RU Wetware?

Reviews

RU Wetware?

Television as Cybernetics

RUATV? Heidegger And The Televisual, edited by Tony Fry, Power Institute of Fine Arts, (Sydney: Australia, 1993).

Wetware, edited by Geert Lovink and Rik Delhaas, (Amsterdam, De Balie, 1991).

TV As Cybernetics

Two highly compelling meditations on electronic technology: one from the Power Institute of Fine Arts in Australia (RUATV?), and the other from resistance culture in Amsterdam (Wetware). Sharing a common focus — the colonization of the world by televisual space — but privileging different theoretical perspectives — the Australian Heidegger versus Dutch wetware aesthetics — these two books represent significant ruptures within received interpretations of technology and culture. In the Australian optic, televisual space is condensed into a violent event-scene, where TV can finally become what it always aspired to, but heretofore could never attain: a purely metaphysical structure for a virtualized experience where cybernetics is philosophy and vision is (telematically) severed from the bounded space of the eye. In the Dutch watchtower, technology finally breaks free of its material shackles in (Japanese) hardware and of its coding prism in (American) software, mutating instantly into (European) wetware. Here, cybernetics leaves the cold galaxy of hardware and software, dipping its ‘steersman’ feet in the wetware of the body. Or is it the reverse? In that fatal synthesis of hardware and software represented by ‘wetware’ as the European postmodern, could it be that cybernetics shakes itself out of the slumbering sleep of reason, comes alive, and acquires organicity? TV as cybernetics? And cybernetics as wetware? These are the monstrous hybrids that enucleate the horizon of the millennium.

RUATV? overcomes all existent models of TV analysis (cultural studies, semiology, cultural materialism) by importing a full Heideggerian metaphysic to the exploration of television as a cybernetic system. Here, Heidegger is finally released from sequestration in the history of philosophical ideas, and allowed to rummage around freely in the television cabinet. What results is a brilliant intensification of Heidegger as a theorist par excellence of dead power (TV as the “harvesting” of the standing reserve), and the implosion of television into a cybernetic system specializing in the virtualization of human and non-human energies. Everything is here: the theorisation of the “will to will of televisual hyperspace;” the reduction of history to a floating “non-time;” the virtualization of Being by a television technology that “constructs appearances which act as the reality of the surrogates of a Real;” and the materialization of Heidegger’s “deseverance” in a televisual space which flips here and there, far and near into mirrored worlds. As Tony Fry states in his essay, “Switchings:”

The televisual can be registered as the dominant transmediatic standing reserve of all and everything rendered as representative and, as such, a unity of the displacement, replacement, or continuation of metaphysics. TV as metaphysics? Yes, but not as metaphysics of ‘presence,’ but of perpetual absence: The televisual entraps, via encirclement, by the working together of its lens of induction and of its screen of projection. The world pictured, as fleeing fragment, is captured as an image, released as the imaginary and materialised as the replicated, the simulated, which is captured as an image — and so self willing the televisual goes on, not being everything but leaving nothing outside its actual or imminent power. (p.27) A televisual world that swirls out from the screenal economy of pan-capitalism, becoming the algorithmic code of virtual culture. Heidegger’s meditations on technology float off the page, and are arrayed in a series of profound philosophical reflections on the interpellation of human subjectivity by cybernetics. Thus, Paul Adams (“In TV”) radicalizes Heidegger’s Being And Time by rubbing the concept of ‘Ent-fernung’ against the hologramic void of TV. What results is a superb discussion of television as about simultaneously the abolition of distance and the exile of nearness: a perfect sign-switch of the time/space coordinates of near/far. In TV, the abolition of durational space also intimates the exterminism of spatialized time. In “Touch TV,” Deborah Mallor takes us on a voyage across the electronic frontier where Derrida is crossed with Heidegger as a way of drawing out the paradoxical quality of the TV “framework” as both ‘immediacy’ and ‘remoteness.” Here, Derrida’s ‘passe-partout’ suddenly goes liquid, and TV as framework melts down into an iconic window on virtual consciousness. Or consider Eamon D’Arcy’s “The Eye and the Projectile” where the use of the ‘rocket cam’ (robotically controlled and fully televisual laser-guided bombs) in the Gulf War is a materialization of Heidegger’s ‘de-severance:’ that point where the cybernetic vision of virtual reality quick-exits body-bound optics, beginning to float in the (virtual) universe of the externalized nervous system. When the eye is a projectile, then the ‘logistics of perspective’ of the war machine privileges a double moment of colonization: the radical separation of the cybernetic eye from human vision, and the interiorization of the imaging-system of the TV (rocket cam) into the nervous system of the earth-bound body. A mirrored world, where the body separates from itself in an endless recursion: virtual reality as the mirroring of cybernetics with itself, and the body as a trompe-l’oeil the very materiality of which is only a necessary illusion of virtual reality. In the Australian rendering of cybernetics, we are finally brought to the end of the terminal history (of technology) written by Heidegger: that moment where such televisual violence is done to the Heideggerian oeuvre that his texts are made ‘standing reserve’ to the will to theory. Consequently, the paradox: Is RUATV? a brilliant intensification of Heidegger’s theory of cybernetics, or the re-energization of the fading energies of cybernetics by the Heideggerian turn? Heidegger as prophet of the disappearance of human experience into the will to cybernetics? or the will to cybernetics itself as an always failing attempt to lend coherence to a system that threatens to crash into terminal burnout? Heidegger as critic? or the last good citizen of the electronic kingdom of cybernetics? If Heidegger can describe the nihilism of televisual space with such chilling accuracy, is it not because his philosophical fate is to be standing reserve to the will to virtuality? In this case, Heidegger can travel so deeply inside the metaphysics of digital reality showing us all the while the sign-flips between immediacy and remoteness, far and near, (telemetried) vision and (de-severed) eyes because his thought is the transgression that confirms the disappearance of (rational) cybernetics into (sub-primitive) virtuality, and of the will to power into the will to powerlessness. Heidegger is the philosophical pulsar flashing from a twenty-first century, whose recombinant fragments we have already experienced as the jettison of a future lived out at high-speed as our telemetried past.

CYBERNETICS AS WETWARE

There is a deep affinity between Dutch and Australian perspectives on technology. Operating in the shadow of the empire of virtual reality, Holland and Australia have intellectual traditions that swing freely between profound recuperations of the philosophy of technology and highly original encounters with the breaking-edge of digital reality. Living in the shadow of power is the thread that weaves together Amsterdam and Sydney as privileged optics on techno-culture: they are gateways into the unfolding horizon of the next century. Cybernetics and wetware, then, as the binary signs of technology as body invader.

Wetware is the philosophical obsession of the Dutch mind: that cybernetic point where hard- and soft technoware finally break free of their sequestration in computer design, and enter the galaxy of bodily fluids. Wetware technology is our telematic future: sometimes in the form of nano-cosmetics (for care of the “inner skin”), at other times a “data-suit” (for total fibrillation of the body electronic), and even assuming the form of “combed” architecture (for spatial isolation of the individual as a vector of movement) and recombinant music (MTV as the mirrored world of resequenceable body parts).

The great challenge for cybernetics today is that technology must leave the (dry) shore of cold rationality, jumping into the pool of bodily fluids. Cybernetics doesn’t like to get wet, probably because electricity doesn’t like to short-circuit, like a wet finger stuck in a light socket. So the body must be dried out, made “static free.” That is the thesis of Wetware, a remarkable collection of critical artistic perspectives on cybernetics dipped in bodily fluids, published as part of Amsterdam’s summer festival. While some of the theorisations in this text tend towards the nostalgic — particularly in the calls for the recuperation of a theatre of ‘wetware,’ one that would preserve “human remnants” from full absorption into cybernetics (“I Want To Be a Machine”) Wetware is unrelentingly precise, and chillingly perceptive, in its diagnosis of the cyber-times.

This is a text, all the more insightful for the playfulness of its combinatorial quality, that screens cybernetics against the body walls of cosmetics, skin, imagery, and nerves. In every case, cybernetics is flash-flooded with bodily fluids, resulting in a vision of the post-human situation that leaves us stranded like dying, gasping (political) fish on the shores of the non-time predicted by Heidegger. Not so much a metaphysics of televisual space, but TV as wetware: that non-moment when imaging-systems begin to swim in the blood and water of the body recombinant.

Arthur Kroker is author of The Possessed Individual and Spasm, and co-author among others of The Postmodern Scene. He teaches political theory at Concordia University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.