Writing. Design. Social Change.

The movement’s motto: “Seeing like digital devices.

The collected images at the New Aesthetic (NA) site are undeniable. They resonate on the a-ha frequency. James Bridle does marvelous work curating this mountain of evidence; it exists. Anyone who owns an iPhone or has seen a movie lately knows it exists. At its best, this could be a useful movement. At its worst, another meme.

It’s up against some problems. The thinking is tangled, a bit untidy. (I think the word “rubbish” has been used more than once). Proponents James Bridle and Bruce Sterling both acknowledge some problems, but don’t necessarily articulate them. I suppose that’s the first step.

1) Work smarter on a definition

First things first, the ancient Greeks supplied Western civilization with the original notion of the aesthetic. This version came from the verb aisthanomai (I perceive) & the noun aisthetike (sense perception) ‘I perceive with my senses.’ The Greek aesthetic was about perception-based understanding through the senses.

So, is this movement departing from human-based sensory perception? Or not? And if so, how? Is it really about “Seeing like digital devices?” Is it about a machine-based sensory aesthetic (what?)? Or about how human sensory perception can be machine-esque. Or is it about how these new technologies expand our own experience and ways of perceiving and knowing the world?

As I see it, the problem right now lies in the motto. “Seeing like digital devices.” The New Aesthetic tries to imagine and explore a machine-based aesthetic. Although some will argue this, for the most part, machines do not have senses and experiences. So really, this is an imagined realm. We are in the domain of the projected, the imagined. And that is not the domain of the aesthetic. That is called something else. Playing pretend, perhaps.

A focus on (human) sensory-based empirical experience will fix this problem. The Greeks didn’t do that for long, though. They weren’t that concerned with the knowledge gained from sensory perception outright; they were interested in codifying that knowledge into a hierarchy of the senses. And that’s a problem, too.

2) Explain how this is new

If this is truly new, I have yet to see the evidence.  There have been many  claims to the “New Aesthetic.” Try reading anything by MIT Press on aesthetics and new media for a sampling.  (Here are some reviews).  What would be refreshing is if this movement could depart from old, tired Western traditions of the aesthetic. (Danger. Danger. It’s already falling into this trap.)

It’s useful to look back.  Take Immanual Kant, for example. Following the lead of the Greeks, he defined and located the aesthetic in the abstract and universal (while shunning the particular, empirical, or applied). He set a precedent for the aesthetic to be explained in other terms, with other criteria—for example, with historical, cultural, ideological, or political associations. Notably, aesthetic/sensory perception and the meaning derived from that were no longer an acceptable way of knowing the world; the lower senses could only offer deceptive, illusory appearances and mere impressions of how things really are. (More here).

This happens because people continue  to frame the aesthetic as a highly intellectualized pursuit based on the idea that knowledge itself is a historically, culturally, and ideologically imbricated process. Throughout the last two centuries of Western European intellectual thought, inquiries into the aesthetic demonstrated that an aesthetic mode of knowing does not exist in and of itself (but is always entrenched in other constructs of culture, history, etc).

So James Bridle and Bruce Sterling are reiterating all of this. Have we learned nothing from 200 years of alienating Western aesthetics?

Aesthetics are more than whatever gets splashed onto Cafe Press T-shirts this season. Aesthetics are by their nature metaphysical. – James Bridle

Aesthetics are, by definition, how beauty is perceived and valued in a human sensorium. Aesthetics is therefore an issue of metaphysics. Perception, beauty, judgment and value are all metaphysical issues. – Bruce Sterling

This movement is “metaphysical.” Metaphysical, really? Aesthetics is metaphysical? Are you sure? Is that we want – a new aesthetic based on abstract stuff of the mind? This isn’t new. Interesting maybe, but now new.  Sorry.

Many, so many, would  agree that the “old” aesthetic has lost touch with actual day to day human experience and needs to be reimagined.  What is needed is a new way to explain aesthetic experience as an empirical phenomenon rather than as a means to provide an explanation for something else. Metaphysical – stuff of the mind – based on abstract reasoning – that’s where the problem has always been. A refreshing change would be if we could value empirical, observable human experience as a touchstone, as a basis for exploring knowledge and meaning making for our changing times. This could be something new, something useful.

3) Focus less on “look” and more on “experience”

Currently, much of the focus of NA is on sight, on a way of seeing. But not a literal seeing. A metaphysical seeing. This is what the Western European aestheticians did.

Sight was privileged above all other senses because of its capacity to draw attention away from the body of the perceiving subject… eventually establishing a hierarcy of the senses favoring a priori knowledge, (based on logic) over posteriori knowledge ( based on experience).

I can’t believe that people would want to get behind an unapologetically a priori “way of knowing”  that serves to create a limiting conception of what the aesthetic is and how it is experienced. I can’t believe that people would still sign up for an aesthetic that privileges mind over body, theory over experience, and universals over particulars.

 It has made me see and think about the world in a strange way –   James Bridle

It has made you? No, your experience and confrontation with new technologies has enabled you to see and think in a new way.

Aesthetic movements tend to privilege certain ways of knowing over others. And their proponents tend to use the movement to serve an agenda. For this to become a real movement, the New Aesthetic must prove itself to be “brave, truthful, and unselfish” in every sense. I believe people could benefit from the notion of a useful, practical aesthetic that pushes against fixed and limiting assumptions, in order to accommodate a more inclusive view of everyday human (aesthetic) experience. Now that would be new.

3 Responses to “The New Aesthetic…perhaps”

  1. gregorylent

    it’s the beginning of wide-spread astral vision … a global refinement of consciousness is underway … watch it play out over the coming decades

    as you well know 🙂

  2. Steven W. Hopkins (@seemylittleknee)

    You’re the first person I’ve seen that acknowledges openly that New Aesthetic is thought experiment, or pretend, as you call it. During Computers and Writing I heard a few people talking about object oriented ontology and talking about the sensory experience of objects as if they actually had sensory experiences. But it seems like either too much of a stretch or just gobbledegook to not admit that we are at least projecting our own experience on these objects.

    I agree with you that the power of new aesthetic comes from how it opens up a new way of seeing. In my mind, there is a power that comes from admitting to the distributed quality of our sensory perceptions as they are mediated by our digital environments. It humbles us (or should humble us) to recognize that we aren’t the only source of knowledge or perception or information, but that everything in our environment is part of all of them. I just think the digital makes that more obvious.

    There’s something really great in the new aesthetic, and I don’t like that we have to get caught up in the semantics of this label that Bridle put on it. It’s not new, and it’s connection to aesthetic, as you pointed out, doesn’t always make sense. But bridle put a name on something a very real part of how many people experience the world, and I like having a label to place on evidence of that experience.

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