The Desire of the Medium

This book is the elaboration of a dissertation on the affective capacities of media and their collaborative function with the artist. It originated from a series of ideas and propositions that aspired to counter some orthodox modes of thinking within the field of media theory and design philosophy. The quest was based on an extensive series of educational programmes which have been developed that partly dealt with the supposition that the role of and interplay between media can best be measured on the basis of their affective capacities (iso-affectiveness) rather than on their ontological setting. In our view, it is more important to focus on what media do rather than on what they are. To achieve this requires a thorough appreciation of the equality of each medium in the spectrum of media typologies, which is not always the easiest thing to accomplish.The ‘voice of the medium’ is key in this process, and therefore it is time to ask again: ‘What is the desire of the medium?’ This question, however, has no conclusive answer. Instead, the question itself becomes a rhetorical and recursive starting point for addressing an interplay in which both human and nonhuman actors contribute to the creation of something new that is different from the sum of its parts.

230 pages, photography in colour, 17 x 24 cm, paperback, English

Let me elaborate.

I have lectured for many years on the relationship between film and architecture. For many architectural students, this relationship is most logically defined from one of two positions: either cinema has architecture as its subject, or architecture serves as a vessel for cinema. Despite concerted attempts to cross boundaries between the respective media disciplines and engage with different modes of operation, this point of view automatically leads to foreseeable outcomes: the end result would be either a film (on architecture), or a type of architecture for housing filmic activities (a theatre or projection space of some kind). Yet I believe the most interesting aspect of this cooperation between media lies in areas where they are not operating on their strengths, or when the ‘rules of engagement’ are changed in order to reach a deeper understanding or to achieve a more profound experience. A classic example of this is the opening scene of the 2003 film Cidade De Deus by Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, in which the structure of a Brazilian favela is portrayed in such a way that it tells us more about its claustrophobic structure than any traditional map could do, yet it would be literally impossible to physically construct it on the basis of the floor plan created by the cinematography.[ii] A second example concerns the design of a traditional Chinese garden that has been carefully constructed to create a series of unique vistas when viewed from different perspectives. When moving through the garden, a series of scenes unfold, turning every visit into an inimitable cinematographic experience, yet one that could never be captured or portrayed on film. In these and many more cases ‘impossible architecture’ or ‘impossible cinema’ has been created, which I consider to be a highly valuable and irrefutable part of any deeper understanding of the respective media. What is exposed by these creations is the full capacity of the medium, whereas, in most cases, only a part of it tends to be actualised. The portion of the capacity of a medium that is most frequently actualised can be seen as the strength of the medium. For instance, for its creation, architecture requires space; cinema requires time: both media can express a type of narrative and/or functionality within their strength and both engage these strengths. The part of a medium’s capacity that is habitually ignored is its area of weakness, which in this example is where cinema deals with space and architecture deals with time. From these areas, impossible architecture and impossible cinema emerge. The next step is to explore the potential itself, even before actualisation takes place and leads to some form of expression. This potential is synonymous with the virtual; together with what is actualised, it comprises all of reality. This potential does not have to be actualised to have an effect; there are many forces in daily life that draw their strength from potential without ever having to be actualised, among them chance, risk, leverage, anticipation, longing, and so on. These forces can be grounded in moral and religious codes, traditions, laws, or other ‘distant’ yet present actors that create a fear of retaliation or exclusion; but perhaps even more, they emerge from the individual psyche. It is most probably precisely because these forces are not actualised (as in the Lacanian ‘big Otherness’ or ‘das Andere’), that they are able to gain significant strength and impact.[iii]

In Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation, philosopher Gilles Deleuze paraphrases D.H.Lawrence, who concluded that ‘the first figuration (the photograph) should be criticized, not for being too faithful or “true-to-life”, but for not being faithful enough.’[iv] Here Deleuze is indicating that by engaging with the medium on its strongest merits (in this case taking a photograph), we exclude perhaps the most valuable elements, namely all that was not (or could not be) photographed at the same time as the photo was produced. The question then arises: who or what is actually determining the part of reality to be included in the photograph? This reduction of virtual and actualised reality could be attributed to the photographer, who is trained and well equipped to use photography in its strongest and most characteristic way. Yet this assumption substantially reduces photography’s potential; after all, shouldn’t the medium itself first define its own capacities?

I realised that this chain of cause and effect could not be properly addressed until man and media occupy the same ontological plane. It serves no particular purpose to maintain a stratified view of responsibility, will and drive in processes where an artist or designer collaborates with a medium. Practitioners working with media will recognise to some degree that these processes include elements of accident, serendipity, suspected boundaries/unknown abilities, chance, and unseen causes and effects. Clearly these elements are not steered by humans alone, which is why I propose to ‘formalise’ them and shift the anthropocentric perspective that categorises them to the role of incidental. It is relatively easy to address the desires of artists in these processes, since they are often part of their ‘official’ modus operandi. Now, as a counterweight, I will introduce the desires of the medium as a ‘formal’ element in the processes that, in collaboration with the artist, lead to the creation of a work of art. Therefore, I will boldly pose the question: ‘What is the desire of the medium?’

The term ‘desire’ as I use it here is a synonym for drive, force or even agency itself, yet the several connotative layers the word ‘desire’ incorporates are not to be discarded altogether. Desire is itself a product of urgency; it implies an unstoppability distinct from any ethical, moral or political system of evaluation or repression. Desire in all its forms of expression is provocative: its display of urgency without boundary is both alarming and exciting. Its connotations address even the most prosaic levels of unconscious urging, generating an enticing struggle between restraint and indulgent submission that not only directly inspires works of art but also the modes in which these creations operate. By placing the focus on the overarching or underlying tendencies that are expressed by matter in its operative mode as a medium, I can examine these desires. What the medium desires cannot be discovered through traditional means of investigation, such as constructing classifications or examining individual cases, but neither are these needed. In its interaction with the human sensorium, a visual medium must be seen in order to operate, while an audible medium must be heard in order to prove its existence. These types of generalities are a starting point for exploration. To circumvent the definitional problems of desire as a quality of the developed mind, we need to broaden the level of the discussion to incorporate population thinking. Population thinking is neither about single cases, nor is it a system of categorisation: it is the opposite. It deals with tendencies that incorporate all interactions, whether social, environmental or psychological. As philosopher Manuel DeLanda remarks: ‘In short, for population thinkers, only the variation is real, and the ideal type […] is a mere shadow.’[v]

Desire is a mode of existence that strives for its own autonomy and emergence without a foundational point of departure or a teleological destination. Based on this definition, it should be possible to measure the tendencies and drives that interact between the human and the nonhuman. Psychoanalyst Félix Guattari explains the concept of desire as ‘everything that exists before the opposition between subject and object, before representation and production’.[vi] The concept of desire depends on its incapacity to be fulfilled. In the synthesis of a work, a surplus is generated that is more than can be anticipated or measured on the basis of the sum of the elements. This is a desire of plenitude. Deleuze and Guattari add: ‘There isn’t a desire for power; it is power itself that is desire. Not a desire-lack, but desire as a plenitude, exercise, and functioning, even in the most subaltern of workers.[vii]

In my interpretation, a desire of plenitude is produced continuously and therefore has no predetermined dimensions. This perspective opposes the Lacanian notion of a desire of lack, in which desire emerges as the surplus produced by the articulation of need in demand, thus suggesting that either or both terms are quantifiable.[viii] Moreover, defining a desire of lack hinges on a type of correlational anthropocentrism that is not helpful to my explorations because it centres on a difference between conscious and unconscious drives. This would not provide a good starting point for the obvious reason that when dealing with matter, any level of consciousness is very hard if not impossible to assess. Furthermore, the desire of lack is based on a highly individual set of definitions, whereas the desire of the medium has to be addressed from the perspective of population thinking. Still, there are grounds for occasionally using Lacan’s interpretation of the Freudian concept of desire, as I will demonstrate. Feminist philosopher Karen Barad’s strategy in formulating a new framework for negotiating the ‘established’ realms of science, nature and, ultimately, life itself (which she named agential realism), specifically includes the need to establish a starting point which is both in between the human–nonhuman as well as locally embodied. Barad’s framework rests on four premises, the first two of which interest me most. To cite Barad: ‘Agential realism grounds and situates knowledge claims in local experiences: objectivity is literally embodied.’ And secondly, ‘Agential realism privileges neither the material nor the cultural: the apparatus of bodily production is material-cultural, and so is agential reality.’[ix] It would be a critical error to disregard or to undervalue ‘the human element’ in these negotiations, since that would constitute reverse privileging. The search for immanent desire requires the recognition of a flat ontology, with an occasional need for what political theorist Jane Bennett would call ‘strategic anthropomorphism’.[x] As theorist Ben Woodward remarks: ‘Bennett seeks to highlight the kinds of physical and energetic materiality shared between kinds of being instead of arguing for a fundamental separateness between beings.’[xi]

Indeed, much needs to be said about the effects and workings of the area defined by the relationship between the artist or designer, the matter with which they collaborate and the assemblage they form, both in terms of direct collaboration with or within media, and at the level of metadesign; in other words, the assembly of environments of autonomous and applied design. It is a double bond: the recursive bond between theory and practice, which calls for the urgency of constructing and conceptualising new types of education in this field. Through my experiences as an educator in art and design schools, I am informed by ongoing discussions regarding the role of this type of school within a rapidly changing media and social setting, and the consequences of the latter on curriculum and general organisation. Much of the reasoning in this type of environment is based on outdated pillars of validation such as the dualisms of ‘specialisation versus generalisation’, ‘fine art versus design’, ‘academic versus professional development’ or ‘theory versus practice’.

However, the implications of the question ‘What is the desire of the medium?’ are much wider. By setting both human and nonhuman actors on the same footing, we are forced to step away from anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism. The ‘collaboration’ between humans and matter is predominantly seen through the lenses of anthropocentrism and hylomorphism, causing developments in the discourse to take a narrow, single-track route.[xii] Since both play a major role in understanding the nature and history of art, this position automatically introduces a certain degree of friction. This friction is part of the quest for an answer to the question itself, but perhaps even more important than an answer is the discussion of the existence and justification for the exceptional position humans believe they are entitled to. Little argument is required to support the thesis that human beings are responsible for the most devastating problems on earth. Seen in this light, this book is also a clear cry for a more sensible approach to the uses and abuses of the powers invested in humanity. The best place to develop an alternative outlook is, of course, in education. However, to be clear, this is not a text on pedagogy, although it does draw on experiments performed within education. Neither is it a manual on the practice of education, yet it aspires to educate some of the educators. If this book calls for anything, it is for a pedagogy of the senses, a term used by both media theorist Marshal McLuhan and Gilles Deleuze.[xiii]

The search for the desire of the medium is a conceptual framework formulated in order to open discussion into new modes of considering human–nonhuman interactions in design processes – including the design of these very processes. Its goal is to encourage the introduction of a different paradigm, one that could encourage a better understanding of the role of art and design in society. Rather than replacing one arborescent structure (the aforementioned pillars) with another, it might be wiser to approach these matters from a rhizomatic point of view.[xiv] Alternative ways of thinking about the structure of design education can contribute to the development of new modes of dealing with the immense economic, environmental, geopolitical and anthropological problems the world faces. Anthropocentric thinking has produced most of these problems. As I will argue, art is not about politics, art is politics, just as design is economics and economics is politics. In general, it is my conviction that we need to focus on precision and quality rather than on development and growth; these principles need to be at the core of art and design education. As mentioned above, this research aspires to offer a theoretical framework that can contribute to this discourse rather than to produce a set of practical applications. The ‘voice of the medium’ is key in this process, and therefore it is time to ask again: ‘What is the desire of the medium?’ This question, however, has no conclusive answer. Instead, the question itself becomes a rhetorical and recursive starting point for addressing an interplay in which both human and nonhuman actors contribute to the creation of something new that is different from the sum of its parts.

[i] The word artist has been placed inside quotation marks to indicate that in today’s artistic practices, the division between fine art and design has become majorly opaque; therefore, in most cases, the word artist can also be read as designer.

[ii] Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund, City of God (São Paulo: O2 Films, 2003).

[iii] Symbolic ‘big Otherness’ refers to anonymous authoritative powers or knowledge, whether these be real or fictitious.

[iv] Gilles Deleuze, Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation (London and New York: Continuum, [1981] 200), p.71.

[v] Manuel DeLanda, ‘Virtual Environments and the Emergence of Synthetic Reason’, in Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, ed. Mark Dery (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994), pp. 793-815.

[vi] Félix Guattari, ‘A Liberation of Desire’, in Soft Subversions: Texts and Interviews 1977-1985 (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2009), p. 142. He continues: ‘It's everything whereby the world and affects constitute us outside of ourselves, in spite of ourselves. It's everything that overflows from us. That's why we define it as flow. […] [W]e speak of machines, of “desiring-machines", in order to indicate that there is as yet no question here of "structure" – that is, of any subjective position, objective redundancy, or coordinates of reference. Machines arrange and connect flows. They do not recognize distinctions between persons, organs, material flows, and semiotic flows.

[vii] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 56. ‘Being an assemblage [agencement], desire is precisely one with the gears and the components of the machine, one with the power of the machine.  And the desire that someone has for power is only his fascination with these gears, his desire to make certain of [sic] these gears go into operation, to be himself one of these gears—or, for want of anything better, to be the material treated by these gears, a material that is a gear in its own way.’

[viii] Jacques Lacan, Écrits (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006). In chapter 24, ‘The Signification of the Phallus’, Lacan remarks that ‘desire is neither the appetite for satisfaction nor the demand for love, but the difference that results from the subtraction of the first from the second’, pp. 575-585.

[ix] Karen Barad, ‘Meeting the Universe Halfway’, in Feminism, Science and the Philosophy of Science, eds. L.H. Nelson and J. Nelson (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1991), pp. 179-180.

[x] Jane Bennett, Introduction to Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC; London: Duke UP, 2010), p. 10.

[xi] Ben Woodward, ‘Schellingian Thought for Ecological Politics’, in Anarchist Developments in Cultural Studies (Vol. 2013.2: Ontological Anarché: Beyond Materialism and Idealism, 2013), p. 89.

[xii] Hylomorphism is a philosophic argument developed by Aristotle, in which he distinguishes between soul and body in the same way as between form and matter. Aristotle regards a soul as being that which makes a living thing alive, assuming that there is a distinction between body and soul (dichotomy of man).

[xiii] Marshall McLuhan, Report on Project in Understanding New Media (Washington, DC: National Association of Educational Broadcasters, 1960), and Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: Basic Books, 1964). See Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition (London and New York: Continuum, [1968] 2012).

[xiv] The rhizome is a model constructed by Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze to describe cultural organisation that resists the mode of root-tree system thinking in which chronology and causality prevail in the quest for the genesis of ‘things’. Rhizomatic thinking presents culture and history as a type of cartography with no single origin or evolution; a rhizome ‘ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles’. A rhizome has no end or beginning, it is always the ‘in between-ness’ that characterises its existence. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia 2, foreword and translation by Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, [1980] 1987) (London: Continuum, 2004), p. 8.