Tag Archives: Humanisms

On Humanisms

In the summer of 2011 I wrote a post for Rhizome’s blog called “It’s Only Humanist,” about the popularity of images of classical sculpture in digital art—a trend that notoriously went mainstream in the fall of 2012, when the visuals of Rihanna’s appearance on Saturday Night Live mixed ionic columns and marble busts with palm trees and Photoshop gradients. “It’s Only Humanist” was inspired by Sterling Crispin’s Tumblr Greek New Media Shit, and also included discussions of works by Nick DeMarco & Nicolas Colon, Oliver Laric, and Aids-3D, with a couple of visual examples from Frank Eickhoff and Sara Ludy; I wanted to consider references to classical imagery across a range of works, with sculpture and installation as well as the software etudes posted to Tumblr. The point I tried to make in the post was that the use of this imagery—and the way it was undermined with software editing effects—suggested doubt or skepticism about the integrity of the human subject within technological networks.

About a year after “It’s Only Humanist” was published Tom Moody wrote a series of posts on his own blog mocking “my” idea that the artworks mentioned in the post continued a tradition of humanist art by appropriating its imagery. That is, of course, a ridiculous idea, and I didn’t write anything of the sort. Perhaps I’m partly to blame for Moody’s misunderstanding because I wasn’t explicit enough; I didn’t want to say outright that these artists ere anti-humanist or “pro-machine.” I wanted to respect the ambivalence of the works, some of which seemed melancholy or nostalgic about the loss of an ideal while simultaneously treating it with humor. (A lack of one-sided clarity is a chronic problem of art writing, because art thrives on ambivalence, and the description of ambiguity often produces bad writing.) But the main problem, I think, was that Moody mistook my post’s title as a literal description of the works I discussed—when it was a joke aligned with the light attitude of the artists toward their source material—and wrote his posts on the basis of that mistake.

The funny thing is that when I wrote the post I had no particular interest in humanism—Joanne  McNeil, who was the editor of Rhizome at the time, was interested in the Greek New Media Shit trend and asked me to write about it—but now it’s become the subject of my dissertation. I’m writing about what happens to humanism in the twentieth century when thinkers feel the need to define the human against (or by) the machine. My central case study is Soviet culture of the 1930s, when vitalism resurged as a reaction to rapid industrialization and avant-garde metaphors of man as machine, but I also want to look at the emergence of anti-humanist philosophy in Western Europe in the 1930s, and try to offer some ideas about what humanism is or can be today. I don’t think the humanisms of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment, with their idealization of the individual (male, European) subject using reason as tool to master the world, are viable or interesting now (and this was a problem in the Soviet situation: the disconnect between the neoclassical values that official culture promoted and the values it needed to build a new kind of state; I’m interested in the weird hybrid values in the artworks that this situation produced).

I’m not planning to say much about contemporary art in my dissertation. I think it’s too recent and unsettled to be an object of scholarship. But in my life outside grad school—in my work as a critic and curator—I’m looking at art that embodies these alternative humanisms, work that sees social media and other networks as potential means of expression for a common subjectivity and explores irrationality, abjection, queerness, affect, and other things that humans can do or have and machines can’t, the things that become important when omnipresent technology functions as a prosthesis for reason and calculation—the faculties most prized by the classical humanist subject. Some examples: Jesse Darling’s formless, ongoing online presence/work that ignores distinctions of public and private experience, or of bodies and work; Ann Hirsch’s treatment of networks as means of magnifying and refracting private desires and opening them up into real connections; Body by Body’s fantasies of physical transformation and degradation that identify bodies with digital media. These are all artists I’ve commissioned for Klaus_eBooks, a series of ebooks I’m organizing. What interests me about ebooks is how the device acquires power over the book; the book is formless, and only temporarily occupies the device’s screen. I see this as roughly analogous to how Facebook leeches power from its users over their self-presentation, or, more broadly, how power has passed from individual subjects to corporate ones in governments around the world. (These assertions are contentious and sketchy, I know; I’ll write more about them later.)   The dissolution of the book’s objecthood appears as a companion to the dissolution of liberal subjecthood—and identification with the ebook’s mode of being offers a possible path toward a common subjectivity that defines the human against systems of power. Greek New Media Shit casts doubts on the integrity of the human subject by undermining the imagery of classical sculpture with glitchy pixel decay, or by decentering it amid a network’s web, or by coloring it with the giddy extremes of the Photoshop palette. In other words, it suggests a breakdown of the ideals of classical humanism by cluttering their aesthetic embodiments with a bunch of digital junk. The kind of humanism I’m interested finds the human—or something like it—within that junk.

Notes on Books and Ebooks

{NOTE: On May 30, 2013, I participated in a panel discussion at Eyebeam on books and ebooks, titled “Maker and Destroyer of Books.” This is a revised version of the notes I prepared for the discussion.}

The written word was invented as a way of communicating with people who aren’t in earshot—such as god(s).

That means that books are substitute people.

Just like people, books have ways of persuading you that they’re worth spending time with, worth listening to, worth talking to. They have ways of establishing their authority and trustworthiness. Their methods aren’t as organic or spontaneous as those of real people, because they’re objects—but they’re social objects, rooted in relations and personalities.

My sense of how books work as social objects comes from my experience of editorial work—from working on making books and thinking about them in comparison to the newspaper and the magazine that I’d worked on. In the mid-2000s I was living and working in Moscow, mainly as a translator, but I also had a part-time job as a copy editor at a newspaper. After that I started doing freelance copy-editing work at a magazine and then for a book publisher. Newspapers and books have different rhythms—the paper is made for tomorrow, the book is made for a longer future—and this difference is established in ways more subtle than their obvious difference as objects—the flimsy disposability of the newspaper vs. the weighty solidity of the hardcover book. It’s expressed in little things; the Associated Press Stylebook, which we used at the newspaper, tells you to write numbers as numerals, whereas the Chicago Manual of Style, which I referred to when editing books, tells you to write them out as words. It’s a minor difference but I remember first learning about it and feeling a sense of the gravity of books. Then there’s the way that different kinds of printed matter refer to things outside themselves. The newspaper gives quotes and names sources within the story, and relies on the reader’s trust in the standards of journalism and the reputation of the newspaper to assert their veracity. The book has footnotes. The books has a bibliography. It uses references to establish its place within in a network of other books—it doesn’t just make a record of the day (so members of a society know what’s happening in it without personal contact), it lodges an assertion of truth in the firmament of culture (so people can know about it without living in the same time).

The publisher of the book is responsible for asserting the book’s authority—it places the front matter and end matter there to give a sense of the work of many people that went into the production of the book; it distributes the book and places it in the network of readers. Ebooks are distinct from books in that the manufacturer of the device (the e-reader: the Kindle, the Nook, the iPad) assumes many of the functions of the publisher, as well as the functions of the bookseller, and even the functions of the public sphere. Apple is notorious for its strict control over what can and can’t be sold in the iTunes store; Amazon wants every reader to rate every book, to participate in its work of promoting the book and asserting its value. These processes and procedures make the social objecthood of the book visible even as the physical objecthood of it diminishes, eclipsed by the e-reader. Books are substitute people, but the e-reader also becomes a substitute person: it’s a reader like me. It has a way of processing the text—reading it—so that I can read it and process it, too. Identification with the book gives way to identification with the device. (I like my Kindle Fire HD; I spend a lot of time with it. In the daytime I hold it on the subway and read Russian novels, and at night I curl up in bed with it and watch TV shows.)

This year I started on working on a series of artists’ ebooks (called Klaus_eBooks, because the publisher is Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery) and all of these thoughts about the book and the ebook went into my decisions regarding what kinds of ebooks I wanted to include in the series.

First, I should say a few things about the artist’s book. It’s not like other books. The artist abdicates claims to authority that the non-fiction hardcover (or even the novel) needs in its social life. The artist’s book abandons authority but keeps authorship; the reader (the viewer) is invited to see how the artist arranges images and text within the form of the book. The artist’s book is about the physical properties of the book—the pages, the covers, the way they organize information—in the way that a painting is about surface and pigment, or poetry is about sound and meaning.

An artist’s ebook, then, would have to address how the ebook organizes information and how that relates to the device. When the e-reader processes text it changes its size and shape, for readability; the book loses its hermetic solidity, its integrity as an object—and it loses authority, too, as authority gets leeched by the device’s maker.

I’m interested in artists’ ebooks that are less about the properties of the book or the device than about the properties of digital media. The identification with digits (rather than with a device, as in my experience with my Kindle) suggests an understanding of bodies and people not as integral wholes but as fluid, shifting, flexible entities.

What does it mean for digits to be substitute people? What would that say about people?