Archives for posts with tag: digital aesthetics

I want to write, finally, about a thought experiment. I’ve been going on and on about figs. Now’s the time to do some work. How do we get to the point I describe here:

That’s what I want my students to do — figure out how to “cook” with new technologies. If they’ve got some sort of machine in front of them, but no “recipe,” can they make it work? How can I get them to the point where they have strategies to generate the questions they need to ask, and then answer them?

I’m not sure how this thought experiment will turn out, and I expect to refine it. But what if we 1. choose an object in the world, and 2. “look” at it through the filters of different mediating technologies? We can perform the phenomenological reduction I described in previous posts, but when we take our “naive look around,” it’s not the effect of our senses we’re concerned with, but the effect of the technologies, which come to act like senses. If we turn our attention to those effects, can we build mental catalogs that allow us to “cook” in the way I’ve described above?

Think back to the meal you had at Thanksgiving (which I’m presuming was turkey — if it wasn’t, humor me!).
1. What did it taste like? Look? Smell? Sound? Feel?
2. How do you know? That is, how does your memory of the meal differ from the meal itself? Why do you feel you can trust your memory?
3. What do these clips (here and here) reveal about the experience of Thanksgiving dinner? How do they suggest experience that they are technologically incapable of conveying? (You can’t taste YouTube. How does YouTube suggest taste?)
4. What does the gap between our mediated experience and our knowledge of a turkey dinner reveal about the types of mediation each technology performs?
4a. Questions 1 to 3 went step by step, and question 4 jumped a few steps, but I’m not yet sure which. What do you think?

(Some time, I’ll write about Marshall McLuhan, who described the media as “extensions of man.” Those who know me know I find McLuhan’s work frustrating because he makes proclamations or even declamations without ever saying how he got to them. I think if he had named his method, it would have looked like what I’m proposing here.)


There is a contradiction in what I want to do in this project — that is, find a way to teach people about things that do not yet exist. I envision these blog entries (and the book that may or may not come from them) as things that might guide a class of, say, capable third-year undergraduates, people who are invested in learning, but not necessarily the technical apparatus of continental philosophy. For many, their ultimate purpose — one I applaud — is to find a job and be a productive member of society. My job is to give them those tools (and push them on the second part, which isn’t always necessarily forefront in their minds).

Doing phenomenology without the technical language does not mean abandoning rigor, but that is one risk I run. The tendency within the social sciences is to use method to demonstrate rigor, but an over-reliance on method reduces inquiry to a series of motions to work through. If we “do method” by rote, we turn the object we study into a static thing. (Worse yet, if we “do method” to study people, we reduce them to mere objects to be known.) I don’t want the techniques I teach to devolve into method in this sense, a somnambulist’s habit. We must attune ourselves to technologies, and each attunement is a singular, unrepeatable act.

But already I’m falling into a different trap: I’m writing in the flowery language that comes all too naturally after so many years of reading hard books. So, to talk about how we do what we’re about to do, I want to offer a metaphor, one that I’m borrowing from my friend Sam Rocha, from a book on “folk phenomenology” he’s publishing in 2015 with Atropos Press.

As you read his description of fig sauce, the result of a culinary reduction, pay attention to how it causes you to think differently about figs. How does it sharpen the experience you imagine? How does it draw your attention to aspects of taste and smell that you might not have paid attention to before?

We can understand the meaning of phenomenological “reduction” in a preliminary way by considering a culinary reduction. Taking its literal work as a way to seek, sense, and see things, we can understand what a “phenomenological reduction” does. A culinary reduction is the process where a liquid of some sort (usually a stock, sauce, or gravy) is simmered. This simmering allows certain parts of the liquid to evaporate which has the effect of rendering a more intensely flavorful and rich substance, like a fig reduction. There is no doubt to the palate of anyone eating a fig that the reduction tastes “figly,” although the flavor always exceeds our capacity to experience it completely, it saturates our sense of taste. The most radical reduction imaginable would simply disappear. In the very same way, phenomenological reduction is how we go about knowing phenomena or things as best we can by taking them as they are and moving inward through a gentle caress (like evaporation) of the imagination to intensify them and render them more radically saturated as they are.

As chance would have it, I was eating a fig when I first read this passage. (No, really — I keep dried fruit in my office, and figs are my favorite.) Imagine my surprise when I arrived at this passage, the way the word “figly” focused my attention on the fruit, which I had been eating rather mindlessly.

That act of refocusing — of turning one’s attention to the experience itself — is the phenomenological reduction.

One more example. I’m a beer snob. When I went to Wisconsin for graduate school, I wasn’t, but I hung out with beer snobs, and I’m not one to turn down hospitality. So we ended up exploring beers together, and I developed a vocabulary for what I was tasting. When someone pointed out the banana-like flavor you find in a high-alcohol Belgian beer, it sharpened my enjoyment, because I began to pay attention to the sensual experience of beer. I didn’t think of it then, but that was an experiment in phenomenology, an instance of the reduction I will describe in more technical terms in my next post.

In my last post, I wrote that what’s necessary for a class about learning technologies that don’t yet exist is a shift in thinking, away from ontology (“What are these technologies?”) to phenomenology (“How do we encounter and experience technology, and what does awareness of that encounter teach us about the processes of mediation?”).

But there are two problems with the terms “ontology” and “phenomenology.” First, although in the philosopher’s toolbox they’re valuable for their precision, in the classroom, they’re an obstacle. Their Greek roots might be transparent to philosophers, but they’re opaque to students. This doesn’t mean that students can’t ask the questions philosophers ask, or that we must sacrifice thoughtful inquiry at the altar of student evaluations. On the contrary — students want to ask these questions, once they’ve grasped the categories that make them possible. (They don’t normally think about their experience of a technology, but once I draw their attention to the question of experience, they are often eager to bracket off the question of the technology as an object.)

Second, these words carry baggage in philosophy. If you’re a phenomenologist, it matters whether you’ve read Gadamer, and Heidegger before him, and Husserl before him, all the way back to Hegel (to name only one potential pathway back through time). It matters whether you can see how Hegel’s approach differs from Heidegger’s, and why Heidegger made the choices he did. But we can do philosophical work without that baggage. The exercise of bracketing off — which I will describe in my next post — has value in the classroom, even if we do not pursue it with the same type of rigor as a serious philosopher.

In fact, in the classroom, it has value precisely because we can pursue it differently. Husserl’s goal in The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (to pick a book I know reasonably well) was to lay out a system of thought that got over the distractions and distortions of ontology and could be reproduced by other philosophers. My goal in teaching technology is different. My goal is to equip my students with strategies to discover how to make a technology they’ve never encountered useful. My students produce work that a serious philosopher might find sloppy, but if they successfully negotiate a new technology without a user’s manual — if they find a way into the structuring logic of that technology — such “sloppiness” doesn’t matter. In fact, such “sloppiness” is really a reflection of an inventive type of play, which has a value I will explore in later posts.

So, then, what exactly is my goal for students? I’ll explain with a metaphor. I learned to cook from my father. (My mother taught me to bake, which is a different metaphor altogether!) He didn’t use cookbooks much, if ever. When I was young, he was known for “Dad’s surprise,” which consisted of whatever he could find that looked interesting combined in unexpected ways. He really liked to push the boundaries — once he made “sushi” (for lack of a better word) using fruit leather wrapped around rice and peaches and mangoes, if I remember right.

The way to make this type of cooking work is to play around with ingredients and see what they do. My father liked to talk not about “how to make chicken” but “the philosophy of chicken.” What he meant was it was important to know how ingredients behaved — what you could expect when you put chicken in the oven, or in a pan, or in the microwave, or on the grill, or over the engine of a 1974 half-ton GMC pickup you’re driving to a campsite. (Note: don’t try the pickup experiment — it didn’t work.)

Paying attention to how ingredients behave is what made me the cook I am today. I’m not a gourmet chef, but I have an even more useful skill — when I get home in the evening, and everyone is hungry and tired, I can pull together five ingredients from the pantry and get something on the table pretty quickly. Often, it’s even something good! But it’s because I can anticipate how long each one will take, and how it will combine with the others, that I am able to cook without a recipe in front of me.

That’s what I want my students to do — figure out how to “cook” with new technologies. If they’ve got some sort of machine in front of them, but no “recipe,” can they make it work? How can I get them to the point where they have strategies to generate the questions they need to ask, and then answer them?

I’m going to make a bold declaration about what I teach.

But first, I want to begin with a common misperception you encounter when you teach communication. People think that what you teach can be reduced to technical skills. I’ve taught, say, non-linear video editing. I give people cameras, and I tell them how to focus the lens or adjust the white balance, and I show them how to upload video and edit it and make — I hope — a decent-looking video. Technical skills matter.

But they don’t matter the way people think they do, or at least, their value is not limited to what’s immediately at hand. Knowing how to edit video might get a student a job, and if it does, I’m happy to have played a role in someone else’s success. But technologies change. A new version of a video-editing software suite comes out, and it looks nothing like what it’s replaced. (Final Cut Pro X, anyone?) If all I’ve taught is how to use version 1.0, and my student is flummoxed by version 2.0, I’ve failed.

This happens all the time. Planned obsolescence is a great business strategy. In fact, whatever technology I’m teaching at any given moment is probably already obsolete. (Budgets are tight at universities, and they’re outpaced by the rate of change. Who’s going to buy the new update when the old one still works?)

So here’s my declaration: I can teach technologies that are so new they haven’t been invented yet. I can equip students with the skills they need before we even know what those tools look like.

What we have to do — what I began to do in my last post, and in my manifesto — is rethink the value of technical skills. They are not merely instrumental. (Nor is education itself, in case my broader point isn’t clear.) If we pay attention to the ways technologies mediate our encounter with the world outside of ourselves, we can speculate about what other, newer technologies might do. The real value of technical skills lies not in their ability to get someone a job but in the awareness they bring to the logics of mediation.

In the language of philosophy, what I’m suggesting is that we move away from ontology — the inquiry into the nature of existence, where we ask, “What is this technology and how do we use it?” — to phenomenology — the inquiry into the nature of experience, where we ask, “How do we encounter this technology, and how does it mediate our experience of the world?” These are meaty questions, ones I want to bring into the classroom. But first we’ll need to find a way to ask them without the intimidating apparatus of philosophy itself. If words like “ontology” and “phenomenology” get in the way of the work they’re meant to do, we should abandon them, at least in the undergraduate communication classroom.

How we do that will be the subject of my next post.

A year ago, two of my colleagues approached me to ask if I would write something short for a special issue of the North Dakota Quarterly they were editing on digital art. But there was a catch — I’d have about three weeks before it was due. I agreed — I was frustrated by the growing corporate logic of the university (according to which the point of education is mere skill-acquisition) and the recalcitrance of some of my students when it came to engaging with thorny questions. I wrote “Pedagogy and Digital Aesthetics: A Manifesto.” It’s not the most polished thing I’ve written (I had only three weeks, and it was the end of the semester), but it’s held my fascination since then. In it, I ask how the liberal arts in the digital age can help us prepare students with technical skills (an important goal, even if it coincides with the corporate logic I dislike) by thinking about the nature of technology itself.

A week ago, a student approached me to ask if I had research he could help with as part of the TRIO program. He had already shown himself to be engaged and, more the the point, genuinely interesting. Even better, he liked questions of speculative philosophy, he spoke multiple languages, and he wanted to talk about pedagogy.

In my manifesto (I’m pretentious enough to really like the phrase “my manifesto”), I argue that teaching is as much a form of inquiry as research. I also link questions of translation to questions of media and technology. So I asked my student whether he’d be interested in a speculative form of research — an effort to turn my hastily written manifesto into, say, a syllabus, something to engage with someday in an actual classroom with actual students. He agreed.

My plan is to chronicle our work here. I have other projects, but none have captured my fascination quite the way this one has, in part because it’s still so open-ended — it’s a project that exists in the form of pure potential.

We’ll see how it goes.