Relationality, processuality and potentiality

Three intro sections for three longer sections for one chapter for…

The relational object

For software and critical code studies, locating the digital or code object within a field of relations has been a powerful axiom. As part of a broader hegemonic struggle within media and cultural studies, exploring protocols, interfaces, languages and algorithms as powerful because of the way they relate to other actors in the network⁠1, has allowed software studies to establish a critical praxis while also arguing for software’s pervasiveness and enfolding within the complex assemblages of contemporary technocapitalism and technoculture.

As an example, the development of ‘platform studies’{Montfort 2009}, with its technologically forensic account of videogame software and hardware objects has opened up new approaches to not only games and gaming but also the political-economic and legal relations within which they work. Addressing sprites, processors and the Atari Television Interface Adapter (TIA) allowed Nick Montfort and Ian Bogost to explore how the Atari VCS system worked but also why. What is more, exploring those actant-objects as enfolded in economic and legal relations, drawing their power from their position with regard to those relations, enabled the authors to explore ‘the platform’ not just the game and the wider capitalist technoculture. Without those relations an account of those objects would have remained abstract and decontextualised. Without an account of the objects, an examination of the context would have remained abstract and general. A study of the specifics and the connections offers more.

As I will come on to argue, OOP is not opposed to an idea of relations. Nor is it against an account of the network. Indeed, as Harman’s feting of Latour in the first part of Prince of Networks{%Harman 2009} makes clear, actants in networks is a powerful model: objects connect. Where OOP differs is in demanding that objects are not defined by their relations. Their character and power exceeds their relations. As my own work will show, exploring JPEG as having an existence, character and power beyond its relations allows us to see how governmental issues of data-mining are best addressed as a matter of the JPEG-object connecting with a search algorithm-object within another, specific object. Objects relate within objects not within contexts or fields. This is the heart of ‘object-orientation’, a refusal to leave an account of specific objects even when building a critique of networks. It is this refusal (or perhaps more positively, focus) that enabled me to engage in my particular imaging and build my particular critique.

For some seminal work in software studies, including the first discussions of porotocl, this is not the case. Objects and best addressed in terms of relationality.

1 I use the term ‘network’ in a Latourian rather than a technical sense.

The Process Object

If relationality has opened doors for software studies in constructing a technologically informed and yet comprehensive account of technoculture and techno-governmentality, a second theme has helped ensure the technical specifics do not drag the account down to a static or determinist reductionism. The idea that software is dynamic, that it sets new relations in motion as it runs, that its character is change has allowed software studies to understand the relations between what appears to be a static component of software and a dynamic field of culture and power.

As an example, while, like Manovich addressing digital rather than specifically code-objects, Mark B. N. Hansen frames the digital image as processual. His argument that “the digital image demarcates an embodied processing of information”{%Hansen 2004@12} allows him to explore how the image-object is framed by and through the body. It is only by adding a dynamism to the digital object, only by addressing it as process and changing that its power and affectivity can be understood. Assigning movement to our picture of data and code allows us to understand its embodied as well as enfolded workings. A view of static, unchanging data, code or protocols cannot account for our phenomenological or even psychoanalytic relationship to computation.

This is a flux of code-data-subjectivity that we experience as the technosocial assemblage at a bodily and material level. Those digital objects change as they are reinserted and revisited through the body and the body politic. They add and remove new dimensions and relations as they process and are processed.

Again it is important to stress that OOP does not reject change. It is not a philosophy of static objects. When it argues for objects connecting within objects, that movement is as dynamic as any complex adaptive system. Where OOP disagrees with the idea of the processural object in flux is in the idea that an object adds and removes dimensions. Rather, for Harman “Becoming does occur: but in sudden jumps and jolts, not through a meaningless accretion of any-instants-whatever that float away in the canal of fluxion”{Harman 2011@301}.

My work with the JPEG protocol object has shown that the protocol object does change but precisely in those jumps and jolts as sampling takes place, as quantization and huffman coding work and as the markers are set. These are new object moments and it is by addressing them as such rather than as changes in some fixed if dynamic JPEG, that we can account for its flexible and adaptable connection to other governmental objects.

This perspective however runs counter to software studies’ stress on the what Matthew Kirschenbaum{%Kirschenbaum 2008@15} has called the “duality” at the heart of digital mechanisms: product and process.

The potential object

Closely related to this conception of processuality and a flux of becoming is that of potentiality. Again this theme has served software studies well. By positioning the digital object as harbouring a potential, software studies once again enfolds the object into the assemblage, positioning it as empowering subjectivities relations and processes, setting in motion new formations. The flexibility, interoperability and dynamic nature of the digital object makes it the ideal vehicle for critical or disciplinary potential.

It is not just Galloway and Thacker who have used this potentiality as a way of position the object as critical tool. Although perhaps not a ‘software studies’ scholar, Vito Campanelli uses the idea that digital objects harbour a potentiality to explore the DivX and MP3 experience{%Campanelli 2010a}. Here the particular codecs set in motion particular aesthetic (as well as socio-political) experiences as legitimate or ‘pirated’ media is encoded, decoded, streamed or downloaded. His broader target of the web aesthetic experience⁠1, is an experience of hardware and software objects which harbour a dynamic potential to structure and restructure experience. Directors use that potential as do p2p media sharers. The digital object’s potentiality is actualised in particular ways in particular configurations at particular moments.

Such a perspective clearly adds value in avoiding an over-simplistic essentialism – particularly when it comes to aesthetics. As with processuality, it draws attention to the seemingly paradoxical dynamism at work in what appears to be stable, defined and delimited code. Some within the object-oriented movement would agree. In particular Levi Bryant has argued strongly for the power of seeing objects as harbouring potential. Harman however disagrees. As we shall see, for him objects do not hold anything back. They are always fully present and actual. “Potentiality is merely ‘potential for a future relation’, when we really only ought to be talking about actuality”{Harman 2011@299}.

Again this account of a fully present and actualised protocol object chimes with my practice. JPEG certainly withdraws from access within my imaging but it is fully actualised within the digital imaging pipeline of my apparatuses. It is not holding anything back. The relations and object connections are fully present.

But to refuse to assign a potential power to objects is to run counter to a dominant concern in software studies.

1 This specifically network aesthetic is different in focus to the digital aesthetic sought and discussed by Sean Cubitt{CubittSean 1998}

  • Campanelli, V. 2010, The DivX and MP3 Experience, in Web Aesthetics: How Digital Media Affect Culture And Society, NAi Publishers; Institute of Network Cultures, Rotterdam, pp. 150-66.
  • Cubitt, S., 1998, Digital Aesthetics, SAGE Publications, London; Thousand Oaks, Calif..
  • Harman, G., 2009, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics, Anamnesis, Melbourne.
  • Harman, G. 2011, Response to Shaviro, in L Bryant, N Srnicek & G Harman (eds), The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism And Realism,, Melbourne, pp. 291-303.
  • Kirschenbaum, M.G., 2008, Mechanisms: New Media And The Forensic Imagination, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass..
  • Montfort, N. & Bogost, I., 2009, Racing The Beam: The Atari Video Computer System, The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.