For a couple of weeks now, I’ve been thinking about what the political component to the New Aesthetic might be. The New Politics that accompany the New Aesthetic, as part of the New Aesthetic, is going to be largely a nebulous concept. Bruce Sterling’s latest delve into the theory of the NA was basically an explanation of how a Tumblr works, that is also applicable to the NP:
How do you grasp the schauung in the weltanschauung, and the geist in the zeitgeist? Where is the boundary between the “New Aesthetic” and a new aesthetic?
So far, the best evidence that something has really changed is of this kind. Imagine you were walking around your own familiar neighborhood with some young, clever guy. Then he suddenly stops in the street, takes a picture of something you never noticed before, and starts chuckling wryly. And he does that for a year, and maybe five hundred different times.
That’s the New Aesthetic Tumblr. This wunderkammer proves nothing by itself. It’s a compendium of evidence, a heap of artifacts, and that evidence matters. It’s a compilation of remarkable material by creative digital-native types who are deeply familiar with the practical effects of these tools and devices.
We don’t need to romanticize the medium of the Internet any further to get that culture is not anywhere near as nailed down as it used to be. But when it comes to theories of the Political, we’re still fighting a 20th Century hangover. We still have this line of thought that dictates technological/political transitivity. If Twitter is somehow political, then Politics must somehow be Twitter. Douglas Rushkoff makes this case just about as good as anyone, and while it all sounds great (especially when you are online) it is actually not true whatsoever. Just because Politics reminds us of the Internet and uses the Internet and is found on the Internet, does not mean that it is the Internet.
And this is important to keep in mind, because while “how” a Tumblr works is important to understanding the status of the theory/politics of the New Aesthetic, the theory/politics of NA is not reducible to Tumblr. Think of the difference between new-aesthetic.tumblr.com and wearethe99percent.tumblr.com. These are very different things, while they are also very similar things. “We are the 99 Percent” is a piece of 20th Century political branding, and a pretty brilliant piece at that. It galvanized the movement, and introduced it to the world at large. Each post was a new propaganda billboard, and in place of Dear Leader’s gleaming visage, we received a pair of eyes, and the heart-tugging poverty of a hand-written sign. Now we are stuck with that haunting slogan of “99 Percent”, which curses us as much as “The People’s _____” cursed communism with its subtle but irresistible irony.
And we know that “We are the 99 Percent” was a piece of 20th Century politics, because it was easy to come up with a counter version: “We are the 53% Percent”, or whatever it was. If you can have counter-protesters, no matter how effective or silly they might be, then you are in the realm of 20th Century politics where everything has an opposite, whether it be a Right to a Left, an Authoritarian to an Anti-Authoritarian, or a Centralized to a Distributed.
But where is the “counter” to New Aesthetics? Where is the “Old Aesthetics” Tumblr? If there was such a thing, it might attempt one of these three possibilities:
1) invent an atemporal cultural genre (Steampunk, Atompunk, Dieselpunk, etc.) in an attempt to be fantastically “old”.
2) rehash a previous genre (cyberpunk, New Age, Great-Gatsby-Punk, whatever) in an attempt to be historically old.
3) it would be a list of stuff that is “normal”, in the temporally present. A photo of an iPhone on a glass coffee table. A utility pole on a regular street with exactly the expected number of cables leading to it. Something like that.
None of these are really opposites, because they don’t attempt to refute the logic of NA, they just present something that is alternative to it, and by doing so, validate the NA’s conglomerate intrigue. These alternatives are the phenomenal “field” to the NA’s blurry “shape”. These are the far-flung edges of that indescribable shape in the center that avoids the rules of Euclidean solids.
The Theory-Object of NA does not rely upon oppositional borders. But when one attempts to theoretically nullify the NA, these alter-concepts appear. This is important to remember. The Tumblr Theory-Object does not come into existence by opposing itself to a non-Tumblr Theory-Object, or by opposing itself to a Tumblr non-Theory-Object. Just as a revolution-that-uses-Twitter does not rely upon a revolution-that-does-not-use-Twitter as its opposite to bring itself into positive being, in proving the former to be a definitive case of “Twitter Revolution” in contrast to a “Non-Twitter Revolution”. This is the logic that proves that a war that uses aircraft, in that it is different from a war without aircraft, is suddenly an “Air War”. And yet, when you hold up the example of “Non-Twitter Revolution” on the edge, you do realize something different is happening in the middle, just not a binary opposite.
This binary logic needs to be left behind in the 20th Century, when it was still useful. It is an epochalizing, casuality-dependent, negative theology of time. The NA does not come “from” something, or will it “turn into” something. It appears to be spontaneous, because of its composite, non-ideological composition. It is not actually spontaneous, of course. But the Theory-Object of the NA is an assemblage of cultural objects and theoretical considerations, that once seen, like an optical illusion, is very difficult to un-see. And if you wish to make it difficult to see an optical illusion, you certain do not just stare at its “opposite”. Because what is the opposite of an optical illusion?
We are not free from the specter of 20th Century Wars, anymore than we are free from 20th Century logic, or 20th Century politics. However, a new logic and politics is emerging, for whatever reason. It is interesting by the nature of its non-symmetrical difference from these previous ways of thinking. It may or may not be really “New”, it may or may not be an “Aesthetic” or a “Politics”. But it is interesting, self-generating, and self-accumulating. Therefore, it deserves us taking a good look at it.
While the “optical illusion” metaphor of a Theory-Object is all well and good for something as cultural and neither-here-nor-there as an “Aesthetic”, for a Politics, things become more difficult. Politics, heretofore, have necessitated “doing something”, or “fighting against something”, or “standing for something”. If these “demands” are not immediately apparent, then certainly the Politics must have a good reason, and define itself in the negative to these centralized theoretical aspects of Politics, right?
Perhaps, if we are leading with ideology. If we were preoccupied with convincing others that we were “right”, then we should be worried about the terms of the argument that our Politics is going to define. This leaves New Politics open to the perpetual criticism of 20th Century politics: it is not a “real politics”, it doesn’t “accomplish anything”, it has “no definition” that would determine whether we are doing it or not. All of which are true to an extent. And, if joining a 20th Century politics actually changed anything for anyone in the 100+ years throughout which it has attempted to do so, this might actually be something to worry about.
This different Theory-Object is assembling itself. It is not an alternative to something, an occupation of something, or a dual power organization in relation to something. These are “oppositional” epochs, like a Twitter Revolution. The New Politics is much more concerned with the particular problematics of life in The Street, so to speak, than of articulating a particular banner for arenas or agoras. And there is a long, long list of these particular problematics. So many and so diverse, that they can’t be listed on a party platform, a conceptual map, or even a Wiki. Maybe some of them would fit in a Tumblr, though.
But let’s cut the theory, as I think I’ve said more than enough for one blog post. Let’s watch a video.
This video for Diplo and Nicky Da B’s song “Express Yourself” is a strong example of the New Politics, in my opinion:
What do you call this thing, from a political standpoint? 20th Century Politics labels this as “pop culture”, “socio-economic culture shock”, “performativity of sexuality”, “urban culture”, “sub-culture”, “hip-hop poetics” or any other number of meaningless categories that are not the “WOM WOM WOMWOM WOM” when the cut drops at 0:15. But this is not even about escaping from the theoretical language to a more ludic expression of art, and calling that Politics. It is about all of it, wrapped into a phenomenological assemblage of any number of potential theory angles, while also being captivated by the beat, and feeling one’s hips start to move in expressive solidarity with “what this is”.
And what is this? It is Hard Bounce, it is New Orleans, it is a DJ Hit, it is Video Art, it is Sex, it is Politics. It is freaking out (insert cultural appropriate slang phrase here) to music in a convenient store in a certain part of town. It’s me watching this, thousands of miles from New Orleans, and still feeling it. It’s putting this video in a pile of others, and watching them all in a row, or posting saving them to “Watch Later”, or posting this to a Tumblr, or embedding this in a blogpost and writing “see, this is what I’m talking about”.
And that’s all I want to really say about this particular piece of the puzzle, other than the main thing this video makes me want to do is Make Stuff, really badly. And not just any Stuff, but the sort of Stuff that might, in another decade, have been a spectacle worthy of shocking the bourgeois out of their slumber, but in this day and age is just one more thing that will be as mentally and bodily captivating as this is, that will get circulated through certain channels for a while, and then will go to sleep, until kids rediscover it some day in the future and pirate it for parts. And then I want to blast this Stuff in the streets until I get tired of it, and then make something else.
Now, this is music. But I want to do this with other things too. With buildings. With protest tactics. With water filtration systems. I want to do this with Stuff that makes the world a better place, at least for a few people. Maybe this is only me, because I have some delusional drive for being Political in my psyche. Maybe for most people, this is simply a New Aesthetic, that they will look at and then click through. But for me, this weird-desiring-to-make-Stuff feels like something that I am already doing, most of the time.
Finding weird stuff, copying it, and amplifying it as loud as I can. But for a reason. Is this any closer to anything meaningful? I’m not sure.