Abstracts – Keynote Symposium 1

To the things themselves: thoughts on the phenomenology of media
Paddy Scannell, University of Michigan

‘To the things themselves’ was Edmund Husserl’s motto for the project of phenomenological enquiry that he pioneered. For Heidegger too, though he radically transformed what Husserl meant. And also for me, in a way that owes much more to Heidegger than his mentor. I think of phenomenology as an attempt to get back to what things really are, unburdened by academic preconceptions and prejudices. Academics go about their task by producing their object of enquiry as an academic object. But radio and television, the internet and mobile phones are simply not academic things—and in fact are resistant to being thought of as such. In my work I try to engage with the media in their terms rather than in academic terms. This means to think of them in situ: as everyday worldly phenomena, as part and parcel of ordinary existence. It means, in the first place, to set aside all critical, theoretical, political and social scientific approaches to the study of media. By returning to the media themselves we discover what in fact they are as distinct from what we, as academics, think they are or should be.

McLuhan and phenomenology
Graham Harman, American University of Cairo

There are several striking parallels between the philosophy of Martin Heidegger and the media theory of Marshall McLuhan. But none of these parallels is so conspicuous as Heidegger and McLuhan’s shared critique of presence. For Heidegger, being is that which withdraws behind the phenomenal sphere explored by Edmund Husserl, founder of phenomenology. Though McLuhan’s explicit references to philosophy are tangential and sometimes confusing, his critique of dialectic in favor of rhetoric and grammar 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,” which means that the explicit content of medium is trivial in comparison with the background conditions of the medium itself. In this talk, I will ask whether the Heidegger/McLuhan celebration of background at the expense of foreground has finally reached its limits.

Signal territories: broadcast infrastructure, Google Earth, and phenomenology
Lisa Parks, University of California Santa Barbara

Broadcast signals move through our physical environment all the time. Since these signals are imperceptible during transmission, however, it is challenging to imagine where fields of signal traffic are and what they might look like. In an effort to encourage greater understanding of technical and infrastructural processes of transmission, this paper analyzes a Google Earth layer called “FCCInfo,” which maps and visualizes the locations of all broadcast infrastructure sites in the US that are registered with the FCC. The layer reveals the locations of essential hardware such as transmission towers, repeaters, microwave links, and radio and TV stations. It represents transmission hardware and processes that exist within vertical fields as two-dimensional, interactive interfaces. While this visual display reduces vertical depth, it serves an important function by publicizing information about broadcast technologies that have historically been difficult for laypeople to access and understand. Using screen captures and site visits, I use this Google Earth layer to sense specific hardware and sites that are required for broadcast transmission and analyze them as part of particular environments.

By studying this Google Earth layer and certain infrastructure sites, I hope to build on my essay, “Where the Cable Ends: Television Beyond Fringe Areas,” and to contribute to an emerging body of media studies scholarship focused on environmental and resource questions (Miller & Maxwell; Bozak; Cubbitt). By making broadcast infrastructures intelligible, the FCCInfo layer challenges media studies scholars to integrate discussions of physical infrastructures and distribution processes within critical and historical studies of media. By using aerial views to reveal broadcast infrastructure and transmission processes, the layer helps to construct what might be referred to as “signal territories” and encourages user-viewers to think about media in relation to resources such as spectrum, lands, air, and oceans. As such, the FCCInfo layer also presents opportunities to invent a media studies pedagogy that is informed by environmentalist concerns.

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