Spivacking the Digital: Top, Tap and Tup

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I much admire Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak although I haven't had much to do with her in my area of work barring my recent paper on empire and videogames. I did read her translator's introduction to Of Grammatology and, like many grad students before me, almost gave up on Derrida. Subsequently, I have read essays by her such as 'The Rani of Sirmur' (courtesy my partner's interest in these) and joined the band of Spivak-fans.

So it was to hear Spivak speaking at the Netaji Memorial Lecture (where I had heard Edward Said speak quite a few years ago) that I went. The talk was intriguingly titled 'Freedom after Independence?' and the question-mark was probably the most important part of the entire proceedings. However, as Spivak worked through the tangles of the conceptions of subaltern leanings towards freedom in a post-colonial world, she also had to bring in the digital. She had to. The digital is everywhere - as the purported solution par excellence and ergo the object of much criticism and fear. After criticising MOOCs, e-learning tools and their pedagogy, the great pedagogue (she said that she might not be a great intellectual but that she was the real thing) declared that the digital should be kept on tap and not on top.

So how does this represent the digital? The digital on top is the patriarchical (or 'top-archical') figure almost smacking of sexual dominance. Dominating productivity, dominating creation - the digital as the thing-on-top, the ding-an-oben (as opposed to the ding in sich). From the hierarchy of the database and the digital tool that is used to organise pedagogy and structure the way in which education is disseminated, the digital dominates how we think and produce. The digital-on-top is also imposed on us postcolonial subjects and it silences the subaltern non-digital modes of pedagogy. Now that is a very compelling image.

Spivak's suggestion is the 'digital-on-tap'. Does she mean a water tap where the flow can be regulated or 'on-tap' as in 'under pressure'? Or is it that she wants to tap away impatiently on her table waiting for the digital to behave itself? Let us stick to the 'digital-under-control' option. So you have an essence called the digital and every now and then you can regulate the flow of this using a proverbial stop-cock. Procreation under control. On tap.

Ostensibly, there's nothing wrong with this image. The man who was on top is now kept on tap. The digital, therefore, also needs to be kept on tap. What I was surprised about is that such a comment could come from Spivak. From the perspective of 'originary technicity', the concept proposed by Derrida, there's a problem with such a 'top-heavy' or 'tap-heavy' approach. Technicity is intrinsic and human; rather than being the prosthetic tool, it is that dangerous supplement. This, of course, is in contravention to the Aristotelian idea of technology. As Tim Clarke describes it:

The traditional, Aristotelian view is that technology is extrinsic to human nature as a tool which is used to bring about certain ends. Technology is applied science, an instrument of knowledge. The inverse of this conception, now commonly heard, is that the instrument has taken control of its maker, the creation control of its creator (Frankenstein’s monster). (Clark, 2000: 238)
Clark, in his essay on Derrida and Technology (in the collection edited by Nick Royle), uses Marvin Minsky's SF short story The Turing Option to illustrate his point.  This is an early morning blog post and I am feeling lazy so I'll use Federica Frabetti's summary as a shorthand:

In order to regain his cognitive capacities after a shooting accident has severely damaged his brain, the protagonist of the novel, Brian Delaney, has a small computer implanted into his skull as a prosthesis. After the surgery he starts reconstructing the knowledge he had before the shooting. The novel shows him trying to catch up with himself through his former notes and getting an intense feeling that the self that wrote those notes in the past is lost forever. Clark uses this story as a brilliant figuration of the fact that no self-consciousness can be reached without technology. (Frabetti 2011)
Clark's point is that '[n]o thinking – no interiority of the psyche – can be conceived apart from technics in the guise of systems of signs which it may seem to employ but which are a condition of its own identity.' (Clark, 2000: 240) Let us turn now to the digital. The digital as a form of technology has already figured in our discussion of technicity. Digitality, or call it what you will, does not work outside the human. As a supplement, it alters the centre, threatens it and is also part of it. Top, tap or whatever, it ain't something that is separate from what you are becoming.

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Another Keynote Lecture: Videogames in India

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2014 started with yet another visit to Delhi. I was invited to be part of the keynote panel on Indian videogaming, together with Dr Padmini Ray Murray from the University of Stirling. It was great to be back at JNU and I had some productive discussions, especially with the team from the University of West Virginia and Siddhartha from the JNU team. It was a pleasure to meet Dr Lyle Skains after over three years now (we met in Bangor in 2010) and to skype with Dr Astrid Ensslin about LOTRO MOOC and its relevance to higher education. Dr Sandy Baldwin of UWV spoke on how his team played out (pun intended) Samuel Beckett's Endgame  within CounterStrike 2 and the artistic and philosophical implications of such theatrical interventions in the game-world. Dibyoduti Roy impressed me with his take on the experience of the quotidian in videogames. I felt that he has something new to contribute to how we think through gameplay. His colleague, Kwabena, spoke on WoW but I was more interested in what he had to say about gaming in Ghana (and in other African countries) when we had some time to chat over coffee. At the JNU end, I liked a paper on postcolonial representations in videogames  - something I've worked on recently (for my paper at Bergen). Sid, who was presenting the paper, focused on Far Cry 2 and Assassin's Creed and pointed at racial and imperial stereotypes made by Ubisoft. I did come to Ubisoft's defence though, as I seriously believe that the Ubisoft games are mostly fairly nuanced and good at problematising issues.  I shan't use this space to go into a sustained argument on this but I am happy to defend my position, any time.

I am getting into the habit of writing my conference reports rather late and as such, my memory plays tricks with me. The highlight of my stay was my meeting Quicksand, one of the most 'thinking'game developers I've met in India so far. These are the guys who made Meghdoot, which Murray describes thus:

Meghdoot: Using new technologies to tell age-old stories is a project that will be based around a prototype of a game Meghdoot that was developed in the first phase of the Unbox Fellowship. Meghdoot draws on features of Indian culture such as gestural movements from Indian dance in gameplay and is inspired by using narrative structures drawn from Indian mythology, making a conscious choice to move away from Anglo-Saxon linear sequences in the game's design and deploys an aesthetic that is inspired by Indian heritage artefacts but does not resort to usual tropes of the exotic or the oriental. Meghdoot will fall into the increasingly popular category of ‘serious art game’
I left Quicksand after making them promise that they would visit Calcutta and that some of the bylanes in Chitpore would feature in their next game (about which, mum is the word). Time to get away from fun and games and back to work.

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