digital rhetoric

pharmakon poisoning in the electrate collective experiment

Without going into too much depth about it, I write ~30K words in May and June. It wasn’t fun. No one told you writing was fun, right? I mean, generally speaking we don’t get paid for doing things that are fun. Or as Julius Erving once said ‘Being a professional is doing the things you love to do, on the days you don’t feel like doing them.” I’d say that’s optimistic, or, as that Hemingway line goes, “Isn’t it pretty to think so.” The writing slog hasn’t done any lasting damage, but it was surely non-sustainable, at least for me and the kind of work I was doing. That said, this month is the psychological equivalent of getting up, rubbing some dirt on the wound, and moving forward.

I’ll get to the “kind of work” bit in a moment, but first the matter of “pharmakon poisoning.” As those of you who have been playing Plato’s pharmacy at home will recall, the pharmakon is both poison and cure. As Mark Hansen remarks via Bernard Steigler there’s a pharmacological exchange that occurs where we trade the mechanical-media archive of memory for lived memory in the move to writing, such exchanges keep happening with media, but then something weird happens when we get to the current digital era.

The other part of this is underlined by Ulmer (I think this is in Heuretics but I don’t have it in front of me). He says something along the lines of how Socrates was able to reason alphabetically without the support of a literate apparatus, which gave him a rhetorical advantage. Of course, you could say it also got him killed.

So perhaps that was the first, recorded example of pharmakon poisoning.

But I also look at it this way… writing does weird things to your mind, especially when you’re pushing on your cognitive limits. It’s not my area, but I guess I think of it as a kind of figure/ground, gestalt perception process where I’m shifting back and forth between some semi-coherent, holistic understanding of a text, the various concepts/elements I’m using, and the paragraphs/sentences/words on the screen. I don’t think I’m alone in that btw, but it’s exhausting (as you know, I’d imagine). That’s a kind of poisoning as well, though of course it’s also a remedy, allowing writers to compose thoughts not otherwise available to them.

The matter gets twisted in a different way within the nascent conditions of electrate collective experiments. Ulmer talks about the collective expression of an electrate apparatus: what would it be like? Perhaps the electrate collective takes the form of the corporation, just as the literate collective took the form of the nation state. Latour talks about “collective experiments,” saying at one point ““we are all engaged, at one title or another, in collective experiments on matters as diverse as climate, food, landscape, health, urban design, technical communication, and so on. As consumers, militants, citizens, we are all now co-researchers.” So this got me thinking about electrate collective experiments–this thing in which we are now co-researchers.

But like Socrates reasoning alphabetically in an oral apparatus, we find ourselves trying to reason in electric with a literate apparatus. Here we encounter new kinds of pharmakon poisoning. The literate apparatus to which we are tied, especially as publishing academics, is insufficient if not counter-productive, so it poisons us in two ways. Or at least it continues to poison us while the efficacy of its remedy, of the cognitive/rhetorical capacities it engenders, are diminished. Meanwhile the electrate apparatus makes its own media-pharmacological demands, ones which we do not fully understand but which we certainly feel. The collective expression of electracy also offers us new capacities, if we can recognize them and if we can find ways to use them in our communities without ending up having to drink the hemlock.

That’s the electrate collective experiment. No IRB forms required.

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