Digital Animalities / Unguiculate Humanities by Binarius

Probably because of the ubiquity of its use in common parlance as an adjective describing media and technologies, the term digital now rarely carries the sense of “a number less than ten”, which has its root in the Latin digitalis, “measuring a finger’s breadth”, or more generally “of or relating to the finger”. But as technologies based on the manipulation of numerical digits, whose use often (but of course not exclusively) relies on the articulation of physical digits, we should not overlook the connections between omnipresent digital technologies such as phones, personal computers, tablets, gaming consoles and the like, and hands.

Hands, those most humanist of human appendages: anthropocentric thought has so often been swept up in what Stanley Cavell has called “the romance of the apposable thumb”.

In her blog post, Nicole Shukin explores the legacy of Heidegger’s thought for thinking about digital animalities. And it is there, too, as Jacques Derrida and after him Cary Wolfe, Matthew Calarco, Steve Baker and others have explored, that we find the most dogmatic assertions about the hand as a distinguishing feature of the human: “man does not ‘have’ hands, but the hand holds the essence of man, because the word as the essential realm of the hand is the ground of the essence of man” (qtd in CIFERAE, p. 15). The distinction is between a kind of purely anatomical “having” of hands and an existential being grounded in the hand as such; this, in turn, is thought to separate the human from the animal—as Heidegger notoriously puts it: “the ape, for example, possesses organs for grasping but it has no hand”.

This all goes to suggest that there is a quiet but important assertion in the title of our collective research project—with its unabashedly catachrestic alignment of digitality with animality—and so also its blunt refusal to accept the humanist terms of binary separation (which is of course another crucial facet of the digital).

In this context it is worth looking again at a fascinating moment in the history of the development of digital and information technology and their interpenetration with visual aesthetics and live animal bodies. (We write this, indeed, at the moment the Guggenheim Museum first chose to show and then to remove three artworks involving various forms of violence towards animals.)

 

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In 1970, MIT’s Architecture Machine Group, led by Nicholas Negroponte (later co-founder of Wired magazine and enthusiast for the “digital revolution”) produced an exhibit called Seek. This was shown at the Software exhibition curated by Jack Burnham at the Jewish Museum in New York.

Seek involved an arrangement of small metal-coated blocks in piles inside a plexiglass vitrine. Also trapped inside the box were four gerbils, whose job was to move the blocks (as is gerbils’ wont). We could call this “rearranging” the blocks, but that would go against the logic of Seek: it also included a computer-controlled system involving a robotic arm which was programmed to pick up and rearrange the blocks into the original configuration after the gerbils moved them; the conceptual assumption was that the gerbils would only be putting the blocks into disarray, not arranging them to their own requirements.

As an artwork, then, Seek dramatises a dualistic conflict between information-systematic order and chaotic life. In it, the computer-programmed robot is on one side and the gerbils (assuming the place conventionally allotted to animality in this equation) are on the other.

The point, though, is not quite that the robot technology is aligned with “the human”, so that together they oppose a chaotic animality. For, as the name of Negroponte’s group suggests, Seek is really an allegory of the relationship between the establishment of order in architecture (here, physical as well as information systems architecture) and the unruly impulses, desires and drives of human life. This allegory plays out as a dramatic battle of wills (or rather of will and technological skill versus instinct and chance), with the opposing sides performed by the robotic arm and the gerbils.

In Seek, then, ordinary human life is equated with unruly animality, continually disrupting and destroying the order of the ideally designed system—a system which is in principle machinic. That said, if we take together the thematics of the hand discussed earlier and the importance of the very idea of establishing order for post-Enlightenment notions of the pre-eminence of the human, it is, in a sense, no surprise that, in Seek, systematicity should be epitomised by a robotic arm.

With Seek’s allegory, we are dealing with a mid-twentieth century recapitulation of an age old drama, with two different and equally conventional characterisations of “the human” as its protagonists: the human as exceptional, the intelligent designer par excellence, and the human as animal, with needs and desires that are by definition unruly. In order for that allegory to have any kind of dramatic force, it must deflect us from the more prosaic reality of the exhibit: in which it is a more or less mundane animal experiment, like any other in which the skill an ingenuity of animals—in this case gerbils’ brains and their claws—are physically as well as conceptually manipulated to tell a story not about animals but about humans.

Earlier, we mentioned the philosopheme of the human as the paradigmatic digital species. Gerbils are, by contrast, an unguiculate species: animals that bear one or more claws. We might say, then, that Seek, is an example, not perhaps of  the “digital animalities”, but of the “unguiculate humanities”. It tells a story that needs, implicates, and traduces animal life to body forth the most techno-utopian dreams of human futures.

 

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(Binarius consists of authors Robert McKay and Tom Tyler)