“Medya Jeolojisi“, a Turkish translation of my “Geology of Media”-piece is now available on Birikim online. A big thanks to translators Ezgi Akdağ & Aycan Katıtaş! The short text offers an alternative account of media materiality, and it was originally published in The Atlantic. (Also a Swedish translation is expected).
The short piece is a good teaser trailer to the forthcoming book(s): The Anthrobscene (forthcoming 2014) and Geology of Media (expected Spring 2015).
Perhaps photochemical smog is the only true new visual media of post World War II technological culture. It represents the high achievements in science and technology, combined with (synthetic) chemistry and sunlight. It modulates the light like advanced visual media should and embeds us in its augmented reality as we suck it into our lungs.
It encapsulates the mediatic cities of Los Angeles and Beijing, as encompassing surely as Hollywood’s machinery. Just like the material basis of technical media of more conventional kind – such as photography and film – it is chemical based. It is media the same as any photochemical process is about how light gets absorbed on our planet’s atoms and molecules.
But it’s new media, particular to the modern industrial age and the chemical reactions of more recent history. It feeds of industrial pollution and modern transport. It is about the screen as well – how the sunlight is offered this massive living chemical molecular screen on which to project its energetic images. A molecular aesthetics of an ecology of a dying planet.
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
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)