High Techne: Art and Technology from the Machine Age to the Posthuman

High Techne: Art and Technology from the Machine Age to the Posthuman

by R.L. Rutsky


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780816633562
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Publication date: 12/28/1999
Series: Electronic Mediations
Edition description: 1
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.88(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

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Chapter One

The Spirit of Utopia
and the Birth of the Cinematic Machine

The historical narrative of aesthetic modernism is generally taken to have begun in the mid-nineteenth century, and the figure most often cited as its progenitor—or at least its obstetrician—is Baudelaire. In such accounts, in fact, modernism's "birth" often seems to require a doctor in attendance, for it is not an entirely "natural" process. The birth of modernism involves, in other words, the reemergence of an artificial or technological element that was excluded from romantic aesthetics. Indeed, Kantian and romantic aesthetics always seemed to see the idea of a technological birth as threatening, monstrous, and any doctor connected to it as either a mad scientist or a practitioner of the black arts. Thus, the primal scene of Kantian, romantic aesthetics would be precisely this birth of the machine, the bringing to life of technology and technique. The repression of this scene will serve to constitute the Kantian aesthetic sphere; its "renaissance" will define aesthetic modernism.

    Yet, if modernism has generally been defined by the reemergence within aesthetics of technology and technique, there is still a ghost of Kantian aesthetics in the modernist machine. Most definitions of modernism emphasize the fragmentary effects—on both space and time—of modern technology. Modernism comes to be seen in terms of its openness to the urban-technological "shocks" of the modern city, to "the 'present-ness' of the present" to that "half of art" that Baudelaire characterizesas"the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent." Such definitions, however, tend to neglect what Baudelaire calls "the other half" of art: "the eternal and the immutable." Indeed, Baudelaire himself apparently sees this aspect of art as nonmodern. It would seem, in fact, to belong to a Kantian aesthetic sphere that defines itself precisely in opposition to the fragmentation and transience of modern technological life. In this opposition, the aesthetic sphere is represented as an eternal, utopian realm, in which every "object" has been endowed with the internal purposiveness, symbolic significance, and full presence of a living thing—that is to say, with a "spirit" or "soul." The transient, contingent, and inanimate technological object must therefore be excluded from this realm, as the dead are from the living. Yet, if modernism is defined by the reemergence of the technological in the aesthetic sphere, this is a realm still haunted by a transcendent, living "spirit," by the desire for the eternal and the immutable. It is haunted, in other words, by what can only be called a spirit of utopia.

    For both modernist and romantic aesthetics, then, the birth or coming to life of the machine is not simply the product of a rational, scientific design; it is not simply a matter of construction, of putting parts together, of engineering. Rather, such a machine is necessarily infused with a living spirit, with a soul; it is a "dead" technological object reanimated, given the status of an autonomous subject. This bringing to life of technology must obviously, then, take place as much through magical or spiritual means as through science. This sort of animation of inanimate objects is common in many myths and fairy tales, from Pygmalion to Pinocchio. The animation of technology, however, tends to be figured in the terms of a dichotomy, as either utopian or dystopian. Given the often-noted "romantic reaction" against the rationalist, scientific-technological utopianism prevalent at the time, it is hardly surprising that the figure of a living, autonomous technology would appear to romantic aesthetics as almost entirely negative, dystopian. This representation will be maintained in modernism, but alongside it there is a return of the image of a utopian, animate technology.

    Whether the figuration of technology as living is represented as utopian or dystopian, however, it remains a technology "animated" by a certain "spirit" Thus, in utopian representations, technology will be "spiritualized" infused with an eternal, fully present spirit of life. In such representations, which tend to draw on a tradition of mathematical and geometric mysticism that runs from Plato and Pythagorus through hermetic philosophy to Kepler and Newton, the mathematical and formal aspects of science and technology are seen as reflecting an eternal perfection and harmony. On the other hand, in dystopian representations, the coming to life of technology is presented as the product of an occult or supernatural knowledge, of a black magic. The spirit that animates this technology is demonic, ghastly; it haunts technology, takes possession of it. The "dead" technological object never becomes fully living; it remains merely a simulation, undead, a technological monster or zombie. It becomes, in other words, "uncanny"

    As Freud has noted, of course, the idea of a machine coming to life is frequently a source of the "uncanny" (unheimlich). Freud bases his analysis of the uncanny on the ambiguity in German of heimlich—familiar or intimate, but also concealed or secret; indeed, "the heimlich art" is magic; "heimlich knowledge" is mystical or occult knowledge. Through this ambiguity, Freud notes, heimlich comes to coincide "with its opposite, unheimlich" (ghostly, hidden, uncanny) (p. 226). Freud therefore defines the uncanny as that sense of fear experienced upon the recurrence of "something which is familiar and old-established in the mind and which has become alienated from it only through the process of repression" (p. 241). Indeed, those instances that evoke the sense of the uncanny—the idea of the double, ghosts, the return of the dead, the evil eye, the coming to life of machines or automata, and so on—represent the return of the repressed projections of a primary narcissism that is related to a magical, "animistic conception of the universe." Yet, as Freud notes, not every projection that reemerges from repression is experienced as uncanny. He is never entirely able, however, to explain what factors determine whether or not an experience will be seen as uncanny. He does offer some suggestions, though, one of which is the relation of the uncanny to repressed primal fantasies, particularly to the threat of castration.

    Thus, the sense of uncanniness provoked by the birth of the machine, by the coming to life of technology, can be seen as based on a threat to the "phallus," that is, on a threat to the self's legitimation of itself as a unified "subject," to its image of itself as living, autonomous, and whole; for what the phallus attempts to symbolize is precisely the authority of a unitary, living soul or spirit over the fragmentation and contingency of the object-world. With the inception of scientific-technological rationality, humanity takes up this phallus (which, in medieval Christianity, could only belong to God the Father); it assumes the mantle of Cartesian subjecthood. This position of authority can only be maintained, however, so long as technology remains a "dead" object, an instrument or means to that imaginary end, that utopia in which scientific knowledge and technological control would be fulfilled. When this utopian ideal comes into question, however, technology can no longer be subordinated to human purposes or control; it becomes an end in itself—which is to say, it comes to life. Yet, to the extent that technology's life does not have the necessary significance and internal purposiveness of a fully present soul, to the extent, in other words, that it does not mirror the desired wholeness and autonomy of the self, it will be regarded as a ghastly or uncanny life, an other life that threatens to control or even to supplant the true presence of life.

    The coming to life of the technological other, therefore, threatens to fragment the self, to mathematize and mechanize it, to make it into an object of domination rather than a subject in control. It is against this threat that the Kantian aesthetic sphere is constituted. The realm of aesthetic beauty can therefore be seen as a narcissistic projection of the self: as an imaginary, utopian space, autonomous and eternal, in which every "object" is symbolic, full of meaning, endowed with a spirit or soul that mirrors the self's own image. The aesthetic object is not only "created" in the image of its "maker" but is also, like the god the self aspires to be, "eternal and immutable" Thus, Kantian aesthetics animates the artistic object with that ritualistic or spiritual element that Benjamin designates as the aura. The aura is, after all, the projection of a kind of living presence or spirit onto the aesthetic object: "To perceive the aura of an object we look at means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return." The look of the aura, however, is not the look of the other, but a reflection of the same. The experience of the aura, in other words, reproduces precisely the scene of Narcissus entranced by his own reflection: "[T]he painting we look at reflects back at us that of which our eyes will never have their fill. What it contains that fulfills the original desire would be the very same stuff on which the desire continuously feeds" (p. 187). This is clearly the scene of a certain "enchantment"—an enchantment that is obviously similar to the magical or spiritual animation of the cosmos that Freud (as well as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno) attributes to prescientific thought. For Benjamin, too, the enchantment of the aura or the beautiful is related to a kind of magic that "conjures up" spirits out of the past: "What prevents our delight in the beautiful from ever being satisfied is the image of the past.... Insofar as art aims at the beautiful and, on however modest a scale, 'reproduces' it, it conjures it up (as Faust does Helen) out of the womb of time" (ibid.). The spirit of the beautiful, in other words, is conjured by drawing an image out of the past, out of that "sequence of days" that, for Benjamin, makes up history. This conjuring frees the image of the past from its subordination to a techno-teleological conception of history and yet allows it to retain the full presence of a living subject. The image comes to be seen as "animated" by an eternal, living spirit, by what Benjamin calls the "breath of prehistory" (p. 185). Benjamin associates this "prehistoric impulse to the past," to the "archaic symbolic world of mythology" with "memory, childhood, and dream." The conjuring of the aura is therefore a kind of unconscious remembrance or mémoire involontaire of a past filled with a "living" presence and meaning. It is, in Platonic terms, a form of anamnesis. In aesthetic modernism, however, the spirit or aura of the beautiful will be challenged by another type of memory: a technological memory.

    In Benjamin's estimation, Baudelaire's modernity was based on his openness to the "shocks" of the modern city. These shocks represent, for Benjamin, the impact of modern industrial and technological processes on the individual. Through these shocks, he notes, "technology has subjected the human sensorium to a complex kind of training" (p. 175). As a result of technology's effect on perception, space and time come to be seen as fragmentary and transient; they can no longer be described by Kantian categories. Perception in the form of shocks therefore transforms the individual into a kind of receptive machine, into "a kaleidoscope equipped with consciousness." Benjamin characterizes this "mechanical" reception as habitual or distracted; it is the "polar opposite" of the concentration demanded by the experience of the aura. In aesthetic modernism, this distracted, technological reception corresponds to the technological reproduction of the artwork, and to the techniques of collage and montage that are based on it.

    Thus, the conjuring up of the beautiful from the past, the unconscious remembrance of a full, eternal presence or spirit, "no longer happens in the case of technical reproduction. (The beautiful has no place in it.)" (p. 187). Rather, technological reproduction is a conscious recording, a kind of mémoire volontaire:

[W]e designate as aura the associations which, at home in the mémoire involontaire, tend to cluster around the object of a perception.... The techniques based on the use of the camera and of subsequent analogous mechanical devices extend the range of the mémoire volontaire; by means of these devices, they make it possible for an event at any time to be permanently recorded in terms of sound and sight. (p. 186)

    Yet, if the images of technological reproduction are recorded "permanently," they do not have the permanence of "the eternal and the immutable." They are rather, to continue Baudelaire's distinction, transitory, fugitive, contingent. They do not, as in the experience of the aura, conjure up the spirit of the beautiful; they do not carry the mystical significance and internal purposiveness of the "living" symbol. They are, rather, "dead" fragments that, removed from the fabric of tradition, have lost their magical animation, their "spirit." They are images that have been technologized, allegorized, and now have no necessary end or meaning. The recording of images in technological reproduction is therefore not, in Plato's terms, a "live" memory; it is not a matter of unconsciously evoking or recalling the magical or spiritual presence of the original. Technological reproduction, rather, involves a kind of artificial or technological memory, one whose images are mere copies, imitations, citations. Emptied of inherent significance, these images become arbitrary, contingent, and can thus be consciously used, arranged, constructed. A formal or constructive principle is therefore "emancipated ... from art, as the sciences freed themselves from philosophy in the sixteenth [century]." This emergence of "constructive forms" will result in a shift away from the magical, symbolic aspect of art toward more "scientific," "functional" forms. Unlike in the scientific discourse of the Renaissance, however, these forms will not be conceived simply in linear terms, but in terms of fragmentation or "shocks": as collage and montage.

    For Benjamin, as is well known, technological reproduction's release of "constructive forms" or "shocks" is best exemplified in the film. In film, "perception in the form of shocks was established as a formal principle" (p. 175). In film, in other words, technological reproduction is not, "as with literature and painting, an external condition for mass distribution," but "is inherent in the very technique of film production." Moreover, Benjamin makes the shift from a magical, symbolic perception (i.e., aesthetic perception) to a "scientific" or technological perspective the very basis of the distinction between film and painting:

How does the cameraman compare with the painter? To answer this we take recourse to an analogy with a surgical operation, The surgeon represents the polar opposite of the magician. The magician heals a sick person by the laying on of hands; the surgeon cuts into the patient's body. The magician maintains the natural distance between the patient and himself.... The surgeon does exactly the reverse; he greatly diminishes the distance between himself and the patient by penetrating into the patient's body.... In short, in contrast to the magician—who is still hidden in the medical practitioner—the surgeon at the decisive moment abstains from facing the patient man to man; rather it is through the operation that he penetrates into him.

Magician and surgeon compare to painter and cameraman. The painter maintains in his work a natural distance from reality, the cameraman penetrates deeply into its web. There is a tremendous difference between the pictures they obtain. That of the painter is a total one, that of the cameraman consists of multiple fragments which are assembled under a new law. ("WAAMR," pp. 233-34)

    In this analogy, Benjamin clearly distinguishes between Kantian aesthetics and aesthetic modernism. The basis of this distinction is technological. The "natural," magical aesthetic outlook treats its object—the patient or the aesthetic object—as a subject ("man to man"), as a whole (a "total" picture) deserving of respect ("distance"). On the other hand, the technological or scientific attitude of modernism treats its "patient" as an object to be analyzed, penetrated, fragmented, and rearranged. The film, in Benjamin's view, extends this ability to penetrate or analyze in a way that is similar to the psychoanalytic penetration of everyday life:

For the entire spectrum of optical, and now also acoustical, perception the film has brought about a ... deepening of apperception. It is only an obverse of this fact that behavior items shown in a movie can be analyzed much more precisely and from more points of view than those presented on paintings or on the stage....

By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring commonplace milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film ... extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives.... Even if one has a general knowledge of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person's posture during the fractional second of a stride. The act of reaching for a lighter or a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with our moods. Here the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, its extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses. (Ibid., 235-37)

Benjamin compares this reemergence of the scientific-technological in the film to the integration of scientific and technological knowledge into Renaissance art. "To demonstrate the identity of the artistic and scientific uses of photography which heretofore usually were separated," he argues, "will be one of the revolutionary functions of the film" (p. 236). Yet the example of artistic-scientific integration that Benjamin gives at this point—the filming of "a muscle of a body"—suggests that his conception of an "artistic use" of film is very different from the magical, spiritual animation of the artwork that is apotheosized in Kantian aesthetics. This notion of an analytic, "scientific" aspect of art will, in fact, be part of that strange, Frankensteinian combination of living and dead, magic and technology, aesthetics and science, that animates the birth of the cinema.

    Noël Burch has analyzed this birth of the cinematic machine—and its "pregnancy"—in a provocatively but appropriately titled article, "Charles Baudelaire versus Doctor Frankenstein." Curiously, however, Burch tends to align science with Baudelaire and bourgeois ideology and aesthetics with Frankenstein. For Burch, the basis of this distinction is what he calls the "'Frankensteinian' aspiration" of bourgeois ideology: the desire to "triumph over death" by reproducing the mirror of life, the "perfect illusion" of a completed, fully present representation. To the extent that Baudelaire attacks this naturalistic, illusionistic notion of representation and affirms, at one point, the idea that photography should become "a servant to the sciences," he becomes the representative of science in Burch's schema.

    Although the distinction that Burch makes is a useful one, this figuration is open to criticism because it overlooks the fact that neither Frankenstein nor Baudelaire can be assigned to only one side of this distinction. The story of Frankenstein, first of all, has an explicitly scientific-technological basis; moreover, it dearly evokes a sense of the uncanny that can hardly be considered representative of bourgeois aesthetics or ideology; it is not simply a matter of the triumph of life over death, but of a more monstrous aspiration: that of death come to life. The opposition is equally problematic in the case of Baudelaire, who, as Benjamin notes, only assigns photography to the sciences in order to separate "ephemeral things, those that have a right 'to a place in the archives of our memory,'" from the aesthetic "region of the intangible, imaginative," where only that on which "man has bestowed the imprint of his soul" can be admitted. This distinction within Baudelaire's thought may, in fact, be seen as analogous to the division that Burch finds in the birth of cinema. As will become clear, then, the figures of both Baudelaire and Frankenstein are implicated in the dialectic of this birth, just as they are in the birth of modernism itself.

    Like Benjamin, Burch finds a precedent for an analytic, scientific-technological aspect of photography and film in "the dialectical links that were beginning to spring up between artistic and scientific practices in the Italy of the Renaissance" (p. 7). Citing Erwin Petoskey's observation of the centrality of perspective and pictorial representation to the descriptive sciences of the Renaissance, he notes the important role that the scientific need for recording and analysis plays in the development of photography and film. This analytic role, however, always seemed to stand in a dialectical relationship to the desire for a magical conjuring of a fully present, living representation. As Burch notes, "only an analysis of human and animal (or mechanical) movement could be of interest to true scientists" (p. 9). On the other hand, the desire to reproduce movement and life was the goal of inventors who, "like the alchemists of the Middle Ages, were busily seeking the Great Secret of Representing Life" (p. 10).

    This desire for a magical-alchemical representation of life is, as Burch suggests, an aesthetic impulse. Commenting on the reception of Eadweard Muybridge's photographs, he notes how the attempt "to arrest movement, to break it down into a series of still photographs in the interests of 'science,'" challenged the "representational codes of academic art" (ibid.). Indeed, he argues that the "wedge driven by Muybridge between photography and the 'naturalistic' representational codes of the 19th century" was "absolutely crucial" to the cinema, because "it may in a sense be said that the efforts of the 'great pioneers of the cinema' were to be devoted to restoring 'beauty' to photography: the 'beauty' of painting, but also of the bourgeois theatre and novel, which had been innocently stripped away by Muybridge" (p. 11). Contrary to the aesthetic desire for a whole, living representation, the scientific approach of Muybridge and E. J. Marey is dearly technological: it sees photography as an instrument for recording and analysis, as a kind of prosthesis that would, in Marey's words, "compensate for deficiencies in our senses or ... correct their errors." Marey's main interest in cinema, in fact, seems to have been the ability of slow or accelerated motion to augment human perception. For him, there was little point in simply representing phenomena that were already available to the human eye.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Question concerning High Tech1
1. The Spirit of Utopia and the Birth of the Cinematic Machine23
2. The Mediation of Technology and Gender48
3. The Avant-Garde Techne and the Myth of Functional Form73
4. Within the Space of High Tech102
5. Technological Fetishism and the Techno-Cultural Unconscious129

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