Fourfold – Digital Sentimentality

Digital Sentimentality

Digital Fourfold 1,0

Orthodox accounts of the history of technology are told from an exclusively anthropomorphic perspective whose world-view revolves around the interests of man. Conceived as the products of his genius and as means to his own ends, even complex machines are understood to be tools and mediations which allow a unified, discreet human agency to interact with an inferior natural world. Weaving, however, is outside this narrative: there is continuity between the weaver, the weaving and the woven which gives them a connectivity which eludes all orthodox conceptions of technology. And although Freud is willing to give women the credit for its ‘invention’, his account also implies that there is no point of origin, but instead a process of simulation by which weaving replicates or weaves itself. It is not a thing, but a process.[1]


Casting my mind back to earlier digital memories in less technologically saturated times, I recall as a child of the 80s, that moment when I was given my first digital watch. The sleek and slim contours of that black Casio represented a peculiar temporal rupture. Prior to that, I read time in a circular motion, clockwork hands turning in a constant cycle mirroring the turn of the sun, earth and moon. Sure, I didn’t think of things in those terms then, but there was definitely a different ‘feel’ to time. Now, with this watch, instead of a directional relation between circular points, time counts up and up and up, until it reaches a certain apex where it would tumble back down to 00:00 and start all over again. This sawtooth function would suggest that if time is of the essence, the essence of time belongs to the dividing game. It also had the cool button for the light (and that shitty alarm for getting up early); each an added functionality that convinced me to ditch the older model. Progress of a kind. 

Writing about time, things and futures, the design philosopher, Tony Fry, reminds us that, “Design is not just practice, prefiguration, process, image, object, environment or direction. It is also the giving or negation of time.”[2] As such, anything and everything designed, ever, exists as something that just ‘is’ — it is always present performatively in both time and movement.  Like symbolic language, time is elemental to our anthropocentricity, and, like the digital, clocks and timepieces can help to remind us that whilst they hold some of the power of time’s representational appearances and durational measure, they are still events inside time, even if they are  ‘time’ in itself.[3]

In this way, Fry points out how the wrist-watch arrives as a device that allows for creation, production and destruction, as these portable timepieces allow for co-ordinated movements of troops during multi-front operations during World War II. As such, time is equally part of the military-industrial complex’s conquest of gamespace. Fry writes, “acting in time is what made the wrist-watch an object of everyday use. Two modalities of time were forged in this moment of conflict: world-time as the time in which things are encountered; and world time as the beginning of the induction of all cultures into a singular regulatory regime of time.”[4]

These days, it’s more likely that the phone is the go-to device for keeping world-time inside gamespace, making the unfolding act and world-shaping force of different devices of time-keeping a good example of thinking about how an object of design also produces a like relation to being inside the times we live. In other words, designs can design much, much more than their intended form or function, and in so doing I want to argue that both design, and by extension, the digital, can operate as something that is both weird and weirds.

This proposition deploys Thacker’s investigation of the ways in which weird media produces an absolute impasse, a strange non-knowledge of the impossibility of mediation, that produces a gulf or abyss between two ontological orders.[5] Where Thacker looks at examples of this in mysticism, weird fiction and planetary extinction, I have extended this idea to explore the meta-dimensions of design, craft and technologies as a combined, weird retrograde force that shapes the destiny of humans and other planetary life. This links the word weird, a term we tend to use now as indicating the strange, unusual or quirky, to the use of the word wyrd in ancient times — a term that names an ambiguous yet timeless concept of the inescapable event or divine force that induces one to reflect on the agency and responsibility of the human in the face of cosmic powers. In this sense, we might say that serpent, fruit, Adam, Eve and Eden describe a weird relation to the event called knowledge. Equally, I would like to propose weaving, the rise of digital, and a possible technological collapse as real-fictions that can, and continue, to weird us. 

To think through a state where the digital is weird such that it negatively mediates between two ontological orders, creating a threshold where ‘objects’ recede into ‘things’, that which can be thought but never fully known[6], let us return to what we might experience during times of digital-technological darkness. Let’s assume a sustained situation where many kinds of memory or knowledge currently allocated to the digital-ether are either permanently unavailable or erased. Forms of telaesthesia, or perception at a distance and memory in a cloud afforded by radio, television or the internet are also offline. What if other ways of keeping score, like how much I can save, spend or earn, are no longer in play? In this moment we might see that DIGITAL-1 has weirded us via the residue of what we have forgotten, no longer use or cannot readily access. This would highlight how certain ways of engaging the world will have been prefigured or foreclosed, making our relation to the world uncanny, strange and surreal, but also opening up opportunities for recovery, connection and a return to saturated phenomena — a certain excess that passes beyond concept and a failure of prior experience.

Let us consider, for example, another childhood preoccupation linked to the digital watch. Not long after I got mine, living and camping in Australia, I became interested in Bush survival. Let’s remember that this was a time before GPS and satellite phones, something that even today can fail to help someone lost in the Outback. So, I soon found myself asking instead for a wind-up analog watch when I discovered that you could determine where you are in an unknown territory by using the hands of a watch, a match-stick and the position of the sun. The irony is, if I was to try and use that technique now, I would have to go back and look it up (by reaching for my mobile phone). Through the passage of time I have long since forgotten how the process worked exactly and if I was stuck in a situation where I was lost in unfamiliar environs, with a phone without battery and not even a watch to check, getting home would be a real challenge. An opening for the catalogue that accompanies Bruno Latour’s exhibition Reset Modernity considers a somewhat similar situation:

“What do you do when you are disoriented, when the compass on your smartphone goes haywire? You reset it. The procedure varies according to the situation and device, but you always have to stay calm and follow instructions carefully if you want the compass to capture signals again.”[7]

This concept introduces the exhibition as one offering to reset an epoch of binaries such as past and future, north and south, progress and regress, radical and conservative. The tension of these antinomies leads to the sense that the “compass is running in wild circles without offering much orientation anymore”, and hence needs a reset.[8] Here, the smartphone as compass could be said to adopt a view of disorientation that is sentimental — the misrepresenting of the world to construct narratives of ‘unreality’ by imposing qualities of innocence on a ‘favoured object.’[9] An issue that in these cases to maintain the innocence one has projected upon a favoured object, it is often necessary to construct other, dangerous fictions about the things that objects interact with.

The tale of the confounded modern person holding a confused, digitally-driven, GPS pinging, battery-run version of the loadstone is lost only insofar as they are trapped by a moment of digital glitch.[10] Here, to return to a stable relation to ‘world’ and one’s place within it, you need not question the malfunction of the device but simply keep calm, carry on: ‘reset it’. The situation excludes any recourse to the earlier analog counterpart. The arcane, telesthetic art of identifying the north using other, more stable functioning signals such as the Earth’s magnetic pull, is an option available only to non-moderns using a dead medium. Along with this lost tech, we might say, we have also lost a long line of worlding knowledge tied to the ability to orienteer in general — from understandings about terrain, topographic maps and physical passage across distance to an ability to read sunlight, wind, water and the astro-logics of the stars. Thus, to reset modernity, perhaps, what might need to be set, or reset, is not the device, but ourselves. So in other moments of digital crisis or collapse, we might have access to certain analog remainders — non-electrical, non-smart, non-networked instruments or devices.  But without knowing and continually updating our understandings of them – that is, bringing these objects constantly to life as things through use, memory and knowledge, under conditions of massive change – trying to reanimate dead technologies can present us with the tricky lacuna that occurs when we realise we have unknown what we once knew. Could such dormant portals, alienated artefacts and forgotten passcodes offer access to an ontological rift and open us up to a renewed relation to the digital wyrd?


[end of Digital 1,0]


[1] Sadie Plant. 1996, ON THE MATRIX: Cyberfeminist simulations, 332.

[2] Tony Fry, ‘Time, Things and Futures’,  Zoontechnica, Issue 1, November 2011, Online Journal

[3] Thacker 2014, 133.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Thacker 2014, 133

[6] Thacker’s thesis on weird media here rests on a discussion of Kant’s distinction between and object-for-us and the thing-in-itself, Jean Luc Marrion’s Saturated Phenomena, and Francois Laruelle’s mystique, amongst others to designate the mediation of weird as a relation between object and thing, as opposed to subject-object or object-object relations — see Thacker, 2014, 117-127.

[7] Bruno Latour, Reset modernity: the field book, Bruno Latour, Martin Guinard-Terrin, Christophe Leclercq, Caroline Jansky and Ulrike Havemann (eds), Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, Germany: 2016

[8] Ibid.

[9] Jefferson, Mark. 1983. “What is Wrong With Sentimentality?” Mind, New Series, Vol.92, No. 368. pp. 519-529

[10] This builds into Jenny Sunden observation that gender is also a technology and that trans- identity is a glitch (which is both digital and analog break) in the heteronormative concepts/histories of gender.  Sunden, Jenny, 2015 ‘On trans-, glitch, and gender as machinery of failure’ First Monday, 20(4).

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