Swerve Academic Resources
This page contains suggestions for academic resources that engage and expand upon the themes and ideas raised in Swerve. These resources have been submitted by various scholars. If you would like to become a contributor, just email us: email@example.com.
Chapter One: Welcome to the Zone
Contributors: Zach Horton, Alexandra Magearu, Allison Schifani, Katie Kelp-Stebbins
The boundaries of "The Zone" seem more conceptual or discursive than physical. Only a small fence and signage seem to delimit this boundary line. Inside, "nothing can survive for long" (except arachnids). Outside is the "normal" world that we don't see. The Zone is a Zone of contamination, but in this Chapter we don't know what the nature of this contamination is. An intertextual reference could include Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky's similarly surreal science fiction film, Stalker. Tarkovsky's film similarly charts a boundary line (in which a monochromatic sepia image gives way to a color image) of a mysteriously contaminated area, called "The Zone." While referencing the risk of nuclear contamination, Tarkovsky also evokes the reclaiming of urban ruins by a resurgent nature. An article that explores this aspect of the film in relation to Chernobyl can be found here.
"The Zone" is also reminiscent of William Burroughs' novel Naked Lunch, which describes a nightmarish sector called "Interzone." Interzone may be an interstitial location, or an alternate reality (is it virtual or real?). This novel figures language as viral, contagious.
Michel Foucault calls a location that connects to many other locations but is deliberately cordoned off from them a "heterotopia." For him, modern civilization produces many such sites, "places that do exist and that are formed in the very founding of society - which are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted." His essay can be found here.
Henri Lefebvre's The Production of Space is one seminal materialist investigation of spatial order--both 'natural' and 'social' (these terms, however, are not for Lefebvre, and certainly not in terms of The Zone, oppositional or mutually exclusive concepts. Of course, so-called 'virtual' space is part of what emerges as a troubled and troubling site in "The Zone." While Marshall McLuhan might suggest a world in which the body is left behind for a liquid, digital existence "abolishing both space and time," the future imagined by "The Zone" suggests otherwise. Bodies, biological, microbial, animal, are still very much present in the landscape.
While Sam and Pax are hiking through the woods, they discuss the fact that the only animals that can survive in the Zone are arachnids. Pax confesses that she once got bit by a tick there. The tick has captivated the attention of scientists and philosophers through its curious behaviour. In "The Open: Man and Animal," Giorgio Agambern discusses German biologist Jakob von Uexküll's studies of the umwelt of the tick (Uexküll's term, "umwelt", defines the environment in which the animal acts as subject). Being deprived of the sense of seeing, that of hearing and even that of taste, the tick functions only through its sense of smell and its sensitivity to bodily temperatures which allows it to identify the organisms it will prey on. Following Uexküll's observation, Agamben notes that the tick seems to exist not as the intersection of relationships to its environment, it "is this relationship, she lives only in it and for it." However, Uexküll also informs us that a tick was mysteriously kept alive in laboratory conditions and in absolute isolation from its environment for almost eighteen years in which time it was thought that it lied in a sleep-like self-sufficient condition. For an animal that is considered to be the very relationship to its environment, Agamben asks, how are we to account for the complete detachment of the tick: "But what comes of the tick and its world in this state of suspension that lasts eighteen years? How is it possible for a living being that consists entirely in its relationship with the environment to survive in absolute deprivation of its environment? And what sense does it make to speak of 'waiting' without time and without world?" (p. 47)
In the chapter 'Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming Imperceptible' of their major work, '"A Thousand Plateaus," Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari mention the tick as well in terms of its functioning via three major affects at a given degree of power - it is attracted by the intensity of the light, the heat and the smell of mammals that pass under its branch and it digs into the skin in the least hairy place in order to draw blood: "Just three affects; the rest of the time the tick sleeps, sometimes for years on end, indifferent to all that goes on in the immense forest. Its degree of power is indeed bounded by two limits: the optimal limit of the feast after which it dies, and the pessimal limit of the fast as it waits. It will be said that the tick's three affects assume generic and specific characteristics, organs and functions, legs and snout." (p. 257) You can here view an interview with philosopher Gilles Deleuze on the subjects of animality, becoming-animal and different species of animals (including the tick).
Jussi Parikka's Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology extends Deleuze and Guattari's discussion to examine the role of insects as technological models. As Parikka points out, while insects remain radically nonhuman, "they present a curious threat but perhaps also a possibility of a future nonhuman life" (p. xxxiv). Although the spiders of the zone pose a threat to humanity, Parikka reminds us of their ability to weave communication systems that precede and inform those webs used by modern humans.
Nicole Shukin's work on biomobility in her Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times offers the concept of "biomobility": "If telemobility traffics in the promise of a ‘painless transmission’ of affect through seemingly ethereal global networks, with biomobility the substance of virtual communication reappears in the pandemic potential of communicable disease. Biomobility names, in other words, the threat of telecommunications’ pathological double, the potential of infectious disease to rapidly travel through the social flesh of a globally connected life world." The tick and perhaps the arachnids may be the figures of biomobility in The Zone, but they function also as traces of the trajectories taken by an unnamed biomobile past.
Cyborgs and Informatics
In the monologue that precedes "The Zone" the speaker questions whether her body is "data or a vessel through which data passes." This question underpins the interweavings of information, technology, and bodies in "The Zone," and in academic discussions of cyborgs (machine-organism hybrids). Both N. Katherine Hayles and Donna Haraway argue that human subjects have become cyborg following the development of cybernetics and informatics. However, in Hayles' How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics, and Haraway's seminal "A Cyborg Manifesto" the authors question how seamlessly biological organisms, data, and machines can be articulated. Kaja's inability to plug in without a skin port highlights disjunctures in biological and technological hardware. Hayles argues that the cyborg "partakes of the power of the imagination as well as of the actuality of technology" (p. 115); "The Zone" likewise destabilizes boundaries between bodies and information technologies. Although Pax stipulates that in The Zone "the digital can't range any further than the eye," the segment ends with Samm's statement that when he wipes someone here, "someone under stops breathing."
This film is clearly playing with elements from the science fiction genre known as "cyberpunk." Developing along with home computer technology, this genre rose to prominence in the early 1980s, culminating in William Gibson's novel Neuromancer from 1984. Gibson depicts a future world that has sunk (or risen) into social anarchy and squatter-like conditions even as technology has become ever more fabulous, producing anarchistic space colonies, a vast worldwide network of black market technology development, and most specularly, an online virtual world called "cyberspace." Gibson and others connected cheap computing, virtuality, and cybernetics, providing a dirty, dystopian view of the future that was distinctly different from the clean, antiseptic vision of future technology in Star Trek. Along the way, they made hacking (and science fiction) hip. Their narratives essentially involved making data visible. Many of the programmers and technology innovators of the 1990s were directly influenced by the visions of the Cyberpunk authors. For a good introduction to the genre, read What is Cyberpunk? by Rudy Rucker, written in 1986. Wired writer Paul Saffo later claimed that Cyberpunk was dead, to be replaced by a popularized, utopian form analogous to the translation of edgy beat culture into mainstream hippie culture in the 1960s. Read his article here. Besides Neuromancer, Mirrorshades and The Ultimate Cyberpunk are excellent anthologies of Cyberpunk short fiction.
Pax, in her voiceover about technology, calls it "techne." This is an ancient Greek word that means "art" or "craft," with an emphasis on the making or revealing something. This is the basis for the contemporary English word "technology." For the ancient Greeks, however, techne had a broader meaning and application, and including the "practical" arts. Martin Heidegger, no fan of modern technology, suggests in his essay "The Question Concerning Technology" that a return to a more generative and creative form of techne may be possible. Heidegger's difficult essay can be found here.
There seems to be a very fragile tension between the material world of The Zone - what we would call perhaps the "real"- and the virtual world that is either generated from within the world or has already become a world in its own sense. Samm and Pax discuss this tension in terms of "being under" or "going over." Virtuality, therefore, becomes a mode of transcendence, through which material bodies are left behind to be replaced by ghost-like avatars. The correspondence between the two worlds doesn't seem to work on a one-to-one basis. On the contrary, the relation between the two worlds seems to be disrupted at times and there is already the intimation that virtuality might function as an independent world with its own rules and reactions. When Samm goes over, he takes on a female body - the gender binary becomes irrelevant in the virtual world. In the Prologue to her book, "How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics," Katherine Hayles argues that in our computer age "the erasure of embodiment is performed so that 'intelligence' becomes a property of the formal manipulation of symbols rather than enaction in the human lifeworld." If you would communicate with two entities in another room via a computer terminal, telling the gender of the interlocutor would become impossible. Similarly, she adds, in 1950 Alan Turing suggested a test by which you use the responses coming from two different entities in order to decide which is human and which is a machine - one of them is set to answer the questions truthfully, the other will mislead you - if you cannot tell which is which, then, Turing argued, it is a proof that machines can think. With the erasure of embodiment binaries such as male/female, human/machine, subject/object are deleted. It remains to be debated whether structural differences are erased as well in a homogenizing gesture.
In "Impossible Exchange," Jean Baudrillard argues that, since in our modern day society all other previous artificial systems such as metaphysics, magic or religion have failed, we have come to a rather more radical solution - the invention of virtual reality - a parallel universe that is "an artificial transcription" of the real world, but nevertheless does not reflect it, does not have to be exchanged for "a transcendence or finality from elsewhere." Unlike metaphysics for instance, the virtual world is non-referential, its signifiers are disentangled from signification. In response to the death of God, we have devised a system that no longer functions on a gift/counter-gift basis, since the virtual world is artificially made, built from scratch; it does not depend on giving something back in return. But in the process of disentangling ourselves from an artificial responsibility, we have reached a stage where the technological world is slowly consuming the natural one. Baudrillard believes that the effects of such a radical gesture are unprecedented because we are gradually eliminating the elements that have enabled us to distinguish ourselves from inorganic matter through sexual differentiation. With the advent of new technologies such as cloning or virtual reality, there is an impulse towards undifferentiation, towards the elimination of difference via simulation.
The Zone is full of abandoned structures, repurposed by the figures who inhabit it. Considerable work has been done on the potential of repurposed space, recharged or recycled architectures. Failed Architecture is a group of artists, architects and academics who are in the process of exploring the ways in which we are already contending with failed sites. Of particular interest to those exploring the spaces engaged by the film might be their work on "Ruin Porn."
Michel de Certeau's The Practice of Everyday Life examines the practice of walking in the city. De Certeau sets up an opposition between spatial strategy (the top-down work done by the city planner, for example) and spatial tactics (the work done by the walker who marks her own idiosyncratic path through the city, ducking down alleyways or climbing over fences.) The Zone, like any space, offers both affordances and prohibitions. Sam and Pax engage the spatial systems of The Zone tactically. Indeed, given the fact of The Zone as an outside, other, even 'non'-place, tactical spatial practice may be the only possible way to mobilize in this world.
Chapter Two: Inscription
Contributors: Alexandra Magearu, Zach Horton, Elizabeth Shayne
Inscription is loosely synonymous with “writing,” but also indicates the attribution of authorship (this is the historical root of the word), and the act of marking something physically. Inscription as process is thus poised at the boundary between language (including code) and material instantiation or embodiment. It is where the symbolic meets the material. N. Katherine Hayles' work is particularly pertinent here. How We Became Posthuman explores the complex interplay between symbolic code and physical embodiment, arguing that the former cannot be abstracted from the latter, despite transhumanist dreams of “uploading” one's consciousness into a computer or form other than one's biological body. Writing Machines elaborates her concept of “media specific analysis,” arguing that we cannot fully understand a code or text without taking into account the medium in which it was inscribed, be it a book, a TV image, or a digital file.
Inscription technologies and interfaces are particularly significant when considering the translation and mediation (or transcription) of digital codes into analog form, or vice versa. Lev Manovich's The Language of New Media examines digital media at length, charting the ways that previous interfaces and aesthetics are remediated (with a difference) in digital practice. This is also the subject of Jay David Bolter's and Richard Grusin's Remediation. These scholars follow Marshall McLuhan's insight that “the 'content' of any medium is always another medium" ([ Understanding Media]). Wendy Chun, in [ Control and Freedom], notes that digital interfaces interpellate their users, and thus that software produces users. She examines the rise of post-World War II technologies in cybernetics, computers, and networking, leading to the reduction of political problems to technological ones. High critical of techno-utopian notions of the Internet as liberating and democratizing, she argues that “technological solutions alone or in the main cannot solve political problems, and the costs of such attempts are too high: not only do such solutions fail but their implementation also generalizes paranoia.” (p. 25) Paul Edwards' [ The Closed World] focuses on the history of the computer and the ARPAnet (precursor to the Internet) in the second half of the 20th century, charting the surprising ways that the protocols and design features of these technologies were shaped by their military uses and Cold War culture. When these very same military technologies were adapted for civilian use in the 1990s, it could be argued that civilians were inscribed with some of these informatic protocols, and their own digital inscirptions were constrained by the same.
Louis Althusser famously described the material inscription of ideology as “interpellation,” the process by which a social field “hails” an individual, and thereby predetermines one's role and identity within that society. For Althusser the identities exist before an individual is even born, and thus interpellation starts in the womb. Individuals grow up already inscribed into an ideological system, and their actions and beliefs seem “natural” even though they are anything but. This process is symbolic, but also material, as individuals are made to perform various repetitive tasks that reinforce belief systems. Kaja's induction into a new culture and technological system, and Alsa's explanation of the social structure of the Zone, literalizes these inscriptions processes.
Franz Kafka's short story, [ In the Penal Colony] describes a physical apparatus that literally inscribes the Law on human bodies, linking inscription and inscription technologies with colonialism and control.
Cybernetics, or the study of feedback systems in animals, humans, and machines, was invented by Norbert Wiener in 1948. Wiener's famous book is Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. By describing nested feedback systems in mathematical detail, Wiener hoped to generate a technological and conceptual schema that could explain the functioning of machines and organisms in general terms, as well as aid in the design of technologies that could couple humans and machines into complex assemblages that would function as single units, such as anti-aircraft gun systems and contemporary biomedical devices. Cybernetics paved the way for human-machine hybrids, and revealed the potential for control inherent in such couplings.
In her influential text, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late 20th Century,” Donna Haraway offers the figure of the cyborg as a hybrid organism, half human - half machine, a matter of fiction and lived experience, both metaphorical image and a lived reality of the highly technological Western society: “we are all chimeras, theorized, and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centers structuring any possibility of historical transformation.” We have all already become cyborgs whether we realize it or not. Being cyborg is not a matter of choice, it is an obligatory instantiation of being in our modern day society, whether it has to do with our literal organic entanglements with technology through medical prosthesis or with our shifted sensorial modes of functioning by rapport to technology – our relationship with technology is either evidently material or an internalized character of our embodiment in a world populated by machines. The figure of the cyborg is part of our evolutionary history alongside media technologies and intelligent machines. However, the cyborg becomes a subversive figure once it is acknowledged as an alternative mode of embodiment, once it becomes a political and strategic assumption of identity, once its hybrid peripheral qualities are brought forth in order to dismantle the center. Cyborgs appear in zones of liminality as a result of three crucial breakdowns of boundaries: the border between human and animal which is transgressed towards the formation of “disturbingly and pleasurably tight coupling”; the animal-human (organism) and machine division where “our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert”; the physical / non-physical distinction where cyborgs become floating signifiers, both etherial and opaque presences. Cyborgs also contain the seeds for both dystopian and utopian futures: they are, on the one hand, a sign of the spread of invasive technologies around and within our bodies, a potential emancipation of the technologies of biopolitical control; but, on the other hand, “a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints.”
"Every Contact Leaves a Trace." In his book, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination, Matthew Kirschenbaum borrows this phrase form the realm of forensic science and applies it to the data in the hard disk. Every act of magnetic inscription is, in principle, traceable and recoverable. There is no data without a material substrate. Kirschenbaum wants to redirect critical attention away from current medial ideology—which is enamored with the with the idea that electronic texts and digital data generation replace "inscription, mechanism, sweat of the brow and cramp of the hand [with] light, reason and energy unleashed in the electric empyrean" (39). Instead, he advocates a focus on "forensic materiality," which acknowledges the materiality of new media and argues that it "cannot be studied apart from individual instances of inscription, object and code as they propagate on, across and through specific storage devices" (23). The digital data stream is inscribed on the spinning disks and, as Vector says at the beginning of the second episode, he could take it to a (data) miner and learn about a woman's life 70 years in the past. The magnetic hard disk with its read/write head and moving parts is becoming a thing of the past. Current data inscription practices appears more and more ephemeral and it is easy to forget that material writing is still happening, not only with a Solid State Disk, but also within the minds and bodies of the user. Data transfers itself to the human body. Every contact leaves a trace.
Chapter Three: Work
Contributors: Michael Grafals, Paul Megna, Dasha Sadovnikova
The Medieval Morality Play
During the Western Middle Ages (c. 700-1500), devotional became increasingly popular in England and throughout Europe. A plethora of so-called "morality plays" survive, which typically feature allegorical characters such as Mankind, Everyman, Conscience, Vice, Mercy, etc. Morality plays attempted to educate via entertainment. It is thought that the Dominican and Franciscan orders of Christian friars developed the morality play in the 13th century by adding actors and theatrical elements to their sermons. By doing so, the (mainly illiterate) masses could more easily learn the basics of Christianity through dramatic spoken word. This made complex topics such as original sin and atonement more easily understood. By personifying vices, virtues, the Devil and the Good Angel, stories of temptation were made accessible to those who were unable to read them themselves. The main theme of the morality play is this: Man begins in innocence, man falls into temptation, Man repents and is saved. The central action is the struggle of Man against the seven deadly sins that are personified into real characters (prosopopoeia). It is believed that the allegory of vices and virtues fighting over Man’s soul goes back to the 4th century Roman epic, Psychomachia. This allegorical application of theatre to Christianity is intended to help the audience understand the greater concepts of sin and virtue. The three greatest temptations that Man faces in morality plays are The World, The Flesh, and The Devil. It is stressed that “Sin is inevitable” but that “repentance is always possible.” Morality plays were not holiday-specific; they could be performed at any time of the year, as repentance occurs at any time of the year.
Morality plays typically contain a protagonist who represents either humanity as a whole or a smaller social structure. Supporting characters are personifications of good and evil. This alignment of characters provides the play’s audience with moral guidance. Morality plays are the result of the dominant belief of the time period, that humans had a certain amount of control over their post-death fate while they were on earth. In Everyman, perhaps the archetypal morality play, the characters take on the common pattern, representing broader ideas. Some of the characters in Everyman are God, Death, Everyman, Good-Deeds, Angel, Knowledge, Beauty, Discretion, and Strength. The personified meanings of these characters are hardly hidden. The premise of Everyman is that God, believing that the people on earth are too focused on wealth and worldly possessions, sends Death to Everyman to remind him of God's power and the importance of upholding values. The emphasis put on morality, the seemingly vast difference between good and evil, and the strong presence of God makes Everyman one of the most concrete examples of a morality play. At the same time, most morality plays focus more on evil, while Everyman focuses more on good, highlighting sin in contrast. Other plays that take on the typical traits of morality plays, but are rarely given the title of "morality play" are Hickscorner and The Second Shepherds' Play. The characters in Hickscorner are Pity, Perseverance, Imagination, Contemplation, Freewill, and Hickscorner. They blatantly represent moral ideals. In The Second Shepherds' Play, the characters are less obviously representative of good and evil, being primarily a trio of shepherds. But other characters such as Mary, The Child Christ, and An Angel show a strong moral presence and the importance of God in the play.
For more information of medieval morality plays, see David Bevington's Medieval Drama, Lawrence Clopper's Drama, Play and Game: English Festive Culture in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods and as does V.A. Kolve's The Play Called Corpus Christie.
Consciousness and Mediation
This episode begins and is interspersed by the Earth-Technology-Everyman play presented to Vector Bruno's congregation. Modeled on the medieval mystery play, it presents an allegorical history of humanity's separation from the Earth through its dependence on Technology's virtualization of human experience. The play is presented with the didactic aim of convincing the congregation in recognizing the world outside the zone as a fallen world, where an original mediation of the world through human consciousness is replaced by technological mediation. The very form of the play as a representation presents itself as a concern in Vector's opening prologue. Because the play is in large part about the fall of humanity through the mediation of apparatuses of representation, Vector must provide a defense for its genre of representation by arguing that the play is represented by live actors in the flesh. The use of characters which represent abstract concepts can be read as indicative of Vector's anxiety and ambivalence towards his own play, especially towards any realistic effects in representation which could possibly have audience confuse reality with representation.
The play begins with the Earth and Technology as characters who have persisted since of the origin of time, Technology playing the role of servant to the Earth. The Earth feels the desire to perceive both herself and her works as something to be reflected. It is said that none of her creatures have the capacity to conceive of her in all her perfection, as a wholeness. Technology suggests man to the Earth as a creature capable of being conscious of the Earth and recognizing her value. Human consciousness is represented here as something created to commune with nature; that is, to participate in a pact of recognition where man's consciousness of the Earth reciprocates their mutual recognition. There are dialectics of recognition at play in this drama between Earth/Everyman, Technology/Earth and Everyman/Technology. A point of reference here is Hegel's discussion of the master-slave dialectic in his Phenomenology of Sprit (1807) as crucial in consciousness' recognition of itself.
Technology puts itself in rivalry against the Earth, convincing Everyman to put its consciousness under the subjection of its apparatuses of mediation. Technology accomplishes this partly by attempting to coax Everyman in breaking what appears to be a boundary of separation that is implicated within an established ethics of recognition between Earth and Everyman. By Everyman "getting too close" to the Earth, human consciousness crosses a sacred/profane boundary of perception which is associated with, on one side, reverence for the Earth, and on the other, ways of seeing which collaborates with Technology's project of domination through mediation. The latter mode of perception, which acts as a form of violence to the Earth, is comparable to to Heidegger's concept of Gestell (sometimes translated as "enframing") elaborated in his essay "The Question Concerning Technology" (1954) which is described as a "way of revealing which holds sway in the essence of modern technology and which is itself nothing technological."
The plugging into virtuality of Everyman is seen as a violation both of human consciousness as unmediated perception and its ethical relationship of recognition with the Earth. Through technological mediation the Earth disappears to be replaced by Technology's simulacrum. It is significant that Vector intervenes in the play as the deux ex machina to save the character of Everyman from technological representations. This act can be read to represent Vector's drive to destroy all forms of mediated representation, even his own play. The play ends with the destruction of the stage as the Earth calls out to Everyman to come to her and receive her forgiveness. Vector's dismantling and unveiling of the the representational apparatuses of the outdoor theater reveals the natural landscape outside the representation.
Corporate Work in Overspace
Seen only in over-space, Nanscop, like the nomadic cyber-elite discussed by the Critical Art Ensemble in their work entitled "Nomadic Power and Cultural Resistance", is “a transcendent entity that can only be imagined” (Critical Art Ensemble 785). Its virtual work takes place in the Workshop, a “fixed sight machine appearing as spectacle” (784), where the labor is “abstract” (Fuchs 248)--its connection to its products is untraceable. For instance, as Kaja discovers, the “optimiz[ation of] network data propagation” is performed by couples dancing ballroom, while NN, the plant care-taker, admits to not knowing the “real” effects of her work. In the material world, however, Nanscop creates a “diffuse power field without location” (Critical Art Ensemble 784)—the “real” products of the Workshop, “invisible” (785) in over-space, are powerful and pernicious, having resulted, according to NN, in the torture of people in Pakistan. Thus, Nanscop, operating in over-space, an “ambiguous zone without borders” (783), is enabled to be “always on the offensive” by the “obscenity of the spectacle”—the Workshop—and “the terror of speed” (784)—the frightening immediacy of its effects on the material world.
Chapter Four: Information
Contributors: Lindsay Thomas, Tim Gilmore, Zach Horton
The Modern Technological Attitude
In the opening scene of chapter four, Mr. Bruno poses the question of what does a windmill do when there is no wind? The answer he gives is that it waits. He then goes on to mention that there are technologies that receive and those which extract, prying things open. Behind this understated critique of the scientists with whom he is conversing resonates Heidegger’s discussion in “The Question Concerning Technology” of the modern technological attitude. The key terms Heidegger uses to open up consideration of this attitude are enframing (gestell) and standing reserve. Heidegger’s essay is intentionally structured as a questioning and as such is designed to allow the form of the question to guide the gradual opening up of the object of investigation, rather than force it open in an analytic determined by a thesis used like a crowbar to extract the essence of technology, of the object in question. As a result, his text unfolds with multiple layers of definition of his key terms, as if teasing out an understanding that will allow the shape to emerge suggestively rather than definitively. This form is carefully chosen as a counter to the logic of enframing he attempts to reveal.
In order to understand what enframing and standing reserve indicate about the modern technological attitude, Heidegger begins by discussing the Ancient Greek concept of technē, which he says is “the name not only for the activities and skills of the craftsman, but also for the arts of the mind and the fine arts.” He situates technē as a form of poiēsis, or bringing-forth, which is itself an expression of physis, or the bringing-forth of something out of itself—one could understand physis as that to which Dylan Thomas refers in his line “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” The artist carving out of a block of wood is engaged in poiēsis, or the act of bringing-forth the shape that resides in the wood, waiting to be revealed by the art of the woodworker. The windmill is a form of technology that receives the energy of the wind and transfers it for human use and is used as an example by Heidegger of technology that leaves things be, because, unlike modern technology, it does not challenge nature to provide energy to be not only used but also stored. Herein resides the significance of what Heidegger says about the standing reserve: our modern technological attitude produces technology designed to challenge the operations of nature and extract from them that which humans need to perpetuate our complex informational and technological systems. The power grid functions as a complex network dependent on an even more complex system of resource extraction, distribution, storage, transformation, and further distribution. Everything becomes for the human a resource to be controlled and placed in reserve for current and future use, even other humans.
The technology that facilitates this system is determined ultimately by the modern technological attitude, which, as Heidegger says, is nothing technological but rather a way of understanding and engaging with the world. This is what he calls enframing. Enframing is the modern technological attitude that brings forth all things within the logic of the standing reserve. Heidegger calls enframing a “challenging claim which gathers man thither to order the self-revealing as standing-reserve.” In another formulation, he says that, “Enframing means the gathering together of that setting-upon which sets upon man, i.e., challenges him forth, to reveal the real, in the mode of ordering, as standing-reserve. Enframing means that way of revealing which holds sway in the essence of modern technology and which is itself nothing technological.” This complex formulation means that our modern technological attitude is a form of ordering of the world that gathers things together in order to use them according to a logic that sets everything as to be used for human benefit. In its ordering and challenging forth of things, the human is both product and producer of enframing; we see things through the enframing that orders them and we are enframed as well. Our own enframing can be understood as akin to the way in which ideology remains transparent to us even as it shapes our ability to understand our experience.
Our contemporary ecological crises result from the logic of enframing and the technological attitude, which subsume the whole world within a resource logic of the standing reserve and make it difficult to think reflexively about this logic in order to see what it conceals and that it can be altered. Heidegger claims that we are increasingly incapable of coming into relation with ourselves and things outside of enframing. As a result, we have lost sight of alternative and previous forms of revealing and even of revealing as such—the significance of physis and poiēsis are increasingly concealed, as is the wisdom they offer to be brought forth. For an exploration of Heidegger’s important concepts of ereignis and gelassenheit as ways to address the problem of enframing one could start with his “Conversation on a Country Path About Thinking” in Discourse on Thinking.
Lucretius and the Swerve
Charlie discourses on the nature of atoms and the “clinamen,” or “swerve.” “Clinamen” is Lucretius' word (Latin) for an infinitesimal deviation for uniformity, commonly translated in English as “swerve.” Lucretius' great poem, written in the first century B.C.E., is The Nature of Things. This famous work is a cosmic description of matter itself, from the tiniest of particles (atoms) to the vastness of intersteller space, as well as a poetic statement of Epicureanism. Epicurus, from classical Greece, had held that the highest principle and pursuit in life is pleasure. Opposing lust and greed, Epicurus taught that calm enjoyment of simple things and intellectual engagement with close friends comprised the good life. Following Democritus, he was an atomist who believed that all matter was composed of tiny, indissoluble, immortal particles, or atoms, that were constantly in flux and came together in great formations that gave rise to all of the forms encountered in the world, from living creatures to planetary bodies. A religious skeptic, Epicurus did not believe in the immateriality or immortality of the soul or the active influence of the gods (if they existed) in human affairs. Lucretius, two hundred years later, fused Epicurus' teachings in natural and moral philosophy into a grand vision of dancing atoms caught up in cosmic cycles of decay and renewal. The poem, an ode to Venus as the material, creative (but undesigned or directed) agency of the universe at large. Lucretius' sense of wonder at the generative potential of an atomistic universe is echoed by Charlie, who refers to a famous passage in The Nature of Things:
- when bodies fall though empty space
- Straight down, under their own weight, at a random time and place,
- They swerve a little. Just enough of a swerve for you to call
- It a change of course. Unless inclined to swerve, all things would fall
- Right through the deep abyss like drops of rain. There would be no
- Collisions, and no atom would meet atom with a blow,
- And Nature thus could not have fashioned anything, full stop. (42)
The image of a rain of atoms suggests a deterministic grid of particles in a vacuum, producing nothing larger or more complex than themselves. According to Lucretius, it is the tiny variance, or as Charlie puts it, “the slightest hint of non-uniform motion,” that alters this picture by leading to collisions, which in tern lead to the unexpected: series of amalgamations, course changes, attractions and repulsions, until entirely new assemblages of matter are formed. As we know certain structures tend to complexify, forming everything from gargantuan planets and galaxies to life itself. Lucretius' poem, then, presents a world devoid of supernatural powers, yet worthy of our greatest awe. Far from being a dead, deterministic world, there is great enchantment in the universe conjured up by Lucretius' atomic dances. Indeed, he connects the swerve with freewill, “wrenched away from the fates.” (43) The unexpected swerve of matter itself leads to the possibility of creativity, of intervention in the order of things, and the production of new forms. As Charlie elaborates here and elsewhere, the materialistic, enchanted view of the universe authorizes not only a kind of joy or pleasure, but the creative production of futures captured by Henri Bergson's concept of the virtual.
An etext of The Nature of Things can be found online in many places, including here.
The passages quoted above are excerpted from the excellent contemporary translation by A. E. Stallings, available here
Recently, English scholar Stephen Greenblatt has written a Pulitzer Prize winning book of popular scholarship about Lucretius' poem and its rediscovery in the fifteenth century, taking as his title a slight deviation from that which graces this film: The Swerve. Greenblatt's argument is that the rediscovery of a copy of the poem by ex-Papal secretary Poggio Bracciolini in a German monastery in 1417 produced its own kind of “swerve” in European culture, helping to catalyze the Renaissance, which was characterized by an intense artistic and intellectual interest in (few) surviving texts by pagan writers of ancient Greece and Rome. Lucretius' poem lead a second life as a “profound intellectual and creative challenge” to Christian orthodoxy. (225) Greenblatt's book can be found here.
At the end of Chapter Four, Alsa gives The Mailman some packets to deliver to “the other end.” Although The Mailman concedes his job is to deliver these packets to their destinations, he also warns Alsa that it’s not his job to “know if anybody’s home” to read the packets he delivers. This is a succinct description of IP, part of the suite of communications protocols used to connect hosts on the Internet, known as TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol). IP is responsible for moving data from node to node within a network, and it uses a method called packet switching to do this. Packet switching entails grouping data – regardless of its content, type, or structure – into similarly sized packets that are transmitted over a shared network to their destination. Depending on network traffic, these packets take different routes and different amounts of time to reach this destination; IP therefore provides what’s called a “best effort” or unreliable protocol, meaning it doesn’t provide any guarantees that data is delivered.
Because of this unreliability, TCP is used to order these packets and ensure their arrival. TCP keeps track of packets of data, requests lost packets, rearranges packets that arrive out of order, and reduces network congestion; in other words, TCP ensures a reliable network connection and corrects problems associated with variable delay. It is commonly used today, for example, to connect to servers on the Internet and for accurately delivering email. It appears the transmissions sent from the Zone lack this protocol.
In his work on networks, Alexander Galloway has defined the protocol as both the set of rules or codes that makes specific networks possible and the constitutive logic of governance for networks (see Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization and The Exploit: A Theory of Networks). TCP/IP, in other words, tells us something about how information on the Internet is governed and controlled. The lack of a coherent transmission control protocol might lead us to wonder what other protocols define the Zone: what logics of control exist within its borders?
Chapter Five: Deletion
Contributors: Sho Tsubakiyama
Shortly before he drank hemlock, Socrates described philosophy as a preparation for death (Phaedo 61c-69e). For him, death referred to the separation of the two elements that he believed composed all human beings: the corporeal body and immaterial soul. According to this position known as dualism, it is possible that the soul can persist even after its separation from the body. Therefore, Socrates and other dualists argue that life after death is possible, because our souls survive the physical death of our bodies.
In opposition to this view, the philosophical doctrine of physicalism (also known as materialism) holds that all things are solely composed of matter. According to this position, nonmaterial entities such as the soul do not exist. Rather, human consciousness is the product of our brain functions, and life terminates when our bodies cease to function. Therefore, this position denies the dualist’s possibility of life after death via the soul’s persistence.
In comparing these two views, we begin to see the complexity of death. In one sense, it can be viewed as a physical process by which the body decays, and thus death could be described in terms of physical moments, like when the heart no longer beats, breathing stops, or brain activity ceases. However, the difficulty in defining when this physical moment occurs leads many to describe human death in terms of consciousness—when we irrecoverably cease to be thinking, conscious beings.
As described above, positions such as dualism further complicate this issue by suggesting that we can continue to exist as thinking, nonmaterial entities even after our physical demise. While the physicalist position appears to preclude the possibility of life after physical death, is this really the case?
At the beginning of chapter five, Samm asks Pax the question, “What do you think happens when a person (…) becomes information or a copy of information and you destroy it or delete it? Would you call that death?” Like Socrates’ dualist conception of the human body and soul, virtual reality and the idea of data copies of human beings open up the possibility of alternative ways in which we could describe a being that exists past his or her physical death. Therefore, as a dualist may argue that “real death” is possible only if both the soul and body were destroyed, is it the case that a person must be killed both over and under to be considered truly dead? And what is the relationship between a human being and his or her information copy that makes them the same or different beings?
Chapter Six: Adelle
Contributors: Elizabeth Aguilar, Dasha Sadovnikova
Addelle’s first appearance in Swerve reveals her in an underground similar to the subversive Nighttown featured in the cyberpunk short story “Johnny Mnemonic” written by William Gibson. Addelle in Swerve as well as Johnny Mnemonic and Molly Millions in “Johnny Mnemonic” demonstrate the interactional effects of an individual’s operation within and upon a system and vice versa. Both of these narratives also examine the consequences of the ways in which information is conceptualized by the human mind. The interactions between central characters such as Addelle and Molly Millions and the systems within which they operate exemplify some of the core concepts about evolving methods of human communication and interaction discussed in the introduction to Espen J. Aarseth’s Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature.
Both the underground in Swerve and Nighttown in Gibson’s “Johnny Mnemonic” are examples of the interactive nature of the cybertextual informational exchange which Aarseth outlines in Cybertext. Aarseth writes that “In ergodic literature, nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to transverse the text” (1). Readers of “Johnny Mnemonic” and viewers of Swerve will note the topographical ease with which the characters navigate both over and underground. Aarseth does not stipulate, however, that the intrigue of cybertext lies merely in a reader’s topographical (or linear) navigation of a text’s narrative. He instead suggests examining the distinguishing qualities of the interaction between a reader (or user) of a specific text for the richest understanding of how cybertexts and other media function. Aarseth argues that a strictly navigational approach actually hinders comprehensive understanding of cybertextuality. He writes that these sorts of linear approaches “enable systematic misrepresentation of the relationship between narrative text and reader” (3) because the relationship is being examined from a limited paradigm. Aarseth asserts that understanding the nature of how an individual interacts with a given text is vitally significant to understanding how the less apparent, often hidden information of a text is conveyed.
Aarseth’s example of how a cybertext conveys covert meaning through the interaction between a reader/user and a particular medium is the Multi-User Dungeon. Aarseth writes that “Life in the MUD is literary, relying on purely textual strategies, and it therefore provides a unique laboratory for the study of textual self-expression and self-creation, themes that are far more marginal in the practice of literary theory” (13). Themes of textual self-expression and self-creation conveyed by a cybertextual MUD are apt representations of the processes involved with the construction of virtual realities. They also depict the method by which the human brain processes information, especially about the self and on a subconscious level. The participants of cybertexts such as MUDs must engage in a mode of thinking that is not entirely linear and goal oriented but is instead based on experimental, creative collaboration as evidenced when Aarseth writes, “soon users came to regard themselves as participants in a community, rather than a game, with communication rather than competition as the main social activity” (13). The cybertext users’ location of themselves within the interaction taking in a cybertext is a useful indicator to consider when attempting to understand how that user’s experience is mediated by the cybertext when it operates to convey information to the user. User experience is not simply supplied by the data being conveyed. Instead, user understanding of the self within a given medium is also influenced by the particular medium which delivers the information it receives. Consideration of the MUD participants’ location of the self within a highly participatory virtual society is thus an extremely useful paradigm for recognizing what hidden information of cybertexts, virtual realities, and especially technological as well as artistic media can represent: different conceptualizations of the human self within actual reality.
Information hidden in the brain like the data stored in Johnny’s and Addelle’s, however, also disrupts a facile topographical understanding of the self within reality on a cybertextual level . A cybertext may be a discursive spatiality in which users can position the self within a reality but the hidden information in the brain and the operation of the conveyance of meaning in a cybertextual interaction distort that user’s perception of the self, on its own or in a virtual reality. The data stored in Johnny’s and Addelle’s brains is not accessible to them. However, this data is still present, raising questions as to what it means when a human mind becomes what Addelle’s voice-over in Chapter One refers to as a mere “vessel through which data passes” or is data itself.
Order and Chaos
In this chapter, the Programmer confesses to Adelle that Order is what “keeps [her] going”. Having infiltrated the Underground's meeting place, Nanscop is both the “invisible worm” of the William Blake poem, “The Sick Rose”, recited by Benjamin Hugo as he kills Adelle’s comrades, and the “invisible” and “predatory… nomadic elite” (Critical Art Ensemble 785) discussed by the Critical Art Ensemble here. The rose, and the cultural resistance, then, is represented by the Underground, which fashions a “crimson bed of joy” out of the “howling night” (Blake), out of what the Programmer disdainfully labels “noise”. On the other hand, Benjamin Hugo, on Nanscop’s orders, uses rose petals to kill, and then disposes of them; for Nanscop, everything that does not or can no longer create the “possibility of order”, that cannot or can no longer be “prune[d]…. categorize[d]… and instrumentalize[d]”, is “garbage”. In The Soul At Work, Franco “Bifo” Berardi claims that chaos, for the individual, “is an enemy, but also an ally” (Berardi 126), and that “subjectivity does not side with order, since this would paralyze it” (126). Nanscop, then, is paradoxically in a state of paralysis, despite its “model of nomadic power” (Critical Art Ensemble 784), precisely because of its attempts at “maintaining... order” (784), of its desire to exercise “control [over] information resources and dispersal” (785). The opposite of establishing a grid of power over the "flux" (Harvey 20) of cyberspace would be, in David Harvey’s terms, “swim[ming]” (20) within it, drifting and colliding with the other, which, as Berardi suggests, is a “limit, but also the condition for an expansion of the power of the self... [which] opens... the possibility of collective experience, based on conflict” (Berardi 119), a relationship with chaos that, it seems, is embraced by Adelle and the Underground.
Chapter Ten: The Snake
The Christ Figure
Contributors: Audrey Ronningen
While the most explicit discussion of religion in Swerve involves Vector Bruno, the plotlines of Adelle and Alsa elaborate upon this thematic by introducing the notion of the Christ figure. The existence of this archetype is dependent on its ability to create parallels with the Biblical Crucifixion story, and a recent study on the topic denotes “characters who in significant ways represent the life, attitude, or actions of Jesus Christ according to the Gospels” (Kozlovic). Specifically, those who are identifiable as Christ figures willingly undergo a significant, often fatal sacrifice in order to improve the lives of those around them and restore moral order to their world. However, in addition to the requirement of martyrdom, these characters often lead a cause – social, political, or otherwise – that is admirable yet deemed subversive or revolutionary by the corrupt surrounding society.
Due to the relevance of this archetype in Western literature and other media representations, it has been a common feature in works of many eras and genres. Accordingly, for the purposes of Swerve it is most appropriate to examine instances of this archetype in science fiction. The aforementioned study claims that, despite public beliefs to the contrary, the science fiction genre holds a “capacity to harbor religious figures” and includes numerous films with “inherent religious properties” (Kozlovic). In an analysis of the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still, the author states, “Humankind was on the brink of interplanetary travel and spreading its violence throughout the universe, which required cosmic intervention” (Kozlovic). He mentions that many critics saw Klaatu, the work’s central alien emissary, as “‘a highly evolved powerful messiah figure who comes to Earth’” and represents “‘transcendent power’” (Kozlovic). Using a more recent example, Kozlovic claims that characters in Bladerunner (1984) fulfill the Christ parallel: one is murdered in his attempts to help people, and another adopts the Christian virtue of forgiveness prior to his own unjust death.
Similar to the altered, hypothetical worlds of these well-known films, the mix of physical and virtual reality that composes Swerve’s landscape shows a dystopian version of Earth that is in need of restoration to a purer state. Furthermore, as the work gradually reveals Adelle’s resistance to Nanscope – the closest entity that the film has to a villain or antagonist – it seems plausible that she will assume the martyred role of the Christ figure. Nanscope subjected her to experimental treatments that have erased parts of her memory, which somewhat recalls the wounds from the Crucifixion and gives her partial status as a martyr. In addition, the organization that she led - The Underground - stood out in stark ideological contrast to Nanscope, in effect mimicking the band of early believers who followed Christ prior to his death and resurrection. Accordingly, when the viewer reaches the end of the film, it seems natural that Adelle would offer herself as a sacrifice to enter the new reality. Instead, Swerve takes a surprising approach without erasing the Biblical parallel: Alsa, a woman who has appeared suspicious and, furthermore, is a peripheral character, willingly volunteers. Through this unexpected ending, Swerve seems to be making a statement not on the falsehood of archetypes such as the Christ figure, but on their unpredictability. This plot device suggests that these archetypal roles can be made less rigid and more applicable to a broader range of characters, adding an element of realism to the relationships in Swerve’s dystopic, unfamiliar environment. For more examples of the Christ figure in recent media objects, consider examples such as the titular character of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, Superman in both comics and film, and Aslan in C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. The entire version of Kozlovic’s work on science fiction films can be found at http://www.unomaha.edu/jrf/cyborg.htm.