Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Flusser Redux

In the November 25th New York Times Magazine, Kevin Kelly writes about an evolving form of screen literacy:
When technology shifts, it bends the culture. Once, long ago, culture revolved around the spoken word. The oral skills of memorization, recitation and rhetoric instilled in societies a reverence for the past, the ambiguous, the ornate and the subjective. Then, about 500 years ago, orality was overthrown by technology. Gutenberg’s invention of metallic movable type elevated writing into a central position in the culture. By the means of cheap and perfect copies, text became the engine of change and the foundation of stability. From printing came journalism, science and the mathematics of libraries and law. The distribution-and-display device that we call printing instilled in society a reverence for precision (of black ink on white paper), an appreciation for linear logic (in a sentence), a passion for objectivity (of printed fact) and an allegiance to authority (via authors), whose truth was as fixed and final as a book. In the West, we became people of the book.

Now invention is again overthrowing the dominant media. A new distribution-and-display technology is nudging the book aside and catapulting images, and especially moving images, to the center of the culture. We are becoming people of the screen. The fluid and fleeting symbols on a screen pull us away from the classical notions of monumental authors and authority. On the screen, the subjective again trumps the objective. The past is a rush of data streams cut and rearranged into a new mashup, while truth is something you assemble yourself on your own screen as you jump from link to link. We are now in the middle of a second Gutenberg shift — from book fluency to screen fluency, from literacy to visuality.
Flusser was on to this about 30 years ago (some will also point to Ong). Turning to the past as abundant source material for the postproduction artist to remixologically inhabit while selectively sampling from data streams that are then cut and rearranged into new lit[art]ture mashups requires technical facility with images.

Screen literacy is more than just viewing moving or still images on the screenal interface of your choice. As Flusser once wrote, it is also about accessing and playing with:
[...] an image created and distributed automatically by programmed apparatuses in the course of a game necessarily based on chance, an image of a magic state of things whose symbols inform its receivers how to act in an improbable fashion.
In this review of Flusser's work by Sean Cubitt, we read:
Codes embedded in the apparatus - photographic or more generally technical - derive from human usage new combinations to assimilate into the apparatus itself. Photographers are functionaries of an apparatus which, if analysis is extended back far enough, reaches into capital, corporations, politics and economics, a nested series of black boxes each governed by an elite of functionaries who nonetheless are prisoners of their own apparatus.
This is a fair reading of Flusser. It should also be noted that he thought a philosophy of photography (what today we would call the new media apparatus) would investigate the artist who plays with prosthetic aesthetics in pursuit of freedom.

Pinocchio Theory layers other readings of Flusser into the mix:
[Flusser] argues that photography represents a higher degree of abstraction than the writing which it has to a great degree supplanted, even as writing represents a higher degree of abstraction than the painted and drawn images that it supplanted several thousand years ago. Photographs do not render the real; rather they transform it into a highly codified sort of “information.” A photograph doesn’t represent the scene, person, or object being photographed, so much as it represents, and fulfills, the program of the photographic apparatus itself, a program that (like any entity under conditions of Darwinian competition) seeks nothing more than its own perpetuation and extension. Where handmade images promoted magical thinking, and writing promoted conceptual and historical thought, photography and all the technical forms of reproduction that have arisen in its wake actually work to program thought, to anticipate it, and to mimic and contain it in advance. To simulate thought, in sum.
I touch on this from another angle in my keynote at the Electronic Literature Organization's "Visionary Landscapes" conference earlier this year:
No matter what new media framework
may be hot at any given moment
in the history of contemporary art and literature
there is always this sense of succumbing
to the imagination even as the work itself
becomes seduced by the available technologies
of the moment

the moment our unconscious projections --
our intuitively generated creative impulses
continually arrive in.

You might say that for the literary artist today
"imagination imagining itself imagine" (to quote William Gass)
requires an applied aesthetics full of
visionary tactics as well as
(let's call it) antagonistic frottage
with the technological moment.

There's some kind of ambivalent force
that I find myself trying to paint here.

From one perspective, I can imagine
what it's like to work with new media technologies –

to trace a trajectory of unconscious projections
with whatever new media technology is available
while I'm creating –

but then from another perspective, I can imagine
what it's like to work against these new media technologies,
to – as Vilem Flusser has written in relation to the camera

to "outwit the camera's rigidity,"
to "smuggle human intentions into its program,"
to "force the camera to create the unpredictable,
the improbable, the informative," and
to "show contempt for the camera"
by turning away from it as a thing and focusing instead,
on information. For Flusser, and this comes from his
Toward A Philosophy of Photography

"The task of the philosophy of photography
is to question photographers about freedom,
to probe their practice in pursuit of freedom."

And this in part means developing
"the strategy of playing against the camera."

Let me remix that and simply insert
the term electronic literature
so that we're on the same page (as it were):

"The task of the philosophy of electronic literature
is to question electronic literary artists about freedom,
to probe their practice in pursuit of freedom."

And, Flusser says, this in part means developing
"the strategy of playing against the camera"
which when remixed for my own ongoing riff
would signal a need to develop a focused
"strategy of playing against the media apparatus
that potentially compromises ones relationship
with an emergent electronic literature."

Is this strategy of playing against the apparatus
while simultaneously playing with the apparatus
indicative of self-contradictory behavior
or is it part of a larger visionary agenda that buys into
this notion of being ahead of one's time?
(This section of the keynote is a remix of the Flusser sections I riffed on in another keynote on "Remixology, Hybrid Processes and Postproduction Art" I delivered at the Tate Modern's "Disrupting Narratives" symposium in 2007).

The line breaks are signficant too, or so I believe, not because of the way they bring into view the theory/poetry border but simply for the way they require another way of reading, period.

It would be nice to read theory in English from right to left too, like with Hebrew, and to read not only letteral configurations per se but visually experiential text streams powered by the intervention of designer glyphs and fictional typographies. But my guess is that these kinds of experiments are a thing of the past and the belles lettres of the future are going to be more DIY styled (and possibly available only via limited edition) artist ebooks that resemble cinema and net art more than they do the novel per se.

Kelly continues:
The overthrow of the book would have happened long ago but for the great user asymmetry inherent in all media. It is easier to read a book than to write one; easier to listen to a song than to compose one; easier to attend a play than to produce one. But movies in particular suffer from this user asymmetry. The intensely collaborative work needed to coddle chemically treated film and paste together its strips into movies meant that it was vastly easier to watch a movie than to make one. A Hollywood blockbuster can take a million person-hours to produce and only two hours to consume. But now, cheap and universal tools of creation (megapixel phone cameras, Photoshop, iMovie) are quickly reducing the effort needed to create moving images.
This is something we are investigating in Immobilité.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Bottom Line II

As per the end of a recent post,
... the thing that seems most obvious to me looking back at the US from the perspective of contemporary Europe is that perhaps even more important than a "Democrat" victory or even a center-left victory (no, the US is not still center-right, the conservative intellectuals wish they could run with that ball), to me and my posse, this is a victory of intellectualism over anti-intellectualism. My greatest "fear" (if I can call it that -- it was really more of a concern) was not the lying Muslim meme being spread via email nor the potential of a "Bradley effect" proving the polls wrong again, it was this persistent attempt to dumb down the electorate while equating the phrase "domestic terrorist(s)" with "radical professors" as performed by the Phyllis Schlafly clone Sarah Palin that most disturbed me. It was Obama as Adlai Stevenson with a terrorist twist that had me slightly bent out of shape.
The defeat-of-anti-intellectualism meme (the obvious) is further articulated:
Republicanism’s anti-intellectual turn is devastating for its future. The party’s electoral success from 1980 onwards was driven by its ability to link brains with brawn. The conservative intelligentsia not only helped to craft a message that resonated with working-class Democrats, a message that emphasised entrepreneurialism, law and order, and American pride. It also provided the party with a sweeping policy agenda. The party’s loss of brains leaves it rudderless, without a compelling agenda.

This is happening at a time when the American population is becoming more educated. More than a quarter of Americans now have university degrees. Twenty per cent of households earn more than $100,000 a year, up from 16% in 1996. Mark Penn, a Democratic pollster, notes that 69% call themselves “professionals”. McKinsey, a management consultancy, argues that the number of jobs requiring “tacit” intellectual skills has increased three times as fast as employment in general. The Republican Party’s current “redneck strategy” will leave it appealing to a shrinking and backward-looking portion of the electorate.
What this possibly means is that Joe and Jane Six-Pack are beginning to embrace what will now become the "thoughtful genius" model of governing, even though we know personal mistakes, errors in judgment, political in-fighting among the brains, etc., are bound to occur.

But still, the bottom line is
Among the intangible tasks Obama faces is vanquishing the anti-intellectualism of the past eight years, the prejudice that serious policy discussion is too effete for the Cabinet Room or the Oval Office.
On CNN today there was an interesting moment when the anchor went out of her way to describe an upcoming guest, a former CNN anchor colleague, as a "professor" who would now come on the show to discuss the new Obama economic team, including Christina Romer, a "brilliant academic from UC Berkeley."

Let's hear it for palling around with professors.

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