06 November 2006

Asignifying Material Semiotics

In a fit of enthusiasm for Stephen Johnson's popular science book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, I decided to pick up a copy of SimCity4, rationalizing that this would be a bit of research in emergent systems, rather than a futile waste of time. I've never been one to play computer games, and this is no less the case with SimCity. I find myself unable to play longer than 45 minutes-- I've played twice now --before I'm overwhelmed by a sense of guilt at time wasted, or that my time would be better spent reading or writing. This guilt can be omnipresent and paralyzing... I actually find myself experiencing guilt when mowing my lawn, eating, watching television, going out with friends, or even grading papers. It would seem that there's some fundamental way in which these activities compromise my desire.

Nonetheless, the game is interesting. The first time I played, I found myself frustrated as I had difficulty "growing" my city. This is essentially what you're doing in SimCity. You're growing a city. Although I had zoned areas for agricultural, commercial, and residential development, and built a power plant, no Sims (people) were moving into my city. I quickly discovered that the problem was that I was lacking telephone lines and roads. The moment I built telephone lines and roads the city began to grow at a quick clip, with homes and stores being built, along with fields being cultivated. Very quickly my citizens began to complain of a lack of healthcare and education, but also of traffic jams as I'd only built streets, rather than roads. Upon building these things the city began to grow even more quickly, though my citizens still complained as I went overboard and turned all the streets into roads, making for dangerous speeds and a smell of asphalt everywhere.

My second game was more interesting. Having gotten a sense of what you have to build first in order to get your city started, I was able to get things moving more quickly. However, now I found myself perplexed that one of the regions I had zoned commercial wasn't developing at all, and that the commercial zone I'd built next to the residential area was only growing very slowly, depite the fact that I'd provided power for both of these zones. It turns out that, working on the premise that commercial zones produce pollution (I hadn't read the directions), I had built the first commercial zone far away from my residential district by my coal power plant, in hopes of sparing my citizens the pollution. Yet in building the zone so far away from the residential district, this area was undesirable for businesses as it didn't get enough residential traffic to inspire profitable business. When I bulldozed the first commercial district and turned it into an industrial district, factories began to build up with amazing speed, and my population and residential district began to grow as now there were numerous jobs for my citizens. This also led to increased growth in my commercial zone, as now, having a little money in their pockets, the citizens wanted restaurants and stores from which they could buy things. Soon they were clamoring for churches, parks, and fire stations. In a nerd-like way I confess that I find the sudden explosion of growth gratifying. Presumably, as my city developed, income distributions would begin to develop, with ghettos and high end areas emerging. What factors would contribute to these distributions? Would road networks contribute to these distributions? Distances from school and business? Availability of power supplies? Distances from schools, police stations, and hospitals?

It seems to me that this material dimension of infrastructure and architectures is lacking in a good deal of the social and political theory that I read. When I read Zizek it's a question of symbolic and imaginary differences, and the acts that would reconfigure these differences. Perhaps these differences could, in Lacan-speak, be called "real", though they don't seem to fit any of Lacan's aphorisms pertaining to the real: the real is the impossible, the real is that which is without lack, the real is that which always returns to its place, etc. Perhaps we could fruitfully extend Lacan's conception of the real in this direction, but it would require a good deal of rethinking. When I read Badiou, it's a question, I think, of group formations and their practices following from an event that cannot be counted according to the signifying resources governing a situation (what Badiou calls the "encyclopedia" or "transcendental"). Nor, I think, do these differences quite fit with Foucault's notions of discourse and power, though certainly they contribute to power... The question is that of how they contribute to power and the re-production of power relations.

It is interesting to me that a variable such as distance could have such a profound effect on how social organization develops. After all, the signifier tends to evade constraints of distance today, being transmissible to anywhere within the world within a matter of seconds. Yet once again, this transmission depends on an infrastructural dimension: In order for the signifier to be transmitted, I must have the apparatus to both receive and send it. If you look at my map of recent visitors you can almost plot economic and technological distributions throughout the world (for a gratifying experience, press the 1000 button and watch the dots grow). What we have here are purely material differences, differences in technology, time, distance, roads, etc. Following Bourdieu, I find myself wondering whether the degree to which these a-signifying differences are overlooked doesn't have to do with the fact that these differences are omnipresent within the life of the successful academic and social theorist, such that they become invisible or fall into the background. As Heidegger argues in Being and Time when developing his extistential conception of spatiality, the glasses on my face are further from me than the writing on this screen as they recede into the background and my concernful dealings with the world. Similarly, something as simple as the material dimension of technology tends to disappear when it's working as it should.

As an undergraduate I took a class with the comparative studies department entitled Science, Technology, and Culture. There I recall the discussion of a city where the bridges were built too low for the buses to transport people from one side of town to the beach. Predictably the people using public transportation would have come from the poor region of town. The city was designed in such a way (was it intentional?) as to reinforce economic class distinctions and sortings of human bodies. To what degree are these sorts of differences being overlooked in social theory, and what difference do these differences make? To what degree are questions about "empty signifiers" (Laclau and Mouffe), the symbolic, desire, truth-procedures, and so on the wrong sorts of questions to be asking? What do these asignifying differences contribute to the individuation of various collectivities or group formations?

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