venerdì 11 ottobre 2013

Jussi Parikka: Dust and Exhaustion The Labor of Media Materialism @ C-Theory (Theory beyond the codes) - 02.Oct.2013

Jussi Parikka: Dust and Exhaustion  The Labor of Media Materialism
@ C-Theory (Theory beyond the codes) - 10.02.2013
 Read the full article on C-Theory website
"Each particle of dust carries with it a unique vision of matter, movement, collectivity, interaction, affect, differentiation, composition and infinite darkness" 
-- Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia

I. Dust -- The Non-Thing
There is something poetic about dust. It is the stuff of fairy tales, stories of deserted places; of attics and dunes, of places from so long ago they seem to have never existed. Dusty books -- the time of the archive that layers slowly on shelves and manuscripts. Marcel Duchamp's 1920s Large Glass was a compilation of dust. In a way, he allowed dust to do the work: a temporal, slow compiling by the non-human particles as a work of art installed at the museum, "a purposeful inactivity." [1] Dust can transform, even if it can itself easily escape any grip. It is amorphous, even metamorphic, in the manner Steven Connor describes. [2] There is also a lot of it. It can be done and dusted, removed from sight and forgotten -- in need of no further attention. Nanoparticles are everywhere and form societies unseen and unheard of, yet they conglomerate on a scale unimaginable to human beings. We are a minority. They have their say on human things, and cover what we leave behind intentionally or by accident -- obsolescent technologies, wrecks, monuments -- which remind us not only of these things themselves but of the gradual sedimentation of dust. Dust marks the temporality of matter, a processual materiality of piling up, sedimenting, and -- through its own million-year process -- transformations of solids to ephemeral and back. It swarms and overwhelms, exhausts and clouds. "Breathe as deeply as you will, dust will never be depleted." [3]
There is something poetic and sometimes even romantic about lack of breath. Lung diseases are after all a sign of the delicate soul, and have a long cultural history. Tuberculosis features in a vast range of examples from a Puccini opera to Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain (1924). The pale tuberculotic body feeds towards the mythical airiness of lungs, blocked by the disease. It is as if tuberculosis releases the body from matter: "TB is disintegration, febrilization, dematerialization; it is a disease of liquids -- the body turning to phlegm and mucus and sputum and, finally, blood -- and of air, of the need for better air." [4] But the lung-diseased body is easily exhausted, lacking in air, gasping for it. It is a tired body, and tiredness is one key trajectory we should be following as well: a laboring body.
This is a text about dust as well as exhaustion: about non-human particles as well as labor. It takes small things like dust as one vector for its argument, and as a vehicle in the manner of which we sometimes think through objects. Dust is, however, not quite an object, not in the intuitive sense that objects are supposed to be easily graspable. It does not fit the hand, even if it covers vast terrains. It is more environmental and better characterized as a milieu. Well, almost a milieu: we rarely count it among things that matter, but what if we did? What if we followed dust as a trajectory for theory -- theory that is concerned with materiality and media? What if dust is one way to do "dirt research": a mode of inquiry that crosses institutions and disciplines, and forces us to think of questions of design as enveloped in a complex ecology of economy, environment, work, and skill. Dirt brings noise, as Ned Rossiter reminds us, and dirt research can be understood "as a transversal mode of knowledge production [that] necessarily encounters conflict of various kinds: geocultural, social, political and epistemological." [5]
Indeed, some people already take dust seriously -- and not only the likely underpaid cleaning laborer. Dust consists of so many things: hair, fibers, dead skin, plant pollen, and non-organic stuff like soil minerals. Nanoparticles, smart dust, engineered tiny things that are able to invade and inhabit organisms as mechanisms of repair, improvement, and engineering. Smart dust quietly highlights the world of non-human transactions that can facilitate, track, record, and govern human affairs. We are nowadays fascinated by stuff that is minuscule, mobile, peer networked, and able to calculate, process, and further transmit the data it receives -- the next phase of dust. Dust can be in this sense seen as "the minimum recognizable entity of material transformation and circulation."[6] But the archaeology of computational dust goes much deeper into history and begins with the abacus, and the etymological root of the word in abaq -- Hebrew for dust. Ancient dustboards were erasable calculation platforms, writing surfaces. Babylonians as well as various scholars in the early Islamic world used this platform, which consisted of "a board or slab spread with a fine layer of sand or dust in which designs, letters, or numerals might be traced and then quickly erased with a swipe of the hand or a rag." [7]
This essay tracks this multiplicity of dust -- multiplicity not only in the sense that there is a lot of it, but in that it forces us to rethink such binaries as One/Many. Dust takes us -- and our thinking -- to different places and opens up multiple agendas. In this case, I use dust to talk of global labor, media materialism of digital culture, and how to approach this topic through such non-human nanoparticles. My argument routes itself through video games to factories, where gadgets are produced, to theoretical excavations in new materialism and speculative philosophy, to science fiction and the engineering of everyday realities. Dust fills our reality as well as our fantasies: the various fiction products set in dust and dunes, with the obvious ecological example of Frank Herbert's Dune(1965).
This is not a text of theory so much as a text about non-humans that persistently concern the human. The non-human refuses to leave the human. This text subscribes to recent arguments that we need to rethink our theoretical perspectives from the point of view of things -- and, I would add, not only things, but also relations and almost-things, stuff that lacks the solidity to merit it being called just a thing.
In one of his essays the German philosopher Martin Heidegger talks of the thing:
What about nearness? How can we come to know its nature? Nearness, it seems, cannot be encountered directly. We succeed in reaching it rather by attending to what is near. Near to us are what we usually call things. [8]
But something can be so near that it loses focus, falls out of view -- these not-enough-to-be-things, or too-near-for-thingness (a tongue in cheek Heideggerianism) are what might enter us through our nostrils, inhaled, and cause a cough, or a rash on the skin. Such is the other sort of materiality that does not often merit that status of a thing. They might cloud us, but they do not count only as one.
Heidegger ends his beautiful essay on the ontology of the thing:
Inconspicuously compliant is the thing: the jug and the bench, the footbridge and the plow. But tree and pond, too, brook and hill, are things, each in its own way. Things, each thinging from time to time in its own way, are heron and roe, deer, horse and bull. Things, each thinging and each staying in its own way, are mirror and clasp, book and picture, crown and cross. But things are also compliant and modest in number, compared with the countless objects everywhere of equal value, compared with the measureless mass of men as living beings. [9]
Material things are modest -- their numbers can be counted -- yet the immodest countlessness of dust signals something else. Are such "things" immaterial? Are they almost like the air, just a tiny bit heavier? Like gases, they are atmospheric for sure. Dust shares a lot of qualities with air as well as breath -- they each force us to rethink boundaries of individuality as well as space. You cannot confine air and breath in a manner that our more stable contours, like skin suggests. Peter Sloterdijk talks of the processes of inhaling and exhaling in this manner; as deterritorialisations of sorts, like when the child blows her breath into a soap bubble, exporting a part of herself, externalization, extension. [10]Dust too, must be thought as more of an environmental and atmospheric quality through which a different spatial and temporal thinking emerges.
Perhaps dust is then not just "matter" but something that troubles our notions of matter. Steven Connor talks of it even as anti-matter: "evacuated of air, the gaps between the particles reduced to their minimum -- hence its muffling, choking effects." [11] Dust also forces us to think of surfaces -- it exposes them:
At the same time, dust is characterized by a maximum of what might be called internal exposure, in which the ratio of the surface area of particles to their internal mass is extremely high. The availability of such a large surface area for chemical reactions accounts for the effectiveness of powders in forming solutions and suspensions. And, because they have no inside, because they are all a kind of internal exposure, dust-like substances can give contours or clarifying outlines to other things. Thus, dust, itself formless and edgeless, can both dissolve form and disclose it, like the snow that, in the right amount, can give to things a magical new clarity of outline, but passing beyond that point erases every landmark beneath its featureless drifts and dunes. [12]
Indeed, in this sense, I argue that dust is a non-thing, yet remains material. Similarly, we are concerned with humans that are not considered worthy of much but rather expendable; of consumer digital objects that merit only a short-lived existence and desire, designed to become obsolete sooner than is perhaps necessary.
In the midst of this short meditation about dust, however, I want to remind that dust is something that attaches to lungs and expresses a relation of labor: it begs the question of who gets to work in clean spaces, and who cleans those spaces. The latter are usually the poorer ones and easier to expose to dangerous and unhealthy conditions at their workplace. One can easily at this point raise a finger and claim that so after all, you are just using a non-human element to actually to just talk of human affairs such as labor. Quite rightly so, especially because such regimes and elements were never separated. In this essay, I refuse to separate humans and non-humans and instead address lungs and breath, games and work, political economy as well as philosophy. Let's start with games. ( .... A suivre Read more @ C-Theory website)

[1] Colby Chamberlain, "Something in the Air," Cabinet 35 (Fall 2009),, accessed May 25, 2013.
[2] Steven Connor, "Pulverulence," Cabinet 35 (Fall 2009),, accessed May 25, 2013.
[3] The fictional Dr Hamid Parsani, in Reza Negarestani, Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials (Melbourne: Re.Press, 2008).
[4] Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1977), 13.
[5] Ned Rossiter, "Dirt Research," Depletion Design: A Glossary of Network Ecologies, eds. Carolin Wiedemann and Soenke Zehle(Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2012), 44.
[6] Jennifer Gabrys, "Telepathically Urban," Circulation and the City: Essays on Urban Culture, eds. Alexandra Boutros and Will Straw (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2008), 49.
[7] Jonathan M. Bloom, Paper Before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2001), 129.
[8] Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter (New York: HarperCollins, 1971), 164.
[9] Ibid., 180.
[10] See Peter Sloterdijk, Bubbles. Spheres Volume I: Microspherology,trans. Wieland Hoban (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2011).
[11] Connor, "Pulverulence."
[12] Ibid.

Dr Jussi Parikka is a writer and Reader in Media & Design at Winchester School of Art, UK. He is the author of Digital Contagions (Peter Lang, 2007), Insect Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2010), and What is Media Archaeology? (Polity, 2012). He has edited or co-edited books such as The Spam Book, with Tony Sampson (Hampton Press, 2009),Media Archaeology, with Erkki Huhtamo (University of California Press, 2011), and a collection of Wolfgang Ernst's essays, Digital Memory and the Archive (University of Minnesota Press, 2012). He is the co-editor of the forthcoming Theory, Culture & Society special issue on cultural techniques (2013). His current projects include "Geology of Media" as well as a project focusing on the Finnish media artist pioneer Erkki Kurenniemi. (.....)

Picpost: David Scharf

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