We’ve got the power!

We’ve been living with the postmodern crisis on full red alert for quite some time now: the world is an endless circuit of images without reference or meaning, a hyperreal simulacrum in which the boundary between image and reality, and the capacity to move or be moved, is dissolved, diffuse, disappeared.

Mark Hansen’s New Philosophy for New Media calls for a reconception of affect in engendered by new media art, which, he argues, foregrounds the creative force of the embodied spectator to materialize digital works through framing, filtering, selection, synthesis, and construction. He argues that it is precisely the distance between the dematerialized image and human that increases the body’s role in creating the work. It is important to note that Hansen does not recognize this affective capacity in digital images in and of themselves, rather that works of new media art that engage the “body-brain” have affective capacities that reincarnate an embodied spectator. For Hansen, the “incommensurability” of the digital image and the human experience creates a recognition of our active role as agents of synthesis and creation.

Reading Hansen’s “redemption of embodied experience” led me to synthesize my own threads of thought, different and connected, which I will share here. I found myself thinking of Harun Farocki’s War at a Distance. While this film falls into the realm of traditional cinematic experience (not a work of new media), it takes as its subject the disturbing lack of distinction between simulation and reality in war, and how modern wars are waged through simulated processes. The film employs mainly found and archival footage, from both the Gulf War and WW2, including processes of mechanization, video footage of missiles, and video simulations. A voiceover acts as a guide to the disconnection that is inherent in a war carried out through simulated technologies. Throughout, we are completely overwhelmed, beaten down by images.

War at a Distance is an effective argument about the relationship of war and image and the disappearing boundaries between simulation and reality. Repeated images force the viewer to constantly re-evaluate her relationship to the image. This repetition create both a disconnect and an uncomfortable, visceral response to the images. This is where I find the connection to Hansen: it is the complete lack of embodied humanity in the film that precisely brings about the horrible realization of the human cost of war. As viewers, we fill that distance through an affective response that can only come about through the active role of the human body-brain. Bringing it back to the real, which was supposed to have ceased to matter or exist.

This film makes reminds one of Baudrillard’s precession of the image, and the famous essay in which he claims the Gulf War never actually happened because it was seen on TV before it was overr. The images superceded the reality, and in as such, effaced it. The difference between is that Farcoki views this as a continuation of the processes of consumption and destruction, which Baudrillard argues no longer have force. (Perhaps Baudrillard makes this extreme claim to bring us to the point, not because destruction no longer exists.) As Susan Sontag writes in her essay “Looking at War” this extreme view is a luxury of an educated, prosperous, intellectual arena. It is useful to an extent, yet ridiculous as an explanation of reality. For Sontag, this view,

“assumes that everyone is a spectator. It suggests, perversely, unseriously, that there is no real suffering in the world. But it is absurd to identify ‘the world’ with those zones in the rich countries where people have the dubious privilege of being spectators, or of declining to be spectators, of other people’s pain…there are hundreds of millions of television watchers who are far from inured to what they see on television. They do not have the luxury of patronizing reality.”

Through the distance between images and an unrepresented humanity, War at a Distance brings it back to the human and the body, reinfusing reality with the real.

Hansen’s ideas about affective capacity, and the idea of distance/incommensurability at its heart, led me to another thought: the connection between his “embodied spectator” and Jacques Rancière’s “emancipated spectator,” which he describes in his book of the same name. Again, Rancière is not necessarily talking about new media art, but he is talking about exiting the useless circuit of spectacle that forever tells us there is no meaning or that we as spectators cannot put together its puzzle. He argues that within spectatorship is power. In addition to the distance between author and spectator, there is a distance within each work of art that the creator and spectator have a separate relationship to, apart. In this separation, or distance, there is equality. We all have the equal capacity to act, view, and translate our own experience. It’s not that we have the secret keys to unlock the prison of spectacle, representation and illusion, but that there is no secret and we are already the keys that play our own songs. Hansen’s use of the term, viewer-participant foregrounds this creative potential.

So, while Hansen is specifically talking about embodiment as it pertains to new media art, it seems relevant to possibilities of thinking the escape from the circuit of simulation and our human power to virtualize and actualize the world.


One Response to “We’ve got the power!”

  1. Saishigo Says:

    I would just highlight here one important difference between Hansen and Rancière (which I hope to discuss in more detail in the next session): Hansen replicates the same model that has us believe that spectatorship only becomes radical/subversive when the spectator is an active/activated one, whereas Rancière wishes to problematize the simplistic distinction between activity/passivity that such a model relies on. Hansen critiques the immobility/passivity of the cinematic viewer in favor of the mobile/active participant in new media art, but such a generalized distinction is dubious in the extreme (especially when activity becomes seemingly equated with physical movement through space). This is one of the flaws of Hansen’s work for me: the absence of nuance when it comes to issues of activity and passivity and how they might apply to the viewer/reader/beholder of art.


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