The virtual is not the immaterial

On Friday 30 September 2016, at the Iklectic Art Lab near Waterloo, London, the Informed Matters community of practice held its first symposium. It was entitled “Material Others and Other Materialities”. A Storify-cation of the Symposium can be found at

In the first presentation of the Phenomenological Materialities panel, Ken Wilder in a paper entitled “The Immateriality of Titian’s Pesaro Altarpiece”, posed the question of how the seemingly ‘immaterial’ (cloud) could be represented (in a material medium, that of paint) so that it could serve as the ground (a material metaphor) for the ascendancy of the Virgin Mary from the material realm to the spiritual (‘immaterial’) realm. His talk was therefore densely allegorical, but allegorical as a mode of the critical relation, while also seeking to show that this seemingly ‘immaterial’ ground and this seemingly ‘immaterial’ destination are themselves grounded in the institution of the Catholic Church, which is, in turn, grounded in the material fabric of the churches and chapels into which the viewer/spectator is drawn, to perpetuate the material practices of worship of Catholicism as an institutionalised religion.

Through his presentation, by discussing Western understandings of ‘immateriality’, Ken was explicitly challenging Vilem Flusser and Louis Bec’s (2012: 38) assertion, expressed in Vampyroteuthis Infernalis, the text at the core of the symposium, that human self-actualisation, henceforth, is “the manipulation of new immaterial information”. Rather, as Johanna Bolton’s paper “Circle or Oval?” (not presented not the day) suggested, human self-actualisation is a process of world-making, not perhaps simply an evolution and an adaptation but rather a co-evolution and a mutual adaptation, acknowledging, with Flusser and Bec (2012: 36), that “Reality is neither the organism nor the environment … but rather the concurrence of both.”

This thematic, that of co-evolution, itself a kind of doubling of the partners in the co- (how do they remain differentiated, over time?), moves us toward mirroring (“The organism mirrors the world and the world [mirrors] the organism”, Flusser and Bec, 2012: 38), and the recognition that the vampyroteuthis exists in the world, but only in relation to ‘me’. (“ “World” is simply a pole of human Dasein. Everything that occurs does so in the human world, including the vampyroteuthis. It exists in the world – indeed – but only in relation to me.” Flusser and Bec, 2002: 38). However, the vampyroteuthis we encounter is not that of the vampyroteuthic Dasein, but rather is an object to our eyes and hands. This problem is doubled in as far as, “What we see is not the world itself but the reflection of the sunlight off of things” (Flusser and Bec, 2012: 39). [Aside: What we see, to follow Donna Haraway’s critique of the metaphor of reflection, may be a refraction or, as Haraway suggests, sunlight diffracted off things].

This doubling and this mirroring, and the possibility of a diffractive ‘cracking’ of the mirror, a reaching through to the ‘tain of the mirror’*, were picked up in Andrew Chesher’s talk about “Roni Horn and the Phenomenology of the Other”, emphasising that things doubled and mirrored happen again and again: spatial doubling (‘reflection’) repeats temporal doubling (‘repetition’), enacting difference. Developing the Husserlian insight that the other exists only in relation to me (who me?, a me, the me?), Andrew explored the contortions and distortions of a subject irreducible to its own immanence. The relation, yet disjunction, of experience and world can be illustrated with reference to Horn’s ‘Things That Happen Again: For Two Rooms’ (1986), where the notions of one and two and first and second have to do with the viewer’s experience, not with the two milled metal cones that constitute the art work. Here, diffracting Haraway’s already diffractive point, in emphasising difference, it may be said, although with a different inflection, that ‘iteration alters’, to follow Derrida’s critique of reflection and reflexivity, whose aim, as part of a deconstructive reading, is,

” …to draw out those moments of rhetorical doubling or self-implicated paradox where the text puts its own authority into question by reflecting on the endlessly elusive character of meaning and consciousness in general. These moments produce a kind of infinite regression … which reveals the nonexistence of any ultimate ground, any means of arresting the otherwise vertiginous play of specular representations.” (Norris, 1987: 142)

Even so, we continue to create the grounds of the here-and-now and Horn’s work, Andrew demonstrated, shows us that every ‘here’ implies a ‘there’, an elsewhere that is also an else-when and an otherwise that transforms the metal cones into, first, sculpture, and second, a ‘thing’, particularly ‘a thing that matters to me (us)’, whereby one body (that, it) enters another body (this, me), to constitute the path that leads from Husserl’s image consciousness to Merleau-Ponty’s chiasm and flesh, where the matter of the (living/lived) body meets with and touches the matter of the world, both living/lived and non-living (sculpture, metal …), in its ‘thing’-liness.

A ‘thing’, or rather ‘that thing’ which our neighbour constitutes, was the theme of the first speaker, Werner Prall, in the second panel, entitled “My Body and the Body: The Other and the Alien”. The title of Werner’s talk was “My Neighbour, That Thing”. Starting from Freud’s critical, not to say destructive, discussion of the Judaeo-Christian injunction to ‘love thy neighbour as you love yourself’, Werner shattered the mirror image from another direction, as the neighbour does not reliably comply with our wishes for harmonious exchanges. Werner explored the themes through Freud’s discussion of the other person, the proximate human being, as das Ding, the Thing. The thingliness of the other in its incommensurability places it in the register of the (Lacanian) Real, an encounter with which, as Werner pointed out, following Lacan’s logic, threatens us with trauma …

“Reality is neither the organism nor the environment, neither the subject nor the object, neither the ego nor the nonego, but rather the concurrence of both.” (Flusser and Bec, 2002: 36)

That is, the symbolic ‘reality’ that is put in question by an encounter with the Real.

… and it is with trauma that the second speaker in this panel, Dan Smith, remained, highlighting the relationship between the body and the self, as mediated by (mirror) perception. The title of Dan’s talk was “The Corporeal Witness in Kate Green’s Lighter Than My Shadow”, a graphic autobiography offering an account of anorexia. This account, once more, shatters the assumption of the reflective character of perception, and of the character of the reflection in the mirror. Here, the diffractive character of the perceptual relation comes clearly into view, although since this itself is a perceptual metaphor, it has to be doubted. The image responds to the gaze and directs action towards ‘bare life’.

It is not that a death drive has taken hold, but that a destructive cycle, in the form of a relentless logic of negative injunctions in the form of perceptions, takes hold and is difficult to break. This may happen at the individual bodily level, but as we know from Husserl by way of Merleau-Ponty, the individuation of the body, to form ‘my body’, occurs as an enactment the body in an intercorporeal regime of bodily choreographies, and, from Bateson (Wilden, 1980: 104-105) we understand that we do so under paradoxical injunctions. If the injunctions become perceived as a contradiction, i.e. a reflection but a negation, rather than be resolvable as a paradox, which leaves the door ajar, we remain imprisoned, either by our own ‘will’ or the ‘will’ of others, whether organised in the form of a political regime or a field of paranoid perceptions. Dan, in raising these prospects, evokes Flusser and Bec (2002: 9-10), and returns us, iteratively, but alteratively, to the theme of co-being:

“Perhaps then a game can be built out of distorting mirrors that would enable us to recognize the basic structure, distorted and from afar, of our own Dasein. By playing a “reflective” game of this sort, we should hope to gain a new perspective of ourselves that, though distanced, is not “transcendent.” It will not be transcendent, that is, because its standpoint will differ from that of science, which would adopt an “objective” position by floating above the world and looking down upon mankind. On the contrary, our analysis of humans will be made from the perspective of the vampyroteuthis, which coexists with us in the world. It is our co-being (Mit-Sein).”

or, rather, co-becoming.

An argument might be discerned, or may appear for a short time before dis-solving itself: if we trust perception to be a reflection, we will resolve it as too compliant (mirror-image) or too resistant (pure negation), and rather than meeting in the choreography of the intercorporeal and the desire of the intersubjective, we will dwell in the excoriating trauma of an encounter with the Real.

Thus excoriated, we will miss the machinations within our (reproducible) perceptions, by way of the interaction of ‘the Thing’ with ‘the It (Id)’:

“It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, at other times in fits and starts. It breathes, it heats, it eats. It shits and fucks. What a mistake to have ever said the id. Everywhere it is machines – real ones, not figurative ones: machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections.” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983: 1)

In the third talk in the second panel, Mark Ingham took heed of Flusser and Bec’s statement that “Our concern is not with a “theory” but with a “fable”, with leaving the real world for a fabulous one”, in the construction his confabulated image-poem, “Fishing for Zebedee”. Mark also took heed of the need to explore the paradoxical injunctions with which we are surrounded, and not reduce them to a contradiction, and treat Flusser and Bec’s text as a Deleuzo-Guattarian ‘line of flight’. He might equally have explored their earlier suggestion that, “[a] schizophrenic out for a walk is a better model than a neurotic lying on the analyst’s couch.” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983: 2) Thus, Mark writes: “The labyrinth I inhabit has multiple exits but only one entrance”, as he explores the “son et lumiere of extraordinary opulence” (Flusser and Bec, 2012: 35) that fills the eternal night of the vampyroteuthis.

The final panel session focused on Digital Materialities, explored firstly by Virna Koutla in her paper “Emergent Materiality: the Self and the Other in Material Dialogues”. Virna explored the dialogue between self and other and the dialectics of the actual/real and the virtual/real through a speculative scenario of a conversation between a person and a terracotta vase, experimenting with staccato, percussive sounds and manipulating the resulting waveforms. Virna hinted at the possibility of understanding synthetic materiality through the lens of emergent actantiality, a direction which suggests a way of recognising the world as being irradiated by the point of view of substances in flux at any particular moment.

The final paper of the day was presented by Michel Erler, entitled Robotum Anthromorphum: Of Virtual Assistants and their Networked Materialities”. Michel noted that rather than being embodied in a humanoid figure, a figure which has limited the development of artificial intelligence for decades, the conception of artificial characters has been greatly changed by the ubiquity and effectiveness of text bots and virtual assistants making use of language recognition software (itself a recognition of just how much human ‘action’ takes place in and through language and through various ‘media’).

Such devices seem to bear out Flusser’s assertion, noted by Ken at the beginning of the day, that human self-actualisation, henceforth, is “the manipulation of new immaterial information”. However, as Ken has made clear, such apparent immateriality is thoroughly material. It behoves us to understand how these bots and text-based assistants may be invested with ‘life’ (animism, but not animality) and ‘humanity’, that humanity in the age of post-Humanism and the posthuman is, in large part, dispersed, disembodied, networked and divided. How is embodied cognition to make sense of this, to rearticulate a distinct form of experience in which authentic selves are to be forged in the midst of a promiscuous mixture of materiality, virtuality and behavioural actantiality that puts our sense of self and our modes of being, already in question for us, further in question?

Much interrogative cross-talk was provided by the interlocutors, Allan Parsons, Maria Walsh and Amanda Windle.

Allan Parsons, October 2016


The ‘tain of the mirror’ is the title of a book by Rodolphe Gasche which examines Derrida’s deconstruction as a critique of reflection and reflexivity: Gasche, R. (1986). The tain of the mirror: Derrida and the philosophy of reflection. Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press.


Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1983). The Desiring machines. In: Anti-Oedipus: capitalism and schizophrenia. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Flusser, V. and Bec, L. (2012). Vampyroteuthis Infernalis. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Norris, C. (1987). Derrida, on reflection. New Formations, 3, 139–151.

Wilden, A. (1980). System and structure: essays in communication and exchange. London, UK: Tavistock.


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