I am reading a book about brain plasticity while John attempts to hook up an arcane device (DVD player) to our very modern media-viewing system. The arcane device will allow for the viewing of an arcane medium (DVD) in particular an arcane medium from an unrecognized/unpermitted region (in this case region 2, Europe/UK). The hunt for cables and mounting and dismounting tools begins early in the morning and ranges all over the house. There’s some concern on both our parts that the attempts to introduce this arcane device into our very modern system might bring all media-viewing to a crashing halt. All this so we can watch an Alan Bennett play staged and performed for television (arcane-but-evolvable technology) in another, forbidden regional format (BBC). I have already seen it; I went through a similar but less complicated process of media accommodation several years ago in another house in order to watch this play. John, however, hasn’t seen it even though he would have been living in that region when the program aired on its intended technological medium. The play, oddly enough, is called “An Englishman Abroad.”
While John is coming and going dramatically, from his man cave to our bedroom, toting a series of faceted, many-pronged cables, I am less focused on the success of installing the arcane device into our very modern system and more concerned with the plasticity of my brain and political ramifications of said plasticity as they are being articulated, in writing, for me by a brilliant French woman. The brain, it would seem, is capable of renewal, repair, and not just flexibility, but reformation. It is up to us if we are going to let our brains reform to accommodate market-economy modes of production and consumption, or if we are going to try to do something better with our brains.
I just want her to list ten exercises I can do with my brain, preferably while at the gym, to make myself smarter and less materialistic, I say to John.
But you don’t want to be less materialistic, says John from behind our very large monitor.
I know, but that’s because of a refusal to recognize my brain’s plastic potential.
Oh, yes, John says. Stiegler would say that our brains are working to accommodate themselves to a capitalistic system. He would say media is very much at fault! Our new devices and technics create an anxiety to adopt new products, to constantly consume new technologies—John begins a rant from behind the very large monitor.
I am quite torn. Our very modern media-viewing system installed by John (to which I was initially indifferent) has made it possible for me to easily call forth and view, from the comfort of my ladies’ lounge in our bedroom, the entire Criterion (branded, marketed) Collection of digitally restored and remastered classic films (arcane technology) specializing in foreign films (unsanctioned regions). However, the sudden appearance of this superior branded collection into the cloud of one of my virtual subscription services now feeding wirelessly to my bedroom via the very modern system which I don’t entirely understand could disappear at any moment should the cloud service which holds them decide there are more or less lucrative items for viewing. I say more or less lucrative because it is unclear if the cloud service makes more money by putting up things they think people will actually want to watch or if the cloud service makes more money by putting up things they think no one will want to watch. (I suspect the latter based strictly on my own personal tastes.) So the anxiety to watch as many desirable films as possible as quickly as possible (while they last) is very high.
—And the impossibility of recognizing just what those robots are going to collate and tabulate, and what sort of conclusions are going to be drawn from this data—
Yes, yes, I say, but what about the creating of new narratives from the collage and pastiche of old narratives? For some time in my life, I’ve been able to justify an addictive, escapist film viewing practice on the grounds that occasionally I write a small story that makes a vague or masked reference to one of these relatively obscure films. It used to shut people up quickly by saying: ‘At least I make things! I make things in the world; I bring new things into the world!’ My friend Joe, a graphic designer, recently pointed out that this argument was becoming less and less convincing for artists. And, I think about our lodger Clement and his conceptual, computational works in which almost nothing is newly created, and who in his characteristic French/Brooklyn sang-froid, I suspect would shrug off my claim as naïve and/or passé.
But John, who is sweeter, with a remnant of hippy mysticism, often tolerates a notion of the goodness of youth creating new, valuable narratives from the potential waste products and fodder of extant popular culture.
Yes, he says, Yes, but you can’t keep up with the robots. The robots move too quickly. If the data suggests it’s financially effective to drop your precious Criterion Collection, it will be gone tomorrow. Where as, if we base our mental development and creativity on books, our chances are better. Book technology can’t be so easily removed from us, Steigler suggests, so the anxiety to consume and adopt is also less.
This is indeed interesting to me since the only reason I am reading the book on brain plasticity is because I caught John pawing through it this morning threatening to read it before I had a chance. I have an odd and controlling fetish about my books, and I don’t like letting anyone else—not even my most beloved—break the spine of a book I have purchased before I have a chance to fully consume it: making my little notes in the margins, and ultimately dating and signing its frontice page. It was in fact the anxiety of the threat of John reading my book that made me spend my entire morning in a fevered pitch trying to finish it. Do I think of John as one of the robots? In truth he does read quite a bit faster than me.
These are in a sense bad technologies, bad-for-us technologies, for Stiegler. But of course he takes us back to Plato, for whom writing was the first bad technology. Memory was good, writing ruined all that.
Are you still trying to hook up that device? I ask.
Even the recounting of this conversation, in writing, is an example of my brain working against itself, working against my own betterment. A justification, a defense mechanism, I am thinking.
Then, in several minutes, I hear the voice of Alan Bates delivering the opening lines of an Alan Bennett play, lilting from the depths of our bedroom. However, we do not watch it at this time, knowing as we do that there is now no rush.
It is still very early in the morning when John says, The universe is so horrible! He’s been watching a group of squirrels outside the bedroom window meticulously dismantle and devour the upper branches of a diseased elm tree.
It’s as if they know the tree is dying and so they are feasting on its last vestiges of vitality, and then once they’ve stripped it bare, they’ll move on. Do you know how insane it makes me that we are evolved from those creatures? (It’s day three of concern over this last fact about squirrel evolution.)
Fetch me my laptop, I say. I think the way you treat a diseased tree is to cut away the dead parts. If the elm is indeed diseased, as all elms are, the squirrels may actually be saving the tree.
Are you kidding me? he says. Are you trying to soothe my anxieties?
I’m trying to kill your anxieties with science! I say. Only the report from the laptop is mixed. The jury is out on the effects of branch eating. John might be right. I read out the more squirrel-positive reports from the more dubious sites.
As I construct my argument, I am watching John watch the squirrels. He has vertical lines on his face that curve along the side of his mouth, activated by even slight adjustments of the jaw, lines which suggest grinning, but often in a way which yields a false or inaccurate read. Not everyone has these lines: they are akin to dimples, but are not dimples. He has those also, on one side, and a cleft chin. Such features are the result of gaps or atrophies in the muscles of the face, and/or bone peculiarities, so I am told, and therefore are physical deformities, although regarded—I would argue universally regarded—as most becoming.
Are you enjoying the squirrels, or is that a false positive?
What, then? You would like me to be happy all the time? That will have absolutely no effect on anything. The way John says this last word it really is as if the final g is completely dismissible.
It has an immediate effect on me since I have to be in a room with you. Do you think that squirrel is enjoying those elm branches as much as we are enjoying this grapefruit?
To that squirrel, everything is the same.
So you could put your toaster oven on the balcony and he will think it’s food?
He will think, These crumbs are fantastic!
Faulty logic! The presence of natural food inside the machine is not evidence of radical equality between machine and natural food.
Here’s what I’m thinking about the problem with this squirrel: last night, the topic had been printed texts and the preservation of the organism known as book in relationship to other organisms in its genre, or in its immediate physical surroundings. We are for the book! But for different reasons, I believe, since I am favoring of the natural, I am told, and I am claiming a naturalness for the printed object—an argument which is already a stretch, believe me I know. John says there is just no way to really make a distinction between the natural and artificial, and he says this in a way that suggests that I am really, really missing some education. I am really missing some education, but not generally in the area in which questions of the natural and the artificial are concerned.
This is the problem with any conversation about print ecology, he says.
Can something be said to have an ecology if it is manufactured? I ask.
It’s said rather often.
Can you show me six instances of this in use?
In the case of arguments for preservation: absolutely. Even in the case of preservation of arcane technologies. We are back to the problem of the natural and the artificial. This is an arbitrary distinction.
Trust me, I will be the first in line for an elective robotic prosthetic—when they work out the kinks.
You are still waiting for them to work out the kinks on retinal laser surgery. By the time you elect to have your eyes corrected, the organ as such will be passé.
John is brandishing his digital tablet—his digital familiar, he calls it. (I am reminded of the way Clement, our French lodger, likes to carry his laptop open, hanging at his side, an extension of his arm, pinched by thumb and forefingers because, so he says, it looks so much more badass.) Once, in the nineteenth century, we curled our bodies around our writing desks and became misshapen by our arts. Or our arts were misshapen from the toll they took on the body (which is perhaps why I never excelled at the piano, given the special back brace needed for me to practice my scales for long intervals). I spend too much time thinking about this relationship between bodies and their tethered technologies. Is it in fact true that Nietzsche changed his writing style to a more telegraphic model when faced with composing on the so-called Danish Ball typewriter? Even as the top of my lap is transformed into a workspace, and portal to knowledge about the preferences of the squirrels, I hunch further still toward the faint screen which is set to mirror the ambient light of the room, so when a cloud passes over outside my window, it passes virtually across the inscription surface. However, in the winter months, I sometimes cradle my own familiar to my body and enjoy the soft warmth it emits, no doubt along with low-grade radiation.
I have read that between bodies and the technologies they embrace there is nothing but an exchange of noise—but such a statement asks me to think too broadly about the word noise. Here again is John brandishing his tablet while hunched on the end of the bed: on the one hand a body in its natural vulnerability, on the other, his media device recalcitrant, indifferent, non-partisan but outstretched. This is not new thinking, this is the same old focused delusion which seeks to arrange the crossed wires.
While I am tabulating the tip on our bistro lunch, John says, Do you know this saying: Your mother is a computer?
Uh huh, I say, and then, What? No. Are you talking to me?
It’s not just provocative, John says. It’s because it used to be only women doing computation. You would give these women your figures—x amount of estimated income, y amount of mortgage costs, z amount of proposed business costs, etc.—and they would make necessary extrapolation models, and those books with tables of random numbers would be absolutely, absolutely necessary—he says, although even as he’s continuing to talk, I’ve already lost track of what those numbers actually might be used for, and am concentrating instead on the image in my mind of the office floor of a building filled with low desks, filled with women, and expanding back along a vanishing point, as depicted in the office sequences of that movie The Apartment where the prop desks were fabricated smaller and smaller as they receded to give the effect on film of a vast field of infinite meniality and servitude. But I don’t even know what sort of clothes to picture on these women, or what era he must be mentioning, though I know it must be before 1962 because I remember another scene in a film from that year, That Touch of Mink, where Doris Day is given a job working for an insurance company with a computer the size of a wall and covered in blinking lights, and she manages to screw up massively and spray color-coded cards all over an office. I know better than to picture Doris Day, as the Computer Mother, instead I am picturing more serious looking women, in depression-era cotton frocks. Is this fair?
I don’t ask John about the frocks on these computers, since he is continuing on now about a lecture we heard at MIT yesterday, about a new proposed type of software, or application, or computing feature which will allow us all to read books together on our digital devices, and comment on them, and mark them up etc, as part of a communal reading experience with chums that we invite to read along with us in the ether. If represented in a Venn diagram, we were told at MIT, the space between reading and writing is thinking. A double-bubble illustrating this was projected on the MIT screen with the words reading and writing sandwiched around the word thinking. We think, the blithe lecturer said, we can say that the part of the reading experience which overlaps with the writing experience is where thinking takes place! This proposed software or application or computing feature will allow for deep attention but with others! It will make writing social because it utilizes recent means rather than conventional means! Which is utopian, we were told by the lecturer, and obviously it will be difficult for analog people.
Only I have so much social anxiety as it is already, I can’t imagine why I would want one more area of my experience to be infected by my own social awkwardness. Am I obviously analog? John agrees with me. He is making scare quotes in the air as he continues to speak, quotes around things, thoughts, and assumptions that could be tagged so-called, and in fact, as he becomes more agitated about the nature of such a project, he leaves up the gesture of scare quotes in the air as his ranting escalates, as though everything coming out of his mouth should be very, very, terrifying.
And it should! John says, And they haven’t considered the enormity of the necessary infrastructure, meaning the institutions which are necessary to support and run such a system—the universities, the IRS, the governmental departments, the insurance companies, etc.—will now be on your tablet, on your phone. Your mother is inside your phone! he says.
I’m still trying to figure out how we got from that image of the rows of serious looking women in hobble skirts and high button shoes working with slide-rules, or abacuses, and meticulous tables of randomized numbers to the image of Doris Day, inept beyond imagination, perpetrating a spray of color-coded cards, which in all it’s womanly cuteness, is disastrous for the insurance company that has taken her on, if I recall the plot correctly, as a favor to the handsome rich man who is in love with her after having splashed her dress with his limousine.
I’m also worrying about who’s going to remember this conversation later, since neither John or I seem to be able to hold onto our serious out-loud thinking. I often misremember. For instance, I am quite sure that John wouldn’t have included insurance companies under the title institutions to fear because they aren’t institutions, technically, I don’t think, even if they are something to fear. But because they are the thing I fear the most, and most often, as I consider the future, I put them there, inside John’s rant, inside his scare quotes.
Joanna Howard is the author of Foreign Correspondent (Counterpath, 2013), On the Winding Stair (Boa editions, 2009), and In the Colorless Round (Noemi, 2006). Her work has appeared in Conjunctions, Chicago Review, Verse, Brooklyn Rail, Unsaid, Quarterly West, American Letters & Commentary, Fourteen Hills, Western Humanities Review, Salt Hill, Tarpaulin Sky and elsewhere. She has also recently co-translated Cows by Frederic Boyer (Noemi, 2014). Read an interview with her here.
For more on photographer Andrew Waits visit andrewwaits.com.