What is in a name?

I have been reading lately about what we should call our times. Postmodern is out, and the term post-postmodern seems to gain ground as books and articles appear using post-postmodern to indicate that yet again our culture seems to have lived through an important shift. That we have moved past or beyond postmodernism and into something new. Critics such as Nicoline Timmer (Do You Feel It Too? The Post-Postmodern Syndrome in American Fiction at the Turn of the Millennium, 2010), Robert Samuels (New Media, Cultural Studies, and Critical Theory after Postmodernism, 2009), and Tom Turner’s City as Landscape: A Post-Postmodern View of Design and Planning (1996, Turner is one of the earliest adopters of the term) suggest such a shift in literature, culture, and architecture. One of the features of the post-postmodern  novel, according to Timmer, is a turn towards the human, to considering human concerns, along with an interrogation of solipsism.

At the same time, it is clear that (since a while) there has been a return among digital media critics to discuss embodiment, physical engagement, and sensory experience of convergent media forms, previously bracketed or even refuted by the rhetoric of the 1990s when concepts such as disembodiment, virtual reality, immersion and immediacy were central to the debate. (Although there are still those who cling to the idea that complete immersion into a virtual world is the ultimate goal for experience of for instance games or so called virtual worlds.) The reawakened interest in phenomenology (Mark B. N. Hansen to mention but one) also points towards such a shift, as does the interest in analyzing embodied experiences of digital media rather than thinking of how digital media can facilitate spaces for illusory experiences that foreground ocular engagement (with limited use of proprioception) such as the VR cube. Cyberspace seems to, finally, be a dead metaphor for the ways in which we engage with digital media (increasingly mobile and networked). A host of media critics (Hayles, Hansen) have suggested that we are enjoying a material or even medial turn following the linguistic turn (Rorty) and the pictorial turn (Mitchell).  In using “turn,”however, I find that it is important not to simply indicate a shift from one thing to the next, from one set of ideas to another. Rather it seems that we are living in a culture of multitudes and polyvalence (Bolter) in which incompatible practices exist simultaneously. We add up, remix, and re-use rather than discard, destroy and deconstruct in order to create the “new.”

Lately, I have had reason to return to Ihab Hassan’s essay “Toward a Concept of Postmodernism” for another project. I was surprised to find the following mentioning (referred to in passing):

The time has come, however, to explain a little that neologism: “indetermanence:” I have used that term to designate two central, constitutive tendencies in postmodernism: one of indeterminancy, the other of immanence. The two tendencies are not dialectical; for they are not exactly antithetical; nor do they lead to a synthesis. Each contains its own contradictions, and alludes to elements of the other. Their interplay suggests the action of a “polylectic,” pervading postmodernism.

30 years after Hassan’s essay, and after the admittedly seismic changes that digital technologies have brought about, I want to think about how we have moved from the polylectic to the polyaesthetic. If postmodern thought was characterized by tendencies of a polylectic force of indeterminacy and immanence, what does it mean to say that our moment in the beginning of the 21st century is characterized instead by polyaesthetic forces, or drives?

In one sense, polyaesthetic can simply be taken to mean the combination of many senses in the process of perceiving the world, if we understand aesthetics as its roots in the Greek word aiesthesis suggest: the perception of the external world by the senses. The term polyaesthetics has not been used much. The term appears infrequently in music, where the idea of the polyaesthetic is the striving towards the integration of various forms of perception to aid artistic appreciation (Kertz-Welzel). In psychology, polyaesthesia was once used to refer to an abnormality of sensation in which a single stimulus is felt in several places (OED). I want to use polyaesthetic in a few slightly different ways.

The polyaesthetic can refer to artifacts that appeal to many senses by using multiple modes (although some senses are often foregrounded). As a descriptive term, then, it bespeaks the near default expressive mode of our time, that of remix (Lessig 2008, Manovich 2001, 2005), or remediation (Bolter and Grusin 1999). The term would then join a host of other terms that indicate the use of many media or material to form an aesthetic object or experience, such as multimodality, intermediality, and multimedia.

I am also thinking about how polyaesthetics can be compared to the more widely used concept of “synaesthesia.” Both these terms seek to explain how we understand experiences of digital media, how our senses perceive media forms. I would say that today the standard mode of perceiving the world, reading and experiencing cultural artifacts (which is what interests me most in this particular study) is increasingly polyaesthetic. We use digital machines that are multimodal for work and pleasure, information and guidance in everything from finding my way in an unknown city to checking recipes for dinner, from accessing scholarly and professional material at work to managing corporate culture. Without resorting to theories of neuropsychology or cognition (devastatingly and rapidly growing), I want to examine how cultural conditions affect our practices and expectations, imagination and cultural rhetoric; how the contexts that seem to be conditioning our behaviors can be understood historically and culturally rather than biologically. I understand senses then as more than just the sum of their physical parts and functions, just as the ways in which we understand and read multimodal information cannot simply be understood by formal analyses of layout, construction, code, or process.

To be continued, as they say….


  1. Really glad to find your blog. Your comments are very interesting. They connect in some ways to my book “Digimodernism” (Continuum), which considers the textual impact of digital technologies as a cultural dominant beyond the postmodern.

    1. Alan, thank you for your comment; I am glad that you found my post interesting. I am not that far into my project so it is very useful to get feedback and learn of new material. Although, I did know about your book, and I have read the introduction. I also enjoy reading your blog on occasion. Since one of my main research interests (and the topic of my PhD) is digital literature (poetry and fiction), your concept of digimodernism is quite thought-provoking. The questions that I have been grappling with for a while are, where is literature’s cultural position in this age, and what are some of the insights we can draw at this point from the (inevitable) changes to literature given digitalization? So, I am looking forward to reading the rest of your book.

  2. It is quite interesting to imagine how we might be reading or understanding cultural artifacts differently (polyaesthetically) today. One question that arises for me is this: what is the relationship between multimedia, polyaesthetics, and embodiment? You are right in emphasizing the importance of multimedia or multiple modes of representation in our reading experiences today: text, static images, video, sound are combined to a greater degree today than perhaps ever before. But these media appeal to the eye and the ear–the two senses that were engaged in media throughout the 20th century too. Why and how is the body more engaged today in our reading or reception of media?

    1. This is a very good question; one that I tend to be of two minds about. On the one hand, it seems frivolous to say that the situation for experiencing media is radically different today given the continued importance of text and image, and consequently, as you say, the eye and the ear. On the other hand, the intensity and insistence of multiple media forms in modes of representation seems to be of a different order today. One aspect of this shift in focus is, of course, that inherently multimodal forms proliferate and are increasingly successful and important in our culture (games, social media practices, digital textuality such as blogs, etc). But the shift is also affecting that paragon of the print culture: the novel. Novels are, again one might say, including visual material, experimenting with both content and form in ways that echo our contemporary moment, and, of course, they are also subject to digitalization and can be read on various electronic devices today. Those devices are often handheld, mobile, and networked which allows for a different reading context. The body is also engaged in the reading, as it always is, in that we are handling, or learning to handle, an electronic device. We are invited to interact by touch to access the reading material. These material conditions shape our reading today as much as they did in earlier periods. (Interestingly, though, the print metaphor is still very strong in the interface and interaction design of those applications. For instance, Terry Harpold gave an interesting talk recently at the ELO conference at Brown University dealing with some of those issues: “His Master’s Voice: E-Books, Illusionism, and the Future of Electronic Reading”.)

  3. Hi Kaz,

    It is good to hear from you. I did know about your site. When I started researching the term a few years ago, I came across your site among others. Obviously, neither of us coined the term since it has been in use for quite some time, in for instance education (see for instance: Journal of Aesthetic Education. Vol. 18, No. 2 (1984). Hanan Bruen “Old-New Land”: Cultural Integration and Polyaesthetic Education in Modern Israel” (pp. 17-29). To my mind it is also related to polyaesthesia and synaesthesia. However, what I find interesting, though, is how we both appropriate the term and reconfigure its meaning in different ways. I find your particular approach quite interesting and, if I have understood your ideas correctly, they are grounded in your artistic practice? My research during the last decade has been on digital literature and aesthetics, and I find your work to intersect in fascinating ways with that community. Perhaps you are aware of some of that work?
    I would love to hear more about your work as it develops, and I look forward to continuing the dialogue.
    My best,

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