Black boxing conversion


Bernhard Siegert: In a way, you can describe the business of cultural techniques as the opening up of black boxes. If you think of concepts or even symbols as black boxes, when you open them up, what comes out are cultural techniques.

One of the things I have been studying recently is the very famous Macy Conferences. All these star thinkers there — Norbert Wiener, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, Warren McCulloch — had no clear concept of what the digital was.

And a group of neurologists wants to describe the nervous system as a digital machine. That is what McCulloch and Walter Pitts already had in mind in the ’40s: They were interested in a concept of the digital that lies in the real, in the natural. They really thought that nerves, synapses, work digitally. And so there is great confusion.

Then Wiener says that the digital is actually produced by artificially excluding certain phenomena from reality, from nature. He speaks of “times of non-reality” that lie between two stable states, like on or off, zero or one. Because nothing in nature makes this binary switch from zero to one — not in the nervous system or anywhere else. Natural phenomena are always continuous. So to define the digital, the transitional moment in the intermediate state between two discrete states has to be deemed not real, or “forbidden ground,” in Julian Bigelow’s words.

And the study of cultural techniques is interested in precisely these medial conditions of whatever lays claim to reality. Because what divides analog media and digital media is not ontologically given, not even on the level of concepts or on the level of history of ideas. Instead this difference has to be produced by people who actively declare that the transition between discrete states “do not exist,” as the psychologist John Stroud did.

So, in the ’50s, the digital appeared in scientific discourse as something that had to be created by a verdict, a declaration. It is something like a pseudolegal speech act. And that speech act is then translated into technology. Later, you have scanning/OCR mechanisms that do this conversion for you, converting text into bits, binary values, one or zero.

Geoffrey Winthrop-Young: A kind of a performative, linguistic perforation of the continuity of the analog takes place.


“Material World: Geoffrey Winthrop-Young talks with Bernhard Siegert”. ArtForum (Summer, 2015).

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