How Bizarre: The Glitch of the Nineties as a Fantasy of New Authorship




glitch, Y2K, Twin Peaks, Napster, media theory, dream theory, psychoanalysis

How to Cite

Campanioni, C. (2018). How Bizarre: The Glitch of the Nineties as a Fantasy of New Authorship. M/C Journal, 21(5).
Vol. 21 No. 5 (2018): nineties
Published 2018-12-06

As the ball dropped on 1999, is it any wonder that No Doubt played, “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” by R.E.M. live on MTV? Any discussion of the Nineties—and its pinnacle moment, Y2K—requires a discussion of both the cover and the glitch, two performative and technological enactments that fomented the collapse between author-reader and user-machine that has, twenty years later, become normalised in today’s Post Internet culture. By staging failure and inviting the audience to participate, the glitch and the cover call into question the original and the origin story. This breakdown of normative borders has prompted the convergence of previously demarcated media, genres, and cultures, a constellation from which to recognise a stochastic hybrid form. 

The Cover as a Revelation of Collaborative Murmur

Before Sean Parker collaborated with Shawn Fanning to launch Napster on 1 June 1999, networked file distribution existed as cumbersome text-based programs like Internet Relay Chat and Usenet, servers which resembled bulletin boards comprising multiple categories of digitally ripped files. Napster’s simple interface, its advanced search filters, and its focus on music and audio files fostered a peer-to-peer network that became the fastest growing website in history, registering 80 million users in less than two years.

In harnessing the transgressive power of the Internet to force a new mode of content sharing, Napster forced traditional providers to rethink what constitutes “content” at a moment which prefigures our current phenomena of “produsage” (Bruns) and the vast popularity of user-generated content. At stake is not just the democratisation of art but troubling the very idea of intellectual property, which is to say, the very concept of ownership.

Long before the Internet was re-routed from military servers and then mainstreamed, Michel Foucault understood the efficacy of anonymous interactions on the level of literature, imagining a culture where discourse would circulate without any need for an author. But what he was asking in 1969 is something we can better answer today, because it seems less germane to call into question the need for an author in a culture in which everyone is writing, producing, and reproducing text, and more effective to think about re-evaluating the notion of a single author, or what it means to write by yourself. One would have to testify to the particular medium we have at our disposal, the Internet’s ultimate permissibility, its provocations for collaboration and co-creation. One would have to surrender the idea that authors own anything besides our will to keep producing, and our desire for change; and to modulate means to resist without negating, to alter without omitting, to enable something new to come forward; the unfolding of the text into the anonymity of a murmur.

We should remind ourselves that “to author” all the way down to its Latin roots signifies advising, witnessing, and transferring. We should be reminded that to author something means to forget the act of saying “I,” to forget it or to make it recede in the background in service of the other or others, on behalf of a community. The de-centralisation of Web development and programming initiated by Napster inform a poetics of relation, an always-open structure in which, as Édouard Glissant said, “the creator of a text is effaced, or rather, is done away with, to be revealed in the texture of his creation” (25). When a solid melts, it reveals something always underneath, something at the bottom, something inside—something new and something that was always already there. A cover, too, is both a revival and a reworking, an update and an interpretation, a retrospective tribute and a re-version that looks toward the future. In performing the new, the original as singular is called into question, replaced by an increasingly fetishised copy made up of and made by multiples.

Authorial Effacement and the Exigency of the Error

Y2K, otherwise known as the Millennium Bug, was a coding problem, an abbreviation made to save memory space which would disrupt computers during the transition from 1999 to 2000, when it was feared that the new year would become literally unrecognisable. After an estimated $300 billion in upgraded hardware and software was spent to make computers Y2K-compliant, something more extraordinary than global network collapse occurred as midnight struck: nothing.

But what if the machine admits the possibility of accident? Implicit in the admission of any accident is the disclosure of a new condition—something to be heard, to happen, from the Greek ad-cadere, which means to fall. In this drop into non-repetition, the glitch actualises an idea about authorship that necessitates multi-user collaboration; the curtain falls only to reveal the hidden face of technology, which becomes, ultimately, instructions for its re-programming. And even as it deviates, the new form is liable to become mainstreamed into a new fashion. “Glitch’s inherently critical moment(um)” (Menkman 8) indicates this potential for technological self-insurgence, while suggesting the broader cultural collapse of generic markers and hierarchies, and its ensuing flow into authorial fluidity.

This feeling of shock, this move “towards the ruins of destructed meaning” (Menkman 29) inherent in any encounter with the glitch, forecasted not the immediate horror of Y2K, but the delayed disasters of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, Indian Ocean tsunami, Sichuan Province earthquake, global financial crisis, and two international wars that would all follow within the next nine years. If, as Menkman asserts, the glitch, in representing a loss of self-control “captures the machine revealing itself” (30), what also surfaces is the tipping point that edges us toward a new becoming—not only the inevitability of surrender between machine and user, but their reversibility. Just as crowds stood, transfixed before midnight of the new millennium in anticipation of the error, or its exigency, it’s always the glitch I wait for; it’s always the glitch I aim to re-create, as if on command. The accidental revelation, or the machine breaking through to show us its insides. Like the P2P network that Napster introduced to culture, every glitch produces feedback, a category of noise (Shannon) influencing the machine’s future behaviour whereby potential users might return the transmission.

Re-Orienting the Bizarre in Fantasy and Fiction

It is in the fantasy of dreams, and their residual leakage into everyday life, evidenced so often in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, where we can locate a similar authorial agency. The cult Nineties psycho-noir, and its discontinuous return twenty-six years later, provoke us into reconsidering the science of sleep as the art of fiction, assembling an alternative, interactive discourse from found material.

The turning in and turning into in dreams is often described as an encounter with the “bizarre,” a word which indicates our lack of understanding about the peculiar processes that normally happen inside our heads. Dreams are inherently and primarily bizarre, Allan J. Hobson argues, because during REM sleep, our noradrenergic and serotonergic systems do not modulate the activated brain, as they do in waking. “The cerebral cortex and hippocampus cannot function in their usual oriented and linear logical way,” Hobson writes, “but instead create odd and remote associations” (71). But is it, in fact, that our dreams are “bizarre” or is it that the model itself is faulty—a precept premised on the normative, its dependency upon generalisation and reducibility—what is bizarre if not the ordinary modulations that occur in everyday life?

Recall Foucault’s interest not in what a dream means but what a dream does. How it rematerialises in the waking world and its basis in and effect on imagination. Recall recollection itself, or Erin J. Wamsley’s “Dreaming and Offline Memory Consolidation.” “A ‘function’ for dreaming,” Wamsley writes, “hinges on the difficult question of whether conscious experience in general serves any function” (433). And to think about the dream as a specific mode of experience related to a specific theory of knowledge is to think about a specific form of revelation. It is this revelation, this becoming or coming-to-be, that makes the connection to crowd-sourced content production explicit—dreams serve as an audition or dress rehearsal in which new learning experiences with others are incorporated into the unconscious so that they might be used for production in the waking world. Bert O. States elaborates, linking the function of the dream with the function of the fiction writer “who makes models of the world that carry the imprint and structure of our various concerns. And it does this by using real people, or ‘scraps’ of other people, as the instruments of hypothetical facts” (28). Four out of ten characters in a dream are strangers, according to Calvin Hall, who is himself a stranger, someone I’ve never met in waking life or in a dream. But now that I’ve read him, now that I’ve written him into this work, he seems closer to me. Twin Peak’s serial lesson for viewers is this—even the people who seem strangers to us can interact with and intervene in our processes of production.

These are the moments that a beginning takes place. And even if nothing directly follows, this transfer constitutes the hypothesised moment of production, an always-already perhaps, the what-if stimulus of charged possibility; the soil plot, or plot line, for freedom. Twin Peaks is a town in which the bizarre penetrates the everyday so often that eventually, the bizarre is no longer bizarre, but just another encounter with the ordinary. Dream sequences are common, but even more common—and more significant—are the moments in which what might otherwise be a dream vision ruptures into real life; these moments propel the narrative.

Exhibit A: A man who hasn’t gone outside in a while begins to crumble, falling to the earth when forced to chase after a young girl, who’s just stolen the secret journal of another young girl, which he, in turn, had stolen.

B: A horse appears in the middle of the living room after a routine vacuum cleaning and a subtle barely-there transition, a fade-out into a fade-in, what people call a dissolve. No one notices, or thinks to point out its presence. Or maybe they’re distracted. Or maybe they’ve already forgotten. Dissolve.

(I keep hitting “Save As.” As if renaming something can also transform it.)

C: All the guests at the Great Northern Hotel begin to dance the tango on cue—a musical, without any music.

D: After an accident, a middle-aged woman with an eye patch—she was wearing the eye patch before the accident—believes she’s seventeen again. She enrolls in Twin Peaks High School and joins the cheerleading team.

E: A woman pretending to be a Japanese businessman ambles into the town bar to meet her estranged husband, who fails to recognise his cross-dressing, race-swapping wife.

F: A girl with blond hair is murdered, only to come back as another girl, with the same face and a different name. And brown hair. They’re cousins.

G: After taking over her dead best friend’s Meals on Wheels route, Donna Hayward walks in to meet a boy wearing a tuxedo, sitting on the couch with his fingers clasped: a magician-in-training. “Sometimes things can happen just like this,” he says with a snap while the camera cuts to his grandmother, bed-ridden, and the appearance of a plate of creamed corn that vanishes as soon as she announces its name.

H: A woman named Margaret talks to and through a log. The log, cradled in her arms wherever she goes, becomes a key witness.

I: After a seven-minute diegetic dream sequence, which includes a one-armed man, a dwarf, a waltz, a dead girl, a dialogue played backward, and a significantly aged representation of the dreamer, Agent Cooper wakes up and drastically shifts his investigation of a mysterious small-town murder. The dream gives him agency; it turns him from a detective staring at a dead-end to one with a map of clues. The next day, it makes him a storyteller; all the others, sitting tableside in the middle of the woods become a captive audience. They become readers. They read into his dream to create their own scenarios. Exhibit I. The cycle of imagination spins on.

Images re-direct and obfuscate meaning, a process of over-determination which Foucault says results in “a multiplication of meanings which override and contradict each other” (DAE 34). In the absence of image, the process of imagination prevails. In the absence of story, real drama in our conscious life, we form complex narratives in our sleep—our imaginative unconscious. Sometimes they leak out, become stories in our waking life, if we think to compose them.

“A bargain has been struck,” says Harold, an under-5 bit player, later, in an episode called “Laura’s Secret Diary.” So that she might have the chance to read Laura Palmer’s diary, Donna Hayward agrees to talk about her own life, giving Harold the opportunity to write it down in his notebook: his “living novel” the new chapter which reads, after uncapping his pen and smiling, “Donna Hayward.”

He flips to the front page and sets a book weight to keep the page in place. He looks over at Donna sheepishly. “Begin.”

Donna begins talking about where she was born, the particulars of her father—the lone town doctor—before she interrupts the script and asks her interviewer about his origin story. Not used to people asking him the questions, Harold’s mouth drops and he stops writing. He puts his free hand to his chest and clears his throat. (The ambient, wind-chime soundtrack intensifies.) “I grew up in Boston,” he finally volunteers. “Well, actually, I grew up in books.”

He turns his head from Donna to the notebook, writing feverishly, as if he’s begun to write his own responses as the camera cuts back to his subject, Donna, crossing her legs with both hands cupped at her exposed knee, leaning in to tell him: “There’s things you can’t get in books.”

“There’s things you can’t get anywhere,” he returns, pen still in his hand. “When we dream, they can be found in other people.”

What is a call to composition if not a call for a response? It is always the audience which makes a work of art, re-framed in our own image, the same way we re-orient ourselves in a dream to negotiate its “inconsistencies.” Bizarreness is merely a consequence of linguistic limitations, the overwhelming sensory dream experience which can only be re-framed via a visual representation. And so the relationship between the experience of reading and dreaming is made explicit when we consider the associations internalised in the reader/audience when ingesting a passage of words on a page or on the stage, objects that become mental images and concept pictures, a lens of perception that we may liken to another art form: the film, with its jump-cuts and dissolves, so much like the defamiliarising and dislocating experience of dreaming, especially for the dreamer who wakes. What else to do in that moment but write about it?

Evidence of the bizarre in dreams is only the evidence of the capacity of our human consciousness at work in the unconscious; the moment in which imagination and memory come together to create another reality, a spectrum of reality that doesn’t posit a binary between waking and sleeping, a spectrum of reality that revels in the moments where the two coalesce, merge, cross-pollinate—and what action glides forward in its wake? Sustained un-hesitation and the wish to stay inside one’s self. To be conscious of the world outside the dream means the end of one. To see one’s face in the act of dreaming would require the same act of obliteration. Recognition of the other, and of the self, prevents the process from being fulfilled. Creative production and dreaming, like voyeurism, depend on this same lack of recognition, or the recognition of yourself as other. What else is a dream if not a moment of becoming, of substituting or sublimating yourself for someone else?

We are asked to relate a recent dream or we volunteer an account, to a friend or lover. We use the word “seem” in nearly every description, when we add it up or how we fail to. Everything seems to be a certain way. It’s not a place but a feeling. James, another character on Twin Peaks, says the same thing, after someone asks him, “Where do you want to go?” but before he hops on his motorcycle and rides off into the unknowable future outside the frame. Everything seems like something else, based on our own associations, our own knowledge of people and things. Offline memory consolidation. Seeming and semblance. An uncertainty of appearing—both happening and seeing. How we mediate—and re-materialise—the dream through text is our attempt to re-capture imagination, to leave off the image and better become it. If, as Foucault says, the dream is always a dream of death, its purpose is a call to creation.

Outside of dreams, something bizarre occurs. We call it novelty or news. We might even bestow it with fame. A man gets on the wrong plane and ends up halfway across the world. A movie is made into the moment of his misfortune. Years later, in real life and in movie time, an Iranian refugee can’t even get on the plane; he is turned away by UK immigration officials at Charles de Gaulle, so he spends the next sixteen years living in the airport lounge; when he departs in real life, the movie (The Terminal, 2004) arrives in theaters. Did it take sixteen years to film the terminal exile? How bizarre, how bizarre. OMC’s eponymous refrain of the 1996 one-hit wonder, which is another way of saying, an anomaly.

When all things are counted and countable in today’s algorithmic-rich culture, deviance becomes less of a statistical glitch and more of a testament to human peculiarity; the repressed idiosyncrasies of man before machine but especially the fallible tendencies of mankind within machines—the non-repetition of chance that the Nineties emblematised in the form of its final act. The point is to imagine what comes next; to remember waiting together for the end of the world. There is no need to even open your eyes to see it. It is just a feeling. 


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Author Biography

Chris Campanioni, The Graduate Center/CUNY

Chris Campanioni teaches at Pace University and Baruch College, and is a Provost Fellow at The Graduate Center/CUNY, where he intersects new media studies with studies of migration. He is the author of six books, including the Internet is for real (C&R Press, 2019), which re-enacts the language of the Internet as literary installations. Recent research appears in the Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, Life WritingRevista Científica de Información y Comunicación, Journal of Comparative Literature and Aesthetics, Interações: Sociedade e as Novas Modernidades, and Im@go: A Journal of the Social Imaginary, and has been translated into Spanish and Portuguese. In 2019, he joined the Global Humanities Institute’s Transnational Joint Research Center for Migration, Logistics, and Cultural Intervention.