Nun waiting in line at the St Peter’s Basilica, Rome, 2010

For the last few years I have studied various remediation processes of media, in particular the effects of mobile smartphones on media practices. Whether they be iPad literary apps that foreground tactility and movement, mobile phone Augmented Reality experiences, or Virtual Reality and 360° films, I am interested in the sensory and experiential dimensions of these media forms, and how they differ from their precedents. We live in a digital media age of unprecedented proliferation of communication channels and technologies that transmit and transform content. Our media culture has become a polyphony of emergent digital forms that are taking their place beside television and film, as well as the traditional arts. Popular, amateur creative practices form vast strings of interrelated memes made possible by digital media. But our contemporary culture does not consist solely of the fan fiction, YouTube videos, and unfettered, crowd-sourced creativity described by writers such as Henry Jenkins and Clay Shirky. Older media and the arts are responding to their digital counterparts. In all these realms, the making and the consuming of culture—what we can call “writing” and “reading” in the largest possible sense—are changing, shifting from an emphasis on one single mode of perception at a time to an engagement with multiple, simultaneous literacies and the polyaesthetic. In articles such as this one, and this,  I examine that shift across a range of contemporary cultural forms. Emerging digital media that call upon multisensory engagements are key examples of how certain media affordances and processes of remediation produce new forms of engagements.  One way to understand the polyaesthetic media condition of today is to contrast contemporary practices with the very different ways of writing and reading, making and consuming that other, older media afford. Here, Marshall McLuhan’s tetrad becomes a productive platform for thought.

Me and Utterback’s TextRain

Originally, polyaesthesia was a rarely used medical term that described an abnormality of sensation in which a single stimulus is felt in several places. I use polyaesthetics to connect to sensory engagement, but in a way that retains the original Greek understanding of aiesthesis as the perception of the external world by the senses. I also want to expand the term to refer to the desire in contemporary media culture to foreground the use of multiple tools, practices, and modes of reception. The polyaesthetic is evident in media environments that call on more dimensions of the human sensorium than earlier media. In addition to senses, any concept that wishes to explain mediation, must include a dimension of the formal: hence, the term signals, too, the contemporary technological possibilities. For instance, Apple iPad is such a success in part because it provides a framework for endless possibilities for multitasking, various sensory inputs, and multiple remediatied forms housed in one device (whereas the Kindle, another handheld networked device, has thus far been firmly rooted in print culture’s reading habits). In fact, Apple routinely emphasizes the screen with its touch and gesture interface as key to interaction with the various iPads and iPhones. Polyaesthetic reading and writing, then, involve many senses by using multiple modes of expression, interaction with several media at once, technological affordances, and a liberal remixing of cultural “materials.” Polyaesthetics suggests that the default expressive mode of our time is remix (Lessig 2008; Manovich 2001, 2005) and remediation (Bolter and Grusin 1999).

Polyaesthetic writing or making requires polyaesthetic reading or experiencing. That is, we need to articulate a new kind of multisensory reading to make sense of a remix of still and moving images, sound, music, and mixed-media installations that require full-body engagement. While long a concern for the avant-garde throughout the 20th century, these multimedia experiences are now a commonplace and are accessible to a wider range of people than ever before. Our multimedia technologies have given rise to a whole host of “amateur” output: photography, video, writing and online publishing have become everyday activities through which people express ideas, feelings, and creative impulses and make sense of their lives and surroundings. From the posting of texts and photographs through Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr to more elaborate productions such as the many videos published by individuals on YouTube, we are becoming consumers, readers and writers that are finely attuned to the multisensory of the current media condition. (edited 170102)

Building in Metz, France


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