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
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.
Chapter Four: Information