Monthly Archives: October 2015

Media Are Elemental: Gerunding

Brush drawing of German philospher Martin Heidegger, made by Herbert Wetterauer, after a photo by Fritz Eschen. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Brush drawing of German philospher Martin Heidegger, made by Herbert Wetterauer, after a photo by Fritz Eschen. Via Wikimedia Commons.

I would prefer the gerund searching to the naked verb [search], but the battle appears to be lost.
—John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media, p. 325

Elemental media would seem to have something to do with the elements—whether we conceive of them as “earth, sea, sky, and fire,” “stone, salt, and sludge,” or “carbon, copper, radon, and bohrium.” Directing media studies back to the elements is an explicit aim of John Peters’s The Marvelous Clouds. The elements, he reminds us, lay at the heart of (not-so-)old notions of media: “Medium has always meant an element, environment, or vehicle in the middle of things.” Sea, fire, and sky, he argues, “are media for certain species in certain ways with certain techniques.” Media are not necessarily “natural,” but they are “ensembles of nature and culture, physis and technê,” such that ignoring nature altogether in discussions of media would be a gross neglect of the embeddedness of media within a world of elements.

The question of the relationship of physis (“nature”) to technê (“art,” “techniques,” “technology”) is a basic one in ancient Greek philosophy. It is also central to the works of one of Peters’s primary philosophical influences, Martin Heidegger.

Heidegger grants a lofty, if ambiguous, place to technê: “Technê belongs to bringing-forth, to poiêsis; it is something poietic,” he writes in his essay, “The Question Concerning Technology.” Ancient technê, in Heidegger’s estimation, entails “bringing” and “revealing,” and modern manifestations of technê expand to include the “[u]nlocking, transforming, storing, distributing, and switching” of nature.

What to make of all these Heideggerian infinitives and participle forms used as gerunds? And what do they have to do with elemental media, with nature and culture, and with Peters’s stated preference for the gerund over the “naked verb” when discussing techniques like “searching”? Lots could be said here. Clearly, Heidegger is interested both in thinking the general and particular together and in giving time a critical position in his philosophy. “-Ings” offer a means by which to accomplish both.

But even apart from any explicit concern with Heidegger, I have been thinking about gerunds with respect to media studies for a while. I have been researching the work of Harold Edgerton, the MIT engineer who became famous for stroboscopic photography and who, as Kevin Hamilton and I have documented, transformed his stroboscopic techniques into timing and firing mechanisms for atomic bombs. Edgerton was an engineer not of “fire” but of “firing.” His interest was not so much in “time” but in “timing.” If we think more broadly about the work of engineering (itself a gerund) in our world, we discover that engineering turns on processes more than essences, activities more than things. It concerns itself not just with timing and firing, but with Heidegger’s unlocking, transforming, storing, distributing, and switching—as well as securing, channeling, ordering, circulating, and a host of other verb-things.

Media studies has recently been preoccupied with “materiality.” Things, artifacts, infrastructures, and objects have helped to organize a wide range of rich inquiry. However, I wonder if the object-oriented ontology (I use the phrase a bit tongue-in-cheek) of media studies has kept from view the gerunding of media, even elemental media. To put it more provocatively: “Firing” always comes before the “fire,” “timing” before “time,” “storing” before “storage,” “switching” before the “switch,” and “searching” before the “search.” For how could there be fire without firing, time without timing, and so on?

What would it mean give priority to kinds of energeia—“being-at-work,” in Joe Sachs’s translation of the Aristotelian term—over the artifactual works themselves?

I have taken (with Wellmon and Hamilton) to calling these gerunds, or rather the processes and activities which they represent, “deep media” (which has nothing directly to do with immersive media). I am not sure it’s the best term, but it gets to the way in which verb-things or processes underlie, metaphorically speaking, media things, artifacts, infrastructures, and objects.

One benefit of turning attention to “deep media” is that it explicates, more clearly than most media studies approaches, the way in which “engineering” approaches the world. And engineering is very much orders our world.

A second benefit of turning our attention to “deep media” is that it allows media students, scholars, and thinkers to probe the “ensembles of nature and culture” of which Peters writes. The sun is always firing. So are, for the time being, innumerable power plants across the globe. Firing is both a human practice and a natural phenomenon which share basically the same form—something that can get lost if one attends only to “fire” as a thing.

And a third benefit of attention to “deep media” is that media studies, by definition, concerns what goes on in “the middle of things” more than the things themselves. The more verby vocabulary of deep media might better attune us to these goings-on.

Regardless, a philosophy of elemental media will need to take up the cause of the gerund—even if for the time being, as Peters laments, the cause of the gerund is “lost.”

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Media Are Elemental: Marvelous Clouds

Unknown“The time is ripe for a philosophy of media. And a philosophy of media needs a philosophy of nature.” So begins John Durham Peters in his new book, The Marvelous Clouds, subtitled “Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media.” His larger claim is that media are elemental.

This fall—after a summer’s repose that lingered, we confess, too long into autumn—the Infernal Machine will be considering Peters’ larger, more ambitious project. For if media are elemental, if the philosophy of media needs a philosophy of nature (or even, as Peters claims, a philosophical anthropology), then media inquiry concerns not just the latest social media product or the history of print. Media inquiry concerns the very relationship between humans and nature—the ways that humans, in their frailty and finitude, struggle with all available techniques and technologies to make their way in the world. For Peters, media inquiry is an ethical project.

But first, let‘s discuss the claim “media are elemental.

This fall, one of us spent a day touring three of the Smithsonian museums in Washington, DC: the National Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of American History, and the Air and Space Museum. Only the last seemed to make “sense.” That is, only the Air and Space Museum offered a relatively coherent narrative. Moving from room to room, the museum’s story was fairly straight forward. From early-modern seafaring, to the Wright brothers, to World War II aerial combat, to nuclear deterrence, to the age of unmanned aerial vehicles, the world has been caught up in an age of ineffable aeronautical adventures. And the United States is the late-modern vanguard. Emblazoned on the tails of fighter jets and the bellies of missiles was the national story of technological flight.

Walking through the National Museum of American History, on the other hand, made no such sense. There was no coherent overall narrative. It was strictly an episodic experience, like watching the History Channel for a day. (No surprise: The History Channel is a prominent museum sponsor.) The National Museum of Natural History—dedicated to the cultural keeping of “nature”—was even more fragmented. Offering no history, no narrative, it simply assembled a pastiche of stuffed mammals, winged butterflies, arctic photographs, and tropical fish around an acquisitive centerpiece, the Hope Diamond.

After leaving the Mall and its museums, this tourist left with a clear message: Technological innovation is the only shared story that makes sense anymore. Neither the “imagined community” of the nation-state nor the Earth, which for aeons has grounded humans narratively and otherwise, has the symbolic power to make history cohere, at least in the United States. Even natural scientists, as the Museum of Natural History made clear, are engineers taking flights into the statistical improbabilities of human evolution and considerably warmer futures. “History” is technological innovation, a story told best through the marvels hanging from the ceilings of the Air and Space Museum.

To claim, as Peters does (though, in fact, he never says it quite this way), “media are elemental” is undoubtedly to take up the cause of landing media inquiry (of which “technology” is a crucial sub-concept) back on Earth—to make a return flight, so to speak, to the mundane, even if by way of the marvelous. If technology is less a means of flight than grounding, what does this mean for our shared stories, identities, quests, and concerns? If technology is the means by which humans struggle to modify themselves and their environment to make their world inhabitable, then what does this mean for our theories of technology and media?

So, as we kick back into gear after a too-long summer hiatus, among other things on the Infernal Machine we’ll be inviting a variety of colleagues from a variety of disciplines to consider Peters’ Marvelous Clouds and, moreover, to explore the claim, and the case, that media are elemental. Stay tuned! Posts will start rolling later this week.

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