20th November 2012
‘Is research today occupied more with mundane acts of recategorisation, and – after Bologna – with what Lyotard already called performativity? Or does it still engage the kind of marvel and wonder that so many ascribe to Pluto and that BWPWAP captures as a cultural term?’ (Transmediale)
In the late seventies, Lyotard claimed that research and culture would be increasingly legitimated not on their own terms, but through their performance in supporting the smooth running of governmental, economic and bureaucratic systems; treating them as inputs and outputs in the production of power, something he referred to as ‘performativity’ (xxiv).
He suggested a ‘paralogical’ approach to offset this tendency, which broadly meant pursuing those kinds of research and culture that highlight and de-stabilise underlying systemic conditions, and that critique, or change the rules of such systems. This paper suggests that glitch-art practices constitute a vibrant ‘paralogical’ response to a performativity within arts and research, though this is not to say that they are, de facto, immune to it. The argument contends that t(h)inkering (Huhtamo), DIY and heuristic strategies provide a useful way forward in critiquing and sustaining glitch paralogies.
2. Knowledge and Performativity
Although the epithet of postmodernism now feels distant and somewhat stale, we have not yet experienced any clear break with it, (Varnelis) indeed many of the concepts around which it was formulated hold true now more than ever – the distrust of meta-narratives; the championing of plurality; subjectivity, contingency and context; the problems of authorship and originality… these issues remain today, though are perhaps thought of as truisms, stable enough to be considered done-to-death within academia.
Reading Lyotard’s ‘The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge’ today however, one is struck by its prognostic accuracy. In it, one of Lyotard’s key arguments was that the cybernetic characteristics of contemporary culture legitimate knowledge not for its own sake, but for its performance. His claim suggests that the world of ideas and aesthetics is no longer valued in itself, warning that their institutionalisation, or at least the changing qualities of institutions, might drain them of meaning.
It is interesting to note the central role accorded to cybernetics in this argument. The wide applicability of cybernetics has been due to its emphasis on systems over content: biology, economics, weapons, ecology and many other fields, might all be thought of as network structures of control and feedback; interlinking operations and transformations of signals and messages. Accordingly, Lyotard’s notion of performativity (which he draws from Niklas Luhman and Jürgen Habermas) implies performative legitimation is granted not on the inherent qualities of research, practice, education etc. but on their ability to produce maximal results by minimal means, for the upkeep of the system they exist within. (Halbert 1)
The systems emphasis of cybernetic thinking took its cue from information theory, and one can note parallels between performativity and the qualities ascribed to information within this field. Key to the development of information theory was the conceptualisation of information as quantity without semantic meaning, of interest solely in engineering or mathematical terms. Similarly, the issue with performativity is that it ignores the content of research, education, science and the arts, in favour of their ability to perform and produce results. As Terranova has argued, our culture has been dubbed informational not simply because of the vast morass of information we now live with, but also because the characteristic dynamics of information now impact upon all spheres of contemporary life. (7) In discussion around politics, business, education and other fields Terranova suggests:
Communication management today increasingly involves the reduction of all meaning to replicable information—that is, to a redundancy or frequency that can be successfully copied across varied communication milieus with minimum alterations. (57)
Legitimation through performativity can be seen as a natural result of the increasingly informational and networked quality of a post-industrial context. Perhaps the key problem for Lyotard is the assumption that knowledge can undergo a translation into something that suits systematisation, without in itself being changed irrevocably: that it is commensurable with the systems which use it in the production of power. It might be argued that the informational, performative emphasis within research and culture leads to a flattening out and instrumentalisation of socio-cultural processes, grounded in the smooth running of the system, rather than in meaning for it’s own sake. Such an approach ignores detail, grain, and interest – favouring the paths of least resistance.
On the other hand, Lyotard suggested (perhaps somewhat provocatively) that even performativity has positives: including its emphasis on transparency, it’s predictability and broadly speaking, its efficiency. (op.cit. 62) In the recent climate of economic austerity, such characteristics take on new significance, though as a characteristic of post-industrial society, performativity has, of course, been on the rise for many years. Broadly speaking, performativity is a fact of life within post-industrial, informational culture and as such, here to stay. The challenge then, rests in how it is dealt with – and here Lyotard suggests a typically post-modern move.
‘Paralogy’ as an alternate mode of legitimation to that of performativity. Lyotard uses the term to refer to legitimating discourses that: explore paradoxes and anomalies; foreground the critique and destabilisation of existing methodologies; create new methodologies; and that disrupt the Habermasien notion of ‘consensus community’. Habermas felt that ‘legitimacy [was] to be found in consensus obtained through discussion’, (Lyotard op.cit. xxv) which Lyotard sees as problematic, as it flattens diversity and difference. (Halbert op.cit. 2) Paralogy is therefore an approach that favours dynamic tensions and heterogeneity over operativity and consensus. It is the bending of rules, the creation of new rules, and a self-reflexive awareness of the rules that govern research and culture.
It must be said at this point that performative and paralogical legitimation are not mutually exclusive: research might be in the best interest of the institution even whilst it is critically aware; artistic processes may be antagonistic and self-reflexive and nevertheless benefit the systems of legitimation they exist within – for example through incorporation into art markets, festival circuits, commercial products, the language of film, television and music. Moreover, paralogy need not be confined to the arts. For Lyotard it can be used across disciplinary boundaries and beyond academic contexts. One might say that in any given field it reverses the cybernetic model, foregrounding the specifics and granularity of knowledge over its systemic characteristics.
4. Glitch practices
Glitch practices are interesting in this respect as they often concern themselves with systems at the point of failure: communications, software, media technologies – systemic materials at the moment they collapse into granularity and difference. Therefore glitch art might constitute a paralogous approach in drawing our attention to the materiality of its media, the conditions of technology and the constructed character of aesthetics. In hacking, bending, and repurposing they are changing the rules of the systems they exist within; simultaneously helping us better understand the conditions of technology, and suggesting new approaches and attitudes through with to approach such conditions.
By focussing on failures, inconsistencies and the problematics of systems, glitch practices foreground the incommensurability of materials, knowledge, culture – in other words that such things do not, and should not be treated as inputs and outputs within the production of power. Glitch practices have, for some time taken the detritus of technology as their subject; reimagining material cast-offs, marginalised ideas and aesthetics as valuable, despite (and because) they have been deemed ineffective by the matrices of legitimation they existed within. In such a context, glitch practices stand in dynamic tension to the smooth running homogeneity of various systems – corporate, informational, cultural, social – feeding from their trips and mistakes; delineating the cybernetic dream even as they reveal its status as illusion.
A further paralogical aspect of glitch practices is that they are often participatory and based on do-it-yourself (or do-it-together) practices, which in some sense take powers of legitimation away from institutions and corporations. Lyotard argues that through the ‘thorough exteriorization of knowledge […] the old principle that knowledge is indissociable from the training of minds is becoming obsolete…’ (op.cit. 4) However, this emphasis on DIY methodologies is often connected with self-taught approaches and motivated by surprise and engagement with the materials. Here, glitch practices are a way to understand technology, culture and aesthetics from a hands-on perspective, forming a heuristic function that displaces the need for institutional legitimation. In this regard glitch practices (and open source values more widely) raise some significant issues for academia – both because they call into question the relevance of academic validation itself, and if this issue is put to one side, because the critical frameworks through which to understand these emergent phenomena necessarily struggles to catch up with such grass-roots participatory practices.
5. Performativity of Glitch
Despite the potential of glitch practices, such aesthetics are not immune from recuperation into performative legitimation structures. What remains problematic is that aesthetics – even noisy ones – are determinate – governed by codes and rules of language. Whilst glitch is well placed to reveal the inconsistencies of the system, and temporarily bring about personal or poetic encounter; faced with finite aesthetic outcomes it becomes easy for systems to account in advance for such disturbances and recuperate antagonism into standardised processes. Through over-exposure glitch aesthetics can become clichéd and drained of their impact; they lose their ability to provoke when their tactics are aped by more stable, easily accountable fields such as advertising, popular music, and the music technology industry (for example in the production of glitch plug-ins); in short, their sharp shock loses its punch.
Glitch theorists and practitioners already attempt to account for these issues (though conceptualised somewhat differently) through an emphasis on process, ‘wild’ or ‘pure’ glitches (Cloninger 10 and Moradi 8 respectively) and the moment(um) of glitch (Menkman). Rosa Menkman discusses this tension in the ‘Glitch Studies Manifesto’:
…to design a glitch means to domesticate it. When the glitch becomes domesticated, controlled by a tool, or technology (a human craft) it has lost its enchantment and has become predictable. It is no longer a break from a flow within a technology, or a method to open up the political discourse, but instead a cultivation. (7)
Whilst the essence of glitch is an unexpected malfunction, (Motherboard 1) to use it within aesthetic contexts means, in some sense, to prompt – and expect – such malfunctions. If performativity can be aligned with stability and efficiency, a key ambition for Menkman and others is to avoid this trend towards homeostasis and predictability by invoking glitches in the moment(um) or ‘in the wild’ (Cloninger 10) – through, for example, live performance, or unreliable machines rather than plug-ins and recordings.
Such discourses provide useful concrete examples of tensions between performativity and paralogy in action – playing out the tension between system and unstable rule set; yet there remain questions around the degree to which such strategies solve the problem or simply parallel the notion of Just-In-Time manufacture. Clearly the tensions between wild and conserved glitches are full of productive antagonisms that, in themselves keep discourses firmly focussed on the assumptions and conventions of such practices: a good indicator of their status as paralogous. But there are other strategies diagrammed by the notion of paralogy that glitch suits very well.
Perhaps the problem here is not the individual instances that might be thought of in terms of glitch and noise practices, but their aggregation into a stabilised genre and defined generic conventions. In all good examples of glitch-art (or any other art for that matter) the subject overflows generic characteristics. In glitch art it’s not the noise that is interesting per se, so much as the relation of noise-to-signal (known as the ‘equivocation’ within Information Theory) that counts: whilst noise is the unifying generic convention, the meaning is derived in how the signal is modulated by it. From this perspective, context becomes the dominating structure, not genre.
To extend the paralogical potential of glitch and noise means to avoid its stabilisation as a genre geared to fulfilling the expectations of the art market, festival circuit, or research institution. What remains of glitch when one leaves behind generic convention? An emphasis on the materiality and limits of media; of a hands-on, tinkering, heuristic approach; on ‘doing it yourself’, but perhaps more importantly on community practices – Do It Together or Do It With Others. Finally, if one substitutes an emphasis on noise for its equivocation, such work can be critiqued and mobilised without resorting to generic conventions. It becomes less important to emphasise the affective shock of glitch, and more important to trace the ecologies and archaeologies of such ruptures. This way of thinking further aligns glitch and noise practices with disciplines such as Media Archaeology, already a fruitful connection made by many practitioners but theorised by, amongst others, Garnet Hertz and Jussi Parikka in their Zombie Media project at Transmediale 2011.
6. Thinkering Approaches
Many glitch practitioners turn to media archaeological means to do this (Cory Arcangel, Paul DeMarinis, Garnet Hertz, Derek Holzer, Rosa Menkman, Yasunao Tone to name a few), and indeed the overlap between such practices is significant. Archaeology in this case is used in a Foucauldien sense to refer to an epistemological exploration of power and knowledge, specifically through the careful unpicking and disentanglement of objects, practices and discourse to reveal the ‘layered “unconscious” of technical media culture.’ (Parikka 2012:5) Such a focus enables a very direct addressing of the issues around contextualisation, rooting the momentum of glitch within the threads of long standing paralogical histories.
…media archaeology becomes not only a method for excavation of the repressed, the forgotten, or the past, but it extends itself into an artistic method close to Do-It-Yourself (DIY) culture, circuit bending, hardware hacking, and other exercises that are closely related to the political economy of information technology. Media in its various layers embodies memory: not only human memory, but the memory of things, of objects, of chemicals, and circuits. (Hertz & Parikka 2012:2)
The shared tendency to attempt to unearth the hidden technical, aesthetic and socio-political apparatus’ at work, through the hacking, reverse engineering and meddling with media artefacts is a process Erkki Huhtamo see’s in the interests of a thinkerer – ‘a philosophically oriented artist-archaeologist, always reflecting on the significance of his/her findings and inventions and relating them to wider cultural frames of reference.’ (2000:2). The term aptly sums up a hands-on engagement with technical media that stands as a direct metaphor for the critique and destabilisation required of paralogy. It is a DIY model that emphasises critical reflection and a heuristic approach extending the contextual reach of glitch practices; and moving the shocks and noise of glitch beyond technical channels and into the realm of human engagement. Such a move upsets existing models of legitimation and holds great paralogical potential.
Cloninger, Curt. “GltchLnguistx: The Machine in the Ghost / Static Trapped in Mouths”, 1st March. 2011. Web. <http://lab404.com/glitch/>
DeMarinis, Paul. “Erased Dots and Rotten Dashes, or How to Wire Your Head for a Preservation.” Media Archaeology – Approaches, Applications, and Implications, Ed. Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka. London:University of California Press, 2011. 211-239. Print
Halbert, Martin. “Lyotard – The Postmodern Condition”, October 11th 2012. Web. <http://userwww.service.emory.edu/~mhalber/Research/Paper/pci-lyotard.html>
Menkman, Rosa. “Glitch Studies Manifesto”, 8th November 2011. Web. <http://rosa-menkman.blogspot.com>
Motherboard. Glitch Festival and Symposium. 23rd August 2012. Web. <www.liveart.org/motherboard/glitch/gfr_content.html>
— “Communication Beyond Meaning: On the Cultural Politics of Information”. Social Text, 80 (Volume 22, Number 3), Fall 2004, pp. 51-73
Varnelis, Kazys. Networked Publics, Massachusetts:The MIT Press, 2008. Print accessed October 12th 2012 <http://varnelis.net/book/export/html/876>
Andrew Prior: Sound artist, Lecturer in Media Arts, Plymouth University, United Kingdom, PhD researcher, Aarhus University, Denmark.