The following are my notes from reading:
Poster, M. (1995). Databases as discourse, or electronic interpellations. In The second media age (pp. 78-94). Cambridge: Polity Press.
Descartes famously states: “I think therefore I am”. By these few words he articulates a dividual, a binary human-thinking divided within. I am nothing – I don’t exist – without my thoughts. My thoughts precede my being. There are thoughts and there is an Other. The two is established; in Descartes and later by Kant in the Enlightenment. The human subject is born. Now that I am separated from my thoughts, I am also born into a world of objects separate from the I.
The subject is interpellated or “hailed” thus reconstituting themselves as a subject. The teacher, when calling on a student to answer a classroom question, presupposes the student as an “autonomous rational agent” and the student, in answering the question, must “stand into” this position firstly to answer the question and secondly in declaration of their being a student. “Linguistic interpellation” operates through the subject complying with the configuration of their subjectivity without question and reflection (p. 80). Such a configuration can be at the level of race, sexuality, class, age, gender and presupposes the individual as a subject. The process of interpellation is conducted at the level of language.
The interpellation of the subject is always incomplete. One interpellation does not deny the existence of another. For example, I could be interpellated (invited to act) as a student, a husband, a male, as straight; each of which I am free to reject but each of which appear in their formation as a certain conclusion, as if already answered by me, the subject, in the affirmative. In each instance of interpellation the subject is fixed and frozen into the state of subjectivity, an end, a conclusion; the finished product so to speak. How quickly we lose our childhood.
It is important to understand the post-structuralist relationship of language to the development of the subject which helps to us understand the nature of databases as discourse. Foucault employed the term discourse to counter those who claimed writing as being a reflection of a human subject; we can’t hear or read words and deduce from those words a consciousness. Rather discourse is an exterior totality in which a subject is dispersed and formed. Discourse is not the manifestation of the unfolding of a thinking subject but rather it is a totality of the discontinuous planes through which the subject is variously enunciated. In other words the subject is created through discourse rather than the creator of discourse. (The blogger as subject is often created through legal and capitalist discourses). Discourse and power become imbricated upon one another.
Our culture creates, through discourse, a subject as a rational, autonomous individual. Foucault managed to point to the problematic of the assumption of a preexistent rationality; rationality is historically constructed. According to Foucault there never was a founding, universal, or sovereign subject but rather the subject is produced through “practices of subjection, or in a more autonomous way, through practices of liberation…” (p. 83). Discourse then has a power effect on “…the subject even in movements of “liberation”” (p. 84).
The power effect of discourse is to bring the subject into a position in relation to the structure of power so as to then apply and exert influence; and this is done in a way that disguises the constitution of the subject as a subject until after the subject becomes such.
The panopticon “…is not simply the guard in the tower but the entire discourse/practice that bears down on the prisoner, one that constitutes him or her as a criminal” (p. 85). The panopticon subjectifies and normalises.
A database is a discourse because it constitutes subjects. Poster proposes that databases produce subjects who are to a lesser or greater extent willing participants in their own surveillance. The combination of infrastructure and commerce combine to produce a far lighter and easier maintained panopticon – the super-panopticon – which is a never ceasing machinery of surveillance. The super-panopticon works beyond the reach of individual agency and makes a mockery of concepts of rational autonomy and social action. The super-panopticon interpellates the subject through the discourse of databases. The database produces subjects that are multiple and decentred and in contradistinction to the hegemonic concept of the subject as a rational, autonomous, centred agent.
Databases are the perfect “grids of specification” in that they divide and contrast, group and classify; and they constitute objects of which they speak. (Worth noting here that most blogging software is database driven; and the possible relationship to RSS feeds, feed readers and archives).
Unlike the panopticon where the subjects became interiorised, conscious and aware of their own self-determination through an awareness of the presence of surveillance, subjects produced through databases are dispersed and diverse and often unknown to their embodied counterpart. How can we resist the development of these subjects? Our bodies no longer provide a refuge against the incursion of the discourse of the database.