Greg Hainge has a new book out on noise – Noise Matters. As part of the launch, Greg has written a short position statement on noise and asked a number of theorists and practitioners to respond. I was among those, and here briefly my brief intervention on noise, a response to Greg’s position statement on ontology of noise.
You don’t need an etymology book in your hand to know that noise connects to nausea. Just turn up your stereo loud enough and persist. Loudness turned into noise can make your bowels turn, and sickness overtake your body. A classic function of media: disorientation of the senses. Noise can clear out the room when you want it to. You can clear spaces, push people away if you want. Or make someone wish they were not in the space, when you debilitate their possibility of saying no to sound. Connecting it to psychoanalytic theories of sensation, sound is hard to resist.
Noise connects to contemporary politics, as is well argued by a range of scholars from Steve Goodman to Suzanne Cuzick. Such cultural theory-musicologists as Milla Tiainen have convincingly argued about the multiplicity of sounds that constitute bodies as collectivities of becoming. The continuum between sound-noise is the axis through which to understand the political constitution of contemporary bodies and collectivities. What holds bodies together is affect, but that glue is also a force of push and pull.
What is interesting about noise is that it is emblematic of the emergence of technical media culture. Noise too has a history, and not only in the aesthetic or even urban development sense. Noise has an engineering oriented media archaeology. Imagine the sounds and noises Denis Kaufman, better known as Dziga Vertov, created at the Petrograd Psychoneurological Institute, in the Laboratory of Hearing.
Engineering noise is related to the wider communication theory issue formally formulated in the 1940s: communication takes place always in the presence of noise. Any kind of consideration of the ontology of noise is at least an implicit nod to the fact that noise becomes measurable in the age of technical media. It becomes an issue of epistemology, in a manner that bypasses the semantic understanding of noise. We are not dealing with meaning, but with various frequencies and patterns that define the world of information and sound. Both information and sound are ontologically time-critical: they unfold in time, and in ways that are not only experiential in the sense that phenomenology taught us, but speculative. There is noise everywhere, as Hainge points out, referring to Bogost and the black noise of objects. Even humans are “noisy narrowband devices” as Licklider coined us in comparison to computers.
“Message or Noise?” This was a shorter text by Michel Foucault, and picked up by the media archaeologist Wolfgang Ernst, who has been one of the theorists keen to rescue noise and signals from meaning-based approaches. Instead, in the age of information, even human perception becomes conditioned by the events of signal processing and signal-to-noise ratio in the transmission of mediatic content. This argument by Ernst resonates with a range of material media theory emphases of recent years, including that of Friedrich Kittler. In the age of technical media, we are able to record pure noise as obediently as the harmonious meaningful phrases of poetry, and transmission takes place in a careful engineering of that aforementioned ratio: signal to noise. Hence, it is not a question of message or noise, just that of messages in noise. And noise in messages.
Good news for the start of 2013: the volume of Wolfgang Ernst writings Digital Memory and the Archive is out! The book is soon available in bookstores. The collection that I edited is the first to introduce this very important German media theorist whose style of media archaeology is highly exciting and provocative. Ernst is one of the significant names in the German media studies landscape, and represents one of the directions where theory is going in the post-Friedrich Kittler world.
Ernst’s interest in media archaeology is very material, and insists on the agency of the machine. His theories are interested in material epistemologies and the operationality of old media devices. Media devices govern our ways of seeing and hearing, but also our modes of knowledge. Hence, Ernst’s media theory is a way to understand the change in our archival logic in software culture. But it’s not only about the digital and not only about archives. Indeed, his writings on the sonic and in general media arts are important insights into a meticulous material media theory that represents a unique way to understand the persistence of history and time. Ernst writes his theory through mediatic paths: from television to internet cultures, media arts to archival institutions, Hertzian discoveries to sound.
The collection has a longer introduction by me, as well as the section introductions that I wrote. Ernst was kind enough to write his own preface to this English edition of his writings where he pitches the idea of cross-Atlantic influences and meditation on what is happening in media studies at the moment. An inspiring read. Or in Wendy Chun’s words, quoting her endorsement:
“Digital Memory and the Archive offers the most compelling and insightful account published to date of how and why objects matter. Moving beyond textual analysis, its careful, theoretically rigorous engagement with the relic—the physicality of the archive—promises to change the direction of the digital humanities. Thanks to this book, we will all now be addressing the microtemporality of archives and the mechanics of remaining. Finally, a definitive collection in English of one of the most brilliant and influential media archaeologists.”
Below you will find the short blurb from the publisher University of Minnesota Press website as well as the table of contents.
In the popular imagination, archives are remote, largely obsolete institutions: either antiquated, inevitably dusty libraries or sinister repositories of personal secrets maintained by police states. Yet the archive is now a ubiquitous feature of digital life. Rather than being deleted, e-mails and other computer files are archived. Media software and cloud storage allow for the instantaneous cataloging and preservation of data, from music, photographs, and videos to personal information gathered by social media sites.
In this digital landscape, the archival-oriented media theories of Wolfgang Ernst are particularly relevant. Digital Memory and the Archive, the first English-language collection of the German media theorist’s work, brings together essays that present Ernst’s controversial materialist approach to media theory and history. His insights are central to the emerging field of media archaeology, which uncovers the role of specific technologies and mechanisms, rather than content, in shaping contemporary culture and society.
Ernst’s interrelated ideas on the archive, machine time and microtemporality, and the new regimes of memory offer a new perspective on both current digital culture and the infrastructure of media historical knowledge. For Ernst, different forms of media systems—from library catalogs to sound recordings—have influenced the content and understanding of the archive and other institutions of memory. At the same time, digital archiving has become a contested site that is highly resistant to curation, thus complicating the creation and preservation of cultural memory and history.
Contents of Wolfgang Ernst, Digital Memory and the Archive
Archival Media Theory: An Introduction to Wolfgang Ernst’s Media Archaeology , by Jussi Parikka
Media Archaeology as a Trans-Atlantic Bridge, Wolfgang Ernst
Part I. The Media Archaeological Method
1. Let There Be Irony: Cultural History and Media Archaeology in Parallel Lines
2. Media Archaeography: Method and Machine versus History and Narrative of Media
Part II. From Temporality to the Multimedial Archive
3. Underway to the Dual System: Classical Archives and Digital Memory
4. Archives in Transition: Dynamic Media Memories
5. Between Real Time and Memory on Demand: Reflections on Television
6. Discontinuities: Does the Archive Become Metaphorical in Multi-Media Space?
Part III. Microtemporal Media
7. Telling versus Counting: A Media-Archaeological Point of View
8. Distory: 100 Years of Electron Tubes, Media-Archaeologically Interpreted vis-à-vis 100 Years of Radio
9. Towards a Media Archaeology of Sonic Articulations
10. Experimenting Media‐Temporality: Pythagoras, Hertz, Turing
Appendix. Archive Rumblings: An Interview with Wolfgang Ernst , by Geert Lovink
I interviewed Paul DeMarinis in July 2011 in Berlin about his media archaeological art practices and methodology.
It was originally in the context of the Creative Technologies Review podcasts we did with Julio D’Escrivan, but the archives of those podcasts are not available so I wanted to share this interview (audio, mp3) for those interested.
Media amateurism has been an integral part of modern culture way before social media kicked in with its own DIY spirit. The electronic hobbyists and tinkerers of 1970s were themselves too preceded by so many earlier forms of learning communication and building circuits. Code-based culture does not then begin with software as we know it – from the emergence of computing and the much later emergence of computer languages as separate entities that relate to the mythologies of coders, hackers and controlling the hardware through the magical language of code (for a wonderful recent excavation into ontologies of software, see Wendy Chun’s Programmed Visions).
“Thousands of Radio Amateurs find it easy to Learn Code”, read a main title in Popular Science (March 1932), describing the process of getting a radio amateur license and the earlier technological discourse concerning machine-knowledge. Radio amateurism and wireless DIY of the earlier decades of 20th century represents itself perhaps one of the most important media archaeological reference points when thinking about contemporary technological DIY culture, and one can find interesting ideas from that discourse. The way knowledge about machines, code and the professionalism is standardized and practice is itself fascinating – DIY as a crash course into key scientific discoveries of modernity, practically applied. Electrical functions needed to be internalized into a hands-on skill, as the article describes: “You must first master the elementary principles of electricity as given in the simpler textbooks on the subject. Then you must apply the principles of magnetism and electromagnetic action plus an understanding of the radio vacuum tube to mastering simple radio transmitting and receiving circuits. […] You don’t have to know all the ins and outs of complicated radio broadcast transmitting circuits, nor do you require a detailed knowledge of elaborate receiving circuits such as the heterodyne.” (72)
This class of amateurs was however someone who was part of a nationally regulated standardization process flagging the importance of this system of transmission – this regulation had to do with technical knowledge, ethics and legalities as well as speed of communication, or skills more widely: The amateur operation license test was the way to become an operator – the mythical figure still living in such discourses as The Matrix-film(s), the one in charge of the communication field – what message goes where, interpreting of code, sending of things, packets, people to addresses.
But it was grey, this area of knowledge – or at least reading through the regulations. Take paragraph 9 of the Radio Division Regulations for Operators: “Amateur Class. Applications for this class of license must pass a code test in transmission and reception at a speed of at least 10 words per minute, in Continental Morse Code (5 characters to the word). An applicant must pass an examination which will develop knowledge of the adjustment and operation of the apparatus which he desires to use and of the international regulations and acts of Congress in so far as they relate to interference with other radio communications and impose duties on all classes of operators.” Speed – speeding up of communication as part of modernity – was something that was still tied to the skills of the operators, and slowed down by the human needing to be trained.
Code, as indicated in the passage, meant of course Morse Code. Dit-dit-dit-dah. A tip given in Popular Science relates to a sensory approach to code as not only abstract pattern but something that relates to your ears and mouths: “In memorizing the code, try to think of the letters as different sounds rather than as so many dots or dashes. Think of the letter C, for example, as “dah-dit-dah-dit” and as dash followed by dot, followed by dash, followed by dot.” (73) Carnal knowledge? Code in the flesh sounds much too poetic, but at least we could say, code in your mouth, ringing in your ears, feedback to your fingers tapping. Code, signal processing, transmission share so much with cultures of music, rhythmics, sound and voice.
(Forthcoming and related: a podcast interview with Paul Demarinis about hands-on, carnal knowing of technical media and media archaeological art.)
At the moment, I am trying to blog most of my media archaeology related notes and images on Cartographies of Media Archaeology (the work blog for my in-progress Media Archaeology and Digital Culture-book that I am writing for Polity Press). However, could not resist putting this up here – a short story and image from Illustrated London News, 19 December 1846.
“London Street Music” features the street musician as a performing artist, giving a glimpse both to the 19th century worlds of entertainment and performance of street life, but also the pre-post-fordist emphasis on performance and affect. What writers such as Paolo Virno have identified as the mode of production in aesthetizised regimes of work: the virtuoso, the performing artist, was already his focus in A Grammar of Multitude. As Raunig puts Virno’s position in a summarizing fashion, while also pointing towards the problematic of relience on language by Virno:
“In post-Fordist capitalism, labor increasingly develops into a virtuosic performance that does not objectify itself into an end product; at the same time, this virtuosic form of labor demands a space that is structured like the public sphere.”
In the 1846 short article, the almost dangerous powers of the street musician are described in how they can capture the affect life of the listeners in public sphere: “How many suicides have been committed under his melancholy has not yet been clearly ascertained; but the effects of the orgue de Barbarie on the nervous system have been well known since Hogarth gave to the world his ‘Enraged Musician’.”
The worlds of technology (the new special street organ that differentiates this new brand of talent from “amateurs and artists”) and the worlds of music, the ability to bring operatic cultures of Rossinian and Bellinian spheres to the wider public, make up this special brand of economies of cultural industry of affect. Naturally this reminds that the contagious force of affect has a longer history – in terms of the affect theories in music (baroque and the early 18th century for instance) as well as in social theory that emerged in the late 19th century where it was discussed in terms of public space, contagion, imitation and crowds.
One of the highlights of my pre-academia career as a freelance journalist when during a phone interview the interviewee, a female at a telecommunications company marketing department or something of approx. 35 years of age, interrupted me: “Oh I am sorry to interrupt the interview but I just have to say you have an amazing telephone voice.”
I blush, stutter, and for a second wonder if my future career is somewhere where I could put my voice into better use, such as in some of those dubious 0800-numbers that offer services of very wide variety.
Instead, I end up as an academic.
Despite the shortness of the flirtation with the idea of using my voice to make money, I have been drawn into something again where I need to talk – publicly. The shock horror at first, but then realizing its actually enjoyable despite the fact that there is always a tiny region in your brain that is probably trying to say something very inappropriate.
We label it as
“A podcast on technology and creativity, technology mostly misused, unintentionally artistic technology and music technology with the odd splattering of digital economies” and hope it to be usually a 30 min aberration into the interminglings of technology, net culture, a slight dash of political economy, academic stuff and lots of media arts.
It features interviews of creatives, techs and academics, and aims to throw a spotlight both on the work done at CoDE institute in Cambridge but also more widely (as in globally) on creative technology and arts. I am suspecting it turns out to be quite focused on sound, knowing Julio’s interests and expertise in sound art, sonicity, but it will definitely splash into other fields of expression too and I am sure to throw in a nice dose of media theoretical meditation.
Its hopefully soon available on Itunes, but meanwhile episodes can be downloaded here.
Please get in touch if you have feedback, or suggestions for themes, sites, projects, etc. to be featured!