The Digital-Material Nexus

Or, simply put, what can you possibly learn about a material phenomenon from digital data visualizations? 

There are a number of overly simplistic answers to that question: “Latour!” or the less polite “Haven’t you read Latour?” or the naive optimist’s “lots of stuff!” or the scientific-method-minded mother “You won’t know until you try it, will you?”  But the case I hope to make to you today is not that data visualizations are useful but that they are necessary in order to better comprehend the material phenomenon of manuscript production, particularly for a single text.

Yes, I said it, necessary. Now I could drown you in theory discussing the gap between language and material phenomenon and the insuperability of that gap,* but what I want to discuss instead is a way not to overcome that gap, but to dissolve it entirely by understanding the interconnected way in which matter and form must inevitably work together in the production of knowledge.

In “The Circulating Reference,” Pandora’s Hope, Bruno Latour does a field study of a field study. That is, he follows a bunch of scientists into the Amazon Rain Forest and studies the way they conduct their study.  As he watches the botanists and pedologists (soil scientists) go about the business of interrogating a specific edge of the forest–to find out if the forest is advancing into the savannah or vice versa–he discusses the minutiae of how this information is “produced” as information over a long period of investigation, charting, and studying.

In a particular example, Latour traces the pedologist’s imposition of a Cartesian grid upon a certain swath of forest floor.  The forest itself becomes a grid in order to become sample-able and legible. In the next step, the pedologist removes soil samples from each of these locations and transfers them to his own grid of uniform cubes called a pedocomparator.

Fig 2.13 "Circulating Reference"


So, the forest becomes a grid, the grid is materialized and put into another (more compact) grid.  Then the contents of the grid itself are rearranged, analyzed, and transformed yet again into a diagram. Even the diagram itself is not an end result, since it gets translated into the text of an article.Fig 2.15 "Circulating Reference"


In each transformation, the element begins as “matter” and ends up as “form” or sign.  It is the sign that has transformed the material into something readable that Latour calls an “inscription.”

INSCRIPTION: A general term that refers to all the types of transformations through which an entity becomes materialized into a sign, an archive, a document, a piece of paper, a trace. Usually but not always inscriptions are two-dimensional, superimposable, and combinable. They are always mobile, that is they allow new translations* and articulations* while keeping some types of relations intact.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              –Glossary, PH

So, for Latour, the transformation of something material into a sign is an inscription, and the key thing to remember is that the inscription is never a stand-in for the material phenomenon, but a translation of only one aspect of the phenomenon it tries to convey.

Thus, for Latour, any single inscription is dangerously untrustworthy, but the “superposition” of two or more allows one to at least gain a reliable bearing within the phenomenon.  Latour uses a map of the Amazon as an example.  This inscription too has required a great deal of condensing a complex material phenomenon into a two-dimensional representation and, as Latour points out, one particular map is known to have certain errors and thus needs supplemented by a second map or more local and specific detail. In the superposition of the two inscriptions, Latour finds a reasonable amount of positive interference (i.e. places where they overlap and information aggregates rather than cancels itself out with contradiction) to reliably navigate the material phenomenon itself.

Both navigation and superposition are key.  I’ll start with superposition, because it bears directly on Latour’s definition of the “circulating reference” which is what Latour calls the chain of transformations that allow (scientific) signification about a phenomenon.

Fig 2.21 "Circulating Reference"


At each stage, as matter is transformed into “form” or “sign,” it “passes across the difference between things and words” (69) and participates in a chain of signifiers that make similar transformations that can ultimately allow you to look at a map and say, “That’s the Amazon Rain Forest,” when in fact it is not the Amazon Rain Forest but a map thereof.  The diagram that he includes of the circulation helps to point out why each individual transformation is necessary for the whole chain to work.  Indeed, each link in the chain must be both reversible and traceable, allowing for transformations up or down that are equally valid.  The truth value in any of the inscriptions is dependent upon the chain not being broken.  “Truth value circulates here like electricity through a wire, so long as this circuit is not interrupted.” If one of the links fails, then all the other links need re-examined to see if their transformation is still a valid inscription.

The “Reference,” then, that Latour is constructing is not so much a sign that refers to a signified, not an adequatio or resemblance, but a thing that remains constant through a series of transformations aligned into stages.  Thus, the sign itself is always, yes, constructed and invented as well as built on pre-existing conventions, but it also simultaneously discovers a phenomenon as it inscribes it.

Thus, in the production of scientific knowledge, inscriptions (like diagrams, charts and graphs as much as articles and blog posts) are surrogates that take the place of the material phenomena, but only for a specifically delimited context. NO SINGLE INSCRIPTION nor any COMBINATION OF INSCRIPTIONS will ever translate the phenomenon in its entirety.  Indeed, the idea of doing so reminds me very much of a Borges short story going by the title, “On Exactitude in Science.”

Borges "On Exactitude"  

What the Borges story highlights is the need to occasionally sacrifice exactitude for a useful degree of abstraction.  Indeed, reproducing a “perfect inscription” would be tantamount to reproducing the material phenomenon itself.

Latour points out the way in which this process of abstraction and condensation works in each linked stage of the circulating reference.

Fig 2.22 "Circulating Reference"


As one reduces the phenomenon in transformation, one sacrifices locality, particularity, materiality, multiplicity, continuity, specificity and a whole host of other adjectival nouns for the sake of compatibility, comparability, circulation, text and all that allows us to think about a phenomenon that otherwise eludes the complete grasp of the individual mind.

The phenomenon itself, or what we earlier might have called “the referent” is what circulates along the chain of transformations.  It is not what is described by the inscriptions–as though inscriptions were made from an objective outside–but what animates each of the transformations and ties them together. The phenomenon does not exist outside the specific decisions (what Karen Barad calls “agential cuts,” but more on that another time) one makes to translate matter into form, it is called into existence by the making of such decisions that allow a complicated, entangled material reality to become a delimited, demarcated “thing” reference-able by any number of signs and inscriptions.

For Latour, science does not resemble the real world (like a realist painting), nor does it know an “objective” truth about it.  Rather it translates the world into comprehensible phenomena for the sake of thinking about them productively. This translation is only ever approximate, and is never complete.

So, why all this Science Studies to talk about literature? 

Because what I’m doing here is not simply talking about a text, something that may have originated as words, got translated/transmitted as words, and then is encountered as words.  I’m talking about a complex, and diffuse material phenomenon that cannot be contained by mere words (believe me the 240+ pages of manuscript notes I have are nowhere near adequate) or by any “perfect” collated edition of the words. I am interested in the way that Piers Plowman was materialized, and the only way I can talk comprehensively about the whole corpus is to produce my own chain of transformations of matter into sign.

So, each data visualization takes a slice, a certain cross-section of the phenomenon itself, and then organizes that information for inspection for whatever it is we can see from that slice. It is only in the superposition, the concatenation of these various manuscript biopsies that we can begin to gain some kind of bearing within the corpus itself.

Thus, both the multiplicity of visualizations, and the spatial arrangement of information in (generally) two dimensions are necessary to make the complex, material-discursive phenomenon that is Piers Plowman manuscript copying legible, analyzable, and translatable.

The graphs are not the “truth” of the manuscript corpus any more than they are (necessarily) an argument about it.  They are, simply put, a flattening of the spatio-temporal specificity of manuscript production onto a single surface where all the samples are simultaneously visible, if only from one perspective.






*Latour writes extensively about how the gap between language and matter has been integral in the formation of the sciences and their epistemic value on “objectivity” in his first essay in Pandora’s Hope, “On the Reality of Science Studies: News from the Trenches of the Science Wars.”

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