Narrative Threads

We can split these readings into a few different schools of thought, each with their own methods:

  • Political and legal theory
    • Appadurai, Hardt/Negri, Pasquale
  • Critical race studies
    • Browne, parts of Chun, Nakamura/Chow-White
  • Post-Deleuzian philosophy
    • Cheney-Lippold, Deleuze, Galloway
  • Media theory
    • Brunton/Nissenbaum, Chun, Galloway/Thacker, Jagoda, Scholz, Terranova
  • And a light dusting of sociology
    • Latour, also Browne again

This list was particularly dense with self-reference: Appadurai appeared in a number of other readings; everyone loves to cite Deleuze’s “control societies”; Galloway both appeared as an author three times but was also the chief opponent for Jagoda and a contributing force to Brunton/Nissenbaum, Cheney-Lippold, Chun, and others; Hardt/Negri powered Terranova. The chief meta-question of this list: how does the study of digital media inform our understanding of contemporary political formations?

That being said, the “network” is a motivating figure that reaches beyond digital media; indeed, we need to nuance for a moment what we mean by “media” for each of these schools of thought. For the political and legal theorists, “media” more closely intersects with “mass media”: Appadurai identifies accelerated digital media as a key line of energy for thinking with globalization, which for him is the most potent expression of “networked” politics; Hardt/Negri address the internet more as a communicative medium, although they are also interested in placing it in conversation with theories of poststructuralism and postcolonialism that they argue have reached their ultimate limits. Out of the political theorists, I think that Appadurai has the most powerful articulation of the problems digital technologies present political formations and state operations in our contemporary moment: in thinking with numbers he picks up a variety of threads from the TCC list.

(One thread that will get taken up later in the Infrastructure section, particularly in Bratton: digital technologies as fundamentally ones of governance.)

For the critical race studies folks, digital technologies motivate conversations around biopolitics—a conversation that continues in some shape into the post-Deleuzians, esp. in Cheney-Lippold. Digital technologies from surveillance to gene therapy shape our understanding of how bodies are marked by societies and states (as raced, gendered, othered, etc.)—indeed, one of the most provocative and useful formations from the Nakamura/Chow-White collection comes from Chun’s essay arguing that race operates as a technology itself—something we can take alongside Browne’s longue durée method of sociohistorical analysis to see how the idea of race itself powered later technological developments like the lanterns that Black ppl were obligated to carry around. Much of this conversation will get taken back up in the Infrastructure section around Noble’s work on algorithms, as well as in work on indigenous infrastructures in some of Starosielski’s edited collections.

The post-Deleuzians operate at the highest level of philosophical abstraction; their objects of inquiry are also harder to determine. Galloway, Cheney-Lippold, and Deleuze (how is he post-himself? Moving on…) articulate one of the core problems of this list: how does the “network” simultaneously describe a material-technical formation and a political imaginary? And what space is available for political transformation in the interstices of materialities and virtualities? Galloway is undoubtedly the most influential person working in political media theory today: for him, the computer operates similar to the way that Barad uses quantum physics, as the most contemporary stage of thinking about mediation and its attendant philosophical questions.

Let’s just get this out of the way. Galloway’s fingerprints are all over this section and I find him so difficult to read and understand. As best as I can follow, The Interface Effect asks us to shift the grounds of our analysis away from the matter of media studies and toward media as an effect: media as practice, as what Jagoda says in his review “a process of translation among different states.” As such, the appropriate method of analysis is not poetics (e.g., Manovich) but rather political historical analysis (e.g., Jameson). In defining media as an effect, Galloway argues that media are politics—organizations of the world and its resources. So what’s Galloway’s version of cognitive mapping? It ends up looking, paradoxically, much like Manovich’s layer analysis of software, or Bratton’s stack theory: we have to move through interleaved and interstitial layers of signification, some visual, some technical, to uncover how media operate as processes for the formation of and engagement with a social world.

The link to Deleuze’s “control societies” is then paramount. For Galloway, digital technologies do not produce the control society; they develop alongside it and mutually inform its constitution. As such, it’s digital technologies that provide the best archive for understanding how the Deleuzian control society operates today and methods for overcoming it.

It would be incorrect to call Galloway a media archaeologist. His methods are more abstract; his archive more effect than material. Still, there’s some shared terrain. Galloway resolutes denies that a “theory of the new” can produce a coherent politics; he argues for the continued utility of Marxian and Freudian critique and suggests that “new” techniques such as critical play are just re-instantiations of these old models. This is a major ground upon which Jagoda contests his work, but I have to say that I side with Galloway rather than the Hayles/Flanagan/Jagoda school, precisely because of my investment in media archaeology as an analytical method. I buy the analysis out of the post-Deleuzians: that we are not living in anything particularly new, but rather intensified, and that we don’t have to discard past traditions of critique in order to make cogent sense of our world. Importantly, I also side with Galloway in the sense that I think that the control societies—or indeed the Anthropocene more generally—remain inaccessible or “unrepresentable” in key ways. Now, I think I agree with Jagoda that important attempts are being made in the arts to counter this inaccessibility, but unlike Jagoda I think they’re failing—but we’ll get into that more later.

The media theorists are more of a mixed bag. Brunton/Nissenbaum are interesting inasmuch as they’re one of the few theorists to over cogent material action, even as their theorization of obfuscation comes off as a little underbaked. Chun’s most recent book is half a thoroughly exciting analysis of how networking technologies can undergird an analysis of present conditions of strange affect, accelerated temporality, and lurching crisis (all key features of the Anthropocene) and half a strange venture into social media that ends with a politically illegible call for more “loitering.”

This is the moment where I need to address the elephant in the room: Donald Trump. All of these texts are pre-Trump and it shows. Much of the political analysis is spot-on, but the recommendations for action that they make are so anemic as to be comical. Alternatively, it seems that many folks identify the nonlinear, distributed, and potentially liberatory power of networks (Hardt/Negri and Terranova especially) and have no awareness of how those possibilities are available to the right as well as the left. In other words: late-90’s / early 2000’s network fetishism or network utopianism does not anticipate Gamergate. No wonder a generation of academics has spent the past two years claiming various theories of negation: they didn’t see this shit coming.

I’ll go through everyone individually in the Roll Call, but to close the writing for today, some major stories to tell from this list:

  1. Deleuze’s societies of control sutures the cyberneticists from the TCC list to our contemporary analysis of network technologies as political formations. Following Galloway, we analyze digital technologies through the lens of politics not only because they foreground interconnection and so make themselves available to political analysis, but also because we understand these technologies as the helpmeets of the control societies.
  2. The War on Terror was a major blow to a 90’s network utopianism: following Appadurai, we see that the techniques of resistance outlined in Hardt/Negri and Terranova are available to violent and repressive regimes as much as liberatory ones. From whence comes this utopianism? Curiously from two sides: the first, those who see the network as a fulfillment of the political promises of poststructuralism; and second, those like Hardt/Negri who see the network as a figure that denotes the limits of poststructuralist politics. In any case, 9/11 represents a limit test to this thinking.
  3. Thinking with networks must entail thinking with biopolitics: it is in an analysis of digital technologies as political actors that we find the most potent analyses of how technologies produces race, and vice versa.

Gaps

  1. Just as 9/11 is a limit test to 90’s network utopianism, it seems that the financial crisis and the rise of Trump represents a similar limit test.
  2. Unsurprisingly the “network” is a highly dematerialized formation, and network-focused analyses could benefit from the materialist and technical rigor of media archaeology.

Roll Call