Hyperdistractions

2016-05-31 06.54.19 am

My review of Dominic Pettman’s short book Infinite Distraction: Looking at Social Media is up now at the Los Angeles Review of Books (LARB). In the review, I explore particularly the stakes of “distraction,” which Pettman borrows from Kracauer and Benjamin, and the way that their concept of Zerstreuung might help us to understand our age of “scatterbrained” multitasking and develop an appropriate response. With a nod to Marshall McLuhan and his notions of “hot” and “cool” media, I try to understand Pettman’s politics of distraction, which itself responds to Bernard Stiegler’s phenomenology of mediated temporality: “In the face of ultra-cool media, we have to learn to be ice cold. In the face of the always already ‘meta’ relation of social media to our divided, distracted attentions, we have to learn to be infinitely more distracted. Hypersynchronization and hypermodulation call for nothing less than hyperdistraction.” In the end, I am critical of what I refer to as the book’s “humanistic vision” and its “communicational bias,” but I certainly recommend engaging with Pettman’s thought-provoking and in many ways open-ended book, which I see sowing seeds for future thinking and action in the realm of social media.

Read the whole review here.

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Diagramming Media as the Environment for Life

WeHaveNeverBeenHuman

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.

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.