Disclaimer: my ideas on the New Aesthetic might be considered somewhat eccentric and divergent from the larger conversation that is occurring. I apologize before hand for what might be a muddled and confused idea.
For a more proper essay on my own ideas look here: The New Aesthetic & The New Sincerity
Prometheus is a flawed film. It’s not so much that it collapses under the weight of its own ideas than it is that it focused so myopically on a set of ideas that it let everything else that it set up dangle or fall apart. Everything becomes so in service of an idea that the writer forgets about crafting an actual story that is coherent. This happens to me sometimes – to get so caught up in intellectual masturbation that one forgets that what they are saying needs to be understandable to an audience broader than yourself.
This all is apparent in many of the interviews both Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof have participated in. Every time they talk about the story’s plot, they are forced to give these convoluted explanations that dissect or interpret the film. As if it is okay to have to fill in the gaps of the film. In the most absurdly perfect example of this in a response to a question about David’s unknown conversation with Weyland on the ship and why he poisoned Holloway he literally answers by offering a series of “He could have said…” statements.
My feeling is that Lindelof in writing the script was so focused on Elizabeth Shaw’s journey as both a “believer” and a scientist distracted him too much from any real story or character development. It’s why the characters are so one dimensional and expendable – because they’re all in service of an idea he had, nothing else.
The creators of the film have talked about the film as being about why we would have the urge to find the people who engineered the human race, why these “Gods” may have wanted to engineer the human race in the first place and our desire to know why.
My interest in the film and why I feel it works in service of a specific idea, actually has to do with Shaw’s journey in particular. It is something I became aware of when they released the video of her trying to contact Weyland and explaining her desire to pursue something she believed in. She is someone who “knows” science but still maintains an extensive belief in something beyond that.
Lindelof in an interview explained his interest in exploring whether or not belief could be reconciled with science:
I’m most definitively pro-science, but I think that the movie advances the idea that, can the two live along side each other? Is it possible to be a scientist and maintain some fungible faith in the unknown? And are you rewarded for having blind faith? I do think that the movie is making the meta-commentary in saying well Shaw is the true believer on board, and she’s the one who survives. So what are we trying to say by telling that story?
Elizabeth Shaw’s character in the “Quiet Eye" film makes strong distinctions between what she knows and what she believes. She characterizes what she believes as who she is in contrast to her knowledge or what she does. Very importantly during the video she says, "Do you ever believe that all the science in the world will never give us the answers we really want?"
The main draw of this film for me is not, as what others have called a nihilism or “god hating”, but what I would call a belief in belief without God. What the film does by sending the characters on a pursuit for our “makers” is a materialization of the spiritual via science as something to still believe in but now has an empirically, yet elusively quantifiable form. It is belief predicated on science tempered with an awareness or skepticism in the inadequacy of science to answer everything. It makes sense that the film ends unresolved but with Shaw continuing the journey. The whole point is that there will never be some ultimate destination of higher truth or explanation.
I see this idea and other trends I have perceived as representative of not necessarily a skepticism in science per se but maybe more towards the techno utopianism that leads us to believe that technology could solve all of our problems and make the world better. Quantification and data collection and visualization would make us privy to some complex system that would lead to some teleological ends wherein we finally see some larger picture about how everything is connected and everything would be fixed.
It’s how I see the New Aesthetic or the notion of “computer vision” as some essentialist singular way of trying to control the world by seeing it through the lens of technology. By not only choosing to see the world in one way, but also to focus entirely on seeing the world rather than doing anything in it, there is a variety of possible action or transformation that is lost. It is the specious notion that everything that is contained or ultimately given some material existence lets us understand the world and game it in our favor.
"Computer vision" is the de-resolution or pixelization of reality into discrete, observable objects that can be exploited or taken advantage of. It is the transformation of the real world into a system that we can learn and adapt ourselves to, to increase the likelihood of success by mastering it.
A quick and simple example of this notion is what one Atlantic article called the Facebook Eye. We begin to see the real world through the logic of social media and how it would look posted on a profile. It’s a new form of performance that we are now all constantly participating in that is most distilled not in the Facebook profile, but the OkCupid or dating profile in general. The kind of performance we are participating in is a kind of idealizing or perfecting of the self to achieve certain ends. We adopt a means of behaving that will most likely lead to success instead of being ourselves. We are exploiting the constructed nature of identity to basically get what we want regardless of its superficiality.
It is a means of making everything predictable, understandable, quantifiable, etc. We remove all chance or randomness to be able to control the world. It is a kind of risk aversion that avoids any kind of failure by making the ‘right way’ of doing something graspable before we even try doing anything. It is a means of self-preservation so we never have to feel hurt, rejected, or afflicted. We specially design ourselves to foster successful interactions with other people. We disavow honesty, and genuineness because we can’t predict the response they will get. We systematize behavior.
We have given up anything that is grander or presumably impossible in service of what is ‘achievable’ without risk of failure. We see life as only what is collected and visualized instead of what is behind that data. However, by only focusing on what is ‘quantifiable’ and ‘knowable’ we lose the more elusive quality of life. It is this realization that I believe people are coming to now in response to the original dream of technology to solve every problem. We are limiting possibility by relegating ourselves to only one way of living. By focusing only on what is ‘achievable’ through a systemization of behavior and the subsequent mastering of the system we are sacrificing certain dreams, goals or true desires we might have.
It was this tension that I felt was most pronounced in many of the talks at Eyeo Festival in Minneapolis last week. There is this desire to once again look past what is merely visualized or controllable and find something more random, unpredictable or unknowable. The “human element” that emerges from what is quantified but is not immediately present.
It’s interesting that Kevin Slavin’s talk about luck inaugurated the festival as it perfectly contrasted systems of control with the notion of luck in history. He outlined an antagonism between the idea of “God’s plan” and the culture of chance that he saw as represented in games and gambling. Religious institutions always sought to regulate or banish games that suggested something not predetermined. Things that could not be immediately explained or predicted. Randomness was sinful.
These more religious forms of control in opposition to luck also manifest themselves in certain mathematical and scientific pursuits, however. Ways to game the system, to ‘crack’ the lottery or to figure out every single hand of solitaire. One of his examples was the first wearable computer being designed specifically to beat the roulette wheel.
And yet he points out the continuing urge for people to play things such as the lottery although the more lucrative the prize and the more people who play the more impossible it is to win. The game becomes more enjoyable the more impossible it is. There is still an urge towards the impossible in opposition to cultures of control that seek to impose a specific type of value or understanding upon the world. This manifests itself either in scientific quantification or the belief in a world predetermined in a creator.
Slavin argued for embracing luck without attempting to harness it. To unleash the power of chance and to not inhibit randomness as a space for possibility. Prior to the talk on his tumblr he made this statement:
In my research, however, one thing I’ve learned is that part of what makes you lucky is having the widest vision possible, to make yourself — keep yourself —open to everything all the time.
This same idea seemed to crop up more than once during Eyeo. During one of the Ignite talks the opening night of the conference. ‘Dataist’ Jen Lowe declared “there is hope in unpredictability.” Amanda Cox of the New York Times stated, “Uncertainty is strength, not weakness.” And in at least two talks, one by Casey Reas and another by Zach Lieberman, chance was a major component of what they spoke about.
It is important not to forget what an overarching pattern recognizing system cannot resolve. This tendency towards the uncertain and unpredictable is in opposition to a kind of techno-determinism that inhibits possibility by erasing failure. In doing so we lose what is human by focusing singularly on a system of organization and control. Life must be seen as something elusive and complex that cannot be entirely contained by its constraining it into quantifiable or observable objects.
For example, during talks such as sculptor Nathalie Meibach’s she argued for the importance of using her hands. She creates data visualizations but as she explained she turns them into sculptures because there is something lost in not being able to tangibly experience it with her body. By the same token, Wearable technologist Kate Hartman thinks we are losing an expressivity by not utilizing the entirety of our bodies as an interface for technology. Stefanie Posavec creates data visualizations without any knowledge of coding and uses the data she manually gathers to explore something that transcends the material. Something subjective and less about insights into the data and more about discovering something human. Something computers can’t do.
We are beginning to desire something beyond what we can immediately comprehend. The elusive, random, uncertain, unpredictable as desirable for our futures. Whereas before these are things that scared us they are beginning to become things that symbolize potential. A chance to achieve the impossible.
Jonathan Harris during his talk gave an overview of phases he went through while contending with his own career trajectory. His love affair with data and his falling out. He became aware of the superficial qualities of data and how there needs to exist something deeper than what can merely be collected. He characterized data, in a sense, as in opposition to the lived experience. There was something dissociative about it.
At the end of his talk he talked about how the internet was an “economy of awesomeness” where everything is in the service of “look how awesome I am!”. A kind of performance where we construct an identity that gets the most attention or is the most interesting to the most amount of people. He contrasted this with a storytelling platforms he had been developing called Cowbird that is a kind of social video diary where people share intimate, lived moments from their lives.
In speaking about the project he noted an interesting phenomenon that occurred between its users. Many of the videos people submit leave themselves quit vulnerable in terms of how open they are being. People began competing for who submit the most vulnerable videos. Whereas the “economy of awesomeness” is a product of the emotionally obfuscating nature of the internet and technology the “economy of vulnerability” is one built upon that technology but is a product of an exhaustion with its controlling nature. We all long to unveil ourselves from the costumes we have been wearing and the aspects of ourselves we discarded or suppressed. We long to be human again.
So back to Prometheus. Elizabeth Shaw is representational of this reemergence in the human desire to pursue or imagine the elusive no matter how impossible. It is an unending journey filled with failure and disappointment as exemplified in how she needed to go to an even further planet to find the truth at the end of the film. A journey propelled by belief but grounded in reality (At least in the universe of the film, it’s not a ‘spiritual’ destination, but one that can be justified to exist). Our humanity compels us to pursue the impossible and embrace failure as a space for potential.
We must embrace the random, luck, chance instead of try to control them for the sake of a determinism that is merely comfortable and content. It’s not belief in God that should compel is nor anything preceding and determining life. It’s In the quantifiably unquantifiable complexity of the world that should be seen for something that is emergent and generative. It is a form of belief that is commiserate with the scientific. It isn’t a spiritualism but an understanding that the pursuit of understanding is infinitely elusive. We should not stop trying to pursue a perfect understanding of the world, but we should not fool ourselves into believing this journey will ever end.
"God" in Prometheus is something that potentially, actually, exists. Not something built entirely on faith, but something that can be observed and sensed. It is a moot point as to whether Elizabeth Shaw will ever be satisfied with the answers she gets, but what is important is that she continues to pursue it even in the face of utter failure or being utterly wrong. It is belief in belief without God. It is not a kind of techno-spiritualism that replaces God with technology or something else. Just the opposite actually. It’s a skepticism in any system to ultimately explain everything once and for all (without descending into relativism) insofar that science is an unending linear pursuit. It’s the notion that we can have experiences tantamount to being spiritual but completely grounded in reality.
And just to end with a quote I used in my original essay about The New Aesthetic:
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.”