Where is the “Thing” in Digital Media?

And now we begin to put the pieces together for digital media in earnest.

We found this week’s set of readings to be striking, both in relation to last week’s post-human, object/thing-oriented philosophies and the larger “traditional” understanding of how digital media de-privileges the body.  The latter seems to be what is up for contestation for many of these writers.  For example, Anna Munster notes that “pragmatic and everyday engagements with computing interfaces have seemed to confirm that interacting with digital technologies is kinaesthetically and proprioceptively limited” (3).  Her wording here indicates that something quite the contrary is actually occurring, and that the realm of digital media is truly one of “the relation of spaces and matter, knowledge, memory and technics to each other,” where “digital spaces” actually “operate to induce participation through sets of unfolding differential relays” (6).  The way the human body participates in media events is also key for Barbara Kennedy, whose “bio-aesthetics” challenges those mainstream theories that understand our engagement with film to be psychological rather than material.  For Kennedy, cinema is an event that engages the full, affective participation of the human body.  She says that “Rather than film being perceived as purely representation, with images seen and perceived through a purely specular economy,” and thus from a certain material remove, “film is here explored as a mind/body/machine meld, as experience, as sensation, as a perception-consciousness formation” (5).

Hansen also reasserts the importance of the human body in digital media interactions, but interestingly, his explanations of the ways in which digital media extend our perceptual limits also point to spaces where the object/thing agency of our previous weeks’ readings seem to fall out of these current theorizations. While discussing Krueger’s work with interactive media in Bodies in Code, Hansen emphasizes that “it is the technology that remains instrumentalized and human action that gets privileged” (31). And again, in New Philosophy for New Media, he see the possibility that “new media carry on the legacy of Bergson’s valorization of intelligence over instinct, and specifically, his understanding of technology as a means of expanding the body’s margin of indetermination” (11). Such positivity regarding the privileging of human agency in the face of digital media is somewhat surprising; despite the repeated appeal to “enactive potentialities” (Bodies 25) and “individual customization” of digitized experience (Manovich 30), we cannot help but note the ways in which some of these passages step around, or even negate, the “thing-ness” (to return to Bennett’s definition) of digital media, its potential for agency, for acting in ways not intended by humans and that may not, in the end, benefit humans.

Perhaps it is through Manovich’s notion of interactivity that we can recover the clearest picture of the “vitality of things” in this set of readings. Interactive media would seem to continue the privileging of human agency over the agency of things by making our choices central to the creation of media objects: we choose which links to follow, what to search, how to navigate; we create documents, manipulate images, build spreadsheets.  However, Manovich argues that interfaces themselves determine the direction our associations will take and the manner in which we will organize data.  In our engagements with old media, “we would read a sentence of a story or a line of a poem and think of other lines, images, memories,” tapping a mental reservoir of associations of perhaps limitless and unpredictable variety (61). In our engagements with new interactive media, though, we “click on a highlighted sentence to go to another sentence.  In short, we are asked to follow pre-programmed, objectively existing associations” (61).  The vitality of things returns, guiding our experience with these new media.

Here, though, we would like to raise a final question about the difference between the agency of objects and the delayed agency of those who create them. Manovich does not understand the influence of media interfaces to be the agency of the thing itself but of its programmer.  For him, in interacting with these media objects and following the organizations and associations that they prepare for us, “we are asked to mistake the structure of somebody else’s [the creator’s] mind for our own” (61).  In short, is it the q-tip that dominates us, or those who make the q-tips and teach us to use them? We’re curious if such a distinction matters as we move forward, particularly if we expand Kennedy’s cinematic “event” to our understandings of all media engagements. Just how many bodies (human and non-) and just how many agencies (ours, the object’s, the programmer’s?) converge each time we enter these engagements?

~ by minimeg728 on October 3, 2010.