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Uncanny Networks: Dialogues with the Virtual Intelligentsia

Author: Geert Lovink
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003
Review Published: March 2004

 REVIEW 1: Ted Kafala

Geert Lovink’s Uncanny Networks is a collection of thirty-five interviews with new media theorists, critics, writers, philosophers, and artists. The book constructs a vibrant exchange of ideas between cultural and new media theorists, encourages a peek into the individual worldviews of artists who are using new technologies, and introduces critical and sometimes scathing remarks on global techno-libertarianism. The sense of the "uncanny" arises from the sense of surprise in the unexpected appearances and strange juxtapositions of some of the authors and artists among others, and the unusual cross-fertilizations and convergence of ideas that emerge from the (dis)organization of the book. Critical ideas and notions surface in a divergent, almost rhizomatic way as the reader moves through the book. This, in tandem with the probing, skeptical lens of the interviewer, makes Uncanny Networks an interesting and informative read.

(Dis)Orientation to Uncanny Networks

Lovink, media theorist and former editor of the Amsterdam-based Mediamatic magazine, gathered the interviews from various online and offline sources over a period of several years. Some of the interviews actually take the form of a string or series of events over a decade or more, like a conversation over time. There is a careful attempt in the "Forward," by Joel Slayton, to group the interviews into four overlapping categories: 1) media theory and criticism; 2) sociology of digital computation, networks, and communications; 3) ontology/architecture of media; and 4) new media art as information strategy (xiii). While these schema are interesting constructions themselves, I suggest that Lovink’s process of interviewing is the most substantial thread that runs through the book, as objectified in his self-interview in place of an introductory chapter. As with minimalist art (the first example that comes to mind), process may be as interesting as content in this book. I also observe that the thoughtful interview questions were sometimes more insightful and revealing than the responses.

As teachers, writers, activists, and artists, Lovink’s readers will respond to the hypermedial nature of Uncanny Networks by taking snippets, fragments, ideas, and snapshots of informant responses and making them their own. To suggest that the book takes on a nonlinear, "hypermedial" structure familiar to new media audiences may be an understatement, since the interviews have no chronology or immediate "links" to each other in terms of content. I suspect that few readers will be able to disconnect themselves from years of academic training and treat each interview in an extremely atomistic way. For those readers who search for "little pearls of wisdom," this book may be useful too, but new media audiences will want to read inside and between the interviews more broadly.

Theoretical Threads and Sutures

Each reader will discover her/his own valuable set of dialogs, discursive directions, and undercurrents in Uncanny Networks. Although there are many outliers, the reader may observe a geographical distribution of interviewees centered around a Berlin-Los Angeles nexus. While these cities serve as faux polar coordinates of the new media theory circuit, Lovink also takes a serious diversion into the developing new media art scene in the post-1989 Balkans and Central Europe: Interviews surface around a persistent digital divide in Bulgaria (Boyadjiev), the cultures of neo-liberal disorder, political upheaval, recalcitrant social realism, and 1950s style abstract formalism in Albania and Rumania (Muka, Dan), the proto-fascist fear of the "new" and the nostalgia for 1930s film noir in Slovenian cinema (Zizek), and the emergence of art-commercial hybrid media, fictional documentaries, and crossover genres in post-Bauhaus, post-socialist Hungary (Sugar).

Although the influence of the "Baudrillards" and "Virilios" is implicit and sometimes mentioned in the interviews, there is an absence of British, French, and Italian media theorists as interviewees (Bruno Latour is a major exception). Lovink acknowledges his own debt to German critics during the early part of his career (8). His view of the new media scene is considerably more utopian and pragmatic than many poststructuralist theorists of the 1980s, but is still critical of the hardware-oriented techno-libertarians and "New Age gurus" of Silicon Valley. As he insists, the dialog is no longer about rejecting or embracing the new media, but about forging an "independent new media culture" free of corporate control, and about creating spaces where a diverse group of people can meet and converge around new ideas (3-4).

Some of the interviewees are more ebullient about the emerging new media environment than others. Rather than celebrate the demise of Wired magazine’s male, libertarian culture after the dotcom bust, Peter Lunenfeld accepts the intrinsic importance of the commercial "demo aesthetic" in today’s design culture, nodding toward some artists who may have capitalized on the bandwidth-constrained web design of the 1990s. At the same time, he is glad to bury "vapor theorizing" and the techno-deterministic rhetoric surrounding new technologies, welcoming "radical stylistic departures" in new media art and design (233-40). Also acknowledging that art and economics are sometimes in collusion, McKenzie Wark looks toward everyday pop culture as a source of diversity in an age where "Gramsci is a publishing industry," and "Warhol is a commodity spectacle" (323-24). Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, media artist, also searches for new strategies to "corrupt the inevitability of corporate technologies," to free ourselves with cheaper alternatives to packaged video-streaming solutions, for example, and to bend the products of transnational corporatism to our will (313).

Similarly, while expressing a sensitive sociological awareness of conservative restructuring and the collapsing corporate welfare state in Japan, Toshiya Ueno embraces the subversive use of intermedia and "speculative" new media in DJ-raver, traveler, "urban tribe" youth cultures that have emerged in post-Colonial Asia and beyond. He perhaps overestimates the DJ "cut ‘n mix" aesthetic of re-invention as an ethos for a Gramscian "organic intellectual" vanguard, a new group of mediators who will inform and transform through "partying" people’s political awareness (273-74). Nevertheless, this kind of optimism about technology outlaws and (neo) avant-garde visionaries working within the constraints of corporate culture seems to color some of the interviews in Uncanny Networks.

As an example of more vehemently skeptical opposition to the global export of the Silicon Valley model, Paulina Borsook, critic and author of Cyberselfish, seems most directed in her condemnation of techno-libertarian culture. In her interview, one of the last in the book, she restates her opposition to that monoculture validated by market forces, bionomics, and a resurrected version of social Darwinism. Borsook cautions readers to resist Silicon Valley-driven business porn and post-dotcom, free market fantasies (338-45).

There is also some consensus among cultural theorists interviewed in Lovink’s book that historical deconstruction has been played out, that there has to be, as the philosopher Boris Groys suggests, more analysis of "qualitative content" (258). Many interviewees are hesitant to accept the "naive constructivism" of the cultural studies project and its emphasis on textual interpretations of reality to the exclusion of "visual thinking," the faith in media to communicate a meaningful message and not just "noise" (McLuhan), the evidence of a quantum shift toward photonic emission as the basis of remote telepresence, or the reduction of our minds and bodies to binary digits at rapid speeds (Virilio). Of course, I am greatly oversimplifying arguments on both sides here.

Contra Virilio, Latour points out that the blurred and shifting boundaries between images and objects in "virtual" spaces does not represent a revolutionary break with face to face interaction, but involves a selection of variable images and avatars (156-60). Cyberspace does not swallow up the user. Rather than viewing the computer as the abstract mechanism of a universal language that encodes and decodes everything, the materialization of Leibniz’s 18th century dream, Latour presents an "iconophilic" argument where images demonstrate transformation and deformation rather than bits and pixels (ibid.). As opposed to embodying an "empirical" quantity in pixel values or bit depths, new media images are viewed as analogical, ineffable, and apparitional in their self-varying, continuous transformation. Equally suspicious of opaque and Luddite discourses that criticize new media, Michael Heim searches to resurrect a "pragmatic metaphysics" to deal with electronic language and to help explain Virtual Reality (VR) devices and practices: VR effects include the feelings of trance and embodiment in alternate worlds -- a "Zen of the mind" -- and the simultaneous sense of social disconnection from the real, shared world (32-35). When plugged into such electronic mediascapes, Norbert Bolz points out that there is no denying that the eye absorbs five gigabytes of information per second (25), although "absorption" is reduced to mere sense perception; and so the Dionysian rain of images in new media may herald the rebirth of the Nietzschean aesthetic spectator capable of connecting to collective dreams and experiences (19-27).

Similarly, Frank Hartmann, philosopher, acknowledges a kind of Nietzscean "forgetting" whereby we are doomed to repeat forgotten moments of the past through the re-experience of a hybrid mix of analog and computer images and codes (302). Media affects the realm of the senses and not logical human thought (295). The work of valuation is still "out to lunch": Hartmann decries the Western obsession with language and descriptive semiotic interpretation that serves only to "recode" visual information into an "academic script" to the continued detriment of the material dimension (296). He asks, where is the theoretical insight that goes beyond the commonsense observations of any savvy consumer of media products?

Unknown Quantities, Future Convergences

In way of an answer, artists like Marita Liulia say that most of the world has just not arrived yet at the free, technophilic, creative moment of new media. Despite the serious, endemic, global digital divide, Liulia observes that most people everywhere are "users" rather than creators of new media. Expectations have not widely materialized concerning the emergence of democratic, new media forms and devices that would liberate the artist from dependence on the conventional camera and the necessity to capture and depict the "real world." High-quality content is expensive and demanding to create, so it rarely appears outside of Hollywood special effects films. Liulia mentions that even today many big museums are not equipped to deal with computer-based art (209), or they resist it on art historical grounds. Both digital media and hybrid intermedia require better ways of transcoding, broadband needs expansion, and artists need to breach the divide with engineers and their new, unexpected audiences (and visa versa). Everyone interviewed in Uncanny Networks seemed to agree that new media theory lags behind technological developments in speed and veracity. Artists, critics, and theorists must together fill the deficit in gender and cultural theory and rectify its current limitations to adequately understand what lurks behind new media sounds and images (206).

The little venues and snapshots into the lives of new media thinkers and practitioners in Uncanny Networks are refreshing and thoughtful, but many of the abundant ideas and theses forwarded in the book are largely unfinished. Readers will need a retrospective look in a decade or so to better understand what is happening now.

Ted Kafala:
Ted Kafala is assistant professor of Communication and Media Studies at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Applied Science. He teaches visual communication, new media, technology studies, video, and visual art courses. Ted has published critical articles on the relevance of the ideas of Deleuze and Virilio for art and new media. He continues to write in the interdisciplinary borderlands between art and technology, visual and textual studies, philosophy and cinema.  <kafala@earthlink.net>

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