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Massive Media: A Geology of Media book review

09/06/2015
J. R. Carpenter

J. R. Carpenter reviews A Geology of Media, the third, final part of the media ecology-trilogy. It started with Digital Contagions: A Media Archaeology of Computer Viruses (2007) and continued with Insect Media (2010). It focuses beyond machines and technologies onto the chemistry and geological materials of media, from metals to dust.

Humans are a doubly young species — we haven’t been around for long, and we don’t live for long either. We retain a fleeting, animal sense of time. We think in terms of generations – a few before us, a few after. Beyond that… we can postulate, we can speculate, we can carbon date, but our intellectual understanding of the great age of the earth remains at odds with our sensory perception of the passage of days, seasons, and lifetimes.

The phrase ‘deep time’ was popularised by the American author John McPhee in the early 1980s. McPhee posits that we as a species may not yet have had time to evolve a conception of the abyssal eons before us: “Primordial inhibition may stand in the way. On the geologic time scale, a human lifetime is reduced to a brevity that is too inhibiting to think about. The mind blocks the information”1. Enter the creationists and climate change deniers, stage right. On 28 May 2015 the Washington Post reported that a self-professed creationist from Calgary found a 60,000-million-year-old fossil, which did nothing to dissuade him of his religious beliefs: “There’s no dates stamped on these things,” he told the local paper.2

At the intersection between biology and geology - lichen on Devonian slate,  Old Mill Creek, Dartmouth, Devon, UK. Photo by J. R. Carpenter.
At the intersection between biology and geology – lichen on Devonian slate, Old Mill Creek, Dartmouth, Devon, UK. Photo by J. R. Carpenter.

In the late 15th-century, Leonardo Da Vinci observed fossils of shells and bones of fish embedded high in the Alps and privately mused in his notebooks that the theologians may have got their maths wrong. The notion that the earth was not mere thousands but rather many millions of years old was first put forward publicly by the Scottish physician turned natural scientist James Hutton in Theory of the Earth, a presentation made to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1785 and published ten years later in two massive volumes3. It is critical to note that among Hutton’s closest confidants during the formulation of this work were Joseph Black, the chemist widely regarded as the discoverer of carbon dioxide, and the engineer James Watt, whose improvements to the steam engine hastened the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. Geology emerged as a discipline on the eve of a period of such massive social, scientific, economic, political, and environmental change that it precipitated what many modern geologists, ecologists, and prominent media theorists are now categorising as a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. As Nathan Jones recently wrote for Furtherfield: “The Anthropocene… refers to a catastrophic situation resulting from the actions of a patriarchal Western society, and the effects of masculine dominance and aggression on a global scale.”4

In his latest book, A Geology of Media (2015)5, Finnish media theorist Jussi Parikka turns to geology as a heuristic and highly interdisciplinary mode of thinking and doing through which to address the complex continuum between biology and technology presented by the Anthropocene. Or the Anthrobscene, as Parikka blithely quips. In putting forward geology as a methodology, a conceptual trajectory, a creative intervention, and an interrogation of the non-human, Parikka argues for a more literal understanding of ‘deep time’ in geological, mineralogical, chemical, and ecological terms. Whilst acknowledging the usefulness of the concepts of anarachaeology and varientology put forward by Siefried Zielinski in Deep Time of the Media (2008)6, Parikka calls for an even deeper time of the media — deeper in time and in deeper into the earth.

In Theory of the Earth, Hutton referred to the earth as a machine. He argued: “To acquire a general or comprehensive view of this mechanism of the globe… it is necessary to distinguish three different bodies which compose the whole. These are, a solid body of earth, an aqueous body of sea, and an elastic fluid of air.”13 Of the machine-focused German media theorists, Parikka demands – what is being left out? “What other modes of materiality deserve our attention?”7 Parikka proposes the term ‘medianatures’ — a variation on Donna Haraway’s ‘naturecultures’8 — as a term through which to address the entangled spheres and sets of practices which constitute both media and nature. Further, Parikka reintroduces aspects of Marxist materialism to Friedrich Kittler’s media materialist agenda, relentlessly re-framing the production, consumption, and disposal of hardware in environmental, political, and economic contexts, and raising critical social questions of energy consumption, labour exploitation, pollution, illness, and waste.

Drawing upon Deleuze and Guattari’s formulation of a ‘geology of morals’9, Parikka writes: “Media history conflates with earth history; the geological materials of metals and chemicals get deterritorialized from their strata and reterritorialized in machines that define our technical media culture”10. Within this geologically inflected materialism, a history of media is also a history of the social and environmental impact of the mining, selling, and consuming of coal, oil, copper, and aluminium. A history of media is also a history of research, design, fabrication, and the discovery of chemical processes and properties such as the use of gutta-percha latex for use the insulation of transatlantic submarine cables, and the extraction of silicon for use in semiconductor devices. A history of the telephone is entwined with that of the copper mine. How can we possibly think of the iPhone as more sophisticated than the land line when we that know that beneath its sleek surface – polished by aluminium dust – the iPhone runs on rare earth minerals extracted by human bodies labouring in deplorable conditions in open-pit mines?

image - Palaquium gutta, or gutta-percha – from Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, January 1, 1897 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gutta-percha
image – Palaquium gutta, or gutta-percha – from Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen, January 1, 1897 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gutta-percha

Jussi Parikka is a professor in technological culture and aesthetics and Winchester School of Art. Although his his definition of media remains rooted in the disciplinary discourses of media studies, media theory, media history, and media art, he advocates for and indeed actively engages in an interdisciplinary approach to media theory. He cites a number of excellent examples from contemporary media art, not as illustrations of his arguments but rather as guides to his thinking. He also draws upon a wide range of other references from visual art, science, literature, psychogeography, philosophy, and politics. This overtly interdisciplinary approach to media theory provides a number of intriguing openings for readers, scholars, and practitioners in adjacent fields to consider. For example, Parikka’s evocation of Robert Smithson’s formulation of ‘abstract geology’11 in relation to land art invites further explication of the connection between land art, sculpture, and the geology of sculptural media. For thousands of years sculptors have practised a geology of media, making and shaping clay, quarrying and carving stone, and smelting, melting, and casting metal. Further, Parikka’s discussion of the pictorial content of a number of paintings in the context of this book invites the consideration of the geology of paint as a medium, entwined with the elemental materiality of cadmium, titanium, cobalt, ochre, turpentine, graphite, and lead.

Media is a concept in crisis. As it travels across scientific, artistic, and humanistic disciplines it confuses and confounds boundaries between what media is and what media does in a wide range of contexts. This confusion signposts the need for new vocabularies. If geology has taught us anything, it’s that this too will take time. In endeavouring to explain how it happens that flames sometimes shoot out through the throat of Mount Etna, the Epicurian poet Lucretius (c. 100 – c. 55 BC) wrote: “You must remember that the universe is fathomless… If you look squarely at this fact and keep it clearly before your eyes, many things will cease to strike you as miraculous.”12 So too, Parikka prods us to think big, to get past our primordial inhibitions, to look beyond mass media consumerism to what I shall call a ‘massive media’ – a conception of media operating on a global and geological scale. A Geology of Media is a green book, overtly ecological. In his call for a further materialisation of media theory through a consideration of the media of earth, sea, and air Parikka has put forward an assemblage of material practices indispensable to any discussion of the mediatic relations of the Anthropocene.

1 John McPhee (1980) Basin and Range. NY: The Noonday Press, FSG. 128.

2 Rachel Feltman (2015) “Whoops! A creationist museum supporter stumbled upon a major fossil find,” The Washington Post. (28 May 2015) http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2015/05/28/whoops-a-creationist-museum-supporter-stumbled-upon-a-major-fossil-find/

3 James Hutton (1895) Theory of the Earth. London: Geological Society http://www.gutenberg.org/files/12861/12861-h/12861-h.htm

4 Nathan Jones (2015) “It's a Man's Man's Man's World - Review: Sonic Acts day 1” Furtherfield. (7 March 2015) http://www.furtherfield.org/features/reviews/its-mans-mans-mans-world-review-sonic-acts-day-1

5 Jussi Parikka (2015) A Geology of Media. Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press

6 Siegfried Zielinski (2008) Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means. 1st MIT Press paperback edition.

7 Parikka, 3.

8 Donna Haraway (2003 The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press. 9.

8 Donna Haraway (2003 The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press. 9.

9 Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari (2007 [1987]) ‘10,000 B.C.: The Geology of Morals (Who Does the Earth Think It Is?),’ in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London & Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 12th printing. 39-79. https://english.duke.edu/uploads/assets/DeleuzeGuattariGeologyofMoralsClean(1).pdf

10 Parikka, 35.

11 Robert Smithson (1979) “864 Institutions and Objections,” in The Writings of Robert Smithson, New York, pp. 82-91. https://www.msu.edu/course/ha/452/smithsonsediment.html

12 Lucretius (1951) On the Nature of the Universe. R. E. Latham, trans. Penguin Classics. 237.

13 Hutton, np.

1 John McPhee (1980) Basin and Range. NY: The Noonday Press, FSG. 128.

2 Rachel Feltman (2015) “Whoops! A creationist museum supporter stumbled upon a major fossil find,” The Washington Post. (28 May 2015) http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2015/05/28/whoops-a-creationist-museum-supporter-stumbled-upon-a-major-fossil-find/

3 James Hutton (1895) Theory of the Earth. London: Geological Society http://www.gutenberg.org/files/12861/12861-h/12861-h.htm

4 Nathan Jones (2015) “It's a Man's Man's Man's World - Review: Sonic Acts day 1” Furtherfield. (7 March 2015) http://www.furtherfield.org/features/reviews/its-mans-mans-mans-world-review-sonic-acts-day-1

5 Jussi Parikka (2015) A Geology of Media. Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press

6 Siegfried Zielinski (2008) Deep Time of the Media: Toward an Archaeology of Hearing and Seeing by Technical Means. 1st MIT Press paperback edition.

7 Parikka, 3.

8 Donna Haraway (2003 The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press. 9.

8 Donna Haraway (2003 The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press. 9.

9 Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari (2007 [1987]) ‘10,000 B.C.: The Geology of Morals (Who Does the Earth Think It Is?),’ in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London & Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 12th printing. 39-79. https://english.duke.edu/uploads/assets/DeleuzeGuattariGeologyofMoralsClean(1).pdf

10 Parikka, 35.

11 Robert Smithson (1979) “864 Institutions and Objections,” in The Writings of Robert Smithson, New York, pp. 82-91. https://www.msu.edu/course/ha/452/smithsonsediment.html

12 Lucretius (1951) On the Nature of the Universe. R. E. Latham, trans. Penguin Classics. 237.

13 Hutton, np.