Images under control: pessimism, humour and stupidity in the digital age
Rothwell, Ian James Pirie
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This thesis offers a periodization of the present according to which contemporary art and visual culture are understood to be symptomatic of an increasingly pervasive pessimistic social, political and ecological outlook. This pessimism I will claim is what is authentically new about our contemporary cultural forms, which are directed towards a particular form of humour and stupidity. Core elements in the periodization include the limitation of imaginative horizons expressed in the well-known remark of Fredric Jameson’s that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, as well as the pervasive sense that nature is in a state of perpetual and endemic crisis and the idea that modern computing technology is making us stupider than we have ever been before. I argue that these issues are symptomatic of what Gilles Deleuze, in 1990, termed the societies of Control – a world of corporate power, ubiquitous computing, data extraction and financial capitalism that has intensified since its early diagnosis. However, dominant narratives of art and visual culture continue to theorize artistic production according to traditionally avant-garde categories of resistance, criticality, transgression and subversion. This presumes art to have an agency that is difficult to imagine in the current social situation. In this respect, the thesis in part constitutes a critical reflection on the pressures placed upon our existing models of art and visual culture - for example, and centrally, the idea of an ‘avant-garde’ - by current social and technological conditions. Building on these observations, the thesis proposes a new model of contemporary art and visual culture that has no agency: images under control that are formed, as epiphenomena, by technological apparatuses of Control; studying examples such as extreme sports stunts, internet memes, online trolls, bad quality jpegs and impassive ‘artworks’. The purpose is to ask what value we can place on these emergent cultural forms, which seem to mirror, reflect and reiterate a pessimistic worldview deeply entrenched in the societies of Control.