Where Next for Media Theory?
Where next for media theory? I’m thankful to Geert Lovink for his recent provocation on this question. Lovink thinks we have entered a post-Snowden era of media. So called ‘new’ media is dead, just as God is dead. Or, to vary the frame of reference, the ebullient schizo era of anything could happen gave way to the paranoid reaction.
I have to say I was not at all surprised by the revelations about extensive state surveillance of internet and mobile communications. If a technology is theoretically possible, one should always assume it exists, and that the state has it. Anyone paying attention to just how cheap data storage has been getting, and the advance in ‘data mining’ tools, could surely see this coming.
It also strikes me as strange that some people seem to imagine that surveillance is some special new media problem. Perhaps it’s a variation on Virilio’s dictum that every technology programs its specific kind of accident. Every form of communication is also a particular form of surveillance. The era of the telephone is the era of the wire tap. The era of express mail is the era when the secret police moved in to the post office. Was it not ever thus?
It is an open question whether the balance of power has really shifted to the spies from the spied upon. Each regime of communication and surveillance has its challenges. One could just as easily read the massive expansion of data collection by spy agencies as a panic move, an admission of the difficulty of the problem. Just because they have all the data doesn’t mean they can do anything with it.
Something the militants responsible for my formative education taught me: always assume you can be monitored; never assume anything you do is ever important enough for anyone to even bother noticing. Perhaps we secretly want the NSA (or someone) to be paying attention to our communications, because it seems nobody else ever does.
So unlike Lovink I can’t see the Snowden moment as all that decisive, but it is the case that the future once dreamt for ‘new media’ has been foreclosed. It is a victim of its success. Actually existing new media, like actually existing communism, falls short of the utopian projection. Its time to propose quite other futures, to locate other zones of virtuality from which other futures might seed.
The resources for proposing futures are usually those of the past. In Excommunication, Alex Galloway, Eugene Thacker and I wrote about all kinds of pasts, and to different effect. I can’t speak for Eugene and Alex, but in my case, I really thought there were some re-useable pasts worth considering, if one looked for example into the history of heresy. In a moment when Saint Paul had become a fetish object for the official philosophers of critique, it seemed to be useful to think about who had to be cut off, or in some cases killed off, so that Saint Paul might appear as a mirage of light and justice.
But there are different ways the past can be brought into the present, and those different ways open up different modes of future-making. I found useful in this regard Alex Galloway’s four modes of cultural making, which he named after a series of Greek gods: Hermes, Iris, the Furies and Aphrodite. The humanities academy has privileged Hermes, and the hermeutic. Maybe there’s other ways to bring the text into the past and open a future.
Now, one could write multi-volume tomes on Greek media. I leave it to media archaeology to engulf us with its empirical erudition. But is that really a new way to make media? Or is it just a way of filling the scholarly archive with more and more stuff? As someone Lovink describes as being of the “digital nineties generation,” just creating and filling out a scholarly routine never interested me overmuch.
So I use Galloway’s four-part taxonomy more as a toolkit for thinking the form of theory, not the content. How might the Irenic practice of the rapid, excessive arcing of pasts into presents be a different mode to Hermeneutic neurotics about lacks and gaps? Might the packs and flocks of the Furies be another mode via which to remake pasts along multiple pathways at once? Might foaming Aphrodite be the hearth-goddess of a practice of tactically shuffling from one of these practices to the other as the situation demands?
In short: the point of media theory is – as Lovink suggests – a speculative one. But its task is not so much to fabulate futures as to describe in concepts what practices of relation, of pasts into presents and toward futures, could be.
Looking at the excessive arc of ‘new’ media since the nineties, I think we won the battle and lost the war. Social movements around free information and new community broke through the carapace of old media. We won! And then a new ruling class of figured out how to commodify our emergent gift economies at a higher level of abstraction. We lost! Well, too bad. Time to regroup and try something else.
This moment of defeat includes an inevitable return to the fantasy of a romance with the outside. Let’s leave social media behind! Let’s take no more selfies! Let’s only commune face-to-face while we sup on artisanal kale chips by the fire in our lumberjack shirts, brushing the crumbs from our flowing beards!
This is the problem with a lot of what I can only call late critique of media. It hasn’t learned a whole lot from media theory. It rests on the old saw of some organic, whole, romantic other that has been lost and can be restored. But as we have known since Donna Haraway at the latest: there’s no going back. We are made of media. We are made of technology.
The Turing test always rested on the presumption that we have some obvious and clear example of the pre-computerized subject against which to compare the ambiguous example. But we are made by and of our media, our computers. There no gold standard of the human. Our subjectivities are all cyborgian collages of flesh with signs and images, and with past and present tech. There’s no place to retreat to from the digital optic.
Another lesson from the old militants: trying too hard to keep your communications ‘secret’ only attracts the attention of agencies of surveillance. So by all means be discreet. A little vague, sometimes, a bit coy, perhaps. But the fantasy of privacy is really just a denial of the sociality of our species-being. It’s a way of reanimating the old bourgeois fantasy of atomistic nomads. By all means be a critic of the dangers of surveillance, but let’s not assume there was ever all that much of a discrete, secret, separate private life.
Indeed the history of surveillance and repression ought to inform this. Before the NSA’s big data surveillance was the FBI and its taps and tails. There was the destruction of the IWW, McCarthyism, the flat-out murder of members of the Black Panthers. Let’s not pretend we have lost our innocence just now. Would it really surprise anyone if key Occupy activists came in for administrative harassment right about now?
To speak ‘personally’ for a moment: I’m no activist. I’m just a writer. It ought to be a modest profession. Particularly if one writes theory. One thing I find strange in Lovink’s piece is that he seems to want us writers to succeed in the old-fashioned public sphere, as public intellectuals, with trade books and newspaper columns. Yet on the other hand he wants those working on media to be working on an alternative to all that.
I would rather think of theory-writing as a kind of minor and alternate practice too. Its like alt-media, but for concepts, and modes of communicating concepts. Theory, particularly what I call low theory, tries to be close to, but not of, a particular domain of mediated practice. Coding could be one such practice, but there are others. Theory’s job is to put sentences together that describe possible worlds, past present and future, and the passages between them, seen from the point of view of some other practice to which it hews close.
Theory is not journalism. Journalism routes new facts through old stories. Theory invents new stories. Theory is not a popular practice, since old stories are the very thing that make the popular the popular. But the new stories of theory end up becoming old stories when journalists treat them as always and already existing. One sees this in the current crop of journalistic ‘critiques’ of ‘new’ media. To the extent that they have merit, they take for granted the concepts and stories media theory has proposed these last few decades. Journalism is the theory unconscious.
All too often journalism about media defaults to the old stories, however. Take the ‘twitter revolution’ meme (it barely even rises to the status of story, let alone concept). It has two modes, both equally boring. Either the revolution happens because there is twiter; or the revolution happens in spite of their being twitter. In this second version the ‘real’ revolution is assumed to happen magically without any mediation at all.
One thing media theory has insisted on for a long time is that there is no such separation. There isn’t the human over here and the media over there. The two are inextricable: media theory is a monist philosophy. Its method is comparative: one can find differences between different human-media ensembles, but there’s never any human without mediation.
This was the basic premise of my book Virtual Geography (1994), which examined the ‘twitter’ revolutions of the 1980s, and compared them to earlier twitter revolutions such as 1779 and 1917. But twitter didn’t exist then! Of course, but other media did, and shaped the temporal and spatial dimensions that those events could assume.
What is central to media theory is its insistence that any given media has a range of possibilities, of ‘affordances’ if you will. In its critical, hermeneutic mode, it suspects there are limits to what a media can do, and tries to map them. In its irenic mode, it wants to push a given media to the point of excess, to overload and overcode. In its furious mode, it wants to pluralize its routes and dissolve its binaries. Under the sign of Aphrodite, media theory uses each of those tools in turn as the situation demands.
But the key to media theory is still the specifics of a given historical form of media. Hence media theory is interested first and last in its own conditions of possibility. What social and technical modes of perception and communication make it possible to do theory at all? Or to perceive the world in a certain way, or organize it in a certain way. In this sense media theory is not only speculative. It is also practical. It does not hallucinate a whole out of unexamined conditions of mediation. It inquires into the specifics of its own mediation.
This is why, unlike Lovink, I see a lot of the ‘new materialism’ as misguided. Its dogmatic, just like the old materialism. It is just dogmatically vitalist rather than dogmatically dialectical. It wants to speak a bit too quickly about that of which the universe is made, and skips over far too quickly how our sense of what the universe is made is mediated.
This is where German media theory got something right and us Deleuzians were off on the wrong track a bit. The thing to focus on as the object of theory is the means by which the world is perceived and known. Theory is thus always media theory and always historical, whether it knows it or not. It has to stick close to the means of production of concepts, percepts and affects, rather than shear these off from their conditions of production.
The same goes for the various speculative realisms. They all leap over the problem of how things are sensed and known, into a speculative realm carefully designed to be immune to any historical qualification. As if one could think imaginary universes in themselves without having to bother with the technics of knowing actual ones. Much elegant poetry results – and hence it’s a boon to the art world – but not a lot on which one could build actual practices.
Unlike Lovink, I am actually quite supportive and interested in the so-called ‘digital humanities’. It actually has three components, which rarely come together. The first is the study of the digital as object. The second is the digital as technique (‘big data’, for example). The third is the digital as means of scholarly communication. The first and third are of course things pioneered by media theory, although the digital humanities rarely acknowledges this. Digital humanities too is a kind of theory unconscious. Its where once new concepts have become normalized.
The middle part is what’s relatively new: the use of ‘big data’ in humanities scholarship, in the work for example of Franco Moretti and Lev Manovich. Some of the results are interesting, although I have not seen the truly counter-intuitive finding that would really prove the worth of such methods. Not yet.
Big data is not to be dismissed lightly. After all, climate science is a kind of big data knowledge. One where the problems and limits of big data have been well studied, and known now for decades. We are dependent on the robustness of a big data science for knowing some crucial things about the fate of the biosphere.
In the humanities, we are a long way still from the robustness of climate science in terms of knowing the limits and possibilities of big data. But to me this is an excellent opening for media theory. The probing of affordances, of limits and possibilities – that’s our job! I see digital humanities as a tendency to engage with rather than resent.
Big data digital humanities has the added merit of being a small-scale, low intensity version of exactly the kinds of command and control technology now being implemented both by the surveillance arm of the state and by emergent kinds of corporate power – what we might call the digital inhumanities. Aligning theory with these practices is a way to hew close to a rising kind of mediation in the world.
Ten years ago now, in A Hacker Manifesto, I argued that the emerging ruling class is of a new type. It is based on control of the vector of information, on its infrastructure, its stocks and its flows. It no longer feels the need to own the means of production, except in certain leading or sensitive sectors. Its command of surplus value is via the control of surplus information. That basic outlook seems to me to have been confirmed.
I argued then and still hold now that most viable strategies amount to accelerating that process of development of the abstraction of political economy into information economy. The vectoral class, the ruling class of our time, bases its whole business on coopting that which would negate it. It has even taken on the task of internalizing the function of negation into itself. The task for those who would want a more just, equitable, free mode of existence, not to mention one that won’t crash the climate, is to push it further.
At the moment the fashion is to retreat from the irenic thought of the nineties, with its crazy rhizomatic optimism, where anything was possible. Well, most of what was then possible has been rendered impossible for the latest stage in the development of vectoral power. Popular sentiment – not least in journalism – is now in a critical mode. It only sees the glass half empty.
But it might be good tactics to avoid too long an engagement with the depressing business of hermeneutic critique of all that Silicon valley – that visible part of the iceberg of vectoral power – has coopted. The task remains also to produce the concepts which open up other spaces of possibility, cramped though they may be.
The vectoral class has coopted into itself the language of the old avant-gardes. It disrupts and pivots and creates and destroys. And so the real avant-garde might now be elsewhere. The creation of not quite legible zones where modes of existence can persist, in an opaque relation to the larger world of mediation, that might be where the avant-garde is now to be found. It might focus on what Stielger calls the long loops between past and present which open up other temporalities, other spaces where futures might still occur.
We might need new resources from the past to think this. That’s why for some years now I have been trying to find other paths back through the archive. The old proper names that still linger over the theory world might have exhausted themselves: Benjamin, Heidegger, Lacan, Foucault, tics, tics, tics! The failure to even countenance the idea of expatriating oneself from the land of such Holy Fathers has to be seen as at least a failure of nerve. There’s not much future for media theory in imitating high theory.
This is particularly the case now that high theory has resuscitated philosophy’s will to power in the most vain and feeble form. Other kinds of knowledge have nibbled away at every other claim that philosophy ever had, so now it double down on the pretention to know the absolute! Its high time then to find a new past for media theory, as an integral part of finding new presents and possible futures. We could do with some new narrative arcs.
So rather than aspire to the old homogeneous space of high theory, perhaps its time to mix it up again, to negotiate some new heterogeneous spaces where theory and other modes of knowledge practice might meet. It was, and probably still is, useful to know something about code, but there are other technical and even scientific knowledges it may help to at least know a little about.
In the anthropocene era, theory might need to know about a much wider range of design, technology, and even scientific practices. Media theory might try to discover – or rediscover – its continuity with the low theories of each of those domains. Its no longer all that clear what the borders are between media and design. And it turns out that a lot of best work in science studies is actually a kind of media theory, in which sciences are modes of knowing via some media apparatus about some utterly alien and nonhuman world. A promising way out of boring talk about subjects is not to leap into mere speculation about objects, but to study how scientific knowledges actually produce the sensation of nonhuman objects, from black holes to biospheres.
In sum: just because we lost the war doesn’t mean we stop doing media theory. If anything, such theory is as useful as it ever was. Which is to say, not much! But one can retain the modest ambition to know something about how both human and nonhuman worlds are mediated by specific media vectors, about the limits and possibilities of such mediation, and the speculative sensing in negative of as yet nonexistent worlds, which might the only future worlds this tired old earth might support.