Anti-Formalist Glitches

story © Michael Betancourt, November 26, 2015 all rights reserved.


​A potential revealation of the materiality of the digital is thus only one part of what the digital glitch might present: the other part is the utter dependence of all these technologies on the human social realm. The particular form of a digital work when rendered for human viewing/encounter makes the purpose of that particular data stream apparent, whether it is a movie, a piece of music, a text or anything else, the data itself is encoded for human purposes. The automatic nature of the digital device is of a different character than the autonomy of agency. The illusion that our devices function without our input, without responding to our desires and demands is a reflection of their design, and the functions these machines are constructed to achieve—the superficially mysterious, perfect nature of the digitally manufactured, its magical aura, work to obscure the underlying physical reality of the digital and its subservience to human choices and agency. These foundations are all hidden within the aura of the digital, most especially the dependent relationship between the functioning of the digital technology and the demands made by the desires of human society (and provides its formal basis).

​The social realm of human desires and needs are of an entirely different order than their instrumentalities; glitch-as-revelation depends not on the instrumentality, but on the social response. These connections between formal organization and their interpretation are implicit, rather than explicit, and so require a logical jump to move from one level of this construction to another: the structure as a whole is necessarily interrelated to the political economy and social organization of the human society that produced it. Without a social function—given and directed by the human agency that puts these devices into action—the digital, however active the device itself may be, has no function. This most basic fact of digital technology: that it is designed for and functions in service to particular human demands is lost when the auratic powers of these technologies dominant: not only do we forget their physical basis as devices, we also forget their dependence on human desires and demands. Like all machines, digital software and hardware are constructed to meet specific human-originating goals, and these goals are the ‘reality’ of the device, not the instrumentality itself.

​The insistence on the human dimensions of interpretation make this human-centeredness emerge as a contingent value: often absent from consideration, the human use (interpretation) of digital work is simultaneously essential to that work, and at the same time its unacknowledged constraint. The “media” generated from digital files—whether glitched or otherwise—are ordered precisely to create forms that are recognizable and comprehensible to humans. This human element becomes contingent with digital machine-rendered “media” precisely because the work is not based in an analogical relationship to its source. The digital is a language-based translation between electrical signals and their interpretation by the computer when then renders them into a new form entirely presented to the human audience. This performance of the work is entirely inhuman, yet for a human spectator; thus, the contingency of this audience as the source file is not intelligible. Focusing on the “unintelligible” to humans aspects of this digital signal entails a basic mistake—when the digital machine produces anamalous results, they are still evidence of normative function (even if truncated by glitches), since a true breakdown would produce nothing.

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  November 26, 2015  all rights reserved.

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