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

Alan Sondheim sondheim at panix.com
Wed Jul 22 16:37:19 UTC 2009

Hi - I'll bow out after this, saying too much and most likely way off 
topic here.

when two organisms communicate, there's handshaking and interoperability; 
they're related. The former means that what one puts out is acceptable to 
the other; the latter's a bit strong, that content can be converted. You 
can also have misrecognition; a signal (symbol, sign, protocl, stream), 
might not be recognized as such and result either in indifference or an 
unexpected reaction (flight, catatonia, etc.). Maturana talked about 
language communication as the mutual orienting of cognitive domains, which 
says nothing about "real" content "understood," but does say something 
about satisfaction.

But where is a precondition here? There is no precondition for communica- 
tion, and that seems useful to me, since it takes all sorts of 
misunderstanding into account, assumes there's no "proper" understanding 
and so forth. A might not even think it's "communicating" and B might 
think so. A and B might be communicating in each other's directions 
without realizing it, without either of them knowing anything's going on. 
You go far with this since a range of possibilities come into play further 
breaking down any transmitter/channel/receiver model - Serres was on to 

If mediation has to involve minds, by the way, then its use as an tool in 
relation to organisms communicating is problematic, since it brings up the 
usual issue about what is mind, what is competency, and so forth.

I think I'm coming from far too different a direction to be useful here; I 
haven't read Stiegler for example (and what sources I read that do claim a 
kind of basic outlook don't use the concept). (I will read Stiegler of 
course after this.)

- Alan, apologies - and I do think the discussion of work and play, play 
as resistance (I knew someone working in a cannery who would on occasion 
load the cans with something other than fish parts for example - not to 
mention whole cultures of resitance within work environments), is terrific 
- and thanks for all of this!

On Wed, 22 Jul 2009, davin heckman wrote:

> Hello Everyone!
> This is a great exchange.
> I think, yes, some organism precedes mediation (If we are thinking
> about mediation as two organisms communicating with each other).
> But, I do think that it is useful to consider mediation as the
> precondition for two organisms communicating with each other.
> At some level, it is one of those brick walls that we run up against.
> And in a strictly "natural history" sense, yes, mediation happens as a
> result of some need and the ability to consciously direct that need
> into the mind of some other, which means that a great many things come
> before the first instance of communication.
> But, in an everyday sense, the very existence into which we are thrown
> is founded upon mediation.
> Like Mike Edward Cote, I think that reading Stiegler is very helpful
> in thinking through this question.
> If it is our desire to "theorize," at some level we have to figure out
> what we aim to be reflexive about.  And, while it might be useful for
> some people in some contexts to sketch out a timeline of the emergence
> of mediation....  for another kind of theory, the very "givenness" of
> mediation as a precondition for consciousness as we know it, provides
> a basis for a different sort of reflexive move.  In my case, taking
> mediation as a given establishes a certain notion of "the human," upon
> which certain norms can be based.  These norms would be different from
> biological determinations about what people should do, rather, they
> are based on social dynamics of information.  It's hard for these
> discrete points of departure not to alter each other at the end of the
> day, but at the beginning of the day, they provide occasions for
> thinking productively.
> Peace!
> Davin Heckman
> <www.retrotechnics.com>
> On Wed, Jul 22, 2009 at 6:43 AM, Sean Cubitt<scubitt at unimelb.edu.au> wrote:
>> 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)
>> destination.
>> 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
>> Director
>> Media and Communications Program
>> Faculty of Arts
>> Room 127 John Medley East
>> The University of Melbourne
>> Parkville VIC 3010
>> Australia
>> Tel: + 61 3 8344 3667
>> Fax:+ 61 3 8344 5494
>> M: 0448 304 004
>> Skype: seancubitt
>> http://www.culture-communication.unimelb.edu.au/media-communications/
>> http://www.digital-light.net.au/
>> http://homepage.mac.com/waikatoscreen/
>> http://seancubitt.blogspot.com/
>> http://del.icio.us/seancubitt
>> Editor-in-Chief Leonardo Book Series
>> http://leonardo.info
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