The Relevance of the Baroque
An Outtake from Digital Aesthetics
Sean Cubitt
The artist confronts the interactive media. As for Botticelli, condemned to imitate a classical painting of which no examples survived, there are no models --  save the idea of art itself, and that is a concept in crisis. Much of what is made builds deliberately not on the past but on the future: a future-directed art which derives its imagery from utopian or dystopian science-fiction, and which, in sealing the image of the future, seeks to control it in the name of the present. And what else does the future contain? Death. Though decked in the archaisms which Freud associates with regression, the sci-fi game that dominates the interactive media is built in the  denial of mortality. The crisis of interactive arts concerns the difficulty of making a shift from a future for the self to a future for others -- a future over which, by definition, we now can have no control.

An art of surrender, and a chaotic art. It seems then no accident that so many artists derive such inspiration from the Baroque, an art of sublime submission and creative dementia. If it is true that the arts of forgetting condemn us to the repetition of history, still, in this instance, we could wish to believe that it was the first Baroque that lived out its crisis of signification as tragedy, and the new Baroque of the digital media that has a chance to work through, with hope, the dialectics of submission and futurity.

The Baroque is legible as the expression of an absolute state confronted with the crisis of its own mode of signification. As John Beverley observes, the Spanish baroque ‘was, like postmodernism today, at once a technique of power of a dominant class in a period of reaction and a figuration of the limits of that power’ (Beverley 1993:64). In that configuration, the arts add layer on layer to the web of allegorical significances, and simultaneously discover the vortex of instability at the heart of allegory itself. Humanism sought to recover; the Baroque to discover, but the arts of discovery bring on crises of overproduction (the economic disaster created by flooding European markets with American gold), which in turn generate vertiginous inwardnesses revealing more of the Devil’s bargain than those contracted wished to see (in Spain the emergence of narratives of the conquistadors’ brutality and retreat of the emergent mercantile bourgeoisie into pseudo-aristocracy ‘as a result’ [cf Nerlich 1987]). From the troubled triumph of the absolutist state to the troubling security of the administered society, the Baroque recurs in the heart of both the 17th and the 20th centuries, their churches, our communications, as the rage to control. This rage is not angry but viral: replicating its order as excrescence and ornament on the body of its host, but in doing so breaking open the integrity of the host -- a crisis of permeability.

If the old Baroque was consumed by the need to redefine social boundaries through the meticulous separation of high from popular arts, our administered age works to hurl them together. **The Brazilian critic and historian Luiz Costa Lima evokes a specifically Baroque formation of popular culture which he calls the auditive, a transitional phase between oral and literate culture dominated by texts written for reading aloud. The audience is assembled as if for a dialogue, but cannot participate: instead it can only listen, ‘boca abierta’, slack-jawed and gape-mouthed: a culture of persuasion, not understanding (1981:16). If we are in the way of a transition now, is it possible that we are still locked in such a manipulative theatricality, a bad Baroque in which, to misquote Adorno, the two torn halves of high and popular culture are forced together into a dis-integrated whole? Have our mouths dropped open ready only to speak the words that have already been scripted for us?**

The desktop interface, interactive movies, electronic books and online conferences: we step confidently into a future we believe we can define carrying the metaphors of a past we have already erased. This secular and imminent futurity inverts the Baroque’s materialisation of divintiy as invisible order. The Gothic, at its zenith in the School of Chartres and Grosseteste’s De Luce, made of light the intangible symbol of a collective destiny. The Baroque, from the Escorial to Rembrandt, rendered material the fall of light, solidified the divine as the address of and to the individual: a materialism in the service of invisible order. The tumultuous dialectic of pagan and Christian that fired Botticelli and the Rosicrucian enlightenment came to an abrupt impasse in the meeting, in the New World, with real pagans, the admired, loved, desired and ennobled victims of almost accidental genocide. No sooner had the Baroque fixed the symbol of light as its material than it turned it into allegory, retreating in horror from its own dynamics. The making of art turned from the symbolization of divinity towards the articulation of signmaking, and fine art began its long centuries of introspection.

In Tiepolo’s finest ceilings we seem to see the afterlife plummeting into the world above. Our axis today is more horizontal: the ergonomic workspace that settles us face to face with a secular universe of signs. To work with the interactive media, or play with them, is to become textual, and seek through the endless lines of code, the streams of images, the flaring and decaying phosphorescence of pixels, a future into which we are always emerging. The textual-virtual cyberself, anchored in a body of decreasing materiality save only as a coordinate nexus of skills, is awestruck, dumbfounded, before the secular infinity of cyberspace. It consents to immersion in the warm bath of interaction, a world in which the past is always already lost, and where the future is guaranteed because, stumbling always a flickering moment behind the game, we find ourselves constantly in the virtual past.

In recent works, the Australian electronic media artist Simon Biggs invokes angels as a summoning of forces which exceed the horizons of signification, and play through allegory to search again for the powers of symbolisation. It is work massively ‘about’: a content-full work, but a work which cannot or will not erase the memories of what art has been and has had to be. It summons the angel of destiny from the Gothic, the angel of symbols without sources from the Renaissance, the angel of the absolute from the Baroque. It comprehends the logic of signification, the materiality of communication, but will not be bound to their tyrannical orders. When Lacanians argue that language speaks us, it is easy to skip the major emphasis: that our selves are what is spoken. Signifying, making meaning, has been in the West since the Baroque the location of selfhood, its source, its structure, even its purpose, the horizon in which it exists and the medium in which it takes its being. But the angels bring more than the long history of semantics: they bring the dimension of the time it takes to live.

In Biggs’ works of early 1995, the angel appears as a genealogical collection of body parts generated at an internet site by any interested (but remote) participant, and present in the exhibition space as fixed. If the angel in religious ages was the ideal form: now it reappears as the society of difference. These feet and hands do not derive from the absolute foot and hand, but from a world of real hands, real feet, dispersed. The angel’s immateriality is no longer in the next world but in the immanent vastness of this. These feet and hands belong to the living. On foot, by hand, the viewer writes herself into the installation as an experience of dispersal. Unlike the familiar human-computer interface, Biggs’ opens up the body to the experience of the digital: moves the corporeal from the stasis of cinema (and the railway carriage) to the movement of architecture, ghosting in the secular the Gothic’s divine architecture of light, but preserving the escape from destiny so long fought for and so weakly held.

The fact of individuality is not negotiable, but neither is it static. The Cartesian proprietor of individuality reconfigured as the homesteader of the electronic frontier is an exemplary attempt to hang on to and reuse a definitively outmoded form of self. This self is bound by a triple horizon: the birth which both disgusts and lures it as the messy, inchoate, unbounded origins of self; the death which it defers endlessly and which it seeks to control through the manipulation of futurity; and others, in dialogue with whom alone it has its being, but always at the risk of dissolving into the very conversation which gives value to a life, and which, in the attempt to anchor the personal as discrete from the flux, has been rendered as the agonistic field of competition.

**The making of allegories in the epoch of the crisis in administered meaning is an endless braiding of attractions and repulsions, of longing for and terror of self-loss, to form a tympanum stretched taught across the narrowed limits of the bounded world. We have a western civilization, that civilization which has largely defined the workings of the digital media, founded on the cult of life, where life is overzealously defined as negentropic, the accumulation of order and the organization of information, against the ‘death’ of entropy. This ‘death’, when you excavate it, is a mausoleum built over all dissolutions of the self. True, since it is not only feared but also and unconsciously sought, even the dissolution of self has its histories, and they are as ugly as the submission of self to consensual hallucination in the Nuremberg rallies. Precisely the denial of death has allowed it to become a tool in the management of souls. Endlessly vibrating in its bounded sphere of attractions and repulsions, the self is unable to emerge from a socially constructed cocoon which, ironically, is what keeps it from socialization. To secure its metamorphosis, it must embrace its dissolution.**

In intricate webs we hold, unequally delayed and accelerated, nature, weaponry, wealth and power. The distribution of reading belongs to the global distribution of the intimate. The distribution of reading forms a pattern, a geometry of curved surfaces through which, as nodes and trajectories, the technologies of literacy run, great avenues in which the abstract goings-on of humanity achieve their materialisation and their transfiguration, the secular eucharist in which our communications, threaded over the voids of identity, gather the narrow channels of transmission into the artifice of their eternity . What is transmitted is not pure thought encoded and decoded but communication itself, the dialogue of the species, which has no being other than this processual zone of materiality, despised and cast aside as soon as used. Neither efficient nor inefficient, the channel is noise, and the message only a clustered coherence of noise, an aberration in the flow. Sourcing that in nature, mother, the body or deep structures of the brain is to misunderstand. This brief threnody of transmissions is all there is to us, our own transmission from silence to silence. Death is not the enemy: Death is a friend.

These perceptions make it possible to understand the autonomy of the text as a function of changing relations to death, the dissolution of the self. Our technologies are turned against that liberating void: their text is a fabulous embroidery stitched over an empty frame from horizon to horizon. The webwork arcs across the firmament, form woven out of passion, bootstrapped out of nonexistence. History deprived of posterity -- as it is when the death of teleology is mistaken for the murder of the future -- is Ibn Khaldoun’s arabesque, the pattern rendered unto Allah that He alone may know, but that is our blood and bodies transmuted into the stuff of historiography. Identity and history, the emperor’s drunken soldiery, and artifice itself, all our spindrift and chaotic loves, are derivations from and distributions of the emptiness that they drape, fold and knit about themselves to keep them warm. The sacred mystery of the secular is not the body but its dissolution.

Beverley, John (1993), Against Literature University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
Nerlich, Michael (1987), Ideology of Adventure: Studies in Modern Consciousness, 1100-1750, 2 vols, trans Ruth Crowley, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis