Summary

  • Mattern’s book is an often-dizzying but always fascinating collision of archaeology and media archaeology toward the question: what are the roots of the datafied city? Her answer is that the city has always been “smart,” and we can best understand this reality through an expansion of the media concept to include infrastructure. The book is a mapping of these realities, leapfrogging across times and continents—the examples are always apt, though difficult to parse at times. My main takeaway here is that Mattern prizes an archival and material analysis—an equivalent to Innis’ “dirt research.” She has a bit of an allergy to theory, although this clear-headedness makes her one of the most apt readers of theory we’ve got. Rather, her work is about discovering communications media where they lay, and piecing together impressionistic and anonymous histories from the ground up.

Keywords

  • “urban media archaeology”: “a literal archaeology of the mediated city, a materialist, multisensory survey and excavation of the deep material history—that is, a cultural materialist history that acknowledges the physicality, the ‘stuff,’ of history and culture—composing our mediated cities and urban intelligences” (xxi).

Notes

0. Introduction

  • “This datafication of the city is also, simultaneously, the mediation of the city: those data are harvested, cleaned, filtered, analyzed, rendered visible and intelligible and actionable via an assemblage of media, from sensors to screens, smartphone apps to building management systems” (ix).
  • “Our focus here, however, will be on the foundations—not only the concrete caissons and steel tracks, but also the historical, intellectual, material, and political contexts—for our current-day obsession with urban intelligence” (x). The thrust of this book is to build an archaeological history (literally) for the idea of “smart” cities, “all the way back to ancient Rome” (xi).
  • ppl. xvi–xx have an excellent reading of media archaeology. The overall point is that Code and Clay stages an encounter b/t media archaeology and stones-and-bones archaeology, a “confusion” that Mattern positions alongside Parikka, Starosielski, Peters, and Parks (xxi).
  • Literal archaeology also has a political and ethical self-reflexivity as a field that media archaeology lacks, despite its willingness to engage questions of war, ecology, or the new materialisms (xxiii). “Yet archaeology-proper’s willingness to confront the ideologies and geopolitical imbalances underlying its entire enterprise, the cultural politics of its practice, and the exploitative ends toward which its work is sometimes put—nationalist land claims, heritage theme parks, global antiquities markets—could set an example for media archaeology” (xxii).
  • Vital for thinking about how to interpret things beyond access: “The gaps and exclusions in the record—what is not actually there, the artifacts weathered or demolished, the lives excluded—can also reveal, even through absence, their own operative logics: about natural and cultural processes of erosion, destruction, and erasure, and also, importantly, about cultural politics and epistemologies” (xxiv–xxv).
  • The value of infrastructure (even as infrastructure becomes a trend): “But it’s when we’re dealing with more ‘ethereal’ media—those, like radio or public address, that seem to have limited material apparatus, little ‘actually there’—that the city-as-media-infrastructure model proves particularly useful. By studying these seemingly bodiless media’s urban contexts, we can better understand how the material environment supports them: how the city provides broadcast sites and acoustic venues; how urban surfaces, volumes, and voids have functioned as sounding boards, resonance chambers, and transmission media” (xxvi).

1. Cities of Electric Sound

  • “Our first chapter, ‘Waves and Wires: Cities of Electric Sound,’ describes how, since the mid-nineteenth century, urban atmospheres have been charged with electric and electromagnetic telecommunications—telegraph and telephone wires and radio waves” (xxviii).
  • “Yet what supposedly distinguishes ‘radio space’—its radial organization, multiple connected centers, open plans, ample vistas, material lightness—does, in some cases, precede radio, and is equally representative of other media or cultural logics and aesthetics” (9); the intervention is then in radio as a sonic medium: the introduction of the noise complaint, the revision of building codes to facilitate radio transmission (9–11). “Products like Akoustolith, Acousti-Celotex, Acoustone, Sanacoustic Tile, Sabinite, and Sprayo-Flake created architectural spaces characterized by a lack of reverberation. Rooms no longer had a signature sound based on their dimensions and materials. Instead, the new architectural materials of which they were composed signaled ‘the power of human ingenuity over the physical environment’” (15).
  • It’s a little difficult to pick out notes from Mattern’s writing, not because it doesn’t lend itself to quotability, but because the stories she’s telling are pieced together from hundreds of small archival sources and tell an impressionistic story in their totality. The aim of this writing is panoramic rather than straightforwardly argumentative. I love the book but it disorients me; it feels like it could have been three times as long, or each chapter its own volume.

2. The Printed City

  • “Chapter 2, ‘Steel and Ink: The Printed City,’ traces how, for over half a millennium, a humble assemblage of steel, ink, and paper has informed the way we’ve imagined, designed, constructed, inhabited administered, and navigated our cities” (xxviii).
  • Begins w/ the flyer nailed to a telephone pole, a mixture of distributed and hyperlocal communication (43); goes on to rehearse familiar conversations re: technological determinism from print history (46).
  • “All this is to say: the printed city is no mere metaphor. What’s at stake here are nothing less than the shape and size of the urban public sphere and the state of public literacy; determinations of who’s entitled to see their words and images typeset and printed, and where that work is published and disseminated; how urban public affairs are made public; how publics understand and navigate their cities; how a city’s tools of administration shape its administrative practices; and how design tools shape urban form. In short, the city in print gives typographic form to urban perceptions, practices, and politics” (49).

3. Histories of Writing and Urbanization

  • “In chapter 3, we dig into an even more humbly and messily elemental medium: mud. In ‘Of Mud, Media, and the Metropolis: Aggregating Histories of Writing and Urbanization,’ we’ll consider how mud and its material analogs—clay, stone, brick, concrete—have supplied the foundations for our human settlements and forms of symbolic communication, and have bound together our media, urban, architectural, and environmental histories” (xxxix).
  • “Our goal here is not to substantiate claims of writing’s invention or provenance; as we’ve seen in previous chapters, media follow different paths of evolution in different geographic and cultural contexts. And many of those claims (often published under titles that tellingly acknowledge the origins, plural, of writing) depend in large part on how different researchers define ‘writing’” (86).
  • Draws on Innis’ notion of “time-bias” and “civilizational” approaches: mud becomes a medium through which to propagate ideas about urbanity itself (87). Note also that through inscription, historical buildings become texts as well (88).
  • Also integrates Siegert’s cultural techniques: “Yet in examining the place of mud in the Kulturtechniken of city-making and record keeping, we recognize that urban and administrative culture are utterly dependent on ‘nature’s’ geologi cal resources. Writing and urbanization are both muddy businesses and they’re messily entwined” (89).
  • Note section on mud and standardization (105–111).

4. Speaking Stones

  • “In chapter 4, we attend to the sounds and textures of the voice, arguably among our oldest of ‘media.’ In ‘Speaking Stones: Voicing the City,’ we’ll consider how the city itself functions as a sounding board, resonance chamber, and transmission medium for vocality—for public address, interpersonal communication, and vocal expressions of affect” (xxxix).

5. Conclusion

Archive and Impact

  • Mattern teaches at the New School and trained at NYU’s MCC program. Her work focuses on urbanism, media space, and infrastructure—indeed, I would say that within media studies, she’s one of the major figures in infrastructural studies, even as she contests that box (which I respect).
  • Let me also just say: her writing is gorgeous. To be honest, hers and Matt’s so far are the books whose writing I respect the most.
  • This book slots neatly alongside a series of works interested in urbanism, incl. Bratton and Gabrys.
  • Mattern also acknowledges formative influences of McLuhan and Innis in early development of courses on media architectures (xiii).
  • Media archaeology is also a major influence but Mattern levies some sharp critiques of the practice (with which I agree), incl.:
    • Media studies scholars like Marvin and Gitelman had a rich tradition of challenging linear histories.
    • There’s a stark absence of women’s voices and even those that remain operate in a masculinist vein.
    • Nooney and Elsaesser have both characterized media archaeology as a “symptom,” a response to various crises, to which we can now add climate change (this is a good thing) (xv–xvii).
  • Infrastructure is in many ways the limit case for the expansion of the media concept (xxiv). From Parikka’s review: “But infrastructure is not merely the nuts and bolts, steel, cement and wires that are at the ground and underground of the city, but also a temporally stretched perspective. It is alongside this temporal stretch where also the argument builds up. Infrastructure exists as residual layers on top of which media emerge again and again. Cities and urban settlements build on their own historical legacy, sometimes ruins, in ways that stores always some part of this material condition as part of its future.”
  • The notion of “deep time,” taken seriously, also blows up the periodization of literary studies—although I suppose Anthropocene Reading will have something to say about that.
  • Mattern’s methods are also useful for moving beyond the visual and into sensation more broadly (xxxiii). This necessitates speculative models of engagement.
  • This book is heavily Mumfordian, not just in how often he’s cited, but in the scope that it attempts to take.
  • This is not a book really interested in computation. Rather, it’s interested in communication. This is perhaps another way to distinguish digital from media studies more generally.