Parikka, Jussi (2015). A Geology of Media.
Minneapolis:University of Minnesota Press. 206pp. Illus.
Reviewed by Sean Cubitt
Frederick Wiseman’s 2014 documentary National Gallery, three hours of patient observation of curators, conservators, workmen, administrators and invigilators, makes a memorable case for a particular form of media archaeology. Watching archival chemists labouring over minute fragments of varnish, it is impossible not to recognise that for the medium of oil painting, the the vehicle is the art work. This is not at all always the case. Most of us detach the text of Shakespeare from the inks, paper and typefaces of its material presence. Though, since Benjamin (2003), we tend to regard this detachment as a property of mechanical media, it is far older. Music exists apart from the instruments it is played on, and though we may mourn the future disintegration of the last Stradivarius, we know it will not be the end of Bach. This is not the case with digital media. Electronic records are entirely dependent on the equipment on which they are recorded, equipment that is always obsolescent in the constant innovation in hardware and software that characterises electronic capitalism. With a great deal of time, expertise and energy, data can be restored from even the most damaged drives, but the forensics are far too expensive to perform on the vast numbers of devices in use today. We think our content will last but our machines are ephemeral. The exact opposite is the case. Long after our content has succumbed to magnetic fields, degrading plastics and format supersession, the media devices we throw out today will persist as plastic landfill and unwanted fragments of metal and glass long after we ourselves are dead and gone. This is one aspect of Parikka’s geology.
The contentless, undead afterlife of media technologies Parikka calls Zombie Media is in many respects a gift for the emerging field of media archaeology, in which Parikka has published some of the fundamental texts, as author (Parikka 2007, 2010, 2012), co-editor (Huhtamo and Parikka 2011) and editor (Ernst 2012, Parikka and Krysa 2015). Media archaeology undertakes to rewrite media history from the standpoint of the machines themselves, eschewing any linear or teleological account. Instead, media archaeologists embrace the ‘anarchaeology’ first mooted by Siegfried Zielinski (2006), which sees media history as a disorderly jostling between concepts, systems, inventions and crazes, any one of which has its own intrinsic merits and its autonomous history. Like Zielinski, on whom he draws, Parikka has devoted much energy to expanding the geographical reach of media history, and to breaking down the hegemony of Paris, London, New York and Los Angeles in that history. Zielinski also introduced the concept of the deep time of the media, backed up with case studies in renaissance and baroque media. In this book, Parikka outdoes Zielinski, pushing the boundaries back to the scales of geological time, from the far future of radioactive decay to the deep past when key minerals and energy sources were formed.
The neo-materialist turn in media studies, which Parikka in many ways embodies, looks to the materials and technical affordances of devices, rather than the textual or political-economy analyses which have formed the bedrock of humanities and social science approaches. This is not to say that they are ignored, only that they are framed in relation to the central concern of how things work, what they are made of, and how they mediate between non-human and human domains. A Geology of the Media extends media archaeology’s interests to include the interconnections between media technologies and natural processes, most especially those implicated in the extraction of minerals and the dumping of electronic waste. In a statement of method in the first chapter, Parikka argues for a media history constructed between the logic of ordering and the materiality of the uncontained (13), a thesis which describes the technological impetus to control the flux of communication not ony between humans but between humans and their environments, in effect as he says ‘a media history of matter’ (25) as much as a material history of media. ‘The materiality of media’, he asserts, ‘starts much before media become media‘ (37: emphasis original).
The assertion is paradoxical in that the geological emerges here not only as a condition of the materiality of media made from minerals and run on oil- and coal-fired energy, but also as a founding mediation of which technical media are merely exemplars. Media mediate between ancient sedimentations and the geology of waste that will be the geological legacy of the Anthropocene. Like Douglas Kahn (2013), Parikka emphasises the leakage of radiation and electromagnetism into human communications, and in a brilliant chapter on dust the equal production of particulate degeneration as an integral product of contemporary media. Parikka has a telling gift for metaphor which allows him to link, in the same chapter, desertification, Sloterdijk’s atmo-terrorism (2009) and the breathless condition of cognitive labour. Even as neo-materialist scholars emphasise with increasing urgency the claims of embodiment, workers’ bodies in sweat-shop fab plants and high-tech offices alike are decreasingly significant, materially exhausted. ‘This’, he concludes, ‘is geophysical terrorism’ (107).
Like Braidotti, and very much in the spirit of Friedrich Kittler, Parikka understands the human as an after-effect of the material and formal construction of its contexts, expanding the horizon again, however, to understand the human as an after-effect of geological time. The altered perspective – like Professor Lidenbrock in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth teaching his nephew vertigo in preparation for their dive into the subterranean – produces one of Parikka’s characteristically insightful paradoxes. Used as we are to distinguishing place as somewhere meaningfully inhabited from mere geology, nonetheless place is unarticulable without the underpinning soil, rock and magma, such that a new psychogeography, or ‘psychogeophysics’, is needed to encourage us to understand that our understanding of place only occurs in bodies and brains comprised of those same minerals and organics. By inviting in consideration of artists working across the mineralogical and media technologies, Parikka begins to weave these themes together as the germs of a new aesthetic. He points upwards, through the work of Trevor Paglen, to the new extra-terrestrial geology of defunct satellites, and with Garnet Hertz in the appendix, towards a kind of pirate modernity made by purposeful recycling and repurposing of discarded media, as practices at the polar extremes of care and disdain. It may be that this needs a more rigourously political project than Parikka is willing to argue. Nonetheless (and despite rather poor proof-reading), A Geology of Media is a powerful, illuminating, passionate book rewriting the history and future of media from a much needed materialist perspective.
Benjamin, Walter (2003). ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility: Third Version’ in Selected Writings, vol 4, 1938-1940. Ed Howard Eiland and Michael W Jennings, Cambridge MA.: Bellknap Press/Harvard University Press. 251-283.
Ernst, Wolfgang (2012). Digital Memory and the Archive. Edited and with an Introduction by Jussi Parikka. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Huhtamo, Erkki and Jussi Parikka (eds) (2011). Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications and Implications. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press.
Kahn, Douglas (2013). Earth Sound Earth Signal: Energies and Earth Magnitude in the Arts. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Parikka, Jussi (2007). Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses. New York: Peter Lang.
Parikka, Jussi (2010). Insect Media: An Archeology of Animals and Technology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Parikka, Jussi (2012). What is Media Archaeology? Cambridge: Polity.
Parikka, Jussi and Joasia Krysa (eds) (2015). Writing and Unwriting (Media) Art History: Erkki Kurenniemi 2048. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Sloterdijk, Peter (2009). Terror from the Air. Trans Amy Patton and Steve Corcoran. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).
Zielinski, Siegfried (2006). Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means. Trans. Gloria Custance. Foreword Timothy Druckrey. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
Sean Cubitt is Professor of Film and Television at Goldsmiths, University of London, Professorial Fellow of the University of Melbourne and Honorary Professor of the University of Dundee. His publications include Timeshift: On Video Culture (Routledge, 1991), Videography: Video Media as Art and Culture (Palgrave Macmillan, 1993), Digital Aesthetics, Simulation and Social Theory (Sage, 1998), The Cinema Effect (MIT Press, 2005) and EcoMedia (Rodopi, 2005). His new book, The Practice of Light, will be published by MIT Press in 2014. He is the series editor for Leonardo Books at MIT Press. Current research is on the history and philosophy of visual technologies, on media art history and on ecocriticism and mediation.
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