ANT and media archaeology: doing the same thing

One can explore protocol from a philosophical point of view. Indeed my critique of existing accounts of protocol has been that they do not explore the ontological status of the protocol object within its networks. Latour of course would take issue with this approach, one that tries to extend Actor-network theory into a philosophical project. But I would argue that such a gentle expansion of ANT adds something to the account, even if one does not go perhaps as far as Graham Harman in thinking through how that endless collection of objects can have an ontological existence outside their relations.

There is is a second way to approach protocol, one that can be seen as adding the missing material piece. A media archaeological account of the jpeg protocol as a scopic apparatus allows one to bracket off the problematic ontological status of protocol, its tendency to withdraw from view, but still hold onto its alliances. To address jpeg as a technology of vision, a material instantiation is not to simply historically contextualise or culturally locate a technology nor is it to simply find a new way of writing the history of visuality and imag(in)ing. Rather the work of Crary, Friedberg, and Kittler in particular, but also Zielinski, Kirschenbaum and Gitelman, offers the sort of anti-foundationalist, non-essentialist way into the scopic apparatus that parallels the flat ontology I draw from Latour and Harman.

Many media archaeological accounts explore very concrete and material technologies. The Camera Obscura and Lanterna Magica feature regularly. These are not brought in to merely tell the story of painting, photography or cinema but rather to trace the connections (alliances perhaps) between technologies and fields of vision and regimes of visuality and governmentality.

Just as ANT and object-oriented philosophy are sometimes caricatured as apolitical, anti-structural, even neo-liberal, so these media archaeologies are sometimes positioned as either Whig histories, Foucualdian epistemic periodisations or even as technologically determinist. Just as ANT and OOP aim to explore the folded nature of objects within alliances, so media archaeologies look to explore the ways in which technologies and enfolded in practices of seeing and of governmentality. In a similar refusal to engage with foundations and essences, these accounts also explore ‘black boxes’. Where ANT/OOP approach the ontological object as deriving its existence and power from its alliances, ones that become so embedded/enfolded and everyday they become transparent (a perspective that Harman would take further by arguing for existence outside of relations); so media archaeology addresses particular technological instantiations as enfolded, sometime everyday, which when they are opened up reveal not deeper levels but more diffuse and powerful alliances.

Where I want to bring these two perspectives together is around the jpeg protocol object, a black box so everyday it withdraws from view not only ontologically but also politically (enabling corporate imaging and governmental surveillance but never fully present), a technology of vision, a scopic apparatus that sets in motion particular ways of seeing and being seen (around sharing, streaming and scraping). Through a  philosophical approach I can address protocol as an ‘object’ something with a position that can be explored and mapped, with relations that exist. I can focus on it even though it withdraws from view, cannot be seen or held or even found. With an ANT/OOP guarantee that it is as worthy of study as an atom, a dream and any other object in a Latour litany, I can move to trace its work. Through a media archaeological account of that object as (amongst other things) a scopic apparatus, I can account for one dimension of its work and locate it as a material thing, an instantiation with a particular location, politics and series of effects and affects.