Laconference + sovereignty of sound + the algorithmic other

On Saturday May 16th, I managed to catch the last two presentations at the 2015 Laconference (Lacan conference…) at SFU Woodwards, Vancouver. As always, I should have paid more attention than I actually did to do them justice, but both talks did trigger productive thoughts that contributed to what I have been thinking about.

The first talk, titled “Romancing the Machine: the Digital Libido of Samantha in Her,” by Alois Sieben, focused on various phenomena depicted in Spike Jonze’s movie Her and their relation to the immaterial/material and digital/embodied dichotomy and made a case, Donna Haraway-style, for the dissolution, or at least an insistence on the slippery and/or spurious nature of the boundaries. For example, Theodore’s constitution of Samantha into a desiring subject (through their increasingly amorous interactions), Samantha’s voice in reinforcing her capacity (and as an outcome of) to be a desiring subject, and Freud’s conception and theorization of the voice as something disembodied and virtual in the first place…etc. The paper articulated the capacity for the operating system, Samantha, to be an entity fully capable of becoming a Lacanian subject (and therefore, more than just an object/machine), as demonstrated by her/its propensity for enjoyment/juissance, exemplified, most importantly, through the voice (the sighing, the breathing, specifically), which is considered to be something superfluous and adds nothing to the transmission of information (presumed to be the machine logic). What I took away as the main argument was that this surplus, represented by the voice, indicates the subject-hood and humanness of Samantha and the fraught entanglement of the human and non-human. The usual conclusion to so much discourse revolving around machines is reached: it is impossible to discern what is and what is not machinic/digital/virtual.

Personally, I can appreciate any exploration that uncovers a seemingly ‘useless’ surplus that ultimately point towards something significant. But for me, the voice of Samantha as an indication of her transformation into a Lacanian subject is not the most interesting part. What struck me, through Sieben’s focus on the voice, is a reinforcement for a thought I have been developing, what I will tentatively refer to as ‘the sovereignty of sound.’

What Samantha’s voice signified for me is that the phenomenon of how sound is being used to condition, control, and indoctrinate the population, through its expert deployment and complicity in creating an immersive and ‘interactive’ everyday experience. There has been much development in cultural criticism, art history, film studies, and other discipline in the humanities that for the past century has focused on visuality and semiotics in the examination and criticism of popular culture, the mass media, language, and the spectacle. Sound had been referred to the context of the mass media, its role in creating propaganda and advertisement obliquely acknowledged, but much emphasis has been placed on the visual. I would argue in the contemporary context of the ubiquity of information and communication technology, that sound plays a crucial role in creating a fully technologically-dependent and machine-governed existence. Sound design, sound effects, sound cues, phone messages, phone voices, voice recognition, ringtones… An entire society undergoing a Pavlovian experiment. Is it possible that sound will have an increasingly prominent role in our society, such that we might be entering an age akin to the pre-writing, oral/auditory culture, where truth is in the Voice, and hearing is believing? Contrary to thinking about Samantha’s voice as a machine-becoming-a-Subject, I’m more interested in thinking about another character Scarlet Johansson played, that of the alien in Under the Skin, where in the beginning of the film all the audience hears is her character ‘practicing’ speaking by making various fragmented phonetic sounds, readying herself for the con that is abducting humans: the voice as a technology, a tool to deceive and destroy.

*As an update on this thought, yesterday I received a phone call where I did not realize until a minute in that I was speaking with a machine. The program was expertly engineered to emulate a real person, with pre-recorded messages and a keen word-recognition software to intuitively responded to all my answers. It was not until I became irate and snapped at the ‘telemarketer’ that the program malfunctioned, exposing its opaque machinic self, by switching pre-recorded voices and replaying certain segments. Education and critical awareness always comes from breakdown and interruption.

The second talk was by Clint Burnham, titled “The Subject Supposed to LOL: Slavoj Žižek and the Event of the Internet,” which was the main reason I attended the conference. The talk began and ended with the same assertion: the question is not that whether Facebook is an Event, but rather was Facebook an Event. An ‘Event’ as outlined by Žižek, following Badiou and Deleuze, as a shifting and reframing of perspectives, systems, orders…etc. In that sense, the assertion perhaps indicates the radical reordering of the world has ended, and the Event that was FB has been normatized and ‘diseventalized’ into convention, the world as we know it, business as usual. Burnham touched upon so many issues that I am fascinated with, but did not delve into details for most of it, which is understandable as the paper was really a condensed intro to a large breadth of thought (although I was lost as which was Žižek’s point and which was Burnham’s own addition). The speed at which Burnham expounded his thought was precipitous, but I managed to latch onto two strands of thoughts, namely 1) everything we hate about the Internet is what makes it an Event and 2) it is only at the moment someone ‘likes’ and/or comments on something we post, we become a subject (in the post-FB/Event age) – the ‘subject-supposed-to-like.’ The ‘void of the comments field’ being the indication of a lack that leaves the user desiring to be constituted into a subject, through the others’ interactive/interpassive process of commenting and liking. The former point was one of those comments that is just so agonistic that leaves one wanting to agree with and to argue against simultaneously…much can be unpacked there. However, it is the second point I wanted to focus on (because, again, selfishly, it brushed against my own interests).

I too have been thinking – through the conventional Lacanian thought of how subjectivity is constituted through the ‘other’ during the mirror stage, which symbolically repeats throughout one’s lifetime, in a metonymic and endless chain of desiring to become a whole subject (which is unachievable) – that in the contemporary age, the ‘other’ is not other people or the Big Other, but rather the interface, the code, the algorithms, the machine. In Burnham’s account, the other is still other people, mediated through the interface. But to me, the other is (also) very much the algorithm/interface. The anxiety does not just stem from one being perceived by others, but also how one is perceived by the machine, and how one will be represented in the form of statistics/data. Are we being misrepresented, and how does this anxiety alter the way we behave? The machine is now the other, constituting but also destabilizing and questioning one’s subjectivity. Again, a futile and fruitless quest, the desire to become a subject leads to an endless and algorithmically-mediated existence, and one only momentarily becomes a subject at instances when one is satisfied with their data representation – subject as data (ie. “this pop culture personality pie chart looks like me, this Netflix consumption history looks like me, this video game preference and life partner correlation graph looks like me”). In the classic account of the mirror stage, the ‘other’ is the mirror self, and by extension the parents, all adults, and society (everyone’s whole but me, everyone else has their shit together). Do we add the networked society, information and communication technology, digital culture, to the pantheon of the Big Other/the Symbolic, along with knowledge, God, nature, the state, language…etc.? Or is this a new ‘other’ altogether? One that hoards, one that is insatiable, one that is malleable and mirrors (and constructs/constitutes) the lack and desire of the subject-supposed-to-be.

Other points of interest to take away: Jodie Dean’s insight on how humans enjoy repetitive minor tasks with little differences and how this links to the ‘digital enjoyment’ and circulation for its own sake; my old TA workshop classmate Prab’s reminder about Derrida and Stiegler’s claim that humans are always already ‘technological’ and that the distinction in Her (ie. the ending) needs to be re-examined. 

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