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.
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.