In recent discussion of some apps which have been developed to allow visitors to engage with historical sites, I encountered some resistance from some people who make the argument that this somehow ‘cheapens’ the experience. The argument goes that in having a cultural experience, however broadly this may be understood, there needs to be something approaching a one to one correspondence. Cultural artefact X plus individual Y combine to create authentic experience Z. This reminds me of the analysis offered by Susan Sontag in On Photography.
In this she suggests that the Japanese tourist laden down with cameras (an example very much of its time) is an indictment of the inability to ‘clock-off’. This person – supposedly on holidays – has transported a work ethic into the time when they are meant to be relaxing. We are still being productive, though we are meant to be at rest. There are various ways by which one might possibly critique this critique. Should we so readily attribute a Japanese version of the Protestant work ethic to this ideal/anecdotal figure? If we update this example, and think of the phenomenon of taking photos of the food one is about to eat. The need to Instagram your dinner is roundly mocked, either overtly, or at a remove via protestations that say “I am such a hipster taking a picture of my dinner, but I can’t help it! I think I’ll use X-Pro II…”
The question we can ask is what is the alternative to this? Is there such a thing as total immersion in the moment? Is talking a distraction from this? How about using your imagination? If you fill in some extra details to whatever experience as you project from the present anticipation of this experience to the imagined, future process of experiencing itself, have you stepped outside the bounds of acceptable authenticity? Are we allowed to communicate with others, or must we commune with the moment? Of course, there are no rules, but the element which seems common to all of these – admittedly forced, reductio-style – questions is to be found in the idea of mediation. By using a technology to assist or facilitate engagement, it is held that we put up a barrier between ourselves and the aesthetic process. This criticism is built on the notion that there is a tabula rasa for the aesthetic, that there is a pure state, and that anything else is a deviation. It is pure philosophical Romanticism. Innocence is the ideal to be followed.
Youth of delight! come hither
And see the opening morn,
Image of Truth new-born.
Doubt is fled, and clouds of reason,
Dark disputes and artful teazing.
Folly is an endless maze;
Tangled roots perplex her ways;
How many have fallen there!
They stumble all night over bones of the dead;
And feel—they know not what but care;
And wish to lead others, when they should be led.
So says William Blake in ‘The Voice of the Ancient Bard’, the final poem in Songs of Experience. Truth is new-born. It is naked, pure, and hasn’t been led astray (yet) by reason, or any other artifice.
I do not accept this, and I charge our popular concept of mediation with naivety. Both the hermeneutics and the phenomenology of the aesthetic contradict such a simplistic idealization. All of our engagements with culture, art, and aesthetics are mediated. Being in a museum and imagining an object as it may have been to its contemporaries when it was in situ is an act of mediation. Walking around a castle, and envisioning how it appeared and functioned in different ages – this too is an act of mediation, effected by our imagination, our ability to project ourselves into a fantasy reconstruction of the past. Even being in an art gallery and experiencing countless objects of art in this environment is a mediation, experiencing paintings and sculpture in the relatively recent invention of a building as giant aesthetic-experiencing machine. All imagining is mediation, and all experiencing is mediated. The question then, for any new technique, tool, or technology is whether they assist in this work of mediation. As Deckard says to Rachael in Bladerunner, “Replicants are like any other machine – they’re either a benefit or a hazard. If they’re a benefit, it’s not my problem.” Mediation shouldn’t be regarded as a problem either.