A Question of Incomprehensibility


If it's not obvious, this is a long dead project.  I'm leaving it up because I think the call is an interesting essay in and of itself, and for any putative historical value it might have.


The first abstracts are in and they're looking great.  I'm going to be accepting new pieces on a rolling basis until about two weeks before the compilation is finalized, to keep things flexible.  Right now, that's looking like it will be mid-October, but if you're interested, don't wait — sooner is definitely better.

Call for Essays

I'm putting together a set of responses to this prompt for publication as an essay collection.  The format for the responses is flexible, but the target length is between 1,000 and 3,000 words.  I'll work with authors to help edit and polish texts as needed or desired.  At the same time, I will be putting together a bibliography of relevant works; I'm interested in suggestions for it.  The resulting text will be published online under the Creative Commons 3.0 BY-NC-SA license, with individual authors retaining copyright.  The text may also be published as a print on demand volume if there's interest.  Should there be any revenue from the compilation (not intended, right now), it'll be split equally.

If you're interested in responding, please send in a brief abstract (or a full piece, if you're feeling inspired).  Please send questions and submissions to ella at sldrc dot com.

Eleanor Saitta
Structure Light Design Research Collective

It is now evident that postmodernism is dead.  It has not ceased to function, exactly.  The tools it gave us for the analysis of culture still work to the same degree they did previously.  It remains a functional standpoint for understanding the effects of traditional media on traditional culture.  Rather, media has ceased to matter in the way it once did, and culture has fragmented beyond reach.  The network has consumed media and transformed it into content, has consumed place and turned it into location, and has consumed friendship and turned it into relationship.  The hierarchy of culture production is breaking down into a flattened attention-​economy at the same time the rich increase their wealth via network‑finance.

All of this simply is.  Neither good nor bad, but only how we understand the world in this current moment.  We cannot give the changing eras of thought a progression of worth any more than we can the earth's revolution around the sun — this age too will pass.  We did not always understand this, any more than heliocentricity was always a fundamental basis of man's relationship with the universe.

Each way of understanding the world has various unique features, which become incomprehensible to later generations.  The mythopoedic view of the world that medieval, pre-heliocentric man held became largely unintelligible to later thinkers.  This is not about either nostalgia for a better, more human past or triumphant progress to a better, more logical future, but simply those frames of references in which we can no longer intuitively act and imagine.  Institutions may disappear with or following this shift, but they vanish because they have already become nonsensical or irrelevant; the change in their value precedes any material alteration.  Even if practices previously correlated with vanishing institutions remain, their meaning shifts; e.g. film photography in the presence of Twitpic and ubiquitous networked surveillance.

With effort, we may come to understand at an intellectual level the mindset of a different age.  We can learn to comprehend the concerns of a person whose world stood on the back of an elephant, or understand the intellectual life of a culture shaped by a single, unified, scheduled, monolithic, and inherently trustworthy media.  This is not the same as living that mindset, any more than historical reenactment can factually reproduce the power relations of the culture it attempts to simulate.

Having been notified of the sudden irrelevance of postmodernism as it slips quietly away beneath the onrushing virtualization of network culture, we are at an interesting crossroads.  The future continues to be unevenly distributed, and there are those of us who have been living in it long enough to be almost-​but-​not-​quite natives of network culture.  From this position, we have some limited vision forward.  Not being true natives, our experience of this future will be and is different from the experience that natives of it will have, and the future itself will shift with ubiquity.

While we must be careful, we can see culture shifting in front of our eyes, and we have some hint of where it may be going.  We cannot see the shape it will take (and it would be suspect if we thought we could), but we can see it start to cast shadows on the existing world, presaging change.  Thus, we ask, what will the next generation, the true natives of network culture, the post-​millennials, find incomprehensible about the world of media and postmodernism?