[iDC] IPF09 Conference thoughts

Mark Edward Cote markcote at trentu.ca
Wed Dec 2 21:37:26 UTC 2009

Hello all,

here are some concluding thought on the IPF09 conference as requested,
albeit a little late...

first off, i want to thank trebor organizing such a brilliant event; it
was certainly one of the best conferences i have had the privilege to
attend. as important was all the work done by the student volunteers.
without your collective labour, the play of the conference simply would
not have happened. thank you.

i won't try to comprehensively summarize the conference in part because
concurrent panels meant i (like everyone) missed so much, including
numerous panels i would have dearly loved to have attended (especially
"ideology and the erotics of playlabor", "work, labor and the
productivity of fun", and "the emancipatory potential of play").
instead, i will offer a more impressionistic account and suggest ways
that at least it has prodded me to want to move forward.

the scope and intensity of mediation was both appropriate and thought
provoking. the IPF09 tweets in particular was an unexpectedly welcome
stream of dialogue, inter- and intra-panel and by those materially and
virtually present. as well, the pre-conference interviews (on video) and
the live streaming video of the panels set a new baseline to which i
think future conferences should aspire. thanks again to all the students
for their labour which made such mediation possible. and a question:
will the panel videos be archived on the site?

the diversity of participants (not just artists, activists,
practitioners, and academics, but the range of scholars) gave the
conference a real depth and richness. perhaps most amazingly, it
resulted in many instances of incredibly productive dialogue that i did
not necessarily expect. for me the most impressive example was the
saturday morning panel 'governance in the age of vulnerable publics.'
honestly, i wasn't sure what to expect on a panel with a couple of legal
scholars and an activist-scholar but the results were breathtaking.
jonathan zittrain was truly, deeply funny, as well as richly
substantive. in conjunction with a great presentation by laura denardis,
it was a reminder that regarding issues of legal governance and
technical architecture, the devil is in (knowing, and where possible
subverting) the details. the whole while i was wondering how brian
holmes might respond but any apprehensions i had were wildly misplaced.
his outstanding paper on 'predatory networks' made palpable the issues
of governance in their real (and often deadly) effects on labour.
collectively it reminded me that critical interdisciplinarity offers
perhaps the most robust tools for thought and action--something that
made getting up early on saturday definitely worthwhile.  

my panel highlight though was the friday evening's 'changing sites of
value' with patricia clough, orit halpern and melissa gregg. talk about
three powerhouses! ideas and concepts were flying with such speed and
intensity that, in the best possible way, i felt like i was flattened by
a steamroller. thank you all seriously for reminding me why i love being
an academic in the first place; what a febrile pursuit of ideas.
patricia's paper raised critical questions around 'measuring the
immeasurable' especially in terms of affect when considered as
potentiality. questions of measure are surely among the most important
challenges identified at the conference, both for capital in seeking to
extract value, and for those who wish to both understand and mobilize
for progressive purposes what patricia called the 'ontology of dynamic
matter.' the pace and intensity of orit's presentation was a challenge
to, in her words, "choose a pattern in the data field." i was fascinated
by her radical representation of second-generation cybernetics,
especially regarding the multi-mediated informational flow which
proceeded with an assumption of 'absolute storage.' this left me
ruminating on the relationship between a political economy of absolute
storage versus it affective, bodily phenomenology. finally, melissa
gregg recounted the important feminist genealogy of affective labour. it
was a necessary reminder that the concept of 'affect' is much more than
esoteric theory; instead, it helps us understand real trends in labour
which are often markedly gendered. she presented research from her
forthcoming book 'working from home' which recounts women (often
mothers) who undertake domestic computer-mediated work. as she asked,
what kind of labour politics might address such a situation wherein
computers are sold as a solution to a largely gendered problem? this
again raises that confounding relation between the material body and its
virtual instantiations.

that this panel lasted only 90 minutes was its only shortcoming.

the last panel i want to touch on briefly was the first one i attended
('virtual worlds, civil rights, and slaughter'). it grappled
impressively with the difficulties in articulating the relationship
between the body and its virtual manifestations. lisa nakamura presented
the now iconic 'chinese gold farmers' as a key example of racialized
digital labour. a key contribution she made here was to insist on overt
linkages between a digital labour struggle and a civil rights struggle.
as haunting for me was the video clip of a young 'gold farmer' who,
after a dawn-to-dusk day of digital labour, continued playing 'world of
warcraft' into the night, desperately seeking the intensive and
extensive social connectivity which is expected by players but not
necessarily forthcoming to those who service the game's mode of
production. alex galloway picked up seamlessly on nakamura's thread by
sounding the depths of digital labour wherein 'tastes and proclivities
are uploaded and data mined,' and where virtual bodies are always tagged
by corporeal-cultural markers of gender, race, and ethnicity. amidst all
this is the 'genius' of google page rank, which, in galloway's
felecitous terms "uses graph theory to valorize heterogeneity." what i
took away from this terrific insight is that by operating on a
functional coding of pure difference, distributed digital networks can
effortlessly flow back to a tyranny of the universal. timothy pachirat
followed with what initially seemed to be the most incongruous paper on
the "olifactory putridity" of slaughterhouses. there was, however, a
visceral impact on his recounting of the "bloody, meaty centre to
labour" wherein fleeing cattle are at once the physical escaping the
virtual, and the virtual becoming material. finally, jodi dean expertly
transposed agamben's politics of 'whatever being' to a teenager's online
being of whatever...therein she questioned the political possibilities
in the socially-networked world of youth where ubiquitous communication
of personal media can result in the severing of expression from content.

a few other random memories: christian fuch's persistent but jovial
insistence on the fact that the virtual conditions for a new communism
are already with us; hendrick speck's purposelfully baffling 'zizek
walk' near the end of the closing plenary; biella coleman and jonathan
beller's insistence on a particular 'return of the repressed'--the
utterly abject material conditions of 2B of the world's population upon
which digital dreams and aspirations rest; catherine driscoll's dogged
adamance on 'emotion' over 'affect'; and the unreconstructed optimism of
michel bauwens.

this summary is getting far too long so i will bring it to a close with
one last thought. during the closing plenary, a number of students made
some really smart and cogent observations. one in particular (from
cayden?) wondered about the disconnect between the physical and digital
world, asking "what vestiges of our physical selves are brought into the
digital world?" as evidenced by my observations above, this for me is
the most pressing issue to take away from the conference and an area i
will focus upon in future work. how do we square what sean cubitt called
the "cartesian geometry" of the material (perhaps borrowed from deleuze
on cinema?) with what patricia clough called the "quantum non-locality"
of the virtual. we have robust means for parsing either the material or
the virtual. what we really need are ways to account for the
simultaneity (and difference) of both/and. thinking in terms of
transductive relations may be a start, as might be a thorough rethinking
of the myriad relations between the human and technology.

others, thankfully, will have other ideas from which we can collectively
learn and act. the one thing i bet everyone at the conference agrees
with is that however we might imagine a virtual future, it must
facilitate actions which contribute to a more sustainable and equitable
material world.



Mark Coté, Ph.D
Cultural Studies Program
Trent University
markcote at trentu.ca

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