The Cultural Techniques (+ Political Economy) of Theory-Making


Tonight I had the pleasure of sitting alongside a hero of mine, Lisa Gitelman, and sharing the honor of responding to Jussi Parikka’s talk on the German and Anglo identities of media archaeology. Below are my comments:

First, I want to thank Kate [Eichhorn] for organizing this event, and for inviting me to take part. It’s an honor to be working not only with her, but also with Jussi and Lisa, whose work has proven tremendously inspirational for my own.

And second, I’d like to thank Jussi for his provocative paper.

This event is actually taking place during my Urban Media Archaeology graduate studio, which meets right upstairs in a lab – where we’ll be headed for our second half of class right after we conclude here tonight. This is the fourth year I’ve taught the course with the talented programmer/artist/scholar Rory Solomon, who exemplifies the “critical engineer” that Jussi mentioned in his paper as an Anglophone outlet for media archaeology. Over the years Rory and I have worked with students to construct alternative histories of urban media infrastructures, which might stretch the definitions of both “media” and “infrastructure.” We’ve had students piece together the histories of walking tours, newspaper delivery, video game arcades, zine distribution in radical social movements – even food trucks and breweries and carrier pigeons. We’ve been creating multimedia maps of these histories on a platform we’ve built, in collaboration with colleagues from Parsons, on OpenStreetMap, a free and open alternative to Google Maps.

Given that I am technically “teaching” right now, I wanted to use my comments, at least in part, to highlight the pertinence of Jussi’s paper to our class work, and I was happy to notice that many connections presented themselves readily. Of particular relevance is Jussi’s discussion of the “national identities” of various theoretical approaches and their global migration and eventual assimilation into other cultural contexts. Jussi writes about media archaeology as a “traveling set of concepts” and asks us to focus on the “travels of theory with an emphasis on… mobility and change, flexibility and reception.”  In the introduction to the fabulous anthology he edited with Erkki Huhtamo, which my students read, Jussi and Erkki propose that one way to explain the difference between the social-cultural inflection of Anglo-American approaches, and the techno-hardware approaches of the Germans, is their divergent readings of Foucault, with the Anglos focusing on discourse’s ties to cultural and social power, and the Germans emphasizing the specific material natures of the technologies that produce that discourse.

While others have of course challenged the notion that there is such a thing as German media theory, the very idea that a theory might have a national identity seems highly pertinent to the themes my students and I are addressing – particularly the spatial dimensions and the distribution of mediated discourse. What’s more, we might even wonder about the infrastructures that allow for not only theory’s distribution around the globe, but also its very making. What are the infrastructures – or cultural techniques – of theory-making?

As Bernhard Siegert explains, focusing on cultural techniques shifts our attention from the representation of meaning, to the “the exterior and material conditions” for meaning, which might include “inconspicuous technologies of knowledge (e.g., index cards, writing tools and typewriters), discourse operators (e.g., quotation marks), pedagogical media (e.g., blackboards), unclassifiable media such as phonographs or stamps, instruments like the piano, and disciplining techniques (e.g., language acquisition and alphabetization).” (Theory, Culture & Society 2013: 3).


If one of our goals this evening was to consider how media archaeology has taken shape in various parts of the world, why not consider the cultural techniques of theory-making and dissemination? And, taking a page not only from my class, but also from Jussi’s repeated and inspirational calls for making things with media archaeology, why not consider alternative means of representing the cultural techniques that comprise the making and movement of media-archaeological discourse? Why not map that “traveling theory”?

Itemizing the Accoutrements of Scholarship, via Things Organized Neatly
Mapping References: “Graphing the History of Philosophy,” Simon Raper, via Drunks & Lampposts
Mapping the Republic of Letters, via “Before email, faculty meetings, international colloquia, and professional associations, the world of scholarship relied on its own networks: networks of correspondence that stretched across countries and continents… They facilitated the dissemination — and the criticism – of ideas, the spread of political news, as well as the circulation of people and objects.”
Calling Attention to Cultural Codes Through Parody, via
Calling Attention to Cultural Codes Through Parody

I have to admit that, over the last few years, as I’ve come into my own as a scholar and have enjoyed being pulled into, or at least observing from the periphery, those “inner circles” where new theoretical movements take flight, I’ve come to see theory-making as a political economy – one with occasionally highly problematic politics and unequal distributions of resources. In my head I’ve mapped the assemblages of objects and forces – the infrastructures – that are needed to get a theoretical movement off the ground and out into the world. Jussi offers an example in his own forthcoming essay in the “cultural techniques” special issue of Theory, Culture & Society: the rise of object-oriented ontology / philosophy, he notes, can be attributed just as much to the “fresh approaches” they offer, as to the “rhetorical skill” with which they “posited their own newness” (6).

I know this particular phenomenon all too well. Gender politics determine who has the luxury to fashion oneself into a “theorist.”

That “rhetorical skill” – for the launch of any theoretical movement – involves the application of a variety of cultural techniques. In their introduction to The Speculative Turn, Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Harman acknowledge the roles that a vibrant blogging community, adventurous new journals, and open-access publishing played in shaping the discursive politics surrounding Speculative Realism. But, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, why don’t we expand the OOO “litany” to call our attention also to other “objects” in the movement itself (or any theoretical movement, for that matter): epistemological and disciplinary values, like individual genius; the academic market for branded theories and neologisms; the PR machines of Facebook and Twitter; the armies of grad students hungry for the “new big thing,” which partly fuels the global networks of conferences and master classes, and the airplanes and travel budgets (and Carbon output) that make those gatherings possible. And, as if that weren’t sufficiently disillusioning, we also have to acknowledge the existence of nepotistic citation rings and incestuously produced publications.

Of course we also have exchanges based on trust and altruism. We have editors and graphic designers who make beautiful publications; and volunteers who host fabulously productive and inspirational gatherings of like minds. And we develop new discourses that put scholars in conversation with practitioners and acknowledge both thinking and making as critical forms of knowledge-production. But I think we’re already pretty good at emphasizing the socially desirable aspects of what we do as scholars. Hence my curmudgeonly focus on the not-so-pretty hidden conventions and politics.

Yet these are all part of the mappable landscape of theory-making’s cultural techniques. And mapping it, I think, might help us to think more critically about the modes of academic “production” that New Theory represents. I’m a consummately optimistic person, but what I’ve often found, through these theoretical mappings, is that the liberal conceptions of “labor” and “knowledge” that many of our new theory movements actually embody quite often fail to match up with their professed politics. We’re so frequently advocating for more democratic, fluid, inclusive models of making and thinking in the world — yet the theories we’re building to make sense of these new modes are still built via “Great Man” – and I stress MAN – modes of production.

Yo, Where My Ladies At? December 2012 LSE Conference: 62 Presenters, 9 Women – Some Merely Respondents

The issues of gender and sexual identity have cropped up in debates over what media archaeology is and could become. Laine Nooney from SUNY Stonbrook and Jacob Gaboury from NYU are doing wonderful dissertations in these areas. But I think a deeper and wider mapping of the “cultural techniques” or infrastructures that allow any new field of study, new method, new theoretical framework to develop and move around, offers up the possibility to design a discursive space with a political economy that’s more in line with the liberal values our theories espouse. It gives us an opportunity to imagine and construct the “infrastructures” and cultural techniques through which theory-making and “traveling” take place.

Jussi Parikka, Lisa Gitelman, Shannon Mattern
Jussi, Lisa, and Me. Dude, my hair is freaking huge. That’s what happens when it’s humid. Photo via Babette Babich

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