Codicality and materiality

A Material History of Bits
Jean-François Blanchette

In this paper, I argue that bits cannot escape the material constraints of the physical devices that manipulate, store, and exchange them. Such an analysis reveals a surprising picture of computing as a material process through and through.

Knoespel and Zhu (2008) suggest the popular characterization of cyberspace as “an ethereal escape from the filthy, hopeless ‘meat’ world” is inherited from a Cartesian dualism that posits a strict dichotomy between language (spirit) and the material world. Moving beyond such “romantic notions of immateriality,” they suggest computing systems are characterized by a “continuous materiality,”

“ … a wide spectrum of materiality activated by a hierarchy of codes that moves from ‘lower’ machine code to ‘higher’ readable computer languages and to codes in general (structural, legislative, social, cultural, etc.). Each level of code engages natural language and the physical world in different ways, varying from the shifting voltage of computer circuits to our everyday activity. Altogether, the hierarchy of codes constructs a field of diverse materiality that is continuous and interconnected.” (p. 236)

Continuous materiality accounts for the materiality of computing on several levels: through the immanence of embodied experience in language, manifested by the dual registers through which code operates. Instructions to machines (open window, cut and paste) are also apprehended by humans via the metaphorical function of language. Even while programmers mostly operate within strictly positivists conceptions of language, computer code creates relationships among multiple symbolic systems, those necessary to move the cogs of the machine, and those necessary for those operations of the machine to be situated within language, and thus, social order. At the same time, multiple kinds of computer code co-exist within the computer, each potentially mediating among different codes pertinent to different social systems.

Knoespel, K. & Zhu,, J. (2008). Continuous materiality through a hierarchy of computational code. Théorie, Littérature, Epistémologie, 25, 235-247.

(from Graduate Course Proposal: Materiality in the Digital Humanities)

‘The Transversality of New Materialism’

And not in the least place, those pre-modern philosophers such as Duns Scotus, Lucretius and the whole Stoic tradition, whose work is not (that) effected by dualist thought, are being read like never before. The richness of these philosophies had, by and large, been forgotten in dualism dominated modernism and postmodernism.



Codicalism dissolves the separation between languages (e.g., programming) and substrate. Substrate matters again.

New Materialism dissolves the separation between humans and nonhumans. Things matter again.


Following “Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things” (Jane Bennett), “Planning Matter: Acting with Things” (Robert A. Beauregard), maybe there should be “Virtuous Matter: The Ethics of Things”.


Philip Thrift


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