Thursday, July 15, 2010

Theories Are Sometimes Inverted Images; Part 2 of Beuys’s Concept of Social Sculpture, Laurie Rojas

We will once again depart with the idea that Joseph Beuys’s work appears unfathomable.

Looking at images of Joseph Beuys’s work is like looking at photographs of the Museum of the Apocalypse. It appears as his arrangements and objects are the collected items of the sole survivor of the Apocalypse– It is of no surprise that Anselm Kiefer, whose work would fit well in this imaginary museum, is one of his artistic offsprings. The objects appear compiled by a lone figure who roams the desiccated remains of the world after the Apocalypse, haunted by his own amnesia. Beuys begins ever more painfully to appear as a proto-messianic figure that came too late. The world we live now appears entirely different from the one that produced those objects, especially when they are traces and remains of objects that appear to have lost their practical use. Compiling these objects is an attempt to make sense of them, to give them entirely new meaning. These objects perhaps appear beautiful to us, but that is only for their strangeness, the unanswered questions they provoke. It is as if we can hear the artist asking: Where did all this hair come from? What is all this felt for? That quest for meaning is never resolved. Neither for the artist, nor for us. Detached from the artist these objects are susceptible to an infinite amount of projections, but in the context of Beuys, of the period of German reconstruction, it is not difficult to imagine the troubled artist searching for his own humanity, as we search–relentlessly and without avail–for ours in his objects.

There are countless photographs of Beuys sitting in at non-violent demonstrations, singing with a rock band in front of 500,000 for a peace demonstration, attending meetings for Germany’s Green Party, running as a Green Party representative in Parliament, and his participation in the occupation of West German Radio. Beuys-the-activist is perhaps the aspect of his persona he is most often remembered for. “Appeal for an Alternative” exemplifies Beuys basic political concerns and his ideas for a new party. Beuys’s larger historical role is attributed to bringing art back into public discourse in West Germany. The synthesis of Beuys’s artistic and political practice is expressed in his concept of expanded art.

It is perhaps now clearer, this author hopes, how Beuys is influential for contemporary art, and how he marks a point of departure for socially engaged art. But, what has the criticism and reception of Beuys revealed about the trajectory of art?
Beuys today is not referred to as often as Duchamp or Warhol in discourse about contemporary art–Danto is accurate to point out. The fact that he is not a Duchamp or a Warhol reveals something about his work: Duchamp’s and Warhol’s place in the history of art is stable, undisputed, and seemingly clear–Beuys’ place is still precarious. The varied and conflicting facets of Beuys’s prolific career cannot be reconciled into a cohesive artistic vision because it can be interpreted in opposite ways, either as socially engaged or isolated due to its shamanism. The bewilderment surrounding Beuys’s practice is fueled by an unresolved issue: there is both continuity and discontinuity with art practices of the pre-war period, and furthermore whether these correspondences place him within a modernist avant-garde or something else. Particularly through his concept of social sculpture, the break with the pre-war period can be attributed to the shifting away, though not entirely, from formalist or object/image centered practices, because these were understood to claim art’s autonomy in that era. These claims have been critiqued mainly because they either refrained from, or failed to, address the principal crisis of the 20th century—first, the crisis of capitalism in WWI, and later the Left’s failure to overcome capitalism expressed in the barbarism of WWII. Beuys continues the prewar tradition of the engaged modernist avant-garde, but he also resonates with dominant artistic practices who seek to break away from that tradition.

Severing with artists of the past is a principal symptomatic trait of contemporary art – a characteristic acutely expressed in Beuys’s work. Arguably, since the 60s an increasing number of artists have become interested in breaking with, instead of working through, past artistic practices. This shift, largely “post”-modernist, expressed in art, is often a shift whose principal concern is to break from the discourse, or theoretical propositions, those artistic practices where historically bound to. Theorists like Bourriaud, who promulgate that historical break are equally complicit. Bourriaud himself, as Claire Bishop notes in “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics,” infrequently mentioned Beuys in Relational Aesthetics: “on one occasion [Beuys] is specifically invoked to sever any connection between “social sculpture” and relational aesthetics (p. 30).” The discourse surrounding Bourriaud’s promulgation of relational aesthetics is a dead end for engaging Beuys critically although they share the same symptomatic trait of breaking with the past. For reason’s articulated in part I of this essay, Beuys’s “expanded concept of art,” although influential for socially engaged artists, shall not be reduced to the discourse around relational aesthetics either. As a theory, relational aesthetics is incompatible with Beuys’s work, but reductionist of most contemporary art being made, including Jeremy Deller’s and Thomas Hirschorn’s, who are themselves responding to a problem—that of the relationship of art to life–that arose historically and intensified in Beuys.
One of the most important contributors to the study of post-1945 art today, art historian and critic Benjamin Buchloh famously critiques Beuys in his Artforum article “Joseph Beuys: Twilight of the Idol”, in response to a 1979 exhibition at the Guggenheim. Buchloh is well known for believing that the task of critics is “to brush contemporary art reception against the grain,” quoting from Walter Benjamin’s famous phrase. Buchloh, admittedly, is just one of the many critics who have taken up the task of examining Beuys’s work, but his particular approach goes into the deep historical problems revealed in the art itself. At the hands of Buchloh, Beuys’s work receives a critique that raises broader art historical concerns, and comprehensive politico-aesthetic critique.

In “Joseph Beuys: Twilight of the Idol,” Buchloh embarks in a muckraking campaign intended to demystify Beuys’s ‘myth of origin.’ Buchloh’s critique-via-defamation is framed as an art historical problem that should propel Beuys’s admirers to reconsider the entire body of work as mere fiction, however, this is less an attack on the validity of Beuys’s ‘myth of origins,’ as an artist, but more a ruthless critique of the political implications of his practice. For Buchloh, the main dilemma in Beuys work lies “in the misconception that politics could have ever become a matter of aesthetics.” This statement immediately follows his concluding point:
“The aesthetic conservatism of Beuys is logically complemented by his politically retrograde, not to say reactionary, attitudes. Both are inscribed into a seemingly progressive and radical humanitarian program of aesthetics and social evolution… any attempt on his side to join the two aspects results in curious sectarianism.” Buchloh articulates the aesthetic conservatism of Beuys by demonstrating his appropriation of devices and forms of the historical avant-garde into his work, while simultaneously rejecting their original, i.e. historically determined, meaning. The conservatism lies in Beuys “failure or refusal to change the state of the object within the discourse itself.” Buchloh finds its most acute expression when Beuys talks about his 1964 Fat Chair: “The presence of the chair has nothing to do with Duchamp’s readymades, or his combination of stool with bicycle wheel, although they share the same initial impact with humorous objects.” For Buchloh, Beuys “dilutes and dissolves the conceptual precision of Duchamp’s readymades by reintegrating the object into the most traditional and naïve context of representation of meaning, the idealist metaphor: this object stands for that idea, and that idea is represented in this object.”

Beuys’s claims to radical ahistoricity, besides being “a maneuver to disguise his eclecticism,” is problematic in that it extracts elements from the pre-war avant-garde and removes them from their historical context and function. Buchloh is concerned with the political implications of Beuys’s idea to take the tools and techniques of the historical avant-garde’s art, while they functioned as an end in themselves, and utilize them as a means for the creative transformation of society. Since the approach of the historical avant-garde proved to be impotent in the face of world-shattering events, their route had to be abandoned, and their tools salvaged from ship wreck. By arguing “real future political intentions must be artistic” Beuys prematurely sought to reconcile art and life.

Joseph Beuys - 7000 Oaks

As the final blow to an undulating character assassination, Buchloh brings out the aspect of Beuys that is more ‘I do not want to carry art into politics, but make politics into art’ explicit in terms of “crypto-fascist Futurism” by quoting this statement: “I would say that the concept of politics must be eliminated as quickly as possible and must be replaced by the capability of form of human art. I do not want to carry art into politics, but make politics into art.”

“If it is true that theories are only the images of the phenomena of the exterior world in the human consciousness,” Rosa Luxemburg’s 1918 book, Reform or Revolution begins, “it must be added…that theories are sometimes inverted images.” In wanting to eliminate the concept of politics, and instead replace by a totalized concept of art, Beuys, in practice, is doing quite the opposite: making art obsolete and reaffirming the desire for an all-encompassing politic. Buchloh’s fears are revealed when he concludes with a Walter Benjamin quote, “…Mankind has reached such a degree of self-alienation that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order. This is the situation of politics which fascism is rendering aesthetic. Communism responds by politicizing art.”

Approaching the end of “Twilight of the Idol” this way, Buchloh suggests a double-sided and historically bound problem for Beuys. Buchloh approaches both the intentions and implications of Beuys work in a broader aesthetic and political narrative; his critique lies in Beuys’s politics and his aesthetic choices. Not only does Buchloh suggest that there are fascistic, or rather authoritarian, tendencies in Beuys himself–since he seems to imply Beuys was proposing a re-emergence of totalitarian form of politics–but also, how the failure of communism in the pre-WWII period to fight fascism was transferred into art–as socially-engaged-art’s failure to divert fascism. The crucial response of political failure was instead to politicize art even further.

Two decades later, in “Reconsidering Joseph Beuys: Once Again,” Buchloh takes a second stab at a critique of Beuys. This time he takes into account the changing models of interpretation in both the broader history of post-war European culture and the discourse surrounding the production of avant-garde art. For Bucloh, Beuys uniquely embodies the profound instability of the production of the meaning of culture after the Holocaust and at the same time “the problem of how the artist, as subject, can be repositioned in the role of the artist and in relation to society at large.”

If Beuys is to be interpreted as the first if not only artist addressing the conditions of cultural production after the Holocaust he must also be subjected to a comparative approach with those artists that also inherited the legacies of the Weimar Avant-Garde. Buchloh wonders to what degree was it crucial for Beuys to deny and disavow post-expressionist avant-garde in Germany, namely the German Dadaists Kurt Schwitters and Hannah Hoch on the one hand, and on the other, how was Beuys struggling with the “ghost of Jackson Pollock” and the pervasiveness of American Abstract Expressionism in Europe that purported to lay the foundation for formalist thinking. The question with Beuys then is whether he is motivated by a reaction against early 20th century avant-garde (pre-war) or early American formalist tendencies? Or more succinctly, how can Beuys be reacting against both legacies?

Beuys must react against Abstract Expressionism because their historical foundations were in the pre-war modernist avant-garde he so vehemently rejects. Abstract Expressionism and the painters of High Modernism were not claiming a complete break with pre-war practices, quite the opposite, going at pains to explain their continuation of a tradition. But Buchloh’s reconsideration of Beuys is also motivated by an interest in addressing “the insuperable question of understanding why modernism failed.” A problem he acknowledges was raised first by Hannah Arendt, Theodor Adorno and later by social art historians, “who reflect upon, if not develop, evidence of the interrelated interaction of ideology, social formations, and artistic practices.” The rejection of the historical avant-garde, and of Abstract Expressionism is bound up with the question of Modernism’s failure. The severing with past art practices seen with Bourriaud’s posy of artists, and with Beuys, is an attempt to detach the present from a failed project. This historical severing echoes a common response of working class workers in factories or the service industry. When approached about starting a union as a solution to the problems they face daily, the response often is: Didn’t we try that in Russia already? This quick dismissal often lacks a working through the failures of the past, and thus completely rejecting any achievements made.

Beuys cannot escape past and present history, nor the significant art that has accompanied it. Relational art cannot escape this reality either; that would mean detaching themselves from the history of humanity. Beuys is not only symptomatically motivated by the failures of political practices (to stop the Holocaust), but that this historical repression is already playing out the farther we move from the moment of acute crisis of historical possibilities. The further we move from the trauma of their failures, the more difficult it will become to comprehend what was at stake. Beuys is an acute symptom expressing the problematic relationship of art and life, whereas relational art is an obtuse one; it rejects grasping what they share with Beuys, a rejection of previous art, of a notion historical continuity in Modernity, and modernism’s theoretical propositions.

above copied from:

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Toward an Algorithmic Pedagogy, Holly Willis

Institute for Multimedia Literacy, University of Southern California

Colleges and universities in the United States currently face a daunting challenge: how can we transform longstanding definitions of literacy to account for not only the vast social shifts wrought by the centrality of networked, visual and aural media, but epistemological shifts as well? Calls for reconsidering literacy in light of digital tools are multiple and varied in approach and orientation, ranging from the declaration that every grade school student deserves access to a computer by then President Bill Clinton in 1996 (U.S. Dept. of Education, 1996), to the articulation of multimodal literacy outlined by Gunther Kress in his seminal book Literacy in the New Media Age to the taxonomy of skills characteristic of a new generation of students who currently inhabit a digital and participatory culture listed by Henry Jenkins in his 2006 paper for the MacArthur Foundation, ‘Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century’; here Jenkins highlights the potential benefits of forms of participatory culture, including opportunities for peer-to-peer learning, a changed attitude toward intellectual property, the diversification of cultural expression, the development of skills valued in the modern workplace, and a more empowered conception of citizenship (Jenkins, 2006: 3).

Scholarly work dedicated to expanding the definition of literacy and practices of reading and writing to include visual rhetoric and multimedia tools form a rich, longstanding tradition, generally emerging from college and university programs in composition and rhetoric. These programs advocate expanded composition practices, working toward an understanding of the elements of visual rhetoric and the use of multimedia reading and writing practices that unite text, images and design. As Mary Hocks explains in her essay ‘Understanding Visual Rhetoric,’ the key here is in avoiding an easy bifurcation between the visual and the written, acknowledging instead that ‘all writing is hybrid – it is at once verbal, spatial, and visual’ (Hocks, 2003: 630-631). The incorporation of visual elements, then, is not a radical shift; it is instead part of the always dialogic relationship among divergent aspects of communication.

Further, the resounding proclamations for redefining literacy brings with them attention to the term ‘literacy’ itself. As Anne Wysocki and Johndan Johnson-Eilola argue in their essay ‘Blinded by the Letter: Why Are We using Literacy as a Metaphor for Everything Else?’ literacy is a term that too easily slips off our tongues (1999: 349). Borrowing Stuart Hall’s use of the term ‘articulation’ (which in turn is borrowed from Antonio Gramsci), they argue for understanding literacy ‘not as a monolithic term but as a cloud of sometimes contradictory nexus points among different positions,’ adding that literacy here shifts away from receiving a self to the necessary act of continual remaking, of understanding the ‘unity’ of an object (social, political, intellectual) and simultaneously seeing that that unity is contingent, supported by the efforts of the writer/reader and the cultures in which they live (1999: 367).

Many scholars have contributed significant work to this larger project of rethinking literacy alongside expanded acts of reading and writing, including Gail E. Hawisher, Nancy Kaplan, Stuart Moulthrop, Cynthia Selfe, and Scott deWitt, all of whom have made convincing arguments regarding the need to include visual rhetoric in any consideration of reading and writing practices in the 21st century, with attention to a redefinition that acknowledges this inclusion.

Many scholars have also studied the role of networks in educational settings, and while much of this work focuses on distance learning and forms of distributed teaching [1], with the preponderance of Web 2.0 tools, especially those designed specifically for students, critical analysis of Net-based opportunities are on the rise. Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom outlines the shift from a mass-mediated public sphere to a networked public sphere, and suggests implications for education and students. Further, the work of Trebor Scholz interrogates the ways in which people actually use online tools and collaborative environments, and his Distributed Learning Project, which is a site for sharing resources for the teaching of and learning about new media art, offers a productive and real embodiment of distributed scholarship. [2] And Cheryl Ball’s 2007 examination of Michael Wesch’s Web-based essay, ‘The Machine Is Us/ing Us’ and the potential of Web-based forms of composition points to future forms of net-based writing practices that unite text, graphics, images and sound in a kind of desktop-oriented compositional mode. [3]

Along with these redefinitions of literacy and calls for its expansion, we are also witnessing a groundswell of interest in understanding how to teach, in light not only of changes in the abilities and skills of students, but with respect to vastly different social, cultural and economic contexts that both characterize contemporary educational settings and will greet students when they leave the university. These shifts range from the decade-old critique of the increasingly corporate nature of the university and its role in sustaining a notion of the nation-state [4] to the challenges of fully understanding what Brian Goldfarb dubs a ‘visual pedagogy.’ Goldfarb writes in his introduction, ‘Subjects “come to know” in institutional settings that rely increasingly on media forms to produce knowledge,’ continuing:

As the twentieth century progressed, media became an integral part of any discussion about the ‘how’ questions in education. How do we teach? Certainly with media. How do media function? Certainly as modes of pedagogy. Throughout the intensified globalization of the second half of the twentieth century, media technology made a firm union with the science of pedagogy broadly applied, and this union has come to symbolize technological life in the industrialized nations of late capitalism (Goldfarb, 2002: 22).

Goldfarb goes on to analyze the ways in which we might expand our notion of pedagogy to include institutions beyond schools – museums and advocacy groups, for example – and in the process complicates the often simplistic thinking behind deployments of media in the classroom.

Yet another challenge in considering literacy and pedagogical practices in the 21st century comes in offering instruction to a generation of students with fundamentally different abilities and needs than generations prior. Marc Prensky responds to the claims that education in the U.S. has declined dramatically by asking critics to remember the fundamental cause of that decline. He writes, ‘Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.’ He adds,

Today’s students have not just changed incrementally from those of the past, nor simply changed their slang, clothes, body adornments, or styles, as has happened between generations previously. A really big discontinuity has taken place. One might even call it a ‘singularity’ – an event which changes things so fundamentally that there is absolutely no going back. This so-called ‘singularity’ is the arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decades of the 20th century (Prensky, 2001: 1).

Rethinking teaching practices to accommodate the skills and needs of these students often point back to the very tools students are already using. Here are just three recent instantiations of this:

– The 2007 Horizon Report, published jointly by the New Media Consortium and EDUCAUSE, lists an array of ‘technologies to watch,’ by which the authors mean tools and applications that the anticipate will be broadly adopted by universities across the United States in the coming year; among the technologies listed this year are social networking tools, virtual worlds and massively multiplayer games.

– Some scholars are also promoting the use of games as models for learning. Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, for example, in a working paper titled ‘The Play of Imagination: Extending the Literary Mind,’ describe the ability of multiplayer online games to ‘allow players to construct vivid and meaningful “conceptual blends” by taking different worlds (such as the physical and the virtual) and combining them to create new and better ways to understand both the game world they inhabit and the physical world’ (Thomas, Brown, 2007: 149).

– The multi-user virtual environment Second Life is now home to the sites of more than 200 college and universities around the world, and educators are working hard to develop new pedagogical practices designed for the affordances of immersive, virtual environments. [5]

The demand for an expanded definition of literacy to accommodate visual and aural media, then, is not particularly new, but it now carries with it calls for rethinking not only what we teach but how we teach. It also gains urgency as college students transform, becoming producers of media in many of their everyday social activities. The response among those who grapple with these issues as instructors has been to advocate for new definitions of literacy and an emphasis on visual literacy. These efforts are exemplary, and promote a much needed rethinking of literacy and models of pedagogy. However, what I would like to argue here, in what is more akin to a manifesto than a polished argument, is the need to push farther: What if we moved beyond visual rhetoric, as well as a game-based pedagogy and the adoption of a broad range of media tools on campus, toward a pedagogy grounded fundamentally in a media ecology? Framing this investigation in terms of a media ecology allows us to take account of the multiply determining relationships wrought not just by individual media, but by the interrelationships, dependencies and symbioses that take place within the dynamic system that is today’s high-tech university. An ecological approach allows us to examine what happens when new media practices collide with computational models, providing a glimpse of possible transformations not only ways of being but ways of teaching and learning. How, then, may pedagogical practices be transformed computationally or algorithmically and to what ends?

What Is an Algorithm? What Is Computation?

To begin to answer this question, we need to consider the nature of algorithms and computation, acknowledging up front the fact that the desire for an algorithmic model is produced at the intersection of cultural, technological and social needs. Indeed, as the deployments of the term outlined below indicate, algorithm and computation here function as metaphors and bear the weight of the desire to articulate a still nascent practice within an emerging social sphere.Algorithms are closely tied to generative art practices in that generative art sets up parameters and then allows for the unfolding that ensues. Philip Galanter defines generative art as any practice in which ‘the artist creates a process, such as a set of natural language rules, a computer program, a machine, or other procedural invention, which is then set into motion with some degree of autonomy contributing to or resulting in a completed work of art’ (Gallanter, 2006). Marius Watz adds a distinction between generative processes that are deterministic and those that are more open:

A central aspect to the generative approach is the use of an externalized system, created by the artist but rarely completely under her control. Standard software tools are deterministic systems that always produce the same results, while generative systems are dynamic processes that must be harnessed and even farmed. The artist specifies the initial boundaries and strategies of creation, and then enters into a feedback loop of adjusting parameters in a search for optimal regions in parameter space. The moment of genuine surprise is often the moment of breakthrough (Watz, 2006).

Finally, pushing a bit further, Inke Arns suggests that we not look merely at the results of a generative process, but instead at the software itself. In ‘Code as Performative Speech Act,’ Arns writes,

Software art does not regard software merely as a pragmatic, invisible tool generating certain visible results or surfaces, but on the contrary focuses on the program code itself – even if this code is not explicitly being laid open or put in the foreground. According to Florian Cramer, software art makes visible the aesthetic and political subtexts of seemingly neutral technical commands (Arns, 2002).

What we can take from the artworld’s interest in generative and software-based practices is the desire to set something into motion, to relinquish some amount of control, and to reference directly the functionality and parameters of the tools – in this case software – that produce the conditions for the experience.

Algorithms have also recently inspired designers. In her graduate thesis titled, ‘Allegorithm,’ graphic designer Juliette Cezzar, for example, defines an algorithm as a ‘pre-programmed procedure for an expected or unexpected result,’ adding that it is also an attitude, technique, perception and procedure (Cezzar, 2002). For Cezzar, algorithms are constitutive of decidedly non-computational practices, such as baseball games, the methodology of scientists and the essay structure deployed by journalists. In all of these cases, an algorithm functions by allowing its users to follow a set of predetermined rules toward expected results. However, the more interesting direction of algorithms is toward unexpected results, as conditions are set in place that generate unanticipated outcomes.

McKenzie Wark addresses the idea of the algorithm in his book, GAM3R 7H3ORY, which looks at gaming as a series of allegories for daily life. [6] In his discussion of allegories and algorithms, Wark defines an algorithm as ‘a finite set of instructions for accomplishing some task, which transforms an initial starting condition into a recognizable end condition’ (Wark, section 31). He also notes that ‘what is distinctive about games is that they produce for the gamer an intuitive relation to the algorithm’ (Wark, section 30). He continues:

If the novel, cinema or television can reveal through their particulars an allegory of the world that makes them possible, the game reveals something else entirely. For the reader, the novel produces allegory as something textual. The world of possibility is the world of the linguistic sign. For the viewer, the screen allegory is something luminous. The world of possibility is the world of mechanical reproducibility. For the gamer, the game produces allegory as something algorithmic. The world of possibility is the world internal to the algorithm. So: a passage from the topic to the topographic, mediated by the novel; a passage from the topographic to the topological, mediated by television; a passage, mediated by the game, from the topological to as yet unknown geographies, a point where the gamer seems to be stuck (Wark, section 59).

Gaming, then, is a point on one vector of transformation, from the novel to the screen to the immersive world of the game, and from the textual sign to the world of mechanical reproducibility on to the world internal to the algorithm. Gaming takes us inside the algorithm, producing for the gamer ‘an intuitive relation’ to that unfolding that is the algorithm. Rather than an allegory, the gamer experiences the putting into play of a set of elements determined in part by code.

Finally, in the preface to his book Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, Alexander Galloway defines an algorithm simply as ‘a machine for the motion of parts’ (Galloway, 2006: xi). He goes on to describe video games as an essentially active medium, by which he means a medium ‘whose very materiality moves and restructures itself’ (Galloway, 2006: 3). Galloway’s book is an often eloquent examination of video games as a cultural form, but for my purposes, his text, alongside the others noted above, offers a useful vocabulary for a set of computer-based actions that contribute to a new model for the sort of pedagogical practice I am trying to articulate, one similarly grounded on algorithmic unfolding and machinic processes. Following this lead, we should consider relinquishing pedagogical models based on representation, narrative and discourse and move toward an information-based model, one in which cultural objects are technologies and the reader/viewer becomes a user or player.

However, we can only undertake this consideration with the following recognition: as Florian Cramer points out so well in ‘Words Made Flesh: Code, Culture, Imagination,’ algorithms not only date back well before computers, but they also play a part within a cultural imaginary. He writes,

With its seeming opacity and the boundless, viral multiplication of its output in the execution, algorithmic code opens up a vast potential for cultural imagination, phantasms and phantasmagorias. The word made flesh, writing taking up a life of its own by self-execution, has been a utopia and dystopia in religion, metaphysics, art and technology alike (Cramer, 2005).

Algorithms promise almost magical possibilities and the fulfillment of utopian transformation, and their deployment here, as metaphor and model, is with the recognition of their function within a larger cultural imaginary.

Comparing Pedagogical Models

Models of pedagogy are complex, and include, for example, the broad articulation of pedagogy by writers such as Paolo Friere who, in his 1970 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, argued for replacing a ‘banking’ model wherein an instructor makes scholarly deposits into the student with a model grounded in praxis, dialogue and attention to the contextual politics of any given pedagogical situation (Friere, 1970: 198). Henry Giroux, another theorist of pedagogy, argues for an analysis of ‘the meaning of knowledge, classroom social relationships, and the political and cultural nature of schooling’ (Giroux, 1988: 24). This essay cannot accommodate a full explication of the field of pedagogical theory; instead, I want to examine some of the much more basic components of teaching practices in colleges and universities, and ask how an almost whimsical rethinking might point us toward a computational pedagogy. Below, six small incursions into pedagogical practices and models toward the hope of creating a computational or algorithmic pedagogy:

Select and Combine: Using the Database Instead of Narrative

In many liberal arts classes, the 16-week semester (or 10-week quarter) is arranged linearly as a narrative that begins with a set of questions and concludes with a set of answers, however provisional. The class often includes an arc that resembles that of a narrative, as issues and conflicts reach a climax, then conclude with some sense of resolution. Obviously this is a sweeping description of classroom models, but it fits many courses that strive to address a theme via a series of questions. A narrative model, however, embodies an outdated epistemology and speaks to an older generation. Indeed, if, as Fredric Jameson claims, narrative is the fundamental cultural model for the 20th century, networks and participatory culture define our current moment, bringing with them a different set of themes, structures, practices and ideological constraints. In place of the narrative model, we might imagine the content of our courses as a database that is open to multiple points of entry and innumerable patterns of selection and combination that are realized most fruitfully through a kind of collaborative remixing by student and professor. In this way, the process of learning aligns with the activities of processing and play, such that the course itself becomes ‘a machine for the motion of parts.’ Within this machine, the instructor serves as both designer and player, setting initial rules and expectations in place, but recognizing the need for improvisation as an enacting of possibilities unfolds.

From Stasis to Process: Allowing for Unexpected Outcomes

The algorithmic model dares us to relinquish the vaunted ‘learning objectives’ dutifully listed on our syllabi in favor of unexpected outcomes. Once set in motion, the course opens up to unforeseen arrangements and convergences of student interest, needs and abilities. As we forego the specificity of the learning objectives, we might gain ground in the larger project of teaching students how to learn, moving beyond the acquisition of information to an enhancement of the ability to learn. As learning objectives themselves become decentered, traditional approaches to evaluating student work must be rethought. One clear implication is the emphasis of process over product in student learning and a model of pedagogy that takes account of different learning styles and a range of possible goals and priorities that may vary from student to student.

Toward Distributed Authority

Another traditional pedagogical model places the instructor in the position of expert delivering knowledge to learners in an institutional structure that frequently remains transparent to students. Known generally as ‘direct instruction,’ this model, too, is outdated in many classroom contexts, and does not align with the broader array of social practices of students, who know that the role of expert is contextual. Further, in technology-based classrooms, students often arrive with more expertise in certain areas than their instructors. An algorithmic pedagogy would examine the structure of the class itself, looking at the specific arrangement of institutional power alongside the expectations of participants. Obviously, instructors do bring fundamentally significant contributions to the classroom, as well as a degree of institutional power that, despite gestures toward divestiture, always remains in place. [7] That said, however, how might one experiment with the deployment of expertise using a network as metaphor? Going further, how might we include networked experience in conjunction with class-based experience? How might we find ways to mobilize a user-oriented, participatory pedagogy in which students cycle fluidly through the roles of teacher, learner and synthesizer?

Soft Media Objects

In a 2006 presentation at Hyperwerk in Basel, Marius Watz noted that ‘things change when they become digital. A digital video is no longer a tape. It is suddenly a soft media object…’ (Watz, 2006). Soft media objects are those that are eminently mutable; situated in a vast online database of traded media, they become the fodder for tactical reuse as they are read, used and redeployed in sometimes eloquent ways akin in spirit to the critical analyses we favor as instructors. As we incorporate this media into the classroom, the modernist emphasis on medium specificity gives way to awareness of the function and context of any media object. The result is a transformation of ‘finished’ art works, texts and media objects into raw materials that are ripe for reinterpretation and recontextualization. A student’s coursework is thus inscribed in a process of knowledge production and transformation that continues beyond an individual class and may ideally be conceived as having relevance beyond the university.

Code Literacy: Understanding Dynamic Reading and Writing

Another traditional component of university teaching relies on reading and writing as central practices for gauging student learning. However, more and more what students need is the ability to read and write dynamically. The information around us moves and changes faster than ever, with much of that information existing not in stasis but in a constant state of flux, with ever changing relationships to other data. How can we understand writing and communication when we are dealing with dynamic information? In his graduate thesis, Ben Fry, who with Casey Reas developed the open source programming language known as Processing, asks, ‘What does the world economy look like? How can the continuously changing structure of the Internet be represented? It’s nearly impossible to approach these questions because few techniques exist for visualizing dynamic information’ (Fry, 2003: 13). Processing allows designers who are non-programmers to play with code and begin to understand how to read and write dynamically, and this ability is one needed not only by designers but our culture at large. The ability to engage directly with code, even on a fundamental level, allows for new forms of reading and writing that transform conceptions and definitions of literacy. [8]

Toward Virtual Education: A Process of Invention

A computational or algorithmic pedagogy points to a form of virtual education, with ‘virtual’ in this case being understood in the sense articulated by Gilles Deleuze who defines the term across several years and texts. [9] For Deleuze, the virtual and real are not opposed, nor does the virtual correspond with the possible; rather, the virtual is that which generates a thing’s actuality. In replacing the possible-real binary with virtual-actual, Deleuze posits a form of becoming that is not algorithmic in the sense of producing expected and predetermined outcomes but instead in generating the unexpected, and a sense of the ‘impossible.’ In a review of Keith Ansell-Pearson’s Philosophy and the Adventure of the Virtual: Bergson and the Time of Life, Daniel W. Smith writes that for Deleuze, ‘the “rules” of virtuality are no longer resemblance and limitation, but difference and divergence. The virtual is itself entirely differentiated; and in actualizing itself, it does not proceed by limitation or exclusion but rather must create its own lines of actualization in positive acts that require “a process of invention” (72)’ (Smith, 2002). The virtual classroom, then, is a space for the actualization of emerging desires, and an algorithmic pedagogy would enact this process of invention.


The model of algorithmic pedagogy proposed here is admittedly provisional, but not entirely metaphoric. As with attempts to understand the functioning of complex systems, algorithmic pedagogy knits together ideas across divergent territories of disciplinary thought and practice. It is no accident that the vocabulary and epistemological framework that enables this argument derives from computers and digital culture. Indeed, the work of university faculty is rapidly coming to resemble that of systems engineers, architects and designers, as opposed to mere experts. And while this article has focused on the implications of algorithms (and algorithmic thinking) for teaching and learning, an equally profound impact may be seen on the evolution of other realms of scholarly practice, particularly research and academic publication. As the whole of academia slouches grudgingly into the digital age, it may well be time to reexamine an even broader range of conventions, standards and expectations across the academic spectrum.

Author's Biography

Holly Willis is a Research Assistant Professor in the School of Cinematic Arts, as well as Director of Academic Programs at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Multimedia Literacy, where she teaches, organizes workshops and oversees academic programs designed to introduce new media literacy skills across USC’s campus and curriculum. Willis’ current research centers on the intersection of media art, graphic design and rhetoric, and the ways ideas and formal strategies from each might inform contemporary scholarly practices.

[1] See 'Writing Across Distances and Disciplines: Research and Pedagogy' in Distributed Learning, Joyce Neff and Carl Whithaus, eds., (Mahway, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2007). [back]

[2] See Scholz’s site, at See the Distributed Learning Project here: [back]

[3] Michael Wesch, The Machine Is Us/ing Us. [back]

[4] For example, see The University in Ruins, in which author Bill Readings writes, ‘The University is becoming a transnational bureaucratic corporation, either tied to transnational instances of government such as the European Union or functioning independently, by analogy with a transnational corporation.’ The University in Ruins (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997). [back]

[5] Free accounts for Second Life are available through the Second Life Web site:
Information regarding the educational uses of Second Life is available through the Second Life Educators’ List: [back]

[6] Rather than chronicling the deleterious features of gaming, Wark instead considers game space as a kind of utopia, and his writing practice for the project embodies some of the ideas outlined in his text. Rather than composing the book as a linear argument in traditional academic form, for example, Wark instead wrote the book in a very modular way, with a set of rules that dictate the form, in a sense adopting an algorithm for his writing practice. Each of the book’s nine chapters contains 25 paragraphs, and each paragraph contains 250 words and is placed on what looks like a filing card. Each chapter has its own color, and the cards appear in stacks. Readers are invited to comment on each card, and the comments appear alongside the text. As a result, readers can opt to read the book as a book, moving through the stacks of cards in order, or as an evolving conversation linked to particular sections of the book. [back]

[7] See Integrating Hypertextual Subjects: Computers, Composition, and Academic Labor, by Robert Samuels (Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press, 2006) for an eloquent and much-needed analysis of the institutional uses of “learner-centered pedagogy” and the deployment of technology-driven classrooms as a means to casualize academic labor. [back]

[8] The fellowship process and close collaboration between scholars and designers in the creation of projects for the University of Southern California’s online scholarly journal, Vectors: A Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular, offers evidence of this transformation. Selected contributors are invited to USC for a week-long residency during which they are introduced to the journal, the collaborative process and examples of multimedia scholarship; they are also introduced to the journal’s database infrastructure and invited to imagine their work in relationship to a database. The second half of the week includes the intensive workshopping of each project in small working groups. Part of the ongoing project for the Vectors designers has been to imagine new ways to illustrate relationships among the chunks of data entered into the database. Each project in Vectors includes a back-end, where data is entered, and the interface, where the user encounters the designed depiction of that data. More recently, however, Vectors designers have been experimenting with ways to visualize the layer between the database and the interface, a way, in short, to read the XML. The result is the use of an XML browser that dynamically generates a visualization illustrating the relationships among words, ideas, themes and so on within any given text. Seeing one’s research suddenly take shape in this way is nothing short of transformative for participating scholars. [back]

[9] Phillip Roe develops the notion of the virtual in relationship to new media education in an essay titled ‘That-which-new-media studies-will-become’ in Fibreculture Journal, Issue 2, 2003. [back]

Arns, Inke. ‘Code as Performative Speech Act,’ lecture at the Read_Me conference, Aarhus/DK, August, 2004. Download:

Benkler, Yochai. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), or online:

Cezzar, Juliette. ‘Allegorithm,’ Yale University School of Art thesis, 2002. Download:

Cramer, Florian. ‘Words Made Flesh: Code, Culture, Imagination,’ Piet Zwart Institute, 2005. Download:

Freire, Paolo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 1970).

Fry, Ben. Organic Information Design, Master’s Thesis, MIT Media Lab, 2003. Download:

Galanter, Philip. ‘Generative Art and Rules-Based Art,’ vague_terrain 03, June 2006.

Galloway, Alex. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).

Giroux, Henry. Teachers as Intellectuals: Toward a Critical Pedagogy of Learning (Westport. Connecticut: Bergin & Garvey, 1988).

Goldfarb, Brian. Visual Pedagogy: Media Cultures in and Beyond the Classroom (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2002).

Jenkins, Henry. ‘Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century,’ The MacArthur Foundation, 2006. Download:

Hocks, Mary. ‘Understanding Visual Rhetoric in Digital Writing Environments,’ CCC, 54.4, 2003, 630-631. Download:

Kress, Gunther. Literacy in the New Media Age (New York: Routledge, 2003).

New Media Consortium and EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative. 2007 Horizon Report.

Prensky, Marc. ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,’ On the Horizon, NCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5, October 2001, 1.

Smith, Daniel W. ‘Review of Philosophy and the Adventure of the Virtual: Bergson and the Time of Life,’ Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, 2002.07.14.

Thomas, Douglas and John Seely Brown. ‘The Play of Imagination: Extending the Literary Mind,’ Games and Culture, 2007; 2; 149. Download:

U.S. Department of Education, Getting America’s Students Ready for the 21st Century: Meeting the Technology Literacy Challenge, Report to the Nation on Technology and Education (Washington, D.C.: GPO. June 1996).

Wark, McKenzie. GAM3R 7H3ORY, Version 1.1, 2006.

Watz, Marius. ‘Fragments on Generative Art,’ vague_terrain 03, June 2006.

Watz. ‘It’s All About the Software, Baby,’ presentation at Hyperwerk, Basel, Switzerland, 2006. Download PowerPoint slides:

Wysocki, Anne and Johndan Johnson-Eilola. ‘Blinded by the Letter: Why Are We Using Literacy as a Metaphor for Everything Else?’ in Passions, Pedagogies and 21st Century Technologies, Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia L. Selfe, eds. (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1999).

above copied from:

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Contact Aesthetics and Digital Arts: At the Threshold of the Earth, Warwick Mules

Central Queensland University, Australia

‘Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and immovable’.
Baudelaire, ‘The Painter of Modern Life’, 1863.


Modern aesthetics has always been concerned with the human senses in apprehension of art objects.[1] In modern aesthetic experience something is discovered, perhaps an inner sense of harmony or proportion, or some essential function of the human mind in relation to the sensory experience itself. But, in a paradoxical way, modern aesthetics denies sensory experience as foundational for human creativity, setting up a distance between inner reflection and outward sensory perception whereby an art object might be judged.[2] The senses are treated as suspect, misleading humans away from truth and into error. As Hans Robert Jauss has argued with respect to the emergence of aesthetics in early European modernity, aesthetic experience is:

a new kind of seeing which functions as discovery. From the point of view of religious authority, aesthetic experience is always and necessarily suspect of refractoriness: where it is employed to bring to mind a suprasensible significance, it also perfects the sensuous appearance and creates the pleasure of a fulfilled present. (Jauss, 1982: 4)

Thus modern aesthetics has always treated the senses merely as a starting point for reflection on the beautiful, the true and the good, but never as aesthesis, as the stuff of aesthetic experience itself.

Alan Singer points out that in the British philosophical tradition, aesthetics has lost its initial meaning of aesthesis, as sense ‘immanent to formal or perceptual complexity’ first proposed by Baumgarten in the eighteenth century (Singer, 2003: 14). Instead aesthetics has become concerned with the response to art objects in terms of ‘the aesthetic subject’ (15). Aesthetics has thus steered a course away from the creative exploration of the senses, and towards the rational formation of subjective aesthetic states. It is clear then, that philosophy and critical theory have driven a wedge between themselves and the art forms and practices to which they are addressed. To become more fully engaged, critical theory needs to re-address art works in terms of aesthesis: as immanent sense.

Aesthetics denies the senses by way of a “metaphysics of presence” in which human subjectivity is elevated into ‘suprasensible significance’ (Jauss, 1982: 4) through contemplation of art objects, or indeed, through contemplation of the world as if it were an art object. In this case, aesthetics retains an interest in the intrinsic beauty of the art object as an idealised appearance made present to a perceptive viewer. The senses are subjected to a conditioning process that makes them sensitive to form and to the intrinsic merit of harmony and proportion within the closure of the art object. In other words, aesthetics depends on a model in which sensory experience is reduced to that of a subject in relation to a privileged object, thereby setting up procedures whereby this relationship might be governed and maintained in the interests of producing appropriately disciplined aesthetic responses.[3]

In recent times, however, modern aesthetics as the contemplation of art objects has given way to an identification of aesthetic affects distributed through all forms of technical objects and experiences. For instance, Jacques Rancière proposes an aesthetics of distributed sense connected to the ‘mode of being’ of the art object (Rancière 2004: 22). Here aesthetics has shifted from a reflection on the subjective experience of humans to an objectification of experience in the art objects themselves as part of a distribution of sense within capitalist modes of production and consumption. Simon O’Sullivan, following Deleuze and Guattari, has proposed a machinic concept of aesthetics as ‘aesthetic effect’[4]: ‘here we begin to modify the notion of the aesthetic, to pull away from the metaphysics of presence, away from a transcendental horizon, towards a field of immanence’ (O’Sullivan, 2006: 22).[5] The subject no longer transcends experience in contemplative self-reflection but is formed in the immanence of sense.[6] In this case, aesthetics is not based on a conjunction of the senses in some preordained subject responding to the art object, but quite the reverse, on a break with subjectivity, and a release of the senses into experience itself considered as an immanent sensory field. Here we need to think of aesthetics in terms of experiential disjuncture: as the openness of aesthesis to an immanent field of sense.

A new found interest in aesthetics as disjuncture can be found in the contemporary digital arts, reflecting on the capacity of computer generated art works to dislocate and relocate sensory experience within virtualised interactive environments.[7] For instance, digital art theorist Anna Munster proposes that there is something specific about digital art that warrants special aesthetic consideration in terms of what she calls approximate aesthetics (Munster, 2001). For Munster, digital art produces a sense of uncomfortable proximity in the viewer by ‘creating zones through which the organic and the machinic become approximate to each other’ (Munster, 2001). Munster uses the work of British artist Graham Harwood as an example. Harwood’s ‘Uncomfortable Proximity’ is an internet site parasitic on the Tate Gallery’s official website, which exhibits ‘mongrel’ images of British art masterpieces mixed with his own and his family’s images as well as waste matter drawn from the local Thames River by which the gallery is situated. The aim is to deconstruct the authority of the canonical art work by making it come in contact with the ‘lost materialities’ of its immediate surroundings (Munster, 2001) . The image is thus opened to its affective history as a situated artefact within a localised environment that includes non-artistic elements and aspects that would otherwise be excluded in official commentaries and critiques. Munster identifies in Harwood’s artwork a mode of operating with digital images that shows how the disjunctive connection between the organic and the technological can be appropriated and reworked in terms of an ethics of historical repossession. Carefully avoiding the modernist imperative to identify an aesthetic principle in the medium itself, Munster proposes that the digital introduces a ‘particular kind of mediation…[that effects] the emergence of a spatiality and duration in which relative speeds and differential relations are foregrounded in embodied experience’ (Munster, 2001) . We might say that Harwood’s digital art involves a knowing entanglement in the material milieu in which it is embedded.[8] Rejecting an aesthetics based on the transcendence of the subject to experience, Munster proposes instead an aesthetics of disjuncture where the experiencing body becomes part of a digital aesthesis: an immanence of sense in relation to its own mediated becoming.

Munster’s identification of disjuncture within digital arts indicates a key aesthetic affect within contemporary art and culture, and resonates with Simon O’Sullivan’s recent call for ethico-aesthetics as ‘the organization of productive encounters “through” art’ (O’Sullivan, 2006: 42). Her idea of approximate aesthetics leads away from the contemplation of fixed art objects and towards a critical reflection on the material practices and processes of computer based art as aesthesis, or embodied sense. However, Munster’s proposal has some limitations. Disjuncture within digital technology should be understood not simply in terms of the specific technology in which it takes place, but in terms of technological mediation more generally, where what is at stake is the presence of one body to another. Although Munster’s argument situates aesthetics in aesthesis, it nevertheless confines aesthesis to the experience of digital art, and ultimately to some special capacity of computer based experience to produce sensory disjuncture. Insofar as digital art concerns embodied experience, then it necessarily becomes an extension of modern forms of technological mediation, as the mediation of presence through images.

Mediation does not resolve disjuncture into a seamless, homogeneous experience of full presence; rather it produces false or pseudo-presence in the form of images spread through communicative fields in which bodies come into mediate contact with one another in an ongoing proliferation of sense.[9] An aesthetics of disjuncture should thus begin not with the localised affects of disjuncture within specific technologies, but with a critique of the metaphysics of presence embedded in mediated image environments. To do this I will draw on Kant’s scheme for a sublime aesthetics outlined in the Critique of Judgement.


In this section I examine Kant’s sublime aesthetics as a site for the exploration of sensory openness within technologically mediated environments.[10] My aim is to show how the sublime can be understood as harbouring sense as aesthesis, or openness. Sense returns aesthetics to experience, not in terms of the experiencing subject, but as the potential for a subject to “be” within mediated yet opened environments.

In part 1 of the Critique of Judgement, Kant identifies two kinds of aesthetic judgement: first as a reflection on the beautiful, and second as a response to the sublime, or the experience of a subject when faced with formlessness, or the immensity of a power beyond imagining (Kant, 1952: 90-91).[11] The first type of aesthetics is well-known to us today as a mode of judging well formed objects predicated on the disinterestedness of the one who judges. The second type of aesthetics, in which the subject consolidates itself in the face of its imminent dissolution in experience, is also well known. It’s worth recalling what Kant has to say about this experience. Kant writes of someone wandering into St. Peters in Rome, overwhelmed by its immensity. The visitor is beset by a certain feeling:

a feeling comes home to [the spectator] of the inadequacy of his imagination for presentation of the idea of a whole within which that imagination attains its maximum, and its fruitless efforts to extend this limits, recoils upon itself. (Kant, 1952: 100; emphasis added)

Faced with the ‘formlessness’ of what confronts her, the visitor’s imagination ‘recoils upon itself’, leading to a negative pleasure in self-realisation. Through confrontation with formlessness, the mind feels itself empowered to contemplate the ‘absolutely great’ by making it reach the limits of its own powers of reason (94).[12]

Kant’s sublime is predicated on the priority of the subject already in place and readied for experience. Experience simply becomes that which the mind transcends as it recoils back on itself in pursuit of rational coherence.[13] But this leads us into a predicament. As Jean-François Lyotard has demonstrated, in Kant’s argument sense is simultaneously inherent in, yet extraneous to reason (Lyotard, 1994: 8).[14] Sense exceeds and overflows the rational formation of subjectivity while being necessary for its inner coherence (its capacity to orient itself within the intuited world of space and time). Sense is the immanence that makes rational thought and subjective experience meaningful, but which cannot be resolved to that thought or that experience alone. Consequently, we can say that the sublime contains the possibility of a further aesthetics in which sense is taken to be immanent – as openness to experience itself. In this case, formlessness, far from being something from which the mind recoils, becomes the potential site for an exploration of what a subject might be. The formation of the subject is not in an act of self-transcendence, but all in the doing and making within the terrain of sense understood as immanence, or the perpetually open terrain of the informe as the yet-to-come.[15] Here, sense ceases to be the preliminary feeling left behind in the mind’s transcendent contemplation of the absolute, and instead becomes aesthesis or the gathering of the senses in contact with the absolute as an open-whole (i.e. the immanence of sense to itself within an open field). Later in this article, I will identify aesthesis as contact with earth: the incessant re-materialisation of signification within technologically entangled milieu.

How is it possible, then, to describe sense without a subject? In Kant’s terms sense (‘feelings’) are always for a subject, inevitably associated with subjective or inner experience. However sense is also prior to the formation of the subject: a necessary condition for subjective experience but one which exceeds any limit that subjective experience might want to place on it (hence Kant’s construal of the sublime as “formlessness” – unassimilable experience). Sense without a subject is the body in its immanent relation with the world.[16] The body, as Jean-Luc Nancy explains, ‘is the absolute of sense’ (Nancy, 1993c: 204); a reserve of virtual material outside any interiority that the body might be said to have. In Merleau-Ponty’s terms sense is ‘flesh’, or the exteriorising of the body in its radical openness to the world reduced to pure phenomena (Merleau-Ponty, 1968: 127ff.).[17]

The body-as-sense is not closed in on itself in its own self-reflection, but always outside itself the moment thought tries to capture it within the scope of a definition or system. In their immanent relation with the world, bodies no longer retain an inner integrity, but “dissolve” into ecstatic sensory flows interconnected to other flows within complex environments of sensory experience. Considered in this way, aesthetic experience is neither the contemplation of the formal properties of the art object nor the mind’s recoil from formlessness, but an overflowing of sense within the experience itself. An aesthetics based on immanence invokes the opening of sense to experience as an open-whole, as a potential to make new sensory connections and modes of embodiment through experimentation and creativity. The problem posed for a critical aesthetics, then is not one of unity (how does the body remain unified) but one of contact: how does a body touch?[18] To account for this problem, one cannot appeal to a subject. One cannot think from the point of view of subjective experience because the subject has not yet formed. One must try to think of a pre-subjective, singular existence: a singularity formed at the very edge of the body’s contact with the world.

The Unary Body

In this section, I develop the idea of contact aesthetics through a critical reading of new media theorist Mark Hansen’s proposal for embodiment as the site of creativity in digital media environments (Hansen, 2004). My aim here is to show how an appeal to individuated embodied experience is insufficient for a critical engagement with new media arts and mediated environments more generally, because it presupposes the very thing that it sets out to establish: the internal coherence of the experiencing body. Rather, as I have indicated in the previous section, a critical aesthetics needs to begin not with the presumption of the internal coherence of the experiencing body, but with sense as the body’s immanence in relation to the world.

In New Philosophy for New Media, Mark Hansen calls for an aesthetics of new media that has as its aim ‘the redemption of embodied experience: a renewed investment in the body as a kind of converter of the general form of framing into a rich, singular experience’ (Hansen, 2004: 3).[19] At the heart of Hansen’s project is a re-theorising of the interface between the human body and the digitised image, inspired by recent works of digital art. In a key chapter of the book, Hansen analyses what he terms the ‘digital-facial image’ (DFI) or the digitally produced avatar of a human face capable of interacting with a living human being (127-159). We are all familiar with this. A face appears on a screen. The viewer-participant speaks to it. It speaks back. It may even alter its facial expression in what seems to be a direct reaction to the viewer-participant’s presence.

Unlike close-up faces seen in film, the digital-facial image has the capacity to engage with its human interlocutor in demand for contact which is urgent: ‘what becomes urgent in these cases is the forging of contact’ (137). Hansen describes a number of his own engagements with a digital-facial image, and one in particular, a computer art work entitled Dream of Beauty 2.0 by Kirsten Geisler – an image of a young female face which seems to flirt with him as he attempts to make contact. However, no matter how much he tries, the face remains distant and aloof. Hanson cannot make contact. He only experiences a sense of thwarted desire:

The bizarre feeling of inefficacy and irrelevance with which this interaction left me…attests to the affective intensity of the DFI. The longer the interaction endured, the more I was confronted with the self-sufficiency of this image; and the more I experienced my own failure to make any real contact with it, the more intense the experience became, until a point when I simply could take it no longer. (142-143)

In an echo of the Kantian sublime, Hansen is overwhelmed by the encounter, forced back on himself, even to the point where he can ‘take it no longer’. But far from dissolving his subjectivity, the experience for Hansen provides a ‘rich source for the production of new individuations beyond our contracted perceptual habits’ (143). In other words, a bodily negation produces a kind of self-individuation, which, ‘carried over to the domain of the aesthetic…opens a recursive interaction between body and artwork: by actualising the virtual dimensions of the artwork, the viewer-participant simultaneously triggers a virtualisation of her body, an opening onto her own “virtual dimension”’ (144).

Threaded throughout Hansen’s discussion is a dialogue with the philosopher Gilles Deleuze. For Hansen, Deleuze’s theory of virtuality leads to ‘a liberation of affect from the body’ (134), whereas what he seeks is something else: a virtualisation of the body ‘that reveals the origin of all affectivity in embodied life’ (136). In Deleuze’s terms, affect is independent of any particular body that might contain it, whereas for Hansen, affect is a creation of what might be called the unary body, that is, a body that touches itself first before it can touch anything else.[20] Hansen thus reverses Deleuze’s account of affect by retaining the priority of the unified body as the site of an originary activity: self-affection as the source of meaning.[21]

The problem with Hansen’s approach to aesthetics is that it cannot get around the subject/object relation implied through the invocation of a unary body confronted by the face of an other. The unary body can only react through negation, thereby affirming its autonomy in terms of auto-affection. This is a problem because it presupposes the coherence of embodied experience, thereby short-circuiting critical discussion of the body’s engagement with the external world in favour of what Munster, in another context, has described as the ‘sediment[ed]…power of a coherent self’ (Munster, 2000: 9/15). This problem is manifest throughout Hansen’s book. It leads him to argue that the body creates its own images through an internal process of enframing (Hansen, 2004: 11) – a short step from affirming the cogito as the true site of image formation thereby invoking the mind/body split and the presumption of a universal order of reason as the ultimate arbiter of sensory experience. Indeed, the cogito makes its appearance later in Hansen’s book in terms of neurobiologist Francisco Varela’s Husserlian theory of time consciousness in which embodied experience is replaced by the neural-perceptual dimensions of consciousness as an internalised self-affective mechanism (248-254).[22] Nor is the problem solved through any intrinsic characteristic of digital technology. There is no special quality of the digital-facial image that circumvents the representational logic of subject/object formation.[23] Rather, if anything, it binds the body more closely to the parameters of technologically mediated encounters, subjecting it to an increasingly complex set of abstracted sensory experiences that intertwine ever more illusively with the real.

What is needed, then, is a way of understanding embodied experience, not as a function of the unary body closed in on itself, but as embodiment in general: as the embodying of the world through mediation. In this case, the unary body does not disappear. Rather it is produced, not in terms of its own auto-affection, but as an effect of the encounter; a false unity that dissolves on contact with the outside.[24] Here, the encounter needs to be understood as an eventuating; as a way of proliferating embodied experience in general. Events are not closed circuits of calculated rationality for already constituted bodies, but experiences opened out to the world. Events always contain within them elements of surprise. The surprise of the event is its eventuality, or that which ‘brings contingency, unpredictability, and chance into the world’ (Dastur, 2000: 179). Events plunge bodies into life and its finitude in death. They make the body come in contact with an absolute limit, a real-world immanence of its own potential to “be”. In Hansen’s terms events are closed off by the circumspection of embodied being, whereas, what is needed is to open them out to an entanglement in being-in-general. In the rest of this article, I examine the possibility of accessing mediated events, not in terms of how they contribute to embodied being, but as technological gestures entangled in temporal becoming and fading away; to their “eventuating” as technologically mediated experience.


To invoke experience without a subject is to invoke the absolute: the whole being of which any given experience is part.[25] All at once, at this time, on this occasion and no other – as singular experience.[26] In Kant’s Critique of Judgement, the absolute is experienced as a sense of the sublime; an overwhelming feeling of “too much” when faced with the formlessness of immense experience. Kant offers the sublime as a way of showing how the subject-in-formation is forced back on itself : ‘the imagination…recoils upon itself’ (Kant, 1952: 100) in a self-transcendence towards the universal. Experience is put in its place, assigned a rationality, in short – obliterated. Here we see the beginnings of a long line of thought that denies singular experience in favour of subjectivity as the foundation of life. Life is reduced to self-consciousness or emotional innerness, as if it existed independently of the outside environment in which it is immersed.

What then is the absolute of experience in terms of life itself, in its singular being? One must begin from experience itself and work out from that, from the contingent, singular occurrence of an event: an eventuating that makes something happen in just the way that it does and no more. One must begin from a moment of divergence, when something goes another way, when a thing or body moves away from itself. The philosopher Jean-François Lyotard provides a way of thinking through this problem:

To be, aesthetically, is to be-there, here and now, exposed in space-time, and to the space-time of something that touches before any concept or even any representation. This before is not known, obviously, because it is there before we are.…When the law comes to me, with the ego and language, it is too late. Things will have already taken a turn. And the turn of the law will not manage to efface the first turn, this first touch. (Lyotard, 1993: 179)

The body always has a first touch: an exposure to the world at the very moment it withdraws into itself as a unary being subject to the law of reason and discourse. In an illuminating article, Neil Curtis refers to Lyotard’s first touch in terms of aesthesis (Curtis, 1999: 254).[27] Aesthesis is the openness of the body to the outside, the gesture that makes contact with the world:

When I lie under the sky, my space is that which discourses of materiality and spatial organization delimit, this is the voluminous body. When I lie under the sky I do it at certain times dictated by discourses of work and leisure, and the amount of my skin exposed is determined by class, gender, history and ecology. The presentation of my body, how I lie there, to what extent and in what style it is clothed, are discursive practices. My body is completely inscribed and textualized – and yet my hand touches the grass and the sun touches my face. (260-61)

The touch of the hand on the grass, the touch of the sun on the face is the exposure of the body to world as an absolute outside, but an outside that is right at the surface of things.[28] The hand and the face are attached to the world first as surface affects, singular exposures to the world. An aesthetics based on a ‘first touch’ remains an attractive proposition for the kind of thing I am proposing in this article. It bypasses the subject/object relation by situating contact at the interface between the body and the world. It invokes sense as gesture: a primary factum in the constitution of experience. It should be enough for a contact aesthetics.

However, a problem persists. In its primacy, a first touch remains within an experience that it does not create. A milieu must first be there for contact to happen. I propose to define this milieu as the residual material of events that surge forth through time, as an experience of being earthed. The experience that Curtis describes is an experience of being earthed, that is, situated between the earth and the sky in such a way that the body senses a kind of involuntary freedom: ‘and yet my hand touches the grass’.[29] To be earthed in today’s telecommunication and computer graphic culture is to be bound to the unboundedness of materiality in its interconnection with the skies; to live life at the interface between the earth and the skies as an experience of the delayed/deferred effect of technologically mediated presence, as life lived elsewhere by being also here at this place at this time.[30] To be earthed is to be simultaneously unearthed by affects that come from somewhere else, from some other time. All experience is earthed in the sense that it is never free of an entanglement in technology and its power to produce falsity: the false sense of unary being, or the auto-affective body. In this case, the origin of affect is not in the body considered as a discrete unary form, but in the very potential for a body to “be” right at the interface between the earth and the sky; an interface mediated by technological presence. Contact aesthetics is situated at the site of this entanglement of residual technical material and potential being, as a point of disjuncture opening to the outside.[31]


We are now in a position to make some final comments on Anna Munster’s proposal for an approximate aesthetics. For Munster, approximate aesthetics is specific to digital art in its capacity to create ‘zones of proximity’ (11/15) in which different objects can be brought together to produce a disjunctive experience of bodily disturbance. This leads to ‘an aesthetics that connects to life as a process of composing/compositing the self’ (3/15). Munster’s argument relocates digital aesthetics away from a concern for experience as disembodiment and the abstractions of cyberspace, and places it directly into the specific locales of embodiment in which the art work makes contact with, and draws from, the experience of the world. But in so doing, she can no longer make any specific argument for digital art, since all art in modernity is, in one way or another, concerned with precisely the same thing.[32]

In their book entitled Formless: a User’s Guide, Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss have undertaken a revision of the modernist art project in order to ‘brush modernism against the grain’ (Bois and Krauss, 1997: 16). Employing Bataille’s notion of the informe (formlessness as movement or slippage) they undertake readings of various modernist art works in which they detect a zone of indeterminate materiality between the purely visible and the carnal that leads them to conclude that ‘the formless is an operation’ (18). By following the movement of the informe within the art works, a certain materiality is exposed, and along with it, an entirely new space is opened up for commentary and critical analysis. Bois and Krauss’s work suggests the presence of a will-to-art in modernity which counters technological abstraction by dissolving it into its material base. This is certainly the case in Graham Harwood’s digital art works on the Tate Gallery’s web site, discussed by Munster as an example of approximate aesthetics, in which canonical British works of art by Turner and others are intermixed with waste materials found on nearby sites. However, a case could also be made for Turner’s work itself to be considered as an example of this kind of aesthetics. Turner’s art works are in fact a response to the overly formal art of the Academy; he wanted to dissolve form, to make the art work materially present to the viewer.[33] Turner employed various novel techniques to create texture to his canvasses that made them stand out as visual experiences rather than formal views. My point here is that an aesthetics based on the proximity of disjunctive affects on the body cannot be isolated to any one medium or art form, but should be proposed in terms of a general will-to-art in modernity.

What I am calling for then, is an expansion of Munster’s approximate aesthetics into a general critique of embodied experience as technologically mediated presence. The disjuncture between the organic and the machinic in digital arts that leads to an uncanny sense of distant proximity is symptomatic of all forms of modern technological mediation in which presence is delivered in the mode of its absence – as mediated imagery. Contact aesthetics engages with the image-sites of technological mediation by exposing them to their own material base, thereby releasing sense in direct contact with the outside as aesthesis. The outside is not the formless exterior of an otherwise integrated sensory interiority, but an open field of immanence that is ‘right at’ sense. Aesthesis runs through bodies in their exposure to the outside as immanent sense. As aesthesis, sense becomes available as ‘material to work with’, to create new forms or objective modalities for conditions and situations that have not yet been experienced, that are yet to come.

Contact aesthetics is both a critical intervention into the closure of formal objects and a practice of making new objects for life that has not yet arrived. It is both creative and experimental in the sense that it brings new things into life by undoing and reconfiguring the material of already constituted objects and formal arrangements. The aim is to release singularity, to make it go elsewhere, or alternatively to show how, in the historical case, singularity exceeds and undoes the objects in which it dwells. Contact aesthetics is thus situated at the very heart of life itself, as a return to singular experience in contact with an outside still in the making; as the yet-to-come to be inhabited by a not-yet-ready subject (Mules, 2002).

Author's biography

Warwick Mules teaches and reads in cultural theory in the School of Arts and Creative Enterprise, Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Education at Central Queensland University. He is the co-author of Introducing Cultural and Media Studies: a semiotic approach, and is currently writing on contact aesthetics. Warwick can be contacted at w.mules at

[1] The modern term aesthetics derives from the eighteenth century art theorist Baumgarten’s employment of the Greek word aesthesis to denote ‘a sensible image of perfection’ (Caygill, 1995: 53). [back]

[2] Howard Caygill identifies a tendency in Western modernity to transform aesthesis (open sensible pleasure) into ascesis (rational closure) (Caygill, 2003: 99). [back]

[3] See Stolnitz (1961) for an account of aesthetic disinterestedness in the eighteenth century through the ideas of Shaftsbury other others. [back]

[4] In Deleuze and Guattari’s terms a machinic assemblage is ‘an intermingling of bodies reacting to one another’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 88). [back]

[5] The distinction between sense and affect needs some clarification at this point. Both concepts need to be understood by first subtracting the subject. Neither sense nor affect are “for” a subject, but both are the prerequisites for a subject to “be”. Sense is immanent orientation: the disposition of a body towards or away from something. To sense something is to feel its presence close at hand, to locate it as one body to another. Sense is the virtualisation of the body in an immanent sensory field. Affects are material intensities that move bodies but are themselves independent of the bodies that they move. Affect is free-floating sense, whereas sense is the body floating in an immanent field. But neither sense nor affect are free in any unconditioned sense. Rather, they always remain constrained by the assemblages and articulations through which power is expressed diagrammatically. Sense involves gesture and disposition, whereas affect involves capacity and tendency. [back]

[6] In his essay ‘Immanence: A Life’ Gilles Deleuze describes a transcendental field of pure immanence in which subjectivity is not transcendent but inchoate (Deleuze, 2001: 25-33). [back]

[7] Lev Manovich argues that new media art works have an ‘aesthetic dimension’ based on ‘a particular configuration of space, time, and surface articulated in the work; a particular sequence of the user’s activities over time in interacting with the work; a particular formal, material and phenomenological user experience’ (Manovich, 2001: 66). [back]

[8] A milieu is not the same as a context. A context provides a reason for the existence of any given element placed in it. Contexts are thus defined by causality and necessity. A milieu is a material rhizome made of global/local interconnections in which diverse elements exist side by side. The relation between elements in a milieu is affective, not causal. Milieux and contexts co-exist, the former as excessive to the latter. [back]

[9] The idea of mediation as immanent sense has been developed by Jean-Luc Nancy in his reading of Hegel’s concept of Aufhebung (Nancy, 2002: 50-51). Following Nancy, we might say that technological mediation entails the prior thought of mediation as immanent sense; as the ‘restlessness’ of being in its relation with otherness. [back]

[10] Problems with Kant’s concept of the sublime should not discount the seminal nature of his argument with respect to rationality and the formation of human subjectivity. Rather Kant’s concept needs to be taken as a starting point for a double critique: a critique of the critique of reason itself (deconstruction) and its relation to experience. As Iain Mackenzie has pointed out, the issue concerns the assumption by Kant of a certain unexamined correctness in the view that reason is always in harmony with itself and hence exempt from the very critique which Kant launches against the application of reason in the pursuit of knowledge of experienced phenomenon (Mackenzie, 2004: 16-19). The issue, then, is one of conducting an immanent critique of Kant’s own (problematic) critique, not to refute it, but to move through it in order to reveal a hitherto concealed plane of immanence (sense) in which reason operates but which resists reason’s transcendental gesture towards unity (31-33). Mackenzie identifies the work of Deleuze and Guattari in What is Philosophy?, as an exemplary critique of this kind; as an immanent critique of both Kantian and Cartesian reason (28-29). But the work of Lyotard, Derrida and more recently Jean-Luc Nancy can also be mentioned as immanent critique (deconstruction) of Kantian critique. [back]

[11] See Gasche (1991: xxv) for discussion of Kant’s two aesthetics. For Kant, aesthetics serves as a bridging device to analyse the disjunctures between the different faculties in the operation of reason (Deleuze, 1984: 50). [back]

[12] The absolutely great is ‘what is beyond all comparison’ (Kant, 1952: 94), which is not to be confused with something measurable but large. The absolute is a limit concept and not a quantity. In his essay ‘The Sublime Offering’, Jean-Luc Nancy calls this the ‘unlimited’ that is, that which limits limits yet is not itself a limit (Nancy, 1993a: 35). The absolute is always close at hand, yet far away in its close-at-handness; an openness engendered by “the infinity of a beginning” (35). The absolute is the thought of the open-whole. These ideas can be fruitfully compared with Walter Benjamin’s concept of aura: the technologically mediated experience of distance in proximity within the scope of the absolute as originary access (Ursprung). See my article ‘Creativity, Singularity and Techné’ (Mules, 2006) for further development of this theme. [back]

[13] In Kant’s terms the sublime is ‘a faculty of mind transcending every standard of sense’ (Kant, 1952: 98) and not the sensory experience itself. It is thus a recuperation of the coherence of the self-reflecting subject by rejecting outward sensory experience: ‘the sublime consists merely in the relation by which the sensible in the representation of nature is judged available for a possible supersensible use’ (133). Glossing Kant, Gilles Deleuze writes: ‘the faculty of feeling [i.e. sense] has no domain (neither phenomena nor things themselves); it does not express the conditions to which a kind of objects [sic] must be subject, but solely the subjective conditions for the exercise of the faculties” (Deleuze, 1984: 48). [back]

[14] Lyotard identifies ‘the “other feeling” hidden in sublime feeling’, (Lyotard, 1994: 232) a ‘dynamic synthesis’ of ‘heterogeneous elements’ placed in a ‘necessary unity’ (124). As heterogeneity, sense affirms experience through proliferation, as radical openness or exteriority without any inside. [back]

[15] The informe is Bataille’s concept. Bois and Krauss (1997) rework the informe as slippage within art technique, discussed in more detail later in this article. We might say then, that the informe is technical slippage: a kind of violent opening of closed, formal and technical systems. The informe as technical slippage replaces Kantian formlessness, as potential for new ways of being and doing. [back]

[16] Only bodies have worlds. A world is an environment in which a body exists. Worlds involve orientation, disposition, directionality, in short an entire geo-phenomenality. [back]

[17] Despite its exteriorising of sense, Merleau-Ponty’s concept of flesh is limited by an over-riding concern for the coherence of the body in self-touching, and thus remains committed to the transcendence of self-awareness (consciousness) to experience. [back]

[18] Jean-Luc Nancy proposes that touch is the sense of senses; touch ‘makes one sense what makes one sense (what it is to sense): the proximate of the distant, the approximation of the intimate….Touch forms one body with sensing, or it makes of the sensing faculties a body – it is but the corpus of the senses’ (Nancy, 1996: 17). [back]

[19] Hansen claims to be following the lead of Walter Benjamin in the ‘Work of Art’ essay on this point. But, a more careful reading of Benjamin’s arguments here and in other essays suggests that Benjamin is not concerned so much with a ‘redemption of embodied experience’ as Hansen puts it, but with a critical intervention in the thought of redemption as it relates to embodied experience, and hence an opening of embodied experience onto the yet-to-come. [back]

[20] The concept of a unary body has been suggested to me by Roland Barthes in his book Camera Lucida, where he writes of a ‘unary photograph’ characterised by its ‘power of cohesion’ (Barthes, 1993: 40-41). [back]

[21] In an early essay (‘Description of Woman’), Deleuze provides a phenomenological description of the confrontation between man and woman by reversing Sartre’s intersubjective model in which the woman is understood in terms of an other projected by the man’s desire (Deleuze, 2002). For Deleuze, the other is “first” in the sense that it has a pre-individual objective materiality at the very moment it can be thought as other, a materiality of its own (an ‘essence’ of woman). Hansen would thus be following Sartre’s line in construing the DFI in terms of woman as man’s other, instead of seeing man as a subtraction from the other that woman is. [back]

[22] Hubert Dreyfus has alerted us to the problems associated with thinking of encounters with computer generated events based on Husserlian notions of internalised self-consciousness (Dreyfus, 1998). Invoking Heidegger at the expense of Husserl, Dreyfus proposes that we think of the event in terms of ‘the shared world…which makes communication possible’ (283), the dwelling in the world of beings in their concernful relation with one another. [back]

[23] See Roe (2004) for a discussion of the way computer interface experience continues to be defined by representation and the logic of print media interaction. [back]

[24] In effect the body becomes an image or image event: an actualisation of virtual material in a singular occurrence of imaging. [back]

[25] The absolute is univocity or being-in-general expressed in finite being(s). In this article I refer to this kind of thinking in a range of writings including those of Deleuze, Jean-Luc Nancy and Walter Benjamin, as the ‘thought of the absolute’ (Nancy, 2002: 23). [back]

[26] Singular experience does not mean the experience of the individual or individual experience; rather it refers to experience bereft of subjectivity, in its existential connection to the outside at this or that point of contact. Singularity cannot be thought without its interconnectivity with plurality, in Nancy’s terms ‘being singular plural’ (Nancy, 2000). [back]

[27] Aesthesis is of course the general term for the body’s sensory orientation to the world in an originating sense. [back]

[28] For the concept of ‘right at’ (à même) see Nancy (2000: 10). [back]

[29] Jean-Luc Nancy proposes that freedom is precisely the gesture of a first touch that withdraws from the law (Nancy, 1993b: 30-31). In aesthesis, freedom is sensory openness. [back]

[30] For a more extensive elaboration of the concept of the earth, see Mules (2005). [back]

[31] Paul Carter’s programme of ‘material thinking’ comes to mind as an example of the kind of aesthetic practice I am thinking of here (Carter, 2004). [back]

[32] Simon O’Sullivan points out that the disjunctive aesthetic effect is not confined to new media art but can be found in any kind of art within modern settings (O’Sullivan, 2006: 47). [back]

[33] Turner’s art practice is discussed at length in Gage (1969). See Mules (2006: 78-79) for a discussion of Turner’s art in terms of singularity, techne and openness. [back]

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