The Wretched of the Screen is science-nonfiction, a near dystopia, set now—on globalized-Earth, and even in space, anywhere human-made images can reach. The current it concerns is post-democratic and hypercapitalist; the world after the fall of the Wall and the supposed, boasted “triumph” of “freedom.” After Art, post-internet, and post-Occupy.
In eleven essays, collected in 2012 by e-flux and Sternberg Press, German artist Hito Steyerl maps many layered mediascapes, looking at how we look at images, rich and “poor.” Her book is an updated Ways of Seeing, an ethical, poetic, and multi-directional take on the influence (root: in flow) of visual culture—its politics, economics, and affects. Among some of Steyerl's subjects of inquiry are spam imagery, intern economies, David Bowie, Second Life, and linear perspective.
Steyerl sets her SF tone by writing about the present as if from the future, or like a literate alien (she literally does this in her essay “The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation”). So removed, she and we can clearer see, and feel, our very cluttered now. We feel it free from what Steyerl calls “commodified intensities,” those ad-manufactured affects, like anxiety, panic, loneliness, and lust, which incite us to spend, to fix individual false “lacks,” distracting from real societal ones. (Aliens don’t need anti-aging eye cream, or that cost-effective case of sugar free energy drinks.)
"One of the few texts I’ve read that manages to evoke the hyperstimulation of contemporary media"
The Wretched of the Screen is one of the few texts I’ve read that manages to evoke the hyperstimulation of contemporary media, all the panic and fun (pop-up ads! endless scrolls! trolls! the sense that even your interior's surveilled! the worry that all your reposting is for nothing!), while providing grounding, mindfulness, many reassurances, and still it also instills the reader with responsibility. We are in it, this is our now, we can work ways out, or through. (Two authors who write similarly are Franco “Bifo” Berardi, who provides the introduction to Wretched, and Brian Kuan Wood, who edits Steyerl at e-flux.)
Despite all the manic wretchedness she portrays, Steyerl is optimistic. Her essays tend to end in spirited calls to action and love, sharing a belief in the possibility of social collectivity and personal collectedness. The only thing I'd think more effective as a new media panacea than this silver pocket paperback is an audio-book of it, read in a voice as assured (calm, feminine) as that of the Berlin public transit system—ideally, Steyerl’s own. I would listen to it while reading my feeds, between plays of this.