the problem of ‘the poor’

How do I talk about the poor? In all seriousness, they are a politically important group, in the sense that they have historically always existed in one form or another, and they are what most political programs attempt to separate society from. The reduction of ‘the poor’ is a problem that some choose to solve through welfare, and others through economic etoliation. The goal seems to be a perpetual attempt to escape the historical problems of ‘having’ and ‘not having’, which seem to be inescapable. I think the poor needs to be defined as something other than the working class, other than the indebted, other than the slave, other than the precariat (someone whose ability to shift into temporary or marginal labour affords them periodic income; which, despite its recent popularity, is not nearly as abjectly excluded as the poor) and something other than those who are politically excluded along other lines – such as queer sexualities or alienated ethnic groups. I never come into contact with the poor, except in those brief moments where they ask for spare change. I give, sometimes, but this is not a solution. At this stage, for me, the problem is how to discuss a group that is outside the political frame that I work in – that is, outside possessing enough property or money to access networked communications.

a busy time of year

It’s been a busy year this year, I’ve been incredibly prolific in terms of doing what I essentially see as self-development work. Beginning to see the light as to what a future as an academic might hold for me. It is both a frightening amount of work, and also incredibly exciting. The opportunity to become someone who might be able to both engender new ideas in people, as well as to develop new ideas of my own in the context of learning and research is excellent. I love it. I want to do it for the foreseeable future. The chance to collaborate with people whose intelligence I respect and admire is something I’m enjoying doing now, and hope to do for the rest of my life.

Which brings me to the fact that I’m recognizing an increasing need to upskill myself as an educator, and potential academic. There is a lot to do if I expect to be able to continue to discuss the artforms of cinema, games, and literature, as well as to be able to educate myself to a doctoral level in the concerns of media and communication, Marxism, the autonomists, and political philosophy in general. As someone who is intimidated by the skills, knowledge, and intelligence of those encountered in reading groups, workshops and seminars, I recognize that the near-pastoral educational environment of my old institution is a combination of both idyllic low-stakes country bliss, with very little in terms of opportunities both within the institution itself, as well as its ability to provide opportunities elsewhere. In other words, I’ve been doing a lot, and have a lot left to do.

larvatus prodeo

Descartes has a term, larvatus prodeo, which I think bears some merit in the context of the anonymized communcations of the internet. It means “to go forth/to emerge, masked/ghostlike”. In Descartes’ original usage, it was an idea of protection through masquerade for the controversial thinker. Regor Sebba translates a French copy of a lost Latin work, Olympica, written by Descartes in his youth: “As an actor, to conceal his blush of embarrassment, enters the stage masked, so I step forth onto the stage of the world, masked.”

Sebba points to a contrast in Descartes’ thought, between res cogitans and persona cogitans. The first is simple ‘res‘ a being, a material, ‘cogitans‘ that thinks, ponders, engages in thinking. ‘Persona‘, though, this is intriguing: ‘persona‘ a mask, a character that presents itself to the world. Perhaps Descartes was already beginning to make the move to the idea of the dualism which would later make him famous. A dualism between a presented self as a Lacanian masquerade, and the real, material, thinking individual that sits behind this, as a form of puppeteer.

Larvatus prodeo, then. I would prefer to read it as a ghostlike emergence, rather than a concealing of a self in a communicated framework, it is a wispy ethereal presence of a subject in a networked space. By engaging in a process of constant contact and individuation in a communication matrix, flitting across spaces and moments of discussion, communication, and aesthetic experience, a real self is invested with a semblance of identity. But, to be true to Descartes’ usage, the classical reading would have to be along the lines of the capacity for a transcendent notion of the self that expresses itself through material substrates, such as the network, or the human body.

cellular networks and tracking

This article points to the problem of stability in cellular networks, when various institutions begin to rely on them beyond the simple mechanisms of cellular communication. In this case, the article points out that the British Prison service utilizes the O2 network in the UK in order to monitor those criminals on parole who have electronic-tagged ankle bracelets. The statistics are not particularly worrying – at least to me, in Australia – 200 monitored criminals had intermittent coverage over the O2 network outage, out of 13.5k monitored individuals. That’s a little less than 2 percent. I imagine that there will be other issues at play that mean that a network of such a size probably has errors roughly in that range on a daily basis.

What is interesting to me are the following reminders: a) state institutions utilizing private cellular networks for juridical purposes, and b) the technology used for tracking parolees is exactly the same as the standard used by most cellphones: the SIM card. Which is to say, it’s very very easy to track an individual utilizing a SIM card technology, if you’re a state or corporate power, or have control of the network via other means. That isn’t to say that it’s a general current condition, or that we live in a police state, but it’s perhaps a suggestion to think about the device in your pocket as being dangerous beyond its simple cancer risk. To quote something Christopher Soghoian said on Twitter some time ago, “Remember, a cellphone is a tracking device that can also make calls.”

agrippa, book of the dead.

In 1988, William Gibson wrote a poem called Agrippa, A Book of the Dead. While the link I have provided can be read as many times as you’d like, the original piece was published in the form of a executable file on a 3 1/2″ floppy disc that could be read and viewed only once per copy. After being opened the executable would, while the poem was being read by a user, re-write its own assembly code into an encrypted format leaving it, for all effective purposes, unobtainable.

There is a description of the original publication here, which, to my mind, conjures a similarity to the book, House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski. Esotericism is something that I enjoy enough to pardon it even when it is as wilfully inscrutiable as it appears in these two pieces, and I certainly like the appearance of Agrippa as shown in Gibson’s piece.

I think there is, perhaps, something to be said here about hyper-texts. There’s enough of a link to the spy-thrillers of James Bond and Mission Impossible in the self-destructive text, especially so when it comes about through a stenographic device. The merging of steampunk aesthetics of burnt book covers and computer data storage along with the morbidity of the shroud and the record of the transcription of the DNA of some hapless fruitfly speaks to a variety of posthumanism that I’m fond of. Too bad the 3 1/2″ floppy drive has essentially disappeared.

the problem with confession

I recently presented at a conference, Confessional Cultures, held at Monash University. Confession is an interesting idea, but I don’t particularly find it all that useful as a critical term for my studies. Following from Foucault, confession – or the ‘avowal’ as I like to think of it – is mainly a rhetorical device for situating a subject in relation to others. With that, I should note some observations on how I see the ‘confession’ to function outside of a strictly religious mode.

By confession something about themselves, a subject aligns themselves in a non-normative comparison to some group. This group can be of roughly any sort: religious, legal, social, and so on; and the response from the group roughly relies on the institutionalization of that group. For instance, a non-normative confession in a legal context will usually result in punitive legal measures; non-normative confession in social settings will lead to the community performing self-work as to what individuals should do in future, or the degree to which individuals need to be ostracized. Behaviour that is not explicitly sanctioned as valid or invalid will result in the production of commonsense in various frameworks. In a legal context this will lead to the categorization of certain behaviour as legal or illegal, in a social context this is could be the determination as to whether something needs an apology or not. This leads to the observation that there are two categories of confession of non-normative behaviour: categorically defined behaviour, and non-categorical behaviour.

Categorically defined non-normative behaviour would be something that sits comfortably within a range of confessions that a society is pre-equipped to deal with, with regard to a general case. These are confessions for which the particular society sees some sort of non-standard behaviour, but, amusingly, the non-standard behaviour comes in an expected format. These are usually behaviours for which the given society has methods of recourse, or ‘solutions’ for resolving, and is maybe well prepared for. For instance, an alcoholic acknowledging their problem to a priest. These confessions are ones which society offers some sort of idea of a general response for the individuals hearing the confession, whether that be getting an alcoholic to start AA, or staging an intervention. These are general behaviours for which various institutions and social groups have prescribed practices prepared.

Non-categorical non-normative behaviour is behaviour that is not explicitly sanctioned against, but nor is it precisely accepted as normal and ‘correct’ within a particular society. I see two methods for dealing with these problems arising from this process: firstly, the concatenation within existing frames; secondly, the production of new frames when existing ones are insufficient. These cases avoid generalities, or else, attempt to avoid them. For instance, a catholic confession – in the sense of a confession to a priest within a confessional – is essentially a bit of close-work on trying to fit a particular bit of behaviour to an appropriate category of spiritual compensation. While ‘standard’ confessions will have their own appropriate number of associated ‘hail Marys’ every non-standard confession would have to have the priest perform the requisite work to determine what an appropriate penalty would be. This will always be in relation to a generality, or an ethos, or behavioural categories. It is difficult to think of an example, because I have defined these cases to sit outside standardization, but hopefully the category makes sense. I think of them as categories that can be fought over, where some contingency in the event that is being confessed causes it to not be a standard confession of some sort.

In either case, I do not find myself being able to say much useful stuff about the confession in terms of the work I generally do. While I did see some interesting uses of the confessional format in textual analysis at the conference, I did not really conceive of any ways to use it in my own work. As I mentioned at the conference, when used to talk about individuals online, practically every utterance is a form of avowal of the subject, of the self. Then we’re in the somewhat useless condition of claiming that all utterances are a form of confession, and, with any overly general case, not a particularly useful means of addressing behaviour over networks.

invest in loss

This is the second of the ideas I’ve borrowed from martial arts: “you must invest in loss”. What does this mean? It means that any rejections and failures should be understood as opportunities to improve. A failure doesn’t mean you’ve failed absolutely, cataclysmically, and for all time, and that you should give up now, it means that you have an identifiable weakness that you can improve upon so that your next attempt is better. In terms of education, this means that, if you have done poorly in a particular assessment, take the opportunity to work out what it is, exactly, that you’ve done wrong. This may mean reading over depressing assessment notes from tutors or academics, but the notes are there to help you improve. It’s difficult to give bad feedback to a student – it genuinely makes me feel bad – but I’d do student a disservice if I gave them marks that they hadn’t earnt. If they were to make repeat mistakes, it’s in their best interest for me to identify them. The worst possible response from a student is to receive their assignment back, get depressed or angry because of a result that’s less than what they wanted or what they expected, and then never read the feedback! I, or whoever, wrote that material to help you improve! It’s not there because I really wanted to make you feel bad.

Investing in loss also means directly placing yourself out of your comfort zone. This is something I’ve had to learn for public speaking. I’m getting better at it because I challenge myself when I do it. For me this means knowing that, to some extent, I’m going to suck at a particular presentation, but I do it in the knowledge that I’ll be better at it over time. I’ve already improved remarkably in the last 12 months, and am far better than I used to be two years ago. Put yourself at risk, accept defeat, but learn from the experience.