Stacking Superstition

 

In every society there exist a lot of rituals that form a big part of what would be called the “culture” of this society. Some of those involve body actions, while others don’t. Examples of the former are holding open a door for someone or clapping your hands to applaud somebody, raising your fist to signal  intense joy or anger. Examples of the latter are the “hi,hi,how are you,good”-exchange at the beginning of conversations and other speaking protocols. Even though there is no tight boundary between these two kinds of ritual, I think we are certainly in the regime of the first whenever in messages we’re using things like *clap*, *facepalm*, and other memes imitating a physical action. Now, there are special cases of the first kind, rituals involving some form of magic – acts of superstition such as “knocking on wood” or gonging a gong as part of a prayer. Translating these rituals into messages involving bits like *gong* or #knockonwood seems question-begging both to me and everybody that I talked to about this. Why is that? What underlies this difficulty of translating “magical rituals” into the digital realm?

I don’t consider myself superstitious but I am interested in this question, because I believe that the answer to the above questions has to do with the physicality of physical space and a consequent materiality of objects that are involved in magical rituals. This text sketches out my reasons for this belief and muses about  its implications for any kind of “culture of digital space”.The real occasion for writing this text, however, is the “knockblock” I recently built and that – I hope – evokes everything I talk about here in an instant.

The knockblock consists of a transparent box in the middle of which sits a little block of wood that can be hit by a solenoid-hammer underneath it. This solenoid-hammer is connected to the web and triggered whenever people on Twitter write about things that would usually trigger a “knock-on-wood” ritual.⁠2 I hope that you will keep the box, which I’ll just call ‘knock-block’ for lack of a worse rhyme, in the back of your mind while reading this.

Box2

So, why do I think that magical rituals are difficult to translate into digital space because of the “physicality of physical space and a consequent materiality of objects” that they involve?⁠3 Let me first clarify the notions here. By “physicality of physical space” I mean this: That because of there being laws of physics, what we can do in physical space is not unlimited.⁠4 You cannot fall upwards (for the Ozzies and the ISS crowd, against the gravitational potential). You cannot walk through a rock. By materiality, I roughly mean that property of the stuff in our world that allows us to treat parts of it as objects – distinct, independent. Materiality is much more of a cultural notion than physicality. What people consider to be an object, when, for example, the clay turns statue, depends, I think, mostly on how clay and statues figure in the cultural eco-system of these people. An important aspect of materiality for anthropologists it seems, albeit the term there is used with a slightly different meaning, is that as a quality it transcends the human arena. For instance, Daniel Miller and Heather Horst, in their introduction to the recently edited volume “Digital Anthropology”, argue that the following Principle of Materiality has to become one of the founding columns of any form of Digital Anthropology:

“It is impossible to become human other than through socializing within a material world of cultural artefacts that include the order, agency and relationships between things themselves and not just their relationship to persons. Artefacts do far more than just express human intention”5

This transcendence, as it is expressed in the last sentence of the quote, is, I think, rooted in physicality: Objects can develop their ontological independence from humans because they are situated in a world over which we only have limited power.⁠6

And materiality is necessary for magic, I think, for the following reason: Magic, almost by definition, involves higher powers, beyond human. Having these powers enter our lives as mediated through objects (which, if we buy the Principle of Materiality, is necessary), requires objects to be somehow independent of humans. If we would not be able to treat material objects as in some sense ontologically independent of humans, then we could not, I think, assign any magical qualities to them in a credible fashion (credible to ourselves). Indeed, we need objects to possess just that quality which is expressed in the Principle of Materiality. And since, as I suggest, material objects in physical space gain this special ontic independence through their physicality, physicality would hence enable magical rituals.⁠7 Finally, since by definition digital objects cannot be physical in the above sense, they cannot, the argument concludes, credibly be endowed with magical capabilities.

But this is obviously not the end of the story. Because nothing of the above implies that there cannot be a materiality of digital space, and really it was the material rather than the physical that I took to be responsible for the possibility of being endowed with magical capability. In fact, the above authors suggest the Principle of Materiality to emphasise that Digital Anthropology can employ exactly the same methods as any other Anthropology, that there is no methodological or disciplinary discontinuity, because there is no discontinuity in the subject matter: The digital world is just as mediated as any other. But this is where things get interesting. Because we’re now asking what could substitute the physicality of physical space in digital spaces and give rise to materiality of the stuff that populates the latter .

Basically, I see three possible paths to credible magic in the “digital era” or however you want to call it. In order of increasing likelihood in my opinion: 1. We find that physicality is not only sufficient for materialities capable of magic, but also necessary. This may for example be because we think that physical space is special and singled out among all spaces, because it is the space in which our bodies live, and that no other space can have that special zzzing to it. 2. Any form of physicality of digital space that allows for magic has to mimic the physicality of physical space. So those objects in digital space that end up possessing magical powers would act like physical objects – they resist, they don’t apologise when you walk against them, etc. 3. There are many ways in which digital space can develop a materiality suitable for magic and how they do so is not necessarily connected to the contingent physical realm with its contingent physical laws at all. Let me go through these three in turn:

1. I don’t think so. In fact, another reason for placing my knock-block in a plexiglass shell was to provoke a sense of the following: Imagine in the future people rent little “guardian angel”-modules, just like my knock-block. These will be on the grid 24/7, just like now your cloud space. They will follow each of your steps in the web and knock/gong/clap whenever suitable, to make sure digital existence has a proper physical accompaniment, and your Karma never has to suffer again. Where this box sits doesn’t matter, just like it doesn’t matter where Facebook has its server farms. I envision massive storage halls with millions of knocks and gongs (and me as the housekeeper #dreamjob). I think this is a bizarre vision and I think people have more fantasy for magic in digital times than to make it true.

2. So let’s assume that some form of physicality of digital space is possible. Looking back at physicality of physical space, I think that from an operational point of view – that is, whenever we are physically interacting with stuff in order to modify it or use it as an instrument – physicality shows up in a kind of resistance: The hammer is heavy, the stone stubborn and certainly not carrying itself away, the rope gets stuck in every possible corner. I think that it is in this hands-on fashion that we develop our sense of physicality and along which any substitute is to be found. Claim: Digital objects will have to be non-conforming, our operational access to them limited, in order for us to consider them ontologically sufficiently autonomous to act as carriers of magical momentum. As a first thought experiment, you could think of Tetris, but now the blocks don’t fall swiftly and gently (ok, they never did), but instead you have to pull them down the screen, with friction and all that. Surely this wouldn’t be that much of a fun game, but immediately each of those blocks feels much more like a rock to me. The second possible answer to the above question, then, would be that physicality of digital space is limited to mimicking objects in physical space, just like in the case of Tetris. I don’t see a good reason for this to be case.

To me the situation is a little bit like urban spaces and nature. People like to be nostalgic about nature and the wild, but to me this often involves a neglect of the materiality and magic of urban spaces. I feel that it is very clear that people have already learned to develop notions of materiality, probably do so all the time. And I really don’t see how “nature” and “urban space” are any closer or farther from another than “physical space” and “digital space”.

3. The laws of digital spaces are, a priori, completely independent of those of physical space.⁠8 You can create any (Turing computable) world with them and the only limit is our imagination (which really brings the number back into this solar system…). The conditions of materiality, i.e. the notion of “resistance” or anything that, if my way of thinking about this make sense,  would make it behave in such a way that I think of it as an ontological entity different from myself, are not limited to gravitational fields and object persistence. I think that  Bourdieu’s concept of habitus could be interesting here, because it would be through my interacting with digital objects on a frequent basis that I come to accept these objects as being different from me, independent of me. And this would be just what makes them material. But this is pretty much where I got to in my thinking about this.

I feel that there is a big societal demand for cultural narratives that provide a materiality of digital space. And I feel confirmed about this every time I enter a gallery and what seems to be contemporary mainstream theory of art:9 During my research for this post, I always again come across this “speculative realism” movement and the notion of an object-oriented ontology. The one tenet of theirs that is relevant for me here is that they reject post-Kantian philosophies, basically anything that is based on the latter’s Kopernican turn, making the sensual world the object of human cognition, rather than the other way around. Instead, in an object-oriented ontology, all objects share the same ontological plane with humans, and none of us (that is, objects and humans) is special. Obviously, this is very much related to this text and I think this movement, or conglomerate of people (and objects), draws a lot of inspiration from the social sciences, anthropology/STS in particular. Now, even though I personally still cling on to my Kantian convictions, if we don’t ask for the feasibility of a philosophical current but instead ask why different currents are trendy at different times, I feel that it is very obvious why speculative realism should gain so much attention: The time is ripe for it. Object-oriented ontologies are one natural way to approach the question of of materiality in digital spaces and so the feedback for speculative realism again feeds my conviction that we’re in the process of formulating such narratives. And given the propensity of people to stick with the first solution that doesn’t blow up in their faces immediately, which narrative we end up with will probably be both a) very contingent on the political development/path of discourse and b) tremendously important (you know, for our children and stuff).

I’d be really happy if anybody reading this would share his/her thoughts with me, because I will certainly continue to think about it. While my knock-block gently knocks….

 

 


1 Of course, talking about digital space and physical space as if they’re two separate spaces goes very much against the spirit of what I write about. But I think that still everybody kind of knows what I mean here (what’s in your browser belongs to digital, the cup sitting left of your computer to physical space) and this very fact (that people will know what I mean) I take to sufficiently justify my use of it, since I am, at the end of the day, concerned with how this boundary will develop.

2 In practice, both because it is impossible to filter all Twitter posts for such instances and because I want the box to only hammer at the time order of seconds, I actually filter for only a subset of these ritual-triggering instances which I arbitrarily selected, something for which I don’t think I require theoretical justification.

3 Also, don’t get me wrong. There are also all kinds of more spiritual considerations when thinking about magic. You may think that the person’s focus or energy is more important than any physical event, or that it has to be the person itself knocking something, that this cannot be outsourced to knock-blocks to begin with. These points are valid but I’m thinking about magic only as a means to another end, namely that of discussing physicality, so I only consider this latter point, which I think will have to be important in any discussion of magic anyway.

4 It doesn’t really matter to me whether you think of this as a property of physical space or sitting in people’s heads – pick your favourite.

Digital Anthropology; Heather Horst and Daniel Miller (eds.); London: Berg Publishers; 2012

This is one reason why I placed the block of wood into a plexiglass shell: For this sense of ontic independence. The block of wood is in there, you may know the whole Divine Comedy by heart but that doesn’t allow you to reach through the box to touch it!

NB: It’s very much the point of all this that, in order to manifest this intention of mine, I use an actual material again. NBB: It’s the bloody non-irony of this latter fact that gets my heart pumping!

In fact, taking this thought of the fundamental importance of physicality for material and magical cultures as a starting point, we could interpret magical rituals as exactly those rituals in which physicality itself is “celebrated” or in which a kind of contract between people and their physical environment is renewed…By knocking on wood, by gonging a gong, I produce a kind of “space-time event” that reconfirms the physical in the world around me, I double-check and celebrate that my knocking is still me by the resistance of the wood, that allows me to think of the physical world around me as, potentially, a manifold of gongings (where here I importantly mean the event, not the act) and so forth. But this thought would take us off-topic and is not necessary for the following.

I find it in general quite surprising how little people have deviated from recreating spaces that follow the same laws as the laws of the observable physical world.

And surely contemporary art is always a pretty good mirror of which kind of Wiener Schnitzel society is currently nagging on, no? – I guess if psychoanalytically inclined one could say that art is where societies dream maybe…

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