Kipple and Things II: The Subject of Digital Detritus

This text is a work in progress; a segment ripped from my thesis. To better ingest some of the ideas here, you might want to read these texts first:

Kipple and Things: How to Hoard and Why Not To Mean
Digital Autonomy

Captured in celluloid under the title Blade Runner, (Scott 1982) Philip K. Dick’s vision of kipple abounds in a world where mankind lives alongside shimmering, partly superior, artificial humans. The limited lifespan built into the Nexus 6 replicants [1] is echoed in the human character J.F. Sebastian, [2] whose own degenerative disorder lends his body a kipple-like quality, even if the mind it enables sparkles so finely. This association with replication and its apparent failure chimes for both the commodity fetish and an appeal to digitisation. In Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, mechanisation and mass production begin at the ‘original’, and work to distance the commodity from the form captured by each iteration. Not only does the aura of the original stay intact as copies of it are reproduced on the production line, that aura is actually heightened in the system of commoditisation. [3] Commodities operate through the binary logic of fetishisation and obsolescence, in which the subject’s desire to obtain the shiny new object promotes the propagation of its form through an endless cycle of kippleisation. As Frederic Jameson has noted, Dick’s work ‘renders our present historical by turning it into the past of a fantasized future’ (Jameson, 2005, p. 345). Kipple piles up at the periphery of our culture, as if Dick is teasing us to look upon our own time from a future anterior in which commodity reification will have been:

It hadn’t upset him that much, seeing the half-abandoned gardens and fully abandoned equipment, the great heaps of rotting supplies. He knew from the edu-tapes that the frontier was always like that, even on Earth. (Dick 2011, 143)

Kipple figures the era of the commodity [4] as an Empire, its borders slowly expanding away from subjects sustained by Biltong replicas, seeded with mistakes. Kipple is a death of subjects, haunted by nostalgically perfect objects, because ‘this entropy [has] a far side in resurrection itself:’ (Jameson, 2005, p. 82)

[H]e saw the dust and the ruin of the apartment as it lay spreading out everywhere – he heard the kipple coming, the final disorder of all forms, the absence which would win out. It grew around him as he stood holding the empty ceramic cup; the cupboard of the kitchen creaked and split and he felt the floor beneath his feet give… In the depression caused by the sagging of the floor, pieces of animals manifested themselves, the head of a crow, mummified hands which might have once been parts of monkeys. (Dick, 1968, p. 197)

Kipple is a renewal for matter, even as it is a death for form. Qualify the human subject with the android built in its image; the object with the entropic degradation that it must endure if its materiality is to be perpetuated, and you necessarily approach an ontology of decay, junk and detritus. This future anterior is a frontier, one from which it might just be possible to look back upon the human without nostalgia; a revisal of the relationship we have with ourselves as things of entropic, degrading, erroneous matter. [5] Kipple is an entropy of forms, and kippleisation an endless, unstoppable encounter between subjectness and thingness.


Eschewing Martin Heidegger’s definition of a thing, [6] in which objects are brought out of the background of existence through human use, (Bogost 2012, 24) Bill Brown marks the emergence of things through the encounter:

As they circulate through our lives… we look through objects because there are codes by which our interpretive attention makes them meaningful, because there is a discourse of objectivity that allows us to use them as facts. A thing, in contrast, can hardly function as a window. We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us… (Brown 2001, 4)

This confrontation with the ‘being’ of the object occurs by chance when, as Brown describes, a patch of dirt on the surface of the window captures us for a moment, ‘when the drill breaks, when the car stalls… when their flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition, has been arrested, however momentarily’. (Brown, 2001, p. 4) We no longer see through the window-object (literally or metaphorically), but are brought into conflict with its own particular discrete being in the encounter with its filthy surface. A being previously submersed in the continuous background of world as experience, need not necessarily be untangled by an act of human-centric use. The encounter carries the effect of a mirror, for as experience stutters at the being of a thing, so the entity invested in that experience is made aware of their own quality as a thing – if only for a fleeting moment. Brown’s fascination with ‘how inanimate objects constitute human subjects’ (Brown, 2001, p. 7) appears to instate the subject as the centre of worldly relations. But Bill Brown has spun a realist  [7] web in which to ensnare us. The object is not phenomenal, because its being exists independent of any culpability we may wish to claim. Instead a capture of object and human, of thing qua thing, occurs in mutual encounter, bringing us closer to a flat ontology ‘where humans are no longer monarchs of being but are instead among beings, entangled in beings, and implicated in other beings.’ (Bryant, 2011, p. 40)

Brown’s appraisal of things flirts with the formless splendour of kipple. Think of the landfill, an engorged river of kipple, or the salvage yard, a veritable shrine to thingness. Tattered edges and featureless forms leak into one another in unsavoury shades of tea-stain brown and cobweb grey splashed from the horizon to your toes. Masses of broken, unremarkable remnants in plastic, glass and cardboard brimming over the edge of every shiny suburban enclave,. The most astonishing thing about the turmoil of these places is how any order can be perceived in them at all. But object-aphasia does diminish, and it does so almost immediately. As the essential human instinct for order kicks in, things come to resemble objects. Classes of use, representation and resemblance neatly arising to cut through the pudding; to make the continuous universe discrete once again. You note a tricycle wheel there, underneath what looks like the shattered circumference of an Edwardian lamp. You almost trip over a bin bag full of carrot tops and potato peel before becoming transfixed by a pile of soap-opera magazines. Things, in Brown’s definition, are unreachable by human caprice. Things cannot be grasped, because their thingness slips back into unrecognition as soon as it is encountered:

When such a being is named, then, it is also changed. It is assimilated into the terms of the human subject at the same time that it is opposed to it as object, an opposition that is indeed necessary for the subject’s separation and definition. (Schwenger 2004, 137)

The city of Hull, the phrase ‘I will’, the surface of an ice cube and an image compression algorithm are entities each sustained by the same nominative disclosure: a paradox of things that seem to flow into one another with liquid potential, but things, nonetheless limited by their constant, necessary re-iteration  [8] in language. There is no thing more contradictory in this regard than the human subject itself, a figure Roland Barthes’ tried to paradoxically side-step in his playful autobiography. Replenishing each worn-out piece of its glimmering hull, one by one, the day arrives when the entire ship of Argo has been displaced – each of its parts now distinct from those of the ‘original’ vessel. For Barthes, this myth exposes two modest activities:

- Substitution (one part replaces another, as in a paradigm)

- Nomination (the name is in no way linked to the stability of the parts) (Barthes 1994, 46)

Like the ship of Argo, human experience has exchangeable parts, but at its core, such was Barthes’ intention, ‘the subject, unreconciled, demands that language represent the continuity of desire.’ (Eakin, 1992, p. 16) In order that the subject remain continuous, it is the messy world that we must isolate into classes and taxonomies. Bill Brown references Cornelius Castoriadis in this regard, who disavows our image of representation as ‘a projection screen which unfortunately, separates the “subject” and the “thing”.’ (Castoriadis, 1998, p. 329) We collate, aggregate, collect and curate not merely because we desire, but because without these nominative acts the pivot of desire – the illusionary subject – could not be sustained as the centre of our ‘index of reality.’ (Castoriadis, 1998, p. 332) If the powerful stance produced in Dick’s future anterior is to remain, the distinction between subjects aggregating objects, and objects coagulating the subject, also needs flattening. [9]

Bill Brown’s appeal to the ‘flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition’ (Brown, 2001, p. 4) partially echoes Dick’s concern with the accumulation of kipple. Although the alien Biltong were probably more of a comment on the Xerox machine than the computer, the problem of the distribution of forms as it relates to commodity fetishism, enables Dick’s ‘printing’ as a neat paradigm of the contemporary network-based economy. [10] Saved from the wreckage of the nuclear apocalypse, a host of original items – lawn mowers, woollen sweaters, cups of coffee – are in short supply. Nothing ‘original’ has been made for centuries, sustaining a static cultural epoch, devoid of change. The Biltong must produce copies from copies made of copies – each replica seeded with errors will, eventually, resemble kipple. Not only do ‘the prints become blurred and lose definition,’ (Jameson, 2005, p. 347)  the entire human social order has blurred beyond recognition, lingering as a poor image [11] of the golden era they nostalgically yearn for. An ‘object-world tend[ing] to disintegrate under its own momentum’. (Jameson, 2005, p. 346)

Digital units, seeming to proliferate independent from the sinuous optical cables and super-cooled server banks that disseminate them, are absolutely reliant on the process of copying. Copying is a fundamental component of the digital network where, unlike the material commodity, matter is not passed/parsed along. The digital thing is always a copy, is always copied, and is always copying:

Copying the product (mechanical reproduction technologies of modernity) evolves into copying the instructions for manufacturing (computer programs as such recipes of production). In other words, not only copying copies, but more fundamentally copying copying itself. (Parikka 2008, 72)

Abstracted from its material context, copying is ‘a universal principle’ (Parikka, 2008, p. 72) of digital dissemination, less flowing ‘within the circuits’ (Brown, 2001, p. 4) as being that circuitry flow in and of itself. The entire network is a ship of Argo designed to substitute and nominate its own parts, [12] or, as the character J.F. Isidore exclaims upon showing an android around his kippleised apartment:

When nobody’s around, kipple reproduces itself. [my emphasis] (Dick 1968, 53)

But focussing on the unimpeded flow of the network diverts us once again away from the very being of that flow, from its thingness. Interruption, stutters and breaks, on the other hand, force us into encounters, exposing the circuitry that we allow to elude into the background. As suggested by Gert Lovink:

What makes out today’s networking is the notworking. There would be no routing if there were no problems on the line. Spam, viruses and identity theft are not accidental mistakes, mishaps on the road to techno perfection. They are constitutional elements of yesterday’s network architectures. (Lovink, 2005, p. 10)

Kipple is not garbage, nor litter, for both these forms are decided upon by humans. In a recent pamphlet distributed to businesses throughout the UK, the Keep Britain Tidy Campaign made a useful distinction:

Litter can be as small as a sweet wrapper, as large as a bag of rubbish, or it can mean lots of items scattered about. ENCAMS describes litter as Waste in the wrong place caused by human agency. In other words, it is only people that make litter. (Keep Britain Tidy Campaign, 3)

Garbage is a decisive, collaborative form, humans choose to destroy or discard. A notion of detritus that enhances the autonomy, the supposed mastery of the subject in its network. Digital networks feature their own litter in the form of copied data packets that have served their purpose, or been deemed erroneous by algorithms designed to seed out errors. These processes, according to W. Daniel Hillis, define, ‘the essence of digital technology, which restores signal to near perfection at every stage’. (Hillis 1999, 18) Maintenance of the network and the routines of error management are of primary economic and ontological concern: control the networks and the immaterial products will manage themselves; control the tendency of errors to reproduce, and we maintain a vision of ourselves as masters over, what Michel Serres has termed, ‘the abundance of the Creation’. (Serres 2007, 47) Seeming to sever their dependency on the physical processes that underlie them, digital technologies, ‘incorporate hyper-redundant error-checking routines that serve to sustain an illusion of immateriality by detecting error and correcting it’. (Kirschenbaum 2008, 12) The alleviation of error and noise, is then, an implicit feature of digital materiality. Expressed at the status of the digital image it is the visual glitch, the coding artifact, [13] that signifies the potential of the digital object to loosen its shackles; to assert its own being. In a parody of Arthur C. Clarke’s infamous utopian appraisal of technology, another science fiction author, Bruce Sterling, delivers a neat sound bite for the digital civilisation, so that:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic (Clarke 1977, 36)

…becomes…

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from [its] garbage. (Sterling 2012)

 

Footnotes


[1] A label appropriated by Ridley Scott for the film Blade Runner, and not by Philip K. Dick in the original novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, who preferred the more archaic, general term, android. Throughout the novel characters refer to the artificial humans as ‘andys,’ portraying a casual ease with which to shrug off these shimmering subjects as ‘mere’ objects.

[2] A translated version of the character, J.F. Isidore, from the original novel. In the novel Isidore is a ‘chicken-head’, a degenerate human lacking in intelligence, and unable to interbreed. An increasingly common result of the radioactive dust that envelopes the lower echelons of the degraded city. The novel tells of his growing allegiance with the andys, a unity that directly mirrors his inability to achieve the spiritual coming together with humankind in the ‘Mercer’ religion. Later in the novel it is revealed that Mercerism is itself predicated on a fake, its collective visions having been filmed in a studio many years before. Dick calls these multiple overlapping fakes, copies of fakes and kippleised fakes ‘ersatz’, a label applied to everything, from android sheep to individual empathetic response. On a physiological level, andys cannot fake empathy, it is therefore used as the yardstick by which bounty hunters determine a subject’s in/authenticity as human (via the Voight-Kampff test). In Blade Runner, Ridley Scott has the benefit of visual disarray. Kipple is not said explicitly, but instead has its place as mise en scene (or perhaps mise en abyme). Scott also does away with Mercerism, focussing instead on the longevity of the replicants, or more precisely, on their desire to defeat their own inbuilt obsolescence. J.F. Sebastien is then a superb translation of his chicken-head namesake Isidore from the novel. Sebastien is the opposite of a chicken-head, having played a decisive role in the design and implementation of the replicants. Not even the original genius Tyrell, who created the Nexus replicants, knows how to wind back their inevitable kippleisation. Scott uses Sebastien’s physical degenerative disorder to ‘echo’ the limited lifespan of the replicants. In this sense ‘echo’ is a worthy metaphor, a degraded and degrading motif whose origin is unclear. Kipple is inherent to both J.F. characters, but perhaps more subtle in its cinematic rendition. Even if the replicants cannot empathise with J.F. Sebastien, there is similitude in kippleisation. A flattening in kind that transcends physiological response.

[3] Throughout his career Dick claimed to be a Platonic idealist. This appeal to an ‘originary’ world of forms held in a kind of metaphysical stasis outside time or (human) mind, is explored explicitly in his novel UBIK, a fiction highlighted in the work of N. Katherine Hayles. (Hayles, 1999) Work ii of this thesis will deal with UBIK in more in detail.

[4] What Frederic Jameson may call ‘late capitalism.’

[5] This waltz with ‘erroneous matter’ is a subject covered in work i of this thesis.

[6] It is worth noting here a divergence between the terms ‘object’ and ‘thing’ from this point onwards. Before this point in the text, and in some of the quotations and references to follow, these terms may pivot or overlap in their use. This vagueness is a productive ground from which to isolate each term; to stake a claim on their nuances.

[7] Recent attempts to disable appeals to the subject, attempts by writers such as Graham Harman, Levi R. Bryant, Bill Brown and Ian Bogost, have sought to devise, in line with Bruno Latour, an ontology in which ‘Nothing can be reduced to anything else, nothing can be deduced from anything else, everything may be allied to everything else;’ (Latour, 1993, p. 163) one in which a discussion of the being of a chilli pepper (Bogost) or a wristwatch (Baudrillard) may rank alongside a similar debate about the being of a human or a dolphin. An object-oriented, ‘flat’ ontology (Bryant, 2011) premised on the niggling sentiment that ‘all things equally exist, yet they do not exist equally.’ (Bogost, 2012, p. 19) Unlike Graham Harman, who uses the terms interchangeably, Bill Brown’s Thing Theory approaches the problem by strongly asserting a difference between objects and things.

[8] Necessary in the sense that without this re-iteration, this re-objectification, ‘the subject’s separation and definition’ (Schwenger, 2004, p. 137) would dissolve.

[9] I have carefully avoided using the term ‘posthuman,’ hoping instead that a ground for the term will become established out of the future anterior.

[10] This is a bold and general label for a complicated topic I grapple with later in this work, as well as in other works. The literature review on Hito Steyerl, Bruno Latour and Michel Foucault also establishes what I mean by ‘network-based economy.’

[11] This use of ‘Poor Image’ echoes the work of Hito Steyerl, again, covered elsewhere. Applying it to society as a whole is another attempt at flattening.

[12] The resonance here with a biological imperative is noted. A distinction, perhaps between autopoietic and allopoietic systems I will cover/uncover in other works. Although in this work I wish to avoid such digital/biological metonyms, it is worth pointing out Boris Groys’ assertion in From Image to Image File – And Back: Art in the Age of Digitisation, (explored later) when he states:

The biological metaphor says it all: not only life, which is notorious in this respect, but also technology, which supposedly opposes nature, has become the medium of non-identical reproduction. (Groys, 2008, p. 85)

It is not the ‘non-identical reproduction’ I wish to highlight here, but the pre-figuring of that term with ‘become the medium of.’ Firstly, there is nothing but non-identical reproduction, lest we fall into discussion of the impossibility of change. Secondly, the term ‘medium’ is suspect here, in that it remains presupposed even as Groys distinguishes between ‘nature’ and ‘technology.’ Again, I intend to explore these problems across works i and iv of the thesis, and so mark this here as more of an IOU than a juncture in the thing/object/subject road.

[13] I have very consciously chosen to spell ‘artifact’ with an ‘i’, widely known as the American spelling of the term. This spelling of the word aligns it with computer/programming terminology (i.e.’compression artifact’), leaving the ‘e’ spelling free to echo its archaeological heritage. In any case, multiple meanings for the word can be read in each instance.

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