Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Obsolescence of the Flesh

The Obsolescence of the Flesh, part 1
The Flattening of the World
By Baruch Gottlieb

“Only open wide your eyes, only disregard what you cannot understand, and you will see that the ploughman whose intelligence and ideas extend no further than the bounds of his furrow, does not differ essentially from the greatest genius.”(1)

At issue is the tissue of digital media, it’s materiality, it’s substance.

The contemporary citizen of the media-sphere, a-swath in information of every kind, may experience a depletion of meaning with the increasing ease of access to an ever-wider array of contents of various types. Do these contents individually somehow thus lose meaning? And, if so, how does the experience of the world lose meaning as a result of technological saturation? I will attempt to approach these questions in the lines that follow. My aim is, furthermore, to suggest a radical approach to counter this trend, a simple intellectual exercise which, when practiced, may reveal unexpectedly vast mines of meaning hidden in the surfaces of the technologies right before our eyes.

The explosive creative potential of digital media comes with homogeneity. This homogeneity begins with a flattening. Just as photographic printing allowed for Dada collages of all kinds of heretofore incongruous imagery with text breaking down the hegemonies of established meaning and cracking open the white light of pure electrical expression. All the things of world, flattened photographically into print, became interchangeable, and thus infinitely juxtaposable, at once unleashing enormous creative potential , and destabilizing old systems of meaning. Flattening meant equally, that the high-budget glamour shot of famous actresses could be on the same page as the humble writing of an unknown poet, Mainstream culture was appropriated into art through collage long before Warhol made it central.

With this leveling of content, this flattening, however, no new meanings were created, in fact, artistic discourse became polarized between a conservativism which relies on creating luxury products for collectors and, a new form of pure art which valued the un-commodified gesture of the artist, above all. Fluxus, the anti-art-capital-art movement par excellence, fittingly embodies this dilemma...

George Maciunas and his amorphous ‘group’ explored a new form of interventionist social experimentation, they called art. Fluxus works were purposely incomplete, and often made up of conflicting and incongruous contents. The agenda was the liberation of the creative and emancipatory potential of the mundane.

With digital technology we achieve the next stage of homogenization of contents. Now, not only images and text, but also sounds and moving images, in fact computer records of any kind, credit, medical travel, are interchangeably made of the same stuff, the homogeneous atoms of electronic information known as 'bits'. As such, they can be treated with refreshing equanimity by the computers we need to view digital content.

The equanimity of computers wears off on us. The computer does not know the difference between a photo of a pile of human corpses and a recipe for cheesecake, or the recording of a baby’s first words. The creative potential of the digital revolution of flattening is even more exponential that that of simple physical flattening. It is claimed the possibilities are literally endless.

One thing we can say for sure, with seemingly endless possibilities it becomes ever more difficult to make a choice. Meaning always involves a choice, of priorities, one thing must be more important than another, for there to be meaning.

Lets look at the materiality of an item of digital media. We can trace it back in two ways, it’s direct empirical materiality and the materiality of its origin.  Given that all digital contents are made of homogeneous bits, how did this particular smidgen of bits take the form of a photo or of a pop song, what is the historicity of this package of bits, this media item?

Following the direct empirical materiality we can only say that the media item has one fundamental ingredient: energy, or electricity. Electrical switches still provide the basis for all computation today. The switch is on or off, the dimensionality of digital media is one.

Human beings communicate today with increasing alacrity due to the flattening of representational forms. However, to make the process even more efficient, human beings are adapting to the machine circumstances of their intercourse and affecting a form of flattening on themselves. The satisfaction of social networking, for example, increases with the amount and the currency of the actual information one ‘shares’ with others using the service. 

In order to ‘share’, one must translate one’s gravity-bound three- (or multi-) dimensional humanity into digital forms, which are apparently two-dimensional and weightless on the display, and in fact part of the one-dimensional global ocean of digital media. The process of the ‘flattening’ of real-time human experience has begun. By all reports, they day is not far off where citizens will voluntarily implant themselves with digital technology in order to share with more spontaneity and versatility. This means, for humanity, three-dimensionality is acquiring nostalgia, as it acquires obsolescence.

The relationship between one-dimensional electrical data and the obsolescing human three-dimensionality is stands for is both cultural and physical.

The cultural relationship includes, of course, the economic value of the media contents, the meanings of which are largely allusion, like any language, an adaptable system of semantic prompts intended to motivate the subject the satisfaction of social needs i.e. Truth.

The homogeneity of digital media offers us a new lingua franca which is not only used for semantic contents but also as the apparatus of their conveyance. As Manovich described, program and contents are made of the same stuff, therefore instead of 2+2=4, in digital media the content and the 'functionality' is made of the same stuff , therefore, for the computer, 2=+, two equals plus.
"New media may look like media, but this is only the surface" (2)
With no differentiation between content and conveyance, we are bound to the implicit electrical agenda of our technology, which is to be explored through its materiality.

“Perhaps for the first time in Western Culture, we find revealed the absolutely open dimension of a language no longer able to halt itself, because, never being enclosed in a definitive statement, it can express truth only in some future discourse” (3)

One might argue whether it is the bit of electrical current or of monetary currency which has become the true lingua franca of today’s quest for truth. One may postulate that money represents the fading sign of mass in flattening human relations.

The physical relationship between one-dimensional digital media and the human organism comes from their shared electrical functionality. It is long known that the ‘high functions’ of the human organism employ electricity inside the body, first intimated by Descartes and de la Mettrie, and finally formalized by JW Ritter(4) . Now we can begin to see how the destiny of the human organism is to increasingly shed its cumbersome physical form and merge electrically with the unceasing data flows of augmented post-human intercourse.

In the second part of this article I will discuss in detail the material historicity (the materiality of the origin) of the digital media object and explore a strategy to establish a useful paradigm of cultural meaning in the circumstance of humanity merging with it’s data in a one-dimensional ur-reality.

(1) de La Mettrie, Julien Offray, Man a Machine, 1748 (trans. CM Shalizi 1995),, accessed 15-06-2008
(2) Manovich, Lev “Language of New Media” MIT Press Cambridge 2001 (p. 47)
(3) Foucault, Jacques “The Order of Things” Routledge, London, 2007, p.45
(4) Ritter, J. W.: Das electrische System der Körper. Ein Versuch. Leipzig: Reclam 1805 (review in Allgemeine Literatur-zeitung No. 31 Jan. 29 1808)

The Obsolescence of the Flesh, Part 2
The Historical-Material Facts of the Origin of the Digital Document
by Baruch Gottlieb

In the first part of this article I mentioned two approaches towards describing a materiality of the digital media item. First, I described the 'direct' materiality, which is essentially electric. The second materiality is historical.

I am preparing to publish this in book form, so, for the time being, I have taken the second part off line. If you want to read it, please contact me through this site.

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