Critical Digital Studies: A Reader (review)
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Critical Digital Studies: A Reader. Edited by Arthur and Marilouise Kroker. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008. Pp. 583. $90/$39.95.

When I was a kid growing up in Canada, there wasn't much on the telly. Hockey Night in Canada and The Galloping Gourmet were easy favorites, but the joker in my deck was a strange news program. A veteran journalist staged mock interviews with a variety of historical figures, usually played by some Shakespeare festival tippler happy to chew the scenery incognito and in the bag. One night Rasputin was the guest and the host quickly put the boots to him. "Sir, please explain how you came to seduce all the ladies in the Russian court and even some of their men?" The guru-cum-swinger [End Page 766] chuckled and stroked his beard. "Well you know, if you throw enough shit against the wall, some of it is bound to stick."

Artie Kroker has thrown plenty of shit in his day and enough of it has stuck to enough walls to win him a posh sinecure out on the Pacific Rim. Kroker is arguably Canada's foremost cultural theorist precisely because he effortlessly channels the spirits of two other enmerdeurs of the first order—Marshall McLuhan and Jean Baudrillard. In his breakthrough book, The Postmodern Scene: Excremental Culture and Hyper-Aesthetics, Kroker rebooted McLuhan's seminal oddity, The Mechanical Bride, deep in the ugly heart of Reagan's second term, when Dutch was napping himself into dementia while Ollie North and friends enjoyed an imperial farce in the twilight of the cold war. Kroker rightly saw the psychic weather of Reagan's America for what it was—a wet dream of poisoned Norman Rockwell tableaux articulated through Orwellian happy talk of God and shining cities on hills. His discussion of Eric Fischl's suburban dystopia paintings has never been equaled, by Robert Hughes or even the artist himself. You can open Excremental Culture to any page and find Kroker gloriously foaming at the mouth with a twinkle in his eye as he bites down on anything and everything that signaled The Last Man and The End of Civilization. It was performance art, pure and simple.

Almost twenty-five years and many books later, the Kroker at work in this collection is less a protean mad dog than a benevolent ringmaster to a dog's breakfast of essays on digital culture, such as it is. Indeed, thanks to the glacial pace of the academic publishing process, this volume has a certain sad valedictorian quality to it, an uneven time capsule of how the cyber wing of the academy brooded away the very dark eight years of incompetent skullduggery by Bush II. One author suggests tagging Detroit, that vibrant, shambling necropolis of the analog, with the digital graffiti of hypertext. As if. Another discusses the Cyborg Mother in an equally dreary jargon-rich essay that only a mother could love. There is precious little ethnography in here and far too much theory and its attendant gibberish.

As in so many collections on digital culture, a number of well-worn themes make an appearance. Some ghosts are factory-installed in communication machines. We install other ghosts, no less problematic, as we shamelessly upload our lives into the machines. The machines speak to one another. We can never be sure what the machines are saying. We are never able to fully break their codes or keep up with their output. Bad men use the machines to do bad things. And people let them.

Even though he is Exhibit A of what Allan Bloom called "the Nietzschization of the Left," Kroker still fizzes when shaken. And nothing has him more spooked than the Holy Ghost. "From Pentecostal Inuit and born again Christians in the heartland of the American Empire to the fast currents of Islamic jihad, the problem of salvation is the dominant singularity haunting [End Page 767] the twenty-first century." Soon he is in a white heat, mixing physics and metaphysics. "We live in the universe of the special theory of political relativity, where power accelerating at the speed of light reaches maximal velocity...


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