Monday, 3 July 2006 - 4:41pm

Reading <em>Revolt, She Said</em>

It seems to be a commonplace these days that we self-consciously watch what we say, what we read, what we do when in public. A phrase that is innocuous in the company of our like-minded friends becomes potential jail fodder at an airport. Such was my perhaps-unwarranted concern when, during my extended travails in airports and airplanes across America last weekend, I was reading a book entitled Revolt, She Said , a collection of interviews with the critical theorist slash psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva. The word “revolt” is likely not taken as congenial when, in the stuffy surroundings of dry processed air known as the airplane cabin, I am surrounded by others who willingly give up all semblance of humanness for the mere perception of safety. (Witness the fact that I was given “secondary” screening twice for refusing to remove my shoes, even though they do not set off the metal detector.) I held the front cover guardedly, worried that someone who is more worried than I would alert the “authorities” about the rabble-rouser sitting next to him. (I remember reading a blog post recently about a security researcher who was reading government material about weapons on a plane, only to be accosted by flight attendants who were tipped off by a spooked passenger. If someone else remembers the link to the post, let me know.)

Yet the entirety of Kristeva’s book is about taking back the real meaning of revolt:

I like the term revolt because of its etymological association with return, patience, distance, repetition, elaboration. Revolt is not simply about rejection and destruction; it is also about starting over. Unlike the word “violence”, “revolt” foregrounds an element of renewal and regeneration.

In Kristeva’s view, by being subsumed into political revolutions, the appropriation of “revolt” masks the almost-beauty of the word: continual rebirth, the possibility of “renewal and regeneration” that is the quality of freedom. Revolt requires an authority to be against and thus encourages regular questioning of the basis of that authority’s power.

Amongst these dialectical discussions of revolt comes what stood out most in my mind, the connection to modern technology. I quote it here in full:

Interviewer: It’s rather paradoxical if you think that today in the “New Technologies” you also encounter an excess of memory. Kristeva: Yes, but what one calls memory is in fact a storing of information that has nothing to do with interrogation. There is no place for nothingness or for questioning in this storage system, it is merely an accumulation of data, a databank. What Plato and St. Augustine referred to as memory was a permanent doubting. Its essential aspect is nothingness, from Heidegger through Satre. The question of nothingness is essential as an aspect of freedom. But what is the meaning of nothingness: the possibility to rebel, to change and to transform. With a computer you simply store data as such. But the idea of a transformative creativity that emerges through nothingness and through questioning are parameters that are completely dismissed. I: I think that storing information is an ideology in itself. K: It is precisely a technocratic ideology that is supposed to abolish anxiety. But what I am saying is the opposite: anxiety, repulsion, nothingness are essential aspects of freedom. That’s what revolt is. When one abolishes revolt that is linked to anxiety and rejection, there is no reason to change. You store things and keep storing. It’s a banker’s idea, not an idea of a rebel, which spreads this technocratic ideology.

Where is the “nothingness” in modern digital technology? It cannot exist in the concept of “0”, which now has the same informational footing as “1”. The interpretation is that all data is meaningful: each photo taken, each sound recorded, each word transcribed is kept in memory for some potential future purpose. “Just in case”, we tell ourselves as we fill the two-hundred gigabyte drive continuously. We feel as if this relieves our “anxiety”. Yet as Kristeva says, anxiety is an “essential” aspect of freedom. We have become intimately tied to our “information” in a way not experienced before.

I face this issue every day at the Lab when I see project after project that focuses on continual recording of data from our lives: the collection of movement data through accelerometers; the recordings of facial expressions for affective analysis; and most insidiously, the accumulation of years of audio and video of a young child for linguistic analysis. Yet in none of their discourses do the researchers leave the technical to understand the broader impact of this mass of data. Where is the space for “nothingness”, of information that is not tagged, that can be left to interpretation, that, yes, causes us anxiety and thus forces a new relationship to the event or the data? Where is the questioning of whether or not aspects of our lives can actually be represented as “information”, in the Shannon sense? How can we “doubt” when faced with a sharp-edged concretion of bits that form the “ground truth” of our discourse? When the fuzzy becomes steep?

Given the roots of smoothly varying discourse in human history, I believe that our technology must reflect this topology while continually questioning its basis. That is, while the practical limits of digital computers might have prevented conceptions of “nothingness” or forgetting in the past, I think we have come to the point where we can take these notions into account in the developing of systems. Because to become nostalgic is to give up; we cannot return to a time where the analog formed the basis of all of our representations. Nor do we simply want the digital to become a better and better simulation of the analog. But perhaps we can incorporate new considerations of these meanings that are rooted in artifacts ranging from our daily conversations to art and literature.

I am struggling with this right now with regards to my considerations of thesis topic. I am currently trekking in a direction that considers digital music-making in a framework quite similar to Kristeva’s: that digital systems support the primacy of continual memory, without the option of forgetting or anxiety. I’m in the early stages of the development of these thoughts, and this path will likely branch into a new direction in the future.

Perhaps all of this reading of theory has “changed my brain” (to paraphrase someone not-to-be-named) in ways I am only beginning to explore.

Books bought today: Aden Evens’ Sound Ideas and Giles Deleuze and Felix Guttari’s What is Philosophy?

Music listened to: Part of Meredith Monk’s Volcano Songs; I can see the roots of Björk’s Medulla in this album. Also, shoutouts on WMBR on Sunday night, a true place of anxiety and public forgetting, where the person making the shoutout has no idea if the recipient is actually listening; but no matter, since the message is soon forgotten by all heard; but if the recipient is listening, the connection is private, sender and recipient perhaps not knowing if their thoughts were heard.

Thursday, 8 June 2006 - 5:56am

The ground-as-bucket for water from above

Along main street, the pointless decorative flags flap with captured fury; I cautiously arrange my umbrella so it doesn’t feel the same anger. The rain mutates from drop to pellet, ignoring the will of the Earth to fall straight down, sometimes being pushed to the side by the same fury. But at some point the drop-pellets become a clear mass of liquid, deceptively deep in places. Instead of going “as the bird flies”, I detour to the left, to the right, unconscious straightness morphing into unconscious curves—not for exploration’s sake, but because I don’t trust the waterproofing of my black leather boots; already the tread has worn smooth in parts. All I do is walk at least two miles a day in them, on concrete. “Worker’s boots” they are called, the bourgeoisie in me shouldn’t push them so close to uselessness in only three quarters of a year.

These are the days that even though the facts suggest global warming; even though the calendar says June; even though commencement is soon; I cherish the regression to the days of March. As long as this continues, I can put off my continual grumbling about the weather.

I finished yesterday The Deleuze Connections; more on that in a later post.

I also began and finished recently Marching Plague: Germ Warfare and Global Public Health by the Critical Art Ensemble. I’m going to work on a grown-up “book report”, known as a book review, soon. Perhaps I will publish it here, or perhaps I will try and shop it places; who knows.

In the end, however, the listlessness I feel in my research is the only reason I have the time to read these things. At some point I need to latch onto something for an extended period of time. I have ideas, but I await responses before unknowingly walking into the chasm. Perhaps in the meantime I can let these softly-formed thoughts fly around inside my head, and focus on what others consider to be more concrete. Maybe if I choose one question a day, and see what I can find out about it. Of course I can’t cover everything, but enough to be conversant. So: is tonality innate in humans? Can you recognize emotions in music, or do you experience them? What is known about relationship-forming in creative groups? Etc.

Overarching, the need to combine these things with technological things of my own making.

Wednesday, 31 May 2006 - 6:33am

Walking into the warmth of summer

Sponsor week is done, and with it, my thoughts on “mutable recordings” will wait to be found again in a couple of days.

My object paper is done (at least for the class).

It’s past Memorial Day, which by the conventions of the US (and not the moon) means we’re in summer now. I’m hoping to come up with a good selection of things to do, words to read, sounds to hear, places to visit, projects to explore. I hesitate to call any of these things plans, as I’ve had enough of direction in my summers; let me travel without a heading, so that I can find the best one down the way.

Some of the thoughts with which I want to become acquainted are those of Giles Deleuze. Before I tackle some of his (and Guattari’s) more interesting works, I’m surveying the thoughtscape through John Rajchman’s excellent (so far) The Deleuze Connections. What’s makes Rajchman’s book so interesting is the thoughts of Deleuze; who knows if I’ll be able to get from the source what I get from the secondary source, but what I read I find fascinating. A philosophy of “radical empiricism”, of making connections and of multiplicity, of not falling back on transcendence, but finding the most interesting here in the world. Such straightforward thoughts when expressed in Rajchman’s words, but much harder to put into practice. Because this is a philosophy for practice; philosophy for non-philosophers, as they say. But the hierarchical ordering is ingrained from early stories: beginnings, middles, ends, in that order, never the branching or turning upon itself that we actually find in our lives. Things seem to progress from one event to the next, but weren’t you just thinking of something you thought of recently? Aren’t those two ideas connected? And who is to say that the person you are at this moment is the same as that a few days ago? You are not; you changed, and while your understanding of you remains, it can’t be captured in a linear deductive progression.

Thus we need branching, and rhizomes, and a radical rethinking of how we think. And of how we write, and make music, and relate to each other and society. Yet it’s incredibly challenging when analytical philosophy infuses our daily lives, especially at a place like MIT. How am I to relate the actual process of creating the piece Variations 10b (more on this in a later post) when I am (ostensibly) writing a paper for the ACM Multimedia conference? Lack of logical progression is seen as, well, illogical. But what if at every choice among many paths to take, we were able to provide grounded (in some philosophy) reasons for our decision? And what if this gave the reader (listener, viewer) a more complete understanding of not only the topic, but also the author? Wouldn’t this be a valuable thing to do? Yet in most quarters it’s not desired, or wanted. Perhaps someday.

And perhaps someday I’ll learn how to do it. Maybe later this summer. Check back in August.

Tuesday, 16 May 2006 - 6:06am

When will it be done?

Caltech prepared me for many things. I know how to learn about quantum mechanics in one night. I learned how to find the normal modes of a string. But it didn’t prepare me for one thing.

Writing a 30 page expository essay.

In some ways, I am enjoying it like mad; I was able to dive into a plethora of thoughts and ideas. But the challenge is combining them all together into a digestible whole. I used to be able to do this, back in high school, but I lost that ability at Caltech, trained as I was on rote solving of problem sets.

I need to get away from the paper, but I can’t, as it’s due early Thursday morning.

And then there’s my sponsor week project. Something that I’ve been interested in off and on this entire term. But now, I’m definitely off on it.

What I want to do now is go and get some tea at Someday cafe, kick back, and read some Nabokov, Eggers, or New Left Review. Or perhaps just take out my viola and jam. Without creating some samples for my recording project. Without worring about whether instruments are transitional or liminal, or when. Without wondering how to align two semi-different audio signals automatically.

That day will come in a little less than two weeks.

Friday, 14 April 2006 - 12:58am

Freud, Eco, and the notions of temporality in object relations

(As part of my class on the relationships between people and objects, both real and virtual, we read a set of essays in a forthcoming book where academics and scholars describe, in detail, the characteristics of said relationships with an object of import. Paired with each essay is a particular “theorist”, ranging from psychoanalytic (Freud, Lacan, Winnicott) to critical (Foucault, Derrida, Latour). One of the basic assignments in the class is to write “reaction papers” to these readings. While I try to craft these as well as possible, sometimes they’re not very complete or contain ideas or thoughts that might change throughout the course. In any event, I’ve decided to start posting these reactions here, from the current week and all the weeks prior. (I’m going to back-post the earlier essays.) Since I can’t post the source essays here, I’ll try and give some background on the underlying works as an aside at the beginning of each response. Also, names of the authors of the source essays have been slightly changed because I am unsure whether I can attribute these quotes as of yet, since the book has not been published. I welcome any comments or suggestions.)

Aside: This week’s essays dealt with objects of mourning, those things that can lead to such intense feelings upon later reflection.

One of the challenges of cultural studies is to examine the rise and popularity of forms that, from a variety of perspectives (“high art”, criticism, and so on) appear on first glance to offer no “redeeming value” from usual methods of evaluation. Yet the simple fact of their [the forms] popularity cannot be denied as if it does not exist. What way, then, can we explain this without resorting to the non-explanation of irrationality? Eco, in his essay “The Myth of Superman”, suggests that the temporality of the comic book or the serial novel reflects a need of the person living in modern society: “Narrative of a redundant nature would appear in this panorama as an indulgent invitation to repose, the only occasion of true relaxation offered to the consumer.” [Myth, p. 21] With Aristotelian narratives, the actions of Oedipus or Odysseus were well-known to the audience1; surprise was not a factor, but rather people willingly floated along with the flow of the text. Yet in post-Aristotelian narratives, it was the objects and actions of surprise that provided the strengths of poetic experience: the “unpredictable nature is part of the invention, and as such, takes on aesthetic value.” [Myth, p. 15] Comics and serials limit this surprise to the appearance of new objects in the story, limiting the surprise of temporal development that occurs in other forms of the literary arts.

This combination of stunted temporal experience and mechanism of surprise can explain some of the psychological strengths of objects in our lives. D—‘s suitcase is a container for snapshots of her grandmother’s life: a symbol of travel and movement, it is now stationary, containing quanta of experiences that reflect salient memories. Her selection of the quotes, the teacups, the scents of the jasmine lotion are past-moment objects that represent memories that unfold in time. She attempts to capture them within the confines of the suitcase, just as the writers of Superman comics attempt to capture his travails and (assured) successes within the limits of a weekly periodical. But D—‘s suitcase is simply a moment of moments: as she says, she worries that she “will lose her [her grandmother] if I open the suitcase too often”. [Suitcase, p. 3] The evanescent jasmine scent will be an element of surprise upon the unbuckling of the suitcase; but with this surprise comes the movement of the captured moment into the regular flow of time. No more held captive, the chrono-scent enters into her present experience, the saved point impinging on the now and expanding away from the impeded temporal flow.

Objects of memory thus possess these complementary but contradictory qualities of saving (archiving) and serendipity (surprise). They can jolt us from our present life and remind us of times in the past or lost possibilities of the future. Containers (of things and thoughts) like the suitcase freeze certain instants or durations with the hope that future interactions will reconnect the person with the detached past.

Objects tied to a particular memory of mourning can help to repair the damage of personal loss: photographs, clothing, toys and the like remain in the now as traces of a prior person’s life. Yet in cases of melancholia (in the full sense of Freud’s term), intense attachment to particular objects is a symptom of pathology: “In melancholia the relation to the object is no simple one; it is complicated by the conflict due to ambivalence.” [Mourning, p. 256] Freud describes melancholia as a “disturbance of self-regard”, this trait being absent in conventional mourning. [Mourning, p. 244] The loss of the object (even perceived loss) is “withdrawn from consciousness, in contradistinction to mourning, in which there is nothing about the loss that is unconscious.” [Mourning, p. 245] It seems reasonable to connect this loss to the stultified temporality described earlier by Eco. The object-loss enters into the “unconscious”, with the consequence of removing it from the passage of time. Instead of confronting the loss in the present, the person removes herself into the past, desiring instead life in a continual “present”, but a present that exists before now. That is, the loss is never dealt with by the person; the lack of action, and the resulting belief that the object still exists, necessitates removing oneself to a time when the object did exist. The person continues life following the same temporal direction as the rest of society, but with the “shadow of the object” on her, actually lives in the present-past of the object. [Mourning, p. 249]

1 What is ignored is how this assumed knowledge is transferred to the listener in the first place; what sorts of surprise reactions occurred the first time someone heard of Odysseus enduring the Sirens’ cries?

Friday, 14 April 2006 - 12:40am

The one-click import...

…of my old blog postings is complete. Imagine that; everything came through without problems. Now all I have to do is start writing here, instead of in here.

Thursday, 13 April 2006 - 1:56am

Migrating to WordPress...

Today marks the migration to WordPress. Old posts are still available if you’re into those sorts of things…

Thursday, 13 April 2006 - 1:53am


zeitkunst is the research + art blog of nick knouf. Featuring posts about my thoughts and work in art, music, culture, society, theory, graduate student life, and politics on an occasional basis.

Tuesday, 4 April 2006 - 11:49pm

Lacan, Winnicott, and the objects of early experience

Aside: this is another of a series of short essays written for my class on objects and experience. None of these essays should be considered a complete work; rather, they are snippets of my thoughts at the time. This week’s readings dealt with transitional objects (Winnicott) and the mirror stage (Lacan).

It is commonplace today, partly because of the work of the associated theorists for this week’s readings, to accept the immense influence of the early objects of a child on his or her later psychological development. Yet in these very early objects or toys, meaning those of the newborn up to about a year or two, the actual characteristics of the toys themselves are somewhat irrelevant. It seems to be the act of interacting with the object itself which is important at this stage, at the region of time where the newborn begins to form the “not-I” concept. But given the mirror-stage theory of Lacan, and the ideas of transitional objects from Winnicott, the makeup of the object should be vitally important for the newborn’s later psychological development; Lacan says, in “The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function”, that “This form [the image] would, moreover, have to be called the ‘ideal-I’…in the sense that it will also be the rootstock of secondary identifications….” [p. 4, Ecrits, A Selection] While I understand that strictly speaking Lacan is referring to the child’s identification with something outside of his or her body, be it the mother, the image in the mirror, or an object; however, if we pair this with Winnicott’s transitional objects, which are, as he says, designated for the “intermediate area of experience, between the thumb and the teddy bear” [p. 2, Playing and Reality], I come to the conclusion that the makeup of the objects themselves at this formative period should exact a precise influence on later development. But if these readings of Lacan and Winnicott are correct (and I wonder if they actually are), they seem to be in conflict in some ways with actual experience; choosing which object it is that exerts this influence, that forms the rootstock, is extremely difficult. While it could be the object with which the child spends the most time, perhaps it is some other object, a toy that the child saw or experienced for only a short period of time, the interactions with which formed the roots for later identification and psychological development. I have a difficult time, at this stage of development, to associate time-of-play with psyche importance.

Lacan defines the mirror stage thusly: “The function of the mirror stage thus turns out, in my view, to be a particular case of the function of imagos, which is to establish a relationship between an organism and its reality—or, as they say, between the Innenwelt and the Umwelt.” Mann’s identification with the World Book encyclopedia is a precise example of the development of the mirror stage. The stultification of his own development as a result of familial dynamics caused Mann to find the Other in a series of books. The contents were immaterial; it was the process of discovering knowledge that was important, allowing the books to become, in Mann’s own words, “my interpreters, my models, and my guides.” The World Book became a distorting mirror that reflected the quiet of his family life and transfigured it into the cacophony of knowledge.

Every essay but one explored an object that was formative in the author’s own childhood; it was Gleason that viewed her sister Shayna’s fascination with the stuffed rabbit Murray from the detachment of a graduate student. She was able to understand the importance of Murray to “embody character” in an object outside of Shayna’s body. Gleason was also able to see how Shayna used the “Bunny language” to create a new world, separate from Shayna’s everyday realities. This has an intriguing connection to the Lacanian Symbolic order, which is, succinctly, the portion of the psyche that crystalizes desires and societal mores through the use of language. Shayna’s (and most kid’s) use of a made-up language suggests that at this early stage of development there is something lacking in the language of society and of the parents; perhaps the child does not know how to fully express his or her desires in the common-tongue, or rather the child finds the need for a personal language, something that provides a closer match with his or her wishes, where the correspondence between thought-desire and representation of that desire through language is more readily apparent. It would be interesting to explore this in the context of multi-lingual children: do those who have access to multiple ways of expressing desires linguistically choose to play these language games with one of the tongues of which they have access, or do they too develop new languages for play?

Monday, 27 March 2006 - 3:08am

The zeitkunst blog in flux

I dispense with the common blog niceties of bemoaning my lack of writing, for no-one out there is reading this blog as of yet. But in the meantime (on the order of the recent day or two) I have been preparing not only new entries, but also a real design. The entries? Academic, of course: discussions of my recent reading of Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern, along with some (hopefully) extensions to my readings of essays in aesthetics by Adorno and Benjamin. The design? Simple but elegant: I have no time for the too-large and too-cutesy setups of modern Web 2.0 sites; the name itself suggests a break that isn’t there, an ignorance of the continual development of the web and the need to codify changes into the digestible notions of release numbers.

Let’s make a pact for this now: writing at least once a week on topics that are important to me and my work. By this I will hopefully create content that will encourage regular readership that will both create community as well as contribute to broader discussions of these topics. The more musically-focused entries (those focusing on the music itself, not the meta-musical) will live on sigtronica.

Most pacts require a means for admonishment when the pact is broken. Since this is a pact between me and the non-human object of the website, any breakage is invisible to outsiders, both virtual visitors and real colleagues. Oh well. I’ll know the pact was broken, and whether it affects me or not will be up to me to react to.