Video Vortex: Thomas Elsaesser on ‘Constructive Instability’

On: January 19, 2008
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About Michael Stevenson
I am a lecturer and PhD candidate in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. I've been a contributor to Masters of Media since 2006, though I now only post occasionally. A short list of papers and projects can be found here

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‘Constructive instability’ is how Condoleeza Rice described the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict in the summer of 2006. It’s a term that brings to mind tropes of globalization – maybe a synonym of precarity, or the state that produces a desire for sustainability. Thomas Elsaesser uses it to describe the kinds of experience engineered on the Web, especially through collaborative filtering. He asks how our experience of the new forms of artificial life – “or art made more life-like” – known collectively as Web 2.0, might help us think about the whereabouts of ‘the human’ in the new ‘posthuman’ landscape.

In the mode of Web flâneur, Elsaesser took his questions to YouTube. Starting with the notion of ‘collapse’, he followed a semantic trail that led from the Honda Cog advertisement to the film it references (Der Lauf der Dingen), on to a Japanese television show and, finally, world championship domino tipping. The collective efforts of users, software, statistics and sorting algorithms presented him with a path through YouTube, one that wavered consistently between the joy of epiphanies and a constant threat of entropy. But rather than understand this pathway in the new media lineage of hypertext, Elsaesser turns to the language of cinema.

Elsaesser’s talk centered around Der Lauf der Dingen – the 1987 film created by Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss. The famous film is a 29 minute long take that follows an elaborate cause-and-effect machine made of a range of heterogeneous materials – planks, tires, candles, and so on. The film is hard to stop watching, and gains its suspense from an engineered potential for failure – its ‘constructive instability’.

Elsaesser uses the translation ‘The life of things’ rather than the official one, ‘The way things go’, and connects the film’s tension between balance and collapse to life online. The Web flâneur finds pleasure in the added value of Web 2.0 – its own versions of adaptive evolution – but there’s always another collapse, the anxiety of oncoming entropy, “the evolutionary dead-end”. Ontologically, the path through YouTube might be likened to a digital picaresque novel. It is an episodic narrative of loosely connected elements – not random but on its way there. A constructive instability whose attraction relies on that which destroys it. Going to back to his initial question, Elsaesser says that failure is the all too human factor that underlies the new forms of so-called posthumanism.

Elsaesser’s talk was itself a series of ‘aha’ moments – for me, a real highlight of the conference – and I’d never manage to capture it all in a blog post. I tried not to mangle his ideas too much, but I’m not so sure. (If his paper is published online I’ll make sure to link to it here.)

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