Comics as Mediator of the Print/Digital Divide


Over at Huffington Post, Bill Kartalopoulos has an interesting article on “Why Comics are More Important than Ever” (from whence the image above is taken). I highly recommend reading the piece in full, as it offers a clear, concise, and nicely illustrated exposition of some of the core medial properties of comics, along with an argument about comics’ liminal or transitional position between print and digital media.

The upshot of Kartalopoulos’s argument, which I find quite convincing, is that comics can (or do) serve us as mediators in negotiating some of the shifts and uncertainties we experience in a world that is still undergoing large-scale digitalization — but which is not destined to become digital-only. In other words, pre-digital forms are not going away; there is no “manifest destiny” of the digital, and so we must learn to navigate between medial forms that exhibit very different affordances and demands. Comics marry aspects of both forms, so that they might be seen as privileged mediators of the contemporary (and future) media landscape. As Kartalopoulos puts it:

For more than a century, comics have demonstrated a form of communication that marries the linear sequence of typography with the global perception of an internet-like matrix of simultaneous parts. [...]. As we struggle within the cognitive tug of war of our new media landscape, comics offer a useful model for a new type of reading: one that might help resolve the tensions of the current media age to move us toward new productive modes of expression and understanding.

This resonates with an argument I have made regarding the serial properties of the medium — particularly with respect to what Thierry Groensteen calls the “restrained” and “general arthrology” of the comics form: the articulations or linkages that, respectively, work to unite elements in either a linear, sequential dynamics of panel-to-panel transitions or through nonlinear, networked relations between distant panels.

I have touched on these topics in “Framing, Unframing, Reframing,” my afterword to Transnational Perspectives on Graphic Narratives. What I don’t explore in that piece, but which I had in mind when writing it, was the transitional and mediating position between digital and print forms that Kartalopoulos ascribes to comics. In the hopes that it adds something useful to the discussion, and since I’ve never published it anywhere, I offer here the concluding paragraph of a talk, called “Multistable Frames: Notes Towards a (Post-)Phenomenological Approach to Comics,” which I gave in October 2011 at a conference in Bern, Switzerland:

So effectively, what I am proposing here, in the name of a phenomenological approach, is an expansion of the general arthrology developed by Groensteen, who notes that the narrative operations of comics take root in linear sequences of contiguous panels but give rise to braidings or translinear series that establish themselves between distant panels. By following these braided networks beyond the diegesis, beyond the work, and into a plurimedial field of connectivities and the lifeworld it structures, we can appreciate the truth of a remark that Groensteen makes in the conclusion of his book. There, he writes: “comics, which marries the visual and the verbal, demonstrates a discontinuity, a staggering, and the effects of networks, and finally constitutes a sort of image bank, appear to be situated not far from the turning point between the civilization of the book and that of multimedia” (160). We can say, then, that comics are transitional between old and new media due to the emergent seriality that proliferates as a result of comics’ nested multistabilites, a seriality that Groensteen describes as a “supplementary relation” that is “inscribed like an addition that the text secretes beyond its surface” (146-147). Always vacillating between the linear narrative sequence and the translinear network, comics define their seriality as a space of the in-between: between self-enclosed books on the one hand and the total network of hypertext and convergent digital media on the other. As this in-between space of serial proliferation, comics are not assimilable to the monomedial narration of the book, and they resist as well the higher-level closure of transmedial storytelling while upsetting the exhaustive cataloguing projects of digital databases and wikis. With their plurimedial seriality, comics remain squarely in-between. With their techniques of retcon and reboot, for example, and more generally the fact of multistable framing at every level, proliferating in an unruly seriality, comics can be said to have set the stage for a consideration of the experiential gaps between old and new media. As a truly transitional medium, comics inherently confound every attempt at closure or totalization—both the self-contained book and the encyclopedic database depend on discrete categories that are incapable of accommodating the ambiguity and plurality of the multistable frame. And so, despite appearances that they might settle down, let themselves be tamed according to book-centric categories of “respectable” literature—as graphic novels—or captured and rendered coherent and manageable in the convergent space of the digital, comics remain elusive, on the move, and productive of a self-serializing dynamics of the transition. In this respect, they may be useful for understanding the parameters of a rapidly changing visual culture.

Shane Carruth’s Whiteheadian Metaphysics of Post-Cinema #SLSA14


Above, the final slide from my presentation on “Metabolic Media,” which I delivered today at the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts conference in Dallas. I post it here because it includes one of my favorite recent discoveries: a quotation from Isabelle Stengers’s book Thinking with Whitehead that, in a discussion of Whitehead’s attempts to avoid the “bifurcation of nature” into primary and secondary qualities (as the early moderns put it) or into scientific and manifest images (in Wilfrid Sellars’s terms from the 1960s), comes surprisingly close to naming independent filmmaker Shane Carruth’s 2013 film Upstream Color – thereby unexpectedly helping us to understand the strange, post-cinematic experience of this film, which in its own way seems to reject the clear separation of subjective viewing positions and perceptual objects. Who knows? Maybe Carruth even took the title for his film from Stengers’s book. I have no evidence for this whatsoever, of course, but the resonance between the Whiteheadian project and what I call the “metabolic images” of Carruth’s film is so compelling, in my opinion, that the discovery of this quote makes it fun to speculate (idly) about the possibility…

Short review of Postnaturalism


A short review of my book Postnaturalism: Frankenstein, Film, and the Anthropotechnical Interface has just appeared in fiph journal 24 (October 2014) — the journal of the Forschungsinstitut für Philosophie Hannover (the Research Institute for Philosophy Hannover, or “fiph” for short). The review, in German, was written by Dominik Hammer of the fiph, and it includes a brief summary and a nice endorsement of the book, part of which I translate here for those who don’t read German:

Postnaturalism is not only the product of a technicization that denatures embodiment (p. 230); rather, it designates the position that the human, but also nature itself, was never natural (p. 24). Nevertheless, the theory remains beholden to the naturalism from which it takes off and sets itself apart [sich abhebt]. Setting out from this “postnaturalism,” the media theorist investigates the connection between Frankenstein films and the development of the “anthropotechnical interface.”

Denson’s book [...] is no light fare. For Postnaturalism you have to take your time, but it’s definitely worth it. The work is especially to be recommended for those interested in the philosophy of technology, media theory, and anyone who wants to engage with a postnaturalistic metaphysics.

Diagramming Media as the Environment for Life


Both aesthetically and conceptually, the diagram above is imperfect in many ways. It is, necessarily, an oversimplification; I hope that it might nevertheless serve a positive purpose by giving visible form to an otherwise somewhat abstract argument. Developed for my talk at the upcoming “Philosophy After Nature” conference in Utrecht (you can find my abstract here), the diagram could also serve as an emblem for the argument I make in Chapter 6 of Postnaturalism. In that chapter, I look at (among other things) Mark Hansen’s concept of “the medium as an environment for life” (as introduced in his paper “Media Theory,” which appeared in Theory, Culture & Society); this concept, developed in conversation with Bernard Stiegler’s philosophy of technics, has been very important for my work, and grappling with it was central for me in the process of arguing that “we have never been natural.”

In the course of developing his concept, Hansen argues that there is an asymmetrical priority of human embodiment in the transductive relation between technics and the human. In Hansen’s engagement with Stiegler, this prerogative of embodiment is seen to be at odds, to a certain extent, with Stiegler’s argument about the synchronization or industrialization of experience through the action of recording technologies. The latter embody “tertiary retentions” of experience, beyond the primary and secondary retentions that Husserl theorized as the operations, respectively, of immediate temporal experience and of recollection or memory. According to Stiegler, in a complex argument that I will not try to summarize here, tertiary retention (technical recording) injects secondary retention (memory) into primary retention (the immediate experience of the “adherent present,” from which flows also the future) — effectively instituting a pre-formatted future on a mass scale (especially in the age of live television and real-time media).

Following an objection raised by Jean-Michel Salanskis, who sees a paradox or split in Husserl’s notion of primary retention — a split between the referential aspect that aligns primary retention with conscious experience, on the one hand, and a non-referential aspect that is wholly unconscious, on the other — Hansen argues that Stiegler’s argument diminishes the robust role of embodiment in the production of temporal experience. The synchronization envisioned by Stiegler is dependent, according to Hansen, on a bracketing of embodied agency; the “mnemotechnical constitution of time” prioritized by Stiegler is thus secondary to the “corporo-technical constitution of time” that Hansen identifies as an infra-empirical condition of experience. Hence the asymmetrical privileging of human embodiment in the medial transduction of human and technical agencies.

The diagram above summarizes my own intervention in the context of these debates. Rather than reinstituting the priority of the human within the anthropotechnical transduction, my suggestion is that we conceive tertiary retention (and media technics more generally) as similarly split between a referential (“mnemotechnical” or broadly representational) and a non-referential (materially embodied) aspect. With memory flanked on both sides by a non-discrete, smooth space of matter, cognitive life is then situated squarely in a realm staked out between robustly material agencies—between the subpersonal operation of the body, on the one hand, and the subphenomenal, infra-empirical material agency of technics on the other. As the diagram tries to indicate, a certain symmetry is restored in the anthropotechnical interface, which on this model describes the joint production of empirical reality — the distributed (human and nonhuman) agency by which the phenomenal realm is demarcated from out of the unmarked environment of material flux.

Nonhuman Media Theories and Their Human Relevance #Flow14


As I wrote here recently, I will be taking part in a roundtable discussion on media theory at this year’s FLOW Conference at the University of Texas (September 11-13, 2014). My panel — which will take place on Friday, September 12 at 1:45-3:00 pm (the full conference schedule is now online here) — consists of Drew Ayers (Northeastern University), Hunter Hargraves (Brown University), Philip Scepanski (Vassar College), Ted Friedman (Georgia State University), and myself.

In preparation for the panel, which is organized as a roundtable discussion rather than a series of paper presentations, each of us is asked to formulate a short position paper outlining our answer to an overarching discussion question. Clearly, the positions put forward in such papers are not intended to be definitive answers but provocations for further discussion. Below, I am posting my position paper, and I would be happy to receive any feedback on it that readers of the blog might care to offer.

Nonhuman Media Theories and their Human Relevance

Response to the FLOW 2014 roundtable discussion question “Theory: How Can Media Studies Make ‘The T Word’ More User-Friendly?”

Shane Denson (Leibniz Universität Hannover, Germany / Duke University)

1. Theory Between the Human and the Nonhuman

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 therefore 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.

2. With Friends Like These…

The roundtable discussion question asks how theory can be made more “user-friendly”; but first we should ask what this term suggests for the study of media. Significantly, the term “user-friendly” itself originates in the context of media – specifically computer systems, interfaces, and software – as late as the 1970s or early 1980s. Its appearance in that context can be seen as a response to the rapidly increasing complexity of a type of media – digital computational media – that function algorithmically rather than indexically, in a register that, unlike cinema and other analogue media, is not tuned to the sense-ratios of human perception but is designed precisely to outstrip human faculties in terms of speed and efficiency. The idea of user-friendliness implies a layer of easy, ergonomic interface that would tame these burgeoning powers and put them in the user’s control, hence empowering rather than overwhelming. As consumers, we expect our media technologies to empower us thus: they should enable rather than obstruct our purposes. But should we expect this as students of media? Should we not instead question the ideology of transparency, and the disciplining of agency it involves? Hackers have long complained about the excesses of “user-obsequious” interfaces, about “menuitis” and the paradoxical disempowerment of users through the narrow bandwidth interfaces of WIMP systems (so-called because of their reliance on “windows, icons, menus/mice, pointers”). Such criticisms challenge us to rethink our role as users – both of media and of media theory – and to adopt a more experimental attitude towards media, which are capable of shaping as much as accommodating human interests.

3. Media as Mediators

The give and take between empowerment and disempowerment highlights the situational, relational, and ultimately transformational power of media. And while cultural studies countenanced such phenomena in terms of hegemony, subversion, and resistance, the very agency of the would-be “user” of media might be open to more radical destabilization – particularly against the background of media’s digital revision, which “discorrelates” media contents (images, sounds, etc.) from human perception and calls into question the validity of a stable human perspective. More generally, it makes sense to think about media in terms of agencies and affordances rather than mere channels between pre-existing subjects and objects – to see media, in Bruno Latour’s terms, not as mere “intermediaries” but as “mediators” that generate specific, historically contingent differences between subject and object, nature and culture, human and nonhuman. Recognizing this non-neutral, lively and unpredictable, dimension of media invites an experimental attitude that not only taps creative uses of contemporary media (as in media art) but also privileges a sort of hacktivist approach to media history as non-linear, non-teleological, and non-deterministic (as in media archaeology) – and that ultimately rethinks what media are.

4. Speculative Media Theory

By expanding the notion of mediation beyond the field of discrete media apparatuses, and beyond their communicative and representational functions, approaches like Latour’s actor-network theory gesture towards a nonhuman and ultimately speculative media theory concerned with an alterior realm, beyond the phenomenology of the human (as we know it). This sort of theory accords with the aims of speculative realism, a loose philosophical orientation defined primarily by its insistence on the need to break with “correlationism,” or the anthropocentric idea according to which being (or reality) is necessarily correlated with the categories of human thought, perception, and signification. Contemporary media in particular – including the machinic automatisms of facial recognition, acoustic fingerprinting, geotracking, and related systems, as well as the aesthetic deformations of what Steven Shaviro describes as “post-cinematic” moving images – similarly problematize the correlation of media with the forms (and norms) of human perception. More generally, a speculative and non-anthropocentric perspective equips us to think about the way in which media have always served not as neutral tools but, as Mark B. N. Hansen argues, as the very “environment for life” itself.

5. Media Theory for the End of the World

Perhaps most concretely, the appeal of this perspective lies in its appropriateness to an age of heightened awareness of ecological fragility. As we begin reimagining our era under the heading of the Anthropocene – as an age in which the large-scale environmental effects of human intervention are appallingly evident but in which the extinction of the human becomes thinkable as something more than a science-fiction fantasy – our media are caught up in a myriad of relations to the nonhuman world: they mediate between representational, metabolic, geological, and philosophical dimensions of an “environment for life” undergoing life-threatening climate change. Like never before, students of media are called upon to correlate content-level messages (such as representations of extinction events) with the material infrastructures of media (like their environmental situation and impact). The Anthropocene, in short, not only elicits but demands a nonhuman media theory.

Out Now: Postnaturalism


My new book, Postnaturalism: Frankenstein, Film, and the Anthropotechnical Interface, has been out for about a month now — in Germany, at least. The American, British, French, and Japanese iterations of amazon list the book as appearing next week, on August 22 (but available for pre-order), and it may be September by the time the American distributor, Columbia University Press, gets it listed on their website. Meanwhile, living somewhere between these worlds, I was able to get my hands on a physical copy of the book yesterday, and I’m very happy with the job Transcript Verlag did!

For more information about the book, as well as a preview that includes Mark Hansen’s foreword and my introduction, see here or click the image above (the preview can be accessed by clicking “PDF,” just beneath the cover image, on the publisher’s page). Also, if you are in any position to do so, please consider requesting a copy for your university library.

Thanks to everyone who helped me get this out there! And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for it, for it is the offspring of happy days…

Preview of Two Talks in Texas


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.