Conference Presentation: The Ontological Crisis of Melacholia

I’ll be presenting my paper “The Ontological Crisis of Melancholia: Searching for foundations in the ether of cyberspace” tomorrow at the (inter)disciplinarities: theory & crisis conference tomorrow. If you have any thoughts or comments on the paper, feel free to drop me a line – I’m hoping to polish it over the next few months and then start shopping it around to a few journals. The abstract is below:


In The Psychic Life of Power, Judith Butler argues that the power structures ordering individuals and states alike are predicated on a mourning that cannot be mourned; melancholia permeates the primary ordering structures of the individual and the state. Butler takes up this absence, and alerts us to the state’s reliance on citizens’ melancholia to support its continued being. The state, constituted by the melancholic, reasserts and normalizes the melancholia responsible for plunging the modern subject into its ontological crisis of Being; it perpetuates the subjects’ inability to authentically ground their selfhood.

In this paper, I ask whether digital environments are spaces that can facilitate the resolution of modern subjects’ ontological crisis, and thus might provoke the reconstitution of modern politics. In responding to this inquiry, I take up Butler’s analysis of mourning and melancholia and situate her politics of identity in the context of Cyberspace. Specifically, I investigate whether the modern subject can work through their crisis within the plasticity of digital spaces, or if these spaces only superficially present possibilities for working through crisis. In interrogating these possibilities, I consider how psychosocial norms of embodied life are (being) embedded throughout digital spaces, and reflect on the implications of state-held norms being reaffirmed in these new media environments. I conclude by adopting the stance that Cyberspace may enable some individuals to acknowledge their experience of melancholia, but stop short of claiming that the possibilities afforded by this space’s plasticity can or will provoke a widespread reconstitution of modern politics.

Building Platforms for the Future

In this post I want to think, just a little bit, about the role of platforms and how I’m attempting to maneuver this space. This is aimed at better clarifying (for me) how this space is used, as well as to render its use more transparent (which is apparently a core facet of building successful platforms *grin*).

A few weeks ago I was linked to a blog page that discussed the role of platforms in opening up future publishing-related avenues. The principles of the post could be boiled down to the follow:

  1. Speak authentically;
  2. Speak regularly;
  3. Speak in an open, transparent fashion;
  4. Speak so that the development of ideas is clear;
  5. Speak so that you are demonstrating your authority.

These are, generally, pretty traditional tropes surrounding Web 2.0. There isn’t anything terrifically new. What interests me, however, at the fourth and fifth items. In rendering transparent the development of ideas, what I think is most helpful is that a final, codified, textual work is opened up to the reader. Should they be sufficiently interested in the work, they can move to see how an argument was, and wasn’t, developed. By seeing how and why a writer has cordoned off particular threads of thought it is possible to open new and interesting approaches to a critique – as a firm advocate that reading theory is greatly assisted by understanding the author’s life and situation, and blogging (or establishing a similarly open platform) gives readers a way of getting to ‘know’ the author beyond the 100 word summary at the end of a book.

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P2P and Complicity in Filesharing

I think about peer to peer (P2P) filesharing on a reasonably regular basis, for a variety of reasons (digital surveillance, copyright analysis and infringement, legal cases, value in efficiently mobilizing data, etc.). Something that always nags at me is the defense that P2P websites offer when they are sued by groups like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The defense goes something like this:

“We, the torrent website, are just an search engine. We don’t actually host the infringing files, we are just responsible for directing people to them. We’re no more guilty of copyright infringement than Google, Yahoo!, or Microsoft are.”

Let’s set aside the fact that Google has been sued for infringing on copyright on the basis that it scrapes information from other websites, and instead turn our attention to the difference between what are termed ‘public’ and ‘private’ trackers. ‘Public’ trackers are available to anyone with a web connection and a torrent program. These sites do not require users to upload a certain amount of data to access the website – they are public, insofar as there are few/no requirements placed on users to access the torrent search engine and associated index. Registration is rarely required. Good examples at, and ‘Private’ trackers require users to sign up and log into the website before they can access the search engine and associated index of .torrent files. Moreover, private trackers usually require users to maintain a particular sharing ration – they must upload a certain amount of data that equals or exceeds the amount of data that they download. Failure to maintain the correct share ratio results in users being kicked off the site – they can no longer log into it and access the engine and index.

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Review: Access Denied

The OpenNet Initiative’s (ONI) mission is to “identify and document Internet filtering and surveillance, and to promote and inform wider public dialogs about such practices.” Access Denied: The Practice and Policy of Global Internet Filtering is one of their texts that effectively draws together years of their research, and presents it in an accessible and useful manner for researchers, activists, and individuals who are simply interested in how the Internet is shaped by state governments.

The text is separated into two broad parts – the first is a series of essays that situate the data that has been collected into a quickly accessible framework. The authors of each essay manage to retain a reasonable level of technical acumen, even when presenting their findings and the techniques of filtering to a presumably non-technical audience. It should be noted that the data collected includes up to 2007 – if you’re reading the text in the hopes that the authors are going to directly address filtering technologies that have recently been in the new, such as Deep Packet Inspection, you’re going to be a disappointed (though they do allude to Deep Packet technologies, without explicitly focusing on it, in a few areas). Throughout the text there are references to human rights and, while I’m personally a proponent of them, I wish that the authors had endeavored to lay out some more of the complexities of human rights discourse – while they don’t present these rights as unproblematic, I felt that more depth would have been rewarding both for their analysis, and for the benefit of the reader. This having been said, I can’t begrudge the authors of the essays for drawing on human rights at various points in their respective pieces – doing so fits perfectly within ONI’s mandate, and their arguments surrounding the use of human rights are sound.

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Web 2.0 and Education

I’m giving a presentation on Web 2.0 tools in under a month and, since I’ve received notice from the conference organizers, I’ve been working diligently to compile tools and identify their uses and potentials for abuse. Over the coming week or two I expect I’ll be posting a reasonably amount about thoughts and ideas that I have surrounding my presentation – comments are of course welcome here, and you are also welcome to look at and contribute to the wiki article that I’ve set up for the conference.

Before getting into content in any depth I wanted to take a step back and reflect on what I am referring to when talking about ‘Web 2.0’ and how it (potentially) applies to post-secondary education. I’m not going to get into the politics of technology in post-secondary environments, or at least I’m not planning on directly posting about this (largely because I work in an educational institution, and it’s really best to keep some thoughts to yourself).

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Unscheduled Broadcast

I’ve recently been accepted to present at a conference for incoming TAs to my university. I’m giving a talk for over an hour on Web 2.0, it’s possibilities, and pitfalls. Obviously I’m going to be going nuts building up information to provide, but does anyone have anything that I *need* to be talking about? The current list is going to include things like blogging, wiki’s, and online data archival tools.

I’m going to have a 100% captive audience, and lots of time, so your ideas and suggestions would be extremely appreciated!