Tuesday, 18 August 2009

It takes all sorts to make an episteme

Another approach to shifting cultural paradigms. Check out:

"Clarice Garcia’s compilation was built around the rebel manifesto that post-modernism is dead and duly deconstructed casual day dresses into irregular blocks of carnation, tangerine and orchid.



Tuesday, 11 August 2009

Another interview I gave (long, but good I hope)

1.) What is digimodernism?

At its simplest, digimodernism is the name I give to the cultural-dominant which has emerged since the second half of the 1990s in the wake of the exhaustion of postmodernism. It denotes a prevailing cultural paradigm, what Fredric Jameson called “a dominant cultural logic or hegemonic norm… the force field in which very different kinds of cultural impulses… must make their way”. In this sense it is postmodernism’s successor, although cultural history cannot, of course, be cleanly divided into watertight compartments: it is strongly inflected, in its contemporary form, by postmodernist residues, especially some of its habits of thought.
More precisely, digimodernism is the name I give to the cultural impact of computerization. It denotes the point at which digitization intersects with cultural and artistic forms. Most recognizably, this leads to a new form of text with its own peculiar characteristics (evanescence, onwardness, haphazardness, fluid-boundedness, etc.). But there are wider implications which make digimodernism, though easy to sum up in a misleadingly quick slogan, a disparate and complex phenomenon. Digimodernism is the label under which I trace the textual, cultural and artistic ripples which spread out from the explosion of digitization. Under its sign, I seek patterns in the most significant cultural shifts of the last decade or so, in such a way as to have predictive value: recently phenomena such as Nicolas Bourriaud’s Altermodern exhibition at Tate Britain and Anthony Gormley’s Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square have confirmed its outline of our cultural present.
However, digimodernism differs from terms which superficially resemble it, like “modernism” and “postmodernism”, or even “Romanticism”, in two crucial ways. First, it does not clearly refer to a privileged quantity of artistic content or set of artistic styles for creators to select from, mould and transform. It is not primarily an aesthetic given, at least not yet. Secondly, it is not found by merely gathering together the work of the era’s most innovative or intelligent artists and reading off what they have in common, as Bourriaud seeks to do. Both of these cultural-historical traditions are mired in assumptions about the avant-garde and the historical linearity of art which strike me as outdated. Digimodernism is not automatically an aesthetic achievement; to a degree it is characterized by a certain value-neutrality, evinced by the potential which opens before each participant as s/he steps on to Gormley’s plinth.

2.) Do you believe that digimodernism has come about as a result of the fragmentation and break up of grand narratives of postmodernism? Would you say that digimodernism is part of postmodernism or comes after postmodernism?

I think digimodernism’s origins lie in innovations in computer technology, which are in the throes of revolutionizing every inherited dimension of the text: its authorship, reception, material form, boundedness, economics, and so on. These upheavals entrain and are paralleled by a raft of cultural and social shifts. They are, I think, inimical to a postmodernism formulated well over a quarter of a century ago now, though it does not suddenly invalidate postmodernism to say that its moment has passed. The superannuation of postmodernism was noted in 2002-03, long before digimodernism became visible, by Linda Hutcheon and Ernst Breisach, among others. It is simplest to say that digimodernism succeeds postmodernism, because the former’s vitality is simultaneous with and to a degree reliant on the latter’s exhaustion. But as both terms are complex and multifaceted, so is the historical relationship between them.

3.) Do you think that twittering and blogging help to create a pluralist society and help to break up violent thinking/just one media voice?
4.) Do you think that Twittering and blogging etc fragments or unifies us as a society?

Remembering how Goethe, the apostle of Enlightenment, died with the phrase “More light!” on his lips, Steven Connor has some fun imagining his postmodernist equivalent departing this world with the cry: “More voices!” Postmodernism valorized the project of moving to the cultural centre previously silenced or marginalized voices (women, “colonials”, etc.), immeasurably and irreversibly enriching our sense of cultural history. Such a project inevitably destabilized certain entrenched cultural and social power formations, and there is no reason to believe it is finished. In consequence, there is an impulse to welcome blogs and Twitter. Quantitatively, they dramatically increase the numbers of people who write for publication and for an audience potentially global and enduring in scope. Indeed, all the platforms of Web 2.0 drive up the number and broaden the range of articulating voices in a way which postmodernism has taught us to see as inherently pluralist, emancipating, and transgressive.
The most obvious retort to such a view in this context is to point to the mind-numbing banality or the savage viciousness of much that actually appears on Web 2.0. The cultural empowerment of an ever-wider cross-section of the public runs up against its educational and social failings. More interestingly, it is the very digimodernist textuality of these platforms that predisposes them to these faults: it is their evanescence that breeds a tendency to triviality, their anonymity (or pseudonymity) that paves the way for aggressiveness. The postmodern project could not foresee this. The blending together in one space of such a vast number and wide range of voices seems unifying in effect, the renewal of pluralist democracy through a sort of electronic town hall or a challenge to the corporate control of the media. Yet social interaction presupposes a physical proximity that Web 2.0, which aggregates in large cyber-groups what are socially tiny numbers of people from an infinitely large and dispersed number of places, militates against. Moreover, I cannot see how, in ordinary times, a platform as evanescent as Twitter can solder a society together: a formed society rests upon a reasonably stabilized textuality such as books or films allow, enduring over time so that it can be shared and passed on.
The flipside of this, however, is that in exceptional circumstances, when a society is being re-formed through war or political crisis or collective dissent, the haphazardness, onwardness and evanescence of the digimodernist text are ideally suited to the dissemination of information on a wide scale which is intended as the basis for action. Many instances of this – the Iraq war, the Iranian elections, the 1st April demonstrations – can be given. Official information conduits are then bypassed and citizenship enhanced. Textual unformedness here goes hand in hand with socio-political uncertainty.

5.) In one of your blog entries you quote Charles Arthur as saying that 95% of existing blogs on the Web are abandoned and that the bloggers have moved on to Facebook and Twitter. Do you agree with this?

I have no empirical data on either the numbers or the motivations of people who abandon blogs. In my book I talk about the characteristic evanescence of textuality under digimodernism at the level of the individual creation, and Arthur made me wonder whether this might be extended to digimodernist platforms themselves, though logically there must be some limit to this. Twitter and indeed Spotify came to prominence after I had finished the book, and their emergence evinces the continuing dynamism of digital textual innovation. But the revolutions of digitization will outlast the social excitement they may elicit.

6.) In another of your blog entries you talk about Nick Cohen from the Observer as saying that professional journalists ‘look as doomed as blacksmiths in the age of the combustion engine’ due to Web writing. Do you think that journalism is being overturned by digitization? What do you mean when you talk about digimodernist novels and poems?

Contrary to some apocalypticists, I suspect that journalism will be turned inside out by digitization but not destroyed. There is a social demand for reliable sources of information about the outside world which long predated print and will outlast it. The contemporary challenge, and hardly an insurmountable one, is to monetize digital journalism. We can only speculate about what journalism will look like in twenty years’ time, but it may be that it will retrench at the level of the national/international and the weekly/monthly, abandoning forever the local and the daily. When speed and proximity are more important than breadth or depth, the digital and amateur will beat the professional and print; but also vice versa.
As for digimodernist literature, I’m not sure that this exists yet, though I can think of some proto-digimodernist works such as B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates. Nevertheless, there is evidence of a move beyond postmodernism in contemporary literature. Digitization has transformed the shape and status of many kinds of written or printed text, sweeping away or radically revamping such ancient modes as the diary, the cheque, the map, the newspaper, and the letter. One assumes that the highest form of writing, literature, will eventually be engulfed too by this wave. Already the authorship, production and reception of literature and books are being revolutionized by computerization; their content and style will surely follow.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Not desperate, but not romantic either

The BBC is currently screening a new costume drama about the Pre-Raphaelites called Desperate Romantics. It seems a useful peg on which to hang a few observations about the contemporary digimodernist conception of the past. Desperate Romantics is symptomatic of a trend in historical drama, and the points I am going to make apply just as easily to other recent TV series such as Rome, The Tudors, and Life on Mars as well as Hollywood productions like The Mummy or Peter Jackson’s King Kong.

Fredric Jameson famously identified the nostalgia film as one of the central instances of 1970s-80s postmodernism. In a world where “history”, or the sense of the past feeding into the present in a continuous cycle, is lost, it can only be evoked as something fossilized, stylized, and mourned: as frozen in aspic, transformed into fashion, and suffused with melancholic longing for what is now irretrievable. Desperate Romantics, on the other hand, could scarcely be more different in its approach to the past. It’s self-consciously tongue-in-cheek, as its joky title and nod to the series Desperate Housewives attests; a disclaimer at the start of each episode warns us that certain fanciful liberties have been taken with the historical record. But inaccuracy is not the issue here.

In short, Desperate Romantics recreates the 1850s as the 2000s in vintage clothing. As Rossetti, Millais, and Hunt stride heartily along London streets with their long hair flowing and their youthful eyes ablaze, they do look, as one reviewer commented, like a contemporary boy band about to burst into song. But whereas postmodernism might have richly played past and present off each other, as Blackadder or Back to the Future did, Desperate Romantics swamps its nominal past with the actual present. The cast move and talk like present-day Oxbridge graduates dressed in old-style clothes; no attempt is made to mimic the stiffness or formality portrayed in Victorian novels. The average viewer is given the impression that the painters were no more interested in or informed about art history and literature than s/he is. Their speech foregrounds present-day sexual frankness: they openly discuss their “virginity”, Effie Ruskin casually reminds her husband of when he “cupped my breast” – genteel characters have an easy sexual discourse that in 1850s’ England would only have been voiced by a prostitute. In a reversal of actual dominant ideology, Victorian repression is depicted as peripheral or as a joke: Tom Hollander’s Ruskin is uptight and anguished, but also ludicrous and marginal. The implication, as conceited as it is historically untrue, is that interesting and worthwhile people in the past were tolerant (open to other classes, genders, races), free (in sex and discourse), and indistinguishable from ourselves. Anyone else is comic relief.

Similarly, in Life on Mars a 2006 policeman travelled back to 1973 to discover that he was more knowledgeable (he knew everything they knew, but they didn’t know, for instance, that Britain would soon have a woman Prime Minister), more tolerant (towards women and ethnic minorities), and less technologically advanced (in forensic science) than his parents’ generation. They and their world are uglier, their food is worse, and so on. This assumption of unearned temporal superiority is partly explained as a product of the brain of a particularly self-confident individual lying in a coma; and though it cannot be articulated, the lost qualities of 1973 are finally inchoately felt in the show’s conclusion. On the whole, the present strides through Life on Mars’s 1973 like a messiah of knowledge, tolerance, and taste come to redeem the benighted heathen.

Some of the superiority of the present day here is well founded, of course, especially the advances in forensics and equality. Moreover, it is as long-standing a human trait to feel that one’s generation is better than its predecessors as it is to imagine one’s culture better than foreign ones. Since the early 19th century people have complacently enjoyed the myth that all pre-Colombian Europeans believed the earth was flat: if humans like to construct other societies as “backward”, they relish setting their invidious constructions in distant times as well as in remote lands. Life on Mars’s temporal superiority complex becomes limiting and unsatisfactory, while Desperate Romantics – which would like to see itself as a “romp” – displays a general indifference to the pastness of the past.

Essentially, it assumes that if 1850s Victorians are not like us, they are of no value or interest – they are, like Ruskin, cartoonish, grotesque, screwed-up. They need people like us to come among them and save them – real people, good people, normal people. This missionary premise was memorably dramatized as long ago as 1998 by the film Pleasantville, where the present day magically invests the 1950s with sexual fulfilment, personal freedom, and racial and gender equality. Pleasantville is closer to postmodernism in its treatment of the past, but the move beyond nostalgia, beyond fossilization and mourning, was already apparent. The present is here become arrogant, imperialistic, totalizing, and deluded: be as us, it proclaims, or be wrong, stupid, dull, unhappy or wicked. Such films and TV series are, then, morality plays in which, by living now, we are guaranteed to be the goodies: it is time that tells.