The Post-Digital Ornament

This post is part of a presentation I gave at the Matter – Materials – Materiality – Materialism  (4M) conference organised by Dr Iris van der Tuin and Dr Ann-Sophie Lehmann, Utrecht University, 5th June 2014. 

The Tiller Girls
I now want to turn to think about the notion of the “post-digital ornament”. This is part of a project that looks to interrogate both the original theoretical work of the early critical theory literature, but also explore their concepts and ideas in light of computation and the post-digital condition. There is a need to critically think through the implications of computational imaginaries, particularly hegemonic representations of the digital – “post-digital aesthetics”, “new aesthetic”, “pixels”, “sound waves”, “interfaces”, “surface”, and so forth. This is new work I am exploring through a re-reading of first generation critical theorists and draws on Siegfried Kracauer’s writing on The Mass Ornament (1927) and related writings (Kracauer 1995).

As the historical distinction between the digital and the non-digital becomes increasingly blurred, so the idea that the digital presupposes an experiential and technical disjuncture that makes less and less sense. So in developing a critical approach to the digital by definition required the explicit recognition that the digital itself needed to be historicised. Perhaps today it is better to talk about the need to think in terms of “post-digital objects”. Thus computation becomes spatial in its implementation, embedded within the environment, in the body, and in society. Computation is part of the texture of life itself which can be walked around, touched, manipulated and interacted with in a number of ways and means. So "being online" or "being offline" is now anachronistic, with our always-on smart devices, tablets and hyper-connectivity, as indeed is the notion that we have "digital" and "analogue" worlds that are disconnected. Today the digital is hegemonic, and as such is entangled with everyday life and experience in a highly complex, messy and difficult to untangle way that is different from previous instantiations of the digital. The notion of the "post-digital" helps to give us a critical purchase on this moment, pointing towards the differences in this new post-digital condition, but also provides a critical way into thinking the new hegemonic form of the digital. Critical theory can contribute to this critique of the digital, and this post is an exploration of the critical project of the twentieth century, in order to orient and inform a critical purchase on the computational. 

Kracauer wrote that we must rid ourselves of the delusion that it is the major events which have the most decisive influence on us. We are much more deeply and continuously influenced by what he called "the tiny catastrophes that make up daily life". Such that we need a consistent, interdisciplinary attempt to articulate the material construction of a historically specific social reality. That is, a focus on the impoverished but potentially revelatory landscape of everyday life. He argues that the position that an epoch occupies in the historical process can be determined more strikingly from an analysis of its inconspicuous surface-level expressions than from that epoch’s judgments about itself. These surface-level expressions provide access to the state of things, because through their organisation computationally, aesthetically, elements that were “strewn helter-skelter” suddenly become meaningfully related.

For Kracauer the ornamental patterns produced by groups of dancers, for example, are the aesthetic reflex of the rationality to which the prevailing economic system aspires (see above for an example of the Tiller Girls). The mass ornament is not, though, simply a superstructural reflection of the prevailing mode of production. Rather Kracauer reads the geometry of human limbs as an ambivalent historico-philosophical allegory, insisting they are also a mise-en-scene of disenchantment. Thus, the mass ornament manifests progressive potential as the representation of a new type of collectivity organised not according to bonds of a community but as a social mass of functionally linked individuals.

The landscape from above
The post-digital ornament similarly resembles aerial photography of landscapes and cities in that it does not emerge out of the interior of the given conditions, but rather appears above them – granting a distant reading of culture, society and everyday life. In the midst of a world which has become blurred and ungraspable, the post-digital ornament becomes a primary element, a cultural analytics that provides connection and a sense of cohesion in a fragmentary digital experience. The relation to the post-digital ornament is an aesthetic mode, and the ornament becomes an end in itself – via data visualisations, interfaces, surfaces.

So the post-digital ornament consists of lines and circles, like in Euclidean geometry, but also waves and spirals. These formations are still in some sense opaque, composed as they are according to the dictates of a rationality that sacrifices meaning for the sake of an abstract unity of reified elements. The post-digital ornament suspends the opposition of the merely decorative applied ornament and the functional structure.

3D Alignment Forms. Animation of dancer's traceforms
in One Flat Thing, reproduced mapped to 3D space.
Thus producing both an ornamentation of function and a functionalization of ornament. Thus, by critically examining the very superficiality of the post-digital ornament as a surface, one can further explore the computational practices that underwrite and mediate this affinity with the surface. That is to look at how a spatial continuum devoid of both time and meaning is produced. Reading algorithms, for example, as material expressions of a particular historical condition. This has been explored by Synchronous Objects Project, The Ohio State University and The Forsythe Company project which aims to create a large set of data visualization tools for understanding and analyzing the interlocking systems of organization in the choreography of William Forsythe's "One Flat Thing.[1] These dances were quantified through the collection of data and transformed into a series of objects – that they call "synchronous objects" and we might think of as an example of the post-digital ornament – that work in harmony to explore those choreographic structures, reveal their patterns, and re-imagine them through data visualisation techniques. In some senses this is the de-temporalisation of movement, creating a spatial map formed by the aggregate of dancers' movements. The post-digital ornament is also gestured towards by the artist, Natalie Bookchin, in her installation and video, Mass Ornament, she writes,
In Mass Ornament a mass dance is constructed from hundreds of clips from YouTube of people dancing alone in their rooms... Today, YouTube dancers, alone in their rooms performing a routine that is both extremely private and extraordinarily public, reflect a post-Fordist era. Millions of isolated spectator/workers in front of their screens move in formation and watch dancers moving in formation alone in their rooms, also in front of their screens (Bookchin 2009).
We might say that the algorithm that instantiates the post-digital ornament captures the remnants that history has left behind, the same mere nature that appears in the algorithm is thriving in the reality of the society created by capitalist rationality. For example, in new social obsessions with consumption and conspicuous compensatory leisure, sedimented issues of gender, or in politics and norms. The post-digital ornament serves to train people in those forms of perceptions and reactions which are necessary for any interaction with apparatuses. Indeed, the representational practices of the post-digital ornament display an elective affinity with the surface, not the knowledge of an original but the spatial configuration of an instant. In some sense, the post-digital ornament stage nature and everyday life as the negativity of history. 

It is clear that we have an urgent task to mobilise critical philosophy towards contestations and interpretation of our present historical condition as manifested in computation. As computation penetrates more deeply into our everyday life and increasingly mediates our social and personal lives, the task becomes ever more urgent. For me this involves a critical re-reading of key theoretical and philosophical work in relation to developing concepts in a theoretical register but also to provide a means for developing empirical work in relation to computational society.

This leads to a theoretical and sociological challenge in terms of how critical theory can be deployed to think through this historical constellation. Questions of aesthetics, politics, economics, society and the everyday need to be reflected on in relation to the computation precisely because of the penetration of computation into all aspects of human life. This is a call to more rigorous scholarship in relation to the post-digital but also towards a praxis linked to critical practice and a critical approach to the aesthetic of computation and its mediating role both in and through computation.


[1] I would like to thank Maaike Bleeker for introducing me to these works at the 4M conference in Utrecht, 5th June 2014. 


Bookchin, N. (2009) Mass Ornament, accessed 6 June 2014,

Kracauer, S. (1995) The Mass Ornament, Harvard University Press. 


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