Techno-Aesthetic Dimensions of Milieu

Frederick Kiesler, “Man = heredity + environment”, drawing, from: “On Correalism and Biotechnique”, Architectural Record, New York, 1939.

Although Georges Canguilhem’s prediction that “the notion of milieu is becoming a universal and obligatory mode of apprehending the experience and existence of living beings” (Canguilhem 2009) has meanwhile become a truism, the question of the transferability of this concept – with its origins in the life sciences – to the dimensions of the technical and the aesthetic still requires further discussion. The aim of the planned publication is to fill this gap. Our point of departure is the current state of research on the concept of milieu, which has become concretized in the context of the ‘ecological turn’ (in the German-speaking world, for example, by Brandstetter et al. 2010; Löffler and Sprenger 2016; Huber and Wessely 2017; Hörl 2017), and it is our intention to initiate a discussion of the intermediary character of milieu in its political implications, specifically with an eye toward a focused techno-aesthetic perspectivization.

While in the life sciences, the emphasis of the milieu concept was primarily on the relationship between the living individual and its natural environment, a critical theory of milieu that does justice to contemporary realities will not only need to consider the technological conditionality (Hörl 2015; Hörl 2017) of contemporary environments, but indeed to foreground it. Such a technological perspectivization is all the more urgent because with the introduction currently of smart environments, ubiquitous or affective computing, life-tracking, etc., a new type of media technology is emerging that is characterized by the way in which it intervenes in an increasingly invasive manner in everyday life, yet at the same time systematically eludes attention and perception (Hayles 2009; Hansen 2014). At stake here is nothing less than the autonomy or heteronomy respectively of the subject in relation to the intensifying implacability of the technical. The political explosiveness of this development is self-evident, and finally, the technically-conditioned transformation of the relationship between individual and milieu, between autonomy and heteronomy, does not proceed through the blind automatism of evolution, but instead as a conflictual process of the appropriation and expropriation of technical resources and their potentials.

It is precisely with respect to the implacability of the technical and the associated problematic of autonomy and heteronomy that the second, the aesthetic axis of our perspectivization of the milieu concept emerges. We propose two key assumptions for further discussion: first, that the anthropological subject acquires a relative autonomy in relation to the ‘natural’ environment precisely through the appropriation of technical or artistic ‘organs’ respectively, one that can however tip over at any moment into what henceforth becomes a technologically conditioned heteronomy (Stiegler 2013); and secondly, that the possibility for transgressing such a metastable equilibrium state can be characterized as a genuinely creative and aesthetic faculty (Guattari 2014).

The following questions (among others) can be aligned with both axes of the proposed perspectivization of the concept of milieu:

- Can current technological conditions be accorded the status of a historic caesura, or are they instead expressions of an undoubtedly strengthened, but never fully absent implacability of the technical?

- Which developments argue for a historic caesura with regard to current technological conditions? What are the implications, on the other hand, of conceiving of the implacability of the technical as a supra-historical constant?

- To the extent that the ‘implacability’ of the technical is conceived literally rather than merely metaphorically, how can the internal logic of techno-genesis be described with greater precision? How might we get to grips with it?

- If self-transgression qua technology is grasped as an anthropological constant, what are the implications of this for anthropogenesis?

- To what extent can a fundamental aesthetic faculty – both in the expended sense of imagination, as well as in the more restricted Kantian sense as an agency of freedom in relation to the realm of necessity – be assumed as a precondition of individuation?

- Which positions, which aesthetic and artistic forms of resistance, are observable today in relation to the heteronomy of our natural and technological conditions? What are they capable of, and what limits do they encounter?

- Is the inadequation of individual and milieu qua technology and aesthetics reserved exclusively to humanity? Which natural and artificial processes legitimate the discourse of a téchne in the sense of a technology and art beyond the bounds of the human?

The aim of the planned publication is to explore the significance of the concept of milieu – beyond the narrow framework of the life sciences – through a selection of incisive and experimental contributions by the above-named authors. From the perspective of the theory of milieu, we hope first to clarify its techno-aesthetic implications, and secondly to illuminate concrete techno-aesthetic constellations of present-day reality. Beyond a readership oriented toward the fields of the life sciences, media theory, and the philosophy of technology, this publication should be of interest as well to anyone for whom the techno-aesthetic and political disposition of present-day reality poses conundrums and demands resistance.

Eds. Rebekka Ladewig (Bauhaus-Universität Weimar) & Angelika Seppi (Cluster of Excellence, Image, Knowledge, Gestaltung, Humboldt-Universität, Berlin)