The Geopolitical Aesthetic of Computational Media: Media Arts in the Middle East

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2020

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Abstract

Today, humans must rely on technical operations that exceed their perceptual threshold and control. The increasingly complex and abstract, algorithmically mediated operations of global capital have only deepened the gap between the social order as a whole and its lived experience. Yet, Fredric Jameson’s notion of cognitive mapping acts as a model for how we might begin to articulate the relationship between the psychic and social realms, as well as the local and global scales. Jameson’s attentiveness to the conflicting tendencies of capitalist operations is still helpful for us to map the local instantiations of capital’s expanding frontiers – where its differential impacts are felt and negotiated strongly.

This dialectical move, unifying and differentiating at once, is crucial for my project of situating the Middle East within the imperial operations of global capital, thereby overcoming its peripherical reading. In contrast to the post-oil spectacles of the Arabian Gulf, such as Dubai, I look at the war-torn and toxic cities that are spreading in the rest of the region, such as Beirut, due to the violent operations of militarized states as well as the ever-growing economic and ecological deterioration. Hence, these cities constitute two sides of the same coin, bounded by more extensive structures of wealth accumulation and class formation in the region underlying the dominance of the Gulf and US imperialism. Consequently, we can unpack the spatial-temporal reconfigurations of global capital from the vantage point of the Middle East, especially along with the entangled trajectories of oil, finance, militarism, logistics, and computation.

Expanding on Jonathan Beller’s idea of computational capital, I argue that computational media are instrumentalized as an imperial apparatus within the matrix of racial capitalism. In other words, computational media are operationalized within a capitalist society that preys on the continuous reproduction of imperial divisions, techniques, institutions, and rights while obscuring their historicity. Thus, we need to bring back the historicity of those forms as well as the totality they are actively part of in the present, including from material conditions (labor) to ethico-legal systems (law). Consequently, Jameson’s cognitive mapping needs to be reconfigured not only due to the shifts in the granularity and scale of capitalist extraction but also due its embeddedness within the histories of modern thought and colonialism.

My aim is to revive the utopian project of envisioning alternatives to capitalism while reformulating the image of historicity and globality today. To this end, I examine countervisual practices in Nicholas Mirzoeff’s terms, intervening in the economic, legal, and symbolic systems that animate computational media in the Middle Eastern context, ranging from smart weapons to smart cities. My analyses show that artistic practice could allow us some insights about the economic and social structures that govern our immediate and situated experience, whereas media studies could help us to navigate through the convoluted cartographies of computational capital today.

As my project demonstrates, there is no privileged position or method of cognitive mapping, which ultimately corresponds to an active negotiation of urban space. Those urban struggles will persist, always exceeding the bounds of our theories. My project affirms an aesthetic that does not exist yet, not because it is impossible but, rather, it cannot be encapsulated in a formula since it is always already in the process of making on the streets.

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Iscen, Ozgun Eylul (2020). The Geopolitical Aesthetic of Computational Media: Media Arts in the Middle East. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/21462.

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