Recently I participated in a Nettime mailing list debate on the subject of “Political Work in the Aftermath of the New Media Arts Crisis.” The basic question was, what’s happening with the electronic arts since the great dotcom boom deflated? And one of the assertions was that part of the weakness of so-called “new media art” lay in the criticism it does or does not receive. In particular, a contributor named Rama Hoetzlein noticed how most new media criticism was not really about artistic expression, but about the kind of technological determinism promoted by Jean Baudrillard and his followers, all the way down to later luminaries like Lev Manovich. So for him, the problem was that art is being treated like media. Then, since the subject after all was about a possible politics of new media art, another poster named Carlos Katastrofsky said this: “If I see some really good ‘political art’ the first step is to admire it (wow, great work) and then to think about consequences. Art is something autonomous. To me such an approach would free it from being a mere form of communication, a medium, or ‘new media art.’ But at the same time it can be all of that.” So for him, the problem was apparently that art is first of all autonomous, and only secondarily political.
What does one admire in a piece of art? What is its autonomy? And what could be its consequences? I have asked myself these questions for years. Like most thinking people, I have come to a few conclusions. And since I like the idea that art can be “all of that” – a form of communication, a medium, new media art – I would like to share these conclusions with you.
Humans are excessively complex by nature, and inherently social. We are defined by the surfeit of symbolic activity that goes on in our brains and indeed, in our full sensorium, and that comes out not only from our mouths but in all sorts of gestures and postures and practices directed toward the senses and symbolizing activities of others. A long anthropological tradition running from Sapir through Levi-Strauss to Sahlins holds that so-called “primitive” societies are no less complex than modern ones: their languages show comparable range and variety, but they are (according to Levi-Strauss) oriented differently, more concrete in one case, more abstract in the other. There is so much going on in any human being and between any group of human beings that just ordering or harmonizing all this excessive symbolization – I mean, excessive over what the utilitarians think of as the simple quest for satisfaction or corporeal pleasure – becomes a problem in itself. Because madness always lurks on the edges of our reeling imaginations, and then there is also depression, or anger, or jealousy, or prejudice or extreme paranoia, indeed a large number of obscure problems that can disrupt the life of the one and of the many.
Religion has been the great social technique for bringing all this roiling thought, expression and sensation into some kind of predictable pattern and harmony, constituting entire narrative and figural universes, with their built environments, rituals, music, poetry, smells, tastes, etc, all associated and carefully correlated with orders of kinship, canons of sexuality, responsibilities of care, expressions of tenderness, commandments, prohibitions and the like. What we now call art, as it gradually detached itself from religion and became a series of aesthetic traditions interpretable and modifiable by individuals – as it became autonomous, in other words – seems to have taken on the role of being the sensuous and ideational mirror of the individual’s proper “fit” with society; it became a way of continuing the vast and mostly imaginary conversation about the ways that the one relates to the many, and vice-versa. However, this conversation was no longer necessarily about harmony: because depending on the very particular context, the proper “fit” could have aspects of a “misfit,” and the quest for an idealized harmony could involve extreme disruptions of the status quo, disruptions appearing both in art and in life itself. Just think about the Antigone of Sophocles and you will see that this kind of problematic was not invented with the romantics, it goes back quite a ways. Clearly it gets particularly intense in modern democracies, where we are all brought up to conceive ourselves as both legislators and revolutionaries.
Now, amusingly, one of the reasons I ever even bothered to think about such complex and excessive things, so far from “direct political action” and what have you, is that for many years I have found myself with a certain nagging problem of getting up in the morning. Perhaps others have experienced this? It so happens that on certain mornings I may spend as much as an hour just thinking about a certain constellation of things: a group of people, an artwork, a political issue, a line from a song, a concept, a phrase from a book, an image, a rhythm. Without showing any particular signs of anxiety, insanity, delirium, fever, swine flu or whatever, I still found it necessary to bring such constellations of ideas and sensations into some kind of dynamic pattern that would lend a spring to my step, a direction to my speech, an effectiveness to my gestures. Being a bit of a misfit – according to the aforementioned tradition in the democratic societies – I had to work on this question of how to fit all this in, nonetheless: how to fit into my own overflowing symbolic and sensate world, first of all, and how to fit that world into the multitude of others with whom daily activity brings me into contact.
In this way I began to think that what is pleasing, satisfying, attractive, intriguing, inspiring, shocking, repellent, etc in the formal allure of artworks is also somehow the result of other people’s struggles with the excess of symbolization in which they are embroiled, and that the “success” of the artwork (Wow, great work) is always some variation on the infinite theme of the artist(s) trying to break out of one universe and fit into another – whether we’re talking about a purely abstract universe of chromatism or rhythm, or some Hegelian quandry of historical dialectics, or the current discussion about cap and trade, or the latest dispute over the coolest tattoos in the punk or heavy-metal circle that encloses your secret passion. An aesthetic form doesn’t directly solve any of the weighty social problems – but it helps get a world together, it helps structure a pattern and a dynamic and an enthusiasm, which is always a good start.
So how ’bout the politics then? Well, according to my little theory, the personal is clearly both aesthetic and political, because if you can’t get out of bed you are definitely not going to make it to the office, the march, the meeting, the voting booth, the library, or wherever your activity is going to have some consequences in terms of organizing social relations. What is more, this is not just my little theory, because going back to Plato’s Republic or maybe the Rig Vedas, social thinkers have been very conscious of the influence of things like music on the order and harmony of the community, the city, state or whatever. Indeed, not long ago we saw with dazzled and almost disbelieving eyes that a great nation-state like China could put a significant fraction of its resources into organizing an aesthetic display which was not just supposed to knock everybody out, American style, with its overwhelming show of wealth, but also and above all to enact and celebrate an ideal of harmony and societal coordination which, from my anarcho-individualist viewpoint, was at once vastly impressive and also frankly terrifying, because here I could see an intensive use of all the latest, hypercomplex aesthetic techniques to knit together an order that could power a vast authoritarian economic machine and infuse it with the enthusiam and belief of the many – which is a lot, when we’re talking China. So you want new media? Replay your .avi file of the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics.
What I am trying to get at with all of this is that art is essentially media, it is not merely but essentially about communication, only what is communicated is not just a phrase or a slogan or a piece of information, but a problematic attempt to reconfigure a world on every level of sensate and imaginary experience. That can be an attempt to fit in or to stick out, to harmonize or to disrupt, to smash the current relation of self and society or to conserve it or to invent another one; but insofar as art is expression, it always projects this struggle over the shape and balance of a world towards the ears and eyes and excessive imaginations of others. When we say that art is autonomous, we situate it in the long democratic tradition where the self, autos, tries to help establish the law, nomos, according to which it can freely develop in the company of fellow human beings.
Now, the problems of this attempt at autonomy are almost infinite, they are sexual, technical, ecological, emotional, mystical, contractual, material, they involve philosophy, science, babies, great art and also the plumbing. And they always involve the relations of individuals and groups to others whose worlds they do not understand, whose rhythms they do not feel pulsing in their own veins, whose tacit concepts of harmony and disruption are not expressed by the same patterns and shapes and colors and combinations of tones. So when I say, Wow, great work – as I often do, just the way people in the new media arts circles have done for years at festivals sponsored by Philips and Microsoft and Sony and the like – the first consequence for me is to inquire into the world from which that art arises and to which it points, and eventually to see how I fit into or desire to break out of that world. This means that a deep and searching criticism can never just be criticism of the work, it always has to look further back, into the world from which it sprang, and ahead to the consequences of a potential change in the worlds we share, or at least to the consequences of a change in the way that I or we will relate to other worlds in the future.
Finally, it seems to me, in my anarcho-democratic world, that to say Wow, great work, without inquiring into the consequences, is one of the closest things one can do to never getting out of bed, i.e. it’s close to sleepwalking. Because at best, you would then be just letting the great artwork fit into your own impassioned dream, or letting it be the colorful and striking tattoo that will fit you into your own micro-circle of admirers. That’s at best – because in the present world of biopower and noopower, just admiring a work in itself and for itself can mean accepting without question the world that it mediates, which in the case of the networked technologies sold by Sony, Microsoft and Philips and abused by a vast array of corporations and governments, can be an extremely predatory world, configured precisely in order to capture your consciousness and extract some value or utility out of your passions and dreams. Value that can ultimately be devastating for the collectivity (as in the debt-fueled consumption boom of this decade), utility that can make you into the most terrible of instruments (like the voters lured by nationalist rhetoric into supporting our proliferating wars).
It has been years since I read Lev Manovich, so what follows may be totally unjust to his work, but as I recall, what always irritated me in his writing was a kind of smug insistence that the new media were essentially defined by a certain kind of rhythm, a certain multiplication of screens, a certain connection to databases, etc. – in other words, that the new media were essentially defined by the dominant trends of contemporary capitalist society. For me this seemed like a total abdication of criticism itself, and it also seemed to be a sort of cheerful, “I’m on the winning side” version of the dark technological determinism and philosophical doomsaying promoted by the post-Leftist thinkers in the wake of Baudrillard. What I missed was the very question of autonomy, and some recognition of its quasi-infinite complexities as they’ve been ceaselessly developing from the Neolithic to now, in the long and discontinuous series of messages passed from human world to human world. In my view, the poverty of new media art – its “crisis” – has intrinsically to do with the poverty of media critique tout court. It is the failure to see how the cultural politics of individuals and groups are mediated in the work, how they are expressed at every level of their ineluctable complexity and excess over the “mere communication” of what already exists.