"All that is solid melts into air" (Engels, F. & Marx, K., 1848. The Communist Manifesto) This lecture explored the notion of production, and found that every attempt to pin "production" down ended in the pursuit of something disappearing.
The ideas presented can be summarised in any one of the following ways:
an examination of how creativity and production are actually forms of translation and transformation: not making something from nothing (creation) but reworking existing things into new forms (reproduction)
deconstructing the common perception that human civilisation, with its industrial and manufacturing superstructures which underpin commercial production, represent a form of progress towards an ever better future.
suggesting that the human production of knowledge is inseparable from the practices and motives which underpin it: it is instrumental, not objective
tracing the shift away from the object and its aura, towards experience and its commodification
We occasionally looked at the practice of mapping in order to illustrate some of these ideas.
Production as creativity
Poiesis - production as it is expressed by philosophers like Aristotle and Heidegger. The latter's notion of poiesis is a bringing-forth, like "the bursting of a blossom into bloom" (Heidegger, M., 1954. The Question Concerning Technology) - not the magical creation of things that did not exist before: rather, a liminal, threshold experience which facilitates transformation.
March 19, 2006: Apple tree blossoms by Matt McGee on Flickr
Memetics and memes - the notion that thoughts, ideas and units of cultural information as they are expressed in our conscious thoughts are transferred and spread from mind to mind as genes are spread from body to body via reproduction. As such humans are merely vehicles - for both genes and memes. The idea was coined by Richard Dawkins (1976. The Selfish Gene) and has been taken up by other commentators on cultural ideas.
Representation - the basic problems of philosophy revolve around various configurations of three components and their relationships: the world, the subject and representation. Representation might be thought of as the image of the world in our conscious thought. Various different philosophical traditions might argue about the relationship between the world and our image of the world (i.e. the relationship between world and representation). See Arthur C. Danto for a good introduction to the problems of philosophy, (1997. Connections to the World)
We can think then of representation as a reproduction of the world - the image of the world as it appears in human consciousness. A map, too, is a representation of the world. Does conscious human thought "map" accurately onto the world? For that matter, do maps accurately represent the world (consider the reductionism inherent in portraying the multi-dimensional earth in the two dimensions of a piece of paper or a screen)? Representation is a mediated and interpreted image of what is given: a copy of the world, which may be subject to distortion through our imperfect human sensory apparatus. As Shakespeare intimates - we see through a glass, darkly.
The images we work and rework - such as poetry (from the same etymological root as poiesis) are not inventions of language, but the reimplementation and translation of language. Of course language mutates and evolves through use. The introduction of "newness" - variety, diversity, heterogeneity might be comparable to the evolution of new species: iterative mutation induced through erroneous copying. The "meme" is the cultural manifestation of the biological gene.
Creativity, then might not be about a godlike ability to conjure things into existence from nothing, but part of the work of constant change and transformation that human beings enter into. There is no production, there is only reproduction, and - thankfully - reproduction is given to error?
Production as the material and immaterial means of production and reproduction
The parasite - the parasite is an organism which exploits a host without returning any benefit. Michael Serres' philosophical work (1984, The Parasite) provokes the thought that reproduction is a parasitical process. We might note that our industrial production processes viewed at the planetary level might be seen as rather parasitical.
Complexity and reductionism - trying to understand either the material or immaterial systems which encompass contemporary culture requires getting to grips with prohibitively complex networks of interrelated factors, so we take short cuts (systems theory, marxism, discourse analysis, etc). Niklas Luhmann's development of systems theory - especially his application of it to the mass media (1996. The Reality of the Mass Media) is instructive here.
Mechanical reproduction - understanding reproduction (and what it is we are reproducing) is one of the ways which people (especially marxists) have used to try to analyse the relationship between 'production' and culture.
Marxism - a inescapably important thread of cultural analysis for over 150 years. You can find more about marxism here and ideology here. A marxist analysis of production might lead us to conclude that our acts of production and reproduction are aimed at little more than the continual reproduction of the means and conditions of our being able to engage in acts of production and reproduction. This might help us to understand everything from the resilience of capitalism to Marshall McLuhan's "the medium is the message" (1964. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man).
Aura - the important and influential writer Walter Benjamin, who emerged form the important and influential Frankfurt School (who criticised the capital-oriented culture industry), analysed mechanical reproduction as leading to the loss of 'aura' of the work of art: the 'authentic' unique object of pilgrimage becomes the disposable object of consumption (1935. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction). Wither, and whither, the aura?
Aesthetics, politics and fascism - Benjamin's sometimes equivocal essay (sometimes appearing to celebrate processes of democratisation and rebellion against the authority of tradition) also suggests that mechanical reproduction opens art up to exploitation for political purposes (i.e. propaganda); essentially, the co-option of art by those seeking power helped to facilitate the rise of fascism. He suggests that the aestheticisation of politics (in contemporary terms, this might be seen in the triumph of PR in politics) should be combated by the politicisation of art.
Technological determinism - the suggestion that human lives are shaped by the technologies they invent. This idea is often ridiculed, since it is taken, in extremis, to argue that human beings have no freedom or agency. It is nevertheless a useful concept when thinking about how, for example, the built environment determines human behaviour: think about how the architecture of spaces like supermarkets and airports 'funnel' your movements. The argument here might be how much this is influenced by technology (which after all, human beings "create") and how much our behaviour is socially learned and constructed. See Henri Lefebvre (1974. The Production of Space) or Marc Augé (1995. Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity) on the way we make, and are made by, space.
Faculty of Chemical and Food Technology by gadl on Flickr
Imagine I create a web page with an interactive map. My act of production of this web-based product relies on a precariously constructed network of immaterial labour interacting with the material conditions which facilitate and shape it. I utilise APIs providing textually represented information to write codes implemented by browsers using interpreters based on formats produced by assemblages of people working commercially towards shareholder profit or in open source collectives for infinitely varied motives, using complex stacks of code layers whose material manifestations essentially consist of the configuration of magnetised atoms on slivers of semi-conductors, co-opted into the mediation and storage of binary digits.
labyrinthine circuit board lines by quapan on Flickr
As of November 2009, the internet weighs 498, 438,559,990 kg (2009. Slashdot, How Heavy is the Internet?). How does one begin to untangle the complex web of interactions which go into the production of something which has only existed for a few decades and yet has grown mind-bogglingly large? And what perspectives might we take on the partner to our exponential growth in material production and reproduction? The partner of production is consumption: what ways can we hope to make sense of the consumption of resources that our production necessitates? How many more internets' worth of plastic and metal waste do we dump in landfills every year?
Calgary NW Landfill - 3 by D'Arcy Norman on Flickr
The interactions between the many actors which constitute the material and immaterial nodes in the networks of production and reproduction which facilitate our work as makers of digital artefacts, writers of diegeses on paper, copiers of performances onto photographic film, are extraordinarily complex, and all mutually embedded in and amongst each other. To pull out nodes from the network is to inevitably foreground certain figures and to discount other grounds. Such disembeddings are reductive: they try to simplify and by doing so, exclude. Only with such caveats should we proceed.
Production as the narrative of human knowledge
Instrumental reason - the idea that human knowledge strives towards ever greater objective truth is a problematic idea; we might wonder if human knowledge is much more instrumental - i.e. partially directed towards purposes and outcomes.
Teleology - the idea of future purpose. Humans often behave teleologically - believing that we are making progress, that we are working towards purposes. Instrumental reason as described above is exemplary of telelogically directed activities. But we might also question whether 'progress' is inevitably towards better things.
Consider maps and their relation to human perception and space and place to illustrate this. Early maps do not show aerial views, but human level perspectives. Naturalistic attempts at spatial and geographical "accuracy" (i.e. attempting to create spatially representative images of coastlines, cities and roads: "geography" literally means the drawing of the earth) is a late invention: earlier maps showed boundaries as perfectly circular, rivers as straight, important buildings as circles, etc. It is too simple to say that these early maps are "less accurate": actually they were trying to achieve something other than the naturalistic representation that we seek in maps.
Do maps get better as they get more naturalistically representative? Or, do they perhaps just serve different (rather than better) purposes? A contemporary geological map might be very useful to someone looking for minerals, but incomprehensible to most other people. Cook's mapping of the antipodes was as much a part of, and inseparable from, the practice of empire-building aided with ships and guns, as it was about charting navigable routes or creating disinterested representations of the natural world in order to have a more complete and objective understanding of it.
Some concluding remarks
Simulacrum - Jean Baudrillard (1985. Simulacra and Simulation) imagined the world we inhabit as being a simulacrum - a 1:1 map of the world, rather than the world itself. The world of representation - that image world which humans construct around themselves, the world of mediation - is the world we inhabit. This world of experience is no longer "authentic" - its aura has withered as it has become an endlessly reproducible commodity. Experience has become the commodity produced for the purpose of consumption.
Google Streetview is close to showing us the 1:1 map of the world - an external environment centred around the roads and commercial centres which structure our lives. Have we disappeared into that frozen mediated world in which nothing occurs but exchange, capital, and commerce? Are there no more geographies to explore or maps to produce, and are we now only left to consume the endlessly reproduced products of a culture industry? Have we disappeared into the map, or can we use the map to create authentic experiences? Perhaps we can escape the tyranny of consumption by becoming producers of our own experiences, using the resources of the given world: like the flâneur - the stroller and seeker of visions - of Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin?
BlakeWalkers by joeflintham
DJ Spooky has likened DJs to contemporary "troubadours", and that the artistry of remixing "found" sounds and samples is part of a new digital folk culture. (Birringer, J. 2008. Performance, Technology and Science, New York: PAJ Publications). The direct comparison here is with oral cultures in which the same stories are used and retold, each telling generates new rhythms and themes, resonances and meanings. Traditional music lovers might long for "real" music - as though the sound produced by a bow on a cello is somehow more "authentic" than a sample of a sample of a sample. Where is originality, newness, creativity and authenticity?
Is the DJ a parasite on the creative work of artists nurtured by the culture industry? Or is industry capital a parasite on the productive work of the artist? Or are the works themselves, the audio ephemera, around which such praxis and commerce revolve: the memes - are these the real parasites?