Category Archives: Media are Elemental

Media are Elemental: The Life Aboard

The Whale Fishery ("Laying On"), Nathaniel Currier. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The Whale Fishery (“Laying On”), Nathaniel Currier. Via Wikimedia Commons.

We study the sailor, the man of his hands, man of all work; all eye, all finger, muscle, skill and endurance; a tailor, carpenter, cooper, stevedore, and clerk and astronomer besides. He is a great saver, and a great quiddle by the necessity of his situation.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, in an 1833 journal entry titled “At Sea”

The integral connection between media and human life is an assumed condition of John Durham Peters’s theory of elemental media in The Marvelous Clouds. We don’t often think of our relationship with the natural world as mediated. But when we are tossed by the waves, we need tools to intercede between nature and ourselves. Media become a matter of life and death. In these moments when the balance between humans and nature is disrupted, our need for mediation becomes all too apparent.

Peters sees these tools of intersession, these “means by which,” as he calls them, as always a matter of life and death. In fact, they are the components and substances of which all human experience is designed. To illustrate this, Peters spends some time studying cetaceans, a species of water mammal that includes dolphins, narwhals, and some small whales.

Cetaceans have near-human levels of cognition and communication, but they split from early homo sapiens by returning to the sea and adapting to that environment. Peters argues that the sea is an elemental media that shapes every part of cetacean existence, just as “fire, language, or celestial bodies” does for human beings. Because their experiences are mediated through the sea, cetaceans have techniques (such as communication and memory), but not technologies (such as documentation and material construction). Continue reading

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Media Are Elemental: Protection from the Elements

Etching from La clef de la science, explication des phénomènes de tous les jours par Brewer et Moigno (1889). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Etching from La clef de la science, explication des phénomènes de tous les jours par Brewer et Moigno (1889). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Media are elemental. And like the elements, they’re essential to our everyday practices, so much so that we often take them for granted. But sometimes, like when there’s a drought or a flood, the elements take on a charge and something makes us sit up and take notice of them. When there’s a dangerous lack of an element or an overabundance, we’re forced to take stock of the element’s essential qualities, its importance to our own lives, and the resources needed to cope with changing conditions.

We seem to be in the midst of a flood of media meant to foster intimacy and social connection. Social networking sites and free text messaging services are providing more ways to meet, “poke,” stalk, and stay in touch with people from all the different stages of our lives. These practices are even embedded in the ways many of us find love. In a recent Pew study, more than half of American teenagers reported “digitally flirting” with someone to communicate their romantic intentions. The widespread adoption of these technologies by teenagers have led some scholars, such as Sherry Turkle, to worry that “superficial” forms of intimacy will degrade their capacities for empathy and understanding. In the midst of this flood, critics such as Turkle are raising concerns about the quality of the water.

Peters provides an explanation of why teenagers might be drawn to this kind of interaction in the first place:

People prefer being telepresent via Facebook, Twitter, and text messaging not because the software provides the ‘feeling’ of ‘sitting the face to face,’ but rather because it doesn’t provide it at all. Text-only communication lightens social anxieties.

In a stage of life when it often seems that their own bodies are working against us, telepresence is an attractive solution for some teenagers. The bodily (dis)functions that often undermined our best efforts at confident and cool comportment are eliminated in text-only communication. But teenagers’ use of these technologies can’t only be explained by their individual strategies to reduce the anxieties of teenager-hood. As Peters suggests, digital media invite us to consider the roles they play in our “habitats,” meaning the wider contexts in which we struggle and form relationships.

Over the past several decades, the habitats of American teenagers have been characterized, as psychologist Cindi Katz and media scholar danah boyd have noted, by the individualization of risks surrounding their failures or successes in increasingly competitive markets for higher education and jobs, and shrinking amounts of time and space for them to interact with one another outside of adult supervision. As their anxieties about their futures mount, teenagers have decreasing amounts of private spaces to sort through those issues with their friends.

Of course, some teenagers have the resources to withstand the floodwaters. Their lives are like well-appointed gardens, studded with carefully selected plants, and drainage systems that allow them to be resilient in the face of changing conditions. Meanwhile, low-income teens on the economic margins of society, who often face intensified levels of surveillance by both state institutions and police, as well as their parents and teachers, scramble to stem the damage caused by the run-off, without the resources or support to survive the storm.

Understanding the elemental nature of media forces us to consider not only the quality of the “water” that we swim in, but the resources available to deal with its negative consequences. Some teenagers will be prepared to absorb the risks of swimming. Others will be left to sink or swim.

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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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