Speaking in tones

I’m a million different people from one day to the next. –The Verve, “Bittersweet Symphony”

Between drafting a paper for Congress and giving one, last Friday, to a remote audience in Marburg, I’ve been reflecting on the different voices I adopt in different media and genres (to say nothing of the million different performative personae that “I” go through on any given day).

As genres, the conference paper and research essay demand different kinds of tone, rhythm, and vocabulary. These basically boil down to keeping things simpler, more direct, and more repetitive (as well as much more concise) in a conference paper, to help a listening audience follow along. I’ve tried drafting conference papers with speaking in mind, but every time I read or speak draft work back to myself, it always needs more paring down and smoothing out.

Which got me thinking about blogging: what kind of voice do I take on in blogging? Is there even any single voice that emerges among posts — or do different posts themselves speak in different tones? My general sense is that the tone of most of my posts tends to be less formal and more conversational than that of either a conference paper or an essay.

Anyway, the upshot is that it might be worth trying to compose conference papers not as simplified research essays, as I’ve been doing, but rather as extended blog posts. It might be worth the thought experiment, if only to find out whether the paper would need fewer re-writes afterward.

Say goodbye to a self crystallized around a matrix of consistency. – Christine Tamblyn (150)

Further to the development of different voices in different apps, I don’t think there’s any point trying to discern any consistent tone for someone’s Twitter messages. The extreme brevity of the form, its preponderance of links, and its compulsive re-tweets all seem to work against establishing any consistent voice. It might be more accurate to think in terms of brand, not voice, for Twitter — with all the commodity fetishism that entails. But I think there is something to identifying one’s Facebook voice. It might be the parallax produced by me in my circle of “friends,” but Facebook seems to be where facetiousness and sarcasm reign; anytime anyone posts something serious, heartfelt, or otherwise real, it always seems jarring and inappropriate to me.

In admitting this, I think I’m admitting to a symptom of what Tobias van Veen calls “the cryptofascism of corporate perception”; in other words, the modes of communication that are structured and limited by corporate social media (to which the Elgg that supports the Landing is, I think, a notable open-source exception): “the technics of perception in which uncitizens engage with the social network aligns desire with socially networked consumerism. Desire is directed toward a ceaseless flow of objects and data (either LIKED or absented in response).” In other words, you can’t “dislike” something on Facebook; you can only disappear it by refraining to like or comment on it. On the implications of “corporate perception” like this for “the youth vote” in the recent federal election, van Veen writes:

There is no rebellion not because youth don’t care; there is no rebellion because youth live in a world created and catered through info-filtering mechanisms tailored so precisely to predict and provide for their consumer and erotic impulses that the practice of democratic choice has no place within it. One can LIKE but one cannot not like; there is no choice per se, only the metrics of one-way desire. […] Youth—a category no longer of age but of consumer uncitizenry, which is to say, humans who only participate in collective processes through consumption and discourse with corporatized social networks—feel that with social networks and mobile communications that they, each and every one, are the centre of all attention. Uncitizens command and demand—not from their nation-states, but from their corporations, and what they demand is the short-term satisfaction of their pleasures.

van Veen’s point is that social networks erase the nation-state and thus cripple democratic participation in it: since, in social networks, the nation-state “does not exist as such—which is to say as a metric of consumer desire,” its virtual nonexistence helps expedite its material dismantling by the right-wing powers that be. (BTW, van Veen’s blog exemplifies a very different tone for scholarly blogging.)

I’m likewise preoccupied by the message of social media, as McLuhan might say: how social network technologies make specific kinds of environments, how they allow only certain, limited kinds of discourse and communication. And, in the process, how they privilege certain kinds of voices, and construct certain kinds of subjects.

Works Cited

Tamblyn, Christine. “Grafting Tentacles on the Octopussy.” Vulvamorphia: Lusitania 6 (1994): 147-52.

van Veen, Tobias. “Technics and Decrepit Democracy.” Fugitive Philosophy [blog]. 3 May 2011 http://fugitive.quadrantcrossing.org/2011/05/technics-decrepit-democracy/

The Verve. “Bittersweet Symphony.” Urban Hymns. Hut, 1997.

Cross-blogged from the Athabasca U Landing

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6 responses to “Speaking in tones

  1. Hey Mark, I just stumbled across this post… and I had a chance to follow up some of the discussion over at The Landing, which I gather doesn’t allow public commenting. In any case, I’ll reply a bit here.

    For the record, I dig Lady Gaga — like Björk’s new track “Crystalline” (which is also an app) she’s been able to navigate with success the shifts from a sonic paradigm to that of gaming/app engagement, through a remarkable manipulation of symbolic codes both esoteric and exoteric. I’ll be discussing this in an upcoming discussion for Dancecult published in April 2012…

    Next up, lest it be misunderstood, my critique of hipsterism is centered on two axes: (1) that of political economy, insofar as youth participation in democratic politics is at a statistical low; this was widely recognised before the election based upon past turnouts (or lack thereof), hence why various campus groups worked so hard to get out the youth vote here in Canada last time around — to some success, may I add, thanks to the NDP’s candidates as well; (2) and that hipsterist social media is a dead end insofar as social media actively undermine collective action around *any* organisational principle, music included; which is why there are not other qualitative poles one can turn to besides the metrics of representative democracy. In short there is a lack of rebellious and organised youth culture that operates outside of corporate control.

    So though I am sure I am not immune from it, the post in question is not a “I’m getting old” grumpy rant directed against new forms of music or culture per se. This would be an easy and facile thing to dismiss indeed were it the case. In fact my position is the opposite of Adorno’s: what I see lacking is precisely the mass gatherings around music that Adorno so hated and feared and saw as symptomatic of fascism (and of, I think in his unthought racism, a kind of “regressive primitivism”).

    In short what Adorno saw as a sign of mindless groupthink became key to 20th century countercultural and subcultural rebellion, from punk to rave to disco to hippie rock. So I’m with Marcuse here, on this point. But once the digitization of the archives occur and controlling corporate interests take over both the media of distribution (i.e. ClearChannel radio) and that of social communication (i.e. Facebook), an entirely new problematic emerges. This corporate conglomerate of media was *designed* to *stop* the procession of rebellious youth subcultures (and, for that matter, to breed the likes of the Tea Party — we are talking about the offspring of Leo Strauss here. Don’t underestimate thine enemy.).

    So what is at stake is far more troubling: that since the Arab Spring, for example, Facebook has changed its Group settings so as to hinder large-scale social organisation, apparently in response to pressures from various State actors.

    So let’s take as a proposition that an entire youth generation has been indoctrinated into Facebook (and other corporatized platforms and interfaces) as making up *the* platform of the internet. In terms of identity, corporate platforms *are* the internet. Facebook is the highschool halls, and the rest of the internet is also like suburban reality: over there, the shopping mall (Amazon etc); the bazaar (eBay); the pr0n theater (etc). There are even a few alleyways (4chan).

    Though Facebook is but one level, its subtle (and not so subtle) restrictions are having measurable effects on youth culture, notably by disabling the abilities to *mass organise*, and, as I noted in the post, to express anything other than “LIKE” through metrics. Facebook itself filters information *to* you based upon past viewings and likes—meaning that one never encounters difference. It is *designed* to do this, in short, to reduce and eliminate debate so that all that one *can* do is “LIKE”.

    Of course, platforms like Facebook are not entirely successful in trying to hermetically seal this seductive enclosure—at least not yet.

    If we accept that media catalyse reorganisations of the polis (the place of gathering in which decisions are made), following Grant, Innis, Carey, Kittler, Derrida, Deleuze and McLuhan (among others), AND that Facebook and like platforms have become *the* place of organised sociality amongst technologized youth, then we face an unprecedented system of surveillance and control over the communications platform upon which any form of large-scale organisation takes place.

    In short, uprising is structurally short-circuited.

    Thus the critique against contemporary hipsterism is not against any particular musical aesthetic. Heck, I like scarves. It is a critique of the corporate technologies which actively remove what was the central pillar *to* rebellious subculture and its music: its capacity to bring people/youth together in self-organised events that develop multiple effects of meaning and innovate cultural change—in short, the dynamics of a politics of autonomous realisation.

    So is it any surprise that contemporary music, as heard on corporate broadcast channels, avoids any such UNLIKE of the contemporary and very corporate scenario?

    The critique of hipsterism, which VICE magazine identified a decade ago (!!), is that of its own celebration and wallowing in precisely this mess.

    Will it stay this way? No, because something is already following up hipsterism; backlashes are everywhere amongst even younger youth who see their peers immersed in sexting themselves out of existence. However, the big guns are out. The corporates are fighting big battles on this terrain, and it concerns nothing less than being able to sustain the seductive world that is social media surveillance.

    Scene jump: News of the World reveals its been phone hacking. This is nothing compared to the information readily available out there on Facebook. Voicemails? That is arcane leakage.

  2. academicalism

    Thanks for making time to share your reflections here. I know my Landing remark was unkind (as I described it) and arguably unfair — maybe some projecting on my part, too: as I said, I know very little about the hipster thing, context for which you’ve graciously given here. (I think my closest brush with hipsterism was during a visit to a friend in Brooklyn for new year’s 2008-09; one night we were at some grotty little bar where all the guys were sporting beards and plaid flannel, and the band was playing Appalachian folk music. “WTF?” was my recurring thought.)

    I like how your discussion here arrives at the well-put aphorism:
    “Uprising is structurally short-circuited.”
    (That one’s worthy of McLuhan or Kittler.) This insight is an urgently-needed conceptual crowbar for prising open the suffocating strata of corporate spin that so quickly shellac so many scenes of civil unrest. Yes, I’m writing this while thinking of the London riots and the stark contrast between the vapid simplifications of corporate news, with their parroting of politicians’ knee-jerk neoliberal reactions and their demonizing disavowals of social media (we’re to blame this one on Crackberry, apparently), and the incisive criticisms of clear-eyed citizen journalists like Laurie Penny. There’s much food for thought and critique in the contradictory ways in which “being able to sustain the seductive world that is social media surveillance” depends on perennially sounding alarms over the purportedly dangerous powers of social media — although, to be sure, there are different and not necessarily aligned parties at work in these seductions and alarms.

    (BTW, we’re working on opening public Landing content to public comments…the programming’s a bit sticky, is what I hear about that.)

  3. Indeed, what is going on in London? To me these sound like the banlieue riots of Paris in 2005. That this began over a police shooting is not surprising. My pure speculation is that such riots are symptomatic of the very lack of organised youth rebellion I outlined above. This is a disorganised outbreak of anti-Statist violence—in the destruction of one’s “own” neighbourhood, it bears more resemblance to the Watts riots and other uprisings of the Civil Rights era. It speaks of desperation. It is only “irrational” if one considers that youth are destroying precisely what they do not want to become: a marginalized, petty-bourgeois scraping-by as debt-ridden shopkeepers.

    Looking forwards to opening up the Landing. Funny to hear that this would be difficult for programmers to install a public commenting system. This must be one of those academic projects ;p

  4. Last link. But this one … is worth watching: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=biJgILxGK0o

    • academicalism

      Hahaha! I recognize the Youtube link (to the BBC interview with Darcus Howe) without even clicking through — I’ve been circulating that one heavily as well, together with Laurie Penny’s whip-smart analysis, “Panic in the streets of London”: http://j.mp/nwsP62 (which I see you’ve RT’d as well)

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