Assemblage Theory digital rhetoric Posthumanism

acting as the digital (post)humanist

I'm back on readings for my graduate course on Digital Research and Pedagogy: this week, Brian Massumi's Parables for the Virtual. Massumi's text stirs mixed responses, I think. It is a hard text to swallow for many reasons. For example, he writes

It is meaningless to interrogate the relation of the human to the nonhuman if the nonhuman is only a construct of human culture, or inertness. The concepts of nature and culture need serious reworking, in a way that expresses the irreducible alterity of the nonhuman in and through its active connection to the human and vice versa. Let matter be matter, brains be brains, jellyfish be jellyfish, and culture be nature, in irreducible alterity and infinite connection. (39)

In a way, I think this resonates with assemblage theory via Delanda (of course both are departing from Deleuze and Guattari) as well as with Latour. And yet, there are significant deviations from these other thinkers that I believe would disturb other object-oriented thinkers out there. However I want to keep these connections (and tensions) in mind as I move forward here.

Specifically today I want to talk about the second chapter in Parables which deals with the concept of quasi-corporeality and does so through a parable of acting: a scene from a Ronald Reagan autobiography. It is acting though that interests me, in part because it connects the course back to our reading of Ulmer's Heuretics, which takes interest in method acting and Gary Cooper. In particular though, my question is this:

Why is acting important for the digital humanist?

In part, the answer is self-evident, at least it is if the digital humanist is engaged in video scholarship. Of course we can talk about performance more abstractly across media, but it is the particular demands of performance before/within the camera that interests me. The camera (plus editing technologies and, especially now, the media network that distributes video) participates in actualizing potentials and capacities in actors that are different from those demanded of writers by the pen/paper, typewriter, word processor. That's obvious, right? A whole new set of cultural practices, including the method, arise to deal with the challenge of acting before the camera. Even those of us who "act naturally" (as the Beatles song goes) learn that behavior in relation to the camera. As Massumi writes, "Susceptibility to possession and ventriloquism … define the actor's talent: self-affectation. That term should be understood in the double sense of the artificial construction of the self and of the suffusing of that self with affect" (63).

In writing and even in teaching, one remains within the mirror-vision of the self. As Massumi notes, the mirror image is always one of stasis, the self at rest. In order to see yourself, your head has to remain still in relation to the mirror. The movement-vision (a vision of the body in movement, as captured by the camera) is one of included disjunction: "a continuous displacement of the subject, the object, and their general relation: the empirical perspective uniting them in an act of recognition. It is an opening onto a space of transformation in which a de-objectified movement fuses with a de-subjectified observer" (51). Reconnecting to assemblage theory here, there is the moving actor, the moving camera, and the eventual movements of the editor. Traditionally film demands the stationary viewer, but here I want to jump forward to the digital media user who moves as well. I also want to note that the camera capture of the body in motion is always partial and abstracts a new secondary, coded movement).  By now, we have all seen ourselves on video somewhere I imagine. This is more than/other than the uncanny. What is emerging here is a different notion of body through our exposure to these assemblages.

In short, I am thinking that digital media demands something very different from us rhetorically than traditional oral or written communication. In those we act from mirror-vision. We develop the "voice" that expresses, reflects and/or secures presence, intention, and/or thought. We compose and revise with the mirror-vision of thinking. Even if we ascribe to the power of ideology/culture to shape identity and agency, we hold on to the hope of critical theory to create space where this mirror-vision can work.

The movement-vision of digital media works differently. It is composed of that which mirror-vision cannot see. And we do not have to take it literally, as if to suggest that it is only video that presents this challenge. As Massumi notes, vision is a bifurcated sense, registering both movement and identity. Movement belongs most properly to proprioception and viscerality: muscle-memory, habit, and gut. In perhaps a surprising move, I might suggest that digital "life-streaming" connects with this movement-vision. It is surprising because we connect life-streaming with navel-gazing as the epitome of mirror-vision. And perhaps each individual status update, each tweet is mirror vision. But each tweet is like a still taken from a video, a reconstitution of mirror-vision. But maybe the whole stream in action is movement-vision, a kind of digital proprioception. I'm not sure, just thinking out loud here.

To bring this around to a close… In thinking through the implications of movement-vision, particularly as those implications were addressed by acting methods, we can gain access to the new rhetorical demands of digital media to move us beyond reterritorializing moves of mirror-vision typical of voice and style toward the potential becomings available in our inescapable exposure to digital assemblages.