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The Politics of the New Aesthetic: Electric Anthropology and Ecological Vision

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Digital culture, for all of its inherent reflexivity, can be surprisingly dumb when it comes to reflecting critically upon itself. However, when it does, ideas mash quickly, and the fast moving meme emerging around The New Aesthetic is a fascinating example (you can literally watch this discussion in real time online right now).

Image above: Selective Memory Theatre by Matthias ‘moka’ Dörfelt

The current conversation was launched at a panel of the same name, at the SXSW (South by South-West) Interactive conference in Austin a few weeks ago (see here for summary). The panel featured James Bridle, Joanne McNeil, Ben Terrett, Aaron Straup Cope, and Russell Davies, and was given a critical momentum following remarks made by Bruce Sterling in his closing talk at the same event, which he further developed in a Wired article. In the days since Sterling made his comments a swarm of other commentators have continued the discussion, and there are no signs of it stopping yet.

The focus of the discussion is an ongoing research project initiated by James Bridle, which primarily takes the form of a tumblr blog: The New Aesthetic. The blog assembles material of all kinds –  from CAD generated building facades to the glitches in the stitched photos on Google streetview images, from short clips of iPad manufacturing plants to the fragmented images on broken Kindle screens, from on-set shots of actors wearing computer vision costumes to a mapping of Tesco’s corporate organisational sprawl. The suggestion is that there is a new aesthetic to be found in our environment which is in not directly of human design, but comes out of our interactions with machines, and perhaps, from the machines themselves: the subtitle of the SXSW panel was indeed ‘Seeing Like Digital Devices’.

The individual posts are more or less enjoyable and interesting as the momentary ephemera of a culture and a global economy increasingly determined by the techno-scientific processes of digital production. But is the site any more than a contemporary Wunderkammer? Sterling describes it as ‘a gaudy, network-assembled heap’, and I wonder how deliberate his use of the term ‘heap’ is? In an early attempt to describe something like emergence in some systems and organisms, Aristotle stated that ‘the totality is not, as it were, a mere heap, but the whole is something besides the parts’. So, does this assemblage of material constitute a ‘mere heap’, or is there something else, an emerging idea that we can start to discern here? Can we see what the cybernetic ecologist Gregory Bateson would describe as a pattern that connects?

Bridle states that the material ‘points towards new ways of seeing the world, an echo of the society, technology, politics and people that co-produce them.’ For Bruce Sterling, ‘the evidence is impossible to refute… modern reality is on display there’ and most commentators broadly agree with that – the discussion starts when we ask: Who is doing the seeing? Who hears the echo? What exactly is being pointed at? And just as importantly, how exactly should we theorise the kind of collecting of material that is going on here?

Scanning through the blog I think of David Greene (of the sixties avant garde architecture group Archigram), and his quasi-imaginary ‘Institute for Electric Anthropology’ (ref), which he has used since the early-1970s to talk about the ways in which new technologies and communication networks alter modern life. The NA blog certainly constitutes some kind of electric anthropology, and could even become a department in Greene’s ‘Invisible University’ project? Several other commentators have made connections to the work of earlier twentieth century avant garde art movements. In the panel discussion Joanne McNeil of Rhizome talked about how technology changes perception, referencing the work of Cubists and Futurists. Several others have also asked whether this constitutes (or needs) a manifesto of some kind? Sterling suggests that the NA material is ‘like early photography for French Impressionists, or like silent film for Russian Constructivists, or like abstract-dynamics for Italian Futurists.’ This all makes some sense, as this is in many ways a classic modernist research project: the material is after all object trouvé, an assemblage of found ready-mades, stuff circulating in the world. Perhaps we should read the tumblr blog as a neo-Dadaist assemblage, a reworking of a Kurt Schwitters Merzbau? Or perhaps it is better to think of it in terms of the kind of contemporary artworks that have a strong curatorial aspect within the art itself? Something like say some of the work of the Otolith Group, or Mark Leckey? Thinking about it as an art project only gets us so far though… let’s look at the material a bit more closely…

Kurt Schwitters: Merzbau, 1933

The posts tends to fall into one of a few categories (and rarely more than one, interestingly). Some of the material is the unintended side product of digital production processes – glitches and so forth. Some artefacts are the result of the way that we are now marking up and reorganising environments to facilitate machines interactions. Many posts reference human designs which are in some way responding to or mimicking the previous two categories. There is an awful lot of rather mediocre and predictable pixelated, faceted, blurred, stretched etc etc stuff mixed in there.

So what are we to make of these categories? Sterling reminds us that ‘glitches and corruption artefacts aren’t machine vision’, and he is right. But they do, through their very slippage, reveal something about the system, mind and logic that produced them. I am reminded here of the research  of William and Gregory Bateson on glitches in humans, animals and plants, where they found clues regarding the role of information and symmetry in evolutionary processes. Regarding the second category, it might of course be argued that humans have always transformed their environments to facilitate the use of tools. For a century now we have put humans second to the needs of the car in our cities, for example, transforming cities beyond recognition in the process. However, there is perhaps something else important to note concerning the way that environments (and indeed human behaviours) are being manipulated to facilitate their recognition by machines today. For example, Rev Dan Catt has noted, regarding the claim that much of the aesthetic seems retro (Sterling: ‘retro ’80s graphics are sentimental fluff’),  that this is a reflection of the current state of CV: ‘or put another way, current computer vision can probably “see” computer graphics from around 20-30 years ago … because machine/computer vision isn’t very advanced, to exist with machines in the real world we need to mark up the world to help them see.’

Ultimate Puma 700 – Programmable Universal Machine for Assembly (1970s) – wikipedia (image)

It is perhaps the third category of objects that are simply  designed ‘art pieces’ that are the most difficult to think about as a new aesthetic. Is this just simplistic mimetic iconography, or does it represent a more interesting attempt to empathise with machines? Still, many commentators do want to find (or initiate) a serious attempt by artists and designers to engage with these questions. Kyle Chayka argues that ‘The New Aesthetic, as it exists in drone technology and Google Maps imagery and data surveillance, represents a ground-level change in our existence. Instead of shocking society, New Aesthetic art must respond to a shocked society and turn the changes we’re confronting into critical artistic creation.’

Bridle has joked that if he had known how influential the site would become, he would have chosen a better name. Yet in many respects the name is just right, and has raised the stakes in an important way. How we think about NA depends very much on how we understand the word ‘aesthetic’. There is a weak sense of ‘aesthetics’, which means something like a style or a look, and to be sure, it seems that much of the material on the actual blog, as well as much of the commentary, is concerned with this reading: what kind of ‘look’ is emerging, what extent is it intentionally designed,what extent is it the result of frictions between different systems and different visual logics, etc etc.. all interesting enough. There is however another stronger meaning to the word ‘aesthetic’, which refers to a tradition of philosophical thought concerned with understanding how it is that we perceive and have knowledge of the world. In this sense aesthetics is inseparable from, and perhaps unites, epistemology (philosophy of knowledge) and ontology (philosophy of being). In an important way, the question whether we can identify a new aesthetics is then not just a stylistic question of appearances, but is also a philosophical question concerning technologies of perception and production in the world. Clearly, much of the discussion around NA above has aspects of both senses of aesthetics. However, once Sterling stated that ‘The New Aesthetic is a genuine aesthetic movement with a weak aesthetic metaphysics’, it was only a matter of time before philosophers descended…

Ian Bogost and Greg Borenstein are amongst two of the commentators who have responded to NA from an Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) perspective. I always have a degree of sympathy with this position. OOO thinkers typically try to deal with both the reality of objects, and their extended relationships in the world. Drawing upon the work of Bruno Latour in particular, they see the world as an extended horizontal network of actors, where the actors are anything from people to machines to atoms to, well, anything. I agree with those who think that OOO is an approach that can help us to think about NA. I concur when Bogost calls for ‘philosophical lab equipment that helps us grasp, as best we can, the experience of objects themselves’, and am curious when Borenstein suggests that ‘the New Aesthetic is actually striving towards a fundamentally new way of imagining the relations between things in the world.’ But when Bogost wonders why focus on computers, asking ‘why couldn’t a group of pastry chefs found their own New Aesthetic, grounded in the slippage between wet and dry ingredients?’ it becomes clear to me what is missing in most of the NA discussion (and indeed much Latourian thought) so far: politics, economics… There is of course a reason why we are talking about computers and not pastry, and it is not because pastry chefs are too lazy to get their stuff together on tumblr. The point is that digital production technologies have become fundamental to the processes of global capitalism, in terms of production, in terms of finance, in terms of media, in terms of surveillance, and indeed, are also increasingly central in anti-capitalist movements and post-capitalist alternatives. To reflect upon a possible aesthetics of digital technology at the beginning of the twenty-first century is then in large part to explore the contradictory internal relations of global capitalism itself. Yes, I know that we could draw a network of actors that connects pastry to millers to farmers to wheat fields and water tables and clouds in one direction and to consumers and advertising and so on in the other. Yes, we can show how a cake ultimately networks and internalises all of these relations and more. Nonetheless, pastry simply is not active in reorganising global production today in the same way that computers are. Cakes just do not express so directly and clearly, and at the same time obscure so thoroughly, the techno-scientific processes that are transforming, in simultaneously progressive and appalling ways, life on Earth. It is regarding these questions that the discussion on new aesthetics must now, to some extent turn to attend.

It is quite staggering just how apolitical much of the NA discussion has become. This is despite the fact that Bruce Sterling opened his talk at SXSW with a series of comments regarding the economic and ecological crisis, and the Occupy movement. However, he did not go on to develop these questions in relation to his later discussion of NA … he left that work to us. I suggest that we start  with the important footnote at the beginning of the chapter on ‘Machinery and Large Scale Industry’ in Capital, where Karl Marx states ‘technology reveals the active relation of man to nature, the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from these relations.’ Commentators on NA would do well to reflect upon the range of relations that technology mediates for Marx here. Technology is in this conception radically political, and radically ecological. Amongst the many questions we might ask of the NA material then, are questions like: What are the means of production embodied in these objects? What is the division of labour (between humans, and between humans, machines, and other actors)? What is the difference between material and immaterial labour in these processes? Ultimately, for both Bateson and Marx, technology and aesthetics are ecologically related: this is the pattern that connects.

Jon Goodbun

Jon’s interests range across a network of architecture, process philosophy, radical cybernetics, urban political ecology, and the natural and cognitive sciences. He sometimes refers to himself as an metropolitan tektologist, for want of a better description. His work focuses on near and medium term future scenarios. You can find out more about Jon at rheomode.org.uk or follow on twitter @jongoodbun.

The Space Beyond Me by Julius von Bismarck and Andreas Schmelas

image source: Invisible University

  • I cannot agree more with the first sentence and hope to see more writing on this subject. Also, excellent counterpoint to Bogost. I agree with the de-privileging of the human in OOO, but think this misses the point of the New Aesthetic. 

    I just want to point out that your definition of aesthetics as, “….a tradition of philosophical thought concerned with understanding how it is that we perceive and have knowledge of the world,” seems based on the use of the term in Kant’s Transcendental Aesthetic from the first critique rather than his completely different usage of the term in the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment from the third critique. It is the latter, the study of beauty and the sublime, that forms the basis of the philosophical tradition that takes that name. The former is simply epistemology. 

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