Volume 3 Number 12, March 1999
A Future Aesthetic
London: Sage, 1998
ISBN: 0 7619 5900 9 (pbk)
_Digital Aesthetics_ is more than its hundred and fifty-odd pages. It's also linked to a companion website (http://www.ucl.ac.uk/slade/digita) that features illustrations not included in the book for cost considerations; a series of fragmentary observations in the form of a mini-manifesto; outtakes; and hotlinks to sites and resources either mentioned in the printed text or relevant to the discussions. This is not only a satisfying case of print-internet relay -- that we can undoubtedly expect to see more of -- but also situates the book very specifically as a scholarly effort in a particular milieu of digital art experimentation.
Sean Cubitt is a Reader in Video and Media Studies at Liverpool John Moores University. He has written extensively in the past on video art and culture -- including two books, and scores of articles for journals such as _Screen_ and _Third Text_. More recently, his work has shifted into a consideration of digital culture and its various possibilities.
_Digital Aesthetics_ amounts to something of an odd book. I say this primarily as a result of the confusion I felt, as a reader, in deciding whether the nominal subject of the book, 'digital aesthetics', were those of digital culture generally, or of the narrower field of digital art. While ultimately it is the art that receives the best treatment, artistic practice is vaguely contextualised within a complex of spectacular new media practices. Be warned: this is not a book concerned with the disinterested contemplation of the digital art object.
As the blurb on the back of the book goes, Cubitt 'looks beyond the computer culture that we have and asks what kind of culture we might or should have'. As such, it's largely a speculative style of inquiry: 'The purpose of inquiry into the digital arts is not to affirm what is, but to promote the becoming of what is not-yet, the grounds of the future as they exist in the present' (x). The inevitable pitfall of this approach, an unashamedly 'utopian' ethics of 'hope' which shuns sustained analysis, is that various pleas for different behaviour sometimes sound a little hollow.
Cubitt is frequently compelling, however, as when he is discussing realism -- which he correctly calls an ethical question (59). This provides an original insight into visual perception and its increasingly remote socialisation, and helps explain his ethico-aesthetic project: that is, 'in the interface of the ethical and the aesthetic, what counts is the response' (40). Cubitt's illustrations are centred around the realism of digital databases, and the corresponding professionalisation of (corporate) data management. But the current economy of satellite imaging also comes under attack, in Cubitt's desire for 'a genuinely public culture of global imaging' (49). The importance of realism as a mode of representation is a key premise throughout the five chapters of this book, and it's an angle I would have liked to see pursued further. Unfortunately, since the book lacks a central thesis to drive it, its direction occasionally gets lost beneath a mass of examples and minor theoretical digressions. These are often interesting, and certainly diverting, but do not always advance an argument beyond a vague ethical imperative.
The first chapter, 'Reading the Interface', sets up a project for the discussion of the actual phenomenology of the contemporary computer experience. Cubitt offers an historicised way of thinking about the window-icon-menu-pointer interface and the human-computer interface. He also discusses the now familiar development and significance of hypertext. Through a discussion of historical forms of reading practices, Cubitt convincingly argues for the relevance of ongoing metaphors of literary culture (of pages, etc.) in computer culture. He also introduces what will be a key polemical concept in the book, *synergy*, which, he argues, lies at the heart of the synthetic principle of information retrieval exemplified by internet search engines. This is contrasted to the arbitrary serendipity of earlier humanist knowledge classification models such as the Dewey system.
Privacy is obsolete in a networked culture, Cubitt argues, suggesting that it might be rethought in terms of the notion of 'intimacy' (20). Linked to this, Cubitt wants to ditch the sociological model of the self. Mark Poster's vague promotion of new digital subjectivities becomes an easy target for Cubitt's aim to go beyond viewing modern social relations as a battle between the individual and the corporation, in which the resisting individual is the focal point of liberation.  Against this logic, which Cubitt argues inevitably relies on the same *hyperindividual* desired and promoted by the 'user-controlled' marketplace, a more structural public ethos is sought. Cubitt names this ethical mode of being 'mediation' -- 'a materialist aesthetic of mutuality and intimacy, [which] needs to be distinguished from the emergent subjectivity of the networked corporation and its managerial philosophy of synergy' (24).
Synergy, in Cubitt's argument, is not only an organisational principle of knowledge, but is also 'a new paradigm of social management' (12) whose natural home is 'the eternal present of the synergetic corporation' (40). If this sounds like an idealist critical mode, well, it is. Later in the book, the notion is fleshed out: the synergetic corporation is 'the actually existing cyborg . . . not an assemblage of people but a machine ensemble, an organised concatenation of information, hardware, discourses and practices, a massive processing machine whose employees and consumers are its biochips' (133). A little frustratingly, the relationship between synergy and actually existing digital aesthetics, more narrowly defined, remains distant.
The pace of the argument picks up in the second chapter, 'Virtual Realism', with its discussion of perception and remote sensing, which I've already touched on above. At the core of this chapter is a critique of cognitive studies of perception, which Cubitt argues are still 'trapped in the individualist paradigm' (34). This touches on a fiery debate in the philosophy of consciousness -- which surfaces now and again here at _Film-Philosophy_ -- regarding the social and/or biological basis of vision. Cubitt turns to several sites at once to argue his case for the social basis of perception, including Jonathan Crary,  and early debates in Russian formalist cinema between Eisenstein and Vertov. Finally in this chapter, realism is a project of 'solidarity' (60), a responsibility that calls upon an intimacy between people and a sharing of meanings and feelings. While this has something in common with Rorty, or the late philosophy of Lyotard or Ricoeur, Cubitt concludes the chapter by invoking the 'politics of the unconscious' (60).
'Spatial Effects' takes up this invocation of the psychoanalytic schema through the expansive metaphorics of outer space. The chapter opens with an evocative portrait of the ill-fated Hubble Space Telescope -- constantly observing the earth from above, but with a degree of error that has made it something of a NASA nightmare. According to Cubitt, 'the blurred boundary of space and special effects can teach us a great deal about the nature of the futures we face' (63). Geo-observation is interpreted through a psychoanalytic lens as a 'repressed erotic intensity of the gaze' (64). Similarly, through its 'eroticisation of the endlessly alien', Hollywood's imagery of outer space is claimed to have 'taken up the positions once occupied by orientalism' (68). The chapter then moves into a discussion of cinematic special effects and their predominance over narrative in contemporary cinema. Cubitt traces this kind of cinema to the baroque interest in excess and audience participation. It is, he says, the neo-baroque of the fin-de-millennium, in the way it renders space as spectacle.
For readers interested in film, this is the key chapter, though it's an impressionistic account, to say the least, of some trends in contemporary cinema. It's not a systematic attempt, say, to examine the implications of digital technology on film aesthetics. Actual effects of the fact of digitality on film are surprisingly restricted, and almost all of Cubitt's examples come from the contemporary sci-fi genre. In terms of theoretical dialogues, the utopian project of the phenomenologist Vivian Sobchack is drawn on;  but Cubitt warns that she looks too superficially at the encroachments of digital media on film (144).
Outer space leads to cyberspace, which is also treated as a receptacle of repressed desires. Cubitt argues that communication on the internet constructs an 'imaginary space of virtual intimacy', which is in place of, and symptomatic of, an absence of actual community (84). Moreover, such cyberspace is ambiguously sexualised: unlike cinematic fetishism, with its spectatorial 'pursuit of part objects', Cubitt contends that it is governed by a more fluid play of identifications - and frequently transvestism (85). This is something of an update of Laura Mulvey for the internet; familiar themes, which would have been stronger if they had addressed specific aesthetic effects of digital storage, communication and display.
The fourth chapter, 'Pygmalion', focuses on sound, starting with the mechanisation of recording and its fundamental revolution: the mobilisation of sound. It is an interesting and welcome facet of _Digital Aesthetics_ generally that sonic metaphors and processes are given an elevated position. Here, while the broad brush strokes history of electronic composers Cage and Stockhausen seems somehow beside the point, Cubitt gives a good overview of the latest thinking with regard to digital sampling. Drawing on sound theorists Douglas Kahn and John Potts, Cubitt argues, amongst other things, that digital sampling involves a further temporal and spatial liberation of sound.
This chapter also includes a discussion of film soundtracks and special effects, and in particular the relationship between sound and image in the cinema. It ends with a discussion of the art of translation between diasporic cultures: an 'art of movement' (121). Cubitt waxes lyrical about diasporan sound arts, as:
'dialogical, engaged in the vast, unending, history-long conversation of the species . . . in which the movement of sounds is the sculpting of distance and our trajectories through it. More: in its acceptance of the dissolution of origins, diasporan sound arts publish and make public mortality, as motif and as efficient cause, breaking the most powerful taboo that stands between us and the new global intimacy' (120).
Cubitt is less starry-eyed in the concluding chapter, 'Turbulence', with his engaging development of the synergetic corporation. Here he is on firmer ground, acknowledging a debt to the sociologists Manuel Castells, Scott Lash, and John Urry. Of particular interest to me was a refreshing defence of the *state* -- tied to a spirited defence of the public sphere (150) -- and a corresponding attack on market anarchists (including a gentle prod at Deleuze and Guattari for 'fingering the state as the villain of the story' (132)). Cubitt also takes this as an opportunity to attack the residual romanticism in the still-warm brand of Cultural Studies that fetishizes individual resistance. Indeed, Cubitt takes a quasi-moral stance against the 'narcissistic synergetic hyperindividual' (139) -- the corporate biochip -- a figure Cubitt argues is virtually latent in the character of the Mayor in the now classic software game, _SimCity_.
Cubitt also makes a brief return in this chapter to speak more specifically about internet site design, together with a review of the current appeal of 'organicism'. The thesis regarding cross-cultural translational practices of networking (rooted in the idea of diaspora, as theorised by Paul Gilroy) also reappears, but remains underdeveloped (146). One of the dangers with bringing in so many ideas into the mix is that in some respects Cubitt's concepts are more like conceptual machines. The downfall of this is that some remain on the surface of the text, like a Java applet on a website, without quite engaging.
Cubitt's more immediate motivations return right at the very end of the book, in a kind of soliloquy towards art and creativity -- especially as figured in the *amateur* (143). Cubitt's background in new media art criticism is very apparent here: the critic takes on an advocacy role, and digital artists become the modern Messiahs. But this impassioned, Henri Lefebvre-like celebration of 'spontaneous creativity' (144) seems overly romantic. In a digital that slips between military uses, sci-fi special effects, computer games, and media arts, these rhetorical flourishes would have packed more impact with greater specificity. Indeed, it's not the romanticism that bothers me -- I'm sympathetic with Cubitt's critique of the fashionable 'ironic consciousness' (147) -- it's that the whole notion of 'digital aesthetics' winds up taking on a phantom agency in the narrative, as in this summing-up at the end of the book:
'Only by sacrificing the narcissistic umbilical and embracing the centrifugal of life will digital aesthetics emerge from under the shadows of corporate culture' (149).
In other words, the book occasionally suffers from Cubitt's wide-ranging excitement and enthusiasm in the form of bland aphorisms. This is unfortunate, because Cubitt has a lot to say, and knows his material well.
In the gravy train rush to publish commentary on digital culture, this book is a timely attempt to clarify aesthetic issues pertaining to digital display and communication technologies. In its favour, _Digital Aesthetics_ is profoundly sceptical of neo-liberal techno-hype, of the gee-whiz _Wired_ variety. Yet the ethics it supports need more grounding. Moreover, since the examples are predominantly from the still-fine digital arts, the very ordinariness of so much digital culture is missing (where's e-mail, and Photoshop?). The vexing issue over whether the effect of digital media is essentially any different from its analogue predecessors is glossed over; the important link between popular media practices and the ethics of digital realism is absent; Cubitt is silent on the over-hyped convergence of television with the internet; and only touches on interface design. Moreover, while the book is clearly aiming for a wider-than-academic readership, it is never clear to whom the ethical imperative in _Digital Aesthetics_ is directed. Toward that new breed, I suspect: digital artists, and their often uncritical advocates. Naturally, other readers will find it more to their taste -- as a rave reviewer from India on Amazon.com affirms -- but I hope I'm not being unfair when I say that as a researcher and teacher in the field of media studies and an occasional writer of new media art criticism, I wanted to like the book more than I did.
In short, I imagine _Digital Aesthetics_ will have a similar life span to art reviews, offering a partial record of late-1990s digital art as experienced by a border participant. This is not necessarily a problem, and Cubitt seems aware of this fact (indeed, arguably, it's necessary to have such work in print, rather than remain in the more fluid forum of lively email lists, for it to acquire a common history from which to evolve). It's just plain not easy to write about digital media, not least because it's such a vast, amorphous and rapidly moving target: thus, while _Digital Aesthetics_ has its moments, its lofty aspirations, and its cool companion website, Cubitt's wide-ranging knowledge of new media arts does not quite translate into a sustained or seductive thesis about that mysterious subject: digital aesthetics.
University of Melbourne, Australia
1. Mark Poster, _The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Context_ (Cambridge: Polity, 1990).
2. Jonathan Crary, _Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century_ (Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press, 1990).
3. See particularly: Vivian Sobchack, 'The Scene of the Screen: Envisioning Cinematic and Electronic Presence', in _Materialities of Communication_, edited by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and K. Ludwig Pfeiffer, trans. William Whobrey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), pp. 83-106; also online at <http://www.cc.rochester.edu/College/FS/Publications/SobchackScene.html>.
Daniel Palmer, 'A Future Aesthetic', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 12, March 1999 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol3-1999/n12palmer>.
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