Penn State Mark

Critical Cyberculture

An interview with Matt Tierney

On March 31, 2016, Matt Tierney delivered a lecture for the DCMI speaker series in Critical Media and Digital Studies titled "Critical Cyberculture in the Large World House." This follow-up interview was conducted by John Schneider, the DCMI's graduate assistant from 2014–2016, by email between June 7 and June 14, 2016. The interview covers topics including media studies' critical lexicon; the logic of the "post-" in "post-45", "postwar", and "post-politics"; interdisciplinarity; and the disruptive possibilities of negativist aesthetics.

Portrait of Matt Tierney

In What Lies Between, I put together an archive of texts that say no to their present, and that may still say no to ours. Void aesthetics is only one way that technical knowledge can become haunted by the specter of its limits; it’s one way to deny received political narratives and images without making up new narratives and images that may be just as naïve, or optimistic, or technocratic or nostalgic.

John Schneider: In What Lies Between: Void Aesthetics and Postwar Post- Politics you mention media studies’ “terminology problem.” Both the book and your recent special issue of Postmodern Culture (edited alongside Mathias Nilges) seek to address that problem through the excavation of certain key concepts in the field of media studies, e.g. “medium” and “mediation.” You argue that these concepts are too often obscured by the field’s tendency to relate everything back to the “computational present” (61). In particular, What Lies Between brings out the literary aspects of these concepts. There, you return to the critical recovery of Melville and Whitman at the middle of the twentieth-century in order to shed light on the aesthetic and political valences that a term such as “medium” loses when it refers only to a material or technological substrate. How is the critical lexicon of contemporary media studies limited by its preference for the technical over the aesthetic? And might media studies have something to learn from literary studies in regards to addressing political questions?

Matt Tierney: This distinction between technical and aesthetic means a couple of things for me. From a practical standpoint, it captures a separation between discrete disciplinary approaches. When we look at literature as a distribution of feeling or meaning, we conceive of it aesthetically, more or less, and when we look at it through the ontology or history of print, we’re looking at it technically. It’s a distinction in broad strokes, but it’s not unhelpful. It demonstrates how two inquiries into the ostensibly same object might in fact, if their lexicons or critical priorities vary widely enough, not concern the same object at all (as a film that is seen as an artwork among artworks, say, is not the film that is seen as an instance of indexical technology in a history of indexical technologies). Disciplines produce their objects, and they produce their objects differently.

From a more general standpoint, the words technical and aesthetic are ready-enough labels for two kinds of question that I hear asked about the objects of humanist scholarship. On one hand, I hear questions about what an object is made from and what it is designed for; that is, questions about its being, invention, and use. On the other hand, I hear questions about how an object looks or sounds or feels, how it might work otherwise than by design, how it might not work at all, how it might be dug up later and misrecognized, or how it might be broken; that is, questions that are all about practice and protest, possibility and imagination and afterlife. When I talk about aesthetics in the book, and when I describe the contributions that literary study might lend to media study, I mean that I want to ask these latter questions: the ones about process and possibility. I don’t pretend that the two sets of question are the only sets, or that they can be parsed any more easily than the categories of aesthetics from the categories of technology. But I say whatever, parse them anyway, because there is a difference between them that matters.

So, the genres of writing about technology — pop futurism from McLuhan to Musk, the history of technology, and so on — can concern themselves with how we live, have lived, and probably will live: the definable conditions of humans and machines among the plants and animals and rocks and stars. By this path, we learn to say yes, and affirm that the way things are is the way things are, that the future can be surmised from the past, and that the rules and histories of the material world can be listed and cataloged. Yet these genres will contrast to the stories and images of novel and criticism and movie and poem, and it is by this path, the path of literature (or call it art or theory, it probably doesn’t matter in this case), that I think we can learn to say no. This other path offers a kind of refusal that is antithetical to technical expertise, and yet this refusal is also a kind of knowledge. Any understanding of the present is an active assembling and disassembling of inherited bits and pieces, and by acknowledging this fact, we can learn to refuse the positivist alternative. Any understanding of the future is augury at best, or advertising at worst, and with this in mind we can learn to deny both the techno-utopian and techno-apocalyptic forms of prediction. In What Lies Between, I put together an archive of texts that say no to their present, and that may still say no to ours. Void aesthetics is only one way that technical knowledge can become haunted by the specter of its limits; it’s one way to deny received political narratives and images without making up new narratives and images that may be just as naïve, or optimistic, or technocratic or nostalgic.

John Schneider: Could you provide an example?

Matt Tierney: You mention the stuff on medium in my book and in the issue of Postmodern Culture. This is a good example of what I mean. When people agree on what a word means, as the meanings of the word medium are often agreed upon in media studies, that word can then be shared. Thinkers can join together to hoist the word up as an umbrella concept, accommodating diverse categories of machine and various tools of art and culture, to form a discipline. But the literary history of the term intrudes on this apparent agreement, and risks breaking the consensus, and that’s what interests me. In Whitman, for example, a medium isn’t something that exists before it is used toward political ends. Instead, in Whitman, it’s the worldly form that political thought can take. The medium is the poet, the poem, the polis, the politician, and the pen, all at once: it’s defined by its capacity to cut “gaping wounds in mighty empires.” For the modernist Waldo Frank, another example from my book, a medium is not the device by which to introduce art into a social field. Instead, a medium is the social field itself. It’s the roiling setting for the activities of art, where art can either lend itself or not lend itself to political organization. Whitman’s and Frank’s ideas of medium are very different from each other, but they nevertheless resemble each other more than either of them resembles the word’s most frequent use in media studies, where a medium is an object, or a category of objects, that can be known.

This pluralization, not of media but of the terms of media studies, is in part what I’m working toward. In unfixing a central term, is there a risk of interrupting the flow of ideas among scholars? Sure. But it’s worth an interruption, if we can get thinking about media, as Whitman and Frank do, as political in their inception and mis- and disuse, and not only in their designated or predictable use.

The postwar period, if we absolutely have to keep using that phrase, has to be seen as a continuing reconfiguration of the terms of war, a phase in an ongoing war with differing fronts but many of the same vested interests as are seen in prior phases. Something similar can be said of post-politics, which is just a phase in politics.

John Schneider: I’d like to ask about the relationship between “post- politics” and the “postwar” period. You refer to these two terms as “fictions,” but they nevertheless structure your argument. Although you write that “post-politics” today looks different from its emergence at midcentury, What Lies Between suggests that the cultural history of the last half- century or so has been shaped, in various ways, by claims that “politics is ostensibly gone and dead, already post-” (4). You explore several occasions where politics comes into question during this period: from postwar liberal consensus to McLuhan-esque fantasies of technological connectivity to contemporary dreams of being “postracial, postfeminist, postqueer, [and] nearly postgender” (1). How do you understand the relationship between these distinct forms of “post-politics” and the cultural period of the “postwar”? What has kept Americanists and post-45 scholars from addressing this discourse as a major cultural thread of this period?

Matt Tierney: To my mind, neither of these terms, post-politics or postwar, can be pushed to make good sense, in the way that Gramsci uses that phrase. Both instead are common sense. Both are motivating terms of periodization, insofar as they set off the present from the past so that the present will look like an improvement. Make no mistake, there are many people who can walk the world in safety who could not have done so in the years before 1945, and this is certainly an improvement. But there are many people who still can’t walk the world safely, and it is with this in mind that political and textual thinking should proceed. So we have two options: either we stop using the terms that everybody else is using, because they don’t make good sense, in the hopes that they stop making any sense at all, or just go away; or else we demonstrate that these words make perfectly common sense, by signifying exactly the opposite of what they purport to signify.

If the postwar must name a historical period, then it can’t name a period that is after war, because war has never ceased. That period doesn’t exist. There are still wars between and among nations, wars that involve non-national groups, wars in the streets, invisible wars, and wars by remote control. The postwar period, if we absolutely have to keep using that phrase, has to be seen as a continuing reconfiguration of the terms of war, a phase in an ongoing war with differing fronts but many of the same vested interests as are seen in prior phases. Something similar can be said of post-politics, which is just a phase in politics. We’re not beyond identity politics, for instance. We’ve just reached a point in the history of politics when some feel that they can discard identity as a critical concern. This is the privilege of those whom consensus has always served, i.e., those who can walk the world without fear.

I have an article coming out next year in Cultural Critique, where I speculate at length on your last question about possible disciplinary blind spots. In short, when a field is held together by common interest in an object of study, it can certainly critique that object, but it can’t really displace it. Just as media studies can’t really afford to unfix the definitions of medium, post-45 Americanist literary studies can’t really afford to unfix the terms of its own disciplinary self-identification. If 1945 marked a transformation of the terms of war, and not the end of war, then what does the designation “post-45” mean? If there is not one America but many Americas, and if the nation-form itself is in constant process of deformation as well as reformation (in a way that Deleuze and Guattari might name de- and re-territorialization; or Van Wyck Brooks would label “unfinished and already half in ruin”), then what does “Americanist” mean? These questions have surely been asked, but any answers to them must ensure the possibility that work can continue afterward. In what kind of space, then, can the work proceed but with all its terms unfixed or under erasure? A space like literature or like theory, probably, which is to say a space where one may play what Paul de Man calls an anti-philosophical “wild card”: reading.

Definitive judgement of what a text is or means, once and for all, accomplishes little when compared to its modeling of a negativist sabotage against the legitimating architecture of the status quo. This is the work that the texts in my first book perform: Richard Wright or Kara Walker disrupting without denying the social reality of race, Paul Goodman disrupting without denying the social reality of consensus, and so on.

John Schneider: On a perhaps related note, I’m wondering if you see “post- politics” extending into academic discourse itself. While it’s unlikely to find serious literary scholars embracing, for example, the post-race discourse in exactly the way it unfolds in the news media, there’s a sense within some corners of humanities work that the politics of criticism are in need of rethinking. We might see this in current debates around methodology, e.g. post-critique, quantitative methods, object-oriented ontology, etc. Since What Lies Between doesn’t shy away from the negativist figure of the “void,” I’m wondering to what extent your development of this critical lens addresses an academic or theoretical “post-politics” within the fields of media and literary studies.

Matt Tierney: It’s true that we won’t find MLA or SCMS conferees shouting, as one finds cable news pundits shouting (or did before the events of the past year or two), that misogyny doesn’t exist or that racism doesn’t exist. But I have certainly been at conferences where one can hear a cavalier promotion of so-called “post-feminism” and, under the sign of a liberal analytic of language, an abuse of the n-word. More widespread, however, one finds all kinds of effort at “post-” periodizing. Think of the recent efforts toward a post-national American studies by Wai Chee Dimock, Laurence Buell, and others. Think of Kenneth Warren’s use of the past tense, in the title of his bracing What Was African American Literature?, or of the emphasis on class, to the exclusion of other categories of social difference, in the work of Walter Benn Michaels and others. These are all Left discourses in literary studies that do purport to have put something behind “us” so that “we” might proceed beyond them together. I am in heavy debt to these scholars, and to these particular texts, but I do worry about the periodizing logic of the “post-.” Some of the terms and questions and identities that have outlived their usefulness are also pernicious re-configurations of common sense. I tend to see them more as the latter, and believe that all these dwindling forms — nation, gender, human, race, disciplinarity — are not dwindling at all, but changing shape in a way that calls for vigilant study.

With regard to the other critical methodologies you name, I suspect it’s too soon to know where they fit. Post-critique may surely be aligned with post-politics, that’s entirely possible. But then again, it also may be a rewriting of the the old suspicion toward suspicion, which echoes from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick back to Paul Ricoeur and indeed much further than that. As for object-oriented ontology and quantitative method, they differ from one another, but both bend too much toward affirmation and certainty. Sitting among my objects, which are books and movies in the main, I don’t know what good it would do for me to affirm them. Definitive judgement of what a text is or means, once and for all, accomplishes little when compared to its modeling of a negativist sabotage against the legitimating architecture of the status quo. This is the work that the texts in my first book perform: Richard Wright or Kara Walker disrupting without denying the social reality of race, Paul Goodman disrupting without denying the social reality of consensus, and so on. If I affirm these texts, and maybe I do in a way, then I only affirm their negative values, which is not much of an affirmation after all.

John Schneider: What Lies Between threads the disciplinary needle between history and theory, literature and film, literary and media studies — and in that way performs truly interdisciplinary work, exposing the rifts between fields as well as mapping where they might productively interact. What makes for intellectually valuable interdisciplinary work in the humanities? What possibilities are there for productive interaction between often-separated disciplines?

Matt Tierney: The question of interdisciplinarity is a tricky one. I have two answers, one skeptical and the other impossible. The skeptical answer is that interdisciplinarity is itself a post-political myth. It gives permission to imagine the autonomous movement of thought, as ideas are freed from their disciplinary shackles, but it also opens the door for universities and colleges to reduce cost by cutting departments. Why put up with all the disciplinary misunderstanding and bureaucracy that goes on across departments in a College of the Humanities, when ideas might instead move unfettered through one large and undifferentiated Department of Humanities? I’m sure that would be lovely, right up until austerity hits, or is said to have hit, and that single department is shrunk down or deleted. The walls of departments do impede the sharing and extension of ideas, and many of them should be ignored or tunneled through. But each of those walls can also serve as a shelter for ideas, as well as a bulwark against attack — these are load-bearing walls, worth retaining.

With this in mind, my second answer, that interdisciplinarity is a necessary but nearly impossible enterprise. It is a demand to know all the things from all the fields, and not just the ones that intersect in the argument that one happens to be making. All the debates, all the core texts, all the driving interests must be known, but then, of course they can’t all be known. Even if they could all be read and understood, they won’t square with each other, but will more likely lead to confusion and contradiction. This is where you and I started our conversation, in the seemingly unfathomable distance between technical and aesthetic approaches to culture. Yet even though no scholar can assimilate and reconcile all the debates that are pertinent to an inquiry that crosses disciplines, that scholar should try to do so anyway, if only to grasp the range and import of the questions that can be asked and have already been asked. There’s a bright side to this, though. When you know that you can’t possibly read all the things that you know you should read, you start noticing what else has gone unread, and you give yourself permission to take up material that more disciplinary projects have neglected. My next book is built almost entirely from encounters with this kind of material. There is no good reason for any study of contemporary culture to ignore experimental prose, anti-racist philosophy, queer trash cinema, activist poetry, techno-critique, non-narrative film, or feminist science-fiction novels, and yet (perhaps because each of these already occupies a small subfield) such work is ignored all the time. I’d just prefer not to.

John Schneider: Could you speak about the connections between What Lies Between and your current book project, A World of Incomparables: Interruptions of Communicative Globalism? From the word “interruptions” in the title, as well as from the content of your recent DCMI lecture, I gather that this project continues to narrate a counter-history of contemporary cyberculture, moving from the “post-politics” of the immediate postwar period into the Sixties and Seventies. What do the intellectuals and artists’ of this moment have to teach us about the “arrival of unfamiliar machines”?

Matt Tierney: Each of the two books is built around a way of thinking that Althusser might call an “underground current” that threads its way through diverse forms of cultural expression, both canonical and sub- canonical, as against the prevailing common sense of its moment. Each of these currents, in turn, practices a kind of anarchism of ideas. Whereas What Lies Between is about texts that destabilize the rickety myth of consensus but don’t offer any positive vision in its stead, A World of Incomparables is about texts that destabilize the myth of a fully communicative and technologically shrunk planet. Calling these arguments counter-historical makes sense. You could also call them, in an old-fashioned way, counter-ideological or counter-memorial. When I spoke at DCMI, I described a project in critical cyberculture that precedes the world of cellphones and laptops for which we currently use that same word, cyberculture. I situate that term at the center of a pacifist and anti-racist assault on the myth of resource scarcity, and I show how the terms of this assault extend quite directly into late-Sixties poetry and science-fiction, the Marxist feminism of Shulamith Firestone, and the anti-imperialism of Martin Luther King, Jr.

But why even do this recovery work, when there’s no chance of making an alternative definition of cyberculture the dominant definition of the present? I have two reasons. First, these are really tremendous texts. They are written in a transformative language that correctly and radically diagnoses several problems of the late 20th century. They therefore deserve patient attention — at least as much attention as any of the tacitly normative fictions that fill so much of our criticism. Second, if these older ideas can’t fully be read or activated, this in itself is worth confronting. I don’t know how to be a negativist in the way that the thinkers in my first book knew how to be negativists, and I’m not sure that it’s possible now. I don’t know how to interrupt communicative globalism either, and I’m not even sure what a successful interruption would look like in this moment. But if it’s too late now for these disruptions, what makes it so, when it seemed possible before? And in case it’s not ever possible to build a global “brotherhood,” as King would have us do through anti-racist technocritique, what then can be built? And what destroyed?