The Myth of Internet Freedom

In Mythologies, French philosopher Roland Barthes does not examine universal experience, but instead conveys his observations through a lyrical collection of succinct, modern myths, not unlike the following reflection:

The Myth of Internet Freedom

The World Wide Web is an arena that affords its users a plurality of freedoms. While other communications media previously exerted an implied control, the web liberates its inhabitants. Time, space, even politics and identity no longer bound this digital landscape.

Much of the freedom of the Internet emanates from its inherent nature and how it processes information. Discrete packaging (bits) undergirds all Internet communication. Information is parsed, broken down into equal-sized pieces, which can be reassembled and retrieved by any computer in the world. Unfettered access conceives new modes of association, action, and individuality.

Emails and messages can be sent and received instantly from across the globe. Communication enters new frontiers beyond interpersonal and public broadcasts. A message can be transmitted into the virtual ether, and present a user’s singular thoughts and emotions to countless others, known and unknown. Similarly, the dichotomy between private and public information is eroded as the web becomes a haven for the public dissemination and declaration of innermost feelings. In this new free space, bacchanalias of brutality, lasciviousness and vulgarity often transgress the rules of propriety with impunity.

The web is a freeway whose traffic speeds the toppling of dictators, and rallies 99% of the population. On its lanes, serendipity and spontaneity course while control is lax.

Most revolutionary is that it requires so little to access the web. Only a modest computer is necessary to unlock the door to an infinite wealth of information. Freedom sustained by the web is, at moments, so liberating, that it becomes unnerving. All a user needs to do is search and uncover information that is suspended in the web’s cloud. Surfing the web becomes a kind of journey, something between a flaneur and a walkabout. The web indulges unregulated wanderlust and the aimless browsing of information. The Internet space is a province of pure freedom, an unexplored and unprotected wilderness.

Dispelling a Myth

 Written in 1957, Barthes’ revelations about different current media and materials, ranging from automobiles to toys, film, and, even, plastic dominate Mythologies. Barthes envisioned these objects as imbued with cultural signs. Greta Garbo’s face was an icon for the stoic beauty of black and white cinema. Professional wrestling was an intricate ballet of the “perfect intelligibility of reality” (p. 25). Barthes discerned symbols in both specific items and larger cultural forms. Toys and soap detergents, or at least the French versions of them, contained as much of mythical quality as Einstein’s brain.

Certainly today there are no shortage of myths about the Internet. The medium itself is a kind of myth. The “World Wide Web” and its computer language HTML is the mythical emblem of a diverse technical ecology. It includes miles of cables, satellites, mobile phones, computers, protocols for data transmission, and thousands of applications.

Just as Barthes suggests that “everything can be a myth provided it is conveyed by discourses” (p. 109), this cornucopia of 21st century communication devices has many discourses embedded in it. One of the most prevalent revolves around the Web as both a free space and one that facilitates freedom. Free speech on the web has been reported as an impetus for the organization of social movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. New channels of collaboration have stimulated prodigious enterprise, from reams of digital code, to virtual stores, and, even, innovations funded by the website Kickstarter.

If my introductory myth seems a bit hyperbolic or bewildering, it is not surprising. Like many of Barthes’ anecdotes, the understanding of myths is highly personal. Myths are limited by the languages and histories of their particular cultures. It is within these cultures that an individual is able to fully comprehend myths. Yet some myths resonate with our own experience. Barthes describes some mythical concepts as seeking him out (p. 125). Other myths, by contrast, are aspirations unrelated to reality. Such is the case of the myth of Internet freedom.

Unquestionably, the Internet furnishes certain conveniences in terms of communication. It allows users to send messages via various platforms both privately and publicly. It provides a vast array of information. Whether or not the web resembles the portrait of freedom depicted in my myth or whether or not it ascribes a roadmap to the hopes and desires culturally embedded within that myth, I am going to try to ascertain.

Access to the web is circumscribed by a wide variety of monetary restrictions and technical boundaries, starting with the rules imposed by HTML and the web’s protocols. These create the grammar and language of the web. Beyond this syntax, much of our communication on the platform is commoditized, from the bandwidth of data we consume, particularly in the mobile industry, to the content we generate, which advertisers use to market to us. In addition to these apparent expenses, a more important conflict is evinced with the myth of Internet freedom. Ultimately, the experience of the web is highly dissociated from the myths about it. Sending an email does not feel like the transcendence of time and space. Rather it is, often, if not always, the fulfillment of an obligation, born from conversations or preconceived desires to a particular end. It is, in short, work.

Working at Myth

            In Mythologies’ final essay, Barthes explains how the modern myth is fashioned and its relationship to different parts of the political and social milieus. The myth is originated through signs, embedded within a given form, and imbued with meaning by concepts taken from historical and cultural precedent. As Barthes puts it, “the knowledge contained in a mythical concept is confused, made of yielding shapeless associations” (p. 119).

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Mapping out a theory of web habits: A Paranoid Prelude

There is probably something to be said about writing out nascent ideas on a blog. The very act of doing it, in some ways leaves one, if such a person is inclined to even moderate paranoia, of a number of fears. For me the list is pretty obvious:

  1. My ideas, which are still in the process of being formed, will be taken and used by others to their own ends.
  2. The ideas, also not fully formed, will be subject to critique in their nascent stage and will thus derail my whole project.
  3. The ideas will somehow remain in said nascent state and will not develop further because they are being prepared for a blog rather than something else.
  4. On that note, there is a fear that even writing said ideas, mostly notes and errant thoughts, is actually merely a waste of time, not warranting the expenditure of energy to produce them. In fact, as someone who does enjoy his own writing, this endeavor may be for self-satisfaction over something actually substantive. I should be spending the time developing the ideas in more detail and preparing them for papers, chapters of books, etc.

Then there are a few worries that distinctly temporal in element, mostly surrounding the future:

  1. On the one hand I worry that I will look back on these posts and be embarrassed… what might be considered the “How could I think of that” moment. Such a moment would pertain to both substance and the style of writing.
  2. And of course, a related concern is that others will be looking at the blog in the distant future and that some statement that I make here will cost me some important future position, publication, job, etc.

These are just a few of the general worries anxieties that surround changing the style of what I post here and attempting to move it from more formal posts to a place where I work out my ideas. So, aside from providing a disclaimer of sorts for what I hope to be moderate changes to this blog, why would I even publicize such concerns?

The answer is that as I continue thinking about habits formed by web and Internet communication, I can’t help but conclude that my concerns are somewhat more universal. These are just the sort of anxieties that surround much of what we publicize on the web. Be it a post or photo on a social media platform, a spurious email sent to a friend or some other form of communication, I think unease follows much of what we do. In fact, as I continue to explore the habits that form our everyday communicative habits, I can use my own anxieties as one starting point of many.

So consider this disclaimer a prelude to the issues I will start to untangle in future posts.

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Owning A Cube of the Pie

It begins as so often those video fantasies do, on a deserted island, nobody around me, nothing but surf and sky and my own two hands, rendered in cubes on the computer screen. I am in the world of Minecraft and I must find shelter. Shifting my mouse around, I survey the landscape. I imagine the horrors that await me during the night. Within hours, about fifteen minutes in the game, this island of blocks on which I am stranded will swarm with demons and ghouls. Holding down the left button on my mouse, my free hand flails wildly carving up whatever it comes into contact with. Tearing at the ground and trees around me, I pull up a few blocks of dirt and wood. I dig deeper into the ground and, with a few clicks of the right mouse button, burrow myself into a hole just before sunset, fumbling in the dark, making planks and sticks out of excess wood. Thus I spend my first night in Minecraft, with the ominous monotonous groans of demons and clicks of spiders echoing around my dirt den. Constrained, I click through combinations of materials in the dark of my lair, unable to move forward or back, toying with what I can do in the game, how and what I can build, leaning forward in my chair, well past midnight on a Thursday night, surrounded by books and unwashed dishes in my one bedroom Brooklyn apartment.

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The “Techne” of Memory: Conversations on How Memory is Brought Forth


Introduction

The mind/body divide has been elemental in philosophers’ and scientists’ debates about human consciousness and behavior. How the mind works and the brain functions are intertwined, yet contradictory. The material world has attempted to bridge this divide with technological supplements and prostheses to brain function. The confrontations between mind and body, as well as the intervention of technology, is nowhere better illustrated than in memory. While scientists and philosophers have generally drawn strict boundaries between the function and form of memory, technology has provided new criteria for their delineation. By exploring this frontier, alternative interpretations of the “technology” of memory can be formed, based not only on theoretical areas of synthesis between the mind/brain dichotomy, but also the conceptual world of the virtual.

The Debate Between Form and Function

Memory’s residence between science and the humanities is well illuminated in exchanges between neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux and philosopher Paul Ricoeur in What Makes Us Think?. While often inherently disagreeing with Changeux, Ricoeur finds accord on the subject of memory: “The case of memory is particularly favorable to the continuation of our discussion. Phenomenology,” Ricoeur’s approach to philosophical reasoning, “and the neurosciences are in agreement, in fact, with regard to description [of memory] while diverging with regard to interpretation” (141).

The two have a fundamental consensus about what could be considered the form of memory, interpreted by Ricoeur as the ability to retain, which he compares to Changeux’s explication of short term memory, and the ability to remember, affiliated with long term memory (143). In a broad definition of memory, an individual is able to retain information through past experience and to recall that information in the present, whether consciously, through physical action, or by habit. Ricoeur and Changeux differ, however, in how to reconcile the functional and measurable aspects of memory with the feelings and actions associated with all forms of recollection.

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The Sacred and the Transgressive

Fascinating in Leiris’ description of the sacred in everyday life is how comfortably the sacred coexists with the taboo, the forbidden, and the illicit, from the bathroom where he and his brothers shared sexual secrets to the racetrack, the transgressive. In pondering the act of transgression and its relationship to the sacred, must we transgress the rational in order to entertain the world of the sacred? Is the very act of transgression, in the sense of hubristic overstepping, a kind of sacred act, an alchemy that can instantly turn the everyday into the sacred? At very least, transgression and the sacred intertwine in the mundane, sustaining and empowering each other.

Nowhere, for me, is this more present than in a four mile track in Stony Point, NY, a suburb known for, among other things, revolutionary battles, the short-lived home of John Cage and reputable regional theater. Though the smallest town, in the smallest county in New York, I would learn all these facts about Stony Point only after I left Rockland county. Growing up, the town was an isolated suburb, flanked by a strip of grocery stores on one side, and, on the other side, a backwoods of homes where people would raise a farm animal for eventual consumption behind their back porches. By age 14, without a drivers’ license, the isolation could be insufferable, knowing I would have to drag my sole parent out of her daily work routine to transport me across the county to friends.

That was why a stretch of land became so important. It was, I believe, exactly 4.12 miles to my best friend’s, Liam’s, house, who was also a Stony Point native. The path along Willow Grove road led past soccer fields and the Palisades Parkway directly to his house. It was easy to navigate, a twenty-five minute bike ride uphill or as little as a twelve minute ride (that only happened once) from his place to mine. Often, however, Li and I would meet somewhere in the middle, divvying up the travel time alone so we could walk and talk together. A thirty minute trek, unmonitored by parents, was a perfect sort of freedom, oblivious to cars on the highway, unencumbered of obligation and unconscious even of time itself. Hours could be easily lost in these strolls up and down a completely inhospitable stretch of asphalt, devoid of a shoulder or sidewalk, during which we would often argue about whether walking with or against traffic was illegal.

And yet this ritual, this 4.12 mile journey, is very sacred to me. Rather than recalling details of conversation, it is the physical environment that I remember in detail: the flock of Canadian geese that often navigated up and down the hills of Letchworth Village, the large Star of David on the asylum’s temple, the barren and decrepit sports’ fields, which years later would be completely renovated, the shiver I felt passing through an underpass of the Palisades, the little brook near it that fed into the backyards of ramshackle houses/trailers along the street, which eventually wound uphill to a mountain and woods. At that point, I knew I was only minutes from Li’s house. Finally, there was the slope of his potholed driveway, a steep ascent which my mother’s car couldn’t maneuver in the winter. Can the sacred emanate from such places, the journey emerge as ritual, solidified over four years and through puberty, and fuse into my very being?

Or perhaps what gave the excursion such meaning, what changed it from routine to the sacred was a moment of transgression, a single instance that unraveled the experience completely. It must have been two years after we began our walks that Liam directed me from the road to see something. He and his brothers had discovered it while mountain biking around the great hill against which his house was nestled, the very knoll that for me indicated my proximity to Liam’s home. He was convinced it had been left by a group of teenagers who would crisscross the hill on ATVs.

Standing in front of me was an ordinary metal telephone pole, still obviously in use, spanning at least fifty feet into the air. Around its base was scrawled black graffiti, not unusual in my neighborhood. I probably wouldn’t have given it a second glance were it not for the deer bones. Scattered around the pole’s base were hundreds of bone fragments, most around two inches in length, some distinguishable as parts of deer bodies. The sheer number of bones brought attention to the base of the pole and the shocking pronouncements sprayed on it. I couldn’t read everything, but I could see swastikas. For two Jewish boys, in a very Jewish county, the idea of a Neo-Nazi shrine, as Li and I would refer to it, was completely shocking. This loss of innocence and transgression into our childhood, in which the power we had exerted over our four mile trail to visit each other, a route of freedom, which conferred upon us mobility and independence, suddenly rescripted our relationship and exposed the potential dangers of our voyage.

From that moment on, the journey no longer represented the same carefree movement it once had. Through that transgression, it acquired a potent new power, a danger and taboo that didn’t transform the activity, but created a new set of meanings around it. Perhaps this is a kind of vernacular sacred, where everyday rituals and acts remain exactly as they are, but their meanings become sacred, or more sacred, through simple acts of transgression.

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Video from the Local and Mobile 2012 Presentation

In a previous post, I included slides and notes from a presentation I gave at the Local and Mobile Conference earlier in the year. The video can be accessed here.

Feel free to follow along with the slides (reproduced below)

Virtual Objects

These are a few thoughts relating to the origin and function of these mental representations. These representations are manifested throughout this week’s reading. There are the virtual objects of Deleuze, the uncanny automata of Freud and Jentsch and the virtual machines and human simulations that conclude Liu’s chapter. What connects these representations are their formation and effect on the psyche and the relationship between the object as constructed in the mind versus the object as seen in reality.

Deleuze’s description of the virtual object accounts for how representation is conceived in the mind. His virtual object, while bound to intention, appears also to be bound to the body. Deleuze begins his description of the virtual object using the child as his example. While the child’s goal may be to obtain an object of sorts, Deleuze claims that “the child constructs for itself another object, a quite different kind of object which is a virtual object or centre and which then governs and compensates for the progresses and failures of its real activity” (99). The virtual object appears to be, according to Deleuze, a means by which to traverse, evaluate and extend the goal to other objects, as he illustrates by the child opening a book, even if he can’t read. However, the conjuring of this action is still of the body, incorporated into it, while at the same time an external object. This leads Deleuze to define the object as a “partial object” (100), which is only a fragment, because it can never be real, and is but a figuration of the mind. These figurations are so powerful that they help constitute our memory and our understanding of the past, what Deleuze defines as “shreds of pure past.” Still, and perhaps most interesting in Deleuze’s work, is the concept that while incorporated into the body, virtual objects can be incorporated into “very special objects such as toys or fetishes” (101), but are not “integrated” (101) with the object. Instead, the virtual object remains “struck there” (101) unable to have a unity with it. A gulf is created between it and the real.

Does not this description wonderfully mirror the uncanny automata and valley of Liu’s work? In her description of Jentsch’s notions of the uncanny, she notes that in his list are the very toys, the “catalogue of dolls and automata” (loc. 2446) mentioned by Deleuze here not because they are virtual objects, but because they are animate. This leads Liu to discuss the work of Hoffman’s The Sandman, which intrigued both Jentsch and Freud, concluding, unlike the two theoreticians, that Olympia is not the only automaton of the fiction, but Nathanael, juxtaposed against this other automaton, is himself an automaton. She asks the reader, “Let us consider the writer Hoffmann as the puppeteer who sets in motion those literary puppets who are designed to tease our emotional and cognitive reaction to what he terms the uncanny” (loc. 2625-2626). If Hoffman has constructed this automaton with the reaction that we perceive in it our emotions and psyche, is it not a real object forever stuck slightly outside of the grasp of the virtual? In this way, could the “uncanny” itself be represented not only as a kind of virtual object, but also a virtual object for the psyche itself? Could the Uncanny Valley described by Mori have a corollary in the gulf between virtual and real object?

It appears to be not so simple. After debunking a kind of false Uncanny gulf in the Colby experiments, Liu, points instead to Minsky, quoting his statement, “we will be able to install in a human form an intelligence uncannily close to our own” (loc. 2861-2862), underscoring the significance of the uncanny, in the Freudian sense. Could fabrication of a true and uncanny virtual object in the mind of an artificial intelligence make it see itself as human? What would the uncanny of a machine be as it looked beyond itself into the world or real objects around it? This is encroaching upon the realm of science fiction, surely, and fascinating to contemplate.

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The Soul’s Sacrifice of Beauty

In the beginning of Accursed Share, Bataille describes the movement of energy, presumably fed by the sun, which moves through all living things: “The living organism, in a situation determined by the play of energy on the surface of the globe, ordinarily receives more energy than is necessary for maintaining life” (Bataille 1, 21). It is this excess energy which makes up depense, the “big flame-out” (Taussig, 7) that overflows from the organism, manifesting in the biological consequences of eating, sexual reproduction and death. It doesn’t take much for Bataille to identify this excess in many societies, extended by Taussig’s fables and tied to the historic work of Mauss and Benedict. All of these writers extend the excesses of depense outside of the bodily function into the rituals and aesthetics of society.

However, embedded in Bataille’s description of the “energy circulating in the biosphere” (Bataille, 21) are two interwoven tracks about the nature of depense. Note the notion of “circulation” within this expenditure. The chants, songs and rituals of this world, along with sex, eating and death, remain a constant, ever-present frenzy of expenditure of global energy, which appear to continue ad infinitum both biologically and socially. Even in the most quotidian examples of dead flesh providing nutrition that will eventually allow for the propagation of the species, such expenditure showcases a dependence on depense for continuation and sustainability. As continuous as the energy from the sun imbues each organism beyond its need, so must that energy be wasted, no well too deep that can’t overflow with excess. Depense in this way seems inevitable, and yet such inevitability is incorporated into the corpus itself. Embedded within Bataille’s description is the fact that such depense is a wrenching from within; as much as it connects to the movement of the globe and the rising and fading of the sun, depense comes from the individual himself, tying him to this global movement. In this way, the potlatch ceremonies, with their songs, magic and violence, act as a bridge between bodily expenditure and global social phenomena.

In The Gift, Mauss is fascinated by the continuous societal interchange of the potlatch. He particularly showcases this interest in his description of the kula, the circle of exchange within the Trobriand islands. “The kula,” Mauss writes “seems to be merely the culminating point of life, particularly the kula between nations and tribes. It is certainly one of the purposes of existence and for undertaking long voyages” (27). As such, the songs, chants and rituals of the kula perpetuate his notion of a “‘natural’ economy” (5), a continuous set of activities which perpetuate a society. He even goes as far as to articulate this fact explicitly, describing the exchange of the kula as “a constant ‘give and take,’ marked by a continuous flow in all directions of presents given, accepted, and reciprocated, obligatorily and out of self-interest, by reason of greatness and for services rendered, through challenges and pledges” (29). Hence Mauss’ focus is in the perpetuation of expenditure. The songs and chants continue, and the movement of gifts and depense travels “east to west” (23), allowing the whole of life to continue. Even the impediment of western economies will not overcome this societal urge to expend. Mauss describes the people of the Trobriand islands as becoming “wealthy pearl fishermen” (21) after the Europeans had arrived on their shores, but whose culture still retains the kula.

What is absent in this description is the bodily experience of expenditure, alluded to by Mauss but hardly his focus. Mauss’ notion of the embodied experience of depense comes in his description of the giving of soul. He describes this giving in terms of the Maori as “a tie occurring through things, [that] is one between souls, because thing itself possesses a soul, is of the soul. Hence it follows that to make a gift of something to someone is to make a present of some part of oneself” (12). His comment undermines the gamut of emotions that such an act would embody. The pain and courage required to expend one’s self into an object or an action simply can’t be understated, and a special type of magic indeed is required to propel one’s soul into the continuous circulation of destruction and “passing-on” embodied in the depense of society and indeed in the globe itself.

Is it a surprise that such a wrenching of the soul would cause madness? It should manifest in obliteration and destruction and in violence. The very act of extricating part of the soul in and of itself must be an act of violence! Wouldn’t the success of such destruction warrant boasting? Wouldn’t such success be “humiliating” (Bataille 2, 121) to the enemy? Such an act, given further resonance by the shared customs of one’s compatriots and peers, would necessitate inevitable reverence. Hence the chants, singing and rituals, in their violence and gore as explicated by Benedict and Bataille, seem to showcase the consequences of wrenching the soul from the body. Bataille makes the key connection in his theories of the gift. It is “not a thing,” he writes; “it was not reduced to inertia, the lifelessness of the profane world. The gift that one made of it was a sign of glory…” (Bataille 1, 65). Bataille then expands this exchange of personal glory to the interchange within society: “a good many of our behaviors are reducible to the laws of potlatch; they have the same significance as it does… If there is within us, running through the space we inhabit, a movement of energy we use, but that is not reducible to utility, we can disregard it, but we can also adapt our activity to its completion outside us” (69) This energy is embedded within “the object given” (69) and “the gift’s power” (70) comes “from the fact of losing” (70). It is this loss which permeates Bataille’s explanations of destruction and sacrifice.

Benedict showcases this loss through countless examples of song and chant, as well as violent acts and humiliation. Of note are Benedict’s stories of head-hunters, whose act of killing was to mitigate bereavement by replacing one body for another, or the great acts of destruction embodied in the story of Fast Runner and Throw Away, who outcompete each other during the Winter Ceremonial, ending with the ceremonial burning of slaves and the shameful semi-suicide of Throw Away and his men. Such sacrifices and expenditures extend beyond the physical objects or slaves involved to become expenditures of the souls themselves. In describing the valuables of the Kwakiutl, Benedict states that “many of these were material things, named house-posts and spoons and heraldic crests, but the great number were immaterial possessions, names, myths, songs, and privileges which were the great boast of a man of wealth” (183). Benedict’s description of these “aesthetic” expenditures elucidates the true emotion of depense, when the soul is passed into both material and immaterial objects. Even lineage then becomes a token of destruction, as she notes. The expenditure had a collective meaning, passed down through generations and through ritual. In describing the transfer of power by means of killing, Benedict ties the act with the transfer of power embodied in the aesthetic acts of dancing and song: “Such a means of transfer implied, of course, that the whole ceremony, with the words of the songs, the steps of the dances, and the use of the sacred objects, was known to the owner before he had killed the possessor. It was not the knowledge of the ceremony he acquired. It was the title to the property” (210). In this way, the act of killing becomes a means of acquiring the title to the soul, embodied in the beautiful rituals of dance and song. Benedict concludes that societal economy is intrinsically tied to this spiritual rendering, an act fraught with personal and emotional resonance. As she puts it, “They recognized only one gamut of emotion, that which swings between victory and shame. It was in terms of affronts given and received that economic exchange, marriage, political life, and the practice of religion were carried on” (215). She follows this explanation by saying this rendering extends to the “the external world and the forces of nature” (215), once again tying the bodily and emotional state of expenditure to the whole of the world.

Benedict’s emotional scale of victory to shame finds its partner in Taussig’s scale of beauty and terror. Taussig begins Beauty and the Beast by claiming “that beauty is at root inseparable from terror” (1) Taussig uses this stance to showcase the effect of the aesthetic and beautiful; as he puts it, “Anthropologists have spent a great deal of energy describing symbols active in social life… but have we not because of this… missed… the influence of beauty in shaping and energizing society and history, beauty not as form but as force” (3)? He explores the significance of aesthetics by realizing the modern fables of aesthetic excess found in acts of material excess, from plastic surgery to hair extensions to gold monographs on toilet paper. Taussig’s examples are not dissimilar to the songs and dance of the potlatch, and stem from the same emotional and spiritual need inherent to these ceremonies. When Taussig asks “Why do we like stories that end badly, fairy tales of disaster” (12), he points again to the very physical effect of the wrenching of the soul, so powerful that the mirror neurons embedded within each of our brains are genetically programmed to empathize with fictional characters, allowing us to feel the same sense of loss that engenders the reverence felt seeing the depense of the other. When describing the fairy tale, citing Walter Benjamin, Taussing states that death, one of Bataille’s primordial expenditures, is what “grants the storyteller authority” (7). This authority is another form of the separation of the soul, which is embedded into the object, the storyteller’s story. These myths, new or old, through song, dance, or action, seem to be the most easily transmissible of the bodily feelings of depense, connecting the body to the circulation of activity that Mauss prizes as his natural economy. Aesthetics in and of itself becomes the conduit through which this bodily connection is created, beauty itself showcasing the expenditure of the soul onto the canvas, into the song, or onto the body. Taussig’s comments ring true: “Yet it is more than beauty with which beauty dazzles us. It is beauty-as-depense, a tsunami of extravagant consumption reaching ever more baroque splendor that is beautiful” (16).

Still, it is important to note that in our modern society of excessive consumption, it is telling that excess and bodily expenditure can be found in almost every act. Ours is a society based primarily on denying the “notion of expenditure” embedded deep within us, and instead we endeavor to create and preserve a standing reserve of such energy. Yet waste can be found in so many little acts, in competition and humiliation in video games, in the cups of coffee bought at Starbucks instead of made at home, even in the wasted hours browsing videos online.

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The Magic Circle of Madness and Notions of Expenditure

Within Bataille’s work, there are numerous references to the magic circle. It is explicit in the comment about Van Gogh’s mutilated ear: “The monstrous ear sent in its envelope, however, abruptly leaves the magic circle where the rites of liberation stupidly aborted” (Bataille, p. 71). Bataille invokes this circle again in the allure of sacrifice. When Bataille comically describes the arbitrary sacrificial cow, this random creature only “becomes a divinity because of a circle traced around its legs” (p. 73). Finally, in “Notions of Expenditure,” the poor can only re-enter the “circle of power” (p. 121) through violent and bloody sacrifice, through revolution. These invocations of Huizinga’s creation provoke questions about the sun, a magic circle in its own right, under whose rays frenzied expenditures of madness and automutilation occur. Is the sun a magic circle, which preys upon those who interact with it, and prescribes the rules and nature of play? Although this contention seems inherently false given the sardonic attitude with which Bataille addresses the “magic circle” in “Sacrificial Mutilation” and “Jesuve,” the essence of the magic circle pervades Bataille explanation of mutilation and expenditure.

In Huizinga’s work, the magic circle is the space within which “Homo Ludens” plays, a place wrought with care. “Inside the circle of the game the laws and customs of ordinary life no longer count. We are different and do things differently” (Huizinga, p. 12). The power of the circle lies in its covenant between the players. “This is for us, not for the ‘others’. What the ‘others’ do ‘outside’ is no concern of ours at the moment” (p. 12). Players sacrifice time and effort, expend,  in order to play within the sacred circle. Huizinga extends the circle throughout Homo Ludens, however, until society, law, war, and countless rites and rituals are encompassed by it. Within the circle can occur abject violence, such as the boxing match, in which players can entertain with the knowledge that rules of the magic circle will allow them to safely exit the circle for the “real world.”

Could Gaston F.’s mutilation, as he stared into the sun, have been an entry into a magic circle? Does this transgression expose the sun as an unsafe magic circle? After all, “it is impossible to look at it fixedly at that time of day” (Bataille, p. 57) or else be considered mad. Furthermore, this offense results in a physical act of expenditure on behalf of the sun by the gazer, the sacrifice of the finger, and, in the case of Bataille’s third example in “Sacrificial Mutilation,” the gouging of an eye.

Perhaps the Pineal Eye is the eroticization of the engagement with the magic circle of the sun, perpetually playing, expelling, expending and excreting within its bounds. The Pineal Eye, forever able to interact with the sun, is liberated from the real world and bound only within the magic circle. In his description of the sacrifice of the gibbon, the ape’s anus, pointed toward to the sun, assumes qualities of the Pineal Eye. The  implication is that man has removed himself from the horizontal axis inhabited by non-human creatures. He has passed beyond that world where constant play with the sun was the common state, as exemplified by the animal anus, the world which was not circumscribed by the magic circle.

However, this dialectic between an a priori state and the state of modern man, further elaborated in “Notions of Expenditure,” seems at once faulty and comprehensible. The sun’s constant excess sustains life, perhaps too much life, embodied by a magic circle that is the earth, a scientific anomaly of which we are already a part. Either the magic circle is always present, because the earth itself is a magic circle, or not present at all. The frenetic rules of play are then always present and thus must demand a continual suspension of “reality” and self-sacrifice in the world of play, or the rules are never present and must be ignored. Is this a drive towards madness engendered by an awareness of the sun-provider, which constantly expends on the earth’s behalf and to which, in reverence, we must sacrifice? If so, this would certainly drive me to madness, beholding the sun’s glare to which I must always sacrifice something because it is an eternal provider. If I were always in the magic circle of the sun, I would be compelled to expend on its behalf endlessly.

As a final thought, I wonder if the magic circle is actually a means of conservation, while the sun is unremitting expenditure. We must conserve time and effort to then sacrifice them in the magic circle and play. With the sun, such expenditure is incessant, breaking the bounds of the magic circle and driving one to madness and mutilation.

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Devouring Magic Pop

An experiment in breaking down the boundaries between nature and society…

I sit down on a large stone bench on one of the sunnier days for lunch when the usual physical urgings grab hold. I have come prepared with the necessary provisions: fifteen crispy discs, known as “Magic Pop”, uniform in size, roughly six inches in diameter and a half inch thick, stacked in a clear plastic bag. They contain rice, wheat and corn starches, and extracted stevia. Each grain is popped and hot pressed by a gourmet grocer in a portable machine exported from across the globe.

These puffed cakes are my fodder. With a snap, one breaks along the edges of my mouth almost perfectly. I move the toasty bit towards the back of my mouth with my tongue, avoiding overly sensitive teeth which make too much chewing a chore and taking the extra breath required by a deviated septum that was never repaired. I masticate with the whole of my mouth, gums, molars and saliva, and swallow the bite in full.

I am reading, a distraction to ignore the flecks of starch-dust floating onto me and coating my clothes. Eyes focused on the paper, I feel in the back of my throat, a part of the alimentary tract whose name I cannot identify, but which I associate with glands, a dryness and the sensation that always accompanies the consumption of saccharin. It reminds me of the years when I used to down with pride a liter of diet coke in one sitting. Liquid, so I am told, can help the stomach temporarily expand, allowing for as much food to enter as possible. Artificial sweeteners can trick the brain into tasting sugar, but a side effect is hunger, ranging from the routine to the extreme.

I am compelled to take another morsel, rotating the disk slightly after each chomp, so I can, with the aid of increasing saliva, cram what room is left in my mouth with still more pop. A few chews, two or three at most, and I swallow. As a mouth breather (harping back to the deviated septum), swallowing poses slight challenges, cutting off my primary airway for breathing, holding my breath for slightly longer than I imagine others do in order to eat. And so I have become adept at holding my breath, of taking bite after bite after bite, swallowing as much as I can, until I must exhale and inhale again. Feeling moderately satiated, the dryness revives itself a second or two later. Each bite is succeeded by a slightly faster one. The sweetness of the Magic Pop tastes even better with its crispiness. Now I am stuffing my mouth with as big a portion as possible, letting saliva do its job of breaking down the grains without any effort. Waiting as little as possible before justifying the consumption of another disc, I calculate the caloric intake, rationalizing that two cakes are only 30 calories. That’s practically nothing. Four are only about as many calories as an apple…

This habit of filling my mouth has always netted commentary. My mother used to admonish me for clearing my plate too quickly. Gradually, she replaced real food with “diet” options, Ice Milk, Low-Fat Yogurt, etc. to accommodate my speed eating and the fact it would take twice as many servings to leave me feeling gratified. By adulthood, I developed different operations to entertain such gorging. When driving to work, I would pack the car with the most portable chips and jerky. For staying awake at night, I would devour heavy helpings of rice, usually without garnish, except for grated cheese, salt and pepper. The thickness of the rice would settle in my stomach, slowly dissipating during the evening along with my energy.

When I finally reached 80 pounds over my recommended weight, fearing my habits would kill me and determined to change who I had become, I faced the truth. Somewhere in my life I had lost my self-control. The satisfaction of mastication and taste, and the sensation of pushing food into my mouth until it could hold no more was all I understood. So, I switched from Turkey Jerky, rice and tortilla chips to vegetables, fruit, homemade kimchi and seaweed. These natural snacks, after the initial weeks of revulsion, soon supplanted their predecessors. Shoving in pounds of carrots or cabbage, their fibrous texture a challenge to chew, although less important than their presence in my mouth, I could eat with abandon while watching television, reading or typing emails. And I discovered Magic Pop. Often as a supplement to vegetables, I indulged first with just one or two at a sitting. Eventually their semi-artificial sweetness, reminiscent of the diet coke which I had abandoned, overtook their garnishes, until now I often prepare meals around eating an entire bag as quickly as possible. After all, a whole bag of 15 is only 225 calories.

As I bite into my first slice, little air bubbles induced by the heat press that makes the Magic Pop puff, slowly release while traveling down my esophagus on their way into my stomach. Caused by carefully manufactured air, I feel a pressure on the upper-most part of my stomach. Unlike the fullness of a Thanksgiving meal and its soothing calm of meat that feels like a soft comforter of skin, air bursts inside my stomach. The Magic Pop, as I ingest bite after bite, causes my stomach to swell. Within minutes, it unnaturally inflates until my shirt feels tight. I hunch my shoulders, attempting to suck in the balloon that is my stomach, as it rolls out from my chest. I remind myself that I can control this embarrassment in the same manner that I controlled my weight loss. I can avoid these processed pops and return to more natural foods, only carrots, apples and berries. Then again, this swelling happens with them also, with the head of cabbage I ate for breakfast, with the vat of seaweed soup I will likely have for dinner tonight. And after all, they taste so good. Maybe a little swelling is worth it.

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