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….