Good debates are invigorating. That digital media studies has thus far provided too few real debates is at least a partial explanation for its sluggish development, prematurely sunk by a buoyant enthusiasm for all things digital or halted by the endless repetition of trite slogans unopposed, like “everything is connected” or “information wants to be free.” So it is with great fanfare that we should greet the recent explosion of sophisticated texts tackling the digital apparatus from many directions. A golden age of tech theory is currently underway, and we may expect the next several years to be fruitful ones indeed.
Already a decade ago Mark Marino helped inaugurate a new field of inquiry dubbed “critical code studies,” a disciplinary shift evident today in scholarship from the likes of Rita Raley, Adrian MacKenzie, and Matthew Fuller. At the same time, a renewed interest in infrastructure has guided a number of important recent books in media studies, such as Nicole Starosielski's The Undersea Network and Tung-Hui Hu's A Prehistory of the Cloud, both devoted to the real materiality of networks. Theorists like Luciana Parisi and Yuk Hui have recently explored the various philosophical nuances of digitality, fueled in Hui's case by the tech philosophy of Bernard Stiegler and Gilbert Simondon. Or consider Simone Browne's timely Dark Matters, dealing with the technology of race, or adjacent work on opacity and queer computing from scholars like Zach Blas, Jacob Gaboury, and Kara Keeling. While feminist theory has long engaged with digital technology, the recent Xenofeminist manifesto echoed particularly widely, due in no small measure to a series of staunch positions taken by the manifesto's authors on controversial topics such as alienation and posthumanism. At the same time, Martine Syms's “Mundane Afrofuturist Manifesto” provided a refreshing alternative to some of these accelerationist tendencies, stressing as her manifesto does the mundane over the extraterrestrial. Even in the world of art criticism, computational and network aesthetics have come to the fore, exemplified by the wide dispersion of a pamphlet by the artist Seth Price, aptly titled “Dispersion,” or, in a different way, by recent volumes on networks and participation from David Joselit and Claire Bishop.
Meanwhile, amid this embarrassment of riches, amid all this activity and no doubt also due to it, recent theory appears all too often as a kind of Great Undoing of existing techniques and methods—what Silicon Valley likes to call a disruption—too often, that is, as a kind of retrograde motion, despite being advertised as innovative or anticipatory. Thus one recent trend in philosophical circles (speculative realism) seeks to undo Kantianism, while another in literary circles (digital humanities) seeks to undo hermeneutics. Critique, it seems, is the unwitting target of both, whether it be Immanuel Kant's critical method for the determination of human limits, or the deployment of critique in hermeneutics as a way to reveal the latent conditions of worldly phenomena, a technique ultimately more Marxian or Freudian than Kantian. The result of all this undoing is an evisceration of post- as a prefix with any further power—tell me something I don't know. And, in a squaring of the circle, the past has returned seemingly unscathed under any number of exotic avatars: back to structure or morphology as a way to undo poststructuralism; or back further to empiricism or historicism as a way to undo structuralism.
Patrick Jagoda's Network Aesthetics, focused equally on both digitality and formalism, is a marker for the current renaissance in tech theory. Constructive on the whole, Jagoda does not shy away from debate, insisting as he does on a number of points throughout, even as the tone remains deferential, even subdued. Methodologically he is most inspired by empiricism and the tradition of thick description popular in cultural anthropology or perhaps even certain strands of phenomenology, although he does not cite this material extensively. Much of his persuasive power comes in passing moments, in brief phrases, as when he sings in praise of the “robust account” or when he speaks of “animating the irresolvable . . . in a thick fashion” (25, 26). Jagoda's path runs through mundane human experience, not esoteric technology. He continually returns to the level of “ordinary affects,” and the influence of Kathleen Stewart's extraordinary book of that name is evident throughout.
In order to focus on the level of human experience, Jagoda orients himself more toward things like narrative or imagination and less toward infrastructure, hardware, materiality, or what he calls “the underlying systems” (142). Indeed, a fitting subtitle throughout the volume might have been “Against Infrastructure.” Not focused on infrastructure, then, Jagoda pursues instead “the ordinary affects of networked life-worlds”—fancy language for how people feel and experience networks (7). This produces a number of difficulties, not least being the unwitting promulgation of that old dichotomy between the active and the passive, or what in contemporary parlance are called makers and users. To take just one example, much of the debate in digital communities turns on precisely this point, with critics of digital humanities berating their opponents for being mere tool users. Jagoda's book is not a “user theory” in this sense, even if he narrates the experiences of users. His reflections on ordinary affect therefore do not indicate a lack of self-reflection. On the contrary, as illustrated in the phenomenological tradition, one's consciousness of subjectivity is only heightened by paying attention to perception, intention, sensation, experience, and feeling.
If Jagoda is explicit on his essentially empirical stance, he is also full-throated in his endorsement of “entanglement” as both an intellectual method and a descriptor of the real world. Entanglement appears in a number of different ways, some of them quite mundane, as with Jagoda's suggestion that we switch from a logic of either/or to that of both/and. Thus when he shows how a recent Hollywood film declines to toggle between discrete alternatives but rather “dwells in the complexity,” there can be no greater commendation (97). Or when he evokes the “complicatedness inherent to all intimacies” (180), we know we are in the middle of a very important sentence. At the same time, entanglement is another way to intervene in that ancient feud between empiricism and rationalism: trust experience before abstraction, Jagoda instructs his readers; trust perception before reason, because such modes (experience, perception) are not beholden to the kind of either/or logic frequently evident in the rationalist tradition. So we have a concept, entanglement, synced with a method, empiricism, oriented toward an object, the network. The dialectical aspect of this arrangement is unfortunately not explored by Jagoda. Likewise, the gendered quality of networked entanglement—explored in great detail by theorists like Karen Barad and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing (“cybernetics is feminization” was how Sadie Plant once put it)—is not elaborated here, even as the social and political implications of this sort of “entanglement theory” are ever-present in Jagoda's thoughts.
Beyond these particular alliances, Jagoda also presents a series of framing arguments, implicit positions that distinguish his story from those told by others. One notable framing argument has to do with Jagoda's endorsement of comparative analysis through multiple media platforms. The book as a whole moves through a series of media platforms, from novels and cinema to television and games. He does an excellent job of treating the so-called lesser forms with as much seriousness as the more literary ones. His references are also quite accessible; these are all more or less mainstream sources with large audiences, from novels by Don DeLillo and Neal Stephenson to Hollywood films like Syriana (2005) and the critically acclaimed television series The Wire.
The recurring theme in all these aesthetic objects is that networks are hard to represent. And proliferating the sources does not ameliorate the problem. “Networks . . . are accessible only at the edge of our sensibilities,” Jagoda confesses at the outset. “Networks exceed rational description or mapping” (3). Networks are thus, in a strictly literal sense, an instance of the sublime. For this, Jagoda introduces a new term that I found particularly appealing, the “network sublime,” doubtless stemming more from Kant than Edmund Burke or Longinus. Networks are hard to represent, given their often immense sizes and incomprehensible levels of abstraction. Yet they are represented nonetheless. In that basic contradiction, Jagoda pauses to contemplate and explore. And there he finds some inspiration in the work of Fredric Jameson, particularly his technique of cognitive mapping, characterized by Jagoda as a “way of knowing the world without accurately representing it” (26). Jameson's method has long inspired others for precisely this reason. Cognitive mapping accounts for the dialectical contradiction between a human being's capacity for comprehension and its seeming incapacity to apprehend the world as a whole. Still, a romantic if not melodramatic tendency claims Jagoda in the end, as he is ultimately seduced not by cognition or knowledge but by affect and feeling—that is, “not merely by knowing or representing . . . but by feeling and inhabiting” (28). In short, it is better to feel than to know.
The second framing argument has to do with how networks are understood historically. A key debate in digital studies concerns with the relationship between computers and power, particularly state power during the Cold War. Some scholars tend to emphasize the importance of the military, for instance by pointing out how research funds flowed from the military to the university (at MIT, famously, but the examples are numerous); often this extends further to a discussion of the political power structure overall via that useful term from late Gilles Deleuze, “control societies.” Others prefer to defend the autonomy of technical research, stressing the various beneficial outcomes for culture and society. Thus on one hand sociologists like Andrew Pickering have written eloquently, if also naively, about the irrepressible genius of a handful of scientists, in his case British. On the other hand, Donna Haraway has discussed much of the same material under the heading “informatics of domination.” For his part, Jagoda argues that networks are not reducible to Cold War intrigue or the sciences of “control,” at least not completely. He comes out against the concept of control, asserting that his book “attempts to revise the common treatment of networks as control structures” (7). He is equally eager to abandon the concept of structure, turning away from the “structural dimensions” of networks and focusing instead, as we have seen, on what he calls the “microlevel affects and effects” of networks (7). Or, as he unambiguously puts it, the secret of networks lies “not with technical protocols but with everyday affects” (7).
Such a position is notable for the implicit dynamic it suggests, that affects are somehow isolated from protocols and infrastructures, different enough to be studied on their own, and, just possibly, different enough to dissolve or otherwise avoid the problem of structure itself. The ebullient energy of such a possibility is evident on almost every page, sometimes exceeding the page, as when Jagoda marvels at the “experiences of being ungoverned, disconnected, lost, laggy, intimately entangled, abandoned, frustrated, or broken down” (23). In essence, Jagoda swaps a theory of the sublime for another aesthetic convention entirely: the resolution of structural contradiction through affect, or what in other contexts comes under the heading of melodrama. So while not a staunch partisan on this point—readers will marvel at his equanimity—Jagoda wants to push past history, infrastructure, and the sciences of control, swinging our collective attention back toward the realm of real human experience. Who needs totality, when a thousand affects bloom?
The culminating argument of the book concerns ambivalence, which Jagoda defines somewhat counterintuitively as a “mode of extreme presence” (224). For him ambivalence takes the form of “a deliberate intensity, patience, and willingness to forgo quick resolution or any finality at all. Ambivalence, then, is a process of slowing down and learning to inhabit a compromised environment with the discomfort, contradiction, and misalignment it entails” (225). Or as Haraway might put it, we have to stay with the trouble. By the end, Jagoda's proposals for extreme presence begin to replicate the recent proliferation of different ways of reading in literary studies—distant reading, surface reading, descriptive reading, and so on—only now the topic is action-based media rather than literary texts, resulting in a new litany of action responses: moving beyond, opting out, or opting in (the final being Jagoda's preference). Thus just as there are adherents to distant reading or surface reading in literary theory, we may describe media theory in similar terms: the hypertrophic accelerationists, the withdrawalists, or those, like Jagoda, simply eager to dive in headfirst. “Ambivalence is not a variety of opting out,” he suggests. “If anything, it suggests a process of opting in completely. Going all in” (225).