“We have never been human: between animality and techne” is the new special issue of Angelaki. It is released just now and features a range of exciting articles – thanks to Ron Broglio for his work in getting this edited together.
More seriously, it is about visual and non-visual cultures of the eco crisis, and aesthetic epistemologies and ontologies of it all. It also elaborates on the term “medianatures” that I have been using recently. An abstract below.
This text focuses on how to think the visual culture of disappearance – more closely, disappearance of animals. It takes as its starting point the Ernst Jünger novel The Glass Bees from 1957 in order to start an excavation into obsolescence, animals and the ecological crisis. The aesthetic themes of visibility/invisibility are entangled with the ecological questions of disappearance and pollution. This sort of media ecological question is unravelled, furthermore, with examples concerning the mass extinction of bees, also discussed in Lenore Malen’s video installation The Animal That I Am (2009–10). In this way, it argues for a media theoretical understanding of the visual culture of ecocrisis as well as the complex question of epistemology of such a visibility/invisibility.
There are no clouds, just data centres. But suddenly they tickled the science-fictional nerve again when Google released its “inside view” to their factories of data: it has colours! The rather glitzy pictures showed this seeming transparency and the spatial sense of data management. Besides space, it’s about the elements. Air, water plays a crucial role.
In a great phrase in Andrew Blum’s book Tubes, a Facebook data centre manager (Ken Pratchett) sums it up: “This has nothing to do with clouds. It has everything to do with being cold.” Cool, cold data is not just a linguistic or visual metaphor, despite that elegant modernism that still lives inside the architectures of data places: Mondrian as data. Instead, it has to do with climate control. Ecology. Air. Coolness is not a media theoretical attitude in this context but a media management issue that ties the earth to the escape velocity of data.
Data needs air. “Cool outside air is let into the building through adjustable louvers near the roof; deionized water is sprayed into it; and fans push the conditioned air down onto the data center floor” , explains Blum. Coolness of cyberpunk transforms into coolness of building’s climate control. Fans surround the terabytes of data. Pratchett continues about the building: “The air hits this concrete floor and roils left and right. This whole building is like the Mississippi River. There’s a huge amount of air coming in, but moving really slowly.”
It’s important to notice the persistence of issues of ecology from air to the soil as well as non-cognitive work: that we still talk of factories and rather physical processes having to do with our hardware and how we manage and work with data in its material level.
Blum: “The cloud is a building. It works like a factory. Bits come in, they get massaged and put together in the right way and sent out.”
A different sort of steam punk for the 21st century.
A collection that looks really exciting: Depletion Design: A Glossary of Network Ecologies, edited by Carolin Wiedemann & Soenke Zehle. I was happy to be involved with a tiny text on dust and new materialism. A lot of my recent writing and interests have had to do with depletion, exhaustion, and things dead or discarded – as with zombie media. More things (texts) grim and grey forthcoming.
You can download the book here. Below a blurb about its contents.
“We, or so we are told, are running out of time, of time to develop alternatives to a new politics of emergency, as constant crisis has exhausted the means of a politics of representation too slow for the state of exception, too ignorant of the distribution of political agency, too focused on the governability of financial architectures. But new forms of individual and collective agency already emerge, as we learn to live, love, work within the horizon of depletion, to ask what it means to sustain ourselves, each other, again. Of these and other knowledges so created, there can no longer be an encyclopedia; a glossary, perhaps.”
Contributors: Marie-Luise Angerer (Cyborg), Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi (Exhaustion, Soul Work), David M. Berry (On Terminality), Zach Blas (Queer Darkness), Drew S. Burk (Grey Ecology), Gabriella Coleman (Anonymous), Heidi Rae Cooley (Ecologies of Practice), Sebastian Deter- ding (Playful Technologies, Persuasive Design), Jennifer Gabrys (Natural History, Salvage), Johannes Grenzfurthner & Frank A. Schneider (Hackerspace), Eric Kluitenberg (Sustainable Immobility), Boyan Manchev (Disorganisation, Persistence), Lev Manovich (Software), Sonia Matos (Wicked Problems), Timothy Morton (Ecology without Nature), Jason W. Moore (Cri- sis), Anna Munster (Digital Embodiment), Brett Neilson (Fracking), Sebastian Olma (Biopoli- tics, Creative Industries, Vitalism), Luciana Parisi (Algorithmic Architecture), Jussi Parikka (Dust Matter), Judith Revel (Common), Ned Rossiter (Dirt Research), Sean Smith (Informa- tion Bomb), Hito Steyerl (Spam of the Earth).
This is another interview, and audio recording now available, that I did in Berlin in 2011. It is my chat with Martin Howse, of microresearch, and the project(s) together with Jonathan Kemp and Ryan Jordan: decrystallisation, recrystallisation and the later Crystal Worlds in Berlin and London. We talk of what the crystal project means, ideas related to art methods, and ending up with evil media.
Apologies for a bit lousy quality of the sound in my recording.
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).
The circuit bended and definitely (re)modified fruits of our collaboration with Garnet Hertz are out. True, “Zombie Media” has been circulating as an unborn living dead text for a longer while, ever since it was part of the Transmediale 2010 Theory Award competition — but now it is finally officially out in Leonardo (vol. 45, no 5)!
Working with someone like Garnet is a pure joy, and demonstrates why collaboration is good for you: you learn a lot. A lot lot.
As a teaser to the longer “Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archaeology into an Art Method”-article, please find below the short “manifesto” on “Five Principles of Zombie Media” we co-wrote for the Defunct/Refunct-catalogue (PDF).
Zombie media addresses the living deads of media culture. As such, it is clearly related
to the earlier calls to investigate “dead media” by Bruce Sterling and others: to map
the forgotten, out-of-use, obsolete and declared dysfunctional technologies in order
to understand better the nature of media cultural development. And yet, we want to
point to a further issue when it comes to abandoned media: the amount of discarded
electronic media is not only the excavation ground for quirky media archaeological
interests, but one of the biggest threats for ecology in terms of the various toxins they
are leaking back to nature. A discarded piece of media technology is never just discarded
but part of a wider pattern of circulation that ties the obsolete to recycling centers,
dismantling centres in Asia, markets in Nigeria, and so forth – a whole global political
ecology of different sorts where one of the biggest questions is the material toxicity of
our electronic media. Media kills nature as they remain as living deads.
Hence, we believe that media archaeology – the media theoretical stance interested
in forgotten paths and quirky ideas of past media cultures – needs to become more
political, and articulate its relation to design practices more clearly. We are not the only
ones that have made that call recently – for instance Timothy Druckrey writes:
“The mere rediscovery of the forgotten, the establishment of oddball paleontologies, of
idiosyncratic genealogies, uncertain lineages, the excavation of antique technologies or
images, the account of erratic technical developments, are, in themselves, insufficient to
the building of a coherent discursive methodology.” 
We would want to add that in addition to developing discursive methodologies, we
need to develop methodologies that are theoretically rich as well as practice-oriented –
where ontologies of technical media meet up with innovative ideas concerning design
in an ecological context.
As such, the other part of the zombie media call is the work of reappropriation
through circuit bending and hardware hacking methodologies – to extend the media
archaeological as well as ecosophic interest into design issues. By actively repurposing
things considered dead – things you find from your attic, the second hand market, or
amongst waste – the zombiefication of media is to address the planned obsolescence of
media technologies which is part of their material nature. In reference to contemporary
consumer products, planned obsolescence takes many forms. It is not only an ideology,
or a discourse, but more accurately takes place on a micropolitical level of design:
difficult to replace batteries in personal MP3 audio players, proprietary cables and
chargers that are only manufactured for a short period of time, discontinued customer
support, or plastic enclosures impossible to open without breaking them. Whether you
can open up things – the famous black boxes of media culture characterized by iPhones
and iPads – is one of the biggest political and ecological questions facing our media
theory and practices too.
As a manifesto, five points of zombie media stand out:
1/ We oppose the idea of dead media. Although death of media may be useful as a tactic to
oppose dialog that only focuses on the newness of media, we believe that media never
dies. Media may disappear in a popular sense, but it never dies: it decays, rots, reforms,
remixes, and gets historicized, reinterpreted and collected. It either stays as a residue
in the soil and in the air as concrete dead media, or is reappropriated through artistic,
2/ We oppose planned obsolescence. As one corner stone in the mental ecology of
circulation of desires, planned obsolescence maintains ecologically unsupportable
death drive that is destroying our milieus of living.
3/ We propose a depunctualization of media and the opening, understanding and hacking
of concealed or blackboxed systems: whether as consumer products or historical
4/ We propose media archaeology as an artistic methodology that follows in the traditions
of appropriation, collage and remixing of materials and archives. Media archaeology
has been successful in excavating histories of dead media, forgotten ideas, sidekicks and
minor narratives, but now its time to develop it from a textual method into a material
methodology that takes into account the political economy of contemporary media
5/ We propose that reuse is an important dynamic of contemporary culture, especially
within the context of electronic waste. “If it snaps shut, it shall snap open.” We agree in
that open and remix culture should be extended to physical artifacts.
This is the short intro/intervention, from my second Transmediale 2012-talk on the Search for a Method-panel, organized by Timothy Druckrey, involving in addition to me Inke Arns, Siegfried Zielinski and Wolfgang Ernst. The images are from the Crystal World workshop, also Transmediale 2012.
In order to kick off the panel and discussions, we were asked to pick examples of current media artistic practices, and proceed from there.
My thoughts were soon obviously on some themes and problems that I had been occupied with. More or less, such have included speculative materialities, work often dealing with the various spectra of hearing and seeing, of light and sound, of electromagnetism; works that map the non-solid based materialities that are increasingly important in order to understand how bodies react, and are governed, managed, experienced, in urban and technological settings.
Hence, I might have wanted to address Will Schrimshaw’s Atmospheric Research and Subliminal Frequencies. To me, the project is a mapping of the subconscious affective, embodied states where architectural arrangements are as important as the informational ecology; it maps the events that happen below the threshold of consciousness, for instance through ambient light as a regulator of “hormone secretion, body temperature, sleep and alertness”. As such, it is a practice based excavation into the physiological and technological constitution of experience, but also the possibilities of producing and governing experience; something related to my earlier talk on the “media archaeology of cognitive capitalism”.
Or then, another possibility would be to have looked at the various projects and the work of Critical Engineer, as expressed by Julian Oliver, in the manifesto co-written with Gordan Savičić and Danja Vasiliev. The notion of the artist-engineer might not be new, having a longer history in terms of media arts, but at the same time the manifesto and works capture something crucial about the methodology of such a practitioner, through an expanded understanding of what the machine is (across devices, bodies, agents, forces and networks, as the Manifesto lists) and how that expanded notion of the machine lends itself to a work of exposing; imbalance and deception become driving forces in a mapping of such relations, often in work that engages with wireless network technologies, rethinking visual and urban media, and more. The various projects at Weise7/Labor8 exhibition downstairs, at Transmediale 2012, are good examples.
Without being just software studies, such Critical Engineering engages with code, but in the manner how it regulates, governs, manages and in the right hands, distorts, perverts, misguides, cheats. This list that sounds a whole lot like from Matthew Fuller’s and Andy Goffey’s evil media theory.
So far, the two themes that emerge show the need to 1) account for such materialities that are not directly, necessarily humanly perceptible but completely real; and 2), the need to account for practices of perversion. Altering and corrupting as more interesting technical methods than just the smooth operationality often mistaken as the essence of technological practices.
Instead, I want to briefly to mention the work of Microresearch Lab/Martin Howse, Jonathan Kemp and Ryan Jordan, and especially the Recrystallization and Decrystallization workshops that took place in London and Berlin last year, and now during Transmediale The Crystal World Open laboratory.
The workshops used various methods to crack open and chemically process information technology in order to expose and address such constitutive processes what referred to as crystallisation. The term was partly adopted from J.G.Ballard, continuing an even earlier style of artistic practice of the Microresearch Lab, where software and hardware practices find a resonance with fiction, paranoid, speculative narratives of writers such as Thomas Pynchon (always dear to anyone interested in the 20th century articulations of power, science and engineering). As for crystallisation, with a nod towards Ballard indeed, the notion of the crystal becomes a conceptual lead in terms of a speculative materialism, described in these words:
“recrystallization was convened around the premise that while life itself starts from aperiodic crystals that encode infinite futures within a small number of atoms, the digital crystallization of the flesh by capital limits these futures to the point of exhaustion.
If computers and the minerals from which they are made are considered as equally crystalline, then their recrystallization is only possible through the introduction of vigorous and noisy positive feedback loops. “
In terms of media art histories, dead media and other theoretical and methodological approaches, the work of de- and recrystallization involved such techniques as “earth computing, mineral precipitation, high heat synthetic geology and inductive crystallography, DIY semi-conductor fabrication, water crystal cryptography, anthropocenic fossilizations, kirlian photography, hi-voltage fulgurite construction ”; Listing such, however, one however has to note quite soon that well, it is not exactly media archaeology as we used to think about it. Having said that, the notion of media archaeology in creative computing and related perspectives is taking us increasingly to such techniques as computer forensics, digital archaeology, and other modes of disgorging machines where art practices meet up with DIY and perhaps indeed critical engineering.
Speculative (media) archaeologies work crudely – but crude only in the sense of hacking open, disgorging, salvaging, melting, chemically processing in order to extract the minerals and such that on a material level compose our information technology. With an increasing political economic interest in the long networks of media production and discarded media, we have a better spatial understanding of the grim labour, electronic waste and other neo-colonialist emphasis of digital economy. The workshops tapped into this field directly as well, using such practices that mimicked human labour in extraction of valuable components and material from abandoned technology. What I want to propose is that such projects are emblematic of speculative media archaeologies and such artistic practices that combine a poetic-technological take on deep times, but ones that are such in a material sense too – not just written histories, but archaeologies of soil and history of the earth. Such speculative crypto histories of the earth refer to the concrete sedimentations of minerals and rocks, that act as re-sources for further development.
Where such methods fit in terms of media art vocabularies might remain unclear, but it is certain that they extend the practices often discussed in media art (histories) into a resonance with speculative materialism, new materialism, media archaeology but executed in highly original ways. We can talk of crystal materialities; materialities of minerals, information technology, and materialities of dangerous inhuman labour.
Indeed, to briefly elaborate on “exhumation” as a parallel concept to that more often mentioned of autopsy (also voiced by Tim Druckrey in his opening words) I will make a detour through Reza Negarestani. Cyclonopedia – a work of theory-fiction – speculates about the petropolitical deep layer, the living soil of Middle east, and we can point towards the work of Microresearch lab and these workshops as chemical and material deep layers that go two ways: not just the route of media archaeology interested in obsolescence, abandoned tech, and things old; but the other sort of descent too, to adopt Michel Foucault’s idea, perhaps implicitly part of some methodologies of media art histories and media archaeology. I am referring to a descent inside the machine, into the technical infrastructures, layers, city-like scapes of circuits and components. This kind of technical exposes a material, abstract level of connections, affordances and capacities. In such a methodology, the topology extends across materialities –from the fictional narrativisation to the hardware materiality and the long duration of mineral elements that entangle with that of human energy exploited for the excavation.
As a topological figure, and interested in this poetic and speculative materialism, allow me to end through a longer reference to Negarestani. What if such speculative media archaeologies and artistic methodologies are something that share methods with archaeologists but also with “cultists, worms and crawling entities”; not just a sublimated view of technological progress, but an interested in scars and half-lifes, of multiplication of surfaces, and creation of vermiculation; a new hole into solid, contained bodies of consumer technology.
“If archeologists, cultists, worms and crawling entities almost always undertake an act of exhumation (surfaces, tombs, cosmic corners, dreams, etc.), it is because exhumation is equal to ungrounding, incapacitating surfaces ability to operate according to topologies of the whole, or on a mereotopological level. In exhumation, the distribution of surfaces is thoroughly undermined and the movements associated with them are derailed; the edge no longer belongs to the periphery, anterior surfaces come after all other surfaces, layers of strata are displaced and perforated, peripheries and the last protecting surfaces become the very conductors of invasion. Exhumation is defined as a collapse and trauma introduced to the solid part by vermiculate activities; it is the body of solidity replaced by the full body of trauma. As in disinterment — scarring the hot and cold surfaces of a grave — exhumation proliferates surfaces through each other. Exhumation transmutes architectures into excessive scarring processes, fibroses of tissues, membranes and surfaces of the solid body.”
This transmutation, and distribution of new surfaces is where such familiar notions of art and culture theory vocabulary as trauma are transported into material methodologies in order to excavate the stratification of such as part of mixed materials. The “novel crystal earth geologies” extend the work of material recovery and reuse into “psychophysical distortions and contingencies” in a gesture which elaborates an enthusiasm for multiple ecologies. Media art practices that are not merely to be fitted into media art histories and genres, but themselves create new openings to times and spaces of media objects, components, times.
It’s (a)live! Medianatures: The Materiality of Information Technology and Electronic Waste and the whole impressive series of 21 open access books about humanities-science-themes, commissioned by Gary Hall, Joanna Zylinska and Clare Birchall, published by Open Humanities Press and funded by JISC: Living Books About Life.
My edited book was inspired by Sean Cubitt’s (and others, see the Acknowledgements of the introduction) recent research into media and waste, and I owe full thanks to him. What I wanted to investigate was the question of how materiality can be thought through such “bad matter” of waste, and related to for instance energy (consumption). The introduction outlines my approach, and ties it together with some debates in new materialism (this side of the argument is more fully outlined in a short text of mine “New Materialism as Media Theory”, forthcoming very soon in Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies-journal).
The best introduction to the whole project is however found in this press release by Hall, Zylinska and Birchall:
Open Humanities Press publishes twenty-one open access Living Books About Life
LIVING BOOKS ABOUT LIFE
The pioneering open access humanities publishing initiative, Open Humanities Press (OHP) (http://openhumanitiespress.org), is pleased to announce the release of 21 open access books in its series Living Books About Life (http://www.livingbooksaboutlife.org).
Funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), and edited by Gary Hall, Joanna Zylinska and Clare Birchall, Living Books About Life is a series of curated, open access books about life — with life understood both philosophically and biologically — which provide a bridge between the humanities and the sciences. Produced by a globally-distributed network of writers and editors, the books in the series repackage existing open access science research by clustering it around selected topics whose unifying theme is life: e.g., air, agriculture, bioethics, cosmetic surgery, electronic waste, energy, neurology and pharmacology.
Peter Suber, Open Access Project Director, Public Knowledge, said: ‘This book series would not be possible without open access. On the author side, it takes splendid advantage of the freedom to reuse and repurpose open-access research articles. On the other side, it passes on that freedom to readers. In between, the editors made intelligent selections and wrote original introductions, enhancing each article by placing it in the new context of an ambitious, integrated understanding of life, drawing equally from the sciences and humanities’.
By creating twenty one ‘living books about life’ in just seven months, the series represents an exciting new model for publishing, in a sustainable, low-cost, low-tech manner, many more such books in the future. These books can be freely shared with other academic and non-academic institutions and individuals.
Nicholas Mirzoeff, Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, commented: ‘This remarkable series transforms the humble Reader into a living form, while breaking down the conceptual barrier between the humanities and the sciences in a time when scholars and activists of all kinds have taken the understanding of life to be central. Brilliant in its simplicity and concept, this series is a leap towards an exciting new future’.
One of the most important aspects of the Living Books About Life series is the impact it has had on the attitudes of the researchers taking part, changing their views on open access and raising awareness of issues around publishers’ licensing and copyright agreements. Many have become open access advocates themselves, keen to disseminate this model among their own scholarly and student communities. As Professor Erica Fudge of the University of Strathclyde and co-editor of the living book on Veterinary Science, put it, ‘I am now evangelical about making work publicly available, and am really encouraging colleagues to put things out there’.
These ‘books about life’ are themselves ‘living’, in the sense they are open to ongoing collaborative processes of writing, editing, updating, remixing and commenting by readers. As well as repackaging open access science research — together with interactive maps and audio-visual material — into a series of books, Living Books About Life is thus involved in rethinking ‘the book’ itself as a living, collaborative endeavour in the age of open science, open education, open data, iPad apps and e-book readers such as Kindle.
Tara McPherson, editor of VECTORS, Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular, said: ‘It is no hyperbole to say that this series will help us reimagine everything we think we know about academic publishing. It points to a future that is interdisciplinary, open access, and expansive.’
Funded by JISC, Living Books About Life is a collaboration between Open Humanities Press and three academic institutions, Coventry University, Goldsmiths, University of London, and the University of Kent.
* Astrobiology and the Search for Life on Mars, edited by Sarah Kember (Goldsmiths, University of London)
* Bioethics™: Life, Politics, Economics, edited by Joanna Zylinska (Goldsmiths, University of London)
* Biosemiotics: Nature, Culture, Science, Semiosis, edited by Wendy Wheeler (London Metropolitan University)
* Cognition and Decision in Non-Human Biological Organisms, edited by Steven Shaviro (Wayne State University)
* Cosmetic Surgery: Medicine, Culture, Beauty, edited by Bernadette Wegenstein (Johns Hopkins University)
* Creative Evolution: Natural Selection and the Urge to Remix, edited by Mark Amerika (University of Colorado at Boulder)
* Digitize Me, Visualize Me, Search Me: Open Science and its Discontents, edited by Gary Hall (Coventry University)
* Energy Connections: Living Forces in Creative Inter/Intra-Action, edited by Manuela Rossini (td-net for Transdisciplinary Research, Switzerland)
* Human Genomics: From Hypothetical Genes to Biodigital Materialisations, edited by Kate O’Riordan (Sussex University)
* Medianatures: The Materiality of Information Technology and Electronic Waste, edited by Jussi Parikka (Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton)
* Nerves of Perception: Motor and Sensory Experience in Neuroscience, edited by Anna Munster (University of New South Wales)
* Neurofutures, edited by Timothy Lenoir (Duke University)
* Partial Life, edited by Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr (SymbioticA, University of Western Australia)
* Pharmacology, edited by Dave Boothroyd (University of Kent)
* Symbiosis, edited by Janneke Adema and Pete Woodbridge (Coventry University)
* Another Technoscience is Possible: Agricultural Lessons for the Posthumanities, edited by Gabriela Mendez Cota (Goldsmiths, University of London)
* The In/visible, edited by Clare Birchall (University of Kent)
* The Life of Air: Dwelling, Communicating, Manipulating, edited by Monika Bakke (University of Poznan)
* The Mediations of Consciousness, edited by Alberto López Cuenca (Universidad de las Américas, Puebla)
* Ubiquitous Surveillance, edited by David Parry (University of Texas at Dallas)
* Veterinary Science: Animals, Humans and Health, edited by Erica Fudge (Strathclyde University) and Clare Palmer (Texas A&M University)
Open Humanities Press is a non-profit, international Open Access publishing collective specializing in critical and cultural theory. OHP was formed by academics to overcome the current crisis in scholarly publishing that threatens intellectual freedom and academic rigor worldwide. OHP journals are academically certified by OHP’s independent board of international scholars. All OHP publications are peer-reviewed, published under open access licenses, and freely and immediately available online at http://openhumanitiespress.org
I was asked to write a short forum piece on “new materialism” for Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies-journal and I wrote a piece called “New Materialism as Media Theory: Dirty Matter and Medianatures”. It partly picks up on some of the themes I have been recently talking and writing about, influenced by such scholars as Sean Cubitt. It also articulated – albeit briefly – some points concerning German media theory as new materialism, even if going the quickly to a different direction concerning materiality. Here is a short taster of what’s to come.
The key points of the text were in short: 1) we need to understand how media technologies themselves already incorporate and suggest “new materialism” of non-solids, non-objects and this is part of technical modernity (the age of Hertzian vibrations); 2) we need also to understand bad matter – not just the new materialism that is empowering, but one that is depowering: the matter that is toxic, leaking from abandoned electronic media, attaching to internal organs, skins of low paid workers in developing countries. In this context, “medianatures” is the term I use to theoretically track the continuums from matter to media, and from media back to (waste) matter.
I believe that it is this continuum that is crucial in terms of a developed material understanding of media cultures. Hence, it’s a shame from a new materialist point of view that even such pioneering thinkers as Michel Serres miss this point concerning the weird materialities of contemporary technological culture – weird in the sense that they remain irreducible to either their “hard” contexts and pollution (CO2, toxic materials, minerals, and other component parts) or their “soft” bits – signs, meanings, attractions, desires. In Malfeasance. Appropriation Through Pollution? Trans. Anne-Marie Feenberg-Dibon (Stanford: Stanford University Press 2011), these are the two levels Serres proposes as crucial from an environmental point of view but he ignores the continuum between the two. And yet, signs are transmitted as signals, through cables, in hardware, in a mesh of various components from heavy metals to PVC coatings.
Perhaps a good alternative perspective to Serres’ is found in how both Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze conceive of a-signification as a regime of signs beyond signification and meaning: Gary Genosko’s apt example (in: Félix Guattari. A Critical Introduction London: Pluto 2009, 95-99 ) is the case of magnetic stripes on for instance your bank card as a form of automatized and operationalized local power that is not about interpretation, but a different set of signal work. Elaborating signaletic material – electronic signals and software – through a reference to Deleuze’s film theory and a-signification by Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen is also useful. As she elaborates – and this much we know from years of intensive reading of Deleuze in screen based analyses – Deleuze wanted to include much more than signification into the cinematic impact, and mapped a whole field of a-signifying matter in film: “sensory (visual and sound), kinetic, intensive, affective, rhythmic, tonal, and even verbal (oral and written).” (“The Haptic Interface. On Signal Transmissions and Events” in Interface Criticism. Aesthetics Beyond Buttons, edited by Christian Ulrik Andersen and Søren Bro Pold, Aarhus University Press 2011, 59) What she points out in terms of signal media is as important: after signs come signals, and the media of signals needs a similar move as Deleuze did with film: to carve out the a-signifying material components for digital media too.
Such a-signifying components are rarely content to stay on one level, despite a lot of theory often placing primacy to software, hardware, or some other level. Various levels feed into each other; this relates to what Guattari calls mixed semiotics, and we can here employ the idea of a medianature-continuum. The a-signifying level of signs is embedded in the a-signifying materiality of processes and components.
In short, it’s continuums all the way down (and up again), soft to hard, hardware to signs. In software studies (see: David M. Berry, The Philosophy of Software. Code and Mediation in the Digital Age, Palgrave Macmillan 2011, 95-96), the continuum from the symbol functions on higher levels of coding practices to voltage differences as a “lower hardware level” has been recognized: assembly language needs to be compiled, binary is what the computer “reads”, and yet such binaries take effect only through transistors; and if we really want to be hardcore, we just insist that in the end, it comes back to voltage differences (Kittler’s famous “There is no Software”-text and argument). Such is the methodology of “descent” that Foucault introduced as genealogy, but German media theory takes as a call to open up the machine physically and methodologically to its physics – and which leads into a range of artistic methodologies too, from computer forensics to data carvery. In other words, recognizing the way abstraction works in technical media from voltages and components to the more symbolic levels allows us to track back, as well, from the world of meanings and symbols – but also a-signification – to level of dirty matter.
I am giving a talk in Berlin as part of the MediaSoup-colloquium convened by Paul Feigelfeld (Institut für Medienwissenschaft at Humboldt University where I am a visiting research fellow for this Spring and Summer). On June 8, 6 pm (starts 6.15) I will be talking on MediaNatures, abstract below.
Place: Medientheater. Institut für Medienwissenschaft, Humboldt Universität Berlin, Sophienstraße 22A, 10178 Berlin.
This talk riffs off from Donna Haraway’s influential concept of naturecultures which established one framework to think about the topological continuity from nature to culture. As such, it was an important spark for the discourse on “new materialism” in cultural studies, a form of rethinking materiality in new ways outside a Marxist or a representational framework. Naturecultures – also resonating with a range of positions such as Latour’s – is a way to think through the multiple materialities we encounter in terms of contemporary technological society.
The talk extends naturecultures into a more medium-specific direction with the concept of medianatures. By discussing media materialism and its relation to “new materialist” debates as well as “medium-specificity”, the talk addresses ways to think through the technical and scientific specificity of contemporary media – beyond meaning, representation and the human body, the fact that technical media engage in such processes, speeds, and phenomena that escape the phenomenological human register per se.
Yet, the talk points towards a different kind of reading of media materiality than often found in accounts for instance in media theory. We can question the notion of specificity and argue that there are various specificities from which we can draw upon. While German media theory (acknowledging that the term is in itself not very apt) has been insisting on drawing on materialities that can be directly connected to the important scientific contexts of technical media, we can think through a milieu theory of media: how media establish but also draw on nature, animals and other non-human intensities, forces and potentialities. Instead of thinking nature here in terms of the metaphorics it has offered for a long time for media cultural phenomena, and avoiding proposing any form of purity of nature, I want to look at the continuums of not only naturecultures, but medianatures that is slightly different from the emphasis of media cultures as the “new” environment for us human beings. Instead we approach medianatures as affordances, as intensities, as regimes of affects and relations and as processes of mediatic nature that offer a non-human view to new materialist media theory. Hence, we end up talking about minerals, waste and nature.