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Issue 138

Lossy Relay
by Mitchell Akiyama and Bethany Ides

A game

I met a woman at a gallery opening who asked if I was an artist. I said, “Yes, and you are, too?” She answered that she used to be, but now she upkeeps short-term rentals and rental agreements in addition to a confident stance of willingness to invent new types of upkeep that will attract the sort of stranger who does not wish to be recognized as a Stranger. This takes up most of her time.

In this game, the players are divided into two teams: Guests and Hosts. The objective of the game is to streamline the ambitions of the other team while also pleasing the Dealer. The task of the Dealer is to keep track of all transactions. The task of the Hosts and the Guests is to also keep track of transactions. The Dealer comes built into the game. Some people call the game or game board “The Dealer” while other game enthusiasts will point to a part of their own body whenever they get the urge to play. They will point to their stomach or their open hands. This is part of the fun of the game, trying to figure out who or what or where the Dealer is – either philosophically or legally. For each player’s turn, a message is passed and it is always intercepted. Beginner versions of the game come with a standard Task Deck with cards marked “Market,” “Manage” or “Turnover”. Advanced players may make their own decks, though to compare them, they are remarkably the same. All cards must be touched by all players at all times. Experienced players may use external implements or other players to extend their reach. An experienced player playing a Host might even double back and host themselves while maintaining complete composure and believability, both inside and outside of the game.

The objective of the game is to become indistinguishable either from the Dealer or the rules.

Another game: A sentimental object is passed around in secret from player to player. Nobody knows whose object it is, to whom this object is most particularly valuable. Some fake passing it in a rough manner to test the other players’ composure, to see who winces in worry. Someone guesses where the object is. Someone guesses whose it is, guesses why it is precious while closely monitoring the vulnerability and sympathy levels of other players. Someone else inspects the condition of the object to assess what damage has occurred in the passing transaction, what traces of anxious or exuberant handling have been left visible. The objective of the game is to be able to become expert in identifying the present status of the object at any moment while also appearing to not be present oneself.

A thrill

Someone asks if this really is a game. Leisure ought to feel sudden, outside of time.

Anticipating the desires of others can feel wildly proliferative and veering, like seduction. An activity like this is most satisfying when the initiator’s own needs are already sated, so that any goods or services exchanged feel more like spoils. The pleasure of the seizure comes because a certain touch performed upon a thing promises to be subsumed into the performance of the beneficiary. This remains the case whether the touch is performed by a person imbuing the thing with personality, or by a machine conferring its own rather untouchable quality. It is pleasurable to imagine an other filling one’s own space, touching all of one’s things and placing proxy things in their places that perhaps no one has touched to confuse the difference.

A thrill-seeker reaches almost peak dizziness anticipating the desires of another while anticipating the subsequent desires those desires might trigger in oneself, getting a shiver of alarm losing balance, nearly overcome, and getting to wonder, a little crazed, whether either party will ever sleep again.

A website called Afford Anything suggests objects to ease the dizziness. Artificial orchids will please others in photos. They will please others upon arrival. Others will recall their experience with the orchids as one of having been pleased, and later long for that feeling to return, even restlessly.

In order to make a game of anything, one imagines controlling a proxy object while hiding and monitoring and accounting for the damage incurred to the other, real object – whichever object one is actually most vulnerable to. In this way, gamification delays grief. The game insists that it operates within its own temporal register, impervious to the one that ages us. A player keeps one’s head in the game by resisting emotional responses to actions and events that may have devastatingly rearranged resources.

A good player

Roger Caillois uses the Latin Alea to refer a mode of play that “signifies and reveals the favor of destiny.” These sorts of games require passivity, surrender. A player need not be practised, studied, qualified or even patient – in fact such players may fare worse in games of Alea due to the anxiety such involvement would likely provoke. Alea “tends rather to abolish natural or acquired individual differences, so that all can be placed on an absolutely equal footing to await the blind verdict of chance.” It is not so much a play of losing control, as when boarding a roller coaster, as having never been subject to it. It is to play object.

Caillois’ close friend and colleague Georges Bataille, however, reported torment and exhaustion incurred by the suspension of anguish required in order to play thusly. “The human mind is set up to take no account of chance, except insofar as the calculations that eliminate chance allow you to forget it: that is, not take it into account.” Bataille instead lays claim to a fantasy of his own body that reveals “the nakedness of chance – which in the last resort is definitive – is obscene and disgusting: in short, divine.” The contours of such play so cruelly mimic those wave patterns charted by scholars of fascination and depression.

The accident formalizes the rule
Common law doctrine of infra hospitium mandates that an innkeeper is liable for loss or damage to the property of a guest, barring inevitable, “natural” events. This liability takes effect the moment a stranger’s goods appear on the premises.

Unfamiliar and disoriented, a Guest is considered particularly vulnerable to the “danger of plunder.” Were a local thief to be in collusion with a Host, to whom could the stranger turn to be believed? So acute is the risk to private possessions out of place – and to a Guest’s sense of safety being violated – that the standard presumption of innocence typically structuring Anglo-American law has been historically inverted for hosts intending to be Hosts.

A Host may not be considered responsible for the property of one who never intended to be a Guest. But, then, isn’t it always a mistake to assume one can meaningfully identify who is hosting? Context being relative, how could it be clear in which direction either risk or responsibility is flowing? Michel Serres observed that, depending on one’s position in the signal chain, any player could be construed as a parasite: “It might be dangerous not to decide who is the host and who is the guest, who gives and who receives, who is the parasite and who is the table d’hôte, who has the gift and who has the loss, and where hostility begins within hospitality.” And yet it is this very chaos – this very misrecognition of hostility and hospitality – it is this noise that allows for something new, something different, for difference itself to arise.

The phone vibrates out various requests in quick succession: recommendations for local food, beautiful views, other rentals, other cultures. If the signal interrupts the noise, the character of both sounds are mutually brought into question. “The noise is the end of a system and the formation of a new one.”

A buyer

There is a voice on the telephone that is garbled – a different kind of garbled from what used to pass as static, the sound of so many generations of telephony having processed the inadequacies of their progenitors. And yet, the receiver of the message does not interpret this present message as meaning nothing. Rather she intuits that however nonsensical the message sounds, it feels familiar. It sounds so much like something everyone has been trying to say or hear through.

Risk

Generosity will always overwhelm a network; every transmission necessarily requires a limiting, a reduction in the richness of the offering from sender to receiver. Call it compression, encoding, translation, et cetera – the thought is jammed into language in order to be spoken, a song is striated into slivers of binary code in order to be streamed. There is profit to be made at every stage in the pruning down of the real.

An earlier version of a similar game imagines a group of telephone engineers each holding a mouthpiece and wagering how much clarity can be forfeited before the speaker’s voice is not recognized. Each player, allocated their own channel, together make up the Telephone System. The signal is so streamy, the fidelity so faithful; it’s hard not to imagine that this voice still belongs to that body. As the rounds of play progress, individual bodies begin to recede, to be distanced out, then another, then another. As more players join, channels become scarcer, their capacity more squeezed. The objective is to flood the system with messages in excess of anything that could reasonably be comprehended or assimilated so that the bodies need not feel so bodied anymore.

The technological infrastructure developed in service of the telephonic was always too capacious, historians would later observe, too generous to not be parcelled into more profitable tranches: “…from the standpoint of perception (and more specifically, intelligibility), the phone system produces a form of surplus value. It produces more sound than its users’ ears need to hear.” Several slim signals can shimmy down a tube, tinny to be sure, but the voice’s loss is corporate gain. Developments in perceptual coding give way to further editions and adaptations; ridding the message of redundancies in order to make relay more profitable as well as adaptable.

Economical phrasing

Another game: pretend we’re at an art opening. You are going to tell me something and I am going to repeat it to someone else. You say something about the time it takes to get an idea, about “the slow work of taming the unknown” before “the unease [gradually] fades away.” You are just in town for a conference so in a heady mood. You describe having entered an unfamiliar room last night with no one else in it. There was an electronic lock outside the door. Inside, the place smelled fresh; there was a side table next to a freshly made bed. On a shelf above the kitchen sink, there were orchids that, upon further inspection, you realized were fake. The shower curtain liner crinkled like no one had ever showered with it before, but in a drawer you found a small handful of transit stubs and various receipts, even a little of the lint that must have derived from the same pocket as these documents. It occurs to you that your environs, in their resistance to annunciate any form of particularly, are telling you nothing, but telling it to you so blaringly that your own chamber feels resonant with its noise.

I’m struck by your story. It reminds me of something Anne Dufourmantelle wrote about being a guest, about “the fear provoked by our incursion into an unknown place whose strangeness freezes us before we get used to it.” How it made me wonder what happens next, after the acclimation. I try to remember the passage as she wrote it, in the way that she framed it, but I can only recall how it made me feel the moment I read it, so I approximate a hybrid of the two and say: “to sense strangeness is a kind of paralysis, an inability to sense what’s present.” My sentence seems fuzzy to you. You ask what I mean. “Consider a telephone,” I say, “how you might hear carrier leakage on the line and complain of interference in the exchange between you and your loved one, but inasmuch as the mediating device frames the integrity of the exchange, it is all part of the same urge.” Later, you message me from your Airbnb pretending to be someone else: “Because I found this phone in the gallery and yours was the most recent contact…”

Dislocation

A room that nothing happens in. A room that replenishes indefinitely.

A child learning Monopoly is told that four houses equal one hotel. Then, later at bedtime asks: “But how many hotels are in this house?”

In the middle of the night, I lay awake and wonder: How many under-used assets do I wash away in the shower if I run out of non-soap cleanser and am forced to use the regular?

A platform

To “jaunt” is to make a motion that is propulsive, even if it is planned; it does not drag or creep. Similarly, hops or skips, while characteristically uneven, are perfectly adequate methods for covering a short distance, particularly if one is travelling for pleasure.

I met a man who used to be an artist but is now the purveyor of a global hospitality brand liable only indirectly to non-partner providers and users who both separately and together assume the majority risk while accruing value for the brand and wealth for the man. He wistfully recalled to me the moment when it had suddenly become very difficult for him to discern the parameters of the game he’d been engrossed in – blissfully or wistfully. What distinguished playfulness from not-playfulness, he mused. Leaning in, he described the vaults and jolts, the wild veers of his wondering and his career. If he heard a breathless gasp, he said, then he knew it was the sound of desire. But couldn’t it also be shock or dismay?, I interjected, unheard. As he spoke, he used the pronoun “we,” which struck me as a way of explaining his own total dedication to game play, of total immersion. The market mandates that we stay loose, he continued. But also ready. A practised passivity to whatever jostling forces might occasion fortune. It would be silly – “unrealistic”– to operate any other way. We’re not in the business of home, we’re not in the business of space, we’re in the business of trips!

It struck me that a unit so small as a trip is by contrast quite manageable compared to most matters of uncertainty. A trip’s disorientation is decidedly temporary. A trip’s length more like a cut than a gash. But bewilderment-by-a-thousand-cuts – or the misery of perpetual uprootedness parcelled in so many packets of moments… I burst: “But we must prevent [such dilution] in order to that it should be intolerable!”

Speculation

A site collects pictures and profiles of properties in such overabundance that a visitor to the site registers a complimentary disposition of internalized scarcity. Existing everywhere, the site presents no new risks from a legal perspective, only new parties. So that these parties function duly within the perceived network civilly – cheerfully adjusting pricing, purchasing wider-angled lenses to manufacture a heightened promise of spaciousness – their communication must be limited to as small a unit of conveyance possible. Within this network, a message is most viable that imparts the minimal amount of content. The Guest should not stress the Host by necessitating safe care for packages that would not be mistakable for the product being produced.

Surveying the landscape, one sees the intersections of phone lines built where people once haggled, where others were dispossessed. Even if it’s true that the content of a medium is always another, earlier medium, materially it’s always been the other way around. The internet is contained in the telephonic and televisual infrastructure that was staked along the rail paths that were formed by foot traffic. So as these pricing schemes, targeted advertising and filtered photos migrate through channels that are themselves just the ruts left by earlier forms of infrastructure, they corrode the very container that makes content feasible.

A seller

A patient of D.W. Winnicott is reported to have asked him once during an early session if she dressed too much like a child. “In other words,” he writes, “she was very near to recognizing that she has to dress for this child as well as for her middle-aged self.” It is a similar mindset one must maintain whenever one sleeps in a spot that someone else might instead sleep in more profitably.

Efficiency as super-efficiency

There is a sense in which the reorganization of perception, of encoded sensation, of aesthetics can feel like a requirement for transmission itself: an imperative to harmonize one’s content. To bring the contents of one’s home into accordance with a home slightly less attainable, just slightly off from this one. Beige as the sound of future fungibility; neutral walls and granite countertops that bespeak a pre-flipped context of the always about-to-be-satisfied; all in hum.

I met a woman in my apartment who was renting out her side of the sofa that I had rented her while she upkept my side so that I could save sleep, spend more time reading books.

Iffy transactions

I know a game called Telephone or Broken Telephone or Whisper-Down-the-Lane. It is a game for playing through the impossibility of a loved object maintaining its integrity, of remaining recognizable to itself after having been processed and repurposed by an attentiveness both wholly consumed and wholly consuming; dislocated, neither here nor there; experienced only as perpetual possibility. Like the money Marcel Mauss claims the Fijians treated “like dolls” – oiled, polished and cherished in part for the charge they carried, for being constantly in and out of possession – the message passes between players in a series of small, very intimate transactions. In the moment of exchange, the carriers must lean close, attempt to close the circuit, secure the transfer. In the length of a breath, the trip is complete, unfathomably, inevitably.

Reserves

A player replaces a broken telephone with a new one that promises to be less likely to break. The new phone cares for the quality and safe-assuredness of all messages exchanged by its users by treating them as if they were its own.

Who will authenticate the message whose origin is unknown when everyone’s signal is wandering?

An invitation

To inner picture, crystalline, the flint of initiation of reciprocity: “an infinite extension of perspective and possible relations of perspectives: ‘as the horizon when you are moving can oppose the horizon inside.’”

To inner picture a pocket, the inside of your pocket, your good ear. How there is a message softly embedded there that has been touched; it is about touching and has a sibilant fluency to it; it is delicate.

To inner picture a refusal to authenticate the message.

A thatch of so many invitations that cannot be parsed or otherwise broken into parts that would be independently valuable or useful.

A thousand roles and plots, routes and ruts, inferentially activating rehabituated alliances.

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