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  • Liu's Ethics of the Database
  • Vicki Callahan (bio)
Review of: Alan Liu. Local Transcendence: Essays on Postmodern Historicism and the Database. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2008. Print.

In many ways, one might see Alan Liu's collection, Local Transcendence: Essays on Postmodern Historicism and the Database, as a kind of retrospective or career long response to the issues raised by Katherine Hayles and Johanna Drucker's individual reviews in the journal Criticism of his earlier book, The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information. While Liu directly responds in the same issue with "Understanding Knowledge Work" to Hayles's and Drucker's queries regarding the definition and function of history and aesthetics--indeed regarding the very "future of the humanities"--in the information age, his Local Transcendence takes the discussion much further and into the world of methodology. In Local Transcendence, Liu not only maps out a critical approach that will draw together the diverse terrains of the humanities, arts, information, and technology, but also argues that this very interdisciplinarity is the crux of the method. Interdisciplinarity as method is vital not so much due to the breadth of data revealed, that is as additional content in itself, but rather because it produces a "line of flight" away from established and rigid knowledge systems to an "unclosed otherness" (Local 185).

The question for Liu is: can there be an open method for history that can tell us anything politically instructive or ethically useful, especially in an age that has seen the so-called "death of theory," "death of history," "death of the author," "death of the subject," "death of cinema," etc.? What, for Liu, is left in the absence of essential meanings except as Liu notes a sense of the "cool?" The "cool" as Liu defines it is basically whatever brand we have decided to take on from our corporate and media-saturated culture. Our larger fascination with endless flows of information and with perpetual innovation, a world-view of "creative destruction," leaves us awash in data but strips the world of past knowledge that can anchor the present (Local 2-4). In such an environment, we do not have history but rather historicism--that is, only the signs or the effect(s) of a history (4). Moreover, for Liu our path of resistance comes from within our "cool culture" as a strategy of reversal or "destructive creation" and also from within postmodern historicism by turning its symptomatic "contingency" into a method (Local 11; "Understanding" 250). Ultimately, Liu maps out both the logic and critical method for our era of "remix culture," a phrase perhaps more apt than "information age" at capturing the blurred worlds of creation/consumption, art/culture, data/media, form/content, persona/person, public/private of the current epoch.

To understand the feasibility and value of Liu's method as detailed in Local Transcendence--as well as to situate his work in relation to a range of current remix practices from the archive to the arts to rhetorical strategies--it is useful to turn to the Hayles and Drucker essays. Both Hayles and Drucker take issue with Liu's "destructive creativity" as a value either for the arts or for the humanities. On the one hand, Hayles notes that this assumes a ubiquity of corporate culture in which we are trapped and can act only as borderline terrorists, albeit "critically" destructive ones. As Hayles quite rightly points out, the presumed corporate cultural "trap" and attendant critical subversion confirm the status quo via the negation or erasure of history since they effectively eliminate the possibility of imagining a counter-history or alternative positive possible pathways of resistance (236-239). Drucker is equally troubled by Liu's vision for the arts as "destructive," since it replays what she believes are tired oppositions from aesthetic discourses regarding the "resistance" of art (and specifically of the avant-garde) to dominant social/popular cultural order. Rather than a didactic or utopian purpose for the arts, Drucker says she prefers "embodied examples of a practice that has no purpose whatsoever except to be" (246-47).

Of course, the discussion of the shape, objective, indeed possibility of history and...

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