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«Media theory persistently characterizes new media as antithetical to history. As early as 1957, Martin Heidegger dismisses computers as ...»

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James J. Hodge

Writing Sample

NB: This writing sample synthesizes several discussions from my book project, Animate

Archaeology: New Media and the Aesthetics of History. A longer consideration of

writing and history occurs in chapter one. Chapters one and three include extended

analyses of Arcangel’s Untitled and Phil Solomon’s Last Days in a Lonely Place with

respect to glitch art and Bernard Stiegler’s theory of technics.

“Deep Opacity”: Cory Arcangel, Phil Solomon and the Animate Archaeology of History Media theory persistently characterizes new media as antithetical to history. As early as 1957, Martin Heidegger dismisses computers as “inessential” for the task of thinking historically.1 Accounts of postmodernism by Jean-François Lyotard and Fredric Jameson respectively correlate the rise of information technology with the decline of history. This correlation blossoms into more forceful and speculative claims in the work of Friedrich Kittler, Jean Baudrillard, Paul Virilio, and Vilém Flusser. Today, the theme of computers as anti-historical continues in the work of Bernard Stiegler as well as within the Anglophone field of new media studies. With few exceptions, critics and scholars of new media fail to consider the relation of history and new media as anything other than an opposition, or less polemically as a non-relation.2 This tendency permeates even the basic description of new media as technological processes. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun writes, “[Digital media] is perhaps a history-making device, but only through its ahistorical (or memoryless) functioning, through the ways in which it constantly                                                                                                                 See Martin Heidegger, Identity and Difference, trans. Joan Stambaugh (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 41.

For examples within the field of new media studies that discuss the relation of information technology to

history, see Alan Liu, The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information (Chicago:

University of Chicago Press, 2004), and Anna Munster, Materializing New Media: Embodiment in Information Aesthetics (Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2006).

Hodge   2     transmits and regenerates text and images.”3 Computers may make history; they may, for example, impact the outcome of politicalcampaigns. Yet digital media are “degenerative, forgetful, eraseable”; they remain “ahistorical” or “memoryless” in their operation. The problem with this supposed distinction is that it effectively brackets human experience from its account of the operation of information technology. More specifically, it preemptively abandons the project of articulating the relation of human experience to the unique dynamics of new media as writing technologies. Such a position becomes grossly untenable insofar as new media serve as the technical infrastructure for the vast majority of all acts of storage, retrieval, and transmission in the age of information. Such a massive transformation of writing demands an account that does not abandon history tout court but which rather articulates the impact of new media precisely as the technological conditions of possibility for historical experience. This essay broaches this larger project by analyzing new media as dynamic writing technologies. Within this context, the exteriority of writing assumes a newly animate prominence registered by several moving image works. The examination of these works, in turn, opens onto larger questions of the contemporary transformation of historical experience.

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“historicity itself is tied to the possibility of writing.”4 Recasting Edmund Husserl’s late discussion of writing, Derrida elucidates the empirical basis for the constitution of historicity as an ideality. In other words, writing engenders the idea of history. Derrida’s student, Bernard Stiegler, clarifies and advances this statement. He asserts,

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writing makes history possible. More forcefully, he argues that it configures the contours our engagement with it as the production of historical temporality. Crucially, Stiegler understands writing in a very broad sense as exact recordings that may be repeatedly accessed with fidelity.6 This definition includes alphabetic writing as well as photographic media. Writing constitutes the conditions of possibility for historical experience. Precisely because writing is technological, its conditions of possibility must not be understood as ideal but rather as historical in themselves. Careful attention to historical specificity of writing technologies may then help to uncover the specific articulation of historical temporality with respect to different media regimes.

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writing subtends the expression of any output in the context of information technology.

All acts of capture, storage, and retrieval depend upon the existence of computer software and hardware as the two main elements of new media as “premediated material environment[s] built and engineered to propagate an illusion of immateriality.”7 Yet it is unclear what writing means in these contexts. Specifying the general dynamics of writing across a host of different information technologies can be difficult. For example, some digital environments allow for reading and writing, others just for reading. These are important distinctions. Nonetheless it is possible still to describe their general dynamics.

Put schematically, software refigures magnetic or electronic hardware events into binary

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disk, software refigures magnetic voltage differentials as the microscopic inscription of states of “off” and “on.” These numerical values subsequently undergo several layered stages of “re-translation” in order to become meaningful to human cognition and perception. As Rita Raley notes, early computer scientists refer to the general architecture of these stages as the “tower of programming languages,” a metaphor that consciously draws on the myth of the Tower of Babel.8 As the myth of the Tower of Babel explains the cultural fact of linguistic difference, the allusion to the myth of Babel in the context of computer science alludes to the basic divide between writing addressed to machines and to humans. This divide is not easily defined but it exists nonetheless even at the highest level of expertise. This technical reality underscores the more general fact that computational expressions do not always appear to human sense perception as writing.

Sound and image files may be edited as text. But they do not function as music or moving images in their textual form. Code remains largely “hidden.” By and large, computational expression obscures its own status as writing.9

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characterizes new media. In order to register more fully the significance of this displacement, consider digital inscription in comparison with the inscriptions or grooves on a gramophone record. In a manner analogous to the structure of writing in new media, gramophonic inscriptions similarly displace human perception from inscription. Like the microscopic inscriptions on a hard disk, the grooves of a record remain inscrutable as

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from record grooves because the latter remain available to everyday experience without the deployment of high-powered microscopes. The phenomenal unavailability of the digital trace challenges the fundamental basis of history in the knowledge of the trace.

Marc Bloch puts the matter succinctly:

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The unavailability of digital inscription as inscription threatens historical knowledge because it hides the evidential traces of the past from analysis. As Matthew G.

Kirschenbaum demonstrates, it is nonetheless possible to analyze such traces. Analysis of such traces remains, however, deeply impractical for institutional and technological reasons. Kirschenbaum’s argument suggests a key qualification. Digital inscriptions may be recuperable—indeed Kirschenbaum repeatedly reveals their astonishing durability— yet they remain inaccessible in the dynamics of their operation as writing. The displacement of inscription from perception remains important, but it does not absolutely specify new media in relation to older media. Because it does not distinguish new media it does not fully explain the challenge new media poses to the articulation of historical experience. To specify this challenge necessitates an account of the dynamics of writing constitutive of historical experience in more conventional writing as well as within new media.

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upon a constitutive deferral. He writes, “In writing, the very medium of history, an event typically precedes its seizure, and the latter precedes its reception or reading.” Things happen, people write down accounts of what happened, and people later read these accounts. This structure breaks down in the era of “real-time or ‘live’ transmission resulting from the coincidence of the event seized and its reception.”11 For Stiegler, “Information’s ‘truth’ is light-time.”12 He continues, “This new time betokens an exit from the properly historical epoch, insofar as the latter is defined by an essentially deferred time.”13 It is certainly true that information technologies appear to vanquish space and time in their capacity to network the entire world. But this is a fantasy. Satellite television achieved similar results earlier and more prominently than digital networks.

Material realities similarly stand at odds with Stiegler’s account: servers crash, networks lag. More importantly, Stiegler fails to grasp the dynamics of new media as writing.

Despite his argument to the contrary, most people continue to behave as if digital media still function within a structure of deferral. People continue to write and record things, and then to access them later using digital media. To call Stiegler’s account of the “exit from the properly historical epoch” a fantasy is not, however, to dismiss it out of hand.

The power of such a fantasy of real-time lies not only in the way it captures something of the experience of living in a globalizing world, its generically phantasmatic description of information technology more negatively registers a telling incapacity to encounter the fundamental obscurity of new media as writing. Stiegler himself glimpses this problem at                                                                                                                 Bernard Stiegler, “Memory,” in Critical Terms for Media Studies, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell and Mark B. N.

Hansen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 79.

Stieler, Technics and Time, 2, 114.

Stiegler, “Memory,” 79.

Hodge   7     the outset of his multivolume Technics and Time in which he states that today “we are experiencing the deep opacity of contemporary technics.” This opacity blocks the clear articulation of the conjugation of human experience and information technology as writing. It forecloses inquiry into the implications of the fact that, as previously mentioned, computational expressions do not always appear to human sense perception as writing.

Alexander R. Galloway helps to clarify the dynamics of the “deep opacity” of new media. In a remarkable statement that suggests more than a simple failure on our part to recognize new media for what it is, i.e. as writing, he writes, “language wants to be overlooked.” That is, new media deliberately hides its status as writing. Galloway introduces this idea in the context of discussion about software and ideology. His ideas, however, extend usefully beyond the purview of ideological analysis. As Galloway explains, code has two dimensions. It exists as script and in its execution. The former denotes any form of code as it appears to human perception, usually as alphabetic or numeric characters. This is how programmers read and write code. Code’s transformation from script to execution marks its specificity. Code in its execution, or run-time, appears to the user as a functioning program. Executed code is material action occurring at scales beyond human perception. Further, execution obscures code’s scriptural dimension. One sees effects without any apparent cause. The chasm between script and execution becomes all the more apparent by noting computer scientist Alan Turing’s revealing comments upon the unpredictability of computers. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun writes, “Alan Turing, in response to the objection that computers cannot think because they

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understood in advance.”14 There is, then, a significant degree of contingency that informs the phenomenal apprehension of code in its executability. This sense of contingency builds on the radical displacement of inscription from perception and emerges as a media specific epistemological uncertainty. Friedrich Kittler affirms the reality of this uncertainty in his disarming assertion that, “We simply do not know what our writing does.”15 No amount of technical explanation accounts for the phenomenal encounter with the obscurity of new media as writing. Further, it is impossible not to notice the ways in which reckoning with this obscurity lends itself to speaking about computers as if they were alive, or at least of having some kind of life in excess of human agency and perception. Computers “surprise” us; we do not know what “writing does.” Accounting for this indeterminate and curiously animate obscurity requires the analysis of specific computational expressions. The remainder of this essay examines two moving image works in new media: Cory Arcangel’s Untitled (After Lucier) and Phil Solomon’s Last Days in a Lonely Place. Analysis of these two works reveals the significance of animation as the figuration of the “deep opacity” of new media in terms of the “exteriority” of writing. It further provides evidence for the crucial role played by animation in the articulation of historical temporality in new media aesthetics.

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installation Untitled (After Lucier) (2006) enacts a complex scene of familiar obscurity.

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