Friedrich Kittler’s words seem prophetic, telling the story of metadata and its politically sustained unreachability: “Maybe Jagger was wrong. We can always get what we want, from CDs to cable TV. Just not what we need: information on information. The fact that currents of media desires flow camouflages a situation in which information technology is strategy.
Paul Feigelfeld has done a great thing and translated Friedrich Kittler’s text “No Such Agency” from 1986 into English. What seems a rather visionary move – to talk of the NSA technological surveillance activities in the 1980s already – is just a proof of the German media theorists ability to perceive the intimate link modern forms of intelligence and technology have. Below our short intro to the translation, written together with Paul:
Introduction to Kittler’s “No Such Agency”
by Paul Feigelfeld and Jussi Parikka
German media theorist Friedrich Kittler’s short text on the NSA (National Security Agency) titled “No Such Agency” was originally published in 1986. The German newspaper and online publication TAZ decided to publish the piece from its archives in January 2014, after months of heated discussion about the NSA after the Snowden leaks. What the piece reveals is less the idea that Kittler should be branded a visionary, but that the NSA has a long technological history.
The text is a sort of a review of, or at least inspired by, James Bamford’s book The Puzzle Palace: Inside the National Security Agency, America’s Most Secret Intelligence Organization (1983) and its German translation, NSA. Amerikas geheimster Nachrichtendienst, which came out in German in 1986.
At the time, Kittler had just fought through Aufschreibesysteme: 1800-1900 as his habilitation, and Gramophone, Film, Typewriter was looming. More significantly, however, he had just bought his first computer and taken up programming. Like Kittler, the Arpanet was slowly switching to UNIX and C as a technical standard, before the internet of the 1990s. In Germany during the 1970s, BKA chief Horst Herold had implemented “Rasterfahndung” or dragnet policing as a countermeasure to the RAF (Red Army Faction) threat. And as Kittler demonstrates in his text, the NSA’s role of power in information infrastructures was not a reaction to the internet, but an act of design within those systems.
The piece shows Kittler’s interest in secrecy and the military basis of media technologies – but significantly, it reminds us that the media theorist was always as interested in institutions as their technical networks of knowledge.
Photographer Trevor Paglen, famous for his photographic mapping of networks and sites of power in the post 9/11 US, and recently his NSA photography, argues how “secrecy ‘nourishes the worst excesses of power’” . But for Kittler, one could say that secrecy is power: the technically mediated possibilities of circulation, restriction and gathering of information way before the Internet and much before Edward Snowden was able to give us a further insight into the extensive contemporary forms of surveillance excessively interested in us humans. For Kittler, however, this already marks the possibility that the information gathering and processing machines are at some point not anymore even interested in human targets: “With the chance of forgetting us in the process.”
Read Kittler’s “No Such Agency” here.
I am pleased to announce that I have signed a contract with University of Minnesota Press for a new book tentatively called A Geology of Media.
Planned for 2015, A Geology of Media forms the third, final part of the media ecology-trilogy. It started with Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses (2007) and continued with Insect Media (2010). This book on the geophysics and the non-organic ground of media complements the earlier takes by offering a media materialism from the point of view of geological resources, electronic waste and media arts. Through engaging with several contemporary art and technology projects it provides a media theoretical argument: to think of materiality of media beyond the focus on machines and technologies by focusing on what they consist of: the chemistry and geological materials of media, from metals to dust.
In short, I am interested to see if what pejoratively sometimes is called “hardware fetishism” is not hard enough, and even media and cultural theorists need to focus on the rocks and crust that make technical media possible. Earth history of deep times mixes with media history, which becomes a matter of not only thousands, but millions of years of non-linear history (to modify Manuel Delanda’s original idea). This way media materialism becomes a way to entangle media technologies, environmental issues and themes of global labour. Perhaps instead of the Anthropocene, we should just refer to the Anthropobscene.
I’ve been in recent talks and short posts been addressing the geological in media, and my piece in The Atlantic offered a short preview of what’s to come. In addition, below a very tentative table of contents. This project (and the Erkki Kurenniemi book I am working on with Joasia Krysa) will keep me busy for a while.
A Geology of Media
1) Introduction: Grounds of Media/Culture
2) An Alternative Deep Time of the Media
3) Psychogeophysics of Technology
4) Dust and the Exhausted Planet
5) Media Fossils
“Zombie Media”, by Garnet Hertz and Jussi Parikka
Our book-length special issue on Cultural Techniques (Kulturtechniken) is out. Co-edited by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, Ilinca Iurascu and myself, the special edition in Theory, Culture & Society is a significant introduction to the term that stems from German academic discussions in cultural and media studies. One could say it offers a significant variation on themes familiar from postwar German humanities’ focus on media, technologies and epistemo-ontological questions of culture in a post-representational and post-textual mode.
By way of some significant translations as well as new articles the issue pitches a way to understand cultural reality through its techniques. The usual definition is from Thomas Macho:
“Cultural techniques – such as writing, reading, painting, counting,
making music – are always older than the concepts that are generated
from them. People wrote long before they conceptualized writing
or alphabets; millennia passed before pictures and statues gave
rise to the concept of the image; and until today, people sing or
make music without knowing anything about tones or musical notation
systems. Counting, too, is older than the notion of numbers. To
be sure, most cultures counted or performed certain mathematical
operations; but they did not necessarily derive from this a concept
of number.” (Macho, 2003: 179)
But as the issue demonstrates, there is more in this mix. The multiplicity of positions and inplications is well articulated in Winthrop-Young’s Introduction to the issue. He articulates how not only in Macho, but in different ways in Cornelia Vismann’s and Bernhard Siegert’s work the constitutive role of cultural techniques functions. In fact, could say that this is the German media theory version of the hominization-thesis: how we become humans; how agency is constituted by cultural techniques which allow us to occupy subject positions. Space, enclosures and passages between them is one way to understand the idea:
“Thus the difference between human beings and animals is one that
could not be thought without the mediation of a cultural technique.
In this not only tools and weapons . . . play an essential role; so, too,
does the invention of the door, whose first form was presumably the
gate [Gatter] . . . The door appears much more as a medium of coevolutionary
domestication of animals and human beings.” (Siegert, 2012: 8)
Key here is the way in which cultural techniques process distinctions with material and aesthetic means. In Winthrop-Young’s lucid words, “Procedural chains and connecting techniques give rise to notions and objects that are then endowed with essentialized identities.Underneath our ontological distinctions (if not even our own evolution) are constitutive, media-dependent ontic operations that need to be teased out by means of techno-material deconstruction.” The implications for a range of recent years of theory-debates are intriguing; it refers to the fact how we need to address practices of theory and techniques of theory as part of the work of concepts and philosophy of contemporary culture. Besides it also shows some early ideas that resonate with a post-textual approach to cultural analysis (for instance in Sybille Krämer and Horst Bredekamp’s article).
I was asked to produce a short video abstract of my own contribution. In addition, find below the table of contents.
Special Issue: Cultural Techniques
Edited by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, Ilinca Iurascu and
Cultural Techniques: Preliminary Remarks by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young
Culture, Technology, Cultural Techniques – Moving Beyond Text by Sybille Krämer and Horst Bredekamp
Second-Order Animals: Cultural Techniques of Identity and Identification by Thomas Macho
Cultural Techniques: Or the End of the Intellectual Postwar Era in German Media Theory by Bernhard Siegert
After Kittler: On the Cultural Techniques of Recent German Media Theory by Bernard Dionysius Geoghegan
Cultural Techniques and Sovereignty by Cornelia Vismann
The Power of Small Gestures: On the Cultural Technique of Service by Markus Krajewski
Zootechnologies: Swarming as a Cultural Technique by Sebastian Vehlken
From Media History to Zeitkritik by Wolfgang Ernst
Afterword: Cultural Techniques and Media Studies by Jussi Parikka
Files, Lists, and the Material History of the Law by Liam Cole Young
“My eyes were burning, and my nose running and my face was also burning”. These are ensations across the body, demonstrating the effectiveness of technologies of security. Your eyes and nose and mouth feel it. It burns across your body, an involuntary body panic from the fear of choking.
Gas is a rather peculiar weapon. It is atmospheric in the manner German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk talks about: it conditions the environment and breathing and as such invades one of the most intimate areas of our life: our lungs and sense of being alive. Naturally, this is not only a sense of being alive, but its very condition. Gas warfare is not only about biopolitical invasions but also the raw animal life being controlled: the zoe.
Gas is spatial and ephemeral at the same time. The wind can carry it across distances, although it is used as a very localized measure. It divides space in new ways: those able to breath with gas masks, and those suffocating, denied their participation in that space. You can control territories through a control of who is allowed to breath air in there. Tear gas, pepper gas, water cannons infused with chemicals: meticulous information on what the body can just about take. This information is always escorted by the possible deviations from the norm: for instance children’s lungs as well as elderly lungs.
Modern chemical attacks against humans date back to the first World War and the trench warfare. The Germans started using toxic clouds in April, 1915. As Sloterdijk notes, what makes this manner of suffering and even death more painful is how the suffocating is made to participate in his and her own condition: the body is made to turn against itself, gasping for breath, convulsions. The organic tissue becomes an archive of atrocities, a registering surface of the effects of modern science and technology employed in military and security regimes.
Of course you can shoot and aim with gas canisters, to ensure the good ol’ blunt hit. The effects of this hit can be rather horrific.
Considering gas, Sloterdijk speaks of “terror from the air”, and associates terrorism as a feature of modernity:
“It is crucial to identify terrorism as a child of modernity, insofar as its exact definition was forged only after the principle of attacking an organism’s , or a life form’s, environment and immune defences was shown in its perfect technical explication.”
There is a technological condition of this state of breathlessness and it has to do with the history of modern synthetic biology: the measurement of human capacities for breathing as well as the necessary measures for inhibiting the use of air for the organism.
And in Timothy C. Campbell’s words, referring to Sloterdijk, “terrorism is always ecologically directed”.
We need to turn meditations of air, soul and breathing into a bio- and zoepolitics of breathing and an analysis the systematic ecological and health abuses: from the minuscules particles of gas and dust, to how they constitute more abstract but as real security operations.
Campbell, T. (2011) Improper Life. Technology and Biopolitcs from Heidegger to Agamben. University of Minnesota Press.
Sloterdijk, P. (2009) Terror from the Air. Semiotext(e).
Images via Twitter.
One of my interests of the recent times has been “microtemporality”. This interest has been spurred both by Wolfgang Ernst’s media archaeological theory and publications such as Axel Volmar’s 2009 edited volume on time-critical media. Indeed, notions of microtemporality offer ways to understand the technical conditioning of social/cultural processes on a level that is irreducible to the phenomenological. With different emphases to those of Ernst’s I know that for instance Katherine Hayles is nowadays looking at algorithmic trading from the temporal perspective too and Mark Hansen is from a more Whitehead perspective investigating ubiquitous media environments and that what escapes conscious cognition. See also Shintaro Miyazaki on these topics through the concept of Algorhythmics in Computational Culture.
In the midst of my own research into different temporalities that media archaeology offers, as well as network times/politics, I wanted to conduct a mini-interview with Wolfgang Ernst. Hence, please find below Wolfgang Ernst, responding to my question “what is time-critical media and microtemporality?”
“Technological media have a distinct quality: They are in their medium-being only in operation (“under current”). This specificity makes them especially sensitive to micro-temporal intrusion, irritation and manipulation – much more than previous cultural techniques like alphabetic writing which became time-critical only when electrically coded into telegraphy.
It was Gotthold Ephraim Lessing who in his treatise on the comparative aesthetics of poetry and visual arts Laokoon in 1766 identified what the called the “pregnant moment” in the representation of action. In electronic television the exact synchronisation, thus timing, of signals becomes crucial for the human aisthesis of image perception indeed. With techno-mathematical computing where minimal temporal moments become critical for the success of the whole process of internal calculation and human-machine communication (“interrupt”), time-criticality becomes a new object of epistemological attention in the economy of knowledge. When culture is rather counted than narrated, time-criticality needs to be focussed by process-oriented (thus dynamic) media archaeology.
Time-criticality in its media-technological context does not refer to a philosophical or critique of contemporary politics or ethics but rather to a special class of events where exact timing and the temporal momentum is “decisive” for the processes to take place and succeed at all. In its ancient Greek sense, crisis refers to the chances of decision, with its temporal form being an impulse rather than a duration or narrative – kairotic time. Kairos – the ancient Greek god of the decisive moment – becomes proverbial in post-modern just-in-time production in both industry and technologies, as well as in deadly situations like antiaircraft prediction in Second World War.
In its etymological roots, “time” itself refers to divisions of continuity, to the cutting edge. Apart from its long aesthetic tradition, the cultural impact of time-criticality escalates with (and within) technological media, starting from photographic exposure time which almost shrank towards zero. Signals which are operated with electronic speed can hardly be followed by human consciousness like, for example, symbols (printed letters) in textual reading. When signal transfer happens below human sensation, it can be spotted only by time-critical observation. For subliminal events the true archaeologist of time-critical knowledge are technical media themselves; only with the emergence of hightly sensitive measuring instruments since the 19th century time-critical processes like the runtime of signals within human nerves became analyzable at all.”
What is Media Archaeology? gives no direct answer to the question that it poses. Instead, it gives a map – a cartography of how to see the field of media archaeology defined by various theories and directions, that help us to go to places – and think things. However, I remember trying to think through definitions of media archaeology – a useful task to bring clarity. I originally doodled something like this for my working blog for that WiMA book, but let’s return to that now. This thinking aloud was partly triggered by my soon to be new colleague Sunil Manghani’s question…so how does media archaeology differ from media history.
Here is one attempt to give definition type of coordinates…although this does not exhaust the richness of MA and its various traditions.
Media archaeology can be understood as a heterogeneous set of theories and methods that investigate media history through its alternative roots, forgotten paths, neglected ideas and machines. It explicitly challenges the supposed newness of digital culture. Media archaeology gives new ideas to understand media cultural temporality. The definitions have ranged from emphasising the recurring nature of media cultural discourses (Huhtamo) to media archaeology as an-archaeology, or variantology (Zielinski) which in its excavation of the deep time layers of our means of seeing tries to find an alternative route to dismantle the fallacy of linear development.
Furthermore, I see media archaeology as a history-theory enterprise in which temporal excavation of media functions as a theoretical force as well; a reading of old media and new media in parallel lines. Media archaeology is decisively non-linear, and rigorously theoretical in its media historical interest of knowledge. In a Benjaminian vein, it abandons historicism when by it is meant the idea that the past is given and out there waiting for us to find it; instead, it believes in the radical assembling of history, and histories in the plural, but so that it is not only a subset of cultural historical writing. Instead, media archaeology needs to insist both on the material nature of its enterprise – that media are always articulated in material, also in non-narrative frameworks whether technical media such as photography, or algorithmic media features such as databases and software networks – and that the work of assembling temporal mediations takes place in an increasingly varied and distributed network of institutions, practices and technological platforms.
Indeed, what media archaeology investigates are also the practical rewirings of time, as is done in media artistic and creative practice work, through archives digital and traditional, as well as DIY and circuit bending which recycle, and remix obsolete technology as much as they investigate aesthetic and political economic conditions of technical media.
Media archaeology takes place in artistic labs, laboratories where hardware and software are hacked and opened, but also in in conceptual labs for experimenting with concepts and ideas.
So as you can see, it moves into certain material characteristics that I want to keep close to media archaeology. It does not mean that this it the only to approach MA. For instance, here is what Huhtamo wrote.
Folks at Swinburne University, Melbourne have organised quite the event — CODE – A Media, Games & Art Conference. This means my first trip to Australia ever, with that slightly surreal feeling plane trip ahead of me. It is at such moments that you better trust media technological arrangements; the radio and computer controlled cockpit media; and the entertainment media lull in the economy class (see John Johnston’s intro to the Kittler-essay collection Literature, Media, Information Systems).
My talk will be something new I wrote, on “Cultural Techniques of Cognitive Capitalism”. The idea is to do a crosswiring between two traditions; the German media studies type of undertanding of media technologies coupled with the more Italian style political theory of Post-Fordist cultures. The previous has not been so good on the political front, the latter not always been specific enough when talking of media cultures/technologies. Who knows, this talk might form a part of a bigger project that I have been drafting as well.
It was one year ago that Friedrich A. Kittler died. The German newspapers reacted, and slowly, The Guardian too, with a couple of writings and a podcast. I think that was it, for the English-speaking mainstream press. Besides some short notes on my blog, I wrote this short piece for The Guardian.
Academic discussions concerning his work have increased even more: such also include fantastic pieces like the memoir by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young of the Kittler-before-Kittler (i.e. the early 1980s one) ‘”Well What Socks is Pynchon Wearing Today?” A Freiburg Scrapbook in Memory of Friedrich Kittler’ in Cultural Politics Volume 8, Issue 3, and a forthcoming ZKM conference Of Gods and Scripts around the Mediterranean.
Of last year’s obituaries, some are circulating again online. Here is for instance FAZ: Jede Liebe war eine auf den ersten Blick.
Indeed, Kittler got the human (well, actually “spirit”, “the mind”, Geist – Geisteswissenschaften) out of humanities, and inserted the machine. Suddenly, inside the human(ities) we found all kinds of hardware. Typewriters, gramophones, circuit boards, computer chips, probably even a bit of internet cable in there somewhere.
However, don’t inscribe “media philosopher” on his grave stone.
And no, he did not call himself a media archaeologist either.
I am here recapping some ideas from an earlier post, but I wanted to flag this as a separate theme…
I want to pick up on Siegfried Zielinski’s notion of deep time of the media – not straightforwardly media archaeological, but an anarchaeological call for methodology of deep time research into technical means of hearing and seeing. In Zielinski’s vision, which poetically borrows from Stephen Jay Gould’s paleontological epistemology at least in its vision, the superficiality of media cultural temporality is exposed with antecedents, hidden ideas, false but inspiring paths of earlier experimenters from Empedocles to Athanius Kircher, Johann Wilhelm Ritter to Cesare Lombroso.
Zielinski’s excavations are not content to stay within the regime of media archaeology, but want to uncover a non-linear layering of variations. Indeed, in a manner that seems to be borrowing from a Deleuze-Guattarian ontology of nomadism and the primacy of variation (I don’t however think that Z makes the link to DG explicit), Zielinski’s methodology is in this sense a refusal of any master plans of media development and a plea against both the drive towards psychopathia medialis (the standardization and uniformity as well as illusions of teleology). Instead, the paleontological conceptualisation of a media history of variations finds surprising case studies of aberrants paths for hearing and seeing, of optics and acoustics, of technical means of guiding, misguiding, educating and mocking the senses.
And yet, as an alternative deep time, I suggest that instead of male heroes, we approach a more geologically tuned deep time – deep in various senses, down to mineral excavation, and picking up some themes of media ecological sort. I want to speculate with a more geologically oriented notion of depth of media that is interested in truly deep times – of thousands, millions, billions of years and in depth of the earth; A media excavation into the mineral and raw material basis of technological development, through which to present some media historical arguments as to how one might adopt a material perspective in terms of ecological temporality.
For instance for the European Union, the future of information technology has to be planned starting from a material level up: The EU does not hold much in terms of critical raw material resources when it comes to advanced technology that are identified crucial for a longer term socio-economic change. Obviously, such issues are always voiced with a concern for the geopolitical-economic consequences. In short, this refers to the crucial status of China, Russia, Brazil, Congo and for instance South-Africa as producers of raw materials, and an alternative material future of technological culture. This connects to a realisation: the materiality of information technology starts from the soil, and underground – 500 meters, and preferably (for the mining companies) lower as the earth’s crust is dozens of kilometres deep.
Cobalt —- Lithium-ion batteries, synthetic fuels
Gallium —- Thin layer photovoltaics, IC, WLED
Indium —– Displays, thin layer photovoltaics
Tantalum —- Micro capacitors, medical technology
Antimony —– ATO, micro capacitors
Germanium —– Fibre optic cable, IR optical technologies
Niobium —– Micro capacitors, ferroalloys
Neodymium —- Permanent magnets, laser technology
From animals to nature as a resource, a material ecology for media is an increasingly important topic. This is the double bind that relates media technologies to ecological issues; on the one hand, acting as raw material for the actual hardware, from cables to cell phones; on the other hand, as an important epistemological framework whether in relation to mapping of climate change or in terms of further resources for exploitation, as in the recent proposal not just for Internet of Things – but Internet of Underwater Things.
Perhaps an alternative sort of a deep time of the media is needed – one that does not excavate deep times of human inventions, successful or just imagined, but deep times of animal and geological sort, and the cultural techniques that are affiliated with such non-human regimes? This could be a further advance to consolidate the work of media ecology and zootechnics (cf. Sebastian Vehlken’s recent work in this area, as well as Insect Media).