Side FX – the Aura of Electronics in the Information Age – Rock Chugg

During the boom in widely circulated electronic information society literature, contemporary research rejects a conspiracy theory explanation for the social context of telecommunication development and origins in the military.  Just as yesterday’s critics dismissed subliminal advertising as far too crude, mechanical or conspiratorial to be taken seriously.  Yet while considered accidental to unwanted effects of its new technology, electronic “side FX” resulting from our alleged information age signal a return of the unique aura (commodity fetish, conspiracy, resistance through rituals, globalisation, inverted snobs) art critics like Walter Benjamin considered outmoded in his progressive thesis of mass communications.  In this perspective, I examine the three conventional views of electronic reality from information technology (matrix), media studies (means) and communication theory (channels) research, only to find its democratic rationale disappointed by unexpected to violent side FX.  The discussion touches on everyday usage of what are fast becoming fixed definitions frequently disrupted by inconsistency, contradiction and incoherence.  Compiled from these computerised concepts of everyday experience, an electronics paradigm irradiates today’s terrible militaristic aura of information via the presumed innocent media or music exemplifying its “new media arts”.  Superimposed matter of fact, for example, on both the South and North or First to Third World as a “war on terror”, such fragmenting side FX have caused some very unprogressive internal security problems. 


“It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual” – Walter Benjamin [1]

In his celebrated essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, Walter Benjamin traced the modernist change of aesthetic conditions wrought by technology.  Art had lost its unique “aura” of contemplation due to mass techniques seen as factors of progress.  However relevant an observation for this later postmodern age of information (classical concept techné has an ancient history excluding economic priority, recurrent in medieval aesthetics to modern futurism),[2] the unexpected resurgence of that aura envelops society today in a web of electronics.  For instance, technology expert Darren Tofts refers to an “auratic” glow of electronic concentrate “cyberspace”, and the “aura” created by virtual reality.  Even resistance is magically couched in subculture rituals.  Reactions of global villagers to the rapid succession of quasi-supernatural marvels (cf. Virilio’s “technology is the new nature” or Godard’s “technology has replaced history”) in neo sci fi FX zones show symptoms of Benjamin’s mechanical “shock” (Benjamin, 1982: 219-53), or Virilio’s electronic “interruption” (Virilio and Lotringer, 1984).  Yet, just as Benjamin fled from a dire aestheticised politics anticipated in his own work, the surreality cum virtuality of present information technology encroaches on civilian life in an increasingly militarist fashion.  Electronic media, channelled to those in the social matrix by information, fulfils its function in inverse ratio to its effect.  For example, the noted info tech channel of advertising is considered poor at communicating information.  If Benjamin’s progressive prediction for mass culture has cumulatively failed to materialise (a failure rising utopian culture repeatedly confirms), overdependence on electronics in the age of information represents a more far reaching challenge to our fragile democratic society.  This Old World aura of electronics is based on the following:

Military Commercial State – the Matrix

“The mass is a matrix from which all behaviour toward works of art issues today in a new form” – Walter Benjamin

To put the convergence of telecommunications and computer into social and/or cultural context, David Lyon pointed to three factors molding information and leaving indelible marks (Lyon, 1988).  First, the military factor was highlighted for its early input into information technology.  Devices such as digitally linked radar equipment, microelectronics, silicon innovation, military robotics and especially the in/famous internet accompanied Western fears about Russian nuclear capacity, the sputnik launch and Korean/Vietnam wars.  These culminate in the proposed Strategic Defense Initiative (AKA Star Wars) – and resistance to such military plans by scientists, claiming that if anything, the dangers of nuclear war would be heightened by SDI.  At this time of “fin de siecle electronic technology” supposedly enthroning a “vague or virtual generation”, technologists now recall that formative military origin of that virtuality (Tofts, 1998: 76). [3]

      The second factor Lyon mentioned was commercial, made up of “global” scale firms (transnational corporations) converging towards an increasingly concentrated oligopoly.  Commercial concentration is apparently constrained by neo-liberal fears of company instability, due to its unpredictable over-reliance on transnational market forces (Sklair, 1995; Sklair, 1996: 1-19).  (Financial question haunting late twentieth-century capital: was “free trade” really for free trade?)  Marketing became the main self-referred technique with new technology promoting new technology, from direct mailings and boardroom videos for employees, to today’s massive IT interpenetration by the web, SMS, email, electronic fund transfer, photocopy, ads, CD/DVD and video gaming.

      Overseeing the other two, Lyon’s third information factor was the state, which was increasingly vying for commercial deregulation and government privatisation, while retaining some economic and cultural autonomy after gradual denationalisation.  Paradoxically or even ideologically, rolling back the state in countries like America, Britain and later Australia (O’Neill, 1994: 30-5) results in the notable expansion of direct and indirect state control or even violence in social life, justified as rationalisation.  This involves telematic computerisation of the public and private spheres through surveillance, corporatisation and militarisation with electronic information technology.  IT overdependence on “electronic telesthesia” or telematic cultures of remote sensing give-off an aura of conspiracy networks and hidden agendas rather than the other way round (ridiculous DNA “addiction” theory)[4] – recharging FX that “excludes from its world everything that has a part in production” (Benjamin, 1982: 211).  That scorn for production or the work ethic first formulated in Benjamin’s pre-mass communication diagnosis of Proustian snobbery (“The Image of Proust”), revives today for a “dumbed down” digital society fragmented in post-mass cults of anti-elite IT consumerism that Frank Furedi has designated “Inverted Snob” (2004).[5]

Information – the Means

“With the advent of the first truly revolutionary means of reproduction, photography…art sensed the approaching crisis which has become evident a century later” – Walter Benjamin

At this point, terms may be further clarified by asking what information is.  Surprisingly in research like John Sinclair’s sociology of advertising, the signifiers of information appear to contradict everyday generalisation.  For example, whereas his contemporary M.I.Valdes cites advertising as one of the four means for information ideology transfer to the Third World (Valdes, 1987: 205-11), Sinclair mentions data indicating that advertising is poor at communicating information (Sinclair, 1987; Tofts, 1999: 25).  In a similar manner, Tofts does not even see the hypermedia internet as “transitive communication”.  Information exists in a kind of inverse relation to the success of advertising or communication.  Research theorises information in contrast to knowledge or wisdom through several models of communication (Slack and Fejes, 1987: 185-7).  Information advocate, Lyon referred to knowledge as a capacity for framing questions compared to the answering function of information (Lyon, 1988).  Yet thought could also support an inverse argument through “interrogative” arts (information) or questions, answered by “imperative” truths (politics) – traditionally excluding any “declarative” knowledge (economy) or goods. [6]  McLuhan’s notion of medium priority over message (McLuhan, 1967), and Williams’ description of technical form not dependent on content (Williams, 1974) both conceptualise the emptying magical or “ecstatic” postmodern effect (Baudrillard, 1988).  All this is but one small step from the quasi-cosmic definiton of Australian artist Titmarsh reaching for an outer limits of “Utopian” media (Titmarsh, 1985). [7]  

Generalisation from these theories still finds the information age situated in social space where electronic processing is the dominant activity of the workforce e.g. 70 percent of contemporary Australians are now employed in service industries.  The main technical means for such activity is electronic information technology or Sonyism (superseding Fordism, see Wark, 1992: 43-54), made up of twin components, telecommunications and computers.  This development is welcomed in glowing terms, ranging from expectation of local democratic progress towards “Third Wave” civilisation, to anticipated transition from total to pure war deterrence.  Yet, while early Birmingham School subculture research documented an aesthetic aura resurfacing among adolescents (“Resistance through Rituals”), it also defined the meaning of ritualistic information technology as topdown managerial or bureaucratic, and not bottom up democratic (Hall and Jefferson, 1976).

Electronic Information Transfer – the Channels

“The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced” – Walter Benjamin

The next electronic model or set of factors being the channels facilitating a transfer of administrative modulated information are four in number (Valdes, 1987: 205-11).  It is important to recall that delivery of the technology to domestic and Third World territory was performed through uncharacteristic interventionist “military” and “capital” activity, combined with the new domestic controlling uncivil “state” (matrix).  Expanding on the dichotomy between “dependency” and “modernisation” models of militarisation (Kwong and Zimmer, 1995: 64-81), Paul Virilio argued, “the original forms of military repression in Latin America were highly ‘exportable’ to Western countries” after being cheaply tested there first, rather than originating in the latter (Virilio and Lotringer, 1984: 88).  Jude McCulloch recounts the similar insertion of “paramilitary” training method and weapon carriage into Australian civil security (where “terrorists” were absent), imported from Northern Ireland via Britain.  Influenced by these circumstantial effects, usually insightful researcher McCulloch asserts that culture and politics are the same (McCulloch, 2001), while art critics in “a new order of totalitarian kitsch” (Foster, 2005: 224) claim “we too easily overlook the affinities between art and warfare” (Teh, 2004: 56), and even multiculturalists define its policy over-reach as a “culture of control” (Jupp, 2002: 66).  Evidently, Benjamin’s 1930s diagnosis of such renewed “aesthetics into politics” (“l’art pour l’art”) trends as “fascist” (i.e. paramilitary) were not acknowledged, or are still considered too inflammatory (Benjamin, 1982: 243-4).

      Enabling these operations, the four channels of transfer are the education system, foreign aid agencies, international agencies and mass media/advertising.  Expressly established for military research and development during the Cold War, they are the principal channelling or transfer means for an information technology of militarisation, capitalisation and state control of the Third and First World or North and South economy – presumably for discipline of labour style managerialism (Brecher, 1972; Duncan and Fogarty, 1984).  
      Most of the channels are at least state-owned and controlled.  Sinclair observed the instance of Televisa (media) in Mexico as having close ties with state administration (1990).  In practice, there is ample evidence for another thesis that transnational corporate phenomena were originally starcrossed escape bids from civil militarisation at home. [8]  This could replace or at least moderate conventional “modernisation” and “dependency” accounts (Kwong and Zimmer, 1995).  Just as proposed pay/cable TV and VCR/DVD in the home activity (home theatre boom) are tacit capitulation to de facto experiences of state curfew, increasingly enforced byinternal terror of unnecessary armed or military force in all civilian areas (cf. Proust’s “vegetative” consumer snob – see Benjamin, 1982: 210). [9]  Presumed civvy conscious Americans, for one, should recognise an obvious constitutional problem: “no military above the civil power” (Declaration of Independence, 1776).  Stay on the couch – this is not an exercise!

Advertising – a Case

“One technical feature is significant here, especially with regard to newsreels, the propagandist importance of
which can hardly be overestimated” – Walter Benjamin

The transnational corporate case of advertising (Sinclair, 1987) might seem romantic, in contrast to all that state omnipresence.  Stock market statistics, the manufacture/market/media complex, and seesaw play between fantastic use and exchange value (rather than excluded productive surplus value/profit) are some effects or FX in this field suggesting immunity, or pockets of resistance to civil repression too good to be true.  Yet the four commodity variables of advertising are really just as unglamorously implicated in the very control mechanism they seem to elude: 1. packaging and design, 2. pricing strategy, 3. placement, and 4. promotion. 

      Hence, for example, through new technology, packaging and design of products is increasingly subject to militarisation, capitalisation and surveillance policing e.g. cigarettes and alcohol.  Likewise, monopoly calculation of late capital (vertical and horizontal integration, economies of scale and scope, concentration) strategically fixes pricing e.g. price wars.  Placement uniformly simulates selective patterns of ideological control or vested interest e.g. internet and Pay TV advertising.  Last but not least, promotion often not only targets an artificial statistically identified audience, it segregates them in a niche calculus subsumed to surveillance for future use and abuse (often leaving them alive) that announces a culturalism of the segment, or even apartheit of divide and conquer e.g. military and teen markets.  (However, state sponsored ‘shock and awe’ ads such as smoking (‘Quitline’) or TAC (‘bloody idiot’) perpetrate consumer abuse beyond any apparent goodwill limits of private interest business sense)

State Control model Side FX – the Ends

“All efforts to render politics aesthetic culminate in one thing: war” – Walter Benjamin

Each model shows in practice what sometimes appears a transient and intangible electronic information paradigm or aura confounding theorisation.  A focus of all these pressures can be observed in the embarrassingly naive world record popularity of mobile phones in Australia, recreating an electronised version of the concentration camp spy utopia or aura that drove Benjamin to suicide.  The current horrific honorific claim to fame for mobiles is as a literal trigger for the Bali massacre in 2002.  It cannot simply be dismissed as a security risk or over-indulged everyday misuse of emergency equipment, given the complementary disturbing world record rates of teenage suicide and medication abuse down under: some 1,000,000 in 20,000,000 on prescribed anti-depressants (Bell, 2005: 1-75).

      Translated in that year of years 1984, it was in Molecular Revolution that the late Felix Guattari theorised his social typology (like the three Freudian “character types”) for every particular society as a permutation of three general processes.  These processes were the ‘state’, ‘market’ or ‘production’ (Guattari and Alliez, 1984: 280).  Unhappily, rather than realising the “production” model of “Integrated World Capitalism” Guattari optimistically believed would prevail in society today (IWC – with information slated as a ‘factor of production’), observed data indicates otherwise.  This is due both to overkill electronisation, and its related deindustrialisation effect of civil militarisation and privatization (Bluestone and Harrison, 1983).  

      The above construction from theoretical source and practical resource shows clearly (to use the non-conspiratorial term) that actual developing society is not an IWC, but a “State Control” model.  Recapping from the above: the matrix (commerce/military/state) and means of information technology (convergence of telecommunications and computer) are state empowered, the channels are state controlled, and even the case of advertising is very unromantically entangled in state mechanisms.  A state aura, however downsised or lean and mean so far resisted and corroborated by subculture ritual or magic (Wark, 1996).  Postmodern Baudrillard was still arguing precisely for such “technology as an instrument of magic” in 1993 (Zurbrugg, 1994).  In fact, Australia, America and Britain had effectively fought against earlier variations on militarist or paramilitary dictatorship determined by the “State Control” model in the two World Wars.  It was also this brutal SC type of state/production/market hierarchy of a “disappeared” middle class culture which Guattari diagnosed as “internal exterminations and total war” regulated.  Virilio went further, predicting a “pure war” future of technological violence.  Reflecting its newly paramiltarised civil context, a rise of state induced urban massacres worldwide (six since the late 80s in Australia: Hoddle St, Queen St, Strathfield, Port Arthur, Bali, and Monash), record police and sympathy gangland shootings indicate that an official resistance through rituals or “war on terror” has primarily an internal security cause (Harney, 2002).    

      In other words, civil societies from the South and North or First to Third World appear to be undergoing an emergent (unconscious) [10] paramilitarisation into police states (Chapman, 1970).  It is no accident that optimistic mass technology critic Benjamin named “fascist” futurist Marinetti as his opposite.  Accompanied by a non-futuristic conspiracy aura of electronic information (the “Murky Business”, as Balzac put it) this is an opposition allowing little margin for escape, post-romantic or otherwise.  To the extent that an exclusive aura of electronics has actually revived – fragmenting the democratic access and equity specified by Benjamin – its decomposed effect is not mass communication and holds little further interest for genuine progress.[11]   Largely unheeded popular intellectual culture has been decrying the dangers of such science fiction for over a century through its utopianimagination: a discontinuous lineage of literature, film, radio, TV, magazines and music (Ikin, 1989; Parrinder, 1980).  

      The experience of electronic music, for example, initially developed through composer technique and materials in the promising epical naiveté style of moderns like Russolo, Varese, Stockhausen to postmodern Jarre, Glass or Vangelis, slowly took on the gloom and doom ambience of gothic industrial noise (Mackay, 1981).  Whereas German machine-age Kraftwork still celebrated a great technological outdoors and space-age Tangerine Dream investigated the quantum relativities of inner space, evolution of sampling, looping and scratching from concrete music has tended toward monotonously outmoded and unfeeling musak such as post-1980s hip hop, rap, techno or the awesomely awful “indie” (civilian “riot grrl” was the most immediate 1990s music).  The psychedelic poetics of German space rock have faded away into pro-violence word salads of Rage Against the Machine, Consolidated or Atari Teenage Riot: tuneless soliloquies confirming, if nothing else, a paramilitaristic solipsism immersed in undemocratic surveillance, armed over-patrolling and rationalisation.  One dimensional dystopia in the remote sensing microelectronic Tomorrow Land of today?  “It’s all about 1mm the other side of corn – but for contemporary science fiction, that 1mm goes a long way” (Brophy, 1985: 5).

      First World paramilitary revived side FX (in the medical and cinematic sense, both unintended non-therapeutic and abnormal reactions) of Benjamin’s transmissible artistic essence or old form, ritualised in the dumbed down aura of electronics promises to have long term after-effects for both East and West, North and South.  Re-emergence of inverted snob consumer aesthetics or hierarchic culture in the side FX of microelectronic social reality usher in a militaristic, literally warring, because ID segregating administration. [12]   An impending political correct or oligarchic multiculturalism of the minority segment (“biopower” rather than majority democracy) divides according to the now too-familiar top down police science “identikit” points of “sex”, “race”, “age” and of course “class” (Pasquino, 1991).

“The destructiveness of war furnishes proof that society has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ, that technology has not been sufficiently developed to cope with the elemental forces of society” – Walter Benjamin


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Benjamin, Walter, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, ed. Hanna Arendt Illuminations (Suffolk: Fontana, 1982), 219-53.  

Benjamin, Walter, “The Image of Proust”, Illuminations, 203-17.

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[1] All epigraphs at the beginning of each section are taken from Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1982: 219-53).    

[2]“Behind the gloss of futuristic rhetoric that surrounds the technology, there are at the base of the technology some very old ideas”, see Penny, 1994: 332.  Technology expert Darren Tofts cites Jacques Derrida on technology being as old as writing, suggesting “it would be a waste of time to argue that we have always had technology”.  For “futurists” like Robert Markley, superlative technology utopia cyberculture (“Xanadu as the egalitarian state”) is a “consensual cliche, a dumping ground for repackaged philosophies about space, subjectivity and culture” that “bears us back relentlessly to our past”, see Darren Tofts, Memory Trade, Prehistory of Cyberculture (1998: 23, 35); and his Parallax, Essays on Art, Culture and Technology (1999: 14, 19, 66).

[3] Interestingly Australian electronic artist, Simon Penny – who didn’t have to leave home to find it – only noticed this matrix model in America: “but a somewhat darker side of the US context also became evident.  CMU received substantial amounts of military research money, most of which fuelled the computer science and robotics research.  And I slowly became aware how deeply enmeshed the military was in the entire culture.  Very few people I spoke to had not been in the military, or did not have a relative in the military; they were born on a military base or worked in military production”.  See Penny, 1994: 331.  Yet as Sony America president Akio Morita has noted, like Australia, America does not even produce the key components for its own electronic equipment.

[4] An addiction or “technicism” not intrinsic to the technology, see Williams, 1974; Sinclair, 1987; and Lyon, 1988.

[5] “Electronic technologies are consumer commodities”, according to Penny, 1994: 334; see also Tofts, 1999 for association of electronic art and high culture.

[6] These are the elementary linguistic functions of Emile Benveniste (“imperative”, “interrogative”, “declarative”, see Belsey,1980: 90-91; also Vattimo, 1988).    

[7] Nonetheless, even enthusiasts have doubts about the “quality” of the digital compared to the analogue arts, see Tofts, 1999: 90.

[8] This is a view of Australian labour historian Charlie Fox (see 1991); and interview in my forthcoming, Lethal Weapons.

[9] As Darren Tofts has argued, “the culture of everyday life in the age of cybernetic culture is becoming more sedentary, and more housebound as well” (1999: 23).

[10] For contemporary social approaches to the “unconscious”, see Saul, 1997; Virilio and Lotringer, 1984; and Jameson, 1984.

[11] See Zurbrugg for a concerted argument against the post-auratic, mass democratic and progressive promise of technological arts anticipated by modernist Walter Benjamin: “contemporary cultural theory still seems transfixed by Benjamin’s misleading emphasis upon the allegedly post-auratic quality…”, (1994: 12).  Zurbrugg’s interesting anthology also includes prominent articles on electronics as “conspiracy”, “fetish” and “commodity” etc.  See for example, Kronk, 1994: 248-257; and Penny, 1994: 328-337.  For recent reaffirmations of Benjamin’s relevance, see Eiseneberg, 1987; Hall, 1988; and Tofts, 1999. 

[12] These circumstances appear to replace the good-intentioned criticism of artist Diamanda Galas on, “the stupid concept that electronics have us evolving this unfeeling inhuman state” (see Zurbrugg, 1994: 18) with something like early Baudrillardian “Requiem for the Media” style pessimism (1981).

Author Biography

Rock Chugg is a freelance sociologist from Melbourne.
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