Adventures in Meatspace! Listening For the Apocalypse

A paper presented at the Conference:

Tuning Speculation III: (in)audible (im)possibilities

20–22 November 2015, Toronto (Canada)

Organized by The Occulture

(David Cecchetto, Marc Couroux, and Eldritch Priest)

Enter a room. Give a hearty greeting to the people you find there. “Hello, everybody!” What kind of reaction do you receive? As long as the room isn’t full of your nearest and dearest, the odds are that you’ll be greeted by visible discomfort and baffled silence.

Marinate in that interaction for a minute, paying special attention to the words with which you hailed those present: “Hello, every body.” For that is what we are, each and every blessed one: a body. A resonant chamber of tremulous matter, a psychophysical seismograph, blessed with the intelligence to interpret and transform the vibrations we absorb.

Or not. The stark absence of a response to your call is symptomatic of a shift in our mode of listening, from responsive to reactive. In its highest form, listening is an analytic exercise, integral to the construction of social relations. Even when it doesn’t produce a reciprocal expression, critically engaged listening is how we respond to our environment. On the other hand, reactive listening is an involuntary twitch, a stimulus response reflex, a dumb echo from a frightened animal. Reactive listening erodes critical discourse and accelerates flow, encouraged by wireless telecommunications, digital libertarianism, and Apple-branded electronic prostheses.

This is not merely an abstract or taxonomic concern. This is the fundament of human communication, the very threads by which we weave our affective networks. We need to retrain ourselves in the exquisite art of listening, to reinvigorate our acuity as auditors, to overturn our demotion to automatized relay nodes.

This may seem like punitive drudgery compared to voguish concerns like digital affect, neo-metaphysics, or object-oriented ontology – all of which are great, and bless them for providing contemporary theorists with myriad opportunities for publication. But I come to you with a warning: that by century’s end, such concerns will be the latter-day equivalent of counting angels on the head of a pin. These theoretical pursuits will not enjoy sustained resonance because the future will not be an Edenic garden of eco-friendly bourgeois luxury, nor a glittering techno-utopia of abundance and multisensory overload. The future will not be a Matrix-like Moebius strip of simulacra, Kurzweil-inspired biotechnical singularity, or Hilary Putnam’s most deranged brain-in-a-vat Cartesian fever dream. I’m afraid it’s going to be much worse. I’m afraid the future will look like this:

Which is legitimately frightening! Yet we’re not consigned to this fate. If we join together in retuning our auditory dispositions, then we can rewire our affective networks; we can shed our media-facilitated solipsism; and we can avoid becoming carrion for whatever brutal scavenger has longer teeth than us. But to determine how not to end up there, we need first to orient ourselves here.

Listening is an act of acoustic alchemy, of transforming energy – that is, of transduction. A transducer is any thing that converts one form of energy to another. The human ear converts airborne vibrations into synaptic fireworks. A microphone converts airborne vibrations into electrical current; a speaker performs the same conversion but in reverse. Transduction is not merely the transmission of energy, but the transformation of energy. A transducer qualitatively mutates that which passes through it. The human body is a pluripotent transducer, able to perform different types of energetic conversion. In addition to the sensorineural transductions of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, the body as a whole can convert sonic tremors into the kinetic ecstasy of dance.

However, listening as transduction – that is, interpretive and responsive listening – is being supplanted by a new mode of audition. We are evolving from transducers to transistors. A transistor is a device that conducts energy while modifying it quantitatively. A transistor can attenuate, amplify, or invert energy, but a transistor cannot transform energy qualitatively. The energetic content relayed by a transistor is only altered insofar as the transistor’s own resistance and deficiencies degrade the relayed content. A transistor re-transmits content with greater or lesser intensity plus damage. Thus the transistor is the perfect metaphor for the human in age of cybernetic relations.

Metaphors are always as instructive as they are descriptive. In the age of industry, Freud suggested that the mind was like a steam engine(1), and our behavior, routines, and relations adapted accordingly to reflect this conceit. Since Alan Turing, the computer has become the normative model of the human mind. This is likely as inadequate an analogy as the steam engine, but the metaphor is so seductive – particularly within technologically privileged cultures – that it takes on the appearance of whole truth.

As we accept the “truth” of the metaphor, we accommodate its structures and operations. As the steam engine compelled us to act as alienated mechanical components, so does the computer teach us to function as relay nodes in a syntactical network. Thus we embody and enact what Manuel Castells calls the Space of Flows(2) – the dominant spatial logic of our world today. Neoliberal hegemony is contingent upon the unfettered flow of information, finance, technology, images, sounds, and symbols. Whatever can be relayed with intensity and velocity can be inducted to the Space of Flows – which is to say, the spatial logic of flowing networks is fundamentally indifferent to the content being circulated(3). Commodities futures, cat videos, violent pornography, Thanksgiving recipes, terrorist snuff films – it’s all good, as long as it can be integrated efficiently into networked circuits of exchange.

Like all hegemonic structures, the space of flows is echoed and enhanced by modes of cultural production, of which contemporary pop music is exemplary. Undercutting the romantic myth of the solitary genius, modern pop is composed – or rather, constructed – by differentiated teams, whose members each perform a specialized role: the producer, the mixer, the topliner, the lyricist, the singer. The constituent parts of a song are farmed out and shopped around, mixing and matching beats, hooks, melodies, and artists(4). The advantages of this “Exquisite Corpse” style of songwriting are its velocity, its fecundity, and its infinitude of novel combinations. Sometimes the final product disappoints. But sometimes, when the stars align, every variable in the equation resolves perfectly.

As the production of music is a frantic circulation of fungible elements, so is the consumption of music. Streaming and wireless media’s promise of anything-anywhere-anytime plies consumers with a fantasy of abundance – a fantasy in which the consumers are invited to participate, a fantasy that Jodi Dean says is premised upon “Ideals of access, inclusion, discussion and participation(5).” However, Dean warns, “The fantasy of abundance covers over the way facts and opinions, images and reactions circulate in a massive stream of content, losing their specificity and merging with and into the larger flow of data.”(6)

Signification and nuance are destroyed by the velocity and intensity with which content flows. Combining the representational ambiguity of pictography and the burn-after-reading ephemerality of telegraphy(7), networked communications shuck context and continuity from content, leaving nothing to distinguish the validity or worth of one piece of content against another. Thus all content is subject to the same modes of cognitive apprehension and qualitative assessment(8). Facts, feelings, information, entertainment – it’s all whatever we want it to be. We can de- and re-construct the world according to our own biases and desires.

By meticulously curating our media diet, we create what Whitney Philips calls “personalized monads fortified not just by individual choice (frequenting only those blogs you agree with, hiding the posts of Facebook friends you hate, blocking undesirable followers on Twitter or Tumblr) but also by algorithmic interventions by superplatforms such as Google and Facebook, whose robots note the things you seem to like and the things you seem to avoid, and quietly begin stacking the deck with the former. […] In other words, if you don’t want to engage with certain content, you shouldn’t have to.”(9) Or as Mark Zuckerberg once put it, “a squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”(10)

Networks as narcissistic feedback loops provide that everyone is entitled to their own facts. Jodi Dean explains: “If everything is out there on the Internet, anything I fail to encounter – or can’t imagine encountering – isn’t simply excluded… it is foreclosed. […] The only alternative is the Real that ruptures my world, that is to say, the evil other with whom I cannot imagine sharing a world, the one I must eradicate.”(11) This is why everyone online is an asshole.

Discordant difference is foreclosed not only on, but off, around, and under the Internet. Fantasies of participatory democracy and anarcho-liberalism occlude structural inequalities(12). Most early participants in networked communications were Western, educated, white men. Manuel Castells reminds that, “the vastly unequal arrival time of societies into the Internet constellation will have lasting consequences on the future pattern of the world’s communication and culture.”(13) Especially in a milieu whose consumers are also its producers, via generating and proliferating content, whoever designs the game makes the rules.

And if you play the game, it’s all in, and you play by its rules. The romantic conceit of the hacker as scofflaw, trickster, and guerrilla misunderstands how power operates in a distributed network. Power is neither centralized nor ecumenical, but operates asymmetrically according to pre-determined foundational protocols. Often forgotten is that these protocols are constitutively flexible, such that nonconformity is generative but not threatening. Robin James elaborates: “tightly controlled background conditions generate foreground 'randomness', which in turn supports and reaffirms (rather than destabilizes) the background. […] Deregulatory processes regulate and adjust themselves so that any potential irregularities can be fed back into the system without unduly disturbing it. […] Because the process needs little to no explicit external regulation, and because it appears to have no limits or prohibitions, it seems ‘free.’ […] So deregulation allows power to have it both ways – individual freedom is fully consistent with, and indeed necessary for, social control.”(14)

From within a network, its potential seems infinite, because its rules are embedded and, thus, invisible. But from outside a given network, its affordances and scope are obvious and limited. Consider the November 2015 clash between two distributed networks, each operating within different milieu: the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and Anonymous. The latter confines its activities almost exclusively to the digital sphere, while the former leverages telecommunicative networks in support of its real-world activity. After Anonymous “declared war” on the world’s most notorious terrorist organization, ISIS members mocked Anonymous in their internal communiqués, saying, [all sic] “What they gonna hack...all they can do is hacking twitter accounts, emails etc...” (15)

This seems as good a point as any to call bullshit on techno-utopian delusions of a digital salvation. What ISIS render so horrifically clear is that the Internet, social media, and other distributed electronic networks are nested within the – dare I say – real world. These networks have a material basis: they’re made of stuff. In 2006, Republican Senator Ted Stevens was ridiculed for characterizing the Internet as “a series of tubes,”(16) but he’s right. A whopping 95% of all intercontinental data is carried upon a series of undersea fiber-optic cables, of which there are fewer than 200(17). The fabric of the modern world is literally woven of these wires. The virtual has a material infrastructure, which presents some conspicuous problems.

The first problem is posed by materiality itself: what do we need to keep everything up and running? Well, copper is still the most common electrical conductor. The good news is that it’s cheap and we shouldn’t hit “peak copper” – the point at which demand starts to outstrip supply – until the century’s end(18). Rare earth elements, however, will be a problem. They’re essential not only to every modern commodity we enjoy, but to every form of so-called “sustainable” energy production yet developed. And they’re called rare earth elements for a reason. Thomas Graedel, a former Yale professor of geophysics and geology, says that, “To provide most of our power through renewables would take hundreds of times the amount of rare earth metals that we are mining today.”(19) This sounds bad, until Graedel follows up with a whopper of a Catch-22: “I’m not worried that we’ll run out of rare earth metals, but will we have enough energy at a reasonable price to extract it?”(20) Good question!

Perhaps this is why the U.S. Geological Survey has been scouring southern Afghanistan for rare earth deposits since 2009. Which leads us to another potential threat to network infrastructures: geopolitics. The uneven distribution of specific resources around the planet ensures that states remain in constant tension over the acquisition and use of those resources, employing every stratagem from tax incentives to land invasions to gain advantage. Resources could be raw materials, or they could be the management and operation of electronic networks facilitating the flow of information and finance, which itself rests upon a difficult and delicate latticework of interrelated concerns: jurisdiction, finance, regulation of content, etc., all of which are subject to local pressures and politics. To paraphrase necrotic toad-man and war criminal Henry Kissinger, there is no such thing as foreign policy, for what policy is not premised upon domestic interests?

The quality and extent of interstate relations are dictated by each state’s internal affairs, which include not only parochial whims and human movements, but also natural events and non-human forces. An illustration: in one country, four consecutive years of drought, between 2006 and 2010, displaced over a million people and forced another two to three million into what the United Nations calls “extreme poverty.”(21) And which country might I be referring to?

Syria! That’s right: before the country was torn asunder by four years of civil war, forcing 4.1 million people to flee their homeland, Syria was already a victim of climate change. It was not the first, and it won’t be the last. In fact, the Syrian refugee crisis is but one movement in an apocalyptic overture. This past summer, record-breaking heat waves killed 90 people in Japan, 106 in Egypt, over 2,000 in Pakistan, and over 2,500 in India.(22) Brazil suffered its worst drought in a century; Puerto Rico enforced its harshest water rationing ever; Britain logged its hottest day on record; in Italy, cars melted(23); and in Washington State, the rainforest caught fire.(24)

Yes, Virginia, climate change is real, and it’s only going to get worse. Coming attractions include:

  • A 10% drop in crop yields for every additional degree in average temperatures.

  • Drought-affected areas of global cropland will increase to 44%.

  • Up to half the world’s population will live in water-scarce regions.

  • Runoff in major river basins, like the Mississippi, Amazon, and Nile, will fluctuate 40% or more.

  • A rise in sea levels of up to a meter will put 216 million people at risk.

To bring the last bullet-point home, a single meter rise in sea levels will put the Potomac on the White House lawn; half the Netherlands will be gone; 15 million Bangladeshis will be displaced; and everywhere between Trieste and Rimini on the Adriatic coast will be underwater(25). If you haven’t seen Venice yet, you’d better get moving.

The above projections were included in a 2012 report by those bleeding-heart tree-huggers at the World Bank(26). Ominous as these projections are, they do not incorporate more recent revelations, such as James Hansen’s script-flipping study that suggests the melting rate of the Antarctic ice sheet has been so grossly underestimated that sea levels will rise ten times faster than previously thought – up to three meters by mid-century.(27)

Even if Hansen’s predictions prove to be alarmist exaggeration, the fact remains that the world is changing. But we knew this! Climate change has become so banal that it’s but another frequency in the background static of dread and terror intrinsic to modern life. We console ourselves with fortune-cookie platitudes, like, “We will survive if we all work together.” But working together is entirely contingent upon the quality of our listening.

The contemporary media ecology privileges speech and expression, and promotes a reactive mode of listening which is little more than a prompt to speak further. Lest we forget that networked telecommunications have been dominated by white men, speech is privileged because it is coded as assertive, commanding, rational, individual – that is, speech is coded as a “male” behavior. Listening is coded as passive and self-effacing, therefore feminine, and thus bad.

Privileging speech puts a solipsistic spin on communication, thus re-inscribing normative values. “Voice,” Robin James writes, “is not anterior to Western Man who speaks, but is the condition of his speech: racializing assemblages tune his vocalizations to signal and not-quite/nonhuman vocalizations to noise.”(28) Thus, behind the question, “Can the subaltern speak?” lies another, more insidious question: “Can the subaltern be taught to speak like me?”

The emphasis upon speech, upon expression emanates from a position of privilege and dominance because it presumes an audience. However, this presumption inverts and occludes the power relation between speaking and listening: it is the auditor who recognizes the speaker. Contra Althusser, who argued that we are recruited into hegemonic structures when we recognize the hail of ideology(29), we recruit ourselves into hegemonic structures when we hail ideology in its own language and it recognizes us. So what would happen if we simply refused to speak?

We characterize speaking as productive, but listening too is productive. Listening affectively generates the space – both acoustic and social – between bodies, the sono-spatial milieu which permits communicative exchange(30). Syntactic exchange affects cognition, semiotic exchange affects imagination, but listening is also energetic exchange: it is the practice of embodied resonance. The keyword here is “practice,” as the body comes to know a practice chronically, over time. Our futures are inscribed bodily through practice in the present.

A common trope of post-apocalyptic film is to see survivors living among ramshackle facsimiles of modern spaces and performing ersatz rituals, long after the material and social foundations of these places and behaviors are gone and forgotten. The lesson therein is, that to which we teach our bodies to listen now, our bodies will speak in the future. So if we want the future to listen to us, we must first practice listening to each other. Because in the future, when our great-grandchildren are ankle-deep in blood and wear the skins of their enemies to shield themselves from the caustic rays of a vengeful sun, and they learn that we spent our lives talking through, to and about machines, fretting over the anagogic valence of bits of plastic and metal, they will exhume our corpses and use our skulls as chamber pots. And for that, we will only be able to blame ourselves.

Notes

1 Freud, Sigmund, New Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, edited by James Strachey (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990), 123.

2 Castells, Manuel, The Rise of the Network Society: Second Edition with a New Preface (Chichester: Blackwell, 2010), 442.

3 Ibid., 402.

4 Seabrook, John, The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015), 183.

5 Dean, Jodi, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies: Communicative Capitalism and Left Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 23.

6 Ibid., 26.

7 Postman, Neil, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 2005), 70.

8 Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, 402.

9 Philips, Whitney, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship Between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture (Cambridge: MIT, 2015), 142.

10 Mark Zuckerberg, quoted in Philips, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, 142.

11 Dean, Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, 45.

12 Ibid., 41.

13 Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, 382.

14 James, Robin, “Neoliberal Noise: Attali, Foucault & the Biopolitics of Uncool,” Culture, Theory and Critique 55:2 (2014): 141-143, accessed May 1, 2014, doi: 10.1080/14735784.2014.899881

15 Feinberg, Ashley, “ISIS Calls Anonymous ‘Idiots’,” Gawker, November 18, 2015, accessed November 20, 2015. http://gawker.com/isis-calls-anonymous-idiots-1743320163

16 Ted Stevens quoted in “Your Own Personal Internet,” Wired, accessed December 9, 2015. http://www.wired.com/2006/06/your_own_person/

17 Bernard, Doug, “Why Is Russia Interested in Undersea Internet Cables?,” Voice of America, November 6, 2015, accessed November 20, 2015. http://www.voanews.com/content/russia-interest-in-undersea-internet-cables-raises-alarm/3044819.html

18 Cohen, David, "Earth's natural wealth: an audit," New Scientist 2605 (2007): 34–41.

19 Thomas Graedel, quoted in Cho, Renee, “Rare Earth Metals: Will We Have Enough?,” Columbia University Earth Institute, September 19, 2012, accessed November 20, 2015. http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2012/09/19/rare-earth-metals-will-we-have-enough/

20 Ibid.

21 “SYRIA: Drought pushing millions into poverty,” IRIN, September 9, 2010, accessed December 9, 2015. http://www.irinnews.org/report/90442/syria-drought-pushing-millions-into-poverty

22 The Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters and the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, The Human Cost of Weather Related Disasters 1995-2015, by Margareta Wahlstrom and Debarati Guha-Sapir (Brussels: Université catholique de Louvain, 2015), accessed December 9, 2015. http://www.unisdr.org/2015/docs/climatechange/COP21_WeatherDisastersReport_2015_FINAL.pdf

23 Mills, Emma, “British tourist captures moment car melts in the sun during heatwave,” The Telegraph, August 11, 2015, accessed November 20, 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/weather/11795891/British-tourist-captures-moment-car-melts-in-the-sun-during-heatwave.html

24 Kaplan, Sarah, “The West is so dry even a rain forest is on fire,” The Washington Post, July 13, 2015, accessed November 20, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/07/13/the-west-is-so-dry-even-a-rainforest-is-on-fire/

25 “Global Sea Level Rise Map,” Geology.com, accessed November 20, 2015. http://geology.com/sea-level-rise/

26 World Bank, Turn down the heat : why a 4°C warmer world must be avoided (Washington DC : World Bank, 2012), accessed November 20, 2015. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/2012/11/17097815/turn-down-heat-4°c-warmer-world-must-avoided

27 Hansen, James et al., “Ice melt, sea level rise and superstorms: evidence from paleoclimate data, climate modeling, and modern observations that 2 °C global warming is highly dangerous,” Atmos. Chem. Phys. Discuss. 15 (2015), 20059-20179, accessed December 9, 2015, doi:10.5194/acpd-15-20059-2015

28 James, Robin, “Notes On Weheliye’s Habeas Viscus: or why some posthumanisms are better than others,” It’s Her Factory, November 26, 2014, http://www.its-her-factory.com/2014/11/notes-on-weheliyes-habeas-viscus-or-why-some-posthumanisms-are-better-than-others/

29Althusser, Louis, On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (London: Verso, 2014), 234.

30 Lacey, Kate, Listening Publics: The Politics and Experience of Listening in the Media Age (Cambridge: Polity, 2013), 9.

References

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  • Cho, Renee. “Rare Earth Metals: Will We Have Enough?” , September 19, 2012. Accessed November 20, 2015. http://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2012/09/19/rare-earth-metals-will-we-have-enough/

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  • ---. . Cambridge: Polity, 2010.

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  • Freud, Sigmund. . Edited by James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990.

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  • IRIN. “SYRIA: Drought pushing millions into poverty.” Accessed December 9, 2015. http://www.irinnews.org/report/90442/syria-drought-pushing-millions-into-poverty

  • James, Robin. “Neoliberal Noise: Attali, Foucault & the Biopolitics of Uncool.” 55:2 (2014): 138-158. Accessed May 1, 2014. doi: 10.1080/14735784.2014.899881

  • ---. “Notes On Weheliye’s Habeas Viscus: or why some posthumanisms are better than others.” , November 26, 2014. http://www.its-her-factory.com/2014/11/notes-on-weheliyes-habeas-viscus-or-why-some-posthumanisms-are-better-than-others/

  • Kaplan, Sarah. “The West is so dry even a rain forest is on fire.” , July 13, 2015. Accessed November 20, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/07/13/the-west-is-so-dry-even-a-rainforest-is-on-fire/

  • Lacey, Kate. . Cambridge: Polity, 2013.

  • Mills, Emma. “British tourist captures moment car melts in the sun during heatwave.” The Telegraph, August 11, 2015. Accessed November 20, 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/weather/11795891/British-tourist-captures-moment-car-melts-in-the-sun-during-heatwave.html

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  • World Bank. . Washington DC : World Bank, 2012. Accessed November 20, 2015. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/2012/11/17097815/turn-down-heat-4°c-warmer-world-must-avoided

Acknowledgments

Special thanks to Lorraine Sugar for providing terrifying facts about climate change; and to Derek Coulombe and Jeannie Larson for patiently allowing me to rehearse this paper at them.

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