Tech Cathexis

This post on Quiet Babylon got me thinking this morning. Tim is talking about the bifurcated relationship between objects and their corresponding data, specifically, the separation of data from paper.

True, they are moving more independently of each other than they have, but what I am seeing is that our relationship with paper and the internet is reminding us that the magic of language never existed in the word's physical existence, but in its expression. The object never held any data to begin with, it only reminded us of how to have a particular data experience. Because, even though the Necronomicon is bound in human skin, you still have to read it out loud to bring the beast into this dimension, right?

But really--the history of magic, one of the original industries of signs and symbols, is full of the understanding that it is not just having the spell on an amulet, but the writing act itself, or the reading act later on. The media just acts as a plane of stasis for the meaning: the lines of the figure are the bars of the cage that hold the meaning in one place, ready to be utilized any time one with the skill (reading used to be one of the few material skills of the priest) happens by, and accesses the data.

The flip side is, even though the Internet may be the wildest, most evilest Necronomicon we've ever devised, there still seems to be fixation with the media on which the data is accessed. There is a tactile experience. Not just a "I like paperbacks in my hand" tactile experience, but a "how I interface my data is the magic by which it exists" phenomenological experience. Mobile devices, AR, instantly-updating personalized opt-in feeds, etc. It's magic, and we're fascinated by it.

So maybe you run the perfect paperless office, using the cloud, email, skype, Evernote, whatever, all through the palm of your hand. But I bet you've customized the crap out of it. Because your mobile device is yours, as much as your handwriting is. Why don't couples share mobile phones, when they've shared landlines for years? They share the minutes, the call-5-link-in plan, maybe even the same mp3s and calendar, but everyone's got to have their own handset, their own ringtone, their own background picture. The media may be disposable, but only because it is easily replaceable BY ANOTHER. A wedding or a prop dress is only worn once, but at the moment it was being used, it was irreplaceable. It was perfect. It was the only one, and this was because it was a symbol. The dress doesn't matter, it is what the dress means.

Objects with no meaning drift in and out of our phenomenal realm all the time, and we couldn't care less. Objects with transitory meaning transition out of our attention as soon as their meaning vacates. The data is infinite, in it's own finite space, but what we're seeing is that the object may not even exist at all, outside of its particular instance of phenomenological access. You can take my cellphone, but you better back up my contacts first. This is exactly how we few all objects, psychologically and phenomenologically. You are a human with a soul when I want to feel a spiritual connection to you, an obstacle when you are in my way, and a hot ball of desire when our bodies touch in that special way. Object cathexis, pure and simple. You may fill my heart with passion, but it is really your image which I am filling with my libidinal energy, to inflate you and give you meaning within my own head, whatever the meaning may be.

If my iPhone breaks the day I buy it, I'll mourn the loss. If it dies the day after my two-year contract expires, I'll celebrate the fortuitousness, and then trot down to the iStore. I don't know if we can really, as Tim suggests, change our relationship to object from this mode. If we did not fetishize objects, how could we ever interact with them? If we didn't love the look of our own blogs and twitter feeds as if they were our children, then why would we spend hours a day with them? Hell, if our children didn't act like our own little genetic twitter-feeds, then why would we even love them? I used to preach an anti-TV line. But then I realized how to get people to stop watching TV: stop TVs from spewing the sex, violence, and advertisements that people love so much. Without the meaning, objects cease existing. But until then, you be better off trying to cut off someone's leg than take away their stuff. (And if you like Melanie Klein's part-object theory, you might. Bad breast! Bad!)

I wouldn't say reducing material consumption is a lost cause, though. Meaning flows through objects, and is anything but static. The immediate step after investing oneself in an object, is to put it to work with other objects, directing the flows of meaning, and altering their expression and apprehension. So maybe the change Tim is talking about is possible--but to confront objects meant to die we would have to confront ourselves as objects meant to die. Desire and libidinal investment's power is typically its fullness, not its mortality. So this would take some work. But hey, existentialism is a popular thought object... so maybe in this dark times living towards object death is not such a crazy meaning as it might have been.

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