1. The Secret Life of Mediation
Three Augusts ago, Erick Felinto and his collaborators staged a conference called “The Secret Life of Objects: Materialities, Medialities, Temporalities.” A traveling circus disguised as a movable feast, the conference featured different permutations of speakers in São Paulo, Rio, Salvador, and Fortaleza. This year’s conference in São Paulo and Rio is something of a sequel. The first conference was conceived and executed in response to the rapid inflation of the theoretical bubble known as “speculative realism” or “object-oriented ontology” (SR/OOO). “Secret Life of Objects-1” put speculative realism in dialogue with media theory, particularly German media theory, for the Brazilian academic public. It was no accident that Graham Harman and Siegfried Zielinski were the only two scholars to speak in all four cities, squaring off (though not really) in a scholarly remediation of King Kong vs. Godzilla. Other non-Brazilian speakers included Bruno Latour, Steve Shaviro, Joachim Paech, and Sybille Krämer. I spoke in three of the four cities as well; and as the only non-Brazilian speaker from the first conference to be speaking at this one, I want to open my talk today by revisiting the lecture Graham Harman gave in Rio in 2012.
Harman addressed the conference theme by taking the secret life of objects to refer to his own position that objects can never make contact, that all objects “withdraw” from contact. He unfolded his argument through a reading of Eric and Marshall McLuhan’s “Laws of Media,” reading Marshall McLuhan’s famous slogan, “the medium is the message,” as a statement about figure and ground. For Harman, McLuhan’s famous formulation insists that the ground (the medium), not the figure (the message), is where the action is, unsurprisingly echoing Harman’s claim about the withdrawn object (ground), in contrast to its sensible or other qualities (figure). McLuhan provides Harman a way to argue that objects are media, and that media, like objects, withdraw from contact with either human subjects or other objects.
Throughout his lecture, as in much of his published work, Harman spoke of different kinds of contact, like direct, total, or partial. I begin with his ideas about contact, particularly his claim that objects (human or nonhuman) never come into contact with one another or can at best only come into “partial contact,” in part because I have difficulty accepting, or even finally understanding, what he means by direct or total contact, and why he places so much pressure on whether contact is total or partial. Indeed contact seems to me to be the very state of things for embodied or material humans and nonhumans. Are we ever in complete contact with every aspect or quality or essence or being of other objects? I’m not even sure what this would mean. With Merleau-Ponty, however, I believe that we are always immediately in contact within and through our bodies with other animate and inanimate creatures and entities that occupy, traverse, and make up what William James calls the pluriverse.
One problem I have with Harman’s formulation is that he consistently treats contact (and causation, which for him is connected logically and directly with contact) as unidirectional. This unidirectionality in thinking about contact and causality was evident when in answer to a question from the audience he offered the example of touching another’s hand to point out that one never touches the hand in its entirety, that one is never in total contact with another’s hand. Harman contended that it may be that one touches the epidermis, but what of blood vessels, bones, tendons, nerves, ligaments, muscles, and so forth? First, it is not clear why one would need to touch all of these things to be touching another person’s hand, or that the hand is reducible to these constitutent elements. But more tellingly, the problem with this example is that contact is seen as a fundamentally unidirectional interaction. Harman poses the question of contact in terms of one person touching another’s hand rather than two hands (or two people) touching one another, because he fails to think of contact going in more than one direction at once, or to take seriously the idea that contact can be found in the interaction, mutuality, or multidimensionality of agency and causation.
This unidirectionality is crucial to Harman’s paradigmatic example of fire burning cotton, which he borrows from the Occasionalists of medieval Islamic philosophy to support his claim that objects can never come into contact. If fire burns cotton, Harman argues, it does not come into contact with cotton’s texture or color or other features but only with its flammability. Fire burns cotton. But why not think of it in reverse, in terms of cotton being burned by fire? Or why describe it as fire burning cotton, as if fire itself is an object like cotton, rather than itself an action, event, or interaction? What if we thought of fire burning cotton as a multidirectional event of cotton combusting, in which case we would not be talking about two autonomous, independent objects (cotton and fire) but rather one complex, collaborative, and transient event, the combustion of cotton? But Harman chooses instead to objectify fire, to insist on understanding something that is an action, event, or interaction as one of the dramatis personae in an object-oriented drama. This polemical use of the example of fire burning cotton is emblematic of Harman’s argument as a whole, the way in which humans and nonhumans, flows and relations, are either objectified and made into autonomous entitites or dismissed as irrelevant, unreal, or insignificant. To think instead of fire burning cotton as an event of combustion lets us reject the idea that objects (or subjects for that matter) are originary, are ontological starting points, but rather that they are the outcomes of complex processes of mediation. By mediation here I refer both to the physical-natural-organic-technological-economic mediations that collectively generate cotton from seed, soil, water, sunlight, and labor, and to the conceptual mediations which single out and purify cotton or fire or an observer not only from one another but also from other objects and entitities, events and phenomena. If we start not with objects but with mediation, we start already and immediately in the middle, with what we might playfully want to think of as a form of mediation-oriented-ontology, or MOO.
2. Radical Mediation
Mediation has become one of the central intellectual problems of the twenty-first century. The question of mediation has come to the forefront in part because of extraordinary technological acceleration in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the rampant proliferation of digital media technologies that sometimes goes under the name of “mediatization.” Despite widespread theorizing about media prompted by the intense mediatization of the past several decades, John Guillory has contended “that the concept of mediation remains undertheorized in the study of culture and only tenuously integrated into the study of media.” Sarah Kember and Joanna Zylinska similarly “see mediation as the underlying, and unaddressed, problem of the media.” Alex Galloway, Eugene Thacker, and McKenzie Wark concur with these assessments, contending that “New kinds of limitations and biases have made it difficult for media scholars to take the ultimate step and consider the basic conditions of mediation.” In Excommunication Galloway, Thacker, and Wark offer separate but complementary answers to the question of mediation: “Distracted by the tumult of concern around what media do or how media are built,” they write in their collective introduction, “have we not lost the central question: what is mediation?”
In “Radical Mediation” I attempt to answer this “central question.” I do not, however, consider what media do or how they are built to be distractions from the question of mediation, but rather part and parcel of it. Nor do I mean to limit the question of mediation to what media do or how they are built, or to media themselves as they are now conventionally understood. As I will suggest, mediation operates not just across communication, representation, or the arts, but is a fundamental process of human and nonhuman existence.
I developed the concept of radical mediation, which alludes to William James’s “radical empiricism,” in order to make related but independent arguments about the dualistic character of mediation in the history of Western thought. I argue that, although media and media technologies have operated and continue to operate epistemologically as modes of knowledge production, they also function ontologically (technically, bodily, materially) to generate and modulate individual and collective affective moods or structures of feeling among assemblages of humans and nonhumans. This affective mediation of collective human and nonhuman assemblages operates independently of (and often more efficaciously than) the production of knowledge. Like the way media operate affectively to premediate potentialities, mediation must also be understood as a process or event prior to, generative of, and ultimately not reducible to particular media technologies. Mediation operates physically and materially as an object, event, or process in the world, impacting humans and nonhumans alike. Radical mediation participates in recent critiques of the dualism of the Western philosophical tradition, which make up what I have elsewhere called the nonhuman turn in twenty-first century studies. Indeed, as I suggest in the talk’s final section, radical mediation might in some sense be understood as nonhuman mediation.
To understand radical mediation as affective and experiential rather than strictly visual is to think about our immediate affective experience of mediation as that which is felt, embodied, near—not distant from us, and thus not illuminated or pictured, but experienced by us as living, embodied human and nonhuman creatures. Where remediation focused largely on the visual aspects of mediation, radical mediation would take into account the entire human sensorium. For radical mediation, all bodies (whether human or nonhuman) are fundamentally media and life itself a form of mediation.
As Walter Benjamin had similarly noted about mechanical reproduction, the remediation of new digital media has worked to bring our media devices nearer our bodily medium, engaging us directly in what I have elsewhere characterized as the affective life of media. The core of radical mediation is its immanence, is immediacy itself—not the transparent immediacy that makes up half of remediation’s double logic, but the embodied immediacy of the event of mediation. In our affective, bodily interactions with media devices, indeed with the world of humans and nonhumans, there is no distance or perspective from which to “see” immediacy, from which immediacy could be made into something one could paint or draw or re-present, or something that needed mediation. “Bodies,” writes Karen Barad apropos the invertebrate brittlestar, “are not situated in the world; they are part of the world.” The same claim, I would aver, can be made for media and mediation. In theorizing the affective embodiment of radical mediation, we should attend to the immediate affective experience of mediation itself. But to suggest that mediation is immediate is to swim against a strong popular current running through the history of Western thought, one which would categorically distinguish mediation from immediacy. In the books Remediation and Premediation, I set out to challenge this distinction. The concept of radical mediation further problematizes the distinction of mediation from immediacy.
Hegel’s influential critique of immediacy to the contrary, radical mediation does not take mediation as coming or standing between already actualized subjects, objects, actants, or entities (or even as being within objects) but rather treats mediation as the process, action, or event that generates or provides the conditions for the emergence of subjects and objects, for the individuation of entities within the world. In this sense radical mediation has affinities with Gilbert Simondon’s concepts of individuation, transduction, and ontogenesis. The process of individuation, whose true principle Simondon identifies as mediation, “must be considered primordial, for it is this process that at once brings the individual into being and determines all the distinguishing characteristic of its development, organization and modalities.” Although Simondon considers individuation “to form only one part of an ontogenetic process,” he also maintains that “in a certain sense, ontogenetic development [devenir] itself can be considered as mediation.”
In radical mediation all connections (or contact) involve modulation, translation, or transformation, not just linking. I insist upon this distinction because connection could be taken to imply experiences (or experienced relations) that preexist their mediation, whereas I understand mediation as fundamentally what Simondon calls “transductive,” part and parcel of, yet not reducible to, experience. For Simondon a relation is “a way of being and not a simple connection between two terms that could be adequately comprehended using concepts because they both enjoy what amounts to an independent existence.” Following James, I refuse to separate mediation from other experienced relations. Mediation does not stand between preexistent subjects and objects,with their own “independent existence.” Nor does mediation prevent immediate experience or relations, but on the contrary transduces or generates immediate experiences and relations. Not only is mediation immediate, but it is also individuating, operating through a process of becoming to generate individual subjects and objects through what James might have meant to understand as experienced relations, subjects and objects which are themselves remediations.
Another way to explain radical mediation is through Charles Sanders Peirce’s thinking about mediation in the later part of his life, particularly his conviction that “Mediation is more than the conjunction of two dyadic relations,” but a form of thirdness “operative in Nature.” In their later years both Peirce and James worked towards different but not entirely incompatible metaphysical understandings of what Barad has characterized as “agential realism,” in which relations or mediations are seen to be more real for what they do or how they act than for what they mean or represent. Indeed despite being primarily associated with language and linguistics, Peirce in his later theories of biosemiosis moved even more radically than did James towards an ontological understanding of mediation, particularly in relation to nonhuman nature, as non-representational. Thus for Peirce a sunflower, for example, can be understood as a mediation, or “representamen,” of the sun: “If a sunflower, in turning towards the sun, becomes by that very act fully capable, without further condition, of reproducing a sunflower which turns in precisely corresponding ways toward the sun, and of doing so with the same reproductive power, the sunflower would become a Representamen of the sun.”
What Peirce here calls “Representamen” he elsewhere, and increasingly in his later work, comes to understand as mediation. But in either case each is a category of what he calls “thirdness,” a form of thought whose most radical formulation is operative in nonhuman nature, as for example when Peirce claims that “thought is not necessarily connected with a brain. It appears in the work of bees, of crystals, and throughout the purely physical world.” As thirdness, mediation does not come between preformed subjects and objects, but operates like that nonhuman process or activity which generates honeycombs, crystalline structures, sunflowers, or language. Peirce sees this as the same process from which human and nonhuman signification emerges, with or without what we conventionally understand as thought. In linking radical mediation to Peirce’s category of “thirdness” I mean to underscore the notion that all activity is mediation, and that for radical mediation there is no discontinuity between human and nonhuman agency or semiosis. Although Peirce is notorious for his terminological inconsistency, he associated mediation with thirdness as early as 1875. As Winfried Nöth points out, from 1890 on he applies mediation fairly consistently “to phenomena from logic to metaphysics and natural philosophy. In evolutionary terms, thirdness is the ‘tendency to take habits’ […]. Thirdness manifests itself in ‘generality, infinity, continuity, diffusion, growth, and intelligence.’” In his later writings, Peirce regularly treats Thirdness as a metaphysical category which “is operative in Nature.”
In asserting the radical nature of mediation I am not referring only to the way that media theorists talk about the ubiquitous and quotidian nature of our media everyday—phones, tablets, TVs, laptops, and gaming platforms; Facebook, Twitter, email, Tumblr, Reddit, and Tinder; securitization, finance, surveillance, and transaction data. Rather I am referring as well to the ubiquitous nature of mediation itself—flowers, trees, rivers, lakes, and deserts; microbes, insects, fish, mammals, and birds; digestion, respiration, sensation, reproduction, circulation, and cognition; planes, trains, and automobiles; factories, schools, and malls; nation-states, NGOs, indigenous communities, or religious organizations; rising sea levels, increased atmospheric concentrations of CO2, melting icecaps, intensified droughts, violent storms. Following the groundbreaking work of Jussi Parikka and others, radical mediation also insists upon taking account of the multiple materialities of our communication media, their dependence upon destructive extractive industries for the minerals and other materials from which media devices are built, their extravagant use of electrical power with all of its attendant environmental costs, and their proliferation and persistence as technical waste, whose ecological consequences remain largely unknown. But in calling attention to the costs, destruction, and waste of mediation I do not mean to understand these materialities simply as economic or industrial supports or infrastructure for media and mediation, but as mediations themselves no different from the texts, photos, sounds, videos, or transaction data that circulate on our media devices and that provide the data for corporate, technical, and governmental surveillance.
Radical mediation does not take mediation as a unifying or totalizing epistemological concept that holds together disparate and heterogeneous practices, events, and entities. Nor does it maintain ontologically that there are only disparate and heterogeneous objects and things that do not relate to each other. Rather radical mediation takes existence itself as a form of mediation. Because mediation is always transformative, one of the things that is radical about mediation is its ability dramatically to change scale, moving among smaller and larger, simpler and more complex, briefer and more extended, assemblages or entities. Radical mediation insists that it is mediation all the way down. Even the smallest or most basic components are mediations, which by scaling up can be remediated into larger entities, just as by scaling down, larger or more complex entities and events can be remediated into smaller or less complex ones.
Such a multi-scalar approach to mediation is essential to making sense of phenomena like climate change, the sixth extinction, or the anthropocene, which names the human as the dominant influence on the planet. In its recognition that humans must now be understood as climatological or geological forces on the planet that operate just as nonhumans would, the anthropocene demands a form of mediation that can operate on multiple scales, independent of human will, belief, or desires. One of the most striking legacies of the 2011 Sendai earthquake, for example, and its dramatic impact on the Fukashima nuclear power plant (as with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster some twenty-five years earlier) was the reminder that the nuclear reactions produced in damaged fuel rods operate according to their own time-scale having more to do with the half-life of uranium than with the periodicity of the mediatic system. These reactions might be minimized, modulated, or redirected, not by acting upon them directly as if they were inert, passive matter, or nonhuman physical processes, but rather by accepting the fact that their agency, trajectory, and development operate according to their own laws, their own temporality, their own scale. Remediation (both in the environmental and in the medialogical sense) must take these radically different scales into account.
3. The Mediation Ecology of Ebola
Radical mediation calls for a shift of focus from media to mediation. I want to conclude by thinking about this shift in relation to the conference’s focus on “media ecologies.” What would it mean to think not of ecologies of media, but ecologies of mediation? How might this help us to move away from thinking only about communication media and to begin thinking more broadly about all sorts of human and nonhuman media, especially about the process of mediation itself?
To pursue these questions I want briefly to take as an example of mediation ecology the Ebola outbreaks that peaked in 2014 but that are still, to a lesser and much less visible extent, ongoing today in parts of Africa. The radical mediation of the human body might provide a way to make sense of the 2014 Ebola outbreak, by starting in the middle with mediation itself. To start with mediation is not to suggest, however, that we start with the way print, televisual, and networked news media worked together to generate a high level of fear regarding the contagiousness of the Ebola virus particularly through playing on American media public fears of Africa as a “dark continent” from which danger of all sorts would be likely to arise from unprotected contact with dark bodies. Nor do I mean that we should start with how popular media accounts of Ebola remediated literature, film, and other narratives of contagious epidemics in order to premediate potential medical catastrophes. As useful, illuminating, and on point as such approaches might be, they remain within the traditional concept of mediation as representation or communication that I have been contesting here today.
By starting in the middle with mediation, I mean instead to suggest that the consequences of Ebola mediation are no different in kind and cannot be separated from those produced by the Ebola virus itself. Ebola mediation is not distinct in kind from the Ebola virus but a hybrid or mutant variant of the virus, an effect and a constituent of Ebola in the same way that people infected with the disease are also effects of Ebola. Thus in October 2014 when several US states invoked the medically accepted 21-day incubation period of Ebola to impose mandatory quarantines on specific individuals who had been directly exposed to the Ebola virus, it was the mediashock generated by Ebola mediation rather than empirical evidence of infection that brought about the quarantine. Just as being infected can get you put into quarantine, so can the media’s or the state’s fear of infection. As an extension of the virus which works in tandem with its virological elements as part of its destructiveness, Ebola mediation was far more widely distributed than Ebola itself. More people were at risk for quarantine as a result of the collective affectivity or mood (generated and transmitted by media and politicians) than by the virus itself.
To think Ebola in terms of radical mediation is also to remember that the Ebola virus is “zoonotic,” that is, it crosses over from nonhumans to humans. In Spillover, David Quammen makes it clear that as far as Ebola and related diseases are concerned there is no categorical or epidemiological distinction between human and nonhuman host animals. In between outbreaks of the disease, Ebola is thought to reside in bat colonies from which the virus can be passed on to gorillas and humans. In transgressing the boundaries between humans and nonhumans, Ebola acts as a form of viral mediation that “spills over” from organic to inorganic form, from its virological contagion through the circulation of bodily fluids to its medialogical contagion through the circulation of print, televisual, and socially networked media. There can be no firm ontological boundaries drawn between Ebola virus and Ebola mediation in regard to quarantines and other political and social acts of the state. As the overreaction of US state governments dramatized, the confinement of citizens and contagious bodies can occur not only as a result of being physiologically infected by the disease, but also from the viral affectivity of fear. Far more contagious than the disease itself, premediated fear extends the means and sites of Ebola’s contagion through its mediation by news, or by politicians. This is by no means to say that the effects of quarantine are identical or equivalent to the effects of being infected by Ebola, or that quarantines are necessarily a bad technique for slowing the spread of infection. Rather it is to say that the ontological spillover of Ebola mediation flattens the distinctions between disease and mediation in much the same way that the virus refuses to distinguish between human and nonhuman hosts.
While in some sense it would not be wrong to say that the mediation of Ebola is more socially and politically contagious than the virus itself, in thinking through the concept of radical mediation I do not want to make a categorical distinction between the virus and its mediation, not to treat Ebola mediation as a representation of Ebola rather than as part of Ebola itself. It is not simply a metaphor to say that in 2014 print, televisual, and networked media caught Ebola and transmitted it to the public. Unlike the metaphor of computer viruses, to think Ebola as radical mediation is not meant as a metaphor. Jussi Parikka has persuasively traced the use of the viral metaphor of (especially) AIDS to describe malicious computer software programs, and to explore the ways in which computer viruses are modeled on organic viruses in terms of their threat, their means of reproduction, and their contagion. He has compellingly explained how viruses and the viral become models for culture and technology and media, how both kinds of virus, computer and biological, employ diagrams of contagion.
In talking about Ebola mediation, however, I want to make a different but not unrelated point about how Ebola itself functions as radical mediation. Mediation is not metaphorical of Ebola, mediation is metonymous with it. Ebola mediation is not, like metaphor would be, analogous to Ebola but, like metonomy, is continuous with it. This metonymic continuity between virological infection in one's body or immune system and medialogical infection can be seen most tellingly in the way that scientific accounts employ the concept of “mediation” to describe the operation of the Ebola virus: “The main Ebola surface protein, encoded by the gp gene, mediates entry of the virus into the host cell. . . . VP40 proteins interact with the viral membrane and with each other. The membrane interaction is mediated by the short C-terminal domain, and the relatively large N-terminal domain is responsible for binding VP40 proteins to each other.” Although used similarly to its conventional historical denotation, the mediation described here does not strictly stand between the Ebola virus and the world. Because the virus is parasitic on its host to survive, the mediation of Ebola’s entry into the host cell by its surface protein constitutes the very contagiousness of the Ebola virus. The Ebola protein’s operation in binding to a host is what guarantees its continued existence. In Ebola (and related viruses) mediation generates its infectiousness through transforming the binding together of proteins, genes, and a suitable host into Ebola. Without the radical mediation of these specific proteins, Ebola would not exist.
I have only just begun to partially sketch out here what I might tentatively call a “mediation ecology” of the 2014 Ebola outbreak, in contradistinction to its media ecology. From its inception, media ecology has been concerned to look at the ways in which communication media interacted to create an ecology or environment that impacted human culture, society, or perception. Although often concerned with the coevolution of humans and technology, an important difference from what I want to think of as mediation ecology is that media ecology generally brackets out the nonhuman, organic and inorganic relations that made up ecological science proper. Media ecology also tends to bracket our mediation, treating media objects as already preexisting their interactions or remediations. Media ecology focuses largely on communication media, treating them separately from other human and nonhuman, natural and social, entities or actants, or as related through an ecology, through cybernetic or even autopoietic systems. “Mediation” ecology might instead think about how various elements at different scales are transformed or changed, through processes of mediation, remediation, and premediation. Going beyond the bounds of communication media that have traditionally defined media ecology, mediation ecology might also provide another answer to the question of the secret life of objects, and Harman’s contention that objects can never touch. The secret life of objects is their ongoing participation in ecologies of mediation. As this brief sketch of a mediation ecology of Ebola can help to show, contact is not something that does or does not follow from the existence of objects. Rather the secret life of mediation ecology shows us that contact, mediation, and transformation describe the very state of things in which humans and nonhumans already find themselves and through which they have always made their way.