Writing. Design. Social Change.

Posts tagged ‘Aesthetics’

Knight, A. (2013). Reclaiming experience: the aesthetic and multimodal composition. Computers and Composition30(2), 146-155.

“So extensive and subtly pervasive are the ideas that set Art upon a remote pedestal, that many a person would be repelled rather than pleased if told that he enjoyed his causal recreations, in part at least, because of their esthetic quality.”–John Dewey, Art As Experience

new york lightsRecent scholarship points to the rhetorical role of the aesthetic in multimodal composition and new media contexts. In this article, published in Computers and Composition: An International Journal, I examine the aesthetic as a rhetorical concept in writing studies and imagine the ways in which this concept can be useful to teachers of multimodal composition. My treatment of the concept begins with a return to the ancient Greek aisthetikos (relating to perception by the senses) in order to discuss the aesthetic as a meaningful mode of experience. I then review European conceptions of the aesthetic and finally draw from John Dewey and Bruno Latour to help shape this concept into a pragmatic and useful approach that can compliment multimodal teaching and learning. The empirical approach I construct adds to an understanding of aesthetic experience with media in order to render more transparent the ways in which an audience creates knowledgeor takes and makes meaningvia the senses. Significantly, this approach to meaning making supports learning in digital environments where students are increasingly asked to both produce and consume media convergent texts that combine multiple modalities including sound, image, and user interaction. 

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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.


Wysocki, Anne Frances. “Impossibly Distinct: On Form/Content and Word/Image in Two Pieces of Computer-Based Interactive Multimedia.” Computers and Composition 18 (2001): 209-234.

In this article, Wysocki makes the argument that we need to rethink or expand the conceptual categories that we are currently using to better understand (and teach) the visual aspects of texts. Wysocki questions why we still hold onto so many common assumptions regarding (the teaching and understanding of ) visual elements. She argues that when dealing with the visual, form is not always separate from content, word is not always separate from image and information is not separate always from design, and when we do so, we seriously diminish our returns. She compares two interactive CD-Roms on modernist art to demonstrate this argument.

Wysocki claims that “the differences between the visual presentations of these CDs are differences of assertion and thought.” (224). She makes an argument for The Foundation Maeght CD because it encourages a kind of thinking about the role visual representation plays in meaning making, whereas the other CD (Barnes), took things at face-value/took much for granted in how meaning is constructed with visual elements. In other words, it simply gave the user the information in a kind of straightforward way and couldn’t escape from a prefab user experience. Wysocki describes in a close-reading of the two texts why the Maeght CD-Rom does a better job of “pulling her in.” Some of what Wysocki is doing is talking about aesthetic engagement.  She prefers the Maeght CD because: …”it is up to me to determine the relations between the parts; I have to think about why the CD has been arranged as it has; if I want to feel I have any sort of hold on the presentation, I have to make my own paths through it; they are not handed to me. Although the CD is not asking me to question my relationship to art—or to artists or to art foundations—it is encouraging me to question how the arrangement of the CD contributes to my understanding of it…a first step in encouraging me to be aware of my interpretative part in moving through such a piece” (230).

I find the following quotes useful:

“It is because the Maeght CD encourages me to consider how its structure contributes to my experience and understanding of the CD that I find it more appealing.” (231).

“We should be asking, along with other people in our classes, how the visual aspects of these texts work to compose us and how we go about composing pages and screens that encourage us to be responsible and critical readers.” (231).

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Munster, Anna. Materializing New Media: Embodiment in Information Aesthetics. Interfaces, Studies in Visual Culture. 1st ed. Dartmouth, N.H.: Dartmouth College Press: Published by University Press of New England, 2006.

Munster’s project involves the argument that: “information aesthetics is capable of offering us both a critical commentary that folds back upon the broader flows of a more reductive information culture and a new kind of aesthetics that unfolds into new sensory spaces for lived experience” (Munster 2006: 38).  It is this “new aesthetics” that I am particularly interested in, which she discusses in the last chapters of the book. This is important because it is going to help us move beyond the visual and toward a theory of embodied aesthetic engagement with new media. Munster discusses many accounts of new media art. Munster writes “These kinds of new media artworks neither promise a direct relation to the sensorium rendered by informatic visualization nor bypass the body altogether. Rather they suggest that any future for embodiment in the landscape of information must leave space for the aesthetic processes of composition. This is not a space marked by a controlling, organizing subject or cogito who looks back at its body from the outside or a technology that adopts a similar position of knowingly representing the body. This space is instead inflected by the shadow and absence of the self, as the bodily silhouettes of participants are projected onto the  topology of biological visualization. This shadowy figure is the mark of the death of the subject as knowable, manageable or reducible to a recognizable pattern of information.” (145).

Munster offers her thoughts in several places, regarding what a new aesthetics can do:

“These experiences of crossing thresholds between here and there, continuous and differentiated, corporeal and incorporeal, are common facets of engaging with virtual and telepresent technologies and environments. Thought about the body and actual sensory participation and engagement must be re-engaged in our analysis of digital culture in order to assist with this kind of threshold experience” (9).

“But if we recast the digital as an aesthetic force capable of producing new kinds of sensations and affective responses, we might instead see it as belonging to the activity of imagining” (94).

“Information aesthetics now needs to invent an affectivity for its culture from the sensations and perceptions that its technologies produce.” (116).

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 Dan Harries. The New Media Book. London: BFI Pub., 2002.

In the preface to The New Media Book, the term new media is questioned. The author determines that it has become an effective catchword both as a description of the digital delivery of media via the internet, DVD and digital television and as a reference to the ‘newness’ such technologies have brought to media more generally. But what makes new media ‘new’? Is it the ways in which we interact with media? Is it the new convergences (and bundling) of media technologies? Or is it the increasing interdependence (and overlap) of various media products? In short, the answer it that the ‘newness’ of new media can be attributed to all of these factors.

In the essay “The New Intertextual Commodity” by P. David Marshall, references the new ‘play aesthetic’ in regard to video games. However this ‘play aesthetic’ is never really defined—but I infer that it has something to do with entertainment and the centrality of play in today’s video game market. It also has to do with interactivity with cultural forms. The authors are using aesthetic for something like ethos or philosophy or culture. The new play ethos. The new play philosophy. The new play culture. Here aesthetic aspects of play do not figure in the discussion. (Pages 78, 80). What are they? The author doesn’t address this. I find this ludicrous.

In “The Impact of Digital Technologies on Film Aesthetics,” Michael Allen looks at the effects of the digital on previous media technologies, such as celluloid film in order to “examine the ways in which digitally produced images have changed the formal parameters of the modern film text.” [It seems to me that something I can work toward is an examination of the ways in which new media has changed the formal parameters of engagement with texts—and part of this is a revisioning of the aesthetic]. Halfway through the essay Allen mentions aesthetics for the first and only time. He theorizes that narrative (in a new media context) has three functions: the aesthetic, the ideological and the cognitive. He states:

Aesthetically, the function of the narrative is to arouse emotion or give pleasure; to create a simulacrum of the world or preserve one’s experience in the face of death. The key question is which stories arouse the greatest range and depth of response (121).

Where does this theory come from? What is its basis? How can it be applied? 

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Ellen Cushman. “Toward a Praxis of New Media: The Allotment Period in Cherokee History.” Reflections 5.1-2 (Spring 2006): 111-132.

In this article Ellen Cushman outlines a praxis of new media, a theoretical and pedagogical model, which frames the ways in which “community, critical, and digital literacies, when combined in community literacy initiatives,  can be transformative for those who engage them” (Cushman 115). Cushman illustrates the need for sustainable community literacy initiatives/projects–ones which have support at curricular, departmental and administrative levels. Cushman claims that a praxis of new media can be viewed as an improvement on the Designs of Meaning as made known by the New London Group’s “Pedagogy of Multiliteracies” and their later offering: Multiliteracies: Literacy Leaning and the Design of Social Futures. In this work, the authors bring together an interdisciplinary understanding of language and literacy to describe what they call “designs,” or those flexibly structured social organizations, knowledge bases, and cultural practices that influence daily meaning-making practices and life chances” (Cushman 115). One aspect of the mulitliteracies framework includes the Designs of Meaning that writers and readers use when creating meaning. These Designs of Meaning include the means of available designs (e.g. the tools, grammars, and media used); the designing process; and the re-designed product. (Cushman 115). As Cushman cites: “the power of this theoretical framework rests in it multidiscplinary perspective of meaning-making and its inclusion and equal weighting of various sign technologies. In this theory of mulitliteracies, the letter, print, and word are valued equally in relation to other forms of meaning-making that include images, motion, graphics and sound (Cushman 115). She also claims that the model is good, except for what happens in the social dimension of meaning-making. Cushman claims that the New London Group’s model lacks the socio-cultural exigencies that influence meaning -making.  What it still needs is a rhetoric.

Cushman’s praxis of new media compliments the NLG’s model while adding more rhetorical purpose as well as ethical traction. This helps to take into consideration the audience’s needs and desires and how to facilitate projects that meet at the intersections of community, critical, and digital literacies. This article helps me to ground my work in theory–while it helps me to expand on the idea of a praxis of new media. The ways in which meaning is made by both readers and writers is indeed multidisciplinary–and something that I am sure goes beyond the scope of “interpreting” or “creating.” I am interested in this because, if the designs of meaning include both interpreting and creating, there is still a very broad category of meaning-making that is not represented–and this is something like “experience” or “engagement.”  

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Hansen, Mark B. N. New Philosophy for New Media. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004.

In New Philosophy for New Media, Hansen argues that digital media has changed how we perceive. He claims it is no longer an ocular event but an affective event of the body. Hansen employs Bergon’s theory of perception and his emphasis on the body (what he calls “a center of indetermination within an acentered universe”) to argue that the “digital image” encompasses the entire process by which information is made perceivable through embodied experience. He places the body in a privileged position – as the agent that filters information in order to create images. By doing so, he counters prevailing notions of technological transcendence and argues for the indispensability of the human body in the digital era. Hansen claims that we are undergoing a paradigm shift in “aesthetic culture”– a shift from from a dominant ocularcentrist aesthetic to a haptic aesthetic rooted in embodied affectivity.” He wishes to demonstrate that new media artists “have focused on fore-grounding the foundation of vision in modalities of bodily sense” (12).

I can see how this kind of argument will help us move aesthetics from a surface level concern to a more experiential domain. It points to a shift in aesthetic experience, where the old model — disinterested perception of an object– is replaced by a more particular and embodied approach (something that sounds a lot like Wysocki’s “Sticky Embrace of Beauty”).  Hansen questions: “Why is it then, that we continue to speak of the image, even following its digital transfiguration (dissolution)? Why do we take recourse to a hybrid infrastructure? Why, given the disjunction between surface level appearance and materiality, do we continue to associate a given set of numerical coordinates or of information with a visually perceivable form?  While Manovich’s aesthetic questions hint at some of these same concerns, Hansen claims that he extends Manovich’s thinking. Hansen says, not only does the user actively “go into” new media, the user creates the image – it is a process which takes place within the user’s body. He states: “we must accept that the image, rather than finding instantiation in a privileged technical form (including the computer interface), now demarcates the very process through which the body, in conjunction with the various apparatuses for rendering information perceptible, gives form to or in-forms information. In sum, the image can no longer be restricted to the level of surface appearance, but must be extended to encompass the entire process by which information is made perceivable through embodied experience” (10). 

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Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999.

In this classic Bolter and Richard Grusin develop a theory of mediation for the digital age that challenges the assumption that new media needs a new set of aesthetic and cultural principles.  They argue instead that new (visual) media achieve their cultural significance by reusing and  refashioning  earlier “new” media, such as perspectival painting, photography, cinema, and television. Their theory of remediaton recalls that earlier media have also refashioned one another: photography remediated painting, film remediated stage production and photography, etc.

The authors define medium as “that which remediates” (19) and claim that all media work by remediating–or translating, reshaping, refashioning and reforming other media in both form and content. The authors claim that new media will never be new, that we will not invent a  new set of aesthetic and cultural principles to negotiate it. Instead, like its precursors, “digital media can never reach this state of transcendence, but will instead function in a constant dialectic with earlier media, precisely as each earlier medium functioned when it was introduced” (50). Here the authors claim that what is new about new media lies in their particular strategies for remediating television, film, photography, and painting” (Bolter 50). Bolter and Grusin state “In collage and photomontage as in hypermedia, to create is to rearrange existing forms” (p. 39). Consequently, to bring something new into existence–to create–is to rearrange forms/media which already exist. Notably, Lev Manovich takes up Bolter and Grusin’s idea of remediation but also extends their notions of what the aesthetic is to new media.

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