In her essay, Chandra Mukerji argues that at present, “life is even more clearly the product of a regime of impersonal rule” (53). Digital culture offers an illusion of agency, through offering human freedom constrained within walls (tangible and intangible), allowing ‘creativity’ only in the confines of their artificially immersive environments. Mukerji argues that these immersive environments are direct expressions and exercises of governing power, akin to the forced immersion into the power of Louis XIV at the gardens of Versailles.
Mukerji first argues that governing structures exercise power by giving people the “material means for pursuing agency” while necessitating, for this agency, an “[adaptation of] themselves to logistical regimes” (42). Digital media do not, therefore, offer a release from physical and/or material constraints, but rather a continuation of the “Western tradition of engineering social relations of power.” They act as extensions of power by presenting immersive environments, which necessitate engaging with and knowledge of the system in order to restructure the system (but only offering minimal restructuring). Digital media does this by presenting immersive environments, entirely constraining to users by either creating physical barriers (as in a labyrinth) or contextual barriers (as in a memory palace). Both allow for semi-autonomous movement only once the self has been construed as an “actor” within the historical and/or cultural system of governance, a sort of “unfreedom” only allowed through “subservience to the system of control” (43).
Critically, these systems of control are mobile, arising not only within their own cultural contexts, but persisting through time periods and remaining available for (re)use by new governing regimes. The “fictive spaces” of digital media today are a remnant of governing forms also visible at Versailles, whose gardens were structured to give Louis XIV the power of an even earlier Roman form of governance, through a direct connection with the divine. Its size and beauty made visible Louis XIV’s divine power, as well as the humility and subservience now expected of the nobility. Its construction mimicked a Roman “land of gods and heroes,” (re)creating Rome “not [as] a lost past, but a living tradition,” put to use by the very literal memory palace of Versailles (45). Versailles restructured the identity of nobility by literally subjugating them to the will of Louis XIV, through the labyrinthine nature of his garden.
Digital media also provides a space for the controlled creation of a self. Mukerji uses Facebook as an example of a present day “memory palace,” designed for “attaching identity to online activity” (47). Through a display of memory, style, and artistic expression, Facebook teaches users “to know each other and themselves as historical beings that continually invent themselves through online postings.” Subservience to the immersive environments of both labyrinths and memory palaces is a learned behavior, requiring continual conditioning. Political control exerted through maze-like structures is apparent in “medieval Christian [use of] mazes as pedagogical tools,” building floor mazes in churches to remind worshippers of the “limits of human powers” and “the hubris of those who mistook human abilities for godlike powers” (49). The power of God, the Sun King and Facebook are all derived from immersive environments, providing autonomy within limits, and continually reminding users of the necessity of subservience for movement within the maze.
I’m not sure I understand the conception of “utopia” as it’s popped up in a few of our readings lately. Mukerji continually references a “tradition of technological utopianism,” dating back to the Renaissance (and Rome?), but she never adequately explains what she means by calling this tradition utopian (40, 52, 53). Somehow it’s related to impersonal rule/controls, and in this way seems related to Manovich’s “utopia…composed of unique individuals,” made unique only by material bounds of technology (Manovich 42).
In light of our primary texts, though, Mukerji’s explanation of “labyrinths” and “memory palaces” was particularly interesting. Obviously, Danielewski’s House of Leaves is (or, mimics?) a labyrinth, presenting readers an “immersive environment that test[s] personal agency against an organized system of constraints.” The more I read of the memory palace, the more it seemed akin to Henderson’s Galerie de Difformite, “filled with real or virtual artifacts…used to (per)form an identity” (43), in fact inviting readers to both form an identity for themselves through the blank spaces left in the text and to (re)form the identity of the book as a whole.
However, their “systems of logistical or material governance” are not quite impersonal; they were written, obviously, by an author, but more importantly were both heavily influenced by the cultural history of the book, an media which allows deeply personal interaction. In that light, does Mukerji’s metaphor of digital media as labyrinths and/or memory palaces hold? How can any system be impersonal when it has been created through multiple evolving social contexts, and continues to change through the contexts of today?