Dragging philosophy down

Mine is not a PhD about philosophy but it is a philosophical PhD. It is not a discussion of ontology or even a defence or exploration of object-oriented philosophy (OOP). I would also hope it not simply a bland application of a philosophical framework to a media problematic. I will argue that offers a number of concepts and tools that can help to explain and explore the elusiveness and power of protocol but it is important to note that the presence of OOP within this project is not simply as supplier of vocabulary. Rather an ontological philosophy is necessary to this project in order to prevent a slip into a discourse of representation.

Dealing with images, imaging and even imagining, it is tempting to reach for semiotics. Even widening the area of analysis to a media archaeology of the apparatuses enfolded in a particular scopic regime, it is possible to see an account of signification and representation (whether tinged with linguistics, psychoanalysis, feminism or political economy) as a way forward. As Daniel Miller argues in relation to clothing, semiotics can be “as much a limitation as an asset” (Miller 2010: 12). Miller argues that a semiotic approach, one that looks at clothing as representation locates clothing as ‘superficial’, a sign of something more basic and more important. Miller seeks to develop an account of “the minutiae of the intimate” (p 41) through a materialist philosophy he builds from Hegel. For Miller, philosophy is necessary so that he can account for that minutiae and materiality. It is not a parlour game or an overarching ‘theory’ but a building block allowing him to focus on his “stuff” without recourse to a meta-description.

In terms of my own project looking at protocol as a scopic apparatus, it is important I too steer clear of the discourse of representation. As my experiments are showing, protocol is entangled with the the image, jpeg is enfolded with jpeg/jfif – or perhaps to signify it in a different way jpeg is enfolded with dot jpeg. Jpeg withdraws from view. To approach it in terms of how it signifies or look for what is representational work it does is to miss the material relations within which it is enfolded, the particular alliances and power relations that make it such a transparent black box, so overlooked yet so topologically significant. Miller uses Hegel as a way of squaring the universalism-particularity circle through an account of the process of objectification. Miller’s account of Hegelian dialectics has parallels with OOP. In almost a Latourian litany, he says: “We start with the need for a theory of stuff as material culture… that can account for every kind of stuff: bodies, streaming videos, a dream, a city, a sensation, a derivative, an ideology, a landscape, a decay, a philosophy” (p 54). “Ultimately,’ he concludes, “there is no separation of subjects and objects” (p 12). There are of course differences. Harman’s more Heidegegarian approach proposes a fourfold approach to objects rather than a dialectical one but the common phenomenological heritage is clear.

The point however is not to engage in philosophical exegesis of Hegel and Heidegger or even Miller and Harman but rather find tools that can approach the questions that need addressing. What sort of an object is protocol? What does it do in the world? Where does its power as a scopic apparatus arise from? What are the possibilities for reconstituting that power? To address these questions demands historical and political-economic tools and concepts but also philosophical ones if we are to take the (im)material object seriously, to account for its foldings and map its particular and diverse connections.

As Miller says: “The aim is not at all to become a philosopher. The aim of anthropology [or in my case media archaeology] is to take any such pure, clean philosophy and drag it back down to the valley, to the muddy terrain of particularity and diversity” (p 41).

  • Miller, D., 2010, Stuff, Polity Press, Cambridge.