Tuesday, May 12, 2020

In Minima Moralia para 145, Adorno writes that, in both art and kitsch, 'freedom from nature is celebrated, but remains mythically entrapped' and adds 'the Eroica, like great philosophy, represents the idea as a total process, yet as if it were directly, sensuously present. In the end indignation over kitsch is anger at its shameless revelling in the joy of imitation, now placed under taboo, while the power of works of art still continues to be secretly nourished by imitation'. If, as I propose, the kind of abstraction we meet in abstract art is truth to the subject, the self that is imagined is, in Kandinsky for example, or Mondrian, the site of ideas in process, imagined as free of nature, but actually trapped in it, which is how they engage their viewers so intensely, but their freedom from imitation is – in Adorno's account here – never carried out because they, like the nature they disdain, are present. It remains then to see whether the nature they try to rise above is indeed present or is rather a negation produced by the very effort to overcome it. If nature fails to exist, certainly as a whole, and arguably even as part (for example the contrast observable between city and ocean looking out over the bay during lockdown in St Kilda, where the bay is metonymic of Ocean, its freedom from restraint, its curative properties, its self-curing in the absence of trade, its alterity). It is the presence of the artwork (and equally of the kitsch object) both to itself and as object that appears, that distinguishes it from whatever it imitates. This was the discovery of the Impressionists and their impact on early cinema, documented in The Cinema Effect, which however leaves the film open to the criticism's that Bonitzer launches: that it implies not only the visible but the physical off-frame and the fictional/imaginary off-screen. The moment of abstraction occurs in moving image media between frames, at the frame edge, behind and in front of the screen, and in intermittence. Only to a limited degree is it feasible in relation to what is on the screen, photographed or animated. Something else occurs in the relation to sound. Likewise something occurs in lensing, where multi-part compound lenses make up for flaws, as they appear, especially at the edges of the image. Spherical aberration, with its iridescent fringing, is evidence of the emergence of an Other subjectivity in the abstract subject, as it fails to present itself – and is the medium of its failure, as it is also the means of its success.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Allonomy: autonomy and after

The era of autonomous art is over. Because, as Terry Flaxton put it in a recent email, media arts, electronic arts specifically, disappear when the electricity is turned off. Thus demonstrating the dependence of art on its power supply, as also on the power industry, on the financial system for paying the bills, as well as the drives, networks and screens it requires, and software – which even if original to the work is built on the traditions and units of code and their implementation.

This implies promptly that a poem ca not 'contain in itself the reasons why it is so and not otherwise' (Coleridge) since it must be written on top of the infrastructure of a language and orthography that the poet rarely originates (and if they do, in concrete poetry, risks losing comprehension, meaning or evocation other than of the poetic tradition or autonomy for autonomy's sake – a theme to be pursued later.

Similarly with all traditional art media: they require stages, galleries and concert venues; norms of inscription (notations, repertoires of gesture and motion) and a legacy of materials (instruments and tools, pigments, foundries). No wonder that art, now proven by new media to have no autonomy, instead embraces (critically or in celebration) its status as ideological or discursive vehicle of the social and historical apparatus that produces it.

True: art may still be useless. Giving up on beauty, communication or social function only deprives it of use. It does not remove it from exchange value. Having no use-value aligns it all the more closely with the society that shapes it when its only remaining use is to be exchanged. Alternatively it does have uses – as pleasure, as meaningful, as intellectual exercise – which then destroys the uselessness argument again, and once more emphasises art's dependent status.

This is not in itself a Bad Thing. Aesthetic practices that embrace their sociality can do things that may not otherwise be possible. For example, they have a habit of outliving not only their creators but the social order that birthed them, to the point that their pleasures no longer express for an audience today the matter they conveyed at their first appearance. The Eroica for one may still express the Absolute, as Adorno believed, but today scarcely evokes the fire and fury of Bonapartism or its tragedy.

A second potential then hoves into view: that the artwork is of value to the extent that it strives for autonomy and fails. If it did not fail, it would be fully incomprehensible; if it did not strive for freedom, it would be no different than any entertainment (which explains why so much content in the culture pages of our great organs is so entertaining). But because it strives and cracks in the attempt, it can show both the lineaments of the apparatus it is trying to escape and the possibility of there existing an alternate apparatus, even if the artwork can't realise it. This hypothesis is a slight revision of Adorno's ultimately pessimistic aesthetic theory (https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/adorno/#4).

Outliving the context of their production, artworks do not become autonomous but, as migrants, they become alien and to that extent alienated – alien to themselves and alienated in themselves. Only separated from the conditions of their generation can they become trophies of an aesthetic regime that requires them to be emblems of a freedom that does not exist. Separation form the conjuncture of their birth is often traumatic, the loot of Empire, or the prison songs that become beautiful only when they are removed from the chain gang. The 'immortality' of the Bard or of Bach is only an assurance that mortality is everlasting, that the dignity, even the presence, of the past can always be looted by the present, and thatb whatever we might leave of ourselves in the world after we leave it and lock the door behind us, will be the property of a culture that praises above all individuals, and individuals above justice, but if founded on theft, now in the form of unpayable debt – the very soul, the anima that animates rapacious cyborg capital. Formal autonomy as ascribed to art is the aesthetic form of debt. We can understand this through the continuing appeal of sacred music to atheist ears: God was, as doubt is, the Lord who giveth and taketh away, whose ways are unfathomable, and who is, as Kant says of the sublime, that then which there is no greater.

After autonomy, ecocritique. Why would art be autonomous where there is no human autonomy? The un-freedom of art is a blessing because it creates the possibility of cultural practices whose allegiance is not to human freedom but the liberation of the three phyla: human, natural and technical. Their interdependence means that there can no longer be freedom for any without freedom for all – for everything. Ecocritical as it cannot help but be, media art has a purpose that autonomous art lacks: to speak truly of the three phyla. Trueness, to coin a phrase (Wahrheit rather than Truth)becomes possible for an art that declares its dependence. Allonomy. Where self and selfishness are transcended, another law is possible, beyond the self-rule that lies etymologically under the word 'autonomy'.

The life of a work that survives the conditions of its making, the archival life as Giovanna Fossati calls it, the perpetual work of remaking of the work undertaken by humans, natural processes and technical reproductions and maintenance, is the site of truths, beauties and good things. This is why it is possible to experience something different, estranged from the lockdown boundaries, reading a Hardy poem up here over St Kilda, on a website set in Times over a weird purple background, on the screen of a MacBook Pro, squinting into the autumn sun. This ultra-specific encounter cannot be exchanged because it is not reproducible. Whatever use it has is single-use only. Its value lies less in what Hardy meant or I understand than in the intersecting networks of economies, technologies and ecologies that draw him and me to this meeting and then pass on, subtly but permanently altered.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Presence, the edge, the abstract

In Minima Moralia para 145, Adorno writes that, in both art and kitsch, 'freedom from nature is celebrated, but remains mythically entrapped' and adds 'the Eroica, like great philosophy, represents the idea as a total process, yet as if it were directly, sensuously present. In the end indignation over kitsch is anger at its shameless revelling in the joy of imitation, now placed under taboo, while the power of works of art still continues to be secretly nourished by imitation'.

If, as I propose, the kind of abstraction we meet in abstract art is truth to the subject, the self that is imagined is, in Kandinsky for example, or Mondrian, the site of ideas in process, imagined as free of nature, but actually trapped in it, which is how they engage their viewers so intensely, but their freedom from imitation is – in Adorno's account here – never carried out because they, like the nature they disdain, are present.

It remains then to see whether the nature they try to rise above is indeed present or is rather a negation produced by the very effort to overcome it. If nature fails to exist, certainly as a whole, and arguably even as part (for example the contrast observable between city and ocean looking out over the bay during lockdown in St Kilda, where the bay is metonymic of Ocean, its freedom from restraint, its curative properties, its self-curing in the absence of trade, its alterity).

It is the presence of the artwork (and equally of the kitsch object) both to itself and as object that appears, that distinguishes it from whatever it imitates. This was the discovery of the Impressionists and their impact on early cinema, documented in The Cinema Effect, which however leaves the film open to the criticism's that Bonitzer launches: that it implies not only the visible but the physical off-frame and the fictional/imaginary off-screen.

The moment of abstraction occurs in moving image media between frames, at the frame edge, behind and in front of the screen, and in intermittence. Only to a limited degree is it feasible in relation to what is on the screen, photographed or animated.

Something else occurs in the relation to sound. Likewise something occurs in lensing, where multi-part compound lenses make up for flaws, as they appear, especially at the edges of the image. Spherical aberration, with its iridescent fringing, is evidence of the emergence of an Other subjectivity in the abstract subject, as it fails to present itself – and is the medium of its failure, as it is also the means of its success.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

ens quo maius cogitari nequit

" . . so that an angel can proportionate this power to a greater or smaller part of corporeal substance; for if there was no body at all, this power of God or of an angel would not correspond to any extension whatsoever" *

I place this here as a memento: the founder of modern science was still capable of arguing how many angels might dance on the head of a pin.

Second letter of Descartes to Henry More, 1649 as cited by Koyré

Marcel Mauss vs Arthur C Clarke

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic": Arthur C Clarke c. 1973

And here is a passage from Marcel Mauss's The General Theory of Magic, originally published in 1902:

"... the greater part of the human race has always had difficulty in distinguishing techniques from rites. Moreover, there is probably not a single activity which artists and craftsmen perform which is not also believed to be within the capacity of the magician. It is because their ends are similar that they are found in natural association and constantly join forces" (p.25)

I've been surprised at how some millennial students dislike having their noses rubbed in the protocols and standards, governance and engineering, of their digital media. Perhaps I shouldn't be. Removing the magic from the media is a kind of desecration. It isn't lazy or ideology that stops them wanting to know how it works. It is more like Richard Dyer's refusal to give up the glamour of Hollywood entertainment: a glamour (whose etymology includes magic spells) that we do not want to sacrifice on the altar of reason.

and besides, there is a certain cult-like mystery to the guilds of geeks and hackers themselves. We can as easily fetishise code as we can Ives' designs.

so the Mauss quote seems to be if anything more illuminating than Clarke's third law. The aims of technology and magic are the same, or similar enough, that they can be mistaken for one another. "Because I cast a rune" explains no less than "because of the second law of thermodynamics". And if magic depends on mystery, it is only that the mysteries are at the surface in magic, where modern technology shrouds its mysteries in guild/trade secrets and proprietary intellectual property law, or reveals only that their operation depends on processes which, ultimately, are incomprehensible or undiscoverable.

The Universal Turing machine is universal not simply because it can be turned to any task, but that like Mauss's concept of mana, as Lévi-Strauss described it, is an empty signifier, a void in the syntax of social relations, which because it is without sense can be filled with any meaning whatsoever. Digital devices are meaningful to the degree that they are meaningless.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

realism and memory

a childhood in the 20th century will fade away like mist. This is what makes the Blade Runner films so poignant, 'like tears in the rain'

Will jpegs matter? Will the mass image make it possible to keep a snapshot of 2019? This too has a precursor in Blade Runner: the recovery of microscopic detail, the ability to catch what was around a corner at some moment in the past.

As Bazin said, realism can be an apotropaic against death, but that - as in RW Paul's 1896 Blackfriars film - will be transformed by those who cannot remember a horse-drawn London. The true miracle is the coincidence of picture and memory - this is what Barthes doesn't want to admit. We recall the dead as much from a handful of pictures as we do from life.

Poignant then, but are pictures worth recall for anyone but those who lived through the actuality? And for those who strive to forget . . .

The proximity of (social) realism and unrelentingness (as Eliza Cubitt reminded me) is witness to what we do not want to recall. Realism as apotropaic involves the opposite: it recalls beauty; but Realism as a school constantly evokes not memory but the future, a political goal based on sharing what has been, till now, hidden: ordinary life, as Watt argued, but also life (and death) as ordinary, and painful.

Faithful verisimilitude, scientific objectivity, social realism, are all at odds with phenomenological-affective sensuality and its inescapable nostalgia.

The question then is how certain techniques - pictorial and sonic realism - catch up all four programs of realism – and probably more.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Anecdotal: the Page 99 test

Over at The Capmaign for the American Reader, Marshal Zeringue has devised a great way to get writers to identify the strengths and weaknesses of their books. He invited me to read over page 99 of my new book Anecdotal Evidence. The results can be found linked from Marshall's blog