Blog Post

The "Digital Condition:" Thoughts on Timothy Murray's "Digital Baroque: New Media Art and Cinematic Folds"

I want to offer some thoughts on Timothy Murray's new book Digital Baroque: New Media Art and Cinematic Folds (University of Minnesota Press 2008).  Part of the books project is to explore what Murray dubs the "digital condition," which I would imagine many of us relate to (5).  Deeply Deleuzean in its conceptual framework, the book turns to the concept of the fold developed in Deleuze's The Fold: Liebniz and the Baroque in order "to reflect on the historical and ideological complexity of the new apparatuses of digitized electronic arts in relation to their critical and ideological reconfiguration of historical methods, literary authorship and authority, artistic icons, cinematic memories, and most of all, new world communities" (9).  In other words, no small task. 

As I understand it, Murray's thesis emerges out of a similar thesis he has made about digital libraries.  In this context, he argues that pre-modern paradigms, and specifically the dark cabinet of the Renaissance (i.e. the scholar in solitude, surrounded by shelves of manuscripts, dusty pages, and a candle-waxed skull as his illumination- I imagined Michel de Montaigne after reading a recent article in The New Yorker by Jane Kramer, or the image of Ian McKellan as Gandalf in the basement libraries of Minas Tirith in the Lord of the Rings movies), inform the common understanding of the relationship between the humanist and the academic libraries he works with.  The shift to the digital archive has in short order pulled the rug out from beneath this model.

Similarly, Murray argues that New Media art practices are informed by pre-modern thought processes and artistic practices, specifically, the Baroque.  In his own words, "new media screen arts consistently embody and display the tissue of baroque paradigms, from the dynamics of serial accumulation and the trauma of temporal folds to the cultural promise of what I will call digital incompossibility that makes quake the previously confident stature of single-centered subjectivity" (17).  Whoa.  I find it intriguing that Murray opens another avenue into thinking about de-centered or nomadic subjectivities via the Baroque, though I remain skeptical of whether this is an effect of historical influence, of the Baroque's lingering spectral presence, or whether it's merely a similar sensibility shared by different historical conditions. 

He certainly makes his case, using a wide array of new media artists, from June Paik, Bill Viola, and Thierry Kuntzel to film-makers Jean-Luc Godard, Peter Greenaway, and Chris Marker.   Thinking through the current debates over the merits and drawbacks of analog and digital (as sampled by his title, an analogical title in that both words, digital and baroque, produce an analogy: digital=baroque, or can be read as digital: digital/baroque, as two discrete states, either one, or the other) he suggests that digitality, rather than merely standing as a marker for the death of cinema (which it is), also holds promise as "a program of social and aesthetic intervention" (139).  Though he claims in his introduction that he has no intention to romanticize the potentials of the digital, I can't help but sniff this romanticization out in many of his examples.  He evades the "digital dialectic" using a Deleuzean move, avoiding a dialectical approach that would fix subjectivities into either/or categories by using the fold, an entre-deux, or something "between in the sense that a difference is being differentiated" (11).  Is this insistence on the intrasubjective critical space, a processual space of flows rather than ontological states ("I move over time" rather than "I stand here in space"), problematic?  It seems paradoxical to me that Murray would, at one moment, praise the potentials of digitality, which, as a condition seems completely averse to the space "between" because it is defined by separation, while at the same moment privilege that space-between, that entre-deux as a conceptual model.  When you poke it, the conceptual framework seems to give, but perhaps this is precisely what Deleuze was after, and why his approach seems so useful.




Hi, Christopher,

Thanks ever so much for posting these thoughtful comments about Digital Baroque, which I've just come across.  I'm interested in the paradoxes that you identify as destabilizing the conceptual framework of the book.  Perhaps I can highlight the two most significant, in hopes of entering into further discussion.

1)  The baroque, influence or specter?  As I mention in the book's preface, this study started out as an analysis of electronic and new media art works that directly dialogue with early modern (and often particularly baroque) historical examples, dramatic texts, paintings, tropes, or philosophical concepts.  What later intrigued me, as I curated a large number of new media works lacking such a pointed retroactive reference, was the extent to which many of their epistemological and structural conditions echoed or haunted the earlier conditions more explicitly performed by some of the artworks read earlier in the book, such as Prospero's Books, Godard's King Lear, Nam June Paik's installations, Thierry Kuntzel's 4 Seasons, etc.  I'd like to emphasize that I am disinterested in arguments regarding "historical influence" and much more intrigued by instances of cross-historical sensibilities, as you put it, or even spectralizations.  I frequently say that one of the aspects of new media art that interests me the most is how it renders 'actual' philosophical concepts that could only be conceived as 'virtual' in the early modern paradigm.   But I do maintain that many of these conditions defy or defer the more dialectical structures that others have claimed for the digital.  This is why I float the titular term 'digital baroque' to provide an opening to discussion.


2)  Analogical in-betweens.  I very much appreciate your attentiveness to this notion, which is temporal as much as 'spatial'; and it's the temporality of the in-between that I wish to address both in the structure of the book and in its various reflections on what I call a 'psycho-philosophical' approach to new media.  The 'psycho' positions the in-between as a spectral condition of fantasy, particularly in the retroactive sense articulated by Laplanche.  I'm also interested in how the between (what Deleuze and Godard refers to as the ET) invigorates analogy as the representational ground of difference and repetition, which I believe is particularly different from the emphasis you wish to place on "separation" as the condition of digitality.

I'm tremendously interested in precisely the paradoxes that you understand to be problematic in the text, and I thank you for articulating them so nimbly.






Hi Tim-

I'm thrilled to see you respond, and disappointed in myself for not seeing this comment earlier!  Thank you for your elucidating some of the points above.  I came to your book based on my own preliminary dissertation work, which focuses, very generally, on the question of time and new media.  Rather than look at new media art, I'm focusing on film, and then electronic literature and digital poetry.  I was intrigued by your "cross-historical" move, using Deleuze to open up this link you make between the digital and the baroque.  I especially like your ideas of "the dynamics of serial accumulation and the trauma of temporal folds" and "digital incompossibility."   

As for your notes, to what degree is it possible to think the digital as incompossible, particularly if we move beyond the over-simplified definition of separation (either/or states) in contrast to the analogical (parallel/serial?)?  As I understand, Delezue adopts Liebniz's term to resolve the paradox of contingent futures, in which case "it is not the impossible, but only the incompossible that proceeds from the possible; and the past may be true without being necessarily true."  Deleuze then adds to this "a power of the false which replaces and supersedes the form of the true, because it poses the simultaneity of incompossible presents, or the coexistence of not-necessarily true pasts" (The Time-Image 130-31).  Is this why incompossiblitity is particularly suited to the digital?  I ask because I also seem to register he spectrality of film within the digital apparatus, and I'm interested in what happens to a "direct image of time," "'a little time in its pure state'" when the brain is not the screen, but informatics? 

Your 10th chapter is particularly useful in this regard- thinking the future of not only cinema (and not where its future will be but when) and new media art.  As I continue my own investigations of these ideas within the context of the new media "literary," I hope to return to your work to help me navigage.