MachineMachine /stream - search for archaeology https://machinemachine.net/stream/feed en-us http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/tech/rss LifePress therourke@gmail.com <![CDATA[How Neanderthals influenced human genetics at the crossroads of Asia and Europe - HeritageDaily - Heritage & Archaeology News]]> https://www.heritagedaily.com/2017/10/neanderthals-influenced-human-genetics-crossroads-asia-europe/117147

When the ancestors of modern humans migrated out of Africa, they passed through the Middle East and Turkey before heading deeper into Asia and Europe.

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Sun, 26 Nov 2017 07:30:40 -0800 https://www.heritagedaily.com/2017/10/neanderthals-influenced-human-genetics-crossroads-asia-europe/117147
<![CDATA[Palmyra and the Political History of Archaeology in Syria: from Colonialists to Nationalists]]> http://www.mangalmedia.net/english//palmyra?rq=palmyra

Archaeology was institutionalized by a reification of the past into governmental branding, such as through images of Palmyra on the national currency, or school textbooks. Although Palmyrans wrote and probably spoke in Aramaic, they are frequently called ‘Arabs’ by Syrian regime historians.

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Mon, 03 Apr 2017 04:54:39 -0700 http://www.mangalmedia.net/english//palmyra?rq=palmyra
<![CDATA[New Digital Archaeology Effort Attempts to Capture Cultural Heritage Before It’s Gone]]> http://hyperallergic.com/234332/new-digital-archaeology-effort-attemps-to-capture-culture-heritage-before-its-gone/

As ISIS and other groups continue to destroy important heritage sites and ancient artifacts, archaeologists and other onlookers continue to scramble to find ways to counter the destruction.

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Sun, 06 Sep 2015 05:18:38 -0700 http://hyperallergic.com/234332/new-digital-archaeology-effort-attemps-to-capture-culture-heritage-before-its-gone/
<![CDATA[We Make Money Not Art on 3D Additivism]]> http://additivism.org/post/114762499621

Regine Debatty at We Make Money Not Art

A few days ago, I was at Parsons Paris for reFrag: glitch, a series of workshops, talks and performances that address the multifold ways in which glitches manifest and/or are mobilized artistically in our lives. Participants talked about flash crashes in the financial market (more about that one soon), wacky operating system from the early nineties, Spinoza glitches, archaeology of bugs, etc. It was good, brain-stimulating and intense. We even watched the documentary of a fist fucking performance. Here’s the project page if you’re into that kind of entertainment.I’ll probably write an incomplete but enthusiastic post about the event in the coming days but for now, i’m going to kick out the reports with Morehshin Allahyari and Daniel Rourke's presentation of the 3D Additivist Manifesto + Cookbook. Rourke was in Paris. Allahyari spoke to us via skype.

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Fri, 27 Mar 2015 09:11:03 -0700 http://additivism.org/post/114762499621
<![CDATA[Digital Archaeology]]> http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/1.05/1.5_archaeology.html

Anyone who can read German can read the first book ever printed. If you can read Sumerian cuneiform, you can read clay tablets that were probably the first things ever written. Hard copy sticks around, equally a delight to scholars and a burden to office managers. More significantly, the read-out system - the human eye, hand, and brain for which the scribes of Sumer scratched in clay - has not changed appreciably, which is why nearly every written thing that survives, from the dawn of writing to yesterday's newspaper, is still accessible and constitutes a fragment of civilization. But as we move forward we discover that not all modern means of storing data share the characteristic of eternal readability. This problem originally appeared in the pre-electronic age, with the invention of sound recording. Signals were embodied in an object that required a specific machine to render it back into a form that could be apprehended by the senses. In those days, there were dozens of incompatible recording formats. The 10-inch, 78-rpm shellac platter ultimately won out, but not before the losers had produced a substantial body of recorded material, some of it irreplaceable. Serious audiophiles constructed customized machines that could play anything from Edison cylinders to the various platter formats - including those that ran from the axis to the circumference - to the standard outside-in disk. When LPs were introduced, turntable manufacturers included variable-speed switches, so you could play your old 45s as well as the new "albums." That was a slower era, of course, when decades passed between one standard and another. But the advent of digital computing in the early '50s vastly accelerated the pace at which we replace formats designed to store information. With computers increasing an order of magnitude in speed every two or three years, at the same time decreasing in cost, the pressure to dump the old, less efficient standards was irresistible. Obviously, much of the data stored on the old systems - the material of immediate or archival value to the organization doing the replacement - is recorded in the new format and lives on. But a lot of it doesn't. Digital archaeology is a discipline that doesn't quite exist yet, but may develop to deal with this problem, which is pervasive in the world of data. NASA, for example, has huge quantities of information sent back from space missions in the 1960s stored on deteriorating magnetic tape, in formats designed for computers that were obsolete twenty years ago. NASA didn't have the funds to transfer the data before the machines became junk. The National Center for Atmospheric research has "thousands of terabits" of data on aging media that will probably never be updated because it would take a century to do it. The archival tapes of Doug Engelbart's Augment project - an important part of the history of computing - are decaying in a St. Louis warehouse. "The 'aging of the archives' issue isn't trivial," says desktop publisher Ari Davidow. "We're thinking of CD-ROM as a semi-permanent medium, but it isn't. We already have PageMaker files that are useless." Also, recall that the PC era is an eye-blink compared to the mainframe generations that came and went under the care of the old Egyptian priesthood of computer geeks. (Would you believe a '60s vintage GE 225 machine that ran tapes that stored 256 bits per inch? Drop some developer on it and you can actually see the bits.) J. Paul Holbrook, technical services manager for CICNet (one such Egyptian priest), summarizes the problem this way: "The biggest challenge posed by systems like this is the sheer volume of information saved - there's too much stuff, it isn't indexed when it's saved, so there's lots of stuff you could never discover without loading it up again - that is, if you could load it up. "The nature of the technology makes saving it all a daunting task. It's certainly possible to keep information moving forward indefinitely, if you keep upgrading it as you go along. But given the volume of data and how fast it's growing, this could present an enormous challenge." Holbrook says twenty years is the maximum time you can expect to maintain a form of digital data without converting it to a newer format. He draws an analogy to print: "What if all your books had only a twenty-year life span before you had to make copies of them?" A 'museum of information,' suggested by WELL info-maven Hank Roberts, might help to stem the leakage. Roberts says, "[Museum] collections are spotty and odd sometimes, because whenever people went out to look for anything, they brought back 'everything else interesting.' And that's the only way to do it, because it always costs too much to get info on demand - a library makes everything available and throws out old stuff; a museum has lots of stuff tucked away as a gift to the future."

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Wed, 11 Dec 2013 15:42:33 -0800 http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/1.05/1.5_archaeology.html
<![CDATA[Handaxe design reveals distinct Neanderthal cultures]]> http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130819090128.htm

Dr Karen Ruebens from the Centre for the Archaeology of Human Origins (CAHO) and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) examined the design of 1,300 stone tools originating from 80 Neanderthal sites in five European countries; France, Germany, Belgium, Britain and the Netherlands.

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Mon, 26 Aug 2013 15:39:39 -0700 http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/08/130819090128.htm
<![CDATA[Neither Here Nor Then: Thomson and Craighead at Carroll / Fletcher Gallery]]> http://www.furtherfield.org/features/neither-here-nor-then-thomson-and-craighead-carroll-fletcher-gallery

Visiting Jon Thompson and Alison Craighead’s survey exhibition, Never Odd Or Even, currently on show at Carroll / Fletcher Gallery, I found myself confronted with an enigma. How to assemble a single vision of a body of work, impelled only by the dislocated narratives it offers me? ‘Archaeology’ is derived from the Greek word, arche, meaning ‘beginning’ or ‘origin’. The principle that makes a thing possible, but which in itself may remain elusive, unquantifiable, or utterly impervious to analysis. And so it is we search art for an origin, for an arising revelation, knowing full well that meaning is not something we can pin down. Believing, that the arche of a great work is always just about to take place. In an essay written especially for the exhibition, David Auerbach foregrounds Thompson and Craighead’s work in the overlap between “the quotidian and the global” characteristic of our hyperconnected contemporary culture. Hinged on “the tantalising impossibility of seeing the entire world at once clearly and distinctly” [1] Never Odd Or Even is an exhibition whose origins are explicitly here and everywhere, both now and anywhen. The Time Machine in Alphabetical Order (2010), a video work projected at the heart of the show, offers a compelling example of this. Transposing the 1960 film (directed by George Pal) into the alphabetical order of each word spoken, narrative time is circumvented, allowing the viewer to revel instead in the logic of the database. The dramatic arcs of individual scenes are replaced by alphabetic frames. Short staccato repetitions of the word ‘a’ or ‘you’ drive the film onwards, and with each new word comes a chance for the database to rewind. Words with greater significance such as ‘laws’, ‘life’, ‘man’ or ‘Morlocks’ cause new clusters of meaning to blossom. Scenes taut with tension and activity under a ‘normal’ viewing feel quiet, slow and tedious next to the repetitive progressions of single words propelled through alphabetic time. In the alphabetic version of the film it is scenes with a heavier focus on dialogue that stand out as pure activity, recurring again and again as the 96 minute 55 second long algorithm has its way with the audience. Regular sites of meaning become backdrop structures, thrusting forward a logic inherent in language which has no apparent bearing on narrative content. The work is reminiscent of Christian Marclay’s The Clock, also produced in 2010. A 24 hour long collage of scenes from cinema in which ‘real time’ is represented or alluded to simultaneously on screen. But whereas The Clock’s emphasis on cinema as a formal history grounds the work in narrative sequence, Thomson and Craighead’s work insists that the ground is infinitely malleable and should be called into question.

Another work, Belief (2012), depicts the human race as a vast interlinked, self-reflexive system. Its out-stretched nodes ending at webcams pointing to religious mediators, spiritual soliloquists and adamant materialists, all of them searching to define what it means to be in existence. Projected on the floor of the gallery alongside the video a compass points to the location each monologue and interview was filmed, spiralling wildly each time the footage dissolves. Each clip zooms out of a specific house, a town, a city and a continent to a blue Google Earth™ marble haloed by an opaque interface. Far from suggesting a utopian collectivity spawned by the Google machine, Belief once again highlights the mutable structures each of us formalise ourselves through. As David Auerbach suggests, the work intimates the possibility of seeing all human kind at once; a world where all beliefs are represented by the increasingly clever patterns wrought through information technology. Instead, culture, language and information technology are exposed as negligible variables in the human algorithm: the thing we share is that we all believe in something.

Never Odd Or Even features a series of works that play more explicitly with the internet, including London Wall W1W (2013), a regularly updated wall of tweets sent from within a mile of the gallery. This vision of the “quotidian” out of the “global” suffers once you realise that twitter monikers have been replaced with each tweeter’s real name. Far from rooting the ethereal tweets to ‘real’ people and their geographic vicinity the work paradoxically distances Thomson and Craighead from the very thing twitter already has in abundance: personality. In a most appropriate coincidence I found myself confronted with my own tweet, sent some weeks earlier from a nearby library. My moment of procrastination was now a heavily stylised, neutralised interjection into Carroll / Fletcher gallery. Set against a sea of thoughts about the death of Margaret Thatcher, how brilliant cannabis is, or what someone deserved for lunch I felt the opposite of integration in a work. In past instances of London Wall, including one at Furtherfield gallery, tweeters have been contacted directly, allowing them to visit their tweet in its new context. A gesture which as well as bringing to light the personal reality of twitter and tweeters no doubt created a further flux of geotagged internet traffic. Another work, shown in tandem with London Wall W1W, is More Songs of Innocence and of Experience (2012). Here the kitsch backdrop of karaoke is offered as a way to poetically engage with SPAM emails. But rather than invite me in the work felt sculptural, cold and imposing. Blowing carefully on the attached microphone evoked no response. The perception and technical malleability of time is a central theme of the show. Both, Flipped Clock (2009), a digital wall clock reprogrammed to display alternate configurations of a liquid crystal display, and Trooper (1998), a single channel news report of a violent arrest, looped with increasing rapidity, uproot the viewer from a state of temporal nonchalance. A switch between time and synchronicity, between actual meaning and the human impetus for meaning, plays out in a multi-channel video work Several Interruptions (2009). A series of disparate videos, no doubt gleaned from YouTube, show people holding their breath underwater. Facial expressions blossom from calm to palpable terror as each series of underwater portraits are held in synchrony. As the divers all finally pull up for breath the sequence switches.

According to David Auerbach, and with echoes from Thomson and Craighead themselves, Never Odd Or Even offers a series of Oulipo inspired experiments, realised with constrained technical, rather than literary, techniques. For my own reading I was drawn to the figure of The Time Traveller, caused so splendidly to judder through time over and over again, whilst never having to repeat the self-same word twice. Mid-way through H.G.Wells’ original novel the protagonist stumbles into a crumbling museum. Sweeping the dust off abandoned relics he ponders his machine’s ability to hasten their decay. It is at this point that the Time Traveller has a revelation. The museum entombs the history of his own future: an ocean of artefacts whose potential to speak died with the civilisation that created them. [2] In Thomson and Craighead’s work the present moment we take for granted becomes malleable in the networks their artworks play with. That moment of arising, that archaeological instant is called into question, because like the Time Traveller, the narratives we tell ourselves are worth nothing if the past and the present arising from it are capable of swapping places. Thomson and Craighead’s work, like the digital present it converses with, begins now, and then again now, and then again now. The arche of our networked society erupting as the simulation of a present that has always already slipped into the past. Of course, as my meditation on The Time Traveller and archaeology suggests, this state of constant renewal is something that art as a form of communication has always been intimately intertwined with. What I was fascinated to read in the works of Never Odd Or Even was a suggestion that the kind of world we are invested in right now is one which, perhaps for the first time, begs us to simulate it anew.

[1] David Auerbach, “Archimedes’ Mindscrew,” in Never Odd Or Even (Carroll / Fletcher Gallery, London: Carroll / Fletcher Gallery, London, 2013), 4, http://www.carrollfletcher.com/usr/library/documents/thomson-and-craighead-essays/essay-from-tc-final-low-res.pdf.

[2] Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (Verso, 2005), 100. 

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Fri, 14 Jun 2013 03:12:48 -0700 http://www.furtherfield.org/features/neither-here-nor-then-thomson-and-craighead-carroll-fletcher-gallery
<![CDATA[Morning walk #MediaArchaeology]]> http://instagram.com/p/SpogtoApqm/ ]]> Fri, 30 Nov 2012 02:34:58 -0800 http://instagram.com/p/SpogtoApqm/ <![CDATA[Software archaeology of the GIF by Matthew Fuller]]> http://bit.ly/RFkdI3

Why look at animated GIFs now? They are one of the first forms of image native to computer networks making them charmingly passé, a characteristic that gives them contradictory longevity. Animated GIFs crystallise a form of the combination of computing and the camera. As photography moves almost entirely into digital modes, the fascination with such quirky formats increases. The story of photography will be, in no small part, that of its file formats, the kinds of compression and storage it undergoes, as they in turn produce what is conjurable as an image. The Graphics Interchange Format was first developed through the computer network firm Compuserve. As an eight-bit file format it introduced the amazing spectacle of 256 colour images to be won over the thin lines of dial-up connections. Due to this, when a picture is converted to GIF, it’s likely that posterization occurs – where gradations of tone turn to patches of reduced numbers of colours. Such aliasing introduces a key part of their aesthetic, something described by the Lempel-Ziv-Welch (LZW) compression that lies at the format’s core. Characteristic of images in the present era its history is entangled with the imaginings and instruments of “intellectual property”. The LZW format was itself the site for a protracted and infamous attempt at patent enforcement in the USA that dragged on from 1994 until 2003 prompting the rapid development of the alternative PNG format.

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Sun, 18 Nov 2012 23:25:55 -0800 http://bit.ly/RFkdI3
<![CDATA[Noise; Mutation; Autonomy: A Mark on Crusoe’s Island]]> http://machinemachine.net/text/research/a-mark-on-crusoes-island

This mini-paper was given at the Escapologies symposium, at Goldsmiths University, on the 5th of December Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe centres on the shipwreck and isolation of its protagonist. The life Crusoe knew beyond this shore was fashioned by Ships sent to conquer New Worlds and political wills built on slavery and imperial demands. In writing about his experiences, Crusoe orders his journal, not by the passing of time, but by the objects produced in his labour. A microcosm of the market hierarchies his seclusion removes him from: a tame herd of goats, a musket and gunpowder, sheafs of wheat he fashions into bread, and a shelter carved from rock with all the trappings of a King’s castle. Crusoe structures the tedium of the island by gathering and designing these items that exist solely for their use-value: “In a Word, The Nature and Experience of Things dictated to me upon just Reflection, That all the good Things of this World, are no farther good to us, than they are for our Use…” [1] Although Crusoe’s Kingdom mirrors the imperial British order, its mirroring is more structural than anything else. The objects and social contrivances Crusoe creates have no outside with which to be exchanged. Without an ‘other’ to share your labour there can be no mutual assurance, no exchanges leading to financial agreements, no business partners, no friendships. But most importantly to the mirroring of any Kingdom, without an ‘other’ there can be no disagreements, no coveting of a neighbours ox, no domination, no war: in short, an Empire without an outside might be complete, total, final, but an Empire without an outside has also reached a state of complete inertia. Crusoe’s Empire of one subject, is what I understand as “a closed system”… The 2nd law of thermo dynamics maintains that without an external source of energy, all closed systems will tend towards a condition of inactivity. Eventually, the bacteria in the petri dish will multiply, eating up all the nutrients until a final state of equilibrium is reached, at which point the system will collapse in on itself: entropy cannot be avoided indefinitely. The term ‘negative entropy’ is often applied to living organisms because they seem to be able to ‘beat’ the process of entropy, but this is as much an illusion as the illusion of Crusoe’s Kingdom: negative entropy occurs at small scales, over small periods of time. Entropy is highly probable: the order of living beings is not. Umberto Eco: “Consider, for example, the chaotic effect… of a strong wind on the innumerable grains of sand that compose a beach: amid this confusion, the action of a human foot on the surface of the beach constitutes a complex interaction of events that leads to the statistically very improbable configuration of a footprint.” [2] The footprint in Eco’s example is a negative entropy event: the system of shifting sands is lent a temporary order by the cohesive action of the human foot. In physical terms, the footprint stands as a memory of the foot’s impression. The 2nd law of thermodynamics establishes a relationship between entropy and information: memory remains as long as its mark. Given time, the noisy wind and chaotic waves will cause even the strongest footprint to fade. A footprint is a highly improbable event. Before you read on, watch this scene from Luis Buñuel’s Robinson Crusoe (1954):

The footprint, when it first appears on the island, terrifies Crusoe as a mark of the outsider, but soon, realising what this outsider might mean for the totality of his Kingdom, Robinson begins the process of pulling the mark inside his conceptions: “Sometimes I fancied it must be the Devil; and reason joined in with me upon this supposition. For how should any other thing in human shape come into the place? Where was the vessel that brought them? What marks were there of any other footsteps? And how was it possible a man should come there?” [3] In the novel, it is only on the third day that Crusoe re-visits the site to compare his own foot with the print. The footprint is still there on the beach after all this time, a footprint Crusoe now admits is definitely not his own. This chain of events affords us several allegorical tools: firstly, that of the Devil, Crusoe believes to be the only rational explanation for the print. This land, which has been Crusoe’s own for almost 2 decades, is solid, unchanging and eternal. Nothing comes in nor goes beyond its shores, yet its abundance of riches have served Crusoe perfectly well: seemingly infinite riches for a Kingdom’s only inhabitant. Even the footprint, left for several days, remains upon Crusoe’s return. Like the novel of which it is a part, the reader of the mark may revisit the site of this unlikely incident again and again, each time drawing more meanings from its appearance. Before Crusoe entertains that the footprint might be that of “savages of the mainland” he eagerly believes it to be Satan’s, placed there deliberately to fool him. Crusoe revisits the footprint, in person and then, as it fades, in his own memory. He ‘reads’ the island, attributing meanings to marks he discovers that go far beyond what is apparent. As Susan Stewart has noted: “In allegory the vision of the reader is larger than the vision of the text; the reader dreams to an excess, to an overabundance.” [4] Simon O’Sullivan, following from Deleuze, takes this further, arguing that in his isolation, a world free from ‘others’, Crusoe has merged with, become the island. The footprint is a mark that must be recuperated if Crusoe’s identity, his “power of will”, is to be maintained. An outsider must have caused the footprint, but Crusoe is only capable of reading in the mark something about himself. The evocation of a Demon, then, is Crusoe’s way of re-totalising his Empire, of removing the ‘other’ from his self-subjective identification with the island. So, how does this relate to thermodynamics? To answer that I will need to tell the tale of a second Demon, more playful even than Crusoe’s. In his 1871 essay, Theory of Heat, James Clerk Maxwell designed a thought experiment to test the 2nd law of Thermodynamics. Maxwell imagines a microscopic being able to sort atoms bouncing around a closed system into two categories: fast and slow. If such a creature did exist, it was argued, no work would be required to decrease the entropy of a closed system. By sorting unlikely footprints from the chaotic arrangement of sand particles Maxwell’s Demon, as it would later become known, appeared to contradict the law Maxwell himself had helped to develop. One method of solving the apparent paradox was devised by Charles H. Bennet, who recognised that the Demon would have to remember where he placed the fast and slow particles. Here, once again, the balance between the order and disorder of a system comes down to the balance between memory and information. As the demon decreases the entropy of its environment, so it must increase the entropy of its memory. The information required by the Demon acts like a noise in the system. The laws of physics had stood up under scrutiny, resulting in a new branch of science we now know as ‘Information Theory’. Maxwell’s Demon comes from an old view of the universe, “fashioned by divine intervention, created for man and responsive to his will” [5]. Information Theory represents a threshold, a revelation that the “inhuman force of increasing entropy, [is] indifferent to man and uncontrollable by human will.” [6] Maxwell’s Demon shows that the law of entropy has only a statistical certainty, that nature orders only on small scales and, that despite any will to control, inertia will eventually be reached. Developed at the peak of the British Empire, thermodynamics was sometimes called “the science of imperialism”, as Katherine Hayles has noted: “…to thermodynamicists, entropy represented the tendency of the universe to run down, despite the best efforts of British rectitude to prevent it from doing so… The rhetoric of imperialism confronts the inevitability of failure. In this context, entropy represents an apparently inescapable limit on the human will to control.” [7] Like Maxwell, Crusoe posits a Demon, with faculties similar in kind to his own, to help him quash his “terror of mind”. Crusoe’s fear is not really about outsiders coming in, the terror he feels comes from the realisation that the outsiders may have been here all along, that in all the 20 years of his isolation those “savages of the mainland” may have visited his island time and again. It is not an outside ‘other’ that disturbs and reorganises Crusoe’s Kingdom. A more perverse logic is at work here, and once again Crusoe will have to restructure his imperial order from the inside out. Before you read on, watch another scene from Luis Buñuel’s Robinson Crusoe (1954):

Jacques Rancière prepares for us a parable. A student who is illiterate, after living a fulfilled life without text, one day decides to teach herself to read. Luckily she knows a single poem by heart and procures a copy of that poem, presumably from a trusted source, by which to work. By comparing her memory of the poem, sign by sign, word by word, with the text of the poem she can, Rancière believes, finally piece together a foundational understanding of her written language: “From this ignoramus, spelling out signs, to the scientist who constructs hypotheses, the same intelligence is always at work – an intelligence that translates signs into other signs and proceeds by comparisons and illustrations in order to communicate its intellectual adventures and understand what another intelligence is endeavouring to communicate to it… This poetic labour of translation is at the heart of all learning.” [8] What interests me in Rancière’s example is not so much the act of translation as the possibility of mis-translation. Taken in light of The Ignorant Schoolmaster we can assume that Rancière is aware of the wide gap that exists between knowing something and knowing enough about something for it to be valuable. How does one calculate the value of what is a mistake? The ignoramus has an autonomy, but it is effectively blind to the quality and make-up of the information she parses. If she makes a mistake in her translation of the poem, this mistake can be one of two things: it can be a blind error, or, it can be a mutation. In information theory, the two ways to understand change within a closed system are understood to be the product of ‘noise’. The amount of change contributed by noise is called ‘equivocation’. If noise contributes to the reorganisation of a system in a beneficial way, for instance if a genetic mutation in an organism results in the emergence of an adaptive trait, then the equivocation is said to be ‘autonomy-producing’. Too much noise is equivalent to too much information, a ‘destructive’ equivocation, leading to chaos. This balance is how evolution functions. An ‘autonomy-producing’ mutation will be blindly passed on to an organism’s offspring, catalysing the self-organisation of the larger system (in this case, the species). All complex, what are called ‘autopoietic’ systems, inhabit this fine divide between noise and inertia.  Given just the right balance of noise recuperated by the system, and noise filtered out by the system, a state of productive change can be maintained, and a state of inertia can be avoided, at least, for a limited time. According to Umberto Eco, in ‘The Open Work’: “To be sure, this word information in communication theory relates not so much to what you do say, as to what you could say… In the end… there is no real difference between noise and signal, except in intent.” [9] This rigid delineator of intent is the driving force of our contemporary, communication paradigm. Information networks underpin our economic, political and social interactions: the failure to communicate is to be avoided at all costs. All noise is therefore seen as a problem. These processes, according to W. Daniel Hillis, define, “the essence of digital technology, which restores signal to near perfection at every stage.” [10] To go back to Umberto Eco then, we appear to be living in a world of “do say” rather than “could say”. Maintenance of the network and the routines of error management are our primary economic and political concern: control the networks and the immaterial products will manage themselves. The modern network paradigm acts like a Maxwell Demon, categorising information as either pure signal or pure noise. As Mark Nunes has noted, following the work of Deleuze and Guattari: “This forced binary imposes a kind of violence, one that demands a rationalisation of all singularities of expressions within a totalising system… The violence of information is, then, the violence of silencing or making to speak that which cannot communicate.” [11] To understand the violence of this binary logic, we need go no further than Robinson Crusoe. Friday’s questions are plain spoken, but do not adhere to the “do say” logic of Crusoe’s conception. In the novel, Crusoe’s approach to Friday becomes increasingly one sided, until Friday utters little more than ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers, “reducing his language to a pure function of immediate context and perpetuating a much larger imperialist tradition of levelling the vox populi.”[12] Any chance in what Friday “could say” has been violently obliterated. The logic of Ranciere’s Ignoramous, and of Crusoe’s levelling of Friday’s speech, are logics of imperialism: reducing the possibility of noise and information to an either/or, inside/outside, relationship. Mark Nunes again: “This balance between total flow and total control parallels Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of a regime of signs in which anything that resists systematic incorporation is cast out as an asignifying scapegoat “condemned as that which exceeds the signifying regime’s power of deterritorialisation.” [13] In the system of communication these “asignifying” events are not errors, in the common sense of the word. Mutation names a randomness that redraws the territory of complex systems. The footprint is the mark that reorganised the Empire. In Ranciere’s parable, rather than note her intent to decode the poem, we should hail the moment when the Ignoramus fails, as her autonomous moment. In a world where actants “translate signs into other signs and proceed by comparison and illustration” [14] the figures of information and communication are made distinct not by the caprice of those who control the networks, nor the desires of those who send and receive the messages, but by mutation itself. Michel Foucault, remarking on the work of Georges Canguilhem, drew the conclusion that the very possibility of mutation, rather than existing in opposition to our will, was what human autonomy was predicated upon: “In this sense, life – and this is its radical feature – is that which is capable of error… Further, it must be questioned in regard to that singular but hereditary error which explains the fact that, with man, life has led to a living being that is never completely in the right place, that is destined to ‘err’ and to be ‘wrong’.” [15] In his writings on the history of Heredity, The Logic of Life, Francois Jacob lingers on another Demon in the details, fashioned by Rene Descartes in his infamous meditation on human knowledge. François Jacob positions Descartes’ meditation in a period of explosive critical thought focussed on the very ontology of ‘nature’: “For with the arrival of the 17th Century, the very nature of knowledge was transformed. Until then, knowledge had been grafted on God, the soul and the cosmos… What counted [now] was not so much the code used by God for creating nature as that sought by man for understanding it.” [16] The infinite power of God’s will was no longer able to bend nature to any whim. If man were to decipher nature, to reveal its order, Descartes surmised, it was with the assurance that “the grid will not change in the course of the operation”[17]. For Descartes, the evil Demon, is a metaphor for deception espoused on the understanding that underlying that deception, nature had a certainty. God may well have given the world its original impetus, have designed its original make-up, but that make-up could not be changed. The network economy has today become the grid of operations onto which we map the world. Its binary restrictions predicate a logic of minimal error and maximum performance: a regime of control that drives our economic, political and social interdependencies. Trapped within his imperial logic, Robinson Crusoe’s levelling of inside and outside, his ruthless tidying of Friday’s noisy speech into a binary dialectic, disguises a higher order of reorganisation. As readers navigating the narrative we are keen to recognise the social changes Defoe’s novel embodies in its short-sighted central character. Perhaps, though, the most productive way to read this fiction, is to allegorise it as an outside perspective on our own time? Gathering together the fruits of research, I am often struck by the serendipitous quality of so many discoveries. In writing this mini-paper I have found it useful to engage with these marks, that become like demonic footprints, mutations in my thinking. Comparing each side by side, I hope to find, in the words of Michel Foucault: “…a way from the visible mark to that which is being said by it and which, without that mark, would lie like unspoken speech, dormant within things.” [18]    

References & Bibliography [1] Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, Penguin classics (London: Penguin Books, 2001).

[2] Umberto Eco, The open work (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, n.d.).

[3] Defoe, Robinson Crusoe.

[4] Susan Stewart, On longing: narratives of the miniature, the gigantic, the souvenir, the collection (Duke University Press, 1993).

[5] N. Katherine Hayles, “Maxwell’s Demon and Shannon’s Choice,” in Chaos bound: orderly disorder in contemporary literature and science (Cornell University Press, 1990).

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Jacques Rancière, The emancipated spectator (London: Verso, 2009).

[9] Umberto Eco, The open work (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, n.d.). (My emphasis)

[10] W Hillis, The pattern on the stone?: the simple ideas that make computers work, 1st ed. (New York: Basic Books, 1999).

[11] Mark Nunes, Error: glitch, noise, and jam in new media cultures (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010).

[12] Susan Stewart, On longing: narratives of the miniature, the gigantic, the souvenir, the collection (Duke University Press, 1993).

[13] Nunes, Error.

[14] Rancière, The emancipated spectator.

[15] Michel Foucault, “Life: Experience and Science,” in Aesthetics, method, and epistemology (The New Press, 1999).

[16] François Jacob, The logic of life: a history of heredity?; the possible and the actual (Penguin, 1989).

[17] Ibid.

[18] Michel Foucault, The order of things?: an archaeology of the human sciences., 2003.

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Wed, 07 Dec 2011 08:50:14 -0800 http://machinemachine.net/text/research/a-mark-on-crusoes-island
<![CDATA[Zombie Editions: An Archaeology of POD Areopagiticas]]> http://blog.whitneyannetrettien.com/2010/12/zombie-editions-archaeology-of-pod.html

This is a zombie edition, one of many I found for early modern texts on Amazon. Produced as cheap print-on-demand editions from EEBO or GoogleBook scans, they're listed alongside reputable scholarly print editions published by university presses, indistinguishable at first glance except for a few glaring markers. Like a mismatched cover image --

-- or excessively expressive titles:

Closer examination reveals their undead status. In the case of English Reprints Jhon Milton Areopagitica, the publisher is the aptly-named BiblioLife, a project of BiblioLabs, which designs software "to address the challenges of cost-effectively bringing old books back to life." (BiblioLabs takes the "brining things back to life" shtick pretty seriously. Their website proudly boasts that their company is located in a "Renewal Community" -- a distressed urban zone where businesses are eligible for billions in tax incentives.)

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Sun, 16 Oct 2011 09:06:15 -0700 http://blog.whitneyannetrettien.com/2010/12/zombie-editions-archaeology-of-pod.html
<![CDATA[GIF Archaeology]]> http://ask.metafilter.com/mefi/186002

I'm writing a paper on (animated) GIFs and am trying to track down some of the most (in)famous. I suppose I am talking memes, but I'm more interested in the GIF as an archaeological reference point. I frequent sites like dump.fm, tumblr etc. so am quite tuned in to the glitchy/kitschy side of GIF culture. How theoretical have people got on these wonders of the web? How does one trace the history of an animated GIF? I have a personal take on this (my paper is only short), but would love to find some well recognised, well lauded or completely briliant, unknown theoretical essays on the subject.

When I ask for (in)famous GIFs I am really trying to track down GIFs that spawned a long running meme. There are LOTS of memes out there, and many of them have been turned into GIFs, but which memes specifically came from the GIF culture? Has anyone traced these lineages? How would one go about examining a GIF archaeologically (if that is at all possible)?

Cheers

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Mon, 16 May 2011 08:17:15 -0700 http://ask.metafilter.com/mefi/186002
<![CDATA[Animated GIF Archaeology... Anybody have any hints on resources, essays, papers, websites about this most wonderful of glitchy phenomena?]]> http://twitter.com/therourke/statuses/70126540360388610 ]]> Mon, 16 May 2011 07:00:44 -0700 http://twitter.com/therourke/statuses/70126540360388610 <![CDATA[Digital legacy: Archaeology of the future]]> http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20395-digital-legacy-archaeology-of-the-future.html

The historians of 2061 will want to study the birth of the world wide web. How on earth will they know where to start?

Today, historians have to piece together the details of their subjects' lives from tiny scraps of evidence. Their successors are more likely to be overwhelmed: the problem will be making sense of our vast digital legacies. What techniques will they use to make sense of this deluge?

Many of us now generate more data than we can manage – think of all those holiday pictures you'll never get round to organising into an album. The contents of our hard drives are jumbled messes; the web's lack of structure, coupled with anonymity and the use of aliases, will make the online world an equally formidable challenge for future historians.

All the HTML, MP3 and JPEG files that make up today's web are likely to remain readable for a very long time. 

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Tue, 03 May 2011 03:12:21 -0700 http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn20395-digital-legacy-archaeology-of-the-future.html
<![CDATA[The Order of Things (Routledge Classics): Archaeology of the Human Sciences by Michel Foucault]]> http://www.librarything.com/work/book/72715340

Routledge (2001), Edition: 2, Paperback, 448 pages

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Wed, 27 Apr 2011 01:45:50 -0700 http://www.librarything.com/work/book/72715340
<![CDATA[Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology]]> http://www.upress.umn.edu/Books/P/parikka_insect.html

hrough Insect Media I wanted to investigate non-human media theory – and how we have for a longer time understood high-tech media through nature; through metaphors adapted from nature and more concretely, through the interfacing of natural and life sciences with digital culture. We have lived in the age of insects now for years – and by that, I mean the enthusiasm for swarms, distributed networks, and various other ideas that are “borrowed” from insect worlds and more widely animal research. The way we understand the processes and cultural phenomena surrounding network and digital media is often referred through concepts that are based in the non-human.

But I wanted to push this non-human theme a bit further in time, and investigate the birth of modern media culture through the animal forces in which it seems to be embedded.

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Wed, 02 Mar 2011 06:35:22 -0800 http://www.upress.umn.edu/Books/P/parikka_insect.html
<![CDATA[The Clock]]> http://machinemachine.net/text/arts/the-clock

Language is not what it is because it has meaning… It is a fragmented nature, divided against itself and deprived of its original transparency by admixture; it is a secret that carries within itself, though near the surface, the decipherable signs of what it is trying to say. It is at the same time a buried revelation and a revelation that is gradually being restored to ever greater clarity. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things

Every Thing has to end, but not so its fragments. Energy flows amongst systems. It constitutes as it destroys, but never does energy itself dissipate completely. All flow is transformation. Re-figuration is the enemy of entropy. Christian Marclay’s new work, The Clock, currently on show at The White Cube in London, constitutes a new system from old fragments. Comprised of 24 hours of film segments, Marclay’s work offers the viewer a real-time database of clock faces captured by Marclay and forced into the cinematic paradigm. What fascinates most about this work (and at this stage, I must admit, I have not seen it) is its explicit totality: Marclay’s film effectively closes the image of time within the loop of a 24 hour cinematic. The database of clock faces ebbs forever forwards, closed into itself as loop. This is not only our shared perception of time, it is also a perception without which the art of cinema may never have emerged. Put another way, Marclay’s work exposes the rigidity of not only the cinematic (a reel spins in only two directions) but also the conception of time (arguably a ‘Western’ one) that figures it. But – and this ‘but’ should be writ larger than my database of fonts allows me – Marclay’s work is a work made manageable in its making by a technology seemingly free of forward/backward limitations. For writer and theorist Lev Manovich the computer/digital database plays a fundamental role in transforming the hidden data set (thousands of individual film segments of clocks/time) and the material [removed]the 24 hour long film) into the each of its other: Literary and cinematic narratives work in the same way. Particular words, sentences, shots, scenes which make up a narrative have a material existence; other elements which form an imaginary world of an author or a particular literary or cinematic style and which could have appeared instead exist only virtually. Put differently, the database of choices from which narrative is constructed (the paradigm) is implicit; while the actual narrative (the syntagm) is explicit. New media reverses this relationship. Database (the paradigm) is given material existence, while narrative (the syntagm) is de-materialised. Paradigm is privileged, syntagm is downplayed. Paradigm is real, syntagm is virtual. Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media

Marclay’s gathering of clock footage only ever had one, obsessively realised, end point. The point when every second of the Earthly day (morning/noon/night) was figured, classed and catalogued by the totalising database. Here we find a metaphor impossible to mistake: that of a digital present, forever engaged in the cataloging of its own archaeology. Cuttings, fragments. Old medias torn and compressed into digital instances and made to float between databases. This is the status of art today. It is not a new approach Marclay wields in his work, but in its totality (or its illusion of totality) The Clock must be one of the most successful attempts to figure the contemporary as ‘database’.

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Fri, 05 Nov 2010 10:11:00 -0700 http://machinemachine.net/text/arts/the-clock
<![CDATA[The Artificial Ape: How Technology Changed the Course of Human Evolution]]> http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/sep/04/artificial-ape-technology-timothy-taylor

There has been a rash of books on human evolution in recent years, claiming that it was driven by art (Denis Dutton: The Art Instinct), cooking (Richard Wrangham: Catching Fire), sexual selection (Geoffrey Miller: The Mating Mind). Now, Timothy Taylor, reader in archaeology at the University of Bradford, makes a claim for technology in general and, in particular, the invention of the baby sling – not, as you may have thought, in the 1960s but more than 2m years ago.

All these theories and speculations are in truth complementary facets of an emerging Grand Universal Theory of Human Origins. The way they overlap, reinforce one another and suggest new leads is too striking to miss. What they have in common is a reversal of the received idea of evolution through natural selection. In this, a mutation takes place that happens to be useful; it is retained and spreads through the population. In the new theory, proto-human beings, through innovative technologies, created the conditions that l

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Wed, 08 Sep 2010 03:20:00 -0700 http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/sep/04/artificial-ape-technology-timothy-taylor
<![CDATA[And Another ‘Thing’ : Sci-Fi Truths and Nature's Errors]]> http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2010/09/and-another-thing-sci-fi-truths-and-natures-errors.html

In my last 3quarksdaily article I considered the ability of science-fiction – and the impossible objects it contains – to highlight the gap between us and ‘The Thing Itself’ (the fundamental reality underlying all phenomena). In this follow-up I ask whether the way these fictional ‘Things’ determine their continued existence – by copying, cloning or imitation – can teach us about our conception of nature.

Seth Brundle: What's there to take? The disease has just revealed its purpose. We don't have to worry about contagion anymore... I know what the disease wants.

Ronnie: What does the disease want?

Seth Brundle: It wants to... turn me into something else. That's not too terrible is it? Most people would give anything to be turned into something else.

Ronnie: Turned into what?

Seth Brundle: Whaddaya think? A fly. Am I becoming a hundred-and-eighty-five-pound fly? No, I'm becoming something that never existed before. I'm becoming... Brundlefly. Don't you think that's worth a Nobel Prize or two?

The Fly, 1986

In David Cronenberg’s movie The Fly (1986) we watch through slotted fingers as the body of Seth Brundle is horrifically transformed. Piece by piece Seth becomes Brundlefly: a genetic monster, fused together in a teleportation experiment gone awry. In one tele-pod steps Seth, accompanied by an unwelcome house-fly; from the other pod emerges a single Thing born of their two genetic identities. The computer algorithm designed to deconstruct and reconstruct biology as pure matter cannot distinguish between one entity and another. The parable, as Cronenberg draws it, is simple: if all the world is code then ‘all the world’ is all there is.

Vincent Price in 'The Fly', 1958Science fiction is full of liminal beings. Creatures caught in the phase between animal and human, between alien and Earthly, between the material and the spirit. Flowing directly from the patterns of myth Brundlefly is a modern day Minotaur: a manifestation of our deep yearning to coalesce with natural forces we can’t understand. The searing passions of the bull, its towering stature, are fused in the figure of the Minotaur with those of man. The resultant creature is too fearsome for this world, too Earthly to exist in the other, and so is forced to wander through a labyrinth hovering impossibly between the two. Perhaps Brundlefly’s labyrinth is the computer algorithm winding its path through his genetic code. As a liminal being, Brundlefly is capable of understanding both worlds from a sacred position, between realities. His goal is reached, but at a cost too great for an Earthly being to understand. Seth the scientist sacrifices himself and there is no Ariadne’s thread to lead him back.

In her book on monsters, aliens and Others Elaine L. Graham reminds us of the thresholds these ‘Things’ linger on:

“[H]uman imagination, by giving birth to fantastic, monstrous and alien figures, has… always eschewed the fiction of fixed species. Hybrids and monsters are the vehicles through which it is possible to understand the fabricated character of all things, by virtue of the boundaries they cross and the limits they unsettle.”

Elaine L. Graham, Representations of the Post/Human

Hybrids such as the Minotaur or Brundlefly are meeting points for disparate categories of representation. They symbolise the tragic limits of human perception. Unable to grasp the world in and of Itself (nature) we colonise it with ever more fabricated representations and imitations (culture) which only result in distancing us yet further from The Thing Itself. One such category of fabrication, a favourite in science fiction, is ‘code’. Brundlefly is a Thing caught on the threshold between, what in geek-terminology we might call, wetware and software. Cronenberg’s parable plays into the hands of every techno-fearing luddite: a monster born from our desire to reduce nature to science; to simplify lumpy, oozing, unpredictable flesh in the patterns of an efficient genetic code.

Jeff Goldblum in 'The Fly', 1986We are all the tragic Brundefly because whilst we see beauty and endless creative potential in the natural world around us, we find it impossible to quantify those same categories in the reductive models we have devised to describe them. To describe nature, whether genetic codes unwinding or bees busying around their nest, we gasp at its “creativity”, ascribing its endless variation a human-like attention to detail. But as Richard Dawkins alludes to below, the most creative force in nature is the absolute opposite of perfection: it is in fact error. The world that science has modelled for us is a world riddled with mistakes, failures and run away coding errors. In order to ‘create’ nature must, as Alexander Pope said of the human, err:

“Think about the two qualities that a virus, or any sort of parasitic replicator, demands of a friendly medium, the two qualities that make cellular machinery so friendly towards parasitic DNA, and that make computers so friendly towards computer viruses. These qualities are, firstly, a readiness to replicate information accurately, perhaps with some mistakes that are subsequently reproduced accurately; and, secondly, a readiness to obey instructions encoded in the information so replicated.”

Richard Dawkins, Viruses of the Mind

It is beneficial for life that errors exist and are propagated by biological systems. Too many copying errors and all biological processes would be cancerous, mutating towards oblivion. Too much error management (redundancy) and biological change, and thus evolution, could never occur.

Simply put, exchange within and between natural systems has no value unless change, and thus error, is possible within the system. What science fiction allows us to do is peek into a world where nature’s love for error is switched off, or allowed to run rampant. What would be the consequence of a truly ‘perfect’ natural process, devoid of error? In John Carpenter’s The Thing we see the result of such a process: a nature perfect by our standards, but terrible in its consequences.

Blair: You see, what we're talking about here, is an organism that imitates other life forms, and it imitates them perfectly. When this thing attacked our dogs, it tried to digest them, absorb them, and in the process shape its own cells to imitate them. This, for instance...That's not dog, it's imitation. We got to it before it had time to finish.

Norris: Finish what?

Blair: Finish imitating these dogs.

The Thing, 1982

John Carpenter's 'The Thing', 1982John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) is a claustrophobic sci-fi masterpiece, containing all the hallmarks of a great horror film. As in The Fly, the film depicts a sinister turn for the body, where the chaos of the replicating, cancerous cell is expanded to the human scale and beyond. In The Thing we watch as an alien force terrorises an isolated Antarctic outpost. The creature exhibits the awesome ability to imitate its host, devouring any creature (or human) it comes across before giving birth to an exact copy in a burst of blood and protoplasm. The Thing copies cell by cell and its process is so perfect - at every level of replication - that the resultant simulacrum speaks, acts and even thinks like the original. The Thing is so relentless, its copies so perfect, that the outpost's Doctor is sent mad at the implications:

Blair: If a cell gets out it could imitate everything on the face of the earth... and it's not gonna stop!!!

In The Thing it is we, the human race, who are trapped between realities. A twist in the truth that highlights our own liminal nature. If, as Dawkins suggests, evolution is about the imperfect copy, then, like the tragic Brundlefly, or the towering figure of the Minotaur, the characters in The Thing are torn between two equally horrifying worlds. In one, the alien Thing aims for perfection, cloning its hosts cell by cell until, like The Ship of Argo, an entirely new, but identical world remains. In the other, the beauty of nature, in all its intricacy, is the result of a billion years of ugly mutation. 

Which process is closest to the truth? Which result is more hideous? I have not the authority to say. In science fiction every improbable event is balanced by the existence of an equally improbable reality. The Thing Itself, the world beneath phenomenon, and the Things that inhabit it, have always been impossible to comprehend. Where science fiction takes us, kicking and screaming, is right back to the real world, our knuckles a little whiter from the journey.

by Daniel Rourke


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Sun, 05 Sep 2010 21:20:00 -0700 http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2010/09/and-another-thing-sci-fi-truths-and-natures-errors.html
<![CDATA['The Thing Itself' : A Sci-Fi Archaeology]]> http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2010/08/the-thing-itself-a-sc-fi-archaeology.html

Mid-way through H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine, the protagonist stumbles into a sprawling abandoned museum. Sweeping the dust off ancient relics he ponders his machine's ability to hasten their decay. It is at this point that The Time Traveller has an astounding revelation. The museum is filled with artefacts not from his past, but from his own future: The Time Traveller is surrounded by relics whose potential to speak slipped away with the civilisation that created them.

Having bypassed the normal laws of causality The Time Traveller is doomed to inhabit strands of history plucked from time's grander web. Unable to grasp a people’s history – the conditions that determine them – one will always misunderstand them.

Archaeology derives from the Greek word arche, which literally means the moment of arising. Aristotle foregrounded the meaning of arche as the element or principle of a Thing, which although indemonstrable and intangible in Itself, provides the conditions of the possibility of that Thing. In a sense, archaeology is as much about the present instant, as it is about the fragmentary past. We work on what remains through the artefacts that make it into our museums, our senses and even our language. But to re-energise those artefacts, to bring them back to life, the tools we have access to do much of the speaking.

Like the unseen civilisations of H.G.Wells’ museum, these Things in Themselves lurk beyond the veil of our perceptions. It is the world in and of Itself; the Thing as it exists distinct from perceptions, from emotions, sensations, from all phenomenon, that sets the conditions of the world available to those senses. Perceiving the world, sweeping dust away from the objects around us, is a constant act of archaeology.

Kant called this veiled reality the noumenon, a label he interchanged with The-Thing-Itself (Ding an Sich). That which truly underlies what one may only infer through the senses. For Kant, and many philosophers that followed, The Thing Itself is impossible to grasp directly. The senses we use to search the world also wrap that world in a cloudy haze of perceptions, misconceptions and untrustworthy phenomena.

In another science fiction classic, Polish writer Stanislaw Lem considered the problem of The Thing Itself as one of communication. His Master’s Voice (HMV), written at the height of The Cold War, tells the story of a team of scientists and their attempts to decipher an ancient, alien message transmitted on the neutrino static streaming from a distant star. The protagonist of this tale, one Peter Hogarth, recounts the failed attempts at translation with a knowing, deeply considered cynicism. To Peter, and to Stanislaw Lem himself, true contact with an alien intelligence is an absolute impossibility:

“In the course of my work... I began to suspect that the ‘letter from the stars’ was, for us who attempted to decipher it, a kind of psychological association test, a particularly complex Rorschach test. For as a subject, believing he sees in the coloured blotches angels or birds of ill omen, in reality fills in the vagueness of the thing shown with what is ‘on his mind’, so did we attempt, behind the veil of incomprehensible signs, to discern the presence of what lay, first and foremost, within ourselves.”

Stanislaw Lem, His Master's Voice


In HMV and Lem’s better known novel, Solaris, the conviction that an absolute true reality exists under the dust of perception leads humanity down ever more winding labyrinths of its own psyche. For Stanislaw Lem the human mind exists in a perpetual state of archaeology, turning away from Itself in search of truth, but time and again finding Itself confronted as the very Thing that underlies the reality it is trying to decipher.

To transcend phenomena, to clear away the dust, one must, according to Kant, think. Thus his Thing Itself, derives from the Greek for 'thought-of' (nooúmenon) and further implies the concept of the mind (nous). Kant’s Thing Itself is accessed through pure thought. A clear enough mind, devoid of the bodily shackles of pain, pleasure or emotion, might see without seeing, sweeping away the perceptual cobwebs by guile alone. What Plato referred to as the only immortal part of the human soul, reason, becomes through Kant the dominant principle by which The Thing Itself may be reached.

In the short space I have allotted myself here, I have not the time, or the guile, to fully analyse the Kantian noumenon. Needles to say, countless thinkers, from Nietzsche to Wittgenstein, Hegel to Agamben, have grappled with the suppositions and presuppositions made to cohere and then crumble by Kant’s addiction to reason. What interests me about science fiction, and most readily about the works of Wells and Lem, is the attempt made to search for 'The Thing Itself' beyond the mind; beyond the human altogether.

Science fiction allows the creation of an imaginary set of conditions by which the human being may break their most burdonsome shackle: their own mind. Human timescales, bodies, forms of thinking and perception: each of these must be circumvented if one is ever able to grasp The Thing Itself. Kant’s principle of noumenon embodies a discourse on the limits of perception that has remained relevant to philosophy for millenia. The paradox of the archaeology – the arising – of an underlying reality is the defining principle of a thousand sci-fi tales.

For Stanislaw Lem our limitations become obvious once we are confronted with the existence of an intelligence which is not human. Lem’s novels seek to connect us with the absolute ‘other’: that most alien of Things, ourselves. Reality, for Lem at least, is composed in an indecipherable language. Humanity lives in an eternal stasis, unable to circum-navigate the new realities it constantly 'discovers' for itself. And in the end we find ourselves limited by the brains that think us, unable to distinguish the twinkle-twinkle from the little star:

“There exist, speaking in the most general way, two kinds of language known to us. There are ordinary languages, which man makes use of – and the languages not made by man. In such language organisms speak to organisms. I have in mind the so called genetic code. This code is not a variety of natural language, because it not only contains information about the structure of the organism, but also is able, by itself, to transform that information into the very organism. The code, then, is acultural...

Now to go straight to the heart of the matter, we begin to suspect that an ‘acultural language’ is something more or less like Kant’s ‘Thing-in-itself’. One can fully grasp neither the code nor the thing.”

Stanislaw Lem, His Master's Voice

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Sun, 08 Aug 2010 21:05:00 -0700 http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2010/08/the-thing-itself-a-sc-fi-archaeology.html