18 April 2012

What Is the "New Aesthetic"?

8 Bit Pixel Makeup (via Gizmodo
The New Aesthetic is now subject to discussion and critique on a number of forums, blogs, twitter threads, and so forth (for a list, see bibliography on Berry 2012a, but also Bridle 2012, Kaganskiy 2012, Sterling 2012). Many of these discussions have a particular existential flavour, questioning the existence and longevity of the New Aesthetic, for example, or beginning to draw the boundaries of what is 'in' or 'out' of the domain of New Aesthetic things (See Twitter 2012).[1] Grusin (2012), for example, claims: '[t]he "new aesthetic" is just the latest name for remediation, all dressed up with nowhere to go'. At such an early stage there is understandably some scepticism and, being mediated via Twitter, some sarcasm and dismissal, rather than substantive engagements with the questions raised by a moment presaged by the eruption of the digital into the everyday lifeworld, but also some partial support (for example see, Berry 2012b, Crumb 2012, Exinfoam 2012, Fernandez 2012, Owens 2012). Nonetheless, it is good to see so much discussion and excitement around the concept, however defined.

In order to pursue the New Aesthetic further I want to move away from these existential questions and look in more detail at some of the claims advanced by spokespeople for object-oriented ontology (OOO), or what is sometimes called speculative realism (Bogost 2008, 2012; Borenstein 2012; Jackson 2012). More specifically, I want to explore the attempt to critique the New Aesthetic in terms of what they call a misplaced focus on the merely computational. Instead, I want to question the way in which they propose an extension of method (or movement) that takes in, well, everything in the universe. In other words, what one might call a co-option of the New Aesthetic into the arms of object-oriented ontology. The intention here is to address what is at stake in accepting the claims of the object-oriented ontologists and what are the implications both theoretically and empirically for the New Aesthetic more generally. First it is worth exploring what the OOO are claiming, for example Borenstein,
I believe that Sterling is wrong. I believe that the New Aesthetic is actually striving towards a fundamentally new way of imagining the relations between things in the world. To convince you of this, I’ll make a case that the New Aesthetic strongly resonates with a recent movement in philosophy called Object-Oriented Ontology and that establishing a closer alliance with OOO might be a way to increase the precision of the New Aesthetic vocabulary and enrich its process by pointing towards new modes of imagining its objects of fascination (Borenstein 2012).
Here, Borenstein is arguing that the New Aesthetic has an OOO predilection or 'resonates' with the claims and descriptions of the OOO. In other words, the claim is that the New Aesthetics is merely a subset of OOO, and as Bogost further argues,
It's true that computers are a particularly important and influential kind of thing in the world, and indeed I myself have spent most of my career pondering how to use, make, and understand them. But they are just one thing among so many more: airports, sandstone, koalas, climate, toaster pastries, kudzu, the International 505 racing dinghy, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the brand name 'TaB.' Why should a new aesthetic interested only in the relationship between humans and computers, when so many other relationships exist just as much? Why stop with the computer, like Marinetti foolishly did with the race car? (Bogost 2012). 
Pixel Pour (2008) 
We might counter immediately that this suggestion confuses aesthetics and ontology where aesthetics is primarily concerned with the nature and appreciation of 'beauty' (or a post-Kantian 'disinterestedness'),[2] however defined, and ontology, is concerned with the nature of being, or the fundamental metaphysical stuff out there in the universe. Bogost also claims that the New Aesthetic is about the 'relationship between humans and computers' and he argues that instead it should be concerned with ontology, in this case the object-oriented relationships between lots of different kinds of objects. For now we will put aside the slippage between 'computers' and what are clearly representations for, or of, the 'digital' (see Berry 2012a, 2012b) and the fact that many of these New Aesthetic objects may have been created as artworks without the mediation of digital technology at all, for example NYC Street Art Pixel Pour and Pixel Pour 2.0 (photographed by Benjamin Norman).

Pixel Pour (2011) (photo: Benjamin Norman)
This representation of the digital is, of course, an interesting feature of the New Aesthetic as much as (1) there may be the mediation of digital technology in the creation of aesthetic objects or (2) the affordances of digital vision that creates certain kinds of recognisable digital artefacts (see Ellis 2011, Sloan 2011). This I called 'an element of "down-sampled" representation of a kind of digital past, or perhaps digital passing, in that the kinds of digital glitches, modes, and forms that are chosen, are very much located historically' (Berry 2012a). We might think of these alternative formulations or threads within the New Aesthetic as (i) representations of the digital, (ii) mediation by digital processes, and (iii) digital/computer vision. In any case, it is clear that it is the aesthetic output that is being addressed here and although I think a lot could be added to this with consideration to the non-visual computational processes involved in mediating this output, such as code and software (see Berry 2011), so far the main focus of the New Aesthetic has been visual. Additionally, Jackson identifies, although he also in my mind mistakenly rejects, the importance of 'disorientation' for the New Aesthetic,
The really interesting element of the new aesthetic is that it presents genuinely interesting stuff, but Bridle's delivery strategy is set to 'gushing disorientation'. At present, it's the victim of the compulsive insular network it feeds off from. It presents little engagement with the works themselves instead favouring bombardment and distraction. Under these terms, aesthetics only leads to a banal drudgery, where everything melts together into a depthless disco. Any depth to the works themselves are forgotten... Memes require instant satisfaction. Art requires depth" (Jackson 2012). 
Whilst I think the claim that 'Art requires depth' is a somewhat conservative notion of what art is or should be, it seems to me that disorientation, or what I would call, following Heidegger, frantic disorientation, is an important marker of the specificity of the New Aesthetic. Something that requires careful consideration in relation to the claims of 'depthlessness' that attended the rise of postmodernism (see Jameson 2006).

So in what way would an extension of the New Aesthetic to an OOO help with this project? The general claim seems to be that by learning more about the relationships between different objects without the mediation of human beings, we can think in a non-anthropomorphic way, without what Harman calls the 'idea of human access' (Shaviro 2011). As Bogost argues,
Our job is to amplify the black noise of objects to make the resonant frequencies of the stuffs inside them hum in credibly satisfying ways. Our job is to write the speculative fictions of these processes, of their unit operations. Our job is to get our hands dirty with grease, juice, gunpowder, and gypsum. Our job is to go where everyone has gone before, but where few have bothered to linger (Bogost, quoted in Borenstein 2012).
This is, to follow from the work of Quentin Meillassoux (2009) who argued in After Finitude:
Such considerations reveal the extent to which the central notion of modern philosophy since Kant seems to be that of the correlation. By 'correlation' we mean the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other. We will henceforth call correlationism any current of thought which maintains the unsurpassable character of correlation so defined. Consequently, it becomes possible to say that every philosophy which disavows naive realism has become a variant of correlationism (Meillassoux 2009: 5, original emphasis). 
For it could be that contemporary philosophers have lost the great outdoors, the absolute outside of pre-critical thinkers: that outside which was not relative to us, and which was given as indifferent to its own givenness to be what it is, existing in itself regardless of whether we are thinking it or not; that outside which thought could explore with the legitimate feeling of being on foreign territory – of being entirely elsewhere (Meillassoux 2009: 7, original emphasis)
Meillassoux, in particular, is interested in the production of claims about reality that are extra-human, either ancestral, that is, any reality anterior to the emergence of the human species, or shown as arche-fossil, particularly through materials indicating the existence of an ancestral reality, the material support such as an isotope whose rate of radioactive decay enables the dating of things (Meillassoux 2009: 10). How then can we make claims about things that are not only non-human, but which temporally predate the very existence of humans at all. Whilst Meillassoux was careful to delimit his philosophical investigations to those that pre-date humans, and thus the problematic of a correlationist claim in relation to it, and here there isn't time to explore the problematic nature of the formulation of a realist science which underpins his claims, it does open the door for speculative work on the nature of the universe per se. Indeed, this is where object-oriented ontology comes into play, particularly with the work of Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek and Graham Harman (2011) – and here we should note that Meillassoux rejects the labels of both object-oriented ontology and speculative realism. Bryant et al claim,
[In] 'The Speculative Turn', one can detect the hints of something new. By contrast with the repetitive continental focus on texts, discourses, social practices, and human finitude, the new breed of thinkers is turning once more towards reality itself. While it is difficult to find explicit positions common to all the thinkers... all have certainly rejected the traditional focus on textual critique... all of them, in one way or another, have begun speculating once more about the nature of reality independently of thought and of humans more generally (Bryant, Srnicek and Harman 2011: 3). 
Whilst there are significant difference between the various 'speculative realism' positions, this attempt to develop a strong anti-correlationist approach seems both significant and interesting philosophically, and something, I should add, that I am broadly sympathetic to. To my mind, however, there remains a significant problem of theorising non-human relations whilst simultaneously being constrained within the categories and limitations of human thought, what we might call the anti-correlationist paradox, even when mediated through mathematics, physics, or technical apparatus that gives the appearance of objectivity or non-human thought (and here I am thinking particularly in terms of the gigantic, see Berry [2011b]).

However, here we must return to the particular claims of Bogost (2012) and his notion of developing a speculative philosophy to think through the relations between objects, as he writes:
If ontology is the philosophical study of existence, then object-oriented ontology puts things at the center of being. We humans are elements, but not the sole elements of philosophical interest. OOO contends that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally--plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, and sandstone, for example. OOO steers a path between scientific naturalism and social relativism, drawing attention to things at all scales and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much as ourselves... My version of object-oriented ontology, outlined in my new book Alien Phenomenology, or What it's Like to Be a Thing, concerns the experience of objects. What is it like to be a bonobo or a satellite or a pixel? (Bogost 2012).
Nihilistic Pixels
Putting aside the unlikelihood of discerning 'what it is like to be' something like a pixel – indeed, the very question seems to me to be confusing the fundamental quality of human beings (as dasein) able to raise the question of their own being with that of a pixel, which prime facie does not (Heidegger 1978). Instead, we should concentrate on whether this 'alien phenomenology' can assist in understanding or explaining the New Aesthetic (see Bogost 2008). Bogost again,
But the true alien might be unrecognizable; it might not have an intelligence akin to our intelligence, or even one we could recognize as intelligence. Rather than wondering if alien beings exist in the cosmos, let's assume that they are all around us, everywhere, at all scales. Everything is an alien to everything else. It is ultimately impossible for one thing to understand the experience of another, but we can speculate about the withdrawn, inner experience of things based on a combination of evidence--the exhaust they leave behind--and poetics--the speculative work we do to characterize that experience (Bogost 2012).
Here, we have moved (too quickly in my mind) from the possibility of human beings being able to know what it is to 'be' an alien object, to a notion of an 'intelligence' that we could 'recognize as intelligence', and then to the 'experience' of said alien object. Further, we are told that it is 'ultimately impossible for one thing to understand the experience of another' but we can 'speculate' about it. Here is the crucial point of weakness in this position. We are no longer involved in realism, but have moved to speculative philosophy, one that has moved towards a kind of idealism that doesn't recognise itself as such. I think that this is partially due to the soporific quality of litanies that the OOO are so keen to list at every opportunity, as if the mere act of listing has reaffirmed their realism. For example, Bogost uses the litany of 'airports, sandstone, koalas, climate, toaster pastries, kudzu, the International 505 racing dinghy, and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner' (Bogost 2012).

Again, the anti-correlationist paradox raises it head in the use of human categories such as 'being', 'intelligence', 'experience', wielded to describe 'alien' objects' interiority without any recourse to evidence beyond mere speculation. Not that this method is wholly unproductive, indeed, Bogost's claims that it is 'weird' points to his attempt to do something unexpected or different – my point is that it probably won't be weird enough, limited as it remains, within the boundary of human thought. Indeed, OOO rapidly continues the use of human categories even as it is articulating what it considers to be a non-anthropomorophic mode. For example, Borenstein argues,
[New Aesthetic] want[s] to know what CCTV means for social networks, what book scanning means for iOS apps, and what face detection means for fashion. And again these objects are not just interesting to each other as a set of constraints and affordances for the objects’ human makers but for the hidden inner lives of the objects themselves throughout their existence (Borenstein 2012).
Does the idea of 'inner lives' even make any sense for iOS apps, CCTV or pixels? Following Heidegger (1978), I would even argue that it doesn't make much sense for humans, let alone SunChips and Doritos. Nonetheless, Bogost moves to his attempt to link OOO and New Aesthetics by a notion of 'Alien Aesthetics',
[T]his Alien Aesthetics would not try to satisfy our human drive for art and design, but to fashion design fictions that speculate about the aesthetic judgments of objects. If computers write manifestos, if Sun Chips make art for Doritos, if bamboo mocks the bad taste of other grasses--what do these things look like? Or for that matter, when toaster pastries convene conferences or write essays about aesthetics, what do they say, and how do they say it? (Bogost, quoted in Jackson 2012)
Again we see the anti-correlationist paradox inasmuch as object are now considered to make 'aesthetic judgments' of other objects. Patently, 'pastries' do not 'write essays about aesthetics' nor about anything else. Indeed, in trying so hard to avoid anthropomorphism ontologically, Bogost appears to allow it in the backdoor through metaphor. Here we might nod towards Heidegger who emphasised the importance of practices in understanding being at all (for Dasein), so the writing of essays is crucial to the understanding of being a student, for example, not to being a pastry (Heidegger 1978). We are thus left with speculative fictional statements akin to vignettes about objects whose 'truth' or 'correctness' Bogost considers irrelevant and therefore begins to bear too many similarities to relativism.

CV Dazzle Makeup
So where should we look for help in understanding the New Aesthetic?

Previously, I have proposed a notion of computationality (Berry 2011a, Berry 2012a, Berry 2012b), and others have also suggested 'remediation' as a useful way of exploring it (Grusin 2012). Certainly, there are many exciting avenues to explore, including possible alternative formulations of OOO, but I would just like to consider three.

The first is an approach broadly covered by the term software studies (see Berry 2011a; Manovich 2001, 2008; Manovich and Douglas 2009), and its sister field, critical code studies (Marino 2006), both of which already have an orientation towards the aesthetic and experiential, as well as the material (Kittler 1997, 1999). It seems to me that an understanding of the underlying structural and sub-structural level of code/software may give important insights into the aesthetic eruptions or surface representations that are in evidence within the New Aesthetic.[3]

The second approach would be what we might call a Heideggerian Aesthetics, which explores 'an artwork that already embodies the transition between this age and the next and which is thus capable of helping to inaugurate that future age, here and now' (Thomson 2011). Indeed, as Iain Thomson explains,
Heidegger's defining hope for art, in other words, is that works of art could manifest and thereby help usher in a new understanding of the being of entities, a literally “post-modern” understanding of what it means for an entity to be, a postmodern ontology which would no longer understand entities either as modern objects to be controlled or as late-modern resources to be optimised (Thomson 2011). 
The third approach is broadly known as media archaeology, with its strong orientation to both the historical and aesthetic, position it very favourably in being able to provide important theoretical interventions for the New Aesthetic and new 'ways of seeing' (see Parikka 2010, Parikka and Huhtamo 2011). Media archaeology attempts to read the new against the grain of the past, and its focus on neglected, forgotten or suppressed media seems extremely relevant to the New Aesthetic's presentation of what seems to be a 'false digital' or certainly 'historical digital' digital.


[1] This is an updating Twitter Stream, some examples include: (1) "NArt Bot @NArtBot RT @timdenee: I really have to fight the urge to write it off as a bunch of twee pretentious bullshit. #newaesthetic", "RT @CreatorsProject: A tight circle of net artists just reinvented the wheel: bit.ly/Jb80po #NewAesthetic", "NArt Bot @NArtBot RT @flourides: tell me what i gotta do to get kicked out of the #NewAesthetic i'll do whatever", "Johannes Kleske @jkleske “Memes require instant satisfaction. Art requires depth.” How full of yourself can you be? #newaesthetic j.mp/Ii56y7", "Marcus • Leis Allion @_MLA Isn’t it only those critical of the #NewAesthetic that refer to it as something it is not, i.e., art/art movement in 20thC sense?".

[2] Many thanks to Michael Dieter for the post-Kantian suggestion.

[3] There are a lot of areas of interest for researchers in the Digital Humanities in terms of understanding and exploring cultural works, there are also exciting opportunities to explore both the close and distant reading implications of the New Aesthetic (Berry 2012c, Gold 2012)
. Additionally Platform Studies (Bogost and Montfort 2009) and Expressive Processing (Wardrip-Fruin 2009) are both very interesting approaches with a focus on the materiality of the computer.


Berry, D. M. (2011a) The Philosophy of Software: Code and Mediation in the Digital Age, London: Palgrave.

Berry, D. M. (2011b) The Gigantic, Stunlaw, http://stunlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/gigantic-inc.html

Berry, D. M. (2012a) Abduction Aesthetic: Computationality and the New Aesthetic, Stunlaw, accessed 18/04/2012, http://stunlaw.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/abduction-aesthetic-computationality.html

Berry, D. M. (2012b) Computationality and the New Aesthetic, Imperica, accessed 18/04/2012. http://www.imperica.com/viewsreviews/david-m-berry-computationality-and-the-new-aesthetic

Berry, D. M. (2012c) Understanding Digital Humanities, London: Palgrave.

Bogost, I. (2008) The Phenomenology of Videogames, in G├╝nzel, S., Liebe, M., and Mersch D., (eds.) Conference Proceedings of the Philosophy of Computer Games 2008, Potsdam: University Press, pp 22-43, accessed 18/04/2012, http://pub.ub.uni-potsdam.de/volltexte/2008/2454/

Bogost, I. (2012) The New Aesthetic Needs to Get Weirder, The Atlantic, accessed 18/04/2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/04/the-new-aesthetic-needs-to-get-weirder/255838/

Bogost, I. and Montfort, N. (2009) Racing the Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, MIT Press.

Borenstein, G. (2012) What's it like to be a 21C Thing?, Creators Project, accessed 18/04/2012, http://thecreatorsproject.com/blog/in-response-to-bruce-sterlings-essay-on-the-new-aesthetic#4

Bridle, J. (2012a) The New Aesthetic, accessed 05/04/2012, http://new-aesthetic.tumblr.com/

Bryant, L., Srnicek, N., and Harman, G. (2011) The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, Melbourne: Re:Press. 

Crumb (2012) Crumb: Curating digital art mailing list, April 2012, accessed 18/03/2012, http://www.crumbweb.org

Ellis, E. (2011) The New Aesthetic, accessed 05/04/2012, http://www.warrenellis.com/?p=12811

Exinfoam (2012) Hello, QR, accessed 18/04/2012, http://exinfoam.wordpress.com/2012/04/13/hello-qr/

Fernandez, P. (2012) The New Aesthetic: A Response, accessed 18/04/2012, http://plummerfernandez.tumblr.com/post/21026026010/new-aesthetic

Gold, M. K. (2012) Debates in the Digital Humanities, University of Minnesota Press.

Grusin, R. (2012) The "new aesthetic" is just the latest name for remediation, all dressed up with nowhere to go, accessed 18/04/2012, https://twitter.com/#!/rgrusin/status/192622844860047361

Heidegger, H. (1978) Being and Time, London: Wiley-Blackwell.

Jackson, R. (2012) The Banality of The New Aesthetic, Furtherfield, accessed 18/04/2012, http://www.furtherfield.org/features/banality-new-aesthetic

Jameson, F. (2006) Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, in Kellner, D. Durham, M. G. (eds.) Media and Cultural Studies Keyworks, London: Blackwell.

Kaganskiy, J. (2012) In Response To Bruce Sterling's "Essay On The New Aesthetic", Creators Project, accessed 07/04/2012, http://www.thecreatorsproject.com/blog/in-response-to-bruce-sterlings-essay-on-the-new-aesthetic

Kittler, F. (1997) Literature, Media, Information Systems. Amsterdam: OAP.

Kittler, F. (1999) Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Stanford, CA: Stanford University

Manovich, L. (2001) The Language of New Media. London: MIT Press.

Manovich, L. (2008) Software takes Command, retrieved 03/05/2010 from http://lab.softwarestudies.com/2008/11/softbook.html

Manovich, L. and Douglas, J. (2009) Visualizing Temporal Patterns In Visual Media: Computer Graphics as a Research Method, retrieved 10/10/09 from http://softwarestudies.com/cultural_analytics/visualizing_temporal_patterns.pdf

Marino, M. C. (2006) Critical Code Studies, Electronic Book Review, accessed 16 Sept 2011, http://www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/electropoetics/codology

Meillassoux, Q (2009) After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, London: Continuum.

Owens, T. (2012) The New Aesthetic and the Artifactual Digital Object, accessed 18/04/2012, http://www.trevorowens.org/2012/04/the-new-aesthetic-and-the-artifactual-digital-object/

Parikka, J. (2010) Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology, University of Minnesota Press

Parikka, J. and Huhtamo, E. (2011) Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications, University of California Press

Shaviro, S. (2011) The Actual Volcano: Whitehead, Harman and the Problem of Relations, in Bryant, L., Srnicek, N., and Harman, G. (eds.) The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, Melbourne: Re:Press.

Sloan, R. (2011) The New Aesthetic, accessed 05/04/2012, http://snarkmarket.com/2011/6913

Sterling, B. (2012) An Essay on the New Aesthetic , Wired, accessed 05/04/2012, http://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2012/04/an-essay-on-the-new-aesthetic/

Thomson, I. (2011) Heidegger's Aesthetics, Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, accessed 05/04/2012, http://stanford.library.usyd.edu.au/archives/sum2011/entries/heidegger-aesthetics/

Twitter (2012) Search "newaesthetic", Twitter, accessed 18/04/2012, self-updating, https://twitter.com/#!/search/newaesthetic

Wardrip-Fruin, N. (2009) Expressive Processing: Digital Fictions, Computer Games, and Software Studies, MIT Press.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Disqus for Stunlaw: A critical review of politics, arts and technology