Digital Representation and the Hyper Real

panel / roundtable
  1. 1. John Lavagnino

    King's College London

  2. 2. Willard McCarty

    King's College London

  3. 3. Susan Schreibman

    University Libraries - University of Maryland, College Park

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Art has never been a mere mirror up to nature, yet as in no
other medium has it been so easy to create a simulacra
of reality as with digital technology: a 'heterocosm', both
simulating the familiar while deconstructing it. This session
brings together three theoretical papers that explore how
mimesis might be used as a paradigm from which to explore
the relationship between the digital world, the analogue world,
and the space between them; digital surrogates and their
analogue counterparts; how familiar terms like object, imitation,
copy, original function in the digital realm; and the notion that
a digital representation may be more appropriately termed a
simulacral identity, reflecting, not the object itself, but our
beliefs and conventions about it. This session will explore
digital representation as conscious fashionings of hyper-reality,
computational zones or subspaces which employ the unreal and
non-existent to recreate the material world, pointing to the past,
and the future, in unexpected, fresh, or subversive ways
Being Digital, or Analogue, or Neither
John Lavagnino
When I speak of something being digital or analogue, I draw
on a connected pair of terms that is often thought to cover all
possibilities in a way that's theoretically well grounded. But
the origin of these two terms is not theoretical, and the
conventional opposition reflects a pragmatic view of approaches
to making computing machinery rather than deep and inherent
qualities of information. The two terms also do not exhaust the
world: most things are neither digital nor analogue, because
those terms describe information that has been carefully
prepared for machine processing. Nonmachines get by in the
world without that restriction of input.
The separate ideas of digital and analogue representation come
not from theory but from engineering. Digital representation
has its background prior to the days of the digital computer, in
the longer history of numerical calculating machines, and in
particular in the use of punch cards and tabulating machinery,
which could not only perform computations but provided ways
to manage large bodies of information. Analogue representation
goes back to a different tradition of calculating machinery, in
which physical operations that could be interpreted as
performing computations mattered much more than storage of
information in any quantity. In the mid-twentieth century, a
moment came when both approaches had significant
applications, and two separate strands of technological
development became a pair of options, both sometimes
applicable to the same tasks (Wiener; Mindell). Today the two
are commonly thought to exhaust all possibilities; but at the
same time there is a marked status hierarchy, as digital systems
continue to spread everywhere and analogue systems have a
minor or nearly invisible existence in unexciting devices like
thermostats. On this view, the digital has the prestige of being
made by us, and the analogue has the consolation of covering
everything that isn't manmade and a few things that are. Or, in
one very common version of this opposition, thought is digital
and reality is analogue.
Although many people assume in this way that everything is
either digital or analogue, most things aren't actually either,
because most things are not information prepared for machine
processing. All our machinery for processing information,
analogue or digital, has the common property of ignoring all
but a restricted slice of the world as we experience it, and having
no way to notice phenomena beyond that slice. We craft these
machines to work with particular inputs and sometimes learn
to change our behavior so that machines get the right sort of
input. Representations made for other purposes (art, in
particular) are based on selections, too, but because they are
not created to serve as a basis for computation they don't present
the same kind of claim to be authoritative versions of reality.
Nothing is digital or analogue until we actually get it into a
computational system; these properties result from our choices
about how to process reality, and are not inherent in reality
If reality is not by default analogue, thinking is not by its nature
digital. Much work in artificial intelligence has been based on
the hypothesis that the brain and mind work like digital
computers: so that, while our current systems might be crude,
they are still on the right path of development towards the real
thing, and it's important that the real thing is digital. The
hypothesis has been highly productive as a basis for useful
work, but is at odds with the biological account of how the
brain works; John von Neumann argued that the brain's
machinery was essentially different from that of both digital
and analogue computers. That difference is unsurprising, since
machines of other kinds work very differently from biological
systems with comparable functions. The natural form of
technology “is typically tiny, wet, nonmetallic, non-wheeled, and flexible; human technology is mainly the opposite: large,
dry, metallic, wheeled, and stiff” (Vogel 271).
In one classical line of discussion of the digital-and-analogue
pairing, Nelson Goodman's, written texts serve as an example
of the digital mode: on this view, written symbols are intended
as discrete and unambiguous tokens chosen from a fixed set
(142). The way that texts lend themselves so naturally to
transformation into electronic form may seem to provide
evidence for this view: that they're not only readily made into
usable digital objects but that they inherently are such objects.
But in Goodman's account the digital nature of the alphabet is
an idealization: you are supposed to be able to tell your letters
apart unambiguously, yet we get by working with handwriting
and bad print that fails in this regard. Much more significantly,
we notice other things than the choice of token; as many
accounts of communication point out (Roman Jakobson's, for
example), there are many functions of verbal messages besides
the transmission of the information. Digital representation in
computers is different because they are designed to recognize
nothing but the choice of token; what is an idealized account
when applied to human use of the alphabet is a perfect account
of computing, because it describes how computers are built to
Conventional accounts of digital representation rarely mention
how much of the workings of a computer are there to keep the
digital data digital, to prevent it from being degraded by noise;
works on electronic engineering never omit the point. We miss
a key feature of the digital and the analogue when we think of
them as static properties that happen to everything without
effort; they are instead deliberate creations. They have been
highly successful creations, representations of reality that lend
themselves to many uses; we ought to recognize them as our
creations, and not mistake them for natural phenomena.
Goodman, Nelson. Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory
of Symbols. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968.
Jakobson, Roman. "Linguistics and Poetics." Linguistics and
Poetics. Ed. Thomas A. Sebeok. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,
1960. 350–377.
Mindell, David A. Between Human and Machine: Feedback,
Control, and Computing before Cybernetics. Baltimore, MD:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.
Vogel, Steven. Cat's Paws and Catapults: Mechanical Worlds
of Nature and People. New York: Norton, 1998.
Von Neumann, John. The Computer and the Brain. 2nd ed. .
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000.
Wiener, Norbert. Cybernetics; or, Control and Communication
in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press,
Looking Backward, Figuring Forward: Modelling,
its Discontents and the Future
Willard McCarty
Alan Turing’s scheme has not been adequate to computing “in
the wild” for more than 50 years (Mahoney 1997: 621), but it
does have two fundamental implications for work in the
humanities. Its first implication is that intellectual gain from
the computational analysis of a cultural artefact comes primarily
from comparing it to its digital representation as this is
improved through repeated trials and adjustments. Its second
implication is that in principle there can be no limit other than
human ingenuity to the forms computing can take. Hence
computing’s basic tradeoff: on the one hand, reduction of the
artefact to computational form guarantees a permanent though
changing gap between its transcendent reality and its calculable
representation; on the other, the mutability of computing allows
for no end to the perfective attempt to reach the former with
the latter. This attempt I have called “modeling” (McCarty
The proposed paper takes the centrality of modeling for granted,
but it attempts to move beyond the inherent limitations of a
process that by definition only imitates. Modeling is directed
to a pre-existing conception of an artefact one wishes to study;
its strength is in contesting that conception in comparison
against one’s best attempt at representing it rigorously. The
discrepancies it discovers may well be, in Jerome McGann’s
words, “the hem of a quantum garment” that trails into our
future (2004: 201), but modeling gives us little help in
imagining that future. Turing’s scheme guarantees innumerable
forms of computing, but how best are we to work toward them?
Although, as Edsger Dijkstra remarks in his contribution to
Beyond Calculation: The Next Fifty Years of Computing, it may
seem “utterly preposterous” to predict this future, as teachers
we do it all the time in deciding what to teach, what to ignore
(1997: 59). As researchers we get hints of the future, or hopes
for it, when no existing data model, or way of using computers,
will do – when (to take an example from my own work) neither
textual encoding nor relational database design satisfies, and
we are left with a hunger for something other than what we
have. Can we do better than such backward looking glances
into the future? Can we imagine it directly?
One answer is supplied by Empirical Modelling (EM), presented
to the last North American ACH/ALLC conference (Beynon,
Russ and McCarty 2006) and further articulated in a recent
MSc dissertation (King 2006). EM focuses on the present and
presence of tacit experience, which is as close to the future as we ever get. Another answer comes out of work in critical
theory, e.g. by N. Katherine Hayles, whose focus on writing,
and cultural productions generally, lifts the gaze to what is
emerging – to “emergent” phenomena, as they are known
(1999). Taking clues from both, I propose to explore and talk
about a third answer arising from reflective work in the history,
philosophy and anthropology of the natural sciences. In the
philosophy of physics, for example, Ian Hacking has argued
that rigorously imagined entities are made real when we learn
to manipulate them (1983). In the history of technology, Peter
Galison shows that the devices we invent tend to pull us forward
into conformity with them (2007) – an argument quite close to
one Northrop Frye made at the first joint ACH/ALLC
conference, citing such human inventions as the wheel and the
book (1990). In the history of chemistry, Mi Gyung Kim
examines how 19th Century researchers worked to establish
the reality of their substances, suggesting a surprisingly
immediate interrelation of the imagined and the real (2000). In
biological anthropology, Terrence Deacon argues beyond the
uncomfortable limitations of a mechanical world-view and strict
Darwinian evolution to a new conception of teleology, “to
identify a real and substantial sense of the ‘pull’ of future
possibilities in terms of ‘pushes’ from the past” (2006).
In the proposed paper, I summarize this work in the natural
sciences and use it to construct a theory of emergence in
humanities computing. I base my exposition on the underlying
argument that use of computing, with its emphasis on “how we
find out, not… what we find out” (Hacking 2002), brings us
into productive relation with the experimental sciences without
in any way compromising our orientation to the humanities
(McCarty 2002, 2006, 2007). Sumarizing my earlier work, I
suggest briefly at the beginning of the paper how computing
has allowed us to create within the humanities a computational
zone or subspace, within which practitioners may treat cultural
artefacts as if they were only data, and so apply to them
something like natural law. I argue that the conjectural, as-if
status of what may be done within this zone gives us a
defensible way of importing powerful scientific conceptions,
such as Hacking’s realization-by-manipulation or Deacon’s
biological teleology, and apply them to our artefacts of study,
not in order to test what we think we know but to imagine and
realize what we do not know.
In earlier work I have used this conjectural relation with the
natural sciences to ground the practice of modelling in its
scientific past (McCarty 2005). Here I use it as entry-point to
speculations on how humanities computing might lead the
disciplines which it most immediately serves into a fruitful
relationship with the sciences and so to an end of the epistemic
wars foreseen by Richard Rorty (2000).
Beynon, Meurig, Steve Russ , and Willard McCarty. "Human
Computing – Modelling with Meaning." Literary & Linguistic
Computing 21.2 (2006): 141-57.
Deacon, Terrence W. "Emergence: The Hole at the Wheel’s
Hub." The Re-Emergence of Emergence: The Emergentist
Hypothesis from Science to Religion. Ed. Philip Clayton and
Paul Davies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Dijkstra, Edsger W. "The Tide, not the Waves." Beyond
Calculation: The Next Fifty Years of Computing. Ed. Peter J.
Denning and Robert M. Metcalfe. New York: Copernicus, 1997.
Frye, Northrop. "Literary and Mechanical Models." Research
in Humanities Computing 1: Selected Papers from the 1989
ACH-ALLC Conference. Ed. Ian Lancashire. Oxford: Clarendon
Press, 1991. 3-12.
Galison, Peter. Building, Crashing, Thinking. Forthcoming.
Hacking, Ian. Representing and Intervening: Introductory
Topics in the Philosophy of Natural Science. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1983.
Hacking, Ian. Historical Ontology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 2002.
Hales, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual
Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Kim, Mi Gyung. "Chemical Analysis and the Domains of
Reality: Wilhelm Homberg’s Essais De Chimie, 1702-1709."
Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 31.1 (2000):
King, Karl George. “Uncovering Empirical Modelling”.
Unpublished MSc dissertation. Computer Science Department,
Warwick University, 2006.
Mahoney, Michael S. "Computer Science: The Search for a
Mathematical Theory." Science in the Twentieth Century. Ed.
John Krige and Dominique Pestre. Amsterdam: Harwood
Academic Publishers, 1997. 617-34.
McCarty, Willard. Humanities Computing. Basingstoke:
Palgrave, 2005.
McCarty, Willard. "The Imaginations of Computing." Richard
W. Lyman Award lecture, National Humanities Center,
Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, 6 November. 2006.
McCarty, Willard. "Humanities Computing: Essential Problems,
Experimental Practice." Literary & Linguistic Computing 17.1
(April 2002): 103-25. McCarty, Willard. "Being Reborn: The Humanities, Computing
and Styles of Scientific Reasoning." Renaissance Studies and
New Technologies: A Collection. Ed. William R. Bowen and
Raymond G. Siemens. Tempe, AZ: Medieval and Renaissance
Texts and Studies, Forthcoming.
Rorty, Richard. "Being That Can Be Understood Is Language."
Gadamer's Repurcussions: Reconsidering Philosophical
Hermeneutics. Ed. Bruce Krajewski. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 2004.
Beautiful Untrue Things: The Digital Dilemma
Susan Schreibman
In Oscar Wilde's dialogue The Decay of Lying, Vivian and Cyril
discuss the interdependence of Nature and Imagination, with
imagination, in that typically Wildean fashion, more faithfully
representing the real than the material world. For much of the
dialogue, Vivian reads an essay that he has authored to Cyril:
his thesis is that there must be a return to 'lying in art' (5): a
return to the roots of art in the purely imaginative abstract. This
imaginative work, rooted in the 'unreal and non-existent' takes
as its rough material life, 'recreates it, and refashions it in fresh
forms, absolutely indifferent to fact', to what is true or natural
or real (20).
Wilde's theory of artistic process can also serve as a starting
point in articulating a theory of digital mimesis; of
understanding the relationship(s) between the original and its
digital manifestation(s), as well as the relationship between and
amongst digital surrogates. Moreover, it can be taken as a
framework for exploring the complex and shifting relationship
between a digitally-presented hyper-reality and material reality.
As has been argued elsewhere, art has never been a mere mirror
up to nature, but in no other medium has it been so easy to
create a simulacra of reality; a 'heterocosm', simultaneously
simulating the familiar while deconstructing it. While the
mimetic effect of visualizations, simulations, and virtual reality
inherit a set of conventions between an audience and its
expectations of a work, these conventions are ultimately
unstable, shifting as the technology, and our expectations of it,
Digital representations of three dimensional objects, necessarily,
lose their corporeality, becoming two-dimensional artifacts1
engaged with through the mediating presence of an electronic
viewing device (a computer monitor, a mobile phone, an
e-book). What we engage with, however, are only
representations of digital corporeality: what we see are
manifestations of the underlying code, much as the prisoners
in Plato's allegory of the cave saw only shadows cast on the
wall. What we engage with is in fact, not the digital object, but
a representation of it.
Johanna Drucker in 'Digital Ontologies: The Ideality of Form
in/and code Storage – or – Can Graphesis Challenge Mathesis?'
posits that although throughout the Western history, images
have been charged with being essentially deceptive or
illusionary, the algorithmically-generated code of digital images
may, in fact, be a perfect representation of an object; a
representation which is not tainted through display or
representation. On the other hand, without the representation
of the code, the image exists outside our ability to perceive it.
In traditional discussions of mimesis the thing being represented
typically reflects, however distorted the lens, the represented;
the essence of the represented recognizable in the simulacra.
With digital media, however, paradoxically, to see beyond the
surface of the material world, objects are transmuted into a
series of electric currents represented to the computer as binary
code. What is being encoded is the object as it never existed,
a simulation or hyper-realization.
The intention of a simulation may be to represent an object as
it never existed in the material world reflecting our theories
and beliefs about it. Digital imagery may be used, for example,
to make visible the characters of a manuscript which are no
longer perceptible to the human eye. What is represented is not
the manuscript as it existed before the damage occurred, nor
the manuscript as it exists today: it is not the shadows on the
cave wall, nor the reality which casts those shadows, but a
hyper-reality which exists between these worlds
As more of our cultural heritage is represented in digital form,
the artifacts that people engage with are the simulations without
reference to the originals. These disembodied objects exist
outside time and space in a way that material objects do not.
Digital objects to not decay due to the ravages of time or
environment (although digital objects may be rendered useless
by our not having the proper hardware and software to read it).
Our display paradigms privilege certain readings of these
objects; they are surrounded by metadata, typically, if part of
a library's holdings, Library of Congress Subject Headings
which categorize and group the known world according to a
Victorian perception of the universe. Images are not represented
to scale, so a map that is 3x2 feet appears the same size as one
that is 8x10 inches. Our search engines reduce hundreds,
thousands, even millions of objects to a text string displayed
ten to a page, or a table populated by 40 2x2 inch thumbnails.
This homogenization of results further decontextualize digital
simulacra. These deconstructions of the object's material
existence reframe the relationship between the perceived and
the perceiver, refashioning it, as Wilde writes, 'absolutely
indifferent to fact' of what is true or natural or real (20).
This paper will thus explore mimesis from two distinct, but not
unrelated aspects of digital technology. The first part will
explore the relationship between digital surrogates and their
analogue counterparts; how familiar terms like object, imitation, copy, original function in the digital realm; what is lost and
gained in the transfer to the digital when the materiality of a
three-dimensional object is transmuted into a two-dimensional
plane; the concept of 'trusted digital objects': digital files that
will live on when we, and the objects they were created from,
no longer exist; the notion that a digital representation may be
more appropriately termed a simulacral identity, reflecting, not
the object itself, but our beliefs and conventions about it. The
second part will explore mimesis from the viewpoint of digital
representations as conscious fashionings of hyper-reality or in
Wildean terms, employing the unreal and non-existent to
recreate the material world in unexpected, fresh, or subversive
Aarseth, Espen J. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic
Literature. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press,
Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. New York: Semiotext[e], 1983.
Davis, Michael. Poetry of Philosophy: On Aristotle's "Poetics".
South Bend, IN: St Augustine's Press, 1999.
Drucker, Johanna. "Digital Ontologies: The Ideality of Form
in/and Code Storage – or –Can Graphesis Challenge Mathesis?"
Leonardo, the International Society for the Arts, Sciences and
Technology 34.2 (2001): 141-145.
Hales, Katherine, N. Writing Machines. Cambridge, MA: MIT
Press, 2002.
Halliwell, Stephen. The Aesthetics of Mimesis: Ancient Texts
and Modern Problems. Princeton: Princeton University Press,
Levy, David M. Authenticity in a Digital Environment. CLIR,
2000. <
Potolsky, Matthew. Mimesis: The New Critical Idiom. New
York: Routledge, 2006.
San Segundo, Rosa. "A New Conception of Representation of
Knowledge." Knowledge Organization. 2004. 106-111.
Wilde, Oscar. The Decay of Lying: An Observation. Cork:
CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts, 1999. Accessed 2006-09-06.
1. This is true even when the computer emulates three-dimensional
space, such as utilizing software to be able to view 380° of a
sculpture, or using virtual reality software to emulate perspective.

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Conference Info


ADHO - 2007

Hosted at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Urbana-Champaign, Illinois, United States

June 2, 2007 - June 8, 2007

106 works by 213 authors indexed

Series: ADHO (2)

Organizers: ADHO

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None