The (im)material apparatus

Back when the sky was the colour of television tuned to a dead channel (Gibson, Neuromancer) and ‘cyberspace’ was the new technicolor, the virtual stood in opposition to the material. The two were different. The former was insubstantial, imperceptible and immaterial. Flexible and playful. The latter was determined and structural, historical and base. This was Tron vs Blackstuff.

Later with the birth of software studies, code, algorithms and protocol were elevated as worthy of attention. Software art made them cultural and auratic. Whether they were being deconstructed as ideological or power-full in Fuller’s account of Word or constructed as problematic in Manovich’s identification of the ‘new media object’, they were still within the discourse of the virtual, the immaterial maybe even the ethereal. Of course this is not to say that those critiques we’re not concerned with the real and the material. Software studies and software art has a long history of radical critique and intervention, rather the point is to draw attention to the analytical separation between the material and the immaterial. The focus on software and code was an attempt to uncover a new determinant or player in that material reality.

In Materiality, Miller identifies Keane, Kucher and Thrift’s contributions to the collection as ‘hammering nails in the coffin’ of the opposition between humanity and materiality. The two cannot be separated. To use an image from complexity theory, they are infolded. The immaterial and the material are locked together: the image of Christ and the church’s wealth and power. (Goody); the brand and the sweatshop or music download site (cf Lash and Urry’s Global Culture Industry).

The code in Microsoft Word does not determine or preexist the secretary’s work or the power relations in the office. The protocols of financial derivatives are not the immaterial base for traders’ bonuses or public sector redundancies. To position them as such is, following the anthropologists’ accounts to recreate religious and ascetic accounts that privilege the immaterial, ┬áthe virtual, the divine. The code object and the subject position, commodities and real world material relations are infolded as simultaneously material and immaterial.

Software is clearly a commodity, bought, sold, stolen. It is material not only as the CD and as bits in memory but as it is enfolded in business practices and social relations – Latour’s alliances. Even protocol can be seen as a commodity open or closed source, proprietary or not. But it is the fact that code and protocol are simultaneously material and immaterial (incorporeal-material in the Deleuzian sense as Parikka discusses in relation to software art) that is interesting and productive and that means we need an object-oriented ontology to look at them.

Protocol is also immaterial. My experiments that attempt to ‘chase protocol’ indicate that it cannot be located in the same way that a particular line of C++ can. In Heidegger’s terms it withdraws from view. In order to do what it does in terms of setting in motion particular scopic practices, constituting a particular scopic apparatus it has to be simultaneously material and immaterial. It has to be material in order to forge alliances with industry and social actants. It has to be immaterial in order to be the sort of transparent black box/tool that can function as scopic apparatus.