I wrote this after Bruce Sterling’s original New Aesthetic manifesto (which is itself a response to James Bridle’s New Aesthetic tumblr blog and theory). Some of these are ideas that I had already been formulating and I had already planned on writing about. I had for some time considered the fact that we are moving towards what I call a “New Sincerity” even before the proposed New Aesthetic banner. Mine is more of a cultural assessment than it is just an appraisal of an art movement, however. I found the New Aesthetic idea to be far too limited in scope and vision although it touched upon some of what is, and is going to be important, in the future.
If there is one thing I think can define this generation it is the bridging of initially oppositional concepts. Digital and physical. Virtual and real. Amateur and professional. Irony and sincerity. Honesty and dishonesty. Introvert and extrovert. I would argue this conflation and blurring of boundaries into various shades of gray is anchored by the evolution of dominant media forms and screen technologies.
I’m not an academic by any means and this is merely an essay about things I have perceived using a series of examples that I feel represent a shift in culture. I sometimes have reservations about writing these kinds of essays since I feel my own point of reference is somewhat limited. I felt at least this time what I said could still be expressed adequately with the knowledge I did have. It would be nice if people could actually read it and tell me what they think. I would appreciate it. Thank you.
Ever since that initial crowd witnessed a projected locomotive rumbling towards them and they shook with horror we have been held hostage by screens. It was not merely the projection of an image but the cognitive dissonance of feeling something real that was not actually present that shook us out of our bodies. The projected, and subsequently transmitted and then streamed images have not simply immersed us in their warm glow nor have they merely desensitized us. It would be too simplistic to characterize them as all encompassing and pervasive. Instead, since the advent of screen-based imagery, they have operated as a kind of lockbox where we increasingly keep more and more of what is precious to us within. Things we would rather save up and hold on to rather than ever risk losing by trying to attain them in real life.
Cinema manifested and externalized our dreams for us so we never had to achieve them for ourselves and we could revisit them anytime we wanted to. It gave us an endless replay of the impossible so that we never had to reach for it again. Television gave us the vision of an idealized life leaving us happy with a mundane existence so we no longer had to work towards more than just living. With computer technology and ultimately social media networking we have given up to the lockbox even our very social nature relegating our own interactions to something separate from our minds and bodies. The more advanced our screen based technologies become the more we rely upon them to behave for us. We no longer have to risk anything for what film, television and computers can easily provide for us and thus we lead pragmatic existences where we do what is easy and without shame and what will most likely lead to the most success out of life.
What we have effectively done is relegate every aspect to ourselves to a digital zoo where we can observe and regulate our behaviors accordingly without consequence. We hide ourselves behind an engineered masque of irony by which we filter everything we say through a hyper-critical self-awareness to make sure we never say or do anything wrong as a means of protecting ourselves from any critique. Increasingly advanced film and subsequently computer technologies have not allowed us to step through the looking glass and into Wonderland but instead to gaze upon it through the mirror as a reflection of ourselves.
Our screens continue to show us fanciful worlds that we can experience for absolutely no cost to our ego and in return we appropriate the aesthetics of those same worlds hiding behind an iron(y) curtain in an infinite feedback loop of adoption and referral. Cinema and television become the propriety software that we operate within characterizing and defining ourselves through a series of presets and preprogrammed choices. We purge any ideals or dreams from our bodies process them through fiction and readopt them as archetypes. We acknowledge personality types and identities as cliches that are shifting, constantly in flux and costumes to be worn with an air of intellectual detachment where we are always able to justify our opinions and choices without fear of being wrong, or hurt. We are the perfected having our cake and eating it too culture. It’s why so often people add “lol” to the end of what they say as if to distance themselves from their own opinions by not taking their own ideas seriously. It is the episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where people say one thing and in direct opposition to their initial statement, as if to negate it say, “that being said…”.
The double-edged sword of leading risk-less lives where we externalize every aspect of ourselves is that we learn to settle for what is achievable rather than for what is great. We are satisfied with simulated gamified rewards rather than anything real as long as we don’t make ourselves vulnerable to loss. We not only assume the identities of the characters we watch in film we design ourselves in real life the same way we would an online dating profile to exponentially increase the likelihood of successful courtship. We have virtualized everything to avoid all failure, pain, judgement or criticism.
We have designed an air-proof solid state system of living where nothing is sacrificed and nothing is achieved predicated on the invasive nature of the technologies that define our cultural infrastructure. So where do we go from here? We are slowly seeing glimpses of our future cultural interface in the technologies that we have already adopted into our lives. Just as we are constantly plugged in, we are constantly on and that on-ness that is so overwhelming and pervasive is beginning to exhaust us and is slowly giving way to an openness that will be defined by the sharing culture of social media and the transparency of open source technology. The physical and the digital will no longer represent a duality but a singular existence in which we no longer resign what we feel to a world separate from our bodies or our lives. We will ultimately shut the facade down, stop caring about putting on a show, stop caring about whether something is cliche and instead act with a new earnestness where we no longer fear what we might lose in the process. There is an unquantifiable glitch in the system that is deeply frightening but at the same time will usher us into the digital sublime.
Bruce Sterling recently wrote about the “New Aesthetic” and how in part this will usher in the “eruption of the digital into the physical”. However, the essay was mostly an appraisal of what already existed, signaling almost nothing “new” about its aesthetic as if to resign us to a static existence where something that already exists persists into the future. The notion that the digital is infiltrating the physical is absolutely important and the truthfulness that that will lead to even more so. However, it is essential that we understand where we are now, why our culture is shifting towards a new sincerity and the problematics of being satisfied with the current state of our culture and its aesthetic. It is also not enough to focus on the “new media” aspect of this shift but the overall transformation of the culture at large in relation to the evolution of technology. What will happen when we finally conflate the digital and the physical and we merge the real world with that space that we have been externalizing every aspect of ourselves?
In his most recent film Damsels in Distress, Whit Stillman excoriates the trend towards archetypal appropriation and the celebration of cliche. Following a group of females who attend a fictional college and the transfer student they adopt as their friend. Besides the “straight man” character of Lily (Analeigh Tipton) each of the characters are vapid, yet seemingly intellectual in character and style. They literally argue for the importance of cliches and the truth therein and all of their actions seem to be culled from a film they saw while lacking any point of referral. It’s as if acting “movie-like” is just a normal way of behaving now. The tone of the entire film is set when in front of a party, they witness a man prat-fall over the banister off the front porch and walk away completely normally. When Lily asks what happened, Violet says, “he did it on purpose”. These are all characters who live as if they’re in a movie while being completely unaware they are in a movie. Everyone adopts identities that are not themselves as a means of getting away with they want and it is justified by saying they’re being so honest in their artificiality that you can’t hold it against them. This even holds true to the people who throw themselves off a two story building as if to commit suicide knowing full well they will not die. Violet and her clique pride themselves on being watchmen and call everyone players and operators, excessively, without acknowledging their own dishonesty by appropriating the cliches of being intellectuals without actually being that smart themselves.
Violet especially dilutes herself and engineers movie “moments”. Many of her actions are cinematic cliches. Her entire identity is a put on and a facade, her real name not even Violet, as we learn later on. It is a means of protecting the ego as to never get hurt. At the same time, she willingly chooses male companions who are “below her” and she knows will not hurt her while giving her an inflated sense of importance as people she can save. She protects herself by never trying to achieve anything and relegating any ambition to the absurd cinematic dream of starting a dance craze. Even at the end of the film Lily remarks how insane it is to pretend you’re someone else. What is occurring, as mentioned above is that we are trading in any real emotions for those valorized in films so we don’t have to feel anything real since to feel genuinely is too risky and leads to too much pain. It is why, as one review of the film remarks, Violet would rather pursue a dance craze than shoot for any real heights such as write a book or become president. The sacrifice is too much.
This constant putting on leads to an emotional exhaustion, however. It leads to its absurd and illogical conclusion in much of the character-play prevalent in the net.art community. Many people associated with this art scene often take on identities that they rarely break out of as if to behave genuinely is wrong or suspect. Hennessy Youngman, Yung Jake, Ryder Ripps, among others, all exhibit this behavior. What is most pronounced in a character such as Yung Jake now is the blatant boredom and exhaustion he exudes in the music videos he performs in. In his most recent music video, Embedded he chronicles the journey of a video from its humble beginnings to its viral glory. He appropriates the hip hop tropes of fame and fortune and channels them through the new media aesthetics of page and video views, reblogging and virality in general. Ultimately, every one of his actions is for the purpose of achieving Internet fame. The irony is that he is both critical of this endeavor and embracing it at the same time. What we are witnessing is the only means of achieving relevance but an awareness that it is not a desirable means of accomplishing it. We equate this always on-ness with success as if to create an online dating profile where we only share the details we know will attract a proper mate. We are gaming the system by creating personas that can achieve success. Its criticality at least represents an intellectual streak insofar that we are aware enough of these tropes to appropriate them. However it also lacks genuine substance beyond a formal analysis of life. It is the lack of substance and the always awareness that leave us exhausted and longing for more. It is most potent in the chorus to the song, “I wanna be played out” as if to cry out in misery for this way of life to end.
On the other side of the same coin is the culture of sharing that social media has given rise to. Both due to its anonymity and its inherent design social media has encouraged a form of sharing that has probably always existed but that new technologies have advanced to its logical extreme. With the advent of social media we did not only have a conflation of the expert and the amateur but also of the friendship and the acquaintance, the lover and the stranger. These circles are no longer mutually exclusive but one in the same. When we share with one, we share with another. We share with the world. People have less regard for the consequences of sharing private information via profile building and entire social lives are lived online and entire communities inhabit Facebook and Twitter, without filter. The behaviors of socializing among a closed group of people have been translated into a hyper-public forum and people have yet to acclimate themselves to this shift.
While this lack of regard for the value of one’s own information is troubling it also represents a heightened desire to share more openly the lurid details of ones own life and in a decidedly less than private way. Younger people have less shame and are less embarrassed about the information they share online willing to conjure up unflattering photographs and personal stories. This same public sharing is tempered with what many consider its diametric opposite the anonymity of the net. While many forums allow for anonymous posting its in this ability to hide oneself that allows for an outlet for things that would otherwise remain unsaid or unrealized. The effects of this can be rather grim with websites like 4chan exhibiting a darker side to people they otherwise would have kept to themselves. Then there are sites like PostSecret that let people reveal secrets they never would have been able to share otherwise. The important point is that feelings that never had an outlet prior to the Internet now have somewhere to be channeled into the public sphere. It shows a suppressed desire to reveal details of oneself publicly to as many people as possible.
This unfiltered flow of personal information erupts into a kind of indirect sincerity or honesty. In a way, people are exploiting the displacement of the social act into the digitally mediated network. It is easy to share more information in an asynchronic manner without any real confrontation since we are not actually face to face with anyone, really. The degradation of presence has made it less scary to share more. Ironically, it is that same degradation that makes us want to share more. This culture of over-sharing gives way to artists such a Lena Dunham who have seemingly no shame even when what they are revealing is not always laudable or attractive.
The director of the acclaimed independent film Tiny Furniture and the progenitor of the up and coming show Girls produced by Judd Apatow, she peddles in a level of over sharing and honesty hitherto unknown to a culture more acclimated to the artificiality of the entertainment industry. In Tiny Furniture her mom and sister are played by her mom and sister, the mother’s diaries she finds are actually her mother’s and much of the dialogue came from her own life. She is not unwilling to show herself in compromising positions including awkward sex acts. Dunham has a penchant for over-sharing even as herself, sharing more than she needs punctuated by a willingness to suffer the consequences. In Tiny Furniture, and perhaps culled from real life, Dunham while at school shared a video on YouTube in which she half-nakedly dances in a fountain. She receives scathing comments, which in the film, she appears to shrug off.
Even, according to a New York Magazine profile on the artist, she and Jenni Konner purposely hired “over-sharers” as their writing staff. In the same article, the author highlights a Tweet by Dunham sharing something rather appalling, but which she explains without justifying in a subsequent tweet:
“If you don’t speak English, then don’t get a job that requires speaking English, OK?”—the shameful part of myself I hate most
I’d delete that last tweet but I need you to know me
This unadulterated self-exposure motivates the communication of the self at all costs. It doesn’t matter how people respond or how cringe-worthy the information shared is, what matters is that there is some level of understanding consecrated. Both the New York Magazine article and an article in the New Yorker refer to the “TMI” nature of much of what she is willing to share. There is a self-reflexive invasion of her own privacy that is similar to most people’s relationship to their own information on social networks. While Dunham’s own confessional nature is predicated on a sensitivity that is more pronounced than the indiscriminate sharing that occurs via Twitter and Facebook. However, it frames both websites as mini-confessionals in and of themselves in their profiling of individual’s identities that at least encourage that level of honesty. We have learned to “game” the system by using both the physical distance but virtual closeness of social networks to foster the sharing the sharing of information that would be otherwise too uncomfortable to reveal.
Dunham’s own honesty and sensitivity, however, are predicated on a level of privilege that most people don’t have. Her mother is a well established artist and she went to the very prestigious Oberlin College. Contrast this with the guarded risk-averse nature of the ironic intellectually-detached identity appropriation exhibited in Damsels in Distress and used to climb the viral ladder in Yung Jake’s Embedded. Honesty is a privilege of people who have less to lose and becomes a luxury in a generation stifled by less than ideal economic conditions. The tension to reluctantly appropriate an identity that is more inclined towards success while retaining the awareness of its unsavory nature is exhibited in Embedded.
This same tension is present in the aforementioned film Damsels in Distress but between the characters of Lily and Violet. Violet as is explained learns to adopt a specific persona at a younger age to prevent herself from being bullied. She shields herself emotionally in the same way she chooses “below her” male companions settling for less, and less than herself so she doesn’t get hurt (although the irony is that she is just as much of an “idiot” as the man she is in love with). Lily sees Violet’s behavior as insane and calls her out on it yet at the same time becomes slowly assimilated into the clique. We adopt these tendencies towards cliche awareness and appropriation in real life while displacing and translating our actual selves and social lives to the digital space via the profiling of our identities on popular social networks. We guard ourselves in person while retaining the ability to share ourselves exploiting the dissonance of the Internet as a space separate from our bodies for which to dump our emotions. There is less risk as if when we share intimate details publicly it is less consequential when hiding behind the computer.
The question becomes, then, what happens when space between us and where we project the aspects of ourselves is reduced or erased completely? Indeed, the advancement of technology from early film to computers has been the exponential reduction of space between us and screen-based mediums. We will soon reach a critical mass when we are completely disinterested in the difference between the two. However, the other consequence of this is is the lack of a place to displace ourselves onto.
Bruce Sterling in his treatise on a New Aesthetic described it as essentially the eruption of the digital into the physical. This means less reproducible objects that can be projected anywhere or at any time and a stronger emphasis on presence, location, impermanence and indeterminacy. Projection mapping requires specific objects and facades to be projected upon. Augmented reality overlays information and images according to where a device is pointed placing a strict emphasis on location. Near field communication enabled devices relieve us from looking at our phones and let them perform functions that would requires us to look at an operate them hands (and screen) free. Objects let us communicate virtual behaviors into the real world so we can do things like “friend” people without actually staring at Facebook. Media becomes less generalized and more concerned with presence and specificity. Mitchell Whitelaw calls this phenomenon in relation to a post-screen culture “transmateriality" where the screen does not necessarily disappear but we become more aware of its presence and malleability. The irony lies in the fact that screens will become more all encompassing while somehow disappearing completely.
In his closing keynote at Vimeo Fest in 2009 Bruce Sterling claimed that the merger between the digital and physical will become so perfect that we will care less about whether something is actually genuine and more interested in how real it looks. We are reaching a parity between the digital and physical where the ability of our technology to portray a deceptive reality will be so perfect that we will no longer be able to tell the difference. To be sure, however, we have been closing the gap between what occurs on or behind the screen and our physical reality for quite some time, but perhaps in a more abstract less aware manner. Whereas now we speak of actual technologies that augment the world around us, the tropes of cinema and television have been invasive in our lives for how they make us aware of identity as simply an elusive set of archetypes to be worn and cast off. In the same way we are learning to perceive everything as data we have already learned to see everything as cliches or a list of presets to choose from. The eruption of the digital into the physical is nothing new it’s just that now we are materializing the effect in the technologies we are inventing.
Screen based media was a space for us to project ourselves entirely, so we no longer had to pursue the things we could simply witness as unfolding separately and in front of us. We could experience without actually having to sacrifice anything for it. Through that projection we processed our identities into a series of cliches that could be adopted and used to protect ourselves from the indeterminate dangers of revealing too much of ourselves to other people. Life becomes the pragmatic pursuit for success where everything that requires too much risk to achieve is virtualized so we can still experience it.
In a transmaterial post-screen culture where we no longer have that place to displace our emotions or our entire identities we become more honest about the artifice we are adopting. We no longer try to hide ourselves or our intent nor do we care about the difference between who we are trying to be and who we actually are. In an effort to actually connect with people we are honest and forthright and demand the same openness from others. It is the same irony that pervades the dual nature of the screen as both becoming more invasive and invisible while we also become more aware of its framework as embodying our lives. We are both moving away from the generality of the screen while embracing its increasing ubiquity. We accept its artifice but still own its ability to overlay upon our lives a virtual reality.
It is analogous to the tension between our ironic sense of self detachment in the guise of the adoption of cinematic cliches and our thrust for more honesty via social networks and the Internet more generally. The more we masque ourselves in the hyper-awareness of the artifice of identity the more we attempt to resist it by sharing more of ourselves online. The irony is that the longing to connect to other people becomes more pronounced the more we shirk away from it. In person we hide, but in the digital realm we open up. The endgame of this tension when we lose the screen entirely to a perfect merger between the digital and the physical is that we begin oversharing with our immediate reality instead of displacing it away from us so there is no longer any removal of what is indeterminate to a space that it can be processed or distended. We no longer have any other choice but to face what we do, say, feel or think and answering to the consequences of sharing that information. We can no longer hide behind the computer because the computer and where we share to is constantly present in real time mediating all of our interactions.
The more invasive and invisible the screen at large becomes the less fear we have about the consequences of sharing too much. It becomes par for the course. The honesty that is achieved in the parity between screen and reality becomes a space for possibility rather than something to be feared and shunned. The accepting of a well designed system and its artifice is to also open the doors to the acceptance of that system as being capable of failure. We accept and critique the constructedness of our new reality while admitting its ability to fail. However, we see that potential for failure not as something to be feared but rather as an eruption of possibility.
In her book the Glitch Moment(um), Rosa Menkman characterize the “glitch” as exist[ing] at “the shocking tipping point between (potential) failure and a movement towards thecreation of a new understanding. The glitch’s inherent moment(um), the power it needs or has to pass through an existing membrane or semblance of understanding, helps the utterance to become an unstable articulation of counter-aesthetics, a destructive generativity.” The artifice of the system although limited in its design gives way to the possibility of it failing which in turn leads to generative potential. This generative potential is predicated on the notion that we cannot know how a glitch will manifest itself, it is inherently a random occurrence in its appearance. However random, it leads to an unforeseeable newness that destructs the limits of the system of meaning we are initially adhering to. There is a beauty contained with the fear of the unknown that Menkman characterizes as a void which although scary contains an incomprehensible beauty that is worthy of the original failure.
The glitch represents a loss of control where our system of meanings breaks down and it does something unexpected. The glitch begins as a system failure but opens up a realm of as she calls them “new conditions” or “new knowledge” that we would be hitherto unaware of. Failure, risk, embarrassment, pain, fear all become a space for newness rather than something to be avoided and done away with. Comfortable existence becomes mundane and boring and we strive to break away into something much more sublime. What begins as a loss of control ultimately concludes with an openness of possibility as the system continues to adapt and evolve to each accident and mistake. The achievement of a perfect system that can then be broken is what ultimately leads to the possibility of that glitch in the first place, however. We achieve not by limiting ourselves according to a fear but by embracing the fear to access new conditions.
In Bruce Sterling’s keynote he refers to the series finale of the Dick Van Dyke show where the titular character attempts to sell a book he wrote so he can finally leave the dregs of sitcom writing. His book is rejected but he returns to television when he is told it can be turned into a tv show. It was the desire to achieve a specific dream that lead him to write the book in the first place and the failure to achieve that dream that lead to the opportunity to turn his own writing into a show.
The less we limit ourselves and the broader we define our own parameters the more we are capable of achieving. The more we shoot for, the more we can achieve. It is important to live life generatively so as to increase the kind of opportunities we make available to ourselves. Each time we run the program we give birth to a new future or a new form of life. It is emergent possibility. The moment we choose not to pursue anything outside of our means we are making that our reality. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we give up shooting for the utopian we give up on what the failure to achieve that ideal leads to. The moment we embrace the likelihood of failure, the risk to achieve what is seemingly impossible, we open the doors to a generative future of possibility.