en plein air: Ethnographies of the Digital
The mission of En plein air: Ethnographies of the Digital is to address the shift in method borrowed from 19th-century painting that came to define 20th-century ethnography. Tasked to move their research from the armchair to the outdoors, ethnographers had to confront the problems of subjectivity in representation as they trained their eyes to observe. The six chapter anthology attempts to apply this approach to a survey of the digital in global culture. Each of the key words in this problem are resoundingly relevant in the notion of the “digital,” a word associated with duplication, with loss and losslessness of information, multiplicity of images, and communication. en plein air places the reader in the ethnographer’s boots, prompting us to address our position in this relay, to abandon prior conceptions of the digital and begin observing, openly.
(Spector Books, 2019)
The editors take a surprising strategy, choosing to leave conceptions of “the digital” open-ended for as long as possible: “There will be no definition of the digital in the beginning. Instead, there will be disparate definitions, forms, and enquiries.” By engaging with the digital without a cohesive definition for the subject, it hopes to gather a contour of the word through its various uses and applications in each of its texts. Without a definition, the book takes a risky consideration of its key term.
Midway through the book, philosopher, and tech writer Rafael Dernbach articulates a reason to evade definition in his essay, “Why I Stopped Calling Things Digital.” His primary reason, he states, is that its original meaning, binary and electronic, is irrelevant in its application today. In fact, he claims that the notion of the term precedes its strict meaning within the 20th-century, that the shadow of the digital is cast deep into modern history. The contemporary transformation of the term, in which it can be widely applied from “digital art” to “digital manager,” signals that the object is still somewhere before us; we are not yet out of this shadow.
Though the digital remains undefined, the book scans the term and its metaphysics using the frame of ethnography. Philosopher Guilel Treiber’s “Malinowski’s Kiss” unpacks both “ethnography” and “digital” in a critique of an old manifesto by the warehouse project, the online curatorial platform whose launch this book coincides with. Treiber indicates the deceitful voyeurism of western ethnography, whose love of the same describes all cultures within its own societal terms. The essay begins with excerpts from influential anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski’s diaries, in which he describes “a strange dream; homo-sex, with [Malinowski’s] double as a partner” presenting this homophily, self-love, as an instrument of knowledge creation. He posits the differential erasure of homophily in the structures of knowledge, its compulsion to reduce difference to comparative sameness, against the usability of digital frameworks in resistance to these constructions. Sociologist Jonathan Harth’s essay “VR Kills the Video Star” further probes subjectivity and representation, which argues that virtual reality proves that subjectivity is all we have in the blurring of offline and online worlds. The essay’s inclusion in the anthology suggests that mediation in ethnography is not something to work around but to understand as unshakable, inherent to the fraught discipline.
The unraveling of the digital and the ethnographic is the central focus of “entropy” the second chapter in the book. This section impressively evokes a dissolution of the established terms, though still undefined. Somehow, even absence falls apart, and, unexpectedly, its dissolution produces lucidity. Taking philosopher Milosz Paul Rosinski’s essay “Sleeky Cracks” for example, in which he presents the digital as an agent that influences us. Using Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers, a metafiction about a tech billionaire, and Julius Popp’s “bit.fall,” an installation that addresses an “internet based reality outside of its own realm,” Rosinski points out the merging of offline and online life. In their collision, any previous definition of “real” crumbles. Yet, while reality falls apart, it is also built upon and even duplicated in this dissolution. In the final essay of the book, “We Ethnologists,” pedagogue Dirk Rustemeyer writes “[Human’s] ‘culture’ contributes to unleashing entropy. Especially the distinction between what is one’s own and what is foreign.” This breakdown of differences reflects an earlier claim in the book that the digital does not “constitute itself in opposition to the analogue,” and vice versa. The assertion scrutinizes the constitution of “one’s own,” not built against what is “foreign” yet somehow existing outside of it, built up by falling apart against it.
The resulting collection is a work that is panoramic and flickering, taking in the landscape as it sees it while grappling with its own subjectivity. en plein air: Ethnographies of the Digital is a highly contingent text, a risky collection that evades a stance. While leaving a title word intentionally undefined resonates perfectly with the concern about representation, it eschews criticality on the concept. Examining without definition, the collection leaves a vacancy of requisites by which to hold it accountable. Instead, the digital is used as an instrument to explore the evolution of relation in new technological domains. It is deconstructed along the way, yet, lacking precision, its taxonomy is not developed. The book’s recursive resistance to familiar categorization emphasizes the opportunities, traps, and responsibilities of representation. Each essay exercises more liberty over its format, creating the sense of a gathering rather than an alignment of texts into a template—fitting with a book that refuses to define itself or subject fully. The discomfort of the forced openness slowly gives way to clearing. The book’s evasiveness allows representations and narratives to intermingle without reduction, proposing accumulation and entropy as grounds for clarity.