past to contextualize the excerpt, the lineage of this work extends forward as well, as the parts about “the apparatus” and the pervasive influence of disciplinary discursive surely bring Michel Foucault to mind. The philosopher’s archaeological method, a fair bit more rigorous than Adorno’s uncompromising critique, brings the depth of history to the project initiated here, while Adorno in turn might be seen to make Foucault’s Marxist sympathies a fair bit more explicit than often apprehended by the casual reader. While Adorno’s notorious hatred for jazz seems to be happily disabused in every re-reading of this essay in seminars around the world, I don’t think we often pause to note the continued legacy of his thought in some of the most complex Leftist thinkers. There’s a power, perhaps a reassurance, in watching ideas endure and transform both themselves and the field open to their readers.

This last point brings me more directly to the charge of the text itself: the problem of Adorno’s present–one that is still an under-acknowledged challenge of politics and theory today. How does one make interventions, or think even subversive thoughts, when the ideological language of politics is nullified and political choice is largely a dead end? This darkly deterministic note on which Adorno ends his work is often a bit too grim for the student to bear gladly. The usual platitudes that Adorno does not sufficiently allow for agency certainly ring true, as do accusations of a stifling sense of nihilism if one is to take this text as inert doctrine. Yet, for all the temperance of absolutes that are called for here, to what extent do these accusations rise above the mere reaction to an unfortunate truth?

While reading this text certainly impressed upon me the necessity of Culture Studies’ intervention into theoverly simplistic or classed and raced handling of culture by the Frankfurt School, I still see enormous value in seriously taking up the question Adorno poses for the scholar, even or especially in the unforgiving light of such negativity. I’m reminded of Karen Barad’s assertion that agency is something that one does, not something that one has. Accordingly, it strikes me that the Adorno’s assessment of the Culture Industry (and so much of it resonates with contemporary media politics and political discourse!) illustrates that critical thought faces a momentous challenge. Critique is not merely given, its very action is a performative one. Like Searle’s early thinking on the term, speaking against capitalism requires one to create a language and a culture in which this thought can come into being. More than just Marx’s affirmation of a ruthless critique of everything existing, critique (if it is to be effectual, if it is not simply to be a foregone and illusory choice in a marketplace of ideas) requires creation. Perhaps this is the comfort and energy I take in the task of tracing the intellectual histories that run through this text; they are a testament to the capacities of thought to continually change the conditions of knowledge they are describing.

Klein vs. Klein -> Queer perspectives on ecology

These themes culminate in the last full chapter of the book, “The Right to Regenerate”, in which Klein draws parallels between her own fraught attempts to conceive a child amid the stress of modern urban life, and humanity’s wider inability to value nature or emulate its gift for life. “As a culture,” she claims, “we do a very poor job of protecting, valuing, or even noticing fertility—not just among humans but across life’s spectrum.” This conviction leads her to ask: Is “it even possible to be a real environmentalist if you d[on]’t have kids?” While many environmentalists in fact fall into a similar, opposite, trap by morally abjuring natalism, this argument of Klein’s expresses reproductive futurism—a myopic focus on producing (proper) children and thus a (proper) future for humanity—a politics of the baby’s face.

Reproductive futurism devalues the queer and the now, including the potential desire to refuse to reproduce—or at least, to have a conversation about how and what is reproduced. It denies the intrinsic and equal worth of, as minor Klein puts it, “exiles from nature.” Major Klein’s reproductive futurism leaves the private form of the family largely unquestioned, the essentialism of the term “Mother Earth” almost unscathed, and the primacy of “fertility” intact.

Major Klein’s reproductive futurism also reflects a romanticism hinging on a “natural” life-domain somehow separate from capitalism. But capitalism is not, unfortunately, purely a logic of “short-term economic growth” that has been imposed by some (predominantly) middle-aged white men upon a separate, rich biotic world whose fundamental logic is long-term growth, circular regeneration, or life. In fact, in so many ways both capital and reactionary thought are premised on forms of “regeneration”; from razing public housing under the guise of “urban renewal,” to “right-to-life” activists opposing abortion, to the UN-led “carbon offset” forests that Klein critiques, where indigenous people are driven from their homes so that industrial activity elsewhere can be counted as “sustainable.” Capitalism is not something antithetical to nature but, to steal a phrase from Jason Moore, a way of organizing nature. Nature cannot express, in any unsullied way, what we are fighting for. We cannot simply affirm life, but must always ask: What forms of life? For whom?

Again, there is a minor Klein who is on the cusp of exploring such a “monstrous” conception of a nature by naming a “kinship of the infertile,” which we read as solidarity with non-reproductive lifeforms. This Klein’s openness to the complex desires of the dispossessed—including the desire for consumption, collective luxury, safety, “development,” and freedom from “shitty” work—show an occasional attunement to the already technological, entangled, human-nonhuman character of nature: a cyborg Earth. Recognizing the cyborg Earth does not condemn us to technofixes like geoengineering, but instead decenters maternity and makes room for the “unnatural,” the technological, and the nonfertile among the “we” coming into being in the struggles in Blockadia.

Cyborg Earth is not a foregone concession to evil technoscience but a site of struggles over the “commons” just like any other. A cyborg everything-ism reorients us towards practices that repurpose existing technologies and organisations of nature through bricolage—the art of making do with what is at hand. The minor Klein hints at a more hybrid, anti-austerity sensibility of this kind, that does not recoil from these “monstrous” entanglements of human, nonhuman, and technological natures. This Klein is doubtful about her desire for pregnancy and implies that if ecological crisis changes everything, surely it changes the institution of the family too. Disappointingly, the priority of incorporating a non-reproductive politics into the “regenerative” struggles of anticapitalism vanishes at the very moment in the narrative when Klein, at last, conceives a viable baby.

– an excerpt from the Out of the Wood collective’s review on Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, over at the New Inquiry. Please do read the whole piece. It is perhaps the best analysis on contemporary ecological thought that I’ve encountered, and happily avoids the whole lite/bright/dark green categorizations.

Upcoming Talk at Theorizing the Web

Below is my early abstract for Theorizing the Web, a very progressive conference that will take place here in NYC from the 17-18 of April. My talk will be a brief summation of the research I conducted for my MA thesis, with all the art junk scrubbed from it. If it interests you, I hope you’ll come or tune in over the livestream. (Hit me up afterwards for the art junk bits, if that’s your thing).

Techno-Autism: Confronting the Ableist Ideals in Media Criticism

After many years of hype and celebration concerning the Internet’s capacity to foster novel and enriching forms of sociality, many critics of recent years have described a converse, disabling effect on the rise. Autism, with its preference for indirect communication and seeming withdrawal from the vibrancy of embodied social exchange, has been frequently invoked as a metaphor to describe the tenor of digital sociality. In the work of Sherry Turkle or Anne Balsamo, for example, one finds the assumption that human relationality as a whole is becoming problematically autistic as more and more of it is mediated through technologies that defer the demands for immediacy in time, place, and attention that otherwise characterize face-to-face conversation. This condemnation by way of analogy to a disability, however, invites careful reflection on the ableist assumptions that underlie this concern. What unexamined ideals underpin our definitions of human sociality and mediation, and what is the cost of their defence?

Focusing specifically on the relational challenges and alternatives autism brings to bear on models of interpersonal communication, this paper traces the historical and contemporary intersections of relational impairments, networked communication, and forms virtual reality. Using a disability studies approach, this discussion details the often conflicting demands of feminist and disability studies media scholarship, suggesting that early debates about the role of the body in VR and digital communications often served to exclude people with relational impairments from a foundational idea of human ethics. This paper will also provide a parallel account of autistic online communication, illustrating how autistic media, whether literally or metaphorically understood, still provide ways of successfully relating and building communities even if the aesthetics and grammars of these forms of communication are not immediately legible to outsiders as such.

As media alter the forms and meanings of social contact, producing revisions to long-held social norms, there is an opportunity to make the defensibly human a more inclusive category. By acknowledging the merit of a plurality of human communicative capacities, media criticism can stand to be more descriptive rather than reactionary. If the Internet is “making us autistic,” then perhaps there is much to be learned through productive exchange, in considering this form of relationality as different but not necessarily diminished way of being human.

See the SSEC In Action

I was delighted to finally get my hands on the 1952 film Walk East on Beacon, a noir of questionable merit that has the distinction of featuring the SSEC in a minute-long cameo. Uploaded here is the scene in question, in which the patriotic scientist makes a breakthrough of great import (only later to be extorted by wholly unconvincing Soviet sleeper agents).

Of great interest to me is the speed of the flashing lights on what appears to be the SSEC’s sequence relays. How could this visual information be meaningfully interpreted by the human eye? Could its engineers pick up even the grossest pattern in its whirling activity? Why, moreover, did the designers include and so neatly order the lights? Was this intended to serve any purpose other than mystification?

The IBM Symphony

I thought you might enjoy Vittorio Giannini’s IBM Symphony, comissioned for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The event and IBM’s president were jointly committed to the idea of world peace and prosperity through free trade, and the symphony was one of many spectacles dedicated to this theme.

Listen as the tumultuous passages of the initial movement gives way to a rousing, if not entirely artistically meritorious, blend of national anthems and company song. Ever onward IBM!

Inside an Electronic Brain


“In appearance, a digital calculator–SECC, for instance– is a large chamber or more whose sides are glass enclosed panels of electronic tubes. When SSEC is at work, the panels blink furiously with a click-clacking sound, a galaxy of noisy glass stars in a glass sky. Standing in this chamber with the IBM motto, THINK, emblazoned over the doorway, visitors sometimes remark that they feel not like a man with a brain inside him, but like a brain with a man inside it.”

– John Kobler, “You’re Not Very Smart at All,” Saturday Evening Post , vol. 222 no. 34 (Februrary 18 1950): 111.

Observations on Photography

stereoscope observer

Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (1990) presents a distinctly Foucauldian notion of visuality. Refusing to take the intellectual history of sight and visual culture as biologically given or solitarily evolving over time, Crary instead argues for an approach to vision at the intersection between historically-determined epistemological imperatives and technological forms of bodily discipline. Formed through a “set of relations between the body on one hand and forms of institutional and discursive power on the other” (3) Crary argues that vision’s changing significance and fields of possibility may be best examined through different intellectual models and accompanying corporeal techniques rather than a narrow focus on the content and style of representation, as evinced in more traditional forms of art history. Crary’s model of breaks and ruptures in historically-constituted visualities is thus also a departure from the norms and objects of his discipline, creating a novel and highly productive approach to the study of sensory modalities within media and history. However, this innovative step towards new methods and analytic tools arrives neither without fault nor precedent. As suggested by a deeper examination of the implications of Crary’s claims, his ideological model of photography and its observer stands to contradict much of the force of his own argument. By returning to the earlier thought of Roland Barthes an important supplement can be found to expand and enrich Techniques of the Observer’s claims. Barthes provides to Crary’s work a model of individual photographic observation through which the process of subjectification and its exceptions can be better perceived.

Key to both author’s accounts of visuality is an insistence on the primary importance of the present possibilities for the viewer rather than a complete survey of the minutia of the viewed. In Crary’s work this takes the form of an analysis of the “observer”: a visual subject who is already an effect of discourse and is thus also “the field on which vision can be said to materialize” (5). Methodologically, this object of analysis is thus assumed in Crary’s text as the instigator and result of philosophic, scientific, and medical attempts to define the mechanisms and imperatives of vision, more precisely located through discursive analysis than journalistic or diaristic accounts of mass sensory practices or deviant cases. Crary’s observer, described somewhat abstractly in the language of ideal types, thus presents a rather hegemonic model of visuality, a limitation that Crary himself freely admits (7). What it allows the author in exchange, however, is the means to conduct a sweeping account of the changes within European visuality between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.

This historical scope is characterized in terms of two oppositional models for vision and subjectivity, with a rupture occurring in the first half of the nineteenth century that marks the switch. The first, or classical model of visuality is explored through the exemplary technology of the camera obscura, described by Crary as an assemblage of material techniques and enunciations through which philosophers and scientists explained both the optical mechanics of vision and the rational, interior model of the self (27-33). Crary parallels the body’s marginalization within the dark camera with the era’s larger “metaphysics of interiority” (39) by which thinkers such as Descartes described the transcendent rationality of the mind over the foibles of the exterior and embodied world (48). This model of the “individuated” self (39) expresses a heavily juridical orientation towards phenomena, whereby the observer, secure in his own reason and self-discipline, may pass judgment on the validity of perceptions  as they appear within the mind’s camera, ascertaining truth on the basis of the security of his own interior fact (42-43).

This model of sight and subjectivity is to be contrasted in the latter half of Crary’s book by the emergence of new discourses that brought interiority and optical truth into question. Rather than a passive, disembodied process of sensory perception, the new observer of the nineteenth century found themself an inexorable and corporeal participant in the production of visual effects, eroding any claims to objectivity or self-discipline they might have previously enjoyed. Such qualities, if they were to be secured in the age of “uprooted” vision (113), were to be won through emerging technologies and techniques that worked on the observer’s body, rendering it docile in the Foucaldian sense (15). These discursive operations, wrought in part through the ascendancy of the science of physiology (81) and the emergence of perceptual toys (116), allowed for a greater scrutiny of both the senses and the self’s efficacy and embeddedness within material and technological structures (16). Such efforts coincided with and served the needs of an industrializing Europe, whose burgeoning productive requirements provide Crary with the epistemological engine to drive this discursive shift (85). “A more adaptable, autonomous, and productive observer was needed in both discourse and practice—to conform to new functions of the body and to a vast proliferation of indifferent and convertible signs and images” (149).

The stereoscope is Crary’s prime candidate as the nineteenth century’s equivalent to the camera obscura’s organizing metaphor. This new form of visual entertainment, with its demand for bodily participation, was isomorphic to developing philosophical and medical understandings of sight and self. By disciplining the disparate images of the stereoscope’s display, observers ordered their own bodies, regimentally focusing their gaze and postures through the device (129). “Correct” vision in this assemblage was achieved through the immanence of eyes and apparatus working jointly to compensate for each other’s deficiencies (129). Despite this arrangement’s apparent artifice to Crary’s present-day reader, to contemporaries of the stereoscope such as Hermann von Helmholtz its visuality was one of exemplary verisimilitude (124). This implies that at its ascendant moment, the experience of vision through the stereoscope may have been radically dissimilar from our own, suggesting the pervasive reach of discourse’s bodily and perceptual conditioning.

Given both the stereoscope’s potent sensory and explanatory power as well as the persistence of much the same economic pressures of modernization throughout the subsequent century, it is thus puzzling that this paradigmatic technology should suffer a decline. Consequently, the close of Crary’s title chapter is perhaps the most unsatisfactory of the book, for it faces the challenge of explaining how stereoscopy met its end and how photography was left holding this particular smoking gun. Rather than the epistemological force that drove technological and philosophical developments in all instances within Crary’s prior narrative, this blow appears to have been struck through guile; “photography defeated the stereoscope as a mode of visual consumption…because it recreated and perpetuated the fiction that the ‘free’ subject of the camera obscura was still viable” and “preserved the referential illusion” of the image’s signifier and signified (133). Crary’s account seems to imply that tired observers, overwhelmed by the visual and subjective challenges of modernity, longed for their own deception and successfully obtained it through the photograph’s chicanery.

The validity of this interpretation is suspect for numerous reasons. First and foremost is the tenuous independence of stereoscopy from photography. Writing in a field overwhelmingly populated by teleological histories of photography and cinema, Crary’s focus on the stereoscope is quite exceptional, and thus it follows that he would need to defend a claim that “its conceptual structure and the historical circumstances of its invention are thoroughly independent of photography” (118). Even if this is the case (and photography’s differing provenance is nowhere investigated in the book)[1] the stereoscope’s use and forms cannot be easily extracted from that of photography since the former technology is inexorably a mediation of the latter, older form. Consequently, the chronology of Crary’s account is questionable and this reveals a significant downside to his retreat from visual content as a site of analysis. A thorough examination of stereoscopy’s photographs would be useful to this end.

Additionally, further questions can be raised by scrutinizing photography’s alliance with the same bodily forces manifest in the rise of stereoscopy’s nineteenth century observer. After all, daguerrotypes, with their luminous surfaces and monochromatic palettes, required their own perceptual techniques for observation as well as newly disciplined and durational modes of appearing before the camera. Photography, moreover, historically evinces a deep involvement with the history of physiology, both as a disciplinary prosthesis to human vision and as a tool for spanning greater stretches of time and space. From Muybridge’s serial photographs of motion to anthropological records of physiognomic samples, the technology powerfully worked on the discursive production and circulation of bodily types, often through a colonial logic of surveillance and productivity. In such cases, even as the visual apparatus for production effected a retreat from the perceptual fusion of the stereoscope’s techno-corporality, the photographic gaze was nevertheless felt in the reproduction of observer’s corporeal signs long after the fact. If, as Crary suggests, the photographic camera succeeded in inheriting the camera obscura’s relationship to mimetic indexicality, this was also accompanied by a metonymic function through which the image of any person could stand in relation to the observer. Composite photography, advertising imagery, and pedagogical aids are just a few examples of these invitations for visual extension and comparison.

Photography, by consequence, cannot be so easily excluded from the study of the nineteenth century observer, though its integration does present several mutations to Crary’s original framework. To this end, and in an effort to benefit from the fruits of methods excluded from Techniques of the Observer, Roland Barthes Camera Lucida (1980) provides an excellent supplementary account of being an observer of photography. While the philosopher’s modern and deeply subjective meditation on his own fascination with the medium lacks the historical richness of Crary’s analysis, the two books are not so dissimilar in their core ambitions. As Barthes writes, “I want a History of Looking” (12) and he provides an excellent case study to attach to Crary’s own.

Initially, Barthes book does give credence to Crary’s suspicion of the photographic camera’s continuities with older models of organizing the self and sensory experience. The camera obscura’s mimetic powers persist in the photograph’s strange capacity to confuse representational object and referent, and indeed it is this very quality that so appeals to Barthes and drives him to conduct his investigation (7). This referential power, however, proves also be a site of perpetual frustration for Barthes-as-observer, for his sense of interior subjectivity, “my (profound) ‘self,’” (12) fails to be satisfactorily captured through photographic means (12). The camera, in operating on the body and providing its subject the opportunity to gaze upon their own image, continuously erodes the security of an interior sense of self by objectifying and alienating those that it captures. Barthes’ description of his ontological transformation through the medium is rife with images of violence and death, allegorizing the workings of photography on his sense of subjectivity and the security of his body over time (14). This profound disturbance, to both the observer and to a larger history of visual practices, may be dulled through the photograph’s visual monopoly. “The… means of taming the Photograph is to generalize, to gregarize, banalize it until it is no longer confronted by any image in relation to which it can mark itself, assert is special character, its scandal, its madness. This is what is happening in our society, where the Photograph crushes all other images by its tyranny” (118). One thus arrives at a similar outcome as Crary’s Foucauldian path, though Barthes’ emphasis on ongoing mechanics of circulation and control would suggest that this visual discipline is not quite the fait accompli Crary ascribed to the nineteenth century. As an epistemological struggle, Barthes’ characterization of photography’s maddening effects on subjectivity attest to the fact that the metaphysics of interiority did not end as abruptly as Crary’s account might imply. Instead, photography can be seen to continually facilitate the subjectification of observers in tandem with modernity’s intensifying circulation of images.

Even when outside of the camera’s viewfinder, when merely taking stock of its products, the observer is still affected by the continuance of disciplined modes of looking. Reflecting on the many thousands of photographs he has seen, Barthes describes his observation as one of polite attention, a form of cultural participation that he calls studium (26). This observational mode is formed from as a result of both the medium’s ubiquity and its forms of practiced looking as he notes “what I feel about these photographs derives from an average affect, almost from a certain training” (26). Like Crary’s suggestion of the nineteenth century’s “rebuilding of an observer fitted for the tasks of ‘spectacular’ consumption” (19) Barthes describes the traces of his own visuality in terms of the ongoing outcome of a discursive discipline.

Yet, to both Bathes and earlier commentators on the regimentation of vision, the estrangement and dulling of the senses may still produce dissenting ambitions. Just as the twentieth century philosopher longs “to be a primitive, without culture” in his investigations into his own visuality (7), Crary notes how the nineteenth century art critic John Ruskin quested after “a kind of primal opticality… a purified subjective vision, of an immediate and unfiltered access to the evidence of this privileged sense” (95). What Ruskin would partially uncover in greater visual abstraction, Barthes locates in his own immanent emotional response to certain photographs, in the experience of an unexpected poignancy in excess of his cultural training that he describes as punctum (27).

This mode of affective observation, occurring on a highly personal level by way of evocative details and their Proustian remembrance (45), brings the observer into renewed participation with the image. Rather than the kinesthetic and perceptual activity of Crary’s stereoscopic subjects (120), Barthes’s emotional and personal histories enliven the photograph (“it animates me, and I animate it”) (20). The resulting experience, curiously, appears to be in excess of the visual and all its cultural technologies; “once there is a punctum, a blind field is created (is divined)” (57).

In addition to blindness, punctum is often described through the language of wounding and unmaking. To Barthes, the experience that of “an intense immobility” (49); “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me)” (27).  Given that Barthes’ first person, as extended from his reflections on the disorientation of being photographed, speaks from a fragile but ongoing assumption of interiority, one can assume that the subject that is violated by punctum, that is unmade through the affective intensity of memory, is this vestigial classical self. Punctum’s immanence and intensity of experience would thus foreshadow the same Deleuzian subjectivity that Crary will later return to in his book as a mode of thinking through the loss of sensory autonomy in the nineteenth century (66). Despite these initial similarities, however, Barthes’ punctum is more alive with possibilities outside of hegemonic discourse or an economic imperative than Crary’s disciplined masses. Photography, as a site of interpersonal meaning, mourning, and presence, cannot be wholly inscribed within a disciplinary rationale or even the specificity of sensory perception.

It can thus been seen that, through his attentive study of coexisting modes of regimentation and affect, Barthes’ highly subjective account of observation stands to further an understanding of both the hegemonic power Crary attributes to visuality in the nineteenth century and photography’s supposed independence from this trend. While a certain form of studium or subjectification conditions the visuality of a particular time and place, the individual experience of images abounds with multiplicities and exceptions. Barthes’ exploration of affect as an essential component to photography challenges the allegiance the medium supposedly holds to classical epistemological models, while also suggesting a space in which imperatives and deviations from the modern may arise. Barthes is thus correct to associate photography more with the camera lucida than the camera obscura, for despite all its hegemonic powers, in the minutia of individual consumption and experience it stands to frustrate the clear or constant delineations between interior and exterior, mind and body, or self and other in any secure permutation of sense and subjectivity.


Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. 2010. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Translated by Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang. Originally published 1980 by Éditions du Seuil.

Crary, Jonathan. 1990. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: MIT Press.

[1] Geoffrey Batchen’s Burning With Desire: The Conception of Photography (1999) provides one such account from a similarly Foucauldian perspective that situates photography in much the same role as Crary’s stereoscopy: a historical effect of timely epistemological crisis.

The Insufficiency of “It’s Political”

Here’s an important alt review Biella Coleman’s new book Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, particularly if you, like me, have been a little vexed by internet scholarship that stops with “it’s political.” Thanks Adrian Chen!

(There’s also a bit of an ad hominem rebuttal going round attacking Chen, which is never a classy way to argue your point, and really fails to address Chen’s critique.)

From Your Valentine, the SSEC

curiouser and curiouser

Popular sources, including Columbia who were so intimately involved with the history of the device, identify the SSEC as the titanic computer in the February 11th 1961 New Yorker cover. I’m not so sure; by this time the SSEC had been long decomissioned to make way for faster IBM machines in the company showroom. The proportunes of the calculator, its colour scheme, and the architecture of the interior, moreover, are off. If there’s anything SSEC-ish about the image, it’s the visual vocabulary-cum-hyperbole that the device seemed to set into motion for cartoonists and set designers across the country.

Behemouth towers of tapes, blinking lights, and reels filled the popular imagination of the American 1950s and 60s, and the SSEC was arguably a primary source for this aesthetic. In addition to the sleek photographs that followed it successful media debut, IBM consented to cameo the computer in the 1952 noir film Walk East on Beacon!, a cold war spy-thriller that I’m very much looking forward to watching. A further appearence of a sort can be found in Desk Set, a Katherine Hepburn rom com from 1954 that reportedly used the SSEC as a model from which to design the film’s major plot device, the EMERAC: a corporate computer set to productivize a broadcast company and antagonize all its employees in the process.

It’s curious, then, that the New Yorker selected such an intimate moment to display between the giant, futuristic machine and its aged worker (the rest of the office presumably made redundant in its wake?). Young women were far more germane to the promotional imagery of the computer, moreover, such as Betsy Stewart’s deft handling of the SSEC in secretary-like fashion during its public debut.


The New Yorker cover, conversely, seems to take us into the future of this image. The computer secretary, now wizened with age, receives a token of affection back from the machine that she has attended to for so long. In contrast to the vivid anxieties at play at the time concerning the thinking power and autonomy of the emerging technology, one in which through sheer rationality and super-human speed electronic calculators would come to subordinate their keepers, the valentine shows a rather different capacity for thoughtfulness. The warmth of the woman’s desk lamp and smile do much to humanize the electronic brain. IBM, however, would not begin to realize the importance of such gestures until later in the decade.