Friday, November 3, 2017

Reading the "MeToo" Text as Hyperobject

In her EducauseReview article “Antigonish 2.0: A Way for Higher Ed to Help Save the Web“, Bonnie Stewart says:
The web is a big part of where we live now. But we neither understand it nor know how to use it for learning. What we need is not a revolution, but a way to develop the local and global literacies needed to foster functional democratic participation.
She echoes Paul Cilliers when she says that “we neither understand it [the Web] nor know how to use it for learning.” In his 1998 book Complexity and Postmodernism: Understanding Complex Systems, Cilliers notes that our powerful technologies allow us to extend our technical capabilities beyond our understanding. He says:
The heart of the matter is that our technologies have become more powerful than our theories. We are capable of doing things that we do not understand. … We can create new sub-atomic particles without knowing precisely whether they actually exist outside of the laboratory. We can store, and retrieve, endless bits of information without knowing what they mean. … We have to deal with what we do not understand, and that demands new ways of thinking. (2)
The literacy that Stewart calls for is one of these new ways of thinking, especially when confronting the “endless bits of information” that engulf us. For me, new communication spaces have emerged, with different notions of community, different rules of engagement, and very different texts, and I don’t know how to use this space or to think about it. The texts are here. Now I need a literacy to understand them. I don’t think I will make it that far in this post, but I do hope to map the textual field itself so that I can begin to think about how to render literate such texts as "MeToo". I’m suggesting here that online texts—the billions of text messages, tweets, and Facebook messages, the currently dominant streams among countless others—function as a hyperobject, as Timothy Morton calls it, or a rhizome (Deleuze and Guattari), or noise (Michel Serres), or silence (Paul Goodman and the Buddhists). Approaching those texts from the perspective of hyperobjects may just help me engage them better.

I find it difficult to wrap my head around these new texts. The data alone is staggering. Google Books engineer Leonid Tacher says that, as of 2010, Google believed there are about 129,864,880 books in the world containing roughly two trillion words. That’s all the books from ancient times through 2010 that still exist. As large as that conversation is, it is dwarfed by texting, just one of our new online writing spaces. As of 2017, the world is sending 22 billion texts a day, or 8 trillion texts every year, and this number does not include the app-to-app messages in Facebook, Twitter, and other social applications (Burke). These numbers suggest, then, that texting alone is multiplying many times each year the total amount of text ever produced by humankind. Add Facebook, Twitter, and other channels, and you can begin to see the problem. Or be overwhelmed by it.

Michel Serres explores our problem with such monstrous entities as the chattersphere--the term I will use for all the writing currently filling the Net--in his book Genesis, written in French in 1982 before the sphere had emerged. In Genesis, Serres proposes a “new object for philosophy” (2), noise, which he says is the ground of reality, the reality out of which we create our realities. However, though noise is the usual state of things, we modern humans do not like it. It seems unreal to us. Serres says:
We are fascinated by the unit; only a unity seems rational to us. We scorn the senses, because their information reaches us in bursts. We scorn the groupings of the world, and we scorn those of our bodies. ... Unity dazzles on at least two counts: by its sum and by its division. That herd must be singular in its totality and it must also be made up of a given number of sheep or buffalo. We want a principle, a system, an integration, and we want elements, atoms, numbers. We want them, and we make them. A single God, and identifiable individuals. The aggre­gate as such is not a well-formed object; it seems irrational to us. The arithmetic of whole numbers remains a secret foundation of our understanding; we're all Pythagorians. We think only in monadologies. (2, 3)
So here is the problem: the world is a swarm, but we want order and unity. The world is complex, even chaotic, but we want simple, or no more than complicated. The world is noise, or low art, but we want distinct, discrete sounds, individual texts, high art, to make sense of it all. We believe and we have been taught that we need this high art to make sense of it all. But what if we attend to the noise, the rhizome, the hyperobject, the zombie swarm, or low art? Let’s see.

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942
So multiplicity is irrational and repugnant. It is low-class, low art. One Edward Hopper Nighthawks is a masterpiece, high art; a million Nighthawks is just a swarm of tee shirts gone mad, commercial and noisy, flapping this way and that. We can deal with the Hopper corpus, a group of paintings elegantly arrayed about a single painter. That makes sense. We can even put him and his paintings in a context: 20th Century American Realism. That’s tidy, rational, simple: little boxes within little boxes. You can put that on a test, and the correct answer is obvious. But a million Nighthawks stretched over flaccid bellies, waving over hard bellies, oozing and winking into classrooms, churches, nightclubs, and sidewalks—this is chaos, swarm, noise, and very definitely low art. It can and should be dismissed.

Most of my colleagues in English departments believe that we can and should dismiss texting, tweeting, and Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram messaging. That is chaos, swarm, noise, and very definitely low art. But what if we don’t dismiss this absolutely monstrous amount of text that is generated each day, each minute, each year? And if it lacks unity, definition, even context, as Serres suggests, then what is it and how do we speak of it? I'm only now beginning to learn some ways to talk about these texts.

In speaking of the rhizome, Deleuze and Guattari note wryly that despite the unspeakable nature of the rhizome, we must speak of it. They say, “We get the distinct feeling that we will convince no one unless we enumerate certain approximate characteristics of the rhizome.” This enumeration, of course, is dangerous, for if we enumerate the uncountable, then we distort rather than clarify. Nonetheless. In his 2013 book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, Timothy Morton lists his own “approximate characteristics” of what he calls hyperobjects:
  • viscosity: Hyperobjects “'stick' to beings that are involved with them." 
  • nonlocality: "[A]ny 'local manifestation' of a hyperobject is not directly the hyperobject." 
  • temporal undulation: Hyperobjects "involve profoundly different temporalities than the human-scale ones we are used to. In particular, some very large hyperobjects, such as planets, have genuinely Gaussian temporality: they generate spacetime vortices, due to general relativity." 
  • phasing: "Hyperobjects occupy a high-dimensional phase space that results in their being invisible to humans for stretches of time." 
  • interobjectivity: Hyperobjects "exhibit their effects interobjectively; that is, they can be detected in a space that consists of interrelationships between aesthetic properties of objects." 
I think I can use these characteristics to start teasing out the ways to think about the chattersphere as low art. I’ll use the recent, high profile "MeToo" text—first because I like it and in general support its political and social aims (neither of which I will discuss here, so don't look for it) and second because it is a timely example of just the kind of text I'm trying to understand.

The first characteristic of hyperobjects that Morton discusses is viscosity. He insists that objects such as the "MeToo" text are always closer to us than they appear and that they stick to us. This viscosity may not be obvious at the local human scale. For instance, one might encounter a "MeToo" tweet and feel no immediate connection. I first encountered a "MeToo" message on Facebook while looking for recent photos of my granddaughter, and I wondered vaguely what the author was responding to. I assumed the middle-aged, professional relative of mine was expressing her wish to be included in some family event, and I moved on to find my photos.

I did not consciously feel that her message was sticking to me or that I was sticking to it, but Morton says that the Facebook message and I are entangled and remain entangled despite any distance between us and despite any conscious awareness on the part of either of us. This entanglement has a viscous quality about it that is obscured at the human scale but becomes obvious at the scale of hyperobjects. "MeToo" is here, and I am always in it even when I am not conscious of it. Morton writes: "I do not access hyperobjects across a distance, through some transparent medium. Hyperobjects are here, right here in my social and experiential space. Like faces pressed against a window" (Kindle Locations 528-534).

I can see this looming stickiness rather easily in objects such as global warming and evolution, but not so well in a tweet or Facebook message. For that, I have to fight against an intuitive sense of reality that plainly demonstrates that a message, even my own, and I are distinct and that I act on the message and it does not act on me. I am the subject, and it is the object, a text, a thing. I do not feel the viscous honey between us. When I'm off my device, I don't feel the message against my fingers, my eyeballs, oozing into my consciousness. I don't think of the message. So are the message and I really sticking to each other? And what is this stickiness, this viscosity?

First, this stickiness is not an aspect of human cognition. It's there, Morton says, between objects whether or not humans are involved or even aware. And when we humans do become aware of the viscosity between objects, then it has something of the uncanny and daemonic about it. And one doesn't have to be a believer in the spirit world to believe in this "spooky action at a distance," as Einstein called it (though one doesn't have to exclude the spirit world, either). Rather, we only need believe in gravitational and electromagnetic fields to see what Morton is talking about:
What the demonic Twin Peaks character Bob reveals, for our purposes, is something about hyperobjects, perhaps about objects in general. Hyperobjects are agents. They are indeed more than a little demonic, in the sense that they appear to straddle worlds and times, like fiber optic cables or electromagnetic fields. And they are demonic in that through them causalities flow like electricity. (Kindle Locations 563-570)
This viscosity, then, is for me like a field, or a mesh of fields, that emanate from objects such as messages and tweets, extending their reach and connections beyond the visually obvious to enfold them into each other, and into me—think gravitational fields that extend from one end of the universe to the other. This means, literally and physically, that the black hole hyperobject at the center of our galaxy impinges on me and I slightly on it and that causalities flow like electricity, or gravity, across the fields between the black hole and me. Of course, my everyday senses are not sensitive enough to pick up or distinguish the perturbations of this hyperobject, but let that black hole move or explode, and all hell will break loose. Literally.

Morton says that all objects from quanta to galaxies have this viscous connection with all other objects. Let the black hole of a Trump tweet, for instance, explode, and all hell breaks loose. Then I notice the chattersphere, but it was always already there, always already impinging on me, looming over me, sticking to me. So I became aware of the "MeToo" text in a Facebook message, but I quite likely had already seen it and failed to register it. It was just noise.

That pejorative, diminutive, dismissive “just” troubles me. It was noise, and I have trained myself to ignore noise and to treat it as a nuisance if I can’t ignore it. But the noise is always already here. It is the parasite that informs and shapes my every message. It’s the zombie swarm that I live in, and it presses into me and sticks to me, even when I am not aware of it, perhaps especially when I am not aware. I have to ease into this.

As I remember it, I next encountered "MeToo" in another Facebook message, this time by Bonnie Stewart. This time I realized something else was going on, so I googled "MeToo" and learned something about it. I added a comment to Bonnie’s conversation, and then realized that I had stumbled into the text I was wanted to discuss in this post. I began rewriting.

Now, of course, I can see "MeToo" spreading in waves--or is it particles?--across my field of vision. I can hear it echoing all around--in front and behind, below and above, left and right (however you want to define those terms). The text never quite leaves me. Unlike my favorite Keatsian ode, I cannot close the book and put it on the shelf. I cannot put it away, for there is no away. "MeToo" is in my pocket, on the television, in the conversation of friends and family, and now in this post. I’m finishing this post at a family wedding in the Bahamas, and I’m discussing "MeToo" with my niece, a twenty-something real estate investor from Michigan. She is very much in control of her successful life, and "MeToo" doesn’t mean much to her. She’s perplexed about my interest in it, but only mildly interested in learning why. After all, she is the sister of the bride, and a beach party and dinner await.

Texts such as "MeToo"—and there are thousands of them that have swarmed and gone viral since the advent of social media—restructure our relationship with text. First, "There is no metalanguage." There is no outside point of view from which to determine what a text is. We are all inside the text, which is coming at us no matter which way we turn. As Morton says, we are intra-uterine and inter-uterine, enwombed, maybe entombed, and there is no nice doctor in a white lab coat outside to explain what's happening from his objective point of view. Everything presses in on us from every side and time, and we cannot get away from it. This means for me there is no outside point of view from which to determine what "MeToo" is and is about.

I can write only from inside "MeToo", and this changes everything I know about writing, as I have been schooled in the Western rhetorical tradition which posits a single, objective, authoritative subject that speaks apart from and passes judgement upon objects under consideration. Writing inside "MeToo" decenters my authority, my outside booming voice, and speaks from inside, from many points of view. I must think about "MeToo" from the inside, and I think that the swarm can say things that cannot be said from the outside. If I want to understand "MeToo", then I have to understand not only principal humans such as Alyssa Milano, but also all the other participants, lurkers, prodigals, technologies, memes, organizational structures, and more. This is a noisy swelter that defies total clarity, but the chattersphere is a swelter, a swarm, a virus gone viral. We can focus on some specific aspects of Twitter — say the use of the Twitter application — but we can never forget that the Twitter app is an object in its own right that seeks and expresses its own position within the complex system of online messaging, just as I do, just as Milano does, just as all the other objects do. Bruno Latour will be happy.

The second characteristic of hyperobjects such as the "MeToo" text is nonlocality, a term Morton borrows from quantum physics, noting that the non-intuitive perspective needed to see hyperobjects such as global warming or, in our case here, "MeToo" was developed in the complexity sciences such as quantum, relativity, and chaos theories. Morton says:
Hyperobjects are contradictory beasts. Moreover, the aesthetic-causal realm in which hyperobjects appear to operate is in some sense nonlocal and atemporal. Or at any rate, such gigantic scales are involved— or rather such knotty relationships between gigantic and intimate scales— that hyperobjects cannot be thought as occupying a series of now-points “in” time or space. They confound the social and psychic instruments we use to measure them— even digital devices have trouble. … Nonlocality means just that— there is no such thing, at a deep level, as the local. Locality is an abstraction. (Morton, Kindle Locations 886-891)
Stop to read a single tweet from "MeToo", and you can no longer see the text. It recedes behind the dazzling brightness of the single tweet, dazzling in the sense of an atomic blast. For an instant, all is bathed in the light of that one tweet, and we forget that this tweet is not the text. It isn’t even the twittersphere. Morton says, “Hyperobjects compel us to think ecologically” (Kindle Locations 901-902) because “hyperobjects [are] nonlocal: … massively distributed in time and space” (Kindle Location 910). “Locality is always a false immediacy” (Kindle Locations 913-914).

Our literary sensibilities were formed in the print age, which made it easier to focus on the immediate book to hand, that tangible artifact that we could take from a shelf, see the poem there in our hands, and then return to the shelf. We could put it away, but as Morton notes, there is no away. Because of our shift to an ecological mode of thought, we have learned that we cannot send our trash and our nuclear waste away. Morton notes wryly:
For some time we may have thought that the U-bend in the toilet was a convenient curvature of ontological space that took whatever we flush down it into a totally different dimension called Away, leaving things clean over here. Now we know better: instead of the mythical land Away, we know the waste goes to the Pacific Ocean or the wastewater treatment facility. … There is no Away on this surface, no here and no there. (Kindle Locations 610-614)
"MeToo" is in our pockets, closer than our lovers, as close as our thoughts and prayers, and yet it is not here. That tweet from Milano is not in your pocket. Not even Twitter knows where it is. Rather, it is distributed throughout the Cloud, smudged, dispersed, acentered, both lost and found, found everywhere and existing nowhere. You cannot explain the here of this tweet without reference to the beyond, and yet looking at the here blurs the beyond. Looking beyond blurs the here. You can’t know both the velocity and the location of any tweet or text. Something is always uncertain, and despite the beliefs of the New Critics, texts never include all that you need to understand them.

And yet, in a weird fractal way, they do include it all, like a hologram. A tweet is a gateway to the twittersphere, and as David Bohm says in his book Wholeness and the Implicate Order (1985) each entity is implicated in all entities and all entities in each. The tweet then occupies a middle ground between here and there and forms a parallax with other tweets, a weird lens that hides as much as it reveals, that makes local and remote at the same time and at different times.

Time brings us to Morton’s third characteristic of hyperobjects: temporal undulation. Since Einstein, we’ve had to accept that space and time are not the stable fields within which all things are born, live, and die. They aren’t even separate fields but one spacetime, and it’s quite possible that spacetime emerges from all the things in the universe rather than being the inert medium within which everything is suspended. This view, of course, requires a peculiar, non-human point of view that is obscured at the human scale where time and space seem so reliable, fixed, and ordinary—the reliable, stable media through which we move.

Hyperobjects such as "MeToo" help us to see that time is not fixed into a regular, universal procession, and this gives those objects an uncanny feel. They drop us into the Twilight Zone of a Dali painting where clocks drip down the canvas. The "MeToo" text is never stable, but undulates like an octopus. It is both now and then. A "MeToo" text ripples across the chattersphere immediately into our pockets and at the same time recedes into the past and future, away from us. I see it now, immediately from Bonnie Stewart, yet it trails clouds of glory from a million other women in the chattersphere, pushing like chi into the future, fading away into the past. Each iteration of the meme carries its own import and impact, its own context and trajectory without ever losing the DNA of its genealogy. Each pseudopod of "MeToo" is imbricated with the past of a million gropes, wheedles, and demands and with the potential of hopes, potentials, and risks.

Unlike my favorite Keats sonnet, "MeToo" is not a stable text. Actually, a Keats sonnet is not stable either, but it has been easy to imagine it so during its 200 years in print. An electronic hyperobject such as "MeToo" allows us to see the contours of a conversation that warps time as it waves in and out of now, connecting us to both the past and future. The flow of time about "MeToo" is not regular. Rather, time percolates, sometimes oozing as a Facebook message arrives from someone I’ve known a long time, sometimes rushing along a torrent of tweets from a thousand people that I do not know. The conversation is morphing before my eyes: sometimes with a Keatsian indolence, sometimes as frenzied as e.e. Cummings or tupac shakur. I need a literacy that does not require a stable, definitive text from a stable, authoritative voice.

I need a literacy that expects a text to change and stretch over time, a text that changes and stretches time. Hyperobjects distort our sense of time, stretching and foreshortening. The future of the "MeToo" text looms over me, calling for a response, exerting a weird causality on me. The future of this conversation is as present as the past and recedes into obscurity in both directions. I must respond, but to what am I responding? My training demands a stable text to analyze, an authoritative voice to engage, but I have none. The stable text is a dead text (lawyers and critics beware). We do not linger on websites that read the same thing today as yesterday. We move on, searching for a morphing text. There is no single lesson, no moral of the story, in the "MeToo" text. There is no unity. Rather, there are a million voices raised across a vast field of spacetime, perturbing my sense of how space and time and objects are arranged. I am in the swarm. Sometimes I catch the fleeting arc of a single voice in a tweet or Facebook message, and of course, I want to reduce the conversation to that voice, to that person, but behind the piercing clarity of that voice I hear the rustle and hum of a million other voices, including voices of dissent: a colleague who messages “Not me!”, a troll who tweets, “What the fuck!”, a niece – a mid-20s woman – who writes:
For some reason all this "me too" stuff bothers me. Oh yeah it must be because every time Ive spoken up about times I've been sexually assaulted I have lost "friends", been called things( liar, jealous, a slut/ whore, drunk), and stopped getting invited to social gatherings. To this day I still see people engaging with people who have sexually assaulted me after I have shared my story with them. I am not a victim. I am a survivor. Ain't no "me too" coming from this side..
But it did come. She spoke, and her voice filled the swarm, amplified, adding to the weight and power. Her future calls to me, pulls. Causality is not just a push from the past, and I need a new literacy, caught dumb within the swarm. I am pulled here and there, now and then, and I need new sense-making tools.

I need a literacy that can accommodate the phasing of "MeToo", the fourth characteristic of hyperobjects. Morton says:
Hyperobjects are phased: they occupy a high-dimensional phase space that makes them impossible to see as a whole on a regular three-dimensional human-scale basis. We can only see pieces of hyperobjects at a time. The reason why they appear nonlocal and temporally foreshortened is precisely because of this transdimensional quality. We only see pieces of them at once, like a tsunami or a case of radiation sickness. If an apple were to invade a two-dimensional world, first the stick people would see some dots as the bottom of the apple touched their universe, then a rapid succession of shapes that would appear like an expanding and contracting circular blob, diminishing to a tiny circle, possibly a point, and disappearing. (Kindle Locations 1262-1267)
This is it precisely: I do not get "MeToo" tweet by tweet, message by message, in some orderly fashion that helps me resolve it into a whole. Rather, I get a strange, fragmented, fractal of a message, a tweet or two, then a rush of a million tweets, and then silence, then another rush. "MeToo" engulfs me, swallows me, and then it is gone. I see it on TV. I hear it in a podcast. My brother-in-law yells "MeToo" at a rehearsal dinner in a joking manner that indicates that he knows the conversation, but I can’t be sure that he knows what it means. I know that I don’t know what it means. I know bits, silvery bits like fish flashing in the clear Bahamian waters before vanishing.

But the vanishing, just like the appearing, is a matter of my perception. "MeToo" is still here and there, now and then. I lose touch with it, but it does not go away. There is no away. Rather, it is so large a text, that I lose track of it, even though it is still humming about me. It is a poem that I cannot put down, an ear worm that I cannot turn off, radio waves still singing through me even when my device is down. “MeToo” phases in and out and around, always humming in the noise, sometimes pronounced, articulate, and clear, but always droning. The background noise is not incidental, not a nuisance or a distortion. It is the text.

I encounter “MeToo” as one object to another, each with its own agency. We share an interobjectivity. I engage “MeToo” across what Morton calls the Mesh, that “shared sensual space” that mediates the interactions of objects and where objects present-for each other. “MeToo” and I confront each other, each interpreting the other, responding to the other, acting upon the other with whatever resources we have to hand. “MeToo” is an object for me, but I am equally an object for “MeToo”. I may claim priority in this relationship given my access to human intellect and its affordances—and I traditionally have thought this way—but “MeToo” has its own affordances and resources. “MeToo” has millions of other humans woven through it, and the drone of all those voices drowns my voice. Even if I were a genius, those millions of minds would be smarter, more resourceful, more nimble than mine alone. “MeToo” has the power of the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, and other technological behemoths at its disposal and is exercising them all at once. Perhaps most importantly, “MeToo” is massive. It is a swarm, and it simply outweighs me. It’s like comparing my gravitational pull on the Earth to the Earth’s gravitational pull on me. My pull is negligible.

This interobjectivity, then, challenges and undermines my role as the subject that analyzes an object. I have no privileged position to assume and from which I can analyze “MeToo”. I have no metalanguage. I have no outside, away from “MeToo”, isolated from and superior to “MeToo”. I have only the inside and the ontological rift between “MeToo” and me. I have no way to engage without being a part of—without “MeToo” and me aesthetically falling into each other while simultaneously receding ontologically from each other. I am not “MeToo”, nor is it me, but we are both inevitably entangled in our aesthetic interactions as each presents to the other and as those presentations modify what each then presents again. As “MeToo” and I know, then we are known in turn. To know this text is to be known by this text. I am revealed as I reveal. Analysis and knowledge are not one-way, but interactive and interobjective. As I know, so am I known.

All the great spiritual traditions know this, but our Western scientific tradition has forgotten it. Slowly, complexity science is correcting this mistake. When Alyssa Milano tweets the new numbers of the “MeToo” conversation, she reveals something about herself. When a troll trashes “MeToo”, he exposes more about himself. When my niece dismisses “MeToo” for a day at the beach, she reveals as well. My discussion here about “MeToo” is now part of the conversation, and as much as it makes “MeToo” known, it likely reveals more about me. “MeToo” has its own agency, and it stains me as much or more than I stain it. I cannot try to understand it—or at least I cannot try to engage it elegantly—without becoming something else forever entangled in “MeToo”. Likewise, “MeToo” is now something else, stained however slightly by me. There is no away for either of us.

And now there is no away for you, my reader, as you, too, are stained by “MeToo” and by me.

I’ve come to think that all texts have always been like "MeToo", have been hyperobjects. The Shakespeare texts are certainly hyperobjects, his memes having spread throughout not only English culture but world culture. We are stained by Shakespeare, and in turn, his texts are stained by us. They are rhizomes spreading in the rich soil of society, but as this Google Ngram Viewer shows, it has taken hundreds of years for the “sound and fury” meme to percolate through the print substrate to reach most every literate English-speaking person alive, the phrase peaking in English texts about 1950 after an initial spike in the 1640s.

In contrast, “MeToo” has saturated culture almost as much within a matter of weeks. Thus, while we could avoid the hyperobject nature of a Shakespearian text in the slow age of print, we cannot avoid the hyperobject nature of “MeToo” in the hyperfast age of social media. I think, then, that I will have to re-read Shakespeare, this time not as a discrete, self-contained object that I can analyze but as a viscous, nonlocal, undulating, and constantly phasing hyperobject that reveals as much about myself as it does about Hamlet.