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“Techne” and “Arte”: Qualities.

It’s one of those long-buried texts in the back of my mind: Adorno’s dissection of techne and “art” (both of which he of course spelled in Greek letters, so tough luck for you if the Greek alphabet wasn’t something that tripped off your eyeballs easily…).

I won’t embarrass myself by trying to recapitulate what he wrote, but I’m certain that Martijn de Waal’s blog post from May 12, Is GPS-navigation turning us into ‘Men without Qualities’?, relates to the questions Adorno asked in the texts collected in the book, Aesthetic Theory:

The Dutch Daily NRC Handelsblad published a highly interesting interview with retiring law-professor Egbert Dommering. He enters the current debate about new media, personal development and cultural authority by expressing his fear that the dominance of cultural systems for information retrieving like Google or GPS-Navigation will turn us all into ‘Men without Qualities’ (after the Robert Musil book). Are we becoming blank subjects, servile obedient to the instructions that our computers conjure up for us? (…)

Dommering fears that rather than building personalities with an extended intellectual and cultural substance, the current media system encourages us to rely on algorithms like that of Google, Satelite Navigation etc to provide us with the right information when we think we need it. This might be handy, but will we still be able to paint a bigger picture out of all these fragmented tidbits. Will we still be able to evaluate them critically? Can we still place the facts into a bigger cultural context? GPS-Naviagtion tells us exactly how we can get somewhere. But do we still know where we are? What is the history or culture of the places we are travelling through, what issues are at stake here? Dommering fears that we might loose the interest in and capabilitie to answere these questions. (source)

Sounds like just another negative culture critic, doesn’t he? And yet, consider the profile of Piotr Wozniak by Wired Magazine‘s Gary Wolf: Want to Remember Everything You’ll Ever Learn? Surrender to This Algorithm. Wozniak is the driven genius behind SuperMemo, his program that teaches proper “spacing” so your memory will be able to absorb and recall everything. The catch? You have to surrender to the algorithm.

Hmm, what do I want? Superhuman powers of recall (but nearly servile dependence on an external clock that brooks no escapades of artistic whimsy)? Or…?

Just what do you call the alternative, anyway? “Normal” is so …well, 90s. Or 80s. Or something altogether unhip.

After running through alternatives to what looks like a pessimistic cultural perspective on Dommering’s part, Martin de Waal closes his blog post with some excellent questions:

So what should locative designers or theoreticians take from this discussion? Is it an attitudinal problem, where people get used to not look beyond the first 5 results that Google produces on any search? And is that attitude promoted by the technology itself or the way it is presented? Is it an algorithm-cum-interface problem, where the strength of an algorithm plus the design of the interface might promote deeper understandings of local contexts? Can we design locative media in such a way to promote a richer experience of place, rather than just getting us where we want to go as efficienly as possible? [see complete article here.]

I think those questions — and Piotr Wozniak — prove the need for arte coupled with techne. Wozniak is an artist in his way — but I bet his technique would suffer in “mass” deployment. It works for him, it works for many people. Which doesn’t yet mean that many people should use his techne, his technique. Not everyone could keep hold of “qualities” in the face of such algorithmic rigour.

That same day, Kazys Varnelis coincidentally posted a brief and cryptic-seeming post about Bruno Latour’s book, We Have Never Been Modern, entitled On distinction:

I’m rereading Bruno Latour’s We Have Never been Modern. (…) What’s striking me right now about this seventeen-year-old book is that it’s predicated on an argument against the modern sense of distinction between spheres. In the intervening period, it seems to me (please feel free to shoot me down …better now than later), the postmodern process of “blurring boundaries” has been made obsolete by a thorough loss of distinction in society and culture. The Enlightenment project of modernity, it seems to me, is increasingly something that our generation cannot even conceive of. [see entry here.]

Back to Adorno and his belabouring of the “distinctions” between techne and arte?

Part of Adorno’s point — if I recall correctly (and I should probably follow Kazys’s example and re-read the text, instead of producing a new one off the cuff) — is that the distinction between the two is itself artificial. They are in fact interwoven and are perceived as antitheses or separate endeavours because we learned to parse them that way.

In reality, neither exists without the other — which is obvious when you think about it. You can’t make art without technique, and technology or technique without some sort of art (most highly and refinedly practiced by the best technologists) isn’t particularly compelling, either.

So anyway… to bring this ramble (so precariously close to artlessness and certainly not polished in technique, either) to a close: we are in the thick of rethinking the distinctions between art and technology — albeit too often at the expense of art. During the Enlightenment (as Adorno correctly deduced) people believed the distinctions were clear, and that it was possible to move ahead without further hiccups. Then, when technology was used (artfully, or not) to carry out irrational projects (the world wars, the genocide, other atrocities), that belief was shaken to the core. Now we’re “cynically enlightened“: hip to the fact, perhaps even resigned. But I bet those old distinctions will be back to haunt us yet.

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