Steven Shaviro
Interviewed by José Bragança de Miranda
Arrabida, Portugal, September 2000

Q - Does it still make sense to talk about "post-modern" to refer to what is going on in contemporary experience?

A - Well, post-modernism ... I've actually tried to stop using the word because it means so many things to so many people that it has almost become a word that doesn't mean anything at all. To the extent that I still use it or find it inescapable, I'd say that I want to think of it not as a style or a choice but as a description of the general cultural circumstances which we're living under. Basically because various political, social, economic, technological changes with global capital, electronic transmissions and things like that, would I have a model theory of what influences what? It seems we have a constellation of things that is very different from, say, theory of mid 20th century or before. And post-modern is, unfortunately, the best word people have come up to describe or to give a label to this situation.

Q - And what about "Cyberculture"?

A - Cyberculture is the same kind of thing. It's a very vague word that may nonetheless, be inescapable. Since more people, myself included, are doing more things online, making connections, paying the bills and buying things, again it becomes a kind of inescapable word. I'm not sure whether the word itself means much except a designated area which we have to think about more carefully.

Q - Yet you often use these terms.

A - I am always worried about general theories; they make me nervous. Maybe it's just because I'm not good at doing them. When people make grand theories I fear that they are ignoring singularities and differences. In my own work I start out with very particular things and look and see what they lead to, rather than try to give a global totalizing overview. Lyotard has said that the age of the grand theories and narratives is over. I'm not sure if it's really that, or if this is just the kind of way I prefer to work. I'm suspicious of totalizing. Maybe it's because I'm post-modern; or maybe it's because you miss a lot of stuff if you go straight to the whole.

Q - What is your opinion about those thesis which insist on the "dematerialization" and on the "disembodiment" as an effect of digital technologies?

A - That's a complicated question. On one level there's been a lot of rhetoric about disembodiment and sometimes it takes very silly forms. When people have fantasies about downloading our brains into computer, becoming immortal, or when John Perry Barlow says the invention of the Internet was the most important human event since the taming of fire, that seems kind of ridiculous to me. On the other hand, it's obvious that things are changing, and one of the changes is that again the things will be less materialised, and because we have long distance communications and people aren't physically present we can, nonetheless, have contact. But that was already true in the 19th century with the telegraph and the telephone, though it is obviously more even more the case with out new technologies. So, I wouldn't deny that there are certain changes in how our bodies are going to be presenting themselves. What I criticise is these fantasies of total disembodiment which people writing about cyberculture have had. I don't believe they're possible, even if we take them at their word. If you're embodied in silicon instead of in carved and based flash, you're still embodied in something, and you can be wiped out if someone pulls the electronic plug. Everything has a physical substrate. Even if you accept--which I'm not sure I really do--the idea that information is just a pattern that can be enacted in any matter indifferently, it still has to be enacted in some matter or other. A pattern never exists without its material embodiment. Even if you accept to some extent this very seductive idea that a pattern can be repeated in different embodiments that doesn't necessarily mean that the matter in which the embodiment takes place is totally indifferent. Because matter isn't completely transparent, it has a certain density that I don't think can be eliminated. From that point of view, I'm critical of some of the very predominant cyber fictions which will talk about dematerialization this way. Because I don't believe it's possible, I'm not as worried about it as some theorists are when, for example, Baudrillard or the Krokers in Canada talk about the extermination of the body and the extermination of the real. It's not going to happen, because there is still a physical substrate, and there always will be. So, in that sense, I don't find the prospect of cyborgization terrifying for the same reason that I don't find it as exhilarating as do the people who think we're going to be immortal. The question is looking out for different types of materializatio, and figuring out what they really tell us.

Q - In fact, it's been clear that you're more interested in the way new technologies modulate emotions through images. May you explain us what you're looking for?

A - What you said is very much what I'm interested in, and in terms of what my project is, I'd say I'm interested in the question of affect. Partly because this question is generally ignored. The emphasis of the last twenty, thirty years on semiotics, on ideology and on textuality has often led to ignore questions of affect which are not necessarily reducible to linguistic codes. I'm interested in trying to find out that which is uncoded and how it leads to what is coded. I don't want to say we just cover our emotions instead of our rationality. That's obviously stupid. To think how questions of emotion have an impact upon semiotic codes, and seeing again how their change, is extremely important, and yet--it seems to me--it has been largely ignored. Again, what affects discourses, images and language, is often the result of their affect, rather than of their meaning. I don't have any romantic idea that we escape meaning or that we come to something truer or more natural, but I do think the whole realm of affect or emotion is a very important part of how we exist and negotiate through culture.

Q - Doesn't that imply a transformation of the image itself? Which are the effects on the cinema, about which you wrote a book?

A - I'm more interested in looking at modulations and looking at multiple possibilities. In terms of images the 20th century is very much the century of cinema. I can't see what the 21st century will be. Already in the latter part of 20th century the role of the cinema has been replaced by video and television in terms of what people do. Of course that's a great multiplication of the ways we're watching images. We have beautiful scenery behind us right now; but for the most part the mediasphere is the nature that surrounds us. I don't think it makes sense to deplore that. Film is an important way in which images proliferated but it's not the only way. I like film and I don't think film is going to disappear anymore than novels or painting disappeared. But I think the way films do images is both becoming less traditionally cinematic and more influenced by other things. And, increasingly, images pass in other ways besides through cinema. I do get a kind of aesthetic gratification from certain types of images which you might associate with either classic cinema, or modernist cinema from the 1960's and 1970's. And I do have a certain nostalgia for that. But, with all these mutations of technology since then, an artist can do more interesting things that wouldn't have happened otherwise.

Q - Just to finish, what is your position about technique? So much depends on this issue...

A - Technology is part of the human nature. If you take it in the broader sense you might say even animals have technology, at least in a very limited sense. But even if you take technology in a more narrow sense, in the way we talk about technological innovation, it's not something that has been invented twenty or fifty years ago, but it has existed for at least sixty thousand years. If you go to pre-historic records, the emergence of Homo sapiens is marked by differences in the structure of the skulls and bones, but also associated with the fact that these human beings started innovating much more, making a variety of tools. Technology in a human sense certainly occurs then. It's a mistake to think technology is only the particular new technologies or the particular post-newtonian science kind of technology. I think technology has always been what human beings are made of. If it makes sense to say of what the essence of the human being is made of, it's having a culture and technology. In so far as humans have language and a culture they also have technology. It's part of how we live in the world since we evolved to what we are now.

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