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Ten Reflections on Mark Amerika's PHON:E:ME

Steven Shaviro, 1999
  1. PHON:E:ME. Mark Amerika gives us at least three ways to pronounce the title of his piece. Is it "Phoneme"? Or "Phone Me?" Or "Phony Me"? There’s an interesting logic to these alternatives. Just as quantum physics describes the universe alternatively in terms of waves and particles, so linguistics describes language in two ways. Language is at the same time structure and communication. Language as structure faces inward. It is a closed, internally coherent, system. Phonemes relate only to other phonemes. But language as communication faces outward. When you phone me, both of us get opened up and changed in the process. Energy and information are transferred between us. Our relationship is different than it was before. Structure and communication are mutually incompatible, just as waves and particles are. But just as waves and particles are both necessary for a description of the physical universe, so structure and communication are both necessary for a description of language.
  2. Postmodern theory suggests that the "self" is a fiction. This is not the same thing as saying that the self is not real. The self is perfectly real; it just isn’t substantial. The self is real in the way that a reflection in a mirror is real. Or better, it is real in the way that processed food is real. The self is an illusion–a "phony me"–because it seems to stand by itself, when in fact it is an effect of other processes. We think of ourselves as selves because of our capacities for self-conscious reflection on the one hand, and social agency on the other. But introspection and self-consciousness can only exist within the framework of language-as-structure. And action and agency can only exist within the framework of language-as-communication. The "phony me" resonates at the intersection between the "phoneme" and the "phone me."
  3. PHON:E:ME is about intersections on many levels. Instead of intersections, we might well say ratios. Marshall McLuhan wrote that every new development in technology establishes a new ratio between the senses. The Internet is then only the latest in a long series of sensorial mutations. Mark Amerika works at the critical point where new sensory ratios are starting to emerge. Most obviously, his piece plays with the intersection between the ear and the eye, between what we hear and what we see. More subtly, it also explores a disjunction within the eye itself: between what we can read and what we can only look at. And most surprisingly of all, perhaps, the piece explores the gap between the active and receptive senses: between the immediacy of tactile contact and the distance of what we hear and see, and especially of what we read. The hand is important in PHON:E:ME, because I use it to move the mouse. There is nothing so simple here as clicking on hyperlinks; but gradually, as I push the cursor back and forth, my movements seem to correlate with changing chunks of text. Amerika seems to suggest that the body doesn’t entirely dissolve in cyberspace; though it does becomes less dense, and its actions more oblique. Not a dissolution of body into mind, but perhaps a new ratio between them.
  4. The modernist ideals of self-consciousness and self-reflexivity were once seen as means for resisting hegemonic culture. The modernist spectator was supposed to be alienated from the work, made aware of its status as a representation. The work of art was supposed to reflect back upon itself, to foreground its own fictionality, to reveal, and to revel in, its status as a construction. It was supposed to become its own end and justification. And it was supposed to be subversive: to violate the bourgeois social and political order, together with the laws of representation. Today, these strategies of displacement, demystification, and transgression are no longer rebellious or avant-garde. Rather, we take them all for granted as techniques of TV advertising. This is a big problem for those artists who still want to "make it new," as well as for those cultural theorists who still want to find moments of utopia, redemption, or resistance.
  5. Mark Amerika faces this problem in a startling way. He doesn’t try to finesse it, or step around it, or transcend it. Rather, he meets the dilemma head on, by embracing it without reserve. Amerika knows that the culture of global capitalism is the all-too-legitimate heir of modernist aesthetics. And he knows that he shares in this sinister genealogy–as do we all, like it or not. That is why PHON:E:ME, in both content and form, is to a great extent an advertisement for itself. One of its main subjects is a meditation on the ways the artist can turn his/her identity ("phony me") into an instantly recognizable brand name. Of course, this does not mean that self-advertising is all there is to the work. Far from it. But self-promotion is an aspect of the work that can never be excluded from it. Amerika’s highly self-conscious art-entrepreneurialism seeps into and contaminates everything else the work does.
  6. Shamans in ancient societies traded their powers for social prestige. Amerika the "techno-shaman" does the same, knowing that commodification as a celebrity is the form that such prestige takes in the world today. All the cool new aesthetic strategies of the postmodern world–appropriation, remixing, unlimited digital reproduction, synaesthetic convergence, and so on–are revolutionary tools for the production of new modes of consciousness. But it’s precisely because of this fact–and not in spite of it–that these strategies are also the means for creeping commercialization. After all, if the techno-shaman’s methods weren’t so powerful, we wouldn’t have to worry about multinational corporations scheming to control them.
  7. In other words: there aren’t any artists who don’t hustle. Amerika is simply more rigorous about this situation than most. He refuses to pretend that the hustle is somehow extraneous to the work. On the contrary, he incorporates the hustle into the work directly. Indeed, he makes it the very point of the work’s formal self-reflection. In this sense, PHON:E:ME is Adorno’s nightmare. The formal techniques of modernism were supposed to create a critical distance between the artist and the world, and between the spectator and the spectacle. But Amerika uses these very same techniques to show that there is no distance. In the postmodern world, the network is everything. Everything is beautifully and hideously interconnected.
  8. Amerika’s work is not subversive, in the ways that modernist art was once supposed to be. Instead, it is something subtler and more insidious. PHON:E:ME is a virus, or perhaps a fly in the ointment. It works in the mode of infiltration and infection. Instead of challenging the priority of the commodity system, it injects that system with a little of its own venom. It creates dubious slippages at those points where the system seems to be most coherent, and where its distinctions are believed to be most firm. Network congestion, for instance, is not for Amerika just an irritant, something that interrupts the smooth flow of information. Rather, net congestion is creative. It mutates existing patterns of meaning, continuously generating new ones. Instead of always futilely trying to dampen the noise, we might consider how better to incorporate the noise into the signal itself.
  9. Or consider the play, throughout PHON:E:ME, between ownership (copyright) on one hand, and unrestricted proliferation ("copyleft") on the other. Digital technologies allow both for the uncontrolled replication of data (as in the current frenzy surrounding MP3) and for an unprecedented degree of tracking and control of those same data (as in the proposed Secure Digital Music Initiative). Amerika zeroes in on the points at which these alternatives blur and cross over. Does unlimited digital proliferation mean that the artist, like the multinational corporation, attempts to corner the market, making everything into a clone of his or her own viral meme? Or does it mean that the artist must do everything to protect his or her trademark from unauthorized replication and corporate appropriation? Or does it mean, instead, that the art producer must be a quick-change artist, continually mutating himself or herself at a frantic rate? Becoming a brand name, selling one’s "phony me" to the public, might ironically turn out to be the best way for the artist to keep a step ahead of the inevitable forces of co-optation and standardization.
  10. Amerika’s ironies come in many layers. Just as there is no linear narrative to PHON:E:ME, so also there is no last instance, no bottom line. In Gertrude Stein’s famous phrase, there is no there there. PHON:E:ME gives me a vertiginous sense of weightlessness, as is so often the case with postmodern works. But in this instance at least, weightlessness should not be confused with blankness. In PHON:E:ME, the bland shrug of the TV viewer gives way to the febrile excitement of the virtual explorer. I cannot just sit back and passively consume the piece. I must get involved in it. To receive it, I must become an active collaborator, alongside Mark Amerika and the six other artists who joined him in making the piece. Of course, this sort of commitment is precisely what the modernist avant-garde demanded of its spectators. But in high modernism, getting involved with difficult works in this way was a profoundly elitist activity. Decoding Finnegans Wake, or learning to appreciate the paintings of Barnett Newman, was rather like being initiated into a secret society. Whereas the collaboration demanded of us by PHON:E:ME is much more open and down to earth. It’s pleasurable, though with a faint whiff of embarrassment or complicity. It’s like wearing Nike shoes, or having a latte at Starbuck’s. What could be more democratic, and more ironic, than that?
Steven Shaviro, 1999. First published by Gallery 9/Walker Art Center for PHON:E:ME.