Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Shane Denson reviews Sensations of History

James J. Hodge. Sensations of History: Animation and New Media Art. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019. 232 pp.

Review by Shane Denson

22 July 2020

With Sensations of History: Animation and New Media Art, James J. Hodge adds his voice to a growing chorus of scholars who came up during the heyday of media studies’ fascination with technological infrastructures and invisible underlying processes, but who now find themselves returning to the realm of the aesthetic—both in the narrow sense of the term as it pertains to art and artistic experience, and in the broader sense as it concerns sensation more generally. To be clear, this is not a simple reversal or turn away from the insights of infrastructure studies and media archaeology, not simply a revival of older forms of analysis derived from literature, film studies, and art history, for example, but instead a significant recasting of experience—and a redoubling of attention to the conditions and processes of experience—in light of our conscious and nonconscious interfaces with infrastructures that are not cut to human measure.

In Hodge’s case, this involves a revisionary encounter between phenomenology and poststructuralist theory, on the one hand, with the sensible forms and insensible structures of computation and digital art on the other. In what might be called an aesthetics of the encounter, Hodge foregrounds the embodied experience of human perceivers as they encounter the limits of their perception via the “experiential opacity” of computation that expresses itself in both the reflexive forms of new media art and in our emphatically unreflexive daily interfaces with digital devices and environments. Such an aesthetics of the encounter demands a rethinking of the parameters of experience itself, as the narrower region of conscious perception finds itself entwined with a broader realm of sensation positively innervated (to use a Benjaminian term) by our increasingly lively, animate technologies. Thus, an aesthetics of encounter looks to new media art not in order to clarify our vision and confirm the contours of the phenomenological subject but to open it to what Hodge calls a “felt nonrelation to the infrastructure informing lived experience” (p. 108). This expansion of sensation beyond the narrowly subjective also invites a revision of art-historical modes of appreciation by turning away from the concentrated focal attention devoted to art history’s valued (inherently valuable) objects and towards the ephemeral and everyday, thus countering universalizing hierarchies of value by embracing the altogether ordinary experience of inattention that betokens a blurring of subjects and objects alike.

But the book’s most original contribution lies in the way this experience is connected to history. Hodge argues that our aesthetic encounter with the opaque but animated alterity of digital media opens up a new space of historical experience. In part, this depends on the media-historical and art-historical revisions enacted by new media artworks that engage in a reflexive updating of cinematic and pre-cinematic media (like Muybridge’s chronophotography) for the digital world. Crucially, however, the stakes of Hodge’s argument are much larger: when we take into account not only art but also more mundane technical operations (and here we sense a troubling of the art/technology split itself), we discover a more general transformation of the conditions of historicity: animation replaces narration as the dominant mode of access/encounter with the past, as the microtemporal operations of the digital resist the human framework of narrative but nevertheless make themselves felt, or manifest aesthetically, in the form of animation. But the point is not just that animation becomes the new vehicle of historiography; and to the extent that it does, it is important to understand animation not exclusively in the narrow sense of cartoons, CGI, or indeed the strictly visual image at all, but in a broader frame of life-like alterity that innervates sensation as an environmental force today. In this broader frame, we are dealing with new modes of inscription, new means by which the past imprints and transmits itself materially into the present world—and thus with new phenomenal conditions of historical experience, grounded in new configurations of time. Hodge writes: “What if we focus instead on the time at hand, or at least the opacity of time that seems so commonly and precisely out of hand or off to the side of experience? In the service of this thought, I want to stay with the textual opacity of digital media. It is only by developing a vocabulary attentive to the instability of the encounter with digital media that we will be able to inquire more deeply into the transformation of historical temporality” (p. 105).

In developing this vocabulary, which involves terms such as the “lateral time” of ordinary inattention in computational networks, Sensations of History makes an important contribution to our self-understanding in a digital age. Indeed, Hodge’s book provides an indispensable interrogation of the historical conditions that make it possible to speak of a “digital age” in the first place—importantly going against the grain of ahistorical media theories and proclamations that digital media mark the “end of history” or of temporal experience itself. Combining brilliant analyses of digital artworks (from Phil Solomon’s Last Days in a Lonely Place to John F. Simon Jr.’s Every Icon and Barbara Lattanzi’s Optical De-Dramatization Engine [O.D.E.]) with enlightening appraisals of more mundane, ephemeral media (from the mindless videogame Cookie Clicker to our mindless encounters with software-installation progress bars), and reading both of them through highly original engagements with philosophy (including Merleau-Ponty, Ricoeur, Stiegler, and others), Hodge’s Sensations of History: Animation and New Media Art will be of interest to a wide range of scholars from disciplines across the humanities (minimally including film and media studies, art history, and philosophy, but also literature and history). Balancing this interdisciplinary scope with precise theoretical interventions, and doing so in a manner that is consistently rigorous, engaging, and accessible, it is not exaggerated to say that this is a truly profound step towards the articulation of a much needed theory of the historical aesthetics of encounter.