“Digital”: A Case for a Genealogy

Okay, so it’s time to get theoretical on your asses. Really. Time to stop screwing around. I want to get to the bottom of something and I’ve got to start somewhere. See what I mean? “Something”? “Somewhere”? That’s just not gonna cut it.

I want to really start thinking about what “digital” means. Particularly, I want to think about its cultural use in relation to discussion of texts (production, distribution, use, etc.). Only part of that question is what each of us means when we use the term “digital.” Another part is cultural emergence. So, to some degree I want to work towards a sort of “genealogy” of the term. Here’s what I mean. Rather than trying to understand the term in a linear-historical tracing from origins to contemporary usage, I think it’s probably more useful to consider it’s lineage as multiple, inconsistent, and temporally discontinuous. And I’ll look to Foucault for one method (I’ll also be looking at a closely related model in Walter Benjamin’s work). In “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” Foucault suggests that:

genealogy retrieves an indispensable restraint: it must record the singularity of events outside of any monotonous finality… it must be sensitive to their recurrence, not in order to trace the gradual curve of their evolution, but to isolate the different scenes where they engaged in different roles. … it opposes itself to the search for ‘origins’” (139)

to follow the complex course of descent is to maintain passing events in the proper dispersion; it is to identify the accidents, the minute deviations—or conversely, the complete reversals—the errors, the false appraisals, and the faulty calculations that gave birth to those things that continue to exist and have value for us; it is to discover that the truth or being do not lie at the root of what we know and what we are, but the exteriority of accidents” (146)

Isn’t that great?! To think about the meaning of a concept as the confluence of multiple, discontinuous origins. Sort of a river at the bottom of a watershed. But that metaphor isn’t perfect because all of those tributaries drain one direction: toward the given concept’s meaning. Think about it like a map. If I were to put my finger at a given place on any one of the tributaries, I’d have to acknowledge that the momentum of the term at that given historical point was moving in many directions. It’s just that one of those directions happened to end up as part of the concept I am tracing. In order to understand why part of a concept’s usage/development moved in a certain direction, it’s important to acknowledge that it could have developed in many different ways, for many different reasons. Some of those directions get realized, some don’t. All of those developments and stalls are part of a concepts heritage.

So why is this so important? Two reasons.

First, to be able to use the word well. My understanding of a concept, especially its definition, determines almost entirely (excepting accidents) how I might use it. When I invoke a concept, I inevitably inhabit it. Its affordances, limits, nuances, cultural baggage, and associations. This is especially problematic when I use a concept with which I am unfamiliar. Will I inhabit that concept responsibly? Will I acknowledge all of a concepts histories? Even those I wish weren’t there? And if I really want to use the concept, shouldn’t I be able to take advantage of as many of its uses and affordances as I can? Yes, of course. And yes, I’m willing to acknowledge that there’s now way I can be this invested in every word I utter. Not even in several words within my vocabulary. Nope. That would be ridiculous. But there are certain words crucial to the projects within which I am invested. So how well will I inhabit them?

Second, because concepts and language are political. Whether we like it or not, language makes things happen. Concepts and definitions affect the material world. They enable. They restrain. We operate with/on them. They operate on us. Between us. That’s why I sometimes get pissed off when someone misuses a word/concept in which I’m invested. Misuse can do damage. Overuse and imprecision (and I don’t mean accuracy) can neuter. I’ve learned these cautions the hard way.

So, then, what is this concept we so often invoke? Digital? Digital! DIGITAL! Digital! Wait… digital?

It’s time I get to work. More soon.

(photo “Lower McCloud River Map” by frolic and detour; license: attribution-noncommercial 2.0 generic.)

Okay, so it’s time to get theoretical on your asses. Really. Time to stop screwing around. I want to get to the bottom of something and I’ve got to start somewhere. See what I mean? “Something”? “Somewhere”? That’s just not gonna cut it.

I want to really start thinking about what “digital” means. Particularly, I want to think about its cultural use in relation to discussion of texts (production, distribution, use, etc.). Only part of that question is what each of us means when we use the term “digital.” Another part is cultural emergence. So, to some degree I want to work towards a sort of “genealogy” of the term. Here’s what I mean. Rather than trying to understand the term in a linear-historical tracing from origins to contemporary usage, I think it’s probably more useful to consider it’s lineage as multiple, inconsistent, and temporally discontinuous. And I’ll look to Foucault for one method (I’ll also be looking at a closely related model in Walter Benjamin’s work). In “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” Foucault suggests that:

genealogy retrieves an indispensable restraint: it must record the singularity of events outside of any monotonous finality… it must be sensitive to their recurrence, not in order to trace the gradual curve of their evolution, but to isolate the different scenes where they engaged in different roles. … it opposes itself to the search for ‘origins’” (139)

to follow the complex course of descent is to maintain passing events in the proper dispersion; it is to identify the accidents, the minute deviations—or conversely, the complete reversals—the errors, the false appraisals, and the faulty calculations that gave birth to those things that continue to exist and have value for us; it is to discover that the truth or being do not lie at the root of what we know and what we are, but the exteriority of accidents” (146)

Isn’t that great?! To think about the meaning of a concept as the confluence of multiple, discontinuous origins. Sort of a river at the bottom of a watershed. But that metaphor isn’t perfect because all of those tributaries drain one direction: toward the given concept’s meaning. Think about it like a map. If I were to put my finger at a given place on any one of the tributaries, I’d have to acknowledge that the momentum of the term at that given historical point was moving in many directions. It’s just that one of those directions happened to end up as part of the concept I am tracing. In order to understand why part of a concept’s usage/development moved in a certain direction, it’s important to acknowledge that it could have developed in many different ways, for many different reasons. Some of those directions get realized, some don’t. All of those developments and stalls are part of a concepts heritage.

So why is this so important? Two reasons.

First, to be able to use the word well. My understanding of a concept, especially its definition, determines almost entirely (excepting accidents) how I might use it. When I invoke a concept, I inevitably inhabit it. Its affordances, limits, nuances, cultural baggage, and associations. This is especially problematic when I use a concept with which I am unfamiliar. Will I inhabit that concept responsibly? Will I acknowledge all of a concepts histories? Even those I wish weren’t there? And if I really want to use the concept, shouldn’t I be able to take advantage of as many of its uses and affordances as I can? Yes, of course. And yes, I’m willing to acknowledge that there’s now way I can be this invested in every word I utter. Not even in several words within my vocabulary. Nope. That would be ridiculous. But there are certain words crucial to the projects within which I am invested. So how well will I inhabit them?

Second, because concepts and language are political. Whether we like it or not, language makes things happen. Concepts and definitions affect the material world. They enable. They restrain. We operate with/on them. They operate on us. Between us. That’s why I sometimes get pissed off when someone misuses a word/concept in which I’m invested. Misuse can do damage. Overuse and imprecision (and I don’t mean accuracy) can neuter. I’ve learned these cautions the hard way.

So, then, what is this concept we so often invoke? Digital? Digital! DIGITAL! Digital! Wait… digital?

It’s time I get to work. More soon.

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