再談巴特勒:物質化操作、女性主義策略與後結構主義的極限


黎子元 LAI Tsz Yuen


作者簡介
黎子元,香港浸會大學人文及創作系博士候選人,研究課題為法國數學結構主義思潮和當代哲學的實在論/唯物論轉向。《測繪香港藝術地形——12間當代藝術機構訪談》(香港·域外文化2011年)編著者。09年以來從事文化評論和當代藝術策展。


In contrast to Butler’s feminist strategy of ‘penetration in reverse’, namely, to disturb or undo the masculinist institutions in terms of the improper entry by the excluded, the excessive feminine, I would proclaim a reversal of feminist reversal, that is, to penetrate (enter/formulate) the excessive feminine, which is indiscernible, unpresentable, and transgressing, i.e., the materiality qua materiality, by means of constitution of a new materialism conditioned by mathematics, providing logical schemas that are capable to confront with the multiplicity, the contingency, the inconsistency, and the incompleteness.


*圍繞巴特勒《Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’》的導論及第一章,學會在五、六月舉辦了「研讀巴特勒」的讀書會和研討會。本文為這次研讀的摘要與總結。感謝參與研讀的25位書友,especially thank Charmaine,她在關於伊拉格雷的報告中嘗試釐清她和巴特勒的理論關聯。



建構與物質化

女性主義者堅持「性別(gender)」是後天建構出來的,批判父權體制下的社會文化如何在人的天然本「性(sex)」之上銘刻出性別認同,就仿佛有一種被稱為「文化」的建構之力在如同表面的「自然」上邊寫寫畫畫,將這個原來處於文化之外的、天然純潔的「本源」以文化標記玷污了一樣。這個被動地接受塑造的本源代表著女性特質,而那股強迫加諸其上的力量無疑代表著男性特質。

建構主義者所秉持的觀點,即存在著一個前文化的自然根源,與(反對或部分反對建構主義的)唯物主義者的信念,即存在著一個先於建構、不可被化約的物質基礎,如「性」的物質性(the materiality of sex),其實如出一轍。這個使唯物主義者感到安心的顯得堅實可靠、不容置疑的物質基礎被視為人類一切社會存在和文化活動的底座。他們質問建構主義者:哪怕「性別認同是建構出來的」可以被接受,那麼「性」的物質性,例如器官、荷爾蒙、染色體上的兩性差異,總不會也是被文化建構出來的吧?

然而,無論「自然根源」還是「物質基礎」都並非「第一性的(primary)」,相反,它们是思維進行「設定(positing)」操作的效果,即以劃界和排除的操作來建構出一個前文化的、不可理解的(unintelligible)「外部」,其實是一種對建構的建構(the construction of construction)。這樣一來,反倒使得「自然根源」和「物質基礎」變得恍如虛構,又或者充滿形而上的神秘色彩。

從思維設定的層次上看,巴特勒指出,承認不容置疑的「性」或者它的「物質性」恰恰已經是承認某種關於「性」的說法,某種「物質性」的構造方式。正當我們試圖指涉一具天然純潔的身體的時候其實已經參與了對這具身體的進一步的形構。換句話說,並不存在可以置身事外的「自然」和「物質」,只有建構出「性」或者「物質性」的持續的、反復的過程——「性」或者「物質性」的存在並不先於這個過程。而這個過程便可以稱為「物質化(materialization)」。恰恰是這項操作經時間固化而生產出邊界的效果、穩定性和我們稱之為「物質(matter)」的表面。巴特勒宣稱,不僅是性別,性同樣是被建構出來。而這裡問題的關鍵在於「建構」是什麼意思?

巴特勒反對流俗的建構主義和樸素的唯物主義(她指出二者已經被後結構主義所重構),把研究的問題意識轉向物質化操作。她進一步指出,這種物質總是寓於物質化過程中的觀點應該與福柯意義上的規範強力(regulatory power)的生產性或物質化效果相關聯,以便考察「性」得以物質化的規範準則,以及性的物質性之所以被視為既定事實(given)假設和鞏固了怎樣的規範性條件。持續的、反復的性的物質化過程並非沒有缺口和裂縫,相反,它在重複運作之中總是包含著建構的不穩定:總是有些東西逃脫或超出了規範,有些東西不能被規範的重複運作所完全界定或固化。巴特勒從這種不穩定中看到了重構的可能性,使性變得固化的各種效果有可能被撤消(undone),而各種性規範聚合而成的體系也有可能被導入生產性危機當中。



柏拉圖的邏輯圖式
通過征引伊拉格雷(Luce Irigaray)對於柏拉圖的策略性閱讀,巴特勒闡明了一種物質化操作的邏輯圖式(logical schema),即柏拉圖在《蒂邁歐篇》(Timaeus)建構的宇宙生成理論作為一個形而上學體系,為達至體系的自我維繫必須將「過量(the excess)」排除在體系之外,而該排除作為一項操作則擔當了整個體系得以順暢運作的前提條件(precondition)。這裡的「過量」就是一種不可被理解、不可被表征、混亂無序的女性特質,即「the excessive feminine」,其作為不得不被排除出形而上學體系的「外部」,實則是該體系得以建立和維繫的隱秘「內部」,即「the constitutive outside which is already inside」。伊拉格雷通過反復詰問柏拉圖的形而上學排除了什麼,讓這種過量的女性特質得以被揭示出來,這也就暴露了形而上學體系內部的男性特質與女性特質的二元對立僅僅是一種操作的效果——二元對立中的女性特質不過是一種鏡像(the specular feminine),一種受到男性特質主導和編配的對象。

柏拉圖費盡心思,一再否認過量女性特質的本體論地位(即否認其「存在」)。首先,女性特質自身不具備形式,而必須經由形式的進入來生產現實事物。這種女性「物質」因其沒有形式而算不上是現實事物,只能是「the receptacle」或者「the chora」,其特性只在於接納。儘管現實事物從中誕生,但對於生產具有決定作用的終究是形式,即男性特質。其次,作為「the receptacle」的女性特質「絕對不能」與男性特質有任何相似之處。「The receptacle」因其沒有本體論地位,不能被定義,所以「不應該有」恰當的名稱,無法被準確言說。總而言之,這「不可名狀的」就被配置為不可能卻又是必要的「位置(site)」以待穿透(penetration)與銘刻(inscription)。

 
女性主義的「回穿」
柏拉圖形而上學中的物質化操作深遠地影響著西方哲學的發展(其影響甚至可以在弗洛伊德和拉康精神分析理論中看到)。經由這種操作,哲學家建立起一整套「陽物中心主義經濟(a phallogocentric economy)」,一整套具有生產性和物質化功能的「異性戀矩陣及規範性約束(the heterosexual matrix and the regulatory constraint)」。從柏拉圖開始,物質早已是「有性的物質(the sexed materiality)」。大概「性」的物質性早已被「有性的物質」所負累。

面對菲勒斯經濟學,伊拉格雷的策略是承認女性作為被排除的「外部」,並經由一種解構性的模仿(而非複製),即重複引述柏拉圖的文段以詰問什麼遭到排除以及移置柏拉圖對本源的移置,來顯示這個外部作為體系的必要前提其實已經內在於體系,而體系的完整性(封閉性)和它所引以為根據的形而上學基石並非毋庸置疑。巴特勒質問:是否應該任由女性「壟斷」這個被排除者的位置?伊拉格雷理想化地將女性放置在這個對體系具有威脅的外部,那麼,這個外部的外部是什麼?在她的分析中,又是什麼遭到了排除?

與明確主張「表層性慾」的伊拉格雷不同,在閱讀過程中巴特勒發現了一個批判地模仿陽具性慾,採取「回穿(‘crossing back’ or ‘penetration in reverse’)」策略而非「反穿透(anti-penetrative)」(即反對進入而堅持位於表面)策略的伊拉格雷。以此為啟示,巴特勒激進地構想了一種模仿男性穿插、卻對於異性戀規範而言實屬「非法」的進入方式(the improper entry)——「逆轉模仿(reverse mime)」。通過施行女性被嚴令禁止的行為(在設定上她原本只能接納),從而顯示女性與男性的相似性(這種相似性是柏拉圖費盡心思給予否認的),以及男性特質作為「本源」的可疑(如果相似性是可能的那麼這個本源就並非不容爭辯)。當以下事實被暴露,即男性秩序並非理所當然,它僅僅是排除和禁止的操作產生的效果,從根本上依賴於那些其必須排除和禁止的東西,結果將是異性戀性別秩序的擾亂、撤消,以及在性別差異的戲劇中一系列不同角色的誕生。

不同於伊拉格雷,巴特勒的策略是不將女性配置成唯一的外部——事實上就沒有單一的外部,而是去聯合各個領域中被排除、遭禁忌的他者,經由一系列倒置模仿,形成由各種具有差異的外部聚合起來的對被模仿者(主人話語)的佔領與逆轉。在這個意義上,被排除的事物並非負面的、消極的,它們是任何一組對立所必然產生的外部,顯示出任何真理體制所包含的必要的、基礎性的暴力。而在巴特勒看來,這些必要的外部恰恰可以被重新配置成「未來的視野」,致使「排除之暴力(the violence of exclusion)」可以處在不斷地被克服的過程當中。最終目標不是建立一種損害差異的單一論述或權力中心,而是保存外部(the preservation of the outside),保存體制所無法表征並對體制的連續性造成根本威脅的東西,也就是保存擾亂、重構固有體制的各種物質化及再物質化操作的可能性。


總結:後結構主義物質觀的極限
在上個世紀末,巴特勒通過批判流俗的建構主義和樸素的唯物主義,揭示出二者所設定的先於文化建構的「自然根源」和「物質基礎」的形而上學性質,這與當前齊澤克對「客觀現實」的否定(不存在客觀現實這種東西!),對「物質形而上學」的駁斥相互呼應——齊澤克指出,當代的唯物主義應該是一種揚棄了物質形而上學的唯物主義,「a materialism without matter」。藉助這種批判,巴特勒所提議的以「回到物質的概念(the notion of matter)」來取代「建構」的研究進路,其實際意義就是轉向對「物質化操作」的研究,考察物質化的前提條件與操作過程。基於其問題意識的當代性,即回到對「物質性(作為一種操作)」的思索,巴特勒堪稱當代唯物主義哲學的引薦者。

然而,她自身的後結構主義局限卻從根本上禁止她成為一位唯物主義者。從她的後結構主義立場看來,物質(matter)在話語建構之外便沒有重要性(身份、地位、狀態),儘管她所理解的話語建構作為一種她聲稱的「物質化操作」已經力圖從對於「建構」的流俗理解中脫身。而問題的關鍵在於,「將作為物質本身的物質(the materiality qua materiality)哲學概念化」從來就不在她的問題意識中——既然物質作為對於語言的「過量」無法以語言文字表征,那麼面對這個「不可能」,思想和言說也就無能為力了(唯一可行的只是圍繞這種過量發展出解構的策略)。巴特勒終歸被20世紀的語言哲學所規限(conditioned)。

倘若當代唯物主義哲學無法批駁巴特勒的後結構主義立場(在後結構主義陣營中,巴特勒無疑是最值得閱讀和與之論辯的了),那麼這種唯物主義便是不必要的。為此我們需要探索一種不同於語言的概念化方式,從思維的語言限制中脫身。拉康承認:「像數學般形式化是我們的目標、理想」。巴迪歐則宣稱,「無論如何我們的唯一準則是:哲學必須通過數學來進入邏輯,而不是從邏輯進入數學」。如果我們將數學視為一種辯證運動,那麼便可以理解德勒茲所肯定的數學的普遍性:「數學在其他領域中的任何可能的應用都不成問題。」建立一種以數學為條件的唯物主義哲學成為當代哲學的任務。而這項任務可以被視為對女性主義回穿的回穿,即以一種能夠處理差異、多樣性、偶然性、不一致、不完整的邏輯圖式穿透/洞察那不可被理解、不可被表征、混亂無序的「過量的女性特質」,「the materiality qua materiality」。





#05 Reading Judith Butler


Part I  Reading Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter, Introduction & Chapter One


導讀: 黎子元 LAI Tsz Yuen


黎子元,香港浸會大學人文及創作系博士候選人,研究課題為法國數學結構主義思潮和當代哲學的實在論/唯物論轉向。《測繪香港藝術地形——12間當代藝術機構訪談》(香港·域外文化2011年)編著者。09年以來從事文化評論和當代藝術策展。


在《蒂邁歐篇》(Timaeus)柏拉圖將「女性」及其身體的物質性(the feminine)與「容器」(receptacle)的概念相連結,來建構關於宇宙生成的形而上學原則;而自西方哲學傳統建立之日起,「她(們)」便成為形而上學體系——這個徹頭徹尾的陽性宇宙(masculine universe)無法解決的麻煩。哲學家總是試圖將女性「物質/事情」(matter)排除在體系之外,但這些不可被明確表述和不為理智所理解的過剩之物(excessive matter)卻註定會隨機地前來侵襲、擾亂體系的運作。The feminine is the excess of the masculine universe.

從柏拉圖開始,物質早已是「有性的物質」(the sexed materiality)。因此,當我們討論「性」/「身體」的時候,便不能止於討論「性之物質」而必須反省「物質之性」。There may not be a materiality of sex that is not already burdened by the sex of materiality. 由此可見,不僅「性別」(gender)是建構出來的,「性」(sex)同樣逃不出權力關係與話語建構。我們要如何在話語界限上談論「性」,或者談論「性」的話語界限,如何思考總是越出思想與話語邊界的身體/物質?這就是朱迪斯·巴特勒在《Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’ (1993)》提出的理論難題。

簡介會 (面向浸會大學同學),2016.5.18. Wed, 10:30-12:00, 香港浸會大學何善衡校園方樹泉圖書館 Learning Commons,討論內容:(1)身體與話語;(2)何謂建構,閱讀範圍: Preface

第一次研讀,2016.5.21. Sat, 10:30-12:30,香港浸會大學何善衡校園邵逸夫大樓(RRS)628室,討論內容:巴特勒的問題意識,閱讀範圍: Introduction

第二次研讀,2016.5.25. Wed, 11:00-4:00, 香港浸會大學何善衡校園方樹泉圖書館 Learning Commons,討論內容:西方形而上學批判,閱讀範圍:Chapter One

第三次研讀,2016.5.26. Thu, 11:00-4:00, 香港浸會大學何善衡校園方樹泉圖書館 Learning Commons,討論內容:西方形而上學批判,閱讀範圍:Chapter One (完成)



Part II  A Specular View of Matter: Reading Luce Irigaray with Judith Butler


hosted by Charmaine Carvalho

Charmaine Carvalho is a PhD candidate at the Department of Humanities and Creative Writing at Hong Kong Baptist University. Her research interests are gender studies, feminism, popular culture and the construction of selfhood. She is working towards a dissertation on the fashioning of the “single Indian woman” in Indian chick lit novels.

In Chapter One of Bodies That Matter, Judith Butler launches her exploration into the materiality of bodies by going back to the notion of matter in Classical Greece mediated through the work of Michel Foucault and Luce Irigaray. Foucault’s Discipline and Punish offers Butler a way to “understand the schema of bodies as a historically contingent nexus of power/discourse”. However, Foucault misses, according to Butler, what is excluded from materialization, a question taken up by the feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray.

The long middle section of Chapter One is dedicated to Butler’s rehearsal of Irigaray’s reading of Plato in her audacious book Speculum of the Other Woman. In this talk, I will introduce Irigaray and some of the core ideas in Speculum and the Other Woman, in in which she questions the dominant paradigms in epistemology, metaphysics and psychology. Irigaray’s radical argument offers both a diagnosis of the impasse that she says has prevented women from being subjects and a strategy for subverting what she calls the phallogocentric economy.

Butler takes her cue from Irigaray, but offers an alternative reading of Plato’s Timaeus as instituting a taboo that constitutes what she calls the “heterosexual matrix.” I will also touch on Butler’s response to Irigaray and her critique of grounding politics in matter.

Time: 3:00-5:00 pm, June 2, 2016

Venue: Room 628, Sir Run Run Shaw Building, Ho Sin Hang Campus, Hong Kong Baptist University





A Materialist’s Stories about Media:

A Brief Overview of the Materialist Positions in Media Studies


Cao Xuenan 曹雪楠


About the author
Cao Xuenan, Ph.D. student of Program in Literature, Duke University
I am interested in forms of (im/inter-)mediation in the technology of communication, for instances, internet, television, and physical transportation. My current project explores the logistical aspect of digital communication, which is an attempt to explain the much-debated “post-modernism” in aesthetics in contemporary China.



Introduction

Materialist positions have recently gained currency in media scholarship, much in a trend to turn away from the linguistic focus that communication studies has inherited from the critical theory and social science contexts. This turn is a search for the missing stories that social science studies and Marxism-guided critical analyses would not seek with their legitimate questions which place their focus on the agency of media and subjectivity of their human users. Stories of mediation (as opposed to with media) are obliterated. This essay is a walkthrough of several dominant positions in this turn, connecting theoretical pieces traversing contemporary philosophy, political economy, and quantum physics on the “materiality” of mediation, hopefully hereby reformulating some of the problematics in media studies.

 

I.

In 2007, an anti-satellite missile test launched from China has caused a foil in the international communities, especially among those who perceive the test as a prelude to further threat to the “neutral” outer space beyond the earth’s atmosphere. The debate about the anti-satellite test is ostensibly centred on the technological artefact of satellite. But the concepts about space and about material presence and political-economic calculations of interests behind euphoria of disinterested scientific theories are more entangled than the earth-orbiting object of Satellite would usually manifest. It is not uncommon to consider the device as one of the most advanced for providing mass communication and data collection – artificial satellite not only connects individuals with its massive capacity of bandwidth, but also supplies globally-synchronic broadcast and supports remote sensing and global positioning service. In these discourses about satellite, the orbiting object is a figural embodiment of most Euro-American based technology behind the mass media scene around the globe, both locally and universally asserting its dominant terms in both technical standardization and political deployments.

If a materialist approach is thought of as merely a turn away from the linguistic focus, such stories as told above would only serve as the backdrop for analysing the contents and the production of meaning on the media platform. This turning to the material substances in communication process focuses on the devices, while the technical objects which are usually left out: communication devices often make no appearance in textual level of media contents, seldom considered in its own terms a part of the production, circulation and reception of content, and even if it has a presence in the political economy of media industry, it would at best be in the far background – because media are considered as instrument or platforms for politics to unfold. The materialistic and the linguistic viewed as a dichotomized pair favours the approach to media as instrument. In other words, devices are viewed as methods, subjected to the text which is carried by it or the forces that moves behind it.

To view the studies of media in these two traditions – the linguistic and the materialistic – in fact leaves materialistic perspective to a reactive role. In this dichotomy, the materialist perspective would not be the most apt for answering questions about the democratizing or liberating potential of media, as in inquiries about “what is the media specificity?”, “how does certain medium or convergence of different medium allow for practices of creativity?”, “what is the governmental imperative behind the media scene?”; or questions about the cultural circulation, as in “how are the contents produced and received?”, “what are the factors in the circulation of meanings?” and “what is the singularity of the creation and circulation of a certain cultural form?”, or questions about subjectivity, as in “what kind of inter-/sub-/collective subjectivities do the media form produce?” The question of media is left underexplored. In other words, by asking the above questions one is more invested in specifying the characteristics of media and the kind of practices media is an instrument for, than concerned with the internal logic of (im-) mediation.

Is satellite a device, an instrument for the voice that is given it and the potential that is made available for exploration, or can it be an entity on a conceptual level that tells the nature of connection and mediation? If communication devices are treated in themselves only as a technical object for use, the answer to the above question would be cut short. The other interest in bringing up the case of satellite is to show technologies and devices are both the foreground behind which concepts about materiality and forms of existence have accumulative effects on the forms of mediation they engender. Not necessarily as an instrument, satellite is among the most prominent yet invisible artefact that defines the standardization and imagination of a technically enchanted space and material presence in space. But to explore this aspect of media, one needs to turn to the very nature of connection and mediation.

II.

How can one tell a story of media instead of that with media? Or, how can media be theorized in their own terms, instead of as a background or carrier for other politics to unfold? What can be said about media’s bodies instead of what media embody? These questions are still too arbitrary and distant for the present, and a comparison of different ways to tell a materialist’s story must be made before one can specify what new questions can various materialist perspectives stimulate in the field of media studies. To juxtapose the different questions that could be asked with materialistic starting points is an effort to understand how come the turn to materiality sometimes is often thought of as reactive.

As said before, the above case of satellite communication can in fact be told with attention to particularly one kind of materiality in the current politics of media. That is the concrete, meaning-imbued material contour of a technical device, in which the device is a participating unity, a coherent object and subject, in a media scene. The anti-satellite missile test is an example of how, both on the textual level and on the political economic level, that problematics of media and forms of mediation emerge.

On the textual level, in numerous ways did China attempt to talk back to the west, most evidently seen in the China Can Say No book series and the recent follow up in the China Dream books. But it is this time through “talking back” by the anti-satellite that the western powers most generously (and furiously) reciprocated the communication. On the political economic level, the demonstrated vulnerability of satellite communication by the anti-satellite missile test itself is an assertion and a self-affirmation, cashed with International Monetary Fund’s independent capital, in the established Euro-American dominated market of satellite communication which has amassed domains of mobile communication, GPS, broadcast and global internet connection into its empire. In addition to the intrusion of an abstractly defined “free-to-all” outer space in Outer Space law, a concept heavily loaded with US cold war policy, the scattered, physical debris of the test satellite, the materiality of a kind that can only be categorized as alien as outer space rubbish do not blend well with the physical environment of the outer space. Such heaviness of the substance that still floats in the outer space echoes hardly with cultural imaginations and political economy of the satellite communication.

Actor Network Theory (ANT) captures one aspect of the role of the material presence of technical device, since it draws the attention from human agency to the agency and active role of a device itself. The agency of the device lies in the prescriptions of behaviour embedded in the substantial presence of it. The heavy material presence of a book (or in fact the print medium), its weight and its physical position, its cultural meaning of meaning preservation and transmission are part of the prescription of the human behaviour of referencing and storing it. What is yet lacking is how this active role can be played out not with cultural prescriptions, but a role which is intrinsically grounded in the very physical existence of the object itself.

The case of telecommunication (which is presently at the heart of media studies, including researches on radio, telephone, television and other various satellite-based telecommunication industries like the Internet) is different from that of print. Print culture persists in the era of new media with its peculiar mythical investment, that though being perishable and fragile, the physical bodies of books can safeguard and give certain grandeur to the ideas recorded in them that will surely outlast the physical print. In telecommunication, there is not such sentimental investment in the perishable carrier of ideas. The set of telecommunication seems to be imbued with a fascination of only the functional kind. Take again the example of satellite communication, the conception of material component of telecom systems needs the naming and the identification of certain material object with a specific function. The difficulty of dealing with the materiality of telecommunication is that the art of connection and communication seems to be achieved without the guidance of and bounding with fragile materiality, even though electromagnetic signals cannot exist without the material parts on terrestrial linkages or by satellite links. After all, how can one deal with the agency of the material object of media which are culturally imagined as immaterial?

This difficulty dates back to the inception of telecommunication with the invention of telegraph in 1837. The history of technology presents with this difficulty certain image of telecommunication that carries on to the current day. The instantaneous transmission of electromagnetic signal through copper wire became the references point of disembodied writing, for signals transmitted alone one telegraph cable can be registered by nearby plates without physical connection to it. The differentiation between the material entity and the abstract, logistical command gave birth to a new condition of writing letters – signs are modulated and calculated, turned into code. The production of signs was technically channelled through the creation of codes.

But even with the extra substance-related layer added to communication by the importance of coding, the communication process is still imagined as an immaterial undertaking. The advancement from copper wire to optic fibres to satellite-based transmission has, in technical terms, a purpose to replicate the circuit in “wireless” open air system with controlling devices. Because the open air environment is considered naturally imbued with the potential of signal transmission, material components are merely for the purpose of stabilizing and expanding the communicative capacities. The “wires” are installed just for better control of the essentially “wireless” situation. This contributes to making the role of pipes and pieces a subordinating one even though they are the backbone of connectivity.

When information is consumed, the satellites and dish converters are simply not as much commodities charged with fetishist desires as the signs and meanings. In other words, materiality is subordinated to communication. The material base of communication refers only to the physical carrier and preservation of signals, i.e. the materiality of the medium form, but not the medium itself. Postmodernist sensitivities seldom turn to the less spectacular objects of communication.

Accordingly, materiality matters only when it becomes a limitation to the performance of the medium. Numerous instances when the “free” space of live broadcast is intruded because of the shutting down or the cutting off of device objects by private parties or by government. A communication network is easily subject to the manipulations of its material component. Also, since there is no guarantee of the lasting performance of devices and equipment, like all electrical and electronic components, part of the system will inevitably fail and paralyse the links of communication. Indifference turns into difference when the negativity causes a stoppage of the communication process. The materiality become the incumbent downside of what otherwise could be a smooth connection between things and people. This is the negative potential of the material, as opposed to the positive potential of information.

III.

The Marxist approach to materiality of media emphasizes the other facet – the active, positive role of the material, objective condition – tilting the focus towards the political economic conditions of technical devices. By no means am I claiming that there is one single perspective that Marxism offered. The historical conditions in which Marxism was understood have shown to theorists of various interests that Marxism is plural since it offers connections between not only class relationships and capital, but also the dialectical movement between capital and technology. The different voices raised against and for Marxism are evidences of such plurality of Marx’s theoretical framework. Whether in his framework media is a technological agency for historical development, or as an instrument of capital abstract, or a mediator between workers and capital are undetermined[1]. Marx’s works seem to suggest all of these perspectives, and to reduce his theory to either one of these perspectives towards media would fall short in comprehending what media were for Marx.

What can be sure of is that at least two focuses emerged out of these perspectives. One is the cultural studies’ focus on the political economy of the media industry, which converge with media studies that treat technology as an instrument for political messaging. The other focus is more complicated in its understanding of the role of technology of media. Since media are part of the institutions that install and create the desirable subject in the capitalism machine, the technology supporting the media makes available certain type of manipulation. Working with the manipulation of desire euphemized by the economic principle of utility maximization, however, what are left unspecified by this approach are exactly the experiential implications of material condition. In other words, the question left open is how the material condition exerts its impact on the level of consciousness, be it consciousness of human or a post-humanist kind of consciousness. To continue to answer this question, one must treat materiality as a dialectical stage in which something else must emerge and function.

Recognizing technical frameworks as part of the modern media-technical condition, theorists like McLuhan and Kittler have made their comments that media have taken the place of arts. A general sentiment on the rise of “the culture industry” is to criticize the impurity of art, or “art with commercial content”, which was made prosperous by the then increasingly diversified and specialized service provided by the “liberalization of telecommunication industry” in the 1990s. But without the melancholic tone over this interception of technology over arts, McLuhan and Kittler extended scrutiny of how technology, like art, has performed similarly in their roles of mediating reality. McLuhan in ways of taking media characteristics as more original, and Kittler by considering the phenomenality conditioned by media as prior to the aesthetics and technics of the media form; both theorists attend to the substantial elements in mediation, both presumes experiences as mediated. And being quite different from the Marxist approach, McLuhan’s aversion to dialectical approach in his dealing with media has caused the criticism his being called a determinist.

Somewhat standing between the determinist and the dialecticians, Mark Hansen points out that the theoretical difficulty of studying media is exactly that there seems to be the incompatibility of and oscillation between the materiality and the phenomenality. Hansen’s strategy to overcome this difficulty is to specify technical specificities which conditions the experience and subjectivity, by a combination of Foucaultian historical a priori and Deleuzian transcendental empiricism. Behind these concepts, the important question is how certain historical condition, coupled with the inherent character of the material conditions, grands certain experience of the world. Hansen’s theoretical exploration seems to be more invested in the phenomenality of media than the immediate reality of materiality itself.

Besides these approaches, for media studies in age of telecommunication, materiality could be understood together with the computational nature of communication. In general, the uniqueness of telecommunication is that it has two bodies, one based on the body of electric signals itself, which include the language and the passages through which signals are coded and parcelled, and other based on the carrier of electric signals, which means the physical entities that allows the transmission of signals, like cables and transmission devices. If the materiality of the telecommunication system components does not tell the whole story of materiality, the question would be how to account for the materiality of signals and codes themselves. Kittler distinguishes himself from previous efforts by lending his post-humanist sensitivities to his investigations on computational ontology of signals. This approach will be discussed later in conjuncture with Deleuze’s theory.


IV.

To return to the question on the materiality of signals and codes, their existences are elusive because they not the tangible reality but none the less a significant part of media. Similarly, digital media is often characterized by the myth of its loss of material indexicality and its sole emphasis on virtuality. Laura Marks dispels such myth by locating the five types of materiality (she calls them “the bodies of digital media”) which a digital medium operates through and depends on. These bodies are first conceived on the quantum level, that subatomic particle (such as electron) has a life and operation of its own, and does not depend on anthropomorphic references. She draws heavily from the development of quantum physics, which implies that on the quantum level particles communicate and operate in a way which can only be shown in our current knowledge through the Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle[2]. Secondly and thirdly on the hardware and software level, transparency is a promise of optimal operation with little instabilities[3].

This problem of transparency and virtuality was installed since the beginning of the history of telecommunication technology with the commercialization of telegraph[4], without much direct acknowledgment of the dependency of such “immaterial media” as are culturally described depends on the enchantment of space with substantial matters. Shortly before telegraph was patented by Morse and his alliances in the United States, in the continental Europe in 1831, Michael Faraday describes “magnetic curves” as lines of magnetic forces, and in 1862, James Clerk Maxwell adds a substantial tone to these invisible but active girds, calling them “the physical lines of force”[5]. Space could be electromagnetically charged, and become this active body that can be manipulated to transfer signals. This property of the space was discovered and put to use. From the logistic point of view, it is necessary to have a parameter for changing kinetic energy to electric flow defined the pragmatics of the field. The measure “Hertz” means frequency, calculated by cycle per second, that is the rate at which kinetic energy turns into electrical one in magnetic field. The frequency at which signal can travel constitute the band, i.e. the road, of this type of traffic. The road is not immaterial, for it depends on the matters that are naturally given in the air, seemingly unbounding the spatial emphasis of telecommunication from sovereign boundaries. Meanwhile, across the Pacific, the patent holder was attempting to put telegraph under federal control, even though without success.[6] These failed attempts to map the rout of telegraph to sovereign map and for governmental use left the expanding telegraph network in the U.S. in private hands for a long time in history.

In both Europe and America, because of the blindness of electromagnetic fields to sovereign territories, telecom networks, be it wired or wireless, could pose potential threat the territoriality-based administration. On wire-based networks, transmission of signals are guided and regulated by the actual cables or fibres. But on wireless, or unbounded networks, transmission happen not by directed connection of two points by physical objects but rather in the air or “free space”. Radio is one example of unbounded transmission, because connections are established in the open air. Satellite-based transmission further transforms the topologies of communication.

This blindness to sovereign territories was sensed by many and made famous by Paul Virilio when he first called it “deterritorialization” in his The Insecurity of Territory, and again picked up by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guatarri in A Thousand Plateaus. Hence the concept of deterritorialization entered the circulation of culture discourses and performed like an epitome for nomadic movement, even though movement of signals may not look as nomadic, since states politics are closely weaved into protocols governance.

Put aside the question whether it is legitimate to migrate a concept from technology directly to culture, the popularity of seeing the deterritorializing potential of matters in space is revealing of a need to find in the material existence of the “open air” the communication potentials. Put differently, there is certain affinity between the liberalizing spirit in the discovery of materially enchanted space for telecommunication and the need to extend the spatial metaphor of deteritorialization to various political actions. How this affinity actually plays out as definite linkages is complex and involves the circulation of ideas of different fields. For the present I will only go into the philosophical ground on which such linkage is made.

The idea of how the mass or the material is the source of creativity stems from two traditions[7] in the philosophy of physics. The first one considers material inventory and the essential property of it as the base of laws in physics. This nomological view has a metaphysical expression of the law of nature itself. The second grounds the empiricism tradition. The Humean skepticism claims that the transcendental necessity of nomological order is a fiction itself, and concepts are only received as truth with certain patterns of thinking taken as a priori. The senses of the world itself serve as the basis for the experience of an incomplete coherence and dynamics.

Physics at the bottom of telecom technology is placed right in the tension between these two traditions: between objectivity and probability. The world view of the former tradition is in the transcended laws of the nature and that of the later is the non-predictability and probabilistic nature[8]. The indeterminacy of either kinetic or dynamic essence is enwrapped by the concept of electromagnetism, which accounts for the dynamics and material aspects of things, including mass, charge, motion and space-time: a particle in telegraph process moves on a cable line in space with a finite speed in a motion of alternating between two directions (motions of waves) at random instance of time; the probability density (the description of the possibilities distribution) of a particle’s position and direction of movement at a time instant is calculated to describe the distribution of telegraph process. The data of the physical process yields probability and the improbability (or chances) of particle activities.

Gilles Deleuze claims to have found a way of connecting the nomological with the empirical approaches to materialism in his transcendental empiricism: “I have always felt that I am an empiricist, that is, a pluralist.”[9] The pluralist view of empiricism[10] takes the indeterminacy as the transcendental rule of nature. This transcendental culture shares striking similarity to the practices and beliefs in quantum physics. Michel Bitbol argues that the meta-contextual language of objectivity and probability are unified in the development from electromagnetism to quantum physics. In his language, it is called “the transcendental status of decoherence” [11]:

“The problem is that, being a theory of physics, quantum mechanics has a vocation of universality. It is truth that it supposes for its formulation, and no doubt for its interpretation, the setting aside of a meta-theoretical background made up of experimental set-ups and phenomena described according to the norms of classical physics. But as we have seen that, in a transcendentalist context, the setting aside could have no other significance than a purely functional one.”[12]

Expressed otherwise, what is universal is the recurring probability of particle indeterminate activities, or the “chance”. To Deleuze, the material itself can “think” by “chance”. Thinking here means a process different from what we colloquially referred to as thinking, rationalizing or contemplating. This philosophical analogy of the probabilistic nature of creativity has borrowed from the science of the 20th Century, where the nonlocality and indeterminacy are recognized as part of the transcendental aspect of existence.

In a very similar stands to that of Deleuze, Kittler describes the generation of information in Shanonian mathematical communication theory in its inherent noise, countering the intuitive understanding of the systematicity and coherency in information production. Reading Shannon against the proposition of reducing redundancy in messaging, Kittler explicates that engineering problems in communication are not noise, but are issues of mimicking the probabilistic nature of noise. “The maximum of information means nothing other than highest improbability”[13]. In other words, information is only possible because of “chance”, and the inherent “noise”. For the same reason, control is needed. Noise is not to be reduced or removed, but “modulated”.

Since modulating and calculating the noise are inherent parts of communication processes, especially in analogue signals, why assign a negative connotation to this generative process by calling it “noise”? Reducing noise is of particular interest only to certain space telecom applications, especially because minimizing the signal power is a consideration. Put differently, noise is perceived as a waste of energy when, for example, the longevity of communication satellite is fuel-efficiency dependent. This is why control is needed and manufactured into the communication process. In addition, the probabilistic worldview and the need for instalment of control have contributed to the development of cybernetics, which dwells on the automatic feedback control system.

This chaotic nature requests a different representation from that of human originated systematic representation – a computational language is called for. To Deleuze, a universal language between the ontology of things is possible, basing on his concept of the “univocity” which he appropriated from Duns Scotus[14]. The language of matters itself is the universal one that needs no representation or interpretation, i.e the uni-voc[15]. The language is known to matters themselves, as they operate in their own worlds. What can be captured of this uni-voc is represented by mathematics. Read with Kitter’s zero-dimensional subject that exists beyond representation and subsumption into wholeness, critique against Deleuze, such as that by Alain Badiou, who claimed univocity is a transcendental and totalizing One[16], would then read like a mistaking of Deleuze’s materialistic view for an aesthetic one.

By this univocity, communication is represented not by language but by mathematical algorithm. To Kittler, this mathematical representation of things is exactly the Lacanian Real[17], in which the signs of the symbolic order is finally abandoned and the Real resurface through pure “zero-dimensional” digits. Lacan’s subject is always capped by thresholds and “subjective errors”, whereas Kittler’s techno-sensory subject is without internal splits and always progressing towards the Real. In this progression, all visual and symbolic dimensions are all abolished[18], since, for Kittler, the digital “virtuality” coincides with the ultimately abstract Real[19]. In Kittler’s historical narration, the prehistorical civilization that depends on the four-dimensional continuum of space and time was reduced to the three-dimensional sign regime (such as pyramid), and then further subtracted to two-dimensional visual and symbolic representations. The two-dimensional denotation was finally condensed in a denotation system of texts. In a one-dimensional textual presence, the Imaginary and the Symbolic are united. Then the zero-dimension was achieved when the optics and the digital finally became immediately switchable.

V.

Materiality, after the synthesis with the computational, is not just the physical characteristics of devices. But rather, Hayles describes that it is “an emergent property created through dynamic interactions between physical characteristics and signifying strategies.”[20] What is highlighted in Hayles’ definition of materiality is that it no long follows the common actual-virtual distinction that is attributed to telecom’s applications, but a continuum of physicality to its the transcendental realm.

But this is far from claiming that signals in telecommunication as a technology of mediation are unstructured. Data signals are digital signals that contain information, whose accuracy could be ensured by adding more bits to run the error checks and repairs. The ability of self-correction is part of the intelligence of the digital method over the material bases, because the inaccuracy in data signals are due to the inherent risks in the material channels itself. Therefore, to claim the probabilistic nature of its potential is not to obviate the relevance of the material structures, as Mark Cote and Franco Barardi would integrate into their theory of media dispositif. The strategic deployment of data, despite its computational automaticity, is still in place[21].

To conclude, between the purely reactive and negative conceptual difficulty in conceiving materiality and the dynamic and positive computational automata, positions of negotiations are possible without falling into the utopic investment in telecom technologies’ liberating potential. The focuses on the materiality of the form of mediation itself now return to disengage media studies from the dichotomy of the democratizing facilities of telecommunication and the state-capital control of such liberalizing means.

 

 

[1] See a comprehensive layout of these different perspectives on Marxism and technology in Chapter 1-3 from Nick Dyer-Witheford’s book Cyber Marx: Cycles and Circuits of Struggle in High-Technology Capitalism (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illnois Press, 1999).

[2] Laura Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 165-166.

[3] Laura Marks, Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 180-181.

[4] I have been careful in this essay to not to refer to the “invention” of devices, since the history of science is at the same time the history of politics and economy, and a “invention” marked by patenting and commercialization often are intertwined with the non-technical alliances of the person or the group who has left their names in history books as the sole person credited with a advancement in techno-science.

[5] See James Clerk Maxwell, “On Physical Lines of Force,” reprinted in The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell, Vol 1, ed. W. D. Niven (New York: Dover, 1952), 155-229.

[6] Robert John, Network Nation (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010).

[7] There are generally three ways to conceive maxim or laws in physics, one transcendental, one constructionist and one pragmatic. See Mathias Frisch, “Laws in Physics,” European Review 22, no. 1, 2014: 33-49. For the current case, the pragmatic tradition is a mixture of economic and political interests in the former two.

[8] With the development of quantum physics and of the Shannonian mathematical model of communication, a similar logic of the probabilistic nature of electromagnetic waves (as Photons) and the noise constitutive of messages can be found. See Michel Bitbol, “Traces of Objectivity: Causality and Probabilities in Quantum Physics”, Diogenes 58, no.4, 2011: 30-57; and Friedrich Kittler, “Signal-to-Noise Ratio,” in The Truth of the Technological World: Essays on the Genealogy of Presence, trans. Eric Butler (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), 165-177.

[9] Gilles Deleuze, quoted in David Scott, “Gilles Deleuze’s Contributions to David Hume, sa vie, son aeuvr,” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 16, no.2, 2011: 175-180. Ref on 176.

[10] See David Scott, “Gilles Deleuze’s Contributions to David Hume, sa vie, son aeuvr,” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 16, no.2, 2011: 175-180.

[11] See Michel Bitbol, “Traces of Objectivity: Causality and Probabilities in Quantum Physics”, Diogenes 58, no.4, 2011: 30-57.

[12] See Michel Bitbol, “Traces of Objectivity: Causality and Probabilities in Quantum Physics”, Diogenes 58, no.4, 2011: 30-57. Ref. on 52.

[13] Friedrich Kittler, “Signal-to-Noise Ratio,” in The Truth of the Technological World: Essays on the Genealogy of Presence, trans. Eric Butler (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), 165-177, Ref. on 166.

[14] See Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans Paul Patton (New York: Colombia University Press, 1994), 35-40.

[15] The univocity of being means literally “uni“ – “vocare” (same-voice/saying). In his own words, “ The univocity of Being does not mean that there in one and the same Being…The univocity of Being signifies that Being is Voice that it is said, and that it is said in one and the same ‘sense’ of everything about which it is said.” See Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans Paul Patton (New York: Colombia University Press, 1994), 31.

[16] See Alain Badiou, Deleuze: The Clamour of Being, trans. Louise Burchill (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 19-21.

[17] Kittler states, “according to Lacan, the sign of the sign is that, by definition, it can be replaced; in contrast, all that is Real sticks in place.” See Friedrich Kittler, “Signal-to-Noise Ratio,” in The Truth of the Technological World: Essays on the Genealogy of Presence, trans. Eric Butler (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013), 165-177, Ref. on 166.

[18] Ibid. 226.

[19] Ibid. 228.

[20] See Katherine Hayles, My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2005), 3.

[21] Mark Cote invokes the Foucaultian concept of dispositif, as an assemblage which coheres heterogeneous concepts and objects to form a functional strategy. See Mark Cote, “Data Motility: The Materiality of Big Social Data,” Cultural Studies Review 20, no.1, 2014: 121-149.