Uncontemporary Media Theory: a Course Outline Manifesto

On: May 5, 2008
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About Michael Stevenson
I am a lecturer and PhD candidate in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam. I've been a contributor to Masters of Media since 2006, though I now only post occasionally. A short list of papers and projects can be found here


Amsterdam, May 2008

By Michael Stevenson, Rosa Menkman, Jasper Moes, Erinc Salor and Esther Weltevrede (MA mediastudies, University of Amsterdam) with Geert Lovink

Bruce Sterling’s Dead Media Project, now expired, was on to something. In the rush to discover and define the new, there is never patience for what is being replaced. A pet project still sporadically referenced on Sterling’s blog, the idea was to document the ‘spiritual ancestors’ of today’s media.

It’s telling, though, that the Webby version of media archeology takes paleontology as its reference point. Sterling and co. stood ready with shovel in hand to deal with the ‘centralized, dinosaurian one-to-many media that roared and trampled through the 20th century’. The basic conviction underlying the new media frenzy around Virtual Reality and Cyberspace (and now Web 2.0) – one of violent dislocation from Before, on to an unknowable After – remained intact. Pre-history means no history.

If there is room for lament today, perhaps attention should turn to the new media entrepreneur, always gearing up for another revolution. The weight of the dot.com burst lingers in the knowing Youtube favorite, Here Comes Another Bubble, and in the rants of Andrew Keen. But are the media theorists any better off? Continually pressed to explain the ‘new’ in new media – something the entrepreneurs do well enough on their own – it is hard to avoid radical stalemate. Inherent in the term new media is a contradiction: the new is registered in the future tense – new media are always what will happen, whether it is replacing ‘mainstream media’ or each other – but will also one day be old, obsolete. New media theories easily suffer from the same flaws as their object of study, outdated while simultaneously framed in the future. The solution is not to avoid Google, blogs or whatever comes next, but to reconsider the role of media theory when its object of study is always on the verge of another transformation.

Coordinates include media archeology and mass psychology, as outlined below. Things to avoid are classical historicism and the cult of the new. The aim is to investigate the foundation of new media without recycling ordinary chronologies. In the age of cross media it is no longer useful to know that radio came before film and television before photography. This is the problem of the media archeology approach. Whereas knowledge of ancient (and superior) models and concepts existed, and unlikely futures were sketched, there is a great danger of misusing history to compensate for the all too fluid present.

What critical new media practitioners need is displacement. We do not necessarily need a general Web 2.0 or YouTube theory. In many cases it is too early for that. Nor do we need general philosophy classes that teach Marx, Deleuze and Freud, which are then applied to the object in need of theorization. This is an old school approach with which new media studies have suffered too long. Instead of mechanically utilizing general concepts from the field of theory and implanting them into Web 2.0, games, social networking sites and so on, we propose another method in which theory disrupts and disconnects the constant cry for new approaches.

Uncontemporary Media Theory is the outcome of a tutorial, taught by Geert Lovink. The aim was to bring us out of a comfort zone and force untimely perspectives on the present. It was a Dead Media Theory Project, but different. The alternative offered is a canon that mixes media archeology with sore-thumb themes, putting new media in an old light.


Store. Search. Digg. Increased awareness of the technological conditions for archiving comes at a time when these over-determine our capacity to remember. What we can still rescue, Friedrich Kittler writes, are stories of what has become. From McLuhan we know that a new technology inscribes itself in those that came before it. Kittler adds to this a sense of what is at stake: media dominate, and make their presence felt, lest they fall to the wayside. Archeology is not so much concerned with history as it is with the ‘site’, a place of occupation and the ‘where’ of traces and past events. Archeology focuses on the mess of media, critiquing linear histories while examining technical conditions governing what is sayable, knowable.

No war without representation. This is the key lesson of the development of media in the 20th century and today. Visual technologies, from searchlights to aerial photography, were deployed to construct and ultimately capture the enemy. Illusion, misinformation and simulation feature prominently in what Paul Virilio calls the logistics of perception, and in the “the deadly harmony that always establishes itself between the functions of eye and weapon” (Virilio, 1984: 69). War remains embedded in new media, whether glaringly – as in the recruitment game America’s Army – or under the surface, as with the tracking and tracing technologies that make up locative media. Today’s networked communications were brandished during the Cold War (Edwards, 1996) and its fallout (Turner, 2006). Genealogies of new media may also take their cue from studies of war sciences (Galison,1994; Hayles, 1999). The liberating potential of new technologies is well-known, their shady pasts less so. How can we learn from these and forge alternative understandings of the present?

Against theories of technological dissemination we could place theories of mass accumulation. New media are still defined in opposition to mass media, both in terms of technical flexibility (speed) and the meanings attributed to this (ideology). The crucial project for new media is to rid itself of the old, but attempts to imagine new forms of the mass – networks and mobs – have only led back to an uncomfortable maxim: the repressed always reboots. It’s hard to move on. One problem, dealt with by Canetti and later Marshall McLuhan, is to see media not just as channels for information but more importantly as substitutes for crowd sensations – differently translated functions of touch, release, seize and incorporate. What can a crowd perspective tell us about the desire to break with the old, about the ongoing mass production of ‘newness’?

Course Description

The course that produced this text, along with a few earlier posts, centers on three core works on media, mass psychology and war. Crowds and Power (1960) is Elias Canetti’s magnum opus, a study of the human condition from the perspective of crowd behavior. For Canetti, the fundamental drive guiding human behavior is to become more, while surviving all the others. In Male Fantasies (1987-1989 [1977- 1978]) Klaus Theweleit draws on Canetti and post-Freudian psychoanalysis to understand how collective trauma, gender relations and a fear of the unruly mass formed essential characteristics of fascism. Theweleit’s former colleague Friedrich Kittler has established the discipline of media archeology. His book Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (1999 [1986]) combines technological histories with contemporaneous reactions by ‘so-called Man’, chronicling the technical severance of acoustics, vision and writing from the body.


Primary Literature

Canetti, Elias. Crowds and Power. New York: Viking Press, 1962.

Kittler, Friedrich. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter. Trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999 [1986].

Theweleit, Klaus. Male Fantasies. Volume 1: Women, Floods, Bodies, History. Trans. Stephen Conway et al. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987 [1977]

Theweleit, Klaus. Male Fantasies Volume 2: Male Bodies: Psychoanalyzing the White Terror. Trans. Erica Carter and Chris Turner. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989 [1978]

Secondary Literature

Cramer, Florian. Words Made Flesh – Code, Culture, Imagination. Piet Zwart Institute: Rotterdam, 2006. (pdf)

Cramer, Florian. Various Essays and Articles. (link)

Edwards, Paul N. The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996.

Ernst, Wolfgang. Art of the Archive. Künstler.Archiv – Neue Werke zu historischen Beständen, hg. v. HelenAdkins, Köln (Walter König) 2005, 93-101 (pdf)

Erns, Wolfgang. Various texts. http://www.medienwissenschaft.hu-berlin.de/ (Medientheorien=>Publikationen Ernst=>Ernst on Media (in English))

Galison, Peter. “Ontology of the Enemy: Norbert Wiener and the Cybernetic Vision,” Critical Inquiry. 21, 1: 228-266.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999

Liu, Alan. The Laws of Cool. Chicago, UCP: 2004

Lovink, Geert. Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Reich, Wilhelm. The Mass Psychology of Fascism. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980.

Sloterdijk, Peter. Sferen. Trans. Hans Driessen. Amsterdam: Boom, 2003 [1998/1999].

Theweleit, Klaus. Buch der Könige. Orpheus und Euridike. Frankfurt: Stroemfeld, 1988.

Turner, Fred. From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Virilio, Paul. War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception. London: Verso, 1984.

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