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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Scanner Epistemologies: Mediations of the Material and Virtual

  • Author(s): Le, Lan Xuan
  • Advisor(s): Parks, Lisa
  • et al.

Across many everyday contexts and technological devices, we encounter over and over again

a mechanical-translation act called scanning, performed by flatbed scanners, photocopiers,

barcode readers, televisions, x-ray airport security scanners, fax machines, retinal eye

scanning, MRI scanning, ultra-sonography, and earth-orbiting satellite imaging. What all of

these separate devices have in common is the same core technological mechanism and mode

of action—the mapping of differences along a surface to be known by a lensless apparatus

that detects via probe-signals. Despite being mobilized to very different uses and within a

large diversity of networks and media assemblages, scanners arise from a common

genealogical source—the conceptual union of photography to telegraphy. Scanners appear

everywhere in our modern infrastructure. It is impossible to avoid these devices, as they

mediate even the most basic transactions in everyday life, such as purchasing food at the

grocery store or checking out a book at a college library. Yet neither historians of technology

nor media scholars have addressed this quotidian device which enables so much of modern

bureaucracy in business, government and education to function. While the scanner’s absence

from the landscape of critical thought precisely marks the problem of the unremarkable in

viour scholarship, the metaphor of scanning remains present in both common and scholarly

discourse. Scanning may, at various times, stand in for a model of attention, a form of

reading, or serve as a simile for searching and/or diagnosing. The imagination of the scan

well precedes its appearance as a technology, which further indicates the necessity of

understanding this unexamined medium. This dissertation project investigates the object of

the scanner as a term for organizing the imagination and materialization of an entire suite of

technologies that we encounter daily. Conceived as a social history of technology married to

a film and media studies paradigm, this dissertation examines the scanner as a form of

machine-perception that, while it extends the dominant conception of the camera-prosthesis,

stands as its own unique model of perceptual mediation. The scanner remains unique in

media studies because so much of its identity depends upon the place it holds within the

historical conditions of the intermedial assemblage in which it has been mobilized. Through a

series of case studies in which I loosely divide scanning technologies into genres of

perceptual and epistemological function, I triangulate the epistemic role of the scanner in

each of its respective media networks.

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