Contagious Thoughts, Mutating as Needed

Why VirusHead?

Fear not!

I’m stuck with the name now, so let me explain.

“VirusHead” evolved as a personal mutation on the “theoryhead.”

Theoryheads immerse themselves in the study of theory – literary theory and poststructural philosophy (deconstruction is one flavor of this), media and popular culture, and so on. It’s one of those names that started out as an insult but then got adopted with a certain amount of somewhat ironic pride. A bit like “geek.”

I am a theoryhead but I became a VirusHead while I was working on my dissertation. I was thinking, researching and writing about viruses, viral tropes, and virus-like structures. My 2004 dissertation is a discourse analysis on how viruses are imagined in contemporary fiction – with chapters on vampires and communion, HIV/AIDS fictions, bioterrorism thrillers, and speculative science fiction.

In short, I was thinking about viruses way, way, way, way too much.

The textual materials themselves seemed to crisscross and vector out and divide and overlap again into metastasis, moving like my own ideas, like a virus. I was reflexively and intertextually and bio-machinically (yes, I know that’s not a word) infected, a one-woman epidemic of mutational interpretation following the networked traces of the viral.

Biological viruses, computer viruses, uncanny viruses, nanotech, memes – I immersed myself in the flows and ambiguities as they were expressed in – and constructed through – fiction. I was fascinated, but sometimes the process made me anxious in ways that theory never did. Once or twice I slipped into magical thinking. When you’re dwelling in the same conceptual terrain for a while, synchronicities happen. We are a species of pattern recognition. Sometimes when you look into the abyss, the abyss looks back at you.

“VirusHead” was my bracketing/distancing technique.

Seeing myself as a VirusHead made me laugh.

I’ve had an online site of one sort or another since 1996. When I got my own domain, I named it VirusHead. That led to some misunderstandings – of which the less said, the better.

There is actually another VirusHead, which is why I’m at .net and not .com. It’s a very cool site, go visit.

Rambling alert: The following is only for the intensely curious.

“…the self does not know itself immediately, but only indirectly by the detour of the cultural signs of all sorts which are articulated on the symbolic mediations which always already articulates actions, and, among them, the narratives of everyday life.” – Paul Ricoeur

The first time I heard the word “theoryhead” was in the late 80′s. It was a reactionary insult against people who took a bit more than a passing interest in theories of postmodernism (and postmodern theories). Derrida‘s deconstruction movement seemed to be the tipping point for the non-toleration. There are many kinds of theory; postmodernism is a catch-all. Although there has been a lot of debate, the postmodern condition – and what it includes or excludes – has not been authoritatively defined (which itself is very postmodern). Family resemblances and characteristics of postmodern thought include: the shift to global consumer capitalism with its transnational financial structures, religious and cultural pluralism, the priority of difference over identity, analyses of the intertwinings of knowledge and power and the architecture and politics of desire, repercussions of simulation culture (the image culture), where the sign replaces the real instead of pointing to it (the flag, for example), and so on… No-one has yet emerged with a descriptive name of resonance and sticking power. We’re stuck with postmodernism for now.

There has been some conflation and confusion between postmodern theories and political movements of equality and liberation. They are not identical (although they have connecting nodes here and there). For example, people who are committed to studying topics like class, race, gender, national identity, colonialism, sexual orientation/preference and so on have wondered why the deconstructionists seemed to be so gung-ho for the dismantling of the “subject” and “identity” just when certain groups of subjects were gaining a voice through identity politics.

This conflation of different spheres, content, and aims has led to backlash as nonsensical as some of the trivializations of the liberation movements (“political correctness”). The literary “canon,” for instance, is sometimes presented as though it has always existed, and has always been the same, forever and ever (amen). Well, the project to make a list of “canonical” works of literature that represent the Judeo-Christian Western tradition has a history of its own (even the Christian bible has a material history of text inclusion and exclusion). Authors and works have moved in and out of high regard in different circles and for a variety of reasons. Different works speak differently or with different intensities to different people at different times and places. Who decides what is “canonical,” and why? for who? where? when? how?

My graduate school peers were second- or third-wavers. Many of them didn’t have much grounding in philosophy, sociology, economics, or linguistics. Derrida was old news before we even understood a thing he was saying. Poststructuralism courses were even taught in graduate school without background in structuralism (how postmodern). Then, theory seemed to be “out”, before many had even started to absorb the implications of even small sectors of application. In practice, this meant that many graduate students (and professors, too) understood just enough theory to make a really big mess.

Theory doesn’t scare me, although at times it seems unnecessarily opaque. The reading is difficult, but I don’t get anxious about it the way some people do. I find some arguments, writers and artists more compelling than others.

What was very liberating for me personally was the implicit obligation to become more conscious about one’s own ideologies and assumptions. Letting go a bit on the idea that anyone could stand in a God-position to proclaim truth with a capital T, knowledge with a capital K, and beauty with a capital B, made everything a lot more interesting. There was a real effort to become aware of viewpoints and understandings as themselves constructed out of where/when/who we are. We talked about “subject positions,” then we discussed the ways in which the “subject” itself was a constructed thing. Identity is not stable or unitary. Reference became intertextuality, reflection became reflexivity. Language itself was looked upon in terms of networks, resonances, silences, multiple meanings and deferred meanings, rhythms and syncopations.

I had been accustomed to universal, absolutist claims. These thoughts and ideas opened up new ways of seeing, being and becoming, and my life of the mind became more creative, more performative. Among other things, playing with language opened up the possibility of more nuanced ethical choices and judgments. At least, that’s how it seemed to me.

After having studied philosophical theology and ethics for a few years, with its heavy doses of theological thinkers like Aquinas, Schleiermacher, and Gadamer, it was wonderful for me to read something completely different, like Baudrillard and Borges and Burroughs (my three B’s). Hermeneutics and deconstruction went together for me like Christianity and Buddhism/Taoism – very complementary, alternating currents. Add a touch of New Criticism, some feminist thought and comparative mythology, a little meditation on style, and I was one extremely happy former fundamentalist.

An example of philosophical/literary Derrida: “In every closed space there are things called ‘exits,’ and that’s what defines it as a closed space.” Think on that.

A typical train of thought, from my journal at the time: “Is a boundary a boundary until there is a leak? What is the meaning of osmosis if nothing ever bleeds through? Boundaries depend on how you conceptually carve up the world. Ideas are constructed around, yet dependent upon, an absence.”

Or as I tried to explain to a friend, “part of the thing is the unthing that undermines the thingness of the thing, while being essential to its very definition. See? It can’t be the thing without that unthing that helps define the thing.”

She kicked me in the shin. Good times.

Some theoryheads really are off-putting in various ways. I’m sure I have been. The technical terminology combined with new ways of reading and writing made many of the texts too inaccessible. Some of its groupie practitioners were arrogant, self-centered and/or completely incoherent. There never really was a successful popularizer either (unless you count Laurie Anderson, who I heard say in a concert once that anyone who can listen to “Yankee Doodle” without anxiety shouldn’t really be afraid of postmodernism).

I enjoyed reading – listening – paying attention to possibilities for strong interpretations of a text, but also listening for the silences – what was missing, what was unsaid and assumed, who was left out. Outside of linguistic and philosophical considerations, it gave me a whole set of different reading methods. One of which was simple, a political reading. Just ask different questions – “what is missing here? who isn’t allowed to speak on this – why? what situation or concept is being left out? who benefits from its being left out?” and so on. It expanded and complicated my feminist, material, psychoanalytic, and religious questioning.

We missed something important there – even with all the research and discussion about power and experience and class and gender and sexuality and race and desire and identities and intelligences and networks. I believe that we missed a moment where we could have done something more. What most theorists and critics seem to have underestimated was the extent to which the discourse was truly liberated – in any direction, to the point of splitting and at least partly looping back into repression. Any narrative could be “deconstructed” – or at least played upon – not just the oppressive dominant ones, but any at all. A tool is a tool is a tool. Knowledge and power, tied at the hip.

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault puts forward two images to illustrate the difference between two different kinds of power regimes. One describes a man who is tortured (flesh torn off, burnt with sulfer, molten lead, boiling oil and resin..) inpublic. Such a public display demonstrates the sovereign’s personal power to inflict pain upon transgressors and to eliminate them (except for their example, which re-inscribes the King’s power). This is spectacle.

The other is a man, invisible to the general public but under constant surveillance in a prison – a panopticon. This regime is constructed upon the production of conditioned docile bodies. It’s based on a science of control and discipline composed of activity controls, repetition, hierarchies at different levels all seeking direction, and normalizing judgments – all through self-reinforcing and localized institutions. The King isn’t strictly necessary; moles and eyes and technologies of control (including language) exist at every point and level and they police themselves. This is surveillance.

Fallujah, Guantanamo, New Orleans, Abu Graib, illegal spying, staged historical photo-ops, corruption and fraud, purchased influence, fake democracy. What regime is this? And how did it get so much more destructive so quickly?

New forms of the ever-familiar manipulation of the masses.

Instead of lines of flight and deterritorializations and creative conjunctions and cyborg alliances, we have spinmasters.

Instead of financial thriving and a healthy economy, we have a conjunction of government with crony capitalists and corporatists – a bond so tight as to defeat separation.

To the extent that there are still distinctions to be made between the political parties, I think the right wing feels most comfortable with language games these days. They employ (and I mean employ) rhetoric in two modes – I call them the hammer and the weasel. Unfortunately, these fly rather well with a large segment of our population.

As a culture, we don’t seem to be able to become more sophisticated in our interpretive abilities. It’s bad for us as a nation, very bad, because we all need interpretive tools and the inclination to use them. Unfortunately, our culture has been dumbing down for a while – and that’s everyone’s fault, everyone’s.

I haven’t given up. Commercials give us practice, and Americans do smell mendacity… sooner or later.

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