LR – intro: in which we are introduced


Traditionally a ‘Literature Review’ painstakingly and critically recounts theoretical and empirical work in the area in order to demonstrate the legitimacy of the research and researcher as well as that elusive originality. In a practice-research project, the literature review is supposed to go beyond this synthesis of critical work and exegesis to include “engagement with the work of other practitioners”{Barrett 2010@188}. In her practical guide to the look and feel of a practice-research PhD, Estelle Barrett advises a “Literature and Practice Review” as: “a means of locating the research project in the field by providing the contexts of theory and practice”{%Barrett 2010@188}. Broadening the ‘texts’ to be studied and accounted for to include visual material, the literature review is positioned as a foundation, providing “context and pedigree for the practice”{%Barrett 2010@188} and “demonstrat[ing] how practice informs theory”{%Barrett 2010@189}. Graeme Sullivan similarly argues for a “visual literature review [which] repositions established knowledge according to a newly framed lens that is generally drawn from the purposes of a particular research project”{Sullivan 2010@202}. He likens it to the work of a curator developing an exhibition which: “offers an original interpretation that brings new insights into the field”{%Sullivan 2010@203}. Again here the look is backwards. Part apprentice demonstrating to the master, part father-figure arranging the canon. Here reading (and viewing) leads practice.

Accounts of practice-research can also hold the tension the other way around. Barrett says: “The relevance of subject matter and types of practices involved in the studio enquiry will determine what will be covered and discussed in the literature review”{%Barrett 2010@189}. It is not just the form of practice that drives the choice of literature to review, it is also the results of that practice. Sullivan positions practice as the “core”{Sullivan 2010@102}. His “visual literature review” is driven by that core, by what he finds in his practice, the questions it raises. Here practices drives the reading. This oscillation between driver and driven is apparent in Hazel Smith and Roger Dean’s “iterative cyclic web”{%Smith 2009}, with its dialectics of practice-led research mirrored by research-led practice{%Smith 2009@7}. This can arguably be extended to a similar dialectic between literature review and practice where one returns to the canon with new research questions, and returns to research with new concepts. Practice-led review: review-led practice.

Just as I take a slightly different approach to the practice-research method, so I look to move beyond this account of the position of the literature review. It is clear from my Methodology chapter that I took a particular approach to exploring jpeg in its relations with the distributed imag(in)ing of 2012. My theoretical position was enfolded with my practice and it was from this complex practice-theory system that my research emerged. As I discuss in the Theory chapter, my particular reading of Whitehead and later speculative realists offered a particular way of accounting for my object (the jpeg protocol) as a material technology and its relations (the scopic regime), one that offered me a way of developing a practice-research methodology built around emergence. This approach was not theory as background or context but as active player in the experiments and the research. Allowing this theory to clash with my practice enabled new knowledges to emerge. Without a clear theoretical frame, that complex dialectic would not have been possible. In a similar vein I look to collide my theory with the existing literature. Mine is not a neutral or objective literature review (even if such a thing were possible). It is a particular critical reading of the literature designed to clash an object-oriented account of the allure and metamorphosis of objects with existing accounts of software and the scopic.

Much of the work I look at comes from a different theoretical tradition or framework. My aim in reading it through the lens of objects is not to criticise or to somehow argue for my own ‘originality’ but rather, in the spirit of Benjamin’s literary montage method{%Benjamin 1997}{%Benjamin 2002}, to explore the potential of colliding different fragments (an object-oriented philosophy and an account of the scopic apparatus, an account of becoming and perishing with an account of the new media object).

By bringing my theory into contact with the existing literature, rather than seeking to approach that literature as a neutral reader, I can allow particular themes and problematics around the software object and the scopic apparatus to emerge. My aim here is not a comprehensive overview of software studies or media archaeology, a complete exegesis of Adrain Mackenzie’s work or of the development of ‘new materialism”. Rather by approaching these disciplines, authors and schools from a desire to work from a flat ontology and a willingness to engage with objects in terms of both stability and process process, allure and metamorphosis, certain themes and problematics emerge.

This theory hyphen literature approach allows us to see the nature of the object as a problematic within software studies and media archaeology – a discursive point that is talked about and worked with in a similar way to how the love of boys in ancient societies was a problematic for Greek and Roman societies’ imag(in)ings of themselves{Foucault 1990}. Problematics are productive they generate discourse. My aim in presenting an object-oriented reading of the literature (and later an object-oriented account of protocol) is not to claim I am outside that problematic. Clearly I am a player in that discursive struggle and production. Rather it is open up that problem as a key driver in the development and directions of software studies and media archaeology, whether it is the work of some authors who perhaps work from a depth ontology, an account of the software and new media object in terms of something more fundamental or essential, or the work of others who map digital objects as dynamic modulations.

Although I would argue that this object problematic appears across software studies and media archaeology, inevitably some areas of these discourse must receive more attention than others in a limited literature review. After brief genealogies of each discipline, I focus on a particular aspect: accounts of standards and protocols within software studies and approaches to the scopic and storage apparatus within media archaeology. My review therefore moves from a broad overview of a discourse to a focused, object-oriented reading of the work of Alexander Galloway, Lev Manovich and Adrain Mackenzie in software studies and Jonathan Crary and Matthew Kirschenbaum in the field of media archaeology.

This literature review also includes snapshots, sidebar readings of artists working with and through my areas of interest. I do not look to these works as illustrations or even simple stimuli to my review. Rather, inspired by the way Walter Benjamin advocated the writing of history through dialectical images, I look to create a ‘literary montage’ where readings of creative objects can form dialectical (image) relations with the literature review, working like a frame in an Eisenstein movie, a scene in Brecht or an index card in Benjamin as a disjuncture, a punctum: “The dialectical image is an image that emerges suddenly, in a flash. What has been is to be held fast — as an image flashing up in the now of its recognizability”{Benjamin 2002 @473}. For instance I look to my reading of Thomas Ruff’s Jpeg to do more than stand alone as a review. Rather I look to this creative review to collide with my literature review in such a way as to allow the central problematic that works through both to emerge. By montaging my Ruff review snapshot with my reading of Galloway’s Protocol{Galloway 2004}, the problematic of the jpeg standard as protocol object emerges.