Sensations of History. Animation and New Media Art

Sensations of History. Animation and New Media Art
by James J. Hodge

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2019
Electronic Mediations Series 57
232 pp., illus. 29 b/w, 4 col. Trade, $108; paper, $27
ISBN: 978-1517906825; ISBN: 978-1517906832.

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
March 2020

A reflection on our experience of history and the historical sensation in the digital age, this book opens with rebutting two widely accepted claims. First, the idea that digital media represent as well as perform the end of history (they are accused of killing our sense of the past, if not the past itself, and their spread strengthens the impression that we are living in a kind of eternal present). Second, the idea that the complexity of digital media, which may at first sight overwhelm and frighten us, is something that be overcome and undone by sustained efforts to open the black box (as if the opacity of digital culture, too big and too difficult to understand, could be superseded by a common pursuit of clarity, openness, and transparency). In both cases, Hodge’s position goes radically against the grain. His book is an attempt to stress instead the continuity and permanence of the historical experience, more particularly the new forms this experience and this sensation have been taking in the digital age, not by opening the sealed container of our computers, but by taking seriously the very impenetrability of our contacts with software programs, digital equipment, and the world of logarithms and calculation.

As the vocabulary of the previous paragraph immediately underlines –“experience”, “sensation”, “contact”, etc. – the conceptual framework of James J. Hodge is phenomenology, mainly the line of thinking represented by, on the one hand Heidegger, to whom the author borrows the fundamental definition of history as “already there” (the world as well as history are in a certain sense ahead of use: We move forward into a world that has been shaped by previous experiences and that contains traces of the past), and, on the other hand, Husserl and Stiegler, whose work prioritizes memory and the role of writing (although Stiegler’s take on writing is less idealistic, less instrumentalist, in short very critical of the technology of writing and writing as technology, than in the case of Husserl, who considers writing a mere instrument of cognitive reactualization of the past).

By experience and sensation of history, the author understands the way in which traces of the past become visible before being turned into certain discourses on the past (this is “experience) and the way in which our embodied contact with the world tries to find a balance between a purely bodily reaction to this input and certain ideas on how to make sense of these reactions (this is “sensation”). Technological opacity, which predates digital technology, is a key factor in our experience of history. Not because it hinders or destroys traditional forms of experience (at least not in general; it should be stressed however that Hodge does not directly discuss the problem of cultural erosion and loss of memory, which may be a pity), but because the appearance of new digital technologies  we can no longer fully grasp, that have now developed a life of their own, that we are no longer capable of using as mere tools, engender new forms of experience of time and history.

James J. Hodge examines these new forms of historical sensation and experience from two points of view, which he succeeds in seamlessly combining: philosophy and new media art. The philosophical background of the study, which the author manages to explain in very clear terms, is always accompanied by the close reading of a certain number of experimental digital creations, generally two or three by chapter. The origin of theses case studies is very diverse: the author analyzes for instance games (the Cookie Clicker by Julien Orteil), literary works (overboard by John Cayley), installation art (1st Light by Paul Chan) and video (The Memory of a Landscape by Tatjana Marusic). The limited number of key examples also guarantees the possibilities of careful cross-referencing, which gives the book a solid unity.

Through the analyses, two major new experiences come to the fore. First, “eternalism” (here mainly studied via the work of Ken Jacobs), that is, according to Hodge, the experience of new media art that “tell” or more precisely that “feel time” (p. 155, emphasis by the author). One might say that eternalism has to do with the experience of something that is becoming time. Second, “lateralism”, that is the experience that the new forms of time that emerge in the digital era and are powerfully experienced in new media art escape the traditional historical paradigm of before versus after (past, present, future), but that occur or take place beside this paradigm. What appears in the digital era is not a destruction of the classic paradigm but the appearance of a radical split between two paradigms (on the one hand: before versus after, on the other hand: the “eternalist” becoming of time) that are at the same time completely different and absolutely inseparable.

Hence, the essential role of “animation”. Things come to life thanks to the new technologies (that is: the technologies that we can no longer use of mere instruments, but that have come to live a life of their own). Animation is thus not the result of the invention of machines and technologies capable of recording, reproducing, or simulating mobility, such as for instance chronophotography or cinema, but as the inevitable consequence of the very strangeness of technologies that are no longer just “ours” (one of the chapters of the book gives a brilliant overview of what this means for the “hand” of the artist: the first tool of man, the hand is progressively deprived of its instrumental function and its role is taken over by machines which are much more than just “extensions of men”, to quote Marshall McLuhan, surprisingly absent from Hodge’s book).

Eternalism, animation, lateral time, writing as a technology that has developed a word of itself, but above all the permanent friction between old and new forms of sensation and experience of time are the cornerstone of Hodge’s new vision of time in the digital age. Such a friction goes far beyond what Adorno might have labeled as a textbook case of “negative dialectics”. In Hodge’s view, the old and the new do not belong to the same category, perhaps not even to the same world: the digital is not the antithesis of the old, it is really something different. The superbly analyzed new media art examples demonstrate though that these various and contradictory sensations and experiences of history do not end up in silence of muteness. Humans adapt to the technological world which is always “already there” and they ceaselessly express, reshape, and reinvent their being in time.