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

Sean Cubitt scubitt at unimelb.edu.au
Wed Jul 22 11:43:51 UTC 2009

why mediation first? Because the universe appears to be constituted in
matter-energy, space-time and emergence-entropy, rather than "things".
Radium decay (raised offline by Alan) is an example of mediation without
communication: a product of a relation within radium atoms (suggesting they
are not unit 'things' but multiple organisations whose internal mediations
result in the emission of electrons which then mediate relationships in
space (neighbours) and time (half-life), moving matter-energy from a place
(which becomes 'here' by emitting) to another, creating space as it does so
. . .  Things are constructed out of mediation, not vice versa. In the case
of humans, mediation in the species and between species and environment
(physical, organic, technical) is what produces the individual, not vice
versa. Antagonism is precisely a mode of communication: an attitude
establishing a relation. Barabassi's power laws are likewise mediations:
power is great shorthand for a complex of relationships which however do not
travel from (say) ruler to ruled by magic but by being mediated (Foucault's
'capillary action' of power - the specifics of how it is enacted, through
which media  (laws, batons, propaganda)

Example of an unmediated communication: telepathy. This may work between
siblings and lovers, but as a principle it is untrustworthy. As a cyclist I
often come across drivers who instead of signalling send telepathic messages
to the effect of "I am about to turn right". I am here to report that these
telepathic, unmediated messages do not reach their intended (or indeed any)

A concept of mediation as Alan asks might go something like this: Mediation
is the materiality of relationships.

mediation is the relationship that precedes things and constitutes them as
things. Mediation is the constitutive connectivity of the (human, physical
and technical) world. It emerges from actually existing conditions as the
conditions of possibility for (world) change through mutual influence of
differing mediations, that is, it is constitutive not only of things but of
space and time. It is the material mode through which universal flows occur.

Technical note: The above sounds like ontological foundation - anathema to
the continental philospphical tradition since Heidegger - but mediation
names the non-existence of Being while recongising the materiality of
process (aganst the residual idealism in Heidegger). Take a primordial
mediation lke sunlight, perpetually fragmented, altered, in a gazillion
forms. It is always turned into some other potential form from
photosynthesis to foodchains, petrochemicals etc. Like hunger, it may return
in its primordial form (or might be experienced so as wonder at it), but it
always returns in the new context.

Jodi comments on my question "how come, in a universe where mediation is the
law, there is such concentration, delay, detouring, and hoarding of  it?",
saying "This seems to me to be asking why is there antagonism". That's right
- it is also asking how come there are economies, polities, unequal sexual
relations, distinctions between human, animal and natural which permit us to
torture and exploit animals and the global environment.

Jodi's other comment about the illgical connection between the axiom and the
agenda is sound, mainly because i wrote so poorly, but I think the principle
stands: if the big question concerns how human societies distinguish
themselves by hoarding mediation, then the principle agenda will be to see
whether (and how) to end that condition. By taking mediation as axiom in the
terms sketched, I think we get intuitions about how to set about these
tasks: one, by recognising that distinguishing human from animal or social
from natural is somewhere very close to the original sin (as in a sense
suggested by Leroi-Gourhan), and that the current explosion of
environmentallism (counter to the supposed end of the grand narratives) is a
beginning in understanding the political action needed to end the divisions
between social, physical and technological orders, to reconstiute them as
mutually mediating - and that such might be the principle on which a future
democracy might be made

(The inner life issue Jodi critiques is a separate one so i'll try to post
later in reply to that - but i agree it's a more tendentious issue - and may
be another instance of the american exception)

apologies for taking this scrap of the discussion away from the material
issues at stake in the play=labour debate which is our proper business: tho
there is a connection, this is more theoreticist than I'd like. Enough to
say, returning to Alan's questions, that a theory which is a media theory is
a materialst theory, in the sense that it must take account of the detail of
mediation, the materials in which it occurs, the software, codecs, TCP/IP,
chips, screens and physical interfaces, and as Mark implies the previous
history of mediations that brings an 'us' into combination with them. A
reflection on the slivers of sapphire used in LED chips, their connection to
the Madagascar sapphire trade (regarded as conflict gems, perhaps not
entirely justly) and the grey economy that brings them to backlighting LCD
displays where they cinsume far less power and generate less heat over much
longer lifespans might be a beginning . . .

On 21/07/09 4:32 PM, "Dean, Jodi" <JDEAN at hws.edu> wrote:

> I appreciate Sean's remarks here. My own views differ on a number of points.
> (for clarity, the points are numbered; directly after the number is Sean's
> point, my point follows)
> 1.  Axiomatically, there is mediation. ... Mediation is a name for the
> fundamental connection between (and within) everything.
> I don't agree that mediation is prior to anything else: things which will be
> mediated come before that. I'd say that mediation is a way that humans
> respond/react to fundamental division/antagonism. (This entails, then, that
> animals communicate but that their inter-relations are not mediated. So, the
> view I suggest is one rooted in human antagonism--mediation is a response.
> 2.  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?
> This seems to me to be asking why is there antagonism--it doesn't follow well
> from the axiom of fundamental mediality, although it would follow from a
> supposition of antagonism. But the
> question would need to be more precise, looking at the relation between
> economic production and different media.
> 3. 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.
> Barabasi (and, now, hosts of others) analyze these inequalities in social
> networks in terms of powerlaws.
> 4.  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.
> There are media theories because people disagree on many things--not just on
> what media are. As I've mentioned, I take the view that mediation isn't
> primary but a reaction to antagonism. In some ways, though, this question of
> priority or the axiomatic is misleading insofar as media are recursive.
> 5.   If everything from architecture to sunshine mediates, we have the
> critical agenda mapped for us ­ issue sof reciprocation and mutuality,
> solidarity, dependence and contingency.
> I don't think this follows or makes much sense. One could just as easily say
> that if architecture mediates the goal is controlling architecture by
> establishing myths and rituals around building (Freemasons rule the world!)
> 6. ... 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...
> Living in the US, it seems to me that narrative and illusion clearly are
> central arms of governance and ideology and that the biggest ideological
> mystification of the present is that somehow we are
> post ideology: that's the ideological form of neoliberalism. Additionally,
> governmentality certainly does operate on inner life--whether in the form of
> competitiveness, bodily insecurity, compulsions to enjoy, reveal, and display,
> fear and the perceived need for security, the demands placed on the individual
> to secure for herself what was formerly provided by collectives, and, why not,
> forms of fundamentalist religion.
> Jodi

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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