dusk to dawn: horizons of the digital/post-digital (1st draft)

By Eric Snodgrass

The viscous spread of the digital, while asynchronous (Cramer) and political in its levels of saturation, is a seeming matter of fact today. In a perhaps slightly oblique fashion, this paper would like to touch on notions of technological saturation, with a focus on two particular embedded augers of the “post-” of post-digital: namely, anamorphic death and quotidian banality.

Blue flowers
“The equipment-free aspect of reality here has become the height of artifice; the sight of immediate reality has become a blue flower in the land of technology.”
- Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproducibility

“Cybernetic microscopes and metal antidote
Two telescopes that magnify eyes of a roach
Three computers to cup of coffee planted with my hand and
Astroplanets detached turn on rear foggers
Cut the light on the kid, and turn the bright on
Supersonic waves combine and burn as brainwaves
I see the mascot of Evil he’s not Kneivel
Shakespeare’s gone don’t even think about it

Yes, as I’m going to the park, I see… Blue Flowers!
It’s raining green, by the pond Blue Flowers!
It’s totally raining green, pouring Blue Flowers!
I smell the bees and the birds Blue Flowers!
Different aspects of life, blue flowers”
- Kool Keith (aka Dr Octagon), Blue Flowers

Did Kool Keith read Benjamin? In both, scenes of a surgeon’s operating room and the interpenetration of its equipment – “planted with my hand” (Keith) – into the “tissue” (Benjamin) of its patients’ reality. The blue flower, with it’s cold, unnatural luminescence, acting as a ready stand-in for romantic longings of a future harmony between Man and Nature. In pure sunlight blue fades, hence the blue flower’s natural habitat in the threshold moment of evening and its twilit hues of what is known as “the blue hour.”

The “meagrely endowed” (Finlay) natural selection of this planet’s predominant browns and greens set underneath a sky of unsaturated blue, and its artificial supplementation in the form of the many shades of man-made artefacts, each trying to catch the eye of that second sun that is man’s visual cortex in ever more heliotropic stimulation. The blues of technology. Chroma key blue, signifier of a world predestined for post-production. The post-crash blue screen of death. The default “Bliss” wallpaper of Windows XP, one of the most widely embedded images of the digital age, with its pacifying blue-green pastoral…ah, the supreme flattery of Graphical User Interfaces and this particularly memorable “topography of pure departure” (Harpold). A fig leaf of an image.

(‘Bliss’ – Windows XP default wallpaper)

Tech logo blue. IBM deep blue. Facebook blue. The chirpy, social pastel of Twitter blue and the vaguely translucent gradients of iOS 7 blue. Blue, blinking Bluetooth, blue. The comically widespread saturation of a blue/orange chromatic pairing in digitally produced movie posters, complementary cold and hot colours that are able to “pop” amidst their surroundings while studiously avoiding the stronger cultural associations of other colours (Barackman). So many blue avatars of the digital, flowering all around, each striving to stand out and yet still fit in at the same time. Saturated glow of the digital and its attention economy, ethereal stimulant and banal sedative, blue pill.

Death becomes them
As a preformative affix that will lay waste to its stem, the prefix of post- can be seen as signifying a recognition (and even premediation) of collapse. A kind of “anterior posteriority” (before-afterness) such as Ray Brassier describes in his writing on the “truth of extinction.” While there may be many possible post- conditions, each with its own colour scheme, this familiar face of death can still be relied on to show its true colours. For Brassier, the truth of extinction can be seen to annul binaries such as mind and world, Man and Nature. Perhaps the post- of the post-digital is partly intended to mark out another site of “so many ontological cave-ins,” similar to that which Rosalind Krauss (“Reinventing the Medium”) speaks of in relation to photography’s saturation into mainstream, everyday ubiquity. At the site of such cave-ins: collapsed hierarchies, binary annulments, ontological levellings. What, in the end, is it that we are so intently tracking today in all the lovely gadgets of the quantified self. “Listen to your heartbeat, delete beep beep BEEP” (Keith).

Speaking on Benjamin’s notion of the “outmoded” object, Krauss describes that particular moment of temporal limbo for a medium in which it takes on a status as outdated but not quite fossilised into what Hertz & Parikka call the “archaeological phase” of a product’s lifecycle. Krauss christens this in-between phase “the twilight zone of obsolescence.” In such a zone the outmoded object may be seen to cast what Benjamin describes as the “profane illumination” of its own afterglow, radiating a critical light through its previously mythic status amongst its users and also out at these same perpetrators of its killing. A rediscovering, even if only for a moment, of its “true gravity” (Benjamin) outside a “totality of technologized space” (Krauss). Death becomes the medium, technology, object.

(Takeshi Murata, video for Oneohtrix Point Never’s “Problem Areas”)

The forward momentum in post-digital seems aimed at getting on with things. The point in temporarily dwelling on a situation such is this is simply that it might prove conducive for tracing the contours of any particular condition of post-. “Blue hours,” such as those that Benjamin and Krauss outline, hint at a moment of heightened atmospherics in which mediation itself can be said to subtly throb, flexing the curvature of its horizon in a just noticeable fashion. At such moments, in such a zone, the second nature of the technological unconscious that Benjamin (“The Work of Art…” & “Little History of Photography”) speaks of, might provide uncanny or unusually unique modes for perceiving the technology in question, before eventually subsiding as residue into the general atmospherics of mediation, inevitably playing a role, small or large, in the various ecologies that designate visibility, mass, time, space, velocity, value.

Scenes such as those of Benjamin and Krauss suggest an aspect of something that was always there, awaiting its release. A capacity of rebirth that death, in various guises, acts as ground for. Lest we forget, in the decade leading up to the post- of the post-digital, we were inundated as never before with fantasies of the post-apocalypse and its central figure of the undead. Alongside popular culture, we have similarly been abuzz in media theory with discussions of the visible and invisible. This saturated sense of the dormant, subliminal, repressed, anamorphic.

In their essay “Stretched Skulls: Anamorphic Games and the memento mortem mortis,” Stephanie Boluk and Patrick LeMieux discuss the qualities of anamorphism as it has been explored in classic perspectival images of the Western tradition, and how recent trends in the computational realm of digital space can be seen to be extending the nonhuman dimension that the anamorphic hints at into further horizons of speculation. The crux of their proposal is as follows:

“this essay treats anamorphosis as the rule governing vision rather than the exception to “normal” sight. We argue that there is no central, authoritative, or natural way of seeing despite the way optical technologies simulate the effects of light on the human eye. Even after the centuries-long construction of the modern viewing subject, the most naturalistic representational technologies still suppress a strange supplement. Whether one is examining early painting or traversing the polygonal environments of a virtual world, an anamorphic remainder looms in the interstices between technics, optics, and human perception.”

In addition to the popular and media theoretical contemporary contexts mentioned above, this anamorphic remainder might be said to loom particularly large at the very moment when the mimetic capacities of the computer graphics industry are attaining levels of visual fidelity that are “converging at the limits of our biological systems” (John Carmack of id Software and now Oculus Rift fame, cited in Boluk & LeMieux). Another potential threshold moment then in which we see a corresponding post- response to, in the form of a  a noticeable blip of anamorphic game design (see, for instance, LeMieux’s own procedural workouts, such as 99 Exercises in Play and Helen Keller Simulator). In this case, the mathematical technique of perspectival rendering, with its “long history of perceptual conditioning” (Boluk & LeMieux), may well be “decoded” and potentially unravelled through still further renderings of mathematics. One more expression of the death wish that is inscribed within mimetics of all kinds, digitisation being a prime example. Baudrillard (p.25): “If the universe is what does not have a double, since nothing exists outside it, then the mere attempt to make such a point exist is tantamount to a desire to put an end to it.”

(Alan Sondheim, WTC)

The anamorphic image forecloses the possibility of a resolved image for its anthropocentric audience. In discussing the proprioceptive sensations of unease at play in the confict between optic and haptic space within the digital, Boluk & LeMieux invoke Mark B. N. Hansen’s (p.198–9, cited in Boluk & Lemieux) discussion of the incommensurable, weird topology of the “digital any-space-whatever”: “you feel the space around you begin to ripple, to bubble, to infold… and you notice an odd tensing in your gut, as if your viscera were itself trying to adjust to this warped space.” A potentially unsettling, physiognomic double take that occurs in such artificial flowerings of awry indexical mediations, the technology experienced as a second nature that returns and confronts the gaze with the primacy of its own uncanny contortion act (Miriam Hansen, p.189-90).

From here to banality
“Now that we’re in that future, of course, plastics are no big deal. Is digital destined for the same banality? Certainly. Its literal form, the technology, is already beginning to be taken for granted, and its connotation will become tomorrow’s commercial and cultural compost for new ideas. Like air and drinking water…”
- Nicholas Negroponte, Beyond Digital

“No one really dreams any longer of the Blue Flower. Whoever awakes as Heinrich von Ofterdingen today must have overslept. […] No longer does the dream reveal a blue horizon. The dream has grown gray. The gray coating of dust on this is its best part. Dreams are now a shortcut to banality.”
- Walter Benjamin, Dream Kitsch – Gloss on Surrealism

From dusk to dawn. The sun also rises. In their outline of a practice of zombie media, Hertz and Parikka have already provided one example of a post-digital blueprint for an ethico-aesthetic DIY practice that is able to respond to the embedded post- of planned obsolescence, with its environmental saturation of obsolete technologies whose relative material permanence endows them with an extended afterlife in which they may be rediscovered, recycled, remixed and reinterpreted. A shift in focus then from the illuminating qualities of immanent or recently occurred death, to that of the never-really-dead “untimeliness” of “media undead” (Wolfgang Ernst, cited in Hertz & Parikka). A media archaeological manoeuvre that kicks up the dust-to-dust material permanence and permeation of technology and its ash heap of digital rubbish.

For Hertz & Parikka, a practice of zombie media (such as they see in the circuit bending movement) may involve “customized, trashy and folksy methodologies” that go against the grain of the still dominant “glossy, high-tech ‘Californian Ideology.’” In his writing on surrealism and kitsch, Benjamin highlights how the Surrealists, in their crosshatching of the dream world with the objects, furnishings and “cheap maxims” of the everyday, “are less on the trail of the psyche than on the trade of things.” At the pinnacle of such a practice, “the topmost face on the totem pole is that of kitsch. It is the last mask of the banal, the one with which we adorn ourselves, in dream and conversation, so as to take in the energies of an outlived world of things.”

In the face of its own unsettling anamorphic alterity and death drive, the digital has shown an impulsive readiness to latch onto the banal. Instagram unleashes the social practices of digital photography with a few simple visual filters that aestheticise the temporal in a technique of “fauxstaglia” (Memmott) that masks the too obvious qualities of the selfie in sufficiently profane illumination. At the same time, online meme ecologies act as conductors of a craving for a replicable, utilitarian vernacular of rough and ready image macros that can serve as express circuits to banality.

(Talan Memmott, submission to the online course Banality Based Banality)

“Banality is the new uncanny. Objects are possessed with a degree of understanding from the virtual now. The banality of the object is what returns its aura, because the object cannot do fantastical things, an orange cannot talk to you, a piece of cheese cannot suddenly project itself into outerspace…”
- Talan Memmott, in conversation

The very banality of the digital returns a sense of the real. Under such a condition of what media artist and theorist Talan Memmott is knowingly referring to as “banality-based-banality,” the emphasis is no longer on startling juxtapositions of everyday objects such as the surrealists were after, but rather in the increasingly natural, i.e. banal, overlap of what was previously felt as unnatural. In a post-digital ecology, does the “blue spill” of a poorly composited blue screen image matter anymore? The one ecology readily overlaps on the other. And overlaps, and overlaps. Does a post-digital practice respond in any way to and/or enact an interpassive acceptance of so-called invasive technification as a ubiquitous banal given? Is it a moving on from and/or moving away from its infinitely scrollable terms of reference that were apparently already signed off on long ago? Is a post-digital aesthetic BFFs with the New Aesthetic? Does it produce works for dissemination in this particular wing of the Tumblrverse, is it critically and artistically excited by the potentially anamorphic gaze that is machine vision? The drone and its use as both weapon and camera for music videos or Sunday picnic fun. The soon to be ubiquitous 3D printed “blobject.” Each on display and primed for capture by a super-duper smartphone, a Google “glasshole,” your enthusiastic/bored/enthusiastically-bored self. Is the post-digital hung and hung up on such displays?

As a result of its own equally strong levelling power, in which all things are fair game (“ask me anything”), banality can be said to establish a certain democratic plateau for the internet “junk” that it gleefully recycles. With its kitsch-like focus on furnishings and proliferation, the banal can be seen to travel an inverse trajectory to that of the dismantling power of death and the anamorphic. At the same time though the banal retains its own power to cut through, to interpenetrate such layers of existence and extinction. The still paroxysmal primacy of laughter that a meme unearths. Krauss’s own resharing of a well-worn passage by Roland Barthes, his reflection on the compelling kitsch of the photonovel and its “anecdotalized images”: “but I myself experience this slight trauma of significance faced with certain photonovels: ‘their stupidity touches me.’”

At each turn, in searching for this conceit of post-digital, there seem to be examples to hand that can easily confound the attempt to grasp it. Is it in the end a conceptual blue flower? Indeed, can something as nebulous as “the digital” even really be treated in a remotely similar manner to an object or a medium? Do its material relations make it meaningful to discuss as any kind of concrete entity? Can it really become obsolete or post-? Is it closer to the domain of aesthetics? For Lev Manovich, the ground of a “post-medium aesthetics” is broken with the outgrowth of hybrid, intermediated, uncategorisable artistic forms of practice (around the mid-20th century onwards), that “threaten the centuries-old typology of mediums” with arbitrary combinations of previously distinct disciplinary materials and art objects, which in part pave the way for a post-medium condition that the rise of software cements. This fissiparous nature of the post-medium is echoed in Florian Cramers’s outlining of a “post-digital condition,” in which “‘old’ and ‘new’ media no longer exist as meaningful terms, but only as technologies of mutual stabilization and destabilization”

Amidst this haze of “fuzzy” (Cramer) concepts, perhaps the ostensible limit-condition or levelling qualities of anamorphism and banality can be of some use in dealing with the very recursive, mise-en-abyme quality of the digital. Of particular note, one might want to consider what happens when the anamorphic and the banal overlap and even pair together in strange technological assemblages that can in some cases prove to be aesthetically compelling and at other times politically devastating (e.g. “the banality of evil”). The writings of Jorge Luis Borges have commonly been held up as textual precursors of a certain aspect of the digital condition, and if much of the force of Borges’ ficciones is in their imparting of an immanent, calm yet vertiginous sense of banal anamorphism/anamorphic banality, then perhaps in examining contemporary examples of such pairings, one can begin to consider in what ways they still hold sway and where they might be sliding into a form of obsolescence. And in doing so, perhaps at least occasionally attempt to further speculate on any potential horizons, vanishing points or false dawns of the post-digital proposal.

//end of draft. This was all new material for me, but it is proving helpful in further developing the (still underdeveloped!) concept of “in-sensensitive media” that I am exploring in my dissertation, with its focus on how “sensitive” media experiences are often complicit with the “insensitive” mechanisms that underwrite them, and the resultant undulatory sensitivities that arise out of such shadings of a clear sensitive/insensitive divide. The plan for this paper is to finish it by taking a closer look at one or two examples of this anamorphism-banality pairing.

Works cited
Barackman, Nola. “Why Movie Posters All Look the Same,” The Wrap, 4 Feb (2013). <http://www.thewrap.com/movies/blog-post/why-movie-posters-all-look-same-75846>

Baudrillard, Jean. Impossible Exchange. Verso (2001).

Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. tr. Edmund ]ephcott, Rodney Livingstone, Howard Eiland, & Others, Harvard University Press (2008).
- “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility: Second Version”
- “Little History of Photography”
- “Dream Kitsch – Gloss on Surrealism”

Boluk, Stephanie & LeMieux, Patrick. “Stretched Skulls: Anamorphic Games and the memento mortem mortis.” Digital Humanities Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 2 (2012). <http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/6/2/000122/000122.html>

Brassier, Ray. Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction. New York Palgrave Macmillan (2007).

Cramer, Florian. “Post-digital Aesthetics,” Jeu de Paume / le magazine (2013). <http://lemagazine.jeudepaume.org/2013/05/florian-cramer-post-digital-aesthetics>

Finlay, Robert. “Weaving the Rainbow: Visions of Color in World History,” Journal of World History, 18.4 (2007): 383-431.

Gass, William. On Being Blue – A philosophical inquiry. David R. Godine (1976).

Hansen, Mark B. N. New Philosophy for New Media. MIT Press (2006).

Hansen, Miriam. “The Blue Flower in the Land of Technology,” New German Critique, No. 40, Special Issue on Weimar Film Theory (1987): 179-224.

Harpold, Terry. Ex-foliations: Reading Machines and the Upgrade Path. University of Minnesota Press (2009).

Hertz, Garnet & Parikka, Jussi. “Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archaeology into an Art Method,” Leonardo, Vol. 45, No. 5, (2012): 424–430.

Keith, Kool (Dr. Octagon). “Blue Flowers.” Song lyrics. <http://rapgenius.com/Dr-octagon-blue-flowers-lyrics>

Krauss, Rosalind E. “Reinventing the Medium,” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 25, No. 2, “Angelus Novus”: Perspectives on Walter Benjamin (1999): 289-305.

Manovich, Lev. “Post-media Aesthetics,” author’s website (2001).

Memmott, Talan. “Banality Based Banality” blog, UnderAcademy College (2013). <http://bbbanality.wordpress.com>

Negroponte, Nicholas. “Beyond Digital,” Wired 6.12 (1998).

6 thoughts on “dusk to dawn: horizons of the digital/post-digital (1st draft)

  1. This is a dense read – full of ideas and references – from Benjamin’s orchid (already a complex reference) and aura to zombie media and banality. You will need to decide on what to concentrate on: as, for instance, the question: ” Is a post-digital practice a response to or an acceptance of technification as a banal given? ” and then how banality plays out as part of overproduction, or take up one of the many over challenges you pose. Sorry to be brief but I look forward to talking more next week. I think one of the important discussions will be how to reconcile current discourses (around media archaeology and new materialisms) with some of the older references you and others cite – before-afterness of theory perhaps.

  2. Thanks for the feedback. The undeveloped (and perhaps unfocused) thinking here is probably reflective of having been on an extended bout of parental leave and returning with a lot of things to say! I’ve taken the liberty just now of adding a bit to the last part of the draft, perhaps it helps to tie some of it together, or at least throw out a few more concrete questions for discussion at the workshop.

  3. Interesting writing with a *lot* going on from the post-digital, the blue flower to the anamorpic death and contemporary banality – probably this needs some scaffolding and meta-text discussing and explaining the move from one thing to the next. But I definitely see how it opens a line of thinking – just need some guidance on the way. The paper has a metonymic quality to me, but I think there is some knowledge to be found in the way it moves from one thing to the next.
    To me the line of thinking seems to suggest that these themes are symptoms of technological saturation, and I find this very interesting, but how? What are their similarities and differences? How does it relate to the concept of in-sensitive media (which to me sounds like an interesting take on interface criticism if I were to understand it in my terms)? How is banality finally related to saturation?

    1. Thanks for the response. The writing is very loose and reflective of me still working through what are new thoughts and reading material. In regards to how it relates to in-sensitive media, I can try to take this up more in the workshop, but in a basic sense, I think the notion of the anamorphic – as an oblique, embedded quality that is typically not overtly sensible, but nevertheless still a felt aspect the object/technology/medium – works well as a metaphor of sorts for how I am thinking of in-sensitive media, or (in-)sensitive as I sometimes denote it. Interface criticism for me can help to bring out such anamorphic elements and make clear their workings.

      I am however weary of the potentially overly esoteric slant an emphasis on things like the anamorphic and death can take, and I find that a concurrent emphasis on banality helps keep to the fore just how what might be felt as alien or anamorphic (or insensitive) can, over time or when overlapped with other ecologies, become just another feature (sensitivity) of the everyday. With moments of obsolescence being a good way to recover or re-examine both of these qualities.

  4. First of all, yes this is full of ideas, I agree with Geoff and Søren. You pose many interesting questions a long the way – including if a post-digital aesthetics is “critically and artistically excited by the potentially anamorphic gaze that is machine vision? ” As you mention yourself, these are ideas and the writing is a work in progress. I was thinking that perhaps it would be helpful to some readers to clarify the relation between anamorphism and the machine (vision)/the in-sensitive? Perhaps even addressing anamorphismsm and other morphisms in programming? (but, please don’t ask me about this :-))

    As Søren, I was also thinking of how this relates to interface criticism, the relation between signal and sign, and how banalitiies of representation are related to ‘insensitive’ processes.

    Having a particular interest in games, I enjoyed the passage where you addressed this, too.

  5. I didn’t get to pose my question at the session. But I am still curious of the significance of anamorphisms/anamorphic in relation to banality?

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