Here is the conversation about media theory and communications that I had by e-mail with Jussi Parikka, who edited some books that are helping me a lot with the thesis. Professor in Technological Culture & Aesthetics, he’s been busy organizing very interesting events in UK, like the launching of his new research group on media archaeology and a seminar on post-digital, in partnership with German festival for art and digital culture transmediale.
There is a whole bibliography that can be extracted – and a research network that can be mapped – from this interview with the author of “What is Media Archaeology?”. In addition to the ideas behind these events, the Finnish theorist also talked about the body on media studies, how to face the question of the nonhuman in our investigations, and the importance of considering the geological dimension of technologies. Somehow, the future of planet Earth is entangled in the use we make of media.
The launching of AMT is a mark on time and space. What have led you to it, and what do you expect to accomplish now, as an established research group at Winchester School of Art of University of Southampton? What’s the difference that it marks?
AMT, short for Archaeologies of Media and Technology, does indeed include that sort of condensation of possible directions: it could be pronounced in the German fashion as Amt, which refers to “office” but it also refers to “Airy Mean Time” that was discussed as one possible unit of measurement of time for Mars. From grey bureaucratic places of technology where the modern world is born to the speculative interplanetary realms, we wanted to hint of the multiple scales of media and technology as conditions of time and space, of the contemporary condition. The Office has been one key site of modern culture: alongside perhaps the factory and the laboratory, it is a key place of technologies in use, and where modern power does not merely reside but links up: it is a place of exchanges and telecommunications, of typewriting and personal computing, of gender relations and administrative powers. Give me an office and I will raise a world or if you want to go even more bureaucratic: Give me a form and I will raise a world!
AMT picks up on our earlier work at Winchester School of Art (WSA): we have worked with the digital culture and art festival transmediale (Berlin) for several years on related topics having to do with media and technological arts. And at WSA, we have gradually tried to build a platform that supports work across the theory-practice spectrum. AMT is one name for that work, and it builds on work by me and the co-director Ryan Bishop, as well as the many colleagues with who we work.
We like to think what doing things means for theory, and what theoretical concepts can do – and how theory is itself a practice.
What do the researchers invited to the launching of AMT Office and the work they presented can tell us about the AMT and what the group is proposing?
While the first “official” speaker of AMT was Shannon Mattern from the New School in New York who visited us in May 2016, the actual launch event took place in October. Future Past Tense was coordinated with the idea in mind that we are interested in bringing into dialogue curators, practitioners and theorists. And it is not merely a spoken dialogue in the traditional sense, but we like to think what doing things means for theory, and what theoretical concepts can do – and how theory is itself a practice.
The brief for the event was broad: to address future past temporalities, and the technologies that are inherently part of the coordination of experiences, politics and infrastructures of the contemporary condition. Hence, we invited Joasia Krysa to speak about media archaeological methods in curation; Louise K. Wilson gave an insight to her fascinating art practice about listening as a methodology of sonic epistemologies that tie to particular sites of military history and surveillance. Kristoffer Gansing, the artistic director of transmediale, offered a complementary angle to the sounds of the office through an insight to early computer sound art in the talk “”In Office: Humans, Machines and by Incident, Art”.
The other talks ranged from a novel take on data visualization through seismographs by Sean Cubitt and Ned Rossiter’s amazing, solid take on contemporary planetary logistics and labour. Rossiter’s work is continuing his recent book on logistical nightmares that came out with Routledge. The event was also a great opportunity to welcome our new colleague at WSA, Alessandro Ludovico, whose earlier theoretical work (on Post-Digital Print) and artistic work (needless almost to introduce him , but for example Face-to-Facebook and Amazon Noir and many other software art pieces) is such a fit to what we want to do with AMT. And the day was finished by a fittingly styled performative piece by Jamie Allen from the Critical Media Lab Basel who with Moritz Greiner-Petter offered the lecture performance “How to Build a Lie”.
What this selection of speakers tells us is that we want to move back and forth from practice to theory, curation to other forms of engagement where art and technology are in intimate proximity. The Office is itself one institutional platform where this takes place and offers for us a way to contribute to this discussion. As said, it is however not encased only in things that happen on campus but that link to the various other institutions in which we at the moment work: transmediale, the British Library (through our project Internet of Cultural Things) and for example the Istanbul Design Biennial where we have a project on at the moment and many others.
How intersections between theory and practices take place at AMT?
The studio environment is great for facilitating such encounters. I am trained in the “traditional” Humanities , in (Cultural) History; the past five years at Winchester School of Art has been my first position in a proper art and design school. It taught me a lot about what the studio is as an institutional affordance and raised my curiosity about parallel spaces of interaction, like the lab(oratory). Here, even before AMT I was able to learn from the studio briefs of colleagues in design and fine art, and what the particular space meant for building practice-based projects, and how I could myself participate, as a theorist. With AMT, we are able to build on this – it’s not merely that we are inventing a new thing with its own designated space, but that we are able to build on existing practices, use them as our platform, as our spatial situation where for example for students, as well as for research such interactions, or intra-actions (to use Karen Barad’s term) take place.
Of course, we also have the Winchester Gallery on campus where the Burak Arikan show (Data Asymmetry) is now on, representing a space that allows again a different form of development of practice-theory interaction across for example different disciplines of the university and the School. And after all, we are a research group within an Art/Design School within a heavily science and engineering leaning university (of Southampton) so that nesting is already a good mandate for us to move across disciplines and reach out to colleagues in other fields. And our School is very supportive of theoretical work, which suits us brilliantly. It’s a rare treat in our REF-driven British academia.
When emphasis is given to the non-human, to things or objects (depending on the theoretical approach), some may think or feel that we might be losing of sight the human. Do you think it is really possible? And, considering that AMT research is intrinsically related to critical theory and art, for example, can we assume that the human, social and cultural underlie AMT approach of media archaeology?
Many of the claims that non-human theory loses the human is a straw man argument. What was the human in the first place? A particular way of inclusion/exclusion that did not see non-white, non-male, non-Europeans as part of its sphere of definition. This sudden defense of the human lacks a historical context, that for example feminist theory – such as Rosi Braidotti’s work – has been good in reminding us about. Even in the case of Humanities, we need to remember that not all of it has been that progressive. Having said that, of course I am a strong proponent of critical studies, and the various imaginative ways how post-colonial, feminist, anti-capitalist work can be done in a rigorous way and with impact.
Hence our understanding of the non-human steers clear of the problematic idea that objects and humans are on a level playing field. Instead, we are constantly interested in agency of non-human formations – not just “things” but infrastructures, institutional forms, political and economic forces – and how they are conditions of existence for that thing we call the human. It’s a Foucauldian stance but topped up with a good dose of media theory and more. The multiple scales of the so-called Human (to use Friedrich Kittler’s phrasing) are registered and defined in technological practices, which is also a further reason to investigate that nexus.
You are right to point out that a lot of our discussions, reading groups and conceptual exchanges stem from the wider body of cultural and critical theory. At no point do I or for example my co-director professor Ryan Bishop want to deny its continuing impact. Instead of self-aggrandizing narratives about reinventing completely new things, we are constantly aware – and want to pass on to for example our PhD students – of genealogies of theory, of predecessors and missed opportunities of the past that remain fresh affordances for contemporary engagements. This is an idea that for example Donna Haraway also has mentioned: remember to give credit. For example the non-human is not merely a recent years’ revelation. We need to be able acknowledge the genealogies across theory, art and science that contribute to this debate. This also means that we are not merely executing the canon of media archaeology: it is and will be a core part of our interests, and relates to the so-called German media theoretical debates, media archaeologies in film theory (Thomas Elsaesser) and by such scholars as Erkki Huhtamo, Anne Friedberg, and many others. But how about also developing some of the insights from media archaeology in relation to for example contemporary practices in art and design? Or for example in relation to other theoretical discussions?
Recently, you participated as keynote speaker in the Open Field conference, part of RIXC Art Science Festival, in Riga. It focused on “new aesthetics, contemporary conditions, digital practices and the post-media situation”. What is post-media in this context? How can we relate post-media to a contemporary discussion about the concept of media itself?
I myself don’t use the term post-media almost ever, so I cannot comment much on the organiser’s idea. But it has many definitions, one of them relates to Felix Guattari’s way of using the concept (in the 1980s) to refer to the post-media condition. This is not merely about the rise of new technologies, but as Gary Genosko points out, concerns the possibilities of inventing new subjectivities, new singularities that escape the infantilizing powers of mass media.
Well, the situation proved to be rather complex when it comes to the emergence of new forms of subjectivity in the past 20, 30 years of network culture, something we are reminded about every day from the dubious political agencies of the likes of Assange, the waves of misogyny online to the powers of surveillance that are not restricted merely to the NSA. It’s dark, but one should avoid the easy solution of embracing the cool nihilism of dark enlightenment and such. We need to stay with the trouble, to use Haraway’s phrase. We need to be able to think much beyond our own situation and about the repercussions of new technologies across a range of different geographies and collective groups, not merely in the centres of media consumption like in the US or Europe.
We have just finished with transmediale their 30th anniversary book Across and Beyond that focuses on the post-digital as one concept through which to understand the current institutions, practices and theoretical work that make rounds in media art and theory circles. The post-digital becomes a suitably historical way of looking at the penetration of the digital, and its material instantiations as infrastructures and imaginaries, as ecologies and as affordance for political action. Like with AMT, this book and the authors and the artists help to cultivate this exchange between artistic methods and the work many of us do in academia. The book is soon out from Sternberg Press, and even before transmediale in February in Berlin we are hosting a seminar at the ICA in London on December 7 where we address the post-digital.
Our first thoughts about non-human usually involve animals and machines, but last year you released your book “A Geology of Media”, broadening the discussion to include macrotemporalities. How do you connect the discussion about media with the Anthropocene debate?
My book emerged at the same time as the Anthropocene-discussions were – and still are – actively on. I wanted to avoid contextualizing the book only in relation to that particular term, as my book was conceived as part of a trilogy of works that started with Digital Contagions (2007) and continued with Insect Media (2010). Hence, the idea of the non-organic realities of media culture was part of the original brief of addressing the long mineral, material constituency of technology, and the particular link to earlier discussions I had initiated on viruses and insects/animal worlds.
A Geology of Media is indeed a book about macrotemporalities –or the ways in which the accelerations of technological culture work on the slowness of the planet, and extend to the long duration of media history millions of years old in the form of the minerals and the energy that keeps cloud server farms humming. It’s the connection to the materialities dug out during the intensification of resource extraction over the past hundreds of years and the longer trail of e-waste that forms a connection to similar themes as the Anthropocene. It’s a book that tells a specifically media arts inspired story of technological cultures that connects to the energies, labour and materials that constitute technical media.
The literary theorist Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht evokes the atmosphere to address aesthetic experience and the anthropologist Tim Ingold thinks weather as medium, relating culture to perception. Your work made me think that maybe it’s not only about Air, but also about Earth, Fire and Water. Is Bachelard an influence? How could alchemy or/and chemistry provide new insights to media theory?
I indeed try to look at media culture as part of the elementals of media; a similar theme emerges later in for example John Peters’ book The Marvelous Clouds too. My approach stems less from Bachelard than from Robert Smithson, the landscape artist whose notes on materials, elementals and more were particularly apt in the context of my book. But it is also the chemical realities of media technologies that extend our insight from looking at these things merely as communication media (such a reductive view) to the ways in which media is part of history of science too. It’s important to see where media archaeology overlaps with themes and topics in history of science. And hence, history of chemistry itself is an interesting story of apparatuses, experiments but also geopolitics; the past 150 years of modern scientific culture is deeply entwined with history of wars and mobilization of resources- natural resources and synthetic – as part of military operations and its extensions (such as agriculture). This represents another link to the Anthropocene-debates, of course.
Now enfolding in our inquiries the realm of what we established as “nature”, could we aspire to a “theory of everything” in media and communication studies? Or will we probably face indeterminately a fragmentation of dispersed, yet interconnected fields? The media philosopher Sybille Krämer points that communication faces a conceptual double life, between a technical transmission model, from a Shannon and Weaver line, and a personal understanding model, derived from a more Habermasian tradition. “Two mutually opposed contexts”, as she summarizes. She works with the first, but restore a discussion about perception and rejects technological determinism. I wonder if this kind of work is an attempt to open a third path, or if it is also building solid bridges, and what would be the consequences. Could you help us to think about this?
Media theory or media studies would become a hilarious enterprise if it tried to be a theory of everything. There’s already too much of generalizing philosophical discourse about the true essence of media, the true essence of the digital and such. Don’t get me wrong – Krämer is one of the exciting philosophical voices out there who is able to make sense of multiple contesting strands so well.
But thinking of some other philosophers, rigorous case studies, histories, provocations that are tied to socio-cultural histories or material histories of perception, sensation are most often more interesting than Theories. That’s why I often find it hilarious when contemporary philosophers engage with media studies (or media culture) – and in ways that are somewhere between offering bland generalizations or just silly simplifications.
Anyway, as you point out that sort of a divide that Krämer maps is one way of understanding the different fields of media studies. It’s clear that a lot of so-called German media theory has been closer to the Shannon and Weaver line, and to be honest, it includes a richer way of looking at technical media culture because it is a crucial node in how communications becomes signal processing.
Media is not reducible to the phenomenological and yet the patterns of sensation are very visceral part of certain media events.
But this division is not the only meaningful way of making sense of the field of media theory. For example, where could the entanglement of media as embodied sensation as a topic be placed in the division? Habermas has very little to say about the fact that its our ears, eyes, skin and more that is enfolded in media cultural affects before it becomes “understanding”. Understanding happens much later, and before that, a lot took place: irritations, spikes, fuzzy warmth, flashes before eyes, buzz in our ears. Media is not reducible to the phenomenological and yet the patterns of sensation are very visceral part of certain media events.
Bodies emerge out of mediated relations, and bodies as part of the wider environments are crucial targets for so much of what happens as that thing we call communication. That’s why some so-called new materialist theories are useful in making sense of the event of the body in the various aesthetico-technical modulations of the body; Milla Tiainen’s work in sound studies, Brian Massumi and Erin Manning’s elaborations of the body; Braidotti et. al on the intensities of the body. A lot of this might not be “media theory” but that should not stop us – for example Maria-Luise Angerer has been very good in finding interfaces between such cultural and art theoretical work and media theory.
Thanks to the Recursions series, now we have the opportunity of reading in English emergent German scholars like aforementioned Sybille Krämer and Wolfgang Ernst. You are a member of the editorial board, so maybe you could tell us what are the next plans, and what you consider the greatest importance of theses books to media and communications studies today.
It’s such great fun to be doing the series with Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Anna Tuschling, two colleagues whose work and expertise I greatly admire. And it’s exactly that sort of a task of extending the international understanding of some key debates in the German speaking area of media studies that we had in mind. It’s not however only translations that we do, and it’s also sometimes good to remind that many of these scholars are emerging only in our international eyes; many of them have been pioneers with years and years of massive experience and track-record, like Krämer and Ernst.
Our future books include a lot of really exciting projects. We will soon have out Ute Holl’s book on cinema and cybernetics; equipped with Pasi Väliaho’s foreword, it will be of interest to a lot of film studies colleagues too. We just released Richard Cavell’s insightful book on McLuhan, and in our translation list we have Claus Pias’ Computer Game Worlds and much more. Liam Young’s book on cultural techniques of lists will be out this coming year as well as Michael Goddard’s substantial take on the media ecologies of activism since the 1970s – pirate radios and more.
That’s only to mention some of the books that are forthcoming on our list and I want to remind about this too: we just now published the collection Memory in Motion, which is available as Open Access and includes a range of very exciting theorists, such as Tiziana Terranova, Matthew Fuller, and many others. So we are both working at the centre of topics dear to what some would call “German media theory” and at the same time encouraging excursions to new themes and topics, in relation to media archaeology, cultural techniques but also other related themes so that the discussions expand and transform too.
:: My international mobility scholarship in UK is part of the Science without Borders – Special Visiting Professor program, funded by Brazilian government agency CAPES ::