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No one to drive the car?

No one
to witness
and adjust, no one to drive the car
William Carlos Williams

This is a three-part, in-progress post, aiming to identify meaningful features of culture today how to take a regenerative, symmasthetic approach to studying it. Here are the second and third posts.


Even when cultures were comparatively more isolated over a century ago, the concept of culture was ambiguous: defined as customs, narratives, behaviors, social organizations, artefacts, expressions, etc. The question of what constitutes cultural studies is equally as ambiguous: is it anthropology, art theory, literary criticism, linguistics, philosophy, or psychology? What is the place of artificial technics, or knowledge tools, in all of this, and what is culture in the increasingly interconnected, technical postdigital age?

In the book that I am writing, as in my teaching, I try to balance academic history of related fields, the larger academic history of the philological field I work from, and practical considerations related to the rapidly changing world. We practically have self-driving cars now.

One of the ways in which I am guiding the balance of what to include in the book is to turn to the Yale Report of 1828. (It is a cultural-historical source that can be seen to tie in to some EU initiatives.) Some may note that it uses masculine pronouns for personhood that already require awareness of the different contexts of history. But looking past those marks of age, I would go so far as to say it contains a progressive educational vision.

The report labors over how much a curriculum should adapt to business needs and how much theory or history should be taught. The report was penned by a professor of chemistry and a professor of ancient languages. They were less concerned over the demise of the study of classical languages than the question of whether higher learning would continue to instill the faculties of thought. The object of a college education is to:

lay the foundation, and to advance as far in rearing the superstructure, as the short period of [a student’s] residence here will admit. If he acquires here a thorough knowledge of the principles of science, he may then, in a great measure, educate himself. He has, at least, been taught how to learn. … The two great points to be gained in intellectual culture, are the discipline and the furniture of the mind; expanding its powers, and storing it with knowledge … to maintain such a proportion between the different branches of literature and science, as to form in the student a proper balance of character.

Such an approach is applicable to cultural studies, which is already interdisciplinary; further, the outcomes of such a course of study would ideally help all participants practice communication with multiple “cultures” in the broadest sense of the word (scientific, narrative, national…)

This would help overcome the still-extant rift between the sciences and humanities diagnosed by C. P. Snow over half a century ago, by encouraging students’ thoughts to “range on other subjects” to overcome narrowness of “habits of thinking”, to quote the report. The authors point to the importance of inventive thought and the efficiency gained by being able to form “new combinations of thought”. To this they add instruction, analysis, and synthesis.

To extend that thought, the social sciences need to pay more attention to mathematics and science—which diverged in the 1970s (Stiegler 2018).

I would like to place this task as an elaboration of the “predicament” set by James Clifford’s Predicament of Culture.

Clifford’s book focuses on the trifecta of sameness, difference, and authenticity. Ultimatley, he is troubled by pretensions of authority in the ethnographer’s voice, particularly where it drowns out the voices of informants, or, locals who explain the culture to outsiders. To rephrase that: who gets to “witness” and “adjust” in the postdigital age, and what is authentic?

Among the many interesting ways in which this applies to the postdigital frontier, another of my attractions to attempting to take up threads from that book is actually to show potential for what Carol Sanford describes as “regenerative thought” (e.g.) by seeking spaces for co-creation. Sameness, difference, and authenticity are still important, but in the context of what the Yale Report authors call “Every thing throws light upon every thing”. This promotes interdisciplinary and intercultural communication, which are WEF-defined 21st century skills.

Speaking of throwing light, I am transfixed by how Clifford chose a Williams’ poem to begin his introduction with, aptly—and still relevantly—titled, “Pure Products Go Crazy”. I have taken three lines from that poem, above. It sets the scene for discussing tensions between New World, Old World, and First Peoples as well as those between technics and human “ethnicity”.

“Ethnicity”, here stemming from the situation and ēthos of the technical form of life, causes humans to evolve differently from the specificity of the animal species which evolves through natural selection. The evolutionary process of “humankind” occurs “at a remove from the ‘struggle for life’” because “‘humankind’ does not cease trans-forming itself” (Stiegler 2018).

“Specific” memory is internal to the (animal) organism. By contrast, endosomatic—“epiphylogenetic”—memory is external to the organism, so exosomatic. As such it can support social organizations while also exceeding them. Today, however, “exosomatization seizes hold of endosomatization itself through synthetic biology, biotechnology and neurotechnology” (Stiegler 2018).

This is another reason for cultural studies to address the technics of postdigital culture, as I will be doing in the book. More on the “seizing” of externalized memory in the next post. Suffice to say for now that the last line of Williams’ poem, cited at the incipit of this post, can be rephrased to ask a relevant question.


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