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.