Theorizing media phenomenologically | Tim Markham and Scott Rodgers
This introduction seeks to avoid the approach taken in many introductions to edited volumes in which summaries of each chapter to follow are set out in turn. Instead, it offers an engaging and accessible way in to the topic of media phenomenology, identifying a critical moment in media theory around the question of how media are experienced and why. It begins with an overview of philosophical thinking in the modern era, beginning with Kant, Hegel and Kierkegaard before setting out the principal 20th century contributions of Husserl, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. It then opens up a discussion of the key phenomenological debates in contemporary media research, mapping out the different theoretical conceptualizations of media as well as their shared focus on how bodies, technologies and environments underpin the experience of media. The critical dialogues and chapters are all contributions to these debates, and the introduction maps out the terrain they share in common.
Part I: Critical Dialogues
First Dialogue: Graham Harman, Lisa Parks and Paddy Scannell
McLuhan and phenomenology | Graham Harman
There are striking parallels between the philosophy of Martin Heidegger and the media theory of Marshall McLuhan, in particular their shared critique of presence. Though McLuhan’s explicit references to philosophy are tangential, his work amounts to a rather Heidegger-sounding critique of visible surface figures in favor of the tacit background from which they emerge. This leads directly to McLuhan’s most famous catchphrase: “the medium is the message,” where the content of medium is trivial in comparison with its background conditions. This contribution asks whether the Heidegger/McLuhan celebration of background at the expense of foreground has finally reached its limits – a provocation that has implications not only for media theory but philosophy, too. By refusing the ‘depth’ of the backgrounds from which media emerge and to which it withdraws, it becomes possible to focus instead on interfaces as the critical locus of media, and communication as the central problem of contemporary philosophy.
Signal territories: broadcast infrastructure, Google Earth, and phenomenology | Lisa Parks
Broadcast signals move through our physical environment all the time, yet the imperceptibility of signals makes their visualization difficult. This contribution analyzes the Google Earth layer ‘FCCInfo’, which maps all broadcast infrastructure sites registered with the US Federal Communications Commission. Using screen captures and site visits, it uses Google Earth layer to sense specific hardware and sites that are required for broadcast transmission and analyze them as part of particular environments. More than simply emphasizing the role of technology in enabling experiences of media, for Parks this means wandering around environments housing media infrastructures, and reflecting on their boundaries, their messiness and the non-technical matter with which they are strewn. How are resources such as lands, water, electricity and heavy metals organized to transmit signals and, in the process, turn vast swaths of the earth’s surface into signal territories? This approach challenges media scholars to integrate discussions of physical infrastructures and distribution processes within critical and historical studies of media.
To the things themselves: thoughts on the phenomenology of media | Paddy Scannell
‘To the things themselves’ was Edmund Husserl’s motto for the project of phenomenological enquiry. Phenomenology attempts to get back to what things really are, unburdened by academic preconceptions and prejudices. Radio and television, the internet and mobile phones are more than academic objects of enquiry, and in fact are resistant to being thought of as such. They operate in situ, as everyday worldly phenomena, part of ordinary existence. In his contribution Scannell suggests that we return to the media themselves, as distinct from what academics think they are or should be. Rather than aiming to reveal the hidden interests of the powerful or the playing out of historically-determined structures underlying observed media practices, Scannell argues that there needs also to be space for more affirmative readings of the ways in which media experience becomes naturalized and taken for granted. By developing an account of the ‘care structures’ of production, he shows that the process of production conceals itself in order to produce for us the effect of a direct encounter and an engagement with what is going on in the world, prior to any normative judgments we might make about that process.
Discussion | Chaired by Scott Rodgers, with contributions from Graham Harman, Paddy Scannell and Lisa Parks, as well as audience members Günter Thomas, Margaret Schwartz and Brenton J. Malin
Second Dialogue: Shaun Moores, Nick Couldry and David M. Berry
Digital orientations: movement, dwelling and media use | Shaun Moores
Moores asks in this contribution whether it might be possible to reconceptualize everyday uses of digital media by focusing on the habitual movement of human hands in practical, embodied and environmental relations with media. Crucially, this involves deft movements of the fingers or digits – for example, pressing on computer keyboards or manipulating touch-sensitive screens – hence the play on the word ‘digital’ in the title. That playfulness helps to make an important point: these manual dexterities of media users are bound up with far broader abilities in how we navigate and inhabit all sorts of environments, including new (and not-so-new) media settings. In order to develop this approach, Moores engages with writing in the disciplines of philosophy, sociology and anthropology, which provide three main examples of manual activity that are not obviously media-related. This concern for orientation and habitation amounts to a ‘non-media-centric’ approach to media studies. It focuses on movement and dwelling or at-homeness, rather than any exclusive concern with media issues; yet it also invites new, interdisciplinary reflections on the particular characteristics and affordances of media.
Phenomenology and critique: why we need a phenomenology of the digital world | Nick Couldry
This contribution details two contrasting routes towards what might be at stake in a phenomenology of the digital world. The first route involves capturing the complexities and paradoxes of our digital media involvements, increasingly seen as having ethical consequences. The second route seeks to interrupt a growing trend in digital sociology which asserts that we live in an age of ‘algorithmic power’ yet leaves no room for individual agency or reflexivity, or the social and collective aims in relation to which digital presence is measured. Both routes invite phenomenologically informed investigation, if not phenomenology as such, in that they demand accounts of the digital world that are grounded in its everyday textures. While the unseen algorithmic tools which measure us today, and their consequences, cannot be bracketed out of our analyses, we cannot deny that the workings of such tools are nevertheless often made visible in our everyday lives. A phenomenology of media in this sense is a newly difficult object of struggle in the digital world and as such, a commitment to a phenomenological perspective has never been more important for the future of critical research into our mediated lives.
Phenomenological approaches to the computal: some reflections on computation | David M. Berry
Computation is transforming the way in which knowledge is created, used, shared and understood, and in doing so, is changing the relationship between knowledge and freedom. Today’s media are ‘softwarized’ – which imposes certain logics, structures and hierarchies of knowledge onto the processes of production and consumption. The upshot is that, arguably, the long predicted convergence of communications and computers has now fully arrived. Berry argues that softwarized media presents new challenges for understanding the conditions of media experience, which might be addressed through a phenomenology of the ‘computal’. He focuses in particular on an analysis of algorithmic, real-time streaming media, to which the media industry have increasingly turned to deal with the problems of piracy, and which more generally offer a rich example of contemporary media suited to phenomenological study. Streaming media such as Twitter seem to point towards a solution to the problem of orientation in computational societies: since they are designed to handle the future flow of data, they direct us towards the anticipation of future information and events. While streaming technologies remain very much a work-in-progress, they raise phenomenological questions around how they work, how they will structure everyday life, and whether they institute a certain kind of ethos.
Discussion | Chaired by Tim Markham, with contributions from Shaun Moores, Nick Couldry and David M. Berry, as well as audience members Patrick Crogan, Alison Powell and Peter Roccia
Part II: Bodies, Technics, Agency
Chapter 1: Techno-phenomenology, medium as interface, and the metaphysics of change | Shane Denson
Debates on the emergence of modern media often reach an impasse around the causal agency or effects of media. For some, new mediums introduce sweeping changes to human perception, while others argue biological evolution is relatively impervious to rapid technological change. This chapter argues for a ‘techno-phenomenological’ approach which sees media change as involving experiential transformations that are robustly material yet also subjected to long durations of biological evolution. Engaging with theorists such as Massumi, Hansen and Stiegler, it examines the parallel histories of cinema and the (less spectacular) escalator in order to account for the bodily shocks and transformations that accompany media change. Thinking of media change as corporeal, not just conceptual, involves attending to transformations in the overall shape of our interface with media-technologies and with the wider world through them. This lead to an argument for understanding our conditions of mediation in the most fundamental sense: as not only technical developments of specific media, determined empirically, but deeper and ultimately metaphysical transformations wrought by changes within the media-technological milieu, as a basic condition of all possible experience.
Chapter 2: What can the body know of photography? | Eve Forrest
Using empirical examples from an ethnographic study of photographers in the North East of England, this chapter explores the entangled relationship between the photographer’s body and the camera, leaving behind the traditional visual studies paradigm of representation. Instead it uses a phenomenological framework to examine the different movements of the body when using the camera. Maurice Merleau-Ponty and David Seamon are deployed to highlight the pre-conscious movement and bodily intelligence of photographers moving about the city. Methodologically, the chapter draws on rich ‘walk and talk’ interviews with 20 photographers of varying ability, conducted at length while perambulating around their home territories in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Sunderland. With an emphasis on lived experience, viewing photography through the lens of phenomenology offers up new and unexplored perspectives on everyday practice. This goes beyond pushing our understanding of photography from the visual to the corporeal, to understanding the taking of photographs as experienced by an irreducible entanglement of body and camera.
Chapter 3: Mobile media and mediation: a relational ontology of Google Glass | Ingrid Richardson and Rowan Wilken
This chapter considers the phenomenological relation between our somatic apprehension of media interfaces and the broader historical and socio-cultural processes of mediation. Recent media theory has reversed the conventional primacy between media and mediation, where the former is seen to bring about the latter. Cultures of mediation are now often seen as ‘originary’, with emergent mediums a temporary sedimentation of that process. This chapter however argues against conceptualizations which see the media-mediation relation as hierarchical or situated in a consequential framework, such that one is construed as originary while the other is contingent. Through an examination of Google Glass, this chapter argues for a relational ontology whereby media and mediation have equal primacy. Location aware mobile media such as Google Glass embody technical affordances, yet simultaneously are subjected to a series of well-established body-media practices (such as wearing glasses). This illustrates how both historical-cultural processes of mediation, and the concrete ‘fixings’ revealed by each body-medium moment, are mutually constitutive. There is no necessary temporal or ontological ordering that determines mediation or media as the more importunate predecessor of human-medium relations as they are enacted in situ.
Chapter 4: Media in and out of time: German media science and the concept of time | Tim Barker
On both the micro scale of signal processing and the macro scale of human experience, time has become one of the central concepts around which critical discussions of media and technology revolve. Digital media, in particular, are increasingly claimed to produce new senses of time. This chapter examines the temporal phenomenology of signal processing, drawing on the tradition of so called ‘German’ media science, focusing particularly on the work of Friedrich Kittler and Vilém Flusser. German media science is usually associated with a material turn in media theory, which attends primarily to the technical architecture of media; as Flusser suggests, this group focuses less on the content ‘hallucinated’ by culture, but rather the material conditions that produce these hallucinations. This chapter discusses how new and old forms of media such as television, cinema, and the computer measure time through segmentation, in effect cutting up the world, transducing once continuous and vibratory events into particles. So even as media technologies afford cultural contact with distant events, bring us closer to a global ‘real time’ than ever before, at the same time, they draw us into their own technicity, creating new temporalities, hierarchies and protocols within which such events play out.
Chapter 5: Conducting medial wills to power: a phenomenological critique of intellectual property | Daniel Sutko
Drawing on Fuller, Kittler, Deleuze, McLuhan, and Innis, this chapter details how the phenomenological implications of copyright law have been ignored in copyright critiques even though perception is central to adjudicating copyright. Via a phenomenological history of copyright, it shows how copyright governs not only content but also perceptual conditions of possibility. This traces the development of specific intellectual property law around particular emergences of media technology, from the piano roll, radio and reprographic technology to computer software and digital media reproduction. The historical analysis leads to a significant claim about legal transgression: in other words, if copyright regulates a phenomenological and not only moral or fiscal economy, it is therefore necessary to revise how we conceptualize piracy. And if piracy intervenes in a copyright-regulated perceptual economy then it takes on an entirely different political inflection. This in turn enables media scholars to develop critiques that are not overdetermined by the legal or economic rationalities that tend to dominate debates about IP and piracy.
Part III: Spaces, Places, Environments
Chapter 6: Structures of experience: media, phenomenology, architecture | Joel McKim
Mobile communication technologies, integrated ubiquitous computing, public screens, digital projections, interactive building facades, and more draw our attention to how media are increasingly interwoven into built environments. Media often no longer confined to the surfaces of individual screens or discrete devices, but are ambient, environmental and part of the everyday urban experience. Such interpretations of contemporary urban media have begun to inform, to some extent, the discourse and practice of architecture and urban planning. Yet the movement of ideas has rarely travelled the opposite direction. This chapter explores how architectural theory might contribute to our understanding of these new forms of ‘spatialized media’. Connecting with the often overlooked current of architectural phenomenology, which encompasses such varied figures as Jean Labatut, Christian Norberg-Schulz and Juhani Pallasmaa, the chapter outlines the lessons offered by this design movement from the past for thinking about media environments in the present, while also pointing to the limitations or challenges this viewpoint might face. The chapter then briefly considers the application of these ideas in the context of a specific media/architecture environment, United Visual Artists’ Momentum project.
Chapter 7: From place to non-place: a phenomenological geography of everyday living in media cities | Zlatan Krajina
The emergent literature on media cities tends to emphasize the ‘impact’ of mediation upon social life, often emphasizing conceptual over empirical issues. Yet as far back as the ethnographic turn in the 1980s, critical questions have been raised about the merits of claiming media have direct influence on people, outside of contextual conditions. Drawing on a comparative ethnography of new public screens such as outdoor advertising and media façades, this chapter develops a ‘phenomenological geography’ of the routine exposure to media in everyday urban life. Phenomenological geography suggests we see urban screens not as primarily occupying the ‘forefront’ of citizen’s attention, but more significantly, its background. Everyday users may first inspect how a novel public screen works, but then use this knowledge in further negotiating such screen spaces. Thinking of urban screens in this way suggests we rethink assumptions that such media engender ‘placelessness’ or ‘non-places’, and attend to how such encounters constitute familiar, orientational forms of quotidian urban place. This, in turn, invites us to see media as spaces, rather than as discrete technologies or texts, as conventionally conceived.
Chapter 8: Mediated orientation: phenomenology and the ambivalence of everyday (diasporic) space | Eyal Lavi
Media are central to the experience of contemporary diaspora, but because they are commonly theorized using concepts of national or ethnic identity, they are understood primarily as sustaining connections to the distant nation-state. The Jewish diaspora and its attachment to Israel is often viewed as an archetypal example of this. But, drawing on Merleau-Ponty, this chapter begins not from identity or place, but their implicatedness in the perceiving body. Based on phenomenological research among British Jews and Israeli immigrants in London, it shows how media emerge not as enabling connections to a distant place, but as participating in the everyday construction of situated space as diasporic. By focusing on phenomenological orientation to the world, media are seen to be associated with experiences of distance and proximity, attachment and withdrawal, coherence and confusion, rather than straightforwardly felt as a connection to a homeland. While media act as orientational tools they are also embedded social institutions that are intractable, insistent and provocative – and as such, in Heideggerian terms they are more present-at-hand than ready-to-hand.
Chapter 9: Finding time for Goffman: when absence is more telling than presence | Kenzie Burchell
This chapter offers a reinvigoration of Erving Goffman’s phenomenological approach to interpersonal communication in the contemporary mobile and networked context. It shows, first, how much of the everyday work that goes into managing communication is not focused on connecting with others, but rather on filtering, limiting, and delaying connection through practice of maintaining barriers to interaction. Second, however, there is also an awareness of other people’s practices of maintaining barriers. Acting upon the networked awareness of other people’s communication habits often involves a degree of self-restraint, minimizing the temporal pressures of everyday communication so as to manage engagement with others. This involves developing repertoires of presence, co-presence and absence amid banal cultures of practice: managing the temporal organization of everyday life through strategic communication practices, deflecting the interruption and contingency of unexpected attempts at interaction as well distancing oneself from spheres of activity in order to maintain relationally and modally distinguished experiential domains.
Part IV: Meaning, Politics, Ethics
Chapter 10: Chickens that like Pink Floyd: media physicalism and the experience of new technology | Brenton J. Malin
One enduring trend in media research is what might be termed ‘media physicalism’. This is the assumption that emotional responses to media reduce to specific physiological processes, captured by journalist Steven Johnson’s erroneous claim in the 1990s that emotion-measuring technologies had demonstrated that chickens prefer Pink Floyd. This chapter charts the history of the media physicalism, placing it in conversation with the work of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. On one hand, the insights of phenomenology offer important critiques of media physicalism, calling into question the theory of experience that underwrites it. Media physicalism was practiced by early 20th century American psychologists who were working to distance themselves from philosophy; they rejected the introspective, personal accounts provided by their research subjects in favor of presumably objective, scientific ones. At the same time, juxtaposing phenomenology and media physicalism highlights some ways that Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty reinforce assumptions of media physicalism – tendencies reflected in the recent emergence of ‘neuro-phenomenology,’ which blends phenomenology with physiological reduction. A non-physicalist phenomenology of media is advanced in response, which takes seriously the self-reflexivity of media users and audiences.
Chapter 11: Interactive world disclosure (or, an interface is not a hammer) | Roy Bendor
New media such as interactive games afford both responsive and immersive experiences. Drawing on Heidegger’s tool analysis and differentiation of world from environment, this chapter provides an account of immersion as inward diegetic absorption – a form of captivation in which the game user’s intentionality remains fixed on virtual, on-screen elements. It does so by way of a phenomenological investigation of Passage, Jason Rohrer’s art game from 2007, exploring how the condition of alienation that might underpin interactive gaming technologies can be experienced as fun – and alternatively that in certain circumstances gameplay can provoke a heightened sense of awareness of the objective reality of one’s existence. This leads to a more general question of the value of a phenomenological-hermeneutic approach to unpacking digitally mediated experiences. Broadly considered, where many recent accounts focus on the behavioral, embodied or affective dimensions of interactivity, is there a place for the meaning-bearing dimensions of new media?
Chapter 12: Mediating subjectivity through materiality in documentary practice | Catalin Brylla
This chapter brings phenomenological approaches into contact with cognitive film theory to think though the translations of meaning that take place from the practices of filmmaking to the experience of audiences. Specifically, it teases out the filmic mediation of subjectivity through materiality on two levels: the pro-filmic event and the film form. The distinction between referred or pro-filmic subjectivity (observed by the filmmaker during the encounter with the subject), and depicted subjectivity (the film formal treatment of pro-filmic subjectivity that aims to elicit an equivalent experience in the viewer), is key to the process of filmic mediation. The chapter works through its theorization of subjectivity and materiality by way of a detailed discussion of a particular scene from Brylla’s documentary film, “Material Experiences”, which explores the filmic mediation of subjectivity in relation to the representation of blind people. Developed around a self-reflexive, semi-ethnographic methodology, the analysis highlights how anthropologically conceived materially can be deployed to map subjectivity in embodied space when subjects perform or reflect on quotidian activities and objects.
Chapter 13: Becoming quiet: on mediation, noise cancellation and commodity quietness | Matthew F. Jordan
Noise has long been an unwelcomed remainder of people living together. Across cultures and time it has been associated with sin, distraction, bad health and untruth. This chapter examines how anxieties about sensual sound, and desires for quietness, emerged as a tropic feature of philosophical discourse and the phenomenological method. Over time, this habit of mind, the desire for private relief from public noise, has become a recurring motif in cultural conversations about managing our modern lifeworld. Media technologies have increasingly provided a means through which consumers ‘realize’ and reify quietness, and here the example of noise cancellation technologies are discussed to problematize the normalized use of commodity quietness products. Devices which cancel ‘unwanted’ noise condition our understanding of quietness, supporting individualized desires that our soundscapes conform to what we expect to hear. This is turn raises ethical questions about how such auditory regimes affect our capacity to listen and hear the unexpected sounds of others.