Saturday, August 29, 2020
Silence and Invisibility
Friday, June 12, 2020
how to write a history of realism
Henri-Jean Martin (1994: 1) notes in opening his book on the history of writing that 'anyone imprudent enough to risk studying the chronology of writing alternates ceaselessly between vertigo and myopia'. That oscillation between extreme detail and bewildering scale applies to the historian of realism. You could hazard that 2019 realism is to data as 1719 realism (the date of Robinson Crusoe's publication) was to romance and the fantastic, and there would be an order of truth involved; but how then would you position the 1937 debates on realism between Brecht, Lukacs and others in the pages of Das Wort? The prospect of realism is so vast and its conduct so detailed. Something like 3000 years separates is from the Iliad, yet even now parts of it – the tactical training, the management of ships and horses – are strikingly realistic; and pictorial realism should encounter far older techniques, and more mysterious relations with the world. Media archaeologists properly argue for myopia, but the vertiginous is alluring, if only as a way of understanding – one hopes, 'exactly' – how the mathematical theory has become so dominant that we no longer notice how deeply the harness has worn in.
What was realism in 1968, when Situationists adopted the slogan 'Soyez réalistes, demandez l'impossible' ('be realists, demand the impossible'), four years after Lacan's famous seminar on the four fundamental concepts where he proposed 'le réel, c'est l'impossible', the Real is the impossible? The impossible is Real, in Lacan's terms, because possibility can only be defined in the Symbolic, the arena of language, numbers and logic. The Real is impossible because it cannot be counted, recounted or accounted for. The situationists embraced the obverse of order, or what lies beyond it, and refused the already ascendant use of probability in political and financial risk management. Financialisation rests on this probabilistic Symbolic order, a system of derivatives unanchored from any solid ground. To be realiist after Lacan is to demand an unaccountable world. Lacan's relations with the surrealists Bataille and Breton from 1929 or 1930, and the reverberations of surrealism through eastern Europe in the Soviet era, suggest that the threshold between possible and impossible is the core concern of documentary and fictional realism and surrealism at least into the 1970s. For the mathematical model, the threshold lies in the probabilistic definition of noise, the opposite of communication. In Lacanian surrealism, and to a degree among the situationists, we instead encounter the possibility that there is an excess of meanings: that the world (and we humans to the extent that we are at once inside and external to the world) mediates way more than communication can handle.
'Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen', 'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent', the seventh and concluding proposition of Wittgenstein's Tractatus, says that we cannot speak of or otherwise enumerate or state the Real, but that the moment of silence indicates the limits of what is sayable. Nonetheless there are statements about the Real – I defer to Hawking's Brief History – but they describe what cannot be experienced, black holes for example, and to the extent that they do describe, indicate, mathematically and algebraically, the limits of symbols and the symbolic order. The threshold does not define the nature of being, the Real: they define the limits of any symbolic order, the terrain, precisely, of the univeralist ambition of Shannon's theory. Noise is not defined by its difference from communication: rather vice versa, communication is definable as what excludes itself from the Real.
The precarity of a symbolic order self-exiled from reality is nowhere more apparent than in Appadurai's account of financialisation as a tower of self-referential promises which bind speakers to one another by contract while freeing themselves from the goods that they once would have traded but now increasingly distance themselves from. The realism of the global financial crisis of 2007-8 concerns those spurned houses underlying the mortgaged mortgages. The crash's realism was the revenge of the repressed real. #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter assert the real costs of symbolic orders. Those costs, however excluded from discourse, ideology and symbolic formations, participate in them as their defining boundaries. Within the closed system of finance, however, the hitherto final operation of humans, to provide meaning as the conclusion of interpretation, is no longer needed, and meaning too becomes Real, precisely because it is excluded from the symbolic. Subsumed under capital first as attention value (Dallas Smythe), human responses are no longer the final stage of communication but sources of second-order data. The formal subsumption of attention into the commodification of audiences in the Golden Age of Television becomes real subsumption with the capture of likes, swipes and clicks in interactive network media. Meaning becomes first physical behaviour but then, instantaneously and automatically, it is abstracted for symbolic storage and processing. Interpretation of the amassed data is no longer a human task.
Processing thus achieves a higher level of abstraction, construing and constructing its own world but, as in the GFC, its autonomous world is not truly self-sufficient, coherent or complete. Realism activates the threshold of incompletion. This is not a matter of lack but of loss: a historical, time-bound incompleteness. Lack, negation, noise as only the obverse of communication, would be ontological; loss is historical, a diminution, a missing part that runs a system down or stops it, frozen, in its tracks. Loss is historical because it belongs to the friction between 'autonomous' symbolic systems and the ontology they strive to expropriate and escape. This is the terrain of the failed freedom of art. And the object of loss, the lost object, the missing part, where is it? It cannot be said to have no existence. It is only lost. If the symbolic defines the now and the here, what's lost continues to exist, but elsewhere.
Tuesday, May 12, 2020
presence and abstraction
Tuesday, April 21, 2020
Allonomy: autonomy and after
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
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
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
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.