Internet – Lit Reviews – New Media, Old Media Reader

The essays that comprise this reader forage far and wide for fodder. This review cannot encompass the entire scope of their contributions, but in the same way that the collection provides an introductory overview of many crucial topics in internet (and related media/technology) studies, we can begin with a look at some highlights from the text, and then return later for more in-depth analysis and critique of other selections. Wendy Chun’s introduction to the volume does a more complete and thorough job of this than can a blog post. If we begin with a review of her piece, then, we get a good sense of the state of internet research as far as media studies are concerned. What emerges at the limits of this research, made clear by her analysis of the variations on political-economic, visual-cultural, archaeological, systemic, and aesthetic themes taken up by the contributors, is the mobilization of an opposition between continuity and rupture, in both historical and theoretical terms. In other words, media studies – especially new media studies – is founded on the claim that it can mediate between change and continuity.

In Thomas Elsaesser’s treatment of film theory’s abutment of digital media, he follows the same pattern of reviewing apparent oppositions. Throughout, he maintains that film theory’s weakenesses are its metaphysical, teleological tendencies. The key point of articulation for him is the discursive trajectory that binds (and separates) literature, film, and digital media. To be sure, the questions of ideological or methodological differences between such studies raise the critical further question of how film theorists constitute their archive. Elsaesser concentrates on early film for historical context of a theoretical survey that includes analytical models gleaned from Foucault, Kittler, Paul Virilio, and Tom Gunning – yet leaves other voices curiously silent, such as feminist or apparatus theorists of cinema. In short, Elsaesser demonstrates that what new media reveal about film theory was there all along in the latter, and that if there is any historical continuity at stake in cinema’s complex and violent enraptures with capital and military force, it is the ongoing dissolution of referentiality that he sees at work in the world at large.

Vannevar Bush, of course, laid the groundwork for this contemporary work when he described, in 1945, the “memex” – a memory index that prefigures what we can call hypertext. As historiographic model and historical artifact, the article reproduced here provides critical background for the more recent questions raised by scholars of the cultural internet. Although the thrust of his argument takes a tangential direction to other parts of this project, its influence remains clear. For example, Wolfgang Ernst derives his understanding of an archive from remarkably similar grounds. As he struggles to connect Foucault-inspired media archaeology with the transformation of material archives at the advent of digital recording, he unfortunately reproduces a certain limitation introduced by Foucault. That is, Ernst naturalizes a very narrow cultural perspective, wrought of highly privileged, white, Northern, male, and other such dominant identifications. Ernst’s discussion of “intentional” archives, though, does isolate an important problem for media scholarship. The contradiction inherent in examining an a priori archive is that it is not assembled by the analyst, but parsed. As cultural theorists, then, we must approach this epistemological dilemma by considering other methods than archaeology to deal with collections. In so doing, we confront the question of temporal history without breaking it down into diegetic transmission of knowledge. For example, drawing from related issues in Foucault and Bush, we might consider runtime operations as discursive statements in their own right.

In a later section, subtitled Power-Code, Alexander Galloway turns our attention to the machinations not of cinema or archive theory, but of concrete internet protocols. He examines how protocols emerged, how they are written, and who maintains and governs them, concentrating on the technologically elite handful at the heart of the internet’s institutions. Historically bounded and straightforwardly explanatory, his essay tracks the curious contradiction that rules and regulations present as they become necessary for the development of an open and transparent internet architecture. The management of that contradiction leads him to focus first on the infrastructure and systemic conditions of the internet as a cultural object, and secondarily to attend to mediated themes of internet culture as its own category of analysis. This theoretical challenge — delineating the necessity and persistence of structures and processes of control for understanding questions of freedom and access – warrants further investigation. Galloway’s methodical approach also deserves attention, since its meticulous aggregation of archival material provides a useful model for related research.

Lev Manovitch, in contrast, takes a more speculative angle as he meditates on the aesthetic characteristics of programmable, digital media. Taking the multimedia platform Flash as a metonym for contemporary art, the essay considers the technical factors of creative work and argues for their increasing importance in determining the aesthetic appearance of art. Avoiding drawn-out discussion of political, economic, or historical factors on that importance, Manovitch approaches images and interactive visual media without relying on textual/literary or cinematic/filmic vocabularies. His most revealing insight is also his weakest — that a generation of artists raised with the capacity to program, rather than only to perform or to represent, produces art that requires a unique set of aesthetic criteria, equally comfortable with technological development. One cannot help flinching at the reliance, for this claim, on a single, proprietary (if freely available) technology and its common uses. A more robust art-historical argument may have to find a different spokesperson.

Other useful pieces crop up throughout the reader. For example, in Wolfgang Hagen’s analysis of the development of programming languages, we find a robust model for computer science as an object of cultural study, if not for the internet as such. As he processes symbolic information, he successfully navigates problems of generalization, to manage the contradiction of writing a history invested in traditional scholarship but so deeply inflected and organized by programmatic thought that its form follows that of a source code repository rather than that of a review essay. McKenzie Wark takes the opposite approach to the contradiction between temporal and perceptual diminishing around the concept of an event as mediated by globally distributed technology, and the capacity of critical theory to make arguments and draw insights about those events. Arvind Rajagopal, more cautiously, takes on the question of perception directly. He recognizes the materiality of the mediation between old and new structures of thought (that is, mediated media), and asks after their instrumental, historical, and linguistic importance. However, he does so inconsistently – a more sustained treatment of his same topics should prove quite revealing, and he’s going on my reading list for sure.

Elsewhere in the collection, a resurrected essay from the late 1980s by Mary Anne Doane, about television and temporality, strikes a strange note. Its film-historical approach to televisual media comes off as linear, and without attention to the political or historical contingency of the medium. Its assumption that all television follows not only the visual but the temporal codes of its news programs also seems off the mark, and indicates a deeper problem with Doane’s argument. That is, the visual codes that comprise televisual genres are not transparently available for us to intuit, but rather lead us towards assumption of the very sort undertaken here. The trifold schema of information, crisis, and catastrophe as temporal modes also fails to account for the time that it takes for transmission of a message via television to propagate through airwaves and audiences, even while demanding that we complicate our understandings of time. In short, Doane’s error here seems to have been a fundamental assumption that television signifies – a thought that would require a far more rigorous explication of the media systems of which television is only one part.

Vicente Rafael’s analysis of cell phone use in the Phillipines during the 2001 coup that overthrew President Joseph Estrada takes a very different view of media systems.  In it, Rafael posits the crowd as a medium in its own right, thereby launching into a cleverly organized and thoughtfully pursued critique of class and collective consciousness, media and technology adoption and reappropriation, and political desires in social context. Tying mass use of cell phones – in different patterns of use as against different political contexts – to collective desires for transcendence or messianic redemption, the essay weaves together a convincing argument that technology’s politically affective potential is deeply contingent upon its deployment in specific historical situations. Moving beyond facile declarations of the power of technology to set idealism free, into a pointed critique of the conditions of such power, Rafael comes to concentrate on the real, lived effects of social organization around and through technological means.

On the topic of lived effects, Lisa Nakamura gives the clearest and most penetrating explanation of the paradox that faces media and technology researchers. As we confront the question of post-humanism’s consequences, such as machine intelligence, increasing automation of mundane tasks, or the acceleration of virtual worlds, we must do so from a perspective embodied by humans’ lived realities. Nakamura establishes firm footing for those who would critique the internet’s apparent gender-, race-, and class-neutral claims. She demonstrates both the machinic qualities of critical theories of such subjectivities, and the humanist characteristics of technological innovations. In so doing, her essay provides us with an acid that dissolves the entrenchments of stereotypes. As contemporary critique, her work continues to serve as a model for others.

The many perspectives outlined in this reader often clash. Though Chun and Keenan strive to organize these disparate essays into categorically and conceptually meaningful groups, the fundamental overlaps and incommensurabilities between various theories and methods might prove unwieldy for in-depth discussion. Still, the reader gives an excellent diving board, and an eminently approachable face, to the most important and complex issues surrounding digital and analog media studies. Its inclusion in further courses seems secure; where one goes from there is the real question. To that end, some of the highly fraught and contingent relationships among media, technology, and other key terms for the field are posted here. Those will undergo annotation for the end of the preliminary planning phase of this research.

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