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 Günzel, 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.

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06 April 2012

Abduction Aesthetic: Computationality and the New Aesthetic

In a previous article on this blog I discussed abduction, thinking and patterns (Berry 2012a),  and consequently I have been struck by a provocative article written by Bruce Sterling about what he called the New Aesthetic (Sterling 2012). The links between this 'New Aesthetic' and questions over pattern recognition and the way in which computational models are imposed on the 'real' are very timely. 

The 'New Aesthetic' is an aesthetic that revels in seeing the grain of computation (Jones 2011), or perhaps better, seeing the limitations or digital artefacts of a kind of digital glitch, what we might call an 'aesthetic of failure'. Indeed, 
the debate on the aesthetic of digital code has been predominantly focused, on the non-representational and non-functional performativity of coding and its infinite possible infractions (errors, glitches and noise), emphasising that it is precisely these infractions that give code its real aesthetic value... [or] the sensorial alterations or affects produced by technology on the human body-subject (Parisi and Portanova 2012).
More so this aesthetic is concerned with the act of representing the digital within the more commonly analogue life-world that we inhabit in everyday life. The 'New Aesthetic' was initially introduced at South By South West (SXSW) on March 12th 2012, at a panel organised by James Bridle.[1] It was called 'The New Aesthetic: Seeing Like Digital Devices' and was primarily concerned with 'giv[ing] examples of these effects, products and artworks, and discuss the ways in which ways of [computer/robot] seeing are increasingly transforming ways of making and doing' (SXSW 2012). A number of post panel write-ups have been made by the participants, including Bridle (2012b), Cope (2012), Davies (2012), McNeil (2012) and Terrett (2012). Bruce Sterling attended the presentation at SXSW, and subsequently discussed how struck he was by the New Aesthetic and how it went beyond a mere concern with computer/robot vision (Sterling 2012). 

Certainly enabling robot/computer algorithms to 'see' by imposing computational 'pixels' on reality is part of this New Aesthetic (see Catt 2012). However, there is also 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 – especially considering that we are moving into a high-definition world of retina displays and high-pixel density experience (for an example, see Huff 2012). Sterling explains that the new aesthetics:
concerns itself with “an eruption of the digital into the physical.” That eruption was inevitable. It’s been going on for a generation. It should be much better acculturated than it is. There are ways to make that stark, lava-covered ground artistically fertile and productive (Sterling 2012).
Using a flâneur-like approach, James Bridle collects objects, artworks, buildings, places and images in a growing blog-based accumulation of things that he presents as exemplars of this new aesthetic (a collection itself an interesting computational form) (Bridle 2011a, Bridle 2011b). He explains:
I started noticing things like this in the world. This is a cushion on sale in a furniture store that’s pixelated. This is a strange thing. This is a look, a style, a pattern that didn’t previously exist in the real world. It’s something that’s come out of digital. It’s come out of a digital way of seeing, that represents things in this form. The real world doesn’t, or at least didn’t, have a grain that looks like this. But you start to see it everywhere when you start looking for it. It’s very pervasive. It seems like a style, a thing, and we have to look at where that style came from, and what it means, possibly. Previously things that would have been gingham or lacy patterns and this kind of thing is suddenly pixelated. Where does that come from? What’s that all about? (Bridle 2011a).
CV Dazzle, Camouflage from Computer Vision (Harvey 2012)
His website, aptly titled 'The New Aesthetic', also hosts found objects from across the internet (and which he captures in everyday life) piled together into a quantitative heap of computational aesthetic objects (Bridle 2012a). Indeed Sterling (2012) attempts a definition:
The “New Aesthetic” is a native product of modern network culture. It’s from London, but it was born digital, on the Internet. The New Aesthetic is a “theory object” and a “shareable concept.”... The New Aesthetic is “collectively intelligent.” It’s diffuse, crowdsourcey, and made of many small pieces loosely joined. It is rhizomatic, as the people at Rhizome would likely tell you. It’s open-sourced, and triumph-of-amateurs. It’s like its logo, a bright cluster of balloons tied to some huge, dark and lethal weight (Sterling 2012).
Sterling rightly argues that this is a symptomology that Bridle (2011a, 2012a) is observing but something must be bring these forces together. Sterling again,
It was grand work to find and assemble this New Aesthetic wunderkammer, but a heap of eye-catching curiosities don’t constitute a compelling worldview. Look at all of them: Information visualization. Satellite views. Parametric architecture. Surveillance cameras. Digital image processing. Data-mashed video frames. Glitches and corruption artifacts. Voxelated 3D pixels in real-world geometries. Dazzle camou. Augments. Render ghosts. And, last and least, nostalgic retro 8bit graphics from the 1980s (Sterling 2012).
The question that arises both for Bridle and for Sterling is: what is going on here? What does this aesthetic signify and what is its critical location? Sterling correctly, in my mind, rejects the notion of an aesthetic of the machines, or of computer vision etc, what has been called sensor-venacular elsewhere, equally rejecting a kind of hauntology of the 1980s (Jones 2011), or sensor-aesthetic (Sloan 2011, see also Ellis 2011, Gyford 2011). I also think that although the notion of 'computational value', introduced by Bernhard Rieder, is interesting in terms of political economy, it doesn't help us understand this aesthetic eruption (see Bridle 2011b). Nor does an explicit link between this new aesthetic and an object-oriented ontology necessarily help us understand this pattern aesthetic (Borenstein 2012, Kaganskiy 2012) although I agree with Battles (2012) and Reynolds (2012) that the new aesthetic poses a challenge for us to think about.

Untitled (2011) David Hockney
Instead, expanding on Sterling's paper, and following on from my own work in this area, I want to argue that this new aesthetic is a form of abduction aesthetic linked to the emergence of computationality as an ontotheology (Berry 2011a, Berry 2011b).[2] Computationality is here understood as a specific historical epoch defined by a certain set of computational knowledges, practices, methods and categories. Abductive aesthetic (or pattern aesthetic) is linked by a notion of computational patterns and pattern recognition as a means of cultural expression (Berry 2012a). By this I mean that as computational ontologies and categories become increasingly dominant as instrumental values, they also become influential as economic, political, communicative and aesthetic concepts (see Berry 2011a; Manovich 2001, 2008; Manovich and Douglas 2009). Patterns, drawing on the ideas of Christopher Alexander, are:
a three-part rule, which expresses a relation between a certain context, a problem, and a solution. As an element in the world, each pattern is a relationship between a certain context, a certain system of forces which occurs repeatedly in that context, and a certain spatial configuration which allows these forces to resolve themselves. As an element of language, a pattern is an instruction, which shows how this spatial configuration can be used, over and over again, to resolve the given system of forces, wherever the context makes it relevant. The pattern is, in short, at the same time a thing, which happens in the world, and the rule which tells us how to create that thing, and when we must create it. It is both a process and a thing; both a description of a thing which is alive, and a description of the process which will generate that thing (Alexander 1979: 247).
Patterns are also deeply concerned with computer pattern recognition, repeated elements, codes, and structural elements that enable something to be recognised as a type of thing (see Harvey 2011 for a visualisation of facial pattern recognition, below). This is not just visual, of course, and patterns may be recognised in data sets, textual archives, data points, distributions, non-visual sensors, physical movement or gestures, haptic forces, etc. Indeed, this points to the importance of information visualisation as part of the abduction aesthetic in order to 'visualise' the patterns that are hidden in sets of data. This is also a link between new aesthetic and the digital humanities (see Berry 2012b, Gold 2012).

Computation, understood within the context of computationality, pervades our everyday life, it therefore becomes the limit of our possibilities for reason, experience and desire within this historical paradigm of knowledge, or episteme (see Berry 2012c). One can think of abductive aesthetic as a bounded aesthetic linked extricably with the computational and the foundation for developing a cognitive map (Jameson 2006: 516). The fact that abduction aesthetics are networked, sharable, modular, 'digital', and located both in the digital and analogue worlds is appropriate as they follow the colonisation of the lifeworld by the technics of computationality. We could look at David Hockney's Fresh Flowers (Grant 2010) and the fact that he links the artwork he produces to the medial affordances of the computational device, in this case an iPad, stating 'when using his iPhone or iPad to draw, the features of the devices tend to shape his choice of subject...The fact that it's illuminated makes you choose luminous subjects' (Freeman 2012). Parisi and Portanova further argue for an algorithmic aesthetic with their notion of 'soft thought':
the aesthetic of soft thought precisely implies that digital algorithms are autonomous, conceptual modes of thinking, a thinking that is always already a mode of feeling ordered in binary codes, and is not to be confused with sensing or perceiving. Numerical processing is always a feeling, a simultaneously physical and conceptual mode of feeling data, physical in the actual operations of the hardware-software machine, conceptual in the grasp of numbers as virtualities or potentials (Parisi and Portanova 2012).
The point I want to make is that the collections that Bridle (2012a) is making, are indeed symptomatic of an emerging aesthetic, and is somewhat haphazard and uncurated in as much as the objects collected are placed within a Tumblr blog that presents them to us as a stream of data – again significant in my reading of computationality (see Berry 2011a). It is also significant that the means of collecting these digital and pseudo-digital objects is through a computational frame, the collection made possible through new forms of computational curation tools, such as Tumblr and Pinterest  (2012).

Splinter Camouflage Scheme for Fighter Jet
The abductive aesthetic is therefore deeply influenced by and reliant on patterns and abductive reasoning more generally (see Berry 2012a). This I argue will be a common thread that links the lists of objects that seem to have nothing more in common than a difficult to reconcile and tenuous digitality, or perhaps a seeming retro towards older forms of digital rendering and reproduction. In actuality it is no surprise that we see a return of 8-bit retro – it could perhaps be described as the abductive aesthetic par excellence, inasmuch as it enables an instant recognition of, and indeed serves as an important representation for the digital, even as the digital becomes high-definition and less 'digital' by the day (see Jean 2010).

As computation, and by definition its carriers, code and software, increasingly withdraw into the background of our experience, it is probable that we will increasingly see the foregrounding of a representation of, and for, the digital/computational.[3] In some ways, 8-bit images are reassuring and still comprehensible as different from and standing in opposition to the everyday world people inhabit. In other ways, however, the glitches, retro 8-bit esque look that we see in pixelated works are actually distant from the capabilities of contemporary machines and their 8-bit blocky ontologies provide only limited guidance on the way in which software now organises and formats the our shared, and sharable, world (Berry 2011a). So ironically, just as digital technologies and software mediate our experience and engagement with the world, often invisibly, so the 'digital' and 'software' is itself mediated and made visible through the representational forms of pixelation and glitch.

Skeuomorphic calender in Mac OS X
As the abduction aesthetic becomes more prevalent it will be interesting to see the exemplars of this form emerge. Whilst today we tend to think of the 8-bit pixelation, satellite photos, CCTV images, and the like, it is probable that alternative, more computational forms may prevail. I think it likely that skeuomorphic images will become increasingly common and may be the historical exemplar of our digital present, as indeed might skeuomorphic representations of older 8-bit technologies (such as enabled by MAME and other emulators) (see MAME 2012). Conceivably this also might lead to a form of cognitive dissonance with people looking for pattern aesthetics everywhere, understood as a form of apophenia, that is, the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data (called a type 1 error in statistics). Perhaps even further, people will seek digital or abductive explanations for certain kinds of aesthetic, visual or even non-visual experiences which may not be digital or produced through computational means at all, a digital pareidolia.[4]

Further, following Charles Sanders Peirce notion of abduction (Berry 2012a), we might introduce the concept of musement to describe the mode of thinking relevant to the aesthetic enjoyment of the abductive. Peirce defined musement as 'pure play' which is strikingly receptive and leisurely (Salas 2009: 468).
It is "a lively exercise of one's powers" and yet "has no rules, except this very law of liberty" (6.458). Though musement is leisurely in that it allows the muser to assume different standpoints, it also involves deliberate observation and meditation. "It begins passively enough with drinking in the impression of some nook in one of the three universes [a primary universe of sensations or raw experience; a secondary universe of reactions to sensory data; and a tertiary universe of representations or signs used to relate the primary and secondary universes]. But impression soon passes into attentive observation, observation into musing, musing into a lively give-and-take between self and self" (6.459). While in a sense passive and receptive, musement is also that in which "logical analysis can be put to it full efficiency" (6.461). We might say that, while "musing" one is both "active" and "contemplative"... (Salas 2009: 468).
It is striking the similarity between Peirce's notion of musement and the Greek concept of theôria or contemplation, which according to Aristotle was the highest activity of leisure. Indeed, Peirce distinguishes musement from 'reverie' or 'vacancy and dreaminess (Salas 2009: 290). This element of playfulness is extremely relevant to a discussion of the aesthetics of computationality, and indeed forms a large part of the new aesthetic that Bridle (2011) and Sterling (2012) describe. It is interesting to note that a properly distanced musement indeed seems possible towards the abduction aesthetic when mediated through the real-time streams made available through Tumblr, Pinterest, Twitter, and other digital asset/object streaming technologies.


[1] The original panel description read: 'Slowly, but increasingly definitively, our technologies and our devices are learning to see, to hear, to place themselves in the world. Phones know their location by GPS. Financial algorithms read the news and feed that knowledge back into the market. Everything has a camera in it. We are becoming acquainted with new ways of seeing: the Gods-eye view of satellites, the Kinect's inside-out sense of the living room, the elevated car-sight of Google Street View, the facial obsessions of CCTV....As a result, these new styles and senses recur in our art, our designs, and our products. The pixelation of low-resolution images, the rough yet distinct edges of 3D printing, the shifting layers of digital maps. In this session, the participants will give examples of these effects, products and artworks, and discuss the ways in which ways of seeing are increasingly transforming ways of making and doing' (SXSW 2012).

[2] Where computationality is understood as a specific historical time period defined by a certain set of computational knowledges, practices, methods and categories. Computationality might then be understood as an ontotheology, which Heidegger argues creates a new ontological ‘epoch’ as a new historical constellation of intelligibility.With the notion of ontotheology, Heidegger is following Kant’s argument that intelligibility is a process of filtering and organising a complex overwhelming world by the use of ‘categories’, Kant’s ‘discursivity thesis’. Heidegger historicises Kant’s cognitive categories arguing that there is ‘succession of changing historical ontotheologies that make up the “core” of the metaphysical tradition. These ontotheologies establish “the truth concerning entities as such and as a whole”, in other words, they tell us both what and how entities are – establishing both their essence and their existence’ (Thomson 2009: 149–50). Metaphysics, grasped ontotheologically, ‘temporarily secures the intelligible order’ by understanding it ‘ontologically’, from the inside out, and ‘theologically’ from the outside in, which allows the formation of an epoch, a ‘historical constellation of intelligibility which is unified around its ontotheological understanding of the being of entities’ (Thomson 2009: 150).

[3] Here I would like to draw attention to two interesting areas of study that focus on code and software, namely Critical Code Studies and Software Studies: (1) Critical Code Studies: critical approaches to the study of computer source code. Marino argues: 'that we no longer speak of the code as a text in metaphorical terms, but that we begin to analyze and explicate code as a text, as a sign system with its own rhetoric, as verbal communication that possesses significance in excess of its functional utility... In effect, [Marino proposes] that we can read and explicate code the way we might explicate a work of literature in a new field of inquiry' (Marino 2006); and (2) Software Studies: critical approaches to the study of software (as compiled source code), particularly large-scale systems such as operating systems, applications, and games. Alternatively this also includes the use of software to study other things, like culture (see Manovich 2008), which Manovich calls Cultural Analytics (Williford 2011). It might also entail the study of the use of software historically (see Ensmenger 2010). One important aspect of this is to focus on computer/technical systems within society and culture - for example the Internet, the email system, mobile data, the HTTP protocol, etc.

[4]  Pareidolia involves seeing importance in vague and random phenomenon, for example a face in a random collection of dots on paper. By 'digital pareidolia' I am gesturing towards seeing digital causes for things that happen in everyday life. Indeed, under a regime of computationality in the future it might be considered stranger to believe that things might have non-digital causes. Thus apophenia would be the norm in a highly digital computational society, perhaps even a significant benefit to one's life chances and well-being if finding patterns becomes increasingly lucrative. Here we might consider the growth of computational high-frequency trading and financial systems that are trained and programmed to identify patterns very quickly. 


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