Winchester School of Art are one of the partners of the transmediale-festival, which takes place again in January/February 2014 in Berlin. This short text below is a sort of a trailer to our bit for the event: the text is co-written by myself and Ryan Bishop and the the contribution to tm14 is likewise co-curated by us. The text gives an indication of some of the themes we will discuss during the festival and conference week, and it draws on some of our work on these topics: Ryan’s writing on the four elements and contemporary aesthetics, and my work-in-progress book project on “geology of media” and what I pitch as the anthropobscene – a new geological era catalysed by the corporate capitalist measures of depletion and exploitation.
Ryan Bishop and Jussi Parikka:
The Elemental Media Condition
Ever since such early geologists as James Hutton and Charles Lyell voiced a distance from biblical time, the Earth has had a proper history. The natural historical durations of the Earth have, despite academic disciplinary divisions, always intertwined with human history. In the current moment, the complex interactions of the two seem more prescient than ever. To follow in the footsteps of Dipash Chakrabarty, the horizon of the anthropocene forces historians to think of durations of nature as entangled with social history, and the historiographical functions of temporality need to be considered alongside such vectors that acknowledge the work of capitalism as a specific epoch. In this sense, we would like to refer not only to the anthropocene as the debated new geological era in scientific classification, but also what can be called the anthropobscene. This portmanteau word combines anthropocene with obscene, thus highlighting the vicious exploitative actions of corporations, governments and other agencies operating on different levels: from human individuals to multigovernmental organisations and transnational corporations. In much the same manner that Jean Baudrillard reconfigured the subject-object relationship placed within a scene as a network-screen relationship in the obscene, the anthropobscene reconstitutes the relationship between human scales of intervention into those of the geological. Thus, amongst other things, it refers to the obscenity of heavy pollution of the earth and the air, bringing back discussions of the four elements as found in the Pre-Socratic thinker Empedocles, whose writings strike both ancient and contemporary chords. Cultural theorists, such as Gary Genosko, have voiced an urgency for a renewed consideration of the elements.
For Empedocles, humans, nature and the universe contain the same elements. Flesh and blood are composed of approximately equal parts of earth, fire, water, and aether: the four elements that constitute the universe. The entire material world for Empedocles comes from the mixture and amounts of these four elements, the mixing of which he likens to paints on an artist’s palette with their different effects due to combinatory portions. This insight of multiple and diverse substances generated through combinations and proportionality becomes a cornerstone of modern science and chemistry. The harmony of Love and the discord of Strife result from the proportionality of the elements with each constantly changing and warring with the others. The Empedoclean elements of this cosmogony and in nature constitute both media and content. They make, transform and destroy at the same time.
Empedocles’ writings use physics to derive an understanding of ethico-political, even moral, laws. In the teaching of Empedocles the problem of substances as they present themselves to us takes a specific form: how do the Many come from One and One from Many? The primary and ultimately determinate forces behind the various manipulations, combinations and transformations of the elements in Empedocles are in the standard translations Love and Strife, which move in cycles of harmony and disharmony that reign over all of nature, including humans, fish, beasts and birds. But the elements are not simply passive recipients of the forces of Love and Strife. They can and do themselves act as causal agents, influencing the waxing or waning of Love or Strife.
Contemporary media culture can be opened up through such a consideration of elements. Indeed, as the philosopher Erich Hörl has argued, the technological is one crucial condition for the discourse – and practical existence – of this hypothetical anthroposcene – and anthropobscene, we might add. For artists such as Robert Smithson in truly Empedoclean fashion, the tectonic realms of the Earth and the mind are interconnected. Smithson’s account amounts to a critique of the McLuhan-focussed idea of technology as extensions of Man. Instead, for Smithson, writing in 1968 in Artforum, it is elemental. One is here tempted to think it is elemental in the sense of the Pre-Socratic four elements, as well as elemental in the sense that those elements are more crucial than ever for a consideration of the biopolitical condition. Such aspects range from the materiality of data mining to environmental exploitation.
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.”
If you are serious about speculative realism, or object-oriented, perhaps you should consider this instead.
Martin Howse, Diff in June, Link Editions, Brescia 2013. Soft cover, 740 pp., ISBN 9781291503593
Martin Howse’s weird data archaeology delivers its own set of speculations concerning a more media-specific non-human perspective that opens up the object in alternative ways. If the computer speaks it definitely sounds a bit different than narratives of philosophical discourse. This is data archaeology becoming media epistemology becoming a speculative artistic practice into onto-epistemologies. If this is forensics, it is a twisted sort where the computer self-records and narrates its own little day in the life.
“Diff in June” tells a day in the life of a personal computer, written by itself in its own language, as a sort of private log or intimate diary focused on every single change to the data on its hard disk. Using a small custom script, for the entire month of June 2011 Martin Howse registered each chunk of data which had changed within the file system from the previous day’s image. Excluding binary data, one day’s sedimentation has been published in this book, a novel of data archaeology in progress tracking the overt and the covert, merging the legal and illegal, personal and administrative, source code and frozen systematics.”
For those those interested in Howse’s earlier projects and collaborations, check out the interview we did in Berlin some years ago.
“Yes I will” – “No, it is not something worthwhile”.
I’ve been going back and forth for a while whether I will try to expand my ideas concerning “geology of media” into some sort of a book or not. Without having reached a conclusion, I have however been giving talks on the topic the past times. Here is one – as video – from Bochum from the very good General Ecology-event Erich Horl organised.
Bruce Sterling’s new lovecraftian-digital hype satire short story: “From Beyond the Coming Age of Networked Matter.”
There is no dark side of the moon. In fact, it’s all dark.
““The true reality is mostly darkness,” he intoned. “There is scarcely any light or matter—that’s just the graphic front end for the cosmic code. Most of the cosmic code is Dark Energy and Dark Matter. The stuff we foolishly call ‘reality’ is the cute friendly part with the kid-colored don’t-be-evil Google graphics. The true, actual, cosmic reality is the giant Google network pipes and the huge steel barns full of Google Cloud. It’s vast and alien and terrifying.”
There are no clouds, just data centres. But suddenly they tickled the science-fictional nerve again when Google released its “inside view” to their factories of data: it has colours! The rather glitzy pictures showed this seeming transparency and the spatial sense of data management. Besides space, it’s about the elements. Air, water plays a crucial role.
In a great phrase in Andrew Blum’s book Tubes, a Facebook data centre manager (Ken Pratchett) sums it up: “This has nothing to do with clouds. It has everything to do with being cold.” Cool, cold data is not just a linguistic or visual metaphor, despite that elegant modernism that still lives inside the architectures of data places: Mondrian as data. Instead, it has to do with climate control. Ecology. Air. Coolness is not a media theoretical attitude in this context but a media management issue that ties the earth to the escape velocity of data.
Data needs air. “Cool outside air is let into the building through adjustable louvers near the roof; deionized water is sprayed into it; and fans push the conditioned air down onto the data center floor” , explains Blum. Coolness of cyberpunk transforms into coolness of building’s climate control. Fans surround the terabytes of data. Pratchett continues about the building: “The air hits this concrete floor and roils left and right. This whole building is like the Mississippi River. There’s a huge amount of air coming in, but moving really slowly.”
It’s important to notice the persistence of issues of ecology from air to the soil as well as non-cognitive work: that we still talk of factories and rather physical processes having to do with our hardware and how we manage and work with data in its material level.
Blum: “The cloud is a building. It works like a factory. Bits come in, they get massaged and put together in the right way and sent out.”
A different sort of steam punk for the 21st century.
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.
This is another interview, and audio recording now available, that I did in Berlin in 2011. It is my chat with Martin Howse, of microresearch, and the project(s) together with Jonathan Kemp and Ryan Jordan: decrystallisation, recrystallisation and the later Crystal Worlds in Berlin and London. We talk of what the crystal project means, ideas related to art methods, and ending up with evil media.
Apologies for a bit lousy quality of the sound in my recording.
I am here recapping some ideas from an earlier post, but I wanted to flag this as a separate theme…
I want to pick up on Siegfried Zielinski’s notion of deep time of the media – not straightforwardly media archaeological, but an anarchaeological call for methodology of deep time research into technical means of hearing and seeing. In Zielinski’s vision, which poetically borrows from Stephen Jay Gould’s paleontological epistemology at least in its vision, the superficiality of media cultural temporality is exposed with antecedents, hidden ideas, false but inspiring paths of earlier experimenters from Empedocles to Athanius Kircher, Johann Wilhelm Ritter to Cesare Lombroso.
Zielinski’s excavations are not content to stay within the regime of media archaeology, but want to uncover a non-linear layering of variations. Indeed, in a manner that seems to be borrowing from a Deleuze-Guattarian ontology of nomadism and the primacy of variation (I don’t however think that Z makes the link to DG explicit), Zielinski’s methodology is in this sense a refusal of any master plans of media development and a plea against both the drive towards psychopathia medialis (the standardization and uniformity as well as illusions of teleology). Instead, the paleontological conceptualisation of a media history of variations finds surprising case studies of aberrants paths for hearing and seeing, of optics and acoustics, of technical means of guiding, misguiding, educating and mocking the senses.
And yet, as an alternative deep time, I suggest that instead of male heroes, we approach a more geologically tuned deep time – deep in various senses, down to mineral excavation, and picking up some themes of media ecological sort. I want to speculate with a more geologically oriented notion of depth of media that is interested in truly deep times – of thousands, millions, billions of years and in depth of the earth; A media excavation into the mineral and raw material basis of technological development, through which to present some media historical arguments as to how one might adopt a material perspective in terms of ecological temporality.
For instance for the European Union, the future of information technology has to be planned starting from a material level up: The EU does not hold much in terms of critical raw material resources when it comes to advanced technology that are identified crucial for a longer term socio-economic change. Obviously, such issues are always voiced with a concern for the geopolitical-economic consequences. In short, this refers to the crucial status of China, Russia, Brazil, Congo and for instance South-Africa as producers of raw materials, and an alternative material future of technological culture. This connects to a realisation: the materiality of information technology starts from the soil, and underground – 500 meters, and preferably (for the mining companies) lower as the earth’s crust is dozens of kilometres deep.
Cobalt —- Lithium-ion batteries, synthetic fuels
Gallium —- Thin layer photovoltaics, IC, WLED
Indium —– Displays, thin layer photovoltaics
Tantalum —- Micro capacitors, medical technology
Antimony —– ATO, micro capacitors
Germanium —– Fibre optic cable, IR optical technologies
Niobium —– Micro capacitors, ferroalloys
Neodymium —- Permanent magnets, laser technology
From animals to nature as a resource, a material ecology for media is an increasingly important topic. This is the double bind that relates media technologies to ecological issues; on the one hand, acting as raw material for the actual hardware, from cables to cell phones; on the other hand, as an important epistemological framework whether in relation to mapping of climate change or in terms of further resources for exploitation, as in the recent proposal not just for Internet of Things – but Internet of Underwater Things.
Perhaps an alternative sort of a deep time of the media is needed – one that does not excavate deep times of human inventions, successful or just imagined, but deep times of animal and geological sort, and the cultural techniques that are affiliated with such non-human regimes? This could be a further advance to consolidate the work of media ecology and zootechnics (cf. Sebastian Vehlken’s recent work in this area, as well as Insect Media).