Mediation-Oriented Ontology “Avant la Lettre”?

One of the reasons I have been interested in the development of object-oriented ontology over the past several years is that I have been working on and off since the late 1990s on what might be characterized as a media-oriented or mediation-oriented ontology.  As early as 1996, in the essay “Remediation,” which Jay David Bolter and I published in Configurations, we wrote that “Media function as objects within the world–within systems of linguistic, cultural, social, and economic exchange” (349).

Later in the same part of the essay we further elaborated the ontology of mediation: “As we know from a visit to any traditional museum, the space between viewer and canvas is controlled, institutionalized, and policed as a special, real kind of space, which people walk around or wait before entering. In our own time the colonization of museum space has been extended to the space between a photographer or videographer and the object of her mediating technology. When a tourist is taking a photograph or making a video, for example, we treat the line of sight between the camera and the object as if it were a real obstruction: we walk around it, bend under it, or wait until it is gone. We make these gestures not only out of politeness, but also to acknowledge the reality of the act of mediation that we are witnessing. In this case, the act of mediation functions in a system of pedestrian traffic circulation like a tree, a wire, or a traffic light (which is also an act of mediation whose reality we acknowledge). Mediations are real not only because the objects produced (photos, videos, films, paintings, CD-ROMS, etc.) circulate in the real world, but also because the act of mediation itself functions as a [Latourian] hybrid and is treated much like a physical object” (349-50). Some of the rhetorical qualifications in this passage (as in much of Remediation) derive from the compromises of co-authorship.  In the years following our publication of Remedition my own characterization of the reality of mediation has been and continues to be more direct.

A somewhat more direct characterization can be found in my 2001 lecture entitled “Screen Space, Collage, and the Remediation of Modernism.”  The piece is obviously dated, but its argument that the development of digital media screens echoes Clement Greenberg’s account of the development of modernism still seems to have some merit, especially in light of the ways in which our new media have left the picture plane of the computer screen and moved into the world–whether in mobile devices, the proliferation of public screens, and even the internet of things.

I’ve never published the piece, but in looking back over it recently it occurred to me that I might post it here in case it would be of interest to anyone.  Rather than attempt to update the talk to take account of recent developments in philosophy, media theory, or media themselves, I thought I would simply post it as a pdf here in its 2001 form.

Screen Space

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“Post-Cinematic Atavism” (SCMS, March 9, 2013)

Attached is a pdf of my talk at the 2013 Annual Conference of the Society for Media Studies, delivered on March 9, 2013, at a session entitled “Primordigital Cinema.”  Enjoy.

Post-Cinematic Atavism


Here’s the accompanying powerpoint:

Post-Cinematic Atavism–SCMS



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Asteroids, MOOCs, and Medical Records: Mediashock and the Entrepeneurship of Cybercapitalism

What do asteroids, MOOCs, and medical records have in common?  All are examples, currently in the news, of the way in which public policy in the US is driven not by the common good or professionals or expert knowledge, but by the generation of mediashock in the service of the entrepeneurial desire of cybercapitalism to monetize data.  Let me offer a quick explanation.

An article on the front page of today’s (2/20/13) New York Times presents the unsurprising news that 2009 federal legislation to require the digitization of health and medical records was driven by the opportunity to turn data into corporate profit, though sold to the government and the American public as being done for public health reasons.  Four years later, the Times article tells us, companies like Allscripts Healthcare Solutions of Chicago or the Cerner Corporation of Kansas City, Missouri, have increased sales by hundreds of millions of dollars, and executives of those companies have gotten wealthy, while doctors and hospitals are still struggling to adapt to this new technical regime.  It may very well be the case that the digitization of health records will contribute to the public good; but what is certainly true is that the first consequence of this transformation has been greatly to enrich a few individuals and corporations.

Late last week, on the day after the February 15 meteorite explosion over Russia, the New York Times featured an article on how the explosion created an opportunity to make money off of data-driven asteroid defense systems.  “A group of young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who helped build thriving companies like eBay, Google and Facebook has already put millions of dollars into the effort and saw Friday’s shock wave as a turning point in raising hundreds of millions more.” Why worry about pressing needs like climate change, drought and famine, or global health when there is money to be made from the development of an asteroid defense system?  While it appears at this point unlikely that this fantasy will materialize, the cybercapitalist logic–premediating a social need or public good for the purpose of generating profits–is not very different from what the Times describes in the case of digitizing medical records.

Which brings me to MOOCs.  The current gold rush to MOOCification is positoned somewhere in between the phantasmatic entrepeneurial premediation of an asteroid defense system and the ongoing transformation of US medical records from print to digital media formats.  Although there is a tremendous amount of energy and some capital investment inflating the current MOOC bubble, it is not yet clear whether MOOCs will become institutionalized in the world of higher education in the same way that the digitization of health records has in the medical system.

But what is clear is that both of these efforts represent attempts by cybercapitalist entrepeneurs to drive the development of major public institutions (healthcare, education) for the purpose of monetizing or captitalizing on digital data.  Like the healthcare system, higher education is sitting on a treasure trove of data–particularly about its students.  What makes MOOCs so attractive to Silicon Valley (and other) entrepeneurs is the opportunity they offer to create value out of this data.  On the one hand MOOCs are being successfully marketed as a solution to problems of cost, access, and efficiency in 21st century higher education. On the other hand they are being presented to educational administrators (mainly of elite or elite-wanna be institutions) as a way to cash in on their educational capital. In this way MOOCs resemble asteroid-defense efforts as much as efforts to digitize health records, capitalizing on a current crisis to create millions for cybercapitalist entrepeneurs.

Naomi Klein has described as a “shock doctrine” the similar practice by the US government in deploying “free market” ideology to exert US and corporate control over nations and markets across the globe.  I have more recently characterized this in terms of a “mediashock doctrine” perpetuated through US print, televisual, and networked media.  Through the creation and intensification of “mediashock,” the US and increasingly global public is prepared to accept as necessary and desirable the latest cybercapitalist entrepeneurial schemes as solutions to problems presented by the media.

Although by no means the only media assemblage practicing mediashock, the New York Times is one of its most adept practitioners.  Its ongoing enthusiastic campaign for the MOOCification of higher education is only one close-to-home example of its deployment of the mediashock doctrine. Given the overwhelming number and scope of “wicked problems” facing the US and the world at large, it is incumbent upon all of us to look for approaches and solutions that take the greater good of humans and nonhumans, not the generation of profits for cybercapitalism, as their goal.

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Whose Right To Unlimited Data?

(For @aaronsw)

While watching the NFL playoffs on TV this weekend I was stunned by the following commercial, which affected me so strangely and powerfully that I had to write this blog entry in an attempt to explain.

Although this Sprint commercial clearly piqued me, I did not immediately know why. It took me a moment to figure out that it had something to do with the “thinking-feeling” of watching the commercial in the mediational “stimmung” that has emerged in the wake of Aaron Swartz having hanged himself on Friday, January 11 (Massumi, “The Thinking-Feeling of What Happens”).  Swartz’s suicide was apparently a depressive reaction to what Lawrence Lessig called “prosecutorial bullying,” his ongoing prosecution by the Justice Department for attempting to download thousands of articles from JSTOR, a non-profit academic database whose holdings were available (mainly to academics) through paid subscriptions from university libraries. Hacking JSTOR, like most of Swartz’s online actions, was done in the service of a fundamental commitment to open and universal access to information, sloganized by Stewart Brand in 1984 as “information wants to be free.”

In order to unpack my affective response to Sprint’s “unlimited data pan” commercial, I need to detour through another recent television ad campaign, for Apple’s highly touted “Retina Display,” first unveiled for the iPad 3.

Apple’s advertisement deploys the 80s and 90s logic of remediation, simultaneously calling attention to and erasing the device’s technical mediation.  The narrative consists of two parallel assertions about mediation, each of which begins with a phrase (“when a screen becomes this good”) that names the aspect of remediation that sees each new media technology as improving on, and hence re-mediating, existing media technologies. Together these assertions replicate the double logic of remediation.

The first assertion foregrounds the hypermediacy of the Retinal Display screen, enacting a movement from the materiality of screenic mediation to the real:  “When a screen becomes this good, colors are more vibrant, words are pin-sharp, everything becomes more brilliant.” In moving from “vibrant colors” to “pin-sharp words” to the becoming brilliant of everything, the first assertion mingles perception, sensation, and affect with the technical mediation of the Retinal Display. 

The second assertion, however, suggests that the consequence of Apple’s improved technical mediation is not to emphasize mediation but to do away with it: “Because when a screen becomes this good, it’s simply you and the things you care about.”  What makes the Retinal Display “this good,” what results from its technical remediation, is the fact that it disappears.  Rather than colors or words or brilliance, the screen leaves only “you and the things you care about,” together without the mediation of image or text or luminosity.  

Like Apple’s earlier iPad Retinal Display commercial, Sprint’s commercial for its “Truly Unlimited Data” plan for iPhone 5 sets a tone reminiscent of 90s digital sublimity, here remediated for the rhetoric of 21st century social media marketing: “The miraculous is everywhere, in our homes, our minds.”  But where Apple’s retinal display commercial markets a media device, Sprint’s ad highlights sharing, connectivity, and data. “We can share every second in data dressed in pixels—a billion roaming photojournalists uploading the human experience.” 

Where the Retinal Display marketed the affective life of media, the Sprint ad markets the affectivity of our mediated lives.  Measuring experience in data and pixels, the Sprint ad is selling the sublimity of a life led online by billions: “and it is spectacular, so why would you cap that?”  During the montage, the words “unlimited” and “connect” flash supra-liminally on the screen.

Sprint’s “truly unlimited data” is attached to a specific device, the iPhone 5. Almost like the eye (or “i”) of God, “my iPhone 5 can see every point of view, every panorama, the entire gallery of humanity.” Where the Retinal Display is so good that it erases itself, the iPhone 5 generates the need to erase the embodied self by uploading human experience to the cloud.

What comes next is what threw me off, what stopped me in my affectively mediated tracks, particularly in light of Aaron Swartz’s suicide. The commercial’s voiceover ends as follows: “I need to upload all of me, I need—no, I have the right—to be unlimited. Only Sprint offers truly unlimited data for iPhone 5.”

Moving from the “need to upload all of me” (which echoes what Katherine Hayles has summarized as “Hans Moravec’s transhumanist fantasy that we will soon be able to upload our consciousness into computers and leave our bodies behind,” “Wrestling with Transhumanism”) to the “right” to “truly unlimited data,” the Sprint commercial remediates the cyber-libertarian belief in the universal political right of unlimited access to information as a consumerist right to an unlimited data plan. In the media “stimmung” generated by Aaron Swartz’s suicide, this transformation of a political ideal for which he (and indeed many others) lived and (sometimes) died into Sprint’s newest data plan for the iPhone 5 produced an affective thinking-feeling that a blog entry can only begin to explain. 

As Aaron Swartz’s courageous life and tragic death remind us, the data to which Sprint would sell us unlimited access is in fact severely limited, owned and protected by governmental and corporate institutions who choose precisely what we can access and what we cannot, what information is “free,” what can be purchased, and what cannot be accessed at any price.  Indeed the only “truly unlimited data” that might exist is that which Sprint and Apple, Facebook and Google, or state and federal governments obtain from us, as we take advantage of their “unlimited data plans” and free online services to “upload the human experience” to their databanks, where it can be mined for commercial and political ends.  

While this structural homology between the cyber-libertarian belief in unlimited access to information and the  neoliberal marketing of unlimited data betrays the fact that both positions have their origins in classical liberalism, this shared intellectual genealogy must not be taken as equating the two sets of commitments.  For there can be no mistake.  It was precisely in the service of interests like those represented by Sprint’s “unlimited data plan” that the US Department of Justice and its corporate allies prosecuted Aaron Swartz to his death.  






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Polls, Premediation, and Romney’s Affective Path to the White House

If you Google the phrase “Romney’s path to the White House,” or if you have simply been paying attention to media coverage of the 2012 US presidential election, you will note that virtually all discussion of how Romney might actually win in November focuses on polling and the electoral college.  On first glance of course this makes absolute sense.  Reporters and pundits remind us that the race is about the Electoral College, that to understand who has the best chance to win, or how each candidate can win, we need to add up electoral votes to see how many different ways each candidate can get to the magical number of 270.  Thanks to interactive touch-screens featuring red-and-blue maps of the 50 (or mostly 48) US states, TV reporters like CNN’s John King or NBC’s Chuck Todd delight themselves (if not their viewers) by endlessly changing the color of various “swing states” to premediate the various combinations of states that could pave the way for Romney or Obama to win the 2012 presidential election.  And for most of these combinations, Ohio (or Florida) seems key.

As fond as I am of interactive electoral math and statistical sampling, our current obsession with polling too often detracts our attention from the factors or forces that shape or mobilize the voter sentiment that polls seek to capture.  Thus when I express concern about a possible Romney victory, I am reminded by my poll-obsessed friends that Nate Silver still shows Obama with a 70% chance of winning or with nearly 300 electoral votes or that Obama still leads solidly in Ohio and Florida, or that the reliable polls show the race to be much less close than the MSM headlines suggest, and so forth.  As if I don’t know those things myself.

But polls are at best measures or simulations or samples of where the electorate stands at a particular moment.   While it is true that sites like Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight or Sam Wang’s Princeton Election Consortium provide superb historical records of where the polls have been along with their forecasts of where the polls are going, what they are not equipped to do is to imagine or dare I say premediate the various potential affective formations that might cause the polls to move in one direction to the other.  That is to say, while such sites do an excellent job of premediating various statistical paths to the presidency, what they are unable to do is to premediate the affective paths, the potential electoral mood or stimmung, that might cause the polls to change, that might propel one or the other candidate to the presidency.

Which brings me to the question: What is Romney’s affective path to the presidency?

From the moment that Romney announced Ryan as his running mate with the retired battleship Wisconsin as their stage, my fear was that the only way a Romney-Ryan ticket could defeat Obama-Biden was to stir up a nationalistic, xenophobic, and fascist mood or structure of feeling among the electorate.  And we have seen signs of this at various times, particularly in Romney’s aggressive statements and speeches about Obama’s foreign policy, especially the way he jumped on the Obama administration in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the Libyan embassy or his failed attempts to stir up xenophobic feelings about China’s trade tactics.

But in the aftermath of the debate, I see a slightly different version of this affective path emerging, one motivated less (or not only) by fear. Romney’s current affective path to the presidency passes more through a feeling of security in Romney’s leadership, as reflected in the latest Quinnipiac University/New York Times/CBS News poll of likely voters in Colorado, Virginia and Wisconsin, which showed that in the aftermath of the first debate voters in those states felt that Romney, not Obama, showed greater leadership qualities.  Indeed this path is not distinct from the kind of nationalistic affect mentioned above.  The current controversy over security failures at the Libyan embassy could provide a way for  Romney to link voter confidence in his leadership with geopolitical insecurity or fear–particularly if we were to have an October terrorist surprise that could be used to intensify doubts about Obama’s ability to protect Americans from foreign threats as well as about his ability to lead the nation out of its ongoing economic crisis.

This is my fear–that Romney is succeeding in presenting himself in the image of the stern but caring white patriarch that has been one of the leading affective manifestations of the American presidency.  Romney’s current strategy of projecting an affectivity of certainty, determination, and purpose irrespective of facts or consistency seems to be working in persuading voters that he, not Obama, is best positioned to lead the country through the next four years.  To counteract the intensification and amplification of this electoral mood the Obama campaign needs to fight Romney on affective not cognitive turf.  Pointing out the  inconsistencies in Romney’s positions on the issues, or even calling him out on the specifics of his lies, can work to reinforce the feelings of Obama supporters that they are right in preferring Obama over Romney but does little or nothing to change the mood of the electorate.

What then can be done?  For one, Obama needs to project his own counter-mood of leadership, underscoring in strong, unhesitant language the economic and geopolitical leadership his administration has provided in leading America out of the mess that Bush had left for him.  He needs to underscore in no uncertain terms how Obamacare and his position on tax fairness provides protection and security for the vast majority of Americans.  And the Obama campaign (including, I would argue, Biden and Obama in the coming debates) needs to return to the questions of Romney’s dishonesty and self-serving behavior, hammering home the failure to disclose his taxes, for example, and even perhaps creating some doubt about his beholdenness to the Mormon Church.

Where Kerry was Swift-Boated, Romney needs to be 1040ed.  Most of this work will need to be performed by surrogates.  But it needs to be performed. The strategy to derail the Romney-Ryan train does not lie in calling them out on the details of their lies, their inconsistencies, or their lack of specifics but on casting doubt on or better yet disrupting the affective narrative they continue to tell about their strong, paternalistic leadership.  A two-pronged affective strategy of presenting Obama as a firm but caring leader and making Romney and Ryan look self-serving and dishonest will help them to secure the support of women and minority voters, to weaken Romney’s support among independents, and consequently to pave an affective path to the White House that will manifest itself clearly and decisively not only in the mood of the electorate but in the electoral statistics, graphs. and maps that so many of us love so very much.

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Medi(t)ation: Stitching Time

For the past few years I have been trying to think mediation, to move through or delve into the concept that is at the root of remediation and premediation, to think about what kind of action or event or thing mediation is—to understand what kind of work mediation performs.  My basic assumption or starting point is the idea that mediation should not, as it has in the history of Western thought, be considered as a secondary event or action, but rather as primary.  Mediation as primary then needs to be thought not as something that comes between two agents or objects or subjects that are already given, but as that which constitutes objects, agents, or events, as that out of which or through which or by means of which individual objects or entities emerge—mediation as a kind of individuation.  This mediation is also, as Latour reminds us, a form of translation, an action that transforms that which is mediated into something different from what it was, as an action that produces change.  This is not to deny that there are agents, objects, entitites, but rather to insist that they are themselves mediations, that is, that they themselves are transformations or translations of other objects, agents, forces, flows, and so forth and that it is only as they continue to be translated or mediated (at however slow a pace or long a scale, as say a piece of granitic gneiss or an ongoing event of erosion like the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River) that they continue to exist.

One way I am now beginning to think mediation is through the process of medi(t)ation, most specifically through the process of mindful breathing that is at the core of so much meditation.  For breathing is a wonderful example of the primacy of mediation, as well as the way in which mediation functions as translation. Is breathing a function of life or is life a function of breathing?  Both seem true—or they seem inseparable.  But it certainly seems to be the case that without breath there is no life.  But leaving that question aside for a moment, we can still see how breath functions as mediation in an interesting way, as a living organism’s mediation/translation between its individual life and the world within or among which it lives, moves, acts, feels, etc.  In breathing the body is itself a medium, which is involved with coming between the in-breath and the out-breath, the inhale and the exhale. One breathes in “air”; it is then taken into the blood, the circulation system, through the lungs; one exhales “air.”  But the air that is exhaled is different from the air that is inhaled; it has been mediated by the body, translated from oxygen to carbon-dioxide.  Meditation as mindful breathing is in this sense a becoming aware of mediation, a coming aware of the body as medium, of one of the many different ways that the body is a medium, and of the ways, therefore, that mediation is life, is primary, not a dependent, secondary concept.

In becoming aware of one’s breathing, however, one also becomes aware of the fragility of the living body and of the way it is knitted or stitched together by one’s breaths (and other bodily functions necessary for human mediation to continue).  For in attending to one’s breaths one comes to understand that breathing in and out is not a continuous, unbroken process, but rather that it is dependent upon the break, the shift in modality from inhaling to exhaling.  In attending to these breaks, these transitions or mediations from gathering breath into one’s lungs and bloodstream and then expelling it through one’s nose and mouth, it becomes clear that breaths are and must be stitched together in order for life to exist.  Put differently, breathing is a kind of  “stitching time,” to allude to the title of Erin Manning’s magical installation for the 2012 Sidney Biennale, on the top floor of a deserted building on Cockatoo Island.

Manning describes “Folds to Infinity,” the larger project of which “Stitching Time” is one manifestation as follows:

Folds to Infinity (2008–ongoing) features a textile collection made up of serged pieces of fabric, cut to the shape of hundreds of pattern pieces that connect through magnets, buttons and buttonholes to create constellations both architectural and wearable. The collection is presented in site-conditioned installations whose purpose is to rethink the relationship between fabric, the body and the environment. Participants are invited to explore how collective practices of folding-in, to create clothing, and folding-out, to create architectural environments, can provide a springboard for re-experiencing what a body can do. The emphasis on collective expression is always interwoven with an emphasis on re-examining the role time plays in creative encounters. Folds to Infinity is a slow piece that has evolved over many years through sewing circles in Canada, Australia and Finland. These sewing circles are weekly gatherings that have, over the years, become central to the art practice. They are not simply a preparation for the dissemination of the work – they are the ongoing genesis of a relational practice.

Although not explicitly concerned either with breathing or with mediation, the installation “Stitching Time” suggests to me precisely the workings of both.  The installation is made up of thousands of pieces of fabric, cut to the shape of the patterns that, stitched together, make the clothing that our bodies wear almost without any real a-wear-ness of their composition.  These pattern pieces are folded and draped and hung and gathered together with magnets and buttons and thread on a topology of netting that links the installation to the ship-mending history of Cockatoo Island. While one might suggest that these pattern pieces are the given primary materials which then are mediated by the artist, atomistic building blocks that precede the act of relation or mediation, this would be to overlook the fact that the pieces themselves have been stitched together in sewing circles by people whose embodied breathings in and out have themselves stitched together their bodily actions of folding and cutting and sewing. That is, these elements are themselves produced through the embodied, collective, technical mediation of the sewing circles themselves, which are also a part of a heterogeneous fabric of human and nonhuman mediation, the assemblage that Folds to Infinity stitches together.

Indeed the installation stitches together moments of mediation. By folding and linking these pieces of fabric both inward to make clothing to drape or swaddle individual bodies and outward to create an architectural environment that works to drape or swaddle the installation space so that multiple bodies can gather and disperse, circulate and rest, “Stitching Time” becomes itself a mediation of breathing, allowing visitors to enter, move, stop, and experience their own bodies and then exhaling them as they leave the installation space. Indeed temporality, like relation, is key to the mediation that “Stitching Time” performs.  Lit only by the changing natural light, the installation is far from static.  Shapes and colors change almost by the moment, remediating the architecture of the space to produce new and infinite relations among netting, fabric, and bodies.

“Stitching Time” achieves something like the aim of art that Henry David Thoreau sets out in Walden; or, Life in the Woods: “It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”  By folding and stitching together fabrics, bodies, and space, “Stitching Time” does not simply “make a few objects beautiful,” but presents an installation of exquisite beauty that “paints the very atmosphere and medium through which we look,” live, and move—what Thoreau calls “the highest of the arts.”

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After the Nonhuman Turn

On the day after the Nonhuman Turn conference I went for a walk up Lake Drive.  I had an experience that I often have; you’ve probably had it, too. Walking on the right of the sidewalk, I regularly have runners pass me on the left. Sometimes two or more of them run talking together; my body tracks them with my ears as they approach and then overtake me. Sometimes I catch the sound of feet on concrete just before a silent runner or two pass me by. But other times, and this is the experience that interests me, I find myself turning my body and attention suddenly to the left, with no perception or consciousness of the runner who suddenly emerges at my side and runs past. In these latter cases my body makes a nonhuman turn, prior to and independent of either perception or cognition, as I only become aware of the runner after my nonhuman turn.

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