- Audiovisual Culture and Interdisciplinary Knowledge
In 1991 I published an essay in Camera Obscura entitled “Reading the Figural” where I developed some concepts for understanding how the nature of representation, signification, and the social organization of human collectivities in time and space were changing with the appearance of new forms of digital communications. 1 When I began writing in the Spring of 1988, the technologies I referred to—for example, digitized video in multimedia publications or electronic publishing on the Internet—were either not commercially available or else not widely used by people in the humanities. Now they all are. This is an index of the speed of technological change and commercialization that today confronts telecommunications, entertainment, and educational media.
My primary question in 1988 was: how have notions of “writing” and reading changed within the regime of the figural? I put “writing” in quotation marks because what I call the figural is defined by the obsolescence of the distinction between linguistic and plastic representations as ontologically distinct forms. This phenomenon is the result of the accelerated development of audiovisual technologies. Secondarily, I was concerned with the fate of the “aesthetic” as a particular ideology.
These two questions are intimately related in a three-hundred-year-old genealogy in the history of philosophy. When I wrote “Reading the Figural,” philosophical questions were at the heart of the essay. As the televisual and digital arts become more and more a dominant feature of mass culture, how are questions of representation, communication, and knowledge transformed? I admit now to garnishing the edges of these questions with a bit of science fiction. My motivation was to show not only that the televisual and digital arts were worthy of a serious philosophical dialogue, but also, and more importantly, that there were serious social consequences to be addressed.
Having again, within a very short time, been outdistanced by the [End Page 111] economic and technological transformations now taking place, I am searching for ways to explore and deepen this question. We currently live in an audiovisual culture. How is the architecture of our daily life being transformed, including the social time and space we inhabit as well as the forms of communication we use?
What I call the audiovisual is an important, and global, aspect of contemporary everyday life which, in developed countries, is being defined as an emergent technology-driven culture. One vision of this culture is presented by the corporations who will profit by marketing its technologies and patterns of consumption. This is represented in the recent ad campaign by AT&T which was surely timed to coincide with the highly touted, though ultimately unsuccessful, “supermerger” of Bell Atlantic and Tele-Communications, Inc. Each of these four, thirty second spots stages a technological desire that AT&T promises to fulfill in the near future. Do you want to watch the movie you want, the minute you want? Learn special things from far away places? Pay a toll without slowing down or receive a call on your television set? Would you like to carry your medical history in your wallet? You will! Most of the products displayed are already in development. Others, like AT&T’s EO Communicator are already available. More importantly, the scenography of these spots offers a utopian vision of science fiction becoming science fact, as education, entertainment, medicine, communication, and transportation are positively transformed by the technological reorganization of social space.
The dreams appealed to in this technological utopia are apparent. But what forces and relations of power are also emerging? What critical tools will we need to assess this technological culture historically and dialectically, accounting for its potential for domination as well as liberation?
For me there are three fundamental questions we need to ask in order to understand audiovisual culture. Each requires an interdisciplinary response. First, how is the form of the commodity changing along with its determinations of the space and time of the market, and the nature and value of exchange? Second, how is the nature of representation and communication changing with respect to the digital creation, manipulation, and distribution of signs? And finally, how is our experience of collectivity changing in...