09 June 2010


felix guattari, circa 1981.
i love this guy so hard.

"Technological machines of information and communication operate at the heart of human subjectivity...Recognition of these machinic dimensions of subjectivation leads us to insist, in our attempt at redefinition, on the heterogeneity of the components leading to the production of subjectivity...It's impossible to judge such a machinic evolution either positively or negatively: everything depends on its articulation within collective assemblages of enunciation. . At best there is the creation, or invention of new Universes of reference... a Post-modern era characterized by the reappropriation & resingularization of the use of media" (Guattari 4-5).
 If guattari theorized in 1992 that machinic tools of information & communication were an important component of subjectivity, then how much more seriously we must take this now, as the internet becomes more integrated into the daily lives of the public--despite the digital divide.  One way to conceptualize this is the virtual performance of self in relationship to things as simple as cell phones or Facebook. The way we use those technologies, how we can use them, & the ways we imagine being able to use them in the future, influence our performances of identity as well as further developments of technologies. If we continue to push the aesthetic limits of the form of subjectivation, we move in the direction of the new Universes of reference Guattari refers to.

I believe the "Postmodern era" (5) Guattari imagines here is the remix culture we see happening now.  It isn't just the mixing of popular musics even, but video, audio, & text, as well as even physical remixes in the form of dance trends (such as "Geddan Get Down" or "Crank that Soulja Boy") & the like made possible by our machinic assemblages.

More specifically,
"there is thus a certain type of fragment of content that 'takes possession of the author' to engender a certain mode of aesthetic enunciation...fragments which I place in the category of 'existential refrains'" (14-15).
 I'm thinking here of particularities of the spread of internet culture--generally  what we call internet memes.  I use both Wikipedia's definition of an internet meme and Susan Blackmore's discussion of memes & temes to arrive at a definition of internet memes: a viral concept spread from person to person via the internet, usually in the form of pictures, video, audio, a catchphrase or joke, or any combination thereof.  What separates an internet meme from a teme--those memes that Susan Blackmore says spread through technology, & demonstrate self-replication of a sort--is that the spread of internet memes seems to remain mostly organic, peer-to-peer.  Although one might argue that with the algorithms of a Google search in play, internet memes do in fact act more like temes.  Probably internet memes are double articulated in this way, & hence the trouble I have defining them.  Regardless, the repition of particulars in this form means they act as refrain, creating Universes of reference as well as subjectivation through the creation of culture & cultural artifact simultaneously.
"Like Bakhtin, I would say that the refrain is not based on elements of form, material or ordinary signification, but on the detachment of an existential 'motif' which installs itself like an 'attractor' within a sensible & significational chaos.  The different components conserve their heterogeneity, but are nevertheless captured by a refrain which couples them to the existential Territory of my self" (17).  
 Thus, it is not the form, per se, but the series of themes that run through the specific assemblages that matter here.  That these themes arise amidst the sheer volume of artifacts being produced is what becomes refrain that then becomes part of the larger "hyper-complex refrain" (16), which I might refer to as internet culture.  It is this hyper-complex refrain that play an important part in the production of a polyphonic subjectivity.  A really practical example of this is the person who roleplays as several characters online, as well as perhaps performing the identity they may claim as public. Each of these RP scenarios may have different sets of informal rules & social codes, access to specialized language or slang, etc, that influence the performances the roleplayer gives for each character, including public or RL persona.  As an interation of cultural scripts, each performance can be seen as a refrain, & the unique combination of performances as simply part of the hyper-complex refrain.  The interactions of the performances of these particular scripts would create a unique polyphonic subjectivity, as the roles being played become literally part of synaptic firings of the brain.

As for the internet meme, the refrain that went viral,
 "it's efficiency lies in its capacity to promote active, processual ruptures within semiotically structured, significational, & denotative networks, where it will put emergent subjectivity to work" (19).
 The meme is viral in the sense that is very form calls for & necessitates participation.  Even choosing not to pass along, repeat, remix, or reproduce a meme is still in interaction with it.  The meme exists because of the network, more specifically the network of people infected & affected in its proliferation.  The kind of remix inherent in memes certainly appeals to John Dewey's notion of the radical democratization of art, when the art-making practice has left "the elite world of museums & private galleries behind & become part of the everyday life of the masses" (Martin 56).  This is not the passive mass media that Guattari seemed unfond of, but a rhizomatic, collaborative, & interactive aesthetic assemblage being maintained in digital space, in fact dependent on the digital/machinic assemblage.

The very speed with which memes are disseminated, rise & subsequently fall from favor, paired with the constant need for participation, also meets another standard of Dewey's democratization: "it shows us how fragmented & plural public spheres are in contemporary democracies" (Martin 64).  The sheer volume alone would make it near impossible for any one person to participate with every meme, yet also provides an almost infinite number of ways to interact with meme-making practices & internet culture.

Surely this must be changing our subjectivities & our embodiments as we perform self through polyphonic digital landscapes.  Granted this does not necessarily mean all of it is "good."  The aesthetic is not always ethical, which would be why Guattari pushes for an ethico-aesthetic paradigm, to be constantly moving towards new Universes of reference at the expense of normalizing (& sometimes damaging) discourses.

Works Cited: 
Guattari, Felix.  Chaosmosis: an ethico-aesthetic paradigm.  Trans. Paul Bains and Julian Pefanis.  Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1995.  Print. 

Martin, Jay.  "Somaesthetics and Democracy: Dewey and Contemporary Body Art."  Journal of Aesthetic Education 36.4 (2002): 55-69.  Print.

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