Intro_2_Glitch as “Digital Grain”

In 1972, Roland Barthes proposed the “grain of the voice” as a way of conceptualizing a unique quality of vocal performance. More specifically, he presents the “grain” as, “the cantor's body, brought to your ears in one and the same movement from deep down in the cavities, the muscles, the membranes, the cartilages…as though a single skin lined the inner flesh of the performer and the music he sings.” While Barthes’ scholarship focuses almost solely on grain in terms of the vocal body, he indicates that grain can be extended to instrumental music as well. In this sense, “the grain of the voice” remains applicable to electronic music in terms of synthetic instrumentation and creation through digital audio workstations, coding, live manipulation in DJ performance, or other electronic production techniques.

I argue that the “glitch” signifies a similar emphasis to the materiality of the digital platform. If “the ‘grain’ is the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs,” then glitch is the digital system as it functions, whether with the intent to make s
ound or as a byproduct of computerized functions. In other words, glitch in electronic music can be understood as the “digital grain,” or the sounding of the digital form. 

In this sense, “digital grain” bears a resemblance to Paul DeMarinis’s “shadow of technology,” which refers to the “scratching and rumbling of the machine itself, inextricably registered along with the sound it was supposed to faithfully preserve.” While both terms function to bring the sonic markers of technology to the fore, I hope that conceptualizing glitch as “digital grain” particularly emphasizes the markings of various soundings of digital materiality in electronic music.

Barthes’ conception of the vocal “grain” is inextricably linked to language, which has led various scholars to criticize the extension of its concept to purely material emphasis. However, just as “the ‘grain’ is that: the materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue,” “digital grain” is similarly founded in the language of computation, binary code. In this sense, “digital grain” reveals the materiality of digital systems beyond the simple configuration of binary code. To hear the “digital grain” is to listen to the animation of digital material beyond its expected process of communication, the friction between binary transcription and translation, significance beyond code.

The implications of understanding glitch as “digital grain” are numerous, however, the most significant contribution of the “digital grain” comes in highlighting the materiality of the digital space. Commonly, the digital is conceptualized as the opposite of material, the term “virtual” even denoting its antonym. When digital platforms are considered immaterial, their organizing structures are obscured from legibility, and therefore access, by users.

This obscurity is characteristic of capitalism, which encourages object fetishism, rendering the origin of particular commodities invisible to consumers. Ultimately, techno-obscurity keeps users from understanding the ills of technological systems, whether that be unethical production processes, surveillance features, or other systems of oppression.  The “digital grain” is to understand glitch as a rupture of techno-obscurity, returning materiality to digital technologies, and furthermore, empowering users with material agency.

The return of materiality to the digital sphere is particularly important as it combats the willful obscurity of oppressive forces that technology works to enforce. In particular, the return to materiality benefits those oppressed by those wielding technological power made invisible. While in various ways the prevalence of various technologies have negatively affected nearly every member of the population, individuals and communities that have been traditionally marginalized in society have the most to gain from an acknowledgement of glitch as “digital grain.”