Benjamin and Rancière

Benjamin analyzes the issue of authenticity and technological reproducibility. “Around 1900, technological reproduction not only had reached a standard that permitted it to reproduce all known works of art, profoundly modifying their effect, bit it also captured a place of its own among the artistic processes” (p. 21). What constitutes  the authenticity of a work of art, and how does its manual reproduction differ from a technological one? According to Benjamin, the full authenticity of an original work of art is stronger when compared to a manual reproduction, usually used with the purpose of forgery. Instead, “technological reproduction is more independent of the original” (p. 21). This is principally because technological reproduction can change the function of an original work of art by placing “the copy of the original in situations in which the original itself cannot attain” (p.21). Benjamin also talks about the “tension between two polarities within the artwork itself: […] the artwork’s cult value and its exhibition value” (p. 25). The birth of artistic practice lays in religious ritual, so originally art’s cult value greatly overpowered its exhibition value (think of a god’s statue inside a temple that can be accessed only by one high priest). “With the emancipation of artistic practices from the service of ritual, the opportunities for exhibiting their products increase” (p.25). In Benjamin vision, film is the artistic practice that perfectly exemplifies this shift, because the main characteristic of the medium itself is its reproducibility.

In “The Aesthetic Revolution and its Outcomes,” Rancière compares artistic practice to industrial production: “Both industrial production and artistic creation are committed to doing something else than what they do – to create not only objects but a sensorium, a new partition of the perceptible.” In the age of “infinite reduplication,” where art becomes a commodity that homogenizes the sensible world, “the avant-garde must indefinitely draw the dividing-line that separates art from commodity culture […] to denounce both the promises of revolutionary avant-gardism and the entropy of commodity aestheticization” (p. 148).

Dewey and Brün

In “Art as Experience,” John Dewey defines the elements that constitute artistic expression. In his analysis, “expression […] signifies both an action and its result” (p.82), so to process of creation of a work of art is equally important as its form in which the audience will relate to it. The process of art creation is defined by Dewey as taking origin in an impulsion, or necessity, generated by a relation of the artist to their surrounding and generating in them an emotion. This has then to go through a process of selection – of emotional material as well as medium of communication. This brings to another factor necessary in the artistic practice – that of the “existence of motor dispositions previously formed” (p. 97), or the set of skills and previously learned information that an artist, not differently from a surgeon or an athlete, needs to have in order to be able to convey an artistic message through a chosen medium. The perceiver of an artistic message also needs to have a similar sort of “aesthetic education” (p.98), that will allow them to “decode” the message of the artist in the correct way.

Herbert Brün analyzes the aesthetic properties of computer-generated music by comparing composition and programming. Both are defined as systems that share the purpose of conveying some sort of communication, defined in its turn as “based on analogies, on degrees of compatibility between different systems.” Programming is similar to composition, in that, given a virtually endless set of possibilities, users “find or construct the system in which their problems can be expressed and solved.” Both composers who work with a computer or who write with pen on paper are faced with the same choices. But “there is a difference. The composers at a desk generate the piece step by step” and can “edit while they work. The composer who write a program has to predict all of that, is then out of the game while the computer executes the given instruction.”

I think that the core of artistic expression and aesthetic value, that can be found in both Dewey’s and Brün’s vision, is intentionality. In Dewey, it refers to the choice of what emotion to convey and through what medium. In Brün, it can refer to the set of parameters that a computer-based composer needs to encode in a program in order to achieve a desired compositional effect. In this sense, I don’t think that the fundamental engagement of an artist with new media differs much from “old” media. In both cases, a process internal to the artist has to happen, and a set of skills is needed in order for the artist to express this internal process. Definitely the material form of a medium plays a role in the nature of its mediation. Brün’s choice of composing computer-generated music in the 60’s and 70’s, at a time when human agency felt threatened by the rise of automation, is certainly a message in itself. A visual artist who chose to use primarily oil painting in 2016, in a society where images are predominantly constituted by digital photography, would make another type of provocative use of media.

Immediacy, Hypermediacy, Remediacy

In Remediation – Understanding New Media, Bolter and Grusin state that “although each medium promises to reform its predecessors by offering a more immediate or authentic experience, the promise of reform inevitably leads us to become aware of the new medium as a medium. Thus, immediacy leads to hypermediacy” (p. 19). At the same time, “hypermedia applications are always explicit acts of remediation: they import earlier media into a digital space in order to critique and refashion them” (p. 53). Most examples of new media technology cross the borders of immediacy, hypermediacy, and remediacy, as they always try to refashion older technologies, often times incorporating more than one technology into a new enhanced object, and they all generally tend to strive for a more immediate or authentic experience.

I found an interesting example of immediacy in the movie Victoria by Sebastian Schipper (GER 2015). Digital cinema has seen huge improvements over the last few years: image quality has gotten closer and closer to the professional standards of film, while portability and data storage have way surpassed the technical impediments of film cameras. This has allowed German filmmaker Sebastian Schipper to film a nearly 3-hour long thriller in one single take, without any edit whatsoever. As a result, Victoria is void of many of the technical artifacts that characterize cinema and offers a really immersive experience: without cuts, the viewer feels like constantly being in the action, in the presence of the characters, over a linear timeline without any jumps in time or space. On the other hand, Victoria is also an interesting instance of a sort of reverse-hypermediacy: while eliminating technical artifacts in favor of a more immersive experience, the absence of these artifacts that are so characteristic of the medium makes us aware and fascinated with the technological improvements that allow this filming technique. The technical peculiarity of the movie was possibly the main reason why I decided to watch the movie in the first place. I did feel immersed in the narrative while watching it, but at the same time I was constantly brought back to noticing the seamlessness of the camera movement, the expedients used to avoid boredom in between-action time, and so on.

Virtual Reality is a good example of hypermediacy, in that immersion is achieved through the use of a number of different and very noticeable media: a visor, headphone set, often even a sort of 360-treadmill for movement, and other types of handheld devices meant to simulate weapons, etc. The fascination for this combination of media plays a big role in the immersive experience that this technology offers. At the same time, the audio, visual and tactile technologies that make up the VR experience strive for immediacy through transparency, as they try to imitate reality as closely as possible: graphics tend to be more and more realistic, while new types of 3-D sound headphones surpass the limitations of stereo to represent a more immersive and realistic sound experience, etc. Finally, VR technology is a remediation of more traditional computer videogames. It refashions this older medium in a new form, and “justifies itself by improving on a predecessor” (p. 59) to achieve a higher degree of immediacy than the traditional computer screen and controller or keyboard.

The Apple Watch and other “smart watches” are also examples of remediation. They refashion not only traditional watches, but many other functions and technologies, mainly specific to smart phones and music players (in turn, other remediations of other technologies…) into a new medium that incorporates them all. This technology aims at immediacy and a more authentic experience, as it allows a user not only to see what time it is, but to choose a song to play, read a text or email, track their physical activity, and perform other actions without having to take their smartphone out of their pocket or bag, unlock it, etc. On the other hand, a device that incorporates so many different functions is an obvious example of hypermediacy. I’ve never actually tried on an Apple watch, but the idea of having so many functions into one tiny screen on my wrist seems a bit clumsy and uncomfortable to use. At the same time I am fascinated by the progress of the technology that makes such a device possible, and I’m sure this same fascination is the reason behind the users’ immersive experience and the relative commercial success of this type of products.

Immersion and Embeddedness

In “As we become machines,” Lahti talks about cyberspace in videogames as “a paradigmatic site for producing, imagining, and testing different kinds of relations between the body and technology in contemporary culture” (p.158) – as opposed to other types of technology, where “media spectatorship is articulated as a passive process” (p. 169). From the early two-dimensional arcade games, to today’s 3-D games that incorporate surround sound and other means to recreate a fully immersive experience, “videogame history is characterized by a significant shift in perspective relations between the player and the field of play, from the vertical omniscience of the God’s eye view, through a ground-level, third-person perspective along the horizontal axis, to a fully subjective perspective where character and player are unified into a first-person movement through the virtual space” (p.161). Overall, Lahti speaks about immersion in technology as a means for the user to identify in different identities.
In Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto,” the integration of technology and organic in the cyborg is seen as a more profoundly utopian way of surpassing gender separation in society. In a very effective analogy between socialist Marxist theories and feminism, Hathaway compares the labor and alienation of the working class to the sexual objectification and isolation of the woman in capitalist society. In her view, the embeddedness of organism and machine can be seen as a means to overcome these injustices and separations. “Troubling dualisms are self/other, mind/body, culture/nature, male/female, civilized/primitive, […] maker/made, God/man. […] High-tech culture challenges these dualisms in intriguing ways. It is not clear who makes and who is made in the relation between human and machine. It is not clear what is mind and what is body in machines that resolve into coding practices” (p. 178).
Immersion and embeddedness are related concepts, but embeddedness seems to me a much more radical and all-encompassing idea. While I can certainly share the idea that technology can help us surpass our social divisions, abolishing gender makes me think of Wiener’s idea of entropy as a total lack of difference where communication is not needed anymore.

Cybernetics (late post)

Wiener describes analogy as “a powerful conceptual mode that constitutes meaning through relation” (Hayles, Liberal Subjectivity Imperiled, p. 91). In this sense, all communication and meaning are constituted as the result of a relation. In this perspective, cybernetics presented the revolutionary implication that “the boundaries of the human subject are constructed rather than given” (p.84): the same way a cane can be considered, at least not in a strictly biological sense, part of a blind man, or “a hearing aid for a deaf person, a voice synthesizer for someone with impaired speech, and a helmet with a voice-activated firing control for a fighter pilot” (p.84), any system integrating human and technology operates a “cybernetic dissolution of boundaries” (p. 85). I think it makes sense to reduce everything to systems theory, in that any type of concept or information is constituted through the relation with something else. This view can be shared by the most stern rationalist and the most fervent religious.

However, the “cybernetic dissolution of boundaries” has raised the ethical matter – that is more and more pressing and relevant today – of where this dissolution should stop. The key aspect of the moral question is human agency. According to Wiener, “cybernetic machines and humans” are to be placed in a common category because they share “the ability to use probabilistic methods to control randomness” (p.97). In his view, “the great weakness of the machine – the weakness that saves us so far from being dominated by it – is that it cannot yet take into account the vast range of probability that characterizes the human situation” (p. 105). Wiener seems to believe that, once cybernetic machines will be perfected to the point of expanding their control of randomness, humans will be dominated by them.

While it’s definitely true that humans use probabilistic methods to respond to the apparent randomness of existence (and that this likens cybernetic machines to us), I don’t think that human essence can be reduced to this definition. It seems to preclude the whole sphere of creative thought and action that comes from our limitations, that I feel is the real differentiating character between us and machines. In a biological sense, we can consider ourselves as machines “programmed” by our genes. But I wonder whether a machine programmed by us humans would be capable of creating art, literature and music based on its thoughts and emotions towards the unknown, or to come up with the idea of using a device like a cane or a hearing aid for an impaired sense.

Classification and Representation

All media – especially their more corporate and marketing-oriented aspects – tend to separate their content and users into categories. When these categories are applied to complex and sensible matters like racial and sexual identity in our society, they end up inevitably excluding and overseeing important distinctions and nuances.
Especially with relatively new media like television and the web, this type of conflict is all the more evident. With their “aura of truth” and authority, media have a very significant role in shaping the way in which society as a whole perceives minorities and in which minorities perceive their own role in society. As Lisa Nakamura talks in Cybertypes about the “digital divide” (the phenomenon that sees racial minorities having less access to the web than whites), she states how “one factor often neglected […] is the distinction between the user and the producer of internet content” (p.108). If media authorship is predominantly white and male, we can expect that the “default” point of view perpetrated by media will always be white and male. This is strikingly evident in the representation of African Americans in American TV. In the early 50s, the representation of blackness on TV was linked to “stereotypes […] necessary for the representation and legitimation of a racial order built on racism and white supremacy” (Herman Gray, The Politics of Representation in Network Television, p. 442). Although in the following decades the representation of blackness has changed and evolved, it has almost always been in the shadow of the predominant white middle class values. Many black producers have worked on shows catered to a black audience, but very few have managed not to place “blackness and black themes in the service of the creative visions of white producers or inserting blackness within existing aesthetic visions” (p. 440).
This problem is even more evident when looking at the connection of media and marketing. Not only minorities and mixed racial or sexual identities are underrepresented, they are misrepresented too, generating those “menu-driven identities” that Lisa Nakamura so effectively exemplifies. “This type of racialism is often linked to marketing strategies that seek to exploit minorities as the newest “demographic” and to construct them as consumers of information technologies rather than users of a powerful new form of communication and potential community. These sites want to know what you are so they can best figure out what they can sell you” (p. 116).
It was interesting to me to notice how in the example of the email forwarding brought but Nakamura, a “grassroots” and active identification of people is much more organic and dynamic than the passive, sterile and artificial one perpetrated my market categories.
Of course, these types of racial misrepresentations in the media have some fundament in real life and in the personal and social interactions that happen outside of media. But, answering Osborne and Rose’s question, “do the social sciences create phenomena?”, we can say that, like in a vicious circle, media have a big responsibility in shaping and amplifying our perception of these issues. As Lisa Nakamura effectively writes at the end of her text, we can’t really “expect that corporations and the mainstream media complex will produce the kind of interfaces or content that reflect a noncommodified style of racial diversity” (p. 135). However, we live in an age where racial and sexual identity issues are entering the public discourse more and more. Today more than ever, with the great power that user generated content on the internet gives us, we have the responsibility of shaping – and expecting from corporations – the type of just, ethical and dynamic discourse on identity that our age demands.

The Panopticon

In Discipline and Punish, Foucault describes and analyzes the Panopticon, a dystopian architecture of total control ideated by the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham. The goal of this building was, through its peculiar design, to allow all its inmates to be observed by one single guard. Each inmate is perfectly aware of the possibility of being watched at any given time, without knowing when. “Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” This model can be applied to prisons, but also hospitals, schools and industries, to maximize these institutions’ efficiency. Bentham’s ideal structure is a broader metaphor for a system of control where power is “automatized” and “disindividualized,” a “diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form.”
We can find many examples of panopticism in our modern Western society. I would say they are both material/architectural technologies, and psychological devices. Or better, psychological consequences of these material structures. Thick grids of surveillance cameras and other systems (credit card purchases, cellular data, etc) are omnipresent in our cities and can track down our smallest movements. Webcams on our computers and other personal devices can apparently be accessed at any given time by police institutions. The architectural structure of prisons “resemble factories, schools, barracks, hospitals, which all resemble prisons.” We are always shown the good and productive aspects of these structures (how they keep us safe, make our work more efficient, etc), but never the more general and widespread psychological consequences they have on individuals. We are brought to think that if we “don’t have anything to hide,” these structures only help to keep us safe, but we don’t consider how this affects our behavior and our choices, making us prone to adhere to an imposed model of behavior.
In this system, media play a very important role. As we have read in the past weeks in regards to propaganda and ideology, media respond to the very specific interests of the ruling class and apply various filters to what makes the news or doesn’t. As gregarious animals, we tend for the most part to conform to the groups we belong to. But in our “information society,” these associations tend to be more and more imposed and shaped, and then categorized and exploited by the financial structures who shaped the choices in the first place.