PRINT April 2007


David Joselit

THE FIELD OF ART HISTORY registered a seismic shift in the late 1990s, when crops of grad students began to designate “video art” as a topic for their oral exams, or even to write their dissertations on the formerly bereft genre. The appeal of the subject was clearly driven by a new historical fact: Digital convergence was bringing about the end of magnetic-tape video art as such, even while projected digital video was becoming the ubiquitous medium of choice in the circuitry of global exhibitions. A similar transformation is taking place today within the broader landscape of communications technology, as network television and Hollywood cinema confront such new platforms as broadband websites and iPods—part of a greater migration of all media into increasingly personalized, portable formats. The latter development raises questions for artists and art historians alike, as the very technology that is being hailed for providing sampling archives for tomorrow’s users becomes the subject of increasing regulation and commodification. Who will be the producers, and who the consumers, of our media future? Will that future be dominated by the inanities of viral ads on YouTube, or will it allow a revival of the sophisticated hactivism of organizations like ®™ark (pronounced “art mark”)—the possibly defunct artists’ group that in 2005 announced its intention to become “the first and only company to measure the dynamic growth of cultural, rather than economic, capital”? Most important, as David Joselit’s new book, Feedback: Television Against Democracy, pushes us to ask, will we be able to direct our networked and new-media productions toward more-inclusive democratic practices and away from privatization?

Joselit doesn’t answer all these questions, but he prompts them by crafting a sharply cautionary tale from our recent media past, using the trickster’s mirror to reveal a lost parallel future from the ’60s and ’70s—a future mapped by radical programming aimed at (and broadcast by) standard television, or flowing from the burgeoning counterculture of video art. In attending to this lost future, Joselit occasionally becomes explicit about the telling links he wants to draw between our present moment and the claims, potentials, and dangers identified for cable in the late ’60s—hitting historical pay dirt with this quotation from journalist Ralph Lee Smith’s 1970 vision of cable’s capacity to bring about a “wired nation,” decades before the advent of the World Wide Web:

As cable systems are installed in major U.S. cities and metropolitan areas, the stage is being set for a communications revolution. . . . In addition to the telephone and to the radio and television programs now available, there can come into homes and into business places audio, video and facsimile transmissions that will provide newspapers, mail service, banking and shopping facilities, data from libraries and other storage centers, school curricula and other forms of information too numerous to specify. In short, every home and office will contain a communications center of a breadth and flexibility to influence every aspect of private and community life.

We know already how the story is fated to unfold, with increasing commercialization countered by sporadic, ever more valiant, yet co-opted and marginalized artistic opposition. But the cliffhanger, of course, is not in how new communication technologies were inserted rather ineffectually into already saturated, highly image-driven ideological systems, but in the present against which this history is implicitly posed. Indeed, Joselit’s chapter headings—notably “Virus” and “Avatar”—are taken from contemporary gamers’ and hactivists’ computer lexicons. However, the author neither parses nor historicizes these terms, which are only really mobilized in the book’s final pages. Instead, his wonderfully spare text focuses on the first hints of the digital future as it was mapped by commercial network executives on the clunky hardware of the cathode-ray tube and the dumb black boxes that decoded the increasingly privatized information stream of cable TV.

Writing of the viral, of “media tumors,” and of ego annihilation, Joselit celebrates the dark side of feedback. Two forms of feedback emerged from twentieth-century usage, but he wants only one of them. Rather than ’50s cyberneticians’ notion of feedback as a channel feeding constructive information back to the control mechanism, allowing a self-regulating system to correct itself, Joselit turns to that other kind of feedback pioneered by Jimi Hendrix—the screeching and disabling noise that happens when the system’s own technologies of communication are recursively trained on themselves.

Consider, as a visual parallel to Hendrix’s famous mangling of the national anthem, Nam June Paik’s scrambling of the system in his brilliant, intentionally unstable and nonrepeating Electronic Opera #1, 1969. This work is almost always illustrated by the image also used on the cover of Feedback—President Nixon’s face coming over the airwaves, only to be torqued by Paik’s electronic meddling; “swirling down an electronic toilet” is how Joselit describes it. Exhilaratingly, Joselit introduces the word trajective to describe Paik’s video intervention—borrowing a concept that originally came to us via Kant as read by Gilles Deleuze but that was given its most recent form by that magpie of military-speak, Paul Virilio, who took it to be “between the subjective and the objective . . . [the] movement from here to there, from one to the other, without which we will never achieve a profound understanding of the various regimes of perception of the world.” We are all searching for a term that liberates us from the eternal (yet fatally unstable) dialectic of subjective/objective, and with which we might chart the state of subject-object relations in a thoroughly mediatized world. In Joselit’s use, “trajective” denotes such an unstable position or movement between signal and subject. It’s exciting to think with the author—as he elsewhere suggests, in an echo of both Walter Benjamin and Rosalind Krauss—that the term might capture the function of “television’s unconscious.” Could we limn, with Freud-like accuracy, the precise space of the subject in a trajective oscillation between coherent signal and ego-annihilating noise?

Even suggesting such a diagnostic potential for video is liberating, and it should be said that in his specific choice of video for critical work of this kind, Joselit stands in knowing and productive opposition to some venerated figures—Theodor Adorno, Krauss, and almost all the other Octoberists—whose antipathy to video art and (even more) to television is legendary. As his book progresses, however, it remains unclear whether Joselit has taken “trajective” beyond Virilio’s vague, Bergsonian fluidity to construct a subject-specific analytical tool. And without such specificity, the trajective threatens to collapse into its Molotov-like roots in the “trajectile”—whether that be the long-range guided missile of the cold war, or the guerrilla’s cocktail of explosives aimed always and forever at the complacent hegemony of the bourgeoisie. Similarly, I’m not sure the author’s designation of his methodology as an “eco-formalism” that enables the examination of “image ecologies” really works. Such terms threaten to naturalize the very systems that a Molotovian trajectile (or a ’60s activist) might have wanted to crack.

Yet Joselit’s ambition vaults over the unfulfilled promise of his neologisms—he is attempting nothing less than a new politics of media production and analysis, compressed into an impressively concise book that fits handily in the outer pocket of a messenger bag. The academic part of me wanted it to be longer, to have more than a measly two pages on Joan Jonas, for example (the only featured woman artist), more on Vito Acconci and Bruce Nauman, and even more on the much-discussed Paik, let alone his undertheorized collaborator Charlotte Moorman. But then I realized that this is exactly Joselit’s point: The more extensive and significant history of television networking, commodi­tization, and spectatorship that this book constructs is indeed the missing “ground” to the totemic “figure” of the contemporary artist we continue to canonize in our criticism, curatorship, and pedagogy. We already know about the artists, the author implies. It’s the system we’ve lost sight of. In showing more cultural background than artistic figure, Joselit not only performs his own figure/ground reversal, but convincingly argues that the figure/ground dynamic is itself a proper target for radical production. On this account, all cultural producers have work to do.

And this points to what I like best about Feedback: Joselit’s restoration of art history and the related disciplines of design, art training, and advertising as the missing links in the evolution of our mediatized present; as well as his presentation of art history as itself a productive tool for the analysis of image systems. Abbie Hoffman’s Yippie activism, for example, turns out to have always already had formalism’s tools in its kit. Joselit reminds us that in Revolution for the Hell of It (1968), Hoffman wrote: “The commercial is information. The program is rhetoric. The commercial is the figure. The program is the ground. . . . It’s only when you establish a figure-ground relationship [that] you can convey information. It is the only perceptual dynamic that involves the spectator.” (Although Joselit doesn’t go into it, Hoffman’s access to formalism’s concepts was probably conveyed by postwar art-historical pedagogy, taught via Swiss art historian Heinrich Wölfflin in order to conceal—as Clement Greenberg’s followers were successfully doing—its more proximate past in the tactics and analytics of the revolutionary Russians.)

Feedback thus gives us a novel way to map the figures of postwar media art, and entirely new comparatives (not only Hoffman, but Melvin Van Peebles; not only Andy Warhol, but John Brockman). It’s a compelling account, especially when coupled with Joselit’s terse concluding “Manifesto,” which makes the foregoing book itself a kind of historical ground for the present-day figure of activism the author wants to instill. The manifesto is a summons to “artists and art historians alike” to mount a viral activism that might be mobilized against the creepy US image-scape of banner patriotism loaded up behind Animal Farm talking heads. The cryptic signals of “viruses,” “avatars,” and “feedback” are here used explicitly to call for contemporary modes of activism: How will your “viral” images build publics? How will you deploy icons of personal identity—avatars—strategically? How can your noise become systemic? Ironically, however, Joselit’s call to arms will probably end up benefiting art history more than injecting democracy into the dying forms of television itself. This is how hindsight forecasts the future, looking at silhouettes outlined against the fading light emanating from the past. Hegel peering into the gloaming of the Enlightenment was a precursor to the figure-ground thinkers discussed in this book; there is a famous metaphor in the preface to his Philosophy of Right (1820) that could be used to justify both the nachträglich quality of Joselit’s theoretical insights and the use-value of such anachronistic models for activism: “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” Joselit’s book suggests that the glow of TV’s tawdry sunset may well provide the best light by which to illuminate art history’s future path.

Caroline A. Jones is professor of the history of art at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA.


David Joselit, Feedback: Television Against Democracy, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 220 pages.