Digital Caricature

A new article by Stephen Turner and me about the digitas published in DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly (link):

For Vilém Flusser, philosopher of technology, the advent of photography heralded the return of the image from its subjection to the linearity of written language. Here we extend his concept of the “techno-image” (successor of the pre-historical hand-drawn image and the historical printed word), to consider the digital image-text that today dominates reading and writing. Our question: Can we reader-writers think the digitas, or are we doomed to perform its functions in an “automati[c]” or “robotiz[ed]” fashion, as Flusser put it, so that, if anything, the digitas now “thinks” us? The short answer to our question is as follows: we can think the digitas, but only if we consider it, firstly, as a kind of writing (“digital orthography”) and, secondly, as a caricature of thinking, both impoverished and, dare we say it, funny (“digital caricature”).

Sommer, E. "Portrait Vilém Flusser". Vilém Flusser Archive. 2012. Reproduced by permission of Ed Sommer.

Sommer, E. “Portrait Vilém Flusser”. Vilém Flusser Archive. 2012. Reproduced by permission of Ed Sommer.

Kelly and Lanier on Techno-Literacy

Kevin Kelly offers some principles for “Achieving Techno-Literacy” in the New York Times (16 Sep. 2010):

  1. Every new technology will bite back. The more powerful its gifts, the more powerfully it can be abused. Look for its costs.
  2. Technologies improve so fast you should postpone getting anything you need until the last second. Get comfortable with the fact that anything you buy is already obsolete.
  3. Before you can master a device, program or invention, it will be superseded; you will always be a beginner. Get good at it.
  4. Be suspicious of any technology that requires walls. If you can fix it, modify it or hack it yourself, that is a good sign.
  5. The proper response to a stupid technology is to make a better one, just as the proper response to a stupid idea is not to outlaw it but to replace it with a better idea.
  6. Every technology is biased by its embedded defaults: what does it assume?
  7. Nobody has any idea of what a new invention will really be good for. The crucial question is, what happens when everyone has one?
  8. The older the technology, the more likely it will continue to be useful.
  9. Find the minimum amount of technology that will maximize your options.

See the NY Times timeline of classroom technology and Jaron Lanier, “Does the Digital Classroom Enfeeble the Mind?” (ibid.).

To speak . . .

Stephen Turner and I will be talking about the neo-Gothic architecture of the neoliberal university at the Unsettled Containers: Aspects of Interiority Conference at The University of Auckland, 8-10 October 2010.

The abstract:

Crystal Capital: the Business of University Building

For Peter Sloterdijk, the Crystal Palace, venue in the 1850’s of the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Continents,” expressed the “global inner space [Weltinnenraum] of capital” (2008: 11). The word Weltinnenraum, from poet Rainer Maria Rilke, implies a pantheistic space disclosed by affect:

Everything beckons us to perceive it. … One space spreads through all creatures equally – inner-world-space [Weltinnenraum]. Birds quietly flying goflying through us. Oh, I that want to grow, the tree I look outside at grows in me! (1957: 193)

What is disclosed in the enclosure of the splendid University of Auckland Owen G. Glenn Business School building is the pantheistic affect of transnational or “transcendental” capital (Hage, 2003: 18-20). In its see-through space, an outside – every other place, in fact – grows in us. There, everything communicates psychically with everything else in the code of capital: the language – the logo-rhythm – of the academosphere is encoded according to the design-drive of econometrics, namely, in terms of economic calculability and accountability. And the mission of the University is growth, a mission that transcends its onetime imperative to educate and demands a glasshouse of industry: in Sloterdijk’s terms, an “immaterialized” and “temperature-controlled” enclosure (2008: 12).

The architecture of this glasshouse is transcendental, a negative monumentality, affording a Crystal Palace-like sense of transparency, lightness, flotation, vacuum. Its pantheistic affect is generated by three main features: generous atria, curved rather than rectilinear surfaces, and the use of glass as prima materia. This is the negative theology of neo-liberal Gothic, “a transcendental architecture composed of space, light, line, and geometry,” now aspiring outward to all places, rather than upward to heaven (Trachtenberg and Hyman, 1986: 252). Neo-liberal Gothic aims both to immaterialize and interiorize, to capture a positive void of investment space for transcendental capital. As Chris Barton writes in the NZ Herald, “[t]he building cuts and thrusts . . . slicing the air. It means business” (2008: n.p.). And its glass and steel exterior displays the transparency and integrity of its inner processes, practices and products. Today the University is business.

University of Auckland Business School Owen G. Glenn Building, Auckland, New Zealand.

However, the design-drive of transcendental capital makes human fallibility an excrescence. All the machinery of education – classrooms and cloisters, books, writing, projectors and operating systems – is screened out; the all-but-translucent architecture is mirrored in the ap- parent transparency of its processes, practices and products. Education approximates to thaumaturgy. All we see is surfaces on and through which magic is worked: “open” spaces and open plan offices; terminals, real or virtual; images, projections, GUIs, and panels. The human scale is discounted, via amplification and wireless connection, in favour of the telematic (Gk “acting at a distance”) and the telemetric (Gk “measuring at a distance”). The danger of this disclosure of the one space of the transcendental university, a space that grows in us and in which we grow as teachers and learners, is that it closes out the many human foibles by which education flourishes: just talking, being idle, sharing, charity, invention.

The Crystal Palace Again

From Brian Dillon, “Under Pressure,” Frieze 99 (May 2006) . . .

The Crystal Palace from “World Architecture Images—Crystal Palace” at Essential Architecture

According to Mary Merrifield’s “The Harmony of Colours as Exemplified in the Exhibition” that accompanied the Great Exhibition Catalogue (1851), the Crystal Palace was

the only building in the world in which the atmosphere is perceptible. . . . To a spectator situated in the gallery at the eastern or western end, who looks directly before himself, the most distant parts of the building appear enveloped in a bluish halo. (qtd in Agamben 39)

Here is the original (it has “blue haze”; the evocative phrase “blue halo” in Agamben is an effect of retranslation):

Merrifield ii.

The blue haze interiorizes the sky, as if to phantasmagorically capture its openness, which suggests the free movement of capital (transcendental capitalism) and information (telematics), the Gods of the coming age (see Heidegger on “the Serene“).

For Sloterdijk, what is prophetic is the atmosphere of the Crystal Palace—it is for him, as Dillon puts it, “a pneumatic machine for representing the world”—but also its transportability. At the time, The Palace was also considered a triumph of modular construction. (See Stephen Turner and my essay from Interstices 12, “‘Built Pedagogy’: The University of Auckland Business School as Crystal Palace.”)

In an address at “Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy,” an exhibition curated by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel at ZKM in Karlsruhe in 2005, Sloterdijk half-seriously extrapolates a “Pneumatic Parliament” to broadcast democracy globally:
a parliament building that is quick to install, transparent, and inflatable; it can be dropped in any grounds and then unfolds itself. In a mere one and a half hours, a protective shell for parliamentary meetings is ready, and within the space of 24 hours, the interior ambience for these proceedings can be made as comfortable as an agora.

The Pneumatic Parliament

But, as Dillon puts it, “the democratic bubble is a perilously delicate object: it might easily be contaminated by the very freedom it is built to protect.” He quotes James Russell Lowell’s Inaugural Address “Democracy” (1884):
All free governments, whatever their name, are in reality governments by public opinion, and it is on the quality of this public opinion that their prosperity depends. It is, therefore, their first duty to purify the element from which they draw the breath of life. With the growth of democracy grows also the fear, if not the danger, that this atmosphere may be corrupted with poisonous exhalations from lower and more malarious levels, and the question of sanitation becomes more instant and pressing. Democracy in its best sense is merely the letting in of light and air. (my emph.)

That is to say, because air, for Sloterdijk, is “the last common property.” But most often he sees it negatively: it is both weapon and target in modernity; hence,

  1. the environment as habitat or resource, and
  2. what Dillon calls “aerated art”:


  • Giorgio Agamben, “Marx; or, the Universal Exposition,” Stanzas: Word and Phantasm in Western Culture (Minneapolis, MN: UMP, 1993) 39-40 (ch. 7, 36-40).
  • Martin Heidegger, “Remembrance of the Poet” (trans. Douglas Scott), Existence and Being, ed. Werner Brock (Vision, 1949) 251-89.
  • James Russell Lowell, “Democracy: Inaugural Address on Assuming the Presidency of the Birmingham and Midland Institute, Birmingham, England, 6 October, 1884,” Essays: English and American, vol. 28, The Harvard Classics (New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14;, 2001).
  • Mrs Merrifield [Mary Philadelphia Merrifield], “Essay on the Harmony and Contrast of Colours as Exemplified in the Exhibition,” The Arts Journal Illustrated Catalogue: The Industry of All Nations, 1851 (1851; reprint, London: David & Charles, 1970) i-viii.
  • Peter Sloterdijk, “Airquakes,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 27.1 (2009): 41-57, excerpt from Sphären III: Schäume (Suhrkamp, 2004) 89-126.

The iPad as iText

Matt Greenop argues that it is “only Apple’s reality distortion field that could turn [the iPad] into a real success story.”

The iPad, first fielded today (Gadget Republic).

From wikipedia (edited):

Reality distortion field (RDF) is a term coined by Bud Tribble of Apple in 1981 [see Andy Hertzfeld, Revolution in The Valley (Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly, 2005)], to describe company co-founder Steve Jobs’ charisma and its effects on the developers working on the Mac project. Later the term has also been used to refer to perceptions of his keynote (or Stevenote) by observers and devoted users of Apple stuff. Bud Tribble claimed that the term came from Star Trek. In essence, RDF is the idea that Steve Jobs is able to convince himself and others to believe almost anything with a mix of charm, charisma, bluster, exaggeration, marketing and persistence. RDF is said to distort an audience’s sense of proportion or scale. Small advances are applauded as breakthroughs. Interesting developments become turning points, or huge leaps forward. Impossible-seeming schedules, requirements or specifications are acceded to. Snap judgments about technical merits of approaches are sometimes reversed without acknowledgment. Those who use the term RDF contend that it is not an example of outright deception but more a case of warping the powers of judgment.

See Nitrozac and Snaggy, “The Reality Distortion Field is Breached,” The Joy of Tech (2007).

This kind of boosterism that “adds value,” in the ideological—not to mention,  financial—sense, to a product is not far from Roland Barthes’ “effect of reality” or “reality effect.” A reality effect is a textual device that establishes a literary text as realistic through ecphrasis (“description,” from ekphrazein “to recount, describe”): the description of or commentary on a visual work of art, or, more generally, of a real or imaginary thing, place, time, person or experience, subject to aesthetic and referential constraints (“The Reality Effect,” in The Rustle of Language, trans. R. Howard [Berkeley, CA: UCB Press, 1989]). From Homer on Achilles’ shield to Heidegger on Van Gogh’s peasant shoes, this trope has proliferated.

The “referential illusion” thus created is plainly a problem for discourses that trade in “reality,” e.g., science or historiography, i.e., in what proportion are their objects and outcomes of enquiry real and illusory? To rephrase the very real problem of relativism (which is *in essence* the absence of a fact-value distinction): if value-added texts (VATs) of all types are the stuff of poeisis, it’s questionable whether there could be a value-free text. Every text is an iText (ideology-text), the iPad just its latest avatar.

Tom Phillips, Self Portrait (ekphrasis)
Oil on canvas, 80 x 50 cm, 1989.

The Smart World of Ogle

Richard Ogle, Smart World: Breakthrough Creativity and the New Science of Ideas (Harvard Business School P, 2007)

See Smart World at and Ogle’s blog (with some excerpts).

Creativity is an emergent process in networks, not a property or product of individual actors or their actions.

The mind is embodied (Andy Clark, Francisco Varela et alii): we cannot understand it if we confine it to what happens inside a skull but have to understand it as inextricably woven into the environments in which it exists. In fact, the mind is extended—it stretches out to network with other minds. (Clark calls this “outing the mind” [9].)

We don’t create with our brains (the mind-inside-the-head or MITH model of conscious human agency—what Clark calls “pure thought” [xii]).

We create an environment, i.e., a world of technological artefacts and systems (tools)—or, indeed, “myths, cultural or social practices, scientific paradigms, business models, and . . . art forms” (Ogle 12)—that thinks for us (the embedded intelligence or EI model—what Clark calls “embodied thought” with the “mind as controller” (Clark xii, 7).

“Idea spaces” are the hubs or “hotspots” in the network. These are like the “attractors” of complex systems, for example, websites that all of a sudden attract huge numbers of visitors and links. These hotspots can generate tipping points, like the “bifurcators” of complex systems, where the systems undergo a “phase transition” into a new state (see Bob Leckridge’s blog).

Creative people let the environment or system think for them.


[W]e constantly have recourse to a vast array of culturally and socially embodied idea-spaces that populate the extended mind. These spaces . . . are rich with embedded intelligence that we have progressively offloaded into our physical, social, and cultural environment for the sake of simplifying the burden on our minds of rendering the world intelligible. Sometimes the space of ideas thinks for us. We live in a smart world. (Ogle 2, plagiarising, alas, Daniel Dennett’s Kinds of Minds [NY, NY: Basic Books, 1996] 134)


[T]he creative mind shifts culturally or technologically embedded intelligence from one idea-space to another.

(This is essentially Arthur Koestler’s “bisociative act [that] connects previously unconnected matrices of experience” [The Act of Creation (1964; Penguin, 1990) 47], i.e., the recontextualization, usually wilful, playful or mistaken, of an idea, image, etc., but turning the artist or thinker into a catalyst, rather than a genius. Creativity is paratactic, then.)

The creative “revolution” of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) exemplifies this process:

[-] Picasso didn’t make a sudden “leap” on his own,
i.e., it wasn’t genius + inspiration → leap;
[+] “the leap he made over what preceded it is due primarily to the powerful effect of African sculpture,”
i.e., it was genius surrendering to an inspiring world → leap.
[H]e surrendered his genius to a strangely exotic world, that, with the shock of the new, radically reorganized and reshaped his art. Picasso invented neither the nonrepresentational, fractured plains nor the exorcist function that would leave such a searing mark on twentieth-century art. African art possessed its own aesthetic and logic, and this became a space to think with. Almost immediately, its energy, forms, and purposes began to drive his own. Encountering a powerful new idea-space, he entered it fully and let its strange but compelling logic think for him. (9)
Debbie A. Foster visualizes the book in her excellent blog, My Mind on Books:


This fisticuffish visage belongs to Raoul Hausmann (1886-1971), an Austrian artist and writer, and a key figure in Berlin’s Club Dada. (This 1919 portrait is by Hannah Höch, who was his lover from 1915-22.)

He invented photomontage—at the same time, supposedly, as his co-conspirator dadaistes George Grosz, John Heartfield and Johannes Baader. In the spring of 1918, when Hausmann and Höch holidayed on the Baltic Sea, the guest room in which they were staying had a generic portrait of soldiers onto which the patron had glued photographic portrait heads of his son five times; in 1958, he recalled,

It was like a thunderbolt: one could—I saw it instantaneously—make pictures, assembled entirely from cut-up photographs. Back in Berlin that September, I began to realize this new vision, and I made use of photographs from the press and the cinema. (Leah Dickerman and Brigid Doherty (eds), Dada . . . [Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2006] 90)

“ABCD” (c.1920; see Dietmar Elger and Uta Grosenic, Dadaism [Taschen, 2004] 40).

He developed typographical experiments into collages into what he called “phonemes,” or more exactly, the practice of opto-phonetics, that is, “the science of visible speech sounds,” probably the model for Kurt Schwitters’ “Ursonate” (1922-32).

“kp’erioum” (1919)

Such constructions embodied the Dadasophy he created for Berlin Dada that embraced “destruction as an act of creation,” a schizo-aleatory process (Dada . . .); at the same time, when read aloud, they disconnected phonetics from semantics and became “exercises in strange forms of vocalisation and sound production” (Cornelius Brock, “Sound Work and Visionary Prosthetics: Artistic Experiments in Raoul Hausmann,” Papers of Surrealism 4 [Winter 2005]: 16).

But, more than that, they were prosthetic—”an outperformance of the human body” that was “a mechanical intensification of our natural faculties”:

Typography is an intermediate domain between art and technology, between seeing and understanding, and is one of the most obvious means for the permanent psycho-physiological auto-instruction of human beings. (“Biodynamische Naturanschauung,” in Eva Zürchern (ed.), Scharfrichter der Bürgerlichen Seele: Raoul Hausmann in Berlin 1900-1933 [Ostfildern, 1998] 171)

(Note that aside from his collages, his most well-known work was assemblages like “Mechanical Head.”)