Remains’ Regime Change?


Rey Chow

Perhaps the most fertile aspects of the word “left” have to do with the imagining of remains. The political left readily partakes of such imagining. Insofar as the materialism inherent to Marxist thinking is a way of expressing concern with the unevenness left behind in socioeconomic situations in which resources are unequally distributed, and even if remains are by and large bad things to be corrected or inadequate things to be supplemented, interest in social justice is always part of a discourse of remains. In the realm of cultural politics, the category “residual” in Raymond Williams’s well-known discussion of the “structure of feeling” is an excellent case in point of the left’s investment in what is left.1

With a different kind of emphasis, post-structuralism—or at least the deconstructive practices that follow the work of Jacques Derrida—joins forces with the political left with its distinctive theorizations of linguistic, subjective, and spiritual remains: trace, différance, gram, graph, mark, inscription, specter, debt, translation, forgiveness, and so forth. Indeed, those working in the literary humanities would be hard put to find an area of scholarly inquiry that has not been touched, modified, or transformed by the influential post-structural transactions of imprints. From speaking and writing to psychic states and interpersonal ethics, the human labor that leaves its spoors in the forms of differentiated temporalities, phenomenological spaces, and transcendent or redemptive strivings is most poignant where things seem finished and yet are not quite.

Remains haunt us, then, often because they are incomplete, lacking in finality, forgotten, or hidden. This essentially elusive status of remains has conventionally been accorded a special kind of value because the elusiveness bears clues to what is imagined to be permanently lost or has become inaccessible. Conceived as a resource, based on an implicit economics of scarcity (that is, an economics driven by the possibility of loss, disappearance, and depletability), remains are epistemically linked to the finitude of human capacities. In ways comparable to temples, churches, and libraries of older eras, places such as museums, zoos, archaeological sites, ecological sanctuaries, native reservations, and forensics laboratories are some of the typical loci where a value-laden theory of remains has been operative in modern times.

Has a certain threshold been irreversibly crossed in the age of digital media? An economics based on scarcity and human finitude has always meant that it is costly to store and transmit information. When loss, disappearance, and depletability are inevitable consequences of change, acts of salvaging and retrieval, however minimal, are valuable (that is, value-producing) undertakings. According to some, this conceptual and practical order has been turned upside down by digitization. As Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, among others, has written, with the infinite expandability of electronic space, it is, for the first time in human history, no longer expensive to retain and preserve information; on the contrary, what tends to cost more these days—in terms of the time needed to sort things out and the energy spent on making decisions about what can be discarded—is, increasingly, the very act of deletion.2 As “save” has become the default mode of daily transactions via the electronic screen, an unprecedented and previously unimaginable mass of material now lies adrift, indefinitely, somewhere in the cloud. Everything seems to be left, and can be left, in the form of data.3 Indeed, the implicit economics on which such remains stay afloat is no longer that of scarcity but rather that of an inexhaustible mine, an artifactual plenitude.

Yet if everything can be left, nothing really is. Data so saved is perhaps no longer what we would call remains.

Arguably, this is a juncture at which we can rethink the implications of writing as Derrida theorizes it in Of Grammatology. What is important about writing, Derrida suggests, is not only a matter of saving (in the sense of notation, record, inscription, and transcript); it is also, in the broader sense of what he calls arche-writing, the phenomenon of a rupture, of that which breaks open (a ground, a route, a path). This controversial, dialectical argument about grammatology—a science of writing as trace, supposedly to be “founded” between retention and escape, between appearance and disappearance—is what Catherine Malabou seeks to update in her visionary philosophy of plasticity, a philosophy in which the scope of writing, she suggests, can no longer be restricted to the Derridean paradigm of the graphic trace. Instead, Malabou argues for a conceptual shift that would allow attributes of plastic modifiability and transformability to inform, indeed to regenerate from within, Derrida’s arche-writing itself.4

Malabou’s interest in what might be called imprintless connectivity—connectivity without writing—is thought-provoking not least because it seems symptomatic of a new regime of thinking in which the concept of remains, hitherto operative at multiple intersecting levels in the sense of what is left over, has been displaced onto an information mass, a mass that is ever renewable and ever present because, technically speaking, ever undeleted. Epistemically, what seems like a small empirical option on the computer, not deleting, is now interestingly entangled with happenings that are at once deeply related and heterologous: the rendering-irrelevant of censorship, obviously, but also the rendering-obsolete of what may be called the biopolitics of scar formation. Not only does not-deleting imply that no information will henceforth need to be suppressed or erased; in a parallel fashion, organisms, we are told, have the capacity to regenerate (retrieve, rebirth, renew) themselves from wounds—without incurring scars. Undeleted (data) and unscarred (life): a condition of permanent positivity that conjoins two otherwise separate realms.

With names such as data capitalism, medialogical ecology, neuro-----, and the like, the new regime is often announced in apocalyptic terms: computation logistics, it is said, have advanced to the point at which they can interface with neuronal pathways directly by means of algorithms, altogether bypassing more traditional agencies that are bound to the human sensorium, human perception, and human subjectivity—all those apparatuses to which writing-as-trace bears an intimate if not definitive relation. Rather than human sensuous activity, what seems to be rapidly assuming center stage is a hyper-machinic automatism in which the impersonal processing and transmission of data is deemed the preemptive form and norm.

And yet a somatic materialism, frequently elaborated alongside a metaphorics of animal bodily activities (such as those of spiders and lizards), seems irrefutable: Malabou invokes neuronal connections, synapses, stem cells, and brain lesions, while other thinkers describe the behaviors of the brain in relation to the gut, the nervous system, embodied sensations, and so forth.5 If such somatic materialism is constitutive of what Darwin has called the descent of man, is not the human organism still a vestigial form—genetically coded, to be sure, but nonetheless a remainder from millennia of other life forms? Should this vestigial form be treated as data, or as writing?

Rey Chow is Anne Firor Scott Professor of Literature at Duke University and the author of numerous books, including The Age of the World Target (2006), Sentimental Fabulations, Contemporary Chinese Films (2007), and Entanglements, or Transmedial Thinking about Capture (2012). The Rey Chow Reader, ed. Paul Bowman, was published by Columbia University Press in 2010. Chow’s scholarly writings have appeared in eleven languages.

1 Raymond Williams, Marxism and Culture (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).
2 See Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).
3 For a discussion of this innovative environment as massive incarceration, see Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism (New York: Public Affairs, 2013).
4 For a stimulating series of discussions, see in particular the chapters “Grammatology and Plasticity” and “The Phoenix, the Spider, and the Salamander,” in Catherine Malabou, Changing Difference: The Feminine and the Question of Philosophy, trans. Carolyn Shread (Cambridge: Polity, 2011), 41-66, 67-89.
5 For an admirable work bridging neuroscience studies and feminist theory, see Elizabeth Wilson, Psychosomatic (Duke University Press, 2004). For philosophical discussions of materiality and materialism in light of Darwin’s theorizations of difference, see Elizabeth Grosz’s works such as Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008) and Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics, and Art (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).