Matters of Radical Media

by JasonMunn:

If someone were to ask me to list a dozen adjectives to describe myself, “radical” would not be on that list. It’s probably because I teach at a school bursting at the seams with self-professed radicals — and I often find myself somewhat alienated by the provocateur orthodoxy. Nevertheless, I’ve been asked to talk about “the materiality and aesthetics of radical media” next month at “Being the Media: Designing a New Rrradical Media,” an event celebrating the 30th anniversary of Paper Tiger Television.

There’s a panel discussion — with folks from the Center for Media Justice, the Yes Lab, Colorlines, and Women in Media & News — on the evening of Friday, 2/10. Then the next day is a full day Media Intensive + Design Challenge, which kicks off with a few short presentations — including mine — and an afternoon workshop in which teams design prototypes for a new radical media. Chosen pieces will be shown at Fortnight 2012: MoMA’s International Festival of Nonfiction Film.

I’ve posted a draft of my not-fully-fleshed-out presentation notes below:


[SLIDE 2] Define Materiality

  • Colloquial understandings:
    • [CLICK] Artefacts, stuff
    • [SLIDE 3] materialism (both in the colloquial sense of acquisitiveness, and in the Marxist sense)
  • [SLIDE 4] Something that exists in the space in-between people and things
    • Materiality, and its perception and use by a user, generates affordances and constraints
      • [SLIDE 5] Not determined entirely by the matter constituting the object – thus, even the digital, the virtual – things we can’t see or feel – can be thought of as having materiality
      • [SLIDE 6] Particular significance of the invisible or intangible: “The less we are aware of them, the more powerfully they can determine our expectations by setting the scene and ensuring normative behavior, without being open to challenge. They determine what takes place to the extent that we are unconscious of their capacity to do so.” (Daniel Miller, “Materiality: An Introduction” In Materiality (Duke University Press, 2005): 5)
        • Something like software fits this description perfectly

Materiality is Deeply Political.

  • [SLIDE 7] Marxism rooted in humanity’s capacity to transform the material world through production, and in the process, to create a mirror of ourselves
  • [SLIDE 8] Materiality implies different ways of existing in the world – different ontologies – and different ways of interacting with the things and people we share the world with
  • Recent interest in new ascriptions of agency – e.g., theories that propose the dissolution of the separation of subject/object; Actor Network Theory; object-oriented philosophies – non anthropo-centric models

[SLIDE 9] Relevance to the PPTV Project at Hand?

How is this not purely a semantic or academic problem?

  • [CLICK] Because materiality implies, or embodies, politics. And if our goal here is to think about what constitutes radical media, the materiality of that media matters very much in shaping its politics. Radicalism does not reside solely in a medium’s content. It resides in its material properties, too.

[SLIDE 10] Must acknowledge the non-radicalism of my own media. PowerPoint is not a radical medium. Garamond is not a traditionally radical font.

[SLIDE 11] Where Do We Find Materiality in Media?

  • [CLICK] N. Katherine Hayles: materiality is “the interplay between a text’s physical characteristics and its signifying strategies” (“Print is Flat, Code Is Deep” Poetics Today (2004)).
  • [CLICK] Bill Brown: frames, folds, borders, margins, authorship and authority, typing and printing, gathering and dispersion, size, style, color, opacity/transparency; paratexts (Bill Brown, “Introduction: Textual Materialism” PMLA (2010): 24)
  • [CLICK] Appadurai: embodiment of social relations
  • [SLIDE 12] Bill Brown’s “multiple orders of materiality”: “the phenomenological account of the interface between user and technology, an archaeological account of the physical infrastructure of the medium, and sociological account of the cultural and economic forces that continue to shape both the technology itself and our interactions with it” (“Materiality” In W.J.T. Mitchell & Mark B.N. Hansen, Eds., Critical Terms for Media Studies (Chicago 2010): 59-60)


  • Caveat: no parallel structure to the following lists

[SLIDE 13] Materiality in the Production of Media

  • Walter Benjamin, in his 1934 “Author as Producer” lecture, encouraged progressive creative techniques that embrace new technologies and transcend “specialization in the process of production.”
  • [SLIDE 14] [CLICK] Choice of modality itself – e.g., politics biases (see Innis) inherent in decision to publish a magazine, make a video, make a crowd-sourced map – and format (e.g., video file format; Flash or HTML5)
  • Review/adjudication process, selectivity of content
  • How authorship is ascribed, how credit is attributed
    • Giving credit to technicians, designers, copyeditors, etc.
  • How intellectual property is conceived
  • Funding & business models
  • Production models & work-flow
  • [SLIDE 16] Selection of Production Tools
    • Professional, “prosumer,” or consumer tools
    • Affordability, portability, hackability, etc.
    • [SLIDE 17] Politics of manufacturing your tools of production: made how, by whom, using what parts
      • E.g., Apple + Foxconn
  • [SLIDE 18] Choice of proprietary or open-source software
  • Physical infrastructure of chosen media:
  • [SLIDE 20] Decision to make “the guts” – the inner workings – opaque or transparent, and to what end?
  • Even choices that we might reduce to subjective aesthetic choices, are political: typeface, color, leading, kerning, paper weight, overall style

[SLIDE 21] Materiality in Distribution/Exchange of Media

  • [SLIDE 22] [CLICK] Material networks and labor of distribution
    • E.g., File-sharing site, Wikileaks, Creative Commons, – or hand-to-hand exchange in specific physical sites among particular communities?
      • Politics of selective distribution – not always elitist
    • [CLICK] Ownership of conduits of distribution
      • Must consider whole “stack” of distribution
  • [CLICK] Fully-open, public access, or limited distribution?
  • [CLICK] Cost for consumer purchase of goods or services, or costs involved in distribution that the consumer never sees?
  • [CLICK] How well the object lends itself to user-directed exchange beyond the initial purchase, download, viewing, etc.?
    • [SLIDE 23] E.g., Distribution libraries, like International Public Space Library

[SLIDE 24] Materiality in Consumption of Media

  • Informed by many of the choices made during production – just as the media maker’s desire to cultivate a particular media-consumption experience informed the choices they made in the creative/production process
  • [SLIDE 25] [CLICK] Phenomenological experience of reception – [CLICKS] informed by form, dimension, material, color, style, etc. of the medium – and cultural contexts and situational context in which it’s consumed
    • E.g., 900-page Hillel Schwartz book – imposed limitation on variety of places in which I can experience this book
    • Are you distributing your zines in bar bathrooms? Slipping them in-between the pages of the National Review at Barnes & Noble?
  • [CLICK] Social experience of various types of consumption activity

[SLIDE 26] Also “radical” is a recognition that these aren’t necessarily three distinct phases presided over by three distinct classes of people.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *