What would it mean to provide a theory of media? In contemporary discourse, terms like mass media, social media, visual media, or digital media are used quite freely. Commentators like to claim that we live in a media age, an observation whose very banality too often undercuts its potential utility. It will be worth while to pause for a moment and review the three most common ways of thinking about media, media as substance, media as structure, and media as logic.
The first answer to the question of media is found in the concept of substance. Under the Substance Model of media, the word “media” means medium or carrier. Here we find the great discussions around technology, around things like paper, paperwork, copper wire, signals, artifacts, archives, nodes, devices, what in Plato are called the hypomnemata (ὑπομνήματα), the so-called memory extenders, or the “extensions” of man. The Substance Model typically categorizes media in terms of artifacts or objects. Indeed, a number of contemporary media scholars describe themselves as archeologists, as performing media archeology. Here “middle” is understood in a strictly physical and material sense, as means, go-between, intermediary, the actual materiality of the thing being mediated. The Substance Model focuses on the gut, the meat, the flesh, the body,bodies as such. The Substance Model thingifies the world, turning everything into genetic elements and carrier channels. Something of a pre-Socratic view resurfaces here. Medium thinkers ask questions like “what is the elemental substance?” Pre-Socratic, this approach is Aristotelian as well. Recall Aristotle, great thinker of the mean (the midway, the middle), that great cataloger of matter into classifiable things. Even seemingly immaterial topics like politics or ontology were relevant to Aristotle because he found a way to itemize and articulate them as things, just like the animals of the field or the clouds in the sky. Continue reading →
This is an excerpt from a forthcoming essay on "The Golden Age of Analog."
What does the analog mean today? A hard question indeed. For the digital, many will simply make reference to things like Twitter, Playstation, or computers in general. Here one might be correct, but only coincidentally, for the basic order of digitality (the digitality of digitality) has not yet been demonstrated through mere denotation. The question of the analog is harder still, with responses often also consisting of mere denotations of things: sound waves, the phonograph needle, magnetic tape, a sundial, the wheel. At least denotation itself is analogical. But still what's the answer? Shall we flip a coin? Or, better yet, roll the coin down the hall and let it land where it will.
The analog, what is it? A number of contemporary authors have taken up the question directly. Consider Kaja Silverman's most recent work, where now in twoconsecutive volumes she has turned her attention away from difference and toward its putative antonym, analogy. Or recall how the first great Deleuzean in North America, Brian Massumi, once wrote an essay called “On the Superiority of the Analog.” I shudder to think how badly he would be trolled online if he were to pen such an essay today. Even at the height of the first Internet bubble, Massumi stayed true to his principles. He knew that to be a Deleuzian obligated one to embrace the analog fully, to become an analog philosopher.
I've said it before and I'll say it again. We've reached peak Deleuze. The wise move, I suspect, would be to institute a five year moratorium for anyone working in media and cultural theory. This goes for the Deleuzian "deep catalog" as well including Simondon and Spinoza. It's just getting out of hand.
The straw that broke the camel's back for me was reading Elizabeth Grosz's latest book and teaching it in seminar. A few months ago I cited Grosz in the context of The Swervers, a school of thought -- some of them Deleuzeans but not all -- who promote ethics and aesthetics as first philosophy and who gravitate toward analog themes such assemblage, affect, sensation, process, becoming, chaos, and accident. And I recently posted some longer reflections on Grosz's methodological profile. I certainly don't intend the current post as a kind of character assassination aimed at Grosz, who is unquestionably one of the most interesting and innovative thinkers working today. Her 2007 lecture at the Feminist Theory Workshop is but one example of how clearly she understood the state of the field at the time, and how much she had thought about where it should go in the future. (And looking back now ten years later she was essentially correct.) I see her work as indicative of a larger trend, and it's this larger trend that interests me.
My seminar recently read Elizabeth Grosz's latest book, The Incorporeal: Ontology, Ethics, and the Limits of Materialism. Grosz is an insightful reader of philosophical history and she has assembled here the Deleuzean songbook with chapters on the Stoics, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Simondon, along with the lesser known French philosopher of biology Raymond Ruyer plus a chapter on Deleuze himself. The book follows a few themes that recur in multiple chapters, specifically the theme of ethics and how to live, as well as the notion of immanence and what it might mean to have a non-reductive or "flat" ontology. The provocative premise of the book however is something a bit different. In The Incorporeal Grosz continues her exploration of materialism, only now counterintuitively through materialism's putative opposite, that is, through the idea and the way in which the ideal always inheres in any material milieu.
I find it interesting how a number of theorists have recently embraced some of the very things that they might have avoided at a younger age: Kaja Silverman shifting away from difference and towards analogy; Donna Haraway coming out in favor of discipline (for dogs); and now Grosz, she a pioneer in what we today call New Materialism, writing a book on idealism, that hoary rival of all good materialists. I don't see any of these developments as conservative or reactionary per se. This is the mature work of mature thinkers who understand that every aspect of life ought to get its due, even those aspects that one might have formerly shunned out of a political or ethical commitment. And anyhow, why shouldn't a materialist be able to give a decent account of mind or form? Continue reading →
I arrived home yesterday to a pleasant surprise. My first book, Protocol, has been translated and published in Japanese by Jimbun Shoin in Kyoto. This was arranged behind the scenes by the publisher, and I wasn't aware of the progress. So a surprising but welcome sight indeed! I look forward to greater contact with colleagues and students in Japan going forward.
I just spoke yesterday yesterday at the University of Pennsylvania on the topics of “control societies” and "ontologies of difference," two themes that have interested me a great deal over the years. In fact I have been so struck by Deleuze's essay “Postscript on Societies of Control,” a short and rather unusual text from the very end of his life, that I've spoken at length about it before and even devoted an entire chapter to it in my book on Laruelle, chapter five titled “Computers.” I have many thoughts about this short essay and about the topic it has introduced, control society, but what fascinates me even more today is the other phrase, that old poststructuralist theme, the ontologies of difference. The theory of difference has played an important role in many endeavors, from semiotics and structural analyses, to feminist and queer theory, to postcoloniality and critical race theory. What strikes me as most interesting today is the fact that difference -- along with a related concept, multiplicity -- is in fact not one thing. Rather we might speak of kinds of difference, or kinds of multiplicity. To be sure, pluralism has frequently characterized discussions around difference. Yet I'm drawn in a slightly different direction, not that difference is plural but that difference is (merely) different. Continue reading →
Digital devices permeate contemporary life. But what exactly does the digital mean? Are all computers digital? What about other media like photography or film? Is rationality itself digital? Is philosophy? We begin the seminar by developing specific definitions of the analog and the digital using sources from philosophy, media theory, and aesthetics. With these definitions in hand, we turn to contemporary digital media theory. Sections of the course are devoted to analogicity, digitality, the logical, the illogical, the absurd, cybernetics, digital computers, digital audio and compression. Readings are drawn from the work of Simone Browne, Gilles Deleuze, Elizabeth Grosz, Katherine Hayles, Jonathan Sterne, and others.