Animation and Discorrelation: Two Talks in Toronto

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Next month, May 16-18, I will be in Toronto, where I’ll give two talks:

First, on May 16, I’ll be talking about my book project Discorrelated Images at the Cinema Studies Institute at the University of Toronto.

Then, on May 17, I will be giving a talk titled “Cinematic and Post-Cinematic Animation: Medium, Theme, Phenomenology” at the Spiral Film and Philosophy Conference (the theme of which is It’s Alive! Film/Form/Life). The full conference program is online, here:

“Post-Cinema and/as Speculative Media Theory” — Panel at #SCMS15 in Montreal


[UPDATE: Full video of the complete panel is now online: here.]

At the upcoming conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (March 25-29, 2015 in Montréal), I will be chairing a panel on “Post-Cinema and/as Speculative Media Theory,” which brings together four of the most significant voices in the ongoing attempt to theorize our current media situation: Steven Shaviro, Patricia Pisters, Adrian Ivakhiv, and Mark B. N. Hansen.

(Not quite incidentally, all four speakers are also contributors to the forthcoming volume Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st-Century Film, which I am co-editing with Julia Leyda.)

Here is the panel description, along with links (below) to the abstracts for the various papers:

Post-Cinema and/as Speculative Media Theory

Following debates over “the end” of film and/or cinema in the wake of the massive digitalization of moving-image media, recent film theory has begun considering the emergence of a new, properly “post-cinematic” media regime (cf. Shaviro 2010; Denson and Leyda, forthcoming). The notion of post-cinema takes up the problematic prefix “post-,” which debates over postmodernism and postmodernity taught us to treat not as a marker of definitive beginnings and ends, but as indicative of a more subtle shift or transformation in the realm of culturally dominant aesthetic and experiential forms (cf. Jameson 1991). In the context of post-cinema, this suggests not so much a clear-cut break with traditional media forms but a transitional movement taking place along an uncertain timeline, following an indeterminate trajectory, and characterized by juxtapositions and overlaps between the techniques, technologies, and aesthetic conventions of “old” and “new” moving-image media.

The ambiguous temporality of the “post-,” which intimates a feeling both of being “after” something and of being “in the middle of” uncertain changes – hence speaking to the closure of a certain past as much as a radical opening of futurity – necessitates a speculative form of thinking that is tuned to experiences of contingency and limited knowledge. With respect to twenty-first century media, theories of post-cinema inherit this disposition, relating it to concrete media transformations while speculating more broadly about the effects they might have on us, our cognitive and aesthetic sensibilities, our agency, or our sense of history.

Bringing together several key figures in the theoretical discussions of post-cinema, this panel seeks to explore and expand this speculative dimension. Steven Shaviro looks at a recent FKA twigs music video as an encapsulation of the post-cinematic media regime at large, theorizing the speculative theoretical work done by the video itself. Patricia Pisters argues that post-cinematic appropriations of archival materials lead to a necessarily speculative revision of history. Adrian Ivakhiv brings the discussion into contact with pressing issues of ecological change. Finally, Mark B. N. Hansen offers a media-philosophical perspective on post-cinema as a future-oriented mode of experience. Together, these interventions articulate post-cinema’s media-technical, aesthetic, ecological, and philosophical vectors in order to develop an emphatically speculative media theory.


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

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

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

Chair Bio:

Shane Denson is a DAAD postdoctoral fellow at Duke University and a member of the research unit “Popular Seriality—Aesthetics and Practice.” He is the author of Postnaturalism: Frankenstein, Film, and the Anthropotechnical Interface (Transcript 2014) and co-editor of several collections: Transnational Perspectives on Graphic Narratives (Bloomsbury, 2013), Digital Seriality (special issue of Eludamos, forthcoming), and Post-Cinema: Theorizing 21st Century Film (REFRAME, forthcoming).

Finally, here are links to the individual abstracts:

Steven Shaviro, “Reversible Flesh”

Patricia Pisters, “The Filmmaker as Metallurgist: Post-Cinema’s Commitment to Radical Contingency”

Adrian Ivakhiv, “Speculative Ecologies of (Post-)Cinema”

Mark B. N. Hansen, “Speculative Protention, or, Are 21st Century Media Agents of Futurity?”

[UPDATE: Full video of the complete panel is now online: here.]

Mark B. N. Hansen, “Speculative Protention, or, Are 21st Century Media Agents of Futurity?” #SCMS15


[UPDATE: Full video of the complete panel is now online: here.]

Here is the abstract for Mark Hansen’s paper on the panel “Post Cinema and/as Speculative Media Theory” at the 2015 SCMS conference in Montréal:

Speculative Protention, or, Are 21st Century Media Agents of Futurity?

Mark B. N. Hansen (Duke University)

In his effort to develop a philosophical account of time-consciousness in the media age, Bernard Stiegler has invoked cinema (as a stand-in for global, realtime, audiovisual fluxes) as the media object par excellence, the technical temporal object that brokers, models, and operates as surrogate for the temporalization responsible for conscious life. Since the publication of the first volume of Stiegler’s Technics and Time, critics have responded to Stiegler’s project with a mix of enthusiasm and skepticism: enthusiasm for the reworking of seemingly moribund themes of deconstruction into a powerful engagement with contemporary media technologies; skepticism concerning the focus on consciousness and representation as the privileged agent and domain of media’s operationality. One particularly striking consequence of Stiegler’s focus on cinema as temporal technical object is a certain temporal bias toward the past, and a recapitulation of the impasse of protention that plagued Husserl’s account of time-consciousness. So long as protention (the “just-to-come’” futurity that is part of the sensory present on the Husserlian model) is taken to be symmetrical to, and indeed is modelled on or derived from retention (the “just-past” of the sensory present), it cannot but be restricted to something that (1) is already possible from the standpoint of the present, is a mode of possibility belonging to the present, and (2) is representational in the sense of being a “content” of consciousness.

The wide-ranging proliferation of so-called “new media” technologies (what I have called 21st century media in my recent work) affords the opportunity to expand the technical off-loading of time-consciousness that informs the core of Stiegler’s neo-Husserlian thought. Most crucially, 21st century media technologies break the correlation of media with conscious cognition, and thus expand the domain of conjunction to what I have called “worldly sensibility” (the meeting of embodied sensibility and worldly impressionality). In my paper, I shall explore two key aspects of this expansion that directly concern the operationality of “speculative media theory”: 1) how the shift from consciousness to sensibility liberates protentionality from its twin restrictions (possibility of the present and representation of consciousness); and 2) how this shift requires a speculative mode of theorization that is an immediate function of the uncertainty and unrepresentatibility of the future.


Hansen, Mark B. N. Feed-Forward: On the Future of Twenty-First-Century Media. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2014.

Stiegler, Bernard. Technics and Time, Vol. 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2010.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Process and Reality: An Essay on Cosmology. New York: The Free Press, 1978.

Author Bio:

Mark Hansen teaches in the Literature Program and in Media Arts & Sciences at Duke University. He is author of Embodying Technesis: Technology Beyond Writing, New Philosophy for New Media, and Bodies in Code, and has co-edited The Cambridge Companion to Merleau-Ponty, Emergence and Embodiment: New Essays on Second-Order Systems Theory, and Critical Terms for Media Studies. His book Feed-Forward: the Future of 21st Century Media will be published by Chicago in Fall 2014.

Postnaturalism, with a Foreword by Mark B. N. Hansen: Forthcoming 2014


Having hinted at it before, I am pleased now to announce officially that my book Postnaturalism: Frankenstein, Film, and the Anthropotechnical Interface will be appearing later this year (around Fall 2014) with the excellent German publisher Transcript, with US distribution through Columbia University Press.

I am also very excited that Mark B. N. Hansen has contributed a wonderful foreword to the book. Here is a blurb-worthy excerpt in which he identifies the philosophical and media-philosophical stakes of the book:

Shane Denson’s Postnaturalism develops [an] ambitious, wide-ranging, and deeply compelling argument concerning the originary operation of media in a way that sketches out a much-needed alternative to destructive developments which, expanding the darker strains of poststructuralist anti-humanism, have pitted the human against the material in some kind of cosmological endgame. Postnaturalism will provide a very powerful and timely addition to the literature on posthuman, cosmological technogenesis. Perhaps more clearly than any other account, it reconciles the irreducibility of phenomenality and the imperative to move beyond anthropocentrism as we seek to fathom the postnatural techno-material “revolutions” that have repeatedly remade – and that will no doubt continue to remake – the environments from which we emerge and to which “we” belong before we become and as a condition of becoming human subjects.

Now, as I put the finishing touches on the manuscript and prepare for it to leave my control — to go forth, monstrously, and (who knows?) prosper — I can only hope that the book will live up to Hansen’s estimation of it and, above all, that it will make a worthy contribution to the debates over nonhuman agency and human-technological co-evolution that have recently defined some of the more exciting strands in media theory, science studies, and speculative realism, among others.

Post-Cinema / Post-Phenomenology


Following my talk last week at the Texas State Philosophy Symposium, details have now been finalized for another talk at Texas State: this time in the context of the Philosophy Department’s Dialogue Series, where I’ll be talking about post-cinema (i.e. post-photographic moving image media such as video and various digital formats) and what I’ve been arguing is an essentially post-phenomenological system of mediation (see, for example, my talk from the 2013 SCMS conference or these related musings). For anyone who happens to be in the area, the talk will take place on Monday, April 14, 2014 at 12:30 pm (in Derrick Hall 111). UPDATE: The time has been changed to 10:00 am.

Philosophy of Science De-Naturalized: Notes towards a Postnatural Philosophy of Media (full text)


As I recently announced, I was invited to give the keynote address at the 17th annual Texas State University Philosophy Symposium. Here, now, is the full text of my talk:

Philosophy of Science De-Naturalized: Notes towards a Postnatural Philosophy of Media

Shane Denson

The title of my talk contains several oddities (and perhaps not a few extravagances), so I’ll start by looking at these one by one. First (or last) of all, “philosophy of media” is likely to sound unusual in an American context, but it denotes an emerging field of inquiry in Europe, where a small handful of people have started referring to themselves as philosophers of media, and where there is even a limited amount of institutional recognition of such appellations. In Germany, for example, Lorenz Engell has held the chair of media philosophy at the Bauhaus University in Weimar since 2001. He lists as one of his research interests “film and television as philosophical apparatuses and agencies” – which, whatever that might mean, clearly signals something very different from anything that might conventionally be treated under the heading of “media studies” in the US. On this European model, media philosophy is related to the more familiar “philosophy of film,” but it typically broadens the scope of what might be thought of as media (following provocations from thinkers like Niklas Luhmann, who treated everything from film and television to money, acoustics, meaning, art, time, and space as media). More to the point, media philosophy aims to think more generally about media as a philosophical topic, and not as mere carriers for philosophical themes and representations – which means going beyond empirical determinations of media and beyond concentrations on media “contents” in order to think about ontological and epistemological issues raised by media themselves. Often, these discussions channel the philosophy of science and of technology, and this strategy will indeed build the bridge in my own talk between the predominantly European idea of “media philosophy” and the context of Anglo-American philosophy.

OK, but if the idea of a philosophy of media isn’t weird enough, I’ve added this weird epithet: “postnatural.” The meaning of this term is really the crux of my talk, but I’m only going to offer a few “notes towards” a postnatural theory, as it’s also the crux of a big, unwieldy book that I have coming out later this year, in which I devote some 400 pages to explaining and exploring the idea of postnaturalism. As a first approach, though, I can describe the general trajectory through a series of three heuristic (if oversimplifying) slogans.


First, in response to debates over the alleged postmodernity of (Western) societies at the end of the twentieth century, French sociologist and science studies pioneer Bruno Latour, most famous for his association with so-called actor-network theory, claimed in his 1991 book of the same title that “We have never been modern.” What he meant, centrally, was that the division of nature and culture, nonhuman and human, that had structured the idea of modernity (and of scientific progress), could not only be seen crumbling in contemporary phenomena such as global warming and biotechnology – humanly created phenomena that become forces of nature in their own right – but that the division was in fact an illusion all along. We have never been modern, accordingly, because modern scientific instruments like the air pump, for example, were simultaneously natural, social, and discursive phenomena. The idea of modernity, according to Latour, depends upon acts of purification that reinforce the nature/culture divide, but an array of hybrids constantly mix these realms. In terms of a philosophy of media, one of the most important conceptual contributions made by Latour in this context is the distinction between “intermediaries” and “mediators.” The former are seen as neutral carriers of information and intentionalities: instruments that expand the cognitive and practical reach of humans in the natural world while leaving the essence of the human untouched. Mediators, on the other hand, are seen to decenter subjectivities and to unsettle the human/nonhuman divide itself as they participate in an uncertain negotiation of these boundaries.


The NRA, with their slogan “guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” would have us believe that handguns are mere intermediaries, neutral tools for good or evil; Latour, on the other hand, argues that the handgun, as a non-neutral mediator, transforms the very agency of the human who wields it. That person takes up a very different sort of comportment towards the world, and the transformation is at once social, discursive, phenomenological, and material in nature.


With Donna Haraway, we could say that the human + handgun configuration describes something on the order of a cyborg, neither purely human nor nonhuman. And Haraway, building on Latour’s “we have never been modern,” ups the ante and provides us with the second slogan: “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.


Now the third slogan, which is my own, doesn’t so much try to outdo Latour and Haraway as to refocus some of the themes that are inherent in these discussions. Postnaturalism, in a nutshell, is the idea not that we are now living beyond nature, whatever that might mean, but that “we have never been natural” (and neither has nature, for that matter). 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). This view, which I develop at length in my book, allows us to see media not only as empirical objects, but as infra-empirical constraints and enablers of agency such that media may be described, following Mark Hansen, as the “environment for life” itself. Accordingly, media-technical innovation 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.

So the more I unpack this thing, the weirder it gets, right? Well, let me approach it from a different angle. Here’s where the first part of my title comes into play: “Philosophy of Science De-Naturalized.” Now, I mentioned before that postnaturalism does not postulate that we are living “after” nature; what I want to emphasize now is that it also remains largely continuous with naturalism, conceived broadly as the idea that the cosmos is governed by material principles which are the object, in turn, of natural science. And, more to the point, the first step in the derivation of a properly postnatural theory, which never breaks with the idea of a materially evolving nature, is to work through a naturalized epistemology, in the sense famously articulated by Willard V. O. Quine, but to locate within it the problematic role of technological mediation. By proceeding in this manner, I want to avoid the impression that a postnatural theory is based on a merely discursive “deconstruction” of nature as a concept. Against the general thrust of broadly postmodernist philosophies, which might show that our ideas of nature and its opposites are incoherent, mine is meant to be a thoroughly materialist account of mediation as a transformative force. So the “Philosophy of Science De-Naturalized,” as I put it here, marks a particular trajectory that takes off from what Ronald Giere has called “Philosophy of Science Naturalized” and works its way towards a properly postnatural philosophy of media.


Giere’s naturalized philosophy of science is of interest to me because it aims to coordinate evolutionary naturalism (in the sense of Darwin) with revolutionary science (in the sense of Thomas Kuhn). In other words, it aims to reconcile the materialism of naturalized epistemology with the possibility of radical transformation, which Kuhn sees taking place with scientific paradigm shifts, and which I want to attribute to media-technical changes. Taking empirical science as its model, and taking it seriously as an engagement with a mind-independent reality, an “evolutionary epistemology” posits a strong, causal link between the material world and our beliefs about it, seeing knowledge as the product of our biological evolution. Knowledge (and, at the limit, science) is accordingly both instrumental or praxis-oriented and firmly anchored in “the real world.” As a means of survival, it is inherently instrumental, but in order for this instrumentality to be effective – and/or as the simplest explanation of such effectivity – the majority of our beliefs must actually correspond to the reality of which they form part. But, according to Kuhn’s view of paradigm shifts, “after a revolution scientists work in a different world” (Structure of Scientific Revolutions 135). This implies a strong incommensurability thesis that, according to critics like Donald Davidson, falls into the trap of idealism, along with its attendant consequences; i.e. if paradigms structure our experience, revolution implies radical relativism or else skepticism. So how can revolutionary transformation be squared with the evolutionary perspective?


Convinced that it contains important cues for a theory of media qua anthropotechnical interfacing, I would like to look at Giere’s answer in some detail. Asserting that “[h]uman perceptual and other cognitive capacities have evolved along with human bodies” (384), Giere’s is a starkly biology-based naturalism. Evolutionary theory posits mind-independent matter as the source of a matter-dependent mind, and unless epistemologists follow suit, according to Giere, they remain open to global arguments from theory underdetermination and phenomenal equivalence: since the world would appear the same to us whether it were really made of matter or of mind-stuff, how do we know that idealism is not correct? And because idealism contradicts the materialist bias of physical science, how do we know that scientific knowledge is sound? According to Giere, we can confidently ignore these questions once the philosophy of science has itself opted for a scientific worldview. Of course, the skeptic will counter that naturalism’s methodologically self-reflexive relation to empirical science renders its argumentation circular at root, but Giere turns the tables on skeptical challenges, arguing that they are “equally question-begging” (385). Given the compelling explanatory power and track record of modern science and evolutionary biology in particular, it is merely a feigned doubt that would question the thesis that “our capacities for operating in the world are highly adapted to that world” (385); knowledge of the world is necessary for the survival of complex biological organisms such as we are. But because this is essentially a transcendental argument, it does not break the circle in which the skeptic sees the naturalist moving; instead, it asserts that circularity is an inescapable consequence of our place in nature. In large part, this is because “we possess built-in mechanisms for quite direct interaction with aspects of our environment. The operations of these mechanisms largely bypass our conscious experience and linguistic or conceptual abilities” (385).


So much for the evolutionary perspective, but where does revolutionary science fit into the picture? To answer this question, Giere turns to the case of the geophysical revolution of the 1960s, when a long established model of the earth as a once much warmer body that had cooled and contracted, leaving the oceans and continents more or less fixed in their present positions, was rapidly overturned by the continental drift model that set the stage for the now prevalent plate tectonics theory (391-94). The matching coastlines of Africa and South America had long suggested the possibility of movement, and drift models had been developed in the early twentieth century but were left, by and large, unpursued; it was not just academic protectionism that preserved the old model but a lack of hard evidence capable of challenging accepted wisdom – accepted because it “worked” well enough to explain a large range of phenomena.


The discovery in the 1950s of north-south ocean ridges suggested, however, a plausible mechanism for continental drift: if the ridges were formed, as Harry Hess suggested, by volcanism, then “sea floor spreading” should be the result, and the continents would be gradually pushed apart by its action. The discovery, also in the 1950s, of large-scale magnetic field reversals provided the model with empirically testable consequences (the Vine-Matthews-Morley hypothesis): if the field reversals were indeed global and if the sea floor was spreading, then irregularly patterned stripes running parallel to the ridges should match the patterns observed in geological formations on land. Until this prediction was corroborated, there was still little impetus to overthrow the dominant theory, but magnetic soundings of the Pacific-Antarctic Ridge in 1966, along with sea-floor core samples, revealed the expected polarity patterns and led, within the space of a year, to a near complete acceptance of drift hypotheses among earth scientists.

According to Giere, naturalism can avoid idealistic talk of researchers living “in different worlds” and explain the sudden revolution in geology by appealing only to a few very plausible assumptions about human psychology and social interaction – assumptions that are fully compatible with physicalism. These concern what he calls the “payoff matrix” for accepting one of the competing theories (393). Abandoning a pet theory is seldom satisfying, and the rejection of a widely held model is likely to upset many researchers, revealing their previous work as no longer relevant. Resistance to change is all too easily explained. However, humans also take satisfaction in being right, and scientists hope to be objectively right about those aspects of the world they investigate. This interest, as Giere points out, does not have to be considered “an intrinsic positive value” among scientists, for it is tempered by psychosocial considerations (393) such as the fear of being ostracized and the promise of rewards. The geo-theoretical options became clear – or emerged as vital rather than merely logical alternatives – with the articulation of a drift model with clearly testable consequences. We may surmise that researchers began weighing their options at this time, though it is not necessary to consider this a transparently conscious act of deliberation. What was essential was the wide agreement among researchers that the predictions regarding magnetic profiles, if verified, would be extremely difficult to square with a static earth model and compellingly simple to explain if drift really occurred. Sharing this basic assumption, the choice was easy when the relevant data came in (394).


But the really interesting thing about this case, in my opinion, is the central role that technology played in structuring theoretical options and forcing a decision, which Giere notes but only in passing. The developing model first became truly relevant through the availability of technologies capable of confirming its predictions: technologies for conducting magnetic soundings of the ocean floor and for retrieving core samples from the deep. Indeed, the Vine-Matthews-Morley hypothesis depended on technology not only for its verification, but for its initial formulation as well: ocean ridges could not have been discovered without instruments capable of sounding the ocean floor, and the discovery of magnetic field reversals depended on a similarly advanced technological infrastructure. A reliance on mediating technologies is central to the practice of science, and Giere suggests that an appreciation of this fact helps distinguish naturalism from “methodological foundationism” or the notion that justified beliefs must recur ultimately to a firm basis in immediate experience (394). His account of the geological paradigm shift therefore “assumes agreement that the technology for measuring magnetic profiles is reliable. The Duhem-Quine problem [i.e. the problem that it is logically possible to salvage empirically disconfirmed theories by ad hoc augmentation] is set aside by the fact that one can build, or often purchase commercially, the relevant measuring technology. The background knowledge (or auxiliary hypotheses) are embodied in proven technology” (394). In other words, the actual practice of science (or technoscience) does not require ultimate justificational grounding, and the agreement on technological reliability ensures, according to Giere and contra Kuhn, that disagreeing parties still operate in the same world.

But while I agree that Giere’s description of the way technology is implemented by scientists is a plausible account of actual practice and its underlying assumptions, I question his extrapolation from the practical to the theoretical plane. With regard to technology, I contend, the circle problem resurfaces with a vengeance. As posed by the skeptic, Giere is right, in my opinion, to reject the circle argument as invalidating naturalism’s methodologically self-reflexive application of scientific theories to the theory of science. Our evolutionary history, I agree, genuinely militates against the skeptic’s requirement that we be able to provide grounds for all our beliefs; our survival depends upon an embodied knowledge that is presupposed by, and therefore not wholly explicatable to, our conscious selves. But as extensions of embodiment, the workings of our technologies are equally opaque to subjective experience, even – or especially – when they seem perfectly transparent channels of contact with the world. Indeed, Giere seems to recognize this when he says that “background knowledge (or auxiliary hypotheses) are embodied by proven technology” (394, emphasis added). In other words, scientists invest technology with a range of assumptions concerning “reliability” or, more generally, about the relations of a technological infrastructure to the natural world; their agreement on these assumptions is the enabling condition for technology to yield clear-cut decision-making consequences. Appearing neutral to all parties involved, the technology is in fact loaded, subordinated to human aims as a tool. Some such subordinating process seems, from a naturalistic perspective, unavoidable for embodied humans. However, agreement on technological utility – on both whether and how a technology is useful – is not guaranteed in every case. Moreover, it is not just a set of cognitive, theoretical assumptions (“auxiliary hypotheses”) with which scientists entrust technologies, but also aspects of their pre-theoretically embodied, sensorimotor competencies. Especially at this level, mediating technologies are open to what Don Ihde calls an experiential “multistability” – capable, that is, of instantiating to differently situated subjectivities radically divergent ways of relating to the world. But it is precisely the consensual stability of technologies that is the key to Giere’s contextualist rebuttal of “foundationism.”


Downplaying multistability is the condition for a general avoidance of the circle argument, for a pragmatic avoidance of idealism and/or skepticism. This, I believe, is most certainly the way things work in actual practice; (psycho)social-institutional pressures work to ensure consensus on technological utility. But does naturalism, self-reflexively endorsing science as the basis of its own theorization, then necessarily reproduce these pressures? Feminists in particular may protest on these grounds that the “nature” in naturalism in fact encodes the white male perspective historically privileged by science because embodied by the majority of practicing scientists. What I am suggesting is that the tacit, largely unquestioned processes by which technological multistability is tamed in practice form a locus for the inscription of social norms directly into the physical world; for in making technologies the material bearers of consensual values (whether political, epistemic, psychological, or even the animalistically basic preferability of pleasure over pain) scientific practice encourages certain modes of embodied relations to the world – not just psychic but material relations themselves embodied in technologies. It goes without saying that this can only occur at the expense of other modes of being-embodied.

More generally stated, the real problem with naturalism’s self-reflexivity is not that it fails to take skeptical challenges seriously or that it provides a false picture of actual scientific practice, but that in extrapolating from practice it locks certain assumptions about technological reliability into theory, embracing them as its own. While it is contextually – indeed physically – necessary that assumptions be made, and that they be embodied or exteriorized in technologies, the particular assumptions are contingent and non-neutral. This may be seen as a political problem, which it is, but it also more than that. It is, moreover, an ontological problem of the instability of nature itself – not just of nature as a construct but of the material co-constitution of real, flesh-and-blood organisms and their environments. Once we enter the naturalist circle – and I believe we have good reason to do so – we accept that evolution dislodges the primacy of place traditionally accorded human beings. At the same time, we accept that the technologies with which science has demonstrated the non-essentiality of human/animal boundaries are reliable, that they show us what reality is really, objectively like. This step depends, however, on a bracketing of technological multistability. If we question this bracketing, as I do, we seem to lose our footing in material objectivity. Nevertheless convinced that it would be wrong to concede defeat to the skeptic, we point out that adaptive knowledge’s circularity or contextualist holism is a necessary requirement of human survival, that it follows directly from embodiment and the fact that the underlying biological mechanisms “largely bypass our conscious experience and linguistic or conceptual abilities” (Giere 385). But if we admit that technological multistability really obtains as a fact of our phenomenal relations to the world, this holism seems to lead us back precisely to Kuhn’s idealist suggestion that researchers (or humans generally) may occupy incommensurably “different worlds.” If we don’t want to abandon materialism, then we have to find an interpretation of this idea that is compatible with physicalism.

Indeed, it is the great merit of naturalism that it provides us with the means for doing so; however, it is the great failure of the theory that it neglects these resources. The failure, which consists in reproducing science’s subordination of technology to thought – in fact compounding the reduction, as contextually practiced, by subordinating it to an overarching (i.e. supra-contextual) theory of science – is truly necessary for naturalism, for to rectify its oversight of multistability is to admit the breakdown of a continuous nature itself. To consistently acknowledge the indeterminacy of human-technology-world relations and simultaneously maintain materialism requires, to begin with, that we extend Giere’s insight about biological mechanisms to specifically technological mechanisms of embodied relation to the world: they too “bypass our conscious experience and linguistic or conceptual abilities.” If we take the implications seriously, this means that technologies resist full conceptualization and are therefore potentially non-compliant with human (or scientific) aims; reliance on technology is not categorically different in kind from reliance on our bodies: both ground our practice and knowledge in the material world, but neither is fully recuperable to thought. Extending naturalism in this way means recognizing that not only human/animal but also human/technology distinctions are porous and non-absolute. But whereas naturalism tacitly assumes that the investment of technology with cognitive aims is only “natural” and therefore beyond question, the multistability of non-cognitive investments of corporeal capacities implies that there is more to the idea of “different worlds” than naturalism is willing or able to admit: on a materialistic reading, it is nature itself, and not just human thought or science, that is historically and contextually multiple, non-coherently splintered, and subject to revolutionary change. Serious consideration of technology leads us, that is, to embrace a denatured naturalism, a techno-evolutionary epistemology, and a material rather than social constructivism. This, then, is the basis for a postnatural philosophy of media.


Philosophy of Science De-Naturalized: Notes towards a Postnatural Philosophy of Media


I am very honored to have been invited to hold a keynote address at the Texas State University Philosophy Department’s annual philosophy symposium on April 4, 2014. Having studied as an undergraduate at Texas State (which back then was known as Southwest Texas State University, or SWT for short), this will be something of a homecoming for me, and I’m very excited about it!

In fact, one of the first talks I ever delivered was at the 1997 philosophy symposium — the very first year it was held. My talk back then, titled “Skepticism and the Cultural Critical Project,” sought to bridge the divide between, on the one hand, the analytical epistemology and philosophy of science that I was studying under the supervision of Prof. Peter Hutcheson and, on the other hand, the Continental-inspired literary and cultural theory to which I was being exposed by a young assistant professor of English, Mark B. N. Hansen (before he went off to Princeton, then University of Chicago, and now Duke University).

In a way, my effort back then to mediate between these two very different traditions has proved emblematic for my further academic career. For example, my dissertation looked at Frankenstein films as an index for ongoing changes in the human-technological relations that, I contend, continually shape and re-fashion us at a deeply material, pre-subjective, and extra-discursive level of our being. The cultural realm of monster movies was therefore linked to the metaphysical realm of what I call the anthropotechnical interface, and my argument was mounted by way of a lengthy “techno-scientific interlude” in which I revisited many of the topics in Anglo-American epistemology and philosophy of science that I had first thought about as an undergrad in Texas.

Thus, without my knowing it (and it’s really only now becoming clear to me), my talk back in 1997 marked out a trajectory that it seems I’ve been following ever since. And now it feels like a lot of things are coming full circle: A book based upon my dissertation, for which Mark Hansen served as reader, is set to appear later this year (but more on that and a proper announcement later…). In addition, as I announced here recently, I will be moving to North Carolina this summer to commence a 2-year postdoctoral fellowship at Duke, where I will be working closely with Hansen. Now, before that project gets underway, I have the honor to return to the philosophy symposium in San Marcos, Texas and, in a sense, to revisit the place where it all started.

I thought it would be appropriate, therefore, if I delivered a talk that continued along the trajectory I embarked upon there 17 years ago (wow, that makes me feel old…). My talk, titled “Philosophy of Science De-Naturalized: Notes towards a Postnatural Philosophy of Media,” takes a cue from Ronald N. Giere’s “Philosophy of Science Naturalized” — which sought to reconcile Thomas Kuhn’s idea of revolutionary paradigm shifts in the history of science with W. V. O. Quine’s notion of “Epistemology Naturalized,” i.e. a theory of knowledge based more in the material practice and findings of natural science (especially evolutionary biology) than in the “rational reconstruction” of ideal grounds for justified true belief. As I will show, my own “postnaturalism” — which is ultimately a philosophy of media rather than of knowledge or science — represents not so much a break with such naturalism as a particular manner of thinking through issues of technological mediation that emerge in that context, issues that I then subject to phenomenological scrutiny and ultimately post-phenomenological transformations in order to arrive at a theory of anthropotechnical interfacing and change.

Techno-Phenomenology, Medium as Interface, and the Metaphysics of Change


On June 17, 2013, I will be presenting a paper at the conference “Conditions of Mediation: Phenomenological Approaches to Media, Technology and Communication” at Birkbeck, University of London. There’s a diverse and interesting group of keynote speakers, including David Berry, Nick Couldry, Graham Harman, Shaun Moores, Lisa Parks, and Paddy Scannell, and a list of other presenters — among whom I am proud to be counted — has also gone online now.

Below is the abstract for my modest contribution:

Techno-Phenomenology, Medium as Interface, and the Metaphysics of Change

Shane Denson, Leibniz Universität Hannover

Walter Benjamin famously argued that the emergence of modern media of technical reproducibility (photography, film) corresponded to sweeping changes in the organization of what he calls the “medium” of sense perception. To a skeptic like film scholar David Bordwell, Benjamin’s “modernity thesis” (along with Tom Gunning’s related arguments about the “culture of shock”) is pure hyperbole, for cognitive structures are subject to the slow processes of biological evolution while impervious to rapid technological change. The debate has tended to reach impasses over questions of the causal agencies and effects of media change—e.g. whether they concern the broad cultural domain of discourse and signification or the “hard-wiring” of the brain itself. In this presentation, I argue that a “techno-phenomenological” approach—which (following cues from Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Don Ihde, among others) focuses on the embodied interfaces in which human intentionalities are variously mediated by technologies—enables us to see media change as involving experiential transformations that are at once robustly material, and hence not restricted to cultural or psycho-semiotic domains, while still compatible with the long durations of biological evolution. An “anthropotechnical interface,” based in proprioceptive and visceral sensibilities, will be shown to constitute the primary site of media change.

Crazy Cameras, Discorrelated Images, and the Post-Perceptual Mediation of Post-Cinematic Affect

[UPDATE March 7, 2013: Full text of the talk now posted here.]

Following our recent roundtable discussion in La Furia Umana (alternative link here), Therese Grisham, Julia Leyda, Steven Shaviro, and I have submitted a panel proposal on the topic of post-cinematic affect for next year’s conference of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. If the proposal is accepted, I hope to develop in a more systematic way some of the thoughts I put forward in the roundtable discussion, particularly with regard to the role of the “irrational” camera. Here is the proposal I submitted for my contribution to the panel:

Crazy Cameras, Discorrelated Images, and the Post-Perceptual Mediation of Post-Cinematic Affect

Shane Denson

Post-millennial films are full of strangely irrational cameras – physical and virtual imaging apparatuses that seem not to know their place with respect to diegetic and nondiegetic realities, and that therefore fail to situate viewers in a coherently designated spectating-position. While analyses ranging from David Bordwell’s diagnosis of “intensified continuity” to Matthias Stork’s recent condemnation of “chaos cinema” have tended to emphasize matters of editing and formal construction as the site of a break with classical film style, it is equally important to focus on the camera as a site of material, phenomenological relation between viewers and contemporary images. Thus, I aim to update Vivian Sobchack’s film-theoretical application of Don Ihde’s groundbreaking phenomenology of mediating apparatuses to reflect the recent shift to what Steven Shaviro has identified as a regime of “post-cinematic affect.” By setting a phenomenological focus on contemporary cameras in relation both to Shaviro’s work and to Mark B. N. Hansen’s recent work on “21st century media,” I will show that many of the images in today’s films are effectively “discorrelated” from the embodied interests, perspectives, and phenomenological capacities of human agents – pointing to the rise of a fundamentally post-perceptual media regime, in which “contents” serve algorithmic functions in a broader financialization of human activities and relations.

Drawing on films such as District 9, Melancholia, WALL-E, or Transformers, the presentation sets out from a phenomenological analysis of contemporary cameras’ “irrationality.” For example, virtual cameras paradoxically conjure “realism” effects not by disappearing to produce the illusion of perceptual immediacy, but by emulating the physical presence of nondiegetic cameras in the scenes of their simulated “filming.” At the same time, real (non-virtual) cameras are today inspired by ubiquitous, aesthetically disinterested cameras that – in smartphones, surveillance cams, satellite imagery, automated vision systems, etc. – increasingly populate and transform our lifeworlds; accordingly, they fail to stand apart from their objects and to distinguish clearly between diegetic/nondiegetic, fictional/factual, or real/virtual realms. Contemporary cameras, in short, are deeply enmeshed in an expanded, indiscriminately articulated plenum of images that exceed capture in the form of photographic or perceptual “objects.” These cameras, and the films that utilize them, as I shall argue in a second step, mediate a nonhuman ontology of computational image production, processing, and circulation – leading to a thoroughgoing discorrelation of contemporary images from human perceptibility. In conclusion, I will relate my findings to recent theorizations of media’s broader shift toward an expanded (no longer visual or even perceptual) field of material affect.


Bordwell, David. “Intensified Continuity: Visual Style in Contemporary American Film.” Film Quarterly 55.3 (2002): 16-28.

Hansen, Mark B. N. Feed-Forward: The Future of 21st Century Media. Unpublished manuscript, forthcoming 2013/2014.

Ihde, Don. Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1990.

Shaviro, Steven. Post-Cinematic Affect. Winchester: Zer0 Books, 2010.

Sobchack, Vivian. The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1992.

(PS: The crazy mobile camera collection pictured above, the “cameravan,” belongs to one Harrod Blank, whose website is here. The image itself was taken from a website (here) licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.)