Monday, August 16, 2010

Found Objects

I am very pleased that Studiolum took the time to respond to my review of Poemas del río Wang, and that he considered some of my suggestions on how to read his blog fitting to its design. Learning that one of the conscious models behind Río Wang is Alberto Savinio’s Nuova enciclopedia was a source of particular delight: there is so much that one could write about the digital form based on that stated affinity – a Master’s thesis’ worth perhaps. But in good time. So long as I have started to explore blogs as native digital forms, and speculate on which particular exemplars may be better suited to improving our media ecology, I want to turn my attention this week to a blog that is in several respects the opposite of Río Wang, at least on the surface.

From the Phase IV (1974) series, posted by Dolly Dolly at Found Objects

The idea for Found Objects came earlier this year to Mark Fisher, the author of Capitalist Realism and the blog k-punk. In both the book and the blog – the latter, just the other day – Mark makes the point that ‘screen culture is connective, not reflective’, and that one of the consequences of our wired lifestyles is a ‘twitchy, agitated interpassivity, an inability to concentrate or focus’. Sadly this is a debate that is framed more often by the likes of Nicholas Carr, author of the infamous ‘Is Google Making Us Stupid?’ and more recently of The Shallows, which – along with every other human in possession of a keyboard – I intend at some point to review. At any rate, without addressing either version of that viewpoint explicitly, I offered Río Wang to my readers last week as a model for a vision of cyberspace that is predicated precisely on creating the space and time for reflection, without repudiating any of the key aspects of digital textuality, but rather embracing them fully.

Río Wang stands out from the majority of blogs in a couple of respects that matter especially to what I want to discuss today: it rarely indulges in the quick, throwaway post, choosing a slow and very deliberate, considered approach, as if following a larger design (I don’t want to call it slow blogging without attempting to define what it means, which is not for today); and, in spite of its formidable armoury of images, it very rarely dumps them on the reader without exposition or analysis. You may wish to compare this with the very popular and in many respects admirable Bibliodyssey, of which I have, sadly, tired: there are only so many beautiful sets of pictures from rare and exquisitely illustrated sixteenth century tracts that I can gaze admiringly at before a jaded weariness sets in. Bibliodyssey strives generally to give basic information and context about all of these found treasures, but without an analytical and critical framework it’s just another one of those wonderful places on the Web – Strange Maps and How to Be a Retronaut seem to have become everyone’s favourites these days – that makes you go ‘Oh, cool!’ every single time. But more and more often these days I just click away. The twitch is setting in.

Having premised all this, you may think I would shudder at Found Objects’ tagline: 'hauntological dumping ground'. So I need to explain why it is that I don’t.

First things first: The term hauntology has its origins in Spectres of Marx, where Jacques Derrida used it to describe how Marxism survived as a ghostly, haunting presence after its death at the hand of history, but Fisher has given it a rather different remit, built over time in his writings at k-punk. Quite appropriately, you won't find a textbook definition there, but rather a series of analyses in which the fundamental traits of hauntology are gradually teased out (I'd commend to you in particular this masterful post on Kubrick's The Shining and this one on the Ghost Box label). As a result of this indeterminacy, you'll probably find that there are as many notions of hauntology as there are contributors to Found Objects (that is to say forty-five, and counting).

A fascio from the Identity Card of my great-grandmother, issued in 1938. Not posted at Found Objects.

While I realise that it is probably more literally-minded than most, my personal take on what an hauntological object is goes something like this.

There are no photographs of my maternal grandfather at a Fascist rally, nor did he preserve a copy of his Party membership card. However I know for a fact that both of them would have existed and it's quite easy to imagine what they looked like. Indeed looking at any one image of a public gathering in that area and from that period I could make a mental substitution, or even locate a stand-in that looks sufficiently like him, and put my grandfather in the scene without doing a major disservice to truth. Equally I could take his regular identity card from that era, scan somebody else’s Party card, transfer his photo from the former into the latter and create an artefact that, whilst forged, recreates a moment in the historical past whose documentary traces my family has erased. False memories of actual pasts, or real memories of pasts that failed to eventuate – like a letter that never reached its destination, or the promotional materials for a film that never got distributed – are hauntological, in that we can sense and sometimes even measure the gap between their truth and their untruth. They are not quite there, but they are not quite not-there either. Furthermore, and crucially for my understanding of all of this, the precisely shaped space left empty by my grandfather's Fascist Party membership card is also hauntological, a space defined by a concrete and meaningful absence. (To put it more simply: I know exactly where it is that we would keep it, but it’s not there, and its not being there is a presence of sorts.)

I'm sure you can see how this critical term would be essential to a proper understanding of mediated memory, and I will talk soon about the lamentable under-development of this dimension in memory studies. But hauntology does not refer simply to the past: we are also haunted by the futures that we no longer imagine. It is chiefly in this respect that Derrida's lesson in the otherwise largely dated Spectres of Marx remains most valuable, for Socialism is one such future. But so are the past futures of science fiction, of Futurism, of architecture and design, of science proper. John Ptak's brilliant blog Science Books is an acute and at times seemingly near-exhaustive catalogue of many of these branches of hauntology. At Found Objects thus far the main reservoir has been popular culture: music, film, television, comics, publishing, narrative fiction, advertising, a gallery of the self-explanatory mixed with the truly eclectic and surprising. And not all of the objects are found, either, some are original creations or remixes, such as this musical piece care of Unmann-Wittering or this short film by Dolly Dolly.

A frame from Dolly Dolly’s Ether. Reminiscent of Decasia but decidedly more haunting.

True to the dumping ground label, the posts on Found Objects to date are rarely accompanied by explanations. It is the objects, the ghosts themselves that enter into a conversation. For my only contribution thus far, for instance, I was rather uncannily led by a sign for Scarab Close to the place where I wrote last year about lost objects, and Found Magazine. All that remained to do was post (dump) the image and cover my tracks by not linking to where my scarab came from. I saw, for once, no place for reasoned argument, and besides that argument was, again, far too literally-minded to account for the spectral conversation, and too laden for the speed at which this conversation takes place.

That is something else: last Friday alone there were eighteen posts on Found Objects. There really is no time for saying ‘Oh, cool!’, or to get twitchy. It is a thing that moves, that buzzes. It reminds me a little of the road in Falling Out of Cars, except I am not sure if meaning is being lost or found. But it is the road itself, or if you prefer the track, that is becoming densely symbolic, a thing to think with: about cyberspace, about textuality and materiality, about history, culture, memory, time.

And then there are the contributors, for whom I might just have to dust off again the idea of authoriety. Whose blog is Found Objects? Is ours a research unit of sorts, or does it aspire to be? Could the project evolve along the lines of Hacking the Academy, with a book or in performance? Does Found Objects need a hashtag, and if it found one, could it cease to be a blog and just be out there, germinating in places that we cannot foresee, speaking other languages? If in fact the project has a limitation at this moment it is what I’d otherwise think of as a virtue: its being so predominantly (although not quite exclusively) of one place – for let’s face it, you’re not always going to feel terribly haunted unless you are British. But that too could change, and quickly.

There is a sense then in which Found Objects is a spectral double to Poemas del río Wang – as fast as the other is slow, proceeding by free association instead of studious reflection, speaking in a melange of voices instead of few carefully inflected and highly distinctive ones. But they both work, and do the work of mapping for us cyberspace not as it is, but as it could be. We need to value that.

Future Alarm. Posted by Mark.