“It is Raining”: A Philosophy of the Digital Stream (new intro)

“It is raining,” philosopher Louis Althusser writes. These words: a declaration; a marked change in the world outside; an announcement about the rain felling outside Althusser’s room at the Sainte-Anne clinic in late 1982. Only then, two years after his scandalous psychotic fit, did he begin writing again.[1] Peering through the window to outside, Althusser ended his dry spell with a book “before all else,” “about ordinary rain.”[2] Such ordinary rain is not the common sense notion of rain that pertains to water falling from the sky. Althusser’s rain is far more commonplace: it is the underground current of materialism that runs through the history of philosophy (“The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter,” 167). This watershed year also marked the emergence of another type of rain, which is seen through an altogether different window. 1982 was the year Time magazine named “the computer” its personal of the year. Three decades later, we now watch the streams that rush across our digital screens.

This article repeats Althusser’s materialist philosophy of the encounter. It is a materialist philosophy that arrives late in Althusser’s career to combine eclectic readings of Deleuze, Derrida, and Epicurus not present in his earlier writings on ideology, the state, and determinism. In repeating Althusser, however, this paper is not a return to Althusser – his conjuncture: debates within the French Communist party, or the philosophical legacy of Machiavelli and Hobbes – but rather, it chases the current of materialist philosophy in the field of media studies.[3]

Materialism is not new to media studies, to name a few examples: information theory has long quantified the ‘materiality’ of media for the purpose of scientific analysis. More recently, German media theory has studied the materialist dimension of media history, while “new materialism” have focused on material ontologies of mediation. The former explores “assemblages or constellations of certain technologies, fields of knowledge, and social institutions that compose the media a priori for human experience” (Horn, “‘There Is No Media’,” 6). The latter turns media and mediation into a common denominator for interdisciplinary conversations and collaborations (Parikka, “New Materialism as Media Theory”). Although both share a philosophical heritage with Althusser, neither of these approaches demands an urgent return to his thought.

The importance of repeating Althusser stems instead from the objects of investigation common to media studies; in particular, internet blogs and social media platforms. With the growing prevalence of ‘real-time Web,’ static pages are being replaced by information feeds that flow by like streams. What Althusser offers is the building blocks for a metaphysics that flows.

There are four basic elements to Althusser’s philosophy of the encounter: the rain of the void, the swerve, the encounter, and the take [prise] that constitute those streams (“Underground Current,” 167).[4] I identify three examples that highlight the stream as a space of encounter between otherwise disparate elements: Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar’s We Feel Fine, Lukaza Branfman-Verissimo and Zoë Ozma’s East Bay Crying Coalition, and Tomas Durkin, Lawrence Lu, Javad Moghassemi, and Naomi Satake’s Urinal Stream. Each project gathers information and organizes emotional content into streams meant to provoke future encounters. The significance of these examples is that they dramatize the politicization of streams through the amplification of the affective forces associated with them, as seen in the emerging culture of streaming feminism, which exemplifies what Sara Ahmed calls cultural politics of emotion. In this way, the projects counteract the aggressive, violent, and conspiratorial climate pervasive to digital culture by disseminating an alternative archive of feelings that act as an encoded repository of the practices that surround their production and reception (Cvetkovich, Archive of Feelings, 7). And by sharing in feminist project Public Feeling’s goal of transforming private emotions into a public resource for political action, streaming feminism speaks to the importance of a philosophy of the encounter (The Promise of Happiness; Cvetkovich, Depression: A Public Feeling).

An adequate media theorization of a politics based on something as transient as emotions in the stream, however, is another question. To address such fleeting phenomena, the paper utilizes the philosophy of the encounter; for, while Althusser theorized the persistence of capitalism as the ongoing reproduction of bad encounters, his philosophy can be used to describe the particularity other bad encounters in other social formations, such as the pervasiveness of street harassment in urban environments or the negative affects associated with patriarchy. So in addition to theorizing the stream and the transient material that makes up its existence, Althusser’s materialism of contingency focuses less on elaborating the laws of their movement and more on the aleatory character of the encounter (Althusser, “Underground Current,” 197).  With the void, the swerve, the encounter, and the take, this paper shows that the philosophy of the encounter is not just a method for analyzing the metaphysics of capitalism or even the laws of patriarchy and the real-time Web, but for revealing and expanding the underground currents of the stream into a surging tide that makes history.

[1] Althusser strangled his wife in 1980s. The event gained considerable press. The scandal began even more sensational when he was not tried for the crime. Althusser was, however, committed to the Sainte-Anne psychiatric hospital, where he remained until 1983.

[2] Althusser’s book manuscript was edited down to a single article by François Matheron.

[3] The distinction between repeating and returning was made notable by Slajov Zizek, who suggests in an uncharacteristically Deleuzian moment of repetition as reinvention and becoming. See Zizek’s Revolution at the Gates: A Selection of Writings from February to October 1917.

[4] These atomistic concepts, especially the swerve (clinamen), are already common notions within media studies. The work of philosophical figures such as Gilles Deleuze, Michel Serres, Ilya Prigogine, and Isabelle Stengers as important enough to the metaphysics of media to makes the Lucretian concepts Althusser is working with well known (see, for instance, Parisi and Terranova, “Heat-Death: Emergence and Control in Genetic Engineering and Artificial Life,” and Goodman, “Contagious Noise: From Digital Glitches to Audio Viruses,” The Spam Book, 125-40). Althusser readily admits that this philosophical tradition is not unknown, but instead characterizes it as too dangerous to be neglected and is therefore either mischaracterized or lacks the systematization of his four-part formulation (“Underground Current,” 168).


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