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The lab as a symptom

I am giving a talk on Laboratory Fever in Amsterdam later in May and I am currently drafting some notes for that. This talk is part of the larger research and book project with my colleagues Lori Emerson and Darren Wershler, and most of our research process is documented on the What is a Media Lab-website. Below however a short excerpt from the forthcoming Amsterdam talk, and relating to a passage about (culture/humanities) labs as places of making, and the lab as  a symptom.

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In her historical contextualisation of the laboratory (“The Laboratory Challenge”), Ursula Klein puts it in rather clear terms: the laboratory was not merely a place of pure science and before the institutionalisation of the site since the 19th century as part of the scientific set up, it had many artisanal connotations as well. The lab was anyway part and parcel of a set-up of making and things, where knowledge was produced in material settings. Indeed, her interest is articulated relating to this “laboratory tradition that meshed studies of nature with technological innovation.” Now, I wonder, how much could we gain and how far could we venture with the poached idea if we did a sort of a minor tweak and see how it sounds when considering the rhetorical promise as well as conditions how we think of labs in the humanities interested in culture and making?

“the laboratory tradition that meshes studies of culture with technological innovation”.A simple and elegant hack, and an update of the scientific lab to a more humanities one? Acknowledging both the relation to “critical making” and also the nexus of culture and technology? Would this solve some of our problems and establish a seeming relation to the scientific labs as labor and elaboration of nature?

But too easy quips aside, there is something in the ways in which the lab as a site of technological making and artefactuality, in some ways, can be seen relating to the arguments by historians of science. Indeed, have we arrived at a situation where we return to the pre-scientific contexts of experimentation and wonder, where also romantic poetry is pitched as such a mode of experimentation, as Novalis once had it, and cultural realities can also found their sites of tests and experiments? Is the lab the neo-romantic but also the pre-scientific lab – a place of making and apparatuses, a place happy to borrow from the scientific aura of the science lab but not merely as an imitation of that model, but a sort of a institutional move that fits in with the issues of basic funding for departments too? Some might critique it as exactly a nostalgic move: at a time when most technocultural processes seem to be escaping the horizon of phenomenological perception and the tool-making Man’s hand, we establish sites of such nostalgic proximity to individual technologies that are merely at most interfaces to the massive planetary level technological infrastructures. And yet, establishing concrete sites might be one way of interfacing not only with technologies but educational possibilities of intervention with that technological reality.

Because of the magnitude of questions “the lab” triggers, the number of separate and distinct labs there exists, and that  every lab could produce  their own particular answer, I would suggest that it is more fruitful to consider the lab not so much as a solution but as a symptom itself; just like Thomas Elsaesser (2016) recently asked about the discipline of media archaeology the question: instead of what is, we should ask why now? And we can extend the same logic of questioning to labs: not just what is a lab but why now? What is it about the lab not merely as an internal place of new methods or new forms of creative or academic activity but as a fold between such techniques and external political and economic conditions of current institutions that makes it a symptom? What are the sort things that temporalise this spatial setting as a question of the now – a question that defines it as a contemporary setting for particular experiments in not only academia or creative industries, but in “political anthropology of new institutional forms” to use Brett Neilson and Ned Rossiter’s ideas.

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Archival Infusions. An Interview with Robin Boast

October 23, 2012 2 comments

Here another earlier recorded interview I did, this time with Dr Robin Boast. Our chat was inspiring for me, as usual; we talked archives, metadata, cultural heritage institutions and digital culture, and I always find Boast’s insights so provocative, so fresh. Boast is really someone who can talk of archival fevers and the history of the discipline; archive as a profession and an institution. He offers wonderful archival, museum science and anthropological insights, infusions, into digital culture.

You can find the interview Mp3 here. The timing of re-uploading of the interview, from January 2011, is good; Boast has just been appointed Professor of Cultural Information Sciences at the University of Amsterdam in Netherlands, leaving behind UK and Cambridge. Great catch for Amsterdam!

Just to remind: all of these interviews I have been posting were made originally in the context of the Creative Technology Review podcasts, that I did with Julio D’Escrivan.

Turf instead of Turf Wars

August 30, 2012 4 comments

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.

Critique With a Cause – on Lovink’s new book

June 5, 2012 3 comments

Geert Lovink can be provocative – very provocative. This is one of the pleasures of diving into his writings and books, just like with Networks Without a Cause, the most recent one published by Polity.

Lovink is a good “network barometer”, a measuring device in his own right, who captures significant themes being debated, even if not always within academia. And I say that as a good thing.

Lovink’s style of defending the work of concepts and theory but steering clear of stuffy academic language and managerial games, of investigating global trajectories without buying into neoliberal globalization speak, and investing so much into perspectives that stay close to code and technology without reducing his work into techy-geekyness is always a good combo.

Networks Without a Cause works it’s way through the current crisis of social media and the  public sector, including universities, and provides insights into the managerial cultures that combines both. Of course, these are two different kinds of crisis; Social Media companies are perhaps not in the financial crisis as the public sector, but in a state where their stance towards security, surveillance and privacy is being increasingly questions; and well, public sector both being pressed by the cuts and austerity programs as well as the managerial attitude creeping into a range of institutions. Hailing the liberatory effects of Social Media is just, well, naïve in the age when no user is probably unaware of the surveillance and business logics of such proprietary platforms. Similarly, Lovink picks up on the crisis of theory in universities, or more specifically a take on media studies’ role in current educational landscape.

For a media studies scholar, the chapter (see also a piece co-written with Ned Rossiter) is a tough read – but thoroughly enjoyable! I found a weird sense of satisfaction reading it, despite disagreeing on points; something about the provocation was to me spot on, in terms of placing media studies as part of the managerial drive in current universities – and UK is an especially apt case. While noting the running down of Arts and Humanities worldwide, Lovink picks up on media studies as “an academic genre [that] sprang out of the heads of education consultants and bureaucrats and blended into unrelated departments and intellectual cultures, in order to scale-up output.” (83) In other words, while registering the birth of media studies as a jumbled together mixed bag of variety of disciplines from film to theatre, cultural studies to new media studies, Lovink continues the argument as one related to theory. On the one hand, a “neutering” of innovative theory that has become a mechanical mode of application (“watching Heroes with Zizek in our favorite interpassive mode, flowing through the national libraries with Castells, understanding Google a la Deleuze, or interpreting Twitter via Butler?”); on the other hand, academic theory becoming only a means towards the end of managerially controlled research output exercises.

Yet, one could object – and should. As Michael Goddard noted on Facebook, where does this place then such fields as Media Ecology (after Matt Fuller) or Media Archaeology, which I also would claim is not only a look backwards to the old media studies groundings in television, radio or visual culture? Furthermore, whereas institutional settings in our discplines such as media are becoming threatened by admin culture, media studies scholars are happy to carry the legacy foward and come up with extra-institutional and other innovative settings for theory work and critique — read for instance Mirko Tobias Schäfer’s recent thoughts on tactics of going rogue. Another objection might be raised when Lovink quotes Lev Manovich, and Manovich’s critique of 1960s-1980s theory that has lost its relevance “because commercial culture and computers today run on many principles of this theory – from irony and the self-referentiality of advertising to ‘rhizomatic’ networks. So to use many of these theoretical concepts is to state the obvious.”

Manovich has a nice point here of the recursive nature with which earlier critical theory has turned part of the advertising folks toolkit. To a large extent, that can be seen true, but also we need to be aware that a very uninspiring and loose use of for instance notions like “rhizome” in 1990s cyberculture studies does not equate into it being completely part and parcel with the network condition. That a lot of Anglo-American adaptation of French philosophy for instance produced a range of misreadings and reliance in such notions of distributed nature, rhizomes, irony etc. is not exactly the same as assuming that a misplaced metaphor suddenly determined the state of new media. Such a stance would just validate bad theory. We need to be able to really read theory – and understand where theory turns rotten, uninspiring, and badly applied; not just dismiss it altogether that easily and uncritically.

However, Lovink picks up on exciting ways to develop theory. It is not about being dismissive, but clearly wanting to see something new to happen. Although I would claim that a lot of this is happening – however, not much supported in the creative industries/digital economy academic culture of for instance Britain – and gradually carving out more visibility. I agree with Lovink that such openings as Fuller & Goffey’s Evil media is among them, similarly as McKenzie Wark’s notes that are as needed. Even Manovich’s quantitative cultural analytics can be seen as an interesting move away from a traditional hermeneutics approach, developing media specific methodologies.

Indeed, media studies – like pretty much all arts and humanities disciplines – is in a difficult spot in relation to funding cuts, decrease in public support (well, in the UK media studies has historically been in a bad spot as the blamed mickey mouse-field, hated by the Tories and media), increasing managerial culture surrounding research (REF) and teaching (counterintuitive QAA), as well as the temporal issues. As Lovink notes, in an increasingly quickly changing media cultures, the cycles of academic studies are just too slow to be up to date, and often their destiny is to focus on historical phenomena.  Whereas some approaches, such as media archaeology, might be able to turn that to their advantage, that does not hide the problem entirely. More radical structural changes are needed in publishing and recognition systems. This means for instance on such levels as REF a sustained commitment to supporting open access journals and experimental formats of publishing academic research.

Lovink writes about writing (net criticism genre), radio, blogging, google, wikileaks and more – pretty much a range of the most debated events and platforms of past years. And still his book feels something that you actually enjoy reading. This might sound like a casual and banal observation, but I mean it in the sense of actually expecting to reach the end of the page, just to turn to next page. Lovink observes, inscribes and reports – but with a twist that makes his style so recognizable. His provocative style is attractive, and whether you agree or not on the points, well, he is making a point.

New materialism still feels new

Silhouettes of the iconic Haraway and Braidotti

Seeing two such iconic scholars as Donna Haraway and Rosi Braidotti on stage at the same time is always a treat.  This was in the context of New Materialism: Naturecultures, a wonderful continuation of last year’s New Materialisms and Digital Culture, and continuing the vibrant discussions surrounding how to think the material as dynamic and alive – and diffractively leaking across disciplinary  borders of knowledge, assembling into new theory war machines, intensive encounters, and problematics that themselves offer milieus for fresh thought. Organized by Iris van der Tuin and Rick Dolphjin, the conference featured speakers such as Haraway, Vicky Kirby, Adrian Mackenzie, Milla Tiainen and Melanie Sehgal – as well as yours truly. It’s clear that Haraway was the main feature, starting the whole day with her energetic talk “Playing Cat’s Cradle with Companion Species: Naturecultures-in-the-making.” It drew on the figure of the string – and the Cat’s Cradle game – which visualizes, embodies and is a tool-to-think-with knots knotting, ties engantgling, and relations in-the-making. In other words, companion species and the importance of the “with”.  At the same time, all presentations worked towards interesting directions in aesthetics and science of mattering dynamics. My own emphasis was on “medianatures” as a version of “naturecultures” topological continuum.

Again the conference succeeded in moving across science, technology and philosophy, and the importance of material feminisms was present (not only because the event was organized in Utrecht, easily one of the leading gender studies centres of the world). As such, as van der Tuin nicely elaborated in her opening words – new materialisms are transversal at their heart. Next year’s event is organized in Linnköping (with Cecilia Åsberg), and is themed “Genealogies of Matter”. The name already promises even more transversal connections,  cartographies of though-movements and forging discussion across different ways of engaging with matter, the real, and things/processes non-human too.

For instance, it would be interesting to articulate something about the relations between the mode of questioning in speculative realism and object-oriented-philosophy and new materialism. With such figures as Shaviro, Delanda and for instance Whitehead (and as always, Deleuze) quoted frequently on “both sides”, it is actually slightly surprising no further discussion has emerged. New materialisms is very strongly affiliated with feminist discussions which is one of its strengths and points towards a different set of politics that engage not solely with ontology – but with labour, sexuality and a range of cultural practices. Of course, its not that OOP is solely about ontology, but its clear that the direction of discussions has been taking it to a different set of questions than new materialism that has a very strong relation to other disciplines outside philosophy too – cultural and gender studies, Science and Technology, as well as media theory, I would add.

Meanwhile, while returning from the Netherlands to Berlin, this advert on Schiphol airport reminded me of what we need to address: the cultures of mobility, at the core of circulations of neoliberal regimes of governing too, articulated together with the seeming lightness of cloud computing, which however is at the core of the new materialities of digital culture – which far from immaterial are embedded in very heavy materialities as their sustaining “background forces”…

Cloud computing takes trust - and energy

Affect, software, net art (or what can a digital body of code do-redux)

After visiting the Manchester University hosted Affective Fabrics of Digital Cultures-conference I thought for a fleeting second to have discovered affects; its the headache that you get from too much wine, and the ensuing emotional states inside you trying to gather your thoughts. I discovered soon that this is a very reductive account, of course — and in a true Deleuzian spirit was not ready to reduce affect into such emotional responses. Although, to be fair, hangover is a true state of affect – far from emotion — in its uncontrollability, deep embodiment.

What the conference did offer in addition to good social fun was a range of presentations on the topic that is defined in so many differing ways; whether in terms of conflation it with “emotions” and “feelings”, or then trying to carve out the level of affect as a pre-conscious one; from a wide range of topics on affective labour (Melissa Gregg did a keynote on white collar work) to aesthetic capitalism (Patricia Clough for example) which in a more Deleuzian spirit insisted on the non-representational. (If the occasional, affective reader is interested in a short but well summarizing account of differing notions of affect to guide his/her feelings about the topic, have a look at Andrew Murphie’s fine blog posting here – good theory topped up with a cute kitty.)

My take was to emphasise the non-organic affects inherent in technology — more specifically software, which I read through a Spinozian-Uexkullian lense as a forcefield of relationality. Drawing on for example Casey Alt’s forthcoming chapter in Media Archaeologies (coming out later this year/early next year), I concluded with object-oriented programming as a good example of how affects can be read to be part of software as well so that the technical specificity of our software embedded culture reaches out to other levels. Affects are not states of things, but the modes in which things reach out to each other — and are defined by those reachings out, i.e. relations. I was specifically amused that I could throw in a one-liner of “not really being interested in humans anyway” — even better would have been “I don’t get humans or emotions”, but I shall leave that for another public talk. “I don’t do emotions” is another of my favourite one’s, that will end up on either a t-shirt or an academic paper.

The presentation was a modified version from a chapter that is just out in Simon O’Sullivan and Stephen Zepke’s Deleuze and Contemporary Art-book even if in that chapter, the focus is more on net and software art. I am going to give the same paper in the Amsterdam Deleuze-conference, but as a teaser to the actual written chapter, here is the beginning of that text from the book…

1. Art of the Imperceptible

In a Deleuze-Guattarian sense, we can appreciate the idea of software art as the art of the imperceptible. Instead of representational visual identities, a politics of the art of the imperceptible can be elaborated in terms of affects, sensations, relations and forces (see Grosz). Such notions are primarily non-human and exceed the modes of organisation and recognition of the human being, whilst addressing themselves to the element of becoming within the latter. Such notions, which involve both the incorporeal (the ephemeral nature of the event as a temporal unfolding instead of a stable spatial identity) and the material (as an intensive differentiation that stems from the virtual principle of creativity of matter), incorporate ‘the imperceptible’ as a futurity that escapes recognition. In terms of software, this reference to non-human forces and to imperceptibility is relevant on at least two levels. Software is not (solely) visual and representational, but works through a logic of translation. But what is translated (or transposed) is not content, but intensities, information that individuates and in-forms agency; software is a translation between the (potentially) visual interface, the source code and the machinic processes at the core of any computer. Secondly, software art is often not even recognized as ‘art’ but is defined more by the difficulty of pinning it down as a social and cultural practice. To put it bluntly, quite often what could be called software art is reduced to processes such as sabotage, illegal software actions, crime or pure vandalism. It is instructive in this respect that in the archives of the Runme.org software art repository the categories contain less references to traditional terms of aesthetics than to ‘appropriation and plagiarism’, ‘dysfunctionality’, ‘illicit software’ and ‘denial of service’, for example. One subcategory, ‘obfuscation’, seems to sum up many of the wider implications of software art as resisting identification.[i]

However, this variety of terms doesn’t stem from a merely deconstructionist desire to unravel the political logic of software expression, or from the archivists nightmare á la Foucault/Borges, but from a poetics of potentiality, as Matthew Fuller (2003: 61) has called it. This is evident in projects like the I/O/D Webstalker browser and other software art projects. Such a summoning of potentiality refers to the way experimental software is a creation of the world in an ontogenetic sense. Art becomes ‘not-just-art’ in its wild (but rigorously methodological) dispersal across a whole media-ecology. Indeed, it partly gathers its strength from the imperceptibility so crucial for a post-representational logic of resistance. As writers such as Florian Cramer and Inke Arns have noted, software art can be seen as a tactical move through which to highlight political contexts, or subtexts, of ‘seemingly neutral technical commands.’ (Arns, 3)

Arns’ text highlights the politics of software and its experimental and non-pragmatic nature, and resonates with what I outline here. Nevertheless, I want to transport these art practices into another philosophical context, more closely tuned with Deleuze, and others able to contribute to thinking the intensive relations and dimensions of technology such as Simondon, Spinoza and von Uexküll. To this end I will contextualise some Deleuzian notions in the practices and projects of software and net art through thinking code not only as the stratification of reality and of its molecular tendencies but as an ethological experimentation with the order-words that execute and command.

The Google-Will-Eat-Itself project (released 2005) is exemplary of such creative dimensions of software art. Authored by Ubermorgen.com (featuring Alessandro Ludovico vs. Paolo Cirio), the project is a parasitic tapping in to the logic of Google and especially its Adsense program. By setting up spoof Adsense-accounts the project is able to collect micropayments from the Google corporation and use that money to buy Google shares – a cannibalistic eating of Google by itself. At the time of writing, the project estimated that it will take 202 345 117 years until GWEI fully owns Google. The project works as a bizarre intervention into the logic of software advertisements and the new media economy. It resides somewhere on the border of sabotage and illegal action – or what Google in their letter to the artists called ‘invalid clicks.’ Imperceptibility is the general requirement for the success of the project as it tries to use the software and business logic of the corporation through piggy-backing on the latter’s modus operandi.

What is interesting here is that in addition to being a tactic in some software art projects, the culture of software in current network society can be characterised by a logic of imperceptibility. Although this logic has been cynically described as ‘what you don’t see is what you get’, it is an important characteristic identified by writers such as Friedrich Kittler. Code is imperceptible in the phenomenological sense of evading the human sensorium, but also in the political and economic sense of being guarded against the end user (even though this has been changing with the move towards more supposedly open systems). Large and pervasive software systems like Google are imperceptible in their code but also in the complexity of the relations it establishes (and what GWEI aims to tap into). Furthermore, as the logic of identification becomes a more pervasive strategy contributing to this diagram of control, imperceptibility can be seen as one crucial mode of experimental and tactical projects. Indeed, resistance works immanently to the diagram of power and instead of refusing its strategies, it adopts them as part of its tactics. Here, the imperceptibility of artistic projects can be seen resonating with the micropolitical mode of disappearance and what Galloway and Thacker call ‘tactics of non-existence’ (135-136). Not being identified as a stable object or an institutional practice is one way of creating vacuoles of non-communication though a camouflage of sorts. Escaping detection and surveillance becomes the necessary prerequisite for various guerrilla-like actions that stay ‘off the radar.’

>Does Software have Affects, or, What Can a Digital Body of Code Do?

>I am going to attach here an abstract I submitted for a conference today — the Deleuze studies conference in Amsterdam. Its something I did for a book coming out soonish, on Deleuze and Contemporary Art:

Can software as a non-human constellation be said to have “affects”? The talk argues that as much as we need mapping of the various affects of organic bodies-in-relation in order to understand the modes of control, power and production in the age of networks, we need a mapping of the biopolitics of software and code too. If we adopt a Deleuze-Spinozian approach to software we can focus on the body of code as a collection of algorithms to bodies interacting and affecting each other. What defines a computational event? The affects it is capable of. In a parallel sense as the tick is defined through its affects and potentials for interaction, software is not only a stable body of code, but an affordance, an affect, a potentiality for entering into relations. This marks moving from the metaphoric 1990s cyberdiscourse that adopted Deleuzian terms like the rhizome into a different regime of critique that works through immanent critique on the level of software. This talk works through software art to demonstrate the potentials in thinking software not as abstract piece of information but as processes of individuation (Simondon) and interaction (Deleuze-Spinoza). A look at software practices and discourses around net art and related fields offers a way of approaching the language of software as a stuttering of a kind (Jaromil). Here dysfunctionalities turn into tactical machines that reveal the complex networks software are embedded in. Software spreads and connects into economics, politics and logics of control society as an immanent force of information understood in the Simondonian sense. The affects of software do not interact solely on the level of programming, but act in multiscalar ecologies of media which are harnessed in various hacktivist and artist discourses concerning the politics of the Internet and software.

Encountering (only as a website though) today the Sonicity-installation project I continued thinking about this. The project turns light, humidity and other environmental data such as people into input for algorithmic sonification through MAX MSP and further to visualisation.

What intrigues me in this is the process of transformation and transposition of various sensory regimes; translations from input into data and further to sound, image, etc. This somehow connects for me to considerations of affect (bodies in relationality, a variety of heterogeneous bodies) as well as the materiality of code data as well (especially becoming sonorous, visible, and hence touching human bodies directly too). “The changing data is what affects what you see and experience. Live XML feeds are ciming from the real time sensors.. The sensors monitor temperature, sounds, noise, light, vibration, humidity, and gps. The sensor network takes a constant stream of data which is published onto an online environment where each different interface makes representations of the XML.” (Sonicity-website).

Naturally, such transpositions could be connected to earlier avant-garde synaesthesia; people such as László Moholy-Nagy’s explorations into the interconnectedness of sound with visual regimes is exemplary here (see Doug Kahn’s Noise Water Meat, p. 92-93), especially when the point about synaesthesia not only as an aesthetic category but irreducibly laboratorial is made clear. Such synthetic processes that make us think about the interrelations of heterogeneous sensations and their sources work through the new technologies and sciences of sound and perception. Indeed, if code/sofware has affects — that is not anymore sillier question than “I wonder how your nose will sound” (Moholy-Nagy).