semiotics + new media
- ---- by Janell WatsonThe distinction between old media (such as the printing press, or analogue recording and broadcast) and new media (such as the internet, HD television, and high-tech multi-media art) is generally made on the basis of digitisation, networking, interactivity, and pervasiveness. These new qualities seem to call for new theoretical tools beyond those of literary, film, music, and art criticism, even though both old and new media carry word, sound, and image. Unprecedented is the globally networked unrelenting sensory bombardment made possible by the way new technologies deliver torrents of words, sounds, and images. With their assemblages and rhizomes composed of multiplicities, intensities, ﬂows, speeds and slownesses, chronos and aion, Deleuze and Guattari offer numerous insights into the workings and effects of new media. Their machinic semiotics focuses less on language and symbols than on image, data, sensation, movement, subjectivity, and global political economics. Like the interactive networks of new media, this machinic semiotics brings together a diverse array of elements operating at many registers and affecting multiple senses, often below the level of conscious cognition.Deleuze and Guattari extend semiotics well beyond the realm of human interactions in order to take into account animals, machines, bio-chemistry, and physics. They were avid readers of cybernetics, information theory, and communication studies, which they incorporate into their semiotics. They recognise signs and signals everywhere, and understand their role in the functioning of social, organic, and even inorganic processes. Most of these signs and signals are neither linguistic nor symbolic, and involve no human perceiver. Such signs have no meaning, and need none. No signification is conveyed by the body's endocrine and hormonal signals. No one wrote the genetic code (D&G 1983: 248). These signals and codes create, but they do not signify. For example, as Marshall McLuhan put it, electric light is pure information, a medium without a message (D&G 1983: 241). For Deleuze, sens (which in French designates both sense and meaning) does not necessarily involve Saussurean signification. In Logic of Sense he accounts for the convergence of heterogeneous series by way of internal resonance, a concept from information theory which explains why two tuning forks brought together begin to oscillate at the same frequency (D 1990). He borrows this idea from Gilbert Simondon, who posits that internal resonance conveys information exchanges necessary to sustain life. Deleuze and Guattari's semiotic category of the diagrammatic likewise creates and produces real effects without recourse to meaning. Unlike the sign or symbol, the diagram does not signify or represent, but instead operates in the real to produce something new. Music, mathematics, and computer coding are examples of the diagrammatic at work (D&G 1987: 142). Accordingly, it is misleading to speak of computer 'languages' or to describe musical notation as an alphabet. New media relies heavily on these non-linguistic semiotic elements.Given the predominance of moving images in video games and art installations, as well as the spread of new media technologies into cinema itself, the Deleuzian concepts of movement-image and time-image have been used in the study of new media. Interestingly, despite his emphasis on images, Deleuze describes cinema as a pure semiotics, although he maintains that it is not a language. He thereby distances himself from the theory of cinematic language associated with Christian Metz (D 1986, ix; 1989: 25, 262). Deleuze reverses the relation between word and image, grounding narration in the image itself, and not the other way around (D 1986: 69). However, this does not mean that images signify, for he argues that even when they include verbal elements, cinematic images form a plastic mass of diverse types of elements - sensory (visual, sonorous), kinetic, intensive, affective, rhythmic, tonal, and even verbal (D 1989: 2930). This semiotics of material ﬂows takes into account physical sensation and perception, in a way that no theory of language or the signifier ever could.Signs combine with material ﬂows to form what Deleuze and Guattari call rhizomes and assemblages, web-like agglomerations which are heterogeneous, fragmented, meta-stable, and open to interactions of all kinds - an apt description of the new media landscape. Rhizomes and assemblages may include both desiring machines (not to be confused with human individuals) and technological machines, as, for example, when an ear is connected to an iPod in order to produce a sensation machine. Such biological-technological couplings necessarily result in profound changes in the constitution of the self, and its relations to its environment. Personal electronic devices become integral components of a polyphonic, machinic subjectivity (G 1995: 16-17, 24).Old media technologies were controlled by the mass media industry, whereas the new media often seem more democratic because they allow for user input. However, corporations see profit-making potential in user interactivity. This changing relationship to the consumer can also be analysed using Deleuze and Guattari's semiotics, which is inherently political. For them, any type of social organisation corresponds to a regime of signs dominated by a particular medium of expression (D&G 1987: 111-48). For example, the despotic regime invents writing, but in the imperial formation writing dominates all other forms of expression (D&G 1983: 202). Capitalism, in contrast, is illiterate, preferring ﬂows, codes, and networks to speech and writing (D&G 1983: 240). It is therefore not daunted by the seemingly chaotic freedom implied by the de-centred, deterritorialised mode of production of new media. Guattari foresaw this potential empowerment of the user, which he described as a post-media era to come (G 1995: 97). This optimistic view of the liberation through new media must, however, be tempered by attentiveness to capitalism's ability to capture and axiomatise any ﬂow, through processes which are themselves deterritorialised. Wall Street, which itself consists primarily in networked data ﬂows, is determined to profit from user-generated content of social-networking sites, even as the culture industry, after a slow start, is making rapid progress not only in adapting to new media, but especially in harnessing the money-making potential of their production and distribution technologies.
The Deleuze dictionary. Revised Edition Edited by Adrian Parr . 2010.
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