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Digital Ontologies: The Ideality of Form in/and Code Storage: Or: Can Graphesis Challenge

Mathesis?
Author(s): Johanna Drucker
Source: Leonardo, Vol. 34, No. 2 (2001), pp. 141-145
Published by: The MIT Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1577017
Accessed: 15-01-2018 14:57 UTC

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Leonardo

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Digital Ontologies: The Ideality of ABSTRACT

Form in/and Code Storage-or- Digital media gain their


tural authority in part bec
the perception that they fun

Can Graphesis Challenge Mathesis? on mathematical principles


lationship between digital
and their encoded files, an
other cases, between digita
ages and the algorithms th
erate them as display, lend

Johanna Drucker to a conviction that the im


the file are mutually interch
able. This relationship posi
nection of identicality betw
file and the image accordin
which the mathematical ba
the image seem to share si
ctainws tro uruui. O;ritv hwe
ciaims to trut. l inoce tne n
Tlhe attempt to understand the connectionsstrued in
strued in the popular imag
the popular imagina- images with
that link human thought to its representation through the act
tion. Though my focus is on the fraught
cultural authority granted to such and ill
of formgiving (in language, image or signs) is central to West-
ern philosophy and aesthetics. In every generation, some ver- a positivist conception, the whether t
premise on which this authority is of the
sion of this question has been posed: If it were possible to un- ence and identity, challeng
derstand the logic of human thought, would there besustained a is a philosophical one, traditio
perfect representation of it in some unambiguous, diagram- as I hope to demonstrate. A dis- materia
matic symbol set of entities and dynamic relations among cussion ranging between Husserl's their d
them? Informed by classical metaphysics and philosophy, this ideality and Adorno's self-identity the tru
cally based digital file?
allows the link between the idea of cally based dgi
question also has a life not only in contemporary struggles
that are carried on in the varied and very different domains "data" and the actual materiality
of visual art, information design and computer graphics, but of its existence in digital form to
be interrogated critically, though this l
also in cognitive science, with its legacy of symbolic logic, ar-
in the rhetoric of electronic cyberspeak
tificial intelligence debates and a disposition toward the inter-
how mistakenly come to carry an aura of
section of speculative and specifiable apprehensions of what
constitutes thought. ture of its fundamental identity. As a
A corollary, crucial issue within Western metaphysics tity
is has come to be conceived of in a relation of
identicality-of information to itself. This is always a danger-
whether an idea can exist outside of material form and yet ap-
pear to human perception. Are there forms that are grasped ous notion, Adorno will be quick to warn us, since it precludes
by the human mind and even communicable to a community any critical intervention in the investigation of terms of being
of persons even though they exist without material and their reception in cultural frameworks, where they oper-
ate in rather more pedestrian guise, rather like gods in mortal
instantiation-abstract concepts of law, love, justice or spirit,
for instance, or rather more concrete-seeming forms within embodiment in Greek mythology, since their potency among
the language of geometry, art or social behavior ("good humans warps the scale of power even in daily practice and
form")? And does this question take on a new cast when the radically and swiftly in disclosure [3].
then
basic issue of whether an idea can exist outside of The working concept of "ideality" in my argument is based
instantiation in material form is posed with respect to onthe
Husserl's
digi- suggestion that in the origin of geometry there is
an "ideality" of form that can exist outside of material but still
tal environment? Is our conception of an image profoundly
changed by its capacity to be stored as digital code?beOr
apparent
is the to and apprehended by a cognitive sentience. He
commonality of code storage as the defining conditionmakes
of this argument specifically in reference to geometric
digi-
tal processing a confirmation of a long-standing Western existence becomes apparent to human sentience
forms, whose
and yet is in
philosophical quest for mathesis (knowledge represented not dependent upon it (as opposed to, for instance,
mathematical form, with the assumption that it is the
anform of the story of Emma Bovary, which is dependent on
unam-
human
biguous representation of thought), in which there authorship
ceases to even if it can live as an idea outside of the
text). Husserl
be any ambiguity between knowledge and its representation as suggests that the peculiar specificity of geomet-
a perfect, symbolic, logical mathematical form? To ric forms ais that although they become conventionalized
provide
framework for my discussion, I want to invoke twowithin human representational systems, the original condition
somewhat
of their existence is not dependent on human constructs, a
disparate positions within twentieth-century philosophy:
Edmund Husserl's notion of the "ideality of Form" and
topic he explores through the dilemma of "the first geometer,"
Theodor Adorno's problematizing of the notion ofwhose apperception of geometric forms is an initial confronta-
self-iden-
tity of form and the social-political implications of tion
samewith their ideality (that is, as forms outside of material).
[1,21.
Both of these notions need clarification, at least to But
theifex-
geometric forms exist independent of human per-
ception
tent of an introductory paraphrase, in order to justify theirof them and, in fact, are not changed or altered by
use
as poles of reference for examining the ideological underpin-
nings on which digital imaging is to some extent premised.
Johanna Drucker (artist, writer), University of Virginia, Media Studies Program,
Robertson Media Center,
Specifically, they are useful as a way to address the assumptions Clemons Library, PO Box 400710, Charlottesville, VA 22904-
4710, U.S.A. E-mail: <jabbooks@earthlink.net>.
of positivism underlying the authority of digital media as con-

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2018 14:57:46 34, No. 2, pp. 141-145, 2001 141
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that perception from their ideal form, the concept of image/form and code lated visual information, is more
then does that ideality necessarily fall storage as a single, unitary truth. Thesimulacral than fictional (it is about sur-
into the category of "self-identity" or crucial point is that this is true evenface
of image as effect, not narrative cred-
"unity" of form, which is anathema to the digital itself, not merely of what ibility),
it but it is a mere half-step from
Adorno? It is anathema because when the photographic antics of the young
represents; thus I would strongly assert
empirical and/or positivist logic invades women to those of Campus. Any num-
that the real materiality of code should
culture to such an extreme that replace repre- the imagined ideality of code.ber of critics have pointed out that there
sentation appears to present a unitary To focus this discussion, I want to con-
is much more continuity than disconti-
truth in a totalizing model of thought, centrate on the issue of digital images,
nuity in the shift from darkroom to digi-
then that leaves little or no room for the since many of the questions about the tal [4]. The notion that photographic
critical action or agency that are essen- truth, fiction, or simulacral identitytruth
of was based on a pure, unmediated
tial to any political basis for agency. digital imagery have been asked in the representation of a "real" referent was
These two frameworks define the name of the presumed distinction be- shattered even earlier than Griffiths'

poles within which I will examine tweenthe traditional darkroom photogra-and Wright's loss of innocence, since the
premises on which "mathesis" functions phy and digital photography. I wantuse to of multiple exposures, multiple
in current conceptions of digital data. I for instance, a recent digital
compare, negatives and alterations of the plate in
suggest that there is an underlying, image byor artist Peter Campus with theblatant reworking of the metaphysically
even overt, positivist ideology in fictions the wayproduced by those two young, endowed-with-truth "light" let in by the
the myth of digital code is being early twentieth-century adolescents
con- lens, as well as careful manipulation of
ceived in the public imagination. Frances
Fur-Griffiths and her friend Elise the exposure and print, were all tools of
ther, this gives validation to digital Wright,
repre- whose paper cutouts of fairies,
the photographer's trade almost from its
sentation on the basis of that premise in photographed by them in aorigin
expertly gar- in the early nineteenth century.
a way that forecloses interrogation of
den setting, This
passed as sufficiently real to argument can be pursued and nu-
that premise. My double agenda is to dis-
elicit anced, following Hubertus Amelunxen's
great debates. Alice and the Fairies
close the ideological assumptions(1917)
in theis just such an image, in whichdiscussion, by contrasting the two types of
way the ontological identity of thethe mimesis
inconceivability of deceit is linked
digital as defined by Plato: eikon/likeness
image is posed and to suggest that much to cultural expectations about andthe
semblance/simulacral and the dis-
graphesis (embodied information) can innocence of adolescent girls as ittinctions
is to these terms allow in the discus-
challenge mathesis. Or, to paraphrase, Ithe credibility of fairies' actual existence
sion of photographic imitation of light/
assert that the instantiation of the form in English gardens. Peter Campus'slife as truth [5]. In brief, the contrast is
Wild
in material can be usefully opposedLeaves to between the indexical traces of actual
(1995), with its digitally manipu-
light and the codes of verisimilitude that
come to occupy a position of cultural au-
thority
Fig. 1. Jack P. Citron, Digital Graphicfrom a Curve Generating Program, computer dominating ideas of what truth
graphic
image, early 1970s. (? Jack P. Citron) "looks like." I am not particularly con-
cerned to pursue the upped ante and
constant trumping of the realm of in-
creasing degrees of virtuality and halluci-
natory reality that continue to evolve.
The skills and entertainment-industry val-
ues that successfully deceive (some of)
the senses raise philosophically charged
questions. But I want to pursue the sim-
pler, more fundamental question of as-
sumptions about the truth value assigned
to digital images as code.
Unlike traditional photographic
"truth" (darkroom or digital varieties),
the "truth" of the digital image is not, I
would argue, posed as an index to the
instant of exposure or as encoding the
experience of "natural" visual percep-
tion as it has been familiarized by the
camera. As has been well established in

critical discussions, the digital image,


photographic or not, is removed from
the mechanics of production in which
that metaphysics of light is linked to the
punctum moment of revelation that con-
nects it indexically and temporally to re-
ality. But nonetheless, the digital image
is (popularly and fundamentally) con-
ceived as a truth of another kind that is

premised on a deep conviction about the

142 Drucker, Digital Ontologies


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relations of reason and truth, a rational
link between mathematics and form, in
which the identity of a mathematical for- Fig. 2. Georg Nees,
Gravel Stones (A ran-
mula is supposed to exist irrefutably, ab-
dom number generator
solutely, as an indisputable truth. This is
causes the increasing
the positivist premise, the foundation of swaying of the squares),
a digital ontology linked to a belief that computer graphic im-
mathematical code storage is equal to it- age, early 1970s.
self, is a truth that is based on identity ir- (? Georg Nees)
respective of material embodiment.
Now, it is interesting to step back from
this and approach the question of repre-
sentation of thought as form through
another trajectory, one in which the link
of truth and form is posed as a relation
of identity. In the first decade of the
twentieth century, Annie Besant, a psy-
chic, produced a series of drawings of
"thought forms" (published in a 1905
volume with the same name [6]). There
is a distinct naivete in this work, seen
from historical perspective, and yet there
is also a purity in her conviction that
thought is form and can be directly
manifest. Her work, conceived within a
late-nineteenth-century sensibility that
extended into the early 20th, took its
points of departure from a discourse of
the "psychic" that embraced telepathy,
magnetism and the role of a medium.
She saw, or at least presented, this work
as a set of images that attempted to un-
derstand and represent the ontology of
form as a direct expression of mind. Her
images suggest that the representation
of thought must be situated within a hu-
man context for its form to be under-

stood. The forms might transcend any


individual's existence, and be generaliz-
able into a typology of universals (her
categories-radiating affection, animal,
grasping affection, watchful anger the
and mathematics and logic of thoughtIt is true that, as a digitally produced
that
jealous anger-are typical of her time, a created both algorithm andand its
manipulated entity, Citron's algo-
manifestation were conceived of as
legacy of a theory of types and forms, rithm is also stored in material, lodged
thought beyond the philosophical in
combined with a vocabulary of late nine- silicon, through a sequence of in-
frame
teenth-century psychology) [7]. Butof human subjectivity. The Citronstructions
un- image and address codes, but like
stands in relation to the algorithmthe
derlying her work are precepts that unite "ideality" of Husserl's geometric
as the
Copy does to Idea (eidolon) in forms,
the research she pursued to that of cog- a Pla-these algorithms seem to be ca-
tonic
nitive science, with its quests for general- scheme (it might even be pablecon-
of appearing to sentience, of be-
izable precepts that might be elaborated strued as Plato's more debased Phan- ing apprehended, outside of a material
in a typology of forms and processes.tasm, which is a copy of a copy,form-as if the thought.
Besant's visual forms, schematic and algorithm is considered the first order of
Interestingly, Citron's work presents
modeled, have a formal resonance with a representation of an ideal form), since aspect, since it engages with the
another
number of early computer-generated presumably Idea has a stable, fixed theme
exist-of algorithm and distortion as a
graphics, such as the simple images pro- ence that suspiciously resembles an algo-of deformation from the math-
process
ematical ideal of a geometric form
duced byJack P. Citron in the 1970s [8]. rithm (or precedes it) in our thinking.
In their minimal, skeletal form, these Thus Citron's idea is radically differ-
through distortion and manipulation of
graphics have a pristine innocence that ent from Besant's in both kind and its formulaic stored condition. This

makes them attractive to revisit, espe- form, content and ontological conditiontheme was the subject of a number of
cially as they embody one major strain of of being, but in its capacity to function
other works from the early 1970s, almost
computer graphics work. Citron's Digital schematically, as a form with a as graphic
if the very essence of the problem of
form as mathematical ideal and form as
Graphic from a Curve Generating Program identity that presumes to be a manifesta-
(Fig. 1) is an image in which the algo- tion of ideal form, it has much in com-
instantiation were paradigmatic issues
rithm preceded the visual image, and mon with Besant's work. for computer graphics. Georg Nees's

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UTC Digital Ontologies 143
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simulacral monster image whose algo-
rithmic reality, such as it is, follows from
the manipulation of data in visual form
on the screen? In the visual practice of
an information design, in which graphic
artists create schematic versions of the

history of philosophy using motifs of an


imagined solar system, or thermal con-
ductivity is mapped with fine, schematic
precision, the assumption is that the in-
formation precedes the representation,
that the information is other than the

image and can be revealed by it, served


by an accurate visual presentation. But
form is constitutive of information, not
its transparent presentation.
Perhaps the most compelling, chilling
image that I have come across in think-
ing about these issues is a computer-gen-
erated graphic by the artist-scientist
Melvin Prueitt, created also in a pioneer-
ing phase of such work [9]. It is a noctur-
nal image of a field of snow, unbroken
and undisturbed, a terrifying (to my
mind) image of digital purity manifest in
its full sterile wholeness, as if the image is
a completely pure, pristine visual mani-
festation of code. It is not, of course, as a
glance at an image of any plotting pen or
computer output device, laser jet or
Fig. 3. CTG, Return to Square, computer graphic image, 1971. (? CTG) printer, would make clear. The very acts
of production and inscription, the scrib-
ing of lines of difference that create the
Gravel Stones (A random number generator atomic and subatomic level. The pre-
specificity of an image, demonstrate the
causes the increasing swaying of the squares) sumed ideality of actual (!) molecular
making of the form as an act of differen-
(Fig. 2) maps a distortion in a regular structures is made apparent as an image.
tiation from the mathesis (code). What-
pattern caused by introducing the ran- It might pass as a convenient fiction
ever the "ideality" of code may be, even if
dom element that deforms it, and thethrough which we can gain access to it
the
were (as it is not yet at least) directly
Japanese CTG group's 1971 Return to mathematical "truth" of the image,available
but to sentience in some unmedi-
Square (Fig. 3) is almost a poster image the digital image of something that is way, it is in the encounter of matter
ated
for the nice comfortable fit between the fully simulacral, such as the monster and mind that form is produced as
ideality of the square as order and the frog from Peter Gabriel's video thought (and thought as form).
process of debasement by which it is "Mindblender," refuses any easy analogyThis becomes even more important,
transformed into a (material) image. of algorithm and reality as a fundamen- however, in thinking of the way the code
The algorithmic representation of the tal unity. The existence of the image lurks
de- behind (pick the metaphor of spa-
geometry is the pure code, the ideality; pends heavily on the display, the comingtial and/or temporal relation that de-
and the material graphic representation into matter, in the very real material scribes some presumed anteriority and in-
demonstrates the degradation that af- sense of pixels on the screen. If, in one
dependent existence for the algorithmic
firms the old Platonic hierarchy of Idea instance, the graphic display is manipu-basis) the Prueitt image of snow. Code,
and Copy and Phantasm. lated by the algorithm, then, in other however conceived, cannot be construed
But there is a fundamental flaw in this instances, the display becomes the site as "pure" if purity suggests some indepen-
mode of thinking about form in an op- for manipulation of the algorithm. In a
dence from a material substrate or
position of algorithm and graphic mani- weak, organic analogy to snowflakes,instantiation
or into material. Code is also,
festation, or of geometric idea and en- some new-age Heraclitan observation, it
always, emphatically material, not pure.
coded algorithmic equivalent. And this is fair to say that no two pixels are alikeSo, does the digital encoding of form
is that it is the manifestation into sub- and that the instantiation always bearsas
ininformation, as data, as patterns of bi-
stance, the instantiation of form into its material embodiment the specificitynary code ultimately shift the under-
matter that allows some thing, any thing, that makes for difference from the code.
standing of what a "form" is toward the
to be available to sentience. This is true
Which brings me to the crux of the realm of "mathesis," that tradition of
for the conceivably inherent visualitymatter.
of What is the "information" in-
logic envisioned by Leibniz that is still
voked or suggested in any of these
a square, but also of the sort of imagery in-
driving cognitive, epistemological and
made by scientists to visualize hereto-
stances: the information of an technical
algo- inquiry beyond the twentieth
fore unseen phenomena, such as views rithm, a geometric form, an imagined century? I would argue that the "ideal-
of physical or chemical substances at molecule
the given visual expression, ity"athat Husserl envisions is highly gen-

144 Drucker, Digital Ontologies

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eralized and reductive, a mere category the cultural status of the digital to aa premise, with no critical distance, in a
and placeholder within the cognitive sys- system in which everything is reduced to
place of mythic "mathesis," in which the
tem (even if assumed to exist in some sense of an inevitable and seamless in-
data and equivalents. Mathesis makes
ontological sense outside cognition), this
terchangeability replaces the idea of a claim, and when it makes this claim
rather than a replete and specific "form" differentiated and resistant material within the cultural realm of representa-
in the sense that the word is understood instantiation of form. tion, then it needs to be beaten back
by artists. This line of argument allows Such arguments have implications in into its place-a kind of whack the mole
that the idea of "graphesis" (defined ashow the transformation of "form" from approach to overreaching ideology-
knowledge manifest in visual and traditional media and representationalsince its claims presume a premise that
graphic form) contains an understand-systems into digital formats do or do not brooks no interrogation. Graphesis, on
ing of form as replete, instantiated, em-privilege aspects of these forms as "infor-the other hand, is always premised on
bodied, discrete and particular. mation" to be encoded (what gets lost inthe distinction between the form of in-
formation and information as form-in-
As a final contrast, consider a neo-clas-translating a text into ASCII format, for
sical image of The Invention of Drawing, of instance). The tension between material. Graphesis is premised on the
mathesis
the act of formgiving, by eighteenth-cen-and graphesis returns us to the problemsirreducibility of material to code as a sys-
tury painter Karl Fredrich Schinkel. Theof form pondered by Adorno. His cri-tem of exchange; it is always a system in
which there is loss and gain in any trans-
image inverts (perversely) Pliny's tale oftique of instrumental rationality can be
Dibutades, the daughter of the potter,aptly brought to bear on the ways information that occurs as a part of the
tracing the outline of her departed loverwhich digital media depended upon anprocessing of information.
and changing it into an image of femaleunquestioned assumption of mathesis as
References and Notes
beauty objectified and reified as an idealtheir premise for understanding infor-
mation. If "form" is conceived in math-
by the male gaze. This is an image of aes- 1. P. Osborne, "Adorno and the Metaphysics of Mod-
thetic form-giving as inadequate copy, asematical terms, it can be absorbed into ernism: The Problem of a Postmodern Art," in A.
Benjamin, ed., The Problems of Modernity: Adorno and
lesser truth than the real. Then consider an absolute unity of essence and repre-
Benjamin (London and New York: Routledge, 1989)
an advertisement forJohnny Walker Red sentation, while if "form" is conceived inpp. 23-48. H. Brunkhorst, "Irreconcilable Moder-
Scotch, from the late 1990s. In the ad, a terms of graphesis, then it resists this
nity: Adorno's Aesthetic Experimentalism and the
Transgression Theorem," in M. Pensky, ed., The Actu-
sockless but well-heeled young man sits unity in part through the specificity im- ality of Adorno (Albany, NY: State Univ. of New York,
in khakis and topsiders on a deck, parted by material embodiment. This1997). P. Dews, "Adorno, Poststructuralism, and the
Critique of Identity," in A. Benjamin, ed., The Prob-
beachside, with his laptop computer materiality cannot be fully absorbed into
lems of Modernity: Adorno and Benjamin (London and
open in front of him. On his screen is a (or made one with) the "ideality" of form New York: Routledge, 1989) pp. 1-22.
wireframe image of a dolphin while in as idea, ideal or "pure" code. Digital me-
2.J. Derrida, Edmund Husserl's Origin of Geometry: An
the background we see the beast itself, dia have their own materiality (and mate- Introduction (Lincoln, NB, and London: Univ. of
leaping up and out of theJohnny Walker rial history to be sure), but it is in the gap
Nebraska Press, 1989).

Red sea. The image on his screen and between mathesis and graphesis that the 3. Brunkhorst [1].
the image of the "real" dolphin emerg- resistance to the totalizing drive of the
4. M. Lister, ed., The Photographic Image in Digital
ing from the waves don't match. Their digital can be articulated. Culture (New York and London: Routledge, 1995).
directions, temporal moment, and other I return, for a final moment, to theH. Amelunxen, S. Iglhaut, F. Ratzer, A. Cassel and
N.G. Schneider, eds., Photography after Photography
details are out of synch. But which is Prueitt image of digital snowfields, in
(Basel, Switzerland: G&B Arts International, 1996).
bringing the other into being? In this in- which, as Amelunxen says of such work,
5. Amelunxen et al. [4]; and Lister [4].
stance, the visual image confuses the hi- the algorithmic-numerical image is sepa-
erarchies of original and copy. The com- rated from its origin so that there is "no
6. A. Besant and C.W. Leadbeater, Thought Forms
(London and Benares: Theosophical Publishing
puter graphic seems to generate reality shadow" cast by the space between ori- Society, 1905).
or, at the very least, function on an gin and image, original and manifesta-
7. I am thinking of the context in which Wilhelm
equal, autonomous level as a form-pro- tion [11]. The crisis is not, as commonly Worringer's work is produced, for instance, or that
ducing environment. Paul Virilio, in The discussed, a crisis of the copy, of origi-
of Wassily Kandinsky: that early twentieth-century
Vision Machine, creates a specter of a nality, or of authenticity or truth. No, investment in the aesthetic systems of correspon-
dence and universals that came out of late nine-
sightless visuality, one in which image the argument that must be made is for teenth-century symbolism.
exists as uploaded signal in the codes/ an investment in reinscribing, always in-
8. Herbert W. Franke, Computer Graphics Computer
currents of a closed system of informa- scribing, form into matter. This act situ- Art (New York and London: Phaidon, 1971).
tion processing, a "non"-visible legibility ates representation in human cultural
9. Melvin Prueitt, Art and the Computer (New York:
of information readable by and for ma- and social systems where the condition McGraw Hill, 1984).
chines [10]. In such a situation, form is of materiality permits and/or requires
10. P. Virilio, The Vision Machine (Cambridge, MA,
only code signal, material in its own ex- critical considerations of the ways mate-and London: MIT Press, 1995).
istence, participating in the production rial form participates in and helps repli-
11. Amelunxen et al. [4].
of some "other" sentience than the hu- cate cultural mythologies. In the case of
man. Whether such contexts have use digital images, this is a mythology in
which code passes for truth, as if the
for or attend to the materiality of code Manuscript received 31 May 2000.
easy and complete interchangeability of
storage is a matter for open speculation.
image into code and back into image is
But what is at stake is not the question
of whether there is a "truth" to this idea driven by a myth of the techno-superior-
that the stored "code" exists and can be ity of mathematical premises. As a cul-
Johanna Drucker is a writer and artist con-
made use of without graphic manifesta- tural myth, this is a "truth" so fundamen-
cerned with theoretical and critical issues in
tion, and that it is stored materially.tal it is never (or rarely) questioned. In
digital media. She directs the Media Studies
mathesis, code presumes self-identity as
What is at stake is that this idea pushes program at the University of Virginia.

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