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 networked power

Network is usually encoded as an egalitarianism. However, this week’s readings challenge that kind of idea. Power. Power is invisible but always embedded in network.

Deleuze articulates how new form and logic of power is embedded in the society after Foucault’s society of panopticon. In the societies of control, what is important is a code. Through code, we, as individuals, “have become dividuals, and masses, samples, data, markets, or, banks” (p. 5). My experience of moving from South Korea to the US was the process of recodifying me in the US system. During settling down in the US, I was no more than passport number, visa code, and sevis code of I-20. The process of getting new number or account from the US system is codifying me under the US control system as a foreigner but a legal resident of the US; and the code is reactivated whenever I want to do something in the US. I cannot physically live here without permitted codes.

With Galloway and Boyd’s texts, Deleuze’s idea becomes clearer in today’s networked society. Social media creates empty templates and makes users fill them out. Users create their personal account and fill it with their personal information. Contents we fill it out is our information or memories; but it becomes code and source for control under the site’s purpose. Power is there! The biggest issue here is that we cannot avoid the network to live conveniently. Think about Google. Google intentionally gathers our site information, mobility, and searching history; but we can get a real-time traffic information, accurate search results from Google. For example, google traffic is worked by gathering the speed and density of Android phone signal on the road. We spontaneously participated in the Google network, which means the agreement of letting Google use where I am.

At the end of his article, Deleuze shortly discusses about the possibility of resistance against the societies of control. We are spontaneously and/or unintentionally living in the google, the national/international control system, and/or other network; and the power is circulated and distributed through the network. Then, is it possible that we have a new form of resistance against the new form of power? Union cannot do any more. What can we, as always a part of network, do in the name of resistance?

Thought fragments toward ANT

I used Actor-Network Theory as my methodological tool of master’s thesis. I did case study of the Korean memorial website, focusing on how heterogeneous networks of the website relates and contributes to create meanings of collective memories. The main argument was not only human – users, administrator of the website – but also such nonhumans – interface, database, terms and policy – work together to negotiate meanings of the Korean ferry Sewol sinking tragedy on 2014. The first and foremost tasks in the ANT work was discovering things and positioning that things with human actors. Following that, I wrote how things are interacted each other and what is the meaning of the interrelations of each actor.

For me, ANT is more comfortable to accept than Kittlerian thinking of materiality – the material stance of media determines our ways of thinking or remembering. Unlike, ANT emphasizes relation between materiality and human. Everything is determined in the relations, in the middle – it seems more social than the Kittler’s. Even though I am still a big fan of ANT, some questions are still remained in my mind.

In <We have never been modern>, Latour argues we have never had such dualistic division between nature and society, which is argued by modernity. We are always mixture and networks of both. For me, however, methodology of ANT case studies seems like that begins with the modernistic division: what is human actor and what is nonhuman factor. The question of ‘how’ they relates are the next question of the practice of division. In analytical stance, can we really avoid the dualism? In my experience, I had to continuously divide human and nonhuman actors to explain how the actor-network is constituted.

Second, as Law indicated himself, ANT is too descriptive. It has a possibility that every ANT research leads the same conclusion: our network is consisted of both human and nonhuman. I know the value of ANT is doing case-study and local history, but is there no way to over just revealing the network? In this sense, one of the issue for me was what can I do more beyond revealing the actor-network? ANT itself claims that they are theory of power by translating heterogeneous actors of networks. ANT interprets politics by revealing how actors are interacted or contradicted each other, and thus it resonates with Foucault somehow. I also tried to write about memory politics in the website actor-network in terms of ownership of the memories. However, ANT’s emphasis on the symmetric analytic value toward both human and nonhuman makes me harder to explain power relation than what Foucauldian approach can do. Thanks to their symmetric value of human and nonhuman, I can avoid such linear relations between human and nonhuman; but get a difficulties to articulate politics.

Lastly, can I avoid human-centric explanation of actor-network? Law explains ANT is materialist semiotics of deconstructing dichotomy between human and nonhuman. Because of its emphasis on things and materiality, ANT seems like post-humanistic approach. However, if ANT study approaches to nonhuman in a semiotic way, it is still linguistic and human-centric version of interpreting network – not a deconstructing the dichotomy. ANT seems like radical way of sociology; but it is simultaneously human-centric view.

Despite such remained questions of mine, I am thinking about the possibility of using ANT to study history in terms of new way to think materiality. With ANT, can I do media history or media archaeology without such techno-deterministic interpretation? Can it be the new way of engaging materiality in historical interpretation? If I do that, how can I solve above problems I have?

There is no software, and then…

With this week’s reading, Kittler’s argumentation of last week becomes make more sense to me. What you are doing or can do with any computer-mediated practices (typing, social networking, video or computer game…) is determined and allowed by the capacity of hardware. The capacity for software to function is limited and dependent on the power of hardware. What software is doing is just that conceal the machine operation behind them, hardware. This idea of Kittler is clarified by Montfort and Bogost’s platform studies. Montfort and Bogost study the Atari VCS, focusing on how the platform influences on the history and the future of video games. According to Kittler and this week’s reading, unlike chun’s emphasis on software’s programmability and code-action, the processing and storage capacity is not dependent on the invisible software’s instruction and action, but happened in the materiality – computer chips, screen, console, and devices. This perspective encourages me to perceive new media in terms of specific versions, platforms, systems, and devices, rather than software and code general. Besides computer, what kinds of devices we have? And how does that devices work?

In my understanding, the platform studies or hardware studies emphasize choosing a specific device or technical platform as a first step of the research. However, this material-centric perspective encourages me to think about the role of technologies and bodies methodologically and epistemologically. In the presence of material technology and us, ways in which I deploy technology and body become methodologies and arguments. Then, question becomes how can I choose my perspective about machine and us – more specifically, relationship between machine and memory practice? In the process of storing and reanimating memories, where is technologies and our bodies? How does the deployment look like to produce memory practice?

Now, we cannot detach human and machine anymore. It means inter-disciplinary understanding of media technology becomes necessary. I need some understanding of material and technical work of media; and I like this new learning process. However, revealing materiality is not the only job for me as a researcher. Then, the question becomes the deployment with materiality. In particular, how can I make a claim of deployment in these Kittlerian legacy of media studies? What can I do beyond explaining materiality of media? In other words, how can I avoid simple deterministic or linear thinking over media materialistic studies?

Again, concealment

Now, we are entering so called “new media.” Manovich’s The Language of New Media, the bible of software studies, clearly explains the tension between human and computer; and the tension becomes more axiomatic in Chun and Kittler’s texts. Here, discourse surrounding new media goes back to the “concealment.” Software conceals human labors, computing, algorithms, codes and capitalism.

The discourse of concealment assumes two layers in the programmable media: the surface (human) and the behind the screen (computing). Even though it turns into more complicate question because of software’s programmability and automation, these two layers were always the object of inquiry during earlier media history (cinema, television, and pre-cinema). Along the line with our class trajectory, computer is not completely new. Digitization is just a new form of simultaneity, storage, and/or transmission functions.

However, I think software is the important turn to think media as storage. As Kittler already indicated, media have stored human sensory data. After software, however, it totally altered the capacities of storage and the condition of preservation: who archive? what is and can be archived? who’s memories? If I accept radical idea of Kittler, memory itself is altered as codes build on silicon and electrical impulses. Then, the question becomes “what is memories?” Under the Kittler, digital memory is not only translation like a Manovich’s term, but also transduction.

Again, concealment. We already somehow solved the visual illusion; but the discourse of concealment comes again. Then, how should we or media history understand software?

(+) Just personal dilemma: How much do I need to know about the mathematics and science to make a new claim of media history?

‘What’ from ‘Where’

Last week, our media technology allowed us the ‘simultaneous’ presence of bodies. The distinction between media’s function of simultaneity and storage is articulated more in Uricchio’s text. The distinction encourages me to think about my research interest, human-technical assemblage of memory practice. I began this research interest in social media: how people remember ‘through’ and ‘from’ social media, such as Facebook, digital archiving website, and so on. Mine is not teleological or techno-deterministic perspective – social media determines or augments our memory capacity; but the coupling of computer memory practice and human memory practice is transduced into the new kind of memories.

To connect computer memory practice and human memory as a coupling, my first step have to rigorously define mnemonic media. What is memory media?

In techno-centric perspective, memory media indicated media’s archiving function. In my master’s program, I began to find the definition of ‘archive’ in discourses of academic field, such as museum studies, library studies, things like that. However, this class, specifically last week and this week, lets me think about the way in which defines archive with genealogy of media technology. Uricchio uses genealogy as his methodology to trace the origin of television. Then, if I want to define or study the archiving media through its genealogy, where can I begin?

In human-centric perspective, however, memory media is not just archiving. Television and telephone cannot store something; but they produce memories to human (ex. Prosthetic memory). In other words, the spontaneity of media also contributes to produce memories. The genealogy of real-time media will have a different story from archiving. Then, how can we define ‘memory media’ in human-technical assemblage? More fundamentally, what is media? What is mediated from what to what?

I am keep thinking about (and it may be my ultimate task through this PhD program) how can I define memory media to explain human-technology memory practices. Simultaneity and storage function of media. I think these will be a key to solve my ultimate research question. For this class, I want to begin this research question from genealogy of archiving or simultaneity. In this seemingly long process, now, I am here: can I drag the answer of ‘what’ question from the question of ‘where’?

Reordering the society: the birth of media political economy

This week, technology and media begin to reconstruct the social sense of space and time. ‘Real time’ and ‘instantaneity’, which is achieved by electric telegraph, changes human sensory perception, affection, social interaction, and even the film narrative. Information goes faster than the physical movement. As our reading showed us, discourse about the development of telegraph and railroad are always a pair in the early technological invention, in that both telegraph and railroad transmit something (communication/human or product), connect different spaces, and regards time as a speed. These two inventions still used as a metaphor for today’s smartphone/cellphone and the Internet/social media.

My impression for the early electric telegraphy is that the new electric technology reordered the society. As McLuhan indicated, the electric media “dissolves the mechanical technique of visual separation and analysis of functions” and weakens a centralized pattern of production (loc. 3659 in Kindle edition). Also, as we can see in Gunning’s text, the telegraph influences the narrative of film. It shows me that the electric development reordered power in the society and human perception.

After the railroad and the electric telegraphy, technology begin to enter the discourse of political economy: technologies and media develop in different social, economic, and political system; technology becomes a power itself as well as reorders the power. It reconstitutes relationships between the urban and the rural, the center and the boarder. Telegraph also reorders the private. Through telegraph, the scope of day-to-day conversation was beyond earshot and it reaches faster than had ever been possible. Along with the expansion of spatiality, however, it raises the vulnerability of communication that the signals can be recorded, intercepted, and tapped. Human communication was not a private thing anymore; it became the product, and personal conversation at the distance became a consumption.

From telegraph, our communication becomes a human-technical network of sender, receiver, and media, and the power works across the network. The network has reordered society across the social, economic, and political dimension; and the reordering still progresses through social media, the Internet, and mobile phone.