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Notes on Rotman’s Becoming Beside Ourselves

(0) LETTERED SELVES AND BEYOND

R takes it for granted that it is currently very difficult, if not impossible, to draw a clean
separation between “mind and machine,” or, more precisely, between the categories of mind/
culture and those of tools/technology (1). The key question of Becoming, then, is not whether
a shift has occurred between an earlier time during which when one could make such clear
distinctions, but rather how or why this shift has taken place; thus, the central concern of the
text will be to trace how human subjectivity has been historically shaped by the “succession
of physical and cognitive technologies at its disposal” (1). The key cognitive technology, which
R takes to be primarily responsible for the emergence of traditional divisions between mind/
culture and tool/technology, is writing, in two senses: (1) the inscription of ideas, patterns and
procedures that finds its most distilled form in mathematical notation, and (2) the inscription
of human speech for communicative or declarative purposes. Although R touches on the former
in this text (particularly in chapter 3) and it has been the focus of many of his previous works,
Becoming is primarily concerned with the impact of alphabetic writing on human subjectivity,
and, perhaps more importantly, how such subjectivity is changing as alphabetic writing becomes
challenged by “technologies of the virtual and networked media whose effects go beyond the
mere appropriation and upstaging of alphabetic functionality” (2).

R’s method will be to approach alphabetical writing as both the middle stage of three great
waves of media (speech, alphabetic writing, digital writing) as well as the techne/technology
that made it possible for humans to imagine “virtual agencies” or, as Rotman will also refer to
them, “ghosts,” “an unembodied being outside the confines of time and space and operating
as an invisible and unlocatable agency” (7). The ground zero of such imagining, for R, is/was
the presumed audience or author of a text, the ability to refer to oneself in writing, even though
that “self” is not presently doing the referring in any physical sense. Only after humans first
found a way to record speech that previously could only be delivered “in person,” R will argue,
was it then possible to imagine such entities as God, Mind, or Infinity. R has previously written
about the related concept of the “meta-subject” in his Signifying Nothing, the similarities
between imagining, writing, and mathematics in his Mathematics as Sign, and the creation of
infinity (and to an extent, God as well) was also central to an earlier work (Ad Infinitum--The
Ghost in Turing’s Machine). In addition to be a culminating point, in many ways, of the ideas in
these earlier works, Becoming is also set apart from these texts by the priority given alphabetic
writing (rather than mathematics) as well as its focus on information technology and new
media.

(1) THE ALPHABETIC BODY


[A version of this chapter appeared earlier as an essay with the same title]

Although attentive to the difference between the emergence of Greek and Hebrew alphabetic
writing, R stresses how both came to structure the theological and political worldviews of their
societies through the capacity of alphabetic writing, “as a medium, to perform a reflexive self-
citational move--inherent in the writing of an ‘I’--and thereby give rise, under appropriate
conditions, to a disembodied, supernatural agency” (14). Throughout Becoming, R will be
interested in both of these vectors: the ways that the alphabet invites “belief” in a “supernatural
agency” (or at least habituates humans to be receptive to such an agency), which he will tie
to such disparate cultural creations as God, mind, and money, and the “disembodied” agency
suggested by writing, that he will consider in relation to the development of mathematics
(whose notational system often ignores--such as in the use of infinity--the material conditions
of human reality and perception) as well as at least one reason the connections between
medialogical systems and human biology (particularly neurology) are often ignored. By tracing
the move from gesture to speech to the written word in this chapter, R charts how the latter
removes both gesture and prosody from communication, making “writing’s de-prosodized
words appear incorporeal, as if they issued from a disembodied and autonomous source”
(31). Ironically, and this is a point R will continually return to throughout the book, such an
ostensibly “disembodied” medium only became possible through fairly radical changes in the
human body (from the “freeing” of the mouth for speaking and the hands for writing through
evolutionary adaptation, to the neurological rewiring of the human brain that has taken place in
conjunction with the spread of new sign systems).

(2) GESTURE AND NON-ALPHABETIC WRITING


[An earlier version of this chapter appeared under the title “Corporeal or Gesturo-Haptic
Writing”]

In this chapter, R traces the ways that the notational systems of mathematics and alphabetic
writing descended from physical gesture (and physical movement as a whole); in math, gesture
is preserved and effaced via symbolic operations that metaphorically duplicate physical actions
(adding, subtracting) as well as diagrams that “freeze” a process and index the relationships
between items within a particular environment. Turning to alphabetic writing, and following
an earlier prediction by paleoanthropologist André Leroi-Gourhan, R asks readers to consider
how it seems, on the one hand, inevitable that alphabetic writing, like other communicative
media that previously dominated human culture, will someday be superseded, but on the
other hand, how it seems almost impossible “to think of something as deeply folded into our
Western historical and religious being and cultural self-identity as alphabeticism disappearing”
(39). In tracking the movements through which gesture gave way to speech, R chooses motion
capture technologies as a particularly salutary example for both considering what types of
media are already crowding out alphabetic writing as well as the pivotal ways that media
structure possibilities for human subjectivity. Although he is quick to emphasize that the end
of alphabeticism’s dominance of human cognition lies on a distant horizon, R also suggests
it is currently possible to see how “captured body movements become the means of creating
subjectivity--selves, subjects, and subject-positions--differently operative and differently
sourced from those available within alphabetic writing” (53). Such “selves”--“dispersed,
pluralized, de-centered, distributed, etc.”--the primary focus of the second part of the book, are
already becoming visible (53).

(3) TECHNOLOGIZED MATHEMATICS


[A different version of this chapter appeared under the title “Will the Digital Computer
Transform Classical Mathematics?”]

As R makes clear, the relationship between mathematics and machines has always been a
symbiotic one: early formal mathematics attempted the same precision as pre-computing
machines; machines themselves began to be designed via mathematical reasoning; the
term “computer” originally referred to humans who did calculations and the first machines that
hold the current definition of that name were designed to perform mathematical functioning.
The question of this chapter, however, is whether massive computing power will revolutionize
mathematics to a significant degree and, if so, precisely how these changes are likely to take
place.

R first covers a Pearcian-inspired concept of mathematics as a process of both imagining and


calculating that he has introduced in earlier works (though it is important to note that the
category of “Person” in this system is unique to Rotman). For R, any use of mathematics implies
three entities: the Person (the material entity or “I” that exists within a particular cultural/
biological context), the Subject (the agency taking on a particular mathematical problem or
thought experiment in real-time), and the Agent (an idealized, automaton-like agency that
the Subject imagines to be performing any mathematical operation). (If this description in
Becoming is too quick for you, see the third chapter of Ad Infinitum; the diagram below is from
page 81 of that text.)

As R writes elsewhere, “the move from Person to Subject is organized around the forgetting of
indexicality, and the move from Subject to Agent around the forgetting of sense and meaning”
(Ad Infinitum 91). In other words, ignoring the Person of a mathematical operation allows
mathematics to appear as an entirely disinterested discipline (it ignores the fact that there
is a person persuaded by a particular proof or inclined to believe certain things given their
background), and ignoring the Subject allows one to perform operation regardless of material
conditions or constraints (i.e., as Rotman explores in other works and touches on below, the
category of infinity is more or less impossible to deal with “real life” but can play a pivotal role in
mathematical calculations).
Although this tripartite schema has guided mathematics since its inception, the sophistication
and popularization of massive computing power changes shifts their relationship (and standing)
in important ways, particularly around the categories of Person and Agent. R focuses on three
likely changes:
1. “Machine reasoning”: The ability to devote massive computing power to calculation will
influence the kinds of mathematical problems and proofs that will be explored, but, more
generally and perhaps more importantly, the ability for computers to abstract portions
of a series or proof for validation and other purposes will radically alter the traditional
understanding of a “proof” as a persuasive argument designed by an individual to
convince other individuals (the “audience” or agency with the power to legitimate a proof
will shift from the human to the machine, a more intense version of “forgetting” the
Person).
2. “Simulation not proof”: Mathematics has always been premised on the forced
quantification of phenomena (a shorthand or analogue system of substitutions used to
represent material processes), but massive computing power puts such “discretization”
into overdrive and also makes another mode of simulation-- visualization--much more
powerful and pervasive. For R, the two “together constitute a virtual world close enough
to the original one (physical or mathematical) to be a valuable investigative and creative
tool” in a way far more advanced than earlier notational and diagrammatic systems
(66). In relation to the tripartite schema, in these kinds of calculations the typically
idealized Agent has the possibility to become “a material, finite actuality” and may
direct mathematics away from equations that have predictable outcomes to those who
are much less predictable or have an algorithmic complexity--ones that must be fully
itinerated before they can be solved (67).
3. “Infinity inside computers?”: Finally, R wonders whether these two trends will force
mathematicians to reconsider the use of infinity (as well as terms such as “feasibility”
which are dependent on material conditions and human judgment but are often invoked
within idealized conceptions of mathematical calculation) as a productive category;
machine reasoning leads us toward further idealization, but simulation tends to return
us to materiality, and between these two forces the “future” of infinity will likely be
decided.

(4) PARALLEL SELVES


[reading of this chapter may be enhanced by consulting an earlier article--“Going Parallel”--that
Rotman wrote on the same subject]

In the final two chapters R fully delivers on the two central premises of Becoming: (1) that
we are entering a new stage of subjectivity augured by contemporary computing technologies
and new media that emphasize co-presence and distribution over meta-mediation, and (2)
that previous media forms based on alphabetic monism made possible the creation of earlier
virtualities, particularly metaphysical and monotheistic thinking. In “Parallel Selves,” R first
uses examples from the such diverse fields as cognitive ethology, classical music, mathematics,
language, and quantum physics to show how the “parallel/serial duo” has long been “a creative
and organizing principle across many terrains” and “the site of larger cultural and technical
battles” (88; 83). However, recently, the intersection and interaction of the parallel/serial duo,
and, importantly, its effect on human cognition and subjectivity, have been primarily present
in the new modes of mediation and perception that emphasize parallelism and distribution.

R first uses parallel computing as an example, emphasizing how the earlier linear process of
Turing machines were based on a model of human cognition that also proceeded in a linear
fashion (such as in how we imagine ourselves working step by step through a problem or
idea) whereas these new systems seem to mirror or replicate (or create, in a feedback loop)
more contemporary senses of presence, such as the “fractured linearity” of multitasking, the
interchanging of public and private spaces mediated by cell phone usage, the use of electronic
avatars of various types, etc. (92). Secondly, R contrasts the traditional “single, stand-alone
image (photo, diagram, painting, map, etc.)” with the pragmatic, instrumental, or informatic
image (digital images, graphic user interfaces, geographic information systems) that both
posit an image as something to manipulate or interact with rather than receive or read, and
that tend toward multiple levels of representation or simultaneity (R’s quotidian example of
the “picture in picture television” is not a bad one for emphasizing the lowest level of the latter)
(93). These examples are only two of many that R sees as part of a “seismic jump in the matrix
of human culture” that might end up to be “as momentous, epoch-making, and far reading in its
consequences as the invention of alphabetic writing” (105).

(5) GHOST EFFECTS


[An earlier version of this chapter delivered as a talk is available on Rotman’s website]

After using the linguistic indexical “I” as an example of the ways that a medium (speaking,
writing) can be both a mode of both self-enunciation as well as a production of subjectivity
itself, he traces the functioning of the “I” across four types of media: gesturo-haptic, speech,
alphabetic writing, and digital networks:
1. gesture --> speech: the gesturo-haptic body is transfigured into the prosody or tone of
the spoken voice.
2. speech --> writing: the “body of the speaking ‘I’ is replaced by an incorporeal, floating
agency of the text,” but poetry and prose styles have attempted to translate prosody into
a visual/alphabetic form (109).
3. writing --> networks: the move from writing the networks can be traced by how the
digital makes new forms of self-reference, “instantaneities,” and agencies/presences
possible. The old and new versions of these forms (and the middle one in particular) are
the focus of this chapter.

Although the ubiquity of contemporary information technology and simulated “environments”


have made the “virtual” part of everyday life, R suggests that virtuality has been with us since
the emergence of Western culture, or, more precisely that we have moved through several
regimes of the virtual, each one of it bringing “a dissociation which restructures consciousness
to produce modes of presence, agency, and self-representation that were unavailable, or,
even if available as imagined constructs, were unimplementable in any stable, practical
form” (112). R will focus on three of these agencies, which he will call “ghosts” insofar as they
are “invisible...self-enunciating entities” (113):

1. “The Jewish ‘I’: Jahweh”: As R explains, as a virtual construct, Jahweh is “a god


revealed and knowable only in and through an alphabetic text,” an entity utterly unique
(subsumable to no frame of reference outside of his words) and “too terrifying to
behold” as a presence that becomes a “ghost effect” of the spread of the new media of
writing (122). This particular effect, R goes on to argue, may have had the additional
consequence of solidifying alphabetic writing as a means of representation over and
against the visual (amongst others).
2. “The Greek ‘I’: Psyche”: R next suggests that category of psyche or nous in Greek
thought similarly seems to only become available after the introduction of writing; the
key differences between early forms of Greek subjectivity and psyche--“its abstract
status within Greek discourse as an incorporeal being in opposition to the concrete
palpability of embodied flesh; and its putative agency--the mind as initiator, the
generative source of ratiocination and ‘author’ of an individual’s ideas and thoughts”
(127)--seem to have been inspired by the self-reference made possible to be a “writing I,”
one that refers to herself in a medium that can circulate outside of their own presence.
3. “The Infinite Mathematical Agent”: R returns to the questions he posed in chapter 3
about the development, and potential future of, the category of infinity in mathematics,
one that posits an agent not unlike the omnipotent god or incorporeal mind attributable
to the popularization of writing.

R concludes by imagining what new agency/subjectivity might be developing in the move from
writing to network, an operation that he admits can only be speculative at this time, but that,
based on the effects of previous medialogical shifts, would suggest the emergence of a “para-
human agency” that experiences itself as an ‘I’ “becoming beside itself,” an agency are already
apparent in current experiences with multi-tasking and multiple identities/proxy selves (134).
Returning to the associations between the alphabetic and theology outlined at various moments
in the text, and ending on a provocative note, R queries whether “one can read the rise and
frenzied appeal of Bible-obsessed evangelism and the fundamentalist surge in Jewish and
Koranic literalism as reactions--fearful and defensive--to a perceived threat, nothing less than
the end of the writing-based era which gave birth to and has thereafter circumscribed them:
the threat of a God in danger, a God displaced, a God about to be obsolesced by the heathen
and secular presences that electronic technologies seem to be conjuring into existence” (137).