Saturday, August 25, 2007

why the revolution hasn't started

The concept of the general intellect is a utopian one in Marx (pages 690-711 of the Penguin edition of the Grundrisse): product of and produced by internal contradictions which he believed must ultimately lead to the collapse of capital. To argue for the increasing virtualisation of the general intellect is to argue that this utopian element is becoming more utopian, the more it is propelled by the increasing contradictions of capital's long, slow diminution of living labour as the universal producer and measure of value. If today it is hard to forecast a revolution, or to believe that a unified historical action can bring the downfall of capital, this is not exclusively because of capital's ability to cope with innovation. In the influential work of Lawrence Lessig (2004) and Yochai Benkler (2006), liberal proponents of 'régime change' in intellectual property law and economics respectively, the failure of capital to respond to the potential of user-generated innovation and the open nature of content creation can be healed through the adoption of new modes of regulation, and new business models. Similarly in the analysis of convergence between internet and telecommunications, it is becoming increasingly clear that the 'lock-in' business model of the telcos is incompatible with the open standards of the internet, and that the use of proprietary technical standards to retain customer loyalty is actively damaging the potential of the telcos to maximize revenues on their investment in bandwidth. More radical theorists of network cultures like Richard Barbrook (1998), Tiziana Terranova (2004) and Alex Galloway (2004) project more radical outcomes, though few of them look like revolution. The observation that capital failed to collapse according to classical Marxism must then be considered alongside analyses that suggest that it is constrained to change in ways which strategic sectors like telecommunications, pharmacology and media industries deeply dislike and distrust. Most importantly, the prediction of revolution, insofar as it is a prediction, is an attempt to control the nature of the emergent future. Commentators as politically opposed as Matthew Fuller (2003) and Eric von Hippel (2005) share a belief that the emergence of the radically new is dependent on maintaining the virtuality of the present, that is, its capacity to become in future other than it is now, a capacity which is deeply damaged by contemporary property laws, crucial instrument of the extraction of surplus value today; and equally by the processes of planning in which the regulation of the future by the present reduces its ability to be different As Ernst Bloch and Theodor Adorno once agreed, utopia can have no content (Bloch 1988). The processes through which the future emerges as different from the present, and thence any hope we might have for a better future, can only be stymied by prediction


Sensation lies at the interface of the world as given and the moment of perception, the moment of being-in-the-world, save only that it is not (yet) a matter of being but of the mutual becoming of sensory apparatus and the manifold, a chill moment of whatever we might call the opposite of recognition. Aesthesis as sensation is prior to perception (which is far closer to recognition, the typical, indeed the ordinary, and to that extent the ideological hypostasis of the manifold as a collection of givens). The task of specifically aesthetic perception is to distinguish not the banal, but such factors as the dimensional, material, energetic or informational qualities of both what is sensed and of the act of sensing. This implies an estrangement (ostranenie) in the objectivation of objects, a Peircean firstness equally engaged by aesthetic, scientific and philosophical endeavours which share this process of making-virtual from the raw material of space-time, matter-energy, entropy and emergence.

This is the kind of look at the world which fails to recognise it, and in that moment of confusion discovers the radical alterity of the sensory moment of aesthesis, the privileged moment at which world (inclusive of social and communications worlds) and sensorium interact and are for that brief moment as one. Actualisation of the virtual that occurs in the aesthetic work is that discovery of the discrete tendencies of the phenomenon, distinguishing its qualities, not necessarily to name them but to translate into other materials, a process which can be clearly seen in Pisarro's canvases, where each dab of colour corresponds to a fragment of the real scene. Much of this process of translation is however rule-governed, and those rules themselves inscribed into the technological capabilities of the devices to hand – palette, lens, film stock etc – and of the inevitable presence of the perceiver.

Friday, August 24, 2007

notes towards the politics of wonder

I cannot deny that I pursue this path for the sheer pleasure of it, for the virtuous (not to say smug) enjoyment and communication of one of the great joys, one that in its intensity, its commonness, its wealth and its equality is moreover an emblem of hope in a dark enough epoch. I am aware of the utopian diension of this work, and of the criticisms that can be and should be aimed at such high-minded and impractical imaginings. This project started in the rocky paths of negative dialectics. It is an attempt to develop a more positive, and to that extent practical way of thinking through the implications of materialism. My ambition is then to write towards an ontology of light, in the spirit in which Adorno writes, a propos the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus, that metaphysics stands

against scientism, for example Wittgenstein's position that fundamentally consciousness has to do only with that which is the case. That might call forth another definition: metaphysics is the form of consciousness in which it attempts to know what is more than the case, or is not merely the case, and yet must be thought, because that which, as one says, is the case, compels us to do so (cited in metaphysics: 196)

I believe the analysis of practice, and the remaking of the idea of form as informaing, are the royal road to this mode of ontological thought about media. The dream of the architect, as Gael Turnbull writes, depends on the patience of the bricklayer. Before demanding that patience, we should first attempt to recognise it, and then attempt to share the dream. The resulting edifice will only be the better for it.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

on freedom

The problem dogs Western philosophy. Kant's moral philosophy for example rests on an antinomy between the laws of nature on the one hand, and freedom as the ability to instigate an action which is not caused by them, even though the act itself and its consequences must abide by those laws as well as their own motivation. Thus Kant can argue that freedom is rooted in causality; that both abject obedience to nature and absolute freedom would produce chaos; and that order depends on the restraining power of freedom over the blind determination of physics. Commenting on these antinomies in his lecture series of 1961 (2000: 71), Adorno notes that the resulting rigour of the categorical imperative derives from Kant's embrace of freedom, so defined, to the exclusion of all other contenders for the title of 'the good'; and that as a result, perhaps, Kant's reason is condemned to being 'reasonable', to the exclusion of contradiction. So much so, indeed, that Arendt could argue, with reference to the categorical imperative, that it is 'as though the one and the same imperative , "Thou shalt not contradict yourself" is axiomatic for logic and ethics' (Arendt 2003: 153). For Kant natural causes will always be 'subaltern', says Adorno, which is a contradiction firstly because both causality and freedom are 'unmoved movers', that is absolutes, despite the fact that natural causes are supposedly subaltern, and yet freedom is obliged nonetheless to obey them. Moreover, as Adorno observes, Kant may be right to see the infinite regress of causes as an absurdity; but diminishing each natural cause to subalternity doesn't leave enough causation to cause everything. In Marx, we might feel constrained to add, the proletariat's historical destiny acts like a law of nature, and one with enough causality to produce the social; but that it is the freedom of the bourgeoisie that paradoxically stops its from effecting its goals. I start with this problem of freedom because it is far from clear that freedom is a Good in the moral sense, and that it may be neither source nor goal of the aesthetic. In fact, to the contrary, I take it as axiomatic that communication, which I take to be the central issue at stake in the relations between aesthetics and power, is both subject to the laws of nature and is in many respects a law of nature itself.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Mediaeval Transitions

Reading Eco's Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, a short written in the 1950s, something startling starts to take shape. In Grosseteste in the 12th century (Eco uses the Hexaemeron, not the de Luce), light is the processual unity of creation. In Aquinas in the 13th, the light is beginning to break up into its realia. What seems apparent is that the mediaeval allegorists respond to this fragmentation with an ossification and sytematisation of the culturte of signatures noted in The Order of Things. The fragments whose symbolic analogies linked them back to creation were in danger of multiplying beyond order, of creating an excess of meaning. In order to regularise them, and prevent the swamping of meaning in its own excess, the kind of systematic allegory exemplified by the Romance of the Rose anchors them in a formal arrangement whose ambition is radical completeness. That it couldn't be achieved is clear from the 12,000 lines Jean de Meun added to Guillaume de Lorris' work half a century before.

Before the Romance, to take an arbitrary and extended moment of literary history, and probably some time before, even earlier than its formal expression in Grosseteste, lies a lost unity. In its place, there emerges during the period of transition from feudal to guild systems (and Gimpel's 'mediaeval industrial revolution) an iteration of the theory of proportion, now in an early, one might say pre-mathematical mode.

From this vantage point it begins to be possible to descry the genealogy of hexadecimal colour.