(Dis-)covering ciphers: objects, voices, bodies
(Deadline October 31st 2019)
a secret or disguised way of writing; a code.
“he wrote cryptic notes in a cipher”
synonyms: code, secret writing.
a zero; a figure 0.
Synonyms: zero, nought, nil, 0; archaic naught
“a row of ciphers”
put (a message) into secret writing; encode.
“he left two, as yet uncracked, ciphered messages for posthumous decoding”
To analyze the ways in which cultural objects acquire meaning can also be understood as looking at the technologies by which those objects have become enciphered. In this issue of Diffractions we aim to look at the concept of the cipher in its myriad ways of appearing, be they cultural, social, political, technological, linguistic or economic in nature.
To give an example of that last category, one merely needs to point towards Marx’s theory on the fetishization of commodities. There, the process through which the material existence of products of labor can become invisible behind their exchange value, is formulated as a process of hiding what is central to the object; its material existence and its use value. In other words, the Marxist theory of fetishization can be understood as the discovery of a cipher, the cipher of exchange value.
But the concept of the cipher travels easily, and can be situated in many locations. In Adriana Cavarero’s work on the voice, she considers the ways in which the bodily aspects that are associated with the vocal are often hidden behind its semiotic, linguistic, and signifying capacities. That is to say, speech functions as a cipher for the materiality of the vocal. The vocal needs to be deciphered.
But what is a cipher? And how to know if we are dealing with a cipher to begin with? The cipher raises questions. In technologico-linguistic terms, a cipher calls for a key. A password. A way to de-cipher what was first en-ciphered. Perhaps a text that appears as a cipher is a plain text after all. The cipher’s call is not always obvious. Ciphers can conceal their act of concealing; hide not only what they are hiding, but that they are hiding as well; steganography.
Ciphers cut. And, as Jacques Derrida writes, they produce an inside and an outside, insides and outsides. In order to protect what is behind the cipher, the cipher has to function as a passageway, letting some through while excluding others. In order to be allowed to enter, something must already be known. The cipher marks the limits of something hidden. But some measure of knowledge is nevertheless presupposed. It marks the boundaries of a relationship. It conceals and shows at the same time. It covers and uncovers.
If, for someone like Marx, the material manifestation of any object precedes its encipherment, others might submit, instead, that the cipher operates as the occasion for materialization to first take place. Mediation comes first, and materializes the body, someone like Judith Butler would argue. Following such accounts of the performative nature of subjection, one may suggest that the very materiality of the body is a product of a process that relies on cultural, linguistic, affective, and discursive, ciphers. And if the cipher conditions processes of materialization and subjectivation, one can ask if there is anything that escapes its logic. Is there an excess of meaning that remains neither enciphered, nor decipherable? To trace that excess would be to situate the cipher more precisely. It would be an attempt to recognize ciphers where they are, and to isolate those places where they remain absent.
For the upcoming issue of Diffractions we would like to make the cipher speak. To allow it to be heard, perhaps against its will. To ask where the cipher begins, and what exceeds its limits. In doing so, we aim to connect the cipher to objects, to values, to voices, and to the body. Our goal is to investigate the ways in which these concepts can be made useful for the study of cultural objects. How objects of study might help us to make the cipher speak, and how the cipher might engage these objects in return:
ciphers and objects;
ciphers and voices;
ciphers and bodies;
ciphers as commodity;
the fetishization of ciphers;
ciphers and technology;
the materiality of the cipher;
the social life of ciphers;
beyond the cipher;
performativity and the cipher;
cipher + cyber.
We look forward to receiving proposals of 5.000 to 9.000 words (excluding bibliography) and a short bio of about 150 words by October 31st, 2019 to be submitted to: email@example.com.
Diffractions also accepts book reviews related to the issue’s topic. If you wish to write a book review, please contact us through the e-mail address below.
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