[Humanist] 26.655 "digital materiality"

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Jan 7 07:01:35 CET 2013


                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 655.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                              www.dhhumanist.org/
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

  [1]   From:    Arianna Ciula <ariannaciula at googlemail.com>              (111)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 26.654 "digital materiality"

  [2]   From:    Haines Brown <haines at histomat.net>                        (30)
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 26.654 "digital materiality"

  [3]   From:    whitney trettien <wtrettien at gmail.com>                   (140)
        Subject: Re:  26.654 "digital materiality"

  [4]   From:    "Raabe, Wesley" <wraabe at kent.edu>                         (64)
        Subject: Re:  26.654 "digital materiality"

  [5]   From:    Ales Vaupotic <ales at vaupotic.com>                        (108)
        Subject: Re:  26.654 "digital materiality"

  [6]   From:    "James O'Sullivan" <josullivan.c at gmail.com>              (143)
        Subject: Re:  26.654 "digital materiality"

  [7]   From:    Stanislav Roudavski <srou at unimelb.edu.au>                 (19)
        Subject: RE:  26.654 "digital materiality"


--[1]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Sun, 6 Jan 2013 17:53:48 +0800
        From: Arianna Ciula <ariannaciula at googlemail.com>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 26.654 "digital materiality"
        In-Reply-To: <20130106073541.ED48EE1A at digitalhumanities.org>

What comes to mind to me are two things:

- the power of something digital to evoke something material i.e.
think of a digital artefact being here and everywhere, present but not
touchable, albeit, exactly because of its attempt to represent
something else, something 'other',  it brings us back to (evoked,
mirrored, lost) materiality.

- the digital environment as a medium, a world with its own rules and
therefore with its own materiality (from touching screens to all sort
of interfaces).

My two pennies.

Arianna Ciula

On Sun, Jan 6, 2013 at 3:35 PM, Humanist Discussion Group
<willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:
>
>                  Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 26, No. 654.
>             Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                               www.dhhumanist.org/
>                 Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>
>   [1]   From:    Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>          (35)
>         Subject: digital materiality
>
>   [2]   From:    { brad brace } <bbrace at eskimo.com>                         (2)
>         Subject: Re: [Humanist] 26.652 "digital materiality"?
>
>   [3]   From:    Erik Hanson <erikalanhanson at gmail.com>                    (38)
>         Subject: Re:  26.652 "digital materiality"?
>
>
> --[1]------------------------------------------------------------------------
>         Date: Sat, 05 Jan 2013 12:56:20 +0000
>         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>         Subject: digital materiality
>
>
> James O'Sullivan asks in Humanist 26.652,
>
>> I need a one word / phrase answer to the following - what comes to mind
>> when I say "digital materiality"?
>
> For me what first comes to mind is puzzlement: the phrase seems
> oxymoronic. This leads to questions: is the writer being cute? how can
> (digital) information be material? in what sense? is he referring to the
> materiality of digital circuitry? the representation of material things
> in abstract form? Does "digital humanities" have this thought-stopping
> power?
>
> Personally I like oxymoronic challenges. But I'd also admit to somewhat
> of an allergic reaction to deliberate, learned obscurantisms, which
> were all the rage when High Theory ruled (too much "look at me",
> too seldom rewarding when one actually looked into the matter).
> This is not to accuse O'Sullivan of indulging in them, only to
> suggest a possible reaction.
>
> I exercise a severe rule on myself and hope always to obey it: if I
> adore the cleverness or elegance of an expression, then it must go. A
> very Protestant attitude, I suppose :-). But how about metaphysical
> poetry? Heidegger's violation of language in a deliberate attempt
> to liberate himself from the philosophical tradition he inherited? The
> medieval cloaking of truth in order to reveal truth, deliberately making
> the text obscure so that the reader had to grapple with it? Being
> unclear because clarity would deceive?
>
> I'd suppose that because of when and where we are, we are having
> to invent a language or at least terminology in which to discuss the
> collision of digital with humanities. What comes to mind is Clifford
> Geertz's (I presume) agonized statement in "Thick Description"
> that, "We are reduced to insinuating theories because we lack the
> power to state them" (Interpretation of Cultures, p. 24).
>
> Yours,
> WM
>
> --
> Willard McCarty, FRAI / Professor of Humanities Computing & Director of
> the Doctoral Programme, Department of Digital Humanities, King's College
> London; Professor, School of Humanities and Communication Arts,
> University of Western Sydney; Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews
> (www.isr-journal.org); Editor, Humanist
> (www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist/); www.mccarty.org.uk/
>
> --[2]------------------------------------------------------------------------
>         Date: Sat, 5 Jan 2013 06:36:47 -0800 (PST)
>         From: { brad brace } <bbrace at eskimo.com>
>         Subject: Re: [Humanist] 26.652 "digital materiality"?
>         In-Reply-To: <20130105073146.625CEE05 at digitalhumanities.org>
>
>
> Oxymoron
>
> /:b
>
>
>
> --[3]------------------------------------------------------------------------
>         Date: Sat, 5 Jan 2013 10:36:14 -0500
>         From: Erik Hanson <erikalanhanson at gmail.com>
>         Subject: Re:  26.652 "digital materiality"?
>         In-Reply-To: <20130105073146.625CEE05 at digitalhumanities.org>
>
>
> First thing that comes to my mind is "platform studies." But that comes to my mind a lot.
>
> @erik_a_hanson



--[2]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Sun, 6 Jan 2013 06:28:52 -0500
        From: Haines Brown <haines at histomat.net>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 26.654 "digital materiality"
        In-Reply-To: <20130106073541.ED48EE1A at digitalhumanities.org>

> James O'Sullivan asks in Humanist 26.652,
> 
> > I need a one word / phrase answer to the following - what comes to 
> > mind when I say "digital materiality"?

What comes to mind is that the expression begs a question. I base 
this on three suppositions:

  a) In the physical sciences material reality is widely understood as
     referring to what makes a difference (I would argue in terms of 
     probability) independent of consciousness. So the mind-matter 
     dichotomy is only a distinction in probability of matter.

  b) Materialism is an ontological monism that sees mind as an 
     emergent form of matter. It is widely felt that consciousness is 
     a strongly emergent domain of the material structures of 
     cognitive processing. As such it is material, but its effect
     on the rest of matter, including cognitive processing, can be 
     highly improbable.

  c) Out of ignorance, I assume that "digital" refers to an effect of 
     informed action that improbably shapes matter in a socially 
     useful way.
     
So it seems to me that whoever used the expression had a point in mind 
that the two words do not adequately convey. Perhaps the point was 
that the digital world has sufficient "autonomy" to shape human 
behavior recursively. If so, I'm not sympathetic. In my jaundiced 
view, "recursion", whether cognitive or otherwise is useful jargon 
that does not support the philosophically dubious positions it is 
meant to imply. That is, consciousness can have a highly improbable 
effect, but not digital technology itself other than as a mediation of 
consciousness.

Haines Brown



--[3]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Sun, 6 Jan 2013 08:24:09 -0500
        From: whitney trettien <wtrettien at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re:  26.654 "digital materiality"
        In-Reply-To: <20130106073541.ED48EE1A at digitalhumanities.org>


If digital materiality is a cute oxymoron, please tell that to the noisy
CPU fan that incessantly huffs hot air from my poorly thermoregulated
laptop. Try as it might, it can't seem to keep all this digital information
cool enough.

For me, 'digital materiality' calls to mind Matt Kirschenbaum's distinction
between the forensic and formal materiality of computational environments
(in *Mechanisms*); the excellent work being done in platform studies and
critical code studies, most recently in *10 Print; *trends in media
archaeology, especially on the environmental devastation produced by our
"information" culture (Jussi Parikka has compiled a helpful list of
articles in *Medianatures http://www.livingbooksaboutlife.org/books/Medianatures 
*); the archival notion of "digital objects"; and the work of DH-inflected
book historians, such as Johanna Drucker or Alan Galey, both of whom have
written elegantly on the concept of materiality as it pertains to
(electronic, digital) media. I'm not sure how to squeeze this answer into
one word or phrase; but then I have a sneaking suspicion the original
question was a set-up. : )

A side note: digital humanities has, historically, suffered from its
tendency to conflate all aspects of digital culture into an impoverished
notion of "electronic information." This has led to a plague of
poorly-designed interfaces (a misunderstanding of formal materiality?) and
has occluded opportunities for the field to engage with digital
technologies as charged with (sometimes troubling) politics, and with deep
histories. Thinking through the phrase 'digital materiality' in recent
years has helpfully clarified and redirected the field.

warm wishes,
whitney
--------------------
whitneyannetrettien.com
@whitneytrettien



--[4]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Sun, 6 Jan 2013 13:58:55 +0000
        From: "Raabe, Wesley" <wraabe at kent.edu>
        Subject: Re:  26.654 "digital materiality"
        In-Reply-To: <20130106073541.ED48EE1A at digitalhumanities.org>


I do not have one word. But both Lisa Gitelman (_Scripts, Grooves_) and
Matthew Kirschenbaum (_Mechanism_) have offered thoughtful provocations on
materiality of language. Gitelman is concerned with recorded language in
Edison's phonograph. While Kirschenbaum is more directly concerned with
materiality of digital media, I think it is fruitful to pair the two
because of the emphasis on the human gaze as a marker for the detection of
physical materiality.

   According to Gitelman, the illegibility of recorded language was a key
argument for allowing the new phonograph industry to keep for itself
royalties that would otherwise have accrued to artists and sheet music
publishers. In Congressional testimony for the 1909 Copyright Act, by the
Edison Company¹s CEO and patent attorney Frank L. Dyer said, ³Edison
himself had once spent many long hours in his laboratory trying to read
phonograph records. After recording the letter a, ŒHe examined with a
microscope each particular indentation and made a drawing of it, so that
at the end of two or three days he had what he thought was a picture of
the letter ³a².¹ But when he compared two records of the letter a, he
found that Œthe two pictures were absolutely dissimilar¹ ² (Brylawski and
Goldman 286). That Edison could not ³read² the groove was critical to
Dyer¹s testimony because the debate on the 1909 Copyright Act turned in
part on the distinction between reading and writing. Given Edison¹s
fruitless gaze at the illegible groove, Dyer ³assured members of Congress
that [Edison¹s] phonographic products were not copies of Œwritings¹
because they could not be Œread¹ ² {Gitelman 132}.

   In our own moment, when digital textuality is prominent, the material
traces of inscription on a hard drive are again revealed to be invisible
at the level of material reality, and two illustrative figures in Matthew
Kirschenbaum¹s Mechanisms offer the reader a chance to gaze Edison-like
into the paradoxical materiality at the heart of digital inscriptions. A
fundamental property of magnetic media is that ³even data that has been
been overwritten continues to resonate as a result of the ongoing
oscillation of the physical field² {66}. To illustrate this property,
known as hysteresis, Mechanisms includes two graphical figures, which
employ magnetic force microscopy to show two images of a computer bit at 4
X .5 microns, one before and one after the data is erased, the latter of
which is blurred because it has ³no definite magnetization² but still
contains ³imperfectly overwritten² or ³shadow² data {62, 65}. The images
illustrate the paradoxical materiality of the digital trace, which
Kirschenbaum explains by distinguishing between two types of materiality,
forensic and formal. The former, forensic materiality, ³rests upon the
principle of individualization [Š] the idea that no two things in the
physical world are ever exactly alike² {10}. Digital environments, by
contrast, exhibit formal materiality, ³an abstract projection supported
and sustained by its capacity to propagate the illusion (or call it a
working model) of immaterial behavior: identification without ambiguity,
transmission without loss, repetition without originality² {Kirschenbaum
11}. And in a delicious doubling of ironies, not only is the data recorded
on the hard drive palimpsestic because ³data recording in magnetic media
is finally and fundamentally a forensically individualized process,²
Kirschenbaum's illustrative figures for forensic materiality, visible
bibliographically in Mechanisms as graphical representations, are not
visible in the material world: they are ³invisible to wave length optics
even under the most extreme magnification² and are ³not optical
magnifications but force-feedback renderings² {66, 67, 68}.

So the materiality of the digital trace (like the materiality of
linguistic sound groove and the visual trace of matter at the atomic
level) is paradox all the way down. Yesterday at MLA session, Mara Mills
(NYU) offered an intriguing presentation on history of OCR, and she argued
for feedback between identification of blindness as a disability marked by
the inability to read printed text and the early 20-C. development of
reading machines. 

Wesley Raabe
Kent State University
wraabe at kent.edu



--[5]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Sun, 6 Jan 2013 16:19:02 +0100
        From: Ales Vaupotic <ales at vaupotic.com>
        Subject: Re:  26.654 "digital materiality"
        In-Reply-To: <20130106073541.ED48EE1A at digitalhumanities.org>

I think that "digital materiality" could be construed as conceptually
close to Foucault's materialism of discourse, e.g. (from L’ordre du
discours --- http://www.scribd.com/doc/32347244/Michel-Foucault-L-Ordre-Du-Discours)
"Disons que la philosophie de l'événement devrait s'avancer dans la
direction paradoxale aupremier regard d'un matérialisme de
l'incorporel."

All the best wishes
Aleš Vaupotič



--[6]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Sun, 6 Jan 2013 16:41:53 +0000
        From: "James O'Sullivan" <josullivan.c at gmail.com>
        Subject: Re:  26.654 "digital materiality"
        In-Reply-To: <20130106073541.ED48EE1A at digitalhumanities.org>


Sincerest thanks to all for your replies. In response to Professor McCarty,
I would agree that hardware is clearly material. Software is perhaps more
problematic considerig its ephemeral state of being. Yet to deny the power
that software holds over the senses would be a mistake – if materiality is
that which gives something presence, defines it as an object of being,
simply a “thing” that exists, doing so by governing our senses and drawing
personal and individualised responses to that upon which our attention is
focused, surely a digital manifestation may be considered material? If the
codex and the iPad are material, why not the operating system? In this
sense, we see how digital constructs also satisfy the practical
instantiation definition of materiality, and why it is that they hold such
significance in relation to what we might perceive as materiality.

Matt Kirschenbaum offers a convincing summary of all that might be
discussed on this matter: “platform, interface, data standards, file
formats, operating systems, versions and distributions of code, patches,
ports, and so forth,” he says, is precisely “the stuff electronic texts are
made of” (Kirschenbaum 2001).

If I was to offer my own definition, it might go something like this:
digital materiality refers to those components, both hardware and software,
which interact within themselves and with the senses of their users to
achieve the semantic purpose of digital constructs and artistry.

Best regards,

James


-- 
*James O'Sullivan *
@jamescosullivan  http://twitter.com/jamescosullivan **
Web: josullivan.org

Twitter: http://twitter.com/jamescosullivan<http://twitter.com/#%21/jamescosullivan>
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Submit to *The Weary Blues*: http://thewearyblues.org/submit.html



--[7]------------------------------------------------------------------------
        Date: Mon, 7 Jan 2013 05:07:18 +0000
        From: Stanislav Roudavski <srou at unimelb.edu.au>
        Subject: RE:  26.654 "digital materiality"
        In-Reply-To: <20130106073541.ED48EE1A at digitalhumanities.org>

Maybe "assemblage theory"?

---

Beyond this official answer to the original post, "emergent materiality" also comes to mind. Both are in discussion in design and architecture. Here is my paper that is concerned with the latter.

http://www.academia.edu/2368574/Emergent_Materiality_though_an_Embedded_Multi-Agent_System

I was also impressed to encounter such a radical position on language purity: "if I adore the cleverness or elegance of an expression, then it must go". Should this type of action also be outlawed as "clever" and "elegant" by this line of reasoning? Can actions be oxymoronic? :)

For a contrasting attitude towards academic writing, have a look at my paper on this subject (not only in architecture and design, see its references) here:

http://www.academia.edu/455074/Transparency_or_Drama_Extending_the_Range_of_Academic_Writing_in_Architecture_and_Design

Hope this is of interest,

Stanislav

---
Dr Stanislav Roudavski

Senior Lecturer in Digital Architectural Design,
Faculty of Architecture Building and Planning,
The University of Melbourne,
VIC 3010, Australia

stanislav.roudavski at cantab.net
http://stanislavroudavski.net/
http://elsewarecollective.com/
+61 (3) 8344 3360





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