Some Problems in the Aesthetics of Immersion (Part 1)

From the spectacular to the Experiential

  1. Spectacular art – that is, art where there is an object and a viewer – is losing a certain efficacy and function. Even installation art has the deadened quality of 2-dimensional art, artistic efficacy now shifting from the spectacular to the experiential or immersive. Pollock worked from ‘the floor’ so he could be ‘in the painting’, David Lynch expresses a desire to chew his paintings (Lynch on Lynch,, or City of Absurdity), Douglas Coupland chewed up every page of his Generation X whilst watching TV (Alan Yentob’s Imagine: Books – The Last Chapter?). The desire is to be part of the work and for the work to be part of our experience and not to experience it from without.
  2. Even before the computer-based, interactive virtual reality, global electronic media had already virtualized the world. Global electronic technology has, in effect, immersed us all in various interactive, experiential fictions – ‘the art world’, for example, is perhaps a greater engine of immersive art than the artists it actually exports; likewise the backpack holiday and the resort – that trip to Thailand – and likewise the news – not just the tabloids, but every bit of it. In the electronic, aesthetic representation of all things, we have unwittingly enmeshed ourselves in a fictitious landscape that we are now gradually becoming conscious of. Exponents of the critical thought machine would perhaps do better evaluating, not the art object or reacting to ‘the news item’, but rather examining the nature of how these things immerse various individuals within the complex depth of some set of illusions.
  3. With such a shift in critique, certain changes begin to take effect. In the first place, the external artistic object deadens as the focus of our attention shifts to immersive experience. Of course, the object remains complex and of some interest, however, our real focus is internalized, attending now to the object’s place in our own overall experience and our personal fiction/identity. Secondly, one’s own relationship with the existing order begins to deaden too – particularly where those arrangements represent themselves in terms of external truth or value. The individual is recognized as a consumer of experiences, not of truth and as such, ones’ emotional life in the marketplace becomes a resource for excavation. The media therefore, that pretends itself a fact machine, is abandoned, first in favour of Tabloids and Fox, then in favour of Facebook, the social network and the virtual world. ‘Truth’ and objective values belong to an old system of 2-dimensional, spectacular illusion – still possible of course – but less desirable in the heart that craves impulse and immersion. In this state, our emotional lives become resources even to ourselves – emotions, ideals, ideas and passions organised around a certain performance rather than lived.

Negativity and Immersion

  1. In a recent appeal to the human faculty: ‘moral outrage’, The Daily Mail expressed its concerns about the online roleplaying game Star Wars, in which certain characters get to torture a female slave with an electric collar. Such a response may be considered inevitable as we shift from a spectacular aesthetic to an immersive aesthetic, not that The Daily Mail isn’t already part of such a virtual game (the outrage is only the experiential simulation of outrage). The following remark says a good deal about this shift from spectacle to immersion:

    “Star Wars is no stranger to slavery: Carrie Fisher plays Princess Leia, enslaved by Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi. But the idea of playing ‘master’ yourself is unsavoury”

    The external visualisation of slavery on-screen is fine, however to actually play the slaver is unsavoury[1].

  2. At the heart of successful immersion, we have mystery and we have negativity. Returning to the previous essay and Andre Breton:

    “Everything leads us to believe that there is a certain point in the mind where life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable are no longer perceived in contradiction to one another.” (Bataille, Literature and Evil,pg. 28)

    That there is a point in the mind in which these seemingly contrary aspects can meet is the essence of ‘mystery’ and indeed is the essence of Negative Exchange – that seemingly conflicting relations can find some space where both are benefitted by the exchange. The key to being ‘immersed in something’ is to fully experience something, to engage as much of the nervous system as you can. Horror, negativity and the mysteries of the unconscious – the interactions of pain and fear and joy and pleasure – an exposition of the engram[2] – have perhaps always been the most immersive and engaging aspects of entertainment and particularly cinema/screen writing (Potter, Fellini, Hitchcock, Lynch – all explorers of the unconscious, the dream, the bizarre relations between images and experience, pleasure and pain). In short, the textural pleasures of negative exchange are those most conducive to immersive experience. To a large extent, artistic beauty is the pleasure derived through reason’s contradiction – at least today, where the world is hyper-rational and so intent on the eradication of all negativity.

  3. If literature and art are to be understood as ‘intense forms of communication’ (as Bataille would have it), ‘immersion’, as art, must produce an intense form of experience. However, this in turn produces certain problems. For Bataille, affective literature must dream of Evil, but repent – ”Once the expiation has been accepted, the true smile of life appears.” In the shift therefore from the spectacular to the immersive, we are also losing something by way of ‘communication’ insofar as art as immersive experience does not ‘repent’. Nor indeed does it actually ‘dream of Evil’ in the strictest sense – what happens rather is that it simulates evil. The dream of Evil is autoamputated and technologically reproduced for an emotional life that now understands its suffering and violence in terms of entertainment and leisure. Immersive communication is significantly different to spectacular communication in that there is a helplessness in the dreams of literature which leads the dreamer towards expiation. The same is not true of immersive communication, where the artistic value is found in and only in the elaborate nature and intensity of the interactive experience. There is a tragic aspect to literature that immersive art does not have – it is the job of creators of immersive content to produce intense relations between other individuals. The component of artistic penance vanishes – you can treat your slave well, or you can treat her badly – the job of the artist is only to detail what either of these options might entail. Moreover, the players now embark on roles of cruelty and enslavement, real emotional engagement, but experienced as leisure. Carmen Hermosillo on accepting a slave collar in Second Life’s land of Gor:

    “It was clear to me that Mr. Forsythe was not from Mainstream America, that he did not think every-day thoughts, and that he had clearly experienced life in a completely different way than had I. He was, when he wanted to be, articulate and eloquent. He seemed scrupulously honest. He was perceptive and intuitive in the extreme. He definitely understood, and raised to art, the act of seduction and he also scared me. A lot. The thing that finally made him irresistible to me was that he was clearly very strong-willed and emotionally intense, probably even more so than I am. It was my intuition that I would never, ever, be able to out-will this man that pushed me over the edge into submission.”

    The whole piece is well worth reading given that Carmen is not your typical inhabitant of the BDSM world. The piece is a well observed and eloquent analysis of the move from whatever her life was previously to an authentic engagement with the problems and realities of immersive virtual experience.

    Confessions of a Gorean Slave – Carmen Hermosillo (Humdog): 1 2 3

Part 1
Part 2

[1]- In a way, this reads like an obituary to their own medium. To engender an immersive experience, The Mail simulates a 2-dimensional scandal. The intent is to simulate outrage so as to involve the reader in the experience of outrage. The MMORPG however is able simulate experience far more thoroughly than the 2-dimensional printed media ever could – as such, the appetite for impulse recognizes this and moves on.
[2]- Scientology’s notion of the engram is an interesting one from the perspective of immersion and involvement – a sort of pain icon, a compressed picture of experience, trauma and unconscious relations.

    • Mr. Divine
    • February 2nd, 2012

    I’ve read this article on and off for a while. I’ve been wondering about ‘negativity’ and what it is exactly.

  1. It’s telling really that you ask the question – telling from the perspective of nullified behavioural limits that is. By the same token, I’m not too comfortable in trying to give you any absolute definition either. The Daily Mail however believes that (or claims to believe that) encouraging people to torture others in a virtual world is ‘unsavoury’. By this, they evoke a system of values in which some things are good/desirable/positive and others bad/undesirable/negative. My view is that this system is obselete and yet it still describes the terms by which we live. The concept ‘Negative Exchange’, I think, allows me to talk about this obselescence and to rescue what I believe is current from this older value system that stifles it. ‘Negativity’, i guess, is a word handed down from the prevailing system and it’s my contention that this system no longer exists except as a confused lip-service to a past we scarcely remember. ‘Negativity’ is a word from that system that allows me to redeem things that I think matter in a more positive and accessible light. It is also the ‘negative’ character that is conferred on these things that gives them their power.

    • Mr. Divine
    • February 4th, 2012

    So you reject that the notion that there is ‘negativity’ but keep the word to highlight things that are ‘more positive’. Also these ‘negative’ things have been ‘stifled’ by the ‘old’ system of values. You want to ‘highlight’ them and show their attributes. Can you give any examples?

  2. What I reject is the uncritical and defacto rejection/repression of negativity, as if it were of no use or value. I don’t reject that there is negativity, I just have trouble telling you what it is and where its limits are as the negative seems to me so bound up in the fundaments of identity, philosophy, beauty and the value of a life actually lived. What we tend to call ‘political correctness’ is one example of the bland and mediocre moral life that we impose on ourselves in our bid to expel the negative – hell, there was a Panorama on over here just the other night about the horrors of inteernet ‘trolling’! But further examples include pills to cure sadness, genetic modification to erradicate genetic defects, the role of violence and conflict within relationships etc, etc. Life is brutal; ‘morality’ is deciding the limits of this brutality, which means interacting with the brutality. The tendancy today however is to hysterically and obsessively purge life of all its brutality.

    As regards an example of an old system stifling what is current, I was referring to the above post – the Daily Mail’s insistance that it is ‘unsavoury’ for the digital world to encourage people to find pleasure in torturing slaves. It’s a significant part of digital reality, I think, to be a means of exploring cruelty through simulation – in fact, I’m sure in many ways simulated reality is a consequence of those tensions created by our increasingly life-o-phobic character. It’s worth saying too that I was being exceptionally kind to the Daily Mail by crediting them with any ‘moral system’ at all. As is the case with ‘news’, they are essentially information organizers whose role is to make you think things are happening in order to sell them to you. They only exist to the extent that they can persuade us information matters and that really has become far more important than any ideology that they think they might be peddling. The necessities of corporate survival are now far more pressing than any vigorous moral integrity.

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