Belay: 15 February 2011

Belay: 15 February 2011 (For other belays and the idea behind them, see here).

I am exploring the relationship between the jpeg compression protocol and the new photographic and imaging practices of sharing, publishing, streaming, archiving and remixing online, by understanding jpeg as a ‘scopic apparatus’ within a “digital imag(in)ing pipeline”.

My aim is to understand protocol as “doing things” in the world, establishing ways of seeing, imaging and imagining (or imag(in)ing as I call it), just as other scopic apparatuses from the camera obscura to the most modern medical imaging tools have done. And just as those technologies have been implicated and enfolded in powerful governmental, legal and material relations, so jpeg also raises issues of intellectual property and copyright, ethics, materiality and affect.

These research questions arise from practice-research, or more correctly the failures at the heart of that practice-research. Through a series of imaging experiments with protocol I have failed to pin down protocol but rather have been left with the trails of the issues, traces of its operation and relations but not it. I can find dot jpeg not jpeg. Jpeg withdraws from view. These ‘failed experiments’ have led me to construct my own “scopic apparatus” built around the ‘digital imaging pipeline’ within which protocol is enfolded.

The apparatus consists of a CCD sensor, in-camera software, a WiFi-enabled memory card, a WiFi network (including hardware, software and protocols), a website, social imaging websites and services and an HTML webpage ‘viewer’. This apparatus is a mixture of hardware, software and protocol. The apparatus works by ‘taking a photograph’/imaging, encoding the information from the CCD as ‘RAW’ and ‘jpeg/JFIF’ data on the card, and attempting to upload both those file/images to a website and social networks. The “viewer” then presents the imager with the visible jpeg/JFIF encoded images as part of the social stream of images/imaginings as well as the unvisible RAW-encoded images. While the apparatus inevitably fails to do any more than show the traces of protocol (rather like the scopic apparatuses in a particle accelerator show only the traces of fundamental particles), its failure to work exposes the workings and the alliances within which jpeg is enfolded.

I look to account for this paradoxical visible/unvisible, material/immaterial, real/virtual position of jpeg by using Graham Harman’s reading of Bruno Latour’s Irreductions. Harman goes on to develop an object-oriented philosophy (OOP) where objects can have an ontological status outside of what Latour calls “alliances” but I concentrate on his reading of Latour and its focus on the enfolded nature of objects. From this perspective, protocol is an object doing things in the world, an object-actant. As with all other objects, whether material or immaterial, real or virtual, the protocol-object is folded into relations with other actants in the network (NB not just computer networks). Its power arises from the relations or alliances in which it is folded. Jpeg’s presence in Google and Facebook’s businesses, Microsoft and Apple’s operating systems and Adobe’s software as well as my iPad and my daughter’s phone and social networking relations means that jpeg has become so enfolded and so everyday and transparent that it can be considered as a ‘black box’, a power-full object so firmly established we take its ‘interior’ (those actant-relations) for granted.

This approach allows me conduct an object-oriented media archaeology of my ‘failed’ scopic apparatus – to trace its alliances and its topological position in the current scopic regime. My project is not a discussion of philosophy, whether OOP is a valid ontology, let alone whether it is a good reading of Latour. My discussion is not around the nature of objects, or what counts as an object, but rather what happens when you treat protocol as an object.

An object-oriented approach allows us to approach and map jpeg without recourse to a foundationalist or essentialist position that would see it as the source of scopic effects or power relations. Rather it can be addressed as a scopic apparatus – a device for imaging – that has a specific position, a history and a future.

My project will appear as a thesis, a diagram and a demonstration.

The thesis will consist of a “literature review” where I will concentrate on Alexander Galloway (and Eugene Thacker)’s discussion of protocol, tracing its relations to the development of software studies and accounts of the network and WiFi. I will also discuss that part of software studies and film studies that focuses specifically on standards and codecs. The second theme of the review will focus on media archaeological accounts of the ‘scopic apparatus’. The aim here will not be to engage with the debates about  periodisation but rather draw out the emerging concern for the material apparatus/object as an instantiation of forces and power.

A ”theory chapter” will consist of an outline of the theoretical approach I am taking, bringing Harman’s reading of Latour (within a broader framework of speculative realism) together with a new materialist account of ‘vibrant matter’.

The “methodology chapter” will outline my conception of practice hyphen research as based around the importance of failure and fragmentation.

The “findings chapter” will draw an account of what the “digital imag(in)ing apparatus” can teach us about the workings of protocol as an object.

Alongside and interwoven with this thesis will be a diagram/blueprint of the completed “digital imag(in)ing apparatus”, reminiscent of the Victorian plans so beloved of media archaeologists. This will consist of instructions on how to build such an apparatus as well as a diagram/map which will visualise/imag(in)e the material/immaterial, read/virtual, hardware/software/protocol, present/absent nature of protocol as well as the alliances within which it is folded.

The final element will consist of a live demonstration of the workings/failures of the “digital imag(in)ing apparatus”.

2 replies on “Belay: 15 February 2011”

  1. I like this entry; clear, punctual, makes the reader want more…key question that arose while reading is why failure? What is the function of failure here – if you could elaborate that in some way, it would open up the theme even better.

    Of course, as we just recently spoke about, also the quesiton to what extent are these objects exactly objects, or something messier, processual. But this form of using the notion of object (as in a “research object”) makes this intuitive.

    1. Thanks Jussi. Talking of failure in the methods section and the paper at the Amsterdam conference (linked from here). You’re right though, needs fleshing out. And the Whitehead world… on the case!

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