Digital Aesthetics


Sean Cubitt

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  • Theory, Culture & Society

    Theory, Culture & Society caters for the resurgence of interest in culture within contemporary social science and the humanities. Building on the heritage of classical social theory, the book examines ways in which this tradition has been reshaped by a new generation of theorists. It will also publish theoretically informed analyses of everyday life, popular culture, and new intellectual movements.

    EDITOR: Mike Featherstone, Nottingham Trent University


    Roy Boyne, University of Duham

    Mike Hepworth, University of Aberdeen

    Scott Lash, Lancaster University

    Roland Robertson, University of Pittsburgh

    Bryan S. Turner, Deakin University


    The Theory, Culture & Society book series, the journal Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society, and related conference, seminar and postgraduate programmes operate from the TCS Centre at Nottingham Trent University. For further details of the TCS Centre's activities please contact:

    Centre Administrator

    The TCS Centre, Room 175

    Faculty of Humanities

    Nottingham Trent University

    Clifton Lane, Nottingham, NG11 8NS, UK, e-mail:

    Recent volumes include:

    Undoing Aesthetics

    Wolfgang Welsch

    Simmel on Culture: Selected Writings

    edited by David Frisby and Mike Featherstone

    Nation Formation

    Towards a Theory of Abstract Community

    Paul James

    Contested Natures

    Phil Macnaghten and John Urry

    The Consumer Society

    Myths and Structures

    Jean Baudrillard

    Georges Bataille – Essential Writings

    edited by Michael Richardson


    View Copyright Page


    For my teachers

    Preface: The Universal Touring Machine

    The contemporary global and networked society incurs a new ethics, but one which is comprehensible, perhaps only comprehensible, as the gift of beauty; because, in our time, and for a materialist analysis, there is no other name for that Utopian longing for the distant, the absent, what appears to us obscure and clouded, as though through a glass, and darkly. For St Paul, the connection between the immanence of salvation, the ethical imperatives of missionary work and the imitation of Christ were utterly given, the donations of a personal God. What the Western heritages from the cultures of the Book have not lost is their sense that that yearning for a higher, better, greater state of being is bound together with the practicalities of sharing the planet and the world with others, as inseparable as a river and its flowing.

    The pursuit of the European mind has been to identify the world, to see in it the whole of what can be. Yet in what exists and most of all in what has been made by human hands and human cultures, we find not only what is but what might be. Over and again our technologies and our cultures, scientific and artistic, discover in the raw material of the world we inhabit instabilities that indicate the limitations of the present: its politics, its knowledges, its economics, its beliefs. Even the dreams of the present are a source of profound dissatisfaction, and we displace onto the future a better, clearer, brighter, a more definite and more admirable state of affairs. If we can no longer place our faith in such a state existing on the further side of death, and if it is true that progress and emancipation are no longer credible teleologies, then we are forced to find what we can of that desire for a better state not hereafter, not after the revolution, but in our daily worlds. What we are condemned to seek is evidence of those broken movements between the world and ourselves, disturbances of the existing brutality of the given, stars puncturing the continuum of the dark, pinpricks of illumination that suggest how the world might be otherwise. The aesthetic is this pursuit of an ethical mode of being in despite of the conditions in which we find ourselves.

    There is some kind of absurdity in looking for ethics in a technical device: the invention and propagation of digital technologies. The fastest and widest impact that computers have had is in deepening the class structures of contemporary society on a global scale. We have to confront the demolition, not just of jobs, of communities and of cultures, but of hope itself as a direct or indirect effect of the electronic communications that have enabled the entirely destructive expansion of finance capital. How could we find an artwork as complex, as effective, as engrossing as the worldwide nexus of transnational capital?

    Kant's piercing and ascetic conceptualisation of the aesthetic – as that in which we should not and perhaps cannot have an interest, but which should transcend our ordinary greed, lust, gluttony – suggests why we should seek in art exactly what is not engrossing, what does not engage us wholly as what we already are, but rather what might let us find an other way of being human. If, in Kant, this drifts towards individualism, in our times, and not just in Europe, the imperative is social. Finance capital, professionalisation, the cultures of risk and trust, the whole drift of urbanisation, technologisation and specialisation sweep us towards our social selves, our mutual dependence. Computers are only an element in this process, but they are more than intensely symptomatic; they are our partners and, like any technology or any lover, increasingly they are ourselves. Where they open up the necessary accommodation between us and the social at a new level, in which our media are intricately identifiable with our relationships, they introduce a new scale of instability, a new uncertainty as to how, and indeed if, we should relate to one another, not just with those we know and meet, but those faceless millions on whom we depend for our wealth and our oppression.

    A certain kind of 20th-century art announces only that it exists. Another devotes itself to its own eradication in the act of becoming present. Yet another concerns itself with its own impossibility, its illusionism or its bad faith, and by implication with the infamy of faith in the fact, the real, the event. This book is concerned with art that communicates, or that poses itself as communication, and questions whether any communication is possible that is not already aggression, command, power, submission. Shall we ever speak again? Shall we listen? Shall we love? Must we dream, or shall we face the total domination of what is. The debate is caught in two critical moments: Wittgenstein's ‘The world is all that is the case’ (Wittgenstein 1961: 5) and Adorno's ‘What is essential about a work of art is what is not the case’ (Adorno 1997: 335). Aesthetics, beginning in the material of art, is Utopian realism, possessing ‘an expectable not-yet-existence; it does not play around in an unoccupied potentiality and does not go astray but anticipates a real potentiality in a psychical way’ (Bloch 1988: 105), a utopianism grounded in the material (unlike daydreams) but directed towards the future. The purpose of inquiry into the digital arts is not to affirm what is, but to promote the becoming of what is not-yet, the grounds of the future as they exist in the present.

    Is the space between the world and us irredeemable? Or is it the source of our most radical motivation? Art in our time is the most profound meditation we have on the sources and purposes of being human, and this book aspires to register those artistic investigations, but also to work as itself a work – of criticism, which like any decent and honest criticism, seeks to emulate the movement of the works on which it depends.

    This book is then critical rather than theoretical (see Cubitt 1995). It is structured around the media which compose the human–computer interface. Chapter 1 discusses forms of reading and the devices that surround them, the catalogue, the pile of magazines, the private pleasures of the novel. Chapters 2 and 3 investigate, respectively, the realist and the spectacular aspects of visual media, suggesting that perspective is best understood as a special effect, while realism's favoured form is the map. Chapter 4 attends to the transformations of sound in the arts of recording and broadcasting. Chapter 5 then looks towards the problems of convergence, and the implications of networked communications. Some readers will recognise criticisms of some shibboleths of cultural studies, especially of theories of resistance and subversion. Resistance is a manner of coping with the day-to-day. This book is dedicated to more than refusal: to the building of alternatives that owe nothing to the structures of domination. Nothing less is worth fighting for.


    Though I always try to avoid reprinting previously published materials, the lengthy gestation of this book has allowed me to explore some of its themes in draft with a variety of audiences. In particular, Chapter 1 draws on ‘Cyberbooks: Read Only Memories’, public lecture, Bookworks/University College London/Slade School of Art, 23 March 1994 and ‘Read Only Memories’, paper given to the Linguistic Representations of the Subject Conference, Liverpool University, 7 July 1994, published in Karl Simms (ed.), Language and the Subject, Rodopi, Amsterdam, 1997, 207–16. Chapter 4 draws on ‘Online Sound and Virtual Architecture (Contribution to the Geography of Cultural Translation)”, paper given at the ISEA Conference, Rotterdam, Holland, September 1996, published in Michael B. Roetto (ed.), ISEA 96 Proceedings: Seventh International Symposium on Electronic Art, ISEA 96 Foundation, Rotterdam, 1997, 17–21, published online by Leonardo Music Journal (1998) and in Leonardo Music Journal, vol. 7, 1997, 43–8; ‘Sound: The Distances”, paper given at the Modernist Utopias conference, Musée d'Art Contemporain, Montreal, 9–10 December 1995, published in Chantal Charbonneau (ed.), Utopies Modernistes (= Colloques + Conférences 4), Musée d'Art Contemporain, Montréal, 1996, 97–111; ‘Video Installation and the Neo-Classical Soundtrack’, paper given at the Screen Conference, University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, July 1996, published in Essays in Sound (Sydney), vol. 3, 1997, 8–20; and ‘Pygmalion: Sound for Sculptors’, Sound Matters/Live Arts Symposium, Birmingham Art School, University of Central England, 30 November 1996. Chapter 5 draws on ‘From Global Transmission to Diasporan Translation’ paper given at the Consciousness Reframed: Art and Consciousness in the Post-Biological Era conference, CAiiA, University of Wales College, Newport, Gwent, 6 July 1997; ‘Flow: Networks, Transmission and Translation’ MA seminar, London College of Printing, 14 March 1997; and ‘The Courier: Virtual Realism and Networked Subjectivity’ Ruskin School lecture, Oxford University, 11 February 1997.

    I am also grateful to the following for support, advice, discussion and criticism: Dudley Andrew, Rasheed Araeen, Eddie Berg, Homi Bhabha, Bryan Biggs, Simon Biggs, Lachlan Brown, Pavel Büchler, Ron Burnett, Chris Byford, Lisa Cartwright, Janice Cheddie, Susan Collins, David Connearn, Rosemary Coombes, David Cross, Felix de Rooy, Eugenio Dittborn, Dimitris Eleftheriotis, Film and Video Umbrella, the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, Sera Furneaux, Chrissie Isles, Alfredo Jaar, Pervaiz Khan, Carol Knight, Jim Lastra, Greg Lee, Lev Manovich, Janine Marchessault, Trevor Matthison, Kath Moonam, Iliana Nedkova, Aedín Nolan, Sadie Plant, David Rodowick, Mirek Rogala, Chris Rojek, Robert Rojek, Javier Sanjines, Zia Sardar, Terry Smith, Vivian Sobchack, Mike Stubbs, Philip Tagg, Jez Welsh; participants in the Nettime, Rhizome and Ars Electronica online discussions; and students, colleagues and members of the public who have discussed these issues with me in conferences, seminars and galleries in two continents, especially at Liverpool John Moores University, who also allowed me sabbatical time to commence and to complete the research. A special debt of gratitude is owed to the Rockefeller Foundation and the Chicago Humanities Institute for the fellowship that allowed me to undertake major research on this book in 1995. As ever, none of this would have been possible without Alison Ripley. Many other people have contributed directly and indirectly, and to them this book is dedicated.

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