reviewing "Electronic Culture"

Posted by Rhizome | Fri Jan 31st 1997 1 a.m.


Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual Representation
edited and introduced by Timothy Druckrey
New York: Aperture, 1996

Newsgroups and mailing lists have the advantage of making the path
between writing and reading short and fast, thus creating the
possibility for a form and intensity of intellectual discourse that can
rival the journalistic exchanges in Paris in the 19th century, or those
of Weimar Republic Berlin. The Nettime ZKPs are the fast condensations
of the debates held on this list, and they are good examples of how the
old Gutenbergian medium will slow down and substantiate the same words
and ideas that previously sped across the wires as data packets. In
analogy to the recent discussion of 'Englishes' it might be well worth
reminding ourselves of the different reading habits and forms of
intellectual appropriation associated with the various material forms in
which we experience texts.

The New York photography publishers Aperture have just published a
volume called 'Electronic Culture. Technology and Visual
Representation', edited and introduced by Tim Druckrey. The book
contains 31 essays by European and North American writers and spans half
a century of critical writing about culture and technology. For me it
was a welcome reminder of the historical dimension of current
discussions about culture and technology, and I would here like to just
very briefly point to its content which I feel is a very valuable
contribution to a slowing down and substantiation of our considerations
of digital culture.

The volume is divided into four main sections (History; Representation:
Photography and After; Theory; Media/Identity/Culture) and deals with a
broad spectrum of issues of technology, media and representation.
Roughly speaking, it starts where Walter Benjamin broke off, i.e. where
the image becomes associated with digital rather than analogue
reproduction, and where technology moves from the industrial into the
post-industrial age of cybernetics. And it finishes with the theoretical
and cultural impact of VR technologies and electronic networks whose
aesthetic impact remains as yet largely unexplored.

Given Druckrey's own and Aperture's special interest in visual
representation and photography, the collection places a clear emphasis
on digital imaging technologies, from post-photography to VR
environments. However, Electronic Culture succeeds in placing digital
imaging in the wider contexts of the histories of science theory and
technology, of cybernetics and the social and political usages of
technology, so that it offers not only useful analyses of theories of
representation in the digital age, but contributions to a social and
technological history of contemporary (visual) culture. On the whole, it
is more interested in the art, science and technology complex than in
popular culture, and its greatest achievement might lie in making
available a series of media theoretical texts that show that there is a
significant tradition of thought in this field that does not need
McLuhan as its patron saint. [...]

Two minor complaints: an alphabetical index would have been useful, as
would have been quoting the dates of the original publications, not
least because it would have created a stronger sense of the
chronological parameters of this most recent development in the history
of visual culture. However, the book still communicates a clear sense of
the historical depth of thinking about the impact of digital
technologies in the 20th century, and unlike many of the hype-driven
compilations that are hardly more than thematic special issues of art
and culture magazines, this is a book that looks beyond the immediate
interests of 1996, and that will last. It also makes us curious to read
on, to follow certain thematic currents and authors, and to pay more
attention to the interrelations between technology, culture and visual
representation in an historical perspective. [...]

(Texts by Sandy Stone, Vannevar Bush, Martin Heidegger, Hans Magnus
Enzensberger, Arthur I. Miller, Jean-Louis Comolli, Bill Nichols, David
Tomas, Kevin Robins, Roy Ascott, Raymond Bellour, Kathy Rae Huffman, Kim
H. Veltman, Lev Manovich, Vilem Flusser, Florian Roetzer, N. Katherine
Hayles, Siegfried Zielinski, Slavoj Zizek, Erkki Huhtamo, David Blair,
Louise K. Wilson/ Paul Virilio, Friedrich Kittler, Peter Weibel, Sherry
Turkle, Pierre Levy, Hakim Bey, Anne W. Branscomb, Geert Lovink,
Critical Art Ensemble.)
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