The DEW Lab

A Dissertation Manifesto

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Alright, here we go: media studies meets ontology with a topological twist!

First off, I look at media the way McLuhan viewed them: as extensions of the human senses and as metaphors for understanding the world around us. He once remarked that ‘the content of a medium is another medium.’ I take this to mean that the identity of a medium is in how it mediates. In other words, a medium is nothing but the way it distorts other media.

Now, ontology is the study of, how things exist and relate to one another. Ontology, as a line of inquiry, was rather popular at the outset of Western philosophy, until Kant came along and said: ‘you’re not studying what is real but what is real according to the human.’ From this point onward philosophical inquiry felt compelled to shift from asking ‘What is real?’ to ‘How do we access real things?’ The premise here is that because we perceive the world around us through sight, touch, sound, and smell, anything present to the mind is inextricable from those senses. Put differently, the world is always already distorted in favour of our senses. Like the Earth, our mere presence distorts the world around us, pulling things closer, making others seem further away. In fact, it’s only by using mechanisms outside of the senses, such as those used by Copernicus, that we can appreciate that we’re not the centre of existence. Hence, Kant’s claim that his work marked a ‘Copernican revolution’ in philosophy.

Nearly two centuries later we accepted the same is true of our tools; that is, just as we cannot separate the human from what she experiences, we cannot separate the tool from what it measures. The telescope, the camera, the map: each distorts what it measures. This means that the photograph cannot be a measurement or record of real events unless we consider how the picture was taken by the camera (light reflecting off the scene, being directed by the lens past the shutter that exposes the film, etc). ‘Is that how the race was won or is that how the race was won according to the camera, and its exposure, perspective, etc.?’ But there’s a trap here too, since these tools were designed to measure the human form of things. From my position, what is often overlooked is that the camera is not the world observed outside the biases of the human mind. Actually, it’s the opposite: the camera is the world observed by a device designed to approximate those biases! (We wouldn’t pursue a technology that didn’t present a recognizable, familiar form of reality. That’s the artist’s job!).


Left: Madame Seurat by Georges Seurat. Right: TV image. For McLuhan, pointillism was cool or low-fidelity and thus early television, which shared similarities with the art style, was also considered cool.

Thus, since media contain the biased perspective of our senses we can think of them as extensions of the human. But such extensions are similar but not equal to that of the human. There’s something in the photograph that borders on the alien, be it the graininess of the image or the way the sunlight flares into a disc when it passes through the lens; it’s as though the camera perceives a similar but distinct world. This is because while we cannot separate what is measured from the tool used to measure it, we also cannot separate the measurements from how we, as humans, perceive them. In the photograph we see our version of reality as distorted by the camera, not reality as something the camera distorts (we tend to reserve that power for ourselves). Just to be clear, I’m claiming that there is no fixed reality filtered down by the senses but rather each object (camera, rock, carapace, etc.) distorts the world. Imagine a city square, crowded with people. Is there one perspective that contains all other perspectives, one viewpoint that is the sum of all views of every person there? Even an aerial perspective is one of many.


So why don’t we experience our distortion and the distortion of others? Because over time we tend to patriate the alien aspects of experience. We decrease the time needed for exposure to capture a more ‘natural’ scene, we add colour in just the right manner to mimic the colours humans ordinarily perceive, we digitally remove red-eyes, we increase the ‘pixels’ to reduce granularity. But the lens flare, that part of the camera we’ve accepted.  It appears in films, even in the first-person perspective, it’s used frequently in video games, and artists will draw it into their comics. At issue here is what we will accept as realistic and this is specific first to our phenomenology (a clearer photo to match the relative clarity of human vision) and then to our culture (we see lens flares in numerous media and they seem to confer realism). For the absurdity of the latter, consider a culture where the lens flare is unfamiliar. Would a drawing of a sunrise, decorated with circular, translucent rings, appear more realistic to members of this culture or would it look more like artistic licence?

I’m interested in these mechanisms that regulate human experience as realistic, both in terms of phenomenology and media. On the side of phenomenology, we have closure and the suspension of disbelief, while media regulate by representing events on a scale, in a space, and through a temporality that is familiar to the human senses. Think of how the mind fills in the gaps between panels in a comic and the perception of the hand-drawn figure as a man running down the street. The lens flare in the background is a transmedia artifact that may actually heighten the realism.


Left: Paul Klee’s Germain près de Tunis (1914) Right: LCD Projector Diffuser (2012; Image courtesy of hudson)

So, what’s the practical application of my work? Well, the evidence against our privileged access to reality is growing and continuing to ignore that evidence may prove detrimental to our very existence. For instance, there’s a condition known as akinetopsia or motion blindness. Some stroke victims suffer from this condition that leaves large gaps in their visual perception. For instance, there have been cases where a patient will be pouring a cup of tea only to feel warm liquid on their hand. Suddenly they see that the cup is actually overflowing. If we use cinema as a metaphor, motion blindness would be like watching a film with exceedingly few frames per second, such that things seem to stutter and jump as events continue to unfold but the visual senses are not updating the brain (or the brain is not processing them).

Motion Blindness (Akinetopsia) from Ian Kammer on Vimeo.

Conversely, as we increase the ‘frames per second’ of our media, moving from low-definition to high-definition, from twenty-four frames per second to 48 fps, we experience a heightened sense of realism. In a sense, Casablanca is motion-blind in respect to The Hobbit. But it has been speculated that dogs actually have a higher ‘refresh rate’ and in respect to them, humans suffer from akinetopsia.

My point here is two-fold: first, there is no ‘real’ or ‘ultimate’ perception of motion but only a familiar rate for each entity. And second, the pursuit of realism is, thus, ultimately the pursuit of a world we’re already experiencing and are already familiar with. What our age calls for is a means of experiencing the unfamiliar, the uncommon, the un-human. But before we can push that agenda (and it certainly is an agenda, against the successive iterations of more ‘realistic’ media that prey upon the cultural-memory of a supposedly less-real mediation), we need to better understand how the ‘real’ is defined, maintained, and, in essence, regulated.

I’ve already mentioned two mechanisms, in closure and media, but what exactly do they regulate? I think they help maintain the topology of the human mind. We can define topology as the study of bounded-objects, that is, objects that can take on many different shapes and forms, through bending or folding, while remaining (mathematically) the same object. In my work I use topology rather loosely. For example, I consider a computer monitor as an object with a topology because it can take on a wide range of states in order to display images. In the case of an LCD monitor, we may have a graphics component that uses a hexadecimal system for colours, where the hex language provides a range of 16.7 million colours per pixel. With an average density of 100 pixels per square inch, a computer monitor presents a near-infinite range of potential combinations of colours. And while this is not strictly topology, we can consider any (re)organization of parts as a distinct form of the same object, such that one arrangement of pixels is one form of a near limitless number of potential forms that are nevertheless bound by the capabilities of the monitor. In this sense, topology is the study of bounded or restricted infinities.

Asterios Polyp - 034

David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp. In this graphic novel the artist plays with the conventions of the genre, incorporating unique visual and audile cues. Here Mazzucchelli is exploring a sort of identity as visual style. For my purpsoes, it fits nicely with a topological basis of being

What’s interesting here is that when the computer rearranges itself into a certain shape via coloured pixels, the human mind reciprocates by rearranging itself via cognitive processes. The result is that the topology of one object (currently in the shape of a block of dark pixels surrounded by a field of white pixels) corresponds with the topology of another (those varying levels of light appear to depict a cat). It follows that media studies, from this perspective, is really the study of objects that share a complementary topology with the human. This explains our collective obsession with things that can take on forms that we find familiar. McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’ is merely the recognition that such things, such media, take on these forms according to their own identity or topology. The familiarity of the cat symbol on screen often leads us to forget that the ‘cat’ is actually a series of coloured squares being continually refreshed at a rate imperceptible to the eye. And even the history of the word  ‘symbol’ has a bit of topology to it.

Asterios Polyp - 036

This page of Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp follows the one above and continues the style of drawing characters according to how they view the world. At the top is Asterios, in geometric shapes, reflecting his analytical/abstract perception.

If you follow the etymology of ‘symbol’, it means to ‘throw together,’ referring to a ritual of breaking a stick upon making an arrangement with another party. When the arrangement is completed, the two sticks are brought back together, their jagged edges interlocking with one another, thereby symbolising the conclusion of the pact. When we perceive symbolic representations they are not what they represent but complement the form of the form that corresponds with that representation (computer code tells the pixels what colour they are = neural pathways in the mind light up in response to the coloured light and the mind thinks ‘cat’—like an electric topology). The computer has no ‘idea’ of what a cat is, just as we have no ‘idea’ how electrons flow through circuits; rather, the computer has a pattern of hex colour codes that it may be instructed to connect with the label ‘cat,’ just as we have physical descriptions and calculations of electron flow but no intimate knowledge of that process. In this sense, all interactions with media are symbolic, if by this we mean that the medium provides the ground that the mind discovers the figure in (the ground being a sort of absence, or readiness-to-hand for Heidegger, while the figure is a presence, or present-at-hand). Like a dolly zoom, where the camera is pulled back but the lens zooms in, we find that there is no presence without a withdrawal (for as McLuhan noted, the senses operate in ratio, and when one is more fully engaged, the others withdraw). But with the figure-ground metaphor, we have two shapes constituting one another, but not in the sense of a white field determining the black cat but of two shapes/forms interlocking or connecting with one another, the unison of two topologies, of the whole image and the whole perceiver (the gestalt image only connects with the mind that mirrors its form, if you’re illiterate or you don’t recognize that corporate logo, then you’re making a different form, and thus a distinct interaction is occurring).

The real catch here is that this topological interaction is not simply a human-media correlation but an object-object correlation. Every object has a unique topology and all objects encounter other objects as a complementary form of that topology or not at all.In other words, objects interact with other objects only as complements of themselves, as extensions or prostheses of their own topology (the fly encounters the table as a fly, just as the human encounters a car as a human). A glass on a table is a glass as physical form encountering the table as physical form and vice versa. The fact that the glass refracts light in such and such a way is still present here but the table simply does not possess the form within its range of forms (its topology) to complement that form in the glass. Conversely, looking at the glass, seeing the light bend through it, I have no concept of its weight as it rests on the table. What’s more, if I pick up the glass and feel its weight in my hand while watching the light bend through it, still I do not have a more fully realized glass but I have synthesized the tactile form with the visual form, which merely becomes one sensation, one embodied perception, one form. Like McLuhan noted, the senses operate in ratio, such that we do not have tactile plus visual but part tactile part visual. In this sense, our senses define our topology and this is in no way a limit. No topology can be exhausted, it possesses infinite forms, for form is an interaction, first and foremost. Thus, the ratio between the senses is present in all objects, according to their topology. The real question, then, is not ‘Can we exceed the sensory threshold of all other experiences?’ but, since the ratio is a ratio and not a series of additions, ‘What is the most advantageous ratio for this culture?’ This also means that so called ‘disabilities,’ such as blindness, are not a down-throttling of an ultimate, real experience but rather a distinct topology with its own inifinitude.

I have plenty more to say here (and lots to back-up/explore) but I wanted to use this post as a chance to get my current state of mind out there. I’ve been thinking about how to explain the practical side of my work and upon re-reading this post it seems I’ve failed rather spectacularly. At the least, I hope that if you made it this far that I’ve given you some food for thought.

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