Monday, 21 February 2011

Machinology is moving!

More noise and media theory, but in a new address...

The new direction for this blog, and in general my online presence, will be -- please update your possible subscriptions! See you "there", or let your browser take its journey.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Whitehead into media theory

Complementing the biomedia-theme of the conference (Response:ability) of this year, the final panel of Transmediale 2011 featured two important writers in media theory and arts: Marie-Luise Angerer and Mark B.N. Hansen. Angerer was very interesting in her presentation that focused on the notion of affect, talking about Massumi, the disappearing half a second in registration of sensations, and dance, but I want to mention here especially Hansen (partly because of the selfish reason of having been recently occupied with the idea of time-critical media, and microtemporality).

Amusingly introduced in the programme as the other Mark Hansen – who teaches statistics at UCLA – this Mark Hansen at Transmediale is of course the author of New Philosophy for New Media and Bodies in Code; both important, interesting books in embodiment and the media artistic cultures of perception. As was pointed out during the session, partly by Hansen himself, his theoretical trajectory has moved in new directions during these years: from a very strong phenomenological focus influenced by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, to a much more Gilbert Simondon influenced Bodies in Code, and now he is framing his project through A.N.Whitehead. This is interesting, as it shows yet another contemporary cultural and media theorist moving in that direction. Well known are the Whitehead writings of Massumi and Manning in Montreal, and of course the recent Whitehead writings of Steven Shaviro, the debates around object oriented philosophy that take a lot aboard from Whitehead, and naturally the ideas of such pioneers as Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour. So Hansen as well has joined this crew enthusiastic about the superject instead of subject, and the distributed field of prehensions instead of the primacy of the human body and sensory system as the focal point in aesthetics.

Hansen’s current project is more generally framed as a move from objects to processes. Hansen argues that so much of media theory (including his own work) has been focusing on objects as the primary, uhm, object of media theory. Instead, contemporary culture of distributed ubiquitous media environments demands something else. The presentation itself was packed full of theoretical arguments that are hard to unpack in a good brief way, but I just want to point towards some key concepts.

Hansen argues that this new media culture demands new concepts – a new culture of media processes has to be complemented by a specificity paying attention to how it happens on such levels that are not always directly registered on the human sensorium. Interestingly, he pointed towards Guattari as well, even if not so strongly as talking about Whitehead. In short, the indebtedness to Guattari could be summarized through the idea that machines talk to machines before talking to us. Hansen takes this concretely, in a similar manner to Wendy Chun, and pays attention to how much happens in our media machines (take smart phones that all the time are connected due to the GPS system etc) before we actively use them. The sensibilities inherent in such regimes of software cultures are indeed beyond the normal accounted for 5 senses that media theory has traditionally recognized. And here kicks in Whitehead.

Instead of the body focus of previous (new) media theory, Whitehead offers ways to rethink embodiment. The body is in such a theoretical frame “a vast set, a society of sensibilities.” Similarly Whitehead complicates the notion of perception by two important specifications: perception as presentational immediacy, as it has been understood in so much of history of philosophy and perception as causal efficacy. Without me being able to go into enough detail here, causal efficacy points towards the way Whitehead wants to take into account the way actual entities in the world are created through their relations to other entities, preceding them, and in midst of which entities are determined. It points towards the processual nature of perception being born – not the end result, but the “sensory processes leading up to and informing perception.”

When Shaviro asked the question of how would contemporary cultural theory look like if we had focused more on Whitehead, instead of Heidegger as the 20th century philosopher, Hansen seems to ask: how could we bend Whitehead into a media theorist? Whitehead hardly wrote anything related to media or technology per se (even if writing lots on science which we can argue of course being of huge importance to any understanding of media culture). For Hansen, the key point is how Whitehead’s perspective affords us to think about nonperceptual sensation. It gives agency to the environment instead of the focal subject effected and affected by that environment, and offers the perspective of the superject for media theory: how the individual is the end result of the environmental datum prehended by this focal point.

This in a way pairs up with the nature of the processual environments – that when we need to talk about processes as the central “object” of media studies, we need to see this both in the sense how e.g. Whitehead can offer such theoretical perspectives (causal efficacy) as well as how the distributed, ubiquoitous software environments are processes, unfolding in their nature. This is where Hansen’s perspective ties together with the recent debates concerning time-critical perspectives that especially the Berlin Humboldt media theorists have promoted (again, see Axel Volmar’s Zeitkritische Medien, 2009, as well as Wolfgang Ernst’s writings). Yet, there is an important difference as Hansen seems to argue that it’s only the recent new media has made the processual approaches crucial. But is this not already the case for such earlier media as wireless, cinema even, and for example television? Hansen does not fully address why the earlier media of signal processing of various forms does not qualify for the microtemporal ideas he is arguing for, where the circulating nature of the electric, electromagnetic, and then electronic signal is processual. I would argue that here some media archaeology should step in and offer a broader perspective concerning technical media and time, affect of technological relations, and process.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Launch events for Insect Media - Berlin and Cambridge

Now that Insect Media is out, I am organizing a couple of events sort of as book launches---with a little help from my friends!

One takes place in Berlin, at the cultural venue on Schönhauser Allee 167c ( 10435 Berlin) on March 4, Friday, 7 pm - Shintaro Miyazaki will be interviewing me, and hopefully with drinks and nibbles (there has been talk of some Japanese finger food!). Also the book is on sale there, with a small launch discount.

Even before that, in Cambridge, we are organizing a joint event with Joss Hands whose own book @ is for Activism came out in December as well! This takes place February 22, Tuesday, 5 pm at Anglia Ruskin University at 5 pm. The room will be Helmore 251.

Below, a short blurb about that event which we use to discuss more widely some interesting current and future directions of media studies as well:

'New Directions in Media Studies: Questioning The Digital Turn'.

In their new books Anglia Ruskin lecturers Joss Hands (@ is for activism) and Jussi Parikka (Insect Media) address some of the pressing new issues in Media Studies emerging from the digital revolution in communication technology. This event will act as a book launch, but also offers the chance to address the relevancy of innovative cross disciplinary themes in contemporary Media Studies.

Both books are characterized by distinct theoretical and political perspectives on issues such as the impact of digital networks on collective action, the ontology of politics, economic production, the 'post-human' subject and science-arts interdisciplinarity.

Hands and Parikka will offer short introductions to key themes in their books and welcome questions and discussion over wine and nibbles.

The event is sponsored by CoDE – Cultures of the Digital Economy research institute at Anglia Ruskin, and the campus bookshop John Smith's is offering both books to be purchased during the event.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Dave Boothroyd talk on censorship, secrecy and memory in digital culture

A forthcoming talk in Cambridge hosted by the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences and CoDE-institute, Anglia Ruskin University:

1 Feb, 17.00, Anglia Ruskin University, East Road, room Helmore 251
All welcome!

Dr Dave Boothroyd (University of Kent)
‘Lest we forget’: censorship, secrecy and memory in the age of total recall

Censorship and secrecy are widely regarded as antithetical to the open society and the public sphere. In the digital age the decentered communicative network of the internet facilitates the proliferation of data, data-storage capacity and the generalised intensification of surveillance as well as the apparent weakening of censorious control over information and the security of secrets all kinds. The ‘Wikileaks scenario’ not only exposes the easily ‘switchable’ nature of secrecy/disclosure in the context of digital communications culture, it raises issues pertaining to the technicisation of memory and the memorialisation of events.

In this paper I shall approach the interconnections between censorship, secrecy and memory in relation to contemporary techno-culture with a view to identifying the significance of this nexus for the cultural formation of ethical subjectivity (as Levinas, in particular, writes about this). I am not so much concerned here with normative ethical questions related to the technicisation of the censorship, secrecy and memory ‘nexus’ (interesting, even urgent as these often are) but more with how the ethical Subject is produced in this context.

Bio: Dave Boothroyd Director of Cultural Studies, School of Social Policy Sociology and Social Research, University of Kent. He's the author of 'Culture on Drugs: Narco-cultural studies of high modernity' (Manchester University Press, 2006) and is currently writing a monograph for Edinburgh University Press, 'Ethical Subjects in Contemporary Culture'. He's a founding Co-Editor of the on-line journal 'Culture Machine'.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Wirelessness - radical empiricism in media theory

Adrian Mackenzie captures something extremely essential and apt in his fresh book Wirelessness - Radical Empiricism in Network Cultures (2010). Besides being an analysis of an aspect of contemporary "network" culture so neglected by cultural analysers, it offers a view into how does one conduct post-phenomenological analysis into the intensive, moving, profiliterating aspects of experience in current media culture. So much of what seems wired is actually wireless; so much of what seems experienced, is actually at the fringes of solid experience, which is why Mackenzie sets out to use William James's exciting philosophical theories of radical empiricism as his guide to understanding wirelessness.

Let's define it, or let Mackenzie define it:

"The key claim of the book is that the contemporary proliferation of wireless devices and modes of network connection can best be screened against the backdrop of a broadly diverting and converging set of tendencies that I call 'wirelessness'. Wireless designates an experience trending toward entanglements with things, objects, gadgets, infrastructures, and services, and imbued with indistinct sensations and practices of network-associated changed. Wirelessness affects how people arrive, depart, and inhabit places, how they relate to others, and indeed how they embody change." (5)

Indeed, Mackenzie does not remain content to just stick to the techy details or the phenomenology of how it feels to be surrounded by wireless devices and discourses, but sets out to treat these as a continuum. This too follows from James. Things go together well with our minds/brains. Thoughts are very much things even if at the other end of the spectrum than the more seemingly solid things of the world. Thinking and things cannot be separated. Mackenzie quotes James: "Thoughts in the concrete are made of the same stuff as things are." The stuff of continuum.

Hence, what follows is also methodologically exemplary treatment of this weird phenomena of wireless communication. Already in its early phase, the fact that communication started to remove itself from solid bodies and the messaging human body, was a topic of awe and wonderment. James was roughly a contemporary to the buzzing discourses of electromagnetic fields and experiments in wireless communication closer to the end of the 19th century by such figures as Preece, Willoughby Smith and of course Marconi; this media archaeological aspect is not so much touched upon by Mackenzie. In any case, one would do well to look at it's 19th century radical empiricist discourses as well, to examine the way bodies, solids, experience and media were being rethought in those early faces, here described in the words of one pioneer and early writer Sir William Crookes:

" Rays of light will not pierce through a wall, nor, as we know only too well, through London fog; but electrical vibrations of a yard or more in wave-length will easily pierce such media, which to them will be transparent." (quoted in J.J.Fahie, Wireless Telegraphy, 1838-1899, p.197).

Even if not transparency, wirelessness affords new senses of mobility. For us, wireless is heavily an urban phenomena (even if touches on how rural areas are being connected, peripheries harnessed, and now, also, the human body and its organs individually connected to the internet with new wireless device surgery). For Mackenzie, the mobility relates to "transitions between places" and how such hotspotting of for example the urban sphere creates new forms of intensity that are not stable. In his earlier book Transductions Mackenzie was using Simondon's vocabulary which offered the idea of the primacy of metastability, now James is doing the same trick with offering a conceptual vocabulary for an experience that is distributed, diffuse and coming and going.

What is fascinating is how Mackenzie moves between the various scales, and still is able to keep his methodology and writing intact. In addition the fact that the urban experiences of humans is being enabled by the variety of wireles devices, networks, accesses, and so forth, he is after such radical technological experience where hardware and software relations within technology matter as well. Talking about chipsets such as the Picochip202, Mackenzie compares these to cities: "The 'architectures' of chipsets resemble cities viewed from above precisely because they internalize many of the relational processes of movement in cities." (65).

The way bodies were moved and managed in urban environments has now been transposed as a problem on the level of chips and other seemingly "only" technical solutions. Yet, what Mackenzie does succesfully is to show how we need insights into such biopolitics that engage not only with human phenomenological bodies, but biopolitics of technological bodies too. This is what I find a very exciting and necessary direction, and while I know some of the great work done in Science and Technology studies, more media studies work in this direction of new materialism is very much welcome.

So now that we got talking about technological bodies in relation, and probably going soon so far that we could say that they have affects, would some critic say, does this not mean that we losing our grip on politics -- that technology is such a crucial way of governing our worlds, offering meanings, and is itself embedded in a cultural field of representation and such?

Mackenzie does not however neglect representations, or the variety of materials of which the experience of wirelessness consists; from wireless routers to marketing discourses and adverts, the ontological claim that thinking and things do not differ work also as a methodological guideline for rigorous eclectism. Similarly, Mackenzie shows how his methodology and writing lends itself also to postcolonial theory in chapter 7 "Overconnected worlds". Here, the claim is consist with a radical constructedness inherent in how transnationality and the global are created, not received, structures of experiencing; here, various wireless projects offer such platforms for both belief as well as physical connection.

Wirelessness overflows individual bodies and act as a catalyzer, intensifier, a field for experience perhaps in the sense as electromagnetic fields afford the technical signal between devices. What the book does as well is overflows in its richness - but it is clear that it is so rigorous in its take that media theory benefits from this for a long time. It picks up on some of the same inspiration that has been catalyzed into more philosophical takes on communication and contemporary culture by Brian Massumi, but is one of the first ones to take this mode of analysis of lived abstractions into concrete media analysis - similarly as he did with Simondon already in Transductions.