THE LAST SPOILER: after the end come the credits, . . . after the credits, the postcredits. And so on. What follows is an attempt to get there first, to judge a book by its cover at last and annotate the cover of Siegfried Zielinski’s [. . . After the Media]—specifically, the English version, the translation, published by Univocal.1
A cover per se—a title, an author, an image—but also its tactile qualities call out for annotation. Understood as a paper object, the cover conveys a feeling of hipster technique, flavors of artisanal tattoos, confessions of paper junkies. Theory lingers around as paper elegy. Is theory itself the last rites for paper? Overturning the old cliché about not judging a book by its cover, [. . . After the Media] justifies itself in making this thesis visible. With the advent of photomontage, covers acquire new technical abilities, Walter Benjamin claims. The cover itself becomes a political instrument.2 For a particular book that claims, in an age after the media, that the media is no longer good for politics, is the literary artifact—that old legacy instrument—also no good? Is there still a book, an improbable revenant, that will change your life?
The “archival quality” of its handmade covers picks up dirt as if by design. Or seems to. Rips too easily. The materials are printed, cut, and bound in an atelier, the endpapers note. I watched a YouTube video about it, scored with a track by a band named The Books called “There Is No There.” Scratchy samples are the rough equivalent of a literary revenant, perhaps. The clip is titled Letterpress Theory: “Letterpress printing is a technique of relief printing using a [mechanical] printing press, a process by which many copies are produced by repeated direct impression of an inked, raised surface against sheets or a continuous roll of paper.”3
In June 2011, Univocal Publishing was founded by Jason Wagner and Drew Burk as an independent publishing house specializing in artisanal editions and translations of texts spanning the areas of cultural theory, media archeology, continental philosophy, aesthetics, anthropology, and more. [Our] books combine traditional printmaking techniques with the creative evolutions of the digital age and featured letterpress covers designed by publisher and proprietor Jason Wagner, who also provided funding for Univocal.
The idea of humans making their own books, mechanically produced ink-aura4—did it ever happen that way? The matter of the bracket of Zielinski’s title, the Klammerzeichen, a typographical aside, pleonastically reinforces ellipses of tactility. Pause, Pause, Pause. Press, Press, Press. Tap, Tap, Tap.
The media doesn’t mediate. It doesn’t come in the middle but comes first, then hesitates.
The emblem is a target for a coffee stain. Logo without logos, the cover image represents some kind of oscilloscope, I suppose. A trigger is pressed. A beam of electrons moving across the phosphorescent screen of a cathode ray tube referenced in paper form a time-based circuit, a paleoscreen in which a light pencil moves steadily left to right. A waveform instrument written from a program in which the coordinate grid has two perpendicular lines, or axes, labeled like number lines, the horizontal x-axis, touch, the vertical y-axis, time. The point where the x-axis and y-axis intersect is the origin of tube attention. The emblem recalls the instrument that measures oscillating connectivity: “The word [oscilloscope] is an etymological hybrid. The first part derives from the Latin, to swing backwards and forwards; this in turn is from oscillum, a little mask of Bacchus hung . . . in vineyards easily moved by wind. The second part comes from . . . skopein, to observe, aim at, examine, from which developed the . . . ending scopium, which has been used to form names for instruments that enable the eye or ear to make observations.”5 What vanishes is graphein—to write and record. The “purpose [is] to spare the living”—a substitute for sacrifice.6 The custom of hanging oscilla represents an older practice of expiating the final word.
The waveform is an oscillating plot—launch, flash, crash, repeat.
The oscilloscope is not merely an artifact called forth from the crypt but also a weird aesthetic creature emerging from the laboratory, the workshop, the tinkerer’s bench, the atelier, the studio. In 1897, Ferdinand Braun invents the o-scope more as physics curiosity than as measuring instrument.7 Whatever the hidden origins, the technical thing indexes an aesthetic shape for media thinking, a form given not least for remediating future possibilities out of the past and then back to the future. As Wolfgang Ernst writes, oscilloscopic experimenting simultaneously “belongs” to “cultural history (or the ‘history of knowledge,’ in more Latourean terms)”—leading to television, for instance—and, from their own point of view (“the point of view of the media themselves”), marks a deeply inhuman, “time-invariant event”—“a level of both the artifact and the epistemological dispositif . . . indifferent to the historical.”8 The o-scope reveals electromagnetic oscillation itself—amplitude and frequency—the perception of which implies a real hidden dimension for experience and experiment that in turn gets probed, processed, and scoped,
. . . or sonified, in the instance of contemporary media art practices of Carsten Nicolai. Zielinski calls attention to “the embedded implicit knowledge” revealed in Nicolai’s waveform experiments, the layered “anamnesis” of media thinking, critical temporality updating, overturning itself, out of phase.9 The oscilloscope stands on the conceptual substrata of a century-old controversy about information and energy, the affordances of photons and electrons as real abstractions that not only turn and return but also get turned over. They oscillate, conceptually speaking. Input a waveform; output a codex—as Nicolai describes it, in so many words, in a suggestive interview:
Oscilloscope is the waveform, but we are also measuring how they are out of phase. It’s the device you usually use for mastering, to avoid strong phasing problems for cutting vinyl, for instance. And we are using this device as a creative tool. Recreating what a mastering engineer would say, “fucking hell, how can I avoid that?” And this is a project we started ten years ago, and finally we will publish the book at the end of the year.
Waveform destiny is announced from beyond human perception; the problems of perceiving data are a function of storage matter and the in/formation of physical media.10
Turn off the machines. Kittler’s last words.11 In the German, that seemed too good to be true, for Kittler at any rate—“Alle Apparate auschalten”—shut them all off. Stop the life support, stop the recording machines. Last words might come too soon, but online, do they ever come? Even when the life support is switched off, the discourse networks keep recording. J. M. W. Goethe’s mehr Licht comes to mind—more light—for Goethe, there can never can be enough. Throw open the shutters! A witness hovers over the death bed trying to bottle your last breath. Inspiration degree expiration. Then, there’s Steve Jobs’s more recent example. According to his sister, the novelist Mona Simpson, his were “O wow o wow o wow.”12 Isn’t it all just power symbology in the end? Toggling the on–off switch; the circle is zero; the line is one. “We all—in the end—die in medias res,” she writes for her brother’s eulogy, “in the middle of a story. Of many stories.” In fact, this total networked fantasy, with its ersatz transcendence and bogus mimesis, belies platitudes about immortality through storytelling. When the machine freezes, you just hold down the power button. “Turn on, tune in, drop out”—that boring drivel—precisely heralds the age that doesn’t know what to do with all its media and then pronounces this condition to be awesome. Forget uploading your mind or even the impracticalities of dying on Facebook; in the end, no one cares about your Yelp ratings. Kittler, only disconnect; Goethe, stay illuminated; Jobs, enter sleep mode.
Somewhere from the protracted legitimacy crises of Humanism—H—comes the anxious idea that literary H is weak about Data. This impulse obscures a stupid complicity with the rule of exceptionally fast idiots that forget nothing, as Flusser describes the telematic brain. Technical vocabulary is important, but we don’t need to make cars to learn to navigate and negotiate traffic nor to talk about the catastrophe of automobilism. Instead, we need a DH that has critical HD—high definition—resources for orientation in “a world-wide dialogue about the apparatus.”13 Precision for imprecision, as Zielinski reminds us.
Correspondence to reality across the interface is the given, but the noncorrespondence is hard to verify when half of the equation is hidden. The universe of technical images is one of fuzzy correlationism between reality and database: the gadget screen isn’t a window but something smudgeable that oscillates from magic lantern to camera obscura. Insight is not possible—instead, hidden protocols of connectivity do the ruling. What requires the most storage space, the biggest file cabinets, in effect, explains nothing; nevertheless these ministries of the small generate flows of trivialities, microaggressions, spoiler alerts. This is our Data Catastrophe. IRL, the HD in DH, might be seen in this untimely impulse to spoil ourselves with metaphoricity and literariness. H as impermanent test department expiates the finitude of thinking from the endlessness of D. It claims the right to off-switch for the cause exhibiting the invisible.
“In a single lifetime we have to learn to exist online and be offline.”