Flickering Signifiers

18 12 2004

Hayles uses the concept flickering signifiers to define the disembodiment
of digital texts: “technologies of inscription
are media when they are perceived as mediating, inserting themselves into the
chain of textual production.”

The relation between signifier and signified are directly correlated in a
material text-production. “… emphasis on
spatially fixed and geomatrically arranged letters is significant, for it points
to the physicality of the processes involved.” Changes with electronic
media: we percieve text differently – more fluid – “no simple
one-to – no correspondence exists between signifier and signified.”

When I coined the phrase "flickering signifier," I had in mind
a reconfigured relation between the signifier and signified than that which
had been previously articulated in critical and literary theory. As I have
argued elsewhere, the signifier as conceptualized by Saussure
and others was conceived as unitary in its composition and flat its
structure. It had no internal structure, whether seen as oral articulation
or written mark, that could properly enter into
the discourse of semiotics.

When signifiers appear on the computer screen, however, they are only the
top layer of a complex system of interrelated processes. Marks on screen
may manifest themselves as simple inscriptions to a user, but properly understood
they are the visible, tangible results of coding instructions executed by
the machine in a series of interrelated processes, from a high-level programming
language like Java all the way down to assembly language and binary code.

I hoped to convey this processural quality by the gerund "flickering," to
distinguish the screenic image from the flat durable mark of print or the
blast of air associated with oral speech. The signifier on screen is, as
you know, a light image produced by a scanning electron beam. The screen
image is deeply layered rather than flat, constantly replenished rather than
durable, and highly mutable depending on processes mobilized by the layered
code, as for example when a writer uses Flash to create animation or layers
that move. These qualities are not merely ornamental but enter profoundly
into what the marks signifier and, more importantly, how they signify. We
need a theory of semiotics that can account for all the qualities connoted
by "flickering."

Materiality Has
Always Been In Play

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