Review of Never Alone, Except For Now: Art, Networks, Populations
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2017
208 pp., illus. 20 b/w ill. and 16 col. Trade: $89.95; paper, $23.95
ISBN: 978-0-8223-6925-7; ISBN:978-0-8223-6940-0
This is a very ambitious book, and one that in many regards stands up to its theoretical and critical ambitions. A reflection on the way in which the relationship between individual and group, selfhood and community, subject and environment are redefined by modern network technology, it also contains many fascinating analyses and hypotheses on the functions and functioning of art in contemporary society. These topics are of course far from new, but from the very beginning Cohen makes very clear that he will try to avoid any form of technodeterminism – a problem he thinks is recurrent in the “visual studies” approach, too focused on medium affordances in his view – as well as of representation – a typical priority of “cultural studies,” which likes to reframe hidden or explicit mediations in symbolic terms. Although his starting point is clearly that of relationality in art and society, Cohen proposes to supersede any direct or reciprocal interpretation of personal, social, and political relationships through works of art as well as non-artistic artefacts in order to defend a framework based on what he calls symmetry, namely the historical and contextual convergence of different systems and protocols that clearly influence each other but whose mutual definition can never be reduced in linear or hegemonic ways (that is, this layer determining the other layer, but not the other way round).
Given the key position of relation and relationality, the major issue is of course to understand how persons relate with each other in networked environments. In this regard, Cohen rejects both the optimistic neoliberal stance toward digital networks as the source of new opportunities, increased agency, and theoretically unlimited freedom, and the more pessimistic reading of the power of these networks as instruments of corporate control beyond any democratic debate or negotiation (most research based on Debord’s ideas of the theory of the spectacle strongly underwrite this way of thinking). In the same vein, he is not looking for a kind of middle-ground or nuanced balance between these competing interpretations, both very well represented in current scholarly and societal debates. Instead, he proposes to elaborate a different way of thinking that radically undermines the possibility to distinguish between both sides – that of the self, that of the net, to largely simplify – as more or less autonomous structures or entities, while at the same time introducing new theoretical concepts that help understand the fact that selves are now defined by networked relations, which themselves are affected and changed by their actual uses.
Two concepts or rather two lines of thinking come here to the fore. First of all that of “group form,” a very general and voluntarily neutral term that refers to the way in which people relate thanks to all kind of networks as well as to the way in which networks produce relationships between all kind of people. What matters most in the concept of “group form” is that it avoids the clash between the more traditional concepts of the “public” (that is the group form created by individuals having some form of freedom and agency, in the Habermassian tradition) and of the “population” (that is of the group as produced by computer algorithms and big data, which do no longer have to take into account non-quantitative features). What matters in the idea of group form is the fact that it helps foreground new, often improvised and ephemeral forms of relationality and sociality, regardless of traditional ways of describing or producing selves and populations (here the influence of the Michel Foucault’s work on sexuality is blatant). The apparently paradoxical title of the book, which strikingly combines “never” and “except” may be a good illustration of these new forms of relationship that it is no longer possible to explain with the help of the antinomy self/network. At the same time, Cohen is also very explicit in his efforts to dismantling the a priori positive or negative readings of either the concept of public or that of population.
The second major theoretical contribution of the book has to do with Cohen’s reading of artworks, which are no longer isolated from non-artistic artefacts (quite a logical move, if one follows the “group form” structure he elaborates at the level of relationality and connectivity). Works of art are no longer considered different from non-artistic artefacts, and one of the great rhetoric and theoretical strengths of the book is to systematically bring together in a way he himself calls symmetrical (that is non-representative, non-symbolic, non-deterministic). Cohen brings together the way in which recent activist forms of minimal and conceptual art tend to produce similar “group form” effects as diacritic signs (such as LOL’s or emoticons) in contemporary internet communication. This way of reading is extremely productive. It is also very helpful in reducing the possible dangers of discursive and political over-interpretation of works of art that may seem deprived of any direct political or societal impact, be it lack of a sizable audience (as in the case of certain forms of performance art) or a priori neutralized by its institutional setting (as we know, galleries and museums are not necessarily the best possible places for political activism). The symmetry Cohen displays between the often very sophisticated and thus not always immediately readable artworks and the sometimes extremely ordinary and often overlooked forms of communication and group form work on the internet help demonstrate both the social and political relevance and the effective impact of artworks that work in symmetry with other, better known mechanisms and procedures. The analysis of Thomason & Craighead’s BEACON, a set of online and offline installations that question the multiple meanings of the search engine in the multilayered and conflicting contexts of the self, the public, the population, but also the group form, is an excellent illustration of Cohen’s basic claims on networked relationality which at the same time enrich political thinking on new forms of identities, connectivity and therefore action, and underline the possibility to produce an art-critical discourse that neither isolates nor prioritizes the work of art.