7The Hauntology of the Digital Image

Charlie Gere

In this chapter I propose to examine the idea of the digital image as a form of writing, in the expanded sense first articulated by Jacques Derrida, which in turn was pre-empted by avant-garde artists and writers, and most particularly James Joyce. Digital data has always been characterized in terms of reading and writing, as in the “disk read-and-write head,” or “read-only memory,” the element of a hard disk that transforms its magnetic field into electronic current and vice versa. The emergence of digital data as something written and read emerged in tandem with the expansion of “writing” as an overarching category in a number of different fields, including, among others, genetics (with the idea of DNA as code); psychoanalysis (with Lacan’s reconfiguring of Freud’s insights in linguistic terms); and philosophy (with Derrida’s notion of archiécriture). It is the last, in particular, that offers the resources to think about the digital image as a kind of writing.

I look at early experiments in digital imagery made at Bell Labs in the 1960s, in particular those of Ken Knowlton and Leon Harmon and their Studies in Perception. Though emerging in very different contexts, both Bell Labs and postwar continental theory and philosophy are united in their privileging of writing as well as a shared interest in cybernetics. The work at Bell Labs also parallels and connects with contemporary developments in avant-garde art and literature, ...

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