In this paper I approach the practice of correspondence, particularly across digital platforms, with a reading of concepts of media theory, non-philosophy, and queer theory. This reading has been undertaken, at least in part, during my involvement in and witnessing of a collaborative performance work, by two dance artists, Alexa Mardon and Raha Behnam that has been developing since fall of 2016. Iterations of this project have been presented in Hamburg at the PSi conference in June of 2017, as well as in Brooklyn in March. Reading this work and the communication through which it has developed as an outside observer, I have formulated a close reading of the abstract narratives that are developed and placed over digital correspondence, and the effects the platforms which host these discourses have upon the way in which they are both written and read. Using this material, I will theorize strategies for resisting the machinic surveillance that occurs within digital platforms that results in both commodification of information, and state control. I am looking for a methodology of communication that can resist a capitalist state, while allowing a harbour for the development of both intimacy, and collaborative thought. Returning to a non-philosophical analysis, I argue that intimate discourse carries its own encryption, becomes manifest secret, leaves traces of the body and its relations, but that these traces in their particularity resist the metadata cull, and cannot be sold or marketed, stalked or prosecuted. Instead they allow for personal relationships to become sites for a politics of mutual transformation.
“Perhaps mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation... the full result of which one cannot know in advance.” - Butler, The Lived Revolution
“The problem of designing to ameliorate the conditions of emergency may in fact make the conditions of emergency too comfortable and therefore permanent” - Bratton, The Stack
“Truth is a philosophical fetish” - Kolozova, in lecture
I am vitally enticed and engulfed in the mobile brume of what constitutes contemporary correspondence. It floats between nodes of implication: it enters into political systems, generates the self, becomes material, is encrypted, turns legally binding, endorses collaboration, and propagates intimacy. I have been thinking about correspondence as labour, as resource, as the primary contemporary means of communication, as creative collaboration, as secret, intimate text, as text to be exposed, as archive, and as many other things farther afield and in increments in between.
When I think about correspondence, I think about it in a way that differentiates it from the public account activity of social media platforms. In these technologies, the audience or receiver of missives is shifty and uncertain, and convenes a probabilistic reception that is directed by patented algorithms and based on a large set of followers, ‘friends’, or general users of that platform. In this way it does not resemble correspondence at all, but more closely broadcast.
Correspondence is but one of many instances of digital activity, and its analysis is often less prevalent than that of public platforms of social media (or, perhaps, simply less publically accessible). These platforms have structures that sport a glinty inkling of the new, in that there is a public sculpting and essentialism of the self, and its entry into a marketplace of data as well the potential market of personal branding. Understanding the motives and implications of this public ‘correspondence’ with the self is certainly an interesting one, and also implicates a relatively new instances of dependence on public intimacy or affection as opposed to or more likely in tandem with community-building and interpersonal politics. However, there is already much writing dealing with this subject. It is one that I will skirt around because of the tenuous chine of direct relay in its landscape. There are instances where these platforms contain, nudge, chafe, and perforate correspondence, but I will address them only insofar as their structures implicate those of direct dialogue.
When I refer to correspondence, I am defining it as any conversation, using text (or other material that serves in the guise of text), between two or more participants, on any platform, wherein there is a communicative exchange involving those participants. This may be public or private, traditionally material (such as posted letters) or digital, and may be additive (as forums or shared documents) or responsive (sending and receiving of message packets). The two main components of this definition are that it leaves a form of material trace, and that this evidences a loop of communication between participants.
I approach this broad topic using multiple strategies. To address the shifting nature of correspondence language from communicatory to material, I have been using Katerina Kolozova’s work. Both her work in Towards a Radical Metaphysics of Socialism with Laruelle and Non-Marxism to think about technological prosthesis as a way to theorize the materiality of language as such, as well as her work in The Cut of the Real and The Lived Revolution with Judith Butler regarding contextual implications of the unitary subject, and its body once it enters into a system of signification. To pilfer from the ethos of these approaches, I have also looked at political implications of correspondence through strategies and approaches within queer theory in regards to the breaching of the interpersonal and the political, and its effects on privacy, as well as Benjamin Bratton’s work on digital architectural structures. Within this work, I am also deeply indebted to a epistemology of media theory and visual arts discourse for their understanding of and work with structures of support and their power to influence and carry communicated content.
These theoretical sources come from wildly different discourses, but there is something stickily gravitational about the locus of correspondence that draws them all together. Within it exists conflicts and ambivalences. I argue that the body becomes entangled within the intimacy that engages the language of correspondence as substantial, or material. It materializes both the embodiment that incites the text of communication, and the text itself. This intimacy, or drive towards a recognition and signification in the social has both risks and benefits. There is the danger of that intimacy being exposed and criticized in a public realm causing political or interpersonal damage, and there is correspondence’s nature as a site for collaboration and connection, for a possible disintegration of authorship and boundary.
Benjamin Bratton’s work on the Stack has been a useful infrastructure through which to think the implications and scope of digital correspondence. His work explores many different aspects of the architecture which allows for contemporary communication in variegated layers, implicating environmental landscapes, subject positions, and global politics and economics. In The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty, he creates a structure to think through the chaos of these interrelated aspects of the hyperobject that has been made of our discourse networks. His approach uses specific events and processes as ways of tracking these implications through the various matrixes of user, interface, address, city, cloud, and earth. The work is well-informed about current informational structures and their growth histories and trajectories, and theoretically is heavily influenced by german media theory. However, he leaves room for much to be filled in within this framework.
Through my reading of Katerina Kolozova’s work with Butler, Lacan, Marx and Haraway in the field of non-philosophy, I have drawn analogies with the material elements present in digital correspondence (as an element of Bratton’s Stack) and its interaction with her conception of the Real. Looking at her theorization of subjectification through signification and how this integrates with the technological, I lay out possible applications of radical materiality in layers of both embodied intimacy and in the use of text as material by metasystems of interpellation and signification. Kolozova often draws on Judith Butler’s work, and I also find it relevant to approaching correspondence, particularly her work in performativity and language to further think through the user’s behaviour and subjectification within the structure of these discourse networks and architectures.
As an early amble around this field, I would like to speak about a contemporary dance and video work that uses correspondence as subject matter and choreographic protocol. Its own peregrination across and through correspondence as both material and structure has been vastly useful in my initial approach. An ongoing collaborative project between contemporary dance artists Raha Benham and Alexa Solveig Mardon, the piece in its presentation Performance Studies international in Hamburg in June of 2017 was entitled Dances for Elsewhere. To give a brief idea of the piece, the project is summarized by the artists:
As two dance artists residing across national borders and on opposite edges of the same continent, we attempt a collaboration through the medium of dance and movement. In order to connect, we rely upon popular technologies at our disposal: email, telephone, text, google docs, facebook, snapchat, instagram. These applications and epistemologies allow us to transcend certain borders, like the distance between the US and Canada, the time difference between the east and west coasts, the cultural chasms between Canadian-born European-descendant, and barely-documented Iranian-born Immigrant…. How do we come to know the world that is distant or far away from us in time and space? How is this knowledge different from that produced through the experience of actually being in a place? How is power embedded in these various ways of knowing? (Artist’s statement, Raha Benham and Alexa Mardon)
The approach to the work is deeply grounded in a somatic and embodied experience, unique to contemporary dance, wherein the body of the artist is imperative as a method to feel and convey the confession of experience within various societal structures. It addresses through a precise medium- and practice-specific support the ways in which these correspondences run analogous to the geopolitical and sensorial experience of the landscape, ways in which it is cut short by the structures that give citizenship to its spaces (digital and geopolitical), as well as the ways in which it overflows those structures. Their embodied language, and the intimacy that incites it, constitutes a “sheer descriptiveness [, like the sheer body, which] guarantees and irrevocably affirms the insurmountable-in-the-last-instance abyss between the Real and Thought” (Kolozova, .)
The performance is built upon the affect, implicated in both geopolitical and digital infrastructure, of the pain of missing the other. “Loss and vulnerability,” says Butler, “seem to follow from our being socially constituted bodies, attached to others, at risk of losing those attachments, exposed to others, at risk of violence by virtue of that exposure.” (Precarious Life, p. 20) Bratton theorizes that this sociality consists of a locative disjunct, saying colloquially that “it’s not that there is no ‘there there’ but rather that moment to moment there are too many ‘theres.’” (The Stack, p ) A side effect of this expansive and instantaneous communication across distances is a loss of embodied location, a grief for the space with which you are aware of and in communication with, but unable to fully enter. This applies equally to a loss of a person, one who is in communication, but whose absence is more deeply felt because of these discourse.
Within global communication, there is a difficult causality present, in that the correspondence both allows for the assuagement of this feeling, and is the incipient prick of its founding. In Dances for Elsewhere, this relation enters signification through multiple textual points, teleological and indexical throughout the work. At one compelling moment, the performers scroll through the message history of their Skype conversations, which is an index of their calls, missed, accepted and dropped, which is interlaces with their messaging. The index reads like a footnote, leaving the viewer to imagine the main content of their conversations.
[2017-02-04, 3:19:54 PM] Alexa Mardon: Call – unable to reach this contact
[2017-02-04, 3:34:09 PM] Alexa Mardon: Call ended – error
[2017-02-04, 3:34:09 PM] Raha Behnam: Call started
[2017-02-04, 3:34:27 PM] Alexa Mardon: Call – unable to reach this contact
[2017-02-04, 3:34:34 PM] Alexa Mardon: hiii
[2017-02-04, 3:35:10 PM] Raha Behnam: hi!!!
[2017-02-04, 3:36:00 PM] Alexa Mardon: Call 42 seconds
\[2017-02-04, 3:36:12 PM] Alexa Mardon: Call started
[2017-02-04, 3:36:40 PM] Alexa Mardon: i will restart my computer
[2017-02-04, 3:36:47 PM] Alexa Mardon: Call ended 34 seconds
[2017-02-04, 4:27:04 PM] Alexa Mardon: Call 43 minutes 44 seconds
[2017-02-19, 12:07:47 PM] Alexa Mardon: Call 30 seconds
[2017-02-19, 12:09:35 PM] Raha Behnam: i just watched that video/poem for the first time! sorry i seem to have missed it before.
[2017-02-19, 12:10:03 PM] Raha Behnam: yes i liked it! but I’m so confused about what a woman is. thats the wall i continually bump up against
[2017-02-19, 1:35:44 PM] Alexa Mardon: Call 1 hour 23 minutes 43 seconds
[2017-03-06, 3:30:48 PM] Alexa Mardon: heyy
[2017-03-06, 3:37:09 PM] Raha Behnam: HI!!!
[2017-03-06, 3:37:11 PM] Raha Behnam: should i call you
[2017-03-06, 4:47:43 PM] Alexa Mardon: Call 1 hour 10 minutes 28 seconds
[2017-03-09, 4:19:46 PM] Alexa Mardon: Call started
[2017-03-09, 4:21:31 PM] Raha Behnam: http://www.agng.info/
This formal descriptive language of computational choreography is a poetic trace of disappearance and frustration, both in the referentiality expected of the viewer (which is overwhelming to interpretation within a video conference, and serves merely as evidence of their collaboration) and also of the ways in which the intimacy evinced has been cut short, abbreviated, in addition to being set up by these various structures. As index rather than exposition, the impassive text enacts a violence on the reader that recommends an affiliation with previous personal experience within these interfaces. It conjures the spectres of language repeated, lost and misinterpreted because of the infrastructure that is designed to connect it. This text is evidence on the interface of a failure mechanism that both creates and comforts the trauma of isolation. It is testimony of a process that calcifies the molten liquidity of intimacy.
Maps -- both handwritten and satellite -- become very important in the work in order to trouble the notions of travel in an embodied context. They provide a method of defining the body within space, and also compare differing structural methods of signifying it as such. The ways in which both artists move through the world, via satellite, walking, and conceptions of that space through the body become the problem that needs to be resolved through dance in the work. Locating each other via satellite becomes a method of recognition between the two, situating both artists in their geopolitical as well as digital space, which places them within their constitutive structures, but also reveals the overwhelming natural landscape surrounding them.
As the screen zooms out, the political lines become lost within the vast, possibly contestable, lesser mapped space that surrounds urban centres. This is a relation mirrored in their own maps of the space that they navigate on the ground within daily routine, observing minute choreographies around them. These psychogeographies are comparably warped and twisted in scale by the importance of certain areas and points in the mind of the wanderer. They mirror the ways in which lines drawn beget an importance of signification, declaring the weight of sites such as borders and centralized urban hubs. The personal emphasis, in its grounding in intimacy, disrupts the general geopolitical tendencies of this weight, and the way in which the landscape is used as a potential for colonization of communication. This process from landscape to structure is analogous to that of the material of intimacy to the architectures that convey and shape it, as well as that of the Real to Thought.
Affection plays an imperative role within the development of collaboration in this work. It is both process and material for the content. It quite literally becomes the site of activation, as is seen in their choice of textual point to produce comment in this screenshot of the performance (see image). The affection between the two artists becomes the site for theoretical discourse a priori, which is in line with the approach from an embodied and personal politic. The romance is parsed through the political imaginary, and within this gains traction as a theoretical node, the activity around which can be mobilized to explicate the sometimes nebulous effects of interpersonal politics.
In The Lived Revolution Kolozova defines Laruelle’s concept of radicality as “a universality that is so transcendentally and ideologically impoverished that it cannot subsume other concepts or particulars.”(Kolozova, LR) With this definition she constitutes the body as a radical material. I would argue that intimacy, being tied to the body, also constitutes a radical substance. The need for intimacy is a relation that brings the body towards the social, and hence towards the “world,” the “signifying chain,” or the “automaton.”(Kolozova, LR) It is a substance that produces a desire, and is therefore implicated in the process of signification of the Real. It also allows for a similar ambivalent process of pain and vulnerability.
Leaving aside the question about the body-soul dualism, and the dilemma of which of the two opposed terms represents the topos proper of pain, the instance of vulnerability and pain is still defined, by its determination in the last instance, as heterogeneous to the discursive, to language, to signification. Namely, pain - both in its actuality of being wounded and the potentiality of vulnerability - in the instance of the purely experiential, of the experiential par excellence. It is an event. It is what happens in spite of any discourse, utterly regardless of the Language. It is the taking-place-of-the-Real. It is the tuche that thrusts into the automaton. Thus, if vulnerability preconditions the human and provides the basis for its recognition, it needs to be said that, paradoxically, it is the kernel of the lived (echoing Francois Laruelle’s notion of le vecu), i.e., of the Real which serves as the foundation of the discursive operation par excellence, that of recognition.
The generalized fear or avoidance of effusive affection in text carries with it a political and social taboo. The materiality of text and its role as a possible evidential trace carries within the support a risk of this confession. This comes from the possibility that it could be referenced and possibly reversed upon the participants by an apparatus of extortion or blackmail. In this, it exceeds the surveillance of the mass incremental profiteering, and becomes subject to a much more pointed attack on the political status of its participants, one which the subject can fear as a personal attack, rather than the comparably minimal trauma of a micro-exploitation of labour and attention through mass data surveillance. The interpellation (as theorized in Butler’s Excitable Speech) of the user within a structural system opens them up to these risks. However, the subject that abstains from this, risks abstention from the social and intimacy as such. This is a double-edged sword identical to that of the problematic relation between connection and grief that I discussed above.
In this, the act of displaying and performance of such correspondences of affection in this work becomes a political act which is in line with the history of queer politics and activism. A requisite “coming out” or revealing of affection, and its implications of love, and possible political association through personal objects or dialogues is put in contrast to the relative indiscernibility of the affectionate text. Most text only evinces that it is “affectionate” itself, but remains ambiguous in specifics or possible points of persecution. However, affection itself has been and is still used as a point of persecution, particularly against LGBTQ persons. In this, the strategies of queer theory are relevant in that they have dealt with this issue of delineation between public and private for far longer than the average digital subject. For many, the public community that they must enter in order to obtain basic accessibility to markets and services has been a many-eyed surveillant itself, analyzing micro-gestures and affections with the intent of separating sexual difference.
Within this work, the relation between the performers as evidenced by their gestural intimacy and the history of past correspondence itself is an ambiguous one, which proceeds to exemplify the categorical gaze of the viewer by privileging the oft-ignored and -denigrated relations between female-identifying relationships, and the depth that is often deemed possible within conventional representation.
Mise-en-abyme is used in the performance as a choreography that showcases the many refractions of the process towards the creation of the piece. Additionally, this technique emphasizes the overwhelming nature of cross-platform digital landscapes, and our inability to comprehend it in its entirely. The infinity mirror structure is visually analogous to the affective experience of the multi-platform user. The many windows within windows simulate the conception of space that occurs when a line of communication continues in multiple interfaces and platform architectures, and the effort required to follow it as a reader across these simultaneous lateral landscapes.
This difficulty of tracing is a labour that often is sublimated due to the user’s fluency in both interpersonal relations and multi-platform traversal (a debt we may owe to our evolution’s emphasis on sociality). However, for the single-platform algorithmic surveillance machine, it becomes difficult to trace a linear development of relationships when the evidence and lateral span of its development are so broad and in each instance requires a reading of a different and specific platform. Further, the relationship between those platforms becomes complicated by varying contexts (intra-, inter-, and extra-digitally) implied within each. The map of the modern relationship becomes infinitely nodal, multimedia, and subject to many different states of terms and conditions. The political status of the subject traversing these boundaries becomes impractical to parse. Each time the subject emerges in a platform environment, they, and their language, are subject to a particular set of rules, contexts, and syntax, many of which are divergent from and often resistant to the designed use of the platform. “The preponderance of data generated by users, and the traces of their worldly transactions initially overtrace the outline of a given user (eg the hyperindividualization of the quantified self movement) but; as new data systems overlap over it and through it, the coherent position of the user dissolves through overdetermination by external relations and networks” (Bratton, p. 67
This is a form of resistance to what Kolozova references as the “chain of signification” or cultural process. Driven by the objective of making information (or meaning), surveillance apparati are thwarted in some respect by the senselessness of ellipses of data mined from multiple platforms. The subject exceeds algorithmic explanation. This strategy, using the infinite performativity of Butler’s subject that fits within the possibilities of Bratton’s Stack because
[t]he user’s enumeration is first a grotesquely individuated self-image, a profile, but as the same process is oversubscribed by data that trace all the things that affect the user, now included in the profile, the persona that first promises coherency and closure brings an explosion and liquefaction of self. (Bratton, 69)
This impracticability is both a disadvantage to the subject as well as a site for possibility within the work. The ability of surveillance mechanisms to parse these, given the layers of encryption through affective poetics and platform specificity, user use versus designed use, embodied language, and intimate discourse becomes boundlessly complicated. The invisibility of cross-platform communication leaves ellipses in each trace, disconcerting the full picture of a relation. It also tends to deduce that the traversers between platforms are operating within a vaguely decided upon rulebook, the specifics of which succeeds their possible attention while still communicating other content.
This traversal also indicates a continuous process of engagement. Every time their innumerable and incalculable relations become present in each form of communication, it is solidified into the particular signifiers of each platform, it enters into a metasignification of language within the rules, processes, and fluvial plains of the particular platform itself, and becomes resignified within this context as trace. Their secret (private), amorphous relationship finds implication within each platform, and its fluidity resists the architecture of the platform itself, inherently critiquing the contexts which in each turn, defines it. Its multiple engagements categorizes the platform itself in terms of its frustrations and availabilities, exceeding and being exceeded by each in its own terms. The final presentation of the work in Hamburg is also a critique of its own limitations: the context of the conference itself, its limited timescale and the necessity of Western academia’s lurid mobility becomes subject to the same critique. Neither artist was able to attend the conference, and the resulting presentation was an additional choreographic score via skype of desktop sharing, communal writing, and media display. The conference is thus equated with a geographically centred platform for discourse, requiring legal and financial status in order for the user of that platform to participate.
This particular example, along with many others within the piece, makes palpable the affective power of shared interfaces. These traces become poetically readable only through the reader’s familiarity with similar structures. The design and usability of interfaces is available only through an understanding that the experience between users is replicable. Each user has differing experience to these interfaces, but there is particular experience imbricated in its architecture that spans individual usage nonetheless. The conditions of this digital architecture has a transferable compassion or empathy because of the invocation of one’s own sensorial experience in the interior landscape of the platform; the particular plays of intimacy that have been acted out there, and the pushback of the structure upon those intimacies. It is a nested space that throughout usage becomes far from impersonal, regardless of its objective, blank, and ubiquitous appearance. As the intimate experience enters the interface, it becomes signified and therefore legible.
Often our contemporary relationships develop nascent within these architectures before they are expelled into the real-encounter, and the affections that ripen there are precious to the limmerance of particular intimacies. The glitching of the technologies these intimacies rely upon produces a distinct trauma. Its prevention is painfully dependent on the myriad processes of mediation that make these intimacies possible. Either that, or abstention from these technologies entirely, which brings with it an implied loss. In this way, interpersonal relationships are corralled by the architectures which allow them, both inciting need of the other and withholding gratification and relief from the distances that they make palpable.
The general articulation that I find in this work is that correspondence, because of its intimate relation to the body, exceeds and overflows the conditions of the structures which contain it. It has various weapons at its disposal: specific embodied descriptions of digital and physical affect; the current proliferation of platforms for communication; manipulations of the choreography that is implicit in these platforms; and the inalienable existence of the body in the last instance as a site for resistance. Dances for Elsewhere is an occurrence, and a proof of the ability of the material, be it language, body, or intimacy, to outstrip complete political signification. Any violent response of persecution because of these processes of signification can only be addressed as misinterpretation, as it is always already reductive to the reality of the material. These responses must be refuted with the legitimate polysemous accounts of experience that we as users mediate and function within on an ordinary basis, and are ripe for a uniquely transferable interpretive empathy because of their constitutive ordinariness.