Through a Prism darkly. What does software see?
Paul Caplan, Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton
It is still a matter of debate whether the United States’ National Security Agency (NSA) had direct access to Facebook and Google’s servers. The NSA Powerpoint presentation suggests it did, the companies say it didn’t. What is clear however is that whatever the connection, it happened in and through software. Our digital detritus, the data, data trails and data relationships, was accessed, searched and organised through algorithms. Our standards-encoded detritus ensured our digital profiles could be standardised. Rather than looking at these issues through the human Subject, the spooks and what they can or can’t see, we can approach this surveillance and governmentality through unhuman objects and what they ‘see’ or connect with. This paper explores a particular software standard, JPEG, and its enfolding in Facebook’s governmental Open Graph. This algorithm can be seen as an object-actant in the manner of object-oriented ontology. Following Graham Harman this unhuman object can be seen as fully real yet weirdly withdrawn. Drawing on the work of Ian Bogost we can explore that object’s ‘experience’, perhaps even ‘perception’ of that world. By mapping the unhuman object-actants at work in complex computational systems, we can perhaps find a new way of approaching technological governmentality.
Stiegler’s post-phenomenological account of mediated experience
Patrick Crogan, University of the West of England
Within the ambit of its larger concerns, Bernard Stiegler’s Technics and Time series has developed a substantial critical renovation of phenomenological approaches to experience and its mediation through techniques and artefacts. This paper will examine Stiegler’s notion of the ‘industrial temporal object’ – primarily instantiated for him by cinema as preeminent media form of the last century. This represents an important contribution to attempts to rethink film at the current juncture of the ‘end of cinema’ and the emergence of the ‘post-cinematic’ digital milieu. Elaborated across the second and third volumes of the series, Stiegler revises Husserl’s influential phenomenology of internal time consciousness to posit a decisive post-phenomenological complication of how the ‘temporal objects’ of consciousness are constituted. The ‘place’ of exterior forms of recording, synthesising and communicating experience vis à vis the interiority of consciousness – what Stiegler calls mnemotechnics – is crucial in this revision of Husserlian phenomenology. Stiegler insists on the irreducible composition of these interior and exterior ‘places’, and on the necessity for critical accounts of the mediated conditions of experience to think this ‘phenomeno-technical’ complicity. I will draw upon recent and emerging digital media forms in exploring and extending the implications of Stiegler’s call for a renewed critical engagement adopting this perspective.
It’s alive: experiencing social media as vivified
Tim Markham, Birkbeck, University of London
In much recent research it seems that social media presents itself to the academic habitus fairly unproblematically in biological and ecological terms. While this can shed light on the way cultures of practice appear, evolve and mutate, there’s also a risk in such approaches of projecting idealised normative values: the ascription of tenacity, guilefulness and creativity to online protest cultures as such, rather than to specific practices of protest, is a good example. But to what extent do social media users conceive of these platforms in vivified terms? This paper takes a phenomenological perspective on social media, not seeking to characterise vivified conceptions as deluded, but rather trying to understand what underpins the experience of social media as alive in unremarkable, everyday contexts. The paper begins with an assessment of the individuated expressiveness central to both Castells’ portrayal of social media as a ‘mass communication of the self’ and Stiegler’s depiction of liberated self-expression. Based on an analysis of tweets posted during the BBC’s Question Time, it concludes that the normalised experience of social media as vivified is best explained in functional terms – specifically as a practice of self-positioning, rather than something which emerges spontaneously out of social media discourse.
The Internet and the Habitus of the new in the culture of Internet policymaking
Thomas Streeter, University of Vermont
This paper elaborates on “the habitus of the new” first proposed by Papacharissi and Easton. Drawing from previous work on the history of computing, the paper argues that a specific habitus has arisen in association with – but not simply caused by – the internet, a habitus which is characterized by on the one hand an expectation of specific kinds of constant change, of “revolution” of a limited sort, and on the other by blindspots that eclipse the understanding that social change is possible, that large scale social relations are accessible to human intervention. Beginning with an example of this habitus at work, the paper contrasts habitus with myth and symbol approaches, and relates it to the theory of affordances. The theory offers a non-dualist, and non-technological-determinist way to make sense of the way digital novelty has become woven into the social fabric. It is both evocative and suggests a way to connect the macro- and the micro-social. It illustrates ways that history, political economy, and technologies can provide the raw material for frameworks that shape the experience of everyday life, and how in turn those everyday experiences in turn can shape broad social trends – how the feel of modern life shapes modern living.
Corporeal mediations: towards a phenomenology of the corpse, and beyond
Margaret Schwartz, Fordham University
This paper describes my use and adaptation of a phenomenological approach to theorize the corpse as media object. I began with a deceptively simple question: What is a corpse? It is neither fully subject nor object: no longer a person, but not merely a thing. This Husseralian impulse to turn to the thing itself nevertheless yielded to an approach informed by contemporary theorists sometimes called “new materialists.” That is, I found that the corpse resisted a narrowly phenomenological approach, in that it could not be reduced to an object of cognition. Both representational and material, the corpse suggested itself as something like what Jane Bennett has called “vibrant matter”—as matter understood otherwise than mere passive substrate or social construction. I found that the corpse appeared as a temporally constrained embodiment of the threshold between life and death. Mediations such as embalming and photography manipulate this embodiment, each with different investments and results. The corpse thus emerges as an assemblage of diverse actants, biological and technological, ritual and affective. It is also a particularly illustrative example of how phenomenological reduction may begin theoretical trajectories that ultimately open on to new conceptions of media and materiality.