Digital Hybridity and the Question of Aesthetic Opposition

By Drucker, Johanna | Bucknell Review, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Digital Hybridity and the Question of Aesthetic Opposition


Drucker, Johanna, Bucknell Review


IS there a fanatical inevitability in the capacity of electronic media to absorb all forms of human expression and experience into data formats? In his discussions of aesthetics and ideology, Theodor Adorno continually reiterated the caveat that when positivist logic invades culture to an extreme then representation appears to present a "unitary" truth in a totalizing model of thought which leaves little room for critical action or agency. (1) Pulling this unity apart is essential to critical rationality (as distinct from instrumental rationality) in its struggle to maintain a gap between data and idea, form and experience, the absolute and the lived. In the hybrid condition of the digital the separation necessary to sustain the distinctions between the instrumental and the critical appears to be precluded. The "absolute" identity of the mathematical underpinnings of all digital activity seems to collapse concept and materiality into one and the same as an encoded file. As the popular idea of technological "truth" continues to function as an instrumental force in the increasing rationalization of culture, artwork which renders such "truths" assimilable, performing in what Adorno would term a reconciliatory manner. Such work seems profoundly insidious--unless it can be qualified within a critique of its assumptions, claims, and premises.

Late-twentieth-century technological innovation pushes the boundaries of once discrete areas of cultural activity, transforming an ever increasing number of arenas into colonized domains within the managerial bureaucracy of data processing. As it does so, the hard and fast opposition between two traditions which had been markedly distinct in the visual arts are increasingly difficult to sustain-in part because they each depended upon identification with contradictory concepts of the role of reason. The first is the antilyrical, antisubjective, rational tradition of art which aspires to the condition of science. The second is a humanistic, lyrical, subjective romanticism which opposed emotional, natural, and/or chaotic forces to those of technologically driven progress. Hybridity of machine/ organic entities is a current condition. The old oppositions no longer hold--the machine is the flesh, the body is technological, nature is culture. The cyborg is the sign and actualization of the current lived condition of humanity--and more and more it is clear that as the arts have helped familiarize and legitimate many of these once unthinkable ideas the capacity for aesthetics to regulate boundaries between rational and irrational regimes of technology is limited.

There are many areas of contemporary art activity in which these themes could be examined: the imagery of mutation, sculpture and installation work which merges new technology with conventional media, work which extends the human body through technological prostheses or otherwise toys with machine aesthetics in new, synthetic ways. (2) All are interesting manifestations of a profound transformation. But the implications of this change can be brought into focus through a more narrow, and perhaps more fundamental avenue: an inquiry into the identity of digital technology. Digitalization seems to offer the possible fulfillment of Gottfried Leibniz's dream of a universe fully available to logical analysis and description--in short, his vision of mathesis as a complete logic that maps in a one-to-one correlation between thought and representation.

As art's dialogue with technology extends into the digital arena, the questions that arise can be posed in philosophical terms which frame their political implications. Here these questions will be posed in terms of the work of Adorno's conception of aesthetics as potentially resistant (no longer liberatory, given his profound pessimism). At midcentury, Adorno struggled to articulate the capacity of aesthetics to resist the forces and tropes of instrumental reason informing an increasingly commodified consumer society. …

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