Saturday, May 11, 2013
Friday, May 3, 2013
Art and optics
In ancient times, the Sky and the Earth loved each other so madly, their offspring were trapped between their bodies until the mightiest of the children, Tane, forced them apart and let the light shine in on the world. This, the oldest story of the Maori of Aotearoa New Zealand is a tale retold in many tongues, from Genesis to the Big Bang. Light bursts upon the world, and in the philosophy of the 12th century theologian Robert Grosseteste it is light that connects us to God because it is light that gives form.
Every visual art is optical, but some art looks towards the light. Light, which is so potent a symbol for every human culture, is also one of our greatest technologies. Fire, which heats and cooks, is also the flicker of firelight that draws us home to the hearth. Because it is a technology, light has a history. For our first ancestors, the only sources of light were sun in the daytime and bio-luminescence at night. Even until the 19th century, our only light technology was flame. The incandescent electric bulb and its heirs changed that forever. Today light not only illuminates: it is the secret of fibre optics, the laser-powered infrastructure of our ubiquitous computers.
All our lenses and mobile phone displays share one single characteristic: they seek to control the light. Whether light is the visible form of God or cosmic radiation, it pours upon us in chaotic waves, blasting across space, the very measure of ultimate speed. Light creates space and shape, but as it does, it bounces, reflects, refracts, diffuses, its wavelengths and durations changing in infinite complexity. We need light, but we want to control it. We shade the too bright lamp, and magnify the dimmest flickers. With the amplifying chemistry of photographs or the rigid order of receptors in digital image capture, we hold light to our purposes. Our television screens, like our computer displays, shape light into order ranks and rows. Transmission protocols strip time out of the equation: we demand the instantaneous. Light is everywhere organized in optical technologies.
Human beings cannot bear very much disorder. We tidy our nests, guard against dirt, separate and categorise and order what we can. And yet we know that from time to time we must go out into the chaos of the world to find new energies and new ideas. Order is an endless struggle between entropy and fascism, too little order and too much. And this is the terrain of art, to walk the ragged boundaries, to quiz our unexamined taxonomies, to muddy the clear waters and sieve out of them new ways of putting the world back together again.
The artists gathered in this exhibition peer into the light that makes our world. Each of us lives in many eras. We are the electronic generation, our faces underlit by mobile screens, our cafés, shops and houses cast into sharp highlights and shadows, or suffused with warm glows, tied to the global economy of energy production, of the lithium in out batteries, the petrol in our generators. But we are also those who love firelight, and those who walk into the high hills at night to watch the timeless circling of the stars. At once the most ancient and most modern of media, light is the medium of our existence as the historical animals.
The speed of light is the final measure of time, but we have learned to control that speed. The gods came, says the poet Ezra Pound, by speed of communication. But we are human, and our arts of communication are not only about immediacy but slowness.
Every day we navigate oceans of images and data. Every screen, every image, promises to be whole and entire, to speak some kind of truth, about the news or sport or beauty or fun. To offer a whole experience. Our artists work with the light that carries these images. They unpick the woven fabric of images, unfold the impenetrable surfaces, unpack the contents of the black boxes where we keep the engines of image-making. One makes us see, in the scanning electron guns, the remnant of the patient gesture of hand and arm. Another magics into existence a way of seeing bodies moving, neither slow motion nor fast but in a different time to the one we think we know so well. One makes us feel the weight of history , the long centuries of travel and trade that brought us to this moment when all the world's goods can be dangled before the eyes of all its citizens. Another tells us of the geographies of transmission. The ancient light of fireflies inspires another with light that has no history, but comes to our city to tell us just how strange the city has become. Sometimes a darkness is the core communication of the light, a memory repressed, like a photograph stashed under the bed in hopes that one day from out of the dim past will come the flaming swords of justice and shame.
By attending closely to the time of light, of the making of light and of watching, of the purest act of perceiving light, these artists invite us to consider its weight and density and its power to link us in myriad bonds to the history of light and seeing. By making experiences for us, they also bring before us the fragility and ephemerality of light, its unique moment in the sun, its flickering passage into night. Symbol of both mortality and immortality, our hearth of tradition and our beacon of progress, light complies with power, and complicates it. The order of light is the disorder of time, and the order of time is the freedom of light. We celebrate as we mourn both the splashing light of fountains and the rectilinear ray, and contemplate the subtle politics as we engage the deft poetics enacted in the art of light, at this moment, in this city, unique in all the annals of creation.
Sean Cubitt, Winchester, 16 March 2013
Contemporary semiocapitalism divides its derivation of wealth from handling symbols into two sectors. One sector operates through international regimes of patents, copyrights, trademarks and designs, the other through finance, which today is not only entirely electronic, but in increasing degrees automated as algorithmic ('algo') trading. Those who are not privileged to sit at the centre of intellectual and finance capital produce a diminishing amount of the value in each commodity. Those who can, or are forced to, work, and are treated like the victims of the Bangladeshi factory collapse of Aril 2013: supernumerary, unregarded, a repressed that returns only momentarily as news item. Those who cannot are abandoned to civil war, famine and disease: conditions that, in the case of the Congolese war, have persisted for over a decade as the unconscious of metropolitan consumption (United Nations 2002). Meanwhile metropolitan populations superfluous to both intellectual work and offshore industry are pushed further into ghettos, with diminishing health, education and social resources, prey to drugs and guns, that increasingly resemble the reservations set aside for indigenous peoples in the genocidal heyday of settler expansion. With the abdication of vision common to parliamentary parties of the industrialised and in many instances the industrialising world, the only organic intellectuals left are the gangs, hounded by police in an ethnoclass war to secure human status (Wynter 2003) that extends increasingly into Europe from its origins in 1930s USA. Between civil war and gang war, the trajectory of the mode of destruction instigated by consumerism would appear to lead to the auto-destruction of the consumer class.
Waste is not an unfortunate by-product of consumerism. Without waste, there can be no consumer capital. We are all Batailleans now. Waste takes the form not only of garbage, or of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) but of populations excluded from the centres of capital. Productive labour of the old proletarian kind still persists, but downgraded and exported: it is in countries where productive labour remains significant that we still find a recognisably working-class mode of politics, as in Tunisia and Egypt in January and February 2011, even though mass protests and direct action were promptly painted in the colours of social media by Western news media. The protest against corruption was in part a protest against a systemic waste of common wealth and popular energies by the ruling kleptocracy. That nothing similar has happened in the UK or Russia has everything to do with the move from material to symbolic production, and politics conducted through the same mobilisation of symbols that provides such economic growth as persists. Neo-colonial production likewise is founded on the systemic waste to which it contributes in the cycles of fashion and consumption. The undoubted catastrophe of WEEE, and the consistently colonial structure of the recycling industry (Gabrys 2010, Grossman 2007) can still be seen as curable aberrations: we are on the trail of an integral waste.
Sunday, April 28, 2013
If, as Bifo contends, contemporary capitalism is semiocapitalism, and production means the production of symbols, those who cannot or do not engage in that trade are superfluous to requirements. Only economic values are valued; no other values count. But since so much symbolic production is unpaid (including this blog), that too approaches zero value. Its value lies in abstracting from it the behaviour of those who read it, or at least visit, leaving traces of their activity that can be monetised by tracking.
What is left out of account, out of accountancy and out of the accounts we gve each other of our story? Those excluded by geography, biography or disability from the generation of economic value. The attack on education, and the narrowing of school curricula, is about reducing and narrowing the pool of people needed to work in the semiotic factories. Current policy initiatives in the UK, across Europe, and increasingly elsewhere share a common disdain for whoever does not join in the pursuit of semiotic profit, including those who will no longer be able to get into higher education, or stay in long enough for the higher qualifications demanded by advancing neo-liberal semiocapitalism. This is Bifo's inhuman violence. At its extreme, it involves abandoning whole populations to war. In a gentler mode, it means gradually cutting off health, housing, the remnants of the social wage. We can concentrate too much on policies designed to send even more wealth to the wealthy. The radical impoverishment of the poor increases at even greater speed.
We cannot call this genocide. We are not allowed to call what Israel does in Palestine genocide, or even ethnic cleansing, and this is a slower exorcism of the economically inefficient, though in its way just as brutal. Like 'refugee', the word 'genocide' lies under embargo. There are those who do not like the word 'genocide' applied to the assault on African Americans by drugs and incarceration. We may need a new word for the slow strangulation of the people, the phased eradication of the unaccountable.
Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Théorie Communiste is wrong to argue that the working class is no longer working and therefore has no purpose (or identity): it is required to destroy the overproduction in pursuit of growth that otherwise generates crisis. As a bonus, crisis can be shared socially by distributing debt (future growth that will no longer occur) to the precariat. Final function: free labour of creativity, as a process of environmentalisation that also externalises. Thus placing creativity as an externality which historically precedes (eg in the environmentalisation of 'nature' as externality) over-exploitation and destruction. The theory of finite social creativity suggests that the final task of the working class in the new mode of destruction is to annihilate itself.
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
The greatest achievement of the Victorian era (apart from cinematography and the A-frame bicycle) was the public library. Machine-readable catalogues were the precursor to the Web, which still has some of the utopian orientation of the library voiced in Antonio Panizzi's evidence to the Select Committee on the British Museum in 1836: "I want a poor student to have the same means of indulging his learned curiosity, of following his rational pursuits, of consulting the same authorities, of fathoming the most intricate inquiry as the richest man in the kingdom, as far as books go, and I contend that the Government is bound to give him the most liberal and unlimited assistance in this respect". Digital libraries don't share Panizzi's dream, which they could fulfill so easily.
We don't own ebooks. Physical books, once purchased, are ours to do with as we like, but we can't sell, lend or give away an epub because we pay a rental license on them: they belong to a corporation. By the same token, there's no public lending right. Paradoxically, physical books are freer than digital.
Corporations want payment per reader. It's not surprising then that communities of readers ignore the loss of a customary right and set up their own digital public libraries. This was exactly how the municipal libraries arose. But it is an unsustainable practice if there is no way to pay for fact-checking, copy-editing and functional design, let alone the quality assurance that scholarly presses provide.
The commodification of books in the C19th came with a kind of democratisation, along with a risk of losing 'quality' with the rise of the penny dreadful. Digital publishing de-democratises by isolating books from one another. A library isn't about individual books but about the community of books speaking to and about each other.
Public lending right (and photocopying) provide for a small return for each use, not a punitive full-cost for every reader. What we need is a global copyright library, on the model of Panizzi's British Library: one that receives a copy of every work published. As the International Federation of Library Associations argues, it's crucial that the cost should not come from library budgets. A small cost per use could easily be applied, for example by a fractional sales tax on storage. Corporations, operating under the protection of bloated copyright laws, will want to syphon the cream from this for their most lucrative authors. What we need is a system that passes revenues not to shareholders or even authors but to maintaining the open library, and covering the publishing costs of works – many of them academic, but also translations and specialist titles – that cannot support themselves in the marketplace.
There's no shortage – yet! – of authors: there is a shortage of publishers, distributors and most of all of an open, common library, the basis on which all future writing builds.
Saturday, April 13, 2013
Improving the flows of the information and knowledge that researchers produce will promote
* enhanced transparency, openness and accountability, and public engagement with research;
* closer linkages between research and innovation, with benefits for public policy and services, and for economic growth;
* improved efficiency in the research process itself, through increases in the amount of information that is readily accessible, reductions in the time spent in finding it, and greater use of the latest tools and services to organise, manipulate and analyse it; and
* increased returns on the investments made in research, especially the investments from public funds. These are the motivations behind the growth of the world-wide open access movement.
These are the terms of the 2012 Finch report, by the UK government advisory Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings.
There are two controversies lurking behind the first bullet. One is the right of the public to decide on the value of research. The other concerns the transparency of data demanded ad absurdum by climate change opponents in the dubious case of the UEA email leak. The former begs the question of who exactly is, or speaks for, the public; the latter asks both whether peer-review by experts of expert analysis needs to be supplemented (or supplanted) by a jury of interested parties (interested in the Kantian sense).
The second and fourth concern the link between funded research and economic benefit. Stiegler is not alone among philosophers in noting that innovation describes a process of minor adaptations to an existing paradigm. Invention is a radical breakthrough. It is hard not to hear the fury of corporations – whose R and D departments failed to invent the world wide web – that the web, a product of publicly funded research, was not delivered to them for commercialisation. Tim Berners-Lee's decision to give away the source code was, in that perspective, irresponsible. This example alone should persuade us that the Finch report is not describing the open access movement as a whole.
The third point, about organising and analysing research results, has the most attraction. It is not only that articles held on commercial databases like Elsevier are restricted to subscribers; it is also that search engines and more sophisticated spiders and bots cannot mine them. But even here the cult of efficiency has a faint tang of corporate culture.
Actually what motivates open access campaigns are
* the belief that ideas are improved by speed and breadth of circulation, and that the greed-driven oxymoron 'intellectual property' slows down of the system
* the idea that ideas are valuable, if they are valuable at all, because they help feed, clothe, educate, shelter, bring justice, peace and beauty, and because they make it possible for us all to debate which of these values is best and how to balance out their claims: not because they can be converted into cash
* an absolute commitment to making research available to those who are its sources, too often its victims, and in any case who will be its ultimate beneficiaries, especially those who cannot afford to get at it under current conditions
* a generalised feeling of good-will and generosity in the interests of creating a decent world, especially for the global poor. Many people in open-access worlds believe that the current economic system has failed monumentally, and that open, cashless economies of peer-to-peer exchange is an increasingly viable alternative.
So let's just get that one straight.