When things break down, they are much more interesting than the gadgets that function, channel and regulate our lives. Broken things might poetically and with a Heideggerian hum say to reveal their essence. This is the other side of the apocalyptic – to be understood as “apo-kalyptein – an uncovering or disclosing of what had previously been hidden.” (Gere 2008: 13)
It is in this sense that we should talk of “downtime” not as an accidental misfortune, a temporary hiccup and denial of service of intentional nature or just infrastructural/hardware failure. Instead, it is part of how media, tech and things just are (in consumer cultures); that they break down, fail in their intended task, and refuse to switch on. Indeed downtime is the time of permanent breaking down, crisis and one is tempted to start unraveling a wider transversal notion of downtime from the microscale of technological circuits to macroscales of economy. But indeed, if it is a transversal notion it cuts across such traditional divisions of micro and macro and forces a different dimensionality. A molecular level of connections which forces the technological to be tightly articulated as part of political economy; an articulation of politics must take into account the technological conditioning of itself – the political action; the (media) technological sustains and operates the processes of subjectification; the social starts from the circuit.
An installation, Downtime (post-domestic fiction), I saw as part of Amber 2012 exhibition in Istanbul, November 2012, plays with the idea of broken down electronic and other gadgets, from scientific measurement units to an old telephone, television, kitchen utensils (a hand mixer) and an old Spectrum ZX computer. The practice relates to the recent years of circuit bending and hardware hacking, as well as critical design/(re)making, from Garnet Hertz to Benjamin Gaulon and glitchers Jon Satrom to Rosa Menkman, and it might be said to relate to zombie media too–repurposing discarded/dysfunctional gadgets.
For the group, “downtime refers to the period of time during which a system remains unavailable or fails to provide or perform its primary function.” The installation covers a wall with its recircuited works, reminescent of for instance ReFunct Media 2.0. Indeed, this is the interesting bit; it is not so much about the object, but the materiality of its dysfunctionality is articulated as a temporal relation; “the period during which…”. Even downtime unfolds as a duration.
I would argue that there is a twisted permanence, or at least a horizon, a duration, of such a downtime that is as significant as its functionality. “Through the active participation of the viewer, the objects are examined within a new context, in terms of how these are kept active and accessible by its reuse and manipulation”, the group writes. We of course need to investigate the wider sense and rationale of why things should be kept active, and the horizon of that. For me, the interesting bit is as said the temporal dimension, and the new materialist discourse and media technological theory needs to be able to tackle with this too. Whether it is about the temporality of the accident, or the break down, downtime — or then the microtemporality Wolfgang Ernst is after (see also Algorhythmics).
Indeed, the accident and downtime is not only an event that disrupts the running of temporality, but incorporates its own duration that we have to understand too. Downtime is a switch concept for notions of time – functional and dysfunctional, and as such tries to act as an anthropological operator for cultural techniques of temporality.
Jack White might not agree but White Stripes’ “Rag & Bone” goes at the top of my list for the theme tune for zombie media and media archaeology. Listen to it.
If you don’t want it, we’ll take it; if you don’t want to give it to us, we keep walking by.
Keep going, we’re not tired.
Got plenty of places to go, lots of homes we ain’t been to yet.
West side, southwest side, middle-east, rich house, dog house, outhouse, old folks house, house for unwed mothers, halfway homes, catacombs, twilight zones.
Looking for techniques, turntables to gramophones.
So take a last lick of your ice cream cone.
And lock up what you still want to own.
But please be kind.
And don’t rewind.
All of your pretty, your pretty little rags and bones.
All that obsolete stuff and junk, piled up, ready to be used, reused, modified and reappropriated – your rags and bones that fill the attic, the junkyard, the garage.
Of course, this applies to Jack White/White Stripes more generally too. He might not acknowledge that also the pre-digital is technological but still, this is where it actually gets interesting. For instance recording in non-digital studios (Elephant was recorded in London, at Toerag Studios):
It’s all tech, and scholars of music technologies and sound recording could tell much more about that. For Kittler, of course, it was about the reuse of war technologies in the studio, from Stockhausen’s late 1950s use of “the pulse generator, indicating amplifier, band-pass filter, as
well as the sine and square wave oscillators “, all remnants “ discarded U.S. Army equipment” (1999: 97) to Abbey Road . Microphones and tape technologies, all points to the primacy of the studio as this set, place of experimental modes of time axis manipulation and hence reality manipulation. Continuing with Kittler: “Berliner’s primitive recording technology turns into a Magical Mystery Tour. In 195 4 , Abbey Road Studios, which not coincidentally produced the Beatles’ sound, first used stereo audiotapes; by 1970 eight-track machines had become the standard; today discos utilize 3 2 or 64 tracks, each of which can be manipulated on its own and in unison.226 “Welcome to the machine, ” Pink Floyd sang, by which they meant, “tape for its own ends-a form of collage using sound .” In the Funkspiele of the Abwehr, Morse hands could be corrected; in today’s studios, stars do not even have to be able to sing anymore. When the voices of Waters and Gilmour were unable to hit the high notes in “Welcome to the Machine,” they simply resorted to time axis manipulation: they dropped the tape down half a semitone while recording and then dropped the line in on the track.” (109)
Similarly, it’s the operative technics that allows Jack White to do his rag & bone sort of technicity, completely technological too, and why not even a bit of zombie mediaesque in some of its valorisation of the media archaeological moment. Obviously, part of the narrative of rock is the insistance on the authencity which itself is consolidated through technical media.
And that is the trick. In the perceptive note by Ryan Bishop and John Phillips, in their book on avantgarde aesthetics and military/modern technologies they write of this constitutive role of media as environments for such a narrative that keeps on recurring — and is itself recursive in relation to the technological platform sustainining it: ” [...] recording technology – like military surveillance technology – is designed to reduce the evidence of the technology itself, bringing the performance into your living room or bar, replacing “live” music, perhaps to the detriment of live performers.” (2011: 89).
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.
The circuit bended and definitely (re)modified fruits of our collaboration with Garnet Hertz are out. True, “Zombie Media” has been circulating as an unborn living dead text for a longer while, ever since it was part of the Transmediale 2010 Theory Award competition — but now it is finally officially out in Leonardo (vol. 45, no 5)!
Working with someone like Garnet is a pure joy, and demonstrates why collaboration is good for you: you learn a lot. A lot lot.
As a teaser to the longer “Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archaeology into an Art Method”-article, please find below the short “manifesto” on “Five Principles of Zombie Media” we co-wrote for the Defunct/Refunct-catalogue (PDF).
Zombie media addresses the living deads of media culture. As such, it is clearly related
to the earlier calls to investigate “dead media” by Bruce Sterling and others: to map
the forgotten, out-of-use, obsolete and declared dysfunctional technologies in order
to understand better the nature of media cultural development. And yet, we want to
point to a further issue when it comes to abandoned media: the amount of discarded
electronic media is not only the excavation ground for quirky media archaeological
interests, but one of the biggest threats for ecology in terms of the various toxins they
are leaking back to nature. A discarded piece of media technology is never just discarded
but part of a wider pattern of circulation that ties the obsolete to recycling centers,
dismantling centres in Asia, markets in Nigeria, and so forth – a whole global political
ecology of different sorts where one of the biggest questions is the material toxicity of
our electronic media. Media kills nature as they remain as living deads.
Hence, we believe that media archaeology – the media theoretical stance interested
in forgotten paths and quirky ideas of past media cultures – needs to become more
political, and articulate its relation to design practices more clearly. We are not the only
ones that have made that call recently – for instance Timothy Druckrey writes:
“The mere rediscovery of the forgotten, the establishment of oddball paleontologies, of
idiosyncratic genealogies, uncertain lineages, the excavation of antique technologies or
images, the account of erratic technical developments, are, in themselves, insufficient to
the building of a coherent discursive methodology.” 
We would want to add that in addition to developing discursive methodologies, we
need to develop methodologies that are theoretically rich as well as practice-oriented –
where ontologies of technical media meet up with innovative ideas concerning design
in an ecological context.
As such, the other part of the zombie media call is the work of reappropriation
through circuit bending and hardware hacking methodologies – to extend the media
archaeological as well as ecosophic interest into design issues. By actively repurposing
things considered dead – things you find from your attic, the second hand market, or
amongst waste – the zombiefication of media is to address the planned obsolescence of
media technologies which is part of their material nature. In reference to contemporary
consumer products, planned obsolescence takes many forms. It is not only an ideology,
or a discourse, but more accurately takes place on a micropolitical level of design:
difficult to replace batteries in personal MP3 audio players, proprietary cables and
chargers that are only manufactured for a short period of time, discontinued customer
support, or plastic enclosures impossible to open without breaking them. Whether you
can open up things – the famous black boxes of media culture characterized by iPhones
and iPads – is one of the biggest political and ecological questions facing our media
theory and practices too.
As a manifesto, five points of zombie media stand out:
1/ We oppose the idea of dead media. Although death of media may be useful as a tactic to
oppose dialog that only focuses on the newness of media, we believe that media never
dies. Media may disappear in a popular sense, but it never dies: it decays, rots, reforms,
remixes, and gets historicized, reinterpreted and collected. It either stays as a residue
in the soil and in the air as concrete dead media, or is reappropriated through artistic,
2/ We oppose planned obsolescence. As one corner stone in the mental ecology of
circulation of desires, planned obsolescence maintains ecologically unsupportable
death drive that is destroying our milieus of living.
3/ We propose a depunctualization of media and the opening, understanding and hacking
of concealed or blackboxed systems: whether as consumer products or historical
4/ We propose media archaeology as an artistic methodology that follows in the traditions
of appropriation, collage and remixing of materials and archives. Media archaeology
has been successful in excavating histories of dead media, forgotten ideas, sidekicks and
minor narratives, but now its time to develop it from a textual method into a material
methodology that takes into account the political economy of contemporary media
5/ We propose that reuse is an important dynamic of contemporary culture, especially
within the context of electronic waste. “If it snaps shut, it shall snap open.” We agree in
that open and remix culture should be extended to physical artifacts.
It’s out, and gradually in book stores — What is Media Archaeology? (Polity),
my new book about media archaeology (what a surprise)!
It picks up where the edited volume Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications (Huhtamo and Parikka) left off; this means the implications bit, and how media archaeology relates to other recent discussions in art, cultural and media theory: software studies, new materialism, archives, and more. In other words, it complements the earlier collection.
So in short,
1) What IS media archaeology?
- depends who you ask. If you ask Erkki Huhtamo or Siegfried Zielinski, you might get a different answer than from asking me. For Huhtamo, it is the recurring topoi/topics of media culture; for Zielinski, a poetic exploration of deep times and variantology; and so forth. For me, it is an exciting theoretical opening to think about material media cultures in a historical perspective. However, it expands into an experimental set of questioning about time, obsolescence, and alternative histories as well. In one way, it is about analyzing the conditions of existence of media cultural objects, processes and phenomena. It picks up on some strands of “German media theory”, but connects that to other debates in cultural theory too.I like what Bernhard Siegert has said about the early ethos of media archaeology being that of Nietzschean gay science — experimental, exploratory, radical. Perhaps in this vein, media archaeology is one answer to the need to think transdiscplinary questions of art, science, philosophy and technology.
2) Isn’t it just media history that tries to rebrand itself?
- No, not really. A lot of the media archaeological work expands to strong theoretical arguments as well as quite different sorts of historical inquiry than one recognizes in media historical work. Having said that, perhaps this is where the interesting connections are emerging; how media archaeology can contribute to media historical inquiry as well as to thinking about archives and cultural memory. There is one chapter on archives in this new book. A lot of media archaeology owes to earlier new cultural histories and new historicism, so the link is there.
3) Isn’t media archaeology only a footnote to Kittler’s work?
- That would be unfair towards a bunch of other theorists, German and non-German. Kittler himself denied being a media archaeologist, even if a lot of the stuff has taken much inspiration from him and the idea of looking at “conditions of existence” of cultural formations through (technical) media. Even Germany is filled with media archaeological work, since 1980s, and a lot of that expands to such new directions as Cultural Techniques (Siegert, Krajewski, Vissman, and others) as well as other media archaeologists — not least Wolfgang Ernst. In addition, the book offers an insight to other media archaeological theories, such as Huhtamo’s, Zielinski’s, new film history (Elsaesser et al) as well as the links to emerging media studies fields such as digital humanities (eg Kirschenbaum’s work).
4) Sounds like the book is all theory, huh?
There is more than just media theory — although I admit, that because of the nature of the book, was not able to work too much of new empirical material there. However, one key thing that pops up in the book is the use of media archaeology as an artistic method. There is a whole chapter dedicated to that. I think one of the most exciting directions is to see how these methodologies can be used in design, arts and other fields of creative practice that anyway are interested in themes of obsolescence, media and technological affordance, the environment and ecology, remix and for instance hardware (even analogue!).
5) What next?
- No more media archaeology for me. Well, I have jokingly promised that I won’t use the term anymore, even if I am interested in seeing where this term might take us. I will come up with a disguise, a theoretical disguise.
6) your chance to ask me a question!
- and I will answer, if I can.
Meanwhile, here is the info about the book:
(From the Publisher’s catalogue and website):
This cutting-edge text offers an introduction to the emerging field of media archaeology and analyses the innovative theoretical and artistic methodology used to excavate current media through its past.
Written with a steampunk attitude, What is Media Archaeology? examines the theoretical challenges of studying digital culture and memory and opens up the sedimented layers of contemporary media culture. The author contextualizes media archaeology in relation to other key media studies debates including software studies, German media theory, imaginary media research, new materialism and digital humanities.
What is Media Archaeology? advances an innovative theoretical position while also presenting an engaging and accessible overview for students of media, film and cultural studies. It will be essential reading for anyone interested in the interdisciplinary ties between art, technology and media.
And the blurbs:
‘Jussi Parikka offers a lucid, concise, and highly readable account of a new and exciting field – media archaeology. He demonstrates that contemporary media forms are rooted to the past by multiple threads – untangling them helps us understand the media frenzy that currently surrounds us.’
Erkki Huhtamo, University of California Los Angeles
‘A fabulous map of media archaeology that, as its subject compels, produces its territory anew.’
Matthew Fuller, Goldsmiths
‘The most comprehensive coverage to date of this fascinating area of study. Parikka’s book offers an excellent overview of connections between the material and social aspects of media technology. He provides a thorough review of the diverse and sometimes contrasting theoretical foundations and provides a host of concrete examples of media-archaeological practice that serve to bridge the gap between heady theoretical trajectories and the concerns of practicing artists, users and other readers who take their technology seriously.’
Paul DeMarinis, Stanford University
Table of Contents
Introduction: Cartographies of the Old and the New
Media Archaeology of the Senses: Audiovisual, Affective, Algorithmic
Imaginary Media: Mapping Weird Objects
Media Theory and New Materialism
Mapping Noise and Accidents
Archive Dynamics: Software Culture and Digital Heritage
Practicing Media Archaeology: Creative Methodologies for Remediation
Conclusions: Media Archaeology in Digital Culture
Note: the book is hitting the bookstores now in the UK (May), and soon in North-America (June) and rest of the world.
This is the short intro/intervention, from my second Transmediale 2012-talk on the Search for a Method-panel, organized by Timothy Druckrey, involving in addition to me Inke Arns, Siegfried Zielinski and Wolfgang Ernst. The images are from the Crystal World workshop, also Transmediale 2012.
In order to kick off the panel and discussions, we were asked to pick examples of current media artistic practices, and proceed from there.
My thoughts were soon obviously on some themes and problems that I had been occupied with. More or less, such have included speculative materialities, work often dealing with the various spectra of hearing and seeing, of light and sound, of electromagnetism; works that map the non-solid based materialities that are increasingly important in order to understand how bodies react, and are governed, managed, experienced, in urban and technological settings.
Hence, I might have wanted to address Will Schrimshaw’s Atmospheric Research and Subliminal Frequencies. To me, the project is a mapping of the subconscious affective, embodied states where architectural arrangements are as important as the informational ecology; it maps the events that happen below the threshold of consciousness, for instance through ambient light as a regulator of “hormone secretion, body temperature, sleep and alertness”. As such, it is a practice based excavation into the physiological and technological constitution of experience, but also the possibilities of producing and governing experience; something related to my earlier talk on the “media archaeology of cognitive capitalism”.
Or then, another possibility would be to have looked at the various projects and the work of Critical Engineer, as expressed by Julian Oliver, in the manifesto co-written with Gordan Savičić and Danja Vasiliev. The notion of the artist-engineer might not be new, having a longer history in terms of media arts, but at the same time the manifesto and works capture something crucial about the methodology of such a practitioner, through an expanded understanding of what the machine is (across devices, bodies, agents, forces and networks, as the Manifesto lists) and how that expanded notion of the machine lends itself to a work of exposing; imbalance and deception become driving forces in a mapping of such relations, often in work that engages with wireless network technologies, rethinking visual and urban media, and more. The various projects at Weise7/Labor8 exhibition downstairs, at Transmediale 2012, are good examples.
Without being just software studies, such Critical Engineering engages with code, but in the manner how it regulates, governs, manages and in the right hands, distorts, perverts, misguides, cheats. This list that sounds a whole lot like from Matthew Fuller’s and Andy Goffey’s evil media theory.
So far, the two themes that emerge show the need to 1) account for such materialities that are not directly, necessarily humanly perceptible but completely real; and 2), the need to account for practices of perversion. Altering and corrupting as more interesting technical methods than just the smooth operationality often mistaken as the essence of technological practices.
Instead, I want to briefly to mention the work of Microresearch Lab/Martin Howse, Jonathan Kemp and Ryan Jordan, and especially the Recrystallization and Decrystallization workshops that took place in London and Berlin last year, and now during Transmediale The Crystal World Open laboratory.
The workshops used various methods to crack open and chemically process information technology in order to expose and address such constitutive processes what referred to as crystallisation. The term was partly adopted from J.G.Ballard, continuing an even earlier style of artistic practice of the Microresearch Lab, where software and hardware practices find a resonance with fiction, paranoid, speculative narratives of writers such as Thomas Pynchon (always dear to anyone interested in the 20th century articulations of power, science and engineering). As for crystallisation, with a nod towards Ballard indeed, the notion of the crystal becomes a conceptual lead in terms of a speculative materialism, described in these words:
“recrystallization was convened around the premise that while life itself starts from aperiodic crystals that encode infinite futures within a small number of atoms, the digital crystallization of the flesh by capital limits these futures to the point of exhaustion.
If computers and the minerals from which they are made are considered as equally crystalline, then their recrystallization is only possible through the introduction of vigorous and noisy positive feedback loops. “
In terms of media art histories, dead media and other theoretical and methodological approaches, the work of de- and recrystallization involved such techniques as “earth computing, mineral precipitation, high heat synthetic geology and inductive crystallography, DIY semi-conductor fabrication, water crystal cryptography, anthropocenic fossilizations, kirlian photography, hi-voltage fulgurite construction ”; Listing such, however, one however has to note quite soon that well, it is not exactly media archaeology as we used to think about it. Having said that, the notion of media archaeology in creative computing and related perspectives is taking us increasingly to such techniques as computer forensics, digital archaeology, and other modes of disgorging machines where art practices meet up with DIY and perhaps indeed critical engineering.
Speculative (media) archaeologies work crudely – but crude only in the sense of hacking open, disgorging, salvaging, melting, chemically processing in order to extract the minerals and such that on a material level compose our information technology. With an increasing political economic interest in the long networks of media production and discarded media, we have a better spatial understanding of the grim labour, electronic waste and other neo-colonialist emphasis of digital economy. The workshops tapped into this field directly as well, using such practices that mimicked human labour in extraction of valuable components and material from abandoned technology. What I want to propose is that such projects are emblematic of speculative media archaeologies and such artistic practices that combine a poetic-technological take on deep times, but ones that are such in a material sense too – not just written histories, but archaeologies of soil and history of the earth. Such speculative crypto histories of the earth refer to the concrete sedimentations of minerals and rocks, that act as re-sources for further development.
Where such methods fit in terms of media art vocabularies might remain unclear, but it is certain that they extend the practices often discussed in media art (histories) into a resonance with speculative materialism, new materialism, media archaeology but executed in highly original ways. We can talk of crystal materialities; materialities of minerals, information technology, and materialities of dangerous inhuman labour.
Indeed, to briefly elaborate on “exhumation” as a parallel concept to that more often mentioned of autopsy (also voiced by Tim Druckrey in his opening words) I will make a detour through Reza Negarestani. Cyclonopedia – a work of theory-fiction – speculates about the petropolitical deep layer, the living soil of Middle east, and we can point towards the work of Microresearch lab and these workshops as chemical and material deep layers that go two ways: not just the route of media archaeology interested in obsolescence, abandoned tech, and things old; but the other sort of descent too, to adopt Michel Foucault’s idea, perhaps implicitly part of some methodologies of media art histories and media archaeology. I am referring to a descent inside the machine, into the technical infrastructures, layers, city-like scapes of circuits and components. This kind of technical exposes a material, abstract level of connections, affordances and capacities. In such a methodology, the topology extends across materialities –from the fictional narrativisation to the hardware materiality and the long duration of mineral elements that entangle with that of human energy exploited for the excavation.
As a topological figure, and interested in this poetic and speculative materialism, allow me to end through a longer reference to Negarestani. What if such speculative media archaeologies and artistic methodologies are something that share methods with archaeologists but also with “cultists, worms and crawling entities”; not just a sublimated view of technological progress, but an interested in scars and half-lifes, of multiplication of surfaces, and creation of vermiculation; a new hole into solid, contained bodies of consumer technology.
“If archeologists, cultists, worms and crawling entities almost always undertake an act of exhumation (surfaces, tombs, cosmic corners, dreams, etc.), it is because exhumation is equal to ungrounding, incapacitating surfaces ability to operate according to topologies of the whole, or on a mereotopological level. In exhumation, the distribution of surfaces is thoroughly undermined and the movements associated with them are derailed; the edge no longer belongs to the periphery, anterior surfaces come after all other surfaces, layers of strata are displaced and perforated, peripheries and the last protecting surfaces become the very conductors of invasion. Exhumation is defined as a collapse and trauma introduced to the solid part by vermiculate activities; it is the body of solidity replaced by the full body of trauma. As in disinterment — scarring the hot and cold surfaces of a grave — exhumation proliferates surfaces through each other. Exhumation transmutes architectures into excessive scarring processes, fibroses of tissues, membranes and surfaces of the solid body.”
This transmutation, and distribution of new surfaces is where such familiar notions of art and culture theory vocabulary as trauma are transported into material methodologies in order to excavate the stratification of such as part of mixed materials. The “novel crystal earth geologies” extend the work of material recovery and reuse into “psychophysical distortions and contingencies” in a gesture which elaborates an enthusiasm for multiple ecologies. Media art practices that are not merely to be fitted into media art histories and genres, but themselves create new openings to times and spaces of media objects, components, times.
Digital Spectrology is that dirty work of a cultural theorist who wants to understand how power works in the age of circuitry. Power circulates not only in human spaces of cities, organic bodies or just plain things and objects. Increasingly, our archaeologies of the contemporary need to turn inside the machine, in order to illuminate what is the condition of existence of how we think, see, hear, remember and hallucinate in the age of software. This includes things discarded, abandoned, obsolete as much as the obscure object of desire still worthy of daylight. As such, digital archaeology deals with spectres too; but these ghosts are not only
hallucinations of afterlife reached through the media of mediums, or telegraphics, signals from Mars, the screen as a window to the otherwordly; but in the electromagnetic sphere, dynamics of software, ubiquitous computing, clouds so transparent we are mistaken to think of them as soft. Media Archaeology shares a temporality of the dead and zombies with Hauntology. Dead media is never actually dead. So what is the method of a media archaeologist of technological ghosts? She opens up the hood, looks inside, figures out what are the processual technics of our politics and aesthetics: The Aesthetico-Technical.
I guess this is dead media (archaeology).
I am doing farewells, and ritual slaughters of pieces of text that I need to cut from my new Media Archaeology and Digital Culture-manuscript (book forthcoming 2012 from Polity Press). I ended up realizing I am 15,000 words over the word limit so I need to become ruthless. This means picking up the academic chainsaw, the butcher’s knife, the well-sharpened axe that I keep under my bed anyway, and putting on my best Jack Nicholson (in The Shining) impression before the slaughter begins. Some of the remains (consider them sliced out organs, even if minor ones, of the text) are buried at Cartographies of Media Archaeology as part of the “Kill the Darling”-series (and part 1 here).
We organized a very successful Platform Politics-conference in Cambridge, May 11-13, where our speakers included such exciting scholars and writers as Michel Bauwens, Michael Goddard, Tiziana Terranova, Nick Couldry, Nick Dyer-Witheford, Felix Stalder, and Tim Jordan. And a lot more (check out the link for names and abstracts too).
These are my short opening words to the event:
Platform Politics takes place as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council founded networking project on Network Politics. We pitched it to the AHRC with the suggestion that it takes one to know one: to understand emerging forms of social action and politics on networks and in network society, one has to develop networks, to crowdsource ideas from leading scholars, activists, artists; to map and to bring through various channels such partipants together in order to identity themes and directions which need more focus. Hence, we have arrived at the third and final event of the project – now on Platform Politics, following the first event in Cambridge on Methodologies of Network Politics research, and last year in Toronto at the Infoscape research lab with help from Greg Elmer, Ganaele Langlois and Alessandra Renzi we discussed object oriented and affect approaches to network politics.
We wanted to keep the notion of platform quite broad in order to solicit a more open range of papers. Hence, from software platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to robotics, from theoretical insights that draw from post-Fordist theories of politics and labour to object oriented philosophy, and much more, we have a privileged position to think through the platform (often seen as technological, as in platform studies) as a platform for our investigations (hence, also as a conceptual affordance). This does not mean to say that platform studies as represented in the Bogost and Montfort led series is techno-determinist, and solely focuses on such – quite the contrary, it tries to find a specific relation between technology and aesthetics. Yet, it is good to emphasize the mobilization of the concept as part of various transitions, and translations: platforms in technological (and again there various levels from apps to clouds, online platforms to technological hardware structures), conceptual, economic and of course political sense (expect at least a couple of references to Lenin in this conference).
So if Bogost and Montfort make sense of platform studies through this kind of layering:
I would add that the notion of platform politics is able to articulate various levels together, and bring smoothness and movement to the interaction of the layers. In other words, in addition to the specific level of “platforms” we can think of the platform itself as distributed on a variety of layers as assemblages (in the manner Manuel Delanda uses the term?). A good example of this – something we were unable to pursue because of the problem of finding the slot for it! – was the idea of organizing a circuit bending/hardware hacking workshop (with Seb Franklin). The idea was to follow Garnet Hertz’s lead, and the way he has organized such workshops both to kids as well as to media theorists — and to use hands-on tinkering, opening up technology such as battery-operated toys, as a way to think through hardware platforms, how design solutions incorporate politics, how they afford conceptual approaches, and act as one node across a variety of other platforms. (An example of such is articulated in the forthcoming “Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archaeology into an Art Method”-text, by myself and Hertz, in Leonardo-journal where we tie the question of such design politics of hardware to media archaeology, art methods and the political economy of network culture).
Platforms reveal to be ontogenetic – i.e. creative forms of interaction, not just stable backgrounds for a continuation of the social. They organize social action in a double bind where social action organizes them. Platforms rearticulate the social. For instance software platforms constitute a catalyzer for specific social forms, and as such incorporate in themselves a multitude of social, political, economic forces. It is a question of production – and of what kinds of social relations are being produced, a good example being the Telecommunist project and the Thimbl open source distributed microblogging service that incorporates a different sociability than proprietorial web 2.0 business and software models. And yet, this sociability is grounded on the level of the potentials of networks, the P2P instead of Web 2.0, distributed instead of the centralized client-server-model.
At the beginning of the project, we started with the question of “”what is network politics?“” and requested initial position papers from some key writers in the field – today of those we have Tiziana Terranova and Greg Elmer attending. Other theorists included Alex Galloway, Eugene Thacker, Katrien Jacobs and Geert Lovink.
The idea was to organize this as a form of request for comments – the RFC format, familiar from internet design culture, of questioning, lining up comments and positions, which however did not pan out as extensively as we wanted (this has to do with other organizationally interesting themes concerning spam management in participatory platforms, and so forth). However, what we got from the position papers were some initial leads. Furthermore, we started with some assumptions where to start tracking network politics:
- politics of new network clusters, services, platforms – Twitter, Facebook, as well as mapping alternative forms of software-based ways of organizing traditional political parties as well as new formations, NGOs, and temporally very different groupings/phenomena – whether the suddenly emerging and as suddenly disappearing “like” protests for instance on Facebook, or the more long-term effects of Wikileaks– leak not only in the meaning of leaking secret information, but leaking across media platforms, and reaching a long term sustainability through “old” media trying to come grips with such online activities.
- biopolitics of network culture, or in other words, the various practices which form internet cultures – hence a step outside of the technological focus, to look at what practices define network politics, and as such the links between work and free time, of play and labour, the circulation of affects, sociability, and so forth. Cognitive capitalism but as much affective capitalism. Yesterday (referring to the pre-conference event with Michel Bauwens and Michael Goddard) we got a bit into talking about investments of affect, desire and such topics.
- we were interested too in the metaquestion: what form would investigating network politics have to take? Outside the normal practice of humanities, writing and meeting up in conferences, what are the specific pedagogic and research tools/platforms that are actively changing the politics of education and research inside/outside academia. What are the research/creation platforms that are able to articulate this, so that we are not only stuck with “master’s tools”?
- And in a way, as a more unspecified but as important was the question of politics of the imperceptible: what kinds of forms of politics there are out there that are not even recognized as politics? From artistic practices to the grey work of engineers, new arenas of expertise, skill and again, social action contribute to the way in which politics is fleeing from traditional institutions.
The project has been able to map various positions to such questions, and raise new ones – which has been the purpose of this all: to produce more leads for further work. The same thing applies to this conference, and we are hoping to come out with excellent contributions, that do not fall within such original ideas. During the project’s unfolding, “network politics” became a wider popular media phenomenon too, where old media started to focus on what is was able to brand as “twitter-revolutions, or facebook-revolutions” – and yet this only emphasized the need to complexify the notions, and the histories of such events and platforms, as has been done on various email lists, and various other debate forums already. I am sure we can continue on that, and produce some really exciting discussions – and as always in our events, we really hope that a lot of the emphasis is on discussions in the sessions, as well as outside them.
The best way for media studies to really make sense is to think outside media – of where it expands, takes us, if we persistently follow its lead. So far, for a long time, it took us to think about humans, human relations, intentions, unconscious desires, economics as much as politics as power. Such paths need to take us to the other direction too; to things less intentional, but as important; to nature, bacteria, chemicals, forms of life outside our headspace but inside our gut; to milieus of living in which our conscious agency is only a minor part of what matters. To such time scales which take into account uses and practices, but as part of larger concert where some things last thousands, millions, billions of years.
Just like humanities more widely, media studies needs to be transversal – perhaps a concept we can tightly link to “transdisciplinary” as well.
To quote Félix Guattari:
“Now more than ever, nature cannot be separated from culture; in order to comprehend the interactions between ecosystems, the mechanosphere and the social and individual Universes of reference, we must learn to think ‘transversally.’” (Three Ecologies, 2000:43).
The biggest reason why we should be worried about death and finitude is less in the existential manner, or even what makes our Dasein authentic, but in the way that milieus of life are dying. This relates to fears about “the sixth mass extension” of species, this time caused by humans. The only death we need is that of the subjectivity that cements the economic, political and aesthetic practices that kill nature. This is as much a question for the sciences and engineering, as it is for media theory, arts and humanities.
As Guattari argues, talking about ecosophy, we need to reinvent a multitude of relations where economic struggles, political struggles and struggles of representation, as well as aesthetics, are those that expand the horizon to nature. Hence, media – both in terms of the technologies that return to nature as heavy metals and toxins and as mediators of the mental ecologies in which our destructive tendencies are sustained – is surprisingly close to this problem too.
The affective regimes of media are affective in terms of the relations they sustain – relations between humans, but also to ecosystems, mechanospheres and more. Media studies is thus in a good position to really develop itself into a study of relations, of mediations in that much wider sense.