Terms of Media II: ACTIONS Conference Report

terms of media 2 conference

A Report on the Proceedings of the
Terms of Media II: ACTION Conference
Brown University Cogut Center for the Humanities
October 8-10, 2015

By Kimberlee Sanders and Joelle Tapas


Brown University’s Terms of Media II: ACTIONS conference grappled with the core questions: “What are the terms—the limits, the conditions, the periods, the relations, and the phrases—of media?  And, what is the relationship between these terms and determination?”  The international conference, the second half of a two-part project involving an earlier conference hosted by Leuphana University in Lueneburg, Germany, brought together some of the most prominent thinkers of media, media history and theory, from a variety of different disciplinary backgrounds.  Accordingly, presentations dealt with a veritable assortment of topics, ranging from anthropomorphism to the alien, from computer designs to cloud architecture  – emphasizing, once again, the multiplicity of ways that media affect the way we think and live.

Indeed, it was this diversity of topics, as well as of approaches, that drew us to the Terms of Media conference.  As students researching various media forms throughout East Asia, we were interested in observing the ways in which productive dialogue was generated among such a mix of thinkers, particularly through the kinds of questions that they were asking of and through media.  We were thus curious to see how very specific studies of media, once put in conversation with each other, might allow for different kinds of boundary crossing and exchange – intellectually, disciplinarily, temporally, among others.  Likewise, how might current studies prompt us to creatively re-think not only what we do with/through media, but also, and as a number of the presentations brought up, what media do to us, what media’s functions and means of operation mean for our understanding of inter-activity?  Furthermore, a recurring concern was how we might put the questions raised at this conference into productive dialogue with the kinds of questions we ask in our own work on East Asian media/studies.  For this conference in particular, we had cautiously anticipated a more European-American focus, both in topic and theoretical frame of reference, but more than a subsequent re-application of a conceptual framework, or an assertion of discipline-exclusive concerns (as a sort of oppositional counter), what particularly drew us to the conference was the chance to gain some insights on how to make our work speak to those in other fields – a kind of mobility or fluency that already seemed intrinsic to the kinds of media addressed.  After a full day of panels and provocative discussions, here are some of the thoughts – lessons, impressions, and questions – that we came away with.

SESSION 1: Animate

In “The Human Body as Generic Form: On Anthropomorphism in Media,” Gertrud Koch (Freie Universität Berlin, Brown University) explored the intersections of perception, the human, and technology.  For Koch, perception was closely tied up with the human: not only was the human body a medium of perceptive faculties, but such faculties themselves were a generic form of human being – in the sense of being in the world, a link shared with other animals.  At the same time, Koch rejected the notion of human perception as simply “natural,” for perception was also mediated through technology, but not in any way that implied a sense of mastery.  That is, perception formed a neutral interdependence with technology/machines, whereby the latter were not simply apparatus extensions, but part of a network that activated human being, and subsequently changed the idea of human being.  Technology is action, and it is interaction with technology that inevitably produces a self-portrait of the human.  In this way, Koch posited the bi-directional nature of technological use – we must account for human practices, but we must also acknowledge that we are in the grasp of technology.  Koch’s work thus prodded us to re-think how we might define the field of practice, and given her focus on film and animation, what lies behind our impulse to see the workings of technology as image.  In extending this line of inquiry, we might therefore ask: how is the range of perceptive faculties incorporated more into the use and function of technology, and how might this incorporation impact the conclusions we draw about technology, the human, and, among other concerns, our structuring of time (history, chronology, or pre-/modernity)?  Additionally, in tracing a fundamental relationship between technology and the individual, Koch pushed us to think about what new definitions of the human we might arrive at, as well as how these new definitions might subsequently alter or be positioned in the networks we map out in our own research.

In turn, Bernard Stiegler’s (Institut de recherche et d’innovation, Centre Georges Pompidou) “The Automatic Society” explored the process and ramifications of proletariatization, specifically as it applied to knowledge, digital technology, and the self.  Building on the work of Émile Benveniste and Jacques Derrida, Stiegler took as his starting point the process of grammatization, which might be understood, broadly speaking, as the exteriorization of consciousness or memory, the transformation of the interior into grammar, patterns, or code.  At the same time, in describing ourselves outwardly, we also interiorize the grammatization itself (i.e., description) and come to know ourselves.  Grammatization is therefore the process of becoming, of simultaneously representing and producing the human subject.  However, because the self is thus enunciated and inscribed within these specific, coinciding processes of exteriorization and interiorization, it risks its own erasure, the process of dis-individuation.  Such risk, Stiegler pointed out, haunts our engagement with digital technology.  That is, if we think of our online activity as a process of simultaneously reading and writing, of automatically producing traces with every click, then we come to understand the process of digitally exteriorizing and inscribing our selves as likewise automatic, caught by indexes and algorithms independent of our control.  For Stiegler, these developments constituted a system of stupidity, where in the face of the automated, we lose knowledge and critical properties, the ability to do and make as expressed in his notion of savoir-faire.  These, then, are the process and stakes of proletariatization, which challenges us with the puzzle of how to articulate the self with regard to big data networks.  With the ubiquity of the digital, of the automated in our work and in our classrooms, the concept of proletariatization provocatively calls for a re-assessment of the way we conceive of knowledge and ontology.  By the same token, we might also ask whether an alternative, if not outright revolutionary, potential might not be located in automation, as well as in analogous processes of repetition, abbreviation, or even, play.  Much like Koch’s investigation, Stiegler’s study prompted us: what kind of selfhood, of human being do we posit, do we descriptively animate, in framing its relationship to technology and knowledge/perception thus?

SESSION 2: Communicate

In Session 2, the keyword was ‘Communicate,’ and the speakers’ work seemed very much in tune with the turn in visual and media theories toward the blurring of the boundaries between technology and the human self, and the diversification in understanding communication with and between machines. Finn Brunton’s (NYU) ‘Minimal Statements and Mutually Suspicious Clocks: Rethinking Human and Nonhuman communication’ concerned itself with the changing nature of communication as we become more and more concerned with human-machine communication, and the lines between humans and machines are increasingly blurred. Brunton pointed to instances of spamming, online bots, as well as Amazon’s treatment of labor and interns at ‘content farm’ websites, where machine work and human work are increasingly converging, and the Turing Test (where a machine must display human-like responses in conversation so as to be indistinguishable from a human) is actually already being passed constantly. In asking, then, how to re-conceptualize human-machine communication in a time when such communication is increasingly relevant, Brunton argued that alien science fiction is a productive lens through which to work through our own biases about communication; just as science fiction characters ponder over how to address an unknown system of organisms and communication, so must we come up with a system to communicate effectively with machines – that is, our machines are our own ‘alien’ entities.

Mercedes Bunz’ (University of Westminster) ‘Technical Interfaces’ was also very much on the same topic, but from a shifted angle: ‘looking at technical surfaces looking.’ In her presentation, Bunz examined the process of interpellation in how technology addresses humans, viewing the event of being addressed as one that transforms the person into a specific subject; she asserted that, in this machine-to-human addressal, we are converted to a playful, infantile mode, treated patronizingly as though we are little children. She provided several examples of this, such as the basic Google search page (simple, fundamental design that presents itself as ‘my first search engine’), the Facebook help page (peppered with helpful little animals), and the Google Doodle (the cartoonization of historical events). She pointed to Doodles in particular as a form of public monuments in the public space that is Google, but one that makes major achievements and historical landmarks into playful stories. She pointed out how this manipulative address is often positioned as empowerment, where technology has been made simpler for the user, and therefore the user can go and create at will; however, she asked, if infantilization can both empower and manipulate, how do we know which is at play when we are being addressed? At the same time, in listening to her talk I felt the need to more thoroughly examine and reflect on the concept of ‘infantilization’ and the clearly negative connotations of the term; is ‘playfulness’ necessarily patronizing? Do we become docile customers through this process? Moreover, how should we think of interpellation alongside the disappearance of address (where technology encourages us to ignore or gloss over certain things)?

SESSION 3: Forecast-Mediate

After a lunch break, Luciana Parisi (Goldsmiths, University of London) gave the audience a fascinating look into the relationship of machines, algorithms and philosophy in the 21st century. She highlighted the new and growing possibilities of automation and critical theory and the critical potential of thinking through abstraction and randomness for the future of media studies. Her discussion also touched upon “non-representational theory” and how new philosophical potentials may arise from the development of machinic logic. While listening to this talk, I could not help but connect it to the future of translation and language study within area studies. From tools as commonplace as Google Translate to the newly developed “Hentaigana App,” the ways in which scholars of East Asia interact with language are becoming more and more connected with the world of computational development. As such, I was curious to further consider what attention to the logic of the machine might offer discussions on the state of the field in relation to language training and development.

Following this presentation, Professor Wolfgang Hagen (Leuphana University) illuminated a history of design and computing that traced the development of the personal computer’s external and internal structure. Hagen began his discussion with the computer’s transition from high-tech research tool to office staple by recounting companies’ focus on what constitutes “effective” design. Furthermore, he examined how this attention to design itself has become just as important as or even more important than the power of the computing machine. This subsequently led to a discussion of Apple computers and Silicon Valley aesthetics, as the graphical user interface of the personal computer became central to its marketability. Hagen’s analysis of the GUI was especially compelling, as he argued the ways in which the external space of office work and organization became incorporated into the virtual space of the screen. He closed with a brief venture into the rise of touch screens and tactile computing in today’s market and the intersections of “external” and “internal” space in computing design. This look into the history of computing design was nothing short of fascinating and productively intersected concepts of design, marketing, aesthetics and engineering during the development of computers for home and office use. In thinking about these kinds of historical trajectories in relation to East Asia, the influx of Japanese electronics into Western markets in the late 20th century comes to mind. While much of the narrative surrounding these products related to their quality as functional products, a closer look at the history of the interactions between aesthetic design choices and marketing discourse between markets in Japan and the U.S. would offer insight into how design is conceived of and sold as a product itself.

SESSION 4: Mediate-Forecast

The last session of the day began with Kara Keeling (University of Southern California), whose presentation navigated the intricacies of risk and speculation, capitalism and digital technology – wherein capitalism is cannibalistic and devouring, but also a “rhythm of animating bodies.”  In turn, Keeling read the digital as fundamentally binary, and thus, standing opposite the Deleuzian concept of the numeric.  In analyzing the music videos of Grace Jones – specifically, Corporate Cannibal – Keeling posited the filmed black body as pure electronic pulse, not the photographic trace of a body that was once there.  Likewise, she read blackness as lying in wait in the modulation (the spectrum) of control, of the digital.  For Keeling, this requires the re-drawing of a larger, longer arc of our interaction with capital and technology.  Keeling also spent time discussing the speculative economics of the Atlantic slave trade and the relations of precarity generated thereby.  Risk, she pointed out, is present in both capital and technology: where finance capital is still mediated by certain manifestations of precarity, crisis in the index of the digital was already present since the invention of cinema.

Equally fascinating was Eyal Weizman’s (Goldsmiths, University of London) presentation, which he described his project as “forensic architecture,” involving a series of reconstructions that are fundamentally dependent on spatial and temporal metadata.  In the absence of digital time, Weizman and his team had reconstructed the time of bombings in Gaza through images culled from a wide range of sources, everything from satellite images to photographs from both news sources and people present at the scene.  In this way, Weizman and his team acquired metadata by seeing, for example, shadows as time.  Likewise, clouds formed an important source of metadata: building on the writings of art critic John Ruskin, Weizman pointed out how clouds are not just a weather phenomenon, but are themselves manifestations of labour and industrialization.  That is, the clouds in Gaza carry bits of architecture, clothes, and people, forming a soft architecture in the air as opposed to the hard architecture on the earth.  Weizman’s project therefore presented a particular kind of image complex: one does not simply look at a single photographic image, but composes a relation between thousands of sources.  Ultimately, Weizman’s project spotlighted the politics of the image and the data to be excavated from it, not only in terms of what imaging technology makes visible (i.e., the manufacturer’s mark on dropped bombs) and how the image subsequently becomes evidence, but also in terms of what level of detail it is permitted to be shown and to whom.  In light of Weizman’s positing of war as an “evidence producing space”/photographs as “evidence,” a particularly pressing question arises: should we theoretically trouble the concept of photographs as “evidence”?


Overall, the Terms of Media conference presentations posed many timely and thought-provoking questions about media and how to “think media” in new, productive ways. Not surprisingly, much of our post-conference reflections revolved around the specifics of practice and their implications in media studies.  For example, a recurring theme throughout the conference was media’s capacity to make possible inter-connections (among people, among machines, among people and machines), precisely through the dissolution of obstructions to such connections.  In this regard, we are left with the question of how we might think of the universalizing capacity of media (or so it seems to be presented), in conjunction with the demands for context-specificity in the writing of media histories.  By the same token, what new worlds – if indeed, they are new – do we envision media allowing for, and what implications might these have for media scholarship?  In turn, the conference presentations consistently challenged the ways we frame exactly what media do or, of equal importance, should do.  The kinds of answers we present to the latter issue, in particular, say much about our anxieties and desires towards media, and, by extension, gesture at the shifts in thinking, in conceptualization that might be necessary in future media studies.  Finally, the conference presentations consistently reiterated the need to recognize how media, true to the conference’s overall theme, pose terms not only upon use, but also upon, among other things, history, environment, and thought, including conceptualizations of the human itself.  That is, the presentations emphasized an understanding of active media, whereby the position of the human as primary actor, as user/inventor/consumer of various media forms, necessarily demands re-consideration.  In posing such questions, the conference thus challenged us and repeatedly brought us out of comfort zones, but perhaps, it is precisely through such ventures out of the familiar that we come closer to the same mobility, or fluency with which we so often characterize media itself.