Jussi Parikka’s Geology of Media

Daniel Bethmont, Géologie, 1911. Detail from a scientific poster.

A Geology of Media, by Jussi Parikka. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015. 224 pages.

IF YOU TRULY BELIEVE in “nonhuman agency,” then I know a bridge that wants to sell itself to you. The idea seems to be everywhere these days: in books, articles, essays, blog posts, wall text. It’s as if theorists, with the best of intentions (and no small amount of grandiosity), having “given” agency to workers, then women, then the colonized, then racial and ethnic minorities, then homosexuals, then cyborgs, finally decided that agency was something they might as well keep giving away to anything that moves—plus lots of things that don’t. As Andrew Cole put it in his excellent critique of the philosophical foundations of this mentality in the summer issue of this magazine, “You, a speck of flea shit, an electric chair, and a solar flare are all equal objects.” This almost sounds like a neat idea, until you pause to consider its ethical implications. “You” may indeed get a kick out of comparing yourself to a speck of flea shit or a solar flare. But substitute “you” for pretty much anyone else on the planet and you begin to see how dehumanizing “posthumanism” can be.

To be sure, actor-network theory, object-oriented ontology, speculative realism, and so on have enriched our understanding of the world around us. This enrichment, however, has been accompanied by a curious impoverishment of our understanding of ourselves and others. Yes, things do stuff. Computers compute, toasters toast. But they don’t feel excited or anxious about it beforehand, or happy or guilty about it afterward, the way humans do. The late critic Barbara Johnson put it best: “The more I thought about this asymptotic relation between things and persons, the more I realized that the problem is not, as it seems, a desire to treat things as persons, but a difficulty in being sure we treat persons as persons.” The posthumanist critique seems to assume that we humanists believe that humans are better than specks of flea shit or whatever. Perhaps. But the main issue is not about superiority; it’s about specificity.

THE ARGUMENTS in Jussi Parikka’s Geology of Media reflect this confusion about the differences between persons and things. For the last decade or so, Parikka, a professor at the University of Southampton’s Winchester School of Art in the UK, has been one of the leading figures in media studies. His book What Is Media Archaeology? (2012) and the anthology he coedited with Erkki Huhtamo, Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications (2011), are both important points of reference. The volume under review is the final installment in a trilogy that also includes Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses (2007) and Insect Media: An Archaeology of Animals and Technology (2010). As these titles suggest, he is intrigued by the relationships between humans, media, technology, and nature—what he calls “medianatures.”

At its best, A Geology of Media encourages us to think of media technologies as bits of nature that have undergone a transformation into bits of culture, from the tree sap that insulated the first underwater telegraph cables (gutta-percha) to the bug secretions that served as the recording medium for early phonographs (shellac) to the superheated, machine-spun threads of sand that allow people to follow you on Instagram (fiber optics). Imagine if our cell phones and laptops came with lists of ingredients, like Diet Coke. The National Resources Defense Council, for example, informs me that my computer is made up of aluminum, antimony, arsenic, barium, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, copper, gallium, gold, iron, lead, mercury, palladium, platinum, silver, tin, and zinc—and those are just the metals.

At its worst, A Geology of Media is an example of what Marx once called “childish-sensuous” materialism. The child, Marx says, “tells us that in regard to railways one should only think of rails and ways, in regard to trade contracts only of sugar and coffee, and in regard to leather factories only of leather.” Whether or not this is true of children—most kids I know are much better dialecticians—it’s certainly true of A Geology of Media, as well as a whole stack of other recent books, many of which it refers to. Parikka argues that the metals and other elements in my computer are “agents of history,” but I would reply that they are, at most, “reagents” of history: substances or compounds added to world-historical processes that are already well under way.

The book consists of an introductory chapter, four case studies, an afterword, and an appendix co-authored with the media artist and theorist Garnet Hertz. The first case study, for example, builds on the geological concept of “deep time.” Originating with the Scottish geologist James Hutton in the eighteenth century, the concept was part of an Enlightenment attempt to come up with a natural theory of the natural world, one rooted in the earth itself rather than in Scripture or exegesis. The “deep” in “deep time” referred to geological strata that proved, or at least very strongly suggested, that the earth was much older than people had been taught in Sunday school. More recently, the term “deep time” was taken up by Siegfried Zielinski to remind us that media are much older than people have been taught by Bloomberg Businessweek. (When Zielinski came to speak at New York University a few years ago, we had to go searching for an overhead projector—all his images were on transparencies.) Parikka wants to take the term back from Zielinski, for whom it functions mainly as a metaphor, to think seriously about what he calls the “geophysics of media.”

Alongside this exploration of “deep time,” the chapter includes discussions of Heidegger, Deleuze and Guattari, Stephen Jay Gould, Thomas Pynchon, and alchemy. At its center, however, is a 1928 story by Arthur Conan Doyle titled “When the World Screamed,” about a mad scientist who drills deeper and deeper into the earth until he encounters a throbbing, pulsating, gelatinous core. The scientist penetrates this layer, too, causing the earth to scream out in pain. For Parikka, I think rightly, this story serves as an allegory for the rape of nature, particularly the extraction of natural resources through mining (and as Parikka points out, even the term resources is already itself problematic, since it suggests that the earth was put there for our use).

Subsequent chapters proceed in pretty much the same way, with discussions of artworks mixed in with the usual, and a few unusual, theoretical suspects. A chapter on the “Psychogeophysics of Technology” includes discussions of Robert Smithson’s Earthworks, Katie Paterson’s live phone-line to the Vatnajökull glacier, Florian Dombois’s recordings of earthquakes, Jamie Allen and David Gauthier’s Critical Infrastructure installation, the 2012 Crystal World project by Jonathan Kemp, Ryan Jordan, and Martin Howse, and the Berlin- and London-based project micro_research. A chapter on “Dust and the Exhausted Life” introduces us (or at least me) to the Coal Fired Computers, 2010, by Matsuko Yokokoji and Graham Harwood (YoHa) in collaboration with Jean Demars, as well as a handful of other projects. A chapter on “Fossil Futures” examines the work of Trevor Paglen along with Grégory Chatonsky’s 2013 installation Telofossils. Despite Parikka’s provocative methodological claims, the book generally falls back on fairly traditional forms of commentary when it comes to discussing the artworks themselves, relying mainly on thematic or allegorical criticism. These projects are all about the earth, and only the earth, in more or less direct ways.

Grégory Chatonsky, in collaboration with Dominique Sirois and Christophe Charles, Telofossils, 2013, paint, plastic, cement, sand. Installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art, Taipei.

MEANWHILE, I was reminded of a piece that I saw—or rather, felt—at Documenta 13 in Kassel, Ryan Gander’s I Need Some Meaning I Can Memorize (The Invisible Pull), 2012. In the entry hall to the Fridericianum, visitors encountered a barely perceptible but thoroughly refreshing breeze. Until you spot the label on the wall, you’re not even sure that it’s art at all; maybe it’s just an open window. In fact, the breeze was being produced by an elaborate and invisible—at least to visitors—ventilation system. It seems like it might have been a perfect example for Parikka’s book, a not-so-subtle reminder of how the art world uses HVAC infrastructures that cool our galleries while warming our globe. All this while foregrounding the “agency” of air to pull us into a space and keep us there.

But I keep thinking about the unconscious, a concept that is missing from Parikka’s book, as it is from so much contemporary theory. For me, at least, the breeze seemed aimed right at what Freud called the “body ego”: that part of us that experiences anxiety, or relief, or pleasure, or any number of other sensations that are simultaneously physical and psychic. Think about how you felt last time you stepped into that Chelsea gallery on a Thursday evening: worrying about whether you fit into your clothes properly, or what you would say when somebody asked you what you thought that would make you seem smart but not pretentious, or if she was going to be there, or if there was a bathroom you could use. Parikka is not looking for these kinds of phenomena, so it would be unfair to accuse him of overlooking them. Still, as theorists begin to write more and more about our posthuman condition, it’s probably worth pausing to remember how human we all still are.

Ben Kafka is a psychoanalyst, cultural historian, and critic. He teaches at New York University and sees patients in private practice.