Postmodernism is out, digimodernism is in
- Published: 21 November 2009
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Digimodernism is here - and it's revolutionized traditional arts, invented new cultural relationships, and slowly engulfed the textual world we live in, writes Alan Kirby.
On 6 July 2009
However successful Gormley’s project was, and critics were divided, it drew from certain quarters a response that would have been grimly familiar to the Pre-Raphaelites and Impressionists. Contributors to the
The irony was lost on these writers that, in reality, they were using a digimodernist textuality to attack the very notion of a digimodernist work of art. It was as though one sibling told another that while he was beyond reproach, the progeny of her parents were worthless.
What is digimodernism?
What is this digimodernism? Put simply, it is the impact of computerization on all forms of art, culture and textuality. It is also the dominant cultural force field of the 21st century, the successor to a postmodernism which reigned supreme throughout the 1980s and 1990s but is now widely felt to have had its day.
The cultural landscape, it can be argued, is skewed at all times by the gravitational pull of certain ideas, themes, tendencies or individuals. I believe that the prevailing cultural fact of our time, one which is gradually bending everything into its orbit as well as throwing up phenomena made in its own image, is digitization. It has revolutionized traditional arts, invented new cultural relationships, and slowly engulfed the textual world we live in.
Unlike its predecessor, though, digimodernism is not primarily a given aesthetic content or set of techniques or concerns which artists are invited to adopt should they wish to be “contemporary” or “cutting edge”. It operates at a deeper, more fundamental level than that.
In its purest instances it is a revolution in the nature of the text itself, seen vividly in the platforms of Web 2.0 (blogs, chat rooms, message boards, Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter etc.). Such a textuality is onward, haphazard, evanescent, and fluid-bounded: it exists in its own current expansion or elaboration; its content is up for grabs, though surreptitiously patrolled; it does not last and is not reproducible in its original form; and its temporal and spatial boundaries are, though perceptible, very hard to fix. If the diary and encyclopaedia are supplanted by Web 2.0, the letter and the map have given way to email, text messages, atnav, and Google Maps and their ilk.
The digimodernist hypothesis is that computerization has restructured or will restructure every form of textuality we know. It is not limited to online network culture.
Digimodernism and TV
Its impact is apparent in television, which has increasingly embraced the myriad forms of “reality” or “interactive” TV that may not be dependent on digital technology, but nevertheless mimic all the main characteristics of the pure digimodernist text. They display, for example, a highly digimodernist kind of authorship, which can be defined as anonymous, social and multiple.
Here, the digimodernist text permits the reader or viewer to intervene textually, physically to make text, to add visible content or tangibly shape narrative development. Hence “digimodernism”, a contraction of “digital modernism”, is a pun: it’s where digital technology meets textuality and text is reformulated by the fingers and thumbs (the digits) clicking and keying and pressing in the positive act of partial or obscurely collective textual elaboration.
The One & Other installation reinforces the idea that the digimodernist model is culturally dominant: it is shaped according to the principles of its textuality despite lacking its technological engine.
Computerization has also reshaped cinema through the spread of CGI, which has transformed the medium’s most fundamental grammar.
Film, classically, represents a trade-off between an outside world mechanically captured by camera and sound recording, and the ideas and decisions of directors, cinematographers, editors etc. who impose on that staged objectivity their subjective conceptions.
CGI adds a third axis to this by providing a non-subjective reality which has never actually existed. At first restricted to special effects and hence, in films like the 1998 version of Godzilla, to the technical improvement of traditional genres, CGI has recently begun to reinvent films in entirely new ways.
Movies like Beowulf, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and 300 do not add CGI to conventional film-making methods but start from a wholly digitized notion of the medium. In turn, this reflects the digimodernist importance of videogames, which have become cinema’s “other”, its nearest competitor and inspiration, in a way that theatre used to be. We live in the age of cinema 2.0. This revolution is the result of digital technology, though it does not lead to the kind of onward, haphazard textual formulation of Web 2.0.
As digimodernism is a force field and not an ideology, no text becomes more valuable or interesting simply by being “more digimodernist”. Much of what is currently produced by digimodernist textuality is banal, brainless, even obnoxious.
The pros and cons of digimodernism
Digimodernism tracks and interprets changes and developments in culture; it does not urge artists in certain directions or applaud them for pursuing certain areas of concern. It is an ambiguous phenomenon, as destructive as it is enabling.
On one side, for instance, digital technology has yielded a second golden age of radio: its programmes are transmitted worldwide with crystal clarity, they are available for much longer and in a variety of formats, and the number of stations and listeners has increased dramatically.
On the other side, however, digital technology has crippled song (or pop/rock): its primary artistic format, the album, and its commercial viability have both been devastated by the advent of the download. In the same way, while YouTube’s reviews pages are lists of pseudonymous abuse, Wikipedia has established itself as, on the whole, as reliable as any print encyclopaedia, and vastly more extensive, user-friendly and up to date.
Moreover, this tidal wave has only just begun to sweep across our culture. Though it has already turned the world of publishing inside out, with Amazon, Google Books, Kindle, print on demand and word processing etc. to the fore, and though it has revamped “lower” forms of written text like the newspaper, digital technology has not yet given us a strictly digimodernist literature.
Yet profound changes in the nature of narrative are already apparent in cinema, television and videogames. There is far more of digimodernism to come. It’s often observed that computerization is the greatest challenge to the text since Gutenberg’s Bible, but this is untrue; it has the potential to rival the invention of writing itself.
Digimodernism is a cultural landscape, an aesthetic force field, a new kind of textuality; it’s the impact of computerization; it’s a new artistic authorship, production and reception; a new kind of story and a new way of telling. It’s a new textual universe, as frightening as it is exciting: how we will use our time on the fourth plinth or what we will say on Comment is Free is almost entirely up to us.
Digimodernism: How New Technologies Dismantle the Postmodern and Reconfigure Our Culture by Alan Kirby is published by Continuum and available in paperback. Continuum is distributed in Australia by Palgrave Macmillan.
Image: 'Digital Collage', courtesy of Playing with Brushes, http://www.flickr.com/photos/playingwithpsp/391797210/ issued under a Creative Commons Licence.