The Computational Real

I just came across Sungyong Ahn’s new article, “Shooting a metastable object: targeting as trigger for the actor-network in the open-world videogames” about the use and creation of objects in video games. It is an excellent exploration of metastability and individuation à la Simondon in relation to objects in video-games and especially open-world and augmented reality. But, for that you should read the article.

One of the reasons I came across this article is that it cites an essay I wrote on the invention of the object as a computational concept. Specifically Ahn cites my use of the term ‘computational real’, described there as “bits or mere differences of voltage fluctuating on the system boards,” then higher level languages, “translate these ephemeral signals into human-understandable data structures and their functional relations.”

In reading Ahn’s article, I realized this was a concept that I relied on heavily in my article but did not really explain much at all and I thought it might be worth quickly spelling out what I meant. While I did not use the term directly, I developed the idea behind it in much further depth in my recent book Deconstruction Machines about cyberwar, specifically in this footnote on the real in Lacan as it can be read through Kittler and Derrida:

One could define the Lacanian real in multiple ways. Zupančič argues (in an article building on and taking issue with Badiou’s interpretation of the real), “Here, representation as such is a wandering excess over itself; representation is the infinite tarrying with the excess that springs not simply from what is or is not represented (its ‘object’), but from this act of representation itself, from its own inherent ‘crack’ or inconsistency. The Real is not something outside or beyond representation, but is the very crack of representation,” thus explicitly denying that the real is some thing or material that escapes symbolization. Alenka Zupančič, “The Fifth Condition,” in Think Again: Alain Badiou and the Future of Philosophy,ed. Peter Hallward (London: Continuum, 2004), 199. Likewise, Žižek suggests that this real is a void: “the Real Thing is ultimately another name for the Void.” Slavoj Žižek, “Welcome to the Desert of the Real,” in The Universal Exception, ed. Rex Butler and Scott Stephens (London: Continuum, 2006), 267. All of these descriptions suggest important elements of this real that resist or crack the symbolic. Despite these interpretations, Kittler, in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, 16, suggests in a more media-centric manner, “Machines take over functions of the central nervous system, and no longer, as in times past, merely those of muscles. And with this differentiation—and not with steam engines and railroads—a clear division occurs between matter and information, the real and the symbolic.” Despite the differences between Kittler’s material description of the real and Zupančič’s and Žižek’s definitions, there is a way of understanding the real that would suggest that the real as symbolic void and the real as material are not so far apart. First, it is important to note that the symbolic is always a trace, inscribed outside of the body, written into a material support. Thus, in a physical sense, the symbolic is always material. It is inscribed within our mediatic world. Second, what cracks (in a Derridean sense) the symbolic is perhaps its always already being inscribed in insecure media/materiality. Representation, in Zupančič’s sense, exceeds itself precisely because it exists outside of itself, in inscription. The real is not, then, material in the simple sense of being beyond representation; rather, the real is material insomuch as the real-materiality of the symbolic precludes the possibility of it totalizing itself and guarantees its vulnerability.

In many ways, I am still wrestling with these questions, but I think it is valuable for both media studies and Lacanian theory to stress the materiality of the symbolic and at the very least to explore the material reality of inscription as one possible site for the instability and cracking of the real.