The Camera That Ate Itself

Matthew Fuller, ‘The Camera That Ate Itself’, 55-85 in:

Fuller, M., 2007. Media ecologies: materialist energies in art and technoculture, 1st MIT Press paperback edition. ed, Leonardo. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts London, England.


This persistent whimsy that labor-saving technology will of itself release people into a helter-skelter world of self-determined fun is less a theory than a suburban myth.

Nevertheless, Flusser’s Towards a Philosophy of Photography insists we play along. Having been liberated from the necessity, if not from the compulsion, to work, people are available for play.

Play is achieved through the use of simulations, extrapolations from and extensions of body organs and senses. The user’s role is to conjoin with this world of simple rules and infinite iterations of use, and to work through them.

The camera is an example of a post-instrumental apparatus. It is no longer simply a tool but a domain in which the user “controls the function of the apparatus thanks to the control of its exterior (the input and output) and is controlled by it thanks to the impenetrability of the interior.”


What is of interest here is, first, the notion that a technology is a bearer of forces and drives, is indeed made up of them. Second, it is composed by the mutual intermeshing of various other forces that might be technical, aesthetic, economic, chemical—that might have to do with capacities of human bodies as affordances—and which pass between all such bodies and are composed through and among them.

Here, iterations of multiscalar relations of causality and interpenetration are compiled layer upon layer, base and superstructure shot through a kaleidoscope. Programs and metaprograms are never clearly defined as distinct from each other. The relation is simply one of scale, of order. Words are wrapped around each other as a sequence of digestions.

The programs that interweave to synthesize the camera also sprawl outward denying the possibility of a fundamental or originary procedure of knowing.


Each body stretched around another marks the mastery of a domain.

An apparatus is never necessarily taken as the composite or the sum of all the programs that compose it. Any one or any combination of these programs, themselves the result of others, can be pursued as a compositional imperative. This problem is partly to do with the way media technologies are understood to form wholes rather than assemblages.

[describes John Hilliard’s A Camera Recording its Own Condition]


A substantial development of the concept of discourse is made by Friedrich Kittler. For Foucault, discursive practices are “characterised by the demarcation of a field of objects, by the definition of a legitimate perspective for a subject of knowledge, by the setting of norms for elaborating concepts and theories.”

Crucially, discourse formation does not only determine what lies within it. There are also such rules that govern in terms of “its system of exclusion, of rejection, of refusal, in terms of what it does not want, its limits, the way it is obliged to suppress a certain number of things, people, processes…” [Foucault]


Kittler’s glee at the displacement of “so-called man” from a universe that cradled him at its center tends occasionally toward a relocation of Hegelian Geist from the human to the technical object.


The political dimension that Foucault never lets go of is more implicit than specifically blocked in the notion of discourse developed by Kittler.

Taking up from where he suggests Foucault leaves off—according to Kittler, Foucault’s work, being primarily concerned with textual material, largely cuts out at the point where modern electronic media emerge, between 1860 and 1870—his procedure for organizing the recognition of discursive practices makes a substantial and profoundly useful expansion of what is understood to be constitutive of discourse.

Foucault did not simply work on documents and their dynamics of composition and arrangement, but also what they refer to and invoke — biopower — and the “apparatuses,” “instrumentalities,” “techniques,” “mechanisms,” “machineries,” and so on by which they are wrought and made available.

We can recognize, for instance, how Kittler takes these arrangements, these procedures, and shows how they are made material. The split between representation and materiality posited by humanist scholars, though always untenable, is in this context felt as more keenly useless than elsewhere.


For Nietzsche, “Knowledge and wisdom in themselves have no value; no more than goodness: one must first be in the possession of the goal from which these qualities derive their value or non- value.”  That is, they are primarily interested and antagonistic, what Sharon Traweek, Donna Haraway, and other feminist writers on science have called “situated”; they operate as a mode of articulation of the will to power.

Given the reformulation of discourse put into play by Kittler, which situates it firmly within and as its domains of mediality, what are the ways in which the elements of media systems might operate as instantiations and bearers of “will”?

As it is a common initial misreading of the scope of the will to power, it is necessary to separate this notion of will from that of intent.

“Intent” would, as derived from Nietzsche, operate only on the level of the subjectival apparatus formulated as “the little word ‘I’”, a mnemonic, an abbreviative formula that can be momentarily located at one scale as an entity, but which— through bad habits—is misconstrued as a cause.


Power is also the condition of life.

[On Nietzsche]

If such power cannot be accommodated, turned into fuel, into mutational drive, it is dislocated, moves on, finds another vector. This is the cataclysm of power, the superabundance of energy that courses through all matter to render it “live” and that also ensures its destruction.

The will to power is that which moves things across thresholds but cannot be defined by the states exemplified on either side of that threshold; it is what propels the fulfillment of what can momentarily be understood as a phase space but is not reducible to any steadiness of state.

For Nietzsche, the “body and physiology” are “the starting point”23 for knowledge. Such an understanding of intelligence is useful here in two ways.

First, it implies that materiality and action ground perception, ordering, thought, knowledge. Second, it implies that there is no inherent hierarchy in the organization of this process.

The subject is a case of perspectival position rather than a categorical a priori condition of knowledge. The question therefore of the scale at which the subject—what constitutes something to be recognized, to be interrogated, that provides resources, evidence, that gains entry to discourse — is approached will later form, in particularly detailed and various ways, a key mode of operation for Foucault to mobilize.


Thought is no special category of activity. It echoes and reforms the processes that are described as characterizing the goings on of other entities devoid of soul, spirit, or subjecthood, crystals, animals, accidents, errors.

Jumps in causation occur, ranging from chemical, evolutionary, or topological function to those of scale: epochal, planetary, racial, cultural, ideological, or cellular. At every point “. . . all sense perceptions are permeated with value judgements.” [Nietzsche, The Will to Power]

But will to power in the reactive form of the faculty of judgment also equalizes and makes amenable to reification, transfer, exchange, and replacement that which it names as concepts, objects, subjects.


One form, conjoined with other economic and legal powers, of this power of naming and judging appears in Marx as “the appropriation of living labour by objectified labour.” Once work can be quantified, established as a procedure independent of the particular person carrying out the task, its abstraction and equalization becomes possible.

The same act of capture and abstraction occurs on a mutating loop throughout history. The body as the starting point for knowledge has been scanned and disassembled to be rebuilt in a more perfect form. Material becomes a standard object in its apotheosis as a commodity.

At the same time, as numerous accounts of the factory system and its transmigrations into other parts of life have shown, work too becomes subject to such processes along with the bodies made, mobilized, and wrecked by it.


What continues through from the industrial machine to the “universal” machine is “the monstrous disproportion” [Marx, Grundrisse] achieved between the short time of labor expended on a product and its result. The mathematization of the abstracted form of labor allows for it to be multiplied way beyond the scope of the simple extensions known as tools.

“Reduced to a pure abstraction,” what was once labor becomes open to algorithmic mutation, sorting, looping or making tirelessly repetitive, subject to an “inhuman” increase of speed.

The many forms of intelligence, rhythmic and productive power carried by bodies are carried over, as in a sum, into another column, another material dimension that is orders of magnitude greater. Physiological and intellectual power is transmogrified into a form adequate to fixed capital and ultimately to circulating capital.


This hunger for pinpointing a final moment of defeat, however, will never be satiated—and this is one of the key lessons of the will to power— because there is no equilibrium, and there never was. “Humanity,” which in its very existence as such is flung out of the idealized ecology, is poisoned and driven by technology, and the powers, innovations, curses, and becomings it engenders will never cease.

[on Negri]

At precisely the point that the worker becomes subordinate to the machine-embodied relation to capital, it is suggested, the antagonism between the formation of such machines by capital and those from whose bodies the diagrams for such machines have been abstracted “takes on the form of working class subjectivity.” Such subjectivity—a perspectivalism that engenders new powers—opens, under the “logic of separation,” the potential for subversion.

In short, the perspective that Negri and others work through allows the production of a tantalizing twist. This is it: “Capital seeks a continual reduction in necessary labour in order to expand the value of surplus value extracted, but the more it succeeds individually with workers taken one by one, the more necessary labour benefits the collectivity and is reappropriated by absorbing the great collective forces that capital would like to determine purely for its own account.” [Negri, Marx beyond Marx]


Here, the paradox of the society of leisure flagged by Flusser returns as tragedy.

As productivity increases, so does the pressure posed by the questioning of how much work is “needed”. Work at once becomes a psycho-social relation as much as one of material sustainment.


First, the skills that are liberated from direct labor, of sociability, of culture, of thought, become productive motors that are explicitly contested by capital to be recouped as forces of value production. Their position as unofficial support structures for and relief from the activity of work appears as too valuable to waste. Gossip, for instance, becomes a marketing vector.


Second, these forms of life—and note that they are substantially expanded from Marx’s formulation of the general intellect as abstract or scientific knowledge to include affective labor, fashion, political activism, cultural activity, and so on—have become forms of actual work or are so closely aligned to the activity of work that they can mutually feed into and supplement each other.

Thus, there is potential for the theorization of the absolute subsumption of life by capital (which Negri proposes), but also for the suggestion that relations ultimately determined by profit are everywhere contested or contestable, even in the microscopic details of media.

A fundamental problem with this twist is that it anticipates a moment of ahistorical equilibrium, a nowhere to have its news from. The dialectical method it benefits from exceeds in clarity the fissiparous and moving nature of that which it deals with.

Now, instead of imagining a stable, even entropic future “communism,” the challenge this insight poses is to find ways of developing, or forcing dynamic means by which this potential, the powers released by it, may in various ways actively subordinate the political project and effects of capitalism.

What can we take from this in relation to the question of the composition and arrangement of drives, will to power, within media? First, it is to recognize that there are substantial political stakes in any figuration of the processes of technical and medial invention. Meshes and orderings of bodies and capacities, forces and materials have the capacity to take part in the making of the world.

Elements of sociability have become like machines, have become part of machines, but now are crucially engendered and empowered by their arrangement within such assemblages until it is functionally impossible to distinguish them.


From Latour […] we can derive that “Technological mechanisms are not anthropomorphs any more than humans are technomorphs. Humans and nonhumans take on form by redistributing the competences and performances of the multitude of actors that they hold on to and that hold on to them.” [Aramis]


[…] the roots of media are as contagions that, as agglomerations of forces, generate new organs. Rather than being mere “extensions of man” [McLuhan] these organs can be discerned to possess a certain will to power.

Remember first, via Nietzsche, that all philosophy must originate from matter, from physiology; second, via Marx, that the sensate and intelligent dynamics of the body are proliferated into the technological; and third, via Flusser, that the physiology we thus think through is composed by the multiple interactions of many multiscalar actors.

We search for causes because we hunger for the familiar, for the categories that, for instance, separate an arm muscle from its potentiality of movement, of power. Although “linguistically we do not know how to rid ourselves of them,” not every sequence of events is adequately described by simple stories of progression from one state to another.


The sensation of being involved with a relation of forces that include that of an arm, of “strength, tension, resistance,” is itself simply a momentary stage in a truly massive sequence of iterations. It is a muscular feeling, a sense of plasmatic coursing through the potentiality of the dynamic combination of forces at one and more scales of perspective, of multiple incorporation. From this we are able to grasp the simple formulation that “A thing is the sum of its effects, synthetically united by a concept, an image.” [Nietzsche, WTP]


Writing on how nonlinear behaviors can be mapped and generated by algorithmic models and the rapid intensification of speed and complexity that computers make available to such processes, Manuel De Landa describes a key perceptual tool in cybernetics: phase space.


“In technical terms, the oven has one degree of freedom, its change in temperature; the pendulum in turn has two degrees of freedom. A bicycle, on the other hand—taking into account the co-ordinated motion of its different parts (handlebars, front and back wheels, right and left pedals)—is a system with approximately ten degrees of freedom.” [DeLanda]


Each apparatus is also an ensemble of other apparatuses, other systems that have been subsumed within it. The camera, for instance, also includes a notion of time as extensive or quantitative — that duration, continuity, can be dissected into fractions of seconds.

Certainly too it would be possible to specify a particular set of moments in photographic history that the work recapitulates.


Which version or other of fancied-up pinholed box the work diagrams is not of too much use here, although such an approach would provide a route to tracing particular moments of interrelations of the camera’s programs and the programs that form them within the history of photography.


[On A Camera Recording Its Own Image]

Hundreds of thousands of such choices, to avoid the collapse into whiteout faintness or black unreadability, are being made at this moment by photographers, darkroom operators, automatic cameras, the computational matrices of digital cameras, and film and chemical companies, based on what they assess to be an ideal, acceptable, or useable image.


[…] both the computer and the camera are perpetuations and deformations of the logic of calculus. Both are rooted in extensive — numerically-organized — means to describe intensive qualities based on the interaction of a limited set of variables.


What does numericalization allow? If we return to the problem of mechanization as discussed by Marx (applied in Taylorism and becoming itself almost primally productive in software and hardware engineering), it allows for the process of transduction of labor from the worker to the machine.


Capitalism is founded on burning up as fuel what could make something else; this is part of its violence, the colonizing of possibility as it liberates potential.

[…] communism, the abolition of work, is pushed down into the unconscious of the machine until it remains only as a cursed promise of the ease of labor or greater efficiency.


[…] McLuhan’s characterization of this intermediality is hampered in two ways. First, it occurs only in a linear model of time, with progress toward a certain end-state of media implicitly built into his model. Second, it suggests that media are whole forms rather than apparatuses composed of multiple parts, drives, and compositional terms.

The power of Flusser’s concept of the apparatus is that it allows us more adequately to disentangle the various programs that aggregate to form any particular apparatus, and to allow a wider range of elements, drives, and dynamics to be understood as part of this composition.


It allows us, in Deleuze and Guattari’s term, to understand the apparatus also as an assemblage, as an “increase in the dimensions of multiplicity that necessarily changes as it expands its connections.” [A Thousand Plateaus, 8]

What is proposed is not to lose everything to an indifferentiable flux: among what has spilled out of the camera there are rules, procedures, and from certain perspectival scales, what look like or can be treated with certain effects as objects.

A phase-space model is a diagram of every possible combination of the degrees of freedom possessed by an apparatus such as an oven, bicycle, or camera. It allows every possible combination of the extensive qualities of a mechanism to be made.

Extensity and intensity are differentiable but not separable qualities. Their mutual interrelation condemns the camera to be always out of whack, always on the lookout. This being out of kilter with itself is a drive, one of the programs, that can be said to form a medial will to power embedded in the camera.

This will is produced by the disjunctive aggregation of the extensive, measured mechanisms of the camera and the variable intensity of light as it enters the camera, as the camera comes into conjunction with the world— that infinite reservoir of all possible patterns of light that forms its outside. This is the camera, its hunger, and what compels the user, as Flusser suggests, to bring it into alliance with his or her own: a new, medial appetite.