Review of David M. Berry and Michael Dieter (eds.), Postdigital Aesthetics: Art, Computation and Design (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 320 pages, £60.00
Reviewed by M. Beatrice Fazi, University of Sussex
Book details: http://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9781137437198
Abstract: Postdigital Aesthetics: Art, Computation and Design, edited by David M. Berry and Michael Dieter, successfully engages with, and further develops, debates concerning the ‘postdigital’ and the ‘new aesthetics’: debates which were born on the Internet, but which have now entered academia. The twenty-two contributions that compose this book critically address the ‘postdigital turn’ in technology, culture and society, and offer timely analyses of what postdigitality, and the aesthetics in which the latter often finds expression, might account for. The postdigital is thus theorised as a formal indicator of an historical moment, as well as of a cultural reaction to, and reflection upon, that moment.
Keywords: Postdigital, Aesthetics, Art, Computation, Design, Technology, Culture
Every now and then scholarly books appear that are able to capture the zeitgeist of a culture that lies beyond academia, but which also informs or reflects some of its concerns. Postdigital Aesthetics: Art, Computation and Design, edited by David M. Berry and Michael Dieter, is one of those books. It successfully delivers a snapshot of the debates pertaining to the ‘postdigital’ and to the ‘new aesthetics’: debates that emerged within the Internet, but which have also managed to transcend it. The book’s engagement with these discussions is, however, more than a useful reproduction of what has been said and done online. The twenty-two contributions that form this collection offer not only an overview of this topic, but also a developed commentary that adds greater depth to its subject matter.
This depth follows from the fact that the book does a great job of presenting computation, and its relation to the digital and the aesthetic, as fundamentally problematic. In other words, the computational is treated as a question for which there cannot be a programmatic answer, and to which it is necessary to respond by fabricating a ‘historical constellation’ (Berry and Dieter, 2) of concepts that outline the shape of the problem itself. In accordance with this call for theoretical problematisation, I will focus here on the term ‘postdigital aesthetics’. I will try to break this term down, but only to put it together again, so as to recount how the book addresses its formation, scope and effect.
The notion of the ‘postdigital’ is central to the book. Its chief contention is that we have left the partially consolidated domains of new media (and new media studies), and turned towards the less familiar terrain of postdigitality. This notion of a ‘postdigital turn’ (Berry and Dieter, 6) indicates a historical situation in which digital technology is, quite simply, no longer new. In his chapter, Florian Cramer comments that the postdigital is an expression similar to labels such as post-punk, post-feminism and post-communism (14). Drawing on Cramer’s observation, I would then say that the postdigital stands for a change that is subtle, and yet also powerful enough to mark the difference between the original war cry and the chillier lament that comes once the energy of that first provocation starts to dissipate, and once the agents of that provocation begin to regroup and reconsider. According to this view, the emergence of the notion of the postdigital epitomises the sense in which the disjunction between what is digital and what is not has blurred, as has any conceptual distinction between the two.
It becomes increasingly evident that a rhetoric of technologically driven epochal shifts has lost its traction upon culture if one looks at the present situation through the eyes of the new generation of people who has, famously, been born digital. The book thus clearly expresses the following message: whilst it would be easy to dismiss the concept of the postdigital as irrelevant in a world that is largely and profoundly determined by computational technologies, it is important to acknowledge the emergence of this notion as a sign of a generational and cultural disenchantment with digital information; as a sign that ‘our fascination with these [digital] systems and gadgets has become historical’ (Cramer, 13). The concept of the postdigital can then be seen as a ‘formal indicator’, to borrow Berry and Dieter’s expression (4), signalling, on the one hand, the ubiquity of the computational condition, but also, on the other, its inevitability.
The book’s analysis of the rise of the category of postdigitality would thus seem to confirm the feeling that there might be no ‘outside’ to this computational condition. In this respect, Postdigital Aesthetics: Art, Computation and Design offers an understanding of the postdigital as a productive, albeit challenging, sociocultural signpost that invites considerations of both concrete and abstract questions of opacity and transparency within a society that has to quantify in order to validate itself. By bringing the postdigital condition to the fore, the book crucially reminds us that we should always test the limits and capabilities of what we use, and what uses us, to mediate, represent and perform everyday life. The authors of the book’s chapters consider these issues by looking at operations and sites of the postdigital, such as interface design (Bunz), data visualisations (Cubitt), selfies (Tifentale and Manovich) and networks (Chun), or by exposing its ‘visual (un)commons’ (Parikka), as well as its logic of ‘dark patterns’ (Dieter), ‘glitch sorting’ (Apperley) and ‘gnostic governance’ (Tuters).
Although this qualification is not used in the book, I would say that the postdigital is, at its core, a phenomenological category (and I use the term ‘phenomenological’ in a broad sense here). This is because it addresses the computational in terms of its phenomenal instantiations: how it presents itself to us, how we perceive it, and how we experience it. In this regard, the notion of the postdigital treats computation as a phenomenon, and as a phenomenon for us. Perhaps the easiest way to expand on this phenomenological concern, which I believe to be implicit in the book, is to consider what has come to be known, online and offline, as the New Aesthetics. The latter expression originates in the work of British writer and artist James Bridle, but today (and especially when the term is presented in lower case, i.e. as ‘new aesthetics’), it tends to overlap with, and also partly exemplifies, the aesthetics of postdigitality.
The phenomenological gesture of the new aesthetics, I would argue, involves bringing into the realm of perception (and consequently, into the realm of consciousness and of aesthetic fruition) that which cannot be perceived. Briefly: the new aesthetics denotes an artistic and cultural attention to glitched computation, corrupted artefacts, low-fidelity technologies and low-resolution graphics, augmented realities, pixelations and faults in the system. This is a neo-analogue aesthetics of life after the digital; a sensuous mapping of computational systems that live in and mesh with the everyday, but which tend to remain incommensurable with it. The book explores this artistic and cultural moment insightfully, and it does so without dismissing or glorifying it. For example, the chapters that address the new aesthetics look at its genealogical formation (Paul and Levy), its relation to ‘social photography’ (Campanelli), and its connection to interpretative categories such as ‘remediation’ (Kwastek) and ‘vernacular banality’ (Andersen and Pold). The chapters also examine the new aesthetics’ emphasis on the visual register (Miyazaki) and on ‘real-time’ dimensions of data generation and distribution (Mirocha), whilst also problematising the truth-value of discourses surrounding the new aesthetics (Pinkas), and interrogating the relation of these discourses to contemporary socio-technical systems of perceptual production (Portanova).
Again, what emerges from these discussions is a critical will to comprehend the genesis and growth, as well as the validity and strength, of what digital culture has come to recognise as a distinct (and yet still open-ended) moment in the course of its own development. The book is successful in fleshing out the sociocultural circumstances and the theoretical tensions that have brought about what can only be described as a paradoxical situation. This situation is as follows: with the new aesthetics, the generation that was born digital has renounced the category of digitality; at the same time, this generation has also positioned itself in relation to the birth of a novelty (the new aesthetics), a supposedly new way of seeing (or of ‘seeing like a digital device’, as it is often said; see Kwastek, 77) that aims, I would argue, to repossess the digital technological moment that was declared to have passed already.
In my view, the phenomenological gesture of a postdigital (new) aesthetics may risk sentimentalising an artificiality that does not belong to machines, and which is instead a constructed or fictionalised idea of such machinery. However, the fact that the book can also be said to phrase the postdigital (and the aesthetic sensibilities through which the postdigital finds expression) as a first-person phenomenon affords an important theoretical consequence. This concerns the possibility of engaging with postdigitality in its full anthropological dimension. I am referring here to some of the important and thought-provoking claims presented within this book: claims that aim to challenge any assumption that we might be able to detach ourselves, and our techno-ontologies, from history, time and critical work. These claims, I would suggest, open the possibility of a philosophical anthropology of the postdigital, insofar as they take up the question of postidigitality and position it in relation to the never-ending enquiry into the human condition.
This book asks us to engage with the prefix ‘post-’ in modes and configurations that would not undermine notions of progress, social change and theory. Berry, for example, questions the postdigital as an epistemic prospect of experience and explanation; Dieter problematises a design rhetoric of and for augmentation; Bassett argues for a technophile feminist enquiry which would not solidify the present into an ‘inevitable ontological condition’ (140); Cox confronts contemporary disenchantments towards social transformation in relation to the ‘political problem of temporality’ (152), and Golumbia warns against surrendering judgment, and the faculty thereof, to machines. The anthropological dimension that I found in the book is thus conveyed via an investigation of lived, concrete experiences of the postdigital; an investigation of the ways in which we are products of a technological environment, but also producers of values and modes of assessment of that same environment. Moreover, I believe that the book expresses this anthropological dimension as an injunction not to give up on criticism, even when we are faced by technological modes, and human reactions to those modes, that might invite a loss of confidence in it. In this respect, the expression ‘postdigital aesthetics’, which Berry and Dieter’s collection so timely addresses, demands that we consider whether aesthetics per se might pertain to notions of progress, social change and theory, precisely because the postdigital, as a cultural form, is putting them into question again.
M. Beatrice Fazi is Research Fellow in Digital Humanities & Computational Culture at the Sussex Humanities Lab (University of Sussex, United Kingdom). Her research focuses on questions located at the intersection of philosophy, science, technology and culture. Her current work investigates the limits of formal reasoning in relation to computation, and it addresses the ways in which these limits shape the ontology of computational aesthetics vis-à-vis technoscientific notions of incompleteness and incomputability. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org