Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Hansen and Bergson

I started this as a comment on Ariel's post, but it sort of became its own thing. Ariel is probably right in saying that datamoshing poses the question of smoothness and immanence in the digital more than a question of time. He is also right in pointing out Hansen's desire to find the smooth space within the digital space. What I would like to argue in this post is that Hansen cannot find immanence in the digital because he fundamentally misreads (and actually inverts) Bergson's concept of perception as subtraction.

Hansen acknowledges this discrepancy between himself and Bergson but frames it as a simple update in Bergson's theories rather than a conflicting or alternate argument. On pages 10 to 11 Hansen writes, "In relation to today's electronic technosphere, however, Bergon's theorization of this process of embodied selection must be updated in at least one important respect: rather than selecting preexistent images, the body now operates by filtering information directly and, through this process, creating images" (all italics are his own). Hansen is here essentially claiming that the (human) body adds images to the world through a selection of information from the world which is gathered by machines. We see this argument reflected in his claims that: the image of virtual action exits only within the body of the perceiver on page 58, his concept of "equipotentiality," (or the ability to create meaning through selection) on page 83 and the "transpactial dimension of conciousness" (the world created by this meaning) also on page 83. This assertion should be questioned from two fronts: 1) is it possible to claim that the body can create images and leave Bergson's theories intact and 2) in what way does the "electronic technosphere" bring about this change?

Let's begin with the first question: on page 51 Hansen relates "a hightened ability to view and use the world according to one's notions, more individually, more subjectively" (quoting Peter Weibel) with "a form of selection akin to Bergson's conception of perception as subtraction." (As an aside I would like to mention my utter distaste for the term "use the world" which implies a violence I find upsetting.) It is important to question this reading of perception as subtraction. If we turn to Bergson's own writing on the subject I think we find a critique of just this idea. Discussing the materialists' and dualists' shared view that perceptions are separate and therefore added to the world Bergon writes on pages 11 and 12:

"Is it possible to conceive of our nervous system as living apart from the organism which nourishes it, from the atmosphere in which the organism breathes, from the earth which that atmosphere envelopes, from the sun round which the earth revolves? More generally, does not the fiction of an isolated material object [the brain] imply a kind of absurdity, since this object borrows its physical properties from the relations which it maintains with all others, and owes each of its determinations, and consequently its very existence, to the place which it occupies in the universe as a whole?"

Bergson does not refute the idea that the actions of the brain influence the actions of the body, but he does refute the idea that the brain, and our subjectivity with it, is separate from the world. Unlike Hansen's system where a "subjectivity" or "individual" creates their world through a selection (which Hansen erroneously equates with subtraction) of the meaningful, or the to-be-acted-upon, Bergson sees the brain, and thus our subjectivity, as a conduit through which the stimuli of the world act. As Bergson writes on pages 20 and 21, "the nervous system is in no sense an apparatus which may serve to fabricate, or even to prepare, representations. Its function is to receive stimulation, to provide motor apparatus and to present the largest possible number of these apparatuses to a given stimulus". Here Bergson radically and explicitly claims that our body does not create our perception of the world upon which it then acts, but simply provides a complicated hub for actions and reactions to intermingle and that from this subjectivity arises, not the other way around. We can see here that Hansen's concept of "equipotentiality" flips Bergson's ideas on its head and that the two are irreconcilable with each other. The body simply cannot be both a separate, outside, and added, quality to the world while simultaneously being created by and in the world.

If Hansen's ideas clash with Bergson's we should at least investigate Hansen's reason for this difference. As was mentioned above, Hansen views this difference as an updating of, not a counter-argument to, Bergson. The reason given for this update is new media technology. Considering the actual significance of these diverging arguments, that would mean that pre-digital consciousness was Bergsonian, in that it did not create images but arose from them, and that post-digital consciousness was subsequently endowed with just this ability. This is an argument that I believe Hansen cannot even agree with. What in the digital is so drastically new as to separate our consciousness from the world? Hansen himself continuously argues that no such drastic alteration exists since the digital does not alter us (à la Kittler) but instead extends and reflects us (which is another point that I take contention with, but that's for its own post). For Hansen, digital imaging allows us to expand a quality already innately existing within the body long before digital imaging was invented.

All this brings us back to immanence in the digital. If, as Hansen suggests, the digital is an extension of our subjectivity outside of the world Deleuze would undoubtedly say there is no immanence to be found there. According to this position new media only adds a level of realism to the metaphysical myth of the separate isolated personhood existing above and outside of the world. Thankfully, I don't think Hansen is correct. It seems to me that Hansen is looking for the distinctive qualities of new media in the wrong place, namely in the human. Do not the qualities of any medium arise precisely when we release it from the reflection of the human? Painting became about painting when it escaped human perception; film became about film when it escaped human action. I believe that the immanent qualities of new media do exist, but they will reveal themselves when we escape the human rather than replicate it.

-Benjamin Schultz-Figueroa

1 comment:

  1. Benjamin, this is a fantastic critique. It's systematic and clear, and, in my (humble) view, correct. I have other issues with Hansen's explication of Bergson, some of which we will touch upon tonight, but they essentially revolve around a similar set of issues (as we will see). The conclusion of your piece couldn't be more eloquent and demonstrates, I think, what is at stake in the phenomenology/post-phenomenology debate.