INTRODUCTION: Exaptation and the Digital Now

Panel Organizers:

Alex Myers

Bellevue University

Daniel Rourke

Goldsmiths, University of London

(This introductory essay is a collaborative effort by both panel members and organizers Dr. Zara Dinnen, Dr. Rob Gallagher, Alex Myers, and Daniel Rourke.)

Before exaptation

In the 1960s and 70s Roland Barthes named ‘the Text’ as a network of production and exchange. Whereas ‘the work’ was concrete, final, and analogous to a material, ‘the text’ was more like a flow, a field or event – open-ended. Perhaps even infinite. In “From Work to Text,” Barthes wrote: “The metaphor of the Text is that of the network.” [1]

This semiotic approach to discourse, by initiating the move from print culture to ‘text’ culture, also helped lay the ground for a contemporary politics of content-driven media. Skipping backwards through “From Work to Text” we find this statement: “The text must not be understood as a computable object. It would be futile to attempt a material separation of works from texts.” [2] [emphasis added]

What stands out here is Barthes’ use of the phrase ‘computable object,’ as well as his attention to the ‘material.’ In moving from “The Work to The Text” we move not just between different politics of exchange and dissemination, we also move between different forms and materialities of mediation. For Barthes the material work was computable, whereas the network of the text – its content – was not. Katherine Hayles in her essay “Text is Flat, Code is Deep” teases out the statement for us: “‘computable’ here mean[s] to be limited, finite, bound, able to be reckoned. Written twenty years before the advent of the microcomputer, his essay stands in the ironic position of anticipating what it cannot anticipate.” [3] [emphasis added]

‘Text’ originates from the Latin word texere, to weave. A material craft enabled by a human ingenuity for loops, knots and pattern. Whereas a single thread may collapse under its own weight, looped and intertwined threads originate their strength and texture as a network. The textile speaks of repetition and multiplicity, yet it is only once we back away from the tapestry that the larger picture comes into focus.

Example of a punch card loom, YouTube screen capture, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lwozgRPLVC8, accessed June 28, 2014.

Example of a punch card loom, YouTube screen capture, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lwozgRPLVC8, accessed June 28, 2014.

At an industrial scale textile looms expanded beyond the frame of their human operators. By reducing a textile design to a system of coded instructions, the complex web of a decorative rug could be fixed into the gears and pulleys that drove the clattering apparatus. In later machines long reels of card, punched through with holes, told a machine how, or what, to weave. Not only could carpets and textiles themselves be repeated, with less chance of error, but the punch-cards that ordered them were now equally capable of being mass-produced for a homogenous market. From one industrial loom an infinite number of textile variations could be derived. All one needed to do was feed more punch cards into the greedy, demanding reels of the automated system.

The material origins of film may also have been influenced by the mechanics of weaving. Transparent reels of celluloid were pulled through mechanisms resembling the steam-driven contraptions of the industrial revolution. The holes running down its edges delimit a reel’s flow. Just as the circular motion of a mechanical loom is translated into a network of threads, so the material specificity of the film stock and projector weave the illusion of cinematic time. Some of the more archaic, outmoded types of film are known to shrink slightly as they decay, affording us a juddering and inconsistent vision of the world captured in the early 20th century.

Konrad Zuse’s programmable Zuse 1 computer, YouTube screen capture, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zE-HtMsJnBI, accessed June 28, 2014.

Konrad Zuse’s programmable Zuse 1 computer, YouTube screen capture, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zE-HtMsJnBI, accessed June 28, 2014.

In 1936, the year that Alan Turing wrote his iconic paper “On Computable Numbers,” a German engineer by the name of Konrad Zuse built the first working digital computer. Like its industrial predecessors, Zuse’s computer was designed to function via a series of holes encoding its program. Born as much out of convenience as financial necessity, Zuse punched his programs directly into discarded reels of 35mm film-stock. Fused together by the technologies of weaving and cinema, Zuse’s computer announced the birth of an entirely new mode of textuality. As Lev Manovich suggests: “The pretence of modern media to create simulations of sensible reality is… cancelled; media are reduced to their original condition as information carrier, nothing less, nothing more…” [4]

Here Manovich sets up a narrative that was later labeled as ‘remediation’ by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin. [5] An annihilation of visual meaning, supplanted by the ‘cold’ functionality of data. [6] “The iconic code of cinema is discarded in favour of the more efficient binary one. Cinema becomes a slave to the computer.” [7] Rather than Manovich’s slave/master relationship, we want to suggest a kind of lateral pollination of media traits. As technologies develop, specificities from one media are co-opted by another. Reverting to biological metaphor, we see genetic traits jumping between media species.

Evolution is a dominant metaphor for thinking about and describing the processes of new technologies; we believe ‘exaptation’ offers a more productive, nuanced approach to questions of adaptation and co-option that surround digital media. [8] According to Svetlana Boym in her essay “The Off-Modern Mirror:”

Exaptation is described in biology as an example of ‘lateral adaptation,’ which consists in a co-option of a feature for its present role from some other origin… Exaptation is not the opposite of adaptation; neither is it merely an accident, a human error or lack of scientific data that would in the end support the concept of adaptation. Exaptation questions the very process of assigning meaning and function in hindsight, the process of assigning the prefix ‘post’ and thus containing a complex phenomenon within the grid of familiar interpretation. [9]

Media is replete with exaptations. Features specific to certain media are exapted – co-opted – as matters of blind chance, convenience, technical necessity, aesthetics, and even fashion. Narratives of progress cannot account for the ways technologies branch out or are reused, misused, and abused across communities and networks. Exaptation offers a way to think about digital culture not as ever-newer, ever-faster, ever-more-seamless, but rather as something that must always negotiate its own noisy history. Yesterday’s incipient hardware becomes the ordering mechanism of today’s cultural affects: a complex renewal that calls into question established notions of utility, value, and engendered experience. Exaptation accounts for features now considered integral to media without falling back into narratives that appear to anticipate what one could not anticipate.

This article is a collaborative work that brings together the four co-authors’ various responses to the provocation of exaptation. In what follows exaptation is put into play as a model to help unsettle dominant narratives about the digital image in particular. Considering the digital image in various guises: as animated GIFs, poor images, art games, hardware, and holograms, this article will trace the traits that jump between media and metaphor; complicating linear narratives of progression, and reductive readings of remediation associated with new media. [10]

Seeing things

In a YouTube video entitled “PROOF ‘PLANE’ WAS HOLOGRAM THAT HIT 9/11,” footage of the first plane to crash into the World Trade Center is looped, stretched, and dispersed into a sequence of sludgy freeze frames. [11] The slowed footage, in all its pixelated matter, appears to reveal what is not visible to the naked eye: the plane disappearing into the second tower in a purple flash. The title of the video is self-explanatory: the image is evidence of the theory that the plane that hit the tower was not a plane but a hologram. Ironically for a video that cites itself as proof, its traction is in a distrust of the image. The video as manipulated media object is both about, and being, an indeterminate image.

PROOF “PLANE’ WAS HOLOGRAM THAT HIT 9/11, YouTube screen capture, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ek-Q0T9wK2g, accessed June 28, 2014.

PROOF “PLANE’ WAS HOLOGRAM THAT HIT 9/11, YouTube screen capture, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ek-Q0T9wK2g, accessed June 28, 2014.

Working on this project the authors recognise that their mutual interest in the digital is abstracted. An investment in seeking new modes and metaphors with which to address this already nebulous concept finds that metaphors have risen up and usurped their binary overlords; have taken such deep root as to have started to come ‘before’ the very thing we attempt to discuss. Exaptation is one way to try and put words to such a process, without falling back on the rhetoric of progress, evolution, and verisimilitude.

The ‘before’ indexes not a historic moment, but a critical move: as we start describing the digital image – holograms, GIFs, games – we reimagine them through the open dynamics of metaphors in play. And in charting the play of metaphor we have been drawn to those aspects of digital technology that seem to possess the least metaphoric potential, connotative force, or semiotic freight. Display resolutions, data storage capacities, and hardware specifications are often thought of as neutral containers of or frames for content rather than content in and of themselves, pure quantity without qualities. It is this that allows rising bitrates and floating-point operations per second counts to act as ostensibly objective measures of steady technological progress. As Walter Benjamin reminds us however, increases in quantity inevitably have qualitative effects, and so it proves here. [12] If data integer widths like 8- or 32-bit have become evocative synecdoches for gamers, modes of framing digital memory and the saving of data have had profound effects on our understanding and experience of space and time, as Matthew Kirschenbaum’s work on the ostensibly ‘dull’ subject of data storage attests. [13] Even when we appear to be dealing with cold, hard, (and, frankly rather boring) technological facts, there is no outside to the play of metaphor, no end to the proliferation of images.

Through the frame of the digital image the very idea of verisimilitude is suspect. It privileges an idea of progress, bound up with the notion that higher resolution is the same as higher information is the same as higher value. Rather than frame the 9/11 video in terms of verisimilitude, media discourse, and post-9/11 critical theory, we could think about the hologram. What might be interesting here is that it is a hologram that is the conspiracy.

A hologram is a type of 3D photograph that uses mirrors and lasers to diffract and then redirect light; the transmission produces a 3D image of an ‘original’ object in a different space. Holograms were first developed in 1947 and are credited as the work of Dennis Gabor. The discovery of holograms was made possible by developments in laser technology and through this connection holograms can be seen to have a proximate history to digital technologies.

Holograms have served science, technology, commercial, and creative interests throughout their short history, but as Sean Johnston notes, holograms have always been marginal and always misrepresented: “Today the hologram is variously identified as the sparkling reflective patterns on toothpaste packages, as computer-generated individuals in science-fiction tales, or even more uncritically as any three-dimensional image.” [14]

In his history of holograms, “Holographic Visions: A History of New Science” (2006), Johnston is particularly careful to present his history not as a testimonial to the importance of holograms as a late twentieth-century scientific and artistic medium; rather he is acutely attuned to the weird ways in which holograms have attached themselves to ideas of technological progress, metaphorically. Holograms are images of progress rather than technologies of progress. Despite fictional images to the contrary, holograms are not particularly similar to digital technologies – at least not in their proper form. They are not easily subsumed into the greater ‘New Science’ of their period: computation. In between the image of the hologram as a future digital technology, and the actual fiction of holographic transmission as digital media, lies perhaps the resistant materiality of the hologram. Not laser, light, or mirror, but instead a cultural signifier of the digital.
In an adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s model of pataphysics, a ‘pataphor’ is used to describe a state in which the relationship between object and idea denoted by a metaphor may have come to represent an autonomous field of play. [15] In this instance the hologram as metaphor for the imagined digital future functions as a distinct cultural narrative in which the metaphor of the hologram becomes the reality of the imagined techno-future. The next generation hologram is data storage. [16] If holographic data storage becomes an industry standard then the critical proximity of the holographic and the digital may just have exapted. The digital programme will not transmit the hologram; the hologram will contain the digital programme.

Coming back to the 9/11 video: holograms are always-already a metaphor of some imaginary. The hologram comes to be a narrative that could explain the inexplicable, but it is the digital material that makes the metaphor visible. The metaphor of the hologram is what inspires the remaking of the video to show the hologram. The ineffability of the hologram as thing and signifier drives the conspiracy theory. In turn the conspiracy theory is premised on the idea that the ‘truth’ is precisely what is hidden in plain sight. But the truth here – as driven by the holographic signifier – is delineated by the materiality of the video. The techniques of the digital: slowing down the video, keying the horizon to the holographic colour spectrum, reimagine the low-res as something that doesn’t obscure (as a narrative of verisimilitude might suggest), but rather shows us what is really there.

Syncopation

Michel Serres tells a brief parable about a family, stricken with grief when confronted with their dead father. The father had been suspended in ice for 30 years, having died of the mountain cold, and it is his adult sons and daughters who confront his dead body – the body of a man younger than themselves. Serres equates the ice of the mountain with art and beauty and profound thought, for they “preserve youth even better than a glacier!” [17] The parable resonates through work on the distrust and indeterminacy of the digital image: every digital object or event also comes packed in its own cultural and metaphorical ice, and that indeterminacy is as much about the hidden biases of our culture as is it about anything fundamental, formal, or material about the image. At stake in this collaborative work is a process of defrosting through the metaphors we choose/abuse.

Playstation Iterations, YouTube screencapture, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OA4wBtpaPHY, accessed June 28, 2014.

Playstation Iterations, YouTube screencapture, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OA4wBtpaPHY, accessed June 28, 2014.

Serres’ parable writes art as a kind of queer syncopation. If the discourse of consumer technology is forever looking toward a next generation that will render present hardware obsolete (the PS3 ceding its crown to the PS4 in what a Sony teaser campaign frames as “the evolution of PlayStation”) then Serres suggests confrontations with anachronism can shake our faith in patterns and periodicities we have learned to take for granted, sowing indeterminacy and in so doing, securing a space for critical thought. In this respect, Serres’ iceman also recalls Laura Mulvey’s work on the pause button. [18] Mulvey argues for the important specificity of the digital moving image, which offers a ‘clean’ paused image for the scholar to comb for traces of futures that never came to be – a practice perhaps not so far from the repurposing of a freeze-framed video as capstone for an elaborate and improbable alternate history of holographic conspiracy.

The work we do on the digital image is concerned with future presents. The counter narrative may be less about pataphor, and more about ignoring that deferral; of intervening before the narrative has had time to take root. Once again we are prone to trip ourselves up: our narratives are always one-thing-then-another; a temporal form. Perhaps, as with Serres’ glacier of art and beauty, we need to continuously highlight the metaphorical function of exaptation, to take the narrative as the given from which the truths – to echo our hologram conspiracist – are wont to appear.

We now present four case studies that make use of the metaphoric function of exaptation to decode ways of seeing the digital image as hologram, paradigm, hardware, and game.

References:

1. Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text,” in Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism, ed. Josué V. Harari (Methuen, 1980), 73–81.
2. Ibid.
3. N. Katherine Hayles, “Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis,” Poetics Today 25, no. 1 (March 2004): 67–90.
4. Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, 1st MIT Press pbk. ed. (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2002), 25.
5. David J. Bolter and Richard A Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000).
6. Norman Taylor, Cinematic Perspectives on Digital Culture: Consorting with the Machine (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 63.
7. Manovich, The Language of New Media, 25.
8. When an adaptation shaped by natural selection or a character whose origin cannot be ascribed to the direct action of natural selection, it is co-opted for a novel use. Gould, S.J., & E.S. Vrba. “Exaptation; a Missing Term in the Science of Form.” Paleobiology 8, no. 1 (Jan 1, 1982): 4–15.
9. Svetlana Boym, “Svetlana Boym, The Off-Modern Mirror / Journal / E-Flux,” E-flux, no. 19 (October 2010), http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/175, accessed June 28, 2014.
10. Steyerl, Hito. “Hito Steyerl, In Defense of the Poor Image / Journal / E-Flux.” E-Flux, no. 11 (November 2009). http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/94, accessed June 28, 2014.
11. “PROOF ‘PLANE’ WAS HOLOGRAM THAT HIT 9/11,” YouTube, accessed June 28, 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ek-Q0T9wK2g.
12. Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” In The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, (Cambridge MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008), 19-55.
13. See Kirschenbaum, Matthew G. Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2008).
14. Sean Johnston. “A Cultural History of the Hologram,” Leonardo 41.3 (June 2008): 223.
15. Alfred Jarry, Exploits and Opinions of Dr Faustroll Pataphysician, trans. Simon Watson Taylor (Exact Change, 1996); for history and uses of the term ‘pataphor’ see Pataphor Magazine (pataphormagazine.com).
16. Park, No-Cheol; Young-Pil Park; Park, Kyoung-Su; Hyunseok Yang, “Applications of Next Generation Optical Data Storage Technologies,” IEEE Transactions on Magnetics, vol.47, no.3, (March 2011): 669-678; Hesselink, Lambertus; Orlov, Sergei S.; Bashaw, M.C., “Holographic data storage systems,” Proceedings of the IEEE, vol.92, no.8 (August 2004): 1231-1280.
17. Serres, Michel. Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995), 61.
18. See Mulvey, Laura. Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image. (London: Reaktion Books, 2006).