- At its broadest, this is a book about media as the engines of being rather than meaning. To make this argument, Peters turns to the natural world and its elements (intended in a double sense). It also shared Barad’s contention that the natural sciences have much to give the humanities and media studies by way of content, arguments, and methods. Ultimately, Peters wants us to dissolve subject-object relations as necessary for the analysis of media: a media of nature “denies the human monopoly of meaning” (380).
- Expansion of the media concept also entails an expansion of “meaning”: “But if we mean repositories of readable data and processes that sustain and enable existence, then of course clouds and fire have meaning” (4).
- “infrastructuralism”: “I am loath to introduce yet another ‘ism’ into the scrimmage of academic brands, but if I were to do so, it would be the doctrine of infrastructuralism. After structuralism, with its ambition to explain the principles of thought, primitive or modern, by way of a combinatorics of meaning and post-structuralism, with its love of gaps, aporias, and impossibilities, its celebration of breakdown, yearning, and failure, its relish for preposterous categories of all kinds and love of breathless syntax—perhaps it is time for infrastructuralism. Its fascination is for the basic, the boring, the mundane, and all the mischievous work done behind the scenes. It is a doctrine of environments and small differences, of strait gates and the needle’s eye, of things not understood that stand under our worlds. Hence the quiet pun in the title of this chapter: infrastructural media are media that stand under” (33).
- Media and nature are intertwined from the very first moments; media are “agencies of order”; “In light of both the possible irreversible threat to our habitat by climate change and the explosion of digital devices, of both carbon overload in the atmosphere and superabundant data in the ‘cloud, it is good to open again the relationship of media to nature” (1).
- “Media, I will argue, are vessels and environments, containers of possibility that anchor our existence and make what we are doing possible. . . . If media are vehicles that carry and communicate meaning, then media theory needs to take nature the background to all possible meaning, seriously” (2).
- “The body is the most basic of all media, and the richest with meaning, but its meanings are not principally those of language or signs, reaching instead into deep wells stocked with vaguer limbic fluids The body is not one with itself: it is a network” (6).
- Peters’ impetus: digital media “reactivate” the broadest questions about civilization: namely, the triad relationship between humans, our technologies, and our world, and the power structures therein (7). Media are always about order, which is to say infrastructure: they are the ground upon which we build.
- Both responding to and working against the materialist turn: “Media are perhaps most interesting when they reveal what defies materialization” (11). How do you materialize time? And yet the clock tries.
- “Immateriality may be our greatest achievement: points, zeroes, names, money, and language. The emphasis on materiality is a healthy counterbalance to the digital hype that we are moving from a world of atoms to one of bits, but we should not forget that immaterial (symbolic) operations lie at the heart of our oldest and most taken-for-granted media. Media, like human beings are always in the middle between sea, earth, and sky. Media studies is thus a form of philosophical anthropology, a meditation on the human condition which also means a meditation on the nonhuman condition” (12).
1. Understanding Media
- “A medium must not mean but be” (14). This is the challenge of elemental media, that it goes beyond prescriptive meaning and into existential communication. This is the doubled sense of elemental: both ecology and also conceptual.
- This chapter is about tracing the intellectual lineage for the rethinking of the media concept from communications channel to existential infrastructure: where “expression and existence merge” (15). This is a debt to McLuhan, which the chapter goes on to revise.
- Elihu Katz’ distinction of the typologies of media studies is super useful (17); this book and much of the philosophy I’ve been reading are in the third type, “how media technologies shape underlying psychic and social order” (17).
- Instead of old/new media, we follow Innis to think of logistical/mass media; and indeed digital media bends more around to ancient technologies of information processing (registers, calendars) than we admit (19). (This is a Kitterlian argument.)
- Media-as-infrastructure operates in the ablative case: “by means of which” (21).
- Peters addresses German media theory through Kittler for convenience: what is most important is its infrastructural sensibility. In Kittler we find the decisive pivot to media as the ultimate arbiter of being, the final metaphysics, the field-to-end-all-fields (27). (Hence his roving into STEM.)
- “The humanities, seen broadly, are the homeland of technē. There is no humanity without arts starting with the art of walking upright on two feet” (28).
- As such, media studies becomes totally omnivorous and polymathic: “Mumford’s polymathic ambitions set a course for media studies since: you should use the entire library as your source. To study media, you cannot just study media: on this point Innis and McLuhan, Carey and Kittler all agree, being scholars with an eye for preposterous analogies and miscellaneous learning” (29). This is also part of the spirit to a “weird media theory” [remember this phrase] practice in the OOO list.
- But! How do we contract this media concept? To counter this total expansion Peters both celebrates the post-Kantian speculative ontologies of Latour and Meillassoux but returns to the “correlationist” perspective that we need “the capacity of judgment” in the “tasks to find grounds for critique without a misguided subject-object distinction” (a phrase he uses a lot) (30).
- There’s a wonderful section on infrastructure here from pp. 30–38. Infrastructure withdraws, cf. Harman; hence the ethical imperative to open things up and reveal hidden operations.
- “This does not mean that the sea, fire, or the sky are automatically media in themselves,but that they are media for certain species in certain ways with certain techniques; in seeing media as ensembles of nature and culture, physis and techne, I try to stir together semantic strains that speak to a historical moment in which we cannot think of computation without thinking about carbon, or of the cloud without thinking about data” (48–49).
- “Our home is among plants, animals, and the dead in all their varieties. Media are not just pipes or channels. Media theory has something both ecological and existential to say. Media are more than the audiovisual and print institutions that strive to fill our empty seconds with programming and advertising stimulus; they are our condition, our fate, and our challenge” (52).
2. Of Cetaceans and Ships
- [This is an important chapter for my SIGCIS paper.]
- “In one sense, then, the ocean is the primordial medium-Â.free zone, immune to all human attempts at fabrication. In another, however, the ocean is the medium of all media, the fountain from which all life on earth emerged” (54). “So is the ocean the greatest medium or the limit point of any possible media? Answering this apparently simple question will show that media are species- and habitat-specific and are defined by the beings they are for. This chapter conducts a thought experiment using two families of apparently highly intelligent mammals, cetaceans and humans, which have mastered the sea in very different ways” (55–56). This is the project of “a phenomenology of alien sensory ratios” (62).
- Cetaceans as “fantasy creatures”: grounds for speculating and wishing (69). “As transmitters of ultrasonic code, cetaceans shared the same overall apparatus as cryptography; Lilly explicitly saw dolphin vocalizations as a problem in cryptanalysis. Like other fringe beings in the 1950s—extraterrestrials, computers, bees, otters, apes, and schizophrenics—whales and dolphins became subjects of communication” (75).
- “Dolphins invite us to recognize the degree to which our worlds are made of nonhuman stuff. Under the sea, the two scholarly ‘sins’ of technological determinism and talk of essential human qualities no longer seem so bad” (83).
3. The Fire Sermon
- “Fire is useful for media theory because it suggests several reorientations, drawing our attention to the risks built into systems, our radically precarious dependence on nature, and the role of negation in forming the world. Fire teaches the fragility of the web of externalities that undergirds all media. Human ingenuity may have encompassed nature in a thousand ways, but it will not always give itself willingly to our schemes” (116).
- Peters admits that it’s difficult to see fire as a medium, although he relishes the challenge (117). This is also Peters as his most theological. “Fire is a medium because it is an enabling environment for ash and smoke, ink and metal, chemicals and ceramics. Teamed with technique, fire makes matter malleable, turning ores into tools, cold climates into warm ones, darkness into day” (117). (What is the distinction then b/t fire and fuel? How far down do we go?)
- Posthumanism must account for our outsized influence even as it decenters our importance (122).
- “In their power to shape and delete data, new media owe a lot to fire. Fire is a chief metaphor for the Internet: it is metaorganic; it extends the range of (informational) food; it empowers people to explore new time zones (the night) and territories of knowledge; it increases some kinds of sociability, demands ongoing maintenance, and produces dangers and externalities that did not exist before” (126).
4/5. Sky/Time Media (Chronos and Kairos)
- “Correspondingly, the sky has yielded two great but very different sciences, astronomy and meteorology. One is the oldest of all sciences, and the other is quite recent, at least as a predictive science. One dealt traditionally with the (chronos) of sun, moon, planets, and stars, with their cyclical constants, and the other with variables, the (kairos) of weather, rain, hail, thunder and lightning, temperature, and clouds. One is the epitome of an exact science, and the other of a probabilistic one” (166).
- These two chapters are about calendars and clocks; like the rest of the book, they jump around an idiosyncratic range of topics.
- “Weather is an interesting object for media studies because it seems, on the one hand, to be immune to any human fashioning, and yet on the other is one of the most heavily constructed objects we know—constructed by talk, measuring instruments, journalism, and now geoengineering, the possibility of direct and aggressive alteration of atmospheric chemistry. We need a good history of weather’s Aufschreibesysteme, including the natural ones being richly exploited by climate history” (248). This section on the weather is really rich for future work.
- “Weather forecasting was arguably the first world wide web, Edwards argues: a global network for the exchange of data, not only in creating a genuinely global project, but also in terms of computer technology. Next to simulating nuclear explosions, meteorology is the most important motive in the rise of supercomputing” (252). This is perhaps the strongest point as an impetus for my current work: the Anthropocene as a condition for thinking and imagining owes itself to intertwined regimes of computational (as opposed to purely technical or technological) and natural control.
- Compare the subsequent section on clouds to Hu’s Prehistory of the Cloud.
I’m running out of space and time and so skimming through the last chapters on writing and Google. The last one is relevant although also maddeningly vague; for a book on digital technologies there’s not much of them. It would be worthwhile to stage an infrastructural conflict b/t Peters’ positioning of the Google search engine as the deity of contemporary information culture against the racist pragmatics of Noble. Google means something quite different in both approaches.
Archive and Impact
- Peters is a prominent communications scholar and early proponent of infrastructural media studies. Given his comms focus, this is a digital studies interested in pushing past the current comms conception of media as channels. From “messages to habitats” (14).
- The Marvelous Clouds sits at the tail-end of the expansion of the media concept: in Peters’ conception, environments themselves become the primal media from which all other things descend.
- “As I show in chapter 1, the idea that media theory is about environments and infrastructures as much as about messages and content is well rooted in a variety of intellectual traditions” (4); These traditions include: McLuhan, Leroi-Gourhan, Innis, Mumford, Heidegger, Latour, and the American transcendentalists.
- This book is also about an encounter between the humanities and the natural sciences (8); “In a sense, writing this book was an experiment to see whether a single person could get a view on the anthropoid condition. The reader will have to judge whether it is possible, but I think it is not, at least not for this person” (9).
- This book is massive and peripatetic. It would be best to compare it to Mumford’sTechnics and Civilization, which Peters cites quite a bit. It is argument by accretion: little excursions into polymathic research underscoring the same basic point, like Ravel’s Bolero. It can be difficult to handle because it wants to speak to all aspects of human experience. In this way it also reads like a significantly more eloquent Bias of Communication.
- This is a book also heavily indebted to Heidegger, just like Young.