The new issue of Journal of Visual Culture is a celebration of Marshall McLuhan. The Canadian media theorist’s classic book, Understanding Media: Extensions of Man, was published 50 years ago and editor Raiford Guins asked several writers to remember the book with a very short text. The texts in the issue are reactions, variations, recollections and remediations of McLuhan and his themes.
My own text (pp.91-93) was written in Istanbul: a short variation on McLuhan, urban space, weaponization and media environments.
Jussi Parikka: “McLuhan at Taksim Square”
I was carrying a fresh copy of Understanding Media with me on Istiklal Street, Istanbul, alongside people in gas masks and police in riot gear. It no longer felt relevant to write about past experiences of engaging with the book or to reflect on McLuhan as a forerunner of media archaeology. This time I did not want to write about ‘anti-McLuhan’ minor histories of media technologies: the ones that do not take media as extensions of Man but as extensions of the animal – for instance, insects – as their starting point (Parikka, 2010).
Travelling from the Anatolian side of Istanbul with a ferry to Kabatas, the chapter on ‘Weapons’ seemed to strike a chord. Extensive tear-gassing and police operations had turned some parts of the city into something unrecognizable, like in a state of emergency. The events at Gezi Park and its occupation grew from an environmental protest to widespread demonstrations across Turkey. Besides the environmental context, the demonstrations were against the authoritarian measures of the state: excessive tear-gassing, random arrests, and persecution of journalists, spokesmen and – women. In the light of McLuhan one starts to think about the various cultural techniques and media contexts of the events in Istanbul. The usual suspects – social media such as Twitter – were quickly acknowledged as important platforms of knowledge sharing but also for a circulation of the affects of outrage, disbelief and defiance. Online media services seemed to quickly open up a new forum for political discussion, crystallized in the inventive use of hashtags as forms of software literacy. When the mainstream media were airing documentaries on penguins, tweets from Gezi were distributing a whole different set of images about what was happening to public space in Turkey. Tear gas produced its own eerie atmosphere on the streets of Istanbul, which had quickly transformed into policed spaces accessible only with gas masks: a denial of the breath (Sloterdijk, 2009).
Walking up from Kabatas port towards Taksim, one could observe this sort of expansion of the meaning of media. This is where McLuhan is at his best. Media are not only about cinema, television, and radio. We start to see the world as media in itself: roads and surfaces, windows and squares become ways of mediating our relation to time and space. Walls are painted with ad hoc slogans; sprayed with images and words in order to mark a territory but also to leave a trace for the next passerby. The huge letters ‘GAZDOGAN’ referred to the prime minister Tayyip Erdogan and the tear-gas tactics of the government. Not only Facebook walls, but the city walls became quick and dirty media surfaces: I was struck by a photograph of an older Turkish man, in his 70s, drawing the face of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk on the wall. Then he walked to another street corner and drew another face of Mustafa Kemal. It was Kemal who introduced the Latin-based alphabet to Turkey in the 1920s and 1930s: in addition to a Europeanization of Turkey as a way to detach from the writing systems of Arabic and Persian origins, it was also ‘modernization’ in relation to the media technologies of telegraphy and the printing press to which the discrete nature was better suited. The alphabet escorts both a geopolitical orientation as well as entertains a relation to various technological changes not without an effect on our perceptual dispositions.
Atatürk persists as a symbolic reference point for various nationalist protestors: his political heritage nature is remediated as content of chants and demands of political nature. The visual space is not only about figures of Atatürk but also more carnevalistic: penguins (as a reference to mainstream media censorship) are suddenly as popular a source of remix and memes as cats usually are in internet culture. Political expression takes the form of artistic expression: ‘the artist must ever play and experiment with new means of arranging experience, even though the majority of his audience may prefer to remain fixed in their old perceptual attitudes’, writes McLuhan (2001: 276) in the chapter on the telegraph.
The online and the city are paired up in this production of visual resistance, but let’s not get too focused on content. One is struck by McLuhan’s reminder that ‘the city, itself, is traditionally a military weapon, and is a collective shield or armor plate, an extension of the castle of our very skins’ (p. 374). This idea is informative of the role of security, war and the city, but it also misses the point about the past years of security regimes which turn the city into an autoimmune disorder: the inhabitants become the targets of police forces, in relation to global events such as G8/G20 meetings (Renzi and Elmer, 2012), as well as such events as those in Turkish cities. But this autoimmune disease of the city does not extend the skin, but attacks the respiratory organs of people with tear gas. It burns the skin when the chemicals are infused with the water in water cannons. McLuhan is constantly useful as a reminder that media are everywhere, and are able to lock our senses in particular ways – perhaps not in the way that there would be always one dominating media episteme, such as literacy (cf. McLuhan, 2001: 373), but more temporarily as a form of attention management. Instead, there is a constant contestation as to the forms of media power: mainstream television might be producing visions of coldness, like documentaries about penguins, but that feeds back to remediations that expand the time and space of what we mean by media itself.
Renzi A and Elmer G (2012) Infrastructure critical: Sacrifice at Toronto’s G8/G20
Conference. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring.
McLuhan M (2001) Understanding Media. London: Routledge.
Parikka J (2010) Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Sloterdijk P (2009) Terror from the Air, trans. A Patton and S Corcoran. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).
Our co-organised event at SALT Galata in Istanbul gathered quite a good crowd of people interested in politics and software practices of archives. Together with Burak Arikan, and support from SALT and Winchester School of Art, we were able to get together great insights from academic, curatorial, and software art practice angles on how to think about cultural memory in the technological age. Our initial plan was to focus more on software art and archival question but in the light of past month or so, we wanted to make sure some sort of a connection to Gezi park, Istanbul and Turkey becomes visible. The talks are being uploaded online as video – below mine for those interested. It focused on questions of circulation, media practices, memory and archives in the techno-political context and asked the question of why might a future archivist suddenly find not only cute cat pictures circulating in the internet spaces of June 2013, but also so many penguins. I wanted to reflect on questions of memory and media practices through various examples of the creative visual culture surrounding the past events in Istanbul and Turkey.
We also gathered some follow-up interest. For instance the Today’s Zaman-newspaper interviewed me about the event: “is today’s media tomorrow’s archive?“
Here is Ebru Yetiskin’s article after the event: “Farklı Kaydet: Yeni Medya, Toplumsal Bellekler ve Başka Gelecekler” (in Turkish).
Save as: Social Memory
June 26-27, 2013 19:00
SALT Galata Atelier IV, Istanbul
Participants: Burak Arıkan, Joasia Krysia, Nicolas Malevé, Ali Miharbi, Jussi Parikka
One of the major concerns during the Gezi resistance was how to keep our memories, our pain and grief, our anger, our gains, and our losses alive. We tried to preserve our experiences and present them in numerous media. However, we haven’t had the time and means to critically approach to the rapidly growing archives or to create technologically enhanced curated content.
This symposium brings together three artists, a curator, and an academic who works in the area of software art, archive, and media archaeology. Cultural practices that use the language of technology and digital born content from different perspectives of preservation and memory will be debated. How can we preserve the software itself along with the content it generates? In what way should we consider software itself as the creative archive, arche, of our digital culture? What new archival practices does technology-based art and culture present? How do software, social media, and network practices introduce a sphere of counter-representation which curate alternative narratives of the present? Panelists will discuss the topics of archiving the present as we live, algorithmic curating in crisis, critical collective intelligence, and language of technology as a thinking tool.
Wednesday June 26th
19:15 Jussi Parikka – Media Archaeology: Archives of the Present
20:00 Nicolas Malevé – Sniff and sneak through my archives
20:45 Ali Miharbi – Language of technology as a thinking tool
Thursday June 27th
19:00 Joasia Krysia – Speculations on Algorithmic Curating
19:45 Burak Arıkan – Counter Collective Intelligence
20:30 Round Table
Abstracts and bios of speakers:
Jussi Parikka – Media Archaeology: Archives of the Present
Media Archaeology has emerged the past years as a dynamic theory about media culture. This refers to the impact it has had in giving a vocabulary for the material constitution of contemporary technical media culture. Media archaeology examines media technical conditions of existence of culture, and as such, is in a good position to frame the relevance of software for questions of the archive.
However, media archaeology is also a way to investigate the ontology of the present: it asks what sorts of mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion constitute what we perceive, and what remains unperceived? How is the network conditioning our sense of knowledge and our sense of the everyday? How will the speculative future archivist, looking back at June 2013, see and understand our events and networked condition, conditioned by software as well as its political context.
Jussi Parikka Bio
Dr Jussi Parikka is a media theorist who writes on media archaeology, digital culture and obscure topics from insects to viruses. He is Reader in Media & Design at Winchester School of Art, University of Southampton and author of various books, essays and other writings. His monographs include the award-winning Insect Media: An Archaeology of Insects and Technology, as well as the recent What is Media Archaeology? He blogs at http://jussiparikka.net
Nicolas Malevé – Sniff and sneak through my archives
‘(6/24/1996 9:44pm, Personal)”
Will she (either of them) share the love of pornography? Or at least, art? I shall present myself to both of them as a geniality self-flagellat%n machine. Just one bottle tonight, ok? I shall invite them on to my journey of change, showing the way ahead. Immortality. I will let them to sniff and sneak through my archives. (Erkki Kurenniemi, Newton diary, 1996).
The presentation will take as a point of departure the rich set of documents collected and created by Erkki Kurenniemi, Finnish pioneering electro acoustic musician and inventor of early synthesizers, who obsessively recorded his life. The talk will introduce to the different tools and methods we, Michael Murtaugh and Nicolas Malevé, members of the Belgian collective Constant, used to enter in dialog with the vast amount of unclassified documents that constitute the humus for an archive of Kurenniemi’s work.
These tools are our intermediaries, our extra senses to “read” the images, to “listen” to the sounds, to “watch” the videos. The algorithms we borrow, design or customize become our interlocutors. They report back from what they detect, correlate and connect in the different layers of data. They are different voices, each telling a its own story. Having presented these different voices, we will see what happens when other human agents (lawyers, archive institutions) join the dialogue between these intermediaries and ourselves.
Nicolas Malevé Bio
Since 1998 Nicolas Malevé, multimedia artist, has been an active member of the association Constant. As such, he has taken part in organizing various activities to do with alternatives to copyrights, such as Copy.cult & The Original Si(g)n, held in 2000. He has been developing multimedia projects and web applications for cultural organisations. His research work is currently focused on information structures, metadata and the semantic web and the means to visually represent them.
Ali Miharbi – Language of technology as a thinking tool
In this presentation I will sketch the potential of the language of technology as a tool to open up, enrich or simply illustrate our current discussions on social/political issues. Using examples of my work as points of departure I will touch on a variety of concepts like performativity, humor and the problem of representation.
Ali Miharbi Bio
Ali Miharbi (b. 1976) lives and works in Istanbul. He acquired a dual degree in Electrical & Computer Engineering (BS, 2000) and Art Theory & Practice – Painting (BA, 2000) at Northwestern University. In 2010 he completed his MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University. He opened his first solo exhibition at Interstate Projects, Brooklyn, NY. His recent group exhibitions include “Commons Tense”, Electriciteitsfabriek, The Hague (2012), “Turkish Art New and Superb”, TANAS, Berlin (2012), “Consequences are no coincidence”, Pilot Galeri, Istanbul (2012), “video_dumbo: Quasi Cinema”, Dumbo Arts Center, Brooklyn, New York (2011), “FILE 2011″, FIESP Cultural Center, São Paulo (2010), “When Ideas Become Crime”, Depo, Istanbul (2010). His work can take many forms from photographic, graphic or sculptural pieces to dynamic systems driven by live or stored data where he investigates mechanisms that underlie or are constituted by the flows of daily life.
Joasia Krysia – Speculations on Algorithmic Curating
Between the 1960s and 2005, Erkki Kurenniemi, the Finnish artist, scientist, futurologist and technology pioneer set out to document his everyday life with the intention to create a template for all human life that could be reenacted by algorithms to be written in a future quantum world (with the date 2048 in mind). In a wider sense Kurenniemi acted not only as an archivist of his life but also a kind of curator – working with materials not simply to collect and store but to shape using computational power once it is sufficient for purpose. In 2012 Constant Association for Art and Media began to develop some experiments, making programs to begin to understand Kurenniemi’s materials in ways that go beyond the traditional archiving procedures of ordering and classifying. I would like to argue that their approach is not simply archival either but curatorial in as much as they uncover aspects of what is not directly apparent in the material and produce meaning out of the work. This talk speculates further on this algorithmic approach and extend it to possibilities of thinking about the curatorial process in this way. I want to speculate on the use of algorithms in producing small curatorial experiments that begin to suggest new ways of understanding materials that are not directly apparent to human curators. Can we begin to think of curatorial processes and the production of curatorial knowledge that extends human agency and uncovers dynamic qualities of materials?
Joasia Krysia Bio
Joasia Krysa is Artistic Director of Kunsthal Aarhus (Denmark), and prior to this she was Associate Professor (Reader) in Art and Technology at Plymouth University, UK (2000 – 2012). She is co-founder of KURATOR, an association of curators and researchers interested in algorithmic culture, and was part of curatorial team for dOCUMENTA (13). She has a background in political sciences and cultural theory, and has PhD in the the field of curating. Her academic and curatorial work is located across contemporary art, digital culture, and critical theory.
She is series co-editor of the DATA browser books (New York), author of Ada Lovelace, notebook no 055 in the dOCUMENTA (13) series 100 Thoughts – 100 Notes (Hatje Cantz 2012) and the edited anthology Curating Immateriality (Autonomedia, 2006). She has contributed chapters to, amongst others, Software Studies: A Lexicon (MIT Press, 2008), and New Media in the White Cube and Beyond (University of California Press, 2008). Her current curatorial work include Systemic Series, a two year programme developed for Kunsthal Aarhus (2013-2014).
Burak Arıkan – Counter Collective Intelligence
Arıkan will pursue a traversal in his works, starting from MyPocket (2008) and raising questions on the preservation of immateriality; discussing Network Map of Foundations and Corporations in Turkey (2010) in relation to power and governence during the Gezi protests; narrating the collective network diagrams generated on the Graph Commons platform (2011-); and finally calling for action for a recent data research and mapping project, code named “Network of Dispossessions”, mapping of government-corporate partnerships in urban transformation.
Burak Arıkan Bio
Burak Arıkan is an artist working with complex networks. He takes the obvious social, economical, and political issues as input and runs through an abstract machinery, which generates network maps and algorithmic interfaces, results in performances, and procreates predictions to render inherent power relationships visible, thus discussable. Recent exhibitions include: Home Works 6 (2013), 11th Sharjah Biennial (2013), 7th Berlin Biennale (2012), and Nam June Paik Award Exhibition (2012). Arıkan is the founder of Graph Commons platform, dedicated to provide “network intelligence” for everyone.
Image: Network Map of Foundations and Corporations in Turkey-project by Burak Arikan.
It was summed up in a tweet: this could be the Turkish Spring. The person was referring to a CNNturk broadcast, which finally had picked up the story of the past days of occupation of the Gezi park in Istanbul and the following police violence. A peaceful protest turned into widely circulating images of tear gas, facial injuries, and a range of police measures that anyone seeing the pictures could not see as proportionate, despite some government officials trying to dismiss the events. Some tweeters escorted their images of tear gas filled Taksim with a reminder: “this is not Middle East, this is Istanbul”.
The occupations had to do with a tactical colonialisation of both hashtag space and real lived urban space. The fit to purpose and inevitable hashtags had already paved the way on Twitter: #Occupygezi and #Occupytaksim signalled the connection to the widely known occupation of the Zuccotti Park in New York that spread as model for global reappropriations: occupation of public streets as a form of reclaiming the commons. Such occupations were never really only about that particular space, but also more abstract but as real features: protests against the logic of financial capitalism and their relation to the securitization of public space.
The events at the Gezi Park might have started with protection of trees planned to be bulldozed to make space for yet another city mall, but they revealed much about the recent urban planning of Istanbul as well as global capitalism.
Istanbul had seen rather worrying street action the past months already: For instance the movement against the demolishing of the historical Emek film theatre was met by water cannons and tear gas. In less violent news, which however have to do with public space as well, the new legislation restricts retail sales of alcohol during the night and bans selling of alcohol near mosques.
Besides urban space, natural space has been another target. The plan to build a third bridge over Bosphorus has been fiercely criticized by a range of environmental and other groups for its clear madness: in addition to the massive cutting down of trees, such building projects including the new airport set to open in 2018 are a threat to the water resources of the area.
Of course slogans and hashtags matter in how they condense and collect a range of different images, narratives, participant accounts and political sentiments. Social media acted as a way to quick and dirty collating of material, not least images like on the tumblr site: http://occupygezipics.tumblr.com/ . Hence the reference to “Arab Spring” was something of a rather successful slogan. After all, Turkey was supposed to be the democratic moderate Muslim country acting as a role for the uprising Arab countries.
However, the past years have seen more of international attention to the range of human rights violations against journalists and activists. The events at Gezi Park are in this sense a rather logical continuation of control of public space that in Istanbul is paradoxically mixed with a political ignorance of specialist urban planners voicing their concerns. On the one hand, lots of the massive sizes building projects are short-sighted in terms of their implications for the environment and the long term future of the city. This includes lack of planning for instance for public transport, which in a city completely congested by millions of cars is not a minor feature. On the other hand, the police measures that restrict the public space and political protest are showing how the major financial investments and projects are tightly linked with authoritarian security.
Indeed, besides being able to tap into the past years of legacy of Occupy-movements as well as Arab Spring, the case for OccupyIstanbul is emblematic of bigger contexts. Like seemingly every contemporary struggle, the urban battle of Gezi park and the real-world struggle with capitalist development and authoritarian policing exists at in real spaces and commons and in digital hashtag spaces with established news agencies covering the former by following the latter.
But it also should be read again as part of a longer development: the exploitation of ecological resources and the public urban commons, and the connection between short-sighted economically driven planning with totalitarian security is something we should understand is not restricted to Istanbul.
People might be now wondering how can a city that is applying for the Olympics 2020 demonstrate such reckless behaviour. Unfortunately, this is actually not that contradictory. It also shows the capacity to control the public space, protect the commercial environments and brands and take necessary measures in construction projects to pave the way for global cultural events. In London, the Olympic year of 2012 London was also the year of Occupy movement camping front of St. Paul’s Cathedral. London 2012 might not have been a violent affair but it demonstrated a link between police-governed high tech security and global brands.
(images from Reuters and via Twitter. Thanks for feedback to Paul Caplan and for the constant stream of information to Emre Kizilkaya and dozens of others via Twitter…)
Congratulations to Paul Caplan who yesterday passed his viva very succesfully! These are the important moments of academic incorporeal transformation where one metamorphoses from Mr Caplan to Dr Caplan!
Besides OOO/OOP as its theoretical approach, it is a creative practice PhD, representing a very exciting addition to practice as research that relates to visual culture as well as software studies! See here for a video sample of his work and thinking (Originally in O-Zone: A Journal of Object Oriented Studies):
A Companion to New Media Dynamics is out now. And admittedly, it is quite expensive. But try to get your library to order a copy, as it does contain some really handy chapters on media culture, networks, politics of platforms, mobility, and more! I just finished reading a nice Sean Cubitt-piece (on media studies and new media studies), and will continue with some of the other great looking texts.
I co-wrote with Tony Sampson a piece on spam, network virality and contemporary capitalism and marketing: “Learning from Network Dysfunctionality: Accidents, Enterprise and Small Worlds of Infection”. It continues our joint interests into networks as well as viral capitalism, but with a specific Tardean twist.
This article on Rhizome inspired me to post this picture relating to a sort of a media archaeology of emoticons — before the digital, before mass communication over networks, and demonstrated as a form of “typographical art”. This one is from the Puck magazine, 1881.
For a more in-depth excavation of emoticons, we should look at the various work on categorisation of emotions across humans and animals that was a key topic of research also in the 19th century. It relates to the importance of the face before the facebook.
How about the face, expression and emotion more generally? For instance Charles Darwin was interested in the evolutionary aspects of faces and expressions, and at the centre of much interest lies a curious book by the neurologist Guillaume-Benjamin Duchenne de Boulogne: The Mechanism of Human Facial Expression, or an Electro-physiological Analysis of the Expression of the Passions Applicable to the Practice of the Fine Arts (1862)
Duchenne worked at the Salpêtrière hospital which later became known for its hysteric (female) patients, and the variety of new media based experiments and empirical methods by Charcot. In Duchenne’s work, the face, the expression was something that was the shared ground between humans and animals in these experiments.
Duchenne was in the 1860s using photography as a method to tap into the animal forces of the face. Photography offered him a way to capture the formal features of expressions. The patients were the models. Yet, two different time scales clashed. Photographic processes demanded a lot of time and holding the face still was difficult –Duchenne was using as his models mentally and physically ill patients. Instead of making photographic process quicker, he slowed down the body. By applying electrodes in right places of the face, the subject froze and kept the expression long enough – it became more than a fleeting expression, and an index for scientific purposes (indeed, Darwin was using these photographs, see Phillip Prodger’s Darwin’s Camera, Oxford University Press, 2009, 81-83).
For his own research and visualisation purposes, Darwin used engravings made from the photographs, where the electrodes were removed. This made the expressive faces slightly more natural, of course. An enforced typology of the face and emotion.
Don’t get me wrong despite my seemingly negative tone that is about to follow — this Wired-article about “tech’s premature births” is actually rather useful: it pitches the idea that media inventions and products have their own “time”. Some enter the stage too early, and of course, some too late. The story collects “stories of technologies, services, products, people and ideas that arrived too early — they either failed as a business for simply being ahead of their time, changed an industry for the worse because of the period of their birth, or simply suffered under hands too eager to ship a product.”
It even sounds a bit in-tune with a media archaeological interest in the “losers” of media history, which perhaps paved the way for something more succesful that followed later. However, what bugs me ever so slightly is the way in which this sort of discourse easily assumes that there is the right time — and pitches that as the norm. This is pretty much the time of commercial success, which naturalises the place of media technologies as part of the digital economy/creative industries product-way of thinking. Media are the stuff of business pages. Instead, the weirdness, inventions or political stakes of media devices remain sidelined. “Psychopathia medialis” was the term Siegfried Zielinski coined for the linearised media histories our capitalist culture loves. We are easily assuming that success comes through the evaluation and support of venture capitalists. Indeed, if we focus on the idea that there is a right time for these devices to make their mark, we should also ask what kinds of economic and political mechanisms are needed to support this. There is no general “cultural atmosphere” in which a media innovation just is succesful. Indeed, as Dmitry Kleiner and the Telekommunists keep on reminding us, perhaps we need a bit more of venture communism to provide those alternative life support mechanisms for innovations that are out of a different time than the ones supported by capitalist investment logic. Different kinds of devices and platforms might then survive through the neonatal intensive care unit of tech.
I am not the most qualified person to analyse the political economy and at times slightly exaggerated role of conferences; I do not really too often go to the big ones where the whole system of recruitment and other sort of social/affective work of academia happens. I am sure there are loads of management books on such topics and their importance. Not that I have anything against being social – just being a Finn you have to limit it a bit, not to get exhausted with the overwhelming number of people that would amount to the total number of a small Finnish village easily. However, at times events really strike a chord – like Code at the Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne: a fantastic combination of academic quality and lovely people.
I am a firm believer in that the more interesting academic benefit of such events is not hearing someone speak, but that you are able to meet and talk outside the sessions; whether casual chattering or on the topic of the presentation. This is hardly a surprise. But it is not only the meet & greet networking silly management culture that we are persuaded to pursue, but actually having some affective pleasure from finding out that academics are not completely subsumed into corporate climb-the-ladder assholism.
Of course, talks can be really good in triggering ideas. What I mean by that is at least my own prespective that I have often trouble in immediately summarizing someone’s talk in its entirety, and instead I get nuggets, something that triggers an idea. In this sense as well, Code was a success.
The event was not focused down solely on software culture or critical code studies despite the frequent references to Chun, Galloway and Kittler – and some other usual suspects. I perceived something of an expanded notion of code in the sense that through the theme, a lot of presentations pointed to a broader context of materialities in which code takes place; logistics, management, intermedial relations, aesthetic, and non-computer placed coding of social actions/events like with the Human Fax Machine-experiment. Talks ranged from reddit to Ring(u), cars to Erica T. Carter, commandline to Google, and signal to Simondon. Code had already introduced its own approach to the idea even with a conference reading list!
Besides having the pleasure of listening to the fantastic keynotes by Anna Munster and Christian McCrea, for instance the plenary panel of Melissa Gregg, Ned Rossiter, Soenke Zehle and Mark Coté was the best one can hope for. Brilliant speakers all of whose I work admire a lot, and the topics were nicely resonating. For instance Gregg’s take on the Getting Things Done (GTD) software was something that illuminates what I tried to just briefly address in my own keynote on Cultural Techniques of Cognitive Capitalism (more on that later in a separate blog post): the entanglement of media, management, affect and modes of production in contemporary digital culture. Such practices, techniques and technologies frame the will for more time and freedom, as well as creativity, which ground notions such as cognitive capitalism, and in Gregg’s case she was able to show the deep layers of such ideas of “work smarter, not harder”. Exhaustion, tiredness and fatigue have not disappeared from the gendered worlds of management of office and post-office work. Such affect management and self control are excellent ways of articulating the curious emphasis on the cognitive and affective in relation to modes of production: they hover somewhere between of the tiring and energizing, of repetitive and creative. In this context, see also the Zooming Secretary game that Gregg started with — filing cabinets, telephones and coffee boosts; affective attunement.
It was also pleasure to hear Coté talk of his book project on Data Motility which is one of those great moments when we get someone with a fantastic knowledge of Italian political theory and current media theory talking about a topic of Digital Humanities. DH at times “forgets” the existence of media theory, as well as the longer history of humanities-technology partnering, but at the same time of course we need to be ready to update our theoretical perspectives in relation to new modes of quantities, qualities, and abstractions.
Coté ‘s book promises to be really exciting, offering an insight to data having a self-generated sense of movement as well as being the object of value creation: big social data is the sociality of the data for instance collected on social media, which highlights its polyvalence and social and economic valorisation. According to Coté big social data can be seen constituting a certain mode of humanness that humanities should tackle with. This sort of conditioning is the sort you get from the directions of Leroi-Gourhan and others. But it also points to the direction of debt, an interesting idea Coté suggests: what if we understand our relation with the data collected as one of debt, as analysed by for instance Lazzarato. Big social data in social media contexts is one of endless payments and demands of creating the social through actions, in order to justify our existence.
Both Rossiter and Zehle talked of logistics; Rossiter towards the worlds of media and management, transposition of labour to code & algorithms (which probably would resonate with some insights from Fuller & Goffey’s recent Evil Media) and Zehle in relation to gestures. Indeed, listening the two talks in the same panel made the audience aware of the multiscalar worlds of logistics – from human social affect and gestures, to the abstracted worlds of simulations and games in which management and logistics can be rehearsed.
Even if I mention only some of the papers here, throughout the conference I felt more inspired than in most of the events I visit. As said, this extends to the time outside the actual talks; people are engaged in several interesting projects, which made me actually, and without irony, feel rather ok about being an academic. And in that context, it was less painful to visit the other side of the world, Melbourne, and do two long haul flights within 10 days. I myself talked about some new things I am engaged in – a sort of a project pitch for something that might turn out to be a bigger project event – and gave a “master class” on Media Archaeology & Cultural Techniques.
I was recently invited to deliver the annual keynote lecture for the graduates of Amsterdam University New Media Studies MA cohort. Below is the talk (August 29, 2012) that I did – sorry for the length of this post, but might interest some.
Turf Instead of Turf Wars:
The Future of Media Theory (as Bin Theory)
I was asked to talk about the Future of Media Theory – but I have to admit, talking about the future of anything has never been one of my strengths. Trained as a historian, a cultural historian to be accurate, one of my fortes was to engage with the past. Surrounded by other PhD students and colleagues who were doing research on Antique Greece, Early Modern Cultures, or for instance Victorian travel writing, I was often in a mixed peer group when trying to figure my head around historical aspects of new media culture. There seemed to be something comforting thinking that the old was always at some point new (as a reference to Carolyn Marvin’s pioneering research from the 1980s). However that sort of escape route proved early on to be an asset: I sort of consoled myself that at least, this way, I do not have to worry about keeping up; the hyperbolic pace of media cultural discourse, of shifts, moving forward, sideways, changing its object of desire from one gadget to another, screen innovation to next, network buzz word to the next buzz, theory to another turn – all of this could be, perhaps, bypassed the other way; what was the new of the past, or the novelty that again feels fresh – something that a brand of theorists call media archaeology. Or, if you prefer, call it bin theory; about things discarded, waste(d), sometimes yuckily stuck together so as to lose their individual contours, and where digging in the dumpster will get your hands dirty. Digging in the ruins to discover new things. Not just being behind of the curve, but actually turned back to look at the previous alley, probably its dumpster, for something slightly more curious of an example than the emergence of the new – to paraphrase one Finnish scholar (Mika Pantzar), there is nothing more worn out than the continuous talk of the new.
I want to talk about one of the benefits of media theory as part of media studies – of theoretical absurdities that make sense; and sense-making that should be at times discarded; this approach relates to the speculative power of such an interdisciplinary field and its way to tackle with much more than media, or perhaps other formulation would be “not-just-media”. Let me get back to that formulation soon, but before that, just open up the agenda a bit more; so what if, instead of the normal media studies check list that gives you a nice, predictable list of “media” from television to other screens, from network media to more specifically software, games, and so forth – what if instead, you start to look at media in all sorts of weird places?
Indeed, people in media studies, for instance the prestigious Bernhard Siegert in Germany, have approached things like doors and ships as media of sorts. Consider it for a while: what is a door if not a mediating factor between insides and outsides, a basic anthropological element that divides spaces and as such, stands at the beginning of any power relation; how thresholds are controlled in terms of access, people, goods, traffic of various sorts? All these sound like questions an analyst of network culture might ask but we can transpose the question to such archaic thresholds too. Indeed, as Siegert reminds us, there are a lot of non-humans involved too. Of course, there are very human cultural techniques concerning doors, like how loud or quietly you are trained and educated to shut it and yet the materiality of the door (which as we know, can come in many guises from household doors to gates to automatic doors, sliding doors, to those logic gates you find inside computers…) is what itself plays a role as an agency.
Besides doors, we could consider, as does Siegert and other scholars engaged in analysis of cultural techniques, maps, diagrams, graphs, practices such as servantry (see Markus Krajewski’s work) and more as ways to open up the media studies checklist – media studies becomes more than just media, not just media, as a way to understand a range of technologies, gestures, practices and techniques which consolidate a range of things under the umbrella of what we blandly call media. Such are part of the necessary gestures of extending the boundaries of what we do, just for the sake of getting away of the stuffy indoors and knocking on the doors of other disciplinary huts; don’t always even knock and be pollite but poach and steal, smuggle and translate, transform – a range of pirate practices for theory production too, which constitute what a bit tiredly is often called interdiscplinarity. For what is media studies already from the outset if not interdisciplinary? It deals with themes familiar from science and engineering, of cultural studies and anthropology, of social sciences and, if you want to push your boundaries, mathematics too – for some theorists, including Wolfgang Ernst, it is with mathematics that our specific understanding of technical media should start. From Pythagoras to time-critical processes of current computers, mathematics opens a whole media epistemology.
For sure, media is definitely not only about mediating or communicating. We need to stir up things with theory, and theory itself has a peculiar place in contemporary academia. While an increasing amount of for instance institutions try to purge theory out from their media studies courses in order to gain street cred in terms of vocational skills deemed necessary for the digital economy (such a British buzz word), the other side of the coin in our field of arts and humanities and philosophy is the lust for glamour of theory. Theoretical turns and trendification of even metaphysical speak is an index of both looming turf wars as well as theory as a brand; in the current attempts to neoliberalise universities, theory becomes work of heroes (and still, slightly less often heroines), often described in the language of war; wars on social media from Twitter and blogs as platforms much quicker than in the age of David Hume and Jean Jacques Rousseu, the quarrelling philosophers of the 18th century – for them, the media of turf wars were letters. In wars, and neoliberalist managerial wet fantasies, theory becomes performed as slick and without hiccups. Theory becomes confused with Ted –talks and the theorist as a brand, smooth and convincing salesperson, demonstrating also the powers of performance (see Paolo Virno on these points) on stage that one demands both as a visual culture phenomena but also increasingly in terms of scholarship as customer service as in the UK.
But there are more acute reasons for our expansion of media theory than just for the sake of avoiding stuffy academic air. What interests me in this case are not turf wars, but more closely turf itself, as well as things below the turf; we can use theory as a pathway itself to open up and question lists of things, as well as old habits, and include a range of new things for our conceptualisations. There is a practice of theory as well. In relation to my bigger theme today, the past years have seen a whole media zoology (and Zootechnics, see Vehlken’s recent book) emerge, with animals and animal studies finding a joint tune with some media studies theories; similarly things ecological, even under another theoretical theme of past years, media ecology, are mapped as part of the very concrete material contexts in which media takes place and displace. Rubbish, electronic waste, and the concretely ecological contexts of media are what constitute another way of seeing where things come from and end up – and using seemingly insignificant themes to track and map what is the more abstract and still yet one of widespread effects. Such media cartography is one way to see that task of a much more world oriented, and even object-oriented route for some. This also might be an arena for bin theory – clearly a relative of what McKenzie Wark calls P(OO): Praxis (object oriented): “A praxis which knows itself to be limited, but which constructs a praxis of praxis, aimed at a useful knowledge of the strange praxis of objects entertain amongst themselves. And to make it possible, a certain conversation. One which does not have a stake in the language-game of professional philosophy, but which raids it for the odd useful thing, for hammers and such.” (Wark 2012: 161)
As cartography, let us remind ourselves that the map is the territory (to refer to Bernhard Siegert’s text in Radical Philosophy in 2011). Such a mapping that has to mistake the object as part of the praxis is not content to come up with representative lists of media studies topics, but wants itself to participate as an agent in social discussions – a technology of mapping that as technique caters objects, things and more to be even recognized as such. It steps from metaphysics to practices, historically existing. This is, as mentioned above, the thing about not-just-media, which is a variant of the media scholar Matthew Fuller’s (2003) phrase “not-just-art”. Without going into more details, Fuller’s note in the context of software points towards “a poetics of the potential” and how a piece of software – and/or art – can elaborate a range of other critical techniques that are not just critique; not just a deconstruction of the notion of art into ironic twists of anti-art, but ways to forge, create worlds, and modalities of experience. For us, not just media, or not just media theory is a way to call into focus the fact that we just don’t talk of media, and we just don’t do media to theorise, but to action things – to enact. Theory actually does a lot, through it’s work of concepts.
But in terms of speculations and not-just-typical media theory, let me explain more about what I mean with turf, with animal approaches, as well as the emphasis on junk as well as energy – all things quite physical, and definitely not purely semiotic. To start with animals, a for purpose simplifying claim gets us on the pitch; that so much of media theory has been branded by a focus on the human; as an analysis of human communication, we have tended to focus on linguistic models and a variety of social and interpersonal themes, or as an analysis of worlds of perception, to see media as extensions of Man. The Marshall McLuhan phrase however is not very satisfactory if you start to realise the amount of very non-human aspects when it comes down to media environments that are by definition so quick and so puzzling even on a physical level that it would not merit them well to call them an extension of myself. Indeed, the recent years have seen various well grounded and even provocative attacks against a human centered humanities.
As for media of the other sort, namely of animal worlds, there are obvious routes as well. One could now claim this territory to for instance biomedia: the biological as something that is taken to support what usually would call high tech processes; besides metaphors, the harnessing of for instance magnetic bacteria to become grown harddrives is under way, as are other plans that try to fit (and/or modify) the historically quite recent ideas of computer architectures as part biological and ecological affordances.
But other sorts of animal worlds are involved too. Hence, take science fiction as a way to understand what I am to try to get with, in terms of this mild zoophilia. If you want to be futuristic, you do not anymore fantasize in reference to humans or even androids, but animals, and preferably insects (as I tried to argue in Insect Media too). This is the lesson one gets even from a glimpse of past years of science-fiction discourse, such as Ian McDonald’s Dervish House. The nanotechnological future Istanbul is pitched as the 21st century version of the Silk Road node, defined by its booming nanotech cluster of businesses and tech companies. The David Cronenberg 1980s fantasies of human-insect –hybrid (as in the Fly) is superseded by the fiction version of spider robotics and insectoid-drones part of security and surveillance regimes in Istanbul plagued by various suicide sects.
Animals abound in media talk too, as well as to refer to trends in current digital society. Swarms and more, such terms as pollen society float about (a term by Yann Moulier Boutang)– here to refer to the specific collaborative and cognitive modes of value production in current creative industries culture.
There is a bit of a similar thrust to be noticed in how marketing researchers are trying to convince that we need to look at the reptilian brain, the unconscious and unrational parts, in order to find what triggers us to brands; social networks bloat with links about news stories in which insect research demonstrates how ants do it, termites do it, even Facebook does it: clusters around common interests, sharing, collaboration — a nice way of trying to convince that companies from Silicon Valley with their own specific quite cunning business models that aim to accumulate social behaviour as an inroad to capital accumulation are as natural as hive formations. More recently, this has taken place by talk of Anternets even, an idea that certain ants’ foraging patterns are like the invention of TCP/IP protocol but some millions years earlier.
Such examples demonstrate a scientific keenness in media, animals and behaviour as somehow interlinked, a weird rhetorical connection established through scientific research that seems to link up evolutionary aspects of animals to specific technological platforms. Don’t get me wrong – I do like animals, at least some, and I am an active Twitter user, and it is for sure that most of my actions happen on a very non-rational level of my own lizard brain – but what this more specifically points out is a terribly weird new version of sociobiologism, but on the level of animal behaviour and modes of organisation. Indeed, there is an interesting relation to the sociological interest in crowd behaviour in cities at the end of the 19th century and early 20th, and our current forms of crowds online – both demonstrating for researchers patterns of such behaviour that seem of the lower level; It begs the question concerning the “social” in social media, and the wider pitching of sociability as the natural protocol of the world. Instead, we should shout out that there is nothing natural about sociability, not at least in this articulation of corporate platforms as so inherently connected to biology and evolution! Instead, we need to pick open such creations, imaginations of the social, inventions of forms of life that take detours at times through the natural.
As a cultural historical theme, we can talk of the dual bind of modern urban technological landscapes and animals: disappearance of farm animals, rodents and so forth is paralleled by the animalisation of media, which seems to be clear from even a cursory representational analysis of early media, so fascinated by agility of animal bodies as well as animation worlds of rodents and animal farms – a whole media zoology (see Akira Mizuta Lippit’s Electric Animal on this topic). This idea of media zoology used in a parallel sense to that of a “zootechnical” approach (Vehlken) to elaborate the wider entanglement of communication practices in relation to animal research – and in addition, as we will see below, to a wider media ecological stance.
But of course there is more to this grounding of media zoology than looking at media through its content and what is on the screen. Indeed, the worlds of such fiction as The Dervish House remind that media as technologies – as abstract, yet embodied, as concrete but massively distributed in the current wireless network age – work much more efficiently when they are not modelled on the human form. This is why marine biologists turned US military and security advisors, talking about octopus tentacles make international news: this refers to the University of Arizona marine ecologist Rafe Sagarin advising on learning about decentralised organisational methods from the tentacled marine creatures. “What the Octopus Can Teach Us About National Security”, ran the BBC headline which we can tweak to: “What the Discourse About the Octopus and National Security Can Teach Us Media Theorists”.
In terms of media theory, such voices relate to necessary complements to the traditions of theory of technology from Ernst Kapp to Marshall McLuhan. There are predecessors, and is a whole another tradition of media theory taking aboard animals in various forms, and starting the theoretisation of media from a different set of affordances (Insect Media). Indeed, when talking of media ecology, one should not forget the early writings of Harold Innis, which features such literally ecological themes as rivers, fur and , yes, beavers as well as the more conceptual reminders that medium did not always refer to what you think it does on a media studies course.
Besides quirky examples about beavers and protocols, ants and Ivy league scholars, we can point towards a gloomy side of this development as well. So allow me the role of a doomsday narrator in terms of ecological effects of media technologies. This itself is not that difficult, acknowledging the amount of electronic waste we discard every year – millions, hundreds of millions of electronic devices that are still operational, and besides that, packed with a range of hazardous material. Media are, by definition and in their material constitution, toxic. This is not a gloomy statement of the sort that media content ecologists like Neil Postman voiced while opening his telly – that it is ruining our world, our social relations, and amuses us to death (incidentally, I always liked more the ex Pink Floyd member Roger Waters’ version of this theme); instead, it is the material existence of media that is directly hazardous to our bodies. Instead of semiotics of media, we approach materialities of media, to be understood for instance through a “mineral per disease syndrome” chart:
Lead — damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, blood systems, kidney and reproductive system.
Cadmium –— accumulates for instance in the kidney
Mercury — brain and kidneys, as well as the fetus.
Hexavalent Chromium/Chromium VI — passes through cell membranes, producing various toxic effects in contaminated cells.
Barium – brain swelling, muscle weakness, damage to the heart, liver, and spleen. (Source: Exporting Harm, )
Such are only a couple of examples of things that constitute our information technology, a wide range of examples of refined minerals, metals, and chemicals that are essential as ever so material things inside our media, which paradoxically has meant neglecting them as any part of the courses concerned with Understanding Media . With a way too serious eye have we tried to approach media only as media, and ignored the much lower, physical level on which media takes place. (For alternatives, see for instance Sean Cubitt in Grau 2011).
Those underpaid workers, in non-Western locations, dismantling the media devices for the valuable parts, are the ones exposed to the above-mentioned list of health hazards. (As always, see the wonderful Digital Rubbish by Jennifer Gabrys) Methods as crude as riverside dumping, burning old computer parts, and so forth are also part of the life – and death – cycle of our digital culture, as methods of displacing obsolescent products as well as retrieving what they were made: copper, gold, and so forth. Of course, this is the part of the cycle we rarely see, as such media practices are reserved for developing countries, as end placement for stuff we don’t want to view, listen or play anymore. Junk media does not stop being media, and similarly if we speculate about futures of media theory, we need to quite concretely speculate futures of our media devices – where do they end up, quite physically, as part of container shipments, logistics routes, and a grey economy of the zombie life of media devices. (On logistics, see for instance Ned Rossiter’s work.).
With such speculation, we rediscover a materiality of the mediatic. This extends to what I would call a material speculative take on media history. Think of it this way:
Media history is one big “story” of experimenting with different materials from glass plates to chemicals, from selenium to coltan, from dilute suphuric acid to shellac silk and classic insulation material from gutta percha trees essential for underwater cables, to processes such as crystallization, ionization, and so forth. They also are media practices. Our screen technologies, cables, networks, technical means of seeing and hearing are partly results of meticulous – and sometimes just purely accidental – experimentation with how materials work; what works, what doesn’t, whether you are talking of materials for insulation, conduction, projection or recording. Same thing with processing and its materiality.
The transistor based information tech culture would not be thinkable without the various meticulous insights into the material characteristics and differences between germanium and silicon – or the energetic regimes; whether that involves the consideration of current clouds (as in server farms), or the constant attempts to manage power consumption.
What such geeky historical mapping reveals is just part of a bigger story that demands even more urgent attention in the age of the high energy consumption age of server farms and cloud computing (Cubitt, Hassan and Volkmer 2011): that story is not about frictionless clouds and sweetly mobile technologies with an ideal sense of displacement; this story is more about physics, and entropy, and exhausted resources;
Media and information technology are far from zero entropy mathematical dreams, and embedded in physical networks, afforded by hardware and hardwork – practices of mining, shipping, polishing, constructing, and then the other way round, when disgorging such machines.
This is the mirror side of the question about resources on governmental levels, also multinational governmental levels; Whereas on EU policy level, directives about electronic waste have focused on collecting and appropriate treatment, in terms of economic planning for the information technology age, there is a different challenge to face
From the European Union perspective, the future of information technology has to be planned below the turf: 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, something identified to have 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. Suddenly, it is realized how 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
Platinum (PGM) Fuel cells, catalysts
Palladium (PGM) Catalysts, seawater desalination
Niobium Micro capacitors, ferroalloys
Neodymium Permanent magnets, laser technology (source)
Such an underground is slightly different from the discourse of underground art or activism.
Siegfried Zielinski, the Berlin situated media variantologist, writes about “deep time of the media” referring to extensively long historical durations for media inquiry; of looking at Antique times, of medieval alchemists, of 19th century science-art collaborations as such deep times of media practice. But what if we need to account for an alternative deep time, that reaches for this depth of even kilometres down the earth? This extends the historical interest into alchemists towards contemporary mining practices, minerals and a different sort of wizardry than those of celebrated geniuses of steve jobses. Instead, would this sort of an approach be something that is comfortable to tackle with materiality on its below the ground level (such theory is definitely “low theory”, to refer to McKenzie Wark’s notion), stretched between political economy of resources and for instance art practices: I am here thinking such examples as Florian Dombois’ “Auditory Seismology” work that sonifies earthquakes – usually of a frequency range that does not reach the human ear, but that can be modified, instead of the usual visualisation. Digging into the earth is a methodology that lets us look at what affords our media, and theorise such regimes of perception, of sensation that are immediately catered for us. For instance sonification of such earth sounds one can justify from a point Dombois also makes, that is how the “the eye is good for recognizing structure, surface and steadiness, whereas the ear is good for recognizing time, continuum, remembrance and expectation.”
The ear as a media theorist (an idea embraced by Wolfgang Ernst as well) is more suited to theoretical analysis of temporalities, for instance. Temporalities of deep earth. Despite my historical training, I am more convinced that these are the temporalities we should be looking at and listening to.
A lot of what I have been talking about boils down to the following themes, in the mode of ecological mapping an alternative, more “natural” list of media studies.
More accurately than a call for naturalisation, it is a list that acknowledges the various sedimentations, geologies and garbologies of media that we need to account for: worlds of animal energies, also in terms of their exploitation, whether just through bad use of ideas from biological and ethological studies, or directly through the linkages of animal testing with consumer industries;
Through minerals, as a resource for that physical, hard layer of information technology that gets too often press only as creative industries and digital economy of networks;
And then energy; not just the exploitation of human energies as with cheap physical labour or the exhausted creative industries freelancers, but also energy production – of which a big part still unrenewable.
Such aspects of media theory – of animals, rubbish, energy is not just to talk rubbish, but to continue the earlier idea; of our field of not just as media theory. We nod towards the bin, and bin theory. Instead, to an extent that some media theorists claim that the whole term is becoming useless because of its ubiquity, we can see the rapidly infecting impact of things mediatic. This is not a closed list, just like speculative media theory should not stop at the definitions handed down to you in some classical textbooks. Instead, the speculative enterprise, nowadays consolidated also in such waves of philosophical inquiry as speculative realism, is one of not really knowing what to expect; for speculative realism, it corresponds to an ontological attitude about the non-human constitution of the world – that there is much more than we expect in terms of our epistemological categories. And yet, we speculate in so many ways – even the term has been corrupted by financial capitalism adapting it as one of its techniques that presents its own version of future-orientedness;
We need to grab speculation back, as an inquiry into things more than is the assumed, or more than is expected, so that we can really dig down to something deeper than turf wars of theory. Turf is already enough to start theorising, as a way to go deeper, (be)low theory, and towards the crust.
is a writer, media theorist and Reader in Media & Design at Winchester School of Art (University of Southampton). He is also Docent of Digital Culture Theory at University of Turku, Finland and Honorary Visiting Fellow at Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge.