Thursday, 30 July 2009

A media archaeological day at the cellar

Visiting the cellar of Humboldt University does not sound to many the perfect holiday treat, but I have certainly had worse holiday days in my life. I was given a quick tour of the media archaeological labs or what I could perhaps call “operative archives” that lie at the cellar of the Sophienstrasse 22a address in Berlin. Courtesy of professor Wolfgang Ernst, it reinforced again that the things done at Berlin Medienwissenschaft are amazing and would merit much more attention.

In short, Wolfgang’s way of doing media archaeology distances itself from more Anglo-American approaches. Media archaeology is about the actual “live” or “operating” technologies of the past that still work and hence are far from dead media. Or perhaps we could call them “zombie media” in these of technologies that perhaps have lost their mass media function, but still are functional in the technological sense – like an old military radio that still receives transmissions, or old analogue computers that can be wired up and made to work. The media archaeology archive/lab they have then consists of equipment primarily collected by Wolfgang and then fixed to work. This collection ranges from computational media to oscilloscopes, radios, visual media based in the Nipkow principles etc. One of the intriguing footnotes was a radio that was exactly the same model that Heidegger had in his remote place in the 1960s – at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, apparently one of the rare times he wanted to be reliant on mass media. (Wolfgang had interviewed Heidegger’s sons about this radio and then found exactly a similar copy for the collections.)

The key things that Wolfgang keeps on emphasizing and I find characteristic of his theoretical work are then:

- media archaeology looks not (only) at the macrotemporalities of media history. It is more interested in the microtemporal functionalities of technical media, and hence “opening up” media technologies to track down how they work.

- Media archaeology is then much more about the internal operating principles than about e.g. design – the cover, so to speak. Hence, this archive differs from museums in the sense that the technologies are not “closed” behind glass vitrines, but they depend on their “use-value”; how they exist in time, and remodulate, recirculate time-critical processes.

- Media technologies can then be seen as “”synthesizers” of various temporalities in their own right. Media consists of various technologies that are able to function as a coherent assemblage (well, when it works) and also across time – like an old educational computer from the GDR era that Wolfgang had sitting on his desk, with instructions how to “program” it for specific tasks.

- Media archaeology does then focus on such frequencies and layers that are not reducible to the human cultural semantics. There is much more to media – as physical, material instruments, apparata, mediators. Media archaeology is in this mode as much about wiring and programming as it is about writing.

- Media archaeology is then less about textual/discursive as it is about investigating the very concrete signalling work at the heart of technical modernity. I find this bit the fascinating one – and in my reading, I try to see it only entangled with the discursive/historical themes (an assemblage approach of sorts).

Now for me, one of the questions of future is to map how this fits – how it converges and diverges – with “new materialist cultural analysis”. Meanwhile, it made me really think about getting down and dirty and tinkering with such technologies; would be amazing to get research projects like that going…

For anyone wanting to read more about “time critical media studies/archaeology”, see Axel Volmar’s (ed.) Zeitkritische Medien-book.

Below, a sample of the zombie media sitting at the cellar of Humboldt’s media studies; photos used with permission from Lina Franke (also the photographer) and Wolfgang Ernst. Unfortunately no image of “Heidegger’s radio” yet, but that will follow.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Apparatus theory of media á la (or in the wake of) Karen Barad

Reading through Karen Barad’s Meeting the Universe Halfway is a rewarding but time-consuming event. A very durational event, at least for me. Summer is usually the time of metaphysics and other stuff that cannot be subsumed in the 1 hour slots one has between teaching etc. during term time; hence, I have ended often carrying Whitehead, Simondon and now Barad with me to the beach and other places more suitable for Ruth Rendell’s etc.

Writing the draft version of my text for Fibreculture Media Ecologies-issue and reading Barad at the same time produced this very short, but I think fascinating realisation; what Barad says about the apparatus in quantum theory and specifically Nils Bohr’s philosophy of quantum theory is actually something I try to touch in thinking through what media is in the text ( a certain kind of milieu theory of media). In short, Barad outlines Bohr’s stance how practices embody theories and more dynamically, how practices are specific practices in time that enact and differentiate theories in their work. In this context, Barad produces this six-part summary of what apparatuses are – especially in the context of physical measurements and laboratory work but something I would suggest you to read as media theory as well. In other words, replace in the text below quoted from Barad (Meeting the Universe Halfway, 2007, p. 146) every word “apparatus” with “media” – I find it a very good and material-dynamic way to understand the ontology of media technologies.

“1) apparatuses are specific material-discursive practices (they are not merely laboratory setups that embody human concepts and take measurements); 2) apparatuses produce differences that matter—they are boundary-making practices that are formative of matter and meaning, productive of, and part of, the phenomena produced; 3) apparatuses are material configurations/dynamic reconfigurings of the world; 4) apparatuses are themselves phenomena (constituted and dynamically reconstituted as part of the ongoing intra-activity of the world); 5) apparatuses have no intrinsic boundaries but are open-ended practices; and 6) apparatuses are not located in the world but are material configurations and reconfigurings of the world that re(con)figure spatiality and temporality as well as (the traditional notion of) dynamics (i.e. they do not exist as static structures, nor do they merely unfold or evolve in space and time).”

Of course, the full impact of this idea is hard to grasp outside the context of Barad’s intriguing book. And I am sure she would not mind my appropriation of her ideas to media theory as well; after all, she herself is reading quantum theory as offering the key challenges towards rethinking key notions of subjectivity, agency, causality, etc. in feminist cultural theory. (And anyway, reading laboratory apparatuses etc. in the context of media history has been done before anyway, from Jonathan Crary to Henning Schmidgen etc.)

This idea offers a fascinating “new apparatus theory” of media – that differs from what is usually referred to as apparatus approaches in film studies.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Summer readings

Following Steven Shaviro’s and others’ lead, here is a brief summary of my summer’s reading list. Of course, this is more about good intensions, but in any way, represents some of the stuff I need to be catching up with. A painful reminder of things that should have been read ages ago. So read this post as masochism of sorts.

Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway (Duke 2007)
- such a crucial thinker for neomaterialist cultural analysis, one cannot neglect this book that ties Bohr’s quantum physics with feminist theory. She comes up with such great, and useful concepts as “agential realism” which I believe give tools to both science studies as well as posthuman theory. To quote: “… matter as a dynamic and shifting entanglement of relations, rather than a property of things.” (35).

Joanna Zylinska, Bioethics in the Age of New Media (MIT 2009)
- two reasons: going to Sussex Biodigital Lives conference soon, and wanted to catch up what Zylinska is saying in her new book; then doing a review of it for Leonardo Reviews. Zylinska offers a deeply ontologically rooted ideas concerning bioethics, and extends its regime from only medicine and the biodigital to such practices as blogging and phenomena such as make-up shows. Biopolitics is a parallel theme to bioethics, claims the book. Interestingly, the book tries to come up with Levinas something new, although claiming sympathy to Deleuzian approaches. Indeed, it seems that she shares a lot in this sense with some of Eugene Thacker’s Biomedia-ideas.

Eugene Thacker, Biomedia (Minnesota, 2004)
- a book I should have read a long time ago, but now trying to scan it through in its entirety, again partly because of the Sussex event. I think Thacker’s idea of biomedia as “enabling certain types of data to be mobilized across different media” – i.e. as a concept of mediation that does not lose sight of the material basis of such encodings and decodings is great also for a wider reconsideration of the agenda of media studies (media studies as the potentially key discipline to understand various exchanges happening across scales from science and technology to visual culture and for example science fiction).

Axel Volmar (ed.), Zeitkritische Medien (Kadmos 2009)
- a book that sums up many of the interest in Berlin media studies concerning “time critical media.” It looks like an excellent book that argues for the centrality of time as both an epistemological perspective for media studies and as an ontologically organizing principle for modern technical media culture. This is the stuff what Wolfgang Ernst is always on about (and for a good reason), and where the macrotemporal durations inspected by media archaeology could find a new ground in microtemporal modulations of technical media.

Charles Stross, Accelerando
- His Atrocity Archives was a bit of a disappointment (except for the excellent afterwords), but this one, a gift and a recommendation from Michael Goddard, is much more promising after 150 pages. Much more about political economy of ultra-technological culture. And hey, it’s got lobsters uploaded to computer networks, what more could you expect? I just wish I had read the lobster bits before submitting my Insect Media book to the publisher.

Axel Bruns, Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life, and Beyond (Peter Lang, 2008)
- well, this is just one of the books you need to read to keep up with relevant social media stuff. Probably the best summarizing book on social media topics, something I should have digested a while ago.

Erin Manning, Relationscapes (MIT 2009)
- as with Barad, this connects with my interests in neomaterialist modes of analysing culture and arts. I have read some chapters, but I will try to go through the remaining as well. It’s an important book, and hopefully provides such a tool box that helps to articulate themes of event, relationality and movement not only in terms of dancing bodies but also e.g. such non-human topics I am working on as media ecologies. Having said that, we are just finishing an article on contemporary dance, movement and biopolitics, and it touches closely Manning’s themes. The article is on Tero Saarinen’s magnificent collaboration with Marita Liulia: Hunt.

Sven Spieker, The Big Archive (MIT Press)
- actually, just finished reading this but wanted to include it here because I liked it so much. In the midst of finishing the book on Media Archaeology, this spurred new ideas and summed some thoughts I also had. It focuses on the appropriation of the archive and other bureaucratic modes of data management with artistic methodologies, placing a lot of emphasis on early 20th century avant-garde. To my taste, it is a really good book not only on the artistic projects but on the “archival principle” of modernity in general. It touches on some of the key questions of 19th century archive and its change during 20th century. Where it stops is the digital; would have been interesting to look at the notion of the archive/database in the digital networked era through e.g. net art pieces.

Then there are other stuff that I really hope I can glance through, such as Michelle Hennings Museums, Media and Cultural Theory (in connection to a funding bid we have submitted with Robin Boast). Also, bubbling under so to speak is a something I ordered, by Gherasim Luca, something I really look forward as my holiday treat, but more on that later….