Stronger Loving World

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Thursday, May 06, 2004

Reality Studios

The lights are out. The electricity bills haven't been paid in months. My roommate has been arguing for a long time with our electric company, in fact, when I moved in, I was told they were at a stand-off. I haven't paid one electric bill since I moved into my apartment. Now the lights are off. Adequately, the day the lights went off is the day I hit up my WI-FI for the first time. I met my friend Philee at Union Square last night and she gave me the used G3 I bought from her, airport card installed. I was sitting against the wall of Virgin Records reading "The Ticket That Exploded" to myself. When I get the chance to, I always read Burroughs out loud. It's lyrical, it's sexy, and it feels like a good pop song. Today I looked for some free wireless nodes in the city on, and I decided to try it out in Thompson Square Park. When those little arcs started up and I saw that I was connected, and when I finally launched the browser with my twelve inch notebook on my lap, it felt like some kind of magic trick. Here I am, on the Internet, and there are fucking birds chirping and attempting to poop on me, I can feel the wind, an old black man is playing guitar on the bench next to me. This has always been such an intensely private, personal experience. Now I'm connected to the world, and, at the same time, I'm still...connected to the world. I'm so excited now that I've decided to join up with nycwireless, a grassroots community creating free wireless hotspots all over the city, as a volunteer and hopefully a board member over the summer.

I won't attempt to theorize since I'm clearly 'discovering' this 3 or 4 years after everyone else has, but I will talk about what creeps me out about the word 'wireless'. When radios were originally marketed at the begining of the 20th century, they were given the name 'wireless'. They were originally intended as two-way communication devices, in the sense of a walkie-talkie. Instead, wireless, which was referred to as 'radiophony' and later as 'radio', developed a top-down, hierarchical model. Entertainment and culture industries dominated, receiver's became passive. I'm not suggesting this was a bad thing, I love old radio broadcasts. It's definately something I want to explore more. But technologies don't make themselves open to networks, nor do they create social structures. The Internet is not inherently decentralized. Yes, it was created specifically as a decentralized media, but it has only remained so because its consumers and adherents actively decide to keep it communal and, for the most part, inter-personal and active.

This is why it is difficult to politicize technology. It's not even a matter of who controls the means of production, or the ideology that a technology supposedly articulates and sublimates into the discourse( Marcuse's 'technological rationalism') it's about the niche that has been opened for a technology once it arrives, and the niche it chooses to carve out for itself. Burroughs' The Ticket that Exploded is a book about The Tape Recorder. It takes the form of a tape recorded conversation-broken, decontextualized, recombinated, no subject speaking. It is an attempt to redefine the novel after the tape recorder makes many of the novel's functions obsolete. The book belongs to Burroughs' Nova Trilogy, preceded by The Soft Machine and concluded in The Nova Express. Loosely, the pieces of story that fragment in and out of the book are about The Nova Mob, a group of aliens controlling the engines of reality by monopolizing the means of signification, or the production of meaning. The Nova Police counter the semiotic hegemony with what today would be called 'culture jamming', ie. guerilla semiotics. They key points Burroughs believes he is making: the tape recorder reifies the disassociation of the subject. It allows the subject to realize it is discursively produced and a product of a relation within a semiotic system. When Burroughs' MrBradley-MrSmith says "better than the real thing? Maya, there is no real thing", it is because he sees signification as a parlor trick, a house of mirrors, a 'veil'. The dualism Burroughs constructs is not between 'real' and 'unreal', but between signal and noise--the signals are part of a vast, arbitrary construction-The 'Reality Studio'. What Burroughs suggests is that the tape recorder, in its displacement of the subjects' voice and rupturing of the semiotic chain, produce pure noise-chaos, symbolic and physical.

Frankfurt to Luxemburg--Frankfurt to Luxemburg--The Americans are inserting us into their blooper reels!

"Both governments can record speeches, ultimatums, orders and counterorders-So record the whole war with its battles and sieges, victories and efeats, monumental fuc-ups and corny songs-You understand nobody hsa to bee there at all-So why ask questions and why answer?..-Why not leave your tape with her tape and dispense with sexual contact?"

The last line is of course comical, but with all of Burroughs' humor, the terror is in the reality of the joke, the sublimated desires that show on the surface, causing awkward tension. The dry and mordant tone of Burroughs' descriptions of sexual acts alternately make it perverse and distant, ironic and inquisitive to the point of physical discomfort. I said that 'the tape recorder is the greatest invention since the condom', and here's why-the tape recorder, at least this early 60's myth of the portable tape recorder, can produce subjects, initiate a discourse simply by extending itself spatially and temporally, disassociating from the context of a human face, of a human life. The magnetic strip is filled with iron, stripped in different directions, valenced, energized, dancing. Magnetic energy makes the human voice immortal. Recording technologies extend the most obvious signifiers of subjectivity, superficial functions we most associate with living, such as auditory and optical signals. Morever, Burroughs uses the tape recorder to reify the cut-up technique, splicing voices together to produce subjects speaking with several voices. This addresses the intersubjective nature of consciousness, the fact that the subject is a product of differentiations, ruptures that demarcate where I end and you begin.

'Cut-up' is a precursor to the avant-garde pastiche that constitutes later postmodern novels. I would argue, however, that it transcends any argument made by 'postmodern' authors by removing agency from the text. Rather than a convergence of linguistic codes, Burroughs' texts is a radiophonic experience, beginning not in the corpus of literature but outside literature, in the radio waves that pulse through the body and produce the information that constitutes written information. In his recognition of radiophony and magnetic tape as destabalizing forces, Burroughs adresses a point still ignored in contemporary literary studies: the text does not begin in the producer of the message or the receiver, the text is not an autonomous thing, whole only in its de-contextualized isolation from culture, and texts are not 'intertextual', engaging and playing only with a corpus of literature which the observers and receivers have dabbled in and whose symbolic matrix they are programmed with. Rather, the text as radiophonic or magnetic is an 'inter-informational' experience; information courses every second through every piece of the atmosphere. Radiowaves, microwaves, signals, pulses, satellite transmissions, Military satellites, cell phones, radiation, wireless nodes coursing around and through us like gas. It is incorrect to separate the experience of the written word from instant information-written language codes information that is produced and transformed elsewhere. Words are not things in themselves.

In an article from the journal 'Postmodern Culture' entitled 'Language out of Language: Excavating the Roots of Culture Jamming and Postmodern Activism from William S. Burroughs', theorist Todd Tietchen creates an opposition between the politics of Burroughsian 'culture-jamming' and what he calls "Frankfurt School Anxiety."

In his words: "The roots of Frankfurt School Anxiety can be discvered in 'The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception", in which Horkheimer and Adorno reject the politicsl possibilties of art in Wester society on the grounds that ny mass-produced aesthetic is complicit in the master formula of production, even when it attempts to deploy an alternate discourse..any discourse that participates in the formula and technologies of production-noo matter how revolutionary or radical that discourse may seem to be-reifies the very system it hopes to challenge or negate."

Tietchen suggests that the tactics deployed in The Ticket that Exploded provide an avenue out of "Frankfurt School Syndrome". The Nova Mob spread ideology by encrypting it into the word-which Burroughs continually warns us is actually a virus. (Though this was one of Burroughs' favorite catchphrases, the idea that "language is a virus" is more and more congruent with contemporary scientific models--much of Burroughs' off the wall assertions about the hyper-programmable state of the mind and analogies from virology--which paint the human brain as a spot of colonization and infestation rather than rational agency-are supported by memetics; [Dawkins' model of cultural evolution, butressed by game thoery, in which units or conglomerations of information spread, or reproduce, in a way identical to living organisms.]) The Nova Police defy this script by reifying the idea that the sign system that the The Nova Mob use to create and replicate reality within the reality studio is arbitrarily constructed. Morever, its acceptance is dependent on a total act of will, "to agree to be real is to be real". Tietchen believes that this, the equivalent of Situationist Detournment, obviates the need to create an oppositional model to capitalist ideology. By re-branding the existing codes of the capitalist framework, or 'culture jamming', the discourse is not reinscribed but rather decentered, its ownership falling out of an us-them binary and into an open battle field of guerilla semioticians.

If I can go off on a tangent, the opposition of Burroughs' tape recorder-as-guerilla-warfare and the Frankfurt School poetically addresses some of the founding features of the tape recorder. One of the most interesting aspects of magnetic tape is that it was perfected, as many technologies are, in the midst of war. And of course, the spoils went to the victors--in 1945 American and British technical investigators "discovered" the Magnetophon--the earliest functional prototype of a magnetic tape recorder-- in Luxembourg, France, and other places formerly occupied by the Germans. By Spring, these investigators begin gathering information about the production of tape recorders and tape, and the U.S. Department of Commerce published the information. The U.S. Alien Property Custodian seized German patent rights on the technology. One of the technology's first uses, thanks to a veteran named John Mullin was that of entertainment device, by way of Bing Crosby. Crosby struggled to popularize the form, which later became a staple of recorded American media. Throughout its existence, magnetic tape and the radio have always been kinds of reality studios--viral hotspots where the culture industry reproduces itself. In the crucial moment when American luxury and extravagance discovered German efficiency, the engines of reality were set into motion.

An early magneto-phone

I don't think Burroughs' form of culture-jamming was as political as believed, and while there may indeed by a line of connection from Dadaism to cut-ups to Adbusters, I think that it misses the poetic energy of Burroughs' concepts to trace their lines and oppose them to capitalist ideology. The Nova Police don't negate the Nova Mob--more often than not, they are fucking them. The disastrous and grotesque sex in Burroughs novels, a consistent reminder of his disgust with the human body and what he sees as the asymmetry of nature, also articulates Burroughs' fascination with magnetic tape. The technological fetishist redirects the libido into capitalist commodities. But Burroughs' tape recorder is the subject, object, and the means of sex--rather than clumsily attempt to occupy the same "three dimensional coordinate points", we can get down to the psychic frenzy, the ontological orgy, without having anything as clumsy and burdensome as our bodies present.

"Lovers exchange tapes-You understand nobody has to be there at all-So why ask questions and why answer?-Why give orders and why make speeches?-Why not leave your tape with her tape and dispense with sexual contact"

As Mcluhanesque 'extensions of the central nervous system', the tape recorder is a displacement of 'sense', of being, of presence. Burroughs wants us to not only imagine a world where this presence is mechanized and exchanged freely, but to imagine a world where presence itself is removed from the human experience. Why be here--"why be anywhere?" Not signals, but noise. Not beliefs, but radiations of sense. From the left a soft hum and light rattle, from the right the rattlesnake bites.

The radio is wireless. The tape recorder is bodiless. Intelligence is formless. It's sometimes not enough to hold technology and think 'where can this take me', but to ask, 'why be here?' why be anywhere?

"Last round over-Remember i was the ship gives to flesh identity-lips fading-silence to say good bye-" See the action, BJ? This Hassan I Sabbah really works for Naval Intelligence and...Are you listening BJ?"

The lights are still off. I'm lighting cigarettes at a gas stove.

John Mullin recalls the early days of tape

Magnetic Tape History

More History of Magnetic Tape

Burroughs' The Electronic Revolution in PDF Format

Burroughs' The Invisible Generation, originally published in The Ticket That Exploded