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A Geology of Media

January 17, 2014 6 comments

I am pleased to announce that I have signed a contract with University of Minnesota Press for a new book tentatively called A Geology of Media.

Planned for 2015, A Geology of Media forms the third, final part of the media ecology-trilogy. It started with Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses (2007) and continued with Insect Media (2010). This book on the geophysics and the non-organic ground of media complements the earlier takes by offering a media materialism from the point of view of geological resources, electronic waste and media arts. Through engaging with several contemporary art and technology projects it provides a media theoretical argument: to think of materiality of media beyond the focus on machines and technologies by focusing on what they consist of: the chemistry and geological materials of media, from metals to dust.

In short, I am interested to see if what pejoratively sometimes is called “hardware fetishism” is not hard enough, and even media and cultural theorists need to focus on the rocks and crust that make technical media possible. Earth history of deep times mixes with media history, which becomes a matter of not only thousands, but millions of years of non-linear history (to modify Manuel Delanda’s original idea). This way media materialism becomes a way to entangle media technologies, environmental issues and themes of global labour. Perhaps instead of the Anthropocene, we should just refer to the Anthropobscene.

I’ve been in recent talks and short posts been addressing the geological in media, and my piece in The Atlantic offered a short preview of what’s to come. In addition, below a very tentative table of contents.   This project (and the Erkki Kurenniemi book I am working on with Joasia Krysa) will keep me busy for a while.

A Geology of Media

Preface

1) Introduction: Grounds of Media/Culture

2) An Alternative Deep Time of the Media

3) Psychogeophysics of Technology

4) Dust and the Exhausted Planet

5) Media Fossils

Afterwords: Half-Life

Appendix:

“Zombie Media”, by Garnet Hertz and Jussi Parikka

From the Crystal World-project (Howse, Jordan, Kemp)

From the Crystal World-project (Howse, Jordan, Kemp)

Dirty Matter

August 26, 2011 Leave a comment

I was asked to write a short forum piece on “new materialism” for Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies-journal and I wrote a piece called “New Materialism as Media Theory: Dirty Matter and Medianatures”. It partly picks up on some of the themes I have been recently talking and writing about, influenced by such scholars as Sean Cubitt. It also articulated – albeit briefly – some points concerning German media theory as new materialism, even if going the quickly to a different direction concerning materiality. Here is a short taster of what’s to come.

The key points of the text were in short: 1) we need to understand how media technologies themselves already incorporate and suggest “new materialism” of non-solids, non-objects and this is part of technical modernity (the age of Hertzian vibrations); 2) we need also to understand bad matter – not just the new materialism that is empowering, but one that is depowering: the matter that is toxic, leaking from abandoned electronic media, attaching to internal organs, skins of low paid workers in developing countries. In this context, “medianatures” is the term I use to theoretically track the continuums from matter to media, and from media back to (waste) matter.

I believe that it is this continuum that is crucial in terms of a developed material understanding of media cultures. Hence, it’s a shame from a new materialist point of view that even such pioneering thinkers as Michel Serres miss this point concerning the weird materialities of contemporary technological culture – weird in the sense that they remain irreducible to either their “hard” contexts and pollution (CO2, toxic materials, minerals, and other component parts) or their “soft” bits – signs, meanings, attractions, desires. In Malfeasance. Appropriation Through Pollution? Trans. Anne-Marie Feenberg-Dibon (Stanford: Stanford University Press 2011),  these are the two levels Serres proposes as crucial from an environmental point of view but he ignores the continuum between the two. And yet, signs are transmitted as signals, through cables, in hardware, in a mesh of various components from heavy metals to PVC coatings.

Perhaps a good alternative perspective to Serres’ is found in how both Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze conceive of a-signification as a regime of signs beyond signification and meaning: Gary Genosko’s apt example (in: Félix Guattari. A Critical Introduction London: Pluto 2009, 95-99 ) is the case of magnetic stripes on for instance your bank card as a form of automatized and operationalized local power that is not about interpretation, but a different set of signal work. Elaborating signaletic material – electronic signals and software – through a reference to Deleuze’s film theory and a-signification by Bodil Marie Stavning Thomsen is also useful. As she elaborates – and this much we know from years of intensive reading of Deleuze in screen based analyses – Deleuze wanted to include much more than signification into the cinematic impact, and mapped a whole field of a-signifying matter in film: “sensory (visual and sound), kinetic, intensive, affective, rhythmic, tonal, and even verbal (oral and written).” (“The Haptic Interface. On Signal Transmissions and Events” in Interface Criticism. Aesthetics Beyond Buttons, edited by Christian Ulrik Andersen and Søren Bro Pold, Aarhus University Press 2011, 59) What she points out in terms of signal media is as important: after signs come signals, and the media of signals needs a similar move as Deleuze did with film: to carve out the a-signifying material components for digital media too.

Such a-signifying components are rarely content to stay on one level, despite a lot of theory often placing primacy to software, hardware, or some other level. Various levels feed into each other; this relates to what Guattari calls mixed semiotics, and we can here employ the idea of a medianature-continuum.  The a-signifying level of signs is embedded in the a-signifying materiality of processes and components.

In short, it’s continuums all the way down (and up again), soft to hard, hardware to signs. In software studies (see: David M. Berry, The Philosophy of Software. Code and Mediation in the Digital Age,  Palgrave Macmillan 2011, 95-96), the continuum from the symbol functions on higher levels of coding practices to voltage differences as a “lower hardware level” has been recognized: assembly language needs to be compiled, binary is what the computer “reads”, and yet such binaries take effect only through transistors; and if we really want to be hardcore, we just insist that in the end, it comes back to voltage differences (Kittler’s famous “There is no Software”-text and argument). Such is the methodology of “descent” that Foucault introduced as genealogy, but German media theory takes as a call to open up the machine physically and methodologically to its physics – and which leads into a range of artistic methodologies too, from computer forensics to data carvery. In other words, recognizing the way abstraction works in technical media from voltages and components to the more symbolic levels allows us to track back, as well, from the world of meanings and symbols – but also a-signification – to level of dirty matter.

 

MediaNatures-talk in Berlin (June 8)

I am giving a talk in Berlin as part of the MediaSoup-colloquium convened by Paul Feigelfeld (Institut für Medienwissenschaft at Humboldt University where I am a visiting research fellow for this Spring and Summer). On June 8, 6 pm (starts 6.15) I will be talking on MediaNatures, abstract below.

Place: Medientheater. Institut für Medienwissenschaft, Humboldt Universität Berlin, Sophienstraße 22A, 10178 Berlin.

MediaNatures

This talk riffs off from Donna Haraway’s influential concept of naturecultures which established one framework to think about the topological continuity from nature to culture. As such, it was an important spark for the discourse on “new materialism” in cultural studies, a form of rethinking materiality in new ways outside a Marxist or a representational framework. Naturecultures – also resonating with a range of positions such as Latour’s – is a way to think through the multiple materialities we encounter in terms of contemporary technological society.

The talk extends naturecultures into a more medium-specific direction with the concept of medianatures. By discussing media materialism and its relation to “new materialist” debates as well as “medium-specificity”, the talk addresses ways to think through the technical and scientific specificity of contemporary media – beyond meaning, representation and the human body, the fact that technical media engage in such processes, speeds, and phenomena that escape the phenomenological human register per se.

Yet,  the talk points towards a different kind of reading of media materiality than often found in accounts for instance in media theory. We can question the notion of specificity and argue that there are various specificities from which we can draw upon. While German media theory (acknowledging that the term is in itself not very apt) has been insisting on drawing on materialities that can be directly connected to the important scientific contexts of technical media, we can think through a milieu theory of media: how media establish but also draw on nature, animals and other non-human intensities, forces and potentialities. Instead of thinking nature here in terms of the metaphorics it has offered for a long time for media cultural phenomena, and avoiding proposing any form of purity of nature, I want to look at the continuums of not only naturecultures, but medianatures that is slightly different from the emphasis of media cultures as the “new” environment for us human beings. Instead we approach medianatures as affordances, as intensities, as regimes of affects and relations and as processes of mediatic nature that offer a non-human view to new materialist media theory. Hence, we end up talking about minerals, waste and nature.

Media studies – studies of relations, ecology, waste

March 11, 2011 Leave a comment

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.

Time-Critical Media – a short reminder of a book that deserves attention

November 13, 2009 Leave a comment

I have flagged in many contexts my interest for new materialist cultural analysis, and how it should be articulated together with a new sense of temporality. When I say “a new sense” it’s a bit misleading, but I mean the rigorous rethinking of temporality that we find across the board from Delanda to Whitehead-inspired accounts and so forth. Whereas Grossberg already pointed towards a non-signifying accounts as a mode of spatial materialism, we need to develop similar approaches that stem from radical temporality; that the world outside the human being is too dynamic, unfolding, temporal; that temporality is itself folded together with the various material assemblages of the world; that temporality is a crucial non-human force we need to articulate to understand the molecular, as well as the long durations of nature (not least in the midst of our eco crisis).

One key context for my interests comes again from Germany, and has been recently been “summed up” as a book. Axel Volmar as the editor of Zeitkritische Medien (Time-Critical Media, Kadmos Verlag, Berlin, 2009 ) has done a good job in collating together recent trends in German media theory, and approaches to the very peculiar, but even more so exciting version of media archaeology that they have been developing in the Media Studies department at Humboldt University, Berlin. Under the guidance of Professor Wolfgang Ernst, the notion of “time-criticality” and an eye towards temporal processes as a key to understand modern technical media we find a brand of media archaeology that extends not so much historically into past media but towards the microscopic workings of media machines; and how they modulate time, and the structuring temporal processes of societies.

By digging into the “microtemporalities” of media machines the introduction and the chapters try to excavate how such micro-layers are articulating the perception of reality. This means extending the media studies agenda (not surprisingly as we are in the territory of German, Kittlerian inspired media theory after all) to non-human agents and processes that however structure the phenomenological worlds of our perception and reality-effects as well. This leads furthermore to the realisation of the new realms of relations between machines themselves — no link to the human is always needed in the age of automated processes and machines communicating between themselves before they talk to the human (Guattari — who however is missing as theorist from this volume).

Paul Virilio who is well used in this book has argued for the importance of time and speed for war (and hence a link to media as well), but this book extends this to a very meticulous technical excavation into the dispositifs of how actually time gets articulated and articulates media. Technophobes beware! This brand of German media theory is not afraid of getting its hands greasy, whether we are talking of analogue media or digital algorithms (or algorythmics as Shintaro Miyazaki extends the concept in his chapter). This is where Virilio’s ideas gain real strength, or a new context when by systematic and rigorous steps machines and technologies are opened up from the logic of bitmapping (Peter Berz) to the problems of noise and signal-transmission (Hirt and Volmar).

It would be crucial to see more work of this kind in English in order to really start rethinking fundamentals of media studies. This is happening already, partly due to a Kittlerian influence, and other new waves coming e.g. from Italy (post-Fordist thought), France (e.g. Latour, Guattari, Deleuze of course) and onwards to e.g. games (Pias) with an amount of chapters that with ease move between visual media, the sonic and computational platforms. But definitely new German media studies and archaeology has a lot to say to the problems of materiality of technical media. It would benefit itself from a more elaborated discussion and joining of forces of some other similar approaches that come from different directions. Ideas of temporality have been developed e.g. in materialist feminism (Barad) and e.g. Whitehead inspired radical empiricism (Massumi, Mackenzie,etc.) and through creations of new circuits for circulation of ideas, we could have soon something really exciting on our hands. Well, the previous sentence was not to mean that all this stuff is not already that — exciting. Just that developing such creative clashes might be seen as a good method for movement of thought. Of course, its not the Germans who are the only ones doing this work; recently I have been following the stuff coming out from Utrecht direction as well whether in terms of some of the feminist work in the wake of Braidotti but also the great ideas from the New Media and Digital culture programme who also address materiality with historical, temporal methods.

Anyhow, media studies is developing into a great articulation of the interlinks between science, art and cultural analysis/philosophy, and we need to keep this movement alive with more translations and engagements. Such are the directions where UK media studies field should turn its attention to.

>Bifo/Guattari — philosophic plumber poets

August 31, 2009 Leave a comment

>Franco Bifo Berardi’s Félix Guattari – Thought, Friendship, and Visionary Cartography was a great by-the-pool-book, and it made me convinced of the fact that Guattari is at least as important to media studies as is Deleuze. Ironically however, Bifo’s points that seem closest to the core of media studies — his meditations on the Internet — are the least convincing, but his other remarks concerning what Guattari might call mixed semiotics, the refrain, the semiochemical, etc. are excellent in expanding media studies towards processes of subjectification. Bifo is polemic, aberrant and intriguing writer whose ideas often escape me yet I continue returning to them. I find this book on Guattari to be as much about Bifo, and hence it indeed shows how thinkers/writers act at best as catalysts; they take you to places where you would not have gone without them. Or as Bifo puts it: “rhizomatic thought is the cartography of landscapes yet to come…”.

Bifo is not afraid of spreading the concept of the viral in his book, which seems to apply to his methodology as well. Contagion, viral spread and such concepts act less as metaphors than to demonstrate how such semiotic regimes as language act as mixed semiotics, always non-reducible to signification but spreading through a variety of regimes. Bifo paints the picture of Guattari as a materialist thinker — a new materialist — who is interested in the interplay and transversal relations of signification and non-signification. So virality refers to the mechanospheric dimension of reality that bypasses divisions between biosphere, noosphere etc. to underline that reality consists of the relations of heterogeneous elements. His materiality is the materiality of the singular — not reducible to representations, contexts or other concepts borrowed from a more linguistic orientation of cultural analysis — but one where the materiality of the event in its singularity is approached as a situated experience. There is one nice phrase that I want to quote from Bifo: “We generally say the the meaning of a statement depends on the context, but we must add that the meaning of the context in turn depends on statements that intersect it.”

In terms of signs and language in its materiality, some of the implications reach towards software as well. I tried recently to write something about ethologies of software which tried to find some Deleuzian points of entry to code — but ones which would not see code and the digital only as a reduction of intensities. Bifo’s grasp of language in Guattari does this as well — the focus on signs as always constituted of affects. Bifo quotes Paolo Fabbri on Deleuze and signs: “Any sign is the effect of the action of a body on another body, and therefore affect; and this variation of effects on a body provokes a variation in power, in affective sensibility: increase of power (joy), decrease of power (sadness.” Now to transport this idea to software is the intriguing bit; and to see code not only as codification and regulated order, but as performance, temporality, and bodies of code in interaction. Furthermore, such a mode of analysis would see software as an assemblage – and part of other non-code related activities that sustain it (a media ecological approach.)

Materialism of language — and the multiplicity of semiotic regimes is one key point that Bifo/Guattari offer. Another related to this is the conceptualisation of capitalism as a semiotic operator, a point worth quoting in length..:” the pervasiveness of the capitalist model no longer depends solely on an effect of abstract overcoding that manifests itself especially in the moment of exchange, but also depends on the technologically mediated integration of different moments of manufacturing: planifying moments, techno-scientific moments, informational moments, material moments, and so forth.” In other words, capitalism act as such an operator that relays, channels, establishes and integrates processes of social production. This I find an important point in the sense that it does not negate capitalism to a dead vampire that only sucks on living energy, but as a mode of operationality. It does not mean a benevolence of capitalism, but it still points towards its energetic side.

Bifo is strong when he talks with Guattari on capitalism and its operations in the infoscape, also when he addresses the postmediatic affect and the psychic dimensions of capitalism. The idea of “schizoanalytic aesthetics” becomes a methodological guideline of sorts as well, where such an aesthetics is not focused on “beauty as an object of contemplation, but the way in which bodies perceive each other in the social field. In an era of displacement and migrations, of contaminations and integralisms, of nationalisms and aggression, an essential political problem is that of the semantics of social proximity, and thus of aesthetics.” Such a rethinking of aesthetics internal to politics and even ontogenesis of relationality is what ties the project to other thinkers recently much discussed; Jacques Ranciere of course, but even A.N.Whitehead in the mode that for example Steven Shaviro takes him as a fresh alternative to a Heideggerian inspired post-structuralism. Of course, Guattari/Bifo are not as consistently “philosophical” in the sense of elaborating all details of their onto-politics etc., but this does not lessen their importance. Bifo makes the wonderful remark in the interview that is attached to the book that Guattari often sounded like a plumber when he wrote about flows, tubes, cutting and tightening.
Bifo, on his part, talks how his book was perceived by his publisher Luca Sossella as a book of poetry.

Yet, as said, the shortcomings of the approach are evident in the passages on the Internet. Some approaches have indeed put too much emphasis on the rhizomatic nature of the Internet, and critics have as much failed to see the emergence of much more interesting Deleuze-Guattarian inspired Internet studies. Hence Bifo’s emphasis on the rhizomatic, distributed and hence revolutionary character of such networks fail to see the layered, also hierarchical protocols etc. that characterize the modern Internet.

Categories: bifo, guattari

>New Materialism, a-signification

>As the publisher is slow — metaphysically slow, of cosmic proportions — getting out our Spam Book, I spend time reading others book. As if I would not otherwise. Well, after finishing Shaviro’s excellent book of Whitehead that convinced me that I need to rethink my ideas re. ethologies of software from a Whiteheadian perspective, I reserved a bit of time for Gary Genosko’s Félix Guattari – A Critical Introduction. Not able here to give a full-fledged review of the book, I just want to point towards the themes that I found really useful.

I am not sure whether it will work as an introduction per se; it does offer good contextualisation to certain key concepts through an eye on the concrete contexts where the concepts emerged. That’s why the chapter on La Borde was useful, and the explanation of Guattari’s involvement in the youth hostel movement etc. The concept of transversality becomes clear at least, and its usefulness underline: I love the concrete, situated edge the concept has.
Then the individual, “like a transit station for changes, crossings, and switches.” Genosko well points towards the usability of the machinic ontology/ecology.
Most importantly, Genosko’s book offers tool for “new materialist cultural analysis”, an ongoing project of mine (and Milla’s), especially in terms of a-signifying semiotics and the notion of part-signs. I love the examples that point towards the multilayered ecological ontology of contemporary culture of software — from the concrete relays of software connected to the abstract relations of capitalism, exemplified through the plastic cards/magnetic stripes. Indeed, in such a situation, hermeneutic tools for cultural analysis fail short, as “there isn’t any room for interpretation in the strings of numbers and characters on a typical magnetic stripe”. Genosko continues who the magnetic stripes and a-signifying signs are not to be understood through any meanings they might have (they don’t) but they “operationalize local powers” (95).
In terms of aesthetics and new materialism, Genosko refers to part-signs and a-signifying fragments; colours, non-phonic sounds, rhythms, faciality traits — something that in Deleuzian circles has gone under the umbrella of intensities. What is interesting them in terms of new materialism is that the notion allows a certain autonomy of the intense materiality; they are much “more” than the traditional notions of ideology would assume and represent the beyond-norm, or beyond-code which still causes a lot of grey hair to old-school cultural studies approaches (representation analysis, etc.).