Thursday, February 7, 2008

February (and March) Open Thread

February open thread for comments and questions about the book.


Anonymous said...

Huzzah on the publication and nifty sales figures for January.

Mb Shea

Anonymous said...


I've just begun reading your book. Actually, I just finished the Introduction. Quite (very ! :) ) interesting so far.

You put great emphasis when it comes to defining "formal materiality". And rightly so since this is a counter-intuitive notion at first sight.

Yet, I'd like to ask you one little question about it. Page 13 you write : "It might also help to think of it as a way of articulating a relative or just-in-time dimension of materiality, on where any material particulars are arbitrary and independant of the underlying computational environment..." What do you mean exactly by "the underlying computational environment" ? To my mind, it could encompass numerous things. Nay, since it plays a notable role in defining a key notion, I'd like to follow you as closely as possible (particularly in the light of your refusal to construe the distinction between Forensic materiality and Formal materiality along the same lines as the classic Hardware/Software distinction).

Thus, your help would be much appreciated (I'll ask questions with larger scopes later - if you don't mind ! - as my reading progress).

Thanks in advance and thank you for your great blog and book.

Best regards,

Alexandre M.

Matt said...

Hi Alexandre,

Thanks for the question, which is exactly the kind of thing I'd hoped this blog (and more specifically, the open threads) would foster.

By "underlying computational environment" I simply mean an object's status as fungible data. An example I use later in the book (chapter 3) is the way an old computer game presents in a hex editor as opposed to an emulator. The latter is assumed to be the normative view, but when we employ the former we can see the remains of earlier games embedded (fossilized) in the image of the stored data. I argue that neither presentation is more or less naturalized than the other, even though we assume the game's performance in the emulator is normative.

More generally, I think what I'm trying to get at is the notion that we can't assume that any one particular software package affords a complete or authoritative portrayal of a given digital object. The object will behave differently in different formal environments, a feature that is in fact commonly exploited for both benevolent and malicious intent.

Does that help? It's a honor to be read so closely!

Alexandre M. said...


First of all, thank "you" very much for taking some time to answer me !

I've progressed to chapter 2 (your book elicits too many thoughts to simply read it in a row) and am probably more able now to grasp what you meant.

Can I take examples just to be sure ?

Games like Morrowind or Oblivion are sold with editors (or rather, it's available for anyone who wishes to download it in the latter case).
If you use them carefully, plot-wise unused characters or unfinished quests are locatable. Of course, since the editor itself has been designed by the game creators, we're kind of in an in-between : is it "normative", in your sense, or not ?

My next example would concern tools like Greasemonkey. Amongst other things, it makes it possible to create scripts that allow you to view items prices from other shops on Amazon's page (a self-created price benchmark if you will). Of course, the datas used by the script were never "naturally" thought of this way. Maybe that would be another example (though it's hard to discern one individualized digital object over here) ?

In addition, does the meaning of formal materiality encompasses "normative behaviours" and arbitrary (or merely "not previously designed") ones all the same ?

Now, then, the honor is mine. When one's generous enough to offer time for discussion, it would be a pity not to seize such an opportunity.

Matt said...


Both sound like interesting examples, though I'm not familiar with Greasemonkey. I think you're touching on an area where the book doesn't do as good a job as I would have liked, namely intentionality. When I use a word like "normative," it entails a certain set of assumptions about how a digital object was expected to be accessed and utilized. Formal materiality derives some of its efficacy, I think, from the tension between those assumptions and alternative ways of accessing the object; but I didn't really place an emphasis on discussing it in those terms, partly, I think, because intentionality itself is such contested terrain in my home field, literary studies.

The one exception is the long footnote on page 117. Let me know what you think.

Alexandre M. said...


Well, this note indeed had quite a distinct flavour, especially with its mention of Dennett. Actually, I've worked both on Anscombe (Dennett's major influence on "patternalism") and the man's himself so that's a topic of interest for me.

Now, neither Anscombe's nor Dennett's approach are supposed to explain an author's special link with his creation. Rather, they're theory of action. Maybe it should make a difference.

Incidentally, the shout heard on the beach by the protagonist of Knapp and Benn Michaels' thought experiment seemed to me to indicate that the expression "It worked" was more likely to refer to some action, or even man-made process, than to a genuine work of art (in the broader sense of the term). As I said, sometimes it won't make any difference and sometimes it will, yet it's difficult to judge (at least for me tonight ;) ).
This is a very good example to pinpoint the question at stake, however, I think it doesn't provide a satisfying answer.

Now, on the whole, that's indeed a tough question because, in the Elder Scrolls example I did allude to previously, the people who designed the editor and those who designed the game happen to be just the same. Thus, there's a kind of atypical preestablished harmony between the two. Especially when one of the game's most preeminent feature is the possibility it affords to make mods, thus allowing people to modify the game itself, even by recycling its unused content... while at the same time fulfilling its authors' deepest intentions (in ways they cannot be said to entirely expect we can argue).

The Aphex Twin Baal-like demon is also very interesting.

P.S. : would you mind if I try to post a review of your book in some online French journal ? (there no guarantee it would be accepted though, as I don't know how it would fit in an all encompassing 4500 letters text).

P.P.S. : when you write, page 155, that "formal materiality is the normative condition of working in a digital environment", I am lead to believe such an overall normative condition includes both normative and deviant behaviours (truly or mildly ones). That's a statement of larger purview, isn't it ?

P.P.P.S.: I think, but I may be wrong, there's a typo page 103 as "Data Diaries" (l.3) becomes "Digital Diaries" (l. 15 and 17).

P.P.P.P.S. : thank you for the discussion.

Matt said...

Thanks for the further insight and comments, Alexandre. Let's see, let me take your post scripts in order:

Review: I'd be honored and pleased.

P. 155: If I follow you, as I think I do, then yes.

p. 103 (typo). You're right. Darn it. Time to update the errata.

Thanks again for your questions and feedback. I suspect "formal materiality" is an idea I'll be working with for a long time and a position I'll want to continue to refine.