Since we can’t predict the future, we can never really prepare for the present. The present, after all, is always yesterday’s future, so we couldn’t have known how it would turn out until we got here. Thus we must continually try to come to terms with the present, as it happens, and I want to stress that this is an eternal process. It never began and it never stops. We are not the first, nor will we be the last to struggle with coming to terms with the present, and with how it differs from what we imagined yesterday’s future to look like.
I refuse to jump on the latest bandwagon, which appears to be The New Aesthetic. I’ve been ignoring it, waiting for it to go away, but it appears it’s here to stay. Bloggers are falling over themselves trying to have an opinion on it, desperately trying to cover up the fact that they didn’t see it coming. I’m here to admit that I didn’t see it coming. The reason is that it never arrived. I’m looking at the same things James Bridle is, and I do not see a movement, an aesthetic, or any sort of common cultural tendency. I see a bunch of neat stuff. Bridle’s blog is full of neat stuff; I commend him for it. But the successful memeification of his blog, the way a collection of disparate things has gained the veneer of a movement, like Modernism or Romanticism or Abstract Expressionism, doesn’t mean that there is anything that connects the dots in anything but the vague sort of way lots of things are connected.
Mills quotes Vladimir Nabokov, who said, “
The isms go; the ist dies; art remains.” I disagree: I think the isms and the ist are exactly as relative and subjective as art itself, which is to say that you can’t fault one without faulting the other. But I appreciate the sentiment. Words are cheap. Words can circle ten thousand times around an object, but the object remains unchanged. And that is sort of how I feel about The New Aesthetic: it circles around objects, but does not add anything to either the objects or our understanding of them. I’m not as skeptical of isms as Nabokov, but I feel this ism, this particular theoretical aesthetic, is too vague to be useful. The fact that it appears only to be definable by example, and the common denominator seems to be nothing more than “it’s, like, digital and stuff,” says to me that this isn’t really a movement. Which is not to fault James Bridle, who has tons of interesting and thought-provoking stuff to say, it’s just that I don’t think the New Aesthetic is a necessary framework for those ideas. And so I refuse to buy into it.
That is what this is: me thinking about some of the same things as the New Aesthetes—and some things tangentially or associatively related—but untethered from their theoretical platform. But since this platform is all the rage at the moment, I needed to get that out of the way first.
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There’s something odd about jetpacks and hovercars. They don’t exist. But the odd thing is that we keep clinging to them. For the kids that grew up in the 90s and 00s, this wasn’t the future we were promised. I don’t recall vacation homes on the moon or jetpacks as ever having been serious, or even semi-serious predictions about the future. By the time I was old enough to think about the future, these ideas were already passé. When my generation talks about jetpacks, it is a throwback: it’s nostalgic retrofuturism. Which is odd.
As basic attitudes to change, we can either be positive or negative. These are the essences of conservatism and progressivism: conservativism is about changing to preserve the status quo, while progressivism is about changing to destroy the status quo. Both sides understand that change is inevitable, but they have differing views of the present: conservatives see it as basically good, worthy of preservation, while progressives see it as basically bad, something to be destroyed and replaced by something better. It’s obvious that no reasonable person can be a pure conservative or a pure progressive. But progressivism is winning. Slow change went out the window with the Industrial Revolution. Today’s conservatives are slight progressives, while today’s progressives are really progressive. Their differing attitudes to the present extend to the past: for the conservative, the present is but a debased version of the past, while for the progressive it is an improvement on it. (Funny, then, that it works out like this: for the progressive, the present is always bad, but always better than the past; for the conservative, the present is always good, but always worse than the past.)
I see retrofuturism as a conservative way of coming to terms with the present. It’s odd because it’s such a temporal loop: instead of wanting to replace the present with the past, as would be a pure conservative’s dream, we want to replace it with the way we imagined the future (our present) to be in the past.
Ludditism, today, is any irrational fear of new technology. The original Luddites were anything but irrational. They were skilled British textile workers around the beginning of the 19th century, and the new technology they feared were mechanical looms that would allow them, the skilled workers, to be replaced with cheaper, less skilled workers. And they were right! The Napoleonic Wars were raging, times were bad economically, and a new technology was threatening to—and succeeding in—making them obsolete: unemployed and unemployable. They weren’t so different from you and me, in this current economic climate, with unemployment up across the Western world and outsourcing a common business strategy.
Neo-Luddites, though, are irrational. It’s so odd when I see folks my age fear or attack modern technology. Unlike the Luddites of Britain anno 1810, new technology is making us more relevant, more employable. We are the digital natives, the generation that grew up with personal computers, video games and the internet: every new technology that comes along only furthers the gap between the older generation that is on its way out of the workforce and ours, the one only just entering it.
There are two ways to oppose technology. One can either avoid it, adopt old technology and old methods, or one can subvert it, use the new technology in ways that mimic the old, or that otherwise negate the supposed benefits over the past.
Consider photography. Digital photography, for lack of a better word, has a “clinical” look. It is clean in ways that analog photography is not, but when it breaks apart, it becomes unimaginably ugly, whereas the flaws of analog photography feel as if they emerge organically as natural extensions of the photograph’s intended aesthetic. If one doesn’t choose to embrace digital’s look, one has two choices: either abandon it in favor of analog, or bend digital to make it look analog. (Personally, I think the former is the superior strategy, as I will explain below. The vast majority of photographs I make are digital; on the other hand, the ratio of keepers to duds is way higher when I do shoot analog.)
Damon Winter and Tim Hetherington both went to Afghanistan. Both photographed US soldiers resting. One of them subverted modern technology by using a high-tech iPhone and applying a retro Hipstamatic filter. The other used a conventional camera, presumably digital, although I don’t know. Winter is at the top, Hetherington at the bottom. Perhaps it’s simply the fact that Tim Hetherington was a better photographer than Damon Winter will ever be, but I think his sleeping soldiers far exceed Winter’s nostalgia-tinged war. The iPhone and the filters certainly don’t help Winter’s case. I have no moral qualms with his using an iPhone for reportage work, I simply think the results speak for themselves.
Ahem. Sorry about that little outburst. I dislike faux-nostalgia in the vein of Instagram and Hipstamatic, but not for Luddite reasons. I simply find this aesthetic to be a poor simulacrum of the real thing. Maybe it’s just that the wrong photographers have taken to it, but having seen Joel Sternfeld’s iPhone pictures, I doubt it. I think the fault lies with the technology. The reason I still sometimes use film is that the digital simulacra don’t satisfy me. But the day digital can deliver the same visual result at a price I can afford, I will likely leave analog forever. This is the way I think one should approach new technology: carefully, weighing the pros and cons both of adopting it and of resisting it, making a decision based entirely on one’s own criteria. This approach will inevitably lead to conservative stances on certain technologies and radical progressive stances on others. And that’s totally fine.
Nevertheless, I think it’s clear that Instagram et al are throwbacks. They don’t belong in the same category as pixel art at all. Where pixel art celebrates the idiosyncracies of digital, adding a polaroid-esque filter to an iPhone photo subverts digital, tries to hide the digital nature of the photo, harking back to analog photography. If you lump pixel art and Instagram into the same category, the same “New Aesthetic”, you miss this.
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Many of the things featured on James Bridle’s New Aesthetic blog are akin to pixel art in that they celebrate digital, warts and all. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about why one might oppose change, why one might fear new technology and embrace the past, but I haven’t talked about the opposite. Why would one embrace change? Quite simply, because there’s a lot of bad things in the world that change can improve. New technology saves lives that would otherwise go lost, and enriches everyone’s lives in countless ways. Obviously this will seep into culture in various ways. Thus we get pixel art, and voxels instantiated in sculpture, and so on.
Perhaps the most interesting phenomenon related to this is digital-analog feedback loops. First there was Lego. Then there was Minecraft, which in a sense is digital Lego. And now there will be Minecraft Lego. I shoot photographs on 6x6 medium format film. I scan them, and then print them out on photo paper. Analog, digital, analog. The abstract and the concrete intermingle. Douglas Hofstadter is salivating.
This is a general tendency that has been active over the past hundred years. Consider the Flynn effect, the consistent increase in IQ scores over time. According to today’s tests, the average person from the year 1912 would be labeled mentally disabled. Our thought is increasingly abstract; at the same time, concrete thought and manual labor suffer. (This flight into castles in the sky and the potentially detrimental effects this has on us has been a consistent worry of mine, as the archives of this blog attest.)
Inky links to a “New Aesthetic” essay by poet Kenneth Goldsmith. Goldsmith is a good example here. He writes conceptual literature. His books are not meant to be read. One consists of a year of transcribed weather reports. No one, not even Goldsmith, expects people to read this. It’s the idea that matters. Existence is not a predicate, whatever the ontological argument tells you; as such, Goldsmith’s books may not even be superior to the concept of Goldsmith’s books, if they didn’t exist. This is art so abstract that it is more interesting to talk about a description of it than it is to actually experience the art itself. Whether that makes you giddy or nauseous probably says something about you.
Perhaps it’s this that drives us to make Minecraft lego and voxel sculpture: while we may enjoy abstract thought, we also long for the concrete, the things that we can touch, taste, smell, see, hear with our own eyes and ears and mouths and fingers and noses. Unmediated reality. When our raw material is digital, what we get is the old digital-analog switcheroo. Which is an interesting trend, but also really, really broad.
That’s one way to celebrate technology: by adapting it and its forms into other media, by making art out of its faults and rough edges. But we must not forget that even this falls short of fully embracing technology. I’d argue that ordinary use of technology for the purposes it was made for is the ultimate acceptance. The moment we make a spectacle out of technology, even in a positive way, we create distance between technology and ourselves. Which is sometimes good, sometimes bad.
The real new aesthetic, if one exists, isn’t one that treats modern technology as noteworthy. The future isn’t TRON. It’s some guy sexting his girlfriend on the commute home as if that wasn’t a truly extraordinary thing to be doing, considering the past ten thousand years of human history.
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Remember video phones? Around the time camera phones started to creep into the mainstream, I was obsessed with cellphone technology. I spent money on paper magazines—how quaint it seems now—that drooled over the latest in VGA cellphone cameras and 4096 color screens and 16-tone polyphonic ringtones. I’ve since realized that this was an unfortunate period of technological fetishism. I have a Nokia 3310—monochrome green-and-black screen, but it had Snake!—that could serve my cellphone needs to this day. I didn’t need all that extra stuff. But anyway, one of the big things with video-capable phones and 3G was supposed to be video telephony. It was the future of telephony. No one would call anymore, they would video call. That didn’t happen. Instead, we gravitated the other way, favoring the arguably less personal texting to even the puny audio call.
But wait! What about Skype and Chatroulette and all that? Seems like video telephony took off after all. Just not in the form of telephones. Technological progress is inevitable, but it will also inevitably be shaped by our needs and desires as a culture and as people.
That’s a small comfort.Apr 27, 2012