Stanford: Stanford University Press. ISBN: 0-8047-5011-4.
The meaning of critique in the age of technicity
Gabriela Méndez Cota
Against claims about the exhaustion and irrelevance of art these days, Krzysztof Ziarek argues in The Force of Art that art in fact works as radical critique within contemporary technological reality whenever it opens up ‘the possibility of thinking not only beyond the currently existing forms of power but also . . . beyond the very idea of being as power’ (Ziarek, 2004: 6). This notion pays heed to Heidegger’s warning that technology demands reflection beyond its ‘instrumental and anthropological definition’ (Heidegger, 1977: 312), beyond tools, machinery, media, and human purposes. Technological reality is understood instead as an ontological affair, a mode of relating with being which, depending as it does on the unconcealment of being, is ‘never a human handiwork, anymore than is the realm which man traverses every time he as a subject relates to an object’ (Heidegger, 1977: 323-24). In this sense, technology is inextricably enmeshed with what Foucault calls ‘the politics of truth,’ and particularly with ‘the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements’ as well as ‘the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth’ (Foucault, 1997: 73). Therefore, critique in the usual judgmental sense is itself technological. Heidegger’s designation of art as a realm appropriate for ‘essential reflection’ and ‘decisive confrontation’ with technology is taken up by Ziarek for a rethinking of what it means to critique, to call into question or to challenge domination in the current ‘Information Age’.
Prior to and beyond any categorizations such as ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, being brings beings into existence by instantiating ‘the very relatedness through which everything comes to be constituted as what it is’ (Ziarek, 2004: 32). In other words, relatedness in the modern world unfolds from a ‘disposition that determines the value of relations among beings and phenomena in terms of production and manipulation’ (Ziarek, 2004: 61). Following Heidegger, Ziarek asserts that the essence of modern technology is ‘the global technicity of being as a web of forces [organized] technologically for the benefit of power’ (37). Since for Heidegger aesthetics, like the whole of Western metaphysics, is ultimately complicit with technicity, Ziarek proposes to understand art non-aesthetically as ‘the power-free momentum of the event’ (59). As such, art can be expected to open a space in the midst of technicity from which it is possible to challenge the latter’s domination. Ziarek invites us to consider ‘the impossibility of a positive translation or representation of art’s forcework’ (13) not as a lack or deficiency in art but as the very condition of possibility of its transformative dimension. This possibility ‘lies beyond the complicities with and/or resistances to regimes of power and ideologies which mark both the content and the formal aspects of artworks’ (13). In this way, Ziarek extends to contemporary art his very stimulating interpretation of avant-garde art as an attempt to transform ‘what it means to be free in the face of growing technologization’ (16) by calling into question our technicist, ‘narrowing and uncritical understanding of experience’ (17). As radical critique, art would pave the way for a critical discourse on technology, one that could become aware of the contingent and limited nature of the subject-object dialectic which has traditionally structured Western critique, that is to say, Western politics of truth.
The force of ambiguity as critical self-awareness
For Heidegger technicity posed the ‘extreme danger’ of making us forget the essential ‘mystery of all revealing’ (1977: 338): namely, the essential ambiguity of every disclosure of being. By failing to reflect on this ambiguity — for example, by naively thinking that technology is a mere instrument of our human intentions — we would give up freedom as the basis of our relationship with technicity. Heidegger tells us that before the advent of modern technology, it was art that helped the Greeks remember the uncertainty of their world and the need to acknowledge all their acts as dangerous decisions. By giving ‘to things their look and to men their outlook on themselves’, art was supposed to occasion a sense of risk that transformed ‘the people’s saying’ into a battle, into a decision about ‘what is holy and what unholy, what great and what small, what brave and what cowardly’ (Heidegger, 1936: 168-69). Art, in the form of a religious temple or the founding of a state, was recognizable for its capacity to take human beings ‘out of [their] captivity in beings’ and to expose them ‘to the openness of Being’ (Heidegger, 1936: 192). By contrast, in modern technological societies, ‘in this doom’ (Heidegger, 1936: 170), art is increasingly difficult to grasp. In this vein, Ziarek presents ‘the Information Age’ as the most recent incarnation of technicity, ‘with its increasing capability, desire, and need to digitize everything, and thus to turn being into a global, continuously modifiable and expandable data bank’ (63). The ‘digital disposition of being,’ he says, gives us an ‘informational essence’, ‘a kind of ontological genetic code’ (75), whereby our being ‘becomes reducible to electronic impulses, data, and digital inscriptions’ (64). No wonder that art, understood in Heidegger’s terms as something that ‘is not convertible to information and mobilizable for the sake of power’ (Ziarek, 2004: 64), can be perceived by many today as lacking in being, as exhausted or irrelevant.
Whether or not we accept Heidegger’s ‘horror story’ about modernity as technicity — along with his preference for ancient Greece as the ultimate point of reference (see Poster, 2002: 18-25) — Ziarek is far from alone in pointing out that art in ‘the Information Age’ has become a ‘matter of the same manipulation, reducibility to information, and reprogramming that we see rapidly advanced in the realms of digital technology or genetic engineering’ (2). Most ‘digital art’ seems to perpetuate what Bolter and Grusin call the ‘logic of immediacy’: the desire for ‘a transparent interface . . . that erases itself, so that the user is no longer aware of confronting the medium, but instead stands in an immediate relationship to the contents of that medium’ (2000: 24). Driven by a desire for immediacy, digital art merely expands and reinforces what Heidegger called the ‘instrumental definition of technology’. The same would go for apparently less technical definitions of art in the Information Age, such as Mark Tribe and Reen Jana’s definition of ‘new media art’ as ‘projects that make use of emerging media technologies and are concerned with the cultural, political, and aesthetic possibilities of these tools’ (2006: 6). By positioning avant-garde movements, Pop, Conceptual and Video art as antecedents of new media art — as opposed, for example, to Greenberg’s formalist canon — Tribe and Jana seek to avoid the idea that new media art is a purely technical concern with emerging media technologies. However, since they define new media art by the diverse ‘uses’ that the new ‘tools’ are given, their approach aligns itself neatly with the ‘anthropological’ attitude towards technology. The consequence is inevitably that, as an aesthetic object, art in the Information Age ‘is most often reduced to a tool in cultural, ideological, and identity wars’ (Ziarek, 2004: 1).
Yet, going beyond Heidegger’s pessimism about modern art, Ziarek attempts to show how, even in the Information Age, art still has the capacity to open up human beings by transforming ‘the usual ways of perceiving, knowing, and acting that constitute this world’ (27). His argument is that if we understand art not as an aesthetic object but as ‘a force-field where forces drawn from historical and social reality come to be transformed into an alternative relationality’ (7), it is possible to explain how ‘the creation of an artwork, while it inscribes both the forces and relations of production that regulate its social context, not only exceeds but also revises the very modality of transactions between forces that obtain within the paradigm of production’ (9). Ziarek’s approach to art raises above the materiality of the medium. As a technical concern with the digital medium, art would be indistinguishable from technicity, and only confirm Heidegger’s forecast that in the modern world, art is bound to end. By contrast, Ziarek asks us to conceive a different possibility, namely that art works by ‘bringing into thought the very space in which the modality of relations becomes decided’ and by enacting ‘the rift in techne between the poietic and technical momentum of forces’ (39).
Ziarek discusses a number of artworks as instantiations of art’s transformative force, showing us how to tell the difference between technicity and poiesis (creation). From this perspective, it seems that Tribe and Jana’s definition of ‘new media art’ is missing something: namely, a criterion for identifying a ‘critical’ deployment of technology itself in new media art practices, apart from the critical purposes or intentions of the artists who use new media as tools.
Telematic technicity and transgenic poiesis
While Ziarek admits that a web-based artwork is ‘more open to chance, to flexible, contingent participation’ (192) than some earlier art forms, he warns us against intoxication with ‘universal interactivity’ and insists upon interrogating whether the blurring of boundaries between artist and audience in the new media environment constitutes an enhancement or an increase of forces (191). In examining The Telematic Manifesto, a participatory collective net document where the concept of a web-based ‘total work of art’ is enthusiastically embraced, Ziarek concludes that ‘interactivity as the basis of new Internet art comes at the price of power’ because telematic technicity is ‘inscribed into its very matrix’ (196). Ziarek’s argument is that The Telematic Manifesto uncritically employs words such as ‘global’ and ‘totalizing’ (85), words which ‘are always already co-opted into the expanding network of informational power, confirming and instituting being as information’ (93). This criticism is meant for all kinds of futuristic rhetoric which celebrates ‘new possibilities’ without desisting from the ‘fundamental idea’ that art works in the form of making, production, or manipulation (90). As a consequence of not confronting technology in an ‘essential’ way, every form enacted by telematic art risks being limited to the ‘actualization of an ever-expanding technicity’ or to the widening of its scope, rather than being ‘a critique and negation of categorical determinations of social relations’ (87) or ‘a transformation in the very momentum of technicity toward the intensification of power’ (89).
If The Telematic Manifesto instantiates what we might call ‘uncritical’ new media art, Eduardo Kac’s transgenic artworks constitute for Ziarek genuine ‘forcework’, which calls into question technicity by rendering it visible and playing with ‘the increasingly thin and problematic boundary between art and technology’ (95). GFP Bunny, Kac’s ‘engineered’ fluorescent bunny — the result of having a gene transferred from a jellyfish to an albino rabbit — would render explicit the ‘zone of indistinction’ between art and ‘the scientific, technological deployment of the powers of genetic engineering in the service of creating new, transspecies forms of life’ (95). For Ziarek, Kac’s work points to ‘the intrinsic possibility of a turn’ within technicity (97). The artist’s decision to bring home the fluorescent bunny and live with it instantiates such a turn, or transformation, in the momentum of forces, from the calculability required by genetic modification to the releasing of a ‘responsibility for life,’ in Kac’s own words. In this sense, argues Ziarek, art’s forcework is the ‘event of the world happening “otherwise”‘ (42).
Ziarek’s differentiation between the technic and the poietic momentum of forces provides a criterion for distinguishing art which is significant for a critical discourse and art which is not so significant: the decision here depends on whether or not ‘technical relationality comes to reflect upon itself and calls itself into question’ (99). It could still be the case that The Telematic Manifesto would overtly position itself against economic globalization or totalitarian states, but would remain uncritical in a properly poietic sense. This is because, whereas specific conflicts, antagonisms, and injustices could be ‘thematically expressed’ in art (Ziarek, 2004: 122), the critical force of art is ‘non-dialectical’ (Ziarek, 2004: 55). In other words, ‘[w]hile negation and affirmation are always already involved in the play of power, the event’s force of nihilation opens up a . . . dimensionality in which relations transpire as power-free’ (57). I would like to explore the meaning of ‘nihilation’ as a form of critique which emerges in response to an ethical predicament – that of being within technology as within a regime or politics of truth. For Ziarek, it is clear that art’s transformative force occurs within technicity, that it ‘does not signify its independence or separation from socioeconomic or technological forces but indicates its capacity to inflect or rework the very relationality of forces that underlies and stratifies social manifestations of power’ (36). In Kac’s GPF Bunny we have seen a way in which art’s force may be released as a ‘responsibility for life,’ acting as an alternative to mere manipulation and production.
From originary freedom to originary technicity
Ziarek bravely suggests that art is ‘better’ than politics when it comes to a radical critique of the current politics of truth. He cites radical thinkers on race and gender, such as Paul Gilroy, Luce Irigaray and Frantz Fanon, as having all pointed ‘to poiesis rather than to labor as a source of liberation’ (16). Interesting as it sounds, this raises doubts about setting up an opposition between art’s forcework on the one hand, and signs and signification (and labour) on the other — when saying, for example, that Gertrude Stein’s writings, because ‘unorthodox and idyosincratic,’ set language free from ‘the grip that the idea of the efficiency of representation and communication has on it’ (46). Here the idea that signs and signification carry ‘power’s ability to exercise and reproduce itself’ seems to lead Ziarek to argue that since art works at a ‘predeterminative’ level, it actually ‘radicalizes’ and constitutes ‘an alternative to politics’ (14). But it is difficult to see how Kac’s Genesis would provide so much material for analysis without the biblical passage about human domination of the world, which is, after all, a meaningful content in the conventional sense of signs and signification. Although we can accept that parody and other avant-garde strategies against ‘semantic transparency and communicative efficiency’ (47) work on a level different from ordinary language, and that both of them ‘release’ a ‘spatial-temporal singularity, incalculable as such and irreducible to informational content or code’ (24), it is not so easy to agree on the extent to which they can constitute an alternative ‘to’ politics (14). In this respect, the claim that both art and technicity do not operate fundamentally ‘on the level of objects, people, or things’ but rather underneath perception, knowledge, acting, and valuing (28), raises a number of questions.
Power’s ability to exercise and reproduce itself through anything that is conventional and recognizable is presented by Ziarek as that which ‘true’ art must somehow keep at bay, in order for us to essentially reflect upon the mystery of all revealing. In order to be truly critical of technology, we are asked to mistrust everything happening on the level of signs and signification, and actually recur to the ‘protolanguage’ of art. Yet when Ziarek refers to Liubov Popova’s 1921 series of space-force constructions, he argues that their ‘abstract lines of force, their intersections and tensions, represent a move beyond representational optics in an attempt to figure the spaces of relating, the mode of relationality’ (26, my emphasis). Without suggesting that this interpretation of abstract art is arbitrary, I would draw attention to Ziarek’s treatment of artworks as arguments for a theory about the language of being which is prior to language, and take this as an opportunity for distancing oneself from the whole story of technicity as that which we must ‘oppose’ (if not merely in a dialectical way). The ‘move beyond representational optics’ is a theoretical one; it relies on certain narratives about the West. Perhaps it is possible, just as it is possible for art, to imagine an alternative to it where technicity is originary not as a violent mode of relation but also as the very possibility of freedom.
Beyond the enigmas of a horror story: the body as originary technicity
It is necessary, I argue, to think technicity not primordially in terms of metaphysical domination but first of all in terms of a body learning to be affected by a physical world. This is precisely Bruno Latour’s definition of the body, and I think it is important because it allows us to reconsider the association of technicity with ‘doom’, a line of through which, for better or worse, has been inherited from Heidegger. For Ziarek, the physicality of artworks is what ‘highlights the “inconstant,” volatile, and transformative event at the core of art’ (9). A body too has an originary capacity for transformation (‘freedom’), but this is something inseparable from its originary technicity. But whereas Ziarek ultimately associates fragmentation as a form of critical thinking with a violent, disembodied disclosure of being, theorists such as Marshall McLuhan and Vilém Flusser view fragmentation as the technological capacity of our bodies to analyze, abstract, and sequentially organize individual segments from iconic media, such as images and oral languages. If analysis and abstraction are basic operations of critical thinking, Flusser sees fragmentation as a physical condition for ‘the artificial time of human freedom’ (1973-74: 7). In a way, this approach leads back to what Heidegger criticized as ‘humanism’, but arguably, it is possible to reconcile the two approaches precisely through the kind of critique at which art points in Ziarek’s account: a critique which is not merely analytic or self-distancing but which is a reminder and an acceptance of our responsibility, as artificial animals — or bodies in constant self-making — towards difference.
Significantly, Latour argues that ‘there is no sense in defining the body directly’ and focuses instead on the possibility of ‘rendering the body sensitive’ to other bodies or elements (2004: 206). The acquisition of a body is enabled, he emphasizes, by ‘an artificially created set-up’, which is seen not as ‘external’ but as ‘coextensive’ with the bodies learning to be affected (209). Latour illustrates his definition with the specific example of noses trained for the perfume industry. We return here to the Foucault-inspired ambivalence of the notion of docile body. For Foucault, power does not operate on the body as if it was just a surface but rather ‘between the body and the object it handles,’ constituting ‘a body-weapon, body-tool, body-machine complex,’ so that ‘[t]he regulation imposed by power is at the same time the law of construction of the operation’ (1977: 268). This law, in turn, can be understood not in a juridical, but in a productive sense, in the sense of being taught by, and made coextensive with, other beings, such as a writing instrument and a phonetic alphabet. If we understand this learning process as mimesis, ‘not merely a mode of representation but the process by which ‘”all men learn” . . . via merging knower and known’ (McLuhan, 1988: 16), it is possible to conceive of the acquired body in terms of ‘a mode of perception and then of culture’ (McLuhan, 1988: 17). In this vein, Foucault himself describes ‘the role of writing’ in Hellenistic practices of the self as that of constituting a ‘body’, one which should be understood ‘following an often-evoked metaphor of digestion — as the very body of the one who, by transcribing his readings, has appropriated them and made their truth his own: writing transforms the thing seen or heard “into tissue or blood”‘ (1997: 213).
Ziarek’s book about the transformative force of art is potent and illuminating, but it also requires to be situated alongside alternative phrasings of technicity, those that do not see it primarily as a drive to subjugate being trough the digitization of everything, but rather as the ambivalent manifestation of an originary capacity for self-transformation by virtue of contact with other human and non-human entities. This capacity, which we may understand, to use Bernard Stiegler’s term, as originary technicity, would be determinant of human beings in a cybernetic sense, within ‘something coherent and organized [which] arises not from a single cause but from any number of factors that converge to form a “looping” or feedback structure, giving rise to what is called a “self-organising’ phenomenon”‘ (Lister et al., 2003: 34). In this account, the mystery of all revealing is re-presented as a physical phenomenon which can be addressed in a number of ways, with critique operating on various levels. Change might be occasioned from within this phenomenon, from within technology as the politics of truth, if the physicality of its factors is acknowledged and, indeed, manipulated. This is not to say that art in the Information Age should be limited to a purely technical concern with digital media, but rather that we should recognize each medium’s specific physicality. Whereas Ziarek associates digitality with domination-driven being-in-the world, I suggest that we see the physical dimension of digitality also as an opportunity to ‘remediate’ old patterns of behavior, such as the idea of a self-contained human body. Body modification practices such as Stelarc’s, for example, involve emergent media technologies in the form of a fascination with ‘the processes of translation and transduction’ of the body, via ‘alternate interfaces that you would not normally experience’ (Stelarc in Hall & Zylinska, 2003: 4-5). In a similar vein, Kac’s work can be said to suggest not merely a parody of manipulative rationality, but also a physical breaking down of boundaries between reified categories of the ‘natural’ and the ‘cultural’. The biblical passage seems to be challenged by digitality itself and not merely by art’s enigmatic force. In this sense, Foucault’s appeal to originary freedom should perhaps be turned into an appeal to originary technicity, where our capacity to be affected and transformed by human and non-human entities is seen as the source of change in the midst of a sedimented politics of truth.
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Gabriela Méndez Cota is a postgraduate student in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, UK. She is supported by Programme AlBan, the European Union Programme of High Level Scholarships for Latin America (scholarship no. EO6M100752MX).