Conclusion: Cultural Techniques of Material Media

In Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, a novel set before the digital era and more focused on the modulation and standardization of processes of light for the use of technical media such as photography, one gets a sense of the chemistry of media. Pynchon’s status as part of theoretical mapping of history of media and technology has become consolidated ever since Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) tied together war, technology, and a weird narrative mix of paranoia, conspiracy, and mental states. The V-2 rocket motivated insights into technology and science as an essential part of power relations inspired by the likes of Kittler but also a range of later scholars.  In Against the Day (2006) the theme is similar but with a focus on light, optics, and chemistry, where especially the latter is what connects to our need to understand media history to its materials. It is an account that persists from the early histories of photography such as geologist-photographer W. Jerome Harrison’s History of Photography (1887), which if you read it through the perspective of geology of media becomes a story of chemicals instead of merely the inventor-experimenters such as Niepce, Daguerre, or Talbot: bitumen (in lithography),  tin, iodide, lactates and nitrates of silver, carbon processes, uranium nitrates, and chlorides of gold.[1]  History of technical media is constantly being reenacted in different ways in contemporary media arts. For photochemical artists getting their hands dirty with gelatin and silver nitrates this is part of the artistic methodology infused in chemistry: cyanotypes’ esthetic effect comes down to chemicals  (ammonium iron (III) citrate and potassium ferricyanide). A film artist with a media archaeological bent knows the amounts in combinations needed in testing and experimenting with chemicals/materials.[2] But this knowledge is more that of a metallurgist than of a scientist: experimentations in dosage, learning the materials’ characteristics by practice.[3]

In Pynchon’s own version of media materialism and optical media the list of objects constitutes a sort of a pre-mediatic media materialism, a list of voluntary or involuntary participants in the process of technical imaging, circa nineteenth century:

After going through all the possible silver compounds, Merle moved on to salts of gold, platinum, copper, nickel, uranium, molybdenum, and antimony, abandoning metallic compounds after a while for resins, squashed bugs, coal-tar dyes, cigar smokes, wildflower extracts, urine from various critters including himself, reinvesting what little money came in from portrait work into lenses, filters, glass plates, enlarging machines, so that soon the wagon was just a damn rolling photography lab.[4]

Besides the object world with which the narrative continues—the world an object-oriented theorist might call “flat,”[5] which includes a litany from humans to lampposts to trolley dynamos and flush toilets—much has already happened on the level of chemical reactions. In other words, the media devices are not the only aspects of “materialism.” We are, however, interested in questions of what enables and sustains media to become media.

In this sort of perspective on deep-time geologies as well as chemistry of media one cannot avoid at least a brief mention of the long history of alchemy. Isn’t it exactly the lineage of alchemy that is of relevance here? It has meant attributing a special force to the natural elements and their mixes, from base to precious: from realgar, sulfur, white arsenic, cinnabar, and especially mercury to gold, lead, copper, silver, and iron.[6] The history of alchemy is steeped in poetic narratives that present their own versions of deep times (for instance in pre-Christian Chinese alchemy);[7] The discipline occupies a position between arts and sciences.[8]In a way, as Newman notes, alchemy prepared the experimental way for much of later technological culture. There were many such developers: Avicenna with his De congelatione (at one point mistaken for a writing by Aristotle), and scholastic writers such asVincent of Beauvais, Albertus Magnus, and Roger Bacon are examples of early thirteenth-century practitioners. In Vincent’s Speculum doctrinale, written between 1244 and 1250, one gets a sense of alchemy as a “science of minerals,” a practice-based excavation of their transmutational qualities. In Vincent’s words alchemy is properly the art of transmuting mineral bodies, such as metals and the like, from their own species to others.”[9]

In Against the Day Pynchon presents his own condensed narrative prose lineage from alchemy to modern chemistry and technical media. According to his way of crystallizing the chemistry of technological culture, this transformation of materials in knowledge and practices corresponds to the birth of capitalism, which is characterized by a regularization of processes of material reaction and metamorphosis. In Against the Day a dialogue between two characters, Merle and Webb, reveals something important about this turning point from alchemy to modern science:

“But if you look at the history, modern chemistry only starts coming in to replace alchemy around the same time capitalism really gets going. Strange, eh? What do you make of that?”

Webb nodded agreeably. “Maybe capitalism decided it didn’t need the old magic anymore.” An emphasis whose contempt was not meant to escape Merle’s attention. “Why bother? Had their own magic, doin just fine, thanks, instead of turning lead into gold, they could take poor people’s sweat and turn it into greenbacks, and save that lead for enforcement purposes.”[10]

What Pynchon brings into play in this admittedly short quote is labor. Such issues link up with histories of exploitation and capture of surplus value, as well as with media histories of matter. Indeed, besides writing a material history of media before it becomes media, Pynchon is able to highlight the magical nature of commodity production related to the novel forms of “alchemy”: the new magic explicated by Marx as the fetish of the object hiding the material forces of its production is characteristic of this aspect, which is usually defined as material history understood as a history of labor and political economy. We need to also understand, however, the technological and media elements in this mix, which also returns to the issue of geology, the earth.

In short, techniques of experimenting with different reactions and combinations are also media practices. Our screen technologies, cables, networks, technical means of seeing and hearing, are partly results of meticulous—and sometimes just purely accidental—experimentation with how materials work; what works, what doesn’t, whether you are talking about materials for insulation, conduction, projection, or recording. The sciences and the arts often share this attitude of experimentation and the experiment—to make the geos expressive and transformative. The transistor-based information tech culture would not be thinkable without the various meticulous insights into the material characteristics and differences between germanium and silicon—or the energetic regimes; whether that involves the consideration of current clouds (as in server farms), or the attempts to manage power consumption inside computer architectures.[11] Issues of energy are ones of geophysics too—both in the sense of climate change accelerated by the still continuing heavy reliance on polluting forms of nonrenewable energy production and through the various chemicals, metals, and metalloids such as germanium and silicon, media cultural aftereffects of the geological strata. That is also where a deep time of the planet is inside our machines, crystallized as part of the contemporary political economy: material histories of labor and the planet are entangled in devices, which however unfold as part of planetary histories. Data mining might be a leading hype term for our digital age of the moment but it is enabled only by the sort of mining that we associate with the ground and its ungrounding. Digital culture starts in the depths and deep times of the planet. Sadly, this story is most often more obscene than something to be celebrated with awe.

  1. William Jerome Harrison, History of Photography (New York: Scovill Manufacturing Company, 1887). What makes Harrison even more interesting for our purposes is his career in geology. See Adam Bobbette, “Episodes from the History of Scalelessness: William Jerome Harrison and Geological Photography,” in Architecture in the Anthropocene: Encounters among Design, Deep Time, Science, and Philosophy, 45–58.
  2. Thank you to Kelly Egan for sharing the autoethnographic account of her artistic practice with films and chemicals.
  3. Jane Bennett uses this conceptual figure, borrowed from Deleuze and Guattari, as well. See Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2009), 58–60.
  4. Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day (London: Vintage Books, 2007), 72.
  5. See Paul Caplan, “JPEG: The Quadruple Object,” (PhD thesis, Birkbeck College, University of London, 2013).
  6. Homer H. Dubs, “The Beginnings of Alchemy,” Isis 38, no. 1/2 (November 1947): 73.
  7. “When the effluvia from the cow lands ascend to the dark heavens, the dark heavens in six hundred years’ give birth to black whetstones, black whetstones in six hundred years give birth to black quicksilver, black quicksilver in six hundred years gives birth to black metal (iron), and black metal in a thousand years gives birth to a black dragon. Where the black dragon enters into [permanent] hibernation, it gives birth to the Black Springs,” quoted in Dubs, “Alchemy,” 72–73.
  8. William Newman, “Technology and Alchemic Debate in the Late Middle Ages,” Isis 80, no. 3 (September 1989): 426.
  9. Vincent of Beauvais’s Speculum doctrinale, quoted in Newman, “Technology and Alchemic Debate,” 430.
  10. Pynchon, Against the Day, 88.
  11. Sean Cubitt, Robert Hassan, and Ingrid Volkmer, “Does Cloud Computing Have a Silver Lining?” See also Michael Riordan and Lillian Hoddeson, Crystal Fire: The Invention of the Transistor and the Birth of the Information Age (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997).

Copyright © 2014 by Jussi Parikka