Week 9 Immersion and Embeddedness

Immersion and embeddedness are related but differ at the level of analytic capabilities and levels of objectivity. An immersive experience like getting “sucked in” to video games hinders the articulation of an objective reality. Immersive experiences tap into our unconscious perceptual habits that guide our actions and decisions, rather than rational reasoning. We are overtaken by our emotions. This implies that the agency of the player or participant is questionable as they rely on the integrated circuit they are part of, without consideration for a larger perspective.

Embeddedness, also implies being part of a circuit of information, but, as in the case of Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, it is a recognition of being part of that system and examining that place within it. An analysis that takes into account our embeddedness within a larger system, is a truer representation than one that looks at a situation or system from an imagined outside. Acknowledging our embeddedness includes understanding that we are part of the problem, and understanding the instrumentalization of agency in the social sphere. It lets us think about the ways in which oppression operates in terms of self-oppression. That being said, immersion can be a very effective tool in understanding other people’s experiences, and can serve as a useful input in social research. Getting outside of ourselves is important in this sense, as it frees up our imagination, and lets us think outside logic through lived experience.

Haraway’s approach is one that acknowledges the alienation of the human by technology, and in fact celebrates it. The human subject that is threatened by the idea of the cyborg is to a large extent the white male colonizer. The logic that separates human and machine, and human and animal, is the logic of nature vs culture, where nature is something to be dominated. Therefore, the view that is challenged by the idea of the cyborg is one of domination. By recognising that we are all already part human, part animal, part machine, we are recognising our embeddedness in a system, which challenges the superiority of any one thing. Additionally, Haraway is in this way challenging the myth of origin that acts as a confinement based on a “natural” way of being, that has been the enslaver of women throughout history.

Utopian approaches to technology are focused on the future, imagining emancipation without reconciliation with the brutal and complicated history of humanity. Haraway’s approach is one based in materiality and social reality, not only looking to the future, but also reconceptualising the past in an attempt to break out of the recurring cycles of enslavement and liberation.


Week 14 Learning New Media

As new media afford us new perceptual capabilities that we didn’t have before, we have to learn how to perceive through them. An example of this is the microscope, suddenly we could see things that we couldn’t before. Or the telegraph, that restructures language because of the structure of the system that demands short, concise messages that carry a lot of information, in other words: code. How do we understand this new information? By learning to see we are placing it in the wider context of our learned perceptive skills that have developed over our lifetime. Anything new is understood in relation to what we already know, and then tested repeatedly as we are exposed to this new medium, building up an understanding that is both conceptual and embodied.

Using new media in representation and artmaking will always start as a testing of the capacities of the media, seeing what they can do. As new media become established in everyday life, the aesthetic challenge is to see what they can do beyond what they are used for in a mundane way, or perhaps just to focus on precisely what their mundane use is so as to make it strange. This would have the effect of when you repeat a word over and over until it sounds strange to you and you are no longer sure you are saying it right. Or in Taussig’s text, “A shot of a traffic light held too long is no longer a traffic light.” This is also a way of learning to “hear” and to “see” through the medium, but it is a deeper understanding that may in fact alter the way that the medium is understood generally.

Politically, new media can be a huge problem, because it can be used to get behind the critical barriers of the public. With traditional mass media, there is a common knowledge, however simplistic, of inherent problems and a sense that not everything that is communicated is to be taken at face value, but because no critical discourse has been developed and disseminated with regards to how new media works and how it can be exploited, the public is caught unawares. In this way, new media technologies can act as a Trojan horse, infiltrating the everyday lives of people by accessing their domestic routines and habits. By blurring the boundaries of the personal sphere and the public sphere, the integrity of public discourse is compromised. On the other hand, new media have the potential to be turned into an advantage for progressive politics, engaging more people in humanitarian causes and the struggle for equality, as well as disseminating critical engagement itself. We are all, always re-schooled by new media in a process that has no end. As we develop new tools, those tools in turn develop us, and create a need in us for other, new tools.

Week 13 – Expression across material difference

In ‘The Expressive Object’, Dewey explains how the artist uses the attributes of the medium in which they are working for expression. He makes an important distinction between expression and statement, that serves to get at the essence of what art is. A statement uses signs to point to a distinct goal with as much accuracy as possible, as exemplified by scientific notation. An expression however, does not seek to lead the viewer to an end but to create an association in the audience by way of experience. In the statement, the specific qualities of media are irrelevant, or worse, a hindrance to clearly conveying a message, while expression relies on the same completely. It is the artists “emotion”, as Dewey chooses to define it, the inner impulsion, that is worked through the material of the medium to gain the status of expression. Past experience is activated by new experience to form something new. Simple gushing forth of emotion is not expression, as expression requires thought and engagement with the world. The expressive object is the result of the mutual causation of individual and world, and the only way anything new may enter the world. As emotion changes material, material in turn changes the emotion and thus the individual themselves, and moves from personal experience to shared experience, from emotion to expression, thus becoming meaningful.

The re-ordering necessary for expression could not take place without abstraction, even life-like depictions are to some degree abstractions. The artist’s “imaginative vision” does not just see what is there literally, but also infers relations that lie outside the scope of the actual depiction. The expressive object says more than what is there, it goes beyond mere draftsmanship. Expression is dependent on the artist’s “integrated experience”, and can take the form of any medium.

Brun shares the view that we can never know what art or music is, because it is not defined by an end goal. Music itself is an experience not a statement, and can thus not be explained away. Brun says instead that there is something forever changeable but fundamentally consistent in music, and that is what distinguishes music from all audible phenomena, or art from life. Importantly this distinction is permeable and dynamic. Both composer’s and listener’s ideas of what music is change over time and in constant relation to the world and the emergence of new media.

Brun argues for media-specific analysis in saying that in order to really hear a piece of music you must know the system it is based on, to know the parameters it works against and that give it definition. In this account, relations between acoustical events are what make music rather than the acoustical events themselves. Every medium has its affordances that provide parameters for the final piece. Thus, it corresponds with Dewey’s principle of expression as necessarily engaged with material (or immaterial material, such as sound). According to both Dewey and Brun, the medium should be chosen with reference to the idea, how it may be most suitably expressed. The medium and its inherent qualities will then feed back into and alter the idea itself. Bad art comes from blindly sticking to your guns, or conversely, allowing the material to wash away the impulsion.

Because of the organic nature of the relationship between the artist and the world, new media influences “old” media and how we use and perceive them. Changes in the material induce changes in the imagination, or emotional reservoir of the artist, giving rise to new impulsions. The impulsion is given meaning by its association to things outside of it, creating a whole of which it is part.

The universality of these concepts and the obvious correspondence between Dewey’s and Brun’s texts, even though they are considering different arts disciplines, lets us deduce that the artist’s engagement with new and “old” media is in fact based on the same principles, and thus does not differ in kind. The engagement that is the result of impulsion and the world is the same for all expression, however the artist decides to engage with material. The different materials facilitate different types of work, while the artist’s engagement remains in principle the same. Through expression, art lifts things out of habitual association to be seen anew, in whatever medium.

Week 12 – Ranciere and Benjamin

Rancière’s claim, as I understand it, is that art can never either exist as fully part of life or isolated from it, it moves between those two polarities. Art is dynamic and depends on politics, or the social and communal, but cannot be defined by it. Art cannot be life but defines itself against it, and thus can only exist with life, never outside it. He says that “the aesthetic formula ties art to non-art” (150), so that art exists between the two extremes of everything being art (and thus nothing being art) and the divorce of art from life, making it irrelevant, and perhaps not art at all because it denies engagement with it. This is the double entropy of the aesthetic regime, between whose extremes art moves ceaselessly. “De-aestheticization” and “re-aestheticization” of life both culminate in the end of art.

If everything is art, then nothing is. Art cannot exist unless it is a real engagement, not a habitual response. In a sense we cannot choose to consider all that exists art, because our being in the world necessitates inattention to what we already know. We grow accustomed to our surroundings and they become invisible to us, we do not use our working memory to process them, they are the background of new information. In this sense art is always new information, even when the artwork itself is not new. It is a new engagement with what is before us and a subversion of functionality. If art is not a revision of habit and a questioning of the norm in some respect, it cannot be art – the artwork vanishes into the background.

Rancière proposes that “If the end of art is to become a commodity, the end of a commodity is to become art.” (144) By losing its use-value, the object gains the potential to become art which can be defined as that which has no end-goal or prescribed use. An artwork can however be both art and non-art, a useless tool, or a useful object taken (partially or fully) out of context, its purpose extended beyond its design.

Referring to “the principle of ‘Romanticism’” (143), Ranciere replaces the dichotomy of art and life with “scenarios of latency and re-actualization” (ibid), suggesting that art is dependent on social engagement through public discourse for it to be art and not decoration or design. Artworks that have lost their status as art because they have been assimilated into life can be re-activated through renewed engagement.

In Benjamin’s account, the political value of aesthetics is held in the technological reproduction of art, as pictorial representation becomes part of everyday life and art and life move closer toward each other. The feedback influence of new media changes not only the production of art but also our understanding and perception of traditional art forms.

The displacement of the digital sits in stark contrast to the permanence of the authentic work of art – “the here and now of the work of art” (21), is where the authenticity of the artwork is located. Rancière’s “multiplication of the temporalities of art” (143) can thus be seen as a denial of the concept of authenticity as the latter implies an unchanging engagement. Taking this point further, the conclusion would be a reversal of permanence, as the work of art, according to this logic, can only in fact be art in the specific time and place in which it was conceived. There can be no re-activation of the work and it must therefore be relegated to the status of historical object. In a sense, the change of time and place creates a reproduction of the original artwork in this conceptual framework. However, time and place can be said to reside in the materiality of the work of art which provides it with the aura of authenticity. In this way, the link between materiality and authenticity can be established.

Without concern for authenticity and divorced from ritual, the work of art becomes through its reproducibility tied to politics. Benjamin argues that the technological reproduction of art can be held accountable not only for the cult of the movie star, but also the cult of the audience which enables a malignant populism and offers opportunities for the rise of fascism. He talks about the “involvement of the masses through illusionary displays and ambiguous speculations” (34) by the film industry, blurring the line between real and fake both within the arts and in politics. The most mediated art form, the moving image, is also the one with the most sense of immediacy. The most fake image is the one that looks the most real. Packed with meaning, it is in fact more real than reality.

Changes in art as a medium has changed art itself, producing a different kind of art, an art that is not concerned with authenticity but rather with experience and has thus no ultimate truth-value. The symbiotic relationship of art and life, has changed politics as an instantiation of public life. Politics has finally taken on the logic of technological reproduction, which favours image over actuality. Exhibition value takes over from cult value, meaning that the understanding of any specific work of art is not based on the work itself – the work of art becomes subservient to a grand narrative and the prompt to see what lies outside our ideas of the world is subsumed.

Week 11

An aspect of hypermediacy that becomes apparent when considering it in terms of new media technologies, is that of ongoingness or liveness, that seems to be an integral part of media today. Not only are we exposed to a fragmented multiplicity of windows and heterogeneous content, we are also producers of that content. New media is characterized by simultaneity and its situatedness in real time. The so called “feed” of social media never stops and is integrated into many websites. In this sense it is operated by the logic of transparency and immediacy, and is in immediate contact with reality. It is a kind of hyper-realism that may be exemplified by the multitude of simultaneous live broadcasts on Facebook.

This would also suggest that remediation is inherent in new media. As Bolter and Grusin point out, older forms of media are always constitutive parts of new media that become something else in their altered functionality. In this regard new media is defined by new ways of using and interacting with aspects of old media. Use and form are intertwined and co-generative. New media have absorbed and acquisitioned text, image, graphics, video, information technology, live broadcast, and sound, to create an altogether new medium. Having engulfed its constituent parts, the logic of new media is seeping back into them.

Bolter and Grusin also mention how the sharing of space within a medium of both fact and fiction blurs the distinction between the two, which is symptomatic of how media operates in the digital era. We have seen this in the dramatic rise and fall of economies as a result of speculation, and the recent election of a former reality tv show host as president of the United States, made possible because of the complete disregard for any distinction between fact and fiction. The astounding inaccuracy of predictions made by mass media, as well as the general public disregard for fact-checking and proven explicit lies of the Republican candidate leading up to the election, is a clear sign of a shift away from the logic of mass media and Habermas’ notion of the public sphere, and the rise of a new paradigm brought about by new media. This new paradigm cannot be separated into the logics of separate components, as it is more than anything the connection and interrelation of these components. Therefore, immediacy, hypermediacy, and remediation are all part of new media technologies.

The material form of new media is becoming unified and homogenized as applications become increasingly platform agnostic and their content is shared between multiple devices. This makes the hardware an access point for the flow of information, through which the user may also create content to be released into the stream. Increasingly printed matter may be thought of as downloaded, digital content made material, rather than the more traditional notion of the reverse – online content as uploaded material. It is a question of the primacy of the digital in new media and the subsequent sense that information is held online, in the cloud, and only secondarily takes physical form. What is critical for this new media is continuous integration of cameras throughout physical space and the ubiquity of computer vision. The technological advances that allow for this are a necessary part of increasingly image-based communication, consisting of high quality digital photography and video, as well as emojis and emoticons that act as substitution for text. To my mind, the ultimately opaque truth-value of images is symptomatically linked with the lack of distinction between fact and fiction, and even the blatant disregard for truth-telling in society today.

Week 10 Hayles and Weiner

Hayles claims that Weiner sees meaning as constructed through communication, but that it has no meaning of its own. It is the relation that is meaningful rather than a representation of an essence that communicates. Communication is “a probabilistic act in a probabilistic universe, where initial conditions are never known exactly and where messages signify only through their relation to other messages that might have been sent.” (98) Thus, the meaning of the message is determined by other messages and the relations between them. Information does not represent reality directly, instead it is transmitted through a pattern that is preserved through modulations. This is crucially what makes cybernetics interdisciplinary, namely that patterns are abstractions which enables them to be applied across boundaries such as the biological organism and the machine. “Analogical relationships are the links that allow pattern to be preserved from one modality to another.” (ibid.)

The basic principle that cybernetics operates on in Hayles’ account of Weiner’s writings is that of analogy, precisely because it is the means of communication across disciplinary borders. Analogy and communication are both synonymous with relation.

Interestingly, Weiner does not value the process or think that it itself can change the outcome, which seems rather bizarre since he thinks meaning comes from communication itself. I would propose that this is because there is no interference or noise in his model, or rather he doesn’t allow for it and in fact sees it as ‘evil’ because it jeopardizes homeostasis of the system and threatens to turn it into chaos.

What becomes clear in Hayles’ account is the irony of how Weiner’s personal history (clumsiness and disinterest in the minutiae of lab work), his internal structure if you will, determined how he conceived of cybernetics including his behaviorist “black-box” engineering that discounts the internal structure of subjects. His own disembodiment is founding for his view of processes as disembodied. It confirms his own view expressed in ‘Information, Language, and Society’, of the impossibility of being “a good probe” if you are enmeshed in the very system you are trying to construct, precluding critical thinking in some respect and causing blindness through proximity. Hayles is in many ways pointing out Weiner’s blind spots and biases in her analysis of his life and work in the field of cybernetics, as well as how the structure of a supposedly scientific theory of cybernetics came about within a very specific framework, including personal history and political agenda, and how those influenced how it came to be framed.

The advantage of thinking about humans and technology as part of an integrated system is first and foremost an escape from essentialism, and a possibility of reorganization that is not strictly dependent on governance with its built in oppressions and inequalities. In this possibility of self-definition lies paradoxically the creation of autonomous liberal subjects, whose rights Weiner was keen to preserve in the face of a cybernetic system. In the same sense that cybernetics crosses boundaries it also requires them, because analogies only work in tandem with boundaries. To my mind, it is not a matter of getting rid of boundaries, but to create movement between and through categories and disciplines. This does also mean that social organizing for example becomes potentially harder as investment is divided and the individual is left alone, subject to a system in which they are invisible and blind. The system can be exploited when the movement between boundaries is partly restricted, giving the illusion of a dynamic system that is in fact lopsided.