Table of Contents


The Question of Scale

As digital technologies pervade both human and nonhuman existence, many critics turn our attention to problems of scale: whether Bratton’s planetary-scale computation, Chakrabarty’s “species scale,” Edwards’ “gigantic scale” military-computational networks, Zielinski’s “deep time”; the list goes on. In these accounts, attention to vast and deep spatial and temporal scales seem to exhaust the typical methods of doing media criticism. At the same time, earlier traditions of media study, including those of Mumford, Innis, and McLuhan, operate precisely on the vast sociocultural scales that seem to present a problem for later critics. How do we reconcile the problem of scale, if it is indeed a problem at all? What obstacles do spatial and temporal scale, in either direction, present for doing media analysis? What do they enable?

  1. The problem of scale
    • When critics bemoan the problem of scale, it typically takes one of a few forms:
      • A pervasive numeracy or informationalization that assimilates wide-ranging phenomena into data (Appardurai, Edwards, Tenen)
      • Subatomic technical developments confound Enlightenment-scale notions of ordering the universe (Barad, Ernst)
      • The side-effects of technical developments create geological interventions in the planet that are thought cognitively inaccessible to present humanity (Bratton, Cubitt)
      • Digital technologies have grown so pervasive both in their physical presence in daily life and their capacity to network with each other that they produce relations that seem to dizzy those cognitive capacities (Chun, Gabrys, Parikka). Corollary through the new materialists (Bennett): we are now recognizing that the digital is only one facet of all objects’ capacities to interrelate.
    • The “problem” then that scale produces for digital studies is two-fold:
      • It seems to present a cognitive problem: scale is somehow impossible to think. Note that this is rarely followed up on but rather presented as a truism.
      • It presents an analytical problem, in that too many things now appear under the rubric of “digital studies,” as if we have given a mouse a cookie and now much speak to all possible phenomena.
    • What I would try to do in this answer is trace these two “problems” across a history of media study, noting the conditions—particularly the materialist focus of German media theory—that make questions of scale unpalatable to present scholars. I’m not arguing that we need to return to the total-theory aspirations of past scholars, but rather we can learn some techniques for managing scale—and possibly grow a little bolder about the kinds of claims we are comfortable making.
  2. Precedents to scale: Civilizational approaches
    • Unsurprisingly, scholars have been thinking at huge scales for quite some time, e.g.:
      • Mumford
      • Innis
      • McLuhan
    • We can group these together as civilizational approaches, scholars for whom the study of media and technology meant exactly the ability to make claims about the development of human civilization. Mumford and Innis in particular are instrumental in relating this development to the planet’s natural resources (“staples”), presaging Anthropocene work like Parikka or Starosielski.
    • Another thread we can address: the rise of cybernetics in the post-WWII American setting. Cybernetics (Wiener) depends precisely on the pervasive numeracy that would later become a sticking point for 21st century scholars.
    • While I’m not going to say that the cognitive or the analytical problems didn’t crop up for these scholars (find ex. of such), we can note that the bounds they put on their study permit them to make broad-scale claims.
  3. The changing object of study: network analysis and media archaeology
  4. Techniques for managing, dissolving, and embracing scale

The Question of the Anthropocene

The concept of the “Anthropocene” has run rampant these days, insinuating itself into nearly all humanistic study. But this pervasiveness belies a collective inability to settle on its most basic features, including even its name. What is the Anthropocene? Why use “Anthropocene” over one of the many other terms? In the spirit of Haraway’s “ideas to think other ideas with,” what does the Anthropocene allow us to think that was previous inaccessible? What does focusing on the Anthropocene miss? It may be worth tracing an intellectual lineage of the core ideas of the Anthropocene beyond the past few decades: where do we find the Anthropocene’s features in prior thought?

And a corollary that might need to be its own question: what is the value of thinking with the Anthropocene for digital studies? How is digital studies different in the Anthropocene than before it? How does the Anthropocene concept force us to reconfigure digital studies? And vice versa: what do the insights of digital studies do to our idea of the Anthropocene?

  1. What is the Anthropocene?
    • I think it’s worth having a definitional answer at the ready in order to justify why it’s so central for my list. I offer two definitions. The first is the standard, oft-quoted one: the Anthropocene is a period marked by geological impacts on the planet by our species as a whole. We can trouble each word in that definition. The second is a more conceptual definition that I use in order to enable certain kinds of questions: the Anthropocene is a conceptual threshold wherein humanistic scholarship must take seriously the (often failing) interrelationships between human activity, mediating technologies, and the planet itself. In thinking with thresholds, I am particularly indebted to Haraway.
  2. Why do we need the Anthropocene as a concept?
    • We don’t. There are many avenues into this work that don’t depend on the “Anthropocene” in name. As in the scale question, one could turn to Mumford or Innis to note past scholars interested in the human/technology/planet triangle. Or we could look to folks in infrastructure, e.g. Starosielski, for whom the concept is implicit and not directly named.
    • The value of the “Anthropocene” is as a “thing to think with,” to draw from Haraway. The remainder of a response to this question should trace the history of the concept, note moments in non-Anthropocenic work that address similar tensions, and what these moments can bring to the Anthropocene table.
  3. The plurality of the Anthropocene
    • One of the issues w/ the Anthropocene, conceptually, is that we can’t even decide on a name. But what the naming crisis indicates is a disagreement on the cause. In that regard, it’s an interesting conceptual struggle.
    • We can also look at the different effects that seem habitually grouped under the rubric of “Anthropocene,” e.g.:
      • carboniferous capitalism (Ghosh, Nixon, Heise)
      • geological interventions in the planetary skin (Bratton, Cubitt, Parikka)
      • widening inequality and political unrest (Nixon, Heise, Chun)
      • technological operationalization of everyday life (Chun)
    • Some of these are material and some affects. The sense of crisis (Chun) permeates all of them.
  4. The history of the Anthropocene
  5. Its value to digital studies
    • Not only do digital technologies seem to drive the Anthropocene……

The Question of Materiality

After the cultural turn of the 1980’s and the network turn of the 1990’s (corollary: what are the relationships between these two?), digital studies turned to stuff. Matter and materiality became the coin of the realm, whether in German media theory and Anglophone media archaeology’s emphasis on technical exegesis, the infrastructural turn’s ethnographic approach to the physical sites of media, and speculative philosophy’s emphases on objects and things. Trace a history of the turn toward materiality. Toward what does materiality direct our attention? What even is “materiality,” and how is it distinct from cultural or discursive approaches? What does a focus on materiality do specifically to the study of digital media? And where do these questions end up now that media archaeology seems to have crested as an approach? What has materiality given way to?

  1. Another way to frame this question is the changing object of study within media/digital studies.

The Question of Infrastructure

JUST SO THAT I HAVE SOMETHING HERE: This is about the turn to infrastructure. Why infrastructure and why now?

  1. An outline of how I would
    • answer
    • this
    • question
  2. And subsequent points.

The Question of Justice

JUST SO THAT I HAVE SOMETHING HERE: One of the major things we hear about digital technologies these days is how they interfere in or produce political governance, particularly on planetary scale. I can’t figure out how to phrase this but this is a question basically about what happens to the hard-won questions of race, gender, and sexual justice in the regime of ever-present technology?

  1. An outline of how I would
    • answer
    • this
    • question
  2. And subsequent points.

The Question of Technique

JUST SO THAT I HAVE SOMETHING HERE: This is a question about the methods by which we do digital studies. As the object of our study has changed, how have our methods? Do we need to know how to code? What methods do we have available for us when managing systems at scale? What do we make of the turn to technique?

Smaller Modules

These are less specific questions and more inter-related webs of knowledge.

  • Ecology and the environment
    • lorem ipsum; Sources:
  • What remains of media archaeology?
  • “Dirt research” and the turn to ethnography

The Big Questions

  • What scholars do I see my work most in dialogue with?
    • “Infrastructure” folks are asking interesting questions re: media broadly construed and environmental materiality. But what they often miss is the textual/material specificity of media archaeological folks, esp. the Kirschenbaum/Tenen schools—much of their focus is about transmission rather than computation and programmability as such. Also, their methods are heavily ethnographic, which is fine, but there’s a gap in the work that takes the work of representation seriously. Ethnographic and site visits are representations of another kind, and much of our access to infrastructure “media,” particularly when we construe the environment as an infrastructure of sorts, is through more and more countermediation and representations. We need to develop reading practices (textual, literary, cultural, computational) that can account for this multiplication.
  • What is my intervention?
    • I contend that we can most usefully intervene in the questions of scale and representation that computational media, particularly those understudied media that intervene in our experience of the environment, through attention to computation’s textuality. We can develop reading practices that negotiate problems of scale and representation, that understand computational media, following Hu, as cultural first, even before they are also technical. From this cultural position, I hold that the tools of literary study are well-suited to making sense both of the innate textuality of computational media itself and such media’s cultural operations.
  • What is “media”?
    • The material substrate of cultural representation. But we can expand and contract every one of those words; the double-edged sword of this definition is that, in context, anything can be a medium. And indeed it can. But following Sean Cubitt, not everything is always already a medium. It takes use, perception, and circulation, broadly construed as the work of cognition (not exclusively a human operation), to turn a material into a medium.
  • Why “digital studies”?
  • How is this an English project?
    • I hold with those in textual media archaeology and cultural studies infrastructural study that
  • How do I see this work shaping into a dissertation project?