Gregory Bringman
New Media Theory and Works
L'Entretien Revisited: A New Digital Philosophy Animation

By Gregory Bringman

A Dialogue Between d’Alembert and Diderot.

Diderot: My earlier concern with animate and inanimate matter, I would like to revisit with the notion of virtual matter. Now as we are avatars in a computer-simulated universe, engaging in a dialogue in the manner of Fontenelle’s Dialogues of the Dead--beyond death, preserved in computer simulation, I would like to think that virtual matter is actual and potential at the same time that it is a dynamics of becoming.

d’Alembert: Right you are old friend. We are avatars, commanders of a narrative unfolding before an audience of alternate historians, who establish that there is a connection between history retold and the concept of matter, being, and becoming.

Diderot: Nevertheless, there are limits that I foresee, such as on the transformation of human emotion into electrical signals that share the brain’s conceits, explicitly—as if this were desirable.

d’Alembert: Let us define “virtual”. We need an epistemology that can account for impermanence in computing and outside of it. We need an epistemology that will address the virtual nature of cognition and how institutions and social facts external to speakers influence those agents of language. For if the virtual is also the reflective ability to “rethink” the facts, then all recording technologies, writing, and computing, in recording temporal agent positions in a sea of other temporalities, create the phenomenon of erasing and redoing common to life in simulation.

Diderot: Yes. We cannot conceive of the virtual without some notion of the historical. The difference between epistemologies of computing and epistemologies of the non-virtual world is in explicitness. The agent, as in my writing on the blind, suppresses one sensory function and this leads to expression in other sensory functions: the agent communicates nevertheless in the virtual and the non-virtual, explicit and implicit, actors explicitly recording experiences of the virtual world. Digital services provide some differences between computers that allow infinite recombinations of matter in the form of electricity, and between matter proper. Recombining through larger micro-structures of historical writing--which are, rather, both micro and macro, historians explicitly establish past events in the present with more than just their memories.

d’Alembert: How do we in fact go from history writing to logic circuits? And can we playfully reduce the gestures of cognition, that is, how we think through feeling, to so many electrons crying, ‘I am great/I am non-existent’, the 1s and 0s of binary code?

Diderot: Nice my friend. Your mathematical mind, computing rewards. Mathematics, as the abbreviation of wholes, is a journey into abstraction. Ones and zeros are the logic gates of materiality that are reified binary systems. History writing has this in common with mathematics, the creation of worlds through local positions of historical or mathematical agency. But keep in mind that the concept of techné and human participation in the life of machines allows the writing of history and furthermore, in coming back to the issue of virtual matter, or matter that is potential and actual at the same time, of a history that is a story. The history that is a story is an alternative reading, a virtual history. Like the progressively neotnic organism who fake “cuteness” to gain an evolutionary advantage, the history in story form, alternate form, proposes a distinction between what happens in the narrative literally and the deeper historical values that structure the narrative. Virtual history reads the artist sketch as the map of what could have been, and when we speculate, what could have been becomes reality--exactly in the way in which matter goes from inanimate to animate.

d’Alembert: I see, so history becomes animate, like the embodiment of a text through a reader. What you suggest is that the writing of history is an exemplification and actualization of matter. Or is it that there is a duality between the tendency of atoms to stick together, that is, nature’s coding, and the tendency of 1s and 0s to create the cipher, our cultural coding that mimics the natural one.

Diderot: I make no distinction between nature and culture here. For nature encodes and we recode. Nature always proposes a model that we realize; still our models communicate nature in the only way it can be known--as culturally constructed, that is mediated through texts and media. So nature’s coding is culture’s coding. The computer mimics the pattern found in the metaphor of atomic deviation and combination, where combination is constructive. Valence builds rather than destroys. Everything is positive, in speech about nothing. There is no such experience of anti-matter, except in death and only metaphorically in Boyle’s vacuum. Not only does matter positively valorize itself, but it also creates the persistence of the thinkable over the unthinkable--everything can be thought and this happens as automatically as the deviation of the Epicureans.

d’Alembert: No distinction between nature and culture also adds the element of the exemplification of matter through history writing in that it asks for a particular understanding of the world. When we know in detail, part empirically, part theoretically, we take responsibility for the past and the future. Why can matter have a virtual dimension? It is because the units of matter are finer than the finest linguistic act or linguistic particularization of the causes of natural phenomena. The agent rethinks history. Matter is rearranged according to acts of speech. We dynamically point to relational structures or highly differentiated relations in the matter of the world. We say in particular how history means what it means and how agents know not general laws, but particular knowledge of natural science.

Diderot: Exactly. With the creation of stories for our histories, we construct a particular art, one that seeks limits in order to become unbounded. It is a paradox of an agent’s navigation of networks in society. This is the paradox, that the agent is monadic yet connected. Still matter is exemplified and everything can be thought, but not everything occurs to a body to be thought. Too, there are objective mechanisms that ensure or prohibit the creation of animate history from historical fact.

d’Alembert: I see. So the agent is constructively constructed and constructs the relationships of the world in particular. The agent navigates in exposition and in the writing of history, so that he or she may unmask particular relationships that reconstruct discourse from the outside. Animate history is only possible when there is a dialectical relationship between influencing and influenced, although the subject has disappeared since the episteme turned into a rhizome.

Diderot: Exactly. Through an agent that influences as well as is influenced, the universe moves on with the lives of other agents. She steps into the world, taking a position; the world budges to accommodate her position. The other agents in the system dynamically affect and are affected. But it is not simply people who are outside of other people. Institutions pre-exist agents and create a backdrop for the object, the text to be re-interpreted. Since cognition works along affecting and affected lines, so too the object exists outside of the agent, although it defines the agent in counterpoint.

d’Alembert: You could say that matter does not differentiate between subject and object, although to those of us who can’t see our code in our bodies, it differentiates between discursive production and the artifact of that discursive production, the text (a code-like artifact).

Diderot: Yes. Matter is subliminal in a certain sense. We don’t see an either/or of existence/non-existence. We perceive the world as qualities—qualitatively. Although when we use virtual systems and when we also program them, matter has an analog in the cipher. The cipher of computing also does not distinguish between subject and object. And do we really? Or does the object socialize us into the distinction between our bodies and the other?

d’Alembert: Yes, I see that way of looking at all of categorization and classification as socialization into making distinctions between things. Thus, does the recombination of matter reflect society? Is the social created through the material?

Diderot: But the social is also created through the ephemeral and the virtual. You have matter organized to encode information, and you have information organized to encode our perception of qualities, and our perception of qualities encodes our feelings and our existence.

d’Alembert: If it were not for this layering of the strata of encoding, bodies would be mono-cellular and existence would have the complexity of only the simplest components or of our simplified abstraction of a matter that is, in fact, complex.

Diderot: And it is complex no doubt.

d’Alembert: Right you are old friend.

Diderot: Let us be inventors of animate history with practices that, if they are reductions to 1s and 0s, they in turn counter the reductivity of the model, from being so limited.

d’Alembert: Yes, let us, as agents, speak in particular of natural science.

Diderot: Yes, right you are old friend.