working title: Residual cultural logic of the post-digital – or, some old problems with post–anything / Geoff Cox (Aarhus University)
According to Florian Cramer, the “post-digital” describes an approach to digital media that no longer seeks technical innovation or improvement, but considers digitization something that already happened and can be reconfigured. He explains how the term is characteristic of our time in that shifts of information technology can no longer be understood to occur synchronously – he gives examples across electronic music, book and newspaper publishing, electronic poetry, contemporary visual art, and so on. The examples demonstrate that the ruptures are neither absolute nor synchronous, but operate as asynchronous processes, occurring at different speeds and over different periods and being culturally diverse in each affected area. In the post-digital condition, terms like “old” and “new” media no longer exist as meaningful, but only as technologies of mutual stabilization and destabilization.
Despite the qualifications and examples, there seems to be something strangely nostalgic about the idea of the ‘post-digital’, bound to older ‘posts’ and the announced end of this and that. I am further reminded of Fredric Jameson’s critique of postmodernity, identifying the dangers of conceptualising the present historically in an age that seems to have forgotten about history (in The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, 1991). His claim was that the present was being colonised by ‘pastness’ displacing ‘real’ history’ (1991: 20) – evoking neoliberalism’s capture of history. The Hegelian assertion of the end of history – a history that culminates in the present – is what Francis Fukuyama famously adopted for his The End of History and the Last Man (1992) to insist on the triumph of neoliberalism over Marxist materialist economism. In Fukuyama’s conception of history, neoliberalism is now the actual reality. He is drawing upon Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit but also Alexander Kojève’s Introduction à la lecture de Hegel: Leçons sur “La Phénoménologie de l’Esprit” (1947), and his “postscript on post-history and post-historical animals” in which he argues that certain aesthetic attitudes have replaced the more traditional ‘historic’ commitment to the truth. (See Boris Groys for more on this).
This corresponds somewhat to the way that Jameson contrasts conceptions of cultural change within Modernism expressed as an interest in things ‘new’, in contrast to Postmodernism’s emphasis on ruptures, and what he calls ‘the tell-tale instant’ (like digitisation) to the point where culture and aesthetic production are effectively commodified. He takes video to be emblematic of postmodernism’s claim to be a new form but also reflects centrally on architecture because of its close links with the economy. For our purposes now, we should cite digital technology as both demonstrating aesthetic mutability as well as economic determinacy. He also points to the contradictory nature of some of postmodernism’s claims: from Lyotard’s notion of the end of grand (totalising) narratives that is itself presented in totalising form, and that any so-called distinct break from what went before or an end of history, contains residual traces from modernism itself (“shreds of older avatars” as he puts it). He concludes that postmodernism is “only a reflex and a concomitant of yet another systemic modification of capitalism itself” (1991: xii) – ‘late capitalism’ in other words (a term allegedly taken from Adorno).
Rather than support a distinct paradigm shift (post-something), Jameson argues for the use of the term ‘late-capitalism’ to counter the popular phrase that Daniel Bell called ‘postindustrial society’. This serves to reject the view that new social formations no longer obey the laws of industrial production and reiterates the importance of class relations. Here he is drawing upon the work of the economist Ernest Mandel in Late Capitalism (1978) who argued that in fact this third stage of capital was in fact capitalism in a purer form – neoliberalism with its relentlessly expanding markets and guarantee of the cheapest work-force. Can we argue something similar with post-digitality? How are lines of continuity and discontinuity registered? Is this not simply a reaffirmation of the power of digital media in residual form?
Jameson adopts Mandel’s ‘periodising hypothesis’ or ‘long wave theory’ of expanding and stagnating economic cycles, wherein expansion is in parallel to the previous period’s stagnation. Jameson describes these as: (1) market capitalism; (2) monopoly capitalism, or the stage of imperialism; (3) multinational capitalism, or what some people (misleadingly) call the post-industrial period (1991: 35). These periods expand capital’s reach and further enhance commodification and cheap labour. He then relates these economic stages directly to cultural production, as follows: (1) realism – worldview of realist art; (2) modernism – abstraction of high modernist art; and (3) postmodernism – pastiche (as distinct from parody or irony). These developments are uneven and layered, without clean breaks as such. He asserts that “all isolated or discrete cultural analysis always involves a buried or repressed theory of historical periodization” (1991: 3). And yet cultural production is resigned to making empty reference to the past in a retro-culture or nostalgia of repackaged ideas and surface images. The past is reduced to a vast database of images without referents that can endlessly reassigned for commodification and indiscriminate use.
To understand the present economic crisis, Brian Holmes does something similar in tracing cycles of capitalist growth and the slumps that punctuate them (2013). He refers to the Russian economist Nikolai Kondratiev, who identified three long waves of growth underpinned by techno-economic paradigms: “rising from 1789 to a peak around 1814, then declining until 1848; rising again to a peak around 1873, then declining until 1896; and rising once more to a peak around 1920 (followed by a sharp fall, as we know, in 1929). […Kondratiev] also observed that an especially large number of technological inventions tended to be made during the slumps, but only applied during the upsurges.” (2013, 204-5) This is what informs Joseph Schumpeter’s influential idea of how innovations revolutionize business practices – what he later calls “creative destruction” and later “disruptive innovation” by others – to demonstrate how profit can be generated from stagnated markets. Holmes explains: “Investment in technology is suspended during the crisis, while new inventions accumulate. Then, when conditions are right, available capital is sunk into the most promising innovations, and a new long wave can be launched.” (2013: 206)
Is something similar taking place with digital technology at this point in time following the dotcom hype and its collapse? Is the pastiche-driven retrograde style of much cultural production an indication of business logic that seeks to capitalize on the present crisis (given the paucity of other options)? Yet, as Holmes argues: “To understand how such crises unfold it is not enough to look at technological innovation. We will need another set of lenses, in order to focus on labour, culture, conflict, and political mediation.” (2013: 208) [after all] “Technology has as much to do with labour repression as it does with wealth and progress. This is our reality today: there is too much production, but it is unaffordable, inaccessible, and useless for those who need it most.” (208-9) This position seems to concur with the overall problem of endless growth and collapse – the reification of class divisions – where old technologies are repackaged but in ways that repress historical conditions. To repeat Jameson: cultural production is resigned to making empty reference to the past in a retro-culture or nostalgia of repackaged ideas and surface images – endlessly reassigned for commodification and indiscriminate use.
In conclusion, and following Jameson, the present phase of capitalism should be conceived like Marx did before as both the best and the worst thing that ever happened – to view it simultaneously in terms of catastrophe and progress (1991: 47). This means to inscribe the possibility of change into the very model of change offered up as unchangeable – or something similarly paradoxical (and dialectical). This is (arguably) the central purpose of cultural production and a project to which post-digital research (if we use the phrase) might be suitably deployed. Perhaps we should also remind ourselves of one of the initial sources of the concept ‘post-digital’ (as Cramer does), occurring in Kim Cascone’s essay “The Aesthetics of Failure: Post-Digital Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music” (2000) and his follow up “The Failures of Aesthetics” (2010) in which he recognises the processes by which aesthetics are effectively repackaged for commodification and indiscriminate use.
Kim Cascone, ‘The Aesthetics of Failure: Post-Digital Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music’, Computer Music Journal 24.4 (Winter 2000).
Florian Cramer, “Post-digital Aesthetics” (2013), available at http://lemagazine.jeudepaume.org/2013/05/florian-cramer-post-digital-aesthetics/
Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Verso, (1991), available at http://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/philosophy/works/us/jameson.htm
Alexander Kojève, Introduction à la lecture de Hegel: Leçons sur “La Phénoménologie de l’Esprit” (Paris: Gallimard, 1947).
Brian Holmes, “Crisis Theory for Complex Societies” in Tatiana Bazzichelli and Geoff Cox, eds., Disrupting Business, Autonomedia 2013, pp. 199-225.