The stuff of protocol

Daniel Miller is quite clear: “nowhere in this volume [Stuff] will you find any attempt at a definition of that term… Stuff as a term serves just fine” (pp1-2). He explores whether an email or fashion can be seen as ‘stuff’ but is more concerned with tracing how stuff works rather than pinning it down. He says his project is one of ‘extreme particularism’ (p21). (Perhaps, picking up on John Law’s call for a modest sociology, one could advocate an ‘extreme parochialism’.) By looking at the small and the intimate he finds ways into the general. This is not a reductionism or a form of foundationalism. Just as in object-oriented philosophy, the universal and the particular are inseparable. “I desire to be an extremist,” he says, a position which represents, “a commitment to keep in touch simultaneously with the extremes of universalism and particularism in modern life” (p9).

This is the importance of ‘stuff’, a concept that partly because of the connotations of inanity, allows us to concentrate on the specific, local workings of the material (or in terms of software and protocol, the immaterial) without recourse to the ‘depth ontology’ (p16) of semiotic models. Rather, just like all object-oriented approaches, one is able to look at how the particular (clothing/protocol) fashions relations at the particular and the universal ‘levels’ (sic). As Miller says: “In many respects stuff actually creates us in the first place” (p10).

This relationship between the particular and the universal is at the heart of my exploration of jpeg. The jpeg (particular) and the scopic regime (universal) must be held simultaneously if we are to address distributed imag(in)ing. This is not a matter of oscillating between the macro and the micro, let alone looking to position one pole as the determinant or foundation. Rather it is to address the relationship between the jpeg-stuff and the distributed scopic regime as a fractal relationship where each is enfolded and infolded in practice and needs to be similarly addressed in terms of our analysis.

Miller’s embracing of the common language of ‘stuff’ opens up those folds by opening up the subject-object, object-thing terminology. Miller does this not to prove some theoretical or philosophical point but to concentrate on the empathy and understanding. As he says: “The aim of anthropology [even an anthropology of protocol] is to take any such pure, clean philosophy and drag it back down to the valley, to the muddy terrain of particularity and diversity” (p41).

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