Art, Science, and Technology
Instructor: Jan Hein Hoogstad
31 June 2014
##Final Project: “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Match”
###1. New Materialism: Agency, Matter, and Technology
There is a trend in current cultural theory to think about materials, matter and agency in new ways. And this is only one puzzle piece in a bigger movement that tries to think the position of “the human” differently in relation to other objects and things populating this planet. Technological artefacts, ecological processes, markets, minerals and toxics, or animals can be thought of differently when examined from a (less) anthropocentric perspective. This so called New Materialism evolved through various disciplines and perspectives, the two most prominent ones being posthumanism with a heavy focus on technology at least in the early years (inspired through feminist theory such as the famous “Cyborg Manifesto” by Donna Haraway), and a new ecological thought, which has emerged during the past years through a growing awareness of climate change and ecological problematics. In my project, I want to bring both strands of thought together in one metaphorical 'battleship' game which transfers the idea of material agency back and forth between code and a narrative around plastic waste in the ocean.
###2. What's going on in the Plastisphere?
About two years ago, a young student from the US found a species of bacteria during his research that had an astonishing characteristic: they could feed from plastic and degrade it into different substances. Since then, more research has been done on various organisms that could help to degrade plastic waste: different types of bacteria, plastic-eating worms and algae that cling to plastic micro-particles (currently one of the biggest dangers to the environment through plastic) and have them sink to the ground, where they stay away from the hydrologic cycle. Researchers even started talking about a developing “plastisphere”, a new ecological niche in the ocean plastic waste patches, where thousands and thousands of different species survive and travel the ocean. Which is where the problems start: the plastic particles might also be home to bacteria that is harmful to humans or wildlife; species that are thought to help spread cholera were found on oceanic plastic waste in great numbers. And the mere number of organisms, unpredictable influences such as weather or water streams (which could be changing due to climate change at the moment), mutations or substances that emerge through breaking down plastic in smaller chemical components are just, simply spoken, far beyond human control or even intelligibility. Especially now that one of the biggest garbage islands in the world, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, has reached the size of Texas.
###3. Object Oriented Ontology, Climate and Code
This is an example for something that philosopher Timothy Morton has come to call a hyperobject, something that exceeds us in spacial or timely notions and complexity, is “massively distributed in time and space relative to humans” (1); it therefore just lays beyond our control. And most importantly also beyond our understanding and perception. Hyperobjects (other examples would be the climate as such, the whole of nuclear waste spread on this planet, earthquakes or tsunamis) exist, they are 'real' ontologically, but still, they are constantly withdrawn from human understanding. Morton also invokes in this concept the idea of an Object Oriented Ontology, a term framed by Graham Harman and most prominently practiced in Ian Bogost's “Alien Phenomenology, or What It's Like to Be a Thing”. It is closely related to Latour's actor-network theory, but emphasizes even more the quality of the thing itself, tries to steer away even more from the human actor. (Bogost, 7) Therefore Bogost turns, among others, to the study of computers, “plastic and metal corpses with voodoo powers.” (9) He admits of course that computers entail a big part of human interaction, experience and perception, but “a tiny, private universe rattles behind its glass and aluminum exoskeleton. Computers are composed of molded plastic keys and controllers, motor-driven disc drives, silicon wafers, plastic ribbons, and bits of data. They are likewise formed from subroutines and middleware libraries compiled into byte code or etched onto silicon, cathode ray tubes or LCD displays mated to insulated, conductive cabling, and microprocessors executing machine instructions that enter and exit address buses.” (9) Computers have reached a rate of complexity that almost makes them hyperobjects in themselves. Kittler also makes this tension visible in a more pragmatic way: “Thus, either we write code that in the manner of natural constants reveals the determinations of the matter itself, but at the same time pay the price of millions of lines of code and billions of dollars for digital hardware; or else we leave the task up to machines that derive code from their own environment, although we then cannot read that is to say: articulate—this code.” (Kittler, 46) We can't afford (and certainly would not want !) to start from scratch when we write code; we use libraries, languages, test programs and compilers without knowing their function in detail (or in my case, at all). This entails that we cannot know everything that is going on in what we are writing;
###4. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Match
###5. Why Matter Matters: Material Signification
To make my point, though, even a pseudo-random output will do, since my interest lays in the gap between the player and the game/program/code. This gap, which I have described above also as the gap between a hyper object and a human subject, plays an important role in how human practices of knowing can (and maybe need to) be re-thought. As Karen Barad writes: “The particular configuration that an apparatus takes is not an arbitrary construction of “our” choosing; nor is it the result of causally deterministic power structures. “Humans” do not simply assemble different apparatuses for satisfying particular knowledge projects but are themselves specific local parts of the world’s ongoing reconfiguring. To the degree that laboratory manipulations, observational interventions, concepts, or other human practices have a role to play it is as part of the material configuration of the world in its intra-active becoming.” (829) The human, then, is only one of many agents involved in the production of meaning. In an attempt to take this back to media studies and specifically the workings of new technologies, Jussi Parikka suggests that “ recognizing the way abstraction works in technical media from voltages and components to the more symbolic levels allows us to track back, as well, from the world of meanings and symbols - but also a-signification - to the level of dirty matter.” (97) Following other New Materialist accounts, but also Kittler and other German media theorists, he states that in the shift from the material production to signification, all agents matter in the most literal sense. This includes, but goes far beyond, the catastrophic social and environmental implications of production of new technologies. The weird materialities (Parikka) of code can be found on any level; I have only had the chance to dip my toe into this field. But working with it has given me an impression of how many underlying weird processes are happening while I am only looking at a screen.
Barad, Karen. "Posthumanist performativity: Toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter." Signs 40.1 (2014). Print.
Kittler, Friedrich. “Code, or How You Can Write Something Differently.” In: Software
Studies (2008). Web.
Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. Print.
Parikka, Jussi. "New materialism as media theory: Medianatures and dirty matter." Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 9.1 (2012): 95-100. Print.
“Plastic-Eating' Microbes Help Marine Debris Sink.” Discovery News. Web. 30 May 2015.
“Welcome To The Plastisphere: The New World Of Microbes Living On Ocean Plastic.” Co.Exist. Web. 30 May 2015.