On occasion you need Whitehead

Jpeg withdraws from view. Just as one gets near to its working, it slips away. In my “digital imag(in)ing apparatus” jpeg is folded within the camera’s software, encoding light as data and leaving its traces indelibly in particular images and imaginings and enabling certain practices. It is enfolded in the structural relations of the imag(in)ing industries, in the archive and data mining practices of social networks and search engines and in the marketing and business strategies of camera and IT manufacturers and telcos. Jpeg exists. Its traces are clear – if enfolded. It is an actant in alliances across the networks (in the ANT rather than purely technical sense). But it withdraws from view. It defies observation and refuses a clear position. This is not a philosophical game. The difficulty of accounting for protocol leads to accounts of its workings that can fall back on textualist or foundationalist models that fail to deal with the complex enfoldings and power full relations within which it works.

Graham Harman’s Heideggerian reading of Latour allows us to position jpeg as an actant and to embrace this withdrawl from view. By turning to Alfred North Whitehead’s account of occasions, events, entities and societies, we can see why and how the jpeg actant withdraws from view and indeed develop an account of it around which we can build an account of its power full alliances and workings.

In Process and Reality Whitehead develops a processual account of  things. Here actants are always in movement. They are events, not just in the sense that an object is not physically the same from one minute to the next – as it ages or is weathered, but in a more fundamental sense. Whitehead says things in the world, human or not, are “events” single incidents of becoming. What we experience in the world is those events in a group, a “multiplicity of becomings” (Shaviro p18) or “nexus”. When that nexus is held together by a “defining characteristic” that they have “inherited”, Whitehead calls that a “society” (p34). Whitehead says that a society is “self-sustaining; in other words […] it is its own reason […] The real actual things that endure,” and that we encounter in everyday experience, “are all societies” (Adventures of Ideas 203-204).

Shaviro sums it up:

“an ‘occasion’ is a process by which anything becomes and an ‘event’ – applying to a nexus or a society – is an extensive set, or a temporal series, of such occasions of the […] No actual occaion comes into being ex nihilo; rather, it inherits its ‘data’ from past occasions. Yet each actual occasion is also self-creating, or casua sui, by virtue of the novel way in which it treats these preexisting data or prior occasions. Hence no occasion is the same as any other; each occasion introduces something new into the world. This means that each occasion, taken in itself, is a quantum: a discrete, indivisible unit of becoming. But this also means that occasions are strictly limited in scope. Once an occasion happen, it is already over, already dead. Once it has reached its final ‘satisfaction,’ it no longer has any vital power. ‘An actual occasion… never changes,’ Whitehead says; ‘it only becomes and perishes’ (Adventures of Ideas 204). And a perished occasion subsists only as a ‘datum’: a sort of raw material, which any subsequent occasion may take up in its own turn, in order to transform it in a new process of self-creation” (pp 18-19).

If we address the jpeg protocol from this processual perspective, seeing it as a quantum occasion, a moment of becoming, we can see why and how it withdraws from view. 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.

Jpeg has a form of continuity in the documents of jpeg group, in the specifications and strategies of the imag(in)ing industries, in the alliances within which it is enfolded. But its ontological continuity comes from its quantum moments of becoming, its position as a process that becomes and then perishes only to become and perish with the next instantiation. Jpeg is a society.

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