[iDC] Alan's questions about media theory/ies

Sean Cubitt scubitt at unimelb.edu.au
Tue Jul 21 10:14:44 UTC 2009

As Jonathan said in response, these are great questions. Ten cents worth:

Axiomatically, there is mediation. It comes before such accidental and
contingent binaries as subjects and objects, space and time. It even
precedes communication. Mediation is a name for the fundamental connection
between (and within) everything. Sometimes it communicates, sometimes it
just opens channels, sometimes it is pure poetry, and exchange of energies.
The biggest question for any historical theory of media is: how come, in a
universe where mediation is the law, there is such concentration, delay,
detouring, and hoarding of  it?

Wealth, for example, is a form of mediation. Goods and social obligations
flow round in gift economies and in commodity economies, but in the latter
(and quite possibly in the former) they do not flow constantly or evenly.
Same thing is true of other flows like love, food, news, words, pictures.
The long history requires the kind of macroscale thinking which Innis did in
the Boas of Communication, but also the microscales of understanding, for
example, the origins and structure of the raster display.

So one answer is that theory is only as good as the data at its disposal (eg
natural history before Darwin). In our case, the sheer lack of knowledge ‹
and knowledge about our ignorance ­ concerning the human brain is a
Œcondition of emergence¹. Most of our psychological surmises are consciously
just that: hand-waving in the general direction of probable occurrences,
with the cnstant risk that we might be barking up the wrong tree (is
psychology somehting to do with the structured grey mush locked inside the
bone box on the top of the neck? Or is it fundamentally social, born by
media like language, sex, food ?). We may celebrate the coditions of
emergence as well as critique them, but we ignore them at our peril.

There are media theories (plural) because we do not agree on what media are.
I propose that if a theory is a media theory, it should take as axiomatic
that mediation is primary, and that everything else (sex, power,
exploitation) are effects of mediation and its vicissitudes. If everything
from architecture to sunshine mediates, we have the critical agenda mapped
for us ­ issue sof reciprocation and mutuality, solidarity, dependence and
contingency. Once that is set out, we disagree on other issues ­ modes of
causality, interplay between media formations (see for example the
meticulous histories of the arrival of recorded sound in the North American
movie industry by Donald Crafton and others, where artistic creativity,
industrial espionage, audience reluctance, economic disturbance, linguistic
diversity and a a hundred other factors play on an ostensibly  simple
innovation. And who would have chosen sub-atomic physics as the source of
the biggest revolution in communications since the invention of electricity?

Separate note: Jonathan mentions ³we have not left representation behind
entirely, even though we have a new set of terms that would include affect,
intensity, viscerality, visuality and others, that are available as tools to
calculate, measure, think, feel and strategize with. This is where we work
-- all of us, at least to some degree -- isn't that what the theories of
cognitive capitalism point to? ³
-- representation has migrated from narrative prose and illusionist imaging
to far more meticulously arithmetical media: spreadsheets, databases and
geographical information systems. Two consequences: A: the inner life of
people has now complex yet manageable functions in society such as taste,
actuarial likelihood of illness or crime ect etc; affect is of considerably
less commercial and political value than before. Our societies are
fundamentally behaviourist. B: precisely because they are no longer central
arms of governance and ideology, narrative and ilusion are once again open
to innovation and experiment, precisely in the fields where contemporary
governmentality no longer operates such as the inner life and ­ vitally
important for the production of a public counter to commercialisation ­ the
half-forgotten sociology/psychology of the crowd. This is where Virno¹s
Grammar of the Multitude is so interesting, and why Hardt + Negri are so
intoxicating (if less persuasive). They speak to a ³We² formed by the
exclusion of treasured human faculties from the commerce of contemporary
life, inchoate, passionate, and therefore dangerous. In terms of
consciousness, it is that nagging undertow of a sense that ³I² is somehow
slightly unreal, a sense that arises from the restrictions our deep
socialisation make son the capacity for whatever we might truly call action.

If so, then the inner life becomes more and more like the unconscious, the
excluded other of an increasingly expansive symbolic domain of rule,
regulation, code, system, structure. To that extent, the inner life is
likely to be more and more uncivil, perverse, violent, self-destructive and

Good grief. I think I am becoming a behaviourist.


>> Is there a media theory, or media theories? Must a media theory be
>> _responsive_ to anything in particular or at all? Does any theory _have_
>> to be anything in particular? Must a theory be 'critical of its conditions
>> of emergence'? 

Prof Sean Cubitt
scubitt at unimelb.edu.au
Media and Communications Program
Faculty of Arts
Room 127 John Medley East
The University of Melbourne
Parkville VIC 3010

Tel: + 61 3 8344 3667
Fax:+ 61 3 8344 5494
M: 0448 304 004
Skype: seancubitt

Editor-in-Chief Leonardo Book Series

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