Summary

Keywords

  • Cubitt valorizes ecologies over environments: ecologies are mutually imbricates systems whereas environments are held at arm’s length from humanity.

Notes

0. Introduction. Eco-Mediation

  • “When we speak of film as a ‘living medium,’ we should take the term literally” (2); nitrate film stock decays, metabolizes, and goes up in flames, “a slowly percolating chemical soup.”
  • The film’s restoration produces a fictional perfection even as the film itself degrades totally: “Thus, while the film itself slides toward the gel stage, the degradation of its materiality, its restorations migrate toward the Ideal. It is another ironic triumph of the Idea over the existent” (3).
  • “Mediations are not communications (though all communications are mediated). Mediating does not require messages, nor even senders and receivers: It would be false to anthropomorphize the nitrate reaction or the semi-automated digital reconstruction as in some way capable of expression or intention. Mediation names the material processes connecting human and nonhuman events—as the nitric acid catalyst mediates between molecules in the decay of nitrocellulose, and that mediation is mediated again by the Diamant algorithm. Mediation is the primal connectivity shared by human and nonhuman worlds” (3–4).
  • “A theme of this book therefore is that from a primal interweaving of all processes, we have arrived at a point where the world appears to us as things that must be ordered and amassed. It offers as a preliminary thesis that this process in turn begins in an original sin that severed humans from their environments: the privilege granted to communication, a necessary survival mechanism that, however, has come to risk the survival of the whole ecosystem” (5).
  • “Media are finite, in the sense both that, as matter, they are inevitably tied to physics, especially the dimension of time; and that their constituent elements—matter and energy, information and entropy, time and space, but especially the first pair—are finite resources in the closed system of planet Earth” (7).
  • The problem may be overproduction rather than overconsumption; “Ecological crisis, it is argued here, is not the fault of individuals but of the communicative systems, most of all the tyranny of the economy, of money as the dominant medium of twenty-first-century intercourse between humans and our world” (7).
  • “In our times, the idea of a global commons is offered by influential writers like Hardt and Negri (2009) not as a return to the past but as a future, grounded in tradition but now applied not only to land, water, and air but to knowledge, genetic material, and many other new domains. In what follows, the idea of a return to the commons goes beyond Hardt and Negri in insisting that the new commons cannot be solely human, and that therefore our understanding of what it is to be human needs to change. That task is political, but it is also aesthetic, and deeply engaged in the mediations between humans and their environments, natural and technological” (8).

1/2. Energy and Matter

  • These two chapters are the vast bulk of the book.
  • “The first chapters start from the premise that the Earth has finite resources, and that mediation depends upon them and their limits. They address in turn energy and matter”; “Together these chapters advance the thesis that we are already ruled by cyborgs, vast biocomputer hybrids characterized by their lack of shame, their obsession with profit, their inhumanity, their suicidal tendency, and the integration of waste into their life cycle”; “The emphasis in the chapters on energy is on the scale of human suffering involved in environmental catastrophe, not in the future of climate change, but in the present and immediate past of energy generation and transmission, resource extraction, manufacture, and toxic waste” (10).
  • “Chapter 2 therefore addresses supranational governance structures and attempts to understand how it is that they can organize sophisticated global structures to enable communications, but cannot make a decision about energy and other ecological topics” (10–11).
  • First theme, finite media: “The global financial crisis that engulfed the world in 2008 allowed the idea of finite resources to swim once more into focus. We have come to treat the infinite as our familiar: the infinite productivity of engineering or of mathematics, for example” (14); connect the figure of the finite to Meillassoux’s and the speculative realists’ finitude: both are knit together on the problem of scale, which, per conversation w/ Matt, might present itself as a new orientation for digital media—spatial scale as opposed to deep time. (I here admit that I do not understand the sound and fury over “space” and “time” in digital studies.)
  • “The second theme occupying this chapter is that we are not all in this together. Indigenous people have borne the brunt of the digital boom, and gained least from it” (14); this is at least a signal toward the questions of race, gender, and coloniality that should occupy this thinking.
  • “The question of how we are to live well rests on the question as to whether we can live at all. The purpose of the chapter is not to wag a moral finger at consumers, but to argue that the political elite has failed to respond to either global poverty or global environmental destruction, and for a single reason: the obscene dogma of profit, no longer a human vice but the sole motivation of inhuman forces now dominating what passes for global politics. Environmentalism is a materialism” (14–15).
  • Energy is necessary for thinking with media archaeology: if you can’t turn the damn thing on, how are you going to learn from it? (15).
  • Note the thinking of power grids through Latour’s actor-network theory and Bennett’s vital materialism (28), but takes Bennett to task for reliance on capitalist liberal formations.
  • “When McLuhan described electric light as a medium without a message, he was right phenomenologically but wrong historically. He wrote at a time when disguising appliances and hiding wiring became design fetishes, and when light was severed from the vast hydropower schemes that were transforming the Canadian hinterland. Such dematerialization does not hold today in the slums where light is fought for, at the scale of the local reseller of stolen power or of the East Fourteenth Street Con Edison power station in Lower Manhattan exploding into flame at the height of Hurricane Sandy in October 2012” (33).
  • Cubitt inverts the typical cyborg formation, arguing that they are first agglomerations of technology with human elements injected in, e.g. Enron is a cyborg (34). Vitally, the main characteristic of these cyborgs is their lack of shame, allowing them to function as pure profit machines.
  • Energy sources: oil (compare w/ Negarestani); uranium (good sections on the WIPP), “A central task of ecocriticism in media is then not only to extend analysis to the materiality of media but to ensure that abandoning anthropocentrism does not mean abandoning our shame at the fate of indigenous and other colonized peoples resulting from our communications technologies. This case study of uranium has sought to demonstrate that eco- critics also need to readdress the real abstraction of exchange” (58–59).
  • The “matter” chapter is another litany of disasters: mining, rare earth metals. I note that even as Cubitt’s account of perversions is lucidly compiled and argued, it is still the same story we hear over and over.
  • Interesting stuff about toxicity: “This anesthesia extends to the loss of truth to materials in media, specifically truth about the foundation of media technologies in the material environment. Metaphorically, it might be feasible to speak of certain forms of media message as toxic (pornography, race hatred), but discursive violence should be distinguished from actual toxicity. In this instance, the metaphor hides the truth of toxic media, the toxicity of production processes integral to the integrated circuit” (110).
  • “Waste is not an unfortunate by-product of consumerism. Without waste, there can be no consumer capital. Waste takes the form not only of garbage or of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE in EU parlance) but also of populations excluded from the centers of capital” (116). Also: “As economic externality, waste is not an unfortunate by-product of the pursuit of wealth: Under current conditions, waste is integral to industrial and finance capital’s equation of environments with externalities. Integral waste is at the core of the neoliberal mode of destruction and its redirection of wealth away from both populations and environments toward ever-smaller elites” (119).
  • Linking Marxian primitive accumulation to more-than-metaphoric colonialism, extending the postcolonial critique which we’ll get echoed back in Nixon. Notes also of sublimity, which qua convos w/ Matt, is a figure coming back into play re: scale.
  • Interesting object/materialism critique: “A central truth of the waste cycle is that it does not deal in things, of the kind tracked in studies of ordinary commodities (Appadurai 1986). Instead, waste deals in disassembled matter: in pieces, elements, and decomposition” (123).

3/4. Eco-political Aesthetics and Ecological Communication as Politics

  • “The last two chapters turn toward the second great theme of the book, ecology as mediation” (11).
  • “The third chapter looks at how mediation between human population and environment defines politics, and has always been conducted through the capillary organization of technologies, in the first tools, the earliest rock art, and the oldest poetry”; “What environs us today, the environment of the twenty-first century, is no longer only what we call nature but the secondary environments of technology and data, with the human body in the process of also becoming an environment. Assessing potential economic, social, and political resources for change, it becomes apparent that the conditions under which we find ourselves demand a revolution in communications, a fundamentally aesthetic politics” (11).
  • Finally, Cubitt comes around to a plan of action: it’s an inversion of Benjamin’s “Work of Art” essay: “Only a politics rebuilt on aesthetic principles, that is, by remaking communications, offers the possibility of changing the conduct of relations between human beings and nature, and between both of them and the technologies that so profoundly and multifariously mediate between them” (151).
  • “Enclosure, this chapter argues, created the modern distinction between population and environment. The same rationale drove the Industrial Revolution to enclose the commons of everyday skills and to ossify them as the dead labor of the factory, which became the alien environment of the new working class. In our times, knowledge has been enclosed, alienated, and converted into an environment of databases and databanks from which we, the population, are excluded and which confronts us as an alien power. Capital persists through the ongoing privatization of the commons. Common wealth becomes private debt” (152).
  • A “communicative” rather than a “communist” commons (153); autopoietic cybernetics breaks Heidegger (156).
  • Media are not only passive channels of communication: Parts of no part excluded from their own governance, they seek to speak for themselves. Th inherently virtualizing tendency of every technology, its ability to evolve otherwise, is incompatible with each actual technology that embodies it” (182)

Archive and Impact

  • Cubitt is a classic media theorist—trained and interested in film but with a continuing interest in digital media. He teaches at Goldsmiths.