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From Digital to Analog

«Agrippa» and Other Hybrids in the Beginnings of Digital Culture

by Augustín Berti (Author)
Textbook XVI, 287 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • Advance Praise
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface: Pirate Havens And Digital Coyotes
  • Abstractions
  • Concretions
  • Record and Data Trafficking
  • Contemporary Necromancers
  • Deep Roots
  • Chapter 1: Introduction: Milestones Between Matter And Digits
  • Outside Ourselves
  • Stereotypes
  • Milieus
  • Standards
  • Abstractions
  • Territories
  • Chapter 2: Bit Rot
  • Digital Objects?
  • Meta-milieus
  • Digital Objects or Computing Objects?
  • Multiple Multiple Realizabilities
  • Identity and Limits of Digital Objects
  • Arts Computing
  • Indiscretions
  • Principles of Analysis
  • Storage Devices
  • Chapter 3: Crossing Borders
  • Digital/Digitized
  • Pre-digital Works in the Age of Digitization
  • Digitized Works: The Passage of Books
  • Chapter 4: Illegalized Aliens In The Land Of The Copyrighted
  • Digital Works
  • Drifters in the Digital Realm
  • Artworks and the Analog/Digital Divide
  • Hybrid Manifestations
  • Chapter 5: The Book Of The Dead And The Death Of Books
  • The Nature of the Game
  • Agrippa (A Book of the Dead): The Book Object
  • “Agrippa (A Book of the Dead)”: The Poem
  • The Work of Art and the Art of Copying
  • Epilogue: Hybrid Genealogies In Digital Culture
  • Negotiations between Matter and Digits
  • Works, Storage, and Code
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • References
  • Index

PREFACE

Pirate Havens and Digital Coyotes

Denn es wird die Posaune schallen,

und die Toten werden auferstehen unverweslich,

und wir werden verwandelt werden.

-1 Korinther 15:52, Luther Bibel

…is more aligned with bad infinity: the pops and hisses in each video signal exactly how far removed the copy is from the original. The viewer is thus always positioned within an asymptotal distance to the ur-event; bootleg video inscribes its distance from the original onto the material substrate.

-“Bootleg video,” Dead Media Archive

The digitization of culture and search engines have modified the very foundations of a culture based on printed texts and media-specific objects. It is not only about digitized things becoming findable or easily reproducible; the new cultural milieu itself is overtly digital. But what does “digital” actually mean? A somewhat misleading concept to talk about cultural artifacts, it is often confused with dematerialization. So, do digits matter? Or put differently: Is the materiality of digital inscriptions relevant? This book is about that and some other paradoxes.

Abstractions

An illegal download of The Clash’s 1979 version of the song “I Fought the Law” in an information lossy .mp3 file format or the BDMV application files in a Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc containing Orson Welles’ 1974 F for Fake are two extreme cases of discrete entities that common sense (as well as technical sense) deem as “digital objects.” That is, a song and a film in digital ← IX | X → format, which is the way things exist in a digital milieu. And yet they differ, since the first may entail legal persecution while the second most likely would not. One could think these entities as a strange case of concreted abstractions; after all digital culture has been built on the assumption of such paradoxes. I will discuss the nature of these entities and their modes of existence in order to remap contemporary culture, the undergoing changes and the unsuspected perseverations.

Take this book, for instance. Maybe you are holding it in your hand or reading it on a screen, or even in a printed or loose xeroxed page (some places some old technical habits die hard). Like most things digital, it is just another example of a new mode of existence of things. The following chapters trace the materiality of digital works as well as the affordances of being digital. To do so, it follows the back roads of digital culture and looks into a series of awkward cultural artifacts, both artworks and by-products, legally sanctioned or not. By sailing pirate waters, crossing the heavily policed boundaries of contemporary art and clipping the fences of mass culture intellectual property one may gain a deeper understanding of what these things are. Digital objects are taken for granted in our daily dealings with digital technologies. But one easily forgets that the measure of normality is often provided by the contrast with the anomaly, hence the importance to pay attention to those things that do not meet the standard. Any history of technology is, in the end, also a history of oblivions, erasures, outcasts, and massive deportations.

Concretions

In the eighties and early nineties, playing games on a PC involved a series of somewhat cumbersome procedures and artifacts, more so in developing countries. For example, in the city of Córdoba, Argentina, where this book was written, the potential gamer had to buy blank diskettes, and then had to walk or take a bus to get to a thirteen-square-foot bootleg game cave in a rundown commercial mall downtown. There the shop owner would produce a folder containing printed lists displaying five rows: a code number, a ← X | XI → game name, its genre, how many 5¼-inch diskettes it used, and the minimum technical needs to run it. The potential gamer would then look through the lists or ask the seller for the newly arrived games and decide which games to, ahem, “buy.” Since the best games generally had copy protection, while the game was being copied, the potential gamer would receive a xeroxed page containing the codes required to play. The page was not for sale, so it was necessary to stroll the hallway to a drugstore at the other end of the mall, photocopy the code page at the copying machine, and then return the, ahem, “original” to the game glass cave where, hopefully, the digital copying process was completed. Once the disks were received, the potential gamer would go back home and run them on the PC. Most of the time the games would work. Having fulfilled such eminently material tasks, the gamer could then have a proper digital experience.

Record and Data Trafficking

In the early nineties, before the expansion of the Internet, hacker subculture was a sum of interconnected local, grounded, scenes. After all, people still traded information in storage devices, which meant that, although theoretically transmissible, digital code was perceptually bound to things one could touch and, eventually, open or manipulate (some would say adulterate).

This was not new, of course. Any history of art is also a history of forgeries. Bootleg copies have haunted popular music at least since the apparition of cassette tapes. And the underground of rock culture thrived on such recordings, true hand to hand tokens. The fact that pirated (i.e., unlicensed) VCR copies of films were subject to criminal prosecution kept video rentals high enough to help cinemas survive the seeming obsolescence caused by home VCR players. But there is one aspect that is often overlooked in these discussions: magnetic copying implies a degradation that turns copies into tokens of a paradoxical uniqueness in the technical reproduction of music and video. (The degradation of analog copies was not considered as a relevant problem by Walter Benjamin in his seminal essay on “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical ← XI | XII → Reproduction”1.) Piracy and bootlegging, or the work of art in the age of illegalized technical reproduction, are not exclusive of digital media but do find there a fertile ground to flourish.

Over a decade before the advent of .mp3, game piracy had already spawned bizarre copy protection systems and brought about copyright enforcement to ordinary consumers’ everyday life. For centuries plagiarism had been a matter of companies, artists, and authorities: a book company printing texts for which it had no copyrights being sued by the author and/or the book company withholding the rights to publish her/his work; a forger having his clandestine workshop raided by law enforcers. With the digital turn, potential consumers would also become potential offenders.

Many of those cracked or pirated games presented sciencefiction scenarios and stories. Think of the absolute video game classic Space Invaders, for instance. But sci-fi itself was also looking towards digital screens. The 1982 film Tron is a fine example of this fascinated look at arcade games. Upon growing up some gamers would also become readers of a grimier, computer-heavy iteration of science fiction, cyberpunk. While the dazzled gaze at the colorful sprites of early arcade games and the (then) astounding FX of Tron laid the perceptual foundations for an idealist take on technology that focuses on its screen manifestations, the imaginary dark digital futures of cyberpunk still provide some deep insight for a materialist avant-garde.

Contemporary Necromancers

Books have always kept the thoughts of the dead alive. Later on, phonography and photography preserved their voices and their looks. Records of all kinds have always worked this powerful magic. But some things get lost in translation. To record is not only to produce an impression inscribed on a physical storage device but, as Latin etymology indicates, is to have something return to the heart: the Latin verb recordor comes from re- (“back, again”) andcor (“heart,” but also “mind”). Records deter death.

Science fiction writer William Gibson is considered the first to bind the idea of a digital space with the physicality of online ← XII | XIII → computers, coining the term cyberspace (or at least turning into a Zeitgeist resuming word). In the prophetic year of 1984, Neuromancer made Gibson a frequent consultant to any interviewer wanting to inquire on the future. In Postmodernism, Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Frederic Jameson, defining his subject, also quotes him:

the postmodernism looks for breaks, for events rather than new worlds, for the telltale instant after which it is no longer the same; for the ‘When-it-all-changed,’ as Gibson puts it, or better still, for shifts and irrevocable changes in the representation of things and the way they change.2

Insisting on back roads, if one looks at the first endnote, referred to in that first page of Postmodernism, one finds out that there Jameson asserts Gibson’s work is “the supreme literary expression if not of postmodernism, then of late capitalism itself.”3 This is not the place to discuss the importance of Jameson’s book for thinking neither about contemporary culture, nor the concept of postmodernism itself, although it has pervaded this research; but it is worth noting that this influential work was published in 1991. At the end of 1992, a peculiar artist’s book and electronic poem appeared: Agrippa (A Book of the Dead). It was a work by writer William Gibson, artist Dennis Ashbaugh, publisher Kevin Begos, Jr. and a number of collaborators (ranging from programmers to typesetters). On April 30, 1993, the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) announced that the World Wide Web would be free for anyone who could connect to it, and, once again, it all changed. And typesetters went on to become designers, among many other things. One of the perceived perils of this change was that, rephrasing Marx, everything that’s solid melts into the web. Rather than assuming the idea of dematerialization, digital existence may be better understood as a form of representation based on abstractions and multiple material realizations. And realizations always occur somewhere. This book is therefore about grounding digits. Regarding Agrippa, and rephrasing Jameson, some eight years after publishing Neuromancer, once again, Gibson could be considered the supreme literary expression if not of digitalism, then of digital capitalism itself. ← XIII | XIV →

Deep Roots

The theoretical basis for this research is as hybrid as its objects. From book history and aesthetics to philosophy of technology, new literacies studies, and digital studies, this book owes a lot to very diverse landscapes and road companions. If I were to draw a map, it would include the some of the following touchstones. The influence of several books by Matthew K. Kirschenbaum, Matthew Gold, N. Katherine Hayles, Alan Liu, David Bolter, Richard Grusin, and Espen Aarseth is evident and they have been the source of many intuitions that have guided my research. I have also drawn heavily from past and current debates in the role of technology in aesthetics, including those sustained by thinkers as influential as Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and Vilém Flusser, as well as more recent articles and books by Lev Manovich, Christian Ferrer, Claudia Kozak, and Arlindo Machado. The relevance of studies on technology to (re)think the artifactual aspect of the objects discussed in the following chapters is based on the theoretical work of Gilbert Simondon, Bernard Stiegler, and Bruno Latour and, to a lesser extent, to other prominent names in the field such as Trevor Craver, Wiebe Pinch, Andrew Feenberg, and Lawrence Busch. The history of the book has been also extremely relevant, from Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier’s seminal work to the more recent work of Ted Striphas. Several seminars taken during doctoral and postdoctoral research fellowships over the last decade also provided deep insight on the topics of the different chapters. Among these it is worth mentioning “Written Culture and Literature: Sixteenth to Nineteenth Centuries” dictated by Roger Chartier and organized by the Library of the National University of Córdoba; “Poetics of Transmedia and New Technologies. The Construction of a Latin American Critical Space” by Claudia Kozak; “Conceptualizations, Theorization, and Research in New Literacies” by Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear; and “Creation, Appropriation and Dissemination of Knowledge in the Knowledge Society” by Carlos Correa, all organized by the postgraduate programs of the Faculty of Philosophy and Humanities of the National University of Córdoba; and, finally, the seminar “Science, ← XIV | XV → Technology and Society: The Case of Philosophy of Technology” by Diego Lawler, organized by UNC Teachers and Researchers’ Union (ADIUC) and the Center for Advanced Studies.

This book would not be possible without the ongoing support of the members of Dedalus, a technology studies research group led by Javier Blanco, with whom I have thoroughly discussed the concept of “digital object.” Dedalus’ members Dario Sandrone, Anahí Ré, Leila Luna, and Andrea Torrano have greatly contributed with comments, suggestions, and corrections. Susana Romano Sued, Anahí Ré (again), and Tomás Vera Barros from the Expoesía experimental literature research group were also central to the origins of this research and many of the ideas presented in this book can be found in shared papers and presentations. Finally discussions held within Luis García’s research group on the culture of the Weimar Republic, which I co-directed, were central to gaining a deeper understanding in the Benjaminean take on technology that underlays all the chapters of this book. The several graduate and undergraduate seminars in which I have participated with all these groups over the last eight years have served as an ongoing source of inspiration and new information. This book would have not been possible without the endless patience and help from the staff of Peter Lang Publishing, especially Chris Myers, Stephen Mazur, Sophie Appel, and Suzie Tibor. Finally, the research and detours that resulted in this book were made possible due to a post-doctoral research fellowship granted by CONICET, the Argentine National Council of Scientific and Technological Research.

Summary

From Digital to Analog delves into the origins of digitization and its effects on contemporary culture. The book challenges the «common sense» assertion that digitization is just another step in the evolution of the culture of the editorial, film and recorded music industries and their enforcement of copyright laws. Digital technologies in contemporary culture have paradoxically undermined and, at the same time, strengthened such practices, provoking an unprecedented quarrel over the possession of, and access to, cultural products. Agustín Berti uses the release of Agrippa (A Book of the Dead) in 1992 to study this paradox. The importance of Agrippa for digital culture studies is proven through the discussion of the frequently understated importance of the materiality of digital culture. The book develops a critique of digital technology and its alleged neutrality and transparency. Ultimately, it illustrates how Agrippa anticipated a number of contemporary phenomena such as piracy, leaks, remixes, memes, and more, forcing us to rethink the concept of digital content itself and thus the way in which culture is produced, received and preserved today. From Digital to Analog is ideal reading for a graduate student readership, especially Master candidates in the fields of Literature, Arts, Digital Humanities, Digital Culture and New Media Studies.

Details

Pages
XVI, 287
ISBN (PDF)
9781453916674
ISBN (ePUB)
9781454196846
ISBN (MOBI)
9781454196839
ISBN (Book)
9781433125058
Language
English
Publication date
2016 (February)
Published
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. XVI, 287 pp.

Biographical notes

Augustín Berti (Author)

Agustín Berti, PhD in Literature, is head professor of «Analysis and Critique» in the National University of Córdoba. He is a researcher for the Argentinean Council of Scientific and Technological Research (CONICET) and has published in a variety of journals, including Flusser Studies, Nombres and Interventions.

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