Disclaimer: Some content presented on this particular blog entry is not my original thought and are not cited properly. I read a large amount of articles over a week, and put this blog along the way to help myself keep track of my train of thought. At the moment, if you are interested in any of the following information, please research and properly cite them. I will make up the citation over the next few months as well. I will delete this note after all citations are properly put in place. Thank you.
Scientific representation vs. Truth
When I was in college, my mother invested in Chinese stock market. I wanted to “help” her by using what I learned in my applied mathematics classes to help her predict the expected return of her trading habits. I spent a lot of time trying out linear-regression, time-series analysis, and stochastic processes, but the result was so arbitrary that it had nothing to do with how much my mom made or how the stock actually performed. I started to question – why is it not possible to use scientific method to predict the future?
In order to produce scientific account of nature that avoids idiosyncrasies to its best abilities, statistical methodologies were established to systematically compare, and judge numerous individual observations, in order to produce the most “average”, “representative”, or “normal” image of nature. In seeking the best represented “truth to nature”(Daston, Lorraine, Galison, Peter (2010), images that depicted exactly what was seen and felt were replaced instead by images that represented reasonable judgements based on systematic evaluation.
The “old eraser syndrome”
As a little kid, I was an ferocious collector of rubber erasers. I spent ridiculous amount of time in stationary shops after school and on weekends. Over the course of several years, I had surmounted a formidable collection. Among them, my most prideful spoils include a tube-shaped eraser that pushes out from a plastic lipstick container; a group of sushi shaped erasers that snuggle perfectly into a miniature sushi box; and a few limbs that fit into a rubber robot’s torso. When I was a kid, I never actually used any of these collectible grade erasers. Once in a while, I would take them out of my closet, play with them, smell the perfumes on them, and carefully put them back. Almost three decades later, I visited my grandmother and the house I lived as a kid. My grandmother brought out my entire collection of erasers, wrapped in a few layers of greasy plastic shopping bags. Most of them have lost their ability to clean. After I became a computer artist, I make most of my work electronically. I have not used a pencil or eraser for many years. The moment when I reached my hand inside the greasy plastic bags, touching these stiff erasers, my eyes became wet with tears. After I wrote about my eraser moment in an Chinese Art Journal, some readers also reached me. They told me peculiar experiences of losing an old sweater or hat, and the immense sadness that ensues afterwards. It reaches far deeper than simple reactive feelings towards objects that’s meant to shield us from coldness. This “old eraser syndrome” got me started thinking about a question. Every form of physical or digital interactivity is the external manifestation of an internal exchange. As a computer artist and art educator who makes digitally interactive artwork, how do I create and appreciate encounters with electronic objects that allows us to elevate above and beyond the literal, formalistic form of interactivity, and enter an emotional, intimate space of “grandeur”?
Feeling, or Something Like It
In his seminal work “The Psychology of Art”, Lev Vygotsky proposed that perception on the aesthetic level, such as imagination and feeling, must be distinguished from perception on the sensory level, such as taste, odor, and color. “The more attention we pay to a bodily sensation, the clearer it becomes and the better we remember it. But we cannot concentrate our attention on an emotion. As soon as we try, pleasure or displeasure immediately dissipates, and we find ourselves observing some irrelevant sensation or image which we had not intended to observe in the first place.” Similarly, the response to an digital interactive experiences often times begins with new types of bodily sensations such as Virtual Reality, bodily motion, etc., but doesn’t end there. Exchange on aesthetic level are various combinations of imaginations and emotions. Among various similarities shared between imaginations and emotions, the most prominent ones are – they are both indefinite and non-objective. In traditional art forms, the person experiencing the object of art maintains an observer role rather than the participant throughout the entire experience. New Media art forms, sometimes adapting multiple interaction techniques simultaneously to provoke audiences to surrender their consciousness completely to the dramatic engagement, but do so in ways that produces insufficient distance for audience to be able to comprehend the exchange at a necessary distance. The participant of an interactive art piece may describe the experience as real rather than touching, which is often times what happens with certain type of interactive New Media experiences we encounter.
A Powerful Gaze from Nowhere
In the past we have problem creating truthful representation of the world. Today, we have problem negotiating freedom with the world we visualized. Media Theorist Donna Haraway argues that objectivity in science and philosophy is a kind of disembodied “conquering gaze from nowhere.” She argues that in contemporary culture, everyone hides behind digital devices, gazing at others, while at the same time trying to escape from being subjected to digital representation ourselves. The result is the creation of opinions, results, evaluations, some kind of representational objectivity directed towards the Other, in which the subject is disconnected and disengaged from. It is an impossible “illusion, a god trick.”(Haraway, 2006). Objectivity, she argues, is always the specific instrumentalization and partial representation about the truth, not the truth itself.
In The Power of Money, Karl Marx also questioned the nature of our assumed knowledge about objects. If human feelings has “ontological affirmations” (Marx, 1866) towards objects beyond the narrow anthropological and biological evolution, the manner through which we interact with object must reflect these distinctly different characters of our existence. When the affirmation of object is dependent on our own gratification, we risk mistaking our own pleasure(eating, drinking, entertained) as the truthful knowledge of the object. Today, we speak of food as to be eaten, bed to be slept on, cloths to be worn, while being puzzled about how have we lost the ability to see, to feel, and to imagine, and to be more. An Object, or an object of art, in its true creative totality, must has a presence independent from the observer’s existence. Marx claims that one, and one’s feeling, is “ human”, in the sense that the affirmation of an object is based on one’s own gratification. Contemporary human relationship to things are manifested through private property – the existence of object for man, “as objects of enjoyment and activity.” Therefore, science, the pursuit of natural knowledge, is therefore a product of “man’s own practical activity”(Marx, 1866). By possessing the power to purchase, own and appropriating any object’s existence according to one’s own purpose, money becomes a “procurer”(Marx, 1866) between man’s need and the object. It irradiates the difference between the object and the self. Turning man itself into an omnipotent, godlike being, bounded inside a world where all others become a copy of the self, losing the ability to reflect and learn.
Techne, the outcome and process of learning
The Greek root of Technology, Techne, often translated as “craftsmanship”, “craft”, or “art”. It imples knowledge as making or doing, as opposed to disinterested understanding. As an activity, techne is concrete, variable, and context-dependent. It is not concerned with the “necessity and eternal a prioritruths of the cosmos”, nor with the ”posteriori contingencies and exigencies of ethicsand politics” (Young, Damon, 2009). Knowledge is not preconceived notion or judgement. Knowledge is the process and the outcome of learning. Techne implies a circular notion between knowledge itself, as well as the means of obtaining it. In The Origin of the Work of Art, Heidegger attempts instead to broaden the notion of technology into a more general concept of making or producing. The power of technology, therefore lies precisely in the fact that defying static conceptual category or ideal, it is a dynamic, ongoing process or movement, ever approaching and revealing but never achieving or concluding. Heidegger refers to the essence of technology as Entbergung, a term that can be translated as “revealing”, or more interestingly, “unsecuring”.
This circular notion of understanding was also very explicitly defined by modern mathematician and philosopher, Norbert Wiener. During WWII, Wiener was hired by the british military to invent an anti-aircraft system, one that could help improve the possibilities for ground soldiers to predict the flight path of enemy flying objects. Wiener figured out a mathematical modeling technique called Stochastic Processes, where the errors made in prior predictions became an input parameter of the next round of calculation. This self-referential circuit become crucial for the control of information. Inaccurate target tracking is gradually eliminated through continuous data smoothing process. What Norbert Wiener achieved was for actions initiated by a human to be to be measured, analyzed, mediated by a machine. “When I communicate with another person, I impart a message to him, and when he communicates back with me he returns a related message which contains information primarily accessible to him and not to me….When I give an order to a machine, the situation is not essentially different from that which arises when I give an order to a person. In other words, as far as my consciousness goes I am aware of the order that has gone out and of the signal of compliance that has come back. To me personally, the fact that the signal in its intermediate stages has gone through a machine rather than through a person is irrelevant and does not in any case greatly change my relation to the signal. Thus the theory of control in engineering, whether human or animal or mechanical, is a chapter in the theory of messages.” (Winer, 16)
In Beyond Cybernetics Hypothesis, Cybernetics theoriest Brian Holmes extends the implication of cybernetics to the social and cultural realm. He argues that the Nielsen ratings system attached to early TV sets in the 1940s was “the Cybernetic Hypothesis at work” in human society. The ratings reflected what TV programmes the public wanted to see. So, that producers could adjust their investments to meet those popular demand. This loop eventually allowed for a perfect “machinic equilibrium – a homeostasis” (Holmes, P2), enabled by machine, fulfilled by humans. According to Holmes, during the postwar era, cybernetic feedback logic expanded from military operation to politics and economics, in which individual actions were influenced by political economic environment, and changing them in return. However, it was unclear if the negative feedback is a result of people acting according to their own intentions, or just doing what they were told by society.
The Societies of Control
In his 1990 essay “Postscript on the Societies of Control” (“Post-scriptum sur les sociétés de contrôle”), french philosopher Gillies Deleuze builds on Foucault’s notion of the society of discipline to argue that society is undergoing a shift in structure and control. Where societies of discipline were characterized by discrete physical enclosures (such as schools, factories, prisons, office buildings, etc.), institutions and technologies introduced since World War II have dissolved the boundaries between these enclosures. As a result, social coercion and discipline have moved into the lives of individuals considered as “masses, samples, data, markets, or ‘banks’.” The mechanisms of modern societies of control are described as continuous, following and tracking individuals throughout their existence via transaction records, mobile location tracking, and other personally identifiable information. Norbert Winer’s Mathematical Communication theory helped won the biggest military victory in human history. However, after the war ended, when this theory was faithfully mapped in a social and political landscape, it resulted in the imprisonment of modern citizenship. Suddenly, we find ourselves trapped inside rapid shifts of structure and control, having difficulties telling apart voices of the self from the other. Discrete enclosures are vanished, boundaries are dissolved. Modern society now tracks our every intention through transaction records, browser history, GEO location mapping, sound bites, and pixels. The energetic, the magical, the grandeur are replaced with the effective, the deterministic, and the powerful. What did Norbert Winer, the master mathematician, the engineer of modern communication theory forget to calculate?
Gilbert Simondon was a French philosopher best known for his theory of individuation, a major source of inspiration for Gilles Deleuze. In his seminal work, Individuation, he stated that for a physical, biological, or social system to have enough energy to ensure its reproduction, its control devices must carve into the mass of the unknown, and slice into the ensemble of possibilities between what is characterized by pure chance, and has nothing to do with control, and what can enter into control as hazard risks, immediately susceptible to a probability calculation.
Opposing Imperatives of Machine
What Simnodon pointed out is the opposing imperatives that exist in a machine or information transformation system. Machines with a high information outflow and control their environment with precision have a weak energetic output. Conversely, machines that require little energy to carry out their cybernetic mission produce a poor rendering of reality. For instance, when we step onto an electronic scale, we might be prompted with how much we weigh precisely. We may describe this kind of information as effective or powerful, but not imaginative or energetic. On the other hand, when we read a poem or a novel, we maybe deeply moved or embodied by a specific mood, but we will not be able to get much clear guidance on how to lose weight from reading a poem alone.
Therefore, Simnodon argues that for any device, as in the specific case of sound recording devices, to truly reflect the material and immaterial aspect of the truthful nature of our reality, a balance should be made to “preserve a sufficient information output to meet practical needs, and an energy output high enough to keep the background noise at a level that does not disturb the signal levels”.
The Noise, The Fog, The Blind Love
We might never find out how does a machine feel about its own noise. However, we can imagine what a fog may feel like to existing relations. In french novelist Boris Vian’s 1920 novel, Love Is Blind, the inhabitants of a metropolis wake up one morning filled by a “tidal wave of opacity” that progressively modifies all their behaviors. The needs imposed by appearances quickly become
useless and the city is taken over by collective experimentation. Love becomes free, facilitated by a permanent nudity of all bodies. Orgies spread everywhere. Skin, hands, flesh; all regain their prerogative, since “the domain of the possible is extended when one is no longer afraid that the light might be turned on.” Fog is a vital response to the imperative of clarity, transparency, which is the first imprint of imperial power on bodies. To become foglike means that I finally take up the part of the shadows that command me and prevent me from believing all the fictions of direct democracy insofar as they intend to ritualize the transparency of each person in their own interests, and of all persons in the interests of all. To become opaque like fog means recognizing that we don’t represent anything, that we aren’t identifiable; it means taking on the untotalizable character of the physical body as a political body; it means opening yourself up to still-unknown possibilities. It means resisting with all your power any struggle for recognition.
Maybe words, communication, are rotten. They’re entirely penetrated by money: not by accident, but by their nature. We have to detour/misuse words. Creating has always been something different from communicating. The important thing is maybe to create vacuoles of noncommunication, interrupters who escape control.– Toni Negri and Gille Deleuze in conversation regarding conversation and transparency.