In this chapter, I suggest that network culture is not limited to digital technology or to the Internet but rather is a broad sociocultural shift. Much more than under postmodernism, which was still transitional, in network culture both art and everyday life take mediation as a given. The result is that life becomes performance. We live in a culture of exposure, seeking affirmation from the net. My chapter explores the resulting poetics of the real from YouTube to the art gallery. To be clear, the new poetics of reality is different from established models of realism, replacing earlier codes with immediacy, self-exposure, performance, and remix.
One distinctive feature of this book is that it is open for comments, revisions, and translations and you may submit a chapter for consideration by the editors. I hope my readers not only read the entire book, but contribute. Many thanks to Jo-Anne Green and Helen Thorington of Turbulence.org for putting up this project. It’s been in the works for a while and is sorely needed.
I’m excited that the research that I did for this chapter is now taking on another form as it feeds my book on Network Culture. I’ve been writing 1,000 words a day and its moving at a good clip. I hope you enjoy the chapter as a preview, and if you haven’t read the introduction yet, you can do so here.
Finally, I’ll also confess to another role in the project, which is that the CommentPress system, developed at the Institute for the Future of the Book came in part out of a discussion that members of the Institute and I had after one of my courses three years back. That said, WordPress isn’t the best system for this. I’m dying for it to be ported to Drupal.
As my readers know I am writing a book on network culture* this year. In writing about architecture under network culture, it struck me that the role of architectural photography has changed.
During postmodernism it seemed to observers that architecture was being produced more and more for photography. Kenneth Frampton dubbed architectural photography "an insidious filter through which our tactile environment tends to lose its responsiveness" and complained that the actual buildings that looked so seductive in photographs often were poorly detailed. Fredric Jameson suggested that "it is the value of the photographic equipment you consume first and foremost, not its objects." Under network culture, architecture photography becomes freed from architecture.
To be sure, photographers, particularly members of the Frankfurt School such as Andreas Gursky, Laurenz Berges, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth (and with even if he is an exception due to the constructed nature of his environments, Thomas Demand), have given new, sustained focus on architecture as a subject. Architecture, in this sense, becomes not a matter to represent, but rather a way to represent the delirium of globalized space today. As they do so, these photographs also allude nostalgically to the ambitions of modernism—many of these photographers directly invoke the modern past with their subject matter—and to a time in which architecture was our primary spatial experience of the world, grounding us.
Still, architecture itself seems to have worked free of architectural photography. No new generation has come up to replace the great late modernist architectural photographers: Marvin Rand, Julius Schulman, and Ezra Stoller. The architecture of network culture has a certain hostility to the photograph, generally refusing—even more than modernist works—to allow for a single viewpoint. The well-worn patch of grass at the Villa Savoye, is foreign to structures like Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, FOA’s Yokohama Terminal, or OMA’s Casa da Musica at Porto. After all, the Bilbao-Effect only works on such structures if they are visited in person whereas many of the icons of postmodernism were private structures and museums had not yet understood the potential of a global tourist draw.
Thus, if the architectural photograph is still necessary so that such works can appear on front page of the New York Times, its less of a self-sufficient sign and more a pointer, an advertisement. This is not to say that the architecture of network culture is not designed on the screen. After all, it but the postmodern role of the fixed architectural photograph as a driver for building design is over.
*I am also excited to be teaching a seminar on the topic at Columbia this fall.
A prefatory note: I blog sporadically; sometimes it’s a matter of how much free time I have, sometimes it’s a matter of how much I have to say in the format of the blog. What started as a Tumblr post turned into something bigger. In the end, I decided that I would use this post to revive the Netlab Dispatches. Here’s to more blogging, even if it is slow.Now, on to my missive for le quatorze juillet.
I am alarmed by how Situationism is more popular than ever today, particularly with the Soft Urbanism/Urban Informatics/Emergent Urbanism crowd for whom it, together with Jane Jacobs, serves as the fundamental precedent.
In Beyond Locative Media, I took pains to explain how locative media (soft urbanism/urban informatics/emergent urbanism’s predecessor) was influenced by Situationism. My goal was to expose the narrowness of the theoretical base in locative media, not to support that position. Little has changed in the years since. This is unfortunate.
Situationism’s fatal flaw is that although one of its sources is Leftist thought (admittedly, Communism was hard to avoid in postwar France), its goal was always to valorize individual experience over the collective. Situationism was not alone in this. Marrying the collective and the individual was the signal problem for the academic and counter-cultural Left throughout the latter half of the twentieth century (see one of the unsung classics of the last twenty years, Nietzche’s Corps/e: Aesthetics, Politics, Prophecy or the Spectacular Technoculture of Everyday Life by Geoffrey Waite, a member of my Ph.D. committee, for more on the debilitating effects of this turn). Situationism was the worst exacerbation of this marriage of Nietzscheanism and Leftism, leaving no positive program for collectivity.
Situationism may have started out as an anti-bourgeois movement, but since it was fundamentally bourgeois in its advocacy of individual experience, when it was through with its critique all that was left was melancholy. Ultimately even the idea of the Situationist International was foreign to the ideology. Organization, even its own, was unacceptable. The end of Situationism says everything: a lonely alcoholic shot himself through the heart. Raoul Vaneigem once wrote "the glut of conveniences and elements of survival reduces life to a single choice: suicide or revolution." By the time the Situationist movement had played itself out, it was clear that revolution required too much effort.
As Debord put a gun to his chest in the Upper Loire, the Situationist industry, led by Griel Marcus, was cranking up in high gear. As Steven Shaviro writes in his excellent commentary on Marcus’s misguided take on Michael Jackson:
‘Situationism itself — not in spite of, but precisely on account of, its virulent critique of all forms of commodity culture — became one of the most commercially successful “memes” or “brands” of the late twentieth century.’
Deliberately obscure, Situationism was cool, and thus the perfect ideology for the knowledge-work generation. What could be better to provoke conversation at the local Starbucks or the company cantina, especially once Marcus’s, which traced a dubious red thread between Debord and Malcolm McLaren, hit the presses? Rock and roll plus neoliberal politics masquerading as leftism: a perfect mix. For the generation that came of age with Situationism-via-Marcus and the dot.com era, work at offices like Razorfish or Chiat/Day was the highest form of play. Enough pop-tarts for middle of the night charettes and a bit of colorful design ensured that work and life had finally merged in the dot.com workplace. Or so it was in theory. The reality was Office Space.
Today, Situationism seems to be more popular than ever, serving as the latest justification for the neoliberal city. Instead of a broader idea of a collective, Situationism advocates for the right not to work (but just how will we survive? will amazon make free shipments after the revolution?).
Instead of tired calls for social justice, Situationism demands the right to drunken play, for the spilling of semen on the cobblestones. All this sounds less like Utopia and more like Amsterdam, Dublin, Prague, or any European city overrun by drunken American college students in the summer, taking in the urban fabric late at night with pub crawls.
If a drunken Debord might have approved, I’m afraid that this doesn’t seems like liberation to me, it seems like hell.
In fairness to Situationism, remember that it was wrought in the depths of the Fordist cultural conformity of the 1950s. The above map by researchers working with Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe depicts the spatial meanderings of a young student vividly demonstrating how her experience of the city consisted of nothing more than regular trips to familiar destinations.
Such a map would be vastly different today. According to Dopplr, one student I know has already logged over 200,000km in the past year, visiting three continents. But even at home, our own experience of the city is motivated by a fascination with dislocation that didn’t exist for Debord. Imagine him sitting down to a plate of Thai food (is this exotic to anyone anymore?), let alone an ice cream and insect concoction in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Our challenges are different. The conformity of the spectacle is gone. If we still seek liberation in consumption, today we chase our phantom individuality down the long tail. If this can be more fun than Fordism, it also deludes us if we think it is enough for self-realization or that such behavior is open the majority of the world’s population. Situationism encourages this aestheticized consumption of the city, only it does so in the guise of political progress.
It disturbs me, then, to hear a largely unmediated version of Situationism touted today as the basis for new urban interventions, particularly the kind that propose augmenting the city. This is a dangerous misstep.
Alas, thus far I’m more Adorno than Brecht or Benjamin in all this. The problems here are huge and I’m only beginning to chip away at them. That said, I simply can’t offer a pro-active alternative yet. Not everything can be found so easily in an old French revolutionary tract. But Situationism is thinking mythically and instead of thinking mythically, we need to learn to think critically again.
The days of hip stupidity (e.g. post-criticism) are long gone now, distant memories of the real estate boom. With le quatorze juillet upon us, the call to arms now is to forge new conceptual tools appropriate to our condition. We need to think again, to forge new critiques, new plans, even new revolutions.
Individuals … long to become virtual and escape into ether. It is through this physical apparatus that, Hollywood stars, celebrities, and criminals obtain another body, a media life. Neither sacred or living, this media life is pure image, more consistent and dependable than physical life itself. It is the dream we all share: that we might become objects, or better yet, images. Media life can potentially be preserved for eternity, cleansed of unscripted character flaws and accidents – a guaranteed legacy that defies aging and death by already appearing dead on arrival. The idols of millions via magazines, film, and television are disembodied, lifeless forms without content or meaning.
But the terrifying truth is that, although a media image may be eternal, like Michael Jackson, its host is prone to destruction and degradation. Data itself is not free of physicality. When it is reduplicated or backed up to file and stored via a remote host it suffers the same limitations as the physical world. It can be erased, lost, and compromised. The constant frustration of CDs, DVDs, and hard drives is that they don’t last forever, and all data is lost at once. Up to 20% of the information carefully collected on Jet Propulsion Laboratory computers during NASA’s 1976 Viking mission to Mars has been lost. The average web page lasts only a hundred days, the typical life span of a flea on a dog. Even if data isn’t lost, the ability to read it soon disappears. Photos of the Amazon Basin taken by satellites in the 1970s are critical to understanding long-term trends in deforestation but are trapped forever on indecipherable magnetic tapes.
As you probably know, Michael Jackson’s death caused huge delays on the Internet and even prompted Google to think they were under attack. See here. Jackson’s passing from heavily-modified physical form to pure media was a giant ripple in the Net.