Preview of Two Talks in Texas

wing-and-trees

My family and I are just about to relocate from Texas (where we’ve been based for the past couple of months) to North Carolina, where I will embark on a 2-year DAAD postdoctoral fellowship at Duke University beginning August 1. It turns out, however, that two conferences will have me returning to the Lone Star State this fall: first, the Flow Conference 2014, which will take place from September 11-13 at the University of Texas at Austin, and then the annual conference of the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA) the following month, October 9-12, hosted this year by Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

At the Flow Conference, I will be participating in a roundtable discussion on “Theory.” By way of preparation, participants are asked to prepare a short position paper, and I will post mine here in due time. For now, the ground I wish to cover is outlined in this brief answer to the discussion question “How can media studies make theory more user-friendly?”

Nonhuman Media Theories and their Human Relevance

Shane Denson

Rejecting the excesses of deconstructive “high theory,” approaches like cultural studies promised to be more down-to-earth and “user friendly.” While hardly non-theoretical, this was “theory with a human face”; against poststructuralism’s anti-humanistic tendencies, human interaction (direct or mediated) returned to the center of inquiry. Today, however, we are faced with (medial) realities that exceed or bypass human perspectives and interests: from the microtemporal scale of computation to the global scale of climate change, our world challenges us to think beyond the human and embrace the nonhuman as an irreducible element in our experience and agency. Without returning to the old high theory, it behooves us to reconcile the human and the nonhuman. Actor-network theory, affect theory, media archaeology, “German media theory,” and ecological media theory all highlight the role of the nonhuman, while their political (and hence human) relevance asserts itself in the face of very palpable crises – e.g. ecological disaster, which makes our own extinction thinkable (and generates a great variety of media activity), but also the inhuman scale and scope of global surveillance apparatuses.

Then, at SLSA, which revolves this year around the concept of “Fluid,” I’ll be returning to post-cinema, metabolism, and the films of Shane Carruth. Here’s my abstract for that one:

Metabolic Media: On the Fluid Images and Ecologies of Post-Cinema

In an age of computational image production and networked distribution channels, media “contents” and our “perspectives” on them are rendered ancillary to algorithmic functions and become enmeshed in an expanded, indiscriminately articulated plenum of images that exceed capture in the form of photographic or perceptual “objects.” That is, post-cinematic images are thoroughly processual or fluid in nature, from their digital inception and delivery to their real-time processing in computational playback apparatuses; furthermore, and more importantly, this basic processuality explodes the image’s ontological status as a discrete packaged unit, and it insinuates itself – as I will argue – into our own microtemporal processing of perceptual information, thereby unsettling the relative fixity of the perceiving human subject. Post-cinema’s cameras thus mediate a radically nonhuman ontology of the image, where these images’ discorrelation from human perceptibility signals an expansion of the field of material affect: beyond the visual or even the perceptual, the images of post-cinematic media operate and impinge upon us at what might be called a “metabolic” level, modulating the flow of lived duration itself.

Building upon Steven Shaviro’s theorization of “post-cinematic affect,” Maurizio Lazzarato’s Marxist-Bergsonist “video philosophy,” and Mark B. N. Hansen’s post-phenomenological analyses of “21st-century media,” this presentation focuses especially on the work of independent filmmaker Shane Carruth (Primer, 2004; Upstream Color, 2013) in an attempt to theorize the emerging interface forms through which contemporary moving-image media transductively generate experiences of a decidedly postnatural environment.

We Have Never Been Natural

myrtle-machine

Readers of the blog will recognize this post’s title — “We have never been natural” — as the nutshell slogan for postnaturalism, as it is developed in my forthcoming book of the same title. Now that slogan is also the title of a talk I will be giving at the 2014 Society for European Philosophy and Forum for European Philosophy joint annual conference, “Philosophy After Nature,” which will take place September 3-5, 2014 in Utrecht, Netherlands.

In the talk, I try to get to the media-philosophical heart of postnaturalism and develop the core argument to the extent possible in a 20-minute presentation. Here is the abstract:

We Have Never Been Natural: Towards a Postnatural Philosophy of Media

Shane Denson (Leibniz Universität Hannover / Duke University)

In this presentation, I draw upon concepts and arguments put forward by Bernard Stiegler, Mark B. N. Hansen, Niklas Luhmann, and Bruno Latour and put them into conversation with one another in order to develop what I term a postnatural philosophy of media. Postnaturalism, as I define the term, does not signal the end of nature but a particular manner of rethinking it. Methodologically, postnaturalism marks an extension of rather than a break with (scientific and epistemological) naturalism and its insistence on material evolution as the basis of consciousness and all ideational, symbolic, or discursive realities. Substantively, however, this extension implies a rethinking of nature because technical agencies are seen as not only immanent to the natural but also crucially implicated in the transformative force of evolution. Accordingly, postnaturalism implies that “we have never been natural” (and neither has nature, for that matter). At the heart of this rethinking is what I call the “anthropotechnical interface”: a sub-phenomenal, infra-empirical stratum of materiality, which forms the site of radical transformation by means of the “unnatural selection” that results from the technical mediation of embodied life. This view, which can be developed with the help of Bernard Stiegler’s philosophy of technology, implies a special role for media; accordingly, as I argue, media serve as nothing less than the “originary correlators” of the phenomenal and the noumenal.

My argument for this (seemingly extravagant) claim involves an adaptation of Niklas Luhmann’s systems-theoretical conception of mediality, which (when subjected to a transformative rethinking that abstracts media beyond the system-immanent position to which they are relegated in Luhmann’s thought) provides a formal model for thinking media as the site of sub-phenomenological changes taking place at the very cusp between systemic enclosure and the unmarked environment from which any and all systems emerge. Expanding on Mark B. N. Hansen’s notion of media as the “environment for life” itself, my argument goes on to question the cognitive or mnemotechnical bias of Stiegler’s philosophy of technology while also reversing Hansen’s asymmetrical privileging of human embodiment in the transductive relation between organic and inorganic agencies. Ultimately, the postnatural philosophy of media that results from these encounters works to articulate together process-oriented and object-oriented perspectives; besides (and beyond) empirically determinate manifestations in the form of discrete apparatic entities, media play a wholly non-anthropic role in the production of the empirical, in the constitution and maintenance of its spatio-temporal foundations. As a matter of “distributed embodiment,” media play a literally central role in the transduction of materially intersecting entities, each with their own form of embodiment, their own manner of marking the boundary, embodying the membrane, between material flux and the emergent realm of discrete objects.

Bibliography:

Denson, Shane. Postnaturalism: Frankenstein, Film, and the Anthropotechnical Interface. With a foreword by Mark B. N. Hansen. Bielefeld: Transcript, forthcoming 2014.

Hansen, Mark. Embodying Technesis: Technology Beyond Writing. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2000.

_____. “Media Theory.” Theory, Culture & Society 23.2-3 (2006): 297-306.

_____. New Philosophy for New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.

_____. “‘Realtime Synthesis’ and the Différance of the Body: Technocultural Studies in the Wake of Deconstruction.” Culture Machine 6 (2004). <http://www.culturemachine.net/index.php/cm/article/view/9/8&gt;.

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993.

Luhmann, Niklas. Art as a Social System. Trans. Eva M. Knodt. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000.

_____. Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1997.

_____. Social Systems. Trans. John Bednarz, Jr., with Dirk Baecker. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1995.

Stiegler, Bernard. Technics and Time 1: The Fault of Epimetheus. Trans. Richard Beardsworth and George Collins. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998.

_____. Technics and Time 2: Disorientation. Trans. Stephen Barker. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2009.

_____. Technics and Time 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise. Trans. Stephen Barker. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2011.

Video: Post-Cinematic Interfaces with a Postnatural World

There’s something fitting about the fact that the audio recording of my “3 Theses” on postnaturalism and post-cinema — which I presented at the 2014 annual conference of the DGfA, “America After Nature” — is overrun by the nonhuman voices of nameless birds calling to one another, blissfully indifferent to my theoretical speculations. What at first presented itself to me as something of a disappointment, viz. the generally poor quality of the recording and the occasional difficulty of discerning spoken words in particular, seemed on second thought a nice illustration — or better: enactment — of some of the ideas I put forward about the distributed agency of affect’s environmental mediation: here the human voice competes with “natural” and “cultural” forces ranging from songbirds to smartphones, failing to command their attentions but contributing to an improbable concert for a sufficiently non- or posthuman ear immersed in an ecology of material interaction.

Looking at it (or listening to it) from this angle, and getting over my initial disappointment, I decided to add some video of the various postnatural landscapes I encountered while in Germany on my recent trip. The result is another of what I have begun referring to as “metabolic images” — where the computational capture and processing of moving images, along with their temporal (and microtemporal) modulation, point to the subpersonal effects (and affects) of our embodied interfaces with a post-cinematic media environment. (See here, here, or here for more…)

(For the full effect, be sure to view the video in HD on vimeo. And finally, if you happen to have a more humanly inflected interest in the discursive “contents” put forward here, you can find the full text of my presentation here.)

Out Now: Serialization in Popular Culture

serialization in pop culture

Just back from a trip abroad, I was happy to find this in the mailbox: my copy of Serialization in Popular Culture, edited by Rob Allen and Thijs van den Berg. The volume goes back to an excellent conference that took place in Amsterdam in 2011, organized by the editors of the book, where I presented a paper on film serials of the 1910s: “Rethinking the Serial-Queen Melodrama: Serial Narration and Medial Self-Reflexivity in Transitional-Era Cinema.” Now much expanded, my paper appears here as “The Logic of the Line Segment: Continuity and Discontinuity in the Serial-Queen Melodrama.” The book contains a number of wonderful contributions by Mark W. Turner, Joyce Goggin, Dan Hassler-Forest, Sean O’Sullivan, Jason Dittmer, and more:

TOC-Serialization-in-pop-culture-1

TOC-Serialization-in-pop-culture-2

Also, I’ve posted this before, but I can’t resist posting once more my colleague and collaborator Ruth Mayer’s high praise for the volume:

“This collection presents an ambitious and original intervention in the field of seriality studies. It captures the workings of serialization as a core principle of modernity by taking stock of a wide range of medial formats and narrative and non-narrative configurations from the nineteenth century to the present time.” – Ruth Mayer, University of Hanover, Germany

Finally, the book is, unfortunately, quite expensive in the hardcover version that is now available, and it is to be hoped that a paperback edition will appear at some point. In the meantime, if you are in a position to do so, please request a university library or other institution to order a copy, and in this way support the editors and contributors and increase the chances for an affordable paperback/ebook edition.

Post-Cinematic Interfaces with a Postnatural World — 3 Theses

postnatural-postcinema-3

This year’s annual conference of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Amerikastudien (German Association for American Studies), which takes place June 12-15, 2014 in Würzburg, is devoted to the topic of “America after Nature” – a topic that in many ways (unfortunately) couldn’t be timelier. In this context, Ulfried Reichardt and Regina Schober (both of Universität Mannheim) have organized a workshop on “Nature, Technology, and the Body: Posthumanist Interfaces of the Networked Self,” in which I will be participating. Besides the topic, the form of the workshop is itself quite exciting, as it will consist not of paper presentations (“talks” in the conventional sense) but three roundtable discussions, prefaced only by brief presentations of several core thesis statements prepared by the participants. Here’s how the organizers explain their rationale:

Our workshop will consist of three thematic clusters which will each be alloted one hour of discussion time: 1) Theoretical Perspectives on Posthumanism; 2) Posthumanist Narratives; 3) Posthumanist Politics. Each of these clusters will include 4-5 participants engaging in a critical discussion [...]. Instead of conventional paper presentations, participants will be given up to 7 minutes to present their main arguments in a concise and precise way. Individual presentations will be followed by a roundtable/general discussion of about 30 mins. It is our aim to bring together a whole range of perspectives, identify prevalent theoretical positions, and explore the field of critical posthumanism in/for American Studies.

I will be participating in the first thematic cluster, “theoretical perspectives,” which I’ll be discussing with Hanjo Berressem (Cologne), Laura Bieger (Freiburg), Stefan Danter (Mannheim), and Wojciech Malecki (Wrocław). My own contribution, outlined in the three theses below, essentially tries to bring together the perspectives of my two forthcoming books: Postnaturalism (see the publisher’s preview here) and Post-Cinema (a collection that I am co-editing with Julia Leyda). These connections have been implicit in my work for quite a while, but this is the first time I’ve explicitly tried to articulate them as a central theoretical focus. Here is my thesis paper:

Post-Cinematic Interfaces with a Postnatural World – 3 Theses

Shane Denson

1. Postnaturalism is the thesis that “we have never been natural” (and neither has nature, for that matter).

In response to debates over the alleged postmodernity of (Western) societies at the end of the twentieth century, Bruno Latour famously claimed that “we have never been modern.” Building upon Latour’s slogan and upping the ante, Donna Haraway has argued more radically that “we have never been human.” In other words, it’s not just in the age of prosthetics, implants, biotech, and “smart” computational devices that the integrity of the human breaks down, but already at the proverbial dawn of humankind – for the human has co-evolved with other organisms (like the dog, who domesticated the human just as much as the other way around). From an ecological as much as an ideological perspective, the human fails to describe anything like a stable, well-defined, or self-sufficient category. The postnatural thesis that “we have never been natural” doesn’t so much try to outdo Latour and Haraway as to refocus some of the themes that are inherent in these discussions and to deflect some of the attention away from the human (which the idea of posthumanism still paradoxically places in a central position). Human and nonhuman, natural and unnatural agencies are products of mediations and symbioses from the very start, I contend. In order to argue for these claims I take a broadly ecological view and focus not on discrete individuals but on what I call the “anthropotechnical interface” – the phenomenal and sub-phenomenal realm of mediation between human and technical agencies, where each impinges upon and defines the other in a broad space or ecology of material interaction. On this view, the notion of interfacing describes not just the narrow space of interaction between fully formed subjects and objects (e.g. a computer user, the mouse, the screen, etc.) but situates these transactions in a broader space of co-constitution. The anthropotechnical interface, accordingly, is a realm of diffuse materiality where centered or situated embodiment and phenomenality brush up against the unmarked environment, where technical mediation can be seen as a metabolic agency that works to reorganize the world (or nature) materially.

 

 

2. Post-cinema is the notion that contemporary media are no longer accountable for in terms of perceptual interfaces alone.

It is, of course, a simplification to suggest that the operation of media was ever confined to the perceptual register, i.e. the phenomenological level of interaction between subjects and objects; the point of postnaturalism, in this regard, is precisely to reveal a broader, sub-phenomenological register that has been implicated in media and mediation from the start, and to situate this register as the very substrate out of which subjects and objects are formed and transformed. It is nevertheless true that cinema, as the paradigmatic technical medium of the 20th century, served to concentrate an unprecedented amount of energy and focus on the mediation of specifically perceptual experience – to channel human vision (and hearing), to bundle psychic interest, and broadly to direct the focus of subjective intentionality. (In this sense, even psychoanalytic film theory, which emphasized unconscious mechanisms at work, still followed cinema’s perceptual-phenomenological bias when it theorized “suture” and similar positionings of the subject.) With the advent of computational media, however, the perceptual register loses its primacy of place, as the operation of media opens onto a broader space of non-phenomenological activity, of microtemporal and algorithmic functioning that is categorically beyond the purview of perception or subjective experience. With the shift from photochemical to digital processes, even moving-image media become less about the channeling of perspective than about the modulation of affect, as Steven Shaviro has argued in his work on “post-cinematic affect.” Accordingly, at the heart of the shift from a cinematic to a post-cinematic media regime is nothing less than a transformation of the anthropotechnical interface itself, as media’s access to the sub-phenomenological realm is expanded and operationalized as never before.

 

3. Together, post-cinema and postnaturalism mutually inform one another and illuminate the (medial) parameters of interfacing in the contemporary world.

In accordance with the notion of the anthropotechnical interface, as it is articulated in a postnatural framework, media should be seen not only as empirical objects and systems, but as infra-empirical constraints and enablers of agency such that media may be described, following Mark B. N. Hansen, as the “environment for life” itself. Accordingly, media-technical innovation and change translates into ecological change, transforming the parameters of life in a way that outstrips our ability to think about or capture such change cognitively – for at stake in such change is the very infrastructural basis of cognition and subjective being. So postnaturalism, as a philosophy of media and mediation, tries to think about the conditions of anthropotechnical evolution, conceived as the process that links transformations in the realm of concrete, apparatic media (such as film and TV) with more global transformations at a quasi-transcendental level. Operating on both empirical and infra-empirical levels, media might be seen, on this view, as something like articulators of the phenomenal-noumenal interface itself. Importantly, though, this quasi-transcendental function of media is materially and ecologically immanent, very much a part of this world; both embedded within and structuring the environmental flows between formed and unformed materials, this ecological operation of media can be compared to that of metabolism. Post-cinema, marking a change in the medial infrastructure of life, can (and should) be viewed through the lens of postnaturalism as an environmental transformation that operates on the totality of metabolic exchange. At the same time, post-cinematic mediation, through its expanded access to and operationalization of the sub-phenomenological realm, grants us unprecedented (non-representational) access to this metabolic level. Postnaturalism therefore describes the general framework within which the specific transformations of post-cinema take place, while post-cinema offers a very special case for thinking about the sub-phenomenological materiality that has defined the interface of life from the start. Not only have we never been natural, but in an important sense, “we have never been cinematic” either.

 

Bibliography:

Denson, Shane. Postnaturalism: Frankenstein, Film, and the Anthropotechnical Interface. With a foreword by Mark B. N. Hansen. Bielefeld: Transcript, forthcoming 2014.

Denson, Shane and Julia Leyda, eds. Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st-Century Film. Sussex: REFRAME Books, forthcoming 2014.

Hansen, Mark B. N. Embodying Technesis: Technology Beyond Writing. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2000.

___. Feed-Forward: On the Future of Twenty-First-Century Media. Chicago: U of Chicago P, forthcoming 2014.

___. “Media Theory.” Theory, Culture & Society 23.2-3 (2006): 297-306.

___. New Philosophy for New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004.

Haraway, Donna. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.

___. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2008.

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Catherine Porter. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993.

Shaviro, Steven. Post-Cinematic Affect. Winchester: Zero Books, 2010.

Coming Soon: Post-Cinema, edited by Shane Denson and Julia Leyda

PA-Artifacts

Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st-Century Film is the working title of a collection of essays that Julia Leyda and I have proposed to REFRAME Books, a new branch of Catherine Grant’s open-access publishing ventures (you may know Catherine Grant, of Film Studies at the University of Sussex, from her excellent blog Film Studies For Free, while REFRAME includes the innovative journal Sequence and a variety of other great publications and platforms).

Our proposal has been well received by REFRAME’s reviewers, so if all goes well (i.e. pending review of the completed chapters) the collection should be appearing sometime in the near future — possibly before the end of 2014! We are particularly excited to be working with REFRAME on this project, as this means that the book will appear in a variety of open-access formats (PDF, epub, Mobi), free of charge and freely distributable! Ours will be among the first full-length edited collections to appear with REFRAME, whose publications are sure to make waves in scholarly publishing in the coming years. We are very proud to be in on the ground floor!

While there is still quite a bit of work ahead of us on this project, and though not all of the details have been finalized yet, we couldn’t wait to announce the collection; we are very excited about the group of contributors we have assembled (more info soon), and we are confident that the volume will make an important contribution to the still emerging discussion of post-cinema.

According to an anonymous reviewer for REFRAME:

“The proposed collection promises to be a landmark publication by bringing together some of the most important critical essays that have discussed recent developments in film and media cultures and a number of original essays that develop in innovative ways the perspectives and provocations of those earlier interventions.”

We will do our best to live up to these high expectations, and we will be sure to provide further details about the project in due time!