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Locating the Material in Digital Materialism

In The Task of Cultural Critique, Teresa L. Ebert contends that theorists often produce an unacknowledged slippage between "materialism" and "materiality." While she defines materialism, in part, as "the objective productive activities of humans that involve them in social relations under definite historical conditions that are independent of their will and are shaped by the struggles emanating between contesting classes over the surplus produced by social labor," materiality, on the other hand, derives from the "speculative tradition" of Feuerbach and refers to a form of "spiritualism...[to] what Derrida calls a materiality without materialism...[and] without matter" (24-25). As a critical practice, "materiality" is interested in the interrogation of surfaces, without regard to deeper historical structures. This is why, for her, the frequent mention of the "materiality" of technology reveals a hidden cult of the screen. If we take Ebert's critique seriuosly, that materiality is that which is surface-bound, that which refuses to interrogate deep structure, then where would we begin to look for this material depth? Where, quite simply, are we to locate the materialism of the digital?

The (fairly) recent collection of essays Living in a Material World (2008) is perhaps useful in this regard. It seeks to bring together Science & Technology Studies and Economic Sociology in order to locate the material in the quite nebulous realm of finance capital--in effect, to materialize the market. Most of the essays highlight the various tools that make interactions in the market possible: the computer screen, the telephone, the stock ticker. Other essays work to understand how spatial arrangements enact material cultures; in particular, how the desk in an arbitrage trading room functions as a site of agency. It is not simply the desk as a material object, as wood, that achieves this agency. Rather, it is the desk and all of its tools--screens, phones--that enact what Deleuze calls agencement. Added to this are the human beings, those who place and receive calls, those who draw on whiteboards, those who enlist the help of other desks with still more specific methods of computation. In an era where information is everywhere, it is ultimately the method of interpretation, the abstract structures of valuation (initially) produced by the human, which render data meaningful.

So while we could locate the material of the digital in its artifacts: in the iPod, the iPhone, and the iMac, or in the materials that make up these artifacts: copper wires, zinc plates, electrodes, or in the materials that make up those materials--the Indium Tin Oxide of the conductor in an LCD screen, it seems that this is only one aspect of the inquiry. To return again to Ebert's definition of materialism as that which includes "social relations under definite historical conditions," it would seem that the depth of the digital (or the materialism of the digital--these two align for Ebert) is to be found in a more networked model of conceptualization.  Depth is a dispersal of influence, an interconnected system of actants engaging in the production and re-production of "goods."  In this sense, we could begin to locate the materialism of the digital in the global chain of production. This would include the labor involved in the extraction of raw materials and the transformation of sand to silicon. It would also include the labor involved in the production of structures of valuation--patents, regulatory statues, derivatives. Might it then be possible to locate digital materialism in the body, be it the body manufacturing semiconductors or the body writing code?



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