On the Aesthetics of Digitization

- Dag Petersson (bio)

A Man-formation surfaced in the nineteenth century because the forces of Man joined with other finite forces, such as life, work and language. Today, we often say that Man confronts new forces: silicon and not merely carbon, cosmos instead of the world… Why would the form still be composed as Man? Human rights? Yet, as Ewald has shown, it is the very transformations of right that testify to the change of formations. Foucault joins Nietzsche by reawakening the question of the death of man. And, if man has had a manner of imprisoning life, is it not under another formation than man that life can free itself? (Deleuze, 1990a, p. 125)

In a globalising culture, by no means are all people constituted as subjects in the Western rationalist tradition; by no means are all subjects citizens; by no means do all citizens have access to the languages in which are concentrated the public discourses of arts, science and policy. In turning the planet into the object of speculation, remote sensing premises a public sphere which is global. Global imaging in corporate hands produces a global subject whose instrumental rationality excludes the mass of the world’s population. In this dialectic, a toll of wonderful potential can become a weapon of mass murder. Cubitt, 1998, p. 59)


Digitization requires a formulation of aesthetics that no longer centers around Man. It is politically untenable to pursue an aesthetic of digitization derived from generalized anthropocentric faculties such as memory, perception, consciousness or interpretation. The notion of an “augmentation of the human intellect” [1] that appears in some digital aesthetics, e.g. Weiland (2001) or Heim (1987), may seem hopeful and enlightening – but it is also extremely provocative. Assuming the existence of a singular human intellect makes for an easy and predictable analysis, but it cannot address the really pressing challenges that the ongoing process of digitization poses for western society.

The humanism rejected here in the name of digitization was, however, no less objectionable to many artists and philosophers in the nineteenth century. But modern anti-humanism is no simple affair. The ideas and thoughts that together formed a counter-revolution to humanism were diverse and would today be impossible to delimit as a homogenous direction or school. [2] Politically, these ideas are often regarded as residing in rather murky waters between anarchy and fascism. As if still in Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche’s claws, the fundamentally flawed association between Nazism and her brother’s writings serve even today as a ready at hand dismissal of anti-humanism. To show the fatality of this political misconception is one of the more important preliminary tasks today for researchers on globalization and the digital machine ensemble.

Even though the past 200 years of industrial pollution, colonial imperialism, corporate greed, technological progress and minority exploitation have been projected in the name of Man as defined by the hierarchy of occidental systematization, a world without him is probably as politically viable as the one ruled under his centralized regime.

But let us pause here for a moment. What would motivate a connection between Man and these violent phenomena? Perhaps nothing more than a certain structural analogy? It is important that I begin by specifying the ambivalent term ‘humanism.’ Here, I define humanism as a form of knowledge that bases the legitimacy of its knowledge on the proper reflexiveness of the world as guaranteed by human reason. [3]

One may find examples in Socrates’ dialogues, in Brunellesci’s architecture, in Kant’s philosophy and in Hobbes’ political writings. At the heart of this architecture of knowledge stands representation as the human imperative: “Know thyself.” Humanism privileges the mind’s capacity for reflection and representation over the body’s immediate sensation. Thinking like a humanist may be illustrated by Gustav Rodin’s sculpture of a thinker with the back of his coarse body turned against the rough chaotic world. Matter will be triumphed by the spirit of his gaze that dwells in a distance where the mind is joining with the truth of this world. There is a beautiful truth beyond mere appearances, and humans may reach there with reason in order to organize the world responsibly.

But there is a political downside; the desire for a truthful reflection and responsibility can only be mythically fulfilled. The human struggle to get there, to proceed toward oneself, must always use some other means. There is always a price to pay for Man to arrive at self-knowledge. The natural, the material or whatever is related to the base parts of existence have always been judged expendable. Everything has its place in a hierarchy determined by humanism’s metaphysical telos and the lower parts always pull the shortest straw.

At this point in my argument, I would like to introduce the concept ‘line.’ A line is that which conditions a specific mode of selfhood. The specific line that conditions a humanist structure of thought, in the nineteenth century, gave rise to a large number of new phenomena. Michel Foucault’s early work forms a veritable catalogue over that which conditioned the possibility for their appearance, what in his vocabulary are called ‘apparatuses,’ or dispositifs. A line is that which connects these apparatuses into a certain constellation. According to Foucault, the prime weakness of the line that crystallizes into humanism is that its constellation of apparatuses prevents it from posing other questions than those it already knows will fit within its self-reflecting mode of knowledge. Foucault stated this very clearly in an interview with Madeleine Chapsal in 1966:

Foucault: With terms like morality, values and reconciliation, humanism has had a way of solving the problems it didn't have to resolve at all. Do you know what Marx said? Humanity does not pose other problems than those it can solve. I think that one ought to say: humanism pretends to solve the problems that it cannot pose.

Chapsal: What are those problems?

Foucault: Well, the problems of the relation between man and the world, the problem of reality, the problem of artistic creation, of happiness and all the obsessions that absolutely don't merit to be posed as theoretical problems… Our system is absolutely dissociated from it. Our task today is to definitively emancipate from humanism and in that sense, our labor is a political work. ("Dits et écrits," p. 544)

It is, however, important not to understand humanism as the exclusive cause for alienated labor and Eurocentric imperialism. Humanism is the name of a dominant line whose formation determined the possible conditions for industrial, social and political knowledge from the nineteenth century and onwards, but nothing says that a line cannot be changed. Other lines always coexist with a dominant line and sometimes they grow strong enough to challenge the main line. History proves that a line changes and becomes other than itself all the time – and in a very dynamic rhythm. This means that in a world emancipated from humanism, one may expect different conditions of life arising from the newly linked apparatuses.

Yet as both Foucault and Deleuze are undoubtedly aware, these new possibilities will not necessarily be less unjust or violent. The revolutionary hope is not, therefore, that anti-humanism automatically will lead to utopia. Rather, the expectation is that as a vanguard against the desire to restrict the development of new lines or to singularize one of them into a new totalitarianism, anti-humanism may be able to confront post-humanistic forms of violence and repression. Digital technology confirms the existence of new conditions for the production of knowledge, and any aesthetics of digitization must therefore concern political issues just as much as artistic and philosophical questions.


At the beginning of so-called western modernity (1780s-1960s), the notion of right becomes inseparable from the concept of Man. How did that happen? A new dominant line appeared. This line is just as much expressed in the American Constitution as in paintings by Delacroix or David. Philosophically it is present in Kant’s critique as well as in Hegel’s dialectics. [4] Here, we may use Kant as an example. The new line to which Kant (1781, 1787) gives philosophical expression needs a new formation of subjectivity. In Kant’s formulation of the transcendental subject, man has ceased to reflect himself outwards in a world of essences and appearances, but turns inward, toward his own capacities to perceive and understand the appearances. Why does he do that? Because Kant has realized that if knowledge should become what it essentially is, then the subject that has knowledge can only truly know anything about how appearances may appear but nothing about the thing itself. This reverses everything in philosophy. Truth is no longer in the outer essence of God, but in the subjective essence that make appearances possible. There is nothing knowable beyond appearances – but more importantly, a lot is knowable about the human capacities that enable appearances.

Kant divides these capacities in three: sensation, understanding and reason. He calls them faculties. A faculty determines what is possible to perceive, to understand or to rationalize, and it does so from conditions based on necessary, or a priori judgments. Man’s potential for knowledge is subjected to a hierarchical system of faculties. In other words: a faculty determines the general capacities of the subject. Since each of the subject’s three faculties judges only what another faculty has rendered possible, the entire subject is erected on interrelating judgments.  

For instance, Kant’s notion of right is determined within the faculty of practical reason, which “legislates immediately in the faculty of desire” (Deleuze, 1984, p. 28). The faculty of practical reason determines that in order to be free, human will must determine its own law. A will that desires to determine its own law does not legitimize that desire from the prospect of its liberation but rather from an abstract notion of right. Free will is only free if it is auto-legislative, and it can only justify this legislation by means of its right. The right to freedom is a priori. Only a subject has right. A will that does not participate in the formation of legislation or does not realize that it can be free only in self-legislation can never legitimize its desires with right.

Foucault shows that the same line that expresses right in Kant speaks as penal law in the republic and as rehabilitation in the prison’s spectacle of punishment. (Rodin’s “the thinker” may just as well be called “the prisoner.”) In Discipline and Punish (1979), Foucault shows that the modern penal law determines a criminal act from the same rational horizon of right that was described by Kant. [5] The line that conditions both right and penal law gives a new meaning to madness. Insanity now becomes a possible escape from the law and hence from social rights as well. [6] (Charles Dickens painted a most colorful portrait of this new social gray area in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, 1839.)

Before the late eighteenth century and Kant’s expression of this reversal – during what Foucault calls the ‘classical age’ (starting at around the early sixteenth century) – right is equal to the right to rule over determinable actions. This right spirals outwards and down from a divinely justified center: the Prince. (It is the spatial representation of this organization of power that motivates Foucault’s analysis of Velasquez’ “Las Meninas” in The Order of Things, 1970.) The severity of illegal acts is measured against the hierarchy of right. Hence crimes against persons situated closer to the center are judged as worse than crimes against those more marginal, and the severity of punishment is proportionate to the social distance between the marginal perpetrator and the central victim. According to the logic of classical legislation, a gray area exists where the criminal is more central than the victim. (Foucault mentions cases where people have their social rank reduced before being prosecuted.)

With the nineteenth century, the modern association of right, freedom and law demanded a symmetrical relationship between crime and retribution regardless of social class. Fiodor Dostoyevskij understood this transition as being not necessarily a path toward increased equality, but a transformation within the structure of justice. A character recently returned from Europe as a recovered idiot, Prince Myshkin soon becomes a most sensitively attuned seismograph for describing the social and juridical earthquakes in Russia. These are earthquakes that occur when the fault-line shifts from the withering spiral of Russian feudalism to the social grid of rising Bolshevism. A young, sick revolutionary from the lower ranks of society intrudes with his gang upon the aristocratic party that is gathered on a summerhouse veranda and shouts repeatedly at the Prince: ”What rights have you?” Myshkin’s reply is always the same: “None whatsoever, none whatsoever” (Dostoyevskij, 1998, p. 261).

With this shift, the concept of law changed around the early nineteenth century. As François Ewald (1987) showed with regard to labor responsibility, what was profoundly altered was the law itself as social function. The relation between right and law was no longer determined by the positions in a social hierarchy but by the rationality of human faculties. The jurisdiction of the new kind of law was at the same time extended to include the accused person’s understanding of the criminal act while simultaneously limited to penalize only those crimes committed exclusively in a state of sanity. [7] Foucault shows that from the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was no longer under all circumstances punishable to commit murder. Only when a murderer had understood what he or she had done could a person be subjected to trial – in cases of madness, punishment was meaningless for it had no rehabilitative effect and was therefore replaced by medical treatment. The line had connected law with a whole new range of disciplines: psychology, education, analysis, language, etc.  

Questions of right, justice and penalty cannot be disentangled from aesthetics. Foucault always paid attention to how formations of social institutions correlated to new formations in the sensuous faculty. Hence, in the early nineteenth century, new objects appeared as new bodies and old objects were reconfigured and seen as different. The most reiterated example is the transformation of the spectacle of punishment – from the gory descriptions of public torture that Foucault delivers with almost Bataillean minutiae on the introducing pages of Discipline and Punish to the clinically described panopticon prison, chosen not for exemplarity but for its architectonic actualization of self-reflection as the road to social rehabilitation. What these pages seem to convey is that anti-humanist aesthetics is not expressed merely through artworks (though it often has a privileged place) but in the ways that new practices and material bodies unfold in light with a formal consistency.


Today, almost 40 years after the publication of Foucault’s first books, it is safe to say that they expressed some very new and different conditions for thinking and speaking about thought, language and history. Foucault drew one of many new lines that countered humanism, but he was far from alone. Guy Debord invented the concept of ‘the spectacle’ as another new line: “The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images” (1995, p. 12). And the situationists were not the only artists noticing the different conditions for aesthetic experience. The diversity of early postmodern art formed a collective refusal of subjecthood under the hegemony of human self-reflection. A different perceptibility emerged in the folds of the new line. Its desire for becoming other than itself had to be articulated materially: Rodin’s thinker met Rauschenberg’s goat (Monogram, 1955-59) and Joseph Beuys’ Fat Chair (1964).

In 1992, Mark C. Taylor wrote a history of the lines' different alterations in art, philosophy and religion. The title of his book, Disfiguring, was already an overdetermined slogan, but Taylor aimed specifically for the constellation of conditions that enabled the figure of man. What the word ‘disfiguring’ meant here was less the end of art, philosophy or religion but a deformation of what Foucault once termed the modern a priori: History. That history changed its figure with Foucault’s archaeology was a threat far more severe to the modern discursive formation than any claim that history had come to an end. For the end of history was always a precondition for History as a category for knowledge. [8] When history becomes disfigured, it is a new fold on the line. But there is no author behind the event when the dominance of humanism ended. It was not the publication of Foucault’s books, nor was it this or that artist that made it happen – it was quite simply that the apparatuses this line connected changed and tore it apart. The new fold is synonymous with an overall reorganization of power.

Instead of reflection, art of the sixties sought social movement – or rather, movement as a social condition – as its prime concern. While John Cage showed that silence is an unruly collective body of raw noise, Jimi Hendrix taught us to hear it with the entire body; Joseph Beuys became a shaman of the mutable materiality of expression; Diane Arbus praised the changeable masks of human sociability; Pop Art transplanted socially determined modes of looking into other tempi and Land Art reflected the flux of social life in the entropy of soil. A new ‘perceptibility’, based on becoming other than oneself emerged from the line and radically contradicted the desire of historical Man. Dichotomies such as form/content, expression/meaning, particular/ universal, and even words and images lost their self-evidential force and collapsed in front of a stronger desire to find out what was going on in-between. The possibility for maintaining a panoptic grid, with its clearly definable inside and outside, was radically put to the test with discoveries like Augusto Boal’s spect-actor and William Burroughs’ literary Interzone of cut-up writing.

The new attention toward the power of movement was in no sense an isolated event within the art community. Martin Luther King’s famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 lent its voice to the same new folding line of resistance. Using the trope of deferral as a weapon against historicist logic – e.g. the cashing of Lincoln’s check, the future awakening of the state, the time of Now and the repetition of Dream – King targeted not merely his present social conditions, but the conditions for social change. The attack on historicism and the grid-logic of class was a new anti-humanist strategy in the sixties, expressed not only by MLK on that August afternoon, but also by artists in Europe and America, [9] in French philosophy with Jean Hyppolite’s readings of Hegel and the younger generation’s return to Nietzsche and in science with the applications of quantum physics and the discoveries of chaos theory and the DNA double helix. The world was no longer ordered according to the stable progression of a definable system but subjected to an irreducible increase of complexity.

What this amounts to is not an argument for the appearance of a new Zeitgeist in the sixties. Change did not happen according to a ghostly new structure, which all by itself set the tone and the tempo for how things should be done; this is not a description of some Spirit that saturates an era with a new order. What I am trying to describe is, in Deleuzian terms, the revolution of a line of life that suddenly starts to connect other ‘abstract machines’ than before. [10] In the sixties, the dominant line had to bend out of shape because the knowledge forms it excluded found a new way to form a collective, alternative line. The shape of a line of life is the mode of its subjectification: it determines the way a subject becomes a subject. Historical Man with his self-reflections and representations is pushed aside by a new line in the sixties and a different subject that constantly becomes other than itself appears. For now, I will call this new subject ‘Movement’. As Foucault described the penal law and the prison as a new and very powerful institution for Man, I will also suggest that a new and very powerful type of archive appeared under the subjectification of Movement. It is probably not for nothing that Deleuze referred to his friend Foucault as a new archivist (1986, p. 11).


As the figure of History showed signs of disintegration in the sixties and early seventies, the modern order was bound to react. Threatened by an internal pressure from multidirectional and irreconcilable histories, a counterstrategy was brewing. Yet, ‘reaction’ is not a proper term. The new line of movement certainly meant new and powerful forms of resistance against ‘humanism’s’ hierarchies, but it also meant new possibilities for exploitation. These developed in parallel, along the same new line.

When minority groups began to demand a history dissociated from that written by and about the established white, western, male heterosexual, the emphasis was on the word ‘dissociation.’ Disfiguring history means to splice it into several histories that do not and cannot subject under a common denominator. Times, events, truths, causes and consequences all are different and mean different things, but none is absolute. The right to a limited historical sovereignty – the right to write one’s own history – became a primal right under the pretext that it must not universalize.

Was it a class struggle? Was the fight for the right to a history in order to produce concrete political change a matter of class? To some extent, yes, but a negative answer seems in many respects more to the point. As minority communities, primarily in the United States, but also in Europe and later in South America, Asia and South Africa, demanded an autonomous history as an important first step toward social justice, it was a class struggle merely in the sense that the group demanding further rights may to a certain extent be termed a social class. But it was not a Marxist class struggle in the communist sense, since its objective was the very opposite to the social homogenization that a cooperatively owned workshop intended. [11] That the early connection between Marxist leftism, feminism and ethnic minority rights was a confusion of interests became increasingly evident with the shift of economic sovereignty in the late seventies and early eighties.

In 1974, the western economic markets started to show an increase in unemployment and inflation at the same time -- a so-called stagflation. In the following years, while oil prices soared, neither the Carter administration in the U.S. nor the Heath government in Great Britain could but realize that their Keynesian strategies to come to terms with the situation were to no avail. After five years of economic crisis, the newly elected conservatives released a demon that had been caged up since the depression. Thatcher and Reagan loosened the political grip on the market economy and removed several supporting pillars and restrictive chains that had been in place since the thirties. Mass unemployment followed when a large number of unprofitable and no longer state funded industries were forced to close, but the inflation slowly came to a halt and after a few years, private investors became increasingly aggressive. The yuppie was born as economic sovereignty moved from the Congress in Washington to Wall Street in New York. At the same time, music as an expression of protest witnessed the transformation from the Sex Pistols and Velvet Underground to Bronski Beat and Run DMC.  

In the early eighties, capitalism took a great leap forward with the translocation of economic sovereignty. It was a serious blow to leftist Marxism but did not discourage the political interest in feminism and cultural histories of ethnic and sexual minorities that slowly began to grow in American and European universities. Quite the contrary, and this is not because economic deregulation caused growing attention to feminism and minority studies. It is because a new kind of subject had made life different from itself in the sixties, and fifteen years later this new subject expressed new ways of thinking, both as capitalism and as new forms of knowledge in art, science and philosophy. Both sides were active parts in forming a new line of academic studies and social research while Marxism was still too embedded in the logic of reflection and representation.  

It is worth noting that the call for multiplicity and paradoxical coexistence in postmodern art in no way opposed capitalism: market shares of PoMo art, for example, were quite profitable. In the SoHo galleries of both New York and London artists as diverse as Keith Haring, Cindy Sherman, Robert Mapplethorpe, Richard Prince, Mary Kelly, Bruce Nauman, Helen Chadwick, Jana Sterbak and Jeff Koons laid the foundation for what was to become a virulent proclamation for pluralism and multiplicity. Their work found an audience willing to pay, and retail of postmodern artworks exploded. Paula Cooper Gallery and Leo Castelli Gallery became internationally known venues for ultra wealthy art investors, and with the economic upswing in the early eighties, artists could reach stardom overnight. In the eyes of several investors the latest art could fill the gap reserved for financial speculation and tantalizing provocation in one – a promise to future revenue for the already instantaneously wealthy from a deregulated finance market.

The economic marvel during this short period helped produce remarkably instantaneous artist careers like that of Jean-Michel Basquiat, but often at the price of domesticating the critical edge of the art works. The irony in Koons’ rococo-porn or Shermans’ Film Stills always turned proclamatory when mediated through the art critic of the month, though it was too subtle to be noticed by those who took offence. Today, the only trace of irony left in these art works is that they appear so documentarily true to their time. Music artists also made good use of the booming economy to fashion critical pseudo-politics among teenagers. Band Aid and other similar projects in the early- and mid-eighties attempted to call attention to mass famish in Africa. But a telling difference between Band Aid and demonstrations against international indifference to environmental disasters in the sixties (e.g. the Minamata disaster) was that the word “solidarity” had completely lost its value. In the 1980’s, solidarity had been traded for compassion. The TV images broadcast worldwide of a devastated Bob Geldoff wandering aimlessly around in an Ethiopian village where children, pacified from malnutrition were dying in their mother’s arms, was a call for nothing but charity. Critical voices against the alliance between art and business politics, e.g. David Byrnes’ True Stories (1986) or Tinseltown Rebellion (1981) by Frank Zappa, often pointed explicitly to the stupidity resulting from mixing irony and compassion.


While traditional Marxism, with its call for unification and international solidarity with exploited classes, by this time had lost nearly all means to attract, postmodernism offered the possibility for a simultaneous, contingent and coexisting order of multitudes. As beautiful and utopian as it was, the postmodern call for liberation sought its ratification in various analyses of language and was therefore aggressively attacked by rationalists who held postmodernism to be poetic at its best and downright dangerous at its worst. [12] What both parties seemingly forgot was that capitalism itself had changed. The most extensive analysis of this change was undertaken by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in the two volumes on Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Anti-Œdipus (1977) and A Thousand Plateaus (1987).  

One could illuminate this highly complex situation by aiming beside the target and turn analysis into allegory. An image from Nancy Burson’s series of digitally manipulated ‘composites’ (1983) serves well as the persona of such an allegorical exposition.

Figure 1. Nancy Burson, Composite Man (1983)

Although Burson herself sometimes claims otherwise about her work, the Composites neither depict nor argue for a Marxist egalitarianism of the human subject. It shows the subject’s desire for being other than itself. The image above, Composite Man, is a digitally constructed portrait reminiscent of an old black and white photograph. The face in this portrait is the result of a digital computation intended to extract the ‘average’ feature from a large number of scanned photographs. The photographs used to render this image are selected from one criterion: the number of people representing different races in the scanned photographs must correspond proportionally to the number of people of different races in the world. Hence a globally proportionate racial ‘mix’ – should it add up in one countenance – would look something like Burson’s Composite Man.

Now, to state that this is an image of ‘humanity’ or ‘the human face’ would be a jump to very essentialist conclusions. Instead, this image is two images in one: an image of a face that belongs to no person and an assemblage of a multitude of photographic portraits. The digital composition of these two images is neither a collage, because it is not fragmentary, nor a reconciliation because it is impossible to reconcile a face-without-a-person with faces-that-have-been. The two images are not to be reconciled but nothing prevents them from being paradoxically coexisting. A new subject appears that does not constitute a representational relation to a collective, but rather constitutes itself as a dynamic multitude of relations that unfold both successively and simultaneously. (Gilles Deleuze, 1990c, discovered this subject in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.)

Hence, Burson’s image cannot be an imaginary representative of racial equilibrium among the world’s population. But it may be a presentation of the postmodern difference in language that humanism has stifled with utopian notions of unification and equality. If that paradoxical image would speak in Lyotard’s tongue, and not as restricted by humanism, it would tell us that we have a right to something that is unaccountable for by law. We have a right to difference, a right that is irreducible to humanism. People on this planet are not equal and have never been. They only have to be told they are equal when they are subjected to unequal standards of evaluation (i.e. as alienated labor force, as poorer education in non-white communities, etc). To assume that people are equal is to conceive of social structures being capable of equilibrium, of being able to form a stable and well-organized system under which all people, once and for all would want to subject equally. It is to reduce all desires to the freedom of forming one’s own law, just as Kant said. Revolution is to liberate us from this self – to release Nietzsche’s laughter!

Now imagine if a student of Habermas were to appear. He or she would say that, for sure, it is possible that Burson’s image conjures a revolution of difference, for in revolution we create new laws. But would a law expressed to the full extent of such a paradoxical being be responsible enough to form any new social structure? Stunned silence from the PoMo corner. Are we really willing to sacrifice that which binds us to a contract, to an obligation or a promise? Do we really want to rid ourselves of that which make us responsible to each other? How could we ever work for a common cause, and what would protect us from exploiting each other in the name of pure self-interest after such a revolution? And a right to being outside the law? That means that you would have a plurality of conflicting laws that are of equal standing and hence no opportunity to enforce any of them other than by unrestrained violence. If we abandon reason and rationality because of the flaws that are present in their contemporary structure, we also abandon ourselves to social collapse – not freedom. One must not forget that both Kant and Hegel wrote their systematizations so as to describe the potentialities of reason to make a better society, and in which society ought to participate. Burson’s portrait is nothing but an image of the equality of reason in which all human beings have a share, and hence it is a call for equal rights that we must work towards with reason!

Yes to both, Deleuze and Guattari might have said. The Composite Man has the advantage of not being a stable portrait. It does not show an object, something that exists as a representable Other. But this is not an abandonment of reason! It is merely a different form of reason, based on a perfectly valid logic – one that does not exclude the third but produces alterability and movement. A third way to see Burson’s image is as a machine of alteration rather than a representation of either equality or difference. It produces alterability for two reasons: as a machine it allows that the Composite Man could be different, and is different at the same time. It is becoming female, smiling and crying, with shorter and longer hair, older and younger, wearing other clothes. Race is neither natural nor cultural in the first place – it is a capitalist invention. And capitalism is an abstract machine that runs on alteration: dreams, hopes, ideals and identities are all transformable into commodities. Secondly, Burson’s portrait of capitalism is also a composite of times. It is built up of times nesting in each of the photographs. The commodification of race is not separable from the potential understandings of time, memory and history. The way we figure time determines the limitations of alterability. Since Burson’s portrait is a composition of photographic deferral, it allows any race to slide into another, which is the opposite of melting all different races into one.  

It is in this sense that Composite Man is an allegory of the complexity of power structures in the early eighties. It shows how the biopolitical realizations of power act upon several domains without any regard to the figure of Man. Let me clarify: the portrait provides an image of how the domain of History is genealogically spliced into a multitude of histories under constant rewriting. The portrait can also be said to be an image of how the domain of economy has decisively altered its basis and (after the dissociation of the dollar from gold in 1973) become increasingly dominated by the value of pure exchange. Biologically, the portrait shows the human being as a coded (and hence re-codable) assemblage, morphologically determined by DNA sequences. Politically, this is a social agent in a democracy that is fed with commercially motivated propaganda where information is indistinguishable from entertainment, and both proclaim the untouchable right to free choice. Militarily, it may even be a phantom image of what today haunts us under the term, the “domestic terrorist.”


It seems suggestible that what has been described above can be summarized as a change in the notion of sovereignty. Modern sovereignty of Man describes the right of any individual to social, juridical, political and humanitarian rights. National sovereignty is the right of a nation’s citizens to determine their own laws and the right to defend itself. Sovereignty is always exclusive and reflexive. [13] After World War II, the atrocities committed called for a global formulation of human rights. In 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations without one dissenting vote. By the eve of the twentieth century, human rights seem no longer to be of such unanimous concern.

Aimed at the United States’ administration, the Human Rights Watch noted in 2002 that for the first time since the signing of the declaration, the question of human rights in America is no longer considered an imperative but relative to possible interference with national security. Their annual report explicitly states that:

During the first eight months of George W. Bush's presidency, the promotion of human rights occupied a low priority in the administration's domestic political agenda. The president and Attorney General John Ashcroft were criticized for insufficient concern about violations of individual rights and liberties, particularly in the criminal justice context. Questions about the government's commitment to protect basic rights increased markedly as it developed anti-terrorist measures after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington. New laws permitting the indefinite detention of non-citizens, special military commissions to try suspected terrorists, the detention of over 1,000 people, and the abrogation of the confidentiality of attorney-client communications for certain detainees, demonstrated the administration's troubling disregard for well established human rights safeguards as it sought to protect national security. Indeed, in taking steps to defend the U.S. from terrorists, the government adopted measures that eroded key values and principles it said it sought to protect, including the rule of law. (World Report, 2002)

These allegations signify violent changes of American juridical standards. But the document also reveals that the changes are not imposed on society from above but have been saturated in a biopolitical body since September 11. Recalling Ewald, this change in the conception of human rights testifies to the disintegration of Man as the center of right and knowledge. In other words, the human sovereignty of right disfigures when national security is threatened by terrorist attacks. Just like the human sovereignty of knowledge was disfigured decades ago in genetic and microbiological research when the border of the human was not only transgressed but was found irrelevant. Knowledge and right are no longer attached to the essentially human but to movements of social life. The right of communication, of trading, of exchange, of development, of becoming different and of choice and selection are not to be understood as rights that belong to Man, but to the mobility of free social life as such. Only when the subject of right has changed is it understandable why security against a future possible event is more relevant than punishment.


Although this may sound very violent – especially, perhaps, to Europeans– it is not more violent than previous forms of control. Security, in its new form, is more the control of movement than of people (Deleuze, 1990b.) Today it is a matter of anticipating and preventing hostile territorial motions by anyone, since any territorial alteration is potentially threatening. Movement is the primary target: the object that moves can be identified later, and partly based on the analysis of movement. This formula is a necessary condition for understanding the argument US Secretary of State, Colin Powell presented to the UN Security Council on February 5, 2003. [14] This is also the condition for arguing that a mere threat, or anticipation of a possible attack, can serve to legitimize a democratic state’s aggressive use of military force in the name of defense. When this legitimation coincides with a refusal to subject American military personnel to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, it strongly suggests that the Pax Americana concerns a different subject than that intended in the Declaration of Human Rights.

Increasing security means to objectify movement, whether around private homes, between bank accounts, of email correspondences, in public space, around military compounds, along nation borders or within social groups. It is reducible to a singular formulation: movement must be identified before we know what is moving. When movement is the subject as well as the object of control, incredible amounts of information have to be produced, processed and organized. This is because unlike stable objects, which can be organized and catalogued in a treelike organization, movements are not identical to themselves and requires a mobile archive order. In order to identify a potentially hostile movement without infringing on movement’s own rights, one must repeatedly target and evaluate changes in as many points of reference as possible in order to calculate whether the shifting ratios between amplitude and direction has a probability of interfering with the movements one seeks to protect. It is necessary that the vast amounts of information thus produced be properly processed so that relevant segments can easily and quickly be retrievable. This is not for the purpose of locating a singular piece of information. Every piece of information must be readily available so that it can be brought in conjunction with any other piece of information. These pieces build up an image of the event only from their relation to each other. The relevance of a piece of information is not determined by its direct relation to a given event. There is no key piece of information. Every piece is expendable and may be exchanged for another. Hence, there is no linear causality leading up to an event – it ‘happens’ from several points of view at the same time.

If one compares the 1960 version of Ocean’s Eleven and that produced in 2001, this difference in the rendering of an event is the one major difference that makes a difference. It is very likely that a new understanding of archives is paramount with digitized information, and several blockbuster movies are explicitly dealing with that issue (e.g. the Matrix movies (1999 and 2003), Swordfish (2001) or Avengers (1998)). Already in the 1960’s, these elements came together in the research of a remarkable scientist.  J.C.R. Licklider prophesized a future symbiosis between computer and man for the purpose of greater mobility (1960), he was one of the initiators behind ARPANET and in 1965 he published a book called The Future of Libraries.

The transition from what Foucault described as the modern prison to Deleuze’s nicknaming Foucault an archivist corresponds to the change from the inside/outside dichotomy to an evaluation of ratios between variables and variations.


How is this expressed today as a new visibility? If digitization is a technical manifestation of the subjectification of movement, what aesthetical consistencies does this new line bring with it? I will return to this question shortly in a discussion of five contemporary artworks, but first I should introduce the common exposition site for the works I have chosen. The global art event that takes place in the German town Kassel every five years under the title Documenta is a monstrosity in the art world. The eleventh Documenta exposition opened in the summer of 2002 and was both met with very high public expectations and a response in German media that was not exclusively positive. [15] To privilege it here, in a discourse on digital aesthetics, is admittedly not without its problems: for one, the very purpose of Documenta as a worldwide ‘survey’ of the contemporary art scene attaches an elitist tag of exemplarity to the entire project. The top-of-the-hill position of the official curator group – as a ‘central committee’ of sovereign control – was an issue often raised by critical voices, as was the complaint that the same committee was obviously more interested in politics than in art. What is even more problematic for my choice of reference would be the almost complete lack of digital art at the Kassel expositions. Though all of the above would be relevant objections, my sole defense is that Documenta11 is not chosen for its ostensible exemplarity. To the contrary, it is chosen and singled out because it articulated the capacities for a non-humanistic sensuousness in the age of digitization.  

As I have already hinted at, this non-humanism is very different from the anti-humanism of modern avant-garde art. Then, the conditions for an anti-humanistic aesthetics rested on the transgression towards an outside of human experience (the unconsicous, the instantaneous moment, the war, the metropolis, etc). In a very different way, the aesthetics of digitization seems to form serial, dynamic strings that do not transgress but form curves around problem zones. The curves move with greater or lesser speed around those zones depending on how the zones’ level of intensity increases, decreases or sometimes even divides. For instance, in Seifollah Samadian’s video The White Station, the fluttering black chador of an anonymous woman waiting at a bus stop during an unexpected snow blizzard in Teheran describes this formation very well. It has nothing to do with transgression or identity: it is much more revolutionary. This video shows an allegory of power in its simplest form: it is an image (not a narrative) of a black zone, or singularity determining the white lines cast about it. The flying snowflakes may swirl and curve around her from the force of the wind, but it is her body that determines the movement and the shape of the curves. The waiting woman becomes the most powerful persona around which the politically isolating blizzard of Iranian theocracy rages. ‘She’ is paradoxically no one and many at different times simultaneously. If this is an allegory of the biopolitics of theocracy, then the swirls of snow are movements of white-on-white, an Islamic mourning of the total prohibition against dissent and a singular condition for speech. But the woman is the pure power of resistance: she is the condition for expressing a multitude of voices. What I have called a ‘line’ in the previous sections corresponds to her subjectification. She is not restricted by humanism.

Four artworks will now serve to expand this formal figure and explain how a non-human aesthetics is formed in the digital age: Andreas Siekmann’s installation Aus: Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung (From: Limited Liability Company); Fabian Marcaccio’s mural paintings Multiple-Site Paintants; The Atlas Group’s Already Been in a Lake of Fire and Fareed Armaly’s From/To.


Formally very similar to Samadian’s The White Station, Andreas Siekmann’s work positions the body of the visitor as a mobile singularity. There are strips of images across the walls, nailed to the ceiling and displayed on several long tables, together with cutout Styrofoam words. As these images don’t ‘swirl’ physically as much as they move as a composition, this immediately becomes a challenge to the mobility of the body. A visitor may walk slowly, bend down, arch back or use one of the red office chairs and roll along the strips.

Figure 2. Photos of Samadian’s The White Station

As one walks, or wheels around, perhaps uncertain of whether one reads or looks, it becomes striking that this is not an ordinary gallery walk. Walking is the very subject of the piece: the very zone of power. Strolling along a table while reading the sequences of drawings is like following an open and quite disorganized debate about globalization. The images comment on media and politics, they argue for and against economic regulation, they attend a G8 protest rally, and they chat on the net. But the Styrofoam title words introduce some consistency; their firm type but fragile material correspond to their painted shadows which are more often upside down or backwards than not. And their color is declarative like a warning, crimson red, in the same hue as the drawings and the office chairs. All this, the entire setup or assemblage, cannot be looked at; it is put together with a certain consistency so that moving into the bands of words, images and colors becomes imperative for experiencing the piece.  

But nevertheless, Siekmann’s space is no place for action. There is freedom of movement, just as the handout from the plexi boxes on the wall proclaims, but solely around the strips. This is no workshop, no factory; there is almost no stuff left, no touch and no construction. There are several members from the Documenta staff constantly in this room to make sure that nothing is touched. It seems like revolution on tape, laid out for scrutiny, under plexiglass for protection. And the specific gait, the way to sit, to stand or lean over when touch is prohibited but movement is mandatory, undoubtedly recalls a museum’s restriction of body movement. I call it a museum body. In Siekmann’s installation this museum body is intensely provoked by another body – one that is far more interested in the mobility of the set-up than inspecting the drawings. This is a body for which the office chairs offer the opportunity to roll along a strip of drawings fast enough to make them unfold like a film, a body that indulges in rotating on the spot while gazing up at the images in the ceiling or randomly move from one table to the next regardless of the order of strips.

Two bodies, then, created by the imperative mobility and the restriction to touch that are simultaneously built into this machine. Once one experiences the divide, the body’s movements become political. It can either submit to the machine’s directions, or it can insist on its right outside the law, which doesn’t break the law but renders it obsolete. Or it can paradoxically do both at the same time: submit to a law that its movements render obsolete. Then it is not two conflicting bodies anymore, but a new paradoxical body that is wholly different from both. The movement of such a no-one-and-many-body can reinvent the entire machine and make sense of it in a quite different way. 

It seems that such a subject is quite precisely what is depicted as the protagonist of the drawings: an empty pair of blue jeans. My body becomes a pair of jeans. And, Aus: Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung is a new kind of materialistic history of socio-economic change that should be taken quite literally. It describes the shift from modern industrialism to global economy as the history not of humans but of jeans. The handout, which is an integral piece of the artwork, states that the jeans trace the historical transition from worker’s pants to an image of youthful leisure and, as such, are both “a field for projections, anxieties and repression” as well as a “vehicle for political commitment.” (Siekmann, 2002.) The jeans, a blue hollow bifurcation in the midst of reds describe perfectly well the political ambivalence in the visitor’s new body. One might even suggest that a new type of history is experienced bodily as the historical division between labor and leisure of the jeans correspond to the division between a museum body and the body of mobility. The spectator’s twin body stands in each of the trousers’ legs. Then the meaningful point is that a global subject paradoxically coexists simultaneously in what formerly were mutually exclusive positions (work/leisure, touch/visuality, present/past) but has sundered conceptual pairs like law/right and subject/sovereign.

Figure 3. From Andreas Siekmann’s installation Aus: Gesellschaft mit beschränkter Haftung

As Siekmann’s blue jeans learn to walk in a digitized environment, they confront the need to navigate in a space where phenomenal materiality is merely borrowed. It was explained previously why incredible amounts of information must be produced when movement is objectified. From this follows that every piece of information that is produced cannot have a materiality of its own that corresponds to human sensuousness. The archive would be too slow and cumbersome if these were organized as self-identical objects. In a digital environment, material carriers (like a CD or a hard drive) store pieces of information that are self-identical only when read or processed. In the earliest computers, the carrier stood in a 1:1 relation to the interface: the shift of one switch registered as one bit. That is a long time ago. Information must today be translated onto an interface where digital artifacts of billions of bits are dealt with as if they had a material consistency of their own. We all know that they do not have that. We know that they are called forward to appear with the borrowed materiality that a screen supplies. But Siekmann does not thematize the problem of the materiality of his paradoxical jeans nor how they get from one image to another and manage to form the strip.


Fabian Marcaccio deals with this issue. Judging from the look of his painting, this is somewhat difficult. Like Siekmann and Samadian, Marcaccio presents singularities and curves in the vicinity of these singularities, but Marcaccio’s paintants does not express the relation between these two. The curves and the singularities appear completely integrated in the paintants. Siekmann showed that curves are that which stretch and reconfigure the materiality of bodily figures. Samadian showed that the singularities are that which enable the curves to do so. Singularities determine the curves that tear in the flesh of the figures. But in Marcaccio’s work, this is seen from another side.

Figure 4. Fabian Marcaccio, Multiple-Site Paintants (2001 – 02)

The difficulty lies in the complexity of the composition of the paintants. But in the composition lies another way to understand what may be called the visibility of curves and singularities because Marcaccio looks at the entire structure from a side where the altered capacities for conceptualization appear. These changes are simultaneous with the reconfiguration of the body in Siekmann. While both Siekmann and Samadian show the abstract relations between singularities and the formation of curves that spontaneously form this new body of movement, Marcaccio has no need to keep them apart. The singularities and the curves are indeed separated, but, when describing the challenge of a new conceptualization, it is not necessary to describe them as other than one.

click here for larger image
Figure 5. Close up photos from Fabian Marcaccio, Multiple-Site Paintants (2001 – 02)

This is the phenomenological, or better yet, the epistemological side of the aesthetics of digitization. Marcaccio asks new questions: what are the possibilities for perceiving something, or for knowing that something is something in a global, digital environment? Have not our perception and our ability to form knowledge of the world radically changed when so much of the stimuli we receive are mediated from screens where material consistency is no longer attached to appearance? Are we not differently ‘in-the-world,’ i.e. have we not entered a new Dasein? Marcaccio proves very convincingly that we are mistaken if we speak of immateriality, as in concepts like ‘immaterial labor’ that appear in several discourses on globalization (Cf. Lazzarato, Verno, et al., 1998; Hardt and Negri, 2000). Neither appearance nor labor is strictly speaking immaterial, but – and this is very important – phenomena mediated on a screen are separated in their presence from their own individual materiality.

What is perceptible on a screen has no materiality of its own but is merely a borrowed materiality from the screen. When a computer is supplied with a screen interface that mediates a phenomenon that is digitally alterable, some very new conditions for labor appear. The alterations effected by labor onto an object on a screen must be actively ‘saved,’ that is, implanted in the information string that instructs the appearance. Unless this is done successfully, or if one forgets to do that (and that happened a lot before ‘auto-save’ became standardized on most programs), labor itself risks becoming undone. That labor became confronted with an object that involved the risk of labor itself being undone was a very new and frustrating experience for most new PC users in the eighties and nineties. But that risk was merely a symptom of a new condition for knowledge. The Multiple-Site Paintants show the material conditions for a form of knowledge whose object may undo the labors that are aimed at it.

Maraccio’s exposition of this new formation of knowledge neither relates it to an object, nor to a phenomenon, and not even to its own capacities for perceiving and understanding these phenomena; the condition for a ‘digital’ form of knowledge becomes possible by the configuration of curves that appear between singularities. (These curves are the image strips in Siekmann or the swirls of snow in Samadian.) The object of knowledge is the multitude of possible variations that these curves produce. (This objectification may be executed as control of movement as explained previously.) Materiality must here be conceived in a different way. Especially when the change in conditions for labor reveals that materiality is very differently related to the capacities for producing knowledge. Materiality is not the raw stuff that is formed by knowledge into a certain shape. To the contrary, materiality, as the configuration of curves, forms knowledge.

This is the revolution that Marcaccio displays: knowledge does not form materiality; knowledge is formed by materiality when materiality is dissociated from an individual appearance. That materiality was always dissociable from the appearance of its object has been known since the first reflection in a pool of water, and Marshall McLuhan (1964) rightly pointed this out with reference to media and the Narcissus myth. As Rodolphe Gasché (1986) and Hans Blumenberg (1993) have shown, reflection has been the dominant paradigm for metaphysical knowledge from Plato to Heidegger. But the computer is no prosthesis to Man, no addition to his or her body and hence does not fall under the dominance of reflection. Because it allows the reflection to be altered before that which is reflected, the computer is a straight line of movement. This is what Marcaccio reveals so convincingly: the body of movement has a capacity for conceptualization that is not opposed to the materiality of the conceptualized. Instead of the traditional hierarchical order that arises from such a metaphysical opposition, materiality is a constellation of curves that conditions knowledge. But this knowledge has a particular capacity to understand and conceptualize the materiality that conditions it. It is not expressible as reflection, but as composition. And that is why the composition of the paintants is of such importance: it shows that movement is a precondition for any knowledge about these curves and singularities, and that this is what forms our concept of freedom as well as our call for security.


If Marcaccio suggests that materiality forms knowledge, a violent protest must be taken into account. How, then, can one possibly claim any freedom of choice? If our form of knowledge is determined by materiality, then we have no power to choose what is best for us! A very cool and perhaps cynical answer is possible from the structure of the paintants. We must not mistake freedom for domination. We may lose our dominant position over materiality, as ecologists around the world have argued for decades, but not thereby necessarily losing our freedom. The very concept of freedom must be redefined with the new formation of knowledge. Two artworks that addressed this issue at Documenta were The Atlas Group’s Already Been in a Lake of Fire and Fareed Armaly’s From/To. The former can be said to argue for a freedom related to a conceptualization of what is historically possible as knowledge, while the latter argues for a freedom in a political production of knowledge.

The suggestion made earlier in this text regarding a reorganized archive as a consistent order of knowledge is to a large extent inspired by Lake of Fire. But at Documenta , this was by no means the only archive-related work: Sanja Iveković, Chohreh Feyzdjou, Ecke Bonk and the documentary display of Maria Eichorn’s non-capitalist company all seemed to use the archive as a vehicle for expression. But in the works of The Atlas Group, a very particular archive had been employed, one that seems congruent with the concept of the archive in Foucault’s The Archaeology of Knowledge (1989). The archive as historical a priori is appropriated as an archive of “what can be imagined, what can be said, taken for granted, what can appear as rational or not, as thinkable and sayable about the civil wars” (Walid, 2001). When this Foucauldian knowledge is aimed at what is possible to say, to see and to think (not for a transcendental subject but for subject determined by the mobility of singularities), then the notion of freedom must be the measured by the lack of restraints laid on this subject’s becoming other than itself.

For this subject, there can of course not be a singular, uniform history. The Atlas Group takes responsibility for a historical truth that by definition is a multiplicity: not the history of what really happened during the Lebanese civil wars, but the histories of what was possible. This is no phantasmatic history. The documents that are displayed in Lake of Fire, or ‘monuments’ as Foucault would call them, are more real than any documentary photographs or films. Instead of saying ‘Look! This car bomb has really exploded!’ they show that nobody could know when a bomb would go off, but that a car could explode at any time and any place. Showing the possibility for car bombs must be regarded as far more concrete than documentaries that merely show that they happened.

Figure 6. The Atlas Group, Notebook Volume 38, Already Been in a Lake of Fire (1999)

Pictures of cars, pasted onto 145 sheets with added comments and descriptions in Arabic, make up one volume in the archive of the Lebanese civil wars. From the text one may learn that each pictured car corresponds exactly to a vehicle used as a car bomb during the civil wars between 1975 and 1990. One must suspect this is an ironic statement. The text does not convey accurate information about the explosions that took place – there are of course no records that could verify any such data – but the text constructs the archive wherein the archived events can be collected as possibilities.  

What is particular about the form of this archive is not that it fabulates: it is rather the way in which it fabulates. Ignoring an important aspect of traditional archive practice produces a mode of fabulation that actually conditions the possibility of archiving these events. The Atlas Group removes the distance between the archive record and the archived object. On each displayed page of volume 38 one may see both the object of the archive: the make, model and color of the cars used for bombings, and the archival information of when and where it took place, together with notes on the size of detonation. When an archive traditionally exhibits its artifacts, it is common practice to keep the information about the objects separated from the object itself (usually on a plaque beneath it) in order to maintain the archive’s objective distance. By willingly failing to observe this practice, The Atlas Group archive makes a point of constructing its own historical objects by inscribing the record information upon them. Thus, ignoring the objectivity and the responsibility of the archives (of registering the objects in a catalogue and keeping the objects intact) is to ignore the objectivity that is intimately tied to history. But creating a mode of fabulation that questions the objectivity of history produces another important distinction. While one is politically guilty of historic revisionism if one fabulates a history under the pretext ‘as it really was’ (and this is in any case unavoidable), when we articulate the history of what was possible, fabulation is necessary.

One further important aspect of The Atlas Group’s archive fabulation is that the formal consistency of neatly registered information seems inversely related to the visual presentation of vehicles on the sheets. It seems that cars of the same make and model are grouped together on the same paper, but in a way that is more reminiscent of bad advertisement or sloppy collage than straight documentation. Why is that? A car bomb is not a straight line of attack, although, of course, it is intended to kill. It is an unreliable vehicle for assassination -- an ordinary means of transportation converted into a highly destructive weapon that is equally imprecise. The potential coexistence of function in each car during the civil wars – a means for transportation and a lethal detonation – is a condition for any historical account of this civil war: a low cost, low tech, civil war where death occurred by chance rather than by planned military action. The conceivability of such a car bomb is a highly destructive line that neither reveals how many or who will die, nor when or where it will happen. It kills indiscriminately, contingently, anywhere – camouflaged by being a quotidian object of use. It is the secrecy of that line that is brought out and given historical shape for the very first time in The Atlas Group archive. And the visual form of the historical shape is accentuated in the asymmetry between the neatly registered information and the cars glued one on top of the other, some too big for the sheet of paper and hence cut off. What is archived is not the event of the bomb, it is the line of contingency and indiscriminancy that could kill anywhere at any time, leaving practically no opportunities open for protection. 

Figure 7. The Atlas Group Missing Lebanese Wars (1999)


That objective historicism `always fabulates' is argued in Missing Lebanese Wars. Here is a fictive collection of old lost and found gambling sheets, revealing a society of historians betting on how many seconds a race track photographer is off the mark snapping the image of the winning horse. Historians gambling on the inaccuracy of freezing an image for later inspection is a mockery to all factual historicism, and an archive of their gambling sheets is, more than anything, a frightful image of the time when the line of History was invested with sovereign power to determine knowledge. Historians do, in fact, gamble, and an archive of their sheets is an allegorical image of the fragility and danger inherent in the conviction that truth is in equilibrium and a one.


Arguing that the freedom of knowledge lies in the capacity to conceptualize what was historically possible at a given time, The Atlas Group’s imperative is supplemented by Fareed Armaly’s political invocation that the production of knowledge is a condition for freedom. In collaboration with filmmaker Rashid Mashrawi, Armaly set up a public research center at Documenta , a public library without walls, focusing on the crisis in Palestinian territories. From/To has been described as a “map that unfolds in real-time,” “with the logic of a website at the scale of architecture”  (de With, 1999).  

The contents of this archive are limited to the concerns of Palestine: the archive offers information on Palestinian culture, Palestinian politics, Palestinian families, Palestinian social programs, Palestinian cinema and so on. The symbol for the project is a stone whose shape has been 3D-scanned and rendered by triangulating its contours. In Palestine, the stone is a weapon but here, where it lends its materiality from the screen, it is also a map. At a computer terminal that is part of the installation, one may turn the stone by dragging the mouse, whereby thematically organized information sites appear. The triangulated shape of the stone has been flattened out on the floor so that it forms a network. On the lines of the network, as they converge towards an intersection with other lines are written directions to Palestinian cities and refugee camps: “To Su’fat Camp”, “From Al-Halazon Camp”, To Gaza”, etc. While these lines tie the rooms and the different workstations together, they form an imaginary map over a Palestine where it would be possible to travel safely from one place to another. The stone is both a map and an image of the limited right to move. On a wall in one of the screening rooms is written that in order to control a people, it is no longer necessary to control their land, their territory and the crops that they grow, but it is crucial that one controls the borders they have to cross.

Figure 8. Fareed Armaly From/To 2002

Scenes of reterritorialization are projected on a large screen (fig. 8) where Israeli troops effectively regulate borders and checkpoints. Furthermore, there are photographs to look at, more online computers to access, posters to leaf through, films to watch, postcards to inspect, more videos, more flyers and information sheets to read; everything is organized as workstations, places to sit for a while and work. To participate in this cartography is to constantly transport one’s paradoxically distracted attention to somewhere else, to another aspect of the issue, a different crease on the stone’s surface. The point of the piece is not to have its visitors digest all the information that is available. The point is rather to present an abundance of informative material, large enough to create a space, a mobile archive in which to move. As the title suggests, the paradoxical doubleness is not only geographical but also timely and social: “From/To” suggests a moving relation that Fareed’s library installation encourages as a principle for collecting.  Possibly, it may engender a collective redissemination and re-collection of the knowledge and the criticism aroused here. Movement can produce further movement, in diverging directions, but only in the name of an open and free relation.  

The public research archive on site exclusively concerns the Palestinian people and could very well be criticized on a number of points: for not making clear the political, historical, social and the religious differentiations concerning the Intifadas, for ignoring the diversity of voices within the Palestinian community, for neglecting to thematize Palestine’s dependency on diplomatic, economic and military forces outside the strictly Palestinian and not least for refusing to give a voice to the Israeli side. But even though these are crucial aspects that are largely or completely unaddressed, it is important to remember that the choice to found the piece on movement’s rights involves the recognition of a necessary incompleteness inherent in From/To. It is an appeal to the freedom of engaging in continuous critical research regardless of political or social borders, but also a plea to the responsibility to step outside overtly well defined research areas. Hence, the installation invites the visitors inside, just as much as it throws them back out. With a global society it becomes a duty to participate in the production of knowledge, to maintain the doubleness intended with the stone. The diversity of roads that emerge from its surface must be met with the mobile architecture of an archive; what was historically possible will become a weapon today against any order of knowledge that exclusively wants to reterritorialize.


Without a doubt, these cartographies and these architectures, their political consequences and aesthetical resources are significantly (though not exclusively) indebted to the technological manifestation of digitization. The digitizing society (if there is such a thing) has discovered mobile relations that have enabled formerly discrete areas of knowledge to coalesce into new ensembles. Biochemistry is one such new ensemble of knowledge as is the military oxymoron ‘smart missiles’. The general observation that movement in a digitizing society is privileged over that which moves, and that the right to move and the responsibility to produce knowledge is in practice more highly valued than individual human rights suggest that the risk of social, economical and linguistic marginalization is a threat more severe than ever. [16] The digitizing society is a structure whose form is not universal. It organizes and reorganizes itself in a number of different forms. Social marginalization is not the same phenomena everywhere. Different ‘network’ societies do not organize their laws of connectibility in a uniform fashion. This also means that the control over movement may take many different shapes. [17]  

The network structure that governed the overall experience of Documenta11 was a legacy to the postcolonial critiques of historicism and Eurocentrism. The result was an exhibition whose curatorial principle was firmly rooted in a biopolitical, or perhaps better expressed, in a topological normativity. Much of the criticism against Documenta's almost exclusive focus on postcolonial theory and national political crises at the expense of other artistic concerns actually gave voice to political doubts regarding the form of network put into practice. Was it a reterritorializing structure where the curatorial group functioned as a centrally positioned spider in full charge of any disturbance in its creation, [18] or was it a network allowed to spin off, to bifurcate and spontaneously reorganize its structure when faced with crises? That a network is a structure not devoid of governance and control organs – as these are functions necessary for its existence – is a fact sometimes all too readily forgotten. It is in order to be able to see when these new network apparatuses become restrictive or ‘totalitarian’ in their own way, that we need a new aesthetics. We need different perceptive organs to notice when a given post-humanistic line starts to benefit from marginalizing certain groups, when it starts to prohibit the development of other lines or when it in other ways stifles alternative formations so as to strengthen its own. When the hegemony of self-reflexivity shows up again we can rest assured that it appears in a very new shape, and even if we do not see it yet, it has most certainly caught sight of us.



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[1] The term is from Douglas Engelbart’s groundbreaking work Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, from 1962. Reprinted in Cyber_reader, ed. Neil Spiller (New York and London: Phaidon Press, 2002) pp. 60-67.

[2] From Baudelaire, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Bergson through Proust, Benjamin, Marinetti and Breton towards Merleau-Ponty, Foucault, Lyotard, Serres and Deleuze may be drawn a line of anti-humanism that also traces backwards to Leibniz, Spinoza, the German mystics Böhme and Eckhardt, to Hellenists like Lucretius and presocratic thinkers like Heraclites.

[3] This is not a philosophically constructed definition but a formulation that summarizes many of the prevailing definitions, e.g. “The International Humanist and Ethical Union,” available at http://www.bethami.com/definition.htm or the ten requirements by Corliss Lamont, (1997), available at http://www.humanists.org/hum_lamont.htm.

[4] In Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Kantian Man, defined by a dialectics of right and duty, enters into a state where he understands Sittlichkeit, whereby the essence of the family is born. Hence, Hegel can argue for a social evolution from individual right towards the constitution of the nation state, without abandoning the dialectical starting point.

[5] Foucault describes this transition from the classic to the modern (Kantian) subject and its conception of law in Discipline and Punish (1979): “Knowledge of the offence, knowledge of the offender, knowledge of the law: these three conditions made it possible to ground a judgment in truth. But now a quite different question of truth is inscribed in the course of penal judgment. The question is no longer simply: ‘Has the act been established and is it punishable?’ But also: ‘What is this act, what is this act of violence and this murder? To what level or to what field of reality does it belong? Is it a phantasy, a psychotic reaction, a delusional episode, a perverse action?’ It is no longer simply: ‘Who committed it?’ But: ‘How can we assign the causal process that produced it? Where did it originate in the author himself? Instinct, unconscious, environment, heredity?’ It is no longer simply: ‘What law punishes this offence?’ But ‘What would be the most appropriate steps to take? How do we see the future development of the offender? What would be the best way of rehabilitating him?’ A whole set of assessing, diagnostic, prognostic, normative judgments concerning the criminal have become lodged in the framework of penal judgment.”  (p. 19.)

[6] See Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Saccer (1998) on the transition of the ‘sacred man’ from the figure of the Germanic outlaw (fredlos) to the appearance of the madman.

[7] Foucault points to article 64 of the French 1810 penal code, which states that madness relieves both crime and offence was soon misunderstood, as judges assumed the possibility of being both guilty and mad. Apart from several juridical absurdities, the misunderstanding led to the delegation of juridical decision: the sentence extended toward an “assessment of normality and a technical prescription for a possible normalization.” (1979, p. 19-21). The extension of the legal field into several other discursive practices signifies that the penal system became an increasingly intensified domain of power, involving more and more sectors of the entire social field.

[8] The end of history was a necessary notion that actually secured the ontology of the modern historical Dasein; e.g. the dialectics between culture and remembrance in Hegel’s Spirit, the determinable evolution of species in Darwin and the final revolution of the proletariat in Marx. From this perspective, Francis Fukuyama’s (1993) notion of an end of history in the age of global machinery is completely mistaken.

[9] A relevant European example is the Viennese Actionism under Günter Brus, Otto Mühl, Hermann Nitsch and Peter Schwarzkogler. In America is a different expression in Leon Golub and Diane Arbus.

[10] For an analysis of the relation between power and knowledge, and between abstract and concrete machines that have been excluded from this text, see Petersson, (2003).

[11] The discrepancy of their overall aim could be detected by comparing two highly important works: Howe (1970) and Fanon (1967).

[12] This is of course most famously expressed in the dispute between Lyotard (1979) and Habermas (1983).

[13] See Agamben, (1998). An interesting response to Agamben’s analysis of sovereignty, contextualized within the discourse around questions on internet democracy, see May-Ling Sie, (2002).

[14] A transcript of Powell’s speech to the UN Security Council is available at http://www.un.int/usa/03clp0205.htm

[15] Very few of the many critical websites and articles concerning Documenta that was available on the net in the summer and fall of 2002 are still up, but for one example, see Hanke, (2002)

[16] In his opening essay to the Documenta catalogue, “The Black Box” chief curator Okwui Enwezor quotes Jürgen Habermas on the demand for social rights tailored for a social minority: “‘Does not the recognition of cultural forms of life and traditions that have been marginalized, whether in the context of a majority culture or in a Eurocentric global society, require guarantees of status and survival – in other words, some kind of collective rights that shatter the outmoded self-understanding of the democratic constitutional state, which is tailored to individual rights and in that sense is ‘liberal?’” (Enwezor, 2002, p. 54.)  

[17] In an early draft to this article – written in September 2002, before the major dispute between ‘Old Europe’ and the US in the UN Security Council – I included at this point a lengthy footnote that in the light of later development contains some interesting historical observations. I hereby quote myself: “I refer to the general notion that the E.U. and the U.S. represent very different standpoints on issues of security and military involvement. In a series of articles in the Washington Post, Republican commentator Robert Kagan argues forcefully that the year 2002 has seen an increasing, and irreversible divide in foreign policy between Europe and America. While the European structure functions according to laws of what Kagan calls ‘moral consciousness’ – i.e. implementation and collective adherence to international law and persecution by international court whenever these laws are violated, America takes the responsibility of maintaining international justice by intervening by force. While foreign policy in the U.S. obeys what Kagan refers to as a ‘Hobbesian world where international rules are unreliable and where security and the promotion of the liberal order still depend on the possession of military might,’ Europe has entered a ‘post-historical paradise, the realization of Kant’s “Perpetual Peace.”’ This irreconcilable difference motivates in Kagan’s view the strong European reactions against the Bush administration’s refusal to sign for participation in ICC. Kagan’s lack of social analysis and philosophical knowledge, fundamental as they seem to be, does not, however cover up the fact that America and Europe indeed has chosen two very different models of network orders. The interlacing of economies and common policies in the EU follows a less centralized, but perhaps also a less translucent model than that in the U.S., which may be characterized as a concentric main net with several subnets. That the military arsenal of the U.S. is a legacy from the Cold War, at present fed with a massive budget increase in order to adapt to a situation where national security is threatened from a multitude of microscopic agents with the potential power of short-circuiting the movements of flow between the subsets (post 9-11), and not a police force of the world fighting for law and justice should be obvious from the reluctance to intervene in situations that does not concern American interests. And this situation is perhaps the immanent cause of an organization such as the American network. It may very well be that it is the social and economical infrastructure of the U.S. that needs more direct access to implementation of force in order to stand up. Not only does it in that case need more power to maintain itself, it also needs to show this force to the rest of the world. 

Kagan’s latest three articles have appeared in the Washington Post: ”The U.S.-Europe Divide” May 26, 2002, p. B07; “Europeans Courting International Disaster” June 30, 2002, p. B07 and “Iraq: The Day After” July 21 2002, p. B07.”

[18] In the preface to the catalogue for Documenta11, Okwui Enwezor writes: “Throughout the preparations for Documenta 11, I have had the exceeding good fortune of working with a team of six brilliant and committed colleagues in shaping every single facet of this project.” (p. 40).

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