The word "data" comes from the Latin dare, which means "give." This evolves into datum, which signifies something given. Data is what is given; Big Data, many given somethings. Gifts are given, too, but it's hard to think of data as a gift—and nearly impossible to think of Big Data as a Big Gift, though it certainly appears that way to some.
But then the history of gifts is more equivocal and ambivalent than market society can easily recall. To give a big gift is also to place the recipient in your debt, to transform that person into a subject of the giving regime. For centuries, many communities were organized around the distribution of favors as the matrix of subjectivity. The spoils of war, rights to land, or even just piles of glistening loot can all be seen as examples of Big Givens before the era of Big Data. And, like its predecessors, Big Data also seems constitutive of lordship and bondage alike, securing some limited liberty only when we accept it as something beyond our control, as something given. Under Big Data, for example, advertisements have become more specific and helpful. Also, a drone can kill you anytime, anywhere, and for any reason, irrespective of territory, citizenship, or responsibility for whatever television show the Americans are fighting about this week. Maybe technology has always made things worse before we get together and make them better again?
For example, it is probably a result of collective action by international antiwar organizations that the United States has substituted the Reaper drone for the B-52. About ten thousand people have been killed by drones in the past decade, a number matched during a slow month in Cambodia in 1970 or in two minutes in Tokyo on the night of March 9, 1945. The drone can see better than the bomber could, and that matters when pilots can't be counted on to tell a child from a threat any more effectively today than they could in the middle of the last century. Big Data giveth and Big Data taketh away.
In other words, just because it's possible to see what couldn't be seen before, it still doesn't mean that what we see is actually there. Hito Steyerl, in "A Sea of Data," considers how the relationship between data technology and drone technology is figured; that is, how individuals are discerned amidst this tidal wave of givens. Not very well, it turns out, though this doesn't stop people from seeing terrorists everywhere.
The problem of figuring from data is a proper art historical problem, in the sense that it concerns representation, something artists are particularly equipped to discuss. Yates McKee reminds us of what art was like before Occupy, when it often felt necessary to recall that politics was possible, though today it is hard to imagine that we ever forgot.
In "Drone Form," Nathan K. Hensley compares mediations of liberal violence from the Victorian era to contemporary records of neoliberal killing, examining a clutch of drone novels to show how the irreciprocity of unmanned bombing impacts our understanding of ourselves as subjects.
We often register this impact, Lindsay Caplan avers, but stop short of drawing the full conclusions. Lev Manovich's Selfiecity is Caplan's example of a project that utilizes Big Data only halfway, leaving the big questions unrecognized and unanswered. Orit Gat considers wall text to show how authority is always generated as an interaction between image and text within the visual field, while Benjamin Bratton imagines the role of a cargo-cult messiah in the construction of a megastructure in the South China Sea.
And Ana Teixeira Pinto examines the history of misunderstanding the fourth dimension as a kind of space rather than as a kind of time. What other kind of space would we like to live in, beyond the ones we have already?
In this issue:
Hito Steyerl—A Sea of Data: Apophenia and Pattern (Mis-)Recognition
Let me tell you something. I will decrypt this image for you without any secret algorithm. I will use a secret ninja technique instead. And I will even teach you how to do it for free. Please focus very strongly on this image right now. Doesn't it look like a shimmering surface of water in the evening sun? Is this perhaps the "sea of data" itself? An overwhelming body of water, which one could drown in? Can you see the waves moving ever so slightly?
Nathan K. Hensley—Drone Form: Word and Image at the End of Empire
Mike Maden's intervention into the new subgenre is a kind of masculine fantasia. In defiance of the rules of perspective it gives full specifications for every gun and piece of technology in its pages, and features a no-nonsense female president, "strong and lean," who drinks bourbon and shows no patience for fussy questions of human rights. In Maden's plot, the Pilates-toned president leagues with the cagefighter Pearce to scrub the world of Mexican gangsters and Iranian terrorists, even while the fantasy president from Texas evinces a fetching maternal instinct, nearly starting war with Mexico to avenge the death of her son. "She had a bigger nutsack than any man he knew in politics."
Lindsay Caplan—Method without Methodology: Data and the Digital Humanities
Data can be damned for being a too-simple map; or it can be celebrated for capturing the detailed complexity of territory itself. Taken together, moreover, the two sides of big data indicate a profound ambivalence about the relationship between individuals and society, and the categories, concepts, and ideas that arbitrate between them. This ambivalence can be felt in the rapidly developing field of the "Digital Humanities," an uneasy hybrid of humanities and sciences that negotiates the relationship between map and territory, self and society, by appealing to the Janus-faced enigma of data.
Ben Davis—Connoisseurship and Critique
Why return to the history of connoisseurship, and why now? Its particular virtues—deep looking, an eye for subtle markers of historical merit, and an obsession with the "hand of the master"—seem rooted firmly in the past at a time when art is ever more obsessed with the present. An essay on "Marxism and Connoisseurship" today is likely to seem both ridiculous and dubious, like proposing a political recuperation of dressage. Yet I think that theorizing where we stand in relationship to the concept can save a lot of confusion, and clarify the stakes of cultural critique.
Ana Teixeira Pinto—Enantiomorphs in Hyperpace: Living and Dying on the Fourth Dimension
Between September and October 1888, the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper murdered five women in such a gruesome and brutal way that his crimes received unprecedented coverage in the media. Violent sexual attacks were not uncommon in Victorian London (in fact, two other victims were initially added to the Ripper’s tally, so high was the murder rate in Whitechapel), but none looked like these. According to the forensic notes made by Dr. Thomas Bond, the perpetrator cut the women’s throats and sliced the tissue of their necks down to the bone, then divided their bodies along an axis, from chin to pelvis, before removing the whole surface of the abdomen and extracting its viscera. Distressed policemen said it was as if the killer was trying to turn his victims inside out. This ritual bore an eerie resemblance to the literary accounts of how one could be “turned over” like a glove by moving around a plane that cut through the body from navel to spine, in order to rotate through the fourth dimension and into one’s mirror image.
Orit Gat—Could Reading Be Looking?
The average museumgoer spends fifteen to thirty seconds in front of a work. An average reader can comprehend about 200 words per minute. A viewer who reads a standard wall label (which average at 100 words) will spend as much time reading as looking at the work. The wall labels, introductory texts, and section texts condition the pace through which visitors move through the exhibition, the amount of information they receive beyond their preexisting knowledge of art, and their sense of what the museum wants them to know or learn when in the gallery. To group together these three textual mechanisms—the introductory wall text, the section texts, and the labels—is, in a way, to against a museum's best practices, since each of these plays a different role in communicating an exhibition's thesis and pace. But they all support each other in an endless loop of authority.
Yates McKee—Occupy and the End of Socially Engaged Art
In a kind of historical displacement, contemporary art was at that moment thrown into relief as a distant prefiguration or prophecy of what was now happening in real time, too close for the comfort of the exhibitions, conferences, and catalogues within which the radical aspirations of contemporary art had sought refuge. As an historiographical provocation, one that admittedly borders on the eschatological, it might be said that this moment of passage represents the end of socially engaged art.
Benjamin Bratton—The Role of Megastructure in the Eschatology of John Frum
The other Americans squatting in Jakarta hotel bars were quick with predictions, but all seemed to have forgotten that it was our military that divided up the Ocean's islands into provisions and micronations in the wake of the Wars of the Pacific Theater. It was a foregone conclusion that there would be a showdown of some sort, fought on the naval glacis or with the slow martial arts of mixed-use development; perhaps China versus the other six claimants combined. But what about Japan? Should China prevail, it was prophesized, then ultimately no claim on sovereign geography anywhere in Asia would be truly guaranteed. Even with such momentous expectations, none of them could have, and indeed did not, foresee what would ultimately result from China's ongoing capitalization: this megastructure.
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