Draft: A fragmentary literature review

My research, emerging from the dialectical practice-research methodology outlined in Chapter XX, is focused on ‘chasing protocol’, understanding jpeg, as an active force in the creation of a particular distributed scopic regime. This concern arises from the the ‘failure’ of my imag(in)ing experiments to hold onto protocol. That failure to pin down jpeg, to unfold it from the relations and alliances with which it works, to see anything but its traces in mashup constructions or coding deconstructions, yet to trace its clear power as a scopic apparatus, led me to develop an account as protocol as object: immaterial yet real, static yet dynamic – an ontological object yet also a scopic apparatus, a technology of imag(in)ing.

It is customary to have a ‘Literature Review’ in a thesis. Normally early on, it exists to locate the research and the researcher within a community of studies and concepts. Traditionally this painstakingly and critically recounts theoretical and empirical work in the area in order to demonstrate the legitimacy of the research and researcher as well as that elusive originality. In a practice-research project, the literature review is supposed to go beyond this synthesis of critical work and exegesis to include “engagement with the work of other practitioners” (Barrett 2010: 188). In her practical guide to the look and feel of a practice-research PhD, Estelle Barrett advises a “Literature and Practice Review” as: “a means of locating the research project in the field by providing the contexts of theory and practice” (p188). Broadening the ‘texts’ to be studied and accounted for to include visual material, the literature review is positioned as a foundation, providing “context and pedigree for the practice” (p188). and “demonstrat[ing] how practice informs theory” (p189). Graeme Sullivan similarly argues for a “visual literature review [which] repositions established knowledge according to a newly framed lens that is generally drawn from the purposes of a particular research project” (2010: 202). He likens it to the work of a curator developing an exhibition which: “offers an original interpretation that brings new insights into the field” (p203). Again here the look is backwards. Part apprentice demonstrating to the master, part father-figure arranging the canon. Here reading (and viewing) leads practice.

Accounts of practice-research can also hold the tension the other way around. Barrett says: “The relevance of subject matter and types of practices involved in the studio enquiry will determine what will be covered and discussed in the literature review” (2010: 189). It is not just the form of practice that drives the choice of literature to review, it is also the results of that practice. Sullivan positions practice as the “core” (2010: 102). His “visual literature review” is driven by that core, by what he finds in his practice, the questions it raises.Here practices drives the reading. This oscillation between driver and driven is apparent in Hazel Smith and Roger Dean’s “iterative cyclic web” (2009), with its dialectics of practice-led research mirrored by research-led practice” (p7). This can arguably be extended to a similar dialectic between literature review and practice where one returns to the canon with new research questions, and returns to research with new concepts. Practice-led review: review-led practice.

My own perspective on practice-research – disavowing a holistic, integrated, iterative approach in favour of one based around ‘fragments’ and  ‘failure’ and  focussing on the hyphen as a symbol of that failure and the emergence of knowledge from that failure – offers another way of framing that relationship. Here the ‘literature review’ is not the basis for practice. It is also not simply an outcome of the practice. Of course my experiments drive me towards the literature and the work of others exploring the ontology of digital objects. Similarly my reading of software studies has informed the design of the experiments but I want to argue for a different position for the “literature review”, one more in keeping with my theme of practice-research through fragmentation and failure.

Here my discussion of the analytical and creative work of others is another experiment. While the ‘chapter’ has a nominal unity, it is designed to be fragmentary in the way that Benjamin advocated the writing of history (1997, 2002) through dialectical images. The aim of the practice ‘experiments’ is to collide fragments of digital imag(in)ing and see what happens, not as some teleological movement towards a ‘discovery’’ but rather an exploration of the spaces between the practices, finding what does not appear, what withdraws from view – in my case jpeg. The aim of the literature review ‘experiments’ is to collide fragments of exegesis to explore the space between the accounts of protocol and scopic apparatuses, to see what does not appear, what withdraws from view. To collide a discussion of Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer (1990) with an exploration of Adrian Mackenzie’s account of Java (2006) is not to look for parallels or even common themes but rather to create a “dialectical image”. Just as any object derives it power from the (dialectical) alliances within which it finds itself, or which its establishes, so these ‘review objects’ are brought into alliance within my work. They are laid side by side firstly on my site (and in its database/archive) and then in the “literature review” chapter. Each exegesis (of an author, a work, a theme or a concept) has its own presence but its real critical work arises from its alliance with other review objects. My reading of Alexander Galloway’s account of the pixel (2009) is hopefully interesting and worthwhile but  it is when that concern for the object is made to sit next to W. J. Mitchell’s account of pictures as animated beings (2007); Kevin Kelly’s question of what technology wants (2010); Friedrich Kittler’s demand that we account for the “technical reality” of devices (2002: 118) or the latest scopic tool announced on picturephoning.com or API tool on programmableweb.com,  that we are faced with the failure, the fact that the digital object as a concept, an object of concern withdraws from view.

This is not simply looking for common themes. The themes are there in the same way alliances are always present, rendering objects powerful. The aim however is not to weave together a coherent literary backdrop to my own work, the sort of foundation that perhaps traditional and even practice-research projects advocate, any more than the aim of the “practice experiments” is to iteratively reach a “conclusion”. Just as the latter aims to break open the black boxes and alliances and see what withdraws from view, so in terms of the “literature review experiments”, the aim is to see what withdraws from view. The aim is not coherence and foundation. Quite the opposite. Following Benjamin (following Eisenstein and Brecht) the aim is a “literary montage”, to shock. Similar perhaps to a deconstructionist focus on what is marginalised within a text, but with less focus on identifying internal incoherence, it is in the failure to weave that coherent picture from the fragments that the power relations within media archaeology, software studies and my PhD and the object of analysis (in my case the “digital object”) can appear.

  • Barrett 2010, Appendix: Developing and Writing Creative Arts Practice Research: A Guide, in Barrett & Bolt (eds), Practice as Research: Approaches to Creative Arts Enquiry, I. B. Taurus, London ; New York, pp. 185-205.
  • Benjamin, W., 1997, One-Way Street And Other Writings , Translated by E. Jephcott & K. Shorter. Verso, London; New York.
  • Benjamin, W., 2002, The Arcades Project, Translated by Eiland & McLaughlin. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.; London.
  • Crary, J., 1990, Techniques Of The Observer : On Vision And Modernity In The Nineteenth Century, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
  • Galloway 2009, Pixel, in Candlin & Guins (eds), The Object Reader, Routledge, London ; New York, pp. 499-502.
  • Kelly, K., 2010, What Technology Wants, Viking, New York.
  • Kittler, F.A., 2002, Optical Media: Berlin Lectures 1999, Translated by Enns. Polity, Cambridge, UK ; Malden, MA.
  • Mackenzie, A., 2006, Java: The Practical Virtuality Of Internet Programming, New Media & Society, 8(3), pp. 441-65.
  • Mitchell, W.J.T., 2007, What Do Pictures Want? : The Lives And Loves Of Images, University of Chicago Press, Chicago; London.
  • Smith, H. & Dean, R.T. 2009, Introduction: Practice-led Research, Research-led Practice – Towards the Iterative Cyclic Web, in Smith & Dean (eds), Practice-Led Research, Research-Led Practice In The Creative Arts, Edinburgh Univ Pr, Edinburgh, pp. 1-40.
  • Sullivan, G., 2010, Art Practice As Research: Inquiry In Visual Arts, 2nd ed. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks [Calif.].