Weird Science

Demonstrating the need for more media education in the schools, a kid on the street recognized my Halloween costume as … Einstein!

Needless to say, I corrected him gently, informing him that in fact – as everyone should know by now – it’s not Einstein but Einstein’s monster!

Happy Halloween, Or: Who’s Afraid of Media Theory?

What’s there to be afraid of anyway? The video above, which I repost here for Halloween, offers one sort of approach to this question by recontextualizing cinematic horror against a more diffuse sort of horror that emanates from a changing media environment.

The video is a screencast of a talk I gave at the 2010 annual meeting of the American Studies Association: “Media Crisis, Serial Chains, and the Mediation of Change: Frankenstein on Film.” Thematizing transitional phenomena of media change and transformation, the paper itself occupies a transitional place between my dissertation, Postnaturalism: Frankenstein, Film, and the Anthropotechnical Interface, and my current postdoctoral research on “Serial Figures and Media Change” (with Ruth Mayer, part of the DFG Research Unit “Popular Seriality–Aesthetics and Practice”).

The talk attempts to excavate a forgotten experiential dimension–an experience of crisis related to changes in the media landscape–that uncannily informs the iconic image of Frankenstein’s monster. The notion that media changes precipitate phenomenological crises, as I put forward here, is informed by Mark Hansen’s view that media define “the environment for life” (or, more generally, the environment for agency, as I propose in Postnaturalism). While media are embodied in discrete apparatic technologies, they are inseparable from the total milieu of agential capacities; media changes thus have both a local and a global dimension, and it is this global aspect (and the networked distribution of human and technical agencies that it signifies) that explains why media changes might occasion affective states of crisis, anxiety, the uncanny, or present themselves as just plain scary.

My talk is also informed by a variety of concerns that I share with people like Jussi Parikka, who along with Garnet Hertz has argued for a conception of “zombie media,” according to which media never simply die but continue to exert a haunting influence that can be appropriated for media-theoretical and artistic purposes. Their essay “Zombie Media: Circuit Bending Media Archaeology into an Art Method,” which Hertz and Parikka presented at the transmediale 2011 in Berlin, is introduced thus:

There is always a better camera, laptop, mobile phone on the horizon: new media always becomes old. We approach this phenomenon under the umbrella term of media archaeology and aim to extend the media archaeological interest of knowledge into an art methodology. Hence, media archaeology becomes not only a method for excavation of the repressed, the forgotten, the past, but extends itself into an artistic method close to Do-It-Yourself (DIY) culture, circuit bending, hardware hacking, and other exercises that are closely related to the political economy of information technology, as well as the environment. Media embodies memory, but not only human memory; memory of things, of objects, of chemicals, and circuits that are returned to nature, so to speak, after their cycle. But these can be resurrected. This embodiment of memory in things is what relates media archaeology to an ecosophic enterprise as well.

(Quoted from here at the transmediale website.) And here is a video of the complete talk:

Zombie Media Talk: Garnet Hertz (ca) and Jussi Parikka (fi) present their “Zombie Media” project from transmediale on Vimeo.

In his “manifesto for digital spectrology,” Parikka expands on the ghostly side of all this, bringing the notion of hauntology into close connection with the materiality of media-technologies and the ecology of media evolution:

Digital Spectrology is that dirty work of a cultural theorist who wants to understand how power works in the age of circuitry. Power circulates not only in human spaces of cities, organic bodies or just plain things and objects. Increasingly, our archaeologies of the contemporary need to turn inside the machine, in order to illuminate what is the condition of existence of how we think, see, hear, remember and hallucinate in the age of software. This includes things discarded, abandoned, obsolete as much as the obscure object of desire still worthy of daylight. As such, digital archaeology deals with spectres too; but these ghosts are not only hallucinations of afterlife reached through the media of mediums, or telegraphics, signals from Mars, the screen as a window to the otherwordly; but in the electromagnetic sphere, dynamics of software, ubiquitous computing, clouds so transparent we are mistaken to think of them as soft. Media Archaeology shares a temporality of the dead and zombies with Hauntology. Dead media is never actually dead. So what is the method of a media archaeologist of technological ghosts? She opens up the hood, looks inside, figures out what are the processual technics of our politics and aesthetics: The Aesthetico-Technical.

– inspired by the work of MicroResearchlab – Berlin/London, the short text was written for Julian Konczak/Telenesia.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that the media-ecological horror of media change is always embedded in (and itself provides a material and affective context for) a political landscape in which technologies are harnessed for oppression, for the maintenance of unequal power distributions, and, of course, for profit. Here, then, are some real-life zombies from #OccupyWallStreet:

Bollywood Nation: Background / Context

On the occasion of the first screening in our Bollywood Nation film series, which is set to begin in just under an hour from now (with Swades – more info below, and here), Jatin Wagle has put together the following very useful background information on Bollywood and tonight’s film.

Bollywood Nation

27.10.2011 – Swades: We, the People [Homeland] (Dir. Ashutosh Gowariker, 2004, 187 mins.)

Bollywood: A widely accepted but not unproblematic term for Hindi/Urdu/Hindustani language commercial cinema in India. The expression is problematic because it suggests a close relationship with or dependence on Hollywood. Even as American popular cinema remains an important frame of reference and influence for Hindi cinema, straightforward comparisons are not necessarily useful. Although the films are actually shot all over the world, the undisputed site of production of commercial Hindi cinema is the megacity of Mumbai (or Bombay as it was called before 1995). In this sense, Bollywood is both about India and Mumbai, or to be more precise, about the Indian nation as it is constantly imagined and staged in the crowded, multilingual diversity of the metropolis.

There are no clearly defined genres in Hindi commercial cinema. Instead, a typical Hindi film contains varying elements of romance, melodrama, action and comedy interspersed with song-and-dance sequences. The principal reason for this has been the complex mode of production – called “disaggregated” by M. Madhava Prasad – and the precarious mode of distribution of films in India. Although Hindi cinema has been perhaps the most significant site for the social/cultural negotiation of the Indian nation, until 2001 it was not accorded the status of an industry by the Indian Government. This has meant that over the years Hindi films have been financed through more-or- less informal networks, and this financial precariousness lies at the root of Hindi cinema’s reluctance to fragment its potential audiences. This used to be evident until a few years ago, i.e. before the advent of the multiplexes, in the typical experience of watching a Hindi film in an Indian city, when one invariably watched it with the family in a “cinema theatre” with a seating capacity of around a thousand. Thus, instead of genres, Hindi commercial cinema has historically developed a range of masala [Gewürzmischung] or formula films, i.e. mixes of or compromises between plot compositions, narrative structures and genre elements. For instance, the popular masala films of the 1970s were slight variations on either the lost-and-found/family reunion plot (e.g. Yaadon Ki Baaraat 1973) or the angry young man action hero format (e.g. Deewaar 1975, Amar Akbar Anthony 1977). From the mid-nineties, a new sort of masala film has become popular, with a diaspora setting (or at least a strong diaspora component) and an NRI (non-resident Indian) protagonist who portrays a guiltless blend of so-called Indian tradition with Western modernity.

Swades: We are beginning our film series titled, needless to say with obvious irony, “Bollywood Nation” with a film aptly called Homeland. Even with its NRI protagonist, played by Shahrukh Khan, and its partial diaspora setting, this film is untypical for a variety of reasons. Its expatriate protagonist is different from the typical hero of the recent NRI masala film. Although successful in the West, he is plagued by the guilt of having left behind the land of his past, a developing, third-world country with its complicated challenges, for a relatively uncomplicated life in the U.S. In terms of its aesthetic, the film is not obviously “camp” [filmy] and has been described as more “realistic” than a typical Bollywood film. Although it was not really a box office success within India, Swades sold well in what have been called the diaspora markets, and its music composed by A. R. Rahman became popular even within India. Ashutosh Gowariker, who wrote the script, and produced and directed the film, is known for at least one more film, Lagaan [Land Tax] (2001), which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Happy Telephone Day

Before Lady Gaga: “Call all you want, but there’s no one home / And you’re not gonna reach my telephone” (2009).

Before E.T.: “E.T. phone home” (1982).

There was Johann Philipp Reis: “Das Pferd frisst keinen Gurkensalat” (1861).

150 years ago today, on October 26, 1861, Johann Philipp Reis demonstrated the newly invented telephone with these words (roughly: “The horse doesn’t eat cucumber salad”), and the rest, as they say, was history…

In honor of the telephone’s 150th birthday, the Süddeutsche Zeitung has an entertaining little article by Bernd Graff (here). Graff’s brief cultural history (“kleine Kulturgeschichte”) of the telephone also touches (very lightly) upon some of the more interesting techno-phenomenological aspects of human-telephone relations, and there are some concluding thoughts from Benjamin, Proust, McLuhan, and Flusser. (Keep in mind, it’s a popular article, but it plants some nice seeds for further thought and research.) Also interesting: Die Zeit Online has a brief summary of Johann Philipp Reis’s life, written especially for kids, with a pointer to a radio program this coming Sunday, at 8:05, on NDR Info (Mikado – Radio für Kinder).

Combat for Atari VCS / 2600 (1977)

Next week in my “Game Studies” seminar, we’ll be discussing Nick Montfort’s great article “Combat in Context” (from Game Studies 6.1, December 2006). As the proud owner of an Atari 2600 (wood-grain but 4-switch variant), and as a firm believer that the specific material implementation of a game makes a big difference in players’ experience of it, I thought I would bring my console and the game and give students the opportunity to try it out for themselves (which we’ll be doing in an extra session this Friday; and speaking of material implementation, it will be my first time hooking up a 2600 to a digital projector).

Above, for the benefit of those who can’t make it, a clip that gives an impression of the game’s scheme of audiovisual re/presentation, the basics of gameplay, and the many variations (or games) included in Atari’s classic “game program.”

Judith Butler at #OccupyWallStreet

I came here to lend my support to you today, to offer my solidarity, for this unprecedented display of democracy and popular will. People have asked, ‘So what are the demands? What are the demands all these people are making?’ Either they say there are no demands and that leaves your critics confused—or they say that the demands for social equality and economic justice are impossible demands. And impossible demands, they say, are just not practical.

If hope is an impossible demand, then we demand the impossible. If the right to shelter, food and employment are impossible demands, then we demand the impossible. If it is impossible to demand that those who profit from the recession redistribute their wealth and cease their greed then yes, we demand the impossible.

But it is true that there are no demands that you can submit to arbitration here because we are not just demanding economic justice and social equality, we are assembling in public, we are coming together as bodies in alliance, in the street and in the square. We’re standing here together making democracy, enacting the phrase ‘We the people!’

(Text from Verso’s blog: here)

Also, see here for John Protevi’s fascinating take on Butler’s speech in the context of an earlier talk she gave in Venice and the embodied, affective dynamics of the so-called “human microphone,” which we’ve now seen Butler, Zizek, Michael Moore, and others utilizing at Occupy Wall Street.

Bollywood Nation: Swades (2004)

This is a reminder that our Bollywood Nation film series will begin on Thursday, October 27, 2011, at 5:00 pm in room 615 (in the “Conti-Hochhaus” at Königsworther Platz 1).

The first film will be Swades: We, the People [Homeland] (Dir. Ashutosh Gowariker, 2004, 187 mins.), a late renegotiation of the “brain drain” paradigm that could serve as a contrast to the new global NRI films.

The film, which stars Shah Rukh Khan, is summarized at thus:

Set in modern day India, Swades is a film that tackles the issues that development throws up on a grass root level. It is to this India, which is colorful, heterogeneous and complex that Mohan Bhargava (Shah Rukh Khan), a bright young scientist working as a project manager in NASA, returns to on a quest to find his childhood nanny. The film uses the contrast between the highly developed world of NASA, which has been at the forefront of advances in space research, and this world back home in India, which is at the crossroads of development. Mohan’s simple quest becomes the journey that every one of us goes through in search of that metaphysical and elusive place called “home”.

Film & TV Reading Group: Jason Mittell on Narrative Complexity

The Film & TV Reading Group at the Leibniz Universität Hannover will be meeting next Wednesday, October 26, 2011, to discuss Jason Mittell’s oft-cited article “Narrative Complexity in Contemporary American Television” (from The Velvet Light Trap 58 (Fall 2006), also downloadable from Mittell’s website at Middlebury College here). We will meet at 6:00 pm in room 609 (in the “Conti-Hochhaus” at Königsworther Platz 1). New members are always welcome to join us!

Friedrich Kittler (1943 – 2011)

Friedrich Kittler, whose name has become synonymous with so-called “German media theory,” passed away this week, on October 18, 2011. Kittler’s proclamation that “media determine our situation,” and his use of the phrase “der sogenannte Mensch” to refer to “us” (i.e. humans and our subjectivities), have long been occasions for controversy: for some, they are signs of Kittler’s “genius,” expressed paradoxically in his unrelenting break with the anthropocentric sympathies that would underwrite any such claim to genius; for others, they are merely signs of antihumanism and technological determinism. Whatever one decides, the significance of Kittler’s work cannot be denied; it will undoubtedly continue to play a controversial role and to exert a variety of influences on our attempts to think media in the future. Here, then, are some links that reflect on Kittler’s legacy:

News of Kittler’s death and reflections on his life and work appeared in virtually all the German newspapers. Die Zeit ran an article by Maximilian Probst here, and the taz had a piece by Stefan Heidenreich here. Norbert Bolz’s article in the Tagesspiegel can be found hereDie Welt reprinted parts of an interview with Kittler from earlier this year (here), as well as an obituary by Ulf Poschardt here. Christian Schlüter’s piece in the Berliner Zeitung is here, and Thomas Steinfeld’s obituary in the Süddeutsche Zeitung is here. Jürgen Kaube’s piece in the FAZ  is here.

Meanwhile, in the blogosphere, Thomas Groh has put together a collection of Kittler video clips on his blog Filmtagebuch here.

Finally, for some English-language reflections on Kittler’s legacy, see Jussi Parikka’s thoughts here on his blog Machinology, and Bernard Geogehan’s obituary at Critical Inquiry’s blog here.

Conference Program: “Cultural Distinctions Remediated”

“Cultural Distinctions Remediated: Beyond the High, the Low, and the Middle”

Leibniz Universität Hannover, American Studies, 15-17 December 2011

Like any discursive phenomenon, categories of cultural distinction (such as “high” art, “low” culture, or the less well-researched area of the “middlebrow”) require the substrate of some medium or medial field—be it language, mass media, or new media—in order to articulate the differences upon which they turn. Cultural clout or capital, for example, is accumulated, and the conditions of such accumulation are defined and regulated, in media ranging from the popular press to specialized academic and legal treatises. At the same time, the categories of cultural distinction not only take shape within media but apply as well to concrete media and media products. Individual novels, films, and music productions are classed according to oppositions such as high vs. low, art vs. kitsch, quality vs. trash, mainstream vs. alternative, while at times whole media are more generally relegated to a lowly status (such as was the case with “primitive” or pre-classical cinema or with the videogame in the eyes of many today) or, on the other hand, accorded a higher one (e.g. the “graphic novel” vis-à-vis the pulpy comics from which it evolved). Clearly, these examples attest to the fact that cultural distinctions are negotiable and historically indexed, but more importantly, they point to the role of media transformations in the historical revision and renegotiation of distinction categories. Notions of film-as-art, for example, first emerge (in the film-aesthetic writings of Vachel Lindsay and Hugo Münsterberg) in the 1910s, amidst the sweeping and uncertain changes of the “transitional era” between early and classical cinema, and the aesthetic revalorization of the popular medium finds its most pronounced expression (with the likes of Rudolf Arnheim) in the wake of the film-technological transition from silent to sound cinema. Similarly, the rise of so-called “Quality TV” takes place at a highly overdetermined moment of media change, one marked by digitalization, convergence trajectories, the rise of alternative delivery media, and a general reorganization of the televisual landscape. The conference “Cultural Distinctions Remediated: Beyond the High, the Low, and the Middle” aims to shed light on such processes of transformation, in which the medial “double articulation” of distinction categories—i.e. the fact that they are both articulated in media and apply to media—is most crucially at stake, by looking critically at what happens when existing media and attendant categories are “remediated” by newer ones: How are categories of cultural distinction transformed, or how do they relate to a transformed media landscape? These questions will be pursued across a wide range of media and from comparative (both cross-medial and historical) perspectives.

Program (links lead to abstracts):

Thursday, 15 December 2011, 6:00 pm (Niedersachsensaal)

Welcome: Ruth Mayer (American Studies, Hannover)

Keynote I

Jason Mittell (American Studies, Film & Media Culture, Middlebury): “The Complexity of Quality: Cultural Hierarchies & Aesthetic Evaluation in Contemporary Television”

Moderation: Ruth Mayer (American Studies, Hannover)

Friday, 16 December 2011

Panel I, 10:00 am – 12:30 pm (Room 103)

Regina Schober (American Studies, Mannheim): “Imagining the World Wide Web: Cultural Constructions of Virtual Space across Media”

Bettina Soller (American Studies, Göttingen): “Authorship as a Category of Cultural Distinction: Collaborative Writing and the Solitary Genius”

Andreas Jahn-Sudmann (Media Studies, Göttingen): “Desperately Seeking the Mainstream: Independent Games and the Cultural Logic of Distinction”

Moderation: Florian Groß (American Studies, Hannover)

Panel II, 14.30-17.00 (Room 103)

Florian Groß (American Studies, Hannover): “‘Quality TV’ and ‘Graphic Novel’: What’s in a Name?”

Christina Meyer (American Studies, Osnabrück): “Popular Visions of War, Gender, and Nation in [High]-Art-Advertising-Comics: Reading Nell Brinkley’s Newspaper Romance Serials”

Shane Denson (American Studies, Hannover): “Lady Gaga’s Mainstream Queer: A Serial Media Remix”

Moderation: Vanessa Künnemann (American Studies, Hannover)

Saturday, 17 December 2011, 10.00-12.00 (Raum 103)

Keynote II

Lynn Spigel (Screen Cultures/Communication, Northwestern University): “Designer TV: Television and the Taste for Modernism in Mid-Century America”

Moderation: Shane Denson (American Studies, Hannover)