Review of Anna Munster, An Aesthesia of Networks: Conjunctive Experience in Art and Technology
The MIT Press, Cambridge MA
247 pp b&w illustrations
In An Aesthesia of Networks: Conjunctive Experience in Art and Technology Anna Munster seeks to emphasise the relational dimensions of networks and claims that we need to understand the radical implications of distributed neural architectures to gain a subtle and nuanced understanding of the contemporary condition. To this end, her book explores artistic projects, everyday viral content and activist interventions.
Munster argues that many network visualisations look alike following a link – node cartography, whether applied to the Internet, social networks or technical ecologies. In opposition to the numbing of perception that such uniformity of networks produces, Munster argues for the recognition of the movement of networks, where their conjoining and synthesizing generate novel aesthetic experiences. She argues that in order to understand networks more thoroughly in their constitutive dynamism, we should approach them through their deformations and conjunctions, best exemplified in contemporary artistic practice. For her, it is through the ‘heterogeneous togetherness’ 1 of humans and machines that networked experience occurs. How do networks experience? What operations do networks perform and undergo to change and produce new forms of experience? In order to answer these questions, her first task is to understand the collective processes at play in what she terms ‘networked aesthesia’ 2. These are the processes that conjoin the nonhuman and human through a dynamics of recursion. Our relationships with one another, through and with digital technologies, are enmeshed in an architecture that depends on crisscrossing routes and pathways, ‘networking-processes, proto-formations and imperceptible human/machine currents that conjoin social, info-technical, and aesthetic elements in novel ways’ 3.
What must be accounted for in this process is the novelty that is generated in the relations between humans and non-humans. This novelty is understood in a Deleuzian sense as novelty raised to the nth degree. Munster suggests that such novelty is ungraspable in the sensible but becomes the other of the sensible, becomes perceptible as it emerges from the imperceptible virtual. This processual emergence of ‘radical aisthesis’ 4 of the novel sensible is intensive differentiation. The crossing of signal and sensory modalities, the specificity of the conjunctions and disjunctions, the radical aesthesia produce a syn-aesthetics of networks.
The total networking of life, in which data and things have become increasingly entangled and interchangeable, has been both lauded for its radical potential and criticized for eradicating human creativity. Must the synthesis of heterogeneous elements always collapse in the homogenously transcoded digital world? Munster demonstrates how a range of experimental aesthetic strategies is able to interrogate networks in a radical manner by enquiring into the ‘thingness of networks’ 5 and by following a diagrammatic tendency. If the node and link mesh as the depiction of a distributed network can be seen as a blueprint, a course of action that maps and claims the territory, the diagram is an inflection of potential movements, the tracing of ‘indeterminate loopings’ 6. ‘The point of overlay between the map and the territory, then, is a fuzzy set of resonating, subtractive, differentiating resemblance relations’ 7. The diagrammatic of computational networks emphasizes their dynamic constitution, the asignifying semiosis of relays moving between the poles of difference and resonance. It enables the passage from virtual to actual, engendering events, which become rhythmic and recursive. In the dominant seamless image of the distributed communications system, messy conjunctions become invisible. It is the actual constituted connections, rather than how these take place, that come to the fore. Munster argues that the force of conjunction is a powerful event of rupture, diagrammatic networked experience that must be re-cognised. Ubermorgen’s Google Will Eat Itself (GWEI) is posited as an example of a project that exploits the inventiveness of the algorithm operating at the generative basis of Google’s search and popularity-oriented world, to invent an imperceptible world where the encounter changes from ‘Google-us’ to ‘Us-google’. Munster uses the term ‘data-undermining’ 8 to describe a range of such experimental art projects that consider how data comes to be aggregated and managed in contemporary networked cultures – some of the conjunction points mentioned above. GWEI produces an aesthesia of the algorithm, drawing on its relational variability, where click-through value is generated by the artistic and cultural networks of people who connect to the project. The point is not to try and escape from Google’s world but to explore its deformations, to stretch and tear. ‘A cartographic mosaic emerges alongside or extends energetically and intensively out from the Google-us coupling: a transversal, autopoietic transformation is in the process of being enacted … an autoproduction, in which new territories, alongside the recursive map-world/Google-us coupling are being created’ 9.
Another of Munster’s closely studied cases is a shift in database design during the 1960s and 1970s that suggests it was business rather than bureaucracy that was becoming the basis for shaping the new networked world. The database at the time was changing from an underlying ‘infra’ to a networked metastructure. ‘Infrastructure in networked information no longer takes the form of underlying structure but is rather a recursive and propulsive force’ 10. Values are constrained and enabled by the algorithms of the database. The fundamental generator of the structure of the relational database is the recursive generation of relations: a relation of relations. Data becoming databased ontogenetically generates a recursive networking.
A criticism that could be made here is that the relational database model is merely one instantiation, and a historically contingent one at that, of the wider phenomena of the database management system. Google itself has recently developed some of the so-called flat or NoSQL databases. Systems such as Big Table, for instance, are specifically designed to work across many machines. Google has also developed processes, such as MapReduce, whose fault-tolerance, scalability in the storage and large-scale processing of data-sets have been used to power its services. Hadoop, an open source version, has been adopted and implemented in the core infrastructure of companies such as Ebay and Facebook. MapReduce signals a shift from mainframe systems to large arrays of medium powered computers. This cloud-computing model uses associative storage, and informally organised collections of tagged data, rather than fastidiously normalised relational systems. Whilst Munster provides a detailed analysis of Google Earth, arguing that it instantiates an aesthetic rendering of the logic of Google search, it would be interesting to see a radical empiricist analysis of what might constitute data relations in terms of the specific technical arrangements, conjunctions that are in part brought about by these less relational, more associative systems.
Another writer who works with James at length, Adrian Mackenzie, suggests that radical empiricism also offers a different perspective on the collective and on action. ‘If conjunctive relations are not added to subjectivity, personhood, or things, it is because they compromise the multiple togetherness of things, experience and others’ 11. How then, he asks, can we think about this togetherness without resorting to underlying forms of identity or agency? Mackenzie cites Jean-Luc Nancy 12 to argue that capital inexorably captures signification and meaning-making processes, leaving out only the irreducible relationality of being-with. For Mackenzie then, any sense of ‘us’ and ‘we’ comes about through external relations that affect us. James’s radical empiricism provides a useful conceptual tool for analysing the spacing’s and reticulations of ‘with’ that are the only irreducible traits of collective life. Munster uses such a framework extensively for the analysis of technologically enabled art projects. For Mackenzie 13, the limitations of the applicability of James lie in how the latter rather equivocally characterises experience in terms of what he calls the inner and outer. For James, the differences between ideas (inner) and things (outer), inner and outer, depend upon the way the experience acts upon its neighbours. Inner and outer are part of the same surface, the same plane of conjunctive relations: any differences between them depend upon how the plane folds.
It could be argued that Gilbert Simondon’s understanding of what Munster describes as conjunctions – his theatre of becoming as processes of transduction – offer another fertile resource. Munster does indeed make use of his work but not as extensively as she might. Simondon provides us with useful tools for analysing our contemporary technical milieu through accounting for chemical, psychic, social and technical individuations. His notion of transduction is useful for exploring conjunctions or relational incompatibilities. Analysing YouTube videos Munster argues that it is with a Guattarian ‘refrain’ that one milieu is transduced into another, as something passes between everyday life and networked media. The refrain moves affect around, bringing about the dynamism of relations between planes of the living and the nonliving, art and technics, and temporalities. ‘The everyday vitality of viral videos generates network movements and molecularities that crystallize differently depending on what happens to the refrain’ 14.
Chapter six argues that Simondon provides a useful conception of perception as a mediating process, one that brings things together and, in such conjoining, individuates. For Munster, bringing-into-relation is the work of perception, establishing an internal resonance – not a system, but instead an ‘infolding of resonances that have metastabilized’ 15. She describes this resonance as ‘the sensorium as individuating continuum’ 16. Simondon helps her work further on the notion of networked synaesthesia, a process that traverses both the neural and the digital.
Following this Simondonian thread in the book, chapter one mentions an interview with Brian Massumi. Arguing that diagram and dispositif are intertwined temporally, she directly quotes from Massumi: ‘If the potential was not effectively there in the past, there is only one place it could have come from: the future’ 17. What is not developed by Munster is another thread of the interview which discusses Simondon’s technical object vis-à-vis its potential to become a ‘postindustrial open object’ 18, where he argues that Simondon’s work affords us the opportunity to travel to the very brink of an ethics of becoming 19. For Massumi, Simondon scrambles the causal order and in so doing links invention to an action of the future on the present. At the moment of invention two sets of potentials click together, becoming coupled into a single continuous system. At this point a synergetic threshold is crossed, ‘a quantum leap to a qualitatively new plane of operation’ 20. As with Simondon’s example of the Guimbal turbine, (a machine which is both turned and cooled by water, and both heated and lubricated by oil) the disparity of discontinuous energetic fields conjoins in an emergent continuity. While differentials still exist in the two fields, ‘There is a circularity between them, a recurrent feedback that has crossed a threshold to bring another plane of operation into existence’ 21. This other plane of operation within Simondon’s work points towards an understanding of invention that moves beyond notions of subjective creativity; it informs an ontogenetic understanding of our contemporary milieu, and critiques rudimentary oppositions between physical, vital and mechanical systems.
In Simondon’s discussion of the growth of crystal (somewhat akin to a Jamesian mosaic, in which change happens only on the edge) there is no substantial difference between inside and outside. If James’s thought on the inside-outside divide is somewhat indeterminate, Simondon additionally uses the figure of the membrane to differentiate interior from exterior. For Anne Sauvagnargues: ‘The functional and active polarity of the membrane configures the external milieu as much as it constitutes its internal milieu.’ 22. The biological exhibits potential to fold the exterior inside, and having done so, to then re-exteriorise it. While for Simondon physical matter within the crystal is inert, it still has the potential to individuate when it comes into contact with its solution: its milieu, its futurity. This also defines the leap from the chemical to the living. Being individuates into metastable systems and associated milieu, through transductive processes of asymmetrical internal resonance. Internal and external here are not absolute, but are rather metastable, dynamic, and relative to one another. Munster’s writing does offer a nuanced description of the ways in which certain movements of networks, their conjoining, transiting, clustering, intensifying, and synthesising can generate novel aesthetic experience. It seems that a further articulation of Simondonian conceptual vocabulary as outlined above could have drawn out some of the implicit potentials in the book.
For Munster, these movements of networks have become all pervasive in contemporary experience and a certain ‘computationally inflected artistic practice’ 23 moves us towards a ‘syn-aesthetics’, and, even more radically, a ‘synaesthesia’ of networks. Syn-aesthetics then, argues Munster, describes the relation of the signal to its cross processing in the creation of a machine of expression. What is important in the artistic practice of Carsten Nicolai and others, who utilise such approaches, are the transductions that occur at the human level of the relational experience of these works. Munster describes the transductive syn-aesthetics of these works as ‘generating experiences of modal and temporal transition’ 24. For Munster, we experience not change, but changing, and following James, she argues that we do not experience the quality or quantity of a relation, but rather are aware of its ratio of difference to another state. Thus, she likens her concept to Daniel Stern’s notion of the “amodal” 25 perception – the combination of different modalities (as with, for instance, seeing sound).
Computational art binds the varying elements of the audiovisual and substantialises them. But the question then is how to maintain the passage’s movement rather than collapse one thing into another. Munster seeks an understanding of the sensory, perceptual and cognitive activities of unification by investigating synesthesia. Synesthesia for her is processual: ‘the conjoining of sound and color is both conjunctive and an individuated percept … The question at hand is how to think perception as neither structure embedded in the mind nor the end product of a set of activities’ 26. Munster looks at neurological theories of synesthesia, describing two competing hypotheses: cross-modal transfer (CMT) and neonatal synesthesia (NS). In CMT, synesthesia is seen as the cognitive capacity for abstraction and representation in the human brain, while in NS it is a primary and originary infantile perception, which in normal development gets separated into different sensory modalities. Some human brains never fully differentiate and remain actively cross-modal. Munster argues that at the heart of both understandings lies an originary unity of the individual brain – which is either fundamentally perceiving in one theory or cognising in another. For her, however, it is this unity that requires explanation.
For the senses to individuate, they must always have been in a relational mode. While such a diagram does not solve the neurological issue of synesthesia’s causes, it does ‘provide a kind of plasticity for thinking synesthesia as process that both coheres and differentiates and that takes us away from the metaphor of ‘hard wiring’ that traverses both the neural and the digital accounts of the synesthetic’ 27. Synesthesia might then be thought of as a relational architecture mentioned above and the deployment of a digital syn-aesthetics should allow both the syn- and the aesthesia to be ‘resonant, modulating activities’ 28.
Networked anesthesia can designate the recursive creep of pervasive media, the situation in which we find ourselves today, where networked things are everywhere and require ever-increasing levels of our attention. Much of the work of pervasive media occurs in the background, promising not to distract, and yet, Munster argues, there is a nagging ‘thereness’ 29, that human cognitive and affective labour is required to attend to and administer. The result of this human machine conjunction is ‘a slow numbing of any novel possibilities for differently nuanced relations’ 30.
Munster posits YoHa’s Lungs (2005) as alternatively producing and as being productive of, an aesthesia of networks. The project is a ‘conjunctive contraption’ 31 that extracts something of the past and delivers it into the contemporary art space. For Munster, Lungs, which was first exhibited at ZKM – previously the site of a factory of the Nazi state war machine, fuelled by slave labour – attempts to provide a different conjunction of machinic assemblages, affecting an encounter with a syn-aesthesia of networks. Extracting data from forced-labour camp records and calculating the amount of air that each person took in their last breath this data is then turned into the sound of a loud scream that is played out in the gallery space. Munster argues that Lungs foregrounds the problematic relationship between contemporary art and the sites of post-war German culture. Its conjunctions ‘allow transitions between the archive and the database; between dead data and screaming corporeality; between software and the materialities of social relations and political events; between dry records and living labor; between the past and its contraction by, and exhalation out into the air of today’ 32.
Whereas art projects are able to create syn-aesthetic conjunctions, in Bruce Sterling’s description of the Internet of Things individuation by relations boil down to a form of ‘transactionalism’ 33. Such transactions, for Munster, are a reduced form of relationality as they disavow any potential novelty. Relations, on the other hand, ‘are not the extensive connections between things but the intensive conjunctions that make up the thing’s very (ontogenetic) reality … The same can be said for networked experience … Relation is already operative in the technicity of networking, in the diagramming – looping, refraining, synthesising – of networks’ 34. An alternative paradigm that Munster wants to construct would reactivate the relationality of the network, it would seek modes of living within the deterritorialising communicability of pure mediality. This is a collective reinvention of the place of passages between data, us and things, a social and contraptionist reinvention of ourselves in relation to and with things, through which we reinvent the ‘thingness of things’ 35. For Munster then, ‘what is at stake is the radical opening up of the network as a relational field of communicability in which, while neither things nor humans are seen as worlds apart, neither are they reduced to the sameness of a world composed by data administration. A field of enquiry opens up, away from the internet of things, in the vicinity of the thingness of networks’ 36.
A related case is the ecologically-oriented art, design and research collaboration Spurse figured as a ‘relationality of people’ ‘ 37. Spurse reconstitutes the network via creative research, invents new types of ethico-aesthetic network protocols, and questions how we might compose ourselves as networks. Spurse’s approach is to develop and collaborate on diagrams. Such diagramming is a process and a production (never solely a product) that creates lines of force in collaborative pathways. For Munster, such a technique brings about a living collective syn-aesthesia. What is removed is never completely used up and other potential unfoldings still remain within the diagram. Thingness emerges processually, at the edge of the mosaic’s force in a growing potential of relationality.
Anna Munster provides an insightful glimpse into the sticky, multi-speed movement of affect through contemporary computer networks and argues intelligently for the use of the diagram to spatialise and temporalise their nature. Such a process, she argues, should remain aware of the textures of transitions within these systems, instead of being used as a tool for data extraction. Diagramming is a relational technique that can feed back into the community. Munster sees such a tool as a contraptionist device, which takes incorporeal processes forward. She ends her book with the thought-provoking argument that the material diagram combines both technique and process to provide a different kind of technics, one that ‘concatenates the instrumental and the catalytic’ 38.
Projects such as Ubermorgen’s Google Will Eat Itself are excellent examples of contraptionist conjunctions of the instrumental and the catalytic. GWEI makes use of data undermining techniques, activating the utility of search to create an aesthesia of the algorithm. GWEI turns Google’s own search algorithm back onto itself in a knowingly cannibalistic recursive loop. In doing so it helps develop new understandings of these systems and creates novel social formations around them. Munster argues that such an approach develops a machine for expressing the relationality of networks, which relays the force of the edge where technologies join with interventions. For Munster, to think of things transversally in such a way is to be open to the interactions that take place between ecosystems, the mechanosphere, the social and the individual. In setting this out, she proposes compelling new pathways for finding the growing edges of research in digital media.
- Anna Munster, An Aesthesia of Networks: Conjunctive Experience in Art and Technology, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2013 p.6 ↩
- ibid p.5 ↩
- ibid p.9 ↩
- ibid p.9 ↩
- ibid p.15 ↩
- ibid p.29 ↩
- ibid p.25 ↩
- ibid p.83 ↩
- ibid p.69 ↩
- ibid p.76). To understand the network’s experience of data, the author sets out to interrogate the relational database. She argues that the labour of ‘databasing,’ attending to and administering the ongoing organisation of information, is where the initial conjunction that forges a relation with the social and the economic machine of cognitive capitalism occurs.
At this point the book’s strong claims for the resonance with the philosophy of William James chime clearly. She argues that through the internal relations that organise data – that conjoin, disjoin, and synthesise it – a Jamesian world is being reinhabited, a world unfolding in relational experience. ‘Content and relationality are one; there are now only data relations’ [11. ibid p.81 ↩
- Adrian Mackenzie, Wirelessness: Radical Empiricism in Network Cultures. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press 2010 p. 141 ↩
- Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural Stanford: Stanford University Press. 2000 ↩
- ibid p.146 ↩
- ibid p.109 ↩
- ibid p.165 ↩
- ibid p.165 ↩
- Brian Massumi ‘Technical Mentality’ Revisited: Brian Massumi on Gilbert Simondon. With Arnre De Boever, Alex Murray, and Jon Roffe. Parrhesia 7: 2009 p 36-45 (online) available at: <http://www.parrhesiajournal.org/parrhesia07/parrhesia07_massumi.pdf> (accessed 08-12-14) p.40 ↩
- ibid p.38 ↩
- ibid p.45 ↩
- ibid p.39 ↩
- ibid p.38 ↩
- Anne Sauvagnargues, Crystals and Membranes: Individuation and Temporality, In Arne De Boever, et al ed. Gilbert Simondon Being and Technology; Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 2012 p.67 ↩
- ibid p.154 ↩
- ibid p.158 ↩
- Daniel Stern, The Intrapersonal World of the Infant. New York: Karnac Books 1998 ↩
- ibid p.165 ↩
- ibid p.165 ↩
- ibid p.166 ↩
- ibid p.178 ↩
- ibid p.178 ↩
- ibid p.178 ↩
- ibid p.181 ↩
- ibid p.187 ↩
- ibid p.187 ↩
- ibid p.191 ↩
- ibid p.191-2 ↩
- ibid p.192 ↩
- ibid p.194 ↩