curation, gender, and the new aesthetic
Everyone seems to be talking about the New Aesthetic lately. Have you seen it? It might possibly have shattered records of attention credits/takes in its opening weekend. In its tumblr form, it has has been around for a a scant year or so, instigated by James Bridle. He said he had been collecting things for a while now, and described it as a “mood-board for unknown products.” Drones, mapping, surveillance infrastructure, conspicuous augmentation, pixelation, fetishising obsolescence, technological ghosts, nostalgia for the glitch, #botiliciousness, the haptic revolution, and so on. Visual as all get out. All the aesthetic seductiveness of a near future that might be already here.
Then a few days ago, Bruce Sterling wrote a 5000 word mini-opus on the New Aesthetic at Wired. As if to a younger sibling, praising and cajoling in equal measures, he theorised and contextualised the New Aesthetic as more than just a tumblred accumulation, as something more akin to a movement. It was a kind of flashpoint, creating—as these things are wont to do—a flurry of responses. A lot of people had been meaning to write about the New Aesthetic, for a while; for ages you know, and what better empyrean spark than the convergence of SXSW and one of the better known Bruce Sterlings? He said,
The straights did catch on, with the Wired essay was followed by several men responding to a man (Sterling) writing about a concept put forward by the original man (Bridle). Chief among them was Adam Rothstein at POSZU, who called for a New Politics as accompaniment. He said,
All of which is to say, The New Aesthetic is about new ways of looking; new ways of seeing. And thus far, with few exceptions, it seems to be a whole lot of men doing the looking, the talking, and the writing. In a fantastic response to all the men and all their responses, Madeline Ashby invokes the ghost of Laura Mulvey with a post on the New Aesthetics of the Male Gaze. She says,
Ashby alludes to something seemingly basic but as-yet unacknowledged. The New Aesthetic is about looking, undeniably. Yet as a paginated yet endlessly scrollable tumblr, is in itself a thing to be looked at. It is about being looked at by humans and by machines, about being the object of the gaze. It’s about the dissolution of privacy and reproductive rights, and the monitoring, mapping, and surveillance of the (re)gendered (re)racialised body.
Is it crude (not to mention awkward) to suggest that the attraction of the New Aesthetic lies in the chance to briefly inhabit a feminised subjectivity? Possibly, probably. Still, it’s worth returning to Laura Mulvey, and her seminal—!—essay on the gaze, Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema. Here, she discusses the three gazes present in cinema: the directorial or camera’s gaze, the audience’s gaze and the gaze “of the characters at each other within the screen illusion.” Employing psychoanalytic theory, she goes on to illustrate how the conventions of the medium deny the first two categories and subordinate them into the third, diegetic gaze.
This might be easily mapped to the New Aesthetic. The Vertovian ‘mechanical eye’ of the machine and our clicking, scrolling, flickering gaze are both subsumed into the diegetic, relational gaze onscreen. To paraphrase Kaplan, Machines gaze at humans and other machines, who become objects of the gaze; the viewer, in turn is made to identify with this machinic gaze, and to objectify the humans and machines on screen. The New Aesthetic’, then, would not seem to be so much about looking or being looked at, but rather the scopophiliic interrelation between people and machines. People looking at machines looking at people, and vice versa. People forming relations with Bridle &co’s unknown objects and vice versa.
New Aesthetician Greg Borenstein, responding to Sterling by bringing in Object Oriented Ontology (OOO), says
I’m interested, too, in what new subjectivities might emerge from the New Aesthetic. Does the rogue surveillance drone—or its detached yet still PTSD-prone human—add in a few cheeky loops and aerial curlicues just because it knows it’s being looked at? Does the Real Doll defrag itself, cathartically, to sleep because Anna Wintour said something catty about its new hardware? Will we see a spate of 90s-chic post-speciesist sitcoms in which we pose with our arms slung casually over metal plated shoulders?
What feels really contemporary about the New Aesthetic, though, is its reflection of a broader turn from commentary (say, blogging) to curation (microblogging). And within microblogging, a turn from the purely textual (say, Twitter) to the visual-blend (Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest). I want to touch on the curious act of «curation» itself—of the future aesthetic, via tumblr; of self through social media or cosmetics, surgery and so on.
It’s a strange word, and one which used to be markedly associated with the performance of traditionally feminised labour. Curing hams and charcuterie and ‘putting up’ produce for the winter. Chicken soup for the common cold; restoratives, remedies and healing. Unpaid labour that structures and enables paid, productive labour. A putting together, an assembling, a nurturing, a taking-care of things and people.’Curation’ has interesting ecclesiastic connotations too; a curator used to be the religious professional tasked with the care, cure, and guardianship of souls. In art or in publishing, a convenient value-markup. And in law, a curator is tellingly ‘a guardian of a minor, lunatic, or other incompetent, especially with regard to his or her property.’
What does it then mean for the New Aestheticians to aggregate and curate the future-as-commonplace book? Are they healing a rupture, performing emotional or reproductive labour, guarding and rearing the bots pre-Singularity? And how might we bring about Mulvey’s ‘destruction of pleasure is a radical weapon?’
Mulvey aside, images v New Aesthetic
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