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Amodern 2: Network Archaeology
October 2013

CIRCULATING CONCEPTS: NETWORKS AND MEDIA ARCHAEOLOGY

An Interview with Jussi Parikka

Braxton Soderman, Nicole Starosielski, Jussi Parikka

“What makes books happen?” Jussi Parikka asks in the acknowledgements of his recent book What is Media Archaeology? (2012). His answer: “A lot of great colleagues, whether in the same institution, or through other networks; several discussions on- and off-topic; things you consume through your eyes and brains, but also the gut.” What makes media archaeology happen? Our gut response: the creative energy, innovative thought, and prolific networking of Jussi Parikka. One need only recall a few of Parikka’s recent works (including the above) to grasp his dedication to the development, deployment and propagation of the media archaeological method: Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications (2011, edited with Erkki Huhtamo). Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology (2010), and Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses (2007). In these influential books media and archaeology consistently return, simultaneously etching the contours of a burgeoning methodology while providing disruptive possibilities for new directions in research.

While Alan Liu – the other interviewee in this issue – stands as a paramount proper name that signifies the invaluable contribution of the digital humanist, the proper name Jussi Parikka leads us down the opaque, though necessarily noisy, entrails of the nonhuman. Parikka does not abandon the human but diagnoses “the urgent need for a cartography of potential forces of inhuman kinds that question evolutionary trees and exhibit alternative logics of thought, organization, and sensation.” The gut, no doubt, is not where most academics might think that books are made – this is what brains are for – but perhaps this is where media archaeology thrives, in digesting other disciplines to fuel the body of new forms of thought and new sensations for the consumer of our hyper-mediated culture. Whether discussing noise, viruses, swarms, the animal, the materiality of the machinic, micro-temporalities, software below the senses, Parikka’s corpus festers with insights concerning the forms of inhuman mediation beyond brains and eyes, insights which burrow into a contemporary digital landscape that often operates pre-cognitively and post-visually.

“Networks are processual and not just a stable diagram of nodes connected,” as Parikka notes in the interview that follows. Indeed, in Insect Media Parikka embraces “an affect view of networks” that seeks to trace their “temporal becomings.” In other words, networks are alive, spawning connections between human affect and inhuman processes, creating assemblages that link together diverse domains such as technology, politics, aesthetics, and economics. Like a network, Parikka’s writings are electric with the expressive poetics of a theory that leaps and gathers, packet switching amongst disciplines until the message is constructed and delivered. We hope that his interview provides an ample frame for what follows in this special issue, a border off which a reader’s thought might carom as he or she consumes the ideas that percolate within.

-Braxton Soderman and Nicole Starosielski

How does the concept of the network inform your work?

Network(s) are present in a lot of my work in two overlapping ways: first as an object of study, second as methodological operations.

In terms of an object of study, my first book in English was on computer viruses and about understanding network culture through its anomalous sides and its accidents. I pitched the idea of a “general accident” of network culture that adopted the notion from Paul Virilio and “applied” it to network objects like viruses. In a way, it was thinking the primacy of the accident as an epistemological tool for our notions and practices of networking from 1960s to 1990s. The idea of “virality” and “contagion” were mapped as characteristic discursive notions as well as practical experiments for the emerging network culture: processes of semi-autonomous nature as defining how network entities interact and have agency; how networks of digital kind have a specific relation to ideas of the social as contagion, although I did not really go into social media. There is a new book out by Tony D. Sampson, Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks, that covers these aspects of social contagion much better. Mine was an archaeology of these later developments, although admittedly more focused on the production of “maliciousness” as a characteristic of software. I am constantly interested in how various people involved in the field are producing the idea of networks as a political ontology of our age.

In terms of methodological choices, networks are present in many ways: it is a figure of connection and disconnection and the various links that are established. Not the banal idea that “everything is connected” but the necessary specification of how things are connected and disconnected. Networks are processual and not just a stable diagram of nodes connected. It is more of an active process of how networks are made and unmade, and doing research is exactly about this. Of course, as one can guess there is a bit of Bruno Latour and John Law in my thinking.

For sure, there is a specific interest of knowledge that I have concerning technological networks, but instead of networks I often speak about other related features: media archaeology of swarms as a phenomenon that itself was transported from entomological research in early 20th century to popular network talk; viruses and worms and their non-malicious roots in computer science; concepts of nature adopted as part of technological vocabulary; various critical and slightly historically tuned “archaeologies” that ask the question of what is the depth of the current moment, what are the various networks that sustain it – the hinterland, to use a notion from John Law.

In posing the concept of network archaeology, we’re interested in drawing attention to the specificity of “media” in media archaeology. How would you conceptualize the relationship between media and networks?

For me, media archaeology is exactly a methodology that pays attention to media specificity. Of course, this comes out as more emphasized in the so-called German media theory with their insistence on the importance of media as an epistemological framework and as an ontological reality non-reducible to human utterances or meaning-making. The history of technology is seen as being just as important as the history of thinking. Media asserts a certain power in itself, and hence has spurred accusations of media determinism. But there is more. What one can and should pick out from this is a clear need to understand the technological workings of media technologies as a force that no cultural theorist should neglect. It is no wonder that people see resonances between such media theoretical ideas and, for instance, Bruno Latour’s views concerning agency of the non-human. Friedrich Kittler is a case of his own but, for instance, the still emerging names in the field such as Wolfgang Ernst insist on a definition of media – even in media studies as a humanities discipline – that starts from the primacy of the channel in the Shannon and Weaver sense! I would take this as a historical fact: you want to understand modern culture? Look at modern technologies as one constituent form of cultural agency, very non-human but entangled with human affairs.

Hence media archaeology works at least in two ways in its Foucauldian (dis)guise: as a way to investigate media pasts in order to understand the ontology of the present; and, as media archaeological methods of investigating how technologies condition our ways of seeing and thinking, acting and remembering. This is already present in Kittler’s earlier work as a form of thinking about culture as a machinic data processing assemblage. But then, what is already present in so many forms of media archaeology, especially more hacker-styled practice-based accounts: to investigate an archaeology of the present by descending not towards history but towards the “depths” of the machine, to open up machines, to investigate that technologically the machines technologically are commands, conditions of existence. This idea is rather political, which is peculiar considering Kittler’s conservatism, but it is central in his emphasis on open source, anti-Windows culture. It appears in Ernst’s media archaeology executed through the Media Archaeological Fundus in Berlin, and even in a very different context and account, which is that of Siegfried Zielinski’s!

A good quote from his Deep Time of the Media:

The only effective form of intervention in this world is to learn its laws of operation and try to undermine or overrun them. One has to give up being a player at a fairground sideshow and become an operator within the technical world where one can work on developing alternatives.

But this then begs the question: What are the skills needed to “become an operator”? This question is at the core of media theory and “what is media” that differentiates theorists: is it just technical skill? Is it conceptual? What cultural, contextual skills do we need to operate? This affects how we think of networks too. What is taken to be a network?

We need to be cognizant of the various layers, which constitute what we usually discuss as a network nowadays: the Internet. But that is not enough – it is too broad of a term to always have analytical power. All of the things that are influential in the governance of our everyday life are something we should be aware of in a spirit where hacktivism and media archaeology find a common tune. Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev from the Critical Engineers run fantastic Network Politics-typed workshops, which are crash courses into what is the Internet, how it works, and how you should be aware of privacy issues. It includes introductions to Tor, VPNs, etc. This is sort a pragmatic teaching in how to become an operator, even on a basic level: to realize the various minute details that are crucial in how internet technologies penetrate the everyday. And yet, from a media archaeological perspective we need to push further: both to investigate the particular genealogies and archaeologies of the Internet but also to problematize what count as networks. Hence, from the Internet, to the telegraph, to the postal system, to various alternative forms of networking, media archaeology becomes a way to actually ask even the more preceding question: what even is a network, what should we be aware of when discussing the network ontology of the contemporary? For me, the April 2012 conference in Miami, Ohio was exactly a mapping of the various possibilities for such a network archaeology that shows the multiplicity of the question, from underground lines and cables to the politics of network mapping.

In your talk at the Network Archaeology conference, you described the microtemporal operations of today’s networks and considered the implications of machine time. How would you characterize the emergence of this temporality? Archaeology proper is traditionally concerned with deep time, not microtemporality. Does this form of temporality shift our understanding of the archaeological method? Are there other significant relationships between networks and temporality that you would identify as pertinent today?

In a way this relates to the previous question directly: the question of what level networks we focus on is a question of what sort of temporalities do we pay attention to. We can justifiably track the history of networks, and take them as molar entities whose histories are constituent of the ways in which we understand media and society. For instance, histories of the Internet, histories of other media networks. An important topic. But we can look even at different temporalities than the macro-time of networks that falls under the regime of history. What if we look at what constitutes the time specific to networks? How networks are not only in time, but constitute time? What I mean by this refers to Wolfgang Ernst’s time-critical and microtemporal perspectives that pay attention to the eigenzeit of machines: their time-specificity. It’s not just that technical media are in time, but that they constitute time: the revolutions of a hard drive, the time of pings in networks, etc. Hence, I am interested in the specific notions of time that emerge from an archaeology of networks. We often speak of time of flows when referring to network time, for instance, Manuel Castells’ theory is based on this, as well as much of popular cultural understanding of flow of information. But a lot of the early writing on and engineering of networks was already then aware that it is not (only) about making information “flow”: it comes in bursts. Packet switching was instrumental in this way of thinking about time, and the management of the packets was a question of information congestion management! Computers are not about flow, but about bursts that need to be made to flow! Look at Paul Baran’s texts, look at texts from the National Physical Laboratory in Britain in the 1970s: they talk about exactly this sort of smoothening the experienced time – interoperationality between nodes, human and machines. Besides my talk at the conference, Florian Sprenger has been pointing out similar themes in his research.

So yes, this sort of an alternative understanding of temporality. For Ernst, it relates to the operationality of technical media and hence the necessary operationality of media archaeolgical investigations: we need to understand technical media primarily when they are in operation, which is the core of their specificity. This is also how we manipulate and organize technical media through what he calls “micro-temporal intrusions,” which are very different from the way in which we manipulate, for instance, alphabetic writing! Current modes of writing are microtemporal.

To continue with Ernst’s definition, this relates to how we think of time. Let me quote him:

In its etymological roots, “time” itself refers to divisions of continuity, to the cutting edge. Apart from its long aesthetic tradition, the cultural impact of time-criticality escalates with (and within) technological media, starting from photographic exposure time which almost shrank towards zero. Signals which are operated with electronic speed can hardly be followed by human consciousness like, for example, symbols (printed letters) in textual reading. When signal transfer happens below human sensation, it can be spotted only by time-critical observation. For subliminal events the true archaeologist of time-critical knowledge are technical media themselves; only with the emergence of hightly sensitive measuring instruments since the 19th century time-critical processes like the runtime of signals within human nerves became analyzable at all.

Ernst’s work indicates one way of dealing with temporality. For me, media archaeology is not solely a straightforward media historical set of methods. Instead, it is also a field concerned with time: analytics and conceptualizations of temporality. It has offered us a wide set of ideas that expand our temporal horizons: Erkki Huhtamo’s emphasis on cyclical time, Zielinski’s deep times, Ernst’s microtemporalities, the new film history debates where Thomas Elsaesser participated – these are what kind of temporalities are packed into our media theories. And Kittler’s more recent work, and some people in cultural techniques-school of thought such as Markus Krajewski, write about recursions. This, for instance, is something I did not deal with in any of my previous writings but is a fantastic way of understanding the recurrence with variation of historical themes that defines one way of approaching media times.

We see resonances between the work featured in this special issue and what you’ve described in Insect Media as an affect view of networks – a view that looks toward their multiscalar temporal becomings. That is, the swarm is figure for a distributed network that is in a constant state of becoming and change instead of a static figure of spatialized relations. Could you elaborate on the possibilities that this diachronic approach to networks opens up for network history?

The insect and the swarm were for me, besides objects of study in a cultural historical sense, also conceptual horizons: how can we open up a different milieu of media history through such non-human figures? How should we rewrite our genealogies of digital media differently from the perspective of the non-human that penetrates our contemporary culture so thoroughly? Swarms are one such figure of thought and a concrete formation that range from the fascination in nature documentaries concerning flocks of birds and fish formations to computer science where they also abound: the semi-autonomous graphics and other objects that have their minimal space of “autonomous” interaction environments. Swarms are a figure of political economy now as well, with crowdsourcing and other forms of harnessing the masses for jobs and tasks, and it meshes with the talk of distributed networks. Hence, one needs to pay attention to it as a figure that mixes our political ontology coordinates (as Eugene Thacker has in-depth articulated, it messes up with our notions of One and the Multiple, being something in between and something less articulate but definitely real) while also being one way of speaking about dynamics. Swarms are not just about geometrics of nodes and edges, but how those nodes and edges get articulated by the agencies in-formation. It is a figure that points towards intensity of in-forming network relations that are dynamically in-movement and being shaped by their very ongoing activity, a bit like the routing mechanisms of the Internet. But let’s not get too dragged into the mesmerizing force of ecological metaphors! Ecological concepts can be used, but to highlight radical material forces in action, not to naturalise any of the components through analogies. We need unnatural ecologies that bypass any straightforward talk of the nature of the digital.

It’s fascinating reading early 20th century writings on swarms and the “superorganism.” Such ideas informed notions of space back then, as well as collectivity – all of which relates to networks through how they collate collective agency. But as Thacker has reminded, we need to carefully look at those points of friction where networks, the multitude and swarms are seemingly melting into each other. For me genealogy – and media archaeology – are ways of investigating such conflations and divergences of ontologies, epistemologies and material agencies.

You describe your approach to media archaeology in Insect Media as a “twisted” or “bestial” media archaeology, almost as if you want to position your thought as an outside to “traditional” media archaeology—a “nondiscipline” that has already positioned itself as going against the grain of traditional media studies. Do you think that media archaeology is being (or already has been) institutionalized, and what effect will this have on the future of media studies and media archaeological approaches?

I play with the idea of media archaeology of bestiality referring to animals but also as you pick up, bestial media archaeology as a gay science of sorts that is happy to remain a bit unorthodox in its disciplinary obedience. This refers to Bernhard Siegert’s thoughts concerning German media theory and media archaeology in that context and it applies to current discussions as well. Siegert paints a picture of 1980s German media theory as a Nietzschean joyful science of excavations and intellectual curiosity that trespassed disciplinary boundaries before universities figured out it sounds good for the brand to call this “interdiscplinarity.” But Siegert also warns that some of this drive of media archaeology might just become one sub branch of media theory and historiography: this would tame it into a docile set of doctrines.

The move of undisciplining and disobedience is also visible in Zielinski’s writings. He speaks of an-archaeology of media, as if to make sure his variantology project remains distinct. So we need to constantly keep an eye on our theoretical premises. What do we mean by “archaeology” when we use it in cultural and media studies? Is it a continuation of the earlier discussions? What keeps it alive and fresh? What next after archaeology?

More specifically, I have opted to call media archaeology a traveling set of concepts and methodologies. This idea stems from an adaptation of Mieke Bal’s “traveling concepts” and in my case refers to the traveling between disciplines of media archaeology. It has not found a nice cozy home where you get a stamped approval of “media archaeology” degree at the end. I am not against that of course, just flagging that media archaeology still travels and hovers over and above set establishments. Would some of it even fit in with the idea of “low theory” (McKenzie Wark’s term)? It is a term for the non-professional theorists and academics, such as Guy Debord and Paul Virilio, and in our media archaeological case, Walter Benjamin. A lot of people in media theory recognized as media archaeologists in some way – for instance Kittler and Zielinski – of course enjoy(ed) prestigious chairs but at the same time have had a significant effect in renewing a lot of the discussions in Germany and internationally. A gravitational force that is also a bit explosive. However, as Geoffrey Winthrop-Young rightly points out: it is boring to become a follower and part of Kittler-jugend. Let’s not just be Oedipal, whether it is about Deleuze, Kittler or whomever.

We’ve brought the essays in this issue together under the rubric of “network archaeology” in order to focus attention on the intersections between media archaeology and network studies. The research here uses contemporary network analysis to catalyze new directions for historical inquiry, while also drawing from history to deepen our understanding of networked culture. Do you think network archaeology is a useful conceptualization? Is there a danger in proliferating archaeologies?

Why not? In other words, there is a pragmatics of concepts. This Deleuze-Guattarian idea refers to the way in which concepts have to understand their operationality, which does not lessen their “intellectual” gravity at all. It just brings out their material nature as forces of harnessing ideas, perceptions, and carving out a territory. Concepts create territories through refrains, and like language, engage in a pragmatics of language that refers back to a wider ontological pragmatics already in Guattari. To quote his words from Cartographies schizoanalytiques: “before every categorization of representation in terms of objectivity and subjectivity, a point of view is an act and, at the very least, the prefiguring of an energised interaction.” Points of view are material actions and interactions. They are necessary in the way in which knowledge works through pragmatics. Massumi elaborates the pragmatics of Deleuze in the foreword to his translation of A Thousand Plateaus: philosophy invents concepts without the necessity of hoping it adds up to a complete System that is without gaps from the top to its metaphysical depths. Instead, concepts are ways to gather potentials and act like the “crowbar in a willing hand” (Massumi’s words again) prying a door open.

In other words, network archaeology is a specified pragmatic way to carve out some of the assumptions we cherish and hold dear concerning the use and abuse of networks, as well as the dilemma of what even counts as a network: how do we engage in an archaeology of networks which itself is able to act as a gravity point.

Why not proliferate archaeologies? I don’t want to be a police force of that sort. But we do need to make sure our fields stay otherwise rigorous in the pressures of banalizisations from various directions: from TED talks to gamification, from clicktivism and the dangers of button-styled solutions (in the manner Morozov analyses) to enthusiasm for new technologies. Against the new, we need other sorts of temporal coordinates and also in terms of concepts, we should just see what works, what does not. I believe Lisa Parks reminded us in an article of hers that thinking about media culture in terms of “old” and “new” is a bad solution that is promoted by a commercial drive as well. Critical studies should take this then as a key challenge: to develop temporal coordinates outside the binary of the old/new.


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Image: "Introduction: Paragraph 25”
From: "Drawings from A Thousand Plateaus"
Original Artist: Marc Ngui
http://amodern.net/artist-profile-marc-ngui/
Copyright: Marc Ngui