Plato’s Contradictions

On an initial reading of Plato’s Republic, three major areas of contradiction were apparent to me. The first two linked to Plato’s overall strategies of philosophical argumentation while the third related to the conception of just social identity developed in the Republic.

  1. How can Plato both condemn writing and mobilise it to preserve the properly oral character of philosophical discussion?
  2. How can Plato justify expelling the poets from his ideal polis while still regularly employing narrative-poetic devices?
  3. How is it that the philosopher-rulers, with their wide training and holistic perspective, are exempt from Plato’s concept of justice, which hinges on the requirement that each person adhere strictly to their own specialised area of expertise?

Now, having considered each of these more closely, I’m less convinced that they represent straightforward contradictions. They are less logical mistakes that threaten to unravel Plato’s philosophy than aspects of necessary complexity within it. If Plato appears not to address these complexities directly, it is partly because an ironical tone already anticipates them and partly because they demonstrate integral tensions within his thinking of society, politics and philosophy.


If, as Derrida argues, Western philosophy, and particularly the philosophy of Plato, is dedicated to phonocentrism – if it is committed to the continuity and putative self-presence of the spoken word – then why does Plato bother trying to write everything down? Why does he try to preserve some memory of the arguments of Socrates and his oral dialectical method? What point can there be in any of this if the written supplement preserves nothing, if it represents a corrupted and corrupting version of internal memory? Derrida recognises this as a sign that writing is always there at the outset of philosophy – that it represents less a purely subsequent thing than a groundless ground for thought itself. Of course, this is to conceive writing in metaphysical terms, ignoring for instance the actual historical relation between orality and literacy and focusing instead on the transhistorical play of differance. Yet, even acknowledging this general point, recognising, for instance, that the experience of self-present identity is complex and constitutively mediated, does this still highlight a fundamental contradiction in Plato’s philosophy? Does is it represent some vital and illuminating omission or blindness? Or could it signify something else? Another attitude? Perhaps one of ambivalence and irony? Without taking an entirely Straussian view, without seeking some esoteric meaning behind the ostensible surface of Plato’s arguments, we can recognise that Plato writes during a period of profound cultural change. Plato writes philosophy as old orally framed social forms and cultural institutions are affected by new literate political conditions. The long-standing integrity of traditional means of social cohesion and reproduction – myth, ritual, systems of customary social division, etc. – are coming under increasing strain in the face of growth, conflict and new systems of social order. Plato’s dialogues represent an effort to reconcile these tendencies – to mediate effectively between them. More particularly, Plato conceives the polis as a composite and complex whole. Traditional authority is no longer guaranteed either in a particular class or as anything integrally and communally experienced. Instead virtue must be internalised and trained. It must function even while everybody ‘minds their own business’. This new justice depends upon new means of cultural reproduction that at once retain the memory of oral cultural forms while enabling them to operate at greater scale and employing flexible and inventive systems of mediation. Plato’s dialogue form represents precisely just such a cultural adaptation.

The written dialogues are interesting politically because they demonstrate an uncertainty of readership. On one reading, Plato is an entirely conservative figure committed to an inequitable philosophy that preserves the conditions of political oligarchy. This would make sense if his work was only directed to those who trained at his Academy – if it was reserved for the privileged classes that have time for philosophy and that are being groomed for leadership. But that Plato writes his work down suggests at least some thought of a wider readership. Hardly, of course, any genuinely democratic body of readers. The dialogues are not directed towards slaves, artisans or shopkeepers – or, more generally, anybody unable to read. They are still directed to the few, but with the sense that the boundaries of this select community are no longer so clearly determined – that they extend more broadly and uncertainly to include members of society who are not ordinarily entitled to philosophy. Even if this wider community is not precisely delineated, even if it lacks coherent social identity, Plato’s commitment to writing – and the alienation from Socratic immediacy this represents – provides an indication of his recognition and summoning of emerging, less strictly oligarchic forms of social being.

Plato’s writing is not a contradiction. Rather it represents an experimental and ironic means of exploring new possibilities of social coherence that can function beyond the obsolescence of any intimately organic paradigm. The justice of the polis is no longer the justice of Homer. It is no longer the thread of the way things are and how they have always been. Instead it represents an articulated relation to parts, the goodness of which is only properly evident to those who can recognise these new holistic conditions. This capacity demands not only an internalised sense of virtue but also a preparedness to read. Indeed these two things are closely associated.


At one level, Plato rejects poetry (Homeric myth specifically), while at another level, despite his privileging of philosophic rationality, Plato regularly employs narrative myths to convey philosophical arguments and as means of ideological manipulation. The myth of Er provides an example of the former, highlighting the role of enlightened rational choice in the virtuous progress of the soul. The myth of a stratified, autochthonous basis for social differentiation (ordinary people created from iron, guardians from silver and philosophers from gold) provides an example of the latter. It is conceived as a compelling but plainly false alibi for social hierarchy. Surely, these recourses to myth contradict Plato’s ostensible preference for dialectical argument. Arguably, they demonstrate either a deep and unacknowledged adherence to literature within philosophy or a failure on Plato’s part to be thoroughly philosophical.

However, there are other options as well. For a start, Plato’s critique of poetry has a double aspect. It has both an ethical and epistemological basis. In terms of the former, Plato criticises Homeric myth for arousing immoderate emotions and representing the gods as humanly flawed. Poetry is subject to ethical condemnation both for what it summons within us and in terms of the poor models it provides for virtuous conduct. In terms of epistemology, poetry is condemned for passing off shallow copies of reality for the truth. Instead of penetrating to the actual form of things, through the agency of properly abstract philosophical reasoning, poetry peddles beguiling illusions ‘thrice removed’ from truth. Here, however, it is important to recognise that poetic mimesis is criticised not only for copying, but also for its wayward attitude. Rather than remaining properly focused on its own area of expertise, poetry has the temerity to vary its gaze – to freely describe all manner of things. In this respect, it veers from and threatens to undermine the cohesive logic (justice) of the social order, which hinges on each citizen being entirely focused on their own business (with the exception, of course, of the philosopher rulers). This straying from singular focused attention represents a crucial layer of ethical wrong within what may appear to be a purely epistemological strand of weakness. If we recognise that poetry is condemned chiefly on ethical grounds then Plato’s use of myth appears less contradictory. Indeed Plato argues that the poets can be readmitted to the Republic as long as they mend their ways and communicate more edifying models of identity and action. In these terms, the myth of Er is plainly poetry in the service of philosophy. So too is the metallurgical myth of the human soul. It clarifies the difference between appetitive, spirited and rational-philosophical being and assists in the promotion of a rationally differentiated social order. As long as myth plays this subservient role, as long as it serves properly ethically and philosophically guided interests, then it is permitted and strategically mobilised.

It is worth noting, as well, that the tone of these two examples of Platonic myth is very different. The myth of Er has a serious quality. It summarises the overall theme of descending into the underworld to discover the true basis of justice. At the beginning of the dialogue, Socrates descends with the light of philosophy to the port of Piraeus and discussion with the sophists. Later, he describes the ascent from the cave of common illusion towards the light of formal truth. At the very end of the dialogue, he recounts the myth of Er to identify the trajectory of the virtuous soul. The ideological myth of autochthonous social differentiation has a different character. It has a playful sense of artifice and absurdity. It delights in its own confusion of philosophy and customary narrative. Regarding this myth as contradictory demonstrates a deafness to Plato’s regular attitude of irony.


Justice is defined in terms of absorption within expertise, yet philosophy appears to have an intrinsically general orientation. Why are philosophers exempt from the fundamental principle of justice – that people should remain focused on their own area of expertise?

How can we conceive the expertise of philosophy? What is its area of distinct and specialised activity? Arguably, it entails no specific subject but rather relates to the field of rationally elaborated thought itself. From this perspective, philosophy represents a meta-level expertise focused on the method of properly understanding anything whatsoever. Yet, this can hardly have an entirely abstract character. There is the need to engage with specific philosophical topics. Hence the guardian must not only become fluent in the formal logic of dialectical discussion but also demonstrate a nuanced understanding of features of wisdom, virtue and the good life. Furthermore, any particular meta-philosophical skills must be augmented by wide-ranging gymnastic, musical and mathematical education. Altogether, philosophy hardly represents a single, restricted form of expertise. Instead, it has a distinctly general character. This breadth informs not only the guardian ruler’s capacity to philosophise but also to govern. Wise governance demands an holistic understanding of society, of how particular activities and interests can be reconciled with the overall good. This understanding is precisely, in principle, withheld from the general populace, who are far too absorbed in their narrow field of expertise to attain any comprehensive philosophical view of the social whole.

The philosophers then are conceived in terms of an exceptional identity. They fall outside the constitutive rule of the complex and composite polis in order that they can recognise its integrity and govern it effectively. In this respect, their position is inherently and necessarily contradictory. Philosophy has a complex identity. It exemplifies the proper justice of the human soul, with our rational selves ruling over our spirited and appetitive impulses. It also supervises the weaving together of the discrete, disarticulated justice of particular citizens into the cohesive unity of the social whole. It accomplishes this, however, by withdrawing from the texture of the social fabric – not only through its representation of an unspecific expertise, but also via its rejection of property and ordinary family relations. The philosopher guardians are both rulers and exiles. This takes shape less as a contradiction than as an essential paradox of the composite polis, which can only conceive its unity from a place that escapes its internal, particularly absorbed machinations.

If there is a contradiction here it is that the notion of justice obtains a double character. At one level it is associated with the restricted focus of individual citizens. At another level it represents the macro-level logic of the well-composed society. As a rule and as a practical guide for living it has a determinedly local identity, but as a recognition of holistic integrity it occupies an awkward, impossible position. The justice of the philosophers depends upon their underlying status as pharmakoi – ritual exiles. They mark through their exclusion both the justice of the whole and the repressed justice/injustice of its limits. The contradiction here hinges not so much on this complex doubling of justice – how this paradoxical field informs Ancient Greek cultural experience – but on how it affects our own understanding of justice. Are we cast in the role of myopic citizens or estranged, holistically inclined philosophers? And if we are more geared towards the latter, what does it mean to see justice as whole? What are we seeing precisely? Can we even without contradiction conceive a determined whole that does not already incorporate an aspect of injustice – of including some things and excluding others? In this sense, wouldn’t the macro level contemplation of justice also be affected by an aspect of blindness. This is the contradiction that affects us as we try to make sense of Plato’s conception of justice and imagine its relevance to our own world.

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Philosophy and Ugliness

Plato’s Republic is typically read as a largely serious study of the notion of justice, both as a social and individual virtue. It is often criticised in this light for promoting a model of social order characterised by inequity, repression and callous inhumanity. An alternative interpretation (Strauss, Bloom) stresses aspects of Platonic irony, arguing that Plato only appears to support a misguided utopia. Actually, he provides a trenchant critique of any such thing. This interpretation distinguishes between a naive (ostensible) and esoteric reading of the Republic, arguing that the latter offers a more enlightened perspective on the complex relationship between private, philosophically absorbed virtue and public, philosophically informed political engagement.

I wonder whether a middle ground is possible between these two positions? It would seem more likely that Plato writes at once seriously and humorously. The model of societal justice that Socrates recommends is bound by fundamental contradictions, but not in a way that disguises an esoteric meaning. Rather it seriously, and with a deliberate sense of provocation, explores various questions and possibilities of justice. It does this with an attitude that cannot be reduced to either philosophical gravity or comic levity. Socrates is regularly cast as a trickster, not only in his feigned humility and sharp dialectical skills, but also in terms of his capacity to expose vacuous thought and discover a new and better grasp on everyday concepts. He subjects ordinary ideas to criticism in order to rejuvenate conventional ideas and the capacity for thought itself. More particularly, Socrates is regularly described as a ‘pharmakeus’, which indicates this double character of magically poisoning minds and provocatively renewing them. The pharmakeus traces a legible relation to the pharmakos – the Ancient Greek festival figure who renews the city by acting as its scapegoat and being cast outside it (through literal sacrifice, exile or ritual mockery). The Cynic Diogenes exemplified this figure in philosophical terms. His contemporary Plato describes him as a ‘more extreme Socrates’. Diogenes’ poverty, exiled ‘cosmopolitan’ identity, public display of private bodily functions, lack of respect for authority and calls for people to rethink every aspect of their social being positions him as a wise fool, who is aligned closely with the ugly, abject and yet revitalising pharmakos. Just possibly, Plato’s Republic also mobilises aspects of this cultural tradition, even if in more subdued form, even while also signalling a break with this tradition. This helps to explain the complex tone, mediated sense of voice and playful features of contradiction in the Republic. These serve less to undermine his arguments than to constitute the grounds of their philosophical and political potential. The ironic reading of Plato highlights that the Republic represents less the explication of an entirely coherent philosophical position than a theatrical invitation to philosophical thought. Rather than simply teach us the notion of justice, it draws us into philosophical reflection on the topic. It aims specifically to cast us outside our ordinary modes of thought. This is enabled through a carefully calibrated combination of seriousness and irony.

Extending upon this, perhaps philosophy itself, despite its apparent attitude of seriousness, retains some distant memory of the pharmakos? This relates not only to its provocative aspect – its capacity to dispel complacent illusions – but also to the abject character of the pharmakos, who is traditionally represented as a contemptible, ugly, old man. Approaching death, falling beyond the sphere of ordinary productive and reproductive social life, the pharmakos appears at once profoundly repugnant and yet somehow offers scope for inner renewal – precisely through their publicly enacted social exile. In these terms, we can trace a relationship between ugliness and philosophy. Philosophy is associated with wisdom, which takes time to develop (perhaps even the capacity to think against the grain of time, beyond its ravages, as well as within the pain of its obvious passage). Philosophers appear as old people – as people who have had sufficient time to live, reflect and think. They are conventionally ugly outwardly but manifest an inner beauty – the beauty of the mind. This can be portrayed as a superior beauty but can also be regarded as a poor compensation for the immediate, unreflective beauty of youth. It is important to stress that philosophy, in its ugliness, is not altogether irrelevant to the beautiful, but rather, in its concern for the beautiful and its obvious alienation from it, serves to constitute its coherent identity and meaning. It is attracted to the beautiful. It renders the beautiful manifest by recognising and describing it, as well as through an inner longing, through a sense of what it itself has lost. On the other hand, beauty itself conserves an aspect of ugliness, which relates to its self-absorption, its lack of concern with anything else, and its effort to entirely externalise ugliness. The ambiguous figure of the pharmakos is crucial here. It not only punishes and exiles ugliness and corruption but also serves as a salutary reminder within the space of the living (the beautiful) of their inevitable participation in just these qualities. This doubled paradigm has the additional implication of portraying a more positive potential, which is the ambivalence, the suspension, of philosophy as a species of beauty/ugliness and death/non-death.

Philosophy is plainly associated with rationality. According to Plato, the rational justice of society depends upon philosophical rule. Similarly, the just arrangement of the human soul depends upon the rational-philosophical supervision of appetites and emotions. Rationality enables self-awareness, autonomous freedom and moderation. But does this also imply that the human soul is affected by the ambiguous character of the pharmakos? What is it that rationality represents? What does it want particularly? Is our inner ruler too close to death to want anything or do they actually want far too much? The pharmakos signals a perverse source of value linked to the intimate experience of ugliness and the prospect of separation from the vivid sphere of social life. This sense of grotesque being – at once mourning and laughing – retains a perverse aspect of desire. Rationality disguises an underlying desire linked to an uncertain suspension between life and death. With no way of adequately thinking this through, of resolving this underlying tension, rationality (philosophy) puts on an air of being utterly superior and disinterested. Yet any sense of coherent distance from appetite and emotion is illusory. It has complex implications, indicating both an expression and repression of its own longing, its own sense of loss, its own fear of death and its own desire to live and to die. But rather than undermining rationality, exposing its bad faith and limits, this field of ambivalent feeling also provides the very basis of its capacity to be wise. However, this can only take benevolent shape if rationality can find the means to see and acknowledge its grotesque aspect – its identity as pharmakos. This is demonstrated precisely through an attitude that involves both seriousness and humour, a love of beauty and a sense of irony. Recalling that it not only conceives its capacity to rule but is also cast, grumbling and laughing, outside the city, philosophical rationality, at its best, involves a close sympathy not only with those who would exile it but with whatever the outside represents.

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Currently (March 2011) have an exhibition of algorithmic drawing work at the Faculty of Creative Arts Gallery (University of Wollongong).

The title of this exhibition is a reference to the Jacquard loom.  Invented in 1801 by Joseph Marie Jacquard, the Jacquard loom was a machine for automating the production of complex patterned textiles.  In its use of punched cards to determine the pattern produced, the loom became an inspiration for the construction of the computer.  Charles Babbage attempted to apply the punched card concept in the development of the second of his two (failed) computational machines, the Analytical Engine (1837).  The novel feature of the Jacquard loom is that it separates machine logic from machine operation.  Rather than just taking raw material input and producing an identical manufactured result, the loom takes instructions that determine aspects of its underlying functioning.  In a similar manner, through the medium of software, the computer gains a flexible, generic character – it becomes, as Turing put it, the ‘universal machine’.

Two features of the Jacquard loom are relevant to this exhibition. First, and most obviously, the loom is a machine for weaving graphic patterns.  This is an exhibition about weaving graphic patterns with computer algorithms.  It is concerned specifically with exploring the possibilities of recursive geometric subdivision.  Applied successively, motions of subdivision produce complex emergent visual fields.  Second, the Jacquard loom is relevant in terms of it delineation of an intermediary space between visual concept and the process of manufacturing.  This exhibition is centrally concerned with dimensions of labour in algorithmic drawing.  People typically regard computational drawing as an eradication of proper manual drawing labour.  This is to neglect both the labour of programming and the labour of machine operation.  It can take months to design and write a drawing system and, however abstract the conception, it is still closely conceived in terms of the practical exigencies of machine operation.  The latter represents less an eradication of labour than a transposition of labour into inhuman terms.  Punched cards and software represent a zone of mediation. They structure a relation to an alien,  partly obfuscated space of labour.  This exhibition focuses on the intimate but never quite coextensive relationship between code and the space of code performance.

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This is a short extract from a poem that I wrote in the late 1970s. It demonstrates two basic features of my method that remain relevant today, although I scarcely ever write poetry any more. First, the poem was typed. I have always been interested in the passage beyond the self that the engagement with mechanical processes represent. Second, the poem is informed by a strict logical procedure. I wrote one poem, then another one, then interleaved the lines to create the final poem. I can’t remember precisely what led me to this method. I had read William Burroughs’ The Naked Lunch, so perhaps I had picked up on his strategy of cut-up composition. For me it was a way of discovering conjunctions, abrupt breaks and curious affinities that I could never have come up with myself through straightforward linear composition. This logically articulated method became a way of shifting to another imaginative register. Its essential form is that of an algorithm – it constitutes a set of deliberate, neutrally applied steps. Here then, well before my initial engagement with computers, a fundamental interest in mechanical mediation and the poetic potential of impersonal procedure is evident. My aim is not to lay claim to any dimension of prescience or originality. The interest in mechanism and algorithmic procedure is clearly a common trope within modernist avant-garde practice. Rather my aim is to suggest that computation is only a particular form of a more general space of creative inquiry. Why is this significant? Because it indicates that a concern with mechanical agency and algorithmic process is not specific to computational digital media. However much the computer facilitates a literal engagement with machine processes and algorithmic composition, it is informed by a wider cultural imaginary.

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Drawing inspiration from Sol LeWitt’s privileging of drawing concept over the material space of actual drawing, computational art typically focuses on the conceptual logic of the software program rather than the electronic space of program execution. The latter is positioned as secondary – a mere technical means. I wish to suggest a more equal and complex relationship. This is not, however, to lend the computer some awkward creative agency (or even to envisage a dimension of generative semi-autonomy); it is to consider the labour of the computer – to think through the implications of its iterative event-space. Programming itself demands thinking in terms of this labour. Creative concepts do not simply precede computation but are developed in relation to a language of data-structures and algorithms which has its basis in the possibility of non-reflective mechanical operation. Of course, the actual texture of computer labour is largely invisible – happening so quickly and at such an alien scale that there is no adequate human way of observing the process. This does less, however, to obliterate the importance of computer operation within computational art than to highlight its poignancy and power. The terrain of execution takes shape as the spatially and temporally obscure space in which the conceptual logic of the program gains concrete realisation. The two are tied together, neither subordinate to the other. If anything, in its silence and disappearance the plane of execution provides the well of darkness from which the potential for creative conceptualisation emerges.

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In conceptual art the idea of concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. (Sol LeWitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” in Aleberro, A., Stimson, B. (1999) Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts)

Sol LeWitt’s notion of conceputal art is often regarded as a model for processes of computational art. In a well known on-line exhibition, one of the creators of the Processing software, Casey Reas, drew explicit inspiration from LeWitt’s approach. He shaped his Software Structures project ( as a homage to LeWitt’s notion of wall drawings, in which short linguistic descriptions of a potential drawings provide the blueprint for any number of specific drawing performances. The computational version adds a complication. Rather than passing straight from natural language to visual artefact, the written descriptions inform the development of algorithmic constructs which then produce a variety of specific drawing instances. Here the process of programming is aligned with the conceptual artistic side of things, while the sphere of computer operation is associated with the perfunctory work of actual drawing. Indeed the work of drawing largely disappears altogether. The spatio-temporal scale of computer functioning tends to elude adequate human perception. Very typically, it is invisible and instantaneous. Computer processes appear as a form of abstract labour taking place in an alien and inaccessible dimension. But what are the implications of this? Does it mean that computational labour is unimportant, that it is entirely subordinate to some autonomous field of humanly configured conceptual creation? I argue against this view and indeed against the whole notion of the autonomy of the conceptual from the field of material, mechanical and non-conceptual being and agency. For a start, one has only to consider the structure of software to see how closely oriented it is to the demands of computational labour. Programming represents both a framing and choreography of dimensions of underlying process – it shapes elements, functions, pathways and iterative cycles. While the relation to hardware is simplified and mediated, this realm of articulation, communication, instruction and translation is utterly directed to its non-conceptual other. Paradoxically, rather than displacing the spatio-temporal dynamics of process or rendering it insignificant, computer programming provides a medium for reflecting upon its nature and possibilities.

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Howard Morphy describes the technique of Eastern and Central Arnhem Land painting: “painting is seen as a process of transforming a surface from a state of dullness to that of shimmering brilliance (bir’yunhamirri)”. (Morphy, H. (1998) Aboriginal Art, Phaidon, London and New York, p.188)

He indicates a clearly defined set of steps:

1.the painting surface is covered in an overall wash (typically red-ochre)
2.the key forms are outlined in yellow and black and basic figurative elements are coloured in.
3.large portions of the surface are covered in “cross-hatched” infill with a special long brush
4.the final work involves “outlining the figures and cross-hatched areas in white to create a clear edge which defines their form.”

Stage one is a straightforward, process. Stage two depends upon high-order artistic skill and a close understanding of relevant representational traditions and protocols. Morphy notes that this stage is performed relatively quickly by “a senior person”. Stage three is the most time-consuming, demanding technical skill but less demonstrable cultural knowledge. The final stage draws the painting together. Morphy does not mention who is responsible for this stage, but it seems likely that it is closely directed by the senior artist.

My interest is in the sophisticated mediation that this artistic process enables between elements of conceptualisation and mechanical technique. The term ‘mechanical’ has to be used carefully here. It is less, in this instance, to liken Aboriginal painting to the characteristic forms of industrial production than to pinpoint a dimension of iterative, non-conceptually grounded process within Aboriginal art-making. It is not as though the work of producing cross-hatched infill does not have conceptual, aesthetic resonance, it is that it gains this resonance and this potential to shape a shimmering aesthetic surface by casting itself in terms of a repetitive articulation of time and space. The work has a ritual, performative aspect. In relation to the cross-hatching, Morphy argues that “Yolngu are not merely producing an aesthetic effect but moving the image towards the ancestral domain. The cross-hatched surface of the painting reflects the power of the ancestral being it represents, the quality of the shininess is the power of the ancestral beings incarnate in the object.” (p.189) In this sense, the work becomes a means of summoning and invocation. Slow and mechanical it shapes a real and affective alignment with dimensions of ancestral being and opens up the possibility of manifestation. From this perspective then, processes of conceptualisation and mechanical technique are mutually imbricated. The distinction between concept and technique does not take a binary shape, but is instead structured as a play of mediation within the overall creative process. Concepts emerge as much from the space of mechanical repetition, which serves as a field of intimate communication and connection, as the latter is inevitably inflected by the rich context of cultural meaning.

This example indicates other ways of making sense of the relationship between conceptualisation and practical making within art; suggesting the need to re-evaluate the non-reflective character of making and to acknowledge the dynamic exchange between silence and eloquence within art. The relation between concept and fabrication is no longer cast in hierarchical or harshly binary terms – rather they appear congruent and enmeshed.

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When fully developed, technique established the primacy in art of making, in contradistinction to a receptivity of production, however that is conceived. Technique is able to become the opponent of art insofar as art represents – at changing levels – the repressed unmakable. (Adorno, T. (2004) Aesthetic Theory, Continuum, London, p.78,)

Adorno delineates a crucial dilemma, which is precisely linked to the awkward relation of artistic making to broader regimes of industrial and post-industrial making. Technique is vital to art in terms of its integral relation to processes of making and yet is inevitably informed by these broader regimes. Art’s failure to reconcile technique and aesthetics, as well as to establish adequate frameworks for making, is closely related to its critical function, which cannot permit making to attain determinate, predictable shape – which has to highlight “the repressed unmakable”. In this manner the field of making becomes strangely alienated from art. Art loses means to conceive its status as an activity within space and time. The challenge is, perhaps, to craft tentative, self-critical forms of making that position the uncertainty of making as their explicit subject. However – and this is for me a crucial problem – the space of technique cuts against the grain of any sense of purely constituted aesthetic criticality. Technique, as a motion of repetition, as something logically conceived but depending upon non-reflective manual, mechanical or electronic agency, can never be drawn entirely to the side of a conceptually-grounded aesthetics. It is worth recalling that the ancient Greeks positioned art as a form of techne, of artisinal making. The most complete break from this conception occurs in strands of avant-garde modernism that reconceive aesthetics not as a form of making but as a form of radical insight and critique. The problem here, for me, relates to the failure to acknowledge and sense the complex dialectical and intractable relation between the blindness of mechanism and the possibility of insight.

Technique is the definable figure of the enigma in artworks, at once rational and conceptless. (Adorno, T. (2004) Aesthetic Theory, Continuum, London, p.279)

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[T]he political effectiveness of art ‘does not reside in transmitting messages’, but ‘in the first place consists of dispositions of bodies, the partitioning of singular spaces and times that define ways of being together or apart, in front or at the centre of, within or without, nearby or far away’ (Bourriaud, N.

Bourriaud and Ranciere agree that art gains its political efficacy through its capacity to reconfigure the field of lived dispositions. Rather than just reflecting upon the world, art articulates and is enmeshed within regimes of spatio-temporal configuration. This suggests the need to consider not only the contours of the finished artistic work but also the space of artistic production and how it relates to other fields of labour and social organisation. If contemporary art, particularly visual art, tends to stress the conceptual character of art, questioning any sense of an intimate relation to medium and material, then how are we to conceive the time and space of artistic labour? Without wishing to return to some nostalgic vision of artisinal labour, we can still recognise the awkwardness of the current situation – the difficulty of positing recognisable spatial and temporal frameworks necessary to – and emerging from – artistic practice. In my view there is an urgent need to question the hierarchical division between dimensions of aesthetic conceptualisation and production, and to re-evaluate the nature of art-making. Rather than treating the latter as subordinate and notionally distinct from the proper space of (indeterminately positioned) conceptual-aesthetic production, we need to find means to think through the creative implications of evolving and implementing a process in space and time.

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Stupid as a painter…
Marcel Duchamp

What makes the painter stupid? Perhaps it is not only the emphasis on seeing (‘retinal art’), but also upon making. Suspending the poetics of perceptual response and manual craft. Duchamp repositions the art work as a conceptually-configured, manufactured thing. In the figure of the ready-made, all nostalgia for human making is abandoned in preference for a poetics of montage and estrangement. Rather than emerging slowly from interaction with raw materials, the ready-made appears in an instant. It represents a sudden selection from the material flux and banality of already manufactured things and an equally sudden work of perverse recontextualisation. A strange conjunction emerges here between the mechanical (non-reflective) processes of industrial manufacturing and the reflective, poetics of the ready-made. Both eliminate the temporal dimension of artisinal labour.

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Loom explores aspects of recursive geometric subdivision. Simple shapes are subdivided into further smaller shapes (typically triangles or quadrangles). Applied many times over, complex patterns and textures emerge.  Rather than positioning the computer as a generative creative agent, computational processes serve as mechanical means for weaving virtual cloth from simple algorithmic patterns. This is not to belittle the scope of computation, but to seek effective means to engage with its genuine power, which is for me linked to the mystery of its dumb operation – its strange invisible labour. The computer is bound by regimes of instructional necessity, however the scale and speed of its processes suggest an uncanny sense of autonomy. The paradox of computational labour is closely related to the aesthetic potential of geometric subdivision. The abstract conceptual schema – the subdivision algorithm – is never sufficient on its own. It has to be played out on a surface. It has to pass from consciousness to the unconsciousness of iterative procedure. It is precisely in the tension between mathematical clarity and repetitive, unreflective drawn performance that the terrain of geometric finitude begins to shimmer.

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Art is bound by a paradox. At one level it resists taking definitive shape in space and time. Stepping outside the boundaries of ordinary, prosaic systems of understanding, action and interaction, art suggests a realm of alternative possibility. But at the same time it must inevitably take distinct cultural form in order to appear – to attain identifiable shape. Aspects of space and time are reworked then within a context that itself represents a conventional organisation of space and time. To further complicate matters, art’s reworking of space and time involves, in equal measures, conceiving the new and reshaping tradition within the context of the present. That is, art facilitates continuity as much as it does transformation. It mediates between these contrary tendencies, enabling their dialogue and mutual imbrication.

The question for me is how the work of art-making can be conceived within this paradoxical space? If it is positioned as straightforward labour then surely this undermines its capacity to unsettle the spatio-temporal organisation of ordinary work? But perhaps there is less a need to avoid the notion of labour altogether than to intimately, materially rethink it – to tease out dimensions of iteration and alterity that unsettle its social meaning. In this case it may useful to consider not only human labour but also the labour of things, of automated processes. Because if labour reduces human beings to mere instruments then it is possibly within the alienated space of the instrumental that another thinking, another order of experience, another push, pull and play of motion may emerge. But of course this is also to risk passing beyond the safety of art’s reflective return. Determining the nature of artistic labour differently may fundamentally affect the conception – and conceptual sway – of art.

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In 1995 a group of SIGGRAPH artists formed an informal group, the Algorists. One of their members, Jean-Pierre Hebert, coined the term “algorist” to describe artists who wrote their own algorithms to produce their creative work. The members worked with computer algorithms – writing code to produce typically print-based computer graphic work – but they were keen to acknowledge that algorithmic composition has a long cultural heritage. It is evident, for instance, in the combinatory systems of Raymond Llull (1232-1315) and Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), the proto-computing machines of Gottfied Leibniz (1646-1716), the mathematically guided compositions of Johan Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), the permutative poetry of Stephane Mallarme (1842-1898), the formal constraints of the Ou Li Po (founded in 1960), and the rule-based conceptual art work of Sol LeWitt (1928-2007). It would be easy, furthermore, to describe a much wider context, pointing to all manner of cultural practices that are based on clearly articulated procedures. Although I think this effort to trace wider associations is valuable, it is worth noting some key and closely interrelated features that characterise formal computational algorithmic practice:

  1. All terms must be amenable to mathematical representation and processing.
  2. Algorithms are composed in formal languages which mediate between concept and electronic process.
  3. The emphasis is upon defining generic algorithms, conceiving procedures in the most abstract terms.
  4. Computational algorism occurs in a restricted space. It is circumscribed materially and symbolically.
  5. Processes proceed in an automatic, necessary fashion.

I mention these features less to neatly distinguish computer-based algorithmic practice from the wider algorithmic context than to resist any temptation to regard computational algorism as the logical summit of the overall field. The latter represents a highly delineated space that does well to think through the implications of its limitations, which represent both dimensions of possibility and dimensions – possibly – to be overcome.

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An image from Athanasius Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis (1650) depicts an automatic music machine, a kind of hydraulic organ. The notes are linked to a geared cylinder that is powered via a spinning water wheel. There are three miniature allegorical scenes on the top of the machine, each involving kinetic motion and one or more automatons. At the right a group of figures spin in a circle beneath a large skeleton. Composed as a kind of Dance of Death, the scene suggests a link between the circular motion of the cylinder and the overall fatal structure of human existence. In the middle a seated child holds a book and what appers to be a pen. The child would seem to write in the book (perhaps adding a note to a musical score) each time a key is automatically depressed. This suggests an uncanny affinity between human creative labour and the magnetic pull of the mathematically configured cosmos (which takes analogous shape in the precisely constructed machine). Finally, at the far left is a group of blacksmiths working at a forge. This is a reference to the story of how the Greek philosopher, Pythagorus, learned the rules of musical pitch by listening to the hammering of blacksmiths. This scene establishes a relation between the origins of mathematically-guided musical understanding and the advanced musical knowledge that underpins the construction of the current instrument. Additionally, the scene functions as an analogue for the invisible, mechanical labour of the machine. The various scenes work together to provide metaphors for a curious space of operation. They provide playful, allegorical vehicles for grasping the function and conceptual universe of the device. They manifest that alongside the causal relation between water, gears, cogs and musical notes there is a related need to convey the philosophical and affective imaginary that informs its construction.

The images in my Loom exhibition attempt something similar. Finely resolved geometric subdivision works to provide a non-technical means of conveying the alien space and time of computation. My images provide a means of figuring the contours of an elusive field of logical process and electronic labour.

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I had always accepted the conventional view that Marx transformed Hegel’s abstract philosophical conception of human progress into a radical instrument of social critique. Marx famously took dialectical idealism and shaped it into dialectical materialism. Yet recently I came across Shlomo Avineri’s Hegel’s Theory of the Modern State (1972) which examines key writings of Hegel, System der Sittlichkeit and the Realphilosophie, that were unknown to Marx and only published (in their entirety) in the early 20th century. Avineri argues that in these works Hegel anticipates much of Marx’s critique of capitalist forms of production, except that Hegel draws a fundamentally different conclusion. Rather than imagining that productive relations can be reconstructed to fulfill real human needs, Hegel views inequitable social relations as inextricably linked to the productive forms characteristic of industrial modernity. My aim here is to briefly summarise Avineri’s account of Hegel’s argument. My specific interest is in Hegel’s conception of labour and its problematic doubling in mechanical labour.

Throughout his philosophy, from his analysis of the most metaphysical concepts (being, nothing, becoming) to his analysis of the most practical features of ordinary social existence (property, labour, money), Hegel adopts a consistent abstract dialectical schema: something discovers its other and, not content with this separation, finds means of subsuming the other within itself, only then to discover a further dimension of otherness and a consequent need for yet another motion of mediation and subsumption (aufhebung). This schema informs not only dialectical metaphysics, in which undifferentiated chaos leads through many generations of mediation to the nuanced differentiation of Absolute Mind, but also a dynamic, dialectical conception of human historical-anthropological development, in which human history begins with the struggle with nature and gradually becomes increasingly distant from nature as more complex social forms emerge.

So from Hegel’s standpoint human labour emerges logically from something more basic. A paradigmatic form of pre-human dialectical interaction is animal hunger. The (carnivorous) animal discovers its other (prey), devouring it in order to take the other into itself and make itself stronger. Avineri describes how Hegel begins with this appetitive impulse. Humans, as animals, directly consume natural things, overcoming an aspect of separation, but at the same time destroying the object that gives them satisfaction. For this reason this process ends up not being entirely satisfying. As Avineri puts it: “[It] is purely sensuous and negative. It is limited by a particular object and cannot be generalised. The consciousness of separation remains after each individual act of subsumption.” The next dialectical step then is to respond more positively to nature – to make something, to fashion, for instance, hand made goods of various kinds. This provides the basis for property.

It is with advent of property, Hegel argues, that social relations come into play. Property is only property when another person and other people recognise that the thing produced is owned by someone. Avineri writes, “property pertains to the person as recognised by others, it can never be an intrinsic quality of the individual prior to its recognition by others.” In this respect, Avineri recognises a clear distinction between Hegel’s concept of property and the view proposed within classical political economy. While the later suggests that property has its basis in individual possession (brute power), Hegel regards it as “premised on social consensus”.

It as at this point – in the manifestation and social evaluation of property – that labour comes into play. According to Hegel, labour provides the rational and ethical basis for property. It is the socially legible process through which property is produced. As instrumentally geared action, it represents a sublimation of immediate satisfaction towards a more general good – the construction of a useful or beautiful thing. Labour represents the mechanism and material form of rational endeavour. This not only shapes a domain of reconciliation between subject and object; it also establishes “the univeral link among men.” Labour constitutes a field of mutual, socially geared recognition. However, alongside the postive potential for constructive realisation and social interaction, Avineri stresses that Hegel also perceives a downside; labour, particularly in modern industrial society, is a vehicle for alienation. The positive and the negative implications of labour are in fact inextricably linked. In becoming social (and economic), in shifting from the production of individual property towards the production of general commodities, labour grows increasingly distant from any space of immediate concrete realisation or exchange. Endlessly abstracted and endlessly deferring immediate gratification, concrete labour becomes increasingly decoupled from human scales of meaningful action. The rise of industrial manufacturing processes – of machine labour and of human labour rendered machinic – only exacerbates this sense of alienation.

The labour of the machine is positioned then as emblematic of the modern alienation of labour: “[the worker] becomes through the work of the machine more and more machine-like, dull, spiritless. The spiritual element, the self-conscious plenitude of life, becomes as empty activity.” The key features that Hegel associates with machine labour are fragmentation, abstraction and inanimate action (Hegel speaks of a “life of death moving within itself”). The latter, despite its plainly human, rational origin, comes to be likened to the spiritually void mechanisms of nature:

because labour is wholly quantitative, without variety…something completely external…It only depends upon it to find an equally dead principle of movement for it, a self-differentiating power of nature, like the movement of water, of the wind, of steam, etc., and the instrument turns into a machine.

Hegel’s critique retains its relevance and force. If I wish to suggest other ways of thinking of machine labour, it is not in order to deny the real social implications of industrialisation, and of industrial manufacturing methods particularly. But the labour that concerns me appears differently. My relation to the machine dimension of labour is privileged. My view is abstract, but not altogether fragmented. I deliberately write the entire graphics engine from scratch (here obviously subscribing to Hegel’s preference for holistic labour). The doubling of manual labour in machinic drawing processes does not, however, for me produce a sense of uncanny disturbance. The motion of code bears an intimate relation to my programming activity – to my algorithms. The space of machine labour, however difficult to perceive, feels like a motion of exchange and proximity.

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Given Hegel’s conception of labour as a human and socially-inclined manifestation of reason, how can machine operations be regarded as a form of labour? They appear instead as a form of dumb, unreflective functioning. The machine, for instance, can have no coherent sense of denying its immediate or particular needs in pursuit of some greater goal. It simply performs whatever task it is given without any scope for self-awareness – for the integral self-consciousness that would provide a basis for the anticipation of alternative possibilities.

There are two problems with this anthropomorphic conception of labour. Firstly, it neglects that labour already, at the outset, represents a form of alienation. It introduces a gap between the immediate fulfillment of needs and longer term, more abstractly conceived, interests. In Hegel’s terms this gap is shaped by the impulse towards rational endeavour. It is clear, however, that, while a defining characteristic of the human, reason also indicates a splitting away from the state of immediate, animal being. The human is precisely constituted by this necessary separation. Labour – human labour – in its dimension of stoic self-abnegation is a manifestation of this split. In this sense the separation of the machine – the dull, dead, spiritually vacuous motion of its instrumental functioning – is merely an exacerbation or materialisation of a tendency that will always have been ‘intrinsically human’. In this sense, the alienation of the machine is implicit within the conception of rational labour. The second problem with restricting labour to a narrowly conceived field of rational human agency is that it neglects the unreflective dimension of labour, or, more precisely, the intimate dialogue between systems of abstraction, human patterns of action and modes of unreflective mechanical agency. The rhythms, cycles and algorithmic patterns of labour broach relations that extend beyond the human as such.

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General Media/Technical Media/Media Art

The notion of media and mediation extends beyond the technical conception of media. As middle, as gap, as plane and agent of communication, the concept of media has very wide relevance. Contemporary technical media provide an exemplary form of media in as much as they clearly embody aspects of distance, deferral and reconfiguration, but the concept itself is more general. The question for media art is whether it should remain within the compass of narrowly defined technical media (photography, film, video, electronics, computational processes, etc.) or whether it can properly engage with the broader social and philosophical field? My view is that it can only do the latter – if only because that is the direction that technical media itself is pursuing. Technical media now de-emphasises its complexity – it is oriented towards fostering mobility and social exchange. It aims to facilitate wider contexts of communication rather than to enable traditional simulation, immersion and solipsism. But in doing this it can hardly insist upon a privileged and proprietary relation to issues of mediation. The more general field of media has no single point of disciplinary purchase. If media art wishes to extend beyond its traditional boundaries then this is less to manifest an uber disciplinary entity than to risk the dissolution of ‘media art’ per se. The contemporary role of media art may indeed be to discover paths that obliterate the grounds for its notional distinct self-identity and exclusion.

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Notes on Parmenides

In his Deep Time of the Media (2006), German media theorist Siegfried Zielinski traces a deliberately discontinuous history of media from ancient pre-Socratic conceptions of the perceptual interface through to the curious inventions of medieval and Renaissance proto-science and to the dilemmas of contemporary post-media (in which media has become so universal that it risks losing its coherent identity). He deliberately avoids structuring the book as a linear tale of progress. Instead he prefers an archaeological approach, arguing that the various historical strata – “curiosities” – represent rich worlds in themselves, each as sophisticated as anything that has come before or since. Rather than appearing as primitive evolutionary moments, the various historical strata are positioned as alternative, equally viable conceptions of media that have the potential to inform the present, inspiring us to reconsider – perhaps at the limits of this questioning – the nature and possibilities of media.

If early new media theory tended to focus on the novelty of the digital and to describe a very restricted historical frame, Deep Time of the Media sketches a much longer and broader context for contemporary practice. More particularly, Zielinski provides keen insight into the relationship between traditions of speculative science and the media imaginary. This works well to demonstrate the rich interdisciplinary nature of media experimentation, but also tends to privilege a technical-scientific conception of media to a more general, philosophical-aesthetic one. This is justifiable in many ways. Our ordinary understanding of media is associated with all kinds of technical forms – photography, film, video, electronics, computation, etc. – so why not restrict the conception of media to technological means for expanding upon aspects of human perception, cognition, memory, etc.? But at another level this this runs against the whole spirit of Zielinski’s enterprise. If the aim is to unsettle conventional definitions of media and mediation and to open up the field to wider strands of reflection then there may well be a need to think beyond the necessity of a technical media apparatus. There may be a need to consider media more fundamentally, in terms, for instance, of how mediation figures within traditions of philosophical speculation on aspects of being, truth and beauty. It may be useful, for example, to consider the Hegelian dialectic as a mechanism of mediation, endlessly crunching up intransigent otherness into the progressive articulation of Absolute Mind. Or we could consider the role aesthetics plays in Kant’s philosophy as a mediating agent – mediating between pure and practical reason and between the unknowable character of sensory experience and the essential structures of apriori understanding. This paper will attempt neither of these things, but will instead address Zielinski’s recognition of a conception of media within pre-Socratic thought. Zielinksi identifies this conception with a late phase in pre-Socratic thought, Empedocles (4th Century BC) and Democritus’s (late 4th Century – early 3rd Century BC) notion of mediated perception. Without denying the relevance of this early conception of a natural media apparatus linked to effluences, pores, void space and atoms, I wish to argue that issues of mediation figure more broadly within pre-Socratic thought and do not depend upon positing a technical media apparatus. Notions of mediation are integral to the key pre-Socratic concepts of the arche (the fundamental stuff of being, nature and the universe) and the logos (regarded as both the intrinsic logic of being and the philosophical account of that logic). My particular focus will be upon tracing dimensions of mediation within the Eleatic School philosophy of Parmenides (5th Century BC). Parmenides is famous for resisting any thought of multiplicity or differentiation. Rather than acknowledging the many or the different, Parmenides insists that being is an eternal and unchanging unity. This conception appears utterly antagonistic to any thought of mediation (what is there to mediate between if there is only singularity?), but regarded more closely all kinds of paradoxes appear. It is in the texture of these paradoxes, involving the play of light and darkness, being and nothingness, truth and opinion, that another, less technically focused conception of media and mediation becomes evident.

My aim is pursuing this apparently arcane issue of how media figures in pre-Socratic thought is less to correct Zielinski’s account than to pose questions for how media, and media art more specifically, is conceived in the present. Is media necessarily constituted in terms of informationally-geared technological extensions of human capacity, or does it have a more general character and a wider set of implications? Is it about media as a plural noun for a range of apparatuses and associated cultural practices, or is it about media as a broader play of distancing, deferral and uncertain manifestation? And if it is the latter, then what becomes of the field of media art? Doesn’t it begin to lose any sense of coherent identity? Is the acknowledgement of a broader conception of media not only a means of integrating media art more closely within more general traditions of art practice but also of effectively removing the need for the category of media art altogether? The question then is of a field expanding to the point of dissolution. Ultimately, I am not convinced that this is such a bad thing.

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Making Sense of Media

You’d think after all this time (I first studied Media in 1982 and have been teaching in the Media field since 1985) that I’d have a clear idea about the notion of media. But no, I find myself regularly rethinking its meaning and implications. When I began, media was associated with Media Production, which was in turn associated with the emerging and avowedly interdisciplinary Communication discipline. Media was associated particularly with the study of Mass Communication, which focused on the political and cultural consequences of mass media. It seemed relatively easy within this context to identify media – they were associated with the distinct, modern, technologically based communication forms of photography, film, television and radio. Studying media involved critical study of media history, institutions, formal strategies and cultural implications, as well as the development of specialised skills in the various production disciplines. At the same time, however, there was always the awareness that media preserved a more general sense – that speech, writing, printing, telegraphy, telephony and even train lines (McLuhan) were forms of media. Media figured as the concrete corollary of the whole communication problematic. The novelty of the Communication discipline was that it struggled to conceive society in terms of relational processes and networks rather than as a field of linked, but residually autonomous, things. At the most abstract, philosophical level contemporary media appeared as a peculiarly modern and exaggerated manifestation of the play of communicative mediation – of spacing, delay, representation, intercession, veiling and perceptual and cognitive extension – that has always been integral to, and even constitutive of, human society. At the time then the notion of media had a double sense; it denoted the field of modern technological communication, but also indicated an uncertain middle terrain – of active/passive agency – affecting every aspect of human communication. The relationship between these two meanings is not altogether easy. If all communication entails a dimension of media then is what is it that distinguishes modern media? Is it the technological form? Or must we rethink the concept of the technological itself, allowing it to feature within the space of ‘natural communication’?

[I should really say something here about how 1960s & 1970s art theory conceived media, particularly how it figured as a means of thinking beyond the modernist obsession with identifying the essential features of an artistic medium. Think of Dick Higgins notion of “intermedia” or Rosalind Krauss’s later analysis of the ‘post-medium’ condition.]

The 1990s concept of new media had weird implications. At one level it seemed to indicate an opening – accepting, for instance, the whole field of computation as media – but at another level it gained a restricted technological focus (linked to the need to distinguish the analogue from the digital, etc.) that ended up drawing it towards a more conventional, modernist conception of a medium. Manovich, for instance, defines new media in terms of its fundamental material-technical characteristics (numerical representation, etc.). This was useful in terms of making sense of the transformation of the immediate media environment but also had the tendency to overemphasise a technical conception of media.

The contemporary notion of media art aims to shift beyond this narrow focus and to forge links to much wider traditions of media practice, yet it remains bound to a restricted conception of media practice as an engagement with systems of technologically based representation and communication. While technological media remain very important and are definitely characteristic of contemporary communication contexts, there is a need to discover ways of considering and enabling broader possibilities.

To be honest, I end up following multiple contradictory paths – at times imagining that it is through rigorous engagement with the technical layers of media that creative possibilities emerge, while at other times suggesting that media transcends any specific technical conditions, that its implications stretch beyond the technical, that the technical is only a metaphor for a deeper conception of the space of alien constitution and disappearance that mediation represents. Perhaps there is less a need to inisist on a singular, consistent sense of media, than a need to acknowldege the play of semantic, conceptual and material possibilities. The awkwardness, however, is when I am pushed to define a set of fundamental skills. What would this involve? At one level there is clearly a need for dimensions of historical and critical-theoretical understanding, which must necessarily have a very broad orientation, taking in, for instance, aspects of cultural performance, reproduction and memory, philosophical issues of mimesis and representation, debates about the circulation of power and ideology in contemporary society and traditions of discussion concerning the nature and relevance of the concept of artistic medium. Then there is a need to identify specific areas of media practice. Here is where there is a tendency to fall back on more limited conceptions of media, to focus on a conventional sense of the media and new media industry (either at the corporate-professional level or in terms of traditions of technological artistic practice). The weakness then is in failing to develop conceptual and practical means to effectively mediate between the open and more resticted conceptions of media.

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Take a tape of the sound of the snow falling.
This should be done in the evening.
Do not listen to the tape.
Cut it and use it as strings to tie gifts with.
(Yoko Ono, Snow Piece (Tape Piece III), 1963-4 in Iversen, M. Chance 2010, Documents of Contemporary Art, MIT Press, p.98)

Yoko Ono’s Snow Piece adopts a procedural-imperative form. It instructs the reader to do something, yet there is no sense that actually performing the action is necessary. The work is complete as something written and read, as something envisaged, imagined, conceived. Why then does it take a procedural form? Why not simply express in narrative terms? For instance, Ono could have written, “I recorded the sound of snow falling in the evening…”. This would, of course, have been entirely different. The work needs to take shape as a general shape of possibility – a sequence, an algorithm, a spell – rather than as a closed, accomplished action. It adheres to the logic of sequence, but at the same time undercuts it: a tape is recorded but not listened to, the context of recording is precisely described but is rendered entirely opaque in the silence of the gift strings. There is more to be said about the choice of the procedural mode but the most important point for my purposes is that Ono’s poetic concept could potentially be realised but would this work of performance would seem to have little scope for creative, poetic addition.

Draw a straight line and follow it
(La Monte Young, Composition 1960 #10, 1960 in Iversen, M. Chance 2010, Documents of Contemporary Art, MIT Press, opening pages – illustration)

Another instruction, but this one describes an infinite vector, one that cannot possibly be performed in its conceptual entirety. Nonetheless, paradoxically, this a work that leaves open a potential for performance – the line can be drawn in any way, the act of following can adopt all manner of forms, nothing in the action is precisely resolved. So this instruction indicates two field of creative possibility: firstly, the imagination of the instruction itself (especially in its mingling of concrete specificity and abstract generality); and secondly, the universe of possible/impossible realisations.

Lines not short, not straight, crossing and touching, drawn at random using four colors, uniformly dispersed with maximum density, covering the entire surface of the wall.
(Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing #65, 1971, National Gallery of Art, USA, link)

Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing *65 describes a potential image. Although not explicitly expressed in imperative terms, the practice of artists who realise LeWitt’s wall drawings is to treat them as broad sets of conceptual instructions that they can follow in all manner of different ways. In a conceptualist polemical spirit, LeWitt rejects the need for the images to be drawn or painted, insisting that the have integrity as conceptual systems, but actually realisation is very important. The vital interest is in the interplay between general definition and specific realisation.

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Philosophical Memory

Is there any value in describing what I remember of a philosophical argument from a long distant time of reading? I believe there is value, because, however abbreviated, simplified, even distorted the memory of the argument, it is nonetheless the form in which it retains its active force in thought. I might glance back for corroboration at the original source, searching for bits of relevant underlined text and the like, but I am unlikely to engage in the full work of properly revisiting the texts. For all of its shortcomings, my memory of an argument indicates key features that have somehow managed to retain their coherence and significance for me. So when I recently read contemporary criticism of Jacques Derrida’s deconstructive project in terms of its one sided privileging of language (Graham Harman describing the thought of Bruno Latour), I cannot help but recall my sense of what Derrida seemed to be arguing. I can recall, for instance, the misunderstandings associated with his “there is nothing outside the text” statement. I can particularly remember that Derrida resisted the effort to position his work as triumphant assertion of the universal sway of language. Here then is my brief sense of what the contemporary over-simplified view of his work misses, which relates particularly to the way in which inhuman alterity figures within his deconstructive conception.

1. Language – the system of language – figures, for Derrida, as a means of unsettling a naturalised conception of truth, in which truth is tied to the experience of unmediated being, which finds its proper mode of expression in the immediacy of spoken dialogue, only then to risk losing sight of itself as it passes into technical modes of memory and communication (most famously, of course, via writing). Derrida reverses this paradigm, placing writing as somehow more original than either speech or the apparent simplicity of being. Rather than suggesting a new paradigm, however, a simple reversal of the old, Derrida’s aim is to question the possibility of ever shaping anything like a constitutive foundation for things – all aspects of experience and being are riven by a play of irreducible non-origin. This play is termed “differance”, a neologism that captures the sense both of spatial differentiation and temporal delay. This concept of differance is drawn from Saussure’s relational model of language, in which every dimension of language, from the phonemic to the semantic, is said to be structured in terms of patterns of difference; rather than substantial entities, language is characterised by relational terms. It is also for this reasong charcterised by an endless play of reference (of temporal delay) as one term summons another in order to emerge, but then only to summon further motions of reference. Derrida argues then that writing, in its evident non-original position, its freedom from absolute determination, appears emblematic of fundamental aspects of language. The apparently dangerous alien force appears at the very heart of the problem of language (and the metaphysics of being). This clearly sounds all very language focused, yet it is hardly an anthropomorphic, human meaning oriented conception. The point about writing is that it retains an alien character, it retains a sense of otherness. The sense of loss associated with the dead letter is precisely that of the relation to inanimate matter. Writing figures as a dimension of constitutive and irreducible alterity within the texture of whatever it is that being means. In this sense, the notion bears an affinity with Harmans’s contemporary notion of “tool-being”. Just as Harman argues, in relation to Heidegger’s tool-anaylysis, that the tool, although typically regarded as a lesser, mutely non-existent and non self-present mode of being, is actually the model for Heidegger’s conception of being (as a general ‘readiness-at-hand’), so Derrida demonstrates that the inhuman technical medium of writing is integral to the impossibility of being (and to the scene of its becoming within Western metaphysics).

2, For Derrida, otherness circulates within language (the outside is always already within the apparent autonomy of human meaning systems). Furthermore, language, even in its sense of distance and alienation – indeed precisely in terms of this detachment – is bound to a relation to alterity. This is most evident for me in Derrida’s analysis of the poetry of Francis Ponge. Writing within a phenomenological tradition, Ponge adopts an intentional mode of writing. He writes towards the specificity of particular everyday things – jugs, rain on the window, a pine forest. But this is not something that can be simply managed and manifested. It is not as though poetry can mimetically reconstruct the thing itself. Instead it summons the thing differently, through the resources of language, through the encounter between two modes of alterity – the otherness of language and the otherness of the thing. I suppose contemporary critics could argue that Derrida insists on a too pronounced gap from the world of things. Things appear under the heading of a general space of otherness, rather than as multiplicity of specific objects. Derrida clearly retains a suspicion of the notion of object, of the identity that it constitutes. Speculative realism is less circumspect. This indicates Derrida’s a key difference from the contemporary speculative realist scene: Derrida retains a more old-fashioned critical and skeptical emphasis, whereas contemporary philosophy is determined to somehow forge means to think the ‘things in themselves’. Even here it is worth noting that Harman insists that things cannot be fully known, that they are always percived and engaged with in terms of particular affordances. But wouldn’t this also affect their constitution as integral objects? Aren’t their boundaries also sketched in terms of dimensions of access? In problematising precisely such issues, Derrida’s philosophy retains its value and force.

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Loom : Conceptual Art and the Space of Execution

In conceptual art the idea of concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. 1

Sol LeWitt famously insists upon the possibility of a purely conceptual form of art. He distinguishes a space of conceptual making that is distinct from that of practical making. This represents a rejection of Clement Greenberg’s formalist conception of modern art, which insists that art has its basis in the distinct formal properties of specific physical art media. It is also a rejection of an associated notion of art making founded on values of perceptual sensibility and subjective expression. The conceptual idea is positioned as a machine that not only determines the space of execution – of material making – but also reconstitutes the nature of artistic creation as “emotionally dry” (and yet “not theoretical” ) 2. The nature of this conceptual machinery is difficult to pin down precisely. At one level it appears rarefied and procedural, at another it is cast as “intuitive” and “purposeless” 3. In this sense, LeWitt’s notion of conceptual art retains aspects of formalism within the alien, awkwardly conceived space of the conceptual.

While keeping in mind that “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” (1967) represents a specific historical response to the dilemmas of formalist modernism and that LeWitt himself deliberately qualifies its general relevance 4, it nonetheless has proved very influential in terms of conceiving the conceptual nature of art. For my purposes, within the specific context of software art practice, it provides a standard means of distinguishing between the abstract-conceptual space of software programming and that of perceptible program output. For example, in his Whitney Museum project, Software Structures, Casey Reas explicitly places Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawings as the model for his practice, enabling him to distinguish between the coding imaginary and the visual-perceptual character of any particular code-drawing instance.

There is a complete separation of the concept of the work from its perceptual manifestation. The relation between LeWitt and his draftsperson is often compared to the relation between a composer and performer , but I think it’s also valid to look at the comparison between a programmer and the entity of execution. 5

What interests me is the neatness of this split, the clarity of this distinction between the conceptual and the manifest. However, it quickly becomes evident that the split is more complex than a division between two orders of being. Instead a complex chain of mediation is evident. Reas, for instance, insists upon an intuitive conceptual stage prior to the work of software writing. He argues that “[t]he work develops in the vague domain of image and then matures in the more defined structures of natural language before any thought is given to a specific machine implementation.” 6 The stage of machine execution can also be distinguished from that of the final result – the manifest image-instance. Leaving aside the transition to natural language, we have then a minimum of four stages:

  1. conceptual image
  2. conceptual expression (as a set of definite written procedures)
  3. machine execution
  4. manifest image instance

My interest is in questioning the notional integrity, linear structure and implicit hierarchy evident in this model. Note first the paradox that the primary scene of intuitive conceptualisation is conceived in terms of the final stage of the manifest image. This seems to provide a means of preserving an intimate and properly human realm of creative conceptualisation. Its validity is established in terms of its isomorphism to the self-evident character of perceptual manifestation. Whereas LeWitt permits ambivalence, even contradiction, effectively blurring the boundaries between the intuitive and the machinic, Reas firmly distinguishes between the two. The domain of conceptual expression, of software programming is positioned as a form of alienation from intuitive conceptualisation. It manifests the underlying concept in a language that is itself, despite its abstraction, properly separate from the inner-sanctum of the conceptual. Examined closely, it is evident that the overall division between the conceptual and the manifest functions throughout, with the former privileged as long, rather peculiarly, as it takes shape as the latter.

If anything, it is the middle two steps that appear devalued, appearing both insufficiently conceptual and insufficiently manifest. It is interesting here to indicate how LeWitt’s notion of the relation between conceptualisation and making seems to change in his subsequent “Sentences on Conceptual Art” (1969). If “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” provocatively renders the process of practical art-making as entirely secondary and unimportant, “Sentences on Conceptual Art” allows a more nuanced and equal relationship.

28 – Once the idea of the piece is established in the artist’s mind and the final form is decided, the process is carried out blindly. There are many side effects that the artist cannot imagine. These may be used as ideas for new works.
29 – The process is mechanical and should not be tampered with. It should run its course.7

In these later statements LeWitt emphasises the need then to submit to the “blindness” of process 8. The procedural character of making is what allows the shift beyond subjective expression. It also produces “side effects” that extend creative-conceptual trajectories beyond their anticipated outcomes, opening up new conceptual possibilities9. It is precisely the machinic (procedural) character of the concept that allows it to engage machinic dimensions of practice. This is to suggest that the intimacy of the conceptual is immediately affected by non-subjective forces. This is the means by which it escapes expressive solipsism. Its space of intuition is irreducibly related to the blindness of process, the alterity of making.

  1. LeWitt, S., “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” in Alberro, A. & Stimson, B. (1999) Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology, MIT Press, p.12
  2. Ibid., p.12
  3. Ibid., p.12
  4. Ibid., p.12
  5., accessed 9th May 2011
  6. Ibid.
  7. LeWitt, S., “Sentences on Conceptual Art” in Alberro, A. and Stimson, B. (1999) op. cit., p.107
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
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Human Labour

Labour is apparently human, but it is bound by a paradox. In its disregard for immediate compensation, it represents a turn away from immediate ‘animal’ needs and inclinations. This suspension of immediate existence is the manifestation of the human rationality of labour (Hegel). This process, however, does not stop at simple processes of delayed gratification (the manufacture of goods to be bartered, sold, etc.), it leads to processes of labour in which the end can scarcely be seen at all, in which abstraction, fragmentation and delay become endemic. Paradoxically then, the inhuman forms of modern labour are inextricably linked to the suspension of immediacy that lends primary human value to labour. Machine labour only exacerbates this inhuman dimension, representing the discrete functions and repetitive patterns of labour in inanimate terms. If machine labour appears uncanny it is precisely because it is the logical consequence of the primary impulse of human labour – it indicates the play of the inhuman within the very texture of human self-definition.

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Aristotle on Wise and Dumb Labour

For men of experience know the fact but not the why of it; but men of art know the why of it or the cause. It is because of this that we regard also the master-artists of a given craft as more honorable, as possessing understanding to a higher degree, and as wiser than the manual workers, since the former know the causes of the things produced, but the latter are like certain inanimate things which act but do so without understanding that action, as in the case of fire which burns. Inanimate things bring about the effects of their actions by some nature, while manual workers do so through habit which results by practicing. Thus master-artists are considered wiser not in virtue of their ability to do something, but in virtue of having the theory and knowing the causes. 1

This is a classic statement of the hierarchical relation between thinking and unthinking dimensions of practice/labour. The habitual character of manual labour, which can proceed without a clear understanding of underlying causes, is contrasted to the superior, conceptually informed practice of the master-artist. In terms of this schema. the field of computational process can only appear as a secondary, utterly dumb and determined space of labour. But does this render it unimportant and secondary?

  1. Aristotle (1973) Metaphysics (trans. Apostle, H.), Bloomington Indiana, Indiana University Press
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Programming – Conceptual/Non-Conceptual

My Loom blog entries consider the relation between the labour of programming and the labour of program execution. While it would seem natural that the conceptual space of programming utterly determines the mechanical space of execution, my aim has been to question this hierarchical view. As I have suggested, programming only attains conceptual shape in terms of the underlying mechanisms of code operation. The programmer must learn to think as a machine proceeds – that is, in terms of the latter’s strict patterns and blind motion. It becomes hard then to precisely designate the character of the conceptual work of programming. Does its abstract logic suggest a properly human space of conceptual priority, or does it represent a passage beyond the human – a dialogue with the autonomous necessity of operation? I would argue that programming – and the close relation between writing, compilation and running that it entails – fosters a new, uncertain relation between the regimes of conceptual logic and mechanical operation. The programmer seeks not only to choreograph and determine computational processes but also, at the same time, to engage with an uncanny space of mechanical alienation, in which the concept is recognised but as an executable, non-reflective phenomenon.

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Mechanical Labour (again)

I can’t help returning to this question: what sense does it make to refer to mechanical labour? The problem is this, human labour involves pursuing activities with no immediate reward in order to obtain delayed advantage. It combines alienation from the immediacy of animal gratification with an expectation of subsequent gain. According to Hegel, this is what lends labour its rational character. Mechanical processes, however, lack any capacity to recognise alternative possibilities or to anticipate rewards. They proceed without any sense of self-abnegation or calculation. Mechanical labour is labour only in that it performs tasks that humans would prefer not to perform – or are less capable of performing. It is labour stripped of its humanly rational elements and rendered as pure, alienated agency. In this respect, there can be no sense of suffering or exploitation, but also, perhaps, no sense of domination. Machine labour, for the machines themselves, is not a form of discipline or subjection.

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Mechanical Labour (again) (another question)

How can algorithmic, iterative human labour be related to mechanical labour? Can, for instance, the process of in-fill dotting in Central Australian Indigenous painting be meaningfully related to the process of intricate drawing in algorithmic computational art? They may share a very general, formal resemblance (in terms of features of repetition and fine detail), but is this sufficient to forge a link between two such culturally alien phenomena? If the process of in-fill dotting opens up a vital, non-reflective relation to aspects of Indigenous culture, this is very much because of a human dimension of shared time and labour. Here labour passes away from Hegel’s conception of rational abnegation and delayed reward towards a ritual context, in which the choreography of aspects of space, time and human action summons the shimmering realm of the Dreamtime. Now, although mechanical labour is associated with the breakdown of precisely such holistic, ritual, cultural frameworks, it may be that something of the older schema remains, if not adequately in the experience of ordinary work (think of Dicken’s Hard Times or the contemporary conditions of IT manufacturing workers in China) than in contexts in which the relation to labour is more freely determined. Artistic labour provides a possible (not altogether convincing) example. Of course, I am thinking particularly of the computational labour involved in algorithmic drawing. Here, very unlike the Indigenous painting context, the modes of labour elude human access. They occur in another, experientially inaccessible space and time. Yet, perversely, this may be what enables computational labour to discover a ritual aspect – a form of ritual appropriate for the modern day, in which the silent, blind operation of computational machines provides a bridge to the beyond human, to the inanimate, to a field of non-reflective shimmering. So, however unlikely, however dubious, I’ll stick with this analogy between in-fill dot painting and algorithmic drawing, because it highlights another way of conceiving the non-reflective dimension of computational labour; not as a conceptually determined figure of animate death, but as a charged point of access to another space altogether.

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