This time last year we proposed the theme of the 'loop' issue to the M/C collective because it sounded deeply cool, satisfying our poststructuralist posturings about reflexivity and representation, while also tapping into everyday cultural objects and practices. We expected that the 'loop' issue would generate some interesting and varied responses, and it did. We received submissions about music, visual art, language, child development, pop-cultural artefacts, mathematics and culture in general. These explorations of disparate fields seemed, however, to be tied together by a common thread: the concept of "generation" itself. Each article in the 'loop' issue describes a loop that does not simply repeat an original operation, but that through iteration creates new possibilities and new meanings.
More recently, when we began the process of putting the 'loop' issue together we found ourselves faced with a problem we had not envisaged: how might we structure the issue to reflect our guiding metaphor? How might we make articles about loops read like a loop? For all its decentredness, the web is ultimately still a linear medium, and one that constructs fairly rigorous and striated hierarchies. Even M/C, which has tried to set itself apart from traditional printed academic journals, is still structurally reminiscent of them. We toyed with the idea of hyperlinking articles or changing the table of contents from a descending list to a circular one. Apart from the inconceivably difficult task of convincing our web-designers to change the table of contents template for a one-off issue, such strategies would not necessarily have the desired effect. Readers could choose not to make use of our designed loop—hypertext would still work against us because readers might jump around in any order they desired. Moreover, the very necessity for the issue to have a "feature article" would straighten out any loop we might construct. An editorially enforced structure, it seemed, was not the answer. So we turned to our contributions. Strangely enough (or perhaps not strangely at all), we found that, read together, they could be perceived as generating their own internal spiralling system of interconnected loops. We as editors have therefore sought to place the contributions in an order that brings out this cyclical reading.
The issue's feature article is Laurie Johnson's "Agency, Beyond Strange Cultural Loops"; a highly accessible, gently amusing, and deeply thought-out meditation on the production and analysis of culture. Johnson works his way from the simple concept of infinite loops in computer programs, though the strange loops described by Douglas Hofstader and drawn by M.C Escher in his work Drawing Hands, to what he calls "strange cultural loops", in which the reception of original signs is shaped by what has been seen before. He contends that such loops constitute culture, because the very notion of cultural re-production is impossible without considering agency. Infinite loops are infinite only if we decide them to be, just as culture is recognisable if and how we choose it to be. What makes culture easily graspable in everyday life, yet so difficult to analyse, is that reception is as productive of culture as creation.
The first of our two special visual art features is Vince Dziekan's "The Synthetic Image", which is at once an exhibition of 13 digital artists and an exploration of the curatorial process. "The Synthetic Image" is an astounding interactive exhibition/installation which the user is invited to explore via a kind of looped nodal map. Indeed, "The Synthetic Image" immerses the user in three kinds of loops. First, art and critique are drawn together into interlinking loops. Second, a centrifugal hypertextual structure is used to both create and display a narrative space. Third, the metaphor of the loop is used to discuss the synthetic nature of digital art that explores the relationship between the real and the virtual. M/C is extremely proud to present this exhibition in conjunction with the Department of Multimedia and Digital Arts at Monash University, Melbourne.
Simone Murray explores cultural production through corporate loops in "Harry Potter, Inc.: Content Recycling for Corporate Strategy". Murray investigates not the first-wave success of the books but the second-wave take up of Harry Potter as a franchisable cultural product with substantial multi-demographic appeal. This is a detailed examination of how America Online-Time Warner (AOL-TW) has linked its corporate strategy to the characteristics of the Harry Potter brand. More than a simple sequential marketing operation, AOL-TW recycles content of the books, film, and soundtracks, in three ways: reusing digital content to sell its own products, licencing significant portions of content to secondary manufacturers, and, finally, using Harry Potter content to stimulate interest in non-Harry Potter AOL-TW products. Content recycling exemplifies current corporate drives toward synergy.
In "Mastering the 'Visual Groove': Animated Electric Light Bulb Signs, Locations, and Loops", Margaret Weigel reminds that looping media are not new phenomena, dating from the Victorian era and coming to particular prominence in the looping electric light bulb signs of the late 1800s and early 1900s. Our reactions to electric signs were, she argues, strangely similar to those of many new media: moral panic and debate, leading to acceptance and even fondness. Weigel describes many of these whimsical modernist spectacles, particularly those of Broadway (the "Great White Way") in the early 1900s, and then describes their reception by tourists and locals. While tourists were drawn to the nightly spectacles, locals mastered and integrated the cyclical marketing systems into their daily lives.
Greg Hainge's "Platonic Relations: The Problem of the Loop in Contemporary Electronic Music" proposes a way in which looping in electronic music may avoid the banal "Platonic" mode of repetition maligned by Deleuze in Difference and Repetition. In electronic music, Hainge argues, this passive approach to the loop conceives of the sampled element as "constitut[ing] an originary identity," the repetition of which constructs "an absolute internal resemblance". Moreover, Platonic looping itself forms a kind of technologically-determinist feedback loop within which the electronic artist finds him- or herself caught. By analysing the way in which electronic artist Kaffe Matthews breaks free of the Platonic mode, Hainge identifies a more "improvisational and dynamic aesthetic" of looping.
In "Making Data Flow: On the Implications of Code Loops", Adrian Mackenzie explores and typologises loops in computer code. He argues that computer code has become an object of intense interest in cultural life, perhaps because computer code is at least as generative of meaning as content is supposed to be. Loops are an integral part of the coding process, and are also an interesting way to investigate the generation of meaning through information flows. Mackenzie finds the distinguishing feature of code loops to be their bounding conditions. Different bounding conditions, of course, generate different information flows. Given this, flows can be adapted to different cultural purposes by writers, artists, and hackers interested in exploring different spatio-temporal manifolds.
Andrew T. Jacobs, in "Appropriating a Slur: Semantic Looping in the African-American Usage of 'Nigga'", unravels the fascinating rhetorical process by which the highly charged epithet 'nigger' has been reclaimed as 'nigga' by African-Americans. Drawing on rhetorical analysis and African-American sociology, Jacobs argues that co-opting the slur has involved three looping mechanisms—agnominatio, semantic inversion, and chiastic slayingthemselves combined into a looping process which he calls "semantic looping". He concludes that the use of "nigga" is a resistance strategy that functions through both recalling and refuting racism.
In "Loops and Fakes and Illusions", Keith Russell investigates the role loops play in the childhood development of social understanding. Not only do loops figure in development, but, as Russell's reading of D.W. Winnicott demonstrates, childhood development itself is a sustaining loop. Following John Dewey, Russell contends that perplexity is the source of intellectual development, and that children exercise their perplexity by puzzling over illusions based around loops. Russell explores how these illusions and fakes demonstrate the tensions and dynamics of social reality, concluding that playing with loops is a lifelong process.
Cameron Brown's "Rep-tiles with Woven Horns" is the second of our special visual art features. The title of Brown's article is also the title of the image gracing the cover of this issue. The image itself is particularly suited to the "loop" issue because it is a fractal created by recursion. Brown's article describes the geometry and mathematics behind the image, providing a step-by step demonstration of its creation. We think that even non-mathematicians will follow the logic of the steps involved, and gain a deeper appreciation of both the power and elegance of recursion.
As we must, we conclude the 'loop' issue much as we began it, exploring the links between agency and the generative power of the loop. Like Laurie Johnson, Luis O. Arata's "Creation by looping Interactions" questions the creative process involved in M.C. Escher's Drawing Hands, but imagines it as an animated process with two different outcomes. While one outcome is a closed loop—akin to the Platonic looping described by Hainge—generating only itself, the other is an open loop. Open loops, Arata contends, are a form of interaction, a powerful reflexive dialogue of participatory creation. He shows that cutting-edge science is finding the reflexive creativity of open loops to be increasingly important both to practice and theory, concluding that innovation is all the richer for it.
Thus, one might say that Johnson and Arata each takes the role of one of the hands in the artwork they both analyse: Escher's Drawing Hands. Within that larger loop, smaller loops are described, and so, like Nietzsche, we find ourselves "insatiably calling out da capo" (56).