Brian Holmes on Tue, 19 May 2009 17:50:42 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> Political Work in the Aftermath of the New Media Arts Crisis

carlos katastrofsky wrote:

 > 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.

What does one admire 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 are (according to
Levi-Strauss) oriented differently, more concrete in one case, more
abstracted 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 great 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.  Thus 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,
accordingly 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 art - 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 art, 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
art fit into your own great dream, or letting it be the colorful and
striking tattoo that will fit you into your small chosen circle. 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 and Microsoft 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-fueld
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. Imho, 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.

best, Brian

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