Deep Time of Media Infrastructure

I just returned from the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Boston, where I was able to catch up with a few friends I see far too infrequently (Suze!), and finally meet some wonderful folks I had, until recently, known only online (Miriam!). I had the pleasure of participating in a workshop on “Teaching the City” with Amy Corbin from Muhlenberg College, Sabine Haenni from Cornell, Brendan Kredell from University of Calgary, Paula Massood from Brooklyn College, and Mary Woods from Cornell. We talked about our various approaches to combining media and urban studies in the classroom, and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing about the classes everyone’s teaching.

And on another day I took part in the “Signal Traffic” panel, on media infrastructure, with Lisa Parks from UC Santa Barbara, Nicole Starosielski from Miami University, and Jonathan Sterne from McGill — all fabulous and inspiring. I’m posting an excerpt from my “Deep Time of Media Infrastructure” presentation:

Mattern SCMS2012 Infrastructure

For the past decade, I’ve taught, off and on, a course called [SLIDE2] “Media and Architecture.” It was inspired by my dissertation research on the [SLIDE3] Seattle Public Library – and by my appreciation for the ways that buildings are designed to [SLIDE4] house and provide material support structures for media, and for the ways that architecture itself can function as media. [SLIDES5-9] Over the years, as I’ve revised the syllabus – switching from a chronological to a reverse chronological organization; trying to keep up with new advancements in networked digital technologies and to include more international examples, etc. – I’ve come to realize that, [SLIDE10] the further backwards we moved in time, the fewer and fewer resources I was using from our own fields, media and cinema studies.

There is a plethora of research on architecture and cities in relation to mechanically reproduced still and moving images. For instance, many photographic, architectural, and cultural historians, inspired greatly by Benjamin, have examined [SLIDE11] the city as a photographic subject; [SLIDE12] photography’s early role in the documentation of urban [SLIDE13] transformation and as an instigator of social change; [SLIDE14] and photography’s influence on particular modern architectural and urban designers. There is also much, much work on [SLIDE15] the city and film as contemporaneous developments; on [SLIDE16] the representation of the city in film (this is the dominant thread, by far – as is evidenced even at this conference); and [SLIDE17] [SLIDE18] [SLIDE19] on film’s influence upon architects and planners, and vice versa. In more recent decades, scholars, like Lynn Spigel and Anna McCarthy, have begun to address [SLIDE20] the synchronous rise of television and post-war suburbs; [SLIDE21] the politics of screens in public places; and [SLIDE22] the impact of networked digital media on [SLIDE23] urban design and urban experience. [SLIDE24] There’s also been, in recent years, some fantastic work on radio and modern sound technologies’ impact on architecture, zoning, and urban experience.

[SLIDE25] The sheer number of books and conferences and exhibitions on the “city in photographs,” the “cinematic city,” and the “digital city” indicates that most recent scholarship focuses on these modern media technologies’ relationships to the city. Furthermore, there is in many cases an assumption that the mediation of the city began with these media….  [Skip SLIDE26, which corresponds with a  discussion of my current research projec]
…I argue that we need to look at the [SLIDE27] deep time of urban mediation. [SLIDE28] Media technologies – particularly media infrastructures – have been embedded in and informing the morphological evolution of our cities since their coming into being… [Skip SLIDES29-31, which, again, correspond with more discussion about my current research project.]

[SLIDE32] What I’ve been sketching out for you is my current research project, which I’m calling Urban Media Archaeology. I’m drawing a lot of inspiration, as you might imagine, from media archaeology – a materialist, non-teleological approach to historiography. One of the key figures in the field, Erkki Huhtamo, describes media archaeology as [SLIDE33] “the study of the cyclically recurring elements and motives underlying and guiding the development of media culture” (223). Media archaeology is useful not only for looking at and listening to deep time; it also encourages us to look and listen beyond representation – beyond the portrayal of material spaces in photographs and film, or beyond an augmented reality layered atop physical space. I heed the advice of another media archaeologist, Wolfgang Ernst, to look beyond the discursive elements of media to focus on what he calls its “logical structure” and “hardware.” That hardware, in my case, is historical media infrastructures.

[SLIDE34] Geographer Matthew Gandy writes that “[]
he term ‘infrastructure’ has been used since the 1920s to refer to the basic physical and organizational structures such as roads, power lines, and water mains needed for the material and organizational aspects of modernity…. More recently,” he says, “the study of infrastructure has been extended to include multi – dimensional analysis of the horizontal and vertical composition of space, the interrelationships between visible and invisible domains” and new modes of service provision (58). Infrastructure historian Paul Edwards admits that, today, infrastructure “has become a slippery term, often used to mean essentially any important, widely shared, human-constructed resource”; this could include hardware, organizations, [SLIDE35] “socially communicated background knowledge,” etc. – any sociotechnical systems that offer “near-ubiquitous accessibility” (186-7, 188). Despite, or perhaps because of, the flexibility of this term, I think we have much to learn from the way Edwards and other historians and theorists of infrastructure (usually from disciplines outside ours) conceive of and work with their subject. I find that their methods resonate with the historiographic approaches of media archaeology and can encourage us to critically reflect on how we construct media histories.

In what follows, I’ll outline eight historiographic lessons I’ve learned from infrastructure studies – or things I’ve known, but which infrastructure studies have reinforced. These are by no means mutually exclusive concepts. There’s actually a good bit of redundancy – but I think that, in some cases, restating the same principle using different language can only enhance its potential utility:

  1. [SLIDE36] The Long Now / Deep Time. In their 2007 NSF-funded workshop on cyberinfrastructure, Edwards and several colleagues argued for the importance of studying the “long now” of cyberinfrastructure: the 200 years’ worth of “slower-pace[d]” political, cultural, and technical changes that have been happening “in the background” – changes like the rise of scientific disciplines and statistics – that have lain the foundation for digital networks (3). Of course I would argue that media studies could benefit from a much longer view, one that recognizes that “infrastructure” precedes the “cyber” and the electronic – but still, these scholars’ focus on historical contextualization is useful. And the concept of the “long now” – a contemporary that extends into the past – complements media (an)archaeologist Siegfried Zielinski’s suggestion that media archaeology aims to “find something new in the old.”
  2. [SLIDE37] (Techno-Socio-Spatio-Material) Palimpsests. That long now is manifested in material strata – literal layering. Henri Lefebvre has argued that urban space is formed by superimposed capital regimes and the infrastructures they create in their own image; the result, he has famously suggested, is not unlike a flaky mille-feuille pastry. But the palimpsest isn’t a mere metaphor. [SLIDE38]In his excellent study of infrastructure in urban Nigeria, anthropologist Brian Larkin writes that the “physical shape of the city emerges from the layering of these infrastructures over time” (5).[SLIDE39]
    The nature of that layering, however, is not one of mere supplanting or obsolescence. If we dig down through the strata we find much more than ruins(and this is where, I think, the archaeological metaphor can be at times a bit misleading). Digging into these layers, we often find that, depending on different contextual factors, various infrastructures have distinctive temporalities and evolutionary paths. Through “excavation,” we can assess the lifespans of various urban media and ascertain when “old” infrastructures “leak” into new-media landscapes, when media of different epochs are layered palimpsestically, or when new urban media “remediate” their predecessors. Richard John, who’s written histories of American telecommunications and the postal system, has found that the infrastructures he’s studied were “complementary rather than mutually exclusive. Telegraphy supplemented mail delivery, and telephony supplemented telegraphy, without rendering either mail delivery or telegraphy obsolete” (56).
    We find that the historical media infrastructures on the “lower levels” of our cities are often very much alive in, and continuing to shape, the contemporary city. I argue that these historical media are, like Raymond Williams’ (1977) category of [CLICK] the “residual,” “formed in the past, but…still active in the cultural process, not only and often not at all as an element of the past, but as an effective element of the present” (122). As Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin, authors of several canonical texts about telecommunications infrastructures and urbanism, argue, media networks of various historical ages can enhance one another – that is, [CLICK] “new technologies do not simply destroy older forms of communication but call into being new mobilities and sometimes intensify older ones” (6). This intermingling of temporalities fits Christopher Witmore’s definition of “archaeological time”: [CLICK] “the entanglement, the intermingling, the chiasm of pasts and presents” (279). Our infrastructural cities are a “folded, nonlinear temporal net.”
  3. Networked Histories. [SLIDE41] Graham and Marvin identify some of those “superimposed, contested and interconnecting” layers, or “scapes”: the “’electropolis’ of energy and power,” “the ‘hydropolis’ of water and waste,” “the ‘cybercity’ of electronic communication” (8). The history of any of these scapes is plugged into and inextricably linked with the histories of the others. Richard John suggests that the [SLIDE42] “concept of an information infrastructure [for instance]…highlights the fact that the transmission of information has long been coordinated by a constellation of institutions, rather than by a single government agency or business firm” (56). [SLIDE43] We need to recognize the co-dependency, the intertwining of these various systems – the telegraph and the telephone, the railroad and the telegraph, transportation infrastructures and the postal system, print and writing infrastructures, writing and oral address, and various social and regulatory systems – and perhaps write their histories together.
    [SLIDE44] Edwards lays out a general framework for how these “constellations” might form, in the cyberinfrastructure world, at least: it begins with system building; then technology transfer across domains; then the emergence of variations in the original system design and the appearance of competing systems; then the eventual merger of these various systems, via gateways, into networks; then standardization of these networks and their merger into internetworks – with, all the while, “early choices constrain[ing] the options available moving forward” (i-ii). [SLIDE45]Such a model might seem rather deterministic to those of us who are looking at technology from a humanities orientation, or those of us who are constructivists – yet I think this model identifies several phases, or pivot-points, that occur during the maturation of technological systems that we already recognize, and that we should be encouraged to look for. Edwards reminds us, too, that “modeling” the formation of these networked infrastructural “constellations” doesn’t imply that they’re rigidly interlocked systems:
    [SLIDE46] [T]he eventual growth of complex infrastructure and the forms it takes are the result of converging histories, path dependencies, serendipity, innovation, and “bricolage” (tinkering). Speaking of cyberinfrastructure as a machine to be built or a technical system to be designed tends to downplay the importance of social, institutional, organizational, legal, cultural, and other non-technical problems developers always face (6-7).
  4. [SLIDE47] Path Dependency in particular is such a useful concept for those of us who’ve been taught to avoid at all costs being labeled a technodeterminist, which, as Geoffrey Winthrop-Young jokes, “is a bit like saying that [one] enjoys strangling cute puppies.” In our overcompensation to avoid the scarlet TD, we often resist acknowledging the existence of these well-trodden paths, and how they might limit future choices. Yet architectural historian Kazys Varnelis offers us a concrete example of paths’ potency: [CLICK] “…new infrastructures do not so much supersede old ones as ride on top of them, forming physical and organizational palimpsests – telephone lines follow railway lines, and over time these pathways have not been diffused, but rather etched more deeply into the urban landscape.” (27-8). [SLIDE48] In Edwards’ model, we’re able to balance a recognition that technologies do have material effects – that the channels laid and spaces configured by preceding technologies dosteer the development, to some degree, of successor technologies – with an acknowledgment of the roles played by serendipity and tinkering, by social and cultural factors, in technological development.
    Several other scholars support this model of inter-infrastructural path dependency. Graham and Marvin agree with Varnelis that[SLIDE49]…there are very close physical parallels and synergies between the development and routing of telecommunications networks within and between cities and the patterns of other infrastructures.… Because of the costs of developing new telecommunications networks, all efforts are made to string optic fibres through water, gas and sewage ducts; between cities existing railway, road, and waterway routes are often used (329).
  5. [SLIDE50] Material Evidence. Things like palimpsests, networked histories, and path dependencies aren’t mere historical theorizations. Studying infrastructure, we can find material evidence of these complex pathways of historical development. We can read the archaeological record, conduct forensic analyses – or, when we’re dealing with a medium like the voice, for which there’s no collectable artifact, we can use techniques from archaeoacoustics to “listen” to spaces past – the Coliseum, the ancient marketplace, etc. We can dig up the cables, pull out the wires, analyze the disks – and observe their layering and interconnection.
  6. [SLIDE51] People as Infrastructure. That material record often shows that people haven’t been mere beneficiaries of infrastructures, but actually infrastructures themselves. I’m thinking of Greg Downey’s work on telegraph messenger boys, for instance. In Africa – and, undoubtedly, in much of the Global South and throughout much of global history – people often compensate for “underdeveloped, overused, fragmented, and often makeshift urban infrastructures” (425). The “incessantly flexible, mobile, and provisional intersections of residents…operate without clearly delineated notions of how the city is to be inhabited and used” – and constitute and infrastructure (407).
  7. [SLIDE52] Informal / Shadow Development: This mention of the flexible, mobile, and provisional reminds us that infrastructure history – and media history in general – has often deeply informed by informal and “shadow” developments. Brian Larkin writes about the jury-rigging, repurposing, or pirating of existing infrastructures in Nigeria. Such improvisations have undoubtedly appeared throughout media history. And it’s these peripheral practices, the “paths not followed” that media archaeology often likes to trace.
  8. [SLIDE53] Scale: Infrastructure makes us think about the granularity of our observations; Graham and Marvin list the corporeal, local, urban, regional, national, international, and global scales. When writing media histories, we have to consider whether we’re we writing media object histories, local media histories, urban media histories, national media histories, cultural media histories, etc. – and making such a choice is complicated by the fact that our infrastructures flow across these scales, connecting technologies into networks into internetworks. Paul Edwards suggests that scale needn’t be conceived of as merely a geographic quality; [SLIDE54] we can also consider scales of force (from the human body to the geophysical), scales of time (from human time to geophysical time), and scales of social organization (from individuals to governments) (186). Again, infrastructures span all these scales.
    But the macro view is a particularly illuminating in that it forces us to consider the forms of our media and infrastructures in relation to their long-term functions – “the reasons they came to exist in the first place” (204). Rather than thinking about how the telegraph supplanted the postal service, for instance, we can reconceive of these two systems as two instantiations of a shared infrastructural purpose. [SLIDE55] Edwards suggests that contextualizing the telephone, the telegraph, the post, and other modern technologies within James Beniger’s “’control revolution’ concept allows us to understand, not only the genesis and growth of the many large infrastructures that characterize modernity, but also the process of linking these infrastructures to each other” (207). These links allow us to appreciate the historical continuity among infrastructures – and the “deep time” of media.

And in characteristic fashion, I petered out before writing a conclusion — so I had to extemporize here. I’m pretty sure I concluded by acknowledging that most of the aforementioned examples mentioned modern infrastructures — primarily because that’s what most infrastructural scholarship deals with — and noting that my challenge, for my next book, is to show how these lessons also apply to the deep time of media infrastructure.


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.



No Thing Unto Itself: SoundMatter

Tonight I had the pleasure of talking with Noortje Marres, David Turnbull, and Katherine Behar about “object-oriented politics” as part of the “No Thing Unto Itself” panel discussion, itself an event connected to the “And Another Thing” exhibit at CUNY. I’ve had quite a month — including four public presentations in the past week — so, as eager as I was to take part in tonight’s discussion, I felt a little worn down and under-prepared.

I still haven’t broken my bad habit of custom-writing a new paper for every talk I deliver. Re-purposing material still feels like cheating to me. I have to get over that. Regardless, this time, when asked to say something about “object-oriented politics,” I decided I’d visit the exhibition and allow it to generate some ideas for my talk. I was struck by the sonic pieces in the show — and I had been curious about the dearth of discussion of sound within object-oriented discourse (Timothy Morton is one obvious exception) — so I decided to focus on SoundMatter in my talk tonight.

*     *     *     *     *

Sound Matter

I heard it before I saw it. Before I even crossed the threshold of the James Gallery I knew there were small humming, buzzing machines inside. Through the door and off to the left I beheld a light installation – a sort of chandelier “hack” – composed of dozens of flickering nightlights suspended by their electrical cords, swaying and clinking together in the breezes produced by oscillating fans.

I followed their cords up to the ceiling where they heaped upon one another in a seemingly desperate attempt to reach a power supply.

Ruslan Trusewych’s “this is the way the world is” presents the world as a swarm of objects, all subject to variable environmental forces, all fighting for access to necessary sustenance – food, water, or, in this case, electrical current. What became most apparent to me here, however, was the swarm as a sonic entity or event. Sonic cues were as integral as the visual in helping me understand what I was experiencing. My New School colleague Eugene Thacker has written about swarms as sonic. I’ll return to his ideas in a bit.

[A little ad-libbing here] But I’ll be focusing here on acoustic qualities that resounded through several projects in the “And Another Thing” exhibition. I’ll examine what these different projects, and others like them, can tell us about the source of sound, and sound’s relationship to the sounding object and its sonic environment.

Trusewych’s work reminds me of another project:

This is Zimoun’s “30,000 plastic bags, 16 ventilators” – a work whose name implies that what we’re hearing, or experiencing, is simply the sum of its very mundane parts. Yet as with Trusewych’s piece, I sense that this collection of parts is not all there is. The “way the world works” in Trusewych’s this is the way the works can’t possibly be sonically indexed by the sound of blades cutting through air, mechanisms rotating the fan’s head, plastic nightlight shades plinking against one another. In both works we have mechanically circulated air providing the animating force for swarm-like movement – yet the actuality of what we’re experiencing seems to be somewhere in between the two experiences implied by the artworks’ titles – somewhere between the grandiose claim that “this the way the world works” and the reductivist claim that it’s just 30,000 plastic bags and 16 ventilators.

Now, back to Thacker:

If we are to think swarms in a way that does not privilege the visual, it seems that two possibilities immediately present themselves to us…. The atomistic approach suggests that our registering of the swarm by hearing it is correlated to a field of interacting sound atoms that is not visible to us. The Neo-platonic approach gives us an image of incorporeal sound emanating from corporeal entities into a kind of phenomenal density in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Thacker presents cicadas as an example of an organic swarm that could be conceived through either of these lenses. Cicadas, he writes, “are more often heard than seen – indeed, they are quite impossible to locate by sound.”

This leads me to a second piece in the James Gallery, located in close proximity to Trusewych’s, and created by the same artist responsible for “30,000 plastic bags, 16 ventilators.” This is 25 woodworms, wood, microphone, sound system.

Critics of Zimoun’s work – even the projects that don’t involve live woodworms – often use swarm-like references to describe it:

The results, powered by simple DC motors in kinetic musical action, recall some kind of natural, organic colony.

[Zimoun] creates closed systems that develop their own behavior and rules similarly to artificial creatures.

The movement is there, that electric, dynamic sense of disquiet that characterizes insect worlds. It’s an alien movement… They each present a similar kind of movement that is found in the insectoid underbellies of nature all around us (via Zimoun, “About”).

One critic’s description echoes Thacker’s in her acknowledgment of two possible ways of understanding Zimoun’s acousto-mechanical systems. She writes:

Indeed, one of the refreshing elements of this work is the immediacy with which one can understand the sound-making process, where each micro-event is present, visible, and concrete. Yet at the same time the resulting complexity of the total system, conjured before your eyes, defies any attempt to dissect it. You might find yourself feeling there is a prime mover at work behind the scenes, but in fact it is just the characteristic reaction of materials behaving together and in unison with the space of their activity (via Zimoun, “About”).

The “space of activity” is of central importance in these projects. Zimoun describes his work as sound sculptures and sound architectures. Both terms in these pairings – “sound” and “sculpture” – are mutually constitutive: sound constructs an acoustic (or, as we’ll discover in a bit, an (an)acoustic) space, while the material properties of the space within which a sound resounds construct the properties of that sound. This holds true for swarms, too; they’re spatio-sonic, or acousto-spatial events.

Francisco López, a sound artist whom Eugene Thacker pointed me towards, and about whom Timothy Morton and Will Schrimshaw have written, has spoken eloquently about how he negotiates the relationships between organisms and environments – between “objects” and “spaces” – in his audio recordings. While many “environmental” sound artists tend to habitually focus on the sounds of animals, López advocates for focusing on the “environment as a whole, instead of on behavioural manifestations of the organisms we foresee as most similar to us.” The “space of activity” in a sonic environment expands far beyond the sound-producing organism; the environment is instead a consequence of “all its sound-transmitting and sound-modifying elements.”

The birdsong we hear in the forest is as much a consequence of the bird as of the trees or the forest floor. If we are really listening, the topography, the degree of humidity of the air or the type of materials in the topsoil are as essential and definitory as the sound-producing animals that inhabit a certain space (Francisco López, Environmental Sound Matter).

López’s focus on “sound matter” rather than “sound objects” represents, according to Schrimshaw (May 7, 2011), “his preference for the…confusing over the clear and distinct, for environments as a whole rather than the well grounded identities of the individual bodies that compose them.” Rather than emphasizing “the audible representation of a place or individual animals, objects, bodies or events,” he captures “sounds that in their obscurity reveal something of the material capacities underpinning their implication within representation, recognition, and indexical listening” (ibid.).

It’s important to note that that sound environment includes things that aren’t perceptible to the human ear; its “sonic matter” includes matter that does not resound for us – at least not under normal conditions. The sound we hear in “25 woodworms…,” is the auditory index of invisible internal processes – worms consuming wood – which are imperceptibly changing the constitution of the object we can see and identify: the wood. The microphone and sound system provide the necessary tools within this acoustic system to “liberate” sounds from the wood object; as Frances Dyson explains in regards to John Cage’s work, amplification “allows sounds, which otherwise would remain silent, to be heard via the action of electronic ears” (62). [See also the infrastructure projects of Bill Fontana]

But sometimes technical amplification is not enough. Sometimes forces and stimuli in other registers have to be “sonified” before they can be heard. Consider the Institute for Algorithmics, a collective dedicated to finding the “rhythms” in our “algorithms.”

Algorhythms show us that our digital culture is not immaterial, but divided in time. Time + music becomes (sic) important for understanding media. With enough scientific effort the invisible electronic or electromagnetic (wireless) signals can be made hearable. Listening to those digitally modulated signals, you can hear the rhythmic character of the signals of most digitally working devices and also of wireless consumer electronic networks like WLAN, GSM, UMTS, Bluetooth, digital TV and Radio et cetera (“More/About/Readme”). [See also the “wave field” work of Raviv Ganchrow, who visited my “City & Sound” class in 2009.]

Likewise, Detektors, a “brother” collective, sonifies the “electromagnetic emissions produced by everyday electronic devices” in order to “to make audible the hidden infoscapes of our time.” [Below: a Canon camera turning on and off]

everyday electronic devices

The professed goal here is to “make [internal mechanisms] audible” in order to promote our “understanding [of] media,” but perhaps there is also value in these sonifications, as in all the sound pieces in “And Another Thing,” as accounts of “sound in-itself” or “sound-in-space,” outside of its perception? (Schrimshaw, August 24, 2010).  Schrimshaw suggest that such an account would “approach sound according to its bare minimum of internal relations, relations apart from the ear” – perhaps sound simply as vibration.

Seth Kim-Cohen is skeptical of such a notion of “sound-in-itself”; his model of a “non-cochlear” art acknowledges both the audible and the “exigencies out of earshot” – the tactile dimensions of sonic vibration, for instance. Artist Tom Kotik, whose work appears in the exhibition downstairs, plays with some of these ideas. His “Rational Impulse” consists of two nested sound-proofed boxes encasing – and, when closed, silencing – speakers blaring Kotik’s own band’s music. From the outside, it’s a mute, inert wooden box. But lifting the outer lid releases the vibration, and lifting the inner lid releases the cacophony. Kotik constructs an “architecture of silence” – an external silence one can appreciate only when one knows the commotion within. This piece can be said to reveal what Schrimshaw (March 29, 2011) calls the “infraesthetic implications of objective tendencies” – that which is in excess of the threshold of perception. The heard and the unheard are both integral parts of the object or event. It’s when we lift the first lid and cross one threshold that we perceive the “non-cochlear” (and a hint of the cochlear) dimensions of the “sounding object” inside, and when we lift the second, interior, lid that we fully cross the auditory threshold.

Kotik’s more recent work never pushes past that second threshold; he alludes to sound through form and texture. His “Untitled” (2007) is a “music stand fitted with loudspeakers that reproduce a soundless music whose inaudible frequencies cause the compulsive movement of the membranes” (“Tom Kotik’s Architectures…”), and his SoundStudies (2007) are “sculptures” constructed of acoustic materials. He’s even constructed non-sounding, sound-absorbing felt work that, by consuming the gallery’s soundwaves, alters the room’s acoustics.

By being made aware of the thresholds of our own perception, we wonder about the objects or matter on the other side of those thresholds. How do they sound without us? What’s it like inside Kotik’s box? What’s the nature of the interaction between the sounds emanating from his speakers and the sound-proofing material inside the box? What does wood sound like to a woodworm? What does being consumed sound like to the wood? What does swarming sound like from inside the swarm?

[And here I petered out in my writing, so, to conclude, I riffed on this]: In all the works I’ve discussed here, sonic objects – sonic “matter” – interacts within an environment, a constructed or natural space, that includes both sounding and nonsounding matter. What are the politics of these soundings? What are our own relations do them? Yadda yadda yadda.

*          *          *          *

Frances Dyson, Sounding New Media: Immersion and Embodiment in the Arts and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

Seth Kim-Cohen, In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sound Art (New York: Continuum, 2009).


Institute for Algorhythmics:

Francisco López, Environmental Sound Matter, reprinted on (April 1998).

Will Schrmshaw, “Nature Recording and the Broadband World” [blog pos] (May 7, 2011).

Will Schrimshaw, “Toward a Non-Cochlear Sound (August 24. 2010).

Eugene Thacker, “Pulse DemonsCulture Machine 9 (2007).

Tom Kotik’s Architectures of Silence at the Joan Miró (n.d.).


Beyond the Seminar Paper

What follows is the short presentation I delivered tonight as part of the CUNY Digital Humanities Initiative’s fall series. Mark Sample and I talked about “DH in the Classroom.” [Edit: 10/19] Mark has posted the slides and text for his fantastic talk, in which he explored the relationships between “building” and “thinking” — and made me question how I’d translate much of what I do in the classroom into an undergraduate context. The Q&A that followed our talks was among the most spirited and thoughtful of any I’ve had the pleasure of participating in. Thanks to Mark and Matt and Charlie for making the evening possible!


[SLIDE 2]History of practice-based teaching: e.g., Practices of Placemaking at Penn

[SLIDE 3] Came to TNS in 2004 – program that combined theory and practice

  • [SLIDE 4] Theory and Practice often bifurcated – separated into two separate halves of the curriculum
  • Students’ instrumentalist conception of this integration: knowing a little theory will make you a better practitioner, knowing how machines work will make you a better theorist
  • I started to allow students to complete theoretically-informed, research based creative projects in lieu of a mid-term or final paper in my seminar classes
  • Foray into project-based classes
    • [SLIDE 5] 2005: Sound & Space
    • [SLIDE 6] 2005: MSPS
    • [SLIDE 7] Larger 2005-6 MSPS project
    • [SLIDES 8-9] 2006: Media Exhibition Design
    • [SLIDE 10] 2006: Immediacy

[SLIDE 11] Praxis-based Courses: Degree of investment rarely witnessed in traditional seminar courses

  • Students had to not only grapple with, but internalize the course content – the theory – because they’d be held accountable for putting it into action.
  • Did a lot of thinking – especially for the intro-to-grad-studies lecture course I teach – about theories of praxis and theories of craft
    • Questions of STANDARDS

About this time I became aware of HASTAC & MacArthur & DH – not sure I completely identified, for reasons explained in my “DH: The Name That Does No Favors” Post – but I’m sympathetic to a number of values that seem central to the community.

[SLIDES 12-13] McPherson article: Multimodal Humanist – this term, still a mouthful, resonated more with me
[SLIDE 14]
Scrivener on when production is research
[SLIDE 15]
Question about Feedback & Evaluation — not simply so I could assign a grade, but so we could provide meaningful feedback

  • Work – particularly technical skills – were sometimes outside my area of expertise
  • How to balance weighting of form and content – “rigor” in concept or execution?
  • Individual vs. Group Accountability


[SLIDE 16] Fall 2010: Media & Materiality
[SLIDE 17]
Semester Schedule
[SLIDE 18]
Student Projects – Can look during conversation period

[SLIDE 19] Spring 2011: Libraries, Archives & Databases – touches on many DH themes

[SLIDES 20-21] Fall 2010 / 2011: Urban Media Archaeology

  • [SLIDE 22] Semester Schedule
  • [SLIDE 23] PROJECT PROPOSALS – not different from trendy “contracts”
    • Justify choice of “genre” and format – use of media tools as method
  • [SLIDES 24-25] Student Proposed Projects
    • I provide individual feedback; students post to blogs and classmates comment
  • [SLIDE 26] Learn Data Modeling
  • [SLIDE 27] User Scenarios
  • [SLIDE 28] Look inside Black Box – Software Development
  • [SLIDE 29] Pecha Kucha
    • DH projects inherently collaborative – need experts from multiple fields
  • [SLIDE 30] All the while, we’re collectively developing criteria for evaluation:
    • [SLIDE 31] By working in small groups and as a class to evaluate other “multimodal projects” + Hypercities
    • [SLIDE 32] Through individual map critiques
    • Thru Peer Review of one another’s projects
  • [SLIDE 33] Process Blogs – Self-Evaluation
    • Make public their process
      • [SLIDE 34] Discuss work w/ other public/cultural institutions – e.g., archives.
      • This semester, students are working w/ youth media centers, independent bookstores, etc.
  • [SLIDES 35-37] Practice “critical self-consciousness” – about their work processes, choice of methods, media formats, etc.
  • Hold themselves accountable for their choices
  • [SLIDE 38] Peer Evaluation: Paper Prototypes
  • Final Presentation: [SLIDE 39] My Feedback + [SLIDE 40] Students’ Peer Reviews
  • [SLIDE 41] Possible Topic for Q&A: Committee work on implications for the Dissertation



Everything Is Infrastructure

Here’s the talk I gave at yesterday’s OOOIII symposium at The New School. I was honored to have been invited to take part! Tim Morton was UStreaming the event, but of course the feed died when I did my bit. Yet he kindly edited the audio and uploaded it to

Archigram, ca. 1970; via V&A Museum 


[TITLE SLIDE] This, as you may know, is a t-shirt that Tim designed to commemorate this very occasion. I could never wear this shirt; it – and the philosophical object it represents – withdraw from me. I am not a philosopher. I simply study things. I’m sure that in the course of my talk I’ll find myself in violation of the OOO Handbook; I’m sure I’ll use terms in ways that offend your sensibilities; I’ll perhaps focus too much on relations; I’ll perhaps not move the human subject far enough out of the way. For these transgressions, I ask for your forgiveness. With that said, let’s begin.

In “The Great Gizmo,” an article published in 1965 in Industrial Design magazine, architectural historian and design critic Reyner Banham explained how [SLIDE] “the most typical American way of improving the human situation has been by means of crafty and unusually compact little packages, either papered or with patent numbers, or bearing the inventor’s name to a grateful posterity.” The class of objects ranged “from the Franklin Stove, and the Stetson Hat, through the Evinrude outboard to the walkie-talkie, the spray can and the cordless shaver.” The portability of these gadgets – the fact that they “can get by without any infrastructure” – has been critical to the American way of life, which he celebrated. [SLIDE] “The quintessential gadgetry of the pioneering frontiersman had to be carried across trackless country, set down in a wild place, and left to transform that hostile environment without skilled attention.”

[SLIDE] Last April, the design-publishing think tank Leagues & Legions organized a networked blogging event dedicated to “remixing, revisiting, and remastering” two classic architectural texts, one of which was Banham’s. Architect Rob Holmes, who has blog called mammoth, was struck by Banham’s description of “the most characteristic” of US products:

[SLIDE] a small self-contained unit of high performance in relation to its size and cost, whose function is to transform some undifferentiated set of circumstances to a condition nearer human desires.  The minimum of skill is required in its installation and use, and it is independent of any physical or social infrastructure beyond that by which it may be ordered from catalogue and delivered to its prospective user.

[SLIDE] I imagine that as I read that passage, many of us were conjuring up in our mind’s eyes a mental image of [CLICK] a sleek, palm-sized white or black device currently resting, in a nest woven from earbud wires, in our messenger bags or back pockets. This of course wasn’t Banham’s vision; he was writing in the mid 60s. But the iPhone seems to be among today’s likely candidates for “the most characteristic” US product. Yet as Holmes argues, it doesn’t completely live up to Banham’s billing. The gadget does indeed fulfill what some regard as advanced capitalism’s era-defining “human desires”: for mobility; self-contained, all-in-one convenience; plug-and-play accessibility (maybe without the “plug”) – but is the iPhone really “independent of any physical or social infrastructure?” [SLIDE] As Holmes demonstrates in his brilliant post, this gizmo is “not only dependent upon highly developed systems in its production…but is also now equally dependent in its operation upon a vast array of infrastructures, data ecologies, and device networks.” He takes us on a trans-scalar tour of [SLIDE] the mines – in Canada, South Korea, Belgium, Russia, and Peru – from which we derive the materials for the gadget’s lithium-ion battery and indium tin oxide conducting solution; [SLIDE] the plant in Shenzhen, China, where a quarter-million people are responsible for the gizmo’s assembly; [SLIDE] the server farms, the network’s nerve centers, in Washington, Florida, North and South Carolina, Oklahoma, and Iowa; [SLIDE] and the cell towers and antennae that make transmission possible.

[SLIDE] A quick aside: just last week architects Michael Chen and Justin Snider, who are mashing up various data sources to map what they call urban “signal space,” took the students in my Urban Media Archaeology class on a scavenger hunt for cell phone towers around The New School.

[SLIDE] Industrial designer Ben Millen offers a “conceptual diagram” that allows us to [SLIDE] zoom in and out and consider the [SLIDE] various scales and geographies that Holmes’s tour reaches – [SLIDE] the interlocking infrastructures that collectively constitute this supposedly infrastructure-independent gizmo.

[SLIDE: VIDEO] Our iPhones thus only seem to be untethered. The entire world of “wirelessness” is, likewise, not what it seems. As Adrian Mackenzie argues in a recent book on the topic, wirelessness “designates an experience trending toward entanglements with things, objects, gadgets, infrastructures, and services, and imbued with indistinct sensations and practices of network-associated change” (5). Wirelessness might even be the exact opposite of what the label suggests:

[SLIDE] While the notion of wireless networks implies that there are fewer wires, it could easily be argued that actually there are more wires. Rather than wireless cities or wireless networks, it might be more accurate to speak of the rewiring of cities through the highly reconfigurable paths of chipsets. / Billions of chipsets means trillions of wires or conductors on a microscopic scale (64-5).

Yet we can’t ignore the continued existence of, and the integral function played by, [SLIDE] massive wires on a super-macroscopic scale – a global Internet infrastructure mapped by telecom market research firms like Telegeography. At the same time, we have Wired correspondent and Metropolis contributing editor Andrew Blum, who’s writing a book about the physical infrastructure of the Internet, [SLIDE] homing in on the particular materialities of specific nodes within that global network. He takes us on a tour leading from oceanside manholes; to 60 Hudson Street in downtown Manhattan, where transoceanic and transcontinental lines converge; to data centers with their sophisicated security infrastructures; and along railroad tracks, which paved the way for long-distance “data pipes.” (Incidentally, Andrew took my Urban Media Archaeology class from last year on a walking tour of the Internet infrastructure of Lower Manhattan.)

Between [SLIDE] the work of InfraNet Lab, a “research collective probing the spatial byproducts of contemporary resource logistics” and [SLIDE] advocates for what they call “infrastructural opportunism;” [SLIDE] to my colleagues Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruze’s recent Geologic City project, which reveals the “forces and flows of geologic material that give form to the built environment of the city”; [SLIDE] to MoMA’s current “Talk to Me” exhibition, [SLIDE] which explores “communication between people and things,” and between things and things, and places and things; [SLIDE] to the walking tours of urban systems organized by design consultancy spurse for the [SLIDE] BMW Guggenheim Lab that’s resided downtown this summer, there’s no shortage of interest in infrastructures and the objects that comprise them. [SLIDE] Former New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff suggested in 2009 that “renewed interest in infrastructure” within the design community has been attributable in large part to Obama’s original stimulus package, which tasked the country’s designers with “rethinking the networks – train lines, freeways, bridges, levees, ports and waterfronts – that bind our communities together.” Ouroussoff noticed a rise, “for the first time in decades,” of new infrastructure-focused graduate architecture studio courses.

I’d argue that the interest began to emerge well before Obama. Hurricane Katrina and other international disasters drew attention to the weaknesses in our existing infrastructures. [SLIDE] And Michael Chen, leader of the Signal Space project I referenced earlier, suggested to me that architecture’s interest in infrastructure has grown with the increased availability of data, not only GIS data, but data “generated by buildings themselves”; that data often covers large swaths of geography, and architects, according to Chen, “aspire to work at scales consistent with the scale of the data.” What’s more, he says, is that working at the scale and within the context of infrastructure, rather than at the scale of the architectural “object,” has the potential to have greater impact on the built environment. What’s interesting to consider, in light of this particular symposium, is how architects have sought explicitly to [SLIDE] move beyond “the object,” which implies, among other things, an appreciation of architecture that looks beyond the subject, beyond the starchitect creator and his masterwork; work within a scale that’s larger than that of the edifice; and a realization of that edifice’s place within a larger network of cultural and political economic, and material forces.[i] This movement beyond the object is actually, in some respects, quite similar to the privileging of the object advocated by object-oriented ontology in that it aims to take the human out of the center of the enterprise.

[SLIDE] While architecture moves beyond the object (although others are simultaneously calling for a return to it), my own field, Media Studies, continues to expand its interest in the media object and media infrastructures. McLuhan and his mentor Harold Innis, along with Lewis Mumford, Sigfried Giedion and many others who have since been claimed by the “media ecology” tradition, long ago inspired interest in media’s material form, its sensory properties, and the larger cultural, political, and even material ecologies that particular media give rise to. While many in media studies are still committed to textual analysis and identity construction and issues of subjectivity, many others – growing numbers – have turned their attention to media as designed objects, to the issue of e-waste, to the spatiality and geography of communication, and to infrastructure.

[SLIDE] This turn to the object or the material network has undoubtedly been inspired over the past few decades by shifting materialities in the media landscape (Bolter 1991, Landow 1991). The early 1990s gave rise to a great deal of scholarship questioning the existence of a new “ontology” of new media; and with the rise of each new “new” – wirelessness, augmented reality, etc. – we’ve repeated the question. Wendy Chun, who presented on a panel examining “object-oriented feminism” at the 2010 Society for Literature, Science and the Arts conference, suggested that the recent rise of object-oriented philosophy and “thing theory” draw inspiration from the same source: these new philosophical enterprises are “themselves responses to – not simply theoretical tools necessary to examine – new media.”

[SLIDE] There are many of us in Media Studies, in addition to Ian Bogost, who are working on media objects and infrastructures. Lisa Parks and [SLIDE] Nicole Starosielski have done innovative work on satellite television and transoceanic cable infrastructures. [SLIDE] My own past work has focused on “media spaces” – libraries, archives, reading rooms, schools, media company headquarters, media production facilities, and a variety of other spaces where media is a key actor – as both conceptual and physical infrastructures. [SLIDE] I’ve been interested in how these physical architectures, the material properties of the media housed within them, and the publics that both design and use them, all act upon and mutually construct one another. [SLIDE] I consider how the form of the technology informs the shape of the building; how those technological forms in turn offer direction regarding how people are to interact with them; which in turn informs the program and plan of the building. And vice versa. The relationship between media technologies and architecture needn’t even be mediated through human users; sometimes media have spatial demands of their own – say, they require lots of power outlets, or they need a climate-controlled environment – which can be directly translated into architectural designs.

[SLIDE] Over the past few years I’ve turned more to German media theory – in particular, media archaeology – to help me in my current study – of historical urban media infrastructures. [SLIDE] There’s a presumption in media studies, and in various design studies and practices, that since the rise of the mechanically produced image, media have served as actants in shaping the material city; thus we have the “photographic city,” “the “cinematic city” and various forms of the “digital city,” including a relatively recent variant that I find particularly interesting, the “sentient city.” [SLIDE] I’m looking instead at the longue durée of urban mediation, focusing on media technologies – telegraphy and telephony, print, writing, and the voice that emerged before the widespread availability of the mechanically reproduced image, yet which have had residual impact on the city through the present day.

Erkki Huhtamo, inspired by Foucault’s archaeological method, describes media archaeology as [SLIDE] “the study of the cyclically recurring elements and motives underlying and guiding the development of media culture” and the [CLICK] “’excavation’ of the ways in which these discursive traditions and formulations have been ‘imprinted’ on specific media machines and systems in different historical contexts” (223). [SLIDE] Adapting Huhtamo’s model to suit an “excavation” at the urban scale, I focus on the recurring or residual media “elements and motives” that guide the development of the material city. I look at, but also beyond the discursive elements of media to focus on what Wolfgang Ernst (2003) calls its “logical structure” and “hardware” (n.p.). These infrastructures include everything from wires and cables and amplifier stations, to the acoustic properties of various building surfaces – and they plug into parallel infrastructures: power and transportation, for example.

[SLIDE] Media archaeology tends to distance itself from archaeology proper, but when we’re dealing with material landscapes and assemblages of material objects, perhaps we could learn something from archaeologists who have experience in dealing with these types of materials, and who know that “excavation” can be more than a Foucauldian-inspired metaphor. In addition, archaeologists’ recognition of the temporal “entanglement” of the material record could prove useful in understanding how various infrastructural networks interact with one another across time (Witmore 2006: 280). Referencing the influential work that geographers Stephen Graham and Simon Marvin have done on telecommunications infrastructures, anthropologist Brian Larkin writes, in his study of media infrastructure in Nigeria: “Newly developed networks do not eradicate earlier ones but are superimposed on top of them, creating a historical layering over time” (6). [SLIDE] Telegraph lines line the railways; fiber optic cables parallel old copper cable laid nearly a century before; public spaces once popular as sites of public address become places for the exchange of new publications after the rise of print, and those spaces later become wireless hotspots. Archaeology – both media archaeology and archaeology proper – could reveal the “entanglement” of infrastructural systems’ lifespans – when old media “leak” into new-media landscapes, when media of different epochs are layered palimpsestically, or when new infrastructures “remediate” their predecessors. Embodied within these “entanglements” are shifts with real-world consequences – increases or decreases in the speed or accessibility of networks; expanding or contracting reach to various geographic areas; the degree of publicness, however you want to define it, of particular sites, both micro and macro scale.

[SLIDE] I’ve also found it helpful to approach this project by thinking through objects, and to so do collaboratively. For the past two years students in my graduate studios have been collaboratively mapping various historical media infrastructures while simultaneously building an object – a database-driven open-source mapping platform – that captures, as much as possible, the distinctive spatial, temporal, and material qualities of the systems we’re examining. Rather than translating the natures of these objects into some linear written form, we’re spatalizing and temporalizing our “arguments” on a map. Our networked mode of representation is in keeping with the networked objects we’re studying. Students are then able to find the spatial juxtapositions of their various networks, to identify the places and times where objects bump up against one another. They’re also speculatively taking on the perspective of the objects they’re researching. One student creating a map layer about carrier pigeons that took the perspective of the pigeon. Another placed herself within the network of newspaper distribution by physically following the path our daily New York Times takes from the printing plant, through several truck and van transfers, to her doorstep. And I’m excited to being imagining how the pneumatic mail system – which is a topic I’ve already written about – functioned from the perspective of a pneumatique.

What are the potentials for knowing the infrastructure if we become the infrastructure? What are the potentials for knowing objects by imaginatively becoming those objects, by interacting with the various other objects with which they come into contact?  An object-oriented methodology might help explode the myth of the gizmo – the infrastructure-free object – and foster an appreciation for the vibrant matter that resides within all of our media, material or immaterial.


Paper, Ash & Air: Material Remembering

Tonight at The New School, as part of the 9/11 Forum on Memory, Trauma, and the Media (which is in honor of the 10th anniversary of 9/11), I’ll be saying a few words about the material memory of dust, scraps of paper, and other ephemeral media:


Lorenzo Ciniglio, Corbis/Sygma

It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night. He was walking north through rubble and mud and there were people running past holding towels to their faces or jackets over their heads. They had handkerchiefs pressed to their mouths. They had shoes in their hands, a woman with a shoe in each hand, running past him. They ran and fell, some of them, confused and ungainly, with debris coming down around them, and there were people taking shelter under cars.

The roar was still in the air, the buckling rumble of the fall. This was the world now. Smoke and ash came rolling down streets and turning corners, busting around corners, seismic tides of smoke, with office paper flashing past, standard sheets with cutting edge, skimming, whipping past, otherworldly things in the morning pall. (DeLillo)

At the beginning of his novel Falling Man Don DeLillo describes a scene that looks and feels and smells familiar to many of us. Even if we weren’t here on September 11, we’ve seen it in the videos: the South Tower falls apart around the floors where the plane impacted, its crown topples, and the building cascades to the ground. In some videos, when other structures stand between our videographer and the World Trade Center, it takes a few seconds until we can see the cloud of debris rising above the rooftops – and, sometimes, a few seconds more before it becomes apparent just how massive that cloud is, and how rapidly it’s approaching. [See first 35 seconds of the below]

[See 1:58 – 2:26 of the above.]

A few videographers, perhaps unable to run fast or far enough, or perhaps willing to put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of capturing these scenes for posterity, plant their feet and allow the cloud to envelop them. As we watch and prepare for the wave to hit, perhaps you, like I, draw in a breath and hold it. But then we’re taken aback to see flecks of luminescence preceding the grey. Paper.

Gulnara Somoilova, Untitled

They ran and then they stopped, some of them, standing there swaying, trying to draw breath out of the burning air, and the fitful cries of disbelief, curses and lost shouts, and the paper massed in the air, contracts, resumés blowing by, intact snatches of business, quick in the wind. (DeLillo)

The wind prevailed toward Brooklyn that morning, carrying many of these documents into and even well across the harbor. Writing in the New York Times just three days later, Jane Frisch and David Rohde described how what seemed like a “sweet and peaceful snowstorm” of paper [see Figure 7, below] “floated past the windows of the old P.S. 142 building on Henry Street, metallic pieces catching the glisten of the sun. Some blew into the open classroom windows, where, one administrator said, teachers and students examined it ‘in wonder.’”

Erich Scholz:

That “wonder,” I imagine, emerges in part from the realization that, until 8:45 on Tuesday morning, those very same sheets of paper represented the most pressing reality of the thousands of folks already at work in Lower Manhattan. And within minutes they had been made uncanny; they had become records of a bureaucratic normalcy, an existence, since lost. Yet in contrast to the amorphousness and inscrutability of the dust clouds and “the pile” at Ground Zero, these documents retained their form and legibility. Their status as “records” was clear. The students at P.S. 142 knew the value of what they had; Frisch and Rohde report that the teachers and students decided that the documents they intercepted “should be given to the police.”

Via WTC Environmental Organization

Meanwhile, the “cloud of dust” elicited not wonder, but terror – in part because of its inscrutable composition. Writing in a recent commemorative double issue of New York magazine, Steve Fishman says of the dust cloud:

It was one of the indelible images of 9/11: a dark cloud chasing people up Broadway as they fled the collapsing Towers. The cloud turned out to be an aerosolized mix of poisons, thousands of them: silicon, Freon, PCBs, asbestos, lead, pulverized concrete, and on and on. It covered panicked survivors, coated buildings, seeped into ventilation systems, and hinted at the larger problem to come. The acres of rubble quickly became, as one CDC official on site at the time recently explained, ‘a hazmat situation.’” (125)

Indeed, many workers were afflicted with “WTC cough” or diagnosed with RADS, reactive airways dysfunction syndrome, or even cancer linked to prolonged exposure to the toxins on-site.

Dealing with the dust was an ethically charged issue. Workers on the pile were required to wear respirators, but, as Fishman reports, “many resisted. Some felt guilty: After brother firefighters gave their lives, worrying about one’s own health seemed disloyal” (128). These choices determined how one would materially remember what had happened there. Firefighter Adrienne Walsh reported that, amidst the rubble, “I didn’t see victims. They were dust. And I was inhaling them” (58). The material memory of the lost was thus literally internalized by the Ground Zero workers, “archived” in their bodies.

Archival work has long involved the internalization of material records, according to historian Carolyn Steedman. In Dust: The Archive and Cultural History she writes of Jules Michelet’s conviction that he was reviving records in the National Archives of Paris by breathing them in: “these papers and parchments, so long deserted, desired no better than to be restored to the light of day… [A]s I breathed in their dust, I saw them rise up” (quoted on 1171). As a consequence, Michelet, much like those who later breathed in the lives lost at Ground Zero, contracted what Steedman calls “Archive Fever Proper,” sickness brought on by exposure to the dust of organic matter – animals skins, byproducts of human labor – that is an integral part of the archive.


Neither Michelet nor those working on “the pile” in the days after September 11 could have known what they were breathing in. The pile in particular resisted attempts to identify its components. This heap of…what was it? rubbish, detritus, ruins? had collapsed into a pile of indistinguishable materiality. “The towers of the World Trade Center were made of steel, concrete, asbestos, wood, plastic, and glass,” Marita Sturken writes; “they were filled with desks, computers, tables, and paper, and, yet, they crumbled into dust.” They were of course filled with people, too. And as Patricia Yaeger says, “…to think of the bodies of the dead mingling with this debris, to think of the results of the 9/11 explosions as detritus, gives one pause” (187; emphasis added).

Peter Ginter, Science Faction/Corbis

We cannot count on the formal integrity of the objects that once occupied this site. The boundaries between one object and another – and their very material constitution – are called into question. We don’t know how to name them, sort them, classify them, where to store them away in our memories. How do we sift the ashes from the dust, the remains from the rubble? Folklorist Kay Turner writes of Ground Zero as a “frozen zone” where “sudden annihilation had transformed the seemingly permanent into the definitively ephemeral: buildings became dust; work became millions of tiny scraps of paper floating in the air; and people, a total of 2603 of them, became bits and pieces of body parts, traces of DNA, or disappeared altogether, incinerated” (163).

Angel Franco, New York Times
Bill Biggart (1947-2001)

Yet in order to process our grief, to remember, we often need some material trace or some symbol to hold on to. I’m going to quote Turner at length here:

[Ground Zero’s] harrowing ephemeralities of dust, bone, and smoke – ephemeralities of disaster and death – were in stark contrast to a different version of the ephemeral that then prevailed at Union Square. If, as Camille Paglia and Ingrid Sischy suggest, in an instant two of the primary symbols of 20th century modernity – the airplane and the skyscraper – were used as weapons against each other, our first response to that catastrophic collision was a return to the usefulness of ephemeral, and hence incorruptible, symbols. The fragile beginnings of recovery from annihilation – an experience of stopped time, a feeling of the end of time – was initially felt in the human impulse to store time and memory in mundane material objects and simple yet universal symbolic images that could be seen, experienced, and interpreted by all. (Turner 163)

Richard Baker, Corbis
Peter Turnley, Corbis
Seth Cohen, Bettman/Corbis

We see evidence of such an impulse in the “missing” posters that blanketed the city for weeks after September 11; in the flowers and candles marking spontaneous shrines, particularly at Union Square; in the presentation of urns filled with Ground Zero dust to families who had lost loved ones; in the marking, each year, of the Towers’ voided footprints by beams of light. Through these acts we masked the odor of death and destruction emanating from Ground Zero; we reintroduced “flashes of luminescence” into a gray landscape; we gave form to the missing, the dematerialized.

Elena del Rivero, “[Swit – Home: A CHANT” @ The New Museum; photo by me, 9/8/11
Xu Bing, The Dust Project; photo by me, 9/8/11

These acts were in part attempts to sort through and make sense of those inscrutable piles of rubbish and clouds of dust. What we might not have realized at the time was that the dust, toxic and uncanny though it was, may have been an ideal representation of, or medium for, how we would remember the tragedy. As Sturken and Steedman remind us, dust is not “about refuse or rubble so much as it is about a cyclical materiality. It is a reminder of continuity, a vestige of what was that continues to exist” (Sturken 314).

Cynthia Lin, Dust Drawing, 2004


“9/11: One Day, Ten Years” New York Magazine Special Double Issue (September 5-12, 2011).

Eichhorn, Kate, “Archival Genres: Gathering Texts and Reading Spaces” Invisible Culture 12 (2008):

Fritsch, Jane & David Rohde, “After the Attacks: Relics; Trace Center’s Past in a Sad Paper Trail” New York Times (September 14, 2001).

Steedman, Carolyn, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002).

Steedman, Carolyn, “Something She Called a Fever: Michelet, Derrida, and Dust” The American Historical Review 106:4 (October 2001): 1159-1180.

Sturken, Marita, “The Aesthetics of Absence: Rebuilding Ground Zero” American Ethnologist 31:3 (2004): 311-25.

Turner, Kay. “September 11: The Burden of the Ephemeral” Western Folklore 68:2-3 (Spring 2009): 155-208.

Yaeger, Patricia, “Rubble as Archive, or 9/11 as Dust, Debris, and Bodily Vanishing” In Judith Greenberg, Ed., Trauma at Home: After 9/11 (Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 2003): 187 – 94.