An Introduction to New Media Subversion
Winona State University
University of Arizona
Citation: Heckman, Davin and Hai Ren. “An Introduction to New Media Subversion.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 7, 2010. doi:10.20415/hyp/007.i01
Abstract: Introductory essay to Hyperrhiz 07: New Media Subversion, by special issue editors Davin Heckman and Hai Ren.
The avant-garde tradition in the arts prides itself in its ability to resist, critique, and subvert the dominant order. Associated with the left, the avant-garde imagines art locked in a struggle with its own expression — challenging the milieu in which it is consumed, the techniques of its production, the status of its creator, the culture of its audience, and, occasionally, its own existence as a piece of art. Its most potent manifestations call for out and out revolution. This approach is a dominant theme in the study of "Modern" (and, depending on your definition, "postmodern") art. Yet, even in its more tepid manifestations, as flights of fancy or pretty things, art contains within it a subversive kernel. Whatever its medium, even "safe" art seeks to mark singularities. Whether one talks of a beautiful object, an intriguing angle, a compelling emotion, a passionate moment, an original idea, a memorable duration, or a sacred space, all seek to mark singular experiences within time and space. As such, from radical to banal, art can reiterate, reframe, and inflame this experience of subjectivity, co-opting the quotidian as everyday life.
If the arts are, then, about using media to set the singular experience of a particular now apart as an archivable moment of the past for the coming of the future, what then do we make of "new media"? To reframe the question, is an avant-garde possible in the age of new media? Not to make too much of what might simply be an unimaginative term declaiming its own novelty, but there might be more to this name than its existence as the most recent form in the history of media technologies. We would not, for instance, use the term "new media" to describe a sign made from recycled CD-roms, though CD-roms are relatively new and such signs relatively rare. Rather, new media carries with it connotations of digital communication. When we speak of new media, we refer to expressions that exist through the use of digital code. In this sense, it is different from other media.
But, we would like to take this definition further, because there is more to new media than that which has, at some stage of its lifecycle, been processed through a computer (or computing device more generally). New media is more than just the product of a new technology. New media is set apart from other media by virtue of its intrinsic "newness." It is constantly reassembled, refigured, rearticulated through its interface. Though the essays you experience with this issue were created at a particular time and place, reflecting the particular decisions of a particular writer, what each has made and what you see are not one and the same. You are only seeing a copy, because there is nothing to see underneath. The essay you are reading is not ever going to exist as an original, even if a backup copy were to exist in print form. In fact, its value rests not in its rarified form, but in its overwhelming accessibility in an instant and across the globe. In other words, new media is called new because of its utter lack of singular existence, it is new everywhere and all the time, not just here and now.
Authority in print media — fidelity, continuity, consistency, longevity, reliability — is signified through signs which suggest a degree of stasis. The reputation of the publisher, the body of work, the life of the author, the volume of secondary works that reiterate the status of the original, the preservation of the text in the archive, and even the quality of the paper and binding — all of these suggest a level of attention and devotion to the text, whose value is signified by the stewardship implied by the collective preservation of knowledge. Keeping the print text facilitates its dissemination.
This aura of authority persists in digital media, but it is signified in a different way. While quality is signified in the print realm by returning to pay tribute to the original to secure its continuity into the future, quality is signified in the digital by dedicated commitment to the text's present reception. Interfaces, in order to signify quality, are not preserved, they are updated. The "best" editions are not written to last into the future. If preservation of the "original" for review in perpetuity were the marker of quality, it would be revealed through the simplicity of its code. Instead, the way that quality is signified digitally is ephemeral in nature. The most usable texts are those which are most frequently updated. The most commending publishers are those which consistently update their code. The most active readers are those who keep pace with the new interface. While stewardship of the archive is the most reliable indicator of quality in the print world, devotion to the text is signified differently in the digital world. Rewriting the digital text facilitates its dissemination.
If art is concerned with the singular, and new media is apparently opposed to the singular, it would seem that the idea of new media art presents some difficulties for the avant-garde impulse.
In A Brief History of Neoliberalism, David Harvey defines "neoliberalism" as the idea that "the social good will be maximized" by "bring[ing] all human action into the domain of the market" . Harvey continues, explaining that neoliberalism "requires technologies of information creation and capacities to accumulate, store, transfer, analyse, and use massive databases to guide decisions in the global marketplace" . In other words, this idea suggests that recent models of liberty are tied to new technologies and new economic practices. The critical insight of the juxtaposition of art and new media is not that the two cancel each other out, but rather that new media reframes the question of art and its practice through the logic of neoliberalism. It brings art closer to full commodification. It seeks to turn the rooted materiality of the singular event into the transcendent realm of the consumer experience.
This is in fact critical to the understanding of the "newness" of the new media arts. The "newness," from the perspective of a historical break, has to do with neoliberalism. In general terms, the avant-garde tradition was associated with the rise of the left (including the new left). Since the second half of the nineteenth century, the left has been identified with the critique of capitalism. Two different groups were developed in the process. The first is the "social critique," emphasizing "inequality, poverty, exploitation and the egoism of a world that encourages individualism as opposed to solidarity" . The second is the "artistic critique," focusing on "oppression in the capitalist world (the domination of the market, the discipline of the factory), the uniformity of mass society and the commodification of everything" and valorizing "an ideal of liberation and individual autonomy, of uniqueness and authenticity" . These two forms of critique played more or less equal roles by the late 1968.
Since the 1970s when neoliberalism gradually became the dominant form of capitalism, the lefts relations to neoliberal capitalism have begun to change. With respect to the artistic critique, what it stands for has been largely incorporated into neoliberal capitalism. The new mode of production associated with neoliberal capitalism — flexible accumulation on the basis of interim contracts, subcontracts, farming out of functions not corresponding to the firm's core competency, etc — makes new demands on workers, for example, the ability to communicate. As Luc Boltanski argues, this new form of capitalism integrates the artistic critique of capitalism into the management rhetoric . This is one way through which neoliberalism develops its new spirit.
We need to ask whether new media artistic creation exemplifies this new spirit of capitalism. It seems that aesthetic subversion through new media is a precise expression of this new spirit, a justification of one's engagement in neoliberal capitalism, of the way in which new media becomes an effective and efficient technology of information management for the neoliberal netizen in the campaign-like "do-it-yourself" life-extension process. It is imperative that new media subversion manipulates the forms and their codes for the sake of transgressing (rather than abiding by) their rules and laws . Thus questions about new media subversion are about understanding how new media subversion both reflects and changes the ways in which we live in neoliberal times.
Looking at it another way, new media art is hyper-singular. Rather than an eradication of everyday life, it falls into subjective experience so far that it loses any claim to the material fact of its spatiotemporal existence. It reiterates, reframes, and inflames the experience of subjectivity in such a way that the quotidian ceases to be the backdrop against which the pleasures of everyday life come into relief. In this regime, late capitalism attempts to realize the space and time of dreaming, in theory and practice. In its psychosocial manifestation, this is the economy of Imagineering, of entertainment, of virtual exuberance. In material terms, this is the economy of just-in-time production, of three-dimensional printing, of the unencumbered flow of goods, services, and capital. But ultimately, they are, or at least they try to be, the same thing. Under this hyper-singular regime, things are where they need to be when they are wanted and they vanish when they are not. Barriers fall — geographical, temporal, economic, national, political, social, ethical, moral, conceptual — barriers fall, and we all become, from God the Almighty down to the humble quark, whether we want to or not, "Yes Men," pieces of the market. This is the goal of all ideologies, to account for everything.
How do we imagine an avant-garde in an era where the quotidian is marked by such radical extremity? The radical artists of an earlier generation were inspired by Marx's materialism. Others were inspired by Freud's subconscious. Still others inspired by Nietzsche's ethics. New media says, "Yes!" to them all, all at once.
At the end of the day, new media is not opposed to art, digital is not opposed to print, the material is not opposed to the subjective, and "the real" is not opposed to the simulation. Rather, the struggle is to seek the singular in the midst of the global — to find the present in the face of a "real time" which seeks to make everything always be here and always now — to invest the life of the mind with the fact of materiality — to reveal the power of presence. Re-staging Modernist revolts in digital form will not subvert a world in revolution. How do we situate ourselves "outside of the whale," when the whale is global?
Perhaps, as Derrida has suggested, this inside/outside juxtaposition has been as wrong as it ever has been right. Perhaps, this new era, with its pervasive challenges, is a blessing in disguise. While the idea of the "outsider" artist and "radical" intellectual may have us longing for simpler days, it is worth asking whether or not these ideas were ever much more than poses. Lenin may or may not have stated of revolutionaries, "We are dead men on furlough." Yet, only rarely do our artists and intellectuals really live as fugitives from this death. And those that do manage to meet an unjust and untimely end are either forgotten or co-opted. Even Lenin did better than he expected. No, the struggle of the artist is to resist the radical style and to instead strive for an intimate understanding of the way things are — to illustrate the relationships between things, in microscopic fidelity and in macroscopic sweeps, in material finitude and subjective complexity. If we understand that new media subversion fundamentally expresses the neoliberal way of life, not only can we look at positive and successful subversions, but we may also account for failing attempts, incapable acts, and terrorizing maneuvers (by hackers, scammers, and terrorists).
Capitalism is engaged in the business of utopian thinking, neoliberalism is engaged with instigating revolutions, new media is tasked with unveiling new imaginaries. The roles have been reversed. The artist's task in the face of all this is simple: to tell the truth to people who doubt truth's existence.
- David Harvey. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). p. 3.
- Luc Boltanski, "The Present Left and the Longing for Revolution," in Daniel Birnbaum and Isabelle Graw, eds., Under Pressure: Pictures, Subjects, and the New Spirit of Capitalism (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2008), p. 55.
- Ibid., p. 66.
- Hai Ren. Neoliberalism and Culture in China and Hong Kong: The Countdown of Time (London: Routledge, 2010).