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.
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.
In the new e-flux issue #62 you will also find an interview Paul Feigelfeld conducted with me: “Media Archaeology Out of Nature“. It focuses primarily on the themes of media theory, ecology and interfaces also with the work we do with the emerging Consortium (with WSA, University of California San Diego and Parsons School of Design, New School); synthetic intelligence, the planetary media condition, remote sensing, etc.
With a focus on the “media ecology”-trilogy of Digital Contagions, Insect Media, and the forthcoming A Geology of Media, the interview maps topics related to the ecopolitics of technological culture. A warm thanks to Paul for the interview and supporting my aspirations to be a digital thought deserter.
“Media theory would become boring if it were merely about the digital or other preset determinations. There are too many “digital thought leaders” already. We need digital thought deserters, to poach an idea from Blixa Bargeld. In an interview, the Einstürzende Neubauten frontman voiced his preference for a different military term than “avant-garde” for his artistic activity: that of the deserter. He identifies not with the leader but rather with the partisan, “somebody in the woods who does something else and storms on the army at the moment they did not expect it.”7 Evacuate yourself from the obvious, by conceptual or historical means. Refuse prefabricated discussions, determinations into analogue or digital. Leave for the woods.
But don’t mistake that for a Luddite gesture. Instead, I remember the interview you did with Erich Hörl, where he called for a “neo-cybernetic underground”—one that “does not let itself be dictated by the meaning of the ecologic and of technology, neither by governments, nor by industries.”8 It’s a political call as much as an environmental-ecological one—a call that refers back to multiple (Guattarian) ecologies: not just the environment but the political, social, economic, psychic, social, and, indeed, media ecologies.”
Besides that longer e-flux text, two other short texts appeared the same day: a general audience text on media and the Anthropocene in Conversation and also a mini-interview conducted by the Finnish Institute in London as part of their Made By-series.
The science-fiction film Interstellar, dir. Christopher Nolan, presents a near-future situation where the human kind seems to be presented with the no-alternative choice of attempting to leave the planet because of the climate change disaster. In George Monbiot’s critical reading, the film presents a political defeatism that boils down to the choice of voting with your feet – with the help of escape velocity. “Technological optimism and political defeatism: this is a formula for the deferment of hard choices to an ever receding netherland of life after planetary death.”
But the trick of the film is rather different. On the one hand, even the idea of leaving is problematised with the (admittably rather odd) relativity theory sort of a twist where the time-axis is bent in ways that actually disturb causality of leaving/returning. On a more social level, the film is more of a Spielbergian tale of the crumbling down of the nuclear family system. But then in terms of biopolitics, one is reminded that perhaps the leaving itself is not that radical departure anyway. It’s already in Michel Serres’ observation, in Natural Contract (1990/1995), that one finds the necessary situation to understand although without a helmet on, we are anyway living as astronauts, governed in relation to atmospheres and biospheres and other ecological conditions of life.
“All humanity is flying like spacewalking astronauts: outside their capsule, but tethered to it by every available network, by the sum of our know-how and of everyone’s money, work, and capacities, so that these astronauts represent the current highly developed human condition.” (120)
Of course, we need to acknowledge that such conditions of living, breathing and other networks are rather differentially distributed on the planet, which returns to us to the more pressing question relating to the political economy of the interstellar imaginary of governance – political but also in the techno-scientific sense cybernetic (with its long term relations to κυβερνώ (kyvernó̱).
Here’s an interview with me by Camille Paloque-Bergès published in French in Tracés (N° 21, 2011/2). It’s on the archaeology of (digital) viruses in contexts of security, biopolitics and media theory. It’s not exactly recent but I don’t think I have posted or even seen it online before.
One of the low points of architecture in 2013 was architect Zaha Hadid’s football stadium in Qatar. Designed for the forthcoming games of 2022, the main part of the discussion has been about whether it resembles a vagina or not.
Besides reducing architectural discourse to a pretend shock about female genitalia, the case is emblematic of how design is detached from the actual world conditions. Instead of engaging in any way with the reports about abusive working conditions in the construction sites of such stadiums for Qatar 2022, we are left debating the building’s pinky Freudian connotations. Despite the pseudo-feminist debate it raised, a rather sad moment for design. It actually just flags detachment of both architectural popular discourse and architects such as Hadid from a connection with things that might have some material meaning or a meaningful impact for those whose lives this has a direct lived relation.
The underbelly of star designers are: “long working hours, hazardous working conditions, the workers being unpaid for months, had their passports confiscated, forced to live in overcrowded labour camps, denied the right to form unions, and without access to free drinking water in extreme heat”.
But the creative industries backed discourse of stars and creativity demands this underbelly of grey abusive low-paid and globally displaced hard work that is sustaining the fluffy public discourse about design.
“My eyes were burning, and my nose running and my face was also burning”. These are ensations across the body, demonstrating the effectiveness of technologies of security. Your eyes and nose and mouth feel it. It burns across your body, an involuntary body panic from the fear of choking.
Gas is a rather peculiar weapon. It is atmospheric in the manner German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk talks about: it conditions the environment and breathing and as such invades one of the most intimate areas of our life: our lungs and sense of being alive. Naturally, this is not only a sense of being alive, but its very condition. Gas warfare is not only about biopolitical invasions but also the raw animal life being controlled: the zoe.
Gas is spatial and ephemeral at the same time. The wind can carry it across distances, although it is used as a very localized measure. It divides space in new ways: those able to breath with gas masks, and those suffocating, denied their participation in that space. You can control territories through a control of who is allowed to breath air in there. Tear gas, pepper gas, water cannons infused with chemicals: meticulous information on what the body can just about take. This information is always escorted by the possible deviations from the norm: for instance children’s lungs as well as elderly lungs.
Modern chemical attacks against humans date back to the first World War and the trench warfare. The Germans started using toxic clouds in April, 1915. As Sloterdijk notes, what makes this manner of suffering and even death more painful is how the suffocating is made to participate in his and her own condition: the body is made to turn against itself, gasping for breath, convulsions. The organic tissue becomes an archive of atrocities, a registering surface of the effects of modern science and technology employed in military and security regimes.
Of course you can shoot and aim with gas canisters, to ensure the good ol’ blunt hit. The effects of this hit can be rather horrific.
Considering gas, Sloterdijk speaks of “terror from the air”, and associates terrorism as a feature of modernity:
“It is crucial to identify terrorism as a child of modernity, insofar as its exact definition was forged only after the principle of attacking an organism’s , or a life form’s, environment and immune defences was shown in its perfect technical explication.”
There is a technological condition of this state of breathlessness and it has to do with the history of modern synthetic biology: the measurement of human capacities for breathing as well as the necessary measures for inhibiting the use of air for the organism.
And in Timothy C. Campbell’s words, referring to Sloterdijk, “terrorism is always ecologically directed”.
We need to turn meditations of air, soul and breathing into a bio- and zoepolitics of breathing and an analysis the systematic ecological and health abuses: from the minuscules particles of gas and dust, to how they constitute more abstract but as real security operations.
Campbell, T. (2011) Improper Life. Technology and Biopolitcs from Heidegger to Agamben. University of Minnesota Press.
Sloterdijk, P. (2009) Terror from the Air. Semiotext(e).
Images via Twitter.
A collection that looks really exciting: Depletion Design: A Glossary of Network Ecologies, edited by Carolin Wiedemann & Soenke Zehle. I was happy to be involved with a tiny text on dust and new materialism. A lot of my recent writing and interests have had to do with depletion, exhaustion, and things dead or discarded – as with zombie media. More things (texts) grim and grey forthcoming.
You can download the book here. Below a blurb about its contents.
“We, or so we are told, are running out of time, of time to develop alternatives to a new politics of emergency, as constant crisis has exhausted the means of a politics of representation too slow for the state of exception, too ignorant of the distribution of political agency, too focused on the governability of financial architectures. But new forms of individual and collective agency already emerge, as we learn to live, love, work within the horizon of depletion, to ask what it means to sustain ourselves, each other, again. Of these and other knowledges so created, there can no longer be an encyclopedia; a glossary, perhaps.”
Contributors: Marie-Luise Angerer (Cyborg), Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi (Exhaustion, Soul Work), David M. Berry (On Terminality), Zach Blas (Queer Darkness), Drew S. Burk (Grey Ecology), Gabriella Coleman (Anonymous), Heidi Rae Cooley (Ecologies of Practice), Sebastian Deter- ding (Playful Technologies, Persuasive Design), Jennifer Gabrys (Natural History, Salvage), Johannes Grenzfurthner & Frank A. Schneider (Hackerspace), Eric Kluitenberg (Sustainable Immobility), Boyan Manchev (Disorganisation, Persistence), Lev Manovich (Software), Sonia Matos (Wicked Problems), Timothy Morton (Ecology without Nature), Jason W. Moore (Cri- sis), Anna Munster (Digital Embodiment), Brett Neilson (Fracking), Sebastian Olma (Biopoli- tics, Creative Industries, Vitalism), Luciana Parisi (Algorithmic Architecture), Jussi Parikka (Dust Matter), Judith Revel (Common), Ned Rossiter (Dirt Research), Sean Smith (Informa- tion Bomb), Hito Steyerl (Spam of the Earth).