Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Light (2)

The multidimensional mysteries facing the analyst of light in the early 21st century are neither more nor less characteristic of our times than the explorations of Grosseteste or the indications of Newton were to theirs. The answer, the first part of the answer, to the question "What is Light?" is "Light has a history", not only as practice, nor even as an experience, but as an idea. Informing and informed by technologies and techniques, evidence and sensation, light changes.

Sunday, May 27, 2007


What has always repelled materialists from the hermetic tradition is not its whimsy but on the contrary the solemnity with which its priesthood has historically erected ever more complex cathedrals of theodicy and theogeny on the intuition that something 'more' inhabits, locates and frames the givenness of the world. It is sad therefore to note that materialism has often – though not universally – eschewed any address to the sacred. By this I do not mean that materialism in any way fails for lack of a theology, nor that the sacred forms some ontological ground on which the material world is more deeply founded. Rather, what has been often lacking is a commitment to understanding that affect which we recognise under the rubric of sacredness, an elevation beyond not merely the instinctual but also the intellectual pleasures, a yearning apart from the desire for justice, peace and plenty for all. Since the term sacred has, moreover, been tainted by centuries of mouthing in institutions that have done little for justice, peace or plenty, we need another term, one that might displace the materialist reluctance to address affect in general and this affect in particular. I propose a mediological enquiry into the nature of wonder.

(from a review of Siegfried Zielinski's Deep Time of the Media for Leonardo Digital Reviews)


1962: the year of the Cuban missile crisis, also saw the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the book that launched ecology as a global political movement. In less than fifty years, we have moved from the fear that politicians would annihilate us through their actions to the fear that they will annihilate us through their inaction.

(from "16 Theses on Meteorological Art" for the exhibition The Trouble with Weather at the UTS Gallery, Sydney, June-July 2007)

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A Mystery Wrapped in an Enigma

It turns out to be harder to get agreement on engineering standards and capabilities of video and digital technologies than, in my naivety, I had expected. Between boosterism and bench-test, even the range of tones between black and white in greyscale is moot. Learning about the edge-finding contrast lines deployed in digital video to boost apparent resolution, the need to balance the different optics – quantum, physical, physiological and neural – has never seemed more pressing.

Mystery is not confined to the infinitessimal fabric of the universe, or to the vast complexity of the brain. It irrupts at the heart of engineering. The kind of obscene familiarity Heidegger so fears in technology depends on a lack of inquisitiveness about every term in the mediation of light, a process which appears less and less to possess anything corresponding to an essence.

(Partial response to

Sunday, May 20, 2007

In memoriam Thierry Kuntzel

there is the awful leaden weight of death over the thought of Heidegger. what is so depressing about it is the absurdity which he gives it: the meaninglessness. I don't mean that deatth is intrinsically meaningful, but that it has many meanings, for specific dyings. And each is embedded in a locale, in a world, among the living and the dying, for whom it means immensely

Thierry Kuntzel's Nostos is currently showing at ACMI in the Beaubourg touring video retrospective. It is a lovely thing, the inhabitance of a room with light, recorded in greyscale, on a bank of (memory supplying details) nine monitors in a 3x3 grid (might be 4x4). They are heritage boxes, and the light trap is excellent, so you are alert to the fading of light, the flare in the camera - which would have been a tube camera, liable to comet tails and saturation - and the sluggish decay of the phosphors in the old tubes, longer and slower than the modern ones, and longer and slower than the simple line scan overwriting a flare of brightness. Because the light trap is so good you're aware of the blaze of light - you are basically in night-vision mode, all rods, few cones, straining after the photons, but when they burst your rods flare out and carry the afterimage.

These beautiful artefacts (as engineers will call them - unexpected or unwanted products of the technology) are integral to the devices it is shown on (I recall seeing a single channel version years ago at the Institut Francais in London, in a dimmed but ambient-lit room, very differently - i recall a blue tone to the image there, but that might be a trick of memory). These screens will eventually lose the capacity to show the work, and it will be reconstructed, in a new form on new screens. With luck it will be around for years to come, transferred to new storage media. Perhaps the archivists will try to register some of these artefacts - tone the screens with an ambient grey to denote, or point towards, the off-black quality of video black back in the day.

The archive of digital materials points us always to the fundamental ephemerality of this seeing, this version, this event, this mounting and staging, this moment of viewing which is so tragically tied to time, but which makes its statement against panic by offering, as the obverse of tragedy, the utterly now.

Kuntzel's Nostos is its own tribute to the way electronic media more perhaps than any other except performance -- which Nostos records in the actions of the woman in the room we see passing light over the walls -- , or the media of everyday interactions, kisses, kindnesses - the way electronic media can, if they wish, announce their own fading as integral to their experience.

In this way Nostos teaches us not to mourn, or to mourn in the knowledge that life is for the living, but dying is for the living too.

(post to empyre list 27 April 07)

Rods and Cones

120 million rods, but only 5, 6 or 7 million cones (depending who you read) in each human eye, the cones concentrated in the fovea centralis, the 0.3mm pit at the focus of the lens. The rods are more sensitive, accented towards blue-green, night vision, motion sensing, peripheral visionand reds ths appear blacker at night. They have a tendency to burn out in bright light. Cones specialise in the RGB range, with an overlap between 'red' and 'green' receptors in the yellow range, which thus appears brightest.

Materialist accounts of light should span the scale from quantum optics to physical optics (refraction etc), and thence to physiological optics and to the brain's handling of light. This scale begins and ends in mystery.

But perhaps there is something to add, in the thesis of the social construction of science as discourse – a process that materialism has its hand in – and in the social nature of perception. The latter emerges from the relative inability of stereoscopic vision to give a clear sense of distance, which requires two pairs of eyes or more to triangulate fully, which in turn may be why, when we see someone staring intently towards something, we follow their gaze to see what they see.

Glove puppet

The fascination of the autonomy of things we count as things: a child's mobile, a falling leaf, even the glove puppet you operate yourself. What is significant is not the Spaltung*, nor the discovery that 'je est un autre**, but the realisation that the Other is a "Je".

* (splitting)
** (I is an other)

Virilio and the iPod

The public arenas of streets, bars, waiting rooms, buses and shops having become saturated with advertising, we retreat into audiobubble that deny commercial access via the ears. [Thus too the commercial success of TV shows on DVD - guaranteed commercial free]. Has the 'public sphere always been commercial: One thinks of Shakespeare's Venice, with the merchants meeting to chat about their argosies, and of the place of Lloyd's List in the history of print news.

iPod adds little to the functionality of an FM Walkman except that hint of democratisation: the random shuffle. The big difference is that the iPod is cit off from live radio. The iPod should then be considered not only spatially but temporally: not only a private bubble in the big city, but a removal from the eternal now of advertising. Th aural universe has much to teach Virilio.

Look After Yourself

Welfare farewell

New Triplets

Import - Export - Deport

conguruent with

Objet - Sujet - Trajet (Virilio, Negative Horizon 79)

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Against identity

In the post-spectacular regime of code, identity is no longer cultural, anchored to a place and to common memories of shared actions. Events, as Karl =Krauss once observed, no longer occur: the clichés operate spontaneously. Today we need to understand cliché as code, and perhaps more disturbingly as statistical aggregate and actuarial likelihood.

Nonetheless national, regional and local cultures persist, but ossified as institutions and institutional histories. Between the poles of indigenous and migrant, and consumer and producer, sits the citizen, who has today become a client, as the state, stripped of those infrastructural elements that might turn a profit, meanders towards the role of service industry for the immiserated. The new client is the aggregate person in whom the calculus of economic rationality has been superceded by the mathematics of probability.

Agamben on Aristotle

"Thought, in its essence, is pure potentiality" (Coming Community 36.7, on the left)

In this case, that thought is peculiarly human (which it may not be, but at least in the sense that it is Symbolic, that is political). This may however be something else, apart from Agamben's poential to not-be (or 'impotence' as the opposite of power, considered as the capability to bring to action), or at least not exclusively, but the potential to be-otherwise – the capacity to mutate and to die; the capacity to re-engineer and to become redundant, rust

[naming the reaper function for technology is a problem, especially given our tendency to industrial archeology and the preservation of watermills, penny scales, hand tools and veteran cars].


That which engenders itself according to its own manner: the dead-labour theory of technology


Science deals with the actual. The task of critique is to address the potential in relation to the actual (Engineering's task is to make the potential actual; arts task is to make the actual potential). Critique's role is
a) to claim that the actual is not necessarily the result of action or of agents
b) to question the notion of action, of right action, and of the capability of actions to be complete, that is to be comprehensible uunder the rubric of the act, and
c) to surmise that accident – that is agency other than right or complete action – is also a capacity of the world.

Id est: the world is not all that is the case (an assertion that more or less requires possible worlds theory) but is all that is potential, all that is actual, and all that, as Agamben claims on the authority of the Patristic tradition, oscillates between both modes.

Friday, May 18, 2007


After a brief respite at the end of the Cold war, once again we contemplate apocalypse, and our cultural forms seem more and more to speak of and to their own ephemerality. The technologies of the new media are as contigent upon built-in obsolescence as the 1950s American cars we ridicule. The storage media we use are increasingly short-lived; the audiences for network, mobile and installation practices are as fickle as the audioences for top ten pop or the daily news.

In these circumstances, audiences can no longer be postponed. We cannot tell ourselves 'posterity will judge us'. The fragilty of the media becomes subject for art, like Douglas Bagnall's Cloud Shape Classifier

Ephemeral communities evolve around distributed artworks, social networks and performances.

Into this nexus we need to add the increasing mobility of the cosmpolitan elites, migrants, homeless, and a culture that ignores or manufactures place and ground, marginalising and mystifying it under the sign of indigeneity.

The dominant response is to embrace the present. The subdominant is to dread the future. Synthesis: to accept the present as virtual, the unique moment in which everything has the potential to become utterly other. This is benjamin's messianic moment, not endlessly deferred but radically undermining the eternal now of the ephemeral.

Transience is distinguished from ephemerality by its embrace of the pressent as the virtual moment of becoming.

Tho ephemrality is a temporal phenomenon, its content is space: the extension of the eternal now. While transince is fundamentally a spatial phenomenon of movement through streets, square, ports, its content is time, the time of change.

Adorno on metaphysics

Adorno: "against scientism, for example Wittgenstein's position that fundamentally consciousness has to do only with that which is the case. That might call forth another definition: metaphysics is the form of consciousness in which it attempts to know what is more than the case, or is not merely the case, and yet must be thought, because that which, as one says, is the case, compels us to do so" (cited in metaphysics: 196)

Materialst reflections on light may form the basis of an ontology of mediation, to whit wonder as mediation's ontological 'experience'.

But mediation fails as ontology so long as it addresses the first and third persons (especially "I" and "it") but does not recognise the second, and subsequently the multiplicity of all three persons

[the multiplicity produced in the object domain by differentiation, the plurality of self as fragmented but much more so in the plural form "we" – in this quasi-ontological enquiry a categorical statement that perception is social in its firstness as much as its thirdness – and critically that "you" is both singular and plural]

If the thical is to work in any usefully material sense, it must be first plural and distinguished from the third person. But by what? Its autonomous movement? Or its capacity to stand face-to-face? A descent into F2F is inappropriate to a century in which it is no longer the fundamental form of human interaction. We live after levinas.

Instead perhaps the multiplication of multiplicity by multiple (and multiplied) others – that the world is not only self-constituting but multiply other-constituted, and that those others who co-constitute the world are in some special sense my others.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

"The Body"

The idea of The Body is curiously enough a product of the age of the masses. Like the defining metonym of the factory hand, theThe Body functioned and indeed still functions metonymically as the pars pro toto. Its mode of abstraction from the material multiplicty of actual bodies is in this rather novel: it no longer belongs to the species, but to the general expressed in the individual, but an individuaity stripped of its specificity in order to reveal, in its unity, the in-difference of the specific.

[There is a task worth undertaking to bring the biomechanics of Anson Rabinbach's The Human Motor together with the Adorno / Agamben theses on survival and bare life – the factory and the camp as poles of modernity as a historical period]


Heisenberg observes two crucial qualities: scale and potential. Relativity deals with cosmic scale and effectively infinite velocity. Newtonian physics agrees with it to the extent that it is remote from either. Likewise quantum mechanics deals with probabilities whose vanishingly small scale nonetheless chimes with Newtonian physics where probabilities begin to aggregate int definites. All that remained was to square the circle of the very large and the very small.

Hios second challenge is to reverse Aristotle by claiming potential, in the form of energy, as the founding quality of the universe: a tendency to become prior to and by no means destined for being as previously understood. We have lived so long on the balcony overlooking this abyss, framed by quantum and cosmic scales, that they have become second nature. And yet it is still hard to go beyond Newtonian/Cartesian duality, especially of subject and object.

Light is the privileged vehicle in which this cultural accomodation can be made.

Gunning on attractions

Gunning's contribution is to defuse the problem of representation by introducing the matter of presentation. In one sense this displaces the politics of representation, which in any case reaches its terminus ad quem in Baudrillard. In another, it raises the grounds on which a politics of mediation might appear.

[Like Barthes' monstration, Gunnings presentation has less to do with the 'society of the spectacle' (tho histoircally of interest in tracing its archeology) and more to do with the realisation that contemporary life is grounded in mediation, before communication and before reference]

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Revenger's Tragedy

The revenge motif: migrates from the colonised to the coloniser. In retrospect, the sins of the colonial fathers always appear as if committed against them, and as the justification for revenge on their victims. This justification of present violence by past affronts constitutes the arrow of time.

Artificial light (1)

Daylight and the video camera travel in opposite directions – but at the same speed.

The Enemy

The phrase 'the media' is mis;leading in as many ways as there are media institutions, media technolgies, media practices and media publics. One might attempt to find a generality that covers all these activities. Or one might refuse the general and accept the multiplicity of what is effectively a collective noun like 'crowd' – or 'enemy'.

Media formations: a failure of theory, which in the end shares philosophy's predilection for the general rule in a world of particulars.


Monochrome and greyscale should also at least gesture towards toning and tinting. Monochromes are not always black. Sepia also shades. And yet perhaps the disciplines are the same.

Virtue (1)

Place together negri's observation that revolt arises from wealth – of intellect, of desire, of knowledge – with Adorno's belief that bare life is the enemy of thought (in his critique of the old joke, 'there are no atheists in the trenches'). Bare life is not a source but a terminus. To the extent that it is the condition of contemporary society, it is terminal. To the extent that it is not there is hope.

The Opposte of Silence

Revenge is the counsel of despair. "Our grief has become anger, and our anger resolution". It is the end of speech.

Light (1)

The study of light entails the largest and the smallest, relativity and quantum mechanics. It also allies to the three zones of biological, psychological and social optics, if we are to migrate from the physics to the chemistry, biochemistry, physiology and psychology of light – a series that suggests a leg-up at each phase, culminating in the tricky premise that psychology is only explicable at the level of the social. It remains to construe the declination of social psychology and the material form in which it occurs: mediation.


The liberal tradition has always understood the unit of human behaviour as the individual; the socialist tradition as some scale of the social. Today we must insist that the unit of human activity is communicative, and for the nonce might be described as community.

In Hardt and Negri this appears as irreducile difference: this is one of the grounds for the communicative, as its absence is for the collapse of communication (see Allen Cameron's and my joint paper in Warren Buckland's forthcoming collection on complex narratives). Elsewhere it will be vital to ground the communicative in a prior ontology: mediation

As heisenberg argues, there's every reason to expect a third leg to the tripod.


For Aristotle, matter was pure potential which, through the acquisition of form (energeia), became actual. By the middle of the 20th century, energy was the univeral potential that takes form as matter. Matter in its turn gambles with complexity.

Human Rights

This would be a more useful expression if we knew what humans are. I see Judith Butler has also written on the incomplete task of becoming human. She, by all accounts, works from / on an ontology of precariousness. On heisenberg's principles, such indefinition may be irresolvable.


Substance – Heisenberg's suggestion for a common term concerning What cannot Be Destroyed in transitions between matter and energy (though he counsels against assimilating it to the substantia of the ancients)

His central argument: we cannot insist that the common usage of words can be refined to an arbitrary degree of mathematical or scientific acuracy; that they slip aside at the very large scales of relatviity or the very small scales of quantum physics.

We needed it to be a German, and a philosophically inclined one at that, to point this out.

100 Year's War

The political dimension of our epoch is a war of succession; from a politics of representation to a politics of communication.

(Even the meaning of the word 'represent' seems to be changing, as when Footsouljahs sing they 'represent for my people', a relationship which is more about giving voice and indeed giving form to a group otherwise excluded from political and reduced to demographic representation


What makes the starlight/moonlight so specific? How does it reach the level of intensity that the bright light of day so rarely does? Is this the subtle side of Minerva's Owl?

A freckle on the skin of time.


Liberalism achieves an elegant certainty as pure as an act of faith when it identifies the rational and ideally informed individual as the element of the polis.

That such an individual does not exist: even Spiderman knows. Desires cannot be tabulated and satisfied: they are complex, social and interminable.


The more I pursue light, the more music fascinates me


Any insufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from banality