Hyperrhiz 24

James J. Hodge, Sensations of History: Animation and New Media Art

Asa McMullen
NC State University

Citation: McMullen, Asa. “James J. Hodge, Sensations of History: Animation and New Media Art.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 24, 2021. doi:10.20415/hyp/024.r02

Keywords: media history, digital media art, animation, sensation, phenomenology.

James J. Hodge. Sensations of History: Animation and New Media Art. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019. 232 pp. $27.00.

James J. Hodge’s first book, Sensations of History: Animation and New Media Art, challenges us to think of animation and new media as more influential and complex than simply television cartoons and animated movies. He even asks us to consider beyond how they are made and think about the result of the making. More importantly, Hodge argues that animation is a reflection of the experiential opacity of digital media and impacts historical experience. As an associate professor of English and the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities at Northwestern University, Hodge’s experience and expertise lies within literary theory, film and film theory, science and literature, and digital media. His previous publications, “New Maps, New Poetics: New Works by Akihiko Miyoshi” and “Touch” (a video essay in collaboration with C.A. Davis and John Bresland), act as precursors to Sensations of History , which uses phenomenology to analyze animation as a significant aspect of digital media that generates “another history.” Framing his argument in relation to Vilém Flusser’s concept of digital media not ending but rather evoking “another history,” Hodge divides Sensations of History into six chapters, including an introduction, four chapters covering his core arguments, and a conclusion chapter. In addition, an extensive notes section for each chapter is provided at the end of the book.

In his Introduction, Hodge thoroughly outlines his argument and describes how he intends to address his idea that “animation in new media art expresses a transformation in historical experience occasioned by the digital age” (1). This expressed transformation “concerns the experiential opacity” or blackbox of digital media (1). In order to further explain how experiential opacity is significant to viewing the effects digital media has a history, Hodge presents Paul Chan’s 1st Light . This digital media art example assists in contextualizing the experience of digital media in terms of “look[ing] not into the internal logics of the machine, but rather the sorts of images artists make with them” (4). The presentation of a digital media art example to aid in the explanation of the significance of experiential opacity to his argument is a pattern that develops throughout the entire book. Hodge situates his argument in opposition to the end-of-history, antihistorical, or ahistorical narratives of Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Bernard Stiegler, Alexander R. Galloway, and numerous other scholars. Hodge claims that these narratives still persist in the twenty-first century and that they still view digital media as a contributor to the end of history or are antihistorical or ahistorical (16). Hodge foregrounds his argument of this overwhelming view of digital media through a review of such narratives from stories, television shows, movies, and numerous media and cultural theorists. In contrast to these views, Hodge argues that the “material basis of history is not just ‘math’ or software, but rather also the embodied experience of digital media” (20).

Hodge uses Heidegger and Stiegler’s concept of the “already there” as a framework to present and analyze the change of historical experiences in digital media. Hodge leverages this concept to evaluate how digital media affect historical experience, noting that the “already there” is the “idea that historical experience derives from the existential fact of things appearing as having happened, such as in encounter with traces of the past” (22). To further position his argument within this concept, Hodge explores what happens to historical experience when the “traces recede from perception” (22). In the first chapter, “Out of Hand,” Hodge traces the history of the human hand in animation and how it quite literally gets out of hand through a survey of scholars’ work that discusses animation history. That is, Hodge examines “the ways in which the hand begins to ‘let go’ or diverge from production in order to sketch allegories of the larger process informing the status of historical experience in the digital age” (69).  From this examination, Hodge concludes that “digital media are not for us; they work far beyond the purview of our individual perceptual and cognitive experience (30). 

In the second chapter, “Noise in History,” Hodge argues that “the idea that history depends on writing” should be rethought, particularly in relation to Husserl’s concept that reactivation “occurs as a function of human minds and bodies” (72). In order to rethink reactivation, Hodge claims that the reader must recognize that “digital media are writing technologies” (75) and that “digital inscription is not for us” (83). Since digital inscription outruns human consciousness and cognition, Hodge argues that digital inscription is nonintentional. Instead, Hodge explains how digital inscription “addresses other machines: other parts of the same computer and other machines on a network” through the example of the gramophone (83). Hodge denotes that grooves on a record are unreadable by humans but can be read by another component of the technological system, the needle. Ultimately, the needle reads the grooves to play sound. While the code is not perceptible by humans, humans are able to “experience its indirect effects”(84).

In chapter 3,”Lateral Time,” Hodge posits that the times of digital computation and human experience are lateral. He states “we live alongside it [computational time], within it, in a significant sense according to it, and in ways such that it is thinly, diaphanously correlated with our human experience, barely cognitive or perceptual but somehow also copresent” (108). Hodge also argues that to discuss “the changing face of historical temporality requires considering the transformation of temporal experience catalyzed by digital media,” which ultimately leads Hodge to revise Ricoeur’s theory of historical temporality (109). In doing so, Hodge asserts that, in the digital age, animation replaces narrative (133). In Chapter 4, “The Sensation of History,” Hodge argues that while atmospheric media privilege sensation over visibility “the image remains just as important as always, if differently so” (143). Using works inspired by Eadweard Muybridge,including Ken Jacobs’s Capitalism: Child Labor, and Merleau-Ponty’s ideas on sensation, Hodge convincingly examines how atmospheric media within the digital age “express the sensation of history in terms of its opacity to conscious experience” (155). To foreground and demonstrate the significance of his arguments, Hodge opens the conclusion, “Data Incomplete: The Web As Already There,” with We Edit Life to further illustrate that “new media art represents an especially rich lens through which to consider the experiential opacity of digital media” (172). In addition, Hodge finalizes the book with an overview of how digital media has transitioned since he started the book in the late 2000s.

From the beginning of the book, Hodge provides numerous examples of digital media art that illustrate the overarching argument of how the experience of animation, or digital media, alter history. The strong relation and connections of Hodge’s ideas to the examples evoke a desire to experience the animations for oneself. This desire is not a need and does not stem from inadequate explanations. In fact, Hodge, in conjunction with the numerous illustrations, provides thorough relations of the experiences of the digital media art to the concepts he argues in each chapter. This book would appeal to those interested in animation, film, new media, and digital media. While the text defines some concepts of media and culture theorists (Heidegger, Stiegler, Kittler, Husserl, etc.) and incorporates visuals when referencing new media art, knowledge of the theory is necessary to fully understand and grasp the ideas discussed in the book. Therefore, the book should be used in an advanced undergraduate digital media or film course or at the graduate level. More specifically, Hodge’s book is a useful resource for scholars with interests in phenomenological approaches to analyzing digital media.

Works Cited

Hodge, James. “New Maps, New Poetics: New Works by Akihiko Miyoshi.” Circuit Gallery, Toronto, Sept. 2019, circuitgallery.com/exhibitions/akihiko-miyoshi-through-lens-screen/james-hodge-essay/.

Hodge, James. “Touch.” with C. A. Davis and John Bresland, Triquarterly, 3 Dec. 2018, triquarterly.org/node/303191.