Joanna Zylinska, Media Spaces, 2009
The proofs for my book, Life after New Media: Mediation as Vital Process (co-written with Sarah Kember and forthcoming from the MIT press in the autumn of 2012) have just arrived.
Here is the book's Introduction, in which we begin to outline our argument for moving on from the study of "media" to the study of the processes of mediation.
New media, old hat
In Life after New Media we set out to examine the current debates on ‘new’ or ‘digital’ media. In doing so, we want to make a case for a significant shift in the way new media is perceived and understood: from thinking about ‘new media’ as a set of discrete objects (the computer, the cell phone, the iPod, the e-book reader) to understanding media predominantly in terms of processes of mediation.
The argument developed in our book, as reflected by its title, Life after New Media: Mediation as a Vital Process, is threefold:
(1) In an era when being on Facebook or Twitter, having a smart phone or a digital camera, and obtaining one’s genetic profile on a CD after being tested for a variety of genetic diseases has become part of many people’s lives, we maintain that there is a need to move beyond the initial fascination with, and fear of, ‘new’ media; and beyond the belief in their alleged ‘newness’, too.
(2) There is also a need to look at the interlocking of technical and biological processes of mediation. Doing so quickly reveals that life itself under certain circumstances becomes articulated as a medium, which is subject to the same mechanisms of reproduction, transformation, flattening and patenting that other media forms (CDs, video cassettes, chemically printed photographs, and so on) underwent previously.[i]
(3) If life itself is to be perceived as, or, more accurately, reduced to a medium, we need to critically examine the complex and dynamic processes of mediation that are in operation at the biological, social and political levels in the world, while also remaining aware of the limitations of the stand-alone human ‘we’ that can provide such a rational critique.
Yet is this proposed move ‘beyond new media’ not a little premature? It was barely a decade or so ago that a new disciplinary alignment emerged at the crossroads of the arts, humanities and social sciences which was given the name ‘new media studies’--although the use of the term ‘new media’ can be traced much further back, at least to Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan.[ii] The first phase of ‘new media studies’ was predominantly focused on technology’s function in new media platforms and devices (the use of the Internet by children, the global spread of mobile telephony, etc.), and on a radical division between analogue and digital media (letters vs. email, film vs. CCD camera sensors[iii]). Understandably, much energy during that first phase was spent on developing descriptions and definitions--concerning what these new media really did, how new they actually were, and how they differed from ‘traditional’ or ‘broadcast’ media. It should be noted that the question of the relation between media and technology was elided in many of those debates, a state of events which resulted in the frequent conflation of ‘new media’ and ‘new technology’. Media also tended to become equated with the computer--or, to cite Lev Manovich, ‘media became new media’[iv]--thus erasing the specificities of, and distinctions between, existing old and new media. Entities such as data and information, and processes such as interactivity, convergence and digitization, became the focus of the rapidly developing discipline of ‘new media studies’.
Many theorists of new media have attempted to make a mark in this emerging field by setting themselves against its earlier definitions and proposing ways to move on and beyond them. For example, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, one of the editors of the anthology New Media, Old Media, argues against a non-critical adoption of the ‘new media’ term by saying: ‘The moment one accepts new media, one is firmly located within a technological progressivism that thrives on obsolescence and that prevents active thinking about technology-knowledge-power’.[v] Yet Chun does not recommend abandoning the term altogether. Instead, she recognizes that ‘new media’ has already been consolidated into a field with its own emerging canon and institutional space. At the same time, Chun argues strongly against perpetuating the myth of the singular uniqueness of new media, insisting instead that the new ‘contains within itself repetition’.[vi] To a certain extent, it can be argued that ‘new media’ was already born as a problem, and that the majority of the theorists who have used this term have always done so somewhat reluctantly, with a sense of intellectual compromise they are having to make if they want their contribution to be recognized as part of a particular debate around technology, media and newness. Through running the MA program in Digital Media at Goldsmiths, University of London, and through working on our own publications in the field of ‘new media studies’,[vii] we have become increasingly aware of both the disciplinary seductions and the conceptual limitations of this term.
Generally speaking, scholarship in media studies fits into two methodological frameworks. Those from the social sciences and communications-based disciplines typically approach the media through a mixture of empirical research and social theory, with questions of political structures, economic influences, social effects and individual agencies dominating the debate. Those from the humanities, in turn, predominantly focus on what different media ‘mean’; i.e. they tend to look at media as texts and at their cultural contexts. Of course, there are also those who have never felt comfortable to be pigeon-holed in this way, and for whom questions of language and materiality, of culture and politics, have always needed to be studied together. (Work undertaken from the perspective of the actor-network theory influenced by Bruno Latour, of the materialist philosophy of Gilles Deleuze, and of science and technology studies has contributed towards blurring the distinctions between the two frameworks, or ‘camps’.)
It is at this point that we enter the debate on new media in our book. However, our aim in Life after New Media is to do something other than merely provide an extension or corrective to the current field of ‘new media studies’. Instead of developing an alternative definition or understanding of new media, we propose to refocus the new media debate on a set of processes that have so far escaped close analysis by media studies scholars. In other words, with this book we are not so much interested in moving the debate on new media on, but rather in moving on from the debate on new media; and, in doing so, focusing on the concept of mediation. The distinction is of course primarily heuristic, i.e. provisional and strategic, and the purpose of separating mediation from media will be to clarify the relation between them. Mediation does not serve as a translational or transparent layer or intermediary between independently existing entities (say, between the producer and consumer of a film or TV program). It is a complex and hybrid process, which is simultaneously economic, social, cultural, psychological and technical. Mediation, we suggest, is all-encompassing and indivisible. This is why ‘we’ have never been separate from mediation. Yet our relationality and our entanglement with non-human entities continues to intensify with the ever more corporeal, ever more intimate dispersal of media and technologies into our biological and social lives. Broadly put, what we are therefore developing in Life after New Media is not just a theory of ‘mediation’ but also a ‘theory of life’, whereby mediation becomes a key trope for understanding and articulating our being in, and becoming with, the technological world, our emergence and ways of intra-acting with it, as well as the acts and processes of temporarily stabilizing the world into media, agents, relations and networks.
Our theoretical inspiration for this argument predominantly comes from the work of two philosophers: Henri Bergson (and the materialist-vitalist philosophy subsequently developed by Deleuze) and Jacques Derrida (and his deconstructive thinking around concepts, processes and the ethico-political nexus). It is with Bergson and Derrida that we start approaching media as a series of processes of mediation. This entry point will take us towards the examination of the temporal aspects of media--its liveness (or rather, lifeness),[viii] transience, duration and frequently predicted death. Our primary reason for turning to Bergson is that he allows us to raise questions about the more traditional perception of media as a series of spatialized objects (the iPod, the computer) and also about mediation--i.e. multiple, entangled processes of becoming. However, we have to bear in mind that the process of mediation is also a process of differentiation; it is a historically and culturally significant process of the temporal stabilization of mediation into discrete objects and formations. In the encounter with Bergson’s notion of ‘creative evolution’, Derrida’s notion of ‘différance’ functions as a kind of interruption or ‘cut’ to the incessant flow of mediation, facilitating as it does the discussion of the symbolic and cultural significance of this interruption. The negotiation between the Bergsonian (or perhaps, more appropriately, Bergsonian-Deleuzian) and the Derridean philosophical traditions is nevertheless only of interest to us here in as far as it allows us to think, move with and respond to the multiple flows of mediation. It is not therefore an intellectual exercise in its own right, just as the book is not about Bergson, Deleuze or Derrida in any straightforward way. Our attempt to read media as ‘mediation’, both critically and creatively, is informed by a rigorous playfulness towards philosophy, borrowed from the long line of feminist critical thinkers such as Donna Haraway, Rosi Braidotti and Karen Barad, or, indeed, from Bergson, Deleuze and Derrida themselves. As well as drawing, specifically, on Bergon’s intuitive method, we recognize our allegiance to what Braidotti terms a ‘nomadic, rhizomatic logic of zigzagging interconnections’.[ix] The latter logic manifests respectful irreverence toward one’s predecessors. Resisting the injunction to speak in our masters’ or mistresses’ voices, we are therefore seeking methods of thinking and writing that can allow us to see and make a difference.
One of the central issues that concern us in this study of the temporal aspects of media is the relation between events and their mediation. Our argument is that events are never merely presented and represented in the media, and that any such representations are always to an extent performative. Philosophers such as Derrida and Stiegler, as well as many media scholars, associate media--especially television--with the illusion of liveness. Liveness is particularly linked with television news and the coverage of disaster and catastrophe. Generally, it is regarded as a sleight of hand. Yet if we regard such illusory liveness as performative, i.e., as being able, to an extent, to bring about the things of which it speaks--things such as ‘the credit crunch’ or ‘war on terror’, say--then not only will we be able to explore questions such as ‘Did Robert Peston (BBC Business Editor) cause the recession in the UK?’, but we will also avoid a reading of media that is overly constructionist, static and, ultimately, lifeless.
As a continuation of the above argument, we will suggest that mediation gives us insight into the vitality of media. By the latter we mean something more than just the liveness of media which we know about through television studies of catastrophes and other ‘newsworthy’ occurrences. We are referring instead to the lifeness of media--i.e., the possibility of the emergence of forms always new, or its potentiality to generate unprecedented connections and unexpected events. This raises the following set of questions for us: If we are saying that the events we have looked at are, to differing extents and in different ways, performed through their mediation, then how should we respond to them in our critiques? Are our critiques not also forms of invention? Or, more broadly, can we think of a way of ‘doing media studies’ that is not just a form of ‘media analysis’, and that is simultaneously critical and creative? Could it allow us to challenge the opposition between ‘media theory’ and ‘media practice’ that many university media departments have adopted somewhat too comfortably over the years, at worst privileging one over the other, at best aiming at some kind of dialectical resolution which in the end only reaffirms the division?
In the light of the above, any attempt to root media analysis in fixed entities such as ‘the social’, ‘subjectivity’, ‘economy’, ‘politics’ or ‘art’ must therefore be seen as nothing more than a pretence. It is not that many traditional forms of media analysis do not recognize the need for this pretence. Nevertheless, what Life after New Media argues is lacking in many such analyses is a serious engagement with the consequences of this recognition, in ways that would be both critically rigorous and adventurously inventive. This is perhaps an appropriate moment to insert a personal double confession into our Introduction. The writing of this book has coincided for us with the consolidation of our longstanding ambition to enact knowledge production and media production differently: Sarah Kember has a literary agent and has published her first novel, The Optical Effects of Lightning, while Joanna Zylinska has completed a master’s degree in fine art photography and started exhibiting her work. Yet at the same time, these incursions into what academic conventions traditionally designate as ‘practice’ have reaffirmed our commitment to rigorous scholarship and to attentive readings of texts and concepts--even if they have pushed further our desire for experimentation and boundary-crossing. By drawing on different instances of media enactment, we thus hope to have outlined in this book a more dynamic, networked and engaged mode of working on, in and with ‘the media’, where critique is always already explicitly accompanied by the work of participation and invention. Life after New Media closes off with our proposal for ‘creative mediation’ understood as a mode of ‘doing media studies’ otherwise. The book thus emerges out of a complex system of intertwined intellectual, social, economic and artistic influences that have been shaping the interdisciplinary field of new media studies for nearly two decades now and that have been shaping us as scholars, writers and teachers within this field. It is an experiment in producing knowledge differently, in exercising academic borrowing and hospitality, in asking questions about ‘media production’ of both ourselves and others, of literally writing and thinking in multiple voices and tongues. As well as providing a name for the ever changing mediascape, mediation for us stands for this dynamic entanglement of ideas, voices and minds.
Chapter 1 makes a case for a shift from thinking about ‘new media’ as a set of discrete objects to understanding media, old and new, in terms of the interlocked and dynamic processes of mediation. It also outlines what is at stake in this shift from thinking about media solely as objects of use, to recognizing our entanglement with media not just on a socio-cultural but also on a biological level. Introducing the work of the philosophers Martin Heidegger and Bernard Stiegler, we read mediation as an intrinsic condition of being-in and becoming-with the technological world. We then offer to see mediation as the underlying, and under-addressed, problem of the media.
If ‘the media narrate ordinary life by anticipating it, with such force that its story of life seems ineluctably to precede life itself’, for the philosopher Bernard Stiegler public life is actually ‘produced by these [media] programs’.[x] Chapter 2 focuses on two media ‘events’, or ‘crunches’, which are linked by the prospect of global or even cosmic disaster: the ‘credit crunch’ of 2007-2009 and the ‘big crunch’, otherwise known as the LHC (Large Hadron Collider) Project at CERN, Switzerland. Although the latter was purposefully designed in 2008 with a view to recreating the conditions that prevailed immediately after the Big Bang, public apprehension has centered on the possibility that black holes will be formed, signaling the end of the world. As the experiment in particle physics that stresses the contiguous nature of space-time at the origin of life, the universe and everything else, the LHC project offers perhaps the definitive event by means of which we might effectively intuit the process of mediation--or the existence of life after new media.
Since the event of mediation is, like time (or, indeed, life itself), both invisible and indivisible, any attempt at its representation must ultimately fail. In chapter 3 we offer a challenge to representationalism by looking at photography, its historical ambitions and its various techniques. Photography is understood here as a process of cutting through the flow of mediation on a number of levels: perceptive, material, technical and conceptual. The recurrent moment of the cut--one we are familiar with not just via photography but also via film-making, sculpture, writing or, indeed, any other technical practice that involves transforming matter--is be posited here as both a technique (an ontological entity encapsulating something that is, or something that is taking place) and an ethical imperative (the command: ‘Cut!’). The key question that organizes our argument is therefore as follows: If we must inevitably cut, and if the cut functions as an intrinsic component of any creative, artistic, and especially photographic practice--although this is still only a hypothesis--then what does it mean to cut well? In introducing a distinction between photography as a practice of the cut and photographs as products of this process of cutting, we also aim to capture and convey the vitality of photographic movements and acts.
Chapter 4 compares media visions of the transnational or even cosmic future discussed in the earlier chapters with the viewing point of the domestic present. Arguably, our homes, like our bodies, have always functioned as ‘intelligent’ media. They foreground location and identity as a counterforce to dislocation and differentiation. This set of associations is clearly reflected in the idea of ‘the smart home’, which is embedded with networked computational objects and speech-based autonomous agents who travel so that we can remain in place, safe and protected from a hostile environment. The smart home promises mobility without movement, and fulfils ‘a long-standing dream of artifacts that know us, accompany us’[xi] and comfort us. Intelligent mediation, centered increasingly on the home, is not, as it is sometimes presented, about celebrating hybrid human-machine agency. It is more about positioning ‘us’ as threatened but ultimately reassured subjects, with our private, individualized patterns of media consumption. We argue that intelligent mediation thus becomes a facet of neoliberalism, functioning as the reinforcement of self-interest in the face of both alterity (of what, in a cosmic sense, we might become) and adversity (or what, in the more immediate economically prescribed future, might become of us).
In our attempt to envisage different socio-political contexts and different futures, in chapter 5 we explore the possibilities of a less conservative, more inventive approach to the mediated self. It is premised upon a rupture with neoliberal logic and with the reaffirmation of a unitary, autonomous and authentic subject--a rupture enacted by taking the issue of time and its passage more seriously. The prospect of self-mediation also redefines stability in terms of the inevitable limitations of becoming. In this chapter, we will explore the limitations of transformative self-mediation through a reading of cosmetic surgery (including extreme surgical transformations, and the normalizing role of makeover TV shows) and face transplant surgery. Our reading is consistent with a post-humanist, particle physics approach informed by theorists such as Karen Barad. If facial surgery is an instance of biotechnological self-mediation writ large, because it is literally inscribed on the body as a medium, then self-mediation is a process that moves ‘us’ both home and away, consolidating and authenticating our experience even as it extends and imperils our identity.
Chapter 6 pursues the ethical implications of this ultimate instability and transience of the mediated cultural subject. It investigates what exactly is entailed in the recognition that ‘nobody and no particle of matter is independent and self-propelled, in nature as in the social’.[xii] It also asks what moral frameworks become available within the context of ongoing dynamic mediation, and whom ethical responsibility concerns if we are all supposedly ‘becoming Facebook’ (no matter whether we are ‘on’ it or not). In the light of the above, we outline what we term ‘an ethics of mediation’--which, in line with our expanded understanding of mediation as a way of being and becoming in the technological world, with all its bio-digital configurations--can also be dubbed ‘an ethics of life’.
Positioned as a kind of critical summary, chapter 7 engages with the idea of ‘creativity’ in the context of both life’s supposed creative potential and the work on creativity from the context of creative industries, in preparation for our attempt to offer a different mode of doing critical work ‘after new media’. Such a mode is indicated in Bergson’s intuitive method and it is echoed in the work of many feminist philosophers. The second part of this chapter adopts the format of a ‘live essay’ in which one of the crucial oppositions in media studies--that between ‘theory’ and ‘practice’--becomes not only a subject of critical interrogation but also of a performative event. Drawing on our own media practice (creative writing and photography respectively), we hope in this way to have take some steps towards enacting, rather than just proposing, ‘life after new media’.
[i] Although we will argue throughout this volume, and in chapter 2 in particular, for the configuration of media and liveness, mediation and life, we will also seek to avoid Bergson’s ‘false division’ between life and matter. This division is ‘false’, or problematic, because it enables him to abstract life from material and symbolic forms--including, in our case, media forms. Our claim is that, while media continue to stake their claim to liveness (live TV, live Tweeter feeds, etc.), by virtue of being inseparable (though different in kind) from processes of mediation, media are co-constitutive of life itself--which, under certain circumstances, and through a sequence of reductionist operations, can subsequently also take a media form (a CD with one’s genetic profile; synthetic biology database, etc.).
[ii] See Benjamin Peters, ‘And Lead Us Not into Thinking the New is New: A Bibliographic Case for New Media History’, New Media and Society, Vol. 11, Nos 1-2 (2009): 13-30.
[iii] CCD stands for a charge-coupled device, in which electrical charge can be manipulated to obtain translation of signal into digital value. It is frequently used in digital cameras.
[iv] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2001), 25.
[v] Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, ‘Introduction: Did Somebody Say New Media?,’ in New Media, Old Media, eds Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Thomas Keenan (New York and London: Routledge, 2006), 9.
[vi] Chun, ‘Introduction’, 3.
[vii] See, for instance, Sarah Kember, Cyberfeminism and Artificial Life (London and New York: Routledge, 2003) and Joanna Zylinska, Bioethics in the Age of New Media (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2009).
[viii] The term ‘lifeness’ we propose in the book is aimed to go beyond what we will argue is quite a static view of media as espoused by terms such as ‘live TV’, ‘live news’, etc., in an attempt to convey what we see as the dynamic vitality of mediation processes.
[ix] Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory (New York: Columbia University Press), 17.
[x] Bernard Stiegler, Technics and Time, 2: Disorientation, trans. Stephen Barker (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 186.
[xi] Lucy Suchman, Human-Machine Reconfigurations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 206.
[xii] Rosi Braidotti, Transpositions (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2006), 6.