“Redundant information, calculated as, say, the number of stickers in corners, on walls, on lampposts that it takes to build cognizance of this information in one subject, may immediately be understood as informational by another subject.” (Fuller 2005, p. 36)
As a general rule, I try to post on this website only original pieces put together from scraps of unused notes or jotted down as drafts for eternally forthcoming articles. The following text is a semi-exception, since it’s something I wrote more than a year ago on commission for a book sprint held at Shanghai’s One Space in October 2014 in conjunction with the Junkware workshop, and which resulted in the publication of The Junk Venture Book. The whole Junkware project was an art experience wonderfully orchestrated by Qu Hongyuan, Julien Maudet, Catherine Lenoble, Sophia Lin, Clément Renaud and Merryl Messaoudi in occasion of the 2014 Shanghai Maker Carnival, and revolved around an exhilarating combination of DNA sequencing, generative design, 3D printing and Taobao binge-shopping. The starting point of the workshop was Thierry Bardini’s 2011 book Junkware, and the goal of the book sprint was updating or forking its theses under the conditions of contemporary computational landscapes. I condensed my responses to Bardini’s book under six points, augmented here with some photos for mildly speculative ambience.
Shanghai mediations on Thierry Bardini’s Junkware
废物 (feiwu, garbage)
“There is the rubbish we keep, which is junk, and the rubbish we throw away, which is garbage”, Sydney Brenner reportedly explains on page 49, inspiring Thierry Bardini’s call for a semantics of discard. Of the many questions elicited by the signature of *junk* – what is junk? Everything / when is junk? Now, and more to come / where is junk? Everywhere / who is junk? Us, and them / how is junk? Good and bad and useful and useless, it depends, yet it’s 98.5% of everything – perhaps the most sensible question to ask today remains so what?, or, why does it matter?, or, why does junk matter? and why does matter junk?
无用的 (wuyong de, useless)
A materialist approach to junk and a junkist approach to matter seem the most useful moves to derive from Bardini’s portmanteau *junk*ware*: stuff that is the Other of stuff, in time and place and ownership and use, things that are temporarily thrown in a limbo of less-thingness and uncertainty, accumulating in heaps of problematic matter, losing the boundaries which segment them in individual objects, rewinding back the process of individuation by piling up upon other junk. The next step leads into speculative junkonomics: a recuperated copy of Marx’s writings encoded in the wrong character set postulates the W-J-W and J-W-J cycles, from ware to junk to ware, and from junk to ware to junk, the accumulation of capital sustained by use value superseded by the self-sustaining accretion of use-less value circulating across stacks of 品 pin, ‘ware’.
垃圾邮件 (laji youjian, junk mail)
The fabled Internet of Things is in fact merely the polished 1.5% portrayed by the aseptic photos of data centers and the colorful network diagrams appearing on sleek PowerPoint presentations at international industry talks. What about the non-signifying 98.5%, then? Where is The Internet of Junk? Who collects and sorts out *digital*junk*ware*? What other forms does junk take in our digital and already postdigital times, besides the obvious junk mail already made almost invisible by the perfected algorithms of our filters and the pop-ups preemptively killed off by our AdBlock plug-ins? How does this digital junk get repurposed into digital ware and when does digital ware goes back to being digital junk? Is even junk a fitting metaphor for the platitude that user-generated content is?
信息毒品 (xinxi dupin, information drug)
Bardini’s writing is irremediably double-helixed, knitted along the polymer bases of its own DNA, as it proceeds by a sort of augmented dialectics set in motion by hidden third terms – media. DNA is made of genes, but genes are 98.5% junk, and junk matters; culture is made of memes, and memes are just like genes, so 98.5% of culture is junk, and it matters too. The jump from these parallels into the hidden third of hypervirality is legitimized through the figure of the loop, which becomes the organizing aesthetic trope of our times after the deleuzian fold. In hyperviral culture, the augmented dialectic loop continues, memes are the genes of culture, and memes work like mind viruses, so that “a virus is essentially junk code, and our hyperviral culture is indeed a junk culture” (p. 189). The viral metaphor mediating between memetics and genetics pierces through half a century, from Burroughs and cybernetics to Derrida, Deleuze and Dawkins, and turns *digital*media*junk*ware* into an updated version of selfish cultural DNA – an information drug poisoning minds with alluring rumors and spreadable beliefs. But the non-signifying discard bites back: if meaningless genes cannot be selfish, how could meaningless memes be?
无用之用 (wuyong zhi yong, the use of the useless)
“How did this happen? How and when, exactly, did our culture turn to junk? Or, in other words, when did we actually last create some radically new cultural experiences? And when did we instead start to recycle culture with the appearance (the glitter) or the new?” (p. 169) – how many useless questions, Thierry! Let’s tear them apart and build a new toolbox of unusable concepts. If our entire culture turned to junk, it might be the right time to go back to folklore. Junk refuses to be yet another final statement in a series of grand narratives. Junk has to be found in opposition to use value and organic garbage. Junk has to be rummaged into for its discursive making, its affective collection, and its temporary autonomous phases of repurposing into non-junk. Let’s do away with both the myth of the original and the myth of the copycat: 山寨 shanzhai has gone all the way from junk into a culture into a product into an industry into a rhetoric into a narrative and its hermeneutics – junk for academics, the last rodents in line. Let’s stop searching for our next brand of culture when the last choice is as paradoxical as junk. Let’s drop our sampling devices and drift along the kula rings of useless discard that we traverse and traverse us at every corner of our mediated lives. Let’s accept the loss of authorship and preservation, of traceability and evolution, let’s just get high on information drug, let’s believe and preach and sing and dance in a carnival of *digital*media*junk*ware*lore*, a repertoire of noise not-yet-useful to anyone, rumors without referent, fractal jokes, non-human grotesques, post-linguistic vernaculars, unsuccessful memes, self-censoring 恶搞 egao. Makers: let’s “make do” rather than “make to”.
Sketched above are some mediations on a constellation of semantemes recuperated from the reeky dustbin of recent media theory, in the attempt of hacking together new hybrid concepts for a materialist anthropology of the contemporary under the sign of *digital*media*junk*ware*lore* or *数*媒*废*品*俗*. In this light, moving from Bardini’s bio-cultural parallels into speculative probing of the *digital*, *junk* is understood as the Other of *ware*, locked in J-W-J and W-J-W cycles of which we are the *media*, the silent hyphens articulating a *lore* through each change of phase. The best use to which we can put the signal-to-noise ratio of our genome is unmasking the cultures to which we subscribe as ordered and stylized collections of memes, a mere 1.5% of the webs of meaning we code without end. Praise the 98.5%.
– Bardini, T. (2011). Junkware. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
– Junkware. (2014). The junk venture book. Shanghai, China: Junkware.
– Fuller, M. (2005). Media ecologies: Materialist energies in art and technoculture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
In “Dim Stockings”, a short chapter included in his The Coming Community, Giorgio Agamben takes a cue from the prosaics of a stockings advertisement to discuss the commodification of images and bodies. His recognition of the industrial scale at which the production of body-images happens in contemporary visual regimes doesn’t really come to us as shocking given the concentric simulacra of mediated lives we are by now so accustomed navigating: a peek through most Instagram or Facebook feeds illustrates quite clearly how, as production and circulation become increasingly inexpensive and proportionately nudged by the unquenchable appetites of content farms, representations seem to lose their theological punctum: “Neither generic nor individual, neither an image of the divinity nor an animal form, the body now became something truly whatever” (p. 48).
Continuing his musings regarding the reflective surface of the whatever-body-image, Agamben ends up formulating a convoluted but rather striking reflection on the decline of portraiture: “the perfectly fungible beauty of the technologized body no longer has anything to do with the appearance of a unicum that troubled the old Trojan princes when they saw Helen at the Skaian gates” – there’s no more mystery in the imaged body, in short – but this loss “is also the basis of the exodus of the human figure from the artwork of our times and the decline of portraiture: The task of the portrait is grasping a unicity, but to grasp a whateverness one needs a photographic lens” (p. 49). Is Agamben possibly outlining here a materialist theory of the whatever-in-selfies?
The intellectual fascination for selfies isn’t easy to explain away solely with the morbid attraction drawing academics and op-ed writers towards whatever practices happen to conjoin extreme visibility and triviality – in itself a long history going from stocking advertisement to vernacular photography on digital media. Selfies have also become a peculiar site of ideological contention and spectacular clickbait: do selfies empower or disenfranchise? Are selfies “a woman thing“? How paradoxically dangerous can selfies be? At a more speculative level, self-presentation and self-representations mediated by contemporary computational media are being imaginatively connected to issues well beyond the usual suspects of cultural distinction and media panics: citizenship, surveillance, consensus, protest, and so forth.
For the past year, I have been researching and writing about selfies in tangential ways, for the most part focusing on the selfies taken and shared by social media users in Mainland China. Given the ubiquity of mobile devices in the country and the popularity of social media platforms among local users, my choice might seem obvious, perhaps exotically naive, and at the same time perplexing: does this focus imply that Chinese users take selfies differently? Is the average Chinese selfie whiter, cuter and skinnier than the American one? While large-scale analyses are probably best suited to provide a comprehensive answer to these kind of questions, it is worth mentioning that in the People’s Republic vernacular photographic practices have followed a peculiar path, from the intimate privacy of quanjiafu (family portraits) in Mao’s China, often aesthetically defined “against the centrality of photographic propaganda” (Huang 2010, p. 673), through the popularization of amateur photography during the 1980s, up until to the advent of digital media and cameraphones over the past decade.
Zipai, literally ‘shooting oneself’ (as in shooting photos or videos) is how selfies are called in Mandarin Chinese. The term zipai functions as both a verb and a noun, plural and singular, and can be expanded into locutions such as zipaizheng (‘selfie disorder’), zipaiji (‘selfie tool’, a common name for any imaging device with a front-camera or a reversible screen), or zipai shenqi (‘mystical selfie artifact’, a quirky name for selfie sticks and other facilitating devices). Zipai doesn’t share the cute overtone typical of the the English language suffix –ie, common in neologisms like hippie, fixie, foodie, selfie or tinnie. The character zi simply means ‘self’, while the character pai, as suggested by the ‘hand’ radical on its left side, indicates a variety of actions like ‘paddling’, ‘beating’, and ‘sending’. Taking selfies in China is a quite pragmatic action described by a general term applicable to any imaging device – after all, one could take self-portraits even when the most popular device was a cheap automatic film camera.
At the same time, it would be impossible to understand the popularity and whateverness of zipai in contemporary China without a materialist account of consumer optics and social software. It is widely documented how, throughout the past decade, the introduction of low-resolution cameras on mobile phones represented for large sectors of the Chinese population the first contact with vernacular photography (Wallis 2013). More recently, the craze around increasingly cheap and powerful shanzhai smartphones has brought the pleasures of megapixel-quality imaging to large masses of users ready to snap, store, zoom in and leaf through hundreds of photos of their daily lives. Pioneered by the Japanese multinational Kyocera in 1999 and originally implemented for the purpose of video-calls (Okada 2005), the appearance of front cameras on mobile devices has merely transformed a previously blind-guessed exercise into a work of precision and self-fashioning. And in China, the tech factory of the world, front optical sensors haven’t been the last step: reversible screens, rotating cameras, selfie sticks are all technological extensions aimed at a market of affordances defined by zipai – the practice of taking a picture of oneself.
Technology isn’t all that there is to zipai. An apparently individual and self-centered activity can easily become the testing ground for new forms of mediated sociality: taking selfies with friends fills the boredom of waiting or moving through urban spaces; snapping group self-portraits becomes a moment of experimentation with the theatrics of cuteness; collective zipai transform the mobile device into a portable photo booth specialized in self-portraiture. Just as Instagram and Snapchat support the whirling dissemination of millions of selfies in Euro-American networks, apps like WeChat, Meitu Xiuxiu, Weipai, Faceu and a slew of other social contact platforms and image editing software provide the channels, the formats and the filters shaping the circulation of zipai across Chinese media ecologies.
It is this circulation of vernacular photography that inspired an ongoing research collaboration with Beijing-based artist & curator Michelle Proksell. Some provisional results of our WeChat-based crossovers between performance art and media anthropology have been recently published on Networking Knowledge and, in a less verbose way, displayed at a gallery in Sydney. I have also had the pleasure to interview Michelle about her ongoing work as a collector of vernacular photography for her own exhibition on NewHive, and her app-based curatorial activities have been getting a well-deserved exposure, especially after the riveting talk she has given at this year’s Chaos Communication Congress in Hamburg. I’m glad I helped her register a Sina Weibo account back in 2012.
Perhaps, rather than keep engaging in comparative clickbait or nostalgic mourning of a long-lost punctum, questions around selfies and other practices of self-representation should move away from moral panics and superficial comparisons towards questioning how bodies, technologies and images are deployed, along which affordances and against which agencies, in these forms of vernacular photography. The return of self-portraiture through vernacular photography could start to be seen as performing an important task: grasping the whateverness of socialized technologies, and embracing the prosaic and reflective surface of the body-lens-image-screen itself.
– Agamben, G. (1993). The coming community. (M. Hardt, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
– Huang, N. (2010). Locating family portraits: Everyday images from 1970s China. Positions: Asia Critique, 18(3), 671–693. http://doi.org/10.1215/10679847-2010-018
– Okada, T. (2005). Youth culture and the shaping of Japanese mobile media: Personalization and the keitai Internet as multimedia. In M. Ito, D. Okabe, & M. Matsuda (Eds.), Personal, portable, pedestrian: Mobile phones in Japanese life (pp. 41–60). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
– Wallis, C. (2013). Technomobility in China: Young migrant women and mobile phones. New York, NY: New York University Press.