Category Archives: glitch

New Aesthetic Argumentum Ad Hominem

Papercraft Self Portrait – 2009 (Testroete)

One of the most frustrating contemporary ways to attack any new idea, practice or moment is to label it as “buzz-worthy” or an “internet meme”. The weakness of this attack should be obvious, but strangely it has become a powerful way to dismiss things without applying any any critical thought to the content of the object of discussion. In other words it is argumentation petitio principii, where the form of the argument is “the internet meme, the new aesthetic, should be ignored because it is an internet meme”. Or even, in some forms, an argumentum ad hominem, where the attack is aimed at James Bridle (as the originator of the term) rather than the new aesthetic itself. Equally, the attacks may also be combined.

I think the whole ‘internet meme’, ‘buzz’, ‘promotional strategy’ angle on the new aesthetic is indicative of a wider set of worries in relation to a new scepticism, as it were (related also to the skepticism movement too, possibly). We see it on Twitter where the medium of communication seems to encourage a kind of mass scepticism, where everyone makes the same point simultaneous that the other side is blindly following, a ‘fanboy’, irrational, suspect, or somehow beholden to a dark power to close, restrict or tighten individual freedoms – of course, the ‘I’ is smart enough to reject the illusion and unmask the hidden forces. This is also, I think, a worry of being caught out, being laughed at, or distracted by (yet) another internet fad. I also worry that the new aesthetic ‘internet meme’ criticism is particularly ad hominem, usually aimed, as it is, towards its birth within the creative industries. I think we really need to move on from this level of scepticism and be more dialectical in our attitude towards the possibilities in, and suggested by, the new aesthetic. This is where critical theory can be a valuable contributor to the debate.

For example, part of the new aesthetic, is a form of cultural practice which is related to a postmodern and fundamentally paranoid vision of being watched, observed, coded, processed or formatted. I find particularly fascinating the aesthetic dimension to this, in as much as the representational practices are often (but not always) retro, and in some senses, tangential to the physical, cultural, or even computational processes actually associated with such technologies. This is both, I suppose, a distraction, in as much as it misses the target, if we assume that the real can ever be represented accurately (which I don’t), but also and more promisingly an aesthetic that remains firmly human mediated, contra to the claims of those who want to “see like machines”. That is, the new aesthetic is an aestheticization of computational technology and computational techniques more generally. It is also fascinating in terms of the refusal of the new aesthetic to abide by the careful boundary monitoring of art and the ‘creative industry’ more generally, really bringing to the fore the questions raised by Liu, for example, in The Laws of Cool. One might say that it follows the computational propensity towards dissolving of traditional boundaries and disciplinary borders.

I also find the new aesthetic important for it has an inbuilt potentiality towards critical reflexivity, both towards itself (does the new aesthetic exist?) but also towards both artistic practice (is this art?), curation (should this be in galleries?), and technology (what is technology?). There is also, I believe, an interesting utopian kernel to the new aesthetic, in terms of its visions and creations – what we might call the paradigmatic forms – which mark the crossing over of certain important boundaries, such as culture/nature, technology/human, economic/aesthetic and so on. Here I am thinking of the notion of augmented humanity, or humanity 2.0, for example. This criticality is manifested in the new aesthetic’s continual seeking to ‘open up’ black boxes of technology, to look at developments in science, technology and technique and to try to place them within histories and traditions – in the reemergence of social contradictions, for example. But even an autonomous new aesthetic, as it were, points towards the anonymous and universal political and cultural domination represented by computational techniques which are now deeply embedded in systems that we experience in all aspects of our lives. There is much to explore here.

Moroso pixelated sofa and nanimaquina rug, featured on Design Milk

The new aesthetic, of course, is as much symptomatic of a computational world as itself subject to the forces that drive that world. This means that it has every potential to be sold, standardised, and served up to the willing mass of consumers as any other neatly packaged product. Perhaps even more so, with its ease of distribution and reconfiguration within computational systems, such as Twitter and Tumblr. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and so far I have more hope that it even in its impoverished consumerized form, it still serves to serve notice of computational thinking and processes, which stand out then against other logics. This is certainly one of the interesting dimensions to the new aesthetic both in terms of the materiality of computationality, but also in terms of the need to understand the logics of postmodern capitalism, even ones as abstract as obscure computational systems of control.

For me, the very possibility of a self-defined new ‘aesthetic’ enables this potentiality – of course, there are no simple concepts as such, but the new aesthetic, for me, acts as a “bridge” (following Deleuze and Guattari for a moment). By claiming that it is new ‘aesthetic’ makes possible the conceptual resources associated with and materialised in practices, which may need to be “dusted off” and to be used as if they were, in a sense, autonomous (that is, even, uncritical). This decoupling of the concept (no matter that in actuality one might claim that no such decoupling could really have happened) potentially changes the nature of the performances that are facilitated or granted by the space opened within the constellation of concepts around the ‘new aesthetic’ (again, whatever that is) – in a sense this might also render components within the new aesthetic inseparable as the optic of the new aesthetic, like any medium, may change the nature of what can be seen. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing though.

Glitch Textiles by Phillip David Stearns

Another way of putting it, perhaps, would be that a social ontology is made possible, which, within the terms of the the constellation of practices and concepts grounding it, is both distanced from and placed in opposition to existing and historical practices. Where this is interesting is that, so far, the new aesthetic, as a set of curatorial or collectionist practices, has been deeply recursive in its manifestation – both computational in structure (certainly something I am interested in about it) – and also strikingly visual (so far) – and here the possibility of an immanent critique central to the new aesthetic can be identified, I think. Of course, it is too early to say how far we can push this, especially with something as nascent as the new aesthetic, which is still very much a contested constellation of concepts and ideas and playing out in various media forms, etc., but nonetheless, I suggest that one might still detect the outlines of a kind of mediated non-identity implicit within the new aesthetic, and this makes it interesting. So I am not claiming, in any sense, that the new aesthetic was “founded on critical thinking”, rather that in a similar way that computational processes are not “critical thinking” but contain a certain non-reflexive reflexivity when seen through their recursive strategies – but again this is a potentiality that needs to be uncovered, and not in any sense determined. This is, perhaps, the site of a politics of the new aesthetic.

Certainly there is much work to be done with the new aesthetic, and I, for one, do not think that everything is fixed in aspic – either by Bridle or any of the other commentators. Indeed, there is a need for thinking about the new aesthetic from a number of different perspectives, that for me is the point at which the new aesthetic is interesting for thinking with, and pushing it away seems to me to be an “over-hasty” move when it clearly points to a either a fresh constellations of concepts and ideas, or certainly a means for us to think about the old constellations in a new way. This means that we should not aim to be either for or against the new aesthetic, as such, but rather more interested in the philosophical and political work the new aesthetic makes possible.

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New Book: Life in Code and Software: Mediated life in a complex computational ecology

Life in Code and Software (cover image by Michael Najjar)

New book out in 2012 on Open Humanities PressLife in Code and Software: Mediated life in a complex computational ecology. 

 

This book explores the relationship between living, code and software. Technologies of code and software increasingly make up an important part of our urban environment. Indeed, their reach stretches to even quite remote areas of the world. Life in Code and Software introduces and explores the way in which code and software are becoming the conditions of possibility for human living, crucially forming a computational ecology, made up of disparate software ecologies, that we inhabit. As such we need to take account of this new computational envornment and think about how today we live in a highly mediated, code-based world. That is, we live in a world where computational concepts and ideas are foundational, or ontological, which I call computationality, and within which, code and software become the paradigmatic forms of knowing and doing. Such that other candidates for this role, such as: air, the economy, evolution, the environment, satellites, etc., are understood and explained through computational concepts and categories.

 

 

 

Glitch Ontology

The digital (or computational) presents us with a number of theoretical and empirical challenges which we can understand within this commonly used set of binaries:

  • Linearity vs Hypertextuality
  • Narrative vs Database
  • Permanent vs Ephemeral
  • Bound vs Unbound
  • Individual vs Social
  • Deep vs Shallow
  • Focused vs Distracted
  • Close Read vs Distant Read
  • Fixed vs Processual
  • Digital (virtual) vs Real (physical)

Understanding the interaction between the digital and physical is part of the heuristic value that these binaries bring to the research activity. However, in relation to the interplay between the digital and the cultural, examples, such as Marquese Scott’s Glitch inspired Dubstep dancing (below), raise important questions about how these binaries interact and are represented in culture more generally (e.g. as notions of The New Aesthetic).

Glitch inspired Dubstep Dancing (Dancer: Marquese Scott)

Here, I am not interested in critiquing the use of binaries per se (but which of course remains pertinent – and modulations might be a better way to think of digital irruptions), rather I think they are interesting for the indicative light they cast on drawing analytical distinctions between categories and collections related to the digital itself. We can see them as lightweight theories, and as Moretti (2007) argues:

Theories are nets, and we should evaluate them, not as ends in themselves, but for how they concretely change the way we work: for how they allow us to enlarge the… field, and re-design it in a better way, replacing the old, useless distinctions… with new temporal, special, and morphological distinctions (Moretti 2007: 91, original emphasis).

These binaries can be useful means of thinking through many of the positions and debates that take place within both theoretical and empirical work on mapping the digital.

  1. Linear versus Hypertextuality: The notion of a linear text, usually fixed within a paper form, is one that has been taken for granted within the humanities. Computational systems, however, have challenged this model of reading because of the ease by which linked data can be incorporated into digital text. This has meant that experimentation with textual form and the way in which a reader might negotiate a text can be explored. Of course, the primary model for hypertextual systems is today strongly associated with the worldwide web and HTML, although other systems have been developed.
  2. Narrative versus Database: The importance of narrative as an epistemological frame for understanding has been hugely important in the humanities. Whether as a starting point for beginning an analysis, or through attempts to undermine of problematize narratives within texts, humanities scholars have usually sought to use narrative as an explanatory means of exploring both the literary and history. Computer technology, however, has offered scholars an alternative way of understanding how knowledge might be structured through the notion of the database. This approach personified in the work of Lev Manovich (2001) has been argued to represent an important aspect to digital media, and more importantly the remediation of old media forms in digital systems.
  3. Permanent versus Ephemeral: One of the hallmarks of much ‘traditional’ or ‘basic’ humanities scholarship has been concerned with objects and artifacts that have been relatively stable in relation to digital works. This especially in disciplines that have internalized the medium specificity of a form, for example the book in English Literature, which shifts attention to the content of the medium. In contrast, digital works are notoriously ephemeral in their form, both in the materiality of the substrates (e.g. computer memory chips, magnetic tape/disks, plastic disks, etc.) but also in the plasticity of the form.  This also bears upon the lack of an original from which derivative copies are made, indeed it could be argued that in the digital world there is only the copy (although recent moves in Cloud computing and digital rights management are partial attempts to re-institute the original through technical means).
  4. Bound versus Unbound: A notable feature of digital artifacts is that they tend to be unbound in character. Unlike books, which have clear boundary points marked by the cardboard that makes up the covers, digital objects boundaries are drawn by the file format in which they are encoded. This makes it an extremely permeable border, and one that is made of the same digital code that marks the content. Additionally, digital objects are easily networked and aggregated, processed and transcoded into other forms further problematizing a boundary point.  In terms of reading practices, it can be seen that the permeability of boundaries can radically change the reading experience.
  5. Individual versus Social: traditional humanities has focused strongly on approaches to texts that is broadly individualistic inasmuch as the reader is understood to undertake certain bodily practices (e.g. sitting in a chair, book on knees, concentration on the linear flow of text). Digital technologies, particularly when networked, open these practices up to a much more social experience of reading, with e-readers like the Amazon Kindle encouraging the sharing of highlighted passages, and Tumblr-type blogs and Twitter enabling discussion around and within the digital text.
  6. Deep versus Shallow: Deep reading is the presumed mode of understanding that requires time and attention to develop a hermeneutic reading of a text, this form requires humanistic reading skills to be carefully learned and applied. In contrast a shallow mode is a skimming or surface reading of a text, more akin to gathering a general overview or précis of the text.
  7. Focused versus Distracted: Relatedly, the notion of focused reading is also implicitly understood as an important aspect of humanities scholarship. This is the focus on a particular text, set of texts or canon, and the space and time to give full attention to them. By contrast, in a world of real-time information and multiple windows on computer screens, reading practices are increasingly distracted, partial and fragmented (hyperattention).
  8. Close Reading versus Distant Reading: Distant reading is the application of technologies to enable a great number of texts to be incorporated into an analysis through the ability of computers to process large quantities of text relatively quickly. Moretti (2007) has argued that this approach allows us to see social and cultural forces at work through collective cultural systems.
  9. Fixed versus Processual: The digital medium facilitates new ways of presenting media that are highly computational, this raises new challenges for scholarship into new media and the methods for approaching these mediums. It also raises questions for older humanities that are increasingly accessing their research object through the mediation of processural computational systems, and more particularly through software and computer code.
  10. Real (physical) versus Digital (virtual): This is a common dichotomy that draws some form of dividing line between the so-called real and the so-called digital.

The New Aesthetic ‘pixel’ fashion

I am outlining these binaries because I think they are useful for helping us to draw the contours of what I call elsewhere ‘computationality’, and for its relationship to the New Aesthetic. In order to move beyond a ‘technological sublime’, we should begin the theoretical and empirical projects through the development of ‘cognitive maps’ (Jameson 1990). Additionally, as the digital increasingly structures the contemporary world, curiously, it also withdraws, and becomes harder and harder for us to focus on as it is embedded, hidden, off-shored or merely forgotten about. Part of the challenge is to bring the digital (code/software) back into visibility for research and critique.

The New Aesthetic is a means for showing how the digital surfaces in a number of different places and contexts.  It is not purely digital production or output, it can also be the concepts and frameworks of digital that are represented (e.g. Voxels). Although New Aesthetic has tended to highlight 8-bit visuals and ‘sensor-vernacular’ or ‘seeing like a machine’ (e.g. Bridle/Sterling) I believe there is more to be explored in terms of ‘computationality’. When identified as such the ‘New Aesthetic’ is a useful concept, in relation to being able to think through and about the visual representation of computationality. Or better, to re-present the computational more generally and its relationship to a particular way-of-being in the world and its mediation through technical media (here specifically concerned with computational media).

Preen Spring/Summer 2012 | Source: Style.com

Previously I argued that this New Aesthetic is a form of ‘abduction aesthetic’ linked to the emergence of computationality as an ontotheology. Computationality is here understood as a specific historical epoch defined by a certain set of computational knowledges, practices, methods and categories. Abductive aesthetic (or pattern aesthetic) is linked by a notion of computational patterns and pattern recognition as a means of cultural expression. I argue that we should think about software/code through a notion of computationality as an ontotheology. Computationality (as an ontotheology) creates a new ontological ‘epoch’ as a new historical constellation of intelligibility. In other words, code/software is the paradigmatic case of computationality, and presents us with a research object which is located at all major junctures of modern society and is therefore unique in enabling us to understand the present situation – as a collection, network, or assemblage of ‘coded objects’ or ‘code objects’.

Computationality is distinct from the ‘challenging-forth’ of technicity as Heidegger described it – in contrast computationality has a mode of revealing that is a ‘streaming-forth’. One aspect of this is that streaming-forth generates second-order information and data to maintain a world which is itself seen and understood as flow but drawn from a universe which is increasingly understood as object-oriented and discrete. Collected information is processed, feedback is part of the ecology of computationality. Computational devices not only withdraw – indeed mechanical devices such as car engines clearly also withdraw – computational devices both withdraw and are constantly pressing to be present-at-hand in alternation. This I call a form of glitch ontology.

Technicity

(modern technology)

Computationality (postmodern technology)

Mode of Revealing

Challenging-forth (Gestell)

Streaming-forth

Paradigmatic Equipment

Technical devices, machines.

Computational devices, computers, processors.

Goals (projects)

1. Unlocking, transforming, storing, distributing, and switching about Standing Reserve (Bestand).

2. Efficiency.

1. Trajectories,  Processing information, Algorithmic transformation (aggregation, reduction, calculation), as data reserve (Cloudscape).

2. Computability.

Identities (roles)

Ordering-beings

Streaming-beings

Paradigmatic Epistemology

Engineer: Engineering is exploiting basic mechanical principles to develop useful tools and objects. For example using: Time-motion studies, Methods-Time Measurement (MTM), instrumental rationality.

Design: Design is the construction of an object or a system but not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works and the experience it generates. For example using: Information theory, graph theory,  data visualisation, communicative rationality, real-time streams.

Table 1: Technicity vs Computationality

Computational devices appear to oscillate rapidly between Vorhandenheit/Zuhandenheit (present-at-hand/ready-to-hand) – a glitch ontology. Or perhaps better, constantly becoming ready-to-hand/unready-to-hand in quick alternation. And by quick this can be happening in microseconds, milliseconds, or seconds, repeatedly in quick succession. This aspect of breakdown has been acknowledged as an issue within human-computer design and is seen as one of pressing concern to be ‘fixed’ or made invisible to the computational device user (Winograd and Flores 1987).

The oscillation creates the ‘glitch’ that is a specific feature of computation as opposed to other technical forms (Berry 2011). This is the glitch that creates the conspicuousness that breaks the everyday experience of things, and more importantly breaks the flow of things being comfortably at hand. This is a form that Heidegger called Unreadyness-to-hand (Unzuhandenheit). Heidegger defines three forms of unreadyness-to-hand: Obtrusiveness (Aufdringlichkeit), Obstinacy (Aufsässigkeit), and Conspicuousness (Auffälligkeit), where the first two are non-functioning equipment and the latter is equipment that is not functioning at its best (see Heidegger 1978, fn 1). In other words, if equipment breaks you have to think about it.

It is important to note that conspicuousness is not completely broken-down equipment. Conspicuousness, then, ‘presents the available equipment as in a certain unavailableness’ (Heidegger 1978: 102–3), so that as Dreyfus (2001: 71) explains, we are momentarily startled, and then shift to a new way of coping, but which, if help is given quickly or the situation is resolved, then ‘transparent circumspective behaviour can be so quickly and easily restored that no new stance on the part of Dasein is required’ (Dreyfus 2001: 72). As Heidegger puts it, it requires ‘a more precise kind of circumspection, such as “inspecting”, checking up on what has been attained, [etc.]’ (Dreyfus 2001: 70).

In other words computation, due to its glitch ontology, continually forces a contextual slowing-down at the level of the mode of being of the user, thus the continuity of flow or practice is interrupted by minute pauses and breaks (these may beyond conscious perception, as such). This is not to say that analogue technologies do not break down, the difference is the conspicuousness of digital technologies in their everyday working, in contrast to the obstinacy or obtrusiveness of analogue technologies, which tend to work or not. I am also drawing attention to the discrete granularity of the conspicuousness of digital technologies, which can be measured technically as seconds, milliseconds, or even microseconds. This glitch ontology raises interesting questions in relation to basic questions about our experiences of computational systems.

My interest in the specificity of the New Aesthetic is because of its implicit recognition of the extent to which digital media has permeated our everyday lives. We could perhaps say that the New Aesthetic is a form of ‘breakdown’ art linked to the conspicuousness of digital technologies. Not just the use of digital tools, of course, but also a language of new media (as Manovich would say), the frameworks, structures, concepts and processes represented by computation. That is both the presentation of computation and its representational modes. It is also to the extent both that it represents computation, but also draws attention to this glitch ontology, for example through the representation of the conspicuousness of glitches and other digital artefacts (also see Menkman 2010, for a notion of critical media aesthetics and the idea of glitch studies).

Other researchers (Beaulieu et al 2012) have referred to ‘Network Realism’ to draw attention to some of these visual practices. Particularly the way of producing these networked visualisation. However, the New Aesthetic is interesting in remaining focussed on the aesthetic in the first instance (rather than the sociological, etc.). This is useful in order to examine the emerging visual culture, but also to try to discern aesthetic forms instantiated within it.

As I argued previously, the New Aesthetic is perhaps the beginning of a new kind of Archive, an Archive in Motion – what Bernard Stiegler (n.d.) called the Anamnesis (the embodied act of memory as recollection or remembrance) combined with Hypomnesis (the making-technical of memory through writing, photography, machines, etc.). Thus, particularly in relation to the affordances given by the networked and social media within which it circulates, combined with a set of nascent practices of collection, archive and display, the New Aesthetic is distinctive in a number of ways.

Firstly, it gives a description and a way of representing and mediating the world in and through the digital, that is understandable as an infinite archive (or collection). Secondly, it alternately highlights that something digital is a happening in culture – and which we have only barely been conscious of – and the way in which culture is happening to the digital. Lastly, the New Aesthetic points the direction of travel for the possibility of a Work of Art in the digital age – something Heidegger thought impossible under the conditions of technicity, but remains open, perhaps under computationality.

In this, the New Aesthetic is, however, a pharmakon, in that it is both potentially poison and cure for an age of pattern matching and pattern recognition. If the archive was the set of rules governing the range of expression following Foucault, and the database the grounding cultural logic of software cultures following Manovich, we might conclude that the New Aesthetic is the cultural eruption of the grammatisation of software logics into everyday life. The New Aesthetic under a symptomology, can be seen surfacing computational patterns, and in doing so articulates and re-presents the unseen and little understood logic of computation, which lies like plasma under, over, and in the interstices between the modular elements of an increasingly computational society.

Bibliography

Beaulieu, A. and de Rijcke, S. (2012) Network Realism, accessed 20/05/2012, http://networkrealism.wordpress.com/

Dreyfus, H. (2001) Being-in-the-world: A Commentary on Heidegger’s Being and Time, Division I. USA: MIT Press.

Heidegger, M. (1978) Being and Time. London: Wiley–Blackwell.

Jameson, F. (2006) Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, in Kellner, D. Durham, M. G. (eds.) Media and Cultural Studies Keyworks, London: Blackwell.

Manovich, L. (2001) The Language of New Media. London: MIT Press.

Menkman, R. (2010) Glitch Studies Manifesto, accessed 20/5/2012, http://rosa-menkman.blogspot.com/2010/02/glitch-studies-manifesto.html

Moretti, F. (2007) Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History, London, Verso.

Stiegler, B. (n.d.)  Anamnesis and Hypomnesis, accessed 06/05/2012, http://arsindustrialis.org/anamnesis-and-hypomnesis

Winograd, T. and Flores, F. (1987) Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design, London: Addison Wesley.