Nonhuman Media Theories and Their Human Relevance #Flow14

Photo-Synthesizers

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.

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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.

Ludic Serialities and the “Parergodicity” of Game Studies as Media Studies — #Flow12

Here’s my position paper for the “Game Studies as Media Studies” panel at the FLOW Conference 2012 in Austin, Texas (November 1-3).

Ludic Serialities and the “Parergodicity” of Game Studies as Media Studies

Shane Denson, Leibniz Universität Hannover

The topic of this panel, “Game Studies as Media Studies,” challenges us to stipulate relations (however tentatively) between two fields of study that are themselves in many ways intersectional, cross-disciplinary, and thus to a certain extent undefined. Indeed, by broaching this topic we are returned to the (self-proclaimed) inaugural moment of game studies: to the debates raging as Espen Aarseth famously announced, in 2001’s premiere issue of the online journal Game Studies, “Year One” of computer game studies. In his attempt to stake out the terrain for “a new discipline” and protect it from “colonising efforts” from film and literary studies, Aarseth declared games’ independence from “old mass media, such as theatre, movies, TV shows and novels.” Already eleven years ago, then, Aarseth rejected the idea of game studies as media studies, writing: “Some would argue that the obvious place for game studies is in a media department, but given the strong focus there on mass media and the visual aesthetics, the fundamentally unique aspects of the games could easily be lost.”

The background, of course, was the so-called narratology-versus-ludology debate. And though that debate has since subsided (to the point, even, that some question whether it ever took place at all; cf. Frasca 2003), many of the central points of contention inevitably arise again when we undertake to reassess the relations between game studies and media studies. The crux, of course, is the ludological idea that the defining feature of games as a medium, and hence the core concern of game studies, is the interactive or, in Aarseth’s (1997) term, “ergodic” situation of gameplay – where ergodics combines the Greek ergon (work) and hodos (path), thus positing nontrivial labor as the aesthetic mode of players’ engagement with games. From a ludological perspective, narrative then appears as marginal, subordinate, or at best supplementary or parallel to gameplay – hence para- or “parergodic,” as I propose calling it. And not just narrative, but many of the aspects that might interest media scholars occupy this marginal or framing field of parergodics: from visual forms on screen, for example, to the social and cultural formations they give rise to in the wider world, outside the games themselves.

But parergodicity, a term which combines Aarseth’s “ergodics” with Derrida’s (1987) “parergon,” is not clearly distinguishable from the core of ergodics; on the contrary, the parergodic enacts a logic of supplementarity, a multistable oscillation such as Derrida ascribes to the picture frame: standing outside the work and serving as its background, the frame can also shift and become part of the figure when seen against the background of the wall. Parergodicity, I propose, defines a broad space for media studies research on games, allowing us more generally to rethink the relations between media studies and game studies so as to avoid both extremes of incommensurability and of colonization: “game studies as media studies,” conceived as a field of parergodic inquiry, aims at once to acknowledge the medial specificity of games, their resistance to paradigms established by studying dominant media like film and TV, without thereby ignoring the many empirical and conceptual points of contact that exist.

A key field of parergodic phenomena that demonstrates this potential is the widespread but undertheorized seriality that characterizes games at virtually every level of their material, cultural, and intermedial expression. While the serialization practices that generate ever new iterations of Mario, Zelda, or Lara Croft might seem to be clearly extraneous to the ergodic activity of gameplay, this is far from obvious. In the context of a joint project entitled “Digital Seriality: The Serial Aesthetics and Practice of Digital Games,” Andreas Jahn-Sudmann and I have identified three levels across which seriality can be seen to resonate. Most basically, seriality informs gameplay directly through formal-algorithmic structures of repetition/variation and the intra-ludic seriality of progressive game “levels” (which often repeat, and vary, the basic representational but also actional structures established in earlier levels, thus establishing both episodic closure and continuation). Sequels, remakes, and other explicit serialization practices constitute inter-ludic serialities that are operative between games, but not without consequence or relation to gameplay proper and its infrastructure (the modularity of game engines promotes inter-ludic serialization, for example, essentially repeating the serial patterning of intra-game levels). Moreover, fan practices and transmedial phenomena beyond the games themselves instantiate extra- or para-ludic serialities, which tie gameplay into larger networks of media consumption and exchange. As parergodic phenomena, ludic serialities therefore cut across the divisions that were taken to separate narratological and ludological positions. Finally, then, these serial structures offer both a broad basis for cross-media comparisons (from dime novels, film serials, TV series, etc.), as well as the means for identifying salient differences of digital interactivity, thus articulating a field of parergodics as the site of overlap, complementarity, and mutual advantage for game studies and media studies.

Works cited:

Aarseth, Espen J. 1997. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP.

Aarseth, Espen J. 2001. “Computer Game Studies, Year One.” Game Studies 1.1 (July 2001): <http://www.gamestudies.org/0101/editorial.html&gt;.

Derrida, Jacques. 1987. The Truth in Painting. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod. Chicago: U of Chicago P.

Frasca, Gonzalo. 2003. “Ludologists love stories, too: Notes from a debate that never took place.” Level Up Conference Proceedings. Utrecht: University of Utrecht. 92-99. <http://www.digra.org/dl/db/05163.01125&gt;.

Ludic Serialities @FlowConf2012 #Flow12

I am pleased to learn that my proposal has been accepted in a panel on “Game Studies as Media Studies” at this year’s FLOW Conference in Austin, Texas (organized biannually by graduate students in the Department of Radio-Television-Film at UT). Interestingly, no papers will be presented at the conference — just five-minute statements followed by panel discussions. The preliminary schedule is now up at the conference website, and for the most part it looks great (though I do regret to see that my panel is scheduled to run concurrently with the panel on “Teaching TV” — I was looking forward to seeing Jason Mittell there, who left Germany a few months ago after his year-long stay in Göttingen; I guess we’ll just have to get a beer afterwards…). Anyway, my proposal is based on a project that I’m currently developing with Andreas Jahn-Sudmann (on “Digital Seriality: The Serial Aesthetics and Practice of Digital Games”). Here’s my short abstract:

Ludic Serialities

Shane Denson

In order to think through the affordances and consequences of conceiving game studies as part of humanities-oriented media studies – as opposed both to non-disciplinary approaches to games as focal objects for many disciplines, as well as to strong disciplinary programs following from “ludological” assertions of digital games’ medial exceptionality – I propose looking at a widespread but undertheorized aspect of video games: viz. the seriality that characterizes games at virtually every level of their material, cultural, and intermedial expression. Seriality informs gameplay through formal-algorithmic structures of repetition/variation and the intra-ludic seriality of progressive game “levels”; sequels, remakes, and other explicit serialization practices constitute inter-ludic serialities; finally, fan practices and transmedial phenomena beyond the games themselves instantiate extra-ludic serialities. Careful attention to serial structures offers both a broad basis for cross-media comparisons (from dime novels, film serials, TV series, etc.), as well as the means for identifying salient differences of digital interactivity.