Culture Machine, Reviews


Robert Pepperell and Michael Punt (2000 HB, 2003 PB) The Postdigital Membrane: Imagination, Technology and Desire

Portland, OR: Intellect Books. ISBN HB: 1841500429, PB: 1841508454.

Steven D. Scott

Think of a book that is scholarly without being academic, or perhaps academic without being scholarly; that accepts the so-called death of the author in explicit terms, dismissing early in the first section 'the dubious authority of the author as the final arbiter of meaning' (12); that abandons the notion that monographs ought to have a unifying thesis and a coherent interpretation as their very reason for being, and you will have begun to think of something that resembles this book.

Eschewing traditional argumentation, The Postdigital Membrane takes as its central metaphor the 'biological membrane, a lubricating sheath that gives form to complex phenomena (such as imagination, technology and desire) at the same time as enabling a continuity between them' (2). The metaphor is important because it 'both connects and divides. If we are to talk about an environment that is both changing and staying the same, or things that are both separate and integrated, we need mental tools more subtle than exclusive, binary logic can supply. As a consequence, we insist that formal analysis of human culture is inadequate' (2). Pepperell and Punt claim that 'the membrane must be described through both analysis and sensation, and that this description must never be confused with explanation' (2-3). In addition, the convergence of the three terms of the subtitle indicates the authors' intention to explore, acknowledge, and describe 'the continuity between art, computing, philosophy and science' (2), and, I might add, creative and critical writing.

One of the main results of the hands-off anti-explanatory rhetorical strategy of this book is that 'the balance of interpretation [has been shifted] towards the reader as they engage with the thick membrane of text and images we provide' (5).This is a book, then, that is not traditional in its approach to argument, to explanation, or to interpretation. It is admirable in that when one is reading it and forming one's own interpretation(s), one has no sense that lurking behind the collided images, texts, and other fragments of the book is what the authors consider the 'right' interpretation of the material; it really is up to the reader to decide. The authors have made their choices of materials; what gets done with those materials is not their concern. Clearly, the images are not random; this is not an undirected collection. It is a museum/collection with purpose, intention, and direction, but that purpose, intention, and direction really are left to the reader to flesh out. In short, this is a book that has an attitude rather than an argument, an approach rather than a thesis. In those senses, it is the embodiment of a postmodern, self-reflexive meta-argument. In fact, it reads rather like a postmodern novel, or, perhaps more accurately, like a volume of Donald Barthelme's collected stories.

The book is divided into ten sections, each of which begins with a 'proposition' that loosely links the images and text that will appear in that section. For instance, the first proposition is, 'Technology is the tangible expression of desire motivating human imagination to modify reality' (7). The section itself, in turn, is composed of images (among them, line drawings of a woman slicing bread; two carriers transporting someone in a divan chair; an early pre-Wright brothers attempt at an airplane) and paragraph-long fragments of discussion. Appearing in this first section as a discussion of the ways technology has changed communication is a transcription of email correspondence regarding what John Travolta is reading in Pulp Fiction. The various answers to that question rely very strongly on each writer's memory and speculation ('From my hazy recollection, Vince was reading Modesty Blaise while sitting on the toilet and in another scene too I think' [11]). Pepperell and Punt write, 'the point of the question was not primarily to obtain a definitive answer but to reinvigorate the movie after it was over. Not only does email technology spawn a new kind of discourse, it also propagates extended loops of discussion that amplify the shared pleasure of the movie' (12). Scholarship by this email model, then, becomes not so much the analysis and interpretation that it has been traditionally, but the sharing of the experience of a film, and the 'reinvigorating' of the material under analysis: not a search for answers, but a search for shared experience. The first section concludes with this aphorism: 'The imagination is prompted by human desire to modify the world through technology, which in turn prompts desire' (25). This is not the conclusion to an argument that was begun by the 'proposition' that opened the section; nor, as I have already suggested, is it an advancement of an overarching argument; instead, it is (merely) the final installment of that section, the last observation before the book continues to Section Two, whose proposition is, 'My awareness extends to, and consists in, those things of which I am aware' (27).

The Postdigital Membrane is, depending on one's own disposition, a kind of latter-day postmodern rendering of Barthes's Mythologies, a series of aphoristic observations, or the sound byte version of academic discourse. The book will not be to everyone's taste, but for some readers it will be an enjoyable excursion along a trail that was in part blazed by Nietzsche in philosophy, and followed by others since with varying success.

The final installment of the book is telling. It is a representation of the Yin/Yang, with this accompanying/conjoining/complementing text: 'The Chinese symbol for Yin and Yang is not a binary symbol because each side carries something of the other--the opposites are not mutually exclusive, they are essentially analogue, and complementary' (165); there is no concluding period.

Steven D. Scott teaches in the Department of English at Brock University. His research interests include postmodern and contemporary literature and literary theory. He is interested in intersections and borders (including those between literature and film, between modernism and postmodernism, between technology and spirituality, those defining genre and those defining gender) and the ways those boundaries get patrolled; his published work, in such journals as The Canadian Review of Comparative Literature and The Literature/Film Quarterly, reflects those interests. He is most recently the co-editor of Intersections: Readings in the Sciences and Humanities, 2nd ed. (Toronto: Pearson, 2005). He is also the editor of The Brock Review, an annual interdisciplinary journal.