What is the purpose of the imagination when society is dominated by throwaway images? How did we come to create such a luxurious condition for ourselves, putting imagination to such waste? What role should we give to art when the only art deemed worthy is the one technology is claiming to be the principal author of its production? What’s become of the radical demand for creativity if the mere act of producing something could be called Art? Should indeed art have a role in contemporary life, if we understand the term to be properly associated with narratives of control? What power should we give to the image in a world saturated by the media spectacle? What happens to the senses, when technology takes full command of the image? Is this a burden too heavy for our souls? And what futures might we create when mindful of the fascistic dangers of the aestheticization of politics?
If the question of politics is always a question of aesthetics, it is also always a question of the future. Art is thinking from the future in virtue of its poetic eruptions in the conditions of the visual present. It smuggles the future in through the fragmentary cracks in our aesthetic modes of being. Yet ever since Plato first conceived of the mimetic basis for imaginative life, we have realised the future can take two distinct forms. Life has been continually caught in the temporal crossfires between the poetic and the technical vision of the future present.
Chantal Meza Urizen's Stone: 2020 Abstracted Bas-Relief in Marble 122 cm x 71 cm 2020
It seems almost trite today to speak of both art and technology as pointing towards the future anterior. Theirs belongs to a time to come. But if art is the creator of history, imagination is the transgressional force of art. And if war is the motor of history, technology is the energy of war. Two regimes of futurity, then. The art from the future, whose sole purpose is to imagine and create with a difference, to inaugurate and welcome a new image of thought. And the technology from the future, wedded to a desire to turn man into machine, to project the human back into some technological interface, which faces its passing into a new reality with its back eternally turned away from the debris of what has passed.
But such separations, in truth, have never been so determinable and segregated. Indeed, the technological simply couldn’t sustain itself without the sacred myth, the excessive notion that life has a value and meaning without dwelling upon the various means of technological enslavement. The Nazis needed the romantics as much as they needed the engineers, the Nazi brand of fascism needing its regime of signs as much as it needed those grand architectures.
What’s at stake here is a question of the ancestral and how it relates to the political concept of time. Some have turned to the ancestral in order to push back further into the past, to purify its reckoning for the sake of consecrating an identity that is more reasoned, rational and sure of its calculations in the present. This is the turn to man in the woods, searching in the darkness to uncover the truth that seeps out of the blood-soaked trees. But as far as the poets are concerned, the ancestral was never about the past. Ancestry was always an eternal return. Burnt in an intoxicating dance by the same spiritual reckoning, what we understand to be the ancestral is precisely the fires that come from the future. Mendieta’s burning silhouettes against Fredrich’s contemplative man on a hill. A vision that refuses to be determined.
The technological vision of the future today is undoubtedly the most dominant of all propositions. We live in an age of the techno-theodicy, where technology has become the religion and its digitally interfaced masses — part of the congregation. Such a claim to the future can only be explained through the politics of time, whose accelerations have sped up beyond all conceivable measure. We want the future, and we want it now. No time to lose.
So, what then of the Romantics? William Blake had already drawn before us the vision of Urizen, that mythical being of reason and logic; the one with a mastery of time who was the enemy of the spirits of love and denier of human passions. Set against the burning sun, Urizen is armed with a divider, that will allow for projection with engineering precision and ruthlessly efficient calculation. Such a mastery required assuming a mythical status, absorbing the excess, standing too close to the untouchable star, turning abstraction into a regime of power. As these various excerpts from Blake’s The Book of Urizen proclaimed:
Lo, a shadow of horror is risen
In Eternity! Unknown, unprolific,
Self-clos’d, all-repelling: what demon
Hath form’d this abominable void,
This soul-shudd’ring vacuum? Some said
“It is Urizen.” But unknown, abstracted,
Brooding, secret, the dark power hid [chapter 1].
Times on times he divided and measur’d
Space by space in his ninefold darkness,
Unseen, unknown; changes appear’d
Like desolate mountains, rifted furious
By the black winds of perturbation [chapter 2].
His cold horrors silent, dark Urizen
Prepar’d; his ten thousands of thunders,
Rang’d in gloom’d array, stretch out across
The dread world; and the rolling of wheels,
As of swelling seas, sound in his clouds,
In his hills of stor’d snows, in his mountains
Of hail and ice; voices of terror
Are heard, like thunders of autumn
When the cloud blazes over the harvests [chapter 6].
The triumph of Urizen is the triumph of technological time. It is the time of calculation, the time of a machinic projection, whether teleological or in its more complex configurations. While the power of technology has sped up in order to intensify the relations amongst living things, the power of art has worked in a different direction. Since the appearance of abstract expressionism, what we see as an attempt to reclaim the abstract from its machinic enslavement, the time for art, has worked by slowing things down in order to intensify the conditions of life. Such is the order of the battle today, not between left and right, man and women, straight and queer, or black and white. What’s at stake is the battle over time itself, the battle over a future that’s already arrived, the battle to reclaim the meaning of the abstract as the world is seduced by ephemerization of digital clouds.
It has been often repeated that technology is more a social than a technical phenomenon. That we produce the very technologies we desire seems pretty self-evident. This has meant, historically, despite a few mediations on our ghosted presence within the machine that, ultimately, we have seen ourselves as the masters of our own progressive destinies, which in turn, has meant that art and aesthetics retained their autonomy as part of the creative process. But what happens when humans no longer produce technology, but technology produces us? And the aestheticization of politics so warned about historically, now reveals most fully a techno-aesthetic assemblage that no longer needs some external myth to become its mask of mastery, but instead embraces fully the myth of its own making? This could only be achieved by the dereliction of life on account of its fallibilities and all too fleeting relevance.
Human life once projected itself into the future with a confidence that brought us to the point of technological annihilation. Yet, rather than seeking to source better the abstract in thought, what we’ve given ourselves over to are ontologies of vulnerability which insists that life needs full technological protection or else it will truly wither and die. Even our immortality complex has given way to the accessible memory of the digital bank. Pixels & Dust. Technology is no longer a mere enabler of a future in the making. It has fully appropriated the abstract and the aesthetic to insist it is the only imagination worth reckoning with.
Technology now is the myth-making machine par excellence. It is the abstracted excess and the truth, the creator and the redemption. Technology is the theology, the unmediated force that reveals before us the truth of our past, present and future. This has resulted in a fundamental collapse in the logics of modernism, where the abstract is now the augmented, the aesthetic truly an aesthetico-theological force, and the artistic a mere function in the production of a technologic existence, which seeks to harvest every residue and future becoming trace of the world. This is more than the death of man or some peace more terrifying still. It’s the death of the future as augmented as it is real and subservient.
The harvesting of life is not simply about the harvesting of its raw data; it’s about the harvesting of raw emotions. The more outrage, the better, as the system turns into a mine full of profitable feelings, whose affective currency thrives on emotional states of anxiety, insecurity and the desire for some form of augmented connection, for it’s the only connection that is available to us. In a world that’s been taught to desperately seek continuous validation from strangers whose broken reflection affirms the fragility of our screened existence, the desire to be noticed, liked, present, denies us, through time, those very securities.
But are we not in danger here of repeating the mistakes of the past in the presence of the newness of this current predicament? Have we not overtheorized the idea that science is a colonial power? Is the critique of technology not an “old argument”, part of a well-trodden intellectual past, and if it belongs to the old, why has nobody done anything to stop it? Are we now “the olds” of this brave new world? Feeling we were only beginning, yet already eldered by a pace marked by science. Those who are already beaten down by age and the ones who stops resisting? Outdated minds with a slower capacity for reasoning and an ability to grasp the immanent truth, even if it is still burdened by the shape of a body that hasn’t quite yet become redundant, until tomorrow at least, which is already at the point of its arrival? Might we not be condemned for seeking to merely preserve, while the new, the accelerators of history, show us the real meaning of revolution, even if their words, too, seem throwaway? Have we, the ones who still believe in the abstract, not ended washed up on shores? What was once imagined as beautiful, now merely the tired soul?
Urizen how showed the command of technology was constituted by its divisions: cartographies of mapping to include and banish in the very same pencil stroke. That was always the imperial measure of the colonial dream. Divide & rule. Separate life from itself, so that it may be reconfigured as a mere element in the technological machine. What this means today is the arrival of a post-human sensibility, as fragmented as pixels on the screen, globally distributed selves who are part of the great accelerating experimentation that places the seed of uncertainty into the very fabric of existence. Such that every reason reveals an inherent illness, life as a veritable contagion that requires surveillance. What becomes of our distorted bodies then, as we continue to become part of the sick experiments of the techno-scientists for whom every terrain is now a Frontierland? This is not simply about the separation between mind and body, as humans are promised digital emancipation while their bodies are more and more sedentary and sedated. The doubt is already internalised as the mind and its consciousness now further divided by the prophets of reason, who wish to truly make the abstract their own and in accordance with their own technical vision of “the singularity.” What is human anyway? — the programmers already have us saying to ourselves. How do you know you even have consciousness? What is reality? How do you know what the truth really is? Can you even trust any of your lived senses?
But nobody wants to live with such uncertainty, even though we still crave for the spontaneity we know is at the heart of any notion of freedom. Hence, when our knowledge systems fail, when our mortal lives are as fleeting as the throwaway thoughts on the last ignored message, we were sure would go viral, what takes over is a tyranny of emotions. Yet, we are encouraged to see this as emancipatory, even more powerful than any ideology that’s walked the earth. Wars are now being openly waged today over who feels the most. This is the worst kind of affective politics, one that merely furthers the divisions and feels truth into existence through the incessant sharing of guilt and shame. An age defined by the digital lament, where the hyper-arousal of the senses creates the very conditions in which non-human solutions can be provided from our psychological glitches. Solutions that are also part of the strategic design and technological framing of life, wherein new forms of emotional puritanism and burnings take shape. This is the basis of the real extremity in politics. Not radical left versus alt-right. The extremity in the logic of sense, fully removed from the ideological grid of intelligibility – a ferocious virtual storm that has little care other than to master the affective state, the sensory apparatus of the techno-scientific dreamers, and those who want to make sense of the world at a different pace, rejecting technological time. But we know destierro is tantamount to a political and social death.
The parasitic nature of technology now thrives in a world where differences are amplified, but none can be properly liberated. The more tensions there are swirling around the system, the more the mind’s eye is colonised by the demands to simply be attentive. We have seen this most clearly played out in the past year as the hyper-accelerations of division have thrown life into a virtual civil war, which constantly threatens to erupt into the material conditions of life. This again is not simply a question of ideology. Just take the case of Giorgio Agamben, who was vocal in his criticisms of the lockdown. While we might disagree with his reasoning, the dismissal of his interventions because he was said to embody some old philosophical sage revealed so much about the types of affective politics flourishing in these technologized times! No author has better fleshed out the contemporary tensions between violence, bio-politics, technology and the mythical as a means for annihilating human life. That the technically connected hordes sought to banish his provocative thinking, whether agreeable or not, only reaffirmed the dangers of a technological totalitarianism he was warning us against as a very real and accelerating condition of possibility. How many radicals castigated undemocratic practices, yet called for completely faceless entities such as Twitter and Facebook to assume greater powers in their ability to close down “untruths” and hence gain more regulatory power?
We were under no illusion that Trump was a fascist and pushed politics in a dangerous direction. But not only was his liberation of a hateful identity politics made possible by a mastery of technology, which as we have now seen quite easily cast him aside and showed how vulnerable he truly was when the time for his banishment came; he was also a monstrous distraction. If we assess power by questioning how much it is able to fundamentally transform the conditions of life, technology today has no rival. Some might counter here and say that since the invention of fire, the Promethean man has always been beholden to technology in a way that’s radically altered the meaning of life. This is partially true, but with one fundamental distinction. Before the digital and information communications revolutions, technology was a tool that revealed itself through a strategic unison with beingness. But technology now has its own ambitions, its own psychological conditioning. There is in fact a psychic life to technology that’s far more insidious than object fetishism. Technology today is a system of constant manipulation, a pedagogical force that exists to promote its own technocratic vision, which is the only force that promises to save us from our own collective ruination birthed by the failures of man.
Perhaps the most insidious of all has been the way technology has colonised the artistic demand. While some of the most famous artists who pushed forward the boundaries on what a body might become have now given themselves over to the seduction of augmented realities, thereby ensuring the work lives on and the artist remains present beyond their corporeal demise (which was always what made the work art as such on account of its originality and inability to be replicated beyond itself), we are now in a truly perilous moment when art is not simply dependent on technological means for production. Without technology, it’s being intimated, there is no encounter with the artistic. Again, we saw this played out innumerable times during the pandemic. While artists and musicians were brought to task for questioning the lockdown, too often the debate sought to demonise their suspect ethical responsibilities, instead of focusing on the principal concern most of them echoed. Namely, how the pandemic was being used as a foil to accelerate a new system of technological enslavement within which nations were only partial players.
To clarify, we are not anti-technology or against technologies of the self. As a writer and an artist, we fully appreciate the need for tools to allow us to bring something into the world. We also recognise the importance of mastering techniques, the drawing of lines, studiously attending to the mechanics of movement, so that we may learn to create anew. Or at least, through technological appreciation, to consider how the past was mastered in its replications, so that we can unlearn them. But just as reason is useful if we want to understand the technicalities of a debate and yet fully useless when it comes to explaining the imagination, so technology should only be seen as useful when it provides us with tools to assist with a creative process. Technology is useless when it comes to the imagination. It has nothing to give, if by giving we mean the spontaneous embers of the poetic fire. And it is for that reason we maintain that the dominance of technology today is proving to be politically disastrous, especially as we again desire oppression as though it were our liberation. Just consider for a moment why the imagined potential of technology is so intent on dealing with the afterlife? This is not about preserving memory. It is another chapter in the history of sacred war, which brings forth an entirely new god complex.
We would like to end with a few words on what it means to be a philosopher and an artist. While deeply suspicious of the term “expert”, we do nevertheless find the shift to the instantaneousness of capability an affront. Not least since it seeks to obliterate with an uncompromising millennial strike the idea that the production of something truly valuable (which is markedly different from the hyper-accelerated exchange value of the surveillance capitalism today) takes time and considerable intellectual and emotional investment. If we find ourselves in agreement with Deleuze’s assertion that one can only truly philosophise with the slow passing of time, implying that what so defines the artist must be lasting intention and commitment. Just as any fool with a mind can think, simply because a person happens to manipulate a photograph on some instantaneous app without any invested thought or commitment to the style of life it demands, doesn’t mean to say it’s a work of art by somebody we’d elect to call “the artist”. Unless we keep hold of the idea of the exceptionality of art, like the exceptionality of transgressive thought, we end up producing a world so oversaturated by reactions to throwaway images and thoughts that it may as well be left to the artificial machines. But their programmers already know this. Without wonder the scientific priests of this techno-theodicy have no real interest in art and in philosophy.