Reading Foucault is like taking a master class on how the game of scholarship is to be played

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) undermines the romantic theory of authorship by speaking of discourse as a distribution of author functions. For Foucault, a statement is authorized by a particular form of discourse, a regime of truth, a procedure for assigning truth-value to statements. It’s not hard to see why this captivated the minds of academics. It made the procedures in which academics are obsessively drilled the very form of power itself. As if that by which academics are made, the molding of their bodies to desks and texts, that about which they know the most, even more than they know their allotted fields, were the very index of power. Reading Foucault is like taking a master class on how the game of scholarship is to be played, and with the reliable alibi that this knowledge of power, of knowledge as power, is to be used in the interests of resistance to something or other. Détournement on the other hand, turns the tables, upends the game.

The device of détournement restores all the subversive qualities to past critical judgements that have congealed into respectable truths. Détournement makes for a type of communication aware of its inability to enshrine any inherent and definitive certainty. This language is inaccessible in the highest degree to confirmation by any earlier or supra-critical reference point. On the contrary, its internal coherence and its adequacy in respect of the practically possible are what validate the symbolic remnants that it restores. Détournement founds its cause on nothing but its own practice as critique at work in the present. Détournement creates anti-statements. For the Situationalists, the very act of unauthorized appropriation in the truth content of détournement.

Needless to say, the best lines in this chapter are plagiarized. Or rather, they are détourned. (It hardly counts as plagiarism if the text itself gives notice of the offense – or does it?) Moreover, many of these détourned phrases have been corrected, as Lautréamont would say. Plagiarism uploads private property in thought by trying to hide its thefts. Détournement treats all of culture as common property to being with, and openly declares its rights. Moreover, it treats it not as a creative commons, not as the wealth of networks, not as free culture or remix culture; but as an active place of challenge, agency, strategy and conflict. Detournement dissolves the rituals of knowledge in an active remembering that calls collective being into existence. If all property is theft, then all intellectual property is détournement.
Not surprisingly, official discourse has a hard time with this concept. The decline of critical theory in the postwar years is directly correlated to the refusal to confront détournement as the most consistent approach to a knowledge made by all. The meandering stream that runs from the Letterist International to the Situationist International and beyond is the course not taken, and remains a troubling memory for critical thought. The path not taken poses the difficult question: what if one challenged the organization of knowledge itself? What if, rather than knowledge as a representation of another life, it is that other life?

McKenzie Wark, The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International

To improve energy security, we need to make infrastructures less reliable.

Redefining Energy Security

To arrive to a more accurate definition of energy security requires the concept to be defined, not in terms of commodities like kilowatt-hours of electricity, but in terms of energy services, social practices, or basic needs. 1 People don’t need electricity in itself. What they need, is to store food, wash clothes, open and close doors, communicate with each other, move from one place to another, see in the dark, and so on. All these things can be achieved either with or without electricity, and in the first case, with more or less electricity.

Defined in this way, energy security is not just about securing the supply of electricity, but also about improving the resilience of the society, so that it becomes less dependent on a continuous supply of power. This includes the resilience of people (do they have the skills to do things without electricity?), the resilience of devices and technological systems (can they handle an intermittent power supply?), and the resilience of institutions (is it legal to operate a power grid that is not always on?). Depending on the resilience of the society, a disruption of the power supply may or may not lead to a disruption of energy services or social practices.

… To improve energy security, we need to make infrastructures less reliable.

Keeping Some of the Lights On: Redefining Energy Security“. Kris De Decker. Low <– Tech Magazine.

From McKenzie Wark’s Gamer Theory

The unreality of games gives notice that reality is not yet real. Unconsciously they rehearse the right life.

Theodor Adorno

At the base of contemporary cynicism is fact that men and women learn by experiencing rules rather than ‘facts’

Paolo Virno [[014]]

Ever get the feeling you are playing some vast and useless game to which you don’t know the goal, and can’t remember the rules? Ever get the fierce desire to quit, to resign, to forfeit, only to discover there’s no umpire, no referee, no regulator, to whom to announce your capitulation? Ever get the vague dread that while you have no choice but to play the game, you can’t win it, can’t even know the score, or who keeps it? Ever suspect that you don’t even know who your real opponent might be? Ever get mad over the obvious fact that the dice are loaded, the deck stacked, the table rigged, and the fix — in? Welcome to gamespace. It’s everywhere, this atopian arena, this speculation sport. No pain no gain. No guts no glory. Give it your best shot. There’s no second place. Winner take all. Here’s a heads up: In gamespace, even if you know the deal, are a player, have got game, you will notice, all the same, that the game has got you. Welcome to the thunderdome. Welcome to the terrordome. Welcome to the greatest game of all. Welcome to the playoffs, the big league, the masters, the only game in town. You are a gamer whether you like it or not, now that we all live in a gamespace that is everywhere and nowhere. As Microsoft says: Where do you want to go today? You can go anywhere you want in gamespace but never leave it.

001 – Mackenzie Wark

“Play” was once a great slogan of liberation. Richard Neville: “The new beautiful freaks will teach us all how to play again (and they’ll suffer society’s penalty).” Play was once the battering ram to break down the Chinese walls of alienated work, of divided labor. Only look at what has become of play. Play is no longer a counter to work. Play becomes work; work becomes play. Play outside of work found itself captured by the rise of the digital game, which responds to the boredome of the player with endless rounds of repetition, level after level of difference as more of the same. Play no longer functions as a foil to critical theory. The utopian dream of liberating play from the game, of a pure play beyond the game, merely opened the way for the extension of gamespace into every aspect of everyday life. While the counter-culture wanted worlds of play outside the game, the military entertainment complex countered in turn by expanding the game to the whole world, containing play forever within it.

016 – Mackenzie Wark

All games are digital. Without exception. They all come down to a strict decision: out or in, offside or onside, goal or no goal. Anything else is just ‘play’. Game studies scholar Jesper Juul: “The affinity between computers and games is one of the ironies of human history.” But not at all surprising. From the start, games were a proto-computer — machines assembled out of human motion, inanimate materials and the occasional dubious call by the referee — to make a decision, a yes or a no. Sisyphus — founder of the Ismithian games — is condemned to a useless labor which is at the same time useless play, in that it cannot bring about a decision. The rock he rolls never crosses a line. It rolls right past the notional top of the mountain, and overshoots the bottom of its own momentum. But in Katamari Damacy, things are different. Rather than the rolling of the ball being entirely useless, now it is entirely purposeful. Time, like space, no longer harbors indifference. Brenda Laurel:”…even the smallest fragments of your idle time have been colonized…”.

079 – Mackenzie Wark

Searching for a shared ethics

Common humanity and universal responsibility link us. But much of the time we act as if this is not the case — we are in denial as individuals and societies. In the past, our denial harmed those whose plight we ignored. Today it harms everyone, which is why we, the deniers, can no longer afford it — if, indeed, we ever could.

Margaret Somerville, The Ethical Imagination, CBC Massey Lectures, 2006, p.1

Adventures in Ancient Greek and Roman Libraries

In this scene [in Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra], the ancient library becomes a sign of infinitely more than a collection, however large, of papyrus rolls. The destruction of the library of Alexandria — whoever was really responsible — becomes over-determined: it must vanish because the tensions it crystallized have never yet been resolved. It is evidence that time can never be reversed because the dead are divided by silence from the living, even as it transcends time in representing a form of dialogue between them. It takes on a quasi-metaphysical status. Just as the Sumerarians called libraries “the ordainers of the universe,” the Romans could even envisage the goddesses who determine human destiny, the Parcae or Fates, as librarians: in the fifth century A.D. the late pagan writer Martianus Capella described the Pacae as “librarians of the gods and the guardians of their archive, ” utpote librariae Superum archivumque custodes.”

The library as an idea does indeed unify opposites: like rhetoric, it has an immanent ethics, no immanent qualities of virtue or vice, but it is a tool that can both liberate and oppress. Bernard Shaw had of course not read Michel Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969), in which book collections or archives of any kind were subjected to their first major critique as institutions of power, and further reinforcing the exercise of that power. Shaw did not know that by the last twentieth century there would emerge a powerful feminist and postcolonial suspicion of the universal, monolithic repository of knowledge. he did not know that people would claim the impossibility in any ideologically conflicted world, let alone a truly democratic one, of a single institution accommodating the inevitably antithetical subjectivities of its inhabitants.  Nor had George Eliot read Foucault when in Middlemarch (1874) she made the library of the classic pendant Edward Casaubon stand for everything that prevented the flowering of real intellectual enquiry, let alone love, in the education-starved Dorothea’s soul.

When he claimed that Alexandria was the cultural capital of the world by founding its library in the early third century B.C. Ptolemy I Soter had certainly not read Foucault any more than Eliot or Shaw. Ancient creators of libraries were always either very powerful (like Ptolemy or Trajan) or very rich (like Pliny): for equally obvious reasons, they always presented the creation of a library, whether public or private, as a self-evidently good thing.

Edith Hall, Adventures in Ancient Greek and Roman Libraries, The Meaning of the Library: A Cultural History, Princeton University Press, 2015, p.17.

Canada is 52nd out of the world’s 58 top CO2 emitting nations

And then there’s Germanwatch’s Climate Change Performance Index that currently places Canada 52nd out of the world’s 58 top CO2 emitting nations, in a ranking that evaluates and compares the climate protection performance for the nations that are collectively responsible for more than 90 per cent of global energy-related CO2 emissions…

…That puts us behind both China and the US, a somewhat ironic fact not lost on researchers with the Sustainability and Education Policy Network who’ve recently published their findings on climate change and Canadian post-secondary institutions

In the representative sampling of 50 institutions, the key findings are telling: less than half (44 per cent) have climate change-specific policies in place; those policies focus most often upon the built-campus environment with “underdeveloped secondary responses” to research, curriculum, community outreach and governance policies; and the “overwhelming” response of modifying infrastructure and curbing energy consumption and pollution, while important, risks masking deeper social and cultural dynamics which require addressing.

From “The politics of climate change“, CAUT Bulletin, June 2017.

Deep Work

The fact that [David Heinemeier] Hannson might be working from Marbella, Spain, while your office is in Des Moines, Iowa, doesn’t matter to your company, as advances in communication and collaboration technology make the process near seamless. (This reality does matter, however, to the less-skilled local programmers living in Des Moines and in need of a steady paycheck.) This same trend holds for the growing number of fields where technology makes productive remote possible — consulting, marketing, writing, design and so on. Once the talent market is made universally accessible, those at the peak of the market thrive while the rest suffer.

From “Chapter One: Deep Work is Valuable.”

Newport, Cal. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. First edition. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016.

The Library as Idea and Space

From around 300 BC until the beginning of its destruction with the Roman imperial takeover under Julius Caesar, the Library of Alexandria was the principal workplace for international scholarship. In light of this discussion of the curatorial, it is worth noting that this classical library was in fact incorporated into a larger complex known as the Mouseion, or House of the Muses, which formed a multidisciplinary study center similar to a university (etymologically, it is the source of the modern word “museum”). In his erudite meditation on libraries, Alberto Manguel makes the observation that in terms of a conception of the world, the Library of Alexandria and the Tower of Babel are direct opposites. While the tower represents the “belief in the unity of the universe,” the library instead embodies an understanding that the world is made up of innumerable different voices that, if somehow collected and read, would “address the whole of creation” through their very singularity and yet, as an ensemble, could never become static.  Expanding Manguel’s comparison, it is interesting to consider the two architectures in relation to concepts of dispersal and containment. In the moment of its destruction fragments of the Tower are violently and irretrievably flung out in all directions across the Earth, whereas the Library derives its meaning as a space of proximity for gathering together such fragments.

In the context of Occidental history, however, libraries are especially symbolic of a particular Enlightenment sensibility. Poignantly addressed by Victor Hugo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, libraries became the new cathedrals of cities when science and the attendant desire to disseminate knowledge replaced the religious impetus of previous generations. Stories were no longer told primarily through clerical art and architecture but were instead translated, multiplied, and circulated through printed books. In Hugo’s novel, this idea is summarized in the phrase “Ceci tuera cela” [“this will kill that”]—a provocative exaggeration, though the printing press by no means did away with architecture, just as the digital turn has not replaced printed matter. What is true, however, is that the ethos of the public library (in contrast to private, monastic, or other specialized and restricted libraries) continues to be intimately connected to democratic ideals of equality and free access to knowledge and culture. Such libraries are usually non-profit spaces, which provide citizens with material and immaterial goods and media that would otherwise have to be purchased. Therefore, one of the many ways in which the library contributes to societyis by converting marketable goods into public goods. The potential of the library for making things public is furthermore reflected in its paradoxical reality as an intellectual meeting place: based on intellectual and communal values, it also lends a public platform to otherwise fundamentally private— whether mental or cerebral—activities like reading and thinking, thus connecting it with ideals such as free speech and the freedom of expression. The library is thus both a political economy and an intellectual space.

Springer, A.-S. “Legere and βιβλιοθήκη: The Library as Idea and Space,” Fantasies of the Library, MIT Press, 2016.

The Art of Relevance: Wants and Needs

You may have noticed that I have framed relevance strictly from the perspective of what the participant/community wants. Where they want to go. What they want to do. What they think matters.

This is intentional. It’s not about you. It’s not about what you think people need or want or deserve. It’s about them — their values, their priorities.

In 2007, I sat on a panel at the National Academies of Science about the future of museums and libraries. I was the youngest person there, cowed by leaders and experts in the room. I’ll never forget a distinguished CEO, banging his fist on the table and saying, “Our job is not to give people what they want but what they need.”

I was too nervous to say anything at the time, but the phrase stuck like a thorn in my brain  stem. The thorn jammed in a little further each time I heard it, dozens of times over the years, in meetings and conferences and brainstorming sessions.

The phrase drives me nuts. It smacks of paternalism. As if it weren’t enough to be the experts on our subject matter. Now we’re the experts on what people “need” too?

I don’t think we can tell the difference between what people want and what they need…

… Does this mean we shouldn’t care about what people want and need? Of course not. We should care deeply about these things. We should do whatever we can to discover more about peoples’ desires, goals, needs, and values. But learning about someone’s needs and prescribing those needs are completely different.

In my experience, the institutionally-articulated “needs” of audiences often look suspiciously like the “wants” of the professions speaking. Professionals want silence in the auditorium, so they say “people need respite from their busy lives.” Priests want parishioners to accept the canon as presented, so they say, “people need strong spiritual guidance.” Teachers want students to listen attentively, so they say “kinds need to learn this.”

When I ask the phrase “don’t give people what they want, give them what they need” means, I am often told that we should not be pandering to people’s expressed desires but presenting them with experiences that challenge them and open up new ways of seeing the world.

I agree. It is incredibly valuable for cultural institutions to present experiences that might be surprising, unexpected, or outside participants’ comfort zones. But I don’t typically hear this phrase deployed to argue in favor of a risky program format or an unusual piece of content. I don’t hear this phrase accompanied by evidence-based articulation of “needs” of audiences. Instead, I hear this phrase used to defend traditional formats and content in the face of change. I hear “don’t give people what they want, give them what I want.”

Simon, Nina. The Art of Relevance. Santa Cruz, Calif: Museum 2.0, 2016.

Oh, we’re really making an AI

Around 2002 I attended a private party for Google — before its IPO, when it was a small company focused only on search. I struck up a conversation with Larry Page, Google’s brilliant cofounder. “Larry, I still don’t get it. There are so many search companies. Web search, for free? Where does that get you?” My unimaginative blindness is solid evidence that predicting is hard, especially about the future, but in my defense this was before Google had ramped up its ad auction scheme to generate real income, long before YouTube or any other major acquisitions. I was not the only avid user of its search site you thought it would not last long. But Page’s reply has always stuck with me: “Oh, we’re really making an A.I.”

I’ve thought a lot about that conversation over the past few years as Google has bought 13 other AI and robotics companies in addition to DeepMind. At first glance, you might think that Google is beefing up its AI portfolio to improve its search capabilities, since search constitutes 80 percent of its revenue. But I think that’s backward. Bather than use AI to make its search better, Google is using search to make its AI better. Every tie you type a query, click on a search-generated link, or create a link on the web, you are training the Google AI. When you type “Easter Bunny” into the image search bar and then click on the most Easter Bunny-looking image, you are teaching the AI what an Easter Bunny looks like. Each of the 3 billion queries that Google conducts each day tutors the deep-learning AI over and over again. With another 10 years of steady improvements to its AI algorithms, plus a thousandfold more data and a hundreds more computing resources, Google will have an unrivaled AI. In a quarterly earning conference call in the fall of 2015, Google CEO Sundar Pichai stated that AI was going to be “a core transformative way by which we are rethinking everything we are doing… We are applying it to all of our products, be it search, be it YouTube and Play etc.” My prediction: By 2026, Google’s main product will not be search but AI.

Kelly, Kevin. The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, 2016.