Thursday, 23 December 2010

Insect Media is out!

A great birthday present -- an email from your publisher saying that the book is out! Two days later, i.e. today, I got my first copy of the book, and despite the fact that I barely dare to open it in case I realize the greatest idiocy somewhere on the pages, one has to feel quite happy about this: Insect Media is finally out! After a 1.5 years wait since I submitted the final version, I get to see it turn into a book with nice retro cover, and with the blurb from Eugene Thacker:

"With Insect Media Jussi Parikka offers a theory of media that challenges our traditional views of the natural and the artificial. Parikka not only understands insects through the lens of media and mediation, he also unearths an insect logic at the heart of our contemporary fascination with networks, swarming, and intelligent agents. Such a project requires the ability to interweave cultural theory with a deep understanding of the sciences—something for which Parikka is well-suited. Most importantly, Insect Media reminds us of the non-human aspect of media, communication, intelligence. Insect Media is a book that is sure to create a buzz."

It was one of those projects really fun to write - even if raising a couple of eyebrows when trying to tell what it is about -- to write modern media history from the point of view of these tiny animals. Not only a book about swarms, or recent years of media theory and media design that borrow from animal studies and understanding of insect life - but a wider take on the intertwining of animals and technology in modernity. A parallel methodology of theory in combination with cultural history, or let's say "media archaeology".

Hence, I came up with a summarizing way to describe what I am doing, and something that ended up as the opening words for the whole book:

"First, a practical exercise. Pick up an entomology book; something such as Thomas Eisner’s For the Love of Insects from a couple of years back will do fine, or an older book from the nineteenth century, like John Lubbock’s On the Senses, Instincts, and Intelligence of Animals with Special Reference to Insects (1888) suits the purpose as well. However, do not read the book as a description of the biology of those tiny insects or solely as an excavation of the microcosmic worlds of entomology. Instead, if you approach it as media theory, it reveals a whole new world of sensations, perceptions, movements, stratagems, and patterns of organization that work much beyond the confines of the human world."

A big thanks to University of Minnesota Press, and Cary Wolfe, who accepted this to his Posthumanities-series...such an honour to be there, among so many fabulous academic writers.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Tiziana Terranova and JP in conversation; university cuts and the digital economy

This conversation between me and Tiziana Terranova took place in early November – actually just before the first mass demonstrations by students and academic staff in the UK – an event after which we have seen further resistance acts of various kinds, from more aggressive expressions of anger to such as the foundation of the University for Strategic Optimism. Resistance does not just exist; it needs to be invented, always anew.

This interview was published in the Italian newspaper Il Manifesto on 14 November 2010 (in Italian), and is now here available in English as well. This version is the original, and slightly longer as well. Of course, what we have seen since this interview was conducted was a development of certain themes; for example, the disagreement within Russell group universities seems to be escalating with students for example in Cambridge demanding that the university raises objections to the cuts; occupations of various universities are similar signs of calls for student-focus of a different sort than we get with the "tick-the-box" exercises of student happiness (the National Student Survey); the libdems are clearly having severe internal problems; the police use of dubious tactics against demonstrators are raising questions, and pointing towards a very scary response from the officials towards the resistance.

Tiziana Terranova:
In Italy, we have been facing substantial cuts to the public education sector for a few years now - cuts that have progressively undermined the value of public education, involving massive layoffs, a freeze on new posts, reduction of viable courses, more crowded classrooms, less hours of actual teaching and so on. These cuts have gone together with drastic reduction of resources for the cultural sector as well. Rather than being a local phenomenon, this public disinvestment in culture and education seems a core part of the economic and political restructuring following the financial crisis of 2008. In the UK, these cuts have taken a specific inflection: 100% cuts to the public funding of teaching in the arts, humanities and social sciences. How do you explain such a massive reduction especially in the wake of the much hyped investment in the cultural economy and creative industries?

Jussi Parikka
It’s a shock, and a shock in the very fundamental sense that Naomi Klein introduced as a doctrine of “disaster capitalism”. The recent events in the higher education sector, and naturally across other public sectors too are in themselves so terrifying that there is a danger that the surprise has worked. As you outline, and what applies to many other countries as well –the 2008 crisis did not take us back to a Keynesian culture of public investment, but to a further privatization of fundamental public goods – the expectation has been all along that the public sector is being run down. In terms of the university sector in the UK such cuts had been pre-empted for a long time; already before the elections that brought the Tories and Liberal democrats into the government, the sector was preparing for big cuts, or what seemed big cuts then: cuts of millions of pounds, and several percent from the higher education budget. The Browne commission to investigate models for the future of Higher Education in the UK was set by Labour. Labour had already during Lord Mandelsson’s rule shifted Universities as part of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and in 2009 already he talked of hike in student fees, further consumer control of courses, straightforward employability as the key criteria for any public funding of a university course and so forth. So what happened when the new government came in was that they could easily take over the same discourse, same way of thinking. The talk turned to fears of 20 % cuts, then to feared 40% cuts, at which point people and critics started to say that it is just part of a game where they scare us off with such drastic cuts, and when “only” for example 20% of Higher education budgets are reduced, we breath out a relief. Well, the opposite happened: suddenly, only the privileged few were seen eligible for public funding, namely carefully selected STEM topics, i.e. science, technology, engineering and maths, and more or less all of the humanities, arts and social sciences left out with a sudden, complete privatization of their degree courses – and with feared reductions in research monies coming as well. Suddenly, the public university system was gone.

So indeed, it’s not only a pragmatic shift in terms of how the whole sector is being organized, but how the so-called cultural economy and creative industries are suddenly as if without a role as part of high-tech Britain. Cool, creative, hip, post-fordist Britannia was New Labour’s and Tony Blair’s brain child of the 1990s, that was carried over till now; that provided at least a minor shelter in some minds and institutions for the cultural studies and arts sectors, and courses, and some kind of justification for their existence. Meanings, representations, artistic practices could be integrated to that model of “creative capitalism” with a friendly artistic face. After all, culture – lifestyles, habits, arts, digital creation from music to publishing industries – was supposed to be leading the future of Britannia.

Yet, during the past couple of years, the creative industries discourse has been bit by bit replaced by that of “digital economy” as the new key words that is being circulated both in academic funding bodies and their calls, legislation as well as public discourse. Seemingly a slight change from creative industries to a more ICT oriented version, it actually is a further consolidation of the perception that digital culture equals the science and engineering solutions that contribute towards platforms and communication in the narrow signal processing sense; the Digital Economy Bill, and the following Act, and related debates focused on such projects as the Digital Infrastructure for Britain that is to guarantee high speed broadband; while it also contributed towards strict copyright infringement penalties which have been highly debated, the push has been towards technology – and technology as in infrastructure, engineering and science solutions that are able to provide more viable income streams than the always so vague service industry model of creativity. With the drastic cuts, the message in terms of how public goods, but also economic value are being defined is clear: despite statistics of the huge input by arts and humanities sector to even economic wealth creation, they are suddenly the superfluous, redundant sidekicks of the digital economy.

Your analysis raises many interesting points. The first one concerns the continuity with Labour. The ground for the Browne report was prepared by the labour government and the cuts would have followed even if labour had actually continued to rule. It took fifteen years of neo-labor policies in higher education to ingrain the notion that public investment in higher education is justified because of the economic returns that it provides. This shift was made palatable to the arts, human and social sciences by acknowledging their importance as productive economic forces– in terms of new careers opening in the cultural and creative economy and in terms of the economic impact generated by artistic, cultural and social research. Hence the arts, humanities and social science were perceived as actually being worthy of public investment. Hence the shock in finding out that it took a simple change in government to cut off all public investment and be thrown in the jungle scenario of full privatization! The cuts are so massive, entire teaching budgets are being wiped out and as you said there is widespread incredulity about the sheer size the UK government’s gamble. The so-called elite institution will be able to raise tuition fees and focus on the very rich segment of the international students’ markets, but for most universities it will be dire. It will be an enormous shake out – opening the uk higher education sector to the takeover of multinational corporations of education, such as online degree factories and so on. There will be re-engineerings, layoffs, fusions, mergers, increasing use of low-wage, precarious labor. Before moving on to the subject of the transformation of the ways in which this was possible by the turn to the digital economy, I wanted to ask you about the current and possible future reactions to this dramatic scenario – both within and outside the universities.

The reception of and reaction to the news has been varied, and this is emblematic of the situation. The so-called elite institutions –- in itself an interesting term and status, as it combines the eliteness of the “Old Britain” of class society, of private schools and Oxbridge/Russell Group with the new status of neoliberal, well-funded and global brands of those universities – have been greeting these news happily; for such institutions, it does not seem to be an issue in any ethical sense to triple their fees, it seems, whereas for smaller institutions such as ex-polytechnics it causes a potentially major shift in how they think their functioning. For a number of years, these smaller universities were strongly going to research, and moving from teaching only institutions to supporting new waves of research in media, culture and the arts in such ways not always found in the more establish, and also slowly changing and less experimental old institutions. Now many institutions might be forced to become mostly teaching ones again. And of course, we should not romanticize the younger institutions either; we saw what happened in Middlesex with the threatened closing down of their Philosophy Centre, that was however “sold” to Kingston University --- and Middlesex replaced it with more teaching places in STEM-subjects.

Naturally the cuts are drastic to almost every institution – Russell group or not – but for Oxbridge and others the Browne review was good news in terms of the possibility to hike up fees, what however has been condemned by for example of course student bodies. It is indeed interesting to see how this develops as a rift between Russell group and others, and inside the elite institutions between students, staff and the senior management. The National Union of Students has been constantly insisting that we need to look at alternative forms for supporting the financial basis of the universities, backing up for example the graduate tax model instead of fees – and hiking fees. We see new rifts emerging, which is good for the dismantle and conquer-politics of the government and the Conservatives-Lib Dem alliance: so called elites are more or less welcoming some of the changes and playing along as they can always rely both on their international prestige as well as the fact a lot of their students come from a more wealthy background anyway. Despite the fact that the students would not be paying back any debts before they start earning £21,000 a year after graduation, the prospective students from lower earning families feel this as a scary horizon; the promised social rise that universities might be promising is not so much a rise, but a promise of a middle class debt. The situation has as much to do with a mental ecology of middle classification, and debt, as it has with fiscal policies and economic cuts. Suddenly, just like from a J.G.Ballard novel – I am thinking of Millennium People – the middle classes – or those wanting to become middle classes with a nice standard of living, jobs, house, a future – are faced with a situation that all they were promised with is actually clouded by the likelihood of debt, insecure futures, risk taking, and a whole new atmosphere where nothing seems fun anymore. Sounds banal, but there is a political edge to this mental ecology of a sense of time. It has to do with a sense – or lack of – futurity. The elections last spring played around with this sense of futurity with Liberal Democrats riding the wave of promises of getting rid of student fees, and again a mental ecology of a very different sense; now with the complete overturning of their promises, one can sense a lot of anger, frustration, and disappointment in politics of futurity.

Hence, in terms of reactions – the big demonstration is being organized for November 10 in London; there are local struggles that are getting some visibility, like at Goldsmiths college; at the same time some occupations of Vodafone shops as resistance to them being letting off a £6 billion tax debt; in Ireland students occupied the Department of Finance in Dublin for a short while --- there are some things going on, but the further consolidation of that feeling, that affective state of discontent which is always in danger of turning into depression, into something that could provide a sustained political resistance that is actually registered on the governmental level is of importance. Having said that, I think thinking this in terms of politics of affect, the pre-cognitive, is important as well – in a manner that Nigel Thrift has spoken about political activism, and the need to understand the strong, emotional, and affective ties and investments on very small levels of everyday action; this level needs understanding, and support, and it might already start there. One of the things I still hope can provide something is a wider affective association between students and the teaching and administrative staff, even if for example Russell group wants to distance themselves from the rest of the universities. The danger is that most of media publicity voices primarily those views, even if there are about 100 other universities in addition to the handful of “elite” ones.

In terms of university reactions, as you say, it will cause new directions; most universities are forced to come up with alternative business models and income streams which means potentially shortening some courses to 2 years, increased partnership with the private sector – which in itself is tricky as the private sector does not really have any extra money in most industries, such as the creative industries, and the private sector too is facing unemployment, cuts in spending, etc. -, increased reliance on international students where I see dangers of forms of neo-colonialism where British universities sell the experience and prestige of the old Europe to the ex-colonialised and Asian countries with a high price, effective privatization of many sectors, where arts and humanities are less recognized as a general good for any critical, democratic society but only as an investment for a bit of luxury – being able to study for a couple of years such things as critical theory, feminist theory, postcolonial studies…

To be fair, some universities, even smaller and younger ones, might be able to use their “brand” in a way that strengthens their status in the global arena, and sell their status as leading arts, philosophy or cultural and media studies centres, but such models are indeed only local solutions, and do not offer a viable future for the dozens of other universities which lack that reputation despite the high quality research and commitment. Here we have to be cognizant of the various measures through which contemporary universities are already corporations with brands that are protected through meticulous measures continuously – such things as where you are placed (a pittoresque Cambridge, or buzzing London are sure to be attractions for the nice 3 year academic theme park ride to which you can send your kids to Europe, instead of the attractiveness of an old industrial town in northern England despite how great it might be intellectually), or indeed the academic brand – but only if it is marketed attractively…

As you mentioned before, the whole notion of the creative cultural economy which was a leit motif of economic policy for the last fifteen years has been dispensed with quickly. The turn from the creative economy to the digital economy means that only science and engineering are now seen as providing economic value and hence worthy of public support. Everywhere the public funding of culture and critical thinking is under attack. As a new media researcher, how do you see this change? What do you think about Jaron Lanier’s position according to whom the Internet and the web 2.0 in particular are responsible for the devaluation of cognitive labor? Is there any relation between this dramatic shift in policy and the actual social and economic changes affecting the media and new media industry (such as the Web 2.0 hype)?

The tricky bit about the cuts and the new shift in terms of emphasis from “soft skills” of information economy and post-Fordist culture to engineering, mathematics, and sciences is that there is no clear economic justification – or let’s say that it’s not that the creative industries had not been producing value. A quick look at statistics from the National Archives statistics concerning Creative Industries says that the sector grew approximately 5 % a year between 1997 and 2007, which is more than the average growth of the whole economy (around 3 %) – and of that, sectors such as software, computer games and electronic publishing grew even 9 %! And to continue on statistics, a recent report on the UK Higher Education institutions gave similar points; they produce huge amounts of economic value and effects throughout the society, signalling revenue of almost £17 billion in 2003-2004, which was bigger than what for example the pharmaceutical industry produced in this country! And the knock on effects: for every million pounds produced inside the sector the report said the sector produced an addition £1.52 million in related sectors, and in terms of jobs, a very similar story that 100 full time jobs in the university sector has been supporting the existence of another 100 jobs.

So it’s clearly something else than clear-cut economic rationale what is at play here, and would be tempting to read this as a major shift in terms of how labour is being seen and reorganized. This is what we used to call ideology, and at least part of a very meticulous, very subtle channelling of desires, and the aforementioned relation to temporality, as well as to production, creativity, participation. It’s a further emphasis in terms of how temporarity is being imposed as the normalized status of the “creative worker”, which indeed includes the university staff, and to which we training our students from the first day on; endure change, live as flexible, be prone to shift changes in what is being expected of you, and do not ask for a stable horizon that we used to call a future. The modes of labour that supported so much of creative and internet economics were indeed based on the psychic investment – enthusiasm, volunteering, chipping in – and remarkably that has been for a long time the basis of university work. Yet, what only yesterday it seems, in the 1990s, was celebrated by the likes of Pekka Himanen as the new work ethic of hacker spirit has proved to be a complete failure in terms of providing the tools for an expropriation of value from enthusiasm, openness and community, but the incapability of developing a creative economy from the point of view of labour. This is an interesting development, which forces us to understand the complexities in digital culture patterns of labour; what cultural pessimists see as the dangerous development that such participatory cultures brought about – perhaps indeed Lanier, but also a bunch of other writers – is part of a wider web of rise of collaborative cultures, which have been hailed as the new era of communities, of active prosumers, and all that – things we surely would not think of bad after the years of big bad broadcasting capitalism that we hated in a Adornoesque spirit, right? There is no going back to the earlier elitism, despite what some critics hint about the rise of the banal amateur culture – it’s more likely that the old elitism is finding new ways to sustain itself in neoliberal settings, as we are seeing in Britain with the old class based Russell group elitism turning into a managerially supportable, neoliberal form of global education trade that is based on global patterns that pick up the colonialist links of earlier times but now in the form of neo-colonialism of educational offering.

Yet, in terms of labour in social media and creative economies, what such patterns of participation and new eagerness, enthusiasm, volunteering, produced were not really, not yet at least, viable income models for cultural workers, and it has to an extent been a new way of capitalist capture in terms of the desire for participation. Capitalism has always been based on capturing certain kinds of social relations. A lot of cultural critics emphasize the bit about the affective labour (to which university work fits in perfectly): that it is a good way to tie in investment of time and energy to maintenance of the new “nice, participatory, cultural capitalism”. I would not go on saying and blaming the Internet, or be a pessimist about the new technologies as if they would be behind the demise of value of cultural labour and arts, but it’s actually a matter of a such political economy of labour in the digital age, that would be able to sustain the new patterns of how we engage, produce.

So what the digital economy emphasis can actually strengthen is the current situation; creative industries are perhaps recognized as symbolically important but expected to run on the privatized investment – and talking also of psychic investment of desire, eagerness – than subsided by for example public spending on the arts, culture and media industries. The capital heavy fields of tech and science are still recognized as needing that support, because of their overheads – the fact that it’s expensive often, both to educate with all that lab equipment, as well as to maintain. The maintenance of people, of that bit of the production process, is left to the assumption that it sorts itself out. People are really expensive for any corporation, but if you find a model where they do the same work for half the price, you are on to something. Just make sure you get the IP, and that the copyright and IP legislation is organized so that it maximizes the value to be extracted. You need to tie in the people and their skills with other means than money, and affective enthusiasm is one (even if at an increasing pace the psychological and even physical well being of higher education staff is at risk). Also, what this shift in terms of investment could mean is a shift of Britain from one of the inspiring hubs of critical thought and creation, from cultural theory and arts to pop culture, to a new corporatized science-tech hubs. High tech, but a bit grey.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Heroes - and the aesthetics of militarized Britain

I happened to catch a glimpse of the recent X-factor contestants Heroes-group performance apparently in tribute of the UK Armed Forces – a performance now also available as a Christmas single which helps the charity of those injured in service for the country. While embedded in good intentions, it sent the shivers down my spine when I saw the performance, the aesthetics of glory in white meeting the troops in combat wear – and I am now talking about aesthetics in a similar manner as Benjamin and Kracauer when analyzing mass culture of their age. The grandiose, the over-the-top versioning of the slightly more alternative David Bowie song, now with family relations, brothers and sisters but perceived through the army colours and a primary social bond created by the military service turned in my eyes and ears into a quasi-fascist performance of celebration of blood and soil, of sacrifice, and a militarization of the public culture as well (a continuation of the town marches to remember those who did not return). As said, while embedded in good intentions it’s nature of spectacle works much beyond the particular function of supporting those wounded; it fits in perfectly with the wider militarization of the public sphere of the UK evidenced in the events of past weeks.

During the student resistance marches and demonstrations – public spectacles of a different sort – a range of incidents involving police violence from kettling techniques against school kids to use of violence and horses charged into crowds as well as earlier reports about the use of unmanned drones (similar as used in battlefields eg. in Afghanistan) demonstrate the inherent link neoliberal governmentality has with violence. As a regime, neoliberal use of power is very much linked to “soft power” which for example in the current atmosphere of cuts has been demonstrated by the conceptual power of suddenly turning arts, humanities and social sciences into private investments (through the withdrawal of all teaching grants to those subjects) instead of public goods grounding democracy, critical society and those values which on paper all parties are in support of. Yet, through the effective, violent and cruel policing techniques a very different kind of Britain is emerging – one of sci-fi dimensions where kids are according to reports now emerging being beaten and indeed governed through such dubious, torture-like methods like kettling (hours without food, in freezing cold, without toilet), surveilled by drones, and student protests is being tackled with measures usually reserved for, well, slightly more dangerous people. The affective reactions that the cuts are starting to raise are being managed with further affective measures – as so well described by Laurie Penny in her New Statesman report from the inside of the kettle of 24th November:

“This is the most important part of a kettle, when it's gone on for too long and you're cold and frightened and just want to go home. Trap people in the open with no water or toilets or space to sit down and it takes a shockingly short time to reduce ordinary kids to a state of primitive physical need. This is savage enough when it's done on a warm summer day to people who thought to bring blankets, food and first aid. It's unspeakably cruel when it's done on the coldest night of the year, in sub-zero temperatures, to minors, some of whom don't even have a jumper.”

In other reports, there are also questions raised about what triggered the use of kettling. Apparently the official line is that some people attacked a police van, whereas it seems that the van was already abandoned and potentially even not in use. (See this speculation as well.)

The aesthetics of sacrifice and military power intertwined into aesthetics of sacrifice and glorifying blood was a key part of the earlier political sphere of 20th century Europe. Now, with neoliberalism, we are seeing as scary patterns rise their head as well and an increasing number of good cultural theory is picking up on this link between war and aesthetics – again, aesthetics understood in the broad sense of creation of perceptions concerning social relations. The conceptual arsenal mobilized during the election effectively tried to capture –as neoliberalism has done – various “good” terms such as freedom, responsibility and, of course, Big Society, which now, as someone I believe on Twitter during the first demonstrations on 10th of November expressed it is turning against itself: this is what happens when the big society turn up at once (apologies for not being able to make a proper reference to whoever tweeted that phrase). Indeed, hopefully these events are able to spark something of a different kind of a perception of the possibility of social relations for students, school kids etc. And hopefully something less cheesy as the militarized X-Factor version.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Sociability, or sex, mental disorders and code

The basic teaching of The Social Network is, probably, more or less: people go to extensive measures in order to get sex. And The Social Network presents one of the most complex ways of achieving that (and if you think "sex" is here too blunt, just replace it with "achieving social recognition", "status", etc.): to write the most successful social media platforms till yet, and make it into a billion+ business.

More seriously, the key thing to understand about the film is that it is not about The Facebook website or the company, nor about the real people behind these networks which themselves have created a load of global internet life; not about mark zuckerbergs, sean parkers, eduardo saverins, or the usually the faceless/nameless (or first name basis only) coders and girls which seem to be essential to any successful internet company.

To me, and what I tried to see the film as, it is about how to think the mental ecology of informational and networked "social" capitalism of 21st century. What it succeeds in showing is how messy the supposedly immaterial, and logical-driven mathematical society, i.e. society of code/software, is, and how affective labour and social relations are not only the object of those internet business models, but also its driving force. Now that sounds quite anthropocentric, I admit, but actually I want to point out to the messy ontologies in which the supposedly nice and "we-all-agree-its-good-for-us" sociability is about.

After broadcast media as the driving force of 20th century media landscapes, and the at least partial message of the media system of, well, broadcasting and catering for as many eyeballs as possible (both in the advertising logic but also public broadcasting version of this logic), The Social Network seems to imply that a driving force of this system is a feeling of exclusiveness; embedded in a system of closed institutions, invitations, rank, privilege, The Social Network shows the cruelty and dark sides in celebrated utopias of open internet and celebrated social ties. Cultivating on the idea of "clubs" into a software platform and a form of high tech neotribalism suggests not only the affective logic that might be driving the addiction economy of such social media but also the exclusiveness in terms of code which suggests that there are the creative whiz-kids (elite, billionaire, white), and the end-users (hot girls with no name, or a first name, who are the psychotic end-users, but also end-products of this affective economy). Naturally such a division is far from truth, as the relations demanded by social networks aim to blur the boundaries of producers and consumers, which works towards even a more affective entanglement. Recently Jodi Dean has made interesting points about this entanglement in her Blog Theory, but earlier already Tiziana Terranova as well.

What The Social Network is consistently about is the mental ecology of sociability - and especially sociability in the age of technological networks. Code is being born of labour and money - of some people getting paid, and some not; of some people getting laid, and some not; and some people at the high end of the power law curve, some not. That is why the descriptions of affective states, and even more so the various mental disorders at the core of this film are such a clue of thinking it in terms of impersonal affects -- the affective landscape of capitalism not reducible to representational figures: paranoia, compulsion, psychosis, depression. "Social pathologies are first of all a communicational disorder", writes Franco "Bifo" Berardi in The Soul at Work, and understanding the compulsion of communication as a state where again affect and business models conflate is a key way to understand contemporary infoscapes. Look at the disorders of minds and tech, of social relations and software to understand fundamental elements of how internet and high-tech cultures in general work, and this is where the fundamental impersonality in terms of Zuckerberg-the-film-character might just become a crucial symbol of current social media capitalism in a similar manner as Daniel Plainview in There Will be Blood (2007) is emblematic of capitalism through an understanding of its zombie-like, soulless man as the "vessel of Capital" of the industrial age, to borrow Steven Shaviro's words and insightful analysis.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Who broke the first window, David?

I am also despising and condemning these vandals, indeed intent on violence and destruction. Breaking glasses and windows, raising a riot, causing criminal damage and public unrest. And then they destroyed what was remaining of the university system, as well as the welfare system.

I was referring to the Bullingdon Club boys actually --- not the couple of hundred students of pretty much the same age as those ones attending evenings of the Bullingdon Club, an exclusive invitation only dining and drinking club at Oxford University, in the 1980s incidentally including figures such as David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson. Part of the rituals of the club was to hire a venue, get sloshed and thrash the place. Sounds familiar?

The same people were first to condemn the events in London on the Demo 2010-day, strategically (and with the help of most mainstream media) maneuvering the attention from the 50,000+ demonstrators against this cynical, in itself violent attack against the universities, students and the welfare benefits to the minority who in anger and frustration stormed the Millbank Tory HQ.

"Look, people who assault police officers or who smash windows or who break property they are breaking the law and, yes, those people I hope that they will be prosecuted. They should be.", were the words of Cameron himself on the next day commenting on such thrashings.

Yet, this smashing of windows or breaking things did not start yesterday; it started some decades ago in Bullingdon Club, and continued with the trashing of education, expectations of future for those who cannot pay the bill as conveniently as some can after breaking a couple of glasses, and those who are continuously being bullied by the such elites, that conveniently transfer that privilege from the old system of class based bullingdons to a neoliberal system of 21st century elitism. These boys are trying to live up to the Big Mother figure of Thatcher perhaps, but as K-Punk notes in his blog post on the parallels between 1980s and contemporary Tory-Lib Dem coalition , it's not that easy -- and won't happen if we can do anything about it.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Transmediale 2011 theory award nomination for Zombie Media

Slightly perhaps shadowed by the Nobel prize announcements, the nominees for the Transmediale 2011 theory award - the Vilem Flusser award - were revealed this week.

I happy and excited being one of them, for the piece we wrote together with Garnet Hertz: "Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archaeology into an Art Method". The text is a theoretical excavation into thinking such art methods as circuit bending as media archaeological, and hence, expanding the notion of media archaeology from a textual method into something more strongly connected to the political economy of clipped shut information technology and material digital culture art practices: tinkering with technology that is not meant to be opened, changed, modified. Hence we mobilize such key themes as "black boxes" which have of course been well thematized in Science and Technology Studies (STS), but now in a media archaeological and hacktivist setting. Hence, the name zombie media: not dead media, even if old, passed away even; we write in the conclusions: "media never dies. Media may disappear in a popular sense, but it never dies: it decays, rots, reforms, remixes, and gets historicized, reinterpreted and collected. It either stays as a residue in the soil and in the air as concrete dead media, or is reappropriated through artistic, tinkering methodologies."

Here the info from the Transmediale 2011-website:

Vilém Flusser Theory Award
Congratulations to the following four nominees of Vilém Flusser Theory Award 2011!
The Vilém Flusser Theory Award (VFTA) promotes innovative media theory and practice-oriented research exploring current and pending positions in digital art, media culture and networked society. The call was open to publications, positions, and projects from a broad range of theoretical, artistic, critical or design-based research that seeks to establish and define new forms of exchange, vocabularies and cultural dialogue.

Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archaeology into an Art Method
Garnet Hertz & Jussi Parikka

Jordan Crandall

_Social Tesseracting_: Parts 1 - 3
Mez Breeze

Digital Anthropophagy and the Anthropophagic Re-Manifesto for the Digital Age
Vanessa Ramos-Velasquez

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Anna Munster talk at the CoDE-institute

The next CoDE-talk:

Dr Anna Munster on biopolitics, death and digital aesthetics

at Anglia Ruskin, East Road, Cambridge
Organized by Cultures of the Digital Economy institute, in collaboration with the New Network Politics-project
October 14, Thursday, 16.00-17.30
Room: Helmore 112

'Out of the biopolitical frypan and into the noopolitical fire: death and finitude as emerging trends in digital culture and aesthetics'

This paper tracks the emergence of a digital ethos that is cognisant of consequence, finitude and even death. On the one hand, sectors of the digital entertainment industry – specifically computer games developers – and new start-up industries are concerned with the question of how to m...anage ‘death’ digitally. On the other hand, death and suicide have become the impetus for creative expression. Bernard Stiegler’s analysis of technicity goes some way toward unfolding a political analysis of the relations between ‘life’ and ‘death’ in the recent and current aesthetics of digital code. Specifically, his more recent work is concerned with the over-reaching of biopower into what he terms ‘psychopower’ and with inventing a 'noopolitics' that can respond to this.

But I will also argue that his articulation of noopolitics fails to provide us with a way to conduct ourselves digitally in the light of the spread of technologies and cultures of cognitive capitalism. It does not take account of either the recuperative noopolitics of aesthetic practices in an economy of cognitive capitalism or the productive and differentiating potential of aesthetic practices of digital ‘coding’ that suggest lines of flight for contemporary technoculture. I focus upon the relation between recuperated and critical software practices and the constitution of provisional networked publics that transversally produce lines of flight toward a more transformative noopolitics for digital aesthetics.

Anna Munster is a writer, artist and educator. She is the author of Materializing New Media (Dartmouth College Press, 2006) and one of the founders of the online open-access journal The Fibreculture Journal. Her theoretical and artistic research covers the politics and aesthetics of networks and media technologies, biopolitics and information societies, embodied perception and neuroscience. She is currently working on a database for generating dynamic concepts about contemporary media (, and a book on how networks experience. She is an associate professor, College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales, Sydney Australia.

Friday, 24 September 2010

TOC for Media Archaeology

Some information on our forthcoming Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, Implications-book that we edited together with Erkki Huhtamo, forthcoming Spring 2011 from University of California Press... no cover image yet, and no table of contents online, hence I am posting at least the contents here! For clarity's sake, this is the one that is ready, and I am writing at the moment another book, a single authored one on the same topic.

1. Introduction: An Archaeology of Media Archaeology --Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka

Part I: Engines of/in the Imaginary

2. Dismantling the Fairy Engine: Media Archaeology as Topos Study --Erkki Huhtamo
3. On the Archaeology of Imaginary Media --Eric Kluitenberg
4. On the Origins of the Origins of the Influencing Machine --Jeffrey Sconce
5. Freud and the Technical Media: The Enduring Magic of the Wunderblock --Thomas Elsaesser

Part II: (Inter)facing Media

6. The “Baby Talkie,” Domestic Media, and the Japanese Modern --Machiko Kusahara
7. The Observer’s Dilemma: To Touch or Not to Touch --Wanda Strauven
8. The Game Player’s Duty: The User as the Gestalt of the Ports --Claus Pias
9. The Enduring Ephemeral, or The Future Is a Memory --Wendy Hui Kyong Chun

Part III: Between Analogue and Digital

10. Erased Dots and Rotten Dashes or How to Wire Your Head for a Preservation --Paul DeMarinis
11. Media Archaeography: Method and Machine versus History and Narrative of Media --Wolfgang Ernst
12. Mapping Noise: Techniques and Tactics of Irregularities, Interception, and Disturbance
--Jussi Parikka
13. Objects of Our Affection: How Object Orientation Made Computers a Medium --Casey Alt
14. Digital Media Archaeology: Interpreting Computational Processes --Noah Wardrip-Fruin

15. Afterword: Media Archaeology and Re-presencing the Past --Vivian Sobchack

[edit 21/12/10]: Endorsement by Sean Cubitt:

"Huhtamo and Parikka, from the first and second generations of media archaeology, have brought together the best writings from almost all of the best authors in the field. Whether we speak of cultural materialism, media art history, new historicism or software studies, the essays compiled here provide not only an anthology of innovative historical case studies, but also a methodology for the future of media studies as material and historical analysis. Media Archaeology is destined to be a key handbook for a new generation of media scholars."
- Sean Cubitt, author of The Cinema Effect

Tuesday, 21 September 2010


My perspective to Bruce Nauman television art piece (at the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, September 2010) becoming a David Lynchian experience.


Thursday, 16 September 2010

RIP: A Remix Manifesto - film screening and panel discussion

A screening of the fantastic RIP: A Remix Manifesto and followed up by a panel discussion with some leading technology and culture writers, presented by CoDE (as part of the Festival of Ideas):

Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge
October 30, Saturday, 15.00-17.30
Tickets from the Picturehouse ticket counter

"In RIP: A Remix Manifesto, Web activist and filmmaker Brett Gaylor explores issues of copyright in the information age, mashing up the media landscape of the 20th century and shattering the wall between users and producers.

The film’s central protagonist is Girl Talk, a mash-up musician topping the charts with his sample-based songs. But is Girl Talk a paragon of people power or the Pied Piper of piracy? Crea...tive Commons founder, Lawrence Lessig, Brazil’s Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil and pop culture critic Cory Doctorow are also along for the ride."

The screening is followed up by a panel discussion with
- Bill Thompson (technology writer and columnist for the BBC Online, as well as head of partnership development for Archive Development projects at the BBC)
- John Naughton (academic at Cambridge University, writer and columnist for the Observer),
- Becky Hogge (technology writer, columnist for the New Statesman and former executive director of the Open Rights Group),
- Jussi Parikka (media theorist and director of the CoDE-institute at Anglia Ruskin University)
- Geoff Gamlen (a founding member of the remix-music/video group Eclectic Method have been called upon by artists like Fatboy Slim & U2 and by film, video, and television companies such as New Line Cinema and Palm Pictures to create custom a/v remixes.)

The panelists address the themes raised by RIP: Remix Manifesto and a range of interesting and provocative approaches to cultural production in the digital age, copyright and its alternatives, and free culture.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Recent books by friends

Some recent books by friends:

Michael Goddard: Gombrowicz, Polish Modernism, and the Subversion of Form (Purdue University Press, 2010)

Gombrowicz, Polish Modernism, and the Subversion of Form provides a new and comprehensive account of the writing and thought of the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz. While Gombrowicz is probably the key Polish modernist writer, with a stature in his native Poland equivalent to that of Joyce or Beckett in the English language, he remains little known in English. As well as providing a commentary on his novels, plays, and short stories, this book sets Gombrowicz's writing in the context of contemporary cultural theory. The author performs a detailed examination of Gombrowicz's major literary and theatrical work, showing how his conception of form is highly resonant with contemporary, postmodern theories of identity. This book is the essential companion to one of Eastern Europe's most important literary figures whose work, banned by the Nazis and suppressed by Poland's Communist government, has only recently become well known in the West.

About the Author(s): Michael Goddard After completing his Ph.D. at the University of Sydney, Michael Goddard was employed as Visiting Professor of Cultural and Media Studies at the University of Lodz in Poland, and as Professor of Cultural Studies at Mikolai Kopernikus University, Torun. Since September 2007, he has been lecturer in media studies at the University of Salford in the United Kingdom. He is an active member of the European Network for Film and Media Studies (NECS) and participates actively in a range of international conferences and other academic and cultural events.

Pasi Väliaho: Mapping the Moving Image. Gesture, Thought and Cinema circa 1900
(Amsterdam University Press 2010)

In Mapping the Moving Image, Pasi Väliaho offers a compelling study of how the medium of film came to shape our experience and thinking of the world and ourselves. By locating the moving image in new ways of seeing and saying as manifest in the arts, science and philosophy at the turn of the twentieth century, the book redefines the cinema as one of the most important anthropological processes of modernity. Moving beyond the typical understanding of cinema based on optical and linguistic models, Mapping the Moving Image takes the notion of rhythm as its cue in conceptualizing the medium’s morphogenetic potentialities to generate affectivity, behaviour, and logics of sense. It provides a clear picture of how the forms of early film, while mobilizing bodily gestures and demanding intimate, affective engagement from the viewer, emerged in relation to bio-political investments in the body. The book also charts from a fresh perspective how the new gestural dynamics and visuality of the moving image fed into our thinking of time, memory and the unconscious.

Pasi Väliaho is lecturer in film and screen studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

A commanding and consummate study of art, philosophy, the human sciences, physics and biology in the matrix of cinema at the turn of the twentieth century. Blending contemporary theory with close readings of the foundational writings of modernity—Freud, Bergson, Nietzsche—Väliaho shows how the autonomy of the movie-machine shapes the ways we believe we think and live today. A broad and compassionate study, Mapping the Moving Image stands high and strong in an impressive body of scholarship on early cinema. It will be a point of reference for every student of cinema, consciousness and perception.
Professor Tom Conley, Harvard University

Monday, 6 September 2010

Read like a cow

Oh we supposedly moderns, we actually think like insects and should read like cows: "...the requisite art of reading, a thing which today people have been so good at forgetting--and so it will be some time before my writings are readable--you almost need to be a cow for this one thing and certainly not a 'modern man': it is rumination..." (Nietzche, On the Genealogy of Modernity, Cambridge UP, 1994, 10).

We don't only dream of animals, but we are caught in a delirium in which we are only part of them. Flying like insects, reading like cows, thinking like bacteria, we do not really have capacities of our own. Human is a fiction invented by the animals, by the soil, by the non-organic as well.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Learning from Network Dysfunctionality: Accidents, Enterprise and Small Worlds of Infection (ISEA 2010 Version)

Before leaving finally for ISEA 2010 in Germany I shall post this -- a short intro, or summary, or the extended abstract of what we are going to talk about there with Tony Sampson. It continues the Spam Book themes, and addresses more concretely the link between such processes as contagion (and in relation to heterogeneous bodies from social relations to software) and capitalism -- more specifically marketing techniques, and various ways of harnessing the pull of connectedness.

Learning from Network Dysfunctionality: Accidents, Enterprise and Small Worlds of Infection

Tony D. Sampson (University of East London, UK)
Jussi Parikka (Anglia Ruskin University, UK)

In February 2010 an outbreak of media panic spread through the British tabloid press concerning a marketing campaign called DubitInsider. The DubitInsider website recruits 13-24 year olds who consider themselves to be “peer leader[s] with strong communication skills” to act as “Brand Ambassadors”. This requires the clandestine passing-on of product suggestions to peers via posting on message boards and social networks, emails and instant messenger conversations, organizing small events and parties. DubitInsider ignited the moral indignation of the tabloids not because of its covert nature, but since Brand Ambassadors were apparently paid to market “unhealthy” junk foods to minors. Tapping into the social influence of the consumer is nothing new. Seeking out so-called influentials is the basis of seasoned word-of-mouth campaigns and persists in “word-of-mouse” variations. For example, exploits the anticipated contagiousness of relations established between friends “on and offline” to promote music acts. “In4merz is about matching our artists to your friends who may like them.”

Young In4merz create posters, banners and videos about acts, Twitter about them, leave comments on Facebook etc. For each level of promotion, In4merz earn points that convert into CDs, DVDs, concert tickets and potential backstage access.

What interests us, as analysts of network dysfunctionality, is how the logic of these marketing strategies overlaps with the same anomalous abstract diagrams that distribute spam and viruses. In a different context, hiding unsolicited brand messages in social media and the potential for the bulk sending of veiled product promotions for financial reward could arguably be called spamming.

Furthermore, designed as they are to spread Trojan-like suggestions through imitative social networks, whether or not the strategies actually become contagious, their aim is to go viral. When removed from the context of the anomalous Nigerian cybercafe or computer virus writing scene, and played out in the marketplaces of food and pop culture, the emergent spam logic and virality of network capitalism becomes part of a broader indexical change concerning the way contagious communication networks, vulnerable bodies and unconscious behaviours can be harnessed.

The logic adopted becomes a normalized online marketing activity, not only performed by corporations, but embedded in social relations of individuals as part of the strategies of business enterprise and brand design.

Spamming and virality are no longer anomalies then, but are fast becoming the standard, acceptable way of doing business in the digital world. If the peer-to-peer recommendations and thumbs-up-buttons of “word-of-mouth 2.0” characterize the current paradigm of social media, these campaigns are indicative of a more aggressive and targeted Web 3.0 marketing of suggestion already on the horizon. This is a Web 3.0 that appeals directly to a user’s emotional landscape and desire for intimacy (Ludovico 2005), and exploits the ready made expediency of contagiousness networks that pass on suggestion.

Following a similar neo-monadological approach set out by Lazzarato (2004) we articulate the dynamics of spam, viruses, and other related “anomalies”, as constituent parts of new infectious worlds “created” by the business enterprise. We focus on the specific creative capacities of dysfunctionality in the production of network environments, and how “learning” from the irregularities of normalized communication adds new flesh to this world. We discuss how new knowledge concerning the productive powers of the anomalous is filtered through what Thrift (2005) calls the cultural circuit of capitalism: “… a feedback loop which is intended to keep capitalism surfing along the edge of its own contradictions”.

This new knowledge, acquired from the accidental events of the network, is seized upon by the business enterprise, leading to new consumer modeling intended to make ready environments so that the capricious spreading of social influence can be all the more effectively triggered and responded to.

Zittrain (2009) argues that viruses, spam and worms are threats to the generative principle of the Internet. Similarly, we contend that such software-driven social actions are exploitative of the open principles of the Internet, but further acknowledge the extent to which these practices have enthused and inspired the business enterprise. As we see it, “bad” software is not necessarily “malicious”. It becomes integral to an alternative generative logic of capture implicated in the production of new worlds of infection. We will discuss how these epidemiological worlds were mapped by computer scientists in the 1980s before they pervaded the burgeoning offshoots of the billion dollar network security industry. We further chart how they were modeled by network science as early as the 1960s and are currently being exported, via the circuitry of capitalism, to the business enterprise.

To be published in full as a chapter in The Blackwell Companion to New Media Dynamics, Hartley, Burgess and Bruns (eds.), Wiley-Blackwell, (forthcoming).

Thursday, 12 August 2010

The Creative Technologies Review-podcasts

One of the highlights of my pre-academia career as a freelance journalist when during a phone interview the interviewee, a female at a telecommunications company marketing department or something of approx. 35 years of age, interrupted me: "Oh I am sorry to interrupt the interview but I just have to say you have an amazing telephone voice."

I blush, stutter, and for a second wonder if my future career is somewhere where I could put my voice into better use, such as in some of those dubious 0800-numbers that offer services of very wide variety.

Instead, I end up as an academic.

Despite the shortness of the flirtation with the idea of using my voice to make money, I have been drawn into something again where I need to talk - publicly. The shock horror at first, but then realizing its actually enjoyable despite the fact that there is always a tiny region in your brain that is probably trying to say something very inappropriate.

Anyhow, CoDE-institute and me with Julio D'Escrivan (whose original idea this was) present: the Creative Technologies Review-podcasting series that commenced in August 2010.

We label it as
"A podcast on technology and creativity, technology mostly misused, unintentionally artistic technology and music technology with the odd splattering of digital economies" and hope it to be usually a 30 min aberration into the interminglings of technology, net culture, a slight dash of political economy, academic stuff and lots of media arts.

It features interviews of creatives, techs and academics, and aims to throw a spotlight both on the work done at CoDE institute in Cambridge but also more widely (as in globally) on creative technology and arts. I am suspecting it turns out to be quite focused on sound, knowing Julio's interests and expertise in sound art, sonicity, but it will definitely splash into other fields of expression too and I am sure to throw in a nice dose of media theoretical meditation.

Its hopefully soon available on Itunes, but meanwhile episodes can be downloaded here.

Please get in touch if you have feedback, or suggestions for themes, sites, projects, etc. to be featured!

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Screen memories to be forgotten

"The brain is the screen", announced Gilles Deleuze some decades ago and summed up - beforehand - a range of things to come. The enthusiasm for the brain whether in terms of screen cultures (a range of films that play with mind, brain, and memory, and what Thomas Elsaesser has called the mind-game genre) or in new kinds of media interfaces e.g. for gaming is paralleled by a range of cultural and media theory looking into the notion of brain as a key metaphor, or node, for understanding contemporary media culture. Far from an earlier enthusiasm for the mind as separated from the body, and as an emblematic figure for the oh-so-much-hated-by-cultural-studies Cartesian worldview, the more recent enthusiasms is as much oriented towards brain as the fleshy epicentre of nerves, and sensation. The brain, too, is fleshy, vitalistic, and full of mattering matter, intensity, and in the world.

This is paradoxically why Christopher Nolan's Inception is such a disappointment. Despite fitting in perfectly with a range of screen culture examples from past years such as his own Memento to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Doll House , The Matrix, etc., it does not bring anything new to the genre, or an elaborated, innovative, or even exciting take on the centrality of the cognitive for current media culture. To be honest, with a topic like this, can you fail? Memory and the cognitive can be so interestingly be connected to key contemporary processes of cultural production and capitalism, even to an extent that has been branded as cognitive capitalism. Not only knowledge, affects, and such as an endproduct that can be packaged (thanks Edison, thanks copyright laws) and sold as a discrete unit of cultural industries, but the whole process of production that is more akin to an ecology of seemingly immaterial, cognitive, or emotional values that can be harnessed into value-creation and raise important issues concerning the current "creative precariat" is where these themes concerning feelings, memory and the self are debated and become crucial for the political economy.

Without going into too much detail (as I recognize my shortcomings as a film critic...) I would summarize Nolan's attempt as itself a bit pale, a bit short of exciting. Despite the references to Kubrick, which I personally do not understand at all, Nolan's film is exactly not daring sci-fi when it comes to dealing with the brain or the self. The cliched guiding idea of getting caught in a dream at the expense of reality does not become transported into a more powerful and political "don't get stuck in someone else's dream" but only a bit sentimental storyline. The parallels between political/financial power and power over the mind remain very vague, and the attempt to multiply dimensions of reality (or dream) itself a bit boring. Whereas some critics have at least hailed the visuals as stunning (I beg to differ), what is bothering that it seems to be acceptable to recycle such outdated notions of the mind and the brain in supposedly futuristic settings. Metaphors of depth, architecture, and the subconscious remain mostly vague perhaps Freudian allusions, but on a level that is as insightful as I would expect The Sun's summary of psychoanalysis to be.

Indeed, I admit after reading some more positive writings and after discussions that there would have been potential for much more. The theme of "contagious ideas", or more interestingly "emotion contagion" (that is of key scientific interest for social media cultures). The labyrinthine architectural formations in which urban structures, the psyche and various realities intertwine in a Borgesian or Dickian (as in Philip K. Dick) manner are a strong cinematic trope of contemporary digital culture. Writers such as Peter Krapp have pointed out how film itself has acted as "a medium of aberrations of memory" from such avantgarde works as Chris Marker's La Jetée to more recent science-fictions of The Terminator series and even Men in Black, and indeed its interesting to map how hallucinated, and often psychoid realities are being framed increasingly in such settings which do not take multiple realities only as delusional but at the core of power and control.

However, despite for a second trying to be optimistic and positive I have to return to my original feeling about the film; if such supposedly informed publications as the Wired are even asking if Inception is the scifi heavy-weight of the year, I must myself be in the wrong reality now.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

What is New Materialism-Opening words from the event

As promised, please find below the opening words to the recent New Materialisms and Digital Culture-event by Milla Tiainen and me. The event was filled with great talks by a range of scholars with differing disciplinary backgrounds, and ended up with the dance/technology-performance Triggered (composed by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Tom Hall and Richard Hoadley, choreography by Jane Turner). In the midst of the text, images (taken by Tim Regan) from the performance and the conference. A warm thank you to all speakers, performers and our great audience in both parts of the day!

Anglia Ruskin University
CoDE: Cultures of the Digital Economy –research institute and Dept. of ECFM, convened by Milla Tiainen and Jussi Parikka
21-22 of June, 2010
Milla Tiainen and Jussi Parikka

Opening words: What is New Materialism?


As stated in the programme we’d like to begin by just briefly engaging with one of the key components, or actants, of the symposium’s setup: the concept of “new materialism.” The purpose of this is definitely not to identify a stable referent for that term so much as to point towards some of the problems it arguably connects with. Whereas I will in few words consider the concept’s broader resonances across current cultural, social and feminist theory, Jussi will subsequently comment on ‘new materialist’ modes of questioning in conjunction with digital media culture.

Aptly, there are three books forthcoming soon whose respective titles include the concept “new materialism”—while it in each case links with varying further concepts and associated planes. “New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics”, to be published by Duke, features such writers as Rosi Braidotti, Sara Ahmed and Jane Bennett; the essay collection “Carnal Knowledge: Towards a New Materialism through the Arts” is edited by Barbara Bolt and Estelle Barrett and involves contributions by Australian and European scholars including a chapter by Jussi and myself; and two of the speakers of this symposium, Iris van der Tuin and Rick Dolphijn, are currently working on a book on philosophy of science that is entitled “New Materialism” and will come out later this year. Thus, as these particular ‘capturings’ of ongoing research for their part evidence, the concept of new materialism is increasingly partaking in the flows of language and thought of specific areas of cultural and critical thought; its “rhythms of arrival and departure”, to borrow Brian Massumi’s expression (Parables for the Virtual 2002, 20), as well as connections with various other concepts are becoming growingly regular and rich in intensity within these flows. A momentum of at least some intensive magnitude is gathering round “new materialism.” Or, perhaps better put, the concept is being utilized so as to try and couch such a momentum which is unravelling transversally across fields of inquiry whilst at the same time displaying a notable degree of consistency in terms of the implicated topics of concern.

What, then, are the problems that would lend “new materialism” its meaning or usefulness? Evidently, the precise configurations of sense and effect that the concept invokes are singular to its every usage along with being more generally in the making within the debates involving it. At its broadest, nonetheless, new materialism can be said to concern a series of questions and potentialities that revolve round the idea of active, agential and morphogenetic; self-differing and affective-affected matter. Indeed, this summary would probably be endorsed by most proponents and sceptics of new materialisms alike. To be sure, this ideational assemblage or its part-problems have also already inspired incisive critique from prolific scholars. These critics remain unconvinced about both ‘new materialism’s attempts to reconfigure the persistent dichotomies of nature/culture, body/thought, concrete/abstract etc. and the allegedly dubious politics of the category of the ‘new’ in the concept of new materialism. To paraphrase one prominent critic, Sarah Ahmed (it will be interesting to see what her contribution to the New Materialisms essay collection looks like!), the new materialist conceptions of dynamic human and non-human materialities that acquire shapes, operate and differentiate also beyond human perception and discursive representational systems are, at least within feminist new materialisms, in danger of positing matter as an it-like fetish object precisely because of their insistence on its ontological distinctiveness (Ahmed, “Imaginary Prohibitions: Some Preliminary Remarks on the Founding Gestures of the ‘New Materialism’” 2008, 35). This fetishizing is moreover enabled, according to Ahmed, by strategic amnesia regarding the previous rich engagements with biology, the body and matter that were carried out within science and technology studies and other areas of human and social sciences (again her focus lies mainly in feminist genealogies). Ahmed therefore concludes that despite intentions to the contrary many new materialist gestures actually solidify rather than ‘fluidify’ the boundaries between nature/culture and matter/signification. At the same time these projects’ declarations of the newness of their endeavours conveniently conjure up an image of theorists who embark “on a heroic and lonely struggle” (32) against the collective non- or anti-materialism of former cultural and social-theoretical stances.

Now unhinging and confounding habitual dual oppositions remains undoubtedly a challenge for any ‘new materialist’ (as well as a theoretically differently oriented) project. Yet in order to end my part of these opening words I would like to point out three aspects that go some way in responding to the criticisms Ahmed presents—along with hopefully resonating with the talks of today.
1) First of all, one of the signalling features that cuts across the heterogeneous projects we would like to propose as new materialist is their sustained commitment to developing models of immanent and continuously emergent relationality. Through insisting on the felt reality of relations for instance in the wake of William James, on the irreducibility of the in-betweens to the connecting terms, and on the intensive topological spaces of co-affectivity these models, we would argue, provide some of the most effective means on offer at the moment for thinking past the traditional rigid dualisms of nature/culture, subject/object and so on and for articulating the intuited processual co-substantiality of these facets.
2) Secondly and connectedly, the notion of the outside or virtual, which within new materialist undertakings relates or overlaps with such more specific concepts as affect, potential and variation, certainly diminishes the risk of ending up with a re-essentialized and reified conception of matter.
3) Thirdly and finally, we would like to think that the newness in the ‘new materialism’ refers less to a discrete stage let alone a point of culmination on a teleological line of theoretical understanding than to a multiplicity of attempts to live with newly composed problems whilst refreshing the vocabularies of cultural, artistic and feminist theory with “conceptual infusions” (Massumi 2002, 4) from hitherto overlooked or presently rediscovered sources.


In the context of digital media culture, the notion of “materiality” occupies a curious position in itself. As observed by Bill Brown in his entry for the recent Critical Terms for Media Studies (Chicago UP, 2010), our understanding of the media historical modernity has been infiltrated early on with the idea of “abstraction” --- abstraction as a driving force (as with standardization of techniques, processes, and messaging) and an effect (represented in forms of power, subjectivities, cultural practices) of modernity. Recognized by a range of different writers from Karl Marx to Debord and Baudrillard, such a process has been influential in forcing us to rethink not materiality but dematerialisation as crucial to understanding the birth of technical media culture. Regimes of value, and regimes of technical media share the same impact on “things” – homogenisation, standardisation, and ease of communication/commodification in a joint tune with each other are in this perspective, and a perspective that branded critical theory for a long time, crucial aspects in any analysis of media culture’s relation to materiality.

Hence, the move from the critical evaluation of emergence of capitalist media culture seemed to flow surprisingly seamlessly as part of the more technology-oriented discourse concerning “immateriality” of the digital in the 1980s and 1990s. Here, in a new context, materiality was deemed as an obsolescent index of media development overcome by effective modes of coding, manipulating and transferring information across networks that become par excellence the object of desire of policies as much cultural discourses.

Yet, the recent years of media theory introduced an increasingly differing elaboration of how we should understand the notion of “medium” in this context. Instead of being only something that in a Kantian manner prevents access to the world of the real or material, or things (Brown, p.51) the medium itself becomes a material assemblage in the hands of a wave of German media theorists, who have develop a unique approach to media materialism, and hence new materialist notions of the world. Here the world is not reduced to symbolic, signifying structures, or representations, but is seen for such writers as Friedrich Kittler (and more recent theorists such as Wolfgang Ernst in a bit differing tone under media archaeology) as a network of concrete, material, physical and physiological apparatuses and their interconnections, that in a Foucauldian manner govern whatever can be uttered and signified. This brand of German media theory came out as an alternative exactly to the Marxist as well as hermeneutic contexts of theory dominating German discussions in the 1960s-1980s, and carved out a specific interest to the coupling of the human sensorium with the non-human worlds of modern technical media. In this insight, and ones shared by writers such as Jonathan Crary, on the one hand, the birth of modern media culture owed to the meticulous measuring of the human sensorium in various physiological settings and extending to experimental psychology labs in the late 19th and early 20th century. On the other hand, modern technical media showed such wavelengths, speeds, vibrations and other physical characteristics in itself that it escaped any phenomenological analysis, and hence tapped into a material world unknown per se to humans.

Without wanting to sound too reductionistic, I believe this is one of the key directions where media theory more recently has developed its own enthusiasm concerning a new more material understanding of media. Naturally filtered into new contexts, and transforming the way it works, such directions have however inspired also in the Anglo-American world new directions, new interests in material constellations of “platforms, interfaces, data standards, file formats, operating systems, versions and distributions of code, patches, ports and so forth”, to paraphrase Matthew Kirschenbaum. Naturally, post-representational approaches are present in a wide range of work and other thinkers, from the Deleuze-inspired cinematic philosophies of Steven Shaviro to sociological ideas of Nigel Thrift, the new materialist mappings of subhuman bodies such as blobs by Luciana Parisi to the politically tuned analyses of network culture of Tiziana Terranova --- and the range of theories and theorists we are able to enjoy today.

Indeed, if I would be forced to summarize the intimate link between the analytical perspectives that go under the general umbrella term New Materialism and media theory and digital culture, it would have to do with at least three directions
1) The seemingly immaterial is embedded in wide material networks; information is informed by the existence of material networks, practices, and various entanglements, that expand both to the materiality of political economy of ownership, access and use, but also to the material assemblages which govern the way we are in media milieus.
2) Yet, technical media is also defined by non-object based materialities, which makes it slightly more difficult to conceptualise. As a regime of electromagnetic fields, of pulsations, electricity, and such fields as software, technical media and digital culture escape the language of solids.
3) The intimate connection between the dynamic human/animal body and media tech, which since the 19th century and for example experimental psychology labs has now extended to the various design practices in HCI and such that tap into the physiological thresholds of the human being in novel ways – hence the interest in affect, emotion, non-conscious and somatic levels of the human body, and emergence of various forms of interfacing, whether from the consumer tech of Kinect-gaming body-in-movement-meets-Xbox interface to still very aspirational Brain-2-Brain, B-2-B, networking and such. Its here that the knowledge about the kinetic, dynamic, and relational body feeds into understanding the moving-situatedness of us in mobile network cultures.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

New Materialism abstracts

For the forthcoming 21st June event New Materialisms and Digital Culture, here are the abstracts which promise very interesting crossdisciplinary perspectives into investigating what is new materialism in the context of various practices and arts of digital culture.

David M. Berry: Software Avidities: Latour and the Materialities of Code

The first difficultly in understanding software is located within the notion of software/code itself and its perceived immateriality. Here it is useful to draw an analytical distinction between ‘code’ and ‘software’. Throughout this paper I shall be using code to refer to the textual and social practices of source code writing, testing and distribution. In contrast, I would like to use ‘software’ to include products, such as operating systems, applications or fixed products of code such as Photoshop, Word and Excel and the cultural practices that surround the use of it. This further allows us to think about the hacking as the transformation of software back into code for the purposes of changing its normal execution or subverting its intended (prescribed) functions. However, this difficulty should not mean that we stay at the level of the screen, so-called screen essentialism, nor at the level of information theory, where the analysis focuses on the way information is moved between different points disembedded from its material carrier, nor indeed at the level of a mere literary reading of the textual form of code. Rather code needs to be approached in its multiplicity, that is as a literature, a mechanism, a spatial form (organisation), and as a repository of social norms, values, patterns and processes. In order to focus on the element of materiality I want to use Latour's notion of the 'test of strength' to see how the materiality of code, its obduracy and its concreteness are tested within computer programming contests. To do this I want to look at two case studies: (1) the Underhanded C Contest, which is a contest which asks the programmer to write code that is as readable, clear, innocent and straightforward as possible, and yet it must fail to perform at its apparent function. To be more specific, it should do something subtly evil; and (2) The International Obfuscated C Code Contest, which is a contest to write the most Obscure/Obfuscated C program possible that is as difficult to understand and follow (through the source code) as possible. By following the rules of the contest, and by pitting each program, which must be made available to compile and execute by the judges (as well as the other competitors and the wider public by open sourcing the code), the code is then shown to be material providing it passes these tests of strength.

Rick Dolphijn: The Intense Exterior of Another Geometry
Starting with several examples from contemporary ‘animal architecture’, this paper proposes a search for how anything ‘surrounding’ the organic body (a box, a piece of cloth, a house), in the alliance it creates with this body, is mutually united with it. It brings us to the practices central to this paper as they concern envisioning our “urban exoskeleton” as DeLanda calls it, and how this sets forth the emergence of a “future people” as Proust already foresaw it. In other words, our interests lie with how life comes into being in its intense relationships with urban morphology. We then needs to accept the definition of life offered to us by Christopher Alexander who considers life “a most general system of mathematical structures that arises because of the nature of space” (2004: 28). To speculate the future lives (unconsciously) hidden in the morphogenetic qualities of urban form today, should then be pursued in terms of the (aesthetic) principles of creating space. Conceptualizing these principles in the Occident and in the Orient, we allow ourselves to conceptualize a difference between two wholly other urban bodies of which especially the latter (the Oriental) has hardly received any attention in contemporary theory. This Oriental ‘city of axonometric vision’, as we develop this next to the (Occidental) ‘city of linear perspective’ allows us to think the urban exoskeleton in terms of a multiplicity of dynamic surfaces (as opposed to a centralized pattern), through an “equal-angle see-through” (dengjiao toushi in Chinese) (as opposed to a linear perspective) and through a non-dualist felt-togetherness. It allows us to think the creative dynamics of unlimited growth as the new proposition of what the bodies can do.

Eleni Ikoniadou: Transversal digitality and the relational dynamics of a new materialism
The relationship between digital technology and matter has preoccupied media and cultural theorists for the last two decades. During the 90s it was articulated through a celebration of the disembodied, immaterial and probabilistic properties of information (cybercultural theory). More recently, it has been asserted through a reliance on sensory perception for the construction of a predominantly observable, otherwise void, digital space (digital philosophy). However, alternative materialist accounts may be able to offer more dynamic ways of understanding the heterogeneity, materiality and novelty of digital culture (Kittler, 1999; Mackenzie, 2002; Fuller, 2005; Munster, 2006). Following on their footsteps, this presentation will aim to rethink the ontological status of the digital as immanent to the flows of a ‘new materialism’. The latter is understood as a transversal process that cuts across seemingly distinguished fields and disciplines, such as the arts and sciences, establishing new connections between them. New materialism, then, becomes a concept and a method proper for investigating digital media and their tendency to bring together different aspects of the world in new ways. The paper discusses how an abstract materialist new media theory can enable transversal relations between science studies, philosophy and media art, as well as between the actual and the virtual dimensions of reality; allowing the emergence of heterogeneous digital assemblages of material, aesthetic and scientific combination.

Adrian Mackenzie: Believing in and desiring data: 'R' as the next 'big thing'
How could materialist analysis come to grips with the seeming immateriality of data network media? This paper attempts to think through some of the many flows of desire and belief concerning data. In the so-called 'data deluges' generated by the searches, queries, captures, links and aggregates of network media, key points of friction occur around sharing and pattern perception. I focus on how sharing and pattern perception fare in the case of the scripting language R, an open source statistical 'data-intensive' programming language heavily used across the sciences (including social sciences), in public and private settings, from CERN to Wall Street and the Googleplex. R, it is said, is a 'next big thing' in the world of analytics and data mining, with thousands of packages and visualizations, hundreds of books and publications (including its own journal, /R Journal/) appearing in the last few years. In this activity, we can discern vectors of belief and desire concerning data. The tools and techniques developed in R can be seen both intensifying data, and at times, making the contingencies of data more palpable.

Stamatia Portanova: The materiality of the abstract (or how movement-objects ‘thrill’ the world)
Gilles Deleuze and Alfred N. Whitehead have defined the ‘virtual’ not as an unreal simulation but as a real potential, an idea (respectively conceived by them as a ‘mathematical differential’ or a ‘mathematical relation’) around which an actual fact takes shape. Drawing on Deleuze and Whitehead's concepts of 'virtuality', this paper addresses the possibility of a materialist approach that is able to take into account the virtuality of matter, i.e. how the abstract dimension of ideas (‘the mind’, ‘thought’) possesses its own consistence. The concrete object analyzed to exemplify this approach is the relation between digital culture, digital technology and movement, from which something like 'virtual movement-objects' emerge. More specifically, the paper explores the use of several technologies of movement creation and distribution (Motion Capture, digital video editing, the Internet) in mass-media environments such as pop music clips and You Tube amateur videos, dance video games and choreography web sites. The main objective is to understand how these applications generate and replicate what will be defined as ‘virtual movement-objects’, digitally generated dance steps that are widely imitated and adapted. From an ‘abstractly materialist’ point of view, the numerical data produced through the digitalization of dance will be considered as virtual movement ideas with a potential to be repeatedly actualized (in videos, live events, games). These ideas have the possibility of infinite reanimation: the same step can be endlessly repeated, becoming a dance of graphic shapes or 3D images, but also a movement across people and cultures. This definition also draws on Gabriel Tarde and Bruno Latour’s understanding of imitation. Imitation, in Latour’s words, weaves a sort of contagious ‘behavioural network’ based on the return of 'virtual centres of gravity’, ideal patterns attracting a repetition of movements that ‘look the same’ but are always different and unpredictable. This paper therefore explores how, despite their designed nature, movement-objects appear as open and creative movement ideas able to autonomously circulate in transversal social networks and generate unexpected rhythmic behaviours. The diffusion of Michael Jackson’s Thriller dance on YouTube, in Sims animations or in the choreographed performance of 1500 detainees of the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center (Philippines), can e considered as one of the most famous examples of how dance steps have become virtual movement-objects to be infinitely actualized.

Anna Powell: Affections in their pure state? The digital event as immersive encounter
Digital video offers a distinctively immersive encounter. In its early analogue days, video art seemed to validate Deleuze’s diagnosis of ‘electronic automatism’ (Cinema 2, 1985). Its characteristics include ‘omnidirectional space’, framing which is ‘reversible and non–superimposable’ and the unpredictable motion of ‘perpetual reorganisation’. Spatial composition becomes an opaque ‘table of information’ on which data ‘replaces nature’. Some of Deleuze’s anxieties for the (then new) medium have been fulfilled by surveillance and the mainstream spectacle of GGI, as in the ‘gigantism’ of Avatar’s 3D optical illusionism. Yet, this ‘original regime of images and signs’ has also proved its credentials for the schizo will to art.One obvious formal distinction between cine and digital video is editing. Video editing does not operate by cutting and splicing footage but by ‘dragging and dropping’ sections of film on top of each other. Rather than being excised by cuts to produce temporal elision, uploaded video clips are pulled down on top of a ‘master’. An editing decision can be reversed by using a sliding tool to reveal that the first layer of images is only temporarily overlaid by another. Digital editing thus increases the density and depth of the plane of images by potentially limitless conjunctive synthesis.Deleuze argues that without a sense of the out-of-frame, time and space are overwhelmingly immanent in electronic automatism. This apparent removal of the out-of-frame and the elsewhere leads instead to an intensive meld of brain and screen that can move the mind/screen in schizoanalytic directions. Video art’s preference for gallery installation or live performance with VJ-ing and music rather than cinema screen offers further haptic immersion in the medium.Digital videos that repudiate both the televisual and the cinematic regimes can express what video artist Mattia Casalegno calls ‘affections in their pure state’. The aesthetic properties of digital video bring affect, perception and time closer together. What are the implications of this apparent removal of the gap between actual and virtual? If, as Deleuze suggests, the brain is the screen, what kind of schizo images and thoughts might future digital art unfold? Starting from the overt distinctions of cine and video this paper investigates the impact of the digital body without organs. It references work by video artists specifically Deleuzian inspiration whose works express new materialist intent.

Iris Van der Tuin: A Different Starting Point, A Different Metaphysics: Reading Bergson and Barad Diffractively
This paper provides an affirmative feminist reading of the philosophy of Henri Bergson by reading it through the work of Karen Barad. Adopting such a diffractive reading strategy enables feminist philosophy to move beyond discarding Bergson for his apparent phallocentrism. Feminist philosophy finds itself double bound when it critiques a philosophy for being phallocentric, since the set-up of a Master narrative comes into being with the critique. By negating a gender-blind or sexist philosophy, feminist philosophy only gets to reaffirm its parameters and setting up a Master narrative costs feminist philosophy its feminism. I thus propose and practice the need for a different methodological starting point, one that capitalizes on “diffraction.” This paper experiments with the affirmative phase in feminist philosophy prophesied by Elizabeth Grosz, among others. Working along the lines of the diffractive method, the paper at the same time proposes a new reading of Bergson (as well as Barad), a new, different metaphysics indeed, which can be specified as onto-epistemological or “new materialist.”