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(The paper formerly know as Good Vibrations: Time as Special Effect)
Digital aesthetics has to do with the engineering and technology of computing as well as the superfices of image and sound: the Jodi site, for example, makes a wholly different sense if you use View Source to dip into the code beneath the apparently random scatter of blinking ascii characters. What is at stake is code, not representation. Tim Druckrey’s 1995 Ars Electronica paper catches a critical aspect of this when he argues that “Programming determines a set of conditions in which the represented is formed as an instruction, while language destabilizes the conditions through the introduction of formations in which the represented is extended” (Druckrey 1999, 311). The imbalance of instruction and extra-textual formations forms a new crisis in the theory of representation, itself already reeling under the twin blows of consumer capitalism and the dead-end theorisation of simulation. The act of interpretation does not become impossible, faced with the interminable question of the truth of the representation, but becomes necessary, since the construction of truth now becomes an extra-textual effort engaging anyone who comes into contact with it.
As anyone who has ever struggled with a balance sheet will know, accountancy is a creative art. Without abuse of the facts, there are legitimate ways in which a company’s performance can be shown to have resulted in a profit, a loss or a break-even, according to the audience for whom the figures are intended. A struggling charity, for example, has to avoid profit in order to keep its tax status, generate loss in order to attract key funding, and show profit in order to keep its directors and its bank manager happy. This is achieved not by changing the facts but by using different formulae to account for them. The spreadsheet has become a hermeneutic engine for testing out possible modes of accounting for a year’s trading: to ensure that a movie makes a record profit for Variety, but nevertheless never succeeds so well that players with points in it take significant revenue streams. It’s illegal to alter the facts but massaging them is the reason we pay for accountants. The effort it takes the lay observer to grapple with these issues and to run through the what-if scenarios that accountants love is precisely the operation Druckrey hints at: the difference between instruction as machine coding and interpretation as the destabilisation of encoding in language.
The digital, like the accountancy spreadsheets that are such a feature of it, is indeed indexical, but it is not engaged with the visual regimes of resemblance, rather with semblance as such, which, considered as the execution of a set of instructions, is also doubled by a mimetic performance, rather as a recording of a piano recital is a semblance of the score but a mimesis of its execution. In fact the digital record is less perfect than the analogue, or rather has abandoned the claim to perfectibility of the analogue –– and this at its heart, not in the technoboosterism of “very soon we will be able to...” that Willemen quite rightly castigates –– though for the wrong reasons. To extend the metaphor of the piano recording, the mimicry of idealised acoustic conditions in the recording studio chronicled by Chanan is wasted effort: as Altman argues, the fallibility of playback ensures that the acoustic I hear is the acoustic of my living room, not that of the Cleveland Orchestra. In effect, the greater the attempted control over reproduction, the more control is handed over to the receiver, who is thereby forced into the position of interpreter. This is just one aspect of the democratisation process in the digital domain.
Indexicality is in any case only one aspect of a cinema which, in the digital era, is also transformed as to its iconic and symbolic functioning. Willemen makes a play for the centrality of Charles Sanders Peirce’s category of the index in film but does so in a naively realist tradition that ignores the power of Peirce’s semiotics as a triadic rather than Saussurean and binary structure. Willemen wants a ‘return’ to the index, claiming that any image taken with a camera has an irreducible relation with embodied and physical reality which is precious, vital and political, and which digital media have destroyed. But a little media-social history will help understand why the index was never unique and never an unmitigatedly good thing. The camera and wet photography throve in almost exactly the same chronological period as the ideology of privacy. One of the cheerier ways of looking at the ‘death’ of photography is that it coincides with the termination of bourgeois individualism and its abuse of identity and its sacrosanctity as a defence for private dishonesty and domestic violence. The rise of the manipulable image and the emergence of a manipulable (schizophrenic) self are synchronous developments: what is occurring is not the end of truth but the end of an ideology of identity. Identity of the subject to itself has acted as the ground of truth since Descartes, and it is this ground that Willemen mourns. The law too has been grounded on the concept of individual identity as the basis of truth in arguments over privacy, intellectual and private property. As the measure of truth as identity breaks down –– the Microsoft trial is a wonderfully public forum for demonstrating the imbecility of identifying truth with property –– the rewriting of photographic truth becomes symptomatic of a global and highly political change in the nature of truth, identity and property. The logic of the digital, with its ease or surveillance, fraud and hacking, denies the sole right of ownership: if anything, the digital belongs, in its wider sense, to the dialectic of liberation in a way which a century of cinema has clearly failed to achieve. If the digital is no longer a credible medium for indexical representations, what does this mean for the surveillant regime of the passport photograph? Surely it requires more than an education that promotes “assessing the ‘likely’ verisimilitude of any account or representation of the world” (the scare quotes, which are so revealing, are Willemen’s own): surely it demands an education based not on picturing and mastery over the world, something more like an education based on the power to communicate in a globally interdependent society?
There’s another curious and rather typical elision in decrying blockbuster cinema as ‘physical sensations’ as opposed to the ‘emotive-intellectual’ cinema. The ‘sound prisons’ of club culture Willemen vilifies can surely be understood analogously as the utopian if temporary promotion of psycho-somatic wholeness in an age in which its very possibility is erased in daily life. But just at the moment in which you think you have caught the argument: digital media are too embodied, too physical, not intellectual and emotive enough, we discover that the tirade will be directed towards the exclusion of embodiment from digital media. What is going on inside this apparent contradiction?
What Willemen seems to be missing is the negativity of the body in contemporary society, joining in the industrial production of nostalgia for real bodies that began in the gay clubs and gyms of the 1970s and now permeates commercial culture. Willemen’s love for the lost bodies of an imaginary working class, his promotion of their images as innocent triggers of ‘intellectual-emotive’ responses, reeks of the closet. The only way the body can permeate the cinematic OR the digital; is either as data-image (Mark Poster’s  term for the cloud of statistics which gathers around any participant in consumerism) or as absence. If anything it is the latter that marks the genuine digital art of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. We cannot wish away the division of body and mind effected in the foundations of modernity –– that wishing is characteristic of the bogus, content-full utopia castigated by Bloch and realised in the fashion industry with its cheesy evocations of blue-collar sweat in the processing of gym-and-isotonics-sculpted models. The contemporary body is itself untrustworthy and beyond the realms of truth because it is every bit as manipulable as the digital image of it. The body no longer counts politically: it is a construct of a historical process of abstraction noted already by Marx in the sublimation of labour power from the labouring bodies of the proletariat. The body becomes a disposable good under industrial capital, and an investment under finance capital. On the way, it moves from reproductive to service to consumer sectors of the economy, concluding an arc from use via exchange to sign. In the re-engineering of contemporary capital, even that level of value is subsumed within a higher order of abstraction, that of the statistically normative database, where the body takes on the role of statistical fiction. The operation of digital media in recording, analysing and extrapolating from data is not an attack on indexicality: it is the new order of the index, and one entirely in tune with a trajectory already established in the twist of photography towards the instrumental rationality of the surveillance state in the middle of the nineteenth century. It is only a higher order of realism.
Like so many Luddite commentators, Willemen pretends to be obsessed with work, but not with looking at the changing conditions of work. Instead his major concern, like those of Kirkpatrick Sale (1996), Neil Postman (1992) and Sven Birkerts (1994), is with protecting the rights of an intellectual caste defined only negatively but disallowed the negating role that a true dialectical model would demand of them. Such arguments are stranded defending what Caldwell had already defined in 1939 as a dying culture. In fact, what all four fear is not the demise of indexicality but the rise of iconicity, “the diagrammatic sign or icon” (Peirce 1991a, 181). But what if the true connection is, or the possible or potential relation were, symbolic, “which signifies its object by means of an association of ideas” (Peirce 1991a, 181). This after all was Eisenstein’s basic tactic in the montage aesthetic. The problem is that the symbolic relation in film turns indices into symbols –– the image of this babushka becomes the type of all victims of Cossack oppression (and incidentally all Cossacks are denied specificity). Willemen’s intellectual-emotive cinema is itself at odds with the embodiment he ascribes to indexicality, because every photographed body, as soon as it escapes from the purely representational regime of the index “without definition” (achieved for the first and last time in cinema in the Sortie des usines Lumières) becomes symbolic, and as such throws itself into the regime of “association of ideas or habitual connections” (Peirce 1991a, 181) –– the realm of metaphor OR, and this is the danger Willemen fears, the realm of ideology. Here is how Adorno expresses it:
[M]ontage disposes over the elements that make up the reality of an unchallenged common sense, either to transform their intention or, at best, to awaken their latent language. It is powerless, however, in so far as it is unable to explode the individual elements. It is precisely montage that is to be criticised for possessing the remains of a complaisant irrationalism, to adaptation to material that is delivered ready-made from outside the work... the principle of montage therefore became that of construction. There is no denying that even in the principle of construction, in the dissolution of materials and their subordination to an imposed unity, once again something smooth, harmonistic, a quality of pure logicality is conjured up that seeks to establish itself as ideology. It is the fatality of all contemporary art that it is contaminated by the untruth of the ruling totality (Adorno 1997, 57).
Adorno’s complex dialectic needs a gloss: montage abstracts elements –– shots –– from their place in order to subordinate them to an artistic plan. In doing so it at once deprives them of their rational place in the world, but simultaneously supplants that with its own rationalism, an obverse of the instrumental rationalism of which it is attempting to be the negation. But because montage fails to analyse and expose the elements, it fails because they bring with them their existing ideological associations, now freed of the complexities of their existence outside the constructed artwork.
We can use another of Peirce’s triads to explore this in a different light:
The First is that whose being is simply in itself, not referring to anything nor lying behind anything. The Second is that which is what it is by force of something to which it is second. The Third is that which is what it is owing to things between which it mediates and which it brings into relation (Peirce 1991b, 188-9).