MachineMachine /stream - tagged with barthes en-us LifePress <![CDATA[the "undifferentiated mass of organic sensation" origin]]>

In this text from 1966, Robert Smithson quotes Roland Barthes as saying the “undifferentiated mass of organic sensation.” But I can’t find the origin of the quote. A skewed translation? or possibly just made up by Smithson? Any ideas where it might come from appreciated.

Thu, 14 Mar 2024 13:38:54 -0700
<![CDATA[What Is an @uthor? | The Los Angeles Review of Books]]>

Photo: Faulkner at Virginia, © 2010 Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia; Author Stephen Railton.

Tue, 10 Feb 2015 04:11:54 -0800
<![CDATA[Reinvention without End: Roland Barthes | Mute]]>

Peter Suchin reappraises the prismatic works of Roland Barthes – an author who defied his own pronouncement of the designation’s demise. From the Marxist of Mythologies to the ‘scientist’ of S/Z, Suchin discovers a writer who understood the pleasure of text

Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, Seuil, 1975In her obituary of Roland Barthes Susan Sontag observed that Barthes never underlined passages in the books he read, instead transcribing noteworthy sections of text onto index cards for later consultation. In recounting this practice Sontag connected Barthes’ aversion to this sacrilegious act of annotation with ‘the fact that he drew, and that this drawing, which he pursued seriously, was a kind of writing.’[1] Sontag was making reference to the 700 or so drawings and paintings left by Barthes – usually regarded as a literary critic and social commentator – at his death as the result of a road accident in 1980.

Occasionally reproduced in his books, most visibly on the cover of Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes (1975), but never exhibited during his lifetime, these paintings were, as Barthes himself pointed out, the work of an amateur. ‘The Amateur’, he noted, ‘engages in painting, music, sport, science, without the spirit of mastery or competition[...] he establishes himself graciously (for nothing) in the signifier: in the immediately definitive substance of music, of painting[...] he is – he will be perhaps – the counter-bourgeois artist.’[2]

If Barthes was happy to be an amateur he nonetheless gave this word the weight of a serious critical designation. The practice of an amateur is ‘counter-bourgeois’ insofar as it manages to escape commodification, having been made for the pleasure implicit in production itself, rather than for monetary gain or cultural status. Barthes’ paintings relay an indulgence in the materiality of the brush or pen as it moved across the support, in the body’s engagement with the texture of paint, the physical trace of a shimmering track of ink or a riotous collision of colours. ‘I have an almost obsessive relation to writing instruments’, he reflected in 1973. ‘I often switch from one pen to the other just for the pleasure of it. I try out new ones. I have far too many pens – I don’t know what to do with all of them.’[3] For Barthes, who wrote all his texts by hand, this concern with the tools of writing was connected with his experience and recognition of the intimate materiality of artistic production. Each day he found time to sit at the piano, ‘fingering’ as he called it, and had taken singing lessons in his youth and acted in classical Greek theatre whilst a student at the Sorbonne in the 1930s. The ‘corporeal, sensual content of rock music...expresses a new relation to the body’, he told an interviewer in 1972: ‘it should be defended.’[4]

Barthes’ perceptive analyses of French culture, collected together in Mythologies (1957), were, like his other early writings, overtly Marxist. This approach was later superseded by one in which his prose mimicked the ostensible neutrality of scientific discourse. S/Z (1970), for example, mapped five cultural codes onto a Balzac short story which had been divided up by Barthes into 561 fragments or ‘lexias’, the text being taken to pieces as though it were being examined in a laboratory. His tour de force semiological study of The Fashion System (1967) had relied on a similarly ‘objective’ approach to the linguistic niceties of fashion writing. But the practice of the later Barthes – the Barthes of The Pleasure of the Text (1973), A Lover’s Discourse (1977), and Camera Lucida (1980) – revealed the earlier publications to be complicated machines for the generation of diverse forms of language, modes of writing, as opposed to ‘matter of fact’ commentaries or critiques. When considered together as a corpus or oeuvre, Barthes numerous books suggest an emphatically idiosyncratic individual and author whose ‘political’ and ’scientific’ writings were but elements in a constantly shifting trajectory, stages in a literary career whose central motivation was the repeated reinvigoration of language. Like that of Proust, whose work he described as being for him ‘the reference work...the mandala of the entire literary cosmogony’[5], Barthes’ life might be said to be inseparable from this practice of writing. ‘The language I speak within myself is not of my time’, he mused in The Pleasure of the Text; ‘it is prey, by nature, to ideological suspicion; thus, it is with this language I must struggle. I write because I do not want the words I find...’ (p. 40). This act of writing was not so much a reflection of the ‘self’ Barthes happened to be at a given moment as a means of self-invention, of, in fact, reinvention without end. To work on language was, for Barthes, to work upon the self, engaging with received ideas, cultural stereotypes, and cliches of every kind in order to overthrow or reposition them, moving around and through language into another order of action and effect. ‘All his writings are polemical,’ suggests Sontag, but a strong optimistic strand is clearly evident too: ‘He had little feeling for the tragic. He was always finding the advantage of a disadvantage.’[6]

But if one was, as a human being, condemned to relentlessly signify, to make, and be oneself made into ‘meanings’, Barthes seriously pursued in his watercolours and assiduous scribbles the impossible position of the exemption of meaning. If these paintings are ‘a kind of writing’, they are forgeries, fragments of false tongues and imaginary ciphers, closer to what Barthes himself termed ‘texts of bliss’, rather than ‘texts of pleasure’, though positioned somewhere between the two.

This opposition, which runs through The Pleasure of the Text, defines texts of pleasure as constituting an attractive but ultimately mundane aesthetic form, whilst those of bliss or, in the French, jouissance, comprise a radical break, not merely within language but within the very fabric of culture itself. Such a binary opposition can be found elsewhere in Barthes’ writings. The terms ‘studium’ and ‘punctum’ in Camera Lucida are a case in point, the former referring to the commonality of photographic representations with which we are today surrounded, whilst ‘punctum’ designates a puncture or disturbance in the viewer. ‘A detail overwhelms the entirety of my reading; it is an immense mutation of my interest...By the mark of something, the photograph is no longer “anything whatever”.’ (p. 49) With such an emphasis on the reader’s or viewer’s individual response Barthes moved closer and closer to autobiography and the subjective format of the jotting or journal. Most famous for his 1968 essay ‘The Death of the Author’, the acutely particular tone of Barthes’ writing later appears to contradict the loss of authorial authority celebrated in this immensely influential work.[7] Rather than ‘critic’, ‘literary historian’ or ‘structuralist’, the appelation ‘writer’ looks to be the most succinct for all the different ‘Barthes’ we encounter in his writings. He is finally all these things and none, ‘a subject in process’, to use a term from his student Julia Kristeva.[8] Yet Barthes recognised that the artist or author can never control meaning, that the last word always belongs to someone else: ‘to write is to permit others to conclude one’s own discourse, and writing is only a proposition whose answer one never knows. One writes in order to be loved, one is read without being able to be loved, it is doubtless this distance which constitutes the writer.’[9]

Wed, 11 Dec 2013 15:42:37 -0800
<![CDATA[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 I throw around 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  [i] is echoed in the human character J.F. Sebastian,[ii]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. As Frederic Jameson has noted, Dick’s work ‘renders our present historical by turning it into the past of a fantasized future’ (Jameson 2005, 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 as an Empire, its borders slowly expanding away from the subjects yearning for Biltong replicas, seeded with mistakes. Kipple is a death of subjects, haunted by objects, but kipple is also a renewal, a rebirth. The future anterior is a frontier, one from which it might just be possible to look back upon the human without nostalgia. Qualify the human subject with the android built in its image; the object with the entropic degradation that it must endure if its form is to be perpetuated, and you necessarily approach an ontology of garbage, junk and detritus: a glimmer of hope for the remnants of decay to assert their own identity. 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. Kipple is an entropy of forms, ideals long since removed from their Platonic realm by the march of mimesis, and kippleisation an endless, unstoppable encounter between subjectness and thingness. Eschewing Martin Heidegger’s definition of a thing, 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, 4) We no longer see through the window-object (literally or metaphorically), but are brought into conflict with its own particular discrete being by 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, 7) appears to instate the subject as the centre of worldly relations. But Bill Brown has spun a realist [iii] 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, 40)

Brown’s appraisal of things flirts with the 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 thing 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 thingnessslips back into recognition 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 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, 16) In order that the subject remain continuous, it is the messy world that we must isolate into classes and taxonomies. We collate, aggregate and collect not merely because we desire, but because without these nominative acts the pivot of desire – the illusionary subject – could not be sustained. If the powerful stance produced in Dick’s future anterior is to be sustained, the distinction between subjects aggregating objects, and objects coagulating the subject, needs flattening. [iv] Bill Brown’s appeal to the ‘flow within the circuits of production and distribution, consumption and exhibition’ (Brown 2001, 4) partially echoes Dick’s concern with the purity of the thing. Although Dick’s Biltong were probably more of a comment on the Xerox machine than the computer, the problem of the distribution of form, as it relates to commodity fetishism, enables ‘printing’ as a neat paradigm of the contemporary network-based economy. Digital things, seeming to proliferate independent from the sinuous optical cables and super-cooled server banks that disseminate them, are absolutelyreliant on the process of copying. Copying is a fundamental component of the digital network where, unlike the material commodity, things are not passed 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, 72) of digital things, less flowing ‘within the circuits’ (Brown 2001, 4) as being that circuitry flow in and of itself. The entire network is a ship of Argo, capable, perhaps for the first time, [v]to Substitute and Nominate its own parts, 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) 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, [vi]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 [i] 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. [ii] A translated version of the character, J.F. Isidore, from the original novel. [iii] 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, 163) one in which a discussion of the being of a chilli pepper or a wrist watch 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, 19) Unlike Graham Harman, who uses the terms interchangeably, (Bogost 2012, 24) Bill Brown’s Thing Theory approaches the problem by strongly asserting a difference between objects and things. [iv] I have carefully avoided using the term ‘posthuman,’ but I hope its resonance remains. [v] The resonance here with a biological imperative is intentional, although it is perhaps in this work alone that I wish to completely avoid such digital/biological metonyms. Boris Groys’ text From Image to Image File – And Back: Art in the Age of Digitisation, functions neatly to bridge this work with previous ones 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.

[vi] 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.

Bibliography Barthes, Roland. 1994. Roland Barthes. University of California Press. Bogost, Ian. 2012. Alien Phenomenology, Or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. University of Minnesota Press. Brown, Bill. 2001. “Thing Theory.” Critical Inquiry 28 (1) (October 1): 1–22. Bryant, Levi R. 2011. The Democracy of Objects. Clarke, Arthur C. 1977. “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination.” In Profiles of the future?: an inquiry into the limits of the possible. New York: Popular Library. Dick, Philip K. 1968. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Random House Publishing Group, 2008. ———. 2011. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Eakin, Paul John. 1992. Touching the World: Reference in Autobiography. Princeton University Press. Hillis, W. 1999. The Pattern on the Stone?: the Simple Ideas That Make Computers Work. 1st paperback ed. New York: Basic Books. Jameson, Fredric. 2005. Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions. Verso. Keep Britain Tidy Campaign, Environmental Campaigns (ENCAMS). YOUR RUBBISH AND THE LAW a Guide for Businesses. Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. 2008. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. MIT Press. Latour, Bruno. 1993. The Pasteurization of France. Harvard University Press. Parikka, Jussi. 2008. “Copy.” In Software Studies?: a Lexicon, ed. Matthew Fuller, 70–78. Cambridge  Mass.: MIT Press. Schwenger, Peter. 2004. “Words and the Murder of the Thing.” In Things, 135 – 150. University of Chicago Press Journals. Scott, Ridley. 1982. Blade Runner. Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller. Serres, Michel. 2007. The Parasite. 1st University of Minnesota Press ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Sterling, Bruce. 2012. “Design Fiction: Sascha Pohflepp & Daisy Ginsberg, ‘Growth Assembly’.” Wired Magazine: Beyond The Beyond.

Sat, 25 Aug 2012 10:00:00 -0700
<![CDATA[Binary Nomination]]>

‘An important feature of a learning machine is that its teacher will often be very largely ignorant of quite what is going on inside, although he may still be able to some extent to predict his pupil’s behaviour.’ Alan Turing, Computing Machinery and Intelligence (1950)

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 Roland 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) 1

The discrete breaches the continuous in the act of nomination. Take for instance the spectrum of colours, the extension of which ‘is verbally reduced to a series of discontinuous terms’ 2 such as red, green, lilac or puce. Each colour has no cause but its name. By being isolated in language the colour ‘blue’ is allowed to exist, but its existence is an act of linguistic and, some would argue, perceptual severance. 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 in language. There is no thing more contradictory in this regard than the human subject, a figure Barthes’ tried to paradoxically side-step in his playful autobiography. 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.’ 3

In an esoteric paper, published in 1930, Lewis Richardson teased out an analogy between flashes of human insight and the spark that leaps across a stop gap in an electrical circuit. The paper, entitled The Analogy Between Mental Images and Sparks, navigates around a provocative sketch stencilled into its pages of a simple indeterminate circuit, whose future state it is impossible to predict. Richardson’s playful label for the diagram hides a deep significance. For even at the simplest binary level, Richardson argued, computation need not necessarily be deterministic.

The discrete and the continuous are here again blurred by analogy. Electricity flowing and electricity not flowing: a binary imposition responsible for the entire history of information technology.


1 Roland Barthes, Roland Barthes (University of California Press, 1994), 46.

2 Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology (Hill and Wang, 1977), 64.

3 Paul John Eakin, Touching the World: Reference in Autobiography (Princeton University Press, 1992), 16.

Thu, 19 Jul 2012 09:32:00 -0700
<![CDATA[Rigid Implementation vs Flexible Materiality]]>

Wow. It’s been a while since I updated my blog. I intend to get active again here soon, with regular updates on my research. For now, I thought it might be worth posting a text I’ve been mulling over for a while (!) Yesterday I came across this old TED presentation by Daniel Hillis, and it set off a bunch of bells tolling in my head. His book The Pattern on the Stone was one I leafed through a few months back whilst hunting for some analogies about (digital) materiality. The resulting brainstorm is what follows. (This blog post, from even longer ago, acts as a natural introduction: On (Text and) Exaptation) In the 1960s and 70s Roland Barthes named “The Text” as a network of production and exchange. Whereas “the work” was concrete, final – analogous to a material – “the text” was more like a flow, a field or event – open ended. Perhaps even infinite. In, From Work to Text, Barthes wrote: The metaphor of the Text is that of the network… (Barthes 1979) This semiotic approach to discourse, by initiating the move from print culture to “text” culture, also helped lay the ground for a contemporary politics of content-driven media. Skipping backwards through From Work to Text, we find this statement: The text must not be understood as a computable object. It would be futile to attempt a material separation of works from texts. I am struck here by Barthes” use of the phrase “computable object”, as well as his attention to the “material”. Katherine Hayles in her essay, Text is Flat, Code is Deep, (Hayles 2004) teases out the statement for us: ‘computable’ here mean[s] to be limited, finite, bound, able to be reckoned. Written twenty years before the advent of the microcomputer, his essay stands in the ironic position of anticipating what it cannot anticipate. It calls for a movement away from works to texts, a movement so successful that the ubiquitous ‘text’ has all but driven out the media-specific term book. Hayles notes that the “ubiquity” of Barthes” term “Text” allowed – in its wake – an erasure of media-specific terms, such as “book”. In moving from, The Work to The Text, we move not just between different politics of exchange and dissemination, we also move between different forms and materialities of mediation. (Manovich 2002)For Barthes the material work was computable, whereas the network of the text – its content – was not.

In 1936, the year that Alan Turing wrote his iconic paper ‘On Computable Numbers’, a German engineer by the name of Konrad Zuse built the first working digital computer. Like its industrial predecessors, Zuse’s computer was designed to function via a series of holes encoding its program. Born as much out of convenience as financial necessity, Zuse punched his programs directly into discarded reels of 35mm film-stock. Fused together by the technologies of weaving and cinema, Zuse’s computer announced the birth of an entirely new mode of textuality. The Z3, the world’s first working programmable, fully automatic computer, arrived in 1941. (Manovich 2002) A year earlier a young graduate by the name of Claude Shannon had published one of the most important Masters theses in history. In it he demonstrated that any logical expression of Boolean algebra could be programmed into a series of binary switches. Today computers still function with a logic impossible to distinguish from their mid-20th century ancestors. What has changed is the material environment within which Boolean expressions are implemented. Shannon’s work first found itself manifest in the fragile rows of vacuum tubes that drove much of the technical innovation of the 40s and 50s. In time, the very same Boolean expressions were firing, domino-like, through millions of transistors etched onto the surface of silicon chips. If we were to query the young Shannon today, he might well gawp in amazement at the material advances computer technology has gone through. But, if Shannon was to examine either your digital wrist watch or the world’s most advanced supercomputer in detail, he would once again feel at home in the simple binary – on/off – switches lining those silicon highways. Here the difference between how computers are implemented and what computers are made of digs the first of many potholes along our journey. We live in an era not only practically driven by the computer, but an era increasingly determined by the metaphors computers have injected into our language. Let us not make the mistake of presupposing that brains (or perhaps minds) are “like” computers. Tempting though it is to reduce the baffling complexities of the human being to the functions of the silicon chip, the parallel processor or Wide Area Network this reduction occurs most usefully at the level of metaphor and metonym. Again the mantra must be repeated that computers function through the application of Boolean logic and binary switches, something that can not be said about the human brain with any confidence a posteriori. Later I will explore the consequences on our own understanding of ourselves enabled by the processing paradigm, but for now, or at least the next few paragraphs, computers are to be considered in terms of their rigid implementation and flexible materiality alone. At the beginning of his popular science book, The Pattern on the Stone, (Hillis 1999) W.  Daniel Hillis narrates one of his many tales on the design and construction of a computer. Built from tinker-toys the computer in question was/is functionally complex enough to “play” tic-tac-toe (noughts and crosses). The tinker-toy was chosen to indicate the apparent simplicity of computer design, but as Hillis argues himself, he may very well have used pipes and valves to create a hydraulic computer, driven by water pressure, or stripped the design back completely, using flowing sand, twigs and twine or any other recipe of switches and connectors. The important point is that the tinker-toy tic-tac-toe computer functions perfectly well for the task it is designed for, perfectly well, that is, until the tinker-toy material begins to fail. This failure is what Chapter 1 of this thesis is about: why it happens, why its happening is a material phenomenon and how the very idea of “failure” is suspect. Tinker-toys fail because the mechanical operation of the tic-tac-toe computer puts strain on the strings of the mechanism, eventually stretching them beyond practical use. In a perfect world, devoid of entropic behaviour, the tinker-toy computer may very well function forever, its users setting O or X conditions, and the computer responding according to its program in perfect, logical order. The design of the machine, at the level of the program, is completely closed; finished; perfect. Only materially does the computer fail (or flail), noise leaking into the system until inevitable chaos ensues and the tinker-toys crumble back into jumbles of featureless matter. This apparent closure is important to note at this stage because in a computer as simple as the tic-tac-toe machine, every variable can be accounted for and thus programmed for. Were we to build a chess playing computer from tinker-toys (pretending we could get our hands on the, no doubt, millions of tinker-toy sets we”d need) the closed condition of the computer may be less simple to qualify. Tinker-toys, hydraulic valves or whatever material you choose, could be manipulated into any computer system you can imagine, even the most brain numbingly complicated IBM supercomputer is technically possible to build from these fundamental materials. The reason we don”t do this, why we instead choose etched silicon as our material of choice for our supercomputers, exposes another aspect of computers we need to understand before their failure becomes a useful paradigm. A chess playing computer is probably impossible to build from tinker-toys, not because its program would be too complicated, but because tinker-toys are too prone to entropy to create a valid material environment. The program of any chess playing application could, theoretically, be translated into a tinker-toy equivalent, but after the 1,000th string had stretched, with millions more to go, no energy would be left in the system to trigger the next switch along the chain. Computer inputs and outputs are always at the mercy of this kind of entropy: whether in tinker-toys or miniature silicon highways. Noise and dissipation are inevitable at any material scale one cares to examine. The second law of thermo dynamics ensures this. Claude Shannon and his ilk knew this, even back when the most advanced computers they had at their command couldn”t yet play tic-tac-toe. They knew that they couldn”t rely on materiality to delimit noise, interference or distortion; that no matter how well constructed a computer is, no matter how incredible it was at materially stemming entropy (perhaps with stronger string connectors, or a built in de-stretching mechanism), entropy nonetheless was inevitable. But what Shannon and other computer innovators such as Alan Turing also knew, is that their saviour lay in how computers were implemented. Again, the split here is incredibly important to note:

Flexible materiality: How and of what a computer is constructed e.g. tinker-toys, silicon Rigid implementation: Boolean logic enacted through binary on/off switches (usually with some kind of input à storage à feedback/program function à output). Effectively, how a computer works

Boolean logic was not enough on its own. Computers, if they were to avoid entropy ruining their logical operations, needed to have built within them an error management protocol. This protocol is still in existence in EVERY computer in the world. Effectively it takes the form of a collection of parity bits delivered alongside each packet of data that computers, networks and software deal with. The bulk of data contains the binary bits encoding the intended quarry, but the receiving element in the system also checks the main bits alongside the parity bits to determine whether any noise has crept into the system. What is crucial to note here is the error-checking of computers happens at the level of their rigid implementation. It is also worth noting that for every eight 0s and 1s delivered by a computer system, at least one of those bits is an error checking function. W. Daniel Hillis puts the stretched strings of his tinker-toy mechanism into clear distinction and in doing so, re-introduces an umbrella term set to dominate this chapter: I constructed a later version of the Tinker Toy computer which fixed the problem, but I never forgot the lesson of the first machine: the implementation technology must produce perfect outputs from imperfect inputs, nipping small errors in the bud. This is the essence of digital technology, which restores signals to near perfection at every stage. It is the only way we know – at least, so far – for keeping a complicated system under control. (Hillis 1999, 18)   Bibliography  Barthes, Roland. 1979. ‘From Work to Text.’ In Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Poststructuralist Criticism, ed. Josue V. Harari, 73–81. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. Hayles, N. Katherine. 2004. ‘Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis.’ Poetics Today 25 (1) (March): 67–90. doi:10.1215/03335372-25-1-67. Hillis, W. 1999. The Pattern on the Stone : the Simple Ideas That Make Computers Work. 1st paperback ed. New York: Basic Books. Manovich, Lev. 2002. The Language of New Media. 1st MIT Press pbk. ed. Cambridge  Mass.: MIT Press.      

Thu, 07 Jun 2012 06:08:07 -0700
<![CDATA[The Ship Argo]]>

Extract from 'Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes', page 46

Sun, 09 May 2010 12:37:00 -0700
<![CDATA[De-constructing 'code' (picking apart its assumptions)]]>

De-constructing 'code': I am looking for philosophical (from W. Benjamin through to post-structuralism and beyond) examinations of 'code'. That both includes the assumptions contained in the word 'code' and any actual objects or subjects that code is connected to - including, but not limited to: computer programming, cyphers, linguistics, genetics etc. I am looking to question the assumptions of 'code'. Perhaps a specific example of a theorist de-constructing the term.

I am currently knee deep in an examination of certain practices and assumptions that have arisen from digital media/medium and digital practice (art and making in the era of data packets and compression-artefacts for example). Through my analysis I wish to investigate the paradigms of text and writing practice (the making of textual arts).

A simple analogy to this process would be looking at dialectic cultures (speech based) from the perspective/hindsight of a grapholectic culture (writing/print based). In a similar way, I want to examine writing, film and their making with the hindsight of digital paradigms.

I am aware of the works of Deleuze, Derrida, Barthes, Genette, Ong, Serres, Agamben etc. but any of their works that deal specifically with 'code' would be very very useful.

I look forward to any pointers you can give me

Tue, 02 Feb 2010 06:35:00 -0800