Sunday, June 28, 2009

Currency : Critical :: PowerPoint : Political

I was recently forwarded an email with a PowerPoint presentation designed to lambaste big government spending by showing how much space a trillion dollars would take up. The presentation ends with a satirical trillion dollar bill on which President Obama's visage appears, and it reads "The United Socialist States of America."

But can such a presentation actually function as political commentary? I don't think so—at least not precisely. First off, this jab at Obama reminded me all too well of the 9-11 bill that ridiculed President Bush and pronounced ONE DECEPTION in place of ONE DOLLAR.

A quick Google image search yields dozens of such sardonic monetary notes from a range of historical moments and national registers. It would appear, then, that this is something of a trope: the use of currency to call into question the acts of certain political figures. But what does this trope suggest about the (perhaps misplaced) belief in the truth value of currency? Do we really believe everything we see on a 'real' dollar bill? Is this 'everything' even knowable, or must it remain partially cryptic—or at least infinitesimally semiotic—in order to preserve the metaphysical qualities of exchange? We know that the value of money is hardly stable, and that the 'truth' of money is a social product, made and remade everyday. So why call on the figure of money as an oracle?

To use currency as a template for divining any final truth exposes a misconception: money always lies in the sense that it abstracts value—the reason that it works is because we agree not to dwell on the abstractions in question. What does the dollar value on my paycheck really, finally, reflect about my actual work? Nothing very specific or unique to me. It is curious how something as fundamentally bland as money can become so tied up with the alleged sanctity of the 'individual' in certain political camps. What are people standing for when they invoke the rights of individuals to control their own money? Individuals, or money itself? What do we expect from money? In a way these are simple questions, I know—but these questions also hinge on complex psycho-social relations. (I guess this is properly called economics.)

Tom McCarthy's recent novel Remainder hinges on money, too. In the opening pages, the narrator is awarded a large settlement after an undisclosed accident; he envisions the amount as such: "...I thought about the sum: eight and a half million. I pictured it in my mind, its shape" (8). The figure of money permeates the novel, and ends up somewhat spoiling the mise-en-abyme conceit of the narrative. In short, money ruins this novel by becoming an increasingly plentiful and correspondingly uninteresting plot motivator. It would seem that McCarthy's contemporary novel and the Obama trillion dollar bill have this in common: a staggering amount of currency inspires only to snuff out the possibility of making any clear critical point.

Tangentially related, and perhaps even more intriguing to me than the money, however, was the medium contained in the email forward. (Email forwarding is itself a peculiar media form to consider where individuality would seem to be at stake, but that's another matter.) The presentation arrived as a PowerPoint, a program that, like most others, presupposes faith in a social system that is working. Thus, against the glib apocalypticism in the trillion dollar bill presentation, the medium is supposed to stand strong and true. PowerPoint is a new media form that must be 'fleshed out', as we say—and I mean this quite literally. What do people actually do with (or get from) PowerPoint? How do audiences respond bodily to these presentations? How do people take in slides that transmogrify before their eyes? How do words work (or fail to work) in this space? David Byrne raises such questions implicitly in his Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information, art pieces that utilize PowerPoint to show how medium and message are inescapably intertwined:

As Byrne's artwork suggests, have a lot of hard thinking to do before we can assume that ubiquitous software can be politically explicit.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

On Driving

Driving the long haul across southern Texas today I was reminded of the Coen brothers' excellent adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's equally excellent novel No Country For Old Men. In a way, this film is as much about driving around Texas as it is about drug money or an unstoppable killer. The Coen brothers captured these driving scenes with a "perceptual acuity" (ala Elaine Scarry) that makes the film both ominous and ordinary. As I drove along today I kept finding myself thinking about these less dramatic yet integral moments of the film, and I snapped some images of these vistas with the handy camera phone:

One might read McCarthy's novel as an updated version of his earlier work Blood Meridian, in which a less than Romantic Western frontier network of trails and towns is simply replaced with a more contemporary geography of meandering highways offering views that make one wince while driving, endlessly driving into horizons that seem eerily the same mile after mile: progress in the making.

Friday, June 5, 2009

interests converge

Many of my current interests converge on the cover of this week's New Yorker:

Air travel, ecology, post-apocalyptic imagery, book reading versus the new media technologies...this illustration serves as a cipher for a host of anxieties and consolations around the contemporary moment. There is a wish for aliens; but also a wish for them to be like us. There is a desire to see ecological recovery at the expense of human civilization—and a desire to see this from a removed, as if neutral perspective. Nostalgia for the old, tattered book depends on a pile of rubble in the form of the new media technologies (screens, keyboards, cell phones, e-book readers).

The New Yorker cover presents a modern take on Shelley's "Ozymandias": a story of ruin rendered in bright colors, positing annihilation in order to preserve an old form of reading (this is, after all, the summer fiction issue). Instead of the mise-en-abyme of first-person speakers who we meet in Shelley's sonnet, in this illustration we get to see the lonely reader at work—and he looks happy, his spaceship hovering nearby. To rephrase Wallace Stevens: the reader became the book, and the post-apocalyptic day was like the conscious being of the book.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Technologies R Us

The USA Today reports on The Dumbest Generation and presents a sort of counterargument. The basic concern is whether social networking sites like Facebook are making Generation Y students 'dumb', or whether such practices are simply (and complexly) retooling the ways of being 'smart'.

In many ways I find myself in a third position in relation to the two writers who are quoted in the article. This is a lively debate across the humanities, and it is almost too easy to take either side of this seeming divide: to be nostalgic for skills and habits that are allegedly locatable in some past moment in time, or to argue for different kinds of smartness across different times. Not only is it too easy to take one of these sides, but in fact these sides are incommensurable, and so they end up not really forming a debate at all, but more accurately exposing two different ways of understanding 'the world'—not to mention 'history'. The largest problem in this article, however, is the seemingly clear and distinct idea of 'technology'—which boils down to meaning either A) stuff that humans make that takes them away from some mythical pure origin, or B) something irreducibly bound up with humans and the world from the start, and therefore hardly a useful term at all.

For isn't a spider's web a 'technology' of sorts? The looping, grabbing tendrils on a vining plant are technologies too. And the ceramic bowl is a technology that likely changed eating patterns at some point in human history no less dramatically than text messaging is changing communication patterns now. The point is that the word 'technology' might not be helping this discussion: we would need to be much more precise about how specific things in the world affect specific acts of behavior (and not exclusively in relation to humans). Then we could at least agree on what we are talking about.

As it is, the idea of 'technology' functions as an inscrutable force, either to be wary of and resist, or to submit to and be absorbed by—either way, this word completely misses the point that there is no location from which humans could ever get a clear view of technology, for even the brain and the eyes are themselves always already little technologies for seeing and knowing, and here we are, enmeshed in the whole matrix from the start. We would need to talk about very specific things that bother us or interest us. How contemporary college students use personal devices that seem in friction with a book-based literature classroom—now that might be interesting. Or how contemporary students are engaged in ongoing, expanding communication networks that challenge linear narrative structures—that might be interesting, too. But these need not be antagonistic lines of inquiry, as the USA Today article seems to posit them.

In the American Studies course I am currently teaching called "The Ecology of Beauty," my students did a photography project in which they were required to grapple with how they understand themselves in relation to 'nature'. I think that one particular student's photo gets at some of the complexities of the technology question at hand: