Amodern-journal has a massive special issue on Network Archaeology out now. I was also interviewed for the collection that followed up on the Miami University last year’s conference of the same theme.
Other new publications include a piece from last year. The first version of this paper on dust (Dust and Exhaustion: The Labor of Media Materialism) was given as a keynote for the Canadian Communication Association annual conference in 2012 at Wilfrid Laurier University. Some smaller variations came out in Depletion Design as well as in Artnodes-magazine. This is however a rather long stand-alone piece which narrates through “dust” themes of non-human materialism, digital culture, work and exhaustion: it picks up on themes of exhaustion and nanoparticles, as much as the metal and mining aspects which contribute to the scale in which we can expand our ideas concerning materiality of media culture. Below the first beats of the text.
“Each particle of dust carries with it a unique vision of matter, movement, collectivity, interaction, affect, differentiation, composition and infinite darkness” — Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia
I. Dust — The Non-Thing
There is something poetic about dust. It is the stuff of fairy tales, stories of deserted places; of attics and dunes, of places from so long ago they seem to have never existed. Dusty books — the time of the archive that layers slowly on shelves and manuscripts. Marcel Duchamp’s 1920s Large Glass was a compilation of dust. In a way, he allowed dust to do the work: a temporal, slow compiling by the non-human particles as a work of art installed at the museum, “a purposeful inactivity.”  Dust can transform, even if it can itself easily escape any grip. It is amorphous, even metamorphic, in the manner Steven Connor describes.  There is also a lot of it. It can be done and dusted, removed from sight and forgotten — in need of no further attention. Nanoparticles are everywhere and form societies unseen and unheard of, yet they conglomerate on a scale unimaginable to human beings. We are a minority. They have their say on human things, and cover what we leave behind intentionally or by accident — obsolescent technologies, wrecks, monuments — which remind us not only of these things themselves but of the gradual sedimentation of dust. Dust marks the temporality of matter, a processual materiality of piling up, sedimenting, and — through its own million-year process — transformations of solids to ephemeral and back. It swarms and overwhelms, exhausts and clouds. “Breathe as deeply as you will, dust will never be depleted.” 
There is something poetic and sometimes even romantic about lack of breath. Lung diseases are after all a sign of the delicate soul, and have a long cultural history. Tuberculosis features in a vast range of examples from a Puccini opera to Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (1924). The pale tuberculotic body feeds towards the mythical airiness of lungs, blocked by the disease. It is as if tuberculosis releases the body from matter: “TB is disintegration, febrilization, dematerialization; it is a disease of liquids — the body turning to phlegm and mucus and sputum and, finally, blood — and of air, of the need for better air.”  But the lung-diseased body is easily exhausted, lacking in air, gasping for it. It is a tired body, and tiredness is one key trajectory we should be following as well: a laboring body.
This is a text about dust as well as exhaustion: about non-human particles as well as labor. It takes small things like dust as one vector for its argument, and as a vehicle in the manner of which we sometimes think through objects. Dust is, however, not quite an object, not in the intuitive sense that objects are supposed to be easily graspable. It does not fit the hand, even if it covers vast terrains. It is more environmental and better characterized as a milieu. Well, almost a milieu: we rarely count it among things that matter, but what if we did? What if we followed dust as a trajectory for theory — theory that is concerned with materiality and media? What if dust is one way to do “dirt research”: a mode of inquiry that crosses institutions and disciplines, and forces us to think of questions of design as enveloped in a complex ecology of economy, environment, work, and skill. Dirt brings noise, as Ned Rossiter reminds us, and dirt research can be understood “as a transversal mode of knowledge production [that] necessarily encounters conflict of various kinds: geocultural, social, political and epistemological.”
Look at this range of topics and exciting themes: Movement, Aesthetics, Ontology at the University of Turku (my alma mater!).
We started the New Materialisms-events in Cambridge, at Anglia Ruskin and they are going strong: the events are extremely well attended and raise a lot of interest. I still remember a job interview I had in 2007 when one of the members of the interview panel asked me: ” So what’s the difference of this new materialism to the old materialism of Marx..?”
Over the past years, we have had a range of good responses to that question, while also reminding that in the midst of the current enthusiasm for the non-human, it was already in the first years of 1990s that Rosi Braidotti coined the term “neo-materialism” – a Spinozian version of monism of intensities, becomings and feminism.
There is sometimes a bit of an amnesiac tendency in philosophy discussions. One troubling phenomenon that Braidotti recently pointed towards was the writing out of feminist theory out of discussions concerning materiality and the non-human. Hence, let’s remind that even “new” materialism itself has longer roots, and the more recent discussions are rather late-comers when reminded that the term was used by Braidotti herself in the early 1990s in her Patterns of Dissonance and systematically ever since (see more in New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies) . It is not reducible to her, but we need to compose our theoretical genealogies carefully.
The new issue of Artnodes is dedicated to matter. In the wake of different discussions concerning new materialism, speculative realism, objects and processes, I am glad to see this issue out: it takes a more mediatic and experimental view to some of these theoretical themes! Thanks to Jamie Allen and Pau Alsina for getting it done and published.
The issue papers are in Spanish, Catalan and English.
My little text on “new materialism of dust” is a follow-up and extension of the one in Depletion Design. It continues the same theme, and now has inspired me to write a longer essay on dust that will be published in Russian as a stand-alone booklet. The English draft of that is available on Academia.edu.
Michael Dieter interviewed me for the Speculative Realities ebook (part of an earlier art exhibition that picked up on speculative realism as an inspiration for art methodologies). We talked about the posthuman, non-humanisation and labour, artistic practices — and a couple of words on my new project that itself speculates on the possibilities of crossbreeding German media theory with Italian (inspired) political theory. In the interview, I also emphasize that one needs to be quite aware about the ways in which people do tend to lump together different traditions of contemporary “realism” and “materialism” — as well as ignoring so much of the earlier work. Is for instance feminism being written out of the current debates in theory?
Michael’s first question…
Michael Dieter (MD): Is there a ‘materialist’, ‘realist’ or ‘nonhuman’ turn in contemporary
thought? If so, how would you position your work in relation to these trends and what is
at stake with such terms?
- and read the rest here! (Three different e-formats available).
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).
Some years ago, probably in 2008 or so, I remember pitching with another writer a book proposal to a publisher. It would have been a short introduction to “new materialism”, a theoretical wave that argued/s for there to be much more in the world than representations, signifying structures and ideologies — that non-human things exist, independently of us, and that for us to understand matter and embodiment, we need to see it as active, dynamic and stemming from the primacy of relations. Well, the proposal did not get too far. The other reviewer was more or less puzzled about the whole existence of the term, writing that it was just invented for the purposes of the proposal and did not have currency outside in academic debates — in other words, new materialism does not exist (despite the proposal flagging that it is not only Manuel Delanda who had used the term but also Rosi Braidotti, with significant theoretical debates in material feminisms of for instance Grosz and Barad, and of course theoretical ideas since Lawrence Grossberg to the very different ideas of matter and the non-human by Latour and even Kittler!).
Only within months books with “new materialism” in their title, or with allusions to it, like Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, started to come out and even more strongly identify a field and a wave of interest. This theoretical discourse has been recently continued with publications such as New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies. For me, it is important to really understand the multiplicity in debates concerning matter, the real and non-human — something that at times get understood very narrowly and in a very recent context, despite the longer roots of such ideas. Dolphjin and van der Tuin write nicely that “Our proposition is that new materialism is itself a distinctive trend, both in feminist theory and in cultural theory more broadly, and a device or tool for opening up theory formation.” (100)
Another book discussing new materialism – especially in art theory and practice – is now out. Edited by Barbara Bolt and Estelle Barrett Carnal Knowledge: Towads a New Materialism Through the Arts engages with a range of practices and artistic media, from painting to video, film to dance in order to elaborate new vocabularies of materiality. I have not seen the whole book yet, but I myself co-authored a piece on dance — on a fantastic choreography performed by himself, Tero Saarinen: a modulation of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, now called Hunt. The media artist Marita Liulia did the visuals. The piece is explosive. The angle of the text is on dynamics of movement, primacy of relations and biopolitics of dance.
One of the luxuries of being academic is that you should contradict yourself – on purpose and on a regular basis. Actually, when refined to its best, this can be an art of argumentation (and arguing) as in the wonderful public self-critique by Søren Kierkegaard. Writing under many aliases, he was his own fiercest critic. This might not be a contradiction, but let’s say a minor defense of something I have critiqued before.
As for me, promoting “primacy of non-humans” and being enthusiastic about “new materialism”, I find myself with this odd feeling that I have felt the need to defend “texts” and “discourse” as I have recently started to (well, kinda). Usually rather more being interested in post-representational thought (Thrift 2007) and indeed new materialism (Braidotti, Massumi, Delanda, Grosz, Barad, and many others) it has been for me much more interesting to think what takes materially place, how and when, than what things mean, signify, represent. Besides the enthusiasm for representations that took a central place in cultural studies vocabulary since the 1980s, or even with the performative that happens inside discourse, I did enjoy the idea that bodies have a materiality that is irreducible to such dimensions.
Now this brand of recent aberration from signification goes often under the name of anti-correlationism, and critique of such a modern framework of thought, indeed, which grabbed even a lot of post-structuralism. Quentin Meillaissoux’s texts, and especially mediation of such ideas in speculative realism or object-oriented-ontology, is of course central, even if I would claim his arguments are not completely unique.
A lot of this discourse (!) is well captured at the beginning of The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism:
[In] ‘The Speculative Turn’, one can detect the hints of something new. By contrast with the repetitive continental focus on texts, discourses, social practices, and human finitude, the new breed of thinkers is turning once more towards reality itself. While it is difficult to find explicit positions common to all the thinkers… all have certainly rejected the traditional focus on textual critique… all of them, in one way or another, have begun speculating once more about the nature of reality independently of thought and of humans more generally (Bryant, Srnicek and Harman 2011: 3).
I am not disagreeing, of course, as this path articulated by Delanda, and what I wrote about in 2006 (Parikka & Tiainen 2006) with similar arguments (more in the context of cultural studies though, than philosophy) is what I still find necessary as a way to specify what we mean by critique. (One should at this point nod towards Latour 2004 for instance).
What I am however interested in adding is to point to the longer disciplinary histories of alternative, material takes on textuality and discourse (or let’s say, variations of such post-structuralist themes) as well as the theme of cultural techniques. Besides various cultural histories of reading and related practices (my own background training was in cultural history), one finds lots of strong theoretical takes on such matters.
Indeed, to think of something close to my own turf, German media theory has been for a longer time, since 1980s, been successful in turning for instance Lacan, Foucault and Derrida into historically contextualised and materialised sets of theoretical affordances. Their post-structural notions, at times indeed very textually oriented (and yes, it did always rub me the wrong way) are de-territorialized so as to become more suitable to understand the variety of material modalities of expression. For Kittler, it was a matter of taking Foucault but showing there are other things in the world besides books and textual archives; the world of machines, circuits, and computers.
Indeed, take Markus Krajewski’s (2011: 34) recent memoir of Kittler’s class from early 1990s:
“Kittler, […]pointed out what was required to attend and complete the class successfully: the minimum precondition for this course was the ability to handle the Linux free c compiler ‘gcc’ with all flags and options on the command line. Silence in the room. For those who were willingto learn directly how to handle the beast he would briefly give an introduction to this art. He, then, went to the chalk board and – with verve – wrote one line:
gcc -ansi -pedantic -Wall -Wextra -Werror -o myprog file1.c file2.c –lm”
Much more than textual critique, Kittler’s methodology in teaching and research related to understanding the materialities of the computer on various levels – from software (he wrote in low-level Assembler himself) to hardware (having built his own synthesizer in the 1970s).
For such as Bernhard Siegert, a lot of the discourse of Foucault but also for instance Derrida is taken only as a starting point to analyses that take more interest in materialities such as paper, or bibliographic and typographic details – like the point/full stop (Punkt). His Passage des Digital is such a rich body of work that spans different notation systems, materialities, elements (not least water!!) into a historically continuously specified argument.
A lot of such approaches go under the name of cultural techniques – an approach to investigate textualities, but also other forms of knowledge and expression.
Histories of knowledge, science and media are understood not through texts as semiotics, but texts as part of complex spatial and temporal knowledge systems, cultural techniques completely material where things from the material characteristics of the inscription surface (what kind of paper used) to the wider spatial and temporal infrastructures matters. In Passage des Digitalen, this task comes out as:
1) instead of semiotics, let’s focus on cultural techniques of reading, writing, signs and counting
2) not ideal objects, signs are actually in the world as res extensa; symbols are always machinated
3) Sign practices are specified to certain institutional spaces, of which for Siegert interest are the office, the ship, the atelier, the laboratory, the academia, etc. (this threefold definition loosely translated/paraphrased from Siegert 2003: 14)
In short, discourse is mobilized as material. Another simple, often quoted definition of cultural techniques goes like this:
“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 still 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)
What this approach is useful for is indeed how far we can go with it. It does not make such strong claims of ontology as in some more recent philosophical debates, but tries methodologically to mobilize approaches that take into materiality. What this does is a more historically embedded understanding that we do things, and that things do us (?).
Besides the German heritage of materialist media theory, we can look at work that takes inspiration from science and technology studies as much as media studies. Jonathan Sterne is a perfect example here, of a mix of various traditions to highlight the complexity of such objects as Mp3 – part of cultural techniques non-reducible to the technological details, where however the latter afford specific bodily practices too. In other words, it’s not only about the human:
“Mp3 technology also has an interesting relationship with other bodily technologies of communication. The mp3 works automatically on the body. Mp3 listening might involve ‘practical knowledge’ (Bourdieu, 1990), where the body goes through routines that do not enter the conscious mind. Certainly, mp3 listening requires a whole set of bodily techniques, dispositions and attitudes. But the mp3 goes even further than this. The encoded mathematical table inside the mp3 that represents psychoacoustic response suggests less a ‘technique of the body’ as these authors would have it, than a concordance of signals among computers, electrical components and auditory nerves.” (Sterne 2006: 837)
Such objects as Mp3 are stretched across a variety of materialities, from bodily techniques to mathematics at the core of it as a technological artifact – a connection obviously to Meillassoux’s mathematical ontology. A weird object indeed (btw. Keep your eyes open to Sterne’s MP3 book coming out I believe soon).
Now it would be easy to counter that by saying that such approaches do not really tap into the reality of the objects – the non-human nature of objects outside the correlationist relation, and having an autonomy non-reducible to relations or practices.. Yet, this is where for me the notion of materiality is more useful than that of reality. As Grosz has pointed out, talk of realism – even non-human – is still tied to positions of epistemology, not ontology; she prefers to call herself a materialist even if soon using the term “real” to refer to dynamics of production: “I am much more interested in the dynamic force of the real itself and how the real enables representation and what of the real is captured by representation.” (Grosz in Kontturi & Tiainen 2007, 247) In any case, if we approach things through materiality, we might be closer to the dynamics of production of realities (sic), of relevance to issues historically significant from political, mediatic and economic points of view. Indeed, such an approach maintains closer ties with the longer traditions of historical materialism (thanks to Alex Galloway for the heads up on this, and his insightful articulation in another context on similar issues), and flags the difference between realism and materialism – and perhaps is able to take further some of the limitations of earlier traditions.
Bryant, L., Srnicek, N., and Harman, G. (2011) The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, Melbourne: Re:Press.
Kontturi, Katve-Kaisa & Tiainen, Milla (2007) “Feminism, Art, Deleuze and Darwin: An Interview with Elizabeth Grosz” Nora—Nordic Journal of Women’s Studies, Vol. 15, No. 4, 246–256, November 2007.
Krajewski, Markus (2011) “On Kittler applied: A technical memoir of a specific configuration in the 1990s” Thesis Eleven 2011, 107: 33.
Latour, Bruno (2004) Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? Critical Inquiry Volume: 30, Issue: 2: 225-248
Macho, Thomas (2003) “Zeit und Zahl: Kalender- und Zeitrechnung als Kulturtechniken,” in Bild-Schrift-Zahl, ed. Sybille Krämer and Horst Bredekamp (Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2003), 179. (The passage translated by Geoffrey Winthrop-Young).
Parikka, Jussi & Tiainen, Milla (2006) “Kohti materiaalisen ja uuden kulttuurianalyysia, eli representaation hyödystä ja haitasta elämälle.” Kulttuurintutkimus 2/2006)
Siegert, Bernhard (2003) Passage des Digitalen. Zeichenpraktiken der neuzeitlichen Wissenschaften 1500-1900 (Berlin: Brinkmann & Bose)
Sterne, Jonathan (2006) “The MP3 as a Cultural Artefact” New Media & Society, Vol8(5):825–842.
Thrift, Nigel (2007) Post-Representational Theory (London and New York: Routledge)
University of East London
Centre for Cultural Studies Research
Pushing the Limits of the Affective Workspace: Revolts, Absorption, and Ecologies of Waste
A symposium with Jussi Parikka, Stevphen Shukaitis and Tony D. Sampson
Chair: Jeremy Gilbert, CCSR
UEL Docklands Campus
(ground ﬂoor, main building, turn left upon entering the main square after leaving Cyprus DLR
Cyprus DLR is literally situated at the campus)
Free, All welcome. No need to book.
The boundaries of capitalist workspaces are continuously stretched to new limits. Work is pushed into the home, the obsolescent and the unconscious. Focusing on affective labour, new materialism and neuromarketing, this seminar looks initially beyond the media screens of the digital industries to the wasteful ecologies of obsolescent technology. It then explores resistance to contemporary capitalism extending to, for example, the refusal of caring labour. Last, it repositions the attentive subject of cognitive capitalism in a neurological space of absorbent and mostly unconscious consumption.
Media Matters as Ecology
Jussi Parikka, Winchester School of Art (University of Southampton).
This talk investigates “new materialism” through the context of media ecology – but ecology understood literally and through electronic waste, and the various temporalities and materialities of obsolescence. It argues, following Sean Cubitt’s and German media theory lead, for such a focus to technical media that accounts not only what’s on the screen, but what enables “media” as content to exist. German media theory has been successful to track this back to the engineering and scientific roots of modern entertainment media, but this talk focuses on electronic waste, and its relation to information technology work, but from a slightly alternative perspective. As such, the talk also touches discussions of “affective labour” as well as non-representational approaches to contemporary media culture.
Jussi Parikka is Reader in Media & Design at Winchester School of Art (University of Southampton). His books include Digital Contagions (2007), Insect Media (2010) and the forthcoming What is Media Archaeology? (2012). He has co-edited The Spam Book (with Tony D. Sampson, 2009) and Media Archaeology (with Erkki Huhtamo, 2011).
Learning from Affective Revolts: Social Reproduction & Political Subjectiviation
Stevphen Shukaitis, University of Essex / Autonomedia
Despite the importance that autonomist feminism has played in the development of autonomist politics and struggles it is commonly relegated to little more than a glorious footnotes of figures emerging out of operaisti thought (such as Antonio Negri and Paolo Virno). Organizing around gender, affective labor, and issues of reproduction posed numerous important questions to forms of class struggle that focused exclusively on the figure of the waged industrial worker. Revolts of housewives, students, the unwaged, and farm workers led to a rethinking of notions of labor, the boundaries of workplace, and effective strategies for class struggles: they enacted a critical transformation in the social imaginary of labor organizing and struggle. By drawing on the history and of these struggles (such as the various Wages for Housework Campaigns and current organizing such as Precarias a la Deriva) and ideas of those involved (such as Silvia Federici, Leopoldina Fortunati, Mariarosa Dallacosta, and Alisa Del Re) this paper will explore some lessons that can be learned from these a(e)ffective insurgency. Taking seriously the questions posed by these struggles are extremely important because as Alisa Del Re argues, attempting to refuse and reduce forms of imposed labor and exploitation without addressing the realms of social reproduction and housework amounts to building a notion of utopia upon the continued exploitation of female labor. Furthermore the often cramped positions that organizing forms of affective labor and social reproduction (housewives, sex workers, etc) occupies becomes all the more important as these processes are further integrated into the composition of contemporary capitalism. How does one refuse caring labor? Strategies for organizing around affective labor, what Precarias a la Deriva have called a “very careful strike,” are important to learn from to find ways “not a high productivity of domestic labor but a higher subversiveness in the struggle.” (Dallacosta/James)
Stevphen Shukaitis is a lecturer at the University of Essex and a member of the Autonomedia editorial collective. He is the author of Imaginal Machines: Autonomy & Self-Organization in the Revolutions of Everyday Day (2009, Autonomedia) and editor (with Erika Biddle and David Graeber) of Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations // Collective Theorization (AK Press, 2007). His research focuses on the emergence of collective imagination in social movements and the changing compositions of cultural and artistic labor.
Following the Glint in the Eye of the Consumer
Tony D. Sampson, University of East London
New developments in marketing techniques not only aim to sidestep the self-reporting of consumer experiences, but also look beyond the explicit cognitive realm of visual representation to exploit instead the implicit, unconscious affective systems of consumption. Like this, the neuromarketer measures the streams of affect the consumer somatically absorbs in the atmosphere. As the enthusiastic CEO of one US based neuromarketing company puts it, these techniques help the marketer to go beyond conscious consumer engagement with a product and actively seek out what unconsciously attracts them. “Absorption is the ideal,” he claims. This is because it “signifies that the consumer’s brain has not only registered your marketing message or your creative content, but that the other centers of the brain that are involved with emotions and memory have been activated as well.” Along these lines, persuasion and absorption seemingly involves priming the sensory experiences of consumption so as to achieve a number of design goals intended to influence purchase intent.
Tony D. Sampson is a London-based academic and writer. He lectures on new media at UEL where he also leads the new media degree programmes. He is the co-editor (with Jussi Parikka) of The Spam Book: On Viruses, Porn and Other Anomalies From the Dark Side of Digital Culture (Cresskill, Hampton Press, 2009) and the author of Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks (University of Minnesota Press) to be published later this year. His current research focuses on the latest applications of noncognitive psychology in studies of human computer interaction.
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.
Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and its paranoid military-scientific worlds of technology, sexuality and hallucination became one inspirational figure for a whole wave of media theory. What could we do with Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia (2008) then, which seems to include some similar stylistic elements, of transdisciplinary writing that wanders across rats and soil, petrol(ology) and archaeology to understand Middle-East? From Pynchon’s WWII Europe, to Negarestani’s Middle-East, politics of petrol.
The archaeological method of Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia represents a theory-fiction alternative for media archaeology too. What if we employ the same hallucinatory, inspiring way of investigating the subterranean, the secret, the ground that is not defined by stability but dynamic flux of sediments alive, burrowed by rats, worms and archaeologists? We can call this investigation new materialist because it believes in agency of matter, and multiplicity of things both organic and non-organic. What does this multiplicity mean? It means a microworld that unravels when you zoom close: close enough, and the skin is not a unity, but porous folding, layered, and filled with bacteria. The soil is not stable, but a constantly slowly pulsating topology, with its own affordances, and indeed, again, bacteria and other forms of life. Same applies to everything, even metal, or as Deleuze and Guattari would say, especially to metal. In their metallurgical thinking, it is the body without organs, here better understood through the idea of what flows through everything – metallurgical cosmology. This is why they insist on the relatedness of machinic phylum and metal – and why they say that everything is a machine (not because it would be modelled on any already existing machine or technology!)
“Even the waters, the grasses and varieties of wood, the animals are populated by salts or mineral elements. Not everything is metal, but metal is everywhere.” (DG)
In Cyclonopedia, the character Parsani calls the approach to the subterranean “bacterial archaeology” – an archaeology that starts from the non-human agents and microscopic attraction points within matter. And the matter extends to politics, society, and power:
“Bacterial Archeology. It is imperative for Parsani, in his approach to the Middle East, to make clear that everything related to the Middle East emerges, moves, diffuses, escalates and engenders itself through and out of the holey Hezar’to (A Thousand Insides; the Persian word for labyrinth) and the Petrologies of Bacterial Archeology.’”
The earth moves, and hums.
The methodology is that of exhuming, which both archaeologists and rats share.
“If archeologists, cultists, worms and crawling entities almost always undertake an act of exhumation (surfaces, tombs, cosmic comers, 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.”
Just for speculative reasons, let’s use the same logic of thought to our technological excavations and use this as inspiration to think of the exhuming we do with media cultural topics – or machines themselves. One cannot help relating this to the epistemology and hallucinatory methods of Microresearch Lab, where the processes of soil and nature already technological are excavated in order to proliferate new surfaces – like the skin of the machine, that does not stop at the visible surface (interface/cover). It is topological, and folds in to a multiple surfaces, some inside, some abstract, some irrational.
In terms of animality, Cyclonopedia talks about rats as one agency of exhuming, parallel to archaeologists. How about then: Rats as archaeologists, or rats as media theorists? Such animals work less as metaphors than as vectors to think through the non-human force of analysis. To actually end up somewhere else than with more human focused vocabulary of cultural theory and methodology.
Furthermore, can we even extract ideas for archaeological politics – a politics for the military-industrial complex in the age of advanced science and technology?
“Parsani claims that ‘archeology, with it’s ingrained understanding of Hidden Writing, will dominate the politics of future and will be the military science of twenty-first century’.”