Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan reviews Image Objects

Jacob Gaboury. Image Objects: An Archaeology of Computer Graphics. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2021. 312 pp.

Review by Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan

3 November 2021

Did teaching during the pandemic train you to dialogue with avatars and emojis? Have you planned travels with the aid of visualizations from Johns Hopkins University’s COVID-19 dashboard? In outfitting your home office, might you have sought out a desk chair with the superior ergonomics afforded by computer-aided design? If so, then you are caught up in some of the material conditions, the social and spatial logics, whose history Jacob Gaboury recounts in Image Objects: An Archaeology of Computer Graphics. As Gaboury reveals, with diverse examples drawn from the early history of computer graphics, the reality of digital images exceeds what we normally associate with virtual reality, simulation, or computation. Digital images are also nodes for material relations pervading technology, labor, arts, and science.

Image Objects anchors digital graphics in the hardware, procedures, and bodies responsible for their genesis and reception. Gaboury’s expansive conception of objects includes chapters dedicated to algorithms for visual representation, graphical user interfaces, a celebrated digital teapot, object-oriented programming languages, and graphics processing units (GPUs). He further identifies ergonomics, linguistic theory, Jurassic Park (dir. Steven Spielberg, 1993), a Volkswagen Beetle, and Atari’s Space Race with the construction of digital images’ objecthood. Many of his “image objects” manifest processual ontologies—a data-based logic of specification and display—loosely linked to computer scientist David C. Evans’s center for computer graphics launched at the University of Utah in 1965. The author substantiates his analysis with impressive archival research and a mastery of historical and technical details put into the service of a lively narrative, engaging debates in media studies, visual culture studies, and the history of technology. 

Though Gaboury approvingly cites Friedrich Kittler’s commentaries on computer graphics, he frequently (and productively) breaks with the latter’s idealist account of digital images as user-friendly simulations obfuscating a higher order of mathematical reality. In Gaboury’s analysis, a deeply material network of forces and cultural imperatives shape digital images. Once realized in an image, these forces shape matters as diverse as hardware, manufacturing, labor, and recreation. Gaboury’s digital interfaces recall things in Martin Heidegger’s or Bill Brown’s senses of the term, whose reality—Gaboury rightly argues—exceeds their correlation to algorithms and users’ subjectivity. 

Gaboury frames his book as a nonteleological media archaeology attentive to material objects. Read in this light, it is a standout work, part of a larger renaissance in recent years of historical and theoretical writing on digital images. It is to the book’s credit, however, that it also invites a series of competing readings: as a history of “procedural vision” shredding stable distinctions among subjects and objects (p. 86); as a historical epistemology of how a new theory of technical entities comes into being; or as an inquiry into the operational ontologies shaping an ever-expanding domain of industrial, scientific, and political activities. No mere study in digital screens, Image Objects also offers an expansive profile of how vision and computation collaborate in producing our current, but not quite present, world.