February 9, 2015

The Philosophical Origins of Digitality

The following is the full transcript of Alexander R. Galloway’s interview for the forthcoming documentary, #artoffline (2015). Directed by Manuel Correa, the film explores contemporary art and its problematic relationship with information technology.

Interview by Manuel Correa

 

So this is off the charts: could you tell me your name a little bit about yourself

Ok, My name is Alex Galloway; I live in New York and teach at NYU.

Alex, I’m interested to see how philosophy as such has a certain take about the ways that more conventional art has been transcribed into the realm of the Internet; the vast majority of art is produced in an analogue way and thus becomes digital.

One of the things I’m trying to explore now is the possibility that philosophy and digitality might actually be the same thing. At least they appear to share a similar structure. The digital is about creating discrete units of things. The digital requires the division of things; it has to separate something that is undivided and make it divided. As Laruelle has suggested, traditional metaphysics does the same thing. That’s why artists and metaphysicians both talk about representation. Art is a “philosophical” undertaking in this fundamental sense. What I mean is that, if art is always world-bound — if art is a system of representation — then the artistic relation between an image and its original is analogous to the philosophical relation between body and soul or entity and essence. That’s the digital structure of metaphysics. So if traditional art is moving into a digital space, that might be the most natural thing it could do.

Laruelle talks about photography’s attempt to perpetuate the project of philosophy to propose itself as a facsimile of the world. Do you think that it is inherent to a medium like photography to participate in this project of philosophy?

In the classical sense, absolutely; I think photography is the perfect example of this structure — or we might say not just photography but the camera obscura in general. For a long time, the camera obscura has influenced how we understand the elemental structures of life. And so you could think of knowledge, or even the tradition of western metaphysics, as a type of camera obscura in itself. Photography re-enacts that elemental philosophical relation with a high level of fidelity. But one thing that François Laruelle talks about, in describing photography and art, is that, even within photography, if you withdraw from the philosophical decision (as he calls it) there can still be a strictly immanent core. Here’s where photography begins to deviate from philosophy.

What is the relationship between the digital and metaphysics?

This is a fundamental issue. I am still exploring it now, so I am not sure of all the answers. But for me the tradition of western metaphysics is based upon a fundamental principle rooted in cleaving or cutting, that is, a making-distinct or making-discrete. For example in many different authors there exists a distinction between earth-bound entities or actual existing things in the world and then some sort of form, essence, or transcendental that pervades these actually existing entities. There are so many instances of this kind of fundamental metaphysical logic. It’s a logic of representation, and, as I said, I think you can superimpose it onto the concept of digitality. The digital requires a cutting, a making discrete, a distinction that intervenes and breaks smooth or continuous phenomenon into discrete units. It can be done at both a large or small scale. If it’s done at the most fundamental scale, then we’re dealing with the breaking of the one into the two. And this is Laruelle’s fundamental concern: What happens when the one becomes the two?

What is New Media?

New Media is a complicated expression, most certainly. It doesn’t have a precise meaning today because it’s such a vague term. The adjective ‘new’ is difficult to pin down because it’s relative to whatever media might be new at the moment. During the mid 19th century, was photography the new media? At the end of the 20th century, was the computer new media? I’ve noticed a lot of people have switched and are starting to avoid that phrase, instead using more rigorously definable terms like, for example, the digital, or digital media. (Which, incidentally, are not exclusively modern or postmodern by any means, but have existed since the dawn of time.) New Media has become more of a commercial category having to do with innovation. It is something perhaps more relevant in the domains of popular culture, commercial culture, and industry.

There are very many photographers locally who are overly concerned with the idea of the ontology of photography, and they seem concerned with the idea that digital technologies are affecting the ontology of photography.

I have a slightly unusual position on this. I think that photography is digital – if you understand photography in the classical sense – and that it has always been digital. Such a position only holds if we accept the previous definition of the digital, which has to do with subscribing to a fundamental rivenness of the world. Photography must reflect on or orient itself toward an object or toward the world. The viewer (or the camera as a ‘viewer proxy’) is already divided, or apart, or opposite from its subject. The viewer is inside the world of course, but the structure of immanence is not in effect. Rather, a structure of distance, difference, relationality predominates. If the dominant structure is distance, difference, relation, etc., it’s digital as far as I’m concerned. But that might not be a very satisfying answer! Many photographers are more interested in specific technologies, like the use of a pixel-based raster (i.e. digital) mode of representation, as opposed to a more traditional chemical nitrate based substrate. In other words, digital and analog could be understood in the following way: if we are living in a metaphysical universe that is riven at its core, the digital instinct will preserve the rivenness or even accentuate or proliferate it to produce an endless stream of distinction, but the analog instinct will try to close the gap and create a structure of identity. For photography to be analog it would have to pursue that second quest, to create common identity between the object and the image.

Wilhelm Worringer talks to great extent about the Naturalist’s urge to the representation of nature, and it’s interesting to see how photography has embraced this concept and, through the idea of transparent mediation, and since late conceptual art, photographers emphatically try to postulate photographic representations as objects of thought.

That is a very interesting development. I see it, for example, in Gilles Deleuze’s writings on art, painting, and cinema. But we can extend it to photography. And this is the heart of the matter. Because when Deleuze writes on art he departs from the tradition of western metaphysics, and instead explores a series of non-digital possibilities. He is a great thinker of immanence and it shows in his writings on art. Immanence simply means that something “remains within” itself. (For this reason immanence is often contrasted with the transcendental.) If the image itself obtains a kind of autonomous physical or material fact — the image as an autonomous aesthetic space — then maybe it begins to leave the metaphysical or digital tradition behind.

So, its all about immanence?

I think so. The problem with the transcendental is it’s always cheating. The transcendental always inserts something else as a point of measure toward which other things are made subservient. It could be God, or an essence, it doesn’t matter — any kind of measure that others must live up to or fail to live up to. Laruelle calls this “the oldest prejudice.” And so, a number of people, including Deleuze, Laruelle and other theorists of radical immanence, have tried to resolve the oldest prejudice by throwing out transcendental categories and instead thinking about a world that is strictly material or immanent to itself. In other words, immanence is a way to stop cheating.

Reza Negarestani commented yesterday that for him art has to become like a grain of salt inside the oyster’s gut, thus becoming self-contained and self-irritating. In our ever-digitizing world, what, if anything is important about physical spaces of art as tools to achieve these goals?

Yes, this is a big issue. In much of the 20th century, artists and critics were more or less in agreement about what constituted avant-garde practice, that is, how we understand what it means to be political or progressive. It entailed antagonism, corruption, dissemination — in general anything that helps to storm the bastions of power in order to fleece them of their hierarchies, their centralized power, their ability to organize and control things. Thus, we could talk about the great avant-garde gesture of “revealing the apparatus,” evident in figures like Godard or Brecht. Yet I think today — and it is counter intuitive, to be sure — but I think today all of this has changed. It might sound cynical but I suspect that the powers that be have wised up and have incorporated these avant-garde principles into their own structures of organization. Today “being disruptive” is something that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs strive to do. Consequently artists have become more reticent about labelling their practices subversive, disruptive, or resistive, because those are the virtues of modern capitalism. So finally to answer your question I think that today we have to be a bit old fashioned! We have to reevaluate some of the old fashioned categories. Things like authenticity, absorption, attention, focus or, to use a very unfashionable concept, Aura (as in the old essay by Walter Benjamin). In considering physical spaces of art like galleries and museums, they might wish to resist the impulse to go online, to resist the notion that their function has to be exclusively disseminatory. Indeed perhaps we might return to that old fashioned category of the sanctum. Perhaps we need more authentic spaces that are truly different. Foucault has a very provocative concept, the heterotopia, which means a space that is qualitatively its own. It’s not a very complicated problem to solve. In today’s world everything is promiscuous with everything else; there is nothing that cannot suddenly pop up in a place where it wasn’t supposed to be. Everything can be in any place at any time. There are benefits to that of course, but we lose the particularities of things. The physical spaces of art should do what they’ve always done best, not try to play catch up to AT&T or Apple.

Do you think that giving physical spaces of art a priority position in regards to the online iterations of art could be thought of as mostly in defense of their ability to commodify art objects?

Yes, certainly, that would be a different way to answer the question. I grew up in rural Oregon, but today I live in New York, a short subway ride from the heart of the commercial art world with its unprecedented levels of commodification and speculation. But now we see the danger of what I’m calling the return into old-fashioned categories. It would be a mistake to fall into the same traps that have always existed and that were the original genesis for the historical avant-garde. But I still think that sometimes strategic territorialisation is useful, particularly if we live in a world where the logic of promiscuity is total.

Do you think that returning to old-fashioned categories could seen as an counter progressive political statement?

Perhaps, although it is dangerous given that it could easily be considered a kind of romanticism, nostalgia, or worse. We all know the dangers of territorialization: the nationalist impulse, or the proto-fascist impulse to collapse into a community of the same. I am totally conscious of these dangers and remain afraid of them. But I’m also afraid of capitalism. In considering the forces of promiscuity we must consider them structurally. Networks are promiscuous technologies; they allow things to connect to places they were never supposed to be and to travel into places they were never appropriate for. Promiscuity can be tremendously useful. And certainly it has an important role to play in any critique of morality or puritan self-righteous. To be more historically specific, the tactics of promiscuity were very important during the 1960s, particularly in trying to break through social repression and to invent new subject positions. However, I think that the usefulness of promiscuity as a structural tactic has finally run its course. Recently I’ve been toying with the “prophylactic” — not without a bit of humor — as an alternative to promiscuity. Prophylaxis means guarding, fending off, or introducing a wall, from the old Greek word for guardian or sentinel. If Deleuze is the perfect thinker of promiscuity, his ontology a promiscuous ontology in which everything is always mutually de-territorializing into everything else, where everything is always being mutually corrupted by everything else, then Laruelle is the perfect thinker of the prophylactic, his theoretical schema containing no exchange, no dissemination, and no reciprocity. As elemental structures, things like mixing, alternation, or dialectical opposition are militantly denied in Laruelle. At the very least prophylaxis is incredibly interesting as a thought experiment. But it’s more than that, because Laruelle represents a radical deviation from the current state of affairs. It’s not clear where it will lead, but it seems much more promising than rehashing the tactics of promiscuity that have been fuelling hyper-capitalism for the last few decades.

How do you think that art is affected by its presence online?

The Internet is an extremely complicated and multi-faceted technology and social infrastructure. At the heart is a Faustian bargain. Certainly the Internet is the ultimate technology of heterogeneity, difference, and radical multiplicity. Recall all the Deleuzian categories that are so useful and interesting. But at the same time there exists an absolute standardization or homogeneity at the level of the total system. That’s the Faustian bargain. I’ve written about this in the context of the Internet protocols, the network standards that govern how all forms of communication take place on the internet. The protocols are incredibly flimsy, simple, and minimal. And, yes, they are developed using open democratic discussion, public vetting, experimenting, refining, and other laudable social practices. But they are also total; they are absolutes. You can’t violate the Internet Protocol. Or, sure, you can very easily — but if you do, you pay the price of being completely excluded. That’s part of the Faustian bargain. Along with the rest of the online world, art has to be willing to succumb to this same kind of radical levelling, this same form of radical standardization or homogenization. Everything gets put on equal footing; everything is subject to the same simple encoding schemes like image formats that render colour and compose images within certain strict parameters. This is the fundamental shift. You lose qualitative difference in all of its messiness.

You say that photography is digital in its essence. Say that the tonal qualities of a photograph outside of the net could be qualified to a greater extent than they can be in the realm of the Internet. Do you think that this, in a way, could depose the artists of their role as the final authors of the images, and perhaps shift the role of the audience to that of the computer screen, further mediating the perception images?

Absolutely, yes. What you’re describing is, in fact, the old Holy Grail of the avant-garde: an art object that modulates according to the participation of those involved. But today it’s no longer an avant-garde principle; it’s built into the mode of production, built into contemporary technologies. In other words, the old avant-garde principles from earlier in the 20th century have been co-opted and integrated. My naive response is: okay, if that’s true, maybe we need to unearth a different idea of what art (or the avant-garde) should be. It’s frustrating to see art works or art movements today that simply repeat the kinds of tricks that Google or Amazon have co-opted. For example, there’s noting radical today about interactivity in art. Quite the opposite. As part of the bedrock of Web 2.0, interactivity is at best duplicitous if not reactionary. Web 2.0 requires the continuous, often involuntary, multi-modal interaction of objects and people. If an avant-garde is still conceivable today, it ought to stick to the original proposal, that the avant-garde must in some way leave the world behind, deviating radically from the current state of affairs.

Do you think that works absorbed in the familiarity of the Internet loose their protocol of reverential respect? Why or why not?

A difficult question. The straightforward answer is yes. (But we’ll want to complicate that in a moment.) Consider Benjamin’s notion of the destruction of the aura. It’s certainly possible to observe such corruption or decay of aura. In the old fashioned sense, it can certainly be valuable to recreate the particularity or authenticity of certain experiences. Such approaches are increasingly valuable in a world where authenticity and particularity are devalued. But there is a different way to answer that question. I’m thinking of someone like Bernard Stiegler, or even Marshall McLuhan, and the way in which mankind’s relationship to technology is not absolute. The relationship is always provisional or local, and susceptible to evolution. The question is not “Is there some absolute distinction between mankind’s essence and a technological prosthetic alien to it?” That’s the wrong question. Instead we might investigate the gap, where it lies and how it moves over time. I can write with a pencil and not feel fatally corrupted by some alien technology. It’s a pencil; it has been integrated into the human sensorium. Clothing is another good example: clothing is an absolutely artificial external technology, but nevertheless also naturalized within human life. The size of the gap is important, something that Stiegler writes about. When a new technology is introduced, maybe the gap is quite large. It might require a long period of mutual evolution. Man-machine evolution will perhaps shrink that gap. Think of all the technologies that were considered horrific or alienating in the past but later become normalized within human experience. Perhaps the phenomena that concern people today – for example that networks exacerbate attention disorders – are simply different from the traditional ways of establishing relation. Maybe we just have to wait for evolution to unfold for the concern to dissolve.

Photos by Anna Kasko, 2013.

 

#ARTOFFLINE PREVIEW

During the last two centuries, art has undergone a mayor reconsideration of its strategies, beliefs and possibilities. With the invention of photography in the 19th century, representation in art had to undergo serious considerations. In more recent times, the internet, coupled with digital technologies, allowed humans to represent the world in ways it was never possible before. In an ever digitizing world, contemporary art remains defiantly offline. Generating interviews with recognized artists, philosophers, collectors, art critics and anthropologists we seek to define the current functions of art and the ways that Contemporary Art (as an identifiable trend in art production, distinct from what the name suggests.) has acknowledged, but mostly refused technology in order to preserve its market dynamics and promulgate the global art biennial format, thus encouraging contemporary art’s role as “The symbolic branch of the spreading the western democratic liberal system”. #artoffline

Blog

The Chinese Rooms of Cognitive Capital

This piece was developed while participating in Matteo Pasquinelli‘s seminar, Capital as Computation & Cognition: From Babbage’s Factory to Google’s Algorithmic Governance, hosted by The New Centre for Research & Practice in March 2015… The status of robots and workers under cognitive capitalism can be likened to Searle’s Chinese Room, as noted by Srnicek and Williams when writing on […]

Vilém Flusser — On Fiction

Originally published as DA FICÇÃO in Jornal O Diário de Ribeirão Preto, São Paulo, on 26 August 1966. Consider Newton’s famous sentence:  “hypothese non fingo” (my hypotheses are not feigned). On the other hand consider Wittgenstein’s sentence: The sciences discover nothing: [they] invent. The contradiction between the two sentences unveils a profound change of our concept of reality and […]

Blood Politics? An Open letter to Jerry Saltz

Jerry Saltz, You have just publicly endorsed Hillary Clinton on Facebook with a two-thousand word text that you title “Why I Am Voting for Hillary Clinton; The Smell of Napalm the Morning of November 9, 2016.” I feel it necessary to respond to you publicly, because your text is totally reprehensible. Napalm. Are you crazy? […]

The Dialogical Avatar

“Anytime we’re talking about cultural objects like Avatar, in a corporate dominant culture, we are playing with fire, clearly. When the so-called indigenous is so-called natural, the extraordinary naturalization of the indigenous, no matter how talented, no matter how really, really, really, really great, no matter how many inventions they may have invented. But it requires the other half of the equation, which is a particular production of whiteness. Even though there were plenty of people of color occupying the category of whiteness in that film. Whiteness is a space to occupy for those who are associated with the technologies of conquest, extraction, commerce, etc. and that strikes me. Both of those two require each other. And actual, living people believe these things of each other, to damaging degrees. Such that I know no small number of white people, some of whom I’ve found in my own skin, at various moments, you know, who somehow feel less able to speak up, in a critical way, in a conversation with someone who is produced as more natural. Whether it’s in an indigenous rights discussion, a discussion about who owns race, class, and gender properties, and so on, and so on. The very much in-play ways that these story-fragments continue to set people out around these nature/technology contrasts, to perpetuate the trouble – people actually inhabit these imagined positions and do it to one another, including doing it to oneself.”

Jason Adams – Occupy Time (Spanish Translation)

Originally published in English by Jason Adams as “Occupy Time”, in Critical Inquiry: In The Moment This is the second of many Spanish language translations that we will be releasing on &&& open-access. Giancarlo Sandoval will be translating current Philosophy and Theory over the next few months in order to make important recent texts available to the Spanish-speaking world.