D. N. Rodowick

Reading The Figural, Or, Philosophy After The New Media
D. N. Rodowick
Duke University Press (2001)

What’s the difference between “reading” in today’s multimedia society and reading a traditional book? In Reading The Figural, film theorist D. N. Rodowick suggests that language “is no longer a homogenous space marked by linguistic unities,” and employs Jean-Francois Lyotard’s concept of “the figural” to indicate this paradox. Formerly composed of discrete words and images, textuality in electronic and digital media becomes virtually hieroglyphic: a heterogeneous blending of linguistic and plastic forms that defies singular interpretation. Reading the Figural is therefore less concerned with divination or prophecy than with exploring things as they already are. Compare, for example, Lyotard’s notion of a “good book” as a space for the reader to enter and freely “graze,” to today’s ubiquitous laptop or “powerbook.”

Rodowick’s project is rather encyclopedic and leaves few stones unturned in his discussion of film and digital culture. The way that Rodowick assimilates the ideas of Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Benjamin, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze and Lyotard, to name a few, resituates a broad field of criticism to accommodate contemporary concerns. And reading the films of Jean-Luc Godard and Fritz Lange through the psychoanalytically based theories of Thierry Kuntzel, who views film as a text invested, like a dream, with latent desire and repression, allows Rodowick to apply the same logic to digital and Internet culture. He suggests, for example, that companies like AT&T profit, in part, by instilling a multiplicity of techno-utopias within the public imagination. [paragraph]

One recurrent assertion he makes is that looking at cinema and the electronic arts through an aesthetic lens is anachronistic. Philosophy, he maintains, has been so outstripped by the flow of contemporary audio-visual culture that its tools have little application. Understanding today’s society, no longer centered on the physical distribution of commodities but the circulation of raw data, requires the development of new forms of thought. Hence, terms like “the figural” (by exceeding rational discourse) seek to engage the new architecture of power that is “reorganizing the space and time of everyday life on a global scale.” By extending such projects as Foucault’s archeology and Derrida’s grammatology into the fields of aesthetics and “visual studies,” Rodowick seeks a truly interdisciplinary critique: one that decodes the fusion of plastic and linguistic regimes. [paragraph]

According to Rodowick, a digital society is a “society of control,” where every ATM withdrawal activates a global surveillance network. “Reading the figural,” therefore, means seeing any aesthetic consideration as a question of power. The digital economy, which reduces every “thing” to an algorithmic function, replaces presence with pure simulation. While Reading The Figural does little to match the vision of its arguments (occasional film frames are used to illustrate the text), the book is a package to be reckoned with. Rodowick, in extending philosophical and artistic discourse into the digital frontier, seems less concerned with graphic limitations than with marking the end of discourse as we know it.

Publication: Afterimage
Date published: 2001