Interconnections: The Five Culture Problem

Roger Malina

This semester, the students of the UOC postgraduate course in art, technology and culture have been reflecting on the ideas of Roger Malina. He is the current Executive Editor of Leonardo/The International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology (Leonardo/ISAST): the organisation and publication series (with MIT press) that promotes international and interdisciplinary collaborative projects between practitioners in art, science and technology.

In his essay Leonardo Timeshift (2004), which examines the past and future of the Leonardo/ISAST organisation, he predicts a shift in mentality that he claims will change the way we view the dynamics of our own culture. According to Malina, over the next thirty years, we will pass from viewing the current art-science relationship as a dyad to discussing the “five culture problem” instead.

This, however, is not a disinterested prediction. It also enters the domain of ethics: Leonardo/ISAST seeks “over the next 25 years to change the direction and methodology of science” in an active way, encouraging what should be, to meet the environmental, ecological and social needs of humanity. “The need to interconnect the arts, the sciences and technologies remains one of the important elements for creating the conditions for a more just and sustainable planetary society” (Malina 2004).

This ethics defended by Malina reminds me of the Ethics Without Transcendence discussed by Gianni Vattimo (Common Knowledge 9:3, Duke University Press, 2003). Vattimo argues that our society is experiencing a shift in our moral philosophy, passing from an era of ethics with transcendence – “the ethics of the Other (capital O)” – to an era of ethics without transcendence – “the ethics of the other (lowercase) or the others (plural). Put another way: we are witnessing the birth of a postmetaphysical ethics” (Vattimo 2003). In the former, ethical principles are expressed in terms of laws that “stem from essences and metaphysical structures, and [are] entrusted as such by an Other, thundering its categorical imperative, to the private individual conscience.” The latter is “an ethics of negotiation and consensus rather than one of immutable principles.”

Gianni Vattimo

“Admitting that our reasons are not absolute tends to make shared criteria available instead… Viewing the ethical transition of our time as from an ethics of the Other to an ethics of others would lead to the reconstruction of laws on the basis of consensus, on the basis of respect for the opinions of all, according to agreed procedures and democratic rules” (Vattimo 2003).

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What struck me was a salient feature of Vattimo’s postmetaphysical ‘ethics of the others’ that I see reflected in Malina’s vision of the Leonardo/ISAST mission. Rather than focusing on the duties of individual conscience (which is assumed to be free and sovereign in its application of practical and ethical reasoning), Vattimo says that postmetaphysical ethics debates what impersonal others should be doing, such as public institutions, service centres, community interest groups or cultural organisations. Vattimo calls this “the social aspects of moral rules.” “The problem for which solutions are sought is how an impersonal subject (constituted by a government, a hospital, an insurance company) should behave” (Vattimo 2003). This same focus is found in Leonardo/ISAST’s conception of artist/scientist collaboration within the “five cultures” of our 21st century society. Malina’s five cultures are the impersonal others of his postmetaphysical ethics.

The shift towards a networking model of culture – one modelled on technological functioning – is a profound ethical challenge, one that risks being underestimated. This will lead me to consider the impact of techno-networked culture on artistic practice, linking Malina’s ideas, Vattimo’s and the role of technology and art in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger.

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Frank Malina (1912-1981)

Roger Malina’s father, Frank Malina, was an aeronautical engineer and experimental artist who founded the Leonardo journal in 1968. It was the first peer-reviewed magazine in which artists could write about their experimentation with new technologies. It was a platform for new ideas, but also a common resource used by an ever-growing and changing community of practitioners. As shown in their online mission statement, Leonardo/ISAST today try to follow this original dual inspiration while, at the same time, adapting to meet the needs of the 21st century.

“Leonardo/ISAST continues to identify new avenues to serve the art, science and technology community. Recognizing that the critical global challenges of the 21st century require the mobilization and cross-fertilization of practitioners in the fields of the arts, sciences and technology, Leonardo/ISAST fosters collaborative explorations, both nationally and internationally, resulting in interdisciplinary projects, meetings and events, while disseminating and documenting the most creative and promising ideas of our time” (Leonardo web page).

According to Roger Malina, it is unfruitful to think of this collaboration as a fully determinate, well-defined project coordinated between two separate and distinct disciplines known as Art and Science (or Technology). This is outdated thinking that belongs to a previous era. Philosophically, one might say, it is wrong to assign them fixed essences, for they are no longer Abstract Disciplines but “cultures:” lived human projects, carried out dynamically with the world and others, in constant flux and – often – in cross-disciplinary collaboration. It is here where the postmetaphysical character of Malina’s thinking (in Vattimo’s sense) is most evident. In Malina’s view, the art-world or science-world are not material manifestations of a transcendent and immutable metaphysical essence; they are networks of resources and practitioners. Individuals move about in these networks, entering them at different “nodes” (or performing different “roles”) depending on the characteristics of their project at the time.

In addition, the telecommunications technologies of the 21st century have given rise to new connectionist strategies of collaboration, cooperation and collective work:

“It is clear that organisational models prevalent in the 19[th] and 20[th] century (Federations, Unions, Cooperatives, Corporations, Collectives) are ill adapted to the new global condition, at least in their pre-web incarnations. In the tightly linked system that charecterises [sic] the web, there are very different behaviours and success rates of collective strategies (shared resources for multiplicity of outcomes), cooperative strategies (coordinated resources for parrallel [sic] outcomes) and collaborative strategies (pooled resources for shared or joint outcomes)” (Malina, Towards a Cultural Connectionism, 2002).

In defence of these new network methodologies and arguing in their favour, Malina presents what he calls a “weak case” (or what I call benefits in the short term) and a “strong case” (benefits in the long term). In the “weak case,” Malina argues, collaboration between artists and scientists/engineers often contributes to the resolution  of current scientific or engineering problems. In the “strong case,” Malina hopes, the interaction of scientists and artists over the long term will produce an altogether new science, a better science, one sensitive to the needs of an ever-globalised humanity.

Following this trend of global networking, and striving towards these ethical ideals, Malina sees the following five cultural “nodes” emerging in our societal infrastructure. Active agents/researchers, no longer defined as either “artist” or “scientist,” will be existentially characterised by their situated historical practice, emerging in one or another of these nodes at any given time. Malina not only describes the characteristics of each cultural group but makes the ethical case for their emergence: collaborative networking is always the preferred form of organisation.

  • Art, design and entertainment. “I specifically want to tie the arts more closely to the applied arts and the rapidly growing complex of entertainment (and communication) industries that are rapidly becoming the largest employers of graduates of most art and technology programs… [Art was traditionally] closely coupled to the academic world, the emerging art market, the humanities and academic scholarship. Today the art market and museum world are becoming rapidly irrelevant to the electronic arts” (Malina 2004).
  • Science and government. Malina separates the “fundamental” scientific disciplines (math, chemistry, physics) from the technology of applied sciences. The drop in interest in fundamental scientific studies has forced the connection between science and government, as the state has stepped in to finance these traditional Academic Disciplines. “Some universities are even closing their physics departments” (Malina 2004).
  • Technology and industry. This is “an ecology that is dominated by funding in the corporate world.” The cultural drivers in technology are not scientific advancements (in the academic sense of the Sciences) or even radical innovation. “The drivers are those of social acceptance and use, marketing, global redeployment. Artists in some cases are viewed within such R and D environments as ‘proxies’ for social use, not just redesigning the ‘skins’ of devices to make them seamless in their adoption, but re-orienting the design goals to respond to new patterns of human use community development” (Malina 2004).
  • World view (Weltanschauung). Communities formed on the basis of shared “metaphysical systems, histories of religious practice, ethnic and linguistic specializations…” (Malina 2004).
  • Situation. No longer limited to geographic boundaries, online communities can be easily formed on the basis of situational commonalities. There might be something about our situations that we have in common, despite the numerous differences (think of economic  or political plights, for example).

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How will the social aspects of postmetaphysical moral rules affect artistic practice in the long term? In the absence of transcendence, it seems it will be subject to a complete cultural immanence. By this I mean that it will not be defined by the transcendent idea of ‘Art’ as such, nor will it be supported by the traditional institutions of artistic practice, such as museums or academic scholarship. Instead, to survive at all, it will have to adopt collaborative strategies with entertainment, government and corporate communities.

The case for this, weak and strong, we should note, is made on behalf of science. In Malina’s argument, it is science that benefits from the contact with artistic practice in both the short and long term. (That this, in turn, will benefit all of humanity is his claim.) The benefits for science, however, need to be weighed against the price of art’s newfound cultural immanence and apparent loss of independence.

Vattimo grounds a great deal of his thinking on the work of Martin Heidegger. In the essay I have been quoting, for example, he explicitly remarks: “I suggest that an attempt be made to express our ethical precepts in terms of overcoming metaphysics as the forgetting of being.” (Vattimo 2003). It will be useful here to recall what Heidegger says about the call to virtuous action (or “authenticity”) and our relationship with technology.

Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)

In The Question Concerning Technology (1953), Heidegger finds that technology both reveals and conceals the truth. It reveals the world to be a vast reserve of resources, laying in wait, available for our exploitation and reinvention. But technology also deceives us into believing that we are its masters, subjecting it to our will. As the technological revolution seems to have confirmed, our role as individuals is auxiliary at best. The entrenchment of new technologies at all levels of civilisation seems to have the momentum of an unstoppable force. The same is the case, however, in our relationship to truth itself, where we are called to be witnesses to something other than (or even greater than) ourselves. What is concealed and hidden by technology is (to use language from Heidegger’s Being and Time – 1927) our more authentic mode of being. This, in short, is “the essence of technology” according to Heidegger. We are ethically called to fight against its concealing power, in favour of discovering a more authentic and productive role for human Dasein.

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So, with great prescience, Heidegger saw that the spread of technology implied a great danger:

“[T]hat the frenziedness of technology may entrench itself everywhere to such an extent that someday, throughout everything technological, the essence of technology may come to presence in the coming-to-pass of truth.” (Heidegger 1953)

That is: the prevalence of technological convenience and automation may lure us into a false sense of self-confidence and worldly mastery. We must be vigilant to the call to the truth, even though the world may become so mechanised and networked that it seems there are no more fundamental questions to be asked. This questioning, this rising up against the ubiquitous uniformity of technology, comes from artistic practice:

“[E]ssential reflection upon technology and decisive confrontation with it must happen in a realm that is, on the one hand, akin to the essence of technology and, on the other, fundamentally different from it. Such a realm is art. But certainly only if reflection upon art for its part, does not shut its eyes to the constellation of truth concerning which we are questioning.” (Heidegger 1953)

Our saving power comes from a sort of vigilance, an inner determination to not be lulled to sleep, “as opposed to simply remaining in the thrall of the technological network of apparatus and equipment which litter our world” (Commentary on Heidegger’s ‘The Question Concerning Technology,’ O’Brien, 2004).

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If all the world is organised according to technological principles of efficient network functioning, this does not guarantee the fulfilment of our ethical obligations. It does not, for example, ensure that the artists have a free voice.

Malina admits that there are “asymmetries of discourse” between the cultural nodes; “not all connections [of a network] are bi-directional with the same time constants or strength” (Malina 2004). Could this asymmetry of discourse also be a manifestation of power? Could this asymmetry realise itself as a silencing of all discourse that does not adapt itself to the new collaborative ideals? Despite the author’s good intentions, I fear this may be a potential source of conflict.

If artistic production is merely a resource for the great worldwide technology network, does it not fall into the shadow of ontological forgetfulness, the concealment of truth of which Heidegger warned?

In Malina’s future, those media artists, for example, who focus on political and social protest, but who also need access to materials and resources, will need to associate their work with one or another cultural node. But when protesting 21st century media culture, the choice of association between entertainment, government  or industry (being a “proxy for social use”) may, in the end, be no option at all.

Instilling the culture-as-network model with its five basic nodes, therefore, is not enough to ensure an ethical outcome that benefits all humanity. In the long term, and in truth, it only deepens the gravity of the call. Between the technological possibility and the ethical goal lies the opaque realm of human implementation, Dasein, wherein and for-which the real question lies. In a future of ubiquitous technology, it is the enigmatic and perplexing challenges issued by the voices of artists – and philosophers! –  that will show us the way.

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