Tuesday, November 8, 2011

No Sign(al): Your Call Cannot Be Completed as Dialed

or, Becoming Static: Can Queer Bodies Network?

"I can't see a thing on the video,
I can't hear a sound on the radio,
in stereo in the Static Age"
Green Day, Static Age

A Second Look at Extra-Personal Communication

You sit across the table from Megan and Katie in a window-side booth of a neighborhood Chicago diner. Megan and you have been going out for a few weeks now (depending on when you count from) but this is the first time you've met one of her really good friends.

The conversation lags in the beginning as your shyness competes with Katie's strangeness and Megan's inexplicable reticence. Then Megan offers that Katie and you both hate the Packers and things pick up; via a shared interest in teasing Megan on her clumsy social skills. From there, Megan watches and smiles over her food until the conversation turns to how you and her met, then it becomes a duet of storytelling with each partner sharing the many little details that the other drops out, now from an established stock of previous tellings, while Katie takes her turn as the bemused audience.

Then suddenly you are alone as Megan and Katie both got up and went to the bathroom together. You absentmindedly eat some more of your fries and stare at a text from a friend asking if you think things are going well.

In the wake of the George Washington University Conference on Composing Disabilities: Writing, Communication, Culture, I have returned to a question I posed i an earlier blog-post on communication and what happens when there is a "Error, Misuse, Failure" Response, a Queer Response, a Response with no Sign(al). As we delve into Queer Materiality this is a pertinent question, both in regards to that which does not manifest into readable/normative signs and that which objects translation into language.

Returning to the scenario I posed: What if Katie suddenly got ill and had to leave before she could articulate her feelings on you? What if your question to your friend via text on how to read a certain exchange is ended by a cell phone dying? What if they never return from the bathroom?

These inquiries  reach back to my inaugural post for this blog, where I quoted Judith Butlers treatment of questions posed to any other. In light of her quote on "the question that does not seek to know" and the need to live with the "unknowability" of the other, we find our scenario has three parts:

  1. Desiring to Know the Other
  2. Telling the Other What it Is Through Our Question
  3. Admitting our Impotence and Accepting the Ineffability of the Other



1. Is Anyone (Out) There?
or, Desiring Responses

The queer as that which sets and defies the limits of epistomology, as the face of the unknowable other, embodies the question: Che vois?

What do we do when we do not receive the desired feedback but our interlocutor remains in sight? What does the graduate student do when their professor stares enigmatically back at them after what had initially felt like an intelligent and daring point but which with every lingering moments feels all the more foolish or pedantic or worse? What do we do when we are faced with the terror of the unresponsive "Che vois?" in OUR body?

Psychoanalysts, such as Slavoj Zizek in the Sublime Object of Ideology, offer that there is an essential lack/nothingness that is at the core of consciousnesses, which propels into language, causing it to desire and to question. These questions perform the role of not only seeking that which would sure up its existence, thus filling the lack and ending the desiring/questioning, but primarily the role of obfuscating that the lacking/questioning is all that exists. We can never get what we want to know, because it does not exist and we cannot stop asking for it, because then we would cease to exist.

Actor-Networkers, such as Bruno Latour in Resembling the Social and Aramis, or the Love of Technology, offers that it is movement that sustains existence, so that questioning insofar as it is a velocity in the ecology towards other things continues the chain of causation. Looking at the question not in terms of consciousness but in terms of materiality, Latour nonetheless provides an answer by suggesting that while acts like questions may sometimes have reciprocity effects like answers, they need not. Still, the question itself is an effect of things entering the node of the body and bringing about the inquiry, so even if it is not an ANSWER, there is a response of things returning back to questioner, but they merely serve to perpetuate or divert the questioning.
    In this case, it is the QUESTION which is the primary ANSWER.


    “Chaos is the ultimate muteness that forces speech to go faster and faster,
    trying to catch the suffering in the words”
    Arthur Frank, the Wounded Storyteller



    2. The Persistent Ringer
    or, Normifying Responses

    Another answer is that we create an-other ecology which will feed-back an answer in the place of the silent, distant or inarticulate body.

    In his book, Phantoms in the Brain, V.S. Ramachandran, M.D., Ph.D. puts his study and theories of the brain, and phantom limbs in particular, into accessible narratives for a lay audience. He explains how one of the most common phantom pains that patients complain of having is the sensation of having the absent fingers clenched, digging deep, nails penetrating, into the absent palm. Ramachandran suggests that this is the result of signals (little emissions of nervous energy) out from the brain towards the location of the severed hand, where it would typically would continue until the nervous system twitched slightly into the gripping position, possibly making contact with the skin. This twitch, however small, sends feedback information of the resistance and locations of the muscles (among other minute information) and with the loop complete the signals remain minor.

    What happens when the hand is absent however is that in some cases the signal from the brain (in the form of energetic-material) does NOT feed-back and thus the signals become stronger and stronger, searching for a high enough intesntity in which the hand would twitch and send back an impulse (if it was there). With no response but with the persistant mapping of a hand in existence, the brain creates a smaller secondary circuit of impulses which registering the intensity of the impulse for the hand to twitch/squeeze makes the logical connection that this force MUST be incredibly now, to the point of a hand (if it was there) to be digging its nails deeply into the palm, and thus produces that corresponding experience.

    With no return messengers, the kingdom assumes (i.e. creates a secondary, personal feed-back loop to provide it self with the information it is not getting, or not recognizing from outside) they must be fighting an intense battle on the front lines and require further aid.

    With no sign from their god, daemon, spirit, etc, the devotees commit themselves to an ever deeper self-sacrifice before the altar.

    With no reply of love from the beautiful Olivia, Orsino assumes that his arbiter Cesario must not have effectively transmitted the minds of the would be lovers; he "will not be so answered." He will continue in his self-languishing and to lecture his messengers to be all the more vigilant and crafty as he sends them off again.

    In this case, the QUESTION short-circuits into a reiterated intensification of SELF.

    "Queer does not have a relation of exteriority 
    to that with which it comes into contact...
    If orientation is about making the strange familiar 
    through the extention of bodies into space, 
    then disorientation occurs when that extention fails."
    Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology 


    " --- "

    3. No Sign(al),
    or, Queering Responses

    Like NASA pointing arrays of satellites towards the sky, often we must simply wait listening to the static noise, hoping either for something to translate into recognizable signs or for us to somehow discover a new language in the inarticulate sounds.

    At some point we must face the reality of the Other, that is, the reality of transformation: what we transmit may not come back to us in the same form. Katie, or our arm, may no longer be there, but that does not necessarily mean that no-thing is there. To assume that simply because we do not and perhaps cannot understand what it going on does not mean that no-thing speaks back or no-thing exists; to assume that is not only insanely arrogant, it runs contrary to our very experience of discovery and wonder.

    What might the queer answer sound like?

    Moving Messages

    • A shout or a call across the table will have very different responses than one made across the room, across the street, from a moving car, from a moving planet, across a swirling galaxy and beyond. Our call will shift as it leaves us, and even if all we here is an echo, it may not sound like our voices and we may not be alive to hear it. If we do receive a response, transportation may radically warp the message so as to duck the sign(al) out of our patterns for understanding.
    Mixed Messages
    • Like anyone who has ever listened to themselves shout in front of a vast, multidimensional space, the echo often comes back as a chorus of voices and baring the mark of a multiplicity of objects. The voices together make a new message and may contain in, like a hole or silence, that which can be carried but not articulated into signification.
    Changing Messages
    • Things, including language, are dynamic and will constantly suggest other forms, temporalities, places, languages as they churn in and out of our recognizable sight. Like Graham Harman's retreating objects, things have an interiority of which we can only perceive the external performance. Our strongest vision can never make a thing transparent to our sight and our greatest code crackers can never fix into language that which is not of language.
    In this case, the QUESTION becomes not a question, but a MYSTERY.

    ANSWERING our initial QUESTION: Yes, Queer Bodies can network but they Transform the Network in the Process.

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