Saturday, 14 November 2009

A Poetics of the Digital

What I would like to read is a poetics of the digital - a phenomenology of the electronic - reflections upon copper and silicon, aluminium and lithium - a treatise on the caress of digits and luminescent phosphors, rippling codes and fluctuating voltages. Something in the order of Gaston Bachelard’s book The Poetics of Space.

The Mexican poet and writer Octavio Paz has written similarly about how objects gain meaning and significance through use and familiarity.

“The pitcher of water or wine in the middle of the table is a point of convergence, a little sun that invites everyone present. But my wife can transform into a flower vase that pitcher pouring forth our drink at the table. Personal sensibility and imagination divert the object from its ordinary function and create a break in its meaning: it is no longer a recipient to contain liquid but one in which to display a carnation. This diversion and brake link the object to another realm of sensibility: imagination.”

Later, when comparing this relationship with our use of technology Paz is scathing:

"Technology is international; its constructions, methods, and products are the same everywhere. By suppressing national and regional particularities, it impoverishes the world. By spreading all over the globe, technology has become the most powerful agent yet of historical entropy. The negative character of its action may be summed up in a phrase: it makes things uniform but does not unify. It levels the differences between cultures and national styles, but it does not do away with the rivalries and hatreds between peoples and states. After transforming rivals into identical twins, it arms both of them with the same weapons. The danger of technology does not lie solely in the death-dealing nature of many of its inventions, but in the fact that it threatens the very essence of the historical process.”

These are damning words indeed. And in the shadow of their and multiple other critical opinions it's very difficult to seriously consider a poetics of the digital when technology is universally either despised or wantonly and obsessively pursued. But surely someone is able to look into Medusa's eyes and capture a glimpse of something more nuanced and revealing than a petrifying enraging danger or menace? Surely a mirror can be held up that can reflect something other than a phobia or philia of this Gorgon we call the digital?

Which is the more terrifying, the Gorgon or the dazzling shield and sharpened sword which severs the monster's head? Digital technologies are in many ways a conflation of the two; the mirror which mediates fearsome imagery whilst being simultaneously fed by a slithering tangle of cables, each with a different head and its own potent but indecipherable venom.

In some versions of the Greek myth, Medusa's severed head is mounted upon the polished shield whereupon it continues to petrify all foes. This is a more telling vision of technology: an image of terror and captivating attraction, of wild nature harnessed and encapsulated in seamless, reflective, impermeable and understated alloy. It's an image that either fascinates or repels, but little in between. But if we are to truly understand digital technologies we need to step aside from these opposing positions. An entirely different approach is needed: one that brings together an understanding of materiality and myth, phenomenology and history into a scholarly but poetic dialogue which is as formidable and potent as the subject under discussion.

6 comments:

Hans Peter Auken Beck said...

Very interesting blog you have here indeed. I suppose I'm having my first experience in active "blogging" right now. This article touches subjects i'm reading about just now and thought I could contribute to this discussion by making a link to Lev Manovich's "The Language of New Media". This is a book I came across while writing an essay/review in H&C about Sarah Smiths lecture "Self/Image".

Lev Manovich (a professor in Visual Arts, University of California) compare Walter Benjamin and Paul Virilio's views on our sense of distance and aura in our ever evolving technical world.

"Benjamin’s and Virilio’s essays focus on
the same theme: the disruption caused by a cultural artifact, specifically, new
communication technology (film in the case of Benjamin, telecommunication in
the case of Virilio) in the familiar patterns of human perception; in short,
intervention of technology into human nature."(p. 158)

Manovich explain Virilio's understanding of distance:

"Writing about telecommunication and telepresence, Virilio also uses the
concept of distance to understand their effect. In Virilio's reading, these
technologies collapse the physical distances, uprooting the familiar patterns of
perception which grounded our culture and politics. Virilio introduces the terms
Small Optics and Big Optics to underline the dramatic nature of this change.
Small Optics are based on geometric perspective and shared by human vision,
painting and film. It involves the distinctions between near and far, between an
object and a horizon against which the object stands out. Big Optics is real-time
electronic transmission of information, "the active optics of time passing at the
speed of light."
As Small Optics are being replaced by Big Optics, the distinctions
characteristic of Small Optics era are erased. If information from any point can be
transmitted with the same speed, the concepts of near and far, horizon, distance
and space itself no longer have any meaning. So, if for Benjamin the industrial
age displaced every object from its original setting, for Virilio post-industrial age
eliminates the dimension of space altogether. At least in principle, every point on
Earth is now instantly accessible from any other point on Earth. As a
consequence, Big Optics locks us in a claustrophobic world without any depth or
horizon; the Earth becomes our prison."

So to compare that with your Mexican poet one can say that if everything is instantly accessible, everything is present at all times, which allow his wife to take whatever shape he can imagine. That imagination is limited by the human database though. Ha ha... dark thinking isn't it? Perhaps not so poetic. I probably shouldn't blog in the middle of the night.

Anyways. To finish up what I have started Manovich continues:

"Writing in 1936, Benjamin uses the real
landscape and a painting as examples of what is natural for human perception.
This natural state is invaded by film which collapses distances, bringing
everything equally close and destroys aura. Virilio, writing half a century later,
draws lines quite differently. If for Benjamin film still represented an alien
presence, for Virilio it already became part of our human nature, the continuation
of our natural sight."

What does that leave us with? I wish I could jump forward in time to see how we handle the new ways of seeing that we face. As Manovich also talks about in the book our sense of touch is going to change. I feel like holding very tight onto my sense of touch but maybe that's where we have loose the grip?

If these long quotes didn't bored you, you might want to read the chapter "Distance and Aura" p. 158 in Manovich's book which is available online (type in "Lev Manovich The language of new media" in google and click on the first link). It's only 4 pages.

J. Hamlyn said...

Hi Hans Peter,

Thanks very much for your comments. Actually I've read The Language of New Media and several other books on the theory and aesthetics of so called "new media". I considered mentioning The Language of New Media in my post but I felt it was so far away from what I was trying to describe that I eventually chose to leave it out. It's a good book but it's very much a theory of new media rather than a poetics.

Manovich gave a keynote presentation at a conference in Edinburgh some years ago which I went to. I was surprised that he spent an inordinate amount of time trying to navigate his way around his PC looking for files etc and talking in circles. He appeared noticeably distracted and incoherent to the point that I suspected he might be ill or having some kind of "episode". Only afterwards, when Sean Cubitt gave his own presentation did it emerge that they had both been trying to drink each other under the table the night before. I wasn't impressed - especially since I'd taken time off work and paid to be there.

Hans Peter Auken Beck said...

Hi Jim

As I read your post again I realize how far of the track I was with my comment. Surely my long Manovich' quotes didn't have anything to say about poetics of the digital. Think it was more addressing the general fright of technology and what is changing along with the digital. That is another discussion (as you knew when you decided not to mention Manovich) and my monolog probably should had stayed in my own notebook.

That aside it's interesting to think about what will happen to the poetics when new digital/virtual borders become more grounded and confident in our conception of space. Virtual objects surely will gain meaning and significance through use of familiarity and as a result a new type of poetics might evolve.

I know that is not the kind of poetics of the digital you requested, but perhaps more a poetic investigation of the physicality and the materials of what the digital consist of. I don't know if that is actually what you wanted to read about, but if you one day decide to write a post on the caress of "it" your self, I would like to read it.
Don't people say that you should give the present that you want yourself? DIY is so popular at the moment and Christmas is just around the corner!

J. Hamlyn said...

Thanks again Hans Peter,

- I'm certainly considering it, but something tells me it's more of a Phd subject than something to rattle off before Xmas.

Hans Peter Auken Beck said...

Dear Jim - just thought of this post again and managed to track it down in a couple of seconds. The internet really do not forget. I am now studying digital design and communication at the IT university in Copenhagen; soon to specialize in Digital Aesthetics! I did not see that coming 4 years ago!

Hope you are well, and keep up the good work. Best wishes /Hans Peter

Jim Hamlyn said...

Hi Hans Peter,

How poetic! Perhaps you're the one who will pen (key) the poetics of the digital after all.

Very curious to know what a course in digital aesthetics entails?

Great to hear from you.

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