Peak Analog

Oh for days long gone, when intellectuals sparred over “symbolic economies” and “cultural logics.” Gone are heady chats about the pleasures of textuality. How quaint would it seem today for a critic to proclaim, defiant, that there is nothing outside of the text. Who speaks that way any more? Who speaks of word, symbol, text, code, economy, social structures, or cultural logics? Of course many of us still do, nevertheless this language feels reminiscent of another time. Or, to be more precise, the language of language is reminiscent of another time.

The world is awash in data, yet these days it is much more common to encounter scholarly takes on a series of distinctly non-digital themes: books about affect or sensation; treatises on aesthetics as first philosophy; essays on the Ethical Turn (turning away from the political) or on real materiality (turning away from symbolic abstraction); manifestos proclaiming, defiant, that there is nothing outside of the real.

A generation ago, the theoretical humanities was fixated on codes, logics, the arrangement of texts, and the machinations of the symbolic order. Today the theoretical humanities is more likely to address topics such as perception, experience, indeterminacy, or uncomputability. Why in the digital age have some of our best thinkers turned toward characteristically analog themes?

Recall the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, and the high-water mark of poststructuralism. Recall the age of écriture, of Jean-Joseph Goux and the theory of symbolic economies in Freud or Marx. Recall the notion that “the unconscious is structured like a language.” This, I suspect, represented peak digitality, at least from the recent past.

By contrast, consider the mid-1990s through to today, the shift into full-fledged Deleuzeanism, the dominance of Latourian methods in the social sciences, the rise of radical empiricism, new materialism, pragmatism and the various arguments “against method,” or even the “how we read now” debates in literary criticism. This represents peak analogicity, the golden age of analog.

Benjamin Boysen has referred to some of these tendencies under the heading of “semiophobia,” a fear of signs, a fear of meaning making. Indeed a fear of language, a fear of logos, the meaning it bears and the interpretations it entails, is all too characteristic of contemporary theory. The anti-hermeneutic tradition is complex with many spurs and sub-variants, whether it be oriented against interpretation (Susan Sontag), against theory (Steven Knapp and Walter Benn Michaels), against critique (Bruno Latour), or against hermeneutics in some other construal, the intricate complexity of which, at the very least, begs to be interpreted. Much of this kind of work, but not all, finds its safe space in pragmatism, which, it will be noted, is a very specific theoretical position with its own history and ideological commitments, so that it would not be a stretch to label the anti-hermeneutic tradition, if not the analog turn overall, as distinctly Anglo-American, no matter where its proponents call home.

Which is not to defend, with hygienic precision, the digital against the encroachments of an analog thought. But nor should we assume that assemblages and swerves will save us. In previous writings I have tried to imagine a way of thinking that is neither digital nor analog. And many others have been guided by a similar impulse, that the digital-analog distinction itself is part of the problem, so wouldn't it be easier just to dump it.

Nevertheless such speculations are a privilege. An old Marxist once said that "fear of handling shit is a luxury a sewerman cannot necessarily afford.” As recent geopolitical events demonstrate, the symbolic order is alive and well, whether it be in the command of the sovereign or the infrastructure of the machine. The digital is the site of contemporary power. The digital is where capital exploits labor. The digital organizes technologies, bodies, and societies.

But the digital means something else as well. The digital is the mechanism of negation, of the confrontation of the "two," of breaking with the present state of affairs. Indeed the digital is the site of the event, and thus of a political confrontation more generally. Thus "digital" is both a term to describe the contemporary infrastructure of power, but also a term of art meaning cut or distinction. In this way, the digital is both the site and the stake in any contemporary struggle, as Stuart Hall once said about popular culture.

Thus I suspect it is time to turn our attention back again to the digital, not at the expense of real analogicity, but as a coequal branch. Here we may investigate what Katherine McKittrick and Alexander Weheliye have called the "heavy waves and vibrations" but also the "wicked mathematics" of contemporary life, in both body and mind.