Review of, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media
MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts
264 pages, 44 b&w photos
In the first few pages of Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s Updating to Remain the Same, Chun evokes Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (2011), particularly Berlant’s articulation of everyday political ways of being as a kind of “impasse”. For Chun, as for Berlant, the present is marked by the becoming ordinary of crisis, making for an “affectively intense cul-de-sac” (3). Distinctly, Chun suggests crisis is ordinary today because crisis is one of the temporalities of networks, and networks are a new universal, encapsulating “everything that is new or different about social institutions, global formations, and political, financial, and military organizations” (26). The other temporality of networks is “habit”; “habits endure as society within collectives in which there is no society” (8). 1 I start this review with Chun citing Berlant because although Chun and Berlant are different kinds of scholars, with different kinds of subject matter, they share some important sensibilities too; both write toward what it feels like to be a contemporary subject, without necessarily turning to contemporary theories of feeling. 2 Such sensibilities are precisely what makes Chun’s work so distinctive in the field of software studies and are especially on display in this final book of a trilogy which, to borrow Chun’s own description of source code, is most recognisable as such after the fact. 3 In Updating to Remain the Same, Chun examines affective experiences of the contemporary—boredom, shame, panic—as they are routed through, determined by, and are determining drivers of, “new” media. Crucially then, whilst new media is the subject of this book, it is accounted for in relation to users and subjects as habituated beings in the world. Networks produce users as “small s sovereigns”, whose habituation is paradoxically what keeps networks going and threatens their obsolescence (39). In Updating to Remain the Same Chun offers a theory of the habitual as it is an aspect of networked computation, but also as an aspect of neoliberal governance, and of socio-cultural praxis beyond cultures of computation.
As with Chun’s previous books, Control and Freedom (2008) and Programmed Visions (2011), Updating to Remain the Same is an investigation into the “founding paradoxes” of new media; it moves on from the previous work by theorising possibilities for breaking out of these paradoxes, or at least re-routing them, figuring ways we may begin “inhabiting networked vulnerabilities”. The book is split into two major sections: part one is on the imagined and material networks of the Internet, and part two is on “the Internet’s Perverse Subjects”—in Chun’s formulation, the YOUs that make up the individuated collective subjectivity of new media publics. Across four chapters, Chun examines the centrality of the metaphor and lived reality of networks to our ways of understanding sociality today, and interrogates the myths that are perpetuated through reliance on a network-imaginary; that networks are securable and verifiable gives way here to networks as “leaky” and “promiscuous”. In the first chapter Chun discusses networks as central to the operations of neoliberalism, particularly to the ways the individual subject is the means by which society is dissolved. Here habits emerge in place of society—they are what comes to feel like a foundational relation to the world when the social is diminished. But, new media, as network, must forever be updating, becoming “new”, and so networks produce moments of “crisis” which demand we reorient our relation to the world around us; hence Chun’s formula “habit + crisis = update”. Crises are discussed at length in chapter two, which draws extensively from work already published elsewhere 4, and is perhaps closest to Chun’s previous books in its unpicking of the ways codes and crises produce the conditions for mythical and mystical sovereign subjects (human and nonhuman) to emerge. The third chapter turns to look at the mythical sovereign subjects given life by networks: the user(s). Chapter three focuses especially on “friends” and “friending”; perhaps the most visible, most ubiquitous, but also the most stubbornly obfuscatory vector through which new media networks have re-routed public/private spheres, and ethics of recognition and care. This chapter follows the ramifications of the knowledge that “in a networked world, there are two operational modes: habitual/programmed repetition (machinic and human) and critical exception” (69). The fourth and final major chapter explores alternative ways to inhabit networks. In another move that resonates with Berlant’s work, Chun here thinks about generic templates as a way of inhabiting online space; particularly as a way of being out in public, online, on terms other than those of the network. This is a specifically transgressive “out”, arrived at by way of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s epistemology of the closet. The primary subject of the fourth chapter is the proliferation of note-card videos where (mostly) young women hold a series of note-cards in front of their faces to speak of, or back to, some kind of online hailing. For Chun, this example of young women using YouTube as a means to “loiter” online reveals that embracing generic templates, instead of being idly interpellated as “individual”, may be a vital “means of shelter and habitation” in new media networks (133).
The discussion throughout the book pursues the ways networks are always already full of gaps and elisions through which the most vulnerable subjects are likely to be exploited. In a network, “without leaking information there could be no initial connection” (51). “A network card only appears faithful to its user because it discreetly erases—that is, does not write forward—its indiscretions” (52). In the end, new media are “wonderfully creepy” (51). Preceding each chapter is a section that outlines an unusually visible instance of the operations under examination. For example, an analysis of the KONY 2012 viral campaign as “enacting and imagining the power of social networks” (30). Before the third chapter, on the leakiness of social networks, Chun considers an intervention by Anonymous to seek justice for, and to protest the miscarriage of justice against, the teenage victim of a sexual assault that took place in Steubenville in 2012. For Chun both the event of assault, and the actions of Anonymous in response, reveal new media as “shatter[ing] windows of privacy and security, transforming them into high-speed optical cables that connect” (99). The penultimate of these scenes describes videos posted to YouTube in 2013 by undocumented young adults in support of the US Dream Act—videos which “embrace and indeed accentuate YouTube.com’s unrelenting template” so that the “Dreamers” can “come out” (132-133). Chun describes these sections as like an expository comment in a programming language, but I read them as affective scenes; slices of everyday life that illuminate the conditions being interrogated across the book through their suspension of the main narrative. Such a structure is noteworthy because it echoes the central call of the book: to recover “the undead potential of our decisions and our information [our habits] through a practice of constant care,” or “loitering” (71, 160). Loitering here is specifically derived from work by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade, on women’s’ rights to access and inhabit public space in Mumbai; for the right to loiter. Chun suggests that Phadke, Khan and Ranade “argue for loitering because mass loitering creates mixtures and possibilities that erode boundaries and create new spaces that do not ‘leak’ because boundaries are not compromised […] they are fundamentally changed” (159). In Chun’s thought, loitering online might be a means to inhabit the present rather than produce an archive, and to “transform ‘open’ private spaces into truly public ones” (160). Throughout Updating to Remain the Same the reader is called on to act in response to the network, and to act out our agency in its “drama called Big Data” (23, 62, 94). The sections preceding each chapter themselves act out the theory and act out(side) of the theory, and implicate the reader as a potential loiterer in the network-as-ideology.
Chun ends Updating with a brief discussion of the YOUs embodied in Natalie Bookchin’s multi-channel installations Mass Ornament (2009) and Testament (2009/2016). Both works draw on hundreds of vlogs to compose collective expressions—of dancing, in Mass Ornament, and of transformative personal statements (on being fired, coming out, being on medication) in Testament. It is great to end here, with such a clear image of networked new media YOUs—N(YOUs)—loitering. It is precisely because Chun always keeps in view the paradoxical nature of her subject, that the book ends like this. The discussion of Bookchin’s work is an important counter-weight to the various ways that Updating to Remain the Same tells a grim history of how the present arrives; that is, in the form of phenomena such as slut-shaming as the exemplary discourse of network culture. It is also writing into view ways of resisting and halting the narrative, and of reiterating that such a history is never inevitable. This is not a book about the internet gone bad. It is a book about the paradoxical shifts that come about in the private-public spaces of new media; what we need to face up to now; and what kinds of histories we need to help us think through the present. In an interview discussing the book Chun retells a story about spam—a personal anecdote about how Chun accidentally clicked on a spam message and then spammed her online “friends”. 5 Describing the ways spam is still a kind of touch, a relation between subjects, Chun suggests that today, when reaching out through spam, “somehow this is caring!”. Thinking of spam as a caring gesture is a generative turn, but so is what is encapsulated in that “somehow”, which is the thing at stake throughout Updating: that such a mode of relating is not inevitable, and is not inevitably bad—we got here, and will remain here, somehow.
- Throughout Updating to Remain the Same key phrases are in bold. This is a consciously different approach to using italics for emphasis and is, perhaps, visually closer to internet and instant messaging habits of using CAPS LOCK. ↩
- Much like Berlant, Chun is working around rather than with theories of affect. As she puts it elsewhere, “I wouldn’t want to claim that affect theory has it wrong. Some of my best friends are affect theorists! It’s just that, by focusing on affect and intensities, we miss ways in which intensities are constantly ignored. (…) I’m trying to get away from extremes and toward modulation.” Chun in conversation with Brian Droitcour for Triple Canopy, https://www.canopycanopycanopy.com/contents/to-be-is-to-be-updated?sub=somehow-this-is-caring ↩
- For Chun, source code can only ever be identified after the fact, and in being identified confers a sovereign power on the human (readable) program(mer) that belies the work of the machinic object code. In Chun’s words, “(c)ode does not always or automatically do what it says, but it does so in a crafty, speculative manner in which meaning and action are both created. It carries with it the possibility of deviousness: our belief that compilers simply expand higher-level commands rather than alter or insert other behaviors is simply that, a belief, one of the many that sustain computing as such. This belief glosses over the fact that source code only becomes a source after the fact.” Programmed Visions: Software and Memory (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2011), 24. See also Jentery Sayers review of Programmed Visions for issue one of Computational Culture http://computationalculture.net/review/review-programmed-visions-software-and-memory. ↩
- Published as “Crisis, Crisis, Crisis, or Sovereignty and Networks,” in Theory Culture and Society 28.6 (2011): 91-112, and again in The Non-Human Turn, ed. Richard Grusin (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 139-166. ↩
- https://www.canopycanopycanopy.com/contents/to-be-is-to-be-updated?sub=somehow-this-is-caring ↩