What, when & where
Critical Hermeneutics, vol. 4, n.1, June 2020
Guest Editors: Luca Possati (University of Porto), Alberto Romele (Université Catholique de Lille)
Deadline (full paper): 31 May 2020
Digital technologies are deeply woven into contemporary life – economically, culturally, creatively, politically – in both obvious and nearly invisible ways. Yet while much has been written about how digital technologies are used, and the activities that they support and shape, thinking about digital technologies themselves is still something rare. However, an expanded and critical understanding of the “digital world” is necessary.
The expression “digital hermeneutics” indicates one of the ways in which this task can be accomplished. Unifying these terms (“digital” and “hermeneutics”) means modifying each of them. On the one hand, considering digital technologies as something to be interpreted entails looking at them not only from the point of view of mathematical logic, information theory or engineering, but also from that of linguistics, symbolism, phenomenology and social criticism. On the other hand, applying hermeneutics to digital technologies means to formulate the question of meaning in a completely new way. This confirms that science and techniques “create philosophical insights” (Bachelard 1934, 7).
Following Ihde (1991, 2009), we take for granted four elements from Husserlian phenomenology: a) variational analysis, or multistability; b) embodiment; c) lifeworld; d) interrelational ontology, or intentionality. Digital technology deeply transforms these treats: a) multistability becomes surfing in internet; b) embodiment becomes embodiment through devices; c) lifeworld becomes the cultural context defined by digital technologies; d) intentionality becomes internet. The condition of the unity of these categories is no longer the subject, but software. Software determines and defines all the categories (Bratton 2015).
The first task of a digital hermeneutics is to avoid a digital idealism, i.e. the idea that the whole being can be reduced to a digital representation, a string of 1s and 0s. In doing that, digital hermeneutics takes up the concept of “distanciation”, that is the essential Ricoeur’s contribution to hermeneutics. Just as the text, according to Ricoeur, stems from a movement of distancing from the world, but only in order to transfigure this world and enrich the experience of the subjects / readers, the digital technologies distance themselves from the world of ordinary experience, but only in order to return to it in a new form. Therefore, the task of hermeneutics is to shed light on the pragmatic and social roots of digital. In doing this, the analysis and critique of the notion of “digital trace” and “datafication” of our society are essential (Romele 2020; De Mul 2015). There are two other main challenges : a) the analysis of the new materialities created by digital technologies (Hayles 2005; Kirschenbaum 2004), that are not neutral at all (smartphones, laptops, chips, hard disk, RAM, etc.); b) the critical evaluation of the notion of information in relation to the philosophy of information (Floridi 2011, 2019) and the classical information theory (Shannon 1948).
The dossier will focus on four research axes:
1. Culture and Imagination. We depend on algorithms to choose which book to buy, which movie to watch, or to execute a mathematical proof. Code is a kind of “magical spell”. If we want to understand the conditions of this dependence and the distance between “virtual” and “digital” (Vial 2013), we must develop an “algorithmic reading” model that would be not merely technical or functional (Finn 2017; Sack 2019). Algorithms are “imaginative machines” or “cultural machines” (Manovich 2013; Romele 2018). But what kind of imagination are we dealing with? Digital technologies create a world that must be interpreted in order to access it. Moreover, in the digital world the human subject is no longer the source of meaning. Phenomena like machine learning or data visualization interpret humans (their needs, their way of acting and thinking, etc.) even before humans interpret them. Traditional concepts such as identity, subjectivity, imagination and consciousness must be completely redefined.
2. Software Studies. The concepts of symbol and language become enigmatic in digital technologies. There is a very close relationship between writing and computation (Bachimont 2010). Today the predominant language is software, and digital hermeneutics cannot overlook a serious analysis of it. But what is software? Is there a difference between software and algorithm? Software is not simply the code machine or an algorithm. It has a cultural, imaginary, aesthetic, and even rhetorical dimension (Chun 2013; Berry 2013). However, “software has never been univocally defined” (Frabetti 2015). On this level, the task of a digital hermeneutics must be to go beyond a merely technical reading of software and shed light on its historicity and its ontology. Is software an abstract or concrete object? Is it an object or a process? “Programming languages are the offspring of an effort to describe the mechanical arts in the languages of liberal arts” (Sack 2019).
3. Video Games. What is a video game? How can video games transform the notion of fun and hallucination? Video games allow an experience that is detached from our daily life. However, this experience has important heuristic effects on our existences (Triclot 2013). “The video game is the total digital object”; it “increasingly exports its codes and culture, in all the sets and chains of the digital technical system, as well as in the most diverse social practices. […] Digital is intrinsically ludogenic [ludogène]” (Vial 2013, 185). We must analyse the singular nature of the playful experience in video games. In video games (at least in most of them) the suspension of the direct relation to the world aims to transform our existence. “Phenomenological alterations and virtual experiences disclosed by interactive digital media cannot take place without a shift in human kinds of ontologies” (Gualeni 2014). Therefore, video games can help us to understand how digital transforms our way of thinking about ontology. Nevertheless, video games can convey also ideological contents. For this reason, a political critique of video games is also necessary.
4. Politics and Society. Recent discussions on the post-industrial society, the information society, the network society, disciplinary society, control society, informatization, scale-free networks and “small worlds” are all ways of attempting to understand how social change is indissociable from technological development, though not determined by it. Social and political are not external to technology. The main task, in this sense, is a critique of the idea of network. As Galloway (2004) pointed out, the founding principle of network is not freedom, but control. The controlling power lies in the technical protocols that make network connections possible. There are new forms of symbolic violence (Bourdieu and Passeron 1970). In this situation, what is the relation between network controlling and political power? What is the relation between network controlling and the collective imaginary of a society (Castoriadis 1975)? How can politics have a “good relationship” with the net, i.e. a relationship that excludes total control on the net, but also subordination to the net?
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