What are we looking at?

As well as providing an interesting area between materiality and immateriality, software occupies an evocative space between the static and dynamic. The forensic examination of protocols, standards and code, from a media archaeological or technical point of view reveals objects that are both static and dynamic. They are specific and definite. The pixel, the algorithm, the standard occupy specific positions within software and an analytical framework. At the same time it is the fact that these objects are actants, in motion and generative that allows software critiques to map a dynamic media ecology and control society.

Sean Cubitt prefaces his discussion of space in contemporary digital cinema (Cubitt 2010) with an outline of the technologies that illustrates this point of balance. Through a careful outline of the engineering behind screens, CCD chips, codecs and colour spaces he identifies what he calls the “basic building blocks of digital cinema” which, before he addresses specific films and practices, he connects to scopic regimes and ecologies – the history of the ‘standard observer’, the development of the commodity form and biopolitics. The point here is that for Cubitt digital cinema has to be explored from both ends (although the use of such spatial metaphor is as problematic as using the metaphor of ‘levels’) – the specific, apparently stable forms of code, standards and protocols as well as their dynamic presence in assemblages and regimes of truth, power, governmentally and culture.

It is not that static, stable standards suddenly become animated when activated by some process or structure. From an object-oriented perspective those objects are always dynamic within actor-networks. The issue is, like a quantum physicist who needs to hold light as simultaneously particle and wave in mind, we need to avoid collapsing the analysis into stasis or flux. Rather we need a forensic, archaeology of the specifics of software operating at what Deleuze refers to as “different velocities”.

Jussi Parikka, in his outline of software ethologies (2010), draws on Deleuze’s Spinozian account of “a complex relation between differential velocities, between deceleration and acceleration of particles” (Deleuze 1988: 123). For Parikka: “we could say that software is defined by its motion and rest, speeds and slownesses, but also its affects, i.e. Its relations with the other bodies involved in its unfolding in time” (Parikka 2010: 124). This is not a matter of how software works – the relative speed of code’s operation, but rather the way in which the object works and needs to be seen. Cubitt’s codecs and CCD chips, as object-actants, are both in motion and at rest (just as they are material and immaterial). As standards or as physical objects they have a stability – political, economic , technological and ontological. They are defined and occupy a particular location in relation (alliances) to other object-actants. As such they need to be mapped and subject to archaeological investigation as pieces of engineering, assemblages and apparatuses. At the same time they are dynamic, in constant motion with other object-actants in the development, deployment and marketing of 3D movies, photo-sharing sites and databases.Their histories are being continually remade as alliances are forged and remade in Apple’s boardroom, Google’s labs, London 2012’s ad agency, Pixar or the Home Office.

Cubitt says: “as a community of scholars we are still trying to understand what it is that we are looking at now.” In a mediaspace where the boundaries between moving and still digital imagery and film and software are increasingly fluid, the necessity of trying to understand by holding the static and the dynamic as well as the material and immaterial in hand at the same time becomes even more important.

  • Cubitt, 2010, Making Space, Senses of Cinema (57). Available here.
  • Deleuze, G., 1988, Spinoza, practical philosophy, City Lights Books, San Francisco.
  • Parikka 2010, Ethologies of Software Art: WhatCan a Digital Body of Code Do? in Zepke & O’Sullivan (eds), Deleuze and Contemporary Art, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, pp. 116-32.

2 replies on “What are we looking at?”

  1. Thanks again for another nice text; the intensity of technological components, of software between stasis and dynamics is a provocative, good claim; just wanted to point towards Mackenzie’s Wirelessness where he brings in an additional point: how the wireless infrastructure itself enables arrivals and departures, faster and slower, not only spatiality but the intensity of coming and going. Multiple scales of experience, non-human and human; of humans moving in the midst of signals moving, etc.

    This is an important point in your entry: “It is not that static, stable standards suddenly become animated when activated by some process or structure. ” That objects are never just objects but relational potentialities always embedded in some milieu.

    1. I think Mackenzie’s James-inspired focus on experience and how that shifts and works at dfferent paces is important. I particularly like the point about the transitions between Wi-Fi paces, experiences, speeds and maybe even subjectivities.

      I think the issue of speed that these protocols/standards raise goes beyond their effects of experience. I think the are questions of how the those velocities, those diffent motions can be mapped at the ontological level. Mackenzie says (p18) that James’ radical empiricism “does not offer much by way of ontology” and my reading (so far) of his books suggests a focus on experience. Clearly he is looking wider than the Wi-Fi standard to the “ness” but I think that needs to be mapped alongside the operation and ‘existence’ of the standard. It is when the more static position of the protocol and it’s dynamic relations are held simultaneously (maybe that is part of our experience of them as well) that the workings can be traced.

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