Reliquary for the Digital in Nine Key Words κ or C. or □ / Structure, Virtual, Hierarchy / John Landreville and Stephen Yeager

Left Column (Stephen Yeager)

Running through it is a dark spine that anchors it, shaping the whole though it does not so much bear its load as bind it in a knot. Perhaps a piece of wire or other fragment was lodged in a body and a growth surrounded it, which the body incorporated so that it could live despite the trauma of injury. Or perhaps instead the membrane is like a fungus or coral, making use of a surface that does not move to reject it.

A structure may refer to almost any spatialized configuration, whether this spatialization be literal or metaphorical: hierarchy and distribution are structures, organization is a mode of structure, and the narrative orders that mark protocols and codes and programs as such are all structures. Structura is one of many abstract Latin terms that resemble future active participles: in this case the verb struere, “to build,” implies that structura is a “thing that will build.” (See also creatura, a thing that will create, and futura itself, a thing that will be; but note for example that nascitura and not natura is a thing that will be born.) Structure has a whole range of meanings in media and literary theory, but the most important are perhaps the period terms “structuralism” and “post-structuralism.” Though a structura is originally the shape or plan of a building, it’s worth observing that the application of the term to the arrangement of ideas in writing—as in the structure of an argument—appears to predate the full abstraction that makes a phrase like “structure of feeling” possible.

Virtual comes from virtualis, an abstract adjective derived from virtus (“virtue”), which connotes not only moral rectitude but also power, ability, and a given object’s appropriate fulfillment of an implicit design. The virtual is to virtue what potential is to Latin potens (“power”). Unlike “potential,” the virtual explicitly gendered—Isidore of Seville’sEtymologies (600-625 CE) notes how appropriate it is that virtus is clearly derived from vir (“man”).1 The Deleuzean “virtual,” derived in part from his reading of Bergson, is central to understanding his influential accounts of rhizomatic distribution and societies of control.2 This philosophical meaning of the term has a vexed relationship to the popular use of virtual as a synonym for “digital object,” wherein for example a “private network” runs on cables and computers unconnected to the internet but a “virtual private network” runs over the internet on software that uses encryption.

In her book Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, Caroline Levine identifies hierarchy as the “most troubling” of the four titular forms under consideration, because their “most painful and consistent affordance” is “inequality.”3 In contrast to rhizomatic distribution, hierarchies may be figured as branches of a tree that diverge as they grow out from a shared root. In a hierarchical database structure like XML, each subordinate “child” record has only one superior “parent” but each parent can have multiple children, as for example the phyla vertebrata and arthropoda are children of the animal kingdom but parents to many classes of vertebrates and arthropods. By implication, if a species were discovered that were both a vertebrate and a plant, then the entire system would have to be revised. The evolution of structuralism to post-structuralism is typically figured as a growing recognition of this temporal instability of hierarchies, manifest in the hierarchical binarism of language. Binaries like light / dark, right / left, masculine / feminine are necessary to distinguish words from each other, but always implicitly value one term over the other, and so they tend to aggregate into larger hierarchical systems of value which are in a perpetual state of collapse and revision.

It appears that hierarchy in this sense was coined in the Celestial Hierarchy and Ecclesiastical Hierarchy of Psuedo-Dionysius the Areopagite, a theologian best known to media theorists for his influence on Eugene Thacker.4 For Pseudo-Dionysius the Godhead perfects, purifies, and (anticipating McLuhan’s own identification of light as “pure information”) illuminates his creation through the hierarchy of his creatures.5 “Parent” levels of these hierarchies are distinguished from “child” levels by their mediating exercise of God’s threefold powers, which they use to lift up the creatures on the levels below them. A priest, called “father,” performs purifying sacraments upon / perfects the virtue of / illuminates scripture for a parishioner he calls “my son,” meanwhile receiving his own blessings from his own “father” the bishop, inspired in turn by saints, angels, and the Holy Spirit.

Though this religious hierarchy may seem at first to be imagined as a more enduring structure than the linguistic and taxonomic systems listed above, in fact the hierarachy of Christian creation is not only designed to self-destruct but is itself  marked as the primary mechanism of “de-struction” for creation in general. The Greek word ἀποκάλυψις (“apocalypse”) is literally an “unveiling” of hidden knowledge, and for Pseudo-Dionysius the light of the divine is mediated by the translucent veil of the celestial and ecclesiastical hierarchies. Hence the centrality of angels to Revelation, and the tendency in all scripture to describe them as fiery beings. As Pseudo-Dionysius observes: “Visible fire is, so to speak, in everything … It is unstoppable. It cannot be looked upon. Yet it is master of everything.”6


Right Column (John Landreville)


In Merelau-Ponty’s radio lectures published as, The World of Perception, the philosopher offers a metaphor for human-object relationships: humans and the material world are honeyed. Departing from the intrinsic being of an object (in a Cartesian or Lockean view), Merleau-Ponty suggests that everything around us solicits and invokes a “particular relationship,” “we are moved or compelled to treat [a given object] in a certain way.” Things have “a particular way of seducing, attracting or fascinating [us].”7 I’ve found that this idea of being honeyed directs us beyond the primacy of “the subject” (Merleau-Ponty’s usual bailiwick) to consider how materiality, too, expresses agency through its capacity to seduce our senses. Which is to say, between the material world and I is a thick, sticky binding that, I think, is best understood as an affective field. My aim is not to collapse sense, affect, aesthetics, and feeling, but to suggest that being honeyed is a clever term for getting at a deeper question: what’s this “stickiness” between the things our minds parse and categorize? What’s the binding stuff that doesn’t disappear when we separate processes, structures, or being into compartments?

Jen Reich’s sculptures of wire frames, crossed with threads conceptualize structures and makeshift lines of flight weaving across them. But the brilliance of the work comes in the honeying, in the intimation that these adamantine structures and the home-spun alternative pathways winding across them are all gummed up with sticky stuff; sticky stuff that makes the whole thing immediately sweet and repellant and, more to the point, immanently ready to stick to us, embroil us, incorporate us into the structure. The gooey resin dripping in her work is expressive of the affective resonances that thicken and gum up clean structural orderings but, I’d add, it is also productive of critical affects, like solicitous sweetness and repellant gluey entrapment that we always already bring to bear upon our understanding of how the world is hierarchized.

As we work test out keywords suitable for describing and critically parsing the “unspoken order” of the present, we excavate infrastructures of meaning shaped, not only by technical hardware, operating systems, and protocols—software all the way down—but, moreover, we seek terms capable of lending language to what it feels like to be stuck to a song, to a structure, or to a sculpture, in the present order of things. In this view, naming the quality of our honeying is a media theory question posed at the intersection of the technical and the affective, which is also to say, a question bound to the effort Stephen Yeager describes as, “unearth[ing] the material frameworks for naming…”8

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  1. Isidore of Seville, Etymologiarum sive originum, ed. W.M. Lindsay, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1957), XI.2.17
  2. Gilles Deleuze, Bergsonism, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (New York: Zone Books, 1991).
  3. Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), p. 82.
  4. Eugene Thacker, After Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010).
  5. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1994), p. 8.
  6. Psuedo-Dionysius, “The Celestial Hierarchy,” in The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibheid (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), p. 184.
  7. World of Perception, 62. This comment is a critique of Cartesian and Lockeian atomism, a view that posits, for instance, our experience of the sweetness of honey, as secondary or derivative of the intrinsic being of the object. As Thomas Baldwin points out in his introduction to The World of Perception, “Against it, Merleau-Ponty holds that we have no good reason to down- grade the manifest properties of things even though their definition includes reference to our experience of them” (21).
  8. See Stephen Yeager’s introductory remarks, “Medieval Forms in New Media Formats.”
John Landreville
John Landreville received his Masters degree from the University of Toronto, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Wayne State University specializing in Film and Media Studies. His research centers on speculative fiction and experimental media art, examining how art objects formalize and remediate feelings of broken reciprocity with the world.
Stephen Yeager
Stephen Yeager is an associate professor of English at Concordia University in Montreal. His co-edited collection Old Media and the Medieval Concept is the first volume in the “Media Before 1800” series at Concordia University Press. His current book project Data, Games, Networks, Realms: The Forms of Digital Culture traces the interrelationship between the embodied apparatus of medieval organizations and the conceptual frameworks of digital platforms. His writing has appeared in Critical Inquiry, English Language Notes, Traditio, Gothic Studies, Arthuriana, The Chaucer Review, and The Yearbook of Langland Studies.