Belay: 23 January 2011

Belay: 23 January 2011 (For other belay points and the idea behind them, see here).

I am looking at a way of accounting for the relationship between the jpeg compression protocol and the new photographic and imaging practices of sharing, publishing, streaming, archiving and remixing online, by understanding jpeg as a ‘scopic apparatus’ – a particular technology of a new distributed ‘scopic regime’.

My aim is to understand protocol as “doing things” in the world, establishing ways of seeing, imaging and imagining (or iamg(in)ing) as I call it, just as other scopic apparatuses from the camera obscura to the most modern medical imaging tools have done. And just as those technologies have been implicated and enfolded in powerful governmental, legal and material relations, so jpeg is also raises issues of intellectual property and copyright, ethics, materiality and affect.

These research questions arise from practice-research, or more correctly the failures at the heart of that practice-research. Through a series of imaging experiments, I have been trying to ‘chase protocol’, to locate it rather than see its effects; to separate it from the image, the signification and the visualisation; to track its relations to corporate and state interests that use it in surveillance, marketing, archiving and social networking businesses. I have failed. I have found the trails of the issues it raises, the traces of its operation and relations but not it. I find dot jpeg not jpeg. Jpeg withdraws from view

This need to account for the jpeg apparatus as something that withdraws from view, that is simultaneously materiality and immaterial, real and virtual led me to object-oriented philosophy as a framework that can provide an account of this protocol-object that not only explains its position but opens up the possibility for its political reconfiguration or counter-protocological struggle.

Object-oriented philosophy takes all objects seriously. From this perspective, protocol is an object doing things in the world, an object-actant. As with all other objects, whether material or immaterial, real or virtual, the protocol-object is folded into relations with other actants in the network (NB not just computer networks). Its power arises from the relations or alliances in which it is folded. Jpeg’s presence in Google and Facebook’s businesses, Microsoft and Apple’s operating systems and Adobe’s software as well as my iPad and my daughter’s phone and social networking relations means that jpeg has become so enfolded and so everyday and transparent that it can be considered as a ‘black box’, a power-full object so firmly established we take its ‘interior’ (those actant-relations) for granted.

This approach allows me conduct an object-oriented media archaeology of my chosen scopic apparatus – to trace its alliances (through experiments that highlight its black-box transparency), its topological position in the current scopic regime. My project is not a discussion of philosophy, whether OOP is a valid ontology, let alone whether it is a good reading of Latour. My discussion is not around the nature of objects, or what counts as an object, but rather what happens when you treat protocol as an object.

An object-oriented approach allows us to approach and map jpeg without recourse to a foundationalist or essentialist position that would see it as the source of scopic effects or power relations. Rather it can be addressed as a scopic apparatus – a device for imaging – that has a specific position, a history and a future.