Archive for July, 2009

Research Statement

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

I am about to leave for Norway, where I will be one of the Keynote Speakers at next week’s session of the Nordic Summer University. In preparation, I answered questions in an email interview; I will reproduce part of it here, because it is the closest I have come to enunciating my own research agenda (or at least, part of it).

Question: In Without Criteria you argue for a ‘critical aestheticism’. Along with Whitehead – and Deleuze – you argue for the relevance of the beautiful rather than the sublime (and Kant’s “Analytic of the Beautiful” in the Third Critique). Can you say a little about this ‘critical aestheticism’ and perhaps your forthcoming book The Age of Aesthetics?


Most aesthetics of the past century has been focused on the sublime, and has disparaged the beautiful. This is because the sublime involves a moment of rupture or disproportion, whereas the beautiful seems to involve accommodation, comfort, and proportion. Thus, for instance, Roland Barthes is clearly on the side of jouissance (which is sublime) as opposed to mere plaisir (which corresponds to the beautiful).

I argue, however, that Kant’s analytic of the beautiful remains important, because it is really a nascent version of what Deleuze calls singularity. A judgment of beauty is non-cognitive and non-conceptual; beauty is that which cannot be subject to rules, or derived from rules. It is always a singularity or an exception. It cannot be reduced to norms. The problem of the beautiful is how to universalize — or even, how to communicate — something that stubbornly refuses all categorization, all universalization. The beautiful is something that, on the one hand, I feel impelled to affirm, and to communicate, but that, on the other hand, resists all the categories and norms that are presupposed by the pragmatics of communication and the norms of conceptualization.
I think of critical aestheticism, therefore, as a practice of affirmation that resists norms and categories. I think that critical aestheticism can be contrasted with, and perhaps even opposed to, the “ethical turn” in recent critical theory. “Postmodern” ethical thought, from Levinas to Judith Butler, produces a subjectivity that is infinitely responsible, but that cannot really do anything that would be commensurate with the weight of this responsibility. To think “ethically” in this manner is to misrecognize, for instance, the forces, processes, or structures of Capital that create human misery without this misery being anyone’s “responsibility” in particular. Aesthetics does not lead to an alleviation of this misery either; but I think that an aesthetic appreciation of potentialities and singularities is better than an ethical recognition of infinite responsibility, when it comes to responding to the powerful and impersonal forces that oppress us.

The best statement of these matters seems to me to be Mallarmé’s wonderful maxim: “Tout se résume dans l’Esthétique et l’Economie politique” (Everything comes down to Aesthetics and Political Economy). In other words, I favor aesthetics as over against ethics; and I favor political economy (or what in Marxist circles is often disparaged as “economism”) as over against the privileging of the political in such recent thinkers as Badiou and Zizek.

My book in progress, The Age of Aesthetics, reads science fiction in the light of our recent history of commodification, privatization, capital accumulation, and financialization, in order to think through the conjunction of aesthetics and political economy. On the one hand, 21st century marketing and commodity production seem increasingly to be concerned with questions of “aesthetics.” This is so, both in the manner of Fredric Jameson’s suggestion that “everything in our social life — from economic value and state power to practices and to the very structure of the psyche itself — can be said to have become ‘cultural’ in some original and yet untheorized sense”, and in the way that the aesthetic attributes of our existence have themselves become commodified and marketed, so that today we are incited to purchase, not just tangible commodity objects, but also such things as events, experiences, moods, memories, hopes, and desires. However, at the same time that the “aesthetic” is central to commodification and marketing, and thereby to the extraction of surplus value and the accumulation of capital, it also stands in some sense as the limit of all these processes, to the extent that the aesthetic, in its singularity, resists subsumption into the larger categories that are required for commodification and monetary exchange. Indeed, there is a formal parallelism between Kant’s account of the beautiful, with its tension between singularity and universal communicability, and Marx’s understanding of the commodity, with its singular nature in contradiction with its translation into money as “universal equivalent.”

Everything I have said here is, admittedly, controversial. These are not definitive statements of position, but initial hypotheses for my further, ongoing research.

Digital audiovision

Monday, July 13th, 2009

Yet another paper proposal. I wish it were as easy to write the actual papers as it is to propose topics.


In this essay, I would like to look at the differences in the articulation of sound and image in audiovisual media, that have resulted from the digital technologies of the last twenty years or so. On a basic ontological level, digital video consists in multiple inputs, all of which, regardless of source, have been translated into, and stored in the form of, binary code. This means that the most heterogeneous sources are all treated in the same way. There is no fundamental difference, on the binary level, between transcoded visual images, and transcoded sounds. This means that moving-image media can no longer be understood in terms of a (Godardian, or indeed Eisensteinian) dialectic between sound and image. Rather, digitized sound sources and digitized image sources now constitute a plurality without intrinsic hierarchy, that can be articulated in various ways. The mixing or compositing of multiple image and sound sources may arouse new sensory modalities (synesthetic, intermodal, etc.), and may exhibit different sorts of rhythmic organization than was the case with previous sound cinema.

I think that looking at digital audiovisual media in this way can shed new light on the current transition away from analog cinema. A number of prominent film critics (including David Rodowick, Vivian Sobchak, and Laura Mulvey) have mourned this transition, suggesting that something fundamental has been lost in the process of digitization. Rodowick, for instance, criticizes digital audiovisual media for lacking both the Bazinian indexicality, and the sense of temporal duration, that were crucial to the experience of analog cinema. But I consider it symptomatic that Rodowick almost entirely discusses the image, and has almost nothing to say about sound. A reflection on sound as well as image, and on the softening of the opposition between them, can lead to a very different take on the powers and potentials, as well as the defects, of new digital media.

My investigation will also have consequences for the historical typology of film offered by Gilles Deleuze in his two Cinema volumes. Deleuze distinguishes between the “movement-image” of classical film, and the “time-image” of modernist film. The former measures time indirectly, as a factor in action and in narrative. The latter fractures both linear and cyclical notions of time, in order to present us with sheer duration, or “time in its pure state.” Deleuze crucially insists that the “image” to which he refers is a “sound image,” as well as a “visual image.” Nonetheless, it is unclear to what extent his analyses of the “time-image” in the second half of the twentieth century can still be applied to the audiovisual forms now emerging in the twenty-first. I want to consider how these newer forms rework temporal relations, so as to provide us with a third sort of Deleuzian image, irreducible either to the movement-image or to the time-image.

Everything that I have discussed so far is rooted in the ontology of audiovisual media. But it should not be assumed that ontological differences automatically translate into corresponding differences in the perceptual and affective experience of the audience. Digital technologies process images and sounds in different ways from how analog technologies did; but they also provide different sorts of experiences to their audiences or “endusers.” Digital audiovisual works can be accessed in different ways; they can appear on different sorts of screens and audio devices, with varying degrees of sound and image resolution; and they allow different sorts of audience response, including a greater degree of interaction or intervention. All these factors play a role in how audiovisual works address the human sensorium, and in how they mobilize our feelings.

In order to address these issues, I will look primarily at music videos of the last decade, and secondarily at recent films that embrace something of a music-video aesthetic, opening up new articulations of vision and sound.

Red Planets

Thursday, July 9th, 2009

I just received in the mail today my advance copy of Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould and China Miéville. The book will be out in the UK in August (from Pluto Press), and in the US in December (from Wesleyan University Press). As the title suggests, this is an anthology of Marxist readings of science fiction. It contains essays by the editors, whose work I esteem highly, by several other friends of mine (Carl Freedman, John Rieder, Sherryl Vint), and by other scholars whom I have never met, but whose work I esteem highly (I won’t list everybody, but especially including Rob Latham). My own essay in this collection, “The Singularity Is Here,” about imaginings of “the Singularity,” and especially Charles Stross’ novel Accelerando, is available for download (as a pdf) here.