On Having Been Qualified, with Notes on Expansive Mediation

Setusko Yokoyama, Purdom Lindblad, and I started up a digital studies / digital humanities writing group this semester through the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, where Purdom works (and where I frequently haunt, playing Seadragon on my advisor’s old Apple II). The purpose of this writing group is essentially peer pressure: to guilt all of us into putting our butts in seats and getting along with the damn work of putting words on a screen. My task for myself during our first session today was to get back in the swing of blogging and put up this post reflecting on having gotten through my qualifying exam process.

Reading and Writing

This summer, I read one hundred and three things. Mostly books. Some very long. This worked out to about three hundred and fifty pages a day, six days a week. I worked that number out early in the summer in an effort to appropriately pace my reading. I then immediately deleted the Excel spreadsheet I used for the calculations and tried to forget the number. Given that I recall it now, four months later, you can see I was unsuccessful.

At that velocity, the verb “to read” stretches and warps unrecognizably. Friends would ask, “how on earth do you manage to read anything that quickly?” My answer: “by having a very flexible definition of ‘reading.’” Which isn’t to denigrate the kinds of reading that we practice in the academy. Information overload, my early modernist friends love to tell me, has long been with us. We need strategies to manage it. Even as it’s physiologically taxing—my back hurt more than my brain most days—I’ve come to value the work of taking in vast quantities of knowledge at a semi-middle distance.

I am too close to the experience to have any useful advice. The only thing I can muster is that there is worth in being generous with yourself. Yes, I can say with confidence that I opened every single book on my list and that if cornered in a bar (or an exam room) I could say something meaningful about each of them. But do I know each of them equally? Of course not. And there were many, many books that I wish I knew better and to which I want to return. I think be able to say, “well, at least now I know that I want to know that better” is an important skill for this kind of work.

Over the course of the summer, I generated reams of paper. Much of it is garbage: this is by design. I’ve found that the only way I come to know a thing is by tracing over it again and again and again—asking myself the same questions until I find how I can ask them better, or what other things I should have been asking myself all along. I am still boiling down this writing: I’m working on a post (hopefully inbound over the next day or two) wherein I share some preliminary theses that guide my progress toward the diss. I’ll update this post accordingly when it’s live.

Examining

To be honest, I would do my exam again in a heartbeat. I mean, I’d get right of the pressure of “will I get to keep working or not?” I know that this isn’t true of many (most?) literary or media studies departments, but I’ve come to really appreciate Maryland’s approach to the exam. For us, the exam isn’t about grilling us with arcane knowledge (although there’s some grilling, of course), and more an opportunity to check in as to where you are in your development toward a dissertation project. Would that we regularly had opportunities to get five scholars in a room for the express purpose of talking about only you and your interests for two hours!

The structure of my exam was: a twenty-minute presentation in response to a provided question, followed by an hour and forty minutes of Q&A on that presentation and the list more generally. My provided question was essentially that of the problem of futurity in digital studies. How has digital studies’ temporal focus shifted in light of the collection of political, epistemic, and climatological crises we group under the rubric of the Anthropocene? My response was to chart a growing historicism in the rise of media archaeology in the 2000s, infrastructural digital studies in the 2010s, and hyper-contemporary work on what I called “exhausted time,” or temporality that seems like it can neither look toward a possible future or countenance a deep past. (We also took some detours into pre-1945 work on technics and materiality, since I always get frustrated when digital studies starts in the 1990s!)

Risks

I think the presentation is too situational and rough to share in any kind of meaningful way here, but I wanted to point to two things I did in it that I think are worth sharing—risks that I took that either paid off or didn’t.

Atmospheric Media

The first was that I structured the presentation around the idea of “atmospheric media.” Following the work of John Durham Peters1, I proposed atmospheric media as a set of computational, although not always explicitly digital, media concerned with the sky, weather, or outer space. These might include (as I featured in my presentation) temperature sensors, the photography of Trevor Paglen, weather diaries, or even the Twitter bot The Ephemerides, which asks what kind of poetry a space probe might write.

My wager in my presentation was that examining this particular class of media, and the idea of the “atmosphere” more generally in digital media studies, might be useful for putting pressure on some of the urgent questions we face in the field: vast temporal and spatial scale; media materialism; the scope and operations of mediation; and the cultural and technical entanglement of humanity, digital technologies, and the planet itself. In this respect, I think the risk paid off. While I can’t say for certain whether or not this category of media is going to be the precise focus of my diss work—there’s just so much more scoping and defining to do—I’m glad to have broached that direction.

The Expansion of the Media Concept

My other risk was to wager that we can do meaningful work with this class of media by focusing on questions of textuality. Following Dennis Tenen’s recent work in this area2, my hunch was that as computers and texts are entangled at fundamental levels, the methods of textual analysis might lend themselves fruitfully to sorting out some of these questions of scale and materiality that dog digital media study. In this, I think I was less successful. My committee rightfully put pressure on how I summoned textual studies, a field with its own long and specific history, to bear on questions that were fundamentally ones of mediation.

They’re absolutely right: this is a project that benefits from media rather than textual study. I think in the moment I avoided “mediation” for two reasons. The first is a political one: in the few days leading up to my exam, I became very self-conscious about pursuing my work under the aegis of an English department. Why here, and not elsewhere, in a media or communications department? Feinting toward “textuality” seemed like a way to have both cakes at once without having actually to be specific about what I meant. (Pro-tip: committees will sniff that shit out in a heartbeat). In the end, this turned out to be a problem of self-imposed anxiety more than anything else.

The second is more meaningful for the actual content of my work: I have become skeptical over the past few months with the expansive purview of “mediation” and “media studies” more generally—even as those are the precise words I’d use now to situate my work. What constitutes “media” has long been under discussion in our field. For some media archaeologists such as Wolfgang Ernst,3 “media” is a restrictive concept: the channels through which electrical impulses pass. This is media studies turned electrical engineering. But for others, particularly those invested in infrastructural or ecological media studies, “media” can mean practically anything. For Peters, “media” encompasses both technical objects but also natural figures such as the sky, the ocean, or fire. Richard Grusin has recently proposed “radical mediation” as a model for thinking about how all interactions are necessarily ones of mediation.4

Now, I don’t think this expansion is anything necessarily new to media studies. Harold Innis5 was theorizing the “civilizational” effects of media far before our current infatuation (which I share, to be clear) with infrastructure. But as media theory has begun to take seriously insights from new materialist philosophy and environmental studies, what constitutes “media” might be creeping toward overbroadness—at least in its current theoretical incarnation.

My feint toward “textuality” was then a bit of an attempt to constrain the purview of “mediation.” But I think now that it’s worth sticking with mediation qua mediation, to see how we can monitor and adjust its scope toward various ends. After all, it’s too historically useful a concept to allow to simply dissolve into the ether—nor should we lose the insights that this expansion into elemental or highly conceptual ground have offered us. Here I’m not proposing to restrict the purview of “mediation,” but rather to examine its operations in greater depth so we can determine how, as Simon Dawes argues in his recent introduction to the new journal Media Theory, everything might be able to be a medium, but this doesn’t necessarily mean everything is a medium at all times.6

I’m Going To Stop Here

It’s been a week since my exam. As you can no doubt tell, I am bad at taking things slowly. The contemporary academy is too, even as we extol the virtues of close, slow, and deliberative study. I have four months to submit a prospectus. It feels like entirely not enough time and also far too much time.

For now, I’m going to focus on having my weekends back, at least for a little while.

  1. Peters, John Durham. The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media. U of Chicago P, 2015. 

  2. Tenen, Dennis. Plain Text: The Poetics of Computation. Stanford UP, 2017. 

  3. Ernst, Wolfgang. Digital Memory and the Archive. Edited by Jussi Parikka, U of Minnesota P, 2013. 

  4. Grusin, Richard. “Radical Mediation.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 42, no. 1, 2015, pp. 124–48. 

  5. Innis, Harold Adams. The Bias of Communication. 2nd [rev.] ed, U of Toronto P, 2008. 

  6. Dawes, Simon. “What is Media Theory?” Media Theory, vol. 1, no. 1, 2017, pp. 1–11, http://journalcontent.mediatheoryjournal.org/index.php/mt/article/view/9

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