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Talk for the Rendering The Visible “Book Bloc Against Aesthetics” (Georgia State)

Digital aesthetics, particularly those grounded in a theory of medium specificity or on variations of Stanley Cavell’s vague notion of “automatisms” exemplify a deeply atavistic development in contemporary thought. The precarious state of contemporary universities and the even more precarious position of the humanities among the faculties have lead to a conservative theoretical mode that seeks to maintain institutional positions in what appears to be an analysis of art. In film studies, a supposed discipline that, as Dudley Andrew pointed out in the PMLA, has been moving from standalone departments to programs integrated with other departments, institutional players have for the past decade and a half, invoked philosophy and philosophical aesthetics in hopes of re-legitimating themselves and their positions. Their appeals to the most conservative theoretical modes clearly attempts to align film studies with other disciplines thought to be more firmly established. Ironically, aesthetics and philosophy were long ago outstripped by developments within and beyond the field. The exhaustion and political limits of philosophy were elucidated by Jacques Derrida’s oft stated interest in ‘thought” rather than philosophy and the same can be read in Gilles Deleuze’s work, despite his retention of the term. Semiotic approaches to film, Foucault’s famous chapter from The Order Of Things on Las Meninas and the very same apparatus theory cited by those who have taken up Cavell’s “automatisms” move away from art and aesthetics towards a treatment of their objects as social acts. One can say the same for psychoanalytic film theory. Laura Mulvey’s essay “Visual Pleasure and the Narrative Cinema” does not once mention art or aesthetics. Such writings were produced during and just after the high point of capitalist expansion, which ended in 1973 (Brenner,) and so could afford to let go of such legitimating references. Claims that the digital offers a fundamentally new aesthetic find themselves outstripped by an earlier text by André Bazin, “The Ontology of The Photographic Image.” Though the dominant tradition misreads this essay as arguing for an indexical notion of photography and film, the word “index” does not appear in it, nor according to Yale’s Ouvire Bazin database does the word appear anywhere in Bazin’s writing. As I have tried to show in my chapter of Andrew and  Herve Joubert-Laurencin’s Opening Bazin. Make no mistake, the leading edges of theory and cultural production still concern themselves with interventions in our life-world, whatever Jacques Rancier may say. Despite the growing interest in genealogies of life and the currency of the term biopolitics, cultural production or “art,” if you insist, as attempted intervention in the lebensraum has yet to be fully thought.  Our consciousness of it’s potential remains where Pier Palo Passolini and The younger Jean-Luc Godard left it, if not behind them since many cover over the cineastes’ efforts with aesthetic analysis of their films. Any movement away from intervention in the lebensraum and towards a restoration of notions of art as a set of works, or toward representation, or aesthetic theory, especially aesthetic theory that posits an autonomy of media or automatisms, or worse that posits a right to beauty, has a regressive character and depoliticizes you in a way that subjects you to deans and today’s real dominant power — namely, capital. In order to show how this is so, as a condensed example I wish to analyze the reception of a series of events digitally disseminated but involving wood, foam, plexiglass, paint and violence: the colorful shields of Book Bloc. I justify the use of this example whose relation to rendering seems more a matter of convenience than anything like essence, because in the larger project of which this forms a part, I argue that the digital aesthetics or an aesthetics of electronic rendering are an effect of a general regressive movement towards aesthetics, philosophy and worst of all “ethics” all of which do nothing but return us to the systems of judgment so hated by Deleuze.

The reception afforded  the  digital images of book bloc by the professionals of theory, art and even activist art provides a paradigm for contemporary aesthetics, revealing their regressive bourgeois character.  As Hegel knew, aesthetics theory has marked the irrelevance of art as an independent sphere since its invention by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten. In our times, digital aesthetics function as the latest in a long series of rescue operation for aesthetic theory in general, just as the effort in the first half of the twentieth century by Anglophone film theorists to establish film as an art functioned to fortify an outstripped, fading concept of art.  Paradoxically, contemporary aesthetics attempts to sell us on autonomizing views of    practices that have lost all autonomy. Aesthetics and art refer us to a dead sphere of activity in the name of academic legitimacy at a time when history finds itself infected by life.

In the autumn and winter of 2010 the internet brought us photographs and videos of actions against the privatization of European higher education featuring activists using shields decorated with monochromatic fields baring the titles of well known books. The shields looked like elegant editions and they had a tactical function. They protected the activists from the blows of police batons and allowed them to form phalanxes.

Photographs of book shields started circulating on the web in November of 2010 (Wu Ming Blog.) On November 25, a row of book shields pushed up a street in Rome, protecting the crowd behind them from assaulting police. Titles included The Italian Constitution, Plato’s Rebublic, Q by Luther Blissett, and perhaps most charmingly Don Quixote. As the winter wore on, blocks of books appeared at actions all over Italy and in London on December 9.

In The Huffington Post Sarah Amsler described the London book bloc thus:

By visualizing immaterial value, students restore to the figure of the book a gravitas that years of digitization and commodification have depleted. They do not shield themselves behind knowledge, but hold before them the symbolic promise of all the radical traditions of oppositional knowledge and politics signified through these works. The resulting spectacle of oppression is profound: students communicate symbolically the intellectual and cultural violence of the state’s abdication of education, and the authorities, ridiculously, actually interpellate themselves.

Amsler’s account exemplifies the limited coverage of the book shields, almost all of  which turned attention away from the tactical function of the shields and towards the symbolic functions of the books. Here I do not mean tactical in Michel De Certeau’s expanded and diluted sense, I mean it in the military sense. To situate the books only on the plane of symbolic violence is to ignore the physically violence of the struggle depicted in the images. Surely, Amsler’s points have a certain validity, but a partial one. Something like a tradition of opposition guides the choice of books whose titles the shields bear. On other days titles appeared such as The Coming Insurection (Glen beck;s favorite book,) Das Kapital, and Specters Of Marx. However, dwelling on the virtual aspects of the books articulates the ideology of contemporary liberalism and interpellates the blog reader within it. Perceived by those under the influence of liberalism, the events in London in November and December appear as largely virtual and symbolic, meant to focus media attention in hopes of influencing a parliamentary vote to raise student fees. Liberal ideology makes certain social facts seem natural and obvious. In this case, public opinion as the primary object of struggle, electoral politics and the all encompassing state appear as unquestioned assumptions. Jacques Rancier, the inverted messenger of liberalism would no doubt try to assert that the monochromatic fields function as a variation of the blank page that he claims figures the space of democracy. In short, liberal ideology turns the actions in London into what Guy Debord used to call spectacle in the sense that they disguise living action as a dead commodity.

To some of those who participated, those events appeared otherwise. On December 10th Nina Power’s Facebook status update read “There is a war between the ones who say there is a war and the ones who say there isn’t.” Liberal ideology was one of the primary mechanisms keeping certain people from saying “there is a war.” For the liberal, the obviousness of the state, of electoral politics, of public opinion makes it equally obvious that only the virtual, symbolic and aesthetic aspects deserve serious consideration, foreclosing any possibility of acknowledging the war. Commentators interpellated by liberal ideology greet what they see as the aesthetic aspects of the events with a certain unrestrained joy, as if surprised by the creativity of activists.

A historical analysis supports the creativity of the book shields, but in a way that does not divorce their tactical function from their adornment. In 1968 in Paris, the lids of metal trash cans functioned as shields. Images of youths holding the lids while throwing the paving stones that covered the beach before being liberated illustrated the spontaneous creativity of rebellion.

During four decades between that May and the events in London, European urban waste management underwent massive changes. As part of these changes, what the British call the “wheelie bin” was patented 1975 by the German company Schneider (http://www.engsc.ac.uk/downloads/miniproject/ip/PeterLewis-OpenUniversity.pdf) and replaced metal trash cans in cities all over Europe over the following years. Trash bins were completely redesigned to work with semi-automated rubbish collection trucks. Unlike the older round cans, wheelie bins are usually made of rubber or plastic and more importantly, feature lids attached to the bin by hinges.  While the older, metal, trash can lids had an easily graspable handle in the middle of their circular form, the rectangular top of wheelie bins tend only have a sold ridge in the middle, sometimes with handles on the edges. In 1968, rebels found themselves surrounded everyday elements of the urban fabric, trash can lids, that could be instantly used as shields. The rebels of last winter had to make their own and the fact that they did so cannot be separated from the way in which they decorated what they made. More recently, in Cairo, activists appropriated pelxiglass riot shields from the police attacking them.

Digital photography and video immediately disseminated rendered images of the book shields around the globe via the equally digital means of the world wide web, yet even the deep market penetration of these media could not prevent the automated spectacularization of the images by liberal ideology, despite the images of the shields taking baton hits. Such rendered images render the visible as part of the current processes by which liberal ideology neutralizes any potential threat of social antagonism bourn by images and sounds. The current mode of spectacularization takes digital and digitally distributed images and sounds as one of its main materials and renders them, in the sense of giving them up to, privileged interpreters who render them, in the culinary sense of reducing, to ensure that they cannot escape the current diffuse spectacle.

Contemporary rendering, in this special sense, depends conceptually on the disavowed persistence of Lessing in contemporary aesthetic theory. As I have tried to show elsewhere, attempts to once again develop a new theory of media, or automatisms, their dematerialized functional equivalent, lead to a confinement of artistic practice to a historical field determined by the media or automatisms themselves (art history, film theory) stranding us in a symbolic economy or a virtual field and blinding us to the actual functions of cultural practice. David Rodowick’s book on the after life of cinema in the digital age performs exactly that operation whileattempting to defend a particular institutional position (in the case the centrality of Film Studies in contemporary higher education. The metaphysics of such works substitutes a weak or even false materialism for a worthwhile one. Just like older arguments about medium specificity, Rodwick, Cavellians and their ilk treat media or their equivalents as if they were actual and virtual materials that determined an aesthetics. Liberal ideology implies a simple material essentialism when we need a dialectical or historical materialism in order make cultural products appear as parts of larger historical assemblages.

As a result, it becomes difficult to perceive the war as a war. Amsler treats books as the composite actual and virtual material proper to the book shields. According to her analysis, the book shields represent the actual aspect of books (their covers and printed titles) while deploying their symbolic or virtual aspects (the thought or knowledge they contain.) Thus she virtualizes the entire book shield, as if it were all book and no shield. As with all essentialist-materialist analyses, the operation of the product can only be understood as taking place on the same plane on which she has posited the materials as existing. She writes, “Students communicate symbolically the intellectual and cultural violence of the state’s abdication of education.” Perhaps they do, but they do so while walking in a city, holding shields, confronted by police violence. Perhaps they do, but the state’s abdication of education must be understood as part of immiseration’s physical violence. Like any good liberal ideology, Amsler’s analysis cannot consider the possibility that the violence on the streets of London might not merely express “intellectual and cultural violence” and that the engagement sought by the activists might take a form other than “interpellation.” What if the shields function as a tool for occupying space within which to build new social relations? What if the protests did not merely seek to influence public opinion and the parliamentary vote on fees but sought another politics entirely? What if, as one of the major signs promoting the action said, the goal was to “shut down London” and use it for something else? What if the book sheilds were part of a physical struggle to establish a temporary autonomous zone?

We have seeming arrived at an impasse, how can we understand the tactical function of the book shields without reducing them to shields and forgetting their reference to books, and specific books at that? How can we include the image on the shield in the historical assemblage of which they are apart? Here we might appeal to developments in film aesthetics more recent than Rodowick’s The Virtual Life Of Film. Rosalind Galt’s forthcoming Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image articulates a genealogy of certain aesthetically devalued concepts such as “pretty” and “decorative” and profoundly transvalues them. In the course of her work Galt shows that one of the major differences between the decorative and the beautiful or the sublime is that the decorative defeats attempts to develop it into an autonomous sphere or activity or experience. The dependence of the decorative on a support that functions historically and not merely as an essence makes it inconceivable otherwise than as part of an assemblage. In the case of our example, book images decorate the shields. In light of Galt’s work, perhaps one can say so without dismissing the book images. Perhaps the decorative book images function as virtual prompts to new social relations and new modes of life to be actualized in the space cleared and occupied by the tactical use of the shields. In other fields one could perform a similar reading of the “cute” in Sianne Ngia’s Ugly Feelings. Finally, I want to acknowledge another book of theory that refused to treat film as art, Akira Lippit’s Atomic Light (Shadow Optics,) a book so complex that it remains to be read and has mostly been understood in the most reductive terms, for example by Rosalyn Deutsche in her recent Hiroshima After Iraq: Three Studies in Art and War. For me the books crowning achievement is its development of the theme of avisuality not just as a way of thinking about the impossibility of seeing the flash of the atom bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but as a link between seeing and subjectification — a conduit between images and the lebenswelt or the lebens-todvelt. A conduit that opens most  completely at the level of film analysis in Lippit’s readings of certain shots in the “Hoichi The Earless” episode of Kobayashi Masaki’s Kwaidan; and at the level of the books poetics in Lippit’s insistant use of the second person singular. You will find in Atomic Light a way of continuing film theory that shines directly into your life without regressing into aesthetic theory. You will find that all three books make your shields pretty.

My favorit Italian movie since Salo

Andrew, Dudley. The ‘Three Ages’ of Cinema Studies and the Age to Come,” PMLA 115.3 (May 2000): 341.

Amsler, Sarah. Creative Militancy, Militant Creativity and the New British Student Movement.  Huffington Post December 10, 2010. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sarah-amsler/creative-militancy-milita_b_794978.html.

Brener, Robert. The Economics Of Global Turbulence. London. Verso. 2006

Cavell, Stanley. The World Viewed: Reflections on the Ontology of Film. New York. Viking Press. New York.1971

Deutsche, Rosalyn. Hiroshima After Iraq: 3 Studies in Art and War

Galt, Rosalind. Pretty: Film and the Decorative Image. New York. Columbia University Press. Forthcoming, 2011.

Lippit, Akira. Atomic Light (Shadow Optics). Minneapolis. University of Minnesota Press. 2005.

Ngia, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Cambridge. Harvard University Press. 2007.

Ouvrire Bazin: A Database Of His Articles http://bazin.commons.yale.edu/index.php

Rodowick, D.N. The Virtual Life Of Film. Cambridge University Press. 2007.

http://www.wumingfoundation.com/english/wumingblog/?p=1515.)