Anna Munster, Materializing New Media

Camila Alvarez
Indian River State College

Anna Munster. Materializing New Media: Embodiment in Information Aesthetics. Hanover: Dartmouth, 2006. 256pp. $23.89 (pbk also available in cloth) (978-1-58465-558-9).

[1] Anna Munster, in Materializing New Media, suggests that the body still has a place in a digital world. She discusses the mind body duality inherited from Cartesian modes of thinking. This binary privileges the mind over the body, or the digital over the physical. The digital emphasis on information encourages the domination and subjugation of the physical by the mental. This privileging leads to a notion of the posthuman where antihumanism barely conceals antimaterialism. The superior positioning of the machine and intellect gives technology a utopian and transcendental place. The machine provides the means to reconfigure human biology digitally—to remake the human, to perfect it by moving beyond embodiment. Munster's book addresses the problems of a digital culture stuck in these Cartesian modes of thinking where binary logic forces a series of oppositions between mind and body, intellectual and physical. Because the theoretical underpinnings of the sciences influence new digital technologies, previous knowledge systems and conceptions that promoted the disembodied self have passed on their beliefs to digital theory which subsequently functions as influencing and being influenced by society and culture. Munster proposes a more flexible theory of the machine using baroque theory. This theory allows interconnections between the material, social, political, economic, and aesthetic spheres.

[2] Munster argues for a broader complication of information theory through a concept of the digital as baroque. The digital unfolds genealogically from differential relationships between the physical and the technological. Baroque theory places the binary pairs that inhabit digital culture into forces impinging upon each other rather than excluding each other. The convergence and divergence of these areas produces infinite mutating outcomes. The differential and its folding become the key element to her theory. Specifically in chapter one, Munster's discussion of the baroque presents an organized and folded structure of matter, although differentiated between its parts, yet connected and separated continuously. "The fold entwines two important issues for information aesthetics: the production of contemporary embodiment—the corporeal experiences of living in and through information culture—and the relation of this to its aesthetic, epistemological and ontological genealogies" (31). Connection therefore takes a central role in working out the theory of an embodied life in a digital age. The theme of connectivity has become increasingly important within the digital paradigm—expanding to discussion of species connectivity and social connectivity. "The idea," Munster adds, "that we have become increasingly closer to others has become something of a digital mantra" (40). Connection in baroque theory also affects ideas of history and time suggesting that they impinge upon the present. The baroque discussion of folding, convergence, divergence, pliancy, flexibility, emergence, and complexity provides a useful set of terminology and ideas for thinking about digital media.

[3] Munster goes on to argue that digital biology provides the next evolutionary stage for humanity which surpasses organic human biology. She suggests an alternative approach to natural history that provides equal attention to artifice and nature, as supported in baroque theory. She begins by discussing in chapter two "the changes that transform digital technology into digitality—a culturally embedded set of technologies producing new kinds of perceptual and affective experiences" (50). She goes on to set up a connection between natural history and digital history. Working with Katherine Hayles's idea that digital technologies shift the experience of space and time, Munster suggests that the baroque natural history collection or Wunderkammer created Western Museum culture. The Wunderkammer represents a collection of natural and unnatural taxidermy beasts, books, paintings, a combination of odds and ends, all using anecdote, humor, oddity, and visual amplitude, all connecting to an affective relation to science. Using this example, Munster demonstrates baroque theory's multiple aesthetics including philosophical and scientific crossovers and argues that theorists must look at the connection between passion and knowledge in the digital age. Here, the baroque model proves useful, as passions were thought of as a sphere in which the body and thought connected and moderated each other just as the Wunderkammer demands that thought be connected to passion and wonder to curiosity. This connects to the design and visualization of the aesthetic in digital space. Digital space provides a connection to others—to an engaged viewer who moderates the digital view and infects the digital space with feelings ranging through surprise, to irritation, to curiosity, and even to vertigo. Western thought has dominated nature through a classification of reactive base forces that have limited, judged, and observed life; Munster suggests a more effective view of nature that separates naturalizations such as self, body, organic, machine, and code instead, focusing on the differential as outcome. This view allows the intermingling between body and machine. It creates a concept of the digital that neither capitulates to transcendental ideas nor rejects the human. Munster calls for a shift in focus from the code-versus-body dynamic to the outcomes of the interaction. This rethinking of natural history allows an open digital–matter relation, where theorists may position natural history as an organic artifice. Early European views of natural history were seen through physical and passionate emotional connections, which were then modulated by reason, and then viewed through aspects of its relation and its individuation to all other things in the world. By extension theorists cannot understand technology without locating it within its social ensemble of relations.

[4] Munster's theory of digital embodiment functions as an open and dynamic system capable of moving toward and away from the corporeality of digital code. Digital experience allows an embodied experience by creating a fold between the actual and virtual. Using Janet Murray's suggestion that the relation between the lived body and the virtual body captivates us, Munster discusses virtuality's dispersion of bodily location as heightening the corporeal and affective experience in chapter three. This discord leads to a confused locative referentiality for the body. Connecting back to baroque theory, digital media folds the corporeal with the incorporeal flows of information, in convergent and divergent ways, by simultaneously heightening and disturbing the physical experience. Digital media doubles and extends body capacities and sensations through different means than the phenomenological experience of the physical world. The transformation of experience takes place in the differential hybridizing of physical and technological. Therefore, new media theory needs to consider embodiment through the sensory disruptions and reconfigurations that virtuality creates. Virtual realties and digital embodiment must think of the physical as other than merely a vessel for consciousness.

[5] Munster also discusses the loadedness of the words virtuality and real, preferring the terms virtual and actual. She states that although not synonymous, these terms overlap and create a strong expectation of connection to the real or physical world:

Three terms circulate in proximity to the virtual: the actual, the possible and the real. In digital configurations of virtuality, the real is most often invoked as its partner, simultaneously imbuing virtuality with the modality of possibility and its concomitant task of realizing possibilities....the problem lies in the configuration's creation of only one actualization of virtuality; that is, to make real possibilities that have already been prefigured, whether as imaginary or mimetic manifestations. (90)

This limits possible creations and future permutations of virtuality. Munster views the virtual as distinct from the order of representation; she defines it as a set of potentials produced by forces that work differentially through matter actualizing it under local conditions. Corporeal experience in the virtual exists through dislocation of habitual bodily experience. The information interface provides odd proprioceptive arrangements for bodies. Digital representations of the embodied self include dematerialized symbols such as the cursor, use of virtual and actual gesture in immersive environments, and sensory interaction in online communication. These representations renegotiate the relationship between the embodied and the digital. Fantasies of merging the human and the machine involve either the complete assimilation of flesh to machine or the loss of the machine's materiality as it achieves human sentience. These fantasies forget that the digital grafts onto the physical rather than merges. The graft metaphor allows for both connection and differentiation. Human computer interactions also center in discussions of interface design where these fantasies have forced merging either by subsuming the body or by providing the computer with a face to address our own.

[6] Munster then looks at the predetermined ways that interfacial interactions force users to interpret information into our physical experience. She looks at Deleuze and Guattari's discussion of information theory and its on/off logic in conjunction with their codification of the "machine" of faciality. The predetermined structures of faciality limit other modes of interaction. In Western culture and history, the face has frozen into an icon representing personality where surface features represent the mind. Subsequently, this dominant facial system evaluates and determines the human. This system influences the design of the human to digital interface. Her fourth chapter deals with this Human-computer interaction or HCI design. This design evolved around either making the computer's "face" visible or helping the interface disappear. Both designs privileged a cognitive interaction model creating little exploration of embodied interface design. These facialized assemblages need dismantling and analysis. Posthumanism provides some new possibilities for human computer engagement, but it often subordinates the body to the technological world via the interface. Thus posthumanism suffers from the paradox of simultaneously attempting to overcome the body while requiring it as the means for machinic interface. However, a counter-genealogy using new media art places the body as key to digital engagement. New media artists employ a more integrated embodied design for digital interface. This interface allows exploration and improvisation allowing a shifting topography. These artist designs simultaneously incorporate palpable and evanescent interfaces. Munster argues that artistic interface possibilities for posthuman-computer interaction

[create a] corporeal experience...[that] extends and intensifies...splits, folds or inflects away from a sense of the body as bound and closed to the outside world. Hence the body-computer interface in new media art is typically both intensely embodied and diffusely abstract. (119-120)

The proximity of the body to its visualization in the interface allows the exploration of the strangeness and fluctuation in emerging digital bodies. The gaps between the human and the machine both allow connection and represent disjunction. Using the baroque theory, this allows the interface to represent an interfolding of these disparities.

[7] Munster continues to explore the relationship between the body and information through the physical distance and digital proximity that marks interaction in the global information culture. She refers to Olu Oguibe's argument that predetermined views of other people's bodies should not be a guide for structuring the concept of digital networking. Digital aesthetic theories have focused on attempts to locate medium specificity by defining qualities such as interactivity, virtuality, and telepresence – Munster argues that digital theory must include an examination of the digital life focusing on social and perceptual conditions. These conditions rely upon a space and time where differential relations and relative speeds alter the experience of embodiment. Her fifth chapter therefore deals with a focus on embodiment rather than consciousness as the entrance to the digital information world. This focus requires an understanding of the heterogeneity of corporeality in digital media technologies. Three vectors reject cultural and technical standardization and invent alternative accounts of globalized digital culture. First, proximity represents the ability of information to represent a corporeal and situated experience. The antinomy: proximity-distance explores social, corporeal, and technical experiences online and offline. Second, lag proposes that temporal delays function as devices that disrupt standardization and homogenization in global information culture. Thirdly, distribution considers the emergence of information aesthetics as dispersed time restructures data-space. These new media forms shift away from data as bit-mapped graphics to data as vectors. This implies that the informatics image no longer distributes what the original encoded and stored, for example a scanned photo turned into a bitmapped graphic. New media artists experiment with asynchronicity to disturb expectations of easily accessible and smoothly flowing global information. The three vectors represent place and material conditions in the experience of new media. This precipitates a move from aesthetic considerations to ethical, or as Deleuze suggests, ethological ones. Munster's work focuses on the network in information culture as it connects and disconnects the heterogeneity of bodied lives.

[8] Understanding new media requires a broader perspective of media studies incorporating economics, television, film, performance, culture, code, literature, and music into digital theory. A communications-based model is too concerned with the idea that digital media allows the transmission of information at a lower noise ratio than other forms of media. If new media remains under the consideration of a communications-based theory, it will merely function as a way to replicate older media forms instead of a way to remix and redistribute them. It is this potential for dislocation and redistribution that shifts the understanding away from old media terms and allows recognition of the need for new paradigms and taxonomies that can address digital media. Munster argues that these theories must address the mutability of new media forms. Specifically, they must consider both time- and speed-based changes in digital media as well as its continuation and translation of old media forms into new juxtapositions. Finally, she calls for theorists to consider digital studies through transversal technological studies, where a diagram of intersecting lines curves through code, silicon, aesthetics, embodiment, society, and economics. Munster's baroque theory of digital media has substantial applications here and should be a useful addition to current digital theory.