Belay: 28 February 2011

Belay: 28 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 process-actant, an occasion of becoming and perishing.

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. In particular I focus on how jpeg is implicated in the creation and exploitation of social digital archives that are enfolded in powerful material governmental relations.

These research questions arise from 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, the traces of its operation and relations but not jpeg itself. I can find dot jpeg not jpeg. Jpeg withdraws from view, becomes and perishes. My practice has become imag(in)ing a digital imag(in)ing apparatus  which explores and makes apparent this becoming and perishing and the process-actant’s governmental implications.

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 social archives – the digital rags ’n refuse that Apple seeks to control and Google and Facebook index and data mine. 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 the visible/unvisible, material/immaterial, becoming and perishing nature of jpeg through Graham Harman’s reading of Bruno Latour’s Irreductions and Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy of events and occasions in Process and Reality. While 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.

I address the way jpeg ‘withdraws from view’ as an object using Whitehead’s idea of ‘events’ and processes. From this processual perspective, jpeg is a quantum occasion, a moment of becoming. Each moment of becoming, each process of encoding/decoding, each working of light into data, each compression is a quantum occasion. That is jpeg. The process is not what jpeg does, it is what it is. Jpeg withdraws from view because each quantum moment of becoming perishes, only to be taken up again by another instantiation of jpeg, another occasion. My digital imag(in)ing apparatus is designed to instantiate that becoming and indeed practice that theory.

My project is not a discussion of philosophy: whether OOP is a valid ontology, let alone whether it is a good reading of Latour or the merits of Whitehead’s particular approach to objects. 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 enfolded in archival, governmental relations because of its nature as an actant-process.

My project will appear as a thesis and the apparatus.

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 reading of Whitehead’s account of process.

The “methodology chapter” will outline my conception of practice hyphen research as based around the importance of failure and fragmentation as well as an account of the practice in conceptualising and ‘building’ the apparatus.

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 and how an account of jpeg as process-actant offers a particular way into understanding the governmental implications of digital archives.

Alongside and interwoven with this thesis will be the “digital imag(in)ing apparatus”. This will consist of a series of visualisations or imag(in)ings including:

  • instructions on how to build the apparatus
  • a diagram/map which visualises/imag(in)es the material/immaterial, read/virtual, hardware/software/protocol, present/absent nature of protocol as well as the alliances within which it is folded
  • a series of imag(in)ings of the apparatus in operation