2011 Automedial Ghosts

MLA, Profession 2011, 118-22

I want to bring together two ideas: one, of direct relevance to the Presidential Forum, autobiomediality — the construction of an extended self-enunciation, an I within a medium;  the other,  ghosts, certain so-called supernatural presences –  ghost effects – that inhabit human consciousness.

The autobiomedial is the autobiographic generalized, autobio-X, where X is any medium—visual, sonic, symbolic, musical, gestural, computational—or any combination thereof and where the alphabetical I is replaced by a self-enunciation, an I, specific to X. An I that indexes not a premediated self but one that arrives with the medium, effected and affected by it, the result of the medium‟s folding back onto its user to create an interior space, a fold of subjectivity and consciousness. There are thus as many I’s and interior folds as there are media that permit an act of self-enunciation: a dance I, a film I, a music I, a speech I, a written I, a theater I, a gestural I, forms of digital I, and so on.

Ghosts and ghost effects? “We‟re living in a supernatural world. . . . We‟re surrounded by ghosts,” observes Jennifer Egan in The Keep, a novel of the contemporary digital in which, appropriately, one character is revealed to be ghost-written by another (137). If indeed ghosts, ghost effects, are everywhere, why is that? How and what are ghosts? Disembodied presences of dead people and ideas, specters like Hamlet‟s father, haunting us with their demands and grievances—in short, revenants? Yes, but there are also prevenants, ghosts who forebode and haunt from the future, as “cities [are] haunted by the shadow of cholera” (“Haunt”). Of interest to me here are not ghosts of a person or future event but self-identical entities outside history— spirits, phantoms, gods and their branded, institutionalized forms, such as Yahweh, God the father, Allah. Where do these and the ghosts surrounding us come from?

I suggest that they are produced by media, figures that emerge (in varying degrees, incarnations, and intensities) at a nexus, when two media interact and give rise to a new subjectivity, an interfolding of their two I‟s, experienced as identical to neither. Such an answer might explain why embodied performance, always an assemblage of interacting media, is ghost-friendly, why theater‟s staging of a speaking I is such a fecund and paradigmatic source of ghosts. But here I look at a more abstract type of nexus, when one medium is a precursor to a second, which is understood as its virtualization. Three instances of such coupled media and their ghosts, each initiating and presiding over an entire medial era, stand out.

The first nexus is the encounter of speech, the precursor medium, with alphabetical inscription. Writing is the virtualization of speech: speech at a distance; speech across time; speech detached from the person, affect, and context of utterance; speech via an algorithm for its production in a free-floating and de-located form. Above all, de-corporealized speech. Writing knows nothing of the body, of the body‟s presence in speech, witnessed in the vocal gestures of speech—namely, the voice‟s tone or prosody: intonation, musicality, emphases, rhythms, volume, pitch, pauses, gaps, hesitations, elisions, and so on. An alphabet can notate none of this infrastructure of speech’s performance. If this corporeal deficit of writing is ignored, if one conflates utterance and inscription, what is said and what is written, it becomes possible to imagine a being for whom the saying and writing of I would be indistinguishable.

In sixth-century BC Babylon, Israelite priests sewing together disparate texts that would become the Five Books of Moses, inaugurated such an entity, the monobeing Yahweh, who delivers himself to Moses through a flash of fire followed by a cryptic self-enunciatory formula: “I am that I am” (Exod. 3.14 [King James Vers.]). This biblical rendering of the Hebrew “Ehyeh asher ehyeh” has also been translated as “I am the existent one, the one who goes on being,” a version suggesting that writing, which guarantees permanence to evanescent speech, is already present in the enunciation. Moreover, asked how he is to be named to the Israelites, the being answers, “Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I am hath sent me unto you.” The sense here that naming and asserting as well as writing and speaking are fused is made explicit on Sinai when Moses receives the covenant from Yahweh, his commandments, which begin with “I am.” They are delivered twice. First the monobeing inscribes the commandments: “. . . two  tables of stone written with the finger of God” (Deut. 9.10). Then he speaks, dictates them: “And the Lord said unto Moses, Write thou these words . . . ” (34.27). For Yahweh, revealed and knowable only through a text that both he and Moses wrote, no difference exists between the spoken and written I. Yahweh‟s voice is the toneless, affectless speech of writing, the voice of invisible, disembodied presence. Yahweh is the Judaic strand of the ghost of alphabetical writing, the exterior correlate to the Greek disembodied psyche, that interior ghost that emerges with the staged performance, theatrical and philosophical, of self-enunciation.

The second nexus is that of gesture (including the haptic) in its encounter with speech, producing a more ancient medialogical phenomenon, the ghost of language itself. Here, the gesturohaptic medium, foundational to embodied thought, is the precursor medium and speech its virtualization. Again, two distinct I’s come into contact: an a-linguistic, gestured self- enunciation—briefly, a Meand the spoken I that virtualizes it. One can narrate this engagement in psychogenetic terms as the infant‟s passage into speech or phylogenetically as the evolution of language from its protohuman gestural matrix. In both cases the engagement necessarily undergoes a latency effect, a period of Me/I overlap and confusion. Children do not attain the ability to utter I correctly—that is, understand or properly distinguish their pre-speech Me from the spoken Iuntil significant language development has taken place; in the period of that development, presumably, the psychological ground for ghost effects is laid down. Phylogenetically, several theories derive language from gesture. Notable for our purpose is the neurobiological account of Terrence Deacon, in which symbolic—that is, virtual—reference evolves out of a web of nonreferential iconic and indexical relations through a Baldwinian process of biocultural feedback over innumerable generations. The I, as a virtual Me, might be responsible, Deacon suggests, for the psychological salience of ghostlike entities: “The symbolic representation of self provides a perspective on that curious human intuition that our minds are independent of our bodies; an intuition translated into beliefs about disembodied spirits and souls that persist beyond death” (454). The ghost of language, then, enters human consciousness with the saying of I in the form of an immortal, or at least disembodied, double.

I return to the present day and our, the West‟s, immersion in alphabetical writing and the still widespread misconception of writing as an inert, transparent medium. On the contrary, like all media, alphabetical writing transforms and molds what it offers as merely transmitted, imposing its characteristics and lettered logic not only on its messages but also on the selves and subjectivities of its users. “At least since the middle ages,” Ivan Illich and Barry Sanders remark, “one cannot avoid being described, identified, certified and handled like a text. Even in reaching out to become one‟s own „self,‟ one reaches out for a text” (x). We are lettered selves, then, alphabetically mediated I‟s, constructed through iterated reading-writing practices that articulate, describe, characterize, project, and stabilize us as scripted—fixed, bounded, and unitary— psychic objects. As such we have repeatedly reinscribed and made ourselves amenable to the ghosts of our alphabetical medium. But not, at least not in the same way, for much longer.

The third nexus is the confrontation of the alphabet, now become a precursor medium, with the virtualizing forces of electronic media. New subjectivities, shaped by the demands and facilitations of technologies of the virtual, differ markedly from those of their lettered, alphabetical forebears. Software selves, like their digitized bodies increasingly opened up, made into surface phenomena, augmented, de-integrated, and informationalized, are ever more exogenous, their interiors traversed by a ubiquitous computational exterior. The construction of selves and subjectivities is presided over by a radically altered regime of space-time. The nearly instantaneous flow of information, action, perception, and affection at a distance—from remote surgery to telepresence—ensures that any two events can assume a planetary proximity. One consequence is an emerging co-presence of mobile, networked selves with identities, as Derrick de Kerckhove observes, “in perpetual formation and reformation at the moment of use.” In short, a dynamic, a logic, and a topology of psychic activity outside the orbit of our unified, pre- electronic, lettered selves.

In the emerging psychic landscape there is not yet anything resembling a universal, naturalized, discourse-wide computational form of self-enunciation, an electronic correlate of the spoken or written I. There are, however, fragmentary, localized self-enunciations: digital signatures, self-branding Web sites, first-person gamers, a growing army of avatars and self- effects, as well as autobiomedial art practices, video self-portraits, and so on, each with its attendant micro ghost effects—those intermittent subjectivities and fluid presences that cling to the nexus of our textual and virtual I‟s as these self-enunciations resonate, separate, interfere, and fuse with one another. These effects are so ubiquitous, extimate, and unavoidable that they seem to conjure a virtual aura, a sensation in our alphabetical selves of being constantly mediated, of being doubled and shadowed, of being beside oneself, beside one self.

Early versions of these ghosts effects have been around since telegraphy, which by digitizing alphabetical writing and enabling the transmission of messages from unknown or unlocated others spawned spiritualism‟s communicating ghosts of the dead. But, as mentioned, before writing there were other ghosts, imagined immaterial bodies that came with the saying of I. The sense of being beside one self, of being mediated, is perhaps, then, an electronic grandchild of that ancient doubling. In any event, our lettered selves, at the cusp of the written logos and its computational successor, look likely to be haunted by a multiplicity of post-alphabetical spectral phenomena.

Of course we still read alphabetical texts and experience their fugitive ghostliness and enjoy our spooky in-and-out merging with them. Against the embodied ground of speech we make ghost figures of writing appear. We identify with fictional characters and philosophical personae, inhabiting their perspectives and subjectivities, as when—captured, immersed, enthralled, spellbound—by a theatrical performance or the imagined world of a novel, the seeing-reading I of the speaking self and its lettered or theatrical form become indistinguishable. We become ghosts.1


1 A student wrote me, “When I‟m reading something that constructs a narrative space- time, isn‟t my relation to this space while I‟m reading it one of „haunting‟? I‟m nowhere- everywhere, invisible and omniscient (to a certain extent); I float-travel-drift through the space, spying on sites and characters, and I skip around the timeline either voluntarily or perforce; I’m basically interacting with this space like a ghost would. Even if I‟m reading something totally non-narrative and, say, more along the lines of research, then I‟m still in a relation to the alphabetic topography in which I‟m floating and darting all over the place, slipping into certain sentences or facts and then re-materializing somewhere else” (Haley).

Works Cited

#Deacon, Terrence. The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York: Norton, 1997. Print.

#de Kerckhove, Derrick. “Communication in Evolution: Social and Technological Transformation.” Cibersociologia, 17 July 2008. Web. 21 June 2011.

#Egan, Jennifer. The Keep. New York: Knopf, 2006. Print.

#Haley, Michael. Message to the author. 30 Apr. 2009. E-mail.

#“Haunt.” Oxford Dictionaries. Oxford UP, n.d. Web. 21 June 2011.

#Illich, Ivan, and Sanders, Barry. A B C: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind. San Francisco: North Point, 1988. Print.

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