the new aesthetic?

Perhaps you have already observed that in Casablanca, life is cheap.


A few days ago, theorist Ian Bogost published an article in The Atlantic that features this incredible section heading, written in the form of a command:

Take the existence of objects seriously.

That’s his tagline for “object-oriented ontology” (the ridiculous acronym is OOO), a collaboration between several academics that claims to be the beginning of a new movement in the humanities.

It’s not going to be the beginning of anything. It’s not affecting, and it certainly isn’t new. The idea is to transport ourselves, imaginatively, into the consciousness of things. Bogost is not hurting for lists of these things; a list punctuates nearly every point he makes. For example, he’s interested in the experiences of “airports, sandstone, koalas, climate, toaster pastries, kudzu, the International 505 racing dinghy, the Boeing 777 Dreamliner, the brand name ‘TaB.'”

By itself, this might be a little underwhelming, so Bogost positions his movement as an alternative to the “New Aesthetic,” a project currently underway at one site on Tumblr. He also claims that the “New Aesthetic” is a disappointment to seasoned aesthetes like himself, because it’s less ambitious and less kooky than Futurism, the pro-Fascist, machine-positive art that flourished briefly a few years before World War I. He cites an essay by Bruce Sterling in WIRED, writing that the Tumblr needs “a dose of good, old-fashioned twentieth century immodesty. Not naïve fascism or impulsive radicalism, but bigger eyes, larger hopes, weirder goals. Sterling shares this impression: ‘a heap of eye-catching curiosities don’t constitute a compelling worldview.'”

I like Sterling’s essay, which moves deftly between appreciations of what some of the new-aesthetic work accomplishes, and skeptical responses to the new-aesthetic’s overreaching claims. The only weakness of the essay is that, albeit to lesser extent than Bogost, he takes the idea of the New Aesthetic too seriously.

The New Aesthetic is a Tumblr, which means it’s somewhere between a blog, a magazine, and a gallery exhibition. The various posts fit together reasonably well. None of the ideas are new; if you follow indie music, you’ve been following this 8-bit video game aesthetic for almost two decades. Is it really possible that none of these writers own OK Computer? Because I am quite certain that Radiohead, the paranoid-but-fairly-conventional rock band who recorded The Bends, were popularizers, not pioneers. For example, there was that German band, I think called something like “Craft Work,” that claimed to be letting synthesizers speak for themselves.

I am perfectly happy to let artists tell themselves whatever stories their art seems to demand. Some artists believe themselves to be channeling the subconscious, like Salvador Dali. John Lennon thought his best songs were “the music of the spheres,” and that he was transcribing them, rather than inventing them. Sure. Sounds great to me. In the end, there’s very little difference between personal explanations, a la Lennon, and programmatic ones a la “the New Aesthetic.” They are what, in a creative writing class, one would call “prompts.”

Furthermore, because the Tumblr is inspiring and collecting good work, there’s really no point in firing off a political critique. The New Aesthetic doesn’t stand for many of my values, but that’s not its job; the photograph above would be enough to justify its existence. It’s a great photo. The advisory, with its frightening overtones of organized, routinized misery, is pressed right up against the lens. The overall depth-of-field and blurry background amplify this effect: the future is taking us somewhere — so says the snapshot — but where? Where does that highway lead to? Why the escalator, disappearing downward? Notice that the photo doesn’t even fit in very well with the pro-robot dicta of the New Aesthetics…and that’s to be expected. These artists won’t allow themselves to be constrained by their own chest-thumping; when modern artists start adhering to their own stated principles, that’s usually because their best work is over.

Back to Bogost. He can’t admit any of this, because as an academic who’d really like to be an artist, he’d like to believe that if somehow he can “win” the ideological debate, his own “object-oriented ontology” will have proven itself to be valid. But it will never be valid for two reasons. First, the proposal is staggeringly ignorant of science fiction, magical realism, fantasy, and all the other modern genres that have already produced broad traditions and beloved masterpieces doing exactly what Bogost thinks he’s invented — namely, speaking for objects, robots, and aliens. If he wants to speak for the robots, he’ll have to somehow improve upon Asimov. If he wants to speak for the trees, he’ll have to answer to the Lorax. And if he wants to beam down information about Mars, he’ll need to tell us something we and our water-sharers don’t already grok. There are even television commercials that ponder what a household mop ponders. In fact, there are many.

Second, the implied parallel with deep ecology is a joke. Deep ecology arose as a protest against our own destructive habit of thinking of the natural world as a storehouse of “resources,” to be vacuumed up at whatever rate we please. There’s nothing revolutionary about treating myself as the equal of my toaster, because the toaster manufacturer (and, ultimately, the society at large) already thinks of me that way. That’s what it means when capitalism assigns a monetary value to both people and objects. Pretending that my toaster has a song in its heart is, in this context, just a sentimental imitation of the advertisers I mentioned a moment ago.

All Bogost has really done is juxtapose things for rhetorical effect. Airports = sentiment (the arrivals gate, The Terminal) in the context of modernity. Sandstone = but I also care about nature! Koalas = I can has cute animals. Toaster pastries = unpretentious everydayness. Climate = but I also care about the environment! The International 505 racing dinghy = yeah, I eat Pop Tarts, but I’ve also been to Monaco. The Boeing 777 Dreamliner = dreams, and the futurism of the 1950s, which was so innocent and sweet. The brand name TaB = advertising is an art form, too. I’m not some boring Marxist!

I can just hear everyone at new-aesthetic begging Bogost to dictate to them how they can be more like Marinetti, or how many posts they can upload per day without exceeding his mental bandwidth limit. The irony is that even though the New Aesthetic seems cold, it’s not. It’s sensitive, just like OK Computer. It’s actually humanistic and sweet. It is full of panic and love and whimsy, because it’s a childlike aesthetic. Remember Radiohead’s mascot? It was a drawing of a bear; a freaky bear, definitely, but a bear nonetheless.

Bogost doesn’t realize that whatever he grew up loving is what he needs to promote, because otherwise, it may disappear into the archives. He thinks that he can be both archivist and hipster, and not only does that make him look silly, it spurs him to present quotes like this from Marinetti: “We want to glorify war.”

The new aesthetic does not look like Super Mario Bros. or Boeing’s version of The Aviator. I can tell you exactly what it looks like, and trust me, I wish it wasn’t the case. You can see it in No Country for Old Men, or in music videos from “Bad Girls” to “Part of Me” to “Human.” You can hear it in dubstep, or see a slicked-up version of it at any theater showing The Hunger Games. Tarantino’s been inhabiting it ever since Kill Bill. “That woman deserves her revenge…and we deserve to die.”

It is art that foretells numerous clashing ideologies — instead of a global war between two ideologies, a global situation of scarcity in which many small, regional wars infest every continent. I don’t mean some fantasy of scarcity, such as “peak oil.” I mean incremental changes, compounded by human overreactions. The art is dusty, and dry as high noon. Because it is so ideological and saturated with belief, it is noticeably psychedelic, but of course in a very different key than the psychedelic art of the 1960s. It is, incidentally, post-sexist, but above all it is martial.

If you can’t hear the new song, you should be glad. Winter is coming. There’s nothing wrong with asking Sam to play ” As Time Goes By,” once more, for old time’s sake.