Libraries, Reading, and the New Aesthetic

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.

-Aaron Cope et. al. The New Aesthetic: Seeing Like Digital Devices, SXSWInteractive 2012

This is the original call to arms of the New Aesthetic, a seeing through the eyes of “the machine” and “the network.” Specifically it is interested in the glitchiness  of digital production of things and knowledge, although the thingness is still central as theory is still catching up with practice. Bruce Sterling says it is “ ‘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.” And some of the more techno-inclined like to make claims about it’s otherworldly properties:

My point is, all our metaphors are broken. The network is not a space (notional, cyber or otherwise) and it’s not time (while it is embedded in it at an odd angle) it is some other kind of dimension entirely.

BUT meaning is emergent in the network, it is the apophatic silence at the heart of everything, that-which-can-be-pointed-to. And that is what the New Aesthetic, in part, is an attempt to do, maybe, possibly, contingently, to point at these things and go but what does it mean?

-James Bridle, #sxaesthetic

James Bridle is selling this thing pretty hard, because as a tool, the New Aesthetic gives a whole other dimension which intrudes upon our own in quirky and unexpected ways. It’s nice, but in reality, it’s a fiction. Metaphors always break. Rimbaud knew that. “The network” is not a space, but it does take place in space, although it propagates the illusion that it doesn’t. It is not obliquely embedded in time: it is strictly tied to standardized notions of time which makes most of information technology functional. Sterling, again, is on point with his critique, which by unmasking the New Aesthetic, makes it more useful, as opposed to the semi-theological “apophatic silence at the heart of everything,” which dodges the very human story of any avant-garde movement and the very worldly and “in our dimension” conditions of “the network,” as if there was just one network to rule them all.

The New Aesthetic isn’t a chromed android glistening with scifi robot-vision aura. The New Aesthetic is a rather old, and hearteningly traditional, story about a regional, generational cluster of creative people who are perceiving important stuff that other, older, and dumber people don’t get quite yet. It’s a typical avant-garde art movement that has arisen within a modern network society. That’s what is going on.

So the New Aesthetic is really a design-fiction, it’s a postulated creative position. By metaphorically pretending that machines are our friends, we can see what they ‘see,’ and think what they ‘think’… We do get a payoff for that effort. We achieve creative results that we would not have gotten without that robot disguise.

-Bruce Sterling, An Essay on the New Aesthetic

To that extent, the people most interested in the New Aesthetic are less disruptive than those in avant-garde movements before them. The robot guise has provided some interesting results, but it is doubly worth asking: to what end?

For another part, the New Aesthetic fails the ultimate test of novelty: that of disruption and surprise. Misguided as they may seem a century hence, avant-garde movements like Futurism and Dada were not celebrating industrialism nor lamenting war so much as they were replacing familiar principles with unfamiliar ones on the grounds that the familiar had failed. The New Aesthetic is not surprising, but expected. After all, the artists now wield the same data access APIs, mapping middleware, and computer vision systems as the corporations. In some cases, the artists are the corporations.

Ian Bogost, The New Aesthetic Needs to Get Weirder

Bogost goes part of the way in his critique, and it has an authentic scent of a hacker’s call to arms, but even at this level, the underlying  drivers of the New Aesthetic aren’t fully laid out. Jon Goodbun illuminates the real drivers behind, the New Aesthetics, which are less of a philosophical bent than they are a techno-centric attempt to make sense of technologically driven forces that are reshaping our world.

But when Bogost wonders why focus on computers, asking ‘why couldn’t a group of pastry chefs found their own New Aesthetic, grounded in the slippage between wet and dry ingredients?’ it becomes clear to me what is missing in most of the NA discussion (and indeed much Latourian thought) so far: politics, economics… There is of course a reason why we are talking about computers and not pastry, and it is not because pastry chefs are too lazy to get their stuff together on tumblr. The point is that digital production technologies have become fundamental to the processes of global capitalism, in terms of production, in terms of finance, in terms of media, in terms of surveillance, and indeed, are also increasingly central in anti-capitalist movements and post-capitalist alternatives.

-Jon Goodbun, The Politics of the New Aesthetic: Electric Anthropology and Ecological Vision

Although I feel Goodbun overstates the “centrality” of technology in anti-capitalist movements (although certainly more central in post-capitalist ones), his main point shows why New Aesthetics folks are engaging with technology’s weirdness-es:  because it provides a new way to engage with the forces of global capitalism. Whether or not on is for or against it, the fictional filter the New Aesthetics provides captures the imagination of the machine and the network, as if you were inside of it, you would be able to get a better picture. I’m surprised that Mark Nunes’ incredible book, Error: Glitch, Noise and Jam in New Media Cultures hasn’t come up at all, since it examines the role of glitches and jamming as “counter-strategies” to the hegemonic systems like global capitalism which derive great power from technology. The repeating complaint, between Goodbun and Bogost, is that the aesthetic is informed by dominant modes of power (much as Futurism and Dada were).

So what does any of this have to do with libraries? Powerfully summed up in the practices outlined by Franco Moretti in his book  Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History, scholars have begun to use the perspective of the network has proven to be useful in looking at the products of human culture in the now-popularized field of digital humanities. Many of them aren’t as distant from the “tradition” of close-reading as Moretti, but they all lean towards a “corpus-view” level of reading. Alex Reid, makes the interesting argument that close-reading is an industrial-era skill:

What we ought to learn from NA is that while this particular aesthetic may be “new” right now, what is not new is the way that objects have always participated in our aesthetics. Industrialized attention, the kind where you watch widgets coming down the conveyor belt, is a trained aesthetic sensibility.

At this same time, I think the “close reading” model that dominates English and is exemplified here in the example of Conrad is one that is ultimately linked with computerized grading and industrial modes of attention. That is not to suggest that in the future we will not need to pay close attention to things. However it is an error to conflate paying attention with the specific industrial modes of attention that dominated the last century.

-Alex Reid, robot graders, new aesthetic, and the end of the close reading industry

Perhaps there’s a hint of ambient findability that sets up the tension between the New Aesthetics of reading and close-reading. I’m not sure I’m sold on the idea that close-reading is an industrial mode of attention, as much as it is a product of book culture, where readers need to simultaneously read in a linear fashion, and mark and annotate non-linearly to connect ideas which resurface throughout a text, and then link them with ideas from other texts. Libraries no longer need apolitical, abstract aesthetics to try and guide us. While new aesthetics are a useful tool for looking at humanity from a “machine perspective,” it is important to not overlook the worldview embedded in it, and engage with it critically and adding the word “New” is nothing but a mask for something which may be new, but also contains more of the same old.


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