Arts & DesignLettersMedia & PublicsScience

A Geology of Media

On Jussi Parikka

Once you start digging beyond the idea that media is about interpreting signs, there’s no end to how deep the rabbit hole can become. Behind the system of signs is the interface that formalizes them (Manovich) or simulates them (Galloway). Behind that is the information turbulence the interface manages (Terranova), the hardware it runs on (Chun) and the stack of levels that processes it (Bratton). All of which incorporates the labor that operates it (Berardi) or is enslaved by it (Lazzarato) and which is incorporated within integrated circuits (Haraway). The class of workers who make the content might be doubled by a class of hackers who make the form (Wark).

The rabbit hole keeps going, becoming more of a mineshaft. For some the chemical and mineral dimension is also a big part of what appears when one looks behind the sign (Negarestani, Leslie, Kahn), which brings us to Jussi Parikka’s A Geology of Media (U. Minnesota Press, 2015). Which tunnels down into the bowels of the earth itself. Parikka: “Geology of media deals with the weird intersections of earth materials and entangled times.” (137)

In this perspective, “Computers are a crystallization of past two hundred to three hundred years of scientific and technological development, geological insights, and geophysical affordances.” (137) But one could also reverse this perspective. From the point of view of the rocks themselves, computers are a working out of the potentials of a vast array of elements and compounds that took billions of years to make but only decades to mine and commodify – and discard. History is a process in which collective human labor transforms nature into a second nature to inhabit. On top of which it then builds what I call a third nature made of information, which not only reshapes the social world of second nature, but which instrumentalizes and transforms what it perceives as a primary nature in the process. There’s no information to circulate without a physics and a chemistry.  “The microchipped world burns in intensity like millions of tiny suns.” (138)

Perhaps the best way into this perspective is to go through some of the materials it takes to make information something that can appear as if it were for us. Let’s take a periodic table approach to media possibilities. Coltan is a famous example – I wrote about this important insulating material in Gamer Theory. A lot of it comes from the Congo. It’s an ore containing the elements niobium and tantalum, which along with antimony are used in making micro-capacitors. Then there’s lithium, used in the batteries of phones, laptops and hybrid cars, major deposits of which are in Afghanistan.

Cobalt is also used in making batteries. Platinum is for hard drives, liquid crystal displays and hydrogen fuel cells. Gallium and indium for thin-layer photovoltaics. Neodynium is used for lasers; Germanium for fiber-optic cable. Palladium for water desalination. Aluminum, tantalum, tungsten, thorium, cerium, manganese, chromium, all part of 20th century industrial culture, but now have extended uses. Media materiality is still also very metallic: 36% of tin, 25% of cobalt, 15% of palladium, 15% of silver, 9% of gold, 2% of copper, 1% of aluminum are for media tech uses. (34) There can be sixty different elements on a computer chip. There’s a whole place and a whole industry named after an element: Silicon Valley. Very pure silicon is used to make semi-conductors.

We’re used to thinking about a geopolitics of oil, but perhaps there’s a more elaborate Great Game going on these days based on access to these sometimes rare elements. Reza Negarestani’s Cycolonpedia is an extraordinary text which reverses the perspective, and imagines oil as a kind of sentient, subterranean agent of history. One could expand that imaginary to other elements and compounds. For instance, one could imagine aluminum as an agent in the story of Italian Fascism. Since bauxite was common in Italy but iron was rare, aluminum rather than steel became a kind of ‘national metal’, with both practical and lyrical properties. The futurist poet Marinetti even published a book on aluminum pages. What aluminum was to twentieth century struggles over second nature, maybe lithium will be to twenty-first century struggles over third nature.

It might make sense, then, to connect the study of media to a speculative inquiry into geology, the leading discipline of planetary inquiry. (A connection I approached in a different way in Molecular Red, by looking at climate science). Parikka: “Geology becomes a way to investigate the materiality of the technological media world.” (4) James Hutton’s, Theory of the Earth (1778) proposed an image of the temporality of the earth as one of cycles and variations, erosion and deposition. Hutton also proposed an earth driven by subterranean heat. His earth is an engine, modeled on the steam engines of his time. It’s a useful image in that it sees the world outside of historical time. But rather than having its own temporality, Hutton saw it as oscillating around the constants of universal laws. This metaphysic inspired Adam Smith. Hence while usefully different and deeper than historical time, Hutton’s geology it is still a product of the labor and social organization of its era.

Still, thinking from the point of view of the earth and of geological time is a useful way of getting some distance on seemingly fleeting temporalities of Silicon Valley and the surface effects of information in the mediated sphere of third nature. It also cuts across obsolete assumptions of a separate sphere of the social outside of the natural. “The modern project of ruling over nature understood as resource was based on a division of the two – the Social and the Natural – but it always leaked.” (x) One could rather see a first, second and third nature as equally material in the deepest sense.

Parikka’s project includes a bringing together of media materialism and historical materialism: “media structure how things are in the world and how things are known in the world.” (1) I was after something similar in Molecular Red in turning to Karen Barad’s agential realism. It’s a project in which materialism is extended towards materiality in the geological, chemical and physical sense, without entirely losing sight of the category of labor.

Parikka’s approach grows rather out of the work of Friedrich Kittler, “the Goethe scholar turned synth-geek and tinkerer.” (2) For Kittler, ‘man’ is an after-image of media-technology. One could think of this as a much-needed update on Foucault’s anti-humanism, which (like Préciado) at least drags it into the twentieth century. Where Foucault looked to architectural forms, such as the prison or clinic, the structuring of visibility, the administrative ordering of bodies, Kittler takes the next step and examines media as more contemporary practices that form the human. Parikka: “Media work on the level of circuits, hardware, and voltage differences, which the engineers as much as the military intelligence and secret agencies gradually recognized before the humanities did.” (3)

Like Douglas Kahn, Parikka wants to extend this work further in the direction of what for us vulgar Marxists would constitute its base. He finds a useful ally in earth artist Robert Smithson, whose “abstract geology” paid close attention to the materiality of art practice. Smithson was an anti-McLuhan, in that he saw media not extensions of man, but as extensions of the earth.

But besides the intriguing spatial substitution, bringing the depths of geology into view, Parikka is also interested in changing temporal perspectives. German media theorist Wolfgang Ernst has written of media as a temporal machine, paying close attention to the shift from narrative to calculative memory. Also of interest is Siegfried Zielinski’s project of a media studies of deep time. Zielinski was trying to escape the teleological approach to media, where the present appears as a progressive development and realization of past potentials. He explores instead the twists and cul-de-sacs of the media archive. Parikka takes this temporal figure and vastly expands it toward non-human times, past and present.

Parikka proposes a double sided relation of media to earth. On the one hand, “the geophysical that becomes registered through the ordering of media reality. And conversely, it is the earth that provides for media and enables it.” (13) This double articulation might have its problems, as we shall see later. The goal is to think a medianature as one continuum, rather like like Haraway’s naturecultures. “Medianatures… is a concept that crystallizes the ‘double-bind’ of media and nature as co-constituting spheres.” (14)

The third nature of information flows does not run on silicon alone. It also runs on fossil fuels. The Anthropocene, which Parikka recodes as the Anthrobscene, is “a systematic relation to the carboniferous.” (17) As Joseph Needham always pointed out, China beat the west to most technological discoveries, including coal mining. It was going on during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). For Jason Moore, we might as well call the present epoch the Capitalocene, given the intimate connection between the historic rise of capitalism as a mode of production and the exploitation of resources on a short-term basis, including the millennia’s worth of past photosynthetic activity locked away in layers of coal seams. “capitalism had its necessary (but not sufficient) conditions in a new relation with deep times and chemical processes of photosynthesis.” (18)

Perhaps we could make the nonhuman elements’ contribution to historical materialism more visible. This might go beyond the rather speculative geology of morals in Deleuze and Guattari. Like Jane Bennett, Parikka is interested in their celebration of the craft of metallurgy, a kind of experimental labor that wants to explore what a material can do. But it might not be the case that this is neatly separable from science. As one learns in JD Bernal’s Science in History, science and craft, which is to say science and social labor, are always intimately connected.

Still, there is something refreshing about an approach which does not build off from Deleuze’s ‘Postscript on Control Societies’, which was after all only an occasional piece, but from Anti-Oedipus instead. In this perspective, “media history conflates with earth history; the geological materials of metals and chemicals get deterritorialized from their strata and reterritorialized in machines that define our technical media culture.” (35) But I am wary of extending the category of ‘life’ to the non-organic, as there is a danger of merely porting an unexamined vitalism into new fields where it will function yet again as an unexamined first principle.

Here we might learn more from natural scientists trying to reach into the humanities than from philosophers trying to reach into the natural sciences. Parikka usefully draws on Stephen Jay Gould’s model of evolutionary time as a punctuated equilibrium, as a succession of more or less stable states in variation alternating with moments of more rapid change. There’s no sense of progress in this version of deep time, no necessary evolution from lower to higher, from simple to complex.

One can then approach the earth as an archive of different temporal blocks, each with its own rate and variability of change. “What we encounter are variations that define an alternative deep time strata of our media culture… It offers an anarcheology of surprises and differences.” (42) Starting with Hutton’s heat-engine earth, but seeing it as passing through shifts as well as cycles, and not necessarily on a teleological path anywhere, a vast spatial and temporal panorama opens up, within which media can operate as both very brief but also surprisingly long temporalities. A Youtube video may be fleetingly short up when put against the temporality of the earth, but the afterlife of the device that played it may turn out to be moderately long.

Marx saw the machinery into which living labor was accumulated as dead labor, but perhaps it makes more sense to think of it as undead labor, for our machines, including media machines, may outlive us all in fossil form. “The amount of operational electronics discarded annually is one sort of geologically significant pile that entangles first, second and third nature: the communicational vectors of advanced digital technologies come with a rather direct link to and impact on first natures… Communicational events are sustained by the broader aspects of geology of media. They include technologies abandoned and consisting of hazardous material: lead, cadmium, mercury, barium, and so on.”  (49)

In this manner, the mediasphere of third nature returns to the lithosphere. China, being short of certain key metals, imports them as scrap and mines some of its minerals now from second nature rather than from nature as such. But Parikka is keen not to lose sight of labor as a category here. Rather than think of third nature as a realm of immaterial labor, he wants to emphasize hard-work and hard-ware, and the constitutive role of the geological and chemical in both.

Here it is worth recalling Marx’s interest, late in life, in questions of soil chemistry, which led to him towards the concept of metabolic rift. Second nature got out of synch with nature, when minerals extracted from the soil by crops grown to produce food to fuel industrial labor did not return to the soils, depleting them. This led to soil science, and to practices of ‘culturing’ soil with nitrogen and potassium and so forth. Thus there’s a prehistory to third nature’s dependence on a vast array of mineral inputs, and its dumping of the resultant waste, in second nature’s dependence on mineral inputs to sustain – in the short term – commodified agriculture. Parikka: “… a deep time of the planet is inside our machines, crystallized as part of the contemporary political economy.” (57-8)

A manifesto-like text in Mute Magazine once proposed we move on from psychogeography to a psychogeophysics. Drawing on the rogue surrealist Roger Caillois, the new materialism of Rosi Braidotti and Timothy Morton’s studies of hyperobjects, Parikka develops psychogeophysics as a low theory approach to experimentally perceiving the continuities of medianatures. “Perhaps the way to question these is not through a conceptual metaphysical discussion and essays but through excursions, walks, experiments, and assays? … Instead of a metaphysical essay on the nonhuman, take a walk outside…” (63)

Parikka pushes back against the limits of psychogeography (not least in my formulation of it) as restricted to the interactions of the ambling human and the urban milieu. A psychogeophysics might be able to detect and map a much deeper and broader field of vortexes, flows and eddies. “Psychogeophysics aims for planetary scale aesthetics.” (67) It pushes on from the opening towards the animal in posthumanities writing, toward the earth itself. “Psychogeophysics performs the continuums across the biological, the nonorganic, and the social.” (67)

Here it might come up against, and have to work through the history of nature aesthetics, in which the Grand Canyon went from being see as beautiful as becoming sublime. Both mapping and landscape painting landscape painting have an intimate connection to geology. (And as Bernard Smith shows, also to maritime exploration.) Psychogeophysics might work as a minor concept or practice of a low theory, of variation and deviation, experimenting with ways of perceiving other times and spaces. For example, the work of media artist Joyce Hinterding explores natural electro-magnetic fields. The open earth circuit predates closed tech circuits.

A Geology of Media is structured around a passage from the interior of the earth (mining) to it surface (soils) to the air above (dust) and beyond. A psychogeophysics of dust might begin with Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass, and his other experiments in ‘dust breeding.’ Dust, Parikka suggests, rather troubles our notions of what matter is. A case in point: I’m typing this on an Apple laptop, encased in a smooth, polished aluminum shell. But the polishing of the case creates aluminum dust, which is a major health hazard.  “There is a bitter irony that the residue of the utopian promise is registered in the soft tissue of a globally distributed cheap labor force.” (89)

“We need to attend to the material soul. Made of lungs and breath – and the shortness and time management of breath.” (103) Here Parikka focuses on the human lung as a media that absorbs dust, some of it toxic. Workers make Apple products, imparting their labor to the product, but inhale the aluminum dust, in exchange. Where Franco Berardi proposes the soul as a new site of exploitation, exhaustion and depression, it’s worth paying attention to a more material aspect of the breath-soul relationship. The soul of the hacker class toiling in the over-developed world might be inspired, but the lungs of the worker elsewhere may well be respiring toxic dust. Here one might examine Platonov’s materialist theory of the soul, which sees soul as a kind of surplus over bodily subsistence.

In Platonov’s terms, bodies don’t have souls unless they have surplus energy to expend on growing one (and in his world it is not always a good thing when they do). One could think here of all the soul-restraining features of laboring to produce third nature: Lead damages the nervous system, cadmium accumulates in the kidneys, mercury affects the brain, barium causes brain swelling and liver damage, and so on.

“Mines are a central part of this picture of cognitive capital.” (100) Here I agree with Parikka that the rather ethereal theories of semio-capitalism or cognitive capitalism, let alone their acceleration could do with contact with perspectives such as those of Jason Moore, which stress the material short-cuts on which commodification is based, such as cheap nature, cheap labor and cheap energy – but which leave long-term debts unpaid. Something like 81% of the energy used in the life cycle of computers is to make them, and much of that still comes from burning coal. It is ironic that the dust-free clean rooms of high tech industry are fueled by a process that throws ton after ton of coal dust into the air. “Dust does not stay outside us but is a narrative that enters us.” (102)

The race for resources that colonizes the planet is continually throwing off waste that will far outlive the cycles of production and consumption in which they are consumed. Parikka: “… any extended understanding of the cultural techniques and technologies of the cognitariat needs to be able to take into account not just souls but where breath comes from.” (106)

It is strange that we use the word fossil in two such difference senses: fossils are treasured artifacts of the past; fossil fuels are artifacts from the deep past to be burned up for energy, their waste cast into the atmosphere with abandon. Parikka teases out two other sense of the word fossil: fossil futures and future fossils. What are the potential futures that are now fossil relics in the archive? What fossils are we making now that we can imagine being discovered in some future time, by some other sentient species, after our human-species being has gone the way of the dinosaurs?

The figure of the fossil provides a useful way of thinking and experimentally practicing a psychogeophysics. Fossils are a strange kind of ‘media’ artifact, preserving information across deep time. Certainly, the media technology of recent times will make an interesting fossil layer of the Anthropocene for future robot or alien archaeologists. And imagining them as such helps us think the third nature of information vectors, hurtling information around the world through fiber-optic cable at the speed of light, as something other than a world of super-fast temporalities.

Parikka: “We need to address how fossils, whether of humans, dinosaurs, or indeed electronics, infuse with the archaic levels of the earth in terms of their electronic waste load and represent a ‘third nature’ overlapping and entangling with the first and second…. The third nature is the logistical vector of information through which production of second nature takes a new informational pace. But as we see from the existence of media fossils, the spheres of two and three are as entangled with ‘first nature’ as they are with each other. They are historically codetermining in a way that defies any clear cut differences between the modern era of industrialization and the postmodern era of information. In addition, the material residue of the third nature is visible in the hardware and waste it leaves behind, despite its ability to reach abstract informational levels.” (119)

Paolo Virno dispenses with the category of second nature in Marx, arguing that Marx only ever used it to denote the false sense of ‘naturalness’ of bourgeois life. But where Parikka and I converge contra Virno is in trying to show how the paradoxical ‘real-falseness’ of the second nature that bourgeois culture celebrated. It was false in being utterly dependent on cheap labor, cheap nature and cheap energy, as Moore would put it. It was doomed from the start to a temporary existence, given the metabolic rift it opened up with its own conditions of existence.

And the solution was not to reverse course, to try to find a way to value what socially organized production takes from, and gives back, from second nature to nature. On the contrary, the solution was to build out a third nature that would deploy the information vector to extract even more resources out of nature, from deeper, from further. And excrete even more waste into the rapidly closing system of planetary metabolism. As Adorno and Debord insisted in their different ways: the whole is the false. It’s a second nature and now a third nature that commodified relations of production have extruded out of social labor, like shiny but very temporary soap bubbles.

Media artists play a key role throughout this book, but particularly in opening up the question of the fossil. Worth mentioning is Grégory Chatonsky’s work on telofossils, which posits an alternative teleology to the accelerationist one. In accelerationist thinking, the future extrudes as a linear intensification of the present. For Chanosky, today’s tech is tomorrow’s fossils, dead and extinct yet preserving their now useless form. Particularly affecting is Trevor Paglen’s work on The Last Pictures, an intentional fossil. Paglen created a photo archive to be attached to a satellite and boosted into space, as satellites are likely to be among the longest living fossils of the era of third nature. Thus Parikka’s movement throughout the book from underground to surface to atmosphere terminates in what for Lisa Parks is our orbital culture.

Besides its spatial imagination, A Geology of Media opens up a usefully nonhuman way of thinking about temporalities. The accelerationist view only perceives human time speeding into an inhuman one in which artificial intelligence supersedes us. It seems unable to think the deep, nonhuman times that get produced along the way, as the accelerating juggernaut of third nature throws off waste products, some of which may outlast life itself.

However, one limit to Parikka’s project is suggested by this very figure of the fossil, particularly if we think of what Quentin Meillassoux calls the arche-fossil. How is it possible to have a knowledge of a rock that existed before humans existed? How can there be knowledge of an object that existed in the world before there could be a correlative subject of knowledge? I’m not sure Parikka’s double articulation of media and geology really addresses this proposition.

Meillassoux’s approach is to abolish the subject of knowledge and restore a speculative and pre-Kantian philosophy of the object, the essential and primary properties of which are mathematical and hence allegedly prior to any sensing and knowing subject. The problem with this is that Meillassoux has to bracket off the complex of scientific labor and apparatus through which the fossil is known at all. His is a contemplative realism that takes the fossil as simply given to thought. What he takes to be its primary qualities, mathematically described, are really the product of tertiary qualities, produced by an inhuman apparatus of scientific instrumentation that mediates a knowledge of this nonhuman object to the human.

Here I find Karen Barad’s agential realism to be most helpful and the stub of a genuinely Marxist theory of science, in that it concerns itself with the means of production of knowledge. The nonhuman world of the fossil is mediated through the inhuman world of an apparatus, one that can sense things beyond the secondary qualities of objects detectable to the merely human senses. Rather than expand the category of object, as Meillassoux’s speculative realism does, or attribute life or consciousness to the inorganic and nonhuman as the new materialism does, one can expand the middle, the mediating term, which in this case is the inhuman apparatus of undead labor mixed with living labor.

The inhuman apparatus can perceive beyond the merely subjective time of the human, for it too, like the fossil, is a product of deep time. There is no mystery of correlation to account for, as knowledge is not a matter of a subject contemplating an object. Rather, the appearance of objects and subjects as entities with specific boundaries and temporalities is itself a product of an inhuman process engaging many agents with many temporalities, some of them very deep indeed.

Hence I agree with Parikka here: “We need carefully to refine what we mean by media and communication in the non-correlationist as well as new materialist contexts of contemporary media culture.” (135) But one does not achieve this by extending the category of ‘life’ or ‘thought’ into the deep time of the nonhuman, as this is simply the mirror image to speculative realism’s erasure of the subject under the weight of its vision of a chaotic and collapsing objective-real. Both approaches want to assign to a high theory a power it does not have, to define the whole field of being and becoming by itself. This latent tendency in the book seems contrary to its main achievement, which is to show the power of a more collaborative approach to knowledge, in which a low theory of psychogeophysics wanders between fields or burrows under them, rather than flying like Icarus above them.

The problem with Kittler’s media theory, the thing that really dates it, is that it had still not given up on the imperial ambitions of a high theory. By pushing this field-colonizing theory as far as it will go, beyond the media apparatus toward the geology from which it is extruded, Parikka makes a step forward in the direction of a new organization of knowledge, towards a ‘post-colonial’ media theory, in the limited sense of not attempting to colonize other fields of knowledge.

Parikka: “Media materiality is not contained in the machines, even if the machines themselves contain a planet. The machines are more like vectors across the geopolitics of labor, resources, planetary excavations, energy production, natural processes, from photosynthesis to mineralization, and the aftereffects of electronic waste.” (139) Such a perspective calls for a mediating of the various knowledges of the component parts of that totality to each other without the pretentions to mastery of any one field or discipline over all the others.

McKenzie Wark

Previous post


Next post

How to Get Organized: A Teach-In