I’ve just spent the last three days at the SLSA (Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts) conference in Kitchener, Ontario. I saw friends, met people whom I had only read before, and heard a good number of excellent talks, plus keynotes by Isabelle Stengers and by Bernard Stiegler. I gave a paper (on which more later) in one of the Whitehead/Stengers/cosmopolitics sessions organized by Steven Meyer. I also was the respondent for a panel on “Aesthetics Beyond the Phenomenal,” with talks by Scott Richmond, Patrick Jagoda, and James Hodge. I don’t know if any of their papers are (yet) available for reading — they will all eventually be published as parts of book projects. But since my response most likely won’t be appearing anywhere else, I will post it here.
These are three fascinating and highly diverse talks. I would like to approach them in a slightly oblique way, as suits the discussion of matters that are themselves oblique. What these papers all have in common is this: they all speak to experiences that are below or beyond the threshold of human perception. They all describe works of art that contrive to bring into our awareness events or processes that cannot be apprehended directly. The video games described by Patrick Jagoda work “to render global systems” — those massively distributed networks in which we find ourselves invisibly enmeshed — “cognitively, perceptually, and aesthetically accessible.” Tony Conrad’s The Flicker, as described by Scott Richmond, engages in “perceptual modulation”: that is to say, it “configures perception such that it becomes affection,” inducing us to see things that aren’t actually there on screen, and bringing into the open the ways that our bodies actively resonate in and with the world. John F. Simon’s Every Icon, discussed by Jim Hodge, operates on a time scale that is incommensurable with our own internal time sense, as it is both too fast — flipping over at a rate of 100 times a second — and too slow — taking a time to complete itself that is far longer than the actual age of the universe — for us to be able to observe it concretely.
My own oblique approach to these three talks will consist in pulling back to consider their metaphysical underpinnings. The question of limits — limits both of sensation and of thought — has long been an important concern of Western philosophy. Even without tracing this question back to medieval formations of negative theology — something that I cannot do, since I know far too little about it — we may say that the problem of limits has been approached in quite various ways over the course of the last several hundred years. Leibniz was interested in the existence of micro-perceptions, which could not be apprehended individually, but whose summation, or integration, produced sensory impressions like the sound of the crashing of waves on the seashore. At the opposite extreme, incommensurable macro-sensations were the raw material of the experience of the sublime, addressed in the 18th century by such thinkers as Burke and Kant. We can also credit Kant with linking the question of the limits of sensation and perception with that of the limits of cognition, and indeed of the limits of Reason itself. In the Analytic of the Sublime of the Third Critique, the mind recognizes its own rational power in the very act of reflecting upon the limits of the (merely finite) imagination. But in the Transcendental Dialectic of the First Critique, reason comes face to face with its own limits, in the form of unavoidable illusions: errors that are intrinsic to its very nature, and that it will never be able to shake off, once and for all.
There are limits, then, both to what we are able to perceive, and to what we are able to comprehend. In the wake of Kant, Romanticism and Modernism alike — both in art and in philosophy — were largely concerned to test and to push against these limits. In the second half of the twentieth century, we still find these concerns at the center of the reflections on aesthetics by such crucial thinkers as Jean-François Lyotard and Gilles Deleuze. Lyotard’s injunction to what he calls “postmodern” artists (though I would rather call them belated modernists) is that they must strive to “present the unpresentable.” Somewhat more subtly, Deleuze sees the task of the modern artist to be both to confront invisible forces so as to render them visible, and to release cosmic forces from the limitations of the visible forms in which they are trapped. Lyotard and Deleuze, like Kant, are concerned with the limits and deformities of representation. Although these more recent thinkers insist upon the possibility of non-representational modes of affirmation, such as Kant never conceived, they remain committed to the modernist, formalist, and ultimately Kantian project of (as Scott here describes it) “the continual reinvention of a continuous medium, in a way that worries its specificity, and by means of aesthetic production that pushes the limits of what will count as a film (or a painting or a sculpture or a piece of music), usually taking the form of the acknowledgment of the material facts of that medium.”
The question to which I am brought by the three papers that we have just heard is this. To what extent do the works that thee papers discuss remain inscribed within the Kantian-Romantic-Modernist paradigm that I have outlined; and to what extent do they gesture towards a new, and different, tracing of the problem of limits? Scott’s talk approaches this question most explicitly, since he argues that the “proprioceptive aesthetics” of Conrad’s work mark a rupture with the standard modernist project. The Flicker works in the register of affectivity, rather than in that of cognition. It addresses the body, rather than assuming a notion of aesthetic experience that would be dissociated from carnality. As Scott says, it “places its faith in the perceiving body as a sensate and sensitive object.” In this way, The Flicker is perhaps no longer a modernist work. On the other hand, Scott also continues to describe the film in ways that suggest the modernist paradigm is simply being modified and expanded a bit, rather than being more radically superseded. On his account, the film entices us to perceive and feel what isn’t actually there; but in this way, it testifies to an undecidable intertwining of body and world which is the very basis of phenomenal experience. Where a more normatively modernist art leads us to cognize the very limits of our experience, Conrad’s piece rather forces us to feel those limits. But in this way it still ultimately conforms to the Kantian-Romantic-Modernist paradigm, in that it is concerned with the act of perception per se, rather than with what it is that we perceive. They deal, as Whitehead would say, with what we can know, rather than what we do know.
In contrast, the system simulation games and alternate reality games described by Patrick offer challenges that remain largely cognitive. But they also involve a sort of experiential immersion in complex networks and widely distributed systems that are entirely real, but that cannot be grasped phenomenologically or existentially. Patrick says that these games serve as “formal equivalents” for worldwide networks and systems — a condition which is something quite different from their being representations of such networks and systems, and which requires a kind collective or transindividual active participation, in a way that differs quite markedly from the sort of spectatorial absorption and/or critical reflection at the heart of what I have been calling the Kantian-Romantic-Modernist paradigm. Yet I am still not entirely convinced that any of these games really have the capacity, as Patrick claims, “to mediate emergent collectivities and render dynamic virtual worlds.” I remain skeptical, if only because each of these games involves, as Patrick concedes, “a particular set of political assumptions” — and also, I would add, of procedural assumptions. The problem here is that the engagement with, and reverse engineering of, underlying algorithmic procedures itself works as a sort of Kantian-reflexive validation of those procedures. I would suggest that this is not a bug, but a feature; the necessary, built-in consequence of any effort to simulate a complex system by means of abstraction. Games like PeaceMaker and Superstruct strike me as being a bit like Keynesian economics: they offer resolutions that might well alleviate suffering in real-world terms; but they are constrained by the very parameters that serve as their enabling conditions, the terms and presuppositions that allow them to function in the first place. Going beyond this horizon would require a game whose own rules and algorithms could be altered in the course of play. So I would say that these games, too, still remain within what I am calling the Kantian-Romantic-Modernist paradigm.
In his discussion of Simon’s Every Icon, Jim argues that the piece provides us with “an articulation of the technological conditions of possibility for an experience of time.” This is the case not just because the piece operates over — and forces us, therefore, to reflect upon — time scales that are incommensurable with our own capacities for phenomenal attention, but also because it demonstrates for us the gap between instruction and execution. Computer code distinguishes itself from other languages due to the fact that it is executed rather than read: that is to say, it is entirely performative, rather than semantically informative. It doesn’t mean something, but rather does something. We often assume, without really thinking about it, that performance is somehow more direct and immediate than signification: as if action were free from the detours and indecisions of hermeneutics. But Jim’s account of Every Icon shows us, to the contrary, that there is as much of an “opaque chasm” between instruction and execution as there is between inscription and interpretation. By the force of this demonstration, Every Icon induces us to reflect in a new way upon the conditions and limits of the “digital” as an aesthetic medium. As Jim notes, it radically revises the modernist figure and technique of the grid. However, while the piece provides a refreshing new version of the critical paradigm that I have been tracing throughout my response, it still concerns itself with its own conditions of possibility, and thereby doesn’t really escape this paradigm.
I do not intend any of my remarks to suggest any disparagement, either of the brilliant and innovative works that the panelists have discussed, or of the elegant and thoughtful accounts of these works that the panelists themselves have given. I seek only to point up the contours of the problematic that we have been bequeathed in this age of globalization and digitalization, and that we have barely begun to work through. The premise of this panel was to consider how “technical and aesthetic objects phenomenalize the non-phenomenal,” and how such a process might “inform an understanding of the non-phenomenal world.” I think that the contradiction between these two goals — of giving us phenomenal access to that which lies beyond the phenomenal on the one hand, and of open up a radically non-phenomenal sort of the experience on the other — in fact describes the difficult aesthetic conjunction with which we are in fact faced today. The tasks of conceiving a social order beyond that of capital, and of dephenomenalzing ourselves on the other, would seem to be still beyond our current powers of invention.