Why materiality?

I was at NCA yesterday to present paper at the ‘post-humanist ethnography and materialist methodology’ session. As we handled few weeks ago in the class, post-humanist philosophies problematize the anthropocentrism of social science and decenters the human, which is considered as a historically contingent category that must be understood relationally, as a product of natural, institutional, technological, and discursive forces. Along the line with this, materialist media studies demonstrates the ways in which historically specific technical apparatuses produce the conditions for human knowledge, action, and memory. We’ve read this approach some points (Kittler, Latour, Kirschenbaum…) and this week’s readings are also the part of or the extension of the post-humanist approach (media ecologies).

With the theoretical overview of materialist approach to media studies, we discussed about how we can methodologically study materiality in media studies. Our discussion problematizes the anthropocentric assumptions of ethnography and qualitative methods in general, opening up the possibilities that study human and nonhuman in the same ontological and analytical sense.

After presentations, one panel raised one question to us. She said that we are already colonized by science, technology, and media; materialist media studies not liberalize but re-colonizes us. According to the panel, through studying (semiotic) meaning, ethnography or qualitative research liberates us (human) from the colonization. Then, her question became why do we need to focus on things other than meaning and what materialist study do other than recolonization?

Looking back our class discussion, we’ve never studied contents when we study media history. It is definitely different moment of what I had done in my undergraduate and the early work of master’s program majored in mass communication. At the end of the conference session, the panel agrees the philosophical assumption of materialist approach; but the question encourages me to think about why to study materiality. In media studies and media history, why materiality rather than meanings?



The Computer and the Necropastoral

With my snout up against the fact of the Anthropocene, with my bill snared in fishing line and the blood pooling in my industrially overdeveloped chest and my meager thighs locked and a bolt in my bovine brain, I find myself reeling through an Anthropocenic zone I call the Necropastoral.

Joyelle McSweeney “What is the Necropastoral?”

the back cover of Joyelle McSweeney’s chapbook The Necropastoral

In reading Sterne’s “Out With the Trash,” I immediately began weaving in my understanding of the Necropastoral into his discussion of the obsolescence of technology. The Necropastoral is a poetic movement that moves away from the unified beauty of Naturalism and towards a more catastrophic, decayed understanding of the industrialized, globalized world we live in. It is a middle space halfway between “newness” and obsolescence, a junkyard of decay.

Sterne writes,

This is one of the important subtleties that other kinds of studies of waste often leave aside. The usual argument is that when an object loses its value, it becomes trash. But in the world of computing equipment, there is an important continuum between that kind of progression and a more insidious gap between obsolescence and trash. There is often a significant gap in time between the reclassification of a computer as obsolete and its fall into disuse…Computers exist in a marginal category–between “useful” and “garbage”…Computers are too valuable, so we eventually throw them out and buy new ones. (25)

In other words, computers are occupying a Necropastoral space, and later when Sterne discusses the physical disposal of hardware, how it “can release hazardous materials and heavy metals into the environment,” we can see how the decaying of the computer reflects back on us. This, after all, is what it means to be in the Anthropocene.

Though Sterne’s article predates Joyelle McSweeney’s definition of the Necropastoral featured on the Poetry Foundation’s blog, it does not predate artists and new media theorists working in a Necropastoral tradition – taking apart decaying computers and repurposing them, “junk art” using chips and wires pulled from junked PCs, or even just simply using them for spare parts. I think one of the things that the Necropastoral shows us is that while things go from new to obsolete rather quickly in the new age, the never really truly reach obsolescence. They may approach it, but it is the artist’s job to bring those junked pieces back into existence and make them new again.

Italian artist Leonardo Ulian creates mandala structures out of computer parts

Illegal Art

The archive becomes problematic when we deal with artwork which is by it’s very nature labelled as illegal. The legality can be for many reasons, but for the most part it boils down to too-restrictive copyright laws that prevent the re-visioning of culture. Happy Birthday is now in the public domain. That should be a cause for celebration – but for me it was a moment of depression – for it should have have been in the public domain for many, many years.

What happens to content that is labelled illegal? Where does it go? Todd Haynes “Superstar” – a brilliant docudrama of Karen Carpenter’s fight with anorexia told with carved up Barbie Dolls lives in a legal netherworld where it cannot be publicly shown due to music licensing issues, but lives on YouTube.

It is now a muddy low resolution version digitized from a VHS tape, which was most likely a dub from yet another dub. The idea of archive is challenged not just by legality, but by analog degradation and then further damaged by digitization in a highly compressed, low resolution format suitable for playback in a web browser, stripping the film of it’s original context. At this point it is a damaged document, the equivalent of scanned, low resolution digital copy of a smeared ink duplicate of the Gutenberg bible. It moves across medium to transmission through the duplicity of record/play to simply play. There is no more original, there are no more duplicates, there is now only the stream of data.

History is suitable to be subjugated in the move to digital space. The original is denied existence in transference. George Lucas tinkered endlessly with Star Wars – the original theatrical version (which is a necessary filmic historical artifact) was replaced with modified version on modified version. Releases touting that it is the “original version” on DVD actually are not- they are original in the sense of the auteur’s  “original vision”, not in the sense that it is a verbatim replication. A pirated release based on a pastiche of sources attempted to get as close to the original as possible, but it is ultimately a digital hybrid, itself “improved upon” due to “remastering”.  Media slips – to go back in time is to dig through ebay or amazon for the original release on VHS cassette, a mediated relic that is a duplicate made from a master tape, itself a duplicate. The original has been purposely eradicated, as with every duplication the noise to signal ratio increases, the artifact accrues new attributes. In a few years, it will be all that exists.

“…….. the media archaeologist Friedrich Kittler pointed out the differences rather than the continuities between memory media: he argued that analog broadcast media, which are linear-sequential and base their storage on the principle of thetape, should be afraid, for they would be swallowed by the Internet.” (Ernst, pg 116)

And this is what will inevitably happen with old media as it is digitized. It will be consumed, recontexualized, paraded down a hall of mirrors, self-reflexive, transgenerational and endlessly transmitted. The archive will be the unplayable VHS tape, the DVD doubly encrypted with a country code preventing playback, and the digital encapsulation of the media itself inside a proprietary container. Will it be possible to play back the movie downloaded from Apple’s online video store 20 years from now?

The historian will have to be a pirate. Digital Rights Management will preclude archiving, creating instant ephemera of digital media objects, locked down to a single platform, or through a digital delivery mechanism that may not exist in 10 years. Sites will come online, and evaporate in a barrage of legal threats, and with them the content will be lost, save for archive.org’s “Wayback Machine). Digital media will be buried due to loss of playback capability, loss of platform, or due to legal entanglement that prevents it from being seen, heard or experienced. The “old media” archives will continue to exist due to their non-digital nature, so it will be the “source”. Film projectors will cease to be made, as slide projectors are today. Unencrypted media will live in the “wild”, where it can escape capture, slipping from one torrent site to the other, with every takedown notice, a new one will pop up.


When I see Brancusi
His eyes searching out the infinite abstract spaces
In the radio rude hands of sculptor
Now gripped around the neck of a duosonic
I swear on your eyes no pretty words will sway me

Patti Smith “Radio Ethiopia”

And it all comes back to day one

With the readings for this week, I feel as if we have come full circle with some of the ideas put forth our very first week. Aside from the obvious traces of Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge moving through Ernst’s Digital Memory of the Archive, I saw those first readings playing an important part in our understanding of “Moving into the Archive.” In Empire and Communications, Innis warns that “civilizations can survive only through a concern with their limitations and in turn through a concern with with the limitations of their institutions” (section 2) and his warning seems to answer Parikka’s questions of e-waste management and the implications of electronic media apparatuses (in all material senses). The Media Empire cannot survive unless its limitations are acknowledged. And as of now, we still operate under “the black box nature of media technologies which are not to be opened up, fixed or reused” (Parikka) and not even acknowledged as waste. We hold on to these technologies because we don’t know what to do with them or we don’t understand them—they are black boxes filled with “sourcery of source codes” that shouldn’t be released into the world for anybody to access. They have become so veiled to the common user that (s)he becomes paralyzed at the notion of tending to its final resting place.

I must admit that my heart was breaking as I read through the Sterne and Parikka articles–I had never truly considered the extent and proliferation of e-waste disposal (or lack thereof). Image via rethinkingprosperity.org

Parikka’s and Sterne’s materialist approach also brought me back to the historical materialism we discussed with Benjamin—history gets written, told, and produced through social relations and economics. If according to Parikka, “e-materializaton is likely to be the source of some of the biggest impacts the Internet has on energy intensity and pollution,” then the economics of information is currently writing our history in the future. Our current history is being written in a moment of “half-technologies” and “planned obsolescence,” which might mean that we are both our own thesis and antithesis. Can it be that simple? If Thesis and Antithesis oppose each other through economics and the material production and consumption of goods, then does that not describe our current production model for new media/computing technologies? And if (according to HM) social conditions are produced through the production, consumption, and reproduction of material goods, then does that mean our society cannot be divorced from these electronic goods? I think that Sterne, Parikka, Ernst, and even Guattari with his ecosophy would all agree with that they are inextricably networked and that through this Internetwork, our history will be written.



That’s all I’ve got for now.


Thanks for reading,


What part do I play?

In this week’s readings Parikka and Sterne discuss materiality, waste and technology in interesting ways and I identify with their work in different ways. Parikka highlights some compelling points about the need for the materiality of the media to be taken literally and I find that I agree with his position. Taking a quick mental count I own more than a dozen media devices and I cannot recall ever considering the processes related to “mining, processing and standardizing minerals and other rare earth materials” (Parikka, 2011) that make up the devices I personally own. Parikka and Sterne both discuss this idea of media products and computers being reclassified or value exhausted which leads to other kinds of processes. Relating this same train of thought to Sterne’s article, I too own a computer that has been reclassified as obsolete and over the course of several years has fallen into misuse. I find this fact particularly compelling because I still have this computer, a 12-inch dell laptop I received as a high school graduation gift, and it is stored in a random box somewhere in my parent’s house in California.

I am very intrigued with the ways they both discuss the ways that people get rid of or ‘recycle’ their media devices or computers and I appreciate Parikka’s explanation about the edited collections of writings and Sterne’s thoughts on who is responsible for obsolete or useless computers and the impact those computers have on a larger scale. Parikka’s explanation essentially connects the management of media devices, global capitalism, limited natural resources, politics, human labor and new ways to create, while Sterne looks at computer trash as being responsible for the ways we view digital media as new media.

After reading these I cannot help but feel that I have been missing the big picture regarding media devices because they do not become what they are simply because I purchase and use them with digital technologies, the process of their materiality begins much sooner than that. I also find myself grappling with my feelings about where “recycled materials” are really going and the part I have play in those processes. I am interested in seeing how, in 2015, computer junkyards in the United States exist in other countries and the level of public knowledge about these places as compared to other countries.

If there’s a problem – yo – I’ll solve it…

Dear Mr. Sterne,

There is a computer in my home which I affectionately refer to as “the OX.” The OX is a beast of a machine that I use to play  the latest and greatest video games. I won’t bore you with the specifics of it’s insides, but rest assured it’s a speedy little machine.

I’ve owned the OX for twenty years.

The OX was first assembled in the summer of 1992.  It could play chess and sported Windows 1.1. Since then I’ve been upgrading the OX slowly, part by part, to keep up with the demands of the latest software.

For the first 10 years or so of the OX’s lifespan, I must admit I wasn’t the best steward to the environment.  If I replaced a part on the OX, the old part would get sent to a bin where it would remain for years before it was thrown away (not recycled).  But something happened around 2002; I got an eBay account.

Now, when I upgrade a part on my computer, I sell the old part on eBay, where it’s life begins anew.  Most of the OX’s insides stay around for about three to four years before I sell them again.  I can do this because I don’t skimp on the quality of the parts that go into my OX.  I think of it like buying the better dog food for my dog, which in turn increases his lifespan and quality of life.  The sale of the old parts helps subsidize the cost of getting new parts and gives the old parts a new home (perhaps a computer called “the MULE”) to live and function, thus extending their life well beyond their years in the OX.

I can’t say what happens to these parts after the next user is done with them.  They may go to the very landfills in which your are concerned; however, the lifespan of the OX’s insides is certainly much longer than what you have described in your chapter. The innards of the OX do not come from a single company, but rather several:

  • The motherboard comes from a company called ASUS.
    • 4 years old
  • The video card: PNY
    • 4 months old
  • The RAMG.Skill
    • 4 years old
  • the case: Antec
    • 12 years old
  • the power supply: Antec
    • 4 years old
  • the processor, Intel
    • 5 months old
  • The hard drive: Western Digital
    • 5 years old
  • the keyboard: Microsoft
    • 5 years old
  • the mouse: Logitech
    • 5 years old

The problem with planned obsolescence is not simply that there isn’t a company that adheres to a model of longevity; there are plenty of computer options out there that allow consumers to upgrade components individually.  Hardware standards don’t change as quickly as your chapter might lead one to believe which is why I’ve had the same computer case for twelve years now, and will probably keep it for another five or six.

Planned obsolescence is certainly a problem, but it’s not a problem that sits solely in the lap of the manufacture.  Spending an extra dollar now on a computer with a little bit more ram or a larger hard drive can extend the lifetime of computer by years, and gives the consumer more money back on their purchase if they choose to sell their device later.  There are more eco-friendly options available to the consumer; however most consumers don’t take the time to educate themselves about those options.

and now I step off my soapbox…