Uneven Distribution: An Interview with Ned Rossiter

On logistics and mediated environments

This conversation with Ned Rossiter marks the second in a series of dialogues on the subject of logistics. In its simplest definition, we might say that logistics is the management of the flows and circulation of goods, ideas, and peoples — with a typical emphasis placed on efficiency and optimization. In its everydayness, it is what determines who lives in a world of two-day deliveries, who doesn’t, and what products may be shipped faster than others. All this is dependent, of course, on where things may be produced or stored, who the products are being shipped to, and what the political and economic relationship might be between one point and another. Yet, such a definition, while helpful, runs the risks of discounting how logistics mediates and produces certain forms of territories and political arrangements. As discussed in the first interview of the series, logistical media are “the means of orientation, the way in which time and space can be measured.” This interview continues the previous discussion, focusing particularly on the situations and geographies mediated by logistics.

This dialogue with Ned Rossiter unfolded over an email conversation in April 2019.

Kenneth Tay [KT]: In your preface to Software, Infrastructure, Labor: A Media Theory of Logistical Nightmares (2016), you open by plunging us straight into the coordinates of logistical media and how we are all included or accounted for within it: “Logistical media determine our situation. While the missing flight MH370 is yet to be found, for the rest of us there is nowhere left to hide.”

There is much compressed into this opening passage. And it is easy to overlook the reference to the 2014 disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 (MH370). But coming from Singapore, I found this reference very familiar, yet also intriguing because it seems to be doing several things all at once here. First of all, by alluding to the inconclusive search for the missing airplane, it recalls for me the work of Judd A. Case, who examined radar technology as a “media of orientation” and whose work forms an important coordinate in the literature of logistical media. Second, it points us also to the possibility of an unexplainable (or illegible) accident escaping the coordinates of our logistical media. Third, this accident confirms how, for the rest of us, our activities are always already captured as data, no thanks to locative media and surveillance technologies. And finally, it calls out to the spectre of the unrecovered “black box” (flight recorder) that, should it be found, would provide the requisite data to explain why the plane deviated off-course to begin with. Could you perhaps elaborate on why you chose to begin your proposition for a media theory of logistics with this nod towards the accident and towards the possibility of disappearing, escaping, or hiding?

Ned Rossiter [NR]: I’m pleased you’ve noted the compression of those first two sentences, which in many ways encapsulate the key themes, theoretical interests, and arguments of the book. By way of a provisional definition, logistics advances both the science and fantasy of control, and this can infuse the work of writing on logistics with a certain atmosphere and aesthetics of depression and despair. To take the first sentence first: for readers of media theory the allusion here to Kittler’s dictum “media determine our situation” is hardly subtle. My gesture is to update and recast that thesis, testing it against a series of empirical instantiations borne from the experience of collective research in the form of the Transit Labour (2009–2012) and Logistical Worlds (2013–2017) projects designed and orchestrated with Brett Neilson, my friend and colleague at Western Sydney University’s Institute for Culture and Society. The opening sentence also announces an intervention into the “German media theory” debate, such that it is. Since around 2012 I have benefitted enormously from annual visits to Leuphana University’s remarkable Centre for Digital Cultures — a micro-utopia of media theory, to be sure. From the many discussions had there, I came to realize that perhaps I was a media theorist after all. Or rather, after first reading Kittler in the early nineties amidst a detour through various disciplines, I again became interested in how technical systems define in many ways the contours of history and parameters of epistemology. This is the Kittler lesson, one that I came to after an earlier intellectual formation via Kittler’s Canadian counterpart, namely Harold A. Innis. Many scholars have noted the parallels and connections to be forged between the work of these two theorists of media and communication.

There’s a conceptual beauty to Judd A. Case’s distillation of logistics as media of orientation and coordination, and it makes perfect sense that he arrived at this crystallization through a study of radar technology. I only became familiar with Case’s research in the final stages of writing the book, and it was the wonderfully elegant book on elemental media by John Durham Peters that provided the pointer. The case of MH370 instantiates both a logistical nightmare and nightmare of logistics. This is the double-edged sword of logistics explored in my book. Whether or not a retrieved black box, if it’s ever found, can explain the disaster of orientation technologies gone awry is another matter, one that signals the limits of knowledge within the logistical paradigm. And, as you indicate, such limits are also a condition of possibility: Within the event of the accident lurks the chance of escape. To evade the scrutiny of the logistical gaze is no easy feat in this epoch of calculation, in which audit cultures and performance measures have infected society at large. It’s hard to name an institution that has not been absorbed into the cultural-technological logic of optimizing efficiency that doesn’t also embrace the neopositivist episteme in quite embarrassing ways, to put it mildly.

The accident is the dominant paradigm, what Virilio termed “the continuation of politics by other means.” To invest faith in the black box as a receptacle of the unknown is akin to divinity in numbers as the grammar of the world. The accident of MH370 will never be known as such. Similarly, logistical systems may claim knowledge of circuits of trade and the movement of bodies, but contingency will always remain as a force that unsettles. It seems to me that the primacy of computational, logistical systems as technologies of governance in fact amplifies disorientation, despite the intentions of design. And such a condition, if this is indeed the case, may be something to valorize in the interest of maintaining a degree of relative autonomy and anonymity in this world that increasingly defines ontology through the optics of measure. How, in other words, might we collectively design strategies to not register on the radar of power?

KT: I think what’s fascinating about the work you’ve been doing in the last few years is, as Matthew Hockenberry described it in my earlier interview with him, the question of how “logistics is, itself, a practice of mediation.” There is thus an urgency to grapple with logistics itself as the default parameters of our present, and what these implications may be, even if we are not (and perhaps precisely when we are not) conscious of them — from the “logistical gaze” to “audit cultures and performance measures.” It seems to me, clearly, that the allure of Big Data in our time stems precisely from this “neopositivist episteme” that you speak of in relation to logistics. We fetishize data, naturalize it even, as the “raw” materials for our world of Big Data, logistical softwares and smart cities.

Maybe this is a nice moment to speak about another project of yours — Logistical Asia: The Labour of Making a World Region (2018). I was wondering if you could perhaps talk about how logistics is mediating (or simply intensifying) particular geographies? Is the map the territory?

NR: Mediation is no longer, if it ever was, exclusive to media per se. But rather, we might consider mediation as the enunciative ensemble special to the environment of communication. This is a basic principle of cybernetics and is a point reiterated by a number of media theorists and scholars in recent years, including Jennifer Gabrys, Orit Halpern, Mark B. Hansen, Erich Hörl, Nicole Starosielski, Shannon Mattern, Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller, Jussi Parikka, John Durham Peters, and Sean Cubitt. Logistics as the practice of mediation would therefore correspond with such an understanding of mediation. The politics of mediation relates, in part, to the uneven distribution of capacities within the environment we now call media. This is what distinguishes mediation as environment from the Latourian or object-oriented ontology variations of relations between human and non-human entities that can lead to the depoliticized perspective and position of flat ontologies. One of the challenges of thinking media as environment is that, at a certain point, the question of specific zones or intensities of power or force needs to be identified, otherwise there is a risk of ending up in that cul-de-sac of flat ontologies. And, for all our theorization to think otherwise, such work may take us back to the instrument, device, interface, or technological form we more commonly understand as “media.”

The idea of making a world region offers an expansive notion of labor, one that includes the toil of bodies in factories, on ports, and across networks of distribution and supply, as well as the intellectual and analytical work of redefining regions beyond the strictures of area studies or international relations — both disciplines hamstrung by the legacy of Cold War conceptions of geopolitics.

The neopositivist episteme is one that grants primacy to numbers, to mathematics, to calculation and measure as techniques of anticipation, pre-emption, and prediction. It is a paradigm that has in many instances prompted an evacuation of critical practice and theory from disciplines in humanities and social sciences, which, generally speaking, have surrendered to the audit cultures that run rampant across institutional settings that include the university but also stretch into domains of governance and economy more broadly.

Logistical infrastructures and systems of communications produce new territorial arrangements that challenge modern notions of borders as defined by the conjunction of geography and the imagined space of nation-states. These new territorial configurations can be understood as geopolitical and political-economic, and as such they prompt a rethinking of sovereign power. Indeed, we might also say that they invite new concepts of power that perhaps we do not yet have an available conceptual vocabulary for. Benjamin Bratton’s concept of the multi-layered “stack” is one attempt to rethink power in the age of what he likes to understand in terms of planetary infrastructures. However, there’s a residual Jamesonian totality that underscores Bratton’s conceptual apparatus, one that does not sufficiently, in my view, acknowledge the prevalence of failure and inoperability, let alone the technical and protocological variability that pervades contemporary technical and institutional systems of power. The totalizing limits of Bratton’s perspective take us back to where we started: logistical media determine our situation.

Ned Rossiter is Professor of Communication at the Institute for Culture and Society with a joint appointment in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts, Western Sydney University. He is the author of Organized Networks: Media Theory, Creative Labour, New Institutions (2006); Software, Infrastructure, Labor: A Media Theory of Logistical Nightmares (2016); and (with Geert Lovink) Organization after Social Media (2018).

Kenneth Tay is a writer based in Singapore. He recently completed his MA in Media Studies at The New School and wrote a thesis entitled “The sea is all highway: Singapore and the logistical media of the global surface.”

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