Wednesday, October 6, 2010

"Mouse events in Java"

The phrase threw me entirely. It appeared as a book title or genre: I imagined a community of scholars, perhaps zoologists and ethologists, devoting their lives to transcribing the worlds of small rodents on that exotic Indonesian island beloved of Gertz. Even when I realised that the real object of study was human-computer interface design, specifically scripting mouse-clicks in the computer language Java, the whimsy didn't wholly evaporate. The smile it brought, like so much humour, derived from the mismatch of two discursive universes. It also demonstrates a simple truth: that increasing specialisation leads us away from a common speech towards increasingly fragmented dialects, each associated with an individual discipline, each surrounded by the rituals and enclosures of institutions, and the power of institutional discourses to create and define orders of truth. It didn't help that the institution was not exclusively that of HCI design, but of cultural theory, where translations of Alain Badiou (2006) have endowed the word 'event' with a host of new meanings. One of those concerns the decreasingly likelihood that events will actually occur.

During 2009 and 2010, a number of countries returned either hung parliaments or governments without sufficient mandate to i9ntroduce major change. The joke going round was that the people had spoken but that it would take some time to find out what they'd said. Actually they had said something very clearly: no change. Campaigns based on vilification and fear, on accusations that the other party would do terrible things, produced a state of anxiety where people voted for nothing to happen. In many respects this was the desired outcome of at least some players. There would be no reform to financial markets in the wake of the 2008 crash. It would be extremely difficult to reform medical provision. The question of the event occurs however not only in special states of impasse such as this. It occurs as the question whether it is possible to change at all. It is a truism by now that we can far more easily imagine the extinction of life on Earth than we can a change in capitalist consumerism. Those who do imagine such a change imagine that it must be effected through the economic sticks and carrots of market mechanisms like emission trading schemes and carbon taxes. In place of public debate on how we are supposed to live, they propose no change: only the use of the existing system of markets (or technical innovation) to resolve the current crisis. Politics is in the sense of public debate over values is no longer conducted at all: the management of desire through pubic relations and fiscal instruments has taken the place of discussions concerning what constitutes the good life, and how we are to achieve it. This reduction of political life to population management is what makes the event so rare and, in Badiou's philosophy, so precioous. Yet as the authors of a recent activist text argue, the problem with Badiou's events is that they all seem to be in the past (Papadopoulos et al 2008). The question of new media dynamics, when posed in the historically radical context of media studies, becomes the question "How are we to encourage the creation of events?" How are we to turn the actualities of our lives into the potentialities of our futures? How are we, in fact, to create a future for ourselves that is in any sense worthy of the name 'future', that is, something which is other than a mere continuation of the present?

If we are men and not mice, or if we are humans who are ready to 'become mouse', we may yet find ways to make events occur again -- in complex digital networks like those powered by Java, or in the complex social centres of emergent polities like Indonesia. New meamnings for old in the mouse events in java.