Critical Media Theory
This semester (fall 15) I’m teaching Critical Media Theory (GLIB 5600) in the Liberal Studies program at the New School for Social Research. Critical Media Theory looks at a series of key texts that define pathways for thinking about media.
They are critical in the sense of aiming to delineate limits to how existing media function, and in pointing towards an expanded potential for what media could be. We start with some acknowledged classics, although hopefully not all of them will be too familiar. The we look at some recent texts that map out a range of approaches in media studies today.
The notes for the lectures will all be available here on Public Seminar. The students in the class can read the lectures before class, so we can get through the lecture part fairly quickly and on to discussion. I will be modifying and adding to the lecture notes as we go.
For anyone else who wants to follow along, here are the topics and links to the lecture notes for each week.
Wed 2nd Sept 1. | Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility (Harvard University Press, 2008), pp. 19-55; 58-59; 79-95; 274-298; 328-332; 338-339
I know, you are probably all sick of this by now, but that’s why I want to start here, with Benjamin as a common reference point.
Wed 9th Sept | 2. Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (Pelican , 1961), part 1
Williams offers a very supple and subtle approach to the materiality of culture as it was mediated in the late twentieth century. Here we get his seminal understanding of culture as whole way of life, received tradition and structure of feeling.
Wed 16th Sept | 3. Pier Paolo Pasolini, Heretical Empiricism (New Academia, Washington DC, 2005), p. 167ff
Far less well known that he ought to be as a theorist, the great film maker offers a unique ontology of media. It was contrary to the semiotic theories of the time, and that dissonance will help us understand those more common approaches too. Also here is his approach to media as infrastructure of neo-capitalism.
Wed 23rd Sept | 4. Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs & Women (Routlege, 1990), ch. 8
The ‘Manifesto for Cyborgs’ and related texts are very prescient about how the broadcast, Fordist and mechanical reproducible technologies were passing into something else, and the consequences for a critical theory in and against media.
Wed 7th Oct | 5. Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, Soul at Work, (Semiotexte, 2009), pp27-106
This is a useful text in mapping the transition from the alienating media of the culture industries into something else, paying close attention to the affect of contemporary semio-capitalism, as Bifo calls it.
Wed 14th Oct | 6. Hiroki Azuma Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals (Minnesota, 2009), ch. 2
Just to shift our gaze from the Euro-American universe, this is a particularly original book on the shift from a narrative to a database sensibility.
Wed 21st Oct | 7. Hito Steyerl, The Wretched of the Screen, Sternberg, 2013), pp. 31-46, 160-178
Steyerl is both an artist and writer, and her work draws upon many of the theorists we have discussed so far, and applies them to contemporary practice.
Wed 28th Oct | 8. Lev Manovich, Software Takes Command (Bloomsbury, 2013), part 1
Manovich created a whole formalist approach to the study of media that pays close attention to that of which it is made, which these days is software, and hence software studies.
Wed 4th Nov | 9. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Programmed Visions (MIT Press, 2013)
Chun applies Derrida, Foucault and Kittler to the question of the interaction of hardware and software. We don’t have time to cover all of those approaches separately, so here we’ll see how Chun puts them all to work at once.
Wed 11th Nov | 10. Alexander R. Galloway, Interface Effect (Polity, 2012), pp. 1-78
Following Fredric Jameson, Galloway is interested in allegory, in how a media form doubles the ineluctable time of the actual totality in which we live in another time.
Wed 18th Nov | 11. Maurizio Lazzarato, Signs and Machines (Semiotexte, 2013), pp7-95
Building on Pasolini and Felix Guattari, Lazzarato understands media as an infrastructure that creates subjectivities through machinic enslavement, but might be repurposed to make autonomous subjects otherwise.
Tues 24th Nov (Note, Tues, not Wed this week) | 12. Tiziana Terranova, Network Culture (Pluto, 2004), ch. 1, 2
This was an important text in looking at how information might function as a concept to be used critically to understand the networked cultures of our time.
Wed 2nd Dec | 13. Paul (formerly Beatriz) Preciado, Testo Junkie (Feminist Press, 2013)
Building on – and against – Italian thinkers like Lazzarato and Berardi, Preciado extends Haraway’s thinking about the cyborg to the mediation of the body not just by images but also by pharmaceutical means.
Wed 9th Dec | 14. Jodi Dean, Blog Theory (Polity, 2010), pp 1-91
If one strong version of late twentieth century media theory was semiotics, its evil twin was psychoanalysis. (Just kidding…) Dean offers a contemporary version, based around the Lacanian notion of the decline of symbolic efficiency, drawing particularly on Slavoj Zizek.
Wed 16th Dec | 15. Benjamin Bratton, The Stack, MIT Press, 2015)
This book is brand new. It connects to Manovich in attempting to think outwards from the point of view of the software, and connecting it to geopolitical forms of power.