notes on Digital::Material

story © Michael Betancourt, January 3, 2018 all rights reserved.


“Materiality” for the digital describes an ambivalent relationship between two distinct, but overlapping, understandings of “materialism.” The first is familiar from art history and criticism: the literal substance of the digital—the electronic signals that encode binary data. This digital code is what enables computer operations and is the substance of all electronic files. Artistic and aesthetic engagements with the materiality of the digital are addressed to the technological and semiotic functioning of encoded files and the use of computer languages. In manipulating these features of digital technology, artists (and critics) are addressing the materiality of that technology and its active role evident in even the most banal or prosaic uses of computer and digital technologies. This first meaning for “materiality” has an extensive use in the discussion and analysis of technological and computer art, and is apparent from the recurring emphasis on computer programming in the evaluation of digital art. The materialist engagement with the technology itself is a precursor to the differentiation between art addressed to the machine, and art that addresses what the machine can make. This understanding of digital materiality transforms computer software and hardware (“computer art”) into an analogue for the same formal relations from other artistic media such as “painting”—it recreates a conception where the manipulation of software/paint on the hardware/canvas brings the realm of digital art into a coherent parallel to older, established media, allowing the transfer of the art historical conceptions of materiality to apply to the discussion and analysis of the digital.

The second understanding of digital materiality tangentially overlaps with this art critical understanding, but moves away from the direct engagement with the software/hardware configuration to examine the political and economic factors that instantiate the digital; this other conception of “materiality” aligns with Marxist critiques where the social relationships in the political economy for production—the network of supports and infrastructure that enables the digital to exist—are the “materiality” of the digital: the ambivalence of these two uses arises in the duplicity of this Marxist critique. In understanding digital materiality as a collection of resources consumed, labor expended, and machineries constructed, the second variant of “materiality” necessarily includes the software/hardware dualism, but conceives of it in different terms. Digital technology is integrated into the material of the political economy—it is simply one aspect of how capitalism arranges and marshals production. This understanding always potentially effaces the particulars of digital technology, focusing instead on the flows and lacunae of capital and its expenditure/crystallization. These different foci for the same, singular term are not mutually exclusive, they are revelation of ambivalence.

Digital materiality is metastable, a shifting set of relationships where the concerns at one level of interpretation shape and direct the engagements at another: the descriptive materiality of art criticism is neither less accurate, nor more precise than the contextual materiality described by Marxist critiques. This pair identify the same concept, but at different levels within the same analytic engagement. Their ambivalence arises from their interrelationship—the linked association of technology and the productive systems that support and sustain its activity. The difficulty arises with “digital materiality” from how these levels diverge in their scope of address, creating misconceptions about which should take priority and how the immaterialism of the digital should be understood in relation to this materiality: as a political “false consciousness” that hides the costs and labor involved in its production, or as a denial of the physicality of digital code and technology (software/hardware)—in both cases, the materiality is elided, but what is being erased differs in both particulars and significance. The political “false consciousness” requires a neglect of the economic and productive apparati that make the digital an effective instrumentality of production and automation; in denying the physicality of software/hardware, the digital becomes a transcendent technology, one that magically escapes form the constraints of the physical world—and these fantasies are not mutually exclusive.

Digital materiality is connected to the same Modernist ideology that informs other aspects of digital capitalism, apparent in how the aura of the digital internalizes the erasure of context particular to Modernist aesthetics. Separating the specific presentation of a digital work from the consideration of the work in itself—that the digital file is not the same as its presentation on a screen, in a print-out, or other physical presentation—literally inscribes the Modernist desire to isolate the art work from the context that produces it into our consciousness and our interpretation of the digital (art) object. In apprehending the digital, the sanitized, clean white gallery space to eliminate external context from the interpretations of art, (erasing the specifics of location, presentation, context) becomes instead an internal elision in the mind of the spectator. This disavowal of the physical context and form of the work instantiates the same Modernist desire for transcendence common to abstraction and abstract art generally as a “natural” feature of the digital work, one that derives from its peculiar form—inaccessible, coded instructions that require an electronic apparatus to render them visible. This attempt to escape from the physical repressions the material world has its historical foundations in the factories and enforced labor of industrial capitalism: a transference of the alienation of capitalist social valorization into a rejection and alienation from the physicality that accompanies that alienation.

This erasure of the physical world from consideration is not uniquely a feature of capitalism nor of the digital, but is shared with transcendental thought generally—in the cases of digital/capitalism, the internalization of this impulse is at the same time a reaction to their omnipresent dominance. The aura of the digital internalizes the effacement of physicality common to critiques of capitalism, returning it as a fantasy of freedom from material restrictions as an appeal to an immaterial realm accessed (or even realized) in/through the digital computer. Traditional, religious paradigms (immediately recognizable in a panoply of rejections of empirical science, from the assertions of a “flat earth,” to suspicions about vaccination causing disease, to denials of evolution), the desire for transcendence of the physical world is simultaneously a rejection of the material world arising with the duality of mind::body in European philosophy that separates the immaterial mind from the ‘mere matter’ of the body; in denying physicality, this superstructure avoids those challenges originating with empirical observation—for digital capitalism, this same framework authorizes the varied and relativist impacts of agnotology and “alternative facts.” They are aspects of the same cultural desire to transcend physicality.

For Modernist aesthetics, this avoidance of physicality arises as an explicit “realism born of the mind” that is neither concerned with nor engaged in a verifiable link to observation but is realized in abstraction. Art critic Roger Fry made this connection between abstraction and transcendence in his review of avant-garde paintings by Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, André Derain, Auguste Herbin, Jean Marchand and André L’Hote on exhibit in 1912:

[These artists] do not seek to imitate form, but to create form; not to imitate life, but to find and equivalent to life. By that I mean that they wish to make images which by the clearness of their logical structure, and by their closely-knit unity of texture, shall appeal to our disinterested and contemplative imagination with something of the same vividness as the things of actual life appeal to our practical activities. In fact, they aim not at illusion but at reality. The logical extreme of such a method would undoubtedly be the attempt to give up all resemblance to natural form, and to create a purely abstract language of form—a visual music.

Fry, Roger. “The French Post-Impressionists,” (preface to catalog for the Second Post-Impressionist exhibition, 1912), Vision and Design, (London: Pelican Books, 1937) pp. 195-196.

Fry’s focus on the physically apparent form of the art—its purely visual aspects such as compositional elements (color, line, shape and texture)—directs attention to these visual features as aspects of an immaterial, otherwise unseen order hidden from everyday senses. These abstract artists, in their “aim not at illusion but at reality” are engaged in a movement away from literal depiction to a transcendent presentation of a “deeper” mental reality. The aesthetic distinctions between a realism of everyday appearances and a realism of thought connects the aura of the digital to explicitly aesthetic concerns of art while remaining concerned with digital technology and production in a dramatization of the role of culture in mediating our engagements with the world around us. The connections of technological, scientific, and cultural domains to the political economy are expected, revelatory facets of the same social and political activity; however, the ways that this framework obfuscates the relationship between digital technology and materiality makes its critical examination and consideration significant for critical engagement with particular materiality of digital capitalism and how it is systematically denied.

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  January 3, 2018  all rights reserved.

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