Sunday, February 6, 2011

Toward a Theoretical Framework for AR Apps (Learning from Barthes)

Of all the great French theorists, Roland Barthes is probably the best at generating original critical frameworks immanent to a wide variety of new and/or non-canonical cultural artifacts.  For instance, he wrote the essays of Image-Music-Text at a time (the 1960s) when few philosophers took seriously the photographic or filmic image; indeed, academic film studies was still in its infancy as a discipline.  Here, I'm thinking about the first three essays in the collection: "The Photographic Message," "The Rhetoric of the Image," and "The Third Meaning: Research Notes on Some Eisenstein Stills."  Barthes introduces three related but uniquely termed sets of concepts with which to analyze the still images of press photography, print advertisements, and film.

While these approaches are generally useful, I believe the most valuable lesson we can learn from Barthes concerns the act of generating new critical frameworks immanent to the form/materiality of the media in question.  That is, rather than apply his terms as a means to study contemporary augmented reality apps, I want to parallel his critical/theoretical invention process by using his work with still images as a relay for generating a framework for AR apps.

Barthes, like many critics, is concerned with the units of analysis that structure our readings/viewings.  He discusses photographic and filmic images as a whole united by common material and structural properties; he also isolates more specific genres: "the press photograph," "the advertising image," etc.  Then he focuses on specific images within those genres (e.g., the Panzani ad) and, from the individual instances, generalizes levels of meaning and categories of elements that he claims are intrinsic to the significance of the medium itself.

If we want to claim or show something about the significance of AR apps, then I think it makes sense to start at individual instances and generalize insights from the emergent intermingling of such instances.  But what constitutes an individual instance of an app?  Surely we can't take as a consequential unit of analysis the individual instances of a particular user's image/text contribution the app (assuming the app is fueled by user-generated content, as is the case with most of the AR apps I'm interesting in).  I am less interested in the writing that occurs when people type words with their phones (i.e., the smartphone as an instrument/tool for the writing subject) and more interested in the writing of the phone that occurs when one's hands do not engage the keyboard or the speech recognition software (i.e, the smartphone as a posthuman writing system, by virtue of user content and AR app capabilities).  I suspect that the significance of these AR apps is not in the choices they afford to writers, or at least, that we are bound to miss some of their significance if we remain bound to the decision-centered frameworks traditional to rhetoric.  The pregnant moment, to use Barthes's expression, lies not  in the writer's input but in the app's extension of possible input sources--the app's capacity to register, connect to, and be affected by the non-human enunciative assemblages of a given location.

This approach to AR apps resonates with Barthes's discussion of writing in the latter half of Image-Music-Text.  In "The Death of the Author," he works from Stephane Mallarme's poetics to rethink the assumptions at the forefront of literary criticism prior to the 1960s:
For him [Mallarme], for us too, it is language which speaks, not the author; to write reach that point where only language acts, 'performs,' and not 'me.' Mallarme's entire poetics consists in suppressing the author in the interests of writing." (143)
Writing is distinct from the author in that writing does not belong to the author; instead, the author is a function of writing: "the author is never more than an instance of writing" (145).  Suppression of the author occurs when writing provokes the reader away from the habit to hunt for meaning in terms of authorial intent (i.e., when readers stop asking what is the author's message, what is s/he mean by that, etc).  In other words, the birth of the reader beyond the author (the birth of writing in this Barthes/Mallarme sense) is synonymous with several other transitions posited in Barthes oeuvre, most notably the shifts from work to text and from readerly text to writerly text.  

Barthes description of the modern scriptor (who no longer writes or is read as an author) provides an strikingly useful approximation of the grammatological conditions or scene of the writing of the phone (see above):
In complete contrast [to the authors primacy over the work], the modern scriptor is born simultaneously with the text, is in no way equipped with a being preceding or exceeding the writing, is not the subject with the book as predicate; there is no other time than that of the enunciation and every text is eternally written here and now. (145) 
Succeeding the Author, the scriptor no longer bears within him passions, humours, feelings, impressions, but rather this immense dictionary from which he draws a writing that can know no halt. (147)
There is the production of writing and its circulation, which I govern(?) by directing my phone toward the sources of writing, which the phone (by virtue of GPS) detects or "knows" much more readily than I ever do.  That is, I direct my phone according to the directions it presents.      Am I this modern scriptor or is it my phone?

Arguably of Mallarme's tradition, Samuel Beckett endeavored throughout his career to suppress the author in the interests of writing. For example, in his one-act play That Time, Beckett completely abandons punctuation, leaving the reader/actor to direct the meaning of the by reading the writing in one way or another way.  Embedded within each passage are multiple paths of emphasis: “when you went in out of the rain always winter then always raining that time in the Portrait Gallery in off the street out of the cold and rain slipped in when no one was looking.”  Here, the act of reading necessitates a performative ascription of meaning, more radically than a carefully punctuated text, because the reader implicates herself, through spontaneous selection, as a structuring principal of the text.

Both Beckett's theatre and AR apps disrupt and conflate our conventional distinctions between acts of reading and acts of writing.  But we can say more than that.  With Beckett (and Mallarme and other writers Barthes mentions), we experience a separation of author and meaning.  And this is, according to Barthes, the critic's worst nightmare, since the task of literary criticism has been primarily that of "discovering the Author (or its hypostases: society, history, psyche, liberty) beneath the work" (147).  Without the critical/authorial imposition of a final signified, writing opens itself up beyond such representation and the question of meaning shatters into infinite variations.  Writing becomes more a field for the play of signification and less a mirror supposed to represent the mind, society, nature, etc.  

If the writing of the text (particularly the writerly text) announces a separation of author and meaning, then perhaps we are sensing in AR apps a (historically unique) separation of the act of writing from the writer.  In other words, AR apps clarify and popularize a set of writing acts that occur autonomously from the input of a human subject and that circulate writing which is imperceptible to the naked eye.  And so, to connect this crucial dynamic with the above discussion regarding units of analysis, it may be fruitful, in the case of AR apps, to conceive of the particular instance not as an individual user's contribution to the system but as a specific posthuman configuration/process mapped out and set into motion by the writing of the phone app as an augmented reality system.  Therefore, rather than levels of meaning (Barthes), my framework would be positioned to articulate a few of the most significant posthuman tendencies establish by (or accruing along side of) the widespread use of AR apps. 

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