There was a time when bien pensant middle-class people would get enormously exercised over what could and couldn’t count as ‘art’. The last century was periodically punctuated by such debates, from the avantgardist provocations of Pablo Picasso and Marcel Duchamp to the 1990s heydays of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. If today’s bourgeoisie seem nobly indifferent to such questions, this is, according to Jay David Bolter, because the sheer superabundance of cultural production in the digital age is rendering the arts increasingly unpoliceable: since ‘there is no elite whose position on art validates the significance for the rest of us, there is less at stake.’
In his new book, The Digital Plenitude: The Decline of Elite Culture and the Rise of New Media, published last month by MIT Press, Bolter contends that the infrastructure of cultural gatekeeping has been destabilized, its critical hierarchies disrupted if not quite razed, in a media ecology where online fan fiction shares equal billing with the literary canon. He believes this is, on balance, a positive development: the cultural landscape is vastly more pluralistic than it once was, and ‘this wealth of opportunity seems [...] to more than compensate for the loss of a single cultural centre and set of universally shared standards’. This appealing thesis requires some qualification. It is a little premature to proclaim the disintegration of mainstream culture: try telling anyone who has followed the recent buzz around Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s TV series Fleabag (2016–19) that we no longer have water-cooler moments. As for the flattening of hierarchies, any cultural historian will tell you it was underway long before the internet came along.
Undoubtedly, the internet has had a transformative effect on the dissemination, consumption and criticism of traditional art forms such as music, film and literature. But this is probably the least interesting aspect of its impact on culture. The most thought-provoking sections of The Digital Plenitude explore how digital technology is reinventing art itself, birthing new forms. Bolter, who is a professor of New Media at the Georgia Institute of Technology, reminds us that information technology was initially thought of as a mere storage tool before it gradually morphed into a medium in its own right. Today, he observes, ‘art and media are [...] the same thing’; ‘Participatory fansites, DIY communities [...] the remixes of YouTube, and the template-bound self-expression of social networking sites all testify to a new conception of creativity as a synonym for art.’
Bolter invokes two technical terms that seek to capture the aesthetic sensibility of the digital age: ‘procedurality’ and ‘flow’. ‘Procedurality’ denotes the rules-bound, process-driven logic of a computer program, whose narrative arc sits outside the normal rules of time and space. This is best exemplified by the experience of the video-game player, who inhabits ‘an infinitely repayable present’ in which ‘simulation replaces history’. ‘Flow’ is a term originally coined in 1975 by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to denote a state of immersive, energized focus in an activity. Bolter applies it to a 21st-century context to describe the state of happy, scrolling stupor wherein the user of a digital app – be it a social media platform or an interactive game – ‘simply wants the experience to continue at a more or less constant rhythm’. Whereas the dominant narrative mode of analogue-era culture was characterized by ‘catharsis’ – a film or novel builds towards a climax, framed within a finite structure whose basic contours are immanent in the linearity of the codex – ‘procedurality’ and ‘flow’ entail a subjective experience that is qualitatively different in texture.
Drawing on Marshall McLuhan’s dictum in The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) that culture is ultimately shaped by the technological evolution of media, Bolter suggests we are witnessing the inception of a new cultural paradigm comparable to the advent of modernism in the early 20th century: ‘While modernism was vitally concerned with the cultural meaning of mechanical and power technologies in the 20th century, today’s media culture is exploring how far procedurality and simulation can penetrate into and redefine creative expression as well as our politics and everyday lives.’
The arts, as we have hitherto known them, are changing before our very eyes. And yet, as Bolter acknowledges, the codex – and its attendant sensibility – hasn’t died. Far from it: the book publishing industry is in rude health and ‘cathartic [i.e. traditional] film and television are flourishing’. These forms are not in terminal decline, but their primacy is a thing of the past; they now comprise one facet of an unprecedentedly heterogeneous landscape. The past and the future are peacefully co-existing in the present.
Houman Barekat is a literary critic based in London. His reviews have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the Financial Times, the Irish Times and the Spectator. He is co-editor (with Robert Barry and David Winters) of The Digital Critic: Literary Culture Online (O/R Books).