What If the Who Became the What? Bernard Stiegler Listens to Tommy

Jason Helms
Texas Christian University

The MLArcade was an amazing project to take part in. Geof’s call evoked fascinating responses from a variety of scholars across a multiplicity of media. My own intervention mixed traditional scholarship with new media delivery. In my response, I imagined Bernard Stiegler offering a deep phenomenological analysis of pinball.

Stiegler, a French philosopher of technology, is a complex thinker who has often been gravely misunderstood. Some of his writings are seriously anti-technology. In Taking Care of Youth and the Generations he argues that video itself is dangerous to children’s developing minds. I’m not particularly persuaded by these arguments. However, the majority of his writing is much more even-handed, seeing every technology as always containing danger and salvation simultaneously.

For Stiegler, technology is an extension of ourselves. This is nothing new. Stiegler stresses, though, that we can never separate humans from technology. To be human is to extend oneself through technology, and all technology is human. Across many of his books and articles he makes a clear and consistent argument: technology changes the ways we think..

If that’s true, then it seems clear that the 500-year-old technology of print still shapes our current modes of scholarship to a greater degree than any other technology. Print shapes not only the delivery of the scholarship, but the way we think at such a fundamental level that we often don’t notice that it dictates our scholarly values. Good arguments obey print logics. Arguments that rely on digital logics are often seen as “creative” or even slipshod, but certainly not scholarly. In this project, I wanted to create something that would work across both worlds. In a sense, that means my project fails in each world: it’s too digital to be traditional and too traditional to be digital. However, we are still in a transitional moment, and this project reflects the tensions of that transition.

This idea runs counter to many well-established theorists of technology—ranging from philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Paul Virilio to popular critics like Nicholas Carr and Jaron Lanier—all of whom share the concern that modern technology flattens individual differences and reduces beings to sharable data. Sherry Turkle, in particular, speculates that our machines are eroding our capacities to navigate more complex emotions, preventing us from being authentically human.

I wanted to look at something that is less transitional than new media. Pinball is a technology that has been around long enough for our culture to have adequately assimilated it, whereas the we is still relatively new. The Who’s Tommy offers a great example of the technology being assimilated, becoming more and more a part of our lives. From the initial ball bearings of the second world war to the mass stardom of Tommy, the rock opera explores pinball’s assimilation. Tommy in particular experiences pinball as an extension. Tommy is not Tommy without his machine, and likewise the unplayed machine isn’t really a machine.

This video explores the phenomenological relationship between human and machine in the pinball experience as an attempt to lay the groundwork for future studies that might do the same for newer media. Such studies would enable us to articulate means for creating media that encourage people to “rest on attention.”

My writing began in a word-processor. I’m used to this. I can do it. This project differed mainly in that as I was writing I attuned myself to specifically visual ways of highlighting points and making arguments. I wrote notes to myself and began differentiating between the text I was writing (which would be read) and visual ideas and cues that I would write in Adobe Flash to correspond to my spoken text. What surprised me most about this process was how much I had to pull back the visuals when it actually came to animating. Certainly, some of my reductions were due to the infeasibility of my initial ideas. However, most of them were because more animation looked wrong, busy, ugly. I was making arguments about “resting on attention” (Stiegler’s somewhat clunky phrase), but my visuals kept dissipating attention. I began paring my animations down (an onerous task after creating things that I thought were cool, evocative, and persuasive). I discovered that the textual components of the argument were in danger of being drowned out by the visual aspects.

It’s for this reason that the animation starts very simply: just a few key words to help the viewer’s mind attach to the key concepts. Gradually I introduce a simple visual effect. Words do not simply appear, they drop down and swing as though suspended by a horizontal bar, subtly imitating the spinners on a pinball machine. Then the relationships between the concepts was animated (for example, the word “capitalism” pushes “cure” out of the equation). The animation reaches its zenith when the entire screen becomes a pinball machine. Concepts literally bounce off of each other. Here there is a very real danger of the visuals usurping the viewers attention to the detriment of the spoken word. Fortunately, it is also here that the visuals most closely align themselves with the audio. Rather than replacing the traditional argument, at this moment the visuals repeat the argument. To my surprise, they even seem to make the argument more persuasively than words alone could.

After the pinball scene, the ratio gradually returns to the original privileging of spoken word over visuals. Just before the end of the animation, there is only a blank screen with spoken audio for almost twenty seconds. This visual silence sets up the last two visuals, questions that are meant to linger, so that they can have a lasting impact on the viewer.