Digital Materiality: Materiality

[WiP this is #1 in a series of 12 weekly essays unpacking the concept “Digital Materiality”.  They are prepared in the context of the seminar of the same name held every Thursday at 2pm at the UdK Hardenbergstr.  ]

“We are living in a material world and I am a material girl!”- PETER BROWN, ROBERT RANS


Is every moment of every lived life equally worthy? At stake are historical human facts, the contributions of lived life to any given technical object (necessarily the product of human attention). How their facticity is evaluated is vital for a reckoning of our civilisation bias. This is particularly pertinent as automation begins to fade forever from view.   We are presented with visions of a post-work society, yet the great majority are working harder for less money. Our civilizations allow for widespread poverty, including child poverty, persistence of slavery and prison labour at the core of the advanced technology production chain, the particular vector of technology which we are persistently told is our best hope for a future.

“Material” is made of human activity. Material is that which is brought (from Nature) into the realms of human affairs. In order understand a human artifact, such as a digital object, open up the “time/space historical fact record” record through the surface of the object. These records/stories making a constellation of fragmentary (factual), even  infinitesimal, non-zero (0<x>n)  human contributions to the production of the object are the social ‘message’ of the product. The social conditions of the production of the material is played back through the use of the material. Is every moment of every human life equally worthy, or are some moments of some lives more worthy? Is it really necessary to know who made Einstein’s breakfasts in order to appreciate the true implications of E=mc2?

Once we start to account for the labour contribution to the contemporary surface, we also need to integrate a placeholder value for “reproductive labour”(1). Reproductive labour has been disregarded at the expense of hagiography interested in maintaining a hegemonic state. Like Feudalism, Capitalism depends on unpaid reproductive labour, in ones own body, ones home and elsewhere, “everyday communism”(2), which is voluntary contribution to socially necessary reproductive practices in “a permanent sense of being mutually indebted“. (3)

The material of “materiality” I am mainly concerned with in this essay is that of physical things brought into the sphere of human attention, and, principally, hyper-modern hyper-industrial production. The materiality which is designated to a realm beyond human empirical or technically-assisted access is of interest here only in as far as it impacts the behaviours of those humans that consider it. As such, we will consider the philosophical realm of meta-physics as materialized in philosophizing bodies by the entire metabolism, including intuitions and apprehensions derived from all the senses,

There is thus a materiality of thought which is the materiality of the mind, such that it must be sustained by the same practices which sustain the rest of the living tissue of the body from which the cogitating apparatus can never be entirely abstracted. Though we may never have the science which can explain how mechanically, chemically thoughts are formulated, we must maintain that the thoughts exist and that they cannot exist without a body. There is no immaterial thought, the thought of god, the divine inspiration, itself must be reproduced in the lightless bowels of its living body. The question of how the living body is reproduced in order to be able to think an ephemeral thought is a social, and, in our society, a political question.

My interest here is to put forward a rather conservative understanding of material, that it resides first and fundamentally with living humans and only with respect to those living humans. This is has the political agenda of elaborating a set of concepts, textures or gestures by which any particular or group of human beings can or is impaired from benefitting from the enormous, but finite social production of human beings on the planet right now.

Digital objects, seem at once, much like thoughts, light-speed, fleeting, almost immaterial, “meiousia” μεῖοὐσία (less material), yet whereas thoughts are reproduced by living metabolisms, digital objects are reproduced by mechanical processes, i.e. concretions of thought processes. We will go more deeply into what distinguishes digital objects in the next chapters, but before this we need to grapple with that which could possibly be ‘digital’ in the first place, the digital object, the materiality which is digital, the matter, of which materiality speaks “qualities of matter”.

Spinoza uses the word substance rather than material “which stands below” the phenomena or the behaviours, which have bearing on us, or which we perceive. For Spinoza, what characterizes material is that it has (fundamental) properties which “come from outside”, which we have not chosen. We can dis-cover these properties through behaviours, which are interactions with our discovery process. Unlike the pre-literate (pre-socratic) Greeks, Democritus, Leucippus, Epicurus, straining through metaphors, trying to elaborate fundamental physical principles of the makeup of the universe, today’s truth and science is about understanding physical behaviours and controlling these for human purposes. This means we only understand the physical properties of substances in as far as we can elicit repeatable, reliable behaviours of them. In other words, to make machines of them (to enslave, and domesticate them). Our process of understanding is anthropocratic, instrumental.

Any politics of this “digital” age which wishes to contest the “distribution of the sensible” as Jacques Rancière calls it, will have to firstly repudiate any contention of immateriality. Digital things, as anything “thengan”(4) operate in a realm overdetermined by human practices, which must be understood as fundamentally material. Thus I will examine materiality as (problematically) anthropomorphic, especially for technical products, especially in the per-industrial “digital” age. I will refer to these products as “things”, e.g. digital “things”.

If we use the flexibility which exists in German to address materiality we find two useful words for thing: Ding and Zeug. The ontological truth of the thing is in the fact that people congregate around it. It is both “thengan”/Ding = appointed time (4) and “Zeug” something conditioned by the needs of humans (useful thing) (5) “This text examines only the economy of things in a human universe proscribed by human mortality, life-span and the predilections of the human sensibility, in other words ‘human scale’25 Disruptions of, or interventions in this economy do not matter if they do not effect humanity Once they do they become things in an economy of things in a world conditioned by human scale experience “ (6)

A self-consciously anthropomorphic approach to materiality becomes most useful at the limits. On the political level today we are all divided up into individuals, socio-political atoms with a very abstract homogenous concept of “equal rights”. We know that, in practice we do not have the same right to assert our equal rights, and the dominant means of production perpetuates conditions where some human beings are not able to assert their equal rights at all. This is a problem as old as civilisation, and we must hearten ourselves and each other if we earnestly want to confront it, since it is endemic to the way human society has always functioned. The principle of our society are not the practice, and the showdown comes down on our own bodies, limited (finally by mortality) in physical capacity to participate in socially necessary production.(7)

In the liminal space between the limited (0<x>∞) unique human participant and the quasi-unlimited (∞-n) universality of the species, between the universality of the species and the universality of all material, we are struggling with languages which work out epistemologies derived from human experiential limits on this planet. The translation from whatever there is (noumena) to the realm of our grappling (phenomena) is today of political relevance, since the status of the anthropos is in crisis.

Die Liebe ist das Band, das Vermittlungsprinzip zwischen dem Vollkommnen und Unvollkommnen, dem sündlosen und sündhaften Wesen, dem Allgemeinen und Individuellen, dem Gesetz und dem Herzen, dem Göttlichen und Menschlichen. Die Liebe ist Gott selbst und außer ihr ist kein Gott. Die Liebe macht den Menschen zu Gott und Gott zum Menschen. Die Liebe stärket das Schwache und schwächt das Starke, erniedrigt das Hohe und erhöhet das Niedrige, idealisiert die Materie und materialisiert den Geist. Die Liebe ist die wahre Einheit von Gott und Mensch, von Geist und Natur. In der Liebe ist die gemeine Natur Geist und der vornehme Geist Natur. Lieben heißt vom Geiste aus: den Geist, von der Materie aus: die Materie aufheben. Liebe ist Materialismus; immaterielle Liebe ist ein Unding.

  • Feuerbach: Das Wesen des Christentums. DB Schüler-Bibliothek: Philosophie, S. 21206

Love is the middle term, the substantial bond, the principle of reconciliation between the perfect and the imperfect, the sinless and sinful being the universal and the individual, the divine and the human. Love is God himself, and apart from it there is no God. Love makes man God and God man. Love strengthens the weak and weakens the strong, abases the high and raises the lowly, idealises matter and materialises spirit. Love it the true unity of God and man, of spirit and nature. In love common nature is spirit, and the pre-eminent spirit is nature. Love is to deny spirit from the point of view of spirit, to deny matter from the point of view of matter. Love is materialism; immaterial love is a chimaera.

  • Ludwig Feuerbach, from The Essence of Christianity, Chapter II. God as a Being of the Understanding Translated from the original German by George Eliot

“nun wurde man immer geneigter, das licht wegen seiner ungeheuern wirkungen nicht als etwas abgeleitetes anzusehen; man schrieb ihm vielmehr eine substanz zu, man sah es als etwas ursprüngliches, für sich bestehendes, unabhängiges, unbedingtes an; doch muszte diese substanz, um zu erscheinen, sich materiiren, materiell werden, materie werden, sich körperlich und endlich als körper darstellen”.

  • Johann Wolfgang Goethe. Gedenkausgabe der Werke, Briefe und Gespräche. Band 1–24 und Erg.-Bände 1–3, Band 16, Zürich 1948 ff, S. 448-452.


(1) Sylvia Federicci coined the term as an improvement on “affective labour” used by Michael Hardt, extending from Rosi Braidotti. Whereas “affective labour” emphasizes the care and attention which supports labour, Federici’s “reproductive labour” stresses that labour must reproduced daily in the capitalist extraction process, which only recompenses the laborer on the most exploitative terms, the maintenance of the capacity to work which occurs during the full day, parallel to the daily , is tacitly factored into the wage of the labourer. An assembly-line worker may be paid to complete the same task 30 times an hour, but maintaining the psychological wherewithal to carry out the task each time with the requisite attention, is an expected unpaid contribution of the labourer. Environmentalism, and thinkers like Michel Serres, would extend reproductive labour to the “natural” processes of our planet which we depend on to produce what we need to live together.

“We established that capitalism is built on an immense amount of unpaid labor, that it not built exclusively or primarily on contractual relations; that the wage relation hides the unpaid, slave -like nature of so much of the work upon which capital accumulation is premised. “

  • “Precarious Labor: A Feminist Viewpoint” Silvia Federici, The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, published from a lecture from October 28th 2006 at Bluestockings Radical Bookstore in New York City, 172 Allen Street as part of the “This is Forever: From Inquiry to Refusal Discussion Series.

(2) Everyday Communism compensates for the alienation and extreme atomisation of individuals under capitalism by providing for social needs in assumed solidarity. Capitalism is not a monolith, it requires unpaid, unquantified Communistic practices which reproduce the capacity to produce value for society. It may be argued that capitalism is in turn required by unquantified Feudalistic ownership and competition strategies.

(3) “On the moral grounds of economic relations: A Maussian approach “ Graeber, David, Journal of Classical Sociology 2014, Vol. 14(1) 65–77

(4) Things are, as Heidegger pointed out, res publica, “not the state but that which, known to everyone, concerns everybody and is therefore deliberated in public” Heidegger (2001) Sein und Zeit. Max Niemeyer, Tübingen p.174, also “that which concerns man is what is real in res” p.176

(5) “Things in this text are always useful because they do not exist independent of a human being’s employment of them in the constitution or maintenance of their world Whatever is beyond human employ, then, is nothing” Gottlieb, B. “A Pollitical Economy of the Smallest Things” ATROPOS, New York,p.46

(6) ibid p.50

(7) The capacity to contribute to an economy of human affects in socially necessary work depends on material conditions. Sound sleep, good nutrition, maintaining minimum social standards of presentability, are all essential to participation and enjoyment of socially produced goods. Each person has a limited time everyday to insure continued affordance of that which they need. This physical effort/time is limited by the available of corporal physical resources. In the contemporary economy based on individualized contributions and allocations of agency (in the form of money) we are all constrained to maximize individual benefit within an economy of limited available resources, both internal and external.