14 October 2012

The Projective Eye

Sam Jacobs at his Strange Harvest blog, in a reprint of his essay "Nostalgia for the New":

"Ironically for something positioning itself on the bleeding edge of newness, the New Aesthetic reeks of something suspiciously like nostalgia. It’s intoxicating vapours contain soothing notes of antiquated art historical ideas including the quaint notion of aesthetic movements and a belief in linear cultural progression. And that’s even before we even get to its content, which to anyone whose been around the cultural block, seem strangely familiar."

The essay originally appeared under the title "The Future as a Historical Fiction" in the UK publication The Commonplace, as part of a discussion on the 'New Aesthetic.' On the same topic and trailing by a few weeks, Curt Cloninger posts his own critique via the Mute site entitled "Manifesto for a Theory of the 'New Aesthetic'," in which he argues:

"'What might things make of the New Aesthetic?' is not a very useful question. 'What might humans make of the New Aesthetic once we realise that we have been entangled with things all along?' is a more useful question. Bruno Latour says that modernism was simply a time when humans thought we weren't entangled with things, when actually we were. What we made of that time unawares was an even bigger entangled mess (Latour's term is ‘a proliferation of hybrids’) – atom bombs as inverted guardian angels, global warming debates as orthodox scientific catechisms. At this point, it seems unlikely that we are going to avoid further complex human/thing entanglements, so trying to avoid them is probably something we should try to avoid. On the other hand, we should also avoid passively sitting around, techno-fetishistically dazzled by these 'spectacular new developments', blithely watching a real-time documentary of ourselves watching a real-time documentary of ourselves. Probably, we should spend some time figuring out how these systems flow and function so we can more effectively modulate them (or sabotage them), hopefully for reasons other than making more money."

"It bears repeating," Cloninger asserts at one point, "'Things' don't affectively suss New Aesthetic images. Only humans 'get' NA images. There is no machine 'aesthetic', no robotic 'vision.'" This has been a common riposte to the buzz surrounding NA over the past several months. Jacobs has his own criticisms, a number of which -- as with the above by Cloninger -- effectively echo those initially voiced by Bruce Sterling in his Wired essay this past April. Which is fitting enough, seeing how in the same edition of The Commonplace, Jacobs's essay runs alongside an interview with Sterling as conducted by editor Jack Self:

BS:  ...A lot of digital aesthetics also tries too hard to be weird, it's wasting transformative energy beating the dead horse of an extinct worldview. If you're always seeking out weird, far-out, edgy expressions, then you end up with a 'perpetual novelty' problem. If all reality is 'weird' then nothing can be weird; you've basically declared yourself weirded out by reality itself, a point of view that is infantile.
JS:  An aesthetic is obviously not value-free, but should it be deployed with the intention of enacting political and social change? New Brutalism, for example, began as an architectural style and developed into a social democratic aesthetic --
BS:  This is also a perpetual-novelty problem. Enacting change to what end? Change to no purpose is just 'churn.' I can imagine a world where creatives get up in the morning and say, 'I'm ethically and aesthetically fulfilled because I'm surrounded by constant New Brutalist Churn,' but even BLDGBLOG would be hard-put to gloss that one up.

And then there's this piece via Further Field, in which contributor Robert Jackson delves into the NA's connections to Object-Oriented Ontology, and its theoretic flimsiness.

At any rate, a few thoughts of my own...

■  At one point in his original essay on the matter, Sterling passingly reaches for Walter Benjamin, making some vague and gratuitous reference to technology viz the "aura." I'm not sure that this applies in this instance, or even if it is applicable. As incoherent as any proposed canon of New Aesthetica bric-a-brac is likely to be, one can certain that a considerable portion of it would involve the prospect of aesthetiticization of information. In which case one would probably be better off skipping Benjamin and instead looking to McLuhan instead.

■  Of course, this aestheticizing doesn't involve information in its raw form, but rather representations thereof. Which should be a given, considering that -- in terms of living by one's senses and navigating the world or one's environ -- humans are overwhelmingly a visually-oriented species. So it only follows that so much contemporary technology and gadgetry is devised and designed thusly. Meaning that there an aesthetic intent -- however slight or provisional, however tertiary to more functional aspects -- is already an inbuilt feature. It's basic Gestalt, really.

■  "To categorize nostalgia as a conservative force is so...old-fashioned," Jacobs asserts at one point. But, he adds, "Futurism is quite what it used to be, either." Jacobs pinpoints a longing for a return of evolutionary telos and linear progress as what he sees as an underlying "nostalgia" in NA. With the new portion of the rubric suggesting a lower-case futurism while the aesthetic part suggest an upper-case Futurism, thus implying a return of some sense of zeitgeist-defining avant-gardism. Perhaps, but I'm inclined to see to regard it as something more recent, something more akin to Pop Art in the late '50s and early '60s -- more a recognition and celebration of the triumph of the "Now" (in the form of the "mod" offerings of consumerist "mass culture") rather than that of things to come.

■  As far as nostalgia is concerned, the only sort I detect is in much of NA's rhetoric -- specifically in the way it harkens back to the sort of cyber-gaga mysticisms that used to fill the pages of Wired throughout much of the 1990s; the sort that often seemed to owe more to the outer-orbit ramblings of Timothy Leary than to anyone else. Which itself seemed to harken back to the Theosophic new-horizon proto-New Age nonsense from the earliest part of the 20th century -- about how the human race was approaching the brink of some great post-physical/spiritual transformation, and etc. etc. From the astral plane to the ethersphere, the next leap in human evolution is only a mouse click away, and so on.*

■  Is the New Aesthetics under-theorized? Definitely, and very likely to remain so. Is it even theorizable to begin with? Probably not, because there isn't enough there there. Is that because it's all load of bullshit? Quite possibly.

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*  There are other deja-vu '90s throwback aspects, as well -- such as the aestheticizing of the glitch, and talk of Deleuzian "rhizomatic" cultural manifestations & whatnot; both of which were of course wildly popular (yet quickly rendered overreaching and quaint) in certain enclaves of the e-music community back around 1997-1999.

1-4.  Imaging from IBM's "History Flow" application via 2008, tracking the editorial evolution of various Wikipedia pages, showing in descending order the histories of: Abortion, Brazil, Microsoft, and Chocolate (with zig-zag pattern representing editing war).
5.  Banksy gets all NA on the RCC.
6.  Further adventures in anthropomorphizing.

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