Media & Materiality Syllabus…Slowly Materializing

A few students have contacted me to ask for syllabi for my fall classes, and I’ve unfortunately had to tell them that the courses are still in development. I’m teaching two brand new courses in the fall, and both are proving to be somewhat logistically challenging.

Syllabus development is always a long, complicated process for me: when I build a new course, I typically spend weeks or months digging through all my books, journals, pdf’ed articles (yes, I do have this stuff organized in bibliographies, but I always want to make sure I haven’t missed something!), web bookmarks, and audio and video archives to find relevant material. I think about logical and rhetorical structure: what do students need to know about A before being exposed to B? What context C is necessary for appreciating concept D? How do I tie their assignments to the course material, and how do I stage those assignments? How do I ensure that I’m incorporating different types of assessment, to give students an opportunity to try out their ideas in different formats — and to give me a chance to assess their ability to examine those ideas in different contexts? What types of projects lend themselves best to individual work, and which would work best with responsibility distributed among a group? How do I make sure all group members are given credit for the work they did, and didn’t do? Am I distributing the workload evenly throughout the semester? Am I cutting back on the readings when an assignment is due? How do I work in opportunities for us to witness, or participate in, the course content in action, out in the world? Living in New York, it’s not hard to find a lecture or exhibition that pertains to whatever you’re teaching at any given time. That said, what relevant events are taking place while I’m teaching the course? What guest speakers should I invite, and what field trips should we take? Which of these events can I schedule whenever I want, and which do I need to schedule around?

Needless to say, it’s quite a process — one that, for this round, will likely continue right up through the start of the fall semester. Still, I thought I should post some of my initial thoughts and plans, so interested students can get a sense of what they’re in for…and so that I can solicit feedback.I welcome suggestions!

First, the “Media & Materiality” Course Description: This seminar examines media as material objects, as things, as symbolically charged artifacts, as physical supports for communication. Pairing case studies of contemporary and historical media forms, we’ll begin the semester by studying digital readers in relation to early print forms, computer databases in relation to early filing systems, broadband networks in relation to telegraph infrastructures, and hand-held screening devices in relation to early film exhibition technologies. Along the way, we’ll explore various theoretical frameworks and methodologies – from “thing theory” to media archaeology – that can be useful in studying the material culture of media. Some classes will be dedicated to guest speakers and field trips to museums or special collections. For the second half of the semester, the class will create an online exhibition of material media. We will collectively determine the exhibition’s theme and structure, but each student will be responsible for choosing two media objects or material networks, conducting primary and secondary research, and composing text and compiling media content for presentation in the online exhibition space.

We’ll take a few field trips, go out into the world to see and touch the “thingness” of media. We might arrange some guided tours through the Thomas Edison National Historical Park (where we’ll find some great material on the history of recorded sound and film!), the Morgan Library, or the zine libraries at Barnard and ABC No Rio — or maybe we’ll venture into the behind-the-scenes circulatory system of our wireless technologies. I try to schedule my classes at 4pm (the earliest available time slot for grad classes at The New School) so we can go on field trips during institutions’ open-hours. If you have other excursion suggestions, let me know…soon, please, so I can make plans!

I’d like to invite a few guests — librarians, curators, fellow scholars, media technicians and engineers, product developers — to join us, too. Confirmed visitors include poet/sound artist/scholar Kate Eichhorn and curator/scholar Christiane Paul.

abecedarium:nyc, see

Our class project will be the creation of an online exhibition (like this one, from the NYPL). Ideally our class would create a single exhibition, with a coherent theme, and with each student contributing work and then everyone contributing to the creation of “meta” and connective texts. But I realize that finding a common thread — one that’s not a “stretch” or a forced fit — among 20 students’ projects might be too much expect. So, we might see how groups form naturally among the individual projects, and create a cluster of exhibitions instead. We might use the Omeka platform, create our own system, or just do something simple and blog-based. We’ll talk about this together — perhaps in collaboration with a guest curator or exhibition designer. Fortunately, we have a few of those on-staff at The New School 🙂

Readings? I’ve got a lot of work to do here; there are so many good options, and I have to read through everything to make sure I’m choosing the most useful stuff. The way I see it, our readings and discussions will follow along four parallel threads:

  1. Theoretical Frameworks: these are the texts that will introduce us to various approaches to “materiality.” I’ll choose a few of the following for all of us to read together: Charles R. Aclund, ed., Residual Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007); Arjun Appadurai, “The Thing Itself” Public Culture 18:1 (2006): 15-21; Bill Brown, “Materiality” in Critical Terms for Media Studies, Ed. W. J. T. Mitchell and Mark B.N. Hansen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); Bill Brown, “Thing Theory” Critical Inquiry 28:1 (August 2001): 1-22; Fiona Candlin and Raiford Guins, Eds., The Object Reader (New York: Routledge, 2009); Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory” Critical Inquiry 35 (Autumn 2008): 148-71; Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Thomas Keenan, Eds., New Media Old Media: A History and Theory Reader (New York: Routledge, 2006); Mary Ann Doane, “The Indexical and the Concept of Medium Specificity” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 18:1 (2007):; Vilém Flusser, The Shape of Things: A Philosophy of Design (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and K. Ludwig Pfeiffer, Eds., Materialities of Communication, Trans. William Whobrey (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1994); Erkki Huhtamo, “Kaleidoscomaniac to Cybernerd: Notes Toward an Archaeology of the Media” Leonardo 30:3 (1997): 221-4; Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008); Friedrich A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, Trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1999); Rosalind Krauss, “Reinventing the Medium” Critical Inquiry 25:2 (Winter 1999): 289-305; John Durham Peters, Speaking Into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Bruce Sterling, Shaping Things (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005; Samuel Weber, “The Unraveling of Form” and “Television: Set and Screen” In Mass Mediauras: Form, Technics, Media (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press), 1996: 9-35, 108-128; Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz, “Media Materiality, “Memory” Special Issue, Configurations 10:1 (Winter 2002). Here are my delicious links on “material texts.”
    XXXXXWe won’t be using the following, but they represent other approaches to the study of technological “things,” “objects” and material media: Arjun Appadurai, Ed., The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Roland Barthes, Mythologies, Trans. Annette Lavers (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972); Jean Baudrillard, The System of Object, Trans. James Benedict (New York: Verso, 1996); Matthew Fuller, Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Art and Technoculture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005); Daniel Miller, Ed., Materiality (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005); Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1934); Christopher Tilley, Ed., Reading Material Culture (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1990); Sherry Turkle, Ed., Evocative Objects: Things We Think With (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007) [includes chapters on the archive, the datebook, the laptop, the radio, the World Book, the SX-70 instant camera, salvaged photos].
  2. Methodologies: Of course the methods we apply in our curatorial case studies will be informed by which theoretical frameworks we choose. The execution of the various critical strategies suggested by our theoretical texts will likely be new to many of us — and many of these strategies will require that we draw on methods from a variety of fields: art history, design history, cultural history, material culture studies, industrial design (which might in turn require studying corporate histories and accessing corporate archives), etc. So we’ll want to take some time to consider how to apply these strategies — i.e., how to “do” media archaeology, how to write a “material history,” etc. Readings might include: Siegfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History (Oxford University Press, 1948); Jussi Parikka and Garnet Hertz, Archaeologies of Media Art” CTheory (April 1, 2010); Thomas J. Schlereth, Ed., Material Culture: A Research Guide (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1985); Siegfried Zielinski, Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2006).
  3. Online Exhibition: This set of readings will help us think about how to frame our class project as an online exhibition. Readings will likely draw from Beryl Graham & Sarah Cook, Eds., Rethinking Curating: Art After New Media (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2010); Christiane Paul, Ed., New Media in the White Cube and Beyond: Curatorial Models for Digital Art (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008); and Klaus Müller, “Going Global: Reaching Out for the Online Visitor“. We’ll also look at various models of online exhibition: CONT3XT.NET’s “History of Online Curating“; Amelie Hastie’s “Objects of Media Studies” Vectors Journal 2:1 (Fall 2006); the Whitney Artport exhibitions; SFMoMA’s 010101 exhibition; MoMA’s “Design and the Elastic Mind” online exhibition and other interactive exhibitions; the National Archives’ online exhibits; the Museum of the Moving Image’s web projects; the Franklin Institute’s Case Files; the American Association of Museums’ MUSE Award winners; and the showcase of Omeka-based exhibitions.
  4. Case Studies: the following texts will likely be used by individuals or groups as they pertain to their case studies for the online exhibition:
“My Record Player” by Great Beyond on Flickr:

Recorded Sound: John Corbett, “Free, Single, and Disengaged: Listening Pleasure and the Popular Music Object” October 54 (Autumn 1990): 79-101; Frances Dyson, Sounding New Media: Immersion and Embodiment in the Arts and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009); Aden Evans, Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005: Lisa Gitelman, Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1999); Greg Hainge, “Vinyl Is Dead, Long Live Vinyl: The Work of Recording and Mourning in the Age of Digital Reproduction” Culture Machine (2007); Caleb Kelly, Cracked Media: The Sound of Malfunction (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2009); Stan Link, “The Work of Production in the Mechanical Aging of an Art: Listening to Noise” Computer Music Journal 25:1 (2001): 34-47; Jonathan Sterne, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Production (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003); Will Straw, “The Music CD and Its Ends” Design & Culture 1:1 (2009): 71-92; Emily Chivers Yochim & Megan Biddinger, “‘It Kind of Gives You that Vintage Feel’: Vinyl Records and the Trope of Death” Media, Culture & Society 30 (2008): 183-95. Some delicious links on “records” and “cassettes” and some other relevant stuff.

“Handwriting” by CraftyDogma on Flickr:

Letters and Handwriting: Kitty Burns Florey, Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2009); Sigmund Freud, “A Note Upon the Mystic Writing Pad” In The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 19, Trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1971); Esther Milne, “Email and Epistolary Technologies: Presence, Intimacy, Disembodiment” Fibreculture 2; Sonja Neef & José van Dijck, Sign Here!: Handwriting in the Age of New Media (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006); Denise Schmandt-Besseratt, How Writing Came About (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996); Tamara Plakins Thortin, Handwriting in America: A Cultural History (Yale University Press, 2006); José van Dijck, “Composing the Self: Of Diaries and Lifelogs” Fibreculture 3. My delicious links on writing and notes. I have much more to add here!

Letterpress! by JChong on Flickr:

Typewriting: Lisa Gitelman, Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Edison Era (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1999); Friedrich A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1999); Darren Werschler-Henry, The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2005). My delicious links on the typewriter. I have much more to add here!

“Old Books” by Lilah Pops on Flickr:

Print/The Book: Nicholas A. Basbanes, A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books (New York: HarperCollins 2003); Roger Chartier, Forms and Meaning: Texts, Performances, and Audiences from Codes to Computer (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1995); Roger Chartier, The Order of Books (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press 1992); Johanna Drucker, The Visible Word: Experimental Typography and Modern Art, 1909-1923 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994); N. Katherine Hayles, “Print is Flat, Code is Deep: The Importance of Media-Specific Analysis” Poetics Today 25:1 (2004): 67-90; Peter Stallybrass, ‘The Library and Material Texts” PMLA 119:5 (October 2004): 1347-1352. My delicious links on books and textual form, and on e-books. I have much more to add here!

“Paperwork” by Sean Rogers1 on Flickr:

Paperwork/Files: Ben Kafka, “The Demon of Writing: Paperwork, Public Safety, and the Reign of Terror” Representations 98 (Spring 2007): 1-24.; Sven Spieker, The Big Archive: Art From Bureaucracy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008); Cornelia Vismann, Files: Law and Media Technology (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008); Rowan Wilken, “The Card Index as Creativity Machine” Culture Machine 11 (2010). I have much more to add here!

“Why I Love My Vintage Cameras” by KatieW on Flickr:

Photography: Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990); Susan Laxton, “Flou: Rayographs and the Dada Automatic” October 127 (2009): 25-48. I have waaaay more to add here!

“Forgotten Projector” by Morgennebel on Flickr:

Film: Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture, and Film (New York: Verso, 2002); Boaz Hagin, “Examples in Theory: Interpassive Illustrations and Celluloid Fetishism” Cinema Journal 48:1 (Fall 2008): 3-26; Miriam Bratu Hansen, “Benjamin’s Aura” Critical Inquiry 34 (Winter 2008): 336-75; Amelie Hastie: anything; Pavle Levi, “Cinema by Other Means” October 131 (Winter 2010): 51-68; Dominique Paini, “Should We Put an End to Projection?” October 110 (Fall 2004): 23-48; Vivian Sobchack: Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004); Jonathan Walley, “The Material of Film and the Idea of Cinema; Contrasting Practices in Sixties and Seventies Avant-Garde Film” October 103 (Winter 2003): 15-30. I have much more to add here!

“Old TV” by Mela Sogono on Flickr:

Television: Anna McCarthy, Ambient Television: Visual Culture and Public Space (Durham: Duke University Press, 2001); Anna McCarthy, “From Screen to Site: Television’s Material Culture, and Its Place” October 98 (Fall 2001); Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); Samuel Weber, “Television: Set and Screen” Mass Mediauras: Form, Technics, Media (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1996): 108-28. I have much more to add here!

“Cell Phone Tower” by CathrynDC on Flickr:

Telecommunications: Avital Ronell, The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989); Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Centruy’s Online Pioneers (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998); Kazys Varnelis, “Invisible City: Telecommunication,” in The Infrastructural City: Networked Ecologies in LA, ed. Kazys Varnelis (New York: Actar, The Los Angeles Forum for Architecture and Urban Design, and The Network Architecture Lab at Columbia University, 2009), 120-129. I have much more to add here!

“Atari 2600 Joystick” by Mark Ramsay on Flirkc:

Computer/Gaming Hardware: Paul Atkinson, “The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men: The Computer Mouse in the History of Computing” Design Issues 23:3 (Summer 2007): 46-61; Patrick Crogan, “The Nintendo Wii, Virtualization, and Gestural Analogics” Culture Machine 11 (2010). I have much, much, much more to add here!

“Inside One Wilshire” by Xeni on Flickr:

Digital Media: Mark B. N. Hansen, Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media (New York: Routledge, 2006); N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Postmodern: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002); Christiane Paul, “The Myth of Immateriality: Presenting and Preserving New Media” In MediaArtHistories, ed. Oliver Grau (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007); Michelle White, The Body and the Screen: Theories of Internet Spectatorship (Cambridge, MIT Press, 2006).

Media Waste: Elizabeth Grossman, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health (Island Press, 2006); Lisa Parks, “Falling Apart: Electronics Salvaging and the Global Media Economy” In Residual Media; Jonathan Sterne, “Out with the Trash: On the Future of New Media” In Residual Media

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