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The Unworkable Interface

From: New Literary History
Volume 39, Number 4, Autumn 2008
pp. 931-955 | 10.1353/nlh.0.0062

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The Unworkable Interface

I. Interface as Method

Interfaces are back, or Perhaps they never left. The familiar Socratic conceit, from the Phaedrus, of communication as the process of writing directly on the soul of the other has, since the 1980s and 1990s, returned to center stage in the discourse around culture and media. The catoptrics of the society of the spectacle is now the dioptrics of the society of control. Reflective surfaces have been overthrown by transparent thresholds. The metal detector arch, or the graphics frustum, or the Unix socket—these are the new emblems of the age.

Windows, doors, airport gates, and other thresholds are those transparent devices that achieve more the less they do: for every moment of virtuosic immersion and connectivity, for every moment of volumetric delivery, of inopacity, the threshold becomes one notch more invisible, one notch more inoperable. As technology, the more a dioptric device erases the traces of its own functioning (in actually delivering the thing represented beyond), the more it succeeds in its functional mandate; yet this very achievement undercuts the ultimate goal: the more intuitive a device becomes, the more it risks falling out of media altogether, becoming as naturalized as air or as common as dirt. To succeed, then, is at best self-deception and at worst self-annihilation. One must work hard to cast the glow of unwork. Operability engenders inoperability.

Curiously this is not a chronological, spatial, or even semiotic relation. It is primarily a systemic relation, as Michel Serres rightly observed in his meditation on functional “alongsidedness”: “Systems work because they don’t work. Non-functionality remains essential for functionality. This can be formalized: pretend there are two stations exchanging messages through a channel. If the exchange succeeds—if it is perfect, optimal, immediate—then the relation erases itself. But if the relation remains there, if it exists, it’s because the exchange has failed. It is nothing but mediation. The relation is a non-relation.”1 Thus since Plato, we have [End Page 931] been wrestling with the grand choice: (1) mediation as the process of imminent if not immediate realization of the other (and thus at the same time the self), or (2) as Serres’ dialectal position suggests, mediation as the irreducible disintegration of self and other into contradiction.2 Representation is either clear or complicated, either inherent or extrinsic, either beautiful or deceptive, either already known or imminently interpretable. In short, either Iris or Hermes.

Without wishing to upend this neat and tidy formulation, it is still useful to focus on the contemporary moment to see if something slightly different is going on, or, at the very least to “prove” the seemingly already known through close analysis of some actual cultural artifacts.

First though, I would like to insinuate a brief prefatory announcement on methodology. To the extent that the present project is allegorical in nature, it might be useful to, as it were, subtend the process of allegorical reading in the age of ludic capitalism with some elaboration as to how or why it might be possible to perform such a reading in the first place. In former times, it was generally passable to appeal to some legitimizing methodological foundation—usually Marx or Freud or some combination thereof—in order to prove the efficacy, and indeed the political potency, of one’s critical maneuverings. This is not to suggest that those sources are no longer viable, quite the opposite, since power typically grows with claims of obsolescence; even today Marx’s death drive persists under the pseudonyms of Antonio Negri, Paolo Virno, or McKenzie Wark, just as a generation ago it persisted under Jean-Joseph Goux or Guy Debord. Yet somehow today the unfashionable sheen, and indeed perceived illegitimacy, of the critical tradition inherited from the middle of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, with Marx and Freud standing as two key figures in this tradition but certainly not encompassing all of it, makes it difficult to rally around the red flag of desire in the same way as before. Today the form of Marxism in common circulation is still the antiseptic one invented a generation ago...