ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 13, March 1999



Sean Cubitt

Reply to Palmer





Daniel Palmer

A Future Aesthetic

_Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 12, March 1999


First and foremost, I want to thank Daniel Palmer for such a sustained and serious review, for his critiques as well as his praises. I am all too aware that in the new field of digital culture we are at the beginning of a vast enterprise, and that it is essential that criticism be a group effort. As I wrote in _Timeshift_, even television is too big a subject for any one person. That observation is even more true of the expanded electronic mediascape we now inhabit, and that inhabits us.


The book -- somehow and oddly it ceases to be 'my book' on the day you first see the proofs -- is structured in five chapters, intended to elucidate five key aspects of the digital media as a whole:

1, the database, traced back into the apparatus of professional and other modes of reading;

2, simulation, traced back to cartography and established in geographic information systems;

3, special effects, the legacy of perspective, which I read as always having attracted us through its spectacular illusions;

4, convergence, treated through the chequered history of sound-image relations; and,

5, networks, in which I wanted to ground the utopianism of my conclusions about new modes of community in the histories of global interaction.


Even when I was writing, I knew there was something missing, which I have been pursuing since: the temporalities of the electronic media. This will form the substance of a book which I hope to begin work on this year. I also see a weakness in the lack of direct address to the histories of non-picture-based graphical symbolisation, which should have been more prominent in the cartography chapter, something I have tried to repair in conference papers (some of which are forthcoming in a variety of publications).


Palmer has useful things to say about a series of issues. There are very important criticisms of detail, but many of the major criticisms address the ambiguous object of the research and the lack of a sustained thesis on ethics. Let's start with the latter.


I argued some time ago that video (and, by implication, electronic media generally) does not have a medium-specific essence. It would be easy enough to extend this argument, and claim that there is no single theory that would account for them, and no point, therefore, in attempting to create one. That would be disingenuous. The elements of a critique are intended to be present: that the material of these mediations is primary; that their histories still structure and guide them, that globalisation most of all, but also other sociological factors such as the growth of transnationals, are more adequate explanatory frameworks for understanding new media cultures than ascribing agency to the technology. I was, I admit, a little disappointed that the urgency of my interest in globalisation clearly didn't get across to Palmer: that is something I will have to work on. I also thought that the book as a whole concerned itself, in its use of historical data, with the continuities between mechanical and digital media, and by implication therefore suggested that there is no radical discontinuity between them, only an acceleration of tendencies already present. On the other hand, I think Palmer is right to point to a weakness in the argument in favour of radical democracy. This weakness is carried over from earlier books, especially _Videography_. In a sense, I felt myself part of a cultural community that shared a common understanding of the term. I find that, now a wider audience is reading the stuff, I have to think far more carefully about its derivation. Once I have another commission out the way, I hope to devote myself to doing just that in a study of digital amateurs half-promised at the close of _Digital Aesthetics_. In fact, I think this is a weakness in media theory generally, as indeed it is in cultural studies paradigms. It is also the weakness behind what Palmer describes as the 'phantom agency' of digital aesthetics. What I have in mind might be thought of by analogy with Kristeva's 'chora', [1] only social: a primal semiosis which implicates each member of the species in a community of communication. That work, he is quite right, remains an urgent priority, and I believe not only for me.


I often tell people they can save themselves the bother of reading the book by looking at two quotes in the Preface: 'The world is all that is the case', [2] and 'What is essential about a work of art is what is not the case'. [3] This informs the matter raised by Palmer about the object of the work. It is a book about digital arts, but one that undertakes to read them as implicit or explicit critiques of what is the case. In this sense it deals both with the nature, status, and undertaking of aesthetic practice in digital media, and with the criticisms such practices make of existing terms of engagement in the digital. I'm quite explicit (see the Preface) about that task, and about the status of artworks as advanced philosophical discourses on the conditions of their own existence and of the conduct of the world. Incidentally, I disagree that my critique of transnational corporations is idealist: I am trying to give a materialist analysis of a social formation which attempts to idealise, dematerialise, and essentialise itself. This is exactly what digital artworks do not do, and why they are therefore approachable, as aesthetic objects, only through the kind of, dare I say, historical materialism that I have tried to bring to bear.


And, finally, Palmer is also correct to point towards the ambitions of the book as ephemeral. Although I tried as much as possible to make this a work of writing as much as of criticism, and struggled for two years with the prosody and the ideogrammic structures of reference (Simon Biggs suggested it should really have been a hypertext), and therefore, if I examine my own motives in writing, I hoped for it to have a certain life and a certain impact on the precision and eloquence of digital criticism, I also know that this, like my earlier books and like most of my reviewing practice, has only a certain time to act in before it becomes part of a communal memory. But that, exactly, is the point. These are not times for the construction of monuments, but for the mobilisation of movement before Benjamin's messianic gate is closed down forever. [4] I'll also admit to romanticism and utopianism. There are days you wake up and can't see that anything is worth doing; that NewsCorp, Microsoft, Bertelsman, and the rest, have stitched us up proper, that there's no bloody point. But that, my friend, is the sin against the Holy Spirit, the sin of the scholar, and has to be guarded against more than any other of our professional vices.


Thanks again, Daniel, for the care and attention you gave the book: I hope we can continue to discuss the implications of the critique, and move on towards new agendas.


Incidentally, I don't take kindly to the criticism that my writing is 'breathless': you are just reading *too quickly*. ;)


Liverpool John Moores University, England





1. See Julia Kristeva, _La Revolution du langage poetique: L'Avant-garde a

la fin du XIXe siecle: Lautreamont et Mallarme_ (Paris: Seuil, 1974); especially pp. 22-30.


2. Ludwig Wittgenstein , _Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus_, trans. D. F. Pears and B. F. McGuinness (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1961), p.5.


3. Theodor Adorno, _Aesthetic Theory_, ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor (London: Athlone Press, 1997), p. 335.


4. Walter Benjamin, 'Theses on History', in _Illuminations_, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1969), p. 263.





Sean Cubitt, _Timeshift: On Video Culture_ (London: Routledge, 1991).

--- _Videography: Video Media as Art and Culture_ (London: Macmillan; New York: St Martins Press, 1993).


_Digital Aesthetics_ online: <>.




Sean Cubitt, 'Reply to Palmer',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 13, March 1999 <>.


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