Thursday, December 8, 2011

Visited the John Martin show at the Tate Britain yesterday with Ramon Lobato. Some thoughts posted to the exhibition blog:

No question but that as a painter Martin is a one-trick pony, but what a trick! He is wise to reduce his human characters to cyphers, and to cast them into the formal vocabulary of poses that had developed as a language of theatrical emotion by the 1820s. They are there, like explorers standing next to glaciers, to give scale, and perhaps to gesture towards an affective response. But it wasn’t the paintings that drew me. I had never seen the mezzotints in the flesh, and even decent reproductions don’t do justice to his technique. Even more exciting were the three (?)lithographs: a technique still new at the time,m which he treats almost like ink and watercolour sketching. These print works sit between the blockbuster paintings as public spectacle and the mass reproduction of artworks that Rubens for one had turned into a business. Ruskin was perhaps too precious, in his preference for art distinct from popular culture: it’s as illuminating to see Martin as precursor to the travelogue genre of prints in the Illustrated London Evening News as to Frith or Egg. The prints make that articulation apparent: even if they risk that aspoect of kitsch which made Greenberg so furious, not its spurious aesthetic but the fact that it allowed dictators the opportunity to masquerade as ordinary people. Victoria and Albert were the founders of this, imperial monarchs masquerading middle-class domesticity. Martin’s position is interesting because he both caters to the yearning for sublimity and passion in the banality of the emerging industrial century, and reveals the cataclysmic results, should that yearning ever become reality. Something of the ‘Romantic agony’ of the Victorian unconscious – which the little brochure rightly associates 80-odd years later with CB de Mille. If he is to be called a great artist, it would have to be because he demonstrates the inhumanity of the sublime as such, and was an early observer of the truth of capital that Benjamin formulated: we witness the extermination of the species as the highest form of entertainment.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Revolution Earth

At long last, at least part of the legendary Revolution Earth appears online: the first four chapters of the eco-thriller coauthored by Alison Ripley Cubitt and me hits an anxiously awaiting world care of Harper Collins' Authonomy site: this is a vote-driven site for new authors (well, we're new to novel writing) so visit and Like us and enjoy some mighty fine environmental action - don't worry, after Chapter 4 the action switches to the Southern hemisphere. Your journey starts here.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Rage to Order

from a chapter on the derivation of laser and fibre-optics from the principles of cinema projection, a first version of which was given as a presentation at the Screen conference in 2011. It argues that light has been increasingly organised in the interests of commodification and biopolitical management

Late in his life, affected by the cases of shell-shock he had witnessed after the first World War and perhaps even more so by the rise of Nazism, Freud proposed the idea of the death instinct. From 1920 to 1930, in Beyond the Pleasure Principle to Civilisation and its Discontents (Freud 1961a, 1961b), he developed a dense theorisation of a drive towards entropy informing both personal and social structures. The child's fascination with the flaring match, which Lyotard sees as the epitome of cinema, illustrates that this drive, like every other, easily oscillates between positive and negative poles: between the drive to destruction and the drive towards order. If at one extreme, this leads to the repetition compulsion and to a collapse into the inorganic, at the other it leads to the kind of pathological command over physical reality which, paradoxically, no longer frees us from the contingency of the laws of physics but enslaves us to their organisation in global technical systems, themselves expressions as well as formative vehicles of an increasingly global order. The historical realisation of Kantian freedom from the laws of nature as foundation of the 'cosmopolitan intent' has in actuality come about not through international law, as he imagined (Kant 1983), but through the kind of normative technical structures underpinning the pursuit of coherent light. This pursuit was undoubtedly experienced in the beginning as an autonomous movement of the nascent techno-science of the late 19th century, but has become rigorously integrated into the hardwiring of contemporary global infrastructures. It will be one of the key challenges of the 21st century to develop both radical ways of working within this already ossified system, and to invent new modes of working with light that involve not simply freeing it, as an entropic gesture, but finding new ways to create in partnership with light, rather than through its enslavement.

Monday, November 14, 2011


(snatched from a talk prepared for the Ubiquitous Computing seminar in Copenhagen)

The subject-object relation is a facet of the population-environment relation fundamental to the political economy of governmentality and the commodity form. Resistance takes many forms. Mystics undertake spiritual disciplines, and many artists undertake a kind of disciplined nostalgia, in search of a pre-subjective, pantheistic experience, innocent of the social and historical division of the human away from the world. Eco-critics look in the opposite direction: not to the past of amorphous unity with the world, but towards a post-objectal subjectivity, a post-objective accommodation with the world. There are already signs of such relations. Neo-liberalism takes as fundamental the ideally-informed consumer. Joseph Stieglitz has demonstrated the impossibility of such a figure. In its place, however, the universal, automated recommendations of information capitalism transfer that ideal of total information from the subject to the environment: the datasphere knows your needs and tastes, and how to satisfy them, far better than you ever will. We are moving away from the Freudian subject as we are from the Foucauldian self. Our land, tools, knowledge and increasingly our bodies are no longer our own, but aspects of the environment we inhabit, the relations with which are managed in a hybrid of governmentality and the commodity form we can call the database economy. We need therefore to consider how we are to manage the task that we still have before us, the incomplete project of becoming human.

The Freeze Frame in Source Code

(excerpted from a talk at St Andrews about David Jones' film Source Code. IMdB notes the cameras used in the film, analog and digital. The passage starts considering the properties of one of those)

The Phantom HD has a specific function in film production: the maximum speed of the Panasonic film camera is 50fps, that of the Phantom 555fps, giving it the capacity to record extremely small timespans, and to give the illusion of extreme slow motion on playback. This is the kind of technique used for filming fireballs of the kind repeatedly shown in Source Code, and almost certainly for the freeze frame that occurs at the climax. It is impossible not to evoke Laura Mulvey's critique of the digital freeze here: ‘film’s original moment of registration can suddenly burst through its narrative time ...The now-ness of story time gives way to the then-ness of the time when the movie was made...’ (Mulvey 2006: 30-31). Though I cannot do justice to her argument here, let's think through the function of the freeze in Source Code. Colter (the protagonist) has finally worked out how to fill his eight minutes: capturing the terrorist, wooing the girl, and creating a community (as much like the sing-song on the bus in Capra's It Happened One Night as it is like Groundhog Day) at peace and enjoying itself. A few minutes later, he will call this 'a perfect day'. The perfect moment – coinciding with the crisis back in the world of his mortal body – is arrested, almost certainly using the extreme speed of exposure of the Phantom. And yet, even at these extreme speeds, the structure of the image is bound to the clock function of the chip. Looking carefully at the language Mulvey uses, we can emphasise something explicit in the digital mode: she speaks of the time when the movie was made. This is not a moment, not a Husserlian Augenblick, instantaneous and whole. It is, most specifically, an image which is non-identical. Quite apart from its delivery as DVD or BluRay digital scan, even in the cinema, this shot is ontologically incomplete, even as it tries to capture the perfect moment perfectly executed. It is exactly time, time which can only exist as change, that is in the processes in which things become other than themselves.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Thanks to GV Art (London) for the opportunity to write an essay for their extraordinary exhibition of Ken and Julia Yonetani's salt and sugar sculptures

Friday, October 28, 2011

Afrika Eye

Simon Bright's extraordinary powerful and deeply-felt documentary on the decline of Robert Mugabe premieres at the Afrika Eye festival tonight in Bristol: gutted I can't be there, but look out for screenings at LSE (28 November) and hopefully in Winchester, and at discerning cinemas near you


Medianatures: The Materiality of Information Technology and Electronic Waste .
edited by Jussi Parikka
a great selection of open access materials on the environmental impacts of new media and ways to think about them;

As part of the Open Humanities initiative Living Books About Life, including titles curated by Oron Catts and Iorat Zurr and many others on Bioethics, Atmosphere, and more

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Riots and rumours

listening to the morning radio news, politicians making absurd statements, crowned by Clegg (deputy PM, Liberal of the kind the word 'wet' was invented for) saying that the priority was more police, trials and sentencing, and (ugly, new cliché) "in the weeks and months to come" we could "have the sociological debate".

The same day, reflection on the story about the Taliban assault on US troops at the weekend, with a US diplomat having to defend opening talks with the rebels

The people who might be able to help, humanities and social scholars who work on the idea of value, are excluded, because the doctrine in the UK is STEM (sci-tech-engineering-medecine) subjects in schools and universities, and focused funding in the research councils. Vast sums of money for arms development. No sums of money for political scientists, or cultural analysts. Spend your money and effort blasting the bejesus out of the looters, then send in a couple of counsellors . . . . and then deride them as do-gooders, and say they failed.

The UK has the highest proportion of population in prison in western europe. Doesn't seem to have made it a nicer spot (the extreme incarceration policy of the US has likewise proved an abject failure). Five minutes observing such "sociological debates" might save years of destruction (and, to put in terms the politicians might understand, expense).

But most of all you can blame the politicians (hurrah!). Why do angry young people not join the Labour Party? Because it doesn't stand for anything. It doesn't organise anger, it doesn't articulate their demands. It doesn't provide a poetical education. It is a visionless machine for getting into power. Why don't they engage in politics? Because the only value any politician talks about is money. There is NO political life in electoral politics after the third way: its all consensus (hence the marketing techniques, focus groups etc). As Mouffe says, if you don't have arguments, the repressed demands come back as violence. In this case expressed in the only terms understandable to kids who were 8 or 10 or 12 in 2008 when the depression began. The only values society has ever preached to them are consumerist. Their only economic function – in a society exclusively devoted to economics – is consumption.

There have been some intelligent observations, notably that blaming parents who were scarcely adolescent when they gave birth is not helpful. Ignorance is socially produced: and for those made ignorant by carefully restricted social policies the last knowledge is carnal. They don't own anything both in the sense of being poor, and in that the few things they do possess are so cheap and disposable it makes you weep.

So for their ignorance we will undoubtedly blame "the media" - this time round social media. But the mediation that links their lives with the rest of the world are far more obvious and material than that. Media specialists need to be far more specific than tabloid journalists. In this case,the media we can blame are environmental. Blame the urban planners and the architects, people who design Kwiksave stores like rat-runs. banks like Judge Dredd's bunker. And then blame the food industry for the deracinated chemical goo that substitutes for eating, the individuated packets that militate against the medium of shared meals. Look at the chemistry of the food targeted at the age-range at the heart of the matter. Then you might have a handle on why getting a rush is an embedded addiction among young people: they were weaned on sugar and caffeine. What shows on a screen is a great deal less persuasive than the environment you inhabit or the food you eat.

Then blame the schools. For decades the combination of plummeting wages and status of teachers, and universities profiting from the cursory, contentless degrees now served up in the schools of Ed they took over since the 1960s make teaching a really crap profession. Politicians taking over the curriculum is a crisis response that became dogma. Education has crashed in the inner cities. Kids can't wait to leave. The political parties have not provided any alternative education (mine cam through Socialist Worker; where are the greens in this?). The only place you get to learn how things work is in the gangs. They are the schools of the poor here as they have been in the states since the 1930s. And as Brecht already knew, there's little difference between the conduct of gangs and the conduct of political parties – except the latter have abandoned any attempt to be political, educational or socially relevant.

As Black Audio had it in Handsworth Songs, "There are no stories in the riots, only the ghosts of other stories'

I want to blame the consumerist capital and dead political culture, but blame is only the beginning of comprehension. The event sof the last few nights were not the same as 1981, as everyone says. Nor are they exclusively 'criminal', 'sick' and the other vile epithets of the politicians. There was real anger, which is political because it is not about the personal ethics and legal standing that the politicians want to finger: It is about the pubic spaces handed over to retail chains dangling their cheap goods in front of the poor. It is about refusing the grotesque policies that promote zero growth in the interests of paying off bankers. Of course this is not articulated: the means for articulating it have been meticulously denied to the angry poor. Those who might be able to articulate have been equally meticulously marginalised and ridiculed.

This is why this is NOT the time for action. Now is the time for talk.

On the positive side, great to see the youth out on the streets on bicycles

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Old Road

At the end of August, with Alison and my brother Terry and his wife Sue, not forgetting Barney the dog, we set off to follow the ancient road from Winchester to Canterbury, known as the Pilgrim's Way. The trip is in part inspired by Hillaire Belloc's 1904 book The Old Road: and recalls Hamish Fulton's 1971 Pilgrim's Way - a work he repeated in 1991 in a continuous walk without sleep: I doubt we'll be trying to duplicate that. The route is neolithic, layered with history. And at the moment we live in a pretty village in the Itchen valley that lies along to route

Terry has set up a site to raise funds in aid of the excellent Crohns and Colitis UK charity at if you feel inclined to commemorate the pilgrimage in a useful way

The Schedule is:
25 8: Winchester to Farringdon
26.8 Farringdon to Farnham [all stay with friends]
27.8 Farnham-Dorking stay at Premier Inn[booked]
28.8 Dorking-Westerham stay at Clacket Lane Days Inn![booked]
29.8 Westerham-Maidstone stay with Sue's cousin Anita
30.8 Maidstone - Charing stay at pub [booked]
31.8 Charing- Canterbury

If you'd like to join us for a section, or just catch up for a pie and a pint along the way, do drop us a note. I will try to blog the trail when circumstances allow - barring the 27th, which promises us a rather long day on the road

Monday, July 11, 2011


We like to believe that human creativity is an infinite resource. We used to think that was true of the oceans – that we could throw as much garbage in, and take as much food out, as we could, as fast as we could, and the seas would replenish and clean themselves up. That was before the effective extinction of the Atlantic cod. We have to hope that we do not make a similar mistake with creativity.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Latent Image

My essay on The Latent Image has just been published by the online International Journal of the Image, my keynote for the inaugural conferenc on the image at UCLA. The journal and the publishing platform are worthy of support; I'm grateful that they allowed me to make this essay available open source: here's the abstract

How can we describe a moving image, composed of thousands of successive images, as “an” image? I want to explore the possibility that the coherence of the image is premised on latency. A latent image is one which is captured in photographic film prior to development. It is by nature invisible. Similarly invisible latent states structure lenses, aperture ratios, compositing, grading and edits. Looking at the codec wars currently breaking out in preparation for HTML5, this talk investigates the relationships between the aesthetics and political economy of the image in the 21st century.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Afterlife of Cinema

The "Death of Cinema" (DoC)is a theme addressed by several prominent film aestheticians (Rodowick, Mulvey, Balides and in a rather different tenor Doane among them). It's fundamental premise is that analog cinematography had a privileged relation ('indexicality') to the real which is no longer true of digital media

In a paper at the White Rose seminar hosted by York University, I argued a) the technical detail of the argument is deeply flawed b) there is no unified fied of practice, no essence, to "the" digital. The second half of the paper, which I didn't have time to deliver, starts off like this. I hope to write up the full argument: any comments very welcome

DoC is a humanism. Enshrining what analog cinema captures as 'reality', it sacralises the reality constructed in cinema as 'real' reality. So what is the real, really? To the extent that it can be captured in the relation of indexicality, it is a gesture on the part of symbolic activity – linguistic, mathematical or imagistic – to single out what is excluded from the symbolic domain. It is in this case what symbolization produces as its other. Just as the subject is "an effect of language" (and other symbol systems), so reality is an effect of alienation, that produces the object of the subject-object relation. It is a flaw in the flow of images and numbers. We might ask, for example, which contains more reality: a photographic landscape or a map? We set all sorts of nets and traps: reality is what evades them, the impossible object of our desire for knowledge, possession and the order of knowledge and command.

. . . . The 'reality' of cinematic depictions is not merely an illusion (the reality effect), not just the guarantor of the subject as subject to and of Reality as a given (and so of the ideological apparatus of cinema) but what proves to the imaginary collective subject of Humanity that it is not the author of the reality which depiction creates for it. In this process, however, there is a displacement: authority cannot reside in Humanity, because subjectivity is posed as an effect of Reality (and so not, for example, as effect of language or political economy). Authorship, and with it authority, must therefore be displaced: onto a relation between nature and the technologies that mediate it. This denial of human authorship actively excludes the human, as subject or as polity, society or culture. Thus the construct Reality can finally function as the object to which, individual or collective, the subject is subject. For Negri, in this displacement is revealed the fundamentally human quality of the world (Art and Multitude 36), because this interaction of nature and technology is the human itself. It is this illusion that the DoC thesis exists to defend and, if possible, restore to its throne.

Medium Extremely Specific

Midway through the 20th century, in the age of MacLuhan and Greenberg, modern media industries like film and the press seemed stable, technically and institutionally. Theories of medium-specificity, based on the stability of film run on sprockets or of painting as a practice involving pigment on canvas, made sense then. Rosalind Krauss's attack on this conjuncture, and her proposal of a 'postmedium condition', is understandable: the era when print, paint and film were utterly separate is over. The kind of binary oppositions between analog and digital that are voiced in film studies are a naive reworking of the Greenberg-MacLuhan theses. Krauss would be right - if she did not ignore the critical feature of new media formations, especially in artistic practices: that media are remade in more and more specific constellations, in order to be used in unique ensembles. If on the one hand there is a tendency towards software standardisation, on the other there is radical divergence in technique, and radical innovation in technologies and their assemblage into new apparatuses. These developments must drive us to pay far more detailed attention to the materiality of artworks now than in the recent past, when what a work was made of scarcely signified, since most works were made of the same things as all the others.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Passing through

We are too much persuaded that we are the solid ones, and the internet is the home of ephemerality.

Time-lapse video of static objects and ghostlike flickering humans: this is the world perceived from the point of view of websites.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

On The Move

Today we are packing up our place in Melbourne because I'm taking up a new job at Winchester School of Art in the UK. I continue as Professorial Fellow at University of Melbourne, and I'll be back on a flying visit for our Digital Light symposium on the 18th and 19th of March.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Form of the Essay

Brown Hare

It is always about. – in the sense that it describes its object by a flight around it, 'describing' as when we say 'her arm described an arc in the air', except that the space described by the movement of an essay about it is not empty but replete – too replete to answer otherwise to anything but the Schumpeterian creative destruction which is the typical route of disciplinary knowledge. The alternative to this analytic is the praxis of the essay, a kindlier motion, where 'kind' evokes the relation between as well as within species and phyla, and 'essay' calls up 'assay' and 'essayer', to try, to assess or ponder, and in a false etymology which also has its weight, to speak out of (ex) the processes of observation and reflection.

What is at stake in the essay is neither objective nor subjective knowledge of an object but relation, connection, the unexpected congruence of this with that. It is not concerned with truth, or with ethical or political value, in its form, though it will reflect on truth and value. Its commerce is with the [dis]integrating of the subject-object relation, the [dis]placement not only of what is known but of what can be known, such that the structuring governance of subjective (ethical) and social (political) value typical of the humanities is decentred in favour of a sympathy with the thing discussed. There is always disavowal involved in the essayist's description because there is always love, even for the most heinous entity.

Never take the essay too seriously. It is playful. In its play it is in hock to consumerism, which demands a constant playfulness on the part of consumers, a playful inventiveness which can be crowd-sourced to produce the next fad on which the perpetual renewal of consumption depends. So the essayist reveals in the personal quality of their endeavour (for example the constructive force of interpretation) that they are indeed social and historical beings, who neither pretend nor aspire to any divine or mechanical universality of truth, value or credo. At the same time the dialectic of play ensures that their inventions threaten the coherence of the world-order, especially as it is expressed in the supposedly cumulative wisdom of humankind. Play with the matter in hand in the essay is bricolage, the connection – to reiterate that compulsory component – of parts that have been disciplined into taxonomic autonomy. In the essay, the tyranny of the expert is no longer respected: expertise is only one element to be conjugated in the articulation of hitherto unknown conjunctures, conjured into existence not by the will of the author but by the affordances of things observed, the languages and media deployed, and the permutations they are capable of when gathered through biography and accident at the lens of meeting between living and lived. Thus we must also take the essay very seriously indeed.

As Benjamin has it of the translator, what the essayist makes is a new thing shaped like an old thing, constructed of many of the same parts. Inevitably the translator and the essayist bring other materials: the target language, the empathy a writer feels for their subject. And here the delightful ambiguity of the word 'subject' makes itself felt. If the essayist is twice a subject – as grammatical agent and as historically subjugated – the subject about which she writes engages her subjection in its effort to become that which articulates itself in language. : to translate itself as a text written in a language learned strives to remake itself in the mind of a reader whose maternal language it is not. Such interweavings turn text into textile, unthreading in order to make a new embroidery with the old cloth, one which is in some (seven) senses ambiguous.

The essay's ambiguities are generative to the degree that they lack the unifying coherence of disciplinary knowledge. The assay weighs, and in its instrumental form seeks the purity of gold among the dross. What is important about the essay as form is its capacity to separate out the dross from the gold of 'is and 'ought', and to hoard the waste. It is in this second sense that the essay is about: it seeks out the vacant form left by the extraction of disciplinary truths and values, the lesson left behind, the bathwater which retains the memory of the baby and the bathtub

Humanity craves order. Our instincts instruct us to in-form the world. Like any other instinct, when driven to excess the love of order becomes fascist; and like all drives, it takes on specific shapes in specific epochs. Today the rage to order takes two characteristic forms: the unit of commodity exchange and the probabilistic likelihoods of biopolitical population management. Emergence – order out of chaos – is the theme of culture and neoliberalism both: today the essayist must reject coherence and even flow, when rhizomes and nomadism characterise corporate and indeed planetary governance. The essay's task is to address the absences, to work at the borders, of disciplined knowledge and the management of values. The essay is concerned with the ephemeral quality of connection, the personal nature of thinking rather than the institutional form of thought. The essayist makes gestures to describe the elusive movement of time. She is at heart an aesthete concerned for the fleeting sensory, intellectual and moral impression that arises from necessarily brief encounters with the worldliness of things, processes and behaviours, their specificity rather than their typicality, the event in detail rather than the aggregation of evidence.

If in the process the essay draws on or crates new truths or values, that is to be expected: the essay cannot pretend – like a tract or research report – to stand free of history. It will be accommodated back into the taxonomies of the database economy. Its freedom is not therefore illusory, however, but temporary, formed in the socio-physical time that gives it birth in the moment of wonder. We know better than to look for system in the best of essays, even as we recognise their authors' tropes of language, habits of thought, and structures of perception continually orient them towards a familiar constellation. The virtue of any given essay is how far it diverges from that familiarity while remaining faithful to what it observes> Not how it conforms to or confirms an expectation. To contradict oneself is, in this circumstance, a virtue, since speaking against is the rudimentary form of dissent. The author should no more defer to his own authority than her reader, but seek dialogue with things that refuse to agree, and thus to introduce the dissenting voice of things into the coherent projects of modernity.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

post-post-medium: Just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in

The following comes from the close of an essay arguing that the divisions between film, video and digital media arts make no sense and weaken all three. At the same time it argues for a new medium-specificity, one based on what is specific to a specific work or practice: the specific assembly of devices, peripherals, software, operating systems, power source, lenses, architecture that make a particular edit suite or installation or cinema. The new medium-specificity is a new materials=ism, against the dematerialising, idealist claims of art critics since Rosalind Krauss's A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition a little over ten years ago. It is also a veiled response to attempts to assign a single aesthetic to "the digital" (information aesthetics, code). Instead, there's a claim that the history of the media arts is in some respects a mode of media archeology.

The role of media arts is to enter into mediation. They may in passing reveal the mediated nature of the message, and they may well speak to the specificity of the media employed (in the same way Beuys speaks to the specificity of felt and fat). They do speak to the material specificity of mediation – not to some generic and universal ether, nor to the primacy of objects over mediation. Our age recognises the primacy of the connection over the node, the flows that concatenate into nets, the needs and desires that aggregate into individuals and social groups. They assert that the mediation matters: an active verb, the becoming-material of connectivity. They render material the natural desire of the sunflower for the sun through photophilic biochemistry. Media arts insist that all art is made with media; that everything is mediates and every process mediates. This is the only universal for the media arts. An example: lithography ties Fox Talbot's experiments with halftone printing to the technology employed in fabricating chips. Mediation is the very medium of history. Thus the media history of art, and media art history as its avant garde, is a history of mediations within and between human, technological and natural processes, bodies in light and sympathetic vibrations. The power of media art history is its project: the truth of the future, not of the past.

Thanks to Domenico Quadrato for starting these thoughts, and to Eddie Shanken and Cate Elwes for te ongoing discussions