Thesis 7. On Interface

Contemporary political life is characterized neither by the exchange of ideas, nor by the communication of intentions between speaking subjects. Rather, it is characterized by the microcultural dynamics of interface through and by which subjects and objects cast appearances. The iconomy of and interface with appearances is the principal feature of contemporary political life.

AS WE AFFIRMED in Thesis 6, possession is no longer the principal practice of holding in contemporary life. Few, if any of us, have possessions (despite our culture of consumerism). Even property has been shown to be virtually untethered to any ambition of possession, as the American subprime mortgage crisis demonstrated in the first decade of the new millennium. The shock effects of that cataclysm have been unfathomable, not only because they have ushered in a new age of wealth discrepancy and poverty, not only because they have decimated the ambitions and spirit of entire classes of peoples, but also because they have shaken to the core our inherited faith in political economy’s linear causality of property, ownership, and status. To resist capitalism no longer means a resistance to property and structures of ownership: capitalism has already co-opted this strategy and made ownership irrelevant by making property ethereal. Instead, political resistance comes with the overthrowing of ownership as a privileged modality of holding.

Rather than holding, interface is now the dominant form of interaction: it is the posting, disseminating, and facing up to the iconomy of appearances. This is one of the many characteristics of politics in the age of cybernetics. Recall the emergence in 1984 of graphical user interface (GUI) technology popularized by Apple Computer’s (then) new Macintosh. As Lev Manovich has described it, the rise of GUI and subsequent cut and paste technology (among many other software applications) resulted in a veritable gestalt switch in our modes of handling the intersect of cultural forms.[1] Simply consider the extent to which we now privilege screens—and especially touch screens—as our principal objects of handling.[2] From film, to TV, to the computer screen, to the cell phone screen, to the tablet, an inordinate amount of our time is spent interfacing with these mediators; we might half-jokingly call these our iconomic indicators.[3] Thus, before we reflect on the sociality of Instagram, or Twitter, or the Internet on our political imaginaries and—indeed—on our political–economic practices (as the Twitter-inspired political movements have made urgent),[4] we must consider the practices of interface that emerge from an ontology of the screen.

Cinematicity is crucial to our iconophilia. Stanley Cavell is one of the first, and most insightful, thinkers to consider the screen and our interface with it as an important ontological condition of modern spectatorship, one that shares a history with the canvas and the photograph but is also notably different from both. In a short but incisive chapter titled “Photograph and Screen” of The World Viewed, he claims the following:

The world of a moving picture is screened. The screen is not a support, not like a canvas; there is nothing to support, that way. It holds a projection, as light as light. A screen is a barrier. What does the silver screen screen? It screens me from the world it holds—that is, makes me invisible. And it screens that world from me. That the projected world does not exist (now) is its only difference from reality. (There is no feature, or set of features, in which it differs. Existence is not a predicate.) Because it is the field of a photograph, the screen has no frame; that is to say, no border. Its limits are not so much the edges of a given shape as they are the limitations, or capacity, of a container. The screen is a frame; the frame is the whole field of the screen—as a frame of film is the whole field of a photograph, like the frame of the loom or a house. In this sense, the screen-frame is a mold, or form.[5]

The screen bears a projection—it handles it by supporting its luminosity. This is one sense of how a movie pictures something screened: it is light projected on a smooth surface. But a screen is also a limit. In order to see the projected light, the be/holder must be screened from the projection—one could say, here, that the be/holder does not count to the projection, she is made invisible to it. The light does not shine on the spectator; rather, the shining of the projected light on the screen obscures her. This is a necessary condition for viewing a projected image. And it is only through this projection onto the screen that the appearance of the cinematic image can advene. That is, in order for the appearance to advene, we must be obscured; our I that is temporarily us—our subjectivity in light of this light, with all its expectations and desires to touch, to hold, or to grasp the appearance in a knowing way—must be darkened, withdrawn, absorbed. This is the significance of the screen’s capacity to screen me from the projected world, to render us invisible to it. The “I” is absorbed, obscured—or, better yet, discomposed—when the projection is projected. And this screening also screens that world from us. The screen is thus a limit to our knowing and to our being able to handle the world in a knowing manner—to our wanting to contain the world by knowing it.

The screen is a mediator of interface. The political corollary to this is that it is no longer the word, nor the pen, nor the piece of paper, that may be said to count as the principal object of political agency: the word was mightier than the sword, but now the mouse is mightier than both sword and word. Though the modern political actor may have handled speaking and writing, the contemporary political actor no longer operates in a Gutenberg galaxy governed by the movements of word and deed. Her universe comprises microcultural practices of interface that screen appearances. The further corollary to this is that the materiality of political agency has also transubstantiated: the political actor is, like the actor on the screen, a human something, a partial appearance that advenes.

To engage the microcultural practices of interface that imbue our contemporary political culture requires our having to take seriously, in a manner heretofore unprecedented, the medium and media of interface, including the role of the media industry not simply as the site of a symbolic subjugation but as sources of access to networks of navigation. What enables interface and how is interface impeded—for instance—by the shutting down of Internet servers at the height of revolutionary tweeting?[6] Such questions require our having to rethink the ways in which our current modes of interchange extend beyond the exchange of words and ideas. The iconomic transmission of and interface with the advenience of an appearance is thus one of the central sites of attention for an aesthetics of politics.