Nonne Nano

December 30, 2015   •   By James S. Tobias

Mondo Nano

Colin Milburn

SINCE LONG BEFORE Walter Benjamin wrote of Mickey Mouse films that “here we see for the first time that it is possible to have one’s own arm, even one’s own body, stolen,” it’s been clear that the pleasure of projecting ourselves into mass media imagery can be risky but redemptive business. Benjamin’s consideration of the implications of projecting bodies and selves through technological media systems, whether as a mode of psychic survival or of social death, constituted provocative (if fragmentary) speculation on his part in 1931. With the exponential growth of computer graphics and digital networking technologies since the 1970s, however, critical meditations on life within media networks has become something more like a perennial conversation starter in some circles. Has your personal data been hacked, your online persona creeped, your avatar griefed, your residential address doxed, your actual home swatted? And if you’re even aware of it, do you know why — for fun, profit, or simply malice? And at what economic or psychic costs?

Since the 1980s, as seen in the progressive formulation (and, perhaps, at some moments and in some quarters, obsolescence) of academic disciplines like “technocultural studies,” “cybercultural studies,” “science and technology studies,” “web studies,” “digital humanities,” and other rubrics registering tensions between advances in industrial complexity and humanistic critique of culture, the increasing entanglement between intimate experience and computational simulation and network dissemination has repeatedly demanded — and promptly received — responses from the qualitative humanities in efforts to arrive at critical accounts of this entanglement of self and system that doesn’t simply resort to the obvious but problematic answer of “technological impact”: technology that somehow comes from outside of history or society to “impact” the rest of us inside it — or, to badly paraphrase Sigfried Giedion, “technology taking command.” Still, despite the humanist’s rejection of “technological determination” of social effects, positive or negative, tales of DNA or fingerprint data theft or cyber warfare nevertheless prompt us to wonder: isn’t much of the potential or risk we are confronted with in contemporary cultures largely an aftereffect of an overreliance on technology we don’t really understand very well, an inescapable expression of technological power that threatens familiar or shared values, or, alternately, that holds the potential of, say, radical democratization?

The “post-humanist” camp of technocultural critique splits these differences, seeing technological developments arising in larger historical settings, while also acknowledging specific ways in which social and economic power are deeply invested in scientific and technological developments whose effects might ripple outward from the research lab or the video game. The results have included massively influential and endlessly debated interventions in the way qualitative humanists understand science, technology, culture, history, and the body: French philosopher Gilles Deleuze proposed that we are no longer modern “individuals” cohering over time but rather postmodern “dividuals,” constantly undergoing fragmentation; Donna Haraway’s feminist call to arms in her “cyborg manifesto” continues to be revisited some 30 years after initial publication; Sandy Stone’s 1994 argument that at the digital interface the default body is transgender was an early sign of the powerful cultural currency now routinely assigned to trans bodies as defining cultural dynamics rather than being marginalized by them; Katherine Hayles proposed that information processing functions in and as a particular “regime of computation” that links and transforms signs and bodies, knowledge and matter, in both powerful and constraining ways; and so on. The question giving rise to these varied and still diversifying accounts of contemporary culture is basic: how do social power and individual or collective agency work when social relations and cultural forms are expressed largely through technical modalities? The answers to this question, of course, are invariably complex.

Colin Milburn’s Mondo Nano is a recent instance of post-humanist technocultural critique that offers more than just the exploration of digital gaming and play promised by its title. For his part, Milburn brackets his exploration of nanotechnology and cultural form with two well-known considerations of “play.” The first understanding of play Milburn applies comes from an often-cited modernist theorist of play, Johan Huizinga, whose 1938 Homo Ludens has frequently been revived as a touchstone or framework for analyzing digital play narrowly in digital gaming scholarship, and more broadly, in accounts like Milburn’s, which is concerned less with gaming mechanics in first-person shooters, say, and more with the ludic turns and slippages that arise in both scientific and science fictional descriptions of nanotechnology. Huizinga’s account of play in culture is rich, but Milburn limits his use of Homo Ludens to its observation that play is associated with a time and space that is liminal in some ways, isolated from and structured differently than other social settings of everyday life. Closing his study, Milburn provides a citation of a classic essay by French literary critic and textual philosopher Jacques Derrida, in which Derrida suggests two sides of play: one that tends to close off interpretation, that is nostalgic, guilty, Rousseau’s child, and one that is a child of Nietzsche, where play is a matter of endlessly affirmative, open-ended interpretation. Between these two accounts of play — play as happening in a magic circle set apart from the world (whether research lab, digital game space, or “nanotech city”) and play as interpretation of how self and world signify (opening up or closing down possibilities) — Milburn surveys key figures of nanotech culture and “digital matter”: nano-scale cars “written” in molecules; nanotech instruments for programming molecular structures and video game versions of molecular programming; video game narratives of nanotech; the utopian imagination of nanotech reconsidered with respect to utopian and speculative fiction; online “virtual worlds” as sites in which the rhetorics or ideologies of nanotechnology development routinely play out; the science fiction and the science of wearable “nano-suits” for super-soldiers; the “nanopolis,” or nanotechnology-oriented urban development, compared against video game cities like the underwater metropolis of BioShock; and finally, the avatar as a mode of embodying the contradictory tensions of simulation and miniaturization.

In reviewing and rethinking Milburn’s work here, I’m foregrounding the ways that he frames his widely-ranging discussions of nanotechnology and cultural form in terms of two very different ideas of play because, as I hope has become clear, Milburn does not offer a definitive take on, say, the game BioShock; he won’t be giving you the cheats you need to win or providing a close reading of how the game’s narrative or mechanics work in terms of its genre, platform, or effects. Nor does he really define nanotechnology in any concrete way; at one point, he does describe his interests in “digital matter” as pertaining to “nanotechnics,” but that’s not the point. Milburn is arguing that the same historical forces that are producing the value of developing, exploring, and deploying nanotechnologies are the very same forces thematized commonly in digital games, and, as well, the very same forces that animate the digital avatar and make our use of online avatars make sense. Mondo Nano, then, is not interested in the way that nanotechnology is developing in the world of speculative science, but rather, in the ways in which developments in programmable, molecular matter are indebted to developments in subjectivity, aesthetics, perspectival worldview, and spatial construction that are first modeled or explored historically in literature and the arts. Other scholars have made the same kind of claim, albeit with attention to neuroscience and cognitive studies instead of nanotechnology, for example in Barbara Maria Stafford’s Echo Objects: The Cognitive Work of Images (University of Chicago Press, 2007). Milburn’s approach is, in some ways, comparable, although he is much more focused on questions of playful slippages between speculative science and speculative fiction as opposed to questions of art objects and cognition, as Stafford was. The scope and ambition of Mondo Nano are as large in scale, perhaps, as nano-structures are small.

For the good, then, Mondo Nano revisits, in a new frame, the classic questions of technological media studies initially considered by scholars like Benjamin: not whether the images have value as art or commerce, but more fundamentally, how do we enter into the worlds these intensively mediated images present? How do nano-scale imageries and imaginaries present and compound problems of thought and feeling familiar from speculative and science fiction? How are such apparently advanced technologies (here, nanoscale engineering) conditioned historically such that we experience the forces animating them and giving them life in other realms (like first-person shooters or online role-playing environments)? How might these forces dominate us, or allow us to think everyday technocultural life anew?

To his credit, Milburn takes those familiar questions seriously by seriously thinking about play. Thus, he suggests that the dominating power of nanotech imaginaries manifests not in the technologies themselves — here, he has learned Heidegger’s lessons well — but in the ways we are “drafted” into their machinic force — here, Milburn is invoking Deleuze. He names the condition underlying cultures of nanotechnical speculation and play the “military-entertainment” complex, and he describes the ways in which we are subjected to its power through a “machinic draft,” or a “technological capture of unwilling soldiers or civilians that transforms them into killing machines.” The point of reading nanotechnics across both the speculative sciences of nanotechnology and the speculative fictions of SF narrative, graphic novel, or digital game, is to suggest that such a “machinic drafting” of soldiers or civilians may operate or be resisted in both settings depending on the way in which the ludic potentials of thinking and feeling nanotechnics are deployed. The key way Milburn attempts to do this is to situate nanosciences and fictions about them as deriving from utopian imaginaries he identifies as emerging in modern, 16th-century Europe, but inflected and influenced by non-European epistemologies of emanation: the book closes, then, with a speculative account of the genealogy of the avatar.

Yes: it’s a lot. It’s a lot to take in, and because the writing style itself is also often pointedly playful and speculative, it’s hard to know what to make of it. There’s the fact that, for example, chapter sections that could be labeled topically are actually given punning names referring to pop cultural themes. There’s the fact that chapters are numbered in binary code and given rather allusive than descriptive titles. And there’s the fact that, especially in the early chapters, Milburn often interrupts his own discussions with a style of interrogation that prompts an affirmative answer, familiar to classical rhetoricians in the form of the Latin term nonne, though deployed less literally here to invoke reader agreement: “If the meanings of the Latin word ludus include play and sport, as well as training and elementary school, surely there is some ludic impulse in the tendency to make the most elementary acts of atomic manipulation into signs of revolution. I mean … right?”; or, shortly after: “So then, smarty pants, can you take a joke?”; etc. Well, yes — right, we can.

Mondo Nano is itself designed as a game that playfully goes awry, mixing categories, subjecting science fact to science fiction history, speaking truth to power by reading cartoons of weaponized bodies rather than the actual super soldiers who remain a twinkle in their inventors’ phallic, futural gaze. There are quibbles to be raised about the various histories and methods collated here, though. For example, Milburn arguably too easily credits Marvin Minsky as coining the term “telepresence,” whose semantics and lexical form actually both have a longer derivation from radio and television cultures. When we get these mini-histories about who said what first, we are willing to overlook that Mondo Nano isn’t really either a history of science or of media cultures, and that the way the work playfully proceeds obscures questions about the methods applied to the materials surveyed. But at times the work declines to make clear historical or methodological claims even while it plays at doing so.

Still, the larger problem is that in framing play as both a singular activity and as an interpretive mode of speculation, while attempting to name the historical forms, conditions, and dynamics characterizing nanotechnology and cultural form (nanotechnics, military-entertainment complex, machinic draft), and while writing out and designing the book in the spirit of playful writing and playful speculation, Milburn often gives us the effects before the causes or conditions, which are often described in a later chapter and not directly linked back to the effects that they presumably are there to motivate in his argument. Much of the argument is hard to follow as a result. Instead, we get the feeling we’re being played with, and at times the entire study risks becoming a kind of nonne interrogative. When we have doubts, we’re often fascinated, entertained, and willing to go along with an argument that isn’t always clear or firmly established. After all, the entire exercise might be a game, a sporting discourse on speculative science and science fiction, and we can always respond to conclusions that seem to raise more questions with a good laugh. That’s admirably part of Milburn’s train of thought on nano-cultures.

None of this is to say that Mondo Nano doesn’t accomplish its “co-mixing” of the extraordinary, lighthearted aspects of nano-speculation with the horrifying and violent ones. It achieves this, but unfortunately, the methods arrayed to achieve the results and the style in which the results are presented are often unclear, not fully able to support the breadth of the materials explored, and less playful than puzzling. When that happens, it’s hard to do anything but nod in affirmation of the potent mixture prompting our consternation: Nonne nano.


James Tobias is an associate professor in the Department of English at the University of California, Riverside.