Sunday, 31 May 2009

Cultures of Creativity With No Talent: Cola-Olli

As usual, I missed something that most of the country is following, this time Britain's Got Talent. I was not too bothered about who Susan Boyle is, or the various "talented" Brits featured on the show such as the Stavros Flatley, even if, only too late, I started thinking about this in the context of the banality of talent shows more generally. How do such talent shows relate to the hype on "creative cultures"?

The origin of my interest was through a Finnish "talent" or actually a world record attempt TV-show, a low-budget show with completely average Finns trying to break records that probably never even existed. In terms of Youtube-
popularity, one of them broke the record all right: the so-called "Cola-Olli." For the first time, he was featured in the programme in November 2006 when he tried to drink 1,5 litres of Coca Cola in approx. 45 seconds. Well, most of Finland knows by now that the guy never made it, and he had to interrupt the "test" after some two glasses with the almost by now legendary words: "ei pysty, liian hapokasta" -- "can't do this, too acid." Cola-Olli became an instant ridiculed hit on Youtube (poor guy), which did not stop him from becoming a celebrity. Apparently, he was asked to perform on festivals and reappeared in the same TV-show later on only to lose a Cola-drinking duel with another talented young man.

In any case, we ended up talking with my friend Pasi Väliaho about Cola-Olli as an indexical character of the post-Fordist culture of "creativity." The quotation marks around the word creativity are much needed. What such events of TV-shows are incidental of, is a culture of paradoxical loops of failure and insignificance, and we never reached a conclusion whether Cola-Olli was to be remembered for his complete failure or because that his attempt had no significance anyway. (Of course, as Milla reminded me, one of the contexts for Cola-Olli are the various eating competitions etc. especially in the US, that work as a certain kind of a potlach-culture, or turning the act of consumption into a celebrated talent when you stuff your mouth with a ridiculous amount of eggs, butter and whatever food-like substance!).

As a mock up of any celebration of cultures of creativity, or creative industries, or in a tongue in cheek fashion of Paolo Virno's idea of the generic capacities of the human being (such as communication, language, creativity etc.) as the defining biopolitical engine for current culture, Cola-Olli was phenomenal. How about such TV-shows and acts that carry no kind of talent -- more of an incapacity for anything, an acclaimed talent for something that is in any way easily negligible. Why should we care if someone can drink 1,5 litres of coke in 45 seconds, or if someone has a good attempt of being a good unicycling act (Britain's Got Talent) or if someone thinks they can dance like Michael Jackson (BGT again) is worthwhile paying attention to. With such examples, and the whole concept, it becomes much more interesting to start thinking about the framing modes of attention, the attention economy, of such acts, than any potential skill, lack of skill, or interest in peculiar talents. If Musil wrote about the The Man Without Qualities as an emblematic figure of modernity, surely The Man Without Talent in this supposed culture of creativity is an updated version of the central character which is the engine for the discourse of "everyday talent." I am not in any way agreeing with the silly elitism of people such as Andrew Keen ("The Cult of the Amateur"), but just proposing how such examples are voicing another kind of a viewpoint to the creative industries.

Quite often we find the reference to the logic of publicity and visibility as the defining force behind such programmes - the Warholian idea of every person having his or her 5 minutes of fame. However, perhaps it has to do as much with a rethinking of the whole notion of creativity and actually revealing something about the post-avantgarde sphere of Creative Cultures that we are dealing with. I am here reminded of Maurizio Lazzarato's talk at Art and Immaterial Labour Symposium in London, January 2008. To really briefly summarize, Lazzarato pointed towards the key paradigmatic "values" of modernity: freedom, heterogeneity, difference and deviance, all capacities or "talent" of the artist. However, to put it shortly, such skills or values are not restricted to the artist anymore but are distributed across the whole of the social body which in Lazzarato's discourse can be connected to societies of security (in the manner suggested by Foucault). Anyhow, Lazzarato tracks the genealogy of this idea through Duchamp and Kafka. For example Duchamp's readymade is emblematic of concerns that could be relevant for all the "talent shows" of people with little traditional talent in the manner of how already "the readymade does not involve any virtuosity, technique or particular know-how, so it 'desacralizes' and deprofessionalizes the artist's function...". (Lazzarato, in Radical Philosophy 149, p. 27). Instead of the idea of the active, creative genius, we have the act of doing pretty much nothing; "Acting at the minimum", as Lazzarato calls it; "doing nothing", he writes, as the "refusal to accomplish what is asked of you, whether it be the passivity of the worker or the activity of the artist...".

Lazzarato's larger point relates to demonstrating how the act of the artist is not anymore set against work. The wider field of work and creativity have been renegotiated in a new regime of proximity. Indeed, such aesthetic practices and discourses should be also seen as productions of subjectivity, which is the generalization of some of the banality in avant-garde techniques to the general culture of creativity. (As a footnote: in his recent book Le gouvernement des inégalites Lazzarato talks about the regime of neoliberalism acting through the wider field of the social; intervening through a promotion of creativity and multiplicity in order to create the aspiration for entrepreneurship, the personalized "human capital" of each and every one's powers of differentiation.)

The truth about Creative Industries is the grey banality of the everyday life at an ad-agency, or a games house where an increasing amount of the jobs has to do with administration and for example answering maintenance calls. (In some games houses apparently the figure is something like 25 % of people hired for creative design, 75 % for admin such as support lines.) Naturally this applies to universities as well, where the amount of admin is increasing in terms of personnel but also in terms of duties of the supposedly creative classes such as lecturers and researchers.

In this context, Cola-Olli is not so much a loser than only an emblematic figure of the middle-classes trying to find that last spark of uniqueness within admin cultures of creativity. Beyond talent, performing the banality of the everyday life in creative industries. He is the "readymade" performer of current culture obsessed with finding talent in every corner of life. And to be fair, if pressed with the question of what would be my creative talent, I would remain speechless. I could not perform any better than Cola-Olli in drinking Coke, or the Stavros Flatley family doing their mock Greek/Irish step dancing, nor could I sing. To put it in lyrics by Morrissey and the Smiths: " She said: I know you and you cannot sing / I said: that's nothing, you should hear me play the piano." Hence, I have to remain academic swamped with loads of admin on my desk.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Genitals in the Field of Vision

If you happened to see an unusual amount of genitals a couple of days ago, you might have stumbled across Youtube's "Porn Day" -- a prankster or a media activist coup that was meant to raise awareness of the new music video policies on Youtube. So if you were looking for Hannah Montana or Jonas Brothers, you might have found something totally different, to put it bluntly. Responsibility was claimed by a Japanese message board community, but we could extend the logic a bit further.

It reminds first of all of the trick (real or folk lore) of inserting just a random image of a penis-in-action between film frames in the manner mentioned in the film Fight Club. The mind might not immediately notice what happened, but the brain and the nervous system registers that something was not right. It's tempting to put your Zizek-hat on and start talking about ruptures in the fabric of the real world by an intrusion of something-that-does-not-fit-in. An unmotivated penis in the field of vision surely does that.

In such a manner, the thousands of porn clips posted on Youtube can be seen as such ruptures of expectations, of the narrative of the world to but it a bit metaphorically. Yet, we could as much claim that such a rupture is actually what holds together the logic of the Internet, and its the libidinal desires, the dirty side of us/our networks that maintains the libidinal economy and circulation. Its the anomalous that keeps the supposedly normal intact.

It took me three paragraphs to get to the point of flagging the new review (Mute magazine) by Luciana Parisi of Matteo Pasquinelli's Animal Spirits. Parisi's review is highly recommended. It picks up on the key strengths and weaknesses of Pasquinelli's book, and resonates with some of the points I made in my review of the same book for Leonardo Digital reviews. Pasquinelli is able to complexify many of the dualisms haunting the supposedly liberating discourses of network culture and point towards the much more intriguing evil energies circulating through bodies, through networks. In the midst of the assumed free software and commons movements lies an assumption of the natural goodness of the human being (also targeting Chomsky) which neglects the at times implicit structurations of power that define any act of creation and cooperation. In other words, as also Parisi summarizes, the idea of freedom and non-rivalry of digital information hides the facts of "immaterial conflict" of living labour. To quote Parisi: "This conflict includes the economy of references, the race to meet deadlines, the competition for festival selection and between festivals and 'the envious and suspicious attitudes among activists' (p.49)."

Parisi also picks the point of critique that I did in my review. Pasquinelli's critique against the code-theorists, and what seems to extend towards the whole of software studies, is way too broad and remains vague. Reading "code" and theorists of code only through an interest in codification that neglects the living materialities of the flesh, so to speak, neglects the more nuanced work done in software studies. Many of the theorists there, and who have paid attention to the concrete assemblages and practices of software as the key relay of network culture, have developed much more thoughtful ways of taking into account why code and software are not to be seen only as symbolic material but as Parisi writes, such modes of abstraction that involve energetic relations. I have recently tried to write about "ethologies of code" and point to the way how code should not be seen as representational and it should not be reduced to its function of codification of the intensities of any real of fleshy bodies. Instead, also code and software can be seen working through notions of relationality, affect and intensities of such relations. In the context of Pasquinelli, and Parisi's review, she writes: "Codes are not simply binary systems of simulations that hide living conditions of existence. Codes are real abstractions that have an energetics equivalent to flesh and blood despite remaining utterly irreducible to any physical system. Pasquinelli's insistence on the meta-structure of coding and the under-structure of living labour ultimately overlooks the materiality of code. Furthermore, by taking code culture at its face value, he ignores the weird and prolific underworld of esoteric software cultures."

I find Parisi's point excellent, and as said, something I have been developing is strongly in tune with this. Of course, the earlier projects on viralities and parasites tried already to take into account of such "animal energies" in network cultures, but the more recent paper is even more closely targeted on "ethologies of software." Indeed, such points flag the need to be more aware of the dirty energies inside software cultures as well -- the genitals and all in the field of not only vision but code.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Butler in Cambridge

Just back from Judith Butler's talk that was part of a symposium in honor of Juliet Mitchell's retirement. First of all, I am not sure whether to be amused or angry of the "theme music" to the session which was Vivaldi's music softly escorting the audience into what you would not expect to be one focusing on socialist feminism...but then again, that was Cambridge University, and indeed that is one way to just innocently remind the audience of the Prestige and Tradition of the place. I somehow wonder how any seminar so conscious of the roles of cultural practices in creating solidified and stratified notions of culture and relationships can tolerate such an "intro."?

Well, in the midst of ambivalent feelings, a quick look at Butler's talk. Focusing on Mitchell's 1974 classic Psychoanalysis and Feminism, Butler was able to carve out something interesting in terms of psychoanalysis -- something that I would label "against the grain" as a Darwinization of psychoanalysis and some notions apparent in some classical interpretations of the structures of the psyche. This Darwinisation refers here mostly to the way Butler insisted on the radical temporality of the notions that are at the centre of psychoanalysis, and that as the key way to keep it lively as a mode of social diagnostics and critique. I agree, wholeheartedly.

The consolidation of sexual difference and other notions that have functioned mostly to stabilize the plethora of practices that are in a way "hidden" under such generalizing notions as "heterosexual" or "homosexual" has happened through a suggestion of the universality of the structures -- a critique that Deleuze and Guattari among others raised in the 1970s already. They demanded a careful look at concrete practices and relations through which desire finds its ways -- a focus that was later referred to as "assemblages" in Mille Plateaux. And funnily enough, there was much of that spirit of "assembling" present when Butler referred to the actual mess of identifications and misidentifications, placements and misplacements of desire in the variety of kinship relations that are ever more present. Being a heterosexual does not really say much about the ways we desire, Butler argued, and indeed, the modes and objects of desire are much more fluctuating. Hence, the sociological fact of increase of for example gay couples does not automatically give us concrete information about the modes and practices of desire and they relate to the heteronormative.

What Lacanian system missed was the possibility of change and which was still present with Freud through the notion of superego: the level of transmission, passing on. It is through the double-nature of the social that we should understood both through the function of transmission of cultural relations and the forward facing nature of potentialisation (not a word I believe she used though). In terms of law, this means that law is an event; it takes place only through its instances instead of the dual ontology of "law AND its transmission". If law is only through its instances, it also allows the realization that those actualities can be there to change law. Same goes then for drives; drives are not a stable "archive" of possible reactions, but immanent to the instances in which they take place. This idea has some good ontological and methodological implications.

In such a context, Butler seems to catch quite well a key Marxist idea now transposed into the crucial task of rethinking sexual difference not only as the mode of stabilization of desire into a binary system but a radicalisation of the notion of difference; I am here probably reading this way too much in the direction e.g. Rosi Braidotti sees the issue but nonetheless, its a matter of temporalisation; how we need to keep abreast of the various temporalities storming in the psyche. Some of the references to fluidity and the sea that Butler used should hence be continued to take into account the layering of temporal currents (in the manner that Michel Serres loves to talk about time). So even if we are born into such relations that seem determining our position, there is the potentiality of change especially if we understood those relations not as stemming from an Archive of Law that is itself unchanging but a mode of creation immanent to the cultural expressions. This again is a further transposition of what Butler said but I am wanting to read this stuff in terms of what I have been thinking.

So, instead of Vivaldi, a bit of 1960s "times they are a-changing" would have been more apt theme music as Milla suggested.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009


In order to keep sane in the midst of marking, I want to write a post that I have been thinking for a while. Now that I have been banned of going on about Lily Allen as the softcore consumerist critique on the footsteps of Ballard (don't ask), I have focused my energy on another new personal discovery:
Client. Well, again, I noticed I am somewhat several years late, so that something new to me has been around for a long time.

Client mixes through its music and visuals a touch of Kraftwerk with Depeche Mode, but in a manner that I would describe as creating a mesmerizing feel of detached, cold, minimalist erotics. Hence, the adoption of themes that all refer to the key modern institutional language of corporations, admin and offices is an ingenious one and amounts to creating an image of the lead singer, Client B, as the Office Diva.

The repetitious catchy music is emblematic of such urban spaces in a similar manner as Kraftwerk tapped into the technological fantasies of modernity on the brink of post-fordist culture. The influences are clear as well. A certain flirtation with Germany; with songs such as Köln; and Drive (ref. Autobahn). The highly rationalized urban spaces and organizational grids of driving culture are opened up to afford also lines of flight as when Client B sings "White lines on a motorway/I'm alive/I'm alive".

Direct references to erotics are continuously present but again on the fine border between passionate and cool, detached, as their uniforms promise. Its the style of erotics that stems from Xerox Machines:

"Let's get together before it's too late/ Collect up the ideas and duplicate/ Filling in the forms/ send ‘em off tonight/ And you'll be the owner/ of the copyright/ Of the copyright, of the copyright."

Desire is machinic, and machines can be the object and relay of desire; this is a key modern theme that actually is the cultural historical background for the fetishistic desire for technology. Cool, detached, uniform; the fetish par excellence. Yet, the gender aspect is not neglected, and the male fantasy where machines/women are conflated is exposed: "You said you want to set my soul free/but I'm just an object of your fantasy." ("Lights go out"). The banal cultural theoretical observation gains its true strength from the ritornello, the returning rhythmic elements of urban alienation.

The true gem from a media theorists position is of course Radio. The post-punk alienation is strengthened by the banality of "radio" as the thematic tie between the bored-oh-so-bored singing voice and the externalized world glassed out through the television screen and voiced out through radio "news". ("They call it news/its not to me/The world's a mess/ on my TV"). Again, the banality of the lines is only understood through the middle-classed-office-divaesque mannerism and voice of Client B. The broadcast media of the modern age is also the relay for the private (but hence so easily approachable in the age of mass reproduction) angst of Client. Customizing Adorno?

I have been thinking -- mostly as a joke -- a new research project on "Admin Culture"; if that would ever actualize in any way, I would definitely include Client there, and offer a much more insightful approach to their sonic art.

Monday, 18 May 2009

New Materialism, a-signification

As the publisher is slow -- metaphysically slow, of cosmic proportions -- getting out our Spam Book, I spend time reading others book. As if I would not otherwise. Well, after finishing Shaviro's excellent book of Whitehead that convinced me that I need to rethink my ideas re. ethologies of software from a Whiteheadian perspective, I reserved a bit of time for Gary Genosko's Félix Guattari - A Critical Introduction. Not able here to give a full-fledged review of the book, I just want to point towards the themes that I found really useful.

I am not sure whether it will work as an introduction per se; it does offer good contextualisation to certain key concepts through an eye on the concrete contexts where the concepts emerged. That's why the chapter on La Borde was useful, and the explanation of Guattari's involvement in the youth hostel movement etc. The concept of transversality becomes clear at least, and its usefulness underline: I love the concrete, situated edge the concept has.

Then the individual, "like a transit station for changes, crossings, and switches." Genosko well points towards the usability of the machinic ontology/ecology.

Most importantly, Genosko's book offers tool for "new materialist cultural analysis", an ongoing project of mine (and Milla's), especially in terms of a-signifying semiotics and the notion of part-signs. I love the examples that point towards the multilayered ecological ontology of contemporary culture of software -- from the concrete relays of software connected to the abstract relations of capitalism, exemplified through the plastic cards/magnetic stripes. Indeed, in such a situation, hermeneutic tools for cultural analysis fail short, as "there isn't any room for interpretation in the strings of numbers and characters on a typical magnetic stripe". Genosko continues who the magnetic stripes and a-signifying signs are not to be understood through any meanings they might have (they don't) but they "operationalize local powers" (95).

In terms of aesthetics and new materialism, Genosko refers to part-signs and a-signifying fragments; colours, non-phonic sounds, rhythms, faciality traits -- something that in Deleuzian circles has gone under the umbrella of intensities. What is interesting them in terms of new materialism is that the notion allows a certain autonomy of the intense materiality; they are much "more" than the traditional notions of ideology would assume and represent the beyond-norm, or beyond-code which still causes a lot of grey hair to old-school cultural studies approaches (representation analysis, etc.).

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Machinology - The Beginning

The word machinology is something I tried to use as the English translation of the title of my first book, Koneoppi. As anyone knowledgeable of the Finnish language knows, its not a direct translation. "Koneoppi" is a bit old-fashioned word that was originally used for all those skills and practices related to greasier machines -- mechanic machines. The term was also much more practical. I did a of concept-poaching and used the term in a more cultural theoretical fashion; to refer to the various practices and discourses (i.e. assemblages) in which modern technology is relayed, and relays culture. In English, "machinology" seemed to convey best the Deleuzian and Kittlerian inspired ideas that characterized that book. Machinology was not then reducible to the merely technical, but referred to the wider process ontology in which I wanted to approach modern media culture. 

The I turned of course to virology -- so to speak. I mean of course the book on viruses (computer viruses to be exact), where some ideas machinological. However, focusing on the quasi-object of "viruses" made it possible to through more concrete case studies look at how the weird materialities of network culture adopt elements from a variety of resources -- not least biology. 

In terms of this blog -- which I might abandon soon if I do not find it useful as a tool-for-thinking -- I try to follow my likes for media anomalies, weird objects, unstable systems, and noisyness of the modern media condition. Its shares characteristics with pataphysics, believes that insects are pioneers of high-tech and we should read more Whitehead to understand the ontology of technical media. We will see what comes out of this.