Hyperrhiz 05: Reviews
Matthew Fuller, Media Ecologies
Bowling Green State University
Fuller, Matthew. Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture. Cambridge: MIT, 2005.
Attempts to describe a particular media moment have often fallen into one of two broad categories: those accounts that celebrate the potential of the "new media" of the era to transform society for the better, and those that caution that these same media will have dire negative social effects. In the era of television, Neil Postman warned us that we were "amusing ourselves to death" while Marshall McLuhan and his followers trumpeted the virtues of the coming "global village." In the contemporary, digital media era, Henry Jenkins and other "digital boosters" have written a variety of works (such as Jenkin's 2006 book Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide) that promise the "new media" of today can help us build a more democratic and participatory system of cultural production while other, more critical scholars have countered with works (such as Alexander Galloway's Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization and Mark Andrejevic's recent iSpy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Era) that contend that the internet and its associated technologies have the potential to radically extend panoptic surveillance and power, and to expose vast swaths of everyday life to the forces of economic "rationalization."
Matthew Fuller's Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture represents a bold attempt to transcend the binary of celebration vs. warning which has often limited our thought on and discussion of the media. To do this, Fuller brings to bear on the topic an impressive array of very high caliber resources drawn from the ranks of continental philosophy and critical theory (so much so that he feels compelled to provide the reader with a list of handy abbreviations for such weighty texts as A Thousand Plateaus at the beginning of his book). The result is a book full of prose and thought that manages to be at once dense and electric, the sort of sentences and passages that those of us who take pleasure in critical theory richly enjoy reading and writing.
Fuller begins, rather recursively, by explaining the book in its own terms, stating "this is a media ecology made of bits of paper" (1). He then expands on this using a quote from Kurt Schwitters:
What abstract poetry tried to achieve is achieved in a similar fashion, though more consistently, by Dadaistic painters, who played off actual real objects by nailing them or gluing them next to each other in a painting. Concepts can be played off against each other much more clearly than when their meanings have been translated into words. (1)
The first way Media Ecologies makes use of this notion of collage is as the model for its expressive style. Media Ecologies performs its own theoretical framework in its refusal to sort various lines of argument and proceed by traditional linear means. Instead it collects heterogeneous elements and connects them via juxtaposition, jumping between various lines of argument in a way that collides and blurs them. This technique can be both productive and frustrating. What follows here by way of recap of the book's argument is just one thread that can be pulled from the larger network the book produces. Creating others is left as an exercise for other readers.
The second way Media Ecologies employs collage ? or rhizome ? is as the lens through which it views media systems. Each of the book's chapters deals with one or more of these systems, ranging in scope and composition from London's pirate radio scene to John Hillard's photo series A Camera Recording its Own Condition. Fuller uses these examples as entry points to explore how media systems are made up of networks of interconnected objects and processes. The objects that make up these systems, "have poetics," he writes, "they make the world and take part in it, and at the same time, synthesize, block or make possible other worlds" (1). Fuller sets for himself the task of understanding how the objects that make up media systems, and their associated poetics, connect, interact, and conflict with one another within and between media systems. Furthermore, he asks what "patterns, dangers, and potentials" might result from these connections, interactions, and conflicts (2).
Fuller opens this process of exploration by charting the anatomy of London pirate radio. He uses Deleuze's observations on "minoritarian literature" (13), which Deleuze describes as a mode of writing that mobilizes: "an 'infinite patchwork' of 'singularities, remarkable and non-totalisable parts extracted from a series ordinary parts'" as his lens for this examination. Pirate radio, Fuller observes, weaves a patched together network out of a list of simple parts: "transmitter, microwave link, antennae, transmission and studio sites; records, record shops, studios, dub plates; turntables, mixers, amplifiers, headphones; microphones; mobile phones, SMS, voice; reception technologies, reception locations, DJ tapes; drugs; clubs, parties; flyers stickers, posters" (15). Rather than sort these parts into the usual categories of "form" and "content," Fuller draws on Deleuze and Guattari's notion of the "machinic phylum" to explore how these pieces are connected to each other, and to "a whole interrogative field of social, juridicial, legislative and economic formations" (20). Pirate radio, he asserts, demonstrates the instability of the form/content dichotomy through its "capacity to generate medial growths that ground themselves in the attempt to impose form on them [...]. That is, the attempted hylomorphism itself becomes 'content' ? there is a coevolution, an arms race that feeds the machinic phylum" (23). For example, when the British authorities expanded their right to confiscate pirate radio equipment, which had previously permitted them to seize transmitters only, to include the "ability in law and practice to seize studio equipment" (23), pirate operators responded by physically separating studios and transmitters and connecting them with microwave links. The result is that "it is now harder to locate and capture a studio connected in this way to a transmitter than it was before the legislation was introduced" (23).
Another strength of this section of Fuller's argument is its steadfastness in demonstrating how even the most seemingly "immaterial" components of this anatomy are, in fact, deeply rooted in particular material formations. In one especially striking moment, he provides a long, narrative description of a fanciful "hip hop mathematics class" in which a professor dissects "the cadaver of a singer" and pulls the neural material responsible for word choice and vocal performance from the singer's brain, placing "the material [...] onto an overhead projector looking like a nest of phlegm eating worms" (28-29). For Fuller, asserting the material basis of the seemingly immaterial, an argument he derives in part from "Nietzsche's grounding of thought in materiality, in the thickness of life, in his renowned Polish blood" (2), does not lead to reductionism or simple determinism, as it might for a positivist. Instead, these material roots are complex, mutable, and allow Fuller to explore the multiple dimensions of a media system like London pirate radio and the ways this system is embedded in larger systems, such as global capital. The cell phones used by Pirate radio listeners to phone in requests and express their support for underground tracks, for example, contain within their very material anatomies "the rare metal tantalum" which links them "directly to the fomentation of a war that provided the raw material for components" (51).
Fuller develops the themes and observations he begins in his wide-ranging romp through the network of London pirate radio by zooming in close on the anatomy of a much smaller element in a media system. He uses John Hillard's photographic work A Camera Recording Its Own Condition (7 apertures, 10 speeds, 2 mirrors) as an entry point to discussing the drives embodied in the material construction of the camera, and of the objects at work in media systems in general. Hillard's piece consists of a series of photographs in which the camera has taken a picture of itself. Each photograph is taken at a different combination of aperture and shutter speed, and the piece as a whole documents the entire range of these settings available to the camera, creating a series of images ranging from dark to light. For Fuller, this series of images documents the contours of the anatomy of the camera. Rooted in this anatomy, he suggests, are "forces and drives" (56), what Vilem Flusser called "programs" in his Towards a Philosophy of Photography. Fuller quotes Flusser describing, "two interweaving programs in the camera. One of them motivates the camera into taking pictures; the other permits the photographer to play" (55). A Camera Recording Its Own Condition, Fuller shows, maps out the space created by these conflicting drives (what he calls, drawing from Manuel DeLanda, a "phase space"), one pushing toward the "well exposed" images in the center of the composition, the other towards the frames of light and darkness at the margins.
Drawing on the work of Foucault and Nieztche, Fuller then goes on to generalize the "drives" demonstrated by A Camera Recording Its Own Condition as representative of a "medial will to power." "The will to power is that which moves things across thresholds but cannot be defined by the states exemplified on either side of the threshold; it is what propels the fulfillment of what can momentarily be understood as a phase space but is not reducible to any steadiness of state" (63). In the case of the camera, for example, he writes:
This will is produced by the disjunctive aggregation of the extensive, measured mechanisms of the camera and the variable intensity of light as it enters the camera, as the camera comes into conjunction with the world ? that infinite reservoir of all possible patterns of light that forms its outside. This is the camera, its hunger, and what compels the user, as Flusser suggests, to bring it into alliance with his or her own: a new medial appetite. (82)
Using Marx and Antonio Negri, Fuller articulates the medial will to power, both in the specific case of the camera and in general, with contradictory forces arising from capitalism. Capital's desire to create labor-saving devices in the interest of profit "starts as an expropriation of the capacities of the body," but can become "an opening into a new realm of possibility" (68). The camera is at once an automated device for the timely creation of good, proper, well-exposed images and a space for "play" for the creation of unexpected and impossible images. In more general terms, "the abolition of work, 'labor saving,' is sublimated, but it still exists as a potential and a dream within the social and also as a drive within technology" (68).
Fuller provides a vivid demonstration of the potentials that can be unleashed when artists engage with the contradictory drives of the medial will to power in his exploration of the Bureau of Inverse Technology's BITRadio installation. This installation consisted of a guerilla radio transmitter installed near the site of the 2002 World Economic Forum. The transmitter "was set to the same frequency as a local National Public Radio member station," and connected to an automated apparatus designed to cause it to transmit "'a one second alert [...] over normal station programming when either asbestos, dioxins, or particulates fluctuates over the EPA set level'" (100). This bit of culture jamming, Fuller suggests, demonstrates how art can engage with and make dynamic the seemingly solidified and static "drives" of what he calls "standard objects." Standard objects are defined here as "the result of what Alfred North Whitehead called 'an ideally isolated system'" (93); that is, they are mass-produced objects (for example, the shipping container or the internet packet) which have been designed explicitly to conform to "'a uniform systematic scheme of relationships'" (93). Fuller points out that the components that make up BITRadio are standard objects, both the commodity electronics parts out of which it is manufactured and the government regulations it both breaks (the FCC rules against transmitting over the airwaves without a license and interrupting the broadcast of a legitimate broadcaster) and comments on others breaking (EPA limits on pollutants). BITRadio does not seek "breakdowns" in these objects; rather, it "depends on a sequence of components doing their jobs right" (103). Instead its accomplishment is creating a feedback loop within this system of objects and "adds other sets of processes to the world and makes connections where they shouldn't be" (103). In doing so, it demonstrates that each of the objects it is constructed out of "is not the same as the social processes [the object] is mobilized in and makes," while at the same time it "is never innocent" (104).
These examples provide, for this reader, Fuller's strongest thread of reasoning within the book. In his treatment of them, he provides apt demonstration and theorization of how "all standard objects contain with them drives, propensities and affordances that are 'repressed' by their standard uses, by the grammar of operations within which they are fit" (167), and how these "repressed" drives can be mobilized by artists and others. At the same time, he largely avoids the trap of treating technology and media as something neutral and infinitely malleable, instead demonstrating how both the potentials and the dangers of media technology are embedded in their material architecture and articulated with larger networks of power and social practice. Other lines of thought in the text, such as his attempt to make some use of the seemingly hopelessly reductionist notion of "memetic evolution" (a theory that holds culture is made up of discreet components called "memes," which are analogous to biological genes) seems less successful, in part because it is not as strongly tied to vivid examples.
These less compelling arguments might have been mitigated if Fuller had paid a bit more attention to the sociologist of science Bruno Latour, whose "actor-network theory" is in many ways analogous to Fuller's media ecologies. Latour gets only one nod in the text of Media Ecologies, but if Fuller had taken better heed of Latour's admonishment to "follow the actors," in other words to trace the movements of the users of socio-technological systems as the construct and use them, he might have avoided allowing his theoretical framework to float free of his examples, as he does in the section on memetics. In addition, he might have gotten greater use out of some of the book's most tantalizing connections, such as the connection between London pirate radio and colonial war via the rare metal tanatalum, which at present are mentioned but not always developed as fully as they might be.
My biggest frustration with the book, however, is that it is a book and thus, by Fuller's own admission, constrained by the anatomy of "a much slower media ecology ? that of books" (11). I would suggest that it would be more accurate to place Media Ecologies within the specific realm of academic book, and that what this realm lacks is not merely speed but strong connections to the media realms that Fuller has set out to explore. This often leaves Media Ecologies feeling strained on the page, wishing for the freedom to play with media systems "live, with no control sample"(1), but only able to add an echo to experiments already done. It is difficult, however, to blame Fuller for this failing. Indeed, he often seemed as frustrated by this fact as I was. At the close of his chapter on pirate radio he exhorts his readers, "to continue reading this, switch on the radio, make a transmitter." But, of course, the media ecology of the academic book demands and rewards books. Book publishing wins us legitimacy, tenure; building rebel radios and hacking together bastard geometries of networked computers does not. Media Ecologies is a vivid demonstration of the limitations of this single-minded focus, and this, perhaps, is in fact its strongest argument.