Novels are digital art too

The striated and the smooth

Digital means discrete, and analog means continuous. Digital and analog support each other, as
Deleuze and Guattari put it:

… in the case of the striated, the line is between two points, while in the smooth, the point is between two lines.

When we speak, we articulate our vocal tracts in analog movements, creating discontinuities that the listener is able to segment into the digital phonemes, diphones and words of language.  Language is digital, as is clear when we write it with a typewriter.  The analog arrangement of ink on paper is woven into a perfectly discrete sequence of symbols, as our eyes saccade across them.  But we reconstruct the analog movements of speech when we read; even when we read silently, we add paralinguistic phrasing in our heads to aid processing of the text.  This analog phrasing is important, for example modulating the tone of voice with slight sarcasm tone can completely negate the meaning of what is said.  Prosody can convey far subtler emotional feeling that this.

A great deal of what is called `digital art’ is not digital art at all, and it seems many digital artists seem ashamed of the digital.  In digital installation art, the screen and keyboard are literally hidden in a box somewhere, as if words were a point of shame.  The digital source code behind the work is not shown, and all digital output is only viewable by the artist or a technician for debugging purposes.  The experience of the actual work is often entirely analog, the participant moves an arm, and observes an analog movement in response, in sight, sound or motor control.  They may choose to make jerky, discontinuous movements, and get a discontinuous movement in response, but this is far from the complexity of digital language.  This kind of installation forms a hall of mirrors.  You move your arm around and look for how your movement has been contorted.

This is fine, computers allow abstractions away from particular perceptual modes and senses, and so are quite good at translation between modes.  But computers really excel as machines for formal language, and so I hope the practice of hiding linguistic computation in `digital art’ will be a short lived fashion.


  1. Interesting post. I don’t think analog and digital are mutually exclusive — an object can be simultaneously analog and digital depending on the resolution of perception. Taking your analog interactive art example, if we ‘zoom in’ far enough we see it is digital ‘underneath’; but I guess that’s your point: why hide this digital-ness behind an analog skin?

    I wonder if this has something to do with our ability to decode digital information? I can decode the latin alphabet and so it is effectively digital. However, if I look at text that uses an alphabet I don’t understand — say runic — I perceive it as entirely gestural and the digital element carries no information for me.

    So I wonder if exposing linguistic computation in digital art has a similar effect. If I understand the language, it is effectively digital because I interpret it as such. But perhaps the decontextualised and re-formatted latin alphabet in the context of computation — to those who don’t understand it, becomes symbolic or gestural and the digital component loses its (intended) meaning.

  2. “the digital element carries no information for me.” Yes, they do — just not what the author intended.

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