“Presumed Wonder” – Martin Essemann
The underlying media-archaeological presumptions that were to some extent called into question during the seminar reminded me of Sianne Ngai’s “Theory of the Gimmick” (2017). Namely the idea that new media technologies of the early modern era were supposedly experienced with a non-suspicious sense of wonder (which is then, accordingly, no longer accessible to the contemporary experiencer) (Ngai 2017).
It is a projection of naïvety upon an imagined pure subject that is reminiscent of a Rousseauian natural man, and as such, it should be treated with caution. But we do have reasons for feeling that our experience of media technologies must be different: both the totalizing effects of late capitalism described by Ngai and the everyday media oversaturation emphasized by Zalán Szakács. Partly, the reason might be found in the feeling that media technologies could not have been developed with such intensity by people who shared our sense of disenchantment and failed promises.
Then what are the implications of transmitting or translating this imagined wonderment into a contemporary context — by avoiding the judgment of ‘gimmick’? If part of what calling something a gimmick does is to assert a certain capacity for seeing through the unkept promises of capitalist technology, what is achieved by overcoming this suspicion? If the wonder of the past was oriented towards a spiritual goal (at least this was part of the thesis expanded during the seminar) can contemporary technological wonders inspire anything other than capitalist reverence? I think we can arrive at a less pessimistic reading by challenging the idea of the uncritical viewer a bit.
A question I tried to raise during the seminar was how these technologies, historically and today, are bordered off? If historical technologies involved the cooperation of ruined monasteries and graveyards to animate the magic lantern images, what physical extension of today’s technology remains unrecognized? Zalán Szakács seemed to take for granted the role played by 3D modeling software in his process when he explained that he simply used it because it allows for quick and easy visualization: the finished artwork had the curious quality of being the compromised material illustration of the 3D rendering — and not the other way around.
What happens when the mathematical digital perspective becomes translated into a physical installation? Perfect circles disappear, smoke has a smell, wires must be drawn and all of it calls into attention the limits to the technology in question. But of course, it needn’t be like that: the boundaries are not objectively given, much like the graveyard was not built by the magic lantern artist. If instead of imagining that wonder can be produced by the complete undisturbed immersion into an experience, maybe it is worth wondering what contextual boundaries can stimulate a want of wonder despite the never-perfect technological circumstances.
- Ngai, Sanne. 2017. “Theory of the Gimmick.” Critical Inquiry 43, no. 2 (Winter): 466–505. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1086/689672.