Saturday, April 27, 2013

8. Walter Lang - Desk Set & Ian Bogost - Procedural Rhetoric

Desk Set is a 1957 movie by Walter Lang that features Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. What is perhaps most unique about the medium of film, and is particularly encountered in the Golden Age of Hollywood, is that despite whatever attempts it may make to do otherwise, film is a historical document, an expression of spirit. Film, and perhaps all other expressive mediums, are trapped within the time of its making: the future is the future of that moment, the past is the past of that moment.

Procedural Rhetoric is the first chapter to Ian Bogost's book titled Persuasive Games, published in 2010. The book looks at video games as the expressive medium of our historical epoch, much like film was half a century ago. As film was infamously championed as the ideal medium of continuity, computer software, and video games in particular, is claimed to be the ideal medium of procedurality. Both of these mediums are considered to be ideal not because the processes they employ did not exist beforehand, but that the form of the mediums themselves are those processes.

It could easily be claimed that Desk Set is profoundly representative of a modernist ideology, but I would like to argue that the movie effectively complicates the signifying chain of representation that we (still) base our contemporary ideology on, one that is based on a dialectical form, visible in notions towards the operative domains of infrastructure and superstructure, software and hardware, individual and society, etc. In Bogost's lexicon, ideology is essentially procedure, "a way of creating, explaining, or understanding processes." (p3) The binary distinction comes from the belief that procedures both express things and at the same time are themselves expressions.
"Not all procedures are expressive in the way that literature and art are expressive. But processes that might appear unexpressive, devoid of symbol manipulation, may actually found expression of a higher order." (Bogost, p5)
"procedural representation takes a different form than written or spoken representation. Procedural representation explains processes with other processes. Procedural representation is a form of symbolic expression that uses process rather than language." (Bogost, p9)
What complicates the dialectical distinction is what Bogost aptly calls "procedural rhetoric," which is the relation between procedurality, defined as "a way of creating, explaining, or understanding processes" (p3) through the utilization of the processes themselves. He further claims that this situation of the self within a rhetorical space is not only the 'essence' of video games, but play itself: "we explore the possibility space its rules afford by manipulating the game’s controls" (p43).

The movie takes as its plot the imminent use of computers in the corporate office environment, visible from the opening credits until the film's end. It expresses the social weight of threatened working conditions through explicit representations of social relations. It would be tempting to call these representations "ideological," particularly when Hepburn's character is portrayed as a transgressive heroine, championing numerical aptitude in an impromptu test by a senior male engineer, as well as portraying a highly independent and active social life.

What 'complicates' this ideological representation is precisely within Bogost's notion of procedurality and is exemplified by Hepburn's character.
"we tend to think of procedures as fixed and unquestionable. They are tied to authority, crafted from the top down, and put in place to structure behavior and identify infringement." (Bogost, p3)
Bogost, following the discourse of Janet Murray, claims that procedurality is the "fundamental notion of  authoring processes." (Bogost, p12) My question therefore is regarding agency within procedure. In computer games, the agency of the player is to explore the limits of the game, but never to alter the limits of the game (though I may be able to be proven wrong in this, which I would gladly welcome, it is not unfair to say that this is the general strategy of games). Could we claim then that Hepburn's character does not subvert the ideological rules of high capitalism, but merely sublates them, and in the process enforcing them, to explore its limits?

Exemplified by customer service, procedure is not a fixed and impermeable form - it is "an approach, or a custom; a policy for ... relations" (p4). Therefore, as procedure is constituted by relations themselves, they are permeable, malleable. They are based on fidelity to an abstract idea, what Bogost locates in the metaphysical deployment of rhetoric, but as abstract, must be and are consistently negotiated, immanent to their manifestation. Hepburn without a doubt authors novel unit operations, to use Bogost's terms: she changes the rules with which we conceive of gendered social embodiments and economic relations. But by using the rhetoric of numbers as a metric for value, despite the fact that Hepburn liberates their gendered prejudice, she effectively diffuses their rhetorical hegemony. Foregoing its metaphysical (and debatably nihilistic) undertones that has arisen elsewhere on this blog already, is the problem: who has access to value, or the that value itself is considered to be a social privilege, something that can be accessed by some and not others? To put it another way, is setting an example enough? The supremacy of Hepburn's character is made evident not only in her spatial situation in the office and her role within the corporation, but in the attention and care her female work associates give to her and her social life. Hepburn transgresses, but what about the three other women who work with her? Is transgression itself a social privilege?

These possible answers to these questions ultimately reside in the metaphysical category of rhetoric, defined by Bogost as "effective and persuasive expression" (p3). The question can thus be reformulated as, is the performative act of transgression rhetorical enough to effect the alteration of the law which the act transgresses? Bogost himself advocates his own work in his company Persuasive Games as procedural rhetoric: the authoring of expressive processes for explicitly persuasive ends. His work itself questions the metaphysics of engagement, concurrently raising and redefining the questions 'why do we use programs' and 'what can programs do.' In computers, the primary issue may be its operationality, not the computer itself: computers are a fact of our reality that we are (still) only coming into contact with more frequently in our daily lives. The computer is a device, and for now, it still takes an explicitly conscious decision to use one. But when the 'procedural device' is not a tangible object, but closer to what Timothy Morton has termed a "hyperobject" (1), it is legitimate to put in question its sociopolitical existence. The computer's problem access, and therefore its terrain for political action, is fundamentally different than that of ideology. The law of the computer is the computer itself, the thing that we are using to read these words, but the law of ideology has no identifiable object, but merely indirect manifestations.

Rhetoric was originally used for the deliberation of political matters within the Greek Republic, with which a decision would be made: it functioned within the corporeal law of power as a means to persuade the instrumentality of power in one way or another. The rhetorical difference between the object and hyperobject of law is the relation between the conscious and the unconscious. There were certainly examples that formalized the inequality between men and women, but as a law (in its universal sense) was never represented as such. Perhaps this is for rhetorical reasons itself, for if the law is presented in its bare form it is too easy to object to, and therefore it had to manifest itself with contingent evidence so that the idea can be indirectly affirmed through processes of in/de-duction.

There are a plenitude of issues regarding classical notions of rhetoric, but it is fair enough to say thats contemporary nature has changed. According to Bogost, this has resulted in what we consider to be 'success' in our actions shifting away from "effective influence" to "effective expression" (p20), effectively transforming the object of rhetoric's desire from "persuasion" to "identification." Strongly echoing Ranciere's political discourse of the speech act and the distribution of the sensible, we can reformulate our question from before: Is effectively expressing something that was not expressed before enough to subvert the the hyperobject of ideological value that makes expression itself a privilege? By posing this question I do not mean to propose that it is not worth representing the unrepresented, but I do question whether it is the right focus of our creative and political energies.

The questions to which we have come to here have no immediate answer, but it can be assured that whatever is answered (or even their deferral) will be the result of a rhetorical process. Though, it would be a fallacy to believe that all rhetorical processes effectively operate on the same level as every other one. And perhaps by identifying the levels of specific rhetorical discourses themselves, we can begin to navigate the political terrain in a more directed manner to address not necessarily the manifestations of procedures, but the procedures themselves.

I will leave this post with a set of film stills from Desk Set that beautifully demonstrate the extension of rhetoric into the visual realm.

Film stills from Desk Set, Walter Lang, 1957

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