Inner and outer, visible and invisible

Although Adrian Mackenzie does not use the language of Actor-Network Theory or object-oriented philosophy, his account of the experience of ‘wirelessness’ shares a number of common themes, notably the way in which “wirelessness is thoroughly entangled with products and promises of economic value” (Mackenzie 2010: 145). What Latour would call ‘alliances’ are integral to wirelessness’ functioning and its nature as experience. Mackenzie however looks to William James rather than Heidegger or Whitehead as a way of unpicking that entanglement.

As has been noted, James’s account is one that emphasises movement and transition and the “practical inseparability of thinking and the things” (Mackenzie 2010: 14). For James philosophy needs to speak the language of ‘conjunctive relations’ (characterised by words such as with, near, next, like, from, towards, against, because, for, through, my), the language of movement and transition, the “more to come” (James 2010: 2476). This focus on process and movement is an antidote to “most social and cultural theories that tend to cut realities into things, selves, locations and relations” (Mackenzie 2010: 39). This focus on experience and movement continues in James’ account of “inner” and “outer” which Mackenzie uses to explore the issue of invisibility.

James, as a philosopher concerned with flat ontologies and perspectives, refuses to separate thoughts and things and inner and outer. They are “part of the same surface, the same place of conjunctive relations” (Mackenzie 2010: 146). What appears inside us and outside is an effect of how this plane is folded, not a fundamental characteristic of a thing. The same can be said of “visible” and “invisible” (or even “unvisible”).

For James, “inner”, “outer” , “thing”, “thought” are words of sorting, the sort of classifications that Bowker and Star identify in their concrete studies{Bowker 2000}. That classification is rooted in experience. “For [James…], the differences between an idea and a thing depend on the ways an experience acts on its neighbours, as well as how, when, and by whom such an experience is ‘sorted’” (Mackenzie 2010: 146). Once again there are parallels with a Latourian stress on alliances and translations as the source of power. Here entanglements can be complex but they are constituted by an actant’s status, position and visibility.

Where an inner experience differs from an outer is in that it is less affected by its neighbours. “It might easily blend or merge with its neighbors in ways that an outer experience of something hard might not” (Mackenzie 2010: 146). In terms of wirelessness, for Mackenzie what separates our (inner) affectional experience of wirelessness with the (outer) products, economics and politics of Wi-FI is not some fundamental difference or ontological category but the relations within which it works.

Mackenzie traces the ways in which wirelessness oscillates between “inner” and “outer”. One moment it is a feeling or experience of mobility and locationalessness, at the next it is to do with fixed locations in Starbucks or outside a signal range. One moment Wi-Fi is a product that can be advertised, bought and sold (outer and visible), the next it is a seamless, background environment (inner and invisible). The experience and category/standard of wirelessness is present and then absent and then present again, depending on how it fits with other (neighbour) experiences.

This is a different articulation of visibility/invisibility to Bowker and Star’s. There are similarities in terms of the stress on sorting but the categories are unstable and forever shifting.

This approach allows us to address the visibility/invisibility of the jpeg standard as similarly oscillating, in movement, as process. The withdrawal from view that we see at work in the “digital imag(in)ing apparatus” is not some fundamental opposite to a stable state of visibility, rather it is an articulation of the inner/outer oscillation which can also be approached through Whitehead’s idea of “becoming and perishing”.

  • Bowker, G.C. & Star, S.L., 2000, Sorting Things Out: Classification And Its Consequences, MIT, Cambridge, Mass..
  • James, 2010, Essays in Radical Empiricism, Kindle ed. B&R Samizdat Express,.
  • Mackenzie, A., 2010, Wirelessness: Radical Empiricism In Network Cultures, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass..