Network criticism

December 7, 2012

This is the sixth of six posts about the present. Caveat lector.

In 2010, I suggested the idea of a network realism, in hindsight the first glob of New Aesthetic / network overlay thinking entering the world. Like most of my ideas, it was roughly and quickly expounded for a talk and in this case compounded by intense jetlag (I’d just arrived in Australia and was thinking pretty much exclusively about timezones).

Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge in early 2011, I got thinking about caisson disease, the form of the bends caused by pressure differentials in the deep foundations of the structure — this surfaced in hauntological futures as a kind of lateral future shock: not the shock of the sudden arrival of the future, but the realisation it was right here all along, in an adjacent chamber.

These posts are texts squeezed between the pressure differentials of the physical and the digital, strata of human and machine, isobars of the network. They are letters from the inside of something that doesn’t have an outside any more.

And yet we continually attempt to describe it as if it does; to nail things down, or to the wall, to turn tweets into manifestos and conversations into movements. As unversed as I am in theory, I always get the sense that art and design criticism, the most frequently applied tools to understanding the internet, don’t really get it. They just don’t, and that’s OK, but they’re too invested in pre-network notions of authenticity, discreteness and scarcity. A true network criticism has something to take from art and design criticism but I feel it might emerge more strongly and more coherently from writing about architecture, perhaps because architectural criticism has always had to engage with context: there’s no white cube for architecture just as there is no white cube for the network. Architecture is always in-the-world-with-us, like the network.

For a while now, I’ve been using Kitchin and Dodge’s description of a code/space to talk about the infrastructure of literature, and about the network. Their description of spaces, such as airports, which are coproductions of architecture and software, extends both to the space of literature, in the form of virtual and physical infrastructures (cf this Domus article) and to our wider experience of the network. I’d really like a better term than “coproduced” but there you go. These things are codependent and co-evolving. Co co co.

Keller Easterling, in her essay The Action is the Form and in her forthcoming book Extrastatecraft traces a network criticism for architecture, which may also be extended to the network itself. (Several quotes here are drawn from this extract of material from Extrastatecraft at e-flux.)

Easterling’s analysis is crucial because it recognises the “soupy matrix” which constitutes the network, an infrastructure both real and virtual, composed of material and immaterial actors from people and buildings to legal frameworks and digital information. “Architecture”, Easterling says, “is making beautiful stones in the water, but the world is making the water. […] Making the stone is a valid artistic choice, but what if the art is in the material?”

This is what land art for the internet is about too: art that is its own infrastructure, made out of its own context, both exposing and transforming its environment.

The internet is not a medium. This is the fundamental issue at the heart of the artworld’s grappling with digital / net art, it’s the issue at the heart of our conceptual problems with ebooks, it’s the fundamental basis for thinking about the New Aesthetic. The post-internet crowd know this: this is what post-internet means. Because we’ve been treating the internet as a medium like photography or sculpture or painting. The internet is not a medium: it is a context.

What Easterling insists on is the necessity of crafting actions rather than objects, active forms, “forms for handling forms”. The key term for Easterling is disposition, which is the designed capacity for a thing to shape space over time. An understanding of software is key to both Easterling and Kitchin/Dodge’s programmes because software has an inherent disposition: it is designed to do work over time; it is a literature of dispositions.

Easterling also reminds us that immanence is the defining quality of the network, a possibility space shaped by the dispositions of the technologies we shape, that shape us, that we shape again.

Deleuze and Guattari’s abstract machine, which we have already established we are living inside, is also an immanent machine, a machine for generating machines, for generating “a real that is yet to come”. As with Gibson’s unevenly-distributed future/present, the immanent is also that which is already here.

Hence a network criticism must be cognisant of its own status as the grease and sand in the abstract machine: the sand that gums the work and shapes the mould, depending on the status of the machine, which is always in flux. In another sense, or set of conditions, a network criticism is also a Borgesian exercise in rearranging what we have already uncovered in order to produce newly activated texts, just as the librarians of Babel search through their books to find the one text that is already immanent in their literature.

And alongside these notions of architectural infrastructures and artistic media, we also need to build into network criticism a fundamental inconclusivity, an instability.

In the conclusion to his recent essay, “The Relevance of Algorithms“, Tarleton Gillespie writes:

“in many ways, algorithms remain outside our grasp, and they are designed to be. This is not to say that we should not aspire to illuminate their workings and impact. We should. But we may also need to prepare ourselves for more and more encounters with the unexpected and ineffable associations they will sometimes draw for us, the fundamental uncertainty about who we are speaking to or hearing, and the palpable but opaque undercurrents that move quietly beneath knowledge when it is managed by algorithms.”

An accommodation with and an accounting for this fundamental uncertainty is core to the new critical and vernacular literacy. To paraphrase Huxley, we cannot reason ourselves out of our basic incoherence. All we can do is learn the art of being incoherent in a reasonable way.

I am talking about art, I am talking about books, about maps, about drones, and some of these are aesthetic discussions and some of them are political ones and some of them are historical, personal, sexual: that’s not the point. What allies them is the network, us and our technologies, the technology you are using to read this and I am using it to write it, but also the sum total of links that brought us here, you and I, the reading we have done, and the context this discussion inhabits and draws itself from.

What this is, what the New Aesthetic is, is an attempt to do what I have been thinking of as long-form writing online; that is, writing with the same range of argument and continuity of thought as book writing, but inhabiting the network, natural to it and fluent in it. Writing with a disposition, just as Dronestagram has a disposition, that is shaped as information, mobile and replicable. A literature comfortable with impermanence and fragmentation.

(It was in conversation with David Weinberger in 2011 that this idea of a wider sphere first emerged, and it was talking to David again recently about this kind of “longform” writing that he coined the term “broadform”.)

Impermanence, fragmentation and disposition are key to networked, broadform writing, to a network criticism. Networked thought: a literature of the playlist, not the manifesto, as Tom Taylor succintly identified it. An instrument that is built as it is played.

When Easterling posits “an internet of things without the internet”, I hear again the name of the network. An understanding and a communication that does not prioritise either the infrastructure or the individual, but the whole; where everything may be treated as the network, because it is.

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