Hyperrhiz 09: Essays

A Posthuman Cosmopolitanism and New Media Writing

Hazel Smith

University of Western Sydney, Australia


New media writing is often conceptualised in terms of the relationship between human and computers, a process Katherine Hayles calls intermediation (Hayles 2008). However critical writing on new media writing has not necessarily made a strong link between intermediation and interculturality. Issues of globalisation, cosmopolitanism and cross-cultural exchange have not been as widely addressed as the technological features of new media work, though they are extremely relevant to it. Here I bring recent theories of globalisation and cosmopolitanism together with the concept of human and computer intermediation through the notion of a "posthuman cosmopolitanism".

What does it mean to talk about a posthuman cosmopolitanism, particularly in relation to new media writing? A posthuman cosmopolitanism might seem to be a contradiction in terms, but it is really a way of addressing how human/computer interactions can and do cross national boundaries. A posthuman cosmopolitanism takes on the discourse known as "the new cosmopolitanism" (Fine 2007; Beck 2006). Distinct from the old cosmopolitanism, whose main player tended to be an elite bystander who would travel the world under privileged circumstances, the new cosmopolitanism created through globalisation addresses the circumstances of both the rich and the poor, the tourist and the refugee, the indigene and the political exile. This new cosmopolitanism is highly relevant to virtual environments that are not bounded by the nation state. Often when we visit a website we may not be aware of where it is based, or even feel that this is particularly relevant: it is also likely to contain the collaborative input of people from diverse locations and cultures. The technical means of new media work — the ability to interweave, split, superimpose and link environments — lend themselves to working across national boundaries rather than within them.

The concept of new media writing as a vehicle for a posthuman cosmopolitanism is partly based on the model of the cosmopolitan novel that Berthold Schoene draws up (Schoene 2009). Schoene argues that in Britain a new kind of novel is evolving, the cosmopolitan novel. Whereas the traditional novel focused on the nation, the cosmopolitan novel engages with the world and the interconnection between places. He refers to Benedict Anderson's formulation of the nation as an imagined community, and the distinction Anderson makes between the novel as tour de horizon — that is, focused on the nation state — and the novel as tour de monde, as encompassing the world. But Schoene reverses this and argues that the British novel is now transforming, through the rise of globalisation and the new cosmopolitanism, into the tour de monde. Particularly important is his emphasis on the form of the cosmopolitanism novel as opposed to its thematic aspect. The main characteristic of the cosmopolitan novel, according to Schoene, is what he calls compositeness: distinct segments or compartments that focus on different nations and cultures that are nevertheless interrelated. He makes a distinction between compositeness and modernist/postmodernist fragmentation and discontinuity: he suggests that "compositeness...is not at all the same as fragmentation...Episodic yet cohesive, compositeness forges narrative assemblage out of a seemingly desultory dispersion of plot and characterisation. Cosmopolitan representation resorts to the montage techniques of contemporary cinema, effecting rapid shifts in focus and perspective with the aim of cramming as many story lines and clashing imageries as possible into one and the same mis en scène" (p.14). Compositeness is a particular kind of form that reflects and embodies a transnational sense of community. This community is extremely mobile and fluid, constantly deconstructing and reconstructing its own identity. His model is the film Babel (2006), by the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, which combines stories from California, Mexico, Japan and Morocco into a multi-scenario mix. Schoene describes this scenario mix as "blighted by global inequality and crushed into an accident-prone mosaic of misfitting segments that push and press one on the other, yet remain worlds apart" (p. 15). Schoene also emphasises the tension between the negative and positive aspects of globalisation. Global mobility, or the lack of it, affects tourists and travellers but also refugees and underpaid migrant workers:

cosmopolitan representation's possibly greatest challenge lies in bridging the rift between the world of globalised business, marketing and political decision-making, on the one hand, and its countless sub-worlds of powerless, disenfranchised daily living, on the other...Our lives are lived quite literally at different levels: an elevated sphere travelled by the privileged is upheld by innumerable lower levels whose apparent solidity depends on their inhabitants' social immobility and hopeless economic entrapment (Schoene 2009, p.14).

Schoene's formulation of the cosmopolitan novel is very insightful, but his conceptual framework is even better exemplified by new media writing. The technological basis of such work is the notion of distinct components pushing and pressing against each other, and the complex interweaving and interlinking of concepts is intrinsic to the form, particularly its non-linear and multidirectional spatial organisation. Schoene's formulation that "cosmopolitan narration proceeds without erasing the essential incongruousness or singularity of these individual segments, which are left intact, even though they remain subject to continual re-assortment" (p.27) — is fundamental to new media writing. Similarly, Schoene's idea that the vertebra structures of the novel have been replaced by cellular structures — based on Appadurai's distinction between the vertebrate structures created by the nation state and the new cellular structures created by transnational interactions — is exemplified by new media writing which is all about interconnected cells. In fact the "indeterminate open-ended imagining of world community" (p.21) that Schoene sees as characteristic of the new cosmopolitanism — and as emerging in the cosmopolitan novel — is more potential in new media writing, because it has generative and emergent capacities that push at the boundaries inherent in compositeness.

The concept of a posthuman cosmopolitanism is, however, neither utopian nor dystopian. Globalisation has its darker as well as it lighter sides, since globalisation brings not only greater mobility, but also inequality, displacement and estrangement. The inequalities of globalisation are reflected in authorial realities since so many new media writers are Caucasian. Having said that, there are some notable exceptions (such as D. Fox Harrell, whose innovative work in text generation, through the development of his GRIOT computer platform, addresses racial stereotyping in new media). Furthermore, the inequalities of globalisation are evoked increasingly at a thematic level in new media works, such as geniwate's Concatenation, which I will discuss later.

In order to unpick the positive and negative aspects of globalisation that are part of a posthuman cosmopolitanism, I draw on the work of George Ritzner (Ritzer 2007; Ritzer 2003). Ritzner sees globalisation as consisting of two opposite poles which nevertheless exist in each other, glocalisation and grobalisation. He argues that "glocalisation" encapsulates "the interpenetration of the global and local, resulting in unique outcomes in different geographic areas" (Ritzer 2003, p.193). Glocalization tends to be optimistic as a perspective: it stresses cultural plurality and rejects the idea that western influence is leading to economic, political, institutional and cultural sameness. Glocalization is usually tied to what Ritzer calls "something", that is, it is "indigenously conceived, controlled and comparatively rich in distinctive content" (p. 193). "Something" includes locally produced food products and locally made handcrafts, and is more likely to be personalised and culturally specific. But Ritzer also argues that glocalists tend to play down the hegemony of the West, and the tendency towards economic, political and cultural homogenity.

Grobalisation, on the other hand, focuses on imperialism of various institutional, political and economic kinds, and the desire for influence, territory and profit. Grobalisation includes the spread of capitalism and consumer culture, the influence of multi-national companies, the worldwide power of the media, Americanization, Westernization, colonialism and the homogenisation of culture. Ritzner sees grobalization as largely tied to the proliferation of "nothing", which he defines as a social form that is "generally centrally conceived, controlled and comparatively devoid of distinctive substantive content" (Ritzer 2003, p.195). "Nothing" usually results in depersonalisation, lack of individuality and little specific cultural content. However, glocalisation and grobalisation are enmeshed, and sometimes glocalisation is associated with nothing and grobalisation with something. Ritzer argues that the global demand for expensive forms of something is miniscule in comparison to that for the inexpensive varieties of nothing, and that there is strong support for the argument that we are in the midst of a long-term trend away from something and in the direction of nothing.

Both glocalisation and grobalisation are imbricated in a posthuman cosmopolitanism. New media writing is more involved in glocalisation and the production of something rather than nothing, while thematically engaging with globalisation as both glocalisation and grobalisation. In the following I want to show how a posthuman cosmopolitanism operates formally and thematically in three new media works, with reference to geniwate's Concatenation (Weight 2003), Jason Nelson's Wide and Widely Branded (Nelson 2009) and my own collaboration Clay Conversations (Smith, Still, and Dean 2010).

The title of geniwate's Concatenation (Weight 2003) has both formal and thematic implications that relate to a posthuman cosmopolitanism. Based on a recombinative principle, and programmed in Shockwave Flash, it is one of a series of three pieces that she calls generative. The reader clicks on a white square cursor that makes phrases appear in red letters. The same phrases recur, however, in alternative combinations, and different phrases are likely to come up at different times. geniwate describes the formal dynamic of the piece:

The title of my work Concatenation sought to foreground the complex connections between programming and surface display. "Concatenation" is a programming term for joining things together. The poetic text is generated via a complex range of rules, from the database of possible textual combinations. That database is, itself, almost wholly programming code, written in conformance to the affordances of the Director software, the PC, and the browser (Weight 2006, p. 421).

The phrases that are displayed on the screen communicate violence, conflict, oppression, imperialism and war: for example, "words are bombs scattered", "we want our land back", "in liberia, uganda, rwanda", "children play with shell shards", "while negotiations decay in good hotels", "soldiers teach the grammar of war", "soldiers weep", "even my elegy disintegrates", "mothers breed suicide sons". Many of the phrases particularly draw attention to the sufferings of women in wars and global conflicts. While most of the phrases remind us of international conflicts, they also refer to the severity of the government response to illegal immigration, particularly the references to the Australian detention centres (Baxter, Port Hedland, Nauru) which were in existence at the time the piece was written and were put in place by the right-wing liberal government. The piece therefore connects problems in Australia to problems in other places. geniwate explains how the term concatenation has not only formal and programming implications for her, but also wider thematic implications which we can see as related to grobalisation:

Concatenation...was present in the rhetoric used to justify or explain some of the intractable conflicts in the world. These conflicts are globally concatenated; they may commence in places like the Middle East, but they "wash up" as a refugee crisis in Australian detention centres and race riots on Sydney's Cronulla Beach. The world is as "concatenated" as any programming text...Concatenation communicates transience and sameness. The details change, but the message of intransigence and hopelessness is constant. Whatever side of a particular conflict you are on, the issues are trauma, homelessness, injury, confusion (Weight 2006 , p.424).

The re-combinative dynamic of concatentation therefore enacts, at a formal and programming level, the idea that global and local forms of political conflict are interconnected. We can also see the relevance of Ritzner's formulation of the interpenetration of glocalisation and grobalisation, because the piece emphasises how western imperialism is one (unfortunate) way in which the local and the global become symbiotic. Schoene's notion of the composite, and of misfitting segments pushing and pressing against each other, is also relevant at a formal level, since the words that flash up are short blocks of text that remix, but here the recombination takes on a particularly generative aspect. Overall, then, Concatentation seems a very good example of a posthuman cosmopolitanism, manifesting its more positive aspects (technological reach and complexity), but also thematising its more negative ones.

Jason Nelson's Wide and Wildly Branded, conceived in Flash, consists of a circle that is a compass, but it also evokes a globe or a wheel. As the mouse activates points on the compass, new texts spring up, though some of those at the top reappear at the bottom. The decontextualised fragments of text are divided between those above the circle heralded as 'poetic', and those below heralded as 'subpoetic'. The circle is superimposed on a looping video that pans back and forth over a section of Australian landscape. Sometimes the paired texts seem to cleave to each other, for example, "poetic: ask for the amount the contract asks" and "subpoetic: this little or small financial motion"; sometimes they seem to inhabit opposing hemispheres or conceptual frameworks, e.g. "regional equipment is tragically" and "assess the intestine announcement within". Nelson constructed the text by recording from ABC radio with speech to text software and then editing "the resulting strange sentences and garbled grammar" (Jason Nelson: email to Hazel Smith 2010).

The compass is historically a navigational tool, but is also an instrument for drawing circles. Furthermore, the navigational compass has been replaced recently by the Global Positioning System (GPS), so the inclusion of it aligns historical instruments with present technologies. The relationship between the top and bottom of the circle implies the division between north and south, both real and illusory. In his accompanying note, Nelson alludes indirectly to his new home Australia (he is American) and humorously debunks Eurocentric and conservative views of it, "To the south we are distant and other, lesser and undeveloped, we are the wild and widely branded pioneer, the known and unknown hemisphere. This digital poem is a compass to these bottom lands, a winding journey into the artificial side of opposite" [notes accompanying (Nelson 2009)]. The pun on branded can be interpreted as both an allusion to the stereotyping/branding of Australia (as southern, uncouth and uncultured), and the commercialization and commodification brought about by multi-national corporations. Nelson says, "the work represents Australia's strange multi-directional spin, its confusion about how it sees itself, its indigenous past and future, its relationship with either its neighbours in Asia or its western world counterparts in Europe and North America" (Nelson 2010). Indeed, we can see it is about Australia's changing identity, from being part of Europe — with ties to the US and the West — to being part of the Asia Pacific with close connections to its Asian neighbours. Like other works by Nelson, it negotiates dichotomies, including that between north and south, between conscious and unconscious meaning, between continent and subcontinent, between the historical and the contemporary, and between the global and local.

The piece, then, is about Australia's self-image and its connection to a globalised world. Again segments push and press on each other as the texts hint at ideas about colonialism, regionalism and the facelessness of globalization. And again the technical features of the piece — the interactive globe-like wheel superimposed upon the localized video, and the interlinking of the fragmented text — are an excellent means to convey the interaction between the global and local, and the virtual and the real, in ways that point to a posthuman cosmopolitanism.

If a posthuman cosmopolitanism is a lens through which we can view new media writing, it is also a formulation that can help us strike out in new directions in new media work. My collaboration with Joanna Still and Roger Dean, Clay Conversations (Smith, Still, and Dean 2010), was constructed partly under the influence of Schoene's formulation. I wondered how I could translate his idea of compositeness into the form of a new media piece that moved between different cultures, so that it was a tour de monde rather than a tour de horizon. The piece therefore arose from a combination of practice-led research and research-led practice (Smith and Dean 2009), that is, it was informed by theoretical ideas, but also threw new light on these ideas through creative practice.

Clay Conversations evolved out of collaborative conversations I had with British ceramicist Joanna Still about clay, its significance as a material, and its importance world-wide in ceramics. Consequently, the piece suggests ideas about local and global interdependence through images and text that are triggered by the subject of clay. After several conversations, both face-to-face and virtual, Joanna created some ceramics that evoked various forms of communication: for example a clay book, a calendar, and an abacus. These objects had specific historical and geographical bonds with a British past, and recalled Irish psalters and related objects, but they were also about methods of communication that might reach beyond the local. The ceramics Joanne made also included a structure that she called The Tower of Babel (creating a pertinent if unintended connection with the film Babel). This was a tower like structure forged from fragments that could be reassembled in a variety of shapes and directions, and that could be interpreted metaphorically as an assemblage of contrasting cultures.

I wrote several short poems in response to Joanna's ceramics, conversations we had about clay and ceramics, and textual material she sent me about the use of clay in different parts of the world. Some of this material — such as a newspaper cutting about Haitians eating clay plates because they could not afford food — concerned clay as both an expression and amelioration of poverty and inequality round the world. My poetry also drew on experiences I had independently, in a range of locations, including a visit I made to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, where I engaged with an exhibition of ceramics, and drew on the often highly evocative titles of some of the exhibits to make a poem.

I then started to experiment with the video program Final Cut Pro, and with a variety of techniques and processes such as split screens, superimposition, merging of images, and a range of filters for image transformation. Besides the images of the ceramics, I worked with photographs and emails resulting from Joanna's travels in Zambia and Ethiopia, where she was sponsored by Voluntary Service Overseas to conduct workshops on ceramics and craft-making with women from local communities. I adapted some of the poems I had written for the video, often fragmenting and re-organising them in new ways to optimise integration with the visual images, and to exploit the possibilities of the split screen dynamic.

To accompany the video (presented here as a Quicktime video), Roger provided a recorded soundscape: it reflects both the violence and love with which clay and ceramics are treated. With one short exception, all the sounds here are found sounds directly involving clay and pots. Several are recordings of Joanna at work, others are of stone/pot interactions recorded by Roger, while a significant selection of the sounds are taken from the freesound online sonic database maintained in Barcelona, including some that evoke markets where clay pots might be found. Notable amongst these recordings is a five minute pre-existing recording of clay gradually distributing itself as it hydrates in a body of water, made with an underwater microphone.

The piece, then, enacts Schoene's "compositeness" but in a video form. It is in segments that are both separate and interconnected, rather like the pushing and pressing misfitting segments that Schoene evokes. Using the techniques of split screens, superimposition of text on image, and sound that creates synergies with both word and image, Clay Conversations ranges between geographical sites and societies in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Europe, and highlights the conflicting faces of globalisation. It brings together ideas about glocalisation and the creation of "something" — women making pots, including indigenous ceramics, in far-reaching locations — together with intimations of grobalisation: the economic difficulties and inequalities surrounding this process. For the women will have difficulty selling their pots and handmade crafts for reasonable prices except to tourists, and the poor in Haiti are using clay plates to fill their bellies. While conveying Joanna's inspirational travels in Ethiopia and Zambia, the piece also raises questions about the extent to which VSO is an initiative in cross-cultural exchange, or could be seen to be a relic of colonial attitudes.

The concept of a posthuman cosmopolitanism, therefore, connects the transnational and inter-spatial reality of new media writing, and interweaves intermediation and interculturality. Making a bridge between the new cosmopolitanism and theories of globalisation, I have drawn on Schoene's view of the "composite" forms emerging in the cosmopolitan novel, and Ritzer's concept of the two faces of globalisation, to develop and apply this theory of a posthuman cosmopolitanism both formally and thematically. In addition, I have stressed the possible reciprocal relationship of practice and theory in this area. I have shown how literary and cultural theories that address the new cosmopolitanism and globalisation have influenced my own creative practice by forming the basis of the video piece Clay Conversations, and how this has in turn allowed me to further negotiate the concept of a posthuman cosmopolitanism. I suggest therefore that a posthuman cosmpolitanism is fundamental to new media writing and its critical discourse; that it is relevant, either directly or indirectly, to many other pieces of new media writing; and that it is open to further development in both theory and practice.

VIEW Clay Conversations in the Gallery


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